Jason Bellamy: Alexander Payne films don’t have the distinct visual styles of movies by Quentin Tarantino or Wes Anderson, to name two other filmmakers of his generation, but they are quickly recognizable just the same. Payne’s five feature films are quasi-tragic comedies with hopeful but not fully redemptive conclusions about people struggling with significant life changes. Protagonists in Payne’s movies are always flawed. Relationships are usually difficult, distant, damaging, or all of the above. And deception is commonplace. On the face of that description, Payne’s movies mustn’t seem distinct at all. In fact, I think I just described every crappy romantic comedy from the past decade or more. But what sets Payne apart is the way he applies these themes—unflinchingly exposing his characters’ worst tendencies before ultimately regarding them with great sympathy—and, even more so, who he applies them to. If Payne’s films are known for anything, it’s for being about average Americans, emphasis on the “average.”
Of course, at the movies, where Jimmy Stewart can be considered an “everyman” and Kathrine Heigl can be cast as the proverbial “girl next door,” “average” is never ordinary, which is precisely why Payne’s characters generate so much attention, because they’re often ruthlessly unexceptional. Ruth in Citizen Ruth (1996) is a promiscuous glue-huffer who becomes a pawn in an abortion debate. Jim in Election (1999) is an awarded high school teacher who can’t outsmart his students or pull off an extramarital affair. Warren in About Schmidt (2002) is a retiree with no interests or usefulness. Miles in Sideways (2004) is a writer who can’t get published, a wine snob who can’t control his drinking and an introverted romantic who can’t move on from his divorce. Matt in The Descendants (2011) is a husband who doesn’t know his wife and a father who doesn’t know his kids. And those are just the main characters.
Because Payne’s characters tend to live modest lives (some of them in modest Middle America), and because Payne is so fearless in his examination of their faults, and often uses his characters’ shortcomings as mechanisms for humor, his films have often been attacked as condescending. In this conversation we’ll go into each of the five films mentioned above, as well as Payne’s memorable vignette from 2006’s Paris, Je T’Aime, which does little to deflect the accusations of condescension. But let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room. Ed, does Alexander Payne look down his nose at his characters, or ask us to mock his characters, for being unremarkable? Is his humor mean-spirited and class-conscious? In short, is he condescending?
Ed Howard: That’s cutting right to the core, because my major problem with Payne is that yes, he often is condescending. Prior to this conversation, I never really thought too much about Payne. I’d always liked Election, but I saw his subsequent two features when they came out and promptly forgot about them. Now I’ve revisited his work in a condensed period, including his new film The Descendants and his first feature Citizen Ruth, which I hadn’t seen before. Perhaps as a result of this compressed viewing schedule, I’m overwhelmed by the sense that he often presents pathetic, emotionally troubled and outright unlikable people as though he’s examining them under a microscope rather than really breaching the distance between director and characters, or audience and characters. He wallows in the suffering of his characters while laughing at them and encouraging the audience to do the same.
It’s a troubling attitude to detect in a director, and it’s especially naked in his first film, the bleak comedy Citizen Ruth, a vicious and omnidirectional satire/parody of the abortion debate, which has bile to spare for both the religious right and the liberal activists who oppose them. Citizen Ruth, more even than Payne’s later films, is dominated by a mocking, condescending tone. Behind every grotesque closeup and outrage-laced line of dialogue is a director intent on demonstrating how much better he is than the characters he’s created. One could argue that Payne is simply skewering both sides of a very public debate, trying to get each side to recognize their own absurdities, but both sides here are so caricatured and extreme that I suspect no one will recognize themselves in any of these characters. Indeed, whereas Payne’s subsequent films, particularly his three most recent works, have earned him a reputation for mild-mannered realism and quiet character observation, Citizen Ruth is a bold, sloppy satire with all of its characters drawn in the broadest possible strokes. Ruth herself (Laura Dern) is a perpetually befuddled paint-and-glue-huffer, a homeless woman who’s left a train of shattered relationships and unwanted children behind her. But she’s the most fully rendered character in the movie despite the willfully outrageous back story, thanks in large part to Dern’s expressive and sympathetic performance, as well as the little meta flourishes that make Dern’s Ruth a wide-eyed audience surrogate unable to comprehend the media and political circus assembling around her. By the end of the movie, Payne even seems to have some affection for this deeply fucked-up individual, and her final moment in the film, in which she runs away from it all with an excited little fist-pump, suggests at least some transient and probably soon-to-be-wasted joy and triumph. (It’s perhaps telling that Payne, rarely one to provide even that much good feeling, says the ending was forced on him by Harvey Weinstein.)
If Ruth is a complicated and thorny character, it’s hard to argue that the other people in the film are anything other than condescending caricatures. After her latest arrest, Ruth stays with a perpetually smiling Christian family who manipulate her as a symbol for their anti-abortion protests, and later she leaves them to stay with a lesbian couple who promptly begin using Ruth as a symbol for pro-choice activism instead. No matter who Ruth is with and which side she’s temporarily on, Payne and cinematographer James Glennon put a lot of emphasis on caricatured closeups of faces: the exaggeratedly smiling faces of the Christian Stoney family, the tight-lipped righteous outrage of the lesbian Rachel (Kelly Preston), and especially the solicitous, eerily unwavering grin of anti-abortion Nurse Pat (Kathleen Noone) and the disheveled doctor (Kenneth Mars) who aids her in “counseling” women about their choices. There are so many faces of smug certitude and indignation in this movie, so many faces locked into the rigor mortis of fake sweet smiles. Payne’s camera unfailing homes in on these expressions, making the faces seem grotesque, because on some level he seems to despise and ridicule everyone in this movie, mocking their religious values (including the hippie spirituality of the liberals), their fashion sense, their politics, their ways of speaking and their faces. There’s no doubt this is a mean film, which might be alright—so much great comedy is mean—if it wasn’t also so shallow. Its meanness doesn’t seem to go any deeper than cheap shots and simplistic caricatures.
JB: There’s no doubt that Citizen Ruth is populated by caricatures, and because the film has such a consistently mocking tone it’s perhaps the easiest Payne movie to label as condescending. But I’m not sure that it is, at least not when viewed independently of Payne’s other films. I grant you that Payne looks down on the way these characters behave, and if that, in and of itself, makes Citizen Ruth condescending, then it is. But the absurdity in Citizen Ruth is so universal that I’ve got to believe that Payne feels he’s represented within it—not by a specific character but by a collection of them, not realistically but comedically. Citizen Ruth, it seems to me, owes a lot to Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951). The movies are significantly different in that Ruth is an unwitting pawn, whereas Kirk Douglas’ Chuck Tatum is a conniving manipulator, but both films end with depictions of ambulance-chasing, scandal-hungry, self-centered hoards of onlookers that are satirical in tone but hit close to home just the same.
If I got the sense that Payne is suggesting the abortion debate is only a Middle American problem—Citizen Ruth is one of three Payne films to be set in Omaha, Nebraska—I’d find the condescension argument more convincing, but I don’t get that sense at all. True, Ruth is a homeless huffer. True, the Stoneys are conservative Christians. True, Diane (Swoosie Kurtz) and Rachel are moon-loving hippies. True, all of these characters are cartoons, to some degree or another. But when the media and the onlookers arrive late in the film, I sense that Payne is suggesting the connection of these characters to the world around them. No, you might not see yourself in the Stoneys, but if you’re pro-life, like it or not they represent you. Likewise, you might not see yourself in Diane and Rachel, but if you’re pro-choice, they represent you. The point Payne seems to be making is that in the abortion debate neither side can be completely proud of the tactics used by soldiers on the frontlines, and he rams that message home by drawing the characters in screwball extremes.
Of course, I should admit my own bias might be clouding my judgment. I’m pro-choice and unreligious, and I realize Payne is harsher on the pro-life folks, whom he depicts as even more devious and corrupt than their pro-choice counterparts. But I think the larger point remains true. What Payne is looking down on is the behavior itself, in which both the unborn child and the pregnant woman are treated like military objectives to be won or annihilated while morality and righteousness are thrown out the window. Is this judgmental? Absolutely. But that isn’t unusual at the cinema, and that’s not why Payne is labeled condescending. He gets that label, it seems to me, because of a perception that he’s judging people based on their lower class. And although it’s undeniably true that the characters in Citizen Ruth are modest at best and trashy at worst, I don’t believe Payne is directly linking the social status of these characters to the content of their character. Am I wrong?
EH: I wouldn’t go so far as to say you’re wrong, but I think there’s room for doubt about what exactly Payne is doing here. It’s very telling to compare the broad lower-class caricatures of Citizen Ruth to the middle-class intellectuals and would-be creative types of Sideways or the upper-middle-class professionals of The Descendants. Certainly, Payne doesn’t spare those later characters some gentle mockery, but I don’t think he eviscerates his more cultured and sophisticated characters the way he does the lower-class Christian conservative Stoneys or even the hippie liberal lesbians Diane and Rachel. There’s crassness and nastiness in Citizen Ruth that seems to be tempered when Payne turns his attention to characters closer to his own interests and socioeconomic milieu. He takes some very easy cheap shots in this movie, like the scene where self-righteous religious crusader Blaine Gibbons (Burt Reynolds), shirtless and hairy, reclines in a chair and pompously extols his own virtue while a fey young boy oils up his hands to massage the religious leader’s bare back. (Admittedly, it’s an almost irresistibly funny set-up, at least in part because it’s Reynolds playing the part.) Later, Ruth’s mom tries to guilt her daughter into keeping the baby until Ruth shouts back, by megaphone, that she had to give her mom’s boyfriend a blowjob, to which this paragon of motherly virtue responds, “Don’t bring that up again, that’s ancient history. I’ve been saved!” At moments like these, I definitely get the sense that Payne is mocking lower class white trash culture, savaging the sexual dysfunctions and hypocritical religions of these specifically Middle American characters.
Payne isn’t unfailingly negative—I suspect he has some respect for pro-choice activist Harlan (M.C. Gainey), who seems to have a moral stability that’s utterly missing in everyone else on either side—but for me his obvious contempt for virtually everyone in the movie sabotages his attempts to make satirical points about the political beliefs represented here. I don’t get the sense that he’s “suggesting the connection of these characters to the world around them” so much as he is self-consciously trying to spread the bile around so he can claim impartiality; after mocking Christian conservatives early in the movie, he seems to think that he needs to balance things out. Lesbian liberals can also sing goofy spiritual songs! Balance! Payne’s sensibility here is reminiscent of the overtly political episodes in the mostly disappointing later seasons of South Park, in which Matt Stone and Trey Parker mock both sides of any given debate so assiduously that it begins to seem less like even-handed cynicism about everyone and everything and more like a weaselly way to avoid taking a clear stand on a divisive issue.
JB: That last argument is especially compelling. Indeed, maybe all that lesbian moon chanting is Payne’s way of paying admission at the Louvre before stealing one of the paintings—a pittance made en route to a larger calculated attack. But I don’t think the charges of condescension come from a sense that Payne is cowardly or disingenuously talking out of both sides of his mouth so much as a feeling that he has enough cynicism to spread around to everyone. Thus, if “everyone” in Citizen Ruth is worthy of Payne’s critical viewpoint, the real issue becomes what “everyone” in Citizen Ruth has in common that makes them worthy of that criticism, cynicism and mocking. For me, as I stated earlier, what these characters share is a tendency to act selfishly under the guise of altruism. It’s that hypocrisy I think Payne is attacking, but it’s nevertheless true that these characters also happen to fit Hollywood’s caricature of poor white trash, and that’s what gets Payne in hot water.
What I find interesting is that the condescension charge is pointed at a film like Citizen Ruth but not at other films populated by people behaving badly who may or may not be, according to the popular expression, too stupid to live. I’ve never heard anyone suggest that The Hangover is condescending to white men, or that Bridesmaids is condescending to women, or that producer and lead actress Sarah Jessica Parker looks down on her character in the Sex and the City series (if anything, Parker has been criticized for the opposite). So is Citizen Ruth, for all its madcap antics, just not ludicrous enough to seem non-confrontational and not glamorous or forgiving enough to seem redeeming? I make that argument somewhat knowing the answer: the key difference, of course, is that Payne is making a statement about these characters’ faults, whereas those other comedies aren’t (at least not as severely). But abortion isn’t a class issue, so why is it that that people assume Payne is making a class argument? You pointed out, and rightfully so, that Payne’s films have seemed to judge characters according to their socioeconomic status, from the cartoonish depictions of Citizen Ruth to the more compassionate depictions of The Descendants, and that’s true, at least broadly speaking. But it might also be coincidence, the byproduct of a common evolution of many filmmakers toward the mainstream.
To me, when I boil Citizen Ruth down to its essence, I see behaviors. On the one side there are the pro-lifers, equating abortion with the killings in Auschwitz, Dachau and the Vietnam War, as they cruelly manipulate Ruth to make a decision out of guilt and fear, a hardly Christian way to operate, even if one believes in the result. And on the other side there are the pro-choicers who keep telling Ruth that the pro-lifers are preventing her from making the decision that she “wants” to make, which isn’t true because Ruth isn’t aware enough to really “want” anything. Payne may have more fun mocking the un-Christian actions of the religious pro-lifers, but he doesn’t go easy on the pro-choicers, who at one point arrive at the Stoney home armed and later effectively hold Ruth captive after kidnapping her. Citizen Ruth is full of closeups, as if Payne is accentuating the way that people keep lying to Ruth’s face. It’s these actions that deserve ridicule, like the way that the nurse smiles with delight while traumatizing Ruth with the anti-abortion propaganda, and if they were carried out by people of greater means, as in a Woody Allen movie, they’d be no less despicable.
EH: Oh, there’s no doubt that these people would be despicable no matter what class they belong to. The scene where Ruth visits the phony clinic is so squirmy and horrifying. It’s a chilling depiction of the ways in which women actually are manipulated in fake “clinics” like this, where the real and rather obvious purpose is not to give women information or medical help but to frighten and cajole them into making a particular choice. Payne’s capacity for withering satire is especially apparent in this sequence, as he piles on the outrages until the whole thing seems absurd: the unnaturally grinning Nurse Pat, who seems more and more delighted the more disgusted Ruth becomes, the doctor’s casual manner as he hands his patient a tiny plastic baby, the surrealism of the moment when they convince Ruth to name the baby that she wants to abort. In a way, I wonder if the absurdity of it all doesn’t work against Payne’s point in some ways, because by exaggerating the personalities of the doctor and the nurse and really piling on the weirdness, it almost makes the whole thing seem unreal, disconnected from reality. It’s as though at times the satire is so effective and so broad that it distances the film from the very real situations that Payne is drawing on. There really are places that do to real women pretty much what Nurse Pat and the doctor do to Ruth, but it’s easy to forget that because of how outrageously bizarre Payne makes it all seem.
A much more effective technique is the way Payne has Ruth subtly break the fourth wall at times. As fucked up as Ruth is, she still frequently observes what’s happening around her with a dazed but critical eye that makes her an audience surrogate trapped between two outrageous and exaggerated extremes. The best example is the moment after Ruth’s visit to the anti-abortion “clinic.” As the nurse and Gail chatter about how well the patient is doing, Ruth slowly turns, incredulous, towards the camera, shooting the audience a conspiratorial look as though she too can’t believe what’s going on here. In a subsequent shot, Gail takes Ruth out to a beauty spa to celebrate her “decision” about her baby, and Ruth still has a numb expression on her face beneath the green gunk caked on her face. Later, when Diane and Rachel are singing, they enter the frame one by one, their profiles to the camera, their faces upturned rapturously towards the moon. Then, shattering the formal rigidity of the composition, Ruth strolls into the shot in the background, looking at her new guardians as though puzzling over some exceptionally abstract piece of art, trying to figure out what’s going on here.
I think these moments are probably the best argument that Payne might not have a condescending attitude towards Ruth, at least. Indeed, in these scenes he aligns her with the audience’s distaste for and bemusement with the other characters, using her glances towards the camera and self-conscious disruptions of the frame to invite the audience to share in her askew perspective on the craziness around her.
JB: What I find particularly interesting about Ruth is that Payne and Dern manage to make her such a sympathetic figure even though she’s completely irresponsible, unforgivably stupid and extremely insensitive. It starts with the opening sequence, which is one of the best in the film. We see Ruth having unenthusiastic and uncomfortable intercourse on a sheetless mattress in a dirty apartment littered with beer bottles. On the soundtrack plays Bobby Caldwell’s rendition of the romantic and thus ironic “All The Way.” Then we hear the sound of a needle skipping on a record player and “All The Way” disappears from the soundtrack as Ruth gets kicked out of the apartment by the guy who just fucked her. We’re less than 90 seconds into the movie, but we already get a terrific sense of Ruth: she mixes with the down-and-out crowd, she’s willing to trade her body for a roof over her head or drugs or both, she has no control of her life and, we can be pretty sure, she’s got no one who loves her. This not only makes us a bit more understanding when we find out that she’s had numerous unplanned pregnancies and been a failure as a mom, it also makes us appreciate why she’s so easily manipulated throughout the rest of the film. She’s desperate for some attention, some indication that her life is worth something. Thus, in one of the film’s funny-tragic moments, Ruth erupts with joy when she finds out that her life is worth $15,000, which to her sounds like $15 million, provided she has the baby.
I’ve never been a fan of Dern. In fact, that’s putting it mildly. In most films, she comes off to me like an actor struggling to look deep—lots of scrunched facial expressions that come off like acting gestures, not expressions of actual emotion. But I find her terrific here, very natural, and that’s key to Ruth, because what’s ultimately endearing about her is her sincerity. It comes through in that scene in which she learns of the $15,000 dollar reward and bounces out the door, ready to run off with the pro-lifers again. It comes through in the scene in which she profanely reenacts an argument with an ex-boyfriend in front of the young Stoney boy. And it comes through in what I think is the most hilarious moment in the movie, when a startled Ruth, running away from Diane and Rachel, winds up on her back kicking both feet in the air in an absurd attempt at self-defense.
I think this movie would play a lot differently if Ruth’s drug of choice were crack or heroin. Instead, her huffing habit is less unseemly than pathetic, which makes Ruth seem so hopelessly lost you can’t help but feel for her. “All my life I never had a chance,” Ruth says through tears at one point, “if I had money, my life would be different.” While poverty and irresponsibility aren’t necessarily linked, it’s hard to disagree with her notion that things have been stacked against her. Regardless, when Ruth becomes a pawn caught between two sides more concerned with a child that hasn’t been (and maybe never will be) born than with the woman directly in front of them, there’s no question that she gets a raw deal.
EH: I find Ruth’s declaration that her life would be better if only she had money to be wholly unconvincing, and I wonder if Payne intends for us to believe that or not. Ruth certainly believes it, though: as you say, $15,000 seems like an unimaginable amount to someone who’s never really had any money, and I think that’s why she’s so convinced that it would change her life. By the end of the film, Ruth finally acquires the $15,000 she’s been scheming to get one way or another, and when she first opens the bag full of money Payne cleverly stages it like a birth, placing the camera inside the bag as it’s being unzipped, as though shooting from a baby’s point of view as it emerges from the womb, with Ruth’s gasping, grinning face peering in. On the soundtrack, a chorus of hallelujahs accompanies this transcendent experience. By now, Ruth knows that, through no choice of her own, she isn’t actually going to have another baby, so the bag full of money replaces the child she might have had, and she reacts to the money with the kind of pride and pleasure that most people reserve for their children.
But will this money really make much of a difference in Ruth’s life? Early on, we see her go begging for money from one of ex-boyfriends, the father of two of her neglected children, and it’s obvious from his demeanor and everything they say to one another that this is far from the first time that he’s given her money. The addict pattern is pretty engrained in Ruth, and within minutes of getting a few dollars she’s at a hardware store buying glue, holing up in an alley to pour it into a paper bag and get high. Throughout the film, anytime she gets the opportunity and the money, this is the pattern she repeats, and there’s no reason to think that much is going to change just because she now has a sizable amount of money for the first time. The triumphant mood of the film’s final minutes is infused with more than a little irony, because even as Ruth reacts to this windfall like it’s a religious experience, raising a joyful fist above her head a few seconds before the credits roll, there’s a sense that this is a transient victory, that she’ll be subsumed by her addictions and soon squander the money that had seemed so full of promise for her. For Ruth, class means more than how much money she has; she’s class-bound not only because she’s poor but because of the behaviors that have become second nature to her over the years.
Incidentally, while I agree that Dern is exceptional here, I don’t agree about your broader assessment of her talents. In fact, I think she is generally excellent and almost always displays the naturalness and depth that you only detect in her in this film. She’s especially good at playing brassy, downtrodden characters like Ruth, or like Lula in Wild At Heart, women who we can’t help but feel for and root for despite, or because of, their fuck-ups and inadequacies. She’s also frankly astonishing as the center and raison d’etre of David Lynch’s Inland Empire, a film built around one of her most varied and powerful performances. She’s a remarkable actress and, whatever ambivalence I harbor about Citizen Ruth as a whole, Dern’s Ruth is a big part of what works best here.
JB: I think you’re right when you say that this money won’t save Ruth. She’s too far gone now, and I didn’t mean to suggest that this new relative wealth will be her ticket to a life of self-dependency and the straight and narrow. (Although, it does give her a chance to start fresh, which she clearly needs, and maybe the experience of having so much attention placed on her might give her a new perspective. Admittedly, that’s a hopeful reading.) Plus, if Payne thinks that all the other characters are “white trash,” as you and others have charged, maybe Ruth’s whining is just yet another sign of her unforgivable ignorance. “I don’t got anything,” Ruth screams in the same episode of self-pity, “you all got everything.” Perhaps Payne is showing how oblivious Ruth is, that she not only thinks $15,000 is enough to retire on but also that Diane and Rachel are living the high life.
Still, I feel as if Payne is making an important emotional and empathetic argument with that scene, because in that moment Ruth knows that she doesn’t want that child, but she also feels as if she can’t turn down that money. She’s stuck. It’s a higher stakes version of the opening scene, when Ruth subjects herself to sex because she needs a roof over her head for the night. Ruth is ultimately responsible for her predicament, sure, but the larger point remains: People struggling to survive don’t have the luxury of making decisions based on principle.
That actually sets us up to talk about Payne’s second film, Election, which begins with Matthew Broderick’s character, a high school teacher named Jim McAllister, asking his class about the difference between morals and ethics. This turns out to be a kind of retroactive joke, because over the course of the film the characters in Election, and McAllister specifically, behave both immorally and unethically in equal measure, usually simultaneously, so that the distinction between the two is hardly necessary. Based on a Tom Perrotta novel that Payne adapted with Jim Taylor, Election chronicles a race for student body president that can be seen as a satirical depiction of our actual government—power corrupts, nice guys finish last and those who play to win do so, one way or another. But if you asked me what Election is about, I’d say it’s much more personal, an examination of characters wrestling between what they want and what they know to be right.
EH: That theme applies mainly to McAllister himself, the civics teacher who by the end of the film has committed adultery and election fraud and destroyed his life in the process. McAllister’s tragedy is precisely that he has such a keen sense of ethics, that he knows what is right and what he should do, and instead he continually engages in unethical and immoral behavior, justifying it to himself all the while. The other characters in the film don’t always seem as aware of the ethical decisions they’re making. Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) does wrestle, like McAllister, with trying to do the right thing, but he’s such an earnest doofus that he doesn’t seem to fully comprehend the issues or the choices he’s facing—and maybe because of that, he generally does the right thing while McAllister’s compulsive over-thinking leads him astray. Paul’s lesbian sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell), on the other hand, doesn’t seem the least bit concerned with ethics or doing what’s right; she just wants to get kicked out of school so she can get sent to an all-girls school and effectively double her chances of finding a soul mate.
And then there’s Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), the eager overachiever whose run for class president winds up causing such tremendous problems for McAllister. Tracy, I think it’s safe to say, does not wrestle with decisions between what’s right and what she wants personally, because Tracy is wired not to make any distinction between those two categories. As we hear in Tracy’s pattering, self-justifying voiceovers, what’s right, in her mind, is inevitably whatever she wants, whatever is best for her. She is capable of some pretty astonishing displays of self-righteousness. At one point, Tracy has torn down the election posters of her rival Paul and thrown them away. Tammy witnessed Tracy throwing away the posters, but instead of turning Tracy in, Tammy takes responsibility herself. Tracy, who thought she’d finally been caught, has a brief moment of disbelief and relief, and then immediately launches into a stream of invective at the other girl, acting as though she really believes that Tammy was the one who tore the posters down. This is the behavior of someone so delusional, so convinced of her own essential rightness, that ethics cease to have any meaning for her. Tracy Flick believes that she must be class president, that she must succeed and excel in everything she does. Her own personal idea of what’s right starts and ends with whatever will achieve her goals.
And that’s a big part of what Election is about: the self-justifications and mental constructs that allow or encourage people to do some pretty terrible things while convincing themselves, at least at the time, that it’s the right thing to do. In that respect, though Tracy is oblivious to any ethics outside of herself, while McAllister knows all too well the difference between right and wrong, they’re not so different in their rationalizations for their less-than-noble acts.
JB: Yeah, what’s interesting about the two characters is that Tracy thinks she’s the center of the universe, while McAllister knows that he isn’t, and yet they each make similar mistakes based on a desire to bring balance to The Force, if you will. In McAllister’s case, that means enticing Paul to run for president and then manipulating the results, all because he finds Tracy’s sense of self-entitlement annoying and even blames her for the sexual relationship that broke up the marriage of one of his colleagues. In Tracy’s case, it just means doing whatever it takes to ensure her own success. The scene in which she lectures Tammy is a good example of her arrogance, but my favorite example comes in the terrific sequence in which Tracy, Tammy and Paul are shown on the night before the election saying evening prayers.
“Dear Lord Jesus, I do not often speak with you and ask for things,” Tracy begins, “but now I really must insist that you help me win the election tomorrow, because I deserve it and Paul Metzler doesn’t, as you well know. I realize that it was your divine hand that disqualified Tammy Metzler and now I’m asking that you go that one last mile and make sure to put me in office where I belong, so that I may carry out your will on Earth as it is in Heaven.” It would be difficult to pack more warped superiority into such a short prayer. Tracy chalks up her jealous destruction of Paul’s posters to an act of God, while suggesting she’s poised to act as an agent of Jesus Christ, but the kicker is the phrase “I must insist.” Talk about condescending. In actuality, Tracy’s prayer is based around the idea that Jesus is an agent who must do her will.
The writing in that scene and the illustration of character it provides are apt examples of Payne’s greatest strengths as a filmmaker. On that note, Election might be his strongest film, and Tracy is certainly one of his greatest characters. Reese Witherspoon is fantastic, evoking Tracy’s essence through her crisp annunciation, her forceful delivery, her almost too perfect posture, her pursed lips and her flared nostrils. It’s a scathing portrayal but a sympathetic one, too, which is a Payne hallmark. Because as obnoxious as Tracy is, and as much as we might agree with McAllister that she needs to be knocked off her high horse, there’s no question that she works hard for what she wants—making buttons, posters and cupcakes, getting up early to set up her station to get enough signatures to be on the ballot in the first place, and so on. And what we realize long before Tracy does is that she’s a prisoner of her own ambition. She doesn’t really have friends, so she finds nurturing only through success. That’s why it’s hard not to feel warm inside when Tracy first learns she has won the election and jumps around with the giddiness of a young girl and with the awkwardness of a young woman who was always in such a hurry to grow up that she missed out on most bouncy young girl moments. It’s a bittersweet moment, and Payne excels at creating those.
EH: I agree that Election is Payne’s best film, and the obvious tenderness and sadness that the director feels for Tracy, mingled with satirical contempt for her actions, is what saves the film and prevents it from being simply a mean-spirited portrayal of vile people. The glimpses we get behind Tracy’s crisp, efficient facade suggest that she’s actually a pretty sad person, even if she’s too busy and determined to quite realize it herself. The few appearances by her mother provide a pretty obvious source for Tracy’s dysfunctions, for one thing; when Tracy thinks that she’s lost the election and is absolutely distraught, her mother “comforts” her by wondering if her posters weren’t good enough. Later, even victory can’t extinguish the sadness and emptiness in Tracy. Her triumph is mingled with a realization that being class president doesn’t make her any less lonely. Her loneliness casts her affair with a married teacher in a very different light from the way McAllister sees her as a seductress and a homewrecker; when Tracy thinks back on that affair, she says that she misses their talks most of all. Tracy, isolated at school by her fierce drive to be the best, was easy prey for an older authority figure who could appeal to her ego and leverage her inability to communicate with people her own age. Her internal monologues towards the end of the film, in which she laments that no one wants to sign her yearbook and then complains that she hasn’t found any kindred spirits in college like she thought she would, are heartbreaking. Tracy is the opposite of self-aware, and she doesn’t realize how her focused, monomaniacal behavior pushes people away, so she simply can’t understand why she’s a pariah while someone like Paul, despite losing the election, continues to be effortlessly popular and broadly well-liked.
Paul himself is a pretty interesting character, too. He’s a jock stereotype in a whole lot of ways, and Payne ekes a lot of humor out of Paul’s stupidity and lunkhead obliviousness. His complete lack of understanding of the dynamic between his sister and his new girlfriend Lisa (Frankie Ingrassia)—who goes out with him mainly to drive home to Tammy that their lesbian dalliance is over—provides a rich vein of brutally funny humor. But Payne also defies and subverts the jock cliches because Paul, as dull as he is, isn’t a jerk or a bully. He actually deserves his popularity because he’s earnest and good-natured and friendly and, when you get down to it, a pretty decent guy. His prayers during the montage you mentioned couldn’t be more different from Tracy’s: where she aggressively demands that God fulfill her will, Paul leaves the election results in God’s hands, not asking anything for himself, instead simply requesting help for his troubled sister. This is a movie about ethics and the ignorance of ethics, and the character of Paul suggests that some people stumble unknowingly into the basic moral decency that eludes the intelligent, self-conscious McAllister. The position of the film is, perhaps, that ethics can’t really be taught, that doing the right thing goes far beyond religion or civics. McAllister, as much as he understands about ethics in theory, doesn’t get it at all in practice.
JB: That’s exactly right. While McAllister tries to look beyond the obvious, immediate wrongness of his actions to find some deeper truth that will justify his meddling, Paul goes with his gut. The election is decided in Tracy’s favor because Paul refuses to vote for himself. Tracy has worked hard, and Paul finds her deserving, and when faced with the opportunity to vote for himself, Paul finds that he can’t. He’s not obeying any understood code of ethics. He’s not really even obeying his morals. He’s just doing what feels right.
My favorite scene with Paul, and perhaps even my favorite moment in the entire movie, is the one in which the three candidates deliver their speeches to the student body crowded into the gymnasium. The first to speak is Tracy, who serves up rhetoric worthy of a United States presidential campaign, the camera capturing her in the foreground with an American flag hanging from the rafters behind her. Then comes Paul, the injured star quarterback, who is so obviously loved and yet is so out of his element. He nervously approaches the microphone, takes a folded piece of notebook paper out of his pocket and then reads his speech—featuring all the earmarks of the typical high school essay—as if it is entirely without punctuation, pausing only when he needs to take a breath. In another film, Paul’s tunnel vision on those written words would be evidence of insincerity, but here it’s the opposite. Paul isn’t the smartest guy, but it’s obvious that what he’s written is from the heart, and that this leadership role outside of sports is terrifying for him. When Paul completes his speech his huge smile of accomplishment makes me want to do what the students don’t: erupt in applause.
It’s the painful yet observant honesty of scenes like these that make me feel that the condescension charge often applied to Payne is inaccurate more often than not. While there’s some comedic exaggeration to those speeches, no doubt, there’s a hell of a lot of real-world truth to them, too. (The election speeches at my high school certainly had a lot more in common with what’s portrayed here than with, say, the polish of the big song-and-dance number at the high school rally in last year’s charming Easy A.) What Payne does in his films, in scenes like that, but even more so with the general mise-en-scène, shaped here by everything from McAllister’s humble blue car with the awkward self-locking seatbelts to the terrible blue furniture in the faculty workroom, is show us a world that more closely resembles the one we live in. Mainstream Hollywood films (and Payne teeters on the edge of mainstream) have a terrible habit of making everything look like, well, a movie: the lighting is always bright and even, the colors sharp, the people trim and beautiful, the cars new and clean, the restaurants cozy and welcoming, and so on. Payne defies that, and because we’ve become so desensitized to the way Hollywood gives everything a Blu-ray friendly glow, it seems radical.
I don’t mean to imply that Payne is a truth-teller; that label doesn’t reflect the tone of his films, which can be completely cartoonish. Rather, Payne’s method is showing us very real places that all of us recognize from experience in exactly the way that we experience them in the real world. Thus, almost every shot at Carver High School seems to emphasize the cinder block walls, and the school offices have that distinct glow that you get in a windowless room with florescent lights, and the restaurant where McAllister runs into Paul looks like so many breakfast-anytime eateries with cheap upholstery and fake plants. I understand why people see these distinctly non-Hollywood images and assume that Payne must be taking it out on the lower class. But what I think is happening is that Payne is being punished for the excellence with which he establishes a sense of place, and his willingness to look at the world we live in as it exists, not as Hollywood reinterprets it to make it seem like even the average among us are movie stars.
EH: I think that’s fair. As cartoonish as Election and Citizen Ruth are, there’s definitely a sense of prosaic reality in those films that points the way forward to the less exaggerated, more observational aesthetic of Payne’s subsequent films. In the concrete details of the mise-en-scène, in the decorations and objects that populate Payne’s world, he’s always had a realist’s eye for arranging artifacts of the real world. It’s no coincidence, after all, that his first three features are all set in Omaha, Nebraska, where Payne actually grew up. These films feel lived-in. But what makes Election in particular work so well, in my opinion, is that Payne here finds a near-perfect balance between the over-the-top satirical bile of Citizen Ruth and the more restrained (and, I’d argue, often maudlin) tone of his later films. Payne’s films always have the mundane mise-en-scène nailed, and they always have at least a tinge of the mocking satire, but I don’t think any of the other films he’s made have hit this sweet spot quite like Election does. I was a little nervous about revisiting this film for this conversation, considering my mixed feelings about Payne’s other films, but I’m happy to find that it actually holds up really well. And, a few scenes aside—the unflattering freeze frames of Tracy early on come to mind—I think it does a good job of avoiding the condescending, mean-spirited tone that I too often detect in the rest of Payne’s work.
It helps that whatever else it is, Election is an almost irresistibly funny movie. It’s funny in its broad strokes, like the crude humor in McAllister’s description of Tracy’s affair with a married teacher. It’s even funnier in its subtle touches, like the way that McAllister describes democracy as a choice between apples and oranges, drawing the two fruits as identical circles on a blackboard, providing both an unhelpful visual aid and a clever joke about the limits of democratic choice. It’s funny in ways that are awkwardly real and heartbreaking, like when Tammy gives Lisa a love note that reads, “If you died right now, I would throw myself under one of my dad’s cement trucks so I could be poured into your tomb.” It’s funny just to listen to the characters chatter away in voiceover, each of them with their own distinctive and quirky dictions.
I’m stressing this so much because Election is really the last Payne movie that can comfortably be called an outright comedy. Not that his subsequent films aren’t sometimes humorous. Nor does he abandon the satirical edge that dominates his first two features. But it’s pretty clear that after Election Payne shifted the elements of his style around and, starting with About Schmidt, allowed the bitterness and melancholy that had always been present in his films to really come to the surface. Based on About Schmidt and the other two films Payne has made since then, I’m not sure the change has really been for the best.
JB: About Schmidt is Payne’s weakest film. It’s about a man struggling to deal with his retirement who then suffers the death of his wife and the marriage of his daughter to a “nincompoop” he thinks unworthy of her. The film is capably acted, from Jack Nicholson’s melancholy Warren Schmidt to Dermot Mulroney’s endearingly nincompoopish Randall, but as a whole the movie is as dynamic as the Nebraska horizon, which is to say it isn’t dynamic at all. In a recent interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Payne suggested half jokingly that the only movie he’s made that isn’t too long is his short in Paris, Je T’Aime, and while it’s true that all of Payne’s films seem a bit overstuffed, none are more clumsily paced than About Schmidt, which at 125 minutes is either 90 minutes too long or 200 minutes too short.
In terms of both theme and narrative, About Schmidt is like a junkyard dog chained to a pole, forever roaming in the same familiar circle. I don’t mean to apply Syd Fieldesque rules to this film, demanding that the central dramatic conflict be defined within the first 15 minutes, launching the plot into its arc, but it’s worth pointing out that Warren doesn’t take any action in his life until 45 minutes into the film, when in short succession he goes to the grocery store for the first time since his wife’s death, confronts his wife’s former lover and gets into the RV and heads off to Colorado to see his daughter with the intent to talk her out of getting married. Prior to that, About Schmidt has an inertness that rivals its opening scene, which finds Warren on his last day at the office, sitting in his chair with all his work files in boxes and nothing to do, staring up at the clock, waiting for it to strike 5 pm so that he can go home and start the life of retirement that he clearly hasn’t been yearning for. I respect that in these early scenes Payne is evoking Warren’s listlessness, but the first 45 minutes are little more than a redundant prologue, with scene after scene establishing a depression and lack of purpose that are made immediately apparent within the first 10 minutes.
After all this wheel spinning, when Warren finally hits the road, you’d expect him to be challenged by new people, places and experiences, and to learn from them—a common narrative arc—but while Warren does meet new people and endure new experiences, what he learns is minimal. The film’s conclusion is downright odd: Warren delivers a toast at his daughter’s wedding that’s entirely insincere except in its intent to make his daughter happy, then he spells out the insincerity of his toast via voiceover narration (as if it wasn’t obvious already) in which he concludes, self-pityingly but accurately, that he hasn’t made much of a mark on the world, or even on his family. On the one hand, I respect the hell out of Payne for resisting the Hollywood trend in which a character that has been carefully established as emotionally corrupt is suddenly presented as sincere in order to create a false happy ending. But on the other hand About Schmidt’s conclusion seems to falsely imply emotional catharsis just the same. I can’t tell if Payne is punishing Warren or celebrating him.
EH: Yeah, it’s a weirdly unsatisfying movie. In theory, I love the idea of a film that, as you say, defies Hollywood conventions to focus on a curmudgeonly character who, for once, doesn’t change and doesn’t learn anything on his voyage of self-discovery. In practice, I just don’t think it works at all. And it doesn’t work because Payne doesn’t seem to know quite how he feels about Warren, or how he wants us to feel. Warren is a very sad character, and I’d feel nothing but sympathy for him if he wasn’t also such a miserable bastard. Warren’s retirement dinner, towards the beginning of the film, suggests that Warren has lived for his job and not much else: he’s terrified of retiring because working is all he’s ever known, and he despises the younger men who are replacing him. At the dinner, Payne mockingly cuts from a photo of a cow, its eye turned towards the camera in terror and confusion, to a posed photo of Warren, staring glossy-eyed into the camera, his terror a little better disguised but no less present. Later in the film, while driving around the country in his RV, Warren passes a trailer carrying cows and comes face to face with one of them, staring it down before continuing his pointless, un-illuminating odyssey. It’s as though Payne is implying that Warren is just a big dumb animal, mechanically going through the motions of life, plodding stupidly towards death without resisting, like a cow headed to the slaughterhouse.
Indeed, Payne often seems to be ridiculing Warren for his ignorance and obliviousness, particularly in the letters that Warren writes to an African boy named Ndugu, who he has “fostered” through one of those ubiquitous TV commercials showing heartstring-tugging pictures of starving African children. Warren’s letters to Ndugu are an outlet for all of the things that the normally repressed Warren can’t or doesn’t say aloud, and they also provide a justification for the film’s voiceover, on which Warren reads from these letters. His first letter to Ndugu starts out innocuously enough, but it soon becomes a tirade, a torrent of negativity about Warren’s wife, his daughter’s “not up to snuff” fiancé, his forced retirement and the man who’s replacing him at work. Warren has obviously been suppressing these feelings for a long time, and this letter, however inappropriate the venue, provides an opportunity for him to let it all come pouring out at last. Payne is presenting a portrait of a deeply unhappy man, but he also seems to find Warren a pathetically comical figure, a clown who doesn’t know he is one. The most telling details in that respect are the shot of Warren sitting down to pee—an emasculating act that shows just how cowed he is by his wife’s dominance of him—and the way he closes the letter by telling Ndugu to “go cash that check and get something to eat.”
Several times, Warren’s letters suggest that he thinks the African boy is directly getting these checks and depositing them into his bank account or something. Payne is rather savagely mocking Warren’s distinctly American class blindness, his inability to comprehend what it means to live in real poverty, to really feel starvation. Warren seems to think that Ndugu’s situation is just a little worse than his own, and he fills his letters to the boy with all his petty complaints about his middle class misery. And yet, the ending seems to suggest that Warren’s charity towards Ndugu is his saving grace and the source of the limited sense of uplift that rather suddenly infuses the otherwise downbeat conclusion. After the scene you mention at the wedding, when Warren returns home and the voiceover reiterates how worthless he feels, Warren receives a letter from a missionary who has been working with Ndugu. This letter tells him how much his help has meant to Ndugu and tells him that the boy—who can’t read and thus hasn’t read Warren’s rants, at least not directly—hopes that Warren is happy. Warren sobs hysterically, and the movie ends. It’s a puzzling ending, because as you say, what are we supposed to feel here? It’s not complex or ambiguous so much as muddled. Payne has spent much of the movie portraying Warren as stubborn, clueless, pathetic, nasty and close-minded. So what does Warren feel as he cries during that final shot? Regret? Depression? Redemption? Payne seems to want to have it both ways, delivering a conclusion that could be read as either a continuation of Warren’s unceasing misery and suffering, or a belated Hollywood-style moment of redemption as the character realizes that he has had a positive impact on somebody, at least.
JB: That’s exactly how I feel. This movie leaves too many half-developed themes dangling. At first it seems like Warren will grapple with feelings of irrelevance after retirement. Then it seems like Warren will struggle with being a stranger to his own wife. Then it seems as if Warren will audit his life and find purpose. But none of that really happens. Not in any emotionally convincing way, at least.
The way that Payne endears us to Warren isn’t through any developments in his character. It’s by surrounding him with loonies, such as Kathy Bates’ Roberta, a hippie-type and sexual obsessive. Roberta’s two marriages broke up, she says, because she wasn’t sexually satisfied. That’s why she’s confident that Russell’s marriage to Warren’s daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) will work, because their sexual chemistry is “positively white hot.” Roberta also announces that she had her first orgasm at 6 and breast-fed her son until he was almost 5, and when it comes time to share a hot tub with Warren, she of course goes in naked. Her antics, and those of her extended family, distract us from all of Warren’s problems, because over the second half of the film Warren becomes a captive audience, raising an eyebrow here and grimacing there in perfunctory reverse shots but revealing very little.
Is there humor in this? To a point. It’s funny that Russell’s bedroom still has copies of Encyclopedia Brown adventures on the shelf next to ribbons celebrating his “participation.” It’s funny, too, that Russell is tied up in a pyramid scheme and works at what must be the last waterbed store in the country—pyramid schemes and waterbeds are inherently funny. But there’s a desperation to this humor that I find creatively uninspired. Payne keeps piling on absurdity after absurdity, many of them articulated by Roberta in lengthy monologues as if she’s checking off a list. Of all of Payne’s films, this is the one that feels farthest from reality, not because it’s the most cartoonish (that would be Citizen Ruth by a mile), and not because it fails to show the world as we experience it (because often it does), but because it fails to give us a distinct emotional center to which we can relate.
EH: In addition, Payne is so busy subverting expectations—refusing to deliver on any of the themes or Hollywood conventions that he teases and then drops—that he never settles on what the film is actually about or what Warren’s story is meant to mean. So much of About Schmidt is poised between mockery and sentimentality, and the mix is really queasy. Payne never really explicitly shows us anything that would contradict Warren’s disgusted, judgmental view of Randall, Roberta and the rest of them, but really their worst crime is being a little crude, a little silly, a little, well, lower-class. Warren, as a representative of the white collar middle class, spends most of the movie sneering at the mulletted Randall and the oversexed Roberta, and if Payne thinks Warren’s contempt is misplaced, he doesn’t give much sign of it. For a time, late in the film, it seems like Warren might soften a bit, but then he delivers that insincere wedding speech—during which Payne inserts a gratuitous and especially ugly closeup of Randall’s all-but-drooling, drug burnout brother while Warren disingenuously claims that he seems like “a thoughtful young man”—and goes home without having eased up on his contempt in the least.
It’s easy to imagine another, more conventional Hollywood movie in which Warren is eventually worn down by the friendliness of his daughter’s new in-laws, or maybe even develops an opposites-attract romance with the obviously interested Roberta. And while I’m glad the film didn’t actually head in that direction, as it briefly seems like it might before the wedding, Payne seems all too content to define the movie by the paths he deliberately chooses not to take rather than the ones he does. The result is a film that’s all about negativity: both the blistering hatefulness of Warren and the cynical manipulation of Payne.
It’s striking, then, to compare About Schmidt with Payne’s next movie, Sideways, which is not without its own measure of negativity and mockery, but is certainly not lacking in a strong emotional center. Sideways, though based on a novel by Rex Pickett, is obviously a very personal film for Payne—during About Schmidt, Warren’s RV drives past a movie marquee that announces the name of the director’s next film, which suggests that Payne was already thinking about adapting the novel. The evidence is onscreen, too. Although Payne is hardly uncritical of his lead character, the snobby wine connoisseur and failing writer Miles (Paul Giamatti), there’s an affection and warmness in this movie that’s never felt in relation to Warren or any of the other characters in About Schmidt. It makes Sideways at least a much more palatable movie, in that it’s not as viscerally and unrelentingly off-putting, but in the end I find myself almost as annoyed by this film’s tinkly-jazz wine tour of infidelity, miserablism, and solipsism as I was by About Schmidt’s much more direct expressions of bile.
JB: Yeah, when I revisited Sideways for this discussion, seeing it for the first time since its theatrical release, I found that it was more rewarding than I’d remembered it and also more disappointing. I’m not sure what that means—perhaps only that I have a poor memory. Sideways is a different kind of Payne film, much more hopeful and sentimental than Payne’s other pictures, followed by The Descendants, but it isn’t without bile and bite. Giamatti’s Miles might not be a loser in the class of Dern’s Ruth, but over the first 15 minutes of the movie the deck is stacked against him in all sorts of ways. First, Miles wakes up late and then lies about the reason for his delay; then he says he’s heading out the door before taking his sweet time getting ready; then he says “croissant” with the kind of emphatic French pronunciation that’s usually the realm of Alex Trebek; then he lies about nonexistent traffic; then he establishes himself as a, yep, condescending wine snob; and then, to top it all off, he steals money from his own mother. And yet, dammit, we like him almost instantly.
Some of that is a credit to Miles himself, who makes it clear from the beginning that he’s genuinely concerned with showing his buddy, Thomas Haden Church’s Jack, a good time. Some of that is attributable to the juxtaposition of Miles’ faults (wine snobbery and other fairly innocent pretensions) with those of Jack (a sex-crazed philanderer desperate to bury his bone in the first available hole, even though he has a beautiful woman waiting to marry him). Most of it, though, is a tribute to Giamatti. Although Election’s plucky Tracy Flick is difficult to ignore, Sideways’ Miles has to be the richest character in Payne’s filmography, and Giamatti is the perfect actor to tap into his loneliness, bitterness, anger, intelligence and sensitivity. So much of it is just the look: Giamatti is overweight and balding, with an English major’s beard. In one early shot, the camera captures Miles and Jack from behind as they drive into Santa Barbara County in Miles’ convertible, Miles’ bald spot sitting amidst curls of brown hair like an egg in a nest, contrasted with Jack’s longer hair waving in the breeze. It’s not often you can convey character with the back of someone’s head, but Payne does that.
Giamatti was by no means a household name when Sideways came out (heck, he might not be a household name now), but he was the right guy for the part, and that’s something that Payne takes very seriously. In that recent Fresh Air interview, Payne said, “Casting is the most important part of all components of cinema. It’s the first among equals. The cast is the primary possessor and expresser of tone.…It’s the single most important element of the film that should never be compromised.” We can debate whether that’s true, but I think it’s interesting that Payne said it and has a track record that pretty much backs it up; he may have cast A-listers like Nicholson and Clooney, but he didn’t use them in the ways that made them A-listers in the first place. Anyway, regardless of the importance of casting to cinema as a whole, there’s no doubt that it’s of paramount importance within Payne’s filmography and that the casting of Giamatti as Miles is the pinnacle of Payne’s efforts in that regard.
EH: The acting is definitely the signal bright spot of Sideways, not only Giamatti’s self-pitying Miles and Church’s unrepentant pussyhound Jack, but also Virginia Madsen’s radiant Maya. Madsen’s performance is fantastic: her Maya is soulful, sweet, and intelligent, and coupled with Madsen’s beauty, she’s basically inviting the audience to fall in love with her at the same time as Miles does. In the film’s best scene, Miles and Maya take turns describing to one another what they love about wine, and their words reveal as much about their deepest thoughts and ideas as about their taste in beverages. Miles’ ode to his favored Pinot Noir doubles as a self-description: he says that the wine is fragile, that it needs to be nurtured and cared for, that it’s a difficult variety to cultivate but that careful, sensitive attention can coax total brilliance out of the fragile grape. This is how Miles sees himself, and Giamatti’s passionate delivery of this marvelous speech suggests just how hurt Miles is that no one has yet seen the potential in him, no one has tried to coax out the complexity and nuance that the best winemakers have discovered in Pinot Noir.
Maya responds to this thinly veiled confession with her own deeply personal monologue about her love of wine. As she describes her sensual, intellectual engagement with wine and how it makes her think about time, mortality, organic processes, history and nature, the mood grows hushed and sensual to match her words. Payne bathes her elegantly beautiful face in a soft, glowing orange light, as she leans forward towards Miles, her voice purring as she pours out this poetic appreciation of the profundity that she finds in wine. This is a very powerful acting showcase, and a wonderful character moment. It’s also an invitation to intimacy that the hapless, pathetic Miles clumsily allows to pass him by, staggering instead into awkwardness, trying to follow up her soul-baring eloquence with banal chit-chat. It’s painfully awkward to see him flounder this moment, and Payne’s mastery of tones here, shifting smoothly from sensuality and self-revelation to a comedy of humiliation, demonstrates his skill with juggling contradictory moods. I think this whole sequence represents one of the high points of Payne’s filmography, so I can see why you’d say that the film is, at least at moments like this, rewarding. But you’re also right that it’s disappointing, because for every scene like that gorgeous nighttime conversation, there’s another like the scene where Miles sneaks into the house of one of Jack’s conquests to steal back the wallet that his friend left behind. This scene has to be a nadir for Payne, ridiculing a lower-class couple for being fat, stupid, sexually dysfunctional (when Miles sneaks into the couple’s room, they’re having sex while the husband calls his wife a slut for sleeping with Jack earlier), messy and Republican. Payne’s camera pans around the bedroom while Miles looks for Jack’s wallet: the shot takes in the couple fucking enthusiastically on the bed, the garbage and dirty clothes strewn everywhere, and the TV which just happens to be showing George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, as though drawing a silent connection between fat rural people living in a messy, squalid home, having violent and angry sex, and the Republican politics of the time. The scene ends with the husband running naked into the street, chasing Miles, crashing into Jack and Miles’ car with his penis pressed up against the window. It’s just a horrible, horrible scene.
JB: Yeah, that scene provides comedy from the About Schmidt model; it’s empty and unproductive. The set-up to the scene is fine: Jack slums it with an overweight waitress he knows to be married and ends up naked in the street without his phone or wallet after the husband catches him in the act. In a movie with one eye on addiction, it’s Jack’s proverbial rock bottom, the equivalent of the scene in which the alcohol-abusing Miles loses it and drinks from the spit basin at the winery. Thus, there’s even some justification for Miles being the one to sneak into the house to retrieve Jack’s things: it’s an act of penance, a symbol of his devotion to his friend, evidence that underneath the exterior pain and anger, he’s a good person. But all of that set-up dissolves into a cheap bad-naked joke reminiscent of Roberta stripping down to get into the hot tub. It’s a cheap gag, and maybe it provides a reflexive laugh, but it reduces the sincerity of everything before it, making Payne a bit like Miles: doubling back to engage in idle chit-chat as if uncomfortable to stay in the moment. Even if Payne is just being faithful to Pickett’s novel in that scene—and I haven’t read it, so I don’t know—he’s not being faithful to his own established tone, and that’s what makes it so deflating.
I have a similar problem, by the way, with the scene at the winery where Miles snaps and chugs from the spit basin. It’s not that I can’t imagine someone doing that, because under the spell of alcohol people do all sorts of crazy things. It’s also not impossible for me to imagine Miles doing that, because we see him self-destruct in his drink-and-dial moment at the restaurant. But the way it plays out doesn’t ring true, because in this moment Miles is still in pursuit of drunkenness, not feeling its effects—and furthermore it suggests that Miles’ previous strict adherence to winery etiquette is fraudulent camouflage, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Miles loves everything about wine culture; it’s the one thing that gives him self-confidence. So, sure, like Jack, we’re watching Miles hit rock bottom, but it’s highly unlikely that Miles’ rock bottom would look anything like that, and so the scene comes off like a cheap shock gag. It’s as if Payne feels Miles needs to be brought down from his ivory tower, to be royally embarrassed for thinking himself superior to those around him, and understandably so. Indeed, Miles is a snob. Indeed, he can be condescending. And there’s that word again. While I generally feel the “condescending” tag is misapplied to Payne, I have to admit that it’s odd to see him punishing a character for a superiority complex.
EH: Yeah, Payne strikes a weird tone with respect to Miles, because I think it’s clear that he identifies with Miles even as he runs the character through the wringer and invites the audience to laugh at Miles’ pretensions, as in the scene where Miles becomes apoplectic over the idea that someone might order—gasp!—Merlot at dinner. Miles’ snobbery is an easy target, and sometimes Payne, who generally respects the passion of Miles and Maya for wines, can’t resist taking some fake-populist cheap shots at their rarified interests.
What’s funny is that Payne is, in many ways, as judgmental as Miles is, which is especially obvious when you look at his treatment of nudity in About Schmidt and Sideways. I seem to remember, back when the former movie first came out, that Kathy Bates got a lot of attention for her nude scene, with a lot of people praising Payne for having someone other than a hot young actress appearing naked on screen. True, it’s a rarity in Hollywood cinema for an older actress to show her body, and even male nudity is uncommon; most nudity in Hollywood is just blatant titillation aimed at young male audiences. But far from being a validation of sexuality after youth’s end, Payne treats Roberta’s nudity as a joke; Warren is made deeply uncomfortable by it, and the implication is that the audience should to some extent share in that discomfort, turned off by her aged, somewhat overweight naked body. Sideways displays the same attitude in the scene where Miles steals the wallet back: the humor, such as it is, is meant to arise from seeing unattractive people naked. It’s seamy spectacle. Payne contrasts such unpleasantness against all the montages where Payne shows the two couples talking and laughing, drinking wine, having dinner, admiring beautiful sunsets while sitting in the grass, and all the while this soft, tinkly music drowns out anything they might be saying. There’s a big tonal gap between this kind of sentimental, affectionate moment and the more bitter currents in the film, and the lack of consistency is probably the biggest problem with it.
JB: I’m glad you mentioned those sunsets, because one of the things I admire about Sideways is the organic realism of its natural beauty. Phedon Papamichael is the cinematographer for this film, replacing James Glennon, who was the director of photography for Payne’s first three films, but Sideways maintains the distinct look of a Payne movie. Earlier I said that Payne shows us places that look exactly like we experience them in the real world, and Sideways follows that trend. For example, there are a handful of shots in which Miles and Jack are shown walking down the shoulder of a busy road to or from their cheap motel. These are not beautiful shots by any means; these are the opposite of that. They’re pedestrian, forgive the pun—terrifically pedestrian. We’ve all made walks like that, on roads illuminated by the headlights of passing cars and bright auto dealerships, and few films better capture what that looks like. And just as Payne has a sharp eye for the mundane (see also: the Windmill Inn and the crappy diner where Miles and Jack eat breakfast), he has an eye for the simple beauty of wine country (rows of green and purple grapevines amidst dusty dry hills). Payne’s sunsets don’t have the orgasmic splendor that you’d find in a Terrence Malick film because Payne’s stories don’t live within the magic hour—literally, thematically or emotionally. Put another way, Payne gives us romance without resorting to the amplifications of romantic cinema.
I suppose that leads us to 14e Arrondissement, Payne’s contribution to the collection of vignettes that make up Paris, Je T’Aime. The short stars Margo Martindale as a fanny-pack-wearing postal carrier from Denver who is taking her dream trip to Paris. Or at least that’s the idea. This woman has studied French for two years in preparation for her journey, but no sooner does she arrive than she realizes that she has no one to talk to—no one beyond us, that is, listening to her narrate her vacation in hilariously mangled French. Over the course of the short, we see this woman venture out into France cautiously, falling back on hotel burgers for food, missing her dogs and visiting the graves of famous dead people she knows only through her guidebook. It’s a lonely trip in many ways, but, at times, a genuinely happy one, too. When talking about this short, it’s important to remember the structure of Paris, Je T’Aime, which confines each vignette to a specific neighborhood. And yet with Payne you get the sense that he wouldn’t have set this short at the Eiffel Tower or somewhere along the Seine even if he’d had the chance. Payne’s milieu is the comparatively average, and here that applies not only to the portions of Paris we see but also to the main character, who finds her bittersweet moment of emotional connection with the city not at one of its most famous landmarks but at a fairly typical park, full of locals enjoying a summer afternoon.
EH: This short is Payne in microcosm: emotionally resonant, concerned with the mundane, and with at least a touch of belittling condescension. Here, at least, the worst of the mocking tone is limited to a single shot, when Payne cuts to an image of a half-eaten, greasy burger while the narrator expresses her disappointment that French food hasn’t lived up to her expectations. That little jab at American cultural blindness aside, the short’s tone is mostly empathetic, providing a portrait of a lonely, sheltered woman who’s somewhat desperately trying to have fun far from home. It helps that Payne’s contribution is one of the best in this uneven, overstuffed portmanteau film, which occasionally interrupts its parade of mediocrity for scattered gems like Olivier Assayas’ touching miniature, which feels like a fragmentary outtake from Irma Vep. Payne was given the collection’s closing slot, though a pointless montage of all the shorts unfortunately follows his film’s elegiac conclusion, which otherwise builds a near-perfect mood in its final moments.
14e Arrondissement ends with the protagonist in a Parisian park, looking around her in a series of shots that in turn encompass kids playing, a young couple embracing, and an older couple sitting on a park bench. In one glance, she sees an entire life cycle arranged in an arc around her. In this moment, she must acutely feel her age and everything she’s missing out on, particularly love and companionship. And yet the film’s ending isn’t as downbeat as that makes it sound. The mood of the finale is actually warm and bittersweet, infused with sadness but also a sense of appreciation for the quiet beauty of everyday life. That particular mix of feelings is arguably the distinctive mark of a Payne film.
That emotional cocktail certainly describes Payne’s latest film, The Descendants, his first feature in seven years. Despite the long gap between films, Payne’s aesthetic and sensibility haven’t changed much between Sideways and The Descendants. The film is about Matt King (George Clooney), a lawyer whose wife goes into a coma after a waterskiing accident, at which point Matt learns—from his teenage daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley)—that his wife had been cheating on him. Matt confronts multiple ugly truths at once, dealing with the impending death of his wife as well as the realization that his marriage, which had long been stale and uncommunicative, was in even worse trouble than he’d thought. As Matt tries to track down the man with whom his wife had been having an affair—real estate salesman Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard)—he’s also trying to get closer to his daughters, the troubled Alex and the goofy, weird Scottie (Amara Miller), broker a land deal that would make him and his many cousins incredibly rich, and come to terms with how his own workaholic distantness drove his wife away.
Matt is, in many respects, not a typical Payne protagonist, because he’s not as miserably pathetic as Miles or Ruth or Warren or Jim McAllister. Clooney had wanted a part in Sideways, but Payne denied him, understanding that no one would buy Clooney, one of modern Hollywood’s true movie stars in the classical sense, as a schlubby loser. Clooney’s Matt radiates the star’s square-jawed charm and self-assurance, so the one way in which he’s like other Payne protagonists is that he must deal with a barrage of confidence-shaking challenges to life as he understands it. In this respect, Clooney is perfect for the role, and he delivers a marvelously subtle performance as a man who had taken a lot of things for granted and is now confronted with the tragic consequences of his complacency.
JB: Yeah, it’s certainly a perfect Clooney role, even if Clooney doesn’t have what it takes to be a prototypical Payne lead. Or, perhaps more accurately, Clooney has too much to be a prototypical Payne lead. I recently read that after Clooney went through the initial wardrobe fittings for Matt, which include those typical untucked Hawaiian shirts and other clothes that look too big on him, the star joked that Payne was doing irreparable harm to his People Sexiest Man Alive image. But that’s an overstatement. Sure, Clooney is unshaven in The Descendants, and his hair is longer and grayer than usual, and Matt’s elder beach-bum attire wouldn’t fit within one of Steven Soderbergh’s fitted-and-pressed Ocean’s movies, but he’s still so-damn-handsome-it-hurts George Clooney, a guy who could roll out of bed on the tail end of the flu and still look better than the other 99 percent. (This isn’t Charlize Theron hiding under enough makeup and added weight to become totally unrecognizable in Monster, in other words.)
In fact, Clooney’s sex appeal, much of which is attributable to that deep voice and singular penetrating gaze (no one gives better eye contact than Clooney), is so uncontainable that some critics and casual moviegoers have suggested that he’s miscast, a common complaint being, “What woman would ever cheat on George Clooney?” While I find that specific complaint simpleminded—people cheat for all sorts of reasons beyond the physical, and even Matt doesn’t struggle to connect his wife’s adultery to the emotional distance and friction between them—the suggestions that Clooney isn’t right for a role that in so many ways is tailor-made for his abilities perhaps reveals that Payne is best suited to make stories about the truly unexceptional.
Having said that, let me make it clear that, like you, I think this is a terrific Clooney role, not just because Matt allows Clooney to be reserved and inward, which plays to the actor’s strengths, but also because Clooney fits into Payne’s larger mission within The Descendants, which is to subvert our expectations. That effort begins not with Clooney, actually, but with the film’s location, Honolulu, Hawaii, which Payne demystifies in the film’s initial sequence detailing that Hawaii’s proverbial “island paradise” isn’t immune to typical mainland problems, from bumper-to-bumper traffic to poverty to, of course, illness. “Paradise can go fuck itself,” Matt says in the opening voiceover narration as he sits in the hospital next to his unresponsive wife—tragedy, heartbreak and familial dysfunction can exist anywhere.
For Payne, the opportunity to bring everyday problems, flaws and absurdities to this exotic location must have been part of the motivation to make this movie. But thankfully The Descendants is more than some “rich white folks in Hawaii are people, too” plea for sympathy for the upper class, just like Citizen Ruth and Election are deeper than their criticisms of the lower and middle classes. The drama that unfolds here is a personal one, independent of its setting, which of course is entirely the point.
EH: For all the emphasis on Hawaii in the opening, the setting does wind up being pretty incidental except as background; this is a story that could take place anywhere, because it’s an emotional story first and foremost. On the other hand, the ultimate irrelevance of the setting is rather uncharacteristic of Payne, whose other films are deeply grounded in surroundings that he knows well. Here, he’s borrowing the setting from novelist Kaui Hart Hemmings, and all the Hawaiian shirts and the soundtrack of rubbery island guitar music feel like window-dressing, whereas the mundane middle America of Election and the wine country tourism of Sideways were much more fully realized. In The Descendants, most of the actual Hawaii material is sectioned off in the subplot about the land owned by Matt’s family, and the deal that he and his many cousins are arranging to sell it off. Whenever Payne dedicates a few scenes to the land deal negotiations, it’s as though he’s detouring into a secondary, almost entirely unconnected story, which gives the film a much more disjointed feel than if Payne had just focused more fully on Matt’s personal narrative. True, the land deal winds up tying into the adultery plot at the very end, when it turns out that Brian Speer is also connected to the deal and stands to benefit from it, but that’s just another unnecessary complication.
The tone at the end of the film suggests that there should be some emotional resonance to Matt’s decision about the land, but it doesn’t really work because his connection to the land has only been described, not seen or really felt. The scene where the family visits the land, and Scottie pouts that she won’t get to go camping there as previous generations had, is probably the closest the film gets to really dealing with the land in an emotional, personal way. Elsewhere, Payne introduces all of Matt’s cousins by name, only for most of them to never appear again, and that’s indicative of the truncated, half-assed feel of all the scenes revolving around the land subplot. The film was based on a novel by Hawaii native Hemmings, and many of these scenes have the feel of vestigial remnants of what must have been a much more substantial thread in the source. I’m left with the impression that Payne had to either deal with this material in much more depth, or cut it out almost entirely, because it sits pretty uneasily in the film as is.
I’m also glad you brought up the voiceover, because it’s one of several problems I have with The Descendants, which boasts many great performances without Payne quite building a great film around them. As I believe we’ve discussed during a previous conversation, I don’t agree with the received wisdom that voiceovers are always detrimental to a film; sometimes they can work quite well. Here, though, as nice as it is to listen to Clooney’s smooth voice, the narration mostly just seems unnecessary, and at worst it resorts to strained metaphors like Matt’s comparison of his family’s fragmentation to an archipelago (because they’re in Hawaii, get it?). The film is at its best when Payne allows the nuanced performances to stand on their own; the voiceover too often is just hammering home feelings and ideas that were already perfectly clear without the extra words.
JB: To be fair, I believe the only true narration is in the beginning of the film. After that, Payne drops it, something he’s never been afraid to do—use voiceover when it suits him, even just for one scene, and then discard it. Still, yeah, the initial narration includes some too perfect analogies, like the archipelago one you mentioned, and at least one random one: Matt says that some of the most successful businessmen in Hawaii dress like beach bums and stuntmen, the latter part being a curious comparison, because how does Matt know what stuntmen dress like, and how do we? (That line is so misplaced it should disqualify The Descendants for Best Screenplay awards.) I think one of the reasons that the voiceover seems omnipresent is because there are a few scenes in which Matt talks to his comatose wife, neatly laying out all his thoughts and emotions, that work much the same way.
I agree with you that the land deal subplot feels incomplete, like something tacked on that’s meant to either justify Matt’s distance from the family or to artificially enhance the complexity of his abilities to do right by his wife’s feelings for Brian Speer, as if it wasn’t complicated enough already. I think what Payne is going for here is the idea that Matt has viewed his family, not just their land, as a possession, an asset, and the experience of losing his wife and reconnecting with his daughters makes him connect emotionally in a way that he hasn’t in a long time. Before the party at which Matt decides not to sell, there’s a sequence in which he throws open the curtains and shutters of this little beach house that’s a de facto museum of family history, and Payne, along with Matt, observes the many old family photos on the wall. The scene suggests a man rediscovering his roots, not just as pedigree but as actual family. And of course Matt’s decision not to sell is an extension of his efforts to let Brian say goodbye to his wife before she dies: he’s trying to do the “right thing.” All the land deal stuff can be explained in that way, but, as you’ve suggested, it isn’t enough to make it feel emotionally connected with the rest of the drama.
Still, it does lead to one of my favorite shots. In the scene in which Matt first learns about Brian’s connection to the land deal, he’s out getting lunch with his daughters and Alex’s friend Sid (Nick Krause). After hearing the news, Matt returns to their table and sits down, and Payne captures Matt in a closeup profile, sitting against the wall, an overwhelmed expression on his face, with a small Hawaiian band playing in the background behind him. Payne delivers a lot of the film’s emotion through closeups on Clooney, but this shot is a perfect visual articulation of that opening narration in which the complexities of real life slam up against the romantic optimism and cheerfulness of the setting.
EH: Moments like that do work really well, because Payne basically can’t go wrong whenever he simply turns his camera on Clooney’s face and lets the actor’s subtle expressions—you can really see the wheels turning as he struggles to process this latest shock—tell the story. Whatever my problems with Payne and this film, there’s no denying that he’s either a phenomenal director of actors or a master of casting—or both, probably. Clooney’s performance stands out, of course, but I was almost equally impressed by Shailene Woodley, a young actress I’d never seen before who did a fabulous job of conveying Alex’s simmering teenage confusion. Alex is afflicted with a lot of typically teenage contradictions, caught between approaching maturity and a strong instinct for rebellion, and this emotional firestorm is intensified by her anger at her mother and the mingled sympathy and contempt she feels for her father. The scene where she first tells her father about her mother’s infidelity is especially masterful: she’s all but goaded into blurting out the revelation by Matt’s insistence that she put her anger at her mother behind her, and it’s obvious that she can’t decide if she blames her father for this situation or not. There’s a lot of emotional complexity in scenes like this, and throughout the film Woodley, guided by Payne, never fails to do justice to this girl’s navigation of a very adult, confusing situation. In a way, the film is about Matt and Alex simultaneously growing and maturing, the daughter maturing into adulthood a little before her time while the father belatedly catches up to his age.
Payne excels at that kind of emotional turmoil, and he excels at finding the right actors to convey these complex webs of feelings. Matt’s father-in-law Scott (Robert Forster) is a gruff, stern man who’s unyielding in his disapproval for Matt and Alex, and who blames Matt for his daughter’s unhappiness and the accident that put her in a coma. He’s a bracing, often discomfiting presence in the film, and of course he’s unable to see his daughter’s marriage from an even-handed perspective, but his appearances are unfailingly complicated by the fact that many of the accusations he directs towards Matt have at least a ring of truth to them. And then there’s the scene where Scott and his Alzheimer’s-afflicted wife sit by their daughter’s bedside, saying goodbye, while Matt and Alex eavesdrop on this moment of tenderness and intimacy, witnessing a rare unguarded moment from this usually stony man.
The best example of this kind of emotional reversal or revelation is Alex’s friend Sid, who tags along on what is otherwise a series of private family dramas because Alex insists that she’d feel better with him around. For much of the film, Sid is purely a comic relief character, doing and saying outrageous and almost willfully stupid things that stereotype him as a stoner/slacker idiot. By the midway point of the film, I was getting more than a little sick of him, to be honest, and had him pegged as another example of Payne’s tendency to create paper-thin stereotypes as punching bags for his mean sense of humor. (And Sid is also a literal punching bag for Forster’s Scott, in one of the film’s more uncomfortably unfunny stabs at humor.) Then, as though sensing the annoyance the character was likely to generate, Payne includes a quiet but startling scene that completely flips one’s perception of the character without changing a thing about his personality. It’s a simple late-night conversation between Matt and Sid in which Matt, getting desperate by now, tries to understand his daughter by talking to her best friend. Sid, for once, holds his abrasive humor in check and reveals the hitherto unseen quiet dignity of this character, who has experienced his own share of pain and loss and deals with it in his own irreverent way. As he says, he and Alex don’t actually talk about their problems, but help each other feel better by goofing around and making each other laugh, which helps put the rest of Sid’s behavior in context. It’s a short and simple scene that is nevertheless very necessary, both as a way of deepening this otherwise one-dimensional joke character and as an example of Payne’s penchant for finding catharsis in unexpected places.
JB: The relationship between Sid and Alex isn’t all that different than the one between Matt and his kids, actually. While The Descendants is all about a man confronting, finally, all the problems in his family, there’s so much that still goes unspoken. The hugs between Matt and his kids have a distance to them, for example, even at the end when it’s time to say goodbye to Mom, and although Matt, Alex and Scottie do grow closer over the movie, they bond less out of love for one another than through a shared sense of having been wronged—by the deception of the affair, by Brian Speer’s manipulations and by the waterskiing accident. A lot of what happens in this movie fits in with the stereotypical-because-it’s-true notion, held by many, that it’s OK for family to harm itself but not OK for someone else to harm the family. Thus we see Alex stand up for Matt when Scott is lecturing his son-in-law, and we see Alex become protective of Scottie by urging her younger sister to call out her friend for being a “twat,” and obviously Alex and Matt bond principally by tracking down and then staring down Brian Speer. Matt, Alex and Scottie have a long way to go before they understand one another, but over the course of the movie they do learn how to protect one another.
That’s what I appreciate about Payne films, the way characters can grow without completely figuring everything out, and the way that characters can seem heroic while still being flawed. It’s worth noting, in the context of our condescension debate, that some of Matt’s antics in this film would play like attacks on a no-class lower class if not for Matt’s wealth and good looks—in particular the scene in which Matt lectures his comatose wife at the hospital, noting that relationships are supposed to make life easier and accusing her of always making life harder, up to and including suffering the accident that has her on the edge of death. That scene has a lot of bite to it as-is, but certainly the same tirade would feel a lot darker if, say, delivered by Warren Schmidt to his wife, and perhaps that’s evidence in favor of the idea that Payne is most interested in showing the ugly truths of all his characters, regardless of their social standing or political affiliations, and maybe sometimes it’s Payne’s audience that makes connections to class that just aren’t intended.
EH: I don’t know if that’s quite true, if only because Payne himself always seems so conscious of his characters’ class statuses, whether they’re well-off like Matt or lower-class like many of Payne’s other characters. It’s true that Payne can be harsh towards all his characters, regardless of class, but it’s also true that there are hardly any Payne characters where class isn’t an issue at all. It’s obvious that he thinks about class in relation to his films, so a part of me can’t help but believe it’s no accident that he’s relatively more affectionate and understanding towards the higher class protagonists of Sideways and The Descendants.
Still, The Descendants has more to offer than class commentary, like fantastic performances and a bracing emotional honesty that makes it a great actors’ showcase, if not quite a great movie. It’s narratively incoherent, with a modular structure that makes it seem even more disjointed: the film’s different acts vary wildly in tone. At times, it also verges into shrill melodrama, especially in the scenes towards the end of the film with Brian Speer’s wife, played by the normally likable Judy Greer. It’s a very uneven movie, punctuated with great scenes but not quite hanging together as a whole. That it’s all pulled together for the subtle, ambiguous final shot—Matt and his daughters cuddled up on the sofa, watching TV and eating ice cream, a shot that Payne holds for wordless contemplation for quite a long time—only partially redeems the film’s flaws and messiness.
It’s not surprising that my reaction to The Descendants vacillates between admiration and annoyance; that’s been my reaction to nearly every Payne film. I went into this conversation loving Election while harboring a lot of ambivalence about his oeuvre as a whole, and my opinion hasn’t been changed by this latest work, nor by revisiting his filmography. He’s an interesting and contradictory director, though, a curious blend of the humanist and the cynic; he often just mockingly eviscerates his characters, but he’s also proven himself capable of much more nuanced portraits that reveal the beating, fallible human heart beneath the caricature. That’s Payne at his best: when he sets up a character like Tracy Flick, or Sid in The Descendants, who seems to be little more than a target for his derision, until he peels away the layers and locates the humanity, the sadness, the unexpected complexity of these seemingly simple characters. The moments when he achieves this delicate balancing act are the bright spots in an uneven but undeniably intriguing career.
JB: Yeah, I’m with you: Payne is at his best when he comingles emotions. Sometimes he does so simply by juxtaposing the touching and the tragic, such as that great moment near the end of The Descendants in which Matt rests his hand on his wife’s matted hair, giving her a loving caress, in spite of all the recent heartbreak and disillusionment, but often he does so by literally blending images, such as the scene in Sideways in which he employs a sequence of cross dissolves—a Payne staple—as Miles flirts with Maya, drinks too much, becomes distant and then drunk-dials his ex, in doing so inspiring our sympathy and our disgust in equal measure.
It’s certainly an intriguing career; I’m interested to see whether Payne continues to make more conventional comedic dramas like The Descendants or returns to the comparatively raw and combative tone of his earlier works. Personally, I root for the latter. Cinema needs a filmmaker who isn’t afraid to bite into the averageness of average Americans. And if charges of condescension come with that, so be it. I don’t think these characters need Payne’s protection, and often in supplying it critics can commit the same offense they’re attributing to Payne, judging the characters less on their actions than on their clothing, home decorating and automobiles. Especially in an era in which the Occupy movement has people sharpening their focus on the gaps between the haves and the have-nots, we need a filmmaker like Payne who, The Descendants excluded, makes movies about the other 99 percent.
Review: The Painted Bird Is a Viscerally Haunting Evocation of the Toll of War
Václav Marhoul’s film is at its most magnificent when it lingers on the poetry of its images.3.5
Joska (Petr Kotlár) doesn’t utter a word throughout The Painted Bird, writer-director Václav Marhoul’s adaptation of Jerzy Kosiński’s 1965 novel of the same name. But the boy does communicate through writing, if only twice across the film’s 169-minute running time. We first meet him as his parents drop him off at his aunt Marta’s (Nina Sunevic) rural home to supposedly shelter him from the ravages of war and anti-Semitism. There he sketches a drawing of his family with crayons, writing “Come Fetch Me” on it, as if guessing the unspeakable horrors that he will soon suffer. Then, in the film’s final moments, having undergone or witnessed what feels like every possible cruelty under the sun—impalement, dismemberment, incest, beastiality, a hanging suicide, and more—Joska uses his calloused fingers to finally tell us his name, writing it on a misty bus window.
The torments of this boy who remains unidentified to the strangers he meets mirrors Marhoul’s motivation to have his characters speak in Interslavic, a zonal constructed language, effectively giving the film a mythic aura. This could be anywhere, this could be any war, and this could be any child. The violence in The Painted Bird is too horrific to be ascribed to any one nation, or to even be named. It’s the violence of every nation, as comprehensive as language itself, and to assign that violence as a series of unfortunate events belonging to one nation, or one child, alone would be to betray that universality.
Though we understand the events in The Painted Bird to take place in the midst of World War II, Marhoul purposefully portrays the specificities of time and social-political context as marginal to the real drama of the film: the dehumanization of a child at the hands of every institution, from family to church to nation. If the child survives, and he does, it’s due to his refusal to be the heir of so much violence, withdrawing from speech but mastering the art of observation. Once Joska’s aunt dies, he roams the countryside and comes across strangers who take him in mostly to abuse him. He doesn’t speak, but he does listen. Honing his perception skills, his ability to read the world, doesn’t protect him from suffering, but it grants him survival, as he escapes from ferocious dogs, sadists, pedophiles, rapists, and SS officers.
The Painted Bird is packed with incident, but Marhoul is less concerned with developing a conventional plot than he is with situating Joska’s encounter in a perpetually metaphorical realm. It’s as if Joska is stuck inside a macabre fairy tale, with his attempts to exit from what seems like a bad dream only bringing him more misfortune. The film’s uncanny qualities are accentuated by Marhoul’s hyper-stylized mixing of certain noises—the hysteric chirping of crickets, the loud rubbing of the rusty chains of a kids swing set, and bare hands removing corn from a cob—embodying the distortions and hyperbole of a child’s memories and imagination. This isolation of one single sound in a scene that realistically would have been rife with many recalls another Czech film, Jan Švankmajer’s Little Otik, where the exaggeration of single aural elements in a scene conveys something at once childlike and uncanny.
This film’s luscious black-and-white imagery borrows from a variety of works that masterfully document existential misery. Scenes where Joska escapes through a birch forest evoke similar ones from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood. Other moments bear stunning resemblance to Béla Tarr’s visions of Eastern European gloom. A sequence where Joska walks alone and pauses to stare from outside at the tragic debauchery of adults dancing inside a tavern, as if petrified by the sight of the future that awaits him, borrows from one of the most gut-wrenching episodes from Sátántangó. In such moments, in Tarr and Marhoul’s universes alike, some drunkard inevitably plays a never-ending swan song on the accordion.
The Painted Bird is at its most magnificent when it lingers on the poetry of its images. The film’s lyrical approach to representing a child’s suffering, through surreal impressions, keeps it from becoming a manipulative and miserabilist tale. And Marhoul achieves this to particularly great effect in a scene where Joska is buried vertically into the ground, his head sticking out of the surface as he’s attacked by crows. You could draw a straight line between this moment and a later one where Joska witnesses Lekh (Lech Dyblik), one of the few good Samaritans who give him shelter, hanging from a ceiling in a mid-suicide attempt. The boy tries to lift Lekh’s body up to save him but finds that he’s too weak to do so. So he quickly jumps on the man’s dangling body, hugging it and pushing it down, as if realizing that a quick death is a more suitable gift to offer a kind stranger than more time in a wretched, unforgiving world.
Cast: Petr Kotlár, Nina Sunevic, Alla Sokolova, Michaela Dolezalová, Stanislav Bilyi, Udo Kier, Lech Dyblik, Jitka Cvancarová, Milan Simácek Director: Václav Marhoul Screenwriter: Václav Marhoul Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 169 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Blessed Child Only Half-Lifts the Veil on a Family’s Ties to a Cult
The film vague on the intersections between Cara Jones’s family, Sun Myung Moon, and the Unification Church at large.2.5
Founded and led by Korean evangelist and businessman Sun Myung Moon, the Unification Church enjoyed a surge in popularity in the United States in the 1970s. Disciples of the controversial church, known as Moonies, believed Moon’s assertion that he was a messiah sent to continue Jesus’s work of brokering our connection to God, and was as such unquestionable. Moon presided over mass arranged weddings, called “blessings,” that would lead to children born without original sin. Drugs and sex outside of marriage were verboten, homosexuality was a sin, and various other rules were in place to ensure the “purity” of disciples. What seems to distinguish Moon’s religion from puritanical branches of Christianity is an insistence on internationality, which might have appealed to Americans disenfranchised in the wake of the Vietnam War. Cara Jones’s parents were such Americans.
Blessed Child is an insider’s look at the Unification Church, homing in on Jones’s own family. Farley Jones, her father, was an atheist who became a devout Moonie and rose within the ranks of the church, enjoying intimate counsel with Moon himself. In 1995, Cara was married to a young Korean man she’d just met along with thousands of other couples in a stadium in Seoul, after submitting her high school picture to the church for an arranged coupling. Footage of this wedding is included in Blessed Child, and it speaks to the chilling anonymity of cult life, as a ritual associated with great personal love is transformed into a mass recruiting rally. Blessed Child is, in fact, composed of quite a bit of Jones home-video footage, and the film doesn’t lack for wrenchingly casual details about how a family indoctrinates its young into a contrived belief system, making it all seem so natural and inevitable. Perhaps most unnervingly, we see a young Cara deep in the grips of prayer, performing in a daily ritual at the family’s home, her face curled in determination to please her father.
The documentary is structured as a kind of coming-of-age story. Cara went to Princeton University not long after her wedding and rebelled against her religion, feeling especially alienated by a husband she regarded more as a brother figure. Embracing drugs and sex, Cara eventually fell out with her parents, who insisted she leave Princeton, which she refused. Now in her 40s, Cara wants to be free of the church’s tentacles without losing her parents and brothers, one of whom, Bow, is gay and served as the film’s director of photography. Cara grapples with a hypocrisy that scans as a given to many atheists: that religions that speak of love often seem to pivot far more viscerally on inspiring shame (as well as on the donations that such shame can motivate). Bow, who occasionally appears on screen, is out but clearly damaged by the church, wishing to the camera that he wasn’t gay.
Farley is the film’s most haunting subject though, a patriarch and religious figure who rules the roost with a sense of erudition and overwhelming niceness. Cara, not without bitterness, says that Farley killed with kindness. Late in Blessed Child, Cara asks Farley how he can accommodate a religion that judges his own son. To his credit, Farley isn’t defensive, and to less of his credit, he hems and haws, more or less evading the ramifications of his daughter’s question. Judging by his face, Farley appears to be a man, eaten up with sadness, who absolutely needs this religion and self-definition regardless of certain consequences. Farley says that he saw Moon, who died in 2012, as a father figure, as his own father walked out on his family when he was 10, and he saw the Unification Church as a way to embrace and focus familial love. It’s here that another irony rises to the surface: Farley and his wife, Betsy, frequently left their children in the hands of nannies while on missionary expeditions, so if we’re to believe his motivations, he momentarily lost his family out of fear of losing them.
Jones captures moving moments throughout Blessed Child, such as when Farley and Betsy tearfully apologize for the pressure they put on her and the confusion and misery they wrought. But the film nonetheless feels under-developed, as Jones is vague about the intersections between her family, Moon, and the church at large. Tantalizing questions hang in the air. How did Farley rise so quickly in the church? How do the other brothers, briefly glimpsed over a lunch, feel about Cara’s emancipation? How did Farley rationalize Moon’s tax evasions, infidelities, and other controversies? Farley’s daddy issues also feel like an inadequate explanation for how an intellectual atheist might be seduced by what appears to the layman to be an obvious scam. Jones may be too close to Farley to get to the bottom of him, and as such she doesn’t quite render the rationalizations of the cult members, though she offers a poignant testament to the baggage and insecurities hounding her own life.
Director: Cara Jones Screenwriter: Josh Alexander, Jean Kawahara, Cara Jones Distributor: Obscured Pictures Running Time: 77 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Ghosts of War Is a Morally Ghastly Haunted-House Attraction
The film’s unreflective earnestness is haunting in all the wrong ways.1
As a horror film that deals in hauntings and temporal displacements, writer-director Eric Bress’s Ghosts of War almost feels aptly dislodged in time. It could easily have come out two decades ago, around the time of Bress’s own The Butterfly Effect—that post-Sixth Sense era when suspense films seemed almost obligated to reveal their structuring conceit in a last-minute twist. Ghosts of War harkens back to this era of “gotcha” thrillers, building toward a climax in which significant moments we’ve seen are played back to us in rapid montage so we can piece together the supposedly clever ways we’ve been misdirected.
The device of the explanatory twist appears here as an apparent means of papering over some rather glaring inconsistencies in the World War II-set horror story, anachronisms and abrupt tone shifts whose gradual accumulation results in more incoherence than mystery—like when we catch sight of gaunt refugees in striped concentration-camp garb in Eastern France in 1944, or when a scene ends with a character’s fingers being horribly mangled, and the next opens with the same character coolly discussing scrambled radio messages. The big reveal assembles some of these disjointed pieces into a conspiratorial whole that, conveniently, could account for almost any preceding logical lapse. But some oddities can only be explained as continuity errors, like when the characters suddenly have wounds they will receive in a later scene.
The story that’s doomed to be consumed by its own ending concerns five Army grunts assigned to set up camp in a chateau in the French countryside just outside of Strasbourg, relieving another fireteam whose members, when our heroes arrive, wear the sleep-deprived and nerve-wracked faces of men who’ve spent several nights in a haunted house. Left with a radio that’s quite plainly relaying scrambled eldritch whispers from the beyond, a room decorated with creepy porcelain dolls, and a journal kept by the Nazi commanders who used the chateau as a headquarters, the five soldiers might be able to read these signs and guess they’re in for a modern movie haunting, if only they’d been born a few decades later.
One of the soldiers, Eugene (Skylar Astin), whose spectacles and aversion to combat peg him as the group’s intellectual, speaks German, so he begins reading the Nazis’s detailed account of their torture and murder of the family who lived in the house. The spirits of the Hellwigs still haunt the mansion, which we learn through the soldiers’ spooky encounters, which often resemble gags at Disney’s Haunted Mansion attraction: the silhouette behind a curtain that disappears when the cloth flutters; footprints that form in the sand before our eyes; and the family photo from which the human subjects disappear, leaving behind empty furniture.
Starting on the basis of these hokey effects, Bress’s screenplay takes up and then immediately drops several distinct threads of development. The old hobbyhorse of Hitler’s interest in the occult is dusted off, ridden around for 10 minutes, then forgotten. Suspicion between the soldiers wanes as soon as it waxes: For about three minutes, Chris (Brenton Thwaits) suspects Eugene of knowing more than he lets on, and everyone briefly suspects Tappert (Kyle Gallner) of harboring some violent intentions or other. There’s little sense that all this is going anywhere, and, of course, the twist ending will render much of it meaningless. At one point, the team tries to leave the mansion, and finds that they’re caught in some kind of spatio-temporal loop. They never feel more relatable than they do in this moment.
Noteworthy in Ghosts of War is that the Nazis aren’t the vicious paranormal force threatening the lives of our boys in uniform, but rather their victims. It’s a distinctive choice that initially suggests the film may intend to use the conventions of the ghost story to talk about something like the lasting spiritual impact of mass conflict and murder. But in a move that ends up being as morally ghastly as it is intellectually flabbergasting, the conclusion entails drawing a direct parallel between persecuted Jews hiding from Nazi slaughter and armed American soldiers hiding from enemy discovery. Perhaps the sloppy jingoism of a Nazi horror movie shouldn’t rankle so much, but Ghosts of War delivers its simultaneous celebration and exploitation of America’s “good wars” with an unreflective earnestness that’s haunting in all the wrong ways.
Cast: Brenton Thwaites, Theo Rossi, Kyle Gallner, Skylar Astin, Alan Ritchson, Billy Zane, Shaun Toub Director: Eric Bress Screenwriter: Eric Bress Distributor: Vertical Entertainment Running Time: 94 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Interview: Bill and Turner Ross on the Constructions of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
The Rosses discuss how performance, accessibility, empathy, and nostalgia figure into their work.
The work of filmmaker brothers Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross has always lived on the more experimental margins of the documentary form, and their latest effort radically pushes definitional notions of nonfiction to a near-breaking point. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets raised eyebrows when Sundance programmers slotted it into the festival’s Documentary Competition section, given that the film, about a Las Vegas dive bar’s last night of operation, was actually shot using a cast of hired actors-cum-barflys in New Orleans. What the filmmakers capture over the course of a whirlwind 18 hours—a day after Donald Trump won the presidency—might lack actuality, but they compensate with unvarnished authenticity.
The Ross brothers, who are based in New Orleans, have long been experts at capturing how people perform their identity within a given space and what that reflects about their humanity. Sometimes the performance is literal, as in their “dance film” Contemporary Color, a celebration of color guard staged by David Byrne at an event at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. But more often, their canvas is bigger, such as New Orleans’s French Quarter in Tchoupitoulas, their Sidney, Ohio hometown in 45365, or the Texas-Mexico border in Western; these documentaries are also populated with people going about their lives in less staged circumstances. With Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, the filmmakers narrow their focus to an admittedly synthetic setting to achieve an identical effect. Once the cameras start rolling and the booze starts flowing, the emotional honesty of the moments they capture outmuscles any concerns over genre labels or definitions.
On a Zoom call prior to the film’s Virtual Cinema release this Friday, I spoke with the Ross brothers about the intellectual and emotional journey leading up to ideating and executing an unconventional project like Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. The conversation also covered how the brothers think about performance, choreography, accessibility, empathy, and nostalgia when making their films.
Your body of work is largely about what we can learn about people from the spaces they occupy and explore. Did your ability to explore these thematics get easier or harder with such a confined location in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets?
Turner Ross: We’re interested in people in the space they inhabit, people in the spaces they create, how the spaces that they occupy both relate to them and are manifested by them. So, I think every film has a bit to do with that. With this one, I wouldn’t say [it was] easier or harder. I would say we always set up a challenge for ourselves. And this was as challenging a dynamic as we could conceive given the films that have preceded it. You know, we’re always trying to learn from what comes before. And the last film that we did was a “four walls” movie, but it was the Barclays Center in New York, tens of thousands of people, several hundred participants and a crew of dozens. We wanted to take that idea of constraints and a limited palette and say, “Can we reduce that down to actually four walls, just the two of us, to a group of people assembled? Can we give a sense of being there to a place that we’ve manifested? Can we elicit an authentic experience from an intention to a scenario?” But those are imposed limitations and obstacles, and that’s what makes it interesting for us.
Bill Ross IV: In some ways, it was nicer to be confined to that space because that limitation was what it was. In other ways, it was incredibly difficult.
You mentioned Contemporary Color as another “four walls” movie. Did that experience of learning how to capture motion within a confined space help in making this one?
TR: Very much so. Contemporary Color is actually a dance film, so it involves choreography. Humans and their choreography through space is always interesting, and so we tried to create a space in which all of the corners of the room had potential. We filled it with people who would have an interesting dance with each other. The difference was we didn’t know the choreography ahead of time. We just kind of had to create the scenario, create opportunities and then follow where they led. And so that made it much more of an interesting dance partner than just observing the thing itself.
You started conceptualizing this film with your Vegas visits in 2009 but didn’t shoot the film until 2016. How did your understanding of the people, the bars, the city, the country change over time? How would the film be different if you’d shot it right away?
BR: I mean, each film is an extension of where we are as humans when we shoot it, so it would certainly have been more immature.
TR: It’s an extension of us as people, as individuals, as humans in the world. It’s an extension of ourselves as artists, the times that we’re in, what we’re thinking about, what we’re responding to. So, certainly, 10 years ago, the world we were responding to is very different than the one that we find ourselves in now. In that sense, the world being available to us as the resource that we mine, certainly that would have been different. But, at the same time, what we were looking for at that time was much more of a gritty, verité, follow-where-it-goes street film in which we were just really wanting to see what was happening in that world. Not so much as a paradigm in which the movie takes place, a metaphor for experience, a framing device—which is what it ends up being in this film—but the actuality of what it was in 2009 during the Great Recession when people were living on the outskirts of Vegas, not seeking pleasure but a place to get by in the world. That spoke to us really as an image, as an experience and as a rich resource for painting a portrait of the contemporary American experience, which, again, extrapolated into these times would be very different. And, for us, it became the backdrop for this film so that we could create a microcosmic story that hopefully spoke to something bigger in that context.
TR: I’d love to see that film!
BR: Oh, that movie would be sweet. But we’ll get to that one. It just wasn’t the right time then. It’s good that we got to think about it for this long. A lot of things were reported in that bucket over the last decade, or I guess it would have been seven years.
You’ve described bars as almost liminal spaces where people go to be someone other than themselves. Is that realization part of what led you to view the people in this film as actors performing characters?
TR: We’re always performing as people, and that comes into the genre-framing conversation. Our awareness of a camera has become a real factor in the world, but that’s not what we’re after. What we were curious about is what are these spaces that we choose to inhabit, that we seek in which to commiserate, that we seek in which to make stories, to tell stories, to put on airs, to be ourselves, to let go of things. Through all of time, people have found these types of spaces. And at the time that we made the film, we felt it was the most conducive space in which to observe and be curious about the conversations people are having with each other when they aren’t talking about something in particular. And, so, if we can all share a drink and have a conversation, what does it sound like? That’s in parallel to our interest in these spaces in general, and as a visual and cultural space, but also as a useful space. Who are we? Why don’t we talk to each other like this? What stories do we tell what stories we tell ourselves? And what are we saying to each other in this moment in time?
Do you see your other films as having performances in their own way?
BR: Always, yeah. In a lot of ways, I don’t see this film being much different than the others. They’re all constructions. There’s a camera in the room and we’re all performing. We’re all presenting what we wish to be seen as. I think that’s been cranked up here, but by how much I don’t really know.
TR: Our films are an amalgam of an experience. How can we distill it down to its essence, to make it sensical when it’s shared? I think that’s part of being a person in the world, what are you going to share with others in order to give them an idea of who you wish them to see? And that’s performance. So, in that sense, our films are also performative. In this sense, we’re just more acutely looking at that.
How were you all navigating the need to be specific to get the precise sense of place but also generalizable enough that anyone could see their own truth or experience reflected in the film?
BR: A lot of it is casting. We’re casting a wide variety of folks for a lot of different reasons, but one of them being that folks will see themselves in someone there. Or pieces of themselves throughout. And that seems to have been the case so far, which has been great. But the beginning of the question was Vegas…
TR: We wanted to tell a specific story that was also universal. That’s what Bill was talking about with casting. We wanted to make sure that there was representation in there so that there were different voices heard, which were authentic [and] would not [convey] an inauthentic experience, some sort of staged experiment, but something that spoke to an authenticity that we had perceived and experienced on our own. So, yes, we did a lot when it come to the framing of that world. We spent a lot of time in Vegas, certainly scouting and considering that and wanting to be authentic to that locale. But we also wanted to create a boundary in between so that when people watch the film, it isn’t so acute that they feel removed. We want people to have this experiential opportunity. We spoke today with a woman in Moscow, different people all over the world, different age groups, different backgrounds, and [even though it] may not be [their] space, they know something like it. Those may not be your people, but you might know folks like ‘em. And we wanted that to be the overriding idea, and not so much that this is a singular, specific story. We hoped that we would get to something that was more universal, even though it is a singular milieu.
We sometimes see the camera in the bar mirrors. Was it just too logistically complex trying to hide its presence? Did you just embrace your visibility?
BR: This is our fifth feature, and at this point, I think I’m just done trying to cut around us. We are there. If we weren’t there, there wouldn’t be a film. More and more, we have embraced the fact that we’re just in the room. It’s very intentional, but we’re not focusing on ourselves. Because it’s a mirrored room, we are popping up. We are leaving ourselves in there to say that this was a collective experience. This is all something that we experienced together. And we’re shooting not at these folks, but with [them]. We are together.
A moment that really struck me in the film is the really heartfelt conversation at the end of the bar between Bruce and Pam, both older and of different racial backgrounds. We see them at first in close-up, then you zoom out to see from other people’s vantage point from the other end of the bar in long shot. Throughout much of the film, we’re in a moment so thoroughly, and then it evaporates. Why linger here a bit and change perspectives?
BR: There’s two parts to that. One is, editorially, we needed to condense the scene timewise. But, also, because of that perspective, the scene becomes richer because the folks that you bounce around to are having trivial conversations when they are having a big life moment down here. And that’s the way a bar works. Now, you’re totally oblivious that somebody is having a life-changing, cathartic moment down here, and you and your buddies are talking about Olive Garden three seats down. I thought it was very telling what those spaces can be.
TR: And we wanted that inclusivity of the myriad experience and how the same situation, even within a small tight-knit framework, is experienced differently. And, as a viewer, that was Bill speaking to the cinematic intention. We realized that it was much more accessible as a film if we used the language of cinema to move around the space and to allow the viewers to say, “I have my own stream of consciousness in this space and can move around to the different conversations at will. I’m privy to all of the things in a way that even the people within the bar [aren’t].” The omniscience is in favor of the viewer.
BR: There was one cut of this where we would just stick with Pam and Bruce for, like, eight minutes uninterrupted and not bounce around the room. We love that cut, but nobody else did! So we had austere intentions, and then realized we need to revert to the language of the movies.
Beyond just the difficulties of getting someone to watch or program something that’s four-and-a-half-hours long, which is the length of your original favored cut, why whittle the film down to an hour-and-a-half? What’s lost and what’s gained?
BR: An audience is gained! [laughs]
TR: We always say that we make movies for ourselves first. We make movies for each other, and we try to solve that thing. Well, that four-and-a-half-hour movie was the movie that we made for ourselves and for each other. It turns out that what we loved about it was not translated to people outside of our own peculiar bubble. What we needed to do was distill that down to something that allowed people in and wasn’t so cold and obstructive as to pull people out. It’s not about observation, it’s about inclusion for the people within it and the viewers, and we had to eventually really lean towards the viewer. Because if we’re not successful in the end, if we can’t share this, there’s not an act of empathy. We can’t create an artifact and then share it with an audience to have them have their experience. And so that is why it’s 90 minutes.
Was it an intentional decision to shoot the day after the 2016 election or just a happy accident?
BR: I don’t know if it was “happy,” but it just sort of turned out that way.
TR: Generally, we’re reflecting the state of the world at the time, what we were feeling and thinking. We were feeling sort of divided as a country and in terms of perspectives, and we were feeling pretty lost and like we should be able to do better than our vote on Election Day allowed. As artists, it was time for us to go to work. We set out to get the film in motion before we knew the results of the election. It wasn’t about us making a film about our politics, but it was about the body politic. What is the state of people and what are they saying to each other? Let’s not make an election film, but let’s make a film about who we are during this time.
Trump is this kind of looming, mostly unspoken presence undergirding a lot of what’s happening on screen, just as he has been in pretty much any bar for the last five years. How did you go about navigating the elephant in the room?
BR: It was just like a bar, with folks just getting into it, and that didn’t feel quite right. So we’d move elsewhere. But that balance was struck in the edit. We didn’t shy away from shooting all of it. It was present.
TR: But it also was a motivating factor in terms of why we chose to execute the film the way that we did: to create a container, a safe space to bring in a broad swath of people to choreograph the inclusion of those types. In scouting actual bars, there were some bars that, because of the way that Bill and I look, we would walk in, we’d turn the cameras on and they’d start chanting: “Trump, Trump, Trump!” Just assuming a certain point of view, and that’s not the film that we wanted to make.
BR: To be clear, he is not talking about the Roaring 20s! [laughs]
TR: We scouted 100 bars, and we interviewed hundreds of people to be involved in this film. And there were certain spaces that certainly did have a limited viewpoint, and people found their own corner to back into. That’s just not what we wanted to explore. We didn’t want to have a space that spoke to a singular experience. We wanted myriad viewpoints and the opportunity to feel like you belonged in a space. That’s both why we chose to shoot at that time and why we created our space the way that we did.
I’m sure you’re getting this a lot, but obviously the film has evolved to take on additional meaning when being released in a pandemic where almost no one can congregate in a bar, or at least enjoy one like the Roaring 20s patrons are. Do you think it might change the meaning or reception of the film given that the audience is likely in a state of heightened nostalgia for the environment of a bar?
BR: That’s funny because nobody’s asked us that yet! I thought people would. You have to think it’s going to. I mean, it’s got to!
TR: We’re as curious as you are. On the one hand, the themes in the film are still relevant and resonant. And, on the other hand, they change their articulation because of where we’ve ended up at this moment.
BR: Not just about your feelings on bars, but so much of what’s brought up in the film has been heightened because everything is heightened right now.
TR: And not only what they’re talking about, what the people are actually saying to each other. The context of the film, this idea of the end of things and uncertain futures, wrestling with identity and where we’re all headed, these sort of existential themes that are intertwined in the conceit of the film and in the way that people are having discourse with each other. I’m super curious. What a bizarre fucking time to put out a film at all! Especially this one, where we’re on edge about everything, we can’t share space in this way. Who are we? I think that’ll be reflected in the kind of feedback we get.
It strikes me that you didn’t make this as an explicitly “nostalgic” film. Would you be okay if people received it that way?
BR: My biggest fear would be if they were just like, “Okay.” Any sort of reaction, if they want to argue with it, great! People are free to do what they want to do, I just hope it’s not just like, “Okay, honey. Well, we watched that.” As if it’s just one more piece of content.
TR: In the moment that we made it, our concern was not to date the film, to say, “Let’s let it be of the world that it is, but let’s also not fix it in that for all of time, hopefully.” At the same time, it’s already in the rearview, so you can’t help but have some sort of nostalgia for it. Or, I don’t know, maybe there’s a hope for moving on. I think, inevitably, we make these things together to go through a catharsis together and with the people that we make them with. Then, it’s left up to the audience, and I’m fascinated by what an audience does with it once it’s theirs. I’ll be super curious to have those conversations.
Review: Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets Is an Elegiac Mosaic of Disillusionment
It’s in certain characters’ trajectories that the Ross brothers locate the tragic soul of the bar.3.5
In a 1946 essay for London’s Evening Standard, George Orwell wrote: “And if anyone knows of a pub that has draught stout, open fires, cheap meals, a garden, motherly barmaids and no radio, I should be glad to hear of it.” In other words, the British author was on the lookout for the ideal watering hole, which he argues requires a combination of these specific offerings as well as more ineffable qualities. But the article’s thrust isn’t so simple, as Orwell spends the first three-quarters of it describing in detail a bar that doesn’t exist, referred to by the fictitious moniker of “The Moon Under Water.” You might think that you’re reading a rare lifestyle report from your favorite anti-totalitarian author, only to suddenly be made aware of your victimhood in a little literary sleight of hand.
Orwell’s playful essay provides the inspiration for Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, a quasi-real-time portrait of what might be seen as an ideal dive bar by today’s standards, though filmmaker brothers Bill and Turner Ross eschew Orwell’s rug-pulling. Here, we’re never let in on the fact that the Roaring 20s, the Las Vegas haunt that serves as the film’s setting, is actually located in the Rosses’ hometown of New Orleans, or that its denizens are actually a motley crew of Louisiana drinkers (one looks like Elliott Gould, another like Seymour Cassel) that the filmmakers recruited and primed for their roles. This edifice of fakery is critical to the film’s meaning. As Orwell opined for a more perfect world where such a social space could exist, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets fabricates its own rosy vision of social unity, drunkenly commiseration, and aesthetic perfection, if only to deliberately undercut this idealism through the staging of its narrative around the bar’s final night and the election of Donald Trump.
The Roaring 20s may not be everyone’s idea of perfection. After an Altmanesque credit sequence establishing the bar’s exterior in zooming telephoto shots, the audience’s first glimpse at the interior finds custodian-cum-freeloader Michael Martin being broken from his early-afternoon slumber by the arriving bartenders and helped promptly to a swig of whiskey, and events from this point forward tap into a similar reservoir of pity and humor. Where the beauty emerges is in the intimacy and familiarity with which the patrons are able to relate to one another as more and more alcohol is consumed. For much of the film, egos, tempers, and prejudices fall away as more and more regulars pile into the bar, increasingly constituting a diverse cross section of what appear to be outer Vegas wanderers and failures.
Limiting views of the surrounding city to brief, bleary interludes shot on an un-color-calibrated Panasonic DVX100b, the Ross brothers center the action squarely around the bar, lending everything a brownish pink patina that suggests the view through a bottle of Fireball and draping every hangable surface with off-season Christmas lights. Taken as part of a dialogue with such gems from the canon of booze-soaked cinema as Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery and Eagle Pennell’s Last Night at the Alamo, this auburn glow distinguishes Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets as more texturally expressive than photographically verisimilar—a film that approximates a night of inebriation rather than merely memorializing it.
Having used two cameras over the course of their 18-hour shoot, the Rosses are able to rely on montage editing to foster a sense of omniscience without losing the feeling of temporal continuity. The result is a film whose attention jumps sporadically to different bits of conversation and activity just as the beer-saturated brain of your average pub-dweller might. Part of this seamless integration of perspectives has to do with the film’s dynamic and precise use of music, which blends non-diegetic Rhodes-piano noodlings from composer Casey Wayne McAllister with popular songs heard within the bar both on the jukebox and in impromptu sing-alongs. Unconcerned with airs of documentary objectivity, the Ross brothers allow themselves to essentially play disc jockeys, and within this framework many of their choices for background needle drops land with a certain poetic gravitas, complementing, contradicting, or in some cases even guiding the emotional temperature of the room.
Kenny Rogers’s “The Gambler” is heard twice, first played by a bartender on an acoustic guitar to get the early evening energy going and later on the jukebox when much of that energy has dissipated, while Jhené Aiko’s desolate breakup ballad “Comfort Inn Ending” provides contrapuntal accompaniment to the evening’s one flare-up of macho tempers. Most affecting is when A$AP Rocky’s “Fuckin’ Problems” underscores a shot of an embittered but tender war vet, Bruce Hadnot, glowering at the end of the bar—a lengthily held beat that will be relatable to anyone who’s ever found introspection in the midst of pummeling noise. Each example hints at the melancholy direction that the film ultimately takes, and like any DJ worth their salt, the Rosses manage the transition from euphoria to pathos gradually and imperceptibly.
While all who enter the Roaring 20s achieve some kind of emotional arc before departing thanks to the filmmakers’ democratic distribution of their attentions, there are a few who emerge as main characters, and it’s in their trajectories that Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets locates the tragic soul of the bar. Michael is one of them. Beginning the day as a freewheeling conversationalist, ripping drinks and catching up with whoever rolls through, he spends the dwindling hours of the night in a dazed stupor on a corner sofa, pathetically asserting to a fellow bar patron that “there is nothing more boring than someone who used to do stuff and just sits in a bar.” In a few instances, the Ross brothers cede the floor to the bar’s security cameras, whose detachment and “objectivity” eschew the warmth of the filmmakers’ ground-level cameras, rendering the bar as little more than a physical space. Seen from this cold, inhuman eye, Michael registers as lonely, beaten-down, and insignificant.
Similarly positioned on the margins of the sociable space created by the Roaring 20s, and often identified by its more imposing and strange attractions (such as the Stratosphere and Pyramid casinos), Las Vegas plays a role analogous to the bar’s security cameras. As seen through a motion-blurred, sepia-toned camera, the city represents a reality of false hopes that’s failed the film’s humble pleasure seekers—whether in the form of dead-end jobs that have led them away from their passions or in a military industrial complex that treats its servants as interchangeable. At one point, Bruce brings up Trump on the occasion of his recent election, confidently proffering grave predictions for his presidency. The subject doesn’t get touched again, but it’s a subtext for the whole film—not the Trump presidency per se, but the mere fact of pessimism in the face of leadership. Like Orwell’s “The Moon Under Water,” the Roaring 20s seen in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets doesn’t really exist. Even if it did, no one would save it, which makes the desperation with which its denizens hang on to it all the more touching.
Director: Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross Distributor: Utopia Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Relic Is a Lushly Metaphoric Vision of a Splintered Family
The film heralds the arrival a bold and formidable voice in horror cinema.2.5
Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote), don’t say much on the drive to Grandma Edna’s (Robyn Nevin) house. The old woman is missing, and when Sam crawls through the doggy door into the home, she looks around with concern, absorbed until Kay knocks impatiently at the door to be let in. Still no words. The women of Relic aren’t exactly close, as evidenced by the palpable coldness between Kay and Sam as they look through this cluttered abode. Edna’s forgetfulness having grown exhausting, Kay tells a cop that she hasn’t spoken to her eightysomething mother in weeks. And the guilt is written on Kay’s face, even in the distant shot that frames her within the walls of the police station.
Though Relic is her debut feature, Natalie Erika James demonstrates a confident grasp of tone and imagery throughout the film. She and cinematographer Charlie Sarroff strikingly conjure an ominous stillness, particularly in the scenes set inside Edna’s increasingly unfamiliar home, where the characters appear as if they’re being suffocated by the walls, railing, low ceilings, and doorways. Relic fixates on rotting wood, the monolithic scope of the Australian woods, and the colors on Edna’s front door’s stained-glass window that meld, eventually, into a single dark spill, as though the house is infected by the old cabin that haunts Kay’s dreams.
Edna soon reappears, unable to explain where she’s been and complicating an already distant family dynamic. The interactions between the three women are marked by an exhaustion that’s clearly informed by past experience—a feeling that Edna’s disappearance was almost expected. But not even James’s command behind the camera can quite elevate just how hard Relic falls into the shorthand of too many horror movies with old people at their center: the unthinking self-harm, the wandering about in the night, the pissing of oneself.
The film remains restrained almost to a fault, revealing little about its characters and their shared histories. Though some of this vagueness could be attributed to Relic’s central metaphor about dementia, the general lack of specificity only grows more apparent in the face of the film’s oldsploitation standbys, leaving us with precious little character to latch onto.
But such familiar elements belie Relic’s truly inventive climax, an abrupt shift into a visceral nightmare that tears apart notions of body and space and then sews them back together in a new, ghastly form. James resists bringing the film’s subtext to the forefront, in the process imbuing her enigmatic images with a lasting power, turning them into ciphers of broader ideas like abandonment, responsibility, and resentment as they relate to the withering human figure. Never relenting with its atmosphere of suffocating decay, the final stretch of Relic, if nothing else, heralds the arrival a bold and formidable voice in horror cinema.
Cast: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote Director: Natalie Erika James Screenwriter: Natalie Erika James, Christian White Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Love Before the Virus: Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s Newly Restored Passing Strangers
The film’s characters are simultaneously horny and melancholic. They seem to want plenty of sex but also love.
One of the many pleasures to be had in watching Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s newly restored Passing Strangers derives from its status as a historical document, or a piece of queer ethnography. The 1974 film allows us to see but also feel what life was like for gay men during what some have called the golden age of unbridled sex before the AIDS epidemic. Bressan Jr.’s portrait of this history is simultaneously attuned to its sartorial, mediatic, erotic, and affective dimensions, which may come as a surprise to those unaccustomed to explicit sexual imagery being paired with social commentary. Pornography and poetry aren’t counterparts here. Rather, they’re bedfellows, one the logical continuation of the other. Money shots, for instance, aren’t accompanied by moaning or groaning, but by the sounds of a violin.
The film’s characters are simultaneously horny and melancholic. They seem to want plenty of sex but also love. They devote so much of their lives to picking up strangers for sex, briefly and by the dozens, but not without secretly wishing that one of them might eventually stay. In this they may not differ much from their contemporary cruising heirs, though they do in their approach. It turns out that asking for a pen pal’s photo before a meetup in 1974 was considered creepy, and using Walt Whitman’s poetry as part of a sex ad was quite fruitful.
That’s exactly what 28-year-old Tom (Robert Carnagey), a bath-house habitué and telephone company worker living in San Francisco, does in the hopes of attracting something long term. The literal poetics of cruising speaks to 18-year-old Robert (Robert Adams), who responds to Tom’s newspaper ad right way. They meet in person and begin a love affair that could only be described as bucolic, including making love in fields of grass, on top of a picnic blanket, to the sound of waves and piano notes, and riding their bikes around town, much like the sero-discordant love birds of Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo do after partaking in a gangbang. In retrospect, promiscuity gains the tinge of an obsessive auditioning of “the one,” who, in Bressan Jr.’s sensual fairy tale, is bound to come along and save us from ourselves.
Passing Strangers, which originally screened at adult cinemas and gay film festivals, recalls Francis Savel’s 1980 porno Equation to an Unknown in how smut and romance are so intimately bound in the forms of queer intimacy that the film depicts. This may also be due to the dearth of gay cinematic representation at the time—of gay men perhaps needing to dream of prince charming and of bareback anal sex in the same movie session, satisfying the itch for love and for filth in one fell swoop. But while Equation to an Unknown is completely wrapped up in a fantasy glow, there’s something more realistic, or pragmatic, about Passing Strangers.
Tom’s voiceover narration, which takes the shape of disaffected epistolary exchanges with his newfound beloved, orients us through the action. Motivations are explained. At times, however, Bressan Jr. indulges in experimental detours. These are precisely the most beautiful, and atemporal, sequences in the film—scenes where sex is juxtaposed with the sound of a construction site or the buzzing of a pesky mosquito, or one where an audience of orgy participants give a round of applause after somebody ejaculates. And the film’s surrendering to moments of inexplicable poesis reaches its apex in a shot of a boy in clown makeup holding his mouth agape. It’s an exquisitely brief shot, indelible in its strangeness.
Review: Tom Hanks Stubbornly Steers Greyhound into Sentimental Waters
With no vividly drawn humans on display, the action feels like rootless war play.1.5
With his almost supernatural likeability, impeccable reputation, and penchant for appearing in films rooted in American history, Tom Hanks has become a national father figure. The actor’s ongoing project, particularly urgent as we seek to redefine our relationship with our history and iconography, is to remind us of when the United States actually rose to the occasion. Unsurprisingly, this project often centers on World War II, one of the least controversial pinnacles of American collaboration on the world stage.
Continuing this tradition, Aaron Schneider’s Greyhound concerns the efforts to provide Britain with troops and supplies via Allied naval convoys on the Atlantic, which German U-boat “wolf packs” stalk and sink, attempting to break a Western blockade. Adapted by Hanks from C.S. Forester’s novel The Good Shephard, the film is a celebration of duty and competency that’s so quaint it’s almost abstract, as it arrives at a time of chaos, selfish and blinkered American governing, and a growing bad faith in our notion of our own legacy.
Set over a few days in 1942, the film dramatizes a fictionalized skirmish in the real-life, years-long Battle of the Atlantic. The American destroyer Greyhound, leader of a convoy that includes Canadian and British vessels, is commanded by Ernest Krause (Hanks), an aging naval officer with no experience in battle. Text at the start of the film explains that there’s a portion of the Atlantic that’s out of the range of air protection, called the Black Pit, in which convoys are especially vulnerable to the wolf packs. For 50 hours, Krause and his crew will be tested and severely endangered as they seek to cross this treacherous stretch of the sea.
This skeletal scenario has potential as a visceral thriller and as a celebration of Allied ingenuity and daring. Unfortunately, Hanks’s script never adds any meat to the skeleton. One can see Hanks’s passion for history in the loving details—in the references to depth charge supply, to windshield wipers freezing up, to the specific spatial relationships that are established (more through text than choreography) via the various vessels in this convoy. What Hanks loses is any sense of human dimension. In The Good Shephard, Krause is frazzled and insecure about leading men who’re all more experienced in battle than himself. By contrast, Krause’s inexperience is only mentioned in Greyhound as a testament to his remarkable, readymade leadership. The film’s version of Krause is stolid, undeterred, unshakably decent ol’ Tom Hanks, national sweetheart. As such, Greyhound suffers from the retrospective sense of inevitability that often mars simplified WWII films.
Greyhound’s version of Krause lacks the tormented grace of Hanks’s remarkable performance in Clint Eastwood’s Sully. This Krause also lacks the palpable bitterness of Hanks’s character in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, as well as the slyness that the actor brought to both Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can and Bridge of Spies. In Greyhound, Hanks falls prey to the sentimentality for which his detractors have often unfairly maligned him, fetishizing Krause’s selflessness in a manner that scans as ironically vain. As a screenwriter, Hanks throws in several writerly “bits” to show how wonderful Krause is, such as his ongoing refusal to eat during the Greyhound’s war with U-boats. (A three-day battle on an empty stomach seems like a bad idea.) Meanwhile, the crew is reduced to anonymous faces who are tasked with spouting jargon, and they are, of course, unquestionably worshipful of their commander, as are the voices that are heard from the other vessels in the convoy.
Schneider lends this pabulum a few eerie visual touches, as in the slinky speed of the German torpedoes as they barely miss the Greyhound, but the film is largely devoid of poetry. The stand-offs between the vessels are competently staged, but after a while you may suspect that if you’ve seen one torpedo or depth charge detonation you’ve seen them all. With no vividly drawn humans on display, the action feels like rootless war play. In short, Greyhound takes a fascinating bit of WWII history and turns it into a blockbuster version of bathtub war.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Karl Glusman, Stephen Graham, Elisabeth Shue, Tom Brittney, Devin Druid, Rob Morgan, Lee Norris, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Maximilian Osinski, Matthew Zuk, Michael Benz Director: Aaron Schneider Screenwriter: Tom Hanks Distributor: Apple TV+ Running Time: 91 min Rating: 2020 Year: PG-13
Review: The Beach House’s Moodiness Is Dissipated by Shaky Characterization
The character drama becomes afterthought as it’s superseded by action.2
Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel The Andromeda Strain, in which a satellite crashes to Earth with an alien virus on board, is an expression of Space Age anxieties, about how the zeal to reach the stars could have unintended and dangerous consequences. In Jeffrey A. Brown’s The Beach House, something lethal instead rises from the depths of the ocean, a kind of “alien” invasion coming up from below rather than down from the cosmos, better reflecting the environmental anxieties of our present day. It still feels like comeuppance for human hubris, but this time in the form of intraterrestrial, not extraterrestrial, revenge.
The potentially extinction-level event is played on a chamber scale as domestic drama. Emily (Liana Liberato) and Randall (Noah Le Gros) are college sweethearts who go to his family’s beach house during the off-season, in a seemingly abandoned town, to work on their personal problems. They’re unexpectedly joined there by Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryann Nagel), old friends of Randall’s father, and the four agree to have dinner together. It’s then that Emily, an aspiring astrobiologist, conveniently provides some context for what’s about to happen, as she makes reverential conversation at the table about the mysterious depths of the sea and the sometimes extreme conditions in which new life can be created and thrive.
That night, while tripping balls on edibles, the couples look out and marvel at the sparkling, purple-tinged landscape outside their beach house. (The smell is less gloriously described as being like that of sewage and rotten eggs.) It’s not a hallucination, though, because whatever ocean-formed particulate is turning the night sky into a psychedelic dreamscape and the air cloudy is also making the characters sick. There’s some interesting and serendipitous overlap between the film’s central horror and our present Covid-19 crisis, as the malady seems to be airborne, affecting the lungs and making the characters cough. It also affects older people more quickly than the young, with the milder symptoms including exhaustion.
Brown emphasizes the oddness of nature with an eye for detail focused in close-up on, say, the eerie gooeyness of oysters, and by vivifying the film’s settings with bold colors: On the second night, the air glows mustard and red, recalling recent California wildfires. The ubiquitous haze also evokes John Carpenter’s The Fog and Frank Darabont’s The Mist, but other genre influences are also on display, from Cronenbergian body horror, as in the gory removal of a skin-burrowing worm, to zombie flicks, given the slowness of the hideously infected victims.
There’s not a lot of exposition about the illness, as Brown’s screenplay is primarily focused on Randall and Emily’s fight to survive the mysterious onslaught. But you probably won’t care if they do. The character drama becomes afterthought as it’s superseded by action. The Beach House had convincingly argued that these two people shouldn’t be together, that their relationship has long passed its prime. He mocks her plans for advanced study and calls her life goals bullshit, even though he has none himself; he suggests that they move into the beach house, to live in a state of permanent vacation, while he tries to figure out what life means. When she’s high and getting sick and asking him for help, he dismisses her, lest it harsh his mellow. But instead of engineering his downfall, Midsommar-style, Emily does everything she can in the last third to help save him. It feels sudden, unearned, and unconvincing—enough to make you root for the monsters from the ocean floor.
Cast: Liana Liberato, Noah Le Gros, Maryann Nagel, Jake Weber Director: Jeffrey A. Brown Screenwriter: Jeffrey A. Brown Distributor: Shudder Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: The Old Guard Is a Would-Be Franchise Starter with No New Moves
Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action, the film is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts.2
Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard is a modestly successful attempt to build a new fountain of franchise content out of a comic series with nearly limitless potential for spin-offs. The story kicks into motion with a team of four mercenaries with unique powers and an ancient bond setting off to rescue some kidnapped girls in South Sudan. Charlize Theron brings her customarily steely intensity to the role of the group’s cynical, burnt-out leader, Andy, who isn’t crazy about the idea since she doesn’t trust Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the ex-C.I.A. agent who hired them. Given how long it turns out that Andy has been doing this sort of thing, you would imagine that her comrades would listen.
The mission turns out to be a set-up, and the would-be rescuers are wiped out in a barrage of bullets. Except not, because Andy and her team are pretty much unkillable. So as their enemies are slapping each other on the back and conveniently looking the other way, the mercenaries haul themselves to their feet, bodies healing almost instantaneously, bullets popping out of closing wounds. Payback is swift but interesting, because for reasons likely having to do with their being many centuries old—the youngest, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), fought for Napoleon—the four quasi-immortals like to use swords in addition to automatic weaponry.
Written with glints of pulpy panache by Greg Rucka, the comic’s originator, The Old Guard sets up a high-potential premise and proceeds to do not very much with it. Rucka’s conceit is that this tiny group are among the very few people on Earth to have been born essentially immortal. This can be a good thing, but it can also prove problematic, as it means that they watch everybody they know age and die—a trope that was already somewhat worn by the time Anne Rice used it throughout her novels about ever-suffering vampires.
The plot of the film does relatively little after the showdown in South Sudan besides introduce a new member of the mercenary team, Nile (KiKi Layne), establish that Andy is tiring of the wandering warrior life, and show the group plotting revenge on Copley only to have that turn into a rescue mission that conveniently brings them all back together again. As part of the run-up to that mission, new recruit Nile, a Marine who goes AWOL from Afghanistan with Andy after her fellow soldiers see her seemingly fatal knife wound magically heal and treat her as some kind of witch, is introduced to life as a nearly invincible eternal warrior.
That rescue plot is simple to the point of being rote. Billionaire Big Pharma bro Merrick (Harry Melling), seemingly made up of equal parts Lex Luthor and Martin Shkreli, kidnaps two of Andy’s team in the hope of harvesting their DNA for blockbuster anti-aging drugs. Unfortunately for the film, that takes two of its most personable characters temporarily out of action. Nicky (Luca Marinelli) and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) had their meet-cute while fighting on opposite sides of the Crusades and have been wildly in love ever since. After the two are captured and mocked by Merrick’s homophobic gunsels, Joe delivers a pocket soliloquy on his poetic yearning: “His kiss still thrills me after a millennium.” The moment’s romantic burn is more poignant by being clipped to its bare-minimal length and presented with the casual confidence one would expect from a man old enough to remember Pope Urban II.
In other ways, however, The Old Guard fails to explore the effects of living such lengthy lives. Asked by Nile whether they are “good guys or bad guys,” Booker answers that “it depends on the century.” While Rucka’s hard-boiled lines like that can help energize the narrative, it can also suggest a certain flippancy. When the film does deal with crushing weight of historical memory, it focuses primarily on Andy, who’s been around so long that her name is shortened from Andromache the Scythian (suggesting she was once the Amazon warrior queen who fought in the battle of Troy). Except for a brief flashback illustrating the centuries-long escapades of Andy and Quynh (Veronica Ngo) fighting for vaguely defined positive principles (one involved rescuing women accused of witchcraft), we don’t see much of their past. Similarly, except for Andy’s increasing cynicism about the positive impact of their roaming the Earth like do-gooder ronin, they seem to exist largely in the present.
That present is largely taken up with combat, particularly as Booker, Andy, and Nile gear up to rescue Nicky and Joe. Prince-Bythewood handles these scenes with a degree of John Wick-esque flair: Why just shoot a Big Pharma hired gun once when you can shoot him, flip him over, and then stab and shoot him again for good measure? However tight, though, the action scenes’ staging is unremarkable, with the exception of one climactic moment that’s so well-choreographed from an emotional standpoint that the impossibility of a multiplex crowd hooting and clapping in response makes the film feel stifled by being limited to streaming.
Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action in the way of the modern franchise series—doing so more organically than the Fast and the Furious series but missing the self-aware comedic patter of the Avengers films—The Old Guard is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts. That will likely not stop further iterations from finding ways to plug these characters and their like into any historical moment that has room in it for high-minded mercenaries with marketable skills and a few centuries to kill.
Cast: Charlize Theron, Matthias Schoenaerts, KiKi Layne, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Harry Melling, Veronica Ngo Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood Screenwriter: Greg Rucka Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 118 min Rating: R Year: 2020
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