everything & everything & everything – Alberto Roldán

I saw this short film at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2014, and I just found out it’s available to watch on YouTube as part of the Vice Shorts series. It’s by Alberto Roldán, and stars Shane Carruth, the filmmaker behind Primer and Upstream Color.

Here’s a plot summary by an anonymous contributor at IMDb:

The oppressively vapid life of Morgan is forever transformed when a mystical blue pyramid – that inexplicably produces doorknobs – appears in his apartment. What follows is a tale of greed and loss as Morgan builds an impossible, absurd corporate empire of doorknobs.

… uh huh.

It has the same disorienting, abstract qualities of those Carruth films, with an added absurdist streak. Among other things it is about manufacturing, automation, consumer culture, profits, and dreams. If you’re a Carruth fan or up for something a bit offbeat, I think is worth your 15 minutes.

The Master (2012)

“The Master” begins in much the same way as “There Will Be Blood” (2007), Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous film. We are painstakingly introduced to a man, alone, at length, before any of the other main players get their hands on him. Here the man is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a seaman who we meet at the tail end of the Second World War. There is no fighting. We see him carousing on a beach during downtime and drinking rocket fuel as the end of the war is announced. We follow him back to civilian life, as he drifts from job to job, continuing to concoct drinks from various chemicals and toxins, leaving a trail of alienation and injury. He is screened or treated for what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder. Whether the war has shaped him in any way is hard to say; he is delivered to us as-is.

Finally, having poisoned a fellow farmhand with the latest of his invented intoxicants, he stows away on a ship full of wealthy revelers. Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is in charge, and finally, having built Quell, Anderson can start to use him. Dodd introduces himself the morning after their offscreen meeting: apparently Quell had been belligerently drunk and offered himself as an able-bodied seaman in need of work; Dodd had discovered a flask of Quell’s homebrew and finished it up. Dodd, we piece together, is the aggrandizing, speechifying inventor of the Cause, a cult-like hodgepodge of self-help and mythos. Quell will become part of his broad entourage as they travel America drumming up support and enjoying the patronage of various adherents. For the rest of the film, then, we will see what Quell can do to this other man, and what can be done to him.

A wonderful key scene establishes the relationship between the two men. On the ship, Dodd offers Quell some “informal processing”, in which he will demand Quell’s concentration and pepper him with insistent questions about his past and his feelings. We learn, among other things, that years earlier a twentysomething Quell had abandoned his sixteen-year-old sweetheart Doris (Madisen Beaty) to go off so sea. Dodd bookends this hypnotic questioning by sharing long draughts of Quell’s brew.

In this way each man is armed. Quell’s booze is cobbled together from whatever he can get his hands on—fuel, darkroom chemicals, paint thinner. It is poison. We know that this poison can be dangerous—the farmhand of the opening—but it doesn’t hurt Quell and it doesn’t hurt Dodd. Instead Dodd relishes it, is fascinated by it. Dodd’s Cause seems much the same. He is accused at various moments of making it all up as he goes along, cobbling together mysticism and pseudoscience into a blend that is not oppressive but exploitative. The hope, optimism and yearning of the various adherents and patrons we meet is attracted to Dodd’s product. Perhaps it harms them as Quell’s drinks would. But Quell is immune to it.

Yet while each has a tool that is frustrated by the other, these two men are not equals. Quell, who seems to exist wholly in the past and the present, uninterested in conceiving of any future at all, can be diverted by the Cause, show an almost feline curiosity in the strange rituals Dodd puts him through, but he cannot be consumed or contained by it. He is a passenger. Dodd, by contrast, orients to the future. What is his next move? What will he have his people do next? What will he write? He snaps at an erstwhile patron at the launch of a new chapter in the lore of the Cause, seeming to feel the pressure of being backed into the corner of his own construction. The allure of Quell and his elixir is to be viscerally present, to be the kind of animalistic spirit that Dodd’s Cause seeks to suppress.

Why, at the heart of it all, do Quell and Dodd stay together? For Quell, maybe it is as simple as him having nowhere pressing to be. He endures plenty of humiliation and punishment with relative ease. Dodd, again possibly inventing on the fly, has Quell walk the length a room for hours on end; he has Quell endure, without reacting, taunts from Dodd’s son-in-law. These seem cathartic for Quell, but never does he change. Dodd disapproves of all of his attempts to “help” the Cause—again and again Quell visits violence on those who dare to be openly skeptical or obstructive to the Cause, and again and again Dodd scolds him, yet keeps him around. He again seems to be exactly the animal that Dodd rails against but seems fascinated by.

Perhaps this is why Peggy (Amy Adams), Dodd’s wife (seemingly the latest in a line) and the film’s maternal presence, is so wary of Quell. His approach to life is not just antagonistic to the Cause, but potentially damaging to her husband, and she seems fully committed to both in a way that Dodd himself is not. She demands that Dodd promise to drink no more of Quell’s hooch, no more of the corrosive stuff. She surely perceives what it is capable of: it renders Dodd under Quell’s power as others are under Dodd’s.

By the end it seems to me that in this meeting of two opposing forces it is Dodd who is broken. Dodd, his daughter and son-in-law, and Quell travel into the desert with a motorcycle. Dodd invents a “game”: pick a point and drive to it as fast as you can. He goes first, speeding off, speeding back. Quell goes next. He doesn’t come back. What point did he pick? He is gone. He goes back to the home of Doris, the girl he left behind years before, but she is gone, married with children now.

Later, Dodd tracks Quell down (or Quell dreams that he does) and asks him to come to England, where he has established a school. Quell had ridden free, yet he goes. Why? On his arrival, he is berated by Peggy and scolded by Dodd: how dare he have abandoned them? If he stays, he must commit to the Cause. If he leaves again, Dodd warns, he cannot come back. But Quell cannot be tamed this way. Dodd is powerless. Whether or not it was because of his relationship with Dodd, Quell has finally addressed something other than the present.

“There Will Be Blood”, Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous film, in retrospect had a relatively straightforward title. Here there are plenty of candidates for the title of Master. Quell or Dodd? The booze or the Cause? Who is in charge of whom?

Links: IMDb, Metacritic


The Artist (2011)

“The Artist” of the title is, I presume, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a silent film actor in the late 1920s, about to be rendered obsolete by the talkies. He isn’t much of an artist. Dujardin’s brilliant mugging as he acts the actor acting (if you see what I mean), his identikit pictures, his glamorous swagger: this is a star, and Hollywood is an industry. Michel Hazanavicius’s silent, black-and-white homage to the era uses great craft to pastiche an era when the craft was a little less sophisticated.

Before sound arrives and the silent industry collapses, Valentin, at a premiere of his latest movie, literally bumps into Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), who is in the mass of fans outside the theater. Their chance meeting is splashed over the gossip pages. That, of course, will not be that. She is hired as a dancer for Valentin’s latest feature; when she is recognized as the troublemaker from the newspapers, she is saved from being fired only by Valentin’s intervention.

This first act was my favorite by quite a margin. Later there is classic melodrama, but first we have classic comedy. The stylized black-and-white, silent nostalgia worked a lot better for me in service of the light romp of the preening star than the descent to come later. And it does work. Dujardin and Bejo look just right, and survive perfectly well without words. For some reason I think Valentin and Miller’s cute-as-a-button spark as they catch the giggles while trying to film a scene would have been much less sympathetic with sound.

Valentin is about to pass Miller on the way down, as the talkies will launch her to the top just as they cast Valentin aside. Their moment together is past unrequited, with Valentin returning to his distressingly complete alienation of affection for his wife, and Miller whisked off to stardom. It’s lucky that the brief scenes of their meeting work so well, since they have to carry the weight of the two stars’ opposing fortunes as well as the affection the two clearly feel for each other.

What kind of affection is not clear. Maybe by the Hays-code constraints of the movie’s style, chastity is unbreakable? In this way the constraints bleed into the action, and I found myself wondering if there was anything we weren’t seeing. Valentin descends – at length – into booze and despair, and Miller works occasionally to help him, silently so as not to hurt his pride, but the precise why stays unknown. I thought as the pace settled down while Valentin falls, the stylistic facade seemed a little less convincing. An homage to comedy still gets to tell jokes after all.

It seems to be that pride that does Valentin in, but again I wasn’t sure exactly why. At the moment his fortune turns, Valentin’s producer Al Zimmer (John Goodman) shows him a screen test of an actress with sound. Valentin leaves, laughing. Is he being forced out of the industry, obsolete, as Zimmer claims later? Or is he walking through the door alone, refusing to ride this new wave, unable or afraid? At times it seems to be him, and at others the world. I suppose things always seems a little that way when things are going badly.

In any case the movie certainly doesn’t seem to take a stand one way or the other. Which is fine; “The Artist” is a sweet confection, not an exercise in whys. To revel in the sights, sounds and mechanics of a bygone era seems to be the goal, and the material itself is very much a square peg for the square hole of the style. I wonder whether the same nostalgic style could ever work with something a bit more complicated, or if the medium really constrains the possibilities of the story. Does silence restrict a movie to simple emotions, or does everything just look simpler in silence?

Links: IMDb, Metacritic



A Dangerous Method (2011)

The three people at the center of David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method” aren’t a love triangle in the traditional sense, but their relationship is just as messy. The movie follows the fathers of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), and Sabina Spielrein (Kiera Knightley), patient and later lover of Jung, still later patient of Freud, still later student of both and a renowned psychiatrist in her own right. It’s a complicated path.

The movie opens with a screaming and resistant Spielrein, daughter to a wealthy Russian businessman, being committed to a psychiatric hospital. There she meets Jung, who explains that he will try the new “talking cure”. He sits behind her, so as not to distract her, he says: Knightley then is facing us directly, her face filling the screen, with Fassbender behind. As he questions her, her face contorts and her voice whispers and shrieks – the performance is almost over-the-top and certainly uncomfortable to watch, which I suppose is the whole point.

We cut to Jung and Spielrein strolling the hospital grounds, talking on much the same basis as in the treatment room. But wasn’t Jung supposed to be out of sight during the treatment? What could be going on here? It immediately seems inevitable that Jung and Spielrein are certainly not going to be just doctor and patient. Surely Jung can see this too; for him to insist on being in the background at one moment and to talk on equal footing the next seems to ask for trouble. Either there will be heroic compartmentalization or things will get complicated.

Eventually the two will indeed become lovers, even as Jung’s wife produces a series of children. Their affair will see Spielrein satisfying the fetishes that were exposed by her talk therapy and that she had believed were wrong and made her dangerous and broken. Jung seems tawdry by comparison. Despite some hand-wringing about whether it is right to explore or repress base urges, ultimately his motivation seems to be the obvious one. Either way it was a little surprising to hear the two of them talk later in the movie about their outsized love for each other; at times there didn’t seem to be a lot between them.

Against all this, Jung and Freud are meeting for the first time and developing a personal and professional relationship. Freud praises the younger man as the heir to the throne; Jung calls Freud a father figure. But Freud, with Mortensen showing him judicious and logical, believes in strict and narrow psychoanalysis, concerned with the perception of their new field from outside. He seems to be a marketer and frames his favoring of Jung as a way to give the profession a face not of the Vienna Jewish community. Jung interprets these not as political acts but as evidence that Freud is no longer an innovator. He wants instead to promote a broader psychoanalysis, one that includes things that Freud sees as unscientific at best and superstitious at worst. Their polite parrying darkens as time goes on; my favorite scenes of the movie were those with Mortensen and Fassbender alone, the gentle tension between them ebbing and flowing.

But in the end for all the talk in the film, the difference of opinion between Freud and Jung is not really explained in great depth. Their relationship really breaks down in the regular fashion, no matter how much they try to cover the rift with the fig-leaf of intellectual disagreement. Jung’s relationship with Spielrein colors their arguments and, when Spielrein forces Jung to reveal it to Freud, disappoints the older man. Fassbender, in Jung and in his other recent starring role, seems to have nailed down playing ashamed, although here it not because of the sex itself but the deceit. Jung seems to be unable to address his desires. As he fights Freud’s belief that the root of all patients’ problems is sexual, the affair with Spielrein frays his nerves.

To complete the triangle, after their affair is exploded, Spielrein demands that Jung recommend that Freud take her as a patient. She seems unleashed by Freud’s method and her affair with Jung from what had been debilitating illness, and is now training to be a psychiatrist in her own right. With Freud as a pivot, the doctor and patient are in the process of switching roles, he ruined and on the verge of a nervous breakdown after losing his young mistress and his mentor, and she developing Freud’s work in new directions, impressing the old man in the role he had earmarked for Jung. In the end it is Spielrein who is the strong and confident center, against the aging Freud and the crumbling Jung.

Links: IMDb, Metacritic


A Separation (2011)

Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation” begins with husband and wife Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) sitting side by side, facing us, explaining their problem to an unseen adjudicator. They had planned to emigrate, for a better life for their daughter, she says. They finally have visas to leave, and 40 days left to use them. But Nader’s father has Alzheimer’s: how can he leave his father, he asks? His father no longer recognizes him, Simi says. But he recognizes his father, Nader says. And so on. Simin has petitioned for divorce, threatening to leave without him.

It is too reasonable and too difficult. The camera sits unmoving, pinning us in the adjudicator’s chair as Simin pleads and Nader rebuts, but how could we possibly decide? There can be no victory for anyone. Both positions are reasonable. Thus the separation happens. Simin leaves the family home, laboring her exit but in vain: Nader does not try to stop her. In Simin’s absence, Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to care for his father during the day. This sets off a situation that mirrors the reasonableness and difficulty of the original dilemma, but this one more complex and urgent. Again we are put in the impossible position of trying to adjudicate.

Razieh, pregnant and with her daughter in tow, comes to work. The commute is long and the job is difficult, and, worse, Razieh is concealing from her unemployed husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) that she is working at all. She is conscientious but suffering, having spells of dizziness and fatigue. Nader he comes home early one day to find Razieh and her daughter gone, the door locked, and his father tied to the bed and unconscious. Money is missing too; we know that there is an innocent explanation for this but Nader does not. He is angry. When Razieh returns, he orders her out of the house, but she comes back to protest her innocence of the theft. When Nader throws her out a second time, he seems to push her out the door. Neighbors find her injured in the stairway. Later, in hospital, we lean that she has miscarried.

Nader is accused of manslaughter. Did he know that Razieh was pregnant? If so, the judge decides, he can reasonably be punished for killing the child. The decision will hinge on this piece of information, but while the court goes about trying to learn it, we are tormented by watching all of the players laid out on the rack of a brutal situation that is immensely more complicated than any legal decision could ever allow.

“A Separation” isn’t a many-perspectives movie, but it pulls off with astonishing success the trick that that genre most covets, the harnessing of sympathy for each character very nearly always, even when they are in direct opposition. The predicament is finely poised, the actions of all the players terribly understandable, and a successful resolution for everyone utterly impossible. I found it almost overwhelming. Where a movie like “Crash” (2004) attempts the same by having heroes and villains exchange places from moment to moment, “A Separation” needs no heroes or villains. The shifts, such as they are, are in emotional perspective and they’re impeccably subtle. I can’t think of another movie that performs this magic so well.

The tiny crack in the armor is Nader’s passivity. Throughout he asks others to judge and decide for him. Simin can leave if she wants, he says. If his daughter Termeh thinks him guilty she should do one thing, and if not another. This equivocating could endanger the plot’s perfect conceit by making it seem merely unsolved rather than insoluble: it almost seemed as if things could be OK if only Nader could decide something for himself. But Nader, being at the center of things, is in the end the most like us, skewered on a Morton’s fork of impossible choices. It’s hard to blame Nader for his passivity when it is so difficult for us as mere observers to decide what is right.

And always there is Nader’s father. It is hard to say whether he is only an excuse for Nader to avoid emigrating with his family, despite his obvious devotion, but in this desperate movie he is indispensable, the one immovable object in the fluid tragedy. Without him the conflicts would be petty; he is an anchor to the tragedy, the more so that his disease has him a shadow of whatever he once was. After the separation he whispers Simin’s name, questioning as best he can, to Nader. After the day of Razieh’s tragedy he falls silent entirely. Simin is not there anymore.

She is often absent for us, too, as Farhadi keeps her offscreen for long chunks in which the worst of the tragedy is happening. We don’t see what she is up to in the meantime. Neither does she see the nuance of the situation when returns, because she is the active force, seeking solutions. Watching her actions when she is pulled back in, it is difficult to imagine that the decision to emigrate was not hers alone.

In the separation there has been nothing but catastrophe. Simin and Nader’s original dilemma, then, has been horribly amplified: if only they had been together, these things would never had happened. Should Simin never have left, forgoing her dream of a better life for them all? Should Nader have agreed to go, leaving his father and the world he knows? We arrive back where we started. In a perfect final scene it is Termeh who is being hounded to decide between her parents. Repeatedly she is asked: have you decided? How can she make such a decision?

IMDb, Metacritic 



Le Havre (2011)

The opening credits of Aki Kaurismäki’s “Le Havre” give prominent billing to Laika, a dog playing herself, and promise the appearance of a sixtysomething French blues-rocker by the name of Little Bob. This gives a good idea of the tone of the optimistic, understated confection that will follow.

Marcel (André Wilms) describes himself as a former Paris bohemian and artist. But now he is a sixty-year-old shoe-shiner, living by the sea in Le Havre with his wife Arletty (Kati Outinen). His neighborhood, and the film, seem to have skipped at least three decades, buildings, furnishings, stores, clothes and cars all of at least 1970s vintage. There are no young people here – the population of Marcel’s neighborhood are like him, quietly and contentedly departing middle-age.

The quiet town is roused by the discovery at the port of a shipping container containing a couple of dozen Gabonese emigrants. The container was supposed to end up in London but has landed in Le Havre. All but one of the people inside are detained: a boy, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), runs away. By chance, while hiding from a police force led by the marvelously deadpan Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), he crosses paths at the dock with Marcel, who offers him food and later returns to leave more food and cash.

At the same time as Idrissa enters the lives of Marcel and his neighbors, Arletty leaves. She is hospitalized with severe illness, and the outlook is not good. “Miracles do happen,” is all that her doctor can offer; “not in my neighborhood,” she replies. This is by a large margin as pessimistic and reflective as anyone will get in this story of simple, pragmatic kindness. Arletty languishes as Marcel and his neighbors, without complicated plotting or discussion, undertake without fanfare to perform a miracle and get Idrissa to London, where his mother awaits him, before he is caught.

What is the nature of the mirror between Arletty and Idrissa? We see Marcel tender and concerned, journeying daily to his wife’s decidedly not modern hospital room, but she sends him away, not wanting to be seen ravaged by her treatment, keeping the extent of her illness from him. She seems almost to be playing the role of a guiding angel for Idrissa, having been displaced by him and now granting her husband the time to help him. But as Marcel protects Idrissa and figures out how and where to send him onward, he cannot be there for his wife as her condition seems to grow more dire. If he succeeds with Idrissa, what about his wife? Are Arletty and Idrissa’s fates linked or opposite?

For a plot that is ostensibly cat-and-mouse, “Le Havre” proceeds with little urgency or suspense. Things unfold in the order and at the pace that they are capable of, and anything modern or insistent seems malignant. One of the armed police who accompany Monet to the dock when Idrissa runs away point automatic weapons at the fleeing child; Monet is incredulous and pushes the weapons aside. Later a commuter uses an anachronistic-seeming mobile phone to summon the police when he spots Idrissa; one of the neighborhood intervenes to allow Idrissa to escape before the police arrive. Time is slow here, and this kind of thing has no place.

Time cannot trouble Marcel and his neighbors, and neither are they ever bothered by doubt. They make no trade-off between what is right and what is possible, which at first makes the whole down-to-earth business of the plot seem utterly unreal. Everyone is defined entirely by their actions, and their actions are matter-of-fact – a child is here, he wants to get there, and that’s just the way it is. There is almost no antagonism, because almost no-one does anything wrong. “Le Harve” is as optimistic and compassionate a film as I can remember, but the optimism and compassion are just the boxes that the simple actions of Marcel and his friends naturally fall into. This is an alluring escapism, so that by the end the whole fantasy seemed to make all the sense in the world.

Links: IMDb, Metacritic


Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

At the beginning of Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) sneaks past sleeping bodies on the floor of a rickety farmhouse and runs into the woods. She is spotted and briefly pursued, but makes it to town. She makes a desperate call to her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who comes to collect her and take her to the Connecticut lakeshore vacation home of Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy).

Martha has run away from an extended stay with a small cult, whose leader Patrick (John Hawkes) had renamed her Marcy May. As she recuperates at Lucy and Ted’s home, she is haunted by the memories of the group. The film moves fluidly between her cult life and the scenes from her new surroundings that trigger Martha’s recollections, the boundary between present reality and memory blurry. The transitions are well-executed. Most jarring are the earliest shifts, since in them we move back to Martha’s arrival at the group’s upstate New York farmland commune. She is relaxed and happy, on a new adventure, in startling contrast to the broken, sluggish young woman we were introduced to. Over the course of the film the Martha of the past is ground through Marcy May into the Martha of the present.

What of that Martha before there was Marcy May? She refuses to talk to Lucy about what has happened to her in the time since they last spoke, insisting that she had only been living with a boyfriend and left. We, of course, get to see plenty of Martha’s time with the group, but nevertheless I shared Lucy’s frustration. How did Martha end up there? She is brought in by her friend Zoe (Louisa Krause) and quickly and readily assimilates to some degree into the group identity, despite the brutal wrongness of the initiation. Why? It might well be an accurate picture of group psychology, but we are left to draw our own conclusions about what drove Martha there in the first place. Just as the cult dominates Martha’s thoughts, to the exclusion of everything else, we too never see beyond it. There is no “before”.

Something similar is true of Patrick, who is the center of the group, and therefore in a way of the film, and yet in the end we see very little of him. We know nothing of his past, nothing of his motivations. Like everything else that Martha has experienced, he just is, which reduces him to little more than images in Martha’s memory. The overall effect is to render the scenes from the past somehow soulless. It would be gratifying to know more, though perhaps this would undermine the lifeless, hallucinatory feeling of the memories.

In the present, once again, Lucy and Ted take on something of the same quality, Martha barely engaging them in any real sense. Ted is hardly an easy character to like: rich, English real-estate developer with money to spare, shuttling between his Connecticut and New York City homes. Comparisons between Patrick and Ted become easy and tempting, as the slightest hint of direction of Martha by her sister’s husband come to carry sinister overtones.

Only once does Martha show real signs of fiery life. Her outlandish behavior and outbursts wear on Lucy and Ted; they cannot understand, because they have no idea of the severity of what she has gone through. Lucy tries to absolve herself of the years-old guilt she feels at not having supported Martha more, and invites Martha to share it. Ted pushes Martha to decide what she might want to do with herself. She explodes. To Lucy she parrots Patrick’s words to her: she is a leader and a teacher. What should she have to feel guilty about? She derides Ted’s materialism, accusing him of equating success with possessions, insisting that there are other ways to live. When cornered, she has lashed out; how much is the ethos of the cult and how much might at last tell us something about who Martha really is?

But soon the flash has subsided and we are left back with Martha’s introversion and almost paranoid anxiety, the color of the other characters once again turned down. Olsen’s performance is gripping throughout, but we are doomed not to really meet Martha or any of the people around her. Whoever she was has been wrung out by abuse and trauma, the cult robbing Martha of her personality and robbing us of our chance to have seen it.

Links: IMDb, Metacritic


Kill List (2011)

Simple enough: the “Kill List” is a list of people that Jay (Neil Maskell) and Gal (Michael Smiley) are contracted to kill. But Ben Wheatley’s film is more psychological thriller than crime thriller, and arguably horror, and arguably very oblique war allegory.

The two men are veterans of one or other of the last decade’s wars in the Middle East. The long first act of the film is a long, realist look at their suburban life that plays like a high-class version of a British soap opera. Londoner Jay has a Swedish wife, Shel (MyAnna Buring), and a young son. He seems vaguely depressive, maybe just bored of doing not very much all day. He and Shel cycle through loud rows and quiet reconciliation. The wry Northern Irish Gal brings a new girlfriend (Emma Fryer) to a dinner at Jay and Shel’s home that is punctuated in the middle by a blazing shouting match between the hosts; Gal reassures and comforts their son while they fight.

Subject to their personalities, everyone is as normal as can be. The dialogue in particular is among the most naturalistic that I can remember. There is no rush whatsoever to get to the point where Jay and Gal get to business. We learn that the two former soldiers still work in violence, now as extralegal contract killers. Since the movie has gone to such lengths to establish the two men in familiar domestic-drama roles, there is nothing glamorous, exotic, or at first even interesting about the concept that this is how they earn money. This is a realist picture of working-class hit men. Their last job – “Kiev”, it is coded throughout – got messy in a way that we never learn, and Gal must talk Jay into ending his lethargy and getting back to work.

And so finally the kill list. They are travelling businessmen, checking into that quintessentially British kind of cheap, characterless hotel to scout and then murder their targets. The job, though, seems somehow off-kilter, and quite soon Jay’s professionalism starts to lapse as he is (quite understandably) unable to figure out exactly what is going on. He seems to now – after Kiev, maybe? – be a soldier who cannot kill without thinking, and because this job is a puzzle with little prospect of a logical solution, the thinking makes him volatile, and the volatility feeds on itself. Gal remains sensible, but he cannot restrain his friend.

The key to the effectiveness of the whole thing is the unorthodox and impeccable pacing. The excellent domestic realism of the first half plays very slowly, but when the acceleration starts it never stops. The best cut is to the title card at the end, when it is suddenly clear in hindsight that the pace has been increasing steadily and maniacally for quite a while. We are swept up like Jay in the maddening, nightmarish weirdness that would be absurd if it were less unsettling. It is nihilistic in the way a dream is nihilistic, and perhaps this is why Jay continues to kill through it all.

There is one key moment in which he and Gal try to extricate themselves from whatever it is that is happening and are clearly compelled to continue. At first I wondered if perhaps it wouldn’t have made more sense not to have this compulsion, since Jay at times seems unstoppable anyway. But it seems right that he retains his common sense, so that we can’t give him up as deranged. His world has become nightmarish, but he is tragically lucid, the victim of the horror, not the perpetrator.

The more time goes by since I saw “Kill List”, the better I think it was. This is because it is pretty clear that there are plenty of ways in which it doesn’t make any sense, and the temptation to poke at the flimsy logical fabric or to play plot hole games is strong. In retrospect, though, the tone resonates long after any arguments about what is or is not going on. Jay and Gal have to kill people they don’t understand on behalf of people they don’t meet for reasons they don’t know. Why should any of it make sense?

Links: IMDb


Take Shelter (2011)

(A warning: this review is more spoiler-heavy than usual.)

A bit of mystery about a character’s mental health can stretch a long way. I found “Donnie Darko” compelling because of the fragility of Donnie’s connection to reality – the movie was strictly his, but his what? Visions, wishes, delusions, dreams? It was like watching oil on water. I was therefore disappointed when I learned that the whole thing was intended as straight science fiction. Figuring out sci-fi mechanics can be fun, but not when the whole fabric of the movie had seemed to be up for grabs. All of poor Donnie’s relationships become uninteresting at a stroke.

I had something like the opposite problem with “Take Shelter”. It tells the story of Curtis (Michael Shannon), a construction worker who has what his colleague calls “a good life” with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and their young daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). Hannah has (presumably quite recently) lost her hearing, and Curtis and Samantha’s strength and tenderness against this challenge shows them to be a sturdy pair who we can trust.

Curtis begins to experience vivid, violent dreams and hallucinations of catastrophic storms or violence toward himself or Hannah. We see some of them first hand, stitched into the film as they are stitched into Curtis’s life. They are jarring, and so we can share Curtis’s twin reactions to them. On the one hand he knows that he is ill and seeks treatment, but on the other he cannot shake the terror and pursues real-world solutions to his dark visions, fixating on disassociating from those who hurt him in his visions and on building out the storm shelter on his property in anticipation of the apocalyptic storm.

We learn that his mother is a paranoid schizophrenic, in assisted living since her illness manifested when Curtis was around the age that Hannah is now. This experience makes Curtis admirably pragmatic, immediately researching mental illness as the library and making an appointment with his doctor. Small but critical barriers begin to appear: he is referred to a distant psychiatrist but cannot make the long trip. He self-diagnoses as potentially schizophrenic to the local counselor he visits instead, but she is not licensed to medicate him. He talks about his mother’s history and his fears to the counselor, but she is transferred.

While the path to a solution based in reality is blocked, the path to “solving” the problems of his delusions is entirely clear. When he asks his work partner for help in breaking company rules to borrow equipment for the folly of the storm shelter expansion, he is indulged. His distancing himself from those who hurt him in his dreams is allowed by his wife and boss, who of course at first have little notion of his mental deterioration. Critically, he easily obtains an ill-advised home improvement loan for the expansion of the storm shelter. It would have been easy to overplay a subtext that here is a hard-working man who is crushed between a healthcare industry that cannot help with his real problems, and a financial industry that enables his folly.

Luckily the film’s balancing act between lucidity and delusion is too subtle for that, and Shannon makes Curtis too compelling for triteness. I found it easy to share both Curtis’s creeping dread and his self-aware despair. Because of this, as his tether back to the right path frays, his deluded decisions that would seem so incredible in a vacuum  become almost unwatchably brutal. The trick of making the outlandish empathetic is pulled off here as well as I can ever remember. When Curtis finally explodes in paranoid rage, it is not a stereotypical crazed rant but a tragic culmination. When Samantha pleads with him and tries to force him to address his delusions directly, she seems naive rather than strong.

But there is a problem. This painstaking, wonderful portrayal of a man grappling against himself and his own demise is inexplicably undermined by a parlor trick of an ending that dishonors everything that has gone before. There is emphatically no question of when and whether Curtis is suffering from visions or delusions at any given moment, until the very last moments of the whole film. Then, suddenly, we seem to be invited at least to entertain the notion that Curtis’s delusions are somehow real. Suddenly nothing is ruled out, and the whole film is up for grabs.

I’m sure it is possible to construct as many plausible, coherent explanations for what is going on at the end as we could care to, but why allow this? The solid whole that was so affecting seems to dissolve into an oil slick of interpretation. Perhaps for some this will give the whole more resonance, but I would have been happier if the portrait that had seemed so convincing and powerful had been allowed to stand on its own.

Links: IMDb, Metacritic

Albert Nobbs (2011)

Whoever Albert Nobbs is, I’m still wondering. Our title character (Glenn Close) is a woman posing as a man, working as a butler in a hotel in Dublin, circa late 1800s. She is living an anonymous and simple life, saving money, presumably to escape her station. This humble plan is disturbed when a full hotel forces her to share her bed with a male painter, Hubert. Hubert discovers Albert’s secret, but turns out to be living a similar lie. Hubert (Janet McTeer) becomes a small kind of confidant for Albert. She lives with a wife and has an outwardly normal life, worlds away from Albert’s extreme withdrawal.

It is tragic that the catalyst for Albert’s downfall should be a kind of hope, but it’s hard to escape the conclusion that in seeing and trying to emulate Hubert’s relationship Albert reaches for a life she had never believed she could have. It is easy to believe: Hubert is an alluring figure, Janet McTeer easily the most compelling presence in the film. Albert embarks on a chaste, nearly inexplicable courting of the young hotel maid Helen (Mia Wasikowska) as – what? Albert tells her that she wants Helen to live with her, run the tobacco shop she has scouted out and saved money for, be a family. But what is Albert looking for? The question of her emotional desires or sexuality is never addressed. She wonders openly about Hubert’s life with his wife behind closed doors, but she pursues that life without ever seeming really to understand it, perhaps again doing little more than play a part.

While Hubert is certainly sympathetic toward Albert, she has a kind of leering astonishment that I thought suggested that she shares our view of Albert as a repressed naïf. Sadly, beyond a single scene in which Albert sketches her past for Hubert, she and we see a character made trivial and forgettable by her debilitating guardedness. Throughout the film we see frustratingly little of Albert beyond that she is saturated with fear. But why? Whose fate is she trying to avoid? The film gives us little notion of the world that Albert would face as a woman, which has the unfortunate consequence of making her fear seem almost unintelligent. A charitable view would be that Albert’s life-spanning secret has buried mature emotion and left her stunted, but I found it difficult to work up any sympathy in that direction without at least some help from the film in understanding Albert a little better.

And so decisions by Albert that should be infused with meaning become perplexing, and it becomes too tempting to see her as inexcusably simple-minded. The effect is made much, much worse by the bizarre decision to occasionally have Albert, when alone, narrate her actions as if to a child: counting her money, for example, she methodically itemizes her coins and relates – presumably for us – her progress towards her goal. The movie is adapted from a play, and Close’s wide-eyed wonder when she talks to herself would perhaps play well on stage but on screen seems jarring. Along similar lines, when Albert fantasizes about how the for-lease storefront might turn into her shop, we see a Disneyesque daydream, all gold-tinted soft focus and cloying music.

Of course we need to understand what Albert wants to achieve, but the film never seems to work out a way to display this in a way that respects Albert’s intelligence. Perhaps we are supposed to see Albert as a tragic case of arrested development, her simplicity, asexuality and confusion the product of a life lived in secret and without the oxygen of human relationships. Then her contrast with the pragmatic and assertive Hubert would recast her whole history as a horrible half-life. But in practice the contrast favors Hubert too much, and Albert becomes so much of a challenge as to be easy to dismiss. Maybe that is Albert’s true tragedy, but it is a difficult one to hang a whole film on.

Links: IMDb, Metacritic