Jordan Peele’s latest film, Nope opens with a pair of seemingly unrelated scenes. First we get a glimpse of a TV studio, filled with signs of bloodshed and rampage, a bashful-looking, bloody-pawed chimpanzee seated amidst the mess. Next comes a bucolic moment in the sun for father and son horse ranchers Otis Haywood (Keith David) and his son Otis Jnr, or OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) as he’s found himself problematically stuck with being called: we see OJ going about his usual morning business of letting out the horses and exercising them, before chatting with his old man, who’s already mounted up. The two men are preparing for a TV show performance on star horse Lucky, which they hope will rescue their ranch from financial doldrums. The scene is shattered as a seemingly random shower of hard metal objects falls from the sky. A coin hits Otis in the eye, and he dies as OJ rushes him to the hospital. Cut to a few months later, as OJ uneasily tries to get on with his professional life by wrangling Lucky on the TV set, only for the horse to be irritated by a crewman and kick out dangerously. OJ is obliged to rely on his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer), whose gregarious enthusiasm as a wannabe show biz player contrasts his sullen, taciturn, quietly grieving manner and fateful lack of assertive strength, but Emerald doesn’t want to be stuck with her brother in a failing business. OJ has been propping up the business by selling horses to a neighbouring ranch, the prosperous and popular Jupiter’s Claim, run by former child actor Ricky ‘Jupe’ Park (Steven Yeun) and his wife Amber (Wrenn Schmidt).
That night, one of the horses, Ghost, bolts into the dark, dusty, hilly landscape around the ranch. Chasing after Ghost, OJ hears Jupe’s voice on a loudspeaker in the distance whilst the horse gives an unearthly shriek, and glimpses a large, strange object moving fast through the sky above, whilst a rolling blackout afflicts the locale. Convinced he’s seen a UFO, OJ and Emerald buy a new surveillance system for the ranch, and the morose IT salesperson, Angel (Brandon Perea), who sells and installs the equipment becomes increasingly interested and involved as he’s a UFO freak. They also try to interest the acclaimed cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), who they met on the TV shoot, as they feel only he might be able to get photographic evidence of this scary phenomenon. As the enigmatic situation begins to resolve, the Haywoods are eventually faced with alarming proof that the UFO is actually some kind of living organism that eagerly eats just about anything placed in its path, and that Jupe not only knows about its presence, but even seems to be trying to make it part of his act, luring it down to his ranch with free lunches, being OJ’s horses.
New York-born Peele was best known for many years as a comic writer and actor. After dropping out of college to start a comedy act with future writing collaborator Rebecca Drysdale and spending some time with the famous Second City comedy troupe, Peele gained his big break as a performer on the sketch comedy show Mad TV in the early 2000s. Later he teamed up with another Black comedian, Keegan-Michael Key, for their cable TV show Key & Peele (2012–2015). The duo wrote, produced, and starred in the film Keanu (2016), and Peele made his standalone debut as director with the 2017 Horror film Get Out, a film that represented for the most part an apparently radical switch of vision for Peele, offering a woozy, unsettling blend of social and racial satire and straight-edged Horror and thriller stuff.
That film’s huge popular and critical success came in the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s election as US President, seemingly on the back of a new reactionary feeling swiftly met by a bold progressive backlash, and Get Out, along with the Ryan Coogler’s successes with Creed (2015) and Black Panther (2018), seemed to announce a new mainstream hunger for films made by African-American filmmakers with a presumed, concomitant authenticity in needling racial and social angst. Peele’s success with Get Out was cunning in that regard, with his narrative of young Black man whose white girlfriend proves to be luring him in for her family to use in their business of swapping brains between bodies: Peele expertly made the mass audience empathise with his hero’s terror of having his identity erased and subsumed by representatives of a larger assimilating culture because it’s all the rage at the moment to be Black. He also deftly skewered and, ironically and if in all likelihood semi-accidentally, appealed to the white liberal guilt, portraying the wicked family not as overt racists but rather smiling, virtue-signalling bourgeois progressives pretending to be all cool with the new multiculturalism.
Peele has since become, with startling swiftness, a pop culture brand, evinced with his follow-up film Us (2019), through producing a refurbished take on TV’s The Twilight Zone and a reboot-cum-sequel of the 1990s cult film Candyman (2021), and now Nope. Peele is with increasingly plainness trying to position himself as an inheritor to talents writers like Rod Serling, Ray Bradbury, and Stephen King, with their penchant for depicting disturbing intrusions of the outlandish and the mysterious into exceptionally ordinary locales in tales touched with a mystique of fable. He also joins the ranks of directors anointing themselves as inheritors of Steven Spielberg, with his gifts as an orchestrator of the fantastic and of cinematic space for maximum audience impact. The traps in trying to occupy such a cultural crossroads were well-charted by M. Night Shyamalan in the 2000s. Peele’s chief proposition as a new and improved successor to Shyamalan is that he brings a less veiled approach to the metaphors inherent in those fable-narratives, with his specific perspective, which can keep his stories from dissolving into bombast: the idea that Peele’s critiquing gestures really mean something, rather than simply offering the usual glossy wrap of pseudo-meaning over the usual Hollywood bombast, is a big part of his cachet.
At the same time, Peele has also shown savvy commercial instincts. Get Out resisted going anywhere near as dark and mean as it might have, and whilst Us embraced a more surreal and allegorical aesthetic, also only took it so far: in the end it was still, mostly, the story of a threatened nuclear family winning through against erupting boogeymen. Nor were they so sharp a pivot from his previous metier of comedy as they might seem superficially. Get Out had a simmering sense of satirical bite and drollery throughout, such as the famous liberal cliche utterances of the white family’s patriarch (Bradley Whitford), like how he would’ve voted for Barack Obama a third time, and an encounter with one of their victims, the body of a young black man now inhabited by an old white bourgeois, that was pure sitcom shtick. Both Get Out and Us were preoccupied by imposters, absorption, and doppelgangers, concerns he took a few steps further in Us where the central family were confronted by chthonic lookalikes, representing a kind of shadow realm of the oppressed and excluded, with the ultimate twist proving that the mother is herself an escaped double, having forcibly swapped places with her overworld counterpart, who is now leading the buried horde in revenge.
Nope tries to move on a degree from the preoccupations of Peele’s first two films, which is both a good idea in theory but in practice one that doesn’t work so well for him. Nope strongly recalls Shyamalan’s Signs (2002): like that film it depicts an alien invasion, constantly teased in oblique and fleeting ways before finally resolving into a heroic tale of little people standing up to cosmic menace. Peele’s story and style are however better described as an oddball forced mating of Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), borrowing many beats from each: the incredible, elusive visitor from the sky is also the territorial man-eating monster. Peele, despite his success thus far, occupies a potentially hazardous place in contemporary screen culture. He has been so eagerly embraced as a figure that many felt American film desperately needed that everything he does has to be met as either total greatness or risk sour disillusionment, rather than simply being a new and talented genre film voice. Well, the first third of Nope is quite strong – indeed, whilst watching it I felt the film was shaping up as Peele’s best yet. He expertly creates, as he did in the fairground prologue of Us, a mood of cryptic menace and simmering tension whilst playing patient games with perspective, as OJ and Emerald keep getting fleeting hints of the nature of their strange and malevolent new neighbour. Peele uses sound well, particularly in the suggestive gruesome shrieks of the horses echoing down from the sky after being swallowed. In one particularly effective and creepy sequence, OJ is menaced by what look like humanoid alien creatures stalking him around his darkened stables at night, only to realise they’re just Jupe and Amber’s teenage sons in costume, playing a prank as payback for Emerald stealing one of their horse statues to use as bait for the alien.
The title’s blunt, folksy quality is constantly uttered by characters throughout, mostly when confronted by sights that confound their sense of reality and set off a profound war of impulses on the basic level of fight or flight. It also signals the way the film seems constantly at odds with itself, toying with being a kind of send-up rooted in a particular tenor of Black scepticism, whilst also trying to reap the popular benefits of a good old Spielbergian ride. I’ve suspected that Peele might get into trouble when he tried more boldly to crossbreed his penchant for horror with his reflexes as a comedic writer. Not in the sense that he tries to apply too much humour to Nope – in fact it could do with more humour than it has, and might have been better pitched as a blend of laughs and suspense like, say, Tremors (1990) – but he applies a fondness for unexpected segues and bizarre pivots to his essentially straight-laced core story. The most significant subplot of Nope involves Jupe’s experience as a child actor, specifically the infamous incident on a sitcom called Gordy’s Home which he featured on in the ‘90s, opposite a trained chimpanzee who played the titular Gordy, and the two of them “invented” their signature gesture of an exploding fist-bump. But Gordy went berserk during filming one day thanks to some random fright, and brutally killed several of Jupe’s costars. Peele keeps teasing this event through snatched glimpses, including right at the start and then a brief vision of the terrified young Jupe (Jacob Kim) hiding under a table and trying not to attract the crazed animal’s attention. Peele effectively employs this vignette after Jupe has wriggled out of recounting the event to the Haywoods during a business meeting. Jupe instead takes refuge in talking up a Saturday Night Live skit that made dark sport of the incident.
This segue has some evident personal meaning and insider referential appeal for Peele as a wry glance into the world of TV he emerged from, bringing up once-famous, half-forgotten comedy stars like Chris Kattan. Jupe mythologises the greatness of the skit before the trauma he’s trying to suppress is then seen by the audience. Later, Peele gives a more sustained version of Jupe’s memory, his perspective on the event used to avoid showing gory detail whilst still putting across a grim sense of the event’s dreadful violence. Eventually the resolution is presented: Gordy approaches Jupe not to attack but to seek their signature gesture, the ape suddenly just a pathetic, frightened animal needing its costar’s assurance, only for the ape to be gunned down, his blood spraying across Jupe’s face. This portion of Nope is striking and the film’s highpoint in many ways: it’s a more effective moment of restrained horror than the more accidentally silly depiction of people being sucked into the interior of the alien. But Gordy’s rampage isn’t convincing or realistic in its details. Peele requires a CGI chimp to impersonate that kind of deadly ferocity, and we’re forced to wonder why there wasn’t an animal wrangler on the set. Also, the way the fake portions we see of Gordy’s Home lampoons a style of family sitcom that died with the ‘80s, although admittedly Peele does an uncanny job recreating that style. It made me wonder if this was a sketch Peele wrote out and, realising there was no way in hell he could get it made as a feature, decided to weave it into this script.
How this aspect of the story connects to the rest of Nope is tangential but, to be fair, also suggestive. Peele hints Jupe has a pathological need to get close to another monster and make it the star of another act of showbiz hoopla, as if to prove even the wildest, strangest, most inhuman thing can be made amenable to the pleasures of being a celebrity. Holst later makes this idea more literal when he notes the sad fate of tiger-taming performers Siegfried and Roy. When the Gordy element is connected with OJ’s unfortunate sobriquet, it seems Peele’s trying to make a mea culpa-tinged point about the industry of comedy making sport of all kinds of tragic stuff such as was rife in ‘90s American TV culture. This is interesting, but it quickly reaps multiplying problems. Firstly, it makes Jupe a more interesting and indeed more detailed character than the Haywoods, privileging his background and formative experiences with vivid and galvanising power, and yet Peele keeps Jupe a peripheral and blandly executed figure. He should be the focus, a beaming, televisually canny Ahab stirring up monsters. With Nope the lurking point of all this is at once obvious and feebly interrogated: it proposes to be about the nature of spectacle itself, of show business and performance and reality and authenticity in age where those things have become perhaps irreparably blurred. This is literalised by having the monster attracted by being looked at, whilst its presence causes electrical systems to fail, making filming it extremely difficult. Our heroes then must find a way of both looking and not looking at the alien: they most pointedly cannot gaze on in awe like Spielberg’s people.
To this end, after Angel’s security cameras fail, the Haywoods turn to Holst, a portentous being who sits around watching nature documentary footage of predators chasing and consuming prey – thematics are being underlined, dig. Wincott brings his long-neglected but still-persuasive gravel-voiced gravitas to a role that’s pitched as Werner Herzog playing the Quint role, but he’s stuck with a one-dimensional part. His final act of self-annihilating consequence – “We don’t deserve the impossible,” he utters gnomically to Angel before venturing up to get the ultimate shot of being sucked up into the alien’s maw – aims for a note of crazy, nihilistic bravado but feels more like, once more, Peele taking an easy way out of resolving one of his story elements with some shallow portent. Angel himself, winningly played by Perea, is in many ways the film’s most vivid and believable presence, a shambolic character still processing a bad break-up and taking refuge in nerdy frippery. He attaches himself to the reluctant Haywoods to become an unshakeable if jumpy collaborator in their hunt. Both he and Emerald are driven frantic when a praying mantis insists on perching itself before one of their new surveillance cameras just as the UFO appears.
Nope essentially replays, in less funny and snappy fashion, the driving joke from a portion of The Simpsons’ episode “Treehouse of Horror VI”, which depicted an onslaught by advertising signs and mascots suddenly come to life, and could only be defeated by not being looked at, a weapon ironically facilitated with an advertising jingle warbled by Paul Anka. Rather than following such a mischievously satirical bent, Peele tries an each-way bet, wanting the respectability of inferred parable and the base rewards of crowd-pleasing. Peele also steals an idea from The Trollenberg Terror (1958), as it’s eventually revealed by Angel, scanning the ranch’s security footage, that the UFO hides behind a perpetually present, stationary cloud just about the valley. The alien itself (which I’ll call it although Peele ultimately never defines what it is), once properly glimpsed proves to be saucer-shaped but when looked at beam-on looks like a gigantic eye in the sky – thematics still being underlined, folks. Towards the end it unfolds as a diaphanously swirling thing, like a mating of kite and jellyfish, and with a square eye – the most extreme possible variation on the old parental warning to kids that too much screen time will make their eyes go square? Anyway, it’s clearly an attempt by Peele to come up with something new and interesting in movie monsters, but it just looks, well, silly.
As these misjudged ideas accumulate whilst the threat and its underpinning metaphors emerge into view, Nope, after its promising early scenes, start to slide vertiginously downhill. Where in Us Peele’s spongily fable-like underpinnings gained a certain amount of power through his filmmaking, Nope fails for the same reason. But let me define what I mean by fable, which is a seemingly simple, naïve form of storytelling that privileges the illustration of emotion, ideas, and a certain kind of dream logic over rigorous narrative. In both Get Out and Us the mechanics of Peele’s plots bore no scrutiny, for the most part deliberately, I felt. The conceit of the underground tunnels and anti-people they housed were presented as nominally present in a kind of reality but were rather an illustration of a psychological zone. It was absurd that Allison Williams’ girlfriend character in Get Out had to role-play and prostitute herself for months on end just to nab one schmuck college student, when surely it could have been accomplished in an hour. But the object there was to chart the double goad to the hero’s aspiration and anxiety about the many barbs of interracial love. If one took Peele’s films on such a level, they worked. If you didn’t, you were in trouble. As for me, well, as I often do, I hovered somewhere between.
On a more prosaic level, Nope indicates that, good as he is at building mystery and tension, Peele is still quite clumsy at orchestrating large-scale action, in a manner already hinted at with aspects of the climactic scenes of Us. We get endless shots of OJ riding around on his horse without any particular sense of his objectives or tactics, when the alien can hoover him at will. There’s an old trope in monster movies that’s been sardonically recognised by fans where incredibly dangerous and threatening forces easily decimate hapless victims in early scenes but for some reason can’t quite get to grips with the heroes because, well, they’re the heroes, and this phenomenon is so pronounced here it could represent it from now on. Also, the plotting is almost perversely clumsy. The finale hinges on the sudden intrusion of an unwelcome visitor as the Haywoods, Angel, and Holst are trying to lure in the monster so Holst can film it on a hand-cranked camera. The visitor proves to be some jerk online journalist riding a motorcycle. His kinship with the alien as an embodiment of the voracious eye is unsubtly suggested by having him wear a crash helmet that is, like the UFO, silver and sporting one large, dark orb for vision. He soon gets himself stupidly killed, which proves fortuitous as Emerald eventually commandeers his bike to lure the alien into a trap. Was this an aim all along? Or did it just occur to Emerald? Meanwhile OJ seems to be swallowed up by the monster only to emerge unharmed later, a la Hooper in Jaws.
Peele could get away with fuzziness on story details in his earlier films because of that aforementioned fable quality. But the kind of story Nope tells lives and dies on a precise sense of how elements interact. The alien is supposed to be attracted by things that look back, and can tell when it’s being looked at by some tiny animal from a long distance, but cannot distinguish between living creatures and inanimate objects. Its kryptonite, amongst all the non-organic material it tends to suck up, proves to be small plastic string flags, which it first swallows when sucking up the horse statue around which some are wrapped. Later Emerald weaponises these indigestible things against it. Which, frankly, is damn near as a stupid as the water-kills-aliens reveal at the climax of Signs. This frustratingly points up the awkwardness of Peele trying to subsume that sweeping, compulsive blockbuster appeal whilst also maintaining a slight tint of the arbitrarily ridiculous in the unfolding action.
Peele interpolates a few of his now-familiar flourishes of racial consciousness-provoking, particularly in making the Haywoods the imagined descendants of a black jockey filmed by Eadweard Muybridge in his pioneering photographic studies, and also prominently featuring a poster for the relatively obscure but hardly suppressed Black Western Buck and the Preacher (1972). The object here is pretty patent, teasing the presence of a Black influence in cinema and its most stereotypically white American genre in particular. But part of me also wondered if Peele threw such flourishes in to make critics do the heavy lifting of inferring that he’s made some kind of profound parable, instead of a disjointed, half-digested one. Particularly in floating that dubious proposition that “everybody knows who Eadweard Muybridge is.” There’s also OJ’s name, which plays on evoking its bearer’s sense of exposure and connecting to that meditation on horror as exploited in the mass media, but also begs the question of who would keep insisting on calling their kid that when growing up in the last thirty years. There might have been some potential in the ironic portrait of Black and Asian-Americans applying their talents and identities to the cultural tradition of the Western, but again, it doesn’t progress much further than ultimately affirming OJ as a classical genre hero who looks good on a horse.
Kaluuya is a good actor – he was the visual and performative linchpin of Get Out as the bewildered, naïve, victimised protagonist, and was also great in the exact opposite kind of role as a vicious criminal in Steve McQueen’s Widows (2018). But he’s entirely miscast here playing a brooding cowboy, which makes OJ something of a nonentity. He’s supposed to be a strong, silent type who comes to life as his best gifts are provoked, but he remains out of focus. Palmer compensates with an energetic performance, even as I never quite bought Emerald as a character either. Peele presents the Haywoods as a mismatched pair of personalities, Emerald garrulous and slick, a creature geared to perform in a world of modern media, where OJ is shy and wounded and old-fashioned in his enclosed masculinity. Their chief bond is in their uneasy relationship with their father and his unpredictable, sometimes hurtful ways, ways which bound OJ closer to him and pushed Emerald on her own path but left both unfulfilled. Peele’s attempts to give them some personal totemic investment in the battle with the alien feel forced. At one point Emerald recalls how Otis Snr once proposed to give to her horse named Jean Jacket, but then took back to use on a film shoot, only for OJ to later dub the alien Jean Jacket as if to make it the embodiment of their angst.
The mixture here is of squelchy hipster humour – oh, Jean Jacket, that’s so retro and uncool – and unconvincing emotional ploys. Peele similarly has, in a visual pastiche-cum-lampoon of Quint’s monologue in Jaws, Holst sing the lyrics of “Flying Purple People Eater” in a gravely raspy way. All this is the sort of thing Peele ought sensibly have dumped on his second draft of the script, along with the plastic flags thing. Which really only points to the major lack of the film’s climactic scenes, which is any genuine sense of dramatic tension between the Haywoods in their aims in dealing with their quarry. Perhaps Emerald, in her need for validation, might have been made more and more maniacally determined to photograph the alien, whilst OJ becomes increasingly heated in his determination to simply kill the thing that eats his beloved animals and inadvertently killed his father. Instead, their relationship is by and large stated and then allowed to coast. There’s no particularly palpable sense of danger to either, which means there’s never any, genuine thrill to their eventual triumph. Much of the power of Get Out came, for me at any rate, not from the racial provocation but from the portrayal of romantic disillusionment, which culminated in the hero impotently trying to strangle his blankly treacherous lover: that was an idea, an image, a feeling, that communicated a sense of real danger.
The finale makes a big deal of Emerald finally trying to capture the alien’s photo on the old-timey tintype carousel camera that’s used a gimmicky tourist trap on Jupe’s ranch, whilst distracting and killing it by releasing a flag-bedecked balloon mascot. This touch tries to close a loop of meaning with Muybridge’s photography, and perhaps might intend to suggest the only the way to break through to true original vision is to wield a painstaking method with essential tools. Or is it just something as trite as old-timey stuff trumps modern junk? Either way, everything about this struck me as laboured. Nope holds not just the sight of the alien but most of its ideas and feelings in a kind of dip-eyed cringe, and it can’t even quite land the straightforward monster movie is essentially is. It made me long for the potency of something like Chuck Russell’s remake of The Blob (1988), which also feels like an influence in the mix here – the kind of old-school genre film that easily encompassed its revisionism and charged subtexts whilst sprinting onwards with crazy energy and careless gore. Never mind anything by Peele’s genre hero John Carpenter. Nope isn’t a bad film exactly. It’s well-made on all technical levels and for a while at least drags you along with its teases. And yet it never coheres, and by the end, rather than feeling Peele had broken through to new ground, I felt he’d made something closer to a car crash. Which might, in the end, be good for him. Peele can just be a filmmaker now.
Directors: Tony Scott / Joseph Kosinski Screenwriters: Jim Cash, Jack Epps Jr / Ehren Kruger, Christopher McQuarrie, Eric Warren Singer
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers…
The release of Top Gun: Maverick has proven a striking moment in contemporary pop culture. That is, it’s a blockbuster movie release capable of wringing the same reaction out of grown-up audiences usually reserved these days for the 14-year-olds flocking to see the latest comic book movie. Top Gun: Maverick is the belated sequel to the 1986 blockbuster Top Gun, a movie directed by Tony Scott but designed and implemented by its producer team of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer as a precision-tooled star vehicle for Tom Cruise, who was 24 years old at the time of release. Top Gun’s long-simmering cult following is both a little surprising and not surprising at all. It made Cruise, already a fast-rising young star, a major-league big screen heartthrob and instant generational avatar. Its glitzy, glibly stylish look and hit-churning soundtrack pinioned it to a very specific moment in the cultural survey, a flagship of the 1980s cinema movement where pop movies were closely wound in with pop music, both in terms of their look and in their constant deployments of songs, and their mutual celebration of adolescent fancy. Now Cruise, who turns 60 this year (although Top Gun: Maverick has been delayed a couple of years because of the COVID-19 pandemic), returns to his first real signature role. Apart from the Mission: Impossible series which has proven an archipelago of popularity for him amidst the stormy waters of a late career and current screen culture, Cruise long resisted such backtracking.
Cruise has been a curious product of our love of movie stars right from the early days of his career. At once he was the inheritor of handsome ingénues from the dawn of time, the kind who set teenage girls (and quite a few boys) aquiver in their stomachs and itchy in the pants. But Cruise swiftly evinced far more canniness than most in establishing and protecting his stature. He seemed to emulate the careers of stars like Paul Newman and Jack Nicholson, who could for the most part effortlessly step between popular, image-cementing vehicles and artier, riskier, more challenging fare. Cruise has never quite gained their flexibility and reputation as an actor, however, because he remained first and foremost a star, but it’s precisely that quality which has remained his advantage. Acting cred was always a far-off citadel he could storm when he felt like, but his real business was making movies for the widest possible audience, at a time when many a potential rival was sabotaging themselves by acting as if being called a movie star was an odious travail. Whilst Cruise had emerged playing relatively familiar kinds of young male starring parts – a football player in All The Right Moves (1983), a horny teen out for action in Losin’ It (1983) and Risky Business (1984) – Top Gun saw him emerge from a chrysalis as the perfect emblem of the yuppie era. Ahistorical in persona, white bread in ethnicity but disconnected from any sure sense of social identity, he morphed into a blank slate of Reaganite ambition.
With his carefully honed body, his capped teeth, his notoriously intense work ethic, his air of self-willed exceptionality able to easily straddle personal ambition and embodiment of a creed, Cruise embodied the yuppie ideal perfectly. Cruise’s remarkable resistance to aging, his aerodynamic features only very slightly thickening and hardening over the years, has only amplified his strangeness, the way he seems to embody that essence of the movie star as something disconnected from normal life processes and inhabiting an exalted realm. After decades of having his character, sanity, even sexuality rifled from afar, the verdict has finally come fully down on the side of Cruise being perhaps the last common avatar of that ideal, and the very qualities that once made Cruise the most normcore and antiseptic of movie stars for all his occasional gestures towards stretching and perverting his image, have now become proofs of his specialness, his gift-from-the-movie-gods electness. Top Gun: Maverick is interesting in this regard but it finally evinces that Cruise is at least vaguely aware of his own mortality, especially when it showcases the ravages of aging has inflicted on his Top Gun costar Val Kilmer. Both Top Gun movies are, both literally and metaphorically, about defying gravity, but finally must admit that gravity always wins.
Top Gun was based on a magazine article about the new elite training methods adopted by the US Navy air wing during and after Vietnam to improve dogfighting skills in their fighter pilots. Cruise was cast as Pete Mitchell, whose piloting call-sign is Maverick, a cocky but sublimely talented young fighter pilot. The film’s lengthy opening sees Maverick and his Radar Intercept Officer (RIO), Nick ‘Goose’ Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards), on deployment on an aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean, off some purposefully vague conflict zone where their squadron of F-14 Tomcats encounter enemy pilots flying the flashy new (and imaginary) MiG-25 fighters. The MiGs outmanoeuvre the American pilots and seriously rattle the flight leader, Cougar (John Stockwell), by successfully targeting him, only for Maverick to expertly reverse the humiliation by flying more cleverly and making sport of the foes. After Cougar elects to quit flying, their CO, ‘Stinger’ (James Tolkan), chews Maverick out for his impudent and insubordinate antics, only to then inform him that with Cougar out he and Goose will take his place in the elite training scheme known as TOPGUN where they’ll be pitted against fellow hotshots, based at Miramar, North Island, near San Diego.
At TOPGUN Maverick encounters his one great rival as a pilot, Tom ‘Iceman’ Kazansky (Val Kilmer), and makes waves with his risk-taking tendencies, earning Iceman’s haughty assurance that he’s “dangerous,” and tangling with tutor ‘Jester’ (Michael Ironside), and program boss and Vietnam-era ace Mike ‘Viper’ Metcalf (Tom Skerritt), particularly when he violates the “hard floor”, that is the minimum altitude allowed during training, in his relentless chases. He also finds himself involved with another of the program tutors, Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Blackwood (Kelly McGillis), who he first meets in a bar and tries to pick up, only to learn her true identity later. Maverick’s close encounter with the new MiG gives him distinction and makes him a valuable source of information for her. As she gets to know him Charlie learns Maverick is haunted by his father’s fate as a fighter pilot, having vanished during an operation in 1965. During a training exercise where Maverick is playing wingman to Ice but the rival hotshot can’t nail a target, Maverick is caught in Ice’s engine wash, sending his plane careening out of control, and when he and Goose eject Goose hits the canopy and dies. Maverick is cleared of responsibility, but his friend’s death hangs heavily on him, and he considers leaving the Navy. He eventually turns up for graduation, just as he and the rest of the class are called to action back in the conflict zone and are flung into a deadly air battle.
One immediately eye-catching aspect of Top Gun is the burgeoning talent of its moment it ropes in, including Cruise, Kilmer, Meg Ryan (as Goose’s wife Carole), and Edwards, as well as notable also-rans like McGillis, Rick Rossovich, Adrian Pasdar, and John Stockwell, and counterbalanced by experts in surly elder attitude in Skerritt, Ironside, and Tolkan. Composer Harold Faltemeyer, straight off providing one instantly iconic theme for a new Hollywood hero on Beverly Hills Cop (1984), here provided the score and attached to Maverick a canoodling guitar theme that recurs every time Maverick does something cool, almost to the point of self-parody. The film opens with consciously glorifying images of the Naval pilots and their ground crews preparing to take off in shots drenched in a sunrise glow, men and machines made equivalent in their adamantine, architectural function in the buzzing enterprise. Segue into shots of the sky-thrashing pilots cavorting to the strains of the Kenny Loggins-sung, Giorgio Moroder-penned rock song “Highway To The Danger Zone.” Moroder also helped write the soundtrack’s other big product, “Take My Breath Away,” performed by the band Berlin, which captured the year’s Oscar for Original Song, and Scott does use its pulsing, breathy, deathless romantic quality to effect, interpolating it over a sex scene for Cruise and McGillis shot exactly like some high-end aftershave ad, complete with fluttering white curtains in a steely blue room.
As a movie, Top Gun belongs to a venerable subgenre. Films about the rarefied world of daring aviators date back to classic Hollywood flyboy flicks like Ceiling Zero (1936), Only Angels Have Wings(1939), Test Pilot (1940), Dive Bomber (1941), intersect with war movies like Twelve O’Clock High (1949), and continue through the likes of Toward The Unknown (1956), Jet Pilot (1957), and The Right Stuff (1983). The popularity of this kind of movie is obviously rooted in the basic thrill of flying really fast, an inherently spectacular and dramatic business not many people have access to experience for themselves. But it also constantly touches base with an essential dramatic dynamic: such movies depict the hermetic, rivalry-filled, thrill-loving world of pilots assigned to push the limits and the constant wrestle required to balance such necessary roguish will and the needs of the hierarchies they nominally belong to, be they civilian or military. In this regard the flyboy movie is an ideal one for exploring the tension between individualism and group identity, a theme immediately interesting and compelling for a vast bulk of the audience who experience that tension daily. Many older movies were concerned with the wildcard having his burrs shaved down to more cleanly fit in with the group or die in failing to heed the lesson, befitting products of an age where conformity required by mass mobilisation and imperial emergence.
Top Gun, by contrast, explicitly taps its potential as a metaphor for different fantasies promulgated by a new epoch. Maverick’s nickname encapsulates the idealisation of the main character as someone whose exceptionality and independence are ultimately affirmed as virtues. He embodies the dream of being at once undisputed as an individual whilst fitting into an institution, free but also dedicated, cool and square at the same time. He is the personification of a particular tide-mark in American culture, balancing the individualist ideal, both as manifest in classic American mythos and also post-counterculture anti-authoritarianism, and the new conservatism that insists that yes, that individualism can be achieved, but can and must be suspended when higher duty calls. Maverick as a character, like the film’s depiction of the American military in its moment, is rooted in a haunted sense of generational severing involving the Vietnam War that both bent things out of shape but also informs a new determination to get back on top. Only the nostalgic evocations of the former era’s music is retained – “The Dock of The Bay”, “Great Balls of Fire,” and “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” are wielded as shared touchstones, a lingua franca connecting new to old – but washed clean of any former meaning: like the film about them, the songs have no specific meaning but as rhythmic variations for what the film is expressing about Maverick.
Maverick himself is offered as a vehicle for perceiving military service as a geopolitical equivalent of a football game, cemented by shared signs and gestures, expressions of both team identity and individual triumph. The film’s most famous catchphrase, recited by Maverick and Goose after a gruelling training session and facing down the snootiness of their rivals and bosses, “I feel the need – the need for speed!” is cemented with a high-five, summation of this fantasising. Maverick and Goose are idealised in the film’s first half as the quintessential pair of wild-and-crazy guys who know how to make a party happen anywhere, with set routines for flirtation and a penchant for sitting at the piano banging on the keys and wailing Jerry Lee Lewis off-key. These moments are a recognisable point of descent for this kind of movie: some of those old flyboy pics I mentioned were directed by Howard Hawks, who was constantly fascinated by the rituals of close-knit groups dealing with specific pressures, and scenes of characters gathered around pianos. And yet the differences are very telling. Top Gun is Hollywood product at its most unrefined, much more the offspring of the desire to sell its star as simultaneously unstoppable and relatable and the producers’ mental check-list of how to ensure that, than it is of any authorial voice. Maverick’s friendship with Goose is positioned purely to impact upon Maverick’s journey. Goose’s death occurs to invest the last act with some emotional weight, and yet its real purpose seems to be to allow Cruise to be photographed in some different emotional registers. Here’s Tom Cruise looking moody. Here’s Tom Cruise still looking great in tighty-whities whilst mourning. Here’s Tom Cruise nobly resolving to lift from the ashes.
Similarly, the rest of the TOPGUN team are barely characterised beyond their postures of general antagonism with Maverick, and their inevitable shift to obeisance before his awesomeness. One of the film’s most famous/infamous vignettes sees Maverick and Goose playing Ice and his RIO Ron ‘Slider’ Kerner (Rossovich) playing a gleefully competitive game of beach volleyball, a moment beloved by many for its unabashed celebration of male physiques attached to charismatic actors. A brief interlude of carefully crafted pizzazz that says nothing about the characters beyond what we already know – they’re young, hot, and macho show-offs – when it might have been crafted to demonstrate the evolving camaraderie and inner natures of the heroes, as another potentially Hawksian moment. All of these are however illustrations of the postures the movie wants the audience to take towards the on-screen elements, and thus exist in a realm closer to advertising than drama, the audience being sold on the need to be/have/watch Maverick. Ice is the only rival graced with solidity, and Kilmer tries to give the character sharp angles of behaviour, particularly when he tries to console Maverick after Goose’s death, as if fighting to pierce a membrane of tension between the two of them. But even he’s essentially a one-dimensional foil, a locker room big-mouth with frosted tips and representative of the onus of establishment judgement. There’s some inherent irony in the casting insofar as Kilmer and Cruise as cast in roles the other might, given their career arcs and general ethos, more reasonably have played.
Top Gun is essentially Star Wars(1977) for jocks, mimicking that film’s essential story arc but removing its mythic element, not just by resituating it in the present day, but by reconfiguring the Luke Skywalker figure – the far-flung dreamer who realises brilliant potential – and substituting a state of already-achieved perfection, a hymn to narcissistic self-appreciation and fuck-I’m-good-just-ask-me posturing. The only quality Maverick needs to learn is humility, which Goose’s death finally instils – he learns to look outside of himself to a voice from beyond. The film plays an interesting game in this regard. The story makes much of Ice’s conviction that Maverick flies dangerously, but when there is a deadly consequence to his flying it’s carefully contrived to not really be his fault, but a by-product of several different forces converging to create a tragedy, of which Maverick and Ice’s competitiveness is only one. Maverick feels responsible because he finally learned he does not have godlike control in the air: he is graced both the gravitas of loss but relieved of the pressure of definite culpability. Maverick’s budding relationship with Charlie is both impaired and given new heat when she criticises one of his risky aerial moves, sparking a show of childishly argumentative behaviour from them both – they careen individually through traffic in their his-and-hers choice of vehicles – that inevitably leads to the sack. I’m sure there are more boring and asinine romances in cinema than that between Maverick and Charlie, but I’m not quite sure where. And yet Scott simply takes that emptiness as an opportunity to unabashedly sell music video-like fantasy, picturing the pair riding around on his Kawasaki and pashing on it in artful magic hour shots, much in the same way that Cruise’s general acting response to his situation is to flash his million-dollar super-cocky grin.
There’s no nice way of saying this – not that I feel any desire to be nice – but Top Gun is not a good film. Certainly from a technical filmmaking viewpoint it’s still mostly impressive, and the sheen of Jeffrey L. Kimball’s photography retains its gorgeous, high-end magazine-shoot gloss. And yet it’s a curiously patchy work that scarcely has a plot, has assemblages in place of characters, and almost dissolves into a succession of shots roughly accumulating into scenes, illustrating a script so shallow it can barely pass muster as a bubblegum wrapper. Nonetheless Top Gun proved a vital pivot and permanent landmark in Tony Scott’s oeuvre, and indeed in recent years the general affection for Tony, following his tragic death in 2012, amongst movie fans who grew up on his big-budget, big-flash movies has begun to rival that being shown for Cruise. The younger brother of Ridley, Scott’s career mimicked his elder sibling’s, graduating from the same art college and moving into advertising at Ridley’s invitation, similarly investing heavily stylised visuals into commercials he directed. After forays into directing television, Scott made his feature filmmaking debut with the 1981 Horror film The Hunger, a movie that bombed at the box office but won some attention for its style, including from Bruckheimer and Simpson, who had begun their rise to eminence in Hollywood by shepherding the successful Flashdance (1983), which had been directed by Adrian Lyne, another flashy Brit talent the duo brought in.
Bruckheimer and Simpson hired Scott for Top Gun, and a lot of the film’s success is certainly owed to his arch use of flourishes like sunset backlighting and delight in gleaming fuselage – both human and aircraft. By contrast with his brother’s woozy ambition and genre-hopping, Scott essentially and happily remained a maker of slick B-movies, investing them with a superficial intensity of look and sound. But I’ve never been able to get on board with the belated Tony Scott cult. Apart from a handful of top-level works like True Romance (1992), Crimson Tide (1995), and Enemy of the State (1998), which were mostly distinguished through Scott’s relative stylistic restraint, most of Tony’s films represent the glibbest form of chic. The phrase “style over substance” doesn’t quite cut it in summarising Tony’s aesthetic: the substance exists purely to serve the style. Tony’s later movies like Domino (2004) are insufferably gimmicky in their shooting and cutting. The Hunger is the most boring lesbian vampire movie ever made, and whilst it presaged Top Gun in establishing Scott’s comfort with extolling various forms of homoeroticism, it also established his airbrushed approach to such things, wrapping everything in a kind of haute couture glaze. Rather than erotic, it’s a post-sexual world he inhabits, where all things are permitted so long as they have no definable weight and can be made to look really cool. Top Gun does at least move, but there’s a weird jerkiness to its construction, as if the film had a troubled shoot and what we see had to be laboriously patched together (a problem that would become more defined on the production team’s follow-up, Days of Thunder, 1990).
The most effective scenes in the film are actually its two real character moments, both of which revolve around Maverick’s troubled relationship with his father’s memory. When Maverick tells Charlie about his father’s disappearance, Scott performs a simple, effective tracking shot that slowly moves around Cruise as the actor expertly shifts from laughing nostalgia to musing introspection, a clear signal that Cruise is a performer who knows what he’s doing. Later, Viper takes for a walk on the beach and explains that he was a part of the mass dogfight that claimed his father’s life, but which was hushed up because it “took place on the wrong side of some border,” and assures Maverick his dad really was a hero. This scene certainly gains a lot from Skerritt’s expertise as a grizzled character actor. These flashes of substance are however quickly disposed of. They serve less to tell us that Maverick has psychological issues than to have one of the last impediments to understanding himself as awesome have been removed. The inevitable action climax, in which Maverick is sent out to rescue Ice and others from an ambush by MiGs and saves Ice by shooting down three of the enemy planes, is spectacular stuff in a jumpy sort of way. Where in the training scenes Scott and his filming team do a good job of establishing the relationships of the various aircraft, in the combat the editing turns chaotic. The film’s most truly outstanding element remains the flying, when you can see it properly, which is almost entirely authentic.
Top Gun concludes triumphantly, of course, with Ice and Maverick cemented finally as mutually appreciative if still sardonically rivalrous comrades, and Maverick reuniting with Charlie after she seemed to choose her career over him, whilst Maverick contemplates turning TOPGUN instructor himself. Flashforward to the present day. Top Gun: Maverick has the difficult task of locating any form of seriousness in the inherited material, and its main choice in doing so is to make Goose’s death a cross Maverick has been carrying throughout his 30-plus-year flying career. Maverick is rediscovered working as a test pilot on the Darkstar, a prototype plane that can hopefully go to Mach 10. That’s, like, really fast, yo. When he learns the project is being shut down early by its overseer Rear-Admiral Cain (Ed Harris), Maverick, hoping to save the project and its employees from the scrapheap, takes the plane up and goes for broke, busting Mach 10 before crashing. Maverick earns a customary chewing-out, and it’s made clear he’s never risen above the rank of Captain because of his habits of insubordination, and only has a place in the Navy still thanks to Ice’s protection, as his former rival turned eternal pal is now an Admiral.
Maverick is nonetheless saved once again when, through Ice’s intervention, he’s called to TOPGUN to quickly school a select group of graduates for an extremely dangerous mission: they’re assigned to attack and destroy a clandestine uranium enrichment facility in some other (or the same) unnamed rogue nation, an installation built in a remote and rugged locale and heavily defended to the point that Maverick describes as needing “two miracles” to destroy. Maverick soon has to deal with blasts from the past upon returning to Miramar, most agreeably in the form of Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), one of his former girlfriends (who is mentioned in a running joke but not glimpsed in the first film) and the daughter of an Admiral who now runs a bar at North Island for pilots. More disturbing is the presence of Goose’s son Lt. Bradley ‘Rooster’ Bradshaw (Miles Teller), who has become a top pilot in spite of Carole’s wish for him not to follow in his father’s footsteps, a wish Maverick hesitantly tried to enforce by failing to recommend him for the Naval Academy when it was in his power. Maverick also chafes under the watchful eye of the Naval Air Forces honcho ‘Cyclone’ Simpson (Jon Hamm), who has no time Maverick’s loose cannon antics, dammit.
Perhaps taking some heed of how angrily many fans took to the borderline contemptuous use of the classic Star Wars heroes in the new Disney-backed trilogy, and perhaps also thanks to Cruise’s ever-rigorous grip on how to manage his screen image, Top Gun: Maverick resists making sport of its hero’s condition of arrested development. When, in the film’s opening minutes, Maverick is glimpsed sweeping the canvas cover off his old Kawasaki and dashing across the desert to work like he’s still the same flashy kid he was in the original, it’s not to service any humour but for the audience to delight in the way Cruise-as-Maverick still embodies their fantasies – in this case to still act like a 24-year-old when you’re pushing 60. Top Gun: Maverick’s most vital theme nonetheless quickly proves to revolve around fear of obsolescence, as Maverick stares down his last real chance to make a mark in the Navy. Maverick’s opening escapade is very obviously based on Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff (1983) and director Joseph Kosinski acknowledges the model by casting Harris. Cain is nicknamed “The Drone Ranger” and wants to shut down the Darkstar specifically to channel its funding into his drone warfare projects, an offence to any self-respecting, old-school warrior. Thus, the onus of hierarchical command’s paternalistic authority and sometimes blind verdicts Maverick faced in the first film is here also conflated with the threat of the new, a newness that’s blandly impersonal, technocratic, and, well, just plain unmanly.
Not that piloting is strictly a manly business anymore: Maverick’s trainee squad also includes female pilots Natasha ‘Phoenix’ Trace (Monica Barbaro) and Callie ‘Halo’ Bassett (Kara Wang), as well as the braggart Jake ‘Hangman’ Seresin (Glen Powell, stealing scenes with his smugly louche alpha act), whose rivalry with Rooster echoes Maverick’s with Ice. Hangman is more of a provocateur and bully than either of them were: Phoenix comments dryly that his call-sign stems from his habit of leaving his comrades “hanging out to dry” in tough situations. There’s even a dorky non-alpha named Bob – just Bob (Lewis Pullman) – who serves as Phoenix’s RIO. Throughout their training Rooster’s resentment of Maverick clashes with Maverick’s fear of sending Rooster off to his death, compounding the Bradshaw family tragedy. Hangman eventually catches wind of Rooster’s spurring loss, which also purposefully echoes Maverick’s in the first film. The film hits many of same basic story beats as the original, even going so far as to have Maverick sent on his way to TOPGUN by a bald character actor, before entering into some deliberate doppelganger moments, building to a strong vignette as Penny notices Maverick staring into the bar with a stricken look whilst Rooster within bangs out “Great Balls of Fire” on the piano for his pals just as his father used to. Arguably this is going a few steps too far in positing Rooster as a chip off the old block, considering he was an infant in the original film, but of course it gives both Maverick and the audience familiar with it a hot dose of instant nostalgic connection.
Top Gun: Maverick keeps in mind lessons from some of the more successful extensions of venerable franchises or “legacequels” of recent years. There are detectable likeness to Rocky Balboa (2006) and Creed (2014), Skyfall (2012) and Spectre (2015), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), and Kosinski’s own Tron: Legacy (2011), from which it repeats the idea of positing a generational interchange as, basically, a father-son tale. This is one of the best aspects of Top Gun: Maverick, but also an exasperating one, as the film avoids giving much information about just what kind of relationship Maverick and Rooster had as the young man grew up. Their relationship is also defined in a way that resembles the original film in skipping around the issue of responsibility: Rooster’s anger at Maverick for holding him back is used as a stand-in for the audience’s awareness of Maverick’s role in Goose’s death whilst also dismissing that as a lingering issue. The film also generally still exists to affirm Cruise as the fount of all awesomeness. When the hat is tipped to the original’s volleyball scene as Maverick and his students play football on the beach together, it’s mostly to draw the viewer’s admiration for how good Cruise’s physique is still, rather than celebrate those of any potential replacements, and Kosinski avoids filming with the same soft-core sheen that Scott so readily indulged.
Kosinski is one of the more interesting talents to break into big-budget filmmaking in the past decade or so. He started off as a would-be screenwriter but gained attention working with CGI on advertisements and cutscenes for video games, developing a fine eye, a sleek sense of style and function, but also emerging as a film director with a good feel for actors. He’s more classical and has a finer touch than Scott ever had – he cares that Cruise and Connelly seem to really get along on camera where in the original Cruise and McGillis seemed to be thrown together because of their clashing eye hues and bone structures. But he also lacks the fetishistic clamminess that clung to Scott’s imagery, the quality that, for better or worse, defined Scott as a premiere Dream Factory stylist. Scott’s film also belonged to an era when filmmaking was strongly attuned to physicality, which Scott took to typically hyperbolic lengths by coating just about every actor in sweat to catch all the lighting hues but also give the impression these are guys feeling extremes at all times. Top Gun: Maverick by contrast has no such feel for hothouse climes. Kosinski links his shots together better than Scott, but lacks his pictorial intensity. Kosinski settles for reproducing the opening of Top Gun in his edition, down to the backlit crew and planes and playing “Highway To The Danger Zone” on the soundtrack, as if this isn’t some epic years-later revisiting but maybe the first or second imaginary sequel that might have come down the pipeline in the late ‘80s if Cruise had been so inclined. Perhaps if I was more nostalgic for the first film this would pinion me with Pavlovian sense-memory, but apart from mildly liking the song it doesn’t have that power. This sort of thing is instantly reassuring to fans but it also signals just how derivative and unimaginative this take is going to be. The film doesn’t even have some of the eccentric qualities Kosinski invested in the generally underrated and trend-setting Tron: Legacy.
Similarly, Top Gun: Maverick also reproduces the original in failing to sketch the members of the pilots beyond a couple of basic traits. Kosinski tried his best to invest a definably Hawksian sensibility in his firefighter drama Only The Brave (2017) through portraying group dynamics in difficult, cut-above jobs: he failed – who wouldn’t? – but it was a nice try. He makes a similar play here, introducing the pilots in the trainee team in a lengthy sequence in Penny’s bar as they josh and jibe, compete and party. This sequence is also clever in the way it remixes Maverick’s meeting with Charlie in the original, with the young pilots mistaking Maverick for just another old fart, and later cringing when he strides out before them at TOPGUN. But despite Kosinski’s best efforts everyone remains locked into their specific, generic functions, barely fleshed out or given characteristics, except for Hangman, whose preordained act of redemptive rescue is both delivered with a dash of humour and again tips its hat to Maverick’s role in the original’s climax. And that’s ultimately both what distinguishes and hampers Top Gun: Maverick. Whilst it’s both much more of a real movie than its predecessor, it’s also a simple, straightforward, unambitious one. That sort of thing can be a relief in today’s blockbuster zone filled with multiverses and cross-promotional tie-ins, and it’s plain by the general, initial reaction it’s proven exactly that for many.
But I can’t help but wonder when the mass audience became so undemanding. Despite being a paean to unruly willpower, there’s nothing of the like to the film’s crisply ordered, very familiar plot progression, nor anything daring about its approach to its characters and their stories. Where the original at least made gestures towards complicating its morality and destabilising the aura of its hero before reconfirming it, Top Gun: Maverick just goes through the motions of character conflict. Maverick’s calls this time are far more insubordinate than they were in the first film but the movie essentially assures us they’re the right ones (even in the opening vignette where he destroys a multimillion-dollar aircraft). His skirmishes with Rooster are ultimately straw-dummy headbutting. Maverick’s relationship with Rooster is essentially the same as his with Penny – they knew each-other back when, they’ve been through some stuff, and despite the superficial spurning they all still like each-other, and we don’t have to go to any effort making them connect. Those connections are just there.
Cruise and Connelly bring a decent level of chemistry to their scenes together, convincingly portraying a couple who’ve been around the block a few times but still have the fire of their younger selves guttering within. Kosinski works in some amusing flourishes that give some flickers of life: Penny takes Maverick out on her yacht and has to teach him basic seamanship despite him being the career Navy man, and later he has to sneak out of her bedroom to avoid giving the game away too early to Penny’s teenage daughter Amelia (Lyliana Wray), only to drop down directly before her expectant gaze and stern warning, “Don’t break her heart again.” Still, none of this escapes the bonds of a standard-issue C-plot romance, and the scene where Penny consoles Maverick through a crisis of confidence feels like it copy-and-pasted from the script of Rocky Balboa, which also dug up an obscure character from the franchise opener to serve as the fill-in for a previous love interest. The film’s best scenes are calculated in divergent ways. The first comes when Maverick goes to visit Ice, who, like the actor playing him, has been debilitated and left almost voiceless by cancer. Maverick confesses his worries and doubts to his old comrade and defender, who tells him by computer that “it’s time to let go” when it comes to Rooster, and then huskily pronounces, “The Navy needs Maverick – the kid needs Maverick.” It’s virtually impossible not to be moved by this, even given what stick-figures the actors played in the original. Part of the new gravitas comes from time and affection for these two actors who remind us for good or ill that more time has passed since the original than anyone involved would care to remember.
Kilmer’s strength as an actor still glows under the ashes of illness and his bond with Cruise has a genuine feel, and the scene ends with a deft flash of designedly audience-tickling humour when Ice then prods Maverick with the question “Who’s the better pilot, you or me?” and Maverick responds dryly, “This is a nice moment, let’s not ruin it.” Later in the film Ice dies from his illness, leaving Maverick defenceless before the military hierarchy, but he decides to take another risk after Cyclone decides to dump him and try a more conservative approach to the raid when it seems no-one can traverse the twisting terrain in the necessary span of time to avoid detection on the impending bomb run. Maverick takes a plane and puts all his piloting legerdemain on the line to prove it can be done, convincing Cyclone that only he can effectively lead the team into battle. This sequence is certainly on point, exploiting both the sophistication of the aerial photography and flying and the straightforward rah-rah of seeing the old hero get his mojo back and prove the world still bends before the awesomeness of Maverick. The actual bomb run proves almost a little too straightforward, despite the inevitable little foul-ups like failing laser guidance that requires so old-fashioned down-home shooting skill.
Both Top Gun movies are inarguably about celebrating the legend of American military strength. The first film, famously, generated a 500% spike in applications to become pilots. The narrative through-line of both movies, whilst preoccupied with Maverick as, well, a maverick, his arts nonetheless simply make him the apex predator in this kind of warfare. But the movies’ pitch also comes with the curious caveat that it is above all just that, a legend. That strength is rendered as a trope, as inconsequential in their way as the realities of Charlemagne’s empire to the stories of Roland or Dark Age Britain to the Arthurian Knights, or the Bengal Lancers in some 1930s Hollywood-made film extolling British imperialism. The abstraction of the enemy in both films, with their menacing black aircraft and face-covering helmets, underlines this legendary conception, even as it also highlights a worrying aspect of military thinking. The “enemy” becomes an amorphous thing, detached from all geopolitical immediacies, turning politics and war into an eternal duel pivoting from foe to foe. Both movies tap tension in anxiety that American military capability isn’t really that much – the MiGs in the first film and the “fifth generation” enemy fighters in the sequel are both described as being formidable and more sophisticated than the US fighter planes – and it’s the calibre of people flying them is what really counts. In the original Top Gun the enemy starts shooting first, and the American pilots are forced to fight for their lives, placing them not only in an underdog position but also in the right. In Top Gun: Maverick they’re engaged in a covert operation and pre-emptive strike.
The potential repercussions of this, and how the pilots feel about it, could be very interesting, but aren’t investigated at all. “Don’t think, just feel,” Maverick instructs Rooster and the rest of the team, which is supposed to relate purely to the required surrender to pure instinct in the heat of jet-powered flying, but also describes every other aspect of their roles. Ours not to reason why, etc. The similarity of Top Gun: Maverick’s basic plot to a host of older war movies is also hard to miss. The bombing run is closest in nature to Mark Robson’s The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1953), and indeed it’s basically the same film, down to Maverick getting shot down after successfully completing the seemingly impossible mission. Except that where Robson took a risk and kept the downbeat ending of James Michener’s source novel, which saw both pilot hero and his would-be rescuers shot dead, Kosinski sets up the same situation but delivers crowd-pleasing stuff. Rooster returns to save Maverick from a helicopter that pursues him across the snowy wasteland, only to be shot down himself, forcing the duo to make their way across country together.
Teller, not an actor I’ve felt much liking for thus far in his career, proves surprisingly effective in his role, as far as it goes. With a scruffy moustache he looks enough like Edwards but with a slightly burlier, overcompensating edge. His interactions with Cruise are however more stated than felt. The last portion of the film sees Maverick and Rooster trekking across the snow-crusted landscape and electing to steal a vintage, surplus F-14 from a hanger bay. As far as fan-pleasing touches go this is again pretty good, setting up a finale that wrings excitement from this twist, as Maverick has to not just outfly but outthink two far more modern and formidable opponents in the ultimate dramatization of his career doldrums. But the situations are robbed of what should be some of their tense and immediate impact by the blankness of the setting and the absence of enemy soldiers. It remains as bland and plastic and straightforward as a mid-2000s video game. Which is a significant lack considering that what distinguishes Top Gun: Maverick up until this point is the remarkable beauty and immediacy of the flying sequences, which mostly eschew special effects enhancement as much as the first film and indeed go a few steps further, utilising the cutting-edge camerawork and lensing to show the audience the cast in the planes, and giving a potent sense of the thrills and dangers of weaving a path up a narrow gorge in a plane going hundreds of miles an hour.
The visual drama and immediacy of the flying and filming throughout have been immediately celebrated by viewers and critics alike, and it feels like it could be an important moment in the history of current big-budget cinema, if anyone cares to learn the lesson. At the very least, Top Gun: Maverick is, quite genuinely, an islet of old-school cinema values: putting good-looking people on screen and having them do interesting, spectacular things – an essentialist approach to making popular cinema going back to Pearl White. For all the advancing sophistication of CGI-era cinema, the human eye retains a capacity to tell what’s real from what’s bogus, and Hollywood has begun using its computers as a catch-all for all its efforts, but Kosinski and his crew and actors provide ample evidence that approach to making movies need not be the whole future. Top Gun: Maverick also manages the rare feat of improving enormously on a facile precursor and using it as a solid template, which might well be because that template in turn is rooted in primeval Hollywood lore, however bastardised. Top Gun: Maverick aims to summarise and provide apotheosis for Cruise as a star, but it does so in a manner that confirms just how much of the star’s ambition has waned, and how much the audience expects of him, taking this mostly bland, efficient, solid programmer as some sort of grand return.
Director: Robert Eggers Screenwriters: Robert Eggers, Sigurjón Birgir ‘Sjón’ Sigurðsson
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers…
Emulation and synthesis are eternal processes in art as young talents arise and pick and choose touchstones and heroes and try to find new ways of appealing to audiences. Since the millennium’s turn we’ve seen many a new talent positioning themselves, or being positioned by studios and the media, as cinema’s next Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, Lynch, Cronenberg, Kubrick, Malick, or Woody Allen. More intriguingly if not always satisfyingly, in the past few years a fresh cadre of filmmakers has tried to blend styles in moviemaking once thought irreconcilable, mating art house, independent film, and Hollywood hit inflections in novel fashions, each commenting on the others. But the spark of real creativity that turns such busy remixing into authentic original art, on whatever level, is something much more rarefied. Native New Yorker Robert Eggers emerged with a bang in 2015 with The Witch, a Horror movie that proved a substantial box office success on a modest budget, made an instant star out of lead actress Anya Taylor-Joy, and Eggers, in his attempts to mate art house movie-style textures, the simultaneously vivid and dreamlike approach of directors like Werner Herzog and Lynch, to a period tale of supernatural menace broadly conforming to the Horror genre, announced he belonged to the gathering wave of directors similarly trying to fuse aesthetic modes and genre presumptions once thought irreconcilable, and in particular a specific wing of this tendency labelled “Elevated Horror.” The main connection of many of the Elevated Horror directors lay in their efforts at quoting classic Horror movie imagery and metaphorical potential but atomising them in a narrative sense, trying to evoke states of dread and fragmenting psychological states.
That said, Elevated Horror very quickly became a set of cliché stylistic gestures, and what was often greeted as groundbreaking in the movement was, to anyone with a strong grounding in the genre as it was in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, rather old-hat. But Eggers also evinced a strong visual imagination and a fascination with surrealism-touched imagery in common with other directors like Ben Wheatley, Peter Strickland, Panos Cosmatos, and David Lowery, filmmakers who, whatever their individual qualities, certainly all seem to share a desire to annex the stature once by filmmakers like Herzog or Kubrick, and reinvest some of the stylistic freedom and atavistic power to cinema that inflected periods in the medium’s history as in the heyday of German Expressionism and late 1960s psychedelia, at a time when both mainstream models and independent alternatives are all but exhausted of personality and visual imagination and potency. The Witch, a film that was certainly exceedingly well-made and impressively styled, nonetheless wielded a contrived brand of onerousness too many seem to automatically accept as artistry, and strikes me as fussy, over-managed, and dead to the touch. I hesitate to say that stylistic instability is, far from a failure in moviemaking, is the essential source of art in the medium, and excessive control is its slow death. But I still often feel it’s true. Eggers’ second film, The Lighthouse (2019), highlighted both his specific strengths, expertly exploiting strong acting performances in depicting a crisis of besieged personality, and his potentially aggravating weaknesses, as he wrapped the central character tale in imagery and Horror movie teases that refused to resolve into much more than student film showboating, an extended stab at trying to have your art house cake and eat your genre film too.
Nonetheless Eggers seemed like a director of promise who could be forgiven the contemporary critical tendency to latch on to the new voice as the greatest thing ever. The Northman sees Eggers taking a leap most of his contemporaries have been unwilling or unable to execute so far, in making a big movie – the budget of The Northman is somewhere in the $70-$90 million range – and trying to bend the mindset of the mass audience to bold and challenging vision, much as, say, Kubrick managed with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The Northman is also a Viking movie, a perennially popular movie subgenre stretching back through the likes of Richard Fleischer’s The Vikings (1958), Roger Corman’s The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1958), Mario Bava’s oddball Norse Westerns Erik the Conqueror (1961) and Knives of the Avenger (1966), Jack Cardiff’s The Long Ships (1965), Robert Stevenson’s The Island At The Top of The World (1974), Charles B. Pierce’s The Norseman (1978), John McTiernan’s The 13th Warrior (1999), and, for some actual Scandinavian input, Nils Gaup’s Pathfinder (1988) and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising (2010). One could even stretch this to include works like John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, being as they are film drawing heavily on Norse myth for their more overtly fantasy settings.
More recently all things Viking have been hugely popularised by TV shows like Vikings and The Last Kingdom, and now also permeate music genres and subcultures. Those include, rather controversially, sectors of the far right and white supremacists, which has some basis in the idiotic cultural theories and ideals of the Nazis. I suspect the greater part of their penchant for the imagery Norse culture and mythology is essentially the same as everyone else’s at the bottom of all: it’s really cool. The Viking mystique is at once deeply alien and peculiarly familiar, violent and menacing and contemptuous of the more pastoral visions of medieval Europe and the evolving structure of its power and institutions, but also reflects a folk culture defined by powerfully appealing things like camaraderie, macho virility, and rowdy boozing in the mead hall. That Eggers wants to examine the charisma of the old Norse culture more incisively, unsentimentally, and palpably than many such precursors is signalled not just in the sturm-und-drang he invests in his movie’s look and sound, but in the material he takes on to give his project form. The Northman adapts the Danish folkloric tale of Amleth, which William Shakespeare annexed for Hamlet. The Northman isn’t the first film to bypass Shakespeare for the source stories: Gabriel Axel’s Prince of Jutland (1998) also took them on, although, despite featuring a notable cast including Gabriel Byrne and Christian Bale, it didn’t make a cultural ripple.
Amleth’s story might be sourced in lost bardic poems and sagas from Norse culture, but no extant version comes to us earlier than the versions found in two 12th century texts, by the historian Saxo Grammaticus, who included it in his Gesta Danorum, and another, slightly different version in the Chronicon Lethrense. Both versions contain scenes familiar from Hamlet, like the crafty protagonist rewriting an execution order carried by two guardians during a voyage to Britain. Eggers and his coscreenwriter, the Icelandic poet and musician Sjón, by contrast only utilise the loosest outline of the tale, as if trying to peel away the layers down to some presumed origin point as a Viking campfire tale, a myth of bare-boned moral reckoning emerging out of a wild and savage time and culture. This also gives him leave to work in a myriad of harvested movie likenesses. Nonetheless, the basic story is hazily recognisable. Young prince Amleth (Oscar Novak) is overjoyed when his father, the king of the island of Hrafnsey, Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) returns from war, badly injured and weary. He’s reunited with Amleth, his wife Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), and brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang), and resolves to initiate Amleth into the mystical secrets of being king in a rite overseen by Heimir (Willem Dafoe), who is also the Fool in Aurvandill’s court and under the guise of lampooning suggests Gudrún is sleeping around. As father and son walk together, Aurvandill is struck with arrows by a hidden sniper, and Fjölnir and henchmen surround him and slay him, even as Aurvandill curses his brother.
The henchmen chase Amleth through the woods, but he manages to cut off the nose of the one who catches him, and he glimpses his mother being carried away by Fjölnir. Amleth reaches the beach and rows away from Hrafnsey, vowing revenge. “Years later,” as a title card puts it, Amleth, now grown into the hirsute beefcake bodaciousness of Alexander Skarsgård, has become a mercenary berserker in a band of marauders who attack a village in Rus’, slaying many and taking others for slaves. When he hears that some slaves are going to be shipped to Fjölnir, who has since been dispossessed of Hrafnsey and has relocated to Iceland with what’s left of his clan, Amleth slips aboard the ship transporting the slaves and pretends to be one of them: one of the Rus’ prisoners, Olga of the Birch Forest (Taylor-Joy), sees him come aboard and becomes his helpmate, chiefly because she also intends escape: “Your strength breaks men’s bones,” she comments, “I have the cunning to break their minds.” Brought to the homestead of Fjölnir and Gudrun, who now have a son together, Gunnar (Elliott Rose), as well as Fjölnir’s snooty adult son Thorir (Gustav Lindh), Amleth believes his mother feigns affection for Fjölnir to protect Gunnar. He and other slaves are pressed into playing knattleikr, a brutal field sport, during a celebratory meeting of clans in the district, and when Gunnar gets too excited and invades the pitch he is knocked down by a hulking rival player (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson), who then in turn is beaten to a pulp by Amleth, a sign that Amleth feels some familial attachment to his half-brother. This thorny situation demands Amleth chart a careful path to his retribution, but also earns him a level of privilege amongst the slaves, including being allowed to marry Olga.
From its earliest frames The Northman declares its ambitions with volume, as Eggers’ camera swoops over long ships sailing towards the Hrafnsey coast with the booming, drum-and-dissonance-laden scoring of Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough immediately establishing a mood of strange, jagged grandeur, and scarcely lets it up for the next two-and-a-bit-hours (the quality of superficial weirdness is as prized by the current crop of would-be film artists and cineastes as much as it was in pop music in the early ‘90s). One distinct facet of The Northman, and the one that Eggers seems most intent on putting across to make this something more than just your average muscleman revenge movie, lies in the way Eggers tries to anatomise Viking culture, to force the audience to share the viewpoint of these almost primeval people who peek over the edge of civilisation before burning it down. In this regard The Northman reminded me less of all those other Viking movies than it did of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s versions of Oedipus Rex (1967) and Medea (1969), and Sergei Paradjanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) and Sayat Nova (1968), with their usage of relic narratives less to tell their stories than to recreate the societies in their customs and philosophies and the forgotten cultural precepts lurking behind the plotlines.
Applying this approach to The Northman, stripping away the psychological qualities of modern drama and instead immersing itself in the way such things were conveyed and explored in myth, in symbols and archetypes, is a potentially very interesting one, particularly given that Hamlet is one vital source point for modern psychological drama. To radically deconstruct a couple of millennia of western art is certainly no small project. Rather than adapting Amleth’s story straight from the original sources The Northman harvests ideas and images from a variety of classical myths – Eggers and Sjon introduce hints of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, The Odyssey, Beowulf, Medea, and more. Less elevated influences are apparent too: Amleth’s habit of repeating his to-do list of revenging recalls that of Arya Stark in the novel and TV series Game of Thrones, whilst at time I suspected Eggers was somewhat desperate to play Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” but couldn’t as it has recently been profaned by use in Thor: Ragnarok (2017). The Northman also reminded me of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (2014) as an odd and fulminating blend of a specific personal lexicon of images and concepts with the blankness of mythical metaphor and the pressures of modern blockbuster filmmaking. Eggers also follows David Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021) in applying a similarly self-conscious style to illustrating an almost equally archaic but very different tale. If The Northman is a much less insufferable a film than The Green Knight, it’s because at least it seems to know what it wants to say about the artefact it tackles, and adds up to more than a succession of stylistic gestures. On the other hand, it lacks the kind of grand synthesising reach of parable Aronofsky achieved. Where he linked the ancient and futuristic and ages of human development with his approach to Flood tale, Eggers is stuck fetishising rites that at times look like a really far-out men’s encounter group session.
Eggers dedicates himself to portraying the hallucinatory religion and ritual that pervades Amleth’s life and world and strongly suggesting an intended dialectic. Early in the film he dedicates a lengthy sequence to depicting the Aurvandill and Heimir inducting Amleth into a mystic union where they bring him through a process of mimicking and animal and making music with his body – burps and farts – before he then ascends to the status of man and then leaves his body. This ritual cements Amleth’s love for his father in terms both physical and spiritual. It’s echoed later when the priest of the berserkers (Magne Osnes), who took Amleth under his wing, leads the rampaging band in a dehumanising rite. Other visions are proffered as portals of understanding for his psychological functions. This is particularly notable when, sent by a He-witch (not to be mistaken for a Manwich; anyway he’s played by Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) to claim Draugr, a magical sword, from its owner known as the Mound Dweller, an undead being who resides on a throne in a buried barrow: Amleth battles the Mound Dweller when he comes to life for the sword, and finally bests him, only for the camera to return to Amleth standing before the dead man and simply pluck it from his hands, the battle we saw representative of Amleth gathering to courage to risk the taboo and take the weapon. Whether Eggers really nails what he’s aiming for is another thing entirely.
One problem is how he purveys it, with some special effects visions of Valkyries and the mystical family tree that bears forth its progeny living and passed like so many apples, that sway towards the CGI generic in execution, and spoil the integrity of physical solidity he pursues elsewhere. But the feeling of jammed gears also stems fromt he way Eggers approaches the story. Eggers and Sjon try to situate the tale in an overtly realistic and fetishistically authentic depiction of his world, but then lace it was aspects of magic and irrationalism, full of wise seers and preternatural animals. One can see the intellectual project Eggers tries to articulate, but then won’t stick to. He strips away all hint of depth from Amleth and then tries to reinvest it as the story unfolds. Eggers justifies this in part through Amleth’s single-minded project and his berserker schooling, which is depicted in a scene early in the film as he and other warriors whip themselves up in ritual manner to become animal beings who unleash bloody mayhem on the Rus’: Amleth is so dead-eyed a being in this state he doesn’t notice when he fellows seal the village children up in a hall and set it on fire, a casual act of genocidal contempt for anyone weak enough to fall prey to the Viking marauders. By contrast his journey of bloody revenge is an act of a civilised and rational man, insofar as it involves honouring bonds of identity and some basic code of ethics. This leads Amleth to experience a prototypical tragic experience, as seeking revenge commits him to acts that seem self-defeating.
Eggers takes definite risks with this film. Several people walked out of the film during the screening I attended during interludes of violence and overt weirdness, which, whilst perhaps not great for the movie’s bottom line, is a sign that whatever else you can say about it, The Northman is not yet another toothless mass media product. Eggers’ view of the Vikings is hardly exalting: he portrays this world as squalid and replete with brutality and oppression, and leaves you with the impression no sane person would want to live in such a world. The Northman serves the cult of the Viking with a hot dose of undiluted junk. Eggers tries with all his might to force the viewer into the atavistic zone he describes, to enter into a world where codes of speech and behaviour obey their own, peculiar, ritualistic rhythm. Trouble is, Eggers’ manner of doing so courts ridiculousness and a brand of stilted ye-olde-isms and rejected Death Metal lyrics that lack a compensating poetic quality, offering a parade of rasping-voiced men who say things like “I will meet you at the Gates of Hell!” and “Furnish this fierce heart and slayer of men with a drink that I might drink to him!” with a straight face. Eggers and Sjón pull off an interesting flourish however as Gudrun speaks consistently in a more elegant and sophisticated manner than those around her, even employing quasi-Shakespearean metre and metaphor on occasions (“Let my words be the whetstone for your mighty rage.”), befitting her status as a former slave stolen another culture as well as a power behind thrones.
Throughout, Eggers exhibits cinematic traditions he’s eager to annex. There are repeated nods to Conan The Barbarian, particularly in Fjölnir’s attack on Aurvanduill, and later when Amleth battles the Mound Dweller, which takes the scene in the Milius film where Conan discovers the Atlantean sword a few steps further. The sequence of the berserker attack on the Rus’ village is staged in a series of fluid tracking shots and culminates in a long single shot that variably does artful tracking and then pivots from a fixed position, whilst pseudo-objectively capturing acts of carnage and chaos, in a technically impressive but arch imitation of Andrei Tarkovsky’s shooting style on Andrei Rublev (1966). Vignettes like Amleth encountering a Rus’ shamanka (played, in a most inevitable in-joke, by Icelandic singer Björk) wearing funny stuff on her head echo Pasolini and Paradjanov in portraying pagan creeds. Hell, the climax, which situates the final battle of revengers in the midst of flowing lava with the seething magma mimicking the protean moment for civilisation as well as two warring psyches and bodies, directly mimics Star Wars – Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005). There’s nothing wrong with homage and magpie borrowing in filmmaking, but like many younger directors of the moment, Eggers’ mix-and-match approach struck me as if he seems to be seeking a fast track to being hailed as a great artist, when the actual meat of the film is prosaic and straightforward, the human-level gestures by and large blunt and obvious, and the images have a contrived quality, so desperate to knock your socks off and yet so often arriving as lumps of conceptual show-off.
Eggers’ Tarkovsky-quoting tracking shots, for instance, don’t wield the same immersive feeling of being a wandering tourist in another world the Russian master achieved, but rather simply feel strenuous in technique and distancing from the horror it portrays rather than making it more immediate. His desire for flamboyance sometimes even hurts the story he’s trying to tell, like the long, mobile take of young Amleth sneaking about wearing a purloined robe amidst slain bodies of his father’s loyalists and glimpsing Fjölnir carrying his mother. Amleth then steals away in full view, rather bewilderingly paid no heed at all by Fjölnir’s men. It’s clumsy staging purely because Eggers doesn’t want to cut yet. Elsewhere Eggers’ barrage of surrealist visions occasionally made me feel like I was watching an especially long music video. The Northman is also one of the most stringently humourless films I’ve ever watched, perhaps out of fear even the most casual gag or moment of ordinary human interaction will spoil the desired credulity for this stylised world, and disrupt the texture Eggers labours to weave. I could have some sympathy there, but even the less heaviosity-charged interludes are encaged by style, as when Amleth and Olga meet to bump uglies in the forest in good pagan fashion, filmed with a kind of iconic import and inescapable aesthetic that chokes off any depiction of real sexual ferocity and feel for the strange catharsis of two fearsome personalities meeting in a place of tenderness.
Amleth begins terrorising Fjölnir and clan by chopping up some of the guards and also two priests of Freyr, acts of violence that seem present mostly because it’s been a few minutes since we had some baroque violence and so Eggers can work through his obsession with imagery of mangled flesh. One of the few sequences that effectively varies the onslaught of ostentatious style is an interlude depicting a mating rite for the younger Vikings, a male and female pair of singers performing for the gyrating lovers. Just for a moment a different sensibility gleams out of the muck. Eggers makes a point that this world is cruel and rough, and otherwise evokes virtually nothing but cruelty and roughness. Still, Eggers attempts through Amleth’s journey to chart the one real force that counteracts such barbarity, the bonds of family and lovers, but even these gets seriously stress-tested. Most broadly, The Northman can be described as a critique on the classic revenge tale, substituting Hamlet’s careful, intellectualised ethical contemplations for Amleth’s more visceral confrontations with the ironies of his quest. Self-professed critiques on revenge tales are pretty common these days, and, again, something of a short-cut to being taken seriously. Most classical revenge tales end nonetheless with varying forms of self-defeating mayhem unleashed.
Eggers’ main twist on this most ancient and hallowed realm of cliché is to essentially present everyone in the film as standing at some point on the timeline of a revenge path because everyone has some spur to seek payback and play such games, because everyone is aggrieved in an endless chain of power. Whilst the film is officially bracketed by the course of Amleth’s, it is also revealed that we’re in the end game of Gudrun’s and see other revenges launched and delivered or deflected. Amleth’s “heart of cold iron” and washboard stomach, honed in his years as a mindless berserker, give him the tools to pursue his end, but they have simultaneously retarded aspects of personality that need reawakening. In a pre-modern world like the one Eggers tries to portray matters of justice, like every other human value, has no greater muscle or strength in the world than the individual human holding them, and the radial of their connections to others, family first and foremost, then whatever can be called their community. Fjölnir’s act of treachery towards his brother is, in a manner never really fleshed out, partly inspired by a general feeling that Aurvandill has failed as a king, but this in turn leads to Fjölnir being labelled “The Brotherless” and tossed out of his kingdom by another, greater king.
The film’s vital story and character pivot comes when Amleth finally manages to sneak into his mother’s rooms in her and Fjölnir’s homestead, believing he’s bringing her the promise of rescue and righteous revenge. But Gudrun instead explains to her son that she pressed Fjölnir to kill her husband, who took her as a slave and then to bed, and far from being her beloved progeny Amleth is the last tether to that slavery and doesn’t care if he lives or dies as the product of her body’s colonisation by a hated foe. Kidman delivers a neat lesson in star acting cunning in her role here, erupting with feral energy as the formerly idealised maternal figure of Amleth’s faith suddenly reveals herself a ruthless and equally primal character even with her greater word power. This scene hits a note of volatile and unexpected emotional perversion but also one that wreaks subtle havoc on Eggers’ theme and approach to it. Rather than taking on Hamlet’s Gertrude as a clueless, sensual thrall, he remakes Gudrun after other Shakespearean archetypes like Queen Tamora and Lady Macbeth, a cunning embodiment of will to power aimed at what engendered it, who is also, to boot, rendered a rather demonic figure, laughing mockingly and employing incestuous appeal to dazzle and disorientate her son-foe.
Trouble here is Eggers nonetheless insists on straying into the kind psychological narrative he was supposed to be avoiding: he presents in Gudrun a furious counter-avenger created by the world’s evil and paying it in kind, one who wields a knowledge of how to manipulate men to control them. Olga, meanwhile, is an earthier archetype, a witchy woman who has cunning arts of her own but uses them more precisely, driving the Vikings to crazed fits by feeding them hallucinogenic mushrooms and keeping Fjölnir from raping her by showing off her blood-smeared crotch. Eggers makes a point about differently gendered forms of payback and power-exercising in this world, the women using guile, stealth, and manipulation to achieve their ends, but just as invested in their aims. At the same time despite his hardening to an engine of insensate wrath Amleth is saved from becoming a self-satisfied princeling like Thorir. Thorir reminded me strongly of the character Senya in The Saga of the Viking Women and Wigliff in The 13th Warrior, both similarly peevish, hysterically insecure and fey princelings trying to prove their strength in a forbiddingly patriarchal world. This indicates the thematic preoccupations of the Viking movie as a subgenre are more codified than one might expect, and more than Eggers quite realises: they’re all fascinated by definitions of masculinity and the strange weeds that grow in the family plot in the shadow of virile patriarchs.
I couldn’t help also but think back to Bava’s Knives of the Avenger, a film which similarly used a Viking-age setting to explore the moral ambiguity of revenge, masculine rage, and fatherhood, in the character of Rurik, a man who in a fit of madness after his family’s slaughter avenged himself by leading a rampage of his warriors and raped the wife of one the enemy’s leaders, and years later inadvertently becomes protector to her and her son. Most crucially, Bava, despite much smaller advantages of technical resources and budget, casually delivered the kind of complex blending of mythological starkness and dramatic complexity depicting the evolving human psyche that Eggers here labours to execute. Late in The Northman Amleth is distracted very briefly by the sight of Olga running away, giving his enemies a chance to to capture him. ‘Twas beauty killed the beast. There’s some guff about Amleth being just like his father, but I’m not sure what that means beyond the very obvious: they’re both dumb enough to be captured by Fjölnir. Anyway, here Eggers tries a pivot of perspective as Fjölnir, confronted by Thorir’s slaying by Amleth, is filled with paternal wrath, wrath Gudrun tries aim properly, whilst Amleth, when captured, manages to delay Fjölnir’s execution of him by taunting him over the whereabouts of Thorir’s heart. Cue a scene of Amleth being tortured and making an escape that nods to another evident model for Eggers, in Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) (or is it A Fistful of Dollars?). Except that Amleth’s freedom comes thanks to some ravens who peck at his blood-soaked bonds – with the hint it might also be Aurvandill’s spirit animals to the rescue.
Eggers also resorts on occasion to very hoary suspense-building tricks, as when Amleth crouches out of sight behind a hut hiding from some of Fjölnir’s men only to be barked at by one of their dogs, and Amleth is only saved from discovery by that time-honoured mistake of villains not to advance one or two steps more or turn their heads slightly. The film’s last act is enabled when Amleth and Olga, after she has helped spirit him away from the homestead elect to leave Iceland to together, only for Amleth to experience a vision telling him Olga is pregnant: deciding he needs to protect his incipient brood from any chance of Fjölnir hunting for them, he leaps off the long ship, swims ashore, and starks wreaking havoc at the homestead, carving up henchmen. Amleth dealing death to the same warrior whose nose he cut off as a lad feels indicative of the film as a while – cleverly done, wince-inducing in its gory verve, and lacking any true irony or purpose. Bang, a Danish actor who has brand of dark charisma well-suited to playing superficially charming but rather seedy characters, catches the eye as Fjölnir, even if he’s not really present that much in the film.
At least as the film veers towards a climax Eggers ventures into morally abyssal climes as Amleth, on the hunt for Fjölnir, is attacked by his mother, and then by Gunnar who tries to defend her, and Amleth kills them both. Both acts are done in self-defence but spring directly from his resolve, having fully accepted that, if they’re not encompassed within the aegis of his nominally defensive wrath, then they must be sacrificed to it as a matter of course. Eggers captures the spectacle of violently contradictory emotional impulses as Amleth later pays homage to their bodies where Fjölnir has laid them on the volcanic ashes below the Gates of Hel – an erupting caldera – that serves as the primal temple of their mutual fury. There’s a contradiction in here that’s potentially, endlessly rich, in presenting Amleth as at once a lover and a killer, the force of destruction and the seeder of soil contained with his bulbous body, that doesn’t fully emerge, in part because by this point we’ve seen so much death a little more doesn’t make much difference. Amleth and Fjölnir’s battle amidst the lava floes, as well as the likeness I’ve mentioned, is foiled in part because it wants so desperately to finally and fully anoint the drama in a perfect mythic tableaux, two naked men waging a perfectly symmetrical war of motives and heaving abs. But, again, this tries so hard to be instantly iconic that I couldn’t give myself up to it, particularly as the glossy, digitally-enhanced look of the scene and its calculated silhouetting robbed it of the kind of concussive physical immediacy it needed. It’s hard to deny The Northman is a compelling, intermittently fearsome piece of work. But I was left with the feeling the would-be visionary’s reach still exceeds his grasp.
Director: Matt Reeves Screenwriters: Peter Craig, Matt Reeves
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers…
With Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan’s versions of Batman now sliding into generational memory, and Zack Snyder’s firmly written off as a blind alley, the time is apparently ripe for another reimagining of a character now firmly lodged as a supreme archetype in pop culture. Somewhere along the line Batman replaced Superman as the preeminent comic book hero, supplanting the dream of vast power and matching, rigorously honed moral perspective – the fantasy embodiment of mid-20th century America – with something more concrete and troubled. When Batman first emerged as a comic book character as created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger in the late 1930s, he had obvious roots reaching back to the Scarlet Pimpernel and his prodigious pulp fiction and funny pages offspring, including Zorro, Doc Savage, The Green Hornet, The Lone Ranger, and The Shadow. Batman was also rooted in the cultural climes of the 1930s, a time when gangsters were celebrities, and movie theatres were filled with the influence of the German Expressionist cinema movement with their reality-distorting gravity of style as exemplified by movies like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) and Metropolis (1926), all of which inflected the comic’s vision in ways overt and clandestine. Today Batman has survived where only vague cultural echoes of the property’s inspirations resound.
Ever since Taxi Driver (1976) firmly inscribed itself as an ideal model for summarising a dank facet of the modern American psyche where everyone’s waiting for the real rain to come and wash out the streets, Batman, revised radically from the playful version of the character popularised by the 1966-68 TV series starring Adam West, suddenly found himself the perfect mediating vessel. Batman is defined by his seemingly incoherent yet perfect assemblage of traits. Rich but forlorn. Free but obsessed. Orphaned but surrounded by a form of family. Living as an emblem of all that’s desirable in worldly terms yet lacking desire. Batman appeals to the whole swathe of a modern movie audience. To the young, in his ingenious gadgets and naggingly memorable mystique, and his simultaneous defiant attitude towards and exemplification of parental authority. To teenagers in his self-emblazoned embodiment of torment and sceptical campaign to right institutional wrongs. And to adults as the most quasi-complex of superheroes, the one whose splintered psyche is animated in the apparel of his universe. The sprawling old-world manor as the emblem of civilisation with the bole of secrets lodged underneath. The villains who all reflect Bruce Wayne’s alienation and splintered identity back at him. The diffused yet pervasive and ambiguous sexuality.
With The Batman, director Matt Reeves attempts a task of synthesis, charting a middle course between the dusky fantasia of Burton’s films and the sly pseudo-realism of Nolan’s, whilst also harking back to aspects of the material’s early days. His stylistic inspirations, are chiefly movies like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and David Fincher’s Se7en (1996), both themselves children of Taxi Driver, and also nod to a brand of burnished style popular in the 1980s as practiced by the likes of Walter Hill, Ridley and Tony Scott and others, directors who created stylised worlds where the streets were always wet from rain and reflected multi-coloured neon whilst some raffishly beautiful people got in trouble. Given how boring so much contemporary filmmaking looks, it’s not surprising that kind of movie is becoming more and more of a touchstone for more ambitious emergent directors. Reeves takes his stylistic conceits and thematic inferences to obvious extremes – it rains so much in his Gotham City I wondered if it’s supposed to be located in the tropics. Reeves, who once upon a time cowrote Steven Seagal and James Gray movies, debuted as a director in spectacular style with the facetious but compelling found footage monster movie Cloverfield (2008) and followed it up Let Me In (2011), a solid remake of the Swedish vampire movie Let The Right One In (2008) and a couple of entries in the renewed Planet of the Apes series. Despite his writing background Reeves belongs to a cadre of current directors also including Joseph Kosinski and Gareth Edwards who try to fuse highly technical filmmaking with visual artistry.
The Batman also splits the difference in taking on the material in at once exacerbating still further the more serious, grounded aspect of Nolan’s films whilst providing an ironically revitalising stab at providing a classical kind of Batman story. Whilst the very familiar tragedy of the deaths of Bruce Wayne’s parents is invoked in the story, it’s not portrayed yet again, nor any other element of his origin myth. Moreover, The Batman sets out to emphasise the title character’s prowess as an investigator, harking back to his status as the “world’s greatest detective” in the comics but long quelled in adaptations. This film’s version of Bruce (Robert Pattinson) has been inhabiting his Batman guise for two years. He’s become, thanks to his alliance with Gotham Police Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), a folkloric figure skirting the outermost fringes of legitimacy, regarded with hostility but not quite outright violence by cops, just infamous enough to scare street punks when his searchlight signal emblem is projected in the sky but not yet sufficient to scare the criminal outfits about town. Despite the newly thick pall of goth-noir self-seriousness, in certain ways The Batman resembles the 1966 film of the West imprimatur, directed by Leslie Martinson, more than any other movies of the franchise since, insofar as much of it deals with the essential story pattern of Batman trying to follow a breadcrumb of trails left for him by The Riddler which eventually proves to point to a project of anarchic and iconoclastic intent.
The film’s choice of title confirms a yearning to restore some mystique and mystery to the character, appending a definite article to make him seem less personable and more like the creature haunting the dreams and sneering quips of his criminal prey, and nodding back to the more arcane writing style of the early comic books: he is as much a rarefied emanation of Gotham City’s psyche as The Joker and The Riddler. And so the film opens with Bruce musing in his diary on the purpose of the Bat Signal as a tool of intimidating criminals, warning them he’s out and about, whilst also quaintly musing that he doesn’t merely hide in the shadows, but “I am the shadows.” That line seems like something a teenage boy overly fond of Poe and Nine Inch Nails might write on a schoolbook. But Reeves cleverly insinuates the Batman guise is in part a riposte to the kinds of club-like disguises becoming popular amongst Gotham’s thug element, like a gang of clown make-up-wearing goons who like filming their random acts of brutality and set their sights on a lone commuter (Akie Kotabe) who tries to slip away unnoticed. The gang corner him on an L station only for Batman to emerge from the darkness and beat the living hell out of the gang, saving special rough treatment for one who vainly tries to shoot their masked and armour-plated vigilante. Batman isn’t calling himself Batman yet, instead repeatedly referring to himself as Vengeance, personified.
Gotham is currently in the throes of a mayoral election, with the plutocratic incumbent Don Mitchell Jnr (Rupert Penry-Jones) duking it with young, upstart, reformist challenger Bella Reál (Jayme Lawson). But Mitchell is attacked in his office and beaten to death by a lurking figure who wears a crude, bits-and-bobs disguise. Gordon contrives to bring Bruce in to view the crime scene, because a letter addressed “To The Batman” was found taped to Mitchell’s body, which was also missing a thumb. Gordon’s former partner, now the Commissioner, Pete Savage (Alex Ferns), objects strongly to Gordon’s action, but Bruce is able to sort out the killer’s queasy blend of sick humour and intricate puzzles leading to clues, with the help of his butler, pseudo-father, and former intelligence officer Alfred (Andy Serkis). When Bruce locates Mitchell’s thumb, tethered to a fingerprint-unlocked thumb drive, he and Gordon open it, to find it contains photos of Mitchell with a bruised young woman outside The Iceberg, a popular nightclub, controlled by crime lord Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) and his lieutenant Oz, known by his underworld sobriquet The Penguin (Colin Farrell). The thumb drive also, the moment it’s accessed, automatically sends the pictures out online. The mysterious killer, who calls himself The Riddler, soon makes a victim of Savage by kidnapping him and torturing him to death, and makes clear he’s pursuing some vendetta against those he brands the corrupt and hateful overlords of Gotham’s institutions, both official and criminal.
Bruce visits The Iceberg in Batman guise and, after bashing his way inside, talks with The Penguin, but his eye is caught by club employee Selina (Zoe Kravitz), whose distinctive boots are glimpsed in the photos of Mitchell. Tracking her, Bruce finds she’s harbouring the bruised girl, Annika (Hana Hrzic) in her apartment, and soon observes her in action in her metier as a cat burglar, breaking in to Mitchell’s apartment to try and steal back Annika’s passport. Bat and Cat form an uneasy alliance as Selina agrees to become Batman’s eyes and ears and penetrate the exclusive club-within-the-club inside The Iceberg called 44 Below, which regularly entertains Gotham’s supposed elite of law and order. There she encounters the city’s chatty DA, Gil Colson (Peter Sarsgaard), and picks up slivers of information that begin pointing along the path to uncovering a conspiracy linking Falcone and the city bosses. Meanwhile Colson himself is snatched by The Riddler and employed in a most spectacular fashion to crash Mitchell’s funeral.
The Batman betrays efforts to keep up with the zeitgeist: where in Nolan’s films Batman was necessary because the police were under-resourced and outmatched in a cynically neoliberal epoch, here it’s because they’re largely an inherently corrupt organism serving fraudulent oligarchy. The Batman reiterates ideas employed in Nolan’s films, covering similar ground to Batman Begins (2005) in portraying efforts to take down Falcone, a representative of familiar organised crime, only to create a vacuum where more perverse villains will burgeon. Reeves also revisits and intensifies The Dark Knight Rises’ (2012) themes of collective punishment by self-appointed anarchist-avengers, and choice of characterising Catwoman not as a sly opportunist or, like Burton’s take, a crazed and eroticised avatar of feminist rebellion, but a blunter, demimonde-produced rebel locked in a dance of duality with Batman in seeking retribution. That said, The Batman hews in its darker, weirder bent to elements of Burton’s vision, presenting a more detailed and realistic version of its perma-noir city replete with Edward Hopper-esque diners and looming urban-industrial fixtures. Fincher’s Se7en and Zodiac (2007) are also evident reference points in remaking The Riddler over as a tricky, ironic, viciously moralistic foe reminiscent of Se7en’s John Doe, and sporting personal branding in his logo and cryptic puzzles reminiscent of the Zodiac Killer’s. The Riddler is a menacing, deeply malignant weirdo who contrives to have one character’s face eaten off by rats. Taking inspiration from something like Se7en, an exemplification of a movie that contrives to look grown-up but actually disseminates the worldview of a morbid high schooler, doesn’t charm me.
Allowing that kind of Sadean edge also pushes The Batman into territory verboten to kids and a mite unpleasant for grown-ups too. Reeves is at least judicious, implying and skirting such grisly things whilst avoiding overt gore. The Batman labours to construct a mood of creeping, incipient dread infecting all things that makes Burton’s once-controversial style choices – remembering that he was the one who fatefully inducted darkness and grit into the lexicon of the modern fantastical blockbuster – seem nearly as playful and frivolous as the West series by comparison. The pall is emphasised by Michael Giacchino’s grand and menacing score, which builds themes, in radically different counterpoints, derived from “Ave Maria,” which The Riddler adores. The film’s extreme length, at nearly three hours, is enforced in large part by Reeves’ extremely deliberate pacing, and it’s both a plus and a minus in terms of the movie’s overall success. Reeves strains to give every gesture and plot turn a sense of weight and foreboding, each revelation leading on to another, grimmer truth. One real plus of The Batman is that it believes in basic principles of popular cinema as a blend of story and style. Even if the story is very familiar as it largely from god knows how many urban thrillers and conspiracy dramas, it’s more than just a convenience to pass the time between action scenes and cheap jokes that come every five minutes to sate seat-kicking 13-year-olds.
Despite its veneer of social invective, The Batman is as nostalgic in its way as anything in current cinema, looking back longingly for an age of romantic desolation in big cities rather than the smothering blandness of a gentrified age. Preoccupation with the dark side of the Batman fantasy as rooted in vigilantism, a contemporary concern augured deep in the zeitgeist by films like Dirty Harry (1971), Death Wish (1974), and Taxi Driver itself as well as perpetual tabloid controversy, was initially interrogated in the likes of Frank Miller’s graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke before then being transmitted into the movies, supplanting the old, simple image of the masked, heroic crime fighter. Dirty Harry itself can be seen as both a derivation and anticipation of eras in Batman lore with Harry as the Dark Knight and Scorpio as The Joker. The septic avenger angst is now so familiar, in short, as to be as big a cliché as anything it was meant to dispel, especially when it has become, in its own way, just as romanticised. Reeves however tries to take it seriously in his own way. The film makes much of the common roots of Bruce, Selina, and the Riddler’s motives to become extra-judicial punishers, with sharply divergent sociological and psychological paths trodden to become what they’ve become. This kind of characterisation tries to take on themes of inequality and privilege, with Selina explicitly suggesting only someone born rich can afford morals. Trouble is, this treads very close to making very conservative arguments: Bruce, rich and comfortable despite his traumas, has the luxury of being good; Selina, hardscrabble survivor, is more focused, angry, and ready to countenance theft and murder; Riddler, product of an orphanage, is a maniacal slayer, forging a shadow army out of the dispossessed and the never-had like the embodiment of every upper and middle class nightmare. Good things those lower orders are being kept in hand.
Of course, there are other ways of reading this. Reeves’ attempt to return the material to a zone that feels more psychologically animate makes it easier to see the characters as facets of the same personality – Bruce/Batman as superego, Selina the ego (and anima), Riddler the id. Bring on the Joker for superficial antithesis. Farrell’s Penguin is left out of this equation. Burgess Meredith’s fabulous performance in the West series made the Penguin the most intelligent and impudent of Batman’s opponents, so he took on a greater importance there than in other mediums. Here the character is most plainly used as a movie buff and acting fan reference point: Reeves has cast Farrell and covered him in make-up to do a pinpoint imitation of Robert De Niro’s similarly transformed performance as Al Capone in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987). Reeves and Farrell do sneak in a deft reference to the more traditional version of the character as he’s left waddling when Bruce and Gordon tie his feet after capturing him for interrogation. There is nonetheless appropriate cunning in positing the character in a milieu that’s an extrapolation of a 1930s movie gangland (Jared Leto’s much-mocked but interesting performance as the Joker in Suicide Squad, 2016, also tried to bridge such roots, but with his nods going to James Cagney and George Raft). There’s a coherently and realistically paranoid lilt to the film’s vision of the official ruling class and underworld bosses of a city locked in an uneasy, mutually contemptuous but inescapable gravity, a state of decay where Batman seems most justifiable.
The neurotic dance of attraction and disdain between Bruce and Selina, constantly grazing each-other whilst wearing their sexuality as masks, has long been a sustaining element of the material, and Reeves to his credit doesn’t awkwardly skip around it like Nolan did for most of The Dark Knight Rises, although he also stops short of acknowledging it as deeply pathological as Burton indicated in Batman Returns (1992). That film, which, despite being violently uneven and about 70% misfire, sported in Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman a definitive characterisation as a post-Madonna, pre-#MeToo sexual avenger. Reeves aims at least to let the couple evince attraction that feels more bodied and hot-blooded than the constant puppy love found in the Marvel Studios series, complete with the odd bit of snogging, even if their relationship is still ultimately stymied and chaste. Bruce’s attraction to Selina is part of his character journey as she taunts his code but also ultimately reinforces it, more perhaps than The Riddler does, through her actions.Unlike a great majority of moviemakers today, Reeves seems aware that he has two movie stars on hand to do what people used to go to movies to see, and so he bravely allows the audience to enjoy watching two very hot people play characters whose chief affinity seems to lie in both being vinyl fetishists. Kravitz, having a good year between this and her starring role in Steven Soderbergh’s Kimi, has just the right screen presence and persona for the role, a gamine projecting a quality half-feral, half-wounded beyond repair, driving her to become a kind of urban guerrilla fighter fighting a private war. She looks so hard, so gimlet-gazed and self-contained, that the sight of her responding to Bruce reveals someone who might well rather be an animal remembering she’s human. That Selina clearly swings both ways is also signalled in her apparent relationship with the victimised Annika, who vanishes from her apartment, apparently snatched by Falcone and his people.
Later Annika’s corpse is discovered by Bruce and Selina when they spy on a drug deal orchestrated by The Penguin. The Penguin’s goons fire on them when they realise they’re being spied on, but Bruce brings out the Batmobile to chase down The Penguin in a spectacular, sometimes quasi-impressionistic highway chase. Reeves’ cinematic setting, with the sepulchral visual palette and Giacchino’s thrumming, tolling score, reach towards grandeur, and yet Reeves labours at the same time to reset Bruce/Batman at basics – his bulletproof suit and contact lens cameras are fancy stuff but most of the rest of his operation is quite low-tech, reliant on simply hitting stronger and faster than opponents through relentlessly honed skills. The Batmobile is essentially just a souped-up muscle car which, it’s hinted through his predilection for stripping his motorcycle down to components and back again, he likely built himself. Reeves, who keeps any tendency towards boyish delight on a tight leash for much of the movie, at least can’t disguise it in the sense of moment when Bruce first fires up the car, glimpsed in silhouette, revving up the motor with thunderous grunts and spurts of flame to give chase. The chase concludes with an equally iconographic vignette as The Penguin gazes on, battered and mortified, inside his upside-down car as the Caped Crusader emerges from his vehicle, every inch the gothic nightmare to the criminal element he intended, and approaches at a slow, menacing mosey.
In tone and outlook The Batman just about as far as it’s possible to get from the West film and series without perhaps becoming a snuff film, and yet it’s still recognisably the same stuff. Reeves’ work tries hard also to distinguish itself from Nolan’s trilogy. Where Nolan’s films had their arrhythmic, sometimes borderline incoherent visual jazz and propulsive editing, Reeves goes for a stately tension, with painterly smears of drenched colour and punctuated by eruptions of chaos. An early scene where Bruce fights his way into The Iceberg, creaming bouncers and wiseguys, is sleek and bleakly beautiful and touched with an edge of abstract artistry by the flashing lights and booming music, in comparison with a similar scene in The Dark Knight (2008) where Nolan’s gibberish cutting simply located Batman in the midst of a brawl. Later, Reeves reiterates the edge of abstraction to intensify rather than mute an action sequence, as Bruce fights his way into The Iceberg in trying to rescue Selina from her own maniacal choices, his stalking, silhouetted, nightmarish guise glimpsed in the flashing of machine guns as their bullets bounce off his armour. There’s a fierce beauty to such moments, and the film as a whole, and if I liked The Batman more than Nolan’s films, it’s because Reeves is a far more elegant filmmaker. On the other hand, Nolan’s expansive, fidgety narratives kept tripping over themselves because they tried to do too much and betrayed Nolan’s hyperactive synapses, whilst The Batman tries to make a busy but essentially straightforward narrative into the stuff of epics.
There’s a lot of to-and-fro in the plot involving Selina’s covert connection to Falcone – she’s the illegitimate result of his contemptuous fling with one of his club dancers – and the conspiracy The Riddler’s project is meant to both avenge and reveal. Whilst Reeves does manage to keep most of this in balance, The Batman would ultimately have been better, indeed close to the classic of its genre, if it had less focal points. Reeves introduces a motif in the film’s very first scene as The Riddler spies on Mitchell, who plays a bit with his son, dressed as a ninja and fighting invisible enemies in his father’s office. For a moment you think this might be a prelude depicting Bruce in his childhood. Instead the lad, orphaned by The Riddler’s actions in a bitter irony, becomes an emblem for Bruce, who keeps seeing him and experiencing moments of powerful identification that he must keep secret: any expression of emapthy would be a disastrous unmaksing. He saves the boy’s life during a later eruption of chaos, action being the only way he can express and contend with such sad knowledge. Bruce follows the breadcrumb trail to find that not only did Falcone manipulate the city’s honchos to get his former boss locked away but also brought them in as partners in the drug trade, and they divvied up the large urban renewal fund that Bruce’s father established for his own, brief mayoral run not long before he was killed. This in turn obliges Bruce to consider the possibility his father was also corrupt, when The Riddler suggests he had a journalist murdered for prying into his private life, and also to look out for himself and Alfred when The Riddler makes clear Bruce is his next target. This swerve of story essentially goes nowhere. Alfred, wounded in an assassination attempt on Bruce’s life with a letter bomb, angrily tells Bruce the proper story, which does leave Thomas Wayne a compromised and culpable but not villainous figure. The main point of this seems to be to release Bruce from feeling entirely crushed by the mythos of a heroic father (and also that mental instability might be as much his inheritance as Wayne Enterprises) and also able to finally embrace Alfred as decent substitute, as the pair have interacted uneasily through the movie on this topic. Serkis, unusually but effectively cast, characterises his Alfred as an aging man of action eased into a quietly circumspect life of nurturing whilst still musing on his days “in the Circus” (vale LeCarré) and operating as the paternal figure Bruce needs whether he wants it or not. He’s really good and the film needed more of him.
The same thing can be said for Pattinson. For anyone who hadn’t seen any of his performances since his star-making but largely derided turns in the Twilight series, his casting was liable to be bewildering, just as it was inevitable-feeling to anyone who had watched him in the likes of Cosmopolis (2012) and High Life (2019). Pattinson, whose features are the stuff of the officially handsome yet from certain angles appear quite Boris Karloff-esque, knows well how to channel his image towards playing neurasthenic adonii, and twists it a few more turns here. Pattinson’s avowed inspiration for his characterisation was Kurt Cobain as the poster boy for troubled greatness, but with his stringy, floppy haircut looks more like Crispin Glover, whilst his Batman costume with its high, very pointy ears is vaguely reminiscent of the first onscreen appearance of the character, in Lambert Hillyer’s 1943 serial. Refusing to get jacked in a Chris Hemsworth fashion, Pattinson nonetheless projects a newly intimidating physical presence, and he depicts Bruce’s physical bravura well, particularly in the opening fight scene where he mercilessly bashes a hapless thug into submission as much to show his pals what they’re up against as to lay him out. Here the film’s thesis, of Batman as an empowerment fantasy concocted by a haunted young man which he then relentlessly adapted himself into, is illustrated without any further underlining required.
Pattinson’s Bruce and Batman aren’t yet clearly divided personas: in Batman guise he doesn’t put on any kind of gruff-rough voice (thankfully), whilst Bruce Wayne is living as a detached and obsessive recluse neglecting not just a social life but also the family’s waning fortunes, far from the studied appearance of a playboy as stolen from Percy Blakeney. Bruce’s habit of venturing into deadly situations without a gun is both defining and also galling, as Gordon quips, “That’s your thing,” as he pulls out his pistol for a venture into an old dark house: not everyone has a few million dollars’ worth of carbon fibre on hand. There’s also an interesting disparity in Bruce’s personal fame and that of the Batman, who is still a spreading legend, whereas Bruce is instantly recognised despite his reclusiveness as the avatar of Gotham’s elite, both glimpsed during his attempts in both guises to get into The Iceberg. Bruce’s decision to appear at Mitchell’s funeral results in many turned heads, including that of Falcone, who scarcely ever leaves his headquarters above The Iceberg Lounge: a mayor’s funeral is the last social unifier. Which is then crashed as a car smashes through the cathedral doors and scatters the crowd before slamming to a halt against the altar. Colson emerges from the vehicle with a bomb tied about his neck and a cell phone taped to his hand. Bruce returns in Batman guise and converses with The Riddler over the phone, who cruelly forces Colson to expose his own corruption before blowing him to pieces.
Bruce, knocked out cold by the blast but protected by the suit, is then carried to the police headquarters where arguing cops want to unmask and arrest him, but Gordon convinces them to let him deal with the captive, and gets Bruce to make a break for it. Here the narrative takes a risk with logic in making you wonder why the cops didn’t unmask him right away. The apparent explanation is Gordon’s shepherding prevented this, but it’s still a bit thin. Better, perhaps, is the notion the rank-and-file cops already largely feel Batman is their last, best friend, in a story that tries to dramatise the longest bow of the basic Batman format, the embrace by the police of a civilian dressed as a bat as a trustworthy, even vital ally: Reeves gives it his best. As far as finally letting Batman the Detective have his day, The Batman is absorbing, even if some of the expository dialogue Pattinson is stuck mouthing is exasperatingly obvious. The trouble is Batman doesn’t come out of it looking that great as a detective, with The Riddler holding his metaphorical hand and leading him step by step into his malignant plan. Bruce eventually foils Selina’s avowed design to assassinate her father in punishment for his many sins, but just as Bruce drags Falcone out of his headquarters with the aid of true cops, he’s gunned down by a sniper from an apartment across the street. This proves to be The Riddler’s home: when they invade the apartment the investigators find evidence of his activities but not their quarry, but he’s soon located drinking coffee in a nearby diner.
Dano, who can play weirdos in his sleep by now, nonetheless modulates his performance mischievously, the figure of bleak, volatile menace captured on cell phone video screen supplanted by a twee, damaged pervert who sometimes whispers in alternation with piercing, drawn-out, quasi-autistic moans that abruptly become words. Here however the film hits a speed bump of narrative intent. With The Riddler imprisoned, Falcone dead, and The Penguin neutralised for the moment, the movie lacks a villain. Turns out The Riddler has a network of fellow internet oddballs and angry orphans who adopt his guise and follow his plan to wreak havoc at Réal’s inauguration whilst bombs he planted around the city unleash flooding torrents. Here Reeves labours to evoke both obvious historical parallels, with shots modelled on the flooding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and movie models, nodding to The Manchurian Candidate (1962) with the assassins lurking in the rafters of the “Gotham Square Garden” to kill Réal. This larger plot, in a campaign of havoc previously confined to one creep, takes everyone by surprise, including the attentive viewer. There’s definitely something interesting in The Riddler replicating himself like glitch code in the city matrix by assimilating other damaged loners and rejects, but where the film might have devoted some of its copious running time to setting this up, it instead sprung as a shocking twist.
The spectacle of the flooding city could have been a memorably apocalyptic signature, but it’s rather flatly done, and Batman can’t do much about it. At least Bruce and Selina can intervene to beat up The Riddler’s assassins in a potent action scene, even if there’s still the problem of their foes not really having any identity: they’re just anonymous thugs. Bruce is almost knocked out of the battle when one of the goons shoots him up close with a shotgun, requiring Selina to help him, and then giving himself an adrenalin injection to roar back into battle as a berserker. This gives way to a visually striking and affecting coda as Bruce, descending into the floodwaters to rescue some cowering Gothamites, holding a flare aloft as a beacon amidst carnage and realising he needs to be more than Vengeance, and he embraces the role of a public hero rather than someone merely following his own obsession. I liked this final flourish, one that endows Bruce/Batman with a character arc without reiterating things that have been done to death with the character. The film ends in curiously languorous fashion with Bruce and Selina going their separate ways, lingering on shots of them riding motorcycles alongside each-other – a definite motif in the film – but then diverging.
The Batman is a peculiar creation at once endemic of and off the beat of contemporary Hollywood, in that it doesn’t entirely succeed, but also feels like a real movie. It takes chances and pulls most of them off, and whilst derivative in vital aspects it has an aura that’s specific, dramatic and aesthetic musculature that’s substantial. The Batman recalls expressions of Hollywood imperial stature like Ben-Hur (1959) or Cleopatra (1963) or Doctor Zhivago (1965), but instead of depicting some great confluence of history and myth it confidently expects an audience to sit through a three-hour mood piece purely because it’s a Batman movie. It comes close to describing an ideal of what a Batman movie can be, even as it can’t quite embrace the extremes it should be heading to, and cuts itself off ultimately from the awareness of the kinky wish-fulfilment Burton, for all his faults, understood. I wish the script was less pedantic and had some of the more blasted romanticism and cynical poetry of its noir and cyberpunk models that Reeves successfully channels into the look of the thing. That it could have been about twenty minutes shorter without any real damage seems obvious. Indeed, the entire style of The Batman risks leaving behind the specific pleasures of pulp fiction and exchanging them for the last word in pseudo-seriousness. But that in itself makes The Batman arresting. If Reeves’ film is better than this might make it sound, and indeed close to my favourite outing to date for the character, it’s through the accumulation of elements, the tangible, powerful style and strong performances, that make it a big, woozy, uneven, but riveting experience. The film signs off inevitably with signals of sequels, apt in this case as The Riddler finds himself, despite his misery at his plan’s failure, making connection with a sardonic fellow prisoner (Barry Keoghan) in the next cell of Arkham Asylum, whose identity will be plain enough to protoplasmic fish in the Challenger Deep. And the very last shots of Bruce watching Selina vanish along a hazy, light-smeared Gotham street at dawn in his rear-view mirror, the duo having fought their way through into light at least, before Bruce sets his jaw and rides on to his mission, does capture that ephemeral pulp poetry the film seeks earnestly.
Paul Thomas Anderson Land is a familiar place by now, if only in its strangeness, and the opening moments of Licorice Pizza lead us there hand in hand. The familiar Andersonian motif of flowing, seemingly dreamily free and immersing but also subtly disconcerting, unmooring tracking shots is this time used to immediately introduce Alana Kane (Alana Haim) and Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman). Alana works for a school photography outfit called Tiny Toes, which is busy taking class photos of the denizens of a Los Angeles high school, all of it set to Nina Simone’s “July Tree” with its sonic textures evoking lazy summer days in reedy fields whilst the camera scans spraying sprinklers, gleaming halls, and long legs. Alana encounters the brash, 15-year-old Gary, who charms her with the same breezy efficiency as Anderson’s camera locates them. Gary asks Alana out on a date, and when she asks what he’d use to pay for it with he not at all humbly brags that he has a lot of money because he’s a successful actor. Alana is of course highly sceptical of this, but soon finds that Gary is indeed telling the truth, having found success as a child star in a hit stage musical called Under One Roof and its film adaptation. Despite her jolly mockery of Gary’s ambitions, the pair plainly experience instant chemistry, and Gary has something that Alana, despite her greater years, lacks badly: a sense of confidence and effectiveness in the world, the kind of confidence that’s the natural provenance of Hollywood itself, a blend of showmanship, hustle, and an eye on the prize.
From a distance, Licorice Pizza looks a little like an artistic retreat from Paul Thomas Anderson. After the risky, influential excursions into semi-abstract character drama on There Will Be Blood (2007) and The Master (2012), and the queasily funny-sad retro outings of Inherent Vice (2014) and Phantom Thread (2017), films that all gained great critical admiration but most of which did weak box office, Licorice Pizza sees Anderson retreating to a warmly remembered version of the 1970s, the era he painted with such acid verve in Boogie Nights (1997), his second feature film and the one that made his name. It might even be said to round out a trilogy about the decade, taking place roughly half-way between the post-Manson dizziness and confusion of Inherent Vice and the disco-to-camcorder age Boogie Nights charted. But it might actually be closer in nature to Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002), as a study of human affection at strange extremes. Actually, all of Anderson’s films are fundamentally about that, about needy people urgently hunting for those who can sate their desires, be it a lover or something less obvious, a mentor, a pal, a parental figure, or indeed all rolled into one. Alana and Gary’s relationship seems to have potential to evolve into any of these things, as it sees them locked together in a centrifugal whirl that provides the only real gravity in the unfolding film, both symptomatic of the ridiculousness that surrounds them and yet ultimately hallowed amidst it.
Alana ticks off the many good reasons why Gary’s overtures are absurd, including their verboten age difference, even in the louche atmosphere of the era. But she finishes up being so sufficiently charmed and compelled by the teenager she does turn up at the time and place he proposed: Gary offers something, even if only a sliver, of something new and possible. The opening scene, as well as throwing us in the deep end when it comes to this pair, nods back to the early scenes of The Master where, in very similar fashion, Anderson presented being a workaday photographer as a weird nexus, the sort of job shambolic people take, but which involves freezing the images of the people they shoot into lacquered instances of false perfection. Alana soon finds Gary has quietly assimilated and mastered the affectations of a Hollywood player, with his favourite local restaurant popular with stars, as well as his PR agent mother Anita’s (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) talent for spin. In short, he’s scared of nothing, because he thinks he knows how things work. And for the most part he does. Even when it becomes plain his acting career’s at an end now that he’s had his growth spurt and lacks mature performing technique, he reinvents himself without much concern as an entrepreneur on the make. Alana, by contrast, has no idea what she wants or how to get it: she still lives at home with her parents and sisters, and comments to Gary with plaintive simplicity, “When you’re gonna be rich in a mansion by the time you’re sixteen. I’m gonna be here taking photos of kids for their yearbooks when I’m thirty. You’re never gonna remember me.” “I’m never gonna forget you,” Gary retorts with firm ardour.
Licorice Pizza is a certainly a nostalgic work, as preoccupied as Anderson’s pal and rival Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood (2019) was in resurrecting the flavour of a specific bygone era in the climes of Los Angeles, a place defined then as now by an inherently surreal dialogue between the world of show business and its denizens and everyone else. Where Tarantino naturally looked for the combustible tension in that scene, Anderson looks for the absurd and the romantic. One could also add in Shane Black’s The Nice Guys (2016) into the mix, a film that followed a more familiar genre film template but emulated much the same brand of humour in sarcastically reflecting on growing up in a wilder time. Anderson, the son of an actor and voice artist who was well-known once upon a time for hosting a creature feature show and being the official announcer for ABC Television, is certainly an industry brat, and for all the effort he’s put into not simply being another chronicler of being a Tinseltown scenester, he’s remained preoccupied by the kinds of creatures the town attracts in droves: people dedicated to enriching themselves and to realising their personal desires and lifestyle aspirations and enthralling others. As young and still relatively naive as he may be, Gary shares nascent traits with such notable Anderson characters as The Master’s Lancaster Dodd, Boogie Nights’ Jack Horner, the gamblers of Hard Eight (1996), and There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview – he’s an impresario with peculiar talents for sustaining himself in perpetual motion with an eye always out for the next angle, an incarnation of American hustle. He’s absorbed a certain lexicon of urge and power that’s hilarious at his age but wouldn’t be so much if he were older, as when Alana encounters a waitress, Frisbee (Destry Allyn Spielberg) she knows who works in one of Gary’s favourite restaurants, and she comments that he’s always after a hand job: “I’ll pass the baton to you.”
Anderson mines the essential disparity between Gary and Alana, his premature worldliness and her floundering immaturity and uncertainty, for a unique amalgam of humour and pathos. The disparity locks them together in a folie-a-deux where neither can quite escape the other despite making gestures at pursuing less troublesome connections. When Gary learns his mother can’t accompany him to New York so he can make a TV appearance with the cast of the Under One Roof (based on Yours, Mine, and Ours, 1968, which featured Gary’s inspiration, Gary Goetzman, and Lance’s, Tim Matheson, amongst its cast) and borrowing its theme song) with its star Lucy Doolittle (Christine Ebersole), he manages to sell Alana as a substitute chaperone. As they jet across the country, Gary’s slightly older co-star Lance Brannigan (Skyler Gisondo) flirts heavily with Alana: soon they become a couple, but break up when Lance proclaims he’s an atheist to Alana’s family during a dinner with them. Gary becomes fascinated by a waterbed he spots through the window of a wig store and immediately sees a business he can get aboard on the ground floor: soon he has a thriving outlet of his own. When they’re unexpectedly reunited thanks in part to Gary being arrested in a case of mistaken identity, Alana throws in with Gary’s enterprise and proves a dab hand at publicity and over-the-phone sales. So good that Gary talks Alana in trying acting, arranging for her to have an interview with a top agent, Mary Grady (Harriet Sansom Harris). This leads to her being considered for a role in a movie playing a hippie girl alongside major star Jack Holden (Sean Penn). When this shot goes nowhere and the 1973 oil embargo puts the waterbed business on ice, Alana makes a play for a more substantial life, volunteering for the political campaign of Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie), whilst Gary sees another golden opportunity when he overhears Wachs talking about pinball machines being legalised in California.
Large portions of Licorice Pizza are dedicated to portraying thinly veiled real show business figures in acerbic, anecdotal-feeling vignettes, with Doolittle as Lucille Ball stand-in, Jack Holden as a William Holden skit, and gravel-voiced, caution-impervious director Rex Blau (Tom Waits) a spin on Sam Peckinpah. The skin of fictionalising seems so flimsy as to be barely worth the bother, but it does emphasise that Anderson is not so much interested in them in a gossipy sense than in evoking the way they exemplify the time and place, and the temptations and traps before its two shambolic heroes. The film’s third quarter is transfixed by Anderson’s take on Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper), the former celebrity hairdresser turned movie producer who was dating Barbara Streisand at the time, who swings wildly between intimate charisma and combative, confrontational attitude. Anderson uses these portraits both as sources of fun in their own right, and to dig into the large gap between the image of show business success and stature and the perversity of having such figures at large in the same streets and places as everyone else. This point is underlined when Alana, initially stunned and smitten by the showbiz zones she drifts into, eventually realises in being wined and dined by Holden that whatever actual person was in there has long since been supplanted by a collection of old movie lines and well-honed chat-ups, as when he mentions that Alana “reminds me of Grace.” Gary falls afoul of Doolittle when playfully whacks her with a pillow during the song and dance number on the TV show and makes a very adolescent bawdy joke when being interviewed by the host: Doolittle unleashes her wrath backstage, slapping and threatening him, and she has to be dragged away by some stagehands, bawling that Gary is finished for humiliating her in front of her fans.
The theme of professional performances that become subsuming in lieu of an actual personality both contrasts the portrayal of Alana as someone urgently seeking a path in life and sarcastically echoes it. Alana feels the allure of Peter Pan-ish perma-youth as she falls in with Gary and his cadre of teenage pals and younger brother Greg (Milo Herschlag), a gang of rambunctious, energetic, mutually reinforcing lads who follow Gary in implicit and total respect for his sense of enterprise. Alana encounters the same temptation being embraced in a more institutionalised fashion when flung into Holden’s proximity with his attempts to seduce a woman thirty years younger and prove he hasn’t lost his mojo by performing a motorcycle stunt for the entertainment of a few dozen onlookers. An even more bizarre, but also needling example of performance sustained by unknown rules and logic crops up in the form of Jerry Frick (John Michael Higgins), a restaurateur who opened LA’s first Japanese restaurant, The Mikado, and who is portrayed here as a client of Gary’s mother. In his first appearance Frick brings his Japanese wife Mioko (Yumi Mizui) to a consultation with Anita and speaks to her in English but with a fake Japanese accent like a middle schooler doing an impression, and she answers in Japanese which he seems to translate. Only in his second appearance, when Mioko has been mysteriously and summarily replaced by Kimiko (Megumi Anjo), does Frick admit he doesn’t actually speak Japanese. Later, in a more subtle and distressing moment of realisation, Alana becomes privy to understanding Wachs is a closeted gay man, whose public persona and ambitions depend absolutely on keeping this side of himself under wraps no matter the personally destructive results. Both these vignettes comment with differing tones and methods on some of the least attractive traits of the otherwise warmly-remembered past but completely avoid any form of hectoring.
Trouble is also sparked when people refuse to put on a convenient act or sustain the rules of an agreed-upon illusion, as when Gary decides to act up during the Under One Roof performance, and when Lance refuses to do a blessing for the Kane family’s sake during their dinner together. This refusal he couches in the most pleasant manner possible but still causes a fateful rupture with Alana, who gives him a bawling out outside the house – “What does your penis look like?…If you’re circumcised then you’re a fucking Jew!” – before heading back inside and laying down an equal bombardment on her family. Gary’s discovery of the waterbed is essayed as a libidinous fantasia as he lays upon the undulating mattress, the flirty sales assistant (Iyana Halley) hovering over him like a blessed angel from the land of commerce. Gary’s subsequent attempt to flog waterbeds at a “Teen-Age Fair” becomes another dreamy excursion through the regalia of another age (yet still tantalisingly familiar) in youth culture through another of Anderson’s majestic tracking shots. The Batmobile from the Adam West series and Herbie the Love Bug roll by and the fair is attended by Fred Gwynne in Herman Munster guise (played, in a mischievous blink-and-miss cameo, by John C. Reilly) making a personal appearance, as well as Cher but not Sonny. Alana proves to also be at the fair to sell wares for a friend, approaching Gary in a vignette that sustains the dreamy texture, as they two smirk at each-other and swap flirtatious greetings, as if sequestered and afloat on a raft of milk foam.
Despite granting his line of wares the unappealing name of Soggy Bottom, which Alana says sounds like someone shit their pants, Gary’s understanding of salesmanship proves basic but sound, as he’s hired a woman, Kiki Page (Emily Althus) to sprawl across the show model bed to attract customers, and sees the potential when one of his young entourage, Kirk (Will Angarola), has the great idea of selling weed along with the mattresses. This has nothing to do with why two cops suddenly manhandle Gary and handcuff him. They drag him to a nearby police station where they cuff him to a bench, telling him he’s going down for murder, whilst the frantic Alana chases him down. Gary is quickly cleared by an annoyed witness despite roughly tallying with his description, whereupon Gary is freed without any apology, and he runs off with Alana. This scene sees Anderson briefly revisiting the mood of Inherent Vice and its blindsided sense of law enforcement as a virtually arbitrary faction tormenting the clueless hero, but the main result is that, thrown back into each-other’s company, Alana comes aboard the Soggy Bottom enterprise. She makes the first order of business changing the name to something more appealing, which is, apparently, Fat Bernie’s, and then when called on to improvise in trying to appeal to a customer on the phone, suddenly making headboards part of their service to enable implied sexual gymnastics. Getting a DJ to plug the business helps drive booming sales, and Anderson scores their rapid rise to middling success in a montage ingeniously set to The Doors’ “Peace Frog.” Meanwhile Gary and Alana’s flirtation continues in schoolkid fashion, letting their legs touch whilst pouring over an attempt to design a logo.
For a filmmaker who’s gone from strength to strength as Anderson has, Licorice Pizza, rather than a recourse, reveals itself as a notable and brave new step, as a movie that manages to be a pure and unmistakeable product of his imagination and style and yet dares to lack any compulsion to prove his artistry as many of his earlier works have – the film resists being as stylised and cryptic as Inherent Vice or skirting the same sleazy zones as Boogie Nights despite connective gestures to both – through some overtly strange stylistics or challenging or cruel twists, save the puckishly deployed levels of discomfort the characters suffer through. Even the verboten affection at the story’s heart remains, at least as far as we see, remains more a source of teasing sarcasm in charting its to-and-fro of flirtation and spurning, than actual transgression: Gary and Alana remain in one of the most chaste relationships in a modern movie. Anderson made his name swerving hard between high comedy and glaring melodrama on Boogie Nights before embarking on such would-be epic exercises in heavy-duty drama as Magnolia (1999), There Will Be Blood, and The Master, although the latter two films still had many flickers of Anderson’s underlying comic sensibility. Phantom Thread went through an extended burlesque of gothic romance and psychodrama tropes before resolving into a particularly odd kind of romantic comedy. The sinuous mixture of the blithe and the fastidiously-observed that flows through Licorice Pizza slowly accrues emotional gravitas in a manner that doesn’t entirely hit until the end of the film.
As well as contending with it as a subject at hand, Anderson pays many nods to the blurring of boundaries between performance and reality in casting, placing Haim alongside her real-life sisters playing characters who like Alana have their real names, as well as their parents (all of them, within their limits, doing superlative comic work), and casting Anderson’s own children and Hoffman’s siblings amongst the horde of Under One Roof, and other children and parents of Hollywood players. Licorice Pizza seems to yearn, whether it intends to or not, for a time long before everyone started living virtual lives, when movies could follow their own eccentric prerogatives when it comes to privileging character over story, and when human perversity was easily and readily encompassed by mainstream cinema to a degree that’s almost alien in our era of hyper-vigilant online moral police. Licorice Pizza can be likened to Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude (1971) and Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart (1972) in their nimble blending of taboo themes with humour and lightness of touch, as well as classics of the era that dealt with people and cultures in flux, including Richard Lester’s Petulia (1968), Francis Coppola’s The Rain People (1969), Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud (1971), and George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973), whilst charting a middle path between their extremes of melancholia and frantic humour. I was also reminded at points of Guy Ferland’ Telling Lies In America (1997), which portrayed, via a Joe Eszterhas script, a not-dissimilar rites-of-passage tale for a teenage huckster in love with a mature woman.
Gary’s experience in a wing of pop culture aimed at pre-pubescent and “family” audiences, with Under One Roof typifying a kind of wholesome entertainment crowded out in cultural recollection of the era by edgier fare at a time when Hollywood was being much-celebrated for finally growing up, couches Gary’s pseudo-sophistication in its opposite, a kind of professional infantalisation. Small wonder Gary’s urgently trying to grow into adult life which seems way more exciting, eyeing newspaper ads for porn movies and moving to exploit gaps in the market that service the tastes of adolescents, and perma-adolescents. Anderson seems to see something pertinent in this cultural tension, when today a company like Disney has conquered what’s left of Hollywood through its cultivated capacity to assimilate everything into the precepts of the professionally inoffensive – the revenge of an infantile culture the great shifts of the late 1960s and ‘70s was supposed to have supplanted. Alana’s flirtation with acting also means negotiating the potential roles open to her in the era, with Grady assessing her in their meeting, or rather freely inventing poetic impressions of her, and harping on her “very Jewish nose,” which is for once kind of cool in the moment. Alana also follows Gary’s advice about saying she can do whatever zany thing the filmmakers require, although when she’s considered for Holden’s film that means archery and horseback riding. She also readily says yes to doing nudity, although that’s the one thing Gary told her not to do, sparking a ruction between them as Gary complains she’ll get naked for the world but won’t show him her boobs.
Which she finally does just to make him happy, but slaps him when he asks to touch. Great character comedy, of course, but Anderson here also twists the hall of mirrors that is acting back to where it starts, in the specific quality of the movie actor. When Holden insists on showing off his riding skills, he’s exhibiting a real talent but using it as just another a perpetual game of pleasing an audience, like the lines he rattles off from his beloved old movie The Bridges of Toko-San (a riff on Mark Robson’s excellent William Holden vehicle The Bridges of Toko-Ri, 1954, whilst the movie he’s to appear in with Alana is drawn from Clint Eastwood’s Breezy, 1973). One irony in this is that Haim and Hoffman are first-time actors although both trail strong associations for the knowing audience, Haim as a pop star and Hoffman as the chip-off-the-old-block son of Anderson’s regular collaborator Phillip Seymour Hoffman: although they’re ingénues being tapped for unpolished talent, they already possess an identity you can’t help but factor in in appreciating what they do, making them at once fresh and yet familiar. Both are allowed a palpability that’s rare in modern movies, Hoffman’s acne and puppy fat and Haim’s gawky, blemishy looks rendered not just patent but luminous. Alana is the first female character in Anderson’s movies who is the unarguable central figure, and she’s thankfully just as shambolic and wayward as his male protagonists. Alana is beset by a classic case of what today is sometimes called a quarter-life crisis, defined by reaching the point where adult life is really supposed to begin, but having no idea which direction to chase it in, and the film essentially draws all its eddying anti-narrative energy from her.
A recurring flourish sees Alana meeting people she used to know in school now settled into low-tier jobs, including Kiki and Frisbee, and later Brian (Nate Mann), who works on the Wachs campaign and agrees to bring Alana into their ranks. Alana proves in the course of her wanderings to be canny and talented but has no idea what to channel her energies into or how to sustain them: at first only Gary seems to stimulate something latent in her. Alana is a long way from being a perfect or even particularly good person, and her generally frustrated maturation is relieved by getting to play at still being a teenager. She’s blessed with a spiky and quarrelsome aspect, most memorably displayed when she chews out Lance and her family, including taunting her older sister Este: “What are you thinking? ‘I’m Este, I work for Mom and Dad, I’m perfect…Alana doesn’t have her life together, Alana brings home stupid boyfriends all the time!’” Which Este can only acknowledge with minimal expression is pretty accurate: “I mean…” Alana occasionally smokes pot with other sister Danielle, only to erupt, when Danielle finally tells her she needs to stop fighting with everyone, “Oh, fuck off Danielle!” Her squalls of feeling are really about self-castigation, reaching a climax when after one a most strenuous and dangerous escapade with Gary and his friends she slumps into a glaze-eyed funk, making it clear she’s reached a point of epiphany in her life and is desperate for something, anything to grab hold of to get her out of her rut.
Alana is also rather gormless when it comes to the kinds of industry charmers Gary mixes with: Lance easily snares Alana by treating her with the same fascination that a flight attendant (Emma Dumont) shows Gary. Later she’s easily swept off her feet, before being dumped on her ass, by Holden. Gary and Alana’s alternations of spurning and neediness are the closest thing the film has to a narrative spine: early on, when Alana is dating Lance, Gary rings her but won’t speak, resulting in a long moment where the two hover on either end of the line, each aware but again held in check by some mysterious logic, some refusal to break the surface tension that would sink them both. This mutual taunting continues at intervals, as when Gary and Alana try to ignore each-other when with different dates in a restaurant, and towards the end when Gary finally seems to break from Alan altogether when she accosts him for being opportunistic in comparison to the noble Wachs. Later, when Gary opens his own store for the waterbeds, Alana serves as eye candy dressed in a bikini and gets high, causing her to get increasingly clingy to Gary and irked when Gary finally seems to be getting somewhere with a girl his own age, Sue (Isabelle Kuzman). This sequence is one of Anderson’s finest despite resisting any kind of dramatic push and instead aiming to portray a nexus for the characters in their differing life stages that’s funny whilst also cringe-inducing. Alana dances woozily to a band consisting of Gary’s teenage pals, gets clingy with Gary, and finishes up trying to spy on him and Sue when they duck into a back room to have sex, before kissing one random man by way of revenge and stalking off in pot-sodden frustration, yet another grievous episode of humiliation and self-mortification racked up.
Alana’s subsequent encounter with Holden and adventures with Gary and team in a delivery truck present more ebullient slapstick moments, but reiterate the same motif as Alana is repeatedly humbled and defeated. Holden gets talked into performing a motorcycle stunt by Blau when he’s taken Alana out for dinner. Holden gets Alana to ride on the bike with him, only for her to fall off when he tears off, and Holden himself crashes after making a jump: Alana’s fall is noticed only by Gary, whilst Holden’s is hailed when he gets raggedly to his feet: not only is Alana literally dumped here but she becomes privy to how ridiculous the celebrity scene really is. The film’s set-piece comic sequence is however when Alana, Gary, and the gang go to set up a waterbed in Peters’ mansion, with the livewire Peters switching modes of relating mid-sentence, alternating praise and seeming identification (“You’re like me, you’re from the streets.”) before threatening to choke Gary’s brother in revenge if he does anything to mess up the house. Gary takes this as a challenge and deliberately lets the hose filling up the waterbed slip loose and start pouring over the carpet of Peters’ bedroom, and when he and the crew come across Peters left stranded when his sports car runs out of fuel and obliges them to drive to a gas station, Gary doubles down on payback by smashing the windscreen of Peters’ car, only for this discursion to result in their truck to run out of petrol, forcing Alana to perform the dangerous work of freewheeling backwards down a hill.
This whole movement of the film sustains unique comic texture, with elements of both character and verbal humour and physical farce of a kind comedy directing greats as disparate as Mack Sennett, Howard Hawks, and Frank Tashlin might have recognised. Cooper’s scene-stealing performance coming out of nowhere and providing moments of unbalancing delight like him fighting for control of a gas pump by threatening to use it as a flamethrower on a customer, and him raging along the pavement behind the cringing, mortified Alana once the strange night has hit its dawntime shoal only to switch on a dime to flirting with a pair of women dressed for tennis. This sequence also proves the last straw for Alana as, after surviving the risky ride, she stares into the abyss of her own absurdity. With the Wachs campaign she seems to find a new niche in directing his TV commercials (actually they were filmed by Anderson’s friend and mentor Jonathan Demme), and employs Gary to run the camera for them. This inversion of their previous positions sows the seeds of a rupture between them as Alana tries to assume superiority to Gary – “I’m cooler than you, don’t forget it.” – and chastises him for turning her ploy for respectability into another get-rich-quick opportunity, which causes Gary to leave in a cold huff in a seemingly permanent break. Gary gets down to opening a pinball parlour whilst Alana has hopes raised for a romantic liaison with Wachs when he goes out of his way to praise her work, and contends with an ambiguous source of threat in the form of a tall, thin, long-haired stranger (Jon Beavers) who hovers around the campaign office.
Anderson makes a pointed nod to Taxi Driver (1976) in this scene as Alana and Brian confront the man, with an accompanying evocation of unease, and although the actual import of his presence proves different to the model, it does nonetheless serve the purpose of revealing a different, deeper layer to what we’ve seen. When Alana gets a call from Wachs asking her to meet him for a drink, she leaps at the chance, only to quickly realise that she’s actually been brought there to provide a beard for Wachs’ boyfriend Matthew (Joseph Cross), as the stranger is hovering in a corner of the restaurant and Wachs is more afraid he might represent some force that can out him than anything else. Anderson manages one of his most intelligent and effective pieces of camerawork here: he frames Alana’s reflection in a decorative mirror whilst Matthew is foregrounded but out of focus as he argues with Wachs, who is just edged out of the frame: Matthew’s own erasure from Wachs’ public persona is visualised at the same as Alana’s realisation of what’s going on is registered, her embarrassment and also her dawning empathy. Her potential self-possession asserts itself too, as she quickly moves to warn Wachs about the stranger, and calmly ushers Matthew out.
The subsequent scene sees Alana escorting the stewing, tearful, heartbroken Matthew home and gives him a hug of comfort. This provides a potent emotional epiphany in crystallising the underlying sense of neediness and appreciation of the rarity of connection and the pain inherent in loving: “Is he a shit?” Matthew asks Alana when she says she has a sort-of boyfriend: “They’re all shits, aren’t they?” As with her earlier race to help Gary during his arrest, this affirms Alana’s best quality and indeed sees at least perhaps the maturity she’s been chasing so desperately. That maturity also demands, in a last irony, that she face up to her love for Gary, as the two search for each-other in a satire on the familiar montage of criss-crossing lovers that resolves when they spot each-other and ran to embrace only to misjudge and crash into each-other, under a theatre marquee advertising Live and Let Die (1973). Gary insists on triumphantly introducing Alana to his new kingdom of mesmerised pinball addicts as “Mrs Alana Valentine,” to Alana’s scorn, but he finally kisses her with a man’s purpose. The more incisive and quieter perversion of romantic cliché here, nonetheless, is that Anderson notes that their reunion solves nothing, instead leaving Gary and Alana with a whole new stack of questions, confusions, and impossibilities that can only find resolution in experience without safety nets, which is essentially life in a nutshell. Anderson finally seems to avow faith it’s the will to keep moving, to keep improvising the great performance, that best manifests life itself.
My late father used to ritually quip on every New Year’s Eve: “Well, we survived another one.” Actually, I’ve cleaned that up somewhat, but you get the idea. These past couple of years surviving has started to feel like more of an achievement than it used to be, and that’s as true for the movies as any of us. Year Two of the COVID-19 pandemic continued to wreak havoc on cinema’s traditional tenets, but things are clearly still in flux. The colossal success of the latest entry in the Disney-Marvel junket, Spider-Man: No Way Home, in the last days of this year gave the whole idea of mass movie-going a shot in the arm, but it was a singular hit that seemed to come at the expense of a slate of far more ambitious and interesting movies by great filmmakers, in a time when just about everything pitched at anyone over the mental age of nine flopped hard. It also raised the curtain on a dread new phenomenon: early-onset millennial nostalgia as a box office value. Then again, the great collective shrug given to the release of a new The Matrix movie suggests that even that has its limits.
Against all the odds, however, 2021 managed to be a strong, even superlative year for movies. Whether it was with films that won distribution and attention simply from having less competition, or amongst the backlog of major releases which eventually came out only to trip over each-others’ feet, it was a year bursting with goodies. Even when major directors turned their minds towards remakes and reimaginings, like Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story or Guillermo Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, there was definite creative purpose exhibited, and the messiness of something like Lana Wachowski’s The Matrix Resurrectionswent hand-in-hand with its ambition. Some films took on the circumstances of their making in such an odd time and wove it into the texture of their efforts, like Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn and In The Earth, whilst others took the enforced limitations and used them to advantage. And others, like Red Notice, felt like dress rehearsals for a grim new age of lazily shot and assembled sound stage wonders with digital backdrops rather than rear projection, now entirely freed from any reference to reality in production as well as writing.
One increasingly notable trend perhaps speeded up by the pandemic as evinced in the likes of Spencer, Azor, Pig, The Power of the Dog, Nightmare Alley, Titane, and others was the infiltration of high-end horror movie aesthetics into psychological dramas, the camera’s truth increasingly inflected with a bewildered, spacy sense of telling absence and unknowable dread. By contrast the resurging popularity of musicals in the past few years finally birthed some more adventurous and stylistically diverse examples of the breed, ranging from the muscular realism of West Side Story to the surreal conceits of Annette. 2021 also saw a plethora of movies sharing persuasively similar preoccupations, some of which instantly congealed into new clichés, many riding the swell of the past few years of social questioning and discontent. Parables for women being mistreated and fighting back or just weathering the storm were plentiful, encompassing a slew of releases too numerous to easily list.
The testing, wearing zeitgeist didn’t spare beloved and usually omnicompetent heroes, who faced and often suffered death, ruination, and the splintering of their identity, in No Time To Die, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Jungle Cruise, The Matrix Resurrections, Black Widow, Godzillavs Kong, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, The Harder They Fall, Cliff Walkers, and Zack Snyder’s Justice League; only the beloved petro-swashbucklers of F9 came through enhanced, and even the hero of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings gained his birthright and hero status at the cost of his father’s life. Some protagonists found monsters hatching out of their flesh and psyche, as in Titane, Malignant, Last Night In Soho, Dune: Part One, The Card Counter, Cruella, Nightmare Alley, Censor, Nitram, and Azor, pushing them to commit terrible acts to sate a dire inner need.
People debilitated or thrown out of all compass by encountering grief or cruel experience abounded in the likes of Pig, Eternals, Those Who Wish Me Dead, Last Night In Soho, Identifying Features, The Matrix Resurrections, Wrath of Man, C’mon C’mon, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Censor, The Lost Daughter, Nitram, Drive My Car, Mass, The Hand of God, CODA, Spencer, The Power of the Dog, The Card Counter, This Is Not A Burial, It’s A Resurrection, and Spider-Man: No Way Home. Films like The Woman In The Window, Censor, Dune: Part One, The Matrix Resurrections, Benedetta, Malignant, The Souvenir Part II, and Riders of Justice encompassed characters struggling with the malleable nature of their reality and finding submitting to the force of their own mental conjurings easier than facing the chaos of real life. Other protagonists in movies like The Night, In The Earth, Last Night In Soho,Ghostbusters: Afterlife, and Memoria encountered zones where reality crumbled and forces from beyond twisted experience out of all shape, presenting paths that demand to be followed to the end.
Nostalgia itself had a siren song power both within movies and in selling them, but many of the best films of 2021 dealt with it as a double-edged thing. Creativity, as an elusive and sometimes torturous and destructive wellspring, was ransacked for meaning in the likes of The Disciple, The Matrix Resurrections,Malcolm & Marie, Annette, The French Dispatch, Pig, Ema, The Souvenir Part II, and Drive My Car. Some films, like Belfast, The Hand of God, tick, tick…BOOM!, and The Souvenir Part II, presented autobiographical depictions of creative artists in genesis, passing through stations of learning in loss, disillusionment, and the getting of inspiration. King Richard dealt with sport rather than art but still saw it as informed by a radical drive defined by a contradictory need for grounding and the urge to escape gravity. Some made by anxious male auteurs explored their uneasy relationship with the assertive independence of their female lovers and muses in a climate of prosecutorial interest in such things, evinced in the likes of Malcolm & Marie, Ema, The Worst Person In The World, The Woman Who Ran, and Annette.
Sam Levinson’s Malcolm & Marie tried to turn the limitations forced by the pandemic into a dramatic weapon, by making a chamber-piece drama about domestic strife. Levinson portrayed two young black creatives, one, John David Washington’s Malcolm, a director who has just scored his critical breakthrough, the other Zendaya’s Marie, an actress and recovering junkie whose youthful travails inspired her husband’s movie. Their story, played out in and around the chic modernist mansion hired for them by the movie studio, detailed the strife unleashed by Malcolm forgetting to thank Marie during his post-screening presser. Malcolm & Marie was admirable in flying the flag for a type of adult drama filmed and acted with theatrical gusto, depicting the couple’s borderline-perverse mixture of ardour and emotional sadomasochism, and took sidelong swipes at current culture and critical pretences via Malcolm’s amusing rants. The problem was Levinson’s verbal warfare too often felt calculated and overblown, in a work that indulged its own tendency to hyperbolic effect rather than explored that of its characters. Also, his choice of filming in black-and-white, perhaps to nod to inspirations like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, whilst shooting his gorgeous actors in a spotless environment, insistently gave proceedings a sheen of glossy posturing, like a Calvin Klein commercial.
Pablo Larrain’s Ema presented a similar starting point in Gael Garcia Bernal’s choreographer and Mariana Di Girolamo as the title character, one of the major talents in his troupe of dancers, and the aftermath to their disastrous attempt to adopt a young boy. When eventually they separate Ema begins a journey of self-discovery involving lots of sex and random acts of arson that finally lead her to embrace something like a group marriage. The film’s opening movement, as Larrain sketched the situation of his characters, intercut with one of their dance performances, signalled a new level of stylish velocity and structural daring for the director. His choice of theme, too, offered an antistrophe from the suffering stoicism of Jackie and his many looks backwards to the repression of Chile’s past, here embracing a heroine who explodes all cages about herself and eventually creates a small world ordered to her needs. Something about the film remained frustratingly opaque, however, with a patchy script that never quite accessed the ferocity of the characters’ emotions. Larrain tried to make Ema a multileveled and bravely transgressive figure trying to mature without losing her trademark wildness, yet she never convinced me, being one part melodrama vixen, one part cuckold fantasy, one part internet meme of female intransigence.
Larrain’s second movie of the year, Spencer, told a similar sort of story, harking back to another tabloid heroine of yesteryear, presenting what it described as a “fable based on a true tragedy,” which roughly translates “pseudo-arty fan fiction.” Kristen Stewart was cast with a degree of cunning as a version of Princess Diana in the waning days of her marriage, stifled by the absurd weight of Royal tradition and pissed off by getting a pearl necklace as a present from her husband the same as one he gave to his unnamed mistress, and struggling through the tedium of a joyless Christmas feast. Larrain’s take on the myth of Diana aimed to transform it into an experiential passion play, describing oppressive straits ironically applied by people not evil or hateful but prizing their own glum and boring outlook. Somehow though it had nothing interesting or insightful to say about Diana or the people around her, inventing characters including Timothy Spall’s ambiguous major-domo and Sally Hawkins’ loving servant instead to better leverage its shallow and contrived description of a nascent rebellion, mixed with overbearing pseudo-gothic visuals. Stewart gave a nervy but affected and superficial performance.
There were a large number of art-house-skewed horror movies this year, and many of them looked and felt rather interchangeable in subject and approach. The best of them was Ben Wheatley’s In The Earth, a return to Wheatley’s early fare blending folk horror motifs and lysergic delirium, but with a new precision to his thrill-mongering and evocation of enigmatic powers. Kourosh Ahari’s The Night had an interesting slant, filmed in Los Angeles but largely made by, about, and starring Iranian expatriates with separation and dislocation a vital factor in the drama. Ahari’s protagonists were a husband and wife, beset by personal tension and with a small baby in tow, who check into a large, virtually deserted hotel only to find themselves harassed by spectral beings that demand they expose and confess their guilty secrets if they want to escape. The film was absorbing in its early scenes, capturing a charged and aggravated tension in the characters before the customary wandering around in the dark waiting for something to go boo began, complete with the compulsory Lynchian drony-rumbly soundtrack. Ahari remained excessively vague about the lode of guilt suffered by the husband, however, and left off with a non-ending that aimed for a chilling note of waking dreaming, but failed to elicit more from me than a weary sigh.
Corinna Faith’s The Power also featured a lot of wandering around in the dark waiting for something to go boo. Faith depicted a naïve and troubled young nurse spending her first night on the job in a cavernous London hospital in the late 1970s, during a power cut caused by a strike, and soon finds herself dogged by a haunting entity out for revenge. This time the thematic roster ticked off institutional abuse and a “believe women” message, but despite an initially restrained and eerie approach, the film was riddled with unsubtle characters, pushy thematic underlining, and eventually some very ordinary evil possession stuff, building to the inevitable, cringe-inducing moment when the double meaning of the title was spoken aloud. Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor was more effective in dovetailing a similar evocation of a period and place and its antiheroine’s damaged headspace. Bailey-Bond depicted a straitlaced but fraying film censor of the early 1980s dealing with the wave of “video nasties” and becoming convinced her sister, who went missing in a vaguely remembered traumatic incident when she was a child, is now the enslaved starlet featured in a renegade goreteur’s movies. As a debut Censor was intriguing and promising, despite its problems: Bailey-Bond forged a strikingly surreal netherworld where traumatic delirium and confrontational junk-art formed an effectively poisonous brew. But she didn’t develop the slow uncoupling of heroine’s mangled psyche from reality as carefully as she might have, leading to a confused climax.
Some other genre entries went for gaudier thrills, like James Wan’s Malignant. Roseanne Liang’s Shadow in the Cloud tried to mate suspense and action with feminist parable in boisterous style, casually ripping off the classic Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and resituating it aboard an Allied bomber over the Pacific during World War II. Chloe Grace Moretz played the witness to a marauding gremlin. Shadow in the Cloud started very well, with a lovely, eerie prologue on a fogbound runway, and ratcheted up tension splendidly as Moretz’s enigmatic heroine was trapped in a belly gun turret and forced to contend with the variably suspicious and dismissive voices of the crew as well as lurking enemy fighters and a malevolent critter. Liang managed to sustain something very close to a radio play whilst still proving energetically cinematic. The second half went badly awry as eventually both plot and action took increasingly absurd swerves, and like too many other recent movies insisted in turning its dramatic underpinnings and amplifying them into deliriously on-the-nose metaphors, delivering a kind of animated Rosie the Riveter poster at its climax. Still, the film managed to be enjoyable all the way through.
S.K. Dale’s Till Death was another chamber-piece thriller concerning misogyny and entrapment, but this one emerged as one of the year’s quieter successes despite not being as affected as its rivals: rather it was a triumph for old-fashioned nuts-and-bolts suspense. Megan Fox was the guilty and traumatised wife of a DA who shoots himself after chaining himself to her, in revenge for her infidelity as well as avoiding the consequences of his corruption, leaving her to drag around his bloody corpse at a remote lake house and elude a violent criminal. The set-up had a rather Hitchcockian blend of simplicity and resonance, and Fox was surprisingly strong in the kind of role she ought to have been cast in ten years ago, part neo-Gene Tierney suffering beauty, part splatter movie heroine. The situation was cleverly heightened without too many gimmicks, and the theme of variably weak men constantly trying to offload responsibility onto the shattered but resourceful protagonist, as well as the more obvious metaphor for the dead weight of a failed marriage, came across without needing a rhetorical bullhorn.
Joe Wright’s adaptation of the bestselling trash novel The Woman In The Window also dealt with a fraying woman caught up in a drama of deception and lethal intent and played out in an entrapping space, although this time in the mould of a bold-faced psychothriller. Amy Adams was the brilliant but psychologically crippled therapist trapped in her New York townhouse by trauma-enhanced agoraphobia, convinced her new neighbours are up to something whilst forced to establish her own sanity. Wright had an uphill battle given the general cynicism sparked by revelations about the meretricious source material and the film was met with some withering reviews, but Wright give it the old school try, wrapping the clunky plot with its multitude of red herrings in a veneer of high style laced with swooning staircases and hypervivid hallucinations. Wright teased by inserting a clip from Rear Window, but his chief inspiration proved less Hitchcock than the more decadent phases of Italian giallo. Adams and the rest of the cast were also enthusiastic, and the whole package was enjoyable it in its absurd way. The other top British director surnamed Wright, Edgar, offered his own, superior spin on giallo with Last Night In Soho.
Josh Ruben’s Werewolves Within set out to infuse fun horror with a vein of satirical purpose, drawing on the likes of And Then There Were None and The Thing as it threw together an assortment of neo-Americana caricatures, from rude crude rednecks to a disruptive Trumpian magnate to a folksy, needy Black hero, in a small Vermont town where the power’s been cut off in the dead of winter and a lycanthrope seems to be at large. Werewolves Within proved a tiresome experience, largely because of its weak script, with a comic approach that seemed like a Comedy Channel show writ large but never delivered the laughs, and failed to develop its potentially interesting plotline and social commentary, where the predations of the werewolf were almost incidental compared to the mixture of greed and stupidity afflicting the townsfolk, before the real villain proved to be a gaslighting, self-righteous millennial. The film looked surprisingly good on a low budget, that said, and Milana Vayntrub as a wry and illusive mailperson gave an eyecatching performance, including a brief spasm of dancing to Ace of Base more entertaining than either movie Dwayne Johnson was in this year.
Dealing with similar ideas if in a resolutely non-cynical vein, John Krasinski returned to the director’s chair for a follow-up to his big 2018 hit, A Quiet Place Part II. Krasinski initially moved back in chronology to portray the invasion of the marauding alien beasts, sowing havoc in Smalltownia USA. Eventually we returned to where the first film left off, as the remaining members of the Abbott family each learn to forge ahead, with Cillian Murphy brought in as a surrogate father. He travels with young Regan (Millicent Simmonds) on a mission to let others in on her method for paralysing and killing the monsters, whilst her mother and brother contend with their own troubles. Krasinki confirmed he’s a genuinely dynamic and intelligent director of action and suspense sequences, and he wisely if not always effectively expanded the scope of the drama to explore and test diverse brands of survivalism and questions of mutual responsibility amidst calamity. And yet Krasinski couldn’t overcome the increasingly apparent truth that the story played itself out in the first instalment, as the sequel couldn’t muster the same level of heart or excitement because it was clear there were now unkillable characters, and moved a little too impatiently to effectively introduce new ones. Nonetheless it was a superior entertainment.
Chris McKay’s The Tomorrow War came across like a gene-spliced chimera of a few different sci-fi action hits, including the first A Quiet Place with its scuttling, marauding monsters. Chris Pratt starred as a former soldier turned frustrated teacher who finds himself, along with millions of others, drafted into a war in the near future by time-travelling emissaries. Those future dwellers desperately need manpower to fight off an invasion by a race of marauding alien hellbeasts, and he learns his own grown-up daughter is leading a research team racing to develop a toxin to take out the beasts before extinction hits. The plot hinged on a global warming warning, which, in case that was too lefty for some in the audience, was balanced by a clunky libertarian anti-government theme. But the real meat of the story lay in its metaphors for intergenerational resentment and need, becoming essentially a monster-killing version of It’s A Wonderful Life. Pratt was decent if unremarkable in the lead; Yvonne Strahovski was more effective as his older, wounded daughter. All in all it was just well-done enough to be a decent matinee flick, with a solid, serious tone, forceful, intimidating action, and an effective climax, even if the characters’ actions often seemed too conveniently stupid.
When it came to monster movie business, Godzilla v. Kong was determined to deliver the audience what it came to see, and horror auteur Adam Wingard brought headlong energy to proceedings, hurrying to set his story in motion as the titular beasts resumed their respective species’ warfare only to find them both up against a new, inimical threat. The freewheeling pulp magazine pace and imagery made up for Wingard’s choice, for better and for worse, to throw out the conceptual and metaphorical pretences of the previous entries in the series, as well as signs of rather severe editing to the human-level drama, and settle for a big, noisy, extravagant good time. It did, at least, succeed in that. Zack Snyder resurged with two films in the course of the year, one the much-anticipated restoration of his original vision for the 2016 flop Justice League, the other the zombie action flick Army of the Dead. Surprisingly, Zack Snyder’s Justice League proved easily the superior of the two, with its rich and spectacular, if unwieldy, exploration and expansion of the superhero mythos Snyder erected in his previous entries in the DC superhero series, with a newly textured feel for character as well as grandiose action sequences. Army of the Dead by contrast felt like a big step backwards even as it tried to put something new in motion, as an exasperatingly clumsy mixture of laddish black comedy, straight-up horror and action stuff, and an emotionally exposed metaphor for loss. Those elements impeded rather than amplified each-other, with a script that constantly felt a few drafts away from working despite Snyder applying all his technical might.
In a very different kind of monster movie, German auteur Christian Petzold made an unusual segue into magic-realist romance, albeit laced with his refrains delving into ambiguous identity and history, with Undine, the tale of a woman who proves to be, true to her name, a mermaid. After being dumped by her lover, she resists the established course of action she’s supposed to take of killing him and returning to the water: she instead falls in love with another man, a diver, but eventually finds fate cannot be easily cheated. The first half, exploiting Undine’s job as a museum lecturer in Berlin history as well as her hidden identity as a repository of the city’s underground dream-life so Petzold could incorporate an essayistic element, seemed to be gesturing towards symbolic aspects to the drama that never resolved into much of anything. But as the film settled it blended deadpan realism and the oneiric with unique assurance, leaving off with a lingering note of romantic melancholy, making it easily my favourite of Petzold’s films to date.
Cinema’s all-powerful overlords at Disney-Marvel had both a good year and a bad year – good in that they had, as usual, several of the most successful movies of the year, but bad in that three of those very expensive movies likely didn’t turn a profit. The best of the three was Cate Shortland’s Black Widow, which also served as Scarlett Johansson’s kiss goodbye to her superspy character Natasha Romanoff. Despite being killed off in Avengers: Endgame, she was allowed her own vehicle at last, one carefully situated in the series timeline. On many levels Black Widow had a frustrated air, trying to offer something darker, tougher, and more suggestively perverse than the MCU had ever been, but never daring to truly break the mould. Still, Shortland managed to invest the movie with flickers of personality, both visual and thematic, turning it into one of her familiar dark fairy-tales about young women lost in the world and learning to fend for themselves, and dedicated to evoking her characters’ identities as the tormented playthings of power and the refuse of great designs who find themselves fused into a false yet real family. Action scenes came laced with kinetic Bond and Bourne tributes, pulling off action feminism with some real flash, and the film did well by both Johansson and her heir apparent Florence Pugh, building to a dynamic blow-everything-up finale.
Destin Daniel Cretton’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings tried for its part to introduce a new hero, a superpowered kung fu warrior created originally as a comic book version of Bruce Lee and son of Fu Manchu. Here Shang-Chi was presented as the listless slacker son of an ageless and magically endowed crime lord, who tries to escape his legacy and take up a new life in America, only to find destiny, and inane plotting, pulling him back into his father’s maniacal orbit. Cretton invested the film with sufficient superficial energy to keep it watchable. Virtually nothing about the script bore up to even the slightest scrutiny, that said, on top of the tepid, imagination-free attempt to annex Chinese folklore and mysticism into the MCU, which only achieved some traction in the loopy climax. Simu Liu in the lead role seemed to have been cast to be as blandly inoffensive as possible, obliged to awkwardly play both a hardened, purpose-built war machine from a nefarious underworld and a nice, reluctant hero rendered sufficiently assimilated to still be relatable to American teens. Tony Leung was both the best thing about the movie and miscast as Shang-Chi’s obsessive papa, whilst Awkwafina and Ben Kingsley were embarrassingly wasted in comic supporting roles.
Somewhere in between was Chloe Zhao’s much-hyped Eternals, an attempt by the fresh-minted Oscar-winner to invest some mythological gravitas into a drama drawn from one of Jack Kirby’s more obscure cosmic creations. Eternals depicted a team of manufactured guardians, sent to Earth in civilisation’s infancy who foster human development, but eventually learn there is a grim motive for the great project, on top of their own varying levels of private disillusionment and torment, eventually sparking schism and strife within their ranks. Zhao, working with an interesting cast and a megabudget production, invested her visuals with a classy lustre and strove to introduce some plaintive, meditative depth to signal how far the franchise had come, or at least hoped it had, since the first Iron Man. The sprawling, millennia-spanning storyline badly lacked a compelling focal point, and despite all it was yet another MCU film saddled with a clumsy plot and rote monstrous antagonists, as well as ungainly overlength. Where the movie needed efficiency and drive, it provided loping wistfulness, and vice versa. Gemma Chan was trapped in an oddly listless performance as the nominal lead, whilst Richard Maddern was effective as the fanatical antihero, but easily the most potent performance came from Angelina Jolie as the troubled warrior Thena, giving despite her oddly displaced part in the film a swift lesson in authentic star hustle.
Jon Watts returned for his third turn at the helm of a (partial) Marvel film with Spider-Man: No Way Home, a film that performed an unexpected, near-miraculous rescue job of its own for the moviegoing box office in the waning days of 2021. That success was in large part because of a remarkably cunning marketing campaign that whet the appetite with glimpses of returning, classic (and not-so-classic) villains from the Spider-Man legacy, whilst playing coy about whether previous Spider-Men Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield would also show up. The actual film ably gave the audience what it seemingly wanted. The story involved Tom Holland’s Peter Parker making an appeal to Doctor Strange to cast a spell to nullify the revealing of his secret identity, only to cause a rupture in reality, allowing alternative dimensional editions of Peter and his foes into his. For Watts, third time was definitely a charm: No Way Home gained unexpected gravitas as well as fun from loudly ringing the nostalgia gong, but it was solid and smart in its own right, far more shaded and mature than the previous, flimsy character instalments in the MCU. Stars Holland and Zendaya gave newly felt performances, whilst the storyline took some risks in killing off a beloved character and leaving its hero in a desolate limbo. Watts offset the darker edge by balancing the energy of three different Spider-Men to delightful effect, and handling their differing angsts with finesse. But the frisson of galactic-level fan service did much to also mask the very questionable plotting and the awkwardly structured script, which needed some lessons in efficiency.
As if determined to contrast Watts’ film in exploiting millennial nostalgia with a far more metafictional and self-referential edge, Lana Wachowski returned, sans sibling, to the franchise that once made them pop culture heroes, with The Matrix Resurrections. Wachowski tried to make nostalgia, creative legacy, and audience investment aspects of the drama itself, in depicting a now middle-aged Neo, played with stricken, hangdog intensity by Keanu Reeves. Entrapped in a new version of the Matrix, Neo thinks he’s the creator of a hugely popular video game standing in for the original trilogy and is forced into rebooting the property, only to be soon plucked out of the digital realm by a new generation of rebels desperate for leadership. The Matrix Resurrections was initially intriguing and inspired in weaving a dialogue between fantasy and reality in terms of creative control and fan affection, and teased the commercial impetus behind its making with spry humour. Once the story proper got moving, familiar elements resurged and the film devolved into a succession of wonky impulses, some engaging, some tired, some silly, trying to be revisionist in regards to Neo’s relationship with his great love Trinity, but never quite breaking through to fresh ground.
With Jungle Cruise, Disney tried to pull off the same alchemy that made its Pirates of the Caribbean films so successful by turning to another of its theme park rides and fashioning a big, expensive spectacle around it. The story, such as it was, pitted Emily Blunt as a determined explorer, Jack Whitehall as her effete brother, and Dwayne Johnson as the rough diamond skipper they hire, against evil Germans and zombie conquistadors in the hunt for a tree with miraculous medicinal properties deep in the Amazon. Jungle Cruise had a good director in hand with Jaume Collet-Serra as well as likeable stars, and if it had been executed with a lick of sense it could have been a grand old-fashioned romp. Instead it proved a monument to everything wrong about modern Hollywood, swathed in flashy but flavourless CGI, replete with incoherent, ripped-off story beats and strained messaging, blowing the talents behind and in front of camera on a frenetic yet joyless, zany yet witless, fantastical yet unimaginative exercise in marketing fodder. James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, billed as a thankful swing towards violently larkish absurdity in following up David Ayer’s much-loathed 2016 Suicide Squad, wasn’t as wall-to-wall bad, with a few good moments and impulses, and yet it was too often painfully unfunny and glazed with a smug and smirking conviction it was being clever and offensive on some level.
Audiences and critics grasped on to Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part One in famished glee, as it was the rare new special effects blockbuster that wasn’t a superhero movie, even as the property it’s based on supplied the mythopoeic fuel for a swathe of current franchises, including The Matrix. Villeneuve was the one to dare wading again into a deluge that nearly drowned David Lynch, and chiefly leveraged it by cutting Frank Herbert’s cult novel in half and proposing to do the rest whenever. Dune: Part One had many things going for it. As well as the inherently meaty source material, the new take came armed with a fine, star-studded cast and good-looking, clever special effects. But I was enormously disappointed by the stripped-down script, which wasted much of the time splitting the adaptation bought on a long, climactic chase, whilst leaving out extremely important plot and world-building details, and that great cast was often poorly served in scantily written roles. Villeneuve’s direction proved superficially chic but tonally monolithic, stripping out complexity and then belabouring the obvious. All that said, it was an entirely watchable movie, one that did just enough to whet the appetite for the second part.
Jason Reitman emulated his father Ivan in making Ghostbusters: Afterlife, a loving homage-cum-sequel that proved a curtain raiser for 2021’s late wave of nostalgia bait, one that took the opposite tack to the clumsily farcical 2016 remake of Ivan’s fiercely treasured 1984 hit. Jason’s take on the story leaned for much of its length closer to his own early style of low-key indie comedy, following the teenage kids of a frazzled single mother who learn they’re the grandchildren of the late Egon Spengler, who destroyed his life in the conviction the monstrous entity Gozer would return, sparking an adventure that eventually sees the resurgence of both familiar villains and heroes. Afterlife took some savage reviews, most of them barely disguised payback to the perceived cadre of fans who rejected the 2016 take. And the movie was certainly imperfect, taking too long to get going and then rushing its best elements, offering some limp stabs at new-but-not flourishes like a cadre of tiny Staypuft Marshmallow men, and not knowing what to do with all its characters. Jason’s choice of a kid-centric, Spielbergian take on material seemed notably at odds with material originally defined by its zany disreputability, but there was just enough sardonicism in there to maintain the brand. Young Mckenna Grace, wonderful as the heir to Egon’s smarts and fortitude, helped bridge the uneasily coexisting frames of reference. The finale, which finally brought the remaining original team back into the fray, saw the old boys in delightful form, particularly Bill Murray as his Peter Venkman taunted his ancient foe with the lament they never became a great power couple.
Guillermo del Toro’s first movie since his Oscar-winner The Shape of Water proved a sharp pivot away from that film’s romantic fantasy. Del Toro chose to make a new adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s infernally bleak novel Nightmare Alley, previously filmed with the more morbid and downbeat edges sanded off in 1947 by Edmund Goulding. It’s easy to see what drew del Toro to the material – the heart-of-darkness anatomisation of both the old weird America and its shiny uptown superstructure encompasses a whole genre in miniature much as del Toro has tried to assemble for himself in movies like Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak, swerving from the garish trove of the old timey carnival to art deco bastions inhabited by gilt-haired succubi. Nightmare Alley was initially absorbing in exploiting the carnival setting, complete with high-cineaste nods to Tod Browning’s Freaks and The Show, only to bleed steam as Bradley Cooper’s tunnelvisioned conman fell into the clutches of Cate Blanchett’s more patient quack in the course of spiritualist machinations. The film was ultimately too heavy-footed, too weighed down by the regalia of its own dark nostalgia and prestige movie trappings to really dig into the cruel, surreal edge of Gresham’s story, and star Cooper was strong playing a slick asshole but could never quite penetrate this shell to get at the self-destructive neurotic below.
Another tale of an outcast, criminally talented antihero who destroys themselves in the course of seeking riches and power, albeit very different in tone, Cruella saw Craig Gillespie revisiting territory akin to his I, Tonya in offering sympathy to a female devil. This time Gillespie made over the gleeful villainess from the 101 Dalmatians films into a would-be fashionista bitch-queen, played with archly stylised relish by Emma Stone. Cruella charted her life from arrogant tyke to hardened survivor to would-be worker drone, before she finally and effectively unleashes the punk provocateur, doing battle with her professional nemesis and secret mother, played by Emma Thompson. Cruella was one of the odder, and more oddly entertaining, packages of the year, part comedic romp, part psychodrama. Something that by rights should have been more egregious IP exploitation instead came laced with jazzy imagery and perverse psychology, even if it came to a shuddering halt with a weak climax that stopped well short of the kind of grand guignol spectacle the outsized characters deserved.
After considerable delay, Daniel Craig’s last dance in the role of James Bond arrived in the form of No Time To Die, a would-be epic farewell to the actor and his version of the character. The Craig Bond’s drift towards a mere stolid and generic weepy tough guy was completed in an overlong and jarringly uneven entry that hinted at uncertainty on the behalf of the filmmakers as to how far to push their end-of-an-era motif. Cary Joji Fukunaga’s direction only came to life in spasms, as the film briefly regained some of the old razzle-dazzle in a couple of early action scenes, particularly one sporting Ana de Armas as a surprising newbie agent, and Rami Malek was effective if mostly wasted as the fey and sibilant evil mastermind. No Time To Die proved strangely committed to revealing the very premise of the Craig Bond era, as an origin story for the classic character, to be a false promise, seeming to kill him off after wading through acres of half-hearted plotting and some narrative busy-work. By the end of it I felt a little glad to finally see Craig go.
To get some more genuine Bondian spirit ironically one had to look to the ladies this year. Martin Campbell, who first vested Craig in the role and proved he still knows how to shoot and cut a good ass-kick scene, offered The Protégé, a star vehicle for Maggie Q that paired her with Samuel L. Jackson as the man who schooled her in the deadly arts and whose apparent assassination drives her into battle with a shadowy mob, and Michael Keaton as her weathered but spry foe-cum-lover. The film had a thin, standard-issue story, aging cast, and a slickly tony look that identified it squarely as straight-to-streaming fodder. Campbell’s touch with action and the strong cast elevated it considerably into the kind of B-movie that satisfies: Q and Keaton had more actual, sexy spark than just about any other pairing of the year, and Campbell knew how to take advantage of it.
Kate, sporting Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the title character, had a very similar starting point but swerved to become a variation on D.O.A.. Winstead’s Tokyo-based super-assassin embarked on hunting down the men who served her a dose of radiation poisoning, only to find the trail leading back home (with Woody Harrelson playing basically the same corrupt father figure as he did in Solo), and gained a last chance for redemption in protecting the daughter of a Yakuza kingpin. Winstead was terrific, again playing the kind of role she should’ve been given years ago, and director Cedric Nicolas-Troyen put The Huntsman: Winter’s War far behind him by making a sleek, fun, good-looking movie, even if the Japanesey tropes piled up a little thick. The main pity of it was the ending necessarily precluded a sequel, as I would much rather have seen Kate’s return than some of the other dullards we’re doomed to see resurge.
Angelina Jolie returned to a proper leading role in another valiant heroine part, albeit one more grounded, in Taylor Sheridan’s Those Who Wish Me Dead. Jolie played a forest fire fighter haunted by deaths she couldn’t prevent, who by pure accident takes in charge a teenage boy who stumbles upon her in the woods, after his father has been murdered by some hired killers. Like a lot of recent movies of this kind, Those Who Wish Me Dead had a chintzy, knocked-off feel from a combination of a strained budget and a lazy production filled out with weak special effects, and the storyline rushed through its set-up, leaving a pile of plot holes and broad-stroke characterisations. The improbably classy cast and director helped a lot, that said, and as it unfolded reminded me a little of some good 1950s noir thrillers with similar stories and settings. A couple of strong and surprising suspense sequences helped, as did Nicholas Hoult and Aiden Gillen as the grade-A scumbag villains.
Steven Soderbergh’s busy retirement continued with No Sudden Move, a 1950s-set thriller that tried to double as an acid satire on the period’s suburban pretences, social schisms, and corporate malfeasance. Don Cheadle and Benicio Del Toro headlined as two losers hired to take a family hostage to force the father to hand over some valuable industrial secret, only to quickly find things are deliriously complicated and literally everyone is playing their own game. Soderbergh employed a terrific cast and the film started strong. But taken as a whole it summarised many reasons Soderbergh has long aggravated me, with a script that devolved into an endless maze of plot and intolerable characters, the brittle, affected visual style (shot once more on iPhone but without the pulpy enthusiasm of Unsane), and a strained attempt at cynical social commentary, which Soderbergh actually ripped off from The Nice Guys, a much better film.
Guy Ritchie’s recent run of form continued with Wrath of Man, perhaps his most controlled piece of direction to date matched to a story that kept twisting with verve and delivered with unusual seriousness. Jason Statham was the ice-eyed new recruit at an armoured car company who quickly proves to have skills, and purposes, far beyond natural for a security guard. Ritchie’s choice of turning to a greyer, sterner mould of crime drama, reminiscent of Peter Yates and Michael Mann, was hampered by his relative lack of a feel for the minutiae of the different milieu and subgenre. But the story gave Rashomon a run for its money in its ellipses and managed to do something new with the well-worn heist movie template, building to a ferocious robbery and shoot-out sequence. Only right at the end did the film felt like it cheated a little and ran out of really good ideas to bring its story home.
Ilya Naishuller’s Nobody offered a more waggish and sarcastic take on the idea of an omnicompetent warrior hidden in sheep’s clothing, ingeniously casting Bob Odenkirk as a middle-aged family man who loses his son’s respect when he refuses to intervene in a home robbery, only for another, suppressed side to his identity to begin emerging, one craving brutal and bloody expression. Nobody was short, snappy, and a bit slight, with frustrating signs it might have been heavily cut before release, as its running thread contemplating familial masculine identity, with Odenkirk’s relationship with both his son and his aging but deadly father (Christopher Lloyd) and withdrawn but still loyal brother (RZA), never quite got the attention it craved. That said, the finale where the men got together to battle off an army of gangsters, was beautifully zany and hilarious, and the set-piece fight on a bus that raised the curtain on the violence wielded a rare sense of physical intensity and intimate damage of bone and flesh and metal colliding, as Odenkirk found his old gifts for bringing and taking pain still operating, if in need of some fine-tuning.
Robert Connolly’s The Dry cast Eric Bana as a federal cop drawn back to the small Australian country town he grew up in, and finds himself investigating the fates of two of his old high school friends. One was a girl he himself was accused of killing when they were teens, the other a man who seems to have shot himself and his family in the midst of a sweltering, gruelling drought, and solving one mystery demands reckoning with the other. Some of the plotting, particularly the final revelation of just what happened to the girl, was unconvincing in the mechanics, but Connolly forged a strong atmosphere evoking the oppressive in both temperature and social climes. Bana was very good as an intelligent and haunted hero constantly obliged to step back and forth in time and contend with the possibility of the monstrous lurking behind his most cherished yet double-edged memories, resulting in something close to a Proustian detective movie.
Tiller Russell’s Silk Road recounted one of the more fascinating and oddly tragic true crime sagas of recent years, involving a young would-be libertarian entrepreneur who set up the “eBay of drugs” and found immediate, enormous success, but for all his new-age ideals quickly found himself driven to the oldest and most despicable of kingpin activities, and the burnt-out DEA agent who first set out to nab him but then, through a variety of motives, became something like his protector. Russell’s direction was plodding and the film didn’t have the budget and scope to do the story justice, but it held my interest by focusing on the psychology of the two men and their different urges towards self-destruction, and setting up what seemed to be a familiar heroic arc for Justin Clarke’s weary and cynical agent only to see it twist in dismaying directions.
Blockbuster screenwriter turned director Jonathan Hensleigh released The Ice Road, a sub-zero Canadian take on The Wages of Fear mixed with action-thriller elements, casting Liam Neeson yet again as a grizzled veteran, this time of truck driving, who along with his troubled younger brother, left brain damaged by military service, accepts an offer to lead a truck convoy carrying equipment to help save some trapped miners in the frozen north. They and the other drivers soon find the mining company using a saboteur to foil their mission to cover up their nefarious business practices. The Ice Road made me wish one of the high-octane talents Hensleigh used to write for had tackled the film back in a ‘90s heyday, rather than trying to pull it off with a thin-looking straight-to-streaming budget and too much CGI. But the film hung together and delivered enough thrills and spills to count as a solid action programmer. Neeson and Laurence Fishburne gave proceedings a dose of gravitas, Benjamin Walker was niftily cast as the seemingly bland but relentlessly malevolent villain, and Amber Midthunder injected spunk as a bristly Native American driver on the crew.
For more high-speed thrills, this time delivered with a budget equivalent to some countries’ national debt, there was F9, the ninth instalment of the once-trashtastic, now venerable and classy Fast and Furious franchise. Justin Lin returned as director for an entry that gleefully decided to clear the last obstacles between it and utter fantasy with a car launched into space, yet another old character returning from the dead, and Vin Diesel’s Dom Toretto taking out a fighter plane with a truck. Absurd, silly, and barely bothering to conceal the cracks in its aging fuselage with its many retcon patch jobs, F9 was nonetheless riotously entertaining, readily showing off the qualities that have kept the series alive – the characters whose reflexes feel like old friends, and the fluency and finesse of Lin’s direction, with a special delight in letting everyone, from the newest characters to the old salts, have their vignette of derring-do.
Simon McQuoid’s tilt at reviving the cinematic wing of the video game franchise Mortal Kombat tried its best to fashion a working storyline out of the game’s trippy pretext mythos, involving warring dimensions and ritual combat by anointed superwarriors. This was never likely to earn itself a place on top ten lists or Oscar nominations, but as far as this sort of thing goes the film was surprisingly okay: the plot was slim enough to be translucent and and the cast lacked star power, but the film had a bracing sense of its own ridiculousness, spent just enough time setting up the characters to make their eventual evolution a little cheering, and embraced a gory, foul-mouthed vigour. Josh Lawson enlivened proceedings enormously as a ratbag Aussie fighter, and the film looked better than many of these CGI-caked movies: one image, of a hero’s wife and child impaled and frozen together by his malignant enemy, had more visual and metaphorical kick than anything in some of the year’s more self-serious fantasy films. Rawson Marshall Thurber’s Red Notice tried to revive a classic brand of screwball action-comedy, as two roguish thieves and a straight-arrow FBI nemesis forced in league with one of them went on the hunt for some old treasurey things that are worth something and yadda yadda and the twist with the thing and stuff. Stars Ryan Reynolds, Dwayne Johnson (not having a good year), and Gal Gadot were handed a script that seemed to have been scribbled on the back of a matchbook and told to be fun whilst standing in front of a bunch of poorly greenscreened backdrops.
David Lowery’s The Green Knight presented the would-be highbrow counterpoint to fantasy-action movies like Shang-Chi and Mortal Kombat. I had remained highly suspicious of Lowery, director of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Ghost Story: the latter film was laboured but doggedly interesting whilst the former was a trite imitation, so whatever he made next he made was going to be the test case for his evolution. That follow-up proved to be an adaptation of the medieval poem about a callow member of King Arthur’s court, Gawain, who finds himself committed to a possibly fatal quest after playing a Christmas “game” with a mysterious visitor to the court. Dev Patel was an inspired choice to play the questing hero, but the film gave him little to actually do in playing a character who’s supposed to be learning lessons but instead is trapped by Lowery’s relentlessly dour and witless stylistics, yearning desperately to be taken for something profound and arty, and yet leaning heavily on anime and computer game imagery in tracking a hero with an oversized novelty weapon and a cute offsider. The script’s hollow take on the driving parable translated the evergreen poetics of the source material into an airless mass of dimly lit images and dead-on-arrival conceptualism. Lowery coated proceedings with a host of affectations like barely legible ye-olde-timey chapter titles flashed on screen and plenty of witchypoo segues, promising to make him the king of millennial cinema at least, and yet the film desperately lacked the energy and creative furore apparent in Excalibur and The Last Temptation of Christ, two movies it notably ripped off.
Danish director-screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen trod the well-worn paths of the revenge movie with Riders of Justice, only to apply a mischievous, satirical lilt, blended with a study in the irrationality of grief and the lingering pall of various forms of trauma. Jensen cast regular collaborator Mads Mikklesen as a hardened soldier forced to return home and look after his teenage daughter, following his wife’s death in a railway accident. Soon a trio of nerdy statisticians, one of whom was also in the disaster, convince him it was actually staged by a nefarious biker gang to assassinate a witness, sparking a campaign of payback. Jensen set out to deconstruct the familiar motif of violent revenge as cathartic and rewarding for über-machismo, playing the taciturn warrior off against the obsessive and damaged savants for rich and surprisingly nuanced comedy, whilst still delivering a dose of thrills and violence. If the mixture was just a little too affected in places, Jensen’s deft humour and the excellent performances made it a very enjoyable ride all the same.
Andy Goddard’s Six Minutes to Midnight aimed to be a good old-fashioned spy thriller and had, in theory, an interesting setting and premise to leap off from – an English girls’ boarding school on the eve of World War II catering entirely to the daughters of high-ranking Nazi officials. Judi Dench was the nostalgic headmistress trying very hard to remain oblivious to the dark side of her student body and faculty’s new brand of patriotism, and Eddie Izzard was the MI5 agent posing as a new teacher, trying to uncover an enemy spy ring operating around the school. In practice, the film was a half-hearted effort, and came across like the discarded rump of a more ambitious project. What should have been a study in the divided loyalties of the girls instead took recourse in pseudo-Hitchcockian suspense, as our inept hero was forced to go on the run from the police, with Izzard trying desperately to be nondescript despite being the least nondescript person imaginable, and the script (from a story Izzard cowrote) was packed with incoherent character actions and contrivances, like villains who give the plot away to a hero crouched behind a desk.
Another retro spy thriller, Zhang Yimou’s Cliff Walkers, saw the director returning to the 1930s milieu of his Shanghai Triad, albeit in a very different key, as he focused on a team of Communist Chinese spies parachuted into the Japanese-controlled puppet state of Manchukuo with the intent of exposing a war crime; meanwhile a team of collaborationist police, knowing they’re coming thanks to a turncoat, try to net them, but have to deal with their own hidden traitor. As usual with Zhang the film looked gorgeous, with a painstakingly art-directed period Harbin, using the snow as a character in itself in painting the moral and existential climes for the embattled heroes and villains. There were some punchy action scenes and an eye-catching performance from Liu Haocun as an angel-faced but deadly member of the heroic team. And yet Cliff Walkers finished up little more than a mild exercise in well-worn thriller stuff, laden with poorly delineated characters and a byzantine plot, lacking the interludes of operatic emotion and style Zhang usually conjures to compensate. Gestures towards exploring the struggle as one of gruelling communal attrition expressed through individual fates had potential, but too often this was displaced by the zigzagging business at hand, and Zhang leaned on some rather clunky sentimentality to provoke sympathy for the protagonists. Ultimately Zhang seemed much more energised by the bad guys, a mixture of Japanese officers and local quislings, some wielding cynical cruelty and others a strangely fraternal respect in their situation as both occupiers and the besieged, but again the jumbled script kept Zhang from exploring them in depth.
Musician-turned-filmmaker Jeymes Samuel’s The Harder They Fall set out to revive the Western with added Blaxploitation attitude in the tale of two criminal gangs, consisting of characters named after some authentic African-American Wild West figures, on a collision course to rumble in a small, entirely Black community over debts both fiscal and moral, with the will to revenge entwining the two leaders for extra spice. Samuel’s flashy, energetic direction showed real visual talent, backed up by Mihai Mălamaire Jr’s terrific photography, and the climax went for broke with a great fight between Zazie Beetz and Regina King as the opposing pirate queens, and the last jolt of melodrama between Jonathan Major’s sort-of hero and Idris Elba’s mostly villain was interesting. Problem was, to get that far I had to wade through Samuel and Boaz Yakin’s tediously smug, one-note script, big on tough posturing and bloody violence and very light on convincing characterisation, memorable dialogue, and good twists. It also made highly confused stabs at a meditation on period racial politics, like trying to complicate the story by presenting the nominal villains as proto-Black nationalists, but then abandoning that when the film needed to make sure we knew they were the bad guys.
Clint Eastwood’s Cry Macho played as something like a gentle send-up of the year’s genre films, as well as sigh of relief for Eastwood’s entire screen persona. The nonagenarian actor-director was quietly delightful, trying to will away the years in playing a broken-down former rodeo hero sent to Mexico by his frenemy former boss to fetch his son away from his mobbed-up mother, and stumbles into an idyllic village where he finds a community and one special lady to while away his remaining days with. The droll, ambling story mostly set the scene for grace-notes of acquiescence, an expression of an old man’s sentimentality hampered to a degree by flashes of goofiness when ticking off its supernal plot and perhaps deliberately avoiding some more pointed potential dramatic and thematic flashpoints. Underlying the pacific tone, nonetheless, I sensed a desperate stab not merely at providing Eastwood with a fitting career coda but an attempt to counter the negativity that’s cast a heavy pall in the past few years, a wish for peace and connection for all.
Tom McCarthy’s Stillwater was another portrait of a hardened American male flung far out of his comfort zone, and one that saw McCarthy trying to do something interesting and delicate: blend the torn-from-the-headlines realist-thriller aspect of his Oscar-winning success Spotlight with the humanistic tone of his earlier indie hits about wounded people forging relationships despite wildly different worldviews. Taking evident but very loose inspiration from the Amanda Knox case, McCarthy cast Matt Damon as an Oklahoma oil driller and recovering addict who goes to France to help his daughter, who’s been imprisoned for murdering her former flatmate and lover. He’s drawn into staying by both his sense of duty and obligation, and because he finds himself drawn to a young girl and her actress mother he crosses paths with. Damon gave a superior performance, nailing both a type and also his hidden layers, and the film was at its best when concentrating on his interactions. The plot, when it finally kicked in, unfortunately squirmed in awkward and forced-feeling directions, although McCarthy recovered for an ending charged with weary regret and sad self-knowledge.
Justin Kurzel returned to Australia to rekindle some of the old Snowtown attention by tackling another true-crime subject: with Nitram, Kurzel regarded Martin Bryant (referred to on screen only by the title, being his first name backward), the mass shooter who committed the Port Arthur Massacre, parsing the events that set him on such a murderous path, painting a portrait of a painfully asocial and mentally unbalanced creature, for whom the loss of his few stabilising human contacts proved calamitous. Caleb Landry Jones played Nitram with fierce commitment, in a film that tried at once to be sympathetic to his excruciating solitude whilst stopping short of apologia. Kurzel’s direction was less mannered than usual but still sometimes pushed the grotesquery a little hard, encompassing flashes of garish Aussie Gothic in Essie Davis’ performance as the equally troubled heiress who became one of Nitram’s few friends and accidental patron in homicide, whereas Anthony LaPaglia as Nitram’s depressive father was quietly believable. The film itself was superficially persuasive, but ultimately lacked any driving motive for existing: its Bryant was too recessive a personality to glean any immediate insight or empathy from, so it made a stab late in proceedings in reinforcing an anti-gun message. All it really achieved was being awfully depressing. Fran Kranz’s Mass took on the same terrible phenomenon from an opposite viewpoint, depicting the parents of a mass shooter and those of one of his victims locked in a purgative meeting many years after the event, in the bland confines of a Midwestern church hall. The film made no bones about being an actors’ showcase with theatrical rules and confines, and proved just a little too compressed to be entirely convincing as a portrayal of catharsis, with an excess of noble gravitas towards the end. It was gripping and psychologically sharp for much of its length, that said, and the cast were dynamite whilst being cast ever so slightly against type, including Jeremy Isaacs and Ann Dowd.
Ridley Scott resurged with force in 2021, offering two movies that tried to fly the flag for old-fashioned grown-up cinema for the mass market to dismaying results, with The Last Duel and House of Gucci. Both films featured Adam Driver expanding his repertoire, playing a smarmy, self-deluding, charismatic creep in the former and an awkward young man with promise who evolves into a smarmy, self-deluding, uncharismatic creep in the latter. The Last Duel proved the superior of the two, working as both a contemporary parable and an historical vivisection, whilst House of Gucci chased a note of tabloid pep, as the true crime/Fortune 500 companion piece to Cruella. House of Gucci saw Driver playing the scion of the titular clan who married a hard-driving social climber, played with broad but spunky force by Lady Gaga, a woman who proved to have the will to take the reins, but not the tact or guile for navigating this hermetic little world, causing mutual and eventually fatal offence. House of Gucci was an odd duck of a movie all told, sometimes playing as broad satire on the inherent absurdity of a family business, whilst quietly setting the scene for a tragic melodrama about differing types of ego and entitlement. Scott’s direction settled in the most part for being merely efficient and glossy, but he did seem to be having fun through the variably arch and broad performances from a sterling cast, which in the best manner of dark comedy often risked caricature to find peculiar truths beneath.
Australian director Simon Stone tackled difficult material in The Dig, an adaptation of a well-regarded novel depicting the events around the discovery of the Sutton Hoo horde of Anglo-Saxon artefacts just before World War II, centring on Ralph Fiennes as the reticent, self-educated archaeologist who first discovered the site and Carey Mulligan as the sickly but purposeful widow who commissioned him. The difficulty lay in the allusive approach to a story without major incident, blending gentle character portraiture with a meditative tone poem as the people drawn into the dig comprehend both the immutable depth of the past and the imminent fragility afflicting their own lives. Stone arguably leaned a little too heavily on mimicking Terrence Malick with lots of running montage and shots of sun-touched fields, and the script had some awkward sojourns into romantic subplots and social commentary, as when Ken Stott’s pushy bigwig turned up to provide both snobbery and sexism for the price of one. For the most part, nonetheless, it managed to be quietly powerful and sometimes mesmerising, as Stone wisely trusted the work he was detailing would convey an appropriate sense of the excitement in finesse and discovery. Uniformly good performances helped.
Pedro Almodovar returned to material plainly crucial to his artistic sensibility in adapting Jean Cocteau’s famous stage piece The Human Voice, which he previously partly filmed in Law of Desire, realised here as a short but lushly styled and mordant work that served in some ways as the non-genre companion piece to other movies of the year like Till Death and The Woman In The Window. Almodovar cast Tilda Swinton as the spurned woman oscillating between nobly wounded stoicism and destructive wrath in dealing with her former lover over the telephone. Almodovar’s overtly theatrical conceits, presenting the woman’ abode plainly as a set in a movie studio and decorating it with Almodovar’s beloved colourful kitsch, provided an effective aesthetic to match the ironic match of potent emotions to elegant articulations in the dialogue, the stylised theatre finding grandeur in ignominy, building to a spectacular auto-da-fe. Almodovar also released the full-length feature Parallel Mothers this year, but unfortunately I haven’t seen it; in fact at this point I’m wondering if it was a rumour started purely to frustrate me.
Michael Sarnoski’s Pig offered a peculiar spin on star Nicholas Cage’s popular cachet as the great shaggy renegade of star acting, casting him as a former chef of renown who’s retreated into a hermit lifestyle in the Oregon woods after his wife’s death, spending his days digging up boles of truffle with his beloved pet pig. When the pig is stolen, apparently to exploit its foraging talent, his owner goes on an odyssey through Portland’s haute cuisine scene in the hunt for whoever took it, and eventually finds the crime connected with the callow, wannabe-player sprat who buys the truffles from him, and his powerful bully of a father. The film’s mix of Sahara-dry humour and feeling, contending with the background radiation of intense grief and regret, was quite unique, and almost transcended the way it was built around an odd, gimmicky pseudo-lampoon of a revenge movie plot. Pig proposed weirdness like hidden underground fight clubs for restaurant employees only for the storyline to ultimately prove to actually be about catharsis and acts of compassion. This approach left me more than a bit unsatisfied in the desire to more properly understand the characters and the mystique the film sought to describe surrounding the ability to make good food. It was, nonetheless, an affecting experience.
Janicza Bravo’s Zola hinged upon an arresting gimmick, adapting a viral Twitter thread reporting on an apparently true course of events that befell a young Black waitress and part-time pole dancer who found herself drawn into the crazy, scary world of a white girl she became fast friends with. She found whilst accompanying her pal on a supposedly fun trip to Florida that she was actually a deceptive prostitute under the thumb of a volatile, browbeating, oddly pathetic pimp, and found herself pressganged into serving as her minder, only to prove rather better at rustling up business than the half-smart panderer. Bravo attempted to nimbly encompass the story’s heady blend of menace and black comedy, and the hot-button issues of sex and race, as well as the complicating factor of the story’s basis in social media where different narratives compete and images are invented and discarded at whim. She beautifully captured the seamy, sleazy atmosphere of a world lying just under the surface of the fantasy life of sun-kissed swinging. And yet by the film’s end I wasn’t sure if there was enough of a story to justify the whole thing. Bravo tried to comment on the shallowness of the culture she’s describing, but came close to reproducing it in lacking any sense of character beyond the obvious, and willingness to venture beyond the sketched superficial facts of the story. Eventually the film didn’t so much end as stop.
Bridesmaids screenwriters Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo reunited to write and act in Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar, an infinitely lighter spin on the same basic story (and setting) as Zola. The authors played a pair of middle-aged, recently retrenched furniture store workers who have scarcely ever left the hermetic climes of their small town, but decide to invigorate themselves with a vacation at a Florida resort. There they become involved with an enigmatic young man who proves to be engaged in nefarious business on the behalf of his supervillainess girlfriend-boss. The film had, at its heart, a classical comedy precept, building on caricatured types in the two titular ladies, a relentlessly chatty, joined-at-the-hip duo whose general optimism helps them skate over their anxieties, interlaced with a freeform mixture of nonsensical segues, musical sequences, ribald cheekiness, and genre film send-up, all tied up with an earnest message about friendship. Director Josh Greenbaum gave it all a lively gloss and it was exactly the kind of movie 2021 needed more of. Jamie Dornan was surprisingly fun as the befuddled love interest, whilst Damon Wayans Jr as an overly-talkative assassin and Wiig’s excoriating Cate Blanchett lampoon in her secondary performance as the baddie, stole proceedings.
Adam McKay aimed to move beyond the stylised, pseudo-satirical reportage of his The Big Short and Vice to make a would-be Kubrickian screed in the form of Don’t Look Up, focusing on Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence as a pair of astronomers who find themselves thrust into the spotlight when they identify a comet on a collision course with Earth, only to find the forces of ignorance and corruption foiling all attempts to deal with the problem. The film’s central conceit was plied as an obvious but questionable commentary on climate change denialism, whilst also taking detours into mocking Trumpism and Silicon Valley, but really, much as one might expect from contemporary Hollywood, was actually mostly about the media and its narcissism. Don’t Look Up was given occasional jolts of passion by its two classy stars and some nice supporting turns, particularly Mark Rylance as a phlegmatic tech giant. Otherwise the film was an excruciatingly blatant and almost entirely unfunny disaster, hitting cheap and easy targets again and again with nothing to say about any topic beyond the most shallow and self-congratulatory hipster postures, by way of tacky homage-cum-theft from such movies in the same vein as Dr. Strangelove and Network. McKay’s complete incapacity to develop either the comedy or the necessary mood of hysteria eventually drove him to take refuge instead in mawkish, faux-Capra feels.
Panic was set off amongst cineastes early in the year because almost 15 minutes went by without a new Sangsoo Hong movie, but the day was saved by The Woman Who Ran. Minimalist even by Hong’s standards, The Woman Who Ran was nonetheless a real if minor triumph for the director, portraying a woman, released from the company of her husband for the first time since getting married, visiting various friends who are all settling into life, and contending with still-potent memories of one of her own, fairly recent yet remote-seeming past romances. With some sidelong dashes of self-critique akin to that in other movies this year, Hong managed with his unique dexterity to offer a movie that seemed at once utterly affectless and plainspoken, and yet managed to both evoke and conceal hidden realms of meaning and history, painstaking in depicting both the consuming tyranny of everyday foibles and the background radiation of personal big bangs, as well as finally affirming the ever-welcoming embrace of cinema’s amniotic warmth.
Possibly mad, certainly long-suffering French director Leos Carax released Annette, his first film since 2011’s Holy Motors and one all but bullet-proofed by its impeccable hip credentials, with Carax working from a story and score provided by the Mael brothers from the cult band Sparks and wielding a hit-for-the-stands performance from Adam Driver. Driver played an edgelord comedian whose career sputters after he marries Marion Cotillard’s revered opera singer, and his increasingly desperate and self-centred actions harm everyone around him, including the title character, his preternaturally talented infant daughter. Annette started well with a dynamic prologue featuring the cast and authors singing on the street. But once it got going it proved the director, far from rebounding to form, had made another conceptual stunt project, one it was easy to conclude would have made a better concept album. The thin story and thinner characterisations came laced with self-conscious touches – Annette, was played until the very end by a succession of marionettes – but despite the nominally zany approach, Annette proved protracted and faltering in story and aesthetic gestures, and struck through with another, oddly smug take on reckonings for male artists in the #MeToo moment. Carax’s usually dynamic eye was often paralysed in having to track through masses of banal recitative.
With The Card Counter, Paul Schrader revisited very familiar ground in again depicting characters exiled within society who feel temptations to vigilantism. This time Schrader focused on a former soldier who spent time in prison for his involvement with abuses at Abu Ghraib, who moves just a little out of his solitary and sharklike existence as a professional gambler when he forms new connections, one romantic, with a fellow gambler, and one quasi-paternal, with the son of one of his former comrades. Trouble is the lad has designs on assassinating their former commander, whom he blames for destroying his father and his own life. The Card Counter was a study in both the bracing qualities and habitual problems with Schrader’s films, even as it was certainly one of his best. The film unfolded with spacy, nerveless cool whilst focusing with on a sequestered lifestyle ideal for the rootless and the self-excised, with concerted performances, particularly from lead Oscar Isaac. Sequences depicting flashbacks to Abu Ghraib were the most effective cinema Schrader has offered since Mishima. Otherwise his direction, however, as usual ultimately felt too mannered for my liking, like a coating of gelatine on a storyline that was just a little bit too much like fan fiction for Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket with added quasi-political dimensions, dimensions which, once again, Schrader refused to truly burrow into.
Joanna Hogg returned with her promised The Souvenir Part II, a continuation of the autobiographical saga she began in 2019, taking up in the immediate aftermath of the death of Anthony, the drug-addicted older lover of budding filmmaker Julie, once again played with rare, limpid intelligence by Honor Swinton Byrne. The wrenching process of coming to terms not just with loss but also lingering mystery and unease ultimately provides her with creative meal, as she channels experience into an ambitious student film project that ultimately launches her career, whilst also trying to fully emerge into independent adult life. The film was a fascinating, sometimes funny, often penetrating work, not simply as a continuing bildungsroman but as a contemplation of art itself, and how the artistic persona, and its overriding urges, is formed, as Julie bucks teachers and others to realise a personal vision, which in turn presents a transformed, surrealist mirror to life. What the film lacked, for me, despite its real quality, was the same feeling of intrigue and powerful but inchoate romantic gravitas the first film had, and Julie’s fellow director tyro Patrick, played again by Richard Ayoade, ironically emerged as a more interesting figure, doomed by his own driving but unyielding talent.
Raw director Julia Ducournau captured the Palme d’Or with her second feature film, Titane, a would-be outrageous, punkish clarion work depicting an exotic dancer who, thanks to a childhood car crash, has a steel plate in her head, an attraction to muscle cars, and a tendency to murder people. Torn between humanising impulses and the desire to retain her singular existence as she falls pregnant to one of her vehicular lovers, she eludes police by pretending to be the long-lost son of a macho firefighter, who has his own reasons for playing along with her glaring deception. Titane contained intermittently arresting vignettes, but all in all was a bit of a mess, absurdist narrative conceits tethered to some half-baked commentary on gender, family, and sex, sometimes playing as an overtly surreal edgelord epic and other times as a slightly heightened familial melodrama: the gruesome, affecting climax almost forced the two hemispheres into cohesion.
Maggie Gyllenhaal’s debut film as director, The Lost Daughter, had a completely different style but some definite thematic similarities to Titane, in again contemplating a mother’s ambivalence regarding her offspring in terms of what it costs her own, separate flesh and mind. Gyllenhaal’s movie, an adaptation of a novel by the acclaimed, pseudonymous Italian writer Elena Ferrante, depicted a middle-aged English academic taking a solitary holiday in Greece where she encounters a large, pushy Greco-American family on holiday, and drifts through often painful reminiscences of times when she put her own needs above her family life, choices she now feels she’s paying the price for in her solitude. Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley gave strong, if not that convincingly connected, performances as the main character at different ages, whilst Colman’s chemistry with Ed Harris as an aging bohemian gave shots of entertainment amidst the angst.
Michael Showalter’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye proved a different, cosier, if perhaps ultimately no less depressing a drama about aging with regret, recounting the ascent of Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker from Bible School cut-ups to cable TV squares to celebrity preachers through expertly combining religion and show business, but ultimately running afoul of their own errant characters and desires as well pure-sprung greed, and the conniving of supposed allies. Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield eagerly played the Bakkers as they evolved from goofy, talented youngsters to beings embalmed by wealth and self-betrayal before finishing up as pitiable exiles. The film tried to balance a puckish, semi-satiric lilt indicting the contorting effect of the Bakkers’ attempts to exemplify prosperity gospel, as well as taking cues from the couple’s terminally perky style, with a fair-minded attempt to portray Tammy Faye’s principled and empathetic attempts to stick up for gay people and AIDS sufferers. The film was a lot more entertaining than expected, but also felt superficial. Some caution in the narrative felt enforced by legal niceties, meaning the film didn’t quite dare to get to really interrogate the Bakkers, either in terms of Jim’s apparent bisexuality or Tammy Faye’s complicity in financial misdeeds, whilst Showalter’s direction was slick but derivative, particularly in the climax.
Reinaldo Marcus Green’s King Richard set out to tell the opposite kind of true story, portraying the near-legendary project of Richard Williams to set his two daughters Venus and Serena on the path to becoming tennis stars, a venture that begins running about in a van in Compton and concludes with world domination. With an ending not just happy but triumphant looming as inevitable for everyone not on Mars for the last 30 years, the film wisely used that to avoid some sports movie clichés, ending on a relatively muted note as Venus loses her first big-time match but emerges stronger for it. It also used that inevitability as an excuse not to ask too many questions about the title figure, whose exasperating streak is expertly captured but also constantly excused, and like The Eyes of Tammy Faye seemed to buy what the title character is selling just a little too unquestioningly. The film plainly offered a riposte to media portraits of Richard as a high-handed self-promoter, with Will Smith’s lead performance capturing the affect of a man long used to deflecting the world’s stones and holding to his own, fixed internal compass, but without really giving access to the man within. The occasional moment of complication, as when it’s revealed he has other children and when he goes too far in pushing his progeny towards lessons he considers desirable, were neatly called out and then put to rest by his fearsome wife (played with no-nonsense punch by Aunjanue Ellis).
Rebecca Hall made her directorial debut with an ambitious project, Passing, adapted from a well-regarded novel that was both a product and portrait of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Hall depicted two African-American women, one, played by Tessa Thompson, who had married a prosperous but fretful Black doctor, and the other, her old school friend played by Ruth Negga, who was light-skinned enough to pass for white and marry an obliviously racist man. Hall, drawing on both her family background and her theatrical grounding, proved remarkably adept at portraying a dichotomous time and place, with characters belonging to an uneasily diplomatic intelligentsia aware of both the insidious craziness of racism and the absurdity of the human condition in general, and aided Thompson and Negga to excellent performances as the two friends who find themselves doomed to embody that dichotomy. Hall’s stylised approach was attractive, but also finally hampered the impact of her strong script, filming in soft-palette black-and-white that emphasised a wistful, bygone, hermetic texture, in a story that might have been better played as busy and immediate. Also, the last third depended on a portrayal of one character’s spiral into pathological jealousy, leading to jagged tragedy, but this felt a wee bit contrived.
Celine Sciamma cleverly made Petite Maman to suit the restrictions of the COVID-19 lockdown by utilising a minimum of performers and settings and winnowing down concerns to the most intimate in taking up a theme of generational connection and loss. Sciamma portrayed a young girl who, staying in the house of her recently deceased grandmother as her parents work through grief and prepare to sell the estate, heads out into the neighbouring woods one day and finds she’s gained access to the past, meeting her mother at her own age and making fast friends with her. The film was more a gently meditative fable than a narrative and within those confines worked well. The delightful performances by the Sanz sisters as the girls provided the film with most of its charm, even if it offered perhaps the most haute bourgeois parental wish-fulfilment vision of children behaving ever: kids who speak with very proper diction, put on plays rather than play video games, don’t get mud on their clothes, and learn to see the world through their parents’ eyes.
Ryûsuke Hamaguchi had a banner year with two films, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy and Drive My Car, movies tonally similar if subtly different in style depicting the lovelorn, the grieving, and the terminally bewildered, the first film telling three different stories, the latter an epic anatomisation of a doomed marriage and its fallout. Swedish director Roy Andersson’s About Endlessness flitted through a free-ranging selection of random vignettes tied together by an overarching fascination with the scantness of human life and the eternal desire for something immutable, some comic in tone, some tragic, many both at once, all filmed in rigidly framed single shots. Andersson’s hyper-minimalist, fustily clean aesthetic often verged close to a self-parodying extreme for a brand of droll, chilly, deadpan Nordic absurdum, and the recurring image of a ghostly couple floating in an embrace over a ruined city had a flavour of Magic Realism 101. The film’s best moments nonetheless had a piercing quality, from a scene depicting Hitler at the moment of realising he would lose the war, to one where an enraged husband alternates between attacking and embracing his unfaithful wife, and another where some girls spontaneously dance to the bemused fascination of onlooking boys, somehow managing to tether them together into a coherent if unsummarisable totality.
Next door in Norway, Joachim Trier made The Worst Person In The World, a companion piece to his Oslo, 31 August from a few years back in studying another anxiously eddying personality, albeit this time not a suicidal young man but a young woman on the search for personal fulfilment, fighting to avoid taking the path of least resistance in her life. Trier’s heroine Julie morphed from straight-A student to boho photographer and left one partner, an aging bad-boy comic book artist, for a younger, more fun if less interesting chap in the course of her adventures, only to find the former relationship still binding when the artist falls fatally ill. Trier made a determined attempt to offer a complex female focal point, one whose actions often cut across the grain of expectations, and it felt accurate to a degree to a generation experience. But it also reminded me of Ema insofar as it had a strong element that reeked of a male auteur’s masochism in the face of female independence (particularly in a vignette depicting the artist’s roasting by caricatured feminists). More importantly Julie, despite Renata Reinsve’s committed efforts in the role, simply never really proved that interesting, more a collection of gestures than a truly sketched person.
Several major releases of the year from international filmmakers, like Azor, Identifying Features, and This Is Not A Burial, It’s A Resurrection, shared a troubled and sometimes nightmarish sense of mystery and cast a sidelong view at centrifugal forces shattering social structures in their respective cultures, as well as sporting protagonists driven into the wilderness in the hunt for answers. One of the year’s most placatory movies took on a similar theme but with a very different tenor: Apichatpong Weerasethakul ventured out to Colombia with Tilda Swinton (officially displacing Isabelle Huppert as the big European actress most likely to work with international auteurs), to make Memoria, a typically dreamy, if more nominally procedural than usual, tale for the director. Swinton played an academic awakened one morning by an unidentifiable sound that even a sonic engineer can’t exactly identify. Thanks to a seemingly chance encounter with a man who claims to be able to remember everything that’s ever happened to him she gets a chance to understand the sound, and moreover when he’s in in contact with her they form a psychic receiver able to pick up echoes of long-ago, mysterious events. Apichatpong’s filmmaking was at a height here, his ability to evoke vast hidden worlds and alternate identities with the most minimal elements still singular and sublimely poised in trying to reorientate the viewer’s perceptions towards nature and time. Even if the story, in again depicting a lost woman encountering a visionary who helps evince those hidden zones, recycled elements of Cemetery of Splendour, and the change of locale robbed the film of Apichatpong’s usual, needling political and historical subtexts, and so insights into darker truths were held at arm’s length.
Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast and Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God both converted the stuff of their makers’ early lives, winnowing crucial formative experiences into movie narratives revolving around wrenching loss of family and place and the birth of creative aspiration, and represented the directors returning to something like their best form, albeit in ways that evinced their differences. Branagh’s film depicted events that drove his family out of the title city when he was still a pre-teen, and so represented a more innocent and jocular perspective, the relative purity of Branagh’s impressions – the first unsullied love, the transporting pleasures of movies and theatre, the embrace of family – were darkened but not tainted by perceived tensions of family and identity, whilst Branagh’s style alternated a poised and deadpan air of wistfulness in evoking his lost world, with a vigorous, immediate, frightening evocation of a community falling prey to violence and sectarianism. Branagh’s approach to dramatizing and illustrating his tale was derivative, but he made up it for it with the sheer poise of his filmmaking and the quality of his cast.
Sorrentino’s resurgence was more fraught and impish as The Hand of God depicted his teenage years, bifurcated by the tragic death of his parents, an accident from which he was only spared because of his obsession with Diego Maradona, who had recently joined the football team of his home city Naples. Sorrentino seemed bent here on exorcising both personal memories and aesthetic influence, leaning into his Fellini emulation to the nth degree with his parade of bizarre and beautiful physiques and attending eccentric behaviour, and depicting his wayward teenaged horniness which focuses on his hot but unbalanced aunt, whilst also portraying his tight-knit if not untroubled clan with boisterous high-spirits before the inevitable, radical tone shift. The film’s first half was as good as anything Sorrentino has done; the second, depicting his rootless experience after terrible loss, failed to completely shift to a more interior narrative and ultimately couldn’t entirely reinvent the familiar patterns of budding-young-artist tales. Sorrentino’s more provocatively strange touches, like a scene of his alter ego losing his virginity to an elderly Countess, might well have been true but nonetheless felt rather too iconically self-conscious in a manner that habitually mars Sorrentino’s work.
Lin-Manuel Miranda made his directorial debut adapting Rent creator Jonathan Larson’s musical tick, tick…BOOM!, a work that portrayed yet another stage in the life an evolving artist, in this case Larson’s own struggle to complete and stage his first musical project whilst battling the angst of turning 30, faced with the escalating problems inherent in resisting moving on with his life, including a girlfriend who wants to leave New York, two friends sick with AIDS, and a shit day job, all the while straining for crucial creative inspiration. Andrew Garfield proved his musical theatre chops by playing Larson with gusto, easily carrying the film even as it forced him to abandon all subtlety. tick, tick…BOOM! investigated both the pains of facing up to failure and also the equal, opposite pains of blinkered determination and the demanding spectre of responsibility to talent. There was some irony, however, in filming a thirty-year-old musical which contains a demand for fresh visions. Manuel’s direction was serviceable and sometimes clever (like a song number offered as a music video within the film itself). But for material that was rooted in a specific time and place and valued an earthy sense of that life, everything in the movie was rendered glossy and slick and invested with restless theatre major poptimism, even when dealing with personal tragedy, and Manuel had surprisingly few good ideas for staging the performances. Also, speaking as one allergic to Larson’s music style, there was little pleasure to be had in that side of things either. Still, Bradley Whitford’s brief but amusingly shaggy performance as Stephen Sondheim was salutary.
Miranda’s own, pre-Hamilton Broadway hit In The Heights was brought to the screen by Crazy Rich Asians director John M. Chu, endeavouring to weave a panoramic portrait of a vibrant but endangered community, the Latin American populace of Washington Heights, with a focus on two pairs of lovers with wildly divergent ambitions and uneasy feelings about their culture-spanning identities. The film had superficial flash and energy to spare, with a couple of fun production numbers and one excellent vignette in which the aged matriarch of the district reminisced on her life journey, a sequence particularly inventive in blending flashy filming and artful choreography that seemed sensibly close to how it was probably handled on stage. By and large though I found the film an aggressive mediocrity: Miranda’s songs were unmemorable with his processed takes on blended musical influences. Chu shot the whole thing with an airbrushed and idealised style that Disneyfied the experience, and if ever a movie screamed out for the streetwise grit of many ‘70s and ‘80s musicals this was one. It didn’t help that the characters and their travails were bland and generic and the plotting unnecessarily silly, whilst the baby’s-first-pop-up-book political messaging didn’t help. Ironically, Miranda himself as a finally triumphant street vendor provided the biggest dash of real charm and lyrical fun, right at the end. Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, whilst adapting a much older property, nonetheless felt far more immediate and meaningful in presenting a melodic exploration of racism and community.
With Benedetta, Paul Verhoeven seemed to be reviving and relishing his provocateur cred in tackling the true story of a 17th century nun who was in her time both exalted for her mystic visions and condemned for a lesbian dalliances with a fellow nun. Here at last was a project to focus Verhoeven’s many facets – the raunchy intellectual pervert, the medievalist imagination preoccupied with the wrenching poles of physical nature and transcendental urge, the social satirist mocking power and greed. Come for the hot lesbian nun sex, stay for the meditations on spiritual ecstasy and institutional abuse. The film didn’t entirely work, partly through never quite getting to grips with the title character: Verhoeven presented her as both potentially an authentic visionary and accidental transgressor and also a deluded con-artist whose egotisms destroy people close to her, before avoiding resolving the question by switching gear for a finale where the patriarchy was literally slain. Verhoeven’s direction didn’t work up the madcap passion required to portray such delirious and dangerous straits either, with an overly-clean period milieu and strained Ken Russell-esque hallucination sequences. But Benedetta was well-acted, particularly by Efira, Charlotte Rampling, and Lambert Wilson as vengeful but complex church elders, and the sex scenes were refreshingly full-blooded.
Jane Campion made her first feature since 2009’s Bright Star, adapting Thomas Savage’s cult novel The Power of the Dog. Campion cast Benedict Cumberbatch, against type but cunningly so, as Phil Burbank, a rancher in 1920s Wyoming who likes to bully and belittle everyone around him, in part to disguise his own homosexuality. Phil is provoked to his most insidiously destructive efforts when his brother marries a widow and brings her and her gawky teenage son into their homestead, only to find himself and the boy locked in an enigmatic dance of attraction and repulsion. Certainly the film was in line with Campion’s fascination with people trying to get the upper hand over each-other. But of all the films of 2021, The Power of the Dog left me the angriest as the implications of the superficially cunning climactic twist sank in. On top of the banal and dated driving psychology – angry macho men are really frustrated queers – the film seemed utterly unaware of the way what it frames as a justified act of protection and retaliation actually stumbles into horror movie territory, as well as stretching a long bow in portraying a clever enemy not only murdering his foe invisibly but playing upon his secret predilections as well, making it a kind of heroic hate crime. That’s on top of Campion’s chosen style, rich with exactingly framed and filmed but entirely inert landscape shots and endless atonal music to make sure we know dark and serious things are happening. Only the performances, from Jessie Plemons and Kirsten Dunst as well as Cumberbatch, alleviated the unpleasant taste it left in my mouth.
Radu Jude returned for another commentary on life in Romania with Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, a project that served as a reflection and by-product of the moment, in particular the COVID pandemic, which helped exacerbate the mood of free-floating, reactionary hysteria. Jude’s unfortunate lead character was a school teacher whose raunchy home-made mpeg of having sex with her husband has escaped onto the internet, setting her off on an odyssey across Bucharest that must inevitably end with her confronting a meeting of irate and viciously insensitive parents at her school. Jude’s approach had a strongly Godardian flavour, presenting his narrative in three segments after a prologue consisting entirely of hardcore footage, the first tracking his heroine through the city, noting casual vignettes and sights totemic in various ways for how Romania has fared in the post-Communist era. The middle third comprised of sardonically illustrative vignettes wrestling with history, war, violence against women, and other bugbears. The last third finally dealt, in a more absurdist and confrontationally theatrical manner, with the actual war of words at the school meeting. The changes in style were invigorating at a time when so many filmmakers labour fastidiously to achieve a dominant aesthetic and never deviate from it. Results wavered between the sophomoric – Jude, for instance, made the parent body a caricatured embodiment of all that’s septic and hypocritical in Romanian life – and the truly biting. The last of the three different possible endings presented at the close was certainly, hilariously cathartic.
Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch was by contrast a study in an entirely imaginary world that deliberately cut itself off from all connection with historical fervour and seeking. Anderson applied his familiar doll’s house/magazine cartoon aesthetic to synthesising the legend of a formerly great magazine supplement to a Kansas newspaper, a sort of combination of The New Yorker and The Paris Review, and within that frame telling three distinct stories through the eyes of its best writers, each a riff on a different kind of fetishised Frenchypoo cliché – the tale of a mad artist and his prison guard muse, a cod-Godardian portrayal of student rebellion, and a Maigret-esque police caper. Anderson’s France was one where buildings are impossible tangles of architecture and scruffy artists paint naked ladies, accomplished with some of his most admirably exacting and ingenious stylisation, and it all wielded a few fitful chuckles here and there. It was also Anderson at his most aggressively shallow, pining for a bygone day of sardonic and spectacular intellectuals whilst remaining entirely detached from any concept of consequence in words, although there were glimmers of an attempt to wrestle with the isolation of creative life for the various writers like Jeffrey Wright’s elegant James Baldwin avatar. Amidst the ridiculously good cast, Wright, Adrien Brody as a slick art dealer, and Léa Seydoux as the stone-faced guard turned supportive and gymnastic nude model came off best.
Siân Heder scored plaudits with CODA, an American remake of a French hit, about a young woman who faces the challenge of moving on from life with her deaf family, who rely on her as their interlocutor with the world in their work as fishermen, when her singing talent opens up new worlds. The story was as hackneyed as it gets and Heder was shameless in plying both calculatedly eccentric humour and sentimentality, particularly in the climax, whilst the overbusy storyline was crammed with drama-cranking plot elements, including one of the most boring romances ever to hit the silver screen, that were then left dangling to get on with the officially feel-good project. Heder did at least wield a skilful mix of Hollywood poise and indie energy in utilising the setting, one that allowed the film to unfold against a reasonably fresh backdrop and maintain a level of class consciousness and authenticity in dealing with family dynamics and disability, whilst still providing a slick and populist brand of entertainment, and proceedings were kept buoyed by generally terrific performances, especially Troy Kotsur as the often overly-enthusiastic patriarch. Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon offered a more precious glaze of artistry with its soft-palette black-and-white and tone of lo-fi realism whilst dealing with a similarly sentimental theme in depicting the bond between an uncle and his nephew. I have nothing to say about it.
By contrast, Chaitanye Tamhane’s The Disciple illuminated another, much less explored facet of show business, in countenancing failure. The title character was a student of Indian classical raga music who has devoted his entire life to mastering the complex blend of traditionalism and highwire oral improvisation that defines the form, obsessively mastering technique and assimilating the advice of older masters, but finds himself drifting into middle age without success and faced with mounting evidence he doesn’t have the authentic spark of artistry to make all the sacrifice worthwhile on a creative or fiscal level. Tamhane told a universal story, which in many respects might have unfolded anywhere, but in culturally specific terms, contending with the wane of a once-mighty folk culture and the feeling of being cut off from a powerful wellspring of spiritual and creative meaning, a feeling illustrated in a bleakly amusing vignette in which the hero encounters a brutally demystifying music writer. The Disciple did an excellent job of sensitising the viewer to the particular art at its heart and was teeth-grittingly acute in portraying the pains of weathering career doldrums. Both the most interesting and most vexing aspect stemmed from contending with a central character who was almost a self-rendered void, lacking the kind of inner life to fuel expression in part because he has no life to imbue it.
Much as he inspires eyerolling amongst the cognoscenti these days, Aaron Sorkin still has enough of a classy lustre about him to be an awards season player, and he took on authentic Hollywood legends in depicting Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in Being The Ricardos. Sorkin cast Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem as the husband-and-wife team, trying to make it through one particularly fraught week at the height of their zeitgeist-defining career, dealing with a red-baiting scare targeting Ball, a magazine accusing Arnaz of womanising, and a flabby script and dull director for the week’s show. Kidman and Bardem in particular gave their all, but ultimately there are likely axolotls that look more like the duo and have a better approximation of their comic timing; Nina Arianda and J.K. Simmons fared better as their long-suffering supporting stars. The real problem though was Sorkin’s ambling, shapeless, more-stagy-than-ever direction, and his facetious script, which proposed to analyse Ball and Arnaz’s fruitful if fatefully unstable marriage, but kept silent on an important aspect of it to serve a bitter punch-line. As a whole the film was infinitely less memorable and convincing than the brief portrait of Ball in Licorice Pizza, Paul Thomas Anderson’s far more dynamic and inventive portrayal of retro Hollywood and its heroes.
Performances of Note
Niamh Algar, Censor David Alvarez, West Side Story Adam Arkin, Pig Richard Ayoade, The Souvenir Part II Caitriona Balfe, Belfast Paula Beer, Undine Nicholas Bro, Riders of Justice Matt Damon, Stillwater Ariana DeBose, West Side Story Jamie Dornan, Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar / Belfast Virginie Efira, Benedetta Ralph Fiennes, The Dig Megan Fox, Till Death Andrew Garfield, The Eyes of Tammy Faye / Spider-Man: No Way Home / tick, tick…BOOM! Mercedes Hernández, Identifying Features Jason Isaacs, Mass Oscar Isaac, The Card Counter Michael Keaton, The Protégé Troy Kotsur, CODA Thomasin McKenzie, Last Night In Soho Mary Twala Mhlongo, This Is Not A Burial, This Is A Resurrection Jason Momoa, Dune: Part One Anthony LaPaglia, Nitram Vincent Lindon, Titane Chloë Grace Moretz, Shadow In The Cloud Ruth Negga, Passing Renata Reinsve, The Worst Person In The World Diana Rigg, Last Night In Soho Fabrizio Rongione, Azor Reece Shearsmith, In The Earth Emma Stone, Cruella Tilda Swinton, The Human Voice / Memoria Annabelle Wallis, Malignant Kristen Wiig, Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar Lambert Wilson, Benedetta Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kate Zendaya, Malcolm & Marie Ensemble, Licorice Pizza Ensemble, The Last Duel Ensemble, Shiva Baby Ensemble, Drive My Car /Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy Ensemble, The Woman Who Ran
Favourite Films of 2021
Azor (Andreas Fontana)
A Swiss banker and his wife travel to Argentina in the 1980s to pick up the pieces after the absconding of his business partner, trying to finalise some business deals and mollify some anxious clients. Doesn’t exactly sound like the stuff of high drama, and director Andreas Fontana’s quiet, inferring approach even less so, offering a story that unfolds as a succession of business meetings, working lunches, and quiet soirees where little of immediately apparent meaning is ever said and larger tides of history seem displaced by the most banal activities. Even the title was in code, drawn from the peculiar lingo of the banking community, a plea for someone to help extricate anyone driven to utter it from awkward and boring situations. But Azor slowly accrued the quality of a waking dream whilst being concerned with fiddly minutiae and only the vaguest suggestions of mysterious and disturbing things, as its protagonist was slowly drawn into elite circles in the period junta and finally became agent for an operation in wholesale plunder enabled by political repression and murder.
The basis was a distant but discernible take on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, swapping out gothic colonial plunder for something more nervelessly systematic, all horror and danger well beyond the margins of the storytelling. Fontana cunningly obliged the viewer to form a certain level sympathy for Yvan, his tense, self-doubting main character, beautifully played by Fabrizio Rongione, as a scion who feels anything but worthy, particularly in comparison to his charismatic but wayward predecessor, as he drifts between camps of the sullenly enraged and bereft and the suited, soft-spoken mandarins of power. Reduced to exploring this world of secret designs like a medieval cartographer guessing at the size and shape of continents, Yvan eventually gained a longed-for triumph, in a climactic gut-punch, that came at the cost of thousands upon thousands of lives: his sickly smile lingered in the mind after the movie ended like the Cheshire Cat’s grin.
Drive My Car / Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi)
I hadn’t seen any of Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s films before this year, which at least gave me the pleasant feeling when I watched his one-two punch for 2021 of seeing a great filmmaker seem to arrive fully formed. Hamaguchi’s blend of delicate melancholy and often wry, sometimes indulgent, always empathetic study of human need permeated the two movies, although they were ultimately quite different. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy told three distinct if tonally connected stories meditating on regrets amplified by passing time and the evanescence of human contact, whilst Drive My Car was an epic dedicated to small things, depicting an actor working his way through his wife’s death whilst in the process of rehearsing Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Ideas and figurations recurred throughout both films – romantic betrayal and lingering affection, bewildered and exhausted creators and their angry younger rivals, erotic perversity linked closely to acts of both creation and destruction, and the simultaneous specificity and interchangeableness of humans in relation to each-other.
Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy’s episodic approach presented tight units of supple, ironic storytelling, particular its best, middle chapter depicting a shambolic woman whose entitled younger lover sends her to ruin the life of his former teacher, also a successful novelist, by seducing him, a task she ultimately succeeds in through cruelly ironic means. Drive My Car also had an episodic structure, with a first hour that served more or less as a prologue, and was indeed the strongest portion of the film with its fascinatingly ambiguous portrait of a married couple who are somehow at once desperately intimate and estranged, ghosts in each-others’ lives, and where inchoate acts of artistic inspiration take the place of actual children. Hamaguchi’s style, whilst focused on his performers and their interactions, nonetheless had a firmly propelling touch as a subtle sense of atmosphere: the chapters of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy felt beautifully fulfilled just as Drive My Car’s length never felt wearing.
Identifying Features (Fernanda Valadez)
Like Azor, Identifying Features was concerned with a largely oblivious character forced to explore a dark antiverse of violence, terror, and pure amorality in a Latin American setting, although its focus and method were more traditional and plainly urgent. Director and coscreenwriter Valadez followed Magdalena, an aging woman who makes a groping effort to find out what happened to her teenaged son, who set off with a pal to cross the Mexican-US border and find work, only to vanish and likely be murdered when a gang of bandits held up the bus they were on. Along the way she encountered other women in the same situation, before eventually falling in with a young man just kicked out of the US and looking for a way back in, a lad who proves something of a surrogate for her son, eventually playing out the role to the last, full measure.
Valadez’s film unfolded as a briefing for a descent into a particular hell, where the homely landscape of Mexico has transformed into a space as alien and unknowable as the Zone in Tarkovky’s Stalker, a place where people vanish and return transformed, and the bright lights of modernity in the cities suggest islands of stability but just beyond their field primal forces rule. If Azor emphasised the banality of evil, Identifying Features approached it from a folkloric understanding, as Magdalena experienced her approach to the infernal through appropriate imagery, conjuring a lurking devil as the embodiment of the consuming, nihilistic forces that took her son, before the coldly ironic and inevitable kicker when the devil’s identity finally became clear. Valadez took on the subject of maternal devotion, that most familiar and patronised of transcendental forces in the world, whilst also exploring its ambiguities, the way not everything it embraces is necessarily worthy of it, and how its strength can be measured in knowing when to let go as well as what to hold onto.
In The Earth (Ben Wheatley)
In abstract, In The Earth looked like a retreat for Ben Wheatley, following the highly underwhelmed reception of his take on DuMaurier’s Rebecca, back to the kind of movie he made his name with – a creepy, low-budget, small-scale genre movie with strong doses of folk horror and psychedelic imagery, in which mundane English eccentricity bonds with surreal and disturbing cosmic forces. But in returning to formative passions Wheatley showed off what he’s learned in the past few years in sustaining more genuine suspense as well as trippy weirdness, and came close with In The Earth to offering the horror movie equivalent of 2001: A Space Odyssey in trying to leap beyond the liminal and portray an entirely different way of experiencing existence. Along the way, Wheatley cleverly riffed on the film’s made-in-a-pandemic minimalism, incorporating a heightened version of the same phenomenon into the film to reinforce the spell of latent hysteria and anxiety, and focusing on a small cast.
In The Earth casually inverted a familiar figuration as Wheatley obliged a very urban man with few survival skills and no bushcraft to team up with a hardy if hardly superheroic female forest ranger, as he journeyed into the depths of a seemingly benign English forest in search of a scientist colleague, and his former lover, who’s engaged in esoteric research that might be connected with an ancient myth about a mystical intelligence living in the forest. Wheatley beautifully built up an air of oblique and spacy dread even before a tormenting encounter with a seemingly decent hermit with his own ideas about how to communicate with the entity, punctuated by flashes of very dark humour, particularly in the scientist’s efforts to bridge the divide by becoming a sort of new-age DJ and laserium maestro. Wheatley brought malicious glee to vignettes like our hapless hero having a couple of gangrenous toes hacked off, and sustained the sense of siege and the unknowable without special effects, only sheer camera and editing chutzpah.
The first of Ridley Scott’s two films for the year was the superior, and despite lucklessly ringing a loud gong at the box office it emerged as one of Scott’s best films. A rich, nuanced, troubled disassembly of the same historical macho mythology Scott rode to career-renewing glory with Gladiator, The Last Duel recounted known facts and imagined particulars in the true story of the duel to the death between French knight Jean de Carrouges and squire Jacques Le Gris in 1386, a duel sparked by the accusation Le Gris raped Carrouges’ young wife Marguerite and a fin-de-siecle moment for what was left of the old, chivalrous worldview. Scott ticked off three disparate versions of the events leading up to the duel, each account invested with different emphases and sometimes diverging details by a trio of smart screenwriters. Cowriter Matt Damon was the glum, resentful, but to his mind stolidly fair and courageous Carrouges, Adam Driver the emergent Renaissance man and deluded lothario, and Jodie Comer the lady almost crushed between their armour plating, whose attempt to secure justice means facing the most hideous of potential deaths.
Scott managed something appreciable and rare in making The Last Duel simultaneously coherent as a parable for contemporary concerns as it dealt with sexual assault and difficulties in gaining credence and aid in suffering it, and a general, smouldering dissection of a time and place, deftly depicting the mores and semi-submerged social structures of the late medieval setting and skewering the lingering ideal of knight and lady fair. The deliberate contrast in screenwriting styles presented a challenge in cohesion of style and dramatic approach, a challenge Scott couldn’t entirely mask, but he managed to keep those centripetal forces mostly in balance, rendering the varying perspectives of the characters coherent even as the ultimate reality of the situation steadily and unsparingly came into focus. The finale, a depiction of the duel that represents one of the best single units of filmmaking in years, finally saw the attendant questions of guilt and wrath swapped out for the pure spectacle of intimate and deadly violence where the drama of truth has to be finally and inerasably etched upon a tablet of flesh and bone.
Wright’s first real tilt at making a mostly straight-up genre film was a tribute to bygone epochs and beloved art, but also one preoccupied by the distance between such half-imagined golden ages and the disillusioned now. Wright’s heroine Eloise was an innocent abroad, gifted and cursed with a preternatural awareness of things lost, pining after the glory days of Swinging London whilst trying to animate her own nascent ambitions as a talented youngster hitting the big city. Wright cleverly bound his frames of reference together as Eloise experiences psychic visions that plunge her into the past, offering her a movie that reflects her fantasies in all their lush and swooning spectacle, before suddenly breaking down the distance between viewer and tale, plunging her into a nightmarish netherworld haunted by victims of self-perpetuating violence and abuse. Anya Taylor-Joy was the trapped thrall of Matt Smith’s slick-haired creep whose cracked sanity collapses not just her reality but that of her unwitting future witness, and Diana Rigg had a great last role as the seemingly thoughtful little old lady who proves the wicked witch in her own, particular brand of gingerbread house.
Wright’s filmmaking was much less frenetic and forcibly dynamic in Last Night In Soho than in his earlier comic deconstructions, but never more poised, from the epic first entrance into the heart of period London where the macho heroism of yesteryear, embodied in Sean Connery’s James Bond smirking down from billboard, reigns supreme whilst Cilla Black’s singing encompasses an equal feminine ideal in soaring expressions of devotion, to the fiery climax where the survivor of lost illusions sits amidst billowing flames. In between were Wright’s familiar refrains of troubled maturing and flecks of mischievous humour, as well as trying with new finesse to dovetail one of his familiar comic weapons, his carefully diagrammed sense of cause and effect, with an approach to genre that was knowing without being outright satiric, as a flashing restaurant sign threatened giallo colour schemes, a library visit sparked a witty riff on the cliché jump scare, and joyous art student jaunts scored to Siouxsie and the Banshees presaged visits by psychedelic wraiths. Last Night In Soho wasn’t a perfect film, as Wright, in trying to do without the familiar crutch of his sense of humour, instead belaboured horror shtick in places. But as a whole it still had a swaggering cinematic poise and force, as well as a sense of a director trying at once to indulge and exorcise his fetishes, and it offered up to a film much more substantial than many took it for at first glance.
Licorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson)
On the face of it, Licorice Pizza is Paul Thomas Anderson’s most intentionally relaxed and frivolous film, delivering the fun period soufflé he refused to turn Inherent Vice into and returning to the milieu of Boogie Nights whilst avoiding directly contending with the same shady, decadent dimension, whilst not as woozy in its exploration of fixated romance as Punch Drunk Love or Phantom Thread. Counterpoint: Licorice Pizza is strangely, restlessly, beatifically individual and inspired in exploring its conjured world and the characters Anderson plants in it, managing to at once satisfy a need for breezy comedy charged with oddball joie-de-vivre whilst painting a delicate portrait of a knotty love affair. Alana Haim gave a star-making performance as a character also named Alana, a flailing twenty-something who finds herself against all her wishes gravitating with increasing intensity to a fifteen-year-old former child actor turned entrepreneur, played with remarkable poise by Cooper Hoffman, she meets whilst taking school photos. Soon she ends up joining him in clammily platonic partnership, trying to get rich quick in an LA that’s wide open, populated by fading heroes of yesteryear and livewire riders of the moment.
Licorice Pizza actually managed to not just emulate certain kooky 1970s comic studies like Brewster McCloud and Harold and Maude, but to match and maybe outdo them. Anderson inflated brilliant comedic arias, laced with moments of trenchant and unexpected emotional sting and a sustained note of rising desperation in the way two non-lovers keep trying and failing to move on, out of such period-specific and humdrum elements as attempts to sell waterbeds and weather gas shortages. Along the way our heroes had to endure and survive encounters with celebrity figures, like a slightly disguised William Holden and Lucille Ball and a not-disguised Jon Peters, fixtures of the town so numbed from feeding off its mainline energies they charge with crazed and jealous fervour through existence. The climax, with a surprisingly delicate emotional epiphany gained thanks to Alana’s attraction to a closeted politician, managed to describe a more subtle and genuine sense of the past’s sadder zones, and oblige the final, still-verboten and impossible yet perversely cheering get-together.
Malignant (James Wan)
The most purely entertaining movie I saw in 2021, Malignant had a level of colourful gusto rather missing from the year’s big spectacle-driven movies and indeed absent from major-league horror cinema altogether of late. James Wan, who’s signalled for a while now he might prove one of the most visually dynamic of current genre directors in Hollywood, had a happy old time freely mashing together slasher and giallo clichés and taking them to a ludicrous extreme in the story of a woman, Madison (Annabelle Wallis), stuck in a marriage to an abusive creep and pregnant in the latest of many failed attempts, only to find a monstrous entity starts stalking her life, killing her husband and others, and seeming to share some kind of psychic connection with her that allows her to see its murders. Could it all be related to the time Madison spent in a mental hospital when she was a child? Who is the mysterious Gabriel, once thought to be her imaginary friend? Why is Gabriel targeting former employees of the hospital? Why does he seem to have supernatural powers? Why does he apparently reserve a particular hatred for Madison’s adopted sister?
Malignant’s plot proved the ne plus ultra for the kinds of games played in giallo movies with deception, doubling, and physical perversity, pushed to a parodic extreme but playing its essential story absolutely straight. Wallis, freed from playing posh English birds for a moment, had a whale of a time playing the tortured heroine who finds her own body quite literally rebelling against her, in a film that had timely themes but settled for using them as light spicing for an otherwise deliciously corrupt stew. The Seattle setting was cleverly exploited in a dynamic chase sequence through the underground city, and the climactic scene where Gabriel finally emerged in all his glory and rampaged through a police station was delightfully sick and spectacular. Wan brought on lashings of gore and vibrant colour. Great special effects and stunt work amplified the blend of slick, classy filmmaking and balls-to-the-wall drive-in-flick energy in a manner that reminded me a little of the great days of stuff like The Manitou and Prophecy, and the film as a whole presented a thankful counterpoint to the more pretentious variations on similar motifs in the likes of Titane and Censor this year. Long live unelevated horror.
Shiva Baby (Emma Seligman)
Amazingly assured for a debut film, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby presented a very modern fable and proved a master-class in mixing tension, drama, and cringe-inducing hilarity. Seligman’s antiheroine Danielle was a young woman who, trying to avoid making serious choices about where her life is going and defensive about her less-than-practical choices of study, has struck up a relationship with a sugar daddy, and finds herself trapped with him and his shiksa wife after going to a shiva with her parents. Seligman sustained a singular blend of vinegar humour and teeth-gritting suspense, drawn not from life-or-death danger, but simply the imminence of public humiliation and emotional wounding. Danielle struggled not just to keep a tight leash on her own jealousy, frustration, and flashes of imploding attitude as the temptation to say too much gains singularity-like power, but in negotiating with her parents, a diptych of tart-tongued and shamelessly oblivious helpfulness, and her former high school girlfriend, who constantly provoked with her x-ray vision for Danielle’s bullshit, as well their still-simmering attraction.
The stifling set-up and liberal doses of very New York Jewish humour broadly resembled a Neil Simon one-act given a contemporary gloss. Seligman brought something new to the table in her prickly, flailing, rudderless central character as well as the sops to contemporary mores, a more unusual but also more convincing portrait of an intelligent but confused woman careening in a 21st century quarter-life crisis than The Worst Person in the World, one able to use her sexuality but not sure what her sexuality is, withering under the constant bombardment of other people’s designs on and for her, constantly tempted to throw back bombs of her own whilst knowing that could only bring about Mutually Assured Destruction. The climax consisted simply of Danielle’s happily cajoling father offering everyone a lift in his van, forcing the motley crew to jam themselves in, combining unforced slapstick and a hint of delighted metaphor, the perfectly excruciating ending for a perfectly excruciating film seeing the whole contorted, ridiculous, shiftless bunch rolling down the road together.
This Is Not A Burial, It’s A Resurrection (Lemosang Jeremiah Mosese)
Like Identifying Features, Lemosang Jeremiah Mosese’s This Is Not A Burial, It’s A Resurrection portrayed an old woman contending with the loss of a son and a rapidly changing, increasingly inimical world. This Lesotho film, one that took some time to gain international exposure, nonetheless is very different as a less immediately bristling but equally uneasy depiction of gruelling change and threat. Mosese’s film depicted an ancient but still sturdy grandmother whose miner son dies on his way back home for holidays, leaving her entirely without living family, and soon after finds that she’ll be forced to abandon her dead too when a new dam project threatens to flood the valley where her small but tight-knit village lies. The tough old bird soon becomes a rallying figure for the locals as they begin to protest and push back against the project, but they find out quickly enough that resistance is dangerous. Director Mosese’s elliptic style suggested failure from the outset and the subsuming of the fertile little culture into the gut of a blankly dispossessed world, as the tale was narrated as a new legend by a storyteller inside some grimy tavern, a flicking light of empowering myth to be sustained in an alienating new world of sorrow-drowners and rootless labourers.
The mystically invoking and resisting tenor of the title was nonetheless justified through the portrait of simmering anger, passion, and the determination to remember, the most seemingly disposable member of a community the one anointed as champion and voice of disdain for change that pays no heed to the people it’s nominally serving, even as she struggles with being forced to remain alive when everything that gave her life meaning and shape has been lost. Mosese’s focus alternated between his aged heroine and the community to which she belonged, a group etched with an occasionally sardonic but always loving eye and expertly charting the way they maintained both a firm sense of their history and culture whilst also being inhabitants, however bewildered and impotent, of the modern world, resisting any hint of quaintness, whilst the sense of mourning was mediated with tinges of irony, as when it’s noted the village was both created through expedience during a time of upheaval, as a stopping point for travellers during a plague, and ended by one. The climactic image of a naked old lady advancing defiantly on infuriated enforcers achieved a quality of genuine, precipitous delirium.
West Side Story (Steven Spielberg)
After nearly a half-century of patently harbouring desire to make a musical, Steven Spielberg finally took the leap. His choice to tackle a mighty but obviously dated Broadway show, already filmed to the glint of many Oscars in 1961 and still familiar and beloved of that genre’s aficionados, was a risky project. The new film’s failure to make a dent at the box office seems pretty well to confirm that risk. And yet West Side Story emerged as a remarkably vibrant, relevant work, worthwhile in updating not just the casting and the sense of milieu, but in proving surprisingly volatile and engaged in its portrait of period racism and sexism. This made it, in a way, a companion piece to movies like Last Night In Soho and The Last Duel, both summoning and dispelling nostalgic fantasies about the past, presenting it as a place where a knife in the gut and a racial epithet both land with undeniable and deadly consequence at a time when there were no cell phone cameras to document such things. It also emerges as an ideal confluence for Spielberg’s two most significant personas, the dynamic choreographer of action and the compulsive storyteller obsessed with communication and its failure at the heart of social schisms.
Spielberg’s lingering affection for the old-school, leather jacket-clad rebel ultimately didn’t cloud his and screenwriter Tony Kushner’s disdain for the things they represent in the Bernstein-Sondheim-Laurents show. Spielberg purposefully contrasted the old film’s shticky take on a long-vanished rough side of Manhattan and the pop-art flourishes of its direction, with his more imperative vision of encroaching desolation as gentrification threatens everyone, and the modern urges starting to emerge from this particular melting pot – the staging of “America” even more forceful in understanding it as a feminist anthem as well as an immigrant’s patriotic one, whilst the temperatures of the Jets and the Sharks climb in frustration, both gangs of potent young men provoked to contest as they sense, with different causes, their old cock-of-the-walk impunity fading. Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort were if anything even blander than Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer in the original, but they did their jobs as the endangered innocents who ironically provoke death and calamity with sufficient lyrical and performing poise to let the other, more colourful elements blaze, particularly David Alvarez and Ariana DeBose as Bernardo and Anita, and Rita Moreno returning in a role revised for her, providing at once a presence comforting in nostalgia and invigorating in her vitality.
Added To Favourite List After Posting:
About Endlessness (Roy Andersson) Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Radu Jude) Belfast (Kenneth Branagh) The Card Counter (Paul Schrader) Cry Macho (Clint Eastwood) The Dig (Simon Stone) The Disciple (Chaitanya Tamhane) Memoria (Apichatpong Weerasethakul) The Souvenir Part II (Joanna Hogg) Undine (Christian Petzold) The Woman Who Ran (Sangsoo Hong)
Rough Gems and/or Underrated
Benedetta (Paul Verhoeven) Black Widow (Cate Shortland) Cruella (Craig Gillespie) Eternals (Chloe Zhao) F9 (Justin Lin) Ghostbusters: Afterlife (Jason Reitman) House of Gucci (Ridley Scott) Kate (Cedric Nicolas-Troyen) Malcolm & Marie (Sam Levinson) Passing (Rebecca Hall) Riders of Justice (Anders Thomas Jensen) Titane (Julia Ducournau) Till Death (S.K. Dale) The Woman In The Window (Joe Wright) Wrath of Man (Guy Ritchie)
Disappointing and/or Overrated
Army of the Dead (Zack Snyder) Cliff Walkers (Zhang Yimou) Dune: Part One (Denis Villeneuve) No Sudden Move (Steven Soderbergh) No Time To Die (Cary Joji Fukunaga) The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion) Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (Destin Daniel Cretton)
Don’t Look Up (Adam McKay) Jungle Cruise (Jaume Collet-Serra) Red Notice (Rawson Marshall Thurber) Spencer (Pablo Larrain) The Suicide Squad (James Gunn)
∙ A Chiara ∙ All Hands on Deck ∙ Ahed’s Knee ∙ Beginning ∙ Bergman Island ∙ Candyman ∙ Compartment No 6 ∙ Cyrano ∙ Flee ∙ France ∙ A Hero ∙ Jockey ∙ The Killing of Two Lovers ∙ Mandibles ∙ Murina ∙ Old ∙ Old Henry ∙ Parallel Mothers ∙ Red Rocket ∙ Saint Maud ∙ The Tender Bar ∙ The Tragedy of Macbeth ∙ Vortex ∙ What Do We See When We Look At The Sky? ∙ Wife of a Spy ∙
The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2021
Antigone (Yorgos Tzavellas) Beach of the War Gods (Jimmy Wang Yu) Buffalo Bill (William A. Wellman) China 9, Liberty 37 (Monte Hellman) City of Women (Federico Fellini) The Coward / The Holy Man (Satyajit Ray) The Far Country (Anthony Mann) Hondo (John Farrow) A Letter to Three Wives (Joseph L. Mankiewicz) Marked Woman (Lloyd Bacon) Les Maudits (René Clement) Nightfall (Jacques Tourneur) Nine Days of One Year (Mikhail Romm) No Name On The Bullet (Jack Arnold) Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (Albert Lewin) Penda’s Fen (Alan Clarke) Sanshiro Sugata Part II (Akira Kurosawa) The Ten Commandments (Cecil B. DeMille, 1923) The Traveller (Abbas Kiarostami) The True Story of Jesse James (Nicholas Ray) Under Fire (Roger Spotiswoode) Wild Bill (Walter Hill) The Wings of Eagles (John Ford)
∙ Michael Apted ∙ Ed Asner ∙ Ned Beatty ∙ Jean-Paul Belmondo ∙ Shane Briant ∙ Sonny Chiba ∙ Richard Donner ∙ Olympia Dukakis ∙ Charles Grodin ∙ David Dalaithngu Gulpilil ∙ Haya Harareet ∙ Monte Hellman ∙ Patricia Hitchcock ∙ Hal Holbrook ∙ Jean-Marc Vallée ∙ Yaphet Kotto ∙ Cloris Leachman ∙ Norman Lloyd ∙ Jackie Mason ∙ Helen McCrory ∙ Roger Michell ∙ Mike Nesmith ∙ Melvin van Peebles ∙ Christopher Plummer ∙ Jane Powell ∙ John Richardson ∙ Tanya Roberts ∙ Giuseppe Rotunno ∙ Richard Rush ∙ George Segal ∙ Barbara Shelley ∙ Anthony Sher ∙ Felix Silla ∙ William Smith ∙ Stephen Sondheim ∙ Dean Stockwell ∙ Bertrand Tavernier ∙ Cicely Tyson ∙ Jessica Walter ∙ Joan Weldon ∙ Betty White ∙ Clarence Williams III ∙ Michael K. Williams ∙
Well, that’s another year gone by. It was a busy one for me, both here at Film Freedonia and its sister site This Island Rod — 54 essays and reviews posted comprising over 200,000 words. The good news is, if you missed anything at either site, or want to read it again, or just want me to shut up already, you can download my collection of all my online film writing for this year simply by clicking this link…
Director: Ridley Scott Screenwriters: Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Nicole Holofcener
By Roderick Heath
Ridley Scott’s first film in four years wields the unavoidable feeling of a culmination, and repudiation, more than forty years after his debut feature, The Duellists (1977). Scott’s career hardly seems finished, and yet if he had retired after making The Last Duel the sense of circularity in regards to The Duellists would be irresistible, particularly in coming after his divisive but brilliantly grim and meta revisit to the Alien series, Alien Covenant (2017). Here he offers another film with “duel” in the title, sustaining in part the same driving theme of irrational and self-destructive resentment and fixation and acts of antiquated violence, as well as casually casting two American actors as period Frenchmen and avoiding Old Vic accents, to the consternation of some. The differences are revealing, of course. The Duellists was made heavily under the influence of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975), whilst The Last Duel, though it pays overt homage to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1951), sees Scott truly wrestling with only one master, himself. It’s also now more than twenty years since Scott revived his stature as a major Hollywood director with Gladiator (2000), one of his most popular and beloved movies, albeit one that dated with punishing speed. Scott’s been returning to and improvising variations on that hit since, partly for obvious reasons – sticking “From the Director of Gladiator” on a movie poster featuring some hairy, sweaty dude clutching a sword seems an easy sell, even as these revisits have generally failed with audiences – but also, as has become increasingly clear, because it was the gateway into his late career obsessions.
So Scott has been revising Gladiator’s straightforward, even simplistic exalting of heroically bemuscled men resisting tyranny (I’ve long thought of Gladiator as less a modernised sword-and-sandal film than as a period transposing of the sports movie, depicting as that mode usually does the physically dynamic sporting hero as the only figure left to use who can transcend pure commerce and stick up for individual will in determining outcomes) from different angles of questioning, in the tangle of religion and sectarianism explored in Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), and the exploration of emerging democratic impulses as presented by folklore in the violently uneven but doggedly interesting Robin Hood (2010). All of those films dealt in varying ways with Scott’s recurring late-career fascination with the birth of a modern concept of individual worth and identity in relationship with raw tribal identity and political power. The Last Duel completes the arc in essentially renouncing Gladiator’s fantasy, by recounting an obscure but fascinating nugget of authentic history, involving a duel to the death. The battle between Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris was one of the last to gain official sanction as a holdover of the old chivalric faith that trial by combat invoked direct deistic judgement. The clash was held outside Paris in 1386, after Carrouges accused Le Gris of raping his wife Marguerite.
Through its very nature and moment, the event of that duel rests on a fault-line in historical consciousness, confronting our lingering fascination for the days of old when knights were bold and ladies fair walked with wafting silk trailing, with our simultaneous cynicism, which is also the period setting’s, an emergent scepticism close to the cusp of the Renaissance when, whether the powers that be admitted it or not, people knew damn well God didn’t express his will through two guys trying to murder each-other. It’s the sort of subject one could imagine an array of great filmmakers tackling with very different art – Robert Bresson, say, casting his dour eye on men wrapped in cold grey metal bashing each-other to death, or Richard Lester, impishly smirking at the absurdity, or Ken Russell, relishing the ritual of bloodshed and locus of wilful lunatic energy. For Scott, it’s a story that engages multiple strands of his career long concerns and stylistic explorations. The Last Duel offers a chance to bind together ways of seeing, ways that unfold on multiple levels – the narrative itself proffers multiple versions of the same events according to different viewpoints, correlated with the way the film operates as both a definite portrait of a historical epoch and a parable for contemporary concerns.
Unlike Rashomon, The Last Duel doesn’t hinge on a disinterested party’s viewing of events. Instead it presents the viewpoints of Carrouges (Matt Damon), Le Gris (Adam Driver), and Marguerite (Jodie Comer). After a brief prologue showing the preparations for the title duel in all its careful ritual measure presaging the unleashing of pure physical force, the relationship between the three characters is sketched in Carrouges’ opening narrative. Carrouges, the son of a respected Norman knight, sees himself as a doughty, unappreciated, wronged and justifiably frustrated man who has to pay his way through the brutal and dangerous life of a professional soldier. He saves Le Gris’s life when the two men are involved in an ill-advised but honourable attempt to lift the English siege of Limoges in 1370. Whilst they remain friends for a time afterwards, their bond sours as Le Gris becomes a trusted agent of their mutual lord Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck) and is increasingly favoured by him to the extent of being handed both Carrouges’s father’s former title and estate. Carrouges marries Marguerite, the daughter of Sir Robert de Thibouville (Nathaniel Parker), an aristocrat held in general odium for formerly siding with the English. Carrouges is willing to overlook the disgrace in the face of Madeleine’s beauty and the opportunity to get hold of fine new estates.
One valuable parcel of land, Au-le-Faucon, which Carrouges firmly insists Thibouville give as part of his dowry, is instead claimed as recompense for feudal dues by Pierre and then handed over as a reward to Le Gris. Carrouges sues Pierre over the title to the estate, but fails, earning the lord’s peevish enmity and convincing Carrouges that Le Gris is plotting against him. Carrouges and Le Gris reconcile for the sake of accord amongst Pierre’s vassals, but the peace doesn’t hold, and Marguerite eventually reports to her husband that Le Gris assaulted her whilst Carrouges was in Paris collecting payment for one of his military ventures. The second narrative presents Le Gris’ perspective, seeing himself as a man of talent and intellect suitably rewarded. Pierre, disliking what he sees as Carrouges’ stiff-necked, charmless, and resentful persona, prefers Le Gris as an industrious employee and friend, inviting him into his inner circle and nightly orgies. Le Gris sees himself as tested to the utmost by Carrouges’ increasingly paranoid and irate streak and generally poor judgement, and feels an immediate connection with the multilingual and well-read Marguerite when he encounters her after reconciling with Carrouges, a connection which he interpreted as inevitably romantic. When questioned about his visit to the Carrouges castle to expiate it, Le Gris explains, “Of course she made the customary protests, but she is a lady.” The third chapter illustrates Marguerite’s experience, a perspective from which both Carrouges and Le Gris are seen as stripped of their pretences and self-delusions.
In terms of the film’s interlocking units of storytelling, each bearing the contrasting imprint of a different screenwriter which Scott has to stylistically unify, the impossibility of knowing crashes against the certainty of result. Damon’s chapter hands himself a part that hinges on his screen persona as a man who people tend to underestimate, for his curiously nondescript good looks, turned increasingly heavy-set in middle-age and matching capacity to play men driven by deeply repressed social or class resentment. Affleck’s chapter is as much a lampoon of Hollywood players in the fashion of his own movie Argo (2012) as it is a portrait of a destructively egocentric pair of men. Holofcener brings the feminine perspective, forcing a discomfortingly close identification with Marguerite as she sweats through several different forms of abuse. The real history invoked in The Last Duel is opaque. Just what really went down between the Carrouges and Le Gris is unknowable beyond what they themselves said happened. The film itself finally is not. I gritted my teeth just a little bit as Scott designated the first two chapters as “the truth according to” but the last, more than a shade archly, sees “the truth” as those words fade more slowly from the screen. The ultimate point of Rashomon was that people inevitably see events that encompass them with a slanted perspective, according to the way they think of themselves and of other people. But fair’s fair: The Last Duel has a different end in mind, that yes, there can be a specific and ultimate truth that other people don’t always want to see, for whatever reason, and that people can also edit their own reality to make sense of what they do.
With a kind of irony allowed only to deities and film directors, Scott can make his film equivalent to the proposed metaphysical reasoning behind the concept of the trial by combat itself, as a vehicle to reveal such hidden truths. Only at a couple of points in the film does Scott and his trio of screenwriters entirely contradict what has already been portrayed, a way of approaching cinema that has a controversial aspect, as it requires the camera which reports narrative to us to lie. But it is used here with exacting purpose. Thus, where Carrouges remembers his attempt to intervene when the English slaughter French hostages at the Battle of Limoges as a valiant if doomed charge demanded by honour and humanity, Le Gris recalls as a calamitous surrender of reason to emotion that cost victory in the battle and almost got him killed. The event binds the two men in their erratic orbit, whilst also defining their relationship to Pierre, whose power over their lives and careers plays no small role in what happens. Carrouges becomes increasingly convinced that Le Gris, perhaps constantly aggravated by owing his life to the older, tougher knight, has become pathologically fixated on taking his stuff and showing him disrespect. Le Gris sees Carrouges as increasingly ridiculous and impossible in his lack of moderation and reason, and that he himself is merely the accidental beneficiary of Carrouges’ self-invited bad luck. Pierre’s personal detestation of Carrouges, sparked by his actions in the battle and reinforced when Carrouges sues him, and his indulgence of Le Gris, reinforces the deeply personal nature of power the age, as the lord has the right and facility to award and strip favours and posts, to oversee and manipulate legal contests, and generally make life easier or harder. Moreover, as Pierre admits to Le Gris in speaking of Carrouges, “He’s no fun.”
Affleck, in a performance reminiscent of the kind Peter Ustinov once gave in movies like Quo Vadis (1951) and Spartacus (1960) in the way he manages to offer levity and glimmers of satirical anachronism without despoiling the overall texture, portrays the medieval lord as a man with a strong streak of smug brattiness, but also a keen sense of his own prerogative and a good sense of which people will meet his needs and those who will not. Pierre comes to lean on Le Gris as both an intelligent manager of his affairs who can get things done, chiefly by employing standover and shakedown tactics to get money out of his vassals and tenants, and as a friend and confederate who comes increasingly to share and enjoy Pierre’s predilection for hedonistic pleasures, pleasures that are readily served up by the in-built pyramid scheme that is medieval social structure. Affleck helps to also bridge the film’s period setting and the more contemporary concerns, pitching Pierre as an indulgent friend and protector for Le Gris, and coaching him on how to handle Marguerite’s accusation: “Deny, deny, deny.” Affleck and Damon of course owed much of their breakthrough as major Hollywood players to the now disgraced and jailed Harvey Weinstein, and this line had the stinging quality of something they might have heard bandied about the Miramax offices at some point. Scenes depicting Pierre playing the easy, jocular host for his circle of friends, making a tart speech farewelling his pregnant wife as she heads off to bed, similarly lampooning a certain kind of Hollywood grandee as he and Le Gris then settle down to the proper business of buttering up the gathered with choice bawdiness.
A key encounter in the course of the tale as a whole sees Pierre deftly counter Carrouges’ scarcely controlled fury in reminding him of what he has every right to do, in a scene where Carrouges confronts Pierre and Le Gris at the celebration of Le Gris being given his father’s title. This scene is cut away from in Carrouges’ chapter, as he reports to Marguerite that he feels he spoke well, whereas through Le Gris’ eyes it’s the spectacle of his old friend making an ass of himself before a much-amused crowd, where Carrouges’ anger is self-defeating, and his attempt to argue to Pierre that Le Gris is a snake in the grass falls totally flat. Carrouges sees himself as a kind of working stiff of the aristocratic warrior class, the guy who, robbed by The Man and unfairly penalised for standing up for his rights, has to go to Scotland to find work, risking life and limb, gaining a knighthood in the process but still returning home to what he feels is snooty disdain. Glimpses of combat in the film in which Carrouges fights at Limoges and in Scotland exemplifies the famous formula of life being nasty, brutish, and short, but battle is also a realm where Carrouges is at least comfortable and competent. This self-portrait is undercut to a degree later when Marguerite learns Carrouges neglects collecting rents on his estate, and takes it in hand herself. Which is actually a nice depiction of one rarely elucidated aspect of medieval life, when the running of a great estate was a task that needed intelligent and competent people and often fell to wives to perform when their husbands were off at war, which tended to be frequent.
The Last Duel in this fashion assiduously details the mores and structures legal, military, and financial that underpinned feudal Europe, and examines the way those things meshed with the people who inhabited it. Part of the challenge in making such a film is to animate the very different ways the society of the age understood cause and effect, truth and falsehood, and individual identity itself, even as the actual people are entirely recognisable to us in their motives and emotional and behavioural extremes. Carrouges, for instance, is revealed through signing his name with a mark, to be illiterate, not uncommon for his time but giving a fascinating and revealing dimension to his feelings of paranoia and persecution in the face of Le Gris’ learning and competence in abstract matters like finance and letters. This represents an entire world at once readily visible to Carrouges but also entirely incomprehensible, much in the same way that much biliousness today stems from the simultaneous ubiquity and incoherence for many of dominant areas of specialised learning like computer technology or high finance. As the titular duel itself confirms, this was still a time when a fearsome price to be paid in physical suffering was supposed to both substitute for, and potentially alleviate, spiritual suffering. Or, to take another attitude towards the same idea, fear of the latter was made more palpable and therefore more impressive and real by the threat of the former, helping create a kind of mental surveillance system to ensure good behaviour.
A very crucial part of the plot of The Last Duel as it reaches its home stretch is the revelation that loss in the duel for Carrouges also means an even more terrible fate for Marguerite too as the accuser, placing Marguerite in an impossible situation according to the sexist and doctrinaire rules of the time. Marguerite would be brandished a liar and heretic through the failure of her husband’s muscle rather than through any reasoned parsing of her testimony, and whilst Carrouges himself certainly risks violent and gruesome death in the hunt for satisfaction, still rather pleasant compared to being burned alive. Marguerite doesn’t even learn this until they’ve travelled far too far down this road to turn back, but she successfully maintains a façade of adamant poise in front of the hearing. Carrouges, knowing that Pierre controls the local courts and can therefore ensure Le Gris’ acquittal, as he does, instead petitions the king for the right to trial by combat, which means weathering a hearing presided over by the king and his Parlement including church elders. Le Gris, for his part, turns down the plea by a cleric, Le Coq (Zeljko Ivanek), to take advantage of a loophole that will let the case be heard in an ecclesiastical court instead, nullifying the risk of the combat, insisting that to do so would be tantamount to cowardice and a tacit admission of guilt, which means he is, more subtly, a victim of a similar bind to Marguerite.
At the same time, the contemporary likenesses are hardly disguised as the film’s driving concern is winnowed down to the offence done to Marguerite, an offence that to gain any kind of justice entails risking still worse suffering. The hallowed cliché of “he said, she said” trotted out in ambiguous accusations of sexual misconduct played here as a particularly lethal game of chicken. The problems identified in the period are the problems of today when it comes to such matters. Marguerite has the right to have her accusation taken at face value and seriously delved into, but faces the presumption that she’s a pawn, or a harlot, or a conspirator in her husband’s desire to revenge himself on Le Gris, who himself has friends in high places who can stymie any semblance of justice, and so she must submit to questioning tantamount to another form of rape as her sex life is probed. Meanwhile by this stage she’s grown heavy with child, an event that might be the ironically late fulfilment of her marriage contract with Carrouges or the product of Le Gris’ assault. It would be more than a bit rich to call Scott the inventor of Hollywood feminism, but what he did do was create, with Ripley for Alien (1979) and later Thelma and Louise (1991) and G.I Jane (1997), templates for how popular cinema approaches such things. Marguerite is a particularly potent extension of this facet of Scott’s oeuvre, in the way her presence is used to purposefully unpack the kind of warrior mystique Scott served up so ripely in Gladiator. But she’s also something of a critique of that iconography of strong women. Marguerite is at the mercy of the men around her, be they officially protective like Carrouges or predatory like Le Gris, and her attempt to stand up for herself never really escapes this zone. The Last Duel dismantles the idea of the white knight standing up for his abused lady, but it also firmly reminds that the kinds of empowerment fantasies we see in a lot of movies today are just that.
Carrouges’ self-perception laid out in the first chapter is undercut in the second and finally laid totally bare in the last, particularly when his reaction to Marguerite’s rape is revised from calm sympathy to one of raging peevishness, seeing himself wronged before Marguerite and demanding she prostrate herself so he can try and efface Le Gris’ imprint on her. It’s an ugly scene that largely dispels what little sympathy one has for Carrouges by this point. But the film succeeds in being more nuanced than expected on this score. Carrouges’ anxious desire to sexually please his wife whilst knock her up avoids the standard vignette in a lot of recent historical dramas of a brutishly indifferent husband, and even in this scene there’s the feeling this is another of Carrouges’ incoherent emotional expressions, beset by the absurdly provoking notion that he can literally fuck Le Gris’ taint out of his wife’s vagina. Driver has perhaps the most perfectly medieval face to appear in cinema since Ron Perlman with the added advantage of being considered handsome, and he gives perhaps his best performance to date as Le Gris, particularly in his playing of the crucial rape scene(s) where he seems to be acting a little drama to which he’s written the script in his head with scarce reference to reality, a playlet in which he’s the ardent suitor locked in a game of erotic hide-and-seek with a proper but lusty lady, much like the games played in Pierre’s chambers every night. Indeed, Scott films one such game, which culminates in the beginning of an orgy, and then recreates the framing in Le Gris’ version of his attack on Marguerite, suggesting the degree to which his reality is by this point forged by the bubble he lives in.
The shift to Holofcener’s presentation Marguerite’s viewpoint adopts a similar tactic to Affleck’s but with a different frame, ticking off chick flick clichés. Marguerite contends with her haughty and critical mother-in-law Nicole de Carrouges (Harriet Walter) whilst being left alone with her for long stretches of time, and hangs out with her social circle amongst the real castle wives of Normandy like Marie (Tallulah Haddon) as they assess the local male talent, with all agreeing Le Gris scores high in the looks department, casual fun which provides another bitter consequence as Marie later resents Marguerite for her accusation against Le Gris. Marguerite weathers her returned husband’s anger over showing excessive quantities of boob, having adopted the queen’s latest, risqué fashion, and experiences bewildered frustration over her primary function, trying to bear children for Carrouges, with her clueless husband shooting blanks and leaving her resolutely unsatisfied, although in her inexperience she has no way to express this, much in the same way her husband cannot himself articulate his most powerful needs.
More substantively, Marguerite is able to put her intelligence and learning to beguiling use in running Carrouges’ estate and expertly assessing Le Gris’ real character whilst seeming to charm him, a foray that leads her to ultimately agree with her husband that Le Gris is a cunning but facetious personality, but also backfires as she hooks Le Gris’ interest. Comer, hoisted to prominence playing a globetrotting assassin in the TV show Killing Eve, gives a formidable and completely different performance here that immediately and firmly establishes her as a major movie actor. She’s particularly interesting in portraying not just the more spectacular dramatic moments, but in touches like her Marguerite suddenly crying whilst trying to sustain a conversation with Marie, and her slight air of pleased self-approbation as she reports her observations of Le Gris to her husband as they dance and notes the advantages in her way of handling problems. A crucial moment comes late in the film when the Carrouges matriarch confronts Marguerite and accuses her of stirring up dangerous strife to suit herself, and mentions that she herself was raped once when young, a secret she kept for the sake of avoiding more trouble, exposing a vast gap not simply in attitude towards such a crime between her and her daughter-in-law but in their methods of survival, as Marguerite notes the cost such stoicism has inflicted, solving nothing, salving nothing.
Alien Covenant achieved a mode of brilliant self-indulgence for Scott as a garish self-satire, restlessly rearranging and re-enshrining horror and melodrama canards whilst using them as fodder for the theme of a creator moving forward with eternally dissatisfied hunger, inventions both great and flawed left in a billowing wake. The Last Duel encompasses a similar reflex, albeit it more applied, in its triptych of auto-critiquing storylines. As well as allowing Scott to revise and complicate his own popular mythologies, The Last Duel unifies strands of his cinematic reflexes evinced throughout his career. Scott’s exactingly wrought and densely layered visual tableaux have sometimes been purely decorative but in his best work also support his attempts to weave a holistic vision of a created, or recreated, world, in movies as diverse as Blade Runner (1982) and American Gangster (2007). The latter film tried to do something most similar gangster films avoid and show how the criminal enterprise worked from the mastermind to the junkie at the bottom of the food chain, shedding light on the antihero’s wilful blindness to the misery he causes, and The Last Duel exhibits the same top-to-bottom thoroughness. The Martian (2015) was more jocular and light-footed in its similar preoccupation with process, exploring the manifold forces human and cosmic required to save one stranded human being. Blade Runner wove dreamlike visual textures from a rigorously detailed setting, and touched on a similar fascination for the depth of the cinematic frame as a zone where every grain or digit can contain meaning, most particularly in the long sequence of Deckard exploring a photograph for clues in the mystery he was unravelling, a sequence of which The Last Duel can be described as the feature-length extrapolation.
The business of husbandry is codified in a sourly funny and cunningly layered vignette, in which Marguerite looks on in bewildered anxiousness whilst her husband gets furious over a big black stallion breaking into the stall of his in-season white mare and trying to mount her. This potent unit of imagery comes straight out of Shakespeare’s Othello but converted from verbal usage to visual. This image doesn’t just comment on their marriage and the impending act of sexual violence, but delves to the bottom of things, establishing how everything in this world is the attempt to desperately control the power of natural forces over the tentative stability of social structures, a world where dynamic, daemonic urges are scarcely leavened by fear of hellfire or a well-swung mace, and the weak are at the mercy of the strong. More subtle but most vital as a visualisation of theme and character are the three different versions of one kiss, which Carrouges bids Marguerite give Le Gris as part of their ritual of reconciliation. What is for Carrouges a glancing, purely polite gesture is for Le Gris a striking moment of chemistry and for Marguerite a perturbing signal, conveyed through both the actors’ actions and the variation in Scott’s camerawork. Such dramas that eventually finish up consuming a nation’s attention, as well as ultimately threaten three lives, can pivot on such fleeting yet intense moments, infinite realities packed into such junctions of human attitude.
The portrayals of the rape itself in both Le Gris and Marguerite’s chapters, again exemplifies the filmmaking care even in showing something that isn’t pleasant to watch. Small details tellingly differ – where, say, Le Gris sees Marguerite leaving shoes behind her like a saucy maiden discarding clothing, Marguerite remembers as simply accidental in the course of her flustered fear – and so too does the visual language. Scott holds back for the most part in Le Gris’ version, filming mostly in wide shots that emphasise the physicality of the event, Le Gris as lanky coyote after Marguerite’s darting roadrunner, before concluding with a point-of-view shot of Le Gris looking down at Marguerite’s face in contorted profile. Le Gris’ version of sex is duly pornographic, defined not by connection but by the erasure of need, and his self-created fiction resumes as he makes his apologies and leaves. In Marguerite’s version the shots are more intimate and urgent, climaxing in a long close-up on her shattered expression as Le Gris penetrates her and then leaves her, the storm having visited and then departed like some deeply ugly and surreal dream, reminiscent in a way of the imagery of violation and sudden, sundering ugliness in Alien.
The attack can only be properly avenged in the trial by combat, which means the Carrouges must work tactically, making their friends and social circle unwitting confederates by telling them and using them in the project of forcing the King to pay attention, circumventing Pierre’s control, essentially the medieval edition of a social media campaign. The hearing the King calls eventually sees the parties grilled by legal minds, a sequence that’s used to encompass the most egregious aspects of the period’s approach to things like sex and justice. The young monarch, Charles VI (Alex Lawther), essentially treats the event as a particularly juicy entertainment, whilst the duel itself is a spectator sport that’s also like watching a movie in that everyone has their rooting interest. Scott builds suspense as the film nears the duel as the potential price Marguerite must pay becomes clear, a truth that displaces the tension over Carrouges and Le Gris’ fates onto her, as she stands up to her irate husband with intense and righteous anger but then finds both a source of solace and further worry when she has her child and wonders if the infant will soon be orphaned after such a long effort by the parents to have him. Carrouges meanwhile is left isolated in both his alienation from Marguerite and most of the onlookers who want to see him fall, and Damon does an excellent job in invoking pathos in the character even when that’s not the focal point through his stolid, chastened affect as the moment of confrontation with mortality looms.
The duel, when finally returned to, represents an apotheosis for Scott in terms of sheer moviemaking craft, capturing with concussive immediacy both the awful violence of the fighters and the nightmarish state of watching it with the certainty that life and death acted out on the sand is also one’s own fate being settled. The cinematography by Dariusz Wolski, with its stern, frigid, muted grey-blue palette only swapped out for the honeyed glow of candlelit interiors, mostly rejects the penchant for beauty found in Scott’s other historical films, and here become furious and alive in a way that feels as cutting-edge as anything Scott’s ever shot – beautifully dashing tracking shots cleaved brutally with inserts of mounted camerawork pursuing the duellists into the joust. Thunderous editing of both images and sound helping lend you-are-there palpability to the shattering lances spraying splinters, horses colliding with walls, and cold steel blades sinking into soft warm flesh, and none of it seems to be augmented with special effects, a particular blessing in this accursed moment in action filmmaking. Every blow and movement communicates physical effort and cost. What it isn’t is a cheer-along struggle of good and evil, even as Scott finally allows Carrouges to become what he wanted to think of himself as, the plucky, honourable underdog with a righteous cause, as he faces not just Le Gris’ unexpected fearsomeness in the fight but the general disdain of the aristocrats in the crowd, including Pierre, who want their charming favourite to win.
The fight comes to its terrible, gruesome end as Carrouges manages to outwit Le Gris and tries to force him to confess, before showing his dagger into the man’s mouth, a bloody and awfully intimate mirror to his assault on Marguerite. Carrouges, still faintly hapless even after proving himself awesomely tough as he needs the king’s cue to face and embrace his released wife, now exhibits sufficient poise to offer Marguerite to the crowd for exaltation as well, before leading her to an under-construction Notre Dame, whilst Le Gris’ corpse is hung up naked and pathetic. Even Pierre is offered a moment of pathos as he’s left clearly mourning his friend. Carrouges fails at being a hero but finally triumphs in offering the crowd a better story, of a knight who has vindicated his wife. Scott nonetheless suggests the awful, lingering bleakness under the relief nonetheless as he cuts out the noise of the cheering mob and has only the sound of Marguerite’s strained breathing on the soundtrack as she rides in slow motion. A brief coda does give a modest dose of reassurance as Marguerite is glimpsed as a happy mother whilst Carrouges has gone off to get himself killed in the Crusades. But it’s with that image of Marguerite after the duel where the film should have ended, with that feeling that won’t go away, like standing on the beach with a colossal wave about to crash down upon you.
Director: Edgar Wright Screenwriters: Krysty Wilson-Cairns, Edgar Wright
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers…
Edgar Wright built his fame as a filmmaker with a very particular brand. Wright offered sarcastically comedic takes on well-worn film genres that, rather than playing as outright lampoons, took the up the thrilling, extraordinary, dynamic experiential journeys found in the likes of a George Romero-esque zombie horror movie or a Michael Bay-style cop action movie. Into these he inserted very ordinary characters contending with the most commonplace and stodgy life problems, taking the truism that the heightened metaphors found in genre films represent more fundamental and familiar human quandaries, and gaining strange fizz from the disparity, the awareness that in some ways it’s easier to face up to big disasters and epic calamities than the small, everyday terrors of life. Wright wielded filmmaking technique skilled and kinetic enough to bind the two seemingly opposite dramatic styles into lucid, giddily amusing wholes. Wright’s breakthrough feature Shaun of the Dead (2004) and its follow-ups in the so-called “Cornetto Trilogy” Hot Fuzz (2007) and The World’s End (2014), were also fuelled by that disparity, but also the tension between the very British settings with their air of cosy familiarity, and the adrenalized, stylised, fantastic precepts of Hollywood blockbusters.
Wright’s first Hollywood film, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2011), whilst working in a similar fashion, inevitably lacked that tension of sociology as well as genre, although it tried to retain it to a degree in adopting a Canadian setting. Wright’s 2017 hit Baby Driver, whilst a divisive experience that proved oddly aggravating to some viewers in mashing together bratty comedy, neo-musical, and action thriller, signalled Wright starting to shift ground. Last Night In Soho, his latest film and judging by early signs his least well-received to date critically and commercially, continues that shift in offering what is essentially a straitlaced mystery-horror film. That is, straitlaced to a degree. Last Night In Soho is every inch a Wright film in its stylistic and thematic refrains. The fetishism for pop music and use of it as a seismograph of life experience for the characters and a texture-imbuing device for the filmmaking. The constant theme of a hero trying to come of age even as life proves rather more daunting and dangerous than expected. But where in Wright’s previous films the pop culture fun was presented as a kind of spicy sauce layered atop the smart-aleck allegories, Last Night In Soho goes a step further. It makes the allure of nostalgia and the habits of creative young folk, wrapping themselves in a self-mythologising cloak of preferred culture, into a topic to be dissected rather than played off. Wright is certainly out here to do something more ambitious than offer a feature-length version of Don’t, the terrific little unit of pastiche he made as a fake movie trailer for Grindhouse (2007).
Wright’s heroine Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) is a pure avatar who for myriad young, talented dreamers, albeit with her own, particular abilities and inspirations. She’s first glimpsed dancing about her grandmother’s house in a tape-and-newspaper dress to Peter and Gordon’s “World Without Love” and fantasising about being a famous fashion designer. Eloise’s penchants for a world of retro glamour are given a plain story basis, as she was raised by her grandmother (Rita Tushingham) on a diet of 1960s LPs, after her mother’s death by suicide. Eloise is blessed with an extra layer of oddness in that she has a form of psychic awareness, allowing her to stay in touch with her mother’s watchful shade. Eloise’s embracing world of old music and big dreams faces the challenge of going to the London College of Fashion from her home in Cornwall. Eloise’s stranger talent is the vehicle for the plot as it leaves her especially vulnerable in both her sense of detachment from other people her age and her ability to absorb the dense layer of experience, good and bad, soaked into every inch of London. But it also provides Wright and co-screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns with a clever metaphor for a certain kind of heightened, transformative awareness that would surely feel familiar to many an artistically inclined youngster. Eloise’s private universe allows communing with history, both personal and social, conjuring a glorious lost golden age when the culture’s fruits were in full bloom compared to the petty, happenstance, unpredictable present, all the better for drawing on as fuel for one’s own attempts to create alternate universes where more perfect things can exist.
Eloise’s specific spur to such yearnings is her childhood loss of her mother. When she first lands in London she’s both been schooled to be cautious in the Big Bad World to a degree that she overreacts at some manifestations of it – a flippantly libidinous taxi driver, ads for sex workers festooning phone booths – and quickly finds herself run ragged when she falls into the hard-partying company of her new roommate Jocasta (Synnøve Karlsen) and her circle of friends. Her first student dorm party ends up with her zoning out whilst listening to her favourite sounds and falling asleep wrapped in a blanket, huddled in a corner. This part of the movie is the most familiarly Wright-esque as Jocasta and her circle are swiftly and wryly sketched as insufferable poseurs, providing a few good laughs in the process, with Jocasta explaining why she’s dropping her last name thanks to the example of Kylie – Jenner, not Minogue – and tries to make social capital out of belonging to the “dead mum’s club,” desperately trying to make up ground when Eloise incidentally outmanoeuvres her in the pitiable stakes. Jocasta and her pals provide suitably snooty foils for Eloise, whilst also representing the debased modern world with its most shallow and transitory obsessions and heedless lack of interest for anything that doesn’t feed into the machine of current commercial appeal.
Wright might be making a nod to Pretty In Pink (1986) as Eloise turns up to college wearing clothes she designed and made herself only to find Jocasta and company festooned in designer gear. Jocasta does a least perform the essential service of introducing Eloise to the pleasures of booze and a rowdy night out in Soho, where Wright cheerfully plays John Barry’s theme for Beat Girl (1959) on the soundtrack. But the only person Eloise finds any real connection with at school is John (Michael Ajao), a young man who admits that he also has had trouble fitting in in North London. Being as he is from South London. Quickly tiring of dorm life, Eloise chooses to seek out a place of her own and seems to find the perfect place in a small flat in Soho rented off the elderly Ms Collins (Diana Rigg), who seems like a reassuring substitute for her grandmother, and the flat seems to harbour hidden pleasures available specifically to a person like Eloise. When she falls asleep on her first night there, drifting off whilst listening to Cilla Black’s “You’re My World,” Eloise enters into a dream so vivid it seems more like an inherited memory. There she watches/becomes young and lovely Sandie (Anya-Taylor Joy), who saunters into the Café de Paris, the hub of Soho nightlife circa 1965, and goes about trying to catch the eye of the right person to help her dream of becoming a singing star.
This sequence is perhaps the most unabashedly grandiose and idealised Wright has ever dared be in his staging and evocation of a past that’s imperial in its renascent confidence and glamour, an embrace of something in a fashion that Wright, long the hipster’s hipster in his blend of fervour and irony, has clearly both admired but held himself wary of. He stages a travelling shot from Eloise’s point of view emerging from a side street into the midst of busy Soho, a huge poster for Thunderball (1965) pinpointing the historical moment as Black’s singing rises from soft and enticing to grand and swooning in force, before entering the Café de Paris. There Eloise finds herself the reflected, fragmented image of Sandie descending stairs as the perfected dolly bird, and Eloise is able to share the experience as Sandie dodges the sleazy, grasping Cubby (Paul Brightwell) and makes a beeline for Jack (Matt Smith), who seems every inch Sandie’s period male counterpart with his slicked-back pompadour, sharp suit, and insouciant charm, still daintily gripping drink and cigarette even as he joins Sandie on the dance floor. Sandie sets about wowing Jack, who seems to be the man to talk to break into Soho show business, by dancing to Graham Bond’s “Wade in the Water”: Sandie gets to act out her fantasy of arresting the very eye of the zeitgeist whilst Jack plays her ideal swashbuckling lover, socking Cubby as he becomes insulting and dashing off with Sandie to make out in a telephone booth.
Eloise’s vicarious experience through Sandie’s persona gifts her a vision that fits her concept of the past and also an idealised edition of her own hopes and anticipations: Sandie has all the brash confidence Eloise (and Wright) associated with a spectacular era and which Eloise finds conspicuously lacking in herself. Here Wright touches on an essential matter that’s fascinated him since Shaun of the Dead – how people construct themselves not only through their own lived experience but the art they love and how those two realms interact, art itself being an inheritance whether it’s a week old or a century and presents a way of seeing that contains truth but not reality. Although both characters are linked by their maintained bubbles of detachment from the world, Wright makes Eloise subtly different to the hero of Baby Driver: for him all the music he loved, soaked in through his perpetually present ear-buds, was rendered equal and contemporary through the omnivorous way he encountered it, where Eloise, detached from the mainstream by her life circumstances, uses music to create a world to retreat into. Eloise’s psychic talents, in this regard, are unabashedly presented as an amplification of her creative talents, and the tale of Sandie and Jack, at first at least, operates like her fantasy projection of herself, a vehicle to evoke the textures she tries to recreate in her design work, birthing designs taking inspiration from Sandie’s apparel. Of course, Wright is creating both stories, and the hall-of-mirrors story structuring is recreated within, as Eloise finds herself increasingly uncomfortable and unable to maintain the vicarious perspective, trying to escape the mirrors, but finds the price of that is the other world can access hers, too. Finally, after taking Jack back to her flat in an attempt as much to try and escape that other world as to gain experience of her own, Eloise is driven into screaming hysterics as she envisions Jack threatening Sandie and seeming to kill her in a gruesome welter of blood.
That Wright plainly loves the mid-1960s pop culture and the fabled stature of Swinging London is etched into every frame of the film even when considering its dank and malevolent side – indeed Wright knows full well part of the allure of nightlife groves is that debauched and seedy aspect, the feeling of a place carefully cordoned off from polite society where animal pleasures can be indulged, so long as it’s place where one can safely be a tourist rather than a permanent resident. A little like horror cinema itself. If Last Night In Soho had been made at the time the period scenes are set they would in turn be transposed to about 1910. And, indeed, there were a number of horror movies in the mid-1960s and early ‘70s that cast their minds back, if not quite that far, then to the Jazz Age as a sounding board for contemporary drama, with a similar motif of an age of quaint glamour on the edge of popular memory, recalled by bedraggled and ancient survivors, a la Robert Aldrich’s gothic valentines Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? (1963) and Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), Terence Fisher’s The Devil Rides Out (1967), and Robert Fuest’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971). Wright makes the obvious gambit of casting Tushingham, Rigg, and Terence Stamp in prominent roles as actors who aren’t just the right age for their characters but carry a distinctive cachet from the era that gives an extra sense of import in their roles: Tushingham still has the limpid crystalline gaze she had in Doctor Zhivago (1965), now used to give a little twinkle of familiar compassion to Eloise’s aging but reliable guardian.
Stamp is cast as an elderly man Eloise keeps encountering around Soho including in the Toucan, a pub where she gets a job pulling pints. Eloise soon begins to suspect he may be the older Jack, a suspicion that gains solidity when he seems to recognise her inspiration once she changes her hairstyle to match Sandie’s. Stamp is still a formidable screen presence, and he brings something ineffable to his part, expertly deploying his native Cockney accent in alternations of gruff, chisel-on-stone scepticism and passages of wry, almost lilting wistfulness: “How dare you,” he retorts when Eloise notes he was once a ladies’ man as he bangs out air piano on the bar: “Still am.” Eloise’s conviction that he is Jack leads to a confrontation in which she tries to get him to confess to Sandie’s murder and record it on her phone, only for the increasingly irate man to become so distracted in his irritation he’s hit by a car, and Eloise learns not only isn’t he Jack, he’s actually Lindsay, a former policeman – the same one who decades before encouraged Sandie to get out, and has survived into old age as the keeper of the memory of all Soho’s nasty secrets. Wright leaves it frustratingly vague as to whether Lindsay dies, and indeed it’s a subtly dark touch where Wright makes his heroine essentially responsible for the death of the closest thing the period scenes offer to a hero figure.
Last Night In Soho is, evidently, a homage-cum-revision of 1960s and ‘70s giallo thrillers, most famously and specifically associated with Italian cinema and directors including Mario Bava, Dario Argento, and Lucio Fulci. But giallo can be argued to in part have British roots. The style took heavy licence from Alfred Hitchcock – Wright mischievously closes the stylisation loop by referring back to Vertigo (1958) in having Eloise’s room flooded by red and blue neon light, in good Bava style, from the neighbouring sign of an Italian restaurant much like the hotel room in the Hitchcock film – and directors like Seth Holt and George Pollock were engaged in giallo-like stories and visual motifs at the same time Bava was synthesising the giallo style and creating his signature colour film filled with clashing, drenching hues which Wright quotes copiously. The very Italian quality of the giallo as it developed was of course more one of aesthetic, the delirious gusto in entering entirely into a tricky, deceptive way of seeing that in the hands of directors like Argento and Fulci all but lost contact with standard ideals of coherent narrative. Wright honours the giallo style with expected levels of referentialism, nicking from Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970) the motif of a murderous assault witnessed but misinterpreted in terms of who is attacking whom, and the obsession with dream visions and psychic connections from the Fulci films like A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin (1971) and The Psychic (1977), devices that allowed Fulci to play cinematic games with perception and enter completely into a dreamlike space. And, in classic giallo fashion, the climax involves a gender switch of the expected killer, a gender switch connected with the style’s concern with disrupted social mores. Like Suspiria (1977), Wright’s film tracks a young student as she enters into a dark fairy-tale realm where the dangers and strangeness about her dramatise her urgent attempts to mature.
Wright also nods to a more local tradition in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), and some of its odder children like Peter Collinson’s Straight On Till Morning (1972), variants that drew on a more psychological and realistic style of horror preoccupied with sympathetic killers whose sanity has broken down until they are isolate islands of neurosis. Wright also reminded me a little of “The Mirror” episode from Kevin Connor’s From Beyond The Grave (1973), which similarly depicted a hapless person experiencing mind-twisting visions in a recently-rented apartment, although Wright stops well short of going down the route in that story of having Eloise possessed and start killing herself, as amusing as the thought of the winsome McKenzie going on a killing spree is. Alongside the horror movie trappings, though, Last Night In Soho is also like Baby Driver before it a covert musical, and again takes its title from a song, in this case by cult ‘60s band Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Titch, whilst its heroine is named after the song by Barry Ryan, featured in a key scene. The way Wright weaves music into the film’s texture and its storytelling rhythms is represents perhaps his best filmmaking to date. Wright’s use of music has always been inspired – the scene in Shaun of the Dead where the heroes bash zombies in semi-choreographic time to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” being a beloved example. But here he goes deeper in the way he exploits emotional associations with music, most obviously in Eloise’s first dream where Black’s singing encapsulates all her fantasies about the past and the authority of its art, segueing into Sandie and Jack’s dance together as a tableaux of retro cool.
In Eloise’s second dream of her, Sandie performs an a capella rendition of Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” a song specifically about the romantic allure of the big city’s most fervent quarters, to Jack and the owner of a club called the Rialto (Terence Frisch), in an audition Jack arranged. The performance is a success, and the boss gives Sandie a job, leading to Sandie and Jack becoming lovers. So far Sandie’s story is still perfectly on song for Eloise’s idea of emerging into adulthood. Next dream, however, Eloise finds herself watching Sandie from amongst the all-male audience in the Rialto, and beholds Sandie as merely one of several back-up dancers in a burlesque act headed by “Marionetta” (Jeanie Wishes), who performs a tawdrily naughty dance whilst lip-synching Sandie Shaw’s “Puppet on a String.” This sequence, whilst depicting bawdy high spirits, nonetheless represents one of the most effective tonal shifts I’ve ever seen in a film, as Eloise confronts the squalid flipside of her throwback dreaming. Soon enough she realises Sandie, as well as being degraded in the show, is doomed to become Jack’s thrall and pet prostitute, rented out to a parade of bland middle-aged businessmen who go through the motions of charming her to a predestined outcome involving her sprawled in depressive self-loathing on her bed back in the flat with a wad of cash laid out beside her.
Wright uses the lyrics of the Shaw song, with its jolly but oddly sinister evocation of romantic dependence, to set the scene for Sandie’s downfall, and segueing into a deliriously garish vision in which Eloise swaps places with Sandie and flees through the interior of the Rialto, glimpsing visions of grim fates for girls like her glimpsed in dressing rooms engaged in sex acts or drug use, whilst being chased by Jack who’s now become an ogrish incarnation of the sleaze. The fantasy suddenly becomes a bleak, Fellini-esque nightmare zone where the fetid flipside of the period is unveiled with all its abusive prerogatives. Wright follows this sequence with an equally effective episode where Wright communicates Sandie’s mental fracturing and apparent total defeat through her dancing frenetically to the Walker Brothers’ cover of “Land of a Thousand Dances,” dissolving in deliriously psychedelic imagery, intercut with her listless and repetitious encounters with prospective johns. Amongst these, only an encounter with a man she takes to be a cop (Sam Claflin) stands out, as he suggests she’s too good for what’s she’s doing and should get out while she can.
Last Night In Soho is, then, a story about the problems of nostalgia, rather than an unleavened paean to it. Eloise is an apt vehicle for such explorations: thanks to her empathic gifts, Eloise is able to explore the past both as spectator but also actor in it, cinema viewer and theatrical performer, a detachment that becomes increasingly frustrating – at one point Eloise tries to shatter the barrier, represented by the mirror she exists in as Sandie’s reflection, and grab hold of her in a gesture of desperate protectiveness, a moment that perfectly illustrates the powerful feeling a lot of us have in contemplating the lives of people from the past we admire but know came to a bad end, wishing we could have intervened. But detachment is also deliverance, as Eloise is safe to awaken from the vicarious demimonde. At first, at least, before her dream life begins to invade her waking one, and she’s stalked by grotesque shadow-men with blurred faces who resemble Sandie’s client-rapists, as well as Sandie and Jack themselves. The dichotomies built in here invest Last Night In Soho with a depth that eludes many such genre-sampling tributes, stumbling into territory for Wright close to Brian De Palma, another arch image-player with a penchant for quoting giallo cinema, although Wright, thus far, lacks De Palma’s deeper perversity, his fascination for the dark battles in the soul he represents through his characters who are often brutally stripped of their naiveté.
Wright by contrast prizes the gawky innocence of his characters whilst also meditating on the inevitability of disillusionment and the sometimes unbearable impact of it. He has Eloise strikes up a tentative romance with John as the two uncool kids in the College of Fashion, but when the two finally try to take some time out for a little authentic youthful fun of their own as they attend a student union Halloween party and start bouncing about joyfully to Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Happy House,” and where Eloise and John’s sudden exuberance might partly be the result of Jocasta giving them spiked drinks. This island of true, personal, potentially transformative experience for Eloise nonetheless becomes a jagged trap as she starts seeing the ghostly men hovering around the dance floor, their grey semi-transparent forms flickering like the strobe lighting. An extremely effective image that also, oddly, calls back to the imagery of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World in Wright presenting the arena of music as a literal warzone, a place where people battle for control of their personalities, and perform great acts of self-discovery. Here Wright counters the jollity of that film with a jolt of ghostly visitation that can also be read as a portrait of melancholia piercing through fun, the melancholia that Eloise is trying to outrun, inherited from her mother. This theme of preternatural sensitivity to environment which operates as a kind of recording device for the common consciousness connects to a later comment by Ms Collins when Eloise asks her if someone once died in her room, “This is London – someone’s died in every room in every building in this whole city.” All cities are cities of the dead as well as the living.
The Toucan’s owner, Carol (Pauline McLynn), offers her converse version of this when she expresses a faith that her pub’s walls are haunted by ghosts of good times, as a stage where everyone – “Every gangster, every copper, every red-faced lush” – has some time of another stopped in for a drink and a laugh, forming part of the great mesh of community and continuity that imbues the city with its identity, in which every person is both a fleeting presence and a vital player, stars of their own movie overlapping with everyone else’s, and life happens in those overlapping margins. Eloise’s decision to seduce John leads into a keen example of Wright’s talent for layering his motifs, presenting her as at once a normal but troubled young person contemplating a familiar rite of passage in part to try and root herself in the here and now rather than her dark obsessions, and a very unusual one, making a desperate but oddly practical attempt to find a way to distract herself from a haunting that’s not metaphorical: from Eloise’s viewpoint an array of kissing couples in the street outside the nightclub blur and become their predecessors from another era, including the abused and maligned, part of a chain of events. When Eloise freaks out at the vision of Sandie’s apparent death as she and John try to have sex, John becomes the fool of absurd fortune, his humiliation and anxiety illustrated as he shatter a mirror and dashes out past Ms Collins with glass cutting up his feet, whilst Eloise is lost in a delirious and horrifying scene of flashing steel and spraying blood, taking to the most hyperbolic reaches imaginable the basic proposition of an initial sexual encounter proving tragically clumsy and hurtful.
Eloise, trying to find some historical record of Sandie’s death in part to prove she’s not simply suffering from a hyperactive imagination, goes trawling through old newspaper microfiche reels in the college library, not noticing that some of the faces from the old missing persons cases are awfully familiar. The Halloween dance party and its nightmarish interrupting is a brilliant scene that Wright, perhaps trying to really live up to his ambition to make above all a horror movie rather than a deconstructive impression of one, repeats arguably once or twice too often, as Eloise keeps experiencing similarly bloodcurdling and disorientating encounters with the wraiths. She cracks during one such assault during her library sojourn and tries to stab one of the ghosts, only to for her blow to be stopped just in time by John, and Eloise realises she was actually about to stab the understandably perturbed and wrathful Jocasta. It’s not at all hard to guess where the plot of Last Night In Solo leads, for anyone who’s ever watched a giallo or even an episode of a TV show like Medium, and when the casting itself serves to a degree as a giveaway. Suffice to say that there’s a very good reason Eloise finds her double-edged dream-life in the place she does, which turns out to be as crammed full of dead bodies as Reginald Christie’s notorious address. Classic giallo films liked playing games with perception, of course, much of it built around preoccupations with alluring images of beauty and complications of gender. The Bird With The Crystal Plumage climaxed with the revelation a psycho killer was actually the seemingly victimised young woman, whilst Deep Red rifled a whole Freudian litany in its often literal deconstruction of bodies and the beings that inhabit them.
Last Night In Soho takes up those preoccupations in a manner that can be seen, depending on one’s predisposition, as timely or trendy, but it’s also wound deeply into its form and function. Whilst the narrative follows a classical giallo arc to its end, why we get there is given a new spin rooted in the exposure of sexism and exploitation in the entertainment industry, where monsters beget monsters. Wright’s cunning approach to casting also made me think of how different actors in different eras are used to encapsulate similar personas, linking the ambidextrous talent of Taylor-Joy as well as her unusual looks to Rigg, and Claflin’s brief but eye-catching embodiment of the young and urbane Lindsay, ingeniously able to reproduce the notes in Stamp’s performance as a figure who is in many ways the closest thing to a hero in the narrative but fatefully stymied by a streak of smug detachment that curdles eventually into angry, guilty boding. This is also reflected in the casting of McKenzie and Taylor-Joy, who don’t really look that much alike but are able to almost will themselves to resemble each-other. Rigg, for her part, in her last role, goes out luckily with a part that depends entirely on her specific talents as an actor: Rigg’s particularity, going back to her days in The Avengers TV series, lay in her ability to suggest something steely and dangerous under a carefully maintained surface, be it the chic insouciance of Emma Peel or a wrinkly old granny type here.
When it’s finally, inevitably revealed that sweet old Ms Collin is actually Sandie, or Alexandra as was her full, true name, Rigg handles the shift in manner to great effect, letting the sly, maniacal edge Sandie’s used to survive for half a century show as she proposes to kill Eloise and John. The edge of fierce and unsentimental knowing in Rigg’s performance as well as a certain indulgent awareness about life and the mistakes people make in it up until that point changes in perception from crusty-but-likeable to disturbing, like her comment that she would have killed John if she’d caught him in the bedroom scene. Sandie confesses that she killed Jack rather than the other way around before embarking on a campaign of vicious revenge by slaying all her old johns as well, and she drugs Eloise and stabs John in a last-ditch, determined attempt to keep her secret. Wright goes for broke in the finale in a way that risks excess – indeed many have found it so – in seeking reaches of quasi-operatic grandeur to match the emotional heat of the songs Wright deploys in the film, returning to “You’re My World” as Wright switches between the reality of old Sandie stalking Eloise up the stairwell and the swooningly stylised version of her fantasy where she’s young again and bringing the murderous pain in a most glam way. Here, Wright tries to twin the opposite poles of his cinematic lexicon in a new manner, the adoration of grandiose spectacle and show business colliding with sordid reality.
The climax still has its twists, as the ghostly men seem to erupt out of the floor and walls, and demand Eloise gain revenge and kill Sandie, only to wring a note of tragicomic sickness out of the sight of the shades all cringing like chastised boys as Sandie looms over them and they remember the savage wounds she inflicted. Only the ghostly Jack with his leering, provoking sneer holds the line in maintaining what is actually his perpetual puppet-play where even in murder and afterlife Sandie and the others can’t escape until cleansing fire claims them all. Wright tries to have his cake of genre fulfilment and eat his slice of revisionism, and there is some concomitant awkwardness. But ultimately I appreciated his attempt to be more complex, the dead men just as misogynistic and implacable as they were alive but not merely rendered as undead demons needing putting down again, Sandie neither fully crazed nor entirely sympathetic in answering abuse with abuse, grinding on in a joyless cycle that creates little hells on earth, a hell which, as Lindsay warned earlier, was in part Sandie’s own choice. Eloise refuses to let Sandie cut her own throat, but still has to leave her to her auto-da-fe, catching a last sight of the youthful Sandie seated on her old bed, about to be consumed by boiling flames, striking in her pathos but also at least finally gaining the kind of spectacular ending any good performer deserves. Wright includes a coda that sees Eloise emerging as a designing star with her flowing retro creations now bobbing on the bodies of male models, watched by her grandmother and the healed-up John, whilst Sandie’s image is now the one that keeps watch from the mirror, signalling Eloise has embraced the ambiguities, gender and otherwise, of the present and is keeping the cautionary example, and sense of mission, gained in her ordeal.
Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga Screenwriters: Cary Joji Fukunaga, Neil Purvis, Robert Wade, Phoebe Waller-Bridge
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers…
It feels like an eternity ago when Daniel Craig was cast as James Bond. The thought of a rugged, jug-eared, blonde-haired bruiser in the role caused consternation and debate amongst fans fond of the character’s popular image as a slick, dark, handsome toff in a tuxedo. But Craig’s debut in the role, Casino Royale (2006), proved an audience-delighting smash hit and a smart reinvention of the well-worn franchise: taking its cue from Ian Fleming’s debut novel, Casino Royale stepped back from familiar, much-loved template filled with absurdist action, sci-fi gimmicks, and quasi-surreal villainy, and instead aimed for something tougher, earthier, more realistic, an edge that had been present in the earliest films in the series like From Russia With Love (1963) and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), and briefly returned to in For Your Eyes Only (1981). Casino Royale owed much of its success to the direction of New Zealander Martin Campbell, who had previously reinvented Bond effectively for the 1990s in Goldeneye (1995). But it was Craig’s strength in the role that enthralled the zeitgeist, his muscular sex appeal and skill in depicting Bond’s evolution from a relatively unsophisticated government goon to something more like the familiar, suave, ice-cold agent. Craig’s stint as Bond has been the longest of any actor to date at 15 years, although he’s made less movies in that time than either Sean Connery or Roger Moore, thanks to oddities of fate like the credit squeeze that held up making Skyfall (2012) and the Covid-19 pandemic that delayed release of No Time To Die, Craig’s avowed last turn in the part.
Craig’s tenure has also been bedevilled by violent unevenness in the quality and reception of his actual movies, even if the actor himself has held on to general, if not universal, acclaim essaying the role. Marc Forster’s Quantum of Solace (2008) was met by many as an excessively hyperactive, underwritten entry, and Sam Mendes’ Spectre (2015) was also met as a letdown after Mendes and Craig scored a colossal success with Skyfall, a movie that managed to convince the rest of the world to play along with Britain’s reborn nationalist delirium. For myself, despite being a Bond fan and nominally appreciating the moves the franchise made back towards Fleming’s model, I’ve found it hard to really like the Craig era. Quantum of Solace was a bruising disappointment after the excellence of Casino Royale, and I also found Skyfall rather ungainly; ironically I liked Spectre a lot more than many, whilst conceding it had serious problems. Campbell’s touch on Casino Royale expertly mediated the new sock-in-the-teeth grit with some of the old globetrotting lushness in a manner at once smart and unpretentious, but the production team’s choice to bring in artier talents proved frustrating. Forster’s tilt, much like his supposedly serious movies, proved flashy and facetious. Mendes’ gift for creating adamantine imagery with a sense of scale and solidity and touched with gentle abstraction helped the series retain its aura of lush, ultra-classy style – you could all but smell the money being spent during his entries – but at the price of a somewhat languid pace and a sense of top-heavy self-importance in a franchise that once served up neo-matinee serial thrills.
There were subtler problems with the Craig-era films, too. The Bond series had long sustained itself vampirically through emulating pop culture trends – annexing Blaxploitation for Live and Let Die (1973) and the sci-fi craze of the late 1970s for Moonraker (1979), for instance, or even the parkour and Texas Hold ‘Em portions of Casino Royale – whilst retaining its own, mooring roster of demarcating tropes – the inimitable Monty Norman and John Barry theme, the opening gun-barrel logo scene and dreamy pop-art credit sequences filled with naked, silhouetted women, the familiar in-universe touches like Bond’s weapon of choice, the Walther PPK, and supporting characters like Q and Miss Moneypenny. The choice of divesting the series of many of these for Casino Royale came with a mooted promise to bring them back as Craig’s Bond evolved, whilst in the meantime the new films heavily emulated first the Jason Bourne films with their maniacally edited hand-to-hand combat and chase scenes and superficial cynicism towards statecraft, and Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, particularly The Dark Knight (2008), which Skyfall emulated to such a degree it sometimes felt like someone had erased the names from Nolan’s script and pencilled in new ones. The emulation of strong tendencies in contemporary serialised storytelling also drew the Craig Bonds to adopt a running storyline that managed to be at once negligible and convoluted, and an insistence on personalised conflicts and revenge themes based in backstory, leading to the point where even protozoa on Ganymede rolled their eyes when the series reintroduced Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the mastermind of SPECTRE, only to now characterise him as Bond’s resentful adoptive brother and chronic behind-the-curtain tormentor.
Skyfall and Spectre did at least serve to fulfil the promise of reintroducing the familiar Bond tropes with a fresh sense of their function. Spectre, in bringing back Blofeld (played inevitably but with curious miscasting by Christoph Waltz) and resetting the table so SPECTRE could once again provide ideal running villains detached from geopolitical tides, seemed to finally set the scene so the series could go wild again. Trouble is, the Craig-era films were simultaneously locked into another pattern, one obedient to current screenwriting clichés and the niceties of star vehicles. Craig’s advancing age was thematically tethered to Bond’s backdated status as a retro kind of hero and already being joked about in Skyfall, and now with No Time To Die Craig’s popularity in the part essentially obliges the franchise to eat its own tail. What was supposed to be a superhero’s origin story is suddenly, abruptly a fin-de-siecle meditation and dismantling. No Time To Die breaks with series traditions in many obvious and very arch ways, starting with being directed by an American for the first time, Cary Joji Fukunaga, who sometime back suggested a gift for filming very English material with his intelligent and textured work on Jane Eyre (2011) and brought cinematic attitude to the TV series True Detective. On the face of it, he seems like just the sort of talent to give the series a shot in the arm and help Craig wrap up in a blaze of glory. But something went very, very wrong here.
No Time To Die opens with a long flashback sequence to when Bond’s current paramour, Madeleine Swann, a doctor and the daughter of the deadly former SPECTRE operative Mr White, was a child (played at that age by Coline Defaud), at home with her alcoholic mother (Mathilde Bourbin): a man wearing a kabuki mask, who we later learn is named Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), traverses the snowy woods outside, enters the home, and kills the mother. Madeleine shoots Safin, but fails to kill him, and as she flees she falls through the ice covering a neighbouring lake. The intruder, rather than leaving her to die, saves her life. Cut to thirty-odd years later: Madeleine (Léa Seydoux) is travelling through Italy with Bond after he quit MI6 at the end of Spectre. As the pair resolve to make their peace with the ghosts haunting them as they stay in the town of Matera, Bond at Madeleine’s encouragement goes to say farewell at the grave of Vesper Lynd, his great love from Casino Royale. But Bond is almost killed by a bomb secreted in her tomb, and is chased by a gang of SPECTRE agents working under Blofeld’s command despite him being in strict isolation in an English prison. Hints given both by one of the assassins and Blofeld himself as he rings Madeleine on her cell phone, as well as her earlier encouragement, tell Bond she set him up for the assassination, and after he manages to wipe out the killers Bond stick her on a train and tells her she’ll never see him again.
The opening flashback puts a value on Madeleine’s past and perspective which does resurface later in the film, and yet I still don’t feel it was justified especially in a movie so long, but Fukunaga does tap the image of the masked man suddenly appearing in the window of the house for a jolt of effective creepiness. The subsequent sequences in the lengthy pre-credits movement are excellent. Fukunaga and the production team do their best to provide some thundering good action with some thankfully real-looking stunts as Bond throws himself behind a small brick fixture on an ancient stonework bridge to avoid being run over by a speeding car and then leaps off the bridge using a power cable as a bungee cord, and a few moments later rides a captured motorcycle up a cyclopean wall and leaps onto a terrace. This is the sort of daring, vivid, no-bullshit stunt work that’s been sorely missing from too much contemporary action cinema. But Fukunaga breaks the spell a few moments later when he has Bond, behind the wheel now of his beloved Aston-Martin, eject some miniature bombs that blow up a pursuing vehicle, done with obviously, horribly fake CGI. It’s dismaying that even James Bond films no longer have the courage of their own megabudget, go-big-or-go-home convictions.
Nonetheless Craig-as-Bond is at his best in this sequence: the way his eyes go wide and glazed in their fixed and murderous ferocity where he was warm and romantic a few seconds earlier, betrays Craig’s intelligent feel for how being an action hero requires a rarefied and demanding kind of acting, and builds to a moment when he seems paralysed by rage and heartbreak as he and the bewildered Madeleine are trapped in the Aston-Martin by gunmen who pound it with machine gun fire. Bond seems to be considering letting them both be shredded by the bullets once they finally puncture the armoured body as a just end for her deception and his foolishness, before his better self kicks back in as he beholds Madeleine’s weeping, terrified face, and he wipes out the shooters with the car’s secreted machine guns. A marvellous moment that knows how to express character through action, and seems to promise a Bond movie for the ages. The familiarly stylised credits sequence tips one of many nods to Peter Hunt’s series high On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in revisiting the imagery in Maurice Binder’s credits sequence for that film involving a Britannia figure and hourglasses, seen here crumbling to pieces and sinking to the ocean floor, with Billie Eilish’s duly dirge-like theme song on sound: the increasingly morbid and languid tenor of the last three Bond themes has exacerbated a certain cheerlessness starting to cling to the series.
The narrative proper takes up five years after the shootout in Matera, with a unit of heavily armed SPECTRE goons invading a covert germ warfare laboratory in a London skyscraper (!) to snatch a turncoat scientist, Obruchev (David Denchik), and a nanobot virus he was developing at the behest of M (Ralph Fiennes), capable of being programmed to kill anything from a specific person to an entire ethnic genome, and codenamed Heracles. Bond now in solitary, disaffected retirement in Jamaica, is visited by his pal and CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), along with a State Department official, Logan Ash (Billy Magnussen): they want to hire Bond to track down Obruchev as they’ve caught wind of the danger his invention represents. Bond initially turns them down, before he’s confronted by a British agent, Nomi (Lashana Lynch), who is soon revealed to be Bond’s replacement as 007: Nomi warns Bond not to get involved, which is a good way to make sure he does. Bond goes to Cuba where Leiter and Ash tell him Obruchev was last spotted, and in downtown Havana he finds the entire SPECTRE team gathered together to celebrate Blofeld’s birthday. Bond makes contact with an American agent, Paloma (Ana de Armas), who professes to being a recent recruit with three weeks’ training, but unleashes major skills when things go haywire.
Bond realises too late that he’s been lured to this place by Blofeld who wants his death by Heracles to be the crowning moment of the celebration, but when the virus is released it instead kills all the SPECTRE bigwigs: Obruchev, whose true master is Safin, has doublecrossed them. Bond and Paloma fight their way out and engage in a little friendly rivalry with Nomi in trying to catch Obruchev: Bond wins and flies him to a CIA spy ship disguised as a trawler where he meets with Leiter and Ash. But Ash proves to be another traitor in league Safin: he shoots Felix and leaves him and Bond to die as a mine blows a hole in the boat. Bond can’t save Felix, but he manages to escape and when he returns to London has a charged confrontation with M, before allying with Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Wishaw) to fully understand Heracles and seek out Safin. Bond demands to see Blofeld, who usually only allows Madeleine, now living in London and serving hand-picked as his psychotherapist, to visit him. Preparing for the next session, Madeleine is visited by Safin, and who blackmails her into spiriting a vial of Heracles in to Blofeld. Madeleine flees before actually confronting Blofeld, but Bond, having touched her, transmits the virus to Blofeld when he gets mad and tries to throttle him, and Blofeld promptly expires. When Bond goes to visit Madeleine, they swiftly reconnect, but life throws a new wrinkle Bond’s way – Madeleine has a daughter, Mathilde (Lisa-Dorah Sonnet), who he notices has his eyes: Madeleine swears she isn’t his, but of course she’s lying.
No Time To Die proves maniacally determined to cross the Ts and dot the Is when it comes to wrapping up Craig’s tenure, which, I might as well say now seeing everyone in the universe knows already, ends with Bond dying. In the process, the film completely contradicts the supposed initial promise of Craig’s entries as origin story. Instead, it exacerbates a trend that had been noticeable in Skyfall and Spectre in playing as a compressed greatest hits collection of tropes, but muted and pinched to fit in with the nominally more terse and down-to-earth Craig style, whilst also burning them as fuel for its own star vehicle engine. No Time To Die bewilderingly sets about wiping out Blofeld and SPECTRE just after they were restored to their proper place in the franchise, and also Wright’s Leiter, on the build-up to the climax where Bond himself finally seems to bite a bullet. Or missile. It’s as if the filmmakers feel that Craig is now so integral to Bond mystique that the character can’t survive in the same form beyond him as far as his fans are concerned, and so as far as this wing of the franchise goes, all the outstanding business must be ticked off. Or is simply that contemporary Hollywood screenwriting needs big bangs all the way through, and the only way to prove how big No Time To Die must be taken as is to be, as TV commercials might put it with thumping music stings, The. One. That. Changes. Everything.
Craig’s films have repeatedly tried to root themselves in concepts and lore taken in Fleming’s books, many of which were casually tossed aside as the film series became its own happily ridiculous thing, in continuing on from Casino Royale, the film of which obeyed the novel in presenting Bond as the product of heartbreak and disillusionment. The death of Vesper Lynd left him hollowed and icy, but Fleming’s most cunning and effective twist on this was that it finally made Bond the perfect spy. The Craig film accepted this as its own new beginning, but has, ironically, been dedicated to contradicting it since. Fukunaga and the screenwriters tip their hand many times to Fleming’s closely linked later novels, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and You Only Live Twice, which saw Bond married and widowed at the hands of Blofeld in the space of a few pages, then travelling to Japan where he tracked down Blofeld and killed him before finishing up as an amnesiac living to a local diving girl and presumed dead by the world. Fleming had made a stab at killing off Bond before in From Russia With Love, only to bring him back for Doctor No, and when he tried to rid himself of the spy a second time deliberately left it more open-ended. So Fleming was hardly averse to the idea of his great hero proving very mortal, but he kept walking it back anyway.
The film version of You Only Live Twice threw out much of that novel’s business, but the adaptation of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service stuck closely to the template, ending famously with a note of tragic romanticism with Bond murmuring “We have all the time in the world” over his wife Tracy’s dead body, the phrase also providing the title to the Louis Armstrong warbled theme song for the film. No Time To Die gives warning this will be a reference point early on by having Bond repeat the “All the time in the world” line to Madeleine as they drive about in bliss, which for anyone who knows the series lore immediately sets antennae twitching, and wraps up with the Armstrong song, which is both agreeable – it’s one of the great themes and Armstrong’s singing is unbeatable – and a bit arch. It also incorporates the marvellous concept in You Only Live Twice of the villain propagating a garden filled with poisonous plants, although this classic touch of Fleming’s borderline surreal morbid imagery is here rendered in flavourless visual terms. At least, for the first time since Pierce Brosnan’s run, the plot stakes here offer the once-standard motif of a megalomaniac out to terrorise the world, working from a secret headquarters on a remote island – Safin’s father was in charge of a former Soviet chemical and missile plant on an island in disputed waters, where Safin grew up and now has set up a plant to manufacture Heracles there. Safin’s remorseless project of revenge was set in motion when Mr White killed his family by poisoning them all with smallpox, which Safin survived albeit badly scarred. Now, once he finishes his mission of wiping out SPECTRE, he turns his attention to remaking the world, mostly into corpses. He also seems to feel some sort of proprietary interest in Madeleine, feeling that he in effect owns her after saving her life, which makes it a bit confusing as to why he’s decided to wait thirty years or so to take possession of her.
Most of this heavy stuff is held off to the second half of the film at least. The first half tries on the other hand to restore some jauntiness too many felt had deserted the series. The added screenwriting hand of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, whose TV series Killing Eve offered its own, semi-satirical spin on a Bond-esque universe of assassins and spies, and which No Time To Die clearly seeks to emulate to a degree, is very apparent in this half, if not to much advantage. A lot of the humour falls flat, or at least it did for me, feeling entirely at odds with the tenor of the rest of the film. This in particular clings to Obruchev, who despite being a major villain in the film is also its comic relief: in his first scene where he’s being teased by his fellow scientists, he threatens to kill them in return. This tendency also inflects the scenes involving Paloma, although it works much better there, in part because De Armas knows exactly how to sell a blend of superficial naiveté and secret dynanism. The scene where Fukunaga cuts between Bond and Paloma engaged in their own style of fighting, Bond in brutal fisticuffs with a SPECTRE goon, Paloma using explosive gymnastic dexterity and ingenious physical wit, is a highpoint not just for movie but the series in general, particularly in the wry punctuation of Bond falling from a balcony and springing back up again and patting himself down again to recover his savoir faire, before pouring himself and Paloma a drink and the two downing theirs with brusque aplomb.
The ebullience of this scene nonetheless points up the shortcomings of the rest of the film rather painfully, particularly when it comes to Nomi, who’s posited in the film alternately as Bond’s replacement, rival, foil, and comrade-in-arms. Lynch has the right statuesque swagger for the part, but Nomi emerges as seriously underwritten and scarcely conceived beyond the basic proposition of “tough black chick,” and by comparison to the eager, surprising Paloma, she feels like a walking cliché and no fun to boot. I also got the feeling she’s a victim of the rather garbled midsection of the film which might have been the result of hasty reshoots. Bond’s contretemps with M also feels like a victim of this, leaping from the two having quite the falling out, in very English polite English fashion, when they meet face-to-face for the first time in years, only to be relatively chummy again a couple of scenes later, and there’s definitely some connective tissue missing there. This is also strongly suggested through small but consequential plot details like the fact Blofeld in prison is able to communicate through a bionic eye implanted in him somehow, which is a nice, very Bondian idea, except that its discovery and removal all take place off screen. The core team of M, Q, and Moneypenny, well-served in the past two entries, here get very little to do. Q in particular, despite being playfully characterised here as gay, is still reduced to a character who taps rapidly at keyboards and explains the plot. Oh, and Rory Kinnear’s Tanner is still around, doing whatever it is he does. Other problems are more existential for this material. Spectre interestingly mooted the continued need for the human touch in spy work in an age of cyber and drone warfare, which actually gave that entry a hint of contemporary political relevance, something the Bond series has generally run away from since its earliest days when it swapped out Soviets for SPECTRE as the necessary villains. But it also saddled itself with the silliest countdown in movie history as Bond and company had to race against a ticking clock…to when a computer system would go online!
No Time To Die similarly chooses a MacGuffin in the nanobot virus that’s both difficult to make work in a movie and also somewhat worn out as a plot device in sci-fi action flicks. Which wouldn’t be as much as an issue but it feeds into the clumsiness of the film’s narrative, which the urgent attempts to earn gravitas through killing off familiar characters feel mostly designed to paper over. No Time To Die take the cake-and-eat-it-too tendencies of the Craig era to the limit, setting up all the old-school Bond tropes at last but still also play off the beat, in a way that foils narrative intensity, as when Safin simply lets Mathilde go, whilst the jokey playing of Obruchev means he’s never convincing as a villain but not actually funny either. Nomi feels like the biggest victim of this indecisiveness. She’s plainly introduced as a sort of goad to the much-mooted idea of generation change in supplanting Bond with a black woman, one who treats him with an edge of cutting condescension (“I’ll put a bullet in your knee,” she promises when warning him against interference, “The one that still works.”), even if she finds he’s still able to give as good as he gets. Of course, they eventually become mutually reliant partners, and Nomi hands back the 00 title to Bond. There’s no particularly good reason given for why they’ve become less antagonistic by this point or why Nomi should give up a rank she presumably earned: of course James Bond should die, if he must, as 007, but the script fudges, and somewhere along the line Nomi was left as a fifth wheel rather than a potent new figure. Nomi is eventually given one would-be iconic vignette late in the film when she vengefully pushes Obruchev into a vat of his own nanovirus after he threatens to turn his invention on the “west African diaspora.” Mass-murdering bad guy? Fair enough. Racist too? Die, mofo!
It’s been compulsory for film critics to take a poke at the nominally outmoded aspects of Bond as a character and franchise for decades now, apparently oblivious to the fact that the series itself has been tapping it as a source of humour since the quips in Live And Let Die about “following a cue ball” and through segues like Judi Dench’s M tautologically calling him a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur” in Goldeneye, as well the issue of a superspy belonging to a country that had devolved into a mid-range power by the time he was created. There’s been a lot of debate lately about replacing Craig with an actor of colour or even a woman. The problem with such proposals, modishly pleasing as they are, is they reveal a fatal misunderstanding of what Bond is. The basic appeal of the character is rooted in ironic contrast, his surface appearance of the classic English gentleman hiding an existential shark whose interests, talents, and occupation all converge in bringing mayhem, delivering orgasm, and tempting chance, in about that order. Mendes got that, at least, particularly at the start of Spectre when he had Craig-as-Bond wearing a Day of the Dead mask and waving a red rose, his basic functions as bringer of death and life reduced to essential symbolism with a hint of morbid humour. There’s still nobody quite like him around: compare him to the gelded stable of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, full of grown men who can barely speak to a woman. Only Tony Stark, who tellingly birthed that franchise, was conceived in a Bondian manner – his first entry even sported a direct lampoon in playing Bondish guitar music over Tony having a quickie. Of course, Stark’s maturation saw him obliged to leave that behind, and Craig’s tenure sees him somewhat ironically obliged to follow that arc, now even forced to mimic Stark in Avengers: Endgame (2019), which also saw him become a father and die at the end. There isn’t even a hint of the fun Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) found could be tapped in the idea of a loner hero finding he’s a dad.
The cinematic Bond’s arrival on the pop culture scene in 1962 heralded a tectonic shift in many regards, but one above all. Certainly Bond was a male power fantasy at a zenith, but he owes his success to also being a female one: Bond’s sexual prowess was a resource more valuable than all Auric Goldfinger’s bullion, capable of rewriting the world’s rules, as in Goldfinger (1964) itself, where the only actual, positive thing Bond does to alter the outcome of the plot is be a good enough lay to win Pussy Galore back to the side of right and virtue. Bond became thus the first authentic modern icon of female sexual need, save perhaps Dracula, a character with many fundamental similarities to Bond. The way a lot of critics talk about this aspect of Bond now, you’d think nobody in the world has casual hook-ups. Anyway, the Craig era’s general response to this has been to make Bond less an erotic swashbuckler and defined more as a kind of emotionally crippled pseudo-stud. Which would be fine, close indeed to Fleming’s character, but the Craig cycle has refused to stick to it; again, we are trapped within the formats of modern screenwriting manuals. Craig’s arrival in the role rang bells across the world with his shirtless beach scene, but now he’s middle-aged despite still being in ferociously good shape. Skyfall’s best moment also gave the best new twist on Bond’s sexuality, when the villain teased him with queer flirtation, “First time for everything,” to Bond’s unblinking, ever-so-cool retort, “What makes you think this is my first time?” The perfect line: on the one hand a nimble revision of the undercurrents (and sometimes overcurrents) of homophobia in some earlier movies and in Fleming, on the other one that just seemed to fit: of course Bond would have tried every dish before settling on a favourite. Anyway, No Time To Die has no such adroitness. Instead it settles for a few jabs at the idea of aging lotharios, with Bond striking out with both Nomi and Paloma, before taking it to the logical extreme of having suddenly face up to being a family man.
Craig and Seydoux were good together in Spectre, but here they totally fizzle in terms of chemistry, not that the script gives them much chance to work it up again. Madeleine’s reappearance in the story is so sudden and happenstance it’s almost like a reel got skipped, before the film underlines Bond’s new emotional dimension in the most hackneyed manner conceivable. In the prior film Madeleine was cool and ambiguous: now she’s the vaguely tragic baby mama, and that does her as few favours as it does Bond, until she becomes the object of Safin’s weirdly obscure attentions. It pains me to say that Craig himself eventually became part of the problem he was supposed to cure. There’s a pretty familiar pattern to Bond actors getting tired with the demands of the role and the consuming nature of the career-arresting fame that comes with it, and Craig’s increasing unease in the part has been apparent for a while now, even as he’s become so fixed to it in the public imagination. Craig’s good-humoured recent performances for Steven Soderbergh and Rian Johnson have indicated the kinds of parts he’d rather be playing. Craig still delivers in some vignettes, as already noted: he’s too good an actor and too smart a star to walk through a part. But somewhere along the line his characterisation was drained of the roguish force he evinced at the start of his tenure, and Craig’s pinch-mouthed and squinty impersonation of grim grit, once refreshing, is now somewhat rote, and as the character’s basic qualities have been eroded – his sex appeal, his omnicompetence, his jet-setting savoir faire, his dark relish for adrenalized thrills – his Bond stopped feeling groundbreaking and just became, well, a bit of a drag. The irony of No Time To Die is that it suggests the filmmakers were aware of this and wanted to put some zest back into things, only to then be obliged to double down on the pseudo-seriousness.
Of course, one can simply say that No Time To Die obeys the logic of Craig’s Bond as something distinct and discrete in the history of the character, and that’s fair enough, I suppose, but it also made me really pine for the good old days. Malek is surprisingly effective as Safin, playing his supervillain as soft-spoken almost to the point of feyness whilst retaining a cold conviction that he feels is perfectly reasonable even when revealing utter mania. The film does its best to build him up as a truly threatening, apocalyptic figure, from his creepy, slasher movie-like entrance through his process of wiping out such storied figures as Leiter and Blofeld. And yet Safin never comes close to being a Bond villain for the ages: he feels more like the ultimate by-product of the Craig era’s tendency to take an each-way bet when it comes to the series legacy, trying at once to present a vaguely realistic figure but also inhabit the superstructure of the old, epic-scale series villainy. He’s not physically threatening enough to lend real, feral intensity to their final confrontation – compare the limp tussle here to, say, Bond and Blofeld’s bobsled battle in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – and he lacks the kind of arrogant stature and venom that’s long defined Bond’s most indelible enemies. Instead he’s offered rather too nudgingly in the screenwriting manual fashion as a mirror of the hero, to the point of giving him a very slightly revised version of the archetypal “we’re not so different, you and I” speech, and having them battle over possession of Madeleine and Mathilde. In that last regard, the film can’t even really commit to the basic melodramatic spur of a bad guy endangering a hero’s mate and child: instead we get a helluva lot of wandering around corridors shooting anonymous henchmen.
I counted down to the virtually inevitable moment when Fukunaga would, as he did on True Detective, interpolate a one-take action scene, another contemporary cliché that Mendes already ticked off at the start of Spectre: Fukunaga’s version is a long strenuous tussle on a flight of stairs that’s not half as engaging as recent variations on the same idea in movies like Atomic Blonde (2017) and Extraction (2020). Whilst I still think Fukunaga’s a talent, his work here for the most part feels rather fidgety and anonymous, and poorly geared to the rhythm of the performances. The action scenes aren’t particularly clever or well-staged either, except, again, for the opening, and bits and bobs like a nod to the gun barrel logo sequence in a different context, and the smart use of wildly varying vantages in the Havana fight. The scene of Obruchev being kidnapped begins with sleek, semi-abstract images that suggest a real style-fest is in the offing. There’s a solid chase that caps the second act in which Safin, Ash, and an array of goons chase after Bond and his new family into a fog-drenched Norwegian forest, which reminded me nonetheless just a little too strongly of the battle on Takodana in Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) in serving the same purpose of providing a lot of bash and crash as a distraction whilst the villain snatches away someone precious to the hero. Ash is another character who suggests possibilities that barely get to register: Magnussen plays him as a bland WASP who’s also a star-struck Bond fanboy (do secret agents have fans?), but also a cunning and ruthless turncoat, a mixture that could be witty but here just feel random. He ought to have been kept around to loan some extra villainous presence to the climax, but he bows out in a nod to For Your Eyes Only when Bond literally drops a car on him as revenge for Leiter.
The film does finally hit the right notes again quite late in proceedings when Bond confronts Safin after invading his island base and finding its overlord seated behind a modernist-minimalist desk with Mathilde on knee. Suddenly, for a couple of crucial minutes, No Time To Die feels like an ideal James Bond film, with the classic situation of two extremely dangerous men with very different worldviews playing at calm conversation whilst discussing stakes both personal and global, given a new gloss by the hard conviction of the actors. The punchline of the film must be that Safin deliberately infects Bond with a dose of Heracles, this one programmed to make sure he can’t ever touch Madeleine and Mathilde again without killing them. This is entirely contrived to place Bond into a cul-de-sac he doesn’t want to escape as missiles rain down to wipe out the base, even as it scarcely makes a lick of sense on a basic plot level. Why the hell would Safin waste time on such a thing? Why not actually just kill Bond with it, especially considering Bond shoots him dead a few seconds later? Then he could still make sure his evil plan can be carried out. All right, so Safin’s a man with a well-developed sense of irony as well as a mass-murderer, sure. All this still plainly happens entirely so the film can have its ending, and apparently disturbs Bond so much he can’t face living without Madeleine and Mathilde, who he was doing a perfectly fine job of living without a few days earlier. So he climbs to the top of the base and lets the missiles rain down on him. This is designed to preclude any doubt of the character’s fate, with Bond disappearing in the blinding light of erupting bombs. “James Bond Will Return,” the very end credits nonetheless assure. There is direct heed paid to the end of the novel You Only Live Twice in the choice of poetic eulogy M chooses to read to his team in memorial of Bond.
Perhaps the filmmakers intend a segue into some variation on Fleming’s last, posthumously-published revival of the character, The Man With The Golden Gun, where Bond turned up after several years in amnesiac exile after being thought dead. But if they want to go that route, they ought to have been a tad less explicit. Such questions are, I expect, being held off for the time being. The real point of this ending is to allow Craig to draw a firm line under his tenancy and allow another reboot. After all, if Spider-Man can keep going through the same origin story again and again, why not James Bond? It’s the sort of thing that might please those who considered Craig the apotheosis of the franchise, but will leave others wincing and wondering why they even bothered. What’s most galling is that when one considers the many references to previous entries and to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, realisation dawns that as well as filching from Marvel and The Force Awakens, No Time To Die is also powerfully beholden to another J.J. Abrams movie, Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013). That film, whilst okay in itself, has deservedly become a byword for incoherent franchise remixing and self-sabotage, particularly in the finale where it decided to rearrange the immortal end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) so that Kirk dies instead of Spock, whilst casually denuding all the qualities that made the model so memorable. No Time To Die does basically the same thing in having Bond rather than his great amour die, and also forgets what made that long-ago tragic ending so strong, the stinging irony of a man so talented at keeping himself alive cursed to remain that way after crushing loss. By comparison this Bond’s end feels like a sigh of relief. Bond’s greatest enemy isn’t Blofeld, or Safin, or love, or time, or fate, but the shrunken horizons of modern franchise creativity. The price paid for making Bond more earthbound, it seems, is to eventually drive him into the mud.