Director: Luis Buñuel Screenwriters: Julio Alejandro, Luis Buñuel
By Roderick Heath
Few names resonate in cinema history like that of Luis Buñuel. For the quality and radical vision of his work, of course, and also because the legend of Buñuel connected far-flung zones in that history, zigzagging from the heady bohemian climes and provocations of 1920s Paris and the violent, reactionary forces that consumed his native Spain in the age of Fascism, to the shoals of Hollywood and the fecund delights of Mexico’s cinema golden age, before a triumphant return to the eye of European film to collect Oscars and Palmes d’Or when he was over sixty without dulling the glint of his wild imagination. Buñuel, born in the Aragon town of Calanda in 1900, was the son of a hardware retailer who had made a fortune in Cuba, and his teenage bride. Buñuel would later succinctly note that Calanda remained in the Middle Ages until World War I. Proving a disorderly youth during his Jesuit education, Buñuel became accomplished at entertaining friends with magic lantern and shadow plays, and was obsessively religious until he broke with the Catholic Church at 16 and declared himself an atheist. Whilst attending university in Zaragoza he became close friends with the quick-blooming artist and gadfly Salvador Dali and the future playwright Federico Garcia Lorca. Excited by the possibilities of film after watching Fritz Lang’s The Weary Death (1921), Buñuel moved to Paris and, whilst also dabbling in theatre, started working for French director Jean Epstein. Buñuel served as assistant director on Epstein’s 1926 adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, a work which prefigured much of Buñuel’s cinema.
After breaking with Epstein Buñuel reunited with Dali, and, borrowing money from Buñuel’s mother, the duo made the short film Un Chien Andalou, first screened in 1929. Emblazoned with the helpful caption “Nothing means anything,” Un Chien Andalou, with its signature image of a woman’s eyeball being sliced with a razor and other incendiary, delirious vignettes, immediately exemplified the phrase “succès de scandale” and allowed the emerging art mode of surrealism to annex cinema as an expressive realm. Buñuel was annoyed when his aesthetic hand grenade proved a hit with exactly the kind of intellectual in-crowd he meant to piss off, so he might have experienced a more ambivalent sense of achievement when his and Dali’s follow-up, the feature-length L’Age d’Or (1930), attracted furious protests for its anti-Catholic satire. By that time Buñuel and Dali had ended their association over political differences. Once the stones, literal and metaphorical, stopped flying over L’Age d’Or Buñuel, after a brief and wilfully unproductive first sojourn to Hollywood, became deeply involved with leftist Spanish politics. His pseudo-documentary of life in Extremadura, Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan (1933), was to prove his last significant directorial work for over a decade, and was equally infuriating to both the Republican government and the Franco regime for its harsh, ironic portrayal of the country’s most degraded communities.
Buñuel retreated for a time into producing commercial Spanish cinema. When the Civil War broke out he participated in the Republican government’s propaganda efforts, in the cause of which he travelled to the US in 1938 only to find himself stuck there when the war ended. Buñuel had a rough time trying to fit in with the American film world through World War II as his L’Age d’Or infamy was still dogging him, but his work in making and dubbing films for the Latin American market helped pave the way for a move into the Mexican film industry, which was at the height of a boom in the mid-1940s. There, after making a few well-received melodramas, he regained international profile with Los Olvidados (1950), a vivid blend of his surrealist and socially concerned sides. Buñuel’s work through the late ‘40s and ‘50s, chiefly in Mexico but also encompassing the English-language The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1954), which gained a Best Actor Oscar nomination for star Dan O’Herlihy, was defined by a creative tension between commercial assignment and the director’s transformative talent, and in many ways is his most interesting and diverse period.
Viridiana represented the third great pivotal moment of Buñuel’s career, signalling tentative reconciliation with his homeland and a new stature as a major art-house auteur. He was lobbied to return to Spain and make a movie by the young directors Carlos Saura and Juan-Antonio Bardem, and his project was given vaguely official assent. To the surprise of everyone, the script for Viridiana was approved with only to some requests for alteration by censors, including of the suggestive ending, which Buñuel and his co-screenwriter Julio Alejandro revised to somehow make, whilst seeming relatively innocuous on paper, even filthier in its implications. Buñuel, no fool, still knew what he was courting, and had the film’s negative smuggled to Paris to edit it for its premiere at Cannes. The Spanish government’s film overlord unwittingly introduced it there, and was promptly sacked, the film banned not just from screening in Spain but from all mention in the press until well after Franco’s death. But elsewhere, despite being vehemently decried by the Catholic Church, Viridiana managed to hit the cinema scene at the right time: it only took thirty years, but cognoscenti tastes were ready for Buñuel’s outrageous outlook at its most unrefined and potent. Viridiana was Buñuel’s second, if very loose, adaptation of a novel by the great Spanish novelist Benito Pérez Galdós, preceded by Nazarin (1958), and he would film Galdós a third time with 1970’s Tristana.
In abstract Viridiana reads as exactly what the Franco regime took it to be, a blatantly impudent and iconoclastic jab at the official structures underpinning the type of conservative society they had been brutally enforcing for the previous twenty years. And it’s certainly biting in its portrayal of a rotting aristocracy and the detached pretences of organised religion, both eventually collapsing before the proclivities of an energetic, pragmatic, hedonistically seductive modernity. Buñuel’s art was however more refined than offering mere adolescent iconoclasm. Viridiana is a fable depicting the creation of modern Spain and the world beyond it, a fable laced with ambivalence, sarcasm, horror, and flashes of delirious beauty and weirdness. It also recapitulates the basic concern of Nazarin, which portrayed the remorseless defeat of a saintly priest in the face of a brutish society, whilst swapping the gender of the central character, a move that immediately introduces a different frisson. Galdós’ novel was a direct sequel to his Nazarin, in fact, whereas Buñuel’s extrapolation follows his own bent beyond the book’s premise of an aristocratic woman founding a charitable collective.
Where Nazarin’s hero was tragically noble and genuine despite his luckless passivity, Viridiana’s title character is duly pretentious in her buffeted idealism. Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) is a mendicant approaching the time when she’s to take her vows as a nun after a long, insulated religious schooling and upbringing. The Mother Superior of the convent (Rosita Yarza) tells her that her uncle, Don Jaime, who’s paid for her upbringing and her dowry, has written to say he won’t be able to attend the ceremony. Viridiana is unconcerned, as she had only ever met Don Jaime briefly, but the Mother Superior encourages her to accept his offer of a visit to his home as a show of respect and gratitude before returning permanently to convent life. Don Jaime (Fernando Rey) himself resides in a large, decaying mansion in a Spanish backwater: his former wife, Viridiana’s aunt, Don Jaime later recounts, “died in my arms on our wedding night,” still clad in her white dress. Upon their reunion Viridiana clinically admits that she feels no emotional connection to Don Jaime after too long apart. She insists on sleeping on the floor of her bedroom, and has brought with her an array of religious objects including her own personal crown of thorns and crucifixion nails.
Meanwhile Don Jaime gets his jollies paying Rita (Teresa Rabal), the young daughter of his housekeeper Ramona, (Margarita Lozano) to jump rope so he can stare in fascination at her young, flicking legs, and taking out his wife’s wedding attire and fetishistic communing with it, fitting her gleaming white high heels on his own feet and tenderly fitting her corset to his belly. As he does so one night during Viridiana’s stay, he’s bewildered by the sight of her sleepwalking around the house, engaged in some inchoate form of ritual, obliviously burning the contents of a knitting basket and collecting the ashes to dump on Don Jaime’s bed. Don Jaime becomes preoccupied with convincing Viridiana to stay and marry him, eventually proposing this after he’s talked her into donning his wife’s wedding array. When the appalled Viridiana refuses, Don Jaime, with the aid of his slavishly devoted housekeeper Ramona, drugs her and her spirits her to her bedroom.
Viridiana’s slyly accumulating power lies in the way Buñuel dryly presents its increasingly deviant concerns and storyline with a limpid, becalmed, studious gaze. One quality that always distinguished Buñuel as a director was, for all his reputation as one of cinema’s most committed and peculiar artists, so ingenious at communicating unreal imagery, he had little time for showy filmmaking, preferring instead tightly choreographed camerawork, worked out in advance, and so like Alfred Hitchcock found the actual shooting rather dull. The material here grazes territory often staked out by gothic melodrama, as the young woman comes to the big old house where a troubled male elder resides brooding on ancient losses, and the motif of the eerily glaring portrait of Viridiana’s long-dead aunt and Don Jaime’s desire to transform his niece into the lost lover echoes Edgar Allan Poe stories of fetid and displaced sexuality (“Your aunt died on my arms on our wedding night, wearing that dress”). And yet Buñuel instead plays it not for thrills but as a deadpan tragicomedy. The motifs of the storyline also evoke basic clichés of erotica, with the classic figure of the beautiful, chaste, unworldly young woman placed at the mercy of her decadent uncle who embodies all the threat of a worldly male. Buñuel, who had referenced the Marquis De Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom in L’Age d’Or, here offered his own derivation on a Sadean narrative in portraying a young woman at the mercy of the world’s corruption and who eventually embraces it.
Except that Buñuel plays games with such figurations, disassembling their presumptions, as he finds the absurd pathos in both his central characters. Don Jaime, introduced as a figure reminiscent of Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, is eventually revealed to be a figure of dank pathos as he’s driven to find some form of catharsis for his long-thwarted desire for his late wife, ambiguously finding both deliverance from adulthood and proto-erotic thrills in watching Rita skipping, and obtaining the ideal body onto which to transfer his fetishist passion in the form of Viridiana himself. Sexuality infuses every gesture and yet is constantly displaced into other, bizarre, often functionally sado-masochistic forms. Don Jaime is affected by the sight of Viridiana’s bare legs in her nightgown – Buñuel films her taking off her stockings as if unknowingly loading weapons for a campaign not yet begun – as she engages in her somnambulist ritual, a display which seems to signal her as another person driven to enact a nocturnal demi-life. Albeit whilst Don Jaime is at least conscious of his yearnings, Viridiana, casting ashes on the marriage bed her waking self has resolved never to inhabit, can only explore her own ambivalence in dreams. In this she becomes the active avatar of the surrealist creed. Ramona has an evident, unnoticed crush on Don Jaime, one she later, speedily transfers onto his son.
Meanwhile Buñuel sets up chains of imagery couched with unsubtle humour but also amassing thorny meaning. He cuts from a shot of Viridiana removing her stockings, revealing her white, gleaming legs, to a shot rising up from behind the organ Don Jaime is playing, her body and his fused, her body dancing to his tune, his own later donning of his wife’s white shoes and Viridiana wearing them both anticipated. Eroticism involves its own mysterious transubstantiation, and the seemingly opposed reflexes of sex and faith, the impulse of the flesh and the ethic of its rejection, are nonetheless conjoined in the desire to become one with the worshipped figure, to experience on levels carnal and sublime. Biblical humour surfaces as Viridiana unthinkingly bites into a piece of apple Don Jaime hands her as he begins to talk her into wearing the wedding dress. Viridiana soon appears in that regalia, complete with veil and candelabra in hand, a puckish anticipation of her becoming a bride, whether it be to Jesus or someone more mortal, her absent intended mirrored by Don Jaime’s absent wife.
Since his debut Buñuel had compiled a catalogue of fanatically fixated themes and images, including the true surrealist’s fascination with “amour fou,” mad and boundless love that persists beyond the grave – not for nothing had Buñuel made an adaptation of Wuthering Heights, Abismos de Pasion (1954) – and his delight in using insect life as strange and unstable symbol for the infesting and eruptive nature of such passion, a motif that flecks Viridiana – a bee drowning in water, the description of a great old house with a floor infested by spiders – amidst an expanded array of animal imagery that maintains its own peculiar, self-justifying context. Viridiana praying over her collection of religious-masochist paraphernalia gives way to the sight of Don Jaime’s farmhand Moncho (Francisco René) briskly milking a cow, a commonplace act suddenly laced with phallic overtones as Viridiana cannot bring herself to handle the stiff, squirting teat, whilst Rita, gulping milk down hungrily, pauses to teasingly pours some on the cow’s nose. Rita also experiences a disturbing premonition of the sexual furore stirring in the house as she complains of being awoken by a “black bull” coming into her room. As he discusses his illegitimate son Jorge with his niece, Don Jaime assures her he intends to make sure his progeny will be taken care of as he plucks that drowning bee out of a barrel of rainwater. This encapsulates both Don Jaime’s humane side but also his incidental resolve to do as little as possible to service it.
It also prefigures a later, famous vignette of Jorge himself (Francisco Rabal) buying a dog when he’s distressed by the sight of it being forced to walk briskly behind a peasant’s cart to which it’s tied. He walks off with his new pet, oblivious to another dog being dragged along in exactly the same way behind another cart. This vignette says much of Jorge’s counterpoint experience to Don Jaime’s, as a man who knows what it feels like to be the bastard castaway and knows empathy for the literal underdog, and puts his decent streak to immediate, effective employ, but only, again, within a certain limit. This vignette is almost endlessly dissectible, seeming on the face of things to make fun of the charitable impulse, but on closer examination noting that, whilst indeed there’s an aspect of random luck often in who benefits from such humanitarian reflexes, that can have a crisscrossing effect with other gestures, but the eternal problem of social organisation is how to make that effect perpetual and mutual. These seemingly blithe, ironic jokes about the nature of charity see it as inevitably discreet and perhaps only effective when wisely limited in the face of all the world’s pain and suffering. But this eventually plugs into a deeper thesis of Viridiana, when the heroine tries to become a river to the poor and desperate of the district, seeing them not as people but as extensions of her own self-image as a Christ-like fount.
Guilt partly underpins this effort from Viridiana, who, after rejecting Don Jaime, is confronted with the awful consequence in the sight of him dead, having hung himself from a tree near his house with Rita’s jump-rope. This comes after Don Jaime makes a last, feverish play to possess his fantasy by drugging Viridiana after he’s talked her into donning the wedding dress. If it seemed Hitchcock had paid homage to Buñuel’s El (1953) with Vertigo (1958), Buñuel seems to return the favour here, nodding to Rebecca’s (1940) basic plot, offering his own twist on Vertigo’s portrait of a maniacal man trying to reconstruct a lost lover, and quoting Notorious (1946) in the laced cup of coffee that places Viridiana at Don Jaime’s mercy. Don Jaime take her to the marriage bed, laying his face against her revealed, bobbing bosom and kissing her prone form, but ultimately wins the battle against the temptation to rape her. This retreat in proves however self-defeating. Don Jaime first tells Viridiana the next day when she awakens from her induced sleep that he did take her virginity, hoping this will compel her to remain with him, but her distraught reaction causes him to confess to Ramona that he didn’t do it.
Ramona checks his bed for any sign of blood on the sheets to reassure herself he’s told the truth. Viridiana remains understandably determined to leave, but she’s brought back to the house by police to behold the awful spectacle of Don Jaime’s death. The complexity of the aftermath of Viridiana’s drugging suggests possible censor impact on Buñuel’s storyline, but it also undoubtedly helps deepen psychological meaning. Don Jaime’s story, which only occupies about a third of the film, is that of a man trying with all his might not to become a monster, despite being consumed by overpowering impulses that go to a rotten stem of the human being – love, lust, the urge for control, the ever-taunting mixture of the specific and interchangeable in people we as the centres of our own universes encounter. Whilst Viridiana plays the martyr, Don Jaime comes far closer to actually being one, even as he is at the same time just a dirty and pathetic old man. This connects to a credo Buñuel once stated outright, that nothing in the imagination is wrong, only misbegotten attempts to actualise them. Don Jaime’s own, bitter sense of humour manifests in killing himself with the totem of sublimated longings and childhood obliviousness. After Don Jaime is brought down the jump-rope is restored to Rita who resumes skipping with it, despite the angry admonitions of Moncho: youth is as heedless of the pain of age as age often is of youth’s autonomy, and those are two of the forces that wrestle in a traditionalist society.
Don Jaime’s death becomes Viridiana’s load, as she is named as co-inheritor of the house along with Jorge, who arrives with his lover Lucia (Victoria Zinny). Viridiana, after telling the Mother Superior she feels different and won’t be returning to the convent, heads into the nearby town and begins gathering up local paupers, intending to create a kind of religious commune where everyone can do a bit of work to earn their meal and bed for the night. Meanwhile Jorge seems to provide a breath of cleansing air as he lays claim to his legacy. Jorge enters the scene with self-assured masculine swagger, imbued rather than quelled by not having had the easiest time in life, because he knows very well that he is the future. He does note with some resentment that he might, with Jaime’s support, have become a qualified and successful architect by now rather than have merely been working in the office of one, but otherwise isn’t particularly aggrieved by his father (“Anyone can have a fling and then walk away.”). He does quietly admit to Lucia that Viridiana gets on his nerves because she’s “rotten with piety.” Lucia suggests he’s really irritated because she pays no attention to him.
Contrasting Viridiana’s choice of mission, Jorge sets to work repairing, cleansing, and modernising the house, including getting electricity connected and making the estate’s farmland productive again, and hiring labourers for the job. Buñuel builds one of his more elaborate cinematic jokes as Viridiana leads her collective of paupers in prayer in the estate’s blooming orchard – shades of Buñuel turning a wry salute to Robert Rossellini’s The Flowers of St. Francis (1948) with its blend of earthy piety and beatific natural surrounds – whilst the labourers work around the house and grounds, bashing at crumbling brickwork, stirring cement, sawing lumber. Buñuel intercuts between prayers and working, forming them into a system of call and response, labour of the spirit and labour of the practical at once set in contention and locked in a sardonic harmony. The old Benedictine motto of “work and prayer,” realised as an elaborate fugue where focused labour contrasts Viridiana’s ambitious but vague attempt to build a mutually reliant religious commune with social dregs as her flock.
Viridiana’s harvested collective nonetheless quickly reveal themselves to be whatever the opposite is of the deserving poor. A gang of miscreants, petty thieves, sex fiends, and the pathetically penurious, the flock go along with Viridiana so long as she gives them a next-to-free ride. Only one, crippled man out of her initial selection refuses to go along with Viridiana and asks for some change instead, noting, superfluously, that he only accepts such charity because he’s destitute. “She has a heart of gold,” one pauper says of Viridiana, to another’s comment, “Yes, but she’s a little nutty.” Far from embracing an egalitarian ideal of collective labour, the paupers have their own caste and class systems. The blind, bearded Don Amalio (José Calvo) and his pregnant lover Enedina (Lola Gaos) become de facto leaders of their group for their amoral and deftly manipulative cleverness. The paupers forcibly eject José (Juan García Tiendra), a man with a bad case of varicose veins, from their ranks because they think he’s a leper and could infect them all, and toss stones his way whenever he hangs around, whilst taking pains not to let Viridiana see. Another pauper, a man with a bandaged foot known as ‘El Cojo’ or The Cripple (José Manuel Martín), appropriates Rita’s jump-rope as a belt for his pants. He also volunteers to paint religious pictures, which he does, roping in his fellows to pose for him: “I don’t like being the Virgin,” one woman complains. Moncho soon becomes so aggravated by the paupers’ presence that he quits working on the estate.
The official theme here is naiveté, with Viridiana doomed to learn she cannot apply abstract pieties to real life. She is confronted with the truth that the poor are not necessarily ennobled or sanctified by their condition, but remain essentially the same as other people, only more so – a free-floating mass of the greedy, cruel, perverse, and opportunistic. Indeed, the absence of social expectation on them frees them from fetters of behaviour beyond the most superficial and self-centred (Amalio, knowing when and how to grease the wheels, refers to Viridiana as “our blessed protectress”). Buñuel here confronts, with abyssal wit and cool candour, the intersection of two potent, long-antagonistic but fascinatingly similar faiths, Catholicism and Marxism, and one point of concern at which they converge, being what to do about people who fall to the bottom of a society, and provoking the eternal lament of adherents of both creeds as to why the masses will never do what’s good for them. The paupers become Buñuel’s impish projections of his most lawless, cynical, and profane impulses, whilst also evoking the hangover of a crazy medieval spirit that could have sprung off pages of Rabelais, embodying the tumult of the boiling mass of humanity in its natural, unelevated, tumultuous state. Meanwhile Jorge comes to represent industrious modernity, effective, efficient, in many way more genuinely helpful, but also casually imperious and immune to moral criticism. Jorge finds delight in finding, amongst Jaime’s possessions, a crucifix with a knife hidden within, a good, practical version of Cromwell’s advice to put trust in God and keep your powder dry.
That Jaime’s house can be taken as an emblem of the teetering, mouldering, pathetically repressed state of Spain circa 1961 is practically self-evident. More interesting is the way Buñuel sets his rival moral schemes in contention, forlorn and septic patriarchy and daffy virgin matriarchy both waning. Which goes a long way to pointing to the deepest cause for the offence Viridiana caused the Franco state. A little blasphemy and sin can be easily encompassed and suppressed, but not the film’s most galling statement, its confident augury that all the old reactionaries will fall before the seductive appeal of a neo-pagan spirit inherent in the encroaching modern world, of which Jorge is the messiah, casually barging through taboos long tended with jealous care, and the nuns and serviles of the past will become the new whore-priestesses. Where Ramona lingered in lovelorn attentiveness to Don Jaime, and transfers that fascination onto Jorge, he quickly and deftly seduces her as they explore the musty attic crammed with the detritus of a festering aristocracy. Buñuel saves one of his most mordant visual metaphors here as he cuts from the couple’s clinch to a cat springing on a mouse. This seems to indicate the ease of Jorge’s seductive ploys, although the cat could also be the long-frustrated and carnally eruptive Ramona: later when Buñuel films them together in a moment of strikingly happy intimacy, it’s Ramona who joyfully bites Jorge’s hand.
The film’s very end sees Jorge ascending to the status of a pagan priest-king settling down to be a fount of sexual beneficence, His coming inscribed in the strains of a new catechism – shake, shake, shake your cares away, declares the rock song coming from the radio. Buñuel doesn’t take this for necessarily a great good, either, in part because an age of happy, straightforward hedonism would rob him of the mine of his art, his delight in human perversity, in the tangled weeds of sad and sorry old repressed Europe and the creatures it births. The epic quality that touches Don Jaime’s fetishistic longings and Viridiana’s blinkered and self-mortifying piety springs from the same fount: the old world fashioned over centuries to provide psychic and physical bulwarks against the chaos of natural forces. Buñuel was driven again and again to study the failure of such social bulwarks, their collapse the one certain thing in his worldview. Buñuel’s constant preoccupying themes had surfaced in precursors to Viridiana like Susana (1951), which depicted with lacerating good-humour the progress of an ironically sanctified harlot through a good Mexican family, her pulchritude easily provoking the men to raptures, and El and The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955), with their portraits of maniacal men whose unstable machismo consumes them and others.
Buñuel’s previous film, the near-equally great but relatively neglected The Young One (1960), although set entirely amongst fringe dwellers, also directly anticipated Viridiana, although with its depiction of the forcible seduction of a girl by an older male guardian edging far closer to outright paedophilia, and the theme of schism amongst the underclass encompassing racial prejudice. Buñuel would also go on to restage Viridiana’s riotous climax from a different angle via the famous conceit employed in The Exterminating Angel (1962), as guests at a bourgeois dinner party find themselves unable to leave a dining room due to some invisible force, and degenerate into brutes, an idea that, despite its purposefully arbitrary fantasticality, laid down a template for post-apocalyptic angst in cinema. Buñuel would return to the basic theme of Viridiana, and some of its jokes, whilst flipping genders again, for Simon of the Desert (1965), this time casting Pinal as the taunting, tempting female devil trying to seduce the pillar-sitting saint, eventually spiriting him from detached pinnacle to raucous contemporary New York nightclub. Viridiana’s own eventual embrace of her carnal side opened the gate for Belle de Jour’s (1967) portrait of a transgressive heroine trying to actualise her erotic fantasies and the brutally ironic feminist revenge motif of Tristana, a film that plays very much as an uglier, sadder, more conflicted remake of Viridiana, essentially positing if Viridiana succumbed to Don Jaime and then became him. Buñuel’s influence would also soon echo through the emerging new European cinema, seen in variations like Jean-Luc Godard’s Week-End (1967) and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968).
Viridiana finally reaches it long, ecstatically profane climax as Viridiana and Jorge head off to deal with legal matters in town and Ramona takes Rita to the dentist, all expecting to be absent from the house until the next day. Viridiana leaves the snowy-haired, ineffectual Don Zequiel (Joaquin Roa) in nominal charge of the commune. Some of the paupers, seeing a chance for rest and relaxation, decide to kill a couple of the spring lambs on the estate for a roast dinner, and Enedina promises to make custard. The paupers soon sneak into the big house to gawk at its splendours. Surveying the portraits of Don Jaime and his wife, Zequiel comments, “Imagine hanging yourself with that kind of dough.” The paupers elect to hold their banquet in the dining hall and clean it up so their cheeky transgression won’t be noticed. There they merrily gobble up their food and raid the wine cellar too. They’re even so kind as to let José join them, sequestered at a separate table. Amalio regales them with legendary feats of begging in rich churches where the women smelt so good they gave tactile communion. For the paupers, guzzling custard in swank environs is the next best thing to heaven, and once everyone’s in the highest spirits Enedina proposes to take their photo with a camera “my parents gave me.” The beggars eagerly arrange themselves into a pose on one side of the dining table before Enedina, recreating Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” and Enedina does indeed per the old joke take their photograph, by raising her skirt and flashing her privates at them.
This famous vignette offers a pure crystallisation of Buñuel’s humour, at once larkish and vicious, seemingly casual but carefully prepared. The “Last Supper” pastiche provided subsequent directors with a ready-made icon of irreverence to pay homage to, ranging from Robert Altman on MASH (1970) to Mel Brooks on A History of the World, Part I (1981). Buñuel’s is the coldest and most merciless however: Amalio holds the place of Jesus, flanked by sleazy weirdoes. Handel’s “Messiah,” heard in the opening credits, is played by the beggars on the gramophone whilst several begin dancing to its strains with sprightly, satiric energy. Jose dons pieces of the wedding dress and swans about as a sickly drag act. Here the paupers rejoice in their freedom to casually disrespect every yardstick of the society whose fringes they persist on, all charged with childlike glee – Buñuel zeroes in on the dancers’ legs, which recalls Rita’s as she used her jump-rope. But other urges are stirring, at once more adult and more animalistic, as the party degenerates into squalid chaos. Enedina is grabbed by one of the men, Paco (Joaquin Mayol), dragged behind a couch, and raped. “Let ‘em scuffle,” Zequiel declares in his besotted state, and gets a face-full of custard tossed at him. Amalio, thinking Enedina is willingly screwing Paco, starts furiously smashing everything on the dining table with his cane, and Enedina, released, dismisses Amalio’s display: “If he were my husband he’d be entitled.” Some of the paupers flee the house as Viridiana, Jorge, Ramona, and Rita return unexpectedly by car, and the others shuffle out more pretentiously, facing up to the astounded Jorge with varying attitudes of proprietorial surprise, or, in Amalio’s case, a blessing for providing a blind man with sustenance.
Where other filmmakers might have felt licence to make their style frenetic to mimic the mounting craziness in such a sequence, or to have the paupers become theatrical in their destructiveness. Buñuel simply and methodically documents the mounting bedlam, only in the “Last Supper” tableaux delivering an arch cinematic joke. Otherwise he maintains deadpan observation, as with Enedina’s assault. Buñuel seems to be dramatizing the worst nightmare in the reactionary mindset: the filthy, ignorant scum erupting to despoil civilisation and take advantage of their benefactors. But their actions also, pointedly, recreate things already seen in the course of narrative – sexual assault, fetishism, transvestism, contempt for tradition, heritage, autonomy, and responsibility – only without any veil of pretence or obfuscation, simply embracing wild impulse. Don Jaime’s drugging and suborning of Viridiana, halted by whatever lingering ethic persists in his person, is soon reproduced in blunt and brutal fashion as El Cojo and Jose collaborate to knock out and tie up Jorge so they can rape Viridiana.
Buñuel dives in for a close-up noting Viridiana’s failing fight against El Cojo, noting her hand tugging desperately at his belt, which is of course Rita’s jump-rope. Buñuel deploys another of his wicked ironies, as Jorge deploys the oldest and most essential art of the capitalist to save the day – using the promise of reward to turn one member of the proletariat against another and forget his own interests, albeit in this case for an urgently righteous cause, as Jorge convinces José, who waits for his turn, to intervene in the rape by offering him money. José promptly and enthusiastically uses a fire shovel to bash El Cojo’s skull in. Calm is restored as the Guardia Civil arrive to round up the ratbags. A gentle inward dolly shot of Viridiana the next day, watching Jorge as he resumes his reordering, confirms the inevitable without words, that she’s fallen under Jorge’s spell, and in her room weeps as she casts off the last of her previous identity and, using a cracked fragment of a mirror, refashions her new one, unleashing her blonde hair.
Meanwhile her religious iconography burns up outside, Rita studying the blazing crown of thorns in bewilderment before tossing it on the flames. Viridiana appears at Jorge’s bedroom door, charged with sullen, silently communicated need, only to find him ensconced with Ramona. Jorge, immediately deciding how to handle the quandary as is his wont, proposes they settle down to play cards, noting “All cats are grey by night,” before commenting, as he suggestively takes her hand and uses it to cut the cards, “The first time I saw you I though, ‘Cousin Viridiana and I will finish up shuffling the deck together.’” Perhaps cinema’s greatest dirty joke and fade-out punchline, but again realised with Buñuel signature mixture of economy and attentiveness. Buñuel spares shots to note Ramona’s hesitant fear of rejection and competition and Viridiana’s blank gaze as she ponders the question as to whether this is who she actually is, before moving to a long shot, retreating slightly as if with a sense of decorum whilst peering through an open door, noting the emergent ménage-a-trois simply and calmly getting on with life in the new age.
2022 was always going to be a rough year for cinema. Ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on production and how movies are consumed were felt all year, setting everything into an uneasy churn. A vast array of strong movies were rudely shuffled off to streaming whilst movie theatres were often left with a drought of big, attention-getting new films to lure people out, and a lot of the big movies that did come out were lacklustre and betrayed the waning grip of recent blockbuster trends. The smaller, quality works that did get release sank without anything to counterprogram against. The only real winner out of it all was Top Gun: Maverick, a vehicle Tom Cruise smartly delayed until it could play to packed and appreciative theatres, and it succeeded in uniting young and old audience members in a single, shared moment. Even if it certainly wasn’t the greatest movie ever made, Top Gun: Maverick proved old-school Hollywood values were the best curative for the doldrums of the moment, especially when the superhero movie is devolving into cluttered and confused pile-ups like Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and Thor: Love and Thunder. And then right at year’s end we got James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water, and just what that will do for mass audience cinema is still playing out.
Things often weren’t that much better in the more officially artistic and serious zones of cinema, with many a movie of strong pedigree and real worth failing to find an audience. It was hard to deny the feeling the brutal financial failure of Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans in particular signalled on some level the fatal decline of Hollywood cinema in its purest form as everything falls into the sinkholes of streaming and a pervasive anti-art mood. Threads of common concern nonetheless wove throughout so many films this year. Spielberg and James Gray, two very different filmmakers, nonetheless both meditated on their most intense childhood experiences through alter egos with many points of similarity. The love of cinema as a shared experience and of media capturing as a mode of tantalising, frustrating meaning bobbed up in works as diverse as Ti West’s X and Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun and Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light. The antiheroic artists of Xavier Giannoli’s Lost Illusions and Todd Field’s Tár surrendered their creativity for the allure of power and self-indulgence, only to eventually be destroyed by the verdict of a society they’ve offended. Terence Davies’ Benediction and West’s Pearl both concluded with powerful but diametrically opposed images of faces, one of cathartic emotional release and the other desperately asserted pleasantness covering bottomless madness and horror. In Pearl and Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling, a woman crushing an egg invoked shattering of a thin membrane of reality and the mental stability of the heroine.
Stark moralistic comeuppances were visited upon the absurd denizens of a landscape of celebrity, influence, technology, and plutocratic riches, played out in isolated locales, in Spiderhead, Glass Onion, The Menu, Death on the Nile, and Poker Face. Spiderhead and Don’t Worry Darling depicted a sinisterly sequestered community ruled by a charismatic creep played by one of Hollywood’s many current Chrises. Films like You Won’t Be Alone, Avatar: The Way of Water, Ted K, Pearl, and Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon grappled with characters dwelling on the fringe of society, wrenched in diverging directions by urges to both completely escape the world and angrily take it on, feeling the temptations of monstrousness whilst also gripped by strange pathos. Rebels around the same outskirts manifested in the likes of Neptune Frost and Prey and Bones and All. Reclaiming youngsters stolen by representatives of invasive and coercive authority preoccupied Rise Roar Revolt and Avatar: The Way of Water. Lovers trapped with each-other in dangerous zones in Stars At Noon, Emily The Criminal, and Bones And All faced the toughest of possible choices, one partner eventually forced to, figuratively and in one case literally, consume the other in the name of survival. Black heroes used to fending off the surreal reflexes of the real world had little fear taking on more fantastical threats in Saloum, Nope, and Day Shift.
Macedonian-Australian director Goran Stolevski emerged with his debut, You Won’t Be Alone, filmed in his ancestral homeland and its language. Stolevski portrayed, in a hazily folk-historical setting, the odyssey of a young woman, raised in isolation and fated to be claimed by a gnarled witch and transformed into her skin-changing, blood-drinking kind, who nonetheless uses her gruesome talents to insinuate her way back into a village community and make human connections. Over the years she tries on different guises, male and female, young and mature, all the while taunted by her justifiably bitter and misanthropic “mother,” who was once burned at the stake. Stolevski’s ambition was notable, his film operating as a work of magic realism mixed with folk horror elements, using fantastical motifs to explore human perversity and gender fluidity. The overall design was similar in concept if not specifics to fellow Aussie director Rolf de Heer’s classic Bad Boy Bubby. You Won’t Be Alone was naggingly intriguing, but also badly hampered by bluntly mannered filmmaking far too imitative of other models, particularly Terrence Malick, and needed a lighter touch. Stolevski shot it in a constant handheld register replete with aggravating close-ups, so what ought to have been dreamy and mysterious was rendered far too literal throughout, working against some of his finer epiphanies of behaviour. Ana Lily Amirpour’s Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon had a similar basic proposition, likewise depicting a supernaturally gifted young woman roaming at large in the world for the first time with a blend of angry bewilderment and yearning, but did so with an entirely different, and ultimately more successful creative palette.
In what could be considered a matched pair with You Won’t Be Alone of mythopoeic meditations on humanity made by Aussies this year, George Miller returned to the big screen with the fantasy romance Three Thousand Years of Longing, an adaptation of a story by A.S. Byatt. Tilda Swinton, wielding an aggravating accent, played a middle-aged expert in storytelling traditions and interpretations who chances upon a glass jug in an Istanbul shop and releases a long-trapped Djinn. The Djinn, after settling down into the sturdy form of Idris Elba, begins narrating how he came to suffer such a fate. Like much of Byatt’s writing, the narrative was pitched as argument, between academic knowing and artistic ardour, intellect and passion, man and woman, with the Djinn’s narratives invoking a sweep of myth-history, great and doomed loves, and metaphorical import, but all faced down by the academic’s forewarned knowledge of how stories like theirs always play out. Miller applied some clever visual touches here and there, and indulged his penchant for bulbous odalisques, and yet the film as a whole felt strangely uninspired. The story never came close to effectively transferring from page to screen, finishing up a loose assemblage of not-terribly-interesting episodes that often looked like outtakes from Alex Proyas’ Gods of Egypt, taped together by the overarching narrative, which aimed for a note of autumnal companionship that was modestly affecting as the miraculous crumbled in the face of the prosaically modern, mostly thanks to Elba’s elegance as a performer: he alone had the power to make you believe in his wise and ageless Djinn.
With Emergency, Carey Williams followed in Jordan Peele’s footsteps in utilising a classic variety of genre film to explore fine gradations of Black American experience. Williams however bypassed Horror to instead tackle frantic ‘80s comedies like Adventures In Babysitting and Weekend At Bernie’s and blended them with a more urgent and serious imperative. Williams offered the adventure of two young Black pals, one nerdy and circumspect and bound for great things, the other a fun-seeking slacker with a streak of socially aware attitude, who find themselves, along with their Latino roomie, stuck with trying to find help for the young, doped-up, possibly dying white girl who turns up inexplicably in their dorm room, without chancing an uncomfortable, even deadly encounter with authority. Williams, with the help of great performances, managed for the most part to walk the line between jaunty shenanigans and something more pensive and biting. The official point about the way being Black intensifies the danger in certain circumstances was sustained, but also dared to venture into contradictory waters, with the heroes wreaking through their choices mounting dramatic hyperbole where the girl’s pursuing friends and the police were entirely justified in their fierce reactions. All ended fairly well but with lingering notes of trauma and regret, which might have been asking just a little too much of what preceded it.
Directing team Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, who scored a popular success with 2019’s class warfare horror movie Ready Or Not, applied their new-kids-on-the-block touch to a well-worn franchise with Scream, a next generation entry that brought back the classic trio of heroes and other familiar faces but then applied a notably ruthless touch to killing a lot of them off, and positing a new core series protagonist, played by Jenna Ortega, who answers murderous insanity with, well, murderous insanity. The directors turned in a slick and twisty episode spiked with jolts of newly nasty violence and some knowing jabs at precisely the soft reboot approach being applied to the film. The lack of Kevin Williamson’s wry sidelong social and genre commentary and Wes Craven’s dynamic staging, despite the newcomers’ competent mimicry, was cumulatively telling, however, as much of the series’ good-humour and humanity were bled out, along with at least one beloved hero. Whilst it seems to have done the trick of revitalising the franchise box office-wise, I’ll likely sit it out from now on.
Scott Derrickson’s The Black Phone also blended nostalgia and suspense. Set in the 1970s and deploying an anthropological eye not just for the pleasures of being a teen in the era but also its particular, folkloric dangers, The Black Phone depicted a town being terrorised by a serial killer snatching up young teens in his van and murdering them after holding them captive for a short time. The focus fell on a brother and sister, children of a flailing, abusive, grieving father, both of whom prove to share a talent for clairvoyance in different forms. When the boy is taken by the killer and held in a barren basement, his sister tries to use her gifts to track him down, whilst the boy communes with the ghosts of previous victims who push him to try various means of escape. The film generally stole from the best models (including Stephen King and The Silence of the Lambs) and sustained tension to the end. Extraneous elements however, like the kids’ father and the killer’s dork brother obsessed with the kidnappings, proved a real drag, and the period detail tended towards surface fetishism. Whilst the focus on methodical process as the key to survival was engaging, as the young hero assembled tools both physical and mental to defeat his foe, the denouement still felt like a bit of a cheat: we were meant to go “Ah!” when we saw how it all fitted together, and not think about what it really meant for hero’s supposed growth and rebirth as a badass. Ethan Hawke’s flamboyant performance as the creepily masked killer hovered just on the near side of shtick.
Jessica M. Thompson’s The Invitation cast Nathalie Emmanuel in her first major lead role as a young, broke, lonely New Yorker who, after losing her mother and desperate for family connection, tests her DNA and finds she’s connected with a blue-blooded English clan. Flown over the pond to meet them, she falls into flirtation with a criminally handsome and smooth lord of the manor who seems to hold peculiar status over her family and others. Signs begin amassing that something evil is lurking and that her new bae’s true identity is…well, if you don’t guess ten minutes in you’ll have to hand in your horror fan membership. Thompson offered a story with real potential, riffing on the Dracula mystique by combining it with a sceptical variation on Austenesque romance and contemporary cautionary tale that suggested a worse-case-scenario take on Meghan Markle’s journey, blended with shades of Get Out, Thirst, and The Wicker Man. The result, however, was painfully flat: the himbo Dracula was boring, the attempts to invoke feminist and racial angst too paint-by-numbers, the script cowardly in avoiding any truly dark temptation for the heroine, and the con-job romance overextended. The film threatened to become interesting once major reveals arrived at long last, as our heroine was confronted by the cruelty and weirdness of her potential new mate(s), but then pivoted to become a woke superhero origin story, essentially arguing that if you’re well-grounded in online rhetoric evil shalt never tempt thee.
Stunt performer turned director J.J. Perry helmed the Jamie Foxx vehicle Day Shift, a film with a simple but very likeable genre twist for a premise. Foxx played a middle-aged, down-on-his-luck professional separated from his wife and child and trying hard to walk the straight and narrow. With the corollary that his job, under the cover of being a pool cleaner, is actually that of vampire hunter, extremely skilled at overcoming his prey but with a habit of cutting corners that’s made him persona non grata in the small, covert circle of his trade. The film unfolded in a manner reminiscent of ‘80s B-movies, lampooning buddy cop flicks as Foxx was forced to work with Dave Franco’s wimpy bureaucrat. The story wasn’t always tight – Natasha Liu Bordizzo as an enticing neighbour with a secret suddenly became an important character in the film’s last third with minimal set-up, and as with The Invitation the film had confusingly cavalier attitude to dealing with the ramifications of becoming a vampire. Still it was a good lark all told, thanks to Perry’s excellent action directing and fun performances: any film that features Snoop Dog wielding a cowboy hat and a minigun can’t be all bad.
Daniel Espinosa’s Morbius offered yet another vampire variant, this one intended to perform the thankless task of wedging Jared Leto into a superhero paycheque gig, playing a character known as a canonical Spider-Man villain but pitched here as a tragic antihero. Leto played a sickly savant who seeks out the key to perpetual health only to infect himself with blood-drinking tendencies. Matt Smith was his plutocratic benefactor and fellow invalid who proves rather more eager to accept the taint of vampirism. Morbius again had potential. The storyline had echoes of the classical brand of Universal monster movies with their cursed protagonists, with Morbius forced bit by bit to give up his humanity to defend the few things he loves. Whilst Smith’s performance as the former cripple turned robust and eager monster provided flickers of life, the film as a whole was the most tepid variety of current big-budget sludge: released by Sony not long after the colossal success of Spider-Man: No Way Home, Morbius proved an instantly notorious example of lazy, witless franchise extension, executed in the blandest possible style of CGI-heavy and personality-free filmmaking. Leto’s listlessness in the lead didn’t help.
Anthropoid director Sean Ellis returned with The Cursed, a period-piece horror movie that bypassed vampires and went for a werewolf as its monster of choice, or at least an odd, skinny, hairless variation on the concept. Ellis intrigued initially with his glimpse of a surgeon digging a silver bullet out of a soldier killed in World War I, before flashing back a couple of decades to describe the roots of a bloody curse, when a cabal of landed gentry had a tribe of gypsies slaughtered over a land dispute, only for one of their sons to be transformed into a marauding monster to visit punishment on the locale. The Cursed certainly dangled some interesting ideas, operating as a more class and race-conscious variant on classic wolf man motifs and trying to bring an almost novelistic texture to the complex, intergenerational story. But Ellis’s mannered handling conspired to throttle tension and impact with heavy-handedness at every turn, the overtones of dark foreboding and pinched emotion and grating camerawork becoming annoyingly pretentious for what was in the end a pretty straight-laced genre story.
After a few years in the wilderness, once and future indie horror princeling Ti West suddenly roared back to life and attention with two movies in 2022 and with another to round off a trilogy in the offing. His first release was X, a tribute to the aesthetics of low-budget 1970s horror, particularly Tobe Hooper on a visual level, but with a story closer in spirit to oddities like Curtis Harrington’s retro camp studies and Charles B. Pierce’s backwoods bloodletters. West sent a small unit of would-be filmmakers and stars out to a remote farm, sometime in the mid-‘70s, to shoot a porn film, only to find they’ve become targets for the crazed and sleazy attentions of their elderly hosts, a crusty, devoted husband and his murderous, sexually deviant wife. West’s anthropological and cinephiliac obsessions dovetailed as he explored the confluence of transgressive impulses and art in the context of a mythologised era, and hinted at digging out the roots of the current reactionary spirit in the period’s jagged confrontation of liberated youth and jealous age. But for me the film failed to convince on several levels. The uncertain tone wavered between tongue-in-cheek and pathos. West was big on self-consciously gross vignettes but short on real tension and scares. He had Mia Goth play both the young and heedless and old and covetous versions of the star wannabe, playing the latter caked in make-up, a superficially clever touch that nonetheless robbed the film of its necessary evocation of maniacal fire guttering within an aged frame.
A few months later West released Pearl, a prequel to X again featuring Goth, this time playing the previous film’s killer as a young woman in 1918, the daughter of German immigrant farmers subsisting on the family farm in the midst of war and pandemic. Feeling trapped by a domineering and dour mother worried about anti-German sentiment and obliged to care for her paralysed father, and with her newlywed husband off fighting in France, Pearl becomes increasingly obsessed with becoming a dancer and escaping her lot. Only trouble is she’s also a budding psychopath who likes killing animals to take out her feelings, and as tensions build to a head blood starts to flow. Pearl arguably had a narrative that was a little too obvious, perhaps inevitably given that one already knows if you’ve seen X where things are heading: West reportedly threw the project together on a fit of inspiration and filmed it back-to-back with the other film. And yet Pearl proved not just far superior to X but perhaps the highpoint of 2022’s bountiful horror cinema, a weirder, uglier, more impressively and intimately cruel portrait that managed to subvert a certain style of making-of-a-monster story. West forced the audience to empathise with Pearl’s viewpoint even after making clear right off the bat she’s a fruitloop and that her embittered mother is trying to keep a lid on Pearl’s rising madness, and whilst Pearl’s aspirations and emotions are entirely ordinary, her ways of dealing with them are dreadful. West’s newly vivid sense of style found cunning ways to both invoke classic Hollywood products as extrapolations of Pearl’s role in the great American dream of self-invention, whilst forcibly mating them with a bleak genre story that turned the Psycho and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre influence back towards their Geinian roots, whilst also sideswiping The Wizard of Oz with grim sarcasm.
Jordan Peele, now thoroughly ensconced as a pop culture brand, made his third film with the enigmatically marketed Nope, which proved a combined homage to Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and mixed with plentiful, if nebulous, hints of a parable about racial erasure and media voraciousness at play. The heroes were OJ and Emerald, children of a horse rancher killed in a freakish incident, who try to obtain filmed proof that a huge, UFO-like thing is living near the ranch and consuming horses, whilst their neighbour, a more successful showman with a tragic background as a child actor, seems to be trying to bait the thing into becoming one of his attractions. Daniel Kaluuya was wasted as the rather dull hero, Keke Palmer more engaging as his would-be star sister, and Michael Wincott was the grizzled, famous cinematographer they hire to get a shot of the impossible. Peele proved again that’s he’s a real talent when it comes to setting up mystery and tension, building compelling early sequences with a sense of isolation and paranoia punctuated by the thing’s appearances, as well as a barely connected but suggestive flashback to a bloody, haunting event from the neighbour’s past. But Nope also confirmed some of Peele’s lacks: his hints of deeper meaning were eager to be noticed but weakly tethered to his monster movie plot, and his story and character threads felt underdeveloped. The film as a whole had the tenor of an each-way bet, trying at once to solidify Peel’s status as popular artist telling mass audience stories, and as a biting satirist with an outsider’s voice, but finding the two difficult if not impossible to reconcile.
Similarly preoccupied with characters desperately trying to capture filmed proof of the extraordinary, if in quite a different aesthetic mode, Something In The Dirt saw filmmaking duo Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson wearing many hats, including playing their main characters. These were a pair of alienated Los Angeles men, one gay, divorced, and a member of an apocalyptic church, the other an asexual bohemian and with a string of legal and mental problems in his past. This mismatched duo start working in partnership when they behold a mysterious phenomenon inhabiting their shabby apartment building and determine to document it, whilst chasing an array of clues about its nature down metastasising rabbit holes of esoterica. The mix of elements here was basically the same as Moorhead and Benson’s earlier, defining indie films like Resolution and The Endless, blending realistic character studies of shambolic individuals with mind-bending high conceptualism and a veneer of post-modern knowing that’s also ultimately a shaggy dog yarn. But it did manage to expand the filmmakers’ creative palette: the real subject of Something In The Dirt was the nature of creative collaboration, the untrustworthiness of mediated reality, and the way paranoid obsession tends to be refuge and torment simultaneously for many people, the relentless pull to investigate and research in an attempt to contain the world’s craziness. The film’s heroes were pulled together by a shared sense of wonder and ambition but finally, fatally divided by their divergent characters and worldviews. In this regard, Moorhead and Benson delivered a compelling human story that ended on a haunting note of lingering enigma.
Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling proved an unwitting topic of classically bitchy gossip regarding behind-the-scenes squabbles between director and cast, an ironic fate for a would-be feminist movie that cast a beady eye on hazy nostalgia for the alleged certainties of the 1950s via sci-fi allegory. Florence Pugh and Harry Styles played a couple living an apparently idyllic lifestyle as members of a community employed on a Manhattan Project-like secret enterprise sometime in the ‘50s and run along old-fashioned gender rules, only for Pugh to start suffering increasing certainty something’s wrong, and eventually learns she’s living in a simulated world created by a retrograde cult headed by Chris Pine’s bromide-spouting Svengali. The story had plenty of familiar elements, with nods to the likes of The Prisoner and The Matrix, as well as ironically owing as much to online erotic fiction derived from The Stepford Wives as the original film as Wilde engaged with the forbidden thrills of submission and delayed gratification, whilst playing it all as a heightened diary-of-a-mad-housewife story. Wilde confirmed she has a strong eye, backed up by Matthew Labatique’s gorgeous photography, and a good way with actors, particularly apparent in Styles’ surprisingly adroit and calculated turn. But Wilde’s attempt at drip-feeding a feeling of emergent unease exacerbated the way Katie Silberman’s script stretched out the game way too long and didn’t give wield that much surprise or satirical bite when it did finally give things away. By the time it did, and offered some intriguing complications to the seemingly prosaic metaphor at the story’s heart, the film had already outworn its welcome, and the plot resolutions proved clumsy.
Zach Cregger, a member of the comedy team The Whitest Kids U’ Know, made his directorial debut in a patent attempt to follow Jordan Peele down the rabbit hole as satirist turned horror maestro. The result, Barbarian, was a surprise hit that tried to mix sidelong social commentary with plain, old-fashioned suspense-mongering and freaky, gross-out thrills. Georgina Campbell was the young woman visiting Detroit for a job interview who finds her far-flung AirBnB double booked, and so must share it with Bill Skarsgard’s intense nice guy, with the pair soon confronted with signs they’re far from the only ones sharing the house. Justin Long was tossed into the mix mid-movie as the mystery house’s owner, a sitcom actor accused of rape who decides to sell the property to pay his legal bills, only to also be drawn into the grim tale. Barbarian started well, with its believably tense and provocative situation and introduction of dank, alarming yet also enticing enigma that bends the characters out of their rational minds, even if Skarsgard tried a little too hard to work his character’s ambivalence. Cregger evinced a strong sense of style. As it played out though, the story turned out to be extremely familiar stuff, with its lumbering monster crone offered as the by-product of generations of diseased abuse, with a weak last-minute stab at investing it with pathos but otherwise simply serving as a standard movie monster, with added attempts to encompass fashionable talking points barely connected to what’s actually going on. Cregger’s desire to keep his ultimate game vague resulted in some ostentatious storytelling shifts in focus and style that had superficial impact but felt forced, and would probably have worked better if deployed in a more classical fashion. By the end the film collapsed in a heap.
Neil Marshall’s The Lair had many of the same touchstones as other genre films of the year, with loud nods to John Carpenter and James Cameron, as well as the glorious old school of creature feature, the kind that sported monster costumes that don’t quite fit properly around the crotch. It also announced Marshall’s determination to get back to his roots circa Dog Soldiers and The Descent. His wife and screenwriting collaborator Charlotte Kirk starred as a badass pilot shot down over Afghanistan in 2017, who discovers an old Soviet bunker inhabited by grotesque chimeric beings. After barely escaping whilst the critters rip apart some hapless Taliban, she takes refuge at a US Rangers outpost, only to suffer siege by these tough and toothy blighters. The Lair lacked the cleverness and deftness of characterisation Marshall once imbued on Dog Soldiers, the acting from an unseasoned cast often broad and awkward, and the last act got a little too frenetic and indebted to Aliens for its own good. And yet, whilst less polished than the likes of Nope or Barbarian, ultimately I found it a more successful film, an enjoyable, pure-hearted tribute to, and example of, the B-movie ethos. That’s largely because Marshall’s craftsmanship and capacity for tackling monster movie thrills with authentic relish proved undimmed. The film also provided a curiously salutary revisit to the director’s penchant for political parable as explored in Centurion, as The Lair made overt nods to Zulu and the theme of empires fleeing inhospitable lands.
Colin Trevorrow’s return to helming the Jurassic Park franchise with Jurassic World: Dominion was a more straightforward special effects-driven monster movie than Nope, albeit one that also tried a little to shake up the material a little, with the dinosaurs now roaming the world at large, fuelling the rise of exploitative black markets. Heroes new and old were pitched in together to battle yet another nefarious plutocrat, this time played by Campbell Scott and supposed to be the same one who caused all the ruckus in the original film, when his attempts at genetically engineering market advantage result in swarms of mutant locusts wreaking havoc. Dominion had real problems, including some jagged editing that hinted at last-minute interference, and some extremely tired plotting, particularly in the downright perverse subplot involving young Maisie Lockwood and her girlboss genius mother-twin, a particularly egregious example of trying to reorientate narratives to be more female-centric in the silliest manner possible. The film was still better than generally painted: the united cast of old favourites and new fixtures interacted well, Trevorrow had fun giving them all a moment to shine, and the action sequences were strong, particularly the wild mid-film chase sequence in Malta.
Parker Finn’s Smile, the year’s biggest Horror hit, like Barbarian prioritised raw creepiness and menacing thrills staged with cinematic largesse over pretentions to deep commentary and parable, although it still built itself around a blatant metaphor for the insidious power of trauma. Sosie Bacon was the dedicated but vulnerable psychiatrist who, after seeing a panicky patient kill herself whilst wearing a hideous fixed grin, finds herself dogged by a malevolent trickster demon that makes clear it intends her destruction in the same way, and her attempts to escape the curse mean confronting the life-defining imprint of her mother’s suicide. Finn’s film was initially intriguing and gained much from Bacon’s impressive, likely star-making performance, even if she was pushed to inhabit extremes of neurosis with near-comical speed. As a whole though I found Smile didn’t add up to much, in part because Finn’s direction was so showy and spectacle-driven that it kept giving the game away, where the story needed a more brittle and deceptively calm setting. Interludes of showy gore and demonic manifestations were overdone, and by the time of the nasty bummer climax, the heroine’s pathos had been outmatched by genre shtick and bumper sticker psychology.
Scott Mann’s Fall exemplified several recent trends in attention-grabbing action-thrillers – just thrust one or two comely young women into a high-pressure survival situation, throw in some grief, trauma, or other just-add-water feels as an identification pretext, and away you go. In this instance, the heroines were two young devotees to the religion of extreme sports, but with one, Becky, turned apostate since her husband died in a rock climbing accident. The other girl, Shiloh, now a rising social media star, is determined to shake her pal out of her grieving torpor, and convinces Becky to join her in climbing a colossally tall, soon-to-be-demolished TV antenna tower in a desolate stretch of the American west, only to find themselves trapped atop it. In order to happen the film depended on the two women being astonishingly reckless and foolish, and the script took refuge in some now-cornball clichés, including a particularly silly narrative fake-out and shock reveal, and liberal pinching from Neil Marshall’s The Descent. Still, Fall remained engaging almost until the end, thanks to glimmerings of a nicely vicious lampoon on influencers spouting pop no-fear bromides, and it provided thrills aplenty, as a calling card for Mann as a director capable of sustaining what was essentially a chamber piece with a sweat-inducing sense of danger.
Baltasar Kormakur’s Beast was almost the same movie, albeit with a different subgenre frame. This time the protagonist was Nate Samuels (Idris Elba) a recently widowed doctor on a visit to his late wife’s home village out in the South African veldt whilst trying to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughters. Attacked by a lion that’s been driven to homicidal and indiscriminating fury by poachers, and left stranded in a rugged stretch of a remote national parkland, Nate was obliged to protect his daughters and try to save his wife’s childhood friend and game warden Martin (Sharlto Copley) from both the murderous animal and the well-armed poachers. The script was, again, just a little too basic and eager to deploy its pretexts before getting down to business, and the lion itself – animated with surprisingly convincing CGI – was presented at some points as an improbably cunning and irresistible force and at others as something a bit more realistic. The strength of the lead actors and Kormakur’s staging, complete with constantly prowling, paranoid camerawork, made it a decent, entertaining survival thriller. Also nice to see Elba playing an everyman type of hero, albeit one who when push comes to shove can still wrestle a lion.
Sam Walker’s The Seed provided an intersection for at least three of this year’s movie strands, blending satire on pushy queen-bee influencer culture, portraits of young women suffering millennial ennui, and chamber-piece sci-fi-horror. Walker depicted three friends who retreat to a house in the California desert for one girl’s self-promoting fashion shoot, with tensions manifesting in their diverging outlooks even before a meteor shower deposits a disgusting, turtle-like alien life-form in the yard. The creature soon begins asserting an insidious sway over two of the women, infesting their bodies with alien spawn, leaving the third to face some terrible choices. The Seed’s low budget was telling in places, the acting a bit forced, the script dotted with unanswered questions, and the regulation final girl a bit pallid. Still, Walker managed to do quite a bit with not much, applying flecks of very dark humour to visions of icky assimilation and body horror touched with aspects of kinky sexuality, as the alien played at becoming a mind-and-body-melting extra-terrestrial Hugh Hefner.
Speaking of body horror, the style’s progenitor David Cronenberg re-emerged with Crimes of the Future, a film that recycled the title of his 1970 short film attached to quite a different story. This variant was set in an epoch where both physical pain and infection have vanished from the human experience, whilst some people suffer bewildering growth of seemingly extraneous organs, and so self-mutilation is the new art. Cronenberg offered a sardonic self-portrait via Viggo Mortensen playing Saul Tenser, who wows the art scene by making spectacles of getting his aberrant organs removed. The film didn’t so much have a story as recount Saul’s interactions with various scenesters, bureaucrats, militants, and cultists, eventually confronting the possibility that the human race is evolving to live off its own plastic waste. Cronenberg certainly hasn’t mellowed when it comes to drumming up intriguing ideas or ugly-beautiful images, but like quite a few of his late career works it really just kind of sat there on a dramatic level, filled with elements that went nowhere and dotted with clumsily blunt violence, both a portrait and example of an intellectual-artist’s tendency to hide from emotional intensity by taking refuge in conceptualism.
Mark Mylod’s The Menu also took on the uneasy relationship of artist and audience and laced it with flashes of outright horror and blackly comic meditation on one of the year’s most popular themes, in brutally accosting the rich and influential. Ralph Fiennes was Chef Slowik, a titanic figure of the culinary world who invites a select coterie of smug-uglies to his cutting-edge restaurant on an island and treats them to the products of his cult-like operation, only to slowly unveil an intention to kill everyone by the night’s end in a banquet of truth and death. Anya Taylor-Joy was the humble escort accompanying one guest, who finds herself doomed along with everyone else unless she can find the chef’s one weak spot. The Menu was engaging on a baseline thriller level although it spurned believability in favour of a kind of nightmare logic that might have been aiming for the Buñuelian but came closer to Grand Guignol camp like Theatre of Blood (1972). The Menu was packed with concerns of potential, particularly in exploiting the curious grip celebrity chefs have on the contemporary bourgeois mind, testing the eternal tension between creative figure, critic, and consumer, indicting the naked classism often lurking behind foodie culture, and considering the mix of sadism and masochism often required by success on the highest level. Like too many films to tread such territory this year, however, the satire (in a script by to two former The Onion scribes) was tinny and shallow, sacrificing any nuance or clash of voices to better have its basic, populist thesis, and indulging its elegantly deranged tormentor-avenger to a disturbing degree. The programmatic nature of the story meant no real surprises were in store, which meant that once the punchline arrived, The Menu added up to nothing more than a sick joke.
Graham Moore’s The Outfit was another thriller that sought to make minimalist virtues out of production lacks, if in a more intimate and restrained manner. Filmed on a single set, The Outfit’s title was a pun hinting at two aspects of the story, which unfolds entirely within a Chicago bespoke tailoring shop in the 1950s, run by an aging, prudent-seeming English immigrant, Burling (Mark Rylance) with the help of a young protégé (Zoey Deutch). Burling is connected with a big-time gangster who uses his shop as a message drop as well as a source of good clothes. Deutch is playing dangerous games, a gang war seems about to break out, the modest tailor – sorry; cutter – is hiding his own motives, and things come to a head when the gang lord’s son brings a wounded pal there to hide out, forcing secret loyalties to emerge. The Outfit certainly reiterated how a filmmaker can tell a good, gripping story with a couple of rooms and some good actors. As a whole though I found the film a bit facetious, with twists and confrontations piling up to a rather absurd degree, which combined with the cramped setting left it all seeming just that little bit too theatrical and artificial, if still diverting.
Michael Bay’s Ambulance also revolved around the basic concept of dangerous criminals crammed into a tight locale, if articulated in the exact opposite manner. Bay applied all his formidable technical skill to his remake of a Danish film, which saw two brothers, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen and Jake Gyllenhaal, both raised by a criminal father, staging a bank robbery in downtown LA with very different motives in mind. Their getaway proves disastrous and the duo finish up holding two ambulance medics hostage in their vehicle and careening around LA at speed, looking for any chance to slip the net. The film wedded fraternal melodrama as old as the movies themselves with frantic, absurdist humour and dashing action staging, with Bay making plentiful use of swooping drone shots in the midst of staged chaos. Ambulance saw Bay trying to stay on the cutting edge of Hollywood tech and style whilst also growing just a little out of his perma-‘90s dudebro bliss zone, and Gyllenhaal and Eíza Gonzalez as one of the paramedics gave smart performances. Trouble was, Bay kept spoiling the impact of the dynamic camerawork with his usual incessant and careless cutting, and the overheated dramatics became more exhausting than compelling by the climax.
Special effects maestro Phil Tippet emerged from his back shed with a movie project over thirty years in the making – the stop-motion epic Mad God. This labour of love was a frequently grotesque and surreal vision of a post-apocalyptic future landscape, inhabited by labouring homunculi, misshapen monsters, mad doctors, and warring magicians. As a technical achievement it was practically without equal, and as an aesthetic one undeniably powerful, its rank, ugly, often despairing mood quite palpable but leavened ever so slightly by humour so dark it might count as a black hole. How much it worked however depended on tolerance for the constant stream of hyperbolic violence and sadism, and the opaqueness of its suggested parable, which seemed to want to say something about the cycles of war and environmental degradation but was ultimately more enthralled by its own whacko stream of invention. At its best it was genuinely, peculiarly transfixing as a portrait of a total state of lunacy; at its least it resembled the drawings a particularly talented, morbidly creative teenager might sketch inside their math book cover, taped together in a string. Cult status certainly awaits.
10 Cloverfield Lane director Dan Trachtenberg made a bold grasp at one of the seemingly poisoned chalices of current franchise cinema, expanding the Predator mythos with Prey. Trachetenberg offered a wisely bold twist in trying to revive the series by shifting to a period setting and deploying a what-if scenario. Prey depicted a young Comanche woman (Amber Midthunder) in the early 1700s who, determined to become one of her tribe’s hunters, ventures out alone into the forest where she encounters both boorish French trappers and something far more dangerous and mysterious. This set-up allowed Trachtenberg to get back to basics in again telling the story of one wily hero who eventually has to take down the alien with smarts and guts, with a new, added gloss of trendy politics with girl power and indigenous perspective exalted. The film was superficially well-executed, with Trachtenberg’s dynamic staging and minimalist special effects matched to determination to tell a familiar story well and patiently, even if failed to offer a convincing-feeling depiction of the Comanche lifestyle, with Midthunder’s performance too calculated as an easily assimilated emblem for millennials.
Chloe Okuno’s Watcher cast Maika Monroe as the flailing former actress wife of a young businessman assigned to work in his company’s Bucharest office. Left alone in their sleek, barren apartment during the day and often into the night, and with dread stories of a serial killer at large and few people she can communicate with, she becomes convinced a man in the opposite building is watching her with evil intent, but can’t convince anyone her concerns are urgent. The basic story here was well-worn, very similar for instance to John Carpenter’s Someone’s Watching Me!, but sought to highlight an implicit feminist theme about being listened to and believed. In those terms Watcher was a little thin, as the script never quite engaged with its characters beyond the obvious – the husband for instance was a rhetorical stick figure – and Burn Gorman was a little too obviously if effectively cast as the inscrutable onlooker. Okuno compensated with a slowly, steadily woven sense of dread and alienation, with a strong feel for the location. Monroe portrayed the heroine struggling to climb out a mire of weak-willed isolation with real class, and built to a properly agonising climax.
Steven Soderbergh’s Kimi was a film with similar precepts to Watcher, likewise depicting a young woman – Zoë Kravitz this time – living an isolated life in a to-die-for apartment and with at least one man spying on her. This time, however, the heroine’s solitude was by choice: stricken with agoraphobia after being molested in her last job, she now works remotely for a rising tech firm, analysing recordings of users of their Alexa-like AI system. When she hears what sounds awfully like a murder being committed, she begins digging to find the truth of it, only to find the trail leading to her employer. Soon she faces not just corporate obfuscation but Orwellian surveillance and hired killers on her tail. But they don’t reckon with either her grit orher intimate knowledge of the tech they propose to corner her with. Following No Sudden Move, one of his most annoying movies, with Kimi, one of his best, reiterated that Soderbergh is by far and away at his best in pulp entertainer mode, trying to invisibly blend thrills with strong elements of social critique. The result was glib in places and cried out for more interest in its perverse marginalia, like the lonely peeping tom who proves to be a nice guy but is only used as a kind of deus ex machina, which some of the film’s influences like Hitchcock and De Palma would have wrung for ripe humanity, as indeed the Soderbergh who once made Sex, Lies and Videotape might have done. That said, Soderbergh worked his most chicly efficient filmmaking to date. Kravitz, as the blowsy, damaged, but wily and quietly badass heroine, gave a strong performance which when viewed as a companion piece to her Catwoman in The Batman felt close to defining a contemporary archetype.
Andrew Gaynord’s All My Friends Hate Me applied a mordant, unpredictable tenor to a study in social and psychological tension by playing it out as a blend of black comedy and folk horror creepiness. Gaynor depicted a former party animal reunited with his posher pals from university over the course of a weekend bash to celebrate his birthday and recent engagement, only to find himself feeling increasingly unmoored and paranoid when he just can’t recapture the old wild spirit. To the extent that the movie eventually proved an elaborate miscue of style it couldn’t escape a cumulative feeling of being excessively arch, and it ultimately shied away from the intriguing depths of character and consequence it wanted to evoke, leaving it to some extent as merely a feature-length variation on a particular brand of very British comedy-of-humiliation more often seen on TV. It was nonetheless clever in keeping the exact truth of what’s going on hazy and charged with an off-kilter blend of dread and bitter humour, until the climactic revelations that proved in essence to be another shaggy dog story, but also dared ask a genuinely needling question: what if you’re the worst person you know?
Swiss Army Man auteurs Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert returned with their own particular, more frenetic brand of metaphor-heavy, reality-twisting, post-genre mischief applied to what was actually a minor-key character portrait, exhibited in their art-house hit Everything Everywhere All At Once. Kwan and Scheinert’s film was the tale of a middle-aged Chinese-American Laundromat owner who, faced with multiple personal and business crises being brought to a head by an ornery IRS agent, finds herself plunged into a multiverse-spanning quest connecting her with myriad versions of herself spanning many dimensions in trying to head off apocalypse caused by her disaffected daughter’s embrace of nihilism. As with their precursor film, Kwan and Scheinert tried to present a metaphor for life through the prism of fantasy gimmicks, wu xia tropes, and magic-realist glee, and for a while, at least, the film was a giddy romp. The excellence of the cast, including Michelle Yeoh, Jamie Lee Curtis, James Hong, and a surprisingly, wonderfully renascent Jonathan Ke Huy Quan, also helped. But the film dragged out every conceit and set-piece to a ridiculous extent, and fell victim ultimately to an increasingly tedious blend of hipster smart-assery and shallow feel-good messaging, trying ultimately to use its po-mo, multi-culti posturing to give a new gloss to well-worn indie film tropes.
Lei Qiao’s The Hidden Fox was an actual, proper wu xia flick that took plain inspiration from both Zhang Yimou’s Shadow, in imitating its smoky-textured and desaturated visuals applied to dazzling, acrobatic fight scenes, and Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, with its cast of colourful villains known as the Eight Evils. This gang are introduced in the employ of a corrupt government official seeking a legendary treasure, engineering a deadly duel between two heroes and massacring a village all to clear their way. Ten years later, they’re put on the path to the treasure again and dispatched to a remote, snowbound locale, only to find someone in their midst isn’t who they say they are. The Hidden Fox had some problems that have beset recent wu xia, particularly overripe performances and a script that only engaged its characters in the sketchiest terms at first and piled on narrative gimmicks in spite of not really being that complicated. Qiao’s fearsome action scenes and great photography made up a lot of ground: this might well have been the year’s best-looking film alongside Avatar: The Way of Water at much less cost, and as it barrelled towards a climax Qiao worked up some of the operatic emotional force the genre commands so easily at its best.
Latter-day Master of Disaster Roland Emmerich tried damn hard to pretend it’s still 1998 with Moonfall, a throwback to his classical brand of big, dumb special effects extravaganzas, albeit this time with a big, dumb sci-fi idea to justify it, proposing that the moon is a gigantic, encrusted alien mechanism that one provoked to action begins causing havoc on Earth and requires some affordable, available movie stars to save the day. Said movie stars included Patrick Wilson as the disgraced astronaut getting his shot at redemption and payback and Halle Berry as his once-and-future co-pilot, backed up by John Bradley, bringing his patented porky-plucky nerd hero into a contemporary setting. The film didn’t just demand turning your brain off but pulling it out of your skull and placing it in a pickling jar, and Emmerich’s touch just hasn’t been the same since he stopped working with Dean Devlin, his movies afflicted by a sterile aesthetic designed to be redubbed with ease for foreign markets. Fair’s fair though – it had just enough headlong, pulp magazine energy and absurd spectacle, delivered with Emmerich’s trademark graphic fluidity, to make me want to play along, particularly as this kind of movie’s been sidelined so long by superhero stories.
It’s long felt possible that the classic high-powered, jingoistic Hollywood action-adventure movie from the ‘80s and ‘90s, still beloved by boys of all ages and from all places but now stuffed away in Tinseltown’s locker in vague embarrassment in favour of superheroes and high-concept IP farming, might find new life outside of the US, much as the Western once did. Indeed, some movies out of Scandinavia in the past few years have already tried it. Australian pulp author Matthew Reilly offered his take, with his directorial debut Interceptor. Reilly cast Elsa Pataky, aka Mrs Chris Hemsworth, as a dauntless but ostracised soldier assigned to a floating command centre for the US’s missile defence system, who finds herself fighting to hold off a glib megalomaniac’s efforts to break in and disable the system, leaving the US vulnerable to nuclear annihilation. Kickboxing, gunplay, and corny CGI aplenty ensue. Reilly delivered a cheerfully cheesy, low-budget attempt to approximate that old school blockbuster vibe, complete with lots of Aussies doing dodgy American accents and a heroine whose Spanish lilt despite being the daughter of a respected US soldier is explained in a passage of ADR. The concoction was flimsy but delivered where it counted, and Pataky’s authentic physicality was utilised brilliantly. Reilly also wove in stabs at hot-button social commentary, including the heroine’s history with sexual harassment and the villain’s desire to cleanse his nation of its fractiousness, that were at once goofy and oddly substantial. Hemsworth made a funny cameo as a dopey salesman cheering on the heroine.
Hemsworth meanwhile returned to playing his most beloved character for Thor: Love and Thunder, a second helping of Taika Waititi’s distinctive take on the Norse god turned Marvel superhero. This time Thor, totally ripped once more and playing the zany wildcard in space adventures with the Guardians of the Galaxy, was suddenly drawn back to Earth and forced to confront his ex, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who’s terminally ill with cancer but has also been reborn as a new, female Thor. Together they battle Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale), whose sobriquet says it all. Where Waititi’s previous Thor: Ragnarok succeeded in applying self-satirising humour and an ‘80s cartoon aesthetic to fantasy and space opera tropes, Love and Thunder offered a darker, potentially very rich story contending with tragedy and revenge, but also threw comedy at it incessantly, as if scared of getting too heavy for the eight-year-olds with plastic Mjolnirs in the theatres. Waititi waded through his own sticky melange of childish fervour and hipster cynicism, offering up such try-hard delights as Russell Crowe as a hard-partying, plummy-accented Zeus and some screaming, cosmos-traversing magic goats. Waititi’s occasionally striking visuals were foiled and the excellent cast wasted.
Sam Raimi, who helped birth the superhero craze with his first Spider-Man twenty years ago, returned to the genre to helm the MCU entry Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness. This one saw Benedict Cumberbatch’s mystic master drawn into a dimension-hopping adventure when he encounters America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a girl gifted with the capacity to leap between realities. America is being pursued through time and space by a mysterious enemy seeking to control her powers, a foe Strange learns soon enough is all too familiar and might well be unstoppable: Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, turned maniacal and broody after losing her beloved Vision. Raimi got away with surprisingly strong doses of his mischievous humour and invention as well as oddball, morbid imagery, which lacked only, in wielding the full force of Disney-Marvel’s special effects teams, the handmade charm of his early films. Raimi was also willing to countenance a once-heroic character’s downfall with a modicum of seriousness, and sequences like a mystic battle fought with musical notes had just the right crazy energy. That said, a mid-film pause to exploit the dimensional shift for some franchise blurring and nostalgia-baiting just got in the way, and the storyline was in such a rush it failed to make all its hero-journey beats land properly.
Meanwhile, another venerable fantasy franchise curled up like a dead spider, with David Yates’ Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore. The third entry in this prequel series saw magizoologist Newt Scamander, his brother Theseus, and sundry pals trying to prevent archvillain Grindelwald from getting himself elected leader of the wizarding world through machinations involving a magical version of a groundhog. Given the lumpiness and lack of focus of the previous two entries, The Secrets of Dumbledore tried to turn things around by pairing screenwriter J.K. Rowling with Harry Potter adaptor Steve Kloves. But this one proved just as awkward, in trying at once to provide a potential capper for a series that was supposed to go much longer whilst leaving the door open for continuation. This meant major storylines were rushed and then given cursory climaxes, and largely displaced by a core plot that tried to articulate a strained commentary on current politics, which might have hit differently if Rowling’s big mouth hadn’t dug her so deep a hole of late. Eddie Redmayne’s Newt had become a bore and Katherine Waterstone’s Tina was largely missing in action, which is a problem when they’re the core heroes of the enterprise, whilst Callum Turner’s nominally more stolid and traditional Theseus iroically emerged as more engaging.
After the calamity that was their previous collaboration, the only place for Jaume Collet-Serra and Dwayne Johnson to go was up, and the returned this year with Black Adam, revolving around one of the more antiheroic figures in the DC comics pantheon. Johnson was the title figure, a magically endowed ancient superwarrior with a grimly wrathful streak revived in the present day to protect his homeland of Kahndaq from an army of slimy mercenaries that’s taken it over for plundering. He’s soon pulled into conflict with a team of more traditionally righteous superheroes called the Justice Society, and all eventually are obliged to battle a descendant of Adam’s ancient foe. Black Adam actually started pretty well with and wielded a decent streak of dark humour, whilst Collet-Serra’s eye really let rip on some spectacular action sequences, particularly with Adam’s initial emergence, set to “Paint It Black.” I also liked the casual approach to introducing the Justice Society, a gang comprised of relatively obscure DC heroes, and setting them and Adam at odds in a story that did actually manage to approximate some of the random craziness of classic comic books. The problem was the film smacked of Warner Bros.’ uncertainty in going for wall-to-wall action in a movie that finally went on way too long.
I could make many of the same comments about Ryan Coogler’s over-everything Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, the inevitable sequel to his zeitgeist-defining 2018 hit. Wakanda Forever sported in Namor a very similar figure to Black Adam, as another formidable antihero defending his nation. In Namor’s case the realm he sought to protect was the aquatic city of Talokan, determined to remain unmolested by a world hungry for Vibranium resources which until now Wakanda seemed to have the monopoly on. With King T’Challa dead from sudden illness and his young sister Shuri forced to step into his shoes, the two nations finished up warring for contrived reasons. Wakanda Forever was certainly a profound mess, jerkily paced and far too long, telling a story that scarcely made sense and with an array of MCU make-work shoehorned in, including introducing the absurd teenage genius Riri Williams, as well as dealing with the obvious and critical damage done to its prospects and narrative clarity by Chadwick Boseman’s death. Attempts at extending the first film’s political edge were even more clumsy and self-contradicting. Somehow though, I found it an intermittently likeable film, particularly in giving Leticia Wright’s Shuri space to evolve as a grief-stricken and angry new hero, backed up with strong performances by a battery of major actresses. Coogler and his megabudget production wielded some amusingly lush visuals depicting the two quasi-tribalistic superpowers going to war: Coogler confirmed at last that he does have an interesting eye, even when it’s at the mercy of CGI slathering and dark digifilm textures.
Simon Kinberg, back to deliver more mediocrity after his X-Men movie, directed The 355, a thrill-free thriller about an array of badass female security agents chasing down a MacGuffin and forced to work together despite their rivalries when caught up in a melange of double-crosses and conspiracies. The film brought together a marvellous array of actresses, headlined by Jessica Chastain again trying to get her action mojo working, and backed up by Diane Kruger, Penelope Cruz, Lupita Nyong’o and more. Despite such an array of talent wielding years of accumulated affection, The 355 finished up such a derivative affair, replete with make-work plotting and lumbering action, that I didn’t finish watching it. Anthony and Joe Russo’s hugely expensive streaming epic The Gray Man was slightly better but basically the same cookie-cutter product, this time based on a popular series of airport novels, casting Ryan Gosling to do variation #3.12 on his stoneface-with-slightly-wry-tweaks act whilst playing a criminal refashioned into an omnicompetent assassin, who goes to war with a CIA cabal to save the daughter of his mentor. The film had muscular production values thanks to its absurd budget and sported an entertaining turn from Chris Evans as the smarmy villain, but it was little more than an accumulation of genre clichés and algorithm-based keywords, with a dingy, flavourless look that managed to make every globetrotting location look the same, and no idea how to fit its story and character elements together. If this is what the future of cinema is, I feel deeply depressed.
Just as depressing was Ruben Fleischer’s Uncharted, adapted from the much-loved video game about roguish adventurer Nathan Drake, with Tom Holland playing Drake in a nominal origin story, as the barista orphan falls in with a roguish mentor played by Mark Wahlberg in premium smarm mode and sets out to find a long-lost treasure, competing with various roguish competitors and roguish quasi-love interests. Uncharted pilfered freely from a vast array of classic adventure stories and movies and completely drained them of all hints of life, sex, blood, danger, and excitement, substituting soulless digital photography gloss, boring and annoying heroes, and a ridiculous villain. Holland, Wahlberg, and Antonio Banderas delivered shameless in-it-for-the-money performances. The finale had a potentially entertaining if ridiculous conceit as heroes and villains battled it out on Spanish galleons dangling from helicopters, but even that finished up a whole lot of nothing.
Aaron and Adam Nee’s The Lost City looked almost exactly the same as Uncharted, with its phony-looking digi-jungles, although it aimed for quite a different spin for its pilfered tropes. The Nees stole the basic proposal of Romancing The Stone – romantic novelist gets thrust into a real adventure – whilst giving it a slight makeover. This time the novelist was Sandra Bullock’s successful but self-deprecating scholar turned hugely popular trash writer. The love interest was a likeably dopey male model who provides the looks for the hero on her book covers and has a secret crush on the author, played with winning fortitude by Channing Tatum. The latter chases the former when she’s kidnapped by a playboy villain (Daniel Radcliffe, amusingly cast but uninspired), to tap her authentic knowledge about an ancient treasure. At least The Lost City proved a mildly spry and painless take on recycled ideas: too much of its humour was that brand of semi-improv yammering that’s everywhere these days, but Brad Pitt was great in a cameo as a he-man adventurer hired by Tatum to save the day only to casually die, and Bullock and Tatum had just enough chemistry to make the rest of it an okay time-waster.
Tom Gormican’s The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent tried a brand of meta storytelling that’s become increasingly popular of late. Nicolas Cage played Nicolas Cage, or rather a version of the popular impression of his career as an earnest but livewire talent cursed with poor judgement, who likes arguing with another, even more caricatured version of that persona that sometimes appears to him, one who likes howling out weird line readings. ‘Cage’, facing career downturn and problems relating with his ex-wife and teenage daughter, wearily accepts an offer to collaborate on a project with an amateur but very wealthy screenwriter, played by Pedro Pascal, who’s a huge fan. To both men’s surprise they become great friends, but Cage is soon warned by some CIA agents that his new pal is an arms dealer involved in a recent, high-profile kidnapping, and is asked to spy on him. The script’s pitch wasn’t entirely original in its ironic juxtaposition of humdrum lifestyle jokes and mutually-boosting buddy shtick against outsized melodrama and genre film canards. Cage however had a high old time simultaneously exalting and mocking his screen persona, and the plot, as well as delivering a suitably over-the-top approximation of buddy comedy shading into absurd action flick, had some fun with the idea of an actor using those skill as another weapon in the arsenal.
Tom George’s See How They Run also applied a comic and aggressively metafictional approach to a thriller blueprint, splitting the difference between honouring and burlesquing one of the most famous whodunits ever penned, Agatha Christie’s never-ending play The Mousetrap. George’s film had a potentially fun and clever gambit, setting a murder mystery backstage of the play when it was still a relatively fresh hit, and roping in some of its real-life stars including Richard Attenborough, Sheila Sim, and Christie herself, whilst also presenting a smart-aleck spin on the play’s plot. Adrien Brody was the jerk Hollywood director murdered by persons unknown, Sam Rockwell the sleepy, depressed, suggestively named investigating cop Inspector Stoppard, and Saoirse Ronan his bright and eager young assistant. George applied a lot of colourfully stylised jokiness derived rather too blatantly from the likes of Wes Anderson, and one late touch had real potential, as Shirley Henderson was cast a frayed and batty Christie who tries to intervene in a stand-off by clumsily applying her literary art to life. The script otherwise had an awful paucity of good jokes or substantive characters it took seriously enough to lend the larkishness a fulcrum, and failed to gain much momentum from the disparity of fact and fiction because it had no feel at all for reality, so the whole thing only added up to a superficially energetic pastiche.
Munich: The Edge of War was based on a novel by Robert Harris exactly the same as every other Robert Harris novel, with the same basic plot applied to varying historical backdrops. This one unfolded against the 1938 Munich Conference, casting Jeremy Irons as Neville Chamberlain and George Mackay as a young aide who tries to act as mediator between the Prime Minister and a German friend who aims to blow the whistle on Hitler’s conquering intentions. The film was helmed by German director Christian Schwochow, which raised the possibility of a new perspective on this kind of gathering storm tale. It didn’t stop the results from being insipid as a thriller and distracted as a portrait of a much-mythologised historical pivot, punctuated by such obvious touches as casting August Diehl yet again as a nasty Nazi. The movie was only made vaguely memorable by Irons’ crafty, convincing performance as Chamberlain, trying to apply all his diplomatic wiliness to preventing war with earnest motives but also far out of his depth in dealing with authentic evil.
Greg Mottola’s Confess, Fletch revived the wily journalist, alias-happy investigator, and all-round wiseass created by Gregory McDonald and played in two movies in the ‘80s by Chevy Chase. Jon Hamm was an inspired choice for the role, playing a Fletch who’s quit journalism and, whilst living in Rome, gets involved with a Count’s daughter. He returns to the US to help unravel the theft of some of her family’s art collection, only to find himself accused of a murder. Attempts to revisit the appeal of cultish literary antiheroes can sometimes go wrong – remember Mortdecai? – but Mottola was judicious in updating the material and applied a smart, snappy sense of style. Almost to a fault: the comedy didn’t have much time to breathe as it was so determined to speed from one wisecrack and quirky vignette to the next, which meant the film almost outwore its welcome at just over an hour and a half. Still, it was for most of that length an elegant, playful, old-fashioned entertainment, with a script peppered with genuinely funny lines, and a pretty good mystery in an extended lampoon of Chandleresque thrillers.
Kenneth Branagh’s Death On The Nile finally came out early in the year, just a few weeks in fact after his Oscar-nominated Belfast, after being incessantly delayed by COVID and controversies involving several of its stars. Playing Hercule Poirot again, Branagh was bolder this time around in suborning the ritual form of the whodunit to his own fascination with formative psychology and cine-theatrical staging, as he tackled one of Agatha Christie’s most famous stories, with murder and skulduggery unfolding mostly on a paddle steamer working its way up the Nile. Branagh painted Poirot more overtly this time as a damaged misfit posing as suave force of justice, and surrounded him with versions of Agatha Christie’s characters tweaked to emphasise hidden passions and expose new forces, cultural and carnal, blending to push aside the posh Englishness Christie’s writings mythologised. Gal Gadot was ineffectual as the key victim, but Emma Mackey sizzled as her randy, vengeful sister, and Branagh’s freewheeling direction ticked off influences as diverse as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and Bollywood epics. The last scene in particular struck a truly odd and affecting note, and the film, for all its wayward impulses, emerged deeply stamped with Branagh’s personality.
Rian Johnson’s more impudent take on the set-in-stone whodunit template Knives Out proved so popular in 2019 that this year he returned with a follow-up, Glass Onion, this time sending Daniel Craig’s sartorial detective genius Benoit Blanc to a Greek island owned by Edward Norton’s obscenely rich and tasteless tech mogul and his coterie of obeisant frenemies, gathered nominally for fun and frivolity, only to find murder and mayhem ensuing. This time around Johnson reiterated most of the core concepts from the first film in a more inflated and self-conscious manner, including offering a new raft of satirical caricatures seeking to skewer obnoxious species in the contemporary landscape of fame and wealth. Whilst Craig’s Blanc remained an inspired characterisation and held the film together when on screen, and Johnson’s filmmaking has become slick in the extreme, the second helping was far, far less satisfying, and indeed indicative of Johnson’s worst instincts. Johnson’s new mystery, which tried to build a key joke around things being less complicated than anyone wants them to be, still crammed proceedings with busy-work to provide an illusion of complexity, whilst the satire was one-note, and overall the incessant “fun” choked off any actual fun, any chance to enjoy the actors and let the characters and ideas flourish.
It’s easy to forget given his perpetually looming pop culture status that Batman is another beloved detective hero born just a few years after Poirot. The character made yet another retooled return in Matt Reeves’ The Batman, a film that pushed certain tendencies for the character and his cinematic portrayals to a limit, making him the hero of a long, moody, ‘80s-style neo-noir film. Reeves avoided offering yet another origin recapitulation, and instead portrayed the Dark Knight fairly early in his crimefighting campaign, contending with both Gotham City’s gang lords and the vicious, agenda-driven vigilante calling himself The Riddler, whilst getting involved with thief and demimondaine Selina Kyle, a rival and helpmate in his assault on the underworld with a secret project of her own. I liked The Batman quite a bit: Reeves applied a careful blend of stylisation and realism to a solid, well-told story, creating a slightly cyberpunk Gotham, and his filmmaking was elegant. Robert Pattinson was surprisingly, smartly low-key as a Bruce Wayne who barely has an identity beyond the nightfaring guise he’s constructed for himself, and Kravitz had a sly intensity as a Catwoman with a very personal thirst for justice. Only the overbusy script and occasionally ponderous length got in the way of the film’s total success.
As well as contributing one of his best scores for The Batman, Michael Giacchino also emerged as a director of potential when he helmed a Marvel by-product, the odd little amuse-bouche Werewolf By Night, based on one of the imprimatur’s more cultish and grown-up properties. Werewolf By Night mimicked classic Universal-style Horror movies in form and look, particularly Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat, as it depicted a gang of notorious monster hunters converging at a mansion to participate in a monster hunt to prove themselves worthy inheritors of a magical object called the Bloodstone. Laura Donnelly was the spunky black sheep daughter of the Bloodstone’s old master and namesake, Gael Garcia Bernal the guarded nice guy with a feral secret, and Harriet Sansom Harris had a high old time as Donnelly’s fearsome, fanatical mother-in-law. Giacchino proved himself competent and well-steeped in the mystique of the kind of classic fare he ape, even if the black-and-white photography wasn’t terribly well-attuned to the medium. It’s also a pity the script didn’t learn more lessons from the old B-movie models with their ability to sharply sketch characters in a few minutes, where Werewolf By Night felt like a long prologue for a longer movie that doesn’t yet exist. Still, taken within its self-prescribed limits it was fun.
Joseph Kosinski’s Top Gun: Maverick, which finally hit screens after a long COVID delay, was always going to be a hit, but the degree to which it proved not just the year’s biggest success but an all-time blockbuster took everyone by surprise, casually turning many assumptions of current mainstream cinema on their head. Kosinski anointed Tom Cruise, returning to his career-making role as ace pilot Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell, as a logical extension of his fantasy figure status, undimmed by age or compromise, and as the last true movie star. He was thrust into a storyline just about as old as Hollywood itself: the aging Maverick, almost out of options despite being a glory-crusted hero thanks to his penchant for bucking the system, was assigned to train and eventually lead some young pilots for a good old-fashioned impossible mission, requiring him to make peace with the past on the way as he struggles in a quasi-paternal role for Rooster (Miles Teller), son of his old pal Goose and vanguard of the next generation. Kosinski managed a genuinely unexpected alchemy, playing off the mystique of Tony Scott’s slick and silly 1986 original, but also moving far beyond it, turning the sequel into a more general paean to classic Hollywood virtues – showing a beloved star and good-looking people doing thrilling, spectacular things, and tapping it for emotional depth, particularly in the vital meeting between Cruise and an ailing Val Kilmer. As a work of dramatic art I found it a double-edged blade – movies just like it, if not so visceral, came out every other week in the 1950s, and that familiarity was both appeasing and also a little wearisome. The compensation was Kosinski’s cutting-edge style and genuine sense of big-screen spectacle.
Only a few weeks after releasing the biggest hit of the year, Kosinski saw his follow-up Spiderhead more or less dumped. Spiderhead had a reasonably familiar starting point – condemned criminals try to expiate their sentences and their mental demons by signing up to be guinea pigs for a mad scientist’s experiments, in this case being dosed with drugs that can finely control mood and behaviour. But Kosinski’s approach to this concept was to, at least initially, play it as a bright, shiny lampoon on the softly fascistic self-confidence of techie entrepreneurs, playing the beneficent geniuses whilst heedlessly ignoring actual consequences for human beings, and the bromides of online poptimism, before the troubling truth begins to infect proceedings. Chris Hemsworth delivered an inspired performance as the beaming, snazzy, palsy supervisor for the experiment who pretends to be a functionary but is actually the master of puppets, and Miles Teller was solid as one of his subjects, guilt-ridden but increasingly assured in his resistance. The key problem with the film, despite some formidable qualities, was the story was just a little too straightforward to sustain a whole feature, being the sort of thing The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits might once have knocked over in half an hour. Subplots never quite became substantial enough to sustain themselves, the climax didn’t resolve too gracefully, and Kosinski, strong a formalist as he is, doesn’t yet have quite the touch for this kind of off-beat satire.
Following Top Gun: Maverick’s release, the movie event of 2022’s second half was the arrival at long last of James Cameron’s sequel to his epochal 2009 hit Avatar, a release that bore a heavy burden in trying to restore some wonder to the special effects blockbuster and the theatrical experience in general. Avatar: The Way of Water saw Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), and their brood of kids forced to uproot from their jungle home when the return of human colonists and their great personal enemy Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who has suffered a curious kind of reincarnation as his mind has been rehoused in an avatar body, sparks new conflict. Taking refuge with a sea-dwelling Na’vi populace and coming to love their lifestyle despite clashes between the Sully youngsters and snooty local brats, the Sullys are eventually forced to go to war again as Quaritch’s vendetta becomes increasingly unhinged. Cameron didn’t really try to do much new in terms of story and theme, beyond a swerve into a different brand of slightly masked environmental hectoring (swapping save the rainforest for save the whales), and shifting to a new locale for his particular brand of lysergic travelogue. Many of the fresh threads involving the conflicted and hybridised identity of the next generation introduced through characters like Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), the bemusing child of Dr Augustine from the first film, are destined to carry over into further sequels. The Way of Water came on with such maximalist passion and spectacle that all this didn’t really matter much, with Cameron’s astonishingly beautiful filmmaking woven around a sufficiently elemental story that built to a thunderous action climax that amongst other things provided a greatest hits collection of Cameron’s cinema and retold Moby Dick from the whale’s point of view, reiterating that Cameron has cojones the size of California.
After years of quiescence, Adrian Lyne resurged with the would-be erotic thriller Deep Water. Ben Affleck was a husband who, having made a fortune out of designing weapons tech and now settled into a seemingly placid-to-a-fault life with his wife and daughter. Ana de Armas the wayward, capriciously horny spouse given to having flings and provoking her husband with her shows of messy extroversion, and whose lovers Affleck might be vengefully murdering. Lyne officially adapted the film from a Patricia Highsmith novel, but it was really another derivation of Claude Chabrol’s Une Femme Infidele like his previous Unfaithful. It came wrapped in Lyne’s customary gloss, particularly his penchant for real estate porn matched to softcore sexuality, which, given how neutered recent cinema has been, felt here close to daring. Lyne won good performances from his cast and sustained intrigue in the early portions as just what was going on was left enigmatic, and displayed a good feel for the behaviour, individual and communal, in this pocket of moneyed smugness. But the narrative became increasingly predictable as what was going on became clear and the characters reamined opaque, leaving me with the feeling, as Lyne’s films usually do, that it was all much less than met the eye.
Thirteen Lives was another movie that even five years ago would have been a major cinematic event but this year was shuffled off to streaming. Ron Howard tackled subject matter reminiscent of his Apollo 13, as he depicted the famous 2018 rescue of a team of teen boys and their soccer coach from a flooded cave in Thailand. Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell were cast as the two stoic, experienced cave rescue experts who, after finding the trapped kids by braving dark and swirling hell, had to come up with a way of getting them out, with the whole world watching and little expectation of getting everyone out alive. On a dramatic level, the film walked a tightrope between no-nonsense docudrama and something more expansive. The depiction of the Thai side of things was a bit scanty, sparing only sidelong glances at the politicking and ethnic tensions at play, and despite the title the actual kids were barely characterised, with the emphasis instead falling on the western rescuers. Nonetheless Howard plainly thrives on this kind of intense, detail-based filmmaking, applying formidable technical chops to communicating the danger and pressure of the scenario. He celebrated the same methodical tendency in his heroes, and managed again to make a story everyone knows the ending to thrilling.
Thomas M. Wright’s The Stranger offered a fictionalised story based on an infamous Australian murder investigation in the 2000s, via a Kate Kyriacou novel. Sean Harris did a superlative job transforming himself into a familiar type of rootless, damaged Aussie man, Frank Teague, the chief suspect in a young boy’s disappearance and presumed murder. Whilst fleeing attention and seeking work by travelling to Western Australia, Frank was quickly drawn in by an undercover policeman (Joel Edgerton) posing as a member of a crime gang who offers Frank everything he’s ever needed, a sense of belonging and protection from both the law and his own haplessly antisocial nature. The story certainly had intriguing precepts, portraying a glum and tacky Aussie demimonde, as Wright and the actors worked to portray the killer in his isolate pathos and the cop fraying whilst maintaining his submerged life and mimicking care for Frank that demands a kind of Stockholm syndrome. And yet the film ultimately remained at a distance from the men, failing to convey much complexity or detail to their relationship beyond the obvious, and proving particularly evasive at the end when the hammer fell, so that it didn’t really satisfy as either a stark procedural or a psychological portrait. Wright’s thick glaze of what has now become the cliché aesthetic of dark Aussie crime-themed dramas – creepy music, onerous, cryptic cinematography, and a gawking fascination for inarticulate losers – tried to convince the viewer it’s all something arty and deep.
Baz Luhrmann, never afraid of tackling big subjects and shrinking them down to the negligible, decided to assault one of the most famous and pivotal figures of twentieth century pop culture, with a biopic of Elvis Presley, albeit one that also encompassed a portrait of his crafty, controlling manager ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker. The thesis of Elvis was the two men were a symbiotic creature, Elvis embodying American synthesis, rebellion, and messy passion, Parker cynicism, commercialism, and a kind of performed squareness in a desperate attempt to stay below the radar, and the two men’s success each foiled and destroyed the other to some degree in a particularly American tragedy. Not a bad starting point, but of course with Luhrmann subtlety was never going to be the point. The best moments came early on as the film surveyed the time and place Elvis rose out of, raising the possibility Luhrmann intended to make a Moulin Rouge!-esque panoramic musical about the melting pot of mid-century American music of which Elvis was the most famous exemplar. Then it settled for being a stock-standard biopic, with a painful bulk of the runtime dedicated to The King’s decline whilst still sanitising his life and delivering the shallowest possible psychological portrait. Elvis in the end felt close to a greatest hits compendium for flourishes stolen from other recent biopics, with only curlicues of Luhrmann’s flashy artificiality for decoration. Tom Hanks was broad but daring and curiously effective playing Parker as a Fritz Lang ogre creeping through neon-lit aisles, but Austin Butler’s lead performance was like a model in a themed magazine photo spread, his speaking voice dead on but his face vacant and evasive in performing, the polar opposite of Presley’s fiercely projected engagement.
After successes with the art-house hits The Witch and The Lighthouse, Robert Eggers made an all-out effort to earn his spurs as a genuine movie visionary playing to the mass market, as he released The Northman, a very loose adaptation of the Danish saga that also inspired Hamlet. The young Viking Prince Amleth, played in full manhood by Alexander Skarsgaard, sets out to avenge his father’s murder and mother’s forced marriage to his wolfish uncle. Eggers endeavoured to articulate the worldview of the Vikings through a blend of grimy physicality and stylised mystical visions, the blood-black fixity of Amleth’s purpose punctuated by flashes of something new and redemptive as he falls in love with the Russian witch Olga, played with vehemence by Anya Taylor-Joy, and finds something to fight for other than mindless revenge. Eggers conjured some technically and aesthetically formidable sequences, replete with incidents of cruel bloodshed balanced with folkloric vignettes illustrating a bygone world. But there was something calculated and artificial about the film. On a dramatic level, it was quite straightforward, filching from the likes of Conan The Barbarian and Sergio Leone, and offering lots of blunt violence, whilst posturing as something more thoughtful. Nicole Kidman as Amleth’s mother, who reveals a nasty surprise to her avenging son when they finally meet again, almost shocked the film into something genuinely interesting and off-kilter, but then it resumed its rather blankly macho business. As it was The Northman was an interesting, impressive, but not particularly rich work.
Like Eggers, Luca Guadagnino has repeatedly tried to make unstable concoctions in blending artistic pretence with gritty fare. Not dissuaded by his disastrous remake of Suspiria, he returned to Horror territory with Bones and All, an adaptation of a Camille DeAngelis’ novel about a teenage girl (Taylor Russell) who is abandoned by her father after her inherited, predatory cannibalistic traits start to become uncontrollable. Travelling across country in a bid to find her similarly afflicted mother, she encounters an aging, creepy dude (Mark Rylance) and a young man (Timothée Chalamet) who share her mysterious trait and seek her company, and faces a grinding crisis as her hungers constantly threaten to get the better of her scruples. The material might well have been made a meal of by George Romero or Wes Craven once upon a time, but Guadagnino played it for the most part as a touchy-feely heartland drama about people loaded with pathos in the mould of Drugstore Cowboy or the like, as well as extending the familiar mini-genre of European directors losing their bearings in the American expanse. Bones and All came complete with an insufferably folky gee-tar pickin’ score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for extra lo-fi romanticism, even as Guadagnino loaded the film with gory scenes of flesh-eating, and the film left me wondering just who the hell it was meant for. The collision of tones and impulses failed to cohere in any fashion, and after an initially intriguing start became quite dull. Rylance, Michael Stuhlbarg, and David Gordon Green turned up at intervals to inject calculatedly weird turns as other members of the “eater” community, and yet the film had nothing at all to say about this community, and it became apparent Guadagnino had only chosen to tackle the material as the theme would wield more shock value than it he’d made yet another movie about junkies or other, more prosaic footloose types.
David Leitch, a director who keeps suggesting real talent without yet finding the right material to apply it to, followed up his hard-edged action flicks John Wick and Atomic Blonde with the wild, fluorescent, comedy-action extravaganza Bullet Train, adapted from a popular manga. Brad Pitt was wittily cast as a blissed-out thief riding on a wave of new-age therapy bromides, thrust amidst a deadly contest on one of the titular transports. Assigned to steal a briefcase, he finds he’s surrounded by assassins both professional and amateur, all being played off against each-other by a shadowy, ruthless Russian crime lord and his offended daughter. Bullet Train was blatant in offering a particularly slick variation on the kind of bouncy, bloody, absurdist post-Tarantino thriller developed by the likes of Guy Ritchie and Joe Carnahan, the kind with character-announcing title cards, whirlwind explanatory flashbacks, and humorously inapt pop ditties on the soundtrack. It was however elevated to the head the pack by the cast and Leitch’s formidable formal gifts, particularly his spryness in staging action scenes and surprisingly precise feel for when to pivot from shenanigans to seriousness and back again. If the film didn’t wield the same visual class as Atomic Blonde, it was more successful in tracking the frenetic crisscrossing of interested parties and building to a madcap climax, and though ultimately way too long, it was more entertaining than it should have been. Walter Hill’s Dead For A Dollar was sort of like Bullet Train’s elderly relative, playing out a not-dissimilar story in a proper Western setting and swapping lightning zaniness for shambling, autumnal verbosity. Ditto Jean Luc Herbulot’s Saloum, which provided an African-set, horror movie-inflected variation on the concept.
One of the few things viewers seemed to agree on this year was that S.S. Rajamouli’s RRR (Rise Roar Revolt) was one of the major movie events. A Telgu-made, Bollywood-style epic, RRR told the interwoven story of two fictional folk heroes, one a policeman working under the British raj in the 1930s, the other a holy warrior sent by a village to find and restore one of its children, stolen by an English governor and his wife, with both men eventually embroiled in the burgeoning independence movement. RRR was praised by lefties for its unabashedly fight-the-western-Man attitude but criticised at home for its appeal to nakedly self-righteous nationalism, making for interesting intellectual incoherence, whilst most just let the over-the-top action and dance sequences crash over them. It was hard not to get the feeling RRR hit a sweet spot of exoticism, supplying things people would’ve ripped to shreds in a Hollywood film doing the same. Although the dance sequences were good, personally I found RRR pretty irritating, with its overbearing style and lousy acting, with Rajamouli dragging out every sequence five minutes longer than it needed to be. With its absurdly pumped and performed machismo, leaping wild animals, and goofy humour, it had the quality of a beer commercial run amok.
David O. Russell’s Amsterdam, the director’s first film since his underrated Joy, chose a similar starting point to his overrated American Hustle by tackling a historical scandal and kneading some of Russell’s favoured brand of shambolic protagonists into the dough. This time Russell’s story touched on an authentic conspiracy from the early 1930s involving an attempt by reactionary plutocrats to manipulate veterans into forming a fascist revolutionary army, via suborning their trusted spokesman, whose fictionalised equivalent was played by Robert De Niro, cast with ironic pep as a salt-of-the-earth heroic patriot. But the story concentrated on three invented figures: Christian Bale’s damaged doctor, John David Washington’s stalwart pal, and Margot Robbie’s bohemian rebel, who find themselves enacting a half-remembered Hitchcock plot on the way to proving touchstones for Russell’s conviction that the whacky outsiders and rejects often prove national saviours. The initial set-up was intriguing, Russell offered a beautifully recreated historical milieu, and there were good flourishes scattered throughout, like a sing-off between Nazi goons and a ruck of Black American veterans. These got lost in the blur of Russell’s penchant for superficial energy and even more superficial showy neuroticism from his characters, and his attempt to balance his native hipster cynicism with a paean to Capraesque heart didn’t so much result in a draw as in a brutal mutual beat-down, manifesting in a terminally overdrawn and clumsy coda. The formidable cast all seemed to be acting in different movies, and only De Niro and Anya-Taylor Joy as an insufferable society wife seemed to be in the right one.
Santiago Mitre’s Argentina 1985 also contended with troubling history, as it depicted events doubtlessly extremely familiar to an Argentine audience: Mitre charted the travails of a state prosecutor and his team of earnest young aides trying to indict military bigwigs from the recently deposed junta for their abuses and tyrannies, despite knowing full well many of their friends are still in power and they have vast reserves of support from the upper classes. Mitre’s approach to the loaded, fascinating material, far from the more allusive and insinuating aesthetics of movies to tackle this milieu before like Pablo Larrain’s early movies or Andreas Fontana’s Azor, offered a very Hollywoodised approach, charting the formation of the team of valiant justice-seekers with jots of comic relief and catharsis between the heavy stuff and punctuating all with a standard inspiring music score. Fair play: it was at least good Hollywood, with smart performances, fleet-footed direction, and some deft blending of recreation and historical broadcast footage from the real trials. Importantly, Mitre achieved a palpable sense of what it’s like to emerge from a repressive state, painting an inherently paranoid mental and political landscape where everyone’s determined to press on but knows full well it could all very suddenly become a deadly trap for the supposed hunters, and noting the ambivalent aspect of the heroes’ final, curtailed success, to keep things getting too cheaply triumphal.
With The Woman King, Gina Prince-Bythewood set out to explore African history with an edge of feminist and ethnographic import, as she portrayed the famous women warriors of the Kingdom of Dahoumey. Viola Davis was cast as a potent but world-weary commander defending the state of John Boyega’s young king in the 1830s and schooling some new recruits, one of whom has an unexpected secret, whilst their country faces conflict with a powerful neighbour and some sleazy Brazilian slavers. Leaving aside the film’s problematic historicism and blatant indulgence of pure crowd-pleasing fantasy, Prince-Bythewood did an initially intriguing and visually impressive job of venturing into a little-portrayed place and period, and pulled off some well-staged action scenes. The movie, which might have made for a thrilling study of a proud but morally complex society as well as a great war story, settled for being a merely decent thud-and-blunder epic that owed at least as much to old-school swashbuckler melodramas like The Black Shield of Falworth as to Braveheart, with its reunions between long-lost family members, and a drippy romantic liaison with a hunky human trafficker in the bargain. Lashana Lynch’s broad but entertaining performance as a tough but doomed warrior was the best feature. Actual African cinema of the year, including Saloum and Lingui: The Sacred Bonds, was in general far superior.
Terence Davies tackled the life and legacy of Siegfried Sassoon, the poet laureate of World War I’s special horror, with Benediction, a long, muted, but intelligent and strongly felt portrait that set out to mostly illuminate Sassoon’s postwar life as the survivor of another besieged community, as a gay man weathering a gilded underground of queer celebrities, including an ill-fated fling with Ivor Novello. Davies, a director I’ve had a lot of trouble warming to and who applied his specific brand of occasional quasi-abstraction and heavily glazed seriousness to a generally intimate and very human story, did very fine work that found interesting ways to weave Sassoon’s work into the film, even if he just couldn’t in the end overcome some of the usual problems of the biopic, including a whiplash-inducing shift from the wartime setting to the peace (perhaps feeling that had already been well-covered by Pat Barker’s Regeneration). Davies was plainly more interested in recreating the waspishly witty but emotionally dangerous world Sassoon moved in before taking refuge in a self-mortifying marriage. I never felt he quite reconciled the two halves of his hero and the story dragged as Sassoon moved from one calamitous romance to another; regardless, the last scene had haunting power.
Tony Stone’s Ted K was a biopic with a very different focus, presenting a study of the infamous ‘Unabomber,’ Ted Kaczynski. Sharlto Copley, who also produced, played the clever and cunning but deeply alienated and aloof oddball who retreated to the woods in his search for a peaceful, modernity-rejecting existence, but felt himself driven to acts of revenge against anyone and everything that provoked him by violating the sanctity of his refuge, contradicted his ideals, or just plain pissed him off. Copley give a superficially exacting performance, and the film was interesting enough as a portrait of Kaczynski’s extreme lifestyle and obsessive pursuits to keep things watchable, giving hints of sympathy for his anxiety regarding technology and environmental destruction whilst clearly showing how maniacal he was in expressing them. But it didn’t add up to much either, as Stone’s mannered direction matched a script that had little to say about Kaczynski beyond portraying him over and over a pathologically lonely and driven kook, whilst evading engaging with his family, who he has constant, percussive fights with over the phone, and his earlier life. Worse still, it pinched from Joker the motif of the whacko outsider courting an imaginary girlfriend, a trite device for working up sympathy in a film that was ultimately way too long.
She Said was officially the year’s most shit-out-of-luck film. German actor-director Maria Schrader’s Hollywood debut was a depiction of the investigation by New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) and Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) into Harvey Weinstein’s reign of abuse, gradually drawing together the story that led to his downfall. The film’s apparent evasiveness when it came to taking on Weinstein’s in-the-know lackeys and protectors was a lapse both YouTube reactionaries and Twitter lefties agreed upon, and the general audience proved about as eager to be roasted over hot coals as they were to revisit this ground, meaning the would-be award favourite and prestige picture bombed hard. She Said certainly had a lot of problems. Schrader’s approach baldly mimicked All The President’s Men in aiming for a cool, docudrama method, but played more like Spotlight 2. Far too much of the dialogue sounded like an op-ed, sidelong glances at the reporters’ home lives were clunky, as were concluding attempts to convey catharsis, and the film as a whole was badly paced. The story was certainly worth telling, however, and Schrader at least delivered a stinging, accusatory portrait of the legal weaponry Weinstein had in his arsenal. She also placed emphasis not just on the assiduous process of nailing down the story but on the survivors of abuse, particularly the not-famous ones, and their attempts to articulate deep-riven distress and scalding anger in nominally neutral settings. The cast, including Samantha Morton and Jennifer Ehle, generally gave good performances, but Andre Braugher stole proceedings as one of the team’s solicitous editors, well-practiced at hanging up on bullies.
Ali Abbasi’s Holy Spider was another based-on-fact tale of a flinty woman journalist trying to bring down a monster, albeit one executed with considerably more artistic licence. Zar Amir Ebrahami played Rahimi, a journalist (fictional) launching a dogged investigation into the case of the “Spider Killer” (real), a serial killer slaying prostitutes in the Iranian pilgrimage city of Mashhad circa 2000: Rahimi, suspecting the police are uninterested in catching a murderer many think is doing holy work in ridding them of “corrupt women,” eventually goes undercover to try and lure him in. Meanwhile the killer himself, Saeed (Mehdi Bajestani), moves from victim to victim whilst tending his religious mania and appearing the upright family man and war veteran. Whilst Abbasi’s fictional interpolations arguably romanticised the story to a degree in giving it a familiar thriller structure and providing an on-message feminist foe for the killer, he at least did so with real tabloid flare, as the film moved deftly between the investigator contending with an opaque and often openly misogynist officialdom and Saeed’s intimate brutality, which Abbasi didn’t shy away from depicting, and when the two antagonists finally intersected it made for a doozy of a suspense scene. In a year of serious protest and revolt in Iran sparked by much the same topics, Holy Spider was certainly a timely reflection on the nation’s septic psychological state, mordantly noting the connection between the killer and much of the community who share his worldview, even if finally something like justice arrives for him. Ebrahami and Bajestani were excellent.
In the year Jean-Luc Godard died, Neptune Frost, a directorial collaboration for American rapper Saul Williams and Rwandan actor and writer Anisia Uzeyman, set out to prove that the Godardian influence still persists with their singular, freaky blend of sci-fi, mythology, musical, and agitprop. Neptune Frost followed disparate characters uprooted by Burundi’s political and economic turmoil, like a miner who’s recently lost his brother thanks to thuggish bosses, and student revolutionaries driven out of the city by government repression, including an intersex being who becomes the miner’s lover. All converge on a ruined city that proves to be a once-and-future supertechnological enclave, which allows them to hack the online world and bond on digital-spiritual levels, only to invite vicious reprisals. Resembling a blend of Spartacus and The Matrix as remade by a street theatre collective, Neptune Frost boldly tried to encompass many current, obsessive points of concern for the modern youth left, and articulate a boldly radical outlook. At points the filmmakers sustained a rhapsodic flow and vibrancy in their approach, blending hip-hop and tribal musical styles, realism and surrealism, with traditional sequence structuring suborned to this open approach. But the directors weren’t able to sustain that rhapsody, with a lot of clumsy composition and staging, and a script that made half-hearted stabs at complication with subplots that went nowhere, and eventually devolved into speechifying. By the end, whilst feeling the film had tremendous elements, I was more than a bit ambivalent about the whole.
Romain Gavras’ Athena also dealt with defiance and revolt by righteously incited youth, in this case the largely African Muslim population of an outer Parisian tower estate. The block’s denizens are driven to violet and well-planned insurrection after one of their own has been filmed being murdered by what appears to be federal police, capturing police weaponry and fortifying the estate. Athena was punctuated by several spectacular, incredibly choreographed long-take shots, as Gavras aimed first and foremost to thrust the viewer amidst a thrilling, concussively convincing depiction of such chaos and violence, and he did manage to capture through this aesthetic some sense of people left blinkered by rage and grief and rushing headlong at the horns of the bull. As a clotheshorse for his dynamism, Gavras embraced a classical kind of fraternal melodrama, as he pitched the dead boy’s brothers, all emblematic of different factions – a soldier, a gangster, and the leader of the rioters – into more personal conflict. The limitations of Gavras’ approach were as notable as his achievement, all said: characterisation was thin, and the drama, which ought to have encompassed the whole community’s viewpoints, instead rode on the zephyr of a puffed-up macho rage it sought to critique. The film had both too much and not enough story, as when it laboured to contrast righteous revolt with terrorist anarchy, and delivered a confused sting-in-the-tail coda. There’s also something a little grimace-inducing about a film that tries to offers such a beautifully filmed riot. Still, it had real power.
Uptown in setting, focus, and style as far as current French cinema goes, if no less intrigued by the social and human experiments of melting pot areas in Paris than Athena, Les Olympiades, aka Paris, 13th District, saw Jacques Audiard, who counts by now as a venerable elder, confirming his determination to stay true to the current zeitgeist. Co-written with Celine Sciamma, Audiard this time spurned the melodrama he’s known for in exchange for a particular blend of romanticism and acerbic realism, as he concentrated on the travails of a few sexually and socially active young people of diverse backgrounds and contending with the random glories and cruelties supplied by the big city in an age of instant online connection and equally quick hostility and harassment. The black-and-white photography applied a gloss of nostalgic elegance to the intersecting tales of people who didn’t always act that well or smartly, and who sometimes weren’t all that particularly interesting. Audiard nonetheless accepted the challenge of finding beauty and meaning precisely in portraying such disordered people and the way they find even the most temporary safe harbours in a rough modern world. Noemie Merlant stole the film as a mature-age student who experiences and dishes out some of that roughness.
Palme d’Or-winning Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda, made a sojourn to South Korea to make Broker. Kore-eda’s story revolved around the Korean phenomenon of “baby boxes,” a modern improvement on the old habit of leaving orphans on the church steps, but with the twist that two men (Song Kang-ho and Gang Dong-won) have a business purloining the odd foundling and selling them to adopting couples. When the young prostitute mother (Lee Ji-eun) of one of the babies comes back to check on what’s happened to it, she rumbles the pair and insists on accompanying them to vet potential parents. Along the way they fuse into an odd family unit, soon augmented when they’re joined by an impudent orphan boy, whilst they’re chased by two cops and gangland heavies. In a fashion familiar for Kore-eda, Broker tackled serious things with a light touch close to a rather old-fashioned kind of sentimental comedy, although a pervasive sense of melancholy and humanist heartache overlay it all as all the characters knew the axe would soon drop. Kore-eda’s flashes of poetry and sheer strength of feeling, aided by Song’s established ability to seem charming and pathetic at once and by Lee’s luminous beauty, made it a fine but not transcending experience, and the clumsy pile-up of plot was mostly adornment for a movie that took a long time to reach an end that tried a bit hard to satisfy irreconcilable desires.
Swedish director Ruben Östlund meanwhile captured his second Palme d’Or at 2022’s Cannes Festival with Triangle of Sadness, a black would-be comedy mocking the silliness of fashion and influencer culture and the grossness of the very rich, and an indulgence of the eternal fantasy of role reversal in a crisis. Östlund’s focal point was a young couple, both models worrying about their careers, taking a freebie voyage on a luxury yacht packed with ponderous plutocrats, only to find themselves shipwrecked and at the mercy of the only person who knows how to catch food, being the yacht’s toilet maid. It seems plain that in anointing this film the Cannes jury were hoping for another Parasite-like zeitgeist lightning rod, and Östlund’s storyline did have Swiftian potential. Potential it remained, as Triangle of Sadness proved one of the year’s most galling pictures. After a couple of striking early scenes, Östlund refused to do much with his ideas, settling for programmatic pokes at his various targets and clichéd oppositions. His gags were laced with a depressing brand of cynicism, particularly in a mid-film set-piece that saw characters get violently ill in rough seas, a spectacle of humiliation and gross-out glee that really only pointed to Östlund’s crass notions of class consciousness. Like Glass Onion, Östlund conspired to draw his presumed audience into a satire of a world he only has the most superficial and populist-posturing grasp on, and whilst he sometimes balanced it all with hints of sympathy for his various avatars, it wasn’t nearly enough. More aggravatingly, it wasn’t even particularly good on a pure filmmaking level, full of longeurs and fumbled staging, and stretched just about every gag and idea well beyond breaking point.
Rom-com veteran Ol Parker offered the parental date movie equivalent of Top Gun: Maverick as he paired George Clooney and Julia Roberts in Ticket to Paradise, a pleasant piece of counterprogramming that cast the two stars as a formerly married couple thrust into close proximity again when their daughter (Kaitlyn Dever) intends to marry a Balinese seaweed farmer (Maxime Bouttier). They plot to bust up a relationship they assume won’t last, only to find their own long-banked fires starting to heat up again. The film offered a basic proposition as a variation on classical screwball stuff heavily indebted to stuff like Private Lives and The Philadelphia Story, including Lucas Bravo as a dopey French lover in the Ralph Bellamy zone and Billie Lourd in the Ruth Hussey part, with a first half dominated by bitchy mutual put-downs and a second by lots of touch-feely exchanges in beautifully photographed Balinese locations. In some ways Ticket to Paradise was the haute bourgeois companion piece and antiverse to Triangle of Sadness, with a similar theme of collapsing barriers and shifting power played out in an island locale, played out in a completely different key. The script was replete with jokes older than Moses, and made a point of not offering any surprises, settling for letting its stars indulge their chemistry, particularly in a marvellously frantic game of beer pong that becomes an islet of regained adolescence for the characters. I Know Where I’m Going it certainly wasn’t, but then no-one was expecting it to be.
Oran Zegman’s Honor Society was a nominal high school comedy that set out with the honourable purpose of giving Angourie Rice a star vehicle, following in the honourable tradition of everyone from Molly Ringwald to Emma Stone. Rice played Honor Rose, a bright young teen from a working class family who, desperate to escape her grim home town and desperate to be the one anointed by a sleazy teacher for a shot at Harvard he swears he can wrangle for his best and brightest, tries to take out all her potential rivals for the shot by distracting them, particularly the nerdy Michael (Gaten Matarazzo), only to fall for him. Honor Society resembled an array of pages torn out of other, successful teen flicks and pasted together with a fresh gloss of cringe comedy and salving PC canards. Honor Society wanted to be funny and heartwarming and meaningful, but was instead cumulatively rather depressing. At first the film presented Honor as a Tracy Flick type mated with a sort of junior Richard III as she delighted in explaining her methods and expressing her general contempt for her surrounds to the audience in perpetual fourth-wall break. Eventually however Zegman contrived to have her emerge a selfless impresario making everyone else’s lives better whilst choosing not to improve her own, whilst ultimately vilifying another character ultimately revealed to be doing the same thing as her but better, which was interesting morality, to say the least. For an infinitely more honest and affecting teenager-at-school movie, one had to look to James Gray’s Armageddon Time.
Nicholas Stoller’s Bros, written in collaboration between the director and star Billy Eichner, was released with some fanfare as a gay romantic comedy for a broad audience, only to prove that the broad audience wants virtue signalling in superhero movies, not actual gay movies. Bros depicted a pair of verging-on-forty, romantically disillusioned men, one, a loud-but-not-so-proud writer and podcaster who’s opening an LGBTQ+ history museum, the other a hunky but bored estate planner, who, after a flash of attraction in their first meeting in a nightclub, drift into an unsettled relationship. Bros was sometimes genuinely funny, mostly for its many meta sideswipes at gay representation in the recent media landscape, at the various quarrelsome but ultimately loyal tribes within the larger queer community, and the wry portrayal of the more hedonistic if impersonal pleasures in modern gay dating. The attempts to say something more meaningful amidst this, about the lingering anxiety of a generation schooled in harder lessons before things got so hunky dory, was interesting but didn’t quite coexist with the rest of the film, which aped standard rom-com arcs just a little too neatly and with exceedingly bland filmmaking, and its mildly spiky likeableness gave it an oddly dated feel despite the Grindr jokes, like it should have been a modest indie hit circa 2002.
Russell Crowe jumped into the saddle as director again as well as star in Poker Face – not, sadly, a screen adaptation of the Lady Gaga song. Crowe’s Poker Face rather was the tale of some middle-aged pals, connected by their passion for poker, reuniting for a private game at the remote, glitzy estate owned by Crowe’s character, Jake Foley, who’s become hugely rich from purveying internet poker software that proved a great surveillance tool, but has recently been diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Whilst Foley plays some mean but purgative party games with his variously troubled friends, and his despairing daughter and trophy wife race for a confrontation, all become targets for a slimy criminal from their past who intends robbing Foley’s extensive Australian art collection. Crowe charmingly employed a great array of Aussie stalwarts, and amusingly if awkwardly paid back RZA for The Man With The Iron Fists by casting him in a cameo as the group’s one American member. Crowe approached through the story at hand with some meditations on aging, the problems of legacy, and the value of art as a vehicle for creative immortality. Unfortunately it extended the problems of his debut The Water Diviner – a narrative that tried to encompass too much story and too many divergent tones and genre modes, which Crowe’s fidgety, distractible, borderline amateurish directing had no hope of keeping balanced – and doubled down on them, as Poker Face swung wildly between earnest character drama, crime flick, goofy melodrama, and hangout picture, and whilst not even making the 90 minute mark, outstayed its welcome.
Now weathered and grey-flecked, Adam Sandler nonetheless found a new way to extend his early career fascination with sports as a subject for his movies with Hustle. Sandler played a former basketball player whose career was ruined by a car crash and has been making a living as a talent scout for the 76ers: after being patronised by the team’s new boss and inheritor (Ben Foster) once too often, he quits and pursues his determination to make a star of a towering, preternaturally gifted Spanish labourer he beholds hustling on a backstreet Madrid court one night. The main source of dramatic tension was whether the young player has the mental fortitude to play at the top level, as well Sandler’s hunt for sweet justification. Sandler gave a decent lead performance and the film was modestly enjoyable given the underdog sports movie formula’s hard to entirely screw up, but as the exceedingly generic title promised, Hustle was really just a basic-bitch variant that harvested elements from the likes of Rocky, Moneyball, and The Color of Money, whilst Jeremiah Zagar’s direction was annoying and clumsy, turning great stretches of the film into long montages, and the script thin.
Todd Field returned after a long absence from cinema screens with one of the year’s most acclaimed works. Tár was an epic-length drama about a composer and conductor who falls from the pinnacle of success when a former protégé’s suicide sparks questions about her habits of applying her personal passions to people whose careers she can make or break, a habit she’s busily indulging whilst trying to stage a magnum opus performance of Mahler’s Fifth. Tár was conceived specifically as a star vehicle for Cate Blanchett in the title role, and she responded by filling the role with theatrical bravura, whilst Field dug into the world of the orchestra and the classical music world without dumbing down too much. He also picked at the open wounds of recent celebrity scandals and downfalls and our attitudes towards them. The film started well, with early scenes portraying at length its antiheroine as a great performer before audiences and a brilliant, creative, but also quietly thuggish personality in other settings, and was always interesting, up to and including its odd, sardonic coda. For me though it just didn’t work, with too much evasiveness about Tár’s actions resulting in a film that avoided digging into Tár’s innermost nature and creativity as well as her culpability, and this was in part to avoid making definitive statements about the social and personal phenomena it took on. Field took few stylistic risks, offering an endless string of crisply shot posh environs occasionally violated with calculated eruptions of defiling mess, and the film finally had the quality of one very long tease.
Aftersun, the debut film by Scottish filmmaker Charlotte Wells, was an exceedingly modest and allusive drama that proved nonetheless the year’s most critically-acclaimed film, the kind of attention that doesn’t necessarily do such a movie favours. Aftersun unfolded mostly in flashback scenes from the perspective of Sophie, a woman who’s travelled to a holiday resort in Turkey trying to relive and understand a vacation she took there in the 1990s as a child with her divorced, gay father: Sophie toggles between her possibly misleading memories and their camcorder tapes from the trip, trying to fathom the mystery of her dad, who was fighting off some nagging, possibly tragic source of melancholy even as he laboured to provide his daughter with all due life lessons. Wells’ key choice was to keep the causes and results of the father’s moodiness enigmatic, instead fixating on describing an extremely rarefied feeling – the tantalising and troubling process of unpacking treasured formative experiences and finding nested truths, discoveries that seem to have some import the grown Sophie who’s recently become a mother. Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio’s performances had a chemistry and vivacity that gave the flow of scenes charming anchors, as Wells drifted with virtually plotless observing through the locale, keen to the peculiar wavelength of troubled people persisting in a festive place, even if what happens in that place wasn’t particularly vivid or exciting. I can’t say that Aftersun wowed me, in part because the vagueness meant that the obliquely approached emotion became at once blatant and well out of reach, quiet pathos turned into unavoidable spectacle, particularly in the climax as the urge to deliver catharsis became more overt but offered only to the characters, not the viewer. So it leaned on a Queen song to make the link for us. The notion of comparing reminiscence with media records of the events, a strange purgatory only available to we children of this epoch, was potentially very powerful, and yet Wells ultimately didn’t do that much with it, violating the design by privileging the viewers to things neither camera nor girl witnessed. Also, in certain aspects the film felt just a little too contrived to tug thirty-something film critics by the heartstrings. Still, it was a very interesting debut by a talent of promise.
A more traditional, if still purposefully circumspect, tale of a child confronted by the strangeness of adults, The Quiet Girl saw Irish director Colm Bairéad engaging with areas of rural Ireland where Irish Gaelic is predominantly spoken and so comprised the vast bulk of dialogue, imbuing a gloss of exoticism to a seemingly familiar world. This gesture of representation also aided the film’s thematic pursuits, depicting relations charged with disparities and wounds that are constantly walked and talked around. The setting was sometime in the 1980s, as the title girl, Caìt (Catherine Clinch), one of many children to a slovenly and resentful father and his perpetually pregnant wife, is packed off to live with the mother’s cousin and her husband for a summer whilst yet another sibling is being born. Caìt finds the aging couple ideal parental substitutes as they bring her out of her shell, particularly as they’ve been in stasis following their own child’s tragic death, and the inevitable return home provokes crisis. Clinch had luminous presence as Caìt, who evolves from a tormented appendage to a burgeoning being. Bairéad applied patiently observant pacing and occasional flecks of the poetic and symbolic to evoking the evolving emotional bonds of the characters and their pastoral world, a tad obviously at points but also with a glistening texture of curious and elegiac beauty. The script was also a little too reticent about the innermost meat of the story: hints the girl was a sexual abuse victim on top of everything else charged the story with an undercurrent of menace, and which made the unresolved finale feel just a little calculated, even as it was also undeniably moving.
Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light was yet another movie of 2022 preoccupied by both sad nostalgia and the theoretically redemptive power of art. Mendes’ film unfolded in dreary, rundown 1981 Brighton, centring on a movie theatre of somewhat faded glory that, in a story development that provides a partial backdrop, is chosen to host a regional premiere of Chariots of Fire. Empire of Light was mostly interesting as Mendes’ first real return to the kind of small-scale, ordinary-people study as he emerged with on American Beauty, although it also came laden with symbolism in regards to the fallout of the waned, twinned empires of Britain and cinema. Olivia Colman played a lovelorn middle-aged woman with a history of instability working in the cinema: whilst she’s been having a desultory affair with her married twat of a manager (Colin Firth), she has a fling with a handsome, frustrated young Black man (Michael Ward) who starts working alongside her. Disasters ensue, including her having another spiral into self-destructive behaviour and him being badly beaten by some skinheads, but the ultimate pitch was as an affirming a tale of healing and rebirth. No film that offers the sight of Colman giving Firth a hand-job in the first five minutes is entirely without entertainment value, but there was aggravating tension between Empire of Light’s low-key story and its status as a major-league Oscar bait entry, with Mendes’ customary minimalist-monumentalist visual textures labouring to imbue a degree of arty sweep. The basic thesis, about the kinship of different varieties of outsider, was modestly affecting, and Colman’s brilliant performance was the best reason to watch, even if her character, like everyone else in the film, was given an essentially shallow and evasive treatment. The overall tone was one of treacly pathos punctuated by tacked-on paeans to companionship and the cathartic power of a good movie. It was, in short, the sort of thing that would likely have been far better if it had been at the time it was set by Handmade Films.
Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, never the most cautious and restrained of auteurist voices, resurged after a few quiet years with Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, an entry in the year’s bumper crop of director memoir and self-portrait films, closer in focus to the middle-aged fretting of The Eternal Daughter than The Fabelmans or Aftersun. The director’s alter ego was Silverio (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a former Mexican TV personality and journalist who’s become an international celebrity with his docudrama films, who, at the pinnacle of success, is nonetheless gnawed at by uneasy melancholy in the feeling he’s abandoned his country, in having moved to the US, and his principles in achieving his status, and is haunted by the death of an infant son. By compensation he flits through various fantasies, including conceiving of his son as having simply refused to emerge from his wife’s womb. Iñárritu’s filming was as dynamic as ever with his vivid lensing and roving camerawork, and he approached some weighty concerns, conflating his own uneasy sense of identity with Mexico’s troubled history and relationship with the US, with ineffectual satiric swipes including the purchase of Baja California by Amazon and a Trumpian American president. The problem was that Iñárritu was also just as obvious as ever on an artistic level, rehashing such well-worn territory in his many nods to Fellini’s 8½ and a magic-realism-for-beginners style that ripped off his own Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) but with Silverio proving a much less compelling protagonist. After a reasonably involving first half, the film dragged on without any particularly interesting place to go with its self-conscious artifice and half-hearted tilts at self-satire, and devolved to an expression of morbid anxiety. The strongest moments were, in spite of all the showmanship, scenes of intense verbal conflict, between father and son and with a critic character who attacks the script of the film he’s in.
Noah Baumbach’s White Noise and Sarah Polley’s Women Talking had significant differences but also points in common – both were based on highly admired novels and tried to retain as much of those sources’ literary flavour as possible. Baumbach tackled Don DeLillo’s satiric novel, the story of a middle-aged professor of “Hitler Studies,” his pill-popping wife, and their gaggle of kids from many partners, who are all forced to confront their mortality, particularly when a freak accident unleashes a toxic cloud over their town. Where David Cronenberg smartly applied stringent, quasi-expressionist intensity to translating DeLillo to cinema for his Cosmopolis, Baumbach applied a mash-up of stylistic approaches, moving from arch theatricality to the Felliniesque before dipping into weird pastiches of Close Encounters-era Spielberg and the National Lampoon’s Vacation films during the set-piece depiction of panicky escape from the cloud. The actors including Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, and Don Cheadle, were required to give studied, motor-mouthed performances rattling off DeLillo’s theses in a clumsily ritualistic way. Baumbach showed his technical chops have become formidable even as his worst streaks finally hatched out, forcing everything to a degree of heightened, insufferably smug stylisation whilst purveying dated satiric targets like academic wankery and the shiny but maddening aisles of consumerism without anything new or convincing to say about them. For what seems the millionth time in his career, Driver worked his ass off to little effect, whilst Cheadle held his own as his Elvis-obsessed and curious-minded colleague.
Women Talking meanwhile echoed Don’t Worry Darling in offering an explicitly feminist drama through the prism of an isolated, male-dominated and coercive commune, albeit in an antithetical style. Polley’s film was adapted from a novel by Miriam Toews, itself based on an infamous event that took place in Brazil, involving the organised drugging and raping of women in a Mennonite colony. Toews’s story focused on the aftermath, as a core set of the women debate whether they’re going to forgive the abusers as their elders have ordered, put up a fight, or leave the community altogether. Polley was unabashed in tapping the theatricality inherent in Toewes’ emphasis on the debate between the women, which echoed the likes of 12 Angry Men, with proceedings mostly confined to a barn as various infuriated and aggrieved personalities clash and weave consensus. This was definitely the stuff of high drama, but Polley’s approach was a serious drag. She filmed the whole movie in sharply desaturated and pretentious but not terribly expressive images, failing to create the right kind of atmosphere for the decidedly non-realistic dialogue, as the characters, who we’re repeatedly reminded are virtually illiterate, spoke like public radio audio essayists. The schematic, zeitgeist-courting approach of Polley’s script, with its carefully delineated perspectives included a shoehorned trans character and an unthreatening male ally, didn’t help, and found overly-neat ways out of what should have been the core dread of the choice for the women, between rigid faith and self-protection. Yet again, the powerhouse cast kept it watchable, particularly Claire Foy and Jessie Buckley as the two angriest women who nonetheless had sharply divergent responses to their lot.
Alice Diop’s Saint Omer was another chamber-piece drama laden with hot-button issues, but treated in a more stringent and subtle fashion. Diop’s subject was the trial of French-Senegalese woman (Guslagie Malanga), well-educated and exceedingly intelligent, who has confessed to the killing of her young child, but insists she doesn’t feel responsible. During the course of the trial, her background, the breakdown of her long, odd coupling with an aging French artist, and her curious conviction she was the victim of some form of sorcery that might be a ruse or just another way of conceiving clinical depression, were all relentlessly parsed. Diop’s austere approach to the courtroom scenes allowed Malanga in particular to fixate the screen with a mix of defiant ambiguity and pathos, as the slowly emerging story to grip through its own awful power and evocation of the deepest personal hells, as well as drip-fed hints of the impact of dislocation on her mind. Diop enveloped this with depictions of another woman of the same background (Kayije Kagame), more successful as a writer and academic, whose initial intention to write a book about the killer based on the theme of Medea breaks down through the trial as she’s challenged by raw experience, forcing her to confront in particular her relationship with her own troubled mother. Whilst the doppelganger theme had potential, Diop didn’t offer nearly enough meat with this portion, and frankly I just felt this device got in the way in an obvious attempt to offer the film’s own insta-critique. Also, the climactic scene of the defence attorney’s emotive, didactic closing speech, felt like a veering into a different kind of movie.
Sebastián Lelio’s The Wonder, an adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel and co-scripted by her, Lelio, and Alice Birch, had points of similarity with several movies of the year, as a study of women locked within insular faiths and communities and forced to justify their choices to patriarchal authority, and also made an even more superfluous stab at bracketing its drama with a meta approach. This time, the setting was a village in 1860s Ireland, where ugly feelings still linger after the potato famine: Florence Pugh, restored to her Lady Macbeth hairdo, was Elizabeth Wright, an English nurse employed along with a nun to keep watch on a 9-year-old girl who has supposedly been living for months without eating, in what many take to be a miracle. Wright, a modern mind with hard losses in her past, becomes attached to the girl, particularly as she begins wasting away for unknown reasons, and eventually elects to fight the various parties who’d prefer a dead saint to a live, ordinary girl. Tom Burke was the initially aggravating journalist who proved to have a deeper connection to the locality and its sensibility who becomes Wright’s lover and ally; Kila Lord Cassidy and her mother Elaine were the miracle girl and her on-screen mother. The wonder of The Wonder was that Lelio, equipped with some formidably good acting and cinematography (by Ari Wegner), trod with nuance through its web of oppositions, tackling some expected themes and issues but not belabouring them, whilst also remembering to tell an interesting story with a striking blend of crude beauty and dread that eventually blossoms into something else. Lelio offered most of the characters just a little more sympathy than expected, even as the fetid truth emerged.
Still in a mode of Irish historicism, Martin McDonagh, back in his homeland after his unfortunate American sojourn for Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, nonetheless sustained his fascination with physical and spiritual mortification and flailing, internally riven characters with The Banshees of Inisherin. McDonagh reunited Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell, stars of his debut In Bruges, as two long-time friends residing on a small, dull island in 1923, with civil war raging within earshot. Farrell’s Padraic is thrust into a state of perplexed crisis when the other, Gleeson’s Brom, suddenly tells him he doesn’t want to be his friend any longer, as he can’t stand Padraic’s blather anymore and wants to devote the rest of his life to writing music to escape a state of gnawing despair. Brom soon proves willing to go disturbing, masochistic lengths to dissuade further communication. Plainly more at home in the setting than he was in Midwest America, McDonagh wove together deadpan, very Irish humour and a darkening Celtic atmosphere of descending fate. What seemed at first to be a gently goofy character comedy instead shaded into a story with tragically symbolic overtones as the small conflict became more clearly intended to mirror the larger. As with McDonagh’s other films, I couldn’t help but find it all far too affected, with his anachronistic, showily foulmouthed dialogue and unpleasantly morbid edge, whilst the film’s overall impact depended on how much you bought into the aptness of the parable, which I didn’t. In compensation, the cinematography was atmospheric, and the performances were lovely, particularly Kerry Condon was Padraic’s more determined sister and Barry Keoghan was an abused local boy.
Probably no other director could have weathered the pandemic so unruffled and productive as Sang-Soo Hong, who proved he can defy laws of thermodynamics and produce a movie virtually out of thin air with three films released internationally this year. On the surface, Introduction barely seems to be there, depicting the interactions of a handful of characters over a space of time, filmed in flatly monochrome hues and mostly in anonymous-looking exterior shots (including a story digression to what was supposedly Vienna but likely required no flights), and major story events inferred in the gaps between scenes. And yet Hong slowly accumulated a character portrait of the flailing son of a doctor’s secretary, whose romantic failures, cultural dislocation, and general personal confusion bewilders and sometimes provokes his elders, particularly a respected actor he lunches with, who boozily espouses a life-is-for-living philosophy. Hong’s style was reminiscent of his The Day He Arrives but even more bare-boned, with time and location jumps often hard to parse, forcing the audience to share his characters’ dizzied mindsets.
Hong’s second release for the year, In Front Of Your Face, was less cryptic and rarefied in its dramatic approach, and touched on several themes running through his recent films, including imminent mortality and male auteur romantic guilt, but with a glaze of elusive poeticism. This time Hong’s focal figure was a middle-aged retired actress, Sang ok (Lee Hye-young), recently returned to Seoul after years living in the US, visiting her sister and keeping a rendezvous with a movie director who wants to build a movie around her, and also, as he admits after the compulsory Hong long, lubricious lunch, wanting to seduce her. But she has a secret that makes their yearnings at once more plaintive and pathetic. In Front Of Your Face was chiefly a vehicle for Lee’s remarkable performance, dextrous in portraying her character’s attempts to at once achieve philosophical peace and snatch onto life, in particular unpicking the director’s motives with as much patience as she can muster as well as a certain determination to get to the point. The central story crux was more blatant and melodramatic than usual for Hong and the film lacked the sly complications of his greatest work, but his digital camera minimalism now again risked colour textures to better essay the thesis contained in the title. A third Hong work, The Novelist’s Film, was released late in the year, but I didn’t see that one, for better or worse.
Max Walker-Silverman’s A Love Song had points of kinship with In Front Of Your Face, likewise presenting an evanescent romantic tale about confronting grief and mortality where the male lover finally retreats from prospective passion nominally to honour old loyalties but also perhaps through a failure of nerve in confronting such dizzy new extremes. Dale Dickey was the aging widow who’s camped out a lakeside spot in the Colorado Mountains to await the visit of an also-widowed childhood friend, played by West Studi, for what both plainly hope and fear will prove a tryst. Walker-Silverman set out to knit together aspects of Wong Kar-Wai-esque romantic fable and American indie film’s more familiar, modest humanism. The film remained a little aggravatingly vague about its characters in the long haul, its evocation of pathos just a little too studied, and didn’t quite nail the kind of transcendental experience its final episode chased. Elements of deadpan humour provided by a clan out to disinter their father from under the campsite were a bit too cute, but also genuinely funny. Dickey and Studi, both cast for a change as very ordinary souls confronting neediness and the weight of experience, gave remarkable performances, and despite its contrivances the film was an affecting experience that made the most of very limited scope.
Performances of Note
Ana de Armas, Deep Water Mehdi Bajestani, Holy Spider Cate Blanchett, Tár Rachel Brosnahan, Dead For A Dollar Jessie Buckley, Women Talking Nicholas Cage, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent Catherine Clinch, A Quiet Girl Kerry Condon, The Banshees of Inisherin Willem Dafoe, Dead For A Dollar Dale Dickey, A Love Song Zar Amir Ebrahami, Holy Spider Idris Elba, Beast / Three Thousand Years of Longing Yann Gael, Saloum Mia Goth, Pearl Tom Hanks, Elvis Sean Harris, The Stranger Chris Hemsworth, Spiderhead Nina Hoss, Tár Kate Hudson, Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon Barry Keoghan, The Banshees of Inisherin Nicole Kidman, The Northman Zoe Kravitz, The Batman / Kimi Lee Hye-young, In Front Of Your Face Emma Mackey, Death On The Nile Guslagie Malanga, Saint Omer Noemie Merlant, Les Olympiades – Paris 13th District Fatma Mohamed, Flux Gourmet Annie Mumolo, Confess, Fletch Keke Palmer, Nope Elsa Pataky, Interceptor Aubrey Plaza, Emily The Criminal Florence Pugh, The Wonder Margaret Qualley, Stars At Noon Jonathan Ke Huy Quan, Everything Everywhere All At Once Sami Slimane, Athena Achouackh Abakar Souleymane, Lingui: The Sacred Bonds Scott Speedman, Crimes Of The Future Tilda Swinton, The Eternal Daughter Wes Studi, A Love Song Harry Styles, Don’t Worry Darling Miles Teller, Spiderhead / Top Gun: Maverick Anya Taylor-Joy, Amsterdam / The Menu / The Northman Donald Elise Watkins, Emergency Leticia Wright, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever Michelle Yeoh, Everything Everywhere All At Once Ensemble, Armageddon Time Ensemble, The Fabelmans Ensemble, Hit The Road
Favourite Films of 2022
Armageddon Time (James Gray)
One irony of 2022 was that two of its best films were criminally under-seen, autobiographical tales of youth from great Jewish-American filmmakers, although that’s just about where the similarities between James Gray and Steven Spielberg end. Spielberg, even after a few stumbles, is still Spielberg, and Gray doesn’t seem to be able to get the mass audience into a movie theatre if he paid them. Stepping back from his recent ventures into more epic stories with The Lost City of Z and Ad Astra, Armageddon Time was one of the finest films about being a boy of a certain age ever made, and saw Gray applying his familiar, visually and tonally muted yet graceful and emotionally direct style to a tale laced with flashes of nostalgia but also profound disquiet in casting his mind back to 1980. Banks Repeta played Gray’s stand-in Paul Graff, who feels the weight of his heritage, of his family’s place in the scheme of things and the expectations placed upon him, and the common troubles of school life, all grating against his nascent rebellious and artistic streaks. His attempts to push the envelope sometimes earn the concussive wrath of his parents, particularly his mostly good-natured but sometimes terrifying boiler repairman father (Jeremy Strong), who locks up his fury until need for fuel when he senses his son going astray. Gray explored the mystique of family dinners where the Holocaust is a constant, wearing refrain of rebuke, whilst grandfather Harry (Anthony Hopkins) offers hard-won, open-minded wisdom and a gentle sense of humour and connection to the boy that eludes his father and mother (Anne Hathaway), who are necessarily preoccupied with bigger pictures.
Gray’s portrait of period New York was touched with rueful and knowing presaging of the modern era, noting both the lingering schisms of class and race in a supposedly egalitarian, past-all-that era, and the rising tide of a new, triumphalist reactionary spirit represented most sardonically by Fred Trump (John Diehl), Donald’s father, and Maryann (Jessica Chastain), his sister, both products and shepherds of elitist flocks who see themselves both as assailed bastions and encampments of heroic strivers – ranks Paul is eventually obliged to join. Nor does he exempt himself and his clan from playing a part in it all, his elders for their casual racism and himself for his failure to combat it. Armageddon Time was in part another of Gray’s explorations of burdensome connections between family, particularly father and son, crystallised in the astonishing, intimate climactic scene between them. But the film’s dramatic engine went beyond family, depicting Paul’s friendship with another class clown and aspirational dreamer, Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb), a Black kid with an unsettled home life, and the two of them become familiar with the motives other people, sometimes with well-meaning purpose and sometimes with vicious pleasure, to crush the individual spark in the young. Johnny’s fate not only counterpoints Paul’s journey and also, as Gray ultimately diagnoses, becomes a victim of it despite Paul’s best intentions, and his eventual choice to truly dedicate himself to art is informed as much by a sense of accountability as for creative fancy.
Dead For A Dollar (Walter Hill)
Dead For A Dollar saw Walter Hill returning to the Western genre with obliviously discursive and boldly revisionist attitude, pursuing only his own satisfaction when it came to reviving the brand of tough genre film he cut his teeth on. Christoph Waltz was Borland, the hard-bitten bounty hunter commissioned to chase after a wealthy woman (Rachel Brosnahan), allegedly kidnapped by a Buffalo Soldier, Elijah (Brandon Scott), and dragged off to Mexico, but he soon finds the pair really ran off together after the woman grew tired of her cruel magnate husband (Hamish Linklater). After catching up with the runaways with the aid of Poe’s fellow soldier Poe (Warren Burke) and bringing them to heel, Borland and Poe soon finds themselves forced to make a choice when it becomes clear the husband intends to kill the lovers and anyone who gets in the way, having made a deal with an imperious local gangster (Benjamin Bratt) to get the job down. Hill’s plot referenced a number of classic Westerns in his own particular manner, with a project that tackled the tricky task of at once honouring essential Western motifs – the cross-country pursuit, the thunderous final shoot-out, the panoply of petty tyrants and local warlords and stoic, heroic gunslingers – and also pulling them apart, shifting moral and historical emphases and having fun with clichés whilst never treating the genre’s essential rituals cynically or cheaply.
Hill’s chief fascination was for flashes of nascent modernity in the historical context, rooting each of his characters in authentic period figures who nonetheless cut against the grain of the world at large, populating a landscape where nations, races, and genders are all in flux. The pacing was defiantly ambling and conversational, perhaps to the point of aggravation for some as Hill patently refused to get to the point. But it was precisely this relaxed quality that made the film so deeply pleasurable as a viewing experience to me, as Hill dropped his characters like dice into a cup, rattled them around for a while to enjoy hearing them strike against each-other, before finally tipping them on the table to see what they roll up. Dead For A Dollar was modern and yet defiantly unfashionable, as Hill also seemed to be trying to avenge some of his brutally edited and discarded ‘90s works. The patience came nonetheless laced with tension constantly ratcheting, and when the action finally arrived it hit hard and wild, with Hill emphasising shock and disbelief gripping the dying, the sheer amazement of mortality a discovery one can only make alone and too late. Brosnahan’s marvellous performance as a hyper-intelligent, self-emancipating woman who’s sick of her own compromises and enunciates her motives with professorial precision, played off Waltz’s unusual restraint and coolness as the speak-softly-and-carry-a-big-gun hero who’s tired of other people’s alibis, whilst Willem Dafoe offered colourful support as a rival gunfighter once imprisoned by Borland and eager for a showdown. Hill’s visuals were essayed in pseudo-sepia tones, his starkly fashioned frontier towns and dusty plains only truly enlivened by blotches of red blood.
Emily The Criminal (John Patton Ford)
A curt, clever, sinuous melding of film noir motifs and contemporary indie realism, Emily The Criminal also wove deft character portraiture with a stinging portrait of contemporary hard times. Aubrey Plaza, so long typecast as an emblematic millennial, at once turned that unfortunate status to her advantage and subverted it with force in playing Emily, a talented artist and former college student now stuck in a menial delivery job thanks to a criminal conviction, the nature of which is left vague until close to the end. Creatively blocked and increasingly exasperated despite a friend’s efforts to get her a magazine job, Emily finds a new world opening up to her when a helpful gesture and some good luck puts her in contact with a criminal gang of brothers recruiting willing foot soldiers to commit credit card scams. Emily proves not just motivated but tough and fearless, occasionally paying for lapses into naivety and incautiousness but resurging with shows of alarming grit and cunning, like in a terrific scene where she’s held up by a pair of frayed scumbags, only to turn the tables on them with clinical and punitive zeal. After venturing out on her own in committing scams, she drifts into a romance with her mentor in the game, a Middle Eastern immigrant who has upward aspirations, but their affair inadvertently provokes a split with his brothers and a deadly contest for their accumulated fortune.
Emily The Criminal’s story sounded in abstract like the stuff of a romp, a dark comedy of self-realisation through larceny, and there is a little of that in there. But director John Patton Ford instead played things very straight. He kept Emily in focus as both a generational avatar, confronted by a ruthless society and cut off from any of the possible recourses someone of her education and background would normally seek, and as an individual. The title’s signal ultimately proves correct, as Emily finds through the course of the story that she’s made for living outside the law, and the flaws in her character that brought her to such a limbo also provide her with the armament to crawl out of it, so long as she can abandon what’s left of her moral scruples and loyalties. Emily’s various encounters with bosses in job interviews, including a cameo by Gina Gershon as a self-congratulatory magazine editor who wants an unpaid intern, stung in showing the forces Emily is up against in trying to extricate herself from the shittiness of working class life in modern urban America and the way the system is so often rigged in favour of those who already have it all. By comparison Emily’s adventures in thievery, including ripping off a sports car and emerging with a bloodied nose and demand for payment, are more physically dangerous but engaging of every inch of mind and body, and Plaza was particularly great in portraying Emily’s renascent confidence and sense of purpose. The climax laid bare both the necessary choices for Emily to finally escape and the awful price for making the correct one, whilst the coda struck a note of wry humour even in its unsentimental diagnosis.
The Eternal Daughter (Joanna Hogg)
Many films this year, in a movement evidently born of weeks spent brooding in pandemic lockdown, were preoccupied by the uneasy relationship of memory, identity, family, and creativity. Joanna Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter took an unusual approach to such concerns, presenting a movie that worked as both a standalone work and as an addendum to her The Souvenir diptych, in again taking up the tale of alter ego Julie and her mother Rosalind, with Julie now in fretful middle age and facing up to one of life’s greatest conceivable pivots. This time Hogg cast Tilda Swinton as both women, who have come to spend a week in a virtually empty hotel out in a gloomy, foggy region of countryside. The hotel was one a great house that belonged to Rosalind’s aunt, where she spent time hiding out from the Blitz as a child. Julie wants to make a movie about her mother, but contends with insomnia, gnawing anxiety, writer’s block, and the perhaps literal haunting of the hotel. Swinton’s brilliant improvisatory performances were the focal point of the movie, anchoring it in pernickety realism and observational character study all charged with simmering emotional disquiet, even as Hogg wove around her a glutinous atmosphere that paid homage to the great British Horror movie tradition. The opening was lifted from Night of the Demon; much of what followed sustained a mood of fog-shrouded mystery and with creepy flute scoring on the soundtrack that recalled the likes of the BBC’s Christmas Ghost Story specials and the 1989 version of The Woman In Black, and Hogg nodded repeatedly to Kubrick.
All this mostly proved an elaborate aesthetic miscue on the most obvious level, as the real subject on hand was an entirely psychological form of haunting, and led to a climactic reveal that much of what we’ve seen has been imagined for a desperate and pathetic reason. Whilst this could easily have become just another annoying attempt to cloak an arty drama in facetiously borrowed genre movie trappings for hype, Hogg made it work. In part because of the power of the feeling she sought to portray, one that distorts time and reality by pure force of need, and Hogg’s apparent conviction that mere naturalism can’t convey it, and because the aesthetic infrastructure of the ghost story and its symbolic import was an authentic part of her subject matter. Hogg explored the relationship of past to present, noted how ghost stories are how history and memory and its darkest facets conveyed with a sense of place. The haunted hotel extended the interest of Hogg’s debut Exhibition in understanding a building as necessarily a place inhabited but also indifferent to them, with presence and memory sometimes becoming slippery and inseparable things. Another concern was that of modern England’s anxious feeling of losing touch with itself, enacted through Julie’s attempts to understand the past through her mother’s gaze, but contending constantly with the vast gap of attitude and expectation between them.
The Fabelmans (Steven Spielberg)
The Fabelmans shouldn’t have been much of a surprise from Steven Spielberg, even if it was breaching new territory for the director in directly tackling his formative years as a subject after decades of splintered and refracted self-portraits. The film’s general dismissal both by the mass audience and by many critics who should know better (including me before I saw it) took it as ill-timed navel-gazing when mainstream cinema urgently needs seismic shocks. But The Fabelmans proved a film of rare and blindsiding vitality that also expressed the director’s ambivalence as well as evergreen sense of wonder for the art form he’s so often seen as virtually personifying. With a thin sheathe of fictional distance via alter ego Sammy Fabelman and a script co-written with Tony Kushner, Spielberg explored his own attraction to making movies, born of an agreeably traumatising early viewing of The Greatest Show On Earth, as a way of expiating as well as stirring emotion. The bulk of the film was dedicated to analysing the impact of his two vividly different and slowly detaching parents on his art and personality – the generous, good-natured, but insular and nerdy paterfamilias Burt (Paul Dano), a technical wiz engaged with birthing the future by building computers that also incidentally make his family well-off and mobile, and his luminous pianist wife Mitzi (Michelle Williams), the kind of woman who drives herself and her kids out through a tornado-ripped landscape to gain a glimpse of the awesome and destabilising. The artistic urge is rendered as a veritable curse as well as blessing, as Sammy encounters his nutty great-uncle (Judd Hirsch), a former circus performer, who recognises another member of their hapless tribe.
Spielberg dipped into territory that referenced Hitchcock and Antonioni with equivalence as he depicted himself discovering his mother’s affair with stalwart family friend Benny (Seth Rogen) in the background of his family films, editing the footage on one hand to offer private truth and reconciliation to Mitzi whilst also neatly clipping out it all out for general consumption: different cinematic realities coexisting simultaneously. The latter sections contended with teenage Sammy contending with anti-Semitism and bullying, finally baffling and seducing his peers with his unique and powerful capacity to reshape reality. This tug-of-war between life and artistic transformation, crystallising in extraordinary vignettes like the strained David Lynchian smiles detected on the parents’ faces when performing for Sammy’s camera, and a bully jock’s squall of confusion at being transformed into a mythic hero by the same means, confirmed Spielberg’s always known what he’s doing in terms of what he chooses to do and how, his engagement with the American religion of movies also a neutral zone of cultural and personal meeting where everyone has the chance to become everyone else. Nor was the nod to Lynch coincidental, as Spielberg delivered a master stroke in casting his great if antithetical fellow as his singular idol, John Ford, in a final scene depicting rude but consequential mentorship that split the difference between leave-‘em’-laughing punchline and immensely moving statement of gratitude.
Flux Gourmet (Peter Strickland)
Peter Strickland manages to go from strength to strength without abandoning the rarefied creative zone he’s created, persisting in making movies that unfold in a retro-chic netherworld with increasing confidence and myriad notes of sly perversity. With Flux Gourmet, he turned his own delight in weaving strange textures around a subject of folly and fascination, as he riffed on the pretensions of the art world but with a characteristic twist that had the quality of something out of a dream: the setting was an academy devoted to showcasing practitioners of “sonic catering.” The story, such as it was, centred on a trio recently given a month-long residency, led by the passionate creative mind and ideologue Elle (Fatma Mohamed), and the tensions that begin pulling their successful team apart. Strickland’s conceits extended to having a character who narrates the film entirely in Greek on the soundtrack – he’s a filmmaker hired to document the residency and who also suffers from chronic gut problems – and casting Gwendoline Christie as the academy’s haughty directress, who makes unwelcome creative suggestions to the trio and seduces their one, young male member. Where his In Fabric embraced overt Horror elements, Flux Gourmet saw Strickland returning to the stylised annex of The Duke of Burgundy in portraying an imagined high-end world of institutionalised weirdness, where everything is touched with a glaze of the unsettling but there’s no definite source of menace.
But this time he did so with a wittier and more complete-feeling blend of setting and story, detailing the academy’s preponderance of oddballs, including the infuriatingly self-satisfied house doctor, who eventually drives the filmmaker so crazy as he investigates his gut problems he tries to strangle him when he won’t get to the point. Meanwhile the academy suffers vandalising attacks by a culinary team who didn’t get the fellowship, and directress and artist constantly clash over seemingly minor details that nonetheless hinge entirely on power. Strickland allowed an overt homage to Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating through as well as more pervasive nods to the likes of Peter Greenaway and Mario Bava through. The most intriguing and original aspect of Flux Gourmet for Strickland’s art was the sharply-observed quality of the satire, which nested within and coexisted with the never-never atmosphere, touched with an edge of gleeful caricature, particularly through Elle, who postures as a gutsy feminist from a disadvantaged background but is actually extremely rich and oppresses her collaborators, but also resists all attempts by the institution to dictate their creativity in vehement defence of artistic prerogative. The very last scene brought the tale to an ingenious close as the healing power of both art and good food were applied to one very grateful subject.
Hit The Road (Panah Panahi)
A near-sublime road movie, Hit The Road saw Panah Panahi, son of Jafar and former assistant to Abbas Kiarostami, making his own debut in a film that travels literally and figuratively across the state of contemporary Iran. The situation was at once simplicity itself but touched with rare mystery and feeling: a family of four – father, mother, grown-up son and pre-adolescent younger son – are travelling across the desert in a borrowed SUV, their journey punctuated by the usual in-jokes and squabbles of a tight-knit clan, but with strange tension apparent in all but the rambunctious younger son, who gets chastised for bringing along his cell phone, which the mother takes pains to bury by the roadside. Eventually it becomes clear that the family have sold their possessions to finance the older son as he flees across the border to seek out better fortunes in Europe. This means engaging with the opaque and sometimes menacing network that helps people making such flights, as well as confronting the pains of their imminent separation which they’re trying to keep hidden from the boy. The family movie across a parched and desolate landscape where the modern world they inextricably belong to sits cheek-by-jowl with primal nature and decaying remnants of classical lifestyles, whilst the film itself shifts with ease from comedy to drama and back again, with flashes of fantasy and musical tossed in.
Whilst Panahi arguably went a little far in also sticking the family with a cute, sick dog whose eventual expiring gives the movie a last sting of low-key tragedy, Hit The Road was largely remarkable in offering one of the best portraits of family in many a year, defined by the disparity between affectations of easy-going normality for the sake of the young son, and the awareness of looming sundering and the plain fact they’re taking a risk that could bring down awful legal consequences if they’re caught. The wise and witty mother who’s fond of singalongs nonetheless finds herself plunged into grief by parting, whilst the father suggests a portrait of a generation of Iranians as he shuffles along on a plastered leg, complains about a rotting tooth, and indulges his kids with a blend of sly humour and distracted melancholy. The younger lad embodies all the heedless energy and bounty of youthful promise, and the elder has wilted under the weight of expectation. Great scenes included an encounter with a gabby bike rider who crashes against their vehicle and gets a lift, a bewildering exchange with a fleece seller and a masked motorcyclist that mark thei entrance into some kind of Kafkaesque netherworld, and what proves to be the ultimate farewell played out in a long shot that evoked Kiarostami and David Lean in its coolly removed portrait of human pathos amidst the boding grandiosity of nature. The older son’s love of 2001: A Space Odyssey rhymes with the younger boy’s dreams of Batman and Superman, all echoing in a spacefaring fantasy as father and son drift away through the stars in a moment of mental release, claiming the right and necessity of dreaming as one things that always transcends the pains of any given place and moment.
Lingui: The Sacred Bonds (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun)
In a strong year for African cinema, Mali’s former tourism and culture minister Mahamat-Saleh Haroun went rogue and offered a beautifully observed and surprisingly gripping drama that must certainly have been a provocative gesture at home but also had accidentally acute relevance outside the country. Haroun’s film depicted a woman who’s spent years eking out a living and maintaining a toehold in society after being shunned by her family for having a child out of wedlock when she was only a teenager, forcing her to make a living incessantly making and selling wire stoves. Now, with her daughter almost grown up, she’s playing the meek and pious breadwinner, seeking her pompous imam’s approval and receiving a marriage proposal from a prosperous but grizzled neighbour. When she learns her daughter is now pregnant, she steadily begins to abandon her pretences and gets down to trying to fund an abortion, which is illegal in the country. This begins a sometimes comic, often excruciating odyssey as they rustle up funds and seek someone willing to perform the operation. But the identity of the father is a secret that will, when it finally comes out, provoke murderous wrath.
Lingui was reminiscent of the kind of slice-of-life social drama that Ken Loach made in his 1990s heyday, although Haroun’s direction avoided that brand of squirrelly, hand-held realism and instead wielded a lush eye for colour and a free-flowing feel for the streets of N’Djamena. This was matched to a sly sense of character, evinced in early scenes as the daughter wandered about in sullen unease, dashing against friends and family like a billiard ball in her quietly distraught and incommunicative state, and when the mother began indulging old vices and shows of her old, cheeky character as she comes to understand the hypocrisy of the world about her and the pointlessness of playing by its rules. Haroun also allowed a stream of gentle humour to flow through all, particularly in portraying women’s witty capacity for getting around arbitrary authority being imposed on their bodies, including the commissioning of a fake female circumcision. This contrasted the pervasive sense of tension and anxiety eating up the two women as they’re driven to desperate ends to get the necessary cash and constant twists of luck help and foil them alternately, like seeing their would-be saviours suddenly netted by a police raid. But the film was really made by its ending, which shifted gear towards a dark, noir-like confrontation and saw the seemingly familiar and friendly streets of the mother and daughter’s neighbourhood became a labyrinthine trap.
Lost Illusions (Xavier Giannoli)
Not many filmmakers could make a story as ruthlessly cynical as Lost Illusions into a compulsively watchable and ebulliently cinematic experience, but Xavier Giannoli did just with this adaptation of one of Honore de Balzac’s most regarded novels. Lost Illusions followed the wayward path of Lucien, a talented but penniless young poet, illegitimate son to an aristocrat, who becomes the lover of a Countess who worships his talent, and she introduces the young man to Parisian society. After proving a flop in exalted circles, Lucien vengefully turns his hand to becoming a successful journalist in the rough-and-tumble world of newspaper publishing, where everyone’s on the make and everything hinges on confluences of money and power. Whilst the erstwhile hero seems to be on the rise for good as he tries to get his aristocratic parentage recognised, he doesn’t suspect dark forces are conspiring to use him and then break him. Giannoli diverted from Balzac in some crucial ways, as he retained sympathy for his main character, who very often acts like a jerk and participates in a corrupt and corrupting world with increasing enthusiasm, but also has the stuff of an authentic artist in him.
Importantly, however, Giannoli stayed very true to capturing Balzac’s exacting, analytical portraiture of the way his world worked in an era of madcap energy and pervasive expedience. With forceful, Scorsese-like editing and camera gymnastics, Giannoli deftly laid bare, say, the machinations of the gutter press in an era without regulation of what gets written or why, with everything, especially creative art, at the mercy of who can pay the most for a good review or a scathing putdown, or the laborious process of trying to gain a foothold in the aristocracy, where good manners conceal shark’s teeth. Whilst the recreation of the period fervour and flavour were exacting, the story’s relevance in portraying anarchic media and its eager purveyors and the brute power of a public downfall fizzed away. Giannoli cleverly cast actor-director Xavier Beauvois as the hero’s frenemy, a practiced dandy and wit who nonetheless feels real kinship with him in their authentic passion for creation. The last act was suitably desolating as Lucien has everything stripped from him, including his consumptive lover, but where for Balzac it was chiefly an illustrative and cautionary example, for Giannoli it became, ultimately, a crucial episode in the eternal battle for an artist’s soul, and the worth of their creation, however it’s received in the moment, is the only thing that can outlast the empty furore of such a world.
Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon (Ana Lily Amirpour)
A splendidly odd, and oddly splendid, contraption from A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night director Amirpour, Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon had a quality that resembled what a modern Val Lewton film might look like. The actual plot came across more like a melange of The X-Files, a superhero origin story, and some 1940s noir film. A teenage Asian immigrant, the titular Mona Lisa (Jun Jong Seo), is first glimpsed lingering in a padded cell in a mental hospital, where she’s pettily tormented by a staff member. The girl, who has mysterious telekinetic powers and is seemingly locked in a catatonic state as well as a strait-jacket, suddenly unleashes her abilities, forcing the bully to wound herself and help her out of her bonds. The girl flees the hospital, finally finishing up adrift amongst the flotsam of contemporary New Orleans, in a nocturnal odyssey punctuated by islets of strange humanity amidst the nightlife. There she becomes friends with vulgar, self-centred pole dancer Bonnie (Kate Hudson) and her young son (Evan Whitten), and is pursued by a determined cop (Craig Robinson) even after he’s had one painful encounter with the girl and her abilities. The oddball relationship of mystery girl, mother, and son became the fulcrum of proceedings as Bonnie uses Mona Lisa and her powers to enrich herself with robbery, whilst the girl and boy form a bond and plan flight whilst her cop nemesis scrambles around town, and hard choices have to be made if anyone is to have a hope of escape.
By contrast with the monochrome style of her debut, Amirpour this time chased a nocturnal mood again but this time with lush colour applied to a quasi-neorealist approach to shooting, roaming the byways of the Big Easy and imbibing its unique mixture of seediness and communality, almost surrendering entirely to charting the vibe of the place . Amirpour often filmed in wide-lensed shots to give everything a looming, fluorescent immediacy befitting the viewpoint of her heroine as she explores this strange new world. As she does so, she evolves from a blankly alien symbol of all that’s strange and threatening about the outsider to a functioning human being who finds people by and large far more eager to help her than torment her, contrasted with Bonnie, a woman who exploits her new friend and often acts in a greedy and obnoxious way, but is also gifted a hard shell by trying to survive and has underneath it all a streak of decency, not entirely revealed until she pays an ugly price for her actions. The film was dotted with some marvellous character turns from names like Hudson, who along with her turn in Glass Onion had an interesting renaissance, and Ed Skrein as a seemingly sleazy but ultimately obliging and protective DJ who plays fairy godmother to the young runaways.
A blend of Tarantino-esque neo-Western, John Carpenter-type supernatural siege drama and a bunch of other trash movie touchstones, the Senegalese action-horror blend Saloum nonetheless forged something fresh and vigorous in blending those familiar influences with concepts and meditations more specific to its native land. Saloum’s heroes were Bangui’s Hyenas, three swashbuckling mercenaries from humble origins who have become folk heroes for their balls-to-the-wall daring and attitude in conflicts across Africa. But they face a truly disturbing reckoning after rescuing a Mexican cartel member from the midst of a civil war, when they’re forced to land their plane near the titular river. Soon they shuffle into a co-op camping ground run by an affable manager where everything seems idyllic, but signs of something truly strange seethe under the surface as well as multiple factions all with their own objectives. One of the mercenaries has revenge in mind, a path that will lead to the delicate balance of place, history, and guardian spirits all toppling into chaos.
Saloum eventually confronted the troubled history of Senegal and neighbouring lands, including the lingering legacy of war and the trauma of child soldiers, as well as more personal crimes, on the way to a surprisingly tragic and sharply moral ending, without turning into a message movie or surrendering its hard-charging genre film cred. The script was intelligent in weaving symbolic elements in with the immediate plot business, as well as being littered with intriguing details, like the Hyenas being able to converse with a deaf girl with sign language learnt when working as miners: the girl herself wants to join the mercenary ranks proves to have the ideal trait to fend off evil spirits who seduce with song. Director Jean Luc Herbulot expertly shifted between tones, both delighting in the infrastructure of an old-fashioned monster-battling shoot ‘em up and swiftly investing his heroes with a titanic aura that gets tested to utmost in confronting otherworldly enemies, whilst also casting a dubious eye on his own emblems of cool. Such as that invested in a gleaming Remington revolver, a hero’s Excalibur-like weapon that’s also a captured trophy from an evil man, and also a dark totem that rots the soul of whoever holds it by constantly whispering promises of empowerment through bloodshed, like Michael Moorcock’s Stormbringer. Herbulot’s crisp widescreen visuals and steely colour palette were consistently arresting in shifting between igneous blocking and flashes of folkloric vision, and he actually managed to do something fresh when staging the climactic battle with shapeless demons with oblique and mobile camerawork. Yann Gael, as the most commanding and troubled Hyena, had major movie star presence.
Stars At Noon (Claire Denis)
The first of two films Claire Denis released in 2022, Stars At Noon was a sharp return to her finest form after the awkward High Life. Tackling a novel by Denis Johnson set amidst the 1980s war in El Salvador, Denis didn’t have the budget to make her film in period, and so updated it to the pandemic era, which she then able to draw on to capture a pervasive mood of fetid, paranoid, enigmatic anxiety and dislocation. The Graham Greene-esque story revolved around a shambolic former journalist and broken-down idealist (Margaret Qualley), who’s trapped in El Salvador after losing all her sources of employment for writing too many torrid exposes and pissing off too many bosses, and has been reduced to occasional prostitution and other acts of opportunism to make ends meet. She encounters a suave Englishman (Joe Alwyn), who she first zeroes in on as a mark, but the two find they have an arc of authentic chemistry, and drift into a fractious relationship that intensifies when he turns out to be engaged in shady dealings and is just as in over his head as his new lover. Eventually they’re forced to try and flee the country as he’s hounded by shadowy foes and officialdom.
Denis provoked Qualley into giving the year’s most essential performance as the initially insufferable antiheroine, an ideal Denis protagonist at once violating and enshrining every cliché about strong female characters in movies. Her skittish, self-destructive behaviour, incessantly confrontational bent, and frenetic randiness task everyone she knows and even perplex herself, but she also retains a mind that starts snapping into focus as she confronts existential desperation, able to feel her way through the labyrinth of power by pure honed instinct, the one gift she’s gained from her degrading life. Denis, as is her wont, trailed her characters with languorously observational and atmospheric camerawork, alive to fleeting details whilst remaining purposefully opaque about the backdrop of repression, politicking, and espionage her two protagonists contend with, including a cameo from Bennie Safdie as a smarmy CIA agent who talks entirely in pleasantly discursive phrasing, Mephistopheles in a suit. The proper emphasis was on the doomed romance at its core, Denis fascinated by two such characters locked into their folie-a-deux and the rarefied transactions of psychic power between the couple in their long dance to a foregone end, each moving along a continuum between burning passion, pathetic neediness, and stoic resignation, with an ending that gained not spectacular tragedy but the wearying necessity of betrayal.
Aftersun (Charlotte Wells) All My Friends Hate Me (Andrew Gaynord) Argentina 1985 (Santiago Mitre) Athena (Romain Gavras) Death On The Nile (Kenneth Branagh) Doctor Strange In The Multiverse of Madness (Sam Raimi) Don’t Worry Darling (Olivia Wilde) Emergency (Carey Williams) The Hidden Fox (Lei Qiao) Interceptor (Matthew Reilly) The Lair (Neil Marshall) Mad God (Phil Tippett) Neptune Frost (Anisia Uzeyman, Saul Williams) Les Olympiades – Paris, 13th District (Jacques Audiard) Saint Omer (Alice Diop) Something In The Dirt (Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead) The Northman (Robert Eggers) The Seed (Sam Walker) Thirteen Lives (Ron Howard) The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (Tom Gormican) Watcher (Chloe Okuno)
∙ 6 Festivals ∙ After Yang ∙ Ahed’s Knee ∙ All Quiet on the Western Front ∙ Apollo 10½ ∙ Autobiography ∙ Babylon ∙ Belle ∙ Blonde ∙ Boiling Point ∙ Both Sides Of The Blade ∙ Bowling Saturne ∙ Breaking ∙ Bruno Reidal, Confession of a Murderer ∙ Burning Days ∙ The Cathedral ∙ Catherine Called Birdy ∙ Compartment No. 6 ∙ Corsage ∙ Devotion ∙ Decision To Leave ∙ Dinner in America ∙ Down With the King ∙ Earwig ∙ The Electrical Life of Louis Wain ∙ Emancipation ∙ EO ∙ Father Stu ∙ Everything Went Fine ∙ Funny Pages ∙ Good Luck to You, Leo Grande ∙ Great Freedom ∙ Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio ∙ Happening ∙ Il Buco ∙ Living ∙ Marcel the Shell With Shoes On ∙ Master ∙ Murina ∙ No Bears ∙ Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris ∙ My Policeman ∙ A New Old Play ∙ Nobody’s Hero ∙ The Novelist’s Film ∙ One Fine Morning ∙ Pacification ∙ Peter von Kant ∙ Playground ∙ Pleasure ∙ Return To Seoul ∙ Sick of Myself ∙ Slash/Back ∙ Smoking Causes Coughing ∙ Speak No Evil ∙ Stonewalling ∙ Turning Red ∙ Unrest ∙ Vengeance ∙ Weird: The Al Yankovic Story ∙ We’re All Going to the World’s Fair ∙ Wendell and Wild ∙ The Whale ∙ Will-O’-The-Wisp ∙
The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2022
7th Cavalry (Joseph H. Lewis) Artists and Models / The Girl Can’t Help It (Frank Tashlin) The Barbarian and the Geisha (John Huston) Battle of the Coral Sea (Paul Wendkos) Beach Red (Cornel Wilde) The Bermuda Depths (Tsugonobu Tom Katino) Les Biches / La Femme Infidèle / Le Boucher (Claude Chabrol) Black Widow (Bob Rafelson) Cry of the City (Robert Siodmak) Deadly Run (Claude Miller) Fantastic Planet (René Laloux) Funny Face (Stanley Donen) I Live In Fear (Akira Kurosawa) In Harm’s Way (Otto Preminger) Kirikou and the Sorceress (Michel Ocelot) The Last Boy Scout (Tony Scott) L’Age d’Or (Luis Buñuel) The Mangler (Tobe Hooper) Man Made Monster (George Waggner) The Naked Spur (Anthony Mann) Night and the City (Jules Dassin) October: Ten Days That Shook The World (Grigori Aleksandrov, Sergei Eisenstein) Prescription Murder (Richard Irving) The Prince and the Showgirl (Laurence Olivier) Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (Guy Hamilton) The Rite (Ingmar Bergman) Run For The Sun (Roy Boulting) Satan’s Triangle (Sutton Roley) The Sin of Nora Moran (Phil Goldstone) They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! (Gordon Douglas) What’s Up, Doc? / Nickelodeon (Peter Bogdanovich)
∙ Matthew ‘Meat Loaf’ Aday ∙ Kirstie Alley ∙ Angelo Badalamenti ∙ Jules Bass ∙ Jean-Jacques Beineix ∙ James Bidgood ∙ Peter Bogdanovich ∙ Michel Bouquet ∙ Peter Bowles ∙ James Caan ∙ Irene Cara ∙ Jean-Claude Carrière ∙ Jack Charles ∙ Robbie Coltrane ∙ Kevin Conroy ∙ Bernard Cribbins ∙ Myléne Demongeot ∙ Ruggero Deodato ∙ Louise Fletcher ∙ Clarence Gilyard Jr ∙ Daniela Giordano ∙ Jean-Luc Godard ∙ Clu Gulager ∙ Philip Baker Hall ∙ Anne Heche ∙ Mike Hodges ∙ Bo Hopkins ∙ Marsha Hunt ∙ Artis ‘Coolio’ Ivey Jr ∙ Just Jaeckin ∙ L.Q. Jones ∙ Hardy Kruger ∙ Günter Lamprecht ∙ Angela Lansbury ∙ Ray Liotta ∙ Diane McBain ∙ Stuart Margolin ∙ Yvette Mimieux ∙ Roger E. Mosley ∙ Edson Arantes ‘Pelé’ do Nascimento ∙ Francesca ‘Kitten’ Natividad ∙ Olivia Newton-John ∙ Nichelle Nichols ∙ James Olson ∙ Irene Papas ∙ Evangelos ‘Vangelis’ Papathanassiou ∙ Nehemiah Persoff ∙ Wolfgang Petersen ∙ Leslie Phillips ∙ Sidney Poitier ∙ Andrew Prine ∙ Albert Pyun ∙ Bob Rafelson ∙ Ivan Reitman ∙ Henry Silva ∙ Paul Sorvino ∙ Larry Storch ∙ Venetia Stevenson ∙ Austin Stoker ∙ Jean-Marie Straub ∙ Alain Tanner ∙ Jean-Louis Trintignant ∙ Douglas Trumbull ∙ Gaspard Ulliel ∙ Monica Vitti ∙ ‘Jimmy’ Wang Yu ∙ Fred Ward ∙ David Warner ∙ Dennis Waterman ∙ Yoshishige ‘Kiju’ Yoshida ∙
Director: James Cameron Screenwriters: James Cameron, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers…
So, at long last, 13 years after Avatar hit movie screens and became in unadjusted terms the biggest movie of all time, James Cameron returns with a big, teetering second helping of adventure on Pandora. The interval was mostly forced by Cameron’s ceaseless push for technical advancement to outpace the ever-quickening assimilation of such achievement by the modern viewer. Meanwhile the intervening years have been made to feel even longer by all the cultural commentators repeatedly stating that Avatar supposedly left no cultural footprint, in contrast to other pop cultural colossi like Gone With The Wind (1939), The Godfather (1972), Star Wars (1977), E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), or even Cameron’s own Titanic (1997), which did indeed often generate quotes and directorial visions that sank deep into the popular consciousness. Certainly no-one’s been getting around saying “I see you” since 2009, but on the other hand the images of Avatar remain instantly recognisable. I made no bones about enjoying the film enormously back then and today still feel one of its best qualities is also its most salient feature of general criticism – Cameron applied his showmanship to a familiar space opera storyline and quasi-mythic template, engaging with fanciful scientific and mystical concepts but weaving it all around a story that paid many nods to pulp adventure and scientifiction writing like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan and Barsoom tales, whilst blending in overtones of revisionist Westerns like A Man Called Horse (1972) and Dances With Wolves (1990). There was, then, something wilfully classical about Avatar, coexisting with the cutting-edge showmanship and loopy blend of hi-tech dreaming and new-age mysticism, and that choice allowed Cameron to easily sell to the audience a lot of images and ideas that were actually extremely bizarre.
In that long interval much has changed: Cameron’s regular collaborator, the composer James Horner, died in a plane crash in 2015, and Twentieth Century Fox, the once-mighty film studio that backed Avatar, has now been redesignated by its new Disney overlords as merely Twentieth Century Film, as if to coldly declare anything it releases to be yesterday’s news. Some enthusiasm for an Avatar sequel probably has bled off in that time. But that’s arguably counterbalanced by a building mystique, fuelled by the prospect that whatever Cameron was cooking up, it wouldn’t just be any old buck-chasing rehash. It’s also left Cameron in an awkward position, appealing to a movie audience the greater bulk of which would have been kids when they first watched Avatar, or perhaps never saw it or barely remember it, and a pulse of anxiety has been amplified by the peculiar and worrying moment of cinema-going we’re currently in. It’s hard not to root for Cameron and Avatar: The Way of Water, in part because whilst it is a sequel, it is at least Cameron’s sequel, based in his own material and tackled with all the outsized enthusiasm the man brings to his blockbusters, in an age where audiences have been depressingly eager to surrender any hint of artistic interest in cinema product so long as franchising is served up with consistent baseline competence. A sequel to Avatar must partly serve the purpose of reiterating the basic proposition and recapturing some of its more peculiar facets, particularly the way the original film offered a type of extended fantasy travelogue in its midsection. Cameron knows his way around sequels, with his script for Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and his own Aliens (1986) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). With each of those films, Cameron essentially reused the skeleton of the original film’s plot and essential elements, whilst riffing on them in other ways, greatly amplifying their scope and swapping in clever new variations on basic ideas, like the alien queen and the liquid metal T-1000.
So it didn’t surprise me that much when The Way of Water essentially does the same thing. Cameron kicks off the film with Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) bringing us up to speed on what’s transpired since he was fully assimilated into the Na’vi and kicked the wicked human capitalist exploiters off Pandora. This opening narration immediately inspires a little narrative whiplash, particularly as Jake mentions that not only have he and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) had three children of their own – Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) – but they’ve also become adoptive parents to two more. One is Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), born out of Dr Grace Augustine’s mindless Na’vi avatar in a perplexing event, and a young human boy nicknamed Spider (Jack Champion), who was left behind with Augustine’s scientific team by the fleeing humans because he was too young for cryogenic stasis. Spider splits his time between the Na’vi fort and the laboratory still run by Na’vi-allied human scientists including Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore) and Max Patel (Dileep Rao). The question of who fathered Kiri and Spider is raised, although only that of Spider is answered in the course of the film: turns out he’s the son of the late Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), a fact that sits uneasily in the back of the young man’s mind but doesn’t seem too important.
But then a fleet of human spaceships arrive again on Pandora, this time with the object of transforming the planet into a human colony to escape a dying Earth. With them comes a gang of “recombinants,” Na’vi bodies created from the genetic material of Quaritch and the other soldiers in his old squad and reunited with their saved memories and personalities, specifically to exploit their ingrained knowledge of fighting on Pandora. The reborn Quaritch, whilst readily perceiving himself as something different to what he used to be, nonetheless is exactly the same total jerkwad as ever, and delights in being set loose on Pandora to track down and kill Jake and Neytiri. Jake, Neytiri, their kids and clan recommence their guerrilla war on the invaders, but the children are captured by Quaritch and his unit. Jake and Neytiri attack and manage to free them all except for Spider. Quaritch intervenes to stop the new military commander of the invaders, General Ardmore (Edie Falco), from using torturous brain scans to force information about the family’s whereabouts from his “son,” instead using more psychological pressure to force Spider to become his guide and translator.
Meanwhile, realising the danger, Jake insists that the family flee their home and travel out to oceanic islands inhabited by the Metkayina, water-dwelling Na’vi who have evolved thick tails and arms specifically for swimming. They also have close relations with the tulkun, a species of whale-like creatures with advanced and communicative intelligence, but also an ethos of total pacifism that leaves them vulnerable to human predation. The Metkayina chieftain Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and his shamanka-like wife Ronal (Kate Winslet) uneasily let the Sully clan into their midst, and Jake in turn demands his kids toe the line with the Metkayina, but after being bullied by Tonowari and Ronal’s son Aonung (Filip Geljo) and his pals, Neteyam and Lo’ak brawl with them. Under the guise of making peace, Aonung and his gang talk Lo’ak into accompanying them out to fish in the open ocean, but then abandon Lo’ak. He’s nearly eaten by a giant predator, but is rescued by a tulkun named Payakan, who’s an outcast from his kind because he once tried to fight back against human hunters.
The shift in locale from the lush forests of the previous film’s locations allows Cameron a new stage to purvey the pure immersive appeal of exploring his created environments, as the Sully clan are introduced to the oceanic environs the Metkayina live in. This entails challenges of adaptation for the formerly arboreal family, like swapping their pterodactyl-like, symbiotically-linked Mountain Banshee mounts for a new species that seem like cross-breeds of barracuda and flying fish, allowing them to not just wing over water but dive under it as well. As with the previous film, these environs and the creatures living in them are fantastically magnified versions of more prosaically familiar earthly things that gloss them over with a new coat of strangeness and luminous spectacle, even if the invention never quite gets as pleasantly nutty as the previous film’s floating mountains. Where the Na’vi were a melange of different indigenous American nations, the Metkayina are based pretty baldly on Polynesian and Maori culture (it’s also amusing to see the digitally transformed Winslet, who first gained attention in Heavenly Creatures, 1994, and Curtis, who became an international character actor on the back of Once Were Warriors, 1994, united in an accidental nod to the glories of mid-1990s New Zealand cinema — even if neither actor really gets much to do). Cameron treads oddly similar territory here to where his fellow digi-visionary blockbuster auteur George Lucas went with Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) with his visions of wicked machines descending from the sky and torching the natural environment, and Cameron blatantly makes the similarity plainer when he repeats the “always a bigger fish” joke from the Lucas film.
The choice of shifting much of the focus of the story of The Way of Water onto the next generation is one that most clearly echoes what Cameron did on Terminator 2. Where young John Connor was a wayward product of a quasi-countercultural youth terminally on the outs with the square world he’s forced to subsist in whilst being constantly conscious of another, impending reality, the Sully youngsters are conscious of their status of mutts born between species and cultures, anointing with both burdens and special status, although Spider has some of John’s PG-swearing attitude. Cameron puts much emphasis on the youngsters of the family trying to find their way and negotiate familiar problems of growing up, particularly in the elder brothers’ clashes with the snooty local youths who like teasing and hazing the new kids on the block. Kiri, meanwhile, emerges as the most interesting of the new characters, with her bizarre birth and hazy heritage, adrift with a moony fascination for the world and stirring mysterious interactions with it, that even strikes the Na’vi as pretty odd. The sight (and sound) of Weaver rendered as an alien adolescent is amusing enough in itself, but also gives the part some curious note of pathos: where much of the recent craze for wielding de-aging digital technology has been applied for pretty cynical ends, or was used by Martin Scorsese on The Irishman (2019) for discomforting musing on aging on screen, Cameron seems genuinely delighted by the possibility of setting such things in flux.
Like many very successful late-career filmmakers, Cameron’s become relatively indifferent to expected standards of realism, going instead for instantly legible visual mystique and dialogue that, whilst inflected with contemporary argot, is pitched on a level designed to be accessible to the young and to resonate on an essential level. The Way of Water strongly reminded me of a brand of family entertainments that used to be reasonably common on screen and in books, those ones where a gang of kids would be living on a permanent safari or the like because their parents had a weird job, and their ranks would be both open and loyal in all sorts of all-together-now fun – actually, Noel Marshall’s Roar (1981) is a good, if particularly unnerving example of that – as well as more reminiscent of classic Disney live-action adventure movies than anything Disney makes now. I sincerely mean this as a compliment. Cameron’s insistent (bordering on bullhorned) approach to his environmental themes, as the youngsters are appalled to register violations of the natural world they intermingle with, echoes those kinds of stories too. Not that Cameron’s gone entirely soft: The Way of Water is still a big, booming action-adventure movie where the audience is however ironically encouraged to cheer when the nasty, exploitative humans get their violent comeuppance. Indeed, he expressly set out to create an interesting tension between the idea that advanced intelligence leads to more pacifistic behaviour, as expressed through the tulkun, and its impossibility when faced with naked aggression.
A while ago I pondered the notion that Cameron might indeed by modern cinema’s preeminent, old-school, capital-R Romantic artist. The fascinating result of watching Cameron’s output back-to-back was coming to recognise this, not just in the vast concepts but in the sense of passion as a world-reshaping force, as expressed in his crucial relationships. Cameron certainly invites overt connection with some greats of the Romantic school, most obviously his variations on the Frankenstein mythos of Mary Shelley. Of course, that could be just the pervasive influence on the genre Cameron works in, but he’s also gone further, annexing the specifically North American mythos of the likes of James Fenimore Cooper and Herman Melville and their own engagement with ideas out of Rousseau. Cameron’s fascination for technology, the foe of the Romantic Movement when it emerged in the late 1700s, might seem to preclude that, but for Cameron technology is both the tool of realising his fantasies and, within the frame of those fantasies, a source of monumental contradiction. Indeed, it emerges that Cameron loves tech because it allows Romantic concepts to regain precedence from realism; whether positively or negatively or with aspects of both, the success or failure of the tech shatters the stolid world and unleashes his heroes and their passions. That aforementioned similarity to The Phantom Menace also recalls how that film dipped a toe into a Wagnerian sense of the natural and spiritual world being violated by the spirit of industrialised greed.
Most of Cameron’s films, ranging from the dread apocalyptic fantasies of the Terminator films to the disintegrating modern dream of Titanic that specifically kills off both the Romantic artist and the aristocratic world that couched the style, and the dreams of perfect fusion found in The Abyss (1989) and the first Avatar, contended with that ambivalence. For Cameron technology had the ironic promise of stirring atavistic potential, repopulating the world with demons like the Terminators and neo-knights like the steel-suited Ripley. Again, also pervasive in the genre, but Cameron seems highly conscious of the traditions he works in. Here he wades into the south sea dreaming of Melville’s Omoo and Typee before wholeheartedly offering a variation on Moby Dick as retold from the whale’s point of view. Cameron’s well-known passion for the ocean, which evidently combines a healthy sense of unease with awe, is worked through here at length, as it presents an obvious example of a world that is at once familiar but also eternally alien to humanity. Cameron nudged quasi-transcendental territory with The Abyss and the blatantly angelic look of the aliens in that movie who have developed their technology to the state where there is no tension between it and their natural environment, leading to his messianic climax, in a grandiose cinematic articulation of Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim that technology rendered on an unrecognisably advanced level might as well be magic.
Cameron was of course pinching heavily from Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) there, but Spielberg is less a Romantic than a curious blend of modernist sceptic and Old Testament thaumaturg. Cameron in Avatar finally went over his own theoretical horizon by presenting the fantasy of a natural system so complete and connected it essentially makes technology unnecessary, even primitive-seeming, so long as one developed sufficiently to meet it half-way: it was not so much an abandonment of technology as an attempt to imaginatively synthesis something that serves the same function. That system works not just as a great communication network but contains the memories of its world in a kind of spiritual database. Cameron tries to give this some specific new expressions in The Way of Water, particularly through Kiri, who has a peculiar relationship with Eywa, as the Na’vi call the planetary deity-consciousness that permeates all the life-forms of Pandora to some degree. Kiri’s first attempt to plug into the Metkayina’s local version of the spirit tree like the others can results in her suffering a seizure that gets diagnosed as something like epilepsy after having a vision of her “mother,” only for her to later try it under extreme pressure and reveal uncanny control that allows her to kill a couple of pursuers. Cameron keeps mum to a potentially frustrating degree about what’s going on here, which he plainly means to get into more in the next instalment. I could nonetheless venture a thesis – that Kiri likely had no father and instead is the spontaneously generated attempt by Eywa to reincarnate Grace, and came out connected to Eywa to a unique degree: she can’t link to the spirit tree because she is one.
Cameron seems to be pinching ideas from Frank Herbert’s Dune novels throughout here, with the recombinants reminiscent of Herbert’s gholas, Kiri resembling a less freaky variation on the super-consciousness-inheriting Alia, and the tulkuns as much friendlier sandworms. Fair play – Cameron seems more interested in those ideas and their potential that Denis Villeneuve’s recent hemi-adaptation of Dune was. The first Avatar came out at a time when the pervasiveness of the internet and the truth of a new kind of reality it was fostering had become undeniable, and Cameron’s portrayal of the human operators and their projected selves finding new truth in an extra-reality wonderland felt timely, even if he never let it get in the way of a good story. Today, the internet’s more unsettling traits have become plainer, but Cameron isn’t interested in reflecting on that, in large part because he’s now dealing with experience more explicitly related to the body, of changes to the body and its expressed meaning, which is also touching on fashionable concerns, if less encompassing ones. Repeatedly throughout Cameron explores the idea of a kind of afterlife made possible through both digital transmission and rehousing in the recombinants, and through the great neural function of Eywa, where consciousnesses live on and can be communed with in some form.
The release of the original Avatar inspired a fascinating variety of responses for what it entailed for the culture at large, ranging from right-wing readings dismayed by its environmentalist stance and borderline-misanthropic anger, to accusations from some leftists of dated racism and much musing over contradictions regarding Cameron’s imperial might as a film technician and what he chose to celebrate with it. Meanwhile its general success signalled that, over and above his great skill and showman’s instinct apparent purely on a filmmaking level, Cameron had the pulse of the mass audience still, speaking directly to common fantasies and worries. I don’t really know if The Way of Water will set any of that stuff in motion again. One of the values of sci-fi is of course that it offers a stage to explore such things on a quasi-abstract, displaced level: Avatar reflected on such things on the level of a parable, proposing what it would look if, say, one encountered an ecosystem as one, giant, literal living thing. The disparity with life as we know it is obvious: nature doesn’t work like that, at least no on this planet, and so we’ve been obliged to utilise the world to meet our needs, if indeed to the degree of forming contempt for it. The Na’vi are gifted a kind of exceptionalism because they know Eywa on a direct level, without which they might seem obnoxiously arrogant. Here Cameron does tacitly admit that they are a little, when he has the Sully children browbeaten by the Metkayina brats both as outsiders and as half-breeds. Their enclosed and sufficient world would likely to be even more, and not less, allergic to and intolerant of alienness and outsiders.
Which is perhaps the chief way The Way of Water is a trifle disappointing: Cameron backs away from offering any kind of dialogue or argument of values, of taking his concepts deeper. Even the Wachowskis with their forsaken The Matrix sequels dared to deconstruct their basic power fantasy, as did Lucas. Again, Cameron might be saving that for a later instalment, but I still felt a nibble of frustration as he shifted from an extrapolated “save the rainforest” message to “save the whales.” Quaritch and his team, meaning to track down the Sullys after catching wind of their general location, pressgangs some tulkun hunters into transporting them there and, once he grasps the power of the relationship between the Metkayina and the tulkuns, encourages the hunters to start killing close to the islands, to draw out resistance, and the Sullys very likely with them. Cameron stages a suitably spectacular and nakedly heart-rending sequence of the hunters, led by their ratbag captain Scoresby (Brendan Cowell), chasing down and killing a tulkun mother, a laborious process as the tulkuns have tough, bony bodies and have to be finished off with an explosive harpoon. Cameron gives a further kick in the ribs when he reveals the object of the hunt boils down to a couple of litres of brain fluid that has unique aging-halting properties, now the leading commercial prize on Pandora. This is nominally better as a plot propeller than the previous film’s notorious (perhaps unfairly so given its basis in theoretical physics) “Unobtainium,” and does actually reflect on some unpleasant facts about a long history of animal exploitation. Nonetheless it provokes many questions, as to when and how the humans discovered these properties, and how it became such a priority in the course of the very recent return of the colonial mission. It’s also very plainly there to make the audience whoop when the time to kick ass finally arrives.
Which takes some time, as The Way of Water resists simply leaping into all-action shenanigans, which could be a plus or minus depending on how it strikes you. Cameron deliberately stymies Jake, the accomplished swashbuckler, as he’s now a protective family man playing nice on someone else’s turf. After Lo’ak is nearly killed early in the film, when Jake and the Na’vi blow up a maglev train built through the jungle, Jake becomes increasingly concerned by his second son’s seeming recklessness in the face of danger, and his brood’s general difficulty with the concept of obeying orders. Lo’ak meanwhile feels like he’s considered less worthy compared to his more circumspect older brother, but his disaffection and determination to prove himself ultimately help him connect with Payakan, another being stray from his flock. Lo’ak tries to make others see the worth of Payakan, even as he’s told the reason why the other tulkun shun him. The chain of relations, elemental as they are, nonetheless accrue substance through insistence: connection, whether it be friendship, between Lo’ak and Payakan, synergetic, as between the Metkayina and the tulkuns, romantic, as between Neteyam and Reya (Baiey Bass), the chieftain’s willowy daughter, or familial, between the Sullys and even the Quaritchs, is a constant in this world, echoing in the mirroring father-son conflicts and played out on a more ethereal level by Kiri, who is at once an orphan and an expression of the very planet’s need for connection.
Quaritch in the first film was a heightened caricature of American militarist machismo, imbued with the traits of an explicitly Ahab-like character, scarred by his encounter with the fierce and ungovernable wildlife and determined to decimate it all in the course of asserting power. Here Cameron makes the connection more overt as Quaritch oversees the tulkun hunt, even if it’s only a means to end. Meanwhile his methods for interrogating and browbeating Metkayina villagers, where Spider’s presence influences him to avoid executing prisoners but still burns down their homes, confirm the Vietnam War is still on Cameron’s mind. Bringing Quaritch back smacks of waned inspiration akin to the way Agent Smith became a boring fixture in The Matrix sequels, but also understandable, as Lang’s marvellously sullen and contemptuous aggression in the role was one of the first film’s most potent if unsubtle elements. Cameron signals intention to take Quaritch to peculiar places. Even as for the most part he’s just playing the matinee villain again this time around, Cameron broaches some of this intent, now that Quaritch is inhabiting a life form built for a new planet and must soon or later respond to its wavelengths, whilst his son is still thoroughly human but identifies with the Na’vi. Cameron pauses to note the profoundly dislocating spectacle of Quaritch, after recovering the filmed record of his human body’s death at the hands of Jake and Neytiri, witnessing that death as a viewer locked in a new and alien body. The possibility that Spider’s presence coaxes something like humanity out of the now-inhuman Quaritch is dangled throughout the film, and whilst he remains a monster, he finally does prove to have this one, particular weak spot. Spider’s increasingly horrified response to both Quaritch’s methods and the hunting of the tulkuns eventually drives him to intervene on his adopted family’s behalf in the climax, but then also repays a debt by saving Quaritch from the fruits of his own malevolence.
One element The Way of Water definitely lacks that buoyed the first film had was the surreal, fetish-fuel romance of Jake and Neytiri. The love affairs here, such as between Neteyam and Reya and Spider and Kiri, are by comparison only glanced over, and don’t have the same playfully transgressive quality. The emphasis on Lo’ak’s journey also means that Kiri, who has the more intriguing story if less immediately important for how the plot resolves, isn’t given as much time as she deserves. Jake and Neytiri finally reclaim their eminence in the climax when they go on the warpath to save their brood from Quaritch, with Neytiri pushed to the edge of the genuinely unbalanced when the family take a brutal loss, reduced to taking Spider hostage to counter Quaritch and threatening to cut his throat. Which Spider seems oddly forgiving of later, but then again he’s not doing too well when it comes to parental figures. When push does come to shoot, the wrath of the Metkayina as they charge out to assault the humans is nothing compared to the show-stopping spectacle of Payakan launching himself out of the water and crashing down upon the deck of the hunting craft in trying to save his tiny friend, dealing out righteous destruction and turning Quaritch’s contrived trap into a chaotic free-for-all that also rewrites Moby Dick sinking the Pequod and killing Ahab from grim expression of cosmic indifference and chaos to act of direct and vengeful justice, even down to Payakan taking out his most hated foe by wrapping him up in his own harpoon line.
Whatever one thinks of Cameron’s extension of his mythos, it’s impossible to deny the man still knows how to make a movie on the biggest scale possible, and that’s become a rare gift even in an age where every two-bit director seems to fancy themselves a pontential special effects epic maestro. The years spent refining the special effects have paid off: even if they still sometimes look like what they essentially are, a very sophisticated CGI cartoon, they have a lustre, a richness of colour and grain of detail, that’s quite astounding, particularly with what must have been the excruciatingly finicky work of making digital effects interact with water. Cameron has one of the most clean and fluidic eyes for graphics of any director working, refusing at any point to let the movie degenerate into a jumble of shots for their own sake even as elements pile up to a crazy degree, so when the action finally, properly busts out in the climax it comes with exhilarating force: on a first viewing it leaves a delirious impression of charging flying fish rides and wild underwater battles with mechanical crabs and aerial assaults from a berserker Neytiri. Cameron has some fun tossing in touches ripped off from his own films, in his own aesthetic form of recombinant and daring the audience to call him on it – scenes recalling Titanic as the heroes and villains are trapped within the capsized and flooding hunting ship, Neytiri losing Tuk down a chute a la Ripley and Newt in Aliens, and nods to the angelic aliens of The Abyss as Kiri straps to her back a jellyfish-like creature that works like a scuba tank and spreads gleaming wing-like fronds.
The oddest and most stirring quality of The Way of Water is that it is, even more than its precursor, at once deeply misanthropic and perfectly idealistic, even corny (dig the Tinkerbell-esque way Kiri helps track down the trapped family in the ship), in the way it manipulates a puppet theatre of human facets, the clash between cruelty and empathy, destruction and protection, playing upon the desire for grand new landscapes whilst also insistently reminding us of how we’ve fouled up the ones we know too well. Cameron’s always been a fascinating bundle of contradictions, a male action movie director famed for female protagonists, who populates his tech-heavy films with some of the few memorable romances in recent popular cinema, a control freak who often delivers antiestablishment messages through the ungainly vehicles of colossal blockbusters. And he goes on being one even as the imaginative constructs of the Avatar universe labour so urgently to find some point of fusion for them all. Avatar: The Way of Water is also many warring things, a failure of imagination on some levels and a spectacular and hugely entertaining expression of it on others, a long and clunky example of franchise cinema but also a full-blooded, gleeful relief from it, a film that does its best to satisfy on its own merits whilst keeping on an eye on things still in the future.
Director: Tomu Uchida Screenwriter: Naoyuki Suzuki
By Roderick Heath
A Fugitive From The Past has been repeatedly voted by Japanese critics as one of the best films ever made in their country. But the film and its director, Tomu Uchida, remain largely obscure outside it. Uchida’s life contained some swerves worthy of his own epic narratives. Born in 1898, Uchida was born with the given name Tsunejirō but chose a professional name that translates, most evocatively, as “to spit out dreams.” Uchida gained a reputation at Nikkatsu Studios as a screenwriter and quickly graduated to directing. His films were hailed for their politically progressive bent and dashes of satire, but only four of his pre-World War II works survive today. Foiled in his time by increasingly strict censorship to ply his political agenda, Uchida quit Nikkatsu in 1941 and, after a failed bid to start his own production company, joined a Japanese sponsored film company being set up in occupied Manchuria. Uchida never got to make a movie there, but after the war’s end he stayed on in China until 1953. When he finally returned to Japan, Uchida joined Toei Studios, and quickly re-established himself with Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji (1955), a comeback that won him immediate plaudits. He sustained his commercial fortunes with a series about Miyamoto Musashi, which some prefer to Hiroki Inagaki’s better-known Samurai trilogy.
Uchida’s subsequent work became admired in spite of his nominal status as a studio hand for his ability to take on any studio assignment and bend it to fit his interest, and tackle it with such restive creative energy that even as a new generation of spiky filmmaking talents emerged in the so-called Japanese New Wave, Uchida not only kept up but forced the pace. Many perceived Uchida’s post-war work as taking on a darker, less idealistic hue, bearing the imprint of what he had seen in the war’s closing years out in the failed imperial annexes, and remained even more determined to wrestle with social issues, including with his 1958 film The Outsiders, which dealt with the often marginalised Ainu people of Hokkaido. A Fugitive From The Past was not his last film (that would be the sixth entry in his Musashi series, released in 1971), but it’s generally taken to be his crowning achievement. Uchida’s film takes up an expansive vantage, connecting the fetid post-war climes and the rapidly evolving, wilfully blinders-wearing country it was becoming by the 1960s, and noting how one connects to the other. A Fugitive From The Past, based on a novel by Tsutomu Minakami and produced at Toei Studios, can be broadly described as a crime drama, a manhunt tale familiar from generations of police procedurals, but mixed in with a contemporary, cinematic take on classics of early realist fiction, particularly Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and added dashes of film noir and neorealism.
Uchida uses this framework to depict Japan’s recovery from hard-scrabble desperation to economic powerhouse, but with suppurating wounds to body and soul still under the veneer of restored prosperity. The film begins in September 1947, a time when the landscape is crawling with repatriated servicemen and colonists left deprived and without a toehold in a land that’s already been devastated by war. A powerful typhoon rolls in from the Pacific to pummel northern Japan, destroying towns and causing the sinking of the Sounmaru, a coastal passenger vessel, whilst crossing the Tsugarū Strait between Hokkaido and Honshu. This event, whilst fictional, seems inspired by a destructive typhoon that did much the same in 1954, and Uchida uses some newsreel footage from it. Two ex-servicemen and jailbirds, Hachiro Numata (Itsuma Mogami) and Chukichi Kijima (Mitsuo Andô), break into the house of a pawnbroker named Sasada to rob it, finally killing Sasada, his wife, and child, and set fire to the house to cover their tracks. The fire spreads and soon consumes the entire town of Iwanai, driven by the typhoon’s strengthening wind. The two criminals meet up with a third man, Takichi Inugai (Rentarō Mikuni), a big and muscular man, and they try to make their escape by train to the coast and then by ferry, but the typhoon shuts down the train. Walking to the shore, the three men see the frenzied rescue operation being thrown together to save the passengers of the Sounmaru. The fugitives take a rowboat and pretend to be in the rescue party, braving the choppy seas.
Amidst the destruction and chaos wrought by the typhoon, evidence of malfeasance soon begins to emerge. Rescue workers sifting through the rubble of Iwanai discover the dead family. As well as the 532 victims from the Sounmaru retrieved from the waters of the strait, searchers find the bodies of two unidentified men who don’t seem to have been aboard that vessel and who bear signs of having been bludgeoned rather than drowned. The assigned police investigator, Detective Yumisaka (Junzaburō Ban), has the two men buried rather than cremated, so they might be identified later. He soon gets a visit from a prison director, Sumoto (Genji Kawai) who has guessed the two dead men are Numata and Kijima because the recent crime sounds very much like the one that landed Numata in jail in the first place. When one of Yumisaka’s deputies interviews the manager of a hot spring hotel the Sasadas stayed at, he learns Numata and Kijima stayed there at the same time in the company of Inugai, the one man now not accounted for. Yumisaka, assembling the clues he’s uncovered, theorises that Inugai killed the other two men to claim all 800,000 yen they stole, dumped their bodies in the strait, and continued on to land on the shore of Shimokito Peninsula, Honshu’s northernmost point. There, Yumisaka decides when he finds a pile of ashes that Inugai disposed of the boat not by trying to sink it, but used his great strength the drag it piece by piece up a cliff face and burn it up on a bonfire.
One reason perhaps A Fugitive From The Past speaks so potently to Japanese viewers but finds difficulty in translation is that Uchida offers the film as a succession of fractured and furiously alternated styles of moviemaking. To foreign viewers then and now, Japanese cinema might mean the observational domesticity of Yasujiro Ozu, the concerted naturalism of Kenji Mizoguchi, the hard modernist glaze of Akira Kurosawa and Masaki Kobayashi, the jagged iconoclasm of Shohei Imamura, Nagisa Oshima, or Seijun Suzuki, or the anxious fantasies of Ishiro Honda. Uchida defies any categorisation with this film because he seems to contain all of the above, compressing eras and modes of cinema into a uniquely effective gestalt that seems determined to try and use every tool at his disposal. Within the first half-hour he moves through aesthetic postures of coolly detailed docudrama, urgent noir adventure, and expressionist-surrealist spiritual fable. Uchida’s films had already experimented in radical stylistic shifts: his 1962 film The Mad Fox blended aspects of kabuki theatre and madcap animation for a result that’s been called one of the weirdest movies ever made. An introductory voiceover in A Fugitive From The Past recalls the kabuki tradition of the explanatory benshi, pronouncing sonorously over footage of the rolling waves of Tsugaru that “love and hate reside in its depths, people with great hearts tortured by misery.”
Uchida wields this instability to articulate his sense of things at war – past and present, law and criminal, nature and human systems, individual and cosmic order, earthbound bodies and spiritual planes. It also suits the film’s winding narrative flow, shifting between viewpoints at will to weave an impression of an epoch as well as individuals. The opening recounts the events of the typhoon, shifting from the benshi-like voice to a more familiar kind of narrator recounting the events of the disaster in dry, factual-sounding detail over interpolated documentary footage. This gives way to staged, frenetic impressions of disaster. Rescuers pushing boats into the surf. Survivors of the Sounmaru clinging to a life raft. Fishing boats bearing burning torches bearing down on the capsized hull of the ship. From the outset Uchida’s attempts to make the texture of the film itself expressive are apparent: he shot the film on 16mm and blew it up 35mm to achieve a grainy, rough-hewn look at war with the inherent elegance of the widescreen framing. He frequently makes recourse to vertiginous-feeling handheld camerawork. The three criminals flee the scene of the crime in shuddering tracking shots, and brave the pummelling elements in their need to reach the coast. As Yumisaka begins to piece together the various twists in the mystery, he first envisions the three criminals together burning their boat, an imagined scene that Uchida films in negative effect, a device he’ll return to repeatedly throughout the film to evoke delirium and frenzy in interludes suggesting the lurking, insidious presence of uncanny forces at work.
Yumisaka’s detective work is on the money, as Inugai meanwhile is making the arduous trek across a stretch of blasted and ash-strewn volcanic ground. Gaining forested area, Inugai comes across a hut and peeks within. There he sees an Itako, a kind of medium, performing a spirit-summoning rite for some mourning relatives: Inugai is highly disturbed by the woman’s performance, including her seemingly blind white eyes and baleful promises of hell and damnation, as if sensing his presence and addressing him. Again Uchida shifts into negative image, smudging distinction between Inugai’s pathologically guilty viewpoint and the actual presence of uncanny forces. Fleeing onwards, Inugai boards a train to the town of Ominato. Yae Sugito (Sachiko Hidari), a young woman also on the train, sees Inugai’s desperately famished expression and shares some rice dumplings she has. Later, when he reaches Ominato, Inugai again encounters Yae, who is working as a prostitute in a local brothel in a failing effort to pay of some lingering family debts because her father is unable to work. Yae, delighted to see Inugai again, invites him into her room in the brothel. Inugai proves an eccentric, unstable, obsessive personality, immediately smitten with Inugai, despite his deeply alienated and traumatised disquiet. She tries to groom him, clipping his ragged nails and cutting his hair and shaving him, and soon she provokes him into having sex with her.
Uchida turns this seduction into a vignette at once intimate and peculiarly, almost indescribably epic. Yae is driven into paroxysms of laughter and wild behaviour as she mocks the rhetoric of the Itako that so frightened Inugai. She freaks out Inugai by wrapping herself in a blanket to impersonate a ghost, still howling with laughter, and wrestles with him until she provokes him into sex, bodies twisted in weird angles with intimations of violence – Inugai wraps his fingers around Yae’s throat in the throes of orgasm. Over all lurks the fog-shrouded heights of Osorezan, “the mountain that makes dead people talk,” the same volcano Inugai hiked over, and a candle flickers by a shrine dedicated to the mountain. Uchida deploys negative effects here again, and shoots the whole thing in one long, disorientating handheld shot, and scores the scene with uncanny-sounding monk chants. The next day Yae finds Inugai gone but has left behind 35,000 yen from the loot, an amount that allows Yae to quit whoring, get medical aid for her father, help her siblings, and finally set out on what she hopes will be a life-changing journey to live in Tokyo. Before she can depart, Yumisaka interviews her, having heard she entertained a tall stranger, but Yae puts him off the scent by giving false details for Inugai: “Help the cops?” she mutters disdainfully to herself after he leaves.
A Fugitive From The Past’s story traces the geographical length and historical breadth of Japan, with its bifurcated structure eventually leaping to the late 1950s, by which time the country has settled with at least an acceptable façade of calm and prosperity. The survey of the state of Japan in the first half presents a bleak picture of poverty-stricken, hopeless, violently uprooted people, a common state that connects people even if they’re not aware of it. The damage wrought by the typhoon can be read as a metaphorical version of the wartime bombing the country suffered, much as the storyline itself deals with the spectre of many wrongs taken and given during the war without explicitly hinging on this legacy. Uchida tells several different stories entwined with the core detective story, and the film’s multiple focal points – cops, criminals, waif – each elucidate a different reality contained with the nominally shared one. Inugai’s flight and attempts to elude capture, and the deliberate ambiguity of just what transpired out there on the stormy strait, is one story. The detective chasing him at first is the hero of another, if a semi-tragic one. Early on Uchida offers a scene of Yumisaka and his wife (Sachi Shindô) and two sons, who despite his having a solid job still resort to rationing to keep food on the table, and connects this with Inugai’s desperation and Yae’s entrapment. Yumisaka, who suffers from a chest ailment causing him to have coughing fits that only seem to grow worse over the course of the decade portrayed, becomes obsessed with locating Inugai and bringing him to book, the classic cop’s “white whale,” the cold case they can’t let go of. This fixation we later find causes his downfall and reduction to working as a guard in a reformatory. But it’s Yae whose viewpoint becomes the bridge of the two eras.
After Inugai’s pay-off to Yae, the film follows her entirely for a time. Just as Yumisaka remains preoccupied with Inugai as the emblem of all that’s evil at loose in the world, Yae keeps alive the flame of worship for him not just as a lover but a symbol of beneficence in all manifestations, whilst trying to make her way in the melting pot of Tokyo. Here the film pivots away from the police investigation and the running fugitive to become a quasi-neorealist portrait of Yae’s experiences, a city teeming with desperate and uprooted people. The capital proves a violent, dirty, teeming place, with a home in a shack on the fringe wastelands whilst working as a waitress-cum-spruiker for a tiny bar in the shanty world that’s sprung up in the lower depths of the cityscape. Uchida saves his most impressive technical feat for his first shot locating Yae in Tokyo, a long-take that begins with a rapid pullback zoom shot as he finds Yae trying to attract customers to the bar amidst prostitutes and good-time girls flocking about American GIs and other men. A gang of cops start chasing the hookers, driving Yae and the other women through the streets, camera tracking them as they dash until Yae breaks away from the others and takes refuge behind a pillar, the cops running past her. A poster Yae leans on comments, “to pay your taxes makes democracy work”. The shot still continues as it reaches as high as possible in a tracking crane shot, watching as Yae threads her way through the streets teeming with humanity and commerce, until finally reaching the refuge of her bar.
Yae’s workplace is a glorified cupboard with liquor bottles, frequented by local small-time hoods, and soon bigger gangsters looking to control the area. Blackouts are common. “Nothing to eat, no electricity, the girls sleep with the Yankees – it’s the end of the world!” one hood groans. Yae finds herself unwillingly caught between two mobs, one gangster showing her favour by giving her a gift of money, another taking the gift and then giving it back in a show of coercive magnanimity. Later Yae beholds a violent battle between the gangs, sparking a police intervention. Meanwhile Yumisaka has tracked Yae to Tokyo, after he becomes newly convinced she met Inugai, and he starts a stakeout of her home, only for Yae to see him as stares off in distraction when she comes home, and flees. Finally Yae finds work in another brothel, and even after the manager warns her, ““Certain clients are very brutal – do you know what I mean?”, she breaks tearfully in her happiness to have found refuge from the world. In the brothel she amasses a sizeable sum of money over the next few years. Finally Yae and the other whores in the brothel are told their trade is going to be outlawed, a signal step in the enforcement of a new age of moral and social order. At the same time, Yae sees a newspaper article about a reputable flour milling magnate named Kyōichirō Tarumi who’s recently made a large charitable donation for rehabilitating ex-cons, and immediately recognises his photo: Inugai.
Yae’s consuming passion for Inugai manifests in a most singular fashion, in a touch reminiscent of Luis Bunuel: she keeps a piece of Inugai’s clipped toenails as a totem, even fetish, of her benefactor. She occasionally unwraps it carefully from the piece of old newspaper she keeps it in, to pay homage and talk to as if personally communing with Inugai, dedicating her earnings to it, and even lying flat and caressing herself with it. Later, this totem of a deep and abiding passion becomes an exhibit in a crime investigation, transformed in the most dramatic fashion whilst remaining comically inert. Yae rather strongly recalls Les Miserables’ Fantine in her pathos, and she’s just as doomed. She travels to the town of Maizuru where the man named Tarumi lives, and settles down to talk with him in his house. When she reveals herself, Tarumi laughingly denies being Inugai, but when Yae sees his hand, still bearing the deformed marks of an injury he had when she met him, she erupts in hysterical delight and embraces him in frantic fashion just as she did years before. Inugai, desperate to dampen her shrieks, clamps his hand over her mouth, only to accidentally throttle her. When one of his employees, Takenaka (Junnosuke Takasu) enters and sees him with the corpse, Inugai chases him down and kills him too. He takes the two bodies to the coastline and dumps them in the ocean, hoping that even if they’re found they’ll be presumed to be a pair of lovers who killed themselves. When the bodies are found, the police investigator assigned to the grim discovery this time is the young and robust Detective Ajimura (Ken Takakura), who has his job made a little simpler by finding Yae’s newspaper clipping of the story about Tarumi still in her pocket.
Uchida released A Fugitive From The Past at a fraught moment in the history of Japanese cinema when the great classical period of the national cinema in the post-war moment was in decline and facing a change in generations and outlooks. Mizoguchi and Ozu had died, and Kurosawa had just released Red Beard (1965) ahead of a subsequent decade of heartbreak. Uchida’s film on the other hand seems like the work of a director just getting started, his unstable aesthetic melding some of the most classically admirable aspects of the national cinema with a new boldness, charged with nearly punkish energy in places, alternated with a dreamy poise and terse realism. A Fugitive From The Past bears some resemblance to a couple of Kurosawa’s well-known crime dramas: his post-war manhunt tale Stray Dog (1949) and the similarly odyssean, crisply widescreen-clamped kidnapping saga High and Low (1962), and the scenes of Yae in Tokyo recall not just Stray Dog but the likes of Mizoguchi’s reconstruction dramas too, like Women of the Night (1948). It also has similarities to Anatole Litvak’s TheNight of the Generals (1967) in portraying the hunt for a murderer after years of eluding police, similarly spanning and describing the post-war age. But A Fugitive From The Past is very much its own thing, scarcely with a likeness in cinema then and now, with its blend of rigorous detail flecked with surreal touches and overtones of spiritual parable, although Uchida’s much younger compatriots like Suzuki and Kihachi Okamoto were in a similar zone. The film’s influence would in turn be felt: Shohei Imamura would offer a direct tip of the hat to A Fugitive From Justice with his own epic depiction of a wandering killer, Vengeance Is Mine (1979), by casting Mikuni as the father of his nefarious outlaw.
Uchida connects Yae and Yumisaka in their disconsolate and meditative states, picking out in dawn vigils weighing the needs and quests that possess them. Yae, after fleeing her workplace when cops look for her there, sits staring down at some homeless urchins huddled around a scrap wood fire on some steps by a garbage-clogged canal. Yumisaka wanders from his home down to the shoreline, in a scene of hazy poetry, the detritus of a pummelled modern civilisation – beached hulks and dreary lights and spidery power masts – littered amidst swaying reeds and shrines and distant mountains under watery clouds out of a Ukiyo-e painting, as the policeman ponders the details of the case all the while. The shift from one timeframe to another is simply stated by the sight of a train trundling through the rebuilt Tokyo, giving way in turn to the sight of a crowd enjoying festivities, Yae and other prostitutes merrily rocking in their midst. The crucial scene of Yae and Inugai’s first tussle, with its depiction of chaotic emotions and bodies, matched to dread-provoking musical and visual cues suggesting this is taking place in a hellish netherworld, recalls Nabuo Nakagawa’s efforts at illustrating a Buddhist concept of Hell after a similarly realistic crime drama in Jigoku (1960), although Uchida stops short of actually depicting the netherworld. He rather presents this sense of dread presentiment as psychological, pushing Inugai and Yae towards destruction.
Yae’s wild and inchoate passion for Inugai seems to come of a distant past, a survival of primal feeling into a septic modern age, violently contrasting Inugai’s status as a construct of that modern age, fleeing poverty and a grim determinism in identity – he’s later revealed to have come from a dirt-poor background – in favour of a constructed veneer of respectability. As a young policeman notes late in the film when trying to formulate an understanding of his quarry, the very presence of a large sum of money to a man like Inugai entirely distorts gravity and rewrites all morality. Uchida contrasts his hunger, however understandable, with Yae’s use of the money he gives her, using it to save her family, and becoming a spur to accumulating her own small fortune, however painfully earned. Inugai proves no Monsieur Madeleine, but his lot is laden with bleak ironies that could break a saint – the only deliberate crime he’s ultimately guilty of is the murder of Takenaka, even if both his end and Yae’s stem directly from his overriding need to hang onto the identity he’s given himself in the world.
Meanwhile the two generations of detective, Yumisaka and Ajimura, try to understand such jagged, cruel, incoherent personal experiences via the scant traces left in their wake. Yumisaka keeps a bundle of ash from the burned boat in a handkerchief, a rhyme and companion piece of tell-tale evidence to Yae’s toenail shrine: both prove crucial in the climactic scenes to cracking Inugai’s mask of denial, signifying as they do to him moments of terrible consequence for himself, events that suddenly have physical substance, rather than remaining quarantined in memory. Yumisaka and his fellow cops’ efforts are recounted with a precise depiction of method, trackers following virtually invisible threads that lead off into the tangled heart of a frenzied age. In these portions, A Fugitive From The Past tells a relatively conventional detective story, albeit one that’s patient and countenances the apparent breakdown of the method: Yumisaka eventually runs into a dead end, and realises it’s a human foiling him, in the form of Yae, who has the natural peasant’s disdain for representatives of power, however well-motivated. Even the briefest moment of taking his eyes off the prize, when he fails to see Yae at her Tokyo shack, costs him to an incalculable degree. Despite all this the detectives become the only ones left to testify to Yae’s life, gleaning great facts from signifiers as seemingly pathetic as a toenail, the cops revealed as frustrated artists and priests trying to understand the nature of desire, loss, guilt, and death. The very idea of detective work is then ultimately changed from something dryly factual to a process demanding empathy and a feel for implication.
Central to this is Yumisaka’s redemptive arc: rediscovered looking shabby, defeated, and forgotten by Ajimura, the former detective nonetheless recalls his old case in perfect detail, and Ajimura decides to bring him in on the investigation. When Yumisaka takes leave of his wife and now-grown sons, the boys refuse to loan him some money for his trip, as they still feel the sullen humiliation of his father’s downfall for an obsession that’s suddenly awakened again. Nonetheless, one of the sons, Ichiro (Mineo Matsudaira), has a sudden change of heart and gives a wad of cash to the other son (Kiyoshi Matsukawa), who then runs after his father to hand it over, in a droll long shot and fade-out that scribbles a simple, sufficient signature on one aspect of the drama. Later, Ajimura’s chief (Susumu Fujita, one-time star of Kurosawa’s Sanshiro Sugata, 1943) is seen performing a tea ceremony for Yumisaka, indicating his resurgence as a man worthy of respect and honour, an elder of the tribe finally installed in his rightful place as sage counsel. Once Ajimura, the chief, and other cops settle down to interview “Tarumi”, with Yumisaka looking on in silence, Inugai fends off their questions ably with clear and vehement answers, but something about his manner leaves the chief unsatisfied, and he orders his men to go out and check on every detail of his story. Ajimura turns up the crucial evidence amongst Yae’s possessions of the toenail clipping and her stash of money, which was still wrapped in a newspaper page reporting on the Sounmaru disaster that Inugai left her his gift in.
Finally, when confronted by the toenail clipping Inugai breaks down and begins explaining the events of 1947, swearing that Numata and Kijima caused their own deaths by trying to kill each-other and Inugai himself, in their determination to claim the money. Inugai becomes insistent on the cops saying they believe this part of his account before saying anymore, and the police argue over how to make sure Inugai keeps confessing. Even Yumisaka admits that, after years of hating his phantom quarry, he thinks Inugai is telling the truth. Nonetheless he confronts Inugai in a holding cell with the bundle of ashes and tells him he hates him for his cruelty to Yae. But Inugai demands anxiously to be taken back to Hokkaido before he’ll say more. Uchida gives insight to Inugai’s mental space as the police take him north by train, as he’s haunted by Yae’s protestations of love. On the ferry crossing the Tsugarū, Yumisaka urges Inugai to aid him in a prayer ritual for Yae, tossing flowers over the side into the waters, which on this day are placid and pellucid in their shimmering beauty. Inugai promptly leaps over the railing and plunges into the sea, sinking into the depths, the cops roaring out and dashing to the stern in total impotence. Uchida fades out only after a long, boding shot looking back along the ship’s rolling wake, with the ghostly choirs echoing on the soundtrack as if welling out of the depths, a scene at once eerie and beatific, resolving a film constantly in restless motion with a last note of mourning reverie.
Todd Field first caught eyes as a well-employed character actor in the 1990s when he appeared in such disparate movies as Twister (1996) and Eyes Wide Shut(1999). He made his directorial debut to general acclaim with In The Bedroom (2001), and followed it up with the more divisive but still Oscar-nominated Little Children (2006), only to then fall into a long, involuntary quiescence until Tár, his latest and one of the best-reviewed and received movies of 2022. That Field played a pivotal role in Stanley Kubrick’s last film and then immediately made his gambit as a serious-minded filmmaker led many commentators to characterise Field as a Kubrickian protégé, or at least an inheritor. But at the end of the day Field is much more of a traditional actor-turned-filmmaker, as despite the chicly controlled visual textures of his films, his primary interests manifest in deploying carefully wrought performance and conveying character drama. Field’s status as a maker of adult audience drama films, the kinds of movies that remain the linchpins of award seasons but also used to once be the stuff of great mainstream appeal, particularly in the mythologised days of the 1970s New Hollywood era, made him seem a little like a throwback figure when he released In The Bedroom.
His debut, about a middle-aged couple driven to commit a vigilante killing after their son is murdered by a lout, came dressed in a kind of fashionably unfashionable garb, with its autumnal settings and scenes of lingering marital strife building to crescendos of big acting from great thespians and self-conscious emulation of Ibsenesque drama and the north-eastern American literary tradition or writers like John Cheever and John Updike evoked, with a little Death Wish (1974) thrown in for cinematic narrative juice. Field went further down that road with Little Children, an adaptation of a novel by Tom Perrotta portraying the suburban humdrum and the dissatisfied and damaged people living in it. Field tried to push an edge of amplified stylisation in Little Children to move it beyond mere literary realism, particularly through the figure of a released paedophile, played by Jackie Earle Haley in a performance that revived his career, but the result as a whole had a studied, excessive quality. Nonetheless Field helped set the scene for the emergence of some more serious (or self-serious) film talents to emerge in the following decade or so, like Derek Cianfrance, Jeff Nichols, and Sean Durkin.
Tár, Field’s latest opus, shows at least that Field’s ambition has apparently grown during his hiatus from movie screens. It’s a nearly three-hour long drama revolving around a central character who inhabits an explicitly anti-popular sphere, and, at least on some levels, refuses to dumb down that sphere and its peculiar lingo, social dynamics, reference points, and fetish zones. Field’s subject is Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), who’s introduced being interviewed by real-life New Yorker critic Adam Gopnik, in a staged ritual of cultural anointing of a hero figure. Lydia’s slavishly loyal assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant) gives away that the raft of achievements Gopnik recites was compiled by her as she recites it along with the interviewer, whilst Lydia herself deploys an act of chagrined humility mixed with hyper-articulate commentary on her business, explaining amongst other things her approaching culmination of a lifelong project, recording all of Mahler’s symphonies, with an upcoming performance of the composer’s legendary Fifth. Lydia’s list of achievements seems indeed bordering on the absurd, including the holy quartet of Emmy, Oscar, Grammy, and Tony, and an upcoming book with the knowing title Tár On Tár. Field’s purpose here is to assiduously establish Lydia as an expert media performer and a fictional character who nonetheless occupies the centre of the modern cultural landscape as we know it.
Tár’s first-half hour or so comprises entirely of four extended dialogue exchanges, as Lydia is interviewed by Gopnik before an audience, speaks with a fawning guest at a function following, has lunch with fellow conductor and big money conduit Eliot Kaplan (Mark Strong), and teaches a class at Juilliard before returning to Germany, where she serves as conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, as well as her wife Sharon Goodnow (Nina Hoss) and young daughter Petra (Mila Bogojevic). These early scenes, far from being dull or extraneous, are indeed the most compelling in the film, as they’re driven by dances of dialogue that depend on Blanchett’s facility for describing the three aspects of Lydia on show. The polished celebrity oiling the machinery maintaining that celebrity gives way to a glimpse of a canny luncheon warrior who engages in a constant game with the world-class schmoozer and professional rival Kaplan whilst affecting to be two honest professionals talking shop – amongst the consequential things they discuss is a fellowship they run for promoting female composing and conducting talents – before finally offering a portrait of Lydia the teacher. The first two situations see Lydia in her element as a figure used to other people defining and measuring themselves against her, as when she deflects Kaplan’s entreaties to get a glance at her annotated scorings to learn how she achieves some of her most compelling effects.
The third vignette proves something rather different. Lydia looks on as one of her students, Max (Zethphan Smith-Gneist), tries to conduct a performance of an atonal piece she describes wearily as “very…au courant.” Lydia calls time on the performance and, without quite explicitly saying so, makes clear she thinks Max is playing a fashionably heady but empty piece because it suits his intellectual postures rather than anyone else’s need for emotional engagement. When Lydia tries to use playing Bach as an example of extracting creative value from work that seems shop-worn and done to death, Max ripostes that he doesn’t feel like Bach as he defines himself as a BIPOC pangender person who disdains Bach’s “misogyny” for having lots of kids. Lydia, provoked to scarcely stifled disdain, begins trying to persuade Max of the wrong-headedness of this opinion and the importance to being open to the full panoply of musical art, but the session devolves into increasingly personal abuse of the young man’s proclivities and Max finally storms out angrily after calling her a “fucking bitch.”
Field here baits his audience in several ways. The number of people who will roll their eyes no small distance into their cranial cavities when Max describes his identity and attendant cultural loyalties will only be rivalled by the number who will want to immediately circle their tribal wagons around him for protection. Field’s not new to this kind of calculated provocation of a presumed liberal audience’s inclinations, having suggested at the end of In The Bedroom that violent revenge might well be as releasing and cathartic for one personality as much as it’s corrosive and self-defeating to another, and arguably leaned in the opposite direction when he tried to humanise a paedophile, so often the ideal boogeyman figure for reactionaries, in Little Children. Max is offered on one level as an earnest young man and on another as a veritable caricature of a modern very online lefty youth, who with his prissily judgemental comments on Bach incarnates a certain kind of touchy-feely posturing that often seems to have a kind of wilful ignorance and generational arrogance lurking behind it, the kind that proclaims Martin Scorsese a bad filmmaker for making gangster movies over and over. Indeed, Lydia’s frustration resembles that of a million teachers, confronted by a slightly more high-falutin’ version of the student who decries reading classic books and learning history because who cares about all that old stuff, man.
More soundly, Lydia herself, who describes herself as “a U-Haul lesbian,” points out to Max that if he’s so dismissive of the others for the quirks of their identity, then others are given implicit permission to do the same to him, and her. Something of Lydia’s journey to the top is evoked here in pushing through barriers as much by adapting herself to established hierarchies and cultural loadbearing as making such forms adapt to her. Lydia nonetheless relentlessly exposes herself more than Max in the course of her spiel. She’s aggravated by Max’s quasi-ideological choice of music rather than the grandiose late Romanticism-trending-Modernism she loves. She’s irked by the taste of youth leaning towards another, younger, marketable female composer of talent when she herself is creatively blocked and wondering what worlds she has left to conquer before she’s pickled in cultural formaldehyde. Lydia herself is perhaps a little conscious that at some point in her career her gender and sexuality stopped being stymies and perhaps became propellers that bore her aloft in a zeitgeist eager to anoint someone like her, but still has a lingering anxiety provoked by someone too easily parading their identity as a banner. Lydia’s free-flowing verbal force and unrestrained freedom to keep lashing at the barely articulate and plainly, intensely nervous Max, as she herself eagerly embodies a figure of authority not using that authority at all well.
Most of all, Lydia reveals a bullish temper which once roused can’t easily be reined in, even if it usually doesn’t so much erupt as burn away like a volcano under snow. It bubbles to the surface in a later scene when she threatens a school bully who’s been picking on Petra, going out of her way to scare the hell out of a small girl. Such a talent for charging at foes with a blend of street-fighter attitude and imperious verbal efficiency very likely helped her get where she is, but in such a position of exalted status now feels like a Formula One engine jammed in a VW Beetle. The Juilliard scene is a great one, rich with dynamics both overt and implied and powered by the nimbleness of Field and Blanchett moving in perfect lockstep. But it’s also one that points to the overall failure of what follows, not least in the carefully contrived ambivalence over the culture clash’s meaning as concern for character subsumes the discourse on artistic worth and ideals, but also its retreat from that culture clash. The exchange comes back to haunt Lydia, because some student has secretly filmed it despite a ban on that, and it later leaks online in a heavily edited version that makes Lydia look rather bonkers, but in a way that didn’t strike me as liable to be persuasive to anyone.
Tár has gained much of its talking point traction from being characterised as a drama about “cancel culture” in a totemic way like Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) was about anti-Semitism or The Deer Hunter (1978) was about the Vietnam War. We open with Lydia already on a long road that will lead to her being ejected from her spot atop the cultural pyramid for various mooted and actual transgressions. I’m not entirely sure it’s about that particular phenomenon at all, or more than incidentally. Much of what befalls Lydia could play out the more or less the same in any moment. What is more substantially present is a contemplation of the connection, and lack of it, between artist biography and creative achievement. Mahler’s ill-fated marriage is discussed as well as Bach’s prowess in begetting and Schopenhauer’s assault on a woman, weighed against the things they gifted to everyone else in a kind of moral barter. Such discussions are, in the modern zeitgeist, usually pitched on the level of, “Why am I, who have always acted well/morally/thoughtfully, less famous/acclaimed/rich than that person who did X/Y/Z?” One eternal explanation is that power corrupts, and the way the rot creeps depends on who has the power. That’s not a reassuring explanation for anyone, least of all to those who want to claim that power, but the even less pleasing one is that just about everyone’s done something they wouldn’t like magnified under the glaring glass of celebrity. For a long time modern western society needed the legend of artistic bohemia as a zone of society where those who couldn’t or wouldn’t conform could escape official moral scruples and expected social roles and indulge desires regarded as perverse or excessive, and also keep such people at a safe distance, and not that long ago it was just about the only place where people like Lydia and Sharon would have been vaguely acceptable in expressing their love. Field’s purpose seems most intent on exploring the nature of temptation to a figure like Lydia, temptation that’s actually exactly the same as that working on everyone else, but manifesting more intensely when you actually have the leverage to indulge it.
Anyway, amongst Lydia’s formidable experiences listed at the outset was a field trip into the South American jungle to study tribal music, when she was accompanied by two of her protégés, one of them Francesca, the other a woman named Krista Taylor. Both were beneficiaries of Lydia and Kaplan’s fellowship and heavily implied to have both been Lydia’s lovers. Krista is glimpsed hovering around Lydia, filming her on her iPhone on a plane in a cryptic opening shot, and later mails her a copy of Vita Sackville-West’s novel Challenge – a novel signposting relevant themes – with a taunting inscription that infuriates Lydia, who jams the book into the garbage chute of an airplane toilet. Shortly after, Krista commits suicide, and Lydia sets out purposefully to expunge all her correspondence with and about Krista, including the many emails she wrote to orchestra bosses telling them Lydia was unstable and shouldn’t be hired. Lydia orders Francesca to delete any she has too. Meanwhile Lydia has told Kaplan she intends to replace her assistant conductor, Sebastian (Allan Corduner), who was the pick of her mentor and predecessor as conductor for the Berlin Philharmonic, Andris Davis (Julian Glover), but she finds a drag on her style, and Francesca is the obvious and expectant candidate. When Lydia chooses someone else, Francesca quits and vanishes. Meanwhile, Lydia becomes entranced by a young Russian cellist, Olga Metkina (real-life cellist Sophie Kauer), who’s campaigning for a slot in the orchestra: after watching a YouTube video of her playing Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Lydia uses her considerable guile to manipulate the orchestra into performing the Concerto with Olga soloing.
Lydia and her story were based broadly on the New York Metropolitan Opera conductor James Levine, whose career went down in flames after accusations of sexual assault from several people, a scandal referenced in the film. Field’s decision to make a queer woman the subject of a Levine-like story was a cunning one (maybe a little too cunning), immediately modifying audience attitude to her, where if the protagonist was a big, percussive male personality prejudgements would probably come a bit too easily and sympathy rather less so. It also couches the storyline in multiplying ironies. For Lydia and Sharon, who is also a violinist and the orchestra’s concertmaster, coming out as gay and a couple when they did was a move still laced with risk, as Sharon mentions in a heated moment, and now the young ‘uns are getting around gleefully proclaiming themselves “pangender,” and it could be there’s a special spiciness to the prurience that swirls around accusations that fall on Lydia that she tends to show favouritism and also sadistic tendencies towards young female talents who are her type precisely because of the lesbian angle. All interesting territory but also stuff Field only skirts.
Because Tár ultimately doesn’t quite make it as a character study, and proves really only a tease in exploring “cancellation,” and the reasons why Field stops short is so he can hover in a zone of pseudo-detachment, dramatically speaking, in terms of the cultural and personal issues he prods. He needs to keep just what transpired between Lydia and Krista as vague as possible to retain his glaze of official ambiguity, to keep the audience obliged to reserve judgement on some level about Lydia as a person, and also, I can’t help but feel, not to have to portray something like transgressive urges. Field’s so anxious to avoid being labelled exploitative he avoids being much of anything. It’s worth comparing Tár in this regard to Paul Verhoeven’s last few films, which dynamically venture into the heads of some heroines who own their perversity at the price of being violently misunderstood by the world at large. It could be argued Field is resisting the gravity of “cancel culture” and attitudes of vengeful outrage by not playing that game, but he in truth kowtows to it by avoiding making the audience complicit in or understanding of anything Lydia might have done wrong. Often in recent cinematic and theatrical drama I’ve observed a tendency that I’ve dubbed “unambiguously about ambiguity,” by which I mean they have gestures towards keeping specific aspects of their stories equivocal in a rather ostentatious way that achieves not subtlety and mystery but rather the opposite, and Tár is a particularly cogent example. Michelangelo Antonioni used to do ambiguity with supreme narrative and artistic power; many imitators do it badly. And a huge amount of Tár’s running time is devoted not into delving into Lydia’s head, but instead shallowly reproducing the immediate space about it. Certainly, Lydia is tunnel-visioned, not just by her creative self-involvement but the cocooning effect of celebrity, money, and the cultish closeness of an orchestra ensemble.
By way of compensation Field keeps introducing barometers of her mental space, like the constant, odd manifestations of a troubled mind, like finding a metronome set mysteriously ticking in her apartment, being distracted during a jog by some mysteriously sourced screams, and occasional dips into distorted, rather Bergmanesque dreams touched with hints of the erotic. She also keeps glimpsing a hexagonal design Krista drew on the inscription page of her barbed gift and trippy visions of her jungle adventure. As these keep adding up Field seems to be baiting the audience into thinking Lydia has some kind of crazed stalker sneaking into her house at night, or is cracking up, but what they’re really there for is to keep providing the illusion of something happening before Field properly drops the axe. Lydia keeps an apartment separate to her home with Sharon and Petra for rehearsing and composing, and whilst there hears odd noises that eventually prove to come from a neighbouring apartment, where a hapless German women is caring for her elderly, crippled mother: the woman gets Lydia to help her get her shit-covered mother back into her wheelchair at one point, after which Lydia near-hysterically washes the filth off herself. Later, she follows Olga into a seedy apartment block to return a possession (itself an intriguing and suggestive story segue that goes unpursued) and descends into a dark basement where a dog growls at her, freaking her out so much she flees pell-mell and trips on the stairs, breaking her nose. Such scenes seem intended to illustrate Lydia’s percolating fear of a mucky, scary destiny she’s managed to rise above but still constantly feels stalked by.
Such quasi-Expressionistic and symbolist touches indicate Field’s willing to take some more risks when it comes to the officially lifelike texture of current cinematic aesthetics, but I found them rather too contrived and, worse, a bit time-wasting. Field establishes a miasma of estrangement and anxiety descending on Lydia and then keeps doing so for more than an hour. At many points in its long, ambling midsection I found Field’s work rather too reminiscent of some of his contemporaries who are obsessed to inserting overtones of simmering menace and strangeness derived from Horror film stylistics into upmarket drama films, purveyed of late by the likes of Durkin, Julia Ducornau, and Pablo Larrain. Tár spends all its time warning us relentlessly that something bad is going to happen, and then it happens and, well, we know because of the type of movie we’re watching that Lydia’s not going to be attacked by a lurking fiend, and yet Field insists on purveying his story a little like an art-house version of a Final Destination film: fate’s coming for you, Lydia Tár. The scene with the carer and elderly woman is particularly artificial in regards to the film’s overall aesthetic, which emphasises the bright and shiny surrounds Lydia exists in and she reacts to being covered with filth with the phobic intensity of a vampire to sunlight: the intrusion of mess, dirt, and proof of human decay is served up as a carefully cordoned episode of disturbance of Field’s piss-elegant visual texture as well as Lydia’s hermetic world.
What keeps the film anchored is Blanchett. I’m not as endlessly fascinated by Blanchett as a performer as a lot of commentators are, but it’s hard to deny she renders Lydia palpable despite certain aspects of her never coming into focus. She makes even an aside like playfully mocking the overly-familiar lilt and messages of an NPR announcer into an aria of performative zeal and fleshing thematic depth: I sensed Field making fun just a little of his own high-toned penchants, and also flashes of frustration with the way “serious” art tends to find a kind of ritzy ghettoization in the modern media landscape when people reserve their most committed cultural battles for arguing over superhero movies. Field provides Blanchett with a more spectacular version of the same moment late in the film when, feeling abused and desperate, Lydia is visited by the family of the women in the neighbouring flat, now that the mother’s died and the desperate carer’s now being cared for herself, they’re selling the apartment. Rather than seeing Lydia’s presence and rehearsing as a plus for selling the apartment, they ask her to keep her playing to a minimum, whereupon Lydia trolls them mercilessly by walking around with an accordion and belting out an improvised, brutally accurate description of their actions: “Your mother’s buried deep and now you’re gonna keep her apartment for sale!” As the film shifts into its last act, it’s finally revealed that Lydia, real name Linda Tarr, comes from a working class family, and returns briefly to her family home in Staten Island to take refuge from the fallout of her actions.
Here Lydia unleashes all her brutal humour and disdain for the kind of ordinary people she constantly refers to as “robots” with untrammelled clarity and force (and also at last embraces the atonal), but also exposes her pathos: there’s nobody to restrain her now, even herself, and also nobody to restrain it for, no-one who cares what Lydia Tár thinks about something. That scene perks up the long, dour decline of Lydia, which commences in earnest when she’s faced not just with becoming the object of a baying mob at her book launch, once Krista’s wealthy parents finally catch public attention with their take on Lydia’s destruction of Krista and the edited video of her Juilliard class goes viral, but also learning Francesca has, in payback, saved all of Krista’s emails and makes them available for a civil suit Lydia’s giving a deposition in. Before the reckoning arrives, Field spends much time observing Lydia’s working practice with the orchestra, constantly trying to wring new sensations out of the familiar notes of the Mahler. These scenes are all good on a level of quasi-documentary depiction, but Field never finds any particular expressive intensity for communicating the music’s meaning for Lydia, settling instead for having Blanchett making dramatic conducting gestures reminiscent of her idol Leonard Bernstein. Field also avoids depicting any of Lydia’s own music, which felt like a blank spot in her portraiture: Lydia’s individual artistic persona and achievement, the gifts that presumably won her at least one of her EGOT tally, remain unillustrated.
Field’s own artistic touchstones are in evidence throughout Tár. The theme of a destructively domineering and fatefully love-struck impresario in a musical world recalls Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948), but a more immediate reference point is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972), with its antiheroine recalling Fassbinder’s coolly controlling lesbian, making the connection more explicit in choosing a German setting, equipping her with a seemingly slavish but actually personally motivated aide, and naming Lydia’s daughter Petra. I couldn’t help if there was a nod somewhere in Field’s conception to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” echoed in Lydia’s real surname and in the general theme of the figures of authority revealed at the end to been imprisoned and literally tarred and feathered by the loonies who pretend to be the ones in charge. Lydia might enjoin her orchestra to “forget Visconti,” referring to Luchino Visconti’s famous use of the adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth in his film Death In Venice (1971), but Field himself plainly isn’t forgetting the association, with the clear hint that, rather than just a cheap predator, Lydia might be taken as an Aschenbach figure given to falling in love with youthful muses charged with talent. Field nicely captures a sense of elusive erotic frisson as Lydia is first intrigued entirely by the sight of Olga’s boots long before she sees the whole person, only to then turn this into his version of a giallo film’s black gloves: they later become visual clues that allow Lydia to foil a blind audition in Olga’s favour. Field engages with the orchestral music world whilst daring to presume at least a working receptivity to it in his audience, mimicking Lydia herself in this regard in refusing to let the slower members of the class catch up, with characters switching between languages at speed and dropping cultural reference points that aren’t necessary to follow the story but do much to give the feeling of a little world with its own special folklore, as well as please incessant dabblers like me with a pile of old classical LPs watching. If Field had found a way to merely make a movie about a few months in the life of a famous conductor Tár might actually have been a better film for it.
Tár lets you know it’s a very serious movie right off the bat by sporting really, really small font for its credits, and it wears its crispness of look and sound like a starlet in a designer dress. But if you want a film that finds ways to dynamically and vehemently dramatize the way creative passion and demons entangle in ugly and astonishing ways in creating art, watch The Red Shoes again, or any of Ken Russell’s composer films, like Mahler (1974). Field’s images by contrast are always pretty and composed with cut-glass precision, but are also almost entirely inert, depending on the actors within his frames to supply the energy and propulsion. Scarcely a single scene has incidental detail: everything’s been crafted with the diligence of a hobbyist piecing together a doll’s house, like the many luncheon scenes that sport Lydia yammering with the likes of Kaplan and Andris where nobody’s actually eating, the tables just stages for the actors to read across. Field is really big on mirrors with multiple reflections of Lydia to emphasise her duality. Even a minor but meaningful scene where Lydia gets Petra to connect with her by playfully reciting “Cock Robin,” a moment that’s meant to illustrate Lydia’s genuine parental sympathy with her daughter, has the quality of an acting exercise. Other touches, like Francesca reciting in time with Gopnik, have a cliché shorthand quality. The basic storyline has some similarity to Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain (filmed by Robert Benton in 2003), which contended with the 1990s version of cancel culture and also had a hero who had reinvented himself from a less than ideal origin. Also, the number of films of late where a character is told their time’s up by a bunch of lawyers in a boardroom has been growing sizeable.
Meanwhile Glover’s Andris, a now-virtually forgotten conducting hero, muses on the swirl of career-ending scandals he’s been hearing about in the news and comments on the similarity with the de-Nazification era after World War II and accusations thrown at the likes of Wilhelm Furtwangler and Herbert Von Karajan, and the constant anxiety over being accused. Now that’s a provocative comparison to make, and Lydia expresses dubiety, only for Andris to comment, “Either way, you had to be ready.” Field makes something of a motif of Lydia being viewed through a cell phone camera and with text messages bobbing up over the image, reporting differing attitudes from the person wielding the camera: what is presumably Krista’s vantage on the sleeping Lydia opens the film, whilst someone else later films Lydia at her book launch whilst tapping out sarcastic remarks about her arsenal of high-flown ideas. Towards the start of the film it’s revealed that Lydia has purloined and has been using some of Sharon’s medication for heart arrhythmia, presumably to get to sleep and ease the pain from an injury she seems to have suffered from her physically convulsive conducting style. When she first returns home Sharon is suffering and has no medication, so Lydia pretends to find a pill and gives it to her, a vignette that does a nice job of showing Lydia’s cavalier attitude to Sharon’s needs and also her genuine care for her. The medication thing never comes up again in the movie that I noticed, nor does Sharon’s health, and the couple’s relationship is held at a wary distant throughout. There’s one nice moment when, during rehearsing the symphony, Sharon intervenes to demonstrate to the other musicians what needs to happen: it’s the closest we get to a substantive example of Lydia and Sharon’s creative partnership, with Sharon translating Lydia’s visionary gabble into precise technique.
By contrast, the inevitable scene where Lydia is confronted by Sharon as her career’s collapsing proves oddly truncated and clumsy. Field seems to be trying to consciously avoid the actorly fireworks of the husband-and-wife kitchen fight in In The Bedroom, but the dialogue proves stiff and theatrical rather than terse and cutting. “How cruel of you to define our relationship as transactional,” Lydia moans at Sharon when Sharon recalls how their own relationship started, to which Sharon retorts, “You’ve only had one relationship in your life that isn’t transactional, and it’s asleep in the other room.” It’s like Field’s trying to write copy for critics watching the film. Sharon also hints at how their relationship started “on a couch” in Lydia’s flat, with the suggestion she sees a likeness between incidents in Lydia’s life. Which ought to commence a truly dynamic scene between the two women, but that’s all we get, and it’s basically the end of Lydia and Sharon’s marriage. Later Lydia tries to approach Sharon and Petra outside the school only to be pathetically cold-shouldered. It’s disappointing, in no small part because Hoss is always a fascinating, lucid actress whose realism and pathos here strongly contrast Blanchett’s bigness, and yet Sharon is in the end just another victim spouse character rather than an equally complex player in the game of love. For a movie as long as Tár is, there really ought to be more authentic meat on its bones.
The climactic moment of Lydia’s downfall comes when she turns up to the premiere of her orchestra’s performance of the Mahler, now being conducted by Kaplan: Lydia, clad in her sharpest suit, struts out at the start of the performance and physically assaults Kaplan before, wild-eyed and wild-haired, begins trying to conduct the mortified ensemble. It’s a great moment for Blanchett, as she gets to exhibit feral physical force and seems genuinely capable of killing Kaplan. But I winced as Field forced this moment of grievous humiliation of his protagonist, which is present mostly because he needs Lydia to commit a final auto-da-fe on her career when most of what’s befallen her thus far could conceivably be weathered with patience and PR. It is of course supposed to be a final confirmation of Lydia’s almost childish entitlement and possessiveness, but it still felt a bit absurd that Lydia, regardless of how many hard knocks she’s taken, has fallen to such a crazed and nihilistic level. Lydia’s return to her childhood home sees her tearfully taking refuge in watching old VHS recordings of Bernstein expressing the philosophy that drove her own career determination.
Lydia’s homecoming is punctuated by her brother (Lee Sellars) commenting, “You don’t seem to know where the hell you came from or where you’re going.” Ah, the gruff zing of a salt-of-the-earth working man delivering thesis lines. The theme of a pretentious escapee from a humble background forced to return through disgrace or failure is another one that’s become a wearying cliché of late (it’s close to the only plot Australian TV shows are allowed to have these days), and Field seems aware of it judging by his haste to leave it behind, even as he’s raised many questions about Lydia Tár and who she is that aren’t going to be enlarged upon. Also, who the hell would go to the effort of changing their name from Tarr to Tár? Finally, Field shifts to an extended coda that takes some time to play out as Lydia travels to Bangkok, where she seems to resuming her career in however fringe a fashion, with her old work ethic undimmed, meeting with the orchestra and hashing out the composer’s intentions. When she asks a hotel clerk to recommend a masseur, she goes to the place she mentioned, only to realise it’s a high-end brothel sporting young local women and more literal transactional relationships.
This moment is striking if also bordering on the arch, as it mirrors what we’ve seen early with visual allusion: the young women are arrayed as if in a vending machine and also reminiscent of the survey of the orchestra with the lovely Olga in its midst, with one girl giving Lydia a particularly charged pick-me look that reconfigures Lydia’s earlier behaviour in its most degrading possible likeness, Lydia even caught in a posture like her conducting, the sort of touch that will either strike you as concise or a bit much. The shock of this sends Lydia reeling out into the street to vomit, which might be a register of lingering moral standards, or a form of confession and purgation. The actual ending of the film is rather more curious and ambivalent. Lydia, finally fronting an orchestra again for a concert, begins conducting, and Field reveals with a tracking shot that she’s performing for an audience of gaming fans, most of them dressed in character costumes. It’s delivered as a mordant punchline for the story, of the kind Lydia herself is fond of, even as it also confirms Lydia, who despite all surely doesn’t need the money, is continuing to obey Bernstein’s credo of making music for all audiences, and has found refuge in art, however popular. As a final note it’s strong, even as it once again essentially baits the audience to judge this concluding twist with preordained prejudices: is this Lydia at an endzone of absurdity and delusion, rediscovering her best and truest self, or both? Keep your answer to no more than three paragraphs. Especially considering that whilst this might indeed strike some as a dark place to end up, gaming scores have been gaining cred for years now, and I know at least one classical music station that devotes a showcase to them. Tár is certainly a good, intriguing film and it might have been great, but the tragedy of both Lydia Tár and the film about her is they both conspire to stifle a surplus of interesting ideas to tell a story that’s a bit old-hat and plays too many games for too long.
Directors: Ted Kotcheff / George Pan Cosmatos Screenwriters: Michael Kozoll, William Sackheim, Sylvester Stallone / James Cameron, Sylvester Stallone
By Roderick Heath
In the late 1960s David Morrell, working as an English professor at the University of Iowa, became interested in the Vietnam war veterans amongst his students and their often painful accounts of returning to civilian life in the United States. Morrell, an aspiring writer born in Ontario and whose father had died in combat during World War II, began a novel about a veteran who, trapped beyond the fringes of an oblivious or outright hostile society, erupts in a display of nihilistic murder and destruction, turned on the victimising civil authorities of a small Kentucky town. The character was known only by his last name, Rambo, which Morrell took from the breed of apple he was eating at the time, and based him on various real-life figures, including war hero and actor Audie Murphy, whose life was beset by traumatic fallout. Morrell also took inspiration from Geoffrey Household’s famous novel Rogue Male, filmed in 1943 by Fritz Lang as Man Hunt. Morrell published his book, First Blood, in 1972 to some acclaim, and quickly sold the film rights. The proposed adaptation kicked around Hollywood for nearly ten years with heavyweight directors including Richard Brooks, John Frankenheimer, and Sydney Pollack taking an interest. Eventually the project was taken in hand by Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna, two film distributors itching to try producing.
Kassar and Vajna hired the Canadian filmmaker Ted Kotcheff, whose previous credits included helping the Australian film industry revive with 1971’s Wake In Fright (aka Outback), and a jewel of the similar Canadian revival of the 1970s, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974). Kotcheff in turn attracted Sylvester Stallone, who was hunting for a viable career alternative to his Rocky films after several coolly received attempts to expand his star persona. Stallone rewrote the best extant script, by William Sackheim and Michael Kozoll, with his canny eye for selling a story to a mass audience causing him to revise the story and make Rambo, now gifted a first name of John, more sympathetic and less heedlessly murderous, essentially refashioning him as an angrier, more damaged and antisocial version of the underdog hero Stallone played in Rocky (1976). First Blood the movie resituated the story to a town called Hope in Washington state, in part because this allowed the film to be filmed more cheaply in Canada. The movie, which still finished up costing some $15 million, became a major hit, cementing Stallone’s place as a major Hollywood star. But Rambo’s place as a byword in popular culture wouldn’t be sealed until a sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part II, was released in 1984.
That film would transform Rambo, conceived as an avatar for the wounded and thwarted products of a bitter zeitgeist, into a figure many took to be the guns-blazing representative of the Reagan era’s renewed militarist swagger and sense of purpose, avenging old defeats and swashbuckling through new wars, driven on by the delight of movie audiences. A third entry, Peter MacDonald’s Rambo III (1989), would become the most expensive film ever produced for a brief reign. As embodied by Stallone, with fast and bulbous physique, penchant for wearing headbands but not shirts, and clutching huge weapons, the character Rambo became eventually birthed a popular caricature, eagerly satirised in movies like UHF (1989) and Hot Shots! Part Deux (1992). Quite the progression from the dark and sombre thriller Morrell wrote, which ended with the character being shot dead by his former Green Berets trainer, Colonel Samuel Trautman. For the adaptation, Kirk Douglas was hired to play Trautman, who was revised from a peripheral, resented figure in Rambo’s life to his former commanding officer, but Douglas dropped out early in filming when he disagreed with revising the story to let Rambo live. He was replaced, in another fortuitous accident, by Richard Crenna.
Douglas might have been artistically right, but Stallone knew his audience. First Blood works carefully to put the viewer entirely on Rambo’s side in its opening reels, as the soldier turned drifter seeking out the home of Delmore Barry, the last surviving other member of his old unit. Rambo soon learns from a neighbour that he’s died of cancer, which she believes was caused by exposure to Agent Orange. The forlorn figure that is Rambo, Medal of Honor winner and relentlessly honed, preternaturally gifted warrior turned ragged drifter, follows a highway into the mountains of Washington until he’s picked up on the fringes of the town of Hope by the Sheriff, Teasle (Brian Dennehy), who lets Rambo know he’s not going to be allowed to linger there, and deposits him on the far side of town. Rambo defiantly turns back towards the town and Teasle promptly arrests him. Rambo is placed in the police station lock-up where Teasle’s deputies, including the swaggering sadist Art Galt (Jack Starrett), beat him, forcibly strip him, and hose him down, experiences that remind Rambo of being tortured in a North Vietnamese POW camp.
Kotcheff makes use of flashbacks to reveal Rambo’s reawakened traumatic memory as he’s brutalised by Galt in a manner reminiscent of the stuttering, near-subliminal technique Sidney Lumet utilised in The Pawnbroker (1964). The likeness of his present situation to his time suffering in captivity is immediately and vividly illustrated and also the similarity of intent behind it, the pleasure of petty tyrants in humiliating and reducing people under their thumb. The sight of the scars that score Rambo’s naked torso, when he’s obliged to strip for a cleaning in the lockup, alarm the younger deputy on the Hope PD, Mitch Rogers (David Caruso), who suggests telling Teasle about it. But the sight only stirs Galt to more delighted viciousness, seeing the evidence of suffering and heroism only as a especially sweet spur to proving his own power. Finally, when the cops try to dry-shave the resisting Rambo, he unleashes his fighting prowess. In short order he decks the cops, flees the station, and steals a motorcycle. He rides the bike as far up a mountain trail as he can get before leaving it behind and fashioning himself rough clothing out of a bearskin rug he finds at a rubbish dump.
When Galt gleefully tries to shoot Rambo from a helicopter, Rambo retaliates by hurling a rock back, striking the chopper’s windscreen and causing Galt to fall to his death. Teasle immediately vows revenge for his old friend, but as he and his men venture deeper in the forest with tracker dogs, they soon find themselves completely thwarted by Rambo’s tactical smarts. He slays the dogs and lures the cops onto his ingenious and brutal traps. Teasle himself is finally ambushed, helpless under Rambo’s knife, only to be spared with the advice, “Let it go, or I’ll give you a war you won’t believe,” before vanishing into the underbrush Of course, Teasle can’t and won’t take that advice. He instead calls in the National Guard, who trap Rambo in a mine shaft he’s made his base, but Rambo, surviving an attempt to kill him with a rocket launcher, crawls through the mine until he breaks out to the surface at another locale. Stealing an National Guard truck and heavy machine gun, he returns to Hope, smashes through a blockade, and begins laying waste to the town with Teasle his ultimate target.
First Blood offered something like an upmarket version of ‘70s grindhouse thrillers that often thrust returned vets into bloody action, or a cheeralong extrapolation of the interior fantasies of Taxi Driver’s (1976) Travis Bickle. Rambo can also be seen as an extension of actor-turned-auteur Tom Laughlin’s hero Billy Jack, star of a series of popular movies in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. Both characters were living lethal weapons who had served in ‘Nam, both part-Native American, both reluctant heroes who eventually cracked when confronted by thugs and redneck cops and start dealing out ass-kickings. Only Billy Jack had been a nominally countercultural hero, having thrown in his lot with young hippies, dropouts, and the oppressed, whilst Rambo doesn’t have that much community, and eventually became popularly associated with a revanchist right wing’s attitude to the peacenik crowd. First Blood is nonetheless entirely about an outsider battling representatives of authority. The cops are generally portrayed as smugly self-righteous, bullying, or weak, more concerned with the illusion of order rather than the reality of it, more obsessed with safeguarding its privilege as power than worried about justice, and in the case of Galt, essentially psychopathic.
Instead of developing more respect and solicitude the more Teasle and his people learn about Rambo, including eventually discovering his status as a war hero, they become all the more angrily determined to bring him down, because he taunts and undercuts their machismo. The essential, just about endlessly reloadable moment of crisis in every Rambo movie, awaited with eagerness by the viewer and built towards with varying levels of skill and intensity by its directors, is the scene where our hero’s blood finally boils over and he begins dealing out pain and calamity to tormentors and tyrants. The countdown to this inevitable eruption in First Blood begins in its earliest moments, as Rambo learns of Delmar’s passing and starts a lonely montage trek along the road to Hope, a place that describes itself via a sign over the road in as the “Gateway to Holidayland.” One powerfully lingering aspect of First Blood is Kotcheff’s use of British Columbian locations, which prove a perfect backdrop to communicate Rambo’s solitude and the pall of crisis that follows him like a raincloud from the bucolic setting that was Delmar’s home into the increasingly blue-soaked and dour atmosphere of the mountain forests.
The use of landscape maps out both essential dramatic venues, as Rambo escapes into the woods where he can turn the tables on the cops, and his mental landscape, leaving behind the last glimmer of hope for a familiar face and a toehold in society as represented by Delmar’s place, exchanged for the mockingly named town of Hope and finally a plunge into the primal landscape beyond where civilisation drops away and the best hunter and killer reclaims his place at the apex of existence. But the landscape also folds in upon Rambo until his empire is reduced to a hole in the ground with a flickering fire and a buzzing radio that announces the names of dead men. When he does break free and brings his wrath back to Hope, he has already lost, because he must again countenance civilisation to do so. Regardless of the specific cultural and political context the character was planted in, Rambo nonetheless became the essential modern movie depiction of a truly ancient cultural figure, the perfect warrior born purely for combat, an Achilles, a Hercules, or a modern day Viking berserker, a likeness that becomes inescapable in the maniacal last third of Rambo: First Blood Part II.
For Stallone, Rambo provided a second reliable and recognisable role as a star, a rare gift in the early days of cinematic franchising. Rambo was a counterpart to his lovably dim, gentle-‘til-roused Rocky Balboa, and the star continued this counterpoint when he revived both characters in the mid-2000s and again in the mid-2010s. Rocky was a hero deeply embedded in a sense of community and identity, pushed along by a hazily optimistic sensibility. Rambo, by contrast, is a perpetually clenched fist, his blazing, tragedy-telegraphing eyes perpetually seeing double in the world, the one that is and the one in his past, locked in a nihilistic place by his hard-won self-knowledge that the one thing he’s indisputably great at it is warfare. He comes equipped with his personal Excalibur, his ever-present hunting knife, with its wickedly curved point and serrated back edge, a weapon found on his person that the cops take to be a sign he’s a violent miscreant. The crucial similarity of Rocky and Rambo was that both had to be provoked to do what they do best, Rocky because of his general passivity, Rambo because of his grim knowledge that the kinds of situations that require his skills are already too nightmarish to contemplate. The role allowed Stallone to show off not just his musculature but his athleticism, always more convincing in that regard than the comparative ponderousness of his eventual rival and displacer in the pneumatic movie hero stakes, Arnold Schwarzenegger. “I’ve always believed the mind is the best weapon,” Rambo comments in the second, and Rambo’s cunning as a strategist is repeatedly emphasised as his real edge over variously arrogant and bullish foes.
Rambo is also inseparable from his enemies, the men who provoke his raging remonstrations. First Blood has the best and most dramatically intense of these, in the form of Teasle, who, in his way, is entirely justified in his attitude to Rambo. The film obliges the audience to identify with Rambo as the sad and simple man just trying and failing to get on with life finally pushed too far, with Teasle’s smiling but quietly assured and dictatorial attitude, followed soon by more bluntly thuggish treatment. Unlike most of his successors in the sequels, however, Teasle’s viewpoint is loaned a faint gleam of validity. The reek of danger and strangeness the sheriff gets from Rambo at first glance, and the sense of focused provocation when the drifter ignores his instructions and turns back towards Hope prove, ultimately, correct. Teasle has his own war medals on display in his office, and refuses to grant Rambo any special sympathy: “You think Rambo’s the only guy who had had a tough time in Vietnam?” Rambo nonetheless represents a revenge fantasy not just for disaffected servicemen, but for every wandering outcast bewildered and provoked by their lot in the American landscape, of which there were once many likenesses in Hollywood cinema. Rambo in his first outing belongs to a continuum linking Chaplin’s Little Tramp, Henry Fonda’s Tom Joad, William Wellman’s Wild Boys and Girls of the road, Raoul Walsh’s angry misfits, and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Riders. In a most specific likeness, Rambo, like Mad Dog Earle in Walsh’s High Sierra (1941), is driven into the mountains in a stand-off with authority, but where in the ironclad days of the studio system and Production Code such a figure had to eventually lose, Rambo was a product of a much more ornery time.
Kotcheff was a film and television jack-of-all-trades, gaining his career start in Canadian TV in the late 1950s before moving to the UK and making his feature film debut with 1962’s Tiara Tahiti, and his well-honed efficiency that made him an ideal figure to travel to Australia and then back to Canada to resuscitate their movie industries. It’s an odd career that encompasses the likes of First Blood, Fun with Dick and Jane (1977) and Weekend at Bernie’s (1989) alongside Wake In Fright, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, and North Dallas Forty (1979). What’s most interesting in this regard is that First Blood plays as Kotcheff’s thematic sequel to Wake In Fright, depicting as it does an outsider arriving in a boondock town and being driven near-insanity by the behaviour of the locals, whose delight in tormenting and degrading a stranger reflects back out at the larger world a sense of resentment and fringe detachment. Whilst Kotcheff swapped the desolate alienation of an Aussie town on the edge of a desert for the tangled and looming reach of pine-thatched mountains, and the naïve intellectual for the hard and ingenious superwarrior, the palpable sense of danger and entrapment and depiction of regressive bullying has evident likeness.
First Blood has been criticised for abandoning its potential as a believable and down-to-earth kind of action movie by having Rambo perform some incredibly lucky pieces of physical action, like jumping off a cliff and crashing down through the nettled pine branches until he’s deposited relatively unscathed on the ground, and causing Galt’s death with a rock when the cop can’t nail him with a high-powered rifle. Those criticisms are entirely legitimate, although to Kotcheff’s credit he manages to invest them with a veneer of sense in his staging and cutting. Such shows of prowess also accrue into it’s plain that Rambo is a unique individual with levels of physical ability beyond the normal, and a degree of reflexive intelligence in the midst of battle, that gives him a radical edge over the blowhards. These touches also clearly signal that, despite its nominal roots in social issue melodrama reminiscent of the films Wellman and Walsh made once upon a time for Warner Bros., already First Blood is bending Rambo’s trajectory off into the zone of the matinee serial-style adventurer, at a time when Superman and Indiana Jones had recently revived the unbreakable brand of old-school pulp hero in movies, and the 1980s style of action movie was gaining definition.
So when Crenna’s Trautman does turn up, his presence is supposed be that of the wise elder who knows all the secret history denied to civilians like Teasle and perhaps even to Rambo himself, the man who knows what Rambo is capable of (“God didn’t make Rambo. I did.”) and also why he is the way he is, and provides a last bulwark between two factions. But his real function is essentially to act as Rambo’s hype man, promising Teasle, and the audience, what Rambo delivers. This quality manifests most memorably when Trautman, upon hearing Teasle’s declaration that two hundred cops and National Guards are being sent in to handle Rambo, retorts, “You send that many don’t forget one thing – a good supply of body bags.” Like a bard at a campfire telling stories of great heroes of old to thrill and excite the next prospectives, Trautman announces Rambo’s skills and qualities until he’s transformed from a surprisingly good fighter for a shaggy loser to a demigod only limited by his remnant human scruples: “Technically he slipped up,” Trautman says in noting Rambo’s failure to actually kill the men hunting him.
Crenna’s role at Trautman, which immediately became his most famous and recognisable, presented an inversion of his portrayal of the disintegrating commander in The Sand Pebbles (1966): where that film, made in the early days of the American Vietnam experience and presenting a parable critiquing it, disassembled the mythos of noble military machismo, Trautman reconstructs it rhetorically whilst Rambo does so physically. Rambo presents a fantasy vision of an American soldier who learned to fight like a Viet Cong guerrilla, with nods to Native American fighting styles. Rambo’s incredible physical fitness and toughness as well as honed skill gives him an edge over his enemies, able to dodge and weave and hide, seeming to become part of the forest itself, like the title alien of Predator (1987). His campaign against Teasle and the pursuing cops becomes an ironic inversion where Rambo does to his foes what the Vietnamese are often perceived as doing to the Americans in the war. He utilises the landscape and cunning, nasty traps to draw in and disassemble them, using their reactive vengefulness against them. One cop ends up tied to a tree as bait to draw in and unnerve his comrades. Another is impaled at crotch height upon a row of wicked stakes. The cops and National Guard are reduced to firing blind and shows of impotent firepower, as when the National Guardsmen shoot a rocket launcher after Rambo as he hides in the mine shaft.
When Rambo is hiding in that mine, Trautman contacts him on a CB radio taken from one of the cops, awakening Rambo from his sleep with his old service call-sign and a rollcall of his dead comrades, provoking the warrior with the perverse feeling of his dreams and waking life blurring incoherently until he realises the call is real. “There are no friendly civilians,” he tells Trautman with new-found conviction, and claims the cops “drew first blood,” justifying his retaliation, whilst Trautman retorts that “you did some pushing of your own,” and Teasle tries to trace the transmission. Kotcheff contrasts the different environs of the two men, Trautman broadcasting in lamplight as a beacon in an endless night whilst Rambo is curled up in a bole in the earth where the wind echoes hollow and his paltry fire flickers in a sea of dark. A haunting and impressive scene that perfectly evokes the mental and moral drama in play and provides a meditative interlude that’s unusual in an action movie. It also somewhat outclasses the more officially dramatic climactic moment where Stallone does some capital-A acting, as Rambo, on the verge of killing Teasle, is confronted by Trautman and has a breakdown. He recounts semi-coherently his feelings of outrage at being abused by antiwar protestors and how one of his friends died in a terrorist bombing in Saigon and he was reduced to trying to stuff his guts back inside his body, a vignette that tries so hard to be terribly cathartic it borders on camp.
Nonetheless First Blood holds together with admirable grit for the most part, in part because it resists deviating from its basic concerns. It matches the ideal of Rambo’s purposeful intensity with its own, wielding a sense of gamy, gruelling, intensely corporeal vitality that’s all but disappeared from contemporary cinema. Arguably the film’s most thrilling scene depicts Rambo’s journey through the depths of the mine in his attempt to escape with the entrance blocked by the explosion. This involves a phobic odyssey through a space of pressing walls, dripping, sloshing water, and teeming rats, a gritty, visceral, vividly claustrophobic sequence that doesn’t look like it was much fun to shoot. When he does finally reach a shaft leading out, Rambo pauses to catch his breath and offer a solemn, silent moment of gratitude before climbing back out to the world. There he finds everyone thinks he’s dead, everyone except Trautman, who muses on the scene outside the mine and knows well Rambo might still emerge but doesn’t tell Trautman. Soon enough Rambo leaps aboard a National Guard truck, forces its driver to jump out, and commandeers the M60 machine gun in the back. He arrives in Hope, blows up a gas station, and begins knocking out the power to the town’s centre. Teasle takes up station on the police station roof, only to be shot in the legs by Rambo from below, and he crashes through the skylight to the floor a bloody mess.
Before he kill the sheriff, Trautman manages to disarm Rambo and penetrate his glaze of wrath to reveal the desperately haunted and anguished man beneath. Trautman then leads him away to whatever fate the law demands, a softening of the novel’s end that also opened the door for a sequel. That Rambo is reduced to sobbing violently, whilst clinging to Trautman who plays his father and confessor, confirms a peculiar status Stallone managed to stake out in his stardom, able to play inarguably tough men who are nonetheless governed by powerful emotions, and his shows of rage and destruction throughout the film are finally revealed to be, essentially, displacement of his urgent need to grieve for himself and his former comrades. First Blood was released after The Deer Hunter and Coming Home (both 1978) had begun a rehabilitation of Vietnam as a movie subject, but before Platoon (1986) offered what many felt was official catharsis. First Blood and its follow-up were nonetheless the more populist version of the same thing, selling to the audience a new image of the ‘Nam vet as a tormented underdog deserving rehabilitation even if the war, as Trautman puts it, “was a bad time for everybody.” “Somebody wouldn’t let us win,” Rambo howls, a note taken up again at the start of the sequel, where Rambo questions, when asked to return to Vietnam, “Do we get to win this time?” “That’s up to you,” Trautman replies.
Rambo: First Blood Part II cunningly extends this Janus-faced attitude, angry anti-authoritarian outlook and revanchist reactionary passion, by portraying Rambo as next plunged into a situation where the representatives of the American government are corrupt and craven, whilst their enemies are even worse, and only Rambo, Trautman, and others like them retain something like honour. As with its precursor, Stallone applied his own polish to a script this time penned by James Cameron, at the same time he was developing his own The Terminator (1984) and Aliens (1986), and there’s a lot of overlap. Rambo is nearly as remorseless and irresistible as the cyborg in The Terminator once he gets going, and as with Ripley in Aliens he’s portrayed as a sorry survivor who welcomes a chance to go back to a scene of suffering to exorcise his traumatic demons and fully evolve into a hero, despite the connivance of suit-wearing creeps. Rambo: First Blood Part II opens with Trautman approaching Rambo where he’s stuck working in a prison quarry, a setting that cries out for Woody Allen singing “Gonna see Miss Liza!” The Colonel gives Rambo his apologies for failing to keep him out of jail, but then offers a chance for freedom, if he’ll volunteer for an extremely dangerous covert mission, to be airdropped into Vietnamese territory and determine whether rumours American POWs are still being held at a remote jungle base are correct. Rambo and Trautman fly to an black ops base near the border of Thailand with Vietnam, and Rambo is briefed by Roger Murdock (Charles Napier), the commander of the operation.
The unpleasant side of this plot keystone is that Stallone exploited another actual, lingering issue of the Vietnam War, the plight of missing American servicemen who were at the time believed to still be captives, to pump emotive adrenalin into his rah-rah action flick. On the other hand, the film is surprisingly direct and scathing about the US reneging on its peace pledges of reparations to Vietnam, a tussle in which the POWs are theoretical pawns: any diplomatic push to get any POWs back would certainly require paying up. The face of this deceit is Murdock, a man who may or may not have once been a soldier but now has certainly crossed over the dark side of bureaucracy, and will again readily and actively betray him and GIs still in Vietnamese hands for the sake of political equilibrium. Rambo catches him out in a lie over his alleged wartime service, which he tells Trautman about, before assuring his old Colonel, “You’re the only one I trust.” Rambo’s airdrop over the jungle from a Lear jet goes wrong when his copious equipment gets hung up on the plane, a thrilling action sequence that also contains symbolic meaning. Being forced to cut loose all the fancy gear he’s been encumbered with obliges Rambo to get back to basics, and keeps him from recommitting the assumed mistake of past American method.
Once he manages to free himself and successfully lands in the jungle, he encounters his local contact, Co Bao (Julia Nickson), after first sneaking up on her. Co Bao, the daughter of a former South Vietnamese officer, has elected to continue his fight, and she helps Rambo approach the camp by arranging passage with some smugglers who regularly traverse a nearby river. When he penetrates the camp, Rambo discovers a number of G.I. captives being kept in sadistically awful circumstances, and he frees one man POW (Don Collins, I think), who’s been left tied to a post. Rambo and Co Bao take him back to their rendezvous point as Trautman comes to the rescue in a chopper being flown by Murdock’s aides Ericson (Martin Kove) and Banks (Andy Wood), but when he’s told Rambo has a freed prisoner Murdock orders the chopper to return without him. Trautman is held at gunpoint whilst Rambo and the POW are taken by the Vietnamese, with Co Bao escaping as she split away from them. The trussed-up Rambo is immersed in a slop pit filled with leeches and then tortured with electricity by a Red Army envoy, Lt-Col Sergei Podovsky (Steven Berkoff), and his aide Sgt Yushin (Voyo Goric), who, along with a detachment of Soviet commandos, have come to the camp for shady reasons. Podovsky wants Rambo to hand him a propaganda victory by denouncing his government over the radio. But, unfortunately for him and all the other Commies, the countdown to Rambo’s next eruption has already begun.
Rambo has his one and only real encounter with a romantic interest in all his excursions to date, as he and Co Bao fall in love whilst adventuring in the wilds, and the girl convinces Rambo to take her with him back to the US. Of course, she’s necessarily doomed, and is gunned down by soldiers after helping him escape the camp. Rambo takes possession of her jade Buddha necklace and wears it at as a lucky totem and wears it through the rest of this film and on into Rambo III, finally giving it away at the end to a boy Afghan warrior he decides needs it more. Nickson’s performance doesn’t exactly help the credibility factor – she comes across exactly as what she is, a Canadian model trying very hard to look and sound like a halting-English-speaking guerrilla warrior – but Co Bao is nonetheless interesting and rather singular as a true human, romantic connection for Rambo. She has similar talents to him, accomplished with an AK-47 and skilled at war in her own way: she pretends to be one of the prostitutes who visit the camp in an attempt to extricate Rambo from their clutches, and saves his hide repeatedly in the ensuing battle. Co Bao’s presence also helped to dampen, at least to a degree, the otherwise blatantly sectarian world-view exhibited in the film holding the Communist Vietnamese as malignant scum who can be happily dispatched in all manner of creatively violent ways, as opposed to Rambo’s relatively soft touch with the police of Hope.
Even the smugglers prove to be treacherous dogs who sell Rambo and Co Bao out, forcing Rambo to slay them all and blow up a patrol boat with a Russian RPG the pirates keep around for such encounters. Of course, there’s also the Russians to add new ingredients to the vengeful mix, presenting the ultimate spectre of a renascent Domino Theory being driven by the masterminds of the Evil Empire, the real Cold War foe unmasked as puppet master. To a great extent all the historical and political issues raised and depicted here don’t matter – in practice Rambo: First Blood Part II is simply a slightly updated World War II movie, with the Vietnamese cast as proxy as Japanese and the Russians as Germans. Berkoff, who had cleverly walked a line between seriousness and absurdity as an Russian villain in the James Bond film Octopussy a year earlier, returned to play a different variation on the concept here – Podovsky is an ice-cold, iron-souled Cold Warrior who presents Rambo with the perfect incarnation of The Enemy, entirely antipathetic in values and methods but just as assured in his sense of patriotic mission as Rambo himself. Nonetheless Rambo’s truest foe is Murdock, who resembles Teasle as a smug-ugly representative of civilian authority but robbed of Teasle’s better qualities and comparable moral perspective, instead providing the incarnation of everything Rambo perceives as craven, manipulative, deceitful, and disdainful of actual fighting men in country’s official mindset.
Where First Blood had been handled in a relatively muted, textured fashion by Kotcheff, Rambo: First Blood Part II was helmed by George Pan Cosmatos. The Greek-Italian Cosmatos had been born in Florence, and worked his way up through the ranks of European film production including serving as an assistant director and bit player on Zorba The Greek (1964). Cosmatos began his directing career with serious films, like the 1973 wartime film Massacre In Rome, but, starting with the absurd but very entertaining blend of medical thriller and disaster movie The Cassandra Crossing (1977), he reinvented himself as a maker of hard-charging action flicks. After scoring another success with the Alistair MacLean-ish World II actioner Escape From Athena (1979). Cosmatos made the Canadian-produced, New York set Of Unknown Origin (1983), a peculiar blend of satire and monster movie depicting a corporate man battling a gigantic rat at loose in his apartment, before being offered Rambo: First Blood Part II. Later he would work again with Stallone on an even more hyperbolic star vehicle, Cobra (1986), the deep-sea Alien rip-off Leviathan (1989), and the popular Western Tombstone (1993). Cosmatos’ gift for pure, unadulterated, go-for-broke pulp cinema impact is rife in Rambo: First Blood Part II. Most particularly, in the pivotal scene of Rambo being tortured and forced by Podovsky to make his propaganda broadcast.
As so often in Stallone’s films the evocation of masculine physicality and suffering embraces what might be called martyr homoeroticism, not so much to invite a desiring gaze but to offer the perfected icon for the audience’s sadomasochistic identification, a mix of delight and distress in the sight of tormented masculine strength before it explodes in orgasmic carnage. What glee the film taps in the sight of the all-but-naked Stallone, covered in sewage, body infested with leeches, which Podovsky begins to methodically peel away with Rambo’s own knife. Rambo is electrocuted and threatened with having a glowing hot knife shoved into his eyes, until Podovsky realises it’s better to threaten the POW he tried to free. Finally Rambo seems to relent and settles down reluctantly before a radio microphone, calling up the American base over the border, and asking to speak to Murdock. Cosmatos moves through shots here in musical degrees of intensity – close-ups of Berkoff’s face with piercing blue eyes as he maintains ruthless pressure, of Stallone’s muscular arm as he grips the radio, of his sadly limpid gaze as he affects being driven to traitorousness – before delivering the killer blows, as Rambo growls out Murdock’s name, lightning flashing on his face, his grip on the microphone tightening with a click of knuckles. “I’m coming to get you,” he warns Murdock, whose aghast and terrified reaction on the other end is glimpsed in a near-subliminal but indelible cut, before Rambo lashes out, using the microphone as a weapon to wallop his torturers and make his break. He even gives Yushin a dose of his own medicine by thrusting him against his own electrical torture device and turning the dial to 11. Utterly ludicrous, of course, and the sort of action movie vignette that’s provided fodder for lampooners ever since. And also a kind of perfection for this kind of moviemaking, completely unabashed and unashamed in presenting the cinematic equivalent of an adrenalin hit.
Rambo: First Blood Part II can also be regarded as one of the many children of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) and Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western transcription A Fistful of Dollars (1964), films that pretty much made compulsory a scene depicting the hero’s capture and brutalisation, prefiguring his escape and rebirth as incarnate wrath. Rambo flees with Co Bao’s aid but her death provokes him to halt his flight and ready for apocalyptic battle, picking off Podovsky’s commandos one by one and decimating a unit of Vietnamese soldiers who hunt him through long reeds only to find he’s laid a trap. Rambo’s preparations for battle include strapping on a headband with a tug of pure manliness, and selecting a weapon of choice, explosive head-tipped arrows, the sort of touch that makes eight-year-old boys of all ages delight. During a gunfight with the Vietnamese commander who directed Co Bao’s death, he turns one of these on his foe and blows him to smithereens in one of those moments that breaks down what little barrier there is between violent melodrama and absurdist comedy. Meanwhile Yushin chases him down in a helicopter, only for Rambo to manage to scramble on board, kill Yushin, and commandeer the craft, which he then uses to annihilate the camp’s garrison and rescue the POWs. As they flee they’re chased down by Podovsky in a colossal Sikorsky helicopter gunship, but Rambo manages, by playing possum, to lure Podovsky in and blow him out of the sky with an RPG.
Here, again, Cosmatos’ gleeful lack of moderation or care for anything except the impression of hellfire fury blesses the film with a certain pathological perfection, as in the way he holds off Goldsmith’s pounding martial music until after Rambo screams in the deepest eye of his berserker rage, somehow finding a step beyond the zenith of bloodlust. Indeed, what distinguishes Rambo: First Blood Part II from its many forebears and imitators is precisely the way it enters entirely into the berserker mindset, and indulges it to the nth degree. The peculiar conviction of the Rambo films as a unit is their complete rejection of all modern moral sensibility, turning instead to the primeval conviction that sometimes the only solution is righteous bloodletting, and that once countenanced, after other avenues are exhausted that zone must be committed to, and can indeed be a place of virtually transcendental experience. Rambo has evolved into a holy warrior without a specific religion to espouse beyond aiding the weak against the strong, a note taken up in his three subsequent outings. In the meantime, Rambo: First Blood Part II concludes with Rambo only just manages to fly the damaged and failing chopper to the American base and land it safely. There he socks Ericson, shoots up the surveillance equipment in the American base, and terrorises Murdock, only sparing his life on pain of doing his best to bring home other POWs: “Find them, or I’ll find you.” What’s most notable here is that Rambo is essentially rendered impotent by his one great loyalty, his country, discharging his weapons and rage fruitlessly against inanimate objects.
The most invaluable connecting thread for the early Rambo films beyond Stallone himself was Jerry Goldsmith’s scoring. His theme for First Blood precisely evoked the state of haunted but dignified persistence that was the initial key to Rambo’s character, and became the leitmotif for his wanderings in subsequent movies. The soaring lushness and booming martial intensity of his orchestrations are perhaps what chiefly distinguished the series from its lower-budgeted precursors and imitators (along with peculiarly good technical collaborators, including Jack Cardiff who worked as director of photography on Rambo: First Blood Part II, and who might well have remembered his own Dark of the Sun, 1968, when he signed on). The colossal success of Rambo: First Blood Part II birthed a string of imitations, like the Chuck Norris star vehicle Missing In Action and its sequels, and left a permanent mark on the style and assumptions of Hollywood action films. Predator likely wouldn’t exist without it to riff on. It was made the subject of jest and then validation in Die Hard (1988). On through just about every movie since where an omnicompetent hero decimates hordes of baddies, like John Wick (2014) and Extraction (2020). As for the character himself, Rambo III rounded off his initial trilogy, just managing to scrape over the line as the end of the Cold War loomed and Rambo’s days as a relevant pop culture hero suddenly seemed numbered. The film’s choice of taking up the Soviet war in Afghanistan became a sorely ironic point as the film indicted the conflict as the Russians’ equivalent of Vietnam, more than a decade before the US would go into the country itself (indeed an odd piece of fake lore would be coined on the internet that the film’s postscript title tribute to the “gallant people of Afghanistan” had been altered from an original version dedicated to the Mujahidin).
Rambo III’s first director Russell Mulcahy was fired and British editor Peter MacDonald hired. MacDonald stated his chief desire was to make Rambo a more human, humorous figure, and the film had a strong essential proposition: Rambo, after refusing to join Trautman on a mission in Afghanistan supplying Stinger missiles to the Mujahidin, goes in to rescue him when he’s captured, and the two battle their way out of the country side by side. Rambo III’s then-astronomical budget registers in the demolition of expensive infrastructure, the tactile immediacy and ruggedness of the action, and the lustre of the landscapes. But it’s too much a scrappy retread of its precursor despite trying to shift into buddy movie territory: the film climaxes again in a battle between Rambo and a Russian enemy in a giant helicopter – this time with Rambo pitted against him, hilariously, in a tank – and pithy exchanges over the radio (“Who are you?” “Your worst nightmare!”). Stallone resisted bringing the character back until 2008, well into the renewed warlike moment of the War on Terror. Finally he directed and starred in a film variably called simply Rambo or John Rambo, depending on the market. I didn’t like this entry when it first came out, but on recent revisit found it surprisingly good. Rambo, now living a peaceful life as a snake trapper and riverboat skipper, is called upon by some American Christian medical personnel to ferry them into Myanmar where they plan to administer aid to victims of the ruling military dictatorship’s brutal repression. Rambo, after warning them against going, is convinced by their leader’s open-hearted fiancé Sarah (Julie Benz) to take them. When he later hears they’ve been captured by the truly evil local military commander during a massacre of a village, Rambo elects to accompany a team of mercenaries hired by their pastor to go in and rescue them.
The storyline this time around was almost too straightforward and executes a much slower burn than its precursors, holding off the requisite, purgative explosion of payback until the climax, and lacking a strongly developed antagonist, only sporting a particularly vicious army commander Major Tint (Maung Maung Khin), who likes doing things like feeding the missionaries to pigs and slaughtering entire communities. But Rambo did develop some substantial ideas in its juxtapositions, leaning heavily on echoes of High Noon (1952) and Shane (1953) in mooting tension between Rambo’s weary knowledge of humanity’s dark side and the humane, optimistic ideals of the missionaries, as well as probing the schism between Rambo and the cadre of mercenaries with their different generational and professional attitudes. When the action finally cuts loose in the climax, as Rambo unleashes a heavy machine gun on the Myanmar military, backed up by his newfound pals, with properly maniacal impact. By the film’s end the series circled back to where it nominally started, with Rambo returning to the US, but this time truly going home, to his father’s horse ranch in the Arizona heartland. Stallone has returned to the role once more, for 2019’s Rambo: Last Blood, which saw him battling a Mexican drug cartel. But it was a disappointingly generic coda that felt hurriedly repurposed to vaguely fit Rambo, with our hero acting in ways rather too naive for the character so familiar by this point, at least until the impressively bloodthirsty climax. Old soldiers never die, apparently – their box office takings simply fade away.
Director: Jack Arnold Screenwriters: Harry Essex, Jack Arnold (uncredited), Ray Bradbury (uncredited) / Martin Berkeley, Robert M. Fresco
By Roderick Heath
Jack Arnold likely deserves the title of science fiction cinema’s first genuine auteur. Great and important directors had worked in the genre since the earliest days of the medium, but Arnold was the first filmmaker to demonstrate both a great love and knowledge of sci-fi, as he had consumed it voraciously when growing up, and to make most of his notable films in it. In this regard he beat out chief rival Ishirô Honda by a year, whilst Byron Haskin, who first tackled the genre in the same year Arnold did, was a less constant devotee. Arnold, whose full name was John Arnold Waks and was the son of Russian immigrants, was born in Connecticut in 1916. After studying acting and working as a vaudeville dancer, he started landing roles on Broadway, but as it did for so many, World War II proved a career hurdle. Arnold signed up to be a pilot, but a lack of planes meant he was placed with the Signal Corps, and after taking a crash course in cinematography became an assistant to the esteemed documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty in making military films, until he finally gained his shot as a pilot and served out the war in the air. When peace came filmmaking was still on Arnold’s mind, and he formed a production outfit to make commercial shorts and documentaries, whilst also resuming his acting career now in movies. Arnold’s 1950 documentary With These Hands, a pro-union documentary about early twentieth century working conditions, garnered Arnold attention and an Oscar nomination. Arnold was soon given a shot at making a feature film by Universal, debuting with Girls in the Night, one of three movies he finished up turning out in 1953. The second was It Came From Outer Space.
It Came From Outer Space was the first of a string of successful, now-iconic sci-fi films produced by former Orson Welles collaborator and actor William Alland, hired by Universal to turn out films in the genre which was big box office business in the early 1950s. Alland and Arnold quickly followed up their breakthrough with the even more famous and popular The Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954), and its sequel Revenge of the Creature (1955). A TV play Arnold co-wrote and directed for the series Science Fiction Theatre called ‘No Food For Thought’ was quickly adapted by him into the feature Tarantula (1955) – Arnold’s lone contribution to the giant monster strand of the day’s sci-fi boom. He followed it with the film often called his masterpiece, The Incredible Shrinking Man (1956), and two less successful genre entries, The Space Children (1958) and Monster on the Campus (1958). In between these Arnold also made interesting, meaty noir and Western films like The Glass Web (1953), Man In The Shadow (1958), No Name On The Bullet (1959), the satirical comedy The Mouse That Roared (1959), and the beloved teensploitation thriller High School Confidential (1958). Arnold’s incredible pace of work through the ‘50s helped make his name synonymous with the decade’s pop culture in hindsight, but whilst he remained a busy worker, his creativity seemed to burn out as the kinds of movies he liked to make faded in popularity. He spent most of the rest of his career churning out TV episodes and directing the odd, anonymous feature, whilst amidst his late career the only movie that leaps out now is the provocatively titled Blaxploitation Western Boss Nigger (1975).
It Came From Outer Space had its genesis in an original film treatment entitled ‘The Meteor,’ written by the rising star of sci-fi and fantasy writing Ray Bradbury, who also in 1953 has his short story ‘The Fog Horn’ adapted as The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, the movie that kicked off the ‘50s giant monster craze. Regular sci-fi screenwriter and Arnold collaborator Harry Essex was credited with the script for It Came From Outer Space, although Bradbury and Arnold reportedly had input. Bradbury’s imprint is patent in the sometimes wistfully poetic dialogue. It Came From Outer Space bears one of the most famous and evocative titles in the history of movies, encapsulating the forceful, lurid appeal the ‘50s sci-fi style with its simultaneous excitement and anxiety for the suddenly expanding limits of human existence in the burgeoning space and atomic ages, and the uneasy mood of the Cold War’s height. As if to give it an aesthetic to match its looming title, It Came From Outer Space was filmed in 3D. When David Cronenberg and his brand of gruesome, subversive body horror came along two decades later, his debut film Shivers (1975) was also called, by way inverting, They Came From Within. But It Came From Outer Space isn’t exactly the kind of movie it sounds like, and came out at a pivotal juncture for the ‘50s sci-fi movement.
The style had started off as inquisitive and yearning and fretful, evinced in early entries like Destination Moon (1950), When Worlds Collide (1951), and The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951). It Came From Outer Space continued this run of inquisitive fare, but The Thing From Another World (1951) enshrined the more common run of portrayals of malevolent alien incursion. It Came From Outer Space also, alongside William Cameron Menzies’ Invaders From Mars (1953), established the subgenre of humans being replaced or suborned by alien entities, to be taken up and given variations like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and I Married A Monster From Outer Space (1958). It Came From Outer Space manages the tricky task of extracting strong dramatic tension from an ambiguous situation without clear villains or immediate world-threatening stakes, choosing rather a key of eerily poetic mystery woven around a smart parable for the fear of the unknown and its crazy-making influence on the human mind, collective and individual.
For a kid out of New Haven, Arnold evinced a genuine and powerful sense of the desert as a dramatic location, first demonstrated on It Came From Outer Space and carried over to Tarantula. In both movies Arnold manages to make the seemingly bright, open, sun-broiled spaces of desert locales – generally the environs of the Mojave Desert and the rock formations of Dead Man’s Point in Lucerne Valley, California – into places capable hiding sources of danger and wonder, where you could just well believe aliens and mammoth arachnids could be lurking. A sense of atmosphere was indeed one of Arnold’s singular talents, applied to his best films: he was equally good at capturing the teeming, enclosing world of the jungle for The Creature From The Black Lagoon and slowly transforming bland suburbia into a shadowland of adventure and threat with The Incredible Shrinking Man. The brief but effective pre-title sequence of Tarantula offers a slow pan across a desert landscape, accompanied only by the sound of wind washing through the cacti, until a misshapen human figure stumbles into view, disease entering a cruel but balanced system. Arnold would take up that idea more concertedly on The Incredible Shrinking Man. Another was taking his characters sufficiently seriously and preventing the human element of his movies taking a backseat. Arnold made minor genre stars of aging former ingénues like Richard Carlson, Richard Denning, and John Agar, and interesting, undervalued starlets like Barbara Rush, Julie Adams, and Mara Corday. Some of It Came From Outer Space’s sly power stems from the intelligent way it links its romantically involved heroes’ adventures with the alien with their psychological and social travails.
At the outset of It Came From Outer Space, professional science journalist and amateur astronomer John Putnam (Carlson) is dining with girlfriend Ellen Fields (Rush) at his house in the Arizona desert, just outside the small town of Sand Rock, which Putnam’s opening narration describes as “a nice town – knowing its past and sure of its future, as it makes ready for the night and the predictable morning.” Immediately the setting is invested with qualities both specific but also microcosmic, as Arnold films the town in a hazy aerial shot as evening descends. Putnam and Ellen’s easy conversation is threaded with asides contending with their prospects, as Putnam worries he doesn’t make enough steady money to keep Ellen if they get married, something Ellen evidently isn’t particularly concerned about, as Putnam has the cast of a dreamer and thinker somewhat outside the normal run of men she knows, like the town’s sheriff Matt Warren (Charles Drake), who turns protective attentions her way and the disapproving kind on Putnam as the drama unfolds, suggesting he has foiled romantic ambitions in that direction. When the couple go out to take a look through his telescope (not a euphemism…I think), they see a huge, flaming meteorite streak through the sky and slam into the earth nearby. The duo rush to get a helicopter pilot, Pete Davis (Dave Willock) to fly them to the impact crater, and when he descends into the crater Putnam is astounded to behold a large, circular vessel, moments before it’s buried by a landslide.
It Came From Outer Space and Tarantula are connected by their use of landscape and the way the desert space is tethered to evocation of threat and the superfuturistic landscapes opened up by scientific development, even as the manifestation of those threats come from radically different angles. Arnold finds it’s precisely the primal, hallucinatory quality of the desert expanse and the quiet of the rural world that makes it perfect to host destabilising infestation, largely because it already hosts such things. Arnold delves in to notice a landscape crawling with animal life engaged in the cold business of survival through predation, and the illusion of peace to the human eye is also connected to its danger as a sparse place of heat and dryness. In a marvellous vignette in It Came From Outer Space, telephone line repairman Frank Daylon (Joe Sawyer) meditates on the shifting nature of the landscape he often works in: “After working out on the desert for fifteen year like I have you see a lot of things – hear a lot of things too. Sun in the sky and the heat – all that sand out there with the rivers, lakes that aren’t real at all – and sometimes you think that the wind gets in the wires and hum and listens and talks…”
This lilt of the poetic runs through the veins of It Came From Outer Space. The meat of the drama, on the other hand, comes with overtones of Ibsen and Arthur Miller, about the clash between the unusual individual and the prosaic community, hinted at in Putnam’s opening narration, as Putnam finds himself laughingly disbelieved when he reports seeing the spaceship in the crater. Even his astronomer friend Dr Snell (George Eldredge) doesn’t believe his report, pointing out that the physical traces around the site are consistent with a meteorite’s impact. Warren is more provocative in his dismissal, trying to use Putnam’s report and the fact Ellen is momentarily neglecting her job as a teacher to back him up to imply Putnam is a bad influence. This motif was also employed in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms – intelligent, educated men who represent the voice of observant awareness shading into prophecy, but cannot convince others of the validity of their observations if it disturbs their worldview. Sounds familiar. Arnold gives it a more interesting spin in making Putnam a natural outsider, regarded as a bit of a weirdo by others, even Snell describing him bitingly to an assistant as “more than odd – individual and lonely. A man who thinks for himself.” Only Ellen, who is initially dubious too, sticks with Putnam, largely because as they drive home from the crater they catch sight of one of the aliens as it looms before them on the road.
Like just about every sci-fi film of the ‘50s, It Came From Outer Space is usually viewed through the prism of the era’s anti-Communist hysteria, which makes this quintessentially Bradburyesque central figure particularly telling, as the story unfolds and the nature of the alien visitors resolves from pure enigma, and Arnold wrestles with the concept of potentially fateful culture clash where both sides come to be frightened and defensive and the possibility of mutual destruction looms. Putnam’s discovery of the alien ship coincides with one of the aliens emerging from the crashed ship. Arnold resorts to the first of many point-of-view shots from the alien perspective, with the alien’s unusual vision through its single, prominent eye suggested by filming through a circular, jelly-like lens – the plain progenitor of the many similar viewpoint evocations of the lurking menace ranging through Jaws (1975) to Predator (1987) and beyond. Putnam meanwhile gazes up in awe at the huge, spherical craft with its hull decorated with hexagonal portals, and open portway through which he can glimpse machines buzzing and glowing with mysterious purpose.
This diptych of bewildered fascination set up here eventually leads to a brilliant punch-line at the film’s end, when the alien leader is revealed to have taken on Putnam’s appearance, leading to a climax that’s essentially one version of the type Putnam represent arguing with another, separated not just by their true physiognomy but history, philosophy, and scientific achievement – and the fact that the alien’s Putnam is charge indicates their evolution. Soon the aliens, whose ship crashed on top of an old gold mine which some luckless prospectors are trying to work, are moving around, waylaying people and assuming their forms in order to get their hands on equipment required to repair their ship. They claim the prospectors, and also Frank and his fellow lineman George (Russell Johnson), after the two men talk with Putnam and Ellen and Frank answers Putnam’s question as to whether they’ve seen anything unusual, “No, I haven’t seen anything – but I’m sure hearing things.” Frank lets Putnam listen to the unusual sounds vibrating through the telephone wires, a sign of the alien presence. Later, Ellen and Putnam encounter what looks like Frank but is really one of the impersonating aliens. Putnam and Ellen are bemused and suspicious at George’s suddenly changed, vacant manner, and his new habit of looking at the sun without squinting or blinking. Putnam sees an arm lying oustreteched from behind a rock, and assuing it’s Frank’s and that he’s been killed, hurriedly slips away with Ellen. Frank isn’t dead, however, and he awakens to the reality-warping sight of George awakeneing from unconsciousness with his alien double standing over him: the double assures the two men that they won’t be harmed. By the time Putnam and Ellen bring Warren back to the site, all evidence of the strange event is gone.
Arnold is a difficult filmmaker to describe, largely because he was such a no-nonsense talent at his height, his images charged with an igneous solidity, and yet able to conjure a sense of the numinous at will. It Came From Outer Space and Tarantula are brisk, supremely efficient films, both running 80 minutes, but packing in tight, well-told narratives that nonetheless aren’t mere narrative machines, but convey a sense of atmosphere and off-hand human detail as humdrum worlds suddenly begin to come apart at the seams. Something of Arnold’s skill is best conveyed by the scene where Putnam and Ellen encounter the alien that’s replaced George: Arnold adopts the alien viewpoint as it lurks behind the couple as they search for the linemen, only to have the creature extend a nebulous tendril that becomes a hand and touches Ellen on the shoulder, a clever special effect flourish that also provides an example of Arnold’s inventive use of the still-very new 3D frame, the required dimensional effect looming into the depth of the frame rather than out. The dark fairytale atmosphere is amplified by the way the aliens loom around the desert environs and leave trails behind them, like snails, only their passing is marked by a glittering dust that fades away after a time, claiming their human hosts in a whirl of steam and gold.
When Putnam spots ‘Frank’ and ‘George’ walking the main street of Sand Rock, he follows them and confronts them: the two doubles, holding back within the shadows of a building, don’t bother trying to fool Putnam, and assure him they need to be left to go about their business. Whenever the alien doubles are heard to speak, Arnold has their voices dubbed with ADR recording and slightly treated, so they sound disembodied. The choice of focusing part of the narrative on the two linemen, who also represent Putnam’s only real friends in the locale and who are in their way something like the film’s poetic Greek chorus at first, was personal on Bradbury’s part, as his father had worked that job in Tucson. Their replacement signals an assault on the salt-of-the-earth portion of Sand Rock whilst authority, represented by Warren, is forced gradually to concede something funny’s going on, but then becomes increasingly paranoid and frantic. Warren calls in Putnam and Ellen after dismissing their entreaties repeatedly, when Frank’s wife (Virginia Mullen) and George’s girlfriend Jane (Kathleen Hughes) report the two men have vanished together after stopping at their homes, acting strangely, and heading off with all their clothes. Warren also tells Putnam about electrical equipment being stolen all around town, after Putnam suggests the linemen were targeted for their service truck with its equipment. Ellen is soon waylaid on the road by Frank’s double and then claimed by the aliens, and a double of her appears to Putnam to lead him to a rendezvous with the alien leader in the old mind shaft. Putnam demands to see the alien’s real form before he’ll agree to try and keep the town at bay, but when the alien emerges, looking something like a cross between a slug and a bent penis with one glowing eye. Even the open-minded and rational Putnam cringes in horror before something so radically different.
Something of the film’s power and originality for its time is still conveyed by this vividly staged moment, which has always stuck in my mind like a fishhook, as well a subsequent, subtler scene where Putnam, talking over the incident with Warren later and needs a reference point for dealing with the unfamiliar. Putnam points to a scuttling tarantula on the ground and asks the sheriff what he’d do if the spider came for him, whereupon Warren simply stands on the bug, illustrating Putnam’s concerns precisely. That Arnold had similar wartime experience to Gene Roddenberry, who would later dedicate so much of Star Trek to investigating the same preoccupations as It Came From Outer Space, particularly the problem of recognising the value of intelligent life that looks and acts very differently, doesn’t feel coincidental. Later, in his squirming, ratcheting anxiety, Warren comments that more murders are committed at 92˚ Fahrenheit than at any other temperature (a speech Bradbury also deployed in his short story ‘Touched With Fire’), prior to forming a posse to root out the infesting interlopers, in a wry sidelong swipe at Western film conventions here that connects with the film’s sceptical attitude about the rousing of the communal hive, a motif with telling meaning in the context of McCarthyism’s height. Putnam is a more thoughtful and pacifistic answer to High Noon’s (1952) Will Kane as the bulwark between community and chaos. As Warren goes on the warpath, the posse causes the death of Frank’s double by catching him a roadblock and shooting at his truck until he swerves and crashes.
Perhaps the most affecting aspect of It Came From Outer Space however is that whilst it’s sci-fi in basic plot and themes, in style and mood it moves closer to fable-like fantasy, pervaded with aspects of dream logic. The aliens take on and cast off human apparel at will and travel about by flying, almost like thought. Frank’s monologue about the desert sets up a drama where reality is unstable, changelings lurk as in ancient folklore. Ellen’s alien double appears to Putnam, having changed from her usual prim apparel into a billowing black gown. This is the sort of touch which can trip a camp alarm in a modern viewer, but there is a reasonably clever motive behind it – knowing that Putnam is both their potential best ally and also most aggravating foe, the aliens have absorbed enough about humans to play on Putnam’s desire for Ellen to make him react just a little off kilter, and later almost manage to kill him by playing on this exactly. It also of course works on other levels, invoking familiar fantastical metaphor for erotic transformation, alien double Ellen embodying witchy femininity tantalising and dangerous, skirting metaphors more usually the province of vampire movies. When Putnam tries to outrun Warren’s posse and approach the aliens through the mine, Ellen’s double appears to him again and tries to fool him to falling into a crevice, as the aliens are now in the defensive. She shoots at him with an energy weapon that resembles a wand, further smudging the line between genre imagery. The ‘wand’, in a strong, simple special effect, carves great ruts in the stone walls behind Putnam, who fires back with his pistol, striking the alien who transforms back into its true form before plunging into the crevice and seeming to dissolve in the water pooling there.
Finally Putnam manages to reach the alien ship and confronts their gang of doppelgangers, including the one that’s taken on his own appearance. The alien Putnam warns off his human counterpart as he turns on the repaired drive for the spaceship, a thrumming mechanism exuding obscure but dazzling cosmic power: “You know how long we’ve worked on this? A thousand years of reaching for the stars.” The alien explains they were travelling on to their true destination only to be forced to crash-land on Earth, and intend to travel on. Putnam convinces the aliens to release their human captives and in exchange they’ll hold off the posse long enough to let the spaceship blast off, which they do by dynamiting the entrance to the mine. Finally the spaceship blasts off out of the crater, watched in awe by the humans, whilst Putnam anticipates a time when the two species will meet again and humanity is evolved enough to countenance it. This notion of a first contact that doesn’t entirely take is still a relatively underserved one, although the film’s narrative shape was likely remembered by pielberg for E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982).
Tarantula is both a companion piece to It Came From Outer Space and also a counterpoint to it in key respects. Where the earlier film is humanistic and curious and close to unique, Tarantula involves the overtly monstrous and inimical, and exemplifies a more familiar genre template. The story is driven by the failure of the same kind of Promethean scientific project that the aliens have finally succeeded in. It also inverts the core romantic situation by making protagonist Dr Matt Hastings (John Agar) a man reasonably happy in the stolid role of a doctor in another small Arizona town, this one with the slightly amended name of Desert Rock, who quickly falls under the sway of a glamorous young biology doctoral student, Stephanie ‘Steve’ Clayton (Corday), who embodies the siren call of a changing world beyond and arrives on the bus. Steve comes to town to take up a job as a research assistant to renowned scientist Professor Gerald Deemer (Leo G. Carroll). Deemer has set up a laboratory in an isolated ranch house in the desert along with two doctoral students also as assistants, Eric Jacobs and Paul Lund (both played by Eddie Parker), to work on his new project of synthesising a food hormone that can make plants and animals grow faster and larger, to cure world hunger. The opening shot I mentioned earlier sees Jacobs, face disfigured, stumbling through the desert and collapsing dead, before the opening titles roll. Jacobs’ body is found and inspected by Matt, who is bewildered by what was clearly a case of acromegalia but couldn’t possibly have developed as fast as its seems to in the course of a few days, and he approaches Deemer to learn more. Deemer confirms Jacobs had acromegalia and won’t say more, or allow an autopsy.
When Deemer returns to his house he enters his laboratory, which is filled with test animals, many of which have grown vastly outsized thanks to an experimental growth serum he and his collaborators have been developing, with the aim of increasing food supplies for a growing, hungry world population. In a neat visual joke-cum-flash of exposition, Arnold shows Deemer injecting the serum into a normal tarantula, whilst, in the background, offering sight of a tarantula already dosed several times, grown to be the size of a Great Dane and kept in a glass case. Deemer is assaulted by Lund, who has also developed acromegalia: Lund swings a chair at Deemer and smashes the big tarantula’s case, and the monstrous animal crawls ponderously out the door and vanishes in the desert whilst the two men fight and the lab catches afire. Lund knocks Deemer out and injects his prone form with the serum, before dropping dead, whilst most of the test animals perish in the fire. Deemer buries Lund’s body and acts as if nothing happened when Steve comes to work for him, and with Matt constantly popping by with questions about Jacob as well as interest in Steve. As Deemer begins to rapidly succumb to both acromegalia and accompanying mental instability, his ever-growing pet project stalks the hills and dales around Desert Rock eating up horses, cattle ranchers, and other hapless locals with voracious appetite.
Tarantula is close in setting and story to Gordon Douglas’ mighty Them! (1954), swapping out many giant ants for one huge arachnid, and because its creation involves radiation it counts as one of the many atomic monsters that lumbered across screens. Tarantula doesn’t have the dramatic force or sweep of Them! or the iconic stature of Godzilla (1954), but in one respect it’s more cogent than either, in the way it connects the monster with its creation: the tarantula isn’t spawned by accident, but is conceived as an expression of a utopian project that ultimately proves ill-conceived, quite apart from thinking making a predatory spider huge a good idea. The cleverly structured story opens with the destructive fallout of the savants’ experimenting and over-enthusiastic attempts to prove their formula a success, but just what transpired is only slowly clarified, that Lund and Jacobs were so eager to prove the serum worked despite its instability they injected themselves and fell victim to the artificially induced acromegalia. Lund’s rampage in the laboratory reflects both the serum’s corrosive impact but also an expression of enraged frustration, resulting him in sentencing his colleague Deemer to a slow and awful death like his own. Much as the giant monster allowed filmmakers to tackle the subject of the atomic bomb without seeming to, the motif of bodily poisoning and degeneration here touches on the consequences of nuclear fallout, the signature of the age written in distorted and misshapen bodies.
Tarantula gains much from Carroll’s performance, his low-key air of calm ideal for playing a scientist compelled by intellectual curiosity rather than emotional display, an essentially decent but fatefully tunnel-visioned genius, and one who slowly starts to disintegrate in mind and body as Lund’s dose starts to take hold. The presence of a respected character actor like Carroll said something about the lifting horizons and respectability of ’50 sci-fi cinema, approaching the movement’s highpoints in production terms with This Island Earth (1955) and Forbidden Planet (1956), and was paid tribute in turn via the mischievous wordplay of genre film lampoon-cum-lampoon The Rocky Horror Picture Show twenty years later. Agar, not an actor I’m fond of at the best of times, is nonetheless solid as Matt, who has an engaging character arc as the local lad of modest talent who, a little like Putnam, is faced with incredulity, in his case when he insists that Jacobs couldn’t have developed acromegalia so quickly, but finds it was certainly the cause of death when he performs an autopsy after at last gaining Deemers’ permission. Local sheriff Jack Andrews (Nestor Paiva), Matt’s friend but also sceptical about his talent weighed against Deemer’s opinion, teases him mercilessly about the wrong call, but as Matt digs he begins to piece together the picture of what happened at the laboratory.
A chunk of Tarantula’s first half is given over to romantic business as Matt and Steve flirt up a storm, in the kinds of scenes genre fans likely groan over a bit then and now, even if it is solid character business that’s properly connected with the plot. Tarantula can’t entirely escape the usual awkwardness sci-fi movies of the period often wielded in trying to deal with the idea of a female scientist, with even Deemer taken aback by getting a research assistant who looks like a Playboy model (as Corday would become in 1958): “I didn’t expect someone who looked like you…I’m sorry my dear, that was supposed to be a compliment.” It benefits, however, from Arnold’s relative matter-of-factness on the issue – when Matt makes a quip about giving women the vote leading to “lady scientists,” he pitches it as an inside gag between them, and she quickly proves her abilities in helping Deemer rebuild the lab and prepare the serum. Nor does she collapse into a screaming damsel in the climactic scenes, as she recognises the spider has discovered the road will lead it to more food – that is, Desert Rock. Her masculine nickname nudges the spectacle in the ribs a little even as Steve is presented as all woman, down to her improbably chic wardrobe. Whilst all of the tarantula’s victims are male, the film builds to a phobic crescendo inhabiting a realm of fervent psychological symbolism when the by-now monumental tarantula crawls towards Deemer’s house on the search for morsel and sets its eyes on Steve within, the monstrous form without the ultimate depiction of the septic id envisioning itself, drooling literally over the female body within.
Corday, a model, dancer, singer and actress, was a minor starlet around Hollywood for a few years, was given her first starring role by Arnold for the Western The Man From Bitter Spring (1955), and with Tarantula was making the first of the three monster movies for which she’s mostly remembered today (along with The Giant Claw, 1957, and The Black Scorpion, 1957). Whilst her movie career waned soon after, she remains one of the more interesting starlets to feature in the era’s genre cinema, displaying a confident poise and edge of humour that largely remained untapped. She’s just about the only good thing about The Giant Claw, for instance, playing the sceptical, sarcastic love interest, and anyone who can look as keen as she does whilst being romanced by John Agar deserves an Oscar. Years later, after being out of movies for a couple of decades, she was given some small parts in movies by her friend Clint Eastwood, who appears at the end of Tarantula in a small but vital early part of his own, after having appeared in Revenge of the Creature for Arnold. There’s a hint of an in-joke to Arnold casting Paiva, who had been the boisterous and hardy Brazilian riverboat captain Lucas in The Creature From The Black Lagoon and usually played Latin caricatures, as an all-American sheriff. Brief but surprisingly good comic relief comes Hank Patterson as Josh, the bashful but stickybeaked desk clerk in the hotel where Matt also has his practice, who likes to listen in on Matt’s phone calls and tries flirting unsuccessfully with Steve.
The monster movie portion of Tarantula doesn’t really get going until the second half, apart from brief shots privileged to the audience of the growing spider stalking across the long, straight highway that links Desert Rock with Deemer’s house, and Arnold sets himself the challenge of abandoning the noirish lilt he gave to the desert scenes in It Came From Outer Space and instead evoking menace in the locale at its most glaringly sunlit. When Matt and Steve stop for a cigarette break by an awesome outcropping of stone (Dead Man’s Point again), they scan the horizon like their precursors in It Came From Outer Space and meditate on the desert’s strange power, as Matt comments, “Everything that ever walked or crawled on the face of the Earth – swum the depths of the ocean – soared through the skies left its imprint here.” Steve notes it was once a sea floor, and Matt comments they can still find seashells here, and looks from the air like “something from another life…serene, quiet, yet strangely evil, as if it were hiding its secret from man.” This proves literal, as something starts an avalanche of rock from the peak of the outcrop, and when Matt and Steve drive off the legs of the tarantula stir behind the formation. Of course any tarantula growing over a certain size would soon collapse for the weight of its own exoskeleton and suffocate for lack of lungs, but let’s not worry about that.
What is important is Arnold’s depicting of the tarantula on the loose – attacking a ranch, grabbing a cattle truck and hurling it off the road, and chasing down a pair of itinerant labourers camping out. Arnold conjures flickers of nightmarish dread with his images of the colossal spider stalking across landscapes, barging its way through power lines as the currents spark and arc, and falling on dwarfed and hapless human victims. Clifford Stine’s special effects rely on a photographically enlarged tarantula for the most part, and whilst it’s a pity the film didn’t have Willis O’Brien or Ray Harryhausen on hand, and there are occasional superimposition problems, the effects are sufficient and effective in large part because of their simplicity. One particularly potent shot offers the two labourers drinking coffee around their campfire and sharing a joke, whilst the tarantula ponderously crawls over the ridge above them and down towards them with quiet, remorseless focus, until the two men notice it too late. Arnold uses high crane shots to mimic the viewpoint of the tarantula looming over and pouncing on its screaming prey. The tarantula leaves only the bones of its food and large pools of venom for the investigators to puzzle over: Matt, analysing and realising what the venom is, soon tries to bring in outside help, but events begin to outpace him, as Deemer in his deranged state tries to stop Steve talking to Matt on the phone.
Along the way Tarantula squeezes in some off-hand commentary on the responsibility of different forms of authority in crises in addition to the central theme of Deemer’s experiment-gone-wrong, and continuing on from It Came From Outer Space’s portrait of hysterical authority versus wise restraint, here finally more idealised as the threat is hostile and deadly. Surveying the perplexing and mysterious signs left by the tarantula’s attack on the cattle truck, Matt encourages local journalist Joe Burch (Ross Elliott) to simply describe it as a road accident, in case too many vague and alarming details spark a panic. Matt’s methodical approach is meanwhile valorised – he is after all the hero, but then that’s also why he’s the hero – as he refuses to be fobbed off with vague explanations and the intimidating impact of professional stature.
When Matt rushes to the ranch house, he finds the contrite Deemer ready to explain all that’s transpired, and mourning the marvellous results of his experiments lost in the fire. Steve thinks his story is the product of his unbalanced mind, but Matt begins to fit the pieces together. He flies to Phoenix to consult with biologist Prof. Townsend, who backs up his analysis of the venom. Here we get shoehorned in one of those informative little educational movies within a movie detailing the characteristics of a real tarantula: Townsend comments as they watch the film that the tarantula “doesn’t know the meaning of fear,” and foreshadows the climax of the film as he explains the tarantula’s great enemy is a species of wasp, a flying foe. Meanwhile back at the ranch (ha), as Deemer languishes in bed, increasingly disfigured by his advancing disease, and Steve prepares to sleep, the tarantula approaches and attacks the house, and begins crushing the building as it scrambles to get at the morsels within. Deemer is consumed by his own creation, whilst Matt turns up in time to whisk Steve off along the highway with the monster in pursuit.
The main problem with Tarantula as a monster movie is that can’t sustain its action as well as Arnold managed with The Creature From The Black Lagoon, which, one it dispensed with mystery and set-up, was sustained by the relentless attacks of its human-sized antagonist. Tarantula also suffers a little from a rather jerky pace, essentially compressing the inevitable battle to hold the spider at bay into the last ten minutes. Arnold still infuses the inevitable moment of confrontation with the primal horror stalking down the highway for the chieftains of Desert Rock with notes of deadpan humour as well as suspense – the Sheriff’s exclamation of “Jumpin’ Jupiter!” when he spots the tarantula, is one of many moments Arnold seems to be inviting the audience to fill in less censor-friendly comments. The town paltry ranks of official guardians snap into action with Matt helping, as they raid all the supplies of dynamite in Desert Rock and plant it on the highway, blowing it up when the tarantula marches over it, but barely singing a hair on his legs.
Finally, as the tarantula nears Desert Rock, a flight of air force jets ride in like the cavalry. This provides a reminder that all monster movies are made to some extent or other in the mould of King Kong (1933). The jets fire rockets at the spider, but fail to do much damage; it’s only when they hit it with napalm that the spider is consumed in a great writhing fireball, halted right at the fringe of the town. As a climax this is both spectacular, and represents a flourish of personal satisfaction for the former pilot Arnold, but also a rather terse and practical one, as the film immediately fades out on the sight of the tarantula burning. Notably, the young Eastwood plays the commander of the attacking planes, but his face is obscured by his flight mask; there is no real hero here, the actual job of bringing down the monster an impersonal business performed by professionals wielding hard military force. For that it feels peculiarly realistic and indeed anticlimactic compared to the many variations on the Aliens (1986) get-away-from-her-you-bitch ending where lone plucky protagonists have to face down monstrous adversaries in more recent monster movies. Still, it has dimensions that echo beyond its immediate purpose – the use of napalm as emblem of the American military’s prowess would take on a rather less heroic meaning a decade or so later.
A vast number of sci-fi and monster movie directors have painstakingly recreated Arnold’s juxtapositions of mood and setting – Steven Spielberg on Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), John Carpenter with Halloween (1978) and The Fog (1979), Lewis Teague’s Alligator (1980), Frank Marshall’s Arachnophobia (1990), Ron Underwood’s Tremors (1990), Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996), J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 (2011) and Jordan Peele’s Nope (2022) – all owe a great deal to the Arnold aesthetic. Whilst the surrealism-tinged styles of David Lynch and David Cronenberg in part represented a critique of the imprint of Arnold and other ‘50s sci-fi and Horror cinema, nonetheless both ran with elements of his films – the subplot of Tarantula involving the rapid physical degeneration of characters brought about by scientific experimentation invokes an early variation on Cronenberg’s body horror, whilst The Incredible Shrinking Man’s portrait of everyday suburbia turning threatening and relentless emasculation anticipates elements of both directors. One of the sore lacks of many contemporary directors venturing into this tradition is an ability to establish baseline normality before introducing the unreal – something Arnold made look easy. Perhaps the audience was pushed out of the normal so many times we couldn’t find our way back.
Director: James Whale Screenwriters: Benn W. Levy, R. C. Sherriff (uncredited)
By Roderick Heath
The Horror genre was given form and definition in the silent film era. A handful of great filmmakers, starting with the likes of F.W. Murnau, Paul Leni, and Tod Browning, did much of their best work in the style and plainly had an affinity for it, and their classic stand with a raft of powerful and important works by filmmakers who made brief visits to the genre, including Fritz Lang, Victor Sjöstrom, and Rex Ingram. Most of that vital Horror cinema was made in Europe, whereas in Hollywood, apart from Browning’s films and starring vehicles for Lon Chaney, Horror films tended to be tinged with comedy and lampooning, expressing a breezily dismissive contempt for spooky shenanigans in the optimistic mood of the Jazz Age: funny tales debunking supernatural menace, like the much-filmed theatrical hits The Cat and the Canary and The Ghost Breakers, were all the rage. But as the genre emerged into the sound era, coinciding with the dark pall of the descending Depression, Browning’s Dracula (1931) suddenly made it a big box office genre for Hollywood. With due speed Carl Laemmle’s Universal Pictures produced a follow-up in the form of an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s storied prototype for much fantastical literature and filmmaking, Frankenstein. The director hired for that film was the English stage maestro turned film director James Whale, and Whale, at least for the next thirty years or so, perhaps did more to codify Horror as a genre than any other director. The irony there was he wasn’t particularly fond of being associated with it, and much of his impact came in the way he tangled with its already enshrined clichés to create new ones.
Whale was a working class boy from Dudley, Worcestershire, deep in the “Black Country” of coal mining regional England. Forced to stop going to school because of his family’s lack of money and not strong enough to become a miner, Whale found work as a cobbler and also, with his emerging artistic talents, earned extra money painting signs and advertisements for local businesses, and used the cash he earned that way to pay for lessons at a local art school. Volunteering for service in World War I, Whale gained a commission as a second lieutenant and served in the trenches until he was captured by the Germans in 1917. Waiting out the war in a POW camp, Whale became heavily involved in staging theatre with his fellow prisoners, and found his great passion. After the war’s end he spent a brief stint as a cartoonist but soon found work in the theatre in multiple guises including as an actor, stage manager, and finally director. Like Murnau, Whale was homosexual and didn’t care much who knew it, and whilst he was briefly engaged to a woman in the early 1920s, Whale’s boldness in that regard is sometimes presumed to have ultimately foiled his career, although for the time being it seemed nothing could hold him back.
Whale’s big break came when he was hired to direct R.C. Sheriff’s play Journey’s End for a theatre group that specialised in staging new works for private audiences. Journey’s End explored the fatalistic mood of the men fighting in the trenches, in a drama that touched upon questions of the worth of hero worship as a potentially beneficial example but also one that could both lure people into a deadly situation. Whale’s personal investment in the material as a former soldier was plain enough, and the material proved to have the same appeal to a vast number of people. Whale initially talked an unknown young actor named Laurence Olivier into playing the lead role of Stanhope, but he was replaced by Colin Clive when, encouraged by the impact the lay had for its private audience, Whale took it to the West End. The play became an instant smash hit on both sides of the Atlantic, at a time when the war, which people had been trying so vigorously to forget, suddenly became a matter of interest again. This gave Whale a shot at Hollywood, as the burgeoning age of Talkies saw the film industry desperate for directors who knew how to handle dialogue: as a “dialogue director” Whale made The Love Doctor (1929) and worked on Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels (1930). He debuted as fully credited director when he helmed the movie adaptation of Journey’s End. After following that up with the popular romantic melodrama Waterloo Road (1931), Whale was assigned to Frankenstein.
With Frankenstein, Whale inadvertently made his name permanently associated with Horror movies. By some accounts Whale wasn’t terribly thrilled by that, but he did nonetheless become a singularly important influence on the way Horror evolved in the sound era and as a fully-fledged movie genre. Most obviously, the film’s depiction of Frankenstein’s Monster created a perpetual pop culture image, thanks to the confluence of makeup artist Jack Pierce’s iconic look for the monster, actor Boris Karloff’s performance, and Whale’s conceptual take on the creature’s existence and symbolic import for the audience. More subtle, but perhaps more important, was the way Whale helped Horror as an aesthetic adapt to the more intense gaze of the 24-frame-a-second era and the attendant vividness of sound. Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) carefully negotiated frames of the dreamlike and the psychological, birthing the stylised, purposefully unrealistic approach of the endlessly influential Expressionist style, and that remained for a long time the predominant influence on the genre, although some of Browning’s works like The Unholy Three (1925) and The Unknown (1926) tended more to posit morbid and perverse psychology in otherwise realistic settings.
One key to Whale’s vitality lay in his florid ease in moving between tones and artistic postures, the way he fused stylisation and realism, theatricality and cinema. He made Frankenstein’s looming, Expressionist-influenced but three-dimensional sets, coexist with location photography and knead them all into a peculiar kind of whole, just as he was later to become known for easily pivoting between humour and straight-faced thrills. The poetic-metaphorical airiness and pathos of Mary Shelley’s twisted but articulate creation was swapped out for something more concrete, more essential. The desperate, mute Monster came more fully and coherently the image of just about anything rendered Other in a social context. He embodied poles of attitude, at once childlike and brutish, victim and cold avenger, misshapen and powerful, and his eventual end in a burning windmill evoked at once righteous action by a community and the spectre of mob rule, the punishment of the transgressor blurring with the cleaning of the hive of deviance.
Whale’s four fantastical films, Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man (1933), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), present perhaps the greatest directorial body of work in the genre, rivalled only by the likes of Terence Fisher and Mario Bava in the 1960s and George Romero in the 1970s. But they’re defined in part by the way Whale’s tension with the genre manifested. Whale’s dark, sometimes overtly strange and camp sense of humour, mostly held in check on Frankenstein, came seething out with the next three, all of which were big popular successes: Whale’s unease with being pigeonholed as a maker of scary movies again connected with the audience’s simultaneous ardour and scepticism for such fare. The Old Dark House, which was for a long time lost only to be rediscovered by Horror director and Whale acolyte Curtis Harrington, was based on the novel Benighted by J.B. Priestley, whose second work it was. Priestley, who would later become extremely popular and regarded in Britain, commented sardonically after the book’s release that the American publishers retitled it The Old Dark House in a determined effort to turn a profit, and it worked. The title was kept for the film, and it served to felicitously announce Whale’s mordant blend of attitudes, summoning up both an essentialist evocation of a classic genre trope reaching back to the Gothic Romances of Hugh Walpole and Mrs Radcliffe, and also its puckish deflation, close in spirit to the debunking comedies of the ‘20s.
What Whale managed however was more sophisticated, and it laid down the blueprint he’d follow for The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein, provoking with a gleeful humour and semi-satiric slant, whilst steadily invoking the absurdity its characters face and sometimes embody, setting the scene for when the truly strange and disturbing busts out. Priestley’s novel hinged on a similar conceit to his later, perhaps best-known work in its own right, the play An Inspector Calls, in conjuring the house filled with eccentrics loaded down with their own private and shared transgressions. Whale merrily grasps onto The Old Dark House’s edition, the family Femm, comprising most immediately the spindly Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger), his sister Rebecca (Eva Moore), their 103-year-old father Sir Roderick (Elspeth Dudgeon), and the mysterious sibling who resides in a room on the top floor. The Femms are the perverse and degenerating end of an ancient line, their house a looming pile of stonework that contains the ages of English society. Into their strange little world stumbles a gaggle of visitors representing modernity, desperately seeking shelter from the storm. The bickering young married couple Philip (Raymond Massey) and Margeret Waverton (Gloria Stuart), and their tagalong pal, Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas). The Manchester magnate Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and his dancer date Gladys DuCane (Lilian Bond).
The opening scenes present a classic story set-up as the Wavertons and Penderel travel in Philip’s chugging motor car through a buffeting rainstorm, banks of earth collapsing in their wake and tyres grinding desperately at the muddy ruts of the road. A classic Horror movie opening, reaching back to days of travelling coaches and forward to kids in Volkswagen vans in the genre, but contrasted with the rude liveliness of the characters who refuse to acknowledge they’re in a Horror tale. The Wavertons, plainly out on what was supposed to be a romantic honeymoon, locked together instead Philip unleashes epic, vicious sarcasm: “I’ve never been in a better temper in my life. I love driving a hundred miles through the dark practically without headlights. I love the trickle of ice-cold water pouring down my neck. This is one of the happiest moments of my life!” Penderel’s cheeriness, project from the backseat, is counterpoint and further goad to Whale’s portrayal of marital bother raised to epic pitch by the situation. “Perhaps you’d like me to drive for a bit,” Margaret suggests: “Yes, I was expecting that!” Philip retorts before continuing to try to get traction , and Penderel roars out a version of “Singin’ In The Rain.”
The frayed-nerved comedy here is both funny and mortifying in portraying a familiar kind of hell. The Wavertons and their tagalong friend are trying to drive out of the Welsh hills down to Shrewsbury, but the ferocious storm that’s descended is causing landslides and flooding, and they look for the closest convenient shelter. Margaret spots lights and encourages Philip to make for them, but when he catches sight of the craggy, crooked, ancient manse of the Femms her husband comments, “It’s probably wisest to push on.” But the as the storm seems to have cut off the roads all around they’re left with no recourse. Whale interpolates an ingenious model shot recreating the driver’s viewpoint in pulling into the muddy and desolate yard of the old dark house. Out the hapless travellers jump from the car and bang on the front door, and Penderel for a moment takes excited refuge in the notion the people in the house are all dead, “all stretched out with the lights quietly burning about them,” writing his own draft Horror tale whilst waiting for a response within, and in a moment he seems to just about get his wish as a hatch in the door swing open, revealing the gnarled, hirsute face of Morgan (Karloff), the Femm’s servant/warden, who responds to Penderel’s request for shelter with an incomprehensible, guttural mutter. “Even Welsh ought not to sound like that,” Penderel comments.
Granted entry by the grunting, damaged manservant, the trio are soon confronted by Horace, descending the wooden staircase like someone gene-spliced man, praying mantis, horse, and living skeleton. After sniffing his way through introductions and angular politeness, Horace escorts his guests over the blazing fireplace, and picks up a bundle of flowers, which, he tells them, his sister was about to arrange, before tossing the blooms on the fire. And Horace is the closest thing to a fully functioning human in the house, compared to the mute Morgan and his largely deaf sister, at least on the level of faculties, although he completely lacks a spine, in the metaphorical sense. Thesiger was destined to gain an odd kind of immortality specifically from his collaborations with Whale here and on Bride of Frankenstein, which might have surprised him, given he was a respected and experienced stage actor who had played roles for George Bernard Shaw and Noel Coward, and he kept acting in films into his eighties. A wounded veteran of the trenches, Thesiger was as blue-blooded as they come, related to the explorer Wilfred Thesiger and nephew of Lord Chelmsford, leader of the infamous military expedition against the Zulus – the battles of Isandhlwana and Rorke’s Drift went down a week after Ernest’s birth. Which sounds just like the kind of character he usually played. Looking much older than his 53 years, Thesiger presented Whale with his ideal interlocutor in portraying a simultaneously scornful and joyous caricature of the British aristocracy, devolved and waspish, wasted but invested with a deceptive strength, charged with disdain but at the mercy of its servile class, represented by Morgan, who meanwhile is sliding towards Morlock-like barbarity.
Another contrast is provided by Rebecca, whose piousness is chiefly a vehicle for expressing unvarnished contempt, and the way she offsets her brother’s atheistic and pagan mores. Moore’s performance anticipates Una O’Connor’s wild and flailing brand of absurdism for Whale, but with a different physical presence, as rotund and porcine as Horace is thin and equine, bearing a strong resemblance to the portrait of Queen Victoria she keeps on her bedroom wall. When Margaret asks Rebecca to show her a place where she can change from her wet clothes, Rebecca takes her to her own bedroom which, she explains, once belonged to her beautiful sister Rachel, who died after breaking her back in a riding accident aged 20: “A wicked one – handsome and wild as a hawk,” she cries, and eagerly looks over Margaret’s young, pretty form and anticipates its inevitable decay. Rebecca lustily regales her guest with Rachel’s agonised end and how she ignored Rebecca’s entreaties to turn to God. Rebecca’s bedroom is separated from the main hall by a gloriously decrepit corridor with a billowing white curtain at an open window and rain splashing on the stonework floor. Rachel’s old room proves a refuge of gentility save for the warped overlooking mirror.
Rebecca monologues about Rachel to the increasingly agitated Margaret whilst conjuring charged impressions of feminine beauty in her obsessive noting of red lips, long straight legs, and white bodies. Morgan’s knock at the door gives the lurking manservant a chance to ogle Margaret in her underwear, whilst Rebecca herself, for all her deploring, seems to be hiding a fascination for Margaret, thrusting her splayed hand upon Margaret’s chest. After Rebecca leaves Margaret can’t shake off her mocking words, as if she’s still in the room. Whale offers one of his most striking and peculiar cinematic phrases here, as he cuts jaggedly between shots from different angles of Rebecca’s face, reflected in the warped mirror and lit by guttering candles, all her savage perversity and mocking delight in mutability emerging as an array of perverted Gothic images. Margaret’s own face, as she tries to put on earrings, is also warped into strange and alien form by the mirror, as if she’s being claimed by Rebecca’s curse of the flesh. Margaret freaks out and, after opening to window but failing to push it close again for the powerful wind, she flees the bedroom and returns to the others in the hall. The punch-line for this is that she returns to the hall and looks every inch the resplendent lady about to dine in the finest restaurant.
This gaudy, layered, hysteria-laden scene is a perfect miniature representation of Whale’s jaggedly original approach to filmmaking and capacity to create a vivid, near-surreal context for his dark fantasies, turning what would have been a very minor episode in the movie into a vignette charged with undercurrents of sexuality and boding violence. The urge to transgression and its eternal partner, ironclad moralism, are in the mix, nodding to the distorted effects of what would soon be called “decadent art,” and winding up to a peak of delirium evinced by Margaret’s panic and despair. Whale’s camerawork is actually, generally more restrained in The Old Dark House than in his other films, like the long, devastating tracking shot of the father carrying his drowned daughter in Frankenstein, and his shots passing carelessly through and over walls in The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein, as Whale readily showed off the roots of his visual imagination in the theatrical zone, but was able to leave behind any hint of the stagy, instead delighting in the way his camera could capture space and people within it. Instead, The Old Dark House shows more delight in his shot composition and cutting.
The dinner sequence that follows is another brilliant set-piece, albeit a more subtle one, where that delight is fully in evidence. The characters settle around the Femms’ dining table and try to enjoy a meal together, the flicker from the fire casting their shadows on the wall and the hulking, glowering Morgan playing waiter. Margaret, with a scowl, gets Philip to sit between her and Rebecca, who scoffs down pickled onions with righteous appetite. Meanwhile Horace brandishes carving utensils like small weapons of war, and when Rebecca chides him for not saying grace, retorts, “Oh, I had forgotten my sister’s strange tribal habits – the beef will seem less tough when she as invoked a blessing upon it,” and his initially playful sarcasm quickly spirals into a dark and spiteful meditation on the many blessings the family hasn’t received over the years. Rebecca’s hearty Christian appetite is balanced by Horace’s modest delight in gin – “I like gin.” He keeps trying to foist gnarled and soggy boiled potatoes on his dinner guests, each proffered with the inimitable Thesiger voice prompting, “Have a po-ta-to.” “Thank you, I should love a potato,” the practical Penderel answers, whilst Philip picks the eyes out of his. The electric light flickers and nearly dies, as Horace explains the house’s generator isn’t reliable. Finally, the agonised ritual of the dinner is interrupted by another knock at the door, which proves to be Sir William and Gladys, also seeking refuge.
Priestley’s design in the book emerges in the film as the characters represent different aspects of British society and history, and what’s particularly important here is the way Whale tweaks the material into offering the cast of characters as a succession of self-portraits – world war veteran, angry pleb on the rise, biting camp aesthete and wicked sceptic. The Old Dark House itself represents the closest Whale ever came to unifying the two artistic postures he was well-known for – the portrayer of Great War angst and the maker of Gothic fantasias, finding a dramatic landscape where those two things could coexist and feed each-other. They also converge on Penderel, a survivor of the trenches who readily acknowledges that he exemplifies a type, rattling off evocative self-descriptions that have become close to parodic clichés for him: “War Generation, slightly soiled – a study in the bittersweet – the man with the twisted smile – and this Mr Femm is exceedingly good gin.” Where the Wavertons are a sturdy middle-class couple, inheritors of the future, Penderel is a perpetual misfit and ironic party animal, seeing ridiculousness in everything. At least until he claps eyes on Gladys, who swiftly shifts the weights on the Eros-Thanatos scale in Penderel.
Sir William represents another corner of interwar British society, a self-made, nouveau riche businessman with a strong Yorkshire accent and a surface attitude of bonhomie. That barely conceals a seething motive in his working class roots and a telling lack of any sense of noblesse oblige. He’s easily drawn in the course of chatting with the other guests after dinner into recounting his tragic past, how his wife died, he believes, from heartache after being cold-shouldered by snooty society wives when Sir William first began to rise helped, convincing her she was holding them back. Sir William avenged her by breaking and bankrupting the husbands of those women, and yet remains a figure of pathos: now he’s got a fortune and a knighthood and no human connection, except for playing sexless sugar daddy to Gladys. Sir William’s narrative is coherent as both a depiction of Whale’s experience of class anger, and it can also be argued a coded metaphor for the agonies of coming out in Whale’s time, in registering a specifically intimate and human cost to social prejudice. Sir William and Penderel butt heads at first, with Sir William assuming the urbane Penderel looks down his nose at him for being such a go-get-‘em operator, and Penderel telling the magnate off for speaking disrespectfully to Glady when he outs her – that is, tells everyone her real last name, which is Perkins. “I envy you, I admire you,” Penderel tells Sir William, in comparison to his own unmoored and lethargic state, to the magnate’s retort, “Oh yes, you envy me, but you don’t admire me.”
Meanwhile the Femms represent a particularly eccentric and ingenious collective twist on an essential motif of Gothic fiction, the aristocratic clan cut off from the tides of modern life and subsisting on decaying pretensions and trapped within a house that once expressed their exceptionalism but now only exhibits their decay. Nonetheless, as Rebecca triumphantly tells her brother as he frets over the fear that the rains could bust a nearby dam and wash the house away, Femm Manor is built on solid rock – the roots of the Femms are planted so deep in the soil of the country they can’t be dug out even if they wish it. Rebecca and Horace have divergent expressions of their intense neurosis in embodying a disparity of godless sensualism and religiose intensity, but both are the same degree of crazy. The ancient Sir Roderick, when the Wavertons seek him out, is found ensconced in his bedroom which looks fit for Tudor monarch and barely altered since that epoch, whilst Rebecca’s bedroom is candlelit – “I’ll have none of this electric light!” she declares – and festooned with musty Victoriana. We never see Horace’s room, but the mind boggles. And at the top of the house, the locked door, hiding the last Femm, Saul, a brooding, superficially ingratiating pyromaniac. The flood below, madness and fire above, and points on the compass in between.
The great storm that falls upon the Shropshire Hills doesn’t just sever the Femms and their interlopers from the outside world but also cordons them within the subliminal space made solid. But the motif of the house as an encompassing expression of such ingrained neurosis and entrapping identity also feeds into the subtler dynamic that fees both humour and horror. Whale suggests there are few more disquieting and disturbing things than being obliged to have a meal with strangers, enabled by strained manners and a grotesque conventional politeness that ignores for a set period of time the strangeness that occurs off in the margins, like Margaret’s encounter with Rebecca. Indeed, this is essentially Whale’s entire thesis about social life, a constant game of facades and unveilings, and fusing a particular brand of comedy of manners with its darker doppelganger in Horror, which is a genre precisely preoccupied with the breakdown of civilised pretences and engagement with the primal. It keeps in mind the impression I’ve often had that something like Howard’s End or The Age of Innocence contains more real and discomforting violence than any number of slasher movies.
Karloff’s presence in the film sees Whale again with the actor he boosted from character actor to a peculiar brand of stardom, in a role that partly burlesques the characterisation of the Frankenstein’s Monster. Morgan is another shambling, towering, unspeaking creature, but one that’s been semi-domesticated: the Femms need him to keep food on their table and keep the electric light working. He’s an upper class idea of the lower class taken to an extreme, useful as a mass of obedient muscle until he gets liquored up and becomes insensately dangerous, casting a lascivious eye on Margaret. But Morgan has another function, as Saul’s warden, a bulwark of violence required to keep a less immediately intimidating but even more dangerous force in check. At one point, as Gladys follows Penderel out into the storm, she looks in through the barred kitchen window and sees Morgan, now thoroughly soused: the servant lurches to the window and punches his hand through the glass in a perfunctory attempt to grab one of the tempting morsels about him. It’s not a part that requires much of Karloff, in the first of his major post-Frankenstein genre roles when he’d soon be appearing in the likes of The Mummy (1932) and The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) which let him unleash his voice. But it does gain everything from his presence regardless, as Karloff wrings pathos from Morgan’s attempts to speak which inevitably fail and instead expression comes through physical chaos as he drinks.
After her squall of hysteria in Rebecca’s room Margaret quickly becomes the most sanguine person in the house, calmly and coolly shepherding the conversation as the various camps in the house try to communicate. Meanwhile Penderel and Gladys’ crackle of attraction combusts when the two venture out to the Wavertons’ car, stashed to wait out the storm in the barn, to fetch a bottle of whiskey Penderel left there. They quickly fall in love and taking refuge in the back seat of the car, with all that implies thoroughly implied. Priestley intended his novel as a tragic character study of Penderel masquerading as a thriller, although quite a few critics over the years have said the book didn’t really achieve that. Nonetheless Penderel emerges as the closest thing the film has to a central character and hero as he shifts from alcoholic gadabout to a man in love and has to quickly improvise in fending off danger. Douglas, honing his suave and worldly persona, is quite excellent in the role. Indeed, one arresting element of The Old Dark House is the quality of its cast, packed as it is with heavyweight actors on the cusp of major stardom, in Karloff, Douglas, Laughton, and Massey. Stuart on the other hand, after also appearing in The Invisible Man for Whale, never really gained star traction but, in one of those marvels of Hollywood fate, would record a commentary track for this film’s laserdisc release sixty years later which would bring her to James Cameron’s attention and help win her role in Titanic (1997).
And yet it’s Thesiger who owns the film, walking the finest line between creepiness and ridiculousness, seeming to most immediately embody the perversity of the Femms but also the most timorous in the face of it. When the necessity arises to fetch a large kerosene lamp from the top floor landing when the lights fail and Rebecca gloatingly prods him to help Philip bring it down, Horace keeps anxiously trying to avoid the errand, and when they hear peculiar laughter echoing down from above, Horace finally flees to his bedroom, leaving Philip to fetch the lamp alone. Philip takes up the lamp but notices the telling signs there, the padlocked door, the remains of a meal on a plate on the table with the lamp, whilst wind whistles in the crannies high in the roof. Meanwhile, down below, Margaret, in an interlude of playfulness, starts making shadow animals on the wall in the firelight, her silhouette and her gestures thrown against the wall of the dining room, only for Rebecca’s silhouette to lurch into view as she repeats the some gesture of touching Margaret’s chest, sending Margaret into a panicky flurry again. As she opens the front door and shouts into the night, begging Penderel to come back, a hand reaches behind and over her head to grasp the door and slam it shut. An iconic Horror image, this time arriving without a mocking codicil. The hand belongs to the soused and randy Morgan, who chases Margaret around the dining room, upturning the dining table in a gesture of pointed symbolism. Philip returns from aloft, and seeing what’s happening, does battle with Morgan, until he wallops him with the lamp, causing Morgan to plunge down the stairs, knocked unconscious. Later, when he awakens, Morgan gains his revenge by heading upstairs and releasing Saul.
These scenes illustrate Whale’s unique skill in mediating tone shifts, as menace emerges from the comic and absurd, and moments of playfulness segue into an eruption of actual danger. The fact that The Old Dark House was missing for a long time prevented it from becoming as much of an immediate influence as Whale’s other films, and the legendary schlock artiste William Castle was able to get away with directing a wayward remake in 1963. Whale likely had seen Paul Leni’s stylish film version of The Cat and the Canary (1927), replete as it with brilliant cinema, and some of Whale’s imagery echoes it. But Leni’s film has rather less sophisticated comedy than The Old Dark House, which is far more exactly aimed at the nexus of social anxiety and psychological angst in tapping both horror and humour. Whale would become bolder and stranger in his blendings with The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein – the catatonic-seeming Mr Plod policemen in the former and the shrieking, inflated melodrama cues in the latter. The Old Dark House therefore stands as an essential ancestor for just about all comedy-horror crossbreeds, and what most of the best of such films wisely follow Whale in doing was in infiltrating comedy via the characters and playing core genre elements essentially straight, a presumption that’s essential to the success of, say, Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters (1984) or Wes Craven’s Scream (1996). Indeed, Craven, with his penchant for inserting a brand of anarchic, cartoonish humour into his Horror films, in many ways came closest of subsequent Horror auteurs to building upon Whale’s sensibility. On the other hand, the film was also a direct influence on the far more indiscriminately lampooning attitude of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).
Moreover, Whale picks out a thread here that was to prove important in terms of where Horror cinema was headed, in general. Whilst The Old Dark House makes sport of the trappings of gothic horror, the real source of horror then moves away from the supernatural, conveying metaphor and oneiric imagery, and emerges as human and immediate, and embodied by different forms – the hulking brutishness of Morgan and the impishly homicidal Saul. The essence of the drama becomes this imminent physical danger. Mad killers on the loose were already a well-lodged genre convention, but there’s something that feels particularly pertinent in the way Whale plays one genre frame against the other. In short, Whale grasped where the Horror movie was going, although it would take another few decades to get there. What Alfred Hitchcock would do to the genre with Psycho (1960), with its own old dark house and lurking, devolved murderer, is essentially a reiteration of this intelligible shift in focus and meaning. One can look on past that to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), which is built of the same basic ideas as The Old Dark House – the searching, displaced travellers, the degenerated family, the crumbling old house, the hulking, monstrous force of threat, the preoccupation with perverse social ritual, only by that time monochrome gothic has been replaced by the spacy, sunstruck American brand.
The Wavertons, trying to understand the enigmatic threat lurking in the Femm house, venture upstairs together and enter Sir Roderick’s room, where the find the ancient knight lying in his bed. Whale has Sir Roderick played by the actress Elspeth Dudgeon (credited for the film as John), covered in aging makeup and a false beard. This conceit has a sly brilliance to it, recognising the quality of androgyny that very old age confers, and feeding Whale’s underground river of destabilisation, the one remnant of the Femms of old now happy in his prostrate, post-gender state, calmly awaiting mortality’s edge: “When you’re as old as I am, at any minute you might just die,” he comments, and gives a chuckle. “Madness came,” he says of his family, “We have all been touched with it a little you see, except for me – at least I – I don’t think I am.” Sir Roderick warns the Wavertons about Saul and the possibility of Morgan unleashing him, before falling asleep. Philip dashes out to see if Morgan is still unconscious, only to find he’s arisen, and Horace pokes his head out of his bedroom door to tell him he heard Morgan going upstairs, and instructs with punitive directness, “Wait for him downstairs and kill him,” before hiding again.
Whale’s peeling of this particular onion reaches sees inevitable combustion as a single hand appearing on the staircase railing announces Saul’s lurking presence, and Morgan lurches into sight with the sickly smile of a man with a trump, before trying to launch at Margaret again. It takes the combined efforts of Penderal, Philip, and Sir William to wrestle Morgan into the kitchen and lock him in there, and Penderal dashes back to Margaret and Gladys and gets them to hide in a closet whilst he sets about distracting Saul. Saul, when he finally shows his face, proves disarmingly innocent and scared-looking, like an anthropomorphic hamster. He descends to Penderel, begging him to prevent his relatives locking him away again. Saul claims to not be mad, but has instead been imprisoned to keep secret the fact Horace and Rebecca killed Rachel, and often beaten by Morgan. Penderel is initially credulous of Saul’s claims, but Saul quickly begins to reveal his madness, picking up the carving knife from dinner and insisting on recounting the biblical tale of Saul and David.
Penderel instead begins stringing him out by affecting interest in a story he wants to tell, and the two settle at the dinner table: the earlier, strained dinner conversation gives way to more of the same tense, dissembling playacting, but this time the game is immediate, desperate, the barrier between civility and lunacy only as thick as Penderel’s improvisation. Penderel then is a solider once more, albeit this time actually fighting for something – trying to keep the madman away from Margaret and Gladys. When finally Saul explodes it comes with astonishing ferocity, hurling the knife at Penderel and then bashing him with a chair, before dashing up the stairs and setting fire to a curtain in cackling delight. Penderel, despite having a broken arm, ascends to fight the loony again, and this time Saul tries to rip Penderel’s throat out with his teeth, only for them both to fall over the balcony to the floor below. The movie softened the novel’s ending slightly, as Penderel dies in the fall in the book: after test audience didn’t like this, the ending was reshot, it does feel more in keeping with the movie’s totality.
As if by compensation for the loss of one tragedy, Whale inserted another. Morgan breaks out into the dining room again, ready to resume chasing Margaret, only for her to get him to look to the fallen Penderel and Saul: Morgan, utterly heartbroken by the death of his charge, cradling Saul’s body, weeps over his fractured body and carries it back up to his room. This crowning vignette resonates on several levels, most obviously in anticipating the encounter of the Monster and the Blind Hermit in Bride of Frankenstein in its depiction of the symbiosis of the misshapen, as well as sneaking in a moment of undisguised love between men, and echoing the fraternal grief of the war veterans, which needed some echo, some acknowledgement, to pass before the night of the storm can end. Penderel’s proposal of marriage to Gladys, which she accepts by giving him a passionate kiss as she too cradles her injured lover, suggests a spiritual economy of love at work: something can’t die without something being born. The morning comes, finally, the sun shining and beginning to dry the ocean of mud without, Horace emerging to politely wave the Wavertons away as they head off to fetch help, whilst Gladys cradles her wounded gallant, and Rebecca scoffs at the lot of these bent, buckled, bruised, but still upright humans.
Director: Tim Burton Screenwriters: Andrew Kevin Walker, Kevin Yagher
By Roderick Heath
Alongside his own ‘Rip Van Winkle,’ Washington Irving’s story ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ is probably the best-known work of American literature from before the time of Poe and James Fenimore Cooper. Born in New York in the early years of the republic, Irving, after struggling as a merchant, found success in his twenties as a writer, journalist, and editor, and later pursued a career as a diplomat, serving for a time as ambassador to Spain. Amongst Irving’s random, still-resonating achievements ranked coining the phrase “the almighty dollar” and the nickname “Gotham” for New York, publishing the Francis Scott Key poem that became ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ popularising the false notion medieval Europeans thought the world was flat before Columbus, and having one of his pen names inspire the name of the New York Knicks. The roots of Irving’s most famous labours went back to his teenaged years, when a yellow fever epidemic caused his parents to send him to live with a friend in upstate New York. During that sojourn Irving first encountered Sleepy Hollow, a small town founded by Dutch settlers. His two most famous stories were both first published in a collection entitled The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Irving connected several elements of local lore for ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,’ including the history of the locale during the Revolutionary War, as he created the story of the timorous schoolmaster Ichabod Crane. Crane moves to Sleepy Hollow and becomes involved with a local girl, only to encounter the ghost of a Hessian mercenary soldier decapitated in battle but still terrorising the local byways.
Tim Burton, born in Burbank, California in 1958, is another curious American artist of the fanciful and student of the arcane and eerie. Burton started making short films with an 18mm camera as a child, displayed aptitude as an artist, and studied animation after leaving school. For a time he worked at Disney Studios in various artistic capacities and making short films on the side. One of these was the six-minute stop-motion animation Vincent (1983), depicting a young boy who fantasizes about being his hero Vincent Price, winning Burton his first burst of attention. Shortly after, he made a live-action version of Hansel and Gretel with a Japonaise style, sporting a kung fu fight between the titular duo and the witch, an early example of Burton’s habit of mischievously remixing various genres: that work screened once on the Disney Channel and was barely sighted again. Then he made Frankenweenie (1984), another stop-motion work about a junior mad scientist who revives his dog, killed by being run over by a car. Disney fired Burton for wasting company resources on something too scary for kids, but screenings of the short attracted the attention of comedian Paul Rubens, who, looking to play his popular comedy character Pee-wee Herman in a movie, hired Burton to direct Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985). It was a hit, and Burton scarcely looked back.
Burton’s initial success was rooted in a projection of a singular identity. He was a director capable of balancing commercial imperatives with a strong personal inflection sourced in a passion for retro 1950s and ‘60s kitsch culture, old horror movies and other disreputable genres, eccentric and often mean humour, and stories sporting losers, freaks, and outsiders recast as heroes. He connected with a hip young audience somewhat starved for flavour in the oh-so-slick ‘80s mainstream movie culture and gained cultish fervour with the next three films he made – Beetlejuice (1987), Batman (1989), and Edward Scissorhands (1990). Burton was the most mainstream-acceptable, at least at first, of a generation of director sharing similar touchstones and a similarly unstable sense of genre, delighting in blending provocation with playfulness, also including Sam Raimi, Stuart Gordon, and Peter Jackson. The rest of his career has however proven patchy. His follow-up to the hugely successful, high-style take on Batman, Batman Returns (1992), despite some potent elements, was more divisive and less successful. His best film to date, the tragicomic biopic Ed Wood (1994), and its follow-up, the gleefully sick comic alien invasion movie Mars Attacks (1996), were both box office disappointments, and his career was hampered by being drawn into an ill-fated attempt to make a Superman movie starring Nicholas Cage. Later, as his career moved into the 2000s and 2010s, Burton became more assured as a box office hand with a string of reboots, remakes, and would-be franchise-starters given a light gloss of the patented Burton black nail-polish touch, but he paid a price for this, as his movies were now often met with blank critical and former fan hostility. Sometimes the dismissal has been deserved, sometimes not.
Whilst a great number of Burton’s films interpolate imagery and ideas harvested from Horror cinema – Batman applied lashings of Expressionist paint to the superhero film and did the same with Edward Scissorhands to a blend of romantic fairy-tale and John Waters-esque suburban satire – few of his movies have actually, properly belong to the genre. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) did, but with the conceit of being a musical too, whilst Beetlejuice and Dark Shadows (2012) crossbred Horror with roguish comedy. Sleepy Hollow, released in 1999, is the closest he’s come to date to make a straight-up Horror film, and even it’s as much camp parody and action film as Horror. It is nonetheless one of Burton’s best films – indeed the one I enjoy most purely of his work save Ed Wood – and a last hurrah in paying tribute to the old-fashioned gothic horror style. The film, written by Andrew Kevin Walker who had a major success writing David Fincher’s 1996 hit Se7en with its adolescent grunge moralism, was originally slated to be a low-budget potboiler to be directed by makeup effects artist Kevin Yagher, who finished up serving in that capacity as well as co-producing when Burton came on board, whilst Francis Ford Coppola was loosely involved in the same capacity. Burton set about transforming the inherited project into a wildly stylish tribute to old Hammer and Universal Horror movies and Mario Bava films, shooting it in England and mostly on sets.
Irving’s story had been filmed many times before, most memorably as a portion of the 1949 animated Disney film The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (where it was partnered with an episode taken from The Wind and the Willows). ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ chapter exemplified the old Disney’s brilliance at animation and willingness to conjure ghoulish imagery for a young audience. Burton inserts some visual references to the Disney take into his, including the famous climactic image of the headless horseman hurling a hollow jack o’lantern at Ichabod, blazing maw and eyes looming at the camera. Burton’s Sleepy Hollow nonetheless goes off on a tangent from straightforward adaptation, taking the basics of the Irving style whilst crossbreeding them with aspects of the nascent steampunk branch of fantastical fiction, fascinated by anachronistic but theoretically possible anticipations of modern technology and social attitudes in period settings, and detective story. Ichabod is portrayed as not a teacher but a policeman interested in sifting clues and deduction at a time when maintaining law and order was a very simple, brutal affair, and he’s flung into the mystery of headless horseman’s murderous maraudings.
The film’s pre-title sequences open on wealthy Sleepy Hollow landowner Peter Van Garrett (Martin Landau), after busily preparing and sealing a legal document, setting out in a coach driven by his son Dirk (Robert Sella) from his house to town. As they pass through his fields filled with growing corn and overlooked by a creepy scarecrow with a jack o’lantern head, Peter overhears the neigh of a horse and the ring of a steel blade, and looks out to see his son has been decapitated. Leaping from the coach, Peter retreats into the corn, only to be chased down by an unseen assailant and likewise left headless. Meanwhile in Manhattan, Ichabod (Johnny Depp), a constable with the New York Police, fishes a corpse out of the Hudson River, but his desire to make a pathology examination to determine the cause of death is foiled by a dismissive High Constable (Alun Armstrong). When he protests to a presiding judge (Christopher Lee), the judge, irritated by Ichabod’s radicalism, challenges him to accept the assignment of travelling to Sleepy Hollow and investigate the murders of the two Van Garretts and another local, the Widow Winship. Ichabod accepts, and travels north, finding lodging with another major local landowner, Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon), with his comely new wife Mary (Miranda Richardson) and grown-up daughter Katrina (Christina Ricci) from his previous marriage.
The core joke of Sleepy Hollow is that whilst its version of Ichabod Crane now occupies the role of man of action and incisive intellectual vision, equal prototype for Sherlock Holmes, Van Helsing, and Dirty Harry and conflating two centuries of pulp fiction heroes, he’s actually, essentially the same timorous, incongruous figure Irving created. Burton wields the disparity to mock a familiar kind of genre hero whilst also presenting the story of how Ichabod grows into the role, at least as far as he can. Upon arrival in Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod cringes before gruesome sights, gulps when people warn him about the horseman, is bullied by local jock Brom (Casper Van Dien), and leaps up on a chair when he spies a spider crawling across his room’s floor. He bears mysterious scars on his hands that bespeak a hidden trauma in his past motivating his determination, against all his physical and emotional reflexes, to take on evil and prove a force for rational good, and so attacks the problems before him with all the fortitude and purpose he can muster. His attempts to wield his hand-crafted medical tools in