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Drilling for Art: There Will Be Blood, Take 1

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There Will Be Blood

Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic drama There Will Be Blood—in which Daniel Day-Lewis’ prospector-turned-robber baron antihero, Daniel Plainview, pick-axes his way toward an oil fortune—isn’t perfect or entirely satisfying, but it’s so singular in its conception and execution that one can no more dismiss it than one can dismiss a volcanic eruption occurring in one’s backyard.

It cannot be diminished—as Hard Eight, Boogie Nights and Magnolia could, and to my mind, rightly were diminished—as another instance of a facile, energetic director hurling homage at the audience.

In Blood, as in Anderson’s fourth, most distinctively original feature, 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love, the director lays his influences on the table (in plain view, as it were). But he isn’t content to quote and rearrange with his usual hyperkinetic fussiness. There are moments, scenes, and an entire section that I think veer out of control, and not in a good way. But for the most part, Anderson seems to have absorbed his influences and created a singular work; there are so few tonal or dramatic miscalculations—and so few reversions to the cinematic karaoke machine mode of his first three pictures—that when one does pop up, it’s a such a shock that it takes you out of the movie. From the opening section, in which Daniel the prospector finds and stakes a crude oil claim and inherits the young son of a worker who died in his employ, through the complex, moving, frequently upsetting midsection that depicts Daniel amassing his fortune, acquiring and betraying allies, out-thinking and sometimes terrorizing his rivals, and destroying people he should treasure, Blood becomes as pointed a critique (and celebration) of capitalism as the Godfather movies—and other things besides.

For a decade now, ever since his second feature, Boogie Nights exploded onto screens like a string of Chinese firecrackers, Paul Thomas Anderson has been American cinema’s giant-in-waiting—a self-taught writer-director-impresario-icon who aimed to be not just the last great 1970s filmmaker, but all of them rolled into one: Altman, Cassavetes, Scorsese, Coppola, Penn, Demme, Ashby and many, many more. In Hard Eight, Boogie Nights and Magnolia, he cherry-picked situations, setpieces, even particular shots from his heroes’ movies and re-imagined them (or sometimes simply regurgitated them). I was among his early detractors, admiring but not quite embracing Hard Eight, and finding Boogie Nights and Magnolia almost insufferably imitative, superficial and self-satisfied. His second and third films, in particular, were spectacularly inconsistent. Flamboyant camerawork, jigsaw-puzzle montages and scripted-to-the-commas dialogue jostled against actor’s workshop hysterics and amateurishly improvised banter, and both films’ midsections seemed glommed together with gaffer’s tape. At times Anderson reminded me of another deeply musical but often incoherent director, Spike Lee: his films played like grandiose ‘60s/‘70s double albums, comprised of finely wrought singles and jam session filler held together by nerve.

Yet parts of all of his features amused, enthralled or moved me. Magnolia’s go-to shot—a vertigo-inducing whip-pan that became a combination high speed dolly-in/zoom-in; a shot so closely identified with Goodfellas that any director who uses it might as well stamp “Property of Martin Scorsese” at the bottom of the frame—was a trite signifier of energy, and there was too much yelling, stammering and sobbing in place of acting; but the movie was shot through with visionary sequences (the “Wise Up” musical interlude; the rain of frogs) and surprising, affecting performances (by Tom Cruise, Melora Walters, William H. Macy, Jason Robards and Melinda Dillon especially). Half of Boogie Nights made me wish I was at home watching Raging Bull, Saturday Night Fever, Midnight Cowboy or any of the other touchstones that Anderson made sure we all knew he’d seen; the rest—especially the scenes that focused on someone besides the horse-hung Candide, Dirk Diggler—was as sweet and unsettling as its influences. Was Anderson a fearsome impressionist, or an original talent who had not yet found his true voice? After seeing Punch-Drunk Love, I figured it was the latter. For the first time, Anderson had applied his virtuoso technique, his rapport with actors and his archivist’s memory to a film that was impossible to dismiss as pastiche. The merger of Anderson’s droll wit and long-take choreography and Sandler’s agitated man-child shtick sparked an alchemical reaction; Love was so peculiar that it could indulge in baldfaced shout-outs (most notoriously in the madcap montage scored to “He Needs Me,” from Popeye) without breaking its obnoxious, endearing spell. Was it possible that his first three films constituted nine hours of throat-clearing?

Yes. As muscular and restless as it is, Blood demonstrates greater discipline and confidence than anything Anderson has made—a willingness to hang back, to let scenes play without editorializing music or at medium or long distance; a sense of when it’s desirable to generate excitement mainly through camera movement, cutting, sound design and other overt means, and when such intervention would prove superfluous or reductive. The film’s virtually score-free 1902 prologue, which shows a younger, bearded Daniel rappelling into a cavern in search of precious metal, is photographed (by Robert Elswit) with what Pauline Kael, reviewing Spike Lee’s debut, She’s Gotta Have It, called “a film sense.” Daniel’s dangling, scrambling figure and certain significant rock formations are etched with enough light to allow viewers to orient themselves along with the hero, but not so much that you lose the sense of primordial gloom; the outlining is subjective, a means of suggesting what the hero senses but can’t see. Daniel is relentless, but the work is difficult, the conditions brutal. Like the combat scenes in The Thin Red Line, with their incongruous cutaways to bored-looking animals, and the long section in Cast Away, in which the starving hero teaches himself how to acquire, open and devour a coconut, the first section of Blood reminds 21st century multiplex audiences that the natural world could not care less what humanity wants.

This inaugural setpiece segues neatly into a scene showing Daniel and a crew drilling for oil, which Daniel deduces is the region’s true motherlode. The sense of exertion and exhaustion is even more pronounced (and frightening) because Daniel has drawn other people into his obsession and seems to have as little regard for their safety as he does for his own. The film adopts the hero’s single-minded point-of-view. When a man is injured or killed, Anderson shows what happened and how the crew moved on from there, as if recounting what became of a broken pickax. Daniel’s commitment is scientific in its problem-solving acuity, demonic in its refusal of defeat. In its mix of dynamic need and utilitarian methodology—its understanding of how visionary businessmen regard workers as sentient tools—this may be the finest sequence Anderson has directed. And it subtly sets up the film’s symbolic architecture: its recurring images of men rising (physically or metaphorically) and then falling, complemented by the rising and falling motion of oil derricks, and the rising, falling movement of Elswit’s camera as it rises up over ridges along with Daniel to reveal new territories he intends to acquire. When, towards the end of the first cave sequence, an agonized Daniel hauls himself up toward the surface, Elswit’s camera tilting up to reveal the exit, the sun bursting through the hole feels not reassuring but taunting. Daniel would rather be down in the dark.

The bulk of Blood, set in 1911, follows Daniel as he methodically and sometimes sneakily builds his fortune, accompanied at each step by his adopted son, H.W. (played as a preadolescent by Dillon Freasier). Anderson’s book is based on Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, which he’s said he encountered by chance in a London bookstore, but this source is just a springboard for a tale that owes as much, if not more, to other prominent sources: Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (likewise a story of a man sacrificing love on the altar of money); Citizen Kane (ditto); the Godfather trilogy (ditto again); the collected works of Stanley Kubrick, specifically Barry Lyndon and the four-movement cosmic spectacle 2001 (a source whose kinship to Blood Filmbrain nicely analyzes here). They all feed Anderson’s fever.

The film is ultimately not as emotionally rich and all-encompassing as those touchstones because it mostly sticks with Daniel, a closed-off man who seems to have little soul to lose, and syncs up his lordly ruthlessness and the director’s style, robbing the film of the greater complexity it might have achieved from having the hero and the style work at cross-purposes (and they surely would have in a film by Altman or Terrence Malick). From the moment we meet Daniel, he’s a terrifying capitalist instrument, telegraphing his objectives (to the viewer, his clients and his rivals) so unambiguously (and with a rumbling, often gleeful voice) that at times he evokes John Huston’s Noah Cross from Chinatown. Between Day-Lewis’ hyperreal performance—always teetering on the edge of theatrical artifice—and Jonny Greenwood’s aggressively dissonant score, Daniel radiates an almost vampiric mix of hunger, patience and indestructibility; midway through the movie, when he’s riding on a train and a shaft of sunlight unexpectedly hits his face, I half-expected him to burst into flame. Yet in characterizing Daniel, here too Anderson mostly transcends his influences, creating a character we haven’t seen before in a movie that feels fresh. Daniel is inarguably kin to Michael Corleone and Charles Foster Kane—a monster of ego, manipulative, ruthless and self-loathing. But there’s more here than Lonely Capitalist cliche. Daniel has human potential, but it can’t be tapped because his drive is so intense and his emotional armor so thick. You can see it in the way that Daniel dotes on H.W. during their initial train ride together in the 1902 sequence. Even though he’s probably already thinking of ways he can amortize this profound emotional investment—sure enough, in the 1911 section H.W. accompanies Daniel on business meetings, enabling Daniel to declare, “I’m a family man” before he commences screwing whoever he’s dealing with—from the start, the connection between boy and man seems intuitive, elemental, real. Later in the film, after Daniel has used and neglected H.W. and then coldly sent him packing, there still seems to be real love there, however mangled. Later, when the newly-returned H.W. walks through a field with Daniel, who is spouting the usual self-justifying bullshit and otherwise acting as if he’s done nothing wrong, the boy hauls off and starts slapping him. Anderson’s directorial detachment—framing the whole exchange in long shot—is masterful.

Daniel’s relationship with a young preacher, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), is less perfectly realized, though to be fair it’s much more tangled and overtly archetypal than the Daniel-H.W. relationship, conceived both realistically and schematically. Eli enters Daniel’s life as a potential business contact, bringing Daniel news of his family’s oil-rich property in the town of New Boston; as the years wear on, establishing New Boston as the wellspring of Daniel’s wealth and Daniel as the driving force behind the town’s evolution, the prospector and the reverend become locked in an unending contest of wills, each trying to force the other to bend. It’s hard to say who started it—probably Daniel, who correctly sized up Eli as a young man out of his depth and acquired drilling rights for less than they were worth. The relationship gives the movie its dramatic backbone and sets up a number of terrific moments, most of them tending toward black comedy, the “confession” that Eli coerces out of Daniel being an especially satisfying example. (You know that the kid concocted the situation not to save Daniel’s soul, but to force a strong man to literally kneel, then slap him around in public without fear of retribution.)

Anderson’s attitude toward faith is conflicted, maybe muddled. Here, as in Magnolia, he seems fascinated by piety as a character trait, or a pretext to stage biblically spectacular events or iconic shots of people praying in the vicinity of crucifixes. He’s not nearly as interested in faith’s effect on daily life or the construction of personality. While Eli’s fervor is real, it seems to have less to do with faith per se than with his desire to establish dominance over Daniel. It’s religion-as-racket: Eli is a parasite who has attached himself to a dominant predator (essentially shaking down Daniel for money or prestige) while presenting himself, and almost certainly seeing himself, as a doer of good deeds. Compared to Daniel’s obsession with profit and control of land, which is destructive and self-destructive but at least honest, Eli’s faith carries with it a powerful whiff of hypocrisy; the reverend’s angelic face and polite demeanor notwithstanding (Dano is terrific), his character doesn’t quite transcend the stock conception of the preacher man playing an angle. He’s like the corrupt senators, police captains and other public officials in the Godfather films whose soulless rapaciousness was intended to make Coppola’s mafiosi seem like paragons of dark integrity. The true religion here is profit. Anderson treats the pursuit of entrepreneurship as an unholy (but to practitioners, holy) calling. Blood starts with a black screen, backed by a souls-in-torment Greenwood cue that could be Hell’s orchestra tuning up; as the music rises in volume and pitch, building to a sonic eruption, Anderson fades to blinding white, then fades the brightness back down to take us into the first digging sequence. Here and elsewhere in the opening section, the mix of Greenwood’s atonal cues and the architecturally-framed shots of rock formations and jagged hills evokes (intentionally, I’m sure) Close Encounters, another secular blockbuster spiked with religious motifs and populated by ordinary people afflicted with visionary drives. (Beyond its sci-fi and religious aspects, Close Encounters was a metaphoric working-through of Steven Spielberg’s compulsion to realize his fantasies on celluloid, even if it meant sacrificing domestic happiness and letting the world think him mad. Blood invites similar comparisons between its director and main character, a driven, innovative autocrat who likes getting his hands dirty, knows his trade better than anyone, and desires patrons, not partners.)

What saves the Eli-Daniel antagonism from allegorical preciousness (Commerce vs. Religion, step right up!) is Anderson’s sense of absurdity—arguably the most original and potent aspect of his talent. The preacher and the businessman go at each other like cartoon foes. Their showdowns and negotiations are grotesque and funny—Daniel, in particular, seems to enjoy putting the screws to Eli. Yet the finale and the buildup to it make the film seem like an epic pissing match when all things considered, it could have been, and arguably is, more than that.

If Blood’s bleak wit is the quality that registers most strongly, runner-up is the poignant depiction of makeshift family and its effect on identity. The film is filled with lies that become true after the participants have had time to live in them: H.W. gradually becoming Daniel’s might-as-well-be-biological son, and Daniel subconsciously conflating his own stewardship of the business (which he eventually sells off) and his guardianship of H.W. (“Nobody tells me how to raise my boy!” he keeps declaring, even though nobody has tried to tell him any such thing); Eli and Daniel forging a relationship that seems (though the details are too sketchy to know for sure) to somehow twistedly re-imagine, or re-fight, each man’s relationship with his biological father; the derelict Henry (a deeply affecting Kevin J. O’Connor) falsely but poetically claiming “I’m your brother from another mother; Ernest is my father,” then fessing up to the lie long after he’s been accepted as a “real” sibling. “Having you here gives me a second breath,” Daniel admits to Henry, sounding so grateful that Henry’s fate seems, in retrospect, all the more ghastly. As has been noted many times, family—specifically fathers vs. sons—is the flint that sparks this filmmaker’s imagination. But Blood is the first movie in which Anderson has really claimed this theme and infused it into every scene and relationship, rather than using it to lend a series of dazzling setpieces an illusion of cohesiveness.

I wish Blood were the unqualified masterpiece Anderson (and his admirers) have long dreamed of. It moves the filmmaker’s evolution many steps forward and then, in its final act, it steps back, partly abandoning its controlled, feverish gloom and becoming notably more fragmented, schematic and openly derivative than it had been up till then. While never as blatant in its homages as Anderson’s first three movies, Blood, a film that elsewhere is inspired but rarely dominated by Giant, The Aviator, Citizen Kane and The Shining, too obviously betrays its indebtedness to those works—as well as Deadwood, Gangs of New York, the collected works of David Mamet, and every gangster film in which a control freak criminal gets a rival right where he wants him, humiliates him verbally, then splatters his brains. And its justly praised lead actor, who until then had skillfully walked the line separating metaphor-minded stylization from showy caricature, becomes imprecise and unconvincing. When Day-Lewis galumphs across Daniel’s basement bowling alley, veins bulging and spittle-flecks flying, spinning an elaborate monologue that builds to the declaration “I drink your milkshake!” and then climaxes with a murder-by-bowling pin, it’s the Blot-the-alpaca scene from American Gangster with feeling. It’s Day-Lewis, not just Daniel, who seems to be grooving on the moment’s viciousness; at a couple of points the actor seems to come close to cracking himself up. A tour-de-force performance is enclosed by quote marks; the spell is broken. Suddenly the character is too much the entrepreneur cousin of Bill the Butcher from Gangs of New York. That wouldn’t be an inherently bad thing had the rest of Blood been conceived, a la Scorsese’s misbegotten yet stunning film, in exclusively mythic terms. But here—occurring within the context of Anderson’s most naturalistic, carefully modulated, uncharacteristically quiet movie—it seems a miscalculation, one that plays into the hands of detractors who think Anderson a shallow dramatist who believes that Power = Cruelty + Yelling.

I don’t doubt that fans of Blood will rebut my skepticism by claiming that the movie’s final stretch, and Day-Lewis’ performance within it, are about men becoming their caricatures, and that every creative choice is therefore spot-on. I can buy that argument in principle—and Daniel certainly becomes less controlled after the double hit of a death and a crippling of two people he loved most—but its articulation is wobbly, and the idea of it struck me as less impressive than Anderson’s slow-boil buildup. What most shocked me about the film’s coda was how nakedly it wanted to be shocking, like the blobby emoting that marred long stretches of Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Elsewhere in Blood, Anderson creates unsettling effects by having Daniel channel his ambition into structured tasks and occasionally let off little puffs of fury. When violence comes, it’s cold, methodical. The movie’s baroque blow-out ending is effective, but too ‘70s movie-inevitable. To invoke The Shining—a much-cited source for some of Anderson’s inspiration, particularly in its use of ambient sound and music—I suspect that if Anderson had adapted Stephen King’s novel, he would have kept King’s Creative Writing 101 original ending, which killed raging alcoholic Jack Torrance in a boiler explosion (he explodes, along with the volatile device he’s supposed to monitor—get it?). Daniel seems more of a freezing-alone-in-a-hedge-maze kind of guy.

“His movies haven’t been perfect, but for the most part, they’ve been perfectly open,” wrote Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek, in a rare pan of Blood. “Echoing the stammering-confident boast of Warren Beatty’s John McCabe in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, the greatest film made by Anderson’s spiritual predecessor, Robert Altman, Anderson said from the start, ’I got poetry in me,’ and wasted no time proving it.” Amen to that. Blood is the sort of movie (like The New World, The Black Dahlia and Inland Empire, among recent titles, only with almost monolithically positive reviews and a far more pervasive PR campaign) that inspires zealous oratory, fixation on marginalia and even pre-emptive strikes against criticism. Karina Longworth, one of the movie’s most devoted boosters, published a list column that attempts to redefine complaints about the movie as “Misconceptions,” including the notion that the last movement is less than perfect. “I’m personally of the opinion that if you can’t roll with the final reel of this film, then your love just is not real,” she writes—unknowingly echoing the sentiments of a dear friend who adores Blood, and tried to convince me that comparing Anderson to Welles, Kubrick or anyone else wasn’t fair, even though Anderson’s whole career has audaciously dared us to do just that. Such intemperate devotion is understandable; this blog was founded on it. And it strikes me as reflexive contrarianism—perhaps even a denial of the images, sounds and performances up there onscreen—to insist that Blood is anything less than an event. If it’s not the masterpiece Anderson has striven (at times a bit anxiously) to create, it’s a work that stakes its creator’s auteurist bona fides with irrevocable force. I look forward to seeing it again, though not, perhaps, as eagerly as I await Anderson’s sixth movie, whatever it may be.

Matt Zoller Seitz is editor-in-chief and publisher of The House Next Door.

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Review: Tate Taylor’s Ava Doesn’t Lack for Star Power, Only Narrative Thrills

Ava isn’t only banal, but also, in its half-hearted stabs at novel ideas, seemingly content with its banality.

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Ava
Photo: Vertical Entertainment

Action thrillers don’t get much more generic than Tate Taylor’s Ava, which tells of a veteran assassin being hunted down by the shadowy organization that employs her. If there’s a twist here, it’s that Ava (Jessica Chastain) is a recovering alcoholic trying to mend her family relationships while fending off attackers after she becomes too careless in the field. But even this thread of family drama is as uninspiring as the film’s thriller trappings. Because Ava never bothers to articulate how its eponymous character’s secret professional life affects her personal life, and vice versa, or even the emotional and psychological toll that such a delicate balancing act must take on her, it’s difficult not to see Ava’s alcoholism as a superficial affectation, a transparent means of making her seem “complicated” as a character.

Ava’s interactions with her mother, Bobbi (Geena Davis), and sister, Judy (Jess Weixler), are marked by a sassy repartee that feels inconsistent with the film’s otherwise gritty atmosphere, though the relaxed nature of these moments gives the impression that Taylor is more at ease handling this aspect of the narrative. A music-free and exhausting fight scene between Ava’s handler, Duke (John Malkovich), and their superior, Simon (Colin Farrell), where the sound is amplified to emphasize the brutal physicality of every punching, bone-crunching hit, would make for mesmerizing cinema if not for the fact that the film’s action sequences are borderline incomprehensible, all frenetic camera movement and erratic editing.

Chastain, at least, proves to be a compelling presence, as she admirably tries to elevate the flimsy, one-note material—most notably in later scenes where her subtle expressions convey Ava’s failing attempts to fight back the emotions that are getting the better of her projected stoicism. But the performance isn’t worthy of the film, which is likely to leave audiences wondering how it even managed to attract so much A-level talent. For Ava isn’t only banal, but also, in its half-hearted stabs at novel ideas, seemingly content with its banality.

Cast: Jessica Chastain, John Malkovich, Colin Farrell, Common, Jess Weixler, Geena Davis, Diana Silvers, Joan Chen Director: Tate Taylor Screenwriter: Matthew Newton Distributor: Vertical Entertainment Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Time Is an Oblique Look at Black Lives Undone by the Prison System

The film reminds us that behind the numbers and procedures of a court case are actual lives existing in actual, human time.

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Time
Photo: Amazon Studios

If you want to argue that the law enforcement, criminal justice, and penal systems in the U.S. are badly in need of reform, a first instinct may be to point to the hundreds of felony sentences that have been overturned in the last few decades due to wrongful convictions. Arguing that a man was justly convicted but nevertheless victimized by the carceral state—getting people to accept a guilty man as a locus of sympathy—is a taller order, but it’s just what Garrett Bradley does, in plain but morally forceful terms, in her documentary Time.

The man in question is Robert Richardson, convicted along with his wife, Sibil, of robbing a credit union in Shreveport, Louisiana on the morning of September 16, 1997. At the time, the couple had four sons, and Sibil was pregnant with twin boys. Considering her situation, Sibil took a plea bargain and was sentenced to 12 years, though she was out on parole after only three-and-a-half. Meanwhile, Robert was sentenced to 65 years without parole.

Bradley doesn’t, and perhaps doesn’t need to, trot out statistics to make the case that Robert’s draconian sentence represents a perpetuation of anti-Black racism. She’s got the receipts: years of home-video diaries that Sibil recorded for Robert as she worked tirelessly to support her family while also trying to secure legal motions for his re-sentencing. All the while, their boys grew up without their father. Time opens with a montage of these home videos, set to Tsegue-Maryam’s whirl-a-gig piano piece “The Mad Man’s Laughter”: Sibil waking the twins for the first day of school; observing them playing in the snow; riding rollercoasters with them; filming them play at a pool party; and giving them lectures on work ethic at school.

At the end of the documentary, we see some of this footage again, of Robert and Sibil’s boys at play and growing up, only this time run in reverse. The camera performs an act that for Sibil and her family is impossible, rolling back the lost years, completing the story’s happy ending. Matching the black and white of Sibil’s home movies, Bradley’s new footage captures the culmination of the herculean efforts that eventually get Robert released after 21 years. But, of course, Robert’s return can’t restore lost time, like the camera seems to.

Bradley’s film gives us glimpses into the status of the family as it stands in the weeks leading up to Robert’s release. Now living in New Orleans, the boys are in the process of striking out on their own. The youngest, twins Justus and Freedom, are diligent college students, and at one point we catch glimpses of one’s poli-sci debate and another’s dedicated French study. An elder brother, Richard, is on the cusp of graduating medical school. “Success is the best revenge,” Sibil muses at one point, as she waits in her office for a call from a judge.

The film’s title evokes “doing time,” but we don’t see Robert actually serving his sentence; instead, we feel its duration in the gap it’s left in his family’s life, and in their words we’re offered an oblique commentary on the history of Black incarceration. “It’s almost like slavery time, like the white man keep you there until he figures it’s time for you to get out,” Robert’s mother avers to the camera. It’s a statement that could serve as a succinct summary of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, though it’s delivered with the extemporaneity and subdued anguish of lived observation rather than with muted scholarly precision.

Bradley’s film is about feeling time, about conveying some idea of what 21 years feels like to someone else. In images of the almost imperceptible movement of clouds over New Orleans, Barrett finds a lyrical metaphor for time’s ineffability—as well as for abiding faith in the eventuality of grace (“God looks over the sparrows, Sibil. He’s going to look over us,” Sibil recalls Robert saying to her after his sentencing). Far more than a polemic against the prison-industrial complex, Time reminds us in eminently cinematic ways that behind the numbers and procedures of a court case are actual lives existing in actual, human time.

Director: Garrett Bradley Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 81 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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The Best Horror Movies on Netflix Right Now

These great horror films are currently streaming on Netflix.

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The Best Horror Movies on Netflix Right Now
Photo: New Line Cinema

Ever since audiences ran screaming from the premiere of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s 1895 short black-and-white silent documentary Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, the histories of filmgoing and horror have been inextricably intertwined. Through the decades—and subsequent crazes for color and sound, stereoscopy and anamorphosis—since that train threatened to barrel into the front row, there’s never been a time when audiences didn’t clamor for the palpating fingers of fear. Horror films remain perennially popular, despite periodic (and always exaggerated) rumors of their demise, even in the face of steadily declining ticket sales and desperately shifting models of distribution.

Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors and incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.”

At the same time, the genre manages to find fresh and powerful metaphors for where we’re at as a society and how we endure fractious, fearful times. For every eviscerated remake or toothless throwback, there’s a startlingly fresh take on the genre’s most time-honored tropes; for every milquetoast PG-13 compromise, there’s a ferocious take-no-prisoners attempt to push the envelope on what we can honestly say about ourselves. And some of our favorites are currently streaming on Netflix. Budd Wilkins


The Blackcoat’s Daughter

10. The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015)

The Blackcoat’s Daughter has a sad, macabre integrity. Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Boynton, Emma Roberts, Lauren Holly, and James Remar are poignant in their minimalist roles, and writer-director Oz Perkins arranges their characters in a cleverly constructed narrative prism that simultaneously dramatizes violence and its aftermath in an endless chain reaction of perpetual cause and effect. And the carnage, when it arrives, is staged with an aura of guttural bitterness that refuses to give gore-hounds their jollies, elaborating, instead, on the desolation of the characters committing the acts. When the demons appear in the film, and in terrifyingly fleeting glimpses, Perkins understands them to spring from the deepest chasms of human despair. Bowen


1922

9. 1922 (2017)

In 1922, Wilfred James (Thomas Jane) initially scans as a broadly brutish characterization given by an actor looking to disrupt his handsomely aloof image, following a cinematic tradition of expressively filthy, monosyllabic and flamboyantly antisocial characters such as Daniel Plainview and Karl Childers. Though Jane’s dramatization of rage is haunting and shrewdly comical in its overt and ultimately moving über-manliness. The casual violence of Wilfred’s physicality is subtly calibrated, particularly the tension in his muscled back as he drinks lemonade on the porch after a hard day of murder. Complementing Jane’s portrait of coiled wrath, Molly Parker physicalizes the fear that informs every minute wrinkle of Arlette’s relationship with her husband, which the character attempts to paper over with bravado, inadvertently sealing her doom. Arlette is one of countless women who’re damned if they do and if they don’t, yet somehow the men are able to rationalize themselves as the victims. 1922 informs Stephen King’s pulp feminism with primordial, biblically ugly force. Bowen


The Invitation

8. The Invitation (2015)

The Invitation filters each sinister development through Will’s (Logan Marshall-Green) unreliable perspective, to the point that one friend’s failure to turn up at a lavish dinner, or another’s precipitous departure, appear as if submerged, changing with each shift in the emotional current. Returning to the rambling house where he and Eden once lived for the first time since the death of their son, Will finds himself inundated anew by his heartache, and the film, which otherwise hews to crisp, clean realism, is run through with these painful stabs of memory. Eden slashes her wrists in the kitchen sink, the sounds of children playing emanate from the empty yard, inane talk of the Internet’s funny cats and penguins becomes white noise against Will’s screaming: The question of whether or not to trust his sense of foreboding is perhaps not so open as director Karyn Kusama and company might wish, but against the terrors of continuing on after losing a child, the issue of narrative suspense is almost immaterial. Matt Brennan


Sinister

7. Sinister (2012)

Scott Derrickson’s Sinister isn’t a period piece, but by directing its attention backward it brackets its chosen tech-horror particulars as products of a bygone era—in this case considerably further back than the period of tube TVs and quarter-inch tapes to which this subgenre of horror so often belongs. Much like Ringu, Sinister concerns a cursed film whose audience dies after exposure to it, but here the curse is disseminated not by clunky videotape, but by a box of 8mm films. The projector, more than simply outmoded, is regarded here as practically archaic, and as with Berberian Sound Studio and its reel-to-reel fetishism, Sinister makes quite a show of the mechanics of the machine, soaking in the localized details and milking them for their weighty physicality. Even the format’s deficiencies, from the rickety hum of sprockets to the instability of the frame, are savored by what seems like a nostalgic impulse—a fondness for the old-fashioned that even transforms the rough, granular quality of the haunted films themselves into something like pointillist paintings of the macabre. Calum Marsh


Session 9

6. Session 9 (2001)

As in real estate, the three most important factors in Brad Anderson’s brooding Session 9 are: location, location, location. The filmmakers have hit upon something special with the Danvers State Mental Hospital, whose sprawling Victorian edifice looms large over the narrative: A motley crew of asbestos-removal workers, led by matrimonially challenged Gordon (Peter Mullan), run afoul of a baleful, possibly supernatural, influence within its decaying walls. Anderson uses to brilliant effect a series of archived audio recordings—leading up to the titular “breakthrough” session—that document a disturbing case of split personality. While the film doesn’t entirely stick its murderous finale, no one who hears those scarifying final lines of dialogue will soon forget them. Wilkins


Before I Wake

5. Before I Wake (2016)

Director Mike Flanagan’s Before I Wake hints—in flashes—at a remarkably cruel psychodrama, physicalizing one of the worst and most common fears that orphans share: that they’re awful and unlovable, and therefore undeserving of parents. This fear is similar to the terror that parents have of inadvertently destroying or disappointing their children, and Flanagan unites these anxieties with a ghoulishly inventive plot turn that he doesn’t fully explore. Flanagan is deeply invested in Cody’s (Jacob Tremblay) welfare, to the point of rigidly signifying the various manifestations of the boy’s nightmares, pigeonholing irrationality into a rational framework so as to justify a moving yet literal-minded finale. Chaos could’ve opened Before I Wake up, allowing it to breathe, though Flanagan’s beautiful and empathetic film cannot be taken for granted. Bowen


The Evil Dead

4. The Evil Dead (1981)

The Evil Dead still feels like the punchiest horror flick this side of a Dario Argento giallo. Sam Raimi relentlessly fashions the film’s first half as a creepy-crawly sweat chamber with evil seemingly taking the form of an omniscient, roaming camera, gleefully poking fun at his five protagonists along the way. Despite the signs—the difficult-to-start vehicle, the fallen bridge—no one else believes the woods are alive. Ash (Bruce Campbell), horrordom’s most memorable wuss, and his girlfriend, Linda (Betsy Baker), share an intimate, peek-a-boo moment in which he gives her a necklace, and when he’s later forced to kill her, Raimi takes great joy in referencing this coquettish exchange of affection. Now infamous for its over-the-top gore and cheesy effects sequences, The Evil Dead is most impressive for Raimi’s unnerving wide angle work and his uncanny, almost unreal ability to suggest the presence of intangible evil via distant headlights, bleeding light sockets, and, in the film’s most awesome set piece, a simple game of cards. Gonzalez


The Guest

3. The Guest (2014)

The Guest is carried by an intense and surprising mood of erotic melancholia. Adam Wingard leans real heavy on 1980s—or 1980s-sounding—music in the grandly, outwardly wounded key of Joy Division, and he accompanies the music with visual sequences that sometimes appear to stop in their tracks for the sake of absorbing the soundtrack. The film is a nostalgia act for sure, particularly for The Hitcher, but it injects that nostalgia with something hard, sad, and contemporary, or, perhaps more accurately, it reveals that our hang-ups—disenfranchisement, rootlessness, war-mongering, hypocritical evasion—haven’t changed all that much since the 1980s, or ever. Bowen


Poltergeist

2. Poltergeist (1982)

Tobe Hooper is officially credited for having directed Poltergeist, but it’s co-scripter Steven Spielberg’s fingerprints that are all over this dark-mirror image of E.T. and Close Encounters of a Third Kind, about unseen spirits tormenting a suburban family. It’s structured as an escalating series of reveals, from the frisson elicited by inexplicably mobile furniture on up to third-act hysteria derived from birth imagery, child peril, and the eternal creep factor of video snow in a dark room. Hooper’s Grand Guignol flourishes are occasionally evident, particularly when a paranormal investigator pulls his own face off, but the technical proficiency is all Spielberg’s, as is the abiding interest in families and the influences (supernatural or otherwise) that disrupt them. Abhimanyu Das


The Silence of the Lambs

1. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Detective thrillers often concern contests of male ego, involving brilliant investigators who confront physically superior and equally brilliant psychopaths. Often lost among such face-offs are considerations of the lives that are destroyed and ruined over the course of the narratives, as these thrillers exist to evoke and satisfy our own fears and resentments. By contrast, Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs is grounded in the psyche of a ferocious yet unproven female protagonist, whose thoughtful fragility intensifies the film’s violence, invigorating it with a sense of dread and violation. The film is a strange and still novel mixture of coming-of-age character study, murder mystery, and Grand Guignol horror spectacle. Bowen

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Review: Victor Kossakovsky’s Gunda Is the Eraserhead of Animal Documentaries

In Kossakovsky’s latest, common farm animals have rarely seemed so un-human.

2.5

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Gunda
Photo: Neon

On paper, Victor Kossakovsky’s Gunda, a wordless documentary about the everyday life of a few farm animals—a mama pig, two cows, a one-legged chicken—may suggest a quiet idyll in the vein of the goatherding sequences from Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte. But with its stark, forbidding black-and-white cinematography and dense, unsettling sound design, the film resembles nothing so much as Eraserhead.

The newborn piglets in Kossakovsky’s film, whose faces look surprisingly alien-like in extreme close-up and whose aching squeals can be rather unnerving, even at times resemble the baby from David Lynch’s cult classic. By eschewing the Disneyfied anthropomorphism of Luc Jacquet’s March of the Penguins and the tidy narrativizing of the Planet Earth series, Kossakovsky refuses to resort to the old cliché that animals are “just like us.” They’re not, really. And in Gunda, common farm animals have rarely seemed so un-human.

Which isn’t to say that we don’t form a relationship with these creatures. Relying heavily on shallow-focus shots often positioned near ground level—and thus close to its subjects’ eyeline—the film gives us something of the experience of being a farm animal: of grazing in a field, caring for a newborn, and aimelessly roaming around a farm. As in his prior work, Kossakovsky trusts his audience to stick with the film through lengthy shots where nothing in particular seems to be happening until, gradually, a miniature narrative begins to emerge. But while ¡Vivan las Antipodas! and Aquarela played out largely in a series of breathtakingly composed long shots that allowed the audience to drink in the scenery of various international locales, in Gunda, Kossakovsky follows the opposite impulse: pulling his camera in as close as he can get to these animals and keeping their environment largely out of frame.

In the film’s harrowing and unusual opening shot, a hog that’s lying down and seemingly in pain is framed by a barn door. Kossakovsky’s camera closes in with a slow Kubrickian zoom, but we don’t quite understand what’s happening here until a tiny newborn piglet emerges from behind its mother. She’s been giving birth, but Kossakovsky treats this usually joyous moment as if it were a death scene. Only by the film’s end do we truly understand why.

Sadly, the rest of Gunda is rarely so meticulously composed. The film’s meandering sequences tend to grow repetitive, only rarely crystallizing into meaningful or memorable form. There’s a tedium to much of Gunda that may be true to the lives of its animal subjects but makes for dull watching after the first hour. The scenes involving the mother pig and her children exert a fascinating pull—particularly the mother’s sometimes brutal parenting tactics, such as when she stomps on the runt of her litter—but the sequences involving the chickens and the cows feel like filler and a distraction from the pigs, who are the emotional core of the film.

As Gunda lurches toward its close, an impending sense of doom starts to hover over it as we begin to realize just how much these animals’ lives are directed, controlled, and circumscribed by human hands. But there’s an unfortunate lack of specificity here that’s rare in Kossakovsky’s work: Though shot across three different countries (Norway, Spain, and the U.K.), the film feels as though it’s all taking place on a single farm, one that could be located almost anywhere. That universality is undoubtedly the point, as Gunda isn’t simply an observational documentary, but one with a message about the cruelty of livestock agriculture. Though the creatures at its center live in relatively pleasant free-range environments, a far cry from the industrial hellscapes denounced by documentaries like Food, Inc. and vividly depicted as essentially a death camp in Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, they’re ultimately objects of exploitation. The human use of animals for livestock is, the film suggests, inherently brutal. If Gunda never subjects us to gruesome images of slaughter à la Georges Franju’s Blood of the Beasts, it nevertheless closes with a prolonged single-shot sequence that’s more heartbreaking than any depiction of the goings-on in an abattoir ever captured on film.

In this sequence, a truck pulls up to the barn where the pigs live and drives off with the piglets, leaving the mama pig in a state of grief-stricken perplexity. For minutes on end, we watch her pacing around, clearly distressed and unable to fathom why her piglets have been taken from her. It’s the kind of viscerally upsetting moment that, as Orson Welles said of Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow, would make a stone cry. And if this conclusion doesn’t quite make up for Gunda’s fundamental monotonousness, it does at least lend some shape and significance to the rambling sequences that precede it, calling into question how free these free-range animals really are. By the time the credits roll on the film, we realize we’ve been watching not so much a sketch of the lives of farm animals as a threnody for their deaths.

Director: Victor Kossakovsky Screenwriter: Victor Kossakovsky, Ainara Vera Distributor: Neon Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Werner Herzog’s Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds

The documentary’s ethnographic bent is balanced out by a healthy dose of hard science.

3

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Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds
Photo: Apple+

Filmmaker Werner Herzog and volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer team up again for Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds, which stands as something of a companion piece to their previous collaboration, 2016’s Into the Inferno. Where the earlier film followed them on a globetrotting game of hopscotch to gaze into the hellmouth abyss of active volcanoes (and obsess over them with a motley crew of visionary scientists), their latest finds them looking to the skies for trailblazers of a completely different sort.

Herzog and Oppenheimer once again dash off to various far-flung destinations in order to investigate the multifaceted phenomena surrounding asteroids and meteorites, with each of the film’s episodes loosely strung together like so many gaudy beads on a necklace. What emerges is the fact that these extraterrestrial entities represent both bringers of life, having conceivably contributed basic organic building blocks to our planet’s primordial inorganic “soup,” as well as harbingers of disaster and death, as in the impact on the Yucatan peninsula that brought about the mass extinction of the dinosaurs.

Indeed, that prehistoric event serves as a sort of epicenter for Fireball, to which Herzog and Oppenheimer return at several points. The film opens with footage from a Day of the Dead ceremony in Mérida, Yucatan—crowds adorned with the requisite black-and-white skeleton makeup—that finds its direct echo at about the midway point when we visit Chichén Itzá and discover a forecourt there that’s decorated with numerous skeletal figures.

The symbolic duality of the meteorite is made most manifest at a stop at the Ramgarh crater in India. At its center stands a 10th-century temple to the god Shiva, whose cosmic dance regulates the cycles of creation and destruction across vast stretches of time. The meteorite’s significance to other belief systems is illustrated by a visit to the Kaaba in Mecca, Islam’s most sacred site. (Here, the filmmakers had to rely on amateur cellphone footage, since nonbelievers aren’t allowed near the shrine.) And at the Wolfe Creek crater, aboriginal artist Katie Darkie discusses taking inspiration from folklore and legends involving the impact site.

The film’s ethnographic bent is balanced out by a healthy dose of hard science. As usual for a Herzog documentary, the focus is just as much on the scientists themselves as it is on their pursuits. We learn all about quasicrystal structures via a jigsaw puzzle, take a tour of the Center for Meteorite Studies with a jittery scientist who’s especially loathe to drop any of the precious collection, and visit the Pan-STARRS Observatory in Hawaii, where scientists monitoring the skies for approaching asteroids excitedly compare megapixel capacities. In perhaps the film’s most rhapsodic interlude, we witness the sheer joy of members of the Korean Polar Research Institute when they discover a handful of meteoritic shards that stand out in stark contrast to the endless white glare of the Antarctic glaciers.

The moment is reminiscent of scenes from Encounters at the End of the World, in which Oppenheimer first appeared in a Herzog production. Nor is this the only callback in Fireball. Descending into a cave at the bottom of a cenote in the Yucatan where the Maya civilization used to inter their dead, we’re instantly reminded of similar ritual usages in Cave of Forgotten Dreams. At one point, footage from the Hollywood blockbuster Deep Impact is incorporated into the mix, in order for Herzog to evaluate it as what you might call disaster poetry.

One of the most striking effects here occurs whenever Herzog and Oppenheimer slow down the film’s often-hectic pace to let viewers ponder the sheer beauty of the imagery, whether that’s painterly rendered details of landscape or the natural splendor of closely observed crystals and minerals. Herzog has always had a keen eye for remote places, and Fireball lets him visit his fair share of them. As ever, his assessments are delivered in his trademark Teutonic deadpan. For instance, he describes the village of Chicxulub, near the center of the Yucatan impact crater, as “so godforsaken you want to cry.” Nor does he have much fondness for its “dimwitted dogs.” Asides like this leaven the visual poetry with some welcome humor.

Visiting Mer Island in the Torres Strait between Australia and New Guinea, Herzog and company are treated to a lovely bit of local lore involving falling stars, as well as the revival of a ritual dance interpreting the tale that hasn’t been performed in nearly 50 years. As day darkens into night, assembled on the slender strand between land and see, the dance reanimates the age-old interplay between the living and their dead ancestors. For a moment, before the screen slowly fades to black, all these elements are held in beautiful balance.

Director: Werner Herzog, Clive Oppenheimer Screenwriter: Werner Herzog Distributor: Apple+, Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Another Round Honestly and Poignantly Grapples with Alcohol’s Pull

Thomas Vinterberg’s latest, like The Hunt, is ultimately a parable about breaking a social contract.

3

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Another Round
Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

There’s a revealing moment early in Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round when high school teacher Martin (Mads Mikkelsen) and his friends and colleagues—Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), Peter (Lars Ranthe), and Nikolaj (Magnus Millang)—are out for a birthday dinner. By this point, the audience knows that Martin is in the throes of a midlife crisis, sleepwalking through his history courses, inspiring the ire of students and parents alike, while regarding his family as little more than roommates. (Throughout, Mikkelsen doesn’t foreground self-pity or defensiveness, suggesting that Martin is too far gone to rouse himself to indignation, hiding under a veil of accommodation.) Because he’s driving, Martin initially resists drinking at the dinner, though his friends talk him into changing his mind, and soon he’s downing a shot of vodka and a few glasses of red wine in quick succession. Mikkelsen shows us the alcohol taking control of Martin in something like real time, his studious reserve vanishing to reveal great waves of sadness, bitterness, and salvation.

Anyone who knows alcoholism knows that face—of completion and fulfillment at the cost of alienation. The poignant terror of the scene resides in how quickly the booze grabs Martin, as if he’s an empty vessel waiting for his charge. In this light, Martin’s prior aloofness takes on new meaning. Though he has many real disappointments familiar to midlife, he was probably a dry drunk who didn’t know it. Over dinner, Nikolaj mentions the Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skårderud, who said that people are born with a blood alcohol content that’s .05 percent too low, and that people should maintain a higher level in order to bring out their potential. We know from Martin’s face that he should stay away from alcohol, but he takes this idea at face value and begins drinking at school. Once the first day is over, he asks Nikolaj for a ride home, claiming that he can’t drive, revealing that he’s begun to experiment with the Skårderud philosophy. We expect Nikolaj to insist that Martin get help, but he and the others immediately join in, claiming that their boozing will be the basis of a future report.

The suspense of Another Round has little to do with whether or not these men will “prove” if day-drinking boosts livelihood. Rather, it’s derived from two nervous mysteries: the question of how long it will take them to recognize this idea for the rationalizing cry for help that it is, and how much damage will be done in the meantime. There’s also a kernel of satire here that one wishes Vinterberg had mined more fulsomely: that the men are taking to the next level a social obsession with alcohol and the various mythologies that we utilize to justify it. Alcohol is still greatly mythologized, associated with virile (masculine) creativity, with great writers and movers and shakers. Martin works the most famous boozers into his lectures, such as Hemingway and Churchill, and his literal and figurative intoxication brings his classes to life. Initially, the theory works, mostly for Martin, but for the other men as well.

In 1995, Vinterberg and Lars von Trier co-founded the Dogme 95 movement, which, broadly speaking, stresses found lighting and parred productions as resistance to the bloat of studio productions. Today, Vinterberg’s films still reflect this ideology, favoring handheld, docudramatic camerawork and few overtly expressionistic frills, which has often seemed prosaically “realistic” in the past. But this aesthetic serves a masterful purpose in Another Round, as his characters are calmly, objectively regarded as they drift further into alcoholism.

Their debauchery is clearly pleasurable in the moment, as benders with friends can be, but the camera is mercilessly attentive to the toll the booze takes—to the confusion, the staggering, the babbling, and especially to the existential pain of a massive hangover after days of being at sea. Overt formal fireworks might’ve glorified this behavior (think of Mike Figgis’s Leaving Las Vegas, which equated a prolonged suicide-by-liquor to a stylish, woozy jazz concert), whereas Vinterberg honors the lure and the danger of drinking simultaneously.

Still, it doesn’t require much artistic ingenuity to make the case that addiction is bad. Another Round is elevated by its cast, especially Mikkelsen, who gives one of the greatest, most lived-in performances of his career, and by a nagging ambiguity. Even as booze begins to destroy these men, the film doesn’t entirely refute the Skårderud philosophy. Someone dies, a marriage nearly dissolves, and the other men sober up, which they soon tire of in the tradition of many people who feel incomplete without indulging in their governing habit. They’re happier after returning to booze, and the teachers among them accomplish the mission of energizing their students. Martin, once a dancer, even begins to dance again.

Like every alcoholic, the film’s main characters are nagged by the exceptions to the rule (the Churchills of the world), by the possibility that they can keep their hungers within a certain perimeter. Another Round, like Vinterberg’s The Hunt, is ultimately a parable about breaking a social contract. Martin and his friends break a code by day-drinking, but perhaps they refuted a larger contract by going sober in a world that values casual lubrication. Every recovering alcoholic is intimately familiar with such a contract, which is among the profound challenges of putting the bottle down and keeping it down. One is reminded of that haunting line from Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master: “You can’t take this life straight, can you?”

Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Lars Ranthe, Magnus Millang, Maria Bonnevie, Susse Wold, Helene Reingaard Neumann, Michael Asmussen, Martin Greis-Rosenthal Director: Thomas Vinterberg Screenwriter: Tobias Lindholm, Thomas Vinterberg Running Time: 115 min Rating: 2020 Year: 2020

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Review: Wildfire Vibrantly Entwines Personal and Political Trauma

The structure of Wildfire’s narrative doesn’t emerge out of a simplistic progression from strife to reconciliation.

3

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Wildfire
Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

The archival footage of the Troubles that opens Cathy Brady’s Wildfire constitutes a remembrance of an era that’s barely bygone. Indeed, as celebratory clips of the peacemaking Good Friday Agreement replace images of gunsmoke, fire, and post-bombing rubble, the film smash cuts to more recent news footage about Brexit and its possible impact on the Irish border, a reminder that the past, and certainly this one, is never past.

The uncertainty surrounding the border of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland is evident in Kelly’s (Nika McGuigan) belabored entry into the latter at the start of the film. Stopped for a heightened security search, the shabbily dressed woman must empty everything out of her camping backpack and strip before being let go, as well as told that it’s been a year since she was reported missing. Comparatively, her journey to her hometown on the Northern Irish border goes significantly easier, but as she slips into the country, the ease of her passage is undermined by the worry that future crossings could be more fraught.

The legacy of the Troubles and the wider history of British colonialism hangs heavy over the film’s early stretches. Kelly crosses the border next to a sign welcoming people to Northern Ireland, but someone, in a unionist gesture, has spray-painted “One” over the “Northern.” In contrast, she encounters Union Jack flags blowing in the wind as she walks down the street, even a building plastered with a giant loyalist motto: “Prepared for Peace. Ready for War.” Yet these omnipresent reminders of national violence give way to more personal legacies of trauma when Kelly heads to the home of her sister, Lauren (Nora-Jane Noone), who had all but given her up for dead. Lauren has struggled to deal with Kelly’s disappearance, and her return conjures ghosts from their past, including the long-repressed memory of their mother’s death.

The sisters’ denial regarding their family history is reflected in a Northern Ireland working to leave its own past behind. Lauren works for an Amazon-esque company that epitomizes post-national globalism; she spends her days in a warehouse so massive that the end of the building disappears at the vanishing point of the frame, suggesting the storage facility at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. A generational divide also reflects how quickly tragedy is forgotten. Lauren’s younger co-workers came of age after the Troubles, and as such they’re completely removed from its horrors, sniggering at the prosthetic leg of a manager who lost her limb in an explosion as those old enough to remember the constant terror of the time fume at the show of insensitivity. And the sectarian nature of that history of violence is subtly born out in the judgmental whispers about whether Lauren and Kelly’s mother died by suicide, a reminder of the influence still exerted by religion and dogma on people who seem otherwise secular.

Slowly, though, the film’s focus shifts away from its social backdrop and toward the increasingly raw emotions that McGuigan and Noone evoke as they chart their characters’ frayed relationship. McGuigan (who passed away of cancer soon after completing the film) emphasizes Kelly’s wild, fatalistic spirit, as if she had inherited it from her mother, always nervous and casting one eye toward the exit even as she attempts to repair her relationship to her sister. Noone, meanwhile, captures the rage of someone who’s learned to accept the loss of a loved one, only to have that person re-enter their life and reignite all the anger and pain that they learned to compartmentalize. Lauren’s veneer of stability starts to crumble almost immediately, as she simultaneously unleashes her fury at her sister and anyone who dares to gossip about her. The sisters each embody a wildly different response to trauma (flight versus fight), though neither approach truly confronts the underlying tragedies that shaped them.

The structure of Wildfire’s narrative doesn’t emerge out of a simplistic progression from strife to reconciliation, as Brady has Kelly and Lauren follow a realistically erratic trajectory. Indeed, no sooner does Lauren reunite with Kelly than she screams for her sister to leave, only to then share a moment of fond nostalgia before bristling again at the memories that Kelly revives. Mutual and individual efforts to make good are constantly thwarted, while occasional moments of joyous interaction between them speak to a lifelong bond that not even decades-suppressed agony can undo. In the film’s most mesmerizing scene, the sisters suddenly cut loose and dance to Them’s “Gloria” inside a seemingly empty pub, working up an ecstatic sweat before it’s ultimately revealed that the space is filled with befuddled onlookers.

Lauren and Kelly’s tumultuous confrontations with their pasts and each other naturally has echoes in the film’s nods to Ireland’s fraught, and by no means settled, modern history. Yet Wildfire crucially never reduces itself to allegory, instead living through the unpredictable, jagged arcs of its characters as they work toward an understanding of themselves and each other. The militarized social strife that informed Lauren and Kelly’s childhoods is but one piece in a larger tapestry of horrors that must be dealt with, and Brady suggests that it’s only through reconciling personal conflicts that a populace can improve its political future.

Cast: Nika McGuigan, Nora-Jane Noone, Martin McCann, Kate Dickie, Aiste Gramantaite, David Pearse, Joanne Crawford Director: Cathy Brady Screenwriter: Cathy Brady Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: The Truffle Hunters Warmly Regards a Disappearing Way of Life

The film’s reminder of the fragility of agrarian traditions in the face of a merciless profit motive is delivered with tact and subtlety.

2.5

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The Truffle Hunters
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

The boom in farm-to-table cuisine over the past decade, in both fine-dining circles and more modest gastropubs, has led to restaurants pointing out on their menus the suppliers and farms from which their ingredients have been sourced. Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw’s documentary The Truffle Hunters taps into this cultural conversation, tracing a line from the food on the plate back to the laborers who harvest it, and yet what it implies is that even with the increased transparency around food sourcing, there remains an essential mystique that must go unpunctured when it comes to certain foods.

Profiling a handful of elderly men from Piedmont, Italy, who pursue precious white alba truffles in the forests of the country’s northern region, the film tries to thread the needle between shining a light on its subjects’ niche trade and not spoiling their secrets. It does so by placing the emphasis on the people themselves over the treasures they dig up, a strategy that aligns the film more with the cine-portraits of Les Blank than, say, Netflix’s Chef’s Table.

Unlike Blank’s nonchalantly matter-of-fact films, though, The Truffle Hunters is shot in a painterly visual style that creates a degree of distance from its subjects. Clearly identifying with and celebrating the expertise of these devoted practitioners and their resistance to nosy profiteers, Dweck and Kershaw seem driven by a desire to enshrine the men in timeless tableaux, the likes of which you might see hung on the walls of a museum next to a Vermeer. To this end they’ve made a lovely film, one teeming with punctilious frames in which everything has been arranged just so. But it also prompts the assumption that the filmmakers took their fair share of liberties with the art direction in the hunters’ homes, which, despite being well within their rights as artists, keeps the film from ever feeling truly spontaneous.

The Truffle Hunters concerns itself with a handful of characters: a few expert foragers; their beloved fungi-sniffing canines; an urban buyer who’s always chasing the suppliers’ elusive secrets; and a crotchety gourmand who samples the delicacies brought his way by other such buyers. Dweck and Kershaw establish a leisurely movement between these different threads, presenting each in the same handsome, methodical manner so as to encourage viewers to draw their own conclusions about the ethics of the buyer-supplier dynamic.

The sequences devoted to the highbrow arena of truffle auctions, where enthusiasts come to sniff and evaluate samples of the earthy substance, are no less detailed in their observation than the passages in the forest and at country homes. But what eventually becomes self-evident is the warmth, self-sufficiency, and camaraderie of the hunters compared to the businesslike aloofness of those on the receiving end of their labor—insatiable careerists who, in a handful of scenes, are shown to barely even evince much pleasure for the food itself.

This reminder of the fragility of agrarian traditions in the face of a merciless profit motive is a welcome one delivered with tact and subtlety, but Dweck and Kershaw occasionally deliver it at the expense of their titular subjects. The highlight of The Truffle Hunters is the hilarious rapport between one persevering scavenger and his grumpy wife, who’s fed up with her husband’s imperiling trips into the woods at night—and for good reason, as several scenes illustrate just how physically taxing the process can be for an ailing body. These sketches of domestic life are rich with lived-in authenticity, and the proximity they grant us to a unique, off-the-grid way of life recalls a similar quality that defines Blank’s films about gumbo sorcerers in the bayou. It’s hard not to wonder how much more of that magic could have been captured had Dweck and Kershaw not bothered to so carefully compose and light their shots.

Director: Michael Dweck, Gregory Kershaw Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 84 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Concrete Cowboy Is Detail-Rich for What’s Basically an Afterschool Special

Concrete Cowboy is stirring when it really dives into specificity.

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Concrete Cowboy
Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

Ricky Staub’s Concrete Cowboy is based on the real-life Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club of Northern Philadelphia, where African-Americans teach potentially troubled children to ride and care for horses as a way of avoiding the temptations of the streets. The reveal of this club is gracefully handled by Staub, as the film’s young protagonist, Cole (Caleb McLaughlin), is dropped off on the doorstep of his father, Harp (Idris Elba), after his mother has given up trying to rein in the delinquent teen. This drop-off occurs at night, and Harp clearly doesn’t live in the best part of town. Scared, Cole asks a neighbor about his father’s current whereabouts and is directed to the nearby “stable,” which sounds in this context like a bar. Cole follows a street and a slum opens up into a literal stable, carved out of dilapidated buildings, with a field where horses roam while cowboys bullshit over a fire and beer. Staub stages this scene with offhand matter-of-factness, allowing us to feel the magic of Cole’s discovery—of a hopeful place existing where it, by all odds, should not.

Adapted from G. Neri’s 2009 novel Ghetto Cowboy, the film is involving when Staub and co-screenwriter Dan Walser stick to the particulars of Harp and the other cowboys’ lives as well as the general working culture of the stable. The horses are kept behind a brick wall in a building that was once suburban, which is rich in cobwebs that bring to mind Miss Havisham’s mansion in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. Before he can ride a horse, Cole must of course pay his dues, shoveling horse shit out of the stable into a dumpster across the street. Staub fashions an entire, richly specific sequence out of this single action, offering a tribute to the pride of diligent work, especially when it’s servicing passion rather than mere survival. Some of the cowboys are also played by their actual counterparts, and their conversation is similarly detailed, rooted in the legacy of Philly and the Fletcher Street club.

Sadly, these details aren’t allowed to dictate the terms of the narrative, existing instead as window dressing for what amounts to an Afterschool Special. Too much of the film’s runtime is devoted to a shopworn conflict: Will Cole turn to dealing drugs or will he stick with the club? We know the answer to that question 10 minutes into the film, and so the perfunctory scenes of Cole riding around and surveying late-night parties and drop-offs feel like an unnecessary distraction from the cowboys. And Concrete Cowboy grows less detailed as it progresses. We’re not told how the cowboys barely subsidize their lifestyle (based on the news, the real-life Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club appears to be more organized, and funded), or if they work other jobs. The cowboys’ relationship to their surrounding community is also glossed over in the film, more or less dramatized by a single celebration sequence.

The delicacy of the film’s early scenes is regrettably missing from other moments that have the potential to be moving. When Harp fashions a special saddle so that a paralyzed cowboy may ride a horse again, we don’t need derivative slow-motion and music to comprehend the poignancy of such a gesture. We also don’t require expository dialogue to tell us that Cole feels excluded in this moment from a father who’s never shown him such generosity, as we glimpse this embittered yet admiring heartbreak in the boy’s face. However, Cole’s wound is cauterized in another wonderful scene, when Harp plays John Coltrane on vinyl and explains to Cole that he was named after the jazz legend. Again, Concrete Cowboy is stirring when it really dives into specificity, avoiding what the New Yorker literature critic James Wood recently defined as our original sin: cliché, which, according to Wood, blocks our apprehension of reality.

Cast: Caleb McLaughlin, Idris Elba, Method Man, Lorraine Toussaint, Jharrel Jerome, Swen Temmel, Byron Bowers, Lamont Fountain, Liz Priestley Director: Ricky Staub Screenwriter: Ricky Staub, Dan Walser Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Film

Review: Pieces of a Woman Is a Patchy but Well-Acted Portrait of Unravelling Lives

When the film’s actors are given space to etch their characters’ feelings, they turn in strikingly naturalistic performances.

2.5

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Pieces of a Woman
Photo: Netflix

Kornél Mundruczó’s Pieces of a Woman swiftly and neatly—perhaps too neatly—establishes its core characters and their relationships to one another. Sean (Shia LaBeouf), a construction worker, is the gruff but loving husband. His wife, Martha (Vanessa Kirby), is the expectant mother who’s eager to start her maternity leave. And her mother, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), is your stereotypical mother-in-law, buying the couple a new minivan just to spite Sean, who pointedly grumbles at one point that he can afford to support his family. These are familiar tensions that the audience is primed to expect will come to a head as husband and wife blissfully await the next stage in their lives.

Prior to the arrival of Martha and Sean’s midwife, Eva (Molly Parker), as golden light reflects off of the white walls of their home, Martha’s water breaks and Sean calms her with affirmations and silly jokes. This will be understood as the calm before the storm of Martha’s labor, which is captured in a single unbroken take. At first, the shot resolutely focuses on the characters’ faces, registering how Martha’s breathing quickens as her contractions grow more pronounced, and how Sean’s façade of stoicism drops whenever his wife takes her eyes off of him, allowing himself to fully feel the panic of a man about to become a father.

But soon, as the increasing chatter between characters starts to produce a current of tension, the protracted steps of the home birth compound the anxiety of the scene. By the time Eva prepares for the final pushing stages and reveals that the baby’s heart rate isn’t meeting normal levels, the tone of the sequence becomes more fraught. And just as things finally seem to build to a happy conclusion, the sound of a ragged breath causes Eva’s face to freeze, and a fade forward in time to a dour autumnal cityscape hints at the newborn’s fate.

It’s at this point that Pieces of a Woman’s narrative splits itself in two. On one side, we follow Martha and Sean as they struggle to cope with their loss, their relationship barely hanging together by a few threads. The focus remains mostly on Martha, who Kirby plays as trapped between poles of numb detachment and rage. As both Martha and Sean turn to others for physical comfort and escape, it’s Kirby who captures the full range of pain’s dissociative properties, stumbling around Boston in a fugue state, searching for some kind of meaning.

The other half of the narrative concerns Eva being brought up on charges of negligence. As a coroner informs Martha and Sean, the baby showed no signs of defects, and that few cases of infant mortality have satisfactory explanations. But friends make comments in which they hope that Eva faces “consequences,” while Elizabeth is determined to put the woman in prison. That the same long take that made Martha’s birthing process feel so immersive also showed how quickly Eva sprang into action to alert a hospital removes any ambiguity about her professional conduct. As such, her legal case becomes nothing more than a way for the bereaved to lay the blame at someone’s feet for a tragic but natural fact of life.

The trial makes sense as a manifestation of that aspect of the trauma process, particularly in a climactic scene where Martha finally weighs in on a legal action that everyone has taken on her behalf. But the time given over to the question of the case’s outcome too stiffly weds a film that’s at its best when living with characters’ emotional torpor to a conventional plot.

When Pieces of a Woman’s actors are given space to etch their characters’ feelings, they turn in strikingly naturalistic performances. Kirby walks a tightrope without collapsing into histrionics, and she conveys Martha’s increasing outbursts less as a show of a loss of control than of slowly regaining it. Elsewhere, LaBeouf soulfully charts the struggle of a man desperately trying to tamp down his sorrow over the death of his child in a last-ditch effort to hold onto the one person left in his life. Even when Sean is scheming behind Martha’s back with her mother or having an affair out of loneliness, LaBeouf stresses the man’s vulnerability and desire to pull his marriage out of the ditch in the face of inevitability. And in a monologue late in the film, in which Elizabeth forcefully explains what life experiences hardened her, Burstyn impressively pushes her character past cookie-cutter status. It’s a show-stopping moment that communicates far more than anything in the last-act coverage of Eva’s trial, which simplistically highlights breakthroughs that are more tacitly conveyed elsewhere.

Cast: Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Molly Parker, Sarah Snook, Iliza Shlesinger, Benny Safdie, Jimmie Fails, Ellen Burstyn Director: Kornél Mundruczó Screenwriter: Kata Wéber Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 120 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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