Ed Howard: During the course of our conversation about David Fincher earlier this year, I posited Fincher as one of the few modern American directors who fit the classical model for the Hollywood auteur: someone who makes intensely personal and idiosyncratic films, in a variety of styles and forms, within the Hollywood studio system. I’d suggest that Michael Mann is another of these rare directors, bringing personal style to the Hollywood film at a time when American directors are increasingly either independent auteurs or blockbuster craftsmen for the big studios (or, in the case of fence-sitters like Gus Van Sant and Steven Soderbergh, shuffling back and forth between the two extremes). Mann’s body of work exists entirely within recognizable generic forms: the crime film (Thief, Heat, Public Enemies), the thriller (Manhunter, Collateral, Miami Vice), the horror film (The Keep), the epic Western (The Last of the Mohicans), the biopic (Ali), the “based on a true story” social drama (The Insider).
His films, almost without exception, tell straightforward, direct stories, the kinds of stories that writing gurus love because they can be summed up in a single sentence. And yet these stories are seldom the main point with Mann. He can be a conventional storyteller if he needs to be, but his default mode—and, I think, his preferred mode—is to place the emphasis on mood, on atmosphere, rather than on narrative. He’s more interested in the accumulation of small details than he is in how they fit together into the big picture. He’s more interested in archetypes and how they feed into his signature themes than he is in crafting fully realized characters in their own right.
He also loves playing with light, color, focus, composition, with the elements of form. He’s a stylist working in a context where style is generally a secondary concern. How many big-budget action/crime films spend as much time on setting mood as Heat? How many heist pictures would rhapsodize over the spray of sparks from a welding torch, as Mann does in Thief? If most modern genre films consider style second (if at all), for Mann, in contrast, there are times when style seems to be his only concern.
Jason Bellamy: I think that’s true. Then again, I wonder if style constitutes the ends of Mann’s concerns or if instead his style obsession is merely the means by which he reaches his desired ends. Of greater importance to Mann, I believe, is mood. His films are notoriously macho, frequently erupting in high-caliber violence and chronicling the lives of men who, accurately or not, feel the weight of the world on their shoulders. And yet while it’s true that Mann’s films fit within recognizable generic forms and feature plots that can be summed up in a tagline, it’s even more accurate to say that mood and atmosphere are what Mann’s films are really “about”—at least when they are successful—and those themes tend to be more elusive and complex. The audience that “doesn’t get” Mann is the audience that doesn’t connect beyond the basic mechanics of the plot. (To borrow a line from White Men Can’t Jump, the detached Mann audience listens to his films but can’t hear them.) Meanwhile, the audience that connects sometimes treats a Mann film like a religious experience, finding heft in almost every word, gesture or composition. There’s no right or wrong here. In fact, what’s interesting about Mann’s films is the way they can entertain both the devoutly connected and the only peripherally interested. The former revels in the tantric foreplay—the moody action between orgasms of physical action. The latter fidgets impatiently for most of the picture but concludes, “At least there’s fucking!”—gunfights, usually, instead of actual intercourse.
That said, there are times when Mann becomes so focused on the elements of style that will achieve his desired mood that he gets trapped in his own toolbox—times when the ultimate effect of his technique is to draw attention to the technique itself. Then again, maybe we, the audience, have become so accustomed to Mann’s bag of tricks that we’ve stopped giving his illusions a chance to succeed on their own. When a filmmaker is bold enough to establish a distinctive style, those trademarks have a habit of taking center stage. Fans call them signature techniques and detractors call them tiresome habits. Both audiences run the risk of looking at a film so microscopically that the big picture is lost.
We’re here now to discuss Mann’s nine signature feature films, from 1981’s Thief to this year’s Public Enemies. (Reader note: Prior to Manhunter, Mann made The Keep in 1983, but due to persistent rumors that Paramount took the picture away from Mann in the editing room, not to mention the film’s unavailability on DVD, we’re not considering that effort part of his signature series. Readers with thoughts about The Keep are encouraged to share them in the comments section.) So let’s start with some discussion of Mann’s most recent film. Let me ask you this: Among Mann’s work, is Public Enemies a memorable or otherwise notable “big picture”?
EH: Well, I don’t know if it’s a “big” picture, but it’s definitely a good one (and a relatively substantial one in comparison to its predecessor Miami Vice, which we’ll get into later). I think the two Mann audiences you describe above provide an apt summation of the different approaches to his work. The obvious reason that such a personal stylist has been able to thrive in Hollywood for so long is that his work appeals to those who don’t give a damn about style but just love the action sequences (and there’s no denying that Mann knows how to craft especially exciting action). In his best work, though, the action doesn’t obscure the fact that these films are working on multiple levels at once, that there’s more going on than just a great thriller plot. With Public Enemies, certainly, I walked out of the theater thinking I’d had a “religious experience,” that I’d seen something really impressive; I was quite deeply moved. So it says something that Mann got me so emotionally invested in the story of a notorious robber and killer. Without resorting to much of the usual “oh he had a hard life” clichés, the film makes the bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) a sympathetic figure. At the same time, I was troubled by the way Mann mythologizes Dillinger as such a tragic, romantic hero. The film is all about the distinctly American mythology of the gangster, the romanticization of these outlaw figures.
Moreover, Mann’s film is very specifically about the last of the romantic outlaws, the last of the great popular criminals before crime retreated behind a façade of respectability and corporate structure, as represented in the film by Frank Nitti (Bill Camp). It’s kind of the same thing Mann did in Heat: He places these bad guys at the center of his film as his hero characters, and he sets them off against characters who are even worse, who can play the unambiguous villains. In Heat, he took some of the moral imperative off of Robert De Niro’s noble crook Neil by including the character of Waingro (Kevin Gage), a totally psychopathic serial killer. In Public Enemies, Nitti and the lunatic Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) serve much the same function, making Depp’s Dillinger seem, in contrast, like a Robin Hood-style people’s outlaw. Dillinger, not F.B.I. man Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), is the hero of the film. The real evil here is the first blossoming of organized crime, retreating from the front pages into the back rooms, and the increasing power of J. Edgar Hoover’s (Billy Crudup) F.B.I., which at times works weirdly hand-in-hand with the crime syndicates against Dillinger’s gang.
This is all interesting stuff, there’s no doubt about it, and I also can’t discount my reaction to the film’s sumptuous style and emotional arcs. It’s an affecting, nostalgic elegy for a lost era. But it’s an elegy also for a particular kind of criminal, and Mann really feeds into this idea of the romantic gangster that’s run through so much of the American cinema’s history. The Hays Code is long gone, but Mann is still following the template of so many ‘40s gangster films, building up the criminal before the inevitable tragic denouement, a reminder that crime doesn’t pay. The film implies that Dillinger is a superior type of criminal because he’s an iconoclast, striking out on his own, rather than embracing the new economic/political model for crime. That’s a strikingly American idea, American in the sense of Wild West individualism. Mann has never flinched away from the darker side of his characters (both this film and Heat include sequences in which the bank robbers use hostages as shields against gunfire) but he is simultaneously fascinated by the criminal, exalting him as an icon. There’s a scene where Dillinger bursts into the place where his prospective new girlfriend Billie (Marion Cotillard) works, punches out a customer and then demands that she come with him. We’re supposed to think, I gather, that Dillinger is a badass, and also that this is a romantic gesture from him; we’re supposed to believe, on scant evidence, that his relationship with Billie is more than just bullying and buying her fur coats.
Obviously, I have conflicted feelings about Public Enemies. It’s a fairly rich and complex film, and in some ways I’m not doing it justice by focusing on Mann’s glorification of the gangster archetype. There’s a lot going on here, and some of it also runs counter to the tendencies I’ve been talking about. So what do you think, is Public Enemies a religious experience, an ode to the outlaw criminal, a little of both, or something else altogether?
JB: I needn’t hesitate to say that Public Enemies isn’t a religious experience (at least, not for me) or to agree with you that it is an ode to the outlaw (that the outlaw is a criminal is largely incidental, I think, despite Mann’s romanticism for the gangster). But beyond that I find the movie difficult to nail down. It’s one of the best pictures of the year thus far, certainly, but that’s saying almost nothing. Perhaps a better task would be to rate it among Mann’s filmography, and in that regard I can place it no higher than fourth. (Of course, that would put it in the upper echelon of Mann films, which is nothing to sneeze at.) I bring this up because one of the things I have been wrestling with in recent weeks is the issue of whether Public Enemies suffers or benefits from Mann’s previous body of work. I’m sure most Mann fans would be quick to agree with me that Public Enemies is no Heat, for example, but then most movies aren’t; Heat is in rarefied air. On the other hand, while Heat makes it easy to take Public Enemies for granted, Heat’s complexity and heft also encourage the Mann-aware audience to recognize a deeper sensibility in Public Enemies than I’m really sure is there to be found.
On that note: Regardless of how masterful (or not) this movie is, its greatest mistake is that it saves its best and richest for last. The final 35-or-so minutes, beginning with the reunion of Dillinger and Billie after her clever escape from F.B.I. surveillance, are tremendous—highlighted by that awesome Biograph sequence that is likely to rival any 10 minutes in American cinema this year. The trouble is, well over 100 minutes go by before we sit down with Dillinger at the Biograph and watch him watching Manhattan Melodrama, which for me is the key to finally unlocking a character who until then is harder to crack than a bank vault. Likewise, Billie’s most vulnerable moments are toward the end of the picture, and perhaps the same can be said of Purvis, too.
The first time I watched Public Enemies, its opening acts were engrossing, interesting and propulsive, as Mann’s movies almost always are. Nevertheless, it had a sort of icy chill about it—and not in a good Neil “I sell metals” McCauley kind of way. I could sit here and list a dozen examples of why Public Enemies is quintessential Mann, from its romanticism of outlaws to its explosive action set pieces, but the biggest surprise for me, and I suppose the biggest disappointment, is how much of this movie is moodless, at least in Mann terms. Or am I wrong?
EH: Like you, I’d place the film somewhere in the middle of the pack as far as Mann goes, and it’s definitely hard to pin down exactly what it’s doing, so you’re not wrong there. On the other hand, I’m not sure I agree that the film is moodless, just that its mood is one of slightly distanced contemplation. Its palette tends towards grays and browns, washed-out colors, not quite the sepia of nostalgic photos but definitely a cool, aloof visual aesthetic.
I also agree that the strongest moments are concentrated towards the end. The film has an accumulative effect: It’s slowly building towards what we all know is coming, assuming we know the bare minimum about the real Dillinger. It has to end, more or less, with the scene at the Biograph and the hail of bullets, so there’s no suspense in that respect. But there are all these little moments along the way, indications that death is approaching—the film is shrouded in death—so that by the end the aura of approaching doom is nearly overwhelming. The early scenes might seem comparatively underwhelming, perhaps, because Mann is just putting the pieces in place, establishing his themes and setting everything up for the inevitability of the finale. It’s a film about impending death, and it’s structured to steamroll relentlessly towards Dillinger’s final breath, picking up momentum as it gets closer and closer to that moment.
It also becomes apparent in the brilliant Biograph scene why casting Marion Cotillard as Billie was such a good idea. She does a fine job throughout the film infusing some depth and warmth into an underwritten character, but ironically it’s that scene of Dillinger watching Manhattan Melodrama, a scene in which Billie doesn’t even appear, where the true potency of their relationship is finally conveyed. The moment Myrna Loy appears on the screen in the last movie Dillinger ever saw, the similarities between Cotillard and Loy become apparent. This resemblance, emphasized by Mann’s montage of Loy shots from the 1934 Woody Van Dyke film, recasts the meaning of Dillinger’s moviegoing habits. It wasn’t just that he enjoyed going to see gangster pictures to see tough guys on screen. He saw himself up there, and his own doomed romance as well; there’s a poignancy and sadness to the montage of Dillinger looking at Loy, pining for his own girl who got sent to prison because of him. It’s like he’s really looking at Billie, thinking about his own life and where it’s taken him, what it’s done to the woman he loves. It’s amazing how much these shots convey, largely just through editing and juxtaposition. It’s at that moment—and during the earlier scene of Billie being violently interrogated and defiantly standing by her man—that Dillinger and Billie really come alive. You’re right: Seeing Dillinger watch a movie, we get to connect to him in a way we never really did throughout the rest of the film, where he’s kept at arm’s length, an archetypal criminal outlaw, a figure of myth.
JB: Yeah, see, I think attributing Dillinger’s remoteness over the first half of the picture to some kind of myth- or mystery-making is giving Mann too much credit. I agree that there is something devastating about feeling close to Dillinger precisely at the moment we know he’s about to be taken away from us, but that doesn’t mean he needs to be such a blank slate early on. Over the first half of the film I think Mann relies too much on Dillinger’s name and Depp’s celebrity and fails to truly develop the character, to give us a reason to care. I think that half-measure, as much as anything, contributes to the feeling that Public Enemies is mostly moodless. Depp’s Dillinger doesn’t have the desperation of James Caan’s Frank in Thief, or the bottled intensity and loneliness of De Niro’s Neil in Heat, or the anguish of Russell Crowe’s Jeffrey Wigand in The Insider, or the vulnerability of Jamie Foxx’s Max in Collateral. Instead, he’s something of a paper doll, clad in the real Dillinger’s notoriousness and the real Depp’s celebrity swagger.
It doesn’t help, by the way, that many of Depp’s lines are nearly inaudible, the fault of some astonishingly sloppy sound editing. The first time I saw Public Enemies, I figured it was the fault of the theater, but then I saw it again across town and the problems were the same. There are a few instances in which Depp’s lines are somehow quieter than the lines of the person sitting right next to him, and in the first conversation between Dillinger and Alvin Karpis (Giovanni Ribisi) the dubbing is crude to say the least. These blunders don’t ruin Public Enemies, of course, but they are obstacles that make it difficult to fall under the movie’s spell. Not to mention that it’s rather shocking that a director who flip-flops between film and digital in order to achieve his desired visual aesthetic would be so careless about the audio. But I digress.
Perhaps the best way to understand Public Enemies is to look back at the Mann films that came before it. So let’s begin at Mann’s first feature film, 1981’s Thief. That picture, about a meticulous thief looking to pull one last big job so that he can leave the criminal world in favor of a new life with the woman he loves, debuts themes and devices that Mann has reused and refined many times since. So my question to you is this: Eight movies later, looking backward, does Thief strike you as a bold early breakthrough, an experimental first draft, or something else altogether?
EH: There’s no doubt, it’s a remarkable debut, the emergence of a new talent almost fully formed. Mann had worked for several years previously in television, and before that he’d made some short films and documentaries on his own, so for his first true feature, he seems entirely in control, entirely sure of what he wants to say and how to say it. There are rough spots here and there—a few odd editing choices, occasional unclear visual storytelling—but on the whole it’s a polished, self-assured film for a first-time director. And it’s also a thematically rich film, the film that in many ways establishes the territory that Mann would return to again and again. James Caan’s Frank is Neil McCauley, he is John Dillinger. He’s the typical Mann lead who would reappear in picture after picture: A man totally dedicated to his work, proud of being the best at what he does, but also desperate for something beyond the work, something special of his own. Mann’s heroes and anti-heroes are almost always consumed by the desire for a family, for normality and stability, and at the same time they know that it’s not really for them, that they could never balance the life they lead with the life they want.
Mann virtually quotes from this film in Heat, both narratively (the crooks in both films escape the cops by placing a bug on a bus bound out of town) and especially thematically. Frank, like Neil in Heat, has the idea, learned in prison, that a man shouldn’t have any attachments in his life, that he shouldn’t care about anything. But he can’t help desperately yearning for a family. He carries around a collage postcard to remind himself of everything he wants, all the elements that when put together will represent his life. He seems to think of life as something you build, piece by piece, getting the ingredients together the way he prepares for a job: Methodical, mechanical, detail-oriented. He wants a wife, so he simply lays out the score for Jessie (Tuesday Weld), a damaged woman who agrees to throw in with him. He wants a son and she can’t have one, and his prison record prevents them from adopting, so instead he outright buys a baby through his syndicate boss Leo (the wonderfully creepy, lizard-like Robert Prosky). He buys a house, too, out in the suburbs with, as his partner Barry (Jim Belushi) describes it, “pink trees.” Frank is creating a model life for himself, a façade of suburban respectability, as though he can transform himself overnight into a normal guy.
The film is visually sumptuous, of course, and in that respect too it’s a bold debut, a heist movie where the emphasis is on slow-burning tension rather than action. It’s driven by the sinister motorik pulse of Tangerine Dream’s score, and the lush painterly quality of the images complements this atmospheric music. Mann places the emphasis on process: The safecracking jobs in this film are every bit as elaborate and carefully staged as the famous heist in Jules Dassin’s Rififi. Thief opens with a lengthy depiction of a robbery job, with Mann cutting around to each participant, showing his role in the plan. It’s all carefully calibrated, each piece fitting together, each person doing his specialized job at exactly the right moment. Mann shoots closeups of the wires in the alarm box, and of the drill as it slices through the safe’s exterior, revealing the lock mechanism within. Later, he spends even more time with the film’s central robbery, the archetypal crime film “one last job” that Frank plans along with his new syndicate benefactors. The gang cuts through a safe with a tremendous blowtorch rig, and Mann lingers lovingly over the sparks flying up from the super-heated metal as it slices into the door. He captures the white-hot tip of the torch, the yellow glow of the melting metal, the white fog that drifts around the room from the fire extinguisher. It becomes sensual and stylized, not just a depiction of a practical process but a celebration of heat and light and energy in this enclosed space. This is what Mann’s films, at their best, are all about: Transcending the ordinary genre conventions of what they’re showing to get at something deeper underneath, maybe the “religious experience” you mentioned, or maybe just the human vulnerability of his tough guy protagonists.
JB: I agree. Though Mann’s detractors sometimes suggest that his obsessions with machinery and procedurals reveal some kind of testosterone overload, I think such disparagement overlooks how often a man’s profession is the backbone of his identity—especially for single men. Granted, this picture takes that to the nth degree; I mean, it’s called Thief, for crying out loud. But all those long sequences of Frank at work reveal who he is and what he stands for. Thieves in the movies who claim to be the best at what they do are a dime a dozen. Frank stands out, as does the gang from Heat, because he proves it. He walks the walk. His methods, save the improvised blowtorch device, aren’t cutting-edge. Instead, Frank gets more out of a saw, crowbar and drill than the next guy. It’s not the tools that are good; he’s good. Thus, to watch Frank is to know who he is, not just professionally but personally. (And at this point I must pause to point out that while Dillinger’s multiple prison breaks establish his cunning in the early goings of Public Enemies, I didn’t get the same window into Dillinger’s soul watching him work that I do watching Frank’s thievery in Thief or Neil’s in Heat, or even watching Jamie Foxx’s Max cleaning his cab in Collateral.)
Thief is definitely an explosive beginning for Mann, and that’s fitting because this film initiates Mann’s tradition of explosive openings. Mann is almost unrivaled in his ability to bring us into the action in the opening fifteen minutes. To be clear, that doesn’t mean we can always immediately forecast the nature of the plot (the first thematic crisis point often doesn’t reveal itself until much later), but, as if working from Neil’s stopwatch, within fifteen minutes we are hooked. To go back to the foreplay example, Mann is expert at putting us “in the mood.” In the case of Public Enemies, it’s watching Dillinger break his buddies out of jail. Here it’s watching Frank break into a safe.
The opening minutes of Thief are also noteworthy because they suggest to me that they had a significant impact on another director we’ve discussed previously, David Fincher. Most particularly, there’s the shot in which Mann’s camera enters a hole that Frank has drilled in a safe—a camera gimmick that Fincher has riffed on several times, most notably in Panic Room when the camera goes inside the lock of a door and through the handle of a coffee pot. On top of that, Thief’s slow vertical pan showing the moonlight illuminating the empty fire escapes of several buildings and then settling on the rain-soaked road below recalls the tableaux of Se7en and, for that matter, Madonna’s “Express Yourself” video. Not to mention that after the movie-opening heist we watch Frank relax by sitting on a dock and sharing a view of an almost surreal sunrise that now recalls a similar shot of a sunset from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. But, again, I digress.
Maybe the most interesting thing for me about Thief looking backward is that Frank is Mann’s most emotionally overt and sensitive criminal quasi-loner, thanks in large part to that great coffee shop scene with Jessie (which is more forthcoming, if less magical, than the legendary coffee shop scene in Heat) and the child adoption subplot, and yet it’s Frank who most deliberately, consciously and definitively gives up on his idyllic vision of typical domestic happiness. Frank’s hand is forced, of course, by Leo (and, yes, Prosky is terrific!), but when he breaks off his relationship with Jessie he knows exactly what he’s doing. Heat’s Neil, on the other hand, thinks he can get vengeance on Waingro and “go away” with Eady right up to the point that he’s running for his life, and Public Enemies’ Dillinger never actually gives up on reuniting with Billie until his life is taken from him. In hindsight, if you know Mann’s work, Frank’s abrupt abandonment of Jessie is inevitable, but at the time it must have seemed shocking and even more tragic than it plays today to folks like me who encountered Mann’s films out of order.
EH: Interesting that these comparisons to Fincher keep coming up. Both directors are definitely interested in process, though arguably Fincher uses a focus on process as a way of exploring his signature themes, while for Mann the procedures and routines of work are windows into the souls of his characters. At the same time, I think you’re right that Frank is the most naked and vulnerable of Mann’s heroes, with the possible exceptions of Max in Collateral and Jeffrey Wigand in The Insider. Mann’s characters sometimes tend towards archetypes rather than fully developed people, which can make them difficult to get close to. Frank lays bare his soul in a way that Mann’s other characters seldom do, and this makes him one of the most self-aware of Mann’s heroes as well. If Neil and his opposite number Vincent (Al Pacino) in Heat seem to yearn unconsciously for the connections and stability of family life, Frank is acutely conscious of what he lacks, and he tries to get it by following the plan he’s laid out for himself. Of course, as the most self-conscious Mann hero, he’s also the one who, once he has what he thought he wanted, realizes that he has to destroy it, and does so with the same methodical skill he applies to his safecracking operations.
Also, in the spirit of digression, one of the least remarked-upon aspects of Thief is doubtless how quirky and strange the film can be in isolated moments. The film’s overall sense of escalating dread and its moody, low-key visual atmosphere tend to be the takeaways, especially since the last shot is that dark, distanced image of Frank being swallowed up into the night on a suburban street, leaving a handful of bodies strewn around behind him. But the film is packed with odd little moments of humor and eccentric details that waft around the fringes of the narrative. Some of these are perhaps unintentionally funny or disorienting, like the unforgettably cheesy beachside interlude with a hairy, shirtless James Caan, or the way the final shootout includes that puzzling cutaway to a random woman who’s never seen before or after that point. Other moments are more intentionally amusing, like the metal shop owner who muses about his white-coated new assistant: “What’s he gonna do, discover penicillin?” Or that odd sunrise scene you mention, with a fisherman praising the glory of “the sky king.” Or Frank’s escalating outrage and hilariously inappropriate racial remarks at the adoption agency. Or, surely the funniest scene, the subtle non-verbal bargaining going on between a crooked lawyer and an even more crooked judge to get Frank’s mentor Okla (Willie Nelson) released from prison.
These kinds of diversions aren’t really what we think of when we think of a Michael Mann film, but they’re all part of the texture of his debut. When people talk about Mann, they tend to give the impression that the films are tough and violent, testosterone-driven, grim and relentless. Scenes like this, so easily forgotten and yet so important in infusing his films with vitality and life, prove that there’s more to Mann as a director than a machismo-obsessed crime/action stylist.
JB: Exactly. I mean, there’s no arguing that he’s obsessed with machismo and that his films are dominated by meditations on maleness, but Mann isn’t limited to that. When Mann does make time for female characters (perhaps begrudgingly), it’s amazing how affecting those scenes can be. Many of those moments we’ll get to later, but in Thief that aforementioned diner sequence is terrific not just because of how much it reveals about Frank but for what it reveals about Jessie. Tuesday Weld is outstanding in those ten minutes, conveying years worth of heartbreak and loneliness with a believability that reminds me of some of Julianne Moore’s best work. Frank is right: Jessie is “hiding out” in plain sight; she’s playing not to lose. Those aren’t just words; we see that in Weld’s portrayal. Her performance is crucial because it’s the key to our ability to believe that Jessie would dive into this otherwise ill-advised relationship with a criminal she barely knows. Frank gives Jessie the opportunity to reengage with life. From that perspective, it would be reckless not to follow him. It’s a complex sequence.
Yet despite the director’s deft touch when he deigns to let a female fill the screen, it’s almost impossible to imagine Mann helming a female-dominated movie, unless the ladies in question were covered in prison tattoos. That’s why it’s all too appropriate that Mann went on to direct Manhunter, which features a villain (Tom Noonan’s Francis Dollarhyde) whose animosity stems from his failure to connect with women. My impression is that Manhunter gets more chatter these days than Thief, if for no other reason than its introduction of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter character, who here is called Hannibal Lecktor. (Mann fanboys, and those still bitter over the Oscar dominance of The Silence of the Lambs, love to argue that Brian Cox’s performance here is superior to Anthony Hopkins’ subsequent award-winning one.) But for me, time has been far kinder to Thief than to Manhunter. True, the former dates itself with Caan’s hairy-chested strutting and James Belushi’s belly-jiggling running in the beach scene, but Manhunter plays like a billboard for the 1980s Miami Vice (TV) aesthetic, which in terms of both style and mood has proved anything but timeless.
EH: It’s true that, seen today, Manhunter has more than its share of cringe-inducing moments and silly stylistic flourishes, many of them stemming more from the simple passage of time than from any intrinsic fault of the film. The synth-heavy score, featuring music by Michael Rubini and New Wave guitar/keyboard duo The Reds, treads some of the same ground as Tangerine Dream’s moody score for Thief, but there are also a number of awful ‘80s-ish pop songs to date the film. Many of the upbeat pop tunes packed into the film sit uneasily against the dark mood of the material; the music often seems more appropriate for a Rocky sequel than this tense, immersive police procedural. Similarly, the sex scene between the serial killer Dollarhyde and his blind lover Reba (Joan Allen) is laughably cheesy and overblown, as are many of the other moments between this unlikely pair. What the hell was up with Dollarhyde taking Reba to feel up a tiger, anyway?
More damagingly, Mann’s stylization seems almost arbitrary at times, distracting from rather than contributing to the overall mood. If style and substance are inextricably intertwined in Thief, here Mann’s style is often reduced to a set of tics layered over the story. The periodic use of stuttery jump cuts is especially distracting, and seemingly unmotivated. These jump cuts turn the poorly staged final fight scene into a muddle of disconnected shots and unclear action. If there’s one thing we can usually count on in a Mann film, it’s compelling action, so this flubbed finale is particularly disappointing. Mann builds up to this climax with the great sequence of Reba stumbling around Dollarhyde’s home while the killer stalks her, blasting Iron Butterfly’s prog epic “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida,” which is actually used very well to lend an air of sinister theatricality to the scene. That all this build-up dissipates into such a lackluster fight scene indicates that Mann was still several years away from the masterful, large-scale battle scenes of The Last of the Mohicans and Heat.
Still, the film is interesting and compelling in other ways, and it ties in nicely with the development of Mann’s themes and characteristic heroes. Like Thief, this is at heart a film about family and the desire for family. Serial killer profiler Will Graham (William Petersen) is a family man, and his wife Molly (Kim Greist) and fair-haired son Kevin (David Seaman) appear in the opening scenes as a vision of happiness and contentment. Graham is a man who has forgotten his dark past and settled into a peaceful, idyllic existence by the seashore with his family. This idyll is disrupted when Graham learns of the serial killer nicknamed the Tooth Fairy, who is killing entire families. Graham is reluctant to return to his old job, but he does so primarily because he is disturbed by the killer’s destruction of happy families. The killer traces his prey through home movies, records of mundane happiness around the home, and Graham, following the killer without realizing it at first, grows acquainted with the victims through the same means.
As we’ve discussed, Mann’s characters thirst for a home life, for normality, for the pleasures of a pretty wife, children, a nice house: Comfort, security, safety, sexual fulfillment. Graham, unlike other Mann heroes, has these things, and wants to protect them. That’s why the worst thing the killer can do is target his family, and the worst thing that Hannibal Lecktor can do is give Dollarhyde Graham’s home address, essentially an invitation to tear apart that happy, attractive family. In this case, however, the family remains intact, and the film is framed by images of Graham’s seaside home. The film ends with an idealized shot of the family trio framed against the ocean, as the words “A Michael Mann Film” appear on the screen; it’s as though he’s claiming this family photo, this theme, for himself.
JB: At the least, Mann might be claiming that seaside view for himself. The dude loves his water shots, and in particular those shots from water’s edge that look out over a seemingly infinite ocean. The themes for Mann’s water shots vary somewhat, but this type of shot construction in particular tends to suggest promise and freedom in the view ahead and messiness and conflict behind. In Manhunter, Will leaves the peace and tranquility of his beachfront property to pursue the Tooth Fairy by attempting to enter his thoughts, so the return to the beach symbolizes that once again Will has liberated himself from the mind of a monster, and that he’s going as far away from the madness as possible. Heat, of course, uses a similar tableau in regard to De Niro’s Neil, who has an empty house looking out over the Pacific Ocean, suggesting not only Neil’s desire to “go away” from his life of crime, but also the vast uncertainty of that future. In The Insider, Jeffrey Wigand looks out over water while deciding whether or not to break his confidentiality agreement. In Collateral, Max keeps a postcard picture of an island on the backside of his visor as a way to find tranquility. And, of course, Miami Vice has water, water everywhere.
As for the stylization of the conclusion, it only takes watching the fourth part of Matt Zoller Seitz’s excellent series of video commentaries on Mann to see that the compositions and cuts are in no way arbitrary. Then again, thoughtful filmmaking isn’t the same thing as effective filmmaking, and so while Matt’s analysis enhanced my appreciation of Mann’s technique, it doesn’t necessarily alter my response to the film itself. Manhunter is so tied to the overly dramatic style of ‘80s MTV videos that I struggle to take it seriously. (There are at least three scenes in which Will, sitting alone, gets all worked up and begins shouting into the nothingness, cursing at the Tooth Fairy, and each of them is awkward.) It’s fitting, really, that the synthesizer was the iconic musical instrument of the era, because even the visuals of ‘80s music videos are somehow inorganic—a fusion of borrowed ideas and themes—and Mann’s film emulates them. Or maybe more accurately, those videos emulate Mann’s small-screen Miami Vice, and he completes the circle. In any case, Manhunter is a film that strikes me as from the ‘80s, of the ‘80s and, here’s the kicker, for the ‘80s. For whatever reason, it doesn’t translate.
Having made that argument, though, which is subjective to begin with, allow me to discredit it. I’m entirely aware that much of what I’m rejecting in Manhunter has nothing to do with Mann or the “What were they thinking!?” filmmaking conventions of the era. (Our current decade seems doomed to be remembered for its excessive and frequently pointless use of shakycam; fads rarely age with dignity.) Instead what I’m objecting to is the ‘80s itself, pure and simple. I mean, is it really fair to hold Mann responsible because the film-closing song “Heartbeat” by Red 7 hasn’t aged as well as The Graduate’s film-opening “The Sound of Silence,” or any of the other Simon & Garfunkel tunes that help make Mike Nichols’ film a classic more than 40 years later? At least in this case the ‘80s music is appropriate for its setting; This isn’t Jerry Goldsmith’s synthesized score for Hoosiers, which was hip in 1986 but seems wildly out of place now for a story set in the 1950s. Effectively there’s a degree to which I’m saying that I don’t like what the movie is about and therefore I don’t like the movie. Manhunter is soaked in the stench of the ‘80s. So I’m curious what you think: Is time the best judge of success? If so, is it fair or foul to conclude that Manhunter has a relatively short shelf-life mainly because its then-contemporary trends proved to have a short shelf-life?
EH: If you ask me, the possibility that your film won’t stand up in ten or twenty years is the price you pay for deciding to include the fads of the time as decorative flourishes. The best films are timeless and, to the extent that they incorporate the styles of the era in which they were made, they do so as part of the film’s milieu. It would be silly to criticize a film because the characters are dressed in ‘80s fashion, for example—‘80s French films by directors like Eric Rohmer and Jean-Luc Godard are filled with some now-hilarious couture, but it’s there because that’s what these people wore at that time, and as a result it’s not as distracting as Mann’s appropriation of upbeat synth-pop or his flashy MTV aesthetic strategies. It’s one thing for a film to reflect its time; that’s understandable and even desirable. It’s something else to get so caught up in “the now” that in five years your film seems more like a time capsule than a piece of art.
So while I recognize that certain things in Manhunter just haven’t aged well, it’s still hard not to pin some of the blame on Mann, who often seems susceptible to following hip trends. I like Chris Cornell much better than ‘80s synth-pop, but I wonder if in a couple of decades the Audioslave tracks in Miami Vice will seem as out-of-place as much of the music in Manhunter—certainly the Jay-Z/Linkin Park mashup is already embarrassing, as is Moby’s lame techno remix of a Patti LaBelle song. The point is, music is particularly subject to rapid dating and rapid shifts in style, so when your soundtrack is a collage of hot current tunes, you run the risk of being out of date in a few short years. Tangerine Dream’s synth score for Thief is still haunting and oddly beautiful, but the music in Manhunter hasn’t held up nearly as well.
There’s another sense in which Manhunter doesn’t work as well today as it might have upon release, and this too has more to do with forces outside of Mann’s control. In the years since this film’s release, the popularity of both the serial killer genre and the police procedural has rendered cliché many of the film’s narrative tropes. The killer and his pursuer as mirror image reflections of one another? Yawn. The killer who feels like an outcast because of a physical deformity and a lack of love in his childhood? Double yawn. Nowadays you can turn on Law & Order for comparable themes and ideas; doubtless the film seemed fresher back before Anthony Hopkins’ much more theatrical, over-the-top version of Hannibal Lecter captured the public imagination. Matt’s video essay about this film is typically erudite and insightful, but his intellectual responses to what’s happening in a scene can’t override my visceral response. He describes that shot of Dollarhyde as the villain breaking through the movie screen, an extension of Mann’s voyeurism theme, and he’s probably right, but all I can see is an awkward, goofy action movie cliché, poorly staged in stuttery slo-mo. The film is interesting and complex—not to mention memorably creepy (“do you see?”)—but it’s also kind of clunky and off-kilter.
JB: Yeah, that sounds about right. Indeed, the ubiquity of serial killer psychodramas and police procedurals must have dulled any edge Manhunter once had. On the other hand, Zodiac swooped in just a few years ago and, while borrowing from Manhunter (“Hurdy Gurdy Man” instead of “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida;” forensic examination of Zodiac messages replacing forensic examination of a Tooth Fairy message; etc.), managed to create something that I think will stand the test of time. Perhaps the lesson here is that it’s safer to recreate past eras than to try to portray the still evolving present. Perhaps Mann sensed that. And perhaps that’s what sent him all the way back to 1757 for the setting of his next film, The Last of the Mohicans.
As extraordinary a thematic leap as that seemed upon the film’s release in 1992, I find it even more remarkable in hindsight, now that Heat, Miami Vice and Public Enemies have proved that Mann was hardly over his love affair with the crime drama when he made this historical epic. Yet the most astonishing thing of all is how naturally Mann works within the genre. Sure, there are battles galore in The Last of the Mohicans, but if Mann had an urge to modernize the action in this picture, he resisted it. Mohicans is one of those films that feels vintage—in a good way—before you’re even through watching it.
Rather than force his visual aesthetic onto Mohicans, Mann made his mark in the dramatic themes: The loner hero; the object of affection who falls in love quickly and fully and brings salvation to the hero; the need of the hero to finish the fight; the largely tragic (though admittedly not completely tragic) conclusion. Mohicans has a few moments that make me cringe (that terribly goofy exchange about Hawkeye’s “reason to stay” at the fort), and it has moments that make me scratch my head (so Hawkeye was raised by Mohicans and got the same English schooling as his Mohican brother, and yet he’s the only one with an English accent? Huh?). Nevertheless, I consider this to be Mann’s third best picture. I’m a sucker for its epic romanticism and historical trappings. How about you?
EH: I can’t say I’m as enamored of this one as you are, but it’s an enjoyable film that, as you say, both feels like a Mann film (the tough, impenetrable protagonist with a makeshift family) and doesn’t feel like one (the historical setting with its relatively straightforward visual palette). Despite the uncharacteristic setting, Mann does still find a way to incorporate his signature striking images: The nighttime siege on Fort William Henry, with cannons bursting red and orange through drifting gunsmoke, is pure Mann, as abstract and dangerously beautiful as the showers of welding sparks in Thief. Moreover, the action sequences are as viscerally exciting as those in Heat. The fight where Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his family rescue Cora (Madeleine Stowe) and Alice (Jodhi May) from the Huron attack is potent and fierce, as is the later Huron attack on the surrendering, retreating British soldiers. In the hand-to-hand fight sequences, each bullet is felt as it rips through flesh, each tomahawk leaves its mark as it hits. Mann emphasizes the sickly thud of hard objects hitting soft flesh, and the battles are all the more effective for this emphasis on viscera. The film isn’t gory, really—other than Magua (Wes Studi) slicing open a man’s chest to eat his heart—but it’s also not the type of film where all the large-scale battles are chronicled from a remote distance. Mann prefers to get right in there, making us feel the violence rather than just see it.
I must admit, however, that despite the thrilling plot I have a hard time getting into the film on a deeper level. Mann’s characters often verge on the iconic, drawing on genre archetypes, but here I’m not sure he actually has much to add to these archetypes once he’s stripped them down. He’s dealing in some of the oldest Hollywood types and ideas, recycled from countless other Westerns: The “good” noble savage Indian versus the “bad” angry, vengeful Indian; the evil, slimy white men who betray their word; the hero who exists halfway between the white world and the Indian world; the independent woman who falls in love with the outcast instead of the safe, stable man she’s supposed to marry. This is admittedly little different from the way Mann resurrects noir icons in his other films, but guys like Frank and Neil have depth and individuality in a way that Hawkeye and the rest of these characters just don’t. They’re virtually stick figures propelling themselves through the action-packed plot, occasionally pausing long enough for Hawkeye to unleash one of his groaner lines, like the one you cite above or the stilted threat, “someday I think you and I are going to have a serious disagreement.” (Ooooh, you tell him, Hawkeye!) Mann apparently cut a lot of these lines out of his director’s cut, and with good reason, but ironically without them Hawkeye has even less personality.
The result is that the film feels like somewhat schematic Mann. His usual themes are there, albeit in new trappings, and purely as a narrative the film moves with a relentless, chugging pace; it’s great storytelling. Sometimes that’s enough. But I can’t help thinking that the film is hollow at its core, that it’s trying to force its themes and messages on us rather than really making us feel them through the characters and aesthetics. There are passages of bravura filmmaking here, to be sure, but the overall impression is of a solid action epic with generic (if well-acted) characters. So what am I missing?
JB: Um, nothing. Unless maybe you’re missing the point, or what I see as the point anyway. Your analysis of the film’s strengths and weaknesses is right on the money. However, I think this film works a little differently than the others. It’s true, for example, that Hawkeye lacks the depth of Frank and Neil, but it’s also true Mann doesn’t seem interested in providing him with such complexity. If it were another filmmaker, my conclusion might be that the writer/director didn’t care, or didn’t notice, or didn’t have the necessary skills to get the job done. But we know better. And so without meaning to imply that great filmmakers are flawless, and at the risk of sounding like an apologist, I think Mann is going for something else here.
The Last of the Mohicans isn’t a character examination like so many of his other films are (even if they don’t look like it at first glance). Instead it’s an ode to love and survival. It’s a romance, defined by the relationship between Hawkeye and Cora but extending to include what I see as a love letter from Mann to a time and place in which believing in survival and the future was a daily leap of faith. Thus it’s fitting that this is something of an opera—grand, passionate, tragic and, especially, musical. Though time hasn’t always been kind to his selections (see: Manhunter), Mann uses music as effectively and evocatively as any filmmaker ever has, and in that regard Mohicans might be his masterpiece. It isn’t just that the Randy Edelman/Trevor Jones score is magnificent, though it is; it’s that their magnificent score is essential. Truly, this film couldn’t succeed without its sweeping musical accompaniment.
Think of it this way: If one could turn down the often troublesome dialogue in this film and leave only the score, the sounds of battle (including those chilling Mohawk screams before the second ambush of the British) and the sounds of nature, would we miss anything? Maybe Hawkeye’s “I will find you” speech, which is the film’s Casablanca moment, but other than that, anything? More importantly, would we miss any of the meaning? Like opera, you don’t need to know the words to understand what’s being expressed. In that way the prop characters and archetypal narrative, which to some degree must be ascribed to James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 source material, are assets that liberate Mann. Hawkeye, Cora and Magua—you know them just to look at them. There’s nothing to explain, and thus the music provides the only words that count. As if to underline the point, Mann mutes the heroes’ screams of desperation in two of the film’s most gripping sequences: The aforementioned second ambush of the British, in which Hawkeye runs through the chaos to get to Cora, and the final desperate attempt to rescue Alice. The latter includes what for me is one of the most heart-wrenching moments in cinema history as Alice backs away from Magua: With the Edelman/Jones score at its emotional peak, Mann volleys between shots of Alice’s soft, gorgeous face, highlighted by beautiful but now hopeless eyes, and Magua’s visage of intensity and bloodlust that transforms into an expression of befuddlement and then one of utter indifference.
EH: What you’re getting at here is actually one of my favorite things about the film: Its often brilliant dialogue-free storytelling. The sequence you talk about with the attempted rescue of Alice is part of one of the film’s most breathtaking stretches, the climax and finale. After the verbal showdown with Magua in front of the Huron leader, the remainder of the film is largely visual, with hardly another word spoken until the final scene. The precision of Mann’s editing and filmmaking is stunning, especially during Alice’s suicide. She steps to the edge and Mann focuses on her face, as she first looks down for a long time, eyeing the fall ahead of her, thinking carefully, then looks up for a haunting closeup, her eyes filled with defiance and resignation. Mann inserts shots of Magua lowering his knife before he gestures to the girl, brusquely, just a wave of his fingers for her to come back to him; you can see he fully expects her to comply. And then she lets herself drop instead. The way Mann cuts back and forth between the two characters infuses each movement, each facial expression, with incredible import. The moment is stretched out by the editing so that the emotions and thought processes preceding Alice’s suicide are fully felt: Without a word, we understand what she’s thinking, feel her desperation, know why she’s doing it.
Mann follows this sequence with the survivors—Hawkeye, Cora, and Hawkeye’s adoptive Mohican father Chingachgook (Russell Means)—performing a kind of funeral ceremony on the edge of a cliff. Mann shoots the trio in profile, their faces nested within one another like Matryoshka dolls, the composition suggesting both that they’re united in grief, and that they’ve now formed a new, if smaller, family structure together. At its best, Mann’s filmmaking says so much without words, and the climax to Last of the Mohicans is undoubtedly an example of his best filmmaking. That the film is at other times comparatively impenetrable and generic is perhaps forgivable in light of the film’s many admirable sequences.
Of course, there’s no need to be so reserved about Mann’s next film, Heat, his return to the crime genre that kicked off his career, and arguably the most characteristic Mann film. If someone who was completely unfamiliar with Mann wanted to know what he was all about, this is the film to point them towards, the film that contains the essence of his cinema. It’s populated with some of his most memorable characters, two opposing groups of hard, dedicated men, each of them determined to do their jobs well, even if it means they lose everything. On one side, Mann places a gang of gifted crooks, led by Robert De Niro’s Neil McCauley, and on the other side are the cops who are trying to catch them, led by Al Pacino’s Vincent Hanna. It’s typical of Mann that he treats crime and crime-fighting as simply opposing professions; the film is a poetic exploration of the romance of the criminal and the attempt to balance hard work against the desire for family. It’s probably Mann’s richest, most fertile film, an epic in which every moment counts, every little detail adds to the cumulative effect of the whole.
JB: Heat is a classic. It’s Mann’s masterpiece. I don’t keep lists, but there’s no question that it’s one of the best American films made in my lifetime. This doesn’t mean it’s flawless. (The scene in which Vincent intimidates Hank Azaria’s Alan Marciano by screaming about the “great ass” of Ashley Judd’s Charlene Shiherlis—a rant that might as well be punctuated with a “Whoo-ah!”—is cringe-inducing from start to finish.) But Heat is sumptuous, powerful, visceral and lyrical. Best of all, it’s a film that keeps on giving. I must have seen Heat a dozen times by now, and each viewing is a little different, each viewing reveals something more, or speaks to me with different intonations. Earlier in this conversation I suggested that many of Mann’s films can entertain on both a surface action level and a deeper emotional level, and Heat provides the textbook example of that. It is oozing with the moods—pathos, gravitas, ecstasy—that Mann is always carefully constructing, and yet all of that can be so easily overlooked by the casual viewer given the intricacy, force and thrills of the movie’s crime caper, which is so well done that Heat might have been a classic genre flick even if those deeper emotional levels were removed.
Given how infrequently we see balls-to-the-wall action in anything outside of a prototypical action film, it would be so easy to suggest that Heat’s emotional resonance is subtext. But that would be a mistake; it’s the other way around. The movie’s bank heist turned O.K. Corral shootout in downtown Los Angeles is on the short list of the greatest action sequences ever filmed, and it’s one of Heat’s two most iconic moments (the other being the coffee shop scene that brought Pacino and De Niro “together” at last), and yet thematically it would be more appropriate to cut that epic action sequence than to take away Neil and Eady’s intimate conversation overlooking L.A.’s sea of lights. But all this would be hard to explain to that hypothetical Mann virgin that you mentioned earlier. As Nick James puts it in his BFI Modern Classics examination, Heat is a “slippery behemoth…to define.”
EH: You’re right about how expansive this film is. It’s not just long, it’s packed with detail, with subplots and themes and little moments that illuminate the characters and suggest connections between them. As you point out, its expansiveness isn’t without flaws, either, some of them related to Pacino, who plays the cop Vincent as one of his characteristic fire-breathing, bombastic tough guys. He’s not quite a self-parody yet, but he’s just about at the peak of where he could go with this cartoonish style without verging into self-parody. And there are times when he does slip seamlessly over that line, aided by Mann’s occasionally pulpish dialogue. But then, that’s part of the character, and of the film. If there’s one thing Heat is not, it’s understated. The film has moments where it approaches the moody meandering of Thief—like that conversation you mention between Neil and Eady, which has always seemed distractingly unreal to me, the actors very distinct from the background—but for the most part its tone is operatic and grand.
At least, the surface of the film is operatic. In fact, Mann is working on multiple levels here. There’s so much going on right on the surface of the film, in its big, broadly stated emotions and themes—not to mention its action—that the subtler undercurrents can sometimes slip right by those who get stuck on the surface. A good example is the way Mann develops the parallels between Neil and Vincent, who exist as mirror images of one another, both driven professionals who have sacrificed the stability of a home life for their careers. The two men actually meet face to face only twice in the film, once in the famous coffee shop scene you mention, and again at the end of the film. But I’m more interested in two scenes that precede either of these meetings, scenes in which Mann emphasizes the connection between these men without even placing them in the same space.
The first of these scenes takes place during the failed platinum robbery, when Neil steps outside as a lookout and hears a noise from across the street, where Vincent and his men are hiding. Mann cuts back and forth between the two men in 180-degree reaction shots, as though they were together in the same room, face to face. The shots progressively focus more and more on their eyes, and this sequence creates the illusion that they are staring one another down, even though Neil cannot see Vincent and Vincent sees only a blue-tinted night-vision image of his adversary. This dynamic is then reversed for the sequence where Neil cleverly gets the cops to expose themselves at a shipping yard, while he hides high above them snapping pictures. In addition to neatly mirroring the earlier scene, this scene places the robber Neil in the cop’s role, as an investigator, gathering information about his opposite number. In effect, before Neil and Vincent actually meet, they have studied one another with voyeuristic intensity, taking turns as voyeur and subject, as hunter and prey. They’ve each gotten one over on the other, each been able to observe the other from hiding. The formalist structure of Mann’s filmmaking essentially defines the struggle between Vincent and Neil, exploring the reversals of power and control between cop and robber.
JB: You hit the nail on the head when you say that Neil and Vincent behold one another with “voyeuristic intensity.” The mirroring of those rival characters is evoked so lucidly by Mann, and has been discussed so frequently by Heat aficionados, that I’d feel foolish going into too much detail about it. Nevertheless, Neil and Vincent are indeed soul mates—two devout loners who understand one another in a way that no one else could, who are brought together precisely because of the strict adherence to their principles that keeps everyone else away. (They’d remain loners if not for the adversarial nature of their professions, which puts their otherwise parallel lives on a collision course.) The voyeuristic element of their relationship applies most obviously to the way that Neil and Vincent admire one another’s excellence, which is a strange way of actually admiring their own brilliance. They see in one another a worthy foe (at last!), and it titillates them (particularly Vincent, who at one point is said to have a “hard-on” for Neil). But the voyeuristic nature of their relationship doesn’t end there, because what’s seldom mentioned is that Neil and Vincent each have something that the other one covets. In the coffee shop scene, Neil pokes holes in the notion that Vincent could afford to have a family life and still succeed in his profession, and yet it’s clear that Neil longs for a chance to take his timecard and punch out, to not have to be “on” all the time. Likewise, Vincent, who finds his deteriorating relationship with his wife (Diane Venora’s Justine) and his affection for his stepdaughter (Natalie Portman’s Lauren) to be burdensome, wishes he had the fortitude to follow Neil’s strict code of loner conduct. He calls Neil’s life “vacant,” but at the same time Vincent admits that chasing crooks isn’t just the only life he knows, it’s the only life he wants to know.
While we’re here, it’s important to note that Mann’s mirroring shot construction does more than just establish Neil and Vincent’s similarities. It also evokes their isolation. Truthfully, in terms of the cinematography informing the movie’s themes, I think it’s this latter quality that a viewer feels most powerfully the first time watching Heat. Given that Mann had the juicy opportunity to give De Niro and Pacino their inaugural big-screen pairing, it must have taken tremendous will power on his part to refrain from using a traditional two-shot during the now famous coffee shop scene, instead always shooting over the shoulder of one of the actors and into the face of the other, but the result is genius. By never quite showing Neil and Vincent “together,” Mann further illustrates their isolation, boldly underlining that even though their conversation may provide a moment of bonding, they are still wary, hesitant and ultimately incapable of letting anyone else in, even someone they so intimately understand. By avoiding the two-shot, Mann allows the characters to maintain a safe distance from one another, as if the table between them is an endless abyss. It’s tremendous filmmaking—sharp, efficient and suggestive. Best of all, it doesn’t beg for attention. The same could be said of the eventual payoff when De Niro and Pacino do get to share the same screen, in that memorable conclusion when Neil’s life is lost and, hand-in-hand, with no more need for defenses, two becomes one.
EH: Yes, Mann’s restraint in exploring this central relationship, and exploiting the titanic match-up of his famous leads, is very admirable. He has the confidence to simply suggest things that other directors would doubtless tell us outright. The precision of his filmmaking allows him to explore themes and ideas that hardly ever bubble up to the surface of his dialogue. Instead, the accumulation of small details tells us a lot about the characters and their lives. You mention how Neil wishes he could “punch out” at the end of the day, a fine insight into his character. Mann visualizes this concept with the shots of Vincent and Neil taking off their guns and placing them on a table when they come home from work (or, I suppose, “work” in Neil’s case). This shot recurs several times, and in one iteration Mann shoots from an angle where the gun is emphasized in the foreground as Neil recedes into the background, walking away from the camera. For Vincent, moments like this symbolize a real break from his work; he does periodically get to put down his gun and become a husband and father instead, even if he’s not very good at either of those roles. Neil, in contrast, only wishes that he was putting down his gun to pick up another role for a change. His apartment is nice but empty, nearly devoid of furniture, and when he places his gun down all he has to do is stare out the window. If he’s not working, he’s only returning to an empty home, to his isolation and loneliness; Vincent at least has the illusion of a family life.
Mann is frequently able to draw out nuanced emotions from his formalist and symbolic filmmaking, using these meticulous parallels in his editing and compositions to explore the ways in which the characters relate to one another. There’s a great scene late in the film when Chris (Val Kilmer) goes to see his wife Charlene, to pick her up after the bank robbery goes wrong. She’s with the cops, having grudgingly betrayed her husband, and when he shows up outside she’s supposed to walk out onto the balcony of the apartment, to show him she’s there. Again, Mann repeatedly cuts in 180-degree countershots between Chris and Charlene, her up above on the balcony, him below getting out of his car. Mann cuts between his smiling face, a broad grin spreading as he sees her, and her stoic, distanced expression. It’s a subtle, insignificant gesture that alerts Chris to her betrayal, a simple movement of her finger, which Mann captures in closeup. We see her hand, her finger moving slightly, and Mann makes sure her wedding ring is emphasized as well—as a result, we understand not only that she’s warning him off, but why she’s changed her mind, that she still has some lingering feelings of love and loyalty for her husband. It’s another scene where Mann’s habit of shot/reaction shot cutting unites two somewhat distant figures, making it seem as though they’re looking at one another face to face. But as you say about the coffee shop sequence, it also keeps them separate, each in their own space, about to be parted for good when Chris takes Charlene’s warning and disappears from her life and from the film.
JB: The goodbye between Chris and Charlene is one of those subtle, nuance-filled moments that seem ripe for reexamination each time. Chris is the one character in the film, save Portman’s Lauren, I suppose, whose future is unpredictable, and I’ve always loved his expression after Charlene gives him the wave-off: It’s one of heartbreak, sure, and also one of fear. Kilmer handles it nicely. The role of Chris isn’t so meaty that one can easily rave about Kilmer’s performance, but it would be hard to argue that Kilmer’s ever been better. (Nick James suggests the epic gunfight “may be Val Kilmer’s finest hour in the cinema. He has never looked so at ease as he is here, blazing away with a sub-machine-gun.” He’s right.) Kilmer gives exactly what’s required of him. The same goes for Tom Sizemore, whose unique blend of affability and psychosis makes him the perfect Michael Cheritto, the loyal friend who is also a little desperate. The same goes for Dennis Haysbert as Donald Breedan, the guy newly out of prison and trying to stay straight, who in just a few scenes makes Donald so endearing that we regard his involvement in the bank heist as a tragedy even before he loses his life. The same goes for Waingro portrayer Kevin Gage, who makes the usually suicidal decision to play his character as an outright sociopath but manages to avoid slipping into camp. In more peripheral roles there’s Mykelti Williamson as Sergeant Drucker (a competent No. 2 to Vincent in an era when black characters only wore badges if they emulated Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop), there’s Wes Studi as Detective Casalas (still one of the few Native American characters in a mainstream American film who isn’t a loincloth-wearer, a mystic or a drunk) and there’s Danny Trejo as Trejo (a Hispanic character who sells out his partners but nevertheless retains his honor). And I haven’t even mentioned the women.
On the whole, Heat offers the most complex and heartfelt, if still only partially developed, female characters of Mann’s oeuvre. Portman, as Lauren, provides a generally forgettable performance in her embodiment of a character made memorable by her fate, while Kim Staunton, as Donald’s girlfriend Lillian, delivers the best performance in the film that no one ever talks about. Ashley Judd, meanwhile, ensures that Charlene’s ass lives up to its reputation; she’s good at that. But mostly the film is dominated by Amy Brenneman’s Eady and Diane Venora’s Justine, the respective love interests of Neil and Vincent who come to see the illusory nature of their relationships in dramatically different ways. Brenneman’s performance is my favorite of the two because her Eady is so absolutely normal, which makes her something of an alien. The right woman for Neil? Well, of course it’s the quiet bookstore employee and artist who is new in town; the kind of girl who is so drawn to Neil’s unblinking interest that ultimately she doesn’t hear a difference between “I’m a salesman” and “I take scores.” Soft and unassuming, Eady has no business being in this film, which is precisely why her presence in it is so brilliant. Earlier, you mentioned the “distracting” unreality of the scene in which Neil and Eady fall in love over a city of light, and you’re right, but that’s what I cherish about it. It’s dreamlike. The surrealism of the composition reflects how when any two people fall in love, they feel like characters at the center of a cinematic romance. In the first blush of passion, even these two loners get to be Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, if only for one night.
EH: I agree with you about Brenneman, who delivers one of the film’s most quietly compelling performances. Her relationship with Neil seems so unlikely, and yet the way it plays out on screen is entirely natural and fluid, even during that glistening, unreal scene on Neil’s balcony. But as you point out, she’s only one among a huge cast of great actors. It’s really impressive how well-cast Mann’s films have always been. I can think of no more than a few performances in his entire oeuvre that hit very many wrong notes, and that’s including even smaller incidental roles. Part of this may be due to the fact that he’s developed a bit of a stock company, or at least a preference for reusing actors he likes. This is true not just for big parts—Pacino, Diane Venora, Jamie Foxx—but for character actors and bit players like Wes Studi as well. Watching all of Mann’s films in a condensed period accentuates this practice, turning some of his later films into a game of Spot the Character Actor: “Hey, that’s the guy who played the Southern lawyer in The Insider!” (That would be Bruce McGill, who also appears in Ali and Collateral, and who Mann presumably met when McGill was on lone episodes of his TV series Crime Story and Miami Vice.) The jowly, soulful Barry Shabaka Henley is another particularly recognizable presence throughout Mann’s latest films, but there are countless other examples. If an actor appears in one Mann film, in whatever capacity, there’s a very good chance he or she will reappear in another.
But I don’t think the relative stability of Mann’s acting pool alone accounts for the quality of the performances he so consistently gets. Whether he’s casting a lead or a character with just a few lines, he always seems attuned to every detail, to getting everything right about the character and the performance. As a result, the characters in a Mann film always seem to have lives beyond the immediate scope of the story; rarely is a Mann film burdened with a character who’s only a plot device (though Lauren arguably fulfills that function in Heat). Even a completely inconsequential character like Cheritto’s wife (Amanda Graves) can have a moment of startling clarity, like the scene where she watches a news report of the bank robbery on TV, and Mann simply frames her hand in the foreground, holding a tin can, with the TV in the background reporting her husband’s death. Domesticity and tragedy collide within the frame, and the grief of a character we hardly know is suddenly crystallized. There are other times when Mann’s small touches aren’t nearly so important or affecting but nevertheless hit us with shards of insight into the characters and situations. This time around, I got a kick out of William Fichtner’s days-old stubble after he’d been hiding out from Neil for a while; that office looks lived-in and Fichtner’s crooked businessman Van Zant looks appropriately frazzled. Of course, there are also the two dinner scenes—more mirroring between cops and robbers—where an accumulation of details increasingly isolates Vincent and Neil from their respective friends. As the other men tell jokes, flirt with their women, bullshit and laugh, the two leads subtly draw back. Nobody’s talking shop, and one senses that’s all these guys know how to do.
JB: That’s right. Those dinner scenes mark moments in which Neil and Vincent cannot ignore their detachment. As much as they might pride themselves on their commitment and focus, there is, as Neil would say, a flipside to that coin. As for Mann’s characters in general, I agree with you that they seem to have lives extending beyond the scope of the story, which is attributable to Mann’s writing, his expert casting and, I think, his tough-to-match talent for throwing us into a story, as he does with the full-throttle heist at the start of Heat, so that we feel we’re being dropped into an already moving drama without a clue about which way the current will take us. Mann’s characters, at their best, feel intoxicatingly real to me, perhaps because they tend to be driven by their emotions rather than a screenwriter’s plot points. And yet, in addition to being archetypal at times, Mann’s characters are often noticeably unreal, too. For all his attention to detail, Mann allows his characters to say some awfully goofy things. (Insert Miami Vice mojitos joke here.) Mann’s tough guys, especially, talk like, well, like movie tough guys, exhibiting a kind of verbal swagger while saying things they have no business saying, as Neil does when he tells Eady about iridescent algae in Fiji. Mann’s dialogue isn’t overtly stylized in the way of Quentin Tarantino, but when you hear a Mann line, you know it. At least once per film a character will say something that will sound like laughable melodrama, poetic genius or something in between—a non sequitur.
I know that Mann-speak turns off some audiences, but I’m rather fond of it. I like its sharpshooter’s efficiency (“I do what I do best. I take scores.”), and I forgive its moments of excess (“I’m a needle going back to zero—a double blank.”). Heat is the film that shows just how powerful Mann’s dialogue can be. Consider the coffee shop scene (“You see me doing thrill-seeker liquor store holdups with a ’Born to Lose’ tattoo on my chest?”), Neil’s menacing call to Van Zant (“I’m talking to an empty telephone.”), or Chris’ summation of his feelings for Charlene (“For me the sun rises and sets with her, man.”). And then consider this: Heat possesses one line that is the key to unlocking nearly every lead character in Mann’s oeuvre, save The Last of the Mohicans’ Hawkeye and Collateral’s Max. The line comes when Neil and his partners discover that they are under F.B.I. surveillance. The bank job has yet to be pulled and while the reward would be high, now the risk might be even higher. Neil goes in order asking his partners if they’re in or out. No one backs down, not even Michael Cheritto, who Neil encourages to walk away. Says an otherwise indifferent Cheritto: “For me, the action is the juice.” So I ask you, is there a better way to sum up the compulsions of a Mann lead, or even a Mann film, than that line?
EH: That’s definitely a great line, and a great summation of what makes Mann’s characters tick. You’re right that with Mann, the excesses of his style can be both powerful and goofy, endearing and aggravating. I’ve always liked Neil’s strange “needle going back to zero” monologue, which is like something you’d hear in the voiceover of an old noir—I can picture it coming out of the mouth of the loner anti-hero in Edgar G. Ulmer’s super-low-budget Detour, for example. But then there are other moments where the florid dialogue is distracting, like when Diane Venora tells Pacino that he’s “sifting through detritus” as part of a lengthy and overwritten speech that she has obvious trouble getting out. It’s weird how Mann can be so naturalistic and yet also so pulpy and stylized, sometimes even within a single scene. By the same token, while the characters in Heat live and breathe far beyond the confines of the plot, in some of his other work (Miami Vice, especially) the characters tend more towards archetypes (or, less generously, stereotypes), cardboard genre constructs inserted mechanically into the narrative structure.
These contradictory impulses extend to Mann’s treatment of violence and machismo, as well. As we suggested in relation to Public Enemies, Mann is interested in the romanticization of the violent outlaw—in building him up, and in simultaneously deconstructing that image. Morally, the film tries to have it both ways at various points. The script goes out of its way to make excuses for Neil, to make it clear that people are killed at the first armored car robbery only because of the itchy trigger finger of Waingro. Moreover, Waingro is later revealed as a total sociopath who’s also responsible for a string of serial murders, a subplot with little narrative rationale other than as a way of further redeeming Neil and his crew by contrast. The robbers are portrayed as reasonable, honorable outlaws—they only kill if they absolutely have to, and they’d prefer not to. But then there’s the epic shootout in the streets after the bank robbery goes south, and the outlaws are revealed as perhaps not so honorable after all. They kill in cold blood, they don’t care about the carnage they cause (which is really over-the-top—Mann’s realistic impulses all but disappear once the shooting starts), and Cheritto even grabs a little girl as a hostage, scooping her up in his arms as he runs, using her as a shield to prevent the cops from firing on him. It’s a clearly deconstructive moment, a horrifying act meant to make the audience question its sympathies, question why they’d been rooting for the robbers before this point.
But any serious questioning makes it clear that we were rooting for the robbers because of Mann, both because the robbers are generally more complex and well-developed than the more generic cop characters (Pacino’s Vincent excepted), and because he staged the robberies in a way calculated to make us root for the robbers. Mann knows that audiences like to see complex, well-executed plans play out on screen. At the heart of the heist genre is this desire to see tough, professional men executing a brilliant crime (Rififi comes to mind again). So maybe the genre is morally ambiguous in its essence, and Mann only highlights this ambiguity more than most. In any event, the reverberations of Cheritto’s hostage-taking don’t extend very far, particularly not to Neil, who maintains his quiet self-righteousness, and who is especially lionized in the film’s long denouement, when he becomes an agent of vengeance, killing first the slimy Van Zant and then the psychopathic Waingro. Let me be clear, if I haven’t been already, that I think Heat is a truly great film. But at the same time I feel like Mann’s engaging in a bit of a moral shell game in regards to the violence and the audience’s allegiances for various characters. What do you think? Is the film simply morally ambiguous in the way it portrays the robbers, or is Mann allowing his audience to enjoy the hyperbolic violence while sidestepping its moral implications?
JB: Oh, there’s no question that Mann emotionally aligns us with the criminals, and especially with Neil. It’s no accident that during the bank heist it’s Neil who explains to the customers that he’s coming for the bank’s money, not their money. Beyond that, much of Neil’s misbehavior has a built-in excuse: He OKs the killing of the cop, but only because Waingro fucks up, and for that Neil tries to kill Waingro; he punches the bank manager and says, “Let it bleed,” but only after the manager stalls; he isn’t mindful of innocent civilians during the shootout, but at that point he’s been backed into a corner and his life is on the line. Speaking of the shootout, had Mann spliced in some shots of bystanders getting their brains blown out, rather than just showing police car windows being shattered, I could more easily argue that he’s actively critical of these criminals. Instead, all I can do is point out that Mann doesn’t suggest Neil is some kind of Robin Hood hero of the common man, as John Dillinger is portrayed in Public Enemies. Mann leaves no doubt, none, that Neil is only out for himself and that he will stop at nothing to protect his interests. As Muhammad Ali would say, Neil is baaaaaaad, man. But he’s also a badass. De Niro makes sure of that.
The allure of Neil and his crew can be traced back to their expertise, professionalism, strange ethics and swagger, but we can’t minimize the “one last job” aspect. Because he is so efficient at everything else, we believe that Neil will hold true to the clean and simple life he has planned with Eady, if only he can get there. We root for that. In a strange way, a successful bank heist will redeem Neil. It’s a complicated scenario. And so perhaps the best way to understand Mann’s portrayal of these criminals is to ask ourselves how we feel about the guy trying to catch them. Vincent isn’t vilified. Not by a long shot. We don’t root for his death or his defeat. But we do hope, I think, that Vincent will get there a little too late, that his aim won’t be true, that somehow Neil can get away. And yet when Donald Breedan is killed and Cheritto goes down and then Vincent guns down Neil without hesitation, we know the tragedy isn’t that these guys were caught but that they ever needed to be chased. That would suggest to me that, underneath it all, the moral message is appropriate and clear.
EH: You make a good point about the lack of civilian casualties during that shootout. My main qualm about that sequence is that, despite the massive destruction of property and what must be thousands of high-caliber rounds flying through the air, it’s all relatively bloodless and clean. I mean, at one point Vincent and Neil are firing at one another through a crowd of people, with Vincent scrambling to get the bystanders out of the way, and still all the bullets seem to be hitting buildings and cars. Neil must be a really lousy shot despite his badass ’tude. Throughout the whole long shootout, Mann mostly just shows glass breaking and pumps up the volume on the gunshots. It makes it very easy to enjoy the sequence as visceral action, and to mourn the dead robbers, but it discourages a more critical perspective on the violence depicted in the film. I think you’re right, though, about Neil’s motivations and the audience’s belief in his “one last job” dreams; all of these layers do complicate things. As you suggest, Neil is a much more ambiguous figure than Dillinger, even though Dillinger all but quotes Neil’s line about being after the bank’s money, not the people’s. Public Enemies indicates that Mann isn’t done with his love for the romantic criminal anti-hero, though that film is less nuanced in its portrayal of the bank robber as a romantic idol.
Still, as The Last of the Mohicans had already proved, Mann is hardly only capable of crafting epic mood pieces about criminals and the men who chase them. His next two films, The Insider and Ali, would on the surface seem to be more mainstream, less personal projects for the director. Both films were co-written with Forrest Gump scribe Eric Roth, who has a distinct sensibility from Mann, to say the least, and both films engage with more traditional Hollywood genre forms, moving away from the B-movies, heist pictures and thrillers that inspired most of Mann’s previous work. Instead, The Insider is a “based on a true story” drama, occasionally flirting with becoming a thriller but never quite getting there, while Ali is a celebrity biopic, a form beloved in Hollywood but not one where you often see first-class auteurs making their mark. I think it’s apparent that Mann takes these big subjects and “prestige” formats and makes them his own. He’s not always successful, and I wouldn’t place either of these films among his best, but they certainly feel like Mann films. He’s still exploring his signature themes—especially, in both these films, the ways in which men must try to balance the responsibilities of work and family—and he’s as visually acute as ever.
The Insider is the story of Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a former tobacco industry scientist who’s been fired from his job. He is slowly coaxed by 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) into telling his story in an interview for the TV show, in the process revealing some key information about what tobacco industry executives know about nicotine addiction. This is potentially dry material, especially since much of the film’s drama is internal, centered on mental states and thought processes rather than tangible action. But Mann’s filmmaking ably probes Wigand’s introspective dilemma, capturing not only the details of the real story but the churning emotions underlying the drama.
JB: I agree with just about everything you said above, except for your assessment of The Insider’s place in the hierarchy of Mann’s work. For me, this is his second best film by far. I have no doubts about that. The only film it doesn’t top is Heat. And yet while Heat is a film that lends itself to lengthy discussion and analysis, The Insider’s power is more elusive, harder to articulate. Ballpark, I’d say I’ve seen this film six times, and—this is absolutely true—each time I see The Insider it’s better than I remembered it. More compelling. More heart wrenching. More profound. In fact, maybe I’m just now coming to grips with how much I admire it. Perhaps in the past I have doubted my assessment of its greatness because it doesn’t linger in memory like Heat. It’s not iconic. There are no milestone coffee shop scenes or exhilarating action set pieces. The Insider doesn’t swim in Mann’s surrealistic color palettes or contain instantly unforgettable dialogue. And, though finely acted, The Insider doesn’t have an outrageous performance teetering on the edge of plausibility like Thief, Manhunter, Heat, Collateral or Miami Vice. (Seriously: when’s the last time you’ve seen Pacino this restrained?) The Insider doesn’t lend itself well to AFI retrospectives, and it might have the fewest signature moments of any Mann film. Its greatness is collective, and thus a little deceptive.
As you suggest, The Insider’s plot threatens to make it dry as a bone. So many of the conversations are about science or legal red tape, and the closest Mann gets to a gunfight is when someone attempts to intimidate Jeffrey Wigand by leaving a bullet in his mailbox. But darn it if The Insider isn’t explosive anyway. To me, this is the film that demonstrates that Mann’s work is psychological before it is physical (too often people get lost in the robustness of Mann’s physical drama and lose sight of why it’s there). Just look at the star: Russell Crowe, wearing a gut, a pair of hardly-hip glasses and a mostly blank expression. In another Mann film, Crowe could play that arresting tough guy. Here, he goes inward.
Mann’s lead characters are usually the best at something (thievery, criminal profiling, marksmanship, boxing, assassination, whatever), but Jeffrey is closer to a Hitchcockian everyman. As Pacino’s Lowell sums up nicely: Jeffrey is an ordinary person under extraordinary pressure. On the other hand, Jeffrey does fit the profile of a quintessential Mann character in other ways, the most significant of which is that he’s willing to sacrifice everything he has in order to protect his own moral code. In almost any other movie about this subject, Jeffrey would be absolutely and unequivocally lionized. He’d be the little man who dared to stand up and take on the big corporations. In short, he’d be Erin Brockovich. But, not surprisingly, Mann’s depiction is more complicated. Jeffrey doesn’t choose to act so much as he is compelled to act. He has praiseworthy ethics, yes, but he is a slave to them. There are times when we can sense that if Jeffrey were capable of backing down and giving in, that’s what he’d choose to do. But he can’t. It’s not an option for him. Thus he carries on because he must, and because, like Heat’s Neil, Jeffrey can’t stand to be fucked with.
EH: Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a fine film, too. Also, I agree with you while coming from the opposite direction: I like the film, and can’t point to much concrete about it that I don’t like, but still wouldn’t really place it in the upper echelon of Mann’s work. Its greatness does seem to be ephemeral, in that while I’m watching it I’m compelled, wrapped up in the remarkable performances (another across-the-board stellar cast from Mann) and the immersive filmmaking. Afterwards, though, it tends to slip from the mind, not making any lasting impact. When it first came out, I saw it as part of an illicit sneaking-from-one-theater-to-the-next double feature with Fight Club, so I’m sure you can guess which film I remembered better. I thought my more restrained reaction to The Insider was just due to the context, that maybe it had been unfairly overshadowed, but upon revisiting it in isolation, I find it’s just as slippery, just as prone to waft away completely once I take my eyes off the screen.
Still, there’s much to admire. It’s easy to praise the performances, including both Crowe and Pacino at their most subtle and low-key, but what I really like about the film is the formal precision Mann brings to it. The insistent, probing camera captures the nuances of the performances by shoving the lens in the actors’ faces. This is a film that relies on the extreme closeup—shots of profound, nearly uncomfortable intimacy. The first time we see Jeffrey, the camera is trailing right behind his head as he walks out of his office after being fired—we see only his ear and the frame of his glasses sticking out from around the side of his face. Mann returns again and again to closeups that highlight the eyes, playing with foreground and focus, setting off a character’s enlarged profile against the blurred faces of the other people in the room, occasionally racking the focus to bring one of these other people into the image more clearly.
This especially happens with Crowe, who spends much of the film in these uncomfortably close shots. It is his decision that is at the center of the movie, his thought process, and thus Mann is constantly looking directly into his eyes, placing his face right up against the surface of the image. At one point, when two lawyers are laying out for Jeffrey what could happen if he testifies—going to jail is a possibility—Mann places Jeffrey’s face in the right corner of the frame, in closeup, his eyes peering out at the audience, as though involving them in his decision-making, inviting them to read his thoughts. It’s this intimacy with the camera that allows Crowe to underplay the externality of his character’s dilemma. We have, or feel we have, such access to his inner turmoil merely by the proximity of the camera, its habit of staring soulfully into his eyes, that we don’t need showy acting to convey what he’s thinking.
JB: Indeed, both the acting and the camerawork are understated and yet effective. Visually speaking, The Insider’s only significant flourish comes when Mann borrows from Vertigo for the scene in which a mural on Jeffrey’s hotel room wall morphs into images of his daughters playing in the garden. Beyond that, as you said, the film spends most of its time volleying closeups—not because Mann didn’t know what else to do but because that’s where the action is, so to speak. It’s fitting, then, that one of my favorite bits of filmmaking in The Insider is entirely unspectacular at first glance. It happens when Jeffrey’s 60 Minutes segment is finally aired in its totality. Lowell, returning from a business trip, is sitting in an airport, and Mann cuts away from him to show others in the area glancing up at the TV screen: An airport employee emptying trashcans, a woman braiding a child’s hair, a mother trying to ignore the hyper child gyrating in the next seat. These shots establish what Mann essentially failed to do in that famed shootout in Heat: they show the effect of the plot’s core action on the larger world.
Or should I say lack of effect? The other reason that scene is powerful is because it makes a statement about America’s relationship with “news.” For Jeffrey and Lowell, the airing of the original segment on 60 Minutes is a (Pyrrhic) victory after a long and costly ordeal. Alas, to almost everyone else the news segment is just that moment’s distraction. Jeffrey Wigand has lost a career, a marriage, a home and a sense of peace, all in the name of doing what’s right for the benefit of the common man. The common man’s response is to consume the product, and move on. Jeffrey sacrifices everything he’s ever worked for so that Americans can have 15 minutes of entertainment. A few scenes later, when Lowell makes it home and climbs into bed with his wife, she says of the segment, “You won.” “Yeah,” Lowell replies. “What did I win?” The Insider makes it crystal clear that doing what’s right takes the same amount of determination as it takes to break into a safe or rob a bank. And it’s just as risky.
All of that said, I agree with you that The Insider tends to slip from the mind. I find that Manhunter’s flaws have greater staying power than any of The Insider’s many successes. So if creating a lasting impact is a prerequisite for greatness, well, maybe The Insider doesn’t qualify. Or perhaps it belongs in another category as one of the few great films of all time to lack anything that could stand out as one of the greatest scenes of all time.
EH: Like you, I appreciated those scenes toward the end of the film that show the public reacting to Jeffrey’s supposedly earthshaking revelations with, basically, a shrug. The film doesn’t suggest this, but maybe Wigand and Lowell’s really crucial mistake was underestimating how cynical Americans have become, by supposing that anyone would be all that shaken or shocked by the idea that tobacco executives don’t have people’s best interests at heart. (Gasp!) Mann does push the point a little far, though, by condensing the timeline so it seems like the Unabomber was arrested the next day, when in fact it was two months later—it makes for a dramatic encapsulation of the on-to-the-next-thing news cycle, but even before I knew it wasn’t true, it seemed like a rather pat irony.
That dreamlike sequence you mention, where Jeffrey’s reality melts away into a memory of his daughters playing, is especially interesting in the context of this film. Its casual surrealism is all the more effective and destabilizing in a film that is otherwise so resolutely grounded in reality. The power of that scene makes me think that, while leaving a visceral impression may not be a prerequisite for a great film in general, it might be a good criterion for a great Mann film. His best films leave behind an aura in our memory long after we’ve seen them. I’d wager that even if you haven’t seen Thief lately, you’ll remember the showers of sparks during the heist sequences; even if you haven’t seen Heat lately you’ll remember the loneliness of the blue-lit scenes in Neil’s empty apartment; even if you haven’t seen Collateral lately you’ll remember the sweeping helicopter shots of a nighttime Los Angeles. The Insider largely does not linger in the same way, which may mean it’s an uncharacteristic triumph for its director, or may mean that he’s not working to his strengths.
Either way, his next film, the biopic Ali, is a return to more familiar Mann territory, stylistically speaking, even as it engages with an unfamiliar genre. It’s a surprisingly scrappy, soulful film, more concerned with capturing the mood of the time, the feel of being around Muhammad Ali, rather than ticking off the events of his life on a scorecard, the way the usual biopic does. The first fifteen minutes or so, set to a medley of Sam Cooke songs, are especially dense, exciting and inventive, an associative time-jumping collage of memories, impressions, set-up and small character moments, bringing to mind the patchwork structure of Peter Watkins’ sublime Edvard Munch. This radical breaking down of timeline and narrative drive communicates the essence of the film’s themes. Mann is making a statement, suggesting that this is going to be a film about a place and a time as much as about a man, about the attitudes and ideas surrounding Ali rather than about Ali’s actions themselves. The iconic Ali of history doesn’t appear until later, when this montage has subsided, and the dancing, darting, weaving and rhyming Ali of legend finally shows up, tossing off the famous “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” line amidst a barrage of similar couplets. The result is electric: After the lengthy and evocative introduction, we’ve been transported back to this era, and then Will Smith’s Ali bursts out in top form, fleet-footed and motor-mouthed, his persona every bit as energetic and invigorating as Mann’s filmmaking.
JB: That’s exactly right. And I’d take it even further. Yes, the Sam Cooke medley sequence introduces us to Ali in a manner that’s less explicit than most biopics but also more redolent. We hear Cooke and we watch Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, peppering a speed bag, lost in a dreamlike trance, his thoughts disjointed but vibrant. We see a young Clay’s confusion over his father’s reverence for a white Jesus Christ and we understand how Ali came to be Muslim; we see a young Clay’s reaction to a newspaper photograph of a lynching and we understand how Ali came to grasp racism; we see a not-so-young Clay listening to Malcolm X and we understand where Ali learned what it means to stand up and fight for what you believe in. All this makes for a compelling opening sequence, which is typical of Mann. But while the medley ends with Ali’s energetic “float like a butterfly” entrance, Mann’s opening act won’t take a breath for fifteen more minutes, up to and through the fight with Sonny Liston. Truly, Ali begins and thirty minutes go by before it falls into anything resembling a conventional narrative pattern.
The first Liston encounter is a piece of artwork in and of itself. In fact, all of the fights in Ali make for some of the best boxing footage ever captured in American cinema (and, yes, that’s including the touted Raging Bull). Mann takes his time in the ring, which is essential because Ali’s biggest fights were tests of endurance. In the background we occasionally hear the familiar sports film play-by-play narration, in part to keep Howard Cosell (Jon Voight) involved, but just as often Mann breaks out of the sports genre mold and lets the action stand for itself. Case in point is the moment midway through the Liston fight when, as Ali has always alleged, Liston’s gloves are doctored with a substance that blinded Ali for several rounds. Mann’s handling of this legendary sports moment is appropriate: Between rounds Liston mumbles something to his corner man who appears to do something to Liston’s gloves; exactly what, we don’t know, because the corner man’s body is in the way, ensuring that the glove doctoring episode remains the unconfirmed mystery it remains today. Then we see the effect on Ali, when he finds his eyes filling with tears. A lesser director would have made all of this more explicit. Mann makes it an anecdote for those in the know and for those paying attention.
Whether Mann is a fan of boxing, I have no idea. But certainly the fight scenes in Ali are shot for the serious boxing fan. Perhaps never before has a film captured the grace and strategy of boxing, rather than just its brutality, which demonstrates yet again that Mann’s machismo reputation is a bit overstated. Having said that, however, the excellence and comprehensiveness of Ali’s fight scenes do have a detrimental flipside, as their length sometimes thwarts the film’s dramatic momentum. In other words, like so many boxers, Mann may stay in the ring too long for his own good.
EH: I don’t really agree that the lengthy boxing sequences are to the detriment of the film. I’m not a boxing fan by any means, let alone a serious one, but even I found those scenes well-done, just visceral and thrilling, focusing on the movement of the boxers’ feet as much as their fists. More importantly, I think Mann just isn’t that interested here in “dramatic momentum,” at least not in the usual sense. The film may settle down into more of a conventional narrative after its opening half-hour, but it never totally shakes off the style of that initial montage. The film is a loose collection of moments stitched together to create an atmosphere rather than to tell a story. Important narrative details are backed into in destabilizing ways: We learn that Ali has a baby with his second wife Belinda (Nona Gaye) only when the child cries in the next room, which indicates how much time has passed, how big an ellipsis has just been passed over. Other details remain subtly in the background, and Mann needs only to show a short scene here and there to suggest all the backroom money dealings and betrayals surrounding Ali, like the way the film implies why Herbert (Barry Shabaka Henley) suspended Ali from the Nation of Islam.
In terms of Ali’s life and career, the major milestones are there, the big events that made him famous, but around these iconic moments Mann weaves an elaborate portrait of ‘60s dissent, black radicalism, the Nation of Islam, Vietnam, civil rights, all of it bleeding into Ali’s story, into his fights and his dramas outside the ring. A lot goes unsaid, a lot is skipped over. The film focuses on the fights, and on the showy personality of the man, and on the events happening around him, but it never really delves deep into him psychologically, and it seldom tries to tell a straightforward “point A to point B to point C” kind of story. The iconic moments are familiar, and Mann knows he doesn’t have to belabor them. The sad ending, the long years of decline, those are familiar too, and the film wisely ends before that point, allowing all that to remain unspoken, the subtext beneath the end credits. The film ends with Ali, not at the top of his career, already on his way down really, but nevertheless at a moment of unlikely triumph, a moment when he manages to scrape out a punch-drunk victory against George Foreman (Charles Shufford). The film’s second half doesn’t quite have the verve of the first half, as defeats both in and out of the ring plague Ali, and as Mann occasionally slips into attempts at more conventional plotting. But always the man at the center of the film keeps things sparkling.
JB: He does. Will Smith’s performance is tremendous, and yet in some ways it’s almost a letdown. This is inevitable. Smith is given the task of playing one of the most vibrant, charismatic and arresting personalities of the television age. (It is impossible to be as Ali as Ali. Even in recent years the real Ali, physically trapped by his Parkinson’s disease, often has this alluring glimmer in his eyes that suggests he knows something we don’t.) I honestly can’t imagine a more thankless assignment than to try to live up to the Greatest of All Time, and yet I can’t find a single fault in Smith’s performance. Though physically up to the task, Smith seems somehow smaller than Ali, but then Ali was larger than life. It’s an amazing success that Smith at least feels like a worthy cipher. His performance rejuvenates memories of the real thing, and that’s plenty good enough.
As you suggested, there’s a lot that Ali doesn’t cover, but it’s stunning the amount of story that’s actually weaved in here. Credit Mann for realizing that Ali’s successes and failures in the ring were on some level the most insignificant aspects of his celebrity. Ali is one of the few sports figures about whom you could say that what he did as a boxing champion was more memorable than how he became champion, which isn’t to imply that the latter isn’t one fucking hell of a good story. In the boxing scenes especially, Mann’s attention to detail is as sharp as ever (anyone who has seen When We Were Kings has got to admire the Rumble in the Jungle chapter). His use of music is powerful and familiar throughout. And in Muhammad Ali, Mann has a lead character so complex that he doesn’t have a single straight edge on which you can balance him for examination. In so many ways, this is quintessential Mann. And yet Ali is the Mann picture that I feel is in danger of being forgotten all too quickly. It’s perhaps his most overlooked film.
EH: You’re right, it’s really unfortunate how overlooked this film is. I said earlier that I don’t think it’s among Mann’s best films, but at the same time there are stretches of it where it’s damn close to being a masterpiece. Most of these are in the downright exhilarating first half, but the second half has its moments too. I get the impression that a lot of the negative reviews this film got upon release specifically cited that lengthy, dialogue-free temps mort where Ali goes jogging through an African village, but for me that was one of many high points. Here, Ali comes face to face with himself, in the form of a wall painting of him punching out tanks and planes, as though fighting against war itself. It’s a wonderful moment, and a wonderfully ambiguous one, because Mann doesn’t betray what Ali is thinking. Looking at this painting over the boxer’s shoulder, we’re not sure: Is Ali proud of what he is in the eyes of these poor people? Is he happy? Or is he wondering what he’s really done to deserve this deification, if he’s really done enough to fight for what he believes in?
The whole African sequence brings up very interesting questions about exploitation and the development of poor countries; Ali really believes he’s helping Africa by fighting there, but does anyone else? There’s that one short scene of Zaire’s President Mobutu meeting with some Western businessmen in his lavish palace, a scene that undercuts a lot of Don King’s (Mykelti Williamson) rhetoric about giving back to the African people, and helps put into context the poverty Ali sees on his jog. All of this stuff is bubbling just beneath the surface in a film that’s much more complex and sociologically engaged than the average biopic or historical picture. Again, it brings to mind the work of Peter Watkins, who has habitually packed biopics like Edvard Munch and The Freethinker with surrounding material about the political and social events of the main characters’ times. Mann doesn’t go as far, and in many ways Ali would be a better film if it had stuck to the flowing montage style of its introduction. When Mann tries to tell a more straightforward story, as he occasionally does with the underdeveloped characters of Ali’s wives and girlfriends, the film staggers. But when he keeps the film moving along briskly, its themes and ideas pouring out in kinetic bursts, the film is as fiery, as agile and quick-witted, as Ali himself.
JB: Well, if the critics wanted straightforward, they got it with Mann’s next film, Collateral. Starring Tom Cruise as a hitman named Vincent and Jamie Foxx as a cab driver named Max who becomes Vincent’s unwilling accomplice on a night of executions in Los Angeles, this would seem to be a return to form for Mann. But not really. Despite Mann’s reputation for adrenaline, this is his only outright high-speed thriller—a movie that puts pedal to the metal except when navigating turns, and sometimes even then. Collateral has a chilling heavy in Vincent and a charming hero in Max, and both of these characters fit the Mann mold in the way they self-identify with their work and seek nothing short of perfection. Nevertheless, Collateral isn’t stuffed with subtext like Thief, Manhunter or Heat. Its appeal is on the surface. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Collateral may be Mann’s simplest film thematically, given its plot-centric rollercoaster structure, but it’s hardly a paint-by-number thriller. Collateral announces itself as something special within its first thirteen minutes as Mann delivers yet another intoxicating opening. This one begins with a very brief introduction of Cruise’s Vincent and then cuts to a busy taxi station where Foxx’s Max slides into his cab for his nightly shift. Max wipes down the dashboard and the steering wheel with disinfectant, checks the cab’s blinkers and slides his ID into the plastic holder, making everything just so. Over the next few minutes we see snippets of his late afternoon rounds and a stop for gas. And then, just as the sun is setting, Max picks up a lawyer named Annie, played by Jada Pinkett Smith. What follows are ten minutes of textbook character development that are made spiritual by Mann’s deft touch and some sublime acting from Pinkett Smith and Foxx. As Max and Annie talk, with Groove Armada’s “Hands of Time” playing in the background, Mann hypnotizes us with these night sky exteriors that make Los Angeles seem like a city with charm—not the easiest thing to do. Annie’s cab ride sets a mood of romance and peacefulness that the rest of the film takes great pleasure in defying.
EH: While I’m with you on the pleasures of that opening sequence—one of the best stretches in Mann’s whole career, if you ask me—I don’t think the rest of the film is any less substantial just because it’s more action-packed. Sure, on its surface the film is one of Mann’s most propulsive and plot-based, not to mention his most visually sumptuous. It’s an edge-of-the-seat nighttime thriller, marrying nail-biting tension, Mann’s postcard ode to LA’s city lights, and the character-based drama between Vincent and Max. You earlier described Jeffrey Wigand as “a Hitchcockian everyman,” a designation that applies even more to Max, who is thrown into an unexpected adventure in much the same way as Cary Grant’s Roger O. Thornhill in North By Northwest, or countless other Hitchcock heroes who suddenly find themselves in way over their heads.
If this was all there was to the film, I might agree with you that it was a fun ride but not necessarily prime Mann. As it is, I’d call it his best film, the perfect expression of his macho romanticism. Objectively speaking, Heat is a richer, more complex film, but it doesn’t make me feel like this one does, it doesn’t give me the chills I get during that opening cab ride or the ghostly scene where Vincent stares down a yellow-eyed coyote. We’ve spoken a bit about those who find a “religious experience” in Mann’s work, and this is the one film he’s made where I get that feeling myself the whole way through, where I’m just swept up in its dark beauty and emotional depths. The film’s surface is visceral and exciting, but it’s all built around a much more typically Mann-like introspective core: The relationship between Vincent and Max as the latter drives the former around on his bloody errands.
In this respect, the much-praised opening is more than just a languid mood-setter. In addition to setting up the climax and establishing the warmly colored LA setting, it creates a positive vision of Max’s character, which will soon be broken apart with ease by Vincent. Unlike Annie, the hitman sees right through Max’s assurances that driving a cab is only temporary, that he’s got something bigger in the works. With Annie, Max is confident, he’s together, he sells it; he seems like a guy on his way up, and we believe what he says, too. Vincent isn’t buying it: He sees a guy deluding himself, treading water, and he cuts through Max’s bullshit. We see Max first through Annie’s eyes, and we like what we see, but when we see him through Vincent’s eyes we realize that he’s not what we thought he was. It takes this killer to push the hero out of his comfort zone. Throughout the course of the film Max builds himself up into something different, redeeming himself by incorporating, ironically, aspects of Vincent’s character: His bluffing showdown with Felix (Javier Bardem) and his thugs, his decision to crash the cab, overpowering the cop when he realizes Annie’s in trouble, his final gunfight with Vincent. He redeems himself by becoming a man of action, not just an action hero but a man who’s willing to do something rather than simply waiting around for it to happen.
Of course, it’s very like Mann to locate a metaphor for a man changing his life in violence and action. Far from being simply an action blowout, the film is primarily about Max’s character, about how Vincent shakes him up into taking another look at his life. Most action movies at least nod to this kind of character development; with Mann, it’s the whole point.
JB: Interesting. I agree with you that the action is set up to examine its effect on Max, North By Northwest-style, I just don’t find the depth here that you do. Or maybe I just don’t thrill on it as you do. I’ve seen the film three times now and I’m sorry to say that its power diminishes with each viewing, except for those enchanting first thirteen minutes. Perhaps that’s because the first time I saw Collateral, Max’s transformation was given an added boost of excitement by what for me was Jamie Foxx’s coming out party. This is the film, and more specifically the showdown with Felix is the scene, that gave me my “Holy shit, Jamie Foxx can act!” awakening. This was before Ray, Jarhead, Miami Vice or The Soloist, of course. Now, with Foxx’s talent appreciated, Max’s transformation isn’t as overpowering because it can “only” be about Max. The showdown with Felix has lost that meta effect that it had the first time around. (Out of Nowhere Aside: How is it that Meryl Streep is immune to this kind of withering appreciation? She’s a fine actress, don’t get me wrong, but I’m flummoxed by the critical community’s ability to be awed by her almost every move. Shouldn’t we be taking her for granted by now?)
I think the tug-of-war between Vincent and Max might have more staying power if I agreed with you that Vincent sees through Max’s façade. He doesn’t, at least not until they visit Max’s mother in the hospital—a very strange and implausible diversion designed specifically so that she can expose Max’s fraudulence. The evidence that Max is deluding others and also himself is tidily served up to Vincent on a silver platter so that even the dimmest of goons (or moviegoers) could see Max’s bullshit for what it is. Because Vincent doesn’t have to work very hard, his exposure of Max doesn’t have the same gripping tension of, say, watching Cruise’s Lieutenant Kaffee exposing Colonel Jessep in the courtroom of A Few Good Men. That quibble aside, the Vincent-Max relationship is dependably effective in another equally important way: We believe that these two dissimilar men form an entirely unjustifiable comfort with one another over the course of a very strange night.
Without that convincing bond between Max and Vincent, Collateral would flop. And that brings me to a way in which Collateral does continue to work on the meta level: Tom Cruise. So much of Vincent’s success as a complicated heavy can be traced back to our understanding of the typical Tom Cruise role. It’s the knowledge that Cruise is performing “against type” here that makes Vincent so chilling and captivating. At the same time, it’s our comfort with Cruise as a portrayer of “good guys” that allows us to believe Vincent wouldn’t just put two bullets in Max’s head at the very beginning of the story and move on. To imagine other actors in the role is to think of ways they wouldn’t work. De Niro, for example, would be too cold. Our expectation of his badassness would make any fondness for Max seem out of character, spoiling some of the film’s juicy moments, like the time that Vincent shoots down the detective played by Mark Ruffalo and then looks at Max like an impatient husband waiting for his dawdling wife to get in the car. Cruise isn’t known as an actor with tremendous range, but he makes Vincent credibly complex.
EH: It may be common to appreciate Foxx now—although the trend should have started with his role as Ali’s drunken corner man Bundini, his first collaboration with Mann—but he makes Max such a fully developed character that I still find his performance stunning each time I watch this film. But stunning in a way where I forget I’m even watching a performance: He’s just that natural, that believable, as an LA cab driver in an incredible situation. You’re right, on the other hand, that Cruise’s performance is all about the meta thrill of watching Tom Cruise play such a chilly bad guy for a change. That such an improbably warm and complex relationship develops between Vincent and Max over the course of the film is just one of the ways in which the film digs deeper than its action surface. These are both Mann’s most allegorical figures—the nihilist, jazz-loving, philosophy-spouting hitman and the dissatisfied average man who keeps pushing his dreams further and further into the future—and his most specific and fleshed-out. The rapport between Vincent and Max, and between Cruise and Foxx, is remarkable, a low-key comfort with one another that at times nearly overcomes the antagonistic situation they’re in to become something like friendship.
This is especially apparent during one of my favorite interludes, the scene where Vincent takes Max to a jazz club, and the duo sit down for a long chat with the trumpet player Daniel (Mann regular Barry Shabaka Henley again). Collateral is the only Mann film on which the director didn’t also receive screenwriting credit, which makes it tempting to suggest it’s a less personal film. In fact, Mann seems to have been as involved in the script as he was on any of his other projects, rewriting it extensively and even coming up with lengthy histories for his characters, giving the actors background information about who they’re playing. This is especially apparent in the jazz club scene, where Vincent’s love of the music seems deep and completely genuine; he almost becomes someone different, more relaxed and open, when he talks about this music. This scene is deceptively quiet, a moody diversion during which Vincent subtly uses his conversation about jazz to advance his philosophy of improvisation in life and work. Of course, subsequent viewings eliminate the surprise of the scene’s denouement, but the knowledge that Vincent is going to kill Daniel by the end of the scene only deepens the meaning of their conversation. We see that Vincent has real affection for this man, that he enjoys talking jazz with him, that’s he genuinely awed and touched by the man’s story of playing with Miles Davis—which has obvious parallels to Max’s failure to follow up on his own dreams.
That the hitman kills his mark anyway is an obvious indication of what’s going to happen to Max by the end of the night; Vincent may be growing fond of his driver, but it doesn’t mean he won’t eliminate his only witness. But beyond its repercussions for the plot, this scene is just lovely, as much about simply creating a mood as all the helicopter shots Mann inserts of the LA streets from above, Max’s cab a tiny box moving through a vast neon-colored grid.
JB: Indeed, LA’s neon skyline and labyrinth of buildings makes the city a noteworthy character in Collateral, with Mann’s camera suggesting that this urban cityscape is as lush and worthy of reverence as The Last of the Mohicans’ frontier. In his subsequent film, Miami Vice, Mann is even further enchanted with the relationship between setting and story, occasionally seeming to use his human characters as mere tools to demonstrate the vastness of their environs, rather than the other way around. More than any other film in Mann’s oeuvre, Miami Vice is a mood picture. It has a plot, yes—a rather complex one, actually—but it’s so buried, so inscrutable that Mann doesn’t seem to give a shit whether we follow along or not. Way back at the beginning of this conversation I suggested that Mann’s films can please both the surface-obsessed and the subtext-minded at the same time, but Miami Vice might be the exception to the rule. It possesses one of Mann’s largest (and loudest) shootouts, behind only the showstoppers from Heat and Public Enemies, but I can’t imagine that late-in-arriving gunfight is enough for the moviegoer who wants his/her plots as explosive and as forthright as a stick of dynamite.
Before we discuss this movie further, I should note that I’ve seen exactly zero episodes of the TV series from which the movie draws its name and character inspirations. But I have a suspicion that’s a good thing. If Don Johnson’s Sonny Crockett was scarred in childhood by watching his father mugged by a drug dealer or some such thing, Mann doesn’t seem to have any interest in exploring it. The characters in Miami Vice are as loosely defined as any you’ll come across in a film that spills beyond two hours and hardly ever leaves its two star characters. Colin Farrell’s Sonny and Jamie Foxx’s Ricardo “Rico” Tubbs are felt more than they are understood. Mann plunges us into their world—in the director’s cut, quite literally: the opening shot is just under the water’s edge—and lets us see if we can find our equilibrium without the usual plot exposition that plays as overtly as GPS.
EH: You make it sound like such an admirable approach, and I guess in a way it is, but Mann’s disinterest in such niceties as plotting and character makes Miami Vice a rather difficult film to appreciate. There’s trusting the audience to find their own way through a plot, and then there’s Mann’s approach here, which is to scrub away virtually everything that would provide some kind of reference point. His characters are ciphers, and his plotting is so blasé that it’s virtually impossible to care about what happens next. So what’s left? Staring at the sights, basically. Miami Vice is the action film as tourism. We’re tossed into a pretty locale, with attractive, blank-faced people doing exciting things—racing boats, having gunfights, conducting drug deals, dancing at nightclubs, having photogenic sex—with the tropical blue of the water and the glowing red of the city’s lights providing a scenic backdrop.
The best moments of the film have a kind of mechanical urgency, like pistons pumping—you can see things fitting together, complex plans set in motion, lines of communication stretching out and crossing like spider webs. When, early on, Sonny and Rico get a call from an informant, it sends them into action, but a weirdly static and modern kind of action. Mann frames them in a two-shot on a roof, the brightness of the city behind them, as they each talk separately on their cellphones, putting things together, gathering information, sending out orders and inquiries. It’s a great scene, capturing a whole web of action and activity even while the two heroes remain perfectly still; they’re together in the shot but working independently, isolated from one another by their individual phones.
As ever, Mann’s visual style is suggestive and evocative in ways that go beyond the glossy surface. But, in this case, maybe not very far beneath the surface. Here, for once, Mann’s shorthand comes at the expense of anything deeper, anything that probes these characters beyond the most superficial levels. Sonny is a mystery: His most prominent traits are his growly voice and his mutton-chop facial hair. We get no sense of him as a cop, or as a person, so it comes as a non sequitur when Rico suddenly seems concerned that Sonny is too absorbed in his work, that he’s getting too deep undercover—he’s not acting any differently than he has all along. Sonny is all surface, and so is Rico, though Jaime Foxx at least pulls off a human performance. Colin Farrell is like a robot who’s being fed lines randomly pulled from pulpy genre novels. He recites his lines, spits out these clichés, seemingly without comprehending their meaning, without his mouth and his brain making a connection at any point. Sonny: “Why do I get the feeling everyone knows we’re here fifteen blocks out?” Rico: “Because everyone knows we’re here fifteen blocks out.” It’s like a parody of bad crime fiction writing, but it’s all so deadpan, so completely without humor, so self-serious, that it’s hard to take it as intentional parody—or at least not successful parody. That’s true of the film as a whole, as well.
JB: I can’t say that Miami Vice ever struck me as parody, but I have no substantial comebacks to your other criticisms. You found quite a few obstacles preventing you from falling under the movie’s spell and I can relate, because I found those obstacles too. The first time. The second time I watched Miami Vice the movie was hardly without problems, but their effect was negligible. I’m not entirely sure what the difference was; maybe those mojitos take a while to enter the bloodstream. In any case, upon second viewing, Miami Vice gave me a feeling. Was I enthralled? No. Was I forever held in its hypnotic trance? No. To some degree my experience was reminiscent of Kevin Nealon’s bit about his thought process watching porn: “Interested. Interested. Very interested. Not so interested. Bored. Tired. Interested. Confused. Very interested…” and so on. Whereas Collateral’s effect has waned for me with repeated viewings, Miami Vice’s has increased. The reason might be that, as with porn, I stopped factoring the plot into my enjoyment. Is that a backhanded compliment? Maybe. Nevertheless, I am affected.
Can I give high praise to a movie in which Farrell uses a curiously untraceable accent, in which Gong Li as Isabella is mostly incomprehensible and in which John Ortiz plays Jose Yero with a colorfulness approaching the camp of ‘80s TV? I can. I can because there’s something enticing about being asked to find these characters, rather than having them delivered to us. I can because that photogenic love interlude in Cuba is breathtaking to look at and heartbreaking to feel, because the sum of the movie’s forward motion instills us with an awareness of the impermanent; Sonny and Isabella’s love cannot last. I can because the movie’s exquisite exteriors are hauntingly romantic and romantically haunting.
We should probably talk about the last part, because this is the first (and so far only) movie that Mann shot entirely in digital video, after dabbling in the digital format in Ali and Collateral (and before using it again in Public Enemies). As someone who didn’t connect with Miami Vice, tell me what you think: Is Mann distracted by technology in this picture (is this an experiment?)? Are those who rave about its moody digital cinematography distracted by technology? Are they seeing things that aren’t there? Or does Mann’s use of digital justify itself? Put another way, how would Miami Vice be a different picture if it had been shot on 35mm?
EH: Well, the use of digital video isn’t really why I find the film a disappointment. True, it’s Mann’s first entirely digital movie, but Collateral was mostly shot in the format as well, other than isolated interiors here and there. I don’t think it’s a case of Mann experimenting with a form he wasn’t familiar with; he’d shot a lot of digital footage before Miami Vice, and he’d continue to use it extensively on Public Enemies. It seems apparent that this isn’t a novelty for Mann. He’s one of the few filmmakers—along with David Fincher and David Lynch—who’s seriously using digital video not just to achieve a cheaper replacement for film but to create a unique aesthetic, a distinctive look. For that alone, I admire Miami Vice, but unlike in the other films where he’s used digital video, in this one I feel like the flashy beauty of the visuals is all there is.
Maybe Mann did get caught up in the romanticism of his images, though that wouldn’t really be a phenomenon unique to digital video. The film is packed with scenes that seem to be there primarily for style, for “cool”—like the shot of Isabella dramatically exiting her private jet, adjusting her sunglasses, striding purposefully away from the plane. There’s lots of striding purposefully, actually; everyone walks and dresses like they’re on a fashion runway, like they can’t wait to show off their cool new jacket. This mirrors Mann’s own visual style, his look-at-me aesthetics which for once take precedence over character, theme and story—offloading cargo from a boat at a pivotal point becomes an exercise in admiring the pale blue lighting beneath a bridge, and arguably little more. At his best, Mann uses style as atmosphere, setting and mood, as a way of telling his story. Here, the style threatens to overwhelm the substance; the film feels empty and so there’s little to leaven Mann’s stylistic excesses. I don’t think this is a specifically digital problem. In fact, the film Miami Vice most reminds me of is not any of Mann’s other digital features but The Last of the Mohicans, at least in terms of the treatment of the characters. These tendencies have always been present in Mann’s work; Miami Vice is just what happens when the director embraces the most glossy aspects of his style to the exclusion of everything else.
JB: But what about the last question: Let’s talk digital versus film. Is this a notably different movie if it’s shot on 35mm?
EH: I’m sure it would be different, but not, I don’t think, enormously so. Mann hasn’t drastically changed his filmmaking to adjust for digital, but he definitely grasps the different strengths of this medium as compared to film: The unreal brightness and clarity of night scenes, the crisp colors, the slightly rough, hazy quality of the image. There’s a scene early in the film where Sonny and Rico’s informant has just learned that his wife is dead, and the camera takes on the informant’s perspective. He’s looking at Rico, and then Rico’s face blurs and goes out of focus, and the camera jogs slightly to the left, looking out at the busy highway, right before the grieving man decides to step out into traffic. In some ways, this is a typical Mann shot, an example of his penchant for silent visual storytelling. But it’s also an example of the film’s digital style, in the somewhat harsh look of the highway, the high-contrast lighting, which lends the shot an unsettling quality. The shot isn’t inconsistent with Mann’s general style, but it’s obvious that Mann has conceived this image specifically for a digital aesthetic.
This is at a micro level, of course, but I think that’s where the major recognizable change can be seen in Mann’s post-digital filmmaking. His films have always been about the small touches anyway, and digital allows him to achieve specific effects and looks that he otherwise would not have been able to capture. But is it an entirely new aesthetic? Would the film be unrecognizably different if it was shot on 35mm? I think the answer to both questions is no.
JB: On this point, I’m with you. Something that has surprised me in the aftermath of Public Enemies has been the significance attributed to Mann’s alternating use of digital and 35mm, as if it’s one of the defining characteristics of the movie. Hogwash. I don’t want to suggest that the topic isn’t worthy of discussion or that there isn’t a difference between the two, because there is; a difference considerable enough, in fact, that the average moviegoer can usually point out the result, even if they don’t have a clue (or care) about the method. Nonetheless, I think the importance of Mann’s digital aesthetic is routinely overstated (and overanalyzed), and in this regard Miami Vice is the prime offender, as it seems the picture’s most ardent fans are almost incapable of going more than three sentences without saying the word “digital” in detailing their admiration.
Perhaps this latter observation, which is tongue-in-cheek but not entirely untrue, just confirms your earlier suggestion that Mann’s style in Miami Vice overwhelms his usual substance. This isn’t to say that style can’t be substantive, and I’m confident that isn’t your argument. Instead, I think your comment observes that Miami Vice has a narrower appeal than Mann’s other films. It is more than a coffee table book of pretty pictures, I’m sure of that (you might disagree). But it isn’t as multifaceted or as substantial as Heat. Your comparison to The Last of the Mohicans is apt, because these are the two Mann films in which the dialogue is of least consequence; and they are also the Mann movies that most require an audience to be open to visual romanticism. But now I’ve drifted from the point.
The reason I think the digital hoopla is overblown is because Mann has a proven track record of getting the aesthetics he’s looking for out of 35mm. I understand that digital video captures color and lighting differently than film. I respect that the eerie purple sky that memorably hangs like a backdrop in one scene—behind Sonny and Rico but at the forefront of our attention—wouldn’t have the same exact effect on 35mm, and I suspect the same is true of those haunting lightning shots. But, one way or another, Mann would have found a way to get his desired effect. (Same exact look? No. Same effect? I sure hope so.) For proof, just think back to all those washed-in-blue interiors in Manhunter and Heat. Had those shots been achieved in the fledgling phase of digital video, I’m afraid to think that even today the conversation about those motifs might have more to do with the technology that created them rather than their overall consequence. When the subject of CGI comes up, I have often said that I’m not a special effects guy, I’m an effect guy. I don’t care about how the job gets done; I’m interested in the end result. The same rule applies to digital filmmaking. Or should.
EH: Well said. I think there’s a danger in talking about the technology behind movies: You risk losing sight of the movies themselves. It’s inarguable that Mann uses digital video to achieve a very non-filmic look in his recent work; it’s recognizably digital and calls attention to itself. But what matters is what Mann does with these images, what emotional and thematic resonances they have, how they express what he wants to express in a given scene. I would hate to think that those who admire Collateral do so primarily because of its lush, otherworldly beauty rather than for the way that beauty informs the film’s deeper significance. The problem with Miami Vice is that, too often, there’s little to talk about beyond the technology, the surface of the image.
I agree with you about Public Enemies, too. Mann makes excellent, substantive use of the contrast between digital video and film, but the emphasis should certainly be on what he does in the film itself rather than how he shot it. To that end, why don’t we return, now that we’ve discussed the remainder of Mann’s career, to his most recent film, which we touched on way back at the beginning of our conversation. Considering everything we’ve said about the interplay of substance and style in Mann’s work—and the varying balances he’s struck between surface and subtext—where do you think Public Enemies fits into this discussion? Is it, as I’ve suggested about Miami Vice, a film where the surface gloss disguises an inner hollowness, or is it more like Thief and Heat, where scratching the surface reveals untold depths underneath?
JB: If there are untold depths to Public Enemies that rival Heat, I’ve yet to find them in two viewings. Earlier in this conversation I called the film moodless by Mann’s standards, and I stand by that. In fact, revisiting its predecessors has only managed to drive that point home. Public Enemies is a solid film, to be sure, and I adore the final act, but it doesn’t get under my skin like Mann’s other works. When we started this conversation I would have unhesitatingly placed it ahead of Collateral and Miami Vice simply because I’m more fascinated by its narrative. Now, I’m not so sure. One of the things I love about Mann’s films is their ability to haunt me. Alas, a few weeks removed from seeing Public Enemies, its spell has worn off. That’s not a criticism, just an honest observation.
Public Enemies might actually be a deeper film than Collateral and Miami Vice, but Miami Vice, for all its inscrutability (or maybe because of it), calls to me. Perhaps in one or two more viewings I’ll have decided that there’s nothing deeper there, that it’s all surface entertainment, but for now I find it harder to shake the image of Sonny and Isabella in Cuba than any of Dillinger and Billie. At this point the only film in Mann’s oeuvre that I’m confident I would place behind Public Enemies would be Manhunter, which hasn’t aged gracefully and is a challenge to take seriously. But here’s the extraordinary thing about Michael Mann: He doesn’t make bad movies. If Public Enemies winds up ranking eighth on my list of Mann’s nine signature films, the gap between eighth and fourth is so miniscule that Las Vegas would call it a push.
To get back to your question: Is Public Enemies hollow? That doesn’t seem like the right word, but in some sense I think it’s true. I wonder if perhaps this Mann effort has too much plot for its own good. Somehow the movie doesn’t seem as psychological or as emotional as Mann’s other works. And, sure, I might be foisting more meaning onto Miami Vice than is really there, but at least in that case I’m confident about where Mann thinks the meaning lies waiting to be found. In the case of Public Enemies I find myself looking for the deeper substance and, other than the Biograph sequence, coming up empty. I think it’s well-made and well-acted, but I don’t feel it. I wish I did.
EH: Interesting. For me, though Public Enemies has its problems, and doesn’t have the lasting impact of Collateral, Thief or Heat (my personal troika of favorite Mann films), it’s a dense, substantial film, and in that respect a welcome return to form after Miami Vice. One of the things I find most compelling about the film is its prolonged engagement with mortality: The film returns again and again to the moment of death, and the moments immediately preceding death. Right at the beginning of the film, there’s an extended sequence where Dillinger looks into the eyes of one of his dying gang members, who’s holding on, being dragged by a car, fading away with each second. The moment is held until the man’s eyes go distant and dark and empty, until his grip on Dillinger’s hand slackens, and then he’s dropped and falls away. It’s the first of many intimate confrontations with mortality. Later, Dillinger faces the same moment again with his friend Red Hamilton (Jason Clarke), having a last conversation with his friend as Red grows paler and paler, his eyes closing to reddened slits, his mouth drooping open. Dillinger’s opposite number Melvin Purvis gets a confrontation with mortality of his own, after Baby Face Nelson shoots one of Purvis’ G-men. Purvis comes upon the man in the hall, looks down on him, and the man lives just long enough to gurgle a garbled word or two before his eyes also go blank.
Death is everywhere in this film, and not just in the generic sense where bodies drop during gunfights, like all those cops who presumably die during Heat’s big shootout. Here, death is intimate and slow, and there’s time to consider it, to linger over its details, to say one last goodbye. This is in one sense melodramatic, like the old Shakespearian tradition of the death speech, but Mann’s approach is so quiet and emotionally true that these moments are instead poignant and deeply personal, glimpses into the end of life and how these men deal with it. The theme emerges most prominently in the film’s centerpiece, the one face-to-face confrontation between Dillinger and Purvis. The two men discuss what it’s like to look death in the face, to be that close to a man as the life leaves his eyes; they’ve both experienced this, and it’s ultimately what binds them together, even as the different ways they cope with it separate them. This is an ephemeral, metaphysical moment, something hard to define, and by capturing it and lingering on it, Mann brings a kind of rough spirituality into his film. It’s a film about death, all leading up to that final death scene. It comes as no surprise, after all the other death scenes in the film, that Dillinger’s final moment is similarly conceived. The outlaw gasps out a last few mumbled words, gibberish to the audience but picked up by the special agent who leans over into the frame in closeup, obscuring Dillinger’s bloodied face, listening to his final whispered words. The film emphasizes the importance of capturing this moment, the moment when a human life disappears forever.
That for me is the essence of the film’s deeper significance. These scenes, and the parallels between them, hold the whole film together around a hard core of death. It’s interesting, actually, that Mann has made so many films about outlaws and crooks and other men with violent, dangerous lives, but only in this one does he really delve into the nature of how these kinds of men would deal with death. In that respect, it’s a worthy addition to his run of crime films, and a moving, powerful experience in its own right.
JB: Well, you sure make it sound good on paper. But, personally (and I realize we’re into especially subjective territory here), calling this film an examination of or meditation on death seems like, at best, the result of a mathematic deconstruction of the scenes. Not to belabor the point, but in a film so full of death and so supposedly fascinated by it, shouldn’t I feel something with each death? More importantly, shouldn’t I feel that Dillinger feels something? That moment at the start of the film in which the guy is being dragged by the car? It’s powerful in terms of establishing the inherent danger of Dillinger’s line of work. But just a few seconds later Dillinger is throwing a culpable goon out of a moving vehicle with little hesitation. We can infer that the first guy was a close friend and the latter guy wasn’t, but to us in the audience both victims are anonymous Dillinger associates. I’m not arguing that Mann needed to give us their backstories, just that he needed to find a way to unlock Dillinger’s psyche so we can experience these deaths through him. Think, for example, of what Steven Spielberg does with Tom Hanks’ Captain Miller in the opening seconds of Saving Private Ryan—focusing on that trembling hand struggling with the canteen and peering into Miller’s soul through Hanks’ vulnerable eyes. From that moment on, we identify with Miller, understand him. By comparison, Dillinger is mostly impenetrable.
That said, maybe I’m coming at Public Enemies from the wrong angle. Maybe my awareness of its genre similarities to Thief and Heat has me thinking that the movie intends to unveil in Dillinger and Purvis the kind of depth that can be found in Frank, Neil and Vincent. Instead, maybe this movie is closer to Miami Vice, believe it or not, in that Mann isn’t trying to draw me within his lead characters so much as he’s trying to place me within their world. By those standards, Public Enemies succeeds in that I find it consistently interesting. But, the final act excluded, it’s just that—interesting. That’s enough that Public Enemies remains one of the best cinema experiences of the year thus far, let me be clear about that. Alas, I can’t help but be disappointed that the movie isn’t more hypnotizing, scarring even. I said earlier that Cheritto’s line in Heat, “For me, the action is the juice,” is the skeleton key that unlocks the driving force behind the majority of Mann’s characters (Dillinger certainly included), and I think Heat also includes the scene that best illustrates what it feels like to connect with a Mann film. It’s the diner scene between Neil and Eady. One moment she’s asking him about books and he’s talking about metals, and the next thing you know they’re gazing over Los Angeles, lost in light and passion. At its best, Mann’s cinema is as thrilling as new love, so I wish I could say that Public Enemies sticks with me like memories of old romances. Instead, Public Enemies is to me what Duncan is to Cora in The Last of the Mohicans—honorable, just not unforgettable.
EH: Well, there’s no arguing what you do or do not feel in a film. Personally (there’s that word again), I found Public Enemies affecting and emotionally satisfying—maybe in a different way than the romance of Neil and Eady in Heat, though. That’s the thing about Mann. His best work, whatever intellectual pleasures it may have, is more about feelings, about moods and impressions. These things can at times be fleeting, hard to grasp, and they inevitably make it hard for Mann’s admirers to communicate what moves them about his films. You can see that throughout this discussion, in the places where we disagree about the merits of one film or another: We might agree about what the film is doing, but there’s an ineffable something that separates us in our appreciation or criticism of the film. Call it mood, call it a “religious experience,” call it whatever you like, but Mann’s best films transcend their surface stories, digging into the profound depths of his characters and themes. This is arguably the single thread that runs through all of his work, a desire to push beyond the surface of the story to something further, whether it’s the metaphysical noir of Heat or Thief, the introspective examination of the thought process in The Insider, or the use of violence as a metaphor for change in Collateral. Mann’s films are rarely just about what they seem to be about on the surface. He’s an obsessively probing, substantial filmmaker who’s never content to simply tell a story when he can make us feel something instead.
Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler.
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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