My journey from Terrence Malick sceptic to devotee has been surprisingly smooth, whilst admitting Malick’s signature flourishes can still provoke tendentious reactions, especially if one doesn’t entirely share his obsessive touchstones and specific brand of spiritual yearning. But it’s a rare thing in this day and age to see a great and fearless artist at the height of their craft, and Malick has moved into a zone all of his own as a maker of experimental films for a world stage, blithely selling semi-abstract art films to a mainstream cinema scene littered with cash-cow franchises, self-inflated provocateurs, and duly sincere indie films. Once Malick had a certain amount of company, but now that Stanley Kubrick’s dead and Martin Scorsese’s moved into his emeritus phase, Malick feels like the last remnant of the American New Wave still working in an argot of deeply personal yet fulsomely conceived cinema. Actually, he’s not quite the last, as Monte Hellman’s and Francis Coppola’s patchy but fascinating re-emergences have proved, but they’ve accepted their status as marginal figures, scrappy doodlers in the corners of popular cinema, whereas Malick still has worlds to conquer, and no time at all to sit and weep.
Conceptually, at first glance at least, To the Wonder is a minor grace-note by comparison to his artistically mighty The New World (2005), which studied the terrible beauty in the meeting and sundering of civilisations, and The Tree of Life (2011), a psycho-metaphysical treatise. The Tree of Life reversed Malick’s fortunes after the flop of The New World, though he seems to have pulled that off by bludgeoning a good percentage of its audience into confused respect through the awesomely beautiful conceit of drawing links between the genesis of the universe and the state of the individual consciousness as expressed through a young boy. To the Wonder, his follow-up, has been paying the price, but To the Wonder isn’t a lesser film than The Tree of Life: in fact, in many ways, it’s superior, certainly in terms of structure.
To the Wonder has its share of Malickian canards: lithe-limbed female forms stretching hands to the holy sky and dancing across the fertile earth, shots at eye-level moving through tall grass and up through trees to the bounteous sun, and fragments of pseudo-poetic voiceover that suggest a high schooler’s first stab at philosophical musing. The slightly self-satisfied, inverted focus in Malick’s earlier films, studying human violence from on high like one of his inscrutably photographed birds, has given way to a newly voluble contemplation of humanity in the face of a universe it once happily assumed revolved around it, but now knows is powered by awesome enigmas and dizzyingly remote forces. Malick, as in The Tree of Life, tackles a distinctively Christian ethos and ponders its connection to any individual’s sense of basic motivating forces—the push toward others and the internal battle of base and noble impulse. But there’s an abstracted quality as well to Malick’s consideration which keeps well out of the zone of simple religious screed; the angst and questioning and fear of the void are in there, too. The sun, which Malick always uses as the closest thing to a holy object, is remote as well as bounteous, as taciturn as any Egyptian or Aztec rock carving, and pray to it all you like, you’ll still have to find your own sense of glory. The title To the Wonder points to a conflation: the wonder is both a real place, the monastery on Mont Saint Michel on the Normandy coast, and a metaphorical one, the numinous binding state of love, romantic or private, divine or communal. Early in the film this hemispheric sense of love is spelt out in voiceover, united in compelling splendour but driving in different directions, and eventually links to a series of binaries: new world and old, man and woman, commitment and freedom, city and country, industry and nature, individual and community. Malick, however, has a distinct disdain for the simplicities of binaries, insofar as that whilst charting them, like a good Taoist, he also constantly hints at the unity of opposites.
To the Wonder is a necessary and in many ways revelatory addendum to Malick’s recent films, in part because it drags his concerns at last into what is more or less the present, and it provides, in William Blake’s parlance, Songs of Experience to The Tree of Life’s Songs of Innocence, engaging substantially with adult love for the first time since the pastoral noir of Days of Heaven (1978). Where femininity in Badlands (1974) and The New World was adolescent and protean, transitioning from one state to another whilst scarcely in control of itself, and ethereally maternal in The Tree of Life, here Malick at last gives us women, or at least “women.” There’s a healthy carnal joy repeatedly displayed in To the Wonder, however briefly, mixed in with the rhapsodic dances and plaintive poeticism in taking on one of the hoariest of all storylines, the romantic triangle, and doing impossibly original things with it. The film’s opening scenes, captured in the smeared and grainy tones of a digital camera, are a blurry whirlwind of familiar traveller’s epiphanies: glimpses of famous artworks and exciting places, snatches of movement, rest, and happenstance romance. Malick’s film proper begins by connecting things: we see our man and woman, Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko), running, dancing, and standing still in Paris, the beauty of the foreign and old equally dazzling for both the stranger and the local when looked at through the eyes of romantic bliss, rediscovering the world.
Malick’s tale here is very simple, essentially a framework to hang his epiphanies minor and major upon, but it should be said that Malick’s story is, in terms of plot, no more or less substantial than dozens of cinematic love stories and situational studies: the distinction lies in Malick’s approach to the material, essayed as an immersive study in the ebb and flow of feeling and the way our interior voices constantly try to comprehend our often arbitrary natures. Neil meets Marina, who has multiple musical talents and seems also to be a dancer, on holiday in France. Marina and her young daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) move from Paris with Neil to the American Midwest. Malick’s desire to animate sensatory engagement between human (or emotional/mental/spiritual) and natural worlds (a realm of immutable facts, but eternally malleable contexts) has here reached something of a climax: his characters are not just characters but figures in a landscape, and the same goes for his landscapes, which are never free of an actual or implied observer or interacting presence, not just scenery but aesthetic tools. Many directors would settle for picture postcards of Mont Saint Michel in filming a romantic vignette there, but Malick uses it expressively and, yes, to use that most dreaded of critical words, symbolically. He gives us the hypnotic and unsettling sight of the tide slowly trickling over the causeway as surely as fate, and attunes to the hushed and ageless atmosphere of the cathedral interior, cold stone and timeless reverence as a forge for ephemeral, hot-blooded attraction between a man and woman.
The shots of the sand being slowly overwhelmed by the tide are repeated: it evokes both a strange, liminal horizon as echoed in the end times parable in The Tree of Life’s finale, and the process of solitude being supplanted by coupledom. Such is an incremental process and one, at least as far as To the Wonder essays, never completed: the tide washes over, but also retreats. The ebb and flow of affection, desire, curiosity, and misgiving between Neil and Marina is perpetually described by their positions in relation to Malick’s camera. Many descriptions of what Malick’s attempted here have summarised it as a kind of extended dance. The metaphor is perfect, and not just because of Marina’s constant recourse to dance as a means of expression, but because of this studied look at the way humans express without words. Marina’s physicality is a perfect contrast to Neil’s quiet, ponderous study of the world around him. Neil’s job tracking the environmental impact of industrial work is sufficiently lucrative and not so time-consuming that he can’t devote himself to life with Marina, except in the finite shadow of guilt and fretful contemplation that passes over Neil’s features as he confronts angry residents affected by his works and regarding the spreading pall of civilisation on the landscape. Malick seems here to be thinking of his father, who was a geologist. Neil communes with nature in a practical and modern fashion, and becomes the willing ear to the fears of people seeing the damage wrought upon their landscape by the incessant march of modern industry. But Malick’s ecological perspective, his stricken regard for humankind’s problematic relationship with its world, is posited through less an argot of earthy pragmatism or conscientious propaganda, than as another aspect of the same basic schism the rest of the film studies, a problem of inner nature.
Mostly, therefore, Malick’s exploration of the eternally contradictory bind of humankind’s relationship with its environment is expressed through everyday phenomena: places of living, business, shopping, worship, and the land beyond the fence, not quite wild, but not exactly subdued. Critic Stephanie Zacherak’s jab at Malick, that he never met a tree he didn’t like, neatly deflated the dippier side of Malick’s flower-child sensibility, but it fails to appreciate Malick’s relative disinterest in standard dramatic portraits and his way of utilising an intensely personal iconography of images that gain in importance as he returns to them. Landscape is never just landscape to his eye. To the Wonder as a title points to a specific structure, but Malick is fascinated throughout by human works, structures, abodes, labours, as functional and also as philosophical phenomena; the “wonder,” a pinnacle of historical efforts toward uniting earth and sky, humanity and god, is only a visual gateway to an exploration of modern, secular expressions of the yearning to balance contradictory desires and embrace beauty in the unlikeliest contexts. The sacred grandiosity of the seaside church segues into the neon-gilded gas stations burning in kaleidoscopic beauty, temples of fluorescent light and islands of humanity in the midst of churning traffic. Tract housing and small-town architecture looms dark and megalithic, communing with the sky and encompassing human dreams even in their arbitrary, inorganic newness, as if dropped in the middle of vast spaces. Supermarkets are dazzling cornucopias, to which Tatiana responds by dashing through the aisles rejoicing at “how clean everything is.”
Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki film the spare and spacious beauty of the Midwestern landscape and the populations spread upon it with the same weirding, refamiliarising wonder turned on iconic European culture. A couple of Malick’s most breathtaking shots are studies in human abodes in natural contexts: one offers the houses of a suburban street, a cul-de-sac abutting recently conquered pastoral land where Marina and Neil reside at one point, under the rule of snow and blasting wind, the modern houses suddenly plunged into a medieval winter. The second is subtler and quicker, photographing the remote farmhouse of Neil’s childhood friend Jane (Rachel McAdams), with her and Neil within in warm light and the twilight rural landscape without, an image rife with evocative colours and contemplation, and one that captures the atmosphere of modern rural life more intensely than all but a few other examples I’ve seen. Home is a powerful notion for Malick: he loves his homeland, and he feels the sacrosanct aura that many invest in the places they have sprung from, evolved in, and left without forgetting, a note that pays off later in the film. Marina is struck at first by her New World as a place of bounteous space and riches, but, in one of the film’s scenes of extended dialogue, Marina is visited by an Italian friend, Anna (Romina Mondello), who decries the emptiness and false faces of the locals whilst encouraging Marina to return to her free-spirited ways. Whilst such familiar conflicts are invoked, as Marina is alternatively dazzled and alienated by the profundity of space, the disposition of the people, and the thinness of the cultural blanket about her, Malick himself avoids value judgments. Everything is endowed in his eye with both value and transience. Paris is depicted at first as a place of infinite riches, but when Marina returns there, it seems by comparison an oppressive labyrinth crammed with people, noises, and distractions, a stygian space of excessive civilisation.
After her visa expires, Marina returns to France with a willing Tatiana, and Neil seems content to let their relationship end: as Marina had said earlier to Neil, “I don’t expect anything. Just to go a little of our way together.” This is very much the film’s founding thesis, as a study in just how far people can go together. After Marina’s departure, Neil turns Jane, who is dogged by the melancholy memory of her young son’s death several years earlier and a disintegrated marriage. Jane possesses a veneer of wariness that hides both great potential ardour and dark reaction, each of which Neil experiences. The movement that encompasses Neil’s interlude with Jane is brief but represents one of Malick’s greatest achievements, a synergistic flow of images and snatched words replete with an almost fairytale beauty and rapturous expression that I knew even as I was watching it was a masterpiece of film shooting and editing. Malick makes his disparities obvious without recourse to explanatory dialogue: Jane, framed repeatedly with the horses she tends and bison, is, like them, native product of an open land, endowed with a robustness and rooted self-certainty even in the face of tragedy, plucking away at work on the ranch in the face of hardship, in contrast to Marina, who tends to run from hardship. This is no simplistic good woman/bad woman schism, however, as Malick explores the appeal and necessity of both temperaments, and Neil, in spite of the seeming ease in his relationship with Jane, is fatefully drawn back to Marina’s mercurial nature as an invigorating contrast and partner to his own.
Just as Neil and Jane’s relationship comes to life, Marina contacts Neil, wanting to come back to him after giving custody of Tatiana to her ex-husband. Neil breaks off with Jane, in spite of her ardent and slightly pathetic offer of herself with one of her tethering ropes for the horses wrapped around her own wrists, but quickly enough she’s thrusting Neil away and quite literally crawling away from him in forlorn anger. Jane is last seen in a dreamlike discursion as she moves through what seems to be her childhood home, a dark and cavernous space that conflates with Neil’s house, a place where Marina hovers outside like a dogging spirit. Jane climbs stairs and disappears into darkness in a relay of shots that capture the trio in a moment of transition standing at thresholds, on different floors, and beyond windows, all with telegraphed psychological meaning. Jane’s fragmented odyssey feels vitally important as she retreats from the frontier back into an Oedipal space of the home, the reverse journey of the main character of The Tree of Life.
The haunting qualities of the old prairie houses Malick perhaps spent much of his youth in, their cache of faded gentility and piquancy suggested in Badlands, is recalled here, charged with a vividly haunted sense of lost security and longing. This segues into Neil’s attempts to settle down with Marina, cueing one of the droller moments in any Malick film, as they have their marriage witnessed by a prisoner waiting his turn in court. Marina and Neil take some time to reconnect, but they soon passionately reunite. Marina immediately begins to strain against her newly settled life and the lack of sensory excitement around her, and finds herself engaged in a war between her affection for Neil and hate, lividly described in a pool scene as Neil and Marina’s playful, tactile delight in each other is suddenly stricken with her apparent offence and loathing. There’s a Dostoyevskian quality to Marina’s plight and struggle within herself: “What a cruel war!” she says at one point. Taken with a carpenter, whose slightly damaged look exacerbates his precious attractiveness, Marina finally, seemingly deliberately detonates her marriage by sleeping with him.
Malick is a poetic filmmaker, but not in the usual vaguely lyrical fashion. He takes a methodical approach to refashioning persona and parochial experience into a system of shared experiences, essentials, and universal observations, inner experience turned into communal dreaming. The only measure for success in this is the degree to which it can strike others with a sense of recognition, and in this To the Wonder worked for me. I received a jolt of recognition in Malick’s feel for the evocative wonder of some commonplace sights and experiences, like his study of newly built tract housing which plunged me back into my early years in a sprawl of new suburbs that seemed to hover on the fringe of invaded farmland, contrasted with the shaded hominess of my grandparents’ houses in a more settled and traditionalised locale, and his already noted attentiveness to the moods of rural and city environs. One great late scene finds Marina, after committing an act of infidelity, reeling along the side of a busy road and reaching a large intersection, boiling with traffic flow, light and engine noise, a crucible of existential angst, and indeed the sensation of force and danger at such locations is transmuted into a moment of ecstatically immediate emotion. Malick’s finite sense of the way personal affection is communicated through touch, proximity, attitude, is exacting, as he can find the pain and confusion in even the smallest and briefest moments when a lover turns away, and the relief when they come back. The payoff for this sensitivity lies in the most eruptive moment in the film, when Neil smashes the rear-view mirror of his car and drags Marina out of it to leave her on the roadside after she confesses her unfaithfulness, a moment that becomes an apocalyptic gesture.
Malick’s sensatory ephemera are woven in with his actual drama, part of what he’s trying express in an ontological fashion. To the Wonder is a concluding chapter to Malick’s grand foray through American history, which has already encompassed its birth, its intermediate schism of industry and rural existence, its elevation in WWII to superpower in existential crisis, the false security of the 1950s, and now finally, the present, still stricken through with the same fault lines of its birth. One aspect of Malick’s world view that feels almost radical is not just his hunger for mysticism in a secular, earthbound age, but his plaintive affection for a particular brand of provincial religiosity found in his homeland’s vast middle spaces, the sort usually caricatured as a fount of bigotry and bellicosity. As hinted in the film’s early scenes, the central romantic drama is eventually counterpointed with a spiritual drama. Marina is stricken with her exile from the church because of her divorce, attending local services and explaining her problem to local priest Father Quintana (Javier Bardem). Quintana, in turn, is beset by his own crisis of faith, a sensation that his sense of the binding properties of god, spiritual love, a world spirit, has abandoned him and left him as a social undertaker preaching to near-empty halls. He pursues his mission, however, venturing out into the poor districts of his Midwestern parish, trying to offer succour to the ruined people on the fringes of this society. A mark of Malick’s generosity is that he can take a sight most filmmakers would turn into a sneering portrait of First World dissolution, a large man snorting beer from a foam dome amidst the wreckage of a home, into a perversely beautiful depiction of ruination and degradation.
Quintana at once has ardent love of his job as knitter of social fabric but also feels its crushing weight, manifest in striking moments, as when he receives the despairing appeals of prisoners, one who kneels before him longing for a sense of forgiveness and others on the far side of visiting pen glass, and when he hides within his house from a gnarled drug addict who first rejects his aid and then comes seeking it, as if he’s hiding from faith itself in the fashion of biblical heroes like Jacob and Noah. That Quintana and Neil are brothers in their searching sensibilities is signalled late in the film when Neil and he are glimpsed in confabulation, and Neil follows Quintana in his daily rounds, each one a tragically beautiful adventure into human frailty. Malick’s characters are engaged in a kind of wrestling match with their individual nature and their animating force—personal ardour for Neil and Marina, maternal crisis for Jane, godly love for Quintana. Quintana regains his, oddly and implicitly, through the entwining of Malick’s images, via the experience of Marina and Neil losing theirs, as he suggests that in the sundering of individual love lies the essence of the greater kind.
Like Malick’s best films, To the Wonder gathers accumulated force in grand gyrations until it hits crescendos. It’s entirely fair to describe Malick’s structuring in musical rather than stage terms, and he encourages it often by tethering his various interludes to upsurges of specific music. To the Wonder then works in five movements. As a film, it feels unique in Malick’s oeuvre in the sense that it’s extremely autobiographical and revealing not just of personal experience but of artistic influence. Although The Tree of Life revealed Malick as another acolyte of Stanley Kubrick, here the influences are broader. The Searchers (1956) is repeatedly invoked with Fordian framings on the rolling prairies with bison and horses and characters in doorways, except that Monument Valley has given way to McMansions. David Lean is most often evoked: in the scene of Marina and Tatiana leaving Neil alone and the suddenly solitary male dashing back through his house to watch their car depart, Doctor Zhivago (1965) leaps to mind, and Lean’s feel for landscape has never seemed more clearly influential on Malick than here. Much like Lean’s concept of the poetic hero of that epic as more watcher than engaged in history, haplessly locked in love affairs whilst ideology reshapes the world aggressively, similarly here, Affleck’s Neil says little, acting as more the fulcrum for the dramas of his women than protagonist. Like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), To the Wonder can be described as a kind of character study where a level of frustration in the inability to actually penetrate the character is a definitive aspect of the narrative. Thematically, particularly in the form of Father Quintana’s diary of a suburban priest, Robert Bresson feels vitally close; indeed, he was probably in there all along.
But Malick’s closest creative relative as an American artist may not be other filmmakers, but rather Andrew Wyeth, a realist painter who nonetheless offered such intensely studied, obliquely conceived pictures that they always seem to vibrate with a sense of hidden elements and forces. In much the same way, Malick constantly alchemises images into emotions, which is the very aspect of his films that remain hardest for the more literal-minded to grasp. To the Wonder does represent another stage in his vision, however, if only because here Malick firmly hints at real experiences that have become inseparable aspects of his artistic imagination. Marina feels like the final condensation and archetype of the female who’s flitted through his last four films in variations, childlike but not childish, ethereal but also sensual, wounded but not ruined, perpetually enticing and yet bound to slip through one’s fingers. Marina’s neurotic flightiness and possible overtones of a developing mental illness, are distinctly suggested, as in later scenes her actions become increasingly less coherent. After they’ve separated, Neil goes to visit her in the apartment she’s now keeping and finds her idly cutting pictures out of books. Yet the final sequence of images suggests that far from spinning off into bleak realms, Marina remains an icon of unfettered life. Affleck’s face, never the most expressive of actorly instruments, becomes here Malick’s Mt. Rushmore of stolid American virtue, or perhaps an Easter Island statue, but Affleck’s flashes of good humour and play give Neil sufficient life. But the essence of the film is Kurylenko’s performance, quite an epic piece of actor’s art in spite of Malick’s odd way of shaping it, as she finds the underlying unity in Marina’s perversity. Perhaps this is the interesting contradiction in To the Wonder that’s made it Malick’s least rapturously received film so far, but that also makes it a great achievement nonetheless. Under the surface, which pretends to the usual beatification at the end, it’s a flailing, pained study in the impermanence of things.
English film editor Neil Marshall burst out of the gate as a director with Dog Soldiers (2002), a vigorous, gory, refreshingly cheeky spin on the traditional templates of low-budget horror with a strong dose of hyped-up style. He quickly achieved cult status with his follow-up, the claustrophobic post-feminist nightmare The Descent (2004). Seen as a member of the early ’00s wave of splatter-loving horror filmmakers, Marshall then switched directions from horror to action-oriented fare with 2007’s Doomsday and Centurion in 2010. Marshall’s obvious worship of ’80s genre cinema in particular was crossbred in each with an amusingly parochial sense of humour and hip revisions of certain stock situations, giving his faux-blockbuster material a jolt of outsider energy and impudent perspective.
Dog Soldiers set the template he’s followed consistently: placing a collective of tough and resilient people in the middle of a relentlessly dangerous situation and picking them off one by one, be it by monsters or hordes of angry Scotsmen. If The Descent was a touch overrated because of its original tweak on an old formula, and Doomsday underrated for being excessively indebted to Marshall’s favourite trash films to a degree that would make Quentin Tarantino blush, Centurion suggested new ground that, alas, Marshall has thus far been unable to pursue further. Watching the leaden conceptual snoozefest that was Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games (2012), my early feeling that the story was tailormade for Marshall became all the more powerful.
Marshall isn’t above some modish tricks of modern cinema, and Doomsday falls prey to some excessively choppy editing and dodgy CGI. Most of the time, however, he is a pellucid, rigorous stylist, rare enough in modern filmmaking and particularly in his branch of cinema, with films that improvise on frameworks provided by his favourite influences marked with a personal brand. Centurion, although fast-paced and structured with elegant simplicity, is also littered with some of the most arresting and well-framed images in recent cinema. Centurion built upon the conceit of Doomsday, which had turned Scotland into a post-apocalyptic, Mad Max-esque landscape where modern civilisation began to devolve into barbarism. Centurion inverted the approach as an outright historical adventure film, indeed, the best example of such in the West in recent years. Centurion is a fight-and-flight action film par excellence, but one that encompasses all kinds of fascinating reflexive interests, deepened and given contemporary edge by distinct hints of political parable. With this relative complexity, Marshall outclassed many attempts to revive the historical action epic by filmmakers like Ridley Scott, with his clunky Robin Hood (2011), Antoine Fuqua’s moronic King Arthur (2005), Gore Verbinski’s overworked Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and Mel Gibson’s various bombastic entries, in spite of their infinitely greater resources. Centurion itself is easily recognisable to the adventure film buff in its working parts: a little bit of Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans (1992), John Ford, Kurosawa, some The Naked Prey (1966), combined with hints and hues of decades of sword-and-sandal flicks.
On top of the film’s true historical foundation, Marshall superimposes a quiet, but powerful echo, implicitly evoking various phenomena like British Imperialism, the Wild West, and the Iraq War, through the efforts of the Empire to suppress Britain in a nihilistic, vicious struggle of suppression and reaction. He goes a step further to link the bombastic machismo behind the urges that began the Iraq War with that of the Roman expansion, with the phallocratic force of General Titus Flavius Virilus (Dominic West), commander of the Ninth Legion. His very name communicates virility, and the man is avatar for this underlying spirit. His counterforce is presented concisely in the form of lethal female warrior Etain (Olga Kurylenko), a brutalised engine of destruction working for the Picts.
The setting is 154 AD, and the decades-long stand-off between the Roman Empire and the Pictish peoples of present-day Scotland is building to a head. The Romans, all swagger and politicking, are trying to hold on to a network of border forts. A Pict raid upon one fort sees most of the Romans wiped out; the conscientious officer Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender) is taken prisoner because he has learnt to speak the local dialect, in obedience to his father’s maxim that one should know one’s enemy. He is brought before the Pictish king Gorlacon (Ulrich Thomsen), who has troubled the Romans endlessly with his sophisticated guerrilla warfare. Gorlacon has him tortured and shown off as captured prey, but Dias manages to escape from Gorlacon’s stockaded capital and flees south across the snow-crusted Highlands.
Meanwhile, the Roman Governor Agricola (Paul Freeman) decides to send a punitive expedition against Gorlacon north from his base at Carlisle, detailing the Ninth Legion under Virilus, a former foot soldier who’s risen to command whilst not losing his link with his men. Introduced in a tavern engaged in an arm-wrestling match, Virilus skewers his opponent with a dagger when it’s plain the man intends to do the same to him and joins the all-in brawl between his men and the locals that results. Washing up the next day, he’s mistaken by a messenger for a ranker. Agricola gives Virilus an unusual guide and scout in the form of Etain, a superlatively skilled, perpetually unspeaking woman whom Agricola introduces to Virilus through the expedient means of having her kill a slave in a play-act assassination.
On the march into the fog-shrouded forests of the north, Virilus’ troops save Dias just as he’s been cornered by some of Gorlacon’s men. But a well-prepared ambush, into which they’ve been led by the double-agent Etain, sees Gorlacon’s army devastate the Legion and take Virilus captive. A handful of survivors, including Dias, regroup over the corpses of their dead fellows, and Dias enlists them to pursue Virilus and his captors back to Gorlacon’s city. They fail to free Virilus from his chains, however, and are forced to abandon him as Gorlacon’s forces begin to stream back into the city. But they soon find they’ve stirred up a new hornet’s nest, because one of their number, Thax (J. J. Feild), has throttled Gorlacon’s young son (Ryan Atkinson) to silence him during the raid. Incensed, Gorlacon has Virilus pitted in single combat against Etain, who quickly, brutally disposes of the General. She then leads a hunting party after Dias’s band of survivors until they or their chasers are all dead, and, in time-honoured style, the Roman survivors have to try to make it back to their own lines fighting every step of the way.
Marshall starts with a structural nod to many classical epic poems that commence in medias res (mid action), resolving his opening, a series of helicopter shots of the Highlands that lay out the turf of the following action, and plunges deep into the one-time heart of darkness, zeroing in finally on a lone figure racing across a snowy ridge: Quintus, in his first flight from the Picts, bloodied and half-naked in an inimical landscape. Centurion plays loose with history: Agricola, who actually conquered most of Britain and defeated a large Caledonian army in a field battle, is transposed to the time of Hadrain, whose famous wall is depicted under construction in the film’s final phases, offered as a classical Green Zone. Moreover, the Ninth Legion, which for a long time was believed to have disappeared in Scotland, has been challenged by recent scholarship that shows it might have been met its end in Spain instead. Still, whilst it’s been much fictionalised—Rosemary Sutcliffe’s popular The Eagle of the Ninth novel series and its adaptation The Eagle (2011) also play with that contentious historical fillip—Marshall takes the legend a step further in suggesting the Legion’s vanishing from the history books was no accident, but a conspiracy perpetrated by Agricola and his fellow Roman bigwigs to cover up their own failure, a touch that happens to coincide nicely with the hunt for weapons of mass destruction, Abu Ghraib, and other suspicious travesties in Iraq. Moreover, whilst Centurion hardly slows for a breath, narrative-wise, Marshall paints a coherent vision of the past as present, with the polyglot of nationalities, economic conscripts, and continental refuse that was the Roman Army confronting a native enemy that resists with every tool at its disposal. Marshall interestingly casts European actors, like Thomsen and Kurylenko, as Picts, to emphasise that this historical land isn’t the same one as modern Scotland nor its people exactly the same, with only one Pict, the exiled “witch” Arianne (Imogen Poots), a woman stranded between cultures and a product of the middle ground, who has a modern Scots accent.
Etain, on the other hand, has no voice, a trait that adds to the impression that she’s not entirely human anymore, but rather an animal mother in a human body, a beast that stalks Quintus in his dreams as well as in the primal forest. Etain’s savagery is revealed to be a Frankenstein creation of this invading force: forced to watch her father’s blinding and her mother’s gang rape by Roman soldiers as a young girl, and then being gang raped herself, Etain’s tongue was then cut out. Raised by Picts as an expert warrior and tracker, Etain is the personification of wrath against any force intruding upon a homeland, raw and mindless in antipathy but infinitely cunning in resistance. Kurylenko, since being stuck playing the most superfluous Bond girl in history in Quantum of Solace (2008), has evolved into one of the current film scene’s more interesting satellite stars, and here she brings a striking level of charisma and expressive intensity to Etain, displaying what Christopher Lee once said of playing Dracula, a silent, hypnotic power that can be the hardest kind of acting. Not that Etain, conceived with visual and attitudinal power, was ever going to be less than a striking figure: her compellingly atavistic visage, smeared in pancake white and daubed with streaks of blue woad, is the film’s obsessive, almost fetishistic refrain, laced with erotic appeal that blends weirdly with her completely inimical hate. Following Marshall’s recreation of Snake Plissken as a stoic one-eyed woman in Doomsday, Etain is an equally potent adversary. Marshall and Kurylenko imbue her with hints of masochism and distraught pain even as she’s committing horrendous acts, beheading a Roman she captures with a grimace as if she’s hacking a piece of herself off, and, after she kills Virilus, releasing an anguished scream of insatiable hate and unappeasable grief, her tongueless maw barking at the gods. As Arianne puts it, she has a soul that’s an empty vessel that can only be filled by Roman blood.
Marshall is one of the few action-oriented directors at the moment really interested in female characters, usually mixing up the bag in allotting them good and evil parts, and the twinned poles of Etain and Arianne are joined by another Pictish warrior, the strident archer Aeron (Axelle Carolyn); indeed, between her and Etain the most formidable foes in the Pictish force are their women, whilst Agricola’s wife Druzilla (Rachael Stirling) proves an altogether different, but no less dangerous threat. Marshall offers a cheeky shot early in the film that confirms the link between his conquest-era Britons and Native Americans as pantheistic opponents of steely intrusive forces when Etain performs an ash-scattering ritual as tribute to ancestors before riding off with the Legion. She fulfills her mission as a sleeper agent to deliver the arrogant Romans into the best place for an ambush in a sequence where Marshall stretches his budget superbly with simple tricks and modern graphics. The imprint of Anthony Mann’s work on The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) is particularly strong throughout Centurion: like Mann, Marshall sees the links between the Western and the classically set action drama. The sequence in which the Legion is attacked and wiped out evokes both the forest barbarian battle in Roman Empire and the attack on the British column in Last of the Mohicans.
More fundamentally, like Mann, Marshall captures a sense of spiritual and psychological extremes in depicting the violent disparity between first and third worlds at a time when those worlds were much closer together geographically but even farther apart in everything else, a maddening clash of nascent civilisation intruding upon primordial places and peoples who are less “civilised” but no less human in both good and bad ways. One shot presents Etain presiding over the incineration of the legion’s eagle standard, a perfect visual encapsulation of the infernal results of the clash between nascent despotism and fringe ferocity. Marshall goes on to suggest the charged counterbalance of humane feeling and dark, extreme mysticism in his Scottish landscapes that is authentic to the quality of the nation’s mythology. In the course of Quintus and his team’s flight from the Picts, the scene moves from mist-shrouded woods to craggy, snow-crusted mountains to hazily beautiful spring morns at Arianne’s hut, a safe ground from the predations of war ironically because she lives in cursed isolation, the flooding rays of sunshine giving visual substance to the air of regenerative tranquillity around her.
Marshall isn’t above some of the less pleasing flourishes of many modern directors, particularly his love of adolescently vivid, CGI-enhanced gore. Visions of pikes being shoved into groins, heads being cleaved in half, and spears entering mouths are not as gruelling as they sound, largely more amusing in effect than sickening, and that’s actually the problem. But that’s really neither here nor there in a story that races with the verve and spunk of a classic drive-in flick whilst mixing with a genre more associated with grand scale production and pretence. And, indeed, Marshall’s delight in brute force is conjoined with his work’s vivacity and fierce, new-fashioned, balls-and-all attitude. Marshall plays some deft games, in a manner that’s becoming a distinct trait of his when it comes to apportioning empathy and thematic emphasis. He doesn’t romanticise either the honourably turf-defending, but feral and brutal Picts or the rapacious, war-loving Romans, viewing each as competing varieties of the same thing. That the lost Roman survivors, except for the conscientious, morally probing Quintus, are finally the heroes is only because of their assailed, outnumbered desperation. His company comes to include the psychopathic Thax, Indian-via-Syria Tarak (Riz Ahmed), North African runner Macros (Noel Clarke), cleaver-wielding Greek cook Leonidas (Dimitri Leonidas), and the lumpen Roman duo of Bothos (Neil Morrissey) and grizzled vet Brick (Liam Cunningham). The latter’s name proves to be sourced in a Latin pun, with Marshall’s sneaky sensibility nascent here, as Brick turns out to be is short for “Ubriculius,” aka, testicles. Quintus is dubbed the band’s centurion, after being left in command, a responsibility to which he rises, but not without qualm: as the son of a freed gladiator, he aspires to be a model soldier but has never entirely escaped his outsider status. When he and his team run away from Gorlacon’s city, all they can take with them is Virilus’ helmet. One of the men hands it to him sarcastically as he gives orders; Quintus leaves in a shrine.
The Romans hardly prove an infinitely resourceful band of brothers: many of the remaining men die with stunning rapidity in spite of their individual qualities. After performing a regulation adventure movie stunt of leaping from a high cliff into a frigid river, most of the men flounder out together, but Macros and Thax are separated and finish up forging their way across open heaths chased by wolves. Thax sneakily cuts Macros’ Achilles tendon, leaving his fellow soldier as dog meat to ensure his own survival, in a nasty spin on that old joke about the man who puts on his sneakers to outrun not the lion but his friend. Only Quintus, Brick, and Bothos, who’s been wounded in the leg, remain of the original force when they come across Arianne, who gives them food and shelter. She saves the men by hiding them when Etain and her party arrive on the hunt, with Arianne almost getting her throat cut by Etain for facing down her malevolence with truculent wit: “Cat got your tongue?” Ardour sparks between her and Quintus, but the film’s most intimate moment actually comes when Brick apologises to Arianne for not trusting her, and the ever–terrific Cunningham is particularly good in this moment as he offers, “I’m sorry I misjudged you…there it is.” When the trio take their leave, Quintus leaves behind a carved horse in a pose of delicately artful expression that doubles as his memento for her, concluding a sequence that’s closer in spirit to Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) than Seven Samurai (1954).
The terrific final battle between the Roman runaways and the Picts takes place in another familiar trope of adventure sagas, a remote fort that proves tragically deserted when the trio reach it—one almost expects the Romans to find Gary Cooper in there—because Agricola has ordered a general retreat to the new walled frontier. Unable to run any further, they set the fort up for a confrontation and successfully pick off several of Etain’s warriors, including Aeron, before she charges in for a frantic duel with Quintus, finally pitting native speed against gladiatorial art. Brick dies, but not after going out in the most badass way possible, skewering his opponent at the last breath by pushing the spear lodged in his own chest right through. Quintus finally defeats Etain, but only by the narrowest of margins, and her death comes across, aptly, like being put out of her misery.
Victory segues into despair in a cynical final movement strongly reminiscent of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s fondness for last-act bastardry and some ’70s epics of dark revelry. Thax rejoins the surviving pair, but as Quintus lets slip his realisation that Thax killed Gorlacon’s son, Thax and he finish up fighting to the death, whilst Bothos is killed by snipers on the wall as he rides shouting toward it. Quintus kills Thax, but is left to despairingly cart Bothos’ body into Roman lines. Even once he’s safe, fate hasn’t finished twisting for Quintus, because, in order to save his reputation, Agricola lets his wife set up an attempt to kill him. Quintus survives again, but, badly injured, now has to flee again into the forest. Marshall closes the film with an aptly ouroboros-like flourish with Quintus’ admonition that “this is neither the beginning nor the end of my tale,” as he finds his way back to Arianne, cut off from his homeland. Yet the tale of Quintus’ struggle hardly suggests surrender to the dark forces, but the start of something else, with the distinct suggestion he and Arianne will found another tribe to inhabit British soil and invent the future. Either way, Centurion is a curt, rowdy, rousing gem and proof that the adventure film tradition hasn’t been entirely trammelled in the age of the blockbuster, whilst the class of the old can mesh with the vigour of the new.
With the vast coverage World War II and the Holocaust have gotten in every facet of cultural endeavor the world over—films, books, plays, television, even video games—the challenge for any artist working in the subject area is to bring something new to the table. Edward Zwick had a chance to tell us a story of Jewish courage and survival with his 2008 feature Defiance, but his rendering of the relatively unknown story of the Bielski partisans of Belorussia is just another generic action flick. Documentarians have fared much better in finding unfamiliar subject matter and making the specific universal. Gordon Quinn’s Prisoner of Her Past (2010) looked at a case of late-onset posttraumatic stress disorder in a Jewish woman living in my town of Skokie and related it to the problems survivors of such disasters as Hurricane Katrina could face down the road.
Now we have No Place on Earth. Using talking-head interviews and lengthy reenactments, Janet Tobias brings us the story of three families, the Stermers, the Wexlers, and the Dodyks, who hid from the Nazis and Christian Ukrainians during the war. While we learn fairly early that this is a tale of survival, the events unfold for the audience with a glimmer of the dread, confusion, and triumph of those who lived it. The curiosity we share with the real-life detective of the story, Chris Nicola, turns into a strongly suspenseful narrative worthy of anything Alfred Hitchcock might have concocted, and made all the more interesting for being a true tale of life and death.
This story might never have come to light, however, had it not been for Nicola, a New Yorker of Ukrainian descent with a passion for caving. Nicola combined a trip to his ancestral country to trace his family roots with the exploration of Verteba, a rare gypsum cave. When he came across some human artifacts in the cave, he started asking around about the how the caves might have been used in the past. All he could glean was that some Jews hid there during World War II. Years of inquiries yielded nothing more until a message came through his website from a relative of one of the survivors. Verteba had sheltered more than 30 Jews until they were discovered by German troops. Those who escaped capture moved to a second cave, Priest’s Grotto, where they remained until the defeat of Germany. In all, they spent more than 500 days underground; several of the men left at night to gather food and fire wood, but the women and children never came to the surface at all.
It is a cliché to say that World War II represented a dark time in human history. No Place on Earth examines that notion quite literally. Cave guides will tell you that human eyes cannot adjust to the complete absence of light. Think about that. No light at all for days and weeks on end, no images of any kind to focus on. Of course, the survivors had candles and lamps, but they had to be rationed; it was better to sleep 20 hours a day to escape the darkness, hunger, and monotony than risk replenishing the sources of light. The Jews had a handful of friends in their village, but they were betrayed on more than one occasion, once by a man who discovered their location and whose life they spared. That betrayal cost two lives when the Germans raided Verteba. Living in the part of the world outside of Germany that was most hostile to Jews, these families only wanted to live and let live. They even spared a horse that could have provided them with meat for weeks.
No Place on Earth, with its paradoxical poster image, takes literal darkness and makes it light, that is, safe, as Sima Dodyk says. Sima was a little girl when she fled with her family underground. At first, it was fun to explore the caves and dream up a pretend world of adventure. As the stay became more prolonged, the tension of the adults more extreme, and the gnawing hunger more persistent, the novelty of living in the cave wore off. When the Germans came and rounded up several of their number, the consequences became all too real. It is only in this context that one can understand how total darkness can represent the safety Sima says it was for all of them.
I saw this film at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, where Tobias and several of the survivors were present to make statements and answer questions. Sonia Dodyk (above left) believes they survived because they decided from the beginning to stick together. Yet we know that the Frank and the van Pels families stuck together in an Amsterdam attic and did not escape their fate. Nonetheless, there is something to Sonia’s assertion that by sticking together, they found the means to survive by using their collective intelligence and labor to keep mind and body together for the duration.
If there is a hero to this story, it is Nissel Stermer, whom both Saul and Sam Stermer looked up to and followed during their raids aboveground for food and fuel. The Stermer brothers stole a grindstone and were able to grind wheat into flour to bake bread in the cave. When needed, Nissel later bribed the right people to get bags of flour; when the bags proved too heavy to carry, he worked with his brother Saul to fashion a sleigh and stole a horse to pull it to the opening of Priest’s Cave. The ingenuity and foresight Nissel had saved many a life, including Hannah Stermer, who chose to remain aboveground and who escaped the police because Nissel knew her hiding place would be uncovered.
What I found so remarkable about the film was watching the reenactments and seeing how handy people used to be. They knew how to soak and bend wood to form the runners of a sleigh, carve and use a grindstone, dig a “back door” to the caves to help them escape if they were raided, collect water from the dripping ceilings of the cave and make bed frames and ovens. Reduced to living as our prehistoric ancestors did, they brought their 20th century knowledge to bear on making the caves more liveable and thereby holding onto their humanity.
Perhaps it was could be seen as a triumph that several of the survivors were able to return to their village and visit the caves again. Their happiness in being able to thank the caves was leavened by their sadness at all the families they used to know vanished from the village and the future. The surviving families were quick to leave the Ukraine as well, where anti-Semitism never seems to go out of style. They settled in the United States, Canada, and Israel, and told the story of the caves to their burgeoning families. Now we know it, too.
After the break-out success and Palme d’Or win of his 2007 abortion drama, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days, Romanian director Cristian Mungiu gained a kind of respect that tends to sanctify all successive efforts. I was knocked out by 4-3-2, but I find his newest film, Beyond the Hills, hard to parse. While adhering to the dogged realism and intensity of 4-3-2, Beyond the Hills is adapted from a novel, Deadly Confession, that itself is based on a 2005 exorcism attempt that shocked the Romanian public. The novel changed the story by making the young woman who underwent the exorcism a troubled friend of a nun instead of a nun herself and focusing on their relationship.
Mungiu has been asked in many of the interviews he has given about the film why he focuses on relationships between women. In one he gave to Zimbio, he points out that two of his films have included male protagonists. He further states, “My films are story-driven, not character-driven, and I seldom consider the gender of the protagonists before deciding if I’m interested by a story or not. These two films with female protagonists do not only describe their relationship, but speak about matters like personal freedom, compromise, sacrifice, choices in life, the role of religion in society today, social indifference, love and friendship, violence, faith or free will—all issues that transcend the gender border.”
Indeed, Beyond the Hills does touch on all these subjects, which is rather miraculous in itself, even for a film with a longish 155-minute running time, and the issues do have universal application. Nonetheless, unhappy consequences brought on by illegal abortion and manipulation in a community of female religious headed by a man reveal the kind of feminist agenda that can often be found more overtly in Iranian films, particularly those of Jafar Panahi. Mungiu explores his themes with a fair amount of subtlety, making room for individual intentions that tend to obscure the more global posturing of a feminist message. Unfortunately, by focusing on a 23-year-old woman outside the religious community—she is not observant and only goes through the motions of prayer and confession to please her friend—she becomes a completely unwilling victim. In addition, despite the many moments that feel true to life, in part because of Mungiu’s long takes that mimic the rhythms of real life, whether the film makes any kind of point largely depends upon the opinions of the audience. I have seen as many people view the film as a condemnation of superstition as think it is an exploitative exercise in violence against women. In my opinion, they’re both right.
The film opens in a train station, where Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) meets Alina (Cristina Flutur), her roommate at the orphanage where they both lived. People jostle her, and trains obscure Alina, who seems in danger of being hit by one in her rush to embrace Voichita. It becomes clear in Alina’s intense focus on Voichita as they travel to the primitive monastery where Voichita is a novice that the women were once romantically involved. Alina has made the trip from Germany, where she lives, to bring Voichita back with her. Alina has given up her apartment and job and secured work for them both on a German riverboat as waitresses. But Voichita has changed her mind. She tries to let Alina down easy, but the single-minded woman refuses to go without her. Then Alina falls ill with a lung infection and must be rushed to the hospital. Having missed the riverboat and with no home to return to, Alina is allowed to stay on at the monastery to recover after Voichita persuades a reluctant Father (Valeriu Andriuta) that she will make no problems for them.
Alas, Alina is troubled, possibly mentally ill, and becomes increasingly angry and disruptive. Eventually, Father and Mother (Dana Tapalaga) decide to “read” to Alina, and the rigors of an exorcism are filmed in excruciating, lengthy detail as the nuns craft a crude cross to which Alina is bound and gagged day and night, out of sight of the church congregants. The nuns carry her back and forth between an outbuilding and the church for the daily ritual, wash her when she soils herself, and deny her food and water to starve the demon that possesses her.
Mungiu provides a window into the opportunities for exploitation in Romanian society. The rapid growth of monasteries founded by self-styled sages like Father may be traced to the rebound of religious freedom in the country, but many of the acolytes come from orphanages that turn their residents out when they reach 18. Voichita found a comfortable home and purpose at her monastery, but for others, such as one of the sisters who is still in contact with her abusive husband, the monastic life is perhaps the only option they have. Alina’s retarded brother Ionut (Ionut Ghinea) has a job at a car wash where he is given no protective uniform to keep him warm and, significantly, no wages. He also becomes a member of the monastic community, his free labor and frigid cell perhaps a step down from the car wash.
The healthcare system seems to be the one bright spot in the country, and Alina receives adequate care there. Once back at the monastery, the nuns use her savings to pay for her medication, refuse her the rest she needs to recover, and eject her at one point to go live with her former foster parents. The couple have given away her room and stolen most of her savings, handing Mother back less than half of what she sent to them for safe keeping.
I had a lot of different reactions while watching this film. I felt for Voichita’s struggle between two conflicting allegiances, one to a life that fulfills her and the other to a relationship that helped her survive the orphanage but that she has outgrown. The nuns, though largely undifferentiated by the script, seem to be a cohesive unit struggling in a primitive compound without electricity or heating any more sophisticated than a fireplace, and in constant need of money. I didn’t particularly like Alina, and I felt the nuns, particularly Mother, were genuinely spiritual and believed they were trying to help her. Father struck me as prideful, striving to make the monastery successful, worrying about when or if the church will be consecrated, and anxious that Alina could drive their small congregation away. In proceeding alone with an exorcism that he himself said required two priests and manipulating Ionut into giving consent as Alina’s next of kin, I questioned his motives, if not those of his followers.
It is here that I started to feel queasy about the film. When winter arrives, it’s for real, and the visible breath of the actors shows just how cold it really is. Mungiu’s long takes necessitate long retakes if the actors flub any part of their performance; Mungiu reveals “we often shoot 20 or 30 takes and sometimes more.” I don’t wish to presume on the dedication of the entire film ensemble, but the harsh conditions of part of this shoot do give me pause about the level of pain and suffering a filmmaker—even an independent filmmaker of limited means—should be allowed to inflict. I might not have considered this question in the past—after all, Mungiu certainly isn’t the first director to demand so much from his cast and crew. But something about Father seems so like a projection of Mungiu’s personality, a believer in himself and his power justifying everyone’s faith and sacrifice.
Much is made of Alina making a full confession of her sins to Father, with the nuns reading off a list of nearly 500 sins she might have committed in a grimly humorous scene. It is not revealed what she tells Father, but her lesbian relationship might have been part of it, a part Voichita appears not to have confessed herself. Thus, Voichita can be seen as Alina’s undoer in some sense, just as Gabita exploited and injured Otilia in 4-3-2. Mungiu seems to take a dim view of close female friendships, with the most dire outcomes seeming to be the inevitable result of such closeness.
The film is beautiful to look at, the performances sophisticated and sincere, and the pacing fine for me, though perhaps too slow and deliberate for many. Beyond the Hills raises many important issues about relationships and religiosity, and Mungiu asserts that he is trying to be respectful of the characters by avoiding more voyeuristic shots (though watching Alina being chained to the cross does not seem particularly demure to me). However, by choosing such a sensational story and tacitly implicating modern society for its venal appetites and voyeurism, no matter how respectful Mungiu believes himself to be, we are drawn into the most cynical, and from my perspective, myopic conclusions.
Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín made a name for himself a few years ago with the outré mission statement that was Tony Manero (2008), a vicious black comedy detailing life on the lowest level of Chilean society under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Larraín followed it up with the similarly dark Post Mortem (2010), and now concludes what could be called a loose trilogy of films about the most infamous chapter in his country’s existence with a study of the military dictator’s unexpected, purely politically enforced downfall. Larraín has changed tack from the punkish provocations of his debut (No is actually an adaptation by Pedro Peirano of a play by Antonio Skármeta), but his method and viewpoint in tackling Pinochet’s unseating retains a fascination for the unpredictable power of media imaging to fuel the fantasies of “ordinary” people and the perverse influence of those fantasies on reality. Whereas in Tony Manero Larraín investigated the culturally deadening nature of fascism through a degraded psychopath obsessed with disco glam, here his hero is a real person, albeit one who corrals fascinating contradictions: René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) has his cred in his name, as the son of exiled personage of the Allende years. René himself spent years in exile, too, schooled in the contemporary, first-world arts of advertising and media messaging, and has returned to his native country to work for the advertising agency run by Lucho Guzmán (Alfredo Castro), engaged in what is commonly dismissed as the shallowest and most brain-deadening, thought-clogging of arts.
René carries with him the sensibility of a different country’s youth culture, riding around on a skateboard, as if Michael J. Fox’s Back to the Future (1985) hero has been dumped in the middle of a Costa-Gavras film, and conversing easily in an argot of branding, image-consciousness, and rapid-edit razzle-dazzle. Yet he also possesses the faintly battered, haunted spirit, the melancholy eyes and taciturn frustration that infuse almost everyone about him, the awareness of an oppressive reality enforced by everyday detail and intransigent memory. René is introduced giving a spiel to executives for the soft drink Free Cola that makes it sound like the commercial they’re about to see is some great seismic shift in the zeitgeist, when it’s actually a compendium of meaningless pop images built around that most essential embodiment of western licence and enthusiasm, the rock band, including, most irritatingly to one of the execs, a mime. But René is right, to a certain extent: his ad does portend the arrival of consumer culture in Chile, something the regime claims to have fostered with its economic competence and political stability, but which will turn on its master by demanding choice and brighter colours. As international pressure mounts on Pinochet, his regime announces a referendum for the public to decide whether or not it wants the General to continue his personal rule for several more years. Most opponents assume the election will be rigged or least made impossible to win, and indeed, the regime tries to ensure the No campaigners have as much difficulty getting their message out as humanly possible in spite of the legalisation of political advertising.
René is approached by José Tomás Urrutia (Luis Gnecco), a leading activist and opposition spokesman who knew René’s father, to give the first ads and strategies of the No campaign. These prove to be ads formed around that mantra of activism, “raising awareness,” trying to draw attention to the appalling number of dead, missing, and tortured under Pinochet’s regime, complete with tactics like ominous music and mournful mothers clutching photos of their dead or vanished sons. René initially turns down Urrutia’s request to supervise the campaign because of the lack of pay, tight deadline, irritation with the resigned attitude of the campaigners and their negative messaging that is likely to be suppressed quickly, and his own general ignorance of political specifics. But the niggling truth of his past and his percolating social conscience are soon given new solidity by his boss Guzmán’s pro-regime browbeating and veiled threats, and the sight of his ex, Verónica Carvajal (Antonia Zegers), being arrested along with coworkers in a raid by government goons. He works up what is at first a mere variation on his standard cola ads, and shows a rough cut assembled from other ads to give an idea of what he intends. Screening it to a collective of No campaign honchos, one stands up and upbraids René for belittling and hiding his and others’ pain and the horror that the regime has committed, barking epithets before stomping out. But others see what René is getting at, or at least sense that he knows what he’s talking about, and they commission him to make the all-important ads that will be squeezed into the allotted 15 minutes for the No program. René puts together a team from the agency who hold meetings and plan strategy under Guzmán’s nose, and shoot an ad to kick off the three-week campaign.
Larraín’s major stylistic choice, and coup, was to shoot No on a vintage ’80s video camera recovered from a rubbish dump, to keep the film’s mise-en-scène consistent with the news and television footage, including the real advertisements that doubtlessly burned themselves into the memories of Chileans who saw them. René skateboards through streets, or he and his No fellows discuss strategy on the beach, bathed in the blazing light and colour bleed familiar to anyone who worked with such cameras, this world reenvisioned as an artefact of its own technology. Such an approach, retrofitting the dramatic recreations of the movie to the period footage, is a reverse to more usual practice, though it does harken back to older films like The Longest Day (1962), which deliberately eschewed shooting in colour to interpolate documentary war footage. Larraín’s insistence on building his film around the original ads confirms his demand for specificity, not only because of the familiarity as mentioned above, but also because Larraín’s subject is not just the creation of iconic media moment, but that moment itself, its specific textures that encode their messages beyond the overt and immediate.
René forges ahead with his plan despite the uncertainty of other No campaigners, including his own aide, Fernando Arancibia (Néstor Cantillana), who wants to promote agitation. The process of shooting his centrepiece ad is depicted as a collage of seemingly random bits of business, which coalesce into a whole that’s equally random, except in its suggestion of an upcoming, entirely joyous event. René’s team even supplies the compulsory campaign anthem, except it’s not really an anthem, as René insists, but a jingle: plain and simple, catchy and easy to remember. The Yes campaign’s showpiece ads are, by contrast, terrifying in their staid, fatuous displays: glossy-faced blue-bloods singing operatic, patriotic songs and attempts to sell Pinochet as a hard-working manager in suits, not a uniform.
The nightly 15-minute slot for the No side has been chosen in the hope that “everyone will be sleeping,” as a bemusedly hopeful government minister, Fernández (Jaime Vadell), says to Guzmán. As an emblem for the campaign, René chooses from his designers’ options a rainbow, to suggest the accord between many political factions, which bemuses Fernández entirely: “Isn’t that for faggots?” The assumption that the opposition is a collective of communists and homosexuals is so endemic for the regime that its members literally can’t conceive of any other alternatives, a symptom of a sclerotic and self-involved administration. Larraín offers scenes of the regime’s senior bureaucrats and military overlords discussing their own strategies, believing they have all the aces by pushing their economic achievements. But René and team identify two groups with apparently completely divergent interests likely to abstain from voting: the nation’s youth, who despise the regime, and its elderly, who are frightened of change but even more frightened of the endemic poverty in the country. The team targets them specifically with different campaign strategies.
Larraín and Bernal adroitly chart the divide between René’s yuppie success story, working for a firm that’s almost a jewel in the regime’s crown for creating and sustaining the trappings of a modern economy, and his identity as a child of his time and place. The son of exiles, René is also the divorced single father of Simón (Pascal Montero), with an activist ex-wife who has a strong remnant affection for him, but holds him in not so subtle contempt for his affluent, apolitical security and shallow, disengaged occupation. “It’s a copy of a copy of a copy,” she drones amusedly as she considers his showpiece ad, a line he later repeats in a rant when Guzmán tries to imitate it. An air of exhausted fatalism has long since drowned Veronica’s romanticism of being young, bright, and full of zeal. René still has his zest, but he shares her weighted melancholy. René wants to reconnect with Veronica, but is stymied by her cynical, bleary distance, accentuated when she’s abused in custody and released with black eyes; later, René disappointedly finds she’s shacking up with a new guy. Meanwhile, his home’s security is violated as Fernández, lobbied by Guzmán to take action against his wayward employees, sends out his goons: they enter René’s house in the night and paint vicious slogans on his windows.
There’s a certain Spielbergian flavour to the way the narrative boils down to a father’s desire to protect his son and reunite his family, but also win something on their behalf in the context of a broad social drama, both participant and prisoner of upheaval and grand drama. However, in method and tone, Larraín aims closer to the likes of Haskell Wexler’s seminal docudrama Medium Cool (1969), especially in the film’s later stages, as news footage and staged scenes combine to recreate the violence unleashed on the No campaigners on the day of the plebiscite. Larraín doesn’t entirely succeed in meshing his various tones: the deadpan earnestness of René’s private life doesn’t feel as vital or urgent, and certainly not as gripping in its withering humour, as the rest of the film, nor does Larraín have the emotional fulsomeness of Spielberg or the livewire tone of Wexler or Godard. It would be easy to describe No as a sort of sarcastic triumphalist tale where retro commercial kitsch helps bring down a powerful evil, much like the cheap exploitation of that theme in Ben Affleck’s smooth and smarmy Argo (2012), where Hollywood bluster helps leaven a small good in the midst of geopolitical crisis.
Larraín is much slyer in his wit, more exacting in his sense of milieu, and more cogently ironic in his investigation of the uneasy discourse between popular media imagery and politics than Affleck would be if he lived to be a million. Larraín is hip to the faint ring of sarcasm in the original campaign, its playful, yet passive-aggressive refusal to treat the toppling of murderous dictators as a grim business, or buy into the Yes side’s game of political name-calling and fear-mongering. René and Guzmán argue incessantly and bitchily as they’re drawn into direct opposition, although Guzmán tries to keep the regime’s decision to make René their guru quiet, but still keep up their pretences in their daily labours, shooting ads for kitchenware and overseeing a marketing campaign for a popular soap opera, “Hair Salon Love.” René orchestrates a publicity stunt designed to infiltrate the evening news in which the soap’s male star lands by helicopter on a skyscraper roof, greeted by the show’s bevy of female beauties. This aside seems at first like a device to highlight the silliness of René and Guzmán’s profession at its lowest, but as the film circles back to this vignette in the stinging coda, the soap’s panoply of femmes being romanced by a debonair suitor mockingly reflects the new political paradigm of nascent democracy, a series of artfully constructed seductions, where the soap star’s silver-haired Latin charm turns the paternalist patronage of Pinochet’s regime into a pop culture canard, a grinning, aged lothario trying to chat up an assortment of affluent and picky, yet superficially flirtatious doñas.
Larraín builds anticipation and tension in leading up to the No campaign’s kick-off, in the desire to see how René’s seemingly silly and incoherent assemblage of ideas come together. The particular genius of Larraín’s employment of the original ads comes out in the way they’re linked in essayistic clarity, the war of messages allowed to play out so the movie audience can absorb them as artefacts that, as Marshall McLuhan asserted, prove how much their encapsulation of the medium is itself the message. René’s ads are occasionally corny and provoke howls of recognition for the dated branding style, and yet the technical competence, the slickness and professional intelligence behind them shine through, as well as the genuineness of their enthusiasm and the openness of their messaging. Just as Larraín used the siren call and fetishization of American pop-culture imagery in Tony Manero to reflect the cultural debasement of life in a dictatorship, here he directly counterpoints the flashiness of René’s product with the increasing desperation, derivativeness, and sloppiness of the regime’s ripostes. In René’s showpiece ad, the signature rainbow flag is passed on by horse riders like an Olympic torch, picnicking families celebrate peace and freedom by consuming culturally specious baguettes because they’re more photogenic, randomly excited dancers appear like they’ve dropped in from Footloose (1984), and those bloody mimes sneak in for another go around, presumably because René saw them in a David Bowie video or something. But all accumulate into a memorable panoply of images that spell “liberation” as insistently as the name of Free Cola flashes on the screen in the earlier ad without needing the literal words.
René’s plan, no matter his motives and lacks in conceiving it, works brilliantly: by removing content from his ads and replacing it with ephemeral promise and good humour, he leaves the regime’s advertising looking, ironically, all the more hollow for trying to infer villainy behind the No side’s deliberately fostered party atmosphere, which takes its cues from René’s approach but soon infuses their street rallies. Guzmán looks increasingly like an asshole—and the regime with him—as he tries to break the spell of René’s ads, but only seems to make them all the more alluring in their class and pep. In an ad that makes the infamous “Daisy” spot for Lyndon Johnson look subtle, the regime offers an ad with a steamroller threatening a toddler, inferring disaster, whilst another ad tries incompetently to satirise the upbeat tone of the No ads by depicting terrorists behind the scenes preparing anarchy and terror. But perhaps the most telling comparison comes through one of René’s joke-based ads, depicting a man and woman in bed, the woman resisting the man’s implorations with murmured “nos” until the man finally gives in and cries, “Alright then, No!” It’s a little gem of advertiser’s art, combining an exceedingly simple joke with an impudent, Yippielike tone, the basic advertising truism that sex sells, perfect and succinct on-brand messaging, and also deeper echoes to the Lysistrata myth, a play on the anxiety of discord in the nation played as bedroom agony. Guzman tries to counter it with a version where it’s the woman who finally says “Yes,” and a voiceover prods the audience as to which ending they like better. The lack of imagination, humour, originality, the crass appeal to machismo, the lack of inner sense or autonomy in the regime’s sensibility, all are laid bare cruelly. “This will be remembered as the campaign where the bosses worked for the regime and the workers for the opposition!” René warns Guzmán, and the results become all too amusingly obvious.
But the harsh reality momentarily held in check by the war of gags and memes isn’t elided, as the No rally on voting day is attacked by police and dispersed with flagrant violence. Even the carnival atmosphere René and others have strived to create is not sufficient to ward off the vindictive brutality of a self-righteous, threatened junta. Veronica is beaten again and arrested by police, and Guzmán proves his essential loyalty to René in spite of all – and perhaps tries to protect his ass from reprisals if and when Pinochet falls – by using his regime friends to get her released. René now switches from orchestrator to bewildered bystander, a man who’s helped unleash forces, truths, and passions beyond what he’s allowed himself to countenance, as even his defanged version of opposition is ripe for pummelling. But the winds of change slowly make themselves apparent as the No campaign scores a crushing victory, at first denied by the state-run announcements but finally admitted as it becomes clear Pinochet’s military cabal won’t resist the tide of opinion, one that’s overcome all obstacles.
René drifts in mute confusion as the moment of victory comes, suddenly not one of the animators but one of the paradoxically liberated and lost beneficiaries. Where Guzmán and other regime allies had promised punishment once the vote was stitched up, instead Guzmán introduces René with smug confidence to clients as the successful designer of the No campaign, before unveiling the company’s latest achievement, the soap opera’s news spot. Larraín closes on René’s uncomfortable expression after he offers a repeat of his opening folderol, a sharp and mordant punchline that reminds us that all great causes, once concluded, leave us stranded in the banality of the everyday and the mercenary. For René, that’s even truer, facing a return to life pretending that selling cola is as important an endeavour as changing regimes.
“Railway tracks can take you places: to Lisbon or to Auschwitz, to your own past or even to your doubts, the traces of what your parents, friends, and enemies have left behind.”
The psychic landscape of individual and collective memory infuses writer Jaroslav Rudiš and illustrator Jaromír 99’s graphic novel trilogy Alois Nebel (Bílý Potok [White Brook] 2003), Hlavní Nádraží [Central Station] 2004) and Zlaté Hory [Golden Hills] 2004). Each book is named for a Czech railway station and based on stories about Rudiš’s grandfather Alois, who was a railway worker. The popularity of the trilogy was a surprise to its creators. Even more surprising was the proposal to turn it into a film and its eventual choice as the Czech Republic’s official entry for Best Foreign-Language Film in the 84th Academy Awards race. Leave it to the Czechs to recognize the worth of a rotoscope-animated film that leaves most of the Oscar contenders and winners in the dust.
Armed with little more than a teaser description, a single image from the film, and an enthusiastic love for Czech cinema, I paid my money and opened myself up to an enveloping experience of peculiarly quiet intensity. Alois Nebel is, appropriately, image-driven, with little dialogue and a subtly communicated plot. Its central character, Alois Nebel, works at the Bílý Potok train station in the Jeseníky mountains of what was once the German Sudetenland, and it is his memories from 1945, when Germans were expelled from the region, that provide the key to the drama underlying the film’s events.
The film begins in 1989, before the dissolution of the Soviet bloc and Czechoslovakia. A voiceover repeats names of train stations and arrival times repeatedly. A man on the run, carrying an ax crosses the guarded border and darts into the trees. As the pursuit of the man ends with him killing a dog sent to track him down, a more down-to-earth scene follows at the Bílý Potok train station. Alois (Miroslav Krobot) emerges from the station house and pours some milk into a bowl for his cat. “Where were you last night?” he asks, as the cat laps at the milk. His coworker Wachek (Leos Noha) is a crude loudmouth who keeps an eye on Alois, lest he interfere with the black market transactions he and his father (Alois Svehlík) use to keep the old man’s trailer park business afloat. The uncommunicative Alois pays little mind to Wachek, however. He goes about his business, having dinner and a beer at the local pub, and reading the timetables to relax a troubled mind that sometimes drifts into a frightening fog.
One evening, Alois’ vision of the deportation of a German woman (Tereza Vorísková) who used to care for him after his mother died emerges from a fog. The disturbing vision turns into a fuller memory of her rough treatment during the deportation, one that sends Alois over the edge. Wachek finds him sitting in the john, refusing to emerge, and Alois is taken to a mental hospital for a time. There he meets the man on the run, the mute (Karel Roden) Alois calls him, who was picked up outside the Bílý Potok train station in front of Alois. When Alois is released, he finds his old job and living quarters have been given to someone else, and goes to Prague to get his job situation sorted out. He sleeps in the train depot with other unemployed railway workers until the bathroom attendant, Kveta (Marie Ludvíková), takes a shine to him and sees to his needs. The end of the Soviet bloc proves the end of Kveta and Alois’ courtship as well. When next we catch up with Alois, he has grown a beard and is posted to a remote station deep in the mountains. He reencounters the mute, and pieces of his past fall into place as the mute finally speaks and declares his intentions.
The choice to use rotoscope animation was a compromise between the wishes of the graphic-novel creators to maintain the look and feel of the books and director Lunák’s cinematic approach. Not a fan of the rotoscoping of Ralph Bakshi, I was prepared to feel underwhelmed by its use in Alois Nebel. The film would have worked as a traditional feature film, with the performances underlying the illustrations still boldly in evidence. Yet, the black-and-white animation emphasizes the grave, colorless world Alois inhabits, the joylessness of everything from liberation from the Soviets to an abortive love affair. Alois’ offering of carnations to Kveta could have popped with some color, but the answer to her question, “How did you know I like carnations?” is a truthful “I didn’t,” thus bleaching the moment of some of its romantic potential.
A horror-movie atmosphere pervades the mental hospital sequence, with prolonged and graphic depictions of electroshock therapy the equal of any dripping nightmare from Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island. Indeed, there are many elements of this film that are reminiscent of that horror movie, from recovered memories to crazed vengeance and ever-present water. The use of trains approaching us head-on from out of the screen is a familiar, even clichéd image, but one that is turned on its head as having nothing to do with Jewish deportation, but rather, German expulsion.
All of the actors are riveting, no matter how small their roles. Svehlík is a bilious old Nazi sympathizer who constantly fiddles with his old service revolver and keeps his greasy son on a short leash. I took note of the only time in the film when the younger Wachek smiled—a toothy grin for a larcenous Soviet official who was clearing out of the country. Roden’s periodic appearances in the film are perfectly timed to forward the central plot with the patience his character had to endure to realize his goal.
Yet, it is with a slow rhythm and the enigmatic magnetism of Alois that Krobot ensnares us. In an age when audiences, particularly American audiences, are drown with too-revealing dialogue, even fed entire plots in movie trailers, Krobot’s reticence and and Lunák’s very sparing use of flashback maintain a mystery that is intriguing to follow. Krobot fends off the cinematic voyeur, reacting more than revealing, accepting without being submissive, creating an indelible character who has witnessed much and learned to channel his distress with the routine of his timetables. How one gets so much from a monochrome line drawing of the man speaks to the skill of the actor, director, and animator.
Bílý Potok is the wettest place in the Czech Republic, and the film makes great use of a torrential rainstorm to bring its story to a dark and inevitable climax. Rushing water cascading through the mountainous terrain seems as ready to sweep away Alois’ future as it does his past. When the film draws to a close, people are where they should be, with the trains back on schedule and the past finally put to rest.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s films have begun to feel like events, in part because of his relatively sparse and considered output, reflecting artisanal personality and integrity of purpose over his body of work. Even when his films seem so large and encompassing that anything else might seem like a grace note, he manages to contemplate their lacks and feel his way through to new ground. Free of swerves into lucrative franchise outings or one-off experiments, Anderson has the rare mystique of a major American film artist and the truest inheritor of the mantle from progenitors like Scorsese, Kubrick, Malick, and Altman. Anderson’s cinematic argot is highly sophisticated and increasingly less mannered in its debts. But what’s most intriguing about his oeuvre is how literary it’s starting to seem. Anderson seems well aware and engaged with the thematic trove of modern American writing and even contributes to it in his own way, but with a natural filmmaker’s understanding of the medium, ready and willing to translate his concerns into a vital play of images.
Whereas his first three films, Hard Eight (1996), Boogie Nights (1997), and Magnolia (1999), felt to a great extent like imaginative adaptations of short stories or collections, he moved into a more novelistic territory with the woozy absurdism of Punch-Drunk Love (2002), before his first actual, if very loose, adaptation, There Will Be Blood (2007), based on Upton Sinclair, a fact in itself suggestive of Anderson’s wider range of interest in the American canon than expected. His latest, The Master, though an original work, also feels like a transformed version of some forgotten mid-century classic. Anderson’s themes are consistent, even as, like a jeweller, he turns them over to regard the glint and flaws of each facet.
His most consistent theme has the mentor-pupil relationship with a father-son feeling apparent, if not always actual. The relationship is usually depicted in the midst of a kind of inorganic family that offers shelter to misfits and outsiders, with the mentor figure often revealed as deeply flawed, and the pupil often malformed, volatile, inarticulate, even dim, whilst feeling their way through to new maturity. In Hard Eight, the flawed mentor-father dominated as tragic antihero; in Boogie Nights, he was part of a gallery. In Magnolia, Anderson made a son, rather than a father a wielder of strange, almost cultish power and wisdom. In There Will Be Blood, the relationship was complicated by the splitting of the pupil figure into a surrogate son and a doppelganger rival, and the mentor stripped of positive patriarchal qualities. Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson’s only foray into comedy proper of an uneasy brand (though, like Kubrick, all his films have a comedic or absurdist undertone), interestingly turned the relationship into a romantic one, turning his impishly malformed misfit into a “hero.”
Anderson also has a fascination for the peculiar subcultures of American life that throw up bodies of lore straining to become self-perpetuating codes, reinventions of traditional systems of religion and philosophy straining to become ahistorical in their purity, be it the male-dominant flimflam of Frank T. J. Mackey in Magnolia, the reductive capitalist thought of Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, the gambling techniques in Hard Eight, or the porno-therapeutic jive of Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights. Such world views nonetheless are evolved to help the characters survive in a world that often seems pointless, arbitrary, and assailing. Even the eventual climax to Plainview’s weltanschaung—murder—maintained a predatory, rather than nihilistic, understanding of existence. Perhaps inevitably, The Master moves closer to contending with this specific theme in one of its archest possible manifestations.
The real-life model for The Master’s unctuous titular guru is L. Ron Hubbard, but like Charles Foster Kane, another deliberately fashioned icon of modern American hubris, he could be composed of a thousand similar figures, from Charles Atlas to Anthony Robbins, ever to flog an easy path to fulfilment and understanding with a charisma-oozing grin. But “The Master,” Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), is not so much focus as catalyst and momentary object of study, watched by Anderson through Freddie’s (Joaquin Phoenix) eyes. Freddie is the pivotal figure of this tale, imbued, like many everyman protagonists found in the kind of pulp sci-fi Hubbard used to write, with mysterious and inchoate powers he himself doesn’t understand. Much like the gormless blankness John (John C. Reilly) in Hard Eight gave mentor Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) to write the fine arts of gambling on and Dirk’s massive phallus in Boogie Nights provided Jack Horner’s nascent industry with its essential product, Freddie offers to Dodd the perfect mirror-opposite to work his craft on.
In the early scenes of The Master, Freddie is in the U.S. Navy as the war in the Pacific is winding down, a portrait in perversity that begs the question whether the war has damaged him deeply or merely exacerbated his strangeness and alienation. Glimpsed on the beaches of beatific Pacific isles, like the devolved beast-men left behind by the dreamy Rousseauian warriors of Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1997), Freddie and his fellow sailors drink, wrestling like hairless apes in the surf, and fantasize about sex. One is glimpsed jerking off with jism dripping in the ocean. Freddie, without quite the same operating governor between his desires and his circumstances as a “normal” person, tries to overcome lack with substitution. He brews moonshine liquor and molds a woman out of sand with which to have sex, his strange, fumbling play-act exemplifying strange and inadequate sexuality.
The next we see of Freddie, he’s being released from a VA hospital after being given a pep talk. Most films to deal with the veteran experience deal with trauma in its least subtle forms. The Master avoids any overt statement about what happened to land Freddie in the hospital, but it’s clear that in returning from the war he’s less than a complete and functional human being. Nonetheless, he lands a job in a department store as a photographer, taking lush snapshots that preserve the glossy familial pretences of the age in visual amber. Surrounded by the paraphernalia of postwar domesticity and aspiration, Freddie watches a floor model, Martha (Amy Ferguson), clad in a fur coat strutting around the store, a vision of desirability in the midst of retail paradise. As in The Hurt Locker (2008) and some other recent variations on the classic war drama, there’s an overtone here of satire in positing a consumer society panoply as the absurd counterpoint to the war-damaged human’s perspective, but with an added, subtler edge in evoking sensuality as well, and the basic human drives towards the paraphernalia of success and stability—illusory to a large extent, as revealed when Freddie manages to get the model into his darkroom. There she protests she’s a good girl but lets him fondle her underwear whilst drinking his rotgut: there are also the drives for quick flings, easy sex, numbing intoxicants, and everything else that buys off time. Freddie falls asleep when out on a date with her, a humiliation that seems, in part, to make him lose his cool with a photographic subject, degenerating into battle in the aisles as a doughy businessman tries to clobber the scrambling, skinny retread. Freddie is next revealed to have sunk into the day-labouring class, picking vegetables in Salinas. He has to flee when his moonshine poisons one of his fellow workers. This is Freddie’s nadir: he’s glimpsed loping by moonlight across the fields in frantic flight, moving very quickly and yet, of course, not seeming to get anywhere.
After wandering for who knows how long, he drunkenly takes refuge on a boat where Dodd is attending a party that sails languorously out to sea. As much as There Will Be Blood was obsessed with the earth and associated imagery of oil, blood, digging, and fire, The Master is a film obsessed, visually and thematically, with water and voyaging, filled with hints of mythopoeic meaning vibrating under its occasionally obscure textures, allusions to The Odyssey, Moby-Dick and the canon of nautical lore recorded in shanties and folk-poems. One core scene finds Dodd singing “Maid of Amsterdam (I’ll Go No More A-Roving),” possibly also a reference to John Huston’s film of Melville’s tome, where the song features prominently. Freddie, like Odysseus, is a voyager who’s been stranded by war far away from his love, whilst the sailor’s pledge to return to a girl echoes a thousand folk songs. Freddie’s semi-accidental embarkation with Dodd proves a turning point, a voyage of discovery where the navigator doesn’t have a map and the sailor is a loon. Anderson returns repeatedly to the image of a ship’s boiling wake cutting through a sea of rapturous blue, and the question boils up as to whether Freddie wants a homecoming or to recapture the freedom of a sailor. A common conflation in classical mythology sees the sea as feminine, maternal life-giving in unity, and there are hints throughout the film of such a conflation, complete with oedipal overtones in the image of the sailor masturbating over the waves, whilst Freddie’s female love icon is sculptured from the seaside sand.
Conceptually speaking, The Master seems smaller than Anderson’s maximalist efforts (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and There Will Be Blood) with its focus on another oddball subculture and a deeply ironic kind of male love story, but actually it represents a waypoint between the breadth of cultural focus in those films and the intimate, queasy situation comedy of Punch-Drunk Love. Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s superlative cinematography, a love letter to the forcibly outmoded yet still unsurpassed expressivity of 70mm, ironically focuses for much of the film on faces and bodies in close communication rather than David Lean-esque expanses or the widescreen catechism of There Will Be Blood. But it consistently utilises the format’s crisp, exacting textures to supercharge the film’s visuals with a quality that’s often hyperreal, rarely departing from the naturalistic, and yet poised constantly on the edge of the abstract and the hallucinogenic: household curtains waver with fiery substance, ocean waves glitter like a sea of jewels, suburban homes hover in reticent tranquillity in the daylight. In the very first shot, Freddie, under his navy helmet appears only as wounded eyes and sun-weathered skin between hunks of military metal; much later, Freddie’s face is glimpsed abutting his sand-sculptured female breasts, as if composed of the same billion-fold fragments and longing to merge. When Dodd’s yacht sails out from San Francisco, its decks are aglow with light and the careless vivacity of the rich and victorious, sailing out under the Golden Gate Bridge with the Stars and Stripes fluttering in the twilight.
The first encounter between a pie-eyed Freddie and Dodd is not shown, but rather recounted when Freddie awakens aboard Dodd’s yacht, and the erstwhile guru wants more of the alluringly wicked concoction Freddie fed him: what’s poison for others is mother’s milk for Dodd, naturally, as both men turn potentially noxious ingredients into something invigorating and enjoyably unhealthy. Dodd’s loosely defined pseudo-scientific-therapeutic organisation, dubbed The Movement and built around a weighty tome of Dodd’s, utilises principles of psychoanalysis and cognitive therapy, but it rejects the purely psychological. Like Scientology, it is based in a mythology of residual spirits of ancient aliens that torment humans into irrational behaviour and pain, and the possibility that empirical reality is actually an elaborately constructed cover story for an infinitely stranger universe. Dodd’s cunningly built system releases individuals of angst that their own failings are responsible for their predicaments whilst still offering the hope of programmatic steps towards catharsis. Realities within realities seem an apt field for Dodd to dabble in as they seem to define his life, however, as the question as to what degree he’s in charge of his own mythmaking enterprise arises. His wife Peggy (Amy Adams) seems to control and direct his ambitions, and tries to ward off Freddie, thinking that one day he might prove a bigger liability than asset for their little family-like enclave. Dodd’s inner circle is, in essence, a family: he’s just married his daughter Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers) to clean-cut but ethnically ambiguous Clark (Rami Malek) and crows about how his teachings have transformed the institution of marriage.
Dodd leads Freddie into an extended session of pseudo-therapeutic analysis where he manages to extract certain apparently salient facts about Freddie, including that he once slept with his aunt (“I was drunk and she looked good!”). Or is Freddie lying? Dodd seems immediately and deeply fascinated by Freddie as his damaged alter-ego and test subject. Freddie is the ideal object of Dodd’s dabbling, not just because Freddie’s troubles present a challenge to his methods, but because Freddie’s tics and traumas are so close to the surface that anything Dodd throws at him seems elevated to the level of profundity purely because it’s so easy to get a powerful reaction from Freddie, no matter if his technique is happenstance, inefficacious, or just plain improvised quackery. If Freddie was couched as the narrative voice of a novel, it would probably come across like one of Faulkner’s stranger, most impenetrably hazy and impressionistic voices, a few steps above The Sound and the Fury’s Benjy, full of crude epiphanies and strange segues from the immediate into the surreally earthy.
In a lengthy, key sequence, Dodd subjects Freddie to an exercise, before an audience of awed followers waiting for great revelations, which sends him walking from wall to wall in a large room and describing what he touches. This seems to push Freddie away from reality, even as his hunger for tactile expression comes out, kissing glass and seeming almost to transform substance with his will. But eventually he is reduced to faking when he’s kept performing the exercise after all the observers, including Dodd, have gone to lunch, making the noises of his motions and crying out whatever new imaginary texture enters his head, again raising the possibility he’s wilfully fulfilling Dodd’s needs so his own will be met. Anderson presents this scene intercut with another exercise, in which Freddie and Clark, who may know that his wife has made passes at Freddie or at least fears Freddie has designs on her are instructed by Dodd to exchange withering assessments of each other without reacting.
This sequence is realised in one of Anderson’s signature touches, a rhythmic, extended, usually cross-cut montage that encapsulates an interlude of behaviour that seems to be reaching an apogee whilst actually finally breaking down. Moreover, what’s fascinating about Dodd’s “therapies” is their intensity as interpersonal games of show and tell, encouraging his subjects to unveil themselves and lock themselves in with arbitrary rules that strip them of power. Freddie’s reasons for playing along with such flimflam are never spelt out, but they’re still fairly obvious: like so many Anderson characters, he’s happy to be absorbed into a circle that makes him seem special in an otherwise contemptuous world where he can barely survive. As an Anderson character, he’s a blend of the director’s early, slightly dim seekers and the tormented, incoherent lost men on the periphery. At the same time, Freddie feels and looks like an exactly observed type, those men who exist at the periphery of life, with a distorted aspect that makes them look crippled even when there’s nothing greatly wrong with them.
Freddie confronts and attacks those who dare to criticise or interrogate Dodd, but Freddie himself reveals in a distraught jailhouse interlude that he knows Dodd’s verbiage is bullshit. He’s more like some roaming ronin desperate for an overlord who’ll give him a place in his castle, a patch of livery, and something to fight for, no matter how nebulous and suspect. Freddie becomes, thus, one of those figures usually caricatured in narratives, a goon protecting The Master from dissent. Dodd’s own encounters with such voices provoke an amusing/alarming explosiveness on his part, as when he’s grilled by John More (Christopher Evan Welch), an enquiring mind who’s concerned that Dodd’s claims to able to cure diseases like leukaemia might result in actual patients taking refuge in his quackery, and blurts, “If you already know the answers to you questions, then why ask, pig-fuck?!” Freddie takes matters into his own hands and visits More to give him a hiding. Even when Dodd’s son Val (Jesse Plemons) assures Freddie that his father makes it all up as he goes, Freddie starts to get rough with him, too, though Freddie later suggests he knows Val is speaking the truth.
In addition to Freddie’s ill-judged liaison with his aunt, his past reveals he had wanderlust even before the war, when he left his impossibly innocent 15-year-old amour Doris Solstad (Madisen Beaty) to go sailing and never returned to her. The Freddie glimpsed in flashback is altogether a more vital person, quiet rather than asocial, romantic, skinny, and odd but not the gnarled wretch of the present. Now Freddie’s pervasively erotic imagination, which interprets every Rorschach blot held up before him by a doctor (Mike Howard) at the VA hospital in an obscene manner, seems fundamentally at odds with such sweetness and innocence, as though Freddie’s actually been locked in a frieze, taking solace in his imaginings of boundless sensual indulgence. Like the dirty boy in class, he hands around notes that read “Do you want to fuck?” to attractive Movement females whilst they’re listening to Dodd make recorded pronouncements like “You are not ruled by your emotions.” Freddie comes across by comparison like a realised portion of the id, a Marx Brother without the cheeky humour but all the perverse, incidental energy. Phoenix, wizened by comparison since his impersonation of Johnny Cash, his cleft palate scar often unflatteringly emphasised in the intimate force of Malaimare’s photography, elaborates Freddie’s simian quality with his over-large clothes and wounded sneer.
Whilst much of The Master feels somehow on the edge of detachment from reality with its cryptic elisions and occasional, almost dreamy discursions (like its voyaging scenes), it dips into an outright hallucination only once, during a party for The Movement where Dodd regales his adherents with the above-mentioned sea shanty. The scene commences normally, but as Freddie’s viewpoint is established, suddenly all the women in the room are naked, including the pregnant Peggy and the elderly musicians, as Dodd cavorts and croons, with his charisma and fatuous self-delight laid as bare as the female flesh, Freddie, true to form, conceiving Dodd’s power in sexual terms and delighting in the thought of this kind of power. Being a guru is the ticket to major pussy, of course, but Freddie also comes to perceive the erotic power The Master has on more levels than the immediately sexual, his capacity to seduce and intrude on the mind. That Freddie’s imagining is all too accurate is confirmed in the next scene as Peggy malevolently jerks off a hung-over Dodd whilst warning him that if he does want to pursue extramarital tail, to make sure it’s no one she knows, a pretence of giving her husband freedom whilst actually strengthening her leash. It’s a reversal of Dodd’s way of keeping Freddie leashed in his therapeutic exercises.
Whereas in There Will Be Blood, an old-fashioned, hellfire religion gave counterpoint to vindictive entrepreneur triumphalism, here New Age pseudoscience takes its place as both religion and business, a fusion of the two impulses in modern American life to provide an underlying mythology for some general, free-floating emotional truths of the post-War era: that for many, reality feels false, alienated from their own emotions, stirring hunger for both assurance and also, contradictorily, for new paradigms. Dodd’s style of thought aims to fulfil both desires. “Man is not an animal,” Dodd intones, rejecting the inescapable earthiness and pragmatism of Darwinian science even whilst seeming to maintain a rationalist perspective. “We are not a part of the animal kingdom. We sit far above that crown, perched as spirits, not beasts.” Such a statement opposes the animalistic behaviour of the monkey-like sailors on the beach at the beginning, rude, crude homo sapiens unfettered. The counterculture of the ’60s is anticipated by The Movement, but tellingly without its polymorphic energy and anti-institutionalism; this is ’50s neo-religion as totalitarian Cold War manifestation even whilst offering the pretence of liberation. Dodd has the stagecraft his profession demands—most beautifully observed are his smarmy dollops of purposefully anti-pompous humour as wind-ups for his entirely pompous persona and message, delivered with self-satirising smiles—and even seems to believe in it, in his way, as when he has Freddie accompany him to unearth his second, supposedly revelatory and revolutionary second tome for The Movement, which he’s buried in the desert to keep secret until the time is right.
The inversion of the power relationship between Dodd, who presents the wise and dramatic visage of The Movement to the world, and Peggy, who plays Little League Lady Macbeth, could be trite, but Anderson, as elsewhere, refuses to give simplistic explanations. He identifies Peggy’s capacity to channel will and drive, and a seemingly sociopathic need for exclusivity and control, one who can weep with real offence when someone challenges her and her husband’s works, giving her all the reason she needs to pitch her head in Elizabethan resolve and airily ward off detractors. Her and Dodd’s relationship is a folie a deux where they mirror each other’s lacks, but this makes them capable of building a force out of unruly and facetious talent for bullshit and the ability to sell it. The Movement, seemingly prosperous, actually leeches off the prosperity of others like a spiritual gigolo, as Dodd and company set up in the house of a Midwestern duchess, Helen Sullivan (Laura Dern), and Dodd gets himself in legal trouble over the donated estate of one adherent.
The Master has some intriguing similarities to Cronenberg’s adaptation of Hampton’s A Dangerous Method(2011), about the far more effectual, but often no less happenstance and cultish world of early Freudian psychiatry, with Freddie and Dodd’s relationship echoing that of Freud and his misfired protégé, the outré Otto Gross. Perhaps the linking theme is a peculiar tendency in powerful and influential characters to seek out persons who fascinate them through peculiar, antipathetic qualities, as well as assimilate the potential of such alternate viewpoints. Peggy wants to get rid of Freddie, not just because he could embarrass them with his strange and unpredictable temperament, but precisely because he represents the threat of the unpredictable: in his pathos and neediness lies the threat of its opposite, an unruly scepticism inimical to the petty authoritarianism of cult. Indeed, as Freddie begins to emerge from the eye of his personal crisis, he begins to display just such a character: he does not so much reject The Movement as suddenly not to need it anymore.
By The Master’s final act, Freddie does seem to be healing, newly calm and centred in his physical presence, armed with an increasingly dry and mordant sense of humour, and able to face the past. He returns to speak to Doris’ mother (Lena Endre) and learns Doris is now married, and Freddie can let her go with grace and perspective. Whereas in the earlier scenes, Dodd’s therapies contrived to keep Freddie netted, a scene laced with symbolic import sees Dodd take his close kin and protégé out to White Sands and take a motorcycle across the flats to feel the exhilaration of limitless space and speed—except that Dodd prescribes unconscious limitations, versions of the walls from the earlier exercise, which Freddie thoughtlessly, gleefully ruptures, ignoring or not hearing Dodd’s calls to stop and venturing so far away that the rest of the party have to trek into the dusk to find him. The next we see of him, he’s returned to the Solstad’s place on the other side of the country. Freddie has escaped, or least absented himself from The Movement, but Dodd is unnervingly able to locate him in a movie theatre by phone, begging him to come to England where he’s founding a chapter of The Movement. On arrival, however, Freddie is essentially given an ultimatum by Peggy to commit himself again to The Movement: “This is something you do for a billion years, or not at all.”
So Freddie chooses not at all, but not without a tear. Dodd’s final show of almost unctuous, discomforting vulnerability and neediness, as he sings “I’d like to get you on a slow boat to China” to Freddie, while ensconced behind a massive desk before a grandiose window that bespeaks the oncoming rise of The Movement to a new level of institutional import. Meanwhile Freddie, like Anderson, has evolved a way of summing up truths in laconic and impudent gags; when The Movement’s British receptionist asks Freddie if he’s been travelling, he answers “How else do you get somewhere?” Freddie, born to be an exile, finally gets at least one thing he’s been after, picking up an English nurse, with both a deliberately anticlimactic joke in the suggestion that all he really needed was to get laid, but also that his journey to the point where he could was a complex and maddening one. Freddie reveals he’s learnt a thing or two from The Master, as he walks the lady through some of the exercises Dodd put him through, except Freddie is being satiric and self-aware, mocking Dodd’s method of power and seduction whilst also using them. “If you figure out a way to live without a master,” Dodd implores Freddie, “any master, be sure to let the rest of us know, for you would be the first in the history of the world.” It seems like an urgent request coming from Dodd’s mouth, though it’s really another of his self-enclosed sophistries. Freddie is not born to be either another master or a follower; he’s something else again, even if it’s just a wanderer.
Tabu commences with a peculiar, droll vignette that refers to the days of Europe’s exploratory excursions into Africa. An adventurer in compulsory pith helmet treads forth into the wilds with native guides and porters, beating paths through the grass and leading columns through jungle and savannah as the image of the valiant penetrator of the unknown, armed with the nominal presence of the King, in the form of an empowering letter of proxy authority, as well as God, in his Bible. The explorer is, in spite of his noble mission, depressed and listless, driven on less by imperial ambition than by heartache. He’s pursued by the wraith, or fond hallucination, of his deceased wife, who blankly hovers over him when he rests and describes him as “poor and lost soul” when he decides to die if he can’t escape his heart’s pain. So the explorer walks into a river and is devoured by a crocodile, whilst his bearers dance in celebratory fashion; later, the legend of a ghostly woman with a crocodile at her feet haunting the region arises. This anecdote seems to have nothing to do with what follows except that it shares all its common themes: the troubled relationship between Europe and Africa, the sense of lovelorn melancholy, the immediacy of life and death and the strange way these phenomena commingle in the human soul, and the symbol of the crocodile, the glowering, toothy beast that becomes emblem for the latent animal passion in humankind, constantly at odds with its self-imposed attempts to cage it.
Tabu’s second movement leaps to contemporary Portugal, a fatigued, dully modern place where life is literally compartmentalised, squared off in safe bubbles of vacuously comfortable apartment living. Pilar (Teresa Madruga) is a 50ish woman who works with activist groups and occasionally provides lodgings for backpackers. She goes to the airport to meet a new lodger, a Polish girl named Maya who’s been travelling in South America. But a young traveller, who has a stilted conversation with Pilar in English, their common language, tells her that Maya decided to change her itinerary and hasn’t come. The young woman, of course, is actually Maya, a fact revealed with ruthless mirth as her companions shout her name to make her hurry up even as she’s still smiling politely at Pilar, who has decided to stick with younger friends. Pilar is devoutly religious and conscientious, taking refuge in providing solace and aid to others, but also excruciatingly lonely and frustrated. She sees movies and goes on adventures sometimes with a portly artist, who has a crush on her and makes an aborted attempt at a declaration of love, but Pilar secretly dislikes his abstract paintings and only hangs up the ones he’s given to her when he comes to her place.
On New Year’s Eve, Pilar watches fireworks from her balcony and listens to the sounds of distant parties. She is friends with a neighbour in her apartment block, the elderly Aurora (Laura Soveral), who’s looked after by a nurse, Santa (Isabel Cardoso), an African immigrant actually employed by Aurora’s absent daughter, a marine biologist working in Canada. Pilar rescues Aurora from a casino where she’s lost all her money, and not for the first time: in spite of a promise not to return to the casino, Aurora had ventured again because of a premonition she had in a dream. Aurora, at the outset retaining hints of charisma and autonomy, begins to spiral toward decrepitude and senility, accusing Santa of trying to impose voodoo curses on her. As Aurora worsens and is hospitalised, she rambles on about an escaped crocodile, imploring her companions to search for it in the houses of apparently imaginary neighbours, and makes a request to Pilar to find one of them, named Gian Luca Ventura. Pilar finds Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo) in a nursing home and brings him to Aurora’s funeral. Afterward, when they have lunch in a shopping mall, Gian Luca begins to explain his and Aurora’s shared history.
Tabu maintains a deceptively pokerfaced style, exacerbated in the second half as it shifts to historical drama rendered as a virtual silent movie, with only the older Ventura’s voiceover and the omnipresent trill of insects to disturb the passage of dumb-show theatrics. Under the film’s quiet surface is a synergistic flow of seemingly offhand ideas that coalesce into an ever-deepening, fascinating drama of time, not merely as a personal experience, but also a cultural one. Tabu seems to belong to a distinctive strand of Portuguese narrative art, recently exemplified by Raul Ruiz’s film of Camilo Castelo Branco’s novel Mysteries of Lisbon, in its preoccupation with exploring, rather than merely employing, history and storytelling as ambivalent zones of knowing and repositories of truth, sometimes imperceptibly and yet always vitally entwined with the present reality.
Much of the beauty of the film’s first half comes from the exactness of writer-director Miguel Gomes’ feel for character types, and the film’s initial mood is defined by the omnipresent pall of frustration and solitude that afflicts the main characters, particularly Pilar, depicted in casual, but exacting detail as a study of an everyday tragic. Pilar inhabits a zone of ready empathy and pathos in her typicality, as an increasingly invisible middle-aged woman who exists on the fringe of many contemporary scenes without ever holding the centre. She’s brushed off at the start by a young person who wants to hang out with other young people. Her male friend/admirer is an entertaining companion who suppresses romantic affection for her, but he is nonetheless a problematic personality too different for her to respond to with immediate inclination. He falls asleep during a movie, leaving her mired in weeping solitude, and then later makes a clumsy overture of affection that he then quickly retreats from, leaving Pilar more confused than ever. Pilar’s selflessness is admired by all: even the recalcitrant Maya, whom Pilar later trudges past when she’s canoodling with a boyfriend, enthuses over Pilar’s generosity.
Pilar’s saintly solicitude counters Santa’s nearly taciturn demeanour, as Santa bears the racist-tinted suspicion of the increasingly paranoid Aurora and the nosey concern of Pilar with businesslike cool, as she holds to the course dictated by the status of her job. Santa’s unease with language is depicted, as she’s learning Portuguese and bounding to the top of the class thanks, ironically, to reading that prototypical imperialist text Robinson Crusoe at bedtime. The racial tension and role awareness extant between Aurora and Santa introduces a theme that pays off as the film’s perspective shifts to the past, as Aurora’s ease at bossing around her black nurse like a maidservant hints at a past spent in lordly command. But the degree to which the worm has actually turned is apparent, as Santa enforces the regime imposed on Aurora by her absentee daughter to keep her on a tighter leash after her last casino venture, the former colonised now the coloniser, serving/imprisoning the waning remnant of a departed raj. Pilar, whilst dipping toes in activism, internationalism, and artistic bohemia, seems deeply and definably unhip as a steady pillar of stolid faith and square, unfashionable values. She replaces her would-be lover’s painting with a cosy landscape and prays each night before going to sleep in her lonely bed. Yet there’s something about Pilar that refuses reduction to a twee bystander in her own life, in part indicated by her selflessness and the regard others have for her and confirmed by the rapturous, luminously poetic prayer that she recites at bedtime. When Pilar attends a protest rally against the UN, she recites her prayer during a silence that baldly and hilariously contrasts the witless chant the crowd recites.
This scene, rendered in one, slow zoom closing in on Pilar’s stoic visage, is brilliant, illuminating with enriching wryness the way humanitarianism has supplanted and become a religion for many, whilst perceiving how it offers stolid pieties and studied outrage in place of the rhapsodic power and poetic fullness still apparent in Pilar’s worldview. There’s a hint of irony here, as Gomes actively contends with the losses and gains of any historical moment, contrasting the smallness of much of modern life with the lost grandeur, poeticism, and romanticism of the past; but the past is rendered not necessarily as a lost golden age either. Similarly, present here is a hovering awareness of the way age reduces people from creatures of fecund sense to wearied circumspection, and the crossing point between the two can come and go in the blink of an eye, never to be regained. Aurora is the avatar for this notion, as the film examines her final weeks and then loops back to explore her past in an unexpected pirouette of focus and meaning. Like Aurora, Ventura proves to have been supplanted by a descendant. His house is occupied by a young spiv with key chain and sweatshirt, who theorises that his great-uncle now no longer occupies his house because “he went bonkers.” Pilar goes to the nursing home where the old man has been deposited, sitting in a waiting room whose sterile cul-de-sac quality is all the better communicated for being unexaggerated in its blank modern emptiness. When she extracts Ventura, she’s confronted with a snowy-haired gentleman who wears a weathered old hat that rests like a totem on his head, redolent of a fascinating past. After Aurora’s funeral, Pilar and Santa go to eat with Ventura in a shopping mall cafeteria, and Gomes’ drifting camera almost casually transforms the place, through the potted plants of the mall’s indoor garden, into an anticipatory simulacrum of jungle, the humdrum suddenly taking on a charge of the authentically exotic.
Aurora’s and Ventura’s shared past, as he explains it, goes back to colonial Africa of the early 1960s, whereupon the second part of Tabu commences, shocking as it reaches a climax, even as certain aspects are inevitable. The person Aurora once was is now revealed in sometimes unflattering detail: a strident planter’s daughter who was world-famous as a hunter, a mischievous, imperious, and occasionally cruel personality under the surface of her cool beauty, redolent of a coddled upbringing. Gian Luca was a playboy who washed up in Africa after meeting Mario (Manuel Mesquita), an adventurous jack of all trades who had once trained to be a priest; after getting a job with a mining company, Gian Luca became a fixture in the colonial community. In this fashion, Gian Luca was eventually introduced to Aurora, who had recently been married to a pleasant young member (Ivo Müller) of the local pseudo-aristocracy. The real incident behind the older Aurora’s rambling about an escaped crocodile proves rooted in the crucial incident that brought her and Gian Luca together: the crocodile was a baby, a present given to her by her husband, and its occasional escapes usually saw it ending up in a pool at Gian Luca’s house, where their mutual attraction soon erupted in a clandestine affair. The affair flourished in spite of, and in fact partly fuelled by, her pregnancy by her husband and the oncoming plunge into the immobility of motherhood that rendered Aurora even more reactive than usual: when one of her family’s cooks, a reputed juju man, predicted the pregnancy and that Aurora would eventually die alone and bitter, she sacked him.
Tabu, like many works of modern narrative art, is as much about its own telling as it is a story told, but the great final effect of Tabu is in how concisely it dovetails the impulses to both tell and make a show of the telling. The flow of Gian Luca’s speech is rarefied and yet riveting, reproducing the intended effect: the older Ventura’s soft-spoken narration underscores the action, rendered at once remote and ironic by the lack of dialogue, but unfolding with the curious grace and immediacy of personal anecdote. The film’s contrast between the humdrum realism of Pilar’s story and the historical romanticism and melodrama of Aurora’s could have become arch, but Gomes’ strict control and sense of humour are mediated through his stylistic choices. The change in film stock in the shift from contemporary to period setting evokes the past through a rougher prism, albeit one that is often more immediate, communicative of grittier, fleshier textures. The point underlying this is the notion that we in the present—any present—experience the past either through memory or through the remnant self-representation of the period—any period—and the effect of the artifice becomes ingrained with the meaning. An early scene in the Pilar half of the film, in which the artist first appears, depicts the duo as part of a tour group being shown through underground catacombs by a rambling guide who tells them theoretical details about the place—that maybe it was once used by Romans and Moors—but then reminds them that “what I’m telling you is stories, not facts,” provoking the artist to finally rebel and shout out, “Why do you keep talking such crap?” Pilar cracks up in hilarity, the only time she does so, and whilst the artist is himself hardly idealised, his comedic abuse evokes Gomes’ conviction that the past can only be reconceived and brought to life by the complex interplay of evidence and artistry. Gomes recreates the alien strangeness of early ethnographic documentaries in an early scene where the explorer’s porters begin to dance for the camera after the explorer commits suicide, recreating the gaze of the colonial project only to turn it back on itself.
Tabu’s mastermind has made a film in part about colonialism, though with an infinitely lighter touch than the shrill overtones that subject usually invokes, and suggests the commencement of a cycle playing out its last gasps in depicting the death of the last generation of colonial survivors. The world glimpsed in Tabu’s second-half flashback is engaged in the early processes of epochal shift, as civil war and the end of the direct colonialist project in Africa is commencing. The flashy, internationalist world of modern pop culture is infiltrating even this backwater, as Mario’s band becomes a minor hit with a song prized today by music fans for its simple grittiness. An offhand, recurring detail confirms the wheels of time and the sinuous links of history, in a peppy Spanish-language version of “Be My Baby” to which Pilar listens on the radio at one point, and which later turns out to have been recorded by Mario’s band when working as a backing band for a female singer during a sojourn in Europe. Later, the intertwined nature of personal and social history is elucidated in a more alarming fashion, as a murder that punctuates the story, a purely personal affair, is repurposed in a declaration of war by rebel guerrillas, signalling the start of general bloodshed. Similarly, the firm moral grounding of the old world is giving way, as Gian Luca’s tale depicts a too-early grasp at sexual independence and Aurora is exposed as a peculiar by-product of colonialism in her deadly, strident independence, both proto-feminist victim of repressive social ideals and backdated remnant of a culture created by murderous self-interest and built around a sense of domain and overlordship.
The film, it is eventually revealed, takes its name from a fabled mountain close to the plantations where most of the period drama unfolds. The mountain is considered sacrosanct by the native Africans and notoriously inimical to explorers, and one of the characters of the historical portion, Mario, had his life saved by the man who became Aurora’s husband when a disaster cost the lives of several of Mario’s friends at the mountain. Later, the more vivid and corrosive meaning of taboo rises to the surface as Aurora and Gian Luca’s adulterous passion cleaves apart the incestuously tight-knit colonial world and its careful balance of opposing forces based on studiously observed rules. The bond of fellowship between Mario, Gian Luca, and Aurora’s husband (who is never actually called by name; only his status counts in the fading memory of Gian Luca) is broken. At the same time that the bonds of colonial nicety are disintegrating, with revolution manifesting as whispers and tales of bloodshed, not yet manifesting and actually taking an act of intra-fraternal murder to give it a push towards fruition. So the arrival of systemic disintegration is, to all intents, the by-product of moral failure, a failure that is both illusory in empirical effect and yet linked by a web of circumstance, a network of cracks in the structure that conjoin.
The contrasts in character are employed to a fascinating end: just as Aurora is revealed as someone as different to the repressed but conscientious goody-two-shoes Pilar as night to day, so, too, is Gian Luca, who in old age seems like a remnant of a swashbuckling era, finally and vividly contrasted by his pal Mario, whose lust for life, industry, bravery, and egotistical rectitude seem quite humiliatingly greater than his more superficially dashing pal. But Gian Luca’s character emerges in his hapless surrender to fate and judgement, and Mario’s postures of martyrdom are undercut early when the voiceover informs that Mario’s fondness for the company of natives resulted in a son whom he sometimes indulged by taking him for rides in his car along with a half-dozen more village progeny. Gomes’ final point is less moralistic, however, than biological and systemic: good, bad, moral, immoral, everybody dies. But the shape of the hole left by their absence describes oceans of meaning. As melancholic as Tabu’s themes are, Gomes retains a constant supply of dry, faintly absurdist humour percolating throughout much of the drama, the comic often indivisible from the tragic. This is apparent in the slumping shoulders and depressively staring, can’t-give-a-shit visage of the explorer in the first shot, the hoots of laughter Pilar releases when the artist upbraids the tour guide and the windy pathos of the artist’s proposal, and most particular in the élan of Mario and his band’s performances for their pool-party cliques. Shots of Gian Luca tearing about on motorcycle, chasing Marion in his car, depicts a celebration of a reckless youth in pure untrammelled, rule-free space reminiscent of African comedies like The Gods Must Be Crazy (1981), albeit with that lawless spirit lost in an irretrievable past.
Gomes’ layers of storytelling engage finally with varieties of mythology. Aurora’s hunting prowess as a virgin, which deserts her not when she marries but when, having taken Gian Luca as a lover, she gives her pet crocodile a romantic name, hints at likeness to figures out mythology like Atalante and Die Nibelungenlied’s version of Brunhilde, again pointing toward the import of ritual and its partner, taboo, as a fabric that still ties together human relations. Conversely, Gian Luca’s mention of how her hunting had made her internationally famous harkens to an age of glossy magazine articles from the time when traipsing about Africa shooting animals (or saving them) made people quite famous indeed. The climax of Gian Luca’s narrative depicts murder, cover-up, and the loss of life’s fondest loves, fittingly melodramatic culminations that justify patience with the telling. What has been depicted in the first half proves to have been a logical, if no less tragic, end for Aurora, who paid long and bitterly for her transgressions. Gomes’ silent-film refrains pay off in the climax, as Gian Luca cowers in fear of the gun-wielding Aurora, and a point-of-view shot from behind his shielding hands allows a crack through which to watch Aurora as she fires the fun, an equally fatal, though not mortally so, glimpse of transgression. It’s the sort of visual epiphany that could have sprung out of silent cinema, and finally Gomes’ conceits coalesce into a singularly distilled moment made all the sharper by the antihero’s instinctive panic, uncertain as to whether he’s the target or the object of rescue. The light in Aurora’s eye seems hardly tethered to immediate reality, but rather to obey the hunter’s instinct. The narrative finally, acerbically notes, that after ending a man’s life, everything else in her life is an anticlimax. The inner sense of what we’ve seen, including Aurora’s alienation from her daughter, born on the floor of a grass shack and reclaimed by her father and undoubtedly left to be regarded forever thus as the icon of her own debasement, is left tragically illuminated. Few films have ever managed to twin the macrocosmic and the immediately personal with the grace and cleverness of Tabu.
Lincoln’s opening shots depict warfare: writhing bodies in primordial mud, flesh punctured by bayonets, and mouths yawing in screams of pain and murderous passion. White Confederate soldiers and black Union soldiers are engaged in war as primal and terrifying as anything out of Homer, evoking not merely the awesome violence of the American Civil War in general, but of war itself. Here is the threatening spectre of apocalyptic racial blood feuds, too, uncontained by nominal loyalties to uniforms and factions beyond skin colour.
Director Steven Spielberg’s gambit here clearly evokes some of his career’s many scenes of brutal conflict: this charnel-house vision is grimly realistic in its squirming, thrashing, intimate corporeal violence, and yet also distinctly stylised, bordering on abstract, in its depiction of clashing bodies and frenzied motion, a reductio ad absurdum of humanity in the very pit of self-willed dehumanisation. In such a moment men are not men, but rather bundles of desperate, murderous/survivalist impulse. Such dehumanisation is to be the stake of the story, but of a different kind, that is, the condition of the slave rather than the soldier, although these states are linked in many ways. The stylised quality continues in the subsequent scene at an army staging post, as columns of soldiers being deployed march past President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) to another terrible, but possibly climactic, campaign. This is a churning cauldron of rain, squelching mud, filthy and sodden men, eerie light and shadow, the president backlit, half iconic, half ogrish, attempting to interact with patient politeness with the men. Lincoln listens to the testimony of two black soldiers (Colman Domingo and David Oyelowo), who are veterans of such internecine slaughter. One recounts his experiences, and the other tries to lobby for better treatment, pay, and advancement, looking forward already to the painfully slow crawl toward the epiphanies of the mid-20th century. Lincoln listens with polite rectitude, as he will continue to do through most of the following narrative, resisting outright declarations and positions until he has made up his mind and knows that his displays will carry weight.
The mood here is similar to the climactic scene of Spielberg’s previous drama, War Horse (2011), with a similar purpose, albeit with different inflections: where that film was mythic and romantic in its approach to a cruel historical milieu, this is quite different, but still sustaining that film’s sense of hovering on the edge of a dream memory. Spielberg imbues the soldiers’ camp with an appropriately bustling realism, but also somehow suggests a more ethereal, spiritual, elemental drama in the offing. This scene signals a nexus of testimonial artefact, historical tableau, and Brechtian drama, underscored when some of the white soldiers (Lukas Haas and Dane DeHaan) attempt to recall the words of the Gettysburg Address, delivered in halting and stilted terms, whereas one of the black soldiers recalls it verbatim and with a certain poetic flare whilst walking off into the shadows, transmuted from immediate presence to an almost elemental voice, the scene suddenly empty except for Lincoln. The specific impact of Lincoln’s most famous speech is reflected back to the man himself, via the people to whom it was a missive of mourning and also a promissory note, a hope of a restoration of moral order and centrifugal reason to an age of wild slaughter.
This scene is a clear declaration from Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner that what follows is a hindsight study, full of after-the-fact epiphanies and perspectives, an evocation of the inevitable gap between us and Lincoln, and between the man and his own works and words, rather than a documentary. It’s a necessary declaration, particularly as Lincoln soon devotes itself to a specificity occasionally redolent of political journalism, depicting the minutiae by which Lincoln and his “team of rivals” (per Doris Kearns Goodwin’s source history) achieved their last and greatest political coup against a backdrop of epochal brutality and moral compromise. Lincoln is as panoramic as it is biographical. Here is the Union’s political universe, the landscape of a society at war, a complex system of interrelated personages, institutions, ideals, and necessities. Lincoln’s recent reelection has empowered him to take bold actions to win the war and also find its essential purpose and meaning. The air of hallucination from the opening continues even as a more domestic, intimate note is struck, as the scene shifts to the White House, where Lincoln recounts a stark and distressing dream of riding headlong into calamity aboard a strange vessel (actually a stylised Monitor warship). His wife Mary (Sally Field) interprets the dream as his anxiety over an upcoming military assault, but then realises it actually portends his need to pass the slavery-abolishing 13th Amendment.
Lincoln makes his desire clear to his Secretary of State, William Seward (a particularly cagey David Strathairn). Lincoln illustrates the spur for his determination to get the Senate-approved amendment passed in the House of Representatives by turning a petitioning interview with a petty-minded landowner and his wife (Bill Camp and Elizabeth Marvel) into a quorum on the abolition question. The couple tacitly supports it as a war measure, but finds the idea objectionable if peace were to come out of fear of an imagined horde of larcenous ex-slaves on the loose. Lincoln thus argues to Seward they need to get the amendment passed before Republicans elected on Lincoln’s coattails are swept into Congress, because the war could be over by then. Seward agrees to help but feels Lincoln should stay out of the murky activity this demands, as many Democrats sacked by their constituencies can be inspired to vote for the amendment with the promise of mid-level bureaucratic jobs and other semi-corrupt devices. To this end Seward puts together a team of operators, Bilbo (James Spader), Latham (John Hawkes), and Schell (Tim Blake Nelson), who begin working on the lame ducks.
Lincoln, in its subject matter and aspects of its approach, is definable as Spielberg’s follow-up to his antislavery epic Amistad (1997). But whereas the earlier film was rendered as a kind of visual-dramatic operetta, Lincoln is superficially cooler in style, offering character portraiture intertwined with a procedural take on political manoeuvring in the context of a particular society’s most crucial moment of redirection. Amistad depicted the process by which the slow asphyxiation of that primordial American sin, slavery, began, by both direct and violent action and legal minutiae and cultural reconstruction; Lincoln takes up the culmination. Spielberg’s instincts as a cinema artist and a practised, “mainstream” entertainer have often noticeably clashed in his films, but here they work in perfect tandem. Dashes of low comedy, even slapstick, graze against high-flown orotundity, grand carnage, bruising domestic tumult, and purposeful theatre of righteousness, all with a Shakespearean sense of interconnectivity, traced to common roots, a clash of essences enacted on every scale from the most intimately personal to the pan-national.
Lincoln’s depiction of the disparity between solemn institutional responsibility and the vulgar, lively, often absurd nature of communal life, has roots in Spielberg’s early films—The Sugarland Express (1974), Jaws (1975), 1941 (1979)—in which a carnival-like Americana was evoked with a craft similar to, if less cynical and purposeful than, Robert Altman’s. The film justifies its title in its concept of Abe Lincoln not merely as an icon of the era, but as its fulcrum, the man on whose face and, ultimately, whose very mortality, the struggle’s course is written. And yet in the course of the film’s narrative, Lincoln himself is often sidelined for stretches of running time, waiting for results of actions he’s set in motion, at once removed from them and yet feeling their abstract import all the more keenly as a result. It is this sense of moral culpability as well as virtue that Spielberg and Kushner look to as the measure of worthiness; a genuine engagement with the problems of human worth becomes a right and proper yardstick for determining that worth.
Everyone is judged by this maxim, from Lincoln himself, who is all too aware that his labours are often on some level at cross-purposes, wielding violence and subterfuge to secure the liberty of one sector of the populace at some expense to another, to anti-abolitionists who subordinate humanistic concerns to those of sectarian interest. These are represented in the film by the “copperhead” Fernando Wood (Lee Pace) and George Pendleton (Peter McRobbie), who attempt to forestall the abolition bill for various myopic reasons that masquerade as matters immediate, overriding, and pragmatic. Spielberg avoids repeating himself in regards to Amistad, because he can take it for granted that he’s already portrayed the immediate horrors of the slave’s condition.
Spielberg has big shoes to fill here, even by his standards; Honest Abe’s stature as the most iconic and admired American President in history has inspired some hefty artworks over the years, including John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), which depicted Lincoln’s evolution from frontier whelp to canny lawyer whose meandering folksiness conceals a stiletto-like sense of purpose. Ford’s film is also about the world around Lincoln. Spielberg and Kushner’s Lincoln, on the other hand, is trapped within a more elevated but no less tumultuous community, that of high democratic politics. Whilst waging a war that calls into question every presumed bond, ideal, and motive in the nation Lincoln leads, he attempts to lay down its greatest claim for future self-respect.
Lincoln’s specific heft is saved for negotiating with two major political figures who stand as nominal partners, but who could also choke his efforts if they choose. The first is Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), Republican Party cofounder, a pure-bred optimate who claims to have founded a “conservative anti-slavery party”: Blair agrees to aid the bill but only on condition Lincoln lets him try to initiate peace negotiations with the Confederates. At the other extreme is Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), leader of radical Republicans, set on imposing a punitively righteous reckoning on the remnants of slave power and whose cabal in Congress regards Lincoln as a prevaricating sell-out. Lincoln must tread the torturously narrow trail between the two camps. He agrees to Blair’s project and, surprisingly and problematically, it bears fruit: a team of negotiators led by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley) starts north for Washington. Lincoln is faced by an immediate crisis of conscience, albeit only a newly sharpened version of the one he’s been wrestling with for four years, as he must choose between negotiating an end to the murderous war but possibly ruin the cause for many believe it has been waged. Meanwhile, as Bilbo and his team work, they manage to sway a large number of their targets, but finally come up against insurmountable barriers.
Lincoln’s constant frustration with his businesslike War Secretary Stanton (Bruce McGill) during a Cabinet meeting sees his jokey non sequiturs segue into a lengthy exposition of the lawyerly skill and intellectual heft Lincoln is used to wielding not in frontal charges, but in sneak attacks, against positions as various as proletariat obtuseness and aristocratic pomposity. He outlines the seemingly impossibly tangled thicket of dilemmas and self-contradictions involved in his Emancipation Proclamation, an edict that theoretically could be reversed, and therefore his desire to see it backed up by constitutional amendment. It’s a hypnotic piece of actor’s linguistic legerdemain and screenwriting, with Spielberg, via Janusz Kaminski, executing a creeping dolly move towards Day-Lewis like with unblinking attention. The scene is all the better for the concision with which it aids not merely an understanding of the issues at stake, encapsulated with rapid-fire yet entirely coherent intensity by Lincoln, but also characterisation. The Lincoln who got himself elected to the highest position in the land suddenly reveals himself as well as the even more elusive one, the agonised moralist and thinker. Spielberg’s empathy with Lincoln could well be described as that of one communicator who knows well enough to coat ugly truths in sweeter flavours for another. Lincoln’s “folksiness” is consistently revealed not just as his way of buttering up people, but also of disarming them, making them underestimate him, of clearing space and shifting the style and intent of attention turned upon him. Later, Lincoln purposefully distracts his colleagues and military staff as they wait for news of the attack on Wilmington with a jokey anecdote harkening back to the Revolutionary War and its easy patriotic associations that stand in contrast to the somehow more painful immediacy of civil slaughter. Stanton, irritated beyond measure by another story, stomps out whilst the President rambles on, only to come back and grip Lincoln’s hand as news comes in.
War is only glimpsed at the very start of Lincoln, but it is manifest throughout the film, working as a slow poison that infects everything. This is made apparent on an ontological level, but described most tellingly in Lincoln’s home life, in barely dampened turmoil since the death of the Lincolns’ third son. His youngest son Tad (Gulliver McGrath) has taken to wearing a uniform. He likes to lull himself to sleep studying Alexander Gardner’s photos of freed slaves, obsessing over their ragged desperation like many a morbidly conscientious youth of Spielberg’s generation (and after) fixatedly rereading Anne Frank’s diary. The White House is at once home and bunker, jail and mill for the Lincolns, a warren of light and dark, cosy nooks and painfully cramped spaces for nation-administrating labour.
Lincoln’s scenes with Tad call to mind irresistibly the father-son moments of Jaws, linked in the portrait of the paternal figure as an assailed, troubled figure in whom real authority and civil responsibility is invested, still keeping a grasp on his family life as a way to stay sane, but the sons also mimic his stance and reflect his own attitudes back at him with painful/beguiling acuity. The intelligent but unbalanced Mary lives in mortal fear of losing her eldest boy Robert (Joseph Gordon Leavitt), who’s been studying law but desperately wants to join up before the war ends for the sake of social and personal approval. Mary dreads the possibility of his death so intensely that even the promise of a cushy staff position can’t mollify her. Lincoln tries to give Robert a sobering experience by taking him to tour a hospital full of wounded soldiers: Robert demurs, but, following a blood-leaking cart hauled by orderlies with curiosity, he’s revolted by what proves to be its load of amputated limbs. But Robert is still not dissuaded.
One of the best, most realistically, penetratingly human scenes Spielberg’s ever filmed has Lincoln reduced almost to a wraith cowering in the window bay, accepting Mary’s wrath for failing to dissuade Robert until she attacks him for a lack of feeling, whereupon he finally reacts with the indignation of a man who had to bury his grief because he had to remain functional for his job. Field’s brilliance as Mary lies in how she suggests both Mary’s aggravating pathos, which has a showy, demonstrative quality, but also her frustrated intelligence and scathing verbal force. Such force is exhibited when, confronted by Stevens and his followers when Abe holds a White House gathering to court necessary support for the bill, she quietly and mercilessly rips Steven apart for his parsimonious interest in her efforts to decorate the presidential mansion. At such a moment, it’s clear both why Abe married her and also what she might have been in a different time, and also why she’s like sweating dynamite now. Mary finally sums herself up, perhaps a tad too neatly, but with apt self-awareness, as the necessary counterbalance to her husband’s heroic stature, the face of the gnawing fear and pain of the age.
A second female figure in Lincoln’s household is Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben), Mary’s maid and a former slave, whom Tad asks with guileless fascination whether she was whipped. Keckley is the moral barometer, as her face and attitude often silently charts the course of events, feeling on the most immediate level the fear and hope the drama is depicting. Lincoln’s solicitation of her opinion is another fascinating moment, as Keckley asks him bluntly about how he looks personally at the racial problem. Lincoln (and Spielberg and Kushner) attempts to avoid mealy-mouthed piety at the risk of sounding standoffish, explaining his difficulty in assessing the matter because he doesn’t “know” black people with real understanding: “I expect I’ll get used to you,” he says with dry Midwestern humour, as if aware that in trying to regard the problem from Olympian heights, he recognises that common humanity is only ultimately a matter of neighbourliness. But humour only goes so far, as Keckley reminds Lincoln she’s the mother of a fallen soldier, questioning what this makes her for the country if not a citizen worthy of veneration as well as emancipation and tolerance.
A race against time enters this narrative as Blair semi-wittingly threatens Lincoln’s intentions with his successful entreaty to the Confederates. Their emissaries are ushered across enemy line into the hands of Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris), to Union Army reception committee stacked with black soldiers, a seemingly calculated provocation. Grant, determining that the emissaries are serious men, recommends to Lincoln that they be interviewed, leaving Lincoln with a most definite choice, either to stymie the negotiators briefly to help ensure the vote’s passage, or allow the Confederate company to come straight on and possibly end the war. The issue leaves Lincoln a peripatetic insomniac, awakening his assistants in the night by sitting on their beds to discuss pardons for deserters, and finally, hovering on the edge of decision, seeming to discursively explain Euclidian geometry with two signalmen. But of course he’s actually considering moral calculus, drawing the lesson that peace and safety for one group cannot be obtained if it means abandoning another group to tyranny, and this informs his last-minute decision to order Grant to delay the emissaries and work on the vote for the bill. When he finally confronts Stephens, his entreaties fall on deaf ears. Spielberg pulls off one his most adroit pieces of editing, cutting to the infernal sight of blazing Richmond, its devastation the implicit result of both Lincoln’s politicking and Confederate intransigence. The images, long since soaked into the folk-memory of the U.S. and the world, of Lincoln’s journey across the pulverised battlefields to Richmond, and Robert E. Lee’s (Christopher Boyer) plaintive return of Grant’s salute after surrender, retain not gallant lustre but a newly bleak sense of the nature of leadership: “We’ve made it possible for each other to do terrible things,” Lincoln tells Grant.
In this regard, the John Ford film Spielberg’s Lincoln feels kin to is less Young Mr. Lincoln than his sublime Civil War segment for How the West Was Won (1962), where Grant and Sherman argued with palpable personal angst in the midst of carnage. The filmmakers’ relish of Lincoln as a protagonist and his mental alacrity calls to mind A Man for All Seasons (1966), and like that film, it manages to invest history’s saints with living wit and artistic poise. The depth and intensity of this film’s preoccupation with political and personal responsibility is thankfully leavened by counterpointing such weighty matters with Bilbo’s rather less moral, although equally determined, efforts, which include, at one point, his having to fend off a congressman who tries to shoot him. When Lincoln pays a visit to Bilbo, he amiably quotes Henry IV Pt. 1 to him (“We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow!”), a knowing glance at the Bard’s skill at conflating the business of kingship with that of knaves, and Bilbo’s Falstaffian demeanour sit well with this (a superbly bluff performance from the once wolfishly poised Spader). Lincoln’s decision to engage more directly with the vote-reaping process, as it looks like it’s failing, sees him directing his more intricate and psychological gifts at the problem, as appeals to self-interest and the ephemeral pleasure of being seen to do good cannot entirely sway more powerful, if not always more reasoned, emotional and intellectual stances they’ve encountered. William Hutton (David Warshofsky) is touched by hatred for blacks since his brother died in battle for their sake. George Yeaman (the great Michael Stuhlbarg) hates slavery, but fears sudden emancipation might expose the people it’s designed to help to calumny. One thing Spielberg and Kushner get particularly right is the degree to which the era’s political verbiage was as much theatre as message, pitched to the galleries rather than the cameras and to awe journalists into recording them like prophets rather than bewilder them until the news cycle ends. In the film’s broadest scene, as the anti-abolition forces try to bait Stevens, Stevens must muster restraint and linguistic cunning, mixed with raw abuse of his opponents, to survive the moment. He immediately earns the upbraiding of a fellow radical for demurring on the issue of equality, to which Stevens ripostes he’d do anything if it means having ensuring that the only inclusion of the word “slavery” in the constitution is an amendment proscribing it.
Lincoln is, by and large, a study in the fundamental dilemma of democratic government of how to identify and achieve the most good for the most people as a natural extension of the communal will rather than an imposition. The relationship, prickly and peculiar, between Lincoln and Stevens is the film’s ideological engine. When Stevens outlines a plan for post-war punitive legislation to reconstruct the American body politic by replacing Southern oligarchs with empowered free blacks, it’s startling how much force and beauty his plan still has. Lincoln drolly describes this as the “untempered version of Reconstruction,” but interestingly, Stevens, like Lincoln, is a study in human frailty under statuesque heroism, and all the more so literally, forcing himself to stand erect before the Congress when he must bend and shuffle to walk, clad in a dreadful wig to hide his bald pate, hiding his love affair with his mixed-race housekeeper Lydia Smith (S. Epatha Merkerson). The ironic reveal of this dalliance fascinatingly confirms the sort of implications aimed at the abolitionists of the era, but Spielberg treats it with delicate good humour, as Lydia welcomes Stevens back from Congress with the bill in his hand, and segues to the politician getting in bed with Lydia and asking her to read the bill out whilst counting off the clauses himself. There’s a reprise of the almost recitatif-inflected opening here, as hallowed political language is again employed, but with the immediate force of its human implications presented in the most unexpected of fashions: the muted tenderness of the couple in bed automatically undercuts the scurrilousness, and instead imbues the film with the first glimpse of peace as a promise after the fractious bitterness and soul-searching.
The actual vote is a Spielberg set-piece of the first order, albeit with a difference, because, whilst the outcome is known, the tension is still remarkable, with Lincoln in part reduced to audience surrogate as he must wait for the result of the vote. The exact outcome remains in the balance until the crucial cry of “Aye!” escapes Yeaman’s lips, and even the Speaker (Bill Raymond) adds his vote to the balance. Spielberg pulls off a great discursion here as he cuts away from the final tallying to Lincoln in his office, awaiting word, alerted by the pealing of bells to his success, and then cutting back to the eruption of jubilation in the Congress where the dignified politicians rejoice like teenagers at a post-game kegger—a singular and well-earned moment before the reckoning. Part of the thrill here comes from the natural power of seeing great good achieved, and also from the simple release of the film’s weighty mood, as the Representatives whoop and hoist the amendment’s manager James Ashley (David Costabile) in the air, the man himself almost weeping with relieved glee, whilst Stevens, with the silent satisfaction of a man who’s triumphed against time and the world, asks to take the bill home with him.
If there’s a downside to the muted bravura Spielberg wields throughout this work, as the first drama he’s offered in a long time to gain near-universal acclaim, it is thus; the moments of truly expansive vision glimpsed in the likes of The Color Purple (1985) and Empire of the Sun (1987) are dampened in favour of a more convincingly intimate, but less overwhelmingly pure exuberance in cinema. But Spielberg self-critiqued is still Spielberg, apparent in the authorial deftness of his camera precisely charting dramatic highs and lows, in shots as casually telling as the camera movement that follows Stevens as he strips himself of his worldly regalia and gets into bed with his mistress, or as strikingly odd as the semi-surreal visions of Lincoln’s dreams. Spielberg’s partnership with Kaminski has achieved more spectacular results, but rarely more expressive, and indeed quasi-expressionistic, in a film that uses the dance of light in an either naturally illuminated or candle-and-lantern interior world. There’s a strong suggestion of the influence of Victorian painting in the visual scheme, and a particular debt to Thomas Eakins’ “The Gross Clinic,” with its similar manipulation of source lighting to create a surgeon-hero bathed in the light of reason. A recurring motif of the characters framed in windows, poised between light and dark, hearth and world, sees Lincoln both demonic in his row with Mary, and ethereal, as he draws Tad behind a curtain to look out on the celebrations of the bill.
It’s peculiar to think of Spielberg, often described as the Peter Pan of American cinema, entering his autumnal phase, but whilst there’s still plentiful verve and control in evidence, the usual tones of a late-career masterpiece are here. Late in the film, Spielberg offers a brief sequence that feels utterly vital, a signature flourish that reveals much: a visit to a theatre, which at first glance is immediately processed by an expectant audience as Ford’s, but proves rather to be one where Tad watches an Arabian Nights arabesque that sees hero save damsel from devilish villain who falls only to release a phoenixlike spirit. There’s an obvious, deliberately naïve quality to this bit, offsetting the agonised dragon-slaying of the historical drama with its most childish, Manichaeistic representation. It is also reminiscent in its brief window of theatrical wonder to the pantomime visit in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980), a moment spared for the mystique of the Victorian theatre and its transformative strangeness, a prelude to the cinema in transfixing spectacle remembered on the hazy horizon of popular culture.
There’s also a nod here to Spielberg’s awareness of his own wrestling with the themes of his “serious” films earlier in his career through his equally colourful stylised genre excursions, like the equally Arabian Nights-esque absurdity of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). Here the fantasy illusion is ruptured in the worst possible way, as Lincoln’s assassination is abruptly announced to the theatre, and the horrified Tad begins to scream and scream. Of course, for Spielberg, the nexus of tragedy in Lincoln’s death is found in the fundamental image of an orphaned son, both consummation and defloration of the director’s career concern with paternal care and the child’s wayward path to maturation, and so the film connects history with a gaping hole in the family life. The film’s final moments, lapping back to Lincoln’s second inaugural address, risks lurching at last into the familiar refrains of the historical pageant, but manages to capture the vibrating question and threat in Lincoln’s words, still echoing 150 years later.
Jack Kerouac’s novel On The Road, published in 1957, bears a weight of cultural resonance that few modern texts can claim. Kerouac’s freewheeling ode to being young, energetic, irresponsible, and constantly on the hunt for new dimensions of experience brought the Beat clique’s artistic sensibility to a wide public consciousness, or at least one that didn’t involve obscenity trials, and helped animate the fantasies of footloose youth amidst successive generations. Kerouac had strived to create a specific kind of art, based in a celebration of movement and the moment, an artefact that resisted analytical introspection, but which also tried to turn reportage into a quest tale, that’s part Arthurian Grail saga, part John Bunyan-esque pilgrim’s tale, and part Walt Whitman-derived national poem. It’s a novel commonly, easily reduced to a basic celebration of a particular feeling and a rite of passage, a founding myth for modern youth culture. Many of the criticisms levelled at Kerouac’s writing are accurate, and yet few ever contend with the actual point of his labours, a point that was sharply at odds with the increasingly pompous, intellectualised state of the literary novel and its arbiters, which was to reject, or at least reconstruct, familiar literary values and try to drag the novel back to a state of experiential transmission: in an art form best known for its appeal to the introspective, he wrote about the specific thrill of doing stuff – dancing, driving, necking, jesting, raving on – as well as any writer ever has. Filming Kerouac’s novel had proved an elusive goal ever since. Transforming the “ragged and ecstatic joy of pure being”, as Kerouac described it, into artifice was the singular success of his labours, and trying to retransmit that as the recreated collection of sounds and images called a film, is doubly perverse.
A peculiar form of nostalgia possibly inflects the way the book is perceived now, as a wistful look back over the shoulder to when bohemian life and artistic expression weren’t bound up with pseud posturing, referential awareness, and politically correct touchiness, let alone the intervening age of reactionary schism that has toned the American social landscape, as Kerouac’s efforts to describe the openness and communality he encountered feels now more like the calm before the storm. By the time Easy Rider (1969), cinema’s fittest analogue to Kerouac’s novel, came along, the adventure ends with tragic, bigoted murder, and nobody doubted its plausibility. Kerouac, for his part, was trying to cast off cultural deadweight too, the staleness of pre-war politics, the immediate hangover of the militarisation of Western society, and the oncoming age of corporate-consumerist triumphalism. Perhaps for this reason, Kerouac’s message, and his method, could be therefore newly relevant; Kerouac’s attitude of aestheticized reportage lies behind a vast swathe of contemporary cinema. Brazilian director Walter Salles comes to the material after The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) similarly turned Che Guevara’s youthful peregrinations into a study in transformative revelation for the future revolutionary. In that film, Salles, to the irritation of some, avoided polemics and overt constructions of context, in favour of descriptive acuity, preferring to allow the meaning, or indeed the ambiguity, of situations speak for themselves. Guevara’s trip was one of growing radicalisation, something Salles described as based in direct encounters with the world, but he also allowed room for observations of the sorts of forces that would contradict and finally defeat Guevara’s efforts. Salles takes a similar approach to On The Road, avoiding commentaries on the Beat scene and its meaning to inheritors, instead offering it as a series of unvarnished personal observations that amass into not so much a narrative as a description of a life phase, and a journey of necessary growth for an artist.
Salles’ film can be described as a tonal betrayal of Kerouac’s book, in order to get at its own sense of the book’s truth. Where the novel is feverishly ebullient in its descriptions and expression, and the faiths it expresses overtly and implicitly, Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera are more restrained and, in a deadpan fashion, ironic and interrogative. They peer into Kerouac’s blind spots and finger the sore spots he placed Band-Aids over. The script was based not on the finished, polished novel but on the famous “scroll” draft that Kerouac pounded out on sheets of paper taped together, so as to let his tale flow out and recreate artistically the immediacy of the events he inscribed. The tone is closer to being an overt portrait of the real-life figures Kerouac was writing of, including himself, with Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) less the gorgeous holy fool he is in the novel than the bad lot his model, Neal Cassady, could often be. This brings it closer in tone to an established, still proliferating body of film works looking at the Beats, including Heart Beat (1980), Naked Lunch (1990), The Last Time I Committed Suicide (1997), and Howl (2011). Some of these are fine, others are actively terrible: I still shudder when I recall the cut-rate 2000 film Beat, which starred Courtney Love as Joan Burroughs, uttering the line, “I’m staring into the abyss.” The cultish quality of Beat has often been its own worst enemy. Salles’ approach avoids that sort of thing, and also the hallucinogenic illustration of Cronenberg on Naked Lunch. Unlike in the finished novel, this version commences not with Kerouac avatar Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) having just been divorced, but just after his father died: Sal of the novel is indicated as a more mature figure, less sexually and socially formed, than the one we get here.
Salles and Rivera suggest squarely that the accord between Sal and Dean is, thusly, rooted firmly in their mutual search for a missing father figure, a father figure lost somewhere amidst, and perhaps indivisible from, the land around them. Dean’s father is a vagrant he’s long lost track of, only believing he’s somewhere around his home town of Denver, Colorado. Dean was born to the kind of rootless, perpetually yearning, fragmented lifestyle that Sal and his pals lean towards by choice and desire. Sal, a blocked young scribe hovering fretfully over his typewriter with nothing to say, is introduced to Dean when he blows into New York by Chad King (Patrick John Costello), mutual friend of Sal and poet pal Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge), analogue for Allen Ginsberg. Carlo is quickly besotted with Dean, a recalcitrant but charismatic, fearless misfit, and has his first properly sexual affair with the young gadabout, although Dean has recently married teenage lovely Marylou (Kristen Stewart). Sal and Dean strike up a fast and solid friendship based not merely in that hunt for a father, but also in “intellectual” Sal’s desire for the kind of openness to life’s vagaries that Dean seems to wield so fearlessly, and Dean’s aspirations to the kind of artistic, ennobled non-conformist lifestyle that Sal, Carlo, and others in their social circle maintain. Dean soon departs the city, but later invites Sal to come to Denver, where Carlo has already followed him, and he finds that Dean has already divorced Marylou and taken up with the more centred, conservative Camille (Kirsten Dunst). Dean soon flees Denver for some solo adventuring, shacking up with Latino agricultural worker Terry (Sonia Braga) and sharing in her exhausting but simple lifestyle for a time, before returning to New York.
Salles has a gift for inscribing a sense of time and place in fresh and atmospheric fashion, and capturing behaviour in a way that feels at once acute and happenstance, avoiding the familiar indulgences of a lot Method-inflected improvisatory cinema and also the fussiness of many period films. Salles’ talents in this regard were particularly important to filming a book like this: the recreation of the late ‘40s atmosphere in On The Road is gorgeous, accurate to the argot and the tactile realism of the age without coming across like a bohemian dress-up party. Salles’ visuals, via the brilliant photography of Eric Gautier, capture landscape with a blend of stateliness and veracity. It’s in this regard that Salles’ film is most successful, his evocation of a grittier, fresher American landscape that’s been colonised by humans who share a language and a sensibility, but not yet invaded by mass market culture, a place where both joyous fellowship and dwarfing solitude, plenty and desolation are all easy to find. The opening sequence is a particular beauty, an in media res introduction that finds Sal stalking a lonely highway before explaining how he got to be there: he’s picked up by a truck carrying some other itinerants, and they share cigarettes, liquor, and ragged singing in the dull gloom of a dawn filled with outsized wonder and mystery. The bulk of the film is filled with moments of such beauty, the unexpected grandeur of dawn over a strange mountain range, the mystical lustre of a fog, the bleary beatitude of the distant New York horizon as Sal returns to the fold, raw desert, bleak snows, the outskirts of a town you’re leaving – familiar for any attentive traveller and conveying the world Kerouac tried to capture.
A film of the novel, rather than another straight biography of the Beat heroes, could, arguably, properly look like what Antonioni managed with Zabriskie Point (1970), or the best moments of Easy Rider or Alice’s Restaurant (1969), perhaps even, in the depressive counterbalance to Kerouac’s mania, the likes of Two-Lane Blacktop (1972) or The Brown Bunny (2003). If Oliver Stone or Francis Coppola – who was going to make the movie at one point and served as executive producer – had made this, in all likelihood they would have reproduced on an audio-visual level the indulgence of the characters and their world views, where Salles is more sceptical, evoking these elements without abandoning observational realism. Kerouac certainly wrote prose, a living, rambling creature drunk of pure sensatory overload in the American landscape, as a way of communicating the crypto-spiritualism of Kerouac’s sensibility, and yet On The Road is really more a kind of lyric poem that flows with words like a swollen river. The necessity of this is that without it, Kerouac’s tale can be taken for one of mere youthful hijinks. Salles’ approach is more literal and less encompassing, and his poeticism prefers to find constant minatory epiphanies, from the dull glow of a last cigarette smoked on a desolate morning to the fog wreathing the temple-like pillars of the Golden Gate Bridge, and the weird blend of alienation and fellowship glimpsed when a young cowboy hitchhiker sings a mournful ballad, listened to with melancholy fascination by his hosts. Lyrics of hellfire and damnation accord quietly with the bubbling unease and neurosis that lies beneath the fracturing threesome’s jaunty exterior, as Marylou contemplates the oncoming end of the journey and her affair with Dean, and Sal studies her simultaneous youthful promise and sphinx-like self-containment.
Salles and Rivera contour Kerouac’s mystical pretences into the drama and visuals, depicting these young men’s journey as a tightrope dance between saintliness and damnation in their search for transcendent states of being. The filmmakers also contend objectively with it, offering up Kerouac’s avatar for William Burroughs, “Old Bull” Lee (Viggo Mortensen), as a corrective who probes Sal’s description of Dean. Where Sal sees him as a kind of Benzedrine-imbibing St Francis, Lee writes him off as a selfish sociopath: “So he’s a holy man now, a religious figure in your eyes?” Lee asks with disdain. It’s a strange film indeed that offers up William Burroughs as the voice of wisdom, although Salles tempers it by having Lee describe Dean as potentially violent and then resume his own hair-raising habit of blasting away at bottles with a handgun in between sentences. He also shows off one of his pseudo-inventions, really a piece of installation art, which supposedly cleans out cancer-causing agents in his body. Meanwhile his wife Jane (Amy Adams), frazzled and possibly mildly psychotic, beats at trees trying keep small lizards from climbing all over them and advises Galatea Dunkel (Elizabeth Moss) in the arts of fellatio. The seriocomic concision of this sequence does point to how Salles’ approach draws out an element of the novel which is partly buried underneath the rollicking surfaces of Kerouac’s novel, that it was also a series of situational portraits, depicting his artistic, bohemian, and happenstance friends in islets of individual crises, eccentricities, and striving labours to create a new and better American art and life. And Salles is brilliant in laying bare the dark, manic-depressive, exiled underbelly of the frenetic, rhapsodic side of Kerouac’s writing. The lizards that infest Jane’s trees which she bats at fearsomely emerge as a superlative visualisation at the forces already eating away at the homey settlement of post-war America and enacted by these anti-heroes, wilful guerilla warriors against boredom and time who also represent the Id of the modern age cracking out of a chrome-plated skull.
And yet Salles evokes the religious core of Kerouac’s perspective ironically through characters like Lee himself: when the voyagers first arrive in Lee’s house, they find their friend sprawled in an armchair, clutching his infant son with his track-mark riddled arm exposed, a blend of Madonna and Jesus icon, a Dostoyevskian figure of beatification found through raw and debasing experience. Kerouac’s novel is plotless, and so is the movie, rightly if not promisingly for many viwers. Whereas with The Motorcycle Diaries there was a “…and now you know the rest of the story” aspect to lend weight to the meandering, here the ultimate goal, beyond Sal’s finally finding his muse, is more opaque, but what emerges is, rather than the youth culture Mahabharata, is a portrait in individual growth. Stripping away the mythos of this material leaves this aspect most crucially exposed: On The Road is not simply about the joys of being immature and yearning, but also about the moments in which youth, or at least the naïve, all-embracing mood of youth, passes and is reconfigured into wisdom, with Dean as one of those great friends you eventually realise isn’t a person you want to be, and eventually you never want to see again, but still the days of freewheeling kicks linger with the patina of a lost Eden. Sal’s evolution, both in the company of his friends and during an adventure alone, is the point if there needs to be one, his passage through his country and discovering it as a place of both cruel realities and raptures.
The minutiae, the day to day details of trying to survive such a lifestyle, are perfectly observed, like Sal collecting cigarette butts to make his own, and moving on with scowling impotence when paid a pittance for a day’s labouring. Whilst Rivera trimmed several excursions from the narrative, my favourite passage made the cut, that in which Sal hooks up with Terry and joins her Latino kith and kin as a wandering harvest labourer for a time. This interlude is at once grim, as Sal perceives his own lacks baldly in picking cotton and being introduced to the rude truth of working class life, staring exhaustedly at his pitiful profit for a day working in the sun placed in his damaged hands, and yet also experiencing a rare time of gritty, simple, erotic fecundity with Terry, before they part, Terry grinning to herself in immediate nostalgia for a relationship they both know ends with him returning to New York even as he calls for her to follow him later. The sequence is alive to the transitory beauty and sadness of this brief yet crucial relationship.
Likewise homosexual elements elided in the book and yet crucial to the Beat scene are given their due. Sturridge’s Carlo, with his airy verbal rhapsodies and charming pretence, captures something of Ginsberg’s talent, charm, and warmth even as he could easily seem like a colossal poseur, going through an extended internal wrestling bout with his psycho-sexual confusion, vowing to go off to Africa and smoke himself into opiated ecstasies and later recounting a failed suicide attempt with good-humoured dejection. Sal and Dean’s friendship is always charged with an element of attraction, culminating in a scene in which Sal is disquieted by catching sight of Dean hustling money by screwing a middle-aged businessman (Steve Buscemi). Hedlund, previously best known to me as the heroic void of Tron Legacy (2010), is surprisingly effective as Dean. Dean’s bold eccentricity manifests upon his first meeting with Carlo and Sal, coming to answer the door stark naked, Marylou lolling in bed in their flat, the fetid atmosphere of sex and booze and poverty belied by the glamorous rawness of the duo. Hedlund’s Dean surveys Carlo and Sal with a wide stare that seems at once open and somehow fathomless, blank, eternally hungry and unfillable. Dean is at once deeply egocentric and rapacious in his drives, qualities that will lead him to eventually hurt those close to him, and also a genuine misfit, anxiously generous, for whom the niceties of everyday life in modern, suburban America are a confounding trial. He also collects interesting people, mostly female, including the innocently, raucously randy Marylou, and the knowingly wicked Rita Bettancourt (Kaniehtiio Horn) who sucks down coffee laced with Benzedrine with a self-administered catechism, “Bless me Father for I will sin,” and whilst she and Dean rut, Carlo’s cries of complaint about the noise inspire Dean to march out and drag him into bed with them.
Sal and Dean’s relationship, and their mutual, strange one with Marylou deepens when Dean turns up unexpectedly at a house of Sal’s sister’s house where his family has gathered on Thanksgiving, with Dean having dumped Camille and their child off in the hinterland and taken up with Marylou again, in the company of another accidental wanderer, Ed Dunkel (Danny Morgan), whose wife Galatea has turned up at the Lees’ house outside New Orleans trying to locate her wayward spouse. After Dean volunteers to ferry Sal’s francophonic mother (Marie-Ginette Guay) to New York, he then sets out with Sal and Ed to rescue Galatea from the eccentric care of the Lees, rolling on their five-finger-discount way after they’re harassed by a cop who takes exception to these freaks and have to pay a steep fine — a rare moment in which the nettling force of authority descends on these escapees from normality. Sal’s already been invited into bed with Dean and Marylou at her behest, a threesome that stalled thanks to Sal’s self-consciousness that drives Dean irritably from the room, and their simmering mutual attraction and Dean’s determined adventuring manifests most amusingly when, after they’ve managed to divest themselves of the Dunkels and are driving across the Midwest, he has them all strip off and drive with Marylou between the two men, pulling them both off in a scene reminiscent of the mediated pan-sexuality glimpsed in Bertolucci’s 1900 (1977).
It’s hard to think of a more exact fashion for Stewart to shake off her Twilight-ingenue phase than this scene which amusingly, incidentally, trashes the prim love triangle of her famous franchise. Stewart’s best moment in the film is earlier, however, as Marylou and Dean dance with proto-raver abandon to Dizzy Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts” to the delight of the New York bohemians, emissaries of liberation. When they turn up at the door of Sal’s sister’s and crash the family gathering, they’re more like envoys from an alien planet. Dean charms his way through dinner and then confesses to Sal of having recently passed through a bout of suicidal despair, having sat alone for hours with a gun trying to work up the will to kill himself. The characters are only half-willingly trapped on the outside, with Marylou surveying even the Lees’ fetid house in search of signs of domestic contentment, and Sal later peering through a department store window, studying televisions like these are the true artefacts of an alien landing.
Sal and Marylou’s relationship finds fulfilment in one night of ragged passion after Dean essentially dumps them both off so he can continue with Camille and his kid, Marylou chasing him off with a well-worded missive and then retreats to a corner to don her battle gear for a life of survival without him –- blood red lipstick all the better for seductively handling a hotel clerk. Salles repeats this motif after Camille in turn kicks Dean out after he and Sal come back from a night of fun, returning to a suburban house with the pitch of sullen fury mixes with baby screams into a symphony of nerve-shredding, Dean kissing his child goodbye and exiting with sullen grace, whilst Camille takes a long hard look at herself in the mirror and then steels herself in her nurse’s uniform, getting on with the business of living with a child. Salles’ quiet toughness on the sexism of Dean and others of this world is bracing. Galatea Dunkel’s tough, ruthlessly honest, if also priggish and self-important centrist values and unwavering criticality of these wayward lads is beautifully communicated by the ever-excellent Moss in a too-brief appearance. Dean’s hopeless inability to settle is however finally revealed as a pitiable curse rather than a mere convenience. The film’s final passage is majestic, a hallucinatory, Peckinpah-esque depiction of the pair’s final trip, a drive into Mexico where the pair finally find the orgiastic, consciousness-drowning experience – an indulgence of the carnal so immediate it liberates the spirit in a moment of rhapsodic lunacy – which they’ve hunted high and low for.
The duo meet up with young scallywag Victor (Joel Figueroa) hungry for US currency, with whom they share a joint the size of a stick of dynamite, before he leads them to a whorehouse where they find eruptive release, Dean shaking from stem to crown like a whirling dervish in communion with godheads as he fucks and vibrates to jazz. So exciting are these carnal cavaliers that the whores and their town farewell them as they continue to Mexico City, where a romp through the streets at night, passing through the very gut of a teeming organism of human life, becomes another dance between devils and enlightenment, Salles’ lenses highlighting Madonna statues and skull-masked children dancing around the duo. This is prelude to Sal falling desperately ill, lying sweating and tortured by visions of his lost friends, and finally abandoned by Dean who leaves him to recover whilst continuing to chase whatever the hell it is he’s after. Sal and Dean’s last encounter on a frigid New York street with Sal heading off for a concert sees Dean appearing out the darkness, at last fully transformed into the frazzled, glowing-eyed, hollowed-out demon-beset saint Sal had always suspected he was, begging Sal silently for forgiveness whilst bearing the marks of damage that his continued journey left him with, as if Sal in fact got off easy whilst Dean’s continuing the quest took him to a bleak and ecstatic place that left him with no future, only more road.
Sal soon after finally begins creating the work we’ve been watching, creating the scroll draft in an explosion of creative self-exorcism that leaves off with Dean’s name repeated like a catechism, their search for unfound fathers still haunting them and Dean now a roaming spirit somewhere in the west, transmuted by Sal’s imagination into the personification of all things strange and off-kilter in an America starting to worship the television and the washing machine. Riley, after his wobbly work in Brighton Rock (2011), returns to best form in playing Sal, who is always two people, the fawnish young romantic on screen and the croaky narrator whose experience is written in his vocal chords whilst his face transforms as the film unfolds until he’s lined and hairy and the hurt as well as blessings of his life on the road pools in his eyes. Like Omar Sharif in Doctor Zhivago (1965), he’s the dreamy but increasingly battle-scarred conduit for the drama as much as protagonist. On The Road as a whole doesn’t always sustain the intensity of Kerouac’s writing or its own best passages, and on some levels I can understand the problems some have with it: rather than a tale of great moment, this is a grace note, a recreation of time past that asks less, what can be, but rather, what happened? Rather then presenting a road map for modern hipsters, the final thesis of the film suggests that for all the philosophy and life hunger Kerouac tried to present, he also succeeded in painting a portrait of people permanently cut off from their world and their moment, aliens in their own society, no matter how many funky kids tried to emulate their example. But it’s this slightly bitter realism, the acute reflection of the dark and downside of life in bohemia in any era as well as its ephemeral joys, that I liked. And the film is, especially in its concluding passages, true to the Roman candle vividness and floundering yet desirous spirit of Kerouac’s work, a rich and marvel-studded misfire, whilst resisting being another classic illustrated, a demystification that finds raw humanity under the sainted prose.
Wait, let me get the familiar motifs of my yearly confession out of the road. Many films overrated, blah blah. Many good films vilified, blah blah. Bloody distributors, blah blah. Okay. Let’s go.
Several critics this year took the time and effort to declare this the year cinema died. This suggested, in part, a symptom of solipsism, as what’s much closer to the truth is that film criticism as a tenured profession with major newspapers and magazines is fading, if not dying. So it’s tempting to do as the Vikings do and burn the ship along with the corpse of the fallen warrior. The proposition that because more people watch certain TV shows than certain well-reviewed, but aesthetically difficult films and that, therefore, the art form is dying, could well have been clipped verbatim from a newspaper column in 1962. Granted, film is going through an upheaval at the moment in terms of the nature of the medium itself and the kinds of audience it can draw out of their homes. Like every other art form and entertainment at the moment that isn’t Xbox or You Tube, it has to fight for its survival and status.
From a personal perspective, 2012 did not prove a repeat of 2011, a vintage year for cinema. It seems like I spent most of this year waiting—waiting for good movies. I beat my own record for viewings of films released in the calendar year, which entailed increasing the amount of mediocrity and missed opportunities I willingly exposed myself to. Of course, several of this year’s most “important” films have been held back until the very last moment, or have received such listless distribution (e.g. Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master‘s cursory Australian release), that I find myself genuinely bereft for not being able to comment here on several (but the lists are updated as time progresses). Only sheer luck and a helping hand allowed me to catch a couple more that grace my lists below.
I had hoped this year I might be able to curb my contrarian tendencies a little, but I instead find them stronger than ever. A lot of highly regarded films left me frigid if not bored, many quality works carried a distinct and quietly disturbing aspect of déjà vu or ambition without the strange heat of real creativity, and several of the handful of films I felt any true affection for have been treated with outright contempt by the cultural apparatchiks. There were many films I anticipated watching enthusiastically, perhaps too much so, like Holy Motors, The Deep Blue Sea, and Oslo, 31 August, where I admired them and saw their specific beauty, and yet in the end felt something lacking; perhaps it was the lack of true penetration of the inner life of the dramatic protagonists or, in the case of the occasionally very brilliant Holy Motors, a final sense of the often strained conceptual stunt truly adding up.
After watching the diptych of Australian-directed, American-set gangland dramas, Killing Them Softly and Lawless, I became afflicted by the knowledge that I’ve been watching the same scuzzball crime flick in variations since about 1990, a blend of detailed criminal argot, showy grit, method-inflected overacting, and gunshots to the head. This sensation sharpened to a point where both films proved to have one particular moment in common, a thug getting pissed off and delivering an even worse beating when the victim has the temerity to get bodily fluids on the thug’s clothes. Many films with potential seemed to lack that extra inspiration to break themselves out of the ruts of Good Little Movie or Nice Try, to whit Liza Johnson’s Return or Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister. It was sad and frustrating to watch a film brimming over with unruly life like Bachelorette take refuge in the cosy clichés of the chick flick brand it seemed to be attacking.
Others, like Rian Johnson’s Looper and Zal Batmanglij’s Sound of My Voice, tried on the other hand to be a bit too clever, failing to juggle all of the many balls they threw in the air. Looper also exemplified a breed that includes films like Sleepless Night, The Grey, and Haywire in setting up magnificently and failing to bring it all home. 2012 was overloaded with self-serious action films and spectacles with pretensions to substance, films like Looper, Skyfall, The Dark Knight Rises, Prometheus, The Amazing Spider-Man, Cloud Atlas, The Grey, Chronicle, The Hunger Games, Haywire, and The Bourne Legacy. These often received glowing reviews and filmgoer enthusiasm, and some of them were genuinely good films. But there must be something wrong with me: most of these felt half-baked, failing to measure up to what a good craftsman, like Joseph H. Lewis, Andre De Toth, or Richard Thorpe, could invest in a pulp narrative 60 years ago. Skyfall was a case in point, sporting a great and intelligent core idea: to walk James Bond back through his half-mythical past only to bring him to a new beginning. But the idea was squandered through a listless and derivative story that finally left the film exposed, stripped of the pop-art exuberance that made the series interesting in the first place. By comparison, I found myself responding far more to the buoyant inanity in films like The Avengers, Wrath of the Titans, The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, films that do not try for a second to fake meaning. And there are few words fit for polite company I can think of to address those critics who have put the marvellous John Carter on their worst-of-year lists.
Yet, after all this, cinematic excellence still accumulated, like the gentle rain from heaven, as a better writer than I said about something completely different. In films of 2012, characters seem splintered off from the bulk of humanity like rubble flung off from some great collision. And indeed that’s how many people at large feel—I know I do. Look at the protagonists of films like Cosmopolis and Holy Motors, contained by their universe-unto-themselves limousines, travelling the cityscapes in search of a moment of transcendent creation/destruction, their immediate psychic and physical reality redesignated as an extended piece of performance art. Their bond with the actor-therapist heroes of Alps was inescapable: the Alps troupe filled in as simulacrums of the dead, as their own existences become voids to be fled no matter how painful the consequences. The wandering nonhero of The Day He Arrives, a film director entrapped by those long, improvised takes known as life, was surrounded by doppelgangers and numbing repetitions, elliptical events, and hazy, half-remembered epiphanies. The aged, haggard, aching characters share a dolorous existence in contemporary Portugal in Tabu, and the revelation of a past finds an exotic netherworld where melodramatic passion flared and died and led them to this end, the former colonial tended to a bitter grave by the former colonised. The alienated protagonists of the great diptych of unabashed horror films released early in the year, The Innkeepers and Kill List, were driven to distraction and despair by looming financial crisis and finding avatars for their own folly in the strange id-emanations that torment them. The ragged and bloodied survivors of The Grey fended off armies of wolves and the perishing cold, poised as onanistic avatars for the reality of trying to retain masculine self-respect in modern working-class life. The intergalactic swashbucklers of The Avengers had one of the most amusing and telling single shots of the year’s cinema, coming after the end credits of their own movie and added like a little supernal signature flourish by mastermind Joss Whedon, showing them exhaustedly and silently chewing over ethnic cuisine: saving the world is just another shit job.
Speaking of shit jobs, the victims and abusers of Compliance swam in the same reeking, overused frying fat. The physically broken and fiscally pummelled lovers of Rust and Bone hung off the edges of their society with what was left of their bodies and wits. The aging, exhausted cops trudging around the wastelands of rural Turkey in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia were haunted by the broken idols of the past and the accusing eyes of the living. The readily brutal heroes of Sleepless Night, The Grey, Kill List, Haywire, and Savages fought tooth and nail to keep their narrow foothold in the prosperous human community above chasms of existential fear. Hell, even the dwarfish band of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey were looking for a way to get their home back off the dragon/finance company. Miss Bala’s titular wannabe beauty queen attempts to use her looks and body to escape poverty and gains her prize through the most ironically horrifying of entrapping nightmares, her body turned into a far more immediate commodity, peeling off the skin of her society and discovering the chaos and hypocrisy beneath.
Damsels in Distress
Batman found himself the thin black line between pseudo-revolution and toothless authoritarianism in The Dark Knight Rises, the richest vigilante in town engaged in a tango of toey flirtation with the most supine of criminals and recovering from having a back snapped by the most uppity of plebeian radicals. The übermensch antihero of Cosmopolis could be a distant relative of Bruce Wayne’s but without the altruistic delusions, glimpsed at one point splayed on all fours whilst receiving a rectal examination, gilded by sweat, and flirting with an employee. Later he casually shoots his bodyguard and revisits his childhood in a seeming quest to pull apart the fibres of his life one by one, before eagerly finding his opposite in life in Paul Giamatti’s pathetic assassin, luckless agent of a devoutly wished extinction. Even in the gentler parts of town, eccentrics had to fight to claim their space and right to exist. The protean boy and girl of Moonlight Kingdom, the collegiate, depressive do-gooders of Damsels in Distress, the Norwegian teens of Turn Me On, Dammit!, the bizarre family of Dark Shadows: all looked for redemption in love and fellowship, but still always faced the oncoming day when anomie would turn to crisis.
Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter
Heroes exhumed from classical texts and history for this year’s films seemed to share this outsider-looking-in quality: the hopped-up holy anarchists of On The Road, rushing at a hundred miles per nowhere, were the characters in Moonlight Kingdom a few years older and a bit more damaged. The final day in the life of the protagonist of Oslo, 31 August, wandering the city disgusted with his failures and himself. Anna Karenina’s eponymous heroine alternating between stage and audience in wrestling between her moral and sensual sides. The princess of Snow White and the Huntsman, the living lodestone for a natural order degraded and exiled by a grotesque caricature of celebrity culture. Even Abraham Lincoln, in Steven Spielberg’s crucial film, attempts to leaven a great good at the price of surveying the wasteland his efforts wreaked, a sense of the moral cost of even supposedly moral struggle accounted for by corpse-strewn battlefields, blazing cities, and piles of rudely amputated limbs—and that’s to say nothing of his vampire-hunting sideline.
Oslo, 31 August
But for many, the unceasing battery of a world gone wrong gave way to moments of grace and epiphany: even the doomed hero Anders of Oslo, 31 August found fleeting moments of joy and beauty in his odyssey, even if he remained as repelled as he was compelled by things from which he felt himself eternally severed. He represented a striking inversion of last year’s number of peacefully conceding heroes, unable to escape a downward spiral that finally announced the rupturing of logic in the jarring cessation of a beautiful piano tune. Anna Karenina’s similar self-induced end came at the end of a life lived as a headlong rush of pleasure and pain. The triumph of the last seconds of Alps finally sees life and performance converge in a moment of perfection. Eruptive celebration momentarily breaks the mood of oppressively weighty and corrosive choices in Lincoln. There was surreal beauty in Rust and Bone, as Marion Cotillard’s character went from broken remnant to the carnal ferocity of her self-induced reinvention as a tattooed, hard-rutting fight promoter.
Declaration of War
And everywhere were fragments of insane beauty—images, images, images, the soul of cinema, laced with the muscle of sound, and sculpted by the edit. The ecstatic abandon of On the Road’s uncouth scallywags, their momentous dawns and fraying nocturnal revels. The dawn-light epiphany of Levin in Anna Karenina and the obscene beauty of Anna’s death, the thunder of the horses riding through the theatre and the abandon in her dance floor surrender to physical ardour. The swooning drug-dreams and hideous violence of Savages. The raging protest outside the limousine whilst within savants converse about how the external chaos is governed by mathematical certainties and inevitable defeat. The cross-edited visions of the equally phony Victoria Winters and Alice Cooper in straightjackets in a lucid game of accusation and anger essayed in playful pop cultural terms in Dark Shadows. The insane smile of Angelique Bouchard in the same film, still planted on her face even as she plucks out her heart and hands it over to the man who disdains her amour fou and collapses from within, revealing the lacquered mannequin her obsessiveness made of her. The teeming magnificence of the alien cities and the gorgeous desolation of Mars in John Carter, captured and contained in the redemptive lustre of Dejah Thoris’ sea-blue eyes. The awesome one-shot survey in The Avengers of the team in action that crossed the breadth of the city. The dawn-light swim of Oslo, 31 August where Anders watches his young and pretty companions with the descending pall of a man with no sense of the future. Cotillard saluting the whale that crippled her and the mammal gesturing back in Rust and Bone, and Matthias Schoenaerts punching the ice over his drowning son with raw, injurious desperation. The perplexingly magnificent dread landscapes of Tartarus and the Labyrinth in Wrath of the Titans. The sight of the duelling hero and villain of The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate being sucked up into a hurricane to continue their battle whirling in the eye of the storm. Valérie Donzelli’s distraught run through the hospital in Declaration of War.
The ecstatic thunder of the accordion band in Holy Motors’ entr’acte and the mystique of Edith Scob donning her Eyes Without a Face mask. In Tabu, the black-and-white, soundless sex scene that ruptures the film’s air of physically manifest decay and remoteness, the prayer shot through with rapturous poetry that punctuates the stolid modern pieties of a protest march, and the idiot enthusiasm of the frontier pop band. The egglike, bloodied remnant of the once-smug physiognomy of Aksel Hennie in Headhunters, touched by the grace of his wife’s forgiveness. The perpetual motion machine that is the hero of Sleepless Night eluding his pursuers by diving into a cotillion of clubbers grooving to Queen, enacting a primal drama against a backdrop of entitled hedonism. The racing intercut stories of Cloud Atlas, that incredible, pounding cyberpunk chase of the futuristic lovers, and the beatific suicide ritual of the young composer. The stone idol, carved by a forgotten society in the midst of a wilderness illuminated by lightning to shock a man into sudden awareness of his mortality, in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, and the hovering, mysterious, marvel-provoking beauty of the peasant girl who astounds the tired, dessicated menfolk. The lost beatitude of romantic haven in the sight of Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston in tipsy ebullience before the inevitable fall in The Deep Blue Sea, and the communal nostalgia dream of the sing-along in the tube station. The sinking ship and springing whale of Life of Pi, twinned moments of gleaming leviathans depicting the folly of humankind and the power of nature. The characters of The Day He Arrives shivering in a snowy, slushy dawn after a night of revels, departing to their separate, lonely abodes.
That moment in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey when Bilbo stands in his house, suddenly bereft, before his charge to join his new friends in an adventure; the swashbuckling charge of the dwarves through the kingdom of the goblins; and the gang’s dangling cliffhanger peril, saved by a feathered deus ex machina. The dazzling, terrible whirlwinds of violence that Miss Bala has to charge through repeatedly, and the strange semi-rape that sees her awkwardly trying to mount an injured, saurian beast of a drug lord who is both her protector and tormentor. The dark god’s hand erupting from the earth as the apocalyptic punchline of The Cabin In the Woods’ jokey generic play, after a menagerie of horror cinema’s icons have been released to commit gorgeous carnage. The liberated teens spinning high in the sky in Chronicle. In Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens and his black housekeeper/lover reading the 13th Amendment in bed together in celebration of a future made possible; the blazing buildings of Confederate cities; the arcane melodrama that evokes Manichaeistic struggle just before a titan’s death is announced to his son. The dying Goody of Vamps standing amidst Times Square, aging by the second even as she passes through a rapturous peeling back of the years and transformations of the beloved space to its once-quaint, cobbled self. The rage of the killer paterfamilias in Kill List, stoked to a world-melting heat by obscenity revealed, pounding in a paedophile’s head with a hammer, only to later be chased through stygian woods and hellish tunnels by masked demons determined to implicate him in the reckoning he thinks he can buy off with too-late righteousness.
Cinema is dead, my arse!
I don’t know if I saw a better-acted film this year than The Day He Arrives, purely by dint of the fact that the human behaviour it depicted seemed to flow with the happenstance energy and gestural concision of real life. This quality of extreme, almost invisible naturalism was shared by the cast of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, who all seemed to have been born in the clothes they wear and in the space they inhabit. But, of course, that’s not the only standard for great acting, which can also be the alchemical art of display that sometimes risks excess for the sake of finding something more finite and compelling. In that regard, one of the year’s most inevitably well-regarded acting efforts, Daniel Day-Lewis’ incarnation of Abraham Lincoln, was a surprising pirouette for the actor who had delivered two of the last decade’s greatest performances in a grandiose key (Bill the Butcher, Daniel Plainview): Day-Lewis offered not just the eloquence and folksiness of Honest Abe but also the shrewd lawyer, dry, bordering on parched, struggling against a subtly conveyed terror to hold together the remnants of his family and self-respect even in the throes of being transformed into an icon by his final successes, even reduced at one point to glaring out of the shadows of a window bay with baleful anger and sorrow at his accusatory wife. The incredible roster of support Day-Lewis has in Spielberg’s film emerged as a Dickensian roster of precisely illuminated, ever-so-slightly magnified portraiture, including Sally Field’s Mary Todd Lincoln, brittle and intelligent and tragic in her self-crucifying anxiety, Tommy Lee Jones’s Thaddeus Stevens, the most unprepossessing of ideologues revealed as a brutally witty moral swashbuckler, Gloria Reuben’s careful, but crucial, small part, and David Strathairn’s dusty, crafty William Seward. Michael Stuhlbarg, who helped fill out Lincoln’s cast with a memorably John Ford-esque, timorous congressman, also contributed the only performance in Sacha Gervasi’s lamentable rubbish Hitchcock, as crafty agent extraordinaire Lew Wassermann, that didn’t look like a mobile waxwork exhibit.
Well, all right, Scarlett Johansson made for a tolerably perky Janet Leigh in Hitchcock, too. She also continued her recent run of films suggesting she’s finally growing into the movie star zone into which she was thrust prematurely after Lost in Translation (2003) with her contribution to one fairly popular film this year, which sported a generally marvellous collection of character turns by actors playing emotionally crippled, physically misshapen, neurotically talkative misfits engaged in group dysfunction and rampant physical comedy. Wait, was The Avengers a Woody Allen film and nobody told me? I always grudgingly enjoy being forced to change my mind about an actor, and one I had dismissed as an asinine pretty boy quite genuinely impressed me with his gall this year in a diptych of roles: Robert Pattinson’s performances in Bel-Ami and Cosmopolis were received with disparate levels of interest and recognition, but in both, he cleverly played off his signature role as a beautiful bloodsucker, as the former film allowed him to play a conflicted and frightened man lusted after and idealised by the women around him in a fashion usually reserved for the opposite situation, and the latter let him play a smarmy billionaire driven by forces within to try to smash apart his own pharaohic hegemony as part of a masochistic experiment in system decay. In both films, Pattinson was nimble enough to depict the turmoil, even foolishness, under the surface of superficially purposeful cads. His Twilight costar, Kristen Stewart, weathered storms of scandal and popular opprobrium to expand her increasingly impressive resume with a lead performance in Snow White and the Huntsman that was sturdy and restrained until it finally bloomed in butch glory. Charlize Theron was splendidly arch playing Stewart’s wicked queen enemy. Stewart was also an affecting addition to the vigorous cast of On the Road as the blazing-eyed, jailbait bohemian Marylou. But the film properly belonged to Sam Riley, all doe-eyed naivete mismatched to a prematurely lived-in voice, and Garret Hedlund, the garrulous, but shark-eyed rough trade byproduct of a juvie hall education in a rougher, bleaker, but paradoxically freer America.
Denis Lavant was the glue that held the fractured pieces of Holy Motors together, at once a study of acting itself whilst sustaining a coherent characterisation of an actor as a character: it was impossible, of course, to miss Lavant’s physical dynamism and chameleonic talents, because the film was about those very talents so long in need of a vehicle, and the result was very much an exploration of the traditional symbiosis of filmmaking talent behind and in front of the camera. Kylie Minogue’s beguiling cameo and song likewise buoyed the film’s flagging second half like a visitation from another, classier planet. Aggeliki Poupolia led the cast of Alps, equally multitudinous, except, of course, where Lavant was playing the epitome of acting talent, the Alps team were the opposite, deliberately awful actors filling in for real people: as in Dogtooth (2009), but essayed in a subtler fashion, Poupolia’s genius at slow burns arriving at incendiary climaxes shook continents with its force. Amongst the manifold offhand pleasures of Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows, with the customary Johnny Depp grotesque front and centre, the real battle for acting honours fell to Michelle Pfeiffer as haughty matriarch and Eva Green playing her cabalistic minx as an undead Joan Crawford heroine. Green shifted to completely different register of soulful resignation opposite Ewan McGregor in David Mackenzie’s odd but occasionally striking parable Perfect Sense. Jennifer Lawrence underplayed her lead role in a film that made her exponentially more famous, The Hunger Games, to an extent that inspired some internet mockery, but it was a performance consistent with her breakthrough role in Winter’s Bone (2010) in trying to embody a heroine given to simply accepting the evil inherent in any situation and proceeding for the sake of survival.
Greta Gerwig’s star turn in Damsels in Distress was very much the key to the film’s seemingly insufferably arch, blithely self-impressed façade, cleverly shading into modes of honest pain, sly self-critique, and finally, pure goofy charm. Brit Marling might have committed the ultimate actress-writer faux pas in having someone else in the film she wrote describe her as beautiful, and yet her capacity to animate her character in Sound of My Voice as both radiant and yet, with suggestions of serpentine evil constantly lurking behind an ambiguous smile, was the work of someone who knows her stuff, and Christopher Denham was as impressive opposite her as he was wasted in Argo. Anne Hathaway may well get herself an Oscar this year for Les Misérables, but the role most people saw her in this year was, of course, Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises, a ringer who successfully kept the ball in play with sufficient insouciant wit and poise to make up for the turgid, incoherent pseudo-epic around her. Her costar and rival for the listless affections of Bruce Wayne was Marion Cotillard, wasted in her second Christopher Nolan film. But Cotillard’s superlative performance alongside the equally impressive Matthias Schoenaerts in Rust and Bone was her artistic compensation, and much more than just the mischievously clever CGI that made her look like a double amputee: rage and grief and erotic force have rarely been presented together and with such force, especially without a trace of actorly showboating. Keira Knightley’s Anna Karenina was, on the other hand, showboating with careful and compelling modulation, playing a self-dramatist for whom everything is, on some level, a theatrical gesture. Her befuddled, tortured husband was played with career-best pathos by Jude Law, who turns his fading matinee idol looks into an aesthetic weapon.
Another star who, like Law, emerged in the late ’90s and whose career had seemed to be slowing, had a suddenly incandescent year: everyone’s talked about the second coming of Matthew McConaughey, and I can’t really argue with it, though I wish it had been in better films. The best of the bunch was William Friedkin’s broad and excessively theatrical, but impressively seedy Killer Joe, which, of course, culminated in his forcing Gina Gershon to fellate a chicken drumstick, one of the most memorable single moments of 2012: Gershon’s own feral force, finally tamed by the cruellest of methods, was equally impressive. In Magic Mike, McConaughey provided the meaty, muscly, wolfish smarm to offset Channing Tatum and Alex Pettyfer’s well-exploited physiques and pleasant lack of acting talent. Bruce Willis, still an unflappably laid-back presence, was affecting as the dopey, but affectionate sheriff in Moonrise Kingdom, and sported an amazing manga hairdo for a couple of minutes in Looper. His confrontation with a weirdly convincing Joseph Gordon-Levitt as his youthful alter ego in Looper saw two generations of male movie stars share a diner breakfast in by far the best moment in the film, presenting the amusing conceit of the older and younger versions of the same violent dipshit in different phases of self-deception. Emily Blunt, who backed them up, was the year’s most accommodating female movie star, handling thankless roles with class, including being surprisingly convincing as the besotted third wheel in Your Sister’s Sister, opposite Rosemarie DeWitt, who was, in turn, the only thing worthwhile about Promised Land. Their male costar in Sister, Mark Duplass, was also in Safety Not Guaranteed, playing exactly the same character in each, a slightly more lunky, blue-collar version of the smart, loquacious, but fragile boy-men so popular in modern comedy. Two films provided more than enough of that, so, of course, now he’ll be in everything.
Indie veteran Ann Dowd was the engine of Compliance, communicating middle-aged anxiety and quiescent vindictiveness without entirely losing her façade of amiable managerial politeness; full marks as well to her costar Dreama Walker for playing the year’s most hapless character. Pat Healy, as the villain of the piece, ably sustained the necessary, slippery, verbal wit and also appeared, completely unrecognisable, as the feckless coworker of Sara Paxton’s assailed, flaky hero/victim, one of the year’s most underappreciated lead turns, in The Innkeepers. Similarly strong in a low-key, quietly engaging indie film was Linda Cardellini in Return as a returned servicewoman beset by alienation and unable to live in the present; Michael Shannon and John Slattery gave her good support. Stephanie Sigman as the human ping-pong ball who temporarily becomes Miss Bala was a study in sustained terror, with gifts of bravery and loyalty occasionally showing through an otherwise wisely maintained mantle of acquiescence. At the other end of the scale, Cloud Atlas was hurt almost irreparably by its excruciating conceit of using its actors in recurring roles, with Tom Hanks delivering two or three of the worst performances of his career. But Jim Broadbent held his own in two segments, particularly in a peerless comedic turn as the editor stranded in an old folks’ home by his brother’s conniving. Doona Bae managed to imbue her part as a sagacious clone with sensuality and suggestions of spiritual grace that transcended the compilation of stereotypes and clunky axioms she represented. Ben Whishaw’s perpetual air of spidery intelligence likewise buoyed the film, as did his brief appearance in Skyfall as a Q for the new millennium. Noomi Rapace was intelligent and gutsy in Prometheus alongside the impressive, but extremely ill-utilised Michael Fassbender and Idris Elba, providing, in that immortally queasy robotic abortion scene, the only real reason to watch that unholy mess of a movie. Although they did not say a word, Ana Moreira and Carloto Cotta as the doomed lovers in the flashback sequences of Tabu, proved you don’t always need dialogue to deliver hypnotic performances, and Teresa Madruga as the saintly but solitary Pilar was the soul of the film’s first half.
I know that Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston, and Simon Russell Beale were very good in The Deep Blue Sea; in fact, it was impossible to miss, as if heavyweight dramatic acting had been included as an event in this year’s London Olympics. Come on, Rachel, one more sobbing moan for Britain. By contrast, Anders Danielson Lie’s excellence in Oslo, 31 August was predicated on a difficult part, as his namesake character only occasionally emerged from his position as melancholy observer to reveal his anger and despair, as well as self-mortifying impulses. Eddie Redmayne, also getting good notices for Les Misérables, offered a startling performance cast against type as a sociopath slowly but inevitably giving in to his worst impulses in weird and uneven Hick, which also featured another of Chloë Grace Moretz’s protean turns as the teenaged heroine who finally and fatally could not get out of his clutches. Blake Lively backed them up and also appeared in Oliver Stone’s Savages, cumulatively making a case for herself as a bonafide actress playing characters easy to dismiss as airheaded parasites who prove to have hidden depths and reefs. Amidst the wobbly satire and shenanigans of the chicks-behaving-badly epic Bachelorette, the key threesome of Kirsten Dunst, Lizzy Caplan, and particularly, Isla Fisher were game in inducing hilarity, empathy, and convulsive vomiting. In a similar vein, Alicia Silverstone was smart and endearing as the vampire long past pop culture expiry date fed up with playing the modern game of feigning eternal youth in Vamps. I dare say more people feel sympathy with her character’s plight than are willing to let on.
Favourite Films of 2012
Alps (Yorgos Lanthimos)
Alps feels, at first glance, too much like another entry from the now familiar school of mordant Greek absurdist cinema exemplified by Lanthimos’ first film, Dogtooth, and Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg (2011). Like those films, it’s a through-a-glass-darkly portrait of socially normative behaviour studied like an alien scientist watching humanity through a telescope held the wrong way around. But it holds together with greater integrity as both a story—though still infused with jolts of surrealism and enigma—and as a personal odyssey for its disintegrating heroine’s efforts to slot herself into other people’s realities. In other words, a distinctive filmmaker retaining his distinction whilst visibly and intelligibly evolving.
Joe Wright’s second appearance in two years on my list confirms me as a resolute Wright fanboy, I suppose, but Wright seems to me to speak in a cinematic language once fairly commonplace but now almost freakish—poised, yet expressive; smart, but emotional; showy and semi-experimental, but rooted in a passion for the material and a desire to engage the audience. Few others directors on the scene seem able or willing to be as formally animated and innovative without being precious to the point of irritation. The result shakes up a moribund subgenre, but also realises the inherent beauty and brilliance of Leo Tolstoy’s novel.
Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg)
David Cronenberg continues on his recent roll, recasting Don DeLillo’s admired novel as his late-career critique of his very first movie, Shivers (1975), substituting the immobile trap of an apartment building for a self-sufficient limousine, and humans threatened not by parasites, but humans turning into parasites, feeding off larger, incorporeal organisms. Eric Packer, well-played by a cleverly exploited Robert Pattinson, is the wizard of high finance who’s conquered his piece of the world, but, now bored, does not so much give himself up to fate or primal experience as conduct another of his studies in systems, being this time the dynamics of disintegration, observing and even creating his own downfall with the same bewildered, semi-human fascination.
A delicious, if uneven emporium of droll absurdity from Burton, Dark Shadows did not escape the stored-up disdain for some of Burton’s profitable, but weaker recent efforts. Nonetheless, this was one of the year’s liveliest mainstream releases, a blend of retro psychedelia and good-natured satire at once deeply acerbic and perversely earnest in its investigation of retro obsessions, familial bonds and maladies, post-’60s liberation, and the joys of hate-sex on the ceiling. (See also Amy Heckerling’s delightfully screwball, accidental companion piece, Vamps.)
Some people complain that Sang-soo Hong makes the same movie over and over again, and that could well be true, but so do a lot of other directors, and very few with the same beguiling mixture of formal artistry and improvised elan. Hong digs so cleverly and yet subtly into the more melancholy aspects of modern life with its stripped illusions, trashed niceties, and collapsed hierarchies.
The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (Tsui Hark)
Less beautiful and controlled than Hark’s comeback film Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010), this follow-up nonetheless saw Hark perhaps surpass it by going totally for broke, in a breakneck ride of multiple factions, heroes and villains, deceptions, double-crosses, sand-dancing battles, and sky-riding duels. Result: Hark proves he still has a capacity to make even close Hollywood avatars like The Avengers look nearly anaemic by comparison.
Ti West’s bare-boned, classical horror aesthetic builds on the intoxicating minimalism of The House of the Devil (2009) for a slightly more traditional, but no less sustained tale of factotum depression shading into supernatural terror.
This year’s Sucker Punch (2011), with a twist: whereas Zack Snyder’s film from last year was flagrantly postmodern and cool in its take on CGI spectacle, John Carter is a reinvention of the yarn-spinner’s wheel, resolutely traditional cowboys vs. aliens stuff realised with more class, visual spectacle, and actual entertainment value than 50 dark knights rising. The big multiplex screens were bathed in all the lush, absurd splendour of turn-of-the-century scientification; just a pity so few people were sitting in the audience to see it. (See also another critically underrated spectacle, although likely in the end to be a far bigger popular success, Peter Jackson’s simultaneously grand and mischievous The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.)
Kill List (Ben Wheatley)
A restless, unsettling, mercilessly potent vision of contemporary angst, be it financial, military, or familial, churning the uneasy mindset of the millennium’s first decade into a great British horror film. Images as stark and appalling as any in classic genre cinema rub against a hazy, paranoid parable for the cost of maintaining a prosperous western lifestyle, whilst everywhere, demons wait.
Lest things get too grim in a time in which the political venality on display across the world will echo in infamy for decades, Lincoln reminds us of the potential nobility of the human condition, as manifest both in leaders reputed, like the title character, and in the lesser, or merely less-remembered, mortals around him. The way politics is an accumulation of, rather than a force upon, individual feeling and perspective has rarely been described with such ardour and intensity, nor stuffed historical countenances reanimated with such relish for the expressivity of words and the concise power of images. (See also Timur Bekmembetov’s trash-mash edition of the same tale.)
Cruelly but not surprisingly received with dismissal by many critics, this is youth culture mythology’s bleary awakening and its night-after hangover and self-critique. Walter Salles’ film of the Beat bible strips the material of legend and finds human foible, failings, and hope still rudely alive. It’s a film for people who both fondly regard the novel, but also hold it in perspective, and for people who know that life often requires looking disaster dead in the eye and then looking past it.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
What was perhaps most impressive about this work by Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan was the way in which it manages to bridge several different kinds of movie-making without apparent effort or violating its quiet, ambling, deceptively deadpan façade. It’s an historical rumination. It’s as realistic a portrait of police and policing as you’re ever likely to see. It contains fragments of magic realism and eerie, almost expressionistic beauty and dread. It’s an oft-hilarious situation comedy. It’s a desolating study in time, age, and fate.
Rust and Bone (Jacques Audiard)
Jacques Audiard has a cunning capacity to make far-out melodrama tropes and weird afflictions for his characters work in deceptively realistic, everyday contexts, which makes him often seem like the last of the great Victorian Naturalist novelists, the Zola of the banlieus. In part a nongenre remake of his romantic thriller Read My Lips (2001) as a raw, modern epic of sex and money, with damaged souls rendered literal in limited and injured bodies, Rust and Bone swerves a couple of times too many, but its boldness and vivacity linger large.
Tabu also directly contrasts the pettiness of modern life and the way age reduces everyone to less than they truly are with the outsized passion of yesterday’s youthful folly, with everyday depressive longing segueing into period melodrama, but with a constant, morally serious eye on the shifting vicissitudes of history and personal nature. Gomes’ masterful formal conceits constantly evoke another phase in cinema and life—black-and-white photography and a long, semi-silent segment—and yet avoids any hint of self-satisfied stunt.
Would Be on This List If I’d Seen It in Time
Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino) Farewell My Queen (Benoît Jacquot) The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)
The Avengers (Joss Whedon) Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman) The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Peter Jackson) Miss Bala (Gerardo Naranjo) Oslo, 31 August (Joachim Trier) Savages (Oliver Stone) Sleepless Night (Frédéric Jardin) Snow White and the Huntsman (Rupert Sanders) Sound of My Voice (Zal Batmanglij) Vamps (Amy Heckerling) Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow)
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Timur Bekmembetov) Bel-Ami (Declan Donnellan, Nick Ormerod) The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard) Cloud Atlas (Lana and Andy Wachowski, Tom Tykwer) Compliance (Craig Zobel) Declaration of War (Valérie Donzelli) Haywire (Steven Soderbergh) Holy Motors (Leos Carax) Killer Joe (William Friedkin) Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson) Return (Liza Johnson) Turn Me On, Dammit! (Jannicke Systad Jacobsen)
Goodbye First Love (Mia Hansen-Løve) Hitchcock (Sacha Gervasi) Hyde Park on Hudson (Roger Michell) The Impossible (Juan Antonio Bayona) Lawless (John Hillcoat) Les Misérables (Tom Hooper) Life of Pi (Ang Lee) Promised Land (Gus Van Sant)
Significant Blind Spots
Almayer’s Folly, Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Bernie, Detachment, Flight, Frankenweenie, Girl Walk//All Day, Keep the Lights On, The Loneliest Planet, Lore, Monsieur Lazhar, Seven Psychopaths, Sister, Take This Waltz, The Turin Horse
My Year of Retro Wonders: Great Older Films I Saw First in 2012
All The King’s Men (Robert Rossen) A Bell for Adano (Henry King) Berlin Express (Jacques Tourneur) Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks) Countdown (Robert Altman) The Cranes Are Flying (Mikhail Kolatozov) Dark Waters (Andre de Toth) The Day the World Ended / Not of This Earth (Roger Corman) Die Nibelungen / The Tiger of Eschnapur & The Indian Tomb (Fritz Lang) Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder) The Earth Dies Screaming / Revenge of Frankenstein / Frankenstein Created Woman / Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (Terence Fisher) Elevator to the Scaffold / Viva Maria! (Louis Malle) Farewell to the King (John Milius) Faust / Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F. W. Murnau) Flowers of Shanghai (Hsiao-hsien Hou) Gate of Hell (Teinosuke Kinugasa) Gilda (Charles Vidor) Hell’s Angels (Howard Hughes, James Whale, Edmund Goulding) Hercules in the Haunted World / I Tre Volti Della Paura / Knives of the Avenger (Mario Bava) Jeremiah Johnson (Sydney Pollack) Judex (Georges Franju) The Knack…and How to Get It / Royal Flash / Robin and Marian (Richard Lester) La Frissons du Vampires / Les Démoniaques (Jean Rollin) Laura (Otto Preminger) Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner / The French Lieutenant’s Woman (Karel Reisz) The Looking Glass War (Frank R. Pierson) Modesty Blaise (Joseph Losey) Mountains of the Moon (Bob Rafelson) Ms. 45 (Abel Ferrara) No Regrets for Our Youth (Akira Kurosawa) The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Dreyer) The Phantom Carriage (Victor Sjöstrom) The Phenix City Story (Phil Karlson) Phantom of the Paradise/ Obsession / Blow Out / Mission to Mars (Brian De Palma) Sorcerer / Cruising (William Friedkin) The Stars Look Down (Carol Reed) Sword of Doom (Kihachi Okamoto) Tattooed Life / Story of a Prostitute (Seijun Suzuki) A Time to Love and a Time to Die (Douglas Sirk) Torment (Alf Sjöberg) Track of the Cat / Blood Alley (William A. Wellman) When a Woman Ascends a Staircase (Mikio Naruse) Young and Innocent / Under Capricorn / Topaz (Alfred Hitchcock) Young Mr. Lincoln / Three Godfathers (John Ford) Zatoichi Monogatari (Kenji Misumi)
I did something strange the other day—I picked up a book at the library by a British author known for writing old-fashioned stories with old-fashioned values aimed at women in or approaching their golden years. My reason for choosing the book had to do with trying to suppress a bleak and angry outlook that has seized me in recent weeks, to escape into a fantasy of romance and tradition and charm. After about 60 pages, the plot conveniences, cliché-filled language, and attitudes about women with which I vehemently disagree shook me out of my fog and, if not exactly in the finest shape to face the world, I nonetheless saw that looking backward isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
It seems that director Terence Davies, 67, is experiencing even more acutely the pull of the past. His 2008 poetic documentary Of Time and the City revealed the passage of time and the frailty of the physical as filtered through the environs of his hometown of Liverpool. With The Deep Blue Sea, Davies has lifted a 1952 chestnut from the British stage penned by Terence Rattigan, who would come to defy the trend in British theatre and film of so-called kitchen sink realism that bowed in 1959 with John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. Rattigan and Davies, both gay men in a country where homosexuality was illegal until 1967, could justifiably claim anger in their works. Their attraction, however, is to the refinement and moral uprightness of the days of empire, their sensibilities lodged squarely in the coded gay traditions of the stage and screen.
Sadly for Davies, his loathing of his sexual orientation and acute nostalgia have sent him into something of an artistic neverland. I say this with enormous regret, as his adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, one of my very favorite films, is admirably clear-eyed about the rot beneath the veneer of high society while still exploring the tragedy of a fatal love. The Deep Blue Sea is squarely in the tradition of the 1950s women’s films Davies grew up on and loved, a genre I also love but recognize as hopelessly out of date. To recreate one of these films in 2011 without burrowing beneath the gay code or reflecting on contemporary attitudes toward a sexual coming of age makes this brand-new film a premature museum piece.
Set in 1950, The Deep Blue Sea tells with unabashed sentiment the story of Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz), a young woman married to a kind, older member of the peerage, Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale), who is awakened from her comfortably dull life by the raffish sexuality of Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston). Freddie, an RAF pilot during World War II, is restless and angry, offering an avatar of adventure and danger from his experiences that Hester finds bewitching. She believes she loves Freddie, so unacquainted is she with lust that she can’t distinguish one emotion from the other. Freddie remains tantalizingly out of reach, treating her with an offhand contempt for her bourgeois romanticism and inexperience. When her despair drives her to the suicide attempt that opens the film, Freddie is deeply offended that she absolves him of blame in a note she left for him, a magnanimity he neither needs nor believes, and determines to end the affair. Despite her husband’s willingness to take her back, Hester won’t put the genie back in the bottle, preferring to live in misery rather than to feel nothing at all.
On its surface, this is a story worth telling, one of a sexual and emotional awakening that sets its protagonist on the path to leading a more authentic life. Yet, in the oh-so-stately telling, there’s not much to distinguish The Deep Blue Sea from a Victorian frolic like Lady Windemere’s Fan except for its lack of wit. My, this story could have used a bit of Oscar Wilde’s social buffoonery or Douglas Sirk’s playful gay coding or even some down-to-earth sincerity. As directed by Davies, Simon Russell Beale plays a very nice man whose impeccable breeding and good English sportsmanship won’t allow him a moment of messy breakdown even though his life has just cracked wide open. The direction he’s given to be mild-mannered and magnanimous is, I suppose, Davies’ attempt to show the passionless marriage Hester is running away from, but Sir William just seems kind of pathetic and insubstantial. Surely Hester’s suicide attempt must have been at least partly a provocation to her husband’s maddening even-temperedness, but nothing about their relationship manages to break the surface.
Hiddleston’s Freddie comes off as a bit of rough trade, shouting incongruously like a caricature of the Angry Young Man, dumping on Hester without apparent motivation other than his slim backstory as a damaged war veteran. In the beginning of their affair, he and Hester certainly do seem physically magnetized, and I appreciated the sensuality that flairs through a couple of scenes. Their parting, perhaps the best scene of the film, gives Hiddleston a chance to show his tenderness and humanity as well.
The one redeeming facet of The Deep Blue Sea is Rachel Weisz. Rather than fall into the Harlequin Romance notion of a suffering woman in love, Weisz fills her Hester with genuine emotion. You can practically smell her longing for Freddie, feel her slightly contemptuous regret at hurting her husband, understand her seemingly foolish resolve to remain outside the comforting confines of her marriage after Freddie throws her over. When Davies gives us the cliché of a back alley through which Hester walks to find Freddie at the local, his frequent home away from the one-room flat they share in London, her posture shows that her helpless addiction to Freddie sits on her like the proverbial monkey on her back.
Davies is enraptured with Weisz’s limpid eyes, perhaps too much so. For all her beauty, Hester comes off as a weepy drudge too often in his hands. Worse perhaps, after the activity of Hester sealing her digs off so that she can die from gas asphyxiation and a somewhat cinematic start at letting her life flash back in her mind’s eye, nothing much happens. I’m surprised that the normally theatre-phobic film critics who have been captivated by Weisz haven’t torn this film a new one for being so stagey. With three anemic central characters, the film just becomes a boring slog, relieved at moments by the earthy pragmatism of Hester and Freddie’s landlady (Ann Mitchell) and the savage elitism of Barbara Jefford as Sir William’s mother.
It is equally baffling to me why this film generally has been critically embraced whereas the 2012 film that bears a close resemblance to it in theme, Anna Karenina, has foundered. Admittedly, the latter film is more modeled on the costume epic, whereas The Deep Blue Sea is a women’s film, yet Anna Karenina makes deliberate, effective use of theatricality to forward the story, whereas Davies’ film seems retrograde in nearly every respect. Even the cinematography, which Davies normally codirects with unusual aplomb, is all misty memory. Like Of Time and the City, this film feels too personal a project for me to relate to.
For those of us who were raised on lighthearted boy-and-his-dog/girl-and-her-horse films and cuddly Disney forest creatures, our first sight of a lion taking down a young gazelle on a TV series like Nature is likely to be a terrible shock. How cruel! Well, not exactly. The lion needs to live, too, and nature has seen fit to equip her with the ability to sprint, claw, and bite; the gazelle has speed and endurance to help level the playing field, so generally only the young or the old gazelles are eaten, leaving the healthiest and most sexually mature animals to continue the species.
Human beings are animals, too, and exhibit all the same bestial instincts to mate, tend to our young, flee from danger, and so on. However, human beings also have advanced thinking capabilities that can overcome our basic survival instincts; consider the sacrifices people make, even unto death, to help others. Nonetheless, in many ways, the way we arrange our social structures reveals the beast in us, particularly in our hierarchical pecking orders that depend inordinately upon those at the top to govern our human affairs wisely and embrace our advanced thinking abilities to care for all members of the society.
After Lucia, winner of the Un Certain Regard and Silver Hugo awards at Cannes and Chicago, respectively, takes a grim look at the workings of a pecking order among a group of teens from a prosperous area of Mexico City and how an infraction of the group’s rules leads to rapidly escalating, unconscionable bullying. Many American critics have found the severity of the hazing unbelievable, but I believe this reaction reflects the American tendency to draw a curtain quickly around unpleasant truths, develop positively spun marketing campaigns to pretend that something is being done, and then go back to business as usual. Mexicans appear to have more of an appetite for the lurid and an unblinkered acceptance of darkness in the world, with a particular appreciation for the animalistic underpinnings of human existence. The unflinching approach Michel Franco takes to machismo and human conflict, the plight of the vulnerable, and the archetypal pairing of sex and death makes After Lucia something of a horror masterpiece.
Alejandra (Tessa Ía) is an ordinary teenager from privileged circumstances who is dealing with the death of her mother in a car accident from which she escaped unharmed. Her father Roberto (Hernán Mendoza) wears his grief like sack cloth; in the opening scene, he very carefully drives the repaired car away from the mechanic’s after listening to what sounds like a rebuild rather than a repair and then simply abandons the car in the middle of the road and walks out of his life in Puerto Vallarta to start over with Alejandra somewhere else. Roberto, a chef, struggles to stay focused enough to open a new restaurant; when he walks out on the enterprise at one point, it is Ale who takes charge and makes him go back and get on with it. Almost miraculously, Ale has been brought into the cool-kid clique at her new school by its alpha male, José (Gonzalo Vega Sisto), and seems to be getting along just fine.
Unfortunately, Ale makes a fatal error when she is invited to a weekend party at a posh home. She gets drunk and lets José record them having sex on his cellphone. The video circulates online, arousing the jealousy of the girl who thinks José is her boyfriend. Soon, the taunting emails and physical abuse begin, the boys calling her a whore and exposing themselves to her, and the girls dressing her up like a hooker and cutting her hair off. She doesn’t tell her father or the school authorities about what is happening to her. She just disappears into the shell of her own misery and eventually, just disappears during a mandatory school trip to Vera Cruz.
After Lucia explores some very interesting aspects of human behavior, in general, and the social order of teens, in particular. It seems that Ale understands well the tendency of teens to attack the weak rather than to show understanding. For example, she is careful not to reveal too much about her background, saying only that her mother is back in Puerto when her new friends wonder if her parents will go ballistic when they find out she has failed a mandatory drug test at school. She is a person who contains her emotions by nature, but she also doesn’t want to be seen as having any defect, and having only one parent would pose a status problem for her. She hides the abuse she is suffering not only to keep her father’s fragile equilibrium and, more important, temper under control, but also to prevent the abuse from getting worse. When it can’t get any worse, she goes into an emotional coma, uncaring about what happens to her father or her tormenters. We want her to lash out, be sensible, but a young ego is extremely delicate and the centers of reason have not yet matured.
The horror aspects of the story have to do with punishment for having sex. Ale becomes the target for bullies, it seems, for sleeping with another girl’s boyfriend, but it really isn’t as simple as all that. Her tormenters focus on her sexual conduct and use sexual and physical humiliation to punish her for losing control. It is never revealed who sent the video around, as the cellphone was left in the bathroom for anyone to pick up, but suspicion rightly falls on José, who can prove his machismo, attack the girl who lays a claim to him he doesn’t want, and humiliate the new girl he brought into the group in the first place. It is even possible he befriended her with this ulterior motive in mind. One only has to think of the torment and murder of the character of Juanita, a newcomer to Cuidad Juárez, in Backyardto see a familiar dynamic at play. The disposability of strangers, the acceptance of brutality against women that women collude in to maintain the pecking order, and the fragility of the male ego, which demands violent retribution, all come into play in After Lucia. The film, particularly the last scene, is very reminiscent of the feral behavior and shockingly matter-of-fact violence captured so heartbreakingly by Luis Buñuel in his 1950 classic Los Olvidados.
The film shows a fine attention to detail and expert use of indirect narrative to communicate the events of the story. That first scene, which only hints at the tragic death of Lucia, comes graphically into focus as Ale remembers the details as she swims obsessively to relieve her stress. Conversations occur in the distance, out of earshot, leaving us helpless in the foreground to imagine whatever plot, or horrors, we like. The cinematography of Chuy Chávez takes in the beauty and modernity of this set of people, contrasting the savagery that emerges from it without the pressures of physical survival that make comparison by some with Lord of the Flies erroneous. Although many commentaries focus on how difficult this film is to watch, I actually found Franco’s style discreet, offering enough distance to allow me to view the film to the end and, therefore, see the full realization of his vision. Much more difficult was taking in the incompletely suppressed emotions Ía and Mendoza express with their brave, committed performances.
People who see After Lucia may use it to start a dialogue about bullying and the need for open communication between parents and children. I think that’s just fine. But this is no afterschool special. The issues it raises go to the very heart of the psychic minefield of sex and the human pecking order, as well as the depths of depravity and violence to which the id unchecked by human reason can sink. After Lucia will shake you up and never let go.
Joe Wright’s fifth feature film, adapting Leo Tolstoy’s feted 1876 tome, seems on the face of it like a retreat to the safe ground of the period, prestige-laden works with which Wright first made his name: Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Atonement (2007). Wright’s smart, stylish revival-cum-critique of the globe-trotting action movie, Hanna (2011), was a departure for the director, and stood tall as one of last year’s best films, even if it didn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts. It proves to have been only a warm-up for this extravagant rendition of Tolstoy’s panoramic tale of adultery and social hypocrisy. Financial difficulties meant that Wright had to reconceive his intended adaptation, penned by no less a personage than Tom Stoppard, and hit upon the idea of rendering it as a variety of theatrical melodrama. The result is a teeming pageant of artifice, and heightened, almost dreamlike beauty that throws into relief the always powerful, often raw and disturbing emotions experienced and expressed by its characters.
Tolstoy pushed the 19th century realist novel to its utmost limits of scope and inquiry whilst managing to maintain a grip on essential dramatic intimacy. The canvas of the average mainstream film is far more limited than what Tolstoy offered in creating around the centrifuge of Anna’s romantic tragedy an ontological portrait of his society in all its grandeur, contradiction, and pathos. This limitation is, ironically, one of the best arguments for rejecting Tolstoy’s measured, sprawling realism in film and adopting a style that can evoke the same meaning through cinematic means. Moreover, Tolstoy’s novel has been adapted many times, most famously with Greta Garbo in 1935 and a much-admired Russian version from 1967 by Aleksandr Zarkhi, thus raising the stakes for the worth of another version, whilst clearing room for radical interpretation.
Wright’s chosen approach is clearly patterned after Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1945), beginning amidst overtly theatrical settings that gradually give way to stylised reality and then general verisimilitude, and back again. There’s a certain similarity, also, to the porous boundaries of life and performance found in the films of Carlos Saura, where the performance consciously strives to recreate human drama and, in turn, bleeds over into “real life.” Whereas Olivier and Saura were paying heed of the theatrical origins of their material and turning the audience’s awareness of the artifice into an aspect of their cinema’s texture, an adaptation of a novel has no such original strictures or preordained conventions. On this level, the choice is less immediately apt, except that this setting invokes the closest thing there was to cinema at the time of the novel’s publication. For Stoppard, the author of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, this sort of thing is hardly new, and Wright avoids any obvious meta-narrative structures, a la The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981), another probable influence, about the nature of the performance.
Wright’s choices reorganise the predictable rhythms of the period literary film with boldness, vivacity, and a narrative that drives like an unstoppable machine. That’s very much the point, as the first third of the film turns stage machinery into a visualisation of the governing laws and dancelike niceties of a society that is narcotising in its materialism and formalism and alienated from itself. Anna (Keira Knightley), a wife and mother who is still young and something of a case of arrested development, is swept up in a passion that manifests as an elemental imperative, a natural law made manifest by Wright’s intricate staging that transforms the erotic passion that overtakes its heroine as a fatefully choreographed tötentanz.
The early scenes of Anna Karenina, then, are a whirl of stylised spectacle, as Wright’s camera roars around the interior of a huge stage, observing as cast and crew “create” the world of period Russia, stripping down and erecting sets for changes of scene, with actors shifting from squared-off illustrative postures to naturalism. The very first shot is of Prince “Stiva” Oblonsky (the ever-splendid Matthew Macfadyen) framed on stage in a barber’s chair awaiting his shave, the barber marching in and swinging his towel like a matador’s cape before proceeding to circle the prone Oblonsky, sharpening his blade. The suggestion of violence, with Oblonsky as a bull perhaps about to be skewered by his servant, reverberates throughout the film, where a promise of death lurks, of course, but also with one eye fixed on the future, still far off and yet dreadful and unavoidable, when the society it portrays will collapse. The opening’s tone is set, however, by a series of swift, overtly theatrical tableaux, true to the droll mood of the novel’s beginning, as the fatuous, cheerfully licentious, but sufficiently respectable Oblonsky has his domestic bliss ruined when his wife “Dolly” (Kelly Macdonald) discovers his affair with their children’s French governess (Marine Battier). In a fillip of Dickensian humour, Wright’s dancing camera glides across the theatre floor transformed into a room full of bureaucratic factotums, labouring in synchronised rubber stamping, and Oblonsky, master of what he surveys, marches amongst them. The bureaucrats then rise from their chairs and change uniforms on stage, or flee to the corners, and the ministry becomes a restaurant where Oblonsky lunches with his old friend Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson).
The teeming variety of human action in these scenes borders on the frantic, as the extras rush to change roles and erect new settings, but is also intricately choreographed, all moving with purpose and design, movement and labour tellingly contrived to support the illusion of opulence, ease, and natural motion for the governing class. As such it serves as a portrait of this communal existence, its structure, pretences, and underlying laws, far more concisely and intelligently than any number of exterior shots of passing carriages would have in a more familiar adaptation. Oblonsky begs the intercession of his sister Anna to convince Dolly to forgive him, though Oblonsky has no actual intention of restraining his extramarital appetites. Anna bids farewell to her husband, Count Alexei Karenin (Jude Law) and son Seryozha (Oskar McNamara) in Moscow, and, arriving in St. Petersburg, succeeds in convincing Dolly to reconcile with her husband.
Levin, a landed idealist and fretful, unconfident intellectual, has set his own heart on marrying Dolly’s younger sister “Kitty” Shcherbatskaya (Alicia Vikander), and meets with Oblonsky to discuss it. Oblonsky warns him that he has a rival to his affections in the form of one Count Vronsky. “Oh, you don’t need to worry about him,” Oblonsky assures his pal dismissively, “He’s just a rich, good-looking cavalry officer with nothing better to do than make love to pretty women.” Kitty is vivacious but naïve, and she turns down Levin’s proposal in the hope of getting one from Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). But her suitor, whilst meeting his mother Countess Vronsky (Olivia Williams) on the train from St. Petersburg, catches sight of Anna, who has been conversing with the Countess during their journey, and is instantly drawn to her.
Tolstoy’s name itself has long been a byword for artistic enterprise that engages with the macrocosmic as well as the immediate drama. The brilliance of Wright’s conceit is steadily revealed throughout these sequences he uses for holistic realisation of theme. The “theatre” serves a multiplicity of settings and functions: whereas its aptness for evoking artificiality is passing trite, the cleverness here lies in the dialogue of settings, as, in the bustle and closeness of the “backstage,” realism, even authenticity, is located. Its ropes and catwalks and narrow stairwells offer a cunning simulacrum of the labouring grit and functional claustrophobia of the urban world in this period in Russia; it is the street, the market, the hovel, the factory, the hiding place, the feminine retreat. The gilded world erected on the stage and in the auditorium is a constant interplay of spectator and drama, social form and personal viewpoint, barriers ruptured most effectively and dramatically in the film’s central set-piece. Levin’s ill-fated proposal to Kitty sees him approach the girl who, situated upon the “stage,” is glimpsed lounging amidst painted swirling clouds, actualising his perception of her as a creature from a higher realm, one who tantalises and delights Levin’s fervently romantic heart even as he acts the solemn, sober intellectual. The clouds part, and Kitty descends to the stage level as part of a soiree. After his proposal is rejected, Levin climbs up the backstage fly space, which becomes the other, unromantic world, a slum, where he finds radical brother, Nikolai (David Wilmot) dissipating in a haze of fever and vodka.
The floor of the auditorium then becomes the railway station for the fateful meeting of Anna and Vronsky, a setting at once stylised and animated, replete with vividly visualised binaries: beautiful, white snow that crusts the thundering black locomotives, the whirling, colour-drenched crowds and the Morlock-like rail engineer whose appearance before Anna, covered in soot, perturbs her like a bad omen. When she lets Vronsky kiss her hand, it seems to shake the entire train—actually the portent of a dreadful accident, as the worker is glimpsed having been cut in half after being knocked under the wheels by the train’s sudden jolt. This moment is both an apt quote from Doctor Zhivago (1965), where the first physical contact of Zhivago and Lara was announced by a cutaway to the sparking coupling of a suburban tram: Wright cuts to sparking wheels and shuddering steel redolent of a more fervently sexual connection, and also a portent of bleaker tidings of Anna’s own predestined end. Vronsky is charmed by Anna’s concern for the engineer’s dependents, and in his own showy desire to charm her casually hands over a great wad of cash to rail staff to be given to the dead man’s family. This is a pungent moment where Wright’s feel for the underlying fiscal realities of this society are revealed as mixed inextricably with the vagaries of individual natures and brute reality, and the beginnings of a process of systemic rot.
The subsequent ball sequence cranks steadily into an erotic and emotional crescendo: Wright repeats one of his signature conceits from Pride and Prejudice in a shot in which Anna and Vronsky, dancing, are suddenly, dramatically isolated from the cotillion, hovering in bright light that excises them from reality. The sequence continues with an increasingly frenetic series of whip-pans and drunken camera whorls, evoking the great waltz sequence of Vincente Minnelli’s Madame Bovary (1949) in sustaining the sensual force of both the dance and the emotions enacted. Whereas in Atonement Dario Marianelli’s scoring provided the film with an unnerving aural analogue for the reality-ordering drive of its antiheroine, here it approximates her overheated psyche and palpitating flesh. The dancers’ serpentine arms weaving around each other with increasing suggestiveness, and Kitty becomes increasingly distraught as she watches from the sidelines, Anna and Vronsky’s instant ardour in dancing every dance together is all too obvious for both her and other onlookers.
Only after this sequence does this hermetic vision of period Russian society begin to break open. Wright’s theatricality expands to absorb Golden Age Hollywood’s mythical stylisation, with model trains standing in for the real things, and an ebulliently beautiful moment that seems torn from the most classically styled expressionist melodrama. Vronsky emerges from a haze when the train taking Anna back to Moscow is paused on a siding, snow piled, seething smoke and saturated light and colour, like the very ghost of Anna’s repressed desire. Taylor-Johnson’s Vronsky, every inch the dashing gallant with blue eyes unwavering in every shot, dressed in uniforms so crisp and clean he could have been carved from a solid hunk of ice, has an eerie, otherworldly beauty, seeming at first to be an incubus born and bred specifically to locate the fault-lines in bourgeois propriety and strike hard at them, a male bimbo seducer without depth or character. Yet he’s actually as high-flown a romantic as Anna, obeying the natural simplicity of his ardour for her with fixated intent, even as his strong-natured mother tries to offer up alternative partners and dissuade her son from a course of action that will harm her son’s prospects.
Importantly, Stoppard and Wright preserve Tolstoy’s oft-denuded contrapuntal narrative, where Anna’s experiences are contrasted with those of a classic Tolstoyan seeker-hero, Levin, who searches for personal stability and happiness, whilst also trying to shake off what he sees as the ills of his society, including a self-loathing engendered by its Westernisation and the evils of its traditional hierarchies. Levin’s viewpoint offers a substantive diegetic channel for Wright and Stoppard’s inquiring, ironic approach—Wright based the film’s style especially in the tension between the Western affectation of the period’s Russian society—and offsets the raw, biological level for which romantic love manifests for Anna, who is plunged into a tragedy that plays out specifically because of social constructs which the characters themselves try to work around, but fail. The early shot of the barber sharpening his razor gives way to a scythe being sharpened, as Levin joins his peasants on his estate in reaping wheat. They’re frightened and confused by his labours, however, especially as, since their emancipation, they’ve lost the life security they used to prize, whilst Levin is beset by constant contradiction in his attempts to live by reason, which often dictates acting against his instincts, manifest most particularly in his love for Kitty. After being spurned by her he toys with the idea of marrying a peasant woman, and keeps swapping charged glances with one of his workers. Levin’s relationship with his more overtly radical brother informs, and haunts, his choices, as Nikolai, dying slowly of consumption, has married Masha (Tannishtha Chatterjee), a prostitute he plucked from a whorehouse to prove his radical cred, though he treats her as basic chattel.
It is Levin who, notably, ruptures the film’s ravishing, yet stifling interior mise-en-scène when he first returns to his estate, the doors behind the stage parting and allowing him to step into snow-crusted fields. This visualises a clear schism between artificial city and natural landscapes, and sets up the dialectic that reverberates throughout. Later, Wright again refines an earlier piece of his own filmmaking, coinciding beautifully with a moment from Tolstoy’s writing: Levin is stricken by an epiphany when, having slept atop a haystack, he awakens in the dawn-light-drenched mist and sees Kitty driving by in a carriage, a gloriously visualised moment that evokes the romanticism of Pride and Prejudice’s similar dawn-light climax, but with an added spiritual aura and impact. Levin is ripped out of the ambient earthiness of his setting and announces not only his still-compelling love, but also his awakened self-knowledge and his surrender to forces larger than his reason, a surrender he doesn’t acknowledge entirely until the concluding scenes. His second proposal to Kitty, who, chastened and matured in her spurning by Vronsky, accepts the less glamorous but more substantial suitor, sees the duo avoid verbalising their feelings by spelling them with children’s letter-blocks. Vikander’s performance is particularly good in suggesting Kitty’s emotional authenticity and worthiness even when she makes childish mistakes, and the smartness of Levin’s choice becomes apparent when he takes her to his estate. They find his brother and his wife are there, with Nikolai dreadfully ill. Levin moves to obey the niceties of societal presumption to eject Nikolai’s woman, but Kitty instead sets about helping her nurse Nikolai, a triumph of humanist instinct that proves Kitty might actually be her husband’s moral superior as an embodiment of empathy.
The time Wright spares for this aspect of the story is indicative of the underlying attentiveness of this adaptation to the thematic breadth and heft of the tale, rather than reducing it purely to a tale of adulterous passion and social crucifixion: the possibility of a different kind of union is evoked and sustained. Nonetheless, Anna’s story proceeds with merciless force and clarity. Visions of her and Vronsky, both swathed in white and glowing in the sun on a picnic cloth, give way to the trap of space that Anna’s homelife becomes, mirrors and glasses turning faces upon themselves and conflating individuals into functions of one another, as when Vronsky and Karenin catch sight of each other in the mansion’s double doors. There passion gives way to domestic pretence—there’s a ruthlessly funny shot of Karenin neatly plucking a Victorian condom from a silver case on his desk before retiring to bed with his wife. Karenin, played superbly by Law, swings between poles of powerful emotion, from self-pity to vengeful fury to chastised forgiveness, but finally settling into a default mode of acquiescence to socially demanded wrong-doing. His sister Lydia (Emily Watson) talks him into banning Anna from coming to visit their son on his birthday, an injunction Anna ignores; Karenin guiltily watches from the sidelines, looking as if Anna’s angry glare burns a hole right through his self-respect. The film’s major set-piece and pivotal sequence, which sees the private become public and truths forcibly acknowledged, is a horse race in which Karenin observes Anna with chilly suspicion; Anna, in turn, spies on him in with a purse mirror, and drama unfolds on “stage” as Vronsky tries to win the race.
The audiovisual impact of this scene, with the horses thundering out of the darkness from off stage, is tremendous, and so, too, is the vividness of the shattering of the fourth wall as Vronsky’s mount falls and he crashes with it into the “audience,” wrenching Anna into an unfettered moment of hysterical concern that, like Barry Lyndon’s eruption of anger in Stanley Kubrick’s great film, leaves her fatefully exposed to forces that are inimical to individual definitions of happiness. The physical beauty Wright and DP Seamus McGarvey bestow on this film, and the gaudy, highly unreal spectacle in its most florid passages, is ravishing, even hypnotic in its lushness. The major objet d’art is Knightley herself, who perhaps represents the most lustrously fetishized screen presence since Marlene Dietrich, a possibly deliberate evocation. The costuming, providing eye candy par excellence, is also intricately employed as another dramatic device. Vronsky’s chill blue uniforms cut through the earthier tones surrounding him with the keenness of a straight razor. Anna’s veils, at first flatteringly thin, become thicker as she seeks to hide her face from the world, and yet they resemble cracks in a broken mirror, declaring the turmoil behind the perfect face they obscure. A deeper template revealed as the film continues is the ironic romanticism and orchestrated sedition of Luchino Visconti, especially Senso (1953), where every frame is drenched with physical lustre and yet eaten away at by the alternation of powerful, often ugly, but always authentic emotions that rupture that always-present fourth wall of social expectation. And hanging over the production as a whole is the spirit of Ken Russell, the doyen of radical Brit directors, an influence particularly apparent at a soiree where Anna and Vronsky’s affair is finally, properly sparked amidst the dazzle of fireworks and Kabuki-like posturing. I draw attention to these influences not to brand Wright as a filcher but in noting the depth of awareness of cinematic models evident here.
Wright constantly offers a tension between the immobilising spectacle and frantic movement redolent of hysterical energy, and, like the movie, Anna is defined by her constant, extremely neurotic movement; her triumphant moment is, paradoxically, the one where she’s practically paralysed by fever, a crisis that sees her able to achieve an almost saintlike scene of mutual forgiveness and rapprochement between herself and her two men, conquering Karenin’s righteous fury. There’s a touch of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in Knightley and Law’s early scenes together as she charms her pasty overlord with her still-girlish mannerisms, mannerisms that fade and give way to leonine ferocity as she enters her affair. The filmmakers and Knightley allow constant glimpses of Anna’s vanity, mental instability, and faintly sado-masochistic impulses, side by side with her admirable qualities, making her a different order of character to the usual run of blankly admirable females bound to be tortured in such period fare, several of which Knightley has played before. Knightley, more restrained than in her full-blown neurotic mode in A Dangerous Method (2011), maps out Anna’s journey as one of compulsions, until she’s finally beset by a cringing disgust and reactive grief in the face of social disgrace and the probability of being exiled from both her home with Karenin and the temporary bliss she has with Vronsky.
The wonder of this Anna Karenina is the precision with which it captures and depicts the inner turmoil of Tolstoy’s characters, and the skill with which it finally removes, rather than adds, elements until, finally, emotional immediacy inverts the focus and the artifice retreats into the background. The film’s most striking moments are those where effect and matter are entwined, like the horse race, and when Karenin, tearing up a letter from his wife, hurls the pieces in the air, and they fall upon him and transform into snow, and his beset solitude in the midst of a fake city is rendered inescapably beautiful and sad. Karenin’s pathos is especially sharp, Law questioning “What did I do to deserve this?” as he sits before the darkened “theatre,” perfectly visualising his punch-drunk bewilderment and the gruesome sensation of being at once hollowed out by emotional shock and left exposed. Anna’s social crucifixion, an outing to the theatre that sees her confronted by her own most lethal anxieties, including watching Vronsky converse with Princess Sorokina (Cara Delevingne), the “child” his mother is trying to foist on him, and being loudly denounced by a society dame (Shirley Henderson) after her leering husband loans Anna a programme, results in Anna’s speedy spiral into a psychic collapse. This is momentarily assuaged, ironically, by Dolly, who cheerfully states to Anna she wishes she had the guts to follow in her footsteps.
By this time, the stage surroundings have faded to a near-general realism. But Anna’s fracturing psyche and perception of herself and others, communicated by images fragmenting in mirrors and the sight of Anna stripped down to her support garments, reveal Anna’s very person is the stage, stripped back to the frame to reveal the ludicrous assemblage required to sustain the illusion of polite femininity. Anna’s suicide, a breathtaking sequence, takes place backstage, where onlookers are locked in friezes, reduced to props in Anna’s aching loneliness and despair, rescued by the prospect of a pummelling juggernaut, a force that both saves her from and mimics the forces that have already run over her, and a bliss of extinction. Wright nods again to Lean’s Brief Encounter, zooming in to the exultant fear on Knightley’s face as the lights of the train carriages whip across her visage; unlike Celia Johnson, she takes the plunge. The final images of the film, with Karenin seated in a verdant field as his son with Anna and her daughter with Vronsky play together whilst Karenin himself seems to have found peace in paternal solitude watching over the children, resolves with a sense of natural grace and maturity. The stalks of grass invade the “theatre,” presaging the breakdown of the order depicted in the film. Anna Karenina is an orgy of cinema, undoubtedly likely to be too rich for the blood of some, and yet it offers an experience far too rare in this year’s cinematic output—a film both boldly conceived and successfully realised on many levels.
There’s a distinctive and interesting strand emerging in independent cinema of films using motifs borrowed from genre storytelling and scifi, in particular, to produce fablelike explorations of human nature, morality, and the slippery nature of mortal perception. Some examples of this strand include Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter (2011), Benedek Fliegauf’s Womb (2010), and Gareth Edwards’ Monsters (2010). Whilst some slide too easily into obvious parable and pretentious discursion, others succeed in redefining both strands of creative endeavour, wielding both the low-key authenticity associated with low-budget and independent cinema and the wide-sweeping, metaphorical power of ideas that sprout best in nonrealistic contexts. Sound of My Voice follows hard on the heels of one of the best movies so far to emerge from this trend, 2011’s moody Another Earth. These films represent not only a genuine auteurist calling card for their respective directors, but also for Brit Marling, who, on both films, penned the screenplay with the director and played a pivotal onscreen role. Another Earth sustained its bold-type thematic conceits with a counterbalancing poeticism and an oddly unwavering conviction in its own absurdity; in spite of the different director-collaborators, this quality is transferred intact to Sound of My Voice, which represents an effective leap forward. Another Earth essentially appended a well-handled, but familiar emotional melodrama onto its metaphoric framework, whereas Sound of My Voice is more an intricately woven study in character and quandary meeting in a zone of ambiguous reality. Sound of My Voice could be described as a nonviolent, abstracted remake of The Terminator (1984) in the way it evokes a similar landscape of fear of the future counterbalanced by an eddying uncertainty in the present. It also bears certain conceptual similarities to this year’s Looper, to which it could actually be the superior work.
The curt, mystifying opening sees two young people, Peter Aitken (Christopher Denham) and Lorna Michaelson (Nicole Vicius), arriving at a suburban house in Los Angeles where they follow written instructions to leave their car, strip off their clothes, wash, and change into hospital gowns. They are then blindfolded and bundled into a van by ponytailed Klaus (Richard Wharton) and other helpmates in a mysterious cabal and taken to another, seemingly ordinary house. Upon arrival, each person goes through a strange and complex ritual handshake that’s been taught to them in the preparatory stages of this journey and introduced to Maggie (Marling), glimpsed emerging from a private room filled with the sounds of medical equipment. Maggie is a luminously attractive, youthful, and compelling presence who recounts her tale: she once awoke immersed in a filled hotel bathtub with no memory of who she was or where she came from. As she wandered LA’s low-rent districts, she was beset by illnesses, realised that she had no immunity, and became something of an urban legend. Klaus heard about her, tracked her down, took her in, and has built a peculiar kind of cult around her. Maggie states that thanks to her slowly returning memories and the cryptic tattoos on her body, she has realized that she is a time traveller from 30 years in the future sent back to illuminate a chosen few about the horrors and dangers that await and to train them mentally and physically to survive those dangers with positive meaning intact.
Peter and Lorna, however, are not true believers looking for a New Age guru, or at least, not in the usual fashion: they’re actually independent documentary filmmakers who were engaged in making a movie about cults when they heard about Maggie, and have jumped through many hoops to get close to this enigmatic figure. Both Peter and Lorna have their own baggage that makes them vulnerable to reacting unhealthily to this situation. Lorna, a recovering wild child and daughter of Hollywood royalty, has forcibly recalibrated her reality and approaches life with a measured scepticism, whilst Peter is the seemingly mild but emotionally damaged child of a woman who herself was taken in by a cult and died from a curable disease because she followed the cult’s credo in refusing treatments: Peter awoke “12 years old and without a mother.” Peter works as a teacher in his day job, and like Harry Houdini’s war on spiritualists, his and Lorna’s adventures into the weird and wondrous world of cults feels like a campaign of debunking rooted in a quiescent desire to find the real thing. Maggie’s story has the beauty, in a touch that feels a little like a spoof on Michael Biehn’s character in The Terminator, of neither providing nor requiring proof beyond her own persuasive explanations. The elaborate precautions the cult has devised to make the initiates strip away all of their belongings and clothing are intended, nominally, to keep bacteria out of Maggie’s environment, but also make it conveniently near-impossible for Peter and Lorna to track down her location and obtain footage of her. To get around this, Peter eventually swallows a receiver linked to a miniature camera hidden in his glasses. But this stunt presages an intense encounter with Maggie in which fear of being found out manifests on several levels.
Batmanglij’s visuals, editing, and audio are as precisely fashioned as cut glass throughout much of Sound of My Voice, expostulating with nerveless detail the process of Peter and Lorna’s journey into Maggie’s strange, hermetic world, a world carefully contrived to cut off normal recourses and alternate perceptions. Here, Maggie is queen, and via Marling’s cunningly pitched performance, she generates switchback-inducing emotions, shifting from beatific, therapeutic wholesomeness to insinuating slyness and disturbing provocation. In the film’s most rivetingly composed and keenly acted sequence, Maggie begins a session with her followers in which she gives them each an apple to eat, but tweaks the apple’s association with the tree of knowledge from which sin was plucked and turns it into a symbol of mind- and soul-clogging modernity. She demands that everyone vomit up what they’ve just eaten, and, of course, Peter, carrying the receiver in his stomach, attempts to demur. Maggie begins, with alternations of aggressive psychological assault and wheedling empathy, to probe Peter’s anxiety, quickly grasping on the powerful loss and anger beneath his inoffensive surface that seems easily provoked. She deduces not only his tragic background, but also seems to uncover abuse and alienation that followed. Peter begins to weep and finally gives in to the urge to vomit. He fingers through his puke to recover the receiver before anyone sees it whilst he receives a group hug from the cult. Peter later denies to Lorna that what he admitted for Maggie’s sake was true, whilst the audience has been privileged, thanks to voiceover-laden flashbacks, with the knowledge that at least some of Maggie’s deductions were accurate. Just how many is, however, impossible to judge.
Either way, Maggie is revealed as someone with both a powerfully manipulative sense of psychology that can be wielded with malicious force, but who is often healing and solicitous towards her flock. She can also be a pseudo-guru with a way of working with people that is alternately engaging and unpleasant: some of her drill techniques—group hugs, liberating dancing—are almost cornball New Age therapies. Others—self-induced vomiting and worm-eating—are more outlandish pseudotherapies, reminiscent of the kinds of exercises described by Andre Gregory in My Dinner With Andre (1982), for shocking the self out of the comfortable stasis of contemporary, urban life. More mysterious are some of the rituals of the cult, like donating blood, perhaps related to the filtering machine to which Maggie is connected, and her own first performance, striding in veiled like an ancient Vestal priestess and carting along an oxygen cylinder between aisles of her prone adherents. When she’s asked to sing a song from the future, she eventually gives in and warbles a ballad in a wispy fashion, only to have one of the flock, Lam (Alvin Lam), to state that he recognises it as a song by The Cranberries. After explaining that it was repopularised in her time by another artist, Maggie wisely (or cunningly) dodges requests to cite upcoming events by pointing out to her followers their own fuzzy memories of events 30 or 40 years in the past. She finally has Lam thrown out of the house by the brawny men who serve as her unofficial bodyguards, whilst Lam’s partner, Christine (Constance Wu), elects to remain behind. Maggie seems fatally unmasked, and yet as Lorna asks, why if you were a fake time traveller would you make such an obvious misstep? Maggie brings prophecies of war, shortages, and breakdown, but also promises of something close to an idyllic life in resettled communities in the countryside.
As Sound of My Voice plays out, it becomes clear that something special, if not exactly harmonious or healthy, is arcing between Maggie and Peter, with powerful underlying motives adding to physical attraction, whilst Lorna is engaged by one of the older cult members, Joanne (Kandice Stroh), who leads her up into the woods and teaches her how to shoot. Is Maggie really creating a kind of private army with the cult, or are such expressions simply a side channel for the liberating, destructive impulses of the people she’s attracted? Cults, the forces that attract people to them, and the mystique of the kind of person who can command them, seem newly of interest for independent filmmakers, as noted by last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene and this year’s The Master. Perhaps some of this interest can be attributed to the troubling power of charisma and the appeal of facetious messages that can be tweaked with political overtones. But it also seems based in a highly contemporary interest in alternate modes of living. Implicit in both Martha Marcy May Marlene and Sound of My Voice is a contemplation of the familiar problems and paranoias of such subcultures, but also disgust with a mass culture in which the many promises of capitalism and democracy have been seen to be failing and incompatible.
Denham’s excellent lead performance helps put across Peter’s schismatic nature: whilst he wears the familiarly affable apparel and affectations of a slightly nerdy member of the modern creative class, he carefully reveals the hard, almost inquisitorial sense of purpose that drives him. His motivation for making the documentary, as well as answering some obvious psychological needs, is actually predicated on a similar hate for the workaday and the banal that must have driven his mother into the arms of an alternate reality. The contradictory, but widespread feeling that modernity is a form of slow poison even as it extends, prolongs, and eases the burdens of life, is one that Peter’s mother embraced as a life truth and accepted the consequences. It’s also explicated and exploited by Maggie, as she encourages her flock to purge themselves of baggage and their attachment to transitory things as a way of preparing themselves for surviving upheaval. The assumption that Peter and Lorna make in moving into her circle that Maggie is a phony and a con artist running an egocentric empire, and worse, that she might be inculcating them for criminal acts, is constantly mooted. This assumption seems borne out when a woman, Carol Briggs (Davenia McFadden) approaches Lorna with evidence revealing that Maggie is actually a woman named Shelley Whittle who is wanted for armed robbery, and her elaborate precautions are a way of staying hidden whilst still running her scam.
Sound of My Voice tries to get at something more interesting and original, however, than reinforcing truisms about big demagogues in small ponds, for the tale is powered by the notion that even a person who is troubling, perhaps even dangerous, may have gifts and messages worth listening to, and that the wilful sceptic might, in fact, find a longed-for catharsis in such an enigmatic creature. Peter’s desire to exorcise his past is entwined with a desperate need to penetrate and strip away the layers of the mysteries with which he’s presented, cursed with an everlasting need to understand forces so powerful they can convince an apparently rational person to act in an apparently irrational way. As he gets closer to Maggie, her appeal precisely as someone who proclaims a counterintuitive weltanschauung offers precisely this contradictory appeal of the irrational within a seemingly cohesive framework, and Peter’s need for purgation begins to overwhelm his own judgement. Key to the unfolding folie à deux of Peter and Maggie is the suggestion that Peter seems more important to Maggie’s plans than other members of the cult, and for a disturbing reason. Maggie wants Peter to bring her one of his students, Abigail Pritchett (Avery Kristen Pohl), a young girl marked out by strange interludes of narcolepsy and aggressive altercations with other students, and who, at home, is watched over by a mysteriously solicitous father or guardian who treats her maladies, whilst Abigail constructs elaborate patterns with Lego-like blocks that testify to a peculiar brilliance. When Peter asks what she could possibly want with the girl, Maggie answers squarely that Abigail is her mother.
The fascinating central study in dichotomous desires to both embrace and defeat the irrational is counterbalanced by an even headier, but also more familiar, contemporary conceit, as Batmanglij and Marling toy with problems of perception and reality, teasing the audience right to the end with the question as to whether Maggie’s story is true. To a certain extent, it doesn’t matter, as Maggie’s capacities are depicted in sufficient detail to make her a striking and an alarming figure, a benefactor and a destroyer, a visionary and a mind-rapist. I expect this is where the weight of the drama is supposed to lie. The more overt gamesmanship of the “choose your own adventure” narrative ambiguity is comparatively teasing and conventional, even as it clearly lays claim to the current vogue of offering questions without answers. Marling follows on from Another Earth, which concluded with a kind of moral-psychological cliffhanger, as the accursed heroine was confronted by her doppelganger and the audience was left to ponder exactly what this signified, whilst here the filmmakers seem to have demystified Maggie until a literally last-minute twist throws everything for a loop. The climactic moment, in which Peter actually manages to bring Abigail to Maggie, sees the strange and preternaturally gifted girl who doesn’t seem to know Maggie at all nonetheless reproduce perfectly the elaborate cult handshake, which Maggie claims Abigail taught her, moments before police burst in and drag the erstwhile futuristic envoy away.
The challenge to the audience—to interpret according to their presuppositions—is almost smug in its apparently clear dichotomy. Yet it’s leavened by a complicating ambiguity, as there are suggestions that the choice before the viewer is not a simple schism between faith and rationality, the wish to believe in Maggie and the need to dismiss her, as other dimensions are hinted at. Why does Carol, when she is first glimpsed, go through elaborate exercises to make sure her hotel room is not bugged, and why is the photo she later presents to Lorna as proof of Maggie’s actual identity smuggled to her through such a strange method? Why does Abigail write “terrorist” on a schoolmate’s backpack? What is the correlation between Abigail’s illness and Maggie’s? Either way, Maggie’s words to Peter—that he is the real centre of the mystery—reverberate with new clarity as he gazes into the white light into which Maggie has disappeared (taken off to prison or perhaps spirited back to the future) with his own perspective blown to pieces. His hunt for catharsis, far from having been simply answered, proves rather to have been made exponentially more complicated. The possibility that another drama entirely different from the two that Peter and Lorna are presented with, is thus also mooted. In any event, Sound of My Voice explores the need for, and the impossibility of, complete certainty, but it’s also ultimately about the very feeling of unease and longing such a lack generates. The varieties of anxiety, paranoia, and perceptual limitation explored throughout the film are left free-floating, described as a quality of life rather than the product of a specifically causal entity. This quality thrusts the work as a whole high above the usual meta-narrative games.
Batmanglij, who directs with cool restraint throughout, makes effective use of restrained, minatory stylistic flourishes, as in the flashbacks that fill us in on Peter and Lorna’s history, shown in grainy, haunted VHS footage in which a young, shirtless Peter rides a bike and bounds off into a darkness that seems almost existential and Lorna attends a party where naked men do push-ups, an amusing fillip of high-life decadence. Particular good is the visualisation of Maggie’s account of her history, her awakening as a stranded and stripped amnesiac and her wanderings in LA’s blasted zones, evocative fragments of desolate existence recalling John Sayles’ The Brother from Another Planet (1984) as an exiled martyr amidst seamy humanity, whilst Klaus searches for her, an efficiently composed sequence that could almost have been another, perhaps even better film. Where Sound of My Voice treads water more critically is in the half-hearted depiction of Peter and Lorna’s relationship and their fraying accord, narrative function giving way to standard-issue indie-flick break-up, and the film never really works out what do with Lorna. The rarefied flavour of the film as a whole certainly isn’t for everybody, but if one values films that can achieve a lot with very little, then Sound of My Voice, in spite of its flaws, is a small gem.
I don’t write pans very often. My main mission as a film critic is to shed light on efforts I believe are worth people’s time and money to see. I don’t like to be unkind to the people who may have worked hard to get a film made and distributed and believe in what they have done, even if I think they missed the mark. But more than anything, bad movies do not inspire me. Writing isn’t easy when you can’t warm to your subject.
Nonetheless, sometimes I find it instructive to deconstruct a bad film so that we can all understand better how a production studio can take a truly singular event and regurgitate it as a hollow, craven bid for box office by reducing it to the lowest common denominator.
I’m going to do something a little different with this review, and I beg your indulgence. I’m going to quote a rather long passage written by ee cummings that brilliantly critiques a very famous publication that, despite the decline of print, is still a world favorite. The publication’s name is never revealed, but I’m sure you can figure it out. I believe that the formula outlined in this part of one of cummings’ “Non-Lectures” (original punctuation preserved) can be applied very usefully by the discerning moviegoer:
”Now listen” the subsubeditor suggested “if you’re thinking of working with us, you’d better know The Three Rules.” “And what” my friend cheerfully inquired “are The Three Rules?” “The Three Rules” explained his mentor “are: first, eight to eighty; second, anybody can do it; and third, makes you feel better.” “I don’t quite understand” my friend confessed. “Perfectly simple” his interlocutor assured him. “Our first Rule means that every article we publish must appeal to anybody, man woman or child, between the ages of eight and eighty years—is that clear?” My friend said it was indeed clear. “Second” his enlightener continued “every article we publish must convince any reader of the article that he or she could do whatever was done by the person about whom the article was written. Suppose (for instance) you were writing about Lindbergh, who had just flown the Atlantic ocean for the first time in history, with nothing but unlimited nerve and a couple of chicken (or ham was it?) sandwiches—do you follow me?” “I’m ahead of you” my friend murmured. “Remembering Rule number two” the subsub went on “you’d impress upon your readers’ minds, over and over again, the fact that (after all) there wouldn’t have been anything extraordinary about Lindbergh if he hadn’t been just a human being like every single one of them. See?” “I see” said my friend grimly.
“Third” the subsub intoned “we’ll imagine you’re describing a record-breaking Chinese flood—millions of poor unfortunate men and women and little children and helpless babies drowning and drowned; millions more perishing of slow starvation: suffering inconceivable, untold agonies, and so forth—well, any reader of this article must feel definitely and distinctly better, when she or he finishes the article, than when he or she began it.” “Sounds a trifle difficult” my friend hazarded. “Don’t be silly,” the oracle admonished. “All you’ve got to do, when you’re through with your horrors, is to close by saying: but (thanks to an all-merciful Providence) we Americans, with our high standard of living and our Christian ideals, will never be subjected to such inhuman conditions; as long as the Stars and Stripes triumphantly float over one nation indivisible, with liberty and just for all—get it?”
In fact, The Impossible tells just such a story of death and devastation and succeeds in adhering to The Three Rules with impeccable fidelity. The film is based on the true story of a Spanish family of five vacationing at a luxury beach resort in Thailand who were caught in the 2004 tsunami that killed 273,000 people across Southeast Asia. The recreation of the tsunami in the very resort where the family stayed provides an adrenaline rush for everyone from the eight year old fed on superhero movies to the 80 year old who is addicted to The Weather Channel’s killer storm programming. Rule number one: check.
The family, to a person, somehow managed to survive, and their appearance on the red carpet with Naomi Watts and the rest of the cast at the film’s London premiere fulfills rule number two: anybody can do it. If you or I had been swept up in a tsunami, we surely would have been able to survive, too, and get the 15 minutes of fame Andy Warhol and our certain publication promised we’d all get sooner or later. In fact, we’re entitled to be on a red carpet!
The final rule is fulfilled in the choice the producers made to recast the family as the Anglo Bennetts: Henry (Ewan McGregor), his nonpracticing doctor wife Maria (Naomi Watts), and their three sons, Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin), and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast). I have no idea if the Bennetts are American, British, Australian, or some mix-and-match combination, and that seems intentional. The dialogue is specifically vague about where “home” is for this family who travel to whatever country Henry’s employer sends him. This choice thus offers the largest target audience for the film assurances that the white, English-speaking race survives because it deserves to. The fact that the tsunami occurred the day after Christmas, allowing the film to show the Bennetts celebrating the holiday, further fulfills the tenets of rule number three.
Once all the rules are snapped into place, the film can afford to embellish the drama with a few cheap moments of tepid emotion. We get the grief-stricken father, fearing his wife and oldest son are dead, staring at the red (of course) ball his youngest son got for Christmas being kicked around by the Thai heathens. We get to watch the badly injured mom being dragged along the ground by an old man who is mumbling in Thai—can’t he see he’s hurting her? But then Mom gets the royal treatment by the natives, who pack her carefully onto a truck that passes by other victims by the roadside and takes her to a hospital where it seems most of the patients are non-Thai. All I could think is that these Thais were resort employees and the hospital reserved for foreigners. The natives who wouldn’t be able to fly away to better care, intact homes, and plentiful clean water and food get one very brief moment of remembrance, as Henry, ridiculously searching for Maria and Lucas at night with a flashlight, briefly illuminates some photos of a Thai family strewn in the mud.
The film is loaded with laughable clichés and false drama. Eventually, the Bennetts all end up at the hospital, but miss running into each other over and over again. Maria is removed from her bed while Lucas goes off to help mainly white people look for their relatives; no one seems to know that she was taken to surgery, so Lucas gets to furrow his brow in the orphan tank until the film tries to wring a fake grief out of us with a nurse bringing Maria’s personal effects to Lucas to identify. The resort idyll, the happy moments of opening Christmas presents in paradise and playing in the pool, are floated to contrast the slowly dawning awareness signaled by the sound of thundering surf that disaster is about to strike—it quite reminded me of the last happy moments of the family about to be ripped asunder in the melodrama A Fool There Was, circa 1915!
It almost goes without saying that none of the people in this film emerges as a real human being. McGregor is given a moment to break down on the cellphone generously offered by another displaced white person who has lost his family, and milks it for all it’s worth. Watts tries on the unattractive appearance look that won her friend and compatriot Nicole Kidman an Oscar for The Hours, but sadly, in my mind, I kept thinking she was Kidman. Tom Holland gives the most full-bodied performance in the film, and I commend him for trying to be real in such a calculated scenario. He seemed personally embarrassed that Watts had a couple of boob shots thrown in because, well, people’s clothes get torn in tsunamis, and so, well, we can show a little skin and feel righteous about it. This is film paint-by-numbers at its cynical worst, sinking any chance to help people understand and empathize with human misery on a grand scale. After Superstorm Sandy, Americans especially would have been better served by a real look at disaster to help them cope.
The end of the cummings Non-Lecture gets the last word:
“I get you” said my disillusioned friend. “Good bye.”
Reggae is in my blood. Around 1980, when I was only a couple of years out of college and on my own in Chicago, I started visiting a new club called the Wild Hare & Singing Armadillo Frog Sanctuary that featured live reggae music seven nights a week. Lodged a block from Wrigley Field among traditionalist neighbors who fought the installation of lights at Wrigley for night baseball until just a few years ago, the club’s marijuana perfume and rhythmic music filled with revolutionary messages and prayers from musicians who worshipped Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I as the reincarnation of Jesus Christ were an endless source of irritation.
For a person like me whose early enthusiasm for the blues, jazz, and bossa nova turned into a passion for world music like reggae before it became a market niche, the Wild Hare let me escape the great white stiffs of the Great White North as the only club where I could reliably count on a man—always Jamaican or Ethiopian—to ask me to dance. As I worked up a sweat on the concrete floor that always turned my legs to rubber bands, I could only glance with condescension at the uptight white boys who did nothing but sit at the bar drinking Guinness at one of the few places in the city that served it while I chanted uncomprehendingly (and probably offensively) “Jah Rastafari” along with the band.
Along with local and small touring bands, a lot of big reggae stars played at the Ethiopian-owned club, including Jimmy Cliff, Dallol, and Shabba Ranks. The biggest star of them all, Bob Marley, was already too big a draw by the time the Wild Hare opened to play there. He made his one small-club appearance in Chicago at another of my hangouts, The Quiet Knight, back in 1975, but alas, I had not caught rasta fever in time to see him. In fact, until yesterday, I had no idea he had played there; a mention of the appearance is only one of numerous eye-opening facts I learned while watching Marley.
From its conception in 2008, Marley was meant to be the definitive documentary about the life of the Jamaican superstar. Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme, both superb craftsmen of music documentaries, picked up and then dropped the project. It fell to Kevin Macdonald, an impressive documentarian in his own right with a spotless film pedigree as the grandson of Emeric Pressburger, to meld archival footage with talking heads to tell the cradle-to-grave story of Bob Marley. Ziggy Marley, the oldest son of Bob and his wife Rita, acted as an executive producer of the film and provided photographs and footage that had never been exhibited publicly to help flesh out many facets of his father’s life.
One important facet of Bob Marley’s life was that he was so-called “half-caste,” with a white English-Jamaican father and a black Jamaican mother. The film shows the only known photo of Norval Marley, a handsome plantation overseer who was “the” Marley of Jamaica until his charismatic son took over that title. Norval had almost no contact with Bob and his mother, traveling constantly and fathering other children with other women, a practice Bob would pick up along with his father’s good looks. Bob would also deal with the prejudice against half-castes by saying his allegiance belonged to the god who chose to make him half-black and half-white; his shaky status and his life with his black mother most likely turned him toward his African heritage and his pride that Africa is the place where the human race began.
Marley has footage of Haile Selassie’s visit to Jamaica in 1966, a rather funny portion of the film in which we learn that Selassie emerged from the airplane in Kingston, saw the massive crowd on the tarmac, and turned right around and went back in. Selassie’s visit, however, marked a turning point for Marley in becoming a Rastafarian and growing his trademark dreadlocks. Scenes of Marley smoking marijuana in spliffs and pipes, lost in a haze of smoke, follow. Marley’s wife admits that Bob was almost perpetually stoned, though whether you view this as the religious devotion Rastafarians say it is or a consequence of being a poor musician, or both, is up to you.
Regardless of your views, there is something to the assertion in the film that pot smokers are laid back and peaceful, something Marley and his band The Wailers always preached and lived. It is rather amazing to see footage of two violently opposed political groups in Jamaica come together briefly during Marley’s 1978 One Love tour and Prime Minister Michael Manley of the People’s National Party (PNP) join his rival from the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP), Edward Seaga, onstage at Marley’s urging. This gesture is even more extraordinary considering that extremists tried to kill Marley and The Wailers at his Hope Road compound only two years before when a planned free concert by Marley was coopted for political capital by the PNP, angering JLP supporters.
Interviews with family members and intimates are sprinkled unobtrusively throughout the film, which mainly concentrates on Marley and the music. Incredibly, Macdonald talks with Mrs. James, Bob’s grade school teacher when he lived in his rural hometown of St. Ann, who remembers his musicality. After Bob and his mother moved to a Kingston slum called Trench Town, Bob met aspiring musician Desmond Dekker. Jimmy Cliff recalls auditioning and recording Dekker, and then being approached by Marley. He immediately noted Bob’s use of lyrics to convey a message, recalling Marley’s first recording “Judge Not” as an assertion of his human rights; Macdonald shows a young boy looking stern and punching the air as the song plays in the background.
Thus, the interviews become voiceovers with scenes that illustrate what the speakers are discussing, for example, a tall Rastafarian walking along a street in Trench Town with his enormous dreadlocks piled high under a knit hat and Marley’s song “Knotty Dread” playing under the voiceover. A result of this “reenactment” is that we get a sense of Bob Marley’s life as it was lived, a visual representation of his inspiration, and lively and colorful images that invite audiences to participate rather than nod off to a wall of words. Amusing and interesting capsule facts are scrawled on the screen as well, such as that there is no record that “Captain” Norval Marley ever rose above the rank of private.
Each step in Marley’s rise to superstardom is given attention, with remembrances from such figures in his life as childhood friend and original band member Neville “Bunny” Livingston; Chris Blackwell, who signed the Wailers to Island Records; and manager Danny Simms. Simms recalls how ambitious Marley was, agreeing to open for The Commodores in Madison Square Garden less than a year before his death so that American radio stations would play his records. Marley may have thought that the concert and radio plays would find him an audience among African Americans, which seemed as indifferent to Marley as white audiences were enraptured by him. The film is chock-full of concert footage and music, charting his career in a way any fan will absolutely adore.
Marley’s personal life adds to the film’s well-rounded portrait of the artist. Cindy Breakspeare, Miss World 1976 and Marley’s most famous lover, figures prominently in the film; when asked why Marley attracted so many women, she says incredulously, “Look at him!” Rita Marley seems to have had a laissez-faire attitude to Bob’s lovers and their children (she took lovers of her own), and thought that the key to his romantic success was that he was shy, recalling their own courtship. Cedella Marley, Rita and Bob’s daughter, is not so forgiving of the free love that pervaded her parents’ life, asserting that her mother was made unhappy by Bob’s philandering. In truth, Cedella seems the most unhappy with her father, complaining throughout the film of his lack of attention and even a lack of time alone with him in the days before his death.
Most informative and touching for me was an account of Marley’s final illness. I had always heard he had brain cancer, the joke going around that the ganga got him. In fact, in 1977, he was spiked in the toe while playing soccer, and when he went to have it looked at, the doctors diagnosed him with melanoma in the nail bed. Marley refused advice to have the toe amputated, worrying that he would not be able to dance or play soccer. In 1980, after a run in Central Park, Marley collapsed. When he was taken to the hospital, he was found to be riddled with cancer. Without real hope for recovery, he played his last concert in Pittsburgh, lost his dreadlocks to chemotherapy, and vainly sought relief at a holistic clinic in Germany. The film concludes by showing his burial site in St. Ann and surveying Marley’s lasting influence on world culture.
There is a lot of information out there about Bob Marley, much of it false or half-true. Marley is a treasure to fans and future generations who want as accurate and big a picture as may be possible on film of a man who freed a lot of people with his music.
Live concert audio from The Quiet Knight in Chicago, 1975
In spite of his decline in stature, Oliver Stone is one of few living American filmmakers who maintains the mystique of a certain kind of artist, one that can stir intense feelings of both admiration and opprobrium. Stone’s status is thanks to his unabashed political viewpoints, his willingness to play the provocateur, and his style of filmmaking. As difficult as it is to take Stone seriously in some of the attitudes he’s adopted or had heaped upon him—mainstream film intellectual, leftist historian, or grand visionary—the man does demand admiration is his engagement with cinema not simply as a means of storytelling, but also of expressivity in its many layers, from the theoretical to the tactile. His greatest works tend to have a quality of incantatory hallucination, reprocessing whatever material he’s working with, be it popular history, conspiracy theory, or biopic, into a neon-emblazoned, pseudo-mythological tapestry. But Stone’s always had one foot planted in pulp storytelling, going back to his early directing and screenwriting work, including his first two films as director, Seizure (1974) and The Hand (1981), both horror movies. Stone’s career in the last decade or so has been floundering, with the deliriously bad Alexander (2004) and patent plays to recapture former glory with the half-assed Bush biopic W. (2008) and the half-witted revisit of Gordon Gekko, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010). Savages, which embraces Stone’s pulp side, is a neo-noir follow-up to his efforts in the genre, Natural Born Killers (1994) and U-Turn (1997), and seems, at least superficially, a triumph for his stylistic impulses over his analytical passions. Yet, whilst imperfect, the result is easily his best film since at least his panoramic 1999 football epic Any Given Sunday.
Savages, based on a novel by Don Winslow, who cowrote the script, is built around some hallowed motifs of the classic noir film. It presents a central character who has the recent experience of war and the attendant psychological hangover that finds a bleak accord with troubling forces on the home front. Stone makes this motif more personal, as he translates this classic noir figuration into the maxims of the southern Californian counterculture Stone experienced from his own plunge into early ’70s Hollywood after returning from Vietnam. Add a third layer of experience: Savages is very contemporary in its depiction of pacific idealism and ruthless survivalism in purified conflict, and throws moneyed, layabout Yankee insouciance against Mexican machismo in a drama layered with conceptual grit and no small amount of absurdist camp. His “heroes” form an oddball ménage à trois. Surfer girl O (Blake Lively), short for Ophelia, is pretty and pretty spoiled, but not actually vacuous, as a scion of Laguna Beach aristocracy. She’s shacked up with two men who have been pals since school and still are, in spite of their yin/yang disparity in temperament. Chon (Taylor Kitsch) a former soldier, is a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, whilst Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is a bohemian with a gift for botany, one the two lads have parlayed into a hugely successful marijuana growing and selling operation. They provide their nation with bountiful pleasures and make a small fortune in return, supporting their blissed-out lifestyle in a vaulted castle high above the beach. Like Shia LaBeouf’s character in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Ben is attempting to walk a tightrope between desire for the kind of high capitalist success firmly instilled in him as a young, intelligent American, and ideals-driven altruism dictated by his other ingrained faiths, and clearly represents Stone’s simultaneously hope and fear for the passions of modern youth.
At the film’s outset, Ben returns from a trip to oversee the various charities and life improvement projects he’s been funding in Africa and South-East Asia. Chon, on the other hand, has no real purpose in life other than trying to burn the experience of war out of his system with sex and weed; his reflexes, once prodded, snap him back instantly into a warrior posture. Their names evoke both Cheech and Chong, the iconic stoner humourists, and Ben and Jerry, famed hippie entrepreneurs. O is squeezed between them, sometimes literally, as beauty and emotion actualised both in a primal fashion—O is constantly associated with natural images and the carnal attractions of sex, getting high, and rolling on zephyrs of other, sometimes more numinous sensations—and a much more contemporary one, as the avatar of all pleasures that come from being rich and young. Of course, it is O who becomes the true battleground, as a fearsome Mexican drug cartel is determined to annex Ben and Chon’s operation. The brewing storm is announced when the lads receive an email video of a masked killer playing with severed heads, as prelude to a more superficially businesslike approach by envoys of drug baroness Elena Sanchez (Salma Hayek), making a proposal that soon proves to be, rather, an ultimatum. Although the boys turn it down, they’re smart enough to know that the cartel won’t really take no for an answer, so they order their wizard broker pal Spin (Emile Hirsch) to liquefy their assets, and plan to lay low in Indonesia.
But the trio spends rather too long in a last druggy orgy, and the following day, O is snatched whilst making a final “pilgrimage” to the local mall, with one of Chon’s army friends, asked to watch her, shot by Elena’s goons. Elena’s number-one thug and stateside operative is Lado (Benicio Del Toro), introduced assassinating an American lawyer, Chad (Shea Wigham), and encouraging his trainee Esteban (Diego Cataño) to finish off Chad’s girlfriend (Karishma Ahluwalia). Lado takes delight in his capacity to dole out violence, pausing to take piquant snaps on his cellphone of the carnage he’s caused. Lado supervises O’s kidnapping and housing in a rough tin shack in the middle of nowhere, where she’s quickly driven to despair by both the unpleasant surroundings and companions, and the constant diet of pizza (“Maybe a salad once in a while?!” she demands of her captors). Meanwhile Elena, ensconced in her mansion in Tijuana, applies specific pressure upon Ben and Chon to get them to cooperate, inducing them to ship a huge quantity of their product to her people, but, with seemingly incongruous honesty, paying them what they’re owed. Nonetheless, Chon insists that they have to regard the cartel as “Taliban,” fanatics impossible to deal with who will probably kill O once she’s no longer immediately useful. They turn to their friendly neighbourhood corrupt DEA agent, Dennis (John Travolta), to get information about their enemy. Dennis, who turns a blind eye to the boys’ operation in part because they give him weed to help ease his dying wife’s pain, resists helping them, at least until Chon drives a knife through his hand. Using the information Dennis hurriedly obtains, Chon forms a strategy: gathering together more of his army buddies, he raids one of Elena’s money shipments, hoping to shake her organisation and capture enough cash to buy O back.
Savages could have easily toppled over into smarmy, black-comic grotesquery or cloddishly nasty thriller fare, but Stone’s sense of style and his range of dramatic modes keep the film in a dance between definitive postures. Stone’s delight in semi-experimental visual flourishes, a hallmark of his major work but muted of late, returns with an artful restraint, as he creates a strange lysergic mood around O and her voiceover reveries, the sensual indulgence which forms the texture of her life with Ben and Chon. The sunstruck, corporeal tincture of Dan Mindel’s photography is replete with dreamy double exposures and switches between colour and monochrome that seem less forced than when Stone used such touches in earlier work; here, they feed his efforts to capture the feeling of stepping back and forth between places of sensual ecstasy and the flashy crudity of everyday life in a consumer paradise. This paradise is one into which Elena, Lado, and the rest of their crew erupt like an invasion, both a spreading of the blight of the Mexican drug wars right into the backyard of the privileged pups who get wasted on its products whilst barely noticing where it comes from, and a familiar emanation of existential terrors vital to the genre. But savagery breeds savagery, and the key irony here is Stone’s mindfulness that privilege and wealth are always, on some level, the product of violence and pillage and that the memory of how to gather and keep such advantage might be shallow beneath the seeming blitheness of its inheritors. Chon proves all too ready to go medieval in defending his and Ben’s lady fair from the barbarian hordes, and Ben must get in touch with his basest character, too, if he wants to help save O and prove his equal stake in her rescue.
Film-buff winks are spread throughout Savages, including O’s likening of the trio’s situation to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), and there are hints and hues of New Wave classics like Easy Rider (1969) and Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974). This referential streak is most apparent in Hayek’s supremely entertaining Elena, who wears a black dragon-queen hairstyle and plays the role handed to her almost by accident—she was a trophy wife who inherited the cartel from her husband and then had to grow into the role. The notion that Elena is both a genuinely cruel and powerful overlord and a self-constructed piece of theatre is underlined when, late in the film, she strips off her wig, revealing her real, netted hair, like one of Pedro Almodovar’s camp queens of chic. Moreover, whilst Elena is introduced applying ruthless, vindictive pressure upon Ben and Chon, seeming to relish her capacity to force them to exactly what they don’t want to do, Savages explains Elena’s own curious quandary. She has a daughter, Magda (Sandra Echeverría), whose safety she has protected by making it believed she is dead, when, in fact, she’s living exactly the same mall-rat lifestyle as O, and even grazes past her just before O is kidnapped. The parallel is obvious, as is Elena’s eventual concilatory moves toward O, who is a momentary stand-in for Magda at Elena’s usually very lonely, if luxurious, dinners. Everybody else is someone Elena has to snap, bite, and wound to keep them in line for the sake of her prosperity and safety. When Ben and Chon finally turn the tables on her by capturing Magda and demanding a straight swap for O, Stone makes it an alarming inversion of immediate sympathy and power: Elena visibly struggles between twin poles of desperate maternal deference and her more familiar stance of potentate aggression, and as O more confidently asserts herself in the face of this dilemma, Elena wallops her in the face with a brittle fury that’s partly, palpably justified.
Stone’s artifice-infused approach might seem at odds with the grim and vicious material with real-world ramifications. And yet it seems very much part of his purpose, to invert the usual moral standards and assumptions of this sort of fare, placing it a distance from pablum like Man on Fire (2004), where destroying sundry Latinos who dare to endanger the pretty white girl is easily facilitated. Given that Stone made his first real mark in the mainstream penning the racist paranoias of Midnight Express (1978), his journey to the point where he offers Yankee stoners and swarthy brutes as two sides of the same coin is notable, if not entirely reconstructed. In a crucial plot movement, Ben and Chon use Dennis’ information and Spin’s skill to construct a false trail that will incriminate Elena’s loyal lieutenant, Alex (Demián Bichir). In a more conventional thriller, this turn of events would lead to a dramatic coup where an enemy would be neatly disposed of by his own nasty fellows, but here Stone tightens the screws of moral implication, as Lado turns Alex’s torture and execution into another of his sadistic pieces of performance art. Lado makes it even nastier by getting Ben to set Alex on fire, a consequence to his and Chon’s deception that ensures they can’t neatly wash their hands of what they did. Lado suspects the lads are behind the robbery, but he himself is playing a game, having signed up with Elena’s arch rival El Azul (Joaquín Cosio), whose rise has made Elena desperate and forming the reason for her attempts at hostile takeovers of independents like Ben and Chon.
Whilst moral ambiguity is undoubtedly part of Stone’s aims, his capacity for sympathy, or at least for finding the absurd humanity in even the most disturbed and disturbing characters, is deeply enmeshed with the film’s actual purposes. Lado, with his calculated effronteries—from Alex’s execution to his revelation to O that he raped her when she was drugged—feels like a skit on the kind of hulking quasi-ethnic monster Javier Bardem played in No Country For Old Men (2007), the familiar merciless villain revealed, as the film goes on, as a hypocrite. He is uptight in his need to assert his machismo (he turns back the titular pejorative on our heroes for their perverted sex lives) whilst kowtowing to a woman, and finally revealing that he’s nowhere near as smart and effectively ruthless as he thinks he is. By the same token, where it would have been easy to make the lead characters dim bulbs, as in far too many blackly comic modern thrillers, Stone gives his heroes peculiar nobility. Where it would have been especially tempting to present O as a caricature, as the story’s narrator, she is something like its poetic mediator.
Stone desires, with appealing earnestness and a romanticism that has occasionally rescued his oeuvre from hyped-up macho excess, to leave his heroes with their fundamental passions undimmed. Perhaps one reason a lot of critics were irritated by the trio is because Stone so patently does not wish to punish them for their transgressive lifestyle, but only wishes them to break off entirely from a corrupting world, as opposed to the more familiar stance seen in such post-global financial crisis parables, like this year’s good Swedish thriller Headhunters, in which the hero is clearly conceived as an avatar for modern venality in need of a lot of punishment and cleansing before redemption. Much as he wants to indict Ben, Chon, and O for participating in the vile roundelay of this war of possession, Stone wants to preserve for as long as possible the ideal they represent and sustain in their ménage à trois, for the trio really do add up to one good person. Stone desists from studying any fault lines in the relationship: a last-minute confession by O that she knows one day their idyllic partnership will end is a mere parenthesis to a final drift into a wilfully “savage” state.
There are obvious parallels between Savages and another of the year’s strong films, Miss Bala, which depicts the drug war from a Mexican perspective. Each film revolves around some strikingly similar motifs, particularly in following an essentially innocent beauty at the mercy of rapacious criminals, and in spite of their great differences in style and emphasis, both end sarcastically with the powers that be parading a victory that is mendacious and the protagonists held in jail until it’s safely expedient to dump them. Wherea Miss Bala is elliptic, experiential, and grave, Savages has a kind of Rabelaisian fecundity. Miss Bala is a nightmarish present-tense; Savages is predicated on a vision of fundamental farcicality. If Savages maintained the intensity and clarity of its best scenes, it would be a small classic, but there are many points, particularly in an awkward third quarter, where it fumbles for focus. Maintaining a grip on narrative integrity has always been a problem for the director, and here Stone becomes a little too fond of Travolta’s excellent, funny, but properly supporting performance as the six-faced, corrupt, but not really malevolent, Dennis. On the other hand, Savages, with its overt playfulness of story and style, resists disintegrating entirely, as several of Stone’s recent works have done after good starts, and, in fact, manages to get back onto an even keel for an excellent finish, as the exchange of O and Magda sets the scene for a Peckinpah-esque orgy of killing. Stone goes for the sort of narrative switchback many a would-be cool, young director has pulled off in the past two decades in offering a false finish and then a “real” one.
Thus, in the first version, O offers a high tragedy ending that sees Magda reject her mother and flee, Elena and Lado killed, and, when Ben is mortally wounded, O and Chon decide to join him in death. And then we get “what really happened.” What’s different about Stone’s take on such a gimmick is not that it simply tries to pull the rug out from under the audience by jerking between emotional reactions, or, like many variations on this idea, essentially representing the director winking at the audience to let them know they’re actually above such recherché things as endings, but that it actually suggests that the first, downbeat ending is in fact the happy, romantic one. The sight of the threesome expiring together is indeed a kind of perfection, an apotheosis and proof of their mutual loyalty and their retained purity in the face of horror, that the “real” ending denies them, leaving them to face growing older and possibly apart. On the other hand, Elena gets to make a genuinely sacrifice for Magda, outing herself at least as the Joan Crawford character she’s hinted at, Lado speeds away with an impish wave to become a kingpin in his own right, and Dennis gets to make himself the hero. Given that Savages is finally less about drugs, crime, or geopolitics, than it is about strange versions of love, and about the fear of loss, of either the openness of youth or the consolations of aging, the “true” finale is about the vagaries, ironies, and unavoidable compromises of life.
Germany, 1906: Friedrich Wilhelm Voigt, a lifelong drifter and petty criminal, hatched a con to dress up as a military officer. In uniform, he was able to order soldiers in the street to aid him in taking control of a suburban city hall outside Berlin, arrest the mayor and other officials, and confiscate a large sum of money, before sneaking away and changing back into civilian garb. He was caught soon after, but “the Captain of Köpenick,” as he was dubbed, remains a folk hero in Germany, the subject of a much-loved book and films. His escapade was the sort that brings a wry smile to the lips of everyone except the sorts of pompous poltroons Voigt took advantage of, but his tale is also often regarded as signifying the depth of blind obedience to authority present in German society in that age, an obedience that would eventually have infinitely less amusing ramifications.
So what exactly should one make of the society in which Compliance takes place? Compliance is based on an incident that took place in Mount Washington, Kentucky in 2004, the last in a string of more than 70 prank phone calls that involved the same modus operandi. Craig Zobel’s film of the incident lightly fictionalises some details, like changing the fast food venue from McDonald’s to an imagined franchise, “ChickWich,” but otherwise follows the outlines of the case with scrupulous care that only makes the outrageousness of it all the more astounding. Compliance touches upon many a hot-button issue, but it is essentially a portrait of the ease with which people surrender to base instincts in the face of fear and opportunity. Compliance is about ordinary life turning into a hellish ordeal; it’s like a Wes Craven film without knife murders.
The film begins in the most humdrum circumstances imaginable. Middle-aged restaurant manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) contends with a supplier (Matt Servitto) after somebody left a freezer open overnight, ruining much of the restaurant’s vital ingredients. Workaday tensions percolate after Sandra’s altercation with the irritable supplier: news that a secret franchise inspector might be in the store later in the day puts her nerves on edge. Her employees are the usual roster of half-interested youths, including Becky (Dreama Walker), the goggle-eyed, pretty blonde with a number of boyfriends. The contrast between harried, anxious Sandra and blithe young Becky is underlined as Sandra awkwardly tries to chat up her long-time boyfriend, construction worker Van (Bill Camp), into finally proposing marriage. Becky shows off pictures of one of her hot beaus to Sandra’s deputy Marti (Ashlie Atkinson), and Sandra tries to be hip in wielding the phrase “sexting.” Early in the restaurant’s busy evening shift, Sandra receives a phone call from a man calling himself Officer Daniels: when he asks questions about a “young blonde” employee out front, Sandra immediately assumes he means Becky. Daniels explains that he has a witness on hand claiming that Becky stole money from her purse whilst being served. Sandra calls Becky back into her office and relays Daniels’ accusations before handing the phone over to the girl, who protests her innocence. Daniels aggressively browbeats Becky before asking Sandra to keep Becky at bay in her office. He then asks her and Marti to search Becky’s purse and pockets, and when nothing is found, to get her to strip down to confirm she’s not hiding the money in her clothes or on her body.
Becky’s subsequent degradation is slow and unrelenting, but Zobel and Walker try to avoid making her too much the human equivalent of a small, furry animal being abused. Her eye-rolling, self-involved, faintly impudent quality in contending with Sandra before the fateful call commences signals her as a typical teen, neither saintly nor particularly smart, but also far from inviting, either directly or incidentally, the kind of treatment she is now subjected to. Compliance’s intense structure resembles for much of its length a one-act play translated to film, the claustrophobic setting rarely diverting from Sandra’s office-cum-storeroom and a neighbouring storeroom where Sandra briefs and confronts co-workers when it becomes necessary. Zobel avoids staginess and the tone of an actor’s exercise with surprising dexterity, partly because the drama follows a relentless, fact-derived logic, and partly by how Zobel exploits the cramped setting. The world beyond the confines of the office and the storage space quickly starts to feel unreal: the busy counter and the shop beyond where the fast-food customers mill and eat cheerily swiftly become another world, a zone of normality only a few feet away that nonetheless becomes painfully out of reach for Becky. The few moves outside of the building, as when Sandra obeys Daniels’ odd command to wrap up Becky’s belongings in a bag and deposit them in her own car so other policemen can come and discreetly search them, are almost disorienting.
As Compliance spirals into ugly places, it is revealed that “Officer Daniels” is actually a middle-aged, middle-class man (Pat Healy) first glimpsed briefly towards the beginning making phone calls from a public phone, barking strange declarations of “Sir!” into the handpiece. Later, making the call to the restaurant from his own, eminently prosperous-looking house, he carefully writes down every detail he extracts from the ChickWich employees and those he invents himself to facilitate his actual purpose, which is to revel in the power he can wield over others and the fancies he can indulge by proxy. A huge photo of an orbiting space shuttle festoons the wall of his home office, a wry visualisation of his belief in his distant, unassailable remoteness from the consequences of what he’s doing. Zobel avoids cutting to the imposter until Sandra hands the phone over to a man—Becky’s coworker and friend Kevin (Philip Ettinger)—and with the hope of a masculine proxy, “Daniels’” intent to inflict sexual humiliation on Becky begins in earnest. The charge of unease as Kevin is ushered in to watch over Becky is immediate and palpable, Kevin stricken immediately by a queasy mixture of distaste and temptation, as Becky is, for most of the remainder of the film, reduced to wearing only an apron Marti gives her. Once Sandra and Marti are absent, “Daniels” starts insisting that Kevin needs to make a body cavity search on Becky, something Kevin baulks at, and he angrily insists to Sandra that he wants nothing more to do with the situation. The vicissitudes of commerce constantly drag attention away from the matter at hand: Sandra occasionally has to man the counter herself to make up for the shortfall of staff, as the crisis unfolds on a “good night for us.”
Compliance is a film about the many manifestations of fear on an immediate social level, but which have resonances to a macrocosmic scale. Zobel’s camera roams around the seamy backside of the fast-food establishment to pick out shots of grimy grills crusted in the detritus of cooking and labouring day in and day out, and familiar setting in a suburban town centre, with cheerless, dirty cement caked with wintry slush and refuse. This helps Zobel emphasise a sense of utilitarian decline and the wearying grottiness clinging to the world these people inhabit. Anxiety is a background drone for the characters: the worry of aging without love or unemployment, the threat of authority, disapproval, and the oppression of larger forces hovering around the younger characters who undoubtedly want to move on from food service and, of course, never expect to finish up as people like Sandra, but who also need the jobs they have. Becky, asked late in the film why she gave in and submitted to a strip-search, replies that sooner or later, she expected she would have to do it, and so chose sooner, underlining the insidious nature of the forms of power “Daniels” evokes. Becky’s uncertainty of her rights, her naivete and her unformed capacity to protest, contribute to her unfortunate situation and render her vulnerable in a profound fashion. “Officer Daniels” carefully worms his way into the psyche of his targets not only by exploiting their anxieties, but also by stroking their egos and giving them a chance to live out some of their own fantasies. He carefully taps into Sandra’s need to feel competent and in command, and bullies Becky into obedience by fierce challenges to explain why someone has identified her as a criminal. Kevin desists when “Daniels” begins prodding him to search Becky again, but he insists that he wants nothing to do with the cops when they come.
As “Daniels”’ badgering becomes more intensive, he carefully, cleverly manipulates the workers into making assumptions and then to fill in the blanks of his story, a tactic sustained from his very first enquiry, where he mentioned a young blonde. Sandra immediately gives him exactly what he wants, a name to attach to the phantom thief. Later, he uses Becky’s revelation of a brush her brother once had with the law as the basis for building a new dimension to his fake investigation. He tells Sandra that he really wants to use the excuse of the supposed theft to give him and other police officers a chance to search Becky’s family house for evidence of a drug-selling operation that her brother runs and that Becky seems to be involved in. Whilst Zobel’s technique is ultimately very different, there’s an almost Hitchcockian logic to the way the inference of guilt, commingled with private susceptibility, takes on a life of its own. Sandra’s immediate surrender to the spectre of authority, through the simultaneous fear of looking weak and the promise “Daniels” dangles before her of gaining respect and power for herself, quickly sees supposition turned into fact: as she needs people to bring into her confidence, she quickly gives up any pretence to upholding Becky’s innocence, saying “Becky stole some money.”
After failing to get Kevin to become his tool, “Daniels” gains a more malleable substitute, as he convinces Sandra to call in Van to watch Becky and ease the staffing shortfall. Van, who’s been hanging with pals after work, is a little drunk, and with some cajoling, proves a perfect conduit for “Daniels’” efforts. “Daniels” twists the fascination with the infliction of power over others, which he restrained with Sandra, to now tap into every fantasy of bullying a young woman into sexual compliance, complete with getting Van to smack her in punishment for speaking discourteously to Sandra, and finally climaxing in convincing Van to force Becky to give him a blowjob. That “Daniels” exploits the subliminal wish of Van to assert erotic force over Becky is obvious; more subtle, but part of the same matrix, is Sandra’s dislike of Becky as a younger female and her unease over Van’s wayward affections, charging the vital scene in which Sandra first interrupts Van and Becky after “Daniels” has gotten Van to force Becky to show him her breasts and then do jumping jacks ostensibly to dislodge any hidden money. Sandra senses the disquiet between the pair after this, and it seems to actualise Sandra’s deep anxieties. She ignores Becky’s pleadings for help: “Why are you talking to me?” Sandra demands in return in her moment of fiercest irritation, paving the way for the situation to reach its nadir. Van reels out of the restaurant in a state of shock, phoning a friend to tell him, “I just did something really bad!”
Fittingly enough, but also frighteningly, “Daniels’” subterfuge only ends when Sandra asks an elderly, sometime employee, Harold (Stephen Payne) who stops in for a snack, to take Van’s place after he runs off. When “Daniels” tries to repeat his coup, Earl recoils, protesting with righteous, old-fashioned indignation, and he sounds off to Sandra. This pushback finally causes Sandra to double-check with a superior, who’s supposedly been in constant contact with “Daniels,” and the prank finally unravels. Compliance changes gear as the real forces of law are called into action: Zobel presents a single shot in which Detective Neals (James McCaffrey) leaves the police station and drives to the ChickWich, a journey that takes about a minute. The targets of shame and humiliation now partly invert, as Neals solicitously escorts Becky away, and then commences an investigation in which he and other policemen establish that this is one of a spate of similar incidents. The police finally track down “Daniels,” who turns out to be an insurance salesman with a young daughter.
Compliance is certainly a film pitched to generate powerful emotions in its audience, and by all reports has succeeded in provoking disbelief and rejection in spite of its apparent general veracity. Some American critics normally eager to embrace much more appalling visions of social degradation in films from other countries have turned their noses up at it. Compliance is certainly a joyless experience, but it is a worthy one insofar as it captures an unpleasant but genuine aspect of the modern zeitgeist. The situation it depicts testifies to some long-troubling social phenomena, particularly the vulnerability of young people—and young women in particular—and the willingness of many to kowtow to anyone who sounds like they know what they’re talking about. But there are also less ethereal forces apparent in the film. For my part, I found it hard to ignore the feeling that the scenes depicted in Compliance are partly the result of 30+ years of assaults on movements for personal liberty and empowerment through a petty, street-level fascism hidden under the guise of a fashionable piece of reactionary authoritarianism, be it the Wars on Drugs through to the Wars on Terror. “Daniels” synthesises a perfect nexus of forces that leverage his essential delight in power. The faintest suggestion that Becky is involved in theft and, more particularly, drugs, is enough to convince people to do the most immoral things to her because that’s what young people are like.
“Daniels” puts over his misogynistic authoritarianism with chilling ease because it’s a feeling shared by too many, the notion that sexually active young women like Becky deserve punishment, and should be returned to a position of obeisant intimidation. Compliance essentially depicts a modern-day witch trial. Even Becky herself gives into this force. Certainly “Daniels” operates according to a need to be in control, a figure of power and respect who wields a mixture of popular clichés of police work and purely Pavlovian stimuli, and utilising technology and personal gifts to achieve what he would presumably never have the guts to do in person. As a work of social alarmism and a recreation of a seemingly impossible situation peppered with detail to make it coherent and persuasive, Compliance does its job well, and it manages to say something unusual and worrying. Aesthetically, it’s mostly blunt and efficient, though this is, to a certain extent, part of its strength. Some decisions and elisions that seem made for apparently good reasons ultimately sap it of some potential, like skipping the actual moment in which an excruciating situation becomes a sex crime, thus relieving Zobel of the hardest part of his job even if it does skirt potential exploitation, where I felt a nervier, more sustained neurotic mood was needed.
The focus purely on the situational nightmare leaves holes of assumption where there should be a sense of virulent offence and identification. Zobel barely characterises anyone beyond essentials, and some of the peripheral figures remain stuck in functional postures, including Van, whose blue-collar flaccidness is signalled with a bullhorn, and others, like Becky’s black coworker Connie (Nikiya Mathis), tread close to stereotype. Zobel is also guilty of laying out the specificities of his characters’ concerns rather too blatantly, from Becky’s fear of being fired and Sandra’s feelings of harassment. The threat of the visiting inspector is a particularly overripe touch that could have come from any number of workplace comedies, and the soundtrack by Heather McIntosh works too hard to generate a mood of dreadful anticipation. Indie stalwart Dowd’s performance as Sandra is the film’s centrepiece, offering both minatory humour and pathos in her attempts to play the expert manager and delivering crucial epiphanies with subtlety. Walker is entirely effective as the victim of all this, sometimes vivid in her pathos, sometimes disappearing as she’s rendered a nonperson by those around her. Healy’s performance as the imposter is admirable, in that he sustains the movie’s drama largely by vocal intonation, particularly when he’s scrambling to cover up his mistakes or press home his advantages with ruthless instinct, but also it is a little affected as a fey creep who clearly signals his lack of traditional masculine heft as a reason for his behaviour. In short, he’s a pretty stock bad guy, and it takes some of the charge out of the film’s essential thesis, not that bad things are usually caused by abnormal people, but rather by normal people given a moment’s encouragement by abnormal circumstances. Zobel’s simplicity of intent robs the imposter of some of the potential force he could have wielded, and made Compliance more than a gripping, but finally only a solid piece of social muckraking.
There’s one thing that people rarely talk about and yet is vital in our lives: dreaming. I don’t mean night dreams, but daydreams. They are man’s best companion, wonders of existence.
French director Leos Carax said the above in an interview about his 1999 film Pola X, the film he made eight years after completing his self-described “variation on the least original theme possible: boy meets girl”—The Lovers on the Bridge. In truth, it’s hard to imagine a more original version of that formula, with its gritty, hallucinatory visions and hard-luck, abusively passionate lovers living on Paris’ famous Pont Neuf. Now here we are again, wondering where Leos Carax has been for the 13 years since Pola X premiered. Frankly, I don’t care. In fact, I wish more directors would go away and come back only when they have something they feel compelled to express, particularly if the results are as explosive and stunning as Carax’s new film Holy Motors.
The opening quote is very pertinent to the “plot” of Holy Motors. The film plays like a series of short stories tied together by one character, Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant), who is driven by his chauffeur Céline (Edith Scob) to various parts of Paris in a white limousine to act out a wide variety of roles. These roles are the active daydreams of their orchestrator, Carax, crafting found objects from his experiences into both ordinary and extraordinary moments. Indeed, the most extreme of his daydreams, one involving the abduction of a high-fashion model (Eva Mendes) from a photo shoot in the Père Lachaise Cemetery by Lavant as a demented leprechaun strongly reminded me of the daydreams Sally Potter had as she tried to write a murder mystery involving a dwarf and some Paris fashion models in her film The Tango Lesson (1997). If Carax did, in fact, crib the idea—and I have no way of knowing whether he did—it is only fair and proper for any dreamer to recycle material for his own purposes.
Despite the plethora of hit films with convoluted plots that sometimes go nowhere—for example, the inane summer blockbuster Inception (2010)—I imagine a lot of moviegoers will feel frustrated by Holy Motors. You see, it doesn’t exist to be a brain teaser you can use to smartly assert your own powers of reason and deduction. From the very beginning, Carax signals he is presenting his own dream material—he has a man go into an airport hotel room, pull the drapes, and then enter a grand movie theater through a chink in the wall where an audience is watching a film projected on a screen. Now that’s pretty straightforward, isn’t it? But who is the man? Why is he in the airport hotel? Where is he going when he checks out? Who gives a damn! His “real” life couldn’t possibly be more interesting or exciting than the dream life Carax has given him and us.
Of course, Carax immediately plays with our initial plot expectations by showing us Monsieur Oscar exiting an enormous, gated mansion with the farewell shouts of his children seeing him down the winding driveway. His bodyguards follow him in a black sedan as he walks to the white stretch limo and greets Céline, who tells him the information for his nine appointments that day are in place for him to peruse. He makes all kinds of captain of industry noises into his cellphone as he looks at the first folder. Then we see him shift to the side of the limo we haven’t been allowed to see. A theatrical make-up mirror and racks of costumes and props stand at the ready as Monsieur Oscar begins his transformation into an old beggar woman. The limo stops below a bridge, and the disguised Oscar stands on the bridge, his bodyguards near at hand, and begs for money. When he returns to the limo, his bodyguards largely disappear from the scene as he makes his rounds, with stops that include working in a motion-capture studio, assassinating a prominent businessman, scolding “his” teenage daughter, and saying good-bye to “his” beloved niece while lying on his deathbed.
Oscar even has an interlude where he meets Jean (Kylie Minogue), someone he seems to have a past with who also travels Paris in a white limo acting out roles. So is there a real Monsieur Oscar? A real Jean? When they finish their appointments, all of the play actors end up not necessarily where they started the day, and the drivers return to the Holy Motors garage. Céline dons a mask that suggests the role the actress who plays her had in Georges Franju’s Eyes without a Face, and leaves. When all the lights are out, the two dozen or so white limos parked in the garage blink their lights and carry on a conversation about their eventual obsolescence as the size of machines keeps shrinking.
So what can we glean from the various parts of this rollercoaster adventure? Carax reveals some of his own thoughts about his world. He speaks with someone who might be his employer (Michel Piccoli) who wonders about Oscar’s waning interest in the job because he fears there is no longer a “beholder” to view his creations, Oscar says he keeps on “for the beauty of the act.” This is the essence of the pure artist—art for art’s sake. He deplores the shift from the large cameras of filmmaking days gone by, wondering how anyone can even see the tiny digital cameras used today, a sentiment about the miniature, yet all-powerful machines we have all come to rely upon. Not a Luddite, rather a connoisseur of the industrial design of the past, he also finds extraordinary beauty in motion-capture technology, as Lavant in a black body suit and the incredibly flexible Reda Oumouzoune in a red body suit simulate the elegant contortions of oral sex and coitus as their movements are transformed into writhing, animated dragons on a screen above them.
By contrast, the sexiness of the fashion model kidnapped by Lavant in his Monsieur Merde persona (from Carax’s contribution to the 2008 trilogy film Tokyo!) is subverted by the feral midget. After he has escaped to his underground lair through the Paris sewers, he rips cloth from her diaphanous gown and turns it into a burqua, stripping naked himself to curl up in her lap. Perhaps the wild man who seems a huge danger—hilariously, he bites off the fingers of the photographer’s assistant who seems to think she can make him part of the shoot—really only wants a mother’s nonthreatening love. Have we been all wrong about male aggressiveness and female objectification?
Many moments in this film are hilarious. Besides the shockingly funny finger-biting moment, the deathbed scene ends with uncle lifting “his” niece’s (Elise Lhomeau) head as he gets out of bed to go to his next appointment. Their polite, perfunctory pleasantries and farewells make the artifice of an already melodramatic scene irresistibly funny. I found the interlude between a loving working-class father and his teenage daughter to be quite touching, particularly since the girl is played by Carax’s own daughter, Nastya Golubeva Carax. When Lavant discovers the girl has lied about her experience of a party and the whereabouts of her friend, he orders her out of the car. It’s not as frightful as all that, as they are in front of their own apartment building. The anticipated punishment is not what she expects—he merely tells her that she will have to live with herself the rest of her life. While this sounds like a lily-livered parent getting out of being a disciplinarian, the effect is a lasting indictment of her character, of all of us who lie and misrepresent ourselves.
We can take these little postcard messages from the film, but the main pleasure is simply in the watching. Holy Motors is mirthful, rueful, beautiful, ugly, miraculously original while still feeling quite familiar, particularly to cinephiles, and already has the earmarks of a modern film classic. It and its star, Denis Lavant, were the richly deserving winners of the top prizes at the Chicago International Film Festival. Bravo, Monsieur Carax, bravo!
Night Across the Street: Raul Rúiz’s last completed film is a surreal and frequently comic float through the memories of a man who is ending his work life with the feeling that death is stalking him. (Chile)
The Scapegoat: New adaptation of the Daphne du Maurier novel in which a schoolteacher impersonates an arrogant aristocrat and has a warming effect on his dysfunctional family. (UK)
Tey: Telling the story of one day—the last day—in the life of a young man, a fact known, celebrated, and mourned throughout his community, this film confronts our peculiarly human tragedy of knowing we will die, and gives us a few answers about coping with that frightening inevitability. (Senegal)
Mr. Sophistication: A familiar story of a comedian trying to make a comeback is made compelling by great performances, an intelligent script, and deft direction and camerawork. (USA)
The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni: The life of Egyptian movie star Soad Hosni, a cultural icon and touchpoint for unity in the Middle East, is interpreted in a biopic using nothing but footage from her 82 films. (Lebanon)
Shun Li and the Poet:A tone poem of a film depicting the longings of a Chinese emigrant to Italy and the loving friendship she forms with an elderly Yugoslavian man in a small fishing village near Venice. (Italy)
The Last Sentence: A gorgeously photographed biopic of Swedish newspaper editor Torgny Segerstedt that focuses attention on his romantic intrigues as he wages a relentless campaign against Hitler and Swedish neutrality. (Sweden)
The Exam: In a taut thriller set in 1957 Hungary, a member of the secret police unknowingly undergoes a harrowing loyalty test under the watchful eye of his own mentor. (Hungary)
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