Veteran. Agitator. Provocateur. Bully. Conspiracy nut. Patriot. These are just some of the labels used over the years to describe Oliver Stone. (Subtle isn’t one of them.) He has spent his filmmaking career charting the currents that propelled America in the post-war era: war, greed, sensationalism, sex, drugs, and rock & roll. Like Jean-Luc Godard, Stone embraces myth then cuts it up to reveal a truth at its heart. Whether it’s the dark side of the counterculture (The Doors), the moment America entered the media age of paranoia and punditry (JFK), the ambition—and folly—that comes with being the leader of the most powerful country in the world (Nixon), or the corporatization of America (Wall Street, Any Given Sunday), Stone has used film to chronicle the dreams, fears, and disillusionments that marked the last half of the 20th century as the most creative—and destructive—in U.S. history. (Is it really a surprise that Stone’s latest movie is about the defining moment of the 21st century?)
So, what’s all the fuss? Why does the phrase “An Oliver Stone Film” make people tense up and prepare to dismiss Stone’s latest as the work of an irresponsible attention-seeker? It’s not just Stone’s provocateur identity that rankles. It’s his unwillingness to adhere to Hollywood conventions. When he tackles true-life subjects like Nixon or the JFK assassination he is respectful but not reverential. For Stone, to be reverential toward history is to simplify it, put it into its place. Stone understands that the Richard Attenborrough approach to biopics (Young Winston, Gandhi) turns the past into a Sunday school lesson, orderly and good for the soul. Stone prefers to mainline history and entertainment into your system. Fact and speculation crash into each other until they create a truth that illuminates what you thought you knew into something new, cleansed of myth, profound.
Stone didn’t make his first “Oliver Stone” movie until 1986; in the first phase of his career, he was one of Hollywood’s most successful—and notorious—screenwriters. His scripts for Scarface (1983), and Year of the Dragon (1985) showed he had a gift for punchy, populist story structure. His Oscar-winning script for Midnight Express (1978) was attacked for taking liberties with real events to jack up the film’s already unbearable tension. Even then Stone knew that in successful films, emotional truth trumps fact.
His first two directorial efforts, Seizure (1974) and The Hand (1981), are the works of a man who is torn between avant-garde experimentation and exploitation gusto. It would take Stone’s third film, Salvador, for him to announce himself as a filmmaker to be reckoned with. He’s become the point man for the Baby Boom’s collective memory—
and the poet laureate for the portion of that generation that didn’t get deferments. To consider his body of work is to see how we’ve processed the past 50 years of American history and culture. His movies aren’t about what happened as what we believe happened, and how we feel about it. He knows you have to grab viewers by the throat to get their attention. Like D.W Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, Stone understands that film, more than any other art form, is best at conveying the emotional spectrum of the human experience, whether its a rock concert, the movement on the floor of the stock exchange, or the gladiatorial battle of football. Stone sees life as spectacle and spectacle as entertainment.
Salvador (1986). Released in April of ’86, Stone’s agit-prop docudrama about Reagan’s disastrous military policies in Central America should’ve been a hand grenade rolled into multiplexes. It barely made a sound. But those who saw it knew it was the start of something special; it ushered in a resurgence in topical filmmaking that had helped define the New Hollywood 15 years earlier, at a time when earnest and efficient political movies (1983’s Under Fire, 1984’s The Killing Fields) were overshadowed by powder-wigged period pieces and mass-appeal blockbusters. Stone knew that audiences needed to be shaken out of their Reagan-era complacency. Salvador did that. By telling the misadventures of Richard Boyle (James Woods), an amoral journalist looking to hustle his way into respectability, and Dr. Rock (James Belushi), Boyle’s piggish “friend” who’s looking for a good time, Stone creates his own version of Gonzo journalism disguised as a grungy road movie. It’s Hunter S. Thompson by way of Costa-Gavras or John Frankenheimer: Fear and Loathing in El Salvador.
The film’s heart is a career-defining performance by Woods. Manic, impassioned, sleazy, the actor may be portraying the real life Richard Boyle, but the characterization is really a takeoff on Oliver Stone, the crusading young filmmaker determined to say what no one else wants to hear. In Boyle, Stone sees a man driven to capture the Truth at the cost of everything else, even his own safety. In contrast to the “hero’s journey” structure of many Stone films, where the protagonist starts out an idealistic youth and loses his innocence, only to have it restored with a wised-up sense of how the world operates, Salvador begins in amorality, with the world’s sleaziest “good guy” at the center.
In a way Stone is right to dispense with any pretense Boyle has lost his “innocence.” Stone knows that in order to function as a journalist in the shadow of authoritarian regimes like El Salvador’s you must keep your moral compass to yourself. Stone sees a world where leftist guerillas are branded “terrorists” by a U.S.-sanctioned right-wing militaristic government in the name of fighting “communists.” He sees politics are a series of compromises; therefore, taking an amoral stance is a means of keeping one’s sanity. It isn’t until Boyle starts hustling for a good cause that he discovers his idealism. By the end of the movie Boyle’s experiences in the hell of El Salvador, like Stone’s tours in Vietnam, have allowed him to achieve a small form of salvation.
All of this would be a drag if Stone didn’t possess the instincts of a sensational filmmaker. Salvador’s dialogue is coarse and funny. (“Where else can you get a virgin to sit on your face for seven bucks, two virgins for twelve.”) While Boyle and Dr. Rock are vulgar scoundrels, they have human frailties and needs, and as the title suggests, they are not beyond redemption. In the film’s most celebrated scene, Boyle, a lapsed Catholic, goes to confession after a 32-year absence. His reason? To ask God’s forgiveness for leading a wicked life so he can marry the peasant woman (Elpidia Carillo) who’s inspired him to reform, sort of. (Boyle can’t just promise to give up booze and pot; he has to carve out exemptions.) This outwardly simple, dialogue-and-performance driven moment—just two men in a booth, one of them hidden behind a screen—marks the start of Boyle’s tilt away from self-interest. We are literally seeing a man discover what it means to know right from wrong.
Stone’s visual style is just as bluntly elegant. The first film in Stone’s 12-year, 11-movie relationship with ace cinematographer Robert Richardson, Salvador displays a grit and immediacy that must’ve been a shock to audiences grown accustomed to the Laszlo Kovacses and Dean Cundeys of the ‘80s. Richardson’s camera is everywhere at once. It sees but it doesn’t linger. The scenes of street life in El Salvador have a jagged yet fluid sense of motion. Richardson doesn’t objectify the locations, but he sees the beauty amidst the ruins.
Stone knows that his story is charged with pulp sensationalism; he uses it to give the story momentum. But although the threat of violence hangs over nearly every scene, the violence itself never feels like a showman’s trick. In dramatizing the internationally notorious incident in which four nuns on a humanitarian mission were raped and murdered by government thugs, Stone displays extraordinary sensitivity to suffering. The camera keeps its distance but somehow makes you feel the horror from the victims’ points of view. The lack of stylization is what makes the scene so devastating. It’s not just a mass killing; it’s a crime against humanity.
Platoon (1986). From its opening epigraph by Ecclesiastes (“Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth!”), to the arrival of new recruits in a world not covered in basic training, to the loading of fresh body bags (a scene that Scorsese would echo in Gangs of New York as new immigrants sign up to fight in the Civil War), all accompanied by Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Stings” (remember when that piece of music still had the power to haunt?), Platoon wasn’t just about what it meant to fight in Vietnam. It was about what it meant to live in Vietnam, and to live with Vietnam.
Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket showed the geographical and cultural factors that separated the first rock ’n’ roll war from all other wars. They showed that the Vietnam grunt’s existential dread was all of a piece with the era’s drugs and psychedelic rock. But Platoon was something new. To watch Platoon is to understand for the first time in a war movie the disorienting nature of jungle warfare. Stone saw things from a grunt’s-eye view. The result was a series of firsthand dispatches from a man who knew that war is more than a rite of passage, and that to survive it is both a miracle and a curse. (It would take Steven Spielberg creating Saving Private Ryan for us to understand that optimism in the wake of The Good War was also a miracle.)
Stone remembers everything. He gets the details just right. He has very little patience with the way movies sentimentalize camaraderie among the men during wartime. He knows it comes and goes. (This doesn’t mean Stone isn’t guilty of sentimentality in his movies. We’ll see that he’s also guilty of nostalgia in his later movies, too.) Stone understands that friendship amongst men during a pressure-cooker situation like Vietnam is fragile. He knows your newest friend might not make it. He also understands the divisions that occur within a platoon—how loyalties form and fracture along ideological, racial and cultural lines.
Stone illustrates this in a terrific sequence where the soldiers hang out during downtime. Most of the white soldiers hole up in the barracks, drinking beer and playing cards, listening to country music (“Okie From Muskogee”) and venting their resentment of the “gooks.” The majority of the black soldiers hang out in a hooch, trying to unwind by smoking dope and listening to the soothing sounds of Motown. There’s a wonderful moment when Chris (Charlie Sheen) is accepted by the black soldiers; as they dance and sing along to The Miracles’ “Tracks Of My Tears,” the moment achieves the clarity of an idealized memory. This, Stone tells us was how it was—and how it should be.
That idyllic moment doesn’t last. It’s followed by a brutal firefight that leads to the movie’s most indelible sequence: a My Lai-like massacre of a peaceful peasant village that is being used by the NVA as a storage facility. The villagers really don’t have a choice in allowing their homes to be used to store weapons, but the platoon treats their explanation as an excuse. Fueled by adrenaline and grief, they see the villagers as ungrateful and impossible to understand; the civilians’ constant pleading sounds like they’re speaking in tongues. Even the usually level-headed Chris vents his frustrations by shooting at the feet of a grinning, mentally retarded man because he “won’t fucking listen.” Bunny (Kevin Dillon), fueled by memories of John Wayne and Audie Murphy, acts out his own hero fantasies by bashing the grinning man’s head in. By the end of the sequence the soldiers have torched the village. This is not just a large-scale version of burning the evidence at a crime scene; it’s the culmination of a series of catastrophic personal choices. What Stone makes clear is that wartime atrocities like these are usually not committed by inherently evil people; they are the result of a series of moral compromises, each one bigger than the last.
Platoon is the first Stone film to feature characters that aren’t merely antagonists, but opposites. Chris’ two mentors–Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe), a sensitive, worn-down leader who uses drugs to keep his demons at bay (and his humanity intact), and Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger), a battle-scarred leader who has been in so many skirmishes that he’s almost immortal–come to represent Good vs. Evil, Peace vs. War, Love vs. Hate. They become apparitions of what war does to men. Critics would accuse Stone of dealing in absolutes by reducing his subjects to iconography. Maybe, but Stone is a filmmaker before he’s anything else, and he uses this characters-as-representatives-of-contrasting-ideals technique to powerful effect throughout his movies, whether it’s John F. Kennedy and Anthony Hopkins’ Richard Nixon representing the bright and dark sides of political leadership, or Colin Farrell’s Alexander and Hopkins’ Ptolemy representing the recklessness and hesitation that separates a born leader from a good soldier. Stone may dance with the devil, but there’s always a moral center to his movies, and morality plays require a degree of abstraction. In Platoon Stone creates his first indelible movie image as Sgt. Elias, running for his life from enemy soldiers, reaches out, arms raised up to Heaven, for a rescue helicopter that’s already taken off. It’s an image that’s almost otherworldly. It’s poetry. And its power originates in Stone’s decision to conceive his story and characters in mythic terms.
Wall Street (1987). Unlike most directors who, after becoming an “overnight” success, take time off to contemplate their next career move, Stone immediately jumped into his next film. It was a smart decision. Stone moved away (temporarily) from the theater of war to the battleground of the go-go materialism of the 1980s. Released in December of 1987, just weeks after the stock market crash, Wall Street is a sensationally entertaining morality play. And in the character of Gordon Gekko, Stone creates the first in a long line of characters that would become a part of pop culture. As played by Michael Douglas, Gekko is seductive, ruthless, Machiavellian in his ability to manipulate, a corporate raider whose amorality is not so much a necessity but a badge of honor. Gekko’s famous “Greed is good” line is more than a catchphrase or a punchline. It defines the new work ethic in America. It pinpoints a sect of society where class and race distinctions are secondary to who has the most money. (This is not to make light of the fact that the cast of Wall Street is all white, but the predominant color of the movie is green.) Gekko says, “I make nothing. I own.” Yes, but for how long? What’s the point of accumulating assets if they’re going to depreciate?
Narratively, the movie is like one of those Executive Suite confections of the 1950s. Stone, a graduate of NYU’s film school, doesn’t challenge Hollywood conventions; he reproduces them in his own voice. In Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), a hungry stockbroker angling to enter the upper ranks of corporate raiders, Stone creates a classic innocent who is ripe for corruption. Sheen, with his fabled real life hedonistic exploits, at first seemed a perfect casting choice, but he comes off as aloof and seems a little out of his depth. Stone’s script compounds Sheen’s misfortune by making Bud too generic—too emblematic of a certain type of 1980s American male. (He’s like Michael J. Fox’s Alex P. Keaton writ large.) His “loss of innocence” is schematic rather than organic; he’s not a person, he’s a movie hero hitting the beats you expect movie heroes to hit.
Stone doesn’t idealize his protagonist; the montage of Bud acquiring his dream apartment, scored to Talking Heads’ “This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody),” reveals the director’s barbed sense of humor. But he does insulate him against our scorn; Bud hustles the world to avoid facing his own inadequacies, and when he finally attains The Good Life, he doesn’t really seem to enjoy his perks. But he’s such a cipher that his moral crisis remains abstract. When he stands alone in his bachelor pad, stares at Manhattan’s nighttime skyline, and asks himself, “Who am I?” we’re supposed to recognize it as a man’s first inkling that he might be selling his soul. But it’s a hollow moment because we never believed there was a soul to sell.
Sheen fares better in the working-class scenes where Bud interacts with his union leader father, Carl, played by Martin Sheen in a nifty bit of meta-casting. Martin Sheen in an Oliver Stone movie has a double-edged connotation since Sheen’s Apocalypse Now character, assassin and narrator Capt. Willard, hovers over the Charlie Sheen-narrated Platoon. (The slapstick parody Hot Shots! Part Deux turns the Sheens’ war film lineage into a sight gag: as Sheen’s Rambo-esque hero travels up a Conradian jungle river, he passes his dad’s Apocalypse Now patrol boat headed the other way, and as father and son cross paths, they salute each other and declare, in unison, “I loved you in Wall Street.”) The scenes revealing Bud’s blue-collar roots have the snap of early Elia Kazan films like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. But that’s also their problem. Stone makes everything black-and-white—working class nobility vs. yuppie corporate management. There’s no suggestion that one extreme shades into the other—that in real life, these opposing social strata are united by a willingness to compromise their values for money.
That said, Stone’s iconic approach is still unsettling because of its evangelical fervor. Wall Street is a condemnation and a warning, a morality play about a society in decay. The film’s legacy is that it captured the moment when America learned that the key to success—bouncing back—is being able to spin bad experiences into part of your character, part of what makes you stronger.
Talk Radio (1988). The “little” movie that Stone squeezed in during the pre-production of Born on the Fourth of July is often omitted from discussion of his filmography. An adaptation of Eric Bogosian’s one-man play, Talk Radio may look like a throwaway, but it’s a major achievement. Stone uses Bogosian’s corrosive insights into the hypocrisies of American culture as a jumping off point to wonder if it is really possible, in a free society, to say whatever is on your mind, no matter whom you might offend. The answer is yes, but at a price.
In the wake of Phil Donahue and Howard Stern, Bogosian’s Barry Champlain, the combative voice of the Dallas airwaves (“The Man You Love To Love!”), engages in verbal warfare as he confronts the shut-ins, conspiracy nuts, neo-Nazis, and sexual deviants who are always on the lookout for that one person who embodies their own view of what’s wrong with the world. That person is Champlain, a wound-up agitator who engages the people on the fringe of society to feed his own demons. Night after night, prowling the studio like a caged animal, Barry says exactly what he wants to say, the sponsors or program manager (or himself) be damned. He turns confrontation into a performance. Barry, like Stone, believes that debating—engaging his audience—is the truest form of communication. Verbal conflict sustains him when he’s not on the air. It’s also what’s driving him mad.
The majority of the movie takes place in the radio studio. Attempts to “open up” the play are confined to an extended flashback sequence that’s interesting but unnecessary. We don’t need Barry’s back story to understand his actions or feelings because Stone has already defined them through composition, camera movement, sound design and music. As Barry stalks around his studio, eyes darting back and forth while some network guys watch to see if they really want to syndicate his show nationally, the claustrophobic setting becomes even more intimate, as if we were watching—and listening—to “The Barry Champlain Show.” Depending on Barry’s caller—for instance, a serial rapist who wants help—Barry is framed to look small, vulnerable even. When he’s discussing the finer points of The Turner Diaries with a neo-Nazi he looms large, as if he’s in control. Stone and cinematographer Robert Richardson visualize Barry’s growing isolation and paranoia through the use of reflections. When Barry’s supportive ex-wife Ellen (Ellen Greene) calls into Barry’s show at a crucial moment late in the movie, pretending to be a Ms. Lonelyheart because he seems to be losing it on the air, the scene is almost unbearable in its intimacy. A series of beautifully timed close-ups and reflections on the studio glass window lets us see them relive their marriage in one brief, devastating conversation. Ellen throws Barry a life preserver by admitting she still has feelings for him, but he refuses to take it. He’d rather drown.
The movie climaxes with one of the greatest monologues in movie history. Seated at his console alone, Barry rails against the world—and himself. He says:
“I mean who the hell are you anyways, you audience? Yes, the world is a terrible place. Yes, cancer and garbage disposals are going to get you. Yes, a war is coming. You’re fascinated by the gory details. You’re happiest when others are in pain. I’m providing a public service. Your fears in your own lives have become your entertainment. Next month, millions of people are going to be listening to this show and you have nothing to talk about. Marvelous technology is at our disposal, and instead of reaching new heights we’re going to see how far down we can go. The only thing you believe in is me. Who are you if you don’t have me? I come in here every night. I make my case. I make my point. I say what I believe in. I tell you what you are. I have to. I have no choice. I come in here every night. I tear into you. I abuse you. I insult you. You just keep coming back for me. I don’t need your fear and stupidity. If one person out there has any idea what I’m talking about I…”
It’s an amazing moment given a powerful visual punch by having the radio-studio set start to slowly, almost unknowingly, rotate as Barry remains stationary. Barry lashes out at the world while he’s in the middle of it, unable to distinguish his fears from his callers’ loneliness. Stone and Bogosian see a society where talk hasn’t become cheap but beside the point. Why bother talking—listening—if no one can ever understand you?
Born on the Fourth of July (1989). Before World Trade Center, Born on the Fourth of July was Oliver Stone’s most aggressively patriotic movie—a fact that confounded detractors who’d pegged him as a muckraker whose interest favored flaws over virtues. But Stone’s iconography-laden compositions didn’t work at cross-purposes with his critical impulse, they granted it fuller expression; they looked through national myth and saw harsh reality, just like the film’s hero, Ron Kovic. By dramatizing the story of Kovic—an all-American kid who enlisted in the Marines in order to go to Vietnam to fight communism, only to return a broken man, physically and emotionally, spending years dulling his pain with booze, drugs, and rage before finding meaning in his military service by becoming an anti-war protester—Stone pinpoints the moment when a generation’s blind faith in the rightness of America’s military actions turned into doubt and skepticism.
Stone, co-writing with Kovic, uses American iconography to cover a key 20-year period—1956 to 1976, from the optimism of Eisenhower to the fallout of Nixon—that saw a seismic change in the way people felt about the purpose of going to war. After Vietnam, a portion of Americans would forever question the necessity of sending soldiers into harm’s way simply because their government assured them it was a “just cause.” (Or, would they?) The opening credits sequence is like a series of Norman Rockwell paintings made flesh. Baseball, 4th of July parades and fireworks, kids playing war, are given a slo-mo grandeur that allows them to become a collective memory of America at its best.
With Born on the Fourth of July, Stone fashions a biographical movie that’s interested in evoking a mood. It is the beginning of Stone moving away from intimate, one-person-against-the-system moviemaking to more conceptual forms of story structure. Starting with Born on the Fourth of July, continuing with The Doors and culminating with JFK, Stone freed himself from accepted standards of editing and pacing, and he became more inclined to locate the intimate story at the center of culture-changing events. This isn’t just a narrative that aims to cover a man’s life from birth to death. It’s biopic as absolution.
Stone and Richardson aim to create a sense of simultaneous objectivity and subjectivity. They filter the film’s visuals through the American flag, using red, white and blue as a constant color scheme. The Vietnam sequences, shot through dustbowl-red filters, are choreographed differently from the jungle combat of Platoon. You still can’t see the enemy, but the difference this time is that you can’t even see the men on your side. After Kovic becomes paralyzed, the camera is almost always at wheelchair level, yet it distances itself from him so that we can observe the world around Kovic. In a mid-movie student protest that erupts into violence, the camera swirls around the action, taking in the brutality from the margins. Scenes like this, or a dinner table confrontation, force us to wonder: Were families really this divided by war? Did war, assassinations, and social unrest occur during such a short period of time? Can it happen again?
The Vietnam sequences are mirrored late in the movie during an extended Mexico sequence where Kovic loses himself in booze, prostitutes and despair. The sequence reaches a moment of absurd comedy when Kovic and a fellow wheelchair-bound veteran named Charlie (Willem Dafoe), who’ve alienated everyone in the local villa, are left by the side of the road to find their way home. The scene shows that Kovic isn’t just paralyzed physically, but emotionally. The movie’s most draining chapter chronicles Kovic’s stay in the VA Hospital. Employing clinically cold white lighting, the sequence taps into the universal feeling of impotence that occurs when you are forced to trust overworked and underfunded caregivers. (There’s a great moment where Kovic is working out in the hospital and Don McLean’s “American Pie” creeps onto the soundtrack, McLean’s sunny voice serving as ironic counterpoint to Kovic’s suffering.)
At the center of the movie is a rigorous and moving performance by Tom Cruise. Cruise’s fabled work ethic is evident in the homecoming scenes as he navigates his wheelchair through the hallways and doorways of the childhood house where he was once a sterling example of athletic grace. In the early all-American scenes, he embodies the naïveté and drive of youth. His face becomes a monument to the innocence of the early ‘60s. Stone takes Cruise’s ability to project American pride—the source of his gung-ho performance in Top Gun—and turns it over to reveal the anger that goes with that pride. Cruise’s opposite is Jerry Levine’s Steve Boyer, a slightly smug college kid who was hip enough to know that Vietnam wasn’t for him. He stayed on Long Island to operate a thriving business. Ron sees in Steve an alternative life he could’ve had. Steve sees it too. When Steve finds Ron drunk and combative at a local bar, there’s a fleeting moment where Steve realizes his luck and Ron realizes his loss. Cruise’s work in the Vietnam scenes is less effective. He lacks authority and seems a little overwhelmed. He doesn’t seem to be a natural born leader (though the film suggests that he would learn to be a leader through his anti-war protests).
The film’s most badly judged scene is a late night argument between Ron and his mother (Caroline Kava). She’s already been set up as a strict Catholic who instilled in her son a sense of guilt that was a key component of him wanting to go to Vietnam. When Ron confronts her about the ugliness he’s seen and done, she doesn’t want to hear it. She doesn’t “get it.” The scene becomes an overheated shouting match. It’s intense and real, but it doesn’t know when to quit.
Stone mirrors this scene to better effect when Ron goes to Georgia to visit the family of a fellow Marine he accidentally shot and killed in an ambush. (The film suggests that this emotionally traumatic incident led to Ron getting wounded.) Critics who are surprised by Stone’s nonjudgmental approach to middle America in World Trade Center have a poor memory. They need only look at this scene to see Stone’s empathy for middle and rural America. He knows that it’s young men from these forgotten communities who are sent to war. Ron confesses his sin to the family because he hopes they will understand him. The coldness of Ron’s mother is offset by the warmth and forgiveness of the fallen soldier’s mother, played by Jayne Haynes in a remarkable one-scene performance. (Ron is not completely absolved. The dead Marine’s wife can’t forgive him, but she tells him, “Maybe the Lord can”—and Ron accepts this.)
The film’s emotional epiphany comes when Stone vividly recreates the 1972 Republican National Convention where Ron and his fellow anti-war protesters storm the floor to vent their anger at the American government. Stone and Richardson let the colors go wild as red, white and blue flood the screen. There’s a sense of fulfillment as Kovic discovers that the most patriotic thing you can do for America is question it.
The Doors (1991). Although the prospect of Stone taking on one of the most decadent bands in rock history seemed like a no-brainer, his follow-up to Born on the Fourth of July was greeted with bafflement and derision. Maybe it’s because The Doors isn’t a straightforward rock biopic; it’s an actual rock ’n’ roll movie, steeped in drugs, rebellion and self-destruction. Stone uses the music of The Doors and the life of lead singer Jim Morrison as a pretext to explore the moment when music, politics, and a new rebel-youth culture were ever-so-briefly interconnected.
Stone understands that the mythologizing of the Sixties has blotted out the darkness that was all of a piece of the counterculture. For John F. Kennedy to exist there had to be Richard Nixon. Woodstock had to have Altamont. The yippie pranksterism of Abbie Hoffman was twinned with the nihilism of Charles Manson. And The Beach Boys needed The Doors. Dreamy, sensual, improvisational, The Doors’ music could not have existed during any other time. Songs like “Light My Fire,” “L.A. Woman,” and “People Are Strange” are memorable because they combine pop sensibilities with trance-out moodiness. The band’s albums don’t hold up from start to finish; they’re too delicate; with the exception of their self-titled debut, Doors albums consist of moments of sustained brilliance amidst the filler. Stone’s impression of the band’s career excises the filler. The Doors is like a greatest-hits collection of the band’s—and Jim’s—most memorable moments. Like rock ’n’ roll, the film is excessive. It’s a trip.
Like Born on the Fourth of July, The Doors is not interested in covering a man’s life from beginning to end. It’s only interested in the end. The movie begins at the end, with Morrison (Val Kilmer) spending three nights in the studio recording An American Prayer, then flashes back to his time at UCLA Film School, where he spent his free time writing and composing poetry and songs. As played by Kilmer, Morrison always seems to be in a daze, as if not fully conscious of his surroundings. But he also has feelers, picking up the slightest bit of criticism then discarding it. It’s a remarkable performance—strange, funny, and a little dangerous. Kilmer’s decision to sing Morrison’s vocals instead of lip-synching is crucial to the movie’s effectiveness, because it’s in the musical performances that Morrison is most alive and attuned to his inner wild child.
Stone rushes through the typical rock movie bio scenes of the band forming, rehearsing and achieving success because he’s not really interested. (There’s only one rehearsal session before they start playing packed nightclubs on the Sunset Strip.) He wants to get at what drove the band to make such decadent music, and how that music was a part of its time. The movie doesn’t really come to life until The Doors perform “The End” at the Whiskey a Go-Go. With its snake-rattle rhythms and Oedipal imagery, “The End” is shocking enough to get the band thrown off stage. The song’s death-trip grandeur syncs up with a generation that’s striving for change, but also oblivion. The performance of the song is given extra meaning because of its connection to the end-of-the-world opening of Apocalypse Now. “The End” is not only a song associated with Vietnam, it is Vietnam.
The production design favors Native American red and leather-pants black. Robert Richardson’s camerawork is fluid, free-associative, as if the viewer was an angel looking down from Heaven. An extended party sequence at Andy Warhol’s Factory is a marvel of timing and staging as one Pop Art gag follows another, creating a dizzying fun house atmosphere. (The scene is goosed along by the use of The Velvet Underground’s love letter to oblivion, “Heroin.”) Morrison’s love affair with death is made flesh by the creation of a Bergman-esque Death figure (played by Stone’s old friend and sometime writing partner Richard Rutowski). Death follows Morrison everywhere; the closer he gets to The End, the more prominent he becomes. The movie’s highlight is the recreation of the infamous 1969 Miami concert that got Morrison brought up on obscenity charges. Stone pulls out all the stops as he turns a rock concert into the death knell for a generation exhausted from its own freedom. (Altamont is just months away.) Lewdness, profanity, fear, Indians taking leave of Morrison’s body: the Miami concert is really the best (and worst) performance of Morrison’s life. The sequence climaxes with Morrison leading a conga line, with Death on his ass, in a back-and-forth performance of “Dead Cats, Dead Rats.” It’s the end of the world and it looks like the greatest party ever.
What the film lacks is any sense of consideration or detachment. Stone sees Morrison as a misunderstood man of his time; he’s claimed he wanted to show that Morrison’s behavior was separate from the music. This is true in the abstract—as the band was falling apart, they created some of their best recordings—but the movie never really dramatizes it. (Some more scenes of The Doors rehearsing would’ve helped.) There’s no sense that Morrison brought about his own annihilation. Stone seems to buy into Morrison’s belief that the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom, so it’s no surprise that he’s not interested in the lives traumatized by Morrison’s self-destructive behavior. The Doors didn’t need to be judgmental, but it should have considered Morrison’s massive ego and how it correlated with the supposed “no rules, no limits” ethos of that era.
Stone’s near-total embrace of subjectivity has an upside, though: it allows us to be immersed in the era’s transgressive attitudes, the sense of total freedom that makes a scene like Morrison’s night of wild sex with a journalist (Kathleen Quinlan), fueled by wine and ritualistic mutilation, appropriate in its excessiveness. There’s a hilarious scene where we see Morrison and his girlfriend Pam (Meg Ryan) try to have a “normal” Thanksgiving dinner. The evening degenerates into slapstick violence as the duck burns and Pam pulls a knife on Jim. It’s like an early sketch of the sitcom-hell sequence from Stone’s Natural Born Killers. (The scene is given a comic-ironic counterpoint by the song “Love Me Two Times” playing in the background.) Scenes like these show Stone’s gift for screw-loose filmmaking.
But Stone’s hero worship eventually paints him into a corner. His blind faith in Morrison as an artist doesn’t allow him to fully acknowledge Morrison’s flaws. Stone’s inability to see that a visionary’s personal failings can also be a part of what fuels his creativity is what separates The Doors, a good biopic, from Nixon, a great one. (It’s also what led to some of the more problematic story points in Alexander.) Stone’s romantic attachment to Morrison and his music is justified, but at a price. The Doors is a cautionary tale about excess with too much excess and not enough caution.
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.
Review: Villains Serves Up Gratingly Quirky Case-and-Mouse Hijinks
Maika Monroe’s engaging performance serves only to highlight how feeble and unconvincing the rest of the film is.1.5
It’s emblematic of the problems with Dan Berk and Robert Olsen’s blackly comic thriller Villains that by far the most compelling thing in the film is its end credits sequence. Set to Courtney Barnett’s grungy punk anthem “Pedestrian at Best,” the animated end titles are an explosion of whacked-out Day-Glo excess, suggesting a film of raucousness and acidity rather than the gratingly quirky cat-and-mouse game to which they’re attached.
Villains pits an ostensibly lovable pair of offbeat outlaws, Jules (Maika Monroe) and Mickey (Bill Skarsgård), against an oddball husband-and-wife duo, George (Jeffrey Donovan) and Gloria (Kyra Sedgwick), whose impeccable manners and stuck-in-the-‘70s aesthetic belies their complete sociopathy. The film opens on Jules and Mickey haphazardly, but successfully, robbing a convenience store before promptly running out of gas not long after making their getaway. What seems like the setup for a jokey riff on the Bonnie and Clyde story takes a darker turn when the drug-addled duo breaks into a nearby house hoping to steal a car or at least siphon some gas only to find a young girl (Blake Baumgartner) chained up in the basement. Just as Jules and Mickey are deciding what to do with the kid, George and Gloria arrive home, setting off a game of brinkmanship between the two couples.
While Berk and Olsen manage a few clever twists, there’s no sense of stakes throughout, and in no small part because the four main characters feel less like real people caught up in a dangerous situation than repositories of phony eccentricities. George and Gloria’s house, furnished in the style of the late 1970s, with burnt-orange couches and an antique cathode-ray TV, is too impeccably art-directed to feel like anything other than a film set. His smooth-talking salesman patter is overwritten, robbing the character of any truly sinister edge. And while her bizarre behavior—she seduces Mickey with a burlesque routine and treats a baby doll as if it were her infant son—is supposedly motivated by her mental instability, it comes off more like the filmmakers’ desperate attempts to get a rise out of the audience.
Jules and Mickey are a bit more down to earth but scarcely more believable, mostly because Villains feels the need to keep underlining the zaniness of their criminality as, for example, they struggle to figure out how to rob a cash register and snort cocaine for energy the way Popeye eats spinach. It doesn’t help that the performances tend toward the mannered and over-the-top. Donovan and Sedgwick adopt the exaggerated Southern drawl of a televangelist couple, while Skarsgård is shouty and demonstrative. Only Monroe really strikes the right balance between the absurd and the sincere, finding a sense of vulnerability within Jules’s naïve dreaminess. But her sensitive, engaging performance stands out too sharply, ultimately serving only to highlight how feeble and unconvincing the rest of the film is.
Cast: Bill Skarsgård, Maika Monroe, Jeffrey Donovan, Kyra Sedgwick, Blake Baumgartner, Noah Robbins Director: Dan Berk, Robert Olsen Screenwriter: Dan Berk, Robert Olsen Distributor: Alter Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: The Laundromat Flimsily Addresses the Panama Papers Scandal
Steven Soderbergh takes a macro approach to the scandal, though the results, with rare exception, are vexingly micro.1.5
Steven Soderbergh takes a macro approach to the true-life Panama Papers scandal with The Laundromat, though the results, with rare exception, are vexingly micro. Smug one-percenters Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas) and Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman, speaking in an uproariously broad German accent) are the often on-screen narrators of the film. They’re the heads of the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca & Co., which provided offshore financial services to shady clientele (Wall Street types, arms merchants and dictators, Margaret Thatcher’s son, etc.) until a leak by an anonymous source, still known only as “John Doe,” brought the company down in 2016 and led to global repercussions.
From the showy first scene (Soderbergh once again serves as director of photography under his usual pseudonym, Peter Andrews), the dapperly dressed Fonseca and Mossack act like the wronged heroes of an ages-old saga. They pompously begin their story at the start of humanity, the two of them, like gods in tailored suits, gifting a group of cavemen the means to make fire. In the same shot, the duo descends into a gaudy nightclub where they attempt to explain, Big Short-style, the enduring power of money and the ways in which shell companies shield the super-rich from taxes. It’s a to-camera lecture that’s drier than the Sahara Desert. Though the woozy ennui that quickly sets in seems somewhat intentional, as if Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, adapting Jake Bernstein’s 2017 book Secrecy World, are making the point that schemes like this are by their nature insipid and impossible to explain. The less sense it all makes, the better protection for those massive liquid assets.
There is, of course, an ample human cost to all the wheeling and dealing. Some of the money Mossack Fonseca oversaw was connected to a low-cost insurance company that sold a fraudulent policy to Shoreline Cruises, the tourist outfit behind the 2005 Ethan Allen boat accident on Lake George, in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, that claimed 21 lives. Soderbergh very effectively recreates that tragedy here, focusing in particular on retiree Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep), whose husband, Joe (James Cromwell), drowns after the vessel capsizes. Ellen launches her own investigation when the insurance payout from Joe’s death proves a pittance and the “golden years” existence she hoped for slips away. (Sharon Stone pops up as an officious realtor who snatches the Las Vegas apartment of Ellen’s dreams right out from under her.) Ellen, however, is more of a recurring protagonist since The Laundromat takes a Traffic approach narratively, jumping around the globe for a series of visually color-coded vignettes that focus on different, and seemingly disparate, characters.
There’s a noirish encounter between the Ethan Allen’s bewildered Captain Perry (Robert Patrick) and the agitated go-between, Matthew Quirk (David Schwimmer), who bought the illicit insurance policy that’s landed Shoreline Cruises in hot water. Elsewhere, a ludicrously wealthy man (Nonso Anozie), preparing for a party in his sun-soaked mansion, navigates the fall-out from an affair by attempting to buy the silence of both his daughter (Jessica Allain) and his wife (Nikki Amuka-Bird) with a portfolio that’s ostensibly, but not actually, worth millions. But the best in a largely banal show is a gut-busting visit to a dusty south-of-the-border bar where Will Forte and Chris Parnell, playing characters credited as “Doomed Gringo #1” and “Doomed Gringo #2,” discuss Neil Diamond and run afoul of a cartel boss.
As in Soderbergh’s Traffic, all of these bits and pieces are connected, in this case to Mossack Fonseca’s underhanded business practices. And also like Traffic, The Laundromat flirts with and occasionally tips over into racist stereotyping, as in a chilly Far East vignette in which Matthias Schoenaerts plays a debonair man of mystery named Maywood who’s poisoned by a woman, Gu Kailai (Rosalind Chao), who has high-up connections to the Chinese government and very much acts the part of the nefarious Dragon Lady seductress.
Streep herself is involved in another kind of ethnically based narrative wrinkle, though it’s something of a spoiler to say exactly how. (Best to just note that Ellen Martin isn’t the only role that the actress plays in the film.) The particulars of this choice are staggeringly ill-advised. Though they do act as foundation for The Laundromat’s impressive coup-de-cinema finale in which Streep sheds several chameleonic skins and offers a fourth-wall-shattering call to arms—a bold climax in no way worthy of the flimsy film that precedes it.
Cast: Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas, Jeffrey Wright, Melissa Rauch, Jeff Michalski, Jane Morris, Robert Patrick, David Schwimmer, Cristela Alonzo, Larry Clarke, Will Forte, Chris Parnell, Nonso Anozie, Larry Wilmore, Jessica Allain, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Matthias Schoenarts, Rosalind Chao, Kunjue Li, Ming Lo, James Cromwell, Sharon Stone Director: Steven Soderbergh Screenwriter: Scott Z. Burns Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: To the Ends of the Earth Masterfully Reckons with the Nature of Fear
With his latest, Kiyoshi Kurosawa celebrates the conquering of fear as our greatest hope against the world’s horrors.4
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s films are, by and large, intensely fixated on representing the experience of fear, and the range of human preoccupations that generate it: burgeoning technological development, encroaching environmental disaster, ecological instability, the lingering presence of the dead, and, of course, our capacities and limitations as individuals. More recently, the Japanese auteur has illustrated just how foundational, and persuasive, that fear is to the human psyche through a more stripped-down aesthetic. And this approach led him to a logical terminus: 2016’s Creepy, a seemingly straightforward procedural that, in its absence of any real explanation for the violent behaviors that its characters are prone to, put forth the chilling suggestion that no less than our free will itself is innately negated by the insurmountable influence of our own fear.
Kurosawa’s latest represents an even more radical departure for the filmmaker, as he abandons his typically taut narrative framework for a film squarely focuses on character—a strategy that results in the his most intricately rendered portrait of the psychology of fear to date. To the Ends of the Earth is not, by any measure, a horror film, but it uses aesthetic and philosophical foundations that Kurosawa laid in his genre work to insinuate tensions and anxieties lurking beneath the serene surface of everyday life. The film’s setup could almost be interpreted as a kind of self-aware joke: A Japanese camera crew arrive in Uzbekistan with the purpose of shooting footage for a travel show and become increasingly frustrated over not having enough usable material. As such, generally little in the way of incident occurs for much of the film. However, To the Ends of the Earth isn’t just a meandering film born of an auteur’s plane ticket to a foreign country: If Kurosawa is less interested in narrative dynamics, it’s because he’s focused on an acute understanding of societally and sociologically conditioned behavior.
Yoko (Atsuko Maeda) is a diligent and unwavering TV host, and the sole woman traveling with the camera crew. When the cameras are on her, she performs energetically and enthusiastically, without hesitation—wolfing down a bowl of undercooked rice with aplomb and toughing out multiple turns on a ludicrously raucous amusement park ride, all so that her cohorts can “get the shot.” Off camera, though, a very different Yoko appears: a docile young woman whose exchanges with her director, Yoshioko (Shota Sometani), and cameraman, Iwao (Ryo Kase), are marked by an obvious impression that, as a woman, she reacts subordinately to the men who give her instructions, even when doing so puts her wellbeing at risk. Yoko’s gender likewise colors her interactions with the Uzbeks she encounters: One man bristles at taking her out in his boat, and another shows great concern for her safety when she’s on the park ride, but only in a way that infantilizes her, as he initially assumes that Yoko is “under age,” then refers to her as a “child” even after it’s explained to him that she’s an adult.
The film seems at first to position itself as a study on how gender roles inform the different ways that Yoko is treated by the countryman with whom she’s traveling, and by the local Uzbeks. But Kurosawa has only just begun to develop his underlying thesis by this point. As Yoko strikes out on her own, exploring the landscape of an entirely foreign Uzbekistan, she’s guided by both her curiosity and her considerable cautiousness, two poles of her personality that determine behavior in a variety of spaces, from the more sparsely populated residential areas, to the densely crowded marketplaces, to the sprawling plains beyond the city.
Since Yoko herself doesn’t speak the language, Kurosawa chooses not to subtitle the Uzbek dialogue spoken throughout To the Ends of the Earth, and this decision, combined with the use of a filmic grammar that often feels ported over from the director’s horror films (dramatic lighting, wide frames that emphasize an individual’s feelings of alienation, and eerie silences), serves to envelop us in the psychological space of a young woman whose emotional engagement with a foreign culture, as well as her careerist ambitions and her ability to be open with those around her, are subject to ingrained fears and anxieties.
Kurosawa elevates his film above exploitation of these feelings with a pair of sequences that gesture toward profound understanding. In the first, Yoko hears the distant sound of a woman singing, enters into an imposing building from which the voice emanates, and wanders through a series of rooms, with Kurosawa’s camera tracking behind her. Each room has its own unique design and distinctive color scheme, and as Kurosawa begins to match-cut between them, Yoko seems as if she’s being surreally transported through some unconscious space. Finally, the rooms lead to a lavish concert hall, the lights dim, and Kurosawa cuts from a close-up of Yoko’s face in shadow to a wide shot of a stage, where Yoko suddenly, and disarmingly, launches into a Japanese rendition of Edith Piaf’s “Hymne à l’amour.”
Soon after, Yoko awakes in her hotel room, unsure if what she experienced was dream or reality, and we’re left unsure as to what the liberated charge of her performance is really meant to represent. But later, a translator for Yoko and her crew, Temur (Adiz Rajabov), explains the history behind the Navoi Theater, the building that Yoko may or may not have already visited. Temur explains that the theater was built by Japanese POWs in World War II, who carefully followed the instructions of their captors in crafting six waiting rooms, each designed according to a different Uzbek regional style. Timur marvels at the story of men who “had been enemy combatants,” but who worked hard and created something transcendent. The scene concludes, with a close-up of Yoko, as she processes what she’s heard.
Just as the Navoi Theater was a catalyst for Japanese prisoners to transcend the horrors of war, the story of its construction impresses upon Yoko the possibility of liberating herself from her own deepest fears about the world. The rest of the film, then, imbues its most harrowing moments—including a chase sequence and a sudden threat to Yoko’s boyfriend back in Tokyo—with a new emotional and philosophical gravitas. This shift also serves to recontextualize Kurosawa’s horror aesthetics as a means of progressing to the film’s final moment of catharsis. “Even if the sky falls and the Earth goes to pieces/I won’t be afraid,” sings Yoko with absolute conviction—a declaration that, it cannot be discounted, also serves to punctuate a career spent crafting apocalyptic narratives depicting the ruin of humanity. With To the Ends of the Earth, Kurosawa celebrates the conquering of fear as our greatest hope against the world’s horrors.
Cast: Atsuko Maeda, Shôta Sometani, Ryo Kase, Adiz Rajabov, Tokio Emoto Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa Screenwriter: Kiyoshi Kurosawa Running Time: 120 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Harriet Turns Tubman Into a Saint at the Expense of Her Humanity
Portraying Tubman above all else as a vessel for a higher power ironically only makes her appear less tangible.1.5
Kasi Lemmons’s Harriet is a laudable attempt at documenting all that’s been untold by history books about Harriet Tubman’s life and achievements. The prevailing image of the American abolitionist and political activist is of a proud, hard, almost unknowable woman in her dotage—an image that Lemmons and co-screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard seek to amend, if not shake from our minds, by tracing Tubman’s steeliness back to its source as a symptom of the ferocity that drove her as a young freedom fighter.
First, however, we will know her as Minty (Cynthia Erivo), the name given to her on the plantation, in Dorchester County, Maryland, where she’s enslaved. Right away, it’s evident that a burning desire for freedom animates the woman, as well as her family, a mix of freemen and slaves who have a knowledge of their rights and cling to the promise of freedom made to them by their masters’ grandfather and that their current owners will not honor.
As Harriet, Erivo radiates an intensity that shines even in the early scenes that depict the young woman’s supplication to her masters. Harriet has a hard stare that communicates her resolve even when she averts her eyes from white people, and as soon as it becomes clear that her masters will never honor their grandfather’s will, she decides to run away with her freeman husband, John (Zackary Momoh). When John is caught by Harriet’s masters, the woman flees alone, making a 100-mile journey from Maryland to Philadelphia on foot.
As much as the film stresses Harriet’s ironclad conviction, it also attributes a great deal of her fortunes as a liberator to dreams and hallucinations resulting from a brain injury she incurred as a 12-year-old, when she was accidentally hit on the head by an iron weight that was thrown at another slave by a white overseer. Routinely, Lemmons cuts away from Harriet to a dreamscape where visions of the past and future are entwined and deliver warnings to Harriet with the certainty of prophecy. It’s one thing to engage with Harriet’s sincere belief in the power of her visions, but Lemmons’s ardent devotion to her desaturated dream motif brings a supernatural quality to Harriet’s life that undercuts the many scenes that make the case that Harriet was driven above all else by deep reservoirs of inner strength and ingenuity.
Tubman made 19 trips back to the South. The first saw her raiding her former plantation in order to rescue members of her family and other slaves working the land. Many such raids followed, and by the start of the Civil War, during which she became a spy and nurse for the Union, Tubman had escorted some 300 slaves to the North by making use of the Underground Railroad. This is a staggering achievement, all the more so because she never lost a single slave on her expeditions, but Lemmons doesn’t give us a sense of the scope of that feat. By focusing so much on how Harriet was led by her visions, the filmmaker gives short shrift to all the planning that it took for the woman to organize and execute multiple rescue missions, all the while eluding ever-growing hordes of slave patrols devoted to her capture.
Harriet’s religious-political prophesies naturally recall Joan of Arc, and the film even makes this comparison when Harriet’s former mistress, Eliza (Jennifer Nettles), screams that the runaway slave should be burned at the stake. But the dullness of Lemmons’s depictions of Harriet’s second-sight powers, all frantically edited, blue-toned glimpses of slaves in flight and whites in pursuit, feel purely functional and provide no insight into Harriet’s mindset. Despite Erivo’s stoic performance, Harriet does too little to infuse its revisionist portrait of Tubman with the force it clearly wants to show in the woman. Portraying the abolitionist and activist above all else as a vessel for a higher power ironically only makes her appear less tangible. Turning her into an American saint comes at the expense of her humanity.
Cast: Cynthia Erivo, Janelle Monáe, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Clarke Peters, Jennifer Nettles, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Henry Hunter Hall, Zackary Momoh Director: Kasi Lemmons Screenwriter: Kasi Lemmons, Gregory Allen Howard Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 125 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Where’s My Roy Cohn? Stares Steadfastly Into the Face of Evil
This sharp, to-the-point portrait of the crook, fixer, and right-wing pitbull resists the urge to darkly glamorize him.3
For those wanting to stare into the face of misery personified, look no further than Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary about “legal executioner” Roy Cohn. From the opening scenes of Cohn whispering in Joseph McCarthy’s ear in 1954 to clips of him denying his homosexuality and AIDS diagnosis not long before his death in 1986, the man’s hollow eyes show nothing but rancor. His mouth is pursed tight, waiting to launch the next poisoned barb. He looks like a man devoured by hate, a third-string movie villain transported to real life.
According to Where’s My Roy Cohn?, his villainy was complicated in its execution but not its source. For roughly three decades, Cohn operated as a kind of nexus connecting organized crime, influence peddlers, political chicanery, and American conservatism. Through it all, he tried to cut as large a profile as possible. Raised in the Bronx by a doting mother and a father who was a powerful judge, Cohn appears to have been a mean little cuss all along. His cousin, Dave Marcus, is one of many family members to appear in the documentary, calling Cohn “the definition of a self-hating Jew.” Apart from a virulent (and possibly legitimately felt) anti-communism, there’s no clue here as to what powered Cohn besides rage and ambition.
Except for a few short flashbacks, the documentary sticks to a mostly chronological telling of Cohn’s biography. It’s a brisk and lively telling, flickering through an incident-packed life in a way that suggests the existence of whole movies’ worth of stories that Tyrnauer didn’t have time to get to. Rather than sticking with straight biography, though, the filmmaker uses Cohn’s combination of ribald corruption and destructively reactionary politics not just as spectacle, but as a foreshadowing of the current political age. An indisputably brilliant legal mind, Cohn graduated from Columbia Law School at the age of 20 and was soon working as a fervently dedicated prosecutor on the controversial espionage case of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. One of the interviewees recalls asking Cohn later if he had any regrets about their execution in the electric chair. He replied that, if possible, he would have thrown the switch himself.
Cohn took his malice to the F.B.I., where he learned how to cripple an enemy with malicious press leaks. Recommended by J. Edgar Hoover to McCarthy, Cohn became a fixture at the Wisconsin senator’s hearings, whispering new lines of attack into the paranoid and undisciplined senator’s ear. While much of this has been reported elsewhere, Tyrnauer highlights one curious wrinkle. Cohn’s homosexuality was already an open secret. But he made the mistake of pulling strings for David Schine, a handsome aide to McCarthy who many believed was Cohn’s boyfriend, after Schine was drafted. This caused a scandal when the news came to light, leading to the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings. Clips show a tight-lipped Cohn facing homophobic innuendo from senators about his “friendship” with Schine as some in the crowd snort and giggle. Tyrnauer doesn’t use the moment for sympathy, but rather to acknowledge that, vile or not, Cohn had no choice but to stay in the closet.
After the debacle of those hearings, which also destroyed his boss, Cohn moved into private practice. Through the 1960s and ‘70s, he became something of an obnoxious Gatsby figure, linking high society and the underworld. He blew money on fancy cars, lurked at Studio 54, and reveled in the most garish brand of success possible. Eager to be seen with famous people, he threw the kind of parties where one could meet politicos on the make, gangsters on the town, Cardinal Spellman, Andy Warhol, Barbara Walters, Halston, Donald Trump, and any number of Nordic-looking young men Cohn was most certainly not sleeping with.
Tyrnauer never tries to cast Cohn as an antihero. The picture that forms is less of a person than a black hole. A brilliant and utterly unethical lawyer who usually won his cases but stole from his clients nonetheless, Cohn used the same scorched-earth tactics whether defending a member of the Gotti family accused of murder or Trump against charges of housing discrimination: Never surrender, never apologize, attack relentlessly, leak to the press, lie as loudly and frequently as possible, and when in doubt, wrap yourself in the flag. Fortunately, the film doesn’t care to spend much time showing how those strategies were adopted by Trump, who comes off here as a flabby reflection of Cohn, without the brains.
In an excerpt from a 1970s interview that Cohn gave to journalist Ken Auletta that Tyrnauer strings out through the film, Cohn tries to recast his petulance as nonconformity. This act of Cohn’s is much the same one used by his acolyte, fellow practitioner of political dark arts Roger Stone, who pops up briefly to wax nostalgic about old Roy. More often than not, though, Cohn’s attitude played as venom for its own sake. Discussing all the times Cohn was targeted for crimes (stock fraud, insurance fraud that included possible murder), Auletta laughs that Cohn “enjoyed” the indictments, “because it gave him a platform to attack.”
The documentary’s unequivocal vision of Cohn as a dead-eyed being of pure malice could come off like hyperbole. But really it isn’t too far from the self-hating hypocrite depicted on stage by Tony Kushner in Angels in America. Sometimes, fiction gets it right first.
Director: Matt Tyrnauer Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Waves Sweeps You Up in a Formidable Current of Formalist Tricks
This is a rare case of a film that’s stronger when it colors inside the lines than radically traces outside of them.2
Writer-director Trey Edward Shults’s Waves begins in motion, with shots kinetically circling and tracking its young characters. Along with the film’s editing—which is timed throughout to endless music cues, be they pop songs or the muffled industrial moans and staggered beats of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score—Shults is quick to establish Tyler’s (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) bona fides as a dedicated student and wrestler. The filmmaker also highlights the luxury in which the teen lives, from his huge home to the brand new cars that his parents and their children drive. Tyler immediately comes across as a kid who has it all, including the love of an adoring girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Dernie).
Efficient as it is as an introduction to Tyler, the montage that opens the film also simplifies the young man—namely, to all the good things in his life. Defining a character by what he has makes it all too easy to create the sort of drama that exists to strip all of those things away, which Waves proceeds to do in such quick and overwhelming fashion that Tyler starts to resemble a modern-day Job. A horrible muscle tear in Tyler’s shoulder threatens his wrestling career—and, implicitly, his college scholarship opportunities—while a text from Alexis that she hasn’t gotten her period sets into motion a series of events that shifts the mood of the film away from the joyful, if antic, toward something almost horror-like in its chaos.
The vivid color timing of Drew Daniels’s cinematography, which bathes every single shot in the film’s first half in some unreal shade of red, purple, yellow, or blue, first imparts a cool chic, only to then conjure an aura of oppressiveness as Tyler loses control of his life. Waves’s connections of sight and sound are initially intriguing and, by design, suffocating, but they’re often conspicuously on point. For one, Shults is prone to communicating the totality of Tyler’s misery through a series of music cues that are obnoxiously timed to moments of violence, such as the beat of Kanye West’s “I Am a God” hitting when an enraged and confused Tyler shoves his overbearing but loving father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), to the ground.
Shults at times nurtures an understanding of Tyler’s downward-spiraling life outside of the unfortunate events that dog him across the film. Ronald, who exudes the hardness of a man who had to fight for what was his, tells Tyler that they have to work twice as hard as whites to succeed. Fertile ground is created here to recast the millennial, upper-middle-class Tyler’s trajectory as a spin on Bigger Thomas’s own in Native Son. In Richard Wright’s novel, a crucible of poverty and systemic racism propels a young black man living in Chicago’s South Side to atrocity, and in Waves, Shults sees how the pressure of maintaining the precariousness of black wealth, in a society that looks for any excuse to strip it away, is a recipe for disaster.
But the film at no other point remotely explores the idea that Tyler, or anyone else in his family besides Ronald, ever exhibits any anxiety over being black in America. By and large, the forces that push at Tyler are the stuff of run-of-the-mill teen drama, from the stress of not being able to play sports to fear of becoming a parent at a young age. The latter concern is the primary motivating factor of the film’s first half, and it’s unnerving to see how much of the story is driven by Tyler’s controlling rage over Alexis’s pro-life views, even as the woman herself is portrayed as stubbornly closed to any discussion on any serious topic.
The sheer aggressiveness of Waves’s first half gradually becomes an assault on the senses that communicates nothing deeper than the despairing nature of Tyler’s setbacks. But just as the film reaches a fever pitch of violent, stylishly rendered catharsis, it shifts perspective from Tyler to his sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), who’s coping with the aftermath of his behavior. And this pivot is signaled by an abrupt and significant aesthetic change, as the artifice, propulsiveness, and rage that mark the film’s first half abruptly give way to a more naturalistic color palette, with the aspect ratio that had gradually narrowed as the walls closed in around Tyler opening back out into widescreen, as if Waves were starting to catch its breath.
The muted telling of Emily’s story seems to belong to an almost entirely different film. Isolated from her classmates and coping with Tyler’s actions, Emily finds some direction out of her own sadness with Luke (Lucas Hedges), a classmate nursing his own family trauma who sheepishly asks on her a date and begins a relationship with her. Throughout this section of the film, Shults mirrors some of his introductory shots of Tyler and Alexis with ones of Emily and Luke that illustrate the differences between the young couples. An early shot that spun around the interior of Tyler’s truck showed him and Alexis in a state bliss but also acting out a series of extended poses, as if they were taking Instagram selfies even when not on their phones. Their flashy, demonstrative behavior contrasts sharply with a later shot that repeats the spinning motion inside a car, but this time documents the quiet solemnity that smothers Emily and Luke as they try to take comfort in each other’s presence.
One can argue that Shults’s throttling back of his formal ambitions in Waves’s second half, and the way Emily seems as if she’s walked off the set of a coming-of-age indie, is a miss. But his pushing of the film’s aesthetic needle past its previously gimmicky contours allows us to sit with his characters in ways that feel more than just reverential. The shift in tonality strengthens the story’s narrative core, giving the characters enough space to communicate their internal worlds instead of just react to an endless barrage of horrifying external stimuli. It also fills Waves with a touch of humanity, allowing it to quite literally transcend the exploitative, unilluminating phantasmagoria that comprises its first half. This is a rare case of a film that’s stronger when it colors inside the lines than radically traces outside of them.
Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Taylor Russell, Sterling K. Brown, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Lucas Hedges, Alexa Demie Director: Trey Edward Shults Screenwriter: Trey Edward Shults Distributor: A24 Running Time: 135 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Martin Eden Is a Moody Portrait of a Writer’s Need for Individualism
Martin Eden works better as a story of self-loathing and self-destruction than it does as a social critique or political statement.2.5
Charles Baudelaire, the great French poet and intellectual, wrote in his journals, “There is no form of rational and assured government save an aristocracy. A monarchy or a republic, based upon democracy, are equally absurd and feeble. The immense nausea of advertisements. There are but three beings worthy of respect: the priest, the warrior and the poet. To know, to kill and to create. The rest of mankind may be taxed and drudged, they are born for the stable, that is to say, to practise what they call professions.”
Baudelaire became more aristocratic as he accumulated success, his views increasingly reactionary. We like to think of writers and artists as great humanists, as empathetic and caring creatures who see the world in a somehow smarter, clearer way. This is, of course, an unfair expectation, and Baudelaire, for all his indelible work, was just as human as the next person, and eventually succumbed to a common affliction: individualism.
Baudelaire is the subject of a conversation in Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden, an adaptation of Jack London’s semi-autobiographical novel that relocates the action to Naples, in a nebulous time period. (The details—clothes, technology, manners of speech—change from scene to scene, making it impossible to ascertain when the film takes place.) A socialite named Ruth (Giustiniano Alpi), whose skin has the gentle luminescence of fresh snow, asks the handsome, uneducated sailor Martin Eden (Luca Marinelli) if he’s ever read the poet, which, of course, he hasn’t. Baudelaire represents the allure of bourgeois life, which beckons to the working-class Neapolitan. He becomes smitten with the girl—and her lavish lifestyle—and decides to become a writer, like Baudelaire, and to write in Italian, even though he isn’t fluent in the language.
Martin, fueled by proletarian ire and the fervor of love, longs to earn the respect of the upper-class literary world so that he can marry the educated Ruth. From London’s novel:
“Here was intellectual life, he thought, and here was beauty, warm and wonderful as he had never dreamed it could be. He forgot himself and stared at her with hungry eyes. Here was something to live for, to win to, to fight for—ay, and die for. The books were true. There were such women in the world. She was one of them. She lent wings to his imagination, and great, luminous canvases spread themselves before him whereon loomed vague, gigantic figures of love and romance, and of heroic deeds for woman’s sake—for a pale woman, a flower of gold…”
Martin Eden works better as a story of self-loathing and self-destruction than it does as a social critique or political statement. Marinelli and Marcello don’t make the difference between Martin at the beginning and Martin at the end distinct enough for viewers to really appreciate the character’s transmogrification. But as a piece of filmmaking that’s about the craft of filmmaking, Martin Eden, which was shot on 16mm, is occasionally brilliant. It’s an amalgamation of epochal aesthetics and formal styles, from drifty handheld shots and grainy close-ups of emotional faces that recall the French and Italian films of the late-‘60s, to static compositions and inky-black shadows that threaten to swallow Martin and the bourgeoisie. The color grading lends an ethereal air to the landscape shots (the ocean, blue and writhing, looks especially beautiful). Marcello splices in clips of silent films and footage of workers in Naples, which further emphasizes the timelessness of the film’s themes.
Martin spends most of the film trying to transcend his meager origins. He sits at his typewriter, pecking away at the keyboard, composing love poems, aspiring for greatness. He reads, he writes, he sails, he broods. His prolonged toil and Sisyphean desperation wear him down, and he develops a disdain for the rich. And yet, as he becomes more educated, he also feels ostracized from his working-class friends. The ancient Greeks were able to create beautiful works of art and engender new philosophies because their slaves did the physical labor, Martin learns, and, in turn, he begins to liken socialism to a slavish system.
Martin’s individualism, which is dichotomous to London’s own unwaveringly leftist views (London intended Martin to be his foil, the novel a damning depiction of capitalism, and of the system that allowed him to become a well-off celebrity writer). London was 33 when he wrote Martin Eden, having already found tremendous success with The Call of the Wild and White Fang. He wrote the novel during a two-year trip through the South Pacific, on a ketch he designed himself, while afflicted with bowel disease. These despondent conditions inspired the cynicism that pervades Martin Eden. For London, the story of a writer who becomes self-obsessed and learns to despise everyone around him was a personal story, one culled from his own life and his own anxieties. Marcello’s film never seems as concerned with its character or his internal tumult. “Who are you, Martin Eden?” the sailor says while gazing at himself in the mirror. Like Martin Eden himself, it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be.
Cast: Luca Marinelli, Jessica Cressy, Denise Sardisco, Vincenzo Nemolato, Carmen Pommella, Carlo Cecchi Director: Pietro Marcello Screenwriter: Maurizio Braucci, Pietro Marcello Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 129 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers Is a Fun Parable of Great Recession Survival
The film is remarkable for capturing a brewing conflict between women while also celebrating their connection.3
Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers immediately announces that it’s going to be as flashy as its fur-draped, jewel-bedecked protagonists, with an extended single take set to Janet Jackson’s “Control.” “This is a story about control,” Jackson tells us, as we follow Dorothy (Constance Wu), known professionally as Destiny, from a hectic strip-club dressing room out onto the stage, where, along with a line of other women, she’s presented to potential lap-dance recipients. The assertiveness of the film’s opening long take contrasts with Dorothy’s relative timidity at this point; as we’ll come to see, she hasn’t fully adapted to survival at Moves, the high-end but still very skeezy strip club where she works. Soon, both character and camera are stopped dead, transfixed by the act that follows the parade of lap-dancers: Ramona Vega (Jennifer Lopez), veteran Moves stripper and the film’s true center.
Ramona performs a rousing pole dance to the unexpected—but, as it turns out, entirely fitting—“Criminal,” contorting her body around the steel beam in rhythm to a bass-heavy version of Fiona Apple’s elusively sexy bad-girl lament. It’s a scene destined to be the film’s most memorable, given how overdetermined the enjoyment of pole dancing is today as both erotic spectacle and athletic performance, and given the way the scene calls attention to the physical prowess of its superstar actor. One can’t help but watch it with a kind of dual consciousness: On the one hand, there’s Ramona, Dorothy’s idol and de facto sovereign of Moves, and on the other, there’s Lopez, a 50-year-old pop icon and sex symbol, whose agile defiance of preconceptions about age, beauty, and fitness is crafted to elicit vicarious thrills.
It makes sense, then, that we don’t see another spectacular pole-dance performance from Lopez again in the film, as from this point, despite its playful approach to narrative form, Hustlers would prefer that we see her only as her character—with the exception, perhaps, of a shot of her reclining in a fur coat and one-piece that unmistakably brings the “Jenny on the Block” video to mind. The seasoned exploiter of horny men takes Dorothy under her wing, teaching her how to pole dance (the viewer is left to ponder how Dorothy got a job at a Manhattan strip club without knowing even the basics of pole dancing), and educating the Queens native about strategies for earning maximum tips from Wall Street slimeballs.
It’s 2007 and the time is ripe for dancers who service the privileged bros trading unregulated derivatives, and with Ramona’s help, Dorothy finds herself able not only to pay back the debts of her beloved grandmother (Wai Ching Ho), but also appropriate some of the wealth-signifiers of the decadent 1% she serves, like a monstrous 2008 Escalade. Scafaria accentuates this accumulation of wealth and agency in the runup to the 2008 financial crisis with no shortage of musical montages and slow-motion shots of Dorothy and Ramona striding through the club. The film dwells in the sensorial excess of high-end stripping, but also in the camaraderie that blooms between Dorothy, Ramona, and the other women at the club (a supporting cast that includes Trace Lysette, Mette Towley, Lizzo, and Cardi B as, essentially, herself).
Dorothy’s voiceover is justified by a frame narrative, in which she recounts the tale of these heady times to a journalist, Elizabeth (Julia Stiles). The film relies on this framing device for act breaks and foreshadowing, as when Dorothy makes the ominous, if somewhat incongruous, pronouncement that “Ramona wasn’t in it to make friends, she just did, but she was always in control.” The structure of the frame narrative leads Hustlers into some unnecessarily convoluted formulations, as the plot fast-forwards through the recession and later catches up with Ramona’s activities between 2008 and 2011 in flashback—a flashback embedded within a flashback that feels like extraneous stylistic flair. It’s one of many sequences in which Ramona usurps the authorial voice in the film, as if the force of her personality had pushed Dorothy out of the way. Scarfaia is clearly more interested in the strength and charisma of Lopez’s ambitious, alluring dancer than in her neophyte main character.
It’s after the financial crash that the titular hustle begins, with Ramona recruiting Dorothy, now the mother of a toddler, and two fellow dancers, Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), to help her drug men, cart them back to the club, and coerce them into handing over their credit cards. The cons that follow are presented with a vibrant sense of humor, relishing the way the women take advantage of the men’s oblivious horniness, their defenses lowered by the women’s nakedly performed obsequiousness. Recurring punchlines around Annabelle’s compulsive nervous vomiting and Mercedes’s ambivalence about her prison-bound boyfriend (“3-5 years is a serious commitment,” she says at one point) serve to lighten the mood around their commission of rather serious crimes.
Hustlers takes the intense bonds formed between the women in these unlikely circumstances as its driving theme. The film is remarkable for capturing a brewing conflict between women while also celebrating their connection, avoiding the trap of styling an argument between strippers as a petty catfight. This is true even if the dialogue sometimes falls back on repetitive proclamations about the group of nascent felons being a “family” or “real sisters,” and if the editing relies too much on pop-music montages that also grow repetitive (surprisingly, though, the soundtrack features more Chopin than it does comeback-era Britney). The film proves to be a fun parable of Great Recession survival, its barely submerged subtext being the communal strength of women of color, the population most affected by the crash.
Cast: Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Lili Reinhart, Keke Palmer, Julia Stiles, Trace Lysette, Cardi B, Lizzo, Wai Ching Ho Director: Lorene Scafaria Screenwriter: Lorene Scafaria Distributor: STX Films Running Time: 109 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Motherless Brooklyn Captures the Look but Not the Spark of Noir
The film revives many noir touchstones, but never the throbbing unease that courses through the classics of the genre.1.5
Fans of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn will be immediately struck by writer-director Edward Norton’s decision to change the novel’s time setting from 1999 to 1957 for his long-gestating film adaptation. Given how effectively the novel transplanted a classic hardboiled noir setup to contemporary New York, Norton’s popping of the novel’s anachronistic bubble is curious for how it makes literal what Lethem made so playfully postmodern. By setting his film in the ‘50s, when the noir style was at its most influential, Norton only makes it easier to spot those moments where the dialogue is trying much too hard to capture the snap, wit, and loquacious cynicism of the genre’s best films.
Norton retains the central gimmick of Lethem’s book: a gumshoe protagonist with Tourette’s syndrome. Lionel Essrog (Norton) works as a private investigator for Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), who accepts his mentee’s issues and very much appreciates his photographic memory. On the page, Lionel’s condition makes thematic sense, as his clear, observational, intuitive internal monologue, a staple of detective fiction, contrasts sharply with his uncontrollable outbursts, which shatter the image of the laconic private-eye hero who sees much but tells little. It’s problematic no matter how you slice it, but one can at least see the logic.
On screen, however, the story’s reductive, stereotypical depiction of Lionel’s various conditions becomes impossible to ignore. Norton sees his character as a live wire, compounded out of explosive twitches and explosive outbursts. In voiceover, the actor speaks with a low, gruff voice befitting an old-school movie detective, but when speaking aloud he has a high, almost childlike tone, one that uncomfortably casts Lionel as some sort of innocent naïf, despite consistently being the smartest and shrewdest man in the room.
When Frank is killed in a clandestine meeting with unknown clients, a heartbroken Lionel resolves to find his friend’s killer. Lionel, introduced in on-the-nose fashion as he tugs on a thread from a soon-to-be-unraveled sweater, digs so deep into the mystery that he begins to uncover a vast, Chinatown-esque conspiracy involving New York’s corrupt city planner, Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin). A tyrannical bureaucrat with a Randian complex, Moses has concocted an elaborate trail of red tape to force poor, predominantly black residents out of the city to turn affordable housing into ritzy, modern blocks for the wealthy.
It’s here that the film’s altered time setting is most fascinating: By tackling gentrification in the ‘50s, Norton makes the argument that it isn’t a byproduct of late capitalism, but rather a core component in the history of city planning, a project that spans decades of careful molding of demographics and social hierarchies. But the racial angle of Lethem’s novel, more bracing for being set in the present, is mostly just period-appropriate window dressing in the film, not any more upsetting than any of the other openly racist policies of the era. What the material gains in a long-term view of social engineering it loses in specificity.
There are moments where Motherless Brooklyn succeeds as a loving homage to noir. The scenes where Lionel acts more like a determined, unflappable gumshoe—nicking a reporter’s press badge to pose as a journalist, piecing together disparate clues with reflex-fast deducing skills—hit all the right genre beats. And his relationship with Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a housing fairness activist who responds to Lionel’s kind soul, spark with chemistry that’s less sexual than affectionate. But even those moments in the film that could pass for something out of an actual noir find Norton riffing on the genre’s tropes rather than expanding on them.
Visually, Motherless Brooklyn is bathed in dirty smears of yellow light that mimic chiaroscuro technique, but Norton’s cutting patterns are distinctly modern-seeming, rife with seemingly endless shot-reverse shots that throw off the rhythm of the pulp dialogue by so obsessively cutting to each individual speaker. Norton’s too-neat visual coverage is indicative of the film’s greatest failing. At its best, noir leaves enough unsaid that, even if a mystery is solved, one is left with the distinct impression that nothing has been fixed. Motherless Brooklyn feels altogether too tidy, a film that revives many of the touchstones of noir, but never that throbbing unease that courses through the classics of the genre.
Cast: Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Bruce Willis, Willem Dafoe, Bobby Cannavale, Ethan Suplee, Michael K. Williams, Leslie Mann Director: Edward Norton Screenwriter: Edward Norton Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 144 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Oliver Laxe’s Fire Will Come Exudes the Respect of a Guest in the World
Laxe’s film refreshingly occupies an almost uncategorizable cinematic realm.3
Oliver Laxe’s Fire Will Come refreshingly occupies an almost uncategorizable cinematic realm. Were it a piece of writing it would exist at the crossroads of an essay, a reportage, and a series of haikus singing the praises and the plights of a threatened ecosystem. Although we know its images to be composed and assembled, and as such “fiction,” the film’s delicate pace and the contemplative choreography of its camerawork conjure a sense of authenticity so organic that we’re almost convinced that there’s no space between the characters and the actors, between the filmed setting and the actual landscape.
This is a film where the characters’ names coincide with those of the actors playing them. It’s at once a portrait of a place and a portrait of a person—namely, of the Galician countryside and of Amador (Amador Arias), an arsonist who returns home to see his elderly mother, Benedicta (Benedicta Sánchez). Given the rich simplicity of the scenario, Laxe recognizes that even the smallest amount of traditional plot would feel excessive. The movements and intentions of the film’s camera, philosophy, and rhythms bear a lyrical kinship to Trás-os-Montes, a portrait of the eponymous region in the north of Portugal, not far from Galicia.
But filmmakers Margarida Cordeiro and António Reis juxtapose serene contemplation with unabashedly theatrical interventions in their landscape. Laxe, on the other hand, is largely happy to extract drama from the disarmingly un-posed ordinariness of his actors’ faces and sharp sounds of their environment. Raindrops hitting dry soil, toppling trees, the fog that turns the entire frame into an abstract canvas—all conspire toward a refusal to tell a story through something other than the meticulous observation of the world at hand. It’s a world teeming with dogs panting, cows mooing, roosters crowing, twigs breaking, chainsaws gashing trees. And, of course, fire burning almost as ardently as the many things that remain unsaid by characters too disillusioned to bother engaging with one another beyond the absolutely necessary daily tasks: eating, collecting milk from a cow’s udders, or attending a funeral.
Except when music plays, from Antonio Vivaldi to Leonard Cohen, at which point Laxe gets too close to stylizing an ecosystem that’s already polished enough, and forcing a dialogue that reticence articulates with much more refinement. A car scene where a veterinarian, Elena (Elena Fernandez), plays Cohen’s “Suzanne” to Amador, for instance, works as a coded declaration of love interest. Amador tells the woman he doesn’t understand the song’s lyrics. She’s clearly trying to get close to him and says he doesn’t need to understand a song in order to like it. Here, Fire Will Come loses its commitment to opacity and nuance, as Laxe juxtaposes Cohen’s song to images of the landscape and close-ups of a cow, distancing himself from art cinema’s froideur in favor of a kind of music-video sentimentality.
The film is much more in synchrony with the haziness of its imagery when it preserves the awkwardness between characters, the impossibility for anything other than life’s basic staples to be exchanged. In a scene where Amador is drinking beer alone in a pub, Elena approaches him as if to invite him to go somewhere, or to avow her feelings in some acceptable fashion. By then, we know Fire Will Come’s inhabitants to be too emotionally unavailable for any desire to find a way of manifesting itself. So, it doesn’t come as a surprise that all that comes out of the veterinarian’s mouth is: “What I wanted to ask you is how your cow is doing.”
It’s a wonderful, and wonderfully pathetic, moment, because Laxe doesn’t try to craft a metaphor around it or translate the true intentions behind the characters’ inability to see emotion as something other than foreign luxury. He simply lets the ecosystem function, observing without clarifying. That is, accepting the filmmaker’s position ultimately as that of respectful guest in the world he has created and which has developed a life of its own.
Cast: Benedicta Sánchez, Amador Arias, Ivan Yañez, Inazio Abrao, Rubén Gómez Coelho, Elena Fernandez Director: Oliver Laxe Screenwriter: Santiago Fillol, Oliver Laxe Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
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