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Director/Screenwriter: John Michael McDonagh
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
John Michael McDonagh debuted as a feature film director with 2011’s wry comedy-thriller The Guard, which became the most successful independent film ever made in Ireland and clearly established McDonagh as a major new talent in the national cinema. Like many of the new wave of Irish filmmakers, including his brother Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson, both of whom came from playwriting, and their forebear, novelist and poet Neil Jordan, John Michael’s talent has a highly literate, theatrical inflection that stands at odds with the mantras fed to modern film students. Calvary, his follow-up to The Guard, plainly declares itself to be no run-of-the-mill social-issues movie, even as it tackles some of the most pervasive and passion-stirring issues relevant to modern societies. Whilst the conventionally pretty cinematography drinks in the grandeur of Ireland’s rugged west coast, the drama is compact, even claustrophobic, befitting the film’s revision of an old and hoary theatrical event, one that used to tie together and define communities in festivals of religious fervour: the passion play. Brendan Gleeson, Irish film’s stocky Atlas since John Boorman made him a movie star in The General (1997), counters his lead role as the Falstaffian antihero of The Guard with a role here as Father James Lavelle, the priest of a small Catholic church in a coastal town. A cold opening sees Lavelle enter the confession box on Sunday as per his roster of duties. The man on the other side of the screen is silent for a moment, to the point where Lavelle is confused, but then the man says, “I first tasted semen when I was seven years old.”
Lavelle, startled, nonetheless utters the first in the film’s manifold self-referential quips: “Certainly a startling opening line.” The man querulously asks Lavelle what he means, and then informs him of his design. In revenge for the abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of priests, he intends to gain attention and make a statement by killing a cleric. Not a bad priest, mind, but a good one—Lavelle himself, whom he predicts will die by his hand on the beach in precisely one week’s time. Lavelle emerges from the confessional quietly shaken, but continues his holy duties without demur, alongside Father Leary (David Wilmot), a dim, rubbery poltroon of the faith. Lavelle reports the incident in abstract to his bishop, Garett Montgomery (David McSavage), and confirms he knows who the man is. The bishop tells Lavelle he’s free to go to the police because the man showed no sign of penitence and received no absolution, but Lavelle makes no move to do so. Instead, he picks up his daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) from the train station. Sporting a bandaged cut on her wrist from a recent suicide attempt, Fiona has retreated from her London life to recover from the bleak depression that followed a break-up. Fiona has been in pain, however, since the death of her mother, the event that drove Lavelle into the priesthood, a move which Fiona felt was akin to being abandoned by him.
The week before the next, fateful Sunday thus sees Lavelle engaging not only with his wounded daughter, but also the denizens of the town, still hewing to an old-fashioned sense of the job as one demanding an active interest in their lives. Lavelle is not an old-fashioned priest, however. Thoroughly worldly and experienced in personal folly (he’s a recovering alcoholic), he’s up-to-date on all the modern perversities he and Leary hear about in the confessional (“Do you know what felching is?” “I do know what felching is, yeah.” “I had to look it up.”). This fillip of modern lifestyle was mentioned by one of their female congregants, Veronica Brennan (Orla O’Rourke), who’s recently left her husband, the town butcher Jack (Chris O’Dowd), in favour of pursuing erotic dalliances around town, particularly with Senegalese immigrant Simon (Isaach De Bankolé), a car mechanic. Because Veronica sported a black eye in church on Sunday, Lavelle sets out to find out who gave it to her. Jack blames it on Simon, and Simon takes umbrage to the point of flicking a cigar against Lavelle’s chest and threatening to beat him up for his unwelcome prying. Veronica herself tells him more politely to mind his own business.
Other people around town whom Lavelle ministers to, interacts with, or merely swaps jests and insults with, include Frank Harte (Aidan Gillen), a black-humoured, professionally cynical doctor who works in the local hospital emergency room, Mícheál (Mícheál Óg Lane), an altar boy who swipes communion wine and paints the coastline, and retired stock trader Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran), who’s bought a nearby mansion with an ill-gotten fortune and now is stewing in a solitary, alcoholic haze of bile and self-regard. Lavelle also ferries supplies to an elderly American writer (M. Emmett Walsh) who lives alone on a small island off the coast. The writer is aging and asks for Lavelle to find him a gun so he can end his days when the time comes. Lavelle does obtain a gun, from Police Inspector Stanton (Gary Lydon), who entertains a wise-cracking rent boy, Leo (Owen Sharpe). Does Lavelle intend the gun for the writer’s peace or for self-defence?
Ireland is a country wrapped up in a specific mythology that long since went international in fame and allure, one that’s both a blessing and burden for contemporary artists to work with. The last 20 years has seen both the boom of the “Celtic Tiger” and then the bust, and the ongoing exposure of the septic underbelly of the Catholic Church’s dominance of a society that might well be said to have swapped imperialism for theocracy in the 1920s, shaking up some of the most fetishized aspects of the Irish myth: poverty, religion, and detachment from modernity. Calvary’s essential conceit, mapped out by McDonagh in interviews, is the potent irony provided by setting up a good priest as the martyr for the bad ones in the context of an age when cumulative disgust can cause divorcement of the public at large from a once omnipresent institution. Calvary starts as a kind of deadpan situation comedy where the oddball assortment of characters and their helpful priest interact with barbed geniality. But as the film continues and deepens, jokey conversations quickly show real teeth, and Lavelle is quickly exposed to the level of real anger, contempt, and fear in the community, as cheeky humour gives way to purposeful mockeries and acts of licenced cruelty. Calvary’s title gives an immediate hint as to the oncoming stations-of-the-cross epic Lavelle is facing, his faith not so much tested as his commitment to his role in an age that doesn’t seem to care much for what he offers, even when he sees many proofs that his function is still needed, and especially when confronted by a seemingly imminent date with fate that demands affirmation of just how dedicated he is.
McDonagh bites off as much as any artist, literary or cinematic, could chew here. Indeed, the scope of his ambition almost feels anachronistic in an age of oblique independent films and buffed-down mainstream pseudo-dramas. McDonagh’s writing pitches itself on the outer verges of archness, as his carefully studied characters exchange knowing witticisms whilst not budging from their sharply drawn, almost caricatured postures—indeed, a couple of them, like Sharpe’s Leo and Milo (Killian Scott) never quite escape the realm of improv-theatre exercise. Milo is a young, bespectacled, bow-tie-sporting gent who’s considering joining the army to release sadistic fantasies provoked by his inability to get laid in his small and claustrophobic town. Lavelle derides his plan and suggests moving to a bigger city where “young women with loose morals” are in greater supply. The village is a stage that only offers a small roster of major players, each one charged with a certain relevance to Lavelle’s predicament. Those characters seem to be aware of the roles they are playing, inhabiting types they know are types. Harte, tiring of baiting Lavelle for a moment, mutters that “the atheistic doctor, it’s a clichéd part to play – there aren’t that many good lines.” “You really should talk you know,” Lavelle tells Fiona, “Let it all out.” To which she replies, “Like one of those shit plays at the Abbey?” McDonagh’s highlights his work’s postmodern, smart-ass tilt with a purpose that finally reveals itself by the climax, as the film reproduces with slippery awareness that way the characters hold life at arm’s length with humour and wryly stoic pith that the unknown nihilist seeks to violate with intimate anger.
Lavelle’s controlling viewpoint is a vital, subtle aspect of the film, as the increasing tension and darkness of his situation begins to colour every exchange, and every piss-take joke at his expense and provocation becomes more loaded. Historical abuses of the church, including Simon’s cool statement that “we’re not in the missions now,” are fired at him by several characters. Harte approaches him at the wrong moment with a bleak and horrifying anecdote about his early days doctoring in Dublin when he saw a kid left completely paralysed, blind, deaf, and dumb by an anaesthetist’s failure. The doctor suddenly plays the part of serpent in the garden, a satanic taunter armed with life’s dumb cruelty to goad Lavelle. The priest’s nerves have already been rubbed raw by a series of events, from finding his beloved pet dog with its throat cut to his and Leary’s church burning down. Whether these crimes were committed by his would-be murderer or others remains unclear, but it certainly seems that Lavelle recognises a common disdain for him. That disdain finds apogee when he encounters a small girl walking a laneway and chats amiably with her, only to have her father roar up in a car and furiously threaten him after bundling her away. Lavelle is confronted by the severed cords of trust and amity to which he’s supposed to be tied to his community, the assumption that he’s the force for good suddenly stricken and actively derided by Simon and publican Brendan Lynch (Pat Shortt). Lavelle responds by breaking his drinking ban, whereupon he gets pie-eyed and unleashes his own wrath on the publican by firing his gun off, shattering bottles. When he’s out of bullets, however, Lynch pulls out his own weapon, a baseball bat, and when next we see Lavelle, he’s washing a broken nose.
Calvary’s seriousness of intent reveals itself steadily, a palpable anger and mournfulness about the State of Things, but this is also a vitally funny film, with verbal comedy lethally sharp throughout. Lavelle’s conversations with his melancholic daughter are laced with a spiky, rhythmic style of humour that suggests their deep accord whilst also defining the toey, touchy space each maintains in their mutually therapeutic exchanges. The film’s comic highpoint comes when Lavelle goes to visit Fitzgerald at his house to discuss Fitzgerald’s proposed, large cash donation to the church for the hell of it: “That interests you doesn’t it? he asks, “It’s goin’ to be a black day altogether when the Catholic Church is no longer interested in money, huh?” Lavelle finds Fitzgerald, completely tanked, seemingly determined to make some sort of point to the priest as he waves airily at artworks that have cost him fortunes whilst decrying his wife, children, and servants, all of whom have quit him, and mentions his quasi-illegal financial dealings, which might be investigated but certainly won’t ever see him imprisoned. Finally, for a last piece of anarchic one-upmanship, Fitzgerald shows off his copy of Hans Holbein’s “The Ambassadors.” “I don’t know what it means, but I own it,” he notes, not recognising the weird smudge in the foreground of the frame is actually a carefully distorted skull that can only be seen through a special lens, a memento mori inserted into the original painting’s apparent celebration of lucid, scientific achievement. Lavelle finally loses patience with Fitzgerald and turns to go after berating him for inviting him over merely to tease him. Fitzgerald stalls his departure by saying he can piss on the masterwork he owns, and takes down the painting for that purpose. Lavelle retorts, “Why not? People like you have already pissed on everything else,” and departs as a stream of yellow fluid begins raining upon the masterpiece.
Whilst it could be said McDonagh’s epochal anger (albeit of a type many feel) is a bit obvious here, he’s made it, firstly, very funny and caustic, but also has contoured it into a drama that takes on a legitimate, even fundamental question facing most modern societies: as old faiths wane, what takes their place? In effect, who cares? What constructs tether a society together, beyond a mutually negative reaction? At its best, as McDonagh intends Lavelle to exemplify, the priest fulfils a holistic role that conjoins therapist, carer, interlocutor, concerned friend, public philosopher, and social worker, a contradiction to the modern world’s presumptions of specialisation that result in compartmentalisation. Harte can repair bodies, but has no feel for humanity; Fitzgerald is a member of a ruling class that no longer rules, but simply hoards and decays. Lavelle’s own outlook holds that his job is to provide “solace,” and later, at a crucial juncture, tells Fiona he thinks there’s far too much obsession with sin these days, and that forgiveness is underrated. This line isn’t given much weight but is very much the key to the film, and particularly the very final scene which portrays a stirring act of forgiveness and outreach that represents the triumph of Lavelle’s spirit. Lavelle reaches out to the cocky, provocative Leo, who cracks wise about his own sexual abuse by priests, having dealt with it in the utter reverse manner to the secret would-be murderer, by turning himself into an extroverted male prostitute.
Calvary has spiritual similarities with many studies of faith and commitment, particularly Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951), an evident influence on this film in the segmented vignettes of the torments and quandaries besetting both priest and flock. The film’s kin are also found in other studies in the martyr complex where the heroes find themselves faced with a choice between physical survival and moral success, from A Man for All Seasons (1966) to The Crucible (1996) and Hunger (2009). The latter film’s epic ethical argument between prisoner and priest in brusque, tart, Irish accents feels like close kin to McDonagh’s work, and though he lacks Steve McQueen’s gifts for alchemising his concerns into the raw expression of cinema yet, McDonagh remains clearer-headed about his hero’s confrontation with mortality. A sneaky piece of prefiguring sees Lavelle note two sketchy figures in Mícheál’s beach painting: Mícheál is bemused as to where they came from, suggesting they’re some kind of echo, but actually, of course, it’s presentiment. Otherwise, however, McDonagh steers far away from wrestling with the specifics of the material’s possible transcendental side. His concerns are worldly.
Calvary also resembles a thematic follow-up to Antonia Bird’s once-controversial Priest (1994), with its script by Liverpool Catholic writer Jimmy McGovern, which similarly set up a pair of committed, faithful, but unusual priests, one gay, the other a pulpit radical, to face the modern Pharisees. Calvary’s new prognostication of the ills the older films identified looks squarely at a time when doubt is a way of life, and presents the unusual notion of its protagonist as scapegoat and outcast in a society where he would once have been automatically venerated, or at least tolerated. McDonagh’s smart enough to understand why, too, whilst empathising squarely with his hero’s battered sense of commitment and humane interest.
McDonagh provides two deeply serious sequences that serve as pivotal moments, as Lavelle goes about the most important tasks before him as a priest and anchor the film and catalyse the darkening tone. The first comes with a very Dostoyevskian scene in which Lavelle goes to a prison to visit a former student of his, Freddie Joyce (Gleeson’s son Domhnall), who’s been imprisoned for life as a serial sex murderer. Joyce pathetically reports his desire to be hung in spite of the absence of a death penalty in Ireland, and speaks of fantasies about the afterlife when he’ll be reunited with his victims, purged of all his malicious urges, and begs of Lavelle an answer to the question of why, if God made him the way he is, he would not understand him. Lavelle answers with utmost consideration, “If God can’t understand you, no one can.” Later, he’s called to the hospital where Harte has lost his fight to save the life of a French tourist who was in a car crash. Lavelle sits with the tourist’s wife Teresa (Marie-Josée Croze) in a chapel, coaxing her through grief and doing his job’s ultimate function, acting as the midwife between states of existence, with unerring sensitivity. Lavelle encounters Teresa again at the point where his wavering resolve threatens to drive him from his town, and her deep gratitude and admiration arms him with new strength to return and face whatever fate has been allotted to him—to save a soul or give his life.
The way McDonagh’s distancing ironies and those of the characters’ are entangled might, with a less talented filmmaker, have caused too much friction against the material’s deadly earnest elements and considerations, but for the most part they work well in tandem, and with gathering power. McDonagh sharpens this to a beautifully nasty point when a man is shot after preaching detachment from the film’s vital central problem, followed by the shooter’s angry declaration, “Detach yourself from that!” The finale of Calvary is enormously powerful for precisely its invocation of this shedding of posture and confrontation with immediate reality, in terms of cause and consequence. More than that, it’s an unsparing climax that surprisingly validates not just the potential martyr’s feelings, but also those of the wrathful agent, who screams with a fury as natural and potent as the rolling storm swell crashing on the coast, “I was one of the lucky ones! There’s bodies buried back there!” McDonagh manages to complicate rather than polarise the morality inherent in the final confrontation, as the fury and pain of the would-be killer is depicted with such stirring force that it presents to the audience the possibility that not only Lavelle, but the audience itself is not so innocent, complicit if only by detachment from the evils that beset the world and dog others like demons. By meeting the challenges he sets himself with unremitting focus at last, McDonagh redeems his flaws and arrives at a genuinely compelling and relevant piece of cinema.
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Director: Anton Corbijn
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The entertainment world and fans of thoughtful, fine acting mourned mightily this past February when actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a heroin overdose at the age of 46. During a prolific career that encompassed small roles and large in crowd pleasers like Twister (1996) and Mission: Impossible III (2006), as well as serious-minded films like Capote (2005) and The Master (2012), Hoffman brought a complexity and intelligence to his creations that always made them memorable. A Most Wanted Man, his final film, was an apt one with which to end a career of great accomplishment thwarted by the weaknesses that flesh is heir to.
A Most Wanted Man promises an exciting story of international espionage from its opening sequence—a young, haggard-looking man dragging himself from the water at Hamburg, Germany and threading his way furtively through a lot of cars waiting overnight for the morning a ferry and finding one to sleep in. His entry into Germany has been observed by German intelligence and his identity confirmed as a Muslim rebel of Russian-Chechen background, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin). What he is doing in Hamburg and how he will be dealt with becomes the concern of Günther Bachmann (Hoffman), the head of a small cell of intelligence operatives, whose low-key, painstaking tactics are at loggerheads with the punitive, action-oriented methods of Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock), a heavy-handed colleague Günther openly ridicules. Günther’s approach wins out.
This development will be an enormous disappointment to the adrenalin junkies whose ideas about spy work have been shaped by the M:I, Bourne, and even James Bond franchises. However, fans of John le Carré, the author whose book formed the basis of this movie, will be right at home. Le Carré, the creator of George Smiley, a gray, anonymous member of Britain’s MI6, knows that spy work is more a drab waiting game than a thrill ride, a psychological gambit that preys insidiously on vulnerable informants and nervous targets. Although the powers that be—in this case, the Americans and Russians—have not abandoned brutal interrogation and imprisonment, Günther bucks the establishment to follow his leads upstream to what he hopes will be the heads of Islamist terrorist operations in the Middle East.
Günther and his team have gathered intelligence on a Muslim humanitarian named Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi) who appears to be using a shipping company to divert a portion of relief supplies to Islamist groups to sell to fund arms purchases. Günther learns that Karpov is the son of a Russian official notorious for his brutality and criminal activities, and that he has come to Hamburg to seek help from a banker named Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), whose father laundered money for the elder Karpov. Issa has a sizeable “inheritance” in Brue’s bank, but wants nothing to do with it—he only wants to be able to stay in the West and out of the reach of the Russians who tortured him. Günther uses his “friendly persuasion” to ensure Brue releases the money to Issa, who will then be persuaded by his attorney, Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), to transfer the money to Abdullah. Günther plans to seize Abdullah after the transaction and persuade him to reveal the Islamists to whom he has been diverting resources, but he must persuade skeptical German and American intelligence officials, led by American agent Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), to go along with his plan.
There is abundant, real-world evidence that “extraordinary rendition,” an extraordinarily obtuse term for government-sponsored kidnapping and torture, is highly ineffective in extracting useful information from suspected terrorists, and that Günther’s methodical approach—combining a mild threat with offers of help in exchange for cooperation—works. Günther knows how and how much pressure to bring to bear to get his reluctant informants to go along with his plans; he even manages to bring Abdullah’s son Jamal (Mehdi Debhi) into his network. But the violence of 9/11 and the racial and religious hatred that has only grown in the ensuing years has left the major powers with itchy trigger fingers. Sullivan has already blown Günther’s entire network in Beirut with her cowboy tactics, forcing his removal to Hamburg; Günther doesn’t want to trust her, but he really has no alternative.
A Most Wanted Man is slow and methodical, just like Günther and his team, making for a sometimes too sedate ride. Moments that could have been amped for more tension with music or quick cuts, like Annabel’s capture by Günther’s team, play out with a low unease. It’s true to life, which is its virtue, but rather undramatic. We’re not sure whether or not to root for Günther, who uses repugnant techniques like kidnapping, surveillance technology, and coercion to “make the world a safer place.” Yet, anyone who has watched “Law & Order” or any of its offshoots will recognize the same techniques and have to own up to the fact that we tend to sympathize with the cops because they are almost always on the side of the angels as those shows are written. The ambiguity of Günther’s position is that we see the seams of his good cop/bad cop routine, an act he shares with his civilian aide-de-camp Irna (the criminally underused Nina Hoss), and virtually all of the characters he is manipulating are fairly well-intentioned people who are completely out of their depth in the world of geopolitical espionage.
For example, Dobrygin plays Issa as a damaged, haunted man who took up the Chechen cause against Russia because of his father’s brutality to his Chechen mother and who, through Islam, has tried to find inner peace from his past and the horrible torture he endured. It would be tempting to think of him as another Raskolnikov, except that his crimes are those of a psychologically vulnerable freedom fighter, not a student with theories about human nature and moral relativism. Rachel McAdam is brilliant as an idealistic public-service attorney who goes above and beyond for Issa. Her attempts to assert her authority are as weak as her concern for Issa is strong and motherly, though she threatens to pull focus from the other characters simply because she’s so pretty and photogenic. Dafoe is his usual excellent self, creating a somewhat weak character who is trying to redeem his business from its nefarious past one client at a time.
Hoffman, playing an obese smoker and drinker, fits the mold of the intelligent outsider who blends into the background—the perfect guise for a spy. It is much to Hoffman’s credit that he manages to retain some of our sympathy while arousing a bit of our scorn. Hoffman keeps Günther’s motives somewhat obscure—is he just another kind of cop or is the spy game something that he does as a strange kind of sport? He takes incredible pride in his work, perhaps to the detriment of his cause when he openly insults people he believes to be his inferiors, and his belief in the rightness of his methods places a considerable blind spot in his way. When faced with Sullivan’s abrupt, cutting authority, he tries to work her the same way he does his informants by allying his interests with hers. Wright makes the most of this small, but crucial role, reviving the Ugly American in all its nasty glory. Yet it’s also easy to see that Sullivan and Günther are cut from the same cloth and know the same tricks—what separates them may be down to the very different roads Germany and the United States took with regard to the dignity of the individual over the last 30 or so years.
We see a bit of the Muslim community, and it is as work-a-day and ordinary as any other ethnic enclave. Abdullah is thought to be a good man with just a little bit of bad, enough for more radical Islamists to exploit. That, to Günther, makes him a useful side street to the center of terrorist activity. Abdullah’s sincere sympathy for Issa softens our hearts to these men who seek some kind of healing for their community, but are misguided in their methods. Dobrygin and Ershadi’s one significant scene together is perhaps the most moving of the film; only the horror of Issa’s badly scarred back—partial proof to Brue that he is who he says he is—is more moving.
The final scene of the film offers Hoffman the catharsis, the break from the even-toned professional, we knew was inevitable. He howls, hating his world. From that howl, we hear perhaps an echo of what drove him to his fatal addiction, a man too sensitive to face the world without a potent veil before his face.
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Director: Steve James
By Marilyn Ferdinand
This is, perhaps, a review I ought not to write—after all, my acquaintance with the facts of Roger Ebert’s life and work isn’t exactly casual. I spent almost the whole of his career reading his reviews, watching his various TV shows, and attending his film festival. I owe my inspiration and approach to film criticism to him, more public acknowledgment than I might otherwise have gotten to his very occasional mentions of my work, and my absence of Second City Syndrome to the widespread love and influence he wielded as a critic who lived, worked, and died in my home town. Yet, when a local boy made good—Steve James—makes a documentary about another local boy made good—Roger Ebert—it would be unseemly for me not to comment on the effort. In fact, however, Chicago isn’t the home town of either James or Ebert—look to Hampton, Virginia, and Urbana, Illinois, for their earliest roots. Yet both embraced my Midwestern metropolis and found what so many other creative people have—a laissez-faire atmosphere that makes it possible to do the work in a generous and open fashion and avoid a lot of the competitive bullshit that closes off so many opportunities, both personally and professionally, in the nation’s large coastal cities.
Life Itself really isn’t Steve James’ kind of movie, and I’m not referring to the subject matter. His very people-focused documentaries offer biographies of sorts about his subjects, perhaps most comprehensively in Stevie (2002), which brought James farther into the frame than any of his movies, based as it was on his former Little Brother when James was in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. James likes to spread into his subjects’ lives, take in the long horizon through his own observations. Life Itself, however, began as an end-of-life project for its subject—though neither Ebert nor James knew they would have only five months together, it was obvious to everyone that Ebert’s days were short.
James reveals in the film that the nine single-spaced pages of questions he sent to Ebert to answer in writing were too much for the failing film critic, who requested that he receive them one at a time. Late in the film, Ebert points James to his autobiography, Life Itself, to glean answers, revealing even more than the voiceover recitations from the book by Stephen Stanton, doing a very good job of imitating Ebert’s voice, that the movie was largely structured and scripted by Ebert’s own take on his life. I think it was very honest of James to name the film after the autobiography, but I’m not sure he needed to crib so much from Ebert’s TV show, particularly his tribute show to Gene Siskel, in creating the film. At many points, I felt as though I were watching Sneak Previews or the tribute show, the latter of which included seminal moments from the careers of the two critics, such as their appearance on The Tonight Show when Ebert panned Three Amigos (1986) to Chevy Chase’s face, the combative outtakes of them recording promo spots for the show, and Ebert being interviewed about why he did not get top billing in Siskel & Ebert & the Movies.
James tries to address some of the controversy surrounding the “thumbs” approach to movie reviewing with a series of talking-head interviews. Most cogent was his interview with Jonathan Rosenbaum, former chief film critic of Chicago’s alt-weekly, The Reader, and what he perceived as the demotion of serious film criticism that had arisen during the 1960s by the populist approach Siskel and Ebert popularized. (I’m not sure why James decided to do the interview in the lobby of the Music Box Theatre on Chicago’s North Side, but I’m always happy to see the old place, no matter the circumstances.) But he also recounts the appearance of Andrew Sarris, and especially Pauline Kael, on the print beat, pointing out that they were the darlings of those members of the film intelligentsia who were inclined to pay attention to the mainstream press—not surprisingly, both were based in New York City. A line that came from this part of the film, “Fuck Pauline Kael,” was said in reference to the people who held her in much higher esteem than they did Roger Ebert—who was, ironically, an acolyte of Kael’s approach. The line got a laugh, but a cheap one.
Was being and staying a Midwesterner the secret behind the enormous affection Ebert garnered from most of the people whose lives he touched? Life Itself doesn’t say so explicitly, but does mention a throwaway comment Ebert made when the New York Times came a-courtin’ following his Pulitzer Prize win—“I don’t want to learn new streets”—exactly the kind of no-nonsense sarcasm a Chicagoan might issue to a self-important “newspaper of record.” Ebert worked for the Chicago Sun-Times, the proletarian paper in town, and stayed true to his employer, his coworkers, his alma mater (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), and his roots to the end of his life. James reports that as Ebert and his long-time TV partner Gene Siskel, a native Chicagoan and Yale graduate who worked for the Republican-leaning Chicago Tribune, became the most popular film critics in the country, the self-appointed tastemakers in Los Angeles and New York ignored them and refused to carry their syndicated program—until it was no longer possible to do so.
The film recounts Ebert’s enormously mature felicity with words, even while working on the college newspaper; his alcoholic “men’s club” at O’Rourke’s, Chicago’s late, lamented haunt for newspapermen and writers; his entry into AA and sobriety; his jaunts to the Cannes Film Festival; and, of course, his marriage to Chaz, the woman who saved him from the life of loneliness toward which he said he seemed to be headed and who kept him going in the darkest throes of his fight with cancer. James offers a clip from the Conference on World Affairs Ebert attended for many years in which he announces that he is very ill—the salivary-gland cancer he thought he beat had returned and gone into his jaw. James is unsparing in showing the results of the illness—the lower part of Ebert’s face swings freely, the skin no longer having a jawbone to anchor it.
It is in the footage of the day to day of Ebert’s final few months that James finds familiar ground, and it is here where the film really comes alive. Watching Ebert struggle to break free of his walker and wheelchair is grueling, but it also affirms how present he is in his life. When he comes home from the hospital, Chaz tries to stage-manage his ascent up the stairs, a cadre of home health workers at the ready. Ebert insists she give him his notepad to write some instruction or other; the couple’s power struggle continues for a couple of minutes, and Chaz finally relents. Ebert in his prime was a force of nature, a storyteller nobody ever interrupted, a critic of uncompromising honesty. He largely remained that man to the end, insisting on exerting his agency even in the most reduced circumstances. It’s easy to see how he could become so influential and champion so tirelessly the careers of filmmakers he believed in, from a faltering Martin Scorsese to promising young director Ramin Bahrani to Academy Award winner Errol Morris, whose first film, Gates of Heaven (1978), was dismissed by everyone but Ebert. That is what makes the single most affecting seconds of Life Itself so poignant. When James tries to press Ebert to type an answer to a question, we see his email response: “I can’t.”
I have read extravagant praise of this film as well as withering takedowns by critics and fans alike. Life Itself—like life itself—isn’t perfect, but it is a fitting tribute to a man who meant a lot to a lot of people. I think Ebert would have given it a big thumbs up.
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Director/Co-screenwriter: Joon-ho Bong
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers
South Korean director Joon-ho Bong captured the attention of many international filmgoers in 2006 with his home-grown monster movie The Host. He rode the crest of a wave of interest in popular Korean cinema with its potent and often outlandish preoccupations, and reservoir of directorial talent and also including Chan-Wook Park and Kim Jee-woon. Many movie fans found that The Host offered the texture and quality of a bygone variety of genre entertainment, plied with energy and love for the nuts-and-bolts craft of a good creature feature Hollywood hasn’t offered since around the time of Arachnophobia and Tremors (both 1990). An enjoyable film, it was nonetheless rather overrated: I found Bong’s filmmaking, in spite of (and because of) his sustained steadicam shots, often clumsy or arrhythmic, the script far too busy and over-long, and the attempts to incorporate political and social commentary obvious, even tacky, without ever being incisive or as curtly dovetailed as in the best examples of the genre. Still, the film surely earned Bong a cult following abroad, whilst his follow-up, Mother (2011), seemed a complete about-face in subject matter, but still earned critical plaudits for the director’s eccentric artistry. Snowpiercer is a work of greatly increased ambition, an adaptation of a French graphic novel series with The Host’s co-stars Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko rubbing shoulders with an international cast in a film that aims for the broadest possible audience, delivering thrills and spill tethered to an allegory that’s never any vaguely disguised.
A post-apocalyptic take on Spartacus (1960) mixed with a little A Night to Remember (1958) and The Cassandra Crossing (1977), Snowpiercer is built around one central, dominating concept: the entire film takes place on a super-fast bullet train speeding around the world. The world itself has been frozen into a giant block of ice by a misguided attempt to deal with global warming by inculcating the atmosphere with a dense artificial gas, and only the train’s constant motion keeps it from finishing up as a metal popsicle. Captain American himself, Chris Evans, plays Curtis, an intelligent and conscientious member of the train’s third class, that is, passengers who were allowed on board in the pure desperation and chaos of civilisation’s last days, and have been forced to subsist ever since in the rear carriages of the train. The train is the brainchild of genius inventor and industrialist Wilford (Ed Harris), who never leaves the very front carriage of the train, tending his engine with its miraculous, perpetual-motion energy supply. The train still travels the old world-looping track he built nominally for international travel but actually because he anticipated just such a fate.
Curtis has become something like the adopted older brother or even father of Edgar (Jamie Bell), and the two have begun conspiring on ways to overthrow the armed guards who keep them cordoned off from the other classes on the train, and stage a takeover. The filthy and dispirited passengers of the rear carriages are fed on green, jelly-like blocks of protein. Curtis is haunted by evil events that occurred on the train in the early days and is discomforted by Edgar’s hero worship. Curtis feels second-rate compared to other passengers, like the wizened old Gilliam (John Hurt), who are missing multiple limbs for reasons that are eventually explained. Gilliam seems to have an intimate understanding of the train’s remote lord, who is regarded as an almost god-like benefactor by the better-off on the train, and he advises Curtis as their plans begin to take shape. Another, more mysterious helper has been smuggling messages of advice to Curtis in his evening protein blocks.
The third-class passengers are infuriated when Wilford’s emissary and concubine Claude (Emma Levie) comes on one of her occasional missions to extract small children for an unknown purpose. She claims Tim (Marcanthonee Jon Reis), son of Tanya (Octavia Spencer), and in the distraught melee that results, one passenger, Andrew (Ewen Bremner) tosses a shoe at Claude’s head. Andrew is grotesquely punished by having his arm forced out through a portal to be frozen stiff in the high mountain cold, and then shattered with a hammer, whilst Mason (Tilda Swinton), a gummy, gawky, patronising Minister in the train’s government, lectures the third class in the necessity of their happy obeisance to the settled order. Mason accidentally gives away a crucial piece of information which Curtis correctly interprets: the guards’ guns have run out of bullets in putting down earlier revolts, and now, if they can strike hard and fast enough, the third class might stand a chance. Curtis chafes against the efforts of Edgar, Tanya, and others to make him their appointed leader, but it soon becomes clear that any revolt is going to need a guiding mind with a clear and relentless idea of what to do each at each challenge, with the reflexes to match. Gross manifestations of repression and inequality are of course soon gleefully repaid as Curtis launches his revolt, using salvaged barrels to jam doors open and swoop upon the guards. As the rebels gain access to the next few cars, they discover the sickening truth about their food source, as insects and waste scraps are mashed into their protein blocks.
There’s conceptual similarity in Snowpiercer to works and writers from great days in the science-fiction genre, likes J.G. Ballard’s grimy satires and Philip K. Dick’s dystopian fantasias. Bong signals his influences and reference points early on: some have compared him to Steven Spielberg, and whilst that was evident in The Host with its narrative focus on a fractious, venturesome family unit, here the guiding influence seems rather to be ‘80s and ‘90s Euro Cyberpunk, like the early films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, and Terry Gilliam, who’s given an explicit name-check in Hurt’s character. Which could be cool, but frankly I found much of Snowpiercer felt old-hat, particularly in channelling Gilliam’s least likeable trait, of pushing his performers towards becoming leering grotesques, particularly evident in Bremner’s performance and, more appreciably, Swinton’s amusing if unsubtle Mason, who becomes the main foil and victim of the rebellion. Although pushed a few rungs down the social bracket so she speaks with a broad midlands accent and has a rather awful dental plate, Mason’s a quite obvious burlesque on Margaret Thatcher, abusing her charges, whom she calls “freeloaders,” for their lack of gratitude, and going through a show-and-tell play with a shoe placed on Andrew’s head: “Be a shoe,” she advises the passengers, because they’re not hats. In case it’s not obvious enough already, Snowpiercer is supposed to be a parable about have and have-nots, casting the rear carriage passengers as third world and underclass losers held down by the man, man.
Curtis seeks out Namgoong Minsoo (Song), the train’s former electrical and security wizard, who seems to have degenerated into a hopeless frazzled drug addict. The drug of choice on the train is Kronol, a by-product of the train’s toxic waste and a highly flammable substance. Minsoo, once he’s awakened out of his dissociate daze after being plucked from a penal cell like a morgue locker, makes a deal with Curtis to get his daughter Yona (Ko) out of another locker, and for them both to receive for blocks of Kronol in exchange for getting the rebels through each barrier ahead of them on the train. Yona, a “train baby”, seems to have a preternatural awareness, bordering on precognition, and is able to warn the advancing force about dangers hidden on the far side of the closed doors. The rebels face their greatest challenge in a carriage where they find Mason and a death squad armed with battle-axes waiting for them, timing a blackout with the train’s movement into a long, dark tunnel, so that the attackers, who have night vision goggles, can freely slaughter them. But, in perhaps the film’s funniest moment, one of the tiny number of matches Minsoo had saved is used to light a torch, and this is rushed from the rear of the train to the battleground by successive runners including Andrew in an ecstatic parody of an Olympic torch relay.
Fire allows the battle to proceed fairly and the rebels vanquish their foes, but Curtis is forced to make a call between saving Edgar, who is defeated and used as a human shield by one of the guards, and catching Mason before she can scurry off. Curtis makes the choice of a leader and goes after Mason: Edgar’s throat is cut but Curtis captures the Minister and uses her to force the guards to stop fighting. I like Evans as an actor: he was the star of one of my favourite recent genre films, Push (2009), which was one of those rare films that started off cleverly and kept up the flow of invention until the very end. And he’s quite competent here as a hero whose only exceptional characteristics are his intelligence and his desperation for moral regeneration, which drives him to break boundaries others accept. To his credit, Bong gives the film time to breathe with contemplative time-outs between scuffles, and paying attention to Curtis’ interactions with his fellow, culminating in a lengthy explanation to Minsoo about the early days on the train, when he was a teenage punk who had succumbed to murderous cannibalism, before the protein feed regime was instituted and the passengers were starving.
Curtis was brought to his senses when Gilliam and other older passengers began donating their limbs as food to keep the marauders like Curtis from snatching babies for the pot: Edgar’s life was saved directly by this intervention. Curtis thus faces that regulation trope (or cliché) of many recent Japanese and Korean dark thriller and horror films, the sense of guilt or transgression that can only be expiated by sacrificing a limb (see also the works of Chan-Wook Park, who produced this, and Takashi Miike). Such a revelation invests Curtis with a memorable pathos and darkness, and yet it doesn’t sit very well with the pretty clean-cut guy we’ve been introduced to. I couldn’t help but wonder if it would have been more convincing, and indeed genuinely affecting, with an older, more world-weary and weathered actor in the part, somebody who at least looked like he had the memory of a savage self in him.
At some point in this film’s development, Bong seems to have decided he was faced with a clear choice with this material, to either try to make it convincing or to play up its symbolic value. He chose the latter, but immediately revealed his lack of understanding of science-fiction, which can revolve around parable but must also exemplify a logical take on its chosen fantastical realm. The film follows a very basic guiding logic that makes sense, the literally linear movement from front to back of the train, which has a suspiciously video-game conceit to it, whilst also evoking the powerful influence of producer Park in the resemblance of fight scenes to the tight-packed, squared-off fight scenes that rather resemble the famous corridor battle in Oldboy (2006). But beyond this, Snowpiercer’s set-up, both technical and social, makes painfully little sense, never working at all to explain certain basic questions. Key to the film’s plot is the supposed balance of life within the train, a concept that has important ramifications in a climactic reveal. As the rebels advance through the conveyance, they pass through carriages dedicated to the propagation of animal and plant-life.
If the Snowpiercer had been deliberately designed as a mammoth Noah’s Ark-like device to save a small section of humanity I might have bought this, but the circumstances of the machine’s construction, when revealed, present the film as a private industrial Spruce Goose repurposed into it present use. The train, when glimpsed from the outside, doesn’t seem all that much bigger than the average Amtrak cross-country express, and couldn’t possibly support enough infrastructure to make the life on the train we see possible, not even to produce the insects ground up for the protein meal. The film is full of unexplained logic jumps as weapons come out of nowhere and characters who shouldn’t know one end of a gun from another suddenly having a working knowledge of automatic weapons. A gunfight is precipitated in the midst of a carriage full of the last kids on earth. Obviously someone doesn’t think children are our future.
The perspective the audience is forced to follow makes the early stages a striking experience in the sense of isolation and imposed abused, envisioning life in the third-class carriages as a ride on the Trans-Siberian Express turned into way of life, mixed with a favela. The conceit of the film can be excused as merely a transposed vision of slum dwellers invading the better parts of town wrapped in a polite sleeve of genre fiction, but nakedness of political metaphor doesn’t make for brilliance. As the film unfolds the coherency of the metaphor becomes increasingly silly and self-serving, as it offers no chance for perspective from the other classes on the train, just a broad caricature of privilege and indoctrination. Far from being a wake-up call about the dangers of global warming, the film could be seen as marking a different inference, a metaphor for the way third world countries are denied the pleasures and benefits of industrialisation by the environmental concerns of rich westerners. As the rebels penetrate the “first world” part of the train, the vignettes they see there look like the interior of a luxury liner where prim personages sit, and then the interior of a rave club, filled with louche young things reclining in decadent postures. Yes, that’s the limit of Bong’s insight into modernity’s diseases: stoned young party people and Victorian upper-crust caricatures. It’s so puerile it makes the French Revolution invocations of The Dark Knight Rises (2012) seem profound.
Where all the warriors came from, and indeed where they go to after initial skirmishes, and the train’s entire apparent infrastructure of government and representation, is skipped over. Good points might have been made about the whipped-up bloodlust and fear of the other passengers when faced with the insurrection as a simile for political manipulation, but the only “people” on the train are the rebels, and even they’re pretty one-dimensional. The film’s best scene isn’t much more sophisticated but is staged with such an intimate gusto I didn’t mind, as the rebels bust into a schoolroom carriage. There the primly raised little snots of the train’s upper class are inculcated with cultish love of Wilford through absurd songs and catechisms like “The engine is eternal! The engine is forever!” and “We would all freeze and die!” Mason delights in hearing the songs: “I love that one – such a tonic!” she reports with splendidly needy over-enthusiasm. Canadian actress Allison Pill has a deliriously inspired cameo here as the kids’ wackadoodle teacher, eyes aglow and eyelids aflutter with feverish excitement in teaching the gospel of Wilford like a Moonie zealot, whilst the overtones of this sequence take on several targets at once, from religion in general to the specifically cultish fanaticism attached to supposed benefactors, and even perhaps a tilt north of the 38th parallel.
The scene sharpens to a point as the heavily pregnant teacher draws an automatic weapon on Curtis and the other rebels: she gets a knife in the throat, and Curtis coolly executes the increasingly pathetic Mason in retaliation. Most of the issues I had with the film on an intellectual level with the film might have been rendered moot if I’d found it more satisfying on the level of meat-and-potatoes action, but Snowpiercer is rather ordinary in that regard, and certainly inferior to, say, Pierre Morel’s work on Banlieu 13 (2004), a film which had much the same structure and subtext but not half the pretension. One major problem with the film’s development is that apart from Mason none of the antagonists are at all well-defined enough to dislike. We have bad guys whom scrutiny of the credits tell me are called Franco (Vlad Ivanov, the sleazy abortionist of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, 2007) and Egg-Head (Tómas Lemarquis) but who come out of nowhere and are standard action movie villains. Curtis and Franco end up having a gunfight between carriages as the train goes around a long curve, an idea that makes interesting use of the specifics of the situation but as it plays out here is numbingly stupid.
Franco lumbers along emotionlessly killing Curtis’ followers, including Tanya, and proves rather hard to dispatch, like the Terminator in business casual. The film’s action set-piece is the tunnel fight, which is passably well-staged but more interested in pretty effects like art-directed blood spurting on the windows than in believably depicting a fight in such close-packed quarters: interestingly, neither side seems to have thought much about how such battles are likely to proceed. Bong does pull off one terrific little moment of action staging, with Curtis locked in mortal combat with a goon, another goon looms over his shoulder ready to strike, only for Edgar to launch himself into the frame and crash into the goon’s belly. This moment not only requires carefully framing on Bong’s part but also nicely shows off Bell’s physical grace as an actor, which no-one seems interested in exploiting otherwise. I’m not sure what both sides stopping their fight momentarily to celebrate the anniversary of getting on the train is supposed to signify except unfunny satirical intent.
It could also be argued that the film’s weakness as a mixture of realistic and metaphorical storytelling are justified by a certain pseudo-surrealist tone, and there is a little of this, as when the rebels suddenly burst into carriages that are gardens and aquariums. Not nearly enough to justify the film’s conceits, however. Where the finale might have justifiably moved into a zone of splintering realities, like the last episode of The Prisoner (TV, 1967-8), Bong and screenwriter Kelly Masterson (who penned Sidney Lumet’s last film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, 2007) stick close to diagrams of clunky blockbuster exposition. Curtis and Minsoo make it to the engine of the train, but find their way barred by a seemingly impassable hatch. Minsoo has a secret intention to use the Kronole he’s amassed to blow open the train’s only exterior hatch, because he’s noticed that the ice outside has retreated and escape from the train is now possible. Rather than do this immediately however, he and Curtis sit around for a half-hour talking whilst their enemies have time to mass. Claude unexpectedly emerges from the engine with a gun to usher Curtis in to see Wilford. Now, unlike Curtis who’s supposed to be smart, the audience will have guessed about five minutes in that Wilford was the one sending the helpful messages to Curtis, with only the motivation hazy. This is revealed to be, in a shameless rip-off of the climactic revelations of The Matrix Reloaded (2003), because Wilford likes to carefully provoke and repress rebellions to justify culling back the train’s population for the sake of sustainability.
Now, why a technocrat like Wilford who has essentially reduced the world to his own immediate ego-verse where he might easily control every element of life would rely on such clumsy and self-destructive tactics to maintain balance on his train is a question for smarter folks than I. So too is why the train’s society is set up like it is. Mason’s use of the word “freeloader” made me wonder if perhaps the schism was set up around those who, as in Roland Emmerich’s 2012 (2009), had paid to get on the ark and those who had been taken on as an act of charity or had forced their way on. But this is never actually brought up, and really it’s just a conservative code word trucked in for broad satirical effect, and besides, after eighteen years nobody’s questioning such delineations? The dark sacrificial antitheses of the surface paradises portrayed in the likes of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” or Logan’s Run (1976), stories based around similar ideas, aren’t necessarily more probable but they make a hell of a lot more sense in terms of the schematic societies they present us with.
Another ready reference point here is that immovable icon of cinema sci-fi, Metropolis (1926), which has an infamously vague political meaning, but at least boiled itself down to a likeable homily. I’m not sure what homily I could boil Snowpiercer down to, not even “Fight the Man”, as the film’s somewhat self-defeating climax derails (literally) the point it seems to have been making. The film does finally achieve a minatory power in the rush of events and visuals building to that climax – the sight of young Tim imprisoned amongst the gears and wheels of the engine has a Dickensian power, and Curtis and Minsoo rushing to embrace Yong and Tim to protect them from an explosion’s billowing flames offers a fitting condensation of the film’s theme of fatherly care, and a spark of real emotion at last in a film that otherwise lacks it. The last images evoke the end of THX-1138 (1971), although not as vividly iconic, in the simultaneous evocation of freedom and exposure, even as once again Snowpiercer begs a lot more questions than it really answers. Is it better than a Michael Bay movie? Yes. But not that much better.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: James Gray
By Marilyn Ferdinand
James Gray is a director who is slowly finding his voice. After creating three family-centered crime films (Little Odessa , The Yards , and We Own the Night ), Gray has moved on to more emotion-laden, personal films that may include crime, but only as one of several strategies to which their damaged and desperate characters cling to maintain their precarious existence. The Immigrant is simultaneously operatic in its grand canvas detailing the dislocation of large masses of humanity during World War I, and a chamber piece that looks at the dysfunctional dance of need between two desperate people. In the final analysis, the film has a metaphysical agenda that lifts it out of the tedium of survival and into a contemplation of the soul.
The year is 1917. An expansive, grainy, unusual view of the backside of the Statue of Liberty and the water leading into the open ocean—the view from Ellis Island—opens the film, followed by a look inside this gateway for immigrants hoping to make a new start to their lives in the United States. Polish refugee Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard) moves through the line of new arrivals, admonishing her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) to suppress her coughing and providing hopeful encouragement that they are almost at the end of their ordeal. Not quite. Magda is shunted off for a six-month hospital quarantine, with tuberculosis the likely diagnosis ahead of her, and Ewa is declared liable to become a state charge when she tells the immigration official that she has no money and gives him a letter from her sponsors—her Aunt Edyta (Maja Wampuszyc) and Uncle Wojtek (Ilia Volok)—with an address he says doesn’t exist. Further, he says there were reports from the ship that Ewa is a woman of low morals. Her immediate deportation seems likely.
Enter Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), an immigrant himself some 25 years before, who sees her among the other rejects and decides to help her. He bribes a guard to let her through to the ferry that will take them to Manhattan and gives her a place to stay in his apartment and a promise of work as a seamstress in his theatre. Ewa distrusts him, and grabs something that looks like an ice pick to put under her pillow as she sleeps. Thirteen hours later, she awakens, and Bruno takes her to the theatre where he and his “doves” put on a topless act for the rowdy, mostly male patrons, a prelude to selling their bodies. Rosie (Elena Solovey), the theatre owner, sees a gold mine in Ewa’s beauty, but Bruno says he has bigger plans for her. Nonetheless, in short order, Ewa’s first appearance on stage—ironically, as Lady Liberty—leads to her first night as a sex worker, deflowering a young man whose father has paid Bruno a large sum to make his son more manly.
Ewa is a survivor. She has seen her parents beheaded before her eyes, been raped on the ship to America, been rejected by her uncle because her shipboard “reputation” will damage his community standing and business, and fallen prey to a manipulative pimp who throws her concern for her sister and her need for his connections on Ellis Island at her every time he wants her to degrade herself. It takes money to free Magda and live in a country that prizes individual initiative above all else—her uncle’s concern for his reputation shows he’s well suited to the American Way, though he looks more like he plans to molest her the night she shows up on his doorstep after escaping from Bruno. Ewa does what she feels she has to do, but through her trapped suffering, she stirs an existential crisis in her hated benefactor, Bruno.
It would be easy to see this film primarily as a well-crafted melodrama, as well as a time machine that takes us back quite believably to the era to which many Americans, including myself, can trace our New World origins, filmed as it was at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens and all around the town, including on Ellis Island. Great care was taken to try to burrow under the daily lives of the characters in this film. For example, when Bruno first brings Ewa to his apartment, a young girl is sitting at the kitchen table, while her prostitute mother lies on the bed asleep. I don’t know what they were doing there, but the sequence shows that even whores have home lives. In addition, Bruno’s doves, displaced from the theatre after a brawl, do their parade under a viaduct in the park for men of even lesser means than the ones in the theatre, a poignant moment of practicality that rang true.
The street scenes and interiors had a lived in, authentic look, and the Ellis Island scenes were pitch-perfect in every regard. I especially enjoyed an opera reference that worked perfectly with the story: Ewa, caught by the police and returned to Ellis Island, goes to a performance put on for the detainees in hopes of seeing her sister in the audience. Enrico Caruso (Joseph Calleja), who actually did sing at Ellis Island, performs an aria from Puccini’s La Rondine, whose main female character is named Magda.
The Immigrant has its problems. Bruno’s cousin Emil (Jeremy Renner) is really rather superfluous as anything other than a plot motivator. While Renner gives a fine performance, full of the kind of charisma and social ease Bruno envies, the triangle he sets in place wasn’t really needed. In addition, making Emil a magician is a little too on the nose about his success with women, nor did I buy that he was a bigger attraction for the low-rent theatre crowd than Bruno’s topless chippies. The latter explanation for his return to the theatre was simply to get him in the same room with Ewa and Bruno. The sepia tone of the cinematography was a little annoying, as I didn’t really need it to know that we were looking at a faded time, and it distorted colors in some unfortunate ways: blood coming from Bruno’s nose looked like the chocolate syrup it probably was, and in close-up, it was very distracting.
A more serious flaw is Gray’s inspiration to shoot Ewa like Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). He concentrates a great deal on Cotillard’s face and expects her to put across Ewa’s complicated emotions, but he doesn’t seem to have the right touch to draw this performance out with any consistency. She comes nowhere near to suggesting the transcendence of Falconetti or Joan—she’s a pretty girl who remains a bit of a cipher except in her desire for money through at least half of the film, though her apparent mastery of Polish and ability to act in that language was brilliant. Happily, Gray eventually hits the right notes and takes us on a tour of the inner dimensions of the immigrant journey.
“Is it a sin to want to survive when I have done so many bad things?” This remark of Ewa’s is at the heart of what this film seems to want to say. It’s a somewhat controversial line in this age of discrimination, because, indeed Bruno, Ewa, and the other immigrants engage in pandering, prostitution, theft, and bribery—all actions that born Americans, particularly in 1917, would not welcome in the newly arrived. Yet, the film clearly illustrates that for many of the people we meet, these crimes are necessary because there is no other way to get by.
For all his seeming gallantry toward Ewa, Bruno has been hollowed out during his own life as an outcast, called a kike by the police who rob him and beat him to a pulp and unable to rise beyond the level of a pimp and fixer in part because of the psychological crippling of his lowly status. It makes sense that when Emil, the “pretty boy” who manages to get all the girls despite his lies and drinking, starts putting the moves on Ewa, Bruno goes crazy. The characters say that Bruno is madly in love with Ewa, but I think that’s a little too simple. She hasn’t escaped becoming his prostitute, after all, but she has something he desperately wants—love—something he has no power to give and no talent to inspire the way Emil does. Ewa clings to her quest to be reunited with her beloved sister, the person who has kept her going in their darkest hours, and eventually returns to the Catholic Church after what I imagine is a period of anger at God for the trials in her life. It is only after Bruno follows her to church and eavesdrops on her confession that he understands how much he has damaged her and makes a start at a redemption that Ewa herself is seeking from the priest (Patrick Husted). In their final scene together, Ewa finds her way to forgiving Bruno and giving him the affirmation he killed for, though it is more absolution for a dying man than a guiding light into the future, as Bruno is determined to pay for his crimes.
Phoenix, a Gray regular, offered up an interpretation of Bruno as a manipulator that Gray did not see when crafting the script, leading me to believe that Gray relies too heavily on his actors to bring their characters to life. Regardless, Phoenix’s choices are dead-on, offering a complicated view of a man who, perhaps, is the true title character of The Immigrant.
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Director: Gareth Edwards
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
Like many young boys, I was once a Godzilla freak. Worse, I was a perpetually frustrated Godzilla freak. For a long time, the only entry in Toho Studios’ banner series I had available to me was Godzilla 1985, the somewhat altered New World Studio recut of The Return of Godzilla (1984), at the time, Big G’s first film in 10 years. Godzilla 1985 was, however, a great place to start with the most famous of atomic monsters, because it stripped its iconic monster back to the force of nature and terror it had begun as in Ishiro Honda’s great 1954 original. That stature had been diluted and then erased through the ’60s and ’70s as Godzilla had been turned increasingly into a giant tag-team wrestler taking on motley foes in increasingly weak instalments. By the time of Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973), the lizard was delivering flying karate kicks and swapping high-fives with his robot buddy.
Toho’s revived series soon brought back the antagonists and continued until 2004, whilst in between came a film remembered by every scifi fan in fear and loathing, Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla (1998). Emmerich’s film wasn’t actually a Godzilla film, tossing out just about everything that separated him from his forebears (The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, 1951) and progeny (The Giant Behemoth, 1956; Gorgo, 1960; every other kaiju eiga) to make him King of Monsters. Another Hollywood Godzilla movie had to make up for this betrayal. The man to try this proved to be Gareth Edwards, a filmmaker with a lone, low-budget work behind him: Monsters (2009), an inventive, intelligent if pedantic movie, turning the invasive mutant beasts that littered its North American hinterlands into broad metaphors for many a contemporary ill, including illegal immigration. Edwards’ evident skill was ripe for a richer canvas, and his Godzilla is his play for directorial megatonnage, whilst giving the vintage Toho franchise new life. The carefully hyped product has been generating excitement in everyone with the slightest glimmer of fondness for Godzilla, but it had its work cut out for it to stand out in the field of modern special-effects movie, like Cloverfield (2006) and Pacific Rim (2013), where cities are regularly levelled and colossal beasts are terrorising humankind.
Edwards, to his credit, makes all the right moves early on, kicking off with a clever opening credits sequence that moves from pages of Darwinian evolution to photos of mysterious happenings and monstrous phenomena around A-bomb test sites, real and fake grainy photos, with cast and crew names flashing on screen in swiftly redacted excerpts. Edwards gives signs early on that his playbook is inflected by Steven Spielberg as much as by Toho. What the rising crane shot to reveal a vista is to Spielberg, a peak into a vertiginous depth is Edwards, commencing with an impressive helicopter shot of a massive sinkhole in the midst of an open-cut mine teeming with antlike humans, a visually impressive and thematically keen vision of what’s to come. Scientists Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) are brought to the mine in the Philippines to behold an amazing discovery in the sinkhole—the bones of a colossal saurian skeleton with two strange pods in its chest cavity, one of which seems to have hatched recently and disgorged something large.
Meanwhile, in Japan, nuclear safety watchdog Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his wife Sandra (Juliet Binoche) are alarmed by strange seismic and electrical disturbances at the nuclear power plant where they work. Just as Joe begins shutting the plant down, something bursts into the sub-basement where Sandra and an inspection team are working, and releases a flood of radioactive smoke. Edwards wrings the climax of this sequence for high emotion, as Joe is forced to seal off a corridor, leaving Sandra and the other workers trapped, with Joe saying farewell to his wife through a pane of Perspex before she is sealed away forever.
The film jumps 15 years to find Joe, now a damaged, hysterical seeker of the truth, venturing into the quarantined zone around the destroyed reactor in search of old data. His and Sandra’s son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), is a bomb disposal expert just returned from active duty and reunited with his doctor wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen), and has long since written his old man off as a crackpot. Nonetheless, he ventures to Japan to bail him out, only to be promptly dragged back into the quarantine zone with him as Joe urgently tries to convince him of strange phenomena that portend another cataclysmic event, an event presaged by the mysterious absence of any radiation in the hot zone. Joe and Ford are captured by guarding soldiers and brought to Serizawa and Graham, who are keeping watch on a mysterious something buried in the ruins, the weird, crusty subterranean beast that caused the initial disaster and has now been growing fat and strong from absorbing all of the fallout. Of course, Joe and Ford’s arrival coincides just about exactly with the creature waking up and bursting out of its cocoon to wreak havoc. If you’re expecting this to be Godzilla, though, you’d be wrong, because this is rather a colossal, insectoid monster dubbed Muto—“Massive Unknown Terrestrial Organism”—that pulverises everything in sight and spreads its wings to fly into the night.
I was bemused by some early reviews that criticising the film for taking too long to get to the monster stuff, because most of the time, critics (justifiably) bawl out modern genre films for being too quick at cutting to the chase. Edwards and screenwriter Max Bornstein spend a lot of time setting up a rigorously old-fashioned approach to their storytelling. There’s some nice humour and character moulding early on, like a great little scene in a Japanese police station where Ford waits for his father to be released, entertained by watching as a Goth girl is collected by chastising parents before catching sight of his old man, who looks out with a detectable mix of shame and gratitude to his son. Whereas even the ardent Pacific Rim skipped most of that stuff to revel in the fantastic world it created, this Godzilla goes for an old-school tempo of ominous suggestion, startling glimpse, and finally, grand reveal, in the same fashion as such great monster movies as Them! (1954) and Jaws (1975), as well as the original Honda film. The opening offers wrenching, mythic loss to invest Joe with pathos well suited to a hero in this kind of film, whilst providing a father-son redemption as its key human story pivot, pitching Joe as kin to Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s (1977) Roy Neary as a man driven to frayed extremes by tragedy and intimations of the new and terrifying, with a touch of Unabomber nuttiness to him, counterbalanced by his son’s tepid all-American rectitude (notwithstanding his being played by a British actor). Cranston, still riding the crest of a huge following from the TV series “Breaking Bad,” knows how to do edgy and irrational without losing gravitas and empathy, and his presence in the film feels at first like the film’s most inspired, galvanising choice. Unfortunately, Godzilla then does something rather stupid from which it never truly recovers: it kills Joe in a skywalk collapse during Muto’s hatching, leaving Ford to fill in as hero.
Losing its most (only, in fact) detailed and engaged protagonist, the rest of Godzilla feels unmoored in a subtle, but dogged fashion. Taylor-Johnson, a good actor who can play oddball heroes effectively (Nowhere Boy, 2010; Kick-Ass, 2011; Savages, 2012), is reduced to a veritable GI Joe figurine. The limits of Edwards’ Spielbergian mimicry, which extends to naming its main hero after one Spielberg hero and the actor who played another, becomes obvious if one were to compare the scenes of Roy Neary’s home life with those of Ford Brody’s, which are far less detailed, realistic, and vibrant. Ford and Elle never cease looking and acting like placeholders where finished characters might later be inserted, and Edwards cross-cuts in ungainly fashion between the pair in their disparate places as the action heats up, with Elle trying to stick out her healing job in the midst of calamity, but this and the final reunion of the family played for uplift remain weightless.
One motif, amongst many, the monster film shares in common with the disaster film is the need to find convincing ways to have core protagonists somehow manage to be in different places so as to witness the main points of action, but Bornstein’s script manages some awfully contrived methods to keep Ford in play. These include shoving him into the midst of havoc on Hawaii and then having him talk his way onto a squad wiring up and then dismantling a thermonuclear device in northern California. Moreover, the rest of Edwards’ excellent cast is generally left holding the bag. Watanabe is on hand to maintain the film’s Japanese connection, but spends most of the film looking vaguely stupefied, as if someone just slapped him with a fish. Hawkins has quite literally nothing to do except look gawky and worried. Notably, although the filmmakers have named Watanabe’s character after Akihiko Hirata’s troubled genius in Honda’s film, who embodied the position of the nuclear inventor dogged by guilt in creating a terrible weapon, Watanabe’s character has no real function other than to act as sagacious pronouncer (e.g. “Let them fight!” and “Nature will find a balance!”).
Rather than the firm antimilitarism of the early Godzilla films and their preference for scientists, journalists, and everymen as protagonists, this one makes sure to give us a resolute soldier hero straight from a recruiting poster, even if he is one who specialises in dismantling bombs rather than launching them. The film’s awkward subplot about crusty Admiral Stenz (David Strathairn) trying to lure Godzilla and foes to an H-bomb to kill them provokes perhaps the film’s most affecting genuflection to the original, emblematic meaning of all this, as Serizawa questions his decision by handing him his grandfather’s watch, which stopped forever at the time of Little Boy’s drop on Hiroshima. It’s a nicely understated moment that lets both characters and film understand the totem as sufficient unto itself. But the film is really nice to Stenz and his reasoning and cops out of any serious contemplation of the place for nuclear deterrent in the 21st century. Nor even are Godzilla and Muto actually designated as creations of the Atomic Age; rather, they are explained as prehistoric life forms that evolved when the Earth was much more radioactive to live off that energy, and merely revived by a new energy source. This fuzzy take on the key motif behind the series could have been mitigated by a clear new take on the monsters as symbolic phenomena, but nothing really sticks—certainly nothing likely to stick in the mind of any eight-year-old with as much meaning as the chillingly apocalyptic moment in Godzilla 1985 when an atmospheric nuclear blast creates a miniature nuclear winter that revives a felled Godzilla.
Of course, asking for highly reasoned parables and good human drama from a colossal-budget Hollywood creature feature has its churlish side. Edwards has clearly put a lot of thought and effort to one essential aspect of his film—to return to his monsters the awe and mystique engendered by truly titanic scale and impact. Muto’s hatching is grand spectacle, whilst Godzilla’s first real appearance is left until halfway through the film, savouring every hint, sign, tremor and partial glimpse. His coming is marked by cataclysm that sublimates imagery from the 2004 tsunamis as he comes ashore on Hawaii, until suddenly the whole grand beast is revealed in classic fashion in an upward camera pan that tracks the monster’s body from toenail to brow, before Big G releases his trademark concussive roar. Even better is a later sequence in which soldiers speed to Yucca Mountain, where the second, still-filled Muto egg Serizawa and Graham recovered is now stored, with Serizawa having realised the first Muto is heading to reunite with its female sibling. Soldiers begin inspecting the installation, only to find the entire backside of the mountain has been ripped out by the newly hatched and even more colossal mate, now casually ambling toward Las Vegas like a grumpy, loping teen after its first morning coffee. DP Seamus McGarvey’s images are all smoky, foggy, artfully ragged: Godzilla’s landfall at the Golden Gate Bridge—that perpetually unlucky structure!—creates at least one truly beautiful image, of the monstrous antihero striding away from the shattered bridge in a rainy morning mist. Another visually striking, if logically dumb scene has Ford and other soldiers inspect a rail bridge to see if their transport can cross it, only to realise a Muto is lurking in the shadows of the gorge it crosses, at once impersonal and blank in its scale and terribly immediate and minutely watchful in its predatory awareness.
Edwards maintains a rigour toward his monsters, perhaps trying to not oversate the audience as he builds a series of crescendos and diminuendos, bringing his visions of the monsters to the edge of declarative view, but then often dodging or averting his gaze. Sustaining this quality, too, seems to have been paramount in the minds of Edwards and his FX team, as they play with how the audience sees the beasts, from the distant, abstracting authenticity of cable news broadcasts to the swooping, fearsome perspective of parachutists falling in between the squirming bodies and snapping jaws of the monsters. Edwards is so determined to lend intangible, almost religious wonder to Godzilla that he explicitly likens it to the black monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) by playing György Ligeti’s “Requiem” during the parachuting sequence, a sequence that is the film’s most strikingly staged but also about half an hour later than it should in the scheme of the film. Frankly, this evasive approach is impressive the first half-dozen times or so, but after a while, it starts to get irritating, reminiscent of the frustrating distance the first Transformers (2007) had from its nominal protagonists, as if the filmmakers had failed to really think through how to use their special effects in a dramatic way, a failing never committed by Willis O’Brien or Ray Harryhausen. This leads me to the singular thought I had in contemplating this Godzilla: it’s a monster movie for people who don’t like monster movies.
That might seem a strange comment for a film as devoted to the spectacle of giant lizards and bugs scrapping in downtown San Francisco as this one, but it stuck with me because the overall film is so pensive, so evasive in its approach to its raison d’etre. Pacific Rim, a film that stands heads and shoulders over this one for me in most respects, succeeded in providing thunderous effects and cleverly meshing them with its human drama, though admittedly it was easier there because the fate and will of the human characters was tied to their robot simulacrums directly engaged in action with their foes. And it was also beautiful to look at, resplendent in its hallucinatory colours, in a mobile manner sharply different to this film’s oblique aestheticism, which threatens at many points to become ponderous, especially with Edwards’ stop-start approach to action. Edwards has a great eye for big compositions and for depicting mass drama, like an awesome high shot of a highway clogged with cars and a downed airliner lying smouldering amidst the vehicles, suggesting the meeting place of Godard’s Week-End (1967) and the monster movie. Yet, like a lot of contemporary filmmakers who turn their hand to this sort of thing, the type of simple, shot-for-shot visual exposition required to gain more intimate entry into chaos and stage dynamic interpersonal action is lacking, like a late, awkwardly rushed scene in which Ford tries to incinerate the Mutos’ eggs. When the Mutos first converge on San Francisco, Edwards offers stunning shots of the duo clambering over the tops of skyscrapers, culminating in a charmingly odd moment where the two seem to kiss and one gives the other a meal—a nuclear weapon. But several minutes later, it shows dimwit office workers still caught by surprise as the monsters careen into their building.
On the other hand, Edwards knows how to sharpen his effects to a point for some powerful, climactic moments, as in the finale’s cunningly delayed introduction for his most salient gift, his ability to spit plumes of blue radioactive flame, in a manner carefully contrived to reduce every fan to tears of joy. Edwards and company visualise this as a literal build-up, the spines on Big G’s tail starting to glow, and then the glow rushing forward in a long arc on its back, disappearing into murk and then back again, before it opens its mouth and lets loose. It’s a great fillip of fan service not just because the effects are good, but because it’s staged with relish and visual acuity. And whilst Edwards seems weirdly shy of letting the Godzilla-Muto death match take centre stage, when it does, it’s satisfying, as Big G lets loose with every limb, including its tail, to wallop its enemies, whilst the two Mutos come close to taking him down when they double-team it. One shot of a wounded Godzilla, collapsed in pain and exhaustion, with Ford barely metres away from its colossal snout, captures the disparity between two life forms and also their weird accord as dusty, battered, battle-hardened warriors. There’s a flash here of peculiar poetry, the kind that gives this Godzilla some of the stature it craves. Of course, by the end of the film, Godzilla itself arises with perverse heroic stature, a living embodiment of a channelled, but not tamed power fantasy, even as it stomps out of shattered ruins and disappears back into the ocean, still primal and strange in its individual might, as a TV news title declares it “The King of Monsters.” Yes it is, even when its films are only princelings. It’s still a good night at the movies.
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Director/Screenwriter: Ivan Sen
By Roderick Heath
In an unnamed town on the fringes of the desolate Australian interior where half-hearted suburban tracts abut soul-wearying, bone-dry flatlands and stony hills, a truck driver discovers the corpse of a teenage aboriginal girl named Julie stashed in a drain under the highway where the ominously named but completely dry Massacre Creek sometimes flows. Called out to investigate the crime scene is Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen), an indigenous policeman newly returned to the district after being trained elsewhere and promoted to detective. His roots are old and deep in the locality, starting with his father, a famed stockman who seems to have died of alcoholism. He finds himself confronted by laxity bordering on contempt by his colleague Roberts (Robert Mommone), whilst his sergeant (Tony Barry), dully lets him investigate but won’t treat the occurrence as an overriding priority. Mystery Road fills Swan’s return to his homeland with evil portent and dissonant messages.
Swan’s colleagues, particularly the drawling, mordant Johnno (Hugo Weaving), are an odd bunch, and the feeling that something’s going on with everyone around him looms inescapably. Local crime has apparently gotten out of control; Johnno is supposedly on the brink of a major break in a drugs case, which the sergeant seems more interested in. Whilst it quickly becomes apparent that the two cases are going to intersect, Swan has to feel his way in the dark, but soon begins to suspect that local pastoralist Bailey (David Field) and his son Pete (Ryan Kwanten), both swaggering racists, might be involved in both cases, and that they might have powerful friends in the illicit drug trade.
Mystery Road is a work of artisanal intimacy for Ivan Sen, serving as director, writer, editor, music composer and producer—whatever else you can say about it, it’s clearly a work of concentrated and individual personality. Sen’s debut film, Drifting Clouds (2002), was a classic variety of an earnest young filmmaker’s first work, a quasi-neorealist tale of two indigenous teenagers travelling from the far fringes of the outback to the city, dogged by racism, romance, and pursuing police. Sen’s formal gifts were strongly evident, but the film was hampered by poor acting and dialogue. Still, Sen became, for a brief moment, a media darling. Armed with youth, leading-man looks, and aboriginal heritage he’s happy to make the subject of his art, he seemed exactly what Aussie screen culture needed and wanted at the time. Sen dropped out of sight for several years in the aftermath, but returned to screens with Fire Talker (2006), a documentary about Aboriginal activist Charlie Perkins, and the barely released features Dreamland (2009) and Toomelah (2011). With Mystery Road, Sen has reclaimed some of his early promise, and his pretences are better served by how he incorporates his socially conscious interest in rural prejudice and his familiarity with indigenous characters caught between worldviews. The best aspect of the film is that the flexibility of the noir tale as a tool of milieu portraiture plays readily into Sen’s plan, as he deftly describes the psychic harshness of the town, with its air of eerie isolation, inverse claustrophobia sparked by the surrounding flatness, the wayward and dissolute state consuming everyone, and particularly the young aboriginals.
The sharpest moment of racial conflict comes when Swan interviews the taciturn farmer Bailey who quietly needles Swan by mentioning how young aboriginal kids keep stealing things from his property. Swan replies with disingenuous obtuseness, by admiring the expanse of Bailey’s property (“as far as you can see”) and congratulating him on having something to leave to his kids, a remark both men know is actually about whose land it was originally. Bailey’s property lies near Massacre Creek: keeping a vigil close to the murder site, Swan spies an interaction between two men in a car and the driver of a truck stopped on the highway that looks awfully like a drug pickup and payoff. Swan follows the car to a shack on Bailey’s property and is stricken with electric fear and paranoia. It’s very clear something evil’s going on beyond the immediate exigencies of Swan’s case, as the local police force is still smarting after one of its one, Bobby Rogers, was killed in an unsolved shooting a year earlier. As Swan digs, he talks to the dead constable’s wife Peggy (Samara Weaving), who believes he was called out on the night of his death by a fellow cop because of the way he was speaking. But who the cop was and why he called remain mysteries. Early in the film, Swan sits in glum silence at a farewell dinner for an older cop on the force as the sergeant voices his determination to “stop the rot,” because “for some us, it’s the only home we’ve got.”
Home is a troubling concept for Swan, who’s triply alienated as an aboriginal lawman held in disdain by both the local youths (“We shoot coppers ’round ’ere,” a tyke on a bicycle informs him) and many colleagues and townsfolk. He lives in his family’s large, old house, and is starkly alienated from his former lover Mary (Tasma Walton), who has hit the bottle hard and lives in a seamy, fibre-cement house with his daughter Crystal (Trisha Whitton), who has joined the ranks of brooding, determinedly blasé teens with faces constantly in their cell phones. He recognises sadly that both have succumbed to the entropy that consumes everyone except those determined to resist it: “What happened to you?” he asks Mary in unconcealed disgust when he catches sight of her feeding coins into a slot machine, to which she ripostes with the classic reversal of many a damaged person: “At least I know my problems.” Mystery Road borrows a lot of cues from Westerns, but in some ways it’s a thematic reversal of the classic Western, where the lone lawmen’s private code represents the introduction of civilisation—here it often feels more like a rear-guard action. “For some people, this is already a war zone,” Swan ripostes to his boss’s baleful warnings about what the town might become if its theoretical delicate equilibrium is interrupted.
Swan searches for Julie’s missing cell phone, and finds it in the possession of another black kid on a bike: the kid exchanges it for an opportunity to fondle Swan’s pistol, which the policeman doesn’t begrudge him, after unloading it, of course. He understands that he has given the lad a bit of stature before his mates and an understanding of the compact force of the weapon: the lad fondles it like a holy icon that promises delivery from banality and boredom. Swan finds photos on the phone of Crystal, Julie, and another pal, Tanni (Siobhan Binge), confirming their close links, which might have extended to a particularly creepy rumour Swan’s heard, that the local teen girls prostitute themselves out to the passing truckies. The case then begins to creep ever closer and more cruelly close to home. After Tanni is found dead, killed in the same way as Julie, Crystal seems to be the inevitable next target. The girls have all been tied together by one of their illicit escapades, which pissed off the wrong people, a picture that begins to resolve after Swan interviews and almost beats up cocky weed dealer Wayne Silverman (Damian Walshe-Howling). Sen’s most intelligent and effective point about such places lies in the canny observation that almost any kind of sensation becomes welcome respite from tedium and economic deprivation, in addition to the special malaise of the indigenous folk still tied to ancestral lands but with their relationship to it and each other poisoned by a modern lifestyle grafted onto it. Sen repeatedly cuts to high overhead shots of the town streets that make the town look like an experimental moon base erected in a suitably raw location.
The best-adjusted younger person Swan encounters, Jasmine (Angela Swan), is kept on a short leash by a determined, religious grandmother (Lillian Crombie). But the lone figure of good cheer about the place is Swan’s uncle, Old Boy (Jack Charles), an older aboriginal man Swan pays for street gossip who promptly blows it on penny-ante gambling ring with a cheery kind of dissolution that delivers him from gnawing angst. Sen’s gift for drawing portraits of pained humanity fleshes out two of the film’s most striking scenes: when Swan goes to tell Julie’s mother Ashley (Jarah Louise Rundle) that her daughter’s dead, Ashley already looks like she’s survived a battle and scarcely bats an eyelid when she hears the news.
Another superlative vignette comes when Swan visits Mr. Murray (Jack Thompson), an aging farmer who reported seeing a severed hand in the jaws of a wild dog that might have belonged to yet another victim of the killer; Murray is quietly furious and heartbroken after wild dogs ripped apart his pet chihuahua. Thompson’s excellence here is both stirring and sad, as the former golden boy of Aussie acting, terribly misused by some directors lately, including Baz Luhrmann in Australia (2008), looks and sounds as old as the hills and effortlessly projects a grim wisdom. His wearied visage effortlessly projects metaphorical weight for Sen in portraying a land that exhausts us pitilessly: despite its brevity, it could well be the performance of Thompson’s career.
Mystery Road is, however, far from a flawless work. Sen’s ear for dialogue remains occasionally weak and largely humourless. Even as he tries admirably to create scenes charged with a constant—perhaps too constant—sense of elusive, cryptic menace, he undercuts the effect with clanger exposition lines like, “But then, your old man was the head stockman around here for ages,” when the sergeant comments on Swan’s eye for horse flesh. One significant hesitation of Mystery Road is that, like a relatively long list of Aussie films that try to crossbreed genre storytelling with artier postures (The Boys , Lantana , Animal Kingdom ), it thinks it’s being subtle when it’s actually all but beating you over the head with obviousness, from the sergeant sucking on an ice cream with gauche disinterest (apparently he couldn’t get donuts that morning) to the sign-posted place names, or Johnno, bathed in bloody red light leaning in on Swan and asking him what he’d do if he ever killed someone accidentally: it’s almost like a set-up for a “The Simpsons” gag. Such an emphasis on an even surface texture starts to feel phony after a while. Sen’s visuals quickly create a beautifully paranoid evocation of a far west landscape, and yet the sustained mood of ominous tidings, replete with charged silences, loaded conversations and red-herring characterisations, border on excess all the more for the attempts at minimalist rigour.
Moreover, the film isn’t particularly abashed about its obvious influences: the wedding of noir tale to racial themes strongly evokes In the Heat of the Night (1967), whilst the visuals shout out variously to Don Siegel, Sam Peckinpah, and the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple (1984) and No Country for Old Men (2007), as well as Cormac McCarthy in general. The emphasis on the spacious menace of the Aussie outback as a perfect place to set a murder mystery/horror film echoes Road Games (1980) and Wolf Creek (2005), and there are casual shout-outs to Friday the 13th (1980) and From Dusk ’Til Dawn (1996).
Aussie cinema’s long wariness of genre filmmaking has been easing lately, particularly since the ironic rediscovery and legitimisation of the “Ozploitation” trash epics of the late ’70s and ’80s. Mystery Road is also rather reminiscent of Bill Bennett’s lauded Kiss or Kill (1996), with which it shares a mesmerised fascination with the desolation and menace of the great expanses of the Australian outback, upon which it hangs a fairly standard, if obliquely told noir tale. In a similar fashion, Sen’s work suggests a certain pretentious queasiness about being a genre film. Unlike Bennett, at least Sen doesn’t feel the need to start off with a poetic quote to assure his audience that this is self-conscious, pop-art-like exploitation of pulp motifs. But the film’s title points to a knowing approach to the ritualised patterns underlying such storytelling that are, cumulatively, a bit fetid: a body is found at the outset near Massacre Creek, and later our hero arranges a rendezvous for a shoot-out finale at “Slaughter Hill—off Mystery Road.” Well, thank you for the road-map-cum-story-chart, Ivan.
Equally, a rather silly flourish introduced at the start and recurring throughout refers to the wild dogs that haunt the locality and chewed at Julie’s body. When the coroner (another Aussie movie veteran, Bruce Spence) reports back to Swan, he mentions that the saliva traces suggest some kind of “super dog,” which Swan dismisses as trivia; this weird, quasi-scifi stuff proves to be more laboured symbolism, particularly at the end when a violent clash segues into howling in the hills. More effective as visual explication of an interior theme is a scene in which Swan performs a bit of target shooting with his father’s vintage Winchester rifle, aiming not at empty beer bottles, but at full ones, his private declaration of war on the culture of oblivion-seeking around him. The authority of Sen’s visuals goes beyond mere pictorialism, but rather coherently charts mental and physical straits, sustaining both a sense of menace and blasted beauty in the soul-churning blaze of silhouetting sunsets and dawns, and the skewering brightness of days that offer no sanctuary. There’s a tingling sense of vulnerable solitude when Swan tracks the drug pickup back to Bailey’s place, and effective, clear-cut, visual exposition throughout to counter the murkiness of the dialogue. It’s good, too, that Mystery Road gives Pedersen the perfect star vehicle he’s needed for 20 years.
One particularly good sequence sees Swan tracking Silverman and witnessing his kidnapping and execution by the villains. Johnno’s actual place in the seeming conspiracy infecting the town remains moot, however, as his question about accidental killing seems to have been motivated by an experience that resulted in his outback exile and current, tight-lipped efforts to prosecute his own case. But he also solicitously rescues Silverman from Swan’s interrogation, which turns violent when Silverman makes a quip about Crystal. Johnno proves to know enough, at least, to prod Swan’s awareness that Crystal is the next target, a subterranean warning that sends Swan off in anxious search for the McGuffin. Said McGuffin drives the last part of the story, as Swan tries to head off further bloodshed, but instead reaps a shoot-out that makes up for some of the longeurs leading up to it. Sen takes the amusing and original tack of making most of his gunfighters terrible shots, with victory belonging not just to the best shot but to the coolest under fire. Sen pushes to the edge of farce with the crappy, point-blank marksmanship on display, whilst exchanges of long-range gunfire are depicted with exacting, thrilling verve keen to the specific difficulties of sniper marksmanship, whilst also, of course, fulfilling earlier glimpses of Swan’s skill. The very finish offers a break in the generally depressive landscape with a rather arbitrary, but thankfully restrained reunion that signals that Swan’s battles have not been in vain.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Darren Aronofsky
By Roderick Heath
The myth of the Great Flood is one of the most famed and ingrained in the modern world’s cultural inheritance. The tale was probably sourced in the ancient Mesopotamian tale of Gilgamesh, and spread along with cultural traffic to plant narrative seeds in Indian, Judaic, Arabic, Greek, and Christian traditions. But it also has doppelgangers in folk traditions the world over. The flood-prone nature of the Tigris-Euphrates region is often thought to have inspired the legend, but in contemplating just how widespread the story is, some have speculated whether the story doesn’t recall an oral tradition to the end of the last ice age. In the Western world, the version found in the Book of Genesis with its hero named Noah is, of course, the best known. The story contains within its brief narrative walls—about 2,700 words of Genesis—the demarcations of a profound cultural underpinning, the story of a simple, goodly patriarch who, blessed with divine mission, saves the natural world whilst the sinful are washed away in primeval retribution. What father has not seen himself at some point as steering family and charges through times of calamity, and what child doesn’t delight in the idea of the world’s creatures as private barnyard parade? It certainly stands with the most powerful tales in the Old Testament, including Moses as heroic liberator, David the giant-slayer, and Samson the sex-addled freedom fighter, all of whom take up Noah’s mantle to a degree as shepherd of the populace with differing degrees of success.
How one will respond to Darren Aronofsky’s retelling of this elemental tale will inevitably be coloured by personal scruple: many religious and irreligious folk alike will judge it both by its seriousness of intent and concordance with tradition, whilst others will look to it for much the opposite, insights that ransack that tradition and ask it to speak to different worldly concerns. Since he debuted with Pi (1997), Aronofsky has been one of the most visually and formally experimental of modern American directors, but also a violently awkward artist, one with little capacity to sort his best ideas from his worst ones. This has tended to make works like Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006), and Black Swan (2010) at once stirring and excessive, visionary and ungainly. Noah fits into this strand well in some respects: it’s an outsized work of great ambition, driving along in adherence only to its creator’s singular ideas no matter how batty they seem. Aronofsky’s chutzpah aims at zones not penetrated in the genre since Martin Scorsese studied The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Mythologies associated with living faiths are much more problematic to adapt than those springing from dead ones: no one minds Norse and Greek myths being remixed for big and noisy special-effects movies, as per recent Lord of the Rings and Clash of the Titans films, but Noah was the subject of studio angst as to how it would play to religious stalwarts and the crowd who lapped up The Passion of the Christ (2004), with its brutal and hypocritical take on Gospel.
In reaction to Mel Gibson’s paean to righteous suffering, Aronofsky offers parable laced with concepts imported broadly from extra-canonical Judaic lore, New Age spirituality and symbolism, deeply rigorous cultural enquiry, and CGI blockbuster cinema. His contemporary urges are pretty plain-spoken, making the flood an overt metaphor for climate change. Noah and his kin, descendants of Adam’s third son Seth, are all vegetarians eking out an existence in a world blasted by the rapaciousness of the descendants of Cain, who eat meat and have mastered technological arts. Such greenie fable-telling could have been a drag, but Aronofsky is at least restrained enough to let these elements speak for themselves. His real aim, it soon proves, is a rather more intimate contemplation of the impact of humanity’s capacity for both ferocity and creation. Noah (Dakota Goto) sees his father Lamech (Marton Csokas) murdered by Tubal-cain (Finn Wittrock), leaving Noah as the last Sethite. He grows to manhood in the shape of Russell Crowe, whose new-found capacity for biblical gravitas was well exploited in last year’s Man of Steel; here, he gets to do the real thing. He’s also reunited with his A Beautiful Mind (2001) co-star Jennifer Connolly, who plays Naameh, Noah’s wife. Noah, Naameh and their sons Shem (Gavin Casalegno) and Ham (Nolan Gross) maintain their foraging ways when Noah sees a flower bloom in an instant. An intimation of cosmic intent, this proves prelude to Noah’s dream of a world flooded over.
Sensing this is a prophecy sent by “the Creator” but unsure what it means, Noah sets out with his family across a cursed patch of land to reach the mountain where his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) lives. The family, pursued by Cainites, save a young girl, Ila (Skylar Burke), the lone survivor of a massacred tribe. They also encounter the strange inhabitants of this corner of Creation, the “Watchers” or Nephilim, angels who tried to aid Adam and Eve but were cursed by the Creator for their intransigence; their naturally radiant forms are now encased in hulking stone sporting pathetic, vestigial wings and glowing eyes. The Watchers detest humankind, whom they tried to help but who hunted and killed many of them, and propose abandoning Noah and his family to die in the wilderness. One of the Nephilim, Magog (Mark Margolis), decides to help them however, and when Noah reaches Methuselah, the ancient shaman gives him an incantatory brew so that he can see his dream completely. This helps Noah grasp that his mission is to build a craft that will weather the flood and contain animal life. Methuselah gives him the last seed saved from Eden, and, when planted, this seed causes water to spring from the earth and colossal forests to grow in minutes to provide a source of wood for the ark. Building the vessel takes years, long enough for Shem, Ham, and Ila to grow to adulthood (Douglas Booth, Logan Lerman, and Emma Watson), and for Noah and Naameh to have a third son, Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll).
Aronofsky’s script, written with Ari Handel, is fascinating and original in its willingness to encompass such figures as the Nephilim, described vaguely as “giants” in the Torah but in Apocrypha like the Book of Enoch (where they are called the Watchers) as the sons of human women and angels, and envisioning Methuselah as a massively powerful prophet-sorcerer who is the last keeper of Edenic lore. He is seen in flashback wielding a flaming sword, perhaps inspired by Genesis 3:24’s mention of this totem as God’s barrier to Eden, to defend the Nephilim against the Cainites, striking the ground and releasing concussive shockwaves of magic that drive the wicked men back. His gifts also provoke one of the narrative’s major crises as he works magic that promulgates fertility in true shamanic fashion. One reason texts featuring the Nephilim and other figures of the Apocrypha lore are excised from the Torah and Bible does seem to be because they represent a more superstitious, fantastical edge to the old faith, as well as a possible rival moral schema, a notion Aronofsky exploits to a certain degree. The Watchers, distorted and aggrieved, stand between Creator and Creation, resenting both but finally looking for redemption, and finding it in fighting for the ark. There’s richness and brilliance in incorporating them into this tale. This, however, makes how they’re animated and portrayed the most awkward aspect of Noah: they look and sound like lumpen monstrosities from dozens of other CGI fantasy fests, dragging the film perilously close to such territory.
Similarly intrepid, but logical, too, is how Aronofsky and Handel recast Tubal-cain as antagonist to Noah, leader of the rival tribe with arts of metal-working (biblically accurate) and concoctions close to gunpowder (not so much). Tubal-cain, played in hirsute and haggard middle-age by Ray Winstone, turns up with his followers as the ark nears completion, with an eye to getting aboard if the spreading rumour of impending apocalypse proves true. Noah has already been seen in combat, kicking ass for the Lord in righteous style but never taking a life, a stance that seems about to become impossible, especially as Noah sees his divinely inspired job as ensuring that none of the sinful survive. As the tale unfolds, indeed, Noah eventually admits to Naameh that as far as he can tell, the human race is meant to die out, with his children all dying in their allotted time and leaving the Earth cleansed. Noah’s certainty that the Creator is speaking to him is counterbalanced by the Watchers and Tubal-cain’s shared frustration at the lack of response: Tubal-cain prepares for war whilst quietly, but with the faintest tone of confused angst of an uncomprehending, rejected son, asking for such a sign as he bashes metal into shape. This, however, proves a double-edged sword, as Noah’s comprehension of his task transforms him from the most righteous man to an increasingly committed, fanatical, dark-eyed tool.
This touch is the most substantial amplification of the bare-bones tale: Noah, whose name means ease or comfort, is traditionally seen as the most beneficent of the Old Testament patriarchs. He’s not a character at all, really, not in the same way King David or Samson manage to be in their violently contradictory natures, but rather an emblem of a figure of grandfatherly shelter. Crowe’s more virile father is crossbred here with a later biblical figure, Abraham, as Aronofsky strikes deep at the heart of the patriarchal faith. Other films have depicted the Noah tale: Michael Curtiz’s 1929 version turned it into a parable for the Wall Street crash, whilst a more recent, godawful TV version featured Jon Voight speaking to a Jehovah who sounded like a TV sitcom dad. The best, and the one with which Aronofsky’s take feels in a dialectic, was John Huston’s The Bible…In the Beginning (1966). Huston, a rigorously nonreligious artist who emphasised the starkly symbolic and arcane virtues of Genesis, painted his Noah as a gently comedic figure and his story as colourful juvenilia before letting Lot and Abraham do the moral heavy lifting. Huston had his own parable for contemporary apocalyptic urges in mind: his Sodom was wiped out by a mushroom cloud and the intended sacrifice of Isaac takes place near the Hiroshima-like ruins of the city. Huston spread this notion out across most of the Genesis narrative, whereas Aronofsky packs it all into Noah’s, as his hero accepts his task and tries to carry it out, a burden Naameh tries mitigate, recognising the scale of guilt it imposes on her husband. However, even she threatens to abandon and curse him when he makes clear that he will follow through on his mission no matter how unpleasant it becomes.
Noah, then, is not just Aronofsky’s recapitulation of Old Testament wrath but an account of his active struggle with its meaning and intimations for a modern man, beggared by the scale of both offence given and taken apparent in the cause for the deluge. The wisdom of the patriarchs likewise is given a beady eye, as Noah’s cause sparks generational mistrust and war in his own family, a family he feels required to cheat of all future even as he saves them. Ila had been left barren by a wound as a girl, and as she grows and falls in love with Shem, she tearfully tells her adopted father that she doesn’t want to burden Shem with childlessness. But Naameh decides to help Ila by appealing to Methuselah in contravention of her husband’s word, and the old man agrees: he touches Ila’s belly, making her fertile again, and quickly she falls pregnant. Noah, outraged once he learns of this, howls that he’s now bound to kill her child if it proves to be a girl. Meanwhile Ham is pained by the sight of Shem and Ila’s physical intimacy, and sets out to try to extract a potential mate from the Cainite camp, which is in constant tumult from debauchery and violence. He tumbles into a pit and encounters a grotty, terrified girl, Na’el (Madison Davenport), and offers her a chance to flee with him to the ark. As they do so, however, the rains begin, and the Cainite horde makes for the ark. Noah ventures out to bring back Ham, but doesn’t try to help Na’el, who falls over and is crushed under the feet of the horde.
The first half of Noah is uneven and feels incomplete in that it could have yielded far more facets to its interesting elaborations and more insight into the tribal struggle. For instance, Aronofsky’s telling avoidance of the detail that in the Bible, Naameh was Tubal-cain’s sister and the sorts of loyalty conflict that might have stemmed from this, dismisses a potential source of strong drama. The flourishes of fantastic imagery, too, even if they disturb the faithful, beg for enlargement. Aronofsky is one of the few contemporary, mainstream directors with roots in experimental-edged filmmaking, and some of his most memorable and specific directorial flourishes here retain that edge, particularly in the stroboscopic edits of still pictures into a time-lapse effect depicting passing years via the flow of water out of Noah’s little Eden: here is a poetic charge of visual beauty and strangeness. Equally striking in execution is a similar sequence in which Noah recounts the history of the world to his children to illustrate the necessity of the Creator’s exterminating judgement. Aronofsky offers in super-speed the epochs of universal birth and expansion and earthly evolution equated with the six days of Creation, a state of balanced perfection despoiled by humankind’s peculiar gift for slaughter and calamity, with Aronofsky intercutting a silhouetted portrayal of Cain’s first murder with endless repetitions through the ages.
Aronofsky’s awesome craft in such moments is, however, contrasted with bluntness, like the witless, horror-movie flourishes in Black Swan. Biblical filmmaking works best when it’s allowed to boil down to powerful visual metaphors, such as DeMille’s collapsing temple in Samson and Delilah (1949) and parting Red Sea in The Ten Commandments (1956), or when it can possess a touch of the alien, such as Scorsese managed in The Last Temptation of Christ’s abstracted miracles and atavistic visions. Aronofsky’s conceptual imagination still seems limited in some regards: his canvases are huge and ripe, and yet his idea of spiritual imagery is, as in The Fountain, corny floods of CGI sunshine and rock-album-cover notions of fantastic landscapes. Occasionally, he still yields to plasticity, like in the instagrow Eden and firefly angels. The hordes of animals sweeping through the forest to take refuge in the ark are impressive but regulation special effects. Still, making a film as expensive as Noah demands concessions, and it seems Aronofsky was willing to make a trade-off to give his film appeal to a broad audience steeped in a more literal visual language of the fantastic.
Moreover, Aronofsky offers up many more powerful visualisations, like in a sequence that calls back to the orgy scene of Requiem for a Dream in which Noah visits the Cainite camp and perceives a morass of human depravity, filled with assault and rape, squirming acres of desperate flesh in the muck giving him a vision of degenerate humankind that bolsters his misanthropic interpretation of his mission. The igneous nature of the drama here suits Aronofsky’s sometimes reductive gift for portraying squalor on both physical and metaphysical levels. Aspects of Aronofsky’s stylisation blur the difference between distant past and distant future, with a hint of a science fiction to the alien-like Nephilim and Ouroboros-like rebooting of time represented by the Flood. Particularly in the bold and startling moment of Na’el’s death, the film clicks into a mode of sustained ferocity and genuinely powerful spectacle, kicking off a climactic sequence as the Watchers fight off the Cainites whilst Noah tries to seal the ark, the deluge starting as rain but soon giving way to colossal geysers. The Watchers, upon being felled by the humans, including Tubal-cain’s prototypical cannon, revert to angelic form and shoot back into the heavens. The brilliance of transcendence is painted in fiery colours and surges of mystical force amidst a struggle that remains one enacted in elements: flesh, blood, fire, water, and earth. There’s visual similarity here, indeed, to the similarly beautiful battle at the climax of Chris Weitz’s underrated The Golden Compass (2007). The actual flood is predictably colossal stuff.
Noah gains its greatest power as it sets up and marches towards a second, more intimate, but no less fractious climax, a difficult feat considering the seemingly inevitable and well-known resolution to the legend. The seeds of danger are sewn as Noah announces his intention to kill Ila’s daughters when she gives birth to twins, and sabotages her and Shem’s attempts to abandon the ark. Meanwhile Ham has smuggled the injured Tubal-cain aboard. The two older men begin to look increasingly similar, as the formerly warm and protective Noah becomes a hollow-eyed engine of merciless prosecution of his divinely appointed job, Naameh cracks and refuses to play along anymore, and Ham helps Tubal-cain recover and conspires to kill Noah, the young man receptive to Tubal-cain’s insinuating words in his fury at his father’s actions and intentions. Aronofsky is surely commenting on the ease with which zeal turns into fanaticism as he deconstructs the flat biblical hero and evokes real disquiet at the aspect rarely explored in versions of the arcane tales, the virulence in their images of sin and wrath, the pain facing individual men and women asked to accept or mete out cosmic force. This Noah is slowly destroyed by his task, as any decent man would be.
Aronofsky is deeply attentive, too, to the essential symbolism that drives the original tale, with its direct and unalloyed teaching tool portraying essential natural systems and physical and conceptual binaries sharing an enclosed space, the literal world in miniature, with male and female as breeding pairs as the essential truth, equated with human and animal, sin and redemption, disgrace and cleansing. Each binary is maintained and enlarged upon as Noah’s gift for interpreting prophecy is revealed to have failed in the clear presentation of twin daughters from Ila, giving each brother in the family a potential mate. There’s some humour in here, too, as Winstone, who’s been the go-to actor for plebeian bastardry since Nil By Mouth (1997), plays Tubal-cain as an earthy embodiment of humanity’s greed. When Ham catches him eating one of the ark’s animals, he protests, “There was only two of those!” to which Tubal-cain retorts calmly, “Yes but there’s only one of me.” The approaching climax threatens the collision of two programmes threatening intrafamilial homicide. Indeed, Aronofsky’s vision of the family is as a set of united, but finally individual viewpoints.
Aronofsky’s take on biblical drama is often infused with a rival, equally consuming mythos, that of classic American cinema: the inevitable three-way tussle of a son and two father figures recalls in a good way the similarly mythic climax of Return of the Jedi (1983), whilst the ultimate confrontation of Noah and Ila on the cusp of new worlds evokes John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). One knows the white dove with the sprig in its beak will turn up at a fortuitous moment, but just when Aronofsky has it fly in has its own subtle and telling resonances, arriving less as deus ex machine than confirmation of mercy’s necessity. Is Noah a work that our multitudinous contemporary cults, religious and otherwise, with their various viewpoints can sit down around and get something from? Probably not, but that’s a huge ask. This Noah is, finally, a strong, intelligently wrought and probing reaction to the present through the lens of the distant past/future, and an extremely impressive film with some significant flaws. It represents new ground for Aronofsky and the first work of his I’ve actually liked on a dramatic level as well as appreciated on formal grounds. He wrings great performances out of his cast in a genre not usually known for good acting: Crowe is excellent, and so is Connolly, whilst Watson follows up last year’s The Bling Ring in delivering a revelatory performance that finally ties all to the anguish of the individual young mother.
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Director: Martin Scorsese
By Roderick Heath
Martin Scorsese’s films that followed the heady, messy grandeur of Gangs of New York (2002) have all been enjoyable and beautifully made. Yet even the most ardent admirers, like me, could admit something was missing from them. That ornery, empirical attitude and fiery aesthetic edge that used to inflect and define Scorsese’s films was damped down in big, slick, good-looking entertainments like The Aviator (2004) and Hugo (2011), whilst The Departed (2006) and Shutter Island (2010) were genre exercises enlivened and enriched, but not transfigured by the director’s sense of style. The price Scorsese seemed to have paid for admission at last as a Hollywood grandee was to leave behind provocation. The Wolf of Wall Street is almost reassuring as it erupts in classic Scorsese curlicues of rocket-paced editing and rampant profanity, but to a degree that provokes caution about a director possibly moving into self-satire and playing to his fans’ affections, as he did with The Departed. But no, The Wolf of Wall Street is Scorsese’s most fearsome, powerful, specific film in over a decade, a thunder blast of black-witted absurdism, a portrait of a way of life as perceived by an individual whose distorting perspective exemplifies that world. Scorsese got in trouble in some quarters for allowing entrance into Travis Bickle’s point of view with Taxi Driver (1976), and now The Wolf of Wall Street has upset some by doing the same thing for Jordan Belfort, entrepreneur and criminal. This confirms that Scorsese is back doing his real job—directing films that discomfort as well as entertain his audience and provoking their moral and aesthetic standards. Scorsese’s devils are charming motherfuckers.
Scorsese’s fifth collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio casts the actor as Belfort, product of a blue-collar upbringing, son of “Mad” Max (Rob Reiner), a former cop turned PI. Belfort recounts his story in the same high-powered voiceover that Henry Hill used in Goodfellas (1990), and like Hill, occasionally breaks down the fourth wall. But whereas Hill was explaining and excusing himself all the time, Belfort is a better, cockier salesman, suddenly cutting short his spiel to grin smarmily at the audience, whom he treats exactly like his clients, assuring us we needn’t concern ourselves with the details. He’s got them down, and the results are presented for our amusement as torrents of lifestyle brags, including a formidable array of drugs he’s comfortably addicted to and keeps balanced like a juggler.
Belfort recounts his early days as a young wannabe stockbroker, landing a job at the prestigious L. F. Rothschild and negotiating the totem pole. He’s taken to lunch by his superior, Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), the kind of guy who snorts cocaine at the table of the ritzy skyline restaurant they sit in and preaches the values of masturbation to Jordan for keeping cool in their maniacal occupation. Mark also imparts the essential impulse of their business: to make sure the investor puts money in their hands and never takes it out, as the brokers get their cut for every use they can think of, regardless of whether it goes atomic or sinks into the abyss. The rollercoaster nature of the business is, however, almost immediately revealed to Belfort as the 1987 crash hits on his first day as an accredited broker, destroying his employer and leaving him and thousands of other brokers high and dry. On the advice of his wife, Teresa (Cristin Milioti), Jordan takes a punt at an ignominious job that will still keep him in the game: selling penny or pink-sheet stocks in small companies with a low-rent outfit working out of a strip mall in the wilderness of Long Island.
Belfort is rooted in this environment, however, and he quickly adapts. He combines the skills he’s picked up on Wall Street with the art of suburban hustling and his awareness, cynical rather than empathetic, of the secret fantasies nursed by the type of low-grade investor he’s enticing. He swiftly sets up his own pink-sheet stock firm, but rather than recruit other brokers, he goes back to his old neighbourhood and cultivates talent from the two-bit salesmen and dope peddlers he grew up with. These include Nicky “Rugrat” Koskoff (P. J. Byrne), nicknamed for his awful wig, Alden “Sea Otter” Kupferberg (Henry Zebrowski), and other sartorially sobriqueted suburbanites, though the talent he wants most, body-building Brad (Jon Bernthal), is content selling his stock of Quaaludes to stoner teens. Instead, Jordan gains a lieutenant in Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), a toy salesman who’s married to his own first cousin, Heidi (Mackenzie Meehan). Hill’s performance cunningly annexes a familiar brand of Scorsese spiv with deliberate artificiality, manifested through his grill of bathroom-tile-white teeth, recalling the lacquered creeps of Casino (1995). Donnie proves equivalent to Joe Pesci’s character in Scorsese’s earlier films, too, the loose cannon subordinate who doesn’t know where the limits of good sense are, even as his self-appointed wise superior slips quietly off the rails.
Scorsese starts with a thematic joke that’s also a cinematic one: an advertisement, rendered in a small, boxy TV format, for Stratton Oakmont that portrays a lion looking rather like MGM’s Leo, patrolling the floor of the company offices. It’s a deliberate alternative to, and echo of, the wolf figuration, as the ad creates an image of beneficent class and proud ferocity for a company that’s actually bent on eating you. Scorsese’s eruption into widescreen presents raucous, plebeian, orgiastic behaviour as Jordan and his hordes hurl dwarves at a target as part of an office party competition. The grotesque ebullience harkens back to Scorsese’s masters from the distant fringe of Hollywood memory, like Stroheim and Sternberg, when depictions of an amoral high life were a stock in trade, and through to Fellini and ’80s sex romps, save that this “Animal House” has sharper teeth and no pretence to counterculture attitude. The Wolf of Wall Street deals with much less violent characters than Goodfellas or Casino, and yet it ultimately feels uglier and less reassuring, not just because of the mind- (and eye-) boggling portrait of a business that considers itself an engine of national wealth, but because those earlier films’ criminal classes were defined by pretences to domesticity and rituals of pacific balance. The eruptions of violence there could be uncontrolled and irrational, but the essential fantasy of the mafia types was that they were people who pursued illegal wealth and liked wielding power, but did so with the understanding that they had to mimic the conservative family and social structures around them to survive. The Wolf of Wall Street, on the other hand, details a species that dreads such humble trappings and containing strictures. Although Jordan gets married, buys a house, and has kids, these feel more like lifestyle embellishment than a point in themselves. His cabal of hungry brokers are not happy merely consuming, even conspicuously. They want to live without the fearful pettiness of regular life, to remain on a constant high without dips or valleys.
Even the disasters and pitfalls Belfort and company encounter keeps them scrambling with an adrenalized excitement that Scorsese’s barrelling storytelling force-feeds to the audience. Belfort’s seamy genius is made clear as he gains awed applause from the other penny stock sellers for his master-class example flogging shares in a garage radar detector business to some shmuck, motivated by the discovery that unlike the 1 percent commission he got selling blue chip stock, in this “sort-of” regulated field, the brokers take home 50 percent. Jordan soon has the fateful inspiration to start selling poor stock to rich people. Jordan’s rationalisation argues that he deserves the money he reaps because he spends it better, and he only represents a more perfect version of the half-smart, ineffectively greedy people he bilks. He gives his new business cover by calling it Stratton Oakmont—Ivy League class and credibility seeming to drip from each syllable. This makes Belfort and his crew powerfully rich Wall Street players within months, with a high-rise office space churning with unleashed competitive energy. Scorsese pays a fittingly disgraceful nod to Citizen Kane (1941) as the team celebrates success with an invading marching band, except that the prim gaiety of the kick line that celebrated Charlie Kane is now a troupe stripped down to their underwear, followed by a mob of strippers in lingerie, as the scene devolves into a kind of pinstriped, pornographic Agincourt.
The brash, bratty attitude of the company and frat-boy ethos is highlighted by wince-inducing vignettes, like the dwarf tossing and a female employee having her head shaved for $10,000. The contempt and violence underlying this scene becomes clearer when Donnie smacks and belittles an employee he catches taking care of the office fish whilst gearing up for a big sale, before snatching out and eating the fish before the gleefully appalled staff. Predatory capitalism indeed. The chances of such egregious abuse pale compared to the rewards Belfort offers his crew, as far as they’re concerned. Even before he finds such accomplishment, Belfort is shown as a sensually greedy cad cavorting with prostitutes, and with great success comes only greater excess. The moment he claps eyes on Naomi Lapaglia (Margot Robbie), a random, stunningly attractive guest at a party he throws, he flirts mercilessly with her whilst conspicuously ignoring her dipshit, preppie date. Donnie’s status as Jordan’s embodied id-beast is confirmed as he, in a drug-addled state, settles for whipping out his dick and masturbating in the midst of the party whilst ogling Naomi. Jordan seduces the dilettante model, or rather she seduces him, because, like Jordan, she operates according to programmed cues to go after the rich guy. Theresa catches them together as Jordan’s snorting cocaine off her rack in a limousine. One marriage ends and another commences, but not before Jordan treats his firm to a Caligula-level bacchanal, flying them all to Las Vegas with a planeload of hookers and drugs. The scene concludes with a shot of the naked Belfort standing before shattered hotel room windows, gazing out on the Las Vegas dawn, quoting a $2 million price tag for it.
Belfort easily gives FCC investigators the run-around, sequestering them in a freezing cold room whilst setting up a grand scam that ensures triumphal profits: Donnie’s schoolyard association with Steve Madden (Jake Hoffman), hip shoe designer who’s taking his company public, allows them to turn the deal to their own advantage. The Wolf of Wall Street is, inevitably, a film about hubris, but Belfort’s particular kind of hubris is fascinating: having built an extremely successful business in a morally questionable, but essentially legal field, he must go further and attempt to rig the game, as he commits stock fraud on the Madden deal, making himself personally far richer. When he hears an FBI agent, Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) is investigating him, Jordan invites him and a partner onto his yacht, trying to let the allure of his lifestyle entice the agent, and then, as the agent affects agreeable receptivity, talks and talks himself right up to the edge of committing another crime in intimating a possible bribe for Denham. Denham points this out, the two men’s feigned amity crumbling beautifully as Belfort throws him off his boat and insults the two men with wealth-based jibes, hurling bills after them in a display of bratty anger, but all too aware that in wiseguy terms, he just showed his ass. What’s particularly acute here is that Denham operates like Scorsese’s camera, slowing to attentive stillness, letting the scene run on and on until Jordan’s taken enough rope to hang himself. The Wolf of Wall Street consciously mimics the structuring of Goodfellas and Casino in particular, with the self-evident point that they’re all criminal epics, starting in medias res, then jumping back to show how the set-up was created, using high-powered montages to put across exposition with a method that’s more like essayistic filmmaking or a bullet-point presentation than traditional cause and effect, and constructing the main thrust of the narrative through detailed vignettes that increase the pressure-cooker atmosphere and sense of gyrating farcicality.
The film’s connections spread out to many of Scorsese’s works and influences, and indeed whilst it never loses its racy verve and consuming intent, it surely counts as a summative work. It’s an antithesis to the viewpoints of Boxcar Bertha (1972), but essays the same thematic motives. Like Mean Streets (1973) and many of Scorsese’s subsequent films, it’s a study in the frustrating irrationality of some personalities who insist on spoiling good deals because they’re animated by desires that crossbreed with their pathology: just as Johnny Boy gets kicks blowing up post boxes, so, too, does Jordan feel the thrill not just of making money and living it up, but also in actively cheating the system and feeling smarter than everyone else. Like Vincent Lauria in The Color of Money (1986), he’s the hip student of the wise operator who rejects moral standards and becomes an unrestrained, conniving asshole.
Yet Jordan cohabits the space occupied by frustrated figures of wisdom like Eddie Felson, as his impish associates detonate hard-earned successes. As Rupert Pupkin finally finds fame and audience adulation through his assaults on the system of celebrity, Jordan finds a second act to his American life because his criminal notoriety attracts followers. Like Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta, and even Newland Archer, he falls for a blonde status symbol, and like the second two protagonists, is tied to a dark-haired woman who symbolises class mundaneness. Like so many of Scorsese’s characters, including the few saintly ones like Jesus, the Dalai Lama, and Bringing Out the Dead’s Frank Pierce, he passes through the gut of infernal experience, and emerges on the far side of an invisible but genuine barrier, looking back on the audience like a messenger. That experience defines Scorsese’s much-analysed dialectic between saints and sinners, and also unifies them: all approaches to life, essentially, lead to similar crossroads, but then what do we make of them?
Scorsese’s visual stylistics have been so often imitated and annexed by acolytes in the past quarter-century that sometimes his devices threaten to look hackneyed, like the opening sequence’s freeze frames, the practiced mimicry of mercenary film styles (in the film’s second and funniest fake advertisement), the fast-paced camera dollies, and so forth. The colour and richness of Michael Ballhaus’ and Robert Richardson’s work for Scorsese is muted here in favour of the bald, steely tones of Rodrigo Prieto’s digital photography: the segue from the painterly, nostalgic beauty of Hugo is likewise brutal. What continues to distinguish Scorsese’s filmmaking, however, is both the pace and precision of the devices, their organic force: Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing has scarcely been more ruthless or driving with Scorsese’s images, which avoid show-off moments like the famous Goodfellas tracking shots. The facile appropriation of Scorsesean stylistics by the likes of American Hustle neglects its purpose and roots in an expressionistic aesthetic, the drive to make the camera match the sensibility of the main character in an act of forced identification even as he’s given enough rope to hang himself. We go for the ride with Jordan, gobsmacked and appalled, laughing our asses off like bystanders at a particularly mad party: we don’t approve, but no way in hell are we going home.
A sequence that many directors might treat obviously, like the one in which Theresa catches Jordan with Naomi, becomes a little whirlwind of alternating angles that crash in upon each other, distorting space and time—one diorama-like shot from across the street turns the pavement into a desolate, slapstick space with all traffic, including the limousine with Naomi still inside, excised—capturing the violent shock and colliding spaces of experience. All this is scored, by the way, by Eartha Kitt’s rendition of “C’est si bon,” anthem of a gold digger, rubbing the audience’s ears and crotches with its insouciantly materialist eroticism whilst mocking the drama on screen by reducing all the players to types: gentlemen really do prefer blondes. The invasion of the office space by strippers after the frenetic action of the marching band devolves from slashing dollies and cuts to drunken slow motion. The sequence depicting Belfort’s flying orgy, employees humping hookers in every crevice of the frame, is filmed in a tracking shot surveying the scene from above, ravening in its motion but analytical in its height, and then segues into a shot of splendiferously vulgar wonder, as the plane hits turbulence and frizz-haired hookers and a wave of white cocaine tumble in slow motion, a switchback of distrait strangeness. The framing and image is echoed in reverse later, when a private jet Jordan has coming to pick him up explodes in mid-air, as minor hiccup gives way to proper disaster: the fanning flames mirror the shower of coke, this time superimposed over Jordan’s face as he watches in disbelief.
The centrepiece of the film is the epic pep-talk Jordan gives to the firm as they prepare for the Steve Madden sell-off. Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter make mild fun of Belfort for his literary pretences, which only exemplify our contemporary habits of reducing everything to a sound bite or inspirational epigram. Thus, in Jordan’s estimation, Moby-Dick is the tale of a man hunting his white whale, and you, too, can bag your quarry if you follow this simple script. An atavistic, tribal quality underlies Jordan’s creation, signalled early on when Hanna teaches him a kind of ritual chant and chest slap, one that the Stratton Oakmont cadre repeats en masse at Jordan’s signal as they approach their fiscal Thermopylae, echoing the imperial funeral sequence, with its similarly ranked mourners and winnowing chants, in The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). The film as a whole borrows the deeper meaning of Melville’s novel, as the mad captain takes his ship to destruction in ceaselessly chasing an illusion of cosmic intent, and also echoes John Huston’s film of it in the way he shoots Jordan hypnotising and drawing his harpooners into a quasi-mystic compact of mission.
DiCaprio’s career-best performance is close to unhinged in its energy and force here, and caps over a decade’s worth of collaboration for director and star with a genuine triumph. Equally good in a potentially thankless role is Robbie, playing Naomi, whose aura of high-class beauty is undercut by a peerlessly broad Queens accent. Naomi has a so-English aunt, Emma (Joanna Lumley), who represents all things worth aspiring to for Naomi and Jordan, but who herself delights in subverting such standards: she unblinkingly notes Jordan’s nose caked in coke and reassures him, oh so coolly, “I lived through the ‘Sixties,” and then readily and happily signs onto Jordan’s project to hide his profits from stock scams in a Swiss bank account. Scorsese wrings discomfort but also a kind of comic grace from Jordan’s awkward attempt to seduce Emma as her dollybird charisma and way with an innuendo seems to demand its price; indeed, it’s hard not to fall under the sway of Lumley’s projection of a far different, far more adult and alien brand of sex appeal.
Jordan uses Brad’s Swiss-Slovenian girlfriend Chantalle (Katarina Čas) and her family as couriers to get his money into Switzerland, where it’s handled by Rugrat’s college pal, now a prominent crooked banker, Jean-Jacques Saurel (Jean Dujardin, cunningly following up his 2011 Oscar win in the The Artist). Snooty, wily, disdainful, and as unaware of his own edge of absurdity as any of the other characters, Saurel is presented as Jordan’s European opposite to such a degree that the pair communicates in quasi-psychic insults. Emma and Saurel prove to be weak links in Jordan’s plot, the former by dying inconveniently and the latter by getting himself arrested on U.S. soil for some completely unrelated conniving. Along the way, however, Jordan’s increasingly erratic behaviour results in two epic sequences of self-destructive tomfoolery. Jordan and Donnie’s Quaalude habit pays off in a scene of tremendous slapstick comedy as Jordan, stoned and just warned that his house is bugged, realises he has to get home to stop a similarly influenced Donnie blabbing over the phone to Saurel. He has to roll, crawl, and drive in a near-paralytic state, finally shaking himself out of a stupor to save Donnie from choking to death by imitating a Popeye cartoon his daughter is watching, snorting a vial of cocaine in place of spinach to fire him back to action. The second comes when, after finding Emma has died, Jordan has to rush from the islands to southern France in order to get to Switzerland and save his fortune, ignoring his wife’s stunned grief and his captain’s cautions; his yacht is wrecked in a storm, and everyone has to be rescued by the Italian Coast Guard.
Such displays of auto-da-fe tomfoolery are hilarious, of course, and successfully reduce Jordan from übermensch to schlemiel; having congratulated himself on spending money in a superior fashion to his hapless investors, he also blows it with incredible talent. The real shipwreck for Jordan comes as his defiance proves ineffective and his tormentors close in. Faced with losing everything, it’s finally Naomi’s cruelly exact spurning that sets the scene for a true debasement. The mirroring here is again concise, as this sequence repeats an earlier fight the couple played out, except reversing the dictum of history as tragedy and then farce. The byplay of the couple is based in Naomi’s sexual power over Jordan, keeping him on a leash by withholding, but shifts from bedroom farce to domestic violence as she gives into his attentions for one last time, and then, with an assassin’s precision, tells him she’s divorcing him: Jordan responds by socking her in the stomach and fleeing to hide in his Porsche with his bewildered baby daughter like a spoilt child refusing to give up his last toy. Scorsese is a past master of portraying the annihilating verve in collapsing relationships—New York, New York (1977), Raging Bull, and Casino climax with disintegrating marriages—and here the action is pushed into a Bergmanesque shot of Jordan assaulting Naomi in long shot at the end of a hallway. The great world has screwed inward for a portrait of intimate brutality. Whilst not as powerful as those other films in this regard, where the marriages were far more detailed affairs and the splitting far more cataclysmic, the effect in the context of the jaunty, adolescent adventure preceding these scenes in The Wolf of Wall Street is jarring, but also, finally clarifying.
Betrayal, as Jordan agrees to rat for Denham on his colleagues, and a half-hearted, self-incriminating stab at redemption, by warning Donnie about this, are equal only then in their pathetic insufficiency. A shot of Denham riding the subway with the other poor schmucks who will never even have a momentary taste of Jordan’s glory days, is, far from being a failure of moral perspective, as some have claimed, actually a coup of such perspective, because it refuses to let the audience off the hook and feel superior. There is, rather, a coldly precise indictment of the world that created Jordan, sustained by fantasies of what he enacted, living on the profits of a common dream of something for nothing, elevating the dark arts of the few at the expense of the many. Perhaps it’s the lingering morality of many, a kind of decency, like Denham’s, that keeps them behaving, or maybe it’s just the lack of smarts; early on in the film, Sea Otter disputes Jordan’s proposal that everyone wants riches with an anecdote of an Amish stoner he once met. Scorsese knows full well that such pacific desires are far more the exception than the rule, and in the world described in The Wolf of Wall Street, it’s dismissed as a jokey discursion. Of course, the desire for such virulent power and plenty is still there, and Jordan’s fantasy was only everybody else’s, even after we’ve seen him pay the price for overreaching. In the coda, as the real Belfort introduces DiCaprio playing him, plying his inspirational wisdom to an audience of wannabes, there is dissociation, as Belfort, punished technically if not sufficiently, now himself becomes the mirror to those desires.
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By Marilyn Ferdinand
From March 7 through April 3, the Gene Siskel Film Center holds what is arguably Chicago’s best festival of new cinema gathered from the countries of the European Union. Such films as Alois Nebel (2011), Tell No One (2006), Time to Die (2007), and The Way I Spent the End of the World (2006) are just some of the extraordinary films that had their Midwest or North American premiere at the festival.
This year, I’ve been granted the privilege of previewing the films as a member of the press. In deference to the awesome Lori Hile, who helped arrange my credentials, the format of my reviews will be abbreviated to conform with the Film Center’s requirements. I may return with full reviews after the festival.
So in fits and spurts, as I finish screeners or attend screenings, here is my coverage of some of the films on offer at this 2014 edition of the greatest show on State Street.
Tricked (2012, The Netherlands)
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Paul Verhoeven hasn’t released a film in six years, so when I saw that Tricked was on the EU festival schedule, I was very excited to see the latest from this genre-bending, original director. Sadly, I almost missed the film, such as it is, because Verhoeven decided to preface it with a 45-minute documentary about the making of Tricked; I thought I had misread the program and considered walking out on this pedantic vanity exercise. The 74-year-old director must feel creatively blocked, because he decided to crowdsource the script, one scene at a time. The lengthy and cumbersome process did not bear the kind of fruit he wanted, and he ended up cowriting much of the film with Robert Alberdingk Thijm. The result is a very funny 50-minute sitcom/soap opera about a philandering husband whose affairs put him in hot water with his floundering construction company and his family. While not classic Verhoeven, Tricked still shows his flair for genre work and reflects his roots in television and early handheld camera work.
The Excursionist (2013, Lithuania)
Director: Audrius Juzėnas
The national cinema of Lithuania is in rather sad shape, so the entry of an ambitious film like The Excursionist is certainly cause for celebration. The film purports to tell the true story of a Lithuanian girl who escaped the Soviet-ordered deportation (“excursion”) to the detention camps of the Gulag and traveled back to Vilnius over the course of more than two years. This type of story is more familiar to audiences in a Nazi-Jew format, and seeing stories of the hardships suffered by Soviet bloc countries on screen, as with the excellent Czech film Alois Nebel shown at the EU festival last year, is a welcome historical expansion. The film itself is hampered by its sense of its own importance and a cloying score that underlines in red the terrible hardships suffered by the protagonist. The film feels long, but it held my attention primarily due to the remarkable debut performance of Anastasija Marcenkaitė in the demanding title role. In the end, director Juzėnas transforms this personal story into an allegory for all conquered peoples who resist their oppressors.
Cycling with Molière (Alceste à bicyclette, 2013, France)
Director/Screenwriter: Philippe Le Guay
For my money, the best bet of the festival is Cycling with Molière. This superbly acidic comedy affords its two superb leads, Lambert Wilson and Fabrice Luchini, every opportunity to use all the actorly tools at their disposal to enact a cinematic version of Molière’s The Misanthrope for a modern audience. Wilson plays a commercially successful actor on a hit TV show who wants to stretch himself by producing Molière’s famous play and playing Alceste, the title character. He goes to the Île de Ré, a fashionable vacation spot on the west coast of France, to try to convince a reclusive actor who lives there to play Philinte, Alceste’s pragmatic foil. Like Alceste, the actor has turned his back on his profession and everyone he knows after a serious betrayal. He refuses to commit himself until the two of them have rehearsed the play, switching roles each day to see who is the better Alceste. The film is full of uproarious physical comedy, and Wilson and Luchini find the peculiarities and narcissism that humans in the arts and in hiding are heir to. Even better is the chance to hear the poetry of Molière’s play in French, not something American audiences can experience every day. This is a wonderful film. DO NOT MISS IT!
The Strange Little Cat (2013, Germany)
Director: Ramon Zürcher
It is best to approach this apparent slice of life as an experimental film to avoid frustration. The plot, such as it is, involves the interactions and reminiscences of a family gathering at a large Berlin apartment for dinner, perhaps a reunion. What Zürcher appears to be interested in is the magic of everyday life, as he trains his camera on the extraordinarily choreographed movements of the family members as they work across one another to pull dishes out of cabinets and weave in and out of each other’s paths. The fantastic enters the scene, such as when a bottle spins in a pot of hot water and a hacky sack flies through the open window from far down below on the street, an impossible kick for the small boy playing with it. Flashbacks occur when various family members tell stories; these stories, which could be spooky but end up not amounting to much, add a certain amount of suspense, another device Zürcher examines in his formalist approach to filmmaking. The wild cards in the deck are a dog and a cat whose behavior we never really see but who the characters assure us are crazy in what sounds like ad libbed dialog. Zürcher trains his camera on two children, particularly a boy, who observe everyone, clearly stand-ins for the director. What they—and he—think of the scene is largely inscrutable, and so may it be for the audience.
Clownwise (2013, Czech Republic)
Director: Viktor Taus
Think a more fraught and loosely structured The Sunshine Boys meets The Best Years of Our Lives and you’ve about got the gist of this drama about three aged members of a legendary comedy troupe who are headed for one last show. The film is poignant about the passing of time, with members of the troupe and their families facing cancer, Alzheimer’s, estrangement from loved ones, and bitter memories. If the film had worked a little harder on delineating and integrating the stories in a tighter structure, it would have been more compelling to watch. The script has some good moments, and it’s always a pleasure to see Kati Outinen in a film, but there was neither enough clowning nor wisdom for my tastes.
Another One Opens (2013, Austria)
Directors: Jim Libby and Nicolas Neuhold
Vienna’s improv theatre company English Lovers is responsible for this English-language dramedy that claims to be 100 percent improvised. Of course, improvisation with a well-established company isn’t really off the cuff, as the company members are very familiar with working scripts out together. Thus, Another One Opens is coherent, well paced, and quite intriguing, as a magic inn gives five troubled people who were friends in college a chance to repair their lives. The relationships didn’t feel as fleshed as I would have liked, but I was a sucker for the Enchanted April premise and healing passing down through generations of women. Recommended.
The Human Scale (2012, Denmark)
Director: Andreas M. Dalsgaard
This documentary poses some incredibly interesting notions about the history of urban planning and the opportunities that exist to rethink cities both old and new. A cadre of architects from the firm of Danish architect Jan Gehl travel the globe to urbanizing China, crowded Dhaka in Bangladesh, New York City, and Copenhagen, revealing that urban landscapes have been designed to facilitate the movement of automobiles, not the needs of human beings. In a forward-thinking approach to rebuilding Christchurch, New Zealand, after earthquakes devastated its city center, a bottom-up approach to what the people wanted yielded a low-rise landscape with plenty of spaces for people to congregate. As our population explodes and our fossil fuels dwindle, human convenience and human-powered conveyances may be our most sustainable future. Highly recommended.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Andrew Williamson
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I can hear the cries of “traitor” already, but I’m not the kind of film buff who thinks celluloid is essential to filmmaking or viewing. Human history is entwined to such an extent with innovation—the kind that gave us celluloid in the first place—that we could argue that it, not language, is what gave us dominion over the land. I welcome tools that, when put in the right hands, make our lives richer, and that certainly applies to the method of filmmaking and the content of The Land of Eb. Without the cost-saving innovation of HDCAM that gives independent filmmakers like Andrew Williamson the ability to make and distribute films with little commercial potential, this moving story might never have seen the light of day. For the Marshall Islander who is at the heart of this lovely Marshallese-language film, video is a way to preserve his culture and memories and bridge the gap to his family living near the home he was forced to leave in order for them all to survive.
Jacob Jackson (Jonithen Jackson) is a 56-year-old coffee-bean picker and handyman from Enewetak, an island mainly destroyed by U.S. atomic bomb testing, who lives in a small Marshallese community on the Big Island of Hawai’i with his wife Dorothy (Tarke Jonithen) and his children and grandchildren. Daughter Ruth (Rojel Jonithen) has just given birth, but Thomas (Jeff Nashion), the father, is a ne’er-do-well who has no plans to marry Ruth and who routinely turns to Jacob for help when he gets drunk or in a jam. Jacob is a pious, hard-working patriarch who has little patience with Thomas. He is also living with the unpleasant secret that his status as cancer survivor has changed back to cancer sufferer. He decides that it is God’s will whether he lives or dies, and rather than endure exhausting treatments that will make him unable to work, he tries everything he can to make enough money to pay off the mortgage on the land he has purchased to secure the future of his family before the cancer finishes him.
When I first read the summary of this film, it reminded me of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Ikiru (1952), but the resemblance in terms of plot is superficial. Like Watanabe, Jacob has cancer, and like Watanabe, his family is far away. Unlike Watanabe, it’s not clear whether Jacob is actually terminal and many members of Jacob’s family are literally far away, whereas Watanabe has lost touch emotionally, not physically, with his son. Where the two films come into beautiful accord is in the quiet determination of both men to accomplish a task they consider very important—Watanabe tries to get a playground built and Jacob works to pay off his land—and we come to care very much about them and root for their success.
Williamson doesn’t have a single professional actor in the cast; indeed, he and his coscreenwriter John Hill met Jackson and wrote a film for him, so interesting and inspirational did they find him. Jackson is a video enthusiast, and that passion is included in the film—in the video diary Jacob makes for his children and grandchildren with lessons on life and stories of their culture for them to view after he is dead, and in the ingenious camera boom he builds out of tripods and odd lengths of metal. Jacob tinkers with motorcycles, keeps an ancient pick-up truck running and a jerry-rigged ham radio connection with his relatives in the Marshall Islands. He has electronic musical instruments stashed around the family compound, which itself is a collection of buildings with one single-story “lodge” as the main family home. It reminded me of a city loft or some South Seas homes I’ve seen in pictures that are wide open and roomy. Despite the odds-and-ends furnishings and dime-store decorations, I found it very inviting, and the only explanation for my reaction is that the house is truly a home, filled with love and togetherness.
Williamson builds a quiet rhythm out of Jackson’s everyday life. We watch him pick ripe coffee beans off tall bushes and drop them into a plastic bucket harnessed in front of him. He empties the beans into burlap sacks. He brings the receipts from the sale of the sacks to his boss. He asks his boss if there’s anything else he can do to make some money—not extra money, no such thing in his world—and the boss says there’s nothing. He goes to a flea market and gets the idea to sell some of his stuff there. He brings a picking crew to a mean, old haole who promises to split the take 50/50 and then, predictably, cheats him. He gets sick and crashes his truck into a port-a-let. He never complains—he just keeps moving, and we keep pace.
Williamson allows us to fall more and more in love with Jacob with small, intimate moments and gestures. When his family takes his car keys and there’s nobody to drive the grandchildren to band practice, he walks with them there and listens patiently as they bleat and strain like elephants in heat. When Dorothy learns he is sick again, her gruffness doesn’t exactly vanish, but rather transmutes into something more personal. She joins him at the haole’s fields to pick beans, and they share a smile and briefly hold hands. When Jacob is exhausted, he moves slowly toward the ocean. Williamson gives us a brief view of the lapping waves, and that’s it—just a quiet look toward his home across the sea. Notably, this film is not seduced by the alluring scenery of Hawai’i, so we concentrate on the human story far away from the tourist traps.
As Jacob has a warming, ennobling effect on us, he gets to Thomas as well. Forced to rely on Thomas to drive him around, Jacob provides an example of how an honorable man lives. To emphasize this life lesson, we get the story of the Land of Eb. The story tells of a young man who is sent to bring clams to his starving village, but who greedily eats them all instead. On his second attempt, he does the same thing. On his third try, however, he returns to an empty village. The villagers have gone to the Land of Eb, below the sea, where they can eat clams to their hearts’ content. By failing the collective, he has made himself a lonely outcast.
The conclusion of the film leaves a number of threads loose. We don’t know if Thomas will step up to his responsibilities or whether Jacob will survive following the operation his doctor has scheduled. Whatever the outcome, we know that this family and community have the determination and collective spirit to go on, and that’s quite a lot indeed.
The Land of Eb is available worldwide on iTunes February 25. The DVD is available February 26 here.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: David O. Russell
By Roderick Heath
David O. Russell is a filmmaker for whom I’ve maintained a certain wary admiration since first encountering his work with Flirting with Disaster (1998). Amidst the directors who emerged from highly idiosyncratic independent filmmaking in the early to mid-1990s, as Russell did with Spanking the Monkey (1994), Russell’s specific interest was in observing natural oddballs in their native habitat. As such, he seemed to maintain links not just with the Robert Altman-derived strand of modern American cinema but also with a variety of frenetic comedy associated with the screwball works of Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges, and the Marx Brothers, except that his character types are rooted securely in naturalistic environments. Yet Russell doesn’t have Altman’s covert grace or political and cultural wit, whilst his humour is far more forced and jumpy. He is a product of a snarkier, more fiercely hip age, with characters that thrash about trying to generate comedy and action rather than enacting the farces elegantly served up to them by masterminds. I have no great liking for Three Kings (1999), which gained a lot of cool-kid traction because of its shallow critique of the Gulf War while being only a flashy variation on certain, better ’60s war movies.
When Russell came back from exile with The Fighter (2010) and Silver Linings Playbook (2012), he was obviously playing by house rules, which made his films both more humdrum, but also, ironically, more enjoyable, injecting eccentric invention into standard narratives. American Hustle represents a compromise, mixing a populist brand of sarcastic frolic with his fascination for unruly dispositions. Whilst the Altman-esque element is still apparent in American Hustle, the style here is plainly a mild annexation-cum-parody of Martin Scorsese, borrowing devices and flourishes like his driving edits, alternately explanatory and dissenting voiceovers, signature inrushing camera dollies to punctuate scenes, and evocations of the simultaneous earthiness and brash flash of ’70s Americana. Whereas Scorsese usually situates his narrative perspectives deep within the often unpleasant headspaces of his characters, however, American Hustle remains determinedly exterior, watching its character types eddy in their fetid pools of temperament.
The film is based loosely on the infamous “Abscam” stings run by the FBI that took down several on-the-take bigwigs in the wide-open post-Watergate era, already touched on cinematically in another sub-Scorsese hit, director Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco (1997). Russell takes the tale and inverts its tabloid meaning, making grifters, corrupted leaders, and phonies the heroes and the driving investigator a self-interested, nutty villain, as if The Sting (1973) had been reset in the same era it was showing in theaters. Russell kicks off with an arch but fitting sequence. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) carefully hides his bald pate with a combination of comb-over and toupee, only to have it ruined by aggressive FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) as the two men argue about proceeding with their current sting operation and the woman between them, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), tries to maintain working equilibrium. Flashbacks reveal how this unlikely team came together. Irving, a glass salesman with a sideline in fake art and bogus loan agenting, met Sydney, a Midwestern blow-in with a penchant for putting on an English accent, at a party, where they bonded over their mutual love of the elevating pleasures of Duke Ellington. After they hooked up, they found a deeper accord in their love of covert role-playing and profitable deceit. They’re a match made in Hades, except for the complication that Irving is already married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a young single mother he wed essentially out of charity.
The scenes recounting Irving and Sydney’s union are played with an interesting mix of dreamy wonder and raconteurism, as each narraties what they were thinking and feeling, stricken by recognition of a kinship that can, perversely but logically, find its best expression in criminal behaviour: Love, Underworld Style. Sydney’s adopted persona as a veddy British dollybird proves to facilitate Irving’s loan scams perfectly, as she pretends to have connections to a reputable London banking firm. They’re undone, however, when one potential client is Richie working undercover, and Irving semi-wittingly manages to leave Sydney holding the bag because she seemed to be flirting with Richie. Richie cuts a deal with the deceitful duo to use their talents to catch corrupt officials, promising they can walk away after three operations.
Richie sets his sights on Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the go-get-’em, regular-Joe mayor of Atlantic City who’s trying to rebuild the city as a tourist mecca. After much bickering and backbiting, Irving sells Richie on the idea of putting together a scam wherein they pretend to be connected to a zillionaire Saudi sheikh who wants nothing more than to invest in Polito’s vision of a reenergised boardwalk. Tensions simmer constantly between this potentially explosive mix of personalities: bullshit artiste Irving is forced into unfamiliar zones of emotional intensity, constantly seething with jealousy as Sydney punishes him for sticking with Rosalyn by holding him at arm’s length and half-faking a romance with Richie. Irving also begins to squirm in contemplating the damage the scam is going to do to Polito, with whom he becomes fast friends, and the potential of mob reprisal, as the boardwalk project demands they make deals with Meyer Lansky associate Victor Tellegio (Robert De Niro).
On a superficial level, American Hustle keeps bouncing along merrily, driven not by the mechanics of the Abscam plot, which is quite garbled at points and generally played as a farcical, even counter-productive proposition, nor in generating tension with the story beats. Russell only milks the most salient absurdity from the plot, when Richie has Latino FBI agent Paco Hernandez (Michael Peña) to pose as the mythical “Sheikh Abdullah” rather than Irving’s first choice of an actual Arab pal (Saïd Taghmaoui). This choice sparks both humour at Hernandez’s inaptitude at the role and then suspense, in one of those by-rote post-Goodfellas “tension when talking to the gangster” scenes, as he’s presented to Tellagio, who reveals an unexpected gift for speaking Arabic. American Hustle is rather a wobbly highwire trick, trying to gain propulsion from volatile character interactions, putting Irving and Sydney in constant danger by placing them in the hands of various lunatics. Richie sees himself as a brilliant but stymied law enforcer, but he’s actually a sexually repressed, brattish self-promoter with a bizarre, ultra-Catholic mother. He’s faced with the disdain and disregard of immediate superior Stoddard Thorsen (Louis C.K.), and keeps trying to guess the moral to a long-winded anecdote Thorsen tries to tell him; eventually Richie physically assaults Thorsen in frustration. Nonetheless, Richie gets his way and fends off repercussions by appealing to state’s attorney Anthony Amado (Alessandro Nivola, done up to look like Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II), who’s as greedy for high-profile arrests as Richie. Richie’s an interesting study in pathology and an ironic depiction of law enforcer as a case in arrested development, evoking FBI kingpin J. Edgar Hoover. Like Irving and Sydney, he’s on the make and doesn’t care who it hurts so long as he realises his vision of triumph, but unlike them, he is convinced of his own rectitude.
American Hustle is clearly a movie moulded to fit a fading ideal of popular cinema—actor-based but kinetic, taken from true life but rendered much larger than life. And yet’s it’s a peculiar, frustrating failure that manages to stay in a state of flux, emotionally and artistically, for over two hours. The acting is exciting and hammy in roughly equal measure. Cooper’s excessively mannered, and finally downright irritating performance stretches out the manic phases of his character from Silver Linings Playbook to fill an entire movie like being stuck in a phone booth with a well-groomed chimpanzee, and fails the film because it renders Richie too discursive an antagonist. Similarly, Bale pulls off one of his impressive ACTOR! transformations by becoming a paunchy, drawling, oh-so-Noo Yawk operator, but Irving isn’t deeply compelling as a protagonist even when facing a problem of conscience. Where a charismatic actor closer to the required physical type like Paul Giamatti might have made Irving interesting, with Bale he remains a dead spot. The emotional crux of the film is supposed to be Sydney and Irving’s combative reaction to the pain of loving each other counterbalanced by the quiescent, often cross-purpose desire of both to achieve authenticity and realise their private fantasies. But the film’s too skittish to let this underlying earnestness stand, too vague about those fantasies, and not sure which way is up when it comes to authenticity. For instance, Russell can’t resist playing the film’s real climax—when Irving admits all to Polito and tries to warn him what’s coming—as farce. He cuts into the scene halfway through the conversation, so there’s no sense of tension about the building emotion and unease, and then provides laugh-line-like jump cuts to shots of Polito’s kids all crying as word gets around. Not surprisingly, Polito throws Irving out, and Irving suffers a brief spell of shamed hyperventilation before getting on with saving his own ass, but the reckoning is stated rather than felt. This is a notable example, but far from the only one that shows Russell closing off avenues to real substance.
Rosalyn becomes the narrative joker in the deck: because Sydney’s been cast in another “role” in their comedy, Irving needs Rosalyn to be his wife in the scams without quite letting her in on what’s going on. Rosalyn, in spite of her kookiness, is smart enough to know something’s up, and harbours her own suddenly nascent intent to emerge as a social butterfly. Thus, with madcap bravado, she overcomes her professed anxiety and outpaces the scammers and the feds in making friends not just with Poliltos, but also the mafia hoods insulating Tellegio. Lawrence helps to crystallise the film’s most interesting themes, including the notion that elaborate plots and constructs are found in all walks of life, but that the borderlines of the scam are smudged by the very human aspirations of the players. She charms the Politos and helps sell both her own, Irving’s, and Carmine’s fantasy worlds by being herself, warts and all, going on a memorable rant about nail polish that ends in her tumbling tipsily from a restaurant booth. Russell gets far too cute with her character, however, as her loose-cannon approach gets more dangerous, tipping off one of Tellagio’s lieutenants (Jack Huston) that Irving’s running a con, and then fudging as to whether Rosalyn is actually some kind of idiot savant of plotting, putting her husband on the spot to come up with an exit strategy, or just a flake who happily claims flukes as her genius. This comes after she’s had a flagrantly weird and bracing sing-and-dance-along to Paul McCartney’s theme song for Live and Let Die, gyrating with malicious glee as if she’s gotten beautiful revenge on Irving. There’s such compulsive kineticism and unrestrained loopiness here that it almost wills itself into making sense. And yet, the feeling that Rosalyn stands in for an artist-director creating in the same improvisational way comes to the fore.
The part depends greatly on the audience’s lingering affection for Lawrence, as Rosalyn is presented as scary-exciting, but Rosalyn is really an awful creature in many ways—capricious, disturbed, and destructive, only partly elevated by her own desire to become a self-actuating person. If Russell had cast not the delicious Lawrence but someone closer to Irving’s nominal age, Rosalyn would look much more like a sitcom caricature. Lawrence shocks it into life with that gift she has, badly frustrated in her headlining films but keenly understood by Russell, for playing brittle personalities: her Rosalyn has the authentic flavour of many half-wonderful, half-disturbing people out there in the world. More often, she’s depicted as Irving’s ball and chain, tethering him to an unbearable state of reality to which his flights into fancy with Sydney are only temporary reprieves. Then, arbitrarily, after a long sequence fuelled by this dynamic, with Irving raving on in thin-wedge frustration like a reject from a Neil Simon play, Rosalyn, suddenly lets him off the hook, as if Russell couldn’t think of a believable way to get Irving loose of her and end his movie. The stage is then set for Irving to pull off a clever last-act twist that nets him and Sydney a sweet paycheque and Richie a seemingly well-deserved humiliation.
As a whole, American Hustle made me curious in all the wrong ways. Part of this curiosity lay in trying to work out what it is. Is it a satire? A screwball farce? A caper flick that riffs jauntily on a true-life episode of venality? A tragicomic study in absurd people searching for legitimacy? Yet another piece of cinematic reference that looks back nostalgically to ’70s fashions in film and clothing? A collection of acting exercises cut together with great skill? Well, it’s all these things, and none of them; at least, not any one of them to a satisfying or complete degree, except perhaps the last two. Russell reveals a strong level of wry affection for a bygone era of American life where regular guys got together and sang along to Tom Jones with a good stiff drink in the hand, and ladies piled their hair in absurd concoctions, wore fur, and mocked the workings of a microwave.
The film’s best scene, which really does hit a remarkable, almost transcendent note, sees Russell cutting between Irving and Carmine engaged in such a singalong, roaring with impudent, drunken life and hope for a reborn American dream, whilst Richie and Sydney enact another version of the same thing, dancing in a disco to Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder’s mighty “I Feel Love,” whereupon they retreat into a toilet and make not love but a pact of ardour. Richie’s thrilled that he might be about to escape the strictures of his life, and Sydney releases a tile-cracking whoop of joy, a moment that feels utterly random and yet a logical endpoint for the thrill of being alive, and for Sydney not so much for love of Richie, as she’s really playing him, but of excitement at the feeling of being master of her destiny again. Otherwise, however, Russell remains at arm’s-length from both considered feeling and lacks sociological depth. Irving’s line of crap about a fake Rembrandt that’s become real from effort echoes too many others films of last year, notably Trance and Blue Is the Warmest Colour, that try to fool you into thinking they’ve got something profound to say about their own self-awareness when they’re just tritely spelling out the theme for you.
Whereas a close antecedent like Boogie Nights (1997) wrestles with an entire zeitgeist, for Russell it’s mostly window dressing, reducing character arcs to a series of well-described impulses of a misfiring nervous system. He has great capacity to get his cast fired up and his visuals flowing in propulsive manner, but little gift for the kinds of pivots in tone and aesthetic that regulate intake and make for a deeper kind of film experience that can infuse even a pop bauble. American Hustle is certainly blatantly sceptical of the presumption of mutual exclusivity in the motives of con men and police in an America where everyone’s on the make in some way, an idea that’s endlessly reiterated in dialogue. People in government are occasionally self-serving and career-minded? Wow, that’s profound. Phonies might desire to be, like, real? Blow my mind why don’t you. More interestingly, it touches on the notion that sometimes corruption in government may be a mere adjunct to other, better motives and actions: the film makes the point that all the Abscam operation succeeded in doing was bringing down some lawmakers, many of whom were enticed into illegal acts and like Polito, were trying to do some good. But this idea isn’t particularly well-served in a film that lets Irving and Sydney smarmily off the hook because Richie’s a prick, and politically it’s a damp squib. It’s also—and this might be its chief crime—not really that funny.
The unstable mixture and uncertain aim of the film confirms that when Russell isn’t being corralled into commercial moulds, his own are too shallow to contain all of what he creates. Some people love that sense of filmmaking without a net, but Russell isn’t actually uncontrolled or ebullient enough to truly cut loose, nor is he ever discomforting in his irony like Altman often was. Whereas Scorsese, even when presenting the gaudiest, most stylised visuals, presents them with illustrative framing and punctilious cuts, and Altman held back to give the impression of random discovery, Russell pushes in more tightly and cross-cuts, feeding off and repurposing the energy of his actors. That’s why many scenes feel as if they’re about to burst at the scenes—because in cinematic terms they are.
Renner and Adams give the film’s most measured performances. Adams is particularly good as Sydney, with her habitual lapses in her British accent, a mixture of operator ruthlessness and hopeful pathos inflecting her scenes. Renner is low-key as Polito, at once charming and persuasive as a populist leader, but also vulnerable in his streak of blue-collar sentimentality. The idea that Carmine, as a tragic hero, was a potentially more interesting protagonist than the ones foregrounded, who are essentially supporting grotesques placed centre-stage, occurred to me, especially as the central proposition of the film, the troubled but supposedly magnetic attraction of Irving and Sydney, never feels particularly vital, certainly never as vital as anything that occurs between Irving and Rosalyn, who remains, as Irving says in voiceover at the end, always interesting. And so, too, ultimately is American Hustle. It’s neither a mere polyester shindig nor a covert artwork, but something intriguingly misbegotten, far less than the sum of its parts but more than a lark in the meadow. It’s something, but I’m not sure what.
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Director: Paolo Sorrentino
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Sometimes one just has to admit defeat. I have been struggling for a week to write a review of Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, looking for a way to open the review that will give a flavor of what I think Sorrentino is up to with this film, trying to find an artful method to link scenes that illuminate each other, grasping for an economical use of words to convey the themes and impressions Sorrentino has laid out for us. I’ve changed things up over and over, found myself writing a detailed synopsis instead of a critique, forgetting more about the film than I can countenance, and looking at other reviews for memory jogs and inspiration. Interestingly, I have found most reviews of the film to be extremely short and somewhat simplistic, seeing it mainly in terms of its resemblance to Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1961) or commenting on the great party scene that comes near the beginning of the film. I think all we critics are at a loss to really come to terms with this sprawling film whose story seems fairly confined, but whose real character is epic in scope, a Lawrence of Arabia (1962) focused on the whole of Italian culture from the Roman Empire to the 1960s heydays of Italian cinema.
A character in The Great Beauty says that the only industries for which Italy is known today are food and fashion—a country of grocers and garment workers. Abhorring this loss of creative stature, Sorrentino not only has tasked himself with the usual artistic challenge of finding a way to express his times in an authentic way, but also seems determined to return Italy to a place of cultural prominence. His work is complicated by the fact that the history of Italian culture is so long and laden with genius—his efforts are bound to look derivative if he works on a grand scale, or unambitious and forgettable if he goes small and personal. That he has chosen to take on some of the giants of Italian culture—Michelangelo, Dante, and Rossellini, to name but a few—and that he has found not only specific, but also transglobal ways to comment on the human condition circa 2013 is a cause for celebration. Sorrentino may just wake the sleeping giant that is Italian cinema.
The film begins with an epigram from French author Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s novel Journey to the End of Night: “To travel is very useful, it makes the imagination work, the rest is just delusion and pain. Our journey is entirely imaginary, which is its strength.” This quote brought to mind a film to which The Great Beauty bears some resemblance, Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002). In the latter film, a 19th century French nobleman escorts an unseen person (aka, the audience) through the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg on a tour of Russian history. The journey ends with the unseen tourist moving forward, leaving his historical guide behind. This, I believe, is Sorrentino’s purpose—to survey the past, present, and future in a kaleidoscope of images and feelings.
A rather startling opening depicts a group of Japanese tourists on a guided tour of Rome stopped in front of a church located at a high point in the city. As their guide talks to them about the church, a group of nuns sing in a capella harmony near an open balcony. One of the tourists separates himself from the group and takes a few photographs of the city below. He begins to perspire and then collapses. Was it heat prostration, a heart attack, or a swoon brought on by the overwhelming beauty surrounding him? In one moment, Sorrentino has communicated his mixed emotions about the project about to unfold. He follows this up immediately with a bacchanal of the first order, letting us know that he has thrown caution to the wind and will do his best to fulfill his promise to us and himself.
The party, an extraordinary set-piece in a film filled with extraordinary set-pieces, is celebrating the 65th birthday of Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), a journalist as well known as the famous and infamous people he interviews for a magazine published by Dadina (Giovanna Vignola), a middle-aged dwarf whose small stature belies her substantial influence. In homage to Fellini, Sorrentino stocks his party with people of every shape, size, countenance, and age. They writhe to techno music, some alone in a trancelike state, others in pairs or groups, and one on display behind a window moving to an internal rhythm because, as we learn in a shot from her point of view, she cannot hear the music on the other side of her glass cage. A helicopter shot of the party shows it lighting and scoring the night sky, a dazzling, pulsating organism that remains tantalizingly out of reach.
Jep is an older version of La Dolce Vita’s Marcello imagined at the crossroads of a life lived in disillusionment, a superficial creature who produces nothing of lasting value. His moments of triumph constitute little more than being a minor mover in high society, his ambition not just to be invited to the right parties but also to have the ability to make parties fail, whatever that means. That Jep might have been more consequential becomes something of a sick joke, as person after person asks him when he is going to follow up his well-regarded first novel, “The Human Apparatus,” a piece of juvenilia about the woman he loved and lost that sated his appetite for fiction writing when he was in his 20s. At 65, he knows “I can’t waste any more time doing things I don’t want to do.”
Jep seems sincere in his desire to lead an authentic life, and he becomes a mirror breaker in denouncing the vacuous and fraudulent. An unsatisfactory one-night stand with a beautiful, idle-rich woman (Isabella Ferrari) who complains about not being good in bed garners the blunt pleasantry “to be good is to risk becoming deft” and abandonment when she goes to get her laptop to show him the selfies she posts on Facebook. Jep rips apart a conceptual artist (Anita Kravos) whose act is to head-butt a wall and shout something angry. And when attacked for his superficiality by a woman (Galetea Ranzi) who claims to be a productive, principled torchbearer of socialist ideals with enough fortitude to take the truth, he pleads with her to “pass the time with us nicely,” and failing that, punctures her smug self-regard with her own hypocrisy and failure. Sorrentino, it seems, is fed up with what passes for profundity in Italy, as well as the veiled bourgeois aggression that causes blossoms of beauty to wither in despair.
In the main, however, Sorrentino finds inspiration in the beauty of the past and rather than attempting to imitate it slavishly, pays homage in ways that feel surprisingly fresh. He turns Dante’s The Divine Comedy on its head by having Jep act as the guide through rarefied Rome for Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), the 42-year-old exotic dancer with whom he starts keeping company. The commodification of art and the wunderkind is critiqued, but the results extolled in a scene in which a child artist is forced to create a masterpiece for her parents’ party guests—and, after a tantrum, does.
Ingrid Bergman’s menacing encounters with statuary and the ashen outlines of the victims of Vesuvius in Roberto Rossellini’s Journey in Italy (1954) are contrasted as Jep and Ramona trek through the palaces of the ancient princesses of Rome with the keymaster (Giorgio Pasotti) who safeguards their keys. We take in the artwork that fills the otherwise useless rooms—massive sculptures mixing with paintings and objets d’art. When a stunned Ramona asks the keymaster why the princesses entrust him with their keys, he says, “Because I am trustworthy.”
Such simple statements that Sorrentino seems to want us to take at face value are strewn throughout the film like pure drops of wisdom in a visually intoxicating house of mirrors. Jep often stares at his oval ceiling and sees a blue, inviting ocean, painting an undulating fresco with his imagination like a latter-day Michelangelo. When Jep asks a magician who has made a giraffe disappear if he can do the same for Jep, the magician cautions him that it is merely a trick (in fact, a CGI trick of Sorrentino’s). Jep is still vulnerable to the deceptions of the glittering creatures and night life that have absorbed him for so long. Indeed, in a somewhat gratuitous tip of the hat to French cinema, Sorrentino includes a cameo of Fanny Ardant. There is something naively sweet about her appearance, however, as Jep the jetsetter seems genuinely starstruck when he encounters her. This moment adds to the winsome charm Servillo brings to the role.
Jep’s ultimate deception revives when the husband (Luciano Vigiloof) of his lost love Elisa (Annaluisa Campasa) comes to his door with the devastating news that she has died. “She always loved you,” he says to Jep. Reminded of his life before the drive to be the center of the in crowd, Jep returns in his memory to the day he was almost run down by a motor boat, the day Elisa took his virginity. She is achingly beautiful to his mind’s eye, but after 40 years, it’s likely that Jep’s memory has sanded the rough edges of his past and retouched the imperfections of his “perfect” love.
There is more than a touch of melancholy to Jep’s passage into old age, as his inscrutable grin cracks into unseemly tears at the funeral of a young suicide victim (Luca Marinelli), a breach of etiquette he has warned Ramona about. Ramona herself eventually succumbs to whatever she told Jep she was using all of her money to cure, leaving Jep without his protector. Ferilli’s incredible presence, a stranger in this strange land, made her absence from the rest of the film a real loss for me.
In the last act, a burlesque critique of the church, Jep seeks wisdom in vain from the fatuous, spiritually dead Cardinal Bellucci (Roberto Herlitzka) and witnesses a 104-year-old Mother Teresa knock-off named Sister Maria (Giusi Merli) huff and puff and blow a flock of migrating (CGI) flamingos off a terrace where they were resting and preening. The hard turn into religious ridicule threatens to undercut the overall tone of the film, but it comes so late in the film that it doesn’t inflict lasting damage.
Servillo offers us a sympathetic figure that could have turned tragic in another actor’s hands. He longs for that clean slate that Sorrentino is scraping at while maintaining the lessons that age has brought him. When his friend Romano (Carlo Verdone) succumbs to nostalgia, his choice is to leave Rome, which has “disappointed” him, to return to the village he abandoned 40 years before. Not Jep. He won’t write another novel, but his hope that he might brings his rite of passage to something of a close. I look forward to seeing if Sorrentino’s next film will prove that he has shaken the dust of the ages off his camera lenses. I am rooting for him.
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Director/Screenwriter: Abdellatif Kechiche
By Roderick Heath
French-Tunisian filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche specialises in long, leisurely, encompassing behavioral studies of individual humans standing at various crossroads. They are often tilted towards Kechiche’s own understanding of cross-cultural neutral zones and the immigrant experience, whilst also often fluently examining the peculiar rituals and experiences that mark youth’s coming of age. Kechiche’s superlative 2007 epic The Secret of the Grain (aka Couscous), his third film and one of the best of the early millennium, depicted an extended and volatile family working to remake its fortunes by starting a small business. Blue Is the Warmest Colour, his latest, gained a Palme d’Or this year and international fame and notoriety along with it. It clearly extends Kechiche’s oeuvre in encompassing niches of the modern human experience, locating both what’s peculiar and universal about them.
Based on a graphic novel by Julie Maroh, Blue is the Warmest Colour charts young love, from individual yearning to electric attraction to coupling to break-up, as experienced by and between two young women. Maroh’s book told a familiar variety of queer love narrative with the expected beats of the genre (variably accepting parents, schoolyard angst, etc.) but in a dynamically expressive and highly emotional fashion. Kechiche’s approach is superficially cooler and more exacting, but ultimately travels into the tactile and emotional envelope that forms around its central couple, picking up manifold nuances and peculiarities.
Kechiche’s narrative replicates both the essence and specific moments from Maroh’s book, whilst revising many elements in a filmmaking process that often seems to have followed its own logic. The film loses the melodramatic bookending narrative and changes the main character’s name from Clementine to Adèle, partly, it seems, to clear a space of independence and to foster lead actress Adèle Exarchopoulos’ stake in the characterisation, and also to justify some shifts in attitude. Kechiche’s style has more than a hint of the neorealist hue revised and updated by filmmakers like the Dardennes brothers and Ken Loach in contemporary European film, except that Kechiche’s touch is more spacious, colourful, and carefully rhythmic, with an almost musical quality (musical performance is usually an important aspect of his work). His stories are less case studies than biographies, a quality that gives the film’s French title its justification, a title that also calls out to the film’s many references to classic French literature.
Much of Maroh’s book was rendered in a near-monochrome with only striking blues elucidated, reflecting the impact the woolly mane of dyed hair Clementine’s lady love Emma sports in an otherwise drab and petty environment. Kechiche avoids this flourish, painting rather in crisp but painterly colours and sunny hues, with the only suggestion of blue right at the end. But the relationship of film to other art forms, like literature, art, and music, is evoked with a nudging constancy, almost echoing the central relationship in its simultaneous rich accord and subtle disparity. Kechiche emphasises the hidden artifice of dramatic shaping in a manner reminiscent of some other French films, like Philippe Claudel’s I’ve Loved You So Long (2008), including virtually self-deconstructing, essayistic-flavoured passages.
Such reflexes are readily on display in long scenes in which bored teens in a class read and discuss Marivaux and Sophocles, failing to comprehend the urgency of the relationship between the experiences recorded in art and their oncoming plunge into life, or a later scene in which a middle-aged aesthete may stand in for Kechiche himself in meditating on the overwhelming urge recorded in art history of men trying to comprehend female sexuality. Kechiche calls out to his earlier work in this manner, like his second film, Games of Love and Chance (2003), which was built around rude and rugged high schoolers acting out Marivaux, explicitly testing the relationship of the young products of shifting cultural paradigms with the French canon, finding both alienation and connection through it. Adèle and Emma, whose studies necessarily entail comprehension of technique and representation, are glimpsed at one point exploring an art museum’s sculpture collection. Its rooms filled with roiling nude female forms coaxed into dazzling life from crude ore is an act that Emma—and through her Kechiche—can surely thrill to, whilst for Adèle it’s a way of familiarising herself with the form that very shortly she’ll be exploring more immediately.
Young Adèle is a fairly “normal” high schooler who begins to feel the elusive tension between her personal emotions and the pack life that dominates at that age as her friends call her attention to Thomas (Jérémie Laheurte), who’s taken with her, in the school cafeteria. Adèle dates Thomas and has sex with him, but is haunted by the vision of Emma (Léa Seydoux), an older art student she catches sight of with an arm around another woman, the image of her invading her nightly masturbatory fantasies.
Adèle’s intimation of an almost predestined link to Emma seems borne out when she and gay pal Valentin (Sandor Funtek) venture into gay bars, and Adèle, after having several women hit on her, is rescued by Emma’s charming attentions, setting the scene for a quickly combusting relationship. Adèle and Emma form a bond initially through extended conversations, where attraction and developing mutual confidence grow amidst the thrust and parry of conversation of two smart but callow lasses seeking to justify and express their tastes. Kechiche all but bends over backwards trying to situate his narrative in the great French romantic tradition, with all its references—Les Liaisons Dangereuses is also shouted out to at one point, evoking its rakish delight in bedroom matters and foreboding a later turn in the plot—and his film’s evident echoes. Adèle and Emma’s long, garrulous conversations laced with probing intimations of character and perspective echo the famous bedroom scene of Breathless (1959) and the chatty works of Eric Rohmer and Jean Eustache, whose The Mother and the Whore (1972) anticipates Blue particularly in length and scope. Like those films, and many in the French cinematic pantheon, the degree of cultural literacy on display is surprisingly high, perhaps to an extent that seems artificial (does the average French teen really enjoy talking about De Laclos?). Some of these conceits have specific overtones: when Emma prods Adèle about her knowledge of art, she answers that she’s only really aware of Picasso, who, of course, had his blue period. Kechiche’s work here, however, is in active dialogue with both cultural context and personal experience, whilst negotiating its own evolving disparities as an adaptation.
Kechiche dials back much of Maroh’s familiar angst, particularly in contending with homophobia as inward retardant on personal acceptance, avoiding clanger lines like one a parent emits in the novel, “Gay pride again? How much longer are they going to be doing this nonsense?” Not that it’s a bright, rosy, postgender world here: Adèle contends with her school friends who, at the first hint of her homosexuality, roundly turn on her. Whereas in the book Clementine runs away and hides to deal with her shame, the more forthright Adèle gets angry and tries to wallop someone. The way people come out, and the world they come out to, has changed, Kechiche notes. More faithfully reproduced from the novel is a moment in which Adèle has her first real same-sex snog, with the bohemian-styled school pal Béatrice (Alma Jodorowsky), who then resists Adèle’s desire for more: such are the pitfalls of curiosity when it grazes against real and urgent need. Kechiche makes long movies because, like the late Theo Angelopoulos and Nuri Bilge Ceylan, he’s a maximalist who specialises in redistributing the way cinema time is absorbed, with a flow of epiphanies that coalesce into a special brand of storytelling, creating an echoing space around the key drama. Unlike them, however, he’s less a poet than a blend of Victorian realist novelist and sociologist. The Secret of the Grain is still his best film because of the fashion in which it justified its heft in building to a brilliant conclusion, one that managed to express simultaneously an urge towards a climactic revelry associated with Shakespearean comedy whilst also counterpointing a tragedy laced with microcosmic import.
Blue is the Warmest Colour, by contrast, has little story and tones down sociological pressure on its heroines. Kechiche concentrates on the transitory beauties and pitfalls of a relationship that’s based more on a preternatural sexual chemistry than genuine accord of personality, and traces the urges that first brings them together, as Emma helps to ease Adèle through the pains of accepting herself, and then tears them apart, as they grow into distinctively different adults. Emma’s outlook is intimately bound up with her ambitions as an artist, whilst Adèle becomes a teacher of young children. A pair of well-contrasted scenes depicts each girl meeting the other’s family and comprehending the subtle but daunting differences in outlook they face. Emma’s mother and stepfather, casually accepting of her, are haute bourgeois, complete with a fancy art collection started by Emma’s father. In perhaps the film’s most obvious thematic joke, the stepfather, an expert gourmand, serves up live oysters to the girls. The poetic conceit of conflating eating oysters with cunnilingus is not at all new, calling back to, amongst others, Radley Metzger’s film of Violette Leduc’s signal lesbian erotica novel Thérèse and Isabelle (1967), and also suggesting the infamous “snails and oysters” scene restored to Spartacus (1960), whose director, Stanley Kubrick, Adèle loves. Dinner with Adèle’s petit bourgeois family, by contrast, eats spaghetti bolognaise and careful evasion of Adèle’s sexuality; Emma scarcely bats an eye at posing as Adèle’s friend and tutor in philosophy, whilst Adèle’s father (Aurélien Recoing) gruffly grills Emma about her job prospects as an art student, all familiar reflexes of a more working class mindset.
The quiet disparities outlined in these paired scenes include the first time in the film that both Emma and Adèle state what they want to be. Emma is forced to lie doubly not only about what she is, but also that she fully intends to be an artist, whilst Adèle is honest, but sets the scene for her later frustrations. Adèle remains closeted in some peculiar ways, neither coming out to her parents, or at least not on screen, nor to any colleagues when she becomes a teacher, to protect her brittle sense of security as much as out of concern of what might happen to her. Blue is the Warmest Colour is at its best when charting Adèle and Emma’s coming together, a process that climaxes in the already legendary and notorious central sex scene that sees the couple conjoin in feverishly energetic, invasively corporeal manner. Kechiche counterpoints the convulsive intimacy of the moment with one of public display, as Adèle joins Emma in a gay pride march where the ecstasy of being young and in love loses all bindings for a moment, a scene that mirrors another earlier in the film in which Adèle marches with students. One peculiarity of gay sex scenes in modern film is that they’re just about the only ones where anyone’s allowed to look like they’re actually enjoying themselves (straight sex scenes now, by contrast, are generally required to be hideous). Kechiche mimics Maroh’s approach to Adèle and Emma’s first bedroom encounter, using jump cuts like comic panel boundaries to fragment the girls’ roundelay of positions into an explosive succession of erotic images.
Kechiche’s approach here is quite clearly unitary with his general fascination for detail and descriptive comprehension, gazing calmly at intense sexual activity as he does at other behavioural traits. But to a certain extent, it also unbalances the film’s emphasis on interpersonal passion and distorts the impression we should be getting, of a young and inexpert girl’s first bedroom romp with a more experienced lover: the necessary sense of exploration is missing. It looks and feels more like an extremely hot one-night stand for two well-practiced sexual athletes, as they whip between positions and smack each other’s asses in search of ever-sharper corporeal registers. The aspect of clinical display is emphasised by the flat lighting and diorama-like bed, carefully charting possible positions and forms, coming close at points to resembling a yoga instruction sheet or “baby’s first pop-up book” of sapphic sex. Other points, however, strike notes of extraordinary beauty, as when the two lie together in symmetrical post-coital calm, as close to a unified creature with two minds as humans can get, the linchpin of both their affair and the film’s aesthetics.
When gay-themed works like Beginners and The Kids are All Right (both 2010) are so cosily mainstream and sentimental in their reflexes that it’s not too hard to imagine classic Hollywood actors playing roles in them, Kechiche’s gambit to wield an unblinking directness in his sex scenes gives the film a radical edge it wouldn’t have otherwise because he is working with two of the most pleasing possible avatars for lesbian love conceivable. In spite of Emma’s jokes about bull dykes and Adèle’s classmates branding Emma as an obvious lesbian, it’s hard to imagine just about anyone not falling for Emma, whose tousled tomboyishness and anime hair in no way violates rules of attractiveness; ironically, only later, when Emma is older and no longer dyes her hair, does Seydoux seem more genuinely androgynous.
In terms of the film’s intrinsic personality, two subsequent sex scenes are more impressive. One sees Emma trying to keep Adèle from crying out as they secretly make love in her parents’ house. The other depicts the two lovers, locked in a scissoring tussle, reach out for each other to grip hands, in part for greater traction and pleasure, but as much in that blindly desperate joy of trying to bridge the gap of mere flesh even as it seems they might literally meld. Perhaps indeed the most profound and universal note the film strikes is implicit here, the intensity some relationships can reach on the sexual level, to extent that when other circumstances intrude upon them, it can feel like being cut off from a part of one’s own flesh. Blue Is the Warmest Colour’s second “chapter” deals exactly with this notion as it skips forward a number of years. Now Emma and Adèle live together. Adèle has fulfilled her desire to teach young children, whilst Emma is poised frustratingly close to major success, a success Adèle helps to foster by posing for a lushly semi-abstract nude, exciting the attention of a major gallery manager, Joachim (Stéphane Mercoyrol), who comes to a party Adèle helps to throw. Adèle impresses and charms many present, including Joachim and Samir (Salim Kechiouche), a mildly successful actor who wryly comments on his moment of success, playing an Arab terrorist in an American movie. But Adèle still quietly chafes in their company, especially as Emma tries to talk up Adèle’s diary writing as an accomplishment, an attempt to paper over Adèle’s inferiority in their relationship.
Adèle is also perturbed by Emma’s friendliness with Joachim’s very pregnant artist friend Lise (Mona Walravens), and as Emma and Lise begin working on a project together, Adèle’s increasing alienation leads her to commence an affair with co-worker Antoine (Benjamin Siksou). Most of this is synthesised from the scant material in Maroh’s book, and begins to smack of a lack of inspiration on Kechiche’s part, as the once-powerful relationship cracks up over such clichéd tensions, with Adèle stuck playing the wife to the mercurial artist in a very familiar kind of domestic drama. The early shout-out to Picasso can be read as a warning that like old Pablo, Emma paints mistresses and moves on. Perhaps this was the point, to show their relationship is prone to the same weaknesses as any other union, but the price Kechiche pays for normalising that relationship is to also make his own narrative more banal, recalling Gus Van Sant’s Milk (2008), which for the sake of mainstream recognition, turned Harvey Milk’s lover into a regulation politician’s stymied wife. Without the force of a strong story behind the film, like The Secret of the Grain possessed, this film’s unwieldy length starts to wear thin.
Tellingly, the film’s intellectual discursions feel far too academic and potted, relating only to the film’s own telling but without real penetration. Unlike, say, Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore, which is as much about the sociopolitical milieu that formed it as it is about its central ménage à trois, Kechiche deletes most of Maroh’s emphasis on the experience of her couple as products of the early ’90s, when gay visibility was on the rise in a still-reactionary society, and thus of the schism of personality the women experience in the way their sexuality links them to the world. Neither Emma nor Adèle are granted much self-awareness in this regard, in part possibly because in altering the setting to be more contemporary, the relatively laggard sensibility of a more liberated generation is evoked. Whereas Metzger’s Thérèse and Isabelle was intimately layered to both build to the climactic sexual consummation whilst also mediating it through flashbacks to make it both immediate and nostalgic, cinematic and literary, Kechiche’s touch is often much more prosaic.
Which is not to say he doesn’t wield some marvellous cinematic prose, like that aforementioned image of the entwined lovers and an early sequence in which his camera glides ahead of Adèle after she’s brushed off by Béatrice, her hurt all too vivid even as she maintains a stoic mask and ignores the world whirling about her. Kechiche determinedly avoids melodrama: only the calamitous spat between the couple that breaks them apart resembles a traditional climax, and he skirts several key scenes of the novel, especially the slip-up that sees Adèle ejected from her home and previous life. Moreover, for a film that expends so much time on merely detailing the characters in a love affair, the inner life of both women remains a little vague—in the case of Emma, more than a little. She’s a cagey creature who holds Adèle at a slight remove that Adèle eventually tries to shatter, but this element remains frustratingly opaque. In Maroh’s book, the relationship commences under a pall as Emma already has a girlfriend, which lends a hypocritical edge to Emma’s explosive rage when she throws Adèle out after learning of her affair. Here, however, it seems at once more righteous and also more peculiar in its contextless vehemency. Adèle, for her part, becomes a Lady of Shalott figure, doomed to grieve over her ejection perhaps all her days.
Kechiche pulls off two excellent scenes as he skips forward again in time: Emma now lives with Lise and her young son as a family, but Adèle, having suffered for a long time, tries hopelessly to entice Emma back when they meet at last for an amicable drink. Adèle’s efforts to seduce Emma reveal once more the powerful spark of physical attraction between them, but can’t break Emma’s new commitment. It’s a somewhat gruelling scene of humiliation for Adèle, reminiscent to my mind of Bob Dylan’s angry heartbreak under surface goodwill in “If You See Her, Say Hello”. The subsequent, ultimate scene, is equally strong, as Adèle attends a gallery showing being given by Antoine signalling Emma’s success, with Adèle finding her portrait hanging with the others, a white-hot and life-changing affair now a mere incident in Emma’s life. Emma and Lise canoodle in the moment of triumph whilst Adèle roams in disquiet. Her intent is all too painfully obvious, as she’s dressed in blue, evidently trying to sway Emma’s eye or at least memorialise their connection. Where for the artist, alchemic creation is the act, for the average person the self is the canvas, and Adèle cannot channel but only telegraph her own bleeding emotion. Adèle meets Samir again, who’s now quit acting for a life in real estate. He searches for her when she quietly absents herself, dashing in a different direction whilst she walks away, a blotch of forlorn blue burning in a grey city street. If the use of the artistic milieu elsewhere feels hoary, here Kechiche uses it to concisely reflect Adèle’s exile: it’s a world of insiders and outsiders, and Adèle is just another outsider now.
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Director: Ridley Scott
By Roderick Heath
Ridley Scott’s latest film has stirred extremely divided responses in the critical and general audiences, with reviews quite literally ranging from those hailing it as the worst movie ever made to masterpiece. This makes it almost by default one of the most interesting releases of this year, a time of general indifference and enforced consensus, offering the hopes of surprise that someone, even someone lodged at the safe end of the Hollywood spectrum like Scott, can have stirred such intense responses. But Scott, coming off two uneven, big-budget spectacles, Robin Hood (2010) and Prometheus (2012), is actually a past master at shifting directorial gears, and like Hitchcock and Huston before him, prone to making some movies as working holidays. Indeed, some of his lower-wattage projects have been his best. But The Counselor, although shifting from the large scale to the small, represents no dip in ambition. Scott here tackles an original screenplay penned by acclaimed, but famously unforthcoming author Cormac McCarthy, his first venture in the field, and harks back to the famous collaborations of Carol Reed and Graham Greene. McCarthy and Scott share an evident interest in the crime genre, but neither approaches it in a familiar fashion. Much as McCarthy’s novels blur the mode’s boundaries with the Western, whilst veering its deeper concerns into the punitive teachings of folk tales and biblical parable, Scott’s affinity for neo-noir has usually been explored with a twist. Blade Runner (1982) was, of course, a scifi movie as well as a detective thriller, whilst Black Rain (1989) and Thelma and Louise (1991) anatomised cultural problems via genre plots, and Matchstick Men (2004) provided self-satire.
The Counselor sets out to both honour and critique the classic noir tale. Many of the genre’s most essential notions are present: double-crosses, innocents falling into infernal realms, terrifying revelations of the permeable wall between over and underworlds, well-laid plans going haywire, fetishistic delight mixed with straitlaced repugnance in regarding forbidden pleasures, the all-conquering femme fatale, and agents of evil doubling as angels of fate. But The Counselor is not mere homage. Critic Scott Foundas notably recognised its kinship with John Boorman’s seminal Point Blank (1967) in its simultaneously futurist and primitive atmosphere. Although squarely set in the here and now, The Counselor stretches in thematic reference from the destruction of Sodom to some future apocalypse, and the visual lexicon feels close to science fiction in some aspects and primeval in others. It also hews close to the visceral version of neo-noir popularised in the 1980s, like Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (1983), John Dahl’s The Last Seduction (1992), Peter Medak’s Romeo Is Bleeding (1993), and even Robert Harmon’s genre-blurring, subliminal The Hitcher (1987). Scott’s interest in systematology is also apparent, as follow-up to American Gangster’s (2007) efforts to encompass the drug trade on a near-sociological level. One of the The Counselor’s three criss-crossing narrative lines follows one special drug shipment inside a septic tanker. The tanker, grimy and shabby, moves according to the whims of several vying owners, but always keeps rolling like inexorable fate to its intended destination. Perhaps the most important intersecting line of Scott and McCarthy’s sensibilities is their cynical attitude to money as toxic agent in human endeavours, a device that exposes weakness and sparks will to power.
One of McCarthy’s now-familiar methods is to build narratives around characters who could be described as the also-rans in most crime fiction, not great heroes or villains, but variably competent shmucks who find themselves outmatched on an almost cosmic level and fall by the wayside. They’re the kind of loser who turns up as a corpse on page 76 of a Phil Marlowe novel, the look of shock still marked on their face from the moment of death reflecting their sudden lesson in not being the cleverest men in the universe. Scott, for his part, usually has affection for idealistic, but similarly outmatched figures, a condition even his titanic heroes like Christopher Columbus suffer.
The titular and otherwise nameless Counselor (Michael Fassbender) is a successful lawyer with a large roster of seamy clients and the trappings of success. He and his girlfriend Laura (Penélope Cruz) are introduced in bed, at first entirely swathed under white sheets that cling to their outlined forms that evoke both baptismal robes and shrouds. The rawness of their couple’s sexuality doesn’t belie the evident truth that this is their Eden moment, and Laura’s first words, asking her lover if he’s awake, start the ball rolling on the film’s enquiry about states of awareness and pitches the work in that moment of wakefulness where the substance of reality isn’t quite discernible from a dream. The Counselor plans to pop the question, and does so after buying an expensive loose diamond from an Amsterdam dealer (Bruno Ganz) who walks the Counselor through technical matters of evaluating diamonds. The dealer introduces him to a “cautionary” diamond, an object that has outlived many merely mortal owners: the history of human greed, hope, and frailty has left no mark on its pristine surface.
One major aspect of The Counselor that quickly asserts itself is its emphasis on interpersonal dialogue: much of the film’s first half offers fairly simple scenes of the characters talking. McCarthy’s stylised dialogue is reminiscent of old-school noir and its roots in Marcel Carne’s poetic realist films and Val Lewton’s oneiric horror movies, even traditions of modernist and vernacular poetry, whilst also creating kinship with recent filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, David Mamet, and Neil Jordan in filtering that harsh romanticism through modern gab.
The Counselor has a series of encounters with garrulous characters who are all, in their way, trying to warn him about something. The jeweller does so, in an abstract way, whilst his business confreres Reiner (Javier Bardem) and Westray (Brad Pitt) do so more urgently and with specific illustrations and examples, because they’re involved in the drug trade and know the kinds of people they deal with, and insist on making the Counselor absolutely knowledgeable about the risks he’s now taking. Reiner is one of the Counselor’s clients but also a friend and business partner in a nightclub they’re financing jointly, but because the Counselor’s finances have gone awry, and he decides to join forces with Reiner and Westray. Reiner is enjoying the highlife with his girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz), whilst Westray tells the Counselor that he’s arranged his affairs so that he can disappear at the drop of a hat, and that he’d be happy living in a monastery if it wasn’t for his taste for women, a taste he has in fatefully common with Reiner.
Whereas Bardem bedazzled many playing a McCarthy fiend in No Country for Old Men (2007), here he plays a very different character, a chatty, fatuous, misogynistic playboy with a punkish hairdo, one who’s become accustomed to his luxurious, ill-gotten lifestyle, but who has no actual killer instinct. He and Malkina are first glimpsed watching with indulgent pleasure, complete with cocktails, as their two pet cheetahs chase down rabbits out in the hinterland. Reiner confidently believes that women have no moral compass and that the only thing they don’t like in a man is being bored, attitudes that might stem from his discomforting proximity to Malkina, whose affectations of predatory intent stretch to having cheetah spots tattooed on her back. In the film’s funniest and strangest scene, Reiner recounts to the Counselor with lingering unease and distaste when Malkina quite literally insisted on having sex with his car: she sat herself split-legged on the windscreen and rubbed her groin against the glass, a vision Reiner queasily compares to a catfish or other bottom feeder working its way up the aquarium tank glass. This marvellously weird moment crystallises the vagina dentata anxiety that underpins the femme fatale figure, whilst allowing Scott a chance to acknowledge the crackle of the erotic that’s always underlain his fascination with sleekly tactile surfaces. Indeed, one of the more amusing but expressive aspects of the film is its misè-en-scene, which pits Scott’s familiar modes of film décor in dialectic opposition. The Counselor and Reiner live in houses of ultra-modernist minimalism, as if to declare themselves ahistorical beings without fear of the tides of history, whilst the dirty work is done in degraded zones of industry and lunar outskirts, and godlike kingpins lounge in rococo elegance.
Aspects of The Counselor are hardly original in this branch of genre cinema, not even some of McCarthy’s vaunted metaphors. What is original about the film is the way it works through the film noir story template in a fashion more akin to Greek tragedy and horror films, setting up ominous suggestions of things that will come to pass with hints of oracular and morally significant purpose, and then following through on them unrelentingly. McCarthy’s plot is a kind of anti-thriller, depicting the Counselor as a man who’s constantly warned he’s getting in over his head, and then finds to his shock that he’s powerless to prevent awful things happening. Reiner asks the Counselor if he knows what a bolito is, and explains the nasty device’s function, a slow decapitation with a motorised, unbreakable wire slipped around a quarry’s neck. Westray asks if the Counselor has ever seen a snuff film, and then recounts one he saw in which a young woman was beheaded for an underworld overlord’s amusement. Both of these examples of brutality are so extreme and random that the Counselor processes them as far-out campfire tales. But soon we become aware that these are Chekhovian guns, presented via anecdote and soon to be made use of in the imminent, bloodcurdling unspooling of predestined ends.
The sense of being caught within systems one doesn’t entirely comprehend or see major parts of is key to The Counselor, a feeling exacerbated by Scott and McCarthy’s resistance to spelling everything out. There are insinuations about dealings that link Malkina, Reiner, and Westray, and the precision with which Malkina works to destroy both men is telling, but ambiguous. They present a triangulation of criminal intent that the Counselor is foolish enough to get involved in, even as it seems, surrounded by the trappings of their great success, like a good idea. Malkina’s background is chillingly hinted at when she mentions her parents died after being thrown out of a helicopter over the ocean. The overlords are never seen, only the cogs of the great machine, a motif that gives confirmation to the Kafkaesque overtone of the protagonist’s designation.
Scott opens the film with the truck being loaded in Mexico for its journey to Chicago, and charts the mechanisms designed to ensure its smooth movement. One human cog is the motorbike-riding son (Richard Cabral) of one of the Counselor’s clients, Ruth (Rosie Perez). Nicknamed The Green Hornet, he takes cash at high speed across the border, and is also charged with handing over the part of the truck’s engine, once it’s been deposited on the American side of the border, to its next drivers. Ruth, a hard-bitten gangster, asks the Counselor to bail out her son when he’s arrested for speeding. The Green Hornet, however, proves the target of Malkina’s project to throw a spanner in the works with a hired assassin, “the Wireman” (Sam Spruell), lying in wait for him to take possession of the engine part.
Scott stages this malicious sequence on a vast plain at sunset, blazing blood-red fires and silhouetted stony rises as backdrop to the killer’s methodical construction of a brutal trap for the rider, stringing a wire across the road he knows no one but his prey will be using, at a height exactly calculated to decapitate him. There’s a fiendish variety of patience and deadpan attentiveness to this scene, as what’s going to happen is made deadly clear and played through exactly as intended, boiling the film’s atavistic, deterministic sensibility down to an essence. The motif of decapitation recurs throughout the film, an extraordinarily gruesome and medieval kind of killing exacted through various means.
The Counselor has kinship with the TV series “Breaking Bad” (2008-13) and Oliver Stone’s Savages (2012), two successful, recent derivations of the neo-noir tradition. All three evoke the horrors of drug cartel violence as a stygian realm where all moral standards dissolve, and hapless gringos who regard the trade as a mere cash cow soon learn monsters are after them. The Counselor features a “Breaking Bad” cast member, Dean Norris, who plays a dumbstruck cartel associate who’s privileged with a glimpse of the sickest of sick jokes by another factotum (John Leguizamo): a corpse that’s been sealed inside a tank with the rest of the shipment and is bound to be shipped back and forth across the continent in lieu of actually disposing of the body. Where Stone’s film was absurdist and pulled genre givens apart with meta-narrative and self-reflexive satire, Scott and McCarthy offer a film that burns like liquid nitrogen, with flickers of a sense of humour so black as to be an event horizon. An older ancestor is Anthony Mann’s Border Incident (1949), with similar motifs of border crossing as passage between civilisations, even epochs, and of journeys through an alternative world, as the truck crawls up through North America’s alimentary canal. Early in the film, the two Mexican drivers who take the truck into the U.S. note a train of illegal immigrants heading across the border. Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) likewise had a desolated fascination for the borderlands as zone of cultural nullity. Like Mann and Peckinpah, Scott and McCarthy here have a fascination for the terrible beauty of violence; indeed, the film’s narrative as a whole has a tone like the memorable tractor sequence of Mann’s work, a sensation of being paralysed in the path of a grim death.
Malkina’s plot to have the truck with its load stolen proves an elaborate misdirection, albeit one with a deadly consequence. With the presumption that the Counselor, Reiner, and Westray have connived in crossing the greater powers, calamity immediately threatens them: Westray makes good on his capacity to disappear quickly and advises the Counselor to do the same, but the latter, encumbered by worldly cares and the belief that reason and explanation might prevail, is far too slow in getting going. Perhaps laden with a sense of fatalism, so is Reiner; he tries to run when the killers come to call, and is chased and gunned down. In the course of shooting Reiner, the assassins accidentally free his pet cheetahs, who scare off the armed men and proceed to wander the landscape like unleashed spirits of animalism. The Counselor arranges for Laura to leave New Mexico, flee the nebulous zone between countries, and take refuge in the presumed safety of the American heartland, but Laura doesn’t make it. She is taken prisoner at the airport, and the Counselor travels to Mexico to try to get in touch with the kingpins and plead for his and Laura’s lives.
Whilst McCarthy’s artistic imprint on the film is vital, Scott takes to it like one of those cheetahs to a hare. A beautifully styled exploration of the abyss, this could be Scott’s darkest film to date, and his most shapely in a long time. Scott’s usual type of hero tends to strive against forms of social exclusion and culturally ingrained limitations of vision, whereas his antiheroes, plentiful in his oeuvre, have similar motives but have become cynical about them. A sense of protagonists spiralling down the ethical plughole is common in his films, as are battles with grotesque others that stand in for mutating moral distress, like the astonishing fight Christopher Columbus has with the berserkers from the forest that encapsulates the horror following first contact in 1492: The Conquest of Paradise (1992), and to Rick Deckard’s confrontation of his own weakness and sanctioned cruelty in Blade Runner, whilst the accord between hero and villain in American Gangster was built around precisely their divergent reactions to the same formative forces. Whereas Michael Mann, perhaps Scott’s major rival in Hollywood as premiere stylist and neo-noir specialist, tends to abstract his heroes and dissociate them from social paradigms to focus on their private ethics, Scott always firmly contextualises his. Even in a film as seemingly lightweight as A Good Year (2007), a constant stress is placed on his crass hero as avatar for a newer, ever more ravenous world of European capitalism, one that’s accessible to outsiders like him, but with the codicil that he has to be more unscrupulous, more insensate, than anyone else. Similarly, the note of a fight for survival against an opposing force that is inimical to rational appeal echoes back not just to Alien (1979), but also to his very first film, The Duellists (1977), where two men war for decades for reasons neither exactly understands: there is only a standard of behaviour that has been found wanting and must be punished, and indeed, this is exactly the situation here.
Not for nothing, then, does Scott have his last act partly play out back “home” in London’s glitzier districts, climaxing in an elaborate, almost giallo film scene of elaborate stalking and execution that leaves tourists and yuppies splattered with blood and severed fingers lying on the cobbles. It’s Scott’s gleefully nasty metaphor for the crack-up of the British financial sector, a notion reinforced by the narrative’s portrait of ruthless capitalism’s fallout spreading from the U.S. to Europe. Malkina’s plot turns out not to be aimed at the drug deal at all: this was only a mechanism to get Westray moving, his escape plan turned into perfect money delivery for Malkina, who hires a blonde escort (Natalie Dormer) to honey-trap him. It’s amusing to consider Bardem’s presence in this film whilst his earlier work this year in Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, a film with an almost exactly opposite spiritual and philosophical position to this one, is fresh in the memory. In one sequence, Malkina, intrigued by Laura’s Catholic background and its confused impact on her sexual sensibility, visits a priest (Édgar Ramírez) to taunt him with erotic reminiscences under the guise of confession. This could almost be a direct send-up of that film, whilst digging into the same, ever-present rupture in a modern world of exhausted paradigms and insufficient replacements that cannot heal the rift separating the elusively redemptive from the corporeal. Such a schismatic, anguished sense of existence that some of Scott’s most memorably tortured characters, like Roy Batty in Blade Runner and Commodus in Gladiator (2000), feel with emotional urgency, drive them to homicidal acts against their creators. Malick’s and Scott’s films also share deeper connecting strands in spite of their thematic opposition, particularly in their sense of the American interior as unfinished space where wilderness and suburban stability cohabit in disorientating closeness, and the concurrent possibilities for rapture and damnation seem similarly extreme and wide open.
McCarthy often invokes biblical imagery, borrowing the voice of a wilderness preacher in his invocations of hellfire and Old Testament justice, but does so ironically with his existential conviction that the void rather than heaven or hell await, whilst his stories often skirt the edges of a virtually nihilistic sensibility. But The Counselor confirms he’s more a harsh moralizer who justifies his stance by constantly looking at worst-case scenarios, giving real force to ethical questions by studying them with a method close to Shakespearean tragedy, watching fatal choices create whirlwinds of carnage to prod a greater awareness of the mesh of niceties that keeps the world inhabitable. The film’s narrative is predicated around two choices: the Counselor’s decision to get involved in crime, and the blonde escort’s rejection of Malkina’s payment after realising that it’s more than a robbery she’s planning, all but throwing down her 30 pieces of silver and repenting. This last piece is almost a throwaway, one of the many vignette-like asides that dot the film, but it feels crucial in retrospect, as it sharply contrasts the Counselor’s choices, a deliberate turning of the blind eye; whilst the blonde’s choice actively repudiates Reiner’s contention that women are immoral, it still comes with a host of sarcastic meaning, as it doesn’t hurt Malkina’s programme one bit, and won’t stop Westray’s assassination, a note Malkina happily acknowledges as she kisses the blonde off with a quip. Otherwise the film maintains a portrait of moral rot on an epidemic level, with corrosive free radicals on the loose.
Meanwhile, the truck with its forbidden load keeps moving, stolen by Malkina’s men and stolen back by the cartel’s men in a roadside gunfight that turns a lonely stretch of road into a war zone. The one remaining cartel gunman simply drives the truck onto a friendly wrecker’s yard and gets himself and the vehicle patched up, and on the load rolls to its original destination. The safe return of the vehicle doesn’t change the situation for the collaterally damaged. The Counselor gets in touch with a cartel boss, Jefe (Rubén Blades), in an effort to make a deal for Laura, but he finds that not only can’t Jefe help, but Jefe insists on giving a positively poetic explanation that, essentially, consequences are already truths, and that he can’t talk or buy his way back into the land of the living. The cruelty of the narrative here moves beyond mere circumstance into the very method. The viewer is forced to share the Counselor’s frustrated disbelief and the mismatch between the awful urgency of the moment and the calm, oracular wisdom of Jefe, his earlier glib patience on listening to long-winded warnings now curdling into sweaty, despairing frustration that he can’t change the situation. Scott and McCarthy viciously undercut the usual expectation that some kind of brilliant scheme can be formulated, a la The Firm (1992), or even a noble act of self-sacrifice.
The Counselor, a bystander in his own film, is left wandering in shellshock and infinite apprehension on the streets of a Mexican city. In another of the film’s seemingly off-the-cuff but actually revealing vignettes, filmed with a flavour of punch-drunk dissociation that recalls Val Lewton’s films, the Counselor wanders into the midst of a rally being held to memorialise victims of the drug war. This communal act of mourning and protest is entirely indifferent to the Counselor’s presence, but also one implicitly, both in sympathy with and accusing him. The narrative’s bleak terminus has an allusive concision that again recalls Lewton, as the Counselor receives a package that, with the information given earlier, sees the apparently banal suddenly, plainly becoming a ticket to the ninth circle of hell. More promethean than Scott’s Prometheus, this saga conjures the spectacle of a man being chained up by the gods to have his liver eaten daily by guilt, fear, and horror. Like Oedipus, another ancient Greek fool of fortune, the Counselor sees but does not comprehend his sins until revealed, by which time it’s much, much too late. A coda hands the attention back to Malkina, but having devoured everything in her path, she proves less a triumphant villain than prophetess for a new, unspeakable age where the best predator will survive.
The Counselor is obviously not a conventional crowd-pleaser. In fact, it could be as much the opposite of a crowd-pleaser as any studio film of recent years, though the pungent gallows humour and gaudy, giddy style leavens the experience somewhat. Even a concession many neo-noir films make to the wry pleasure in seeing an evil but charismatic bitch-goddess win in works like Body Heat is twisted here into a perverted caricature of itself. Doubtless this aspect, in addition to its apparently cold and merciless attitude, accounts for the polarity of its reception. But it’s also the quality that makes The Counselor feel special, the sense of lawlessness underlying its pristine and peerlessly professional form, McCarthy’s blissful disconnection from the set rhythms of contemporary Hollywood screenwriting even as he reveals affection for genre work past, and Scott’s capacity to keep me watching. That same disconnection does account for the film’s weaker aspects, the slightly adolescent tone to Malkina’s calculated blasphemies and the clichéd Madonna/whore diptych of her and Laura that is only inverted from traditional imagery by swapping hair colours. Also, Diaz’s performance feels too archly calculated to entirely persuade. The curious thing about The Counselor is that it’s a film defined as much by absences as presences, narrative dealt out in clipped parcels whilst its essential thesis explored not through the usual redemption narrative but the pointed lack of one, a humanistic despair reflected through its worst nightmares. But whilst the film references classical tragedy, the solemnity of tragedy is even scorned, as the film concludes with the same mockingly upbeat Latin rhythms it began with. Still, The Counselor actually does film noir a great service in apparently subverting it, returning actual gravitas and unnerving impudence to the genre, and along with it some of the quaking existential fear it once transmitted.
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Director/Screenwriter: Andrew Bujalski
By Roderick Heath
Contrary to its long-presumed nature as a purely ephemeral, commercial cult of the new, pop culture today seems powerfully concerned with the study of its own roots. Faced with a panoply of devices for making slicker and slicker creative product, recreating the elusive texture of a rough-hewn past has become a kind of alchemic ambition for many artists. Bands with computer synthesising programmes, which can make just about any sound known to humankind, labour to recreate the tweets and bleeps of the synthesisers their ancient forebears wielded. Some filmmakers, faced with detachment from actual film, have become increasingly preoccupied not just with past genres or movies, but also with recreation of past styles and the specific inflection bygone technological modes brought to cinema. Such is a fascinating turnaround from creators of low-budget and independent cinema who struggled to find parity with mainstream works until new technology allowed artisanal films to look just as good as blockbusters—to reject that quality and delve into the medium as message unto itself. Once, to have shot a film on a crappy video camera would have branded you as a try-hard amateur. Now it’s the latest in craft-art branding.
Like Pablo Larrain’s No (2012), Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess is built around a singular aesthetic choice to shoot on an old black-and-white video camera, conveying the texture of the time via a technological conduit that, even at the time, was considered pretty lame. Bujalski’s film moves into a more literal zone as it obeys this instinct, insofar as that its proper subject is once cutting-edge technology from which a new realm of human activity would spring. Its subject is, in part, the creation of a world the film is itself implicitly rejecting.
Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha (2002) is considered the first film of the peculiar niche of independent film wryly dubbed “Mumblecore,” a new variation on some old ideas in cinema. Personages to emerge from that movement of naturalistic, witty no-budget films made for, by, and about young, urban, creative types include Joe Swanberg, Lynn Shelton, brothers Mark and Jay Duplass, and Greta Gerwig, who have moved out into the mainstream without excessive compromise. Swanberg’s work this year, Drinking Buddies, is a small gem that assimilates and liberates marquee names like Olivia Wilde and Anna Kendrick, without a blink. Bujalski remains distinct from the improvisatory bent of the Mumblecorps in that he always heavily scripted his films, and Computer Chess again takes a different course from his fellows, fashioning a work as determinedly rarefied as anything to emerge from American independent film in the past 20 years. Computer Chess is set around 1980, when the idea that the computer could play a part in people’s everyday lives was starting to look more realistic and yet still undefined. The culture developing around this new machinery was still one that largely attracted fixated brainiacs, absent-minded would-be professors, entrepreneurial savants, and other exotics who can only flourish in carefully controlled environments.
The film revolves around a chess tournament played by computers, pitting rival programmers, computer models, and software against each other in a stolidly controlled and enclosed environment where petty jealousies, insecurities, asocial traits, and enigmas percolate. The event is held in a distinctly mid-market Austin, Texas hotel, and hosted by chess master Pat Henderson (Gerald Peary), who tries to play the avuncular, good-humoured host, but lets slip a tetchier side occasionally. At the beginning, he berates the crew documenting the tournament on his video camera not to point his camera at the sun. As the competition commences, he brings together several of the major team leaders for a panel discussion about the future chances of a program being good enough to beat him in a match, whilst also exploring some of the past problems in design the teams have encountered. Carbray (James Curry), a bashful, but articulate British software designer, predicts that Henderson will probably win his bet that a computer won’t beat him until 1984, but that he’ll be cutting it close. The highly touted MIT team, led by Roland McVey (Bob Sabiston), was humiliated the year before when their programme, instead of achieving an easy checkmate, got lost in a looping series of checks, which resulted in victory for their rivals from Caltech.
The Caltech team was led by the now-venerated, but mysteriously absent Todd Schoesser (Gordon Kindlmann), who has left the team in the hands of his assistant, Martin Beuscher (Wiley Wiggins, long-ago hero of Dazed and Confused, 1993) and neophyte Peter Bishton (Patrick Riester), whilst MIT have consulted with grandmasters and recruited the tournament’s first female programmer, Shelly (Robin Schwartz), as part of their team. Another man on the panel, Mike Papageorge (Myles Paige), a dapper but truculent and arrogant “independent programmer,” derides the tournament even as he engages in it, and claims to be looking far beyond the petty preoccupations of those about him. Papageorge’s comeuppance proves rapidly forthcoming, as he learns his room booking hasn’t been recorded. With the hotel full up, he’s left wandering the hallways at night, and lacking any cash, trying to find someone who’ll give him a place to crash. He alienates other teams and even the friendly neighbourhood drug dealers when he takes some of their stash but can’t pay for it. Most of the programmers are engaged in low-level drug abuse, taking uppers to sustain them through marathon coding sessions and bug hunts in their digital children. The introverted Peter is faced with trying to rescue the Caltech team’s flagging fortunes as their computer keeps performing disastrously in matches.
Computer Chess examines the little whorl of subcultures and period details it encompasses less with the cheap gaudery of nostalgia than with the finicky exactitude of anthropology. The haircuts, the clothes, the bland environs of the hotel and its surrounds, the boxy cars, all are employed with fidelity and transcend the usual chuckle-worthy recreations for retro send-ups, becoming rather part of a project of holistic depth. Bujalski offers an undoubted sense of kinship between fashioners of off-road artistry like himself and these pioneer mongers of technological ingeniousness, seeing the common roots of obsessiveness, curiosity, and alienation from the imperatives of a larger “real” world. The alternative-capitalist triumphalism portrayed by a films like The Social Network (2010) and Jobs (2013), in which asocial geniuses become world conquerors, are still scarcely conceivable, distant horizons. The programming world portrayed here is wedged between the counterculture and technocrats, neatly trimmed institution men and hairy, dishevelled hobbits fond of puffing weed coexisting and indeed blurring in this realm, unified by their devotion to the obscure beauty of code. Only Papageorge seems to have an eye on the necessity, even in the computer business, to project authority and professionalism, but he’s constantly thwarted by his overweening sense of superiority unmatched by a sense of salesmanship and charm.
Whilst the tournament seems a clear-cut affair, zones of mystery, ambiguity, and even outright surrealism begin to open around it. Rumours of military interest in these seemingly benign, almost inane inventions and their possible uses add to undercurrents of paranoia. Schoesser’s absences and distracted manner give some credence to this suspicion, as does the presence of John (Jim Lewis), one of a pair of hotel guests who sell drugs to the programmers, a burly man who chuckles in sardonic amusement at the programmers whom he seems to regard as an the alien species even whilst probing them about potential military applications. He reports to the cameraman that he’s come to see “the end of the world” in the making, and in a way, he’s right, if not in the way he expects. Meanwhile, Peter seems to be spiralling down the rabbit hole trying to understand the Caltech computer’s erratic behaviour. When Schoesser does finally turn up, he explains to Peter that the new programme is supposed to learn as it plays, absorbing new methods of play. Theoretically, it should adapt quickly to the other programmes, but instead, it seems almost wilfully bad. Bewildered and increasingly spaced out by his all-night coding sessions exacerbating his already deep introversion, Peter takes the Caltech machine to Shelly’s room in the middle of the night to test out a theory that proves correct: having Shelly rather than the MIT computer play his, the Caltech programme finally starts working properly. It wants to play against humans.
Have the Caltech crew failed to create a great computer chess programme, but instead created artificial intelligence? Or are they just so strung out, paranoid, and distracted that Peter and Beuscher are imagining things? Henderson mentions earlier the original “chess-playing machine,” the Mechanical Turk, an apparently brilliant device that defeated Napoleon at chess; its secret was that a human chess player was hidden within it. Now will humans have machines hidden inside them? Schoesser, in explaining the program’s workings to Peter, says that “everything is not everything—there’s more,” a seemingly contradictory piece of guff that accidentally reveals potentials beyond what he and his colleagues have imagined, opening the gates into unknown realms of intelligence and discovery. Bujalski stages a witty quote from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as he offers a computer’s eye view of two humans talking to each other, except where in Stanley Kubrick’s film, the sentient computer was defensively vigilant about the threat of his human charges, here the new artificial intelligence seems frustrated by how stilted and pedantic its human creators are and begins steering them toward new paradigms. Later, Beuscher nervously tells Peter about an exchange he had with the computer late at night when it seemed to start interacting sarcastically with him before prodding him to “ask your questions.” Beuscher asked, “Who are you?”, and the computer showed him a brief picture of an embryo in utero, before switching itself off. Rather than offering either maniacal super-intelligence as per scifi cliché or the benign boxes of helpfulness we’re used to, Bujalski intimates a Frankensteinlike aspect to the creation of computers, but more faithful to the original theme of Mary Shelley insofar as the creations map, mimic, and invert the faults and qualities of their creator. The good-humoured irony at the heart of Computer Chess is the notion that computers translate their programming into an urge to create connections, between each other and between their creators, the people who use them. It could be argued that the film is also a jokey metaphor for the roots of the internet age; with its billion-fold opportunities for linkage, one of the programmers only hesitantly ventures that one day computers may be used for dating.
For added piquancy, Bujalski turns the hotel into a strangely nebulous zone that acts like the programming limits of the games themselves, complete with mysterious glitches that suddenly puncture holes in reality. During one of his midnight rambles in search of a place to sleep, Papageorge encounters a single cat reclining in the laundry room. Soon the cats start proliferating, like bad patches of software. Papageorge has an allergy to the cats, and when he’s finally given a room, he picks up the hooker who constantly hovers outside the hotel and takes her there, only to find the room filled with cats, preventing him from entering. At first it seems like the cats are Papageorge’s hallucination, stemming from his sleep-deprived state, except that later, Henderson passes on the hotel’s apologies for the cats infesting the place. Papageorge is forced to continue his search for a spot to sleep, and camps out in the convention room. But this place has its own infestation: the hotel is splitting the use of the room between the chess competition and an encounter group run by an alleged African guru Keneiloe (Tishuan Scott) for his congregation of middle-aged hippies. Papageorge’s ordeal by humiliation thus reaches an apogee as he’s dragged into the group’s games, undergoing a ritualised rebirth.
Bujalski’s casting of a large number of nonprofessional actors, many from either the film world (Peary, Schwartz, Riester) or the computer world (Curry, Kindlmann) points to a neorealist sensibility, and indeed it gives the film its peculiar texture of veracity, particularly with the likes of Peary’s wonderfully awful MC work. But for all its esoteric flavour, Computer Chess has real and recognisable roots in a very Hollywood genre, the screwball comedy. The basic situation of a collection of weirdoes gathered in a hotel, indeed two different and irreconcilable kinds of weirdo, readily calls to mind films starring the Marx Brothers or Cary Grant. It’s easy to picture Papageorge in another era played by Grant, increasingly frustrated by his inability to find a place to sleep, a problem Grant indeed went through in Howard Hawks’ I Was a Male War Bride (1949). The gently affectionate mockery of nerds who need to get in touch with their inner troglodyte calls to mind other Hawks comedies like Bringing Up Baby (1938), Ball of Fire (1941), and Monkey Business (1953), in all of which the breakdown of order and scientific rationality is correlated to the impudence of nature’s version of the science the heroes try to corral. Peter and Shelly’s meet geek threatens to move into ’80s teen comedy or Jerry Lewis territory. Bujalski channels these influences tellingly, though whereas another kind of order underlies that surface anarchy in Hawks, here things are far more complicated. Irreconcilable systems are blurring. Artificial and organic intelligence are meeting and melding. Biology has been invaded. A cybernetic age is beginning.
Computer Chess also reminded me strongly of some quintessential films from the era in which it’s set, such as Dark Star (1974) and Repo Man (1984)—incidentally constructed, but richly composed works with a similarly, cheekily oddball spirit. Indeed, Bujalski seems almost nostalgic for the blurring of the present and the future in those films, for Computer Chess recreates that feeling, but in what is, for the filmmaker, the past. It has hints and hues, too, of Jacques Tati’s comedies of modernism and Brian De Palma’s formative works, whilst the black and white and lack of artifice call to mind early Jim Jarmusch. Whilst evoking such classic models, however, Computer Chess dives into the argot of the recent past. The video shooting facilitates this, but there’s more to it than that: a lot of contemporary directors have nostalgically referenced bygone modes of filmmaking, for example, J.J. Abrams’ much-noted efforts to recreate the flavour of ’70s cinematography, but Bujalski’s references are far less common. He tries to recreate the tone of no-budget documentaries, public TV specials, corporate training videos, and most particularly, the sort of filmmaking that came out of regional and university workshops, from a very specific era. The photography gets pixelated, blown out, and even riddled with hazy, smeared impressions from bright lights (not for nothing does Henderson warn the cameramen).
Some of Bujalski’s forebears in smart, independent cinema, including Jarmusch and John Sayles, have often been tagged less as film minds than writers with cameras, a problematic attitude. But in spite of the self-imposed technical limitations that endow this film with its lo-fi look, Bujalski’s framing and cutting are lissom, lively, and laced with a wide repertoire of film devices utilised in a deadpan and simple fashion—iris shots, abstruse framings, delicate tracking shots, split-screen effects, flashbacks, looping shots, even a truly peculiar special effect towards the end—that evince a sophisticated filmmaker trying archly not to seem like one. Lightly surreal humour and images that seem to have stumbled out of cheap, but inventive scifi TV shows coexist with nonchalant realism. The setting, an incredibly bland hotel and concrete surrounds, offers not the slightest photogenic purchase, but, of course, it helps the precision of the misè-en-scene in presenting a land beyond taste and character, like the starting point for an alternative timeline in which machines could well take over because human beings have become deadly dull.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Computer Chess is based in Bujalski’s contemplation on the roots of one part of the contemporary zeitgeist. He’s aware that most artists have, so far, generally failed to contemplate just how much the computer and internet age have created a new epoch. He delves into this new age, a very different kind of new age than the one conceived during the ’60s counterculture era, and yet stemming in part from aspects of that ideal. Bujalski focuses on a time when culture was in a state of flux after the ructions of the 1960s, and not doing it via the sexy story of some zillionaire like Steve Jobs, who did indeed provide a link between the ’60s era and the dawn of the personal-computer age in the’80s.
The technocrats of the tournament, living through supposedly serene, digitised simulacrums, and the encounter group faithful searching for immediate, sensitising tactile and experiential awareness, are directly contrasted, but also identified as similarly weird and interesting alternative worlds within worlds. Both have characters capable of speaking derisively about them, as Papageorge mocks the comp and one of the encounter group readily concedes Keneiloe might just be an entertaining fraud. There is mindfulness here of how both systems have apparently opposite worldviews but shared roots, and are linked by a hunger for new ways of experiencing and ordering the world. During the film’s most uncomfortable, sustained comic sequence, a couple from the encounter group, Dave (Chris Doubek) and Pauline (Cindy Williams) try to sell Peter on having a threesome with them. Pauline tries to prod Peter with appeals to expand his mind and experiences from the narrowness of his technological obsessions, to which Peter ripostes that the possible permutations of positions in his computer chess programme are staggeringly large, and his world of the mind equally vast, so Pauline’s rhetoric is in a way close-minded. Peter flees the couple in a panic, understandably, as Bujalski cunningly roots the discomfort of the scene not so much in the sexual offer, or even their disparate ages, so much as the weirdly parental method of seduction Pauline tries. Peter remains blocked, however, even as he catches Shelly’s eye. She instead has to bat off Papageorge’s entreaties, like his grimly hilarious chat-up line: “I’d be willing to bet that you and I are the only ones here who even understand that programming has a feminine side.” This aspect of Bujalski’s satire, the perception of the tech world’s awkward record of gender inclusivity, is perhaps the timeliest, although his touch is light: Shelly, like Peter, is an archetypal nerd.
Most of Computer Chess’s first two-thirds is fairly straightforward, and only in the endgame, as per the early discussion, does the program begin to break down; Bujalski achieves the sense of disordering in the way he puts the film together, revealing the genuine cinematic intelligence at work here. Papageorge’s program lives up to his reputation for avant-garde thought, but still fails to best Carbray’s more conventional, reliable invention, and the Brit takes out the competition. Whilst Papageorge and Peter vie to be protagonist in their sharply contrasting ways of being computer savants, Carbray emerges as the quiet hero, with his successful program, his intellectually curious and defensive engagements with John, and his likeably old-school approach to mood-altering: he announces that he’s scientifically determined that “a man on three scotches could program his way out any problem in the world.” John has his own opinion, as he berates the victory as “Goliath beating David.”
Having clearly counted on winning the tournament for the prize money, Papageorge is left broke and reduced to searching his house for money to pay off John’s partner Freddy (Freddy Martinez) for drugs he gave him, rushing back and forth whilst his mother regales Freddy with a biblical reading. Finally, Papageorge is caught in a looping segment of the film itself, which has shifted into blurry Super 8 colour as the setting has changed. Bujalski equates Papageorge’s existential situation with the faults of the old MIT computer, doomed to circle endlessly because of his own blind spots. Henderson takes on Carbray’s computer for an exhibition match, but finds that a problem with the booking means that the convention hall belongs to the encounter group. The group agree to share the space and become so interested, they crowd in on Henderson, who suffers a meltdown when the group reach out to absorb him into their number as a fellow sufferer in the new age. Peter seems on the verge of grand, new discoveries, both personal and technical, when he learns that Schoesser has indeed ceded the team’s work to the military for exploitation. He accidentally leaves open a window, and rain gets to the team’s computer, ruining it.
Peter is then left alone and in disgrace, unable to connect properly to Shelly, with her attention newly sensitised by Peter’s experiment and her own observations of how the people at the tournament move like chess pieces themselves in systems play for the sake of defence and offence. She and her team leave. Like Papageorge, Peter finally picks up the hooker, as if making a logical-minded attempt to purge his hang-ups and inexperience. The hooker strips off her clothes and sits on the bed beside him; Peter is carefully framed, downcast and quite literally oppressed by the drab, lifeless décor of the hotel. But then the hooker casually removes the side of her head, revealing flashing lights and gadgets within.
Perhaps Peter is the one hallucinating now, or perhaps he’s having a vision of the future when the technical and the human will conjoin, or merely wishing that humans could be opened up and rewired to work properly like his machines can. Either way, it’s a marvellous climactic image that reminded me of the conclusion of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), a sudden swerve into outright strangeness that signals things wonderful and frightening are happening, and the way we perceive reality is shifting. It’s undoubted that Computer Chess, like Berberian Sound Studio from earlier this year, a film with distinct similarities of focus and aesthetics, will prove a huge turn-off for many in its wonky form and mannerisms. But at a time when empty junk is passed off as game-changing cinematic brilliance, I found Bujalski’s wealth of ideas and quirk a tonic, and if not the best, Computer Chess is perhaps the most original American movie I’ve seen in 2013.
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Director: Jean-Marc Valée
By Roderick Heath
As a child of the ’80s, the menace of the AIDS epidemic is engraved on my formative years. The spectre of the disease’s infiltration into world consciousness and the widespread confusion it created was like an insidious flipside to the decade’s pervasive nuclear angst, like a choice of destruction from without or within. As an Australian, I readily recall the infamous “grim reaper” ad designed to foster alarm and caution in the general populace. The effect of this campaign was to generally traumatise kids my age, but it hit the mark in instantly making everyone aware of the general nature of the problem, as part of effective government programme of action.
Dallas Buyers Club harkens back to those tumultuous, scary days with a different paradigm, of course. The film revolves around a straight character’s battle with the disease in the context of the Reagan era in the U.S., when many felt that viewing AIDS as a specifically gay problem was being propagated by the attitude of a conservative government—the anger of the time still smoulders in the American LGBT community. Dallas Buyers Club recounts the fascinating true story of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a self-stereotyped Texan he-man with a love of rodeo riding, sex, and intoxicating substances. Introduced at the outset having a threesome with a pair of rodeo groupies in a bull holding cage whilst waiting for a different kind of ride, Ron is a professional electrician. He consumes sensations with ravening hunger, a Falstaffian figure, albeit one who, far from being garrulously corpulent, has mysteriously been worn to a stalk instead.
Ron is diagnosed with full-blown AIDS when he lands in hospital after getting electrocuted on the job, and is given 30 days to live, with the suggestion that he go home and put his affairs in order. Ron rejects the diagnosis in disbelief, but when he learns it’s entirely possible to have contracted it through unprotected sex and intravenous drug use, he puts himself in the hands of Drs. Sevard (Denis O’Hare) and Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner). He’s made furious when he learns he’s going to be included in a research study of the effects of the experimental drug AZT, but won’t know if he’s receiving the drug or a placebo. Instead, he starts paying bribes to a hospital orderly to smuggle him doses of the drug. As his 30 days run out and his supply is suddenly cut off by tightening security, he contemplates suicide, but instead follows the orderly’s suggestion to go south of the border in search of a banished gringo doctor named Vass (Griffin Dunne).
Vass introduces him to other drugs and supplements he believes are less corrosive than AZT. Ron, seeing not just hope for himself but also a major opportunity, fills the trunk of his car with this contraband, bluffing his way past border cops by posing as a cancer-stricken priest who is bringing a stash in for his own use. He sets up a business he dubs the Dallas Buyers Club, a technical subversion of FDA regulations that allows him to give foreign, unapproved drugs to members who pay a $400 monthly fee as club members. Aiding him in the business is a would-be trans woman, Rayon (Jared Leto), whom Ron met in hospital as a fellow AZT trial recipient. In spite of Ron’s brusque homophobia, he and Rayon form a working relationship as Rayon knows many potential members for the club.
Ron, used to being a good old boy at the dead centre of macho Texan culture, is suddenly faced with cruel ostracism by friends, neighbours, and his landlord: finding himself locked out of his trailer home, Ron blasts off the lock, removes his money and a painting done by his mother, and struts away with his signature rejoinder: “Y’all go fuck yerselves.” This experience primes Ron, however reluctantly, to form a bond with Rayon and other sufferers, and get over himself enough to venture into a gay bar on the hunt for new customers. Humiliated by an encounter with a gang of his pals, Ron takes revenge when, in the company of Rayon, he meets one former friend, T.J. (Kevin Rankin), and through a display of forces, compells T.J. to shake Rayon’s hand. The only one of Ron’s old buddies who sticks by him is Dallas beat cop Tucker (Steve Zahn), one of that variety of character who turn up when required by the plot.
Ron is the sort of character any actor might consider donating organs to get their hands on, and McConaughey brings him roaring to impudent, individual life. McConaughey’s severe weight loss, dropping all the buffness he showed off in Magic Mike (2012) to facilitate his performance, is a fairly familiar act of actor masochism in the hunt for gold statuary. But it’s backed up here with an expert sense of physical performance, as McConaughey nails the gait of a man not used to his current weight because he’s lost so much of it in a short time, as well as the many fluctuations of Ron’s mental and physical condition, from outrageous drunkenness to fiery combativeness. McConaughey cunningly doesn’t play Ron as cool as Ron thinks he is, presenting a scrappy survivor, glimpsed early on running from guys who want to beat him up, who might once have been a golden boy like McConaughey’s own younger self, but who now gets along on raw nerve and charm. This is some fine film acting, using the body as malleable canvas, but not neglecting other gifts: a great deal of the entertainment value of the film is sourced in Woodroof’s dexterity and inspiration in getting around the rules and his mysteriously protean abilities, able to demolish stereotypes by using them to his own ends.
Dallas Buyers Club, as a film, is by far at its best in the first half when concentrating on Ron’s dizzied journey from the centre to the fringe of his culture, and the confrontation with mortality by such a rudely sensual man, who deals with imminent death in the same way he deals with everything else, with fuck-you attitude, wheeler-dealer conceit, and spidery wit. He prays at one point for a chance to catch his breath when faced with scarcely a month of life ahead of him, but then hits the ground running and finds this keeps him alive. His unpleasant side, bound up with his culturally enabled, and indeed, dictated dislike of queers, is eventually found to stem from the same source as his best quality, his gleeful skill and wit in a fight. He’s a guy who loves contention and defining himself in combative situations, so there’s no real change involved in his move from aiming nasty, gay-baiting barbs at Rayon to suddenly defending his honour. He soon finds that side of his nature more than occupied by his ongoing combat with experts and official gatekeepers like Sevard and FDA honcho Richard Barkley (Michael O’Neill), who try to shut down the club for reasons Ron and, eventually, Eve come to believe are bound up in the cosy relationship the American medical establishment and bureaucracy have with Big Pharma. Warned by Vass that AZT is highly toxic, Ron upbraids Sevard and others for continuing to use it. Faced with having his stock impounded and government audits, Ron refuses to stop propagating his own regimen, flying around the world in search of new supplies and treatments, and expanding his variety of guises to bring them back.
Despite its qualities as a character portrait and actor’s showcase in its early phases, Dallas Buyers Club proves a much less compelling experience than it initially promises to be. The director is Jean-Marc Valée, who last took a tilt at prestige cinema with The Young Victoria (2009), a very ordinary costume biopic jazzed up with some showy, but pointless directorial technique. Valée tackles this subject more aptly with that energy, trying to shape the film via arty visual and aural flourishes designed give the audience the same slightly woozy, breathless, simultaneously spacy and intense mental landscape Ron has. Valée, who also edited the film, uses Godardian jump cuts, hazy and semi-abstract point-of-view shots, and manipulated sound similar to an effect used many times on the TV show “Breaking Bad” where someone zones out with a faint whistling sound that deadens everything else. The opening scene with Ron’s sexual escapade in the bullpen is a strong example, as Valée suggests intensely corporeal erotic action in hyper-contrast to the bullriding beyond the grating, conjoining the sexual act and the rider’s fall, a miniature portrait of the life cycle itself. It’s a great start, one with a purposeful technique and artfulness Valée can’t sustain in part because both the uneasy relationship of the messiness of life and the programmatic script forestall it. Valée’s directing gives a veneer of edginess to a film that’s actually deeply conventional.
The film’s second half begins to devolve into a series of loosely connected scenes, particularly in making room for Ron’s relationship with Eve. McConaughey and Garner, in other circumstances, could be a great onscreen couple, but the necessarily platonic stuff here doesn’t feel anything but fake, especially considering that Eve is present in the painfully clichéd role of the company girl charmed by the ragged but loveable rogue who slowly changes allegiances. This climaxes, embarrassingly, when Eve stomps out of a meeting with hospital chiefs who try to make her resign, tossing Ron’s vulgar preferred farewell over her shoulder. Ha ha, she’s a goody-goody doctor, and she just swore like a redneck, ha ha.
Rayon is a character by now as clichéd as Eve, the fabulous, spunky, doomed queen sidekick: he’s practically interchangeable with figures like Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Lola in Kinky Boots (2005) whilst also recalling the Blanche Dubois school of transgender tragic. Rayon’s relationship with his boyfriend (Bradford Cox) isn’t given any study, nor is said boyfriend even given a name: you just see the two constantly frolicking together. Leto’s smug and artificial performance doesn’t help bring any new depth to this character, though there is one good touch to it, insofar as that early in the film Leto offers an androgynously beautiful façade that gets seedier as the film goes along. This accords with perhaps the film’s slyest joke, albeit one that’s not that well developed, as Ron becomes the more stereotypically gay member of their partnership. Ron offers a nurturing influence, dictating a healthy lifestyle and giving Rayon a hard time for his increasing drug use as Rayon copes with existential dread with mood-altering substances, whilst Ron deals with his in his combative labours.
Meanwhile, Valée and writers Melisa Wallack and Craig Borten try to wring the material for pathos whilst dancing around the painful business at the centre of the tale. In offering Woodroof as an antihero, Dallas Buyers Club seeks to shake up our perception of virtue, joining an increasing body of prestige pics like Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) in which the protagonists are figures of unruly sexual and sensatory appetites. At the same time, the film falls back on some very old tricks of the crusader biopic, offering convenient representatives of official villainy as arch as those found in examples of the genre from the 1930s, like The House of Rothschild (1934) and The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936)—which is, I admit, one of the more fun things about those movies, but not necessarily a good reason why that sort of thing is needed in a serious-minded movie now. Dallas Buyers Club plays its politics with fascinatingly equivocal precision, presenting a rootin’-tootin’ good old boy as saviour of the queers whilst taking on the big boys in a film that plays equally on liberal dislike of corporate-influenced governance and Tea Party loathing of federal institutions, in spite of the apparently much more complex history behind this tale, and generally ignoring the wider picture of the AIDS epidemic. I do like that the news broadcasts used to give some background information in the film seem to be real, as fake ones used for exposition are one of my singular pet peeves in films. Not there’s anything new about distorting history for the sake of a good story, but that’s just the problem: there’s nothing new here, an interesting true story reprocessed into a stock star vehicle, vague and platitudinous in its actual social perspective.
If Dallas Buyers Club doesn’t sink to the level of dread offered by the likes of The Help (2011) in jerking off the audience for sharing the right opinion about period social injustices, it’s because Valée and his cast sustain their ornery energy. The film offers seemingly casual, but sharply realised moments of interaction and odd-couple humour, as Ron and Rayon’s relationship finds spiky, fraternal stability, for example, Rayon teasing Ron by sticking up pictures of his own favoured love object, Marc Bolan, amongst Ron’s girly pics. There’s tang to the film’s evocation of life in the byways of Dallas, particularly the motel the becomes the base of operations for the club, which Ron unapologetically runs as both public good and capitalist enterprise to rows of needy, would-be club members queued up outside. One neat sequence of Ron’s misadventures depicts him going to Japan, engaging in difficult and costly deal-making, returning unscathed into the U.S. by pretending to be a physician raving on a huge ’80s mobile phone, but then being done in by the very drug he’s just brought back when he tries it to relieve his symptoms in the airport bathroom and gives himself a heart attack.
The film avoids realistic depiction of death by AIDS to a weird and discomforting degree. Everyone goes along fine until Rayon suddenly keels over, and Ron experiences that whistling zone-out a few times, including once at an intersection as cars zip dangerously close to him. Apart from these episodes, Valée is pretty coy about the gruelling nature of the film’s motivating subject, believing perhaps that audiences are turned off by carcinoma far more readily than the sight of slim, pretty Leto snorting cocaine. Rayon does die, giving Ron and the film an appropriate emotional wallop, but it happens off-screen and comes practically out of nowhere. This lack, this avoidance of actually confronting the tenuousness of mortality and the tragedy that underlies even Ron’s punchy sense of purpose, robs Dallas Buyers Club of its natural conclusion, and also its character. Because sooner or later, this is tragedy, the tragedy of an era and a still-present reality the film tries to avoid admitting. So determined is it to send the audience out of the theatre with a positive vibe that even though Ron loses his climactic challenge in the courts to keep his business going, we still get the regulation scene of him being greeted on return by a clapping crowd of friends and supporters. Still, Valée returns to his opening for the very last image, with Ron preparing for a bull ride, spied between two slatted bars, caught in a freeze-frame atop the beast as Valée closes the loop of Ron’s life.
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Director/Screenwriter: Lucrecia Martel
By Marilyn Ferdinand
A little over a week ago, I reviewed the feature film Hannah Arendt (2012), about the famous German-Jewish philosopher during the period when she observed the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann and wrote a series of articles and a book about it. Arendt coined the phrase “banality of evil” to suggest that Eichmann was an efficient bureaucrat who had literally lost the ability to think for himself, that his fiendish crimes became normalized for him to the point that there seemed to be no moral imperative surrounding his actions at all. Hannah Arendt centers around an observer of evil, and even though it includes some of the actual footage of Eichmann testifying during the trial, we, like Arendt, remain on the outside looking in.
As scary as it sounds, what would happen if we could actually experience the world as Eichmann did, from inside his head? What we would learn? Argentinian director/screenwriter Lucrecia Martel takes on just such an improbable mission with her intriguing and somewhat exasperating film The Headless Woman. The film concerns itself with a hit-and-run accident that occurs on an isolated road when the driver, Verónica (María Onetto), takes her eyes off the road for a moment to answer her cellphone. The bulk of the film actually tries to put us inside Veró’s head as she tries to process the fact that she may have killed someone.
The opening scene of three boys and a dog running along and across the road, jumping into and climbing out of an empty viaduct, and generally playing around is shot in the clear, sunny day with a sharpness that emphasizes their youthful vitality. The scene shifts to a group of women moving to their cars in a parking lot, with snatches of conversation that resemble Robert Altman’s overlapping dialogue, though in this case, we are brought into a dialogue that has been ongoing for weeks and must hunt for meaning. One woman compliments Veró on her blonde coiffure, and Veró responds that the chlorine is making it fade.
Another cut reveals Veró driving alone, listening to the radio. When her cellphone goes off, her head turns toward us and then down. The car is jostled as we hear one and then another loud bump. Veró eventually stops, visibly shaken, and sits catching her breath for several long moments. She looks in her rearview and sideview mirrors. We see what looks like a dog laying by the side of the road, but the car is distant enough to make identification difficult for us. Eventually, Veró puts the car in gear and drives off. She continues to monitor her car mirrors with worried confusion.
The next time we see her is at a hospital. She has a small bandage on her forehead, and is admitted for x-rays. A man (Daniel Genoud) comes to see her, and she embraces him to be comforted with sex. Who is he? We won’t find out for some time, but when Veró returns home, we learn that he’s not her husband Marcos (César Bordón). Much of what we learn about her comes indirectly from the people around her who are carrying on as usual—Veró herself says almost nothing for days, moving like a stunned animal through her home, her dental practice, and her social engagements. Eventually, however, she moves out of the shock of denial and shares with Marcos her fear that she killed someone on the road.
The terrible burden of moral culpability is what is on display in The Headless Woman. Martel tries to put us inside Veró’s head, conjuring a sensory experience that is both heightened and disoriented. The bright, sharp look of the opening scene gives way to a darker, more diffuse look that communicates a world gone out of focus, leeched of recognizable detail and simple joy. Martel trains her camera intently on Veró, tightly shooting her face at the edge of the frame, often with actions occurring behind her. Onetto often looks as though her thoughts are painfully fragmented, that she is “headless” in the aftermath of the accident. The withholding of information, the shards of relationships glimpsed in passing, all serve to draw us into Veró’s emotional universe.
They say that naming the problem is the first psychological step to solving it, and for Veró, sharing her secret not only relieves some of the pressure, but also allows others to intervene on her behalf. It is here that the film moves out of its almost experimental phase and progresses as a slightly more traditional narrative, or at least one that fills in a lot of the blanks. The threads of what were just images now come into focus—these are Veró’s aunt and cousins, this is the volunteer work she does at a school, here is confirmation that she has two daughters. And significantly, here are the employer, friends, and family of the boy she killed, completely unaware of who she is.
Martel is so intent that we virtually experience Veró’s trauma that despite her cuts that compress the week or so during which this narrative takes place, we seem to experience it in real time. Onetto has a huge job, on camera for nearly the entire running time, a camera peering into her face looking for Veró’s soul. She is never less than compelling to look at, but Martel has set up what I think is an impossible task. Just as Hannah Arendt tried, and actually failed, to divine the mystery of Eichmann’s soul, we cannot simply look at Veró’s face, even one that communicates emotion and trauma, and feel inside her. Indeed, we can’t do that in face-to-face interactions.
A secondary commentary arises after Veró shares her secret, that of class entitlement. Veró is from the professional class, and as her shock wears off, so does her moral quandary, a fading that becomes all the more easy as her husband “takes care of” her problem by erasing any traces of her actions. In some ways, it was comforting to see a more conventional resolution to the movie, with Veró washing that dead boy right out of her hair by going back to her natural brown color—though she hastens to add to her friend that her hair has probably gone grey under the serial dye jobs. It’s frustrating trying to feel something it’s impossible to feel unless you’ve actually had the experience of killing someone accidentally. But some of us can relate to someone taking care of our problems for us, and we can all relate to recovering from a trauma and finding ways to go on with our lives that often involve willful forgetting. Is that what Hannah Arendt meant when she said that Eichmann had lost the capacity to think? For The Headless Woman, the answer appears to be “yes.”
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Director: Sebastián Cordero
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Even as the big-money people in the United States are freaking out about how our children are lagging behind those in other countries in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and pouring tons of their ill-gotten booty into STEM education, Hollywood and indie films alike continue to push fear and superstition as the major consequences of exploring nature and the universe. From the horrors of cloning (Moon , Primer ) and dangers of space exploration (Apollo 13 , Red Planet ) to the wrong-headedness of atheism (Contact , Gravity ) and threat of aliens (all the Alien movies), our movies are telling us to remain god-fearing people who will only be safe and happy in our own backyard.
Certainly there are dangers involved in exploration, and have been since the first human beings migrated from humanity’s place of origin millennia ago. But even as Dorothy Gale told herself over and over that there’s no place like home, she enthused to Auntie Em and Uncle Henry that most of Oz was absolutely beautiful, a place of color that contrasted the black-and-white bleakness of Kansas, and a place where she made lasting friendships. I have been hoping that one day we’d emerge from our self-imposed prison of fear and start declaring and acting on, as Frank Zappa said, how “fucking great [it is] to be alive.” While Gravity chose to dazzle and frighten us and take us back to safety, an indie film that has garnered more buzz than box office, Europa Report, offers us a dangerous journey of discovery that sends back to us a message of hope and wonder untainted by superstition and narrow-focused fear, a feeling the world as a whole has not experienced since the first person walked on the moon in 1969.
Reflecting the reality that governments are no longer willing to support space exploration, a private company is behind the mission to send a six-person, international team of scientists and engineers to Europa, a moon of Jupiter. The expedition’s mission is to see if there may be life on Europa, following a real-life theory that massive oceans may be flowing beneath the moon’s ice sheet. The film toggles between a talking-heads-style documentary of the company’s executive team, Dr. Unger (Embeth Davidtz), Dr. Sokolov (Dan Folger), and Dr. Pamuk (Isaiah Whitlock, Jr.), who describe what happened when ground control lost communication with the spacecraft, and the details of the mission.
Before communication with Earth is interrupted, we get the kind of footage most of us are used to seeing of life on a spacecraft—messages to loved ones, a communal meal, demonstrations of weightlessness and how the crew works out to keep their muscles from shriveling. The actual loss of communication is very realistic, as the picture being transmitted breaks up, freezes, and finally dies. Thereafter, all the footage we see is from the on-board video recorders and the video feeds in the crew’s spacesuits during out-of-craft missions. The ever-present logo in the lower right corner of the screen, as well as the identifying stamps of the mission cameras, seem to disappear as we become enveloped in the crew’s drama of discovery, but they also provide a subtle link to the documentary-like footage of the company executives that puts the entire film into perspective.
Like real-life space travel, the Europa mission is a hazardous one, and crew members do die along the way. One of the crew is shut out of the craft when his suit becomes contaminated with a highly toxic substance during a repair job that could kill them all. He doesn’t want to die—and we don’t want him to die after seeing his obvious love for the family he left behind—but he takes his fate philosophically. The crew member who was with him, also in danger from a puncture to his space suit, is only dissuaded from helping his crew mate because he passes out from lack of oxygen. When he revives in the airlock of the ship, his cry of anguish is wrenching and real.
The landing on Europa doesn’t go exactly as planned, as the crew misses the target landing space by 100 meters because of an unexpected heat vent that blows the landing craft off course. This is a lovely touch, showing that the precise planning of the mission is always subject to change due to unknown natural conditions the crew may encounter. So many fact-based science fiction films make everything seem to run like clockwork, with the only snafus coming from human error or equipment mishaps. They forget what we have sought in space—the unknown wonders of the universe.
What else is extraordinarily refreshing, something that harkens back to the fictions produced during the early days of space exploration, is a sense of excitement and awe the crew displays. We only see what the crew sees—some narrowly delineated looks at the surface of Europa, for example, though director Cordero ensures that we see an entrancing image of Jupiter on the horizon. The crew drills a large hole through the ice sheet, and a camera records a first look at the predicted, and now confirmed, ocean below. When marine biologist Katya (Karolina Wydra) goes out to collect samples after the remote collection equipment fails, we see her unscrewing and resealing jars, and then move toward some lights in the distance. Her enthusiasm and curiosity sweep us along with her.
The film’s budget seems relatively modest, with the personnel and the spacecraft (green screens were employed for the out-of-craft shots) the major expenditures in what is essentially a one-set film. Despite the craft looking like an exploded hardware store later in the film, Europa Report creates an impressive, largely believable world of its own. Crew actions make sense, except perhaps for Katya’s refusal to return to the landing craft after being ordered to twice.
The overall feeling of the film is one of camaraderie, dedication, and self-sacrifice. William Xu (Daniel Wu) is a believable mission leader who is both decisive and willing to sacrifice life and limb for his crew. Russian crew members Andrei (Michael Nyqvist) and Katya huddle from time to time to check on each other’s state of mind, a concern for their mutual welfare part and parcel of the mission. Andrei’s and crew member Rosa’s (Anamaria Marinca) dedication to Katya, in fact, ensures that her discoveries on Europa will be communicated back to Earth. The final takeaway of this film is that some causes are worth any sacrifice, including one’s life and peace of mind. We live in unusually selfish times, so this message delivered by an international cast and crew in a thoughtfully rendered, exciting, and entertaining film is timely and welcome.
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Director/Screenwriter: Asghar Farhadi
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
Asghar Farhadi, since his critical breakthrough with About Elly (2009) and the international success of A Separation (2011), seems to embody several arresting contradictions. He’s an Iranian filmmaker, and like many of the captivating talents that country has produced in the past few decades, the restrictions placed on what artists can depict only seem to have liberated a deeper fount of creativity. He’s a more convincingly sophisticated artist of the interpersonal drama than just about any western filmmaker to emerge in recent years, acute to the rhythms and quirks of contemporary life and morals. But his methods avoid the deadweight reflexes of too much modern pseud drama and cinema. His work has some similarities to that now-common brand of realist filmmaking best exemplified by the likes of the Dardennes brothers, but really seems to harken back more to the theatrical traditions of major 19th century playwrights like Strindberg, Ibsen, and Chekhov and the dense, morally and psychologically interrogative efforts of European film greats like Ingmar Bergman’s early, more domestically focused works and aspects of Roberto Rossellini and Robert Bresson’s oeuvres. Whilst not as cinematically vivid as Bergman or as stringent as Bresson, Farhadi creates, like them, vivid, exactingly wrought tales of interpersonal crisis and conflict with a discreet sense of social context. Farhadi’s filmmaking is sleek and functional, but not in an impersonal fashion: there’s a tautness and concision to his framings and camerawork, a sense of space and the largesse of the screen, which feels organic, even epic.
The Past, his latest film, shifts ground insofar as it’s a French film, set in Paris, though it does deal with Iranian émigrés, with a subtle undertow in the dramatic flow stemming from the dissonance of displacement and estrangement. The search for exact truth in A Separation and The Past is both the aim of the characters and an impossibility because the viewpoints keep shifting. Motivations that make perfect sense to one might be incomprehensible to another. Experience and truth spread out in interlapping but distinct ripples from the actions of each character.
Farhadi kicks off with Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) arriving at a Paris airport where he’s met by his wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo): she spies him through a pane of glass separating the incoming passengers and they communicate amusedly via signs and mouthed words. This proves to be the easiest, most relaxed act of communication in the film, because once the glass is gone, discomforting familiarity begins to creep in. The two make a mad dash through the rain in almost romantic fashion, but then they’re locked in a small, breathless, steamy car together. It becomes clear that Ahmad has returned to Paris from Iran to give Marie a divorce after several years of separation. Marie stops by a high school en route to pick up eldest daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet), but she’s already fled, as has been her recent habit. Entering the yard of Marie’s sizeable old townhouse, Ahmad is recognised by one of the children playing in the yard, Léa (Jeanne Jestin), but not the other, Fouad (Elyes Aguis), the son of Marie’s current beau, Samir (Tahar Rahim). Ahmad arrives apparently oblivious to Marie’s current situation and is bewildered because she’s neglected to book him a hotel room. She says she held off with the booking because the last time he planned to come, he failed to show.
Marie tries to billet him in a bunk bed with Fouad, but Fouad throws a tantrum and tries to flee the house for his and his father’s apartment. An infuriated Marie drags him back and locks him in a parlour. The camera takes Ahmad’s place as accidental eavesdropper as Marie’s struggle with Fouad, staged and shot from a high window as a half-comic, half-alarming Coyote and Road Runner chase about the back yard. Soon, the tension underlying the strained attempts at civility and modern cool about the odd family situation proves to have deeper sources, and the sense that some explosion is inevitable builds as Ahmad comes to realise what’s going on. One of Farhadi’s most fundamental observational and dramatic elements here is also one of the more problematic aspects of his film: the family under study here is complicated, with about one layer too many for use. Neither Lucie nor Léa are Ahmad’s children, but the product of yet another of Marie’s ill-fated unions: their father lives in Brussels. But this difficulty is part of Farhadi’s point, that today, many families are indeed such fluid, ad hoc, but perversely binding creations, easy to leave but impossible to escape.
Farhadi’s observational streak is in marvellous form in these scenes: Ahmad and Marie trying to dry themselves with tissues in the car; the blob of spilt paint that drives Marie into a rage with Fouad, and Fouad’s hostile, but curious first handshake with Ahmad; Ahmad dutifully taking a blow dryer to Marie’s hair after they arrive home; Ahmad’s quizzicality and Fouad’s fury as they try to make up the bunk-bed they share, each aware to a degree that they’re extraneous males in the house and somehow, intentionally or not, they’ve been put together for that reason; Fouad viciously stabbing at corncobs in reactive irritation when helping Ahmad prepare dinner until he cuts himself; the few seconds it takes Léa to recognise her stepfather, whom she then calls by his first name but with genuine affection, revealing much about his parental status. Lucie, when she does finally show up, takes refuge in her bedroom, but Ahmad is able to communicate with her, especially when he takes her to visit his friend, Shahryar (Babak Karimi), another expat who runs a café, providing memories of happier times. Meanwhile, Samir sits in the paternal position at the table, but with distinct unease: Lucie won’t speak to him, and he distractedly tries to observe how Marie acts with Ahmad, peering out at them as he tries to paint a room.
Samir runs an inner-city dry cleaners, and, it emerges, he still has a wife, albeit one who’s in a coma she will probably never come out of. Her state is the result of depression-fueled suicide attempt in front of Samir’s assistant, Naïma (Sabrina Ouazani), an illegal immigrant. That malady and suicidal thoughts have also dogged Ahmad, as his inability to adjust to life in France destroyed his marriage to Marie, but he generally seems pleasant and intelligent. Soon, however, he is placed under strange pressures that rub his patience raw, as Marie asks him to speak to Lucie and find out why she’s been difficult recently. Ahmad solicitously interviews Lucie and is satisfied at first with Lucie’s explanation that she doesn’t want her mother to get married again, especially to a man Lucie dislikes.
A delicate equilibrium forms in Marie’s house as Ahmad plays house-husband, cooking meals and trying to fix a faulty sink, a task which Samir takes over after Ahmad seems to have effortlessly stitched himself into the fabric of the place, even proving skilled at drawing Fouad out of his funk. Samir’s stern approach to fathering contrasts Ahmad’s ability to create a rapport with the kids: after Fouad and Léa pinch one of Ahmad’s gifts for the family from his suitcase, Samir puts Fouad through an interrogation where he forces the lad to meet his eyes and doesn’t want to let the kids get away with apologising because that would teach them all they have to do is say they’re sorry to be absolved. This seemingly throwaway moment proves to be the film’s main thesis, as Farhadi examines the way people try to mollify others with civilities, but nonetheless take actions that incur genuine consequences.
The younger characters contrast the older ones. Marie, in particular, tries to discard the past before it strangles her chances for happiness, whereas the children try to cling to their pasts, the things they know. Fouad deals with alienation and changes with bratty aggression, whilst Lucie plays adult games and is shocked at the real, awful consequences that occur. Farhadi’s fascination for watching ambiguities in a situation proliferate until all viewpoints seem to cancel each other out recalls Otto Preminger’s, and, indeed, aspects of the story resemble Bonjour Tristesse (1958), particularly in the theme of a teen girl trying to thwart a parent’s love affair, and standing back in shock at the results. Lucie’s angst, it emerges, stems from her distaste for Marie and Samir’s relationship, a distaste that proves much deeper and more significant than mere adolescent resentment. Lucie almost desperately explains to Ahmad that Marie’s remarriage would mean she would lose her old home, the one they shared with Ahmad, forever, and later furiously informs Ahmad, “You know why she went to that filthy man? Because he reminded her of you.” Lucie’s observation here seems coldly accurate on at least one level, as Samir certainly suggests Ahmad Mark II, less interesting and talented as a family man, but more reassuringly mundane and workaday.
Marie works as a chemist around the corner from Samir’s laundry, and they seem nicely in synch as sleek, fit, moderately successful worker bees. One of Farhadi’s most succinct shots offers a trio of fancy lampshades for redecorating the house, signifying their hope for the future and also their status as bourgeois clichés in their fetishism of faux-antique security. They move like people who know the score and carry a faint aura of both longing and old hurt in their manners. Marie and Samir’s desire to get on with life together and cast off old baggage has a wilful quality with a vaguely psychopathic note, which they themselves have noticed and which haunts their every motion. This note turns out to have predated the tragedy of Samir’s wife: they started an affair before the suicide attempt, when Marie was lonely and Samir stopped by the chemist’s for his wife’s antidepressants. Ahmad and Samir’s wife (like Marie, she’s “French”) share maladies, as both are depressives who are written off as deadweight by their functional spouses, wrong choices who don’t fit with the program.
Farhadi’s major conceit in telling this story lies in how he moves distinctly between four characters as focal point, from Ahmad to Lucie to Marie to Samir, with Samir scarcely making an impression in the first half-hour as the perspective belongs to Ahmad; by the end, Ahmad has more or less vanished, written out of the drama as he becomes irrelevant to the new marital quandary. The kitchen of Marie’s house becomes shifting territory in domestic war. The film’s middle act is, in its dramatic structure, a little like one of those slapstick comedy gags where characters dart in and out of a long corridor, disappearing and reappearing in increasingly tangled and improbable places and patterns, as Lucie vanishes, forcing the others to hunt for her. Tempers boil, old wounds open, resentments arise, tiny physical and emotional cues spark heated reactions, and in trying to deal with the problem they chase their own tails.
Eventually, the real root of the drama is revealed as Lucie confesses that she believes Marie and Samir’s affair caused the attempted suicide of Samir’s wife. Ahmad tries to assuage her fears by having her talk to Naïma, whose account of the day puts the tragic turn down to altercations with a client. But, both Lucie and Naïma have secrets involving that day. Lucie confesses hers first: she logged on to Marie’s computer and forwarded to Samir’s wife the emails Marie and Samir had been writing to each other. The notion of verboten love letters resting at the heart of a familial melodrama is given a cunning modern makeover by this device, as the email medium’s rapidity has removed the safeguards of time from the heat of immediate strong feeling, which I’m sure we’re familiar with now—the “I shouldn’t have done that” moment where technology has allowed emotion to outpace good sense. Indeed, the ambiguity of such communication has already been touched on, as Marie and Ahmad bicker about whether she really sent him messages that would have forestalled the accommodation problems he’s faced with on his arrival. Ahmad’s attempt to mediate Marie’s discovery of Lucie’s awful, guilty act and make sure the rupture is stemmed results only in an ugly explosion of rage and grief, as Marie assaults her daughter in the kitchen, screaming with telling outrage, “How could you do this to me?” The film has obviously been building up to such an eruption, though Farhadi delays it cleverly. The hot flare of Marie’s anger doesn’t last long, and she calls her forlorn daughter back from the railway station as she prepares to take her leave, perhaps the film’s finest recognition of the way powerful emotions alternate and feed each other in family conflicts, the rapid successions of egocentric rage and abject forgiveness.
Lucie’s confession seems to offer a cut-and-dried confirmation of the anxiety behind Marie and Samir’s relationship, the one that constantly threatens to cleave them apart in guilt and shame, already apparent in the simple act of trying to hold hands, but it soon proves even more complex. Naïma proves to have played a part, too, as she provided another link in the chain that might have brought the adulterous messages to the wife’s attention as a petty revenge for suspicions that she and Samir were having the affair. When the investigations to nail down the truth lead Samir to his employee, he angrily ejects her from his life and her job. But the onus of causative guilt can’t be shifted so easily onto Naïma’s act of hapless spite, for, as she retorts to Samir, she still can’t understand why Samir’s wife staged her act in front of her instead of him or Marie. Naïma, like Sareh Bayat’s Razieh in A Separation, becomes a figure the other characters try to turn into a villain for her genuine act of wrongdoing, but with obnoxious readiness on their part to offload their own guilt whilst disregarding the anxiety and difficult position that caused the wrong in the first place. The point is plain, but thankfully not forced down our throats: as much as the characters want to, there’s no easy moral out for anyone. Farhadi is obviously staging a merciless gag at the expense of the modern faith in “closure,” the idea that a ritualised conclusion for something will sever past from future and remake you. “I didn’t want you to be in torment for the rest of your life!” Ahmad explains to Lucie, a sobbing, fleeing mess after being ejected by Marie. “I’m not now?” a beggared Marie retorts.
The Past, from its title inward, notes that human character is the sum of its accumulated experiences rather than a free-floating entity, and by definition, therefore, the past cannot be left behind. On the most literal and humdrum level here, this is apparent in the complex mesh of affection and enmity, hope and disappointment that exists between Ahmad and Marie and the children, with Samir as ambiguous new spoke on the wheel and the body of Samir’s wife, paralysed, probably brain-dead, voiceless and powerless, but doggedly clinging to life with tormenting ambiguity. Farhadi, who’s already taken aim at the byzantine, unforgiving qualities of his homeland’s mix of theocracy and bureaucracy in civil life, explores this new realm on the microcosmic level, wringing out each character’s attitude to their own lives past and future, but with overtones that could also be cultural and political. Just as western bourgeois family life is predicated today around an unstable binary ideal of personal liberty that can, on the basic levels of society, both bind and damage individuals and those close to them, so, too, are western bourgeois politics based on a sharklike need for forward movement, a carefully fostered rejection of the past.
Indeed, the family under study here quickly comes to resemble modern geopolitics. There are proliferating ghosts of past wrongs with accompanying guilt complexes, accumulating dependents, self-righteous busy bodies, emotional and physical emigrants, and bewildered holders of dual citizenship: Ahmad’s status as a man not at home in France, but solitary in Iran correlates to Lucie’s feelings of uncertainty about three different, equal variations of her “family.” There are makeshift states, acts of terrorism, invasions, and even moments of peace and amity. Farhadi is not a political filmmaker, at least not in the didactic sense, or even a maker of parables, but his observations of human behaviour on a small scale are relevant to the larger. The theatrical sensibility Farhadi brings to his material is more noticeable here than with A Separation. If it seems to be a slightly lesser achievement, it might well stem from the lack of the overarching tension the earlier film sustained about the contentious relationship of the individual to the state. Farhadi was able to string out elaborate narrative pressures and concurrent emotional volatility in his characters from very simple acts because of that contention, whereas in transferring his methodology to a French setting, he needs to up the stakes to shake up his characters to the same degree: instead of an irritable shove now, the story linchpin is an attempted suicide. The more melodramatic quality is apparent.
Yet Farhadi’s fondness for devices that put his characters under pressures greater than usual is one of his strongest traits as an artist and puts him most directly in contact with the great realists and naturalists of European literature: Dostoevsky, of course, meditated on psychological and metaphysical matters, but usually got to them through the stuff of pulp, like money and murder. There’s a sharpness and urgency to the drama, a sense of danger to the characters beyond a haze of mere middle-class moping, a precise sense of the forces that push ordinary people into zones of behaviour and consequence beyond what they can handle, but without needing to introduce spies or serial killers. But Farhadi’s method actually feels to close to Alfred Hitchcock’s, as odd as that sounds, particularly works like Rebecca (1940) and Under Capricorn (1949), which have strikingly similar story elements and emotional resonances, only contextualised differently. And whilst The Past has some elements in common with the mainstream Hollywood drama The Descendants (2011), what distinguishes Farhadi’s work is the rigour of his writing in achieving an attitude that too many would-be serious filmmakers fail to achieve, which is to be both dramatically involving and successfully ambivalent at the same time. Farhadi’s casting and handling of the actors is superlative. Bejo couldn’t have asked for a more vivid contrast to her role in The Artist (2011) as a follow-up. But Farhadi also gets great performances out of young Aguis, as well as Burlet, who embodies Lucie with a refreshing lack of the kind of pouty insouciance with which such teenage girls are usually portrayed.
Finally, Farhadi suggests, life probably demands a capacity to simply push forward regardless, a capacity that is usually regarded as a heroic trait, and yet here is interrogated ruthlessly. Marie certainly believes so, for as Ahmad makes a last attempt to explain his leaving, she cuts him off: “It’s not important…I don’t want to go back into the past.” This moment bespeaks a certain amount of exhaustion after too many confessions and dredged-up pains have tortured Marie, who, carrying Samir’s child, is feeling the baby quite literally feeding off her body—she aches in her bones from leached calcium—and must, at some point, focus entirely on this next act of her life. But it also suggests nobody’s really learnt anything, except that perhaps moving on is an act of will. The final sequence show the inevitable limitations, as Samir visits the hospital where doctors have been trying the last of many tests—response to familiar perfumes—to determine if his wife is brain dead. This leaves us with the simultaneously poignant and pathetic last images of Samir bend over her prone form, using the scents of the past to try to prompt some sign of life in a moment of manifold needs, not least of which is the need to relieve the burden of uncertainty that hangs over him, but also to heal, to gain forgiveness, to restore, ironically, to bring back the past in order to remake the future, clasping a motionless hand in hope of a sign.
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