An impresario of widescreen framing, Roman Polanski has been obsessively filtering his personal traumas through his camera eye since his feature-length debut, Knife in the Water, announced him as a major film artist. His unique visual imprint is felt immediately in the opening shot of The Ghost Writer, which begins with a barge pulling up to a dock, appearing almost anxious to spit out its cargo of commuter cars onto a mysterious island retreat but also seeming as if it were going to penetrate the surface of the screen. Even before a body washes ashore and a group of men gather in an office to give Ewan McGregor’s nameless lead character the job of finishing a disgraced ex-Prime Minister’s memoirs, this taut little thriller already has you by the neck.
Ghost Writer is a film with shades of political intrigue. It links a British politico’s handling of terror suspects with America’s rejection of ICC jurisdiction, but unlike Tony Gilroy’s fashionably self-serious Michael Clayton, in which George Clooney saves his soul by exposing a corporation’s malfeasance, it isn’t enthralled by the complicated villainy that ties many powers that be. After Pierce Brosnan’s Adam Lang is called out for his alleged wrongdoing, McGregor’s “ghost” sets out on his own to unravel a seemingly tangled web that links his boss to a Cambridge scholar and reveals cracks in Adam’s story about his political origins, but he doesn’t do so out of any sort of self-righteous moral duty. What compels the character is sheer curiosity, then his fiercely primal desire for survival.
Ghost Writer suggests a game of chess played delicately and with great precision. The score, by the great Alexandre Desplat, is racked with as much tension as Polanski’s prismatically askew images, notable for their remarkably absorbing depth of field: However McGregor is framed, whether it is before a vast, toiling ocean or against a huge wall-sized window, there’s always a sense that he’s unsafe, that someone, something, could sneak up behind him at any moment, from around some corner or sand dune, even from out of the sea, and take him way. The machinations of plot are realistic in their humdrumness, but they obviously matter less to Polanski than mood—creating a suffocating aura of eerie tranquility that’s bound for inevitable collapse.
Ninth Gate sans the goofy giallo flourishes, Ghost Writer is in many ways a cynical vision, assuming as it does political, even human, corruptibility as a given, but the struggle of McGregor’s character is hauntingly reflective of Polanski’s lifelong traumas, from his surviving the Holocaust to, well, his surviving the murder of Sharon Tate and their unborn child. Holed up inside Adam’s island manse, subjected to all sorts of security checks, his every behavior scrutinized, McGregor’s ghost writer becomes not unlike, yes, a ghost. His is a particularly nerve-jangling existential crisis, and it’s one that you feel in one’s bones—and could not have been conceived by anyone other than a man that has moved throughout life from one prison to next, many of his own construction.
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Kim Cattrall, Olivia Williams, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Hutton, John Bernthal, David Rintoul, Robert Pugh, Eli Wallach Director: Roman Polanski Screenwriter: Robert Harris, Roman Polanski Distributor: Summit Entertainment Running Time: 128 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2010 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
Interview: Rob Zombie on 3 from Hell, Manson, and the Charisma of Evil
Zombie discusses how he corrals his films’ furious sense of energy and how sex appeal can trump common moral sense.
Musician Rob Zombie is also one of the most original and distinctive of modern horror directors, having fused the theatricality of his concerts and videos with the tropes of Southern-fried slasher films to arrive at an aesthetic that captures the narcotic pull of violence. His films, which include House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects, The Lords of Salem, and the dramatically underrated Halloween II, often feature characters who are gutter poets and expert tenders to their own mythology in the tradition of Charles Manson.
Zombie’s villains also often suggest musicians themselves, as they’re elaborately outfitted and self-conscious of their murder sprees as a kind of performance art, which Zombie films up close with piercing intimacy, fetishizing power while also dramatizing the pain and humiliation of death in extremis. At their best, Zombie’s films are so unnerving because he plunges you unapologetically into their aggression and squalor, which he laces with shards of dark and even unexpectedly loony comedy. (In The Devil’s Rejects, a band of killers has an elaborate argument over whether or not to stop for ice cream.)
Zombie’s latest, 3 from Hell, continues the story of the filmmaker’s most famous characters, the Firefly clan of House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects, played by Sid Haig, Bill Mosley, and Zombie’s wife, Sheri Moon Zombie. Last seen going out in a blaze of glory, the Firefly Clan, newly revived and captured by the law, of course embarks on another bender of ultraviolence. Richard Brake, the MVP of Zombie’s 31, plays a new killer who joins the clan, which eventually winds up in a Mexican town that bears a resemblance to the climactic setting of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Speaking on the phone with Zombie last week, we discussed how he corrals his films’ furious sense of energy, his love of screwing with typecasting, and how sex appeal can trump common moral sense.
Your films have a volatile and intimate style, and I’m curious about how you achieve that tone. Is there a rehearsal process? Do your actors need to work themselves up?
Well, we do try to rehearse whenever possible. Rehearsal time seems to be harder and harder these days for films. Have you seen 3 from Hell?
Okay, one scene in particular was difficult: the one where everybody’s held captive in the house, and the warden comes back with Baby. That scene was very difficult because in one room we have, I don’t know, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight actors. First of all, it’s a nightmare to block, because you got people going every which way and in every which direction. And it was just falling flat. The actors kept rehearsing and rehearsing and we could just not energize it. It just kept feeling stagey, and we were all confused because everybody was doing it right. And it was like, “What is the element that’s missing? Why is this not igniting the way it should?” It was driving us all crazy.
Was there any decisive “wrong” thing or was it a matter of fine-tuning everything?
It just wasn’t kicking off on the right foot. And we changed it so that Baby comes through the door, she’s excited at what’s going on and it was just something about that moment. We made one little tweak to how someone was going to do a line of dialogue, and it’s amazing how it created this domino effect and sent this energy through the room, and the whole scene just became crazy. But it’s really frustrating sometimes when you’re trying to figure things out because we’re all working on such a time constraint. It’s not like, “Ah, we got together and rehearsed for 12 weeks.” That was the first time those eight people had ever been in a room together you know, and we’re trying to make this explosive, very complicated scene happen. You keep searching until you figure it out.
I remember watching that long making-of extra on The Devil’s Rejects DVD, and it seemed then like that tight schedule was a source of inspiration. Is that fair to say?
The tight schedule is a blessing and a curse. But I think the curse part would’ve happened no matter what. I’ve made movies with much longer schedules and there’s never enough time. I’m sure when they were shooting Jaws on day 500 they were like, “We need more time!” I don’t think it matters how much time you have, you still don’t have enough time because you always think you can make it better. On most movies, actors shoot something and then go back to their trailer, they play video games, they take a nap, they read a book, they chit chat, have a cigarette. Nobody leaves the set when I’m shooting, because we never have enough down time for them to go anywhere. And that way, they’re always there and in the moment. And that’s what you need: You need to yell “action” and they’re still there. Because it’s really hard when you start a scene, whether it’s a high-energy scene or a low-energy scene, and then people break it down for a half hour while they change the lights. Actors just lose the vibe, and then they come back in and are like, “Ah, man, where was I? What was happening?” And whenever you break for lunch, it’s like, “Ah, crap.” There’s that after lunch lull where everybody comes back full and you gotta ramp everybody’s energy up. So the short schedule works, because we never stop, we never stop, we never stop. And I think the actors like it better because they don’t want to sit by themselves all day in a trailer. They wanna act. It’s like a play.
In 3 from Hell, I like the energy of Baby’s prison scenes, and I love Dee Wallace. Her role is a great bit of anti-typecasting.
Well, I like anti-typecasting. We’ve worked with Dee several times, and Sheri had worked with Dee quite a bit on Lords of Salem. So, I like when I know that actors have a good working energy together, because sometimes they don’t and that can be problematic. When I first offered Dee the role, she didn’t say yes right away. She was like, “Oh God, this is so different, I gotta think about it.” And then the next day she said yes. Because, you know, she usually plays the nice mom or the nice whatever, I guess she’s been typecast since E.T. But, you know, now you can be the mean, shitty lesbian prison guard. You’re an actor, you got it. [laughs]
What makes Dee really pop in this role is that the niceness isn’t entirely gone. The character is chilling because she has a strange vulnerability.
There’s a weird dynamic we wanted to create, where she’s not just this prison guard from something like The Big Bird Cage. Dee’s character is in awe of Baby and in love with her but hates her guts at the same time. I always like creating these weird relationships between the characters. Baby’s in Dee’s head and she knows it. To diverge for a second, I remember seeing this footage of Charles Manson. He was coming in to sit down to be interviewed by Tom Snyder or whoever. In the outtakes before the interview started, Manson was standing there bullshitting with the film crew. It’s so weird. He’s like, “Hey, man, where you from? Oh shit, man, I’ve been there before.” The crew doesn’t think of Manson as a murderer, he’s like a rock star to them. There’s this weird fascination because he’s so fucking famous. It’s a sick thing.
Your films have an edge because they’re willing to tap that fascination. You’re willing to leave moralism behind and groove on the charisma of these evil people. You’re honest about the cultural attraction to killers. Do you think of it that way?
Yeah, I totally do. The reason I can get away with the Fireflies doing what they do in these movies, and people liking them, is because they’re cool and charismatic and sexy. That’s who people are drawn to. If they were like hideous to look at and disgusting, audiences would say they’re horrible. But this guy looks like he’s, you know, Gregg Allman, and this girl looks like she’s like Farrah Fawcett, these guys are awesome! People are into them.
You have a good point. People don’t quite worship David Berkowitz the way they do Charles Manson. One has the sex factor.
Yeah, there’s a cool factor. Manson does look like Dennis Wilson or John Lennon. Though when you research, when Manson and the family shaved their heads and put the swastikas on their foreheads, they lost the youth culture. Before, people were outside the courthouse in L.A., and they were interviewing people, and some of them were wearing “free Manson” shirts. The Family was on the cover of Rolling Stone and all the hippie rags. But the swastikas made people think, “Okay, he’s not the cool hippie dude we thought he was.” Would Jimi Hendrix have been who he was if he was a big fat bald guy? No, it’s because he was fucking cool. Would the Beatles have been the Beatles if they were all ugly, stupid-looking dudes? No, it’s because everyone thought they were good-looking. That goes so far in the world. More now than ever.
Review: Young Ahmed Doesn’t Imagine the Inner Life of an Aspiring Radical
The Dardennes maintain a distance from Ahmed as a way of celebrating their refusal to reduce him to any easy psychological bullet points.2
With Young Ahmed, writer-director Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne apply their pared-down aesthetic to especially provocative subject matter: the radicalization of a teenager living in a small Belgium village. At the start of the film, Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) has already fallen in with a manipulative mentor, Imam Youssouf (Othmane Mouman), who sees everyone but himself as an apostate. Drinking in Youssouf’s teachings, which increasingly endorse jihad, Ahmed is immediately seen as closed-off and incapable of empathy, calling his mother (Claire Bodson) an alcoholic and harassing his teacher, Inès (Myriem Akheddiou), for daring to teach Arabic in a fashion that children find pleasurable.
Over the years, the Dardennes’ aversion to melodrama has been revelatory, allowing small moments to reverberate with an impact that underscores the profound majesty and terror inherent in everyday life. And, on the surface, Young Ahmed feels like a classic Dardenne production, as it’s been staged with their customary docudramatic urgency.
Compact tracking shots capture Ahmed’s escalating frustration, turning his attempts to protest his school and family into miniature studies of process. A few of these sequences are brilliant, particularly the long wind-up preceding the scene in which Ahmed tries to kill Inès for utilizing pop music as a teaching tool. The Dardennes emphasize the chilling carefulness with which Ahmed wraps a knife up in napkins; even in murder, he’s a diligent student, eager in his way to please and be heard. When Ahmed takes a swing at Inès, the Dardennes time it so that we are as shocked as she is, even though we’ve already witnessed an excruciatingly suspenseful scene in which Ahmed diligently makes his way up to her classroom.
But the Dardennes’ minimalism also feels like an evasive and self-congratulatory stunt in Young Ahmed. In many of their films, elliptical structures communicate the scattershot-ness of people’s lives, suggesting an endless string of calamity and confusion. Here, though, the ellipses suggest an unwillingness to imagine the inner life of an aspiring radical. The Dardennes’ decision to begin the film with Ahmed already in the sway of repressive, violent ideology is a deliberate one, so that his emotional fall won’t be the focus of the audience’s attention. Initially, the Dardennes don’t exactly engender pity for Ahmed, as that response would compromise their fetishizing of his impenetrability as a testament to their own humanist bona fides. In other words, the Dardennes maintain a distance from Ahmed as a way of celebrating their refusal to reduce him to any easy psychological bullet points, which ironically reduces him to something else: a signifier of their virtue.
Yet Ahmed’s seduction by Youssouf is still fleetingly “explained” with references to family trauma that unsurprisingly suggest that Ahmed has daddy issues and is looking for a mentor. The Dardennes don’t dramatize these traumas, as such events might destabilize the plaintive quotidian mood they cultivate throughout and require them to stretch and challenge the strict boundaries they’ve applied to this subject matter. Other key moments are astonishingly left off screen as well, such as when Ahmed’s mother learns that her son has attempted murder. Such scenes would probably provide the audience with an emotional catharsis, which would disrupt the traditional Dardenne formula of delaying such a crescendo until the final moment.
Young Ahmed is staked entirely on dolling out suggestive bread crumbs, until we’re finally permitted to cry when Ahmed learns the error of his ways—a moment that’s as pat as it is well-staged. In the end, the film is melodramatic, though it’s pitched at arthouse audiences who see themselves as superior to melodrama. In Robert Bresson’s work, delayed gratification suggests the holiness of all moments, climatic and ordinary alike—a state that the Dardennes have achieved in the past on their own stylistic terms. In Young Ahmed, though, this device empowers them to prune their thorny subject matter down to an inspirational punchline.
Cast: Idir Ben Addi, Myriem Akheddiou, Othmane Moumen, Olivier Bonnaud, Victoria Bluck, Claire Bodson, Amine Hamidou, Yassine Tarsimi, Cyra Lassman Director: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne Screenwriter: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Oh Mercy! Is a Bracing Study of Violence Born of Helplessness
Arnaud Desplechin evinces a glancing touch with showing how social tension and need inform law and crime.3
Arnaud Desplechin’s Oh Mercy! exudes a loose and anecdotal rhythm that refutes traditional three-act plotting. Based on a 2008 documentary, the film follows a police precinct in Roubaix as it pursues various cases, and Desplechin is bracingly concerned less with any isolated crime or character than he is in conveying simultaneousness by seizing on stray details. There’s a sense in Oh Mercy! of the dwarfing mechanics of maintaining process amid chaos, which is rare for films and common of perfunctory crime novels
Before the authorities in Desplechin’s film can comprehend an act of arson, a serial rapist commits another assault in a subway. And before someone can make sense of that action, a girl runs away. Police officers drift in and out of the frame making vivid impressions, such as Benoît (Stéphane Duquenoy), a beefy man who specializes in sex crimes and balks at handling the subway case, wondering why a woman can’t be assigned to address the needs of the young female victim. And presiding over the madness is the police captain, Yakoub Daoud (Roschdy Zem), a quiet and dignified model of patience and sobriety, who must navigate nesting strands of social tensions, on the personal as well as the political level.
Oh Mercy! is a striking stylistic departure for Desplechin. By the standards of florid pseudo auto-biopics such as Kings and Queen and Ismael’s Ghosts, this film is an exercise in formal and tonal restraint. Desplechin has cited The Wrong Man as an influence here, and one can see the Alfred Hitchcock film’s docudramatic legacy in prolonged sequences that savor the particulars of, say, taking fingerprints, or of advising a suspect to shed all potentially dangerous articles of clothing, such as a belt or the cord in a hoodie.
Considering the hyperbole of many of his prior films, Desplechin evinces a glancing touch with showing how social tension and need inform law and crime. Daoud, for instance, is of Algerian descent, and his whole family returned to their homeland a few years back. This information is revealed pointedly yet fleetingly and allowed to hang in the air, though Desplechin and Zem, in a tough and evocative performance, dramatize how the character uses his outsider status to play the role of the sage and the alien. Zem also explores—though tossed-off looks and the elegant stiffness of his posture—the loneliness of such a state.
Desplechin doesn’t speechify in Oh Mercy!, but Daoud’s ancestry obviously evokes France’s role in the Algerian War. And the crimes that plague Roubaix underscore the modern crisis of French neighborhoods that are succumbing to poverty, as people flee or steal and kill as small businesses dry up. Roubaix is said here to be rife with neighborhoods that people with common sense should avoid, and, as the crimes pile up, Desplechin communicates an impression of police officers trying in vain to stave off a gathering storm. Oh Mercy! is set around Christmastime, and the holiday lights seem to mock the austere and ramshackle buildings. For the first half of the film, few crimes have any resolution, and Desplechin’s devotion to loose, unfulfilled narrative strands is poignant and daringly risks frustration.
Oh Mercy! is partially disappointing because Desplechin doesn’t fulfill the thrilling randomness of his conceit, as the film does settle on a “big case,” though even in this narrative certain textures are distinctive. For one, that big case—the murder of an elderly woman for pitiful, petty reasons that are realistic of actual crimes—bleeds into the earlier arson case, as the witnesses of the latter are the perpetrators of the former. Are the murder and the arson connected? Desplechin is also content to let that possibility hang.
As Daoud, Benoît, and others question Claude (Léa Seydoux) and Marie (Sara Forestier) for the murder, Desplechin reveals the police to be earnest and inventive to the point of courting authoritarianism, particularly Daoud, a brilliant empath who uses his outsider status to identify the bitterness, the poverty, the alienation, that have driven Claude and Marie to kill more or less for the hell of it, turning it against them in increasingly manipulative measures. Desplechin’s allegiance to The Wrong Man is evident here in the sheer obsessive length of these sequences, as the assorted interrogations of Claude and Marie are essentially the entire second half of the film. Like Hitchcock, Desplechin wants us to feel the suspects’ entrapment.
Unlike the Hitchcock of The Wrong Man, Desplechin fosters a conflicted, disturbing kind of double empathy: Daoud, largely a good man, becomes a debatably justified tyrant, especially when he handcuffs himself to Claude and questions her in a confrontation that has a sexual intimacy, and Claude and Marie, killers, are unmistakably tragic. The film’s master image is among the greatest images of Desplechin’s career: the women, recreating their strangulation of the victim for the police, briefly hold their hands together under the victim’s pillow. Here, Desplechin links unforgiveable violence with ferocious human need.
Cast: Roschdy Zem, Léa Seydoux, Sara Forestier, Antoine Reinartz, Sébastien Delbaere, Christophe Filbien, Damien Giloteaux, Jérémy Brunet, Stéphane Duquenoy Director: Arnaud Desplechin Screenwriter: Arnaud Desplechin, Léa Mysius Running Time: 119 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Marriage Story Is a Blistering Look at the Charred Aftermath of Love
Throughout, the subtle glimpses of a couple’s lingering affection for one another complicate the bitterness of their separation.3
Like most of Noah Baumbach’s films, Marriage Story initially occupies a rather nebulous spot between broad-strokes comedy and raw melodrama. For one, its depiction of the challenges of a young couple’s divorce makes plenty of room for inside jokes about the art word and its oddball denizens. But as the initially amicable split between an acclaimed New York playwright, Charlie (Adam Driver), and his actress wife, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), takes a sour turn, the film becomes more acerbic, fixating on how familiarity breeds contempt. At one point, we catch a glimpse of old magazine profile of the couple—written at the height of their artistic collaboration and domestic bliss—titled “Scenes from a Marriage,” a throwaway allusion to Ingmar Bergman that’s also a winking promise of the decline and fall to come.
At first looking to handle their divorce without the involvement of lawyers, Charlie and Nicole hit a rough patch when latter, who gave up a Hollywood career to move to New York and act in Charlie’s avant-garde plays, heads back to Los Angeles to shoot a television pilot, taking with her the couple’s young son, Henry (Azhy Robertson). While in town, the various divorcées on set encourage Nicole to lawyer up, and she takes a meeting with divorce attorney Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), a yuppie whose breezy chattiness can turn on a dime to cold-blooded strategic talk over how to win a court battle that Nicole doesn’t even want to be a part of.
Nicole, so passive at the start of her meeting with Nora, is initially marginalized within the frame by cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s camera, isolated in a corner of the room in angled compositions that make her look smaller than she really is. But as she begins to talk about her relationship, Nicole almost subconsciously begins to assert herself, getting up and walking around Nora’s office like she owns the place. Gradually, Marriage Story reorients the camera around Nicole, pushing closer until she dominates the frame. In an instant, you can sense that her meekness has been replaced by outrage at Charlie’s accumulated microaggressions.
Abruptly, an ostensibly pain-free divorce turns ugly, with Nicole serving a bewildered and hurt Charlie with legal papers. As Johansson plays up Nicole’s increasingly steely resolve against Charlie, Driver emphasizes Charlie’s bafflement as he’s forced to keep flying between New York and L.A. to meet with what few attorneys in town Nicole didn’t consult with first, thus limiting his options. As Henry grows more literally and emotionally distant from his father, Charlie is set adrift, haplessly attempting to retain his child’s love and keep his cool with Nicole.
At first, the film’s portrait of Charlie’s shortcomings, of the way he directs everyone in his life as if they were starring in one of his plays, is almost forgiving. Indeed, Charlie is so mild-mannered that Nicole’s vindictive behavior toward him comes to feel monstrous in its overreaction. But just as Baumbach’s understanding of Nicole starts to verge on the misogynistic, the film abruptly course-corrects, shedding light onto how much of Charlie’s ostensibly kind nature is a mask for a deliberately controlling, narcissistic personality. And in a handful of scenes, Marriage Story homes in on just how perceptive Nicole was of his manipulations, forcing us to reconsider the justifiability of her rage against her husband.
Baumbach executes this sudden clarification of Charlie’s true self with incisive aplomb, and in no small part with the help of Driver’s emotionally charged pivot toward manifesting the depths of Charlie’s toxic entitlement. Nicole’s unyielding resolve to open Charlie’s eyes to his worst flaws culminates in a furious argument between the two in which Driver rips the mask off of Charlie’s ostensible patience and good-faith attempts at an amicable split. The more heated the two get, the deeper they reach into their arsenal of repressed grievances to craft more savage criticisms of the other’s failings. Baumbach uses arrhythmic shot-reverse-shot patterns throughout the film to stress the latent tension in Charlie and Nicole’s interactions, but here each cut adds an element of danger, following the rapid escalation of fury between the frayed couple to the point that one expects violence at any second.
As dark as it gets, Marriage Story regularly offsets its tension with comic relief, particularly in a strong set of supporting performances. Alan Alda shines as Charlie’s genteel divorce attorney, Bert Spitz, who reassures his client that they won’t go all the way to court but must act as if they are, which, in a twisted bit of legal logic worthy of Joseph Heller, only makes a court battle all the more likely. And when a court-appointed social worker (Mary Hollis Inboden) comes to evaluate Charlie’s behavior around Henry, she exudes a stiff politeness, somehow both quizzical and clinically disinterested. This makes for erratic rhythms in conversation that, as a befuddled Charlie attempts to pass her inspection, cast the woman as both straight man and foil. “Do you ever observe married couples,” Charlie asks at one point, desperate to fill the frequent silence left by her visit. “No,” she responds, the confusion in her voice her first outward display of emotion. “Why would I?”
But the film’s prevailing mood is one of flailing anger and pain. Even at its most blistering, though, Marriage Story contains small moments of grace in which Nicole and Charlie reflexively help or comfort each other. These subtle glimpses of their lingering affection for one another and familiarity complicate the bitterness of their separation. Elie Wiesel once said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference,” and only two people who were once as deeply in love as Nicole and Charlie were could have spent so long observing every minute detail of their partner to become so obsessed with each other’s flaws in the first place.
Cast: Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Julie Hagerty, Azhy Robertson, Ray Liotta, Mary Hollis Inboden Director: Noah Baumbach Screenwriter: Noah Baumbach Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 135 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Villains Serves Up Gratingly Quirky Case-and-Mouse Hijinks
Maika Monroe’s engaging performance serves only to highlight how feeble and unconvincing the rest of the film is.1.5
It’s emblematic of the problems with Dan Berk and Robert Olsen’s blackly comic thriller Villains that by far the most compelling thing in the film is its end credits sequence. Set to Courtney Barnett’s grungy punk anthem “Pedestrian at Best,” the animated end titles are an explosion of whacked-out Day-Glo excess, suggesting a film of raucousness and acidity rather than the gratingly quirky cat-and-mouse game to which they’re attached.
Villains pits an ostensibly lovable pair of offbeat outlaws, Jules (Maika Monroe) and Mickey (Bill Skarsgård), against an oddball husband-and-wife duo, George (Jeffrey Donovan) and Gloria (Kyra Sedgwick), whose impeccable manners and stuck-in-the-‘70s aesthetic belies their complete sociopathy. The film opens on Jules and Mickey haphazardly, but successfully, robbing a convenience store before promptly running out of gas not long after making their getaway. What seems like the setup for a jokey riff on the Bonnie and Clyde story takes a darker turn when the drug-addled duo breaks into a nearby house hoping to steal a car or at least siphon some gas only to find a young girl (Blake Baumgartner) chained up in the basement. Just as Jules and Mickey are deciding what to do with the kid, George and Gloria arrive home, setting off a game of brinkmanship between the two couples.
While Berk and Olsen manage a few clever twists, there’s no sense of stakes throughout, and in no small part because the four main characters feel less like real people caught up in a dangerous situation than repositories of phony eccentricities. George and Gloria’s house, furnished in the style of the late 1970s, with burnt-orange couches and an antique cathode-ray TV, is too impeccably art-directed to feel like anything other than a film set. His smooth-talking salesman patter is overwritten, robbing the character of any truly sinister edge. And while her bizarre behavior—she seduces Mickey with a burlesque routine and treats a baby doll as if it were her infant son—is supposedly motivated by her mental instability, it comes off more like the filmmakers’ desperate attempts to get a rise out of the audience.
Jules and Mickey are a bit more down to earth but scarcely more believable, mostly because Villains feels the need to keep underlining the zaniness of their criminality as, for example, they struggle to figure out how to rob a cash register and snort cocaine for energy the way Popeye eats spinach. It doesn’t help that the performances tend toward the mannered and over-the-top. Donovan and Sedgwick adopt the exaggerated Southern drawl of a televangelist couple, while Skarsgård is shouty and demonstrative. Only Monroe really strikes the right balance between the absurd and the sincere, finding a sense of vulnerability within Jules’s naïve dreaminess. But her sensitive, engaging performance stands out too sharply, ultimately serving only to highlight how feeble and unconvincing the rest of the film is.
Cast: Bill Skarsgård, Maika Monroe, Jeffrey Donovan, Kyra Sedgwick, Blake Baumgartner, Noah Robbins Director: Dan Berk, Robert Olsen Screenwriter: Dan Berk, Robert Olsen Distributor: Alter Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: The Laundromat Flimsily Addresses the Panama Papers Scandal
Steven Soderbergh takes a macro approach to the scandal, though the results, with rare exception, are vexingly micro.1.5
Steven Soderbergh takes a macro approach to the true-life Panama Papers scandal with The Laundromat, though the results, with rare exception, are vexingly micro. Smug one-percenters Ramón Fonseca (Antonio Banderas) and Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman, speaking in an uproariously broad German accent) are the often on-screen narrators of the film. They’re the heads of the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca & Co., which provided offshore financial services to shady clientele (Wall Street types, arms merchants and dictators, Margaret Thatcher’s son, etc.) until a leak by an anonymous source, still known only as “John Doe,” brought the company down in 2016 and led to global repercussions.
From the showy first scene (Soderbergh once again serves as director of photography under his usual pseudonym, Peter Andrews), the dapperly dressed Fonseca and Mossack act like the wronged heroes of an ages-old saga. They pompously begin their story at the start of humanity, the two of them, like gods in tailored suits, gifting a group of cavemen the means to make fire. In the same shot, the duo descends into a gaudy nightclub where they attempt to explain, Big Short-style, the enduring power of money and the ways in which shell companies shield the super-rich from taxes. It’s a to-camera lecture that’s drier than the Sahara Desert. Though the woozy ennui that quickly sets in seems somewhat intentional, as if Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, adapting Jake Bernstein’s 2017 book Secrecy World, are making the point that schemes like this are by their nature insipid and impossible to explain. The less sense it all makes, the better protection for those massive liquid assets.
There is, of course, an ample human cost to all the wheeling and dealing. Some of the money Mossack Fonseca oversaw was connected to a low-cost insurance company that sold a fraudulent policy to Shoreline Cruises, the tourist outfit behind the 2005 Ethan Allen boat accident on Lake George, in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, that claimed 21 lives. Soderbergh very effectively recreates that tragedy here, focusing in particular on retiree Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep), whose husband, Joe (James Cromwell), drowns after the vessel capsizes. Ellen launches her own investigation when the insurance payout from Joe’s death proves a pittance and the “golden years” existence she hoped for slips away. (Sharon Stone pops up as an officious realtor who snatches the Las Vegas apartment of Ellen’s dreams right out from under her.) Ellen, however, is more of a recurring protagonist since The Laundromat takes a Traffic approach narratively, jumping around the globe for a series of visually color-coded vignettes that focus on different, and seemingly disparate, characters.
There’s a noirish encounter between the Ethan Allen’s bewildered Captain Perry (Robert Patrick) and the agitated go-between, Matthew Quirk (David Schwimmer), who bought the illicit insurance policy that’s landed Shoreline Cruises in hot water. Elsewhere, a ludicrously wealthy man (Nonso Anozie), preparing for a party in his sun-soaked mansion, navigates the fall-out from an affair by attempting to buy the silence of both his daughter (Jessica Allain) and his wife (Nikki Amuka-Bird) with a portfolio that’s ostensibly, but not actually, worth millions. But the best in a largely banal show is a gut-busting visit to a dusty south-of-the-border bar where Will Forte and Chris Parnell, playing characters credited as “Doomed Gringo #1” and “Doomed Gringo #2,” discuss Neil Diamond and run afoul of a cartel boss.
As in Soderbergh’s Traffic, all of these bits and pieces are connected, in this case to Mossack Fonseca’s underhanded business practices. And also like Traffic, The Laundromat flirts with and occasionally tips over into racist stereotyping, as in a chilly Far East vignette in which Matthias Schoenaerts plays a debonair man of mystery named Maywood who’s poisoned by a woman, Gu Kailai (Rosalind Chao), who has high-up connections to the Chinese government and very much acts the part of the nefarious Dragon Lady seductress.
Streep herself is involved in another kind of ethnically based narrative wrinkle, though it’s something of a spoiler to say exactly how. (Best to just note that Ellen Martin isn’t the only role that the actress plays here.) The particulars of this choice are staggeringly ill-advised. Though they do act as foundation for The Laundromat’s impressive coup-de-cinema finale in which Streep sheds several chameleonic skins and offers a fourth-wall-shattering call to arms—a bold climax in no way worthy of the flimsy film that precedes it.
Cast: Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas, Jeffrey Wright, Melissa Rauch, Jeff Michalski, Jane Morris, Robert Patrick, David Schwimmer, Cristela Alonzo, Larry Clarke, Will Forte, Chris Parnell, Nonso Anozie, Larry Wilmore, Jessica Allain, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Matthias Schoenarts, Rosalind Chao, Kunjue Li, Ming Lo, James Cromwell, Sharon Stone Director: Steven Soderbergh Screenwriter: Scott Z. Burns Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: To the Ends of the Earth Masterfully Reckons with the Nature of Fear
With his latest, Kiyoshi Kurosawa celebrates the conquering of fear as our greatest hope against the world’s horrors.4
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s films are, by and large, intensely fixated on representing the experience of fear, and the range of human preoccupations that generate it: burgeoning technological development, encroaching environmental disaster, ecological instability, the lingering presence of the dead, and, of course, our capacities and limitations as individuals. More recently, the Japanese auteur has illustrated just how foundational, and persuasive, that fear is to the human psyche through a more stripped-down aesthetic. And this approach led him to a logical terminus: 2016’s Creepy, a seemingly straightforward procedural that, in its absence of any real explanation for the violent behaviors that its characters are prone to, put forth the chilling suggestion that no less than our free will itself is innately negated by the insurmountable influence of our own fear.
Kurosawa’s latest represents an even more radical departure for the filmmaker, as he abandons his typically taut narrative framework for a film squarely focuses on character—a strategy that results in the his most intricately rendered portrait of the psychology of fear to date. To the Ends of the Earth is not, by any measure, a horror film, but it uses aesthetic and philosophical foundations that Kurosawa laid in his genre work to insinuate tensions and anxieties lurking beneath the serene surface of everyday life. The film’s setup could almost be interpreted as a kind of self-aware joke: A Japanese camera crew arrive in Uzbekistan with the purpose of shooting footage for a travel show and become increasingly frustrated over not having enough usable material. As such, generally little in the way of incident occurs for much of the film. However, To the Ends of the Earth isn’t just a meandering film born of an auteur’s plane ticket to a foreign country: If Kurosawa is less interested in narrative dynamics, it’s because he’s focused on an acute understanding of societally and sociologically conditioned behavior.
Yoko (Atsuko Maeda) is a diligent and unwavering TV host, and the sole woman traveling with the camera crew. When the cameras are on her, she performs energetically and enthusiastically, without hesitation—wolfing down a bowl of undercooked rice with aplomb and toughing out multiple turns on a ludicrously raucous amusement park ride, all so that her cohorts can “get the shot.” Off camera, though, a very different Yoko appears: a docile young woman whose exchanges with her director, Yoshioko (Shota Sometani), and cameraman, Iwao (Ryo Kase), are marked by an obvious impression that, as a woman, she reacts subordinately to the men who give her instructions, even when doing so puts her wellbeing at risk. Yoko’s gender likewise colors her interactions with the Uzbeks she encounters: One man bristles at taking her out in his boat, and another shows great concern for her safety when she’s on the park ride, but only in a way that infantilizes her, as he initially assumes that Yoko is “under age,” then refers to her as a “child” even after it’s explained to him that she’s an adult.
The film seems at first to position itself as a study on how gender roles inform the different ways that Yoko is treated by the countryman with whom she’s traveling, and by the local Uzbeks. But Kurosawa has only just begun to develop his underlying thesis by this point. As Yoko strikes out on her own, exploring the landscape of an entirely foreign Uzbekistan, she’s guided by both her curiosity and her considerable cautiousness, two poles of her personality that determine behavior in a variety of spaces, from the more sparsely populated residential areas, to the densely crowded marketplaces, to the sprawling plains beyond the city.
Since Yoko herself doesn’t speak the language, Kurosawa chooses not to subtitle the Uzbek dialogue spoken throughout To the Ends of the Earth, and this decision, combined with the use of a filmic grammar that often feels ported over from the director’s horror films (dramatic lighting, wide frames that emphasize an individual’s feelings of alienation, and eerie silences), serves to envelop us in the psychological space of a young woman whose emotional engagement with a foreign culture, as well as her careerist ambitions and her ability to be open with those around her, are subject to ingrained fears and anxieties.
Kurosawa elevates his film above exploitation of these feelings with a pair of sequences that gesture toward profound understanding. In the first, Yoko hears the distant sound of a woman singing, enters into an imposing building from which the voice emanates, and wanders through a series of rooms, with Kurosawa’s camera tracking behind her. Each room has its own unique design and distinctive color scheme, and as Kurosawa begins to match-cut between them, Yoko seems as if she’s being surreally transported through some unconscious space. Finally, the rooms lead to a lavish concert hall, the lights dim, and Kurosawa cuts from a close-up of Yoko’s face in shadow to a wide shot of a stage, where Yoko suddenly, and disarmingly, launches into a Japanese rendition of Edith Piaf’s “Hymne à l’amour.”
Soon after, Yoko awakes in her hotel room, unsure if what she experienced was dream or reality, and we’re left unsure as to what the liberated charge of her performance is really meant to represent. But later, a translator for Yoko and her crew, Temur (Adiz Rajabov), explains the history behind the Navoi Theater, the building that Yoko may or may not have already visited. Temur explains that the theater was built by Japanese POWs in World War II, who carefully followed the instructions of their captors in crafting six waiting rooms, each designed according to a different Uzbek regional style. Timur marvels at the story of men who “had been enemy combatants,” but who worked hard and created something transcendent. The scene concludes, with a close-up of Yoko, as she processes what she’s heard.
Just as the Navoi Theater was a catalyst for Japanese prisoners to transcend the horrors of war, the story of its construction impresses upon Yoko the possibility of liberating herself from her own deepest fears about the world. The rest of the film, then, imbues its most harrowing moments—including a chase sequence and a sudden threat to Yoko’s boyfriend back in Tokyo—with a new emotional and philosophical gravitas. This shift also serves to recontextualize Kurosawa’s horror aesthetics as a means of progressing to the film’s final moment of catharsis. “Even if the sky falls and the Earth goes to pieces/I won’t be afraid,” sings Yoko with absolute conviction—a declaration that, it cannot be discounted, also serves to punctuate a career spent crafting apocalyptic narratives depicting the ruin of humanity. With To the Ends of the Earth, Kurosawa celebrates the conquering of fear as our greatest hope against the world’s horrors.
Cast: Atsuko Maeda, Shôta Sometani, Ryo Kase, Adiz Rajabov, Tokio Emoto Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa Screenwriter: Kiyoshi Kurosawa Running Time: 120 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Harriet Turns Tubman Into a Saint at the Expense of Her Humanity
Portraying Tubman above all else as a vessel for a higher power ironically only makes her appear less tangible.1.5
Kasi Lemmons’s Harriet is a laudable attempt at documenting all that’s been untold by history books about Harriet Tubman’s life and achievements. The prevailing image of the American abolitionist and political activist is of a proud, hard, almost unknowable woman in her dotage—an image that Lemmons and co-screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard seek to amend, if not shake from our minds, by tracing Tubman’s steeliness back to its source as a symptom of the ferocity that drove her as a young freedom fighter.
First, however, we will know her as Minty (Cynthia Erivo), the name given to her on the plantation, in Dorchester County, Maryland, where she’s enslaved. Right away, it’s evident that a burning desire for freedom animates the woman, as well as her family, a mix of freemen and slaves who have a knowledge of their rights and cling to the promise of freedom made to them by their masters’ grandfather and that their current owners will not honor.
As Harriet, Erivo radiates an intensity that shines even in the early scenes that depict the young woman’s supplication to her masters. Harriet has a hard stare that communicates her resolve even when she averts her eyes from white people, and as soon as it becomes clear that her masters will never honor their grandfather’s will, she decides to run away with her freeman husband, John (Zackary Momoh). When John is caught by Harriet’s masters, the woman flees alone, making a 100-mile journey from Maryland to Philadelphia on foot.
As much as the film stresses Harriet’s ironclad conviction, it also attributes a great deal of her fortunes as a liberator to dreams and hallucinations resulting from a brain injury she incurred as a 12-year-old, when she was accidentally hit on the head by an iron weight that was thrown at another slave by a white overseer. Routinely, Lemmons cuts away from Harriet to a dreamscape where visions of the past and future are entwined and deliver warnings to Harriet with the certainty of prophecy. It’s one thing to engage with Harriet’s sincere belief in the power of her visions, but Lemmons’s ardent devotion to her desaturated dream motif brings a supernatural quality to Harriet’s life that undercuts the many scenes that make the case that Harriet was driven above all else by deep reservoirs of inner strength and ingenuity.
Tubman made 19 trips back to the South. The first saw her raiding her former plantation in order to rescue members of her family and other slaves working the land. Many such raids followed, and by the start of the Civil War, during which she became a spy and nurse for the Union, Tubman had escorted some 300 slaves to the North by making use of the Underground Railroad. This is a staggering achievement, all the more so because she never lost a single slave on her expeditions, but Lemmons doesn’t give us a sense of the scope of that feat. By focusing so much on how Harriet was led by her visions, the filmmaker gives short shrift to all the planning that it took for the woman to organize and execute multiple rescue missions, all the while eluding ever-growing hordes of slave patrols devoted to her capture.
Harriet’s religious-political prophesies naturally recall Joan of Arc, and the film even makes this comparison when Harriet’s former mistress, Eliza (Jennifer Nettles), screams that the runaway slave should be burned at the stake. But the dullness of Lemmons’s depictions of Harriet’s second-sight powers, all frantically edited, blue-toned glimpses of slaves in flight and whites in pursuit, feel purely functional and provide no insight into Harriet’s mindset. Despite Erivo’s stoic performance, Harriet does too little to infuse its revisionist portrait of Tubman with the force it clearly wants to show in the woman. Portraying the abolitionist and activist above all else as a vessel for a higher power ironically only makes her appear less tangible. Turning her into an American saint comes at the expense of her humanity.
Cast: Cynthia Erivo, Janelle Monáe, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Clarke Peters, Jennifer Nettles, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Henry Hunter Hall, Zackary Momoh Director: Kasi Lemmons Screenwriter: Kasi Lemmons, Gregory Allen Howard Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 125 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Where’s My Roy Cohn? Stares Steadfastly Into the Face of Evil
This sharp, to-the-point portrait of the crook, fixer, and right-wing pitbull resists the urge to darkly glamorize him.3
For those wanting to stare into the face of misery personified, look no further than Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary about “legal executioner” Roy Cohn. From the opening scenes of Cohn whispering in Joseph McCarthy’s ear in 1954 to clips of him denying his homosexuality and AIDS diagnosis not long before his death in 1986, the man’s hollow eyes show nothing but rancor. His mouth is pursed tight, waiting to launch the next poisoned barb. He looks like a man devoured by hate, a third-string movie villain transported to real life.
According to Where’s My Roy Cohn?, his villainy was complicated in its execution but not its source. For roughly three decades, Cohn operated as a kind of nexus connecting organized crime, influence peddlers, political chicanery, and American conservatism. Through it all, he tried to cut as large a profile as possible. Raised in the Bronx by a doting mother and a father who was a powerful judge, Cohn appears to have been a mean little cuss all along. His cousin, Dave Marcus, is one of many family members to appear in the documentary, calling Cohn “the definition of a self-hating Jew.” Apart from a virulent (and possibly legitimately felt) anti-communism, there’s no clue here as to what powered Cohn besides rage and ambition.
Except for a few short flashbacks, the documentary sticks to a mostly chronological telling of Cohn’s biography. It’s a brisk and lively telling, flickering through an incident-packed life in a way that suggests the existence of whole movies’ worth of stories that Tyrnauer didn’t have time to get to. Rather than sticking with straight biography, though, the filmmaker uses Cohn’s combination of ribald corruption and destructively reactionary politics not just as spectacle, but as a foreshadowing of the current political age. An indisputably brilliant legal mind, Cohn graduated from Columbia Law School at the age of 20 and was soon working as a fervently dedicated prosecutor on the controversial espionage case of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. One of the interviewees recalls asking Cohn later if he had any regrets about their execution in the electric chair. He replied that, if possible, he would have thrown the switch himself.
Cohn took his malice to the F.B.I., where he learned how to cripple an enemy with malicious press leaks. Recommended by J. Edgar Hoover to McCarthy, Cohn became a fixture at the Wisconsin senator’s hearings, whispering new lines of attack into the paranoid and undisciplined senator’s ear. While much of this has been reported elsewhere, Tyrnauer highlights one curious wrinkle. Cohn’s homosexuality was already an open secret. But he made the mistake of pulling strings for David Schine, a handsome aide to McCarthy who many believed was Cohn’s boyfriend, after Schine was drafted. This caused a scandal when the news came to light, leading to the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings. Clips show a tight-lipped Cohn facing homophobic innuendo from senators about his “friendship” with Schine as some in the crowd snort and giggle. Tyrnauer doesn’t use the moment for sympathy, but rather to acknowledge that, vile or not, Cohn had no choice but to stay in the closet.
After the debacle of those hearings, which also destroyed his boss, Cohn moved into private practice. Through the 1960s and ‘70s, he became something of an obnoxious Gatsby figure, linking high society and the underworld. He blew money on fancy cars, lurked at Studio 54, and reveled in the most garish brand of success possible. Eager to be seen with famous people, he threw the kind of parties where one could meet politicos on the make, gangsters on the town, Cardinal Spellman, Andy Warhol, Barbara Walters, Halston, Donald Trump, and any number of Nordic-looking young men Cohn was most certainly not sleeping with.
Tyrnauer never tries to cast Cohn as an antihero. The picture that forms is less of a person than a black hole. A brilliant and utterly unethical lawyer who usually won his cases but stole from his clients nonetheless, Cohn used the same scorched-earth tactics whether defending a member of the Gotti family accused of murder or Trump against charges of housing discrimination: Never surrender, never apologize, attack relentlessly, leak to the press, lie as loudly and frequently as possible, and when in doubt, wrap yourself in the flag. Fortunately, the film doesn’t care to spend much time showing how those strategies were adopted by Trump, who comes off here as a flabby reflection of Cohn, without the brains.
In an excerpt from a 1970s interview that Cohn gave to journalist Ken Auletta that Tyrnauer strings out through the film, Cohn tries to recast his petulance as nonconformity. This act of Cohn’s is much the same one used by his acolyte, fellow practitioner of political dark arts Roger Stone, who pops up briefly to wax nostalgic about old Roy. More often than not, though, Cohn’s attitude played as venom for its own sake. Discussing all the times Cohn was targeted for crimes (stock fraud, insurance fraud that included possible murder), Auletta laughs that Cohn “enjoyed” the indictments, “because it gave him a platform to attack.”
The documentary’s unequivocal vision of Cohn as a dead-eyed being of pure malice could come off like hyperbole. But really it isn’t too far from the self-hating hypocrite depicted on stage by Tony Kushner in Angels in America. Sometimes, fiction gets it right first.
Director: Matt Tyrnauer Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Waves Sweeps You Up in a Formidable Current of Formalist Tricks
This is a rare case of a film that’s stronger when it colors inside the lines than radically traces outside of them.2
Writer-director Trey Edward Shults’s Waves begins in motion, with shots kinetically circling and tracking its young characters. Along with the film’s editing—which is timed throughout to endless music cues, be they pop songs or the muffled industrial moans and staggered beats of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score—Shults is quick to establish Tyler’s (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) bona fides as a dedicated student and wrestler. The filmmaker also highlights the luxury in which the teen lives, from his huge home to the brand new cars that his parents and their children drive. Tyler immediately comes across as a kid who has it all, including the love of an adoring girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Dernie).
Efficient as it is as an introduction to Tyler, the montage that opens the film also simplifies the young man—namely, to all the good things in his life. Defining a character by what he has makes it all too easy to create the sort of drama that exists to strip all of those things away, which Waves proceeds to do in such quick and overwhelming fashion that Tyler starts to resemble a modern-day Job. A horrible muscle tear in Tyler’s shoulder threatens his wrestling career—and, implicitly, his college scholarship opportunities—while a text from Alexis that she hasn’t gotten her period sets into motion a series of events that shifts the mood of the film away from the joyful, if antic, toward something almost horror-like in its chaos.
The vivid color timing of Drew Daniels’s cinematography, which bathes every single shot in the film’s first half in some unreal shade of red, purple, yellow, or blue, first imparts a cool chic, only to then conjure an aura of oppressiveness as Tyler loses control of his life. Waves’s connections of sight and sound are initially intriguing and, by design, suffocating, but they’re often conspicuously on point. For one, Shults is prone to communicating the totality of Tyler’s misery through a series of music cues that are obnoxiously timed to moments of violence, such as the beat of Kanye West’s “I Am a God” hitting when an enraged and confused Tyler shoves his overbearing but loving father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), to the ground.
Shults at times nurtures an understanding of Tyler’s downward-spiraling life outside of the unfortunate events that dog him across the film. Ronald, who exudes the hardness of a man who had to fight for what was his, tells Tyler that they have to work twice as hard as whites to succeed. Fertile ground is created here to recast the millennial, upper-middle-class Tyler’s trajectory as a spin on Bigger Thomas’s own in Native Son. In Richard Wright’s novel, a crucible of poverty and systemic racism propels a young black man living in Chicago’s South Side to atrocity, and in Waves, Shults sees how the pressure of maintaining the precariousness of black wealth, in a society that looks for any excuse to strip it away, is a recipe for disaster.
But the film at no other point remotely explores the idea that Tyler, or anyone else in his family besides Ronald, ever exhibits any anxiety over being black in America. By and large, the forces that push at Tyler are the stuff of run-of-the-mill teen drama, from the stress of not being able to play sports to fear of becoming a parent at a young age. The latter concern is the primary motivating factor of the film’s first half, and it’s unnerving to see how much of the story is driven by Tyler’s controlling rage over Alexis’s pro-life views, even as the woman herself is portrayed as stubbornly closed to any discussion on any serious topic.
The sheer aggressiveness of Waves’s first half gradually becomes an assault on the senses that communicates nothing deeper than the despairing nature of Tyler’s setbacks. But just as the film reaches a fever pitch of violent, stylishly rendered catharsis, it shifts perspective from Tyler to his sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), who’s coping with the aftermath of his behavior. And this pivot is signaled by an abrupt and significant aesthetic change, as the artifice, propulsiveness, and rage that mark the film’s first half abruptly give way to a more naturalistic color palette, with the aspect ratio that had gradually narrowed as the walls closed in around Tyler opening back out into widescreen, as if Waves were starting to catch its breath.
The muted telling of Emily’s story seems to belong to an almost entirely different film. Isolated from her classmates and coping with Tyler’s actions, Emily finds some direction out of her own sadness with Luke (Lucas Hedges), a classmate nursing his own family trauma who sheepishly asks on her a date and begins a relationship with her. Throughout this section of the film, Shults mirrors some of his introductory shots of Tyler and Alexis with ones of Emily and Luke that illustrate the differences between the young couples. An early shot that spun around the interior of Tyler’s truck showed him and Alexis in a state bliss but also acting out a series of extended poses, as if they were taking Instagram selfies even when not on their phones. Their flashy, demonstrative behavior contrasts sharply with a later shot that repeats the spinning motion inside a car, but this time documents the quiet solemnity that smothers Emily and Luke as they try to take comfort in each other’s presence.
One can argue that Shults’s throttling back of his formal ambitions in Waves’s second half, and the way Emily seems as if she’s walked off the set of a coming-of-age indie, is a miss. But his pushing of the film’s aesthetic needle past its previously gimmicky contours allows us to sit with his characters in ways that feel more than just reverential. The shift in tonality strengthens the story’s narrative core, giving the characters enough space to communicate their internal worlds instead of just react to an endless barrage of horrifying external stimuli. It also fills Waves with a touch of humanity, allowing it to quite literally transcend the exploitative, unilluminating phantasmagoria that comprises its first half. This is a rare case of a film that’s stronger when it colors inside the lines than radically traces outside of them.
Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Taylor Russell, Sterling K. Brown, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Lucas Hedges, Alexa Demie Director: Trey Edward Shults Screenwriter: Trey Edward Shults Distributor: A24 Running Time: 135 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
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