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: Frozen II and Its Recycled Stakes Quickly Get Lost in the Snow
Woke Disney, trying to navigate a tricky representational path, steps all over itself throughout.2
Any successor to Frozen practically mandates a designated successor to “Let It Go.” And the standard-bearing song for Disney’s Frozen II is “Into the Unknown,” another bombastic earworm that’s belted out by Idina Menzel’s Queen Elsa about 20 minutes into the film, as she embraces a literal call to adventure. But the unknown is hardly a place that co-directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee care to take this sequel. If the first Frozen succeeded in rebranding the Disney Princess line of products for a more woke era, Frozen II doesn’t want to risk undoing the first film’s magic. The sequel plays things safe, hitting many of the same beats as its predecessor—and sometimes with a wink—all while making sure to introduce adorable, marketable new creatures and outfits along the way.
Such is the nature of Hollywood sequels, perhaps, but aside from a prologue that expands the fantastical, ostensibly peaceful Nordic kingdom in which the series is set with an intriguingly bellicose backstory, Frozen II doesn’t craft a strong enough story to mask its capitalist machinations. The film joins Elsa, her sister Anna (Kristen Bell), the latter’s beau Christoph (Jonathan Groff), his reindeer Sven, and the animate snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) at harvest time in Arendelle, which has about the size and cultural depth of the Swedish village at Epcot Center. Just after the four humanoid principal characters are done singing a status-quo-minded ditty, “Some Things Never Change,” Elsa, the magically attuned “snow queen,” begins hearing a wordless voice singing to her from beyond the fjord. In responding to the voice, Elsa awakens the wrath of nature’s four elements—air, earth, fire, and water—which wreak havoc on Arendelle, because, it turns out, nature’s got an axe to grind with Anna and Elsa’s family.
Frozen’s narrative trappings are all accounted for here: a malevolent magic of obscure origin, a forgotten slight that must be righted, a quest to reveal the truth. But whereas the first film had very human stakes—that of the reconciliation between Anna and Elsa—the stakes of Frozen II get lost in the snow. The imperative to redeem Arendelle in the eyes of nature remains rather abstract. Lee, also the film’s screenwriter, attempts to ground the quest in the mysterious fate of the rival clan of the Northuldra, a people who, with their darker features and leather-and-fur parkas, are coded as an indigenous Arctic culture. Something happened to these people, who haven’t been seen since a battle waged when Anna and Elsa’s father was a boy.
Frozen II suggests that the Northuldrans are the wronged party but, oddly, doesn’t posit them as the aggrieved one: It’s clear from early on that Anna and Elsa’s forbears committed some unspoken crime against their neighbors, but it’s nature, rather than the “indigenous” clan themselves, that demands redress. When Anna, Elsa, and their sidekicks find the Northuldrans in the enchanted woods, they’re perfectly friendly and ready for coexistence (the ideal natives for a film being released around the Thanksgiving holiday), and they’re happy to let Anna and Elsa do the heavy lifting when it comes to restoring balance to the world.
Woke Disney, in trying to navigate a tricky representational path with this film, steps all over itself: Seeking to address colonial shame, but also to avoid portraying natives as angry and threatening, Frozen II makes them into docile figures under the protection of a mystically empowered nature. Moreover, this maneuvering tangles the thread of the story, as these friendly forest dwellers are at once the object of Elsa and Anna’s quest and relatively inconsequential. As the quintet from the first film encounters the avatars for each of the four elements—a gust of wind named Gale that Olaf befriends, a pack of rock giants that Anna sneaks past at one point, a flaming gecko that Elsa takes as a pet, and a powerful steed composed of congealed water that she tames—these embodiments of natural phenomena prove to have more character and import to the plot than any of the Northuldrans.
This carefully orchestrated vagueness gives Frozen II a fragmentary quality, each scene standing alone as a mini-adventure. Olaf and Christoph’s solo numbers in particular feel very much like the music videos they are, fun and vibrant on their own but not particularly well integrated into the story’s trajectory. The looseness of Lee’s script also serves to foreground the more devious functions of the film as a Disney product intended to promote further consumption. It’s hard to ignore the convenience of the avatar of fire resembling in size, color, and design a collectible, cuddly doll; the way one of the heroines is magically granted a new, flowing hairdo and a bejeweled, strapless dress when she sings the song “Show Yourself”; or the calculations that must underlie the visually pleasing arrangement of the glittering geometric patterns that fill the frame during musical sequences. If, as a story, Frozen II is a tad too messy, as an advertisement it’s much too polished.
That said, Frozen II’s attempt at an enlightened fairy tale is in many aspects preferable to Disney’s recent “live action” resurrections of dated animated features. The relatively complex relationship between Anna and Elsa, as well as a subplot about Olaf the snowman’s existential musings now that his lifetime has been extended beyond winter, suggest hints of life beneath the film’s cold, corporate exterior. The series’s foregrounding of the ups and downs of a caring, if sometimes tense, connection between two women represents incremental progress at a studio whose other film franchises still favor male agency and Oedipal conflict. But given its confused ethics, narrative weaknesses, and naked function as a brand-refresher, Frozen II hardly constitutes a case for why we need more stories about fairy-tale princesses.
Cast: Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Sterling K. Brown, Evan Rachel Wood, Alfred Molina, Jason Ritter, Martha Plimpton, Jeremy Sisto Director: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee Screenwriter: Jennifer Lee Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 103 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack
Interview: Todd Haynes on Dark Waters and Being in the Crosshairs of Everything
Haynes discusses how the film quietly continues some of his aesthetic trademarks and thematic concerns.
For more than 40 years, Todd Haynes has made fiercely challenging, experimental, and idiosyncratic films that have left an indelible mark on both independent and mainstream cinema. But there’s no single Todd Haynes style. Sometimes his films are complexly structured and narratively polygamous, as with his trifurcated, genre-subverting feature-length debut from 1990, Poison, and I’m Not There, his 2007 anti-biopic about Bob Dylan in which six different actors play the iconic musician. At other times, Haynes works within the conventions of genres that allow him to question social and cultural values: Far from Heaven, his HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce, and Carol use the period melodrama template to examine racism, women’s independence, and queer desire, respectively, and all to stunning emotional effect.
But never before has Haynes more directly and unostentatiously confronted centers of power than with his latest project, the legal thriller Dark Waters. The film germinated with actor Mark Ruffalo’s interest in Rob Bilott, a corporate defense attorney who made partner in 1998 at the storied Cincinnati law firm of Taft, Stettinius & Hollister, commonly known as Taft. Taking on the case of Wilbur Tennant (played by Bill Camp in the film), a West Virginian farmer whose land is contaminated from toxic run-off dumped near his premises by DuPont Company, Bilott (Ruffalo) quickly encounters the gargantuan machine of corporate disinformation, negligence, cover-up, and strong-arm tactics that allow the company to shuck responsibility for causing devastating environmental destruction and an unprecedented human health crisis.
In directing Dark Waters, Haynes employs subtle, unobtrusive camerawork to complement a linear and character-centered narrative, showing with controlled objectivity Bilott’s discovery that speaking the truth and taking on corporate power comes with a major price in modern America. I spoke with Haynes last week about how the film marks a departure from his past work while quietly continuing some of his aesthetic trademarks and thematic concerns.
How did you get involved with Dark Waters?
The first draft of Matthew Michael Carnahan’s script came to me from Mark [Ruffalo] in 2017. This is all incredibly fast for the world of developing movies because Nathaniel Rich’s piece [about Bilott] had appeared [in the New York Times Magazine] just the year before. Already it had been optioned by Mark at Participant [Dark Waters’s production company], and he had decided to join forces with Matthew Michael. Then, for some reason—and I genuinely say this with modesty—Mark thought of me for it, because I’m not exactly the person one would think of for this movie right off the bat, however much he likes my other films. And I’m such an admirer of Mark on the screen, as well as his activism—and I’ve always wanted to work with him. What he didn’t know is how much of a secret fan of this genre I am. The story is gripping and enraging and shocking to me, but it also has this human component because it’s told through the narrative of Rob Bilott, an unlikely person to take on DuPont. The circumstances presented themselves to him and forced him to rethink what he does and what kind of practices he was protecting as a defense attorney.
At first, I had a busy schedule and didn’t think I was going to able to do it. But then some room cleared up about a year later and I thought I could do the film. But the first writer was busy at that time, so I thought, “Okay, let’s bring someone else in and start working on the script some more, get in deeper.”
Did you know the screenwriters, Mario Correa and Carnahan?
No, but I got to know Mario from samples of his work. I really like what I read and brought him in. There was a real urgency to get this moving on the part of Participant and Mark. And I saw why, but I wanted to see where things would go; I can’t start shooting a movie that’s not ready to be shot. So I searched for a writer and found Mario. We all got freed up by the end of May 2018 and went to Cincinnati for the first time with Mark then. And I met the entire world of the film in Cincinnati, the whole cast of characters, through the Taft law firm. Then we went off to Parkersburg [in West Virginia] and met those people—visited Wilbur’s farm and met Jim Tennant and his brother. All this is to say that Mario and I had to start fresh in talking about the script and experiencing the research together and talking with people [who were involved in the real events] together. And so we embarked on a very different version of the script together.
How did you collaborate with Mario? Did you base your work together on the scenes and moments from the article you wanted to include in the script? And how did you figure out how to make complicated legal issues and jargon and processes dramatically compelling?
Those were precisely the challenges and questions we had. The focus initially was to find the darker and more conflicted parts of the story than what we’d been introduced to in the New York Times Magazine piece and the first draft of the script. There’s a tremendous amount of pain and terror involved in challenging systems of power. And the more you learn about a story like this—and this is true in films like this that I dig, like All the President’s Men, The Parallax View, Silkwood, The Insider—the bigger the story gets, the more haunted you are by the repercussions. You’re kind of like, “Holy shit, look what I’m on to.” You feel this in All the President’s Men, when [the reporters] can’t believe how the story’s growing, and the more the story grows the more your life seems to shrink. You become more alienated, your safety is more fraught, there’s less ease to your movements. It affects all the people involved: your family, your friends, your community. People begin to turn against you; they alienate you and besmirch your reputation. All that stuff, that’s all true to these experiences. And it’s all incredibly dramatic and it’s how you relate emotionally to these stories.
Truth-telling in movies is a slippery prospect because movies have a hard time telling the truth. And it’s important to question deliberate truth being told to you from any source, particularly one that’s based on entertainment and moneymaking. I’ve been really interested and uncomfortable making movies my whole life. But that’s why I wanted to make them, because they intersect with culture and commerce and identity and desire. So, you’re really in the crosshairs of a lot of contradictory forces. And that’s an exciting place to be when you’re not just interested in replicating a sense of well-being or escapism or affirmation of the system. And I guess that’s where this kind of genre is so great, because even if we’re following a lot of its conventions in ways that I don’t always follow for the conventions of the other films I’ve made, I believe this genre is fundamentally unsettling. There’s a stigma attached to the truth-teller that you also don’t necessarily expect. You think that, well, righteous truth is on your side, what do you have to fear? Well, everything.
I was just thinking of your past films, especially Safe and the suffocating environment of that film. How did you collaborate with Edward Lachman in achieving a similar atmosphere in Dark Waters? All of the themes and ideas you just described, how did you want to express them through the film’s cinematography?
I felt that a kind of restrained, observant camera and a kind of emotional coolness—both literally and figuratively—to the subject matter was apropos, especially in regard to Rob Bilott. There’s a kind of festering subjectivity in a movie like The Insider that I love, that works really well for that film and is pure Michael Mann. It’s laid on very thick, that aggressive subjectivity and myopic camera with a focal length that keeps shifting so you can’t really tell what’s going on—it links the 60 Minutes journalist and Jeff Wigand. In this movie, I was more drawn to cooler frames and a more restrained camera and proximity, like Gordon Willis’s cinematography in those ‘70s films. Because this felt more like Rob, it felt more cautious and pulled back. And it also allowed more movement from his world to the people he has to connect with, so you can move from one place to the next in the movie with more dexterity and not be competing with an intense subjective experience. Rob’s subjectivity is something that he learns in the course of stumbling onto this story. He learns how to see and then how to speak about what he sees in ways that he had never known before. So, I didn’t want to anticipate that point of view. I wanted that point of view to be something we watch ourselves. That’s something that for today’s culture and audience, I know that that was somewhat risky.
Well, because it’s asking an audience to be patient, and it’s asking an audience to find what’s important in the frame and not hit them over the head with it. That’s why those films from the ‘70s feel like they’re regarding the audience with a great deal of intellectual respect, to kind of figure out what the attitude is here. Whether it’s the case of the paranoia films of Alan Pakula or the first two Godfather movies, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a strong point of view because of the way they’re shot and lit. But there’s space to interpret what’s going on. That’s the choice that I made for this film. And Ed and I just liked the corporate spaces where much of the action takes place, these hollow spaces. I loved what the real Taft offices looked like.
It was shot in the real Taft offices?
Yeah, and where we built sets, the conference room and Rob’s office, we built them 10 floors up in the same building looking out over the exact skyline and with the exact same parameter of the architecture of this 1980s building. We used all the design elements from Taft: those striped frosted glass walls, the floating walls over the windows and under the ceiling, the 45-degree corridors that he sculpts through, the fact that there was no uniform size or shape to the windows across the entire parameter of the floors, and that they looked out onto these beautiful landscapes of skylines of downtown Cincinnati with flanks of interrupted space in architecture in the foreground and little surprising peaks all the way through the Ohio River if you just cocked your head a couple of inches one way or another. So, the whole sense of [Bilott’s] discovery of obfuscation was mirrored in the architecture and design of this space. You also have these surprising pockets of incredibly dark shadows and then sudden appearances of light from the windows. That was so visually informative and specific and I found it so beautiful. Some of my favorite shots of the film are these big, wide window shots with the snow falling, and a wide shot of Tom Terp [a senior partner at Taft] and Rob Bilott talking to each other from a distance. The weather contributed heavily to the look and feel of the movie; it was a bitter cold winter that we shot through. We tried to apply the same visual language to shooting at Wilbur’s farm and in Parkersburg, so you could feel these worlds were linked, that they weren’t separate.
Were you going for an Antonionian thing like in Safe, where the environment is both an influence on and reflection of the characters’ experience?
Yeah, a manifestation of their experience. And a place where you can get lost in the corridors and then places where you’re isolated in big, open spaces. It’s a place that felt both big and small intermittently, and that would sometimes alternate according to what’s going on emotionally or in the content.
That’s similar to how I felt in the scenes that take place in Parkersburg, where it’s this small, rural town and yet, from the way you capture it, it feels like it represents the entire world and its destruction from pollution. What decisions did you make in the cinematography of the film when you shot there?
Ed and I tend to favor this sort of dirty palette in almost any of my movies if you look back at them. But it shifts in tonality based on what the story is and what the time period of the story is and what the temperament of the movie is. For Dark Waters, we favored way more of a cool spectrum in the color timing, which gave the warmer interiors always this cool shadow. That meant that beige walls, you couldn’t tell if they were a warm or a cool color. Hannah Beachler designed the film, and we were all sort of in sync with picking design elements for the interiors that could move between warm and cool temperatures easily, depending on whether it’s light from outside coming in or Tungsten light from inside. You just never feel a relief of tensions and of a little bite of rigidity that invades these spaces. We certainly didn’t want to make Wilbur’s farm a place of rural pleasure or—
Yeah, and it gives you the sense that even truth is corruptible. So, Wilbur, who’s attached more to a notion of truth, he’s living in this contaminated space. Truth almost becomes a kind of toxin because it undermines the status quo and business as usual.
How did you work with some of the real-life players in the story, especially in gauging the accuracy of the film in relation to the real events?
We relied on them as much as we could. They were really eager partners in contributing to the film, and they all had to agree to that. Nobody on the DuPont side, of course, agreed to have their real names in the movie. Everyone else did and were advisors on the movie. And it was really lovely to have them come and join us on set and be pictured within scenes.
In I’m Not There, you had Heath Ledger’s version of Bob Dylan proclaim, “There’s no politics,” but only “sign language.” Throughout your career, you’ve often examined the signs and symbols through which people communicate individual, political, and cultural meaning. Was that also your concern in Dark Waters, even though the politics and social significance of the story are very much up front and center in the film and not imparted through metaphor?
I haven’t thought about that line and applying it to this movie, but I did feel with this story that the massiveness of this contamination, the fact that [C-8, a toxic chemical manufactured by DuPont] is in 98% of creatures on the planet…what can you say that about except for things as invasive and all-present as, I don’t know, capitalism or patriarchy—things that never asked for our permission for them to invade us. And so, in a way it makes us linked by these pernicious systems. We participate in them, we enable them, but what do you do? Do you pretend they don’t exist? Do you wish they could all disappear with one legal action? No. You get as knowledgeable as you can, you try to identify what they are, and you push back in certain ways. You develop a critical relationship to life and to social power, and how the individual is always the product or target of it.
The material through which systems work.
The material or outgrowth of it. I like that this movie reveals this, but there’s also no solution except how we interpret, how we stand up to small issues, bigger issues, how we engage with our system politically and culturally, and in how we live imperfectly between knowledge, ignorance, and despair. It’s a complicated and imperfect series of choices that we have to make. But what do you do instead? Do you put your head back in the sand? Do you go back and cook on Teflon [for which C-8 was manufactured]? Do you pretend that patriarchal systems don’t still function and distinguish between men and women and white people and black people? No, we need to be aware, and that’s what this film helps us do.
What are your upcoming projects?
My real passion project is a piece on Freud. That’s going to take a while to figure out because it needs to be a multi-part, episodic experience. That’s where my heart and soul are anchored, but I’ve just been busy elsewhere, as you can imagine. And there’s a Velvet Underground project; I just said yes when they came to me from the Universal Music Group that controls their music and half of all the other music that’s been recorded. I’m so into it, I’m so excited. We did 20 interviews. My decision was to only interview people who were there, band members, anybody of the surviving people who were around at the time, who really saw it up close, directly. So that meant getting Jonas Mekas on film right before he passed away, and getting John Cale, of course, and Maureen Tucker. We’ve just put together this insane archive of material, historical stuff, clips of the band, and pieces of Warhol films of the band that people have never seen before. It’s a real well, and I want to summon that time again. I want to immerse in it as much as possible. That’s our goal.
They deserve a major movie. They’re one of the greatest and most important bands ever, period.
Yeah. It’s going to be crazy good.
Review: Shooting the Mafia Is a Sketchy Tribute to an Iconic Photographer
At the center of the documentary is the struggle to reconcile the personal and political elements of art-making.2.5
At the center of director Kim Longinotto’s Shooting the Mafia is the struggle to reconcile the personal and political elements of art-making. The documentary tells the story of photographer Letizia Battaglia, who captured the brutality of the Cosa Nostra’s stranglehold over Sicily from the 1970s through the 2000s. Battaglia braved mafia funerals, taking pictures of connected associates who would have no issue with killing her. In one of the film’s juiciest moments, Battaglia, now an 80-something legend, tells of how she’d pretend to sneeze to muffle the sound of a camera. She also took photos of murder scenes, which are chilling tableaux of casual carnage. Children’s brains are seen splattered against street curbs, old women’s faces frozen in shock, cars upturned, and buildings caved in from explosions. Showing us these pictures, Longinotto illustrates Battaglia’s talent for aestheticizing tragedy, but without sentimentalizing the callousness of violence. The photographer’s compositions are beautiful wails of despair as well as acts of resistance.
Throughout Shooting the Mafia, Longinotto doesn’t entirely realize her one masterful formal conceit. The filmmaker contrasts Battaglia’s pictures with archival news footage of the crime scenes, in effect contrasting a closer approximation of “reality” with still art. In movement and in color, the crime scenes are hideous and offer true testament to the monstrousness of the Cosa Nostra, but as black-and-white stills, they’re imbued with Battaglia’s empathy and need to find grace notes in atrocity. This juxtaposition offers a thrilling illustration of the difference between art and documentation, and of the value of each. This is a kernel for a brilliant nonfiction film, but Longinotto clutters her project with less original gimmickry.
Longinotto is very much determined for her audience to see Battaglia as a feminist role model, as a beautiful young housewife who went rogue against the Italian patriarchy to actualize herself. This idea, in this context, underscores the danger of modern woke culture, which is so eager to define people with representational encouragement that it condescends to them in a different fashion. Battaglia’s photographs, and the risk she took going against the Cosa Nostra, are innately impressive. The sexism that she faced, especially as, reportedly, the first female Italian photographer, is obviously of paramount importance to her story, though Longinotto spends nearly a third of Shooting the Mafia’s 94-minute running time on Battaglia’s life as a girl and eventual coming of age after she rebelled against her husband. And this emphasis threatens to put Battaglia in a box, reductively psychoanalyzing her.
In Shooting the Mafia, we learn that Battaglia married as a teenager and had a family because that’s what you did in the 1940s and ‘50s. From the ‘60s onward, Battaglia lived a sexually and artistically open life, primarily in Palermo, becoming a journalist and a photographer, fraternizing with her younger collaborators. A beautiful and confident woman who was pushing 40 before finding her calling, Battaglia has been making up for lost time ever since, and Longinotto celebrates her awakening as an artist and lover while cheapening it with the cheesy placement of clips from Italian films, which often liken Battaglia to a gorgeous damsel in distress. The contemporary footage of Battaglia chain-smoking and holding court with her various exes is far more commanding and startlingly intimate, but Longinotto cuts these passages down to tidbits. In fact, Longinotto is so eager to celebrate her hero that she also glides past thornier portions of Battaglia’s life, such as the effect that her liberation might’ve had on the children she seems to have left behind. (Her husband is a non-entity.)
The film comes to life whenever it returns to Battaglia’s dealing with the Cosa Nostra. Longinotto skillfully sketches in a cast of pompous and frightening mafiosos, who suggest the ultimate manifestation of patriarchal madness. Especially memorable is Luciano Leggio, whom Battaglia once photographed as he was looking straight into her camera, shooting her a death stare. Those wide, smug eyes come to haunt the film, especially in an interview clip where Leggio flippantly speaks of crushing “mollusks” and “homosexuals” who come after him, he says, to prove their manhood. The most memorable image in Shooting the Mafia that isn’t shot by Battaglia is news footage of mob men in cages in court while they await hearing. They look unmistakably like wild animals, and they affirm Battaglia’s daring with graphic conviction.
Director: Kim Longinotto Distributor: Cohen Media Group Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Duet for Cannibals Is an Intriguing Mix of Pastiche and Parody
Susan Sontag’s debut film serves as an intriguing cinematic extension of her more well-known written work.3
Writing on Persona for Sight & Sound in 1967, Susan Sontag rhapsodized about Ingmar Bergman’s unorthodox handling of narrative, praising his decision to utilize the story structure as a “thematic resource” rather than a means of dispensing a coherent plot. “Images and dialogue are given which the viewer cannot help but find puzzling,” she wrote, “not being able to decipher whether certain scenes take place in the past, present or future; and whether certain images and episodes belong to ‘reality’ or ‘fantasy’.”
Two years later, after securing funding from the renowned film production company Sandrews, Sontag made Duet for Cannibals, her own attempt at capturing a slipstream-like roundelay of events, and in Swedish no less. Like Persona, her directorial debut hazards a similar bid for the arrangement of narrative as “variations on a theme,” and while the results aren’t quite on the same level as Bergman, they represent a respectable, effort on Sontag’s part to both break down narrative convention and advance her own personal ideas.
The story deals with a baroque series of escalating mind games between Bauer (Lars Ekborg), a famed German leftist living in exile in Stockholm, and Tomas (Gösta Ekman), his young assistant. Taking on the position from a mixture of politically sympathetic curiosity and financial desperation, Tomas and his relationship with his live-in girlfriend, Ingrid (Agneta Ekmanner), is put under heavy strain. This worsens as Bauer demands more and more of his time, forcing him to take up residence in his apartment, to better serve at his beck and call. Things only get more confusing when Ingrid herself enters the fray, paired against Bauer’s unstable Italian wife, Francesca (Adriana Asti), in a rectangle of dysfunctional connection.
Embarking on its own Bergmanesque fantasia, the film slips freely, often confusingly, between realist and surrealist crosscurrents. In one memorable moment, Tomas and Ingrid go on a boating date that ends abruptly when he spots his employer on shore; he leaps out of the boat to join him, leaving Ingrid behind on the water. The occurrence of such disjunctions itself becomes a form of comedy, as scene after scene quavers between straight-faced severity and utter absurdism. At one point, Tomas’s frustrating encounter with one of Bauer’s dictaphone recordings segues into a head-to-head dispute, the characters’ interpersonal borders proving as porous as those of the film itself. Instances like this prove Bauer’s complete mastery over his domain, promoting the possibility that this entire enterprise is some kind of twisted attempt to cuckold himself, ensnaring his novice employee by using his vivacious wife as bait.
His actual intent remains mysterious, establishing him as the cryptic on-screen analogue to Sontag’s destabilizing formal approach. Whether we’re witnessing the tectonic plates of text and subtext colliding roughly with one another, or just an elaborate gag at the expense of viewers primed to expect impenetrable, pretentious weirdness from their Euro art cinema, is never entirely clear. The film’s ultimate liability, in fact, is that it can’t seem to decide if it’s doing pastiche or parody. It’s clearest thematic throughline remains the metaphorical transfer of horrid, self-serving behavior—disguised as rigorous intellectual purity—forced down from one generation to another. Qualities of the older couple become imprinted upon the younger, in an unnerving mode that mixes the scholarly and the familial, with a marked sexual undertone that seems requisite to this kind of boundary-pushing experimentation.
Yet the sort of theorizing that Duet for Cannibals demands is bound to inevitably draw inquisitive viewers toward the type of analytical over-examination that Sontag railed against in “Against Interpretation,” one of her most famous essays and the basis of much of her work from this time period. The most plausible, and rewarding, explanation may then be that her directorial debut represents a cross-medium introduction of this theory of sensual liberation into the cinematic bloodstream, antagonizing viewers as a further nudge to lay off the heavy textual lifting. It’s a lesson that may hold even greater relevance today, when the internet allows every inch of any given film to be picked over with a fine-toothed comb.
It also doesn’t hurt that Duet for Cannibals is frequently hilarious: An acidulous, dry humor runs beneath its formal provocations, from Bauer slowly spreading shaving cream over his car windshield to obscure the view inside, to a toned, briefs-clad man holding a handstand through the entirety of a pivotal dramatic scene. In this regard, the film feels ahead of its time, while totally leftfield in others. An interesting, if tonally inconsistent, experiment, it serves as an intriguing cinematic extension of its maker’s more well-known written work.
Cast: Gösta Ekman Jr., Lars Ekborg, Adriana Asti, Agneta Ekmanner, Stig Engström Director: Susan Sontag Screenwriter: Susan Sontag Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 1969
Review: The Good Liar Is Ambivalent to Both Genre and History
An airport novel of a movie, Bill Condon’s The Good Liar is efficient and consumable, if a bit hollow.2.5
An airport novel of a movie, Bill Condon’s The Good Liar is efficient and consumable, if a bit hollow. For the most part, the film successfully marries the levity of con-artist hijinks, the suspenseful ambiguity of a Hitchcockian romance, and the heightened realism of a postwar spy adventure. But like so many pulpish mysteries, its resolution fails to neatly tie up these elements, and though it’s never especially difficult to anticipate at least the general direction in which the plot’s twists are taking us, it’s an enjoyable couple of hours, held together by strong performances and an unpretentious presentation.
For reasons dictated by the protagonists’ ages and historically specific backstories, The Good Liar is set in 2009. British retirees Roy (Ian McKellan) and Betty (Helen Mirren) first meet on an online dating service, initially going by the respective pseudonyms of Brian and Estelle. Once these initial, foreshadowing lies have been dispelled, the two begin an adorably tepid romance, all handshakes and polite compliments. Betty hesitantly invites Roy over to her place when the restaurant where they planned to meet turns out to be closed. They watch Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and the two have a cordial debate about whether the film’s ahistorical representation poisons the minds of the young.
Of course, the Roy that Betty knows is a lie: Hardly a retiree, the octogenarian is an active, high-level financial scammer. We’re acquainted to Roy’s alter ego as he abandons his cane and strides ably into a strip club—a shot presented in low angle so as to capture some gratuitous nudity on the dancers’ raised platform. Roy proceeds to a private booth, where he and his partner in crime, Vincent (Jim Carter), are meeting with a pair of investors (Mark Lewis Jones and Stefan Kalipha) they’ve planning to scam out of their money. This subplot will eventually spill over into the main romantic plot, though through a more circuitous route than expected.
If, with its “exposed breasts connote shady dealings” rhetoric, this introduction to the seedy Roy lands a bit too hard, McKellan’s performance is more successful in threading together the multiple sides of the man. Even before Roy’s criminal associates start alluding to his dark past, McKellan suggests the weight of a troubled history in his character’s actions. He communicates a sadness and resentment that isn’t manifest in the dialogue, even as Roy takes evident pleasure in the money scams he runs on investors and, eventually, on Betty.
The Good Liar is the type of neatly fabricated mystery in which every emphasized detail will prove to be significant, so when Betty’s grandson, Steven (Russell Tovey), explains that his dissertation topic is the Nazi architect Albert Speer, one can guess that WWII will play some role in the resolution of Roy and Betty’s romantic arc. When Betty suggests a continental vacation—first stop, Berlin—it’s fairly obvious that a confrontation with Roy’s shrouded war history is in the mix. Still, the final third of the film proves to be more deeply rooted in ‘40s Germany than even the pointed discussion of Speer suggests, but don’t look to the film for any particular insight into wartime Germany or the experiences of the “greatest generation.” Here, the war serves mostly as a dramatic facilitator of final twist rather than a lived experience.
Eventually, Betty, who, as the duped party throughout, comes off as far less intelligent than the former Oxford professor she’s meant to be, gets some narrative agency. But it comes so late, and in the form of a twist whose general outlines we can sense from very early on, that it hardly avoids feeling tokenistic. Playing the part of sweet Betty, fooled into all manner of duplicitous arrangements with Roy, Mirren has comparatively little to do. At times, you may expect the film to become a kind of geriatric Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but the expected turn comes too late for Betty to really get in on any action. Unlike Inglourious Basterds, with which it self-consciously contrasts itself, The Good Liar isn’t interested in a challenging remix of either genre or history—content instead with mild, safely conventional entertainment.
Cast: Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen, Russell Tovey, Jim Carter, Mark Lewis Jones, Céline Buckens, Nell Williams, Phil Dunster, Laurie Davidson, Jóhannes Kaukur Jóhannesson Director: Bill Condon Screenwriter: Jeffrey Hatcher, Nicholas Searle Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 109 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Todd Haynes’s Dark Waters Spreads the News, Without Embellishment
Haynes’s film intermittently hits upon a few original ways of representing its ripped-from-the-headlines mandate.2.5
Todd Haynes’s Dark Waters is the sort of film that may win awards and plaudits, even as it’s poised to be overlooked for its craftsmanship. Haynes and screenwriters Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan communicate their story—a true one about the ways corporate greed can lead to irreparable health crises and environmental damage—without an ounce of pretense, which also means that they risk making it seem indistinguishable from other recent topical films like Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight. Yet while it doesn’t rewrite the book on the legal thriller genre, Dark Waters also intermittently hits upon a few original ways of representing its ripped-from-the-headlines mandate. Faint praise, perhaps, but this film aims to spread the news rather than bask in its own glory.
In 1998, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a farmer from Parkersburg, West Virginia, attempts to enlist Cincinnati lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) to file suit against DuPont. The chemical company, it seems, has been dumping toxic chemicals in a landfill near Tennant’s farm, polluting its creek and killing its livestock. As an attorney for a firm that defends corporations, Bilott initially refuses the case but eventually goes to bat for Tennant: Bilott grew up in West Virginia and becomes emotionally invested in protecting the land he loved as a child.
In the course of his investigation, Bilott discovers links between cancers and birth defects in the Parkersburg community and Dupont’s unregulated manufacture and disposal of PFOA (or C8), an indestructible chemical prevalent in many everyday household products. Yet what should be an open-and-shut case of corporate malfeasance and corruption drags on for years due to Dupont’s legal maneuvering, which costs Bilott his health and many of Bill’s clients their patience and social inclusion in Parkersburg, a Dupont company town to its core.
Dark Water’s strong suit is its central performances. As Bilott, Ruffalo provides a bristling tension in exploring the grey area between moral conviction and obsession as the lawyer’s selflessness borders on single-mindedness. And a scene-stealing Camp uses his bulk, not to mention a convincing rural drawl, to impart various shades of frustration, outrage, sadness, and disillusionment in the face of Tennant’s near-helpless situation. Anne Hathaway, on the other hand, can only do so much in the role of Bilott’s wife, Sarah, who seems to exist only to criticize others, be it her husband for his tunnel vision or his senior partner, Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), for taking Bilott’s self-sacrifice for granted. Given Sarah’s intriguing backstory (she gave up a career in law to become a housewife), as well as Haynes’s predilection for exploring complex women, her characterization feels especially thin.
More important, perhaps, than any of these characters is West Virginia itself. The state isn’t featured often on film, which is a shame since it possesses an abundance of natural beauty. Of course, you won’t see that in Dark Waters, as Edward Lachman’s cinematography evokes the spoilage of that beauty by employing sickly, desaturated blues and greens, especially in outdoor winter scenes where you can practically feel the despair emanating from the screen. In this sense, the film harkens back to Haynes’s Safe, where toxicity appeared to suffuse the protagonist’s ordinary surroundings. The environmental details of Dark Waters reinforce the depth and expansiveness of Dupont’s crime, so that by the time John Denver’s signature “Take Me Home, Country Roads” ironically, if inevitably, plays during one of Bilott’s deflating drives through Parkersburg, Haynes has made the audience feel that this isn’t some remote, godforsaken hamlet, but rather the entire polluted planet.
Still, the best parts of Dark Waters may make you wish that there was more of Haynes in it. The filmmaker hasn’t written one of his own projects since the outstanding Mildred Pierce miniseries, but whereas Carol and Wonderstruck at least continued the director’s thematic and aesthetic preoccupations in their investigation of outcasts searching for romantic and familial connections, Dark Waters feels relatively faceless. Aside from its color scheme, there isn’t much in the film that’s particularly or uniquely cinematic; this is a dramatic rather than a visual showcase, and one often confined to legal conversations in generic offices, meeting rooms, and courts of law. But perhaps it’s to Haynes’s credit that he lets the drama speak for itself, instead of feeling the need to embellish it. After all, the point of this film is to depict how an enormous human and environmental tragedy initially affects a small community, with Tennant, Bilott, and Parkersburg suffering the full-force C-8 blast first and hardest.
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Bill Camp, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Victor Garber, Mare Winningham, William Jackson Harper, Louisa Krause Director: Todd Haynes Screenwriter: Mario Correa, Matthew Michael Carnahan Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 126 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Charlie’s Angels Has Good Intentions but Lives in La-La Land
All the feminist virtue-signaling in the world can’t conceal the film’s creative conservatism.1.5
As a minor cultural institution, Charlie’s Angels has, in all its TV and film incarnations, operated as a kind of Rorschach test: Fans see it flying the female empowerment flag by bringing women into the traditionally male detective genre, while critics by and large view it as a symptom of feminist backlash, objectifying its stars in the service of campy male fantasy. Now, by diversifying its cast and placing a female writer-director, Elizabeth Banks, at its helm, the new Charlie’s Angels attempts to remove all political doubt: These Angels are woke and answer to no man, not even one issuing orders from a speaker box. The intention is pure, but in the end, the emancipatory aims of this reboot exist only in la-la land, its feminism failing to resonate beyond the cynicism of corporate rebranding.
Mostly remembered as a montage of iconic images, the 1970s Aaron Spelling-produced TV series was actually a bore, its success depending solely on the charisma of its lead actresses; the two early-aughts films, both directed by McG, were 100% cheesecake, hypersexualizing its actresses in what amounted to glorified music videos. The new Charlie’s Angels moves well and at least puts forth a semblance of reality, with a few moments hinting at the tense, moody spy thriller it might have been. Yet the dominant strain of its DNA is the Generic Action Movie, and all the feminist virtue-signaling in the world can’t conceal its creative conservatism.
The plot centers on the usual stuff of spies and saboteurs. Not yet an official Angel, Elena (Naomi Scott) works for a company that’s run by an Elon Musk type (Sam Claflin) and creates an electronics product that possesses deadly potential. When her superiors bury her report on its risks, Elena enlists the Angels—Sabina (Kristen Stewart) and Jane (Ella Balinska)—to help blow the whistle. But sinister parties, of course, want the gadget for themselves, and most of the film consists of a series of car chases, break-ins, and stakeouts as the Angels pursue the MacGuffin in the name of global security. Speaking of global: Charlie’s private investigation firm is now an international business, with multiple Bosleys leading their own teams of lady spies. And in a first for the franchise, our Angels’ Bosley is played by a woman (Banks).
Indeed, the film has a female-led, rather than female-focused, bent. Having nothing to do with the story, the opening credits sequence features a celebratory montage of girls from around the world, and the finale and end credits reveal Charlie’s agency to be run by women, a far cry from the TV series’s patriarchal framing: “Once upon a time there were three little girls…now they work for me. My name is Charlie.” Banks’s coup de grace “twist” on the Charlie’s Angels formula is diversity in casting, as the Angels are played by one out actress and two of color.
Stewart is the film’s most potentially interesting presence. In the opening scene, Sabina seduces a bad guy by wearing an ultra-femme disguise that includes a cascade of flowing blond hair, and when removing it to enter fight mode, she reveals a dyed, short-cropped butch ‘do. Yet the rest of the film fails to develop the code-switching possibilities of her character or anyone else’s. There’s a slew of nearly preternatural wardrobe changes (at one point, Sabina dons a jockey’s outfit for some reason), but that’s been par for the course in the world of Charlie’s Angels since the Ford administration, with much of the franchise’s appeal residing in the material fetishism attendant in an endless game of dress-up. Like their predecessors, these Angels look glamorous and gorgeous while fighting crime, and while Stewart’s queerness may qualify her objectification, and actually makes her more of a subject (as when she sneaks a lascivious peek at an attractive woman), it’s only in a relative sense. Overall, her on-screen appearance is lensed as much for exploitative pleasure as vicarious admiration.
One major appeal of the Charlie’s Angels properties is seeing men consistently underestimate the physical and intellectual capability of its female leads. But because she dares nothing visually or dramatically original, Banks prevents the Angels from exhibiting unique or surprising traits. The Angels’ bios are strictly single-line affairs: Sabina is rebellious and sarcastic, Jane is steely and professional, and Elena is goofy and wide-eyed. And all of them quip and banter in similarly sitcom-ish rhythms. Ultimately, Banks believes it’s enough that queer and brown women perform the same suspense-free action set pieces and combat choreography that their white male counterparts have performed since time immemorial.
In contrast to McG’s films, which took place in the realm of a live-action candy-colored cartoon, the world of this Charlie’s Angels vaguely resembles our own, giving Banks the opportunity to show what real—or at least real-er—women can do in seriously intense and perilous situations. But save for a few stressed situations and unique notes (such as Luis Gerardo Méndez’s Q-like Saint, who’s both the Angels’ weapons expert and their health advisor and spiritual guru), this film is so much disposable entertainment. It’s too frenetic, tongue in cheek, and impersonal to extend its vague feminism to true individualism.
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, Ella Balinska, Elizabeth Banks, Patrick Stewart, Djimon Hounsou, Sam Claflin, Noah Centineo, Jonathan Tucker, Nat Faxon, Chris Pang, Luis Gerardo Méndez Director: Elizabeth Banks Screenwriter: Elizabeth Banks Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack
Interview: Lauren Greenfield on The Kingmaker and Threats to Democracy
Greenfield discusses how the film relates to her body of work and the warnings Americans ought to heed from it.
When it comes to documenting stories about the dark underbelly of wealth in contemporary society, Lauren Greenfield is like a moth drawn to a flame. A photographer by trade who has ventured into documentary filmmaking, Greenfield broke out in 2012 with The Queen of Versailles, a “riches-to-rags” tale of how billionaire Florida couple Jackie and Robert Siegel attempted to build an American equivalent to Versailles. Their absurd ambition amounts to their folly as construction kicks off at the height of the Great Recession and strains their precarious finances, leaving the mansion unfinished. Greenfield continued this theme in her 2018 documentary Generation Wealth, a companion film to her monograph of the same name that follows multiple less bombastic tales of how an unfettered pursuit of opulence and glamour results in deep emptiness.
Greenfield’s new documentary, The Kingmaker, began with her interest in another powerful symbol for the hollowness of wealth and power. In the Philippines, former First Lady Imelda Marcos evicted the native population of Calauit Island, located in the Calamian Archipelago, and replaced the inhabitants with African animals. Though the regime of her husband, Ferdinand E. Marcos, fell and drove the family into exile and disrepute, the animals remained. Generations later, the creatures’ inbreeding and the general disarray of the island’s ecosystem appears to be a fitting testament to the corruption and incompetence of their rule.
And yet, once Greenfield began to sit with the octogenarian Imelda Marcos, she found a subject spinning an alternate story, as well as a populace willing to believe it. The Kingmaker portrays the unfolding of a terrifying period in the history of the Philippines of how a political dynasty can rewrite the history of human rights abuses and corruption in order to return to power. While events continue to unfold in the country, the necessary forces and people are in place to pave the way for Imelda’s son, Bongbong Marcos, to assume the presidency in 2022.
I spoke with Greenfield prior to The Kingmaker’s premiere at DOC NYC to discuss how the documentary relates to her body of work as a whole as well as the warnings Americans ought to heed from it as a similar political dynamic to the one in the Philippines develops stateside.
You’ve said elsewhere that you liked Imelda on a personal level, but much like The Queen of Versailles, The Kingmaker itself remains a little ambiguous so the audience can come to their own conclusions about the subject. How do you finesse that ambiguity in your filmmaking and in the editing process?
It’s a little bit different with Imelda Marcos because I came in knowing the history. I was more interested in the paradox between the fact that when you’re with her, she’s kind and generous and personable, versus the terrible consequences of the huge human rights abuses she was complicit with. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I think she’s nice, let’s let the audience come to that conclusion.” I felt journalistically, ethically, and historically that I need to give the audience the information so they could see that what she was doing was telling untruths. So they could see that she was an unreliable narrator. That’s why, when I realized that about her, I brought in other voices that the audience would instinctively feel are credible.
It’s a little bit of a different journey because, in the beginning, you’re sucked into her personality, which is lovely and charismatic, and I wanted people to see that. It was the key to her political success. But, even by the end of the first act, when you know she’s depopulated an indigenous population to bring in the animals to her pet project island, I think you can’t abide by that anymore. By the time you hear about martial law and torture, you’re not thinking she’s nice anymore. Jackie Siegel was another journey because you start out thinking she’s horrible, and then you end up kind of rooting for her. For Imelda, I wanted to show her humanity, but it’s a paradox of how can a human do these terrible things and not feel any remorse.
When you started filming Imelda, you thought maybe the film would become a redemption story? At what point did you begin to realize that wasn’t going to play out?
I was still hoping for it, even at the very end—that maybe she’d have some kind of revelation. I thought there’d be a moment where she’s like, “Oh, I didn’t see it that way.” But looking back now, I was being naïve. Of course, this is not her first rodeo. She’s talked to the press a million times. During the election, I realized they were just going to lean into their story. There was a TV interview that Bongbong did, and the reporter said, “Are you going to say you’re sorry? Are you going to say you’re sorry for martial law?” That’s what people really wanted, for him to apologize. And he said, “What do I have to apologize for? Should I apologize for the roads? The infrastructure? The building that happened during that period? If I hurt somebody, I would apologize, but what do I have to apologize for?” When I heard that a few months into the election campaign, I realized they were going to lean into the story, into their rewriting of history that those were the good times, and they weren’t going to apologize. It’s kind of a Trumpian move: never apologize, never say you’re wrong, just say, “It was good, it was great!” And then people will eventually believe you.
Isn’t the film, at least for Imelda, a redemption story? She’s restoring honor to the family name and, in doing so, putting some power behind their wealth, which has become a little toothless in the absence of actual clout.
Well, she is trying to whitewash history. That’s her goal, politically, and it’s why she chose to participate in the film. She wants to put out her version of the Marcos legacy. That’s not what I meant by “redemption story.” I meant her having a moral moment of realizing she’s done something wrong. She does tell herself that she’s doing something good. I do believe she thinks she’s doing good, and that she believes her own story.
Everyone tells themselves a story of their life that makes sense, but the difference between the visions of grandeur of people like Imelda and Jackie Siegel and the average person is that they can manipulate reality to become their fantasy using wealth.
Her story helps her survive. It pushes her to keep going. Deep down, she feels like she’s doing the right thing. If she felt like she was doing terrible things, it would get in her way. It’s a strategic story that helps her live with it and get a young electorate on board for a comeback.
I found it a little difficult to discern toward the end: Does Imelda and the rest of the Marcos family see the contradictions in boosting a candidate like Rodrigo Duterte, who runs against the perceived corruption of a system only to re-legitimize a self-dealing former dynasty? Or is the irony completely lost on them?
I’m not sure that there’s a lot of irony there. Even though he pretends he’s one of the people, working class, talks trash, and swears, he’s actually from a place of privilege. There’s also a lot of corruption going on in this government. When Bongbong was campaigning, he also said he was going to go against corruption. That’s what everybody says. The reality is that Duterte’s father was in Ferdinand Marcos’s cabinet. Duterte looks up to Marcos. He’s threatened martial law. He likes the idea of the strongman. So, I think that they’re pretty aligned.
I was more surprised that Bongbong would align with Duterte because Bongbong was Western-educated and has the veneer of a legitimate politician, so I was surprised that he would go with somebody responsible for so many street killings. But, at the end of the day, it’s political. They made an alliance that’s helped them both. They could give Duterte support for becoming president, and in return they got the hero’s burial that Imelda has wanted for decades. Duterte backed the sister, Imee, for senate, and she won—as did every candidate that Duterte backed. Going into the next election, Duterte’s backing is extremely important.
A thread through your work is that people suffering from the adverse effects of wealth tend to cast themselves as victims in their own stories. From your experience, do you think that narrative holds any water? Or is it just a survival technique?
Yeah, I don’t think we need to shed any tears for Imelda. What I’m trying to do here, and in Generation Wealth, is to focus on the one percent and look at how it affects everybody else. That’s the important thing: looking at the long-term consequences of the Marcos regime and how the abuse of wealth and power affects everybody else. I came in looking at that through the animal island, but that’s really symbolic for how the Philippines was hurt by how the Marcos family, in taking five to 10 billion dollars, hurt development, created persistent poverty, and made the people vulnerable to bringing back another strongman and supporting people like Bongbong Marcos, but especially Duterte. Benigno Aquino, the president when I was filming and son of opposition leader Ninoy Aquino, said his father told him you can’t have democracy when you’re hungry. That’s what we see in the Philippines, democracy being threatened because people’s basic needs are not being met.
It almost feels like we’re doomed to live in a plutocracy forever.
That’s the irony. That’s what was so sad. It’s also similar to Trump, as people’s needs were not being met, so they voted for change only to have somebody who’s really on the side of the wealthy. It’s ironic that these people get brought in by the support of the working class. But in the Philippines, you’re not even talking about the working class. You’re talking about deep, deep poverty where people are getting money, food, or clothing in exchange for votes. And especially without proper information, the history not being taught in the schoolbooks or not as many outlets of independent journalism, it’s very hard for a democracy to thrive.
You’ve noted that Imelda is yet another adherent of the “dictator chic” style—the gauche, in-your-face extravagance that attracts aspiring autocrats from Trump to Saddam Hussein. As someone who observes the intersection of wealth and aesthetics, do you have any theories about why this phenomenon cuts across the globe?
In a way, that was a little bit more of what I looked at in Generation Wealth. There’s an aspirational nobility that people with power want, like being a king or a queen. You see that in the portrait of Imelda at the beginning of the film and in some of the commissioned portraiture she did—and, for that matter, some of what the Siegels did. You can see the love for gold that Trump has. I think it’s an association with nobility, especially for the nouveau riche and people who are ambitiously climbing their way up.
As someone who’s studied and documented wealth across the world, what do you make of this moment in America where it seems like a large portion of the country worships an opulent, self-proclaimed wealthy leader and another large portion finds inspiration in politicians who are rallying people against the idea of concentrated wealth?
Well, I definitely think we’re at a really precarious time at the moment, because the amount of inequality we have right now is dangerous for any society or democracy. And dangerous economically. We have this myth of the American dream where anyone can go from rags to riches. I think that’s what’s standing between us and revolution, even though many people are not sharing in the spoils of our economy. It’s because of this “keeping up with the Kardashians” mindset. In Generation Wealth, I looked at how in the space of a generation, people went from “keeping up with the Joneses,” their neighbors, to keeping up with the Kardashians, these ultra-wealthy people they see on TV. It’s so unrealistic, and yet there’s this deep myth in the culture that you can become that one day, through a reality show or whatever it is. Obama called that out more than two decades ago when he was a lawyer. The thing about Donald Trump is that people think they can be him one day, or maybe their child can be him. There’s this illusion that keeps people accepting the status quo.
And then I think there’s a waking up happening, particularly among young people, that that’s not going to happen, and that there’s some real rot. The game is rigged, and what they’re telling us is the goal—being rich—isn’t actually making people happy. Especially on the millennial side, there are signs of people waking up and wanting something different. The problem is that the culture and corporate capitalism are so slanted toward keeping the status quo. Just money in politics, for example, and the disinformation from social media. We saw it in the Philippines, we saw it here, we saw it with Brexit. That’s the thing Andy Bautista [former head of the Philippines’ Presidential Commission on Good Government] keeps telling me about the Philippines: If you have money, you have speech because you can put forward lies on social media and convince people of that. And it’s kind of like that here as well.
Review: The Hottest August Is a Rich Patchwork of Discontented Voices
Brett Story’s documentary represents a city ground down by inequality and division.3
Throughout The Hottest August, director Brett Story asks her interview subjects—a collection of mostly working-class, outer-borough residents of New York City—for their feelings about the future. More interesting than these people’s answers are the way their faces change as they process the question, invariably morphing into an ironic smirk. From there, the responses are despairing, even at their most hopeful, as nearly every subject answers with a summation of their career goals or their desire to earn more money.
Our collective failure to reckon with the onward march of climate change and vulture capitalism is the often unspoken subject of this structuralist documentary, which was filmed over the course of August 2017. Though Story makes her themes clear in a voiceover narrative (recited by Clare Coulter) that combines the director’s own writings with those of Karl Marx, Zadie Smith, and Annie Dillard, the people in The Hottest August have other things on their minds. A college student who works at a call center for wealthy investors describes herself as an “entrepreneur,” while a man driving a food truck has to move out of his apartment the following day without having found a new home. Periodically, the artist Ayodamola Okunseinde wanders the streets as a character he calls “The Afronaut,” clad in an Afro-futuristic spacesuit designed to encourage others to consider their own futures.
Even without this surreal image, the film’s photography (by Derek Howard) has an alien vibe, emphasizing humans that look rather small amid the buildings, beaches, and blockades they navigate every day. Apart from a ‘20s-themed costume party on Governor’s Island, a few public parks, and, of course, a subway car, most of the landscapes in The Hottest August are weirdly underpopulated. This is appropriate for a film that seems equally inspired by Chris Marker’s sci-fi-inflected essay films and Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer, and also for a work that must invariably address the gentrification of New York’s neighborhoods.
The middle- and upper-class New Yorkers glimpsed in The Hottest August are most often seen peering through windows or standing in desolate corporate courtyards. Gridlike compositions of air-conditioning units are dotted with running flat-screen televisions or films projected onto white walls. The public square is hard to locate, and Story finds them where she can: a Black Lives Matter rally where black speakers address an overwhelmingly white crowd; a Staten Island cop bar where politics are deemed verboten until one ex-police officer goes on a rant against a mythical welfare queen; a recreational softball league that descends into a near brawl; or the beach, where most of the subjects Story talks to are underemployed.
Near the beach in the Rockaways, one small home has been raised multiple stories on stacks of wooden pallets. Those closest to the water ignore post-Hurricane Sandy evacuation notices and dismiss climate change as Al Gore’s ploy to get rich and speaking with certainty that the hurricane’s status as a “100-year storm” means that they’re safe for another century. That’s not the most immediate delusion to be found in The Hottest August, which spends a few scenes with working-class Italian-American couple who gradually express their frustration with a diversifying neighborhood, culminating in an actual “I’m not racist, but” monologue.
Where Story’s previous film, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, meticulously depicted how the tentacles of mass incarceration creep into civic life, The Hottest August is a more loosely guided snapshot of generalized resentment. People are mad at the rich, who they also want to be. And then there are those clever enough to seek to profit from the ambient rage of the era: an entrepreneur who runs an industrial space where clients can destroy everything in sight, or a hipster from a VR company who barely believes his own bullshit about the automation revelation yielding a universal basic income where all will be free to do as they please.
With The Hottest Summer, Story puts on display a New York City that’s very different from the one depicted in Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights, where every corner and office is teeming with representations of active, often progressive political and social discourse. While there are moments of grace and whimsy in here (a woman on a bench texting next to a duck, a smart young skateboarder who rides Story for interviewing some loudmouthed teens in the same park), the documentary represents a city ground down by inequality and division, where millions of selves who have by and large given up on one another.
Director: Brett Story Distributor: Grasshopper Film
Review: I Lost My Body Finds Poetry in Tracing Life’s Uncertainties
It focuses equally on moments of shared connection and incidental loss until the two feel indistinguishable.3
Naofel (Hakim Faris) has a small birthmark between the knuckles of his right hand’s pointer and middle fingers. This would be the appendage’s most distinctive characteristic if not for the fact that, after being severed from Naofel’s body, it develops a will of its own. Throughout I Lost My Body, the hand skitters around of its own accord, using its fingers to crawl out of the hospital lab where it was kept following Naofel’s grim accident. Jérémy Clapin’s animated film chronicles the journey of that hand through, among other places, the rooftops and gutters of Paris, into a river and across a highway, in an attempt to reunite with its owner, dodging animals and cars along the way.
Do hands have memories? Naofel’s right hand certainly seems to. As the wayward appendage propels itself through the air with an open umbrella or flicks a lighter to fend off a bunch of subway rats, flashbacks recall the young man’s troubled, lonely life. He feels adrift, barely present in a world that seems only to have harsh words and unhappiness for him. He’s at odds with the relatives who took him in after the death of his parents in a car accident, and his half of a shared room is unfurnished save for the mattress placed directly on the floor. He works as a pizza delivery boy, but he isn’t a particularly good one, as he’s often late and, in one scene, scatters his pizza boxes into the street after crashing his bike into a car.
Many of I Lost My Body’s flashbacks foreground Naofel’s hand as though presenting its perspective. People and objects loom above it, its digits taking up wide swaths of the frame as they cling with insect-like precision to boxes or hold a microphone in their grip. Tight close-ups capture the fingers tapping random objects or emerging from the sand, and there are even POV shots of the hand peeking out from a dumpster or prodding the plastic bag it’s wrapped in. These sequences are a great showcase for the film’s subdued, naturalistic, and, above all, detail-rich hand-drawn animation: We see fidgeting fingers grabbing onto a locker door, a pigeon laboriously nudging the hand out of a gutter, and Naofel penciling lines onto blocks of wood that he’ll later trace over with a saw in his woodworking apprenticeship.
The metaphor at the heart of the film seems deceptively obvious: disconnection from the world and other people, literalized through a hand severed from its rightful body. But Clapin complicates that metaphor every step of the way, as in a flashback where Naofel’s father explains to him that, in order to catch a fly, the boy must aim where the fly will be rather than where it is. But knowing how to catch the fly doesn’t necessarily make the task any easier to accomplish, and the film’s depiction of fate follows a similarly unpredictable trajectory.
Through images of loneliness, as in a wooden igloo cobbled together on a rooftop, I Lost My Body builds an atmosphere of isolation and, above all, uncertainty. Because while Naofel takes his father’s advice to heart, his own attempts to live unpredictably, ahead of fate, do not always work out for him. His infatuation with Gabrielle (Victoire Du Bois), initially so stirring as they close their eyes to listen to the rain and the wind from separate ends of an apartment intercom, goes in a few stalkerish directions. She rejects him for being a creep, and Naofel ironically comes to find fulfillment not in a relationship, as he had hoped, but in the woodworking he initially took up only to impress Gabrielle. I Lost My Body finds poetry in tracing life’s uncertainties, focusing equally on moments of shared connection and incidental loss until the two feel indistinguishable, as one part of a delicate whole.
Cast: Hakim Faris, Victoire Du Bois, Patrick d'Assumçao Director: Jérémy Clapin Screenwriter: Jérémy Clapin, Guillaume Laurant Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 81 min Rating: NR Year: 2019