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The Conversations: Terrence Malick Part II: The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick’s fifth film hadn’t crawled beyond Cannes, New York or Los Angeles before speculation intensified about the director’s future projects.



The Conversations: Terrence Malick Part II: The Tree of Life
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

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.

The Tree of Life

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.

The Tree of Life

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.

The Tree of Life

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.

The Tree of Life

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.

The Tree of Life

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.

The Tree of Life

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.

The Tree of Life

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.

The Tree of Life

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.

The Tree of Life

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.

The Tree of Life

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.

The Tree of Life

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.

The Tree of Life

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.

The Tree of Life

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.

The Tree of Life

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.

The Tree of Life

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.

The Tree of Life

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.

The Tree of Life

Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler. Follow his updates on Twitter.

Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema. He can also be found on Twitter.

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Review: Bombshell Is a Collection of Quirks in Search of a Trenchant Criticism

The film is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Roger Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.




Photo: Lionsgate

With Bombshell, director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph make heroes of the women who brought down Roger Ailes, the late chairman and CEO of Fox News who was accused by several former employees—including star anchors Megyn “Santa Just Is White” Kelly and Gretchen Carlson—of sexual harassment in 2016. The filmmakers keenly depict these women’s courage and fixate on the toxic culture at Fox that fostered so much fear and intimidation, but Bombshell is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.

The film begins in the summer of 2016 with the Republican Party presidential debate in Iowa, where Kelly (Charlize Theron), the moderator, confronts Donald Trump with highlights of his long history of misogyny. This grilling, and her increasingly—if relatively—feminist stance on the Fox News daytime program The Kelly File, is met by backlash from the ascendant Trump cult, as well as Ailes (John Lithgow), whose professional relationship with Kelly at first seems productive in spite of its combativeness. Meanwhile, Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is fired from another Fox program, The Real Story, possibly for her own newfound—if, again, relative—feminism, and counters by filing a sexual harassment suit against Ailes.

Waiting for colleagues to make similar accusations in order to bolster her case, Carlson is left twisting in the wind by a collective fearful silence—a silence that even fierce former victim Kelly obeys—while Ailes and his litigation team prepare a defense. A third storyline involves “millennial evangelical” Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a composite character representing the many ambitious young women who suffered Ailes’s demeaning treatment in order to get ahead at Fox and the other organizations for which he worked.

Bombshell operates in a style that has become numbingly de rigueur since Oliver Stone’s W., in which political and corporate corruption are presented in a dramatic yet amiably humorous style that takes the edge off any potentially trenchant critique. Fourth walls are broken, jokes punctuate scenes, and the ambiance remains oddly congenial despite the purportedly suffocating and repressive environment of the Fox News offices.

Thankfully, there are moments when the actors transcend the too-casual tone. Lithgow portrays Ailes not merely as a dirty old man, but as a pitiful control freak whose disgusting actions unwittingly reveal a deep insecurity. The tensely coiled Kelly is a mass of contradictions, and one argument that she has with her husband, Douglas Brunt (Mark Duplass), over an embarrassingly fawning follow-up interview with Trump is memorable for allowing Theron to reveal the strain imposed on Kelly by conflicting personal, professional, and political allegiances. Robbie—frequently playing off a versatile Kate McKinnon’s co-worker/lover—moves from bubbly naïveté to painful humiliation with convincing subtlety.

And yet, Bombshell is predicated on several dubious ideas that ultimately blunt its power. The film relishes the downfall of a public figure, as well as the growing chaos of a divided Fox News. By the end of the film, we’re expected to feel righteous satisfaction when justice comes to Ailes in the form of a disgraceful resignation. But such a response can only feel hollow when the country continues to suffer from widespread problems cultivated by Fox from the same sexist, callous, and exploitative worldview at the root of Ailes’s behavior. The film only briefly and tangentially explores this worldview, and mostly uses it to simply highlight conservative hypocrisy and the general sliminess of the Fox organization.

Bombshell also delights in referencing battles fought among high-profile public figures, emphasizing the kind of inside baseball that the media routinely focuses on instead of more complex and endemic manifestations of national issues. Rather than understand Ailes’s harassment in relation to the sexism so deeply embedded in American corporate media and culture, the filmmakers reduce that sorry tradition to the confines of the Fox News offices and elite legal channels. This approach allows viewers to understand the organizational and legal pressures that made it so hard for Carlson and others to speak out about Ailes, but once Carlson files her charges, the abuse that she and others endured becomes overshadowed by competitive backroom negotiations and maneuverings.

The film reinforces this emphasis with gratuitous appearances by actors playing famous Fox News personalities (Geraldo Rivera, Neil Cavuto, and Sean Hannity) who are tangential to the narrative, as well as cutesy direct-address segments meant to make us feel in the know about the world of Fox. This is the stuff that Roach, who’s mostly directed broad comedies, and Randolph, who co-wrote The Big Short, clearly relish, but rather than connecting with the viewer through these strategies, Bombshell mostly feels insular, remote, and superficial. It would be nice if for once an accessible mainstream film took on the institutional powers that detrimentally shape our world with anger and incisiveness rather than a bemused concern.

Cast: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Mark Duplass, Connie Britton, Rob Delaney, Malcolm McDowell, Allison Janney, Alice Eve Director: Jay Roach Screenwriter: Charles Randolph Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 108 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Richard Jewell Leans Into Courting Conservative Persecution Pity

Ironically, Clint Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises.




Richard Jewell
Photo: Warner Bros.

Marie Brenner’s 1997 Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell” is a detailed cataloging of rushed judgements, lazy assumptions, and unforgiveable abuses of power. Richard Jewell was the security guard who spotted an Alice pack loaded with pipe bombs under a bench at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. The bombs exploded, directly killing one woman and injuring over a hundred others, but Jewell’s preemptive actions undeniably reduced the scope of atrocities. Jewell became a national hero, though a tip from a bitter former boss led the F.B.I. to aggressively investigate him as the prime suspect in the bombing. The news outlets ran with this information, leading to a “trial by media” that ruined Jewell’s life. In Richard Jewell, director Clint Eastwood uses this story as fodder for what he clearly sees as a fable of the evil of the F.B.I. and the media, who take down a righteous, implicitly conservative hero out of classist spite.

Richard Jewell is a political horror film that serves as a microcosm of the “deep state” conspiracies that the Republican Party trades in today. The media is represented here by essentially one person, a reporter named Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) who learns of Jewell’s investigation by sleeping with an F.B.I. agent, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), who serves as the film’s more or less singular representation of our domestic intelligence and security service. As such, the media and the F.B.I. are literally in bed together, and they see in the overweight, naïve, law-enforcement-worshipping Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) a readymade patsy.

Like most auteurs, Eastwood’s films are animated by his politics, in his case often featuring singular heroes who’re targeted by bureaucrats who know nothing of in-the-field work, but the productions are often complicated by the magnitude of his artistry. Sully takes simplistic swipes at regulations that save lives, glorifying the notion of the individual, but its most muscular scenes serve as startlingly beautiful celebrations of community, suggesting an ideal of a functional state that nearly refutes Eastwood’s own beliefs. By contrast, Richard Jewell finds the filmmaker more comfortably mining MAGA resentments. The film is rife with conservative Easter eggs. When we see Jewell’s attorney, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), in his office, Eastwood highlights a sticker in a mirror that says “I Fear Government More Than I Fear Terrorism.” The film is dotted with guns, Confederate flags, and religious artifacts. And the real perpetrator of the bombing, Eric Randolph, a bigoted domestic terrorist who might interfere with Eastwood’s conservative reverie, is kept almost entirely off screen, reduced to a shadow.

Of course, Richard Jewell is set in the Bible Belt, and many of these details are pertinent. As Brenner’s article states, Bryant is a libertarian, and so that sticker accurately reflects his beliefs. But Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray rig the story so severely, in the service of courting conservative persecution pity, that even truthful details feel contextually false. Per Brenner, Jewell was a victim of many colliding interests, from the fading power of The Atlantic-Journal Constitution, which employed Scruggs, to internal clashes within the F.B.I.

In the film, the cops and journalists are desperate elitists just looking to finish a job, and their power is uncomplicatedly massive. The timing of Eastwood’s insinuation is unmistakable, suggesting that Jewell, the conservative Everyman, was railroaded by the government and the media in the same fashion as Trump, for possessing an uncouthness that offends “tastemaker” ideologies. The notion of political convictions as informed by image, particularly of culture and attractiveness, is a potentially brilliant one, and Eastwood’s portrait of liberal condescension isn’t entirely invalid, but he keeps scoring points at the expense of nuance.

In Brenner’s article, the F.B.I. is embarrassed to search the house of Jewell’s mother, Bobi (played here by Kathy Bates), where he lived. In the film, though, the officers storm the house in a smug and self-righteous fashion. Jewell was once actually in law enforcement and had many friendships and even a few girlfriends, while in the film he’s a pathetic wannabe eager to screw himself over for the sake of flattery. Sentiments that are attributed to Jewell in the article are transferred over to Bryant in the film, so to as to make the protagonist a more poignant fool. Ironically, Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises. (The filmmaker also, weirdly, elides real-life details that would serve his demonization, such as the F.B.I. lying about there being a “hero bomber” profile.)

Even with Eastwood so explicitly grinding an ax, Richard Jewell has the visceral power of his other recent political fables. Eastwood refines a device from The 15:17 to Paris, surrounding an unknown, unpolished camera subject, in this case Hauser, with attractive famous actors so as to inherently express the profound difference between the ruling class—embodied to the public in the form of celebrities—and the eroding working class. This idea is particularly evocative when Hauser is paired with Hamm. Hauser is painfully vulnerable as Jewell, as there’s no distance between him and the character, no sense that he’s “acting.” And this impression of defenselessness, when matched against Hamm’s polish, is terrifying. Such juxtapositions fervently communicate Eastwood’s furies, however hypocritical they may be.

Eastwood continues to be a poet of American anxiety. The Atlanta bombing is boiled down to a series of chilling and uncanny details, from the public dancing to the “Macarena” before the explosion to the scattering of nails along the ground in the wake of the pipe bomb’s blast. When Scruggs pushes for the Jewell story to be published, her eyes glint with anger between the shadows of window shades—an intellectually absurd effect that emotionally sticks, embodying Eastwood’s conception of a national castigation as a noir conspiracy set in shadowy chambers populated by a mere few. Later, when Jewell is free of his ordeal, he weeps with Bryant in a café booth, a moment that Eastwood offers up as an embodiment of America stabilizing right before reaching a cultural breaking point. As stacked and calculating as Richard Jewell is, it’s a fascinating expression of the divided soul of a gifted and troubling artist. It’s a rattling expression of American bitterness.

Cast: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm, Kathy Bates, Nina Arianda, Ian Gomez Director: Clint Eastwood Screenwriter: Billy Ray Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 131 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Cunningham Obscures the Voice That It Wants to Celebrate

This colorful but remote-feeling documentary functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late Merce Cunningham.




Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Alla Kovgan’s colorful but remote-feeling documentary about modern dance legend Merce Cunningham functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late choreographer himself. The film quotes him saying in various forms that he didn’t feel it appropriate or necessary to describe what his dances were about, and as such it feels appropriate that Cunningham leaves it to the dancing to deliver his story. But the problem with that approach is that it’s likely to leave many viewers, especially those who aren’t already dance aficionados, feeling somewhat at a remove from the subject matter.

Focusing on Cunningham’s works dating from 1942 to 1972, and his longtime collaborations with composer John Cage and other artists from Robert Rauschenberg to Andy Warhol, Kovgan balances loosely sketched biography with artistic recreation. The former sections are in some ways more engaging, as their often scratchy-looking archival footage provides at least some context for the sparse, ascetic, cold-water-flat milieu Cunningham was operating in. The latter sections, in which Kovgan stages a number of Cunningham’s pieces in settings ranging from a subway tunnel to a forest and are filmed in 3D with luscious colors, have a look-at-me showiness that cannot help but feel something like a betrayal of their source’s intentions.

Ascetic in approach but sometimes playful in execution, Cunningham in many ways functioned as the tip of the spear for avant-garde dance from the time he started producing work in the ‘40s. As related by the archival interviews played in the film, he didn’t appear to have much of a grand unifying theory behind his style. Rejecting the idea that he was some kind of modernist pioneer, he insists to one interviewer that he was simply “a dancer” and that he was really more interested in expanding the repertoire of movements available to performers by combining the techniques of ballet with what was already happening in modern dance in the postwar era. Quoting Cage in an old audio clip, Cunningham states with an emphatic flourish that “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”

As you watch the dances staged in Cunningham, you may find it hard to argue with that perspective. In describing the reaction to one of his dances, Cunningham says with a barely concealed glee that “the audience was puzzled.” After a performance in Paris, food was hurled at the dancers (Cunningham joked that he looked at the tomato on the stage and wished it were an apple: “I was hungry”). Confusion about the lack of an underlying story or intent to deliver a singular emotion is understandable. Making less sense is the dismissal noted in the documentary of many of Cunningham’s pieces as “cold” and “passionless” (a charge that’s leveled at boundary-pushing art to this day). The pieces staged here by Kovgan are indeed sometimes airy and insubstantial or gangly and jagged. But just as often they’re lush and buoyant, like in “Summerspace,” in which the dancers’ fluid pivots spill over with a joy that is heightened by the bright spotted costumes and Rauschenberg backdrop.

In some of those segments, it’s hard not to feel as if Kovgan is aiming for a big splash that could introduce the rarely seen work of an oft-cited avant-garde pioneer to a wide audience, as Wim Wenders aimed to do with Pina. But unlike that 3D extravaganza, with its cunning staging and breathtaking moves, Cunningham is simply working from less accessible source material. Even when Cunningham’s work is less abstracted, such as that bouncy floating maneuver that is something of a signature, it doesn’t exactly catch one’s attention.

Time and again in the film, we hear or see Cunningham reiterate his principle that the dances aren’t intended to reference anything. Interpretation is up to the audience, he said. In this way, he isn’t far from the take-it-or-leave-it sensibility of Warhol, whose silver balloons he incorporated into one piece. But by amplifying Cunningham’s dances with sun-dappled backdrops and 3D gimmickry, Kovgan deviates from their creator’s principle in a way that almost seems to betray their original intent. By taking so much focus away from the dancers, the film’s stagings come close to obscuring the voice it’s trying to celebrate.

Director: Alla Kovgan Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: PG Year: 2019

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Review: The Two Popes Carefully and Dubiously Toes a Party Line

There isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Jorge Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona.




The Two Popes
Photo: Netflix

Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes is quick to acknowledge that Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) is a humble man of the people. The film opens with a scene that fades in on Bergoglio, recently anointed Pope Francis, as he attempts to order a plane ticket over the phone. Assuming she’s being pranked when the caller gives his name and address, the Italian operator hangs up on the generously bemused head of the Catholic Church. After centuries of pomp, the scene suggests, the world’s Catholics were unprepared for a genuine article like Francis, a corrective to an episcopal hierarchy that had drifted too far away from the people. So goes the thesis of The Two Popes, reiterated in a number of subsequent scenes: Unlike previous generations of pontiffs, Francis engages with the actual state of the world, watches soccer, listens to pop music, and speaks to economic inequality.

This brief prologue’s slight humor and documentary-style presentation give an accurate idea of where the film is headed, both thematically and formally. Throughout, Meirelles embellishes the screenplay’s often dry conversations with pseudo-improvised camerawork—unsteady framing, sudden tilts, and emphatic snap zooms—familiar from his prior films, most notably City of God and The Constant Gardner. But what seemed, in the early aughts, fresh and well-suited to gangster movies and spy thrillers, feels dated and out of place in a film that amounts to two powerful octogenarians having a series of conversations. By abruptly adjusting the lens’s focal length at almost arbitrary moments, Meirelles transparently attempts to add dynamism to a film in which powerful actors are stuck reciting staid, safe dialogue.

The hagiographic Two Popes shuffles through moments in Bergoglio’s life. Some scenes are set in Argentina in the 1970s, a tumultuous time for the country, but the film mainly focuses on the development of Bergoglio’s relationship with Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins), Pope Benedict XVI, during the early 21st century. Flashing back to eight years before the prologue, the camera travels through the narrow alleys of Buenos Aires, arriving at an outdoor sermon that Bergoglio is delivering. Unattached to the air of benevolent superiority Catholic priests are expected to exude, Bergoglio tangentially speaks of his support for the San Lorenzo soccer team, at which revelation his congregation feels comfortable booing their diocese’s bishop.

Meanwhile, John Paul II has died, and as a cardinal, Bergoglio must return to Rome to help elect a new pope. There he encounters Ratzinger, at the time a conservative Bavarian cardinal who haughtily insists on speaking to Bergoglio in Latin when they meet in a Vatican bathroom, and who turns up his nose when the Argentinian begins humming ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” to himself while washing his hands. The inclusion of an ABBA song makes for a lighter tone that The Two Popes will unevenly revive at various moments across its running time; the film will transition between scenes using out-of-place lounge jazz and ‘60s pop, then abruptly drop the levity for dialogic lessons on the state of Catholic theology.

The dogmatic Ratzinger’s election as pope later that year would signal an end to years of liberalization within the Catholic Church, a back-to-basics gesture that ultimately failed. His short reign would be dominated by controversy, as members of his inner circle were indicted for financial crimes and a long-brewing scandal over church cover-ups of sexual abuse came to the fore. Meirelles handles this historical context through aural and visual montages of archival news reports, which fill the gap as the story fast-forwards to a moment in 2012 when Pope Benedict calls Bergoglio, his unofficial rival from the church’s liberal wing, back to Rome.

Benedict aims to convince the bishop not to resign, as it would look to the outside world—as Benedict professes it does to him—that the liberal Bergoglio is renouncing his cardinalship in protest. Strolling through the lush gardens of the Vatican, or speaking in low, strained voices in its resplendent halls, the two debate their opposing theological and political philosophies. A mutual respect develops between them, with Benedict gradually opening himself to the outside world from which he has stayed aloof; one scene has Bergoglio teaching him about the Beatles, and in another the Argentine convinces the stiff German to try out the tango.

That’s all very cute, surely, but it’s also evidence that, despite courting a gritty reality effect with its documentary-inspired aesthetic, The Two Popes is carefully toeing a party line rather than exposing any hidden truths. Though it includes (rather hammy) flashbacks to Bergoglio’s morally ambiguous interactions with the Argentinian military dictatorship of the ‘70s, there isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona. For his part, Ratzinger comes off as the best version of the man one could imagine, given the turmoil that marked his tenure: old-fashioned but authentic, perhaps just a bit too aged and attached to the institution to weed out its excesses.

As, in scene after scene, the heads of the world’s most powerful religious institution neatly summarize their philosophies to one another, the viewer may sense a misdirect: What happened to the corruption? Where are the meetings about how to handle the child-abuse scandals? Such issues, which presumably would have been the subject of many a Vatican City discussion, turn out to be little more than background material to the individualized and sentimentalized story of two men with differing views becoming friends. Even when they do come up, our attention is directed elsewhere. The flashbacks to Bergoglio’s spotted past begin soon after the sexual abuse scandals are first mentioned, redirecting our piqued concern with institutional sins toward the drama of an individual man’s fateful misjudgment.

The second time the pair’s conversations drift toward the simmering abuse scandal, Meirelles actually drowns out the dialogue with a high-pitched whine on the soundtrack, and for no discernable story reason. It’s as if Bergoglio’s hearing has been impaired by the explosive truth. The moment feels less like the filmmakers protecting us from a truth too awful to hear, and much more like them shielding us from one too dangerous to be heard.

Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujín, Sidney Cole, Thomas D. Williams, Federico Torre, Pablo Trimarchi Director: Fernando Meirelles Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Empty Metal Grapples with the Efficacy of Activist Violence

The film is greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness.




Empty Metal
Photo: Factory 25

The idea that violence can be an effective or even necessary form of activism is one of the last remaining taboos in a contemporary discourse that holds civil debate up as the highest virtue. Empty Metal, meanwhile, reaffirms independent, artist-made cinema as a natural arena for wading through these kinds of uncomfortable notions. Greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness, and certainly more potent than Todd Phillips’s Joker, it takes on the ambitious and possibly risky task of exploring what activist violence means in the context of a modern world where ambient forms of hostility—militarized police aggression (specifically toward people of color), mass surveillance and ongoing, never-ending wars—subtly dictate our lives.

Collaborating for the first time on what constitutes for both of them a narrative feature debut, Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer have fashioned a topical lightning rod with Empty Metal, though not in a manner that suggests willful provocation. Assembled on a meager budget with friends, family, and members of the filmmakers’ extended artistic circles, the film progresses with an untamed energy and disregard for convention that suggest the manifestation of creative impulses feeding, unchecked, off one another. Juggling multiple intersecting storylines with passages of visual lyricism and diegesis-breaking reminders of contemporary injustices, Empty Metal offers an anarchic collage that careens between narrative storytelling (Sweitzer’s background) and documentary and video-art instincts (Khalil’s backgrounds).

Central to the story of Empty Metal are Rose (indie noise musician Rose Mori, a.k.a. PVSSYHEAVEN), Pam (Sam Richardson), and Devon (Austin Sley Julian), a trio of disaffected electro-punk rockers gigging around Brooklyn under the moniker of Alien. But to call them protagonists undercuts the degree to which Khalil and Sweitzer frame them less as independently motivated agents than as ciphers ushered along a path over which they appear to exert little control. More instrumental to the film’s evolution are the clairvoyant, vaguely ethereal figures—a Rastafarian chef listed in the credits as King Alpha (Oba), an older indigenous woman (Irma LaGuerre), and several of their younger accomplices—who watch over the trio and ultimately size them up as eligible candidates for a criminal plot.

Rose, Pam, and Devon are to assassinate three infamous white cops who’ve gotten away with murder, then go off the grid. Neither the names of the targets nor their specific infractions are clarified, though the connections to real-life analogues are made more or less self-evident in the series of crude 3D renderings of police violence that are periodically inserted into the middle of scenes. On the eve of a domestic Alien tour, Rose is approached at the band van by a member of King Alpha’s clan, who leans into the would-be rebel to impart a telepathic message paraphrased, as with a number of the film’s longer monologues, from William S. Burroughs’s novel The Place of Dead Roads: “I will teach you to dissociate gun, arm, and eye.”

Intuitively reading between the lines, Rose promptly loses interest in the tour and recruits, with little resistance, her bandmates to the cause. This sequence of events, along with anything else having to do with the transition of these hitherto merely frustrated musicians to insurrectionary vigilantes, hardly stands up to dramatic scrutiny, due in equal parts to Mori, Richardson, and Julian’s stilted line deliveries and the insufficient time their characters are afforded in the editing to acquire anything like psychological plausibility.

Nonetheless, there’s something of a poetic logic to the characters’ transformations, an unnerving illustration of the idea that the gap between ambient frustration and radicalism is but a short cognitive leap. There’s also a sense of fatalism that hangs over the proceedings, of an inexorable historical duty that can’t or shouldn’t be resisted. In an ominous sequence of self-actualization, Rose recites the names of historical dissidents from Ulrike Meinhof to Osama bin Laden with a mix of clinical dispassion and reverence as archival footage and animated representations of their violent acts fill the screen.

By contrast, Khalil and Sweitzer stage a lighter scene around the mid-forest meeting of King Alpha, LaGuerre’s character, and a European monk (Pawel Wojtasik) previously seen only in excerpts of a de-contextualized courtroom taping. Here, it’s casually implied that the three characters—who suddenly claim to have last seen each other at either the “L.A. riots” or Wounded Knee—are merely the corporeal containers of activist spirits who weave through the centuries, cyclically reuniting to nudge willing souls toward more proactive forms of rebellion.

Taking its title from a description of drones given by Rose in voiceover, Empty Metal questions if perhaps these transhistorical agitators have met a new and unconquerable challenger in the surveillance state, armed as it is with high-tech weaponry and vast intel on its populace. Certainly, the right-wing militia shown in another chilling subplot offers no compelling resistance to this monolithic force, even as they stash up on firearms and embark on austere training. The figurehead of this self-determined group (Jon Nandor) happens to be the son of Wojtasik’s monk, and it’s a quiet dinner table scene between the two of them that stands out among all the jarring associative edits and flicker-frame embellishments as one of the film’s strongest effects. As the father dismantles his son’s second amendment convictions, he’s left unable to contemplate an adequate alternative, and it’s telling that even a sage, potentially immortal mystic seems perplexed by our current predicament.

Cast: Rose Mori, Austin Sley Julian, Sam Richardson, Oba, Irma LaGuerre, Pawel Wojtasik, Jon Nandor Director: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Screenwriter: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Distributor: Factory 25 Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Beniamino Barrese’s The Disappearance of My Mother

It’s fascinating to see Benedetta Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself.




The Disappearance of My Mother
Photo: Kino Lorber

Domestic ethnography typically sees a filmmaking member of a family turning the camera inward to investigate, or rewrite, a family’s history. This means that the filmmaker in question can occupy the inconvenient position of unearthing the ancient dirt on top of which the family is founded. In The Disappearance of My Mother, director Beniamino Barrese is less interested in wrestling with the maternal function in the drama of a household than in the mother’s status as his muse. The film is a love letter to the filmmaker’s mother, Benedetta Barzini, a 76-year-old former supermodel and the first Italian woman to grace the cover of American Vogue, now a feminist fashion studies lecturer in Milan. The constellation of the family is rendered useless here, as what matters to Barrese is the love affair between mother and son, forever mediated by the camera lens.

The tragedy here isn’t to be found in the regrettable actions of yore or the repressed feelings that both constitute and undermine a home, but in the unfairness of time. The film seems to say that a mother must age, a mother must die, and some of them may even want to. And it seemingly recognizes something tragic in an external world that’s obsessed with all of the things Barzini doesn’t value, despite having been a fashion industry commodity in the 1960s: beauty, youth, luxury, and cleanliness (she hardly ever showers or changes her bedsheets).

Barzini’s feminist stance appears as her most consistent motif in old interviews, in the strangely theatrical way she used to pose with garments in fashion shoots, and in her present-day statements captured in the film, both verbal and sartorial (she shows up to receive an award in her stay-at-home clothes). She is, from the beginning of her career, vocally aware that the femininity she’s paid to display is a playful one, removed from her actual self, which is itself, Barzini argues, unphotographable. She knows the existence, and persistence, of beauty stereotypes caging women to be due to the fact that men invent women through a series of prescriptions. And that they thus invent them as Jessica Rabbits, she argues at one point, wondering out loud whether it may not be best if women’s bodies disappeared altogether.

It’s fascinating to see Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself, bringing back news from its most glamourous yet rotten core. She lectures young college girls about the symbolic relationship between fashion, youth, and man’s fear of death, holding magazine ads in her hands as irrefutable evidence. She asks them questions like “What does ‘old age’ mean?,” “Why do imperfections bother people?,” and “What is the point of continuing to sell our bodies without any quality or talent?” These moments of pedagogical passion occur when Barzini’s presence is allowed to take over the frame precisely because the filmmaking son fades into the background. And they’re in striking contrast to Barrese’s instances of shoving the camera into his mother’s reluctant face.

That stance, though in line with some sort of undying teenage streak, reveals a misguided desire to force his mother into his cinematic paradigm. Although Barrese purposefully allows for a great degree of transparency, showing us his failed attempts to get his mother to change outfits for continuity’s sake, for instance, these sequences feel contrived when compared to those where the mother is allowed to perform in an uncontrolled fashion. When we hear him ask her, “Is there anything you want me to put in the wash?,” or “Mom, what bothers you so much about images?,” it’s impossible not to see the air of spontaneity as calculated artifice.

Many times, Barrese acts like a vulture taking something from his mother that she doesn’t want to give. Or does she? Barzini calls him a petit bourgeois for appreciating her articulations only inasmuch as they fit his filmic narrative. And she yells, “Put the camera down! Put it down!” He obeys her for a couple seconds but leaves the camera running, then grabs it back to continue interrogating her. And she lets him. Mother and son relations are often like this—full of theatrics, ambiguity, and teeming with seduction. Neither could afford losing the other’s love. And they both know it. Which forces Barrese to keep pushing the limits. He even shoots her when she’s asleep. Or, at least, when he thinks she is. It turns out that following mom is a habit from childhood. And ever since then she’s been protesting his advances. “I want to disappear, not to appear,” she says, because “the lens is the enemy.”

In a beautiful sequence toward the end of the film, after Barzini speaks about dying and the shame of belonging to this world, so sullied by white men, Barrese asks her to spin around in her courtyard, holding her dress. She says she will get dizzy. He finally listens to her and lets her stand still, spinning with his camera around her himself. She smiles, enjoying the moment. She’s happy standing still, courted in the courtyard by her child’s contemplation. Mother eventually asks her son: “Are you done playing?” He’s not, and neither is she.

Director: Beniamino Barrese Screenwriter: Beniamino Barrese Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Interview: Eddie Redmayne on The Aeronauts and Accessing Physicality

Redmayne discusses everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set.



Eddie Redmayne
Photo: Amazon Studios

“I can’t believe you wrote your dissertation on Les Misérables,” Eddie Redmayne says in a complete non sequitur midway through our conversation. I had a feeling it might come up at some point, so I had to lead with telling him that he featured prominently in the video essay portion of my senior thesis on how Tom Hooper’s 2012 film adaptation collapsed boundaries between stage and screen. As legend has it, Redmayne made a suggestion in post-production that led to the film’s close-up-heavy editing, a choice which sparked intense discussion around the aesthetics of the musical genre.

The episode captures something about Redmayne that sets him apart from other actors who operate in a similarly demonstrative, showy register. He’s genuinely thoughtful about the full cycle of how a performance gets created and transmitted to audiences, in everything from the rehearsal process to the editing bay. After winning an Academy Award for 2014’s The Theory of Everything and another nomination for 2015’s The Danish Girl, Redmayne took a turn toward blockbuster fare with two outings playing Newt Scamander in the Fantastic Beasts series. But now he’s back to the period dramas that made his name with The Aeronauts, an old-fashioned movie adventure that reunites him with his The Theory of Everything co-star, Felicity Jones. As scientist James Glaisher and pilot Amelia Wren, Redmayne and Jones, respectively, spends the majority of the film confined to the tight space of a gas balloon’s basket as they rise to 37,000 feet in the air in an attempt to make meteorological breakthroughs in 1860s Britain.

Redmayne’s role is a fitting lens to discuss not only The Aeronauts, but also his recent career. His craft is just as much a science as it is an art. Our conversation got into the weeds of technical details as he discussed everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set. But, first, we had to discuss Les Misérables, given the pivotal role his behind-the-scenes behavior played in my academic career.

During post-production on Les Misérables, I read that while in the editing room you encouraged Tom Hooper to hold longer on the close-up of Anne Hathaway during “I Dreamed A Dream,” setting into motion the film relying on them so heavily.

Because of the way that Les Mis was shot with live singing, you couldn’t get between different tracks because of the variation. What Tom did was make sure that you could always have the whole scene cut from one setup: a wide, a mid, [and a close-up]. There were three cameras on at the same time. He was editing the film, and the studio had put out a trailer they edited themselves that was more of the close-up. Tom and I had a discussion, and I think I mentioned that it could hold. What I find so interesting is that everyone has a specific opinion on Les Mis, whether it worked—and, of course, the close-ups are something people bring up a lot. But the live singing process dictated the way it was shot. We couldn’t shoot outside a lot because, when you shoot outside, the voice disappears. So, we had to build the barricades in a studio.

What you did with Les Misérables speaks to just how much a performance gets remade in the editing room. Are you still actively involved in that final step of the process?

What’s weird about making films is you create so much of it in a vacuum. It’s not like theater, where actors get together for months and work things out. Often you meet the person playing your mother or father two hours before [shooting]. Often you don’t know the director, meeting them a day before you start working with them. You have an idea of what the character’s arc is, and, of course, part of the joy of making films is giving over that. You put that down and hope the director observes that. But a director can often observe something different that’s more interesting! What I like to do, and I’ve been lucky enough to do, is make work and, if I’m allowed into the editing process, have a dialogue with that director. Provided you know they see what you intended, whether they use that or not is obviously their choice.

I do find that dynamic really interesting, and I’ve been lucky enough with James Marsh on The Theory of Everything, Tom Hooper, and [director] Tom Harper and [screenwriter] Jack Thorne on this. Felicity and I worked together with Jack and Tom for a couple of months beforehand working through the intricacies of the script, and Tom allowed us that bit because it’s so intimate between the two of us, almost like [working on a play] with the writer and director. He allowed us the intimacy in the process the whole way through. The reason I do it is because, as an actor, you’re never happy with what ends up in the finished product. But while you can still shift and change things, I enjoy being a part of that process.

As someone who came up through theater, where you have so much less mediation between your performance and how an audience receives it, have you found comfort in the editing process?

It was a massive adjustment because I got into acting through theater. For many years, I couldn’t get cast in TV or film because I was playing to the back of the stalls in my audition. When I did start working, it’s all been a massive learning curve.

How do you approach acting out of sequence? In both The Aeronauts and The Theory of Everything, you’re tasked with building a full and continuous character arc, but that seems tough you’re stopping and restarting.

Quite often, directors will try and keep as much in chronology as possible. A lot of the stuff we did in the basket in The Aeronauts was shot chronologically. It’s the other bits that aren’t. What you have to do is see how the director is filming it, what their process is and work out what’s best for you. For example, on The Theory of Everything, all the exteriors we were shooting in the first two days in Cambridge when all the students weren’t there. That meant that any time Stephen was outside in the entire film, we were shooting in the first two days. Which meant we had to do all different physicalities at different moments of his life in the first two days. Which meant [I] had to be able to access those different physicalities very quickly, which in itself dictated the process. I wasn’t going to spend hours getting into the zone, I have to slot into these. For me, I said, I need months to rehearse, and I need to rehearse the movement like a dance so that [I] can access it quite quickly. It’s all about the stuff you do beforehand so you’re ready when you’re working the other actor to be completely free.

You shot some of The Aeronauts outdoors in the gas balloon and then some on a soundstage against a blue screen. How did you all work to keep the authenticity consistent in your performances?

We were lucky that the first thing we shot was the real stuff. We went up in the real balloon—we had this accident, it was really terrifying—and the notion of the stakes were weirdly embedded with us from day one. Ultimately, it always feels horrendously fake when you’re in a giant basket surrounded by blue screens, but they did things like [freezing] the studio for our breath. We were shooting in the summer in the U.K., and then you had cast and crew in jackets because we were in a giant refrigerator. They also gave us freezing buckets with ice to plunge our hands into beforehand. The director really gave us everything he could to make it feel [right]. Because they had gone up in helicopters and shot the skyscapes beforehand, they had very clever technology on an iPad that lets you look at the balloon to see where the sun was and what the weather was. They spent a long time working in pre-production about how to not make it look fake, and one of the things was that it could look real, but if your eyes are totally open, the fact that there’s blinding sunlight…of course, you can look at a big, bright light without it being a stretch. It was to learn to squint a bit [to avoid] the giveaway.

Between The Aeronauts and the Fantastic Beasts series, you’ve been doing quite a bit of acting in synthetic spaces.


That’s not a value judgment! How do you go about using your imagination to bring the surroundings to life in your head while maintaining the same specificity as if you were there?

I try and do a load of research, so even if it’s on Fantastic Beasts, it’s talking to the animators, going and looking at drawings and set designs. Trying to do all of that early so it’s not in your imagination. The other process I tried to learn from Dan Fogler, who’s in Fantastic Beasts and very free. He’ll try lots of different things, and I watched him on the first film and thought he was brilliant. It’s a mixture of doing your research, then throwing it away and trying things.

Has it gotten easier over time? Like a muscle that has to be trained and toned?

Yeah, it definitely does. For example, with Pickett [a small plant creature his character keeps as a pet] on Fantastic Beasts, I was so concerned with talking to something that’s not there and make it feel real. I would over[act]. [Reenacts staring intently at the creature on his hand] You never normally look at people when you talk to them. You can have a conversation with Pinkett on your hand and not really look at him.

You’ve mentioned that the basket became like another character in the film because you and Felicity shared such tight quarters with it. How do you make spaces feel natural for your characters to inhabit?

That is rehearsals. That’s why we did them. What I love about this film, hopefully, is that it’s this thrilling adventure on a big scale. At the same time, it’s also an intimate little drama. That space is the size of a sofa. We had weeks working of thinking how to make things visually interesting for an audience. Each time the camera comes back to it, it needs to have transformed or changed. We rehearsed on it so we could find different ways: whether it was sitting on the floor or one of us up in the hoop, different angles, getting rid of carpets or some of the tools. They add character to this battered, bruised vessel that’s been pummeled.

Does that mean you all were really working out specific shots and angles within the rehearsal process?

When we were rehearsing the scenes over and over again, Tom would have suggestions and ideas from watching with the cinematographer. One of the things he found is that, early on, if the camera was ever outside of the balloon—even centimeters out—it doesn’t feel real. Any moments that are caught inside the balloon, apart from a few moments where drones fly and take close-ups, the cinematographer was always inside the balloon. He was moving with the movement. The camera, similarly, was like another character in the piece. Because just one centimeter outside, since we can’t suspend ourselves in mid-air, felt unreal.

Do you find it liberating to work within such tight confines like the basket? Does it force you to be more precise and conscious of your movement and blocking?

Yeah, it does. Because you’re confined, the freedom is in the minutiae. You can’t be making big, bold gestures. I think the intimacy plays to its favor in some ways.

The Aeronauts has a theme of looking up for inspiration amidst troubling times. The last few films you’ve made generally have some kind of optimistic feeling about them. Is that a conscious running thread running through your filmography?

I never relate my films to each other, but what I think is interesting is that the only way I choose work is by reacting to it. So maybe there’s a sense of that [optimism]. The reason I wanted to do The Aeronauts is because I got to that last passage where Felicity’s character is standing on top of the world, and I just thought I would love to see that. I loved the idea of working with Felicity again. I loved this old-school adventure thrill to it. I felt like you’ve seen space investigated, but I hadn’t seen the sky. Sometimes, on a cold, horrendously miserable day, there’s something ecstatic about a break through the clouds. And whether you can retrain an audience who’s so used to seeing the sky from planes to make it feel like something new, all those things were curious to me. I don’t specifically go looking for optimistic pieces, although there was a period in my career when I was playing incestuous teenagers and schizophrenic psychos, so maybe I need to go talk to a therapist about that!

I know some actors like Meryl Streep or David Oyelowo, just to name two that come to mind, say that they deliberately only put work out into the world that they think can make it a better place.

That’s really interesting. I haven’t read that, but I’m probably not that…selfless. It tends to be something I just react to. There’s a weird moment when you read a script and suddenly feel a bit sick. That’s when you transfer yourself from imagining it to imagine yourself doing it. That’s the reality of the responsibility.

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Review: Midnight Family Is an Intimate Look at Mexico’s Ambulance Crisis

It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives the film its empathetic power.




Midnight Family
Photo: 1091 Media

Director Luke Lorentzen’s Midnight Family opens with a startling statistic: In Mexico City, around 45 public ambulances serve a population of over nine million people. Picking up the pieces are private ambulances, such as the one owned and operated by the Ochoa family, whom Lorentzen follows over several nights as they pick up patients from accident sites, provide immediate medical service, and deposit them at various hospitals. Every element of this process is a negotiation, and Lorentzen captures a multitude of damning and haunting details. Following this family, Lorentzen fashions a documentary that serves as a wrenchingly intimate portrait of a country’s wide-reaching healthcare crisis.

For the Ochoas, particularly their portly paterfamilias, Fernando, and his charismatic 17-year-old son, Juan, the ambulance is firstly a business—a means of barebones survival. The Ochoa ambulance often resembles a kind of medical food truck, as it roams Mexico City looking for customers, who are, of course, individuals in pronounced danger and pain. Lorentzen vividly captures the chaos of the accident sites, including the maddening array of traffic lights and people wandering haphazardly among the twisted ruins of crushed vehicles and property. Into this chaos, Fernando, Juan, and others enter with a kind of cleansing purposefulness, though they also have to watch out for cops who are looking to shake them down for pay-offs. (The legality of private ambulances is somewhat vaguely rendered here; the Ochoas may or may not have the right paperwork, though they definitely need official license plates.)

It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives Midnight Family its empathetic power. While saving lives, the Ochoas must focus on means of payment. They’re not ghouls, as we come to see that their next meal, and their ability to keep the vehicle running, depends on a night-by-night payout, which is threatened by the police as well as rival private ambulances. Since the Ochoas run a private business, patients can apparently refuse to pay them without recrimination from the government, which occurs often given the poverty of their largely uninsured clientele. Lorentzen is bracingly specific about money: One pick-up, of a teenage girl battered by her boyfriend, costs 3,800 pesos, at which her well-off mother balks.

Across Lorentzen’s documentary, viewers also learn of the equipment that the Ochoas need to pass regulations, and of the consequence that expense has on their ability to eat. In one evocative illustration of the effect of their profession on private life, we see the Ochoas at a gas station making tuna salad, which they eat on saltines. This meal occurs after an elaborate debate on whether they can afford to eat more than two tacos apiece.

Yet Lorentzen doesn’t turn the Ochoas into objects of our self-congratulatory pity. The filmmaker captures the despair as well as the adventure of such a livewire way of life, especially as the Ochoas race other ambulances. Fernando places a poignant amount of trust in young Juan, who daringly drives the ambulance, cutting off other vehicles with various improvisations of navigation. These chases are filmed by Lorentzen in a mixture of first-person and mounted-camera compositions that emphasize the limitation of a driver’s sight, establishing a sense of immediacy and danger that is far more thrilling than the standardly detached, alternating coverage of a conventional action film. In this fashion, Midnight Family sometimes brings to mind the brilliant chase sequence in James Gray’s We Own the Night.

Given the privacy of the scenes we witness in Midnight Family—moments of carnage, need, poverty, corruption, and love—the invisibility of Lorentzen’s presence comes as a mild disappointment. This project begs for an examination of how the filmmaking process informs the behavior of its subjects. This quality, or lack thereof, is especially evident when a family member of a patient is seen weeping in the front passenger seat of the Ochoa ambulance. How does she feel at being filmed at this moment of extremity? Midnight Family is a rich and textured film, but it stints on this kind of auto-critical answer.

Director: Luke Lorentzen Screenwriter: Luke Lorentzen Distributor: 1091 Media Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Aeronauts Takes to the Skies, Without Much of a Dramatic Hook

As a suspense film, it’s so sluggishly structured that it borders on the avant-garde.




The Aeronauts
Photo: Amazon Studios

Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts is such a sluggishly structured suspense film that it borders on the avant-garde. James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne), a 19th-century meteorologist, is attempting to prove that man can predict weather patterns, and he plans a hot-air balloon ride high into the Earth’s troposphere to conduct high-altitude measurements. With no available technology for breathing apparatuses or other modern safety equipment, James’s gambit is a bold one, but he hopes that by traveling so high he can use the most accurate measurements to prove his meteorological theses. Accompanying him is Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), a daredevil aeronaut with experience flying balloons at extreme altitudes. They’re practically a study in contrasts. James, humorless and bookish, talks rapidly and in fussy detail, mostly holding conversations with himself and putting others in the position of needing to interject to get a word in edgewise. Amelia, meanwhile, is filled with a certain joie de vivre, literally arriving to the balloon launch doing acrobatics to liven up the assembled crowd.

This is the second time that Redmayne and Jones have starred in a film together, but familiarity has done little to deepen their stilted chemistry. James and Amelia don’t converse so much as recite their respective credentials at each other. This might have worked if The Aeronauts gave the characters specializations that the other lacked, yet each has similar strengths: James, the less experienced balloonist, nonetheless knows enough about piloting the craft to not need instruction, while Amelia understands enough about meteorology to not require James to dumb down his scientific jargon. As a result, the pair’s dynamic is devoid of inherent conflict, which might have distracted them from the monotony of their balloon’s ascent into cloud-studded skies, which Harper stages as if in real time.

Of course, sitting in a vehicle that slowly drifts upward as its two occupants engage in, at most, haughty disagreement makes for moribund drama, so Harper fills time with flashbacks to show how James and Amelia got to this point. Anyone who’s ever seen a historical fiction about a scientific pioneer will know what to expect of James’s backstory: repeated scenes of the man explaining his ideas to academic administrators with sideburns large enough to count as mating displays, all of them mirthfully wagging their turkey necks as they respond to James’s hypotheses with sayings like, “Hitting the sherry a bit early this morning, aren’t we, Glaisher?”

Meanwhile, across a series of frenzied, chaotically edited memories of trauma, Amelia relives the death of her husband, Pierre Rennes (Vincent Perez), in a ballooning accident. It’s a hysterically lopsided distribution of character motivation. We get a few shots of Amelia and Pierre tenderly embracing, but otherwise the dead man is a mere device, and all that she can say of him to James is that “his most enduring quality was a deep, true love for the beauty of the world,” which, as far as eulogies go, is about two steps above “He loved to laugh.”

George Steel’s cinematography, namely the way it captures the balloon’s ascent, is the film’s strong suit. Especially noteworthy is when James and Amelia break past the cloud layer and are left in direct sunlight that’s rendered with brilliant white light that washes out the frame even as it communicates the rapidly falling temperatures at that altitude. And that temperature drop becomes the first catalyst for actual drama when James lets slip that he didn’t pack a warm enough coat out of concerns for the balloon’s weight, setting up the last act’s belated decision to include some kind of suspense in order to give the film a dramatic hook.

Indeed, the film’s last hour, in which James and Amelia find themselves increasingly starved for oxygen as their balloon rises higher into atmosphere, is its most engaging. Here, a violently shivering James transforms into the reckless adventure, while Amelia becomes the more anxious and fearful of the two. As she urges caution in the face of falling oxygen levels, the mild-mannered scientist is suddenly overcome with delusions of grandeur and fame and does everything to keep them rising. The camera begins to blur at the edges to reflect the characters’ fading consciousness, while a series of desperate last-ditch efforts on Amelia’s part to save them both is mounted with real tension. Still, the film’s wonky, flashback-heavy structure puts so much emphasis on the by-the-numbers backstory of the characters that the actual drama of the balloon flight itself is muted, making the eventual turn toward chaos less of a narrative culmination than a last-minute recalibration of the film’s inert quality.

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Phoebe Fox, Himesh Patel, Vincent Perez, Anne Reid, Tom Courtenay, Tim McInnerny, Rebecca Front Director: Tom Harper Screenwriter: Jack Thorne Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin Limply Aspires to the Lynchian

The film gets so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.




Knives and Skin
Photo: IFC Films

Something terrible has happened to Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley). But unlike Twin Peaks and its plastic-wrapped Laura Palmer, Knives and Skin makes it immediately clear what occurred to her: She was left bleeding and without her glasses in the wilderness by a vengeful jock, Andy Kitzmiller (Ty Olwin), because she wouldn’t have sex with him. She never makes it back. This transpires near the start of the film, and what transpires after this point is a dreamy, neon-tinted vision of a town overcome less by grief than ennui.

Throughout Knives and Skin, writer-director Jennifer Reeder draws heavily from the style of David Lynch, cycling through the townsfolk and their weirdest tendencies. Carolyn’s mother, Lisa (Marika Engelhardt), insists that she can smell her daughter on Andy. Andy’s sister, Joanna (Grace Smith), sells underwear to Principal Markhum (Tony Fitzpatrick), cash only. The girl’s father, Dan (Tim Hopper), who’s cheating on his wife (Audrey Francis), is seen at one point emerging from between a waitress’s (Kate Arrington) legs while wearing clown makeup. And Grandma Kitzmiller (Marilyn Dodds Frank) pesters everyone for weed. Certain objects glow, and the girls’ choir practices a series of haunting pop song arrangements, its members whispering to each other one by one while the rest of the ensemble keeps singing.

Other than Lisa’s persistent, unfounded hopes that her daughter is still alive, Carolyn’s disappearance seems to intentionally leave little impression on anyone. Everyone is wrapped up in their own concerns and pursuits, struggling to hold down jobs or dealing with disinterested partners. They’re united only by their vaguely odd feelings and a sense of being trapped, as one boy (Robert T. Cunningham) does when he stands on the roof of the high school; he doesn’t intend to jump, he just wants to see the highway that leads somewhere else.

But in untethering itself from what happened to Carolyn Harper, Knives and Skin ends up unfocused, shambling from one moment of self-conscious weirdness to another. Its themes, like the constant and varied violations of consent going on throughout the town, get lost in favor of things like the talking tiger T-shirt and the hamburger meat lobbed at a vehicle in protest until the entire purpose of these surreal flourishes seems to melt away.

The film is intermittently striking with its heavily stylized lighting and wistful electronic score, but it creates little sense of place. The town where these people all live, which seems to be affecting them to such a profound degree, is so nondescript beyond a few anonymous landscape shots that it stops evoking a place they would want to leave because it doesn’t really seem like a place at all. Rather than explorations of individual oddness, Knives and Skin becomes a rather tedious mood piece with an ethereal atmosphere so remote, so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.

Cast: Marika Engelhardt, Raven Whitley, Ty Olwin, Ireon Roach, Haley Bolithon, Aurora Real de Asua, Grace Smith, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Tim Hopper, Audrey Francis, James Vincent Meredith, Kate Arrington, Kayla Carter, Robert T. Cunningham, Alex Moss Director: Jennifer Reeder Screenwriter: Jennifer Reeder Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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