Jason Bellamy: Terrence Malick’s fifth film hadn’t crawled beyond Cannes, New York or Los Angeles before speculation intensified about the director’s future projects. It’s a natural reaction, I suppose, given that Malick once went 20 years between pictures; as important as it is to have Malick in our present, his fans also want reassurance that he’ll be back again—eventually if not immediately, later if not soon enough. According to reports, Malick’s fans can rest easy: leftover footage from this film is planned for a documentary, and principal photography has wrapped on what is now being referred to as a Ben Affleck-Rachel McAdams project, even though Malick’s tendencies in the editing room could reduce those headliners to bit players by the time the film premieres. Malick will turn 68 this November, but barring any health problems it seems safe to assume we haven’t seen the last of him. And yet The Tree of Life feels like a swansong.
It’s epic, daring and almost painfully heartfelt. It’s ambiguous and overt. It deals in spirituality and science. It either alludes to Malick’s previous films or liberally borrows from them: tokens buried underground as in Badlands; a snake illustration straight out of Days of Heaven; a woman on a swing as in The Thin Red Line; a (street) lamp shining against the midnight blue sky as in The New World; and so on. It’s the summation of all that Malick seemed to be and a doorway to something beyond that. It’s an unmistakably personal film—a conclusion I reached long before I learned that it’s quasi-autobiographical, too. It’s the kind of film you might expect from a director who worries that he might never make another one—a pull-out-all-the-stops, bounce-the-check-to-the-undertaker, this-time-for-sure purging of the soul. It’s as if to die in peace Malick needed to get The Tree of Life off his chest.
It’s his most challenging film, and perhaps his messiest, too. And for those reasons in particular it took a second viewing for me to fully appreciate its scope, its intimacy and its intricacies—which isn’t to say I’ve figured it all out or come to peace with a sequence that might be the most disappointing in Malick’s career. But when I watch The Tree of Life I’m overwhelmed by the sense that I’m witnessing the work of a filmmaker who feels he has run out of time for holding back.
Ed Howard: It’s such a daring film, totally. The comments on our conversation about Malick’s first four films helped me to clarify some of my ambivalence about The Thin Red Line and The New World, giving shape to a complaint that I hadn’t articulated very well in the conversation itself: that those films are marred by half measures, stuck halfway between narrative cinema and the avant-garde, resting somewhat uneasily in both worlds. That is not a complaint that could be applied to most of The Tree of Life, but strangely enough, not because Malick has gone fully in one direction or another. Instead, I think he’s just reached a more assured balance between those two impulses—at least for part of the movie.
This is especially true of the long sequence that encompasses the bulk of the film’s second half, a gorgeous, emotionally and thematically rich memory of the childhood of three brothers living in Waco, Texas in the 1950s. This is, I think, quite simply the best thing Malick has ever made, and it perfectly addresses my earlier criticisms about the unsatisfying narrative currents in his most recent films. This whole sequence—which starts with the birth of the oldest brother and ends with a melancholy backward-looking shot as the family leaves their home to relocate for the father’s new job—is utterly stunning in every way, and is grounded in character and relationships to an extent that I don’t think Malick has ever before achieved.
That childhood sequence is a total masterpiece. The Tree of Life as a whole is not, I don’t think, but it’s certainly a very interesting film and, yes, a messy one, and also a very personal one. Parts of it are amazing. Parts of it are overblown and silly. Parts of it are overblown and silly and amazing. The cinematography is, of course, uniformly beautiful, if sometimes in the way a National Geographic nature special is beautiful. And then there’s the ending, which very nearly extinguished the good feelings I had about the hour leading up to this nauseatingly new agey coda. In that sense, The Tree of Life is typical of my conflicted responses to Malick’s previous two films, but neither of those films had anything that got to me quite like the troubled relationship between Jack (Hunter McCracken as a child, Sean Penn as an adult) and his father (Brad Pitt) does in this film. That this film contains some of Malick’s most remarkable work and, as we’ve both already hinted, some of his worst, suggests that The Tree of Life is indeed an ambitious film, a film that takes bold risks that don’t always pay off. As always, I admire Malick for that willingness to take risks, even as I wince at the moments where his results fall short of his ambitions. Because when, as in the childhood chapter of this film, everything comes together for him, the result is emotionally overwhelming, and says more about the human experience and the nature of life and death than Malick’s more overt philosophical statements ever do.
JB: Absolutely. And we might as well dive into that ending now, because we seem to agree that in addition to being disappointing in and of itself, it also undercuts the awesomeness of what comes before it, threatening to obliterate the impact of some of Malick’s finest work. The “coda,” by which I mean everything that happens after the O’Briens drive away from their Waco home, has to be the most awkward sequence in Malick’s filmography—cheesy, clichéd and feeble. It is not entirely void of richness, possessing as it does the mother’s (Jessica Chastain) acceptance of her child’s death and a bridge shot that neatly symbolizes man’s desire for connection (more on that later, I’m sure), but as a whole it’s a buzzkill. I can argue in favor of what it tries to do but not what it is. For 10 or 15 minutes, and it feels like longer, Malick follows the older Jack (Penn) as he wanders through a barren wasteland meant to evoke his adult loneliness, goes through a mysterious doorway and ends up on a beach—at sunset, naturally—where he is surrounded by his family and other anonymous souls wandering along the water’s edge in heavenly peace. The sequence succeeds in demonstrating Jack’s emotional catharsis, in a mathematical or architectural way, but it fails to actually conjure that emotion, to resonate.
Critic at large Steven Boone, who shares our disappointment with this sequence, argued that its inelegance is a direct result of its heavy-handed fabrication. Malick, Boone pointed out, makes films out of “found” moments—shooting liberally and often without structure in the first place, and then finding his film within that “found” footage in his extensive editing process. (Malick’s films are twice found, really.) In this coda, however, Malick seems to be directing the action, creating a scenario to meet a specific vision rather than letting the action come to him. It’s an astute observation, one that, to be fair, probably does a better job of explaining the effect of the scene (or lack thereof) than explaining how it went wrong conceptually, because while Malick certainly delights in “found” moments, he can premeditate with the best of ’em, whether that means giving us yet another house with curtains that blow in the wind or actually relocating from another yard the mighty tree that sits outside the O’Brien home. In any case, when Penn’s Jack, wearing a business suit, falls to his knees in the wet sand, his arms outstretched in exultation, it doesn’t come off as the act of a man in the midst of catharsis but rather like the gesture of an actor hitting his mark and sending an “exultation” signal flag up the pole for all to see.
EH: Yeah, the problems with the ending are legion, but the biggest one is how schematic it feels. In terms of style and approach, it’s the complete opposite of the material that preceds it. The childhood scenes are so rich in character nuance and observational detail. It’s all so specific; this story is apparently autobiographical for Malick, and it shows. If some of Malick’s previous characters and stories could be overly generic, that’s not even remotely a problem here, as the characters and settings are totally fleshed out. This story is thematically resonant, but the ideas being expressed through these characters—typically Malickian musings on elemental human attributes like love, control, ambition, loss, guilt, maturation—don’t feel forced or preachy. Instead, these ideas arise naturally from the characters’ interactions, and from the evocative, elliptical style that Malick uses to tell the story.
That’s why it’s such a letdown when Malick the heavy-handed symbolist returns for the final 15 minutes, not so much to wrap things up as to deliver a crushingly obvious vision of heaven that reminds me, of all things, of the similarly disappointing—and similarly saccharine and spiritually pat—conclusion of the TV series Lost. Why does Malick feel this need to literalize, at the last moment, the spiritual, abstract concepts that are expressed so movingly through the more grounded narrative sections? I don’t know, but it doesn’t work at all because while the young Jack is a fully functioning character, Jack as played by Penn is a total cipher who’s divorced from the depiction of his younger self. Whatever catharsis he finds on that beach, surrounded for some reason by people from his childhood, their appearances frozen in time as they looked in the 1950s while only he has aged, it’s an empty catharsis that squanders the real depth found elsewhere in the film.
I feel similarly about the mother’s acceptance of her child’s death, which is a fine idea but an awful scene. She’s bathed in white light, flanked by a pair of anonymous young women (angels I guess?) and repeatedly making the gesture of lifting her hands towards the sky and opening them, as though releasing something to fly up into the clouds. Not only is the idea hammered home with a complete lack of subtlety, but the visual sensibility of it is so lame and clichéd, an unthinking regurgitation of the most turgid form of religious imagery. It makes me wonder how such a visually accomplished filmmaker can make something so clunky—especially when the scenes like this are surrounded by the visual riches that make the best parts of this film so stunning.
JB: I think you’ve cut to the heart of it: Although there are fundamental challenges to conjuring catharsis through Penn’s scowling cipher, the scene’s biggest failure is its ordinariness. Malick, love him or loath him, has never been ordinary. He’s the guy who gives us extreme closeups of insects, who gives us stories that unfold during the magic hour and who gazes at forest canopies with the awe of someone taking in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He’s the guy who makes curtains blowing in the wind seem profound (mileage may vary). He’s the guy who gives us stream-of-consciousness narration that vacillates between poetic grandeur and plainspoken sophistication. Most significant of all, he’s the guy who for five films now has found religion, spirituality and seemingly even God himself in the natural world that most of us take for granted. Put all of that together and it’s utterly shocking that when Malick finally gets around to depicting heaven off earth—after spending his career stunning us with his depictions of heaven on earth—it would seem so uninspiring, so bland, so hackneyed. Malick aspires, as he always does, for heartfelt magnificence, but while the earnestness of the emotions and the lushness of the images are stamped with his trademark, the unimaginativeness of it all makes the profound prosaic. The beach sequence reminded you of the finale of Lost, reminded me of Clint Eastwood’s clumsy Hereafter and reminded Tom Shone of commercials for “sanitary napkins, or life insurance, depending on which channel you chance upon.”
Of course, maybe this is what The Beyond looks like to Malick. Or perhaps this is what Malick figured The Beyond looked like to Penn’s Jack. To which I say, fair enough. But the problem isn’t that the beach scene can’t be defended. The problem is that it fails to live up not only to the gracefulness of the Waco scenes before it but also to Malick’s entire oeuvre. Emotionally speaking, that scene needed to tower above almost any other scene in his career. And it doesn’t. Not even close. It feels small. I never watched Lost, but based on the chatter I’ve heard about the show’s disappointing finale, that might be the most apt comparison. Indeed, the beach scene is enough to make one think, “Wait a minute, you led us all this way for this?”
If I seem particularly critical of the coda, I suppose it’s because I feel the final moments of his previous two films are absolutely magnificent. This is the third Malick film that I’ve been lucky enough to discover in the theater upon its initial release, and I vividly remember, as The Thin Red Line and The New World were winding down, nearly clasping my hands together in prayer as I begged them to fade to black precisely where they do. Both The Thin Red Line and The New World end on emotional high points created from climaxing scores that quickly give way to the tranquil ambient noise of secluded nature. They end swiftly, even suddenly. But the coda of The Tree of Life drags on, and all the while the incredible power of the previous chapter escapes like air out of leaky balloon.
EH: Malick’s entire career has been oriented towards heaven, but I never expected him to literally depict the afterlife or the spiritual realm—and, as you point out in discussing how Malick has always found the religious in nature, I never felt like he needed to depict heaven itself in order to communicate his spiritual awe. And now that he has… yeah, you led us all this way for this? A heavenly beach and angels dressed in white robes and self-conscious gestures of acceptance and hugs all around? Maybe Jack hasn’t gone to heaven, maybe he just took an especially strong dose of Ambien. The aesthetic of the finale makes me think that it would have been a parody in the hands of a more satirically-minded filmmaker—the kind of saccharine mass-marketed heaven that Tyler Durden would have savagely mocked—but Malick apparently intends it earnestly. As you know from our discussion of Malick’s first four films, the director has always tipped too much in this overblown, self-serious direction for my tastes, but even a number of his longtime fans seem to have decided that the conclusion of his latest opus is a bit much.
That’s a shame, because if I’m especially disappointed by the final destination of The Tree of Life, much of the journey that leads there is exhilarating. The film begins in typical Malick fashion, an elliptical collage of fragmentary scenes of the O’Brien family in happy times (which will be expanded upon in the film’s second half), accompanied of course by whispery philosophical voiceovers. Then Malick leaps ahead in time to the parents learning of the death of one of their sons. Soon after, there’s a shot that absolutely slays me: the shadows of the children, projected upside-down on the concrete, running back and forth as they play. This shot will be echoed later in the film when young Jack runs down the front steps of the O’Brien house and then back up in reverse, his shadow stretched out behind him on the steps. But it’s the earlier shot that I find really haunting and unforgettable, a ghostly image that somehow crystallizes all the loss and grief of this family. Then, after a little break to show how dissatisfied and soulless adult Jack is (we know this because he works in a skyscraper!), Malick returns to the dawn of time, dramatizes the creation of the universe through near-abstract images of space and chemical reactions, spends some time with the dinosaurs before observing the meteor that wipes them out, and generally gives the impression that the entire history of the universe is leading towards the birth of the oldest O’Brien child.
As you said earlier, this is the work of a filmmaker who’s not holding back in the least. I’m not sure how I feel about some of it (the dinosaurs continue to puzzle and intrigue me) and some of it seems downright silly in that typically Malickian way (I couldn’t suppress an eye roll at the child swimming up through the underwater house right before being born), but it’s definitely quite a ride. And all of that is in many ways only setting the stage for the jaw-dropping childhood section of the film.
JB: If the beach coda is the most maligned portion of The Tree of Life—I’ve yet to find someone who goes so far as to praise it—the creation sequence is the most controversial. There are those who are all-in, those who are all-out, and then quite a few who seem to find the sequence awesome as a set piece but disjointed or even foolish in its application. After my first viewing of the film, I was probably in the latter camp (minus the “foolish” part). I was awestruck—and I don’t use that word lightly—by the utter beauty of the visual effects that depict gaseous clouds drifting, expanding and coalescing; that show planets and galaxies; that show the Big Bang and the meteor that did in the dinosaurs. I was swept up by the scope of it all, both in terms of what it represents and what it must have entailed to create. I was moved by Malick’s musical choices—the ethereal Funeral Canticle giving way to the rapturous Lacrimosa—which so perfectly convey the otherworldliness and incredibleness of the creation of life at a beyond-planetary level. And most of all I was touched by Malick’s courage: his willingness to abandon his human characters so completely and for so long, while exploring his amazement with the natural world at such an epic scale. In every way, the creation sequence is thrillingly limitless.
And yet I wondered if it fit and what it meant. I mentioned before that The Tree of Life feels like a swansong, and the creation sequence is one of the reasons why; as much as anything, it seemed as if Malick just needed to get it out of his system and thrust it into this film, in this place, for fear that otherwise his vision might never be realized. But then I saw the film again, and discovered that no matter the sequence’s origins—apparently, the creation sequence was originally conceived for another film called Q—it’s more than justified. In fact, it’s kind of the point.
Not long after the scene you mentioned with the shadows of playful boys dancing across the street (shadows of the mother’s boys in a memory? shadows of someone else’s boys in the present reminding Chastain’s character of her own children in the past? either works), there’s a scene in which the boys’ grandmother attempts to comfort the devastated mother with churchly wisdom: “Life goes on. People pass along. Nothing stays the same,” the grandmother says. “Lord gives and takes away—that’s the way he is.” But Mother isn’t buying it. She isn’t comforted by the thought that her dead son is now in God’s hands, because the way she figures it her son was in God’s hands all along. So eventually she asks the questions any grieving mother would ask: “Lord, why? Where were you?” And the creation sequence is the answer to that question.
But what does it say? There’s room for multiple interpretations. One reading is that the creation sequence refutes the idea of God, seeing as how it isn’t rooted in creationism. Another reading is that it confirms the presence of God, seeing as how the film starts and ends with a mystical gaseous presence that appears to be the egg from which the world hatched. I don’t think it really matters which of those is true. The crucial point is that the creation sequence suggests the lengths to which we the living often go to cope with death, questioning where we came from and why. Where was God, or Life, if you prefer? The creation sequence shows that He/It was everywhere, always.
EH: That’s a beautiful interpretation of those scenes. The creation sequence is the culmination of a thread that’s been running through all of Malick’s films, the idea that in the big picture, we’re all in this together. In The Thin Red Line, it was phrased as all of mankind sharing a single soul behind different faces. The Tree of Life isn’t so explicit about it, but the creation sequence positions humanity as another piece in the puzzle of nature. An important piece, perhaps—after all, the creation sequence does lead inexorably towards the creation of human life—but still just a piece, an aspect of a tremendously complex universe that encompasses processes occurring on a microscopic scale as well as dinosaurs towering above the ground. This is an idea that we’ve discussed in relation to all of Malick’s previous films as well. His positioning of humanity in the context of the natural world in his other films is here expanded into a grand statement on humanity’s place in the universe, in time, in a natural order that stretches back to the Big Bang.
One thing I find curious about all this is how strangely bloodless Malick’s idea of nature is. Earlier I compared some of the images from this stretch of the film to a National Geographic documentary, but I realize now that that’s not quite right. What’s missing is predation. If this sequence is meant to demonstrate the eternal cycle of life and death (and I think it is), then why does Malick seem unable to find a place for the violence of nature, for predators and their prey? His vision of nature has always been idealized—shots of foliage swaying in the breeze accompanied by beautiful music—but the incompleteness of it really struck home for me in the scenes with the dinosaurs. At one point, one dinosaur walks up to a dying dinosaur that is lying on the ground by a streambed. It seems clear that the dying dinosaur is going to be killed and eaten, but instead the other dinosaur simply plays with it a bit, putting a foot on its head and tapping it hesitantly in a manner that seems more feline than reptilian. When I was a kid, I doubtless would have known what these dinosaurs were on sight, but now I can only guess that this playful dinosaur isn’t a predator or a scavenger, or else the scene wouldn’t make much sense at all. Regardless, the dinosaur’s behavior seems kind of cutesy, like it’s an anthropomorphized cartoon rather than a real animal. It’s an odd note to be hitting in the midst of this epic journey from the Big Bang to 1950s America.
Malick at times tries to suggest that nature is cruel, that death is a part of life, but, presaging the new agey hokum of the finale, his images present a relaxed, beautiful natural world where a dinosaur dies a quiet death much like an old man lying in bed, gasping his last reptilian breaths while lying amidst the splendor of nature. Death has an uneasy place in this film. The two most important deaths in the film, the extinction of the dinosaurs and the death of the O’Briens’ son, occur from a distance, the former shown from space and the latter signaled by an impersonal telegram. Perhaps this is appropriate: the film is uncomfortable with death because the characters are uncomfortable with it. Death is uncomfortable, and as you suggest, Malick seems more interested in the human response to death than he is in death itself. The bloodiest cruelties of nature would seem out of place in Malick’s idyllic vision of nature as a church—accompanied, oft as not, by appropriately churchy music—but in this film the impact of death, at least, is viscerally felt. What’s interesting is that Malick communicates this loss most powerfully not by lingering in the aftermath of the tragedy (though the brief scenes of Pitt and Chastain expressing their grief are very powerful) but by returning to the time that preceded the loss, with the knowledge of that eventual loss haunting every moment of childhood happiness and familial strife.
JB: That’s a terrific observation. Malick’s films have of course been full of predatory behavior by humans: from Kit in Badlands, through the hunting down of Bill in Days of Heaven, the Battle of Guadalcanal in The Thin Red Line and the clashes of Europeans and “naturals” in The New World to this film, where ‘50s boyhood is marked with mild skirmishes of violence that suggest within them the potential for something uglier. But true predation has been missing. The closest things we can point to are the storm of locusts preying upon the wheat fields in Days of Heaven and the first dinosaur we see in this film, which lies on the beach with a large bloody gash down its side. It’s as if Malick doesn’t have it in his heart to observe the cruelty in nature that he sees in humankind. The scene you mention, when one dinosaur pins down the head of another dinosaur that’s slowly dying along a riverbed—they’re velociraptors, I think—indeed seems to be saying something quite deliberate. After all, this isn’t “found” footage; it’s choreographed CGI, which suggests that Malick conceived the scene with a specific intent in mind. But what is that scene saying?
I’m not sure. The most obvious reading, I guess, is to assume that the scene mirrors the behavior that we’ll see in Father and Jack in the ‘50s scenes to come, because the healthy raptor seems intent on demonstrating its dominance, much in the same way that Pitt’s Father asserts his power over his sons and Jack asserts his power over his younger brother. In each case, dinosaur, father and oldest son need others to respect their strength, much the same way Kit needs everyone around him to respect his. Put more simply, it’s as if Malick is suggesting that power struggles are as old as time. The Tree of Life begins with the mother narrating about her religious upbringing in which she was taught that life has two paths: “the way of nature and the way of grace.” As she explains: while grace forgives slights and injury, nature “places itself against others” and “looks for reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining.” Chastain’s Mother, of course, is this film’s representation of grace, and Pitt’s Father is the depiction of nature. And as we watch Jack and his younger brother, we quickly realize that Jack is nature and his brother is grace. What I find interesting is that a filmmaker known for romanticizing nature would equate it with violence. It seems to me that Malick is implying that violence is our default setting, and that those who can rise above nature, rather than succumb to it, are extraordinary.
EH: The nature/grace dichotomy is definitely one of the major threads in the film, but I actually find it to be one of the less interesting ideas that Malick is exploring here. There’s something a little simplistic, and typically idealized, about his depiction of the mother as this figure of purity and bliss, so focused on happiness and play that she hardly seems of this world. Indeed, at one point Malick depicts her, in the memory of one of her children, as floating above the ground, dancing lithely in the air as though she’s already in the process of drifting upwards to heaven. In comparison, the rest of her family is very much grounded in this lovingly detailed 1950s suburbia.
The relationship between Jack and his father—both of them infused with the qualities of “nature” according to Malick’s formulation—is the real heart of the film, and provides much of the most interesting tension and emotion. Father is, implicitly, linked to God by Malick. At one point one of the kids asks in voiceover, with mingled exasperation and curiosity, “Why does he hurt us, our father?” It’s a key question of the film, since one of Malick’s themes is the idea that bad things can and do happen to good people. This is an important question that, sooner or later, every religion has to answer for its adherents, since living a good life according to what God wants is never a guarantee of safety, longevity or happiness. It’s the question at the core of the book of Job, which is quoted at the beginning of the film and brought up in a homily delivered by a priest when the O’Briens go to church one morning. Why does he hurt us? The voiceover might be referring to God—why do bad things happen in the world?—but more concretely the line could also be about the O’Brien patriarch, who like God dispenses justice, punishment and love unpredictably. He is unknowable, like God. His family can’t be sure when his disciplinarian rigidity will burst into anger or when his cool demeanor will momentarily be overwhelmed by the displays of affection and warmth that he occasionally shows for the sons who he obviously does love. These children see their father as devout worshippers often see God: loving but unfathomable, strict, remote, as liable to dispense punishments as hugs.
Father aims for gruff wisdom but really just terrifies his kids, making them hate and fear him, to the point that they rejoice when he leaves. The parents might represent nature and grace, but they more convincingly embody discipline and freedom: where Father is bound by strict rules of behavior, codes of manliness, Mother is free, a childlike spirit of play and improvisation. One of the film’s funniest and most joyful scenes is the exuberant romp that breaks out when the three brothers wake up one morning (awoken by the ice cubes their mother smilingly places on their feet and necks) and realize that their father has left on a long business trip. With the disciplinarian absent, they can run around the house without fear, laughing and yelling and playing, mocking their father’s anger, chasing their mother with a lizard, while she alternates between scolding and laughing.
However, in the absence of the father’s moderating influence, a real darkness begins to creep in around the character of Jack, as he slides from harmlessly petty childhood infractions to fledgling acts of violence and destruction. A dark drone dominates the soundtrack, as Jack revels in the guilty thrill of breaking windows. He’s discomfited by the idea of launching a frog to its death with a firework but does it anyway, just to see how it feels. Most horribly, he betrays the guileless trust of his adoring brother, who he shoots in the finger with a BB gun, a moment of visceral pain that plays out on screen like a quick spasm of horror and pain and almost immediate guilt. The grace/nature dichotomy falls apart a little at moments like this, because Jack seems to need his father’s moral certitude and chilly discipline; the “grace” of his mother proves useless to deal with a world of pointless cruelty and sexual confusion. The freedom represented by the mother is also the freedom to do wrong, to hurt others, to succumb to negative emotions.
JB: I suppose that last part is true, but if so I think that creates problems for your discipline/freedom interpretation. Yes, the father is a strict disciplinarian. Yes, around the mother the boys are not just free from punishment but free in spirit, too. But Malick’s nature/grace dichotomy would suggest that to do wrong, to hurt others, to succumb to negative emotions, would be to turn one’s back on grace. That doesn’t mean grace is “useless,” because it’s not meant to be a disciplinary action so much as an ideal, the carrot to nature’s stick, a state of being that one achieves inwardly, not through external force.
When Jack acts out in this film, we’re seeing two things. First, we’re seeing the ramifications of jealousy: Jack envies his younger brother. He’s certain that his mother must love his younger sibling(s) more, and he feels removed from the bond that his guitar-playing brother has with their organ-playing father. Beyond that, one senses that, in the parlance of the film, Jack sees his brother as naturally graceful, and he resents him for it. It’s worth noting that in the scene in which the boys are trying to decide whether to break the windows of a neighbor’s shed, Jack’s younger brother silently shakes his head at the proposal just before Jack picks up his first rock to fire it into the glass. The window incident isn’t a random act of mischief so much as it’s an act of sibling rivalry; Jack breaks the windows precisely because his younger brother wouldn’t. Like so many children (or adults, really), he tries hard to stand out because he doesn’t fit in. And that brings us to the second thing we see when Jack acts out, breaking windows or shooting his brother with the BB gun: nature begetting nature. Jack wants to be his mother’s son, but he becomes his father’s son. He even says so at one point, telling his father that for all their differences he has more in common with him than with her—an admission that seems to surprise the father, who we presume feels he’s always struggled to connect with his oldest son.
For all the heavy-handedness with which the nature/grace dichotomy is first introduced, one of the film’s strengths is the artfulness with which these threads are woven together. For example, the mother’s playful way of waking up her tired boys with ice is offset by a scene in which the father walks into their bedroom and rips the sheets off of them—no time for gentleness or affection—with stern organ music playing in the background. Amidst shots of play there’s Jack’s punishment for slamming the screen door and a lecture on weeding. Chastain’s Mother is a nurturing, loving presence, talking softly to her children in bed at night and giving them gentle kisses. Pitt’s Father, on the other hand, typically fluctuates between threatening and peculiar—when he tries to teach his sons how to fight, they seem terrified by the strangeness of the exercise as much as anything. To Malick’s credit, he doesn’t portray Father as wholly monstrous. One of the film’s most touching images is the shot of soaking wet boys with huge smiles on their faces clinging to their father, who has been playfully spraying them with the garden hose. We can feel the father’s desire to connect with his sons, as he does so beautifully in the scene in which he plays the piano to accompany the middle son playing guitar. But, well, grace is not his nature. The father’s relationship with his sons, particularly Jack, can be summed up in one terrific shot, when Father leads Jack back toward their front lawn: his arm is outstretched as if to wrap around his son, but instead his hand grips his son around the back of his neck, like a police officer taking a suspect to his jail cell, as the setting sun shines through the two-foot-wide but almost endlessly deep emotional abyss between them.
EH: Your description of Mother as “a nurturing, loving presence” in contrast to Father’s stern and terrifying countenance suggests one of the other ways in which Malick sets up these two parents on opposite ends of a scale. These characters represent stereotyped and old-fashioned ideals for their respective genders, fulfilling societally expected roles so completely that they nearly become caricatures. Mother is nurturing and loving, sweet and kind, sensitive and graceful. Father is domineering, strong, unsentimental, reluctant to show any emotion other than anger. Part of the reason he’s so strict with his sons is that he wants to raise them to be what he thinks a man should be: that’s the rationale behind the boxing lesson, as well as the constant emphasis on discipline. It’s as though he’s preparing them to be in the military, which is why it’s so easy to assume that when one of his sons dies, years later, it happened at war in Vietnam. Father also tries to instill in his sons a distrust of other people and a cutthroat attitude towards business that Jack obviously internalizes, as evidenced by Penn’s portrayal of the older Jack as a stereotypical soulless businessman. One senses that Jack has grown up to be what his father wanted him to be, a hyper-successful masculine provider; his mother’s exaggerated femininity had comparatively little lasting impact on his personality.
If gender is important to the film’s depiction of family life, sexuality also enters into it in certain scenes. Malick’s films have always been circumspect about sex. There are sensual and romantic images in his films, especially The New World, but no real sex; indeed, it’s hard to imagine Pocahontas and John Smith in that film going beyond the playful, almost childlike romantic relationship they share, which seems to consist mostly of laying in the grass together. So it’s probably telling that the most sexual sequence in all of Malick’s work is the scene where Jack breaks into the home of a woman who he has been voyeuristically spying on. Jack walks around the house, fascinated by everything he sees as though all of it is an extension of the woman he’d been watching, and finally he takes one of the woman’s undergarments out of her dresser and spreads it out on the bed, admiring the sheer fabric, perhaps imagining the way its thin surfaces might lay against the woman’s body. The fetish-like way he engages with this garment, stealing it and then desperately getting rid of it by letting it drift off on the current of a river, suggests the intensity of the confused feelings overtaking him.
Jack’s fascination is sexual, but also related to class. The home obviously belongs to a much wealthier family than the O’Briens; it is nicely decorated and full of valuable knick-knacks. Jack’s voyeurism is motivated by more than a youthful, burgeoning libido. It’s also about a desire for a different sort of life, for an escape from the strife that so often fractures his own home life. Perhaps he even understands, on some intuitive level, that so much of his father’s bitterness is rooted in the O’Brien patriarch’s feeling that life has passed him by, that he’s failed to accomplish as much as he could or should have. (This, too, ties back to gender roles, since the father feels that he hasn’t been successful as a man and as a breadwinner.) When Jack walks through this home, his pseudo-sexual excitement is an echo of the similar scene in Days of Heaven when Abby walks around the farmer’s house, relishing the nice things that are now hers. Malick understands, and doesn’t judge these characters for their materialism: for those who had so little, a taste of something fine and fancy can be exhilarating.
Those feelings of avarice and jealousy are all tangled up with Jack’s developing sexuality, and also with guilt, shame, and the Freudian transference of his adoration for his mother to another woman. The sequence ends with Jack returning home, having disposed of the stolen slip, and confronting his mother, who seems to somehow know, if not precisely what he did, then at least that he did something. He can’t even look her in the eye, instead shuffling by, looking back with such a miserable expression, unsure of what he’s even feeling at this point. Moments like that are why the childhood section of The Tree of Life is so brilliant: seldom have the complicated, half-formed emotions of childhood, both positive and negative, been so intensely felt and so precisely conveyed.
JB: I agree with that last sentence wholeheartedly. I can’t remember where I read it, but at least one review of The Tree of Life suggested that it was yet another Malick picture without sexuality. But I don’t get that. As you’ve pointed out, it’s just a film without sex. Prior to the scene in which Jack enters the woman’s home, there are others in which he ogles the woman’s bare legs or comes up with an excuse to drink from her garden hose so that he might spy on her as she hangs her delicates on a clothesline. There is incredible eroticism to those scenes, and incredible youth, too. What we’re seeing there is true immaturity: adult sexuality that’s coming into form.
For all the movies that have been made about childhood, whether in the present tense or through a nostalgic filter for a bygone age, few do as wonderful a job of capturing what childhood feels like. The emotional highpoint of the film for me is the one that kicks off with the mother holding her child, looking up to the sky with a smile on her face and saying, “That’s where God lives.” Then, with Ma Vlast flowing in the background, Malick gives us a current of childhood images: boys running and chasing one another around the house; throwing a ball onto the roof; playing with 4th of July sparklers; climbing trees; and eventually crashing hard at night with dirty fingernails. The sequence ends with the boys hearing the sound of the screen door opening, signaling that their mother is about to call them in for the night, prompting them to scurry behind a tree across the street, hiding single file and then breaking into animal noises (perhaps my favorite image in the entire film). Later on we’ll see the episodes of mischief and more moments of pure innocence, and some that are a combination of the two, such as when Jack dares his brother to stick a wire hanger into a lamp. In each case, the boys seem to be wearing blue jeans, and sometimes nothing but blue jeans, as if they never take them off. (In a bit of irony, there are some shots in Malick’s film that remind of the John Hillcoat-directed Levi’s ad that so clearly ripped off Malick; indeed, Levi’s even gets a thank you in the closing credits.) When a truck comes through town spraying DDT, even that is a moment for childhood play. What Malick captures here is the endlessness of a childhood summer, and the spaciousness of 1950s childhood, where the boys seem entirely unteathered, free to explore, free to be boys.
These scenes stand in contrast to the shots of the older Jack, who looks back on his life from atop a Houston skyscraper. He’s an architect, apparently, at one point looking at blueprints that seem to show lots of tiny little offices or cubicles. “I feel like I’m bumping into walls,” Penn’s Jack says in the voiceover. “When did I lose you?” he asks. But does he mean his brother or his childhood spirit, his grace? His house is spare, like something out of a Kohler ad. It’s unlived-in. He’s boxed-in now, and he apparently longs for both the freedom of youth and the feeling of dirt underneath his fingernails.
EH: The scenes with Penn as Jack are the film’s weak point, but yeah, for the most part they do work in terms of the film’s symbolic system, the opposition between innocence and cynicism, between grace and nature. Interestingly, one thing I don’t think works is Penn’s comment about “bumping into walls.” Malick’s mise en scène goes out of its way to establish that this character is miserable and alienated: as you say, his house is bare and seems like a pristine model home rather than an actual lived-in residence, and at work he’s surrounded by steel and glass and concrete. At least one review I’ve read has pointed out that these are the first scenes in any of Malick’s films to be set in the present, and it’s consistent with his generally nostalgic, backward-looking sensibility that he seems to find the present lacking. But the images of skyscrapers towering up to the sky, high glass ceilings stretching up to views of the sky framed by steel beams, don’t seem as claustrophobic as Penn’s comment would suggest. Maybe I just don’t respond to Malick’s obvious suspicion of cities. Maybe Malick’s aesthetic is so naturally inclined to find beauty and awe everywhere that he makes these urban images too aesthetically appealing to support the idea advanced by the dialogue.
Or maybe—and I like this idea best of all—part of the point is that Jack himself is missing the beauty all around him. He says he’s bumping into walls, but to me Malick’s images seem to undermine this statement, showing Jack in large open spaces with ceilings that vault up to heaven like the roofs of cathedrals. So many of Malick’s films include characters who are oblivious to the splendor of the natural world, but maybe the adult Jack is a character who’s oblivious to the splendor of the man-made world. He looks all around him and sees only ugliness and conformity and constriction, especially in comparison to the free-wheeling sense of adventure and play seen in many of the childhood scenes, set in a sunlit suburbia that’s surrounded by the wilds of nature. The viewer can’t help but make the same comparison, and Malick even seems to want us to find Jack’s adult surroundings oppressive in comparison to his childhood environs. Instead, I come away with the conclusion that Jack’s sense of claustrophobia is self-imposed, that if only he’d let go of the past he could find some happiness in the present and the future rather than constantly looking backward to his childhood as the source of all his problems and the repository for all his joy.
Granted, this is a direction in which the film sometimes seems reluctant to head, and the final scenes—in which none of the characters besides Jack have aged past the 1950s—suggest that Malick himself remains mired in the past, as does Jack. The film never quite considers the idea that real fulfillment and happiness are to be found in opening one’s eyes to the beauty of one’s present situation rather than trying to return to a tumultuous but (in memory) idyllic past. Those images of surprisingly soulful skyscrapers are like a whispery countercurrent to this dominant thread in the film, a faint suggestion that pleasure, joy, grace and freedom are confined to 1950s suburbia only if we allow them to be.
JB: I like that reading. Personally, and maybe because I was swayed by Penn’s narration, I saw the skyscrapers as more imprisoning than inspirational, but you’re not the only one who thinks that those shots provide their own kind of awe, whether or not that was Malick’s intent. In his review at Not Just Movies, Jake Cole observes that the adult Jack’s “revulsion of his surroundings does not match the tone of the shots, which remind the audience that the steel and glass monoliths do not cover up nature but reflect it on their surfaces. Malick’s films previously argued that the destruction of mankind was a part of nature and not against it, but he goes further here. That the last physical shot of the film is of a bridge shows how Malick has progressed to the point of accepting the man-made world as a part of nature, cementing the idea that everything is connected (and there’s no better man-made object to demonstrate connection than a bridge).”
Jake’s reading and yours remind that even though this is the first time Malick has grappled with the current world it’s not the first time he’s observed human progress. In Part I of this discussion we noted that in his previous film Malick regards 17th Century England with almost the same awe that he has for the forests and rivers of the New World. And we shouldn’t forget that two of the most romantic images in Days of Heaven are President Wilson’s train rumbling through the vastness of the panhandle and those biplanes swooping down to the farmland below. Malick might be nostalgic for the way things were, he might see his ideal in the rearview mirror, but he’s never portrayed progress as some looming absolute evil. For me, The Tree of Life proves that Malick views human progress as just another irrepressible phase of natural evolution.
As for the shot of that bridge, it’s the one thing that almost saves the beach coda for me—or at least saves it from being a complete waste of time. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a jarring shot, because after spending film after film in amongst the trees, anything made of steel seems out of place in Malick’s universe. But the moment I saw that bridge I flashed back to that excerpt from The Thin Red Line that I quoted in Part I: “How do we get to those distant shores? To those blue hills? Love.” The bridge is love. I realize that sounds very Kumbaya, and I don’t mean to suggest that Malick is directly alluding to that scene from The Thin Red Line, but spiritually those moments are united, and I suspect you’d agree with me that this is one of those times when a shot of a bridge is anything but “just a bridge.” Put together with Jack’s oceanfront rapture, the bridge suggests that we can connect to our past, if only we go looking for it.
EH: Yes, it’s a bridge to the past, not a bridge to the future. Malick is conceptually able to leap back to the very beginning of the universe and show the irresistible progress of time, but the film ends in a loop between the present day and the idea of heaven as embodied by a return to the past, to memories of one’s childhood. Malick has a very ambivalent attitude about progress, of course, as evidenced especially in The New World, where progress can evoke awe at mankind’s remarkable feats, but also horror at the destructiveness and waste produced by any great leap forward. That’s why The Tree of Life hurtles through the entire history of the world—quite literally starting with nothing, then single cells tentatively fusing, then the dinosaurs and their extinction—only to come to an abrupt halt with one family’s failure to move forward.
The rush of history can’t be stopped, Malick suggests, but on the individual level his characters fiercely resist that relentless momentum, desperately wishing to return to simpler times rather than move forward. There’s such tension between the conservative and the radical in Malick’s work. On the one hand, The Tree of Life is his most formally adventurous film yet, fully embracing the avant-garde in terms of editing and imagery. Parts of the creation sequence recall the abstract work of Stan Brakhage and Jordan Belson, and Malick apparently samples a brief snippet from an abstract short by the experimental filmmaker Scott Nyerges. In the celebration of color and light forms, parts of the sequence particularly evoke Brakhage’s The Text of Light, and not just because of the resonances in the titles: Brakhage’s adoring tribute to light filtering through ashtrays finds a spiritual successor not only during the most abstract moments here, but also in Malick’s obvious love for the natural world, his appreciation of light beams cutting through dense treetops or streaming in through filmy curtains. The sensuality of avant-garde work like Brakhage’s, often achieved through rapid cutting and abstraction, is echoed in Malick’s much more studied, less abstract approach to the world.
For all the radicalism of Malick’s vision, though, the underlying dynamics are, if not quite regressive, then at least overly focused on the past. Implicit in Malick’s vision is the impossibility of truly halting the flow of progress, and the 1950s childhood section of the film also suggests that the past is much more complicated than the idyllic, sanitized images of it that proliferate in popular culture. But for all the darkness and conflict that weave through the O’Brien family’s domestic situation, that section of the film is nevertheless inscribed with a very potent desire to escape the alienation of the present and immerse oneself in that lively, sensually stimulating milieu. This desire is carried over into the problematic coda, in which Malick seems to visualize David Byrne’s vision of heaven as “a place where nothing ever happens,” except that Malick finds that prospect not numbing but sublime.
JB: The only danger with that reading is that it places an awful lot of emphasis on the 1950s and on the ’nothingness’ of the beach footage. It could be that the coda is simply a depiction of a man rediscovering his grace, which just happens to reunite him with his childhood, which just happens to have occurred in the 1950s; meanwhile, Malick might not be intent on portraying heaven so much as creating a space where the living Jack can be reunited with his deceased brother. Point being, for all the vastness of The Tree of Life, in the end it’s an incredibly small and personal story—one man’s journey into his past in search of, what? Happiness? Peace? Grace? His dead brother? The meaning of life? All of the above? What Malick seems to find sublime is a contented spirit. He found a slice of heaven in Kit and Holly’s forest hideaway in Badlands, in the farmland of Days of Heaven, near the war zone of Guadalcanal in The Thin Red Line, in untamed Virginia and manicured England of the 17th Century in The New World and now in Waco, Texas, circa 1950-something in The Tree of Life. Yes, this is all in our past, but if Malick were to set a film in 2011 or 3047, I suspect he would find heaven there, too, elusive and fleeting though it always is in his films.
The more I think about Malick’s filmography, the less I see his films as fixated on or reverential about the past. Instead I see a filmmaker who is determined to consume and preserve those fleeting bits of heaven or grace. Malick is Kit or Jack’s younger brother burying mementos in the ground. He’s Holly gazing into the stereopticon. He’s Witt finding a “spark” amidst war. One of the most crushing moments in The Tree of Life, and the place where I wish Malick had ended the picture, is that shot of the O’Briens driving away from their home, each of them looking back longingly at a structure that for them is overflowing with memories. Does Malick romanticize the past? Sure. But he gets there by romanticizing it as it happens, by seeing the beauty that so many of us miss.
EH: I should emphasize, as we wrap this up, that one of the things I like best about The Tree of Life is how many contradictions it embodies. As I’ve said, it can be seen as both conservative and radical, simultaneously obsessed with progress and with the past, and it is open to multiple readings that overlap even as they contradict one another. Its ultimate meaning is up-in-the-air, though my visceral dislike for the closing scenes unfortunately does color my perceptions of some of Malick’s ideas, making me more suspicious of the new agey currents that drift through the film, mostly peripheral until those final scenes on the beach. The ending can be read in multiple ways, I think you’re right about that, but more because it’s vague and hackneyed than because there’s any productive ambiguity in it.
Thankfully, this disappointing conclusion notwithstanding, The Tree of Life is a rich and complex film with densely interwoven thematic layers and countless visual delights. Like you, I love that point-of-view shot from the back of the O’Briens’ car as it pulls away from their home for the last time, and like you I wish the film had ended there. That shot encompasses so much that is great about Malick’s sensibility: bittersweet nostalgia coupled with a wise outlook on the inevitability of loss and change, the sensually drifting quality of the imagery, the romanticism that’s built on a strong foundation of concrete detail. That moment is earned. The entire childhood sequence of the film builds to that moment, so its romanticism and nostalgic yearning are grounded in a very tangible reality. Most importantly, it captures a child’s helplessness and lack of agency, the sense that one is skating through life, borne along by the decisions of others. Jack, looking back to his own past, is unable to make it play out any differently; he can only observe, carried along with the flow of life towards that unavoidable moment when everything finally collapses.
Not every moment in The Tree of Life is so dense or so perfectly realized, but there’s no doubt that this often thrilling, sometimes frustrating film is one of Malick’s finest achievements yet. As you said at the beginning of this conversation, it is the daring work of an artist who is not holding back a thing, and that accounts for both its dazzling moments of emotional catharsis and its baffling moments of indulgence.
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
Review: The Report Is Noncommittal on the Moral Morass of the Dubya Era
In the end, it can’t help but sentimentalize the better angels that supposedly reside in the land of liberty’s flawed human fabric.2
The moral morass of the George W. Bush era is surveyed and scrutinized in writer-director Scott Z. Burns’s The Report, a true-life docudrama that bears all the visually monochromatic, thematically jaundiced hallmarks of Burns’s collaborations, as screenwriter, with Steven Soderbergh. Burns even manages to slightly best his mentor with his second solo feature. Compared to Burns and Soderbergh’s most recent joint effort—the feeble, scattershot Netflix-produced satire The Laundromat—The Report zeroes in on its incendiary sociopolitical subject with laser focus. That still doesn’t mean it adequately challenges preconceived notions about an especially dark period in American history.
The film’s title refers to the Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, a 6,700-page document that took a long, hard, and unflattering look at the C.I.A.’s post-9/11 use of detention and torture—or, in politico parlance, “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Daniel Jones, the committee’s lead investigator, is the protagonist, and he’s played by Adam Driver with a reserved sternness and solemnity that’s occasionally leavened by full-throated flashes of righteous indignation. Jones is all work, no play, and it’s evident that Burns intends this forbearing crusader as an audience surrogate. Yet Daniel mostly remains a cipher, a human enigma attempting, with Sisyphean effort, to expose and unravel the most sadistic and inhumane institutional practices.
It can be fascinating, of course, to watch a film that’s purely about process, revealing of the ways that those tied to an operation come off as cogs in a Moloch-like machine. And it helps, at least initially, that Driver is so good at conveying a total single-mindedness. When Jones looks around the cloistered, colorless basement office that will serve as headquarters for his investigation, he’s like an artist glancing at a blank canvas. For Jones, the swamp isn’t something to be drained, but to dip his brush in. And he’s painting a picture for an audience that, for the most part, is likely to undercut and minimize his efforts.
Burns is clearly reappropriating and remixing cinematic lessons learned from Alan J. Pakula’s starry Watergate exposé All the President’s Men. Jones’s boss, senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening, letting her wig do most of the acting), assumes the role of Ben Bradlee-esque overseer. Archival footage of many of the big names in the torture debate (such as Dubya and Dick Cheney) is peppered throughout. And there’s even a paranoia-tinged encounter between Jones and a Deep Throat-like figure played with nauseated edge by Tim Blake Nelson.
The margins of The Report are filled to the brim with character actors doing creditably yeoman work, among them Corey Stoll as Cyrus Clifford, Jones’s pragmatic lawyer, Jon Hamm as chiding National Security Adviser Denis McDonough, Ted Levine as officious C.I.A. Director John Brennan, and Matthew Rhys as a New York Times reporter desperate for a scoop. Elsewhere, Maura Tierney and Michael C. Hall, as a pair of ideologically adaptable bureaucrats, headline the sections of the decade-plus narrative that detail the nitty gritty of the enhanced interrogation program, waterboarding most definitely included.
Cinematographer Eigil Bryld shoots these latter sequences with a sickly green-orange tinge that one supposes is meant to convey ethical queasiness. Whereas the scenes featuring Jones and his team poring over papers and presenting their findings to functionaries in various stages of outrage (or not) tend toward the icy blues or the ultra-high-def neutrality of a David Fincher production. Ever-shifting color temperatures aside, The Report is rarely stimulating. Its conscious detachment from the events it portrays proves not so much analytical as noncommittal. The closest it comes to picking a side is a tossed-off moment in which Jones throws some scowling shade at a TV commercial for Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, which was rather unconvincingly sold during its release as a work of objective nonpartisanship.
It’s strange, then, that Burns tosses a flagrantly uncritical bone in The Report’s final scenes, as John McCain, often held up as a model of principled dissent, is shown passionately decrying the United States’s torture program on the Senate floor. As in many a Hollywood production about American transgression, Burns ultimately can’t help but sentimentalize the better angels that supposedly reside in the land of liberty’s monumentally flawed human fabric.
Cast: Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Ted Levine, Michael C. Hall, Tim Blake Nelson, Corey Stoll, Maura Tierney, Jon Hamm Director: Scott Z. Burns Screenwriter: Scott Z. Burns Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2019
The Best Stephen King Movies, Ranked
We’ve compiled the best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the mostly mediocre TV adaptations.
Stephen King is one of the most influential of all contemporary writers, an artist who followed Richard Matheson’s example in wedding irrational horror with the surreal minutiae of everyday American life. The most distinctive elements of King’s remarkably vast bibliography—his exacting and uncanny empathy for working-class people and his loose, pop-culture-strewn prose—are rarely accounted for in the dozens of films that have been made from his novels and stories, which often predictably emphasize his propulsive plotting. Consequently, these adaptations often resemble routine genre films with a smattering of King’s dialogue, which sounds better on the page than when performed by often self-conscious actors who look as if they’d rather be anywhere than trapesing around a simulation of King’s beloved Maine. But a number of excellent films have been made from the author’s writing, either by doubling down on the neurotic naïveté of the author’s Americana or by striking new ground, recognizing that a good film needs to be a movie, rather than a literal-minded act of CliffsNotes-style embalming. To commemorate the recent release of Cell, we’ve compiled the 10 best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the countless, mostly mediocre TV adaptations.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on July 8, 2015.
10. Stand by Me (1986)
Those who accuse Stand by Me of indulging shameless boomer nostalgia are missing the point, as that’s precisely what the film is about. Director Rob Reiner dials down the violent hopelessness of King’s source material (the novella The Body), but still emphasizes the cruelty and loneliness that mark four boys’ coming-of-age odyssey to see the corpse of a young man nearly their age. The film is framed as one of the grown boy’s remembrances, as he attempts to spin his unreconciled feelings into the more tangible stuff of…coming-of-age fiction. At times it’s hokey, and, yes, the soundtrack does some major emotional heavy lifting, but the feast of excellent acting compensates greatly, particularly by Wil Wheaton, Kiefer Sutherland, and River Phoenix. Stand by Me remains one of the best adaptations of King’s more sentimental non-horror writing, and it’s far superior to preachy, insidiously insulting staples like The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.
9. Creepshow (1982)
Still one of the great comic-book movies in that it approximates the actual tactile act of reading and flipping through a magazine, ideally on a rainy Saturday afternoon with a can of soda by your side. George Romero directed from King’s original script, which pays homage to EC comics like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, and the filmmaker displays a visual confidence and tonal flexibility that’s reminiscent of his Dawn of the Dead. The bright, deep, and garish cinematography is both beautiful and disturbing, enriching King’s gleefully vicious writing while providing a framework for the lively performances of a game, celebrity-rich cast. The film straddles an ideal line between straight-faced seriousness and parody, particularly in the unnerving climax of a story in which we can hear the pained gurgling of aquatic zombies.
8. Silver Bullet (1985)
A creepy drive-in horror movie that throws a werewolf into a boy’s sentimental coming-of-age tale. Based on King’s slim Cycle of the Werewolf, which was released with gorgeous illustrations by artist Bernie Wrightson, Silver Bullet weds evocative imagery with spare plotting that allows each scene to breathe, giving the film an nightmarish free-associative energy. There are several boffo sequences, particularly when the werewolf seizes a man’s baseball bat, his paw shown to be beating the man to death from below thick fog, or when the wolf is outsmarted by the protagonist, one of his eyes blown to pieces by a bottle rocket. Speaking of the monster, the movie has one of the great wolf designs, which suggests a huge, bitter, upstanding bear with a terrifying snout. The human identity of the creature is a great, characteristically blasphemous King twist.
7. Dolores Claiborne (1995)
Five years after her career-making performance in Misery, Kathy Bates returned to Stephen King territory with Dolores Claiborne, which, like the book, disappointed nearly everyone for not being a typical horror story, instead combining the traditions of martyred-woman melodrama with gothic mystery. Critics, who only seem capable of praising melodrama when it’s directed by one of their pre-approved canon placeholders (like Nicholas Ray or Douglas Sirk), also turned their noses up at Dolores Claiborne, and it’s a real shame. Both the novel and the film get at the heart of King’s preoccupations with sexism and classicism, spinning a fractured narrative of a mother, her daughter, the man who nearly ruined their lives, and the all-encompassing pitilessness of aging. Yes, the film is behaviorally broad, but this broadness is utilized by the reliably underrated director, Taylor Hackford, as a form of catharsis. And Bates’s performance as the titular character is positively poetic. Her delivery of a monologue about Dolores’s work routine particularly locate the weird, qualified dignity of thanklessness, reveling in the pride and transcendence that can be wrestled from menial-ness. Perhaps more than any other film on this list, Dolores Claiborne has the feel of King’s voice.
6. Misery (1990)
No one performs King’s dialogue like Kathy Bates. She embraces and owns the moving cuckoo logic of his best orations, understanding that they’re almost always rooted in class anxiety. The most disturbing quality of Misery, both the novel and the film, is the fact that we relate to Annie Wilkes, psychotic “number one fan” of author Paul Sheldon (superbly played in the film by James Caan), more than we do her victims. Bates is so intimately in tune with Annie that we feel for her when she fails to impress Paul, somehow temporarily forgetting that she’s holding him hostage and torturing him. Annie is yet another of King’s unleashed nerds, a repressed soul seeking actualization, but she isn’t sentimentalized, instead embodying the ferocious self-absorption that fuels obsession, leading to estrangement. Director Rob Reiner and screenwriter William Goldman regrettably trim King’s most ambitiously subjective material, but they compensate by focusing pronouncedly on the cracked love story at the narrative’s center.
Review: Last Christmas Wears Its Sloppy Heart on Its Kitschy Sleeve
There’s a lack of concreteness about the story and characters that render its reiteration of Christmas lessons utterly toothless.1.5
Multiple times in Last Christmas, Kate and her immigrant parents (Emma Thompson and Boris Isakovic) say that they hail from the “former Yugoslavia,” a rather outdated and strangely non-specific way of referring to their origins. When Kate comforts an Eastern European couple on the bus after they’re accosted by a Brexiter, they excitedly but vaguely ask her, “You’re from our country?” At this point, Last Christmas has begun to sound downright evasive, and you may wonder if the filmmakers even know where Kate’s family is supposed to come from. To screenwriters Bryony Kimmings and Emma Thompson, such details would appear to be extraneous to this anti-Brexit Christmas Carol. Merely tacking an affirmation of immigrant rights onto a familiar Christmas narrative about selflessness requires little more than an evocation of a general Slavic-ness about the characters.
Another element that Paul Feig’s film keeps pointedly indistinct is the nature of a recent illness that the twentysomething Kate (Emilia Clarke) has endured. Clearly depressed in the wake of a major health event, the aspiring singer is ostentatiously selfish, exploiting what remains of her friends’ and her boss’s good will. Currently homeless, she travels with a roller suitcase from crash pad to crash pad, drinking heavily, bringing home one-night stands, and openly flirting with customers at work. Kate is employed full time at a Christmas shop in London whose wisecracking owner (Michelle Yeoh) goes by the name Santa. At one point, Santa expresses distress at Kate’s haggard, disheveled state because she doesn’t want the young woman to drop dead. “I don’t have enough tinsel to cover your body,” she worries.
The grounds for Santa’s concern that a woman in her mid-20s may be killed by the lifestyle lived by many Londoners in their mid-20s is left open because its ultimate reveal three-quarters of the way through the film points toward one of the silliest twist endings in recent memory. We only learn what happened to Kate when she reveals the scar from an operation to Tom (Henry Golding), the beautiful, saintly man she begins seeing after finding him bird-watching outside the Christmas shop. Suffice it to say, Last Christmas is “inspired by” the Wham! song of the same name, specifically one line—and one line only—from its chorus.
Kate loves George Michael—one imagines she feels a bond with the late singer, the son of a Balkan immigrant himself, though the filmmakers leave this unexplored—and thus Last Christmas attempts to remake some of his most well-known songs into seasonally appropriate tunes. Obligatory montages to “Faith” and “Freedom” speed us through parts of Kate’s Tom-facilitated rehabilitation from cynical wastrel to Christmas-spirited patron of the homeless, though these segments are brief, cutting off the songs before we realize they have absolutely nothing to do with the jolly Christmas vibes that the film attempts to give off. Even “Last Christmas” is only heard in snippets, lest we realize that the song’s lyrics have little to do with seasonal giving and charity, and everything to do with regret, hurt, and resentment.
Last Christmas counts on our absorbing the sugary sound of Michael’s music but none of its substance. This is perhaps the film’s fatal flaw, and it’s not unrelated to its evasiveness regarding Kate’s origins and its simplistic affirmation of liberal outrage at Brexit. There’s a lack of concreteness about the story and characters—true from the beginning, but particularly after its last-act reveal—that render its reiteration of Christmas lessons utterly toothless.
Besides the general sound of Michael’s music, Last Christmas clearly draws influence from classic Christmas-themed films like It’s a Wonderful Life and The Shop Around the Corner. Such films, though, earned their Christmas miracles and holiday moralizing by grounding their stories in a sense of the community created by bonds between fully realized characters. Clarke works hard to make the messy, perpetually flustered Kate relatable, but the film surrounds the character with a community as kitschy and false as the trinkets she sells in Santa’s shop.
Cast: Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Emma Thompson, Michelle Yeoh, Boris Isakovic, Lydia Leonard Director: Paul Feig Screenwriter: Bryony Kimmings, Emma Thompson Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 102 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Video
Review: Midway Delights in the Thrill of Battle Without Actual Peril
In the film, the Battle of Midway suggests something out of a photorealistic animated film.2
“With the advent of CGI,” critic J. Hoberman writes in his 2012 book Film After Film: Or, What Became Of 21st Century Cinema?, “the history of motion pictures was now, in effect, the history of animation.” Rarely has this point been more vividly illustrated than in Roland Emmerich’s slick historical combat epic Midway, in which the eponymous WWII naval battle is depicted with such an abundance of shimmery digital effects that it suggests something out of a photorealistic animated film.
Emmerich, a latter-day heir to the cinema-as-spectacle tradition of Cecil B. DeMille, employs special effects in Midway not to induce a sense of you-are-there verisimilitude, nor to exhilarate audiences with a series of death-defying stunts. Rather, the film’s scenes of combat are more like elaborate paintings, similar in spirit and function to the cycloramas that were such popular attractions at the turn of the 20th century: vast panoramas that compact all the major highlights of a particular event into a single canvas.
Unlike Saving Private Ryan, there’s no attempt here to key the viewer to the chaos and horror of battle. In fact, there’s scarcely any blood to be found in Midway. In addition to the Battle of Midway, the film depicts the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, and other skirmishes in the Pacific during WWII, and these sequences, so bathed in honeyed sunlight, exude a sense of wide-eyed gee-whiz glee: all the fun of battle with none of the icky gore.
Midway is a paean to those brave American soldiers of the greatest generation, one that positions the brave sailors of the U.S. Navy as scrappy underdogs who, after the humiliating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, make it their mission to avenge themselves on the Japanese. The film studiously avoids acknowledging anything about the era it depicts that might make its target audience (read: white History Channel-watching patriarchs) uncomfortable. Nowhere is this more evident than in its treatment—or, rather, complete non-treatment—of race. Emmerich not only completely sidesteps the issue of racial segregation in the military, black soldiers are completely unseen in the film, despite the fact that many African-Americans served on U.S. ships that fought at Midway, albeit primarily in support roles.
Though most of the film’s characters, a bland succession of largely interchangeable good ol’ boys, are based on real-life historical personages, Wes Tooke’s leaden screenplay renders them all as little more than stock war-movie types. Devil-may-care flyboy Dick Best (Ed Skrein), a ‘40s-era twist on Top Gun’s Maverick who gains some maturity when he’s promoted to command his own unit of pilots, is the closest thing that Midway has to a protagonist. Less flashy but similarly righteous is a naval intelligence officer, Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson), who fights the good fight against the bureaucracy in order to convince the higher-ups that the Japanese plan to attack the Midway atoll. Woody Harrelson also shows up looking tired and slightly lost as Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, while Dennis Quaid is saddled with the role of Vice Admiral Bull Halsey, who’s mostly on hand to attest that shingles are absolutely terrible.
The Americans are all salty, gruff, and jokey, while the Japanese are somber and aphoristic, though both sides share a fondness for speaking in banal clichés. The script never invests us in any of these characters, failing to establish real narrative stakes for any of them. The plot is really little more than perfunctory filler between the battle sequences, which are peppered throughout the film with the regularity of dance numbers in a Rogers and Astaire musical.
Midway is reportedly a longtime passion project for Emmerich, for which he scraped together funds from a number of sources, making it one of the most expensive independent films of all time. (These funders included some Chinese equity firms, which may account for the presence of a completely tangential subplot involving Army Air Forces officer Jimmy Doolittle, played by Aaron Eckhart, bonding with oppressed peasants in Japanese-occupied China). But while Emmerich’s childlike excitement at the whiz-bang action of naval combat is palpable, the film’s battle sequences lack any real suspense or sense of danger. In these moments, Midway suggests old newsreel footage come to life. The film’s veneer may be unmistakably modern, but it’s no less devoted to promoting and flattering a certain idea of heroism, even as it keeps the men inside all those ships and planes at a distance from audiences.
Cast: Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, Luke Evans, Aaron Eckhart, Nick Jonas, Mandy Moore, Woody Harrelson, Dennis Quaid, Darren Criss, Jake Weber, Brennan Brown, Alexander Ludwig, Tadanobu Asano, Keean Johnson, Luke Kleintank, Jun Kunimura, Etsushi Toyokawa, Brandon Sklenar, James Carpinello, Jake Manley Director: Roland Emmerich Screenwriter: Wes Tooke Distributor: Summit Entertainment Running Time: 138 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack
Review: Klaus Gorgeously Grapples with the Reinvention of Tradition
Sergio Pablos’s film is essentially a metaphor for its own unique and refreshing mode of expression.3
From Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, mainstream animation has taken a long-overdue look in the mirror as of late. Increasingly, animated films are opting for more experimental approaches, and often by taking inspiration from past techniques. Sergio Pablos’s Klaus is one such project, a throwback to classical animation that appropriately bakes its concern with tradition right into its plot. As a sort of Santa Claus origin story, the film examines the ways that tradition is built and torn down, all through an aesthetic that’s striking, beautiful, and as innovative as it is mindful of its own history.
The film follows the disgraced Jesper (Jason Schwartzman), a failing student at a postal academy, as he’s exiled to the frozen northern town of Smeerensburg. His father (Sam McMurray), the very rich head of the international postal service, has given him an ultimatum: establish a functioning post office in Smeerensburg, where so many others have failed before, or be cut off from his luxurious lifestyle. As a tipsy ferryman, Mogens (Norm MacDonald), notes at one point, the townsfolk have one thing to say to each other and no need for letters to say it: In some long-standing Hatfield-McCoy-esque familial feud, they swing axes and fire muskets at one another, making the ramshackle town a perpetual warzone.
No one in Smeerensburg sends their children to school because that would mean mingling with the enemy, and out-of-work teacher Alva (Rashida Jones) has adapted by using the schoolhouse for her side gig as a fishmonger, filleting catches right on her desk in front of the chalkboard. As he visits the unaccommodating locals, Jesper discovers a gruff, reclusive woodsman named Klaus (J.K. Simmons). Though Jesper initially suspects the hulking, white-bearded man of being an axe murderer who traffics in severed heads, Klaus only wants to help the town’s beleaguered children by gifting them handmade toys. All they have to do is ask for one by sending a letter with, of course, postage paid to Jesper.
The gears of the kids’ animated holiday movie are immediately apparent here, not just in the presence of a treacly tie-in song, but also in how Jesper’s own motivations will inevitably come back to bite him, with a requisite “I’m sorry” scene following a requisite “I quit” scene. These moments somewhat drag down the back half of Klaus, but the sheer extent of the film’s visual invention ensures that even such lulls are fabulous to look at. The exaggerated character designs are at once spindly and pleasantly rounded, and, most impressively, the textured, naturalistic lighting gives the film’s throwback techniques a distinctive and thoroughly modern edge. Pablos worked on Disney’s Treasure Planet and Tarzan, and that lineage is readily apparent in the bouncy, vibrant life that runs through all the character movements.
Beyond its characters’ wondrously cartoonish, emphatic gesticulations, much of the film’s humor results from unlikely circumstances of violence and hardship. When delivering presents in one scene, Jesper stuffs toys in socks hung to dry above a fireplace because he doesn’t dare enter the rest of the house, as we see him boxed into the center of the frame by a pack of sleeping, toothy dogs. And he drops into homes via chimney because the unwelcoming townsfolk of Smeerensburg, whose lawns and porches are littered with spikes and bear traps, naturally keep their doors locked. In the world of the film, Christmas traditions emerge through children’s rumors: Klaus’s wagon becomes a flying sleigh by pure circumstance, sent sailing through the air once the wheels come off, and when one child sees it just before it crashes to the ground, the story of the “sleigh” spreads like a haphazard game of telephone.
There’s an anarchic edge to both the film’s humor, as in a glimpse at a group of creepy kids building a snowman with so many carrots stuck into it that it suggests a stabbing victim, and the way it builds its uncanny origin story, all the while remaining skeptical of entrenched customs. Characters note that the long-running Smeerensburg feud (one scene shows it in the form of a cave painting) is what the town was built on, but the film’s dominant thematic current is that it’s time to move on, that remaining shackled to tradition or stuck in a rut only impedes progress. And with gorgeous animation that makes what was once old feel new again, Klaus essentially becomes a metaphor for its unique and refreshing mode of expression.
Cast: Jason Schwartzman, J.K. Simmons, Rashida Jones, Will Sasso, Neda M. Ladda, Sergio Pablos, Norm Macdonald, Joan Cusack, Sam McMurray Director: Sergio Pablos Screenwriter: Sergio Pablos, Jim Mahoney, Zack Lewis Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 98 min Rating: PG Year: 2019
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