Jason Bellamy: I first learned of Darren Aronofsky in 1998 when I stumbled upon an episode of the CBS show 48 Hours, back before the series was obsessed with mysteries. The episode in question was called “Making It,” and it chronicled the lives of various people who were, or seemed to be, on the cusp of losing their anonymity. Among those featured were author Nicholas Sparks, actor Vin Diesel and Aronofsky. Sparks, at that point, had already transitioned from modest pharmaceutical salesman to bestselling author with The Notebook, and Diesel, by the time of the show’s airing, had already landed a role in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, which would become the most talked about film of that summer. Those men had, to one degree or another, “made it.” But Darren Aronofsky’s ascension seemed a little less certain. “Making It” documented Aronofsky’s efforts to sell his debut feature film Pi, the creation of which had been financed through the donations of family and friends, at that year’s Sundance Film Festival. And, sure enough, by the end of Sundance, and by the end of 48 Hours, Pi had a buyer. Aronofsky’s film was a success. But, at least in my mind, Aronofsky hadn’t quite made it. It’s one thing to find a studio willing to write a check to distribute a film that’s already in the can. It’s another thing to get that check ahead of time, to become a contracted filmmaker.
I begin with that story because today, 12 years later, Aronofsky has certainly “made it,” and yet he remains somewhat anonymous and/or indistinct. Perhaps his upcoming film, Black Swan, which we’ll cover in the second part of this conversation, will change that. But at the moment I wonder if Aronofsky’s name means anything to the average moviegoer, the kind of person who makes it to the theater about four times a year, perhaps to see a pair of blockbusters and a pair of Best Picture nominees. Between Pi and Black Swan, Aronofsky has directed just three films—Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006) and The Wrestler (2008)—so perhaps it’s Aronofsky’s modest output that keeps him somewhat overlooked. Or maybe Aronofsky’s films, though far from inaccessible or alienating, aren’t mainstream enough to make him a household name. (X-Men Origins: Wolverine 2 might change that.) But I suspect that the main reason Aronofsky isn’t better known among average moviegoers is due to his lack of a specific reputation or legend among film buffs. Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain and The Wrestler are each, to some degree or another, controversial films, but Aronofsky himself isn’t a polarizing figure. His name doesn’t spark an immediate opinion among cinephiles in the fashion of Christopher Nolan, M. Night Shyamalan or Alfonso Cuarón, to name some filmmakers who have been releasing movies for roughly the same amount of time.
Is Aronofsky’s relative nebulousness a reflection of the quality of his films? That is, has he made several good films but nothing that’s truly great? Or is it a reflection of the diversity of his films, which in subject matter and even style are fairly difficult to compartmentalize? Perhaps we’ll figure that out as we go through this conversation, because if there’s an obvious thematic through-line in Aronofsky’s body of work, I’m not sure I see it. If he has an immediately recognizable aesthetic, I’m not sure I’m aware of that either. All of Aronofsky’s films show characters struggling to find inner peace, I suppose, but that’s such a broad observation that it isn’t worth much. So let’s dive in and see what we discover, starting with Pi. I already mentioned that this was the film that got Aronofsky’s foot through Hollywood’s door, via success at Sundance, and so my question to you is whether you think Pi feels like a fully realized film that fits within Aronofsky’s larger body of work or more like an audition piece.
Ed Howard: Aronofsky’s career doesn’t have a thematic through-line? I have a one-word response to that: obsession. All of his films, and all of his characters, are to one degree or another driven by obsession and addiction. All of his films are about people whose tunnel vision, whose singleminded pursuit of a seemingly unattainable goal, prevents them from experiencing the wider and potentially richer life beyond their narrow perspective. In Requiem for a Dream, the addiction is literal and causes the characters to implode within their private hells despite the many opportunities they have to help each other. In The Fountain, the various iterations of the main character seek the fountain of youth as an end run around mortality, only to discover that mortality is essential to humanity. In The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke’s Randy the Ram is so obsessed with his career that he mortifies his body in pursuit of renewed success, in the process sacrificing the potential for genuine human connection outside the ring.
And in Aronofsky’s first film, Pi, the math genius Max (Sean Gullette) forsakes happiness and contentment for the obsessive drive to understand—to understand the stock market, at first, and eventually to uncover the underpinnings of life itself, to decode a pattern that will explain the universe. This is a strikingly similar theme to the Coens’ recent A Serious Man: those who concern themselves with the meaning of capital-L Life too often miss out on the pleasures of life itself. This is, I’d argue, the central theme that unifies Aronofsky’s ouevre and provides the thematic foundation that you felt was missing. All of his films, despite their differences in style, tone and narrative content, can be boiled down to the idea that in pursuing our personal visions of the ultimate goal, the ultimate meaning, we paradoxically miss out on both the small details and the bigger picture. This concept is reflected in Pi in the form of Max’s next-door neighbor Devi (Samia Shoaib), who is an incarnation of worldliness and carnality and material pleasures. She brings Max ethnic foods as presents, and she’s kind and vivacious, with an expressive face and ready smile that serve as a stark contrast to Max’s stony expression and pinched emotions. The sound of her having sex next door, moaning and talking intimately with her lover, often accompanies—or triggers?—Max’s headaches, as though he’s reacting viscerally to this reminder of the life he’s missed out on. In the end, when Max’s mind is fracturing for good, there’s a brief shot of a man and woman’s hands folding together, followed by a shot of Max embracing an unseen woman, possibly Devi, a signal of his unspoken desire for the sensual pleasures that have been absent from his life.
With that said, Pi in many ways has all the earmarks of a promising amateur effort. It’s a rough and raw movie, with grainy black-and-white cinematography and minimal locations. It has the low-budget feel of a student film—which only makes it all the more remarkable that in terms of its ideas and its commitment to the subjective feel of slowly spiraling insanity, it’s actually quite fully realized. And it’s a film that neatly introduces Aronofsky’s career because it’s his most literal demonstration yet of a conceit that will drive his later films in more submerged ways: the character who’s trapped within his own mind.
JB: Obsession! I like it! I had traced that obsessive line through Aronofsky’s first three films, but I was thrown off by The Wrestler, which for most of the film is about a man earnestly trying to break away from his obsession, only to inevitably fall victim to it. But even though Aronofsky’s films don’t explore obsession in identical ways, I think you’re right that they’re all about obsession in one way or another. And that leads me here…
One of the things that I find interesting about Aronofsky’s filmography is that obsession is portrayed as a path to doom and to bliss, often at the same time. In Pi, Max finds contentment only when he metaphorically (and to some degree literally) erases the hard drive of his brain, thus ridding him of the obsession that had defined his life. In Requiem for a Dream, two of the characters find misery in breaking free of their obsessions, while two other characters find a tragic sense of peace while succumbing to their fixations. In The Fountain, Aronofsky’s most hopeful film, Tommy learns to let go of his obsessions and finds personal salvation and even transcendence as a result. And in The Wrestler, Randy makes a fully aware decision to surrender to his obsessive identity as the Ram and finds both joy and, in my opinion, sadness at the same time. All of these characters are healthier when not enslaved by obsession, but only one of them is unequivocally at peace as a result: The Fountain’s Tommy. One could argue that Max belongs on that same list, too. But we don’t see enough to know for sure. Pi’s conclusion is mysterious: Max sits on a park bench with the school girl from his building who delights in using him as a human calculator, and he smiles upon realizing that he can’t instantly compute a somewhat complex equation in his head. He’s free of his obsession with numbers, and this gives him an immediate peace. But at what cost? We don’t know. How long will it last? We don’t know.
In my opening I asked you if Pi feels like a fully realized work or an audition piece, and my own answer is that it feels like both. Like you, I see Aronofsky experimenting with themes that he would explore later, and with greater complexity, in subsequent films. I, too, see him experimenting with techniques that he’d reuse later, from Max’s quick-cut pill-popping routine, which he’d expand upon for the drug scenes in Requiem for a Dream, to Aronofsky’s fascination with patterns, which he’d expand upon in a slightly less overt way in The Fountain. No question, Pi fits within Aronofsky’s small but impressive whole, but there’s also a certain shallowness to this film, as exemplified by its repetitiveness, that makes Aronofsky’s technique feel unnecessarily showy. At times it’s as if Pi should have a watermark in the lower left corner that says, “This movie was directed!” In that way, it feels like an audition.
EH: I think that’s true, with the caveat that I’d apply the criticism even more forcefully to Aronofsky’s subsequent feature, Requiem for a Dream, which makes me think that in some ways Aronofsky’s first two films were auditions for what was to come. Aronofsky’s career arc reveals a director initially fascinated by technique for its own sake, before tempering these shallow tendencies with a deeper sense of purpose. In Pi and Requiem for a Dream, Aronofsky seems as obsessed with showing off how visually clever he is as his protagonists are with their own fixations. We’ll come back to this later, I’m sure, but I think Aronofsky matured after Requiem for a Dream: the two films he made after that are richer, deeper, more complex in their examination of obsession and redemption, than his first two works. So yes, while Pi is undoubtedly interesting in all sorts of ways, it does sometimes feel like a student film in the sense that the director is wildly showboating, reveling in technique.
Which is not to say that this is always inappropriate. One thing that Pi does very well is capturing the subjectivity of its protagonist, and this has everything to do with technique. Aronofsky’s love of skewed perspectives, time-lapse photography and the straightforward presentation of hallucinations are integral to Max’s experience of the world. Max is someone who’s so out-of-step with the rest of the world that even leaving his apartment can be disorienting, and Aronofsky conveys this sensation with sequences where Max, front and center within the frame, reels as behind him the world speeds and lurches by. Alternatively, Max sits in his apartment lost in thought, and Aronofsky makes us feel the endless loneliness and emptiness as the numbers tick by on Max’s stock ticker, or an ant crawls along the wall, or Max’s finger hesitates over the “return” key on his keyboard. The film is repetitive, yes, but purposefully so, in that it immerses us in the rhythms of Max’s life.
In other scenes, Aronofsky captures Max’s visceral distaste for the messiness of other human beings: when Devi teasingly tries to straighten Max’s hair, we feel his discomfort with this unexpected intimacy because Aronofsky’s over-the-shoulder camera position places us in Max’s space, feeling cluttered and violated. The whole film has a similar queasy intensity, as though the whole world is a threat or a trap for Max. Hallucinations segue smoothly out of prosaic experience, as when Max becomes fixated on the shaking doorknob to his apartment—a scene that prefigures the horror of the refrigerator in Requiem for a Dream—or when he stumbles across a pulsing, bloody brain sitting innocuously on the subway steps. I wouldn’t argue that Pi is an especially subtle film, by any means—and Aronofsky in general is often as subtle as a drill to the skull—but just because the technique is often obtrusive, doesn’t mean it isn’t also often effective.
Indeed, Pi has a number of intriguing subcurrents that leaven its repetitiveness and crudeness. You mentioned the ambiguity of the ending, in which Max’s violent self-trepanation seems to free him from his obsessions and finally make him happy, a result that echoes the theories of Dutch med school dropout Bart Hughes, who believed that trepanation returned adults to a childlike sense of innocence and wonder. There’s some hint of this in the film’s final moments, as Max smiles beatifically at the neighbor girl and then looks up at the leaves on a tree overhead. The shot of the leaves, the film’s final image, had recurred several times earlier in the film, but here it acquires a somewhat different meaning. Before his homemade lobotomy, Max saw potential patterns everywhere in the world, and Aronofsky used images of leaves as symbols for the complexity of the unseen patterns that Max is trying to decode. In the film’s final image, though, we’re left to wonder if now Max is seeing the leaves for their own sake, enjoying their natural beauty rather than trying to fit them into a grand theory of life, the universe and everything. It’s notable, though, that happiness for Max is linked to the erasure of his intelligence and, quite possibly, even his personality. If he’s happy at the end of the film, it’s an unthinking form of happiness. In this light the film’s denouement becomes even more tragic and pessimistic, suggesting that the only two available modes of existence, for Max and possibly for anyone, are the extremes: either we engage fully with the world and struggle to understand, or we shut down and veg out. Neither option, as presented in Pi, is especially attractive.
JB: You’re not kidding. Just before Max gazes up at the leaves with that dumb smile on his face, there’s a moment when he looks over at the school girl with a somewhat sinister-looking gaze that reminds me of Norman Bates at the end of Psycho. It’s a fitting comparison, actually, because, like Norman, Max has been through the worst of it only to become locked inside himself, which isn’t any better. It’s a tragic conclusion but a triumphant one, too—Aronofsky is good at those—because up until Max submits to mindlessness his life has no joy whatsoever. As you said, this is enhanced by the cinematography: grainy black-and-white and lots of tight closeups, creating a feeling of dirty discomfort. Most of the film takes place indoors, and then within mostly dark rooms. About the only time Max gets any sunlight is in a brief scene in which he walks along a beach only to become consumed by the spiral construction of a shell he finds in the sand. He’s boxed in, almost literally, considering how all those computers in his apartment seem to be confining him against his will. It’s no way to live, and we could say the same thing about the characters in Requiem for a Dream, but at least they have joyful moments, drug-induced though they might be. Max is never happy. He’s just consumed.
As you said, the film is purposefully repetitive, and I think it’s also intentionally flat: Max doesn’t really have a character “arc,” more like a character undulation. Other than a few vague references from his mentor and friend Sol (Mark Margolis), we have no reason to believe Max has ever been any different, ever been “normal.” And that brings us to another defining characteristic of Aronofsky: the tendency of his characters to have lost grip on reality by the time we meet them, even if they manage to descend into madness even further. The trouble with this approach is that it puts a lot of responsibility on the lead actors to provide the film with some emotional nuance, and in this case Sean Gullette isn’t up to it. He evokes paranoia and vulnerability quite nicely, but his urgency and anger feel, well, played. When you begin a story at desperation and obsession, it’s tough to move the needle, tough to be more desperate and obsessed, without overplaying those emotions or resorting to extremes (more on that later, I’m sure). It strikes me that Pi is a film in which we learn more about the protagonist’s emotional state when Aronofsky uses Gullette as a prop instead of as an actor.
EH: That’s a fair description, at the least, of Aronofsky the developing filmmaker, as seen in his first two films. As a filmmaker and storyteller, Aronofsky is naturally attracted to the extremes of human experience, and there’s very little of normality in Pi or, for that matter, in Requiem for a Dream. The whole world of Pi seems skewed by Max’s obsessions, and as a result we’re always left wondering if what we’re seeing is filtered through his perceptions: this is especially true of the film’s kind-of-sort-of villain, Marcy Dawson (Pamela Hart), a businesswoman who’s trying to use Max for her own shadowy purposes, and who comes across as a sinister, grinning caricature. Pi doesn’t have a lot of subtlety, either in terms of the emotional range on display or the sledgehammer urgency with which everything is driven home. Sometimes this is okay—within its narrow range, Pi is certainly an effective, harrowing experience—but I still agree with you that the film would’ve benefited from a more nuanced approach to its subject.
What that more nuanced approach might have looked like can be glimpsed in the scene where Max has a conversation at a cafÈ with the Jewish mystic Lenny Meyer (Ben Shenkman), a character who, incidentally, seems like he could be transplanted as-is into A Serious Man. Initially, Lenny’s talkative presence and inquisitive probing simply annoy Max, but then Max can’t help but become interested when Lenny starts explaining his numerological analysis of the Torah. Max recognizes a kindred spirit, and in response shares his own thoughts about spirals, demonstrating the Fibonacci sequence with milk swirling in a coffee cup. In its attention to sensual detail and the beauty of abstracted imagery, this sequence stands apart from the intentionally flat and grimy visual aesthetic in the rest of Pi, which is thematically appropriate since it’s one of the few moments where Max is allowed a taste of pleasure, even if it is the pleasure of indulging in his obsession with patterns.
The scene reminds me of similar sequences in Jean-Luc Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her and Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Blue. In the former film, Godard depicts swirls in a coffee cup and the burning end of a cigarette in such intimate closeups that the images appear cosmic, like galaxies and supernovas rather than miniscule details. In the latter film, the protagonist gets back in touch with the sensual materiality of the world by admiring the slow soaking of coffee into a sugar cube. Pi’s fleeting evocation of coffee spirals and smoke rings exists somewhere between these two approaches, suggesting both overarching universal patterns and an attentiveness to the small sensual pleasures of the everyday world. That latter sentiment is not one that crops up very often in Aronofsky’s first two films, even intertwined as it is with his protagonists’ obsessive natures, so it’s especially striking here. When Aronofsky expands his vision of the world to include joy and love and pleasure and the other positive emotions that are so often excluded from his rather pessimistic sensibility—as he does here and, most productively, throughout The Fountain, his most emotionally layered film—it can be quite powerful. When he wallows in misery and desolation, as he does throughout most of Pi and almost exclusively in Requiem for a Dream, his vision can come across as artificially restricting and limiting, as though he is willfully warping the world to live down to his worst expectations. I’m not arguing that pessimism is an invalid perspective for an artist, but Aronofsky’s sensibility, in particular, is at its richest and most affecting when his negativity is only one part of a larger and more varied picture.
JB: I don’t dispute that in spirit, but I want to be careful that we don’t jump to conclusions. We both seem to agree, without yet diving into the details, that The Fountain and The Wrestler are Aronofsky’s richest and most affecting pictures. But are they his best works because they have more thematic nuance and less unrelenting horror, or, more so, because Aronofsky came into his own as an auteur, matured as a filmmaker (The Fountain notably came six years after Requiem for a Dream), and thus he refined his technique and sensibility in so many overlapping ways that it’s misleading to put so much attention on any one specific transformation? Put another way, are Aronofsky’s later films his best works because they are more dramatically and thematically nuanced, or is that a coincidence? And if it’s the former, does that mean that Aronofsky’s earlier works are inherently flawed because of their narrow-minded approach, or does it simply reveal what should be obvious, that we’re more apt to appreciate films that aren’t unremittingly disturbing?
I pose these questions to bring us to Requiem for a Dream, a film so upsetting to watch that I find it impossible to embrace but that I’m also reluctant to dismiss. I wouldn’t call it a “rich” film, but it’s definitely an “affecting” one, to use your previous descriptors. And so I find myself at odds with a movie that is grotesque enough to be almost unwatchable (in places) but which is conceived that way by design. I believe that Requiem for a Dream intends to unsettle me, it intends to be assaulting. It isn’t as aggressively disturbing as some of Lars von Trier’s films, but I think it considers nuance beside the point. And in theory I don’t disagree. From firsthand experience, I know too well that chemical dependency often fits all the words I’ve used to describe this film: upsetting, grotesque and assaulting. Addiction is complex, sure, but it isn’t nuanced—not to anyone other than the addict, at least. So on the one hand I’m unimpressed by the limited scope of the film. But on the other hand I find myself appreciating that Requiem for a Dream is one of the rare films to portray addiction as a destructive condition from which people rarely emerge unscathed. Aronofsky’s film isn’t nuanced. It isn’t varied. But then neither is drug abuse. As much as I’m opposed to “sledgehammer” filmmaking in general, in this case I wonder if anything else would, in the big picture, be a lie.
EH: See, my problem with Requiem for a Dream is that it does feel like a lie. I want to repeat, up front, that I’m not criticizing Aronofsky for being negative or pessimistic; that would be absurd. I have great respect for films and filmmakers that are clear-eyed about the horrors of life, that present a bleak and overwhelming vision of a cruel world, with little space for characters or audiences to breathe. Mike Leigh is often that kind of filmmaker. Catherine Breillat is. Maurice Pialat is. Joseph Losey could be, in films like Mr. Klein or La Truite. Some of the best horror adopts that attitude very fruitfully. I’m just not convinced that Aronofsky is that kind of filmmaker—or, rather, when he tries to be that kind of filmmaker, as he does here, it brings out his worst tendencies rather than his best.
There’s no doubt that drug addiction is horrific in real life, but rather than coming away from Requiem for a Dream thinking that Aronofsky has shown us an unflinching portrait of the ravages of drugs, I find myself feeling manipulated and icky. It’s a film that positions itself as exactly the kind of realistic, no-holds-barred portrait of addiction that you describe, but its realism is shallow because Aronofsky wasn’t yet confident enough as a director to guide us naturally towards his points. As you said about Pi, this film might as well have the slogan “This movie was directed!” emblazoned across the screen, and on top of that it might as well put its simplistic messages about media culture and the American obsession with fame into on-screen text, too.
Requiem for a Dream always makes me all too aware that the characters are suffering, not because they do drugs, but because Aronofsky wants them to suffer. (I have similar complaints about von Trier’s abysmal Dancer in the Dark, which does such a sadistic disservice to Bjˆrk’s fearless performance.) It becomes an exercise in a director torturing his characters, toying with them, holding out the hope of redemption before cruelly snatching it away from characters and audiences alike. A case in point: towards the end of the film, Jared Leto’s Harry is in agony from an infected arm that is radiating black lines out across his skin from a central festering needle hole. He goes to the hospital, where a doctor quite rightfully takes one look at this and realizes that Harry is a drug addict. And then, without treating this wound at all, the doctor calls the police, who take Harry away, convict him (for what, anyway?) and sentence him to a work team, apparently all without anyone ever treating or taking a look at his arm. It’s instead allowed to rot until the arm has to be amputated. Maybe I’m just naÔve, but even considering America’s often unfair and capricious medical and judicial systems, I find that this strains credibility—and I think it betrays Aronofsky’s determination to make his story as miserable, as soul-crushing and hopeless, as he possibly can. To be fair, all these details presumably originate in the source novel by Hubert Selby Jr., but Aronofsky co-wrote the screenplay with Selby, and Aronofsky crafted this script into a film. It’s his vision, and it’s a vision that wallows in the characters’ misery to such a degree that I find the filmmaking nearly as off-putting as the story itself.
Especially off-putting is the depiction of the pimp Big Tim (Keith David), who lures Marion (Jennifer Connelly) into a life of prostitution with the promise of drugs. As in Pi, Aronofsky once again makes the most reprehensible villain a black person with purposefully exaggerated features. And just as in Pi Marcy Dawson often seems to be baring her teeth in a huge, ravenous grin, in Requiem for a Dream Aronofsky calls attention to Big Tim’s smug smile surrounded by big lips. Aronofsky quite obviously uses the actor’s bulk—and, of course, his blackness—as a marker of menace, introducing him in a scene where his sudden appearance as he opens a door for Marion emphasizes how the little white addict is about to be defiled by this towering black man. I doubt Aronofsky intends to be racist, really, he’s just so heavyhanded that he can’t resist pouring on these kinds of details, exaggerating everything into a caricature of suffering and punishment.
JB: But, see, I think Aronofsky’s intent is to exaggerate. To say that he “can’t resist” these heavyhanded details is to imply that these scenes you mentioned stick out from the whole, as if one moment Aronofsky was making a subtle, measured picture and the next he lost control of it. For better or worse, Requiem for a Dream straddles the line of caricature from the very beginning—this is a movie that includes a woman being run out of her home by an attacking refrigerator, for crying out loud. And so while I think it’s fair to criticize the extreme closeup of Big Tim’s gap-toothed smile on the grounds that it cheaply leverages offensive stereotypes, I don’t think that shot, and the use of Big Tim in general, particularly distinguishes itself from the rest of the film. Because, see, I don’t think that Aronofsky positions Requiem for a Dream as a “realistic, no-holds-barred portrait of addiction,” and it wasn’t my intent to imply that. No, I’m looking at this film the way you looked at Pi, suggesting that its success isn’t showing what drug abuse is; it’s showing how it feels. It isn’t factual, it’s evocative. We follow the film in the third-person but we feel it in the first-person. So when I say the film uses a sledgehammer approach to avoid telling a lie, that’s different than saying that the film achieves (or even strives for) “realism.”
“Icky” is what this film is going for, but if you think that the film is passing itself off as realism, I suspect that the icky sensation you’re feeling isn’t the one Aronofsky was hoping to generate. It sounds like you’re disturbed by what this film suggests about Aronofsky as an artist, rather than being discomforted by the art itself. And I think that’s fair. In fact, my biggest problem with Requiem for a Dream is that it conjures an anxiety that I don’t think is difficult to achieve. You mentioned that this film, like Pi, could be stamped with the “directed!” label, and I agree. I wonder how much of this film’s effect is tied to Aronofsky’s technique and how much of it is tied to its gruesome-by-any-design episodes. I mean, really, can you think of a drama in which a character receives electroshock therapy that doesn’t make you cringe? Can you imagine a scenario in which a woman allows herself to be sodomized in order to get her drug fix that wouldn’t be heartbreaking? Do you think you’d ever be able to watch someone inject a needle into a bloody wound without feeling nauseous? I say no. These are all cheap horrors. They can’t help but succeed. There’s no denying that Aronofsky’s rapid-fire editing and Clint Mansell’s haunting score intensifies the unease one feels when watching this film. But how much? When an emaciated, unkempt Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) writhes in protest as a feeding tube is inserted into her nose, there’s little to enhance.
EH: When you say that this film is full of “cheap horrors,” that pretty much sums up my feelings about it. I admire Aronofsky’s technique in the abstract, all those hyperkinetic montages and split-screens and the increasingly frantic pace leading up to the parade of tragedies at the end, but in practice it’s mostly numbing and grating. Though I singled out a few moments that specifically bother me, of course you’re right that the whole film is of a piece. That sameness is part of the problem. Another part is that, while you’re also right that all those scenarios are inherently tragic, by the time most of them come together, flashed onto the screen in bursts of a few seconds long during the ADD-afflicted climax, the specifics of those individual moments can barely register. Aronofsky is delivering tragedy, but it’s often a somewhat generic tragedy, held at arm’s length, ironically, by the very techniques that Aronofsky intends to amplify it all. As heavy as Aronofsky’s hand is, as bad as he obviously wants us to feel by the end of this film, I don’t know if he ever achieves much more than rubbing our noses in the inherent unpleasantness of these situations. These characters are so simple that they’re reduced to a single, unsurprisingly ugly trait, a raw urge and nothing more—and I know, I know, that’s undoubtedly an accurate portrayal of addiction, but if we’re to feel some sense of loss about these specific individuals destroying their lives, there has to be a sense of what they once had to lose. As I said earlier, all of Aronofsky’s characters are driven and obsessed—it’s the central idea of his work—but only in Requiem for a Dream are the characters defined solely by their obsessions and addictions; hell, even Max in Pi is a more complex and rounded character.
Still, Requiem for a Dream does have some worth. Like Pi, this is a film that, as you pointed out, is excellent at capturing subjective experience through repetition and a grab-bag of stylistic tics. The drug montages, which break down the process of getting high into a series of ritualized gestures ending with a closeup of a dilating pupil, convey just why “habit” is such an appropriate term for recurring drug use. The constant use of fish-eye lenses and time-lapse sped-up motion eventually becomes tiring, but just because Aronofsky overuses the techniques doesn’t take away from the moments when he uses style well to convey the rapid passage of wasted time or to capture the disorientation and isolation of his characters. When Sara visits a disinterested doctor who winds up prescribing uppers and downers for her, Aronofsky shoots the scene with a fish-eye lens that distorts the examination room, placing Sara, her head bulging, in the extreme foreground, with the rest of the room, including the doctor and nurse, seeming impossibly distant and distinct from her. I also really like the split-screen love scene between Harry and Marion, an effective use of the device to capture the simultaneous intimacy and separation of these lovers, who even when totally consumed in one another’s bodies seem strangely disconnected from any deeper feeling. There’s no doubt that, at his best, Aronofsky’s stylistic gyrations are more than just showy fireworks. In the end, I find Requiem for a Dream so aggravating in part because I know Aronofsky can do better, because I know he’s not the simplistic shockmeister that he sometimes seems to be in this film.
JB: At least he isn’t anymore. And thank goodness for that. I think you were correct earlier that both Pi and Requiem for a Dream feel like audition pieces, or experimental films. The techniques Aronofsky uses are interesting in principle, but other than the hyper-cut sequence toward the end, in which images of suffering strobe at us like still photos scattered within a spinning zoetrope, I’m not sure how much mileage Aronofsky actually gets out of these techniques. For example, the split-screen love scene between Harry and Marion is clearly metaphorical, but it is so in a very intellectual way; I recognize the intended metaphor instantly, but I’m not sure the emotions of that scene are truly enhanced by the architecture (a criticism that should sound familiar after our recent discussion of Ozu). On the other hand, the split-screen sequence at the beginning of the film, in which Sara hides in fear of her drug-crazed son while he goes through a one-man good-cop/bad-cop routine on the other side of a locked door, hits all the right notes—putting both menace and fear in the same frame. It’s rather fitting that the scene comes early in Requiem for a Dream, because as the film goes on, Aronofsky begins to limit the complexity of his compositions, increasingly favoring tight closeups in which the actor’s face is perfectly centered within the frame, thereby emphasizing the sameness of their suffering—both symbolically and, I suspect, subconsciously.
As I suggested before, many of these closeups are ghastly and difficult to behold, particularly when they capture Sara—increasingly gaunt and sickly. I mentioned Psycho earlier, and by the end of the film, Sara looks frightfully similar to Mrs. Bates’ embalmed corpse. Maybe that’s why I never know how I feel about Burstyn’s “performance,” because so much of the character’s tragic downfall is attributable to the skill of hair and makeup artists. But if Aronofsky wants to use his actors as props, that’s fine by me. One of the most memorable shots in the film is the one of Marion putting on makeup before heading over to Big Tim’s: her green eyes shining in contrast to her thick black eyeliner, a single tear falling down her cheek. Or then there’s the “shot” of Sara manically cleaning her apartment, which is captured in a time-lapse sequence in which the camera slowly tracks to the left to follow Sara’s progress through her apartment: emptying out her dresser drawers; making her bed; vacuuming the living room; cleaning a spot out of the carpet; tossing all the contents of her refrigerator into a trash bag; and so on. One of those shots is as simple as it gets, the other is a complex directorial flourish. Neither of them requires an awful lot of acting. But in those shots, Aronofsky conveys deep emotional suffering as well as at any time in that film. Whether that reveals Aronofsky’s skill or underlines the emotional flatness of Requiem for a Dream—or perhaps both—is up to you.
EH: I’m glad you brought up the performances, which are probably the most praise-worthy aspect of Requiem for a Dream, even if, as you suggest, it’s possible to question just how much of the performances can be attributed to the actors and how much to Aronofsky’s stagecraft and stylization. Often, the balance seems to be about even. I too love that shot you mention of Marion putting on goth-y makeup as she receives a call from Harry, who’s in prison in Florida and using his one call to reach her. It’s a surprisingly subtle scene, as Marion begs Harry to come back home, the unspoken subtext being that, if she really believed he was going to be home soon, she’d have the excuse she obviously wants to avoid visiting Big Tim. Harry, hearing her desperation, lies and says he’s going to come home right away, but neither of them believes it for a moment; in Marion’s flat response, one can hear her acquiescing to her fate, accepting that no one’s going to rescue her. That’s when she allows a single tear to fall down her cheek, quickly wiping it away and fixing the ring of dark eyeliner around her eyes. She betrays only that trace of emotion, otherwise maintaining her flat affect and using her makeup as a mask to transform herself into a new person, a person who can do what she knows she needs to do to get her fix. I don’t think Connelly’s performance in this scene can be so easily dismissed. Aronofsky emphasizes her underplayed stoicism with the artificial lighting and the attention-getting makeup, but the actress also contributes a great deal to the emotional heft of that sequence.
I’d say the same about Ellen Burstyn. It might be tempting to think that her performance is all hair-and-makeup effects, but I don’t think it would be nearly as harrowing if not for the very raw performance at the core of all those decorative flourishes. The way she mumbles and meanders and repeats herself during her tragic visit to the TV station is heartbreaking, not just because of how decimated her face looks, but because of how naturalistic her portrayal of dementia is. By the end of the film, she looks and acts like someone you might really encounter, and edge away from, on a New York subway. Almost without exception, Aronofsky asks his actors to act within a fairly narrow range, and as a result these performances are all fairly one-note, but within that narrow range they are fine, expressive performances that would be affecting, I think, even if Aronofsky dialed back some of his relentless supporting effects.
I’ve been very critical of this film’s emotional flatness and contrived misery, and I don’t take that back, but I do recognize the skill and craft that goes into capturing these raw emotions so convincingly. Watching the premiere of the new zombie series The Walking Dead recently, lead actor Andrew Lincoln’s rather unconvincing reaction of grief and despair when confronted with the disappearance of his wife and son was a striking reminder of how hard it can be for an actor to tap into such dark places—and this despite director Frank Darabont’s attempts to accentuate the suffering through Aronofsky-like fast cutting and skewed camera angles. Whatever problems I have with Requiem for a Dream, one thing it does very well is tapping into those dark places, pushing these characters, and the actors who play them, to the extremes of human experience. And that’s a success that I’d say is equally attributable to Aronofsky and to his stars.
JB: Yeah, that sounds right. I think my larger point remains: that of the acting, stylization and hair/makeup, it’s difficult to determine where one thing ends and another begins. It’s all so tightly entwined. But that’s an analytical challenge; it’s not a black mark on the film. I don’t need characters pacing back and forth giving stage-friendly monologues, so if the lack of such scenes means that Requiem for a Dream is dominated by more prop “acting” than theatrical acting, so be it. It’s the ultimate effect I’m most concerned with, not the genetics of the approach.
Having said that, I’d like to mention what I consider to be the film’s most surprising and challenging moment, when within the closing montage of outright ghastliness Aronofsky finds Marion back at her apartment after her second trip to Big Tim’s. We’ve just watched her suffer the indignity of going “ass to ass” with a double-headed dildo as part of an orgiastic performance for dozens of men in suits. And we no doubt recall that earlier in the film Marion responded to fucking her psychiatrist for money by lashing out at Harry, and that subsequently she responded to her first experience with Big Tim by curling up in the fetal position in her bathtub. So as she flops down on her couch, we expect to see her break down in tears or to stare off into the distance with a traumatized blank stare to rival Sara’s vegetative stage. But she doesn’t. Instead she rolls onto her back, pulls what we presume to be a sizeable wad of heroin out of her pocket and smiles—a big, unconflicted, like-she-just-kissed-the-man-she’s-going-to-marry smile that Aronofsky ingeniously captures from above, the same angle he used to film Marion and Harry when they were high, the same angle he used to capture Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) and his girlfriend having sex.
What does that smile mean? Marion is happy to get high again, that’s obvious. But given that she’s never been a dealer before, we can only assume that this stash will run out (even if not for a while) and that soon enough she’ll once again be whoring herself out for a fix. I said earlier that Requiem for a Dream is mostly an emotional representation of what addiction feels like, both for the addict and those close enough to watch the addict’s plummet toward death or the proverbial rock bottom. But this scene, to me, is the one that best articulates addiction in an intellectual and even clinical way. One of the trademarks of addiction, like insanity, is repeating the same behavior and expecting different results. In Marion’s smile, sure, we see her happiness to get high, but I think we also see her delusion. Somehow, in that moment, Marion thinks that the drugs in her hands will protect her from going back to Big Tim, when, most likely, she’s only assured that soon enough she’ll be taking it up the ass again, literally and figuratively, to keep her habit going. For all the “drugs are bad” meaning that comes from the film’s graphic imagery, for me this seemingly beautiful image is its most sobering.
EH: That’s well said. Despite my overall problems with Requiem for a Dream, moments like that do confirm Aronofsky’s undeniable talent as a director, his ability to hit all the right emotional buttons. He always aims to overwhelm, to thrust his audience into the subjectivity of the experiences he’s filming, and if this impulse sometimes leads to the numbing lack of subtlety that afflicts this film, it’s also the wellspring of Aronofsky’s best traits as a director. His next film, The Fountain, would bear this idea out, as it indulges every bit as fully as his first two features in emotional excess and stylistic restlessness, but somehow constitutes a leap to the next level in Aronofsky’s filmmaking. Maybe, as you suggested earlier, the long gestation period between Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain allowed Aronofsky the time he needed to mature and to develop his singular vision more fully. The Fountain, though, was initially slated to be produced in 2002, as a big-budget feature starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, until this version of the film fell apart in mid-shooting due to “creative differences” with Pitt. Aronofsky then returned to the project two years later, cutting the budget by eschewing CGI effects, and replacing his former stars with Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz.
The film is divided into three stories, which flow into each other and relate to each other in somewhat ambiguous ways. The central story, arguably, is the tragic romance between medical researcher Tommy Creo (Jackman) and his wife Izzi (Weisz). Izzi is dying of a tumor, and Tommy is desperate to discover a miracle cure before he loses her; like other Aronofsky heroes, he pours himself obsessively into his work. Jackman also plays a conquistador who is searching for a mythical Mayan tree of life at the behest of his queen (Weisz again, of course), who is under the siege of a religious inquisitor (Stephen McHattie). And Jackman also plays a bald mystic hurtling through space within a bubble of air that contains the now-dying tree. The structure of the film is ingenious, as these three stories together express the never-ending quest of humanity to defeat death, to overcome the transience of existence: the mystic is a future incarnation of Tommy, or perhaps Tommy himself, his life elongated by the tree’s power, just as Tommy is the conquistador reborn in a new form. At the same time, the conquistador’s tale is woven into the film as the novel that Izzi was writing in her final months, a novel that she purposefully leaves unfinished, bequeathing it to Tommy to write the final chapter. And the man in space, rather than literally being Tommy far in the future, is perhaps better understood as a symbolic construct, inhabiting an abstracted mental landscape in which he can work through his loss and his desperate desire to overcome death.
Aronofsky leaves much of this unspoken. After two films of stark literalism and heavy-handed symbolism, Aronofsky allows The Fountain’s symbols and themes to be more free-flowing and organic. The film culminates with a sequence that, in some ways, mirrors the interconnected structure of Requiem for a Dream’s finale, cutting between multiple stories and ratcheting up the pace so that images and events hurtle by at a dizzying speed. And yet the effect here is sublime. The film is about the quest for eternal life, but it ultimately leads towards an affirmation of mortal life, of the fleeting pleasures to be found in a finite existence. Tommy completes Izzi’s novel by leading the conquistador to his encounter with the tree of life, an encounter that suggests that, if there is an eternal life to be found, it is not on the terms we would wish it. At the same time, the man in space allows Tommy to rewrite parts of his own past with Izzi, revisiting a crucial juncture and turning away from the obsession that consumed him in the final months of his wife’s life. Instead of channeling his negative emotions into futile attempts to cheat death, he goes for a walk in the snow with his wife, enjoying the brief remainder of the time they have together. And finally he plants a tree over her grave, a gesture that resonates with the conquistador’s fate, with the man in the bubble’s fate, and with the Mayan myth of the “first father,” the story that structures Izzi’s novel.
Earlier in the film, the inquisitor says, “Our bodies are prisons for our souls. Our skin and blood, the iron bars of our confinement.” Though he is superficially opposed to the queen’s quest for eternal life, in fact his is simply an alternative (and particularly grisly) form of the obsession, a form that rejects earthly materiality in favor of an eternal spiritual life after death. Aronofsky’s film ultimately suggests that this obsession with the end of life, whether it takes shape as science or religion, prevents people from engaging with life on its own terms. Where Pi and Requiem for a Dream were about people who succumbed in various ways to their obsessions, negating their lives in the process, The Fountain is about acceptance, about the rejection of the dangerous obsessions that distract us from the pleasures and heartaches that make life worth living.
JB: We agree on the last part, but not quite on how the film gets there. Your description of the The Fountain’s three parts suggests a level of disparateness that I contend doesn’t actually exist. I agree that Aronofsky leaves the unity of the film’s past, present and future chapters refreshingly unspoken, and thus somewhat ambiguous, which explains why many of the film’s original reviews suggested The Fountain’s chapters are unified in theme alone. (Another popular interpretation, perhaps unduly influenced by the film’s somewhat misleading trailer, suggests that the chapters should be read rather literally—presenting multiple incarnations of a love that spans thousands of years.) But while I’m hesitant to imply that a film this rich has only one interpretation, having seen The Fountain at least 10 times I’m as confident as ever that, structurally speaking, there’s only one way to read it.
In my mind, The Fountain has one “true” narrative—Tommy and Izzi in the present. The story of Thomas the conquistador is, as you said, a narrative imagined by Izzi for her book, which ends with Thomas’ confrontation with the guardian of the tree of life. The story of Tom the futuristic Zen astronaut, then, is Tommy’s imagined conclusion to Izzi’s book. To understand how these stories fit together, we must first understand the motives for their creation. Izzi’s book is her attempt to reconcile her own death. The inquisitor represents the tumor taking over Izzi’s body, claiming new territory bit by bit and charting each conquest with blood on a map. Thomas’ search for the tree of life mirrors Tommy’s relentless pursuit for a miracle cure—one man overseas, the other one holed up in his lab, both men consumed by their efforts to overcome death. Though it’s never explicitly stated, I think it’s fair to assume that when Izzi began writing her story she was trying to justify Tommy’s absence in her final days, to herself and even to him. Eventually, though, Izzi realizes that Tommy won’t find the cure, and that the only way that she can be with Tommy eternally is for both of them to believe in some kind of life after death. Hence Izzi’s decision to make Tommy finish her story, because ultimately the discovery he needs to make is a spiritual and emotional one. He must come to terms with death.
At first it seems odd that Tommy’s final chapter would thrust the story ahead several thousand years, giving us a somewhat new character, futuristic Tom, but in retrospect it makes perfect sense. The Tom chapter borrows from Izzi’s fascination with Mayan culture, with Izzi represented by a dying tree and Tom racing to get Izzi to Xiabalba, a nebula wrapped around a dying star “where souls go to be reborn.” Tom, with his tattooed ring finger, is Tommy’s vision of his future self, perhaps imagined under the assumption that he will cure aging like a disease. On his arm are various tattoos that, like tree rings, trace Tom’s history with Izzi. But one of the rings remains incomplete, and when Tom goes to ink in the rest of that tattoo, he imagines Izzi in her hospital bed and can’t go on, can’t get closure (figuratively and literally), can’t accept her death.
Throughout the Tom chapter, Izzi’s voice haunts him: “Finish it!” It’s as if Tommy has spent a thousand years—in this case figuratively or, I suppose, literally—avoiding the end of Izzi’s story. But eventually, after remembering their past once again, he gives in. “All right,” he says, touching his ring finger. “I trust you. Take me. Show me.” It’s in that moment that Tom (and thus Tommy) realizes he’s going to die. In that moment he sacrifices his scientific outlook on the world for one of faith. And so it is that Thomas, facing the flaming sword guarding the tree of light, becomes Tom, in a meditative pose, willing to be struck down, willing to face death, willing to believe that somehow this isn’t the end. It’s that acceptance that leads to “eternal life,” just a different one than he was looking for—a spiritual, religious view of everlasting life, rather than Tommy’s scientific view of life in bodily form.
I go into detail about this reading mainly because I think it reveals how layered The Fountain is, how focused, how harmonious. As we continue to talk about the film, there are recurring themes that, yes, unite these chapters. But these themes crop up in each story precisely because it’s one story being told: a story of a husband and wife struggling to deal with her imminent death.
EH: I don’t think our readings are quite as different as you suggest. I agree, certainly, that the “real” story of The Fountain is the romance of Tommy and Izzi and their process of dealing with her approaching death. The other two stories serve as metaphorical constructs that reinforce this central story and its themes. And more than that, the two “fictional” stories within the film represent the two main characters’ attempts to grapple with death through storytelling: just as Izzi writes her coming death as a mythic adventure with Tommy as her conquistador, battling futilely but bravely for her sake, Tommy tries to rewrite his own past from an imagined vantage point in the distant future. Though Aronofsky does leave room for the whole film to be read literally as a story of reincarnation that spans thousands of years, I don’t think that’s an especially convincing or enlightening reading. On that much we agree.
It’s interesting, though, that you see the finale as an affirmation of “a spiritual, religious view of everlasting life,” whereas I think the film is, in part, about the secular experience of death. Despite all the mystical trappings, the core of the film is much more grounded. The film suggests that the scientist and the inquisitor make the same mistake in their certainty that the time we have on Earth is not enough, that there must be something more. Transcendence and spirituality and mysticism are elements in this story, but ultimately they are dismissed in favor of earthly materiality. The conquistador’s mythological adventure and the Zen spaceman’s journey are avenues into understanding the central story, but that central story is resolutely material, concerned not so much with what comes after death as what we can and should do before death. Tommy is comforted, not so much because he believes he’ll be reunited with Izzi in the afterlife, but because he comes to accept that the time they had together on Earth would have to be enough. In the film’s final act, amidst all the fireworks and the mystical visions, the most powerful moment is Tommy’s reimagined walk with Izzi, when he leaves his work to spend the day with her. It’s not the afterlife that redeems Tommy; it’s life itself.
We don’t know what comes after death, whether it’s nothingness, or reincarnation (a possibility explored through Jackman’s multiple roles), or some form of afterlife (a possibility suggested by the film’s multiple representations of going into the light). But whatever it is, it’s something separate and new, and since we don’t know, we should embrace life, should embrace earthly existence and the people we share that existence with. This is the message of The Fountain as I see it. It is an agnostic celebration of life and love. This is, it must be said, remarkably close to my own philosophy about life and death, so perhaps one reason that I find this film so emotionally engaging and so thrilling is because it makes such poetry and beauty of the idea that life on Earth is, quite possibly, all we have, and that we should seek fulfillment and transcendence within life rather than outside or beyond it.
JB: I think you’re absolutely correct that this film confirms the need to “seek fulfillment and transcendence within life,” but don’t ignore that Tommy is trying to do just that by investing every waking moment in his lab. Yes, he turns away from his wife in the process, hoping to find a miracle cure at the 11th hour, but he does so precisely because he thinks death is The End, that when Izzi is gone there will be nothing left. Izzi, meanwhile, who no doubt appreciated the beauty of the present, is the one who is fascinated by the concept of death “as an act of creation.” So, yes, Izzi finds herself no longer terrified by death (“I’m not afraid anymore”), and thus part of her motivation for leaving that last chapter of her book unwritten is to get Tommy to accept his own mortality and mortality in general. (The Tom chapter is set far in the future to acknowledge just how difficult it is for Tommy to let go of his desire to eradicate death.) But I think we’re overlooking quite a bit if we fail to recognize Izzi’s hope for, and belief in, some kind of afterlife.
First, of course, there are Izzi’s words in the present: her stories of Mayan culture—her fascination with Xiabalba—and of the Mayan guide who believed that his dead father became the tree that was planted over his grave. Then there are Izzi’s words in the past: her oft repeated claim that “together we will live forever”; if Tommy uttered those words, it would seem to confirm his obsessive delusion that death is a disease, but Izzi is the film’s sage. Then there’s the film’s religious imagery, from the biblical tree of life to the oft repeated shot of the gold altarpiece, before which Thomas the conquistador kneels—a glassy, circular bubble set within a sunburst of gold with a Christian cross on top, which foreshadows the image of Tom’s futuristic spaceship exploding within the nebula and his eventual vertical ascent toward the heavens. Then there’s Thomas’ transformation into the hovering Tom, just before he’s struck down by the flaming sword, which always reminds me of the terrific moment in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when Indy puts his hand on his chest and makes a solemn “leap” of faith by willingly stepping out over the edge of a seemingly bottomless chasm; Tom, I believe, is likewise showing a belief in something beyond himself. And of course there are the frequent spoken and cinematic suggestions of death as “a road to awe”; The Fountain frequently shows Thomas and Tommy walking down corridors toward the light.
Now, in that final touching moment when Tommy steps into the light and has his awakening, he steps into his present, joining Izzi for a walk in the snow. So, again, I agree, this affirms our need to “embrace our earthly existence.” But let’s not forget that Tom’s breakthrough about his own mortality comes only after Izzi’s death—both in the Tommy chapter, with Izzi as flesh and blood, and in the Tom chapter, with Izzi represented by the dying tree. Like you, my personal philosophy about death is that we just don’t know what happens, and I’m grateful that The Fountain never specifically says what the afterlife is, or even if there is one. But to me the reason Tommy’s transformation is so triumphant, and the reason Izzi, in the quasi-afterlife, smiles back at him with pride, isn’t because he accepts that he will die but because he accepts that his death may not be The End. So when I suggest that The Fountain has a spiritual, religious view of everlasting life, I don’t mean to imply that it’s specifically Christian, for example, just that it isn’t purely scientific. This is a film about appreciating life in the moment, but just as much, in my opinion, it’s a film about faith, about believing that death isn’t The End—or at least allowing for that possibility.
EH: That’s well said, and perhaps I overstated the film’s secular aspects at the expense of its spiritual ones. What’s interesting about the film is how thoroughly it intertwines its evocations of a possible afterlife with its celebration of present-tense life on Earth. It is steadfastly opposed to the inquisitor’s form of religion, which concerns the mortification of the flesh and the rejection of earthly life; the film suggests that, whatever spiritual transcendence might be awaiting us after death, we should never live only for that moment. It’s about living for what’s on Earth rather than for the hope of what lies beyond. So while the film undoubtedly deals with Christian iconography and the hope for an afterlife, it essentially places the afterlife on equal footing with mortal existence. Even the image of the tree as a symbol for transcendence suggests that the afterlife might exist within the natural world: the Mayan guide believes that his father lives on as a part of the world, his body transmuted into a tree, its leaves and its fruit, so that his memory can be spread throughout the world, carried on the wind or in the stomach of a bird. Thus when Tommy plants a tree over Izzi’s grave, it’s a symbolic gesture acknowledging that her memory will live on within the world, even if her physical presence is gone—regardless of what other afterlife she may or may not have moved on to.
Still, there’s no denying that the film’s climax is deeply mystical, in a way that preserves the mystery of the afterlife while obviously propelling its characters towards their various encounters with what comes next. The conquistador eats of the tree of life and is transformed into flora bursting from the soil (like the guide’s father who becomes a tree, and maybe like Izzi herself once her own tree grows over and into her bones). The space traveler enters the heart of the dying star (earlier described as the Mayan underworld) and rushes joyfully into the light. Moreover, Aronofsky’s aesthetic sensibility here seems to be aligned thoroughly with the magical and the spiritual. The soaring music of Aronofsky’s musical collaborator Clint Mansell (who has scored all of Aronofsky’s films) is achingly spiritual in its tidal pulsing, which comes to a momentary pause in sync with the imagery’s temporary reduction to a single point of white light in the middle of empty blackness, presaging the explosive resurgence where Tom/Tommy hurtles towards his final moment of understanding. I think Aronofsky is tapping into mythic and religious imagery as a way of suggesting the plenitude of humanity’s imaginative attempts to grapple with the essentially unknowable nature of death.
The finale is a kaleidoscopic outpouring of brilliant imagery, as the spacefaring incarnation of Tommy climbs up the tree and propels himself into the vacuum, into a separate bubble that hovers above the tree—as elegant and profound a visualization of leaving one’s obsessions behind as Aronofsky has crafted thus far. The film’s visual effects were crafted largely not through CGI but by magnifying and filming chemical reactions occurring in petri dishes, so that the nebulae and star fields through which this space traveler floats are actually enlargements of the microscopic processes that occur within the human body and within all life. It’s appropriate that this film about the wonder and pain of material existence should imply, in its own means of construction, that the cosmic and the miniscule are unified: one can go looking for answers in the bonding of molecules or in the furthest reaches of the heavens and find the same thing.
And throughout it all, Tommy himself remains earthbound and grounded, imagining, reading and/or writing about Mayan legends and transcendence in deep space even as, on Earth in his transitory form, he comes to terms with his own human-scale struggle to accept his wife’s too-young death, as well as his own eventual demise. No matter how strenuously Aronofsky’s images hurl the film into the cosmos, towards the barrier between life and death, there’s always that anchor of earthliness: a half-playful, half-sad snowball fight; the stark white vista surrounding the plain brown rectangle of Izzi’s gravesite at her funeral; the several-times-repeated flash of a younger, healthier Izzi, in a bright red dress, playing a game of tag with her husband; Tommy whispering to the back of his wife’s neck, the hairs on her neck standing up at the brush of his breath, evoking the textured surface of the tree of life that the space traveler tries to nurture towards Xiabalba.
The most affecting and potent of these earthbound images, though, is also the most heartbreaking. It’s an image that, for me, redeems the wallowing-in-misery sensibility that I detect in Requiem for a Dream. Tommy, in the moments immediately after Izzi’s death, assaults the hospital workers and then, desperately, tries to breathe life back into his wife, slobbering and weeping into her open mouth. It’s a bleak, horrible image—and one of the rare moments in all of cinema that literally brings tears to my eyes every time I see it—but whereas I felt like the misery in Requiem for a Dream was often false and contrived, this moment rings true as the unthinking reaction of a man who has just lost all of the hopes to which he had been so stubbornly clinging for so long. It’s one of those moments that ground the film’s more fanciful excursions in concrete reality, that provide an emotional center for the film’s exploration of love and loss and the hope for eternity. You described the film perfectly before, in a single word: “layered.” And at moments like this, all the layers fold together into a forceful, densely packed burst of emotional catharsis, before once again splitting, mitosis-like, into multiple planes of reality and existence.
JB: If we weren’t before, we’re on the same page now. Interestingly, though, the moment that brings me to tears each time I see The Fountain is a triumphant one: the moment when Thomas passes through the passageway of the temple and finds, sure enough, awe. “Behold!” he says, tears welling in his eyes, in what is easily one of my favorite moments in all of cinema. Talk about the power of one little word! It’s a moment that’s both specific and universal, revealing the overwhelming relief of a man who has spent so much of his life searching, a man who only in the moment that he finds what he’s looking for allows his previous doubt to flash across his face, while also revealing what it means to arrive at the end of a long journey. It’s a moment that at once affirms Tommy’s quest for bodily eternal life while suggesting with its biblical tree that such eternity is found only through faith (which, indeed, is how Thomas got past the flaming sword in the first place). As you already pointed out, the tree doesn’t give Thomas the kind of eternal life he was looking for. In essence, it kills him to create new life, which only supports your reading about the importance of embracing our earthly life. Still, Thomas’ “Behold!” moment is profoundly beautiful and beautifully profound. Back when we discussed Requiem for a Dream I told you that one of the reasons I’m conflicted about that movie is because, relatively speaking, I don’t think it’s all that challenging to evoke the emotions that dominate that film: despair, horror and revulsion. This is different. When Thomas says “Behold!” we don’t just see his awe, we feel it, as Aronofsky matches the narrative’s emotional crescendo with that truly magical image of the tree of life. (If 2011’s Tree of Life has a tree of life in it, I have doubts that even Terrence Malick can rival the magnificence of that image.) It’s not uncommon for films themselves to fill us with a sense of awe—that’s why we love movies—but it is rare that we feel awe in unison with an onscreen character.
And while we’re on the subject of favorites, I must double back to discuss Mansell’s score, which is absolutely my favorite of this young century. Like The Fountain itself, it effortlessly sways between themes of sadness, hopelessness and loss to emotions of passion, elation and triumph without ever losing its cohesiveness; it feels just as appropriate in the conquistador chapter as in the futuristic one. It blends the strings of the Kronos Quartet with some almost tribal drumbeats and mystical choral echoes—always dripping with consequence, lingering around the characters to convey heartache, urgency and romance, sometimes all at once. But more than anything, Mansell’s score is propulsive, moving us forward, forward, forward toward that fateful moment of consequence at which point, as you said, the score goes silent, leaving us floating uncertainly, as if thrust upward by a wave that just as quickly disappeared beneath us. And before we can fall, the score resumes again, in a bigger wave that propels us to The Fountain’s peak of emotional wonderment. It is, in a word, awesome. And as far as I’m concerned it might be the film’s most significant achievement.
EH: If it’s not the film’s most significant achievement, it’s certainly one of them. Mansell’s score, as played by the sympathetic musicians of the Kronos Quartet and Scottish post-rock band Mogwai, is perfectly attuned to the emotions of Aronofsky’s film. It’s a score of big gestures that churns with slowly building emotion throughout the film, building up to the epic catharsis of the ending, matching note for note the mounting intensity in Aronofsky’s images. Mansell’s scores for all of Aronofsky’s films have been effective, particularly the techno-industrial paranoia of his Pi score, but for The Fountain, just as Aronofsky launched himself to the next level in his filmmaking as though he was leaping towards an exploding nebula, Mansell joined his friend and collaborator by crafting the best music of his career.
That’s fitting, because The Fountain is certainly the best film of Aronofsky’s career as well (though I eagerly await the soon-to-be-released Black Swan). Interestingly, Aronofsky made this masterpiece not by retreating from some of the excesses that marred his first two films, but by diving headfirst into them. The film is every bit as emotionally raw and melodramatic as its successors. It’s stylistically hyper and heightens its emotional stakes through frenzied cutting and bursts of gaudy imagery—though Aronofsky also seems to have learned the value of slowing down for quieter moments. Even its symbolism is in some ways as obvious and broad as in the earlier films, though the complexity of the ideas Aronofsky is exploring here, as compared to the comparatively simple psychological states evoked by Pi and Requiem for a Dream, makes a big difference.
One of my favorite of the film’s symbolic constructs—and there are many, considering how thoroughly the film is constructed around parallels between its three levels of story—is the equivalence between Izzi and the tree of life itself. The connection is made explicit by the parallel shots of the bald spacefarer whispering to the tree, the bark of which is dotted with very human-like hairs, and the shots of Tommy kissing Izzi’s neck and reassuring her. In this way, Aronofsky connects Tommy’s obsession with saving Izzi to the spaceman’s obsession with saving the tree. If only he can find the cure, if only he can reach Xiabalba. Following this parallel further, the way the spaceman eats from the tree during his voyage suggests the degree to which our obsessions can provide sustenance as they become the sole reason and focus of our existence. Tommy’s obsession begins as a desire to keep Izzi alive, to cure her, but over time the obsession becomes its own justification: he increasingly pushes Izzi aside and pours himself into the work that he’s doing for her, and then even after she dies he can’t let go of the obsession. It sustains him, becomes his reason to live, the center of his existence, occupying the space once occupied by Izzi herself. The futuristic segment literalizes the degree to which obsession replaces love by making the tree a physical replacement for the absent Izzi. And in the end, the spaceman must leave the tree behind to reach nirvana, just as Tommy must let go of his quest against death to achieve some measure of contentment; only the conquistador doesn’t abandon his obsession, and as a result meets a fate nearly as grisly as the addicts’ misery at the end of Requiem for a Dream.
JB: Good observations. Somehow I hadn’t really considered that last part, perhaps because Thomas’ death is the perfect climax to the film’s fascination with death as a pathway to rebirth, which of course brings us to another of the film’s symbolic constructs: the use of circles as visual representations of an eternal life cycle—the circle of life, if you will. Circles are everywhere in The Fountain, most obviously in the form of Thomas and Tommy’s ring and Tom’s spherical space pod, but also in that glassy center of the altarpiece (which, by the way, appears to include strands of the queen’s hair); in the image on Tommy’s computer screen when he talks with Izzi at the lab; in the pattern of the floor at the queen’s palace chamber and at the hospital where Izzi dies; in the light at the center of the map where “O,” not “X,” marks the location of the hidden temple; in the beam of light on the museum floor, where Izzi stands and looks heavenward before collapsing; in that tunnel of stars through which Tom’s space pod ascends toward the nebula, and then beyond; in the tattooed bands on Tom’s ring finger and arm; in the multiple extreme closesups of characters’ eyes; and, heck, even in the brain scans of the monkey that Tommy puts up on the light board. “Circles, he leads us in circles,” grumbles one of Thomas’ fellow conquistadors at their camp in the jungle. He’s referring to the priest. He might as well be talking about Aronofsky.
Like you, I think that The Fountain is Aronofsky’s best film to date (and, like you, I’m excited about Black Swan, in part because I’ve always felt that Natalie Portman dependably turns in performances that match the richness of her material). The Fountain’s only weakness, in my opinion, is its occasional tendency to slip beyond emotional rawness into full-on melodrama and clichÈ, most glaringly in the scene in which Burstyn’s Lillian delivers the tried and true “You’re Reckless” lecture, which blessedly stops just short of a demand for Tommy to put his stethoscope on the table and leave her office. And having said that, I suppose that this is as good a time as any to turn our attention to what I believe to be Aronofsky’s second best film, The Wrestler, because that movie seems to divide its supporters and detractors almost exclusively according to whether people find it appropriately emotionally raw or unforgivably melodramatic. Me? I tend to think of it as appropriately emotionally raw and acceptably melodramatic, but we’ll come back to that later.
The Wrestler is most famous for reviving the career of Mickey Rourke, who in his portrayal of professional wrestler Randy “the Ram” stirs emotions both within the frame and around it, triggering thoughts of just about everything we know about the actor. As Randy, Rourke flashes the charm that made him a star in the first place and the magnetism and sensitivity that led people to call him the second coming of Brando. He utilizes the awkward athleticism that defined his lackluster boxing career. He mirrors, through the actions of the narrative, the addictive and self-abusing behaviors that ended Rourke’s first acting career and nearly his life. And, through the film’s many closeups, he displays the botched reconstructive surgery that makes it difficult to connect the current Rourke with his younger self. Around the time of the 2009 Academy Awards, for which Rourke was nominated for Best Actor, I remember Aronofsky making a comment to the effect that his greatest personal achievement with The Wrestler was preventing Rourke from hiding behind sunglasses on screen. He was joking, but maybe only slightly. With an emotional nakedness that is sometimes difficult to regard, Rourke consumes the spotlight in this film in a way that very few actors (or actresses) ever have. And that’s why I’d like to start our discussion of this film by asking you this question: Do you think of The Wrestler as principally Aronofsky’s film, or Rourke’s?
EH: This is going to sound like a copout, but how could it be anything other than both? There is no question that this film, in some respects, doesn’t just star Rourke but is about him, is about the associations we inevitably make in seeing him onscreen like this, about the meta-narrative implications of the actor’s own life in connection to Randy, about the all-too-obvious fact that when we regard Randy’s body, scarred up and distorted, supposedly, by years of pummeling and abuse and steroids, what we’re looking at is not a special effect but the actual body of the actor playing Randy. There’s a kind of sublime cognitive dissonance at work here, as we have to accept that Randy looks the way he does because of years of pro wrestling under increasingly strenuous and damaging conditions, while simultaneously knowing that Randy actually looks the way he does because that’s the way Rourke really looks. Sometimes in a film, an effect that modifies or exaggerates an actor’s form can be distracting if we become too aware of its artificiality, but here we’re forced to confront the opposite: in the complete absence of artificial distortions or special effects, Rourke’s body is already a perfect fit for Randy’s persona, as though the actor had lived his hard life, which so evocatively parallels Randy’s, merely as preparation for this role. Very few films have ever achieved such a perfect synthesis between an actor and his role, as text and subtext and metatext flow into one another continuously every time Rourke is onscreen. The result is disconcerting, as it’s hard to know where the boundaries between actor and character can be drawn, or if they even exist.
At the same time, this is unmistakably an Aronofsky film. It is Aronofsky who has built this character around Rourke, in some respects using Rourke as a raw material, and it is Aronofsky who shapes and channels the web of associations that flow through the audience’s reaction to Rourke/Randy. Randy fits comfortably among the other Aronofsky protagonists we’ve been discussing here. He is in some respects as much an addict as Harry and Marion are in Requiem for a Dream, substituting the visceral thrill of being in the ring, feeding off of the roar of the crowd, for the rush of a drug high. Like the long-term addict, Randy has learned to cope with diminishing highs and deeper lows. The roar of the crowd has dulled to an occasional lackluster cheer, as the euphoria of fame has faded into sparsely attended nostalgia shows and amateurish, low-budget wrestling events at small local venues. And his body is crumbling, creaking with age, showing signs of all the strain he’s put on it over the years; his muscles are still bulging, but in a way that makes him seem misshapen and lumpy rather than fit or strong. Still, Randy is driven to continue pursuing this career into the dead end it’s obviously leading to. Like the anti-heroes of Aronofsky’s first two films, Randy seems bent on hurtling himself towards destruction upon the rocks of his obsession, ignoring his obvious medical problems to inject more steroids into his veins, cutting himself up and subjecting himself to possibly fatal violence in a desperate bid to reinvigorate his career. Randy never has the clear moment of epiphany that Tommy does in The Fountain, though Randy is similarly torn between an obsessive internal urge and the pull of family and romantic connections.
Aronofsky tells this story—which, as you suggest, intentionally flirts with clichÈ and melodrama and occasionally embraces them outright—with a straightforwardness and directness that’s quite a change from the cosmic bombast of The Fountain. But the director’s signature touch is still felt. At one point, Aronofsky films Randy getting ready for his job at a deli counter as though the wrestler were preparing for a battle; the camera trails Randy as he walks through the supermarket’s employee-only areas, making it seem as though he’s winding through backstage corridors towards the ring, while on the soundtrack the roar of the crowd subtly fades in. It’s a smaller, subtler touch than usual for the hyperstylization-prone Aronofsky, but it’s recognizable as yet another example of his penchant for allowing external reality and internal dreams/fantasies to bleed into one another. And it’s a deeply moving moment, suggesting simultaneously that Randy is always mentally occupied with his wrestling career, to the exclusion of everything else, while also raising the possibility that Randy might find as much satisfaction in a more ordinary life if he were to commit himself to life outside the ring. As you said, Rourke occupies the spotlight in this film in an extraordinary way. But it’s worth stressing that it’s Aronofsky who’s training that spotlight on the actor, and because of that this film is not just an actor’s showcase but a remarkable collaboration between actor and director.
JB: Yeah, that’s pretty much the way I see it, too. To go back to my original question, if I had to pick one I’d say this is Rourke’s movie—because of the potency of the performance, because of the way it inspires thoughts of the actor’s personal journey, because of the way even Hollywood cynics were swept up by Rourke’s comeback and because when I think of The Wrestler the first thing that flashes into my mind is the movie’s instantly unforgettable promotional poster, featuring the Ram slumped over the top rope, his hair dangling in front of his face in a way that perfectly conveys not just the themes of the film but the way that Rourke has always been distant and mysterious even when in plain sight. I think even more than it’s a great film—and I do think it’s just worthy of being considered great—The Wrestler is a great moment in cinema, a kind of you-had-to-be-there event that sweetens the impact of everything that happens within the frame. But having said all of that, The Wrestler is Aronofsky’s film, too, in large part because he’s willing to let it be Rourke’s film. He cedes the spotlight. That’s no small thing for any director, but it’s a monumental accomplishment for Aronofsky, who over the first half of his short career seemed to be doing everything he could to capture our attention while remaining outside the frame.
Whereas Pi and Requiem for a Dream are defined by their showy technique perhaps as much as by their themes, with The Wrestler Aronofsky retreats into the background. The film isn’t without directorial flourishes, as you’ve already pointed out, but Aronofsky’s approach is comparable to that of a feature writer who allows the eloquent quotes of his subject to do the talking. In The Wrestler, Rourke’s face alone is eloquent. And just like great directing is John Ford’s doorway shots, Robert Altman’s slow zooms, Alfred Hitchcock’s judicious closeups, Michael Mann’s moody nightscapes, David Lean’s stunning panoramas and Martin Scorsese’s carefully choreographed follow shots, sometimes great directing is as simple as pointing a camera at an actor’s face. One of my favorite shots in the entire film is the one of Randy hiding in a bathroom stall with a steroid-loaded syringe, anxiously scanning the room to ensure no one catches him in the act of shooting up. Structurally, there’s nothing remarkable about that shot. It has no movement other than the actor’s. It has no metaphoric lighting. There’s nothing to its composition that would suggest it’s a powerful shot if you saw it mapped out on a storyboard. But the shot is powerful. Why? Because it’s pointed at Rourke’s face. That’s enough to make it superb.
Of course, there are shots in this film in which the cinematography enhances Rourke’s performance. I don’t mean to imply otherwise. And the follow shot through the employees-only area of the supermarket is an apt example of an instance in which Aronofsky simultaneously evokes the themes of his film and pokes us in the ribs to ensure he isn’t forgotten. But on the whole, The Wrestler is what I’d call a “point and shoot” picture. And in this case I mean that as a compliment, because it shows Aronofsky has the confidence and the common sense not to complicate the simple. One of the most unforgettable moments in the movie is when Randy allows a tear to roll down his cheek as he looks into the eyes of his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) and tells her that he’s a screw up, a failure as a father, “an old broken down piece of meat” and that he just doesn’t want her to hate him. It’s one of the most poignant moments in the film, but it’s also one of the most jarring, because Aronofsky cuts from an unremarkable shot of Randy and Stephanie walking down the boardwalk to what seems to be the middle of this soul-baring conversation. It’s as if a shot bridging these two scenes was accidentally left on the cutting room floor. But even though the cut is awkward—the kind of transition that seems to violate Filmmaking 101—is there any denying that it works, that Rourke’s heartbreaking performance is so tremendous that how we get to the scene becomes irrelevant so long as when we get there we have a clear view? I don’t think there is. And maybe that’s why I consider this Rourke’s movie, while admiring the heck out of Aronofsky for allowing it to be.
EH: It really is no small thing for a director as prone to excess and overkill as Aronofsky to make a picture this intimate, where the focus is not on directorial flourishes but on the amazing performance at the film’s core. The film has an off-the-cuff realism that’s bolstered by the handheld camerawork and the casual tone of the performances. There’s an appealing awkwardness, especially, to the hesitant, flirty interactions of Randy and the stripper Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), who like Randy is reaching a pivotal point in her career where she’s going to have to realize that she’s past her prime in a job that demands youth. In one scene, Cassidy (Pam in her offstage life) takes Randy shopping to pick out a present for the daughter he’s neglected for a long time. Afterwards, the washed-up wrestler and the maturing stripper go out for a beer, and their patter, their uneasy flirting, is so much fun to watch and listen to because it feels somehow real. Rourke naturally overpowers the other, less central performances in this film, but Marisa Tomei, in this scene and several others, brings a lot to Cassidy’s slow-dawning realization that she, like Randy, needs to figure out how to transition into a life that doesn’t involve performing for crowds. As the two share their love of ë80s music and bitch about Kurt Cobain’s contribution to the death of hair metal, the chemistry between them is palpable and natural, not at all like the usual movie idea of romantic chemistry, but all the more affecting for it.
It’s interesting that a director previously known for his deterministic plot structures and showy technique should so thoroughly embrace the comparatively relaxed aesthetic of The Wrestler. Several scenes are even improvised, and feel like it: Randy getting into the groove of his deli counter work, making a game of it, playing to the customers the way he’d often play to the crowds who gathered to see him wrestle. In that scene, you can see Randy entertaining the idea of transitioning to a normal life, finding some fulfillment wherever he can outside the ring; he’s toying with the idea that he can have fun in a job other than wrestling, that he can still be himself even when he’s not Randy the Ram. Of course, this scene is mirrored by the later deli counter sequence where everything goes wrong, with the old woman who can’t decide how much potato salad she wants and then the customer who identifies Randy as a former wrestler, the final straw that reminds Randy of just how sad his life has become. There are other moments, small incidents filmed from a fly-on-the-wall perspective that enhances the film’s realism. Randy’s interactions with the neighborhood kids are touching, both as an example of how good Randy can be with kids—a stark contrast to the way he’s abandoned his own daughter, and perhaps a suggestion of what a together, cleaned-up Randy could mean to Pam and her son—and a sign of Randy’s constant need to be idolized and cheered on. The kids look up to him as a giant hero, and he feeds on that the way he feeds on the roar of the crowd at his matches. That desperate need for validation can also seem pathetic, as in the scene where he asks one of the kids to come play Nintendo with him, and only gets reminders, through references to Call of Duty, of how out of touch he is with this era. Randy isn’t just aging, he’s losing relevance, stuck in the era of Axl Rose and primitive, pixilated video games.
JB: Randy is stuck because he’s an addict. We used the word “obsession” before, but at least after his heart attack Randy’s lifestyle as the Ram could safely be called a full-on addiction. For Randy, it’s about the roar of the crowd, the adulation of the kids, the action figures, the video games, the autograph-seeking fans, the camaraderie of the wrestlers and a general sense of purpose. But as happy as those things make Randy, they’re also killing him.
That’s why when people referred to last year’s Crazy Heart as “The Wrestler in cowboy boots” it was as misleading as it was appropriate. Sure, like The Wrestler, Crazy Heart is about an over-the-hill entertainer with self-destructive habits who falls in love with a single mom while hoping to reconcile with his own estranged child. But the key difference between the two protagonists is that only one of them is being killed by the very thing he loves. In Crazy Heart, the hard-drinking habits of Jeff Bridges’ Bad Blake are incidental to and/or directly prohibitive of his success and big-picture happiness; the only thing that Bad Blake loses by not drinking is drinking. In The Wrestler, however, if Randy gives up being the Ram he might gain relationships with Pam or Stephanie, but in the process he’ll lose everything else that he loves—not just a leisure activity, not just a lifestyle but his entire self-identity.
If we look at Randy’s wrestling persona as an addiction, the two scenes at the deli counter make even more sense. It’s common for addicts who are stunned into recovery by a near-death experience to go through a period of euphoria, thrilled at the simplicity of life when not under the influence and empowered by their (brief) demonstration of self-control. That’s exactly what we see in The Wrestler’s first deli counter scene, when Randy realizes, hey, this isn’t so bad after all; I can do this! Alas, the other thing that’s common among newly recovering addicts is relapse, often to horrific extremes. In the second deli counter scene, when a fan confronts Randy with his wrestling persona—this film’s version of an alcoholic having a drink thrust into his hand—Randy falls off the edge, intentionally thrusting his hand into the meat slicer and quitting on the spot—not just from his job but from his effort at “sobriety.” Thus, his decision to go through with his rematch with the Ayatollah is the equivalent of an “I can’t stop being what I am, so fuck it” bender.
And that leads us back to the topic of identity, which is one of The Wrestler’s dominant themes. In the scene at the strip club, when Randy brings Pam/Cassidy a card to thank her for helping him pick out Stephanie’s coat, she rebuffs his intimacy by drawing a line between her professional and personal self. “You think I’m, like, this stripper, and I’m not,” she says, emphasizing the word “stripper” like it’s a slur. “I’m a mom,” she insists. For Pam, at least in her own mind, there’s a place where the public persona ends and the private person begins. “The club and the real world, they don’t mix,” she says. But for Randy there’s no such divide between the ring and the real world. He’s always the Ram because he’s always Randy—two intertwined public identities for a guy who is really named Robin. As with Mad Men’s Don Draper (at least until recently), the public act has become the private truth. On stage and off, there is only “Randy the Ram.”
EH: Very true. It’s a point that Aronofsky drives home by having Randy continually insist that he always be called Randy, while his real name keeps reappearing to remind him that he hasn’t always been Randy the Ram, and that the day might come when he’s once again “just” Robin Ramzinski. The doctor who sees him after his heart attack calls him Mr. Ramzinski, his ethnic real last name and the source of his animalistic stage nickname. His deli badge announces him as Robin, his given name but one he seemingly doesn’t identify with at all. The subtext here is that names mean a lot, and both Randy and Pam/Cassidy are very aware of that power. These are characters who are trying to craft their own alternate identities, to define what they’re called and thus what they are. When Pam insists that she’s a mom, not a stripper, she’s choosing to emphasize the part of herself with which she seeks to identify, even though in fact she’s both a mom and a stripper. That’s why she maintains the separation between Cassidy at work and Pam outside of work. When Randy meets her for the shopping trip, we learn that he knows her real name, but she wants him to call her different names in different contexts, so that she can maintain the illusion that Pam, the mother and private person, has nothing to do with Cassidy the stripper. There’s always the question of who she is at any given moment.
No such questions need to be asked about Randy, who’s always Randy the Ram. And yet, when the deli customer asks him if he used to be a famous wrestler—ironically, there wouldn’t be any question if not for the “Robin” nametag that Randy had been so ticked off about—Randy denies it. In light of the film’s sporadic Christian references, this is Randy’s version of Peter and the cock’s crow, as Randy repeatedly denies, essentially, that he knows himself. He’s denying his own identity, denying the very core of his being, which is why it drives him over the edge so completely: in rejecting the identity he’s assumed, both in the ring and out, he realizes just how much that persona has come to mean to him. As you say, Randy doesn’t neatly separate his public and private identities like Pam, who in talking about herself sometimes seems to consider her stripper self and her personal self totally different people.
Randy’s disconnect, on the other hand, might be described as a gap between his past self and his present self, a split that his entire current lifestyle is designed to minimize. He refuses to accept that he can’t—or at least shouldn’t—wrestle anymore. He refuses to accept that his time has passed, that he’s never again going to wrestle for sellout crowds at Madison Square Garden, that he’s no longer going to be the star of video games (the crude Nintendo game is a reminder of just how long ago Randy was famous enough for that honor), that his posters won’t decorate the walls of the current generation of boys, and his action figures won’t be in their toy boxes. It’s because of this blindness to his own diminishing relevance that Randy keeps participating in these bottom-of-the-barrel events that are more about blood and pain than the usual wrestling theatricality—Randy’s self-destructive addiction to wrestling leads him to events like the one where he rolls around in broken glass and barbed wire and gets stapled with a staple gun. It’s here that Aronofsky further explores the allusion that he had dropped, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, earlier in the film, when he has Cassidy compare Randy to the Jesus, not of the Bible, but of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ: “they beat the shit out of him for two hours, and he just takes it,” as apt a summary as any of that movie. In the same way, Randy just takes whatever gets thrown at him, as though as long as he’s wrestling, it’s all the same to him. With Cassidy’s earlier reference to The Passion in mind, it’s hard not to look at that long sequence, where Randy is battered and streaked with blood, as the start of a road towards Golgotha that will end with the film’s final shot, of Randy standing atop the ropes with his arms spread wide before he leaps into the air.
JB: That last shot is a humdinger for so many reasons. As you said, there’s the religious allusion, with Randy willingly climbing up on his cross, sacrificing himself. But on top of that, there’s the scene’s extraordinary mixture of tragedy and triumph. The tragedy begins, of course, with Randy’s decision to wrestle in the first place, walking away from Pam, who by her very presence shows that Randy indeed does have something to live for beyond his adoring fans. But before Randy climbs to the top rope, there’s that wonderful moment when he looks back to the curtained opening of the dressing room area, sees that Pam is no longer there and shakes his head while wearing an expression that could alternately read as, “Fuck, I blew it” or “I knew that fucking bitch didn’t care about me.” The ambiguity is in Randy’s expression (another moment of Rourke brilliance), but it’s also a product of all the scenes leading up to that moment and the number of times that Randy’s view of the real world is surprisingly accurate or depressingly inaccurate (which is to say that we can just as easily imagine Randy blaming Pam as holding himself responsible).
Then Randy reaches the top rope, and it’s here that Aronofsky enhances the scene with his direction. The last time we saw Randy preparing for his signature “Ram Jam,” Aronofsky presented him in a pair of wide shots that as much as anything accentuated the undignified nature of his surroundings: a banquet room so small that Randy’s head looks as if it might bump one of the halogen lights mounted on the ceiling. Just like the film’s opening shot, featuring a post-match Randy sitting in an elementary school classroom, these shots of Randy’s first ascent to the top rope are all about his career descent. And so for Randy’s comeback match against the Ayatollah, Aronofsky mirrors those earlier shots. And this time what otherwise might seem to be a humble theater feels more like Madison Square Garden. This time Randy’s ascent isn’t ironic. This time Randy’s summit, though modest in respect to the peak of his career, isn’t something to be ashamed about. This is a genuine triumph—Randy’s legs surprisingly steady as he straightens up, the fans of the theater balcony applauding behind him, the ceiling of the theater nowhere near his head. In this moment, Randy is refusing to let his fear of death stop him from living the life that makes him happy. In this country we love people for that, we idolize them for that. We call that bravery and heroism. So our hearts swell for Randy. But as soon as they do, it’s as if the aching feeling in our chests reminds us of Randy’s fragile ticker, and suddenly this looks like suicide. Suddenly this triumph is tragic again; he’s an addict out of control. Randy thumps his elbow pads and tears well in his eyes. He’s overcome by…by…by what? By all of it, I suppose, just like us. And then he jumps. Wow! How many other films can you think of that squeeze so much conflicting emotion into their final frames?
EH: Part of the brilliance of that final sequence, as you point out, is how cleverly and subtly it exploits the visual language and narrative beats of the motivational film, the comeback story, which is a beloved genre in American storytelling. We do love seeing the underdog wind up on top, we do love seeing the down-on-his-luck former great claw his way back from defeat. And in that light Randy’s final wrestling match is stirring and exciting, a real Rocky moment where the hero who’s been beaten on, both literally and metaphorically, throughout the film, is finally redeemed and reinvigorated. Aronofsky evokes these emotions, not to undercut them entirely, but to intertwine them with the sadness and the sense of loss that go along with this in-the-ring victory. The irony implicit in the film’s treatment of the usual comeback trope is that the film’s final moment is simultaneously Randy’s exultant comeback and his tragic end. He achieves a measure of glory in the ring—and is genuinely moving in delivering his pre-fight speech about how much wrestling means to him—but outside the ring he’s squandered opportunities to heal his relationship with his daughter and develop a romance with Pam. Whether the film ends with his death or not—and the cut to black is theoretically ambiguous but in practice feels final—it’s obvious that Randy’s moment of glory here is destined to be fleeting, another brief victory in a life full of disappointments. He says that wrestling is his whole life, that he belongs in the ring, but he fails to recognize his own role in making that true: it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy for a man who has continually sabotaged any chance to create something meaningful in the world beyond the arena.
This tension is implicit in the contrast between Randy and his opponent in that final match. The Ayatollah, Bob (Ernest Miller), has moved on with his life in a way that Randy hasn’t. Before the show, Randy wants to talk about the match, but Bob just wants to chat about cars; he owns a used car lot and that’s his real interest now, not wrestling. It’s obvious that for Bob, this match is just a good paycheck, and during the fight he urges Randy to go easy, to just go through the motions so they can put on a decent show and then go home to their real lives. He doesn’t understand that this is Randy’s life. Bob says, when he sees Randy obviously struggling and hurt, that they can just end the match there, that Randy can pin him and that will be enough for the crowd, but Randy knows—or likes to believe, anyway—that it isn’t enough, that the crowds want to see the Ram Jam, and he’s determined to deliver what the crowds want, no matter what. So he climbs up on those ropes as though climbing onto a cross, to sacrifice himself, not for anyone’s sins, but for the pleasure of the crowd, the enthusiastic audience whose roaring and cheering sustains and fulfills Randy. It’s a metaphor, perhaps, for the entertainer’s complete submersion in his craft: Randy offers up his body and his being for the thrills of those anonymous throngs.
JB: For the thrills of those anonymous throngs, yes. But also out of respect for his art. One thing that touches me each time I see this film is how respectful it is of professional wrestling, while also recognizing the sport’s inherent goofiness and danger. In the final match, when Randy begins to struggle in the ring, Bob recognizes it and says, “I’ll take it from here,” then throws himself over Randy for the illusion of being backflipped. Heading into the match, both men know that the Ram is “The Face” and the Ayatollah is “The Heel,” and that tonight “The Face” will win, delighting the fans, but both men also know that whatever happens in the ring will be the result of Randy and Bob working together, creating the illusion of dominance where in fact there is teamwork. The Wrestler begins with a collage of promotional posters and trade magazines that give us a sense of the illustriousness of Randy’s professional wrestling career, but the real reason we know how good he was is because of the way that the other wrestlers respond to Randy when he enters a room. He’s a legend. And though it’s also clear that he’s an old man in a young man’s profession—it’s implied that all the other wrestlers grew up idolizing him—none of the wrestlers ever regard Randy as if the sport has passed him by, as if he’s irrelevant. In the match at the start of the film, Randy’s mohawked opponent is obviously more athletic, and both men know it. But professional wrestling isn’t just a sport, it’s an art—it’s showmanship. For as long as Randy gets the crowd on their feet and sacrifices his body for his craft, he will belong.
That sends me back to the Ram’s grisly match with Necro Butcher (Dylan Summers), which ends with both men bloodied from thumbtacks, glass, barbed wire, staples and who knows what else. From a distance, it’s a pitiful spectacle. Randy has become the professional wrestling equivalent of a porn star who rises to fame in her early 20s on account of having an incredible body and who 15 years later is trying to maintain her relevancy by treating her orifices as if they are experimental jungle gyms for Ripley’s Believe It or Not! To us, Randy’s desperation is unmistakable. But that’s not the way Randy’s peers see it. They revere him for the stunts, for his commitment, for refusing to let his physical decline impede his showmanship. Their reaction reminds me of a quote from another sports movie, Bull Durham, in which Susan Surandon’s Annie Savoy says of Kevin Costner’s Crash Davis, “You have to respect a ballplayer who is just trying to finish out the season.” That’s what Randy’s trying to do: finish out the (indefinite) season.
Randy’s match with Necro Butcher ends with his heart attack. And if that illustrates how dangerous professional wrestling is, all those other moments of camaraderie show how fulfilling it can be. As a sport, professional wrestling is “fake,” but it’s real enough to almost kill Randy and real enough to make him genuinely happy. It’s as if Aronofsky, working from a screenplay by Robert D. Siegel, is establishing that Randy’s decision to turn away from Pam isn’t only about feeding his ego. When Randy goes through that curtain and heads toward the ring, he’s heading back into the embrace of the people who have cared for him for so long, been there for him when he needed help. He’s heading back into the loving arms of the only family he knows. In that context, it’s hard to imagine Randy, or any of us, making a different decision. Back in The Fountain, we talked about how Tommy foolishly divorces himself from his precious time on Earth with Izzi. And so if we concede that Randy’s professional wrestling persona, in and out of the ring, has become his only reality, then in a sense Randy isn’t risking his life, he’s embracing it. Because for Randy, in the end, there is no life without wrestling. When that career ends, he’s dead anyway.
EH: That’s an interesting way to look at it, and it highlights the very different relationships of Aronofsky’s heroes to their different obsessions and addictions. All of these characters are consumed by a singular object that begins to constitute their entire identity, but in a way Aronofsky’s career so far can be split in half between the two films about selfish addicts and the two films about selfless obsessives. Max in Pi and the addicts of Requiem for a Dream are entirely self-involved and self-contained, locked into cycles of addiction where there’s little room for anyone else. But Randy and Tommy are different. Tommy absorbs himself in research in order to try to find a cure for his wife’s tumor, which is both selfish (of course he wants her to live) and selfless, in that his whole life, his every waking moment, is dedicated to trying to help someone else. In the process, he sacrifices the scant time he has left with his wife, which is why his obsession is seen as damaging, something to get over before it consumes him, but there’s still a big difference between Tommy’s intense focus on finding a cure and the addict’s compulsive need to get high. Randy, similarly, is addicted to making people happy. He’s addicted to entertaining people. He’s addicted to being liked and idolized. He gets high on wrestling, but what he gets high on, one senses, is the adulation of the crowd, the knowledge that he’s providing thrills to all those people who come to see him. Tommy’s mistake is turning away from a life he already has. Randy, if he was to kick the wrestling habit, would have to build that life from scratch, and his hesitant, one-step-forward-two-steps-back attempts at building relationships with Pam and Stephanie show just how difficult that would be for him. It’s much easier, in the end, to simply throw himself headlong into one last glorious gesture inside the ring.
This is really what Aronofsky’s films are about: the difficulty and the challenge of living a good, fulfilling life, the difficulty of overcoming one’s obsessions and limitations to connect with other people. It’s much easier to succumb, to bury oneself in whatever drug, whether literal or metaphorical, is at hand. In that respect, Aronofsky’s career thus far describes, not exactly a hopeful arc, but an arc that is increasingly open to the possibility of change and redemption. In Pi, Max had to obliterate his mind and personality to break his obsessive habits. In Requiem for a Dream, the central characters are all swallowed up and destroyed by their addictions, even if some of them go to their doom with smiles on their faces. But then, in The Fountain, Aronofsky opens up the possibility that these obsessions needn’t be a closed loop, that things can change, that people can break free of these cycles, even if it’s necessary to metaphorically bend space and time in order to do so. In The Wrestler, Randy doesn’t have any such grand means to resort to. He led a tough life and made bad decisions, failed people he cared about, abused his body. And in the end, he doesn’t quite succeed in remaking his life or atoning for the mistakes he’s made—but then, maybe he doesn’t want to, and that final shot allows Randy to simply be himself, even if that means following his obsession towards destruction.
JB: It strikes me that Aronofsky is at an interesting point in his career. Through four films, he has consistently wrestled with obsession, yes, but he’s done so with enough differentiation that I wonder if we’re zeroing in on that through-line simply because it’s the most consistent theme in what is still a very small collection of films. In a little over a week, Black Swan will become Aronofsky’s fifth film, and I’m curious to see which Aronofsky it resembles, because for all their similarities Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain and The Wrestler are quite different from each other. And so if we consider Pi, for all its artistry, more of an audition piece, perhaps Aronofsky has reused some of the themes and shots from his debut film only because he wishes he would have used them better the first time around. Then again, maybe Black Swan will send Aronofsky back to the bleak darkness of his first two films. To this point, I’ve managed to avoid the trailer for Black Swan. But I’ve seen the poster, and I haven’t been able to escape the general buzz of anticipation (even though I happily have no idea what the buzz is about). I’m excited—partly because I’ve especially enjoyed Aronofsky’s latest two pictures, but also because Aronofsky is at that special point of his career when we’re still trying to figure out what kind of an artist he is. Twelve years ago, he was anonymous to me. Somehow I have a feeling that after Black Swan I’ll think of Aronofsky differently. We’ll see.
Check back for Part II of this discussion, in which Jason and Ed will react to Black Swan, around December 13.
Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.
Review: Guns Akimbo Squanders a Nifty Setup with Excruciating Humor
Writer-director Jason Lei Howden’s humor might have been tolerable if his film was at least reasonably imaginative.1.5
For much of Jason Lei Howden’s Guns Akimbo, Miles (Daniel Radcliffe) is in his jammies, because getting dressed is difficult when your hands are nailed to pistols. Eating and using the bathroom are no easy feat either. With this, the film hits on an amusing setup for physical comedy, as Miles can do little but stumble about as he strives to drive a car or use his phone with his nose. He also must avoid being shot by Nix (Samara Weaving), his designated opponent in a kill-or-be-killed online competition called Skizm. But the film ultimately fails to capitalize on its concept and gets smothered by its smug, abrasive tone.
Miles is a coder for a video game titled Nuts Bust 2, one of too-many examples of the film’s groan-inducing comedy. He’s also a bizarrely self-aware depiction of an internet troll, as Miles admits via narration that, in order to feel worthwhile, he seeks out arguments in comment sections and reports “offensive content.” When he goes to Skizm’s chatroom to tell the viewers off, he runs afoul of the organization’s facial-tattooed leader, Riktor (Ned Dennehy), who at one point says, “I’m going to do a poo-poo in my pantaloons,” because why not? Those guns for hands and his forced participation in Skizm are Miles’s punishment.
Most of Guns Akimbo’s dialogue squanders an intriguing concept through truly excruciating attempts at humor, oscillating between snide comments, gay panic jokes, and capital-A attitude-laden one-liners. In one scene, Miles remarks that the world looks “so HD” because, with gun-hands, he can’t go outside with his face in his phone.
The humor might have been tolerable if the film was at least reasonably imaginative. Radcliffe really digs into Miles’s sniveling bafflement and the expressive Weaving clearly has a lot of hammy fun as the unhinged Nix. But too much of Guns Akimbo consists of unremarkable car chases and gun fights that hardly feel transformed at all by Miles’s unique predicament. We watch a lot of people fire a lot of guns against a lot of concrete backdrops, except Howden deploys a hyperactive camera style that’s always zooming around the characters in slow motion or fast forward. He appears to be going for the Neveldine/Taylor style of films like Crank and Gamer, except he’s not nearly as inventive and most of his flourishes outright distract from the action choreography, sometimes obscuring it altogether.
Worse, Guns Akimbo strains to be self-aware, with Miles assuring audiences via narration that this isn’t one of those stories where he wins back his ex-girlfriend, Nova (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), in the end. And it’s weirdly self-congratulatory for a film that visibly revels in torturing Weaving’s character and eventually has Nova kidnapped for the big climax anyway. The film has even less to say about the sort of obsessive spectatorship that makes up the story’s backdrop, as though simply depicting reality-TV audiences and internet users as assholes is some profound statement. Luckily, unlike Miles, viewers have a say in the matter. They aren’t bolted to the couch and the remote isn’t nailed into their hands; they’re free to quit watching at any time, or simply opt not to watch this obnoxious film at all.
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Samara Weaving, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Ned Dennehy, Rhys Darby, Grant Bowler, Edwin Wright Director: Jason Lei Howden Screenwriter: Jason Lei Howden Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: The Assistant Is a Chilling Portrait of Workplace Harassment
The film is designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as its main character.3
With The Assistant, writer-director Kitty Green offers a top-to-bottom portrait of incremental dehumanization, and, on its terms, the film is aesthetically, tonally immaculate. The narrative is set in the Tribeca offices of a film mogul, but it could take place in a branch of any major corporation throughout the world without losing much of its resonance. Offices encourage professional functionality as a way of divorcing people from themselves, leading them to make actions without a sense of complicity. What starts small—throwing co-workers under the bus, neglecting friends due to punishing work hours—can blossom over time into people enabling atrocity under the guise of “doing what they’re told.”
With this psychology in mind, Green fashions The Assistant as a pseudo-thriller composed entirely of purposefully demoralizing minutiae. The film opens with a young woman, Jane (Julia Garner), being picked up from her apartment for work so punishingly early that it’s almost impossible to tell if it’s morning or night. By 8 a.m., she’s been making copies, printing documents, reading emails, and tending to office errands for hours. Other employees gradually drift in, talking obligatorily of their weekends off—a privilege that Jane isn’t accorded.
In these early scenes, Green conjures a peculiar, very palpable dread, her precise, anal-retentive compositions suggesting what might happen if David Fincher were to adapt Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” This dread springs from two places, as the visual palette is silvery and moody, evoking a potential corporate thriller, though the film refuses to move beyond the expository stage and gratify this expectation, and so we fear that we may be trapped with Jane in her tedium. We are, and this is by Green’s moral schematic.
The Assistant is designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as Jane. No names are uttered throughout (the name Jane, which brings to mind the anonymity of a Jane Doe, is only stated in the credits), while the film mogul is only evoked via male pronouns (he’s never seen but often referenced and occasionally heard over the phone, usually in a torrent of rage against Jane for her inability to talk down his wife, who knows of his infidelity). Jane brings another assistant the wrong sandwich, and he treats her cruelly; it never occurs to him, or anyone else, to thank Jane for the tasks she performs for everyone in the office. At best, Jane’s co-workers regard her with a kind of pitying befuddlement, as if she’s not quite real. When Jane eats, it’s quickly and without pleasure, and she’s always alert to being watched. No one speaks of their personal lives. Green springs one perceptive, poignant detail after another, especially when the mogul compliments Jane via email just as she thinks he’s reached his limit with her. This is, of course, a major tool of the master manipulator: praise when least expected, and only enough to keep the person in your sphere of influence and at your mercy.
Increasingly unsettling details seep into this deadening atmosphere. Jane finds an earring in the mogul’s office, which is repeatedly seen from a distance through its open door and becomes a chilling symbol for the mogul himself, suggesting his unshakable presence even in absence. There are jokes made about his couch, which Jane cleans. Young, beautiful women are brought into the office at late hours, and are referenced by both male and female employees with contempt. Growing fearful for one of the women, Jane tries to complain to an unsympathetic H.R. officer who sets about gaslighting her. It becomes evident that we’re watching—from the perspective of a powerless yet ultimately complicit person—a parable about rich, insulated predators like Harvey Weinstein, and Green’s grasp of Jane’s indoctrination into this perverse world is impeccably believable.
Yet The Assistant also feels too narrow, too comfortable with its thesis. The rendering of the mogul as an unseen specter is effective but also dime-store lurid in the tradition of mediocre horror movies, and this device also conveniently absolves Green of having to wrestle with how a Weinstein type might live with himself. George Huang’s similarly themed 1994 film Swimming with Sharks, which is mostly inferior to The Assistant, benefited from such a friction, as its own Weinstein surrogate (played by Kevin Spacey) had a magnetism that complicated and enriched the script’s anger. There’s also something insidious about Green’s evasion, as the mogul’s absence elevates him, mythologizes him, which reflects how people low on the power ladder see powerful exploiters. But Green physicalizes this idea without standing outside of it, challenging it, or contextualizing it; she traps us in a monotonous hell and leaves us there. Her fury with Weinstein and his ilk contains an element of awe.
Cast: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Makenzie Leigh, Kristine Froseth, Jon Orsini, Noah Robbins, Stéphanye Dussud, Juliana Canfield, Alexander Chaplin, Dagmara Dominczyk, Bregje Heinen Director: Kitty Green Screenwriter: Kitty Green Distributor: Bleecker Street Media Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Benh Zeitlin’s Wendy Is a Half-Hearted Spin on Peter Pan
Wendy veers awkwardly and aimlessly between tragedy and jubilance, never accruing any lasting emotional impact.2
Like Beasts of the Southern Wild before it, Wendy unfolds through the eyes of a child. Benh Zeitlin’s sophomore feature puts a new spin on Peter Pan, and not only because it takes on the perspective of a 10-year-old Wendy Darling (Devin France). The film’s modern-rustic settings and costumes and relative lack of fantastical elements—notwithstanding the presence of a majestic, glowing sea creature, referred to as “mother,” who may hold the secret to reversing time—also play a large part in re-envisioning J.M. Barrie’s classic. But Zeitlin’s brand of magical realism strains in its conflicting desires to both demystify Neverland (never mentioned by name in the film), chiefly by grounding it in a rather prosaic reality, and imbue the story with all the enchanting qualities we’ve come to expect from fantasies of everlasting childhood. Like its version of Peter (Yashua Mack), Wendy wants to fly, yet, because of its self-imposed restrictions, it never quite gets off the ground.
Across this tale of a child lurching toward adulthood, there’s a sense of wonder and awe to the sea creature’s brief appearances, and to Wendy’s initial encounters with the free-spirited Peter, who playfully eggs her on from atop the train that regularly roars across the barren, rural locale that houses her family’s rundown diner. But Wendy’s whimsical flourishes, from Dan Romer’s incessantly rousing score to Wendy’s breathy and all-too-mannered voiceover, brush awkwardly against the film’s dour conception of a Neverland drained of all its magic and grandeur. Despite this, Zeitlin strives to capture an unbridled sense of childlike exuberance as kids cavort around the rugged cliffside vistas of the remote volcanic island that Peter calls home. But lacking any of the mystical features typically associated with them, Peter and his cohorts’ behaviors appear overly precocious to the point of ludicrousness; it’s almost as if they’re performing a twee, optimistic rendition of Lord of the Flies.
Unlike Quvenzhané Wallis, whose magnetic presence imbued Beasts of the Southern Wild with a pervasive warmth and soulfulness, Mack is an unfortunately listless presence as Peter. Several years younger than Wendy and her twin brothers, Douglas (Gage Naquin) and James (Gavin Naquin), Peter appears, more often than not, like a six-year-old playing dress-up. His utter lack of charisma and gusto renders him an ill-fitting avatar for boisterous youthfulness, while his occasionally domineering, yet still unimposing, demeanor hardly makes him out to be the inspirational figure that the film ultimately wants him to be. Not only does he allow one boy to drown at one point, he chops off the hand of another to prevent him from aging.
Such events position Wendy as a twisted take on Peter Pan, but these moments are never given room to breathe. Rather, they’re uniformly undermined by the film cutting back to the idyllic adventures of children, in lockstep with Zeitlin’s relentless pursuit of galvanizing his audience through a gleefully idealized vision of the world. This jarring intrusion of darker elements into the story makes for bizarre clashes in tone, leaving Wendy to veer awkwardly and aimlessly between tragedy and jubilance, never to accrue any lasting emotional impact. When Peter buoyantly declares that “to grow up is a great adventure,” one is left to wonder not only why the boy who never grows up would, out of nowhere, embrace this worldview, but why Wendy, or any of the other children, would want to follow such a troubling figure on that journey.
As Wendy stumbles into its final act, where adult pirates attempt to use Wendy as bait to catch the giant sea creature, it becomes even more convoluted, contradictory, and murky in what it’s trying to say about growing up. Wendy eventually begins to stand up to and question Peter, both for his mistreatment of her brother and his harshness toward the adults Peter has excommunicated to an impoverished community on the outskirts of the island. But no sooner does she chide Peter than she’s back on his side, cheering him on as he fights off an admittedly cleverly devised Captain Hook. It’s as if she, much like the film, can’t seem to settle on whether Peter’s a hero or a borderline psychopath, or if childhood is a magical time to live in permanently or a necessary step on the way to adulthood. Rather than meaningfully subverting audience expectations, Wendy instead plays like a half-hearted twist on the familiar tale that ultimately doesn’t change the moral at the core of countless other Peter Pan adaptations: childhood is magical, and growing up is scary but inevitable.
Cast: Tommie Lynn Milazzo, Shay Walker, Devin France, Stephanie Lynn Wilson, Ahmad Cage, Gage Naquin, Krzysztof Meyn, Gavin Naquin, Romyri Ross Director: Benh Zeitlin Screenwriter: Benh Zeitlin, Eliza Zeitlin Distributor: Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 112 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020
Review: Philippe Garrel’s The Salt of Tears Forecloses Feeling for the Sake of Fantasy
Garrel illustrates the absurdity behind the myth of the complementary couple without humor or wit.1.5
Two strangers, a man and a woman, meet at a bus stop in Paris. He’s from the countryside and has come to the city to live out his father’s dreams, which in Philippe Garrel’s The Salt of Tears means taking an entrance exam for a top carpentry school. He insists on seeing her again, and they meet for coffee after his test. They want to make love but have nowhere to go; he seems upset that she can’t host, and ends up taking her to his cousin’s place. She isn’t comfortable with all his touching, perhaps afraid that if he makes love to her right away he’ll have no reason to come back. Indeed, she seems more invested in the future of their encounter, what it can become, than in the encounter itself, whereas he sees no reason for her to stay if she won’t put out. By the time he kicks her out, she’s already in love.
The strangers’ names are Luc (Logann Antuofermo) and Djemila (Oulaya Amamra), but they might as well be called Man and Woman. That’s because The Salt of Tears unfolds like an archetypal narrative of heterosexual impossibility where Luc is the everyman and Djemila is interchangeable with Geneviève (Louise Chevillotte), Luc’s subsequent fling, or whatever woman comes next. He seems fond of collecting rather than replacing lovers. In the course of his brief encounters, which are nevertheless always long enough for the women to get attached and promptly burned, Luc is inoculated from heartache. His only emotional allegiance seems to be to his father (André Wilms), which tells us a thing or two about heterosexuality’s peculiar tendency to forge male allegiances at the expense of women, who circulate from man to man, father to husband, husband to lover, like some sort of currency.
We’ve seen, and lived, this story a million times—in real life and in cinema. You, too, may have waited for a lover who never showed up after making meticulous plans for an encounter, wrapped up in the sweetest of promises, like the one Luc makes to Djemila when he says, “For the room, I’ll refund the whole amount.” It’s then that she takes the train to see him. At a hotel, she puts on her prettiest nightgown, powdering her face in preemptive bliss. But Luc never shows up. And when Djemila goes to the hotel lobby to ask for a cigarette from the night porter (Michel Charrel), we see that the scenario, the woman who waits, is quite familiar to the man as well. “I’ve seen women wait for their men all their lives,” he tells her.
And yet, despite so much identification, and despite the fact that some of the best films ever made, from Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage to Rohmer’s A Summer’s Tale, are precisely about masculine cowardliness and feminine despair, why is it that The Salt of Tears makes no room for genuine emotion to emerge? Which is peculiar given that Garrel so recently, with In the Shadow of Women and Lover for a Day, documented the impossibility of monogamy with not only a no-nonsense sensibility but also profound gravitas. Maybe the failure of the film is in Garrel’s use of melodramatic music during transitional scenes, a device at odds with the detached style of the rest of the film. Maybe it’s in the overtly fable-like structure that reduces the characters to not just archetypes, but cutouts. Maybe it’s in the omniscient voiceover narration that punctuates the film with such disaffection and irregularity.
Garrel illustrates the absurdity behind the myth of the complementary couple with the same cynicism that permeates his previous work but none of the humor or wit. He thus elevates The Salt of Tears to the status of a work to be enjoyed only intellectually, as if, like Luc, he, too, had learned to foreclose feeling for the sake of some fantasy of self-preservation or pride.
Cast: Logann Antuofermo, Oulaya Amamra, André Wilms, Louise Chevillotte, Souheila Yacoub, Martin Mesnier, Teddy Chawa, Aline Belibi, Michel Charrel, Stefan Crepon, Lucie Epicureo, Alice Rahimi Director: Philippe Garrel Screenwriter: Jean-Claude Carrière, Philippe Garrel, Arlette Langmann Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Greed Is an Unsubtle Satire of Global Capitalism’s Race to the Bottom
The film takes occasional stabs at comic grotesquerie, but it’s brought back to earth by an insistent docudrama seriousness.2.5
A morality tale about a piratical fast-fashion clothing entrepreneur, Greed takes occasional stabs at comic grotesquerie. Each time, though, it’s brought back to earth by an insistent docudrama seriousness. That uneven mixture of tones, not to mention its easy and somewhat restrained shots at obvious targets, keeps writer-director Michael Winterbottom’s film from achieving the Felliniesque excess it strives for.
Steve Coogan plays the discount billionaire villain as a more malevolent variation on the smarmy selfish bastard he’s polished to a sheen in Winterbottom’s The Trip films. Sir Richard McCreadie, nicknamed “Greedy” by the tabloids, is one of those modern wizards of financial shell games who spin fortunes out of thin air, promise, hubris, and a particularly amoral strain of bastardry. He made his billions as the “king of the high street,” peddling cheap, celebrity-touted clothing through H&M and Zara-like chain stores. Now somewhat disreputable, having been hauled before a Parliamentary Select Committee to investigate the bankruptcy of one of his chains, the tangerine-tanned McCreadie is stewing in semi-exile on Mykonos.
While McCreadie plans an extravagantly tacky Gladiator-themed 60th birthday for himself featuring togas and a seemingly somnolent lion, the film skips back in time episodically to show how this grifter made his billions. Although specifically inspired by the life of Philip Green, the billionaire owner of Top Shop (and who was also investigated by Parliament for the bankruptcy of one of his brands), Greed is meant as a broader indictment of global capitalism’s race to the bottom. Cutting back from the somewhat bored birthday bacchanal—Winterbottom does a good job illustrating the wallowing “is this all there is?” dullness of the ultra-rich lifestyle—the film shows McCreadie’s ascent from Soho clothing-mart hustler to mercantilist wheeler and dealer leveraging a string of tatty bargain emporiums into a fortune.
Linking the flashbacks about McCreadie’s up-and-comer past to his bloated and smug present is Nick (David Mitchell), a weaselly hired-gun writer researching an authorized biography and hating himself for it. Thinking he’s just slapping together an ego-boosting puff piece, Nick inadvertently comes across the secret to McCreadie’s success: the women hunched over sewing machines in Sri Lankan sweatshops earning $4 a day to produce his cheap togs. The Sri Lanka connection also provides the film with its only true hero: Amanda (Dinita Gohil), another of McCreadie’s self-hating assistants, but the only one who ultimately does anything about the literal and metaphorical casualties generated by her boss’s avarice.
With McCreadie as a big shining target, Winterbottom uses him to symbolize an especially vulgar manifestation of jet-set wheeler-dealers who imagine their wealth has freed them from limitations on taste and morality. That means giving McCreadie massive snow-white dentures, having him yell at the lion he’s imported sending him storming out on the beach to yell at the Syrian refugees he thinks are spoiling the backdrop for his party. He’s the kind of man who, when his ex-wife (Isla Fisher) calls him out for cheating by using his phone to look like he’s reciting classical poetry by heart, shouts proudly and unironically, “BrainyQuote!”
Greed isn’t a subtle satire. But, then, what’s the point of going small when the target is the entire global clothing supply chain, as well as the consumerism and celebrity worship (“adding a bit of sparkle to a $10 party dress,” as McCreadie puts it)? Despite his deft ability to authentically inhabit numerous geographical spaces without condescension (the scenes in Sri Lanka feel particularly organic), Winterbottom often has a harder time summoning the kind of deep, gut-level emotions needed to drive home an angry, issue-oriented comedy of this kind. But even though he isn’t able to balance buffoonery and outrage as effectively as Steven Soderbergh did with his Panama Papers satire The Laundromat, Winterbottom at least knew to pick a big enough target that it would be nearly impossible to miss.
Cast: Steve Coogan, Isla Fisher, Shirley Henderson, David Mitchell, Asa Butterfield, Dinita Gohil, Sophie Cookson Director: Michael Winterbottom Screenwriter: Michael Winterbottom Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 104 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: With Saint Frances, the Rise of the of the Abortion Comedy Continues
It has almost enough genuine charm and heart to compensate for the moments that feel forced.2.5
Even for American liberals, abortion has long been a touchy subject. “Legal but rare” is the watchword of cautious Democratic candidates, and popular film has long preferred to romanticize the independent women who make the brave choice not to terminate a pregnancy (see Juno). With Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child and, now, Alex Thompson’s Saint Frances, we may be seeing the emergence of something like the abortion comedy. The very concept of such a thing is probably enough to make a heartland conservative retch, which Thompson and his screenwriter and lead actress, Kelly O’Sullivan, no doubt count on.
Bridget (O’Sullivan) is a white Chicagoland millennial who, like so many of her generation, finds herself still living the life of a twentysomething at the age of 34. Messy and a little irresponsible—qualities that could be largely chalked up to the inert decade of post-college poverty she’s endured—she struggles to admit in conversation with her ostensible peers that she works as a server at a greasy diner. In the film’s opening scene, a tidy encapsulation of the tragicomedy of being an underachieving hanger-on in bougie social circles, she’s brought to the verge of tears when a yuppie dude she’s chatting with loses interest in her after her age and employment come up. She immediately pounces on Jace (Max Lipchitz), the next guy who talks to her, after he casually reveals that he, too, works as a waiter.
Fortunately, Jace turns out to be an indefatigably cheerful and supportive 26-year-old who comes across as perhaps a tad too perfect until the precise moment in Saint Frances that the filmmakers need him to come off more like a Wrigleyville bro. At some point during their initial hook-up, Bridget gets her period, and the couple wakes up fairly covered in blood. (Bridget’s nigh-constant unexpected vaginal bleeding and the stains it leaves will serve as both metaphor and punchline throughout the film, and it works better than you may think.) Amused but unphased by the incident, Jace will also prove to be a supportive partner when Bridget chooses to terminate her accidental pregnancy later in the film, even though Bridget remains openly uncertain about whether or not they’re actually dating.
In the wake of her abortion, Bridget is taken on as a nanny for Maya and Annie (Charin Alvarez and Lily Mojekwu), a mixed-race lesbian couple who need someone to look after their unruly daughter, Frances (Ramona Edith Williams), while Maya cares for their newborn. Frances is a self-possessed kindergartner whose dialogue sometimes drifts into “kids say the darnedest things” terrain, even though it can be funny (“My guitar class is a patriarchy,” she proclaims at one point). But O’Sullivan’s screenplay doesn’t overly sentimentalize childhood—or motherhood for that matter. One important subplot involves Bridget’s mother’s (Mary Beth Fisher) reminiscing that she sometimes fantasized about bashing the infant Bridget’s head against the wall, a revelation that helps Maya through her post-partum depression.
Maya and Annie live in Evanston, the Chicago suburb where Northwestern University is located, and Bridget counts as an alumna of sorts, though in conversation she emphasizes that she was only there for a year. She clearly views the town as the epicenter of her shame; underlining this is that the couple’s next-door neighbor turns out to be Cheryl (Rebekah Ward), an insufferable snob who Bridget knew in college, whose “lean in” brand of upper-class feminism doesn’t preclude her from treating her erstwhile peer like an all-purpose servant. Frances’s smarmy guitar teacher, Isaac (Jim True-Frost), also embodies the moral ickiness of the privileged, as he takes advantage of Bridget’s foolhardy crush on him.
Bridget’s relationship with Frances and her parents changes her, but the film isn’t making the point that she learns the majesty of child-rearing and the awesome responsibility of parenthood. It’s that Bridget finds strength in intersectional and intergenerational solidarity, emerging from the isolating cell she’s built herself out of quiet self-shame. If that approach sounds academic, it’s true that at times Saint Frances is staged too much like dramatic enactment of feminist principles—a public confrontation with an anti-public-breast-feeding woman ends up feeling like an after-school special about conflict mediation—but it has almost enough genuine charm and heart to compensate for the moments that feel forced.
Cast: Kelly O’Sullivan, Charin Alvarez, Lily Mojekwu, Max Lipchitz, Jim True-Frost, Ramona Edith Williams, Mary Beth Fisher, Francis Guinan, Rebecca Spence, Rebekah Ward Director: Alex Thompson Screenwriter: Kelly O’Sullivan Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories Running Time: 106 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Disappearance at Clifton Hill Is a Well-Sustained Trick of a Thriller
What distinguishes the film from much of its ilk is Albert Shin’s ongoing taste for peculiar and unsettling details.2.5
Throughout Disappearance at Clifton Hill, director Albert Shin nurtures an atmosphere of lingering evil, of innocence defiled, that shames the ludicrous theatrics of Andy Muschietti’s similarly themed It movies. Set in Niagara Falls, Ontario, the film opens with its finest sequence, in which a young girl, Abby (Mikayla Radan), runs into a frightened boy in the woods. One of the boy’s eyes has been gauged out, and he wears a bloodied white bandage over it. (Perversely, the square shape of the bandage and the red of the coagulated blood make it seem as if he’s wearing a broken pair of 3D glasses.) The boy gestures to Abby to keep quiet, and soon we see pursuers at the top of the hill above the children.
Much of this scene is staged without a score, and this silence—a refreshing reprieve from the tropes of more obviously hyperkinetic thrillers—informs Shin’s lush compositions with dread and anguish. Just a moment prior, Abby was fishing with her parents (Tim Beresford and Janet Porter) and sister, Laure (Addison Tymec), so we feel the shattering of her sense of normalcy. The boy is soon scooped up, beaten, and thrown in the trunk of a car, never to be seen again.
Years later, the thirtyish Abby (now played by Tuppence Middleton) has yet to settle into herself, as she’s a loner who haunts the nearly abandoned motel that her deceased mom used to run. By contrast, Laure (Hannah Gross) has married a sensible man (Noah Reid) and has a sensible job as a security manager at the local casino, which looms above the town surrounding Niagara Falls like an all-seeing tower. The casino, run by the all-controlling Lake family, is in the process of acquiring the sisters’ motel. Looking through old pictures, Abby finds a shot that was taken the day she ran into the kidnapped boy, and she becomes obsessed with solving the case, descending into the underworld of her small, foreboding community.
Shin and co-screenwriter James Schultz’s plot, and there’s quite a bit of it, is the stuff of old-fashioned pulp. But what distinguishes the film from much of its ilk is Shin’s ongoing taste for peculiar and unsettling details. A local conspiracy theorist, Walter (David Cronenberg), is introduced bobbing up and down in the water behind Abby as she investigates the site of the kidnapping, emerging in a wet suit from a dive to look for potential valuables. It’s a hell of entrance to accord a legendary filmmaker moonlighting in your production, and it affirms the film’s unease, the sense it imparts of everyone watching everyone else.
When Abby’s sleuthing leads her to a pair of married magicians, the Moulins (Marie-Josée Croze and Paulino Nunes), they memorably turn the tables on her smugness, using sleights of hand to intimidate her and illustrate the elusiveness of certainty. And one of Shin’s greatest flourishes is also his subtlest: As Abby surveys the hill where the boy was taken in the film’s opening scene, a bike coasts across the road on top, echoing the movement of the kidnappers’ car decades prior, suggesting the ongoing reverberations of atrocities.
Shin does under-serve one tradition of the mystery thriller: the unreliable protagonist. Abby is understood to be a habitual liar, a fabulist who’s either a con woman or a person wrestling with issues of encroaching insanity. Given the luridness of the boy’s disappearance, and the way it conveniently meshes with Abby’s unresolved issues, the notion of the mystery as a terrible, self-entrapping fabrication is credible and potentially revealing and terrifying—suggesting the wrenching plight of the doomed investigator at the heart of Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island. But for Shin, Abby’s fragile mental state is ultimately a red herring, relegating Abby to an audience-orienting compass rather than a true figure of tragedy. Which is to say that Disappearance at Clifton Hill isn’t quite a major thriller, but rather a well-sustained trick.
Cast: Tuppence Middleton, Hannah Gross, Marie-Josée Croze, Paulino Nunes, Elizabeth Saunders, Maxwell McCabe-Lokos, Eric Johnson, David Cronenberg, Andy McQueen, Noah Reid, Dan Lett, Tim Beresford, Mikayla Radan Director: Albert Shin Screenwriter: James Schultz, Albert Shin Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: With Onward, Pixar Forsakes Imagination for Familiarity
While Onward begins as a story of bereavement, it soon turns to celebrating the payoffs of positive thinking.2
Pixar specializes in tales of people, animals, and artificial intelligence coping with loss: of a spouse (Up), of human contact (the Toy Story films), of love (WALL-E). But like a lot of Hollywood dream-workers, Pixar’s storytellers also believe in believing. And faith in something, anything, is essential to the studio’s latest feature, Onward, as the heroes of this comic fantasy are two teenage elves who go searching for the magical gem—and the self-assurance—needed to briefly resurrect their departed and sorely missed father.
Ian and Barley Lightfoot’s (Tom Holland and Chris Pratt) 24-hour quest is lively and sometimes funny but seldom surprising. Writer-director Dan Scanlon and co-scripters Jason Headley and Keith Bunin have assembled a story from spare parts of various adventure and sword-and-sorcery flicks, and topped it with a sentimental coda about the value of a male role model. Mychael Danna and Jeff Danna’s drippy score pleads for tears, but viewers who sniffle are more likely to have been moved by personal associations than the film’s emotional heft.
Blue-haired, pointy-eared Ian and Barley live with their widowed mom, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), in a neighborhood that’s a cross between Tolkien’s Shire and a near-contemporary California suburb. A prologue explains that “long ago the world was filled with magic,” but enchantment succumbed to a diabolical adversary: science. The invention of the light bulb is presented as this toontown’s fall from grace. What’s left is a Zootopia-like cosmos where such mythic creatures as centaurs, mermaids, cyclopses, and, of course, elves live together in stultifying ordinariness. Most stultified of all is Ian, who meekly accepts the torments of high school. He’s nearly the opposite of brash older brother Barley, a true believer in magic who crusades to preserve the old ways and is devoted to a mystical role-playing game he insists is based on the world as it used to be. (A few of the film’s supporting characters appear by courtesy of Wizards of the Coast, the game company that owns Dungeons & Dragons.)
It’s Ian’s 16th birthday, so Laurel retrieves a gift left by the boys’ father, who died before the younger one was born. The package contains a magical staff and instructions on how to revive a dead soul, if only for 24 hours. It turns out that Ian has an aptitude for incantations but lacks knowledge and, crucially, confidence. He casts a spell that succeeds but only halfway, as it summons just Dad’s lower half. A mysterious crystal could finish the job, so the brothers hit the road in Barley’s beat-up but vaguely magical van with a gear shift that reads “onward.” Barley is certain that his role-playing game can direct them to their shadowy destination.
Like most quest sagas, Onward is an episodic one, but it doesn’t make most of its pitstops especially memorable. The supporting characters are few and most are easily forgotten, save for a once-terrifying but now-domesticated manticore, Corey (Octavia Spencer), and Mom’s cop boyfriend, Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez), who may be a centaur but strikes his potential stepsons as embarrassingly bourgeois. Both join a frantic Laurel on her sons’ trail.
Onward doesn’t have a distinctive visual style, but it does showcase Pixar’s trademark mastery of depth, light, and shadow. As in Scanlon’s Monsters University, the fanciful and the everyday are well harmonized. That’s still a neat trick, but it’s no more novel than Ian and Barley’s experiences. Animated features often borrow from other films, in part to keep the grown-ups in the crowd interested, but the way Onward recalls at various points The Lord of the Rings, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Ghostbusters feels perfunctory and uninspired. And it all leads to a moral that’s at least as hoary as that of The Wizard of Oz or Peter Pan. While Onward begins as a story of bereavement, it soon turns to celebrating the payoffs of positive thinking. That you can accomplish whatever you believe you can is a routine movie message, but it can feel magical when presented with more imagination than Onward ever musters.
Cast: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Ali Wong, Lena Waithe, Mel Rodriguez, Tracey Ullman, Wilmer Valderrama, Kyle Bornheimer, John Ratzenberger Director: Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, Keith Bunin Screenwriter: Dan Scanlon Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 103 min Rating: PG Year: 2020
Interview: Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson on Working Together on Ordinary Love
It’s to the immense credit of these two great actors that Ordinary Love is so inspiring.
It’s to the immense credit of Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson that Ordinary Love is so inspiring. As Joan and Tom, the couple at the center of Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn’s drama about a couple tested by the wife’s breast cancer diagnosis, their naturalism and comfort never waver while the characters stare down the disease.
Despite having never collaborated prior to their brief rehearsals for the film, these two celebrated actors settle authentically into the quiet dignity of longstanding companionate affection. Both performances hum with grace notes as the actors imbue even the most quotidian moments with compassion and wisdom. Ordinary Love speaks to how Joan and Tom maintain the strength of their relationship in spite of cancer, not because of it.
The bond that appears effortless on screen, however, was quite effortful, as I learned when talking to the two actors following the film’s limited release. The organic chemistry was evident between Manville and Neeson, who both spoke softly yet passionately about their approach to forging the connection at the heart of Ordinary Love. The two performers came to the film with storied careers and full lives, both of which contributed to how they approached bringing Tom and Joan’s tender marriage to life.
Lesley, you’ve said that Liam was the big draw for you to board this project. I’m curious, to start, what’s your favorite of his performances and why?
Lesley Manville: Oh my gosh! I’ve got to say the right thing here. I wish I’d have seen you [to Neeson] on stage. I never have. Schindler’s List, I think, really is up there. Had the [Ordinary Love] script been awful, then I wouldn’t have wanted to do it despite Liam. But the script was great, and they said Liam was going to do it, so I said it sounded like a good one, really.
Liam, do you have a favorite performance of hers?
Liam Neeson: I’ve seen Lesley in a couple of the Mike Leigh films. She struck me, and I mean this as a compliment, as like, “Oh, that’s someone who just walked in off the street and is playing this.” She was so natural and so great as an actress. And I did see her on stage, I thought she was wonderful.
Right away, we can sense such a shared history of the couple. Surely some of it came from the script itself, but how did you collaborate to ensure you were on the same page about where Tom and Joan have been?
Manville: Sometimes it’s hard to manufacture that or try to cook it up. I guess the casting of the two of us was pretty good and a fluke to some degree. We could have not got on. The warmth we have for each other is a bonus. We couldn’t predict that until we’d met. We’re quite similar as actors, really, we see what’s on the page and try to make it as truthful as possible. But day one, we were shooting scenes of them on the sofa, watching telly, not doing much, 30-plus-year relationship…you just have to plow in and do it. We’ve both lived a fair amount—
Neeson: We didn’t really “plan” anything. There’s a saying, “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.” That foundation stone of the script was beautiful.
Was there a rehearsal period, or did you just jump right in?
Manville: We had a couple of afternoons in New York, didn’t we?
Neeson: Yeah, we did.
Manville: Liam lives here, and I was doing a play. Lisa and Glenn, our directors, came over and we spent a few afternoons mostly eating quite nice lunches.
Neeson: Yeah, those were nice lunches. But we certainly didn’t “rehearse” rehearse it, did we?
Were they more like chemistry sessions?
Neeson: Yeah, just smelling each other, really!
Liam, you’ve said that part of what drew you to the film was the ability to play someone like yourself, a nice Northern Irish man. Is it easier or harder to play something that’s less like a character and more like yourself?
Neeson: I think if you’re playing a character that’s not you, i.e. thinking of doing accents, there’s a process of work you have. Be it an American accent or a German accent, there’s a process. Then I try to do that and ignore it. So, whatever comes out of my mouth comes out. If a few Irish words come out, if it’s supposed to be German, I don’t care. You can fix it a little bit in an ADR department, but I hate doing a scene with a dialect coach there.
I have to tell you a funny story. I did this film Widows with Viola Davis a couple years ago. And myself and Colin Farrell have to be from Chicago. I met with this lovely lady, the dialect coach. My first scene was in a shower, right, and into the bathroom comes Viola with a little drink [mimes a shot glass] for her and I, it’s a whole process we do before I do a heist job. It’s a little ritual we do, and she has a dog, a tiny wee thing. When we finish the scene, I’m supposed to go “rawr-rawr” to the dog. I did this a couple of times, and the dialect coach literally ran in and says, “Liam, you’re doing the dog sound wrong, accent wise! It should be ‘woof-woof,’ use the back of your throat.” I thought, “She’s pulling my leg! The dog’s that size [puts hand barely above the ground].” But she meant it.
Manville: Oh dear, she needs to take a check, doesn’t she?
Neeson: But being the professional I was, I went “woof-woof.”
When you’re playing characters who are “ordinary” or “normal,” as the final and working titles for the film have suggested, do you start with yourself and fit into the character? Or is the character the starting point and you invest little pieces of yourself into it?
Manville: Certainly, for me, there’s a lot about Joan that’s not a million miles away from me, although there are obvious differences. I just thought, there’s this woman, they’ve had this tragedy in their lives, they’ve lost their daughter, getting on with things, their lives have reduced down to this co-dependent small existence—it’s all about the ordinary stuff. And then you’ve just got to layer onto that the fact that this horrible diagnosis happens. But, in a way, I felt that took care of itself because I—touch of wood [knocks on the wood frame of her chair]—have not been through breast cancer. I’ve had a sister who did, but the women in the [hospital] scenes, the technicians and the surgeons were all real, and they were very helpful. They were wonderful women, and they helped me hugely just walking me through it. I just thought, “There’s Joan, and you’ve just got to be Joan as these other things are happening to her.” Of course, all bits of your own experiences and life stuff comes out. But it’s almost not conscious. I’ve had a lot of life—a lot of ups, a lot of downs, as has everybody. That’s nothing exceptional. Nothing more different than the average person. Our job is we lock those feelings away somewhere inside of us, and they’re there to call upon if we need to.
Neeson: Yeah, that’s a great way of putting it. James Cagney used to have an expression when an ingénue would ask him how to do a scene. He famously said, “You walk in the room, plant your feet and speak the truth.” That was always his answer. It’s true.
There’s a moment during chemo where Joan makes a remark that she thought the experience would change her more but feels relatively the same. Lesley, I’m curious, do you believe her at that moment?
Manville: Yeah, because you’re always you, no matter what’s happening. I guess that kind of statement is probably quite particular to people who go through a big health thing like that. You expect it’s going to really alter you, shift you, but actually it’s still you underneath. Because it’s just you with this epic thing happening to you. Nevertheless, it’s you.
Is it tough as an actor to depict that kind of stasis while also bringing some variation?
Manville: I think there’s enough in the scenes. A good point in the film is when they [Tom and Joan] are having a row about nothing—which color pill. But it’s bound to happen. They’re a great couple, yet something gives way because that’s human. I felt that was quite well charted throughout the script.
We don’t really get a similar moment of verbal reflection from Tom. Do you think the same sentiment of feeling unchanged might apply to him?
Neeson: There’s one scene where he visits their daughter’s grave and talks about how scared he is. And I think he is. But he’s “man” enough to put up a kind of front that everything’s going to be okay, and I think he really believes that too. But he’s terrified that he might lose his life partner. It might happen. Without getting too heavy about it, I know Lesley has experienced loss in her family. I’ve had four members of my family die. It was wrenching for the family—very, very wrenching. It’s a horrible disease. Lesley was saying to me last night, in America alone, one in eight women are going to suffer some form of breast cancer, which is an astronomical number. We are all one degree of separation from someone who has it.
Manville: But the survival rate is very impressive now.
It’s nice that the film is about more than just the struggle of the disease but how life continues in spite of it. We even start the film more or less where we ended it in the calendar year.
Neeson: Just that minutiae of life. Going to a grocery store. You still have to eat! Save up your coupons, that minutiae, I love that it comes across the script.
You’ve both worked with some incredible directors in your time. Is there anything in particular that you took from them for Ordinary Love, or do you just clear out your memory in order to execute what Lisa and Glenn want?
Neeson: I think Lesley said in an earlier interview—forgive me for jumping in, darling—that you absorb it through osmosis if you work with really good people. And bad people too. You just allow it to come out. You’re not, “What was it Martin Scorsese said? I must remember that. Or Steven Spielberg”—I don’t do that.
Manville: Also, they get a lot from you too. A lot of people think directors are like dictators. If they employ two actors like us, they’re expecting a collaboration of some sort. Hopefully they get something from us too.
In this more recent stage of your career, you’ve each had roles that have exploded and become beloved by the Internet—Liam with Taken, Lesley with Phantom Thread. How do you all react to something like that making such a big splash where people turn your work into a meme?
Manville: I didn’t know what a meme was until quite recently. Somebody told me I was a meme.
Neeson: What is it? I honestly don’t know. I’ve heard the word, but I don’t know what it means.
Manville: They just take a bit of a performance…
Yes, snippets of a performance and use it as a response to something else. Recontextualized.
Neeson: Oh, I see. Like “release the kraken.”
Or “I have a very particular set of skills” from Taken. I see that, and I see bits of Cyril a lot online.
Manville: Apparently, I’m a bit of a gay icon. So that’s new. Never thought I’d reach my age and be that. But I’ll take it!
Is that just a nice thing to keep in the back of your head? Does it enter into the process at all?
Manville: No! Listen, I think there’s a myth that actors, however successful they are, wander around in some sort of successful bubble. You’re just not! You’re having your life like everyone else. I understand that our jobs are quite exceptional, and other people view our jobs with some kind of halo over them. But personally speaking, when I’m working, I’m working. The rest of my life is incredibly regular.
Review: The Call of the Wild Provides a Resonant Take on a Classic
The film’s avoidance of cruel Gold Rush realities is more than made up for by its spirited kineticism.3
The latest cinematic adaptation of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild is a surprisingly thrilling and emotionally moving adventure film. Its surprises come not only from director Chris Sanders and screenwriter Michael Green’s dramatic overhaul of the classic 1903 novel for family audiences, but also from the way their revisions make London’s story richer and more resonant, rather than diluted and saccharine.
It’s worth recalling that London’s vision of man and nature in The Call of the Wild is anything but romantic; indeed, at times it’s literally dog eat dog. In his story, the imposing yet spoiled Buck, a St. Bernard and Scotch Collie mix, is kidnapped from his wealthy master’s California manor and sold to dealers in Yukon Territory, where the Gold Rush has created high demand for sledding dogs. Buck’s initiation into the culture of the Northlands involves severe beatings at the hands of his masters, brutal rivalries with fellow sledding dogs, harsh exposure to unforgiving elements, and an unrelenting work regimen that allows for little rest, renewal, or indolence. What London depicts is nothing less than a Darwinian world where survival forbids weakness of body and spirit, and where survivors can ill-afford pity or remorse.
Not much of that vision remains in Sanders and Green’s adaptation. Buck is still kidnapped from his home and sold to dog traders, but his subjugation is reduced from repeated, will-breaking abuse to a single hit. In this Call of the Wild, dogs never maul one another to death, a regular occurrence in London’s novel. And minus one or two exceptions, the human world of the story has now become uplifting and communal rather than bitter and cutthroat. In the first half of the film, Buck’s sledding masters are an adorable husband-and-wife team (Omar Sy and Cara Gee) in place of a rough pair of mail deliverers, and in the second half, John Thornton (Harrison Ford), Buck’s last and most beloved master, isn’t revealed to be hardened treasure-seeker, but a grieving man who finds redemption in the great outdoors.
The film’s avoidance of cruel Gold Rush realities is more than made up for by its spirited kineticism and by its deepening of the man-dog bond that forms the heart of London’s story. This Call of the Wild relies heavily on a CGI Buck (and other virtual beasts) to create complex choreographed movement in labyrinthine tracking shots that would be impossible to execute with real animals. One might expect the artifice of even the most convincing CGI to undermine Buck’s palpable presence, as well as the script’s frequent praises to the glory of nature, yet the film’s special-effects team has imbued the animal with a multi-layered personality, as displayed in joyously detailed, if more than slightly anthropomorphic, expressions and gestures. And the integration of Buck and other CGI creations into believable, immersive environments is buttressed by the cinematography of Janusz Kamiński, who lenses everything from a quiet meadow to an epic avalanche with lush vibrancy.
In the film’s first half, human concerns take a backseat to Buck’s education as he adapts to the dangerous world of the Northlands, but in the second half the emergence of Ford as Buck’s best friend adds to the film a poignant human dimension. Thornton rescues Buck from a trio of inept, brutish, and greedy city slickers (Dan Stevens, Karen Gillan, and Colin Woodell), and Buck in turn saves Thornton from misery and drunkenness as he pines away for his late son and ruined marriage while living alone on the outskirts of civilization.
This is a welcome change from London’s depiction of Thornton, who possesses on the page a kind heart but not much else in the way of compelling characteristics; the summit of his relationship with Buck occurs when he stakes and wins a fortune betting on Buck’s ability to drag a half ton of cargo. In this film version, Thornton and Buck’s relationship grows as they travel the remotest reaches of wilderness where Thornton regains his sense of wonder and Buck draws closer to the feral origins of his wolf-like brethren and ancestors. Ford lends gruff vulnerability and gravity to Thornton in scenes that might have tipped over into idyllic cheese given just a few false moves, and his narration throughout the film forms a sort of avuncular bass line to the proceedings lest they become too cloying or cute.
A paradox exists in The Call of the Wild, which is indebted to advanced technological fakery but touts the supremacy of nature and natural instincts. Yet there’s a sincerity and lack of pretense to the film that transcends this paradox and evokes the sublime.
Cast: Harrison Ford, Dan Stevens, Omar Sy, Karen Gillan, Bradley Whitford, Colin Woodell, Cara Gee, Scott MacDonald, Terry Notary Director: Chris Sanders Screenwriter: Michael Green Distributor: 20th Century Studios Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG Year: 2020 Buy: Book
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