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: Brian De Palma Screenwriter: Lawrence D. Cohen
By Roderick Heath
The novel Carrie, published in 1974, vaulted a struggling young English teacher with a few short stories to his credit named Stephen King to sudden fortune and fame. Director Brian De Palma, looking for a project after his would-be breakout project Phantom of the Paradise (1974) had proved only a minor cult success, was recommended the novel by a friend who also knew King. After reading the book De Palma found the rights were unsold and snapped them up. Something of the material’s weird magic rubbed off. De Palma’s film of Carrie became his first big hit and marked his emergence as a fully mature filmmaker in his major phase, and boosted several members of its cast, including star Sissy Spacek and supporting actors Nancy Allen, Amy Irving, and John Travolta, to it-kid status. The film’s success also sparked a swiftly metastasizing industry adapting King’s work for the movies, which only helped reinforce his position as one of the preeminent genre wordsmiths of the last fifty years. King himself had only reluctantly committed to writing the novel after the first scene came to him a squall of phobic thinking when, working part-time as a janitor in a school with his brother and cleaning some girls’ locker room showers, was fixated by the image of some poor girl terrified by her period suddenly arriving whilst showering and being ferociously mocked by her classmates, a scene of a kind King had witnessed often in high school.
The taboo-grazing blood rite King had psychically conjured upon proved to be the ticket to directly tapping into the modern audience’s new hunger for a kind of direct engagement with things once kept off in the margins of metaphor in artistic report, in both the intimate engagement with a young woman’s body as an unstable and sometimes alien thing to herself, and the direct portrayal of the raw pack animal behaviour young people often inflict on each-other in the process of growing up, and the occasions where such behaviour gains a dreadful retaliation. The cementing of suburban youth culture in the 1950s made the dramas of adolescence increasingly profound as part of the average person’s life. Carrie’s appeal is, then, plainly emblazoned in its core imagery and concept, a tale recognisable from just about everyone’s youth in the games of social status amongst teenagers and fantasies of revenge stoked in the face of rejection. King’s ambivalence about his subject and characters was mediated to a degree by his choice of writing it as a modern version of an epistolary novel, that is, one that affects to relate a story through second-hand sources like letters, diary entries, and newspaper articles, holding the key personalities at a certain distance. Once boiled down by screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen to something more immediate and reconstructed by De Palma into a succession of potent images, King’s story clearly had the directness and velocity of a modern myth.
For De Palma, the former no-budget semi-experimental ironist springing out of the Greenwich Village hipster scene, Carrie was a dynamic embrace of commercial populism, and yet still charged with a transgressive energy in style and story. After scoring cult successes with his early works like Greetings (1968) and Hi, Mom! (1972) on the counterculture-informed midnight movie circuit, De Palma cobbled together the money to make Sisters (1972), a blend of new age Alfred Hitchcock revisionism, Italian giallo movie riff, and New Yorker’s inside joke that put him on the path to mainstream attention, only be foiled by Phantom of the Paradise’s failure with its wilfully odd attempt to blend Grand Guignol pathos and ink-black satirical comedy. The ironic thing there is that Carrie basically presents the same mixture, complete with another tormented victim-monster at the centre like Phantom’s Winslow Leach, broken on the world’s wheel but also transformed into a force that starts laying waste to the iniquitous. This time however De Palma swapped giddy absurdum for tight-wound drama. De Palma’s infamous tendency to twist the knife deep and hard with his pitiable antiheroes found an ideal stage to play out on in King’s story. De Palma’s cultural and political cynicism likewise found a more personal realm to play out in, latching onto King’s reportage of a country in painfully dynamic social flux where medieval religiosity can sit cheek-by-jowl with the kind of blunt modern sensibility both King and De Palma personified in their individual ways.
As well as the worm-turns essence of the storyline De Palma was likely also attracted to a central character who plays as a distaff take on Psycho’s (1960) Norman Bates, with Margaret a still-living Mrs Bates, and her house as an islet of American Gothic: the homage is made more explicit in naming both the high school and the nearby slaughterhouse after Bates. And yet Carrie also sees De Palma defining himself askew from mere emulation of Hitchcock, indulging visual techniques antipathetic to the master. Carrie also had good fortune to be released after the enormous success of William Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist and its 1973 film, a zeitgeist-defining that identified the corporeal form of an adolescent girl as the ideal vessel for satanic hellraising in a fragmented and faithless modern world. As a story Carrie both rode that wave and also dismantled it, accusing repressive and neurotically obsessive religiosity as part of the conspiracy of torment that results in calamity, counterpointed by a new variety of milquetoast, disinterested, hands-off attitude by the representatives of adult authority in the hothouse environment of the average contemporary American high school which offers no harsh chastisement but no solace either. The first glimpse of Carrie White (Spacek) is on the volleyball court of Bates High School, failing to smack back a ball when it sails her way, earning the disdain and abuse of her classmates. De Palma follows with a long, languorous credit sequence, with his slow-motion camera and Vaseline-glazed misty imagery, glides across a school playing field and slides through changing rooms for female high schoolers as they wash and get dressed.
De Palma immediately pokes fun at multiple targets, playing out the voyeuristic teenage boy fantasy of getting an eyeful in a girls’ locker room and the kind of movies that had exploded around the same time built making bank with such fantasies. At the same time he plays at sentimentalising it, Pino Donaggio’s lush strings scoring rendering the scene like some lyrical depiction of the blooming glory of young womanhood. Cross-reference the more idealised, clean, arty version found in the early scenes of Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). The caressing slow-motion tracking shot zeroes in on Carrie showering alone, lost in the warmth of the shower and the sensual pleasure of touching herself, the image of the protean adolescent ripe for plucking, until she experiences the raw terror of suddenly finding her nethers leaking blood, an inevitable and completely natural moment of burgeoning that is nonetheless a profound shock to Carrie as she’s never been told about it by her fanatically religious and abusive mother Margaret (Piper Laurie). Carrie’s terrified pleas for help reap only ruthless joy from her fellows who pelt her with sanitary products to the malicious chorus of chant, “Plug it up! Plug it up!”, which evokes the “One of us!” chant from Freaks (1932) but with inverted meaning: the exalted state of conformist normality can only be so exalted by finding a sacrificial lamb. Or perhaps the better Biblical reference point is the Gadarene swine, to contain the concentrated essence of wickedness to be released at some appropriate juncture.
This rite of blood and shunning is interrupted by gym teacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) intervenes with vehement anger, promising to punish the girls for their behaviour and helping Carrie out of her cowering humiliation and shame. But, as Collins herself confesses to the school principal Morton (Stefan Gierasch), she experienced a similar kind of exasperation to the girls at the spectacle of Carrie’s absurdity. Morton, confirming complete cluelessness and timidity when faced with such female trouble, lets Collins handle the girls, and Collins forces the class to exercise to the point of exhaustion on pain of being banned from attending the upcoming prom. When one of the girls, the wilful and entitled Chris Hargensen (Allen), refuses to play along, Collins smacks her and bans her, scaring the rest back in line. Chris plots revenge aimed not at Collins but at Carrie, and Chris’s former friend Sue Snell (Irving) accidentally hands her the perfect way to achieve it when she decides to try and cheer Carrie up by asking her own, popular jock boyfriend Tommy Ross (William Katt) to take Carrie to the prom instead of her. Tommy is initially dismayed by the prospect, but is eventually convinced, in part because he and Carrie recently shared a moment in English class, under the auspices of the patronising and disdainful teacher Mr Fromm (Sydney Lassick), where she pronounced one of his writing projects Fromm reads aloud with an acerbic lilt as “beautiful” and he quietly insulted Fromm for mocking Carrie’s moment of self-expression.
Carrie herself can only wander homewards after her excruciating ushering into adulthood. But another new trait has arrived along with her period, first manifesting in a moment of confusion during her panic when she screams as Collins tries to bring her out of her hysteria and a light globe overhead abruptly busts, and becoming more defined as she glares at a younger boy who calls her the teasing name “Creepy Carrie!” and seems to make him fall from his bike by force of will. Later Carrie investigates in the school library and realises she has telekinetic abilities. But returning to her home Carrie finds herself still entirely at the moment of her zealous, domineering, cape-swanning mother, who spends her days soliciting donations for some vague denominational cause and ranting about the influence of Satan, an imprint she sees now as fatefully taken hold of her daughter after long repressing it. “Why didn’t you tell me momma?” Carrie questions in tearful agonistes whilst her mother wallops her with a religious pamphlet and exiles her to a closet specially kept as a place of imprisonment and musing under the baleful glaze of a glowing-eyed crucified Jesus. Eventually, after the frantic, gruelling spectacle of parental abuse and Carrie’s anguish is expended she’s released and allowed to go to bed.
Carrie feels curiously distinct from the pack of 1970s American Horror cinema despite sharing key concerns with so much of it – a supernaturally-gifted child destroyer a la The Exorcist and The Omen (1976), and a setting befitting a genre becoming obsessed with both depicting and sating teenagers, which could still deliver movies as diverse as Massacre at Central High (1976), Communion (1976), and Halloween (1978), and a tendency Carrie’s success likely quickened. Carrie’s distinction stems from the opportune convergence of De Palma, his cast, and King’s story. De Palma made the $1.8 million budget, solid for a ‘70s genre film but still very modest, stretch a hell of a long way, and applies operatic reaches style that’s the complete opposite to the low-budget, DIY atmosphere of many films of the time. That stringency was exemplified by the so-real-you-can-smell-it intensity of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), although both films become fixated by a spectacle of witnessing horror, communicated through flash edits zeroing in on the eyes of a young woman’s – the arrested cosmic terror of Sally Hardesty gives way to the arresting cosmic wrath of Carrie White. Both movies also connect the griminess of working-class life as represented by industrialised farming, a zone where bloodshed is at once carefully controlled and rendered on a vast scale, and human degradation, tethered in the singular, queasy connection of Carrie’s menstruation and a fateful bucket of pig’s blood. The narrative’s slow burn towards a singular, orgiastic eruption of violence and character-driven drama in the meantime are also distinctive at a moment when the genre was becoming increasingly geared towards serving up shock machines populated by living mannequins. This informed the film’s embracing as a mainstream success, with Oscar nominations for Spacek and Laurie, a rare achievement for a Horror film.
Spacek herself, genuinely remarkable in the role, lobbied intensely for it after having worked under De Palma as a costumer on Phantom of the Paradise. Spacek had already established a unique ability on Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1974) to seem at once earthy and alien, open and recessive, and this talent is key to Carrie’s success, particular in the climax where her blood-caked, glaze-eyed visage shifts from human to demonic in the blink of an eye. De Palma depicts the multiple forms of abuse and misuse Carrie receives with a blatant verve that manages to walk a very fine line between savage intensity and campy extremity. Margaret White’s religious paraphernalia and fire-and-brimstone speechifying, brilliantly expostulated through Laurie’s well-pitched performance, is imbued with a faint touch of black humour (like flashes of lightning accompanying some of her grimmer pronouncements, almost like we’ve segued into a Mel Brooks film) that keeps the experience from being too nasty and convincing, but still evoking pain. Carrie herself, unlike the gawky, sullen character in King’s book, is allowed a sympathetic pathos reminiscent of a Dickens heroine, vulnerable and damaged but retaining of dignity and grit that begins to assert itself as her secret power grows, even if soon enough Little Dorrit goes Godzilla on their asses.
De Palma’s tendency to be mean to his protagonists in his 1970s and ‘80s heyday, a tendency that many onlookers found off-putting, wasn’t an incidental perversity but core to his essential worldview, beholding everyone as engaged in a battle to the death, whether they know it or not, with powers reigning over them and/or within them. Carrie gave him the perfect focal point for this recurring drama as she fights on both fronts and loses on both. Carrie’s stab at liberation is potent, as she begins to wield her telekinetic ability to hold her mother at bay and takes up Tommy’s invitation, met at first with incredulity, as a vessel that, no matter what motives are behind it, she can ride to some new shore. But there’s a weak point in that armour of emancipation which, when breached, has consequences beyond reckoning. One irony in De Palma’s treatment of King’s story, one the writer himself noted, was in seeing it as an account of a matriarchy, a world of women controlled by women existing semi-separately to the one shared by the genders, where the ferocity aimed at eccentricity can make the peevishness of boys look limp by comparison, and where feminine power exists in multiple forms, good and bad and smudged.
Collins’ embodiment of a positive force is complicated by her also being an avatar of an everyday world that can’t help but be exasperated by Carrie as an emissary from a slightly different one. Carrie’s need for her mother to show her something resembling unconditional love simmers right up until she’s obliged to kill her. De Palma raises the curtain on two different kinds of female manipulation, one essentially positive, as Sue talks Tommy into taking Carrie to the prom, and one negative, as Chris wields a mixture of unease-inducing derision and sexual appeal to push her boyfriend Billy (Travolta) into helping her plan to destroy Carrie. And Billy signs on with giggly-dumb charm, readily exchanging hanging out and driving around for bashing a pig to death, much to Chris’s flagrant erotic excitement, conveyed as De Palma cuts repeatedly from Billy’s hammer swings to Chris’s chanting delight. The linkage of cruelty to sexuality isn’t just the usual edge of sadism attributed to villains either: this is a portrayal of social order enforcement at a basic level, the core breeding class ensuring their perpetuation by guarding privilege and punishing outliers. Whatever gloss the ‘70s youth culture bestows on them doesn’t disguise their part in an ancient order. Collins’ collective punishment of the girls only has the effect of stirring more determined action from the hive.
Margaret White on the other hand tries to subsist within a bubble preserving another atavistic order, playing at detachment from all fashion, a bubble of faux-renaissance paintings of the Last Supper on the walls, candlelit dinners, and terrible wrath. Margaret of course comes to believe her daughter’s manifesting gift comes like her monthly from Satan, despite Carrie’s insistence that it comes only from herself, much in the same way as she retorts to her mother decrying her “dirty pillows” on display in her prom dress, “They’re called breasts, momma, and every woman has them.” Margaret’s raving climactic soliloquy to Carrie recounts her relationship with her long-since absconded husband, who respected her demand for chastity in their union until one night he came home drunk and molested her, to her eventual enjoyment, a lapse into humanity Margaret becomes convinced she’s being punished for through her cursed child. The example of mania her mother provides is one Carrie tries to move past but ultimately entraps her: the moment she’s presented with a source of rage and the power to do something with it she reacts in exactly the same way. Meanwhile Carrie’s timorous reaction to Tommy’s invitation gets to Collins who angrily confronts him and Sue, assuming they’re up to more mischief, but eventually, warily accepts their reasoning. Tommy goes to see Carrie at her home to repeat his invitation, and finally gets her to accept, and Carrie begins embracing her chance to bloom with determination.
Carrie’s story advances with the rigour and inevitability of Greek tragedy, a likeness that only becomes stronger as it encompasses an offended heroine whose story counts down in distorted gradations of unified time and setting, and a stage that becomes an amphitheatre of carnage and breakdown, and where the mechanics of what’s happening unfold with predestined smoothness. Intrigues simultaneously reach out to Carrie to rescue her and destroy her, charted with mischievous detail and coming together in the prom. Hitchcock, never of course far out of range of De Palma’s points of reference, is nodded to in the suburban gothic of the White house and in the name of the High School. De Palma’s aesthetic for the film is as hot as Stanley Kubrick’s for The Shining (1981) would be cold, via Mario Tosi’s cinematography. De Palma’s deeply sarcastic romanticism continues with Carrie’s walk home early in the film along sun-dappled streets replete with shady trees and red roses that mimic and mock her menstrual blood, and mirrors this imagery towards the end as a sanctified and white-clad Sue makes the same walk towards the White house, or where it used to be. Strong anticipation here for the aesthetic David Lynch would apply to Blue Velvet (1986) of a stylised, utopian, too-good-to-be-true suburban life.
Collins’ forced exercise regimen for the girls’ punishment becomes a little aria of camera wit, tracking along at thigh-height with the teacher as the girls are put through their strenuous paces, rendered ridiculous as they bob in and out of the frame with increasingly frayed expressions. This is in itself a more deadpan and playful riposte to the precursor scene where Margaret lords over Carrie where De Palma conveys the application of authority more ominously from on high, as Margaret slaps her daughter’s face with a booklet with a chapter title, ‘The Sins of Woman’ and, with a similar rhythmic intensity to the exercising girls, tries to make Carrie repeat her chant of “The first sin was intercourse,” which also echoes the girls’ chant of “Plug it up!” By contrast, De Palma sees Tommy and his pals hitting the town to be fitted for prom tuxedos, vaguely recalling the lads about town in Greetings, except that De Palma starts fast-forwarding through their yammering, a good joke in its own right that engages in a playful way with De Palma’s delight in the texture of film itself, and also a curt thematic underlining: the boys aren’t the show in this movie. The detention exercise scene also provides a definitive character moment with Chris’s attempted rebellion turning distraught after Collins slaps her, and her appeal to her friends – “She can’t get away with this if we all stick together!” – gains only timorous shakes of the head from most and, from a revolted Sue, one “Shut up Chris, just shut up.”
Irving, who would be promoted to the role of gifted-accursed psychic in The Fury (1978), De Palma’s thematic sequel, has an interesting role as Sue, whose journey is in a way the actual core of Carrie although she’s not the focal point, as Sue represents a kind of assailed middle ground in the story, someone who grows up a little faster than her schoolmates but remains dangerously naïve in aspects. Glimpsed at first eagerly joining the pack attacking Carrie, she’s pulled aside by Collins when she first comes on the scene and angrily berated for her behaviour, and looks bewildered, as if pulled out of sleepwalking. Sue’s desire to do Carrie a good turn – “We don’t care how we look,” she tells Collins when the teacher confronts her and Tommy – is a noble gesture with troubling caveats, in obliging her boyfriend to make that gesture on her behalf, but not imagining there’s personal risk in it, and in accidentally handing Chris the perfect venue for her own cruelty. Sue’s working on Tommy resolves when he finally says he’ll do it whilst she’s doing homework and he’s watching a James Garner Western on TV, a deft little joke that suggests Tommy enjoys playing the white knight. Irving’s on-screen mother Eleanor was played by her real one, Priscilla Pointer. Eleanor’s early encounter with Margaret, who comes to her house soliciting donations, sees the way adult transaction counterpoint those of teenagers, Eleanor trying her best to fend off Margaret’s proselytising with awkward courtesy before flatly bribing her to go away, a gesture Margaret accepts but not without making sure the offender feels the frost her righteous gaze.
De Palma also taps the paraphernalia of Margaret’s religiosity for exceedingly dark humour and even darker psychology, setting up a motif that has its brilliantly sick pay-off by film’s end. Margaret’s exiling of Carrie into the prayer cupboard sees her share space with a statue of St Sebastian, riddled with arrows, upturned eyes painted with phosphorescent paint to better depict ecstatic agony. Good education for a life of martyrdom. Carrie already has Tommy in her sights as a fair idol, a newspaper clipping of his footballing exploits stuck to the side of her bedroom mirror, a mirror whose gaze she cracks in a moment of anxiety but manages to reforge mentally in time to avoid her mother’s attention. Katt is also tremendous as the genuinely good-natured Tommy, who eventually finds not just pride but real affection in playing Carrie’s beau for the night as he comes to comprehend there’s an interesting, potentially lovely person on his arm. He deftly knocks aside her not-at-all-illusioned stabs at releasing him from duty by assuring her he asked her out “because you liked my poem,” although he admits later he didn’t write it. Meanwhile Chris draws in other friends into her conspiracy, including Freddy (Michael Talbott), who left school before graduation and works now in the local slaughterhouse, and her friend Norma (P.J. Soles), who volunteer to be on the committee overseeing the election of the Prom King and Queen, intending to stuff the ballot for Carrie. Chris gets Freddy to help her and Billy kill a pig and collect its blood in a bucket, which they rig up in the rafters of the high school gym, where the prom will be take place, to pour the contents down on Carrie as a sadistic coup-de-theatre.
Carrie works beautifully as a metaphor for the sheer goddamn pain of growing up as a human animal. Where in the book Carrie had her powers from childhood here it’s explicitly connected with her new maturation, connecting them as devices of creation and destruction. For Margaret the ‘Sin of Woman” is not just to experience lust but to propagate at all. Spacek herself defined her understanding of Carrie as a “secret poet” who has no gift at expression and assertion until some strange kink of fate gifts her this powerful talent, as if her stifled will has forced some latent part of herself to grow like muscle. Or perhaps it’s a test provided from on high, or on low, connected to rather than breaking from her upbringing, and what Carrie then does with it can be seen a radical extrapolation of the Christian concept of free will. The more immediately troubling facet of Carrie’s prognosis lies in its understanding the pressure cooker nature of modern teenage life and the age of the school massacre, the school a social zone designed to force young people to become independent entities but instead all too often producing both dronish cliques and outcasts and rebels, experiences that most make part of their permanent identity for good or ill. King noted in his book On Writing that both of the girls he based Carrie on from his experience died young, one by suicide, their pain turned inward and septic, but Carrie the book and film sees a time when that kind of sickness will be turned outward and become the stuff of mass media causes celebre.
Notably, in The Fury when De Palma picked up the same basic plot motif of psychic powers as a metaphor for adolescent genesis and the fine line between creative and destructive potential, he turned the tables in making the popular, sporty kids stricken with the same power, with Robin Sandza the ultimate coddled man-child jock, and Gillian Bellaver a more focused and virtuous version of Carrie, finally blowing the false parent/authority figure to smithereens. Carrie certainly cemented precepts Horror cinema would extend for years afterwards, but also seems from today’s perspective to have left a deeper influence on popular storytelling to come, many of which would invert the film’s tragic apocalypse into heroic narratives. Works like the Harry Potter series and a vast swathe of superhero movies take up its wish-fulfilment thread whilst avoiding its bleak contemplation of social and psychological determinism. The wave of high school movies, whilst having more realistic narratives, like Pretty In Pink (1985) and Mean Girls (2003) might also be counted as its children. The film’s underpinning similarities to George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) as an adolescent fantasy about control and annihilation, despite the very different tonal and genre frames, is given extra piquancy by how many members of Carrie’s cast also tried to get in on the Lucas film.
In any event, Carrie’s climactic prom sequence is one of those cinematic set-pieces it’s hard not to relish in anticipation even as in involves terrible things, simply for the sheer verve of the filmmaking and storytelling force. The sequence divides in three miniature chapters, each keyed to a different emotional experience and a different style, beginning with a depiction of rising exultation, a midsection of simultaneous anointing and portent, and a climax that erupts in anarchy. These chapters also have metaphysical overtones connected with Carrie’s experience: heaven, purgatory, hell. Heaven, because Carrie’s entrance to the prom and her experiences seem like her deepest wishes coming true, as she connects with people for the first time, finding actual friends in Tommy, Collins and some other girls, with Sue watching on like a fairy godmother who’s made this particular pumpkin into a princess. Purgatory where the slow motion photography stretches time into a dream zone where triumph – Tommy and Carrie delighted to find they’ve been elected and ascend to claim their dues – and calamity – Sue and Billy hiding behind the scenery with their fingers on the rope – coexist, and finally the inferno released along with the torrent of blood.
De Palma had already established himself as a powerful visual stylist, but the techniques and structural elements he would bring into play here formed his arsenal henceforth and defined him as a mature talent, winnowed down a series of suite-like moves. One constant De Palma stylistic motif provides the crux of the movie, spinning his camera with increasingly speed whilst also zoomed in, delivering a resultant feeling of dizzied rhapsody around Carrie and Tommy as they dance, a swooning islet of pure teenage romanticism that’s sufficient in itself. The central slow-motion passage performs a similar feat of immersive style but to quite different effect, swooning headiness giving way to dreamlike ponderousness that exacerbates with malicious humour and charts coinciding actions with precision – Sue, having agreed to keep away from the prom to avoid any hint of unpleasantness for Carrie, sneaks in to revel in the scene she cares about like a good director, only to notice the trembling rope linked to the bucket above, and, following it, almost breaks in upon Chris and Billy in their hidey-hole. Only for her intervention to be forestalled by Collins, who thinks she’s going to make trouble, grabbing Sue and showing her out of the gym without listening to her explanation. De Palma dives in for a close-up of Chris licking her lips in sensual relish of her triumph, her face a gleaming mask of almost sexual satisfaction in her moment of revenge. And down comes the rain of red, red blood, splattering on Carrie, and with the bucket dangling and falling, hitting Tommy on the head and killing him.
The precise diagramming of the various story and character threads here and accompanying, interlaced ironies makes for a just about perfect unit of filmmaking, and that’s before Carrie avenges herself by wielding her powers in blind madness, psychically controlling doors and firehoses to herd and pummel the crowd, unleashing fire and flood. Here, De Palma’s virulent showmanship is also Carrie’s, apparent as she forces all the doors of the gym shut and then turns on a red fill light, all the better to perform devilish work. De Palma presents Carrie’s delirious perspective with wheeling kaleidoscopic images as her mother’s enjoining, “They’re all gonna laugh at you!” repeats in her head whilst she imagines the entire crowd, rather than the handful of creeps the more neutral camera reveals, laughing and jeering at her perfect humiliation. De Palma then turns to split-screen shots, which he had played with on Sisters but here found a more aggressive use for, to present the violent action in a flux of cause and effect, picking out both diverse events and different angles on the same moment. Carrie herself becomes cinematically bifurcated as she is mentally. At the centre of all this is Spacek-as-Carrie sweeping all before her, mouth twisted in an awful deathly grin when the blood first falls on her, reminiscent of silent film Horror images like The Man Who Laughs’ (1928) carved grin or The Phantom of the Opera (1926) wearing his Red Death mask, caught somewhere between lunatic hilarity and plain lunacy, before her face turns impassive and her eyes wide and aglow with berserker wrath as she rains down death.
There’s another sting in the little detail that the two people most responsible for her downfall, Chris and Billy, sneak out before she unleashes the mayhem. Instead Carrie’s indiscriminate hate falls on both creeps like Freddy and Norma but also on many absolutely innocent people, even Collins, who, realising what’s happening, cries at Carrie to stop it only to be crushed by a piece of stage scenery. Fromm is fried by whipping electrical wires and the backcloth catches fire, a rippling wave of fire rising behind Carrie’s red-smeared silhouette, become a creature akin to the awesome Chernibog in Fantasia (1940) commanding an army of imps dancing in the flames. Steven Spielberg might have kept it in mind just a little for the climax Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981); Quentin Tarantino certainly did for Inglourious Basterds (2009). De Palma pulls off a most difficult feat in forcing the audience to identify with Carrie, even love her, and then behold the spectacle of her maniacal anger, about as a pure an episode of Grand Guignol there is in cinema. Carrie, still lurching in wraithlike detachment, exists the blazing gym and wanders down the road, where Chris and Billy spot her as Chris drives Billy’s car with a glint of her own maniacal delight in her eyes, whilst Billy drools and giggles. De Palma’s editing here, taking the inward-stepping jump cuts to the dead man’s eyes in The Birds (1963) to a hyperbolic zone, skips in towards Spacek’s glowing eyes in lightning-fast jump-cuts that explicitly connect the glaze-gazed power of Carrie’s looking as she turns at almost the last second and casually swats the car aside with her power, then makes it explode.
Carrie’s return home nonetheless sees the avenging angel becoming a pathetic child again, washing off the blood that cakes her and searching for her mother, who has set up guttering candles throughout the house but seems to be hiding herself, eventually proving to be hovering behind the door to Carrie’s bedroom. Margaret recounts Carrie’s conception and then stabs her daughter with a kitchen knife, and stalks her through the house with a blissful grin on her face. Carrie defends herself by launching kitchen implements at Margaret until she’s been turned into a simulacrum of the St Sebastain statute, the lolling moans and grins of Margaret condensing martyred rapture and Sadean penetration into a singular new state. Carrie beholds the perverse pieta she’s sculpted – offered by De Palma and Motti in a slowly unveiling pullback that exactly hits the equator between black comedy coup and character pathos. Carrie’s subconscious takes over, consuming the house in fire and disintegration whilst she makes one last, desperate attempt to retreat with her mother’s corpse into the prayer closet. De Palma moves into assure she’s at least granted the mercy of dying from her mother’s wound rather than being crushed and burned to death.
All this is the kind of tragic narrative that can really only be served up in the Horror genre as entertainment rather than some as solemn cultural chore, Carrie sharing DNA with Lon Chaney Jnr’s afflicted Wolf Man or Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein’s Monster, born into a cruel world and departing from it in relief. The very end proves a deliciously merciless De Palma fake-out of a kind he would return to repeatedly in variations. After a brief vignette of Eleanor looking after a traumatised and tranquilised Sue, we see Sue walking down the pavement and entering the yard of the decimated White house, a neat rectangle of ground where the building was filled with grey stones, a suggestively cruciform For Sale sign planted amidst with “Carrie White Burns In Hell” crudely scrawled across it. Sue is envisioned in angelic white, a mourner paying tribute to a failed friend and kind of suppliant offering obeisance to a vengeful goddess, only for a bloodied hand to reach out of the ground and grip her arm. De Palma’s stylisation for this scene carefully announces it’s a dream, with Donaggio’s scoring presenting a lilting, Ennio Morricone-esque lyricism that suggests a fantasy of peacemaking, only for it to turn starkly and suddenly into a nightmare where the grip of such wounding horror never really lets go. De Palma cuts to black on the image of a distraught Sue being calmed by her mother, a vision which does, at least, finally restore the classical mother-child relationship to something like what it’s usually supposed to be.
Director: Mel Brooks Screenwriters: Mel Brooks / Andrew Bergman, Mel Brooks, Richard Pryor, Norman Steinberg, Alan Uger
By Roderick Heath
Melvin Kaminsky, known to posterity as Mel Brooks, was the child of a classic Jewish-American immigrant experience. Born in Brooklyn in 1926 to a Polish father, who died when he was two years old, and a Ukrainian mother, Brooks’ childhood habitat was the tenements of Williamsburg. Brooks grew up slight and sickly, making him a target for other, more robust kids. Brooks learned to both disarm that rough world and channel his own aggressive streak into a zany persona and found he had a talent for reaping laughs, putting this skill to work when he gained his first job at a swimming pool, aged fourteen. By that time he had already, thanks to his uncle, gained his first encounter with the showbiz world through seeing a performance of Anything Goes, and vowed his future lay there. Brooks taught himself to play drums and changed his name to avoid confusion with trumpeter Max Kaminsky. After graduating high school Brooks had plans to study psychology cut short by service in World War II. After returning from the war Brooks went straight into the Borscht Belt music and comedy circuit, making the acquaintance of Sid Caesar, who hired him to write for TV. In 1950 Brooks was flung into the company of talents like Neil Simon and Carl Reiner when Caesar hired them to write the variety-and-comedy show Your Show of Shows, which proved a smash hit, and the same team worked together on various programs for most of the ‘50s.
Meanwhile the largely improvised comedy bit Brooks and Reiner started performing for friends, involving a 2,000 year-old-man who had witnessed the crucifixion, became a cause celebre in comedy circles. This became a ticket for the duo to become known as performers as well as writers, appearing on talk shows and hit comedy albums. Brooks’ first foray in filmmaking was the 1963 short animated film The Critic, conceived by Brooks but directed by Ernest Pintoff, with Brooks providing the wheezy voice of a confused old man trying to understand a pretentious foreign art film. The Critic won an Oscar, and a couple of years later Brooks linked up with comedy writer and performer Buck Henry to create a send-up of the wildly popular James Bond films, in the form of the TV series Get Smart. Get Smart proved so successful it handed Brooks the chance to make a movie. For some time Brooks had been kicking around the absurd notion of a Broadway musical about Adolf Hitler, a concept that morphed eventually into The Producers, the tale of a dishonest theatrical impresario and his accountant confederate who concoct a scheme to make a fortune by overselling investor shares in a sure-fire flop. Although it gained Gene Wilder a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination in his first major film role and Brooks himself actually won for Best Original Screenplay, The Producers met a largely sour critical reception upon release in 1968, bordering on odium, and proved a box office disappointment, although it did soon begin to accrue a cult following.
Brooks’ follow-up The Twelve Chairs (1970), a more classical kind of comedy based on a respectable novel, did no better. Brooks assumed his directing career was over by this point, but his luck turned when he connected with writer Andrew Bergman, who was peddling a movie outline he called Tex-X, intended as an anachronistic hipster burlesque on Western movie clichés and sporting a Black hero. Brooks bought the property and assembled a team including several writers he’d known on Your Show of Shows, as well as Bergman and rising, ultra-hip stand-up comic Richard Pryor, to brainstorm ideas, a writing process Brooks later described as “a drunken fistfight.” Brooks made a deal to be the film’s director, and finally he delivered a colossal, zeitgeist-tapping comedy hit that made him not just a successful filmmaker but a comedy brand, one he took advantage of to make himself a movie star too. Brooks reunited with Wilder on Blazing Saddles through a series of unfortunate events, and again for the immediate follow-up Young Frankenstein (1974), a film that did for Horror movies what its precursors did for smarmy Broadway shows and Horse Operas. Decades later Brooks adapted The Producers into a very successful stage musical and then a film version of it, of which I will never speak again.
It’s bordering on tedious cliché to say that it’s hard to imagine films like The Producers and Blazing Saddles being made today. Outrageous, boundary-pushing humour is still plentiful but not the specific, confrontational prescription that fuelled Brooks’ best work in daring to press sore spots in the collective mindset, through his preoccupation with cultural tension that manifests as tonal dissonance. Or, to put that in a less high-falutin’ way, it’s real funny when Hitler sings and acts like a hippie and a cowboy talks jive and an Indian chief speaks the Yiddish. The first and most obvious level of dissonance in Brooks’ persona was the side of him that adored movies, literature, and theatre, revelled in their larger-than-life grandeur and stylised power, and the side of him driven to puncture all that, to point out the conflict with a gritty, grimy, streetwise sensibility with the practised disrespect of the professional smart-ass, the medieval court jester reinvented for a new age. Mediating the two facets was his archivist streak, as if some wing of his brain was devoted to precisely catalogued clichés, images, lines, tropes. The second level of dissonance was cultural, as a very Jewish comedian with an experience of being close to the bottom of a new society who, after years of suppressing that facet of his humour to get along with the American mainstream, suddenly found the zeitgeist swinging around to appreciating its specific lilt, its sarcasm towards power structures embedded not just in politics but in narratives and language. And a third layer of dissonance was one of personal character, Brooks channelling his angry, poke-the-beast sensibility into the defusing art of making with the funny.
In that regard Brooks was following in the footsteps of the Marx Brothers, but where they made comedy from testing forms until they broke down in anarchy, Brooks was more methodical, honouring his love of story and character, which could supply their own, coexisting forms of humour, along with slapstick and non-sequitir. Part of the genius of Get Smart as a series had been Brooks’ creation of a hero who was an idiot, in contrast to both the Bondian fantasy of the poised, cool hero, and the usual desire of comedy players to seem quick-witted and knowing, swanning cluelessly through dangerous and complex situations he only vaguely understands: Maxwell Smart was the common man to the Nth degree. Most of Brooks’ rivals and emulators in the zany-and-irreverent comedy stakes lacked his capacity to simultaneously sustain a coherent story and characterisation and work them for more than one style of comedy, although some, like the ZAZ team who would make Airplane! (1980) and Top Secret!(1984), had something of that ability. The scattered children of the Brooksian sensibility, like the beloved triptych of darkly comic animated TV series, The Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy, deal with a similar balance of character comedy, social survey, referential and parodic humour, and surreal genre breaks, if all in different proportions.
Rifling through The Producers and Blazing Saddles, a connective thread emerges, distinct from their obviously shared roots in Brooks’ cracked sense of humour, and looking beyond their signifcant differences. Both films display Brooks’ compulsive fascination with the art he loves, his urge to disassemble it and reconstruct it in a new shape according to other random inputs, laden with ironic disparities that can strike others as perverse, vulgar, and wrong, and also very funny. The Producers explores how the sausage is made, often by people who barely have any idea what they’re doing; Blazing Saddles chews it and reports on the taste. For The Producers, Brooks wanted to depict a pair of losers who try to make themselves the masters of their fate, but find themselves no wiser than Smart. Or…no smarter than Wise? Anyway, Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) is introduced in the early scenes in what is for him the most degraded position possible, albeit one that suits his sick talents: the former master of Broadway producing is now so pathetic and broke he plays gigolo to a stream of ancient women of means who stream in and out of his office “to grab a last thrill on the way to the cemetery.” Mostel, a comedian and character actor who had suffered through a long period of blacklisting but managed in that time to define the lead roles of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum and Fiddler On The Roof on stage, was just re-emerging as a movie actor. There’s some irony in the way Brooks cast him to give a roaring, barnstorming beauty of a comic performance that’s pure stage farce hamola, sometimes threatening to topple the pasteboard sets with the force of his outsized energy and charisma. Small wonder Brooks only felt the need to credit him as “Zero” in the closing cast call.
Brooks’ comic sensibility immediately flies a warped flag, revelling in the new openness in American cinema to tackling what would have been utterly verboten five years earlier, most immediately and saliently in making clear Bialystock has sex with little old ladies for money. Having already seen off one sugar momma, Bialystock invites in another, known as “Hold Me! Touch Me!” (the amazing, mischievous Estelle Winwood) for her entreaties, and cycles through role-play scenarios fit for old kinescope porn reels like “The Innocent Little Milk Maid and the Naughty Stable Boy” and “The Contessa and the Chauffeur.” Part of the joke here, a joke that’s wintry in its inferences even as the film seems bouncy and friendly, is that Bialystock is utterly trapped by a greedy world he himself exemplifies, and has experienced the ultimate role-reversal from the usual image of the showbiz maestro preying on eager, young, suppliant females. Enter Leo Bloom (Wilder), an equally pathetic but quite different man, young but repressed, timid, and easily terrified, sent by Bialystock’s financial managers to review his books. Bloom evokes a different cultural wing to Bialystock, his name nodding to James Joyce’s hero and his personality like a Kafka antihero, equally entrapped by an infantilising process enabled rather than dispelled by his dedication to the dry, drearily realistic precepts of bookkeeping.
Bloom interrupts Bialystock in the middle of his session with “Hold Me, Touch Me” and Bialystock, realising he can’t go through with another encounter, hurriedly bustles her out before sternly confronting the cowering Bloom. Bloom’s neurotic angst is soon revealed, barely placated, in a touch pinched from Peanuts’ Linus, by a scrap of security blanket he carries, and worries that Bialystock, in his blustering “rhetorical conversation,” is going to eventually pound him to death by jumping on him like Nero on Poppaea. Eventually the two men find something like sufficient equilibrium to let Bloom get to work, only for him to find Bialystock oversold his last bomb, pocketing $2000 for his own use. Bialystock pleads for Bloom to hide the discrepancy with eloquent pleas, before ending with a simple, loudly screamed, “HELP!” Bloom agrees and then chuckles at the observation that, given no-one cares about the finances of bombed plays, it would be easy to repeat Bialystock’s trick on a fortune-making scale provided it was certain the project they solicited investment for would fail. Bialystock, realising this suggestion’s potential, works seductively on Bloom as they wander around Manhattan, until Bloom suddenly catches the wind of self-fulfilment: “I want everything I ever saw in the movies!” he screams joyfully, dancing around the spuming fountain outside the Lincoln Center to Bialystock’s gleeful approval, half-Mephistophelian, half-schoolboy.
It’s not being that unkind to Brooks to say that for all his greatness at thinking up funny stuff to put in front of his camera, as an actual filmmaker he was by and large only competent, with straightforward blocking and staging that sometimes foils his script and actor’s comic energy as much as liberating: the second coming of Frank Tashlin or Leo McCarey he wasn’t. But comedy filmmaking usually benefits from a relatively stand-offish approach directorially speaking, and something of The Producers’ unique charm stems from his bluntness in capturing the theatrical energy of his performers and their looming physicality, wielding Mostel’s big, bulbous physiognomy as a Mount Rushmore of seediness. The opening scenes, intercut with the credits, have a frenetic quality that puts across the almost blind dedication of Bialystock to his sustaining act, and the mounting hysteria of his encounter with Bloom is marvellously sustained, culminating in Bloom striding around the fountain, filmed with a tracking shot tracing an arc with him that transforms him briefly into exactly the kind of movie hero he wants to be. The environs of Bialystock’s offices – he soon swaps out his grubby digs for rooms that fulfil his credo of “That’s it baby, when you’ve got it, flaunt it, flaunt it!” are comic arenas where shamelessness is appropriately over-lit to better pick up flopsweat on the hairline, and the threadbare pathos of failure and the chintzy trappings of success are barely discernible. Brooks pulls off some artful camera touches nonetheless as when he shoots Biaylstock in all his looming, fat-faced ridiculousness in close-up whilst entertaining “Hold Me, Touch Me” who sits diminished behind, and a zoom shot of Bloom skipping around the fountain whilst Bialystock revels, the erupting water evoking the orgasmic pleasure of their choice to go bad and get rich. And Brooks lands one, great joke dependent on intelligent directorial staging, even as it merely involves a static shot and use of sound: Bialystock knocks on the door of one of his ladyfriends and hears her frail voice through the speaker, “Just a minute!” and then the sound of dozens of locks being undone, Bialystock wilting during the process.
Part of the cunning Brooks invested in The Producers lies in its slight exaggeration of believable elements, caricaturing people Brooks had doubtless encountered over the years in show business and embarking them on the kind of scheme that’s commonplace in that business’s wheeling and dealing – for instance, it was rumoured that Marty (1955) was financed as a tax write-off only to prove a hit, a twist of luck that’s only cream so long as the investment wasn’t oversold – pushed only to the fringe of the absurd as Bialystock and Bloom sell the play to 20,000%, thanks to Bialystock hurling himself with new enthusiasm into his circle of brittle old “investors.” The first stage in in their scheme requires however finding a property to stage that’s so soul-grindingly rank it’s guaranteed to flop. After a gruelling session reading through piles of plays, Bloom is ready to throw in the towel, only for Bialystock laugh giddily and proffer one like a tablet of the Ten Commandments as the essential bomb in the making, a “guaranteed-to-close-in-one-night beauty” entitled Springtime For Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva in Berchtesgaden. Heading out to track down the author, Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars), they find him atop his apartment building where he keeps pigeons, clad in ratty long underwear and perpetually sporting his army helmet. Liebkind proves to be a Nazi fanatic determined to present to the world the idealised version of Hitler he has long cherished. After first assuming Bialystock and Bloom are immigration men and launching into a mangled version of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” upon finding what they’re after he launches into depraved rants insulting Winston Churchill and talking up Hitler’s talents (“Not many people knew it but ze Führer was a terrific dancer!”) whilst talking to his birds like surrogate children.
Mars’ performance nearly thieves the film from Mostel and Wilder’s pockets, playing a character who is at once contemptible, irascible, and violent, but also wields a vein of pathos, an exposed nerve of perversity. He’s a degraded hold-out of a defeated cause who’s become just another New York weirdo, violently alternating between weepy paeans to the lost idyll that was Hitler’s Germany as it subsists in his war-fried brain and ranting displays of fascist imperative lurking behind his desire. But he’s also like so many other wannabes hovering at the outer fringes of show business, desperate to be hailed for his labours and have his strangeness reclassified as genius: he’s like a fictional, slightly more coherent prediction of Tommy Wiseau. Liebkind launches into a mangled version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” when he thinks the producers are immigration agents, swiftly pivoting to “Deutschland Uber Alles” when he thinks he’s about to pull off the great rehabilitation. “You are ze audience,” he informs one offended woman at the show’s premiere, “I am the author – I outrank you!” Later, when he tries to halt the performance and recount his own memory of Hitler, one of the cast hits him on the head from behind the curtain: Liebkind keeps on speaking without seeming to feel the blow until he suddenly cries, “Ow!” and collapses. Brooks liked this gag so much he repeats it verbatim in Blazing Saddles. With Liebkind, as elsewhere, Brooks encompasses a squalid world full of losers who reflect and mock showbiz pretension, locating cheerful absurdity in it all: even the lunatic Nazi is a creature of need. Bialystock resides in his office, yellowed and peeling posters for ancient hits on the wall, filth on the window, Bialystock’s hair draped like sun-dried seaweed to his scalp: Bialystock tosses the contents of a bad cup of coffee against a window pane and rubs away grime with his scarf. The gate to Liebkind’s building is kept by a woman (Madlyn Cates) who insistently calls herself the concierge, and retorts to Bloom’s courtly “Thank you, Madam,” with “I’m not a Madame, I’m a concierge!” Bialystock and Bloom are willing to pervert themselves to the degree of putting on Liebkind’s Swastika armbands to seal the deal, although they quickly deposit these in the garbage on the street and add their loogies for good measure.
The moment he smells a return of fortune Bialystock rewards himself with “a toy,” that is, hiring a Swedish go-go dancer and stripper named Ulla (Lee Meredith) who can barely speak English as his secretary and quickly schooling her in such refined arts as preparing his cigar. The Producers gets away with this in large part whilst still retaining sympathy for the two antiheroes because it ultimately presents Bialystock and Bloom as a pair of children inhabiting adult bodies, utterly bewildered and at the mercy of the grown-up hungers those bodies experience and the world they travel through, ready to abandon all law and principle if it means grabbing a hunk of all the things that tantalise without mercy. Again, the state of the common man in Brooks’ view. Brooks peppers their journey with other assorted unwitting stooges for the bomb-in-the-making with more enthusiasm than talent, including the director Bialystock hires, the ultra-camp Roger De Bris (Christopher Hewett), and his fey assistant Carmen Ghia (Andreas Voutsinas), and the brain-faded hippie musician Lorenzo St. Dubois (Dick Shawn), or LSD for short, who lands the pivotal role of Hitler in the play. Comic stereotypes all, of course, but slotted in to provide a social survey of weirdos defined chiefly by being a slightly different taxonomy of weirdo to the main characters. Bialystock and Bloom visit to DeBris’s house (“He’s the only director whose plays close on the first day of rehearsal.”) to hire him sees them forced to squeeze into a lift with Carmen, and find DeBris squeezing himself into a ball gown for an industry ball (“I’m supposed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, but I think I look like Tugboat Annie.”) and hitting on Bloom. Carmen responds to DeBris’ inspired vision of female Stormtroopers in S&M gear inserted into the play with an ecstatic “Love it!” The irony here is that DeBris and Carmen, playing up the whole concept of theatre camp to a far horizon, also offset the heavy overtones of sublimated love between Bialystock and Bloom themselves.
LSD, for his part, only auditions accidentally after Bialystock, Bloom, and DeBris suffer through hours of auditioning performers all trying to establish their Germanic credentials (my favourite: the one who insists on finishing his song and then blows DeBris a raspberry). LSD stumbles in looking for another show but is talked into giving a performance with his all-girl band, and gives an unhinged performance of a song he wrote called “Love Power.” Sample lyric: “And I give a flower to the big fat cop – he takes his club and he beat me up!” The actual premiere of Springtime For Hitler sees the audience utterly horrified by the spectacle DeBris offers in his opening production number, with a crisply uniformed SS man warbling the paean to Nazi ambition and restored German national glory (“We’re all marching to a faster pace! Look out, here come the Master Race!”) whilst scantily clad girls in pervy versions of folk dress swan about. Then out comes a kick-line in Gestapo duds, forming themselves into a Swastika for a climactic parody of Busby Berkeley-style choreography. This is made all the more merciless by the fact the “Springtime For Hitler” title number is infinitely more memorable and insidiously catchy than any number of proper show tunes. It’s a good candidate for the single funniest scene in cinema, but it’s not an innocent kind of laughter, rather the kind that relies on the audience being provoked by the profound dissonance of subject and form, and then by the dissolution of dissonance by the time one finishes the movie and starts humming “Springtime For Hitler.”
The Producers ruffled feathers upon release for its blithe approach to making fun of the most serious subject imaginable, Hitler, and its many other fillips of dark, sick humour. “Well, talk about bad taste!” one of the eventual audience members of Springtime For Hitler exclaims, neatly summarising exactly what Brooks set out to extol, revelling in being freed from the shackles of TV. But the quality that The Producers shares with Blazing Saddles is the sense of purpose underlying the freewheeling lunacy. The Producers executes a specific kind of revenge fantasy on the very concept of Hitlerian power, a step further than even Charlie Chaplin dared and the kind that perhaps only a Jewish comedian could come up with, reducing the psychopathic god to a peevish vaudeville character and his rhetoric to the stuff of cornball musical theatre. Bialystock and Bloom become Brooks’ proxies in this ironic mirror, seeming to conspire with the shades of the evil regime only to deliver it the most humiliating kick, whilst their eager delight in watching the show unfold and seeing the appalled reactions of their audience becomes a peculiarly cunning comic artist’s self-portrait, the professional’s hunger for validation melded with the provocateur’s delight in burning the house down. At the same time Brooks easily swats other targets, particularly to the tropes of the musical that the form has, indeed, never really recovered from, seeing the fascist will nascent in the urge to carefully orchestrate and subordinate dancers to geometry and rhythm, the reduction of murderers’ uniforms to a form of sexual fetish, and the edge of maniacal charisma contained within the nominally pacific style of the Counterculture’s music.
Bialystock and Bloom initially think their plan has worked brilliantly, only for the start of the actual play to hold the audience in their seats as, through casting LSD and with DeBris’ gaudy, tacky musical insertions and comic interventions, Springtime For Hitler has been turned from fascist paean to a broad farce and satire, perfectly attuned to an era where camp had become an aesthetic value. Of course Bialystock’s instincts, utter out of compass for years, will conspire to create success where he wants failure. Meanwhile Liebkind watches in sobbing despair in beholding what’s happened to his play, and tries to stop the show, only to be knocked out and taken for just another gag. This twist eventually drives the producers to make compact with Liebkind, after the Nazi in his rage tries to shoot them, to blow up the theatre and prevent more performances, only for Liebkind to get muddled during planting explosives, the blast injuring the three men and ensuring they’re caught. In court, where the three injured men are tried together (Liebkind swathed like a mummy but still with helmet on) Bloom makes a heartfelt plea on Bialystock’s behalf, but it’s not enough to prevent their journey to the hoosegow, whereupon they immediately repeat their plot by staging a musical called Prisoners of Love and accepting investments from the prison staff: Bialystock and Bloom are again in their element.
The gorgonizing mirror that is show business itself is the ultimate target of The Producers, existing in constant, tormenting relationship with the nursed fantasies, cherished ambitions, and deepest perversities not just of the audience but its makers. A zone defined by gravity-defying magic where one can not only make great piles of cash but also encounter the most beautiful and talented people and suborn them to your will in manners beautiful and awful, but which remains eternally unpredictable, a careening beast where what should be good becomes bad and vice versa depending on a thousand chance elements. Lessons Brooks himself was well-versed in, and after Blazing Saddles delivered a hit for him. There was some luck in this and also a pay-off for cultural seeding Brooks and others like him, including MAD Magazine, the Harvard National Lampoon in print and a generation of madcap improv theatre and stand-up comics like Lenny Bruce, that finally saw him hitting the zeitgeist bull’s eye. Blazing Saddles was specifically a madcap parody, most of Brooks’ subsequent films adopted that approach, aping classical genre plots to hang gags and sketches off. The best of them still kept some thesis in mind: Young Frankenstein, for instance, defuses the very idea of monstrosity and plays intricate games with notions of legacy and identity. For its part, Blazing Saddles undercuts the fantasies contained in many Westerns and deals directly with the basic national racial schism usually, strenuously avoided in the classic Western genre, ironically coinciding with the popularity of Blaxploitation film which performed many a remix on stale genres. Brooks inherited this idea from Bergman and it doubtlessly was amped up by Pryor, standing at odds with Brooks’ usual sensibility to a degree.
The style of much humour in Blazing Saddles – which today we might describe as “very politically incorrect” or “not woke”, and which was despite current rhetoric pretty much as controversial in its time as now – serves an ironic purpose, highlighting things usually excised from more polite exercises, revealing gaping vistas of experience in the classic Hollywood movie where people couldn’t fart or fuck and basic social truths were usually carefully mediated if mentioned at all. This principle is apparent in so much of the movie, ranging from the infamous, show-stopping campfire scene sporting a bunch of cowboys chomping down baked beans and making flatulent music, to villainous henchman Taggart (Slim Pickens) giddily describing how he and his men like “rape the shit” out of any women they capture whilst marauding. Blazing Saddles makes brutal sport undoubtedly for the sheer hell of it, but the little winces of pain as well as hilarity such lines provoke are a proof of life, blowing the lid off some secret aspect of life usually elided in the formalities of a classic movie. The opening scene sees a gang of white railway construction overseers try to get the mostly black and Chinese labourers to sing a work song for their entertainment, deftly makes multiple kinds of sociological sport, as workers, led by the smooth, poised, insolent Bart (Cleavon Little), sing jazz standards to the bewildered bosses, who respond by acting out the way they expect the Blacks to act, making tits of themselves in the process.
Blazing Saddles was taking on the squarest of square movie styles at a time when John Wayne was still hauling his pendulous carcass into the saddle, but the genre which had been Hollywood’s essential cash cow for decades was on a steep decline: Blazing Saddles completed the job of breaking it so effectively it was difficult to make more Westerns without a comparison falling from some wiseacre’s lips. The opening titles sport a theme song sung by country singer Frankie Laine that’s played completely straight in lyrics and music in mimicking the traditionally stirring genre theme tune, save for the hint of sarcasm in the overwrought title itself. The plot, involving a scheme to seize land and make a fortune from a railway being constructed over it, could come right out of any number of straitlaced horse operas. But the décor Brooks and his writers hang on that frame is seditious. Bart and another labourer Charlie (Charles McGregor) are dispatched by Taggart, the chief foreman, on the railway handcart to see if the track ahead is sinking in quicksand, and sink into the muck they do: when Taggart and his men arrive he diligently uses his lasso to pull the handcart from the quicksand and leaves the two disposable workers to die. It’s funny, as they say, because it’s true. Bart and manage to squirm their way out, and Bart grabs up a shovel and crowns Taggart with it, landing himself a ticket to the gallows in the territory capital.
Meanwhile, the railway’s course is set to be diverted across the solid land belonging to the burgeoning town of Rock Ridge. Taggart and his men are in cahoots with the Territorial Attorney General, Assistant To The Governor, and State Procurer Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman), who sees a way to make a fortune by obtaining the land, and sends the henchman to terrorize Rock Ridge’s citizens into fleeing so Lamarr can take it over. When this fails and the townsfolk demand a sheriff to protect them, Lamarr looks for a way to fatally demoralise the town, and hits upon the idea of pardoning Bart and convincing the territorial governor Le Petomane (Brooks), Lamarr’s partner in the land grab, to appoint him to the sheriff’s job. Bart is greeted in the town with expected racist bewilderment and disdain, but he makes friends with a drunk in his jail who calls himself Jim but proves to be the legendary gunslinger known as the Waco Kid (Wilder), and gains some respect when he outwits and captures a hulking goon, Mongo (Alex Karras), sent by Taggart. Lamarr next tries to destroy Bart by less direct means, engaging the travelling chanteuse Lily Von Shtupp (Madeleine Kahn) to seduce and humiliate him, only for Bart to prove so well-armed trouserwards that Lilly instead becomes his slavish devotee. At last Lamarr hires a small army to reduce the town to ashes, so the townsfolk, at Bart’s direction, build a Potemkin Village-like replica of the town to serve as a trap for the villains.
That Blazing Saddles has that coherent a storyline for most of its length is remarkable considering how casual it is in subverting it at any opportunity. Brooks employs manifold flourishes of meta humour, like a little old lady being beaten up by thugs suddenly looking at the camera and decrying her treatment, or Bart blowing up Mongo with a dynamite-laced candygram and then noting the hardest part of this trick was inventing the candygram. Mongo himself recreates a familiar trope in many a classic adventure movie of a husky but almost childlike henchman who swans into Rock Ridge and punches out a horse before being beaten by Bart. He becomes loyal to Bart, the first man never to whip him, to the point Waco teases him for being in love with Bart, to which Mongo irritably retorts, shoving them both aside, “No, Mongo straight!”, and later muses, “Mongo only pawn in game of life.” Brooks similarly undercuts Lamarr’s pretences to being the adult in the territory as he desperately seeks his rubber frog during bath time, as Taggart scrubs his back. Brooks makes swerves into other genres, like the hangman for the territory (Robert Ridgely) being modelled on Boris Karloff’s performance in Tower of London (1939). Blazing Saddles constantly announces itself in friendly quarrel with the ghost of Hollywood respectability. Lamarr anticipates, during his rousing villain’s speech to his men, getting an “almost certain Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.” Bart forces the townspeople of Red Rock to wait for him by invoking the holy name of Randolph Scott. Lamarr’s name evokes the iconography of classic Hollywood star power through Hedy Lamarr whilst destabilising Lamarr’s supposed authority with a girly name.
Brooks poking fun at the product of Hollywood’s golden age had loaded meaning when Blazing Saddles was released: whilst far less consequential than mocking Hitler, Brooks was still rubbing salt into an open cultural wound. As well as mapping out all the sociological ructions, sharp veers in what was permissible on screen, and changing perspectives on history and communal meaning sparked during the 1960s, Brooks also, casually informed the industry that the genre that had once been its mainstay was dead, even if, like a dinosaur with a slow nervous system, it kept moseying on a few more years before keeling over. The old stars, the old studio bosses, the old directors were dying or retiring. John Ford might have been grateful he died a year before Blazing Saddles came out, although Wayne, whilst turning the Waco Kid part down, told Brooks he’d be first in line to see the movie. At a time when a small industry whining about dirty words and sex scenes in movies was sprouting in reaction to the new Hollywood product, the old kind was rapidly becoming mythologised as grand imperial age. Brooks dramatized the disparity, setting eras in pop culture in quarrel and enjoying the mess.
That mess includes barbed commentary on the period racism and carnage usually gleaned over in movies: “Here we take the good time and trouble to slaughter every last Indian in the West and for what? So they can appoint a sheriff that’s black than any Indian!” Taggart moans after finding Bart is now sheriff. The studio wanted Brooks to remove the many uses of the slurs in the script, but Little and Pryor back Brooks, largely I think because they felt it had a purgative value. Blazing Saddles cleverly tells a modern story of post-Civil Rights-era in satirical period garb: moments like Bart struck dumb as a nice little old lady spits “Up yours, nigger!” at him have more truth in them than Stanley Kramer’s entire filmography. The film offers a clever, witty, debonair, intelligent Black hero in Bart, slick and dressed like Roy Rogers and embodying the perfect Western hero just as much. Bart finds a way to operate despite being faced with deep contempt from all sides save the equable Waco, who is himself struggling a la Dean Martin in Rio Bravo (1959), out of a pit of alcoholic degradation, showing off his shuddering shooting hand at first but soon enough getting his mojo back. Bart’s arrival in Rock Ridge sees him threatened and insulted, only for him to extricate himself by taking himself hostage, toggling between the persona of a gruff gunman and a cowering comic relief Black, before retreating into the jailhouse and congratulating himself: “Oh, baby, you are so talented!” The townsfolk themselves all have the same surname of Johnson, a touch that nods to familiar movie cliché where the name Johnson was often applied as a kind of everyman badge, and also witty as a racist inversion, the white people all rendered bland and lumpen in identity.
One of film’s funniest and certainly its warmest moment, perhaps the one that almost most directly achieves that purgative effect, comes after the aforementioned insult from the old lady as Waco consoles the depressed Bart with a gentle speech about keeping in mind what simple, ordinary people he’s dealing with, “these are people of the land, the common clay of the new West…You know…Morons.” At which point Bart grins in delight. Like Bialystock and Bloom, Bart and Waco are misfits who find solace in each-other’s company and maintain a conspiratorial attitude against the world, only in this case with an aim to saving it rather than exploiting it. The chemistry evinced here between Little and Wilder is all the more striking given Wilder was only pressed into his role when Brooks’ first choice, Gig Young, had to be replaced as his actual alcoholism was catching up with him. Waco was supposed to a leathery, haggard old-timer, tailor-made for a worn-in familiar face, but bringing in Wilder, who since The Producers had become a star in his own right, helped enforce the film’s hip quality. Little himself was making his feature film debut, having previously only been a stage actor: Brooks had originally intended for Pryor to have the role, but Pryor was still considered too wild and risky a talent. Little is ideal in the part, however, and even given the smaller window for Black headliners in ‘70s Hollywood it’s bewildering that Little didn’t become a huge star, or at the very least get more roles than some TV guest spots.
Meanwhile Brooks casts himself as Le Petomane (his character name a deep cut of reference, to a nineteenth century French performer whose name literally meant “The Fart Maniac,” a clear sign Brooks knows well how the tradition he works within is) and as an Indian chief remembered by Bart in a flashback, who spared the lives of his family who were trailing a wagon train whilst his warriors massacred the rest. As the Governor, Brooks nailed down a characterisation he’d take up again in A History of the World, Part I (1981) as King Louis of France and which also links back to Bialystock, as a distractible satyr with the moral and mental poise of a ten-year-old, delighting in the capacious bosom of his secretary and easily manipulated by the splendidly slimy Lamarr, who is in turn constantly frustrated to the point of rage in being a clever guy surrounded by frontier nitwits. The film is nonetheless just about entirely stolen by Kahn’s pitch-perfect lampoon of Marlene Dietrich as Von Shtupp, perfectly mimicking the great old star’s languid lilt and performing a song entitled “I’m Tired” as a burlesque on Dietrich’s persona as the been-there-done-him scarlet woman, nodding most immediately to her roles in Destry Rides Again (1939) and The Blue Angel (1931). Her performance of “I’m Tired” (sample lyric: “I’m had my fill of love, from below and above.”) repeats some of the shtick of “Springtime For Hitler” as she’s joined on stage by some dancers in Teutonic army uniform, and indeed it’s an early example of how Brooks would keep trying to better his classic of crass and fail.
Lily’s downfall proves to be Bart’s prodigious manhood, setting out to test the myth of Black trouser snake size and bleating “It’s twue! It’s twue!” as the lights go out. This sort of thing also encompasses a more timely parody of the fast-emerging cliché of Blaxploitation films with their bullet-proof, long-schlonged lady-killer heroes. Dissolve to Lily serving Bart a gigantic sausage for breakfast: “Fifteen is my limit for schnitzelgruben.” Brooks had become a slicker filmmaker by this point, although a lot of scenes, particularly around the Governor’s offices, are played out in the most functional point-and-shoot fashion. Every now and then, though, he wields a genuinely clever sense of camera cause and effect. One moment pays direct tribute to the kinds of sprawling compositions in a MAD cartoon, his camera makes a lengthy dolly surveying the motley assembly singing up for Lamarr’s force, including Mexican bandits, bikers, German soldiers, Confederates, Arabs with camels, and Ku Klux Klan members. An earlier, famous shot is more subtle in its sleight of hand, when Bart first appears decked in cowboy gear, shiny star on his chest. Anachronistic jazzy music stars playing as if to aurally announce that this here is not your daddy’s cowboy, nosiree, this is a cool Black one. It’s the sort of cringe-inducing musical cue often delivered in to play on an audience’s ironic awareness whilst not quite violating the fourth wall: hell, something like The Harder They Fall (2021) does the same thing only with a different music style. Except that Brooks takes it a giant step further as Bart rides across a plain to find Count Basie and his full orchestra playing in the middle of nowhere, Bart swapping high-fives with the great bandleader. Layers of history and art collapse together in one perfect surrealist gesture.
This vignette illustrates how Brooks’ more high-minded mentality melds with unexpected ease and fruitfulness with his down-and-dirty impulses. The nods to Joyce and Kafka in The Producers are supplanted here by devices borrowed from Theatre of the Absurd figures like Luigi Pirandello, luxuriating in the way making a comedy offers a casual smokescreen to all accusations of pretension and dramatic lapse. This is taken to a logical extreme at the film’s end when the actors burst out of one movie and start invading others. Abandoning the coherent plot of The Producers and its essentially character-based humour was a risk for Brooks and indeed as he became known for his parodies his films began settling into loose-jointed skits: Blazing Saddles works in large part because it offers such a deluge of them. But the story of Bart and the Waco Kid and Lamarr’s partnership hangs together just enough to give the film a level of dramatic unity, and indeed making the film as a whole a particularly wry entry in the ‘70s buddy movie stakes. Brooks delivers a climax where Lamarr’s mercenary band attacks Rock Ridge. To delay them long enough to put finishing touches on their trap, Bart and the townsfolk set up a fake tollway in front of the approaching brigands. Having lured the bandits into the fake town but failed to properly set explosives to blow them all to hell, the heroes must fall back on Waco’s incredible aim to set it off.
This turn of plot feels surprisingly clever and substantial, balanced by the imagery of the villains wheeling about a fake town populated by bobble-headed cut-outs standing in for townsfolk and kicking over false fronts. This is again touched with odd genius, at once seeming like an only slightly too ridiculous scheme and touched once more with a meta aspect, making the flimsy nature of Hollywood sets into a part of the story: the suspension of disbelief the audience is usually expected to make confronted by false environs and bad special effects might as well extend to the characters in a movie too. The good guys charge in to finish the job and the two sides battle in the street, whereupon Brooks pulls out in a long zoom shot to reveal they’re now in the midst of a Hollywood backlot. Zoom in again on a sound stage, where a bunch of very camp dancers are filming a number called “The French Mistake” but stumbles in the choreography infuriate the director (Dom DeLuise) who tries to show they how it’s supposed to go only to screw it up himself. The brawling cowboy picture actors crash onto the set, the dancers join the melee after Taggart hits the director, a hulking he-man seems about to beat up some skinny hoofer only to sneak out on a date with him, and others make like Esther Williams in a pool.
This shattering of form and resulting explosion of joyous mayhem is very much the culmination of Brooks’ sensibility even as it announced it as far as the mass audience was concerned. The entire filmmaking machine breaks down, fakery and factory becoming inseperable. One waning genre, the Western, confronts another, the Musical, affected machismo and campiness colliding and battling but also finding their delightful new fruitions. The old Hollywood pantheon (in the form of cement hand and shoe prints out front of the Chinese Theater) confronted by their inheritors wearing the drag of fantasy-satire extrapolation. Lamarr pauses before dying to ponder bewilderedly at the size of Douglas Fairbanks’ footprints and then scratching his name and creed ($) into the ceement, whilst the heroes seek out a happy ending – “I love a happy ending!” Waco exclaims – in the movie theatre, having had enough of real life already. In a great little throwaway touch, Waco, reabsorbed back into the movie, still clutches the tub of popcorn he bought in the theatre, before he and Bart ride off together, having saved the town, before dismounting and climbing into a chauffeured car to drive into the sunset. The true meaning of movies, Brooks notes: when they work everyone goes home happy, but some go home in a limo.
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.
Director: Peter Bogdanovich Screenwriters: Peter Bogdanovich, Samuel Fuller (uncredited)
By Roderick Heath
In memoriam: Peter Bogdanovich 1939-2022
From vantages in later life Peter Bogdanovich may well have looked back at Targets, his official emergence as a director, and given a grim smile. As well as looking directly into the darker fantasies hatching out of the American body politic in ways that have become all too familiar in the decades since its release, Targets is also a movie casting a caustic eye on the collapsing ground between fantasy and reality, celebrity and infamy. It’s both a young man’s spree and a promise of reckoning to everyone who enters a zone where subjects of cool artistic regard, personal meditation, sociological scrutiny, and raw tabloid frenzy all converge: Bogdanovich already saw and understood the forces that would define his life and career. Bogdanovich’s journey in the first 35 years of his life seemed uniquely blessed and lucky, whilst so much of the rest of it, though he at least never seemed to succumb to temptations of self-pity and self-exile, might have felt like being trapped within the hall-of-mirrors angst of Targets. Bogdanovich, the son of Serbian and Austrian-Jewish parents, was born in New York just after they immigrated to the US, and was conscious until the end of his life of his peculiar status as product of two continental sensibilities.
Bogdanovich trained as an actor, but his adoration for cinema manifested early as he started keeping indexed reviews of every movie he saw from the age of twelve, and he emerged in his early twenties as a leading critic and scholar. He became a film programmer for the Museum of Modern Art, doing much to transform the reputation of directors like Allan Dwan, Howard Hawks, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, and John Ford amongst the American cognoscenti, whilst also befriending many such storied directors and writing about their careers and experiences. Along the way Bogdanovich began thinking of getting into movies himself like his French New Wave critics, and like other, young, budding filmmakers before and after, he soon found himself employed by the emperor of quickie cinema Roger Corman. Bogdanovich and his wife Poly Platt, a theatrical set designer and all-round imaginative talent, fled New York and unpaid rent for Hollywood, and within a few weeks Bogdanovich was deeply immersed in cobbling together a film for Corman, as Francis Ford Coppola had done before him utilising footage from a Soviet science fiction film Corman had bought and combining it with newly shots scenes to create a movie called Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968), for which Bogdanovich was credited under the name Derek Thomas.
Oscars were mysteriously not forthcoming for that odd, silly, yet hazily poetic chimera, but Bogdanovich had proven he had the stuff of a filmmaker. For his second and proper debut as a director, Bogdanovich and Platt came up with a storyline that was as much a rumination on their own obsession with cinema and its meaning as it was a tale describing modern dread. Bogdanovich also credited Samuel Fuller with helping him write the script, and Fuller’s fingerprints are discernible throughout, in the lean and cunning dovetailing of journalistic forthrightness and aesthetic force. Not that many people saw Targets when it was first released, but it won Bogdanovich industry attention, allowing him to move on and make The Last Picture Show (1971), the movie that announced him as a major force in the emerging New Hollywood era. Targets is atypical for Bogdanovich in many respects, as a lean, patiently paced tale of death and dread, where the director would later devote the bulk of his career to screwball and romantic comedies, albeit laced with strange textures and lodes of anxiety, and tender human dramas. Bogdanovich found a way of sating the B-movie world’s needs whilst aiming far beyond it. At the same time many of Bogdanovich’s defining traits are already in evidence – an indulgent sense of character and humour, replete film buff flourishes, and a way with offering neglected stars a career-redefining part.
Targets takes as a jumping-off point a truism about the nature of horror, contrasting the almost comforting, moodily historical and psychological imagery of classic, Gothic-style Horror, and the films that had thrived on it, with the nature of horror as experienced as part of the everyday world of the late 1960s, drawing generally on the Vietnam War zeitgeist and in particular on the murderous rampage of former soldier Charles Whitman at the University of Texas in 1966. Bogdanovich articulates the contrast by using footage from Roger Corman’s The Terror (1963) to represent the latest movie by beloved Horror movie star Byron Orlok, played, in one of the greatest strokes of self-referential casting in the history of movies, by Boris Karloff in one of his last performances. The film commences with a long portion of The Terror playing out, with the aging, limping, bedraggled Karloff/Orlok playing out a semi-improvised fantasia in a waning subgenre on screen, until, in a manner that feels inspired by the opening newsreel and conference of Citizen Kane (1941), the movie ends and the lights come up in a screening room.
The use of The Terror in particular to represent the decaying Gothic style is particularly apt in the associations it trails. Corman and a cadre of young assistants, including Coppola, Jack Hill, Monte Hellman, and costar Jack Nicholson, flung together portions of the movie to take advantage of some sets and remaining contracted days with Karloff, and later assembled it into something like a coherent film. It’s the kind of movie that represents low-budget and mercenary genre cinema of its time as at once absurd and endearing, touched with happenstance art and beauty. Targets presents it as a factotum labour by Sammy Michaels (Bogdanovich himself), a young TV director who’s anxiously trying to make a movie career happen, made at the behest of pushy producer Marshall Smith (Monte Landis). But watching the movie proves to have left Orlok depressed and suddenly determined to retire, much to Smith’s chagrin, as he wants to next produce Sammy’s next, more ambitious script, one he describes as “a work of art,” with a part specially written for Orlok. Orlok is happy to aggravate and ignore Smith, but Sammy is left despondent at suddenly losing what he saw a great opportunity for the both, and fears it’s a commentary on his work, which Orlok denies. Orlok also decides to avoid a personal appearance he’s supposed to make at a preview of the movie, to be held at the Reseda Drive-In Theatre. He quarrels with his personal assistant, Jenny (Nancy Hsueh), who is also Sammy’s girlfriend, when she criticises his behaviour, and she leaves in a huff. Sammy turns up shortly after, drunk and insisting on telling Orlok off for turning down his great role, and the two men get hammered together whilst arguing out their different fears.
As Orlok departed Smith’s offices on Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip earlier in the day, the completely unaware actor was viewed through the crosshairs of a sniper scope from across the street: young Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly) buying a new hunting rifle, scopes out prey on the boulevards. Bogdanovich privileges the viewer with a glimpse inside Bobby’s car trunk as he places the rifle within, already containing as it does dozens of guns. Bobby returns home to his father (James Brown), mother (Charlotte Thompson), and wife Ilene (Tanya Morgan), who all seem to lead an ideal American suburban lifestyle as far from the saturated Technicolor mystique and morbidity of Orlok’s movies as it’s possible to get. Bobby family relate like they’ve been cast in a commercial, with son calling father “sir” with perfect reflexive deference, as the two bond over shooting cans, and they all sit around watching banal television: they’re likely the kind of people who wouldn’t watch one of Orlok’s films for being too silly and unhealthy. Bogdanovich’s camera, moving with Bobby, surveys Platt’s sets, moving between equally banal spaces, where the blue pastel interior walls and near-clinical sparseness of the furnishings make the house seem more like a dentist’s waiting room than a home. Nobody seems troubled or uptight, but there are subtle tensions in Leave It To Beaver-ville. The camera notes a photo of Bobby in military uniform, signalling he’s likely been in Vietnam. Ilene is a telephone operator currently working night shift, whilst Bobby works days in an insurance company, but there are hints he might have been sacked; both are stuck in the family house whilst it’s mentioned Bobby has a brother who’s started a family. Bogdanovich strains however to avoid psychologising Bobby. His oncoming actions are more the result of a vacuum of identity rather than pressure, his obsession with guns the product of a life lived in constant training for some event that may never come, so he must make it.
The film weaves parallel patterns for hero and villain. Orlok retires whilst Bobby is fired. Bogdanovich cuts from the Thompson family having dinner in a fishbowl shot to Orlok, Jenny, and Smith’s press agent Ed Loughlin (Arthur Peterson) occupy a booth in a restaurant. Later, Bobby sits alone drinking up TV, whilst Orlok withers after watching his movie but then becomes rapt along with Sammy by the good work in The Criminal Code, before of course, the two men’s paths converge. The visual language emphasises this – jump cuts that lock the two characters in similar gesture, camera pans that begin in one scene and end in another. What makes the obvious duologue at the narrative’s heart interesting is the way Bogdanovich engages with it, both cinematically, and in the levels of irony he packs into his thesis. Orlok’s sense of crisis at the twilight of his career is reflected in a crisis of aesthetics: what was once scary is now fun, if not comical, artistic experience that once had a pleasant zing of risk now pleasant. Even Orlok comments to Sammy that “You know what they call my films today – camp – high camp…My kind of horror isn’t horror anymore.” But what is horror now? Orlok shows Sammy a newspaper with the headline, “Youth Kills Six In Supermarket” as an example, and Bobby soon provides another. Horror now comes out of the antiseptic, ahistorical dream of the modern suburb, a place that is supposed to be the great pinnacle and dream of human history, borne not out of ancient evils and rotten, animate psyches, but the very opposite, spaces that seem to appease all need for fear, anger, lust, allowing everyone to lead the good clean wholesome lives they always wanted to. Bobby confesses to his wife that I don’t know what’s happening to me…I get funny ideas…you don’t think I can do anything do you,” statements that are so fuzzily expressed Ilene gives bromides in response: “I think you do anything you put your mind to, at least that’s what your mother says.” Which is of course one of the great existential curses: what, exactly, should one put one’s mind to?
Meanwhile Bogdanovich finds a way of dramatizing his own cineaste obsessiveness. Sammy’s relationship with Orlok, his old, withered muse and nemesis in taking movies seriously, channels Bogdanovich’s encounters with the grand old men of Hollywood, and even anticipates what would become Bogdanovich’s famous friendship with Orson Welles. That Bogdanovich himself plays the role exacerbates the metanarrative trickery still further. Bogdanovich’s reverence for the past is signalled when Sammy finds Orlok watching one of his old movies, represented by Howard Hawks’ prison flick The Criminal Code (1930) featuring the pre-Frankenstein (1931) Karloff as a murderer. Sammy notes the director and comments, “He really knows how to tell a story,” which Orlok affirms, remnant professional pride still lodged somewhere in his weary, self-doubting frame. Bogdanovich’s sympathy for actors as one himself, challenged as he inserts himself front and centre in his movie, is also vital here. Sammy and Orlok’s drinking-and-moping session culminates with the two men falling asleep on Orlok’s hotel room bed. Waking in the morning Sammy gave a frightened start on seeing his bed-mate, waking Orlok: “I was having a nightmare and the first thing I see as I open my eyes in Byron Orlok!” Bogdanovich makes these touches, which stray near to self-indulgent, matter in terms of the larger narrative. That’s in part because they present Orlok as a man of an industry with a history, and one who in many ways embodying the Gothic horror style, not just in that it’s his living and metier, but in that he represents memory, tradition, experience, and craft, things of value left by the tidal roll of the past, things Sammy tries to value whilst also embodying youth and potential.
“Marx Brothers make you laugh, Garbo makes you weep, Orlok makes you scream,” the star comments in recalling his glory days with a lilt of the old sinister persona easily called forth. “It’s not that the films are bad, I’ve gone bad.” The patent sarcasm of this is Karloff was always a terrific actor, able to deliver brilliantly layered performances like those in Isle of the Dead and The Body Snatcher (both 1945) alongside his gallery of grotesques, and Bogdanovich’s gift to him a year before he died was a role that ingeniously exploited both his talent and his persona. Adding to the game is the fact that Sammy’s script, the one he wants to get Orlok to act in, is very plainly Targets itself. The hall of mirrors gets a little longer. Orlok’s name, as well as presenting a readily legible echo of Karloff’s nom-de-theatre (Boris Karloff himself being a kind of character played by William Pratt, an Englishman with Indian heritage), refers to the name of the Dracula substitute in Friedrich Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). “You don’t play some phoney Victorian heavy,” Sammy tells Orlok regarding his proposed role in his script, “You play a human being.” Bobby for his part could be said to embrace the role of poet of murder, supplanting Orlok’s make-believe with real flesh targets, but his is a dry, cold, alien poetry, associated with pale blue prefab walls and high white industrial structures, the eye of the camera becoming the lens of the sniper scope, seeking out targets to challenge his aim.
Bobby’s emerging homicidal impulses are signalled from his first appearance, scoping Orlok across the street. And again when he points a shotgun at his father when he’s setting up cans for them to plug, a gesture that his father is infuriated by, violating everything he taught his son about using guns. Bobby hastily explains his faux pas – “Sorry, I wasn’t thinking,” and tellingly he remains unable to kill his father, avoiding unleashing his poetry until he’s away from the family home. There’s nothing identifiably bad about his father, who seems like a decent, solicitous, old-fashioned patriarch who insists on fastidious safety when handling guns, but it’s precisely that igneous aspect of strength he exudes that might fester in the mind. Ilene comes home from a night at work to find Bobby sitting on their bed smoking and asking her not to turn on the light: in the dark Bobby can dream dark dreams whilst still awake, and the stubbing out of a cigarette is the seal set on a private resolve.
The next morning, Bobby types out a letter, as much suicide note as statement of murderous intent, in which he says he knows he will go down eventually but others will die first. He shoots Ilene as she comes up to him for a morning kiss, and then his mother when she races in to see what happened. Realising she was just about to pay a delivery boy bringing groceries, he dashes into the kitchen and guns down the lad too. Bobby calmly and caringly picks up his wife and mother’s bodies and lays them on beds, as if hoping to lock them in permanent stasis, eternally and perfectly inhabiting the house and the roles they were in, in part because in his mania he feels this will release them from consequences of what comes next. He lays down handtowels over blood stains as if ashamed to have had to spoil the carpeting, and extends the solicitude to placing a jacket over the delivery boy’s head. Here Bogdanovich employs touches that betray careful study of Hitchcock, in the image of Ilene leaning into the camera for her kiss as Bobby shoots her and is then flung back, and repurposing Psycho’s (1960) post-murder clean-up, with the camera performing delicate Hitchcockian tracking shots that zero in on tell-tale totems. Psycho’s imprint is also plain on the conception of Bobby as a character, as a superficially nice young man who’s a killer, constantly chewing on candy.
At the same time Bogdanovich moves out beyond Hitchcock in portraying a killer whose activities have no plot motive and inspire virtually no traditional suspense, and by the finale Bogdanovich countenances the breakdown of movie narrative into warring images in a way Hitchcock always resisted: the Master’s consciousness that film was a reality created by juxtaposed imagery could not face blurring such lines. Most of the second half of Targets unfolds in a negative behavioural zone where tension is wrung more from forced identification with Bobby, obliged through the camera lens – agonising as Bobby lines up his shots, feeling the frustration of missing, the pricks of pain in failing to carry out the mission and frustration of the deadly synthesis of spectacle and homicide, the anxiety of trying to survive just a little longer to keep the nullifying rain falling. Bobby leaves his home, buys stacks more ammunition and charges them to his father – that he lacks any cash bolsters the hints of his joblessness – and waits with patient bravado whilst the manager rings his father to get permission for this, the kind of moment usually reserved for a spy hero trying to get past some enemy cordon. Success; Bobby heads out to a perfect vigil he spied driving around earlier, atop some oil tanks overlooking the freeway, a place to enact the idle fantasy of stopping the ants from moving.
Bobby goes about his apocalyptic mission nonetheless like the suburban sojourner he still is, settling down to munch on a home-made lunch and a bottle of pop whilst anticipating the day’s fun, whilst unpacking his sack crammed full of death, guns and bullets laid out with geometric precision atop the tank with its gleaming white paint and equally geometric forms of piping and railings. The cinematographer for Targets was Laszlo Kovacs, and he can be seen developing an argot here (as with the previous year’s Psych-Out), that visual lustre charged with raw on-the-road poetry and diffused yet immediate imagery he would later deploy on the likes of Easy Rider (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1970), The Last Movie (1971), and The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), movies where Kovacs could pivot in an instant between a New Wave myth of Americana and textures of filmy, grainy psychology, and both are present to a degree in Targets – the urban landscapes in all their variegated shininess seem charged with a kind of putrescent glitter whilst the interiors are coded by colour into discrete zones of characterisation. The crucial early scene in the Thompson house where Bobby confesses having strange ideas is one, long shot tethering actors and environs in a systemic statement, bedroom, kitchen, hallway and living room folded about them all, not ending until Bobby goes outside to fetch a pistol from the car, because happiness is a warm gun.
Bogdanovich gives a first clue to how clever the dovetailing of his two storylines will be when, before Bobby arrives at the tanks, he portrays Orlok, with Sammy and a mollified Jenny, hanging his mind about attending the movie screening, and sitting down with a local DJ, the motor-mouthed hipster Kip Larkin (Sandy Baron), to go through the arrangements for the show: Orlok cringes at the various tired audience questions Larkin plans to lay on him, and instead relishes Sammy’s suggestion that he tell some stories. He settles down with casual displays of stagecraft tells a variation on the old fable “Appointment in Samarra,” in which a servant flees Baghdad for Samarra after encountering Death in a marketplace, only for the man’s employer to speak to Death who admits to having been surprised to see the servant when he’s expecting to meet him “tonight in Samarra.” This vignette is marvellous for a number of reasons. As a switchback towards a pre-modern world of fables and verbal storytelling. As a chance for Karloff to show his talents in that waning art. As a showcase for combining the verbal and visual for an anecdotal, character-defining effect Bogdanovich would use again notably and repeatedly in The Last Picture Show. As a clever narrative gag confirming Orlok’s still-guttering talent to grip an audience, even arresting the DJ’s attention. And as a thematic anticipation of Bobby’s sniping spree, as people riding along the highway have no idea they’re journeying to Samarra, the ultimate event of their lives the remote game of shooting moving cans for Bobby, who has, at least for one crucial moment, assumed the immortal mantle of Death, but in his detachment from his crimes he reveals a peculiar impotence. Whereas the artist can countenance and express awful things harmlessly, and gifts this on to others for their relief.
As varied and generally far lighter as most of Bogdanovich’s subsequent films would be, it’s entirely possible to see characters like the perturbing heroines of What’s Up, Doc? (1972) and Daisy Miller (1974), the wandering con artists of Paper Moon (1973), the wayward romantics of At Long Last Love (1975) and They All Laughed (1981), and the filmmakers of Nickelodeon (1976), as very different expressions of the same will to anarchy Bobby also draws on, except for many of these that will is revivifying, an expression of creative need and survival will, rather than embarking on a death trip. But the vast majority of Bogdanovich’s oeuvre floats on a sea of sublimated anxiety about collapsing forms and protocols. The repressed and desolate world portrayed in The Last Picture Show meanwhile depicts a private hell for Bogdanovich characters, their acts of rebellion and dissent far more petty and human than Bobby’s but motivated by a similar eruption against the tyranny of normality. Bobby on top the oil tanks and later above a movie screen in the ultimate foldback of art and audience is an avatar of Bogdanovich himself, stirring the audience’s nerves to the same pitch of disquiet as his own with aesthetic bullets, setting stability into chaos, tapping the nervous systems of others in games of stimulus-response. Like just about any movie director, in truth, which is why the climax registers on so many levels.
Where Bogdanovich defines Bobby’s scenes with his family through their wooden good cheer, Orlok’s scenes with Jenny, who is Chinese-American and has been teaching him the language (a sign Orlok isn’t at all close off from new experiences and learning) and Sammy, who speaks fluent movie brat, are defined by their sinuous blend of familiarity, affection, irritation, and provocation – they have no bonds beyond business and yet act far more like a real family. Their scenes are flecked with moments of deft characterisation, like Orlok’s rueful pleasure in giving Smith pain, despite Loughlin warning Orlok Smith will sue and win, and telling Jenny to cancel the tickets she bought him on the Queen Elizabeth because “I told you I wanted to go home on the Queen Mary,” a ship with a place much deeper in the heart for an old-school transatlantic wayfarer. Orlok’s disappointment not to continue their Chinese lessons segues into an odd Hawksian stretch of dialogue where the idea of speaking Chinese stands in for a variety of home truths and sharp quips. Bogdanovich spares sympathy for Loughlin, who tries and fails to make peace between Orlok and Smith, and muses, in a register of defeated wistfulness, that he has a degree in English literature from Princeton, before resolving to go get drunk. Bobby’s shootings from the oil tanks represent a nervelessly constructed sequence as his bullets hit home and cars swerve and wobble on the road. One car crashes into the median ditch, a woman trying urgently to open the driver’s side door and get to the wounded driver: Bobby takes aim at her but the pin clicks on an empty chamber, and Bobby, frantic to reload, burns his hand on the hot barrel. He’s able to reload in time to shoot the woman as she tries waving down help, her distant body twitching and falling. A worker in the oil depot hears the shots and climbs up the tank, only for Bobby to snatch up a shotgun and blast him, sending his body spinning to earth.
Finally cops arrive as the greater amount of carnage than usual on the freeway registers, and Bobby grabs up his arsenal, just panicky enough to drop guns and ammunition like a breadcrumb trail. Nonetheless he makes it to his white convertible roadster and speeds away, entering the Reseda Drive-In which is largely empty, parking his car, and taking up a new post atop the scaffolding behind the movie screen. Many friends and onlookers felt Bogdanovich was never really as good without Platt than he was with her, as invaluable production mastermind and creative sounding board: Platt did go on to become a major producer in her own right. It’s tempting to look at the similarly paralleled Ilene and Jenny as analogues of Platt herself, encoded into a story she had a hand in writing, if more in Jenny’s solicitous blend of aid and scepticism compared to Ilene’s what-me-worry dismissal of her husband’s furtive attempts to communicate, even as Ilene also seems to be a chipper player in making the great life project of marriage a going concern. One reasonably radical aspect of the film is the complete lack of a music score save sounds from diegetic sources, exacerbating the deadpan horror, culminating in eerie synthesis where the grating echo of The Terror’s dialogue rises up along with Bogdanovich’s camera through the scaffolding to find Bobby in his shooting blind, gun barrel poking through a hole, the protoplasmic forms of projected images surrounding the very real weapon. Fast zoom shots stand in for the act of shooting. A mischievous alliance of authorial need and Fate is needed to bring Bobby and Orlok together. Orlok himself and Jenny meanwhile are driven by a chauffeur through the LA twilight, with Orlok noting, as he surveys an unending stretch of car lots, “God, what an ugly town this has become.”
Targets only became really well known after Bogdanovich gained later fame, but as if by compensation it’s become a powerfully influential work, directly and indirectly. As a foundational text of the New Hollywood era, it presages many recurring concerns of the era’s filmmakers, like Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Taxi Driver’s (1976) preoccupation with the crossroads of ironic media fame and murder and The Conversation’s (1974) paranoid feel for the urban world. Its DNA can also be spotted in movies made by directors with a similar nostalgic passion for, and amused scepticism about, the old film industry, like Joe Dante’s Matinee (1993) and Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994), as well as a future time of meta genre cinema like the Scream series where characters are both within and aware of a Horror movie. Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind (1976/2019) suggests he might have watched it and came out similarly preoccupied with the hostile landscape of the period towards the grand old dinosaurs of Hollywood. Quentin Tarantino, an avowed fan of the film, virtually subsumed Targets into his aesthetic persona, taking up its feel for the LA landscape as a style guide and Bogdanovich’s tailor-made rescue of old timers as a basic career goal. Tarantino annexed the film-viewing-as-massacre motif for Inglourious Basterds (2009), whilst Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood (2019) is basically a remake of Targets writ large, with the same basic plot of a washed-up actor finding himself a real hero going about against a murderous force of modern sociopathy, whilst touching base with similar period details, like the popular DJ ‘The Real’ Don Steele heard on the radio (perhaps a double-layered reference on Tarantino’s part, as Bogdanovich often voiced DJs himself in his movies, and had recreated this for Tarantino’s Kill Bill diptych).
As a revisionist Horror movie, Targets also retains a pure prognosticative streak, even if many of its lessons were only partly heeded, and audience tastes quietly chose a third path. Targets was released almost simultaneously with Night of the Living Dead (1968): the two share an evident, caustic perspective on American gun-happy lifestyles, and Bogdanovich was entirely right in seeing a transition away from quaint bygone representations of psychological unease to more modern ones nascent in the genre. But he didn’t anticipate the fusion of approaches as found in the subsequent slasher movie style, where often masked, monstrous killers deal out carnage in a modern fashion but retain an aspect of the primeval and the abstract to them: the likes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s (1974) Leatherface or Halloween’s (1978) Michael Myers are every bit as alien and boogeyman-ish as any character Karloff every played and indeed more so, although the terror they deal out is more realistic and believable. Bogdanovich by contrast completely avoids any signposting of monstrosity with Bobby, who comes across like any vaguely pleasant, stolid young man on the street right to the movie’s end. “The banality of evil” is today an excruciatingly overused phrase, but Bobby certainly embodies it.
The finale then sees the ritualised imagery of Orlok’s last movie transmuted into an act of aesthetic terrorism, whose deliverer is almost incidental, as the movie screen starts gunning the audience dead. Beat that, Godard. As with the freeway scene, awareness of the danger and chaos only slowly begins to take hold of the audience in their ranked cars and others around the theatre, like a man in a phone booth (Mike Farrell) who Bobby challenges himself to shoot despite not being able to see him properly, and who, badly wounded, slowly and agonisingly drags himself across the gravel compound, and the film’s projectionist who is instantly killed, the movie rolling on regardless. Lovers and families realising the danger crouch low, and those who can try to flee. Bogdanovich finally arrives at the most disturbing and tragic image of the movie, as a young boy weeps in stricken, frozen fear whilst staring at his dead father behind the car wheel. A theatre employee’s innocent act of turning on lighting endangers everyone as cowering in the dark behind the dashboard is the only protection for many. People in the crowd with guns start shooting back.
Sammy frantically tries to reach Orlok and Jenny near the screen after abandoning his car, as the flight of cars out of the drive-in becomes a choked dance of light and dark, the red glow of brake-lights ironically infusing the contemporary action with some of the surreal lustre of the Gothic drama on the screen. When Jenny is shot through the shoulder by Bobby, the infuriated Orlok starts a march up to where he can seen Bobby shooting it out with the yahoos from the crowd, and Bobby is momentarily startled and disorientated by the sight of two Byron Orloks on the move, one real, the other on the screen: Bobby hysterically shoots at both, a bullet clipping the Orlok’s brow but not stopping him, and before Bobby can recover and take up another gun, Orlok swats it from his hand with his cane and slaps Bobby into submission. If this moment was mishandled it could easily have slipped into comedy and anticlimax. Instead Bogdanovich makes it work as a nexus where genuine heroism on Orlok’s part and the general insanity of Bobby’s project each find the perfect moment of expression, each needing the other to find fruition.
Orlok’s disarming of Bobby coincides, through Bogdanovich’s hair-trigger editing, with the movie reel running out in the projector, the false imagery suddenly ceasing and replaced by neutral white. Life and art confront each-other, and at such a point of singularity an overwhelmingly sane man like Orlok has that one crucial defence over a lunatic like Bobby, as he can tell the difference between the two. “Is that what I was afraid of?” Orlok questions in disbelief as he looks down at Bobby who, disarmed and chastened and surrounded by quickly by cops, has been reduced to a pathetic boy given a good spanking by his grandfather, whilst Sammy solicitously wipes Orlok’s bloodied temple. This clarifies something of Orlok’s character as well as finding the last irony in Bobby’s, as Orlok’s own sense of fear and horror finally gains illustration, where he’s done it for others for decades. Bobby himself can only question of the cops who drag him away, “I hardly ever missed, did I?”, as a man proud at least of a job well done. Bogdanovich fades from the churn of chaos to the forlorn image of Bobby’s car, still parked where he left it, the only car left in the drive-in, as if Bobby vanished along with the Byron Orlok in his last Horror movie, all part of the same dark dream, no matter what guise it wears.
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.
aka Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope (reissue title)
Director: George Lucas Screenwriters: George Lucas, Willard Huyck (uncredited), Gloria Katz (uncredited)
By Roderick Heath
Most films lose their battle for cultural attention. Sometimes that proves an advantage. They’re free to be constantly rediscovered, to be alive for each viewer in a different way. Other films win the battle, and the price they pay for this can be they become so familiar they stop being seen, in the sense that, as a shared point of reference for a vast audience, they lose any quality of the unexpected, and instead become unshifting landmarks. This is especially true of Star Wars, which has been in turn celebrated and blamed for a monumental detour in screen culture in the years since its release. Decades after their first viewing my parents still mentioned the gobsmacking impact of the opening images of Star Wars, with the sight of a small spaceship fleeing a colossal pursuer, the passing of which unfolds on a new scale of imaginative transcription through cinematic technique. Suddenly the movies grew bigger than when D.W. Griffith besieged the walls of Babylon or Cecil B. DeMille parted the Red Sea. There’s a video on YouTube presenting an audio recording made by a mother and her young son during their first viewing of Star Wars in a movie theatre in 1977. The whoops of joy from the audience greeting Han Solo’s (Harrison Ford) cowboy yelp when he intervenes in the climactic battle, and the applause when the Death Star explodes, record a great moment in mapping the idea and ideal of moviegoing: you can hear the audience in the palm of a filmmaker’s hand, experiencing everything old being made new again.
That said, I would say the moment that makes Star Wars what it became arrived a little earlier in the film, during the scene where the assailed heroes Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) are trapped between two forces of enemy Stormtroopers whilst perched on the edge of a chasm. Whilst Leia exchanges fire with Stormtroopers on a high vantage and another band try to break through the sealed door behind them, Luke improvises a way of swinging across. John Williams’ music indulges a flourish of florid emphasis as the young would-be white knight and the lady fair in the flowing silk dress swoop across to freedom. This moment condensed generations of movies, serials, comic books, and their precursors in fantastical literature and theatrical melodrama and on and on back to classical folklore, into a new singularity. A moment that somehow manages to exist at once with scare quotes of knowing around it, an ever so slight tint of camp not really that far from the jokey, satirical lilt of the 1960s Batman TV series built around both puckishly mocking and celebrating juvenile heroic fantasy, whilst also operating on a completely straight-faced level: this is the universe Star Wars has successfully woven by this point, one where that heroism isn’t a wish but simply part of life.
The genesis of Star Wars is today just about as well-known as the movie itself. Young filmmaker George Lucas, taking time off after releasing his debut feature THX-1138 (1971), wanted to make a film out of the beloved comic strip Flash Gordon, but couldn’t afford to buy the rights. After rifling through the history of the subgenre commonly dubbed “space opera” the strip had sprung from, Lucas sat down and began dreaming up his own, working through variation after variation on his ideas until finally arriving at the form that would become so familiar. Even before Lucas scored a hit with American Graffiti (1973), he was able to convince 20th Century Fox boss Alan Ladd Jr to back his other, riskier project, and got American Graffiti’s cowriters Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz to punch up the dialogue. That nobody quite knew what they had on their hands is made clear by the film’s first teaser trailer, which demonstrates in lacking Williams’ scoring that the images still had thrilling energy on their own, even as the trailer completely fails to communicate the tone of the thing. The roots of Star Wars are far more liberally free-range of course – Lucas took obvious and largely admitted inspiration not just from Flash Gordon but from DeMille, J.R.R. Tolkien, Akira Kurosawa, FritzLang, John Ford, Sergei Eisenstein, Frank Herbert, E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith, Isaac Asimov, Alistair MacLean, James Bond, the movie version of The Wizard of Oz (1939), Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories, Edgar Rice Burroughs, cultural theorist Joseph Campbell, and a panoply of Saturday matinee adventure serials and 1950s war, fantasy, and swashbuckler films. The real trick was fusing them all together into something not just comprehensible and individual but, on the whole, original, something the audience that greeted its release in 1977 beheld as new and exciting despite its hoary components, and which instantly sank hooks deep into the popular consciousness.
The trick lay partly in the way Lucas made the film, with perfect confidence in the medium, but also in the way he packaged it. Those air quotes hover about the entire movie, as Lucas approached the material as if it was an artefact, designed to seem like it had an identity that existed long before Lucas stumbled upon it, a little like the hero of his other great pop culture creation, Indiana Jones, and the relics he plunders. Star Wars has an odd relationship today with its many follow-ups and imitations. It’s become a singular point of reference around which Lucas and others built vast fictional precincts. It’s a lot more complex than it’s often given credit for, but exceedingly straightforward in terms of its essential plotting, and built upon manifold reference points of its own. If Star Wars had failed at the box office it would still be perfectly sufficient unto itself, except perhaps in the detail of its major bad guy Darth Vader not getting a comeuppance at the end, and even that could be taken as a nod to the finale of The Prisoner of Zenda, where Anthony Hope resisted killing off his charismatic villain too (and indeed also brought him and other characters back for a follow-up everyone likes to pretend didn’t happen). And yet it’s conceived and executed as a story within a story. The in medias res plunge directly into a narrative already in motion not only nods to the storytelling method of ancient epics, but also to the more profane traditions of the serial drama. The branded title card, the fairytale-like epigram “Long ago in a galaxy far, far away,” and in-universe flourishes, including character and place names that sound like they’ve been translated into some other language and back again, and the technological and architectural design – all cordoned the experience of Star Wars off into its own discrete space even as its roots lead off in every direction.
This aspect was greatly amplified when upon the film’s first rerelease in 1980 Lucas added to the opening explanatory crawl a new detail – suddenly the singular movie became “Episode IV,” specifically titled “A New Hope,” designating it as not merely a work in itself but part of what was then still an entirely theoretical legendarium. Compared to some of the films in the series it birthed, including the richer, darker palette of Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Star Wars – Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983), or the more lushly romantic and deceptively complex prequels, the original seems oddly stripped-down, absent some of the accumlated mythos, but it’s also that essentialised quality that helped it land so powerfully. Star Wars came out when dependable movie genres were dying and proposed a way to revive them through transposing their setting, freeing them from the constraints of real world reference points. The Western no longer had to be rooted in the increasingly, cynically questioned reality of the American colonial experience, the heroic war movie no longer the provenance of another generation. Star Wars was also a pure product of its cultural moment even as it seemed to reject that moment. Lucas based his all-encompassing evil Empire on the Nixon White House and the struggle against its predations in the Vietnam War zeitgeist, but with enough cultural echoes of other struggles – the American Revolution and World War II most obviously – to give a mollifying smokescreen. Lucas consciously turned the abstract, alienated parable of THX-1138 into something more readily engaging, more commercial, more communal, whilst still working with the same basic elements.
At the same time it can be said Star Wars grew conceptually out of the sporadic popularity of a certain brand of pop art-inflected moviemaking and TV that burgeoned in the late 1960s, encompassing the likes of the Batman TV series, Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (1968), Richard Lester’s antiheroic deconstructions of adventure films like hisMusketeer movies and Robin and Marian (1976), and retro pulp tributes like Michael Anderson’s Doc Savage: Man of Bronze (1975) and Kevin Connor’s Burroughs adaptations. Moments like that swing across the chasm have a similar informing spirit to Lester’s films in particular, although Lester would probably have had them thud into the wall just to one side of the landing. The comedy in Star Wars helps build up the heroic infrastructure rather than question it ironically, lending it propulsion as the characters react to situation but also ultimately helping create credulity rather than undercut it. Lucas’ famous stylistic flourish in punctuating scenes with wipes rather than dissolves or jump cuts, nodding to both Kurosawa and 1930s serial forebears, had already been employed by Anderson in recreating the old serial style on Doc Savage, if to much lesser effect. Science fiction film in the first half of the 1970s has a largely deserved reputation for a thoughtful, clever, but often grim sensibility, although playful fare wasn’t entirely dead, and was chiefly hampered by budget restrictions and directors who had little technical facility: witness the way the Planet of the Apes movies remained popular but had their budget cut with each entry.
Along came Lucas, who above all had schooled himself in the nuts and bolts of film production like few directors before or since. Star Wars in its time connected with similarly successful works by Lucas’ friends – much as it translated the generational anxiety of Francis Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) into a radically different generic zone and also presaged Coppola’s mythopoeic war movie Apocalypse Now (1979), it also accompanied Steven Spielberg’s semi-incidental companion piece in baby boomer sci-fi mythicism, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), arguably the superior movie but much less influential, in finding a way of tapping into a cynical audience’s hunger for transcendental cinematic experience. Those genre, industry, and imagination-altering opening moments of Star Wars, as a colossal Imperial Star Destroyer chases down a much smaller rebel spacecraft, give way to more familiar precepts. A gunfight between Rebel warriors and invading Imperial Stormtroopers, a conflict highly recognisable from who knows how many low-budget sci-fi movies and TV shows where people fire ray-guns at each-other along corridors. Two comic relief factotums stumble through the struggle. The great villain of the piece makes his dramatic entrance, directing the unleashed carnage. The newness lay in the veneer of strangeness applied through the technological vision, informed by the tangible and specific atmosphere inspired by Ralph McQuarrie’s design work and John Barry’s production design, and the canniness of the filmmaking.
Arthur C. Clarke famously wrote that sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic, but in creating a fictional zone that does actually include magic, or something like it, Lucas and those designers moved instead to cut across the grain of that and make the craft, machines, and equipment look palpable, as gritty, purely fit-for-purpose, grimy, and banged-about as the technology familiar to us: the Millennium Falcon, one of the series’ enduring icons, complete lacks any appearance of streamlining or aesthetic edge, and its appeal lies instead in its steely-looking functionality, like a Frisbee with a golf club head stuck on the side and a giant blazing energy portal in back. The Star Wars films have long been talked about as vital creations of audio effect as well as visual, thanks in large part to Ben Burtt’s groundbreaking labours. The care for the effect of sound as a storytelling device is plain at the get-go, as Lucas builds tension through the eerie, threatening noises the rebels warriors hear as their crippled spacecraft is intercepted by the Star Destroyer and drawn into its docking back, the fighters grimly waiting for the assault they know will be coming through the airlock bulkhead. Suddenly, action – the bulkhead door cut through and blasted out in moments, invading Stormtroopers plunging through. The Stormtroopers would eventually become a kind of punchline in movie lore as easily killable enemy soldiers, but here they’re first introduced as blankly terrifying and competent enemies, suffering a couple of casualties whilst shearing through the Rebel ranks, quickly setting them to flight.
The film’s wit on a visual exposition level is also made apparent as Lucas seems to undercut the cliché of villains dressing dark colours whilst merging set decoration and costume design with a deliberation scarcely seen in cinema since the days of Lang and Eisenstein, by having the Stormtroopers clad in white armour that matches the polished white environs of the rebel spaceship. It’s as if they’re animated parts of the ship rather than mere invaders, the technological paradigm threatening the paltry humans. Ironically, the most “human” characters we get for much of the first part of the film are the “droids” C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), seemingly hapless pseudo-sentient mechanical beings caught in the midst of war and terror. This was in part the result of editing choices to make the early scenes more fluid, but the consequence was to provoke a distinct new idea of what a protagonist in a movie could be. The twist on cliché twists back as we gain out first glimpse of the enemy commander Lord Darth Vader, emerging from the blown bulkhead and resolving from smoky haze, pausing to survey the scattered corpses of the rebels before sweeping on. Vader is swathed in black like a superscientific edition of Dracula, the embodiment of evil from the very first, face masked, breathing registering as a hoarsely filtered sound. Here is a figure who exists between the two paradigms, a fusion of man and machine where the combination is most definitely malign, and whose appearance has been carefully engineered, both for the people within this particular world and for those watching it, for the pure sake of intimidation.
Whilst actor David Prowse, the actor filling out Vader’s costume, would have his voice dubbed over by the originally unbilled James Earl Jones, his talent as a mime is nonetheless very important to Vader as a character in his ability to convey a remorseless purpose, an inherent physical aggression and fixity of purpose, charging the way he moves, even before he’s portrayed as throttling and tossing about rebels and fearsomely confronting and accusing the captive Princess Leia. Leia herself, a diplomat and envoy for the newly defunct imperial senate, makes her own impression in standing up this figure of menace incarnate. The casting of Fisher, a 19-year-old progeny of Hollywood royalty invested with levels of knowing far beyond her years, proved perfect for amplifying the way the script plays updating games with the figure of the classical aristocratic heroine, inflecting the hauteur with pure ‘70s California sass. But Leia first enters the movie in the shadows. Like Vader, she is initially glimpsed amidst smoky haze as a figure, resolving out of the pure stuff of myth, the incarnation this time of good in her white silken garb, even as her actions are initially ambiguous: she’s seen from the bewildered viewpoint of C-3PO as she loads information into R2-D2, before gunning down a Stormtrooper and getting shot herself with a stunning blast. Leia condenses the movie’s whole frame of cultural reference into her petite frame, fulfilling a role directly out of legend and melodrama tradition, whilst also presenting modern spunk and attitude.
It’s well known that Lucas took strong inspiration from Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958) for the early sections and general narrative shape of Star Wars. C-3PO, and R2-D2, or Threepio and Artoo as they’re generally dubbed, are inspired by the two shit-kicker peasant antiheroes of the Kurosawa film, and their early travails similarly playing out in a desolate setting that eventually sees their path intersect with proper heroes. The differences are important, of course. Threepio and Artoo are robots, and instead of wandering medieval Japan, they eject from the captured spacecraft and land on the neighbouring desert planet of Tatooine. One thing that’s a little surprising today about Star Wars is how coherent and consistent the story is, despite the outlandish conceptual conceits, and when the need for such a thing is often casually dismissed as an interest in such genre zones. The plot stakes are initially vague, but soon gain shape and urgency as it becomes apparent Leia used Artoo as a last-ditch vehicle to try and get the plans for the Empire’s new, terrifying superweapon, the Death Star, to her fellow Rebels. The Death Star will soon provide both a partial setting for the story and the great threat driving the last act. Leia’s choice of Artoo as a messenger capable of slipping the net of Imperial scanning proves inspired and logical, where humans would be detected. Artoo is characterised as knowing in ways well beyond his nominal status and electronic twittering language, whereas Threepio, despite his effetely loquacious and pompous manner, knows even less than he thinks, and this disparity proves a propelling element for the story as well as a source of character comedy. The two split up once dumped by their escape pod in the desert, with Threepio furious at his companion for maintaining his wilful way, only for both to be quickly snatched up by a race of nomadic scavengers called Jawas, who specialise in selling on anything of value they find.
Artoo’s capture by the Jawas creates an unsettling atmosphere as Artoo makes timorous sounds as he becomes aware of hidden, watching beings in the desolate landscape around him, a little like a character from some early Disney animated short. A Jawa jumps up and zaps him with a paralysing ray gun, causing Artoo to topple over with a slapstick thud. This brief but ingenious sequence illustrates both Lucas’ talent at toggling swiftly between tones whilst kneading them into the unfolding narrative, switching between points of view and allowing the audience and onscreen characters to discover things in tandem. That the Jawas are themselves diminutive and faintly absurd in their frantic industriousness leavens the note of creepiness they initially strike. The process of them bundling Artoo to be sucked up into a huge tube connected to their giant crawling vehicle is allowed to play out without any dialogue necessary, using visuals to present the already rapidly expanding sense of this universe and the teeming oddity and wonder, and the oddly familiar opportunism, it contains. This evinces a sense not just of a variety of sentient species and their technology but also clues to the social setup on Tatooine, with its many kinds of survivors with different ways of weathering the blasted and seemingly dead landscape, and also the way this eventually feeds the narrative back from vacant outskirts towards the centres of power in the universe. Threepio’s own encounter with the Jawa sandcrawler sees him calling out to the distant vehicle in appeal, framed as he is by the huge skeleton of some long-dead creature. Once both Artoo and Threepio are trapped within the shadowy, sleazy space of the Sandcrawler’s belly, Lucas offers glimpses of the other robots of radically differing designs the Jawas possess, an early example of a motif taken up more vividly and strangely in the later Mos Eisley cantina sequence, where Lucas delights in showing off a vast array of peculiar beings.
Artoo and Threepio are soon sold to Owen Lars (Phil Brown), who lives with his wife Beru (Shelagh Fraser) and adopted nephew Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who engage in what is described as “moisture farming” somewhere in this flat and barren zone. Here the narrative performs another zigzag whilst also reorienting to another viewpoint, and another genre: now we’re in the classic Western territory of the isolated homesteaders and the wistful young farmhand. Luke, like the heroes of American Graffiti, is on the verge of moving on. Where Richard Dreyfuss’ Curt in that film suffered cold feet, Luke seems desperate to “transmit my application to the Academy this year.” Like the characters of American Graffiti and the protagonist of THX-1138, Luke’s voyage of discovery is announced via imagery of the sun, with a small but important difference. The rising sun in the first two films signalled the end of childish things and simple dichotomies of choice, whereas the setting sun(s) here preserve the dreaming: thanks to both the visuals and Williams’ plaintive, evocative scoring, this locks that pure moment of yearning in a crystal of expressive perfection. Luke Skywalker gazing at the twin suns setting is of course a singular character, a young man eager for experience and as much pained as excited by his dreams, and is also the audience itself, an essential avatar for every dreamer, every anxious eye turned onto the cinema screen looking urgently for transportation and release. It’s also a moment of incantation, immediately rewarded by Luke being presented with his mission, when he heads back into his repair space to find Artoo missing and Threepio hiding in anxiety. Hamill, doomed to be remembered for a long time as a failed star, was too perfect for the role in providing a ready connecting point for the audience: if Fisher was Hollywood royalty Hamill presents heroism as looking a bit like a SoCal surfer. But Hamill was crucially able to communicate Luke’s deep emotional need underneath the dreamy, frustrated optimism and youthful charm duelling with his early callow streak.
Generational tension is also in play. Owen doesn’t want Luke heading off to “some damn fool idealistic crusade” and is afraid that Luke “has too much of his father in him.” But Luke is bent on a course that will eventually lead him to the “dark father.” At this point the mythos of Star Wars was still evolving and things that are now set in concrete were still nebulous at this point, but the connection between Luke and Vader is already predestined, Vader identified as “the young Jedi” who “betrayed and murdered your father.” He is the ultimate and inevitable nemesis for the young man who has to find his way not just through space but pick his way through the wreckage of a collapsed political paradigm and a waned parental generation. Luke quickly gains the call to adventure when, as he cleans up Artoo, he accidentally plays the end segment of a holographic message recorded by Leia, addressed to an Obi-Wan Kenobi. The portion of Leia’s appeal with its looping, totemic phrase “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope,” gives Luke the first intimation that he’s stumbled onto something tantalising in its import. Moreover, it’s personally suggestive to him in the familiarity of the name Kenobi, making him think of the local hermit Ben Kenobi. This in turn gives Artoo a lead, and he quickly flees in his determination to fulfil Leia’s assignment to fetch the old sage and press him back into action for the Rebel cause, forcing Luke and Threepio to follow him into the rocky wastes.
But it’s the vision of Leia herself, beautiful, distressed, rendered ghostly in the flickering holographic recording, that powerfully evokes a fundamental psychological need, as if Artoo is projecting Luke’s own private anima, the pure spirit of romantic longing that is also a direct urging towards great things. If Darth Vader is the dark father, Kenobi is of course his counterbalance, part Gandalf, part guru, part aging but still able gunslinger from a Howard Hawks movie. These two spiritual parents supplant Owen and Beru, who are murdered by Stormtroopers on the trail of Artoo and Threepio, and are bent towards their own fatal showdown. Lucas presents a brief synopsis of that vital Movie Brat foundational text, Ford’s The Searchers (1956), as Luke ventures out into the wilderness and encounters both savagery in the form of the Sandpeople, also called Tusken Raiders, another nomadic and larcenous desert race but these frightening, brutal, and seemingly subhuman, forms a bond with a protective paternal stand-in, and returns to the homestead to find it burning and the smouldering skeletons of loved-ones sprawled nearby. The pacing of Star Wars in this portion is a telling counterpoint to many of its imitations and even direct follow-ups. Where, say, Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) crams four different special effects-heavy set-pieces into its first hour, Lucas’ template only offers one, at the very outset, and then a couple of minor tussles. The sequence in which Luke is attacked by a Sandperson whilst he think he’s safely surveying them from a distance is a good example of restraint as well as a spasm of violent action.
Lucas plays a game with viewpoint, harking back to the obsession in THX-1138 with viewing through technological detour as Luke spies on the Sandpeople through the fuzzy image of a pair of electronic binoculars, only for a strange rush of motion to rise into his field of vision – a Sandperson suddenly looms in front of him, the safe vantage suddenly and rudely swapped for imminent danger. This is impressive and clever not just on a visual exposition and drama-setting level but also on the thematic: this is the first, actual occasion where Luke is faced with a genuine danger in the course of his nascent adventure, as what was before remote and harmless is suddenly very real and deadly. It’s an early test Luke fails, as the Raider, swiping down at him on the ground, easily bests him, and the Sandpeople dump his unconscious form and begin looting his hovering “speeder” (the closest thing to a reliable old Chevy in this universe). The actual disabling blow to Luke isn’t showing, only the fearsome and disturbing image of the creepily masked Sandperson brandishing its club and releasing a triumphant, bloodcurdling cry that echoes off amongst the surrounding canyons, a recourse back to the mood of the early moments on Tatooine and the permeating mood of disquiet and dislocation in an oneiric space. For the first but certainly not for the last time in his career, to occasional disquiet, Lucas displaces the old, racist function of Native Americans in the Western narrative onto the imaginary race of the Sandpeople, who are daunting but are also small potatoes, displaced from their role in many Westerns as engines of turmoil and resisters of civilisation, whilst nominally defusing the cultural tension between myth and reality that was rapidly dismantling the Western’s pre-eminence. Here, instead, the Empire is both the zenith of civilisation and its purest foe. That it’s not just humans and droids who are jittery in this region is made clear when the Sandpeople are suddenly driven off by a weird cry and the sight of a weird being looming into view. This proves to be Ben Kenobi (Alec Guinness) himself. He quickly admits to Luke to being the former Obi-Wan, in one of those indelible little instances of various elements – Guinness’ incarnation of wistfully ruminative good-humour and Williams’ trilling woodwinds on sound – woven together to forge mystique and spark new mystery even as the answer to a propelling narrative question is resolved.
The reference point of The Searchers is purposeful not just in orientating the audience to a fantastical universe in terms of pre-existing generic touchstones, but also arguing with its essence, the source of the intimidating power it had for filmmakers of Lucas’ generation. John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards was above all a man, one with a history, who cannot erase his past mistakes but finally avoids making new ones, and provides uneasy mentorship to Jeffrey Hunter’s Martin Pawley, who eventually learns to stand up for himself, but that means placing himself in the way of a bullet. The Searchers is a work for an age where the crux of drama fell to grown-ups, where Star Wars is the by-product of a youth culture, made for a generation for whom the most dramatic events of the average life take place between the ages of 15 and 25, and so the stress of the story moves from the older man’s experience to the younger’s. Star Wars presents the orphaned hero as severed from continuity, forced to essentially invent his own method of maturing when the adults are dead or dying: by story’s end he has lost all his elders, but the lessons he has learnt are literally ringing in his ears as he takes up the mantle. The killing of Owen and Beru invests all that follows with an emotional wellspring that doesn’t need reiterating. The grammar in the scene of Luke’s discovery of their remains is simple but enormously effective. The camera tracks in imitation of Luke’s point of view until he focuses on the scorched skeletal remains of his aunt and uncle, and Lucas allows a medium close-up of Hamill as he registers the awful moment. Importantly, the rhythm of Hamill’s gestures are the same as in the earlier sunset scene — gazing on in fixation, dropping his gaze and hiding from his reaction for an instant, before resuming with a new glaze of acceptance, except this time with different, terrible, life-changing import. Lucas then cuts to a long shot of Luke before the burning homestead as Williams’ music swells. His solitude and complete excision from what was just a day earlier a stultifying but settled and stable life is encapsulated, before an inward iris wipe shifts the scene.
The depiction of consuming evil and raw violence visited by offended authority immediately segues into a sequence depicting Darth Vader preparing to use a hovering droid to torture Leia for information about the Rebels’ secret base. That’s soon followed by a sequence where Death Star’s commander, Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing), uses the threat of destroying Leia’s home planet Alderaan with the Death Star’s incredible firepower to get the information out of her. Leia gives an answer, albeit a deceitful one, but Tarkin still destroys Alderaan because it fulfils the basic function of the Death Star, which is to inspire fear, as a substitute for any lingering vestige of collaboration and consultation (“The last remnants of the Old Republic have been swept away,” Tarkin reports). Such moments obviously indict the Empire as a truly despicable beast one absolutely no-one will mind seeing taken down a few pegs, but also as one possessed of reasoned motives and a sense of what their force is intended to achieve. Which points to another peculiar aspect of Star Wars: as the title suggests, it’s preoccupied by war. Not a war like, say, the clash of civilisations in the Trojan myths, or a fusing of factional chaos into order as in the Arthurian cycle. Lucas instead presents a specifically modern political paradigm, however naively rendered: absolute authoritarianism versus romantic resistance. Not at all hard to see Lucas fretting over the military-industrial complex, with the Death Star as the atomic bomb, the deaths of Owen and Beru as suggestively My Lai-eque. Luke, Han, and Leia (and Chewie, Artoo, and Threepio) remain individuals even when they join a faction, a point underlined at the film’s end where the characters remain smirking and ironic even when being showered with rewards in the midst of martially regimented ranks.
Kenobi’s brief narration of the truth of Luke’s background and its connection to the current events, once Kenobi takes Luke to his remote domicile, is in itself a little marvel of screenwriting concision and general mythmaking, with its allusions to the Old Republic, the Jedi Knights, and the Clone Wars, all grounded not just in recent political history but in the personal identity of both old man and young. All of these have long since been elaborated upon, but here are allowed to float as grand things lost to time and nearly to memory in the age of the supplanting Empire. Kenobi hands to Luke his father’s lightsaber, a tantalising weapon, ridiculous but irresistible, humming with totemic power and meaning, a little bit Excalibur, a little bit Notung, a little bit the sword D’Artagnan’s father gives him. Guinness, not an actor who needed by this point in his career to prove himself in any fashion and easily the biggest name in the film, lends inestimable sagacious presence, encapsulating the nature of the Jedi, composed, restrained, intelligent, moral, and spiked with just the faintest edge of world-weariness and regret over the calamities of the past. Here finally the whole of Leia’s message is seen and its import processed. Luke displays the classic resistance to the call to adventure when Kenobi tries to enlist him in his looming mission to spirit Artoo and the stolen plans to Alderaan. Luke, who was champing at the bit to leave Tatooine hours earlier, still feels the tethers of responsibility as well as intimidation when actual adventure demands. Soon Luke has a double motive to join the Rebellion, as both the entity in large has killed his guardians, and a personal grudge against Vader.
When Luke sets off back home with Kenobi and the droids, they come across the shattered sandcrawler of the massacred Jawas. Luke, grasping the reason for their slaughter, rushes home too late. Finally and completely freed from who he was, Luke elects to “learn the ways of the force and become a Jedi like my father,” and he and Kenobi make for the spaceport of Mos Eisley, a “wretched hive of scum and villainy” crawling with Stormtroopers looking for the droids, but also a motley collective of species representing a cross-section of the galaxy’s swarming populace. The cantina sequence, where in Luke uneasily mingles with a rough crowd of humans and aliens representing the demimonde of innumerable worlds whilst Kenobi looks to hire transportation off Tatooine, is another inspired, instantly iconic vignette. Again, it’s a fairly familiar situation, redolent of a thousand tough saloons in a thousand westerns, but transformed with the application of sci-fi elements. Here are manifold species, ingeniously designed and animated through makeup and puppetry, drawn together in one place by what is to a human eye at least a perfect logic, sharing a penchant for intoxicants and doing dirty business in a disreputable dive. There’s even, for added piquancy and indeed resonance, the spectre of seemingly arbitrary prejudice, as the bartender tells Luke the joint doesn’t serve droids, forcing Artoo and Threepio to withdraw.
Appearances can also be deceiving: one of these motley denizens, the huge, hirsute Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), appears one of the roughest, but is actually an intelligent being who falls into conversation with Kenobi, and proves a link to the rest of the story. Luke is picked on by a pair of bullies looking for a fight, but gets one instead from Kenobi after he tries to defuse the confrontation. Here, for the first time, the lightsaber is seen in action, in a vignette that again utilises Luke’s viewpoint to underline the startling impression of the weapon’s deadly precision in the right hands, and alters the visual technique to effect: glimpsing a blur of motion punctuated by the already familiar sound and flash of the weapon and the dreadful scream of the suddenly curtailed thug as conveyed through a brief handheld shot, Luke focuses on his severed arm lying on the floor amidst drops of blood. Kenobi slowly eases from his tense and ready poise as he’s sure no-one else wants to try it on, and disengages the lightsaber. Whereupon everyone in the bar, momentarily arrested by the spectacle, goes back to what they were doing. Strong as lore-enhancing action; just as good as wry pastiche of classic gunslinging spectacle.
This sequence fulfilled a largely ignored promise of science-fiction cinema until this point in presenting a vision of a universe of deep variety and eccentricity that nonetheless evokes something amusingly familiar in its concept of sentience. It comes directly after Kenobi has given Luke a first demonstration of Jedi power, using psychic influence to get past some searching Stormtroopers with seemingly casual ease. The threat of Jedi power to the Empire becomes clearer here, and suggests a symbolic link with the artist’s relationship with power, dismantling it through artfully broadcasting on wavelengths incoherent to the authoritarian mindset. The first encounter with Han Solo is consequentially defined by him being at first just another of these shady characters in a shady den, so shady indeed he’s no sooner finished arranging to fly Luke, Kenobi, and the droids to Alderaan than he’s accosted by Greedo, an obnoxious, green-skinned, snouted bounty hunter who wants him dead or alive, preferably dead, to please their mutual master Jabba the Hutt, a gangster Han owes money too. Fans were understandably aggravated by the clumsy revision of this scene in Lucas’ 1997 special edition of the film, which tried to reforge this confrontation to make it seem that Greedo shot at Han first, where the point of this moment is defining Han as accustomed to dealing with dangerous opponents with both guile and brute force. Moreover, it established him as a character entirely adapted, just as Kenobi already has, to this environment, knowing precisely when and how to unleash deadly force. Han’s motivations are also plain enough, his motivation to make money not just pure greed, but necessary to extricate himself from a deep hole.
Han emerges from a different wing of pop culture to Leia, Luke, and Kenobi, and a nominally more modern one. He’s initially a film noir hero connected to Bogartian characters like To Have and Have Not’s (1944) Harry Morgan, putting both and craft on the line and urged on by his uneasy place in the food chain of profit motive, and whose streak of heroic decency only emerges over time. A sceptical figure for whom The Force has no meaning. Someone whose actions and reactions can be surprising, at least in his first outing, because his nature seems confused and dubious, his actual values concealed under a hard shell of wiseacre pith and stoic cool. Where Luke is pure youth and Kenobi is wise experience, Han lurks between, a player in the game who knows all too well how hard the game is and sees no way out of it. He’s the essential interlocutor in the drama, negotiating the perspective of the more cynical sectors of the audience. There’s keenness in the difference in dialogue patterns attached to each character. Kenobi’s speech is courtly, structured, replete with aphorisms and slightly archaic curlicues (and, it’s worth noting, sounds exactly the same as the dialogue in Lucas’ prequel trilogy), whereas Luke, Han, and Leia are more “contemporary,” particularly Han, who shifts from salesman lingo to gunfighter terseness on a dime. When Han improvises a line of verbiage after he, Luke and Chewbacca shoot up the Death Star prison command, in trying to keep more Stormtroopers coming to them, he reveals a more subtle survival skill than gunplay, and it’s a trickier one, one he doesn’t quite pull off. It’s a moment that became the seed for a more sustained comic streak to the character as scene in later movies, but the striking thing about Ford’s performance on his first go-round, and the character he’s playing, is precisely that hard, ambiguous, deadly edge he’s allowed, a quality that the notes of occasional diffidence in Ford’s performance only helps strengthen.
The cantina scene is also an example of a renowned aspect of the film’s aesthetic, its presentation of a convincing physical universe, where the technology, no wonder how fantastic, and the settings and life-forms have a solidity and a feel that evokes some inchoate need for a splendid diversity of life. The close-ups of Artoo and Threepio present the tiny scratches and dents all of their bodies, looking just like what they are, machines who have been working since the moment they were first switched on. That first shot of the Star Destroyer completely rejects what had been the general sci-fi movie faith in sleekness as the totemic quality of the futuristic, appealing instead to everyday associations in the age of technology and industry where things are busy and functional, their workings often obscure to those not directly engaged in the making or upkeep. Moreover, the special mystique that distinguished Star Wars then and now is evinced not merely in the busy paraphernalia of set, costume, FX, and makeup design, but in the careful construction of mood, and the connection of that mood to the deeper underlying aesthetic. Artoo and Threepio’s desert wanderings, Luke’s venture out after Artoo and his encounter with the Sandpeople, the meeting with Kenobi – all of these scenes weave a sparse, dreamlike mood, nudging the realm of fairy-tales where the young and vulnerable venture into the dark woods alone, whilst also evoking the vast spaces of Salvador Dali’s surrealist landscapes and Lang and DeMille’s oversized, monumental evocations of past and future.
This pervasive mood continues even when the heroes are trapped within the “technological terror” of the Death Star, a place containing pockets infested with nightmarish monsters and tremendous canyons of space, where crucial mechanisms seem to have been deliberately placed to make them difficult to access without master control of the apparatus. From the careful downward pan from deep space to a triptych of tantalising planets that sets up the inimitable opening, we are drawn in two different directions, at once tactile and subliminal, where both the evocations of scale and the ghostly image of Leia touch the boundaries of a Jungian zone. In this regard Star Wars rearranges the spare, haunting, submerged imagery explored in THX-1138 for clear narrative ends – it feels very telling, for instance, that the sight of a flashing point far away in an otherwise featureless zone, the sign that helped THX and his companions escape the void prison in that film, is here recreated when Threepio sees the Jawa sandcrawler miles away in the deep desert. The underlying oneiric quality is rendered more literal in the first sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke comments that the planet Dagobah is like out of a dream, before heading into a place that makes the stuff of his subconscious come to life. In this manner, despite its bright and jolly visual palette and love of chitinous technology, Star Wars is in essence a full colour distillation of the early Expressionistic urge in cinema: the entire design of what we see is an animation of a psychological zone. It adds another axis of torsion to the film as a whole, working in synchrony with the multi-genre play, travelling back to the point where all stories become one somewhere in the subbasements of the consciousness.
The gathering crew of Luke, Han, Chewbacca, Artoo, and Threepio, with Kenobi at first and later Leia, forge a core gang of heroes, at once describing a child’s idea of adult life, and an updated take on teamed-up heroic bands ranging from the Argonauts to Dumas’ Musketeers. Luke’s first glimpse of Han’s ship, the Millennium Falcon, sparks his inimitable comment, “What a heap of junk!” only for Han, with ever so slight irritation and a dash of professional smarm, to talk up his souped-up hot rod (this is also the viewer’s first glimpse of the ship, unless one has only seen the reedit, which clumsily inserted a cut scene featuring Jabba). Han boasts that his ship has accomplished legendary feats, like a sword in myth, and that’s pretty much the function it has here, as a tool of greatness, serving for Han as the lightsaber does for the Jedi, albeit simultaneously deglamourized as the tool of a roguish smuggler and a mutt of machinery. Things of value in Star Wars often turn a slightly absurd face to the world, in a way that, whilst the overall story seems to be bending reality towards a romantic vision, the nuts and bolts cut across the grain of the traditionally heroic. The “your kind” droids are dynamic players. The nobody farm boy is a future hero. The old hermit is a great warrior. The shady loser in the bar is a man of myriad gifts and his “piece of junk” a ship out of folklore. All require only the correct stage to operate and interact upon. The Falcon also signals that Han is essentially a spacefaring version of the drag racers in American Graffiti, keeping one step ahead of the cops in his workshop-cobbled racer: Ford, who had played Bob Falfa, the blow-in challenger to the local racing champ, in the precursor film was here promoted to a lead role, initially just as slippery and ambiguous, but showing his true mettle when he unleashes thunderous havoc on the Stormtroopers who try to intercept them before fleeing at top speed.
After the thrills of escaping Mos Eisley and the Star Destroyers patrolling around the planet, the voyage on the Millennium Falcon provides a respite, but still provides important character and scene-setting elements, particularly as Kenobi uses the time to start introducing Luke to using The Force, including learning how to defend himself against beam-shooting drones without using his sight. The idea of The Force provides the essential new aspect of the appeal of Star Wars, distinct from its precursors. Of course, Lucas hardly invented science-fantasy as a subgenre, and space opera had sported quasi-supernatural and magical powers since its earliest exemplars. The Force owed a little something to the role of the spice in Frank Herbert’s Dune novels as a device charged with metaphysical vitality occurring in a universe otherwise defined by technocracy, and perhaps the Ninth Ray in Burroughs’ Barsoom novels too. But The Force provided Lucas with a supple tool, one that gives definition to both story and character. The Force is itself a distillation of traditions, part wuxia film chi power, part 1970s New Age creed (Guinness found himself fending away offers to become a guru), with a description as “an energy field created by all living things” that evoke the craze in those heady days for things like auras and Kirlian photography and biofeedback. Lucas offered a version of it anyone could get on board with, given the very faintest lacquer of rationality in stemming from the life-force of beings rather than being a power working on them (Lucas would firm this up to much complaint in his prequel trilogy). The Force also operates on the same quasi-medieval level as other elements of the story, echoing an age of human thinking where faith in unseen forces was immediately connected with perception of the world, and renders the good-vs-evil motif more than symbolic: those extremes of action and principle are instead literal powers in the world that become more significant, more dangerous, more cruelly tempting, the more one becomes attuned to its workings.
At the same time, The Force is also a metaphor for the screenwriter’s power, drawing its heroes together and gifting them with advantage in situations where they would otherwise flail and die, and excuses coincidences that would make Charles Dickens blush. That Kenobi experiences the extermination of Alderaan resembles an artist’s capacity for pure empathic connection. It’s also chiefly registered in this original outing through its absence. The Force, along with the Jedi Knights who once wielded it as “the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic,” has slipped beyond the horizon of general cultural memory. “That wizard’s just a crazy old man,” is all Owen has to say about Kenobi. Han disdains Kenobi’s championing of it, claiming to only put faith in a good blaster. The only force user in their prime on hand is Vader himself, who casually throttles Imperial Admiral Motti (Richard LeParmentier) from a distance, after he echoes Owen’s description of Ben in referring dismissively to Vader’s “sorcerer’s ways” in comparison to the Death Star’s encapsulation of technical and military might. This scene makes the strength of the Force, even its “dark side,” very clear, and establishes that not only does Vader adhere to it but considers it a higher loyalty than whatever political faction he works for. One reason, perhaps, Tarkin is described by Leia as “holding Vader’s leash,” nominally holding him, as a kind of discrete weapon himself, in obeisance to the needs of the military hierarchy and the more stolid precepts of the era he is ironically trapped in enforcing. In the following films Vader ascends to sole command once it becomes clear another Force user has come onto the scene. Kenobi’s demonstrations of The Force are craftier. Even in the climax when Luke decides to trust his primal, mystic intuition rather than technology at Kenobi’s unseen insistence, it’s a matter of a slightly heightened edge of awareness added onto skills and talents he’s mastered through his youth on Tatooine: he’s already an experienced pilot and a good shot, tested in both indeed in by the extremes of his home planet in a way that proves to transcend tamer learning processes.
Tarkin himself represents authority at its most icy and contemptuous, a pure minister for technofascist force and the relish of wielding it, to the point where he’s able to boss even Vader around with supreme confidence. Cushing’s presence in the role provided an authentic link to some of Lucas’ genre film touchstones, and much like his characterisation of Baron Frankenstein in the Hammer Films series, Tarkin acts like a surgeon remaking the universe in his own image, entirely divorced from any sense of consequence: he plainly gets more satisfaction from shocking and tormenting Leia than from exterminating millions of Alderaanians. The heroes’ journey to Alderaan goes all wrong as the Death Star is still hovering near the field of debris left from the planet’s destruction, and the Falcon and its crew are scooped up in a tractor beam and brought forcibly aboard the awesomely massive station. It’s a pity that, by necessity, the Death Star had already been glimpsed by this point, considering the effective pitch of ominous realisation that something incredible and indelibly threatening looms before the hapless heroes, captured as Kenobi murmurs in awe, “That’s no moon, it’s a space station,” the Falcon already having ventured too close to avoid capture.
Han’s quick thinking as a professional evader of authority helps them escape initial discovery by hiding in smuggling compartments, and the heroes infiltrate the Death Star, managing, in the early glimmerings of a theme flowing right through the initial trilogy of films, to turn their nominal disadvantage of small numbers to great effect with guile and improvisation. Whilst trying to work out a way of escaping the station, they’re distracted when Artoo plugs into the station computer network and finds Leia is a prisoner aboard. Han, Luke, and Chewbacca take the chance to rescue her, whilst Kenobi moves to shut down the tractor beam. Compared to the careful story, character, and mythos-building of the film’s first half, this portion becomes something of a tour through the hub of different but connected genres, like innumerable war and adventure films where the heroes put on enemy livery and sneak about, before invoking classic cliffhanger situations, as the foursome dive into a trash compactor when it proves the only escape route only to find the walls closing in, and when Luke and Leia encounter the aforementioned chasm. True to the essence of such adventure stories, the characters emerge most fully reacting to peril, from Han’s edge of aggravation ratcheting higher along with the danger and as Leia’s presence perturbs him, gaining a head of madcap steam useful for the fight, to Leia revealing her own talents for quick thinking and unexpected gutsiness in a laser battle, and Threepio cleverly adlibbing in a tense situation when Stormtroopers burst in on him and Artoo. There’s an edge of comedy to much of this, in the queasily funny diminuendo where Threepio thinks the whoops of joy he hears from the quartet in the trash compactor are their death throes, and Han howling in trying to seem like a small army to intimidate some Stormtroopers only to be forced to retreat when he runs into a squad room, and the Stormtroopers themselves trying to seal off his escape only to foil themselves. Except again perhaps in that chasm-swing, the humour is blended into the texture of the action, rather than commenting on it – a subtle but important distinction, as the characters are absurd within these situations rather than the situations themselves kidded.
The high spirits dampen when the other thread of character drama reaches its climax, as Kenobi, who’s been sneaking about the Death Star interior with all his Jedi art, encounters Vader, who has sensed his presence and lies in wait. The sight of Vader on the vigil, clutching a lit lightsaber, this one glowing a malefic red, and guarding the way out from within the Death Star’s labyrinth, returns after the jaunty swashbuckling to the innerverse of myth and dark fairy-tale. Like the Minotaur in the labyrinth, the dragon on the road through the forest, Death waiting at Samara, Vader is a malevolent force at the height of his powers and cannot be escaped. But Kenobi is the smarter and braver opponent, knowing exactly what he needs to do, in providing a key distraction for the other heroes to get back to the Falcon, and to complete his new mission of helping Luke become a Jedi. Kenobi proves unafraid of perishing upon Vader’s saber, indeed confident that he will ascend to a new kind of strength and influence in death, and after giving Luke a knowing sidewards glance lifts his lightsaber and takes the death stroke. Luke unleashes his anguished wrath on Stormtroopers and manages to cut off Vader by forcing a bulkhead to close (I love the shot of Vader still advancing with unnerving fixity until the doors shut tight) and he and the others finally flee on the Falcon, with the effect of Kenobi’s sacrifice already clear, as Luke hears his disembodied voice guiding him on. They manage to destroy a flight of four small Imperial ‘TIE’ fighters sent after them, but Leia correctly suspects they’ve been set up by Vader to lead the Empire to the Rebel base.
Again, the plotting here is sensible despite all the fun derring-do. Moreover, the mythos is again still expanding even as it seems to be resolving. The clash between Kenobi and Vader, whilst far less physically dynamic than many subsequent, presents the first true lighsaber duel, suggesting the fierce concentration and skill required to fight in such a fashion, as well as revealing the powers of the Jedi extend beyond death. The fight with the chasing TIE fighters is a vivid piece of special effects staging, but is most important as the moment that sets the seal on the bond between the heroes, with Han simultaneously congratulating Luke and warning him against cockiness, and Leia joyfully embracing Chewbacca, who she called a walking carpet not that long before. These particular Argonauts are fully defined. They reach the Rebel headquarters on a moon of the planet Yavin, a jungle zone where cyclopean ruins are repurposed as the operating zone for the Rebels, another fittingly dreamlike zone that also again visually underlines the dialogue between the arcane and the futuristic. The contrast between the teeming greenery of Yavin with the desolation of Tatooine also speaks to Luke’s evolution, arriving in a place where he’s no longer faced with a paucity of options but an overwhelming explosion of experience.
On his first two films Lucas had mediated a spare and evocative style, employing subtle zoom lensing and layers of mediating effect, both visual and aural, with a documentary-like effect, at once seemingly happenstance and carefully filtering, with manipulation of the captured images in the editing room to imbue them with a density accruing a very specific mood, the fractured reality of THX-1138 and the seamless melting between vignettes in American Graffiti. Star Wars inevitably wanted a more forceful touch, and getting the right editing approach proved difficult until Lucas assembled a team including his then-wife Marcia. Lucas’ choice of a clean, bright, easily legible look, achieved in uneasy collaboration with the veteran cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, imbued the film with comic strip-like fluency that sometimes look like Roy Lichtenstein’s pop art panels filmed (particularly in the whaam!-rich climax), and the varying wipe techniques that simultaneously provide keen brackets for each stage in the journey whilst also constantly urging the story on. The best, wittiest example of this comes after the attack by the sandpeople when Luke and Kenobi retrieve Threepio, who’s been sundered in pieces in the melee, and as the two men pick up his top half the screen wipes up as if daintily covering his sorry state. If the landscape shots were patterned after maximalist talents like Lang, Ford, and David Lean, the interpersonal scenes and character group shots have a stark, clean hardness and efficient use of the frame more reminiscent of Anthony Mann and Raoul Walsh.
The stylistic rules Lucas set down dispensed with slow motion, Dutch angles, zooms, non-linear or associative edits, and anything but the most functional tracking, handheld, and crane shots. This approach harkened back to another age of cinema, rejecting much of the New Wave stylistic lexicon that had infiltrated Hollywood even if the film’s overall glitz seemed cutting-edge, wringing all the visual energy from the interaction of elements within the shots and the rhythm of the cutting. It would be borderline ridiculous to talk about Star Wars without talking about Williams’ score in more depth, as well-trodden a topic as it is. The mission brief Lucas handed Williams, recommended to him by Spielberg, was to provide a score reminiscent of the kind Erich Wolfgang Korngold did for the likes of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940). Whilst he had already provided some major hit films with scores, including The Poseidon Adventure(1972), TheTowering Inferno (1974), and Jaws (1975), it was with Star Wars that Williams made himself a genuinely rare thing, a star composer, and almost single-handedly revived the ideal of the big orchestral film score at a time when most were rather spare, pop-inflected or muted and atmosphere-chasing. This in turn had an impact that’s sometimes been less than salutary in terms of the bombastic strains that decorate many a recent blockbuster-wannabe. Listening to Williams’ score in isolation is an instructive experience in distinguishing it from pale imitations, in encountering the dense layers of instrumentation as well as the illustrative cunning invested in each motif and phrase, the evocative tenor of even the most casual passages as well the instantly recognisable, quite Pavlovian intensity of tracks like the title theme, Leia’s theme, and the scoring for the setting suns scene, as well as the skull-drilling catchiness of the oddball space jazz played by the cantina band. Star Wars would still have been a success without the music, but the film with the music became something else: Williams allowed Lucas to plug more directly in the purest language of fantasy.
Despite being remembered as the film that enshrined the ideal of the special effects blockbuster, Star Wars was hardly a huge-budget film, costing half of what Irwin Allen spent on his marvellously awful The Swarm (1978) around the same time. Lucas had a specific desire to create special effects on a par with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), but didn’t have the time or money to pursue the same painstaking work as Stanley Kubrick and Douglas Trumbull had achieved. So the special effects team (which included new luminaries of the field John Dykstra, Dennis Muren, Richard Edlund, and Phil Tippet) took advantage of evolving technology and created the motion control camera, a computer-guided mechanical system that allowed photography of model work to be made vastly easier and briefer. Which helps the overall aesthetic of film more than simply in being dynamic and convincing: the action scenes are the moments when the camerawork becomes unfettered, tracing vivid lines and arcs of motion, most impressively in the climactic Death Star attack as the camera adopts a fighter-eye-view of plunging into the equatorial trench, visuals that have an immersive vigour barely seen in cinema before. The impact of these effects in 1977 was colossal, and they still, despite the odd awkward shot, look very good: indeed the original work has aged far better than the terrible CGI inserts Lucas purveyed in his special edition.
But a great part of the texture and pleasure of Star Wars lies in its small touches. Threepio laying slain Jawas in a pyre with paltry but definite sense of duty. The tableaux of the aliens in the cantina locked in conversations of varying intensity. Luke chasing away Jawas who take too much interest in his speeder, and the long-snouted spy who tracks the heroes through the busy alleys of Mos Eisley. Chewbacca playing a variety of animated, 3D chess with the droids. Shots of Imperial soldiers perched on catwalks and work stations beholding awesome vistas of space and colossal energy surges. So much of this stuff bolsters the impression of richness and incidental commotion in the Star Wars universe, even as it never feels tempted, as many such movies do, to collapse into a succession of world-building exercises. That’s largely because of the basic plot, which resolves in an attack by the Rebels in small fighters and bombers trying to take advantage of an identified weakness in the Death Star, working according to the information Artoo has brought them, with Luke volunteering to pilot an “X-Wing” fighter amongst their ranks. Before setting off to war Luke has a charged confrontation with Han, who seems determined to return to type and declines joining the Rebel assault, but offers Luke a salutary “May the Force be with you,” to the young tyro – a vital concession for the arch cynic, underlined when it’s hinted he might have other intentions in mind. A fine little character moment that also has inevitably large consequences for the way the story plays out.
Perhaps the only addition for Lucas’ special edition I feel was effective is the restoration of the subsequent vignette of Luke encountering his old friend from Tatooine, Biggs (Garrick Hagon), giving context to Luke’s early mention of him, and bolstering our sense of Luke’s movement as a character. Biggs goes to bat with a superior in assuring him of Luke’s great piloting talent. Notably, in the coming fight Biggs’ death and Han’s resurgence are signal moments, one leaving Luke to find the nerve to survive alone and the second proving he doesn’t have to. The Rebel pilots try desperately to fend off the Imperial fire long enough to deliver a hit that can ignite the station’s reactor. As a climactic sequence this has many forebears in classic war movies including The Bridges At Toko-Ri (1954), The Dam Busters (1956, which Taylor also shot), The Guns of Navarone (1961), and 633 Squadron (1964), as the impossible mission to knock out the enemy extermination machine comes down to the wire. The obeisance to this specific wing of the war film makes sense – this is, after all, a film about war in the stars, as well as handing Lucas a situation easy to make sense of and render propulsive and exciting. But it also stands to a degree at odds with most of its follow-ups, in winnowing down the concerns to a single act of martial courage, where in the later films the schism between the Force users as a microcosm of conflict and moral contention, and the more standard warfare as macrocosm, would become a consistent contrast and finally, in Return of the Jedi, pulling ethically and imperatively in differing directions.
The assault on the Death Star is nonetheless one of the great movie sequences, thrilling and, as clear-cut as it is conceptually, impressively intricate as a feat of filming, editing, and scoring. Part of the beauty here is the way the outcome is kept in contention, as in The Guns of Navarone, until the very last seconds of the battle as the Death Star looms closer and closer to blasting the Rebel moon and the attacking force is whittled down. Tension constantly whips up as Luke is finally left almost alone, Biggs is killed, and new comrade Wedge (Denis Lawson) is forced to withdraw after saving Luke’s life, whilst Vader leads a tag-team of TIE fighters taking out the small foes. In their brief moments between life and death the Rebel warriors become shining avatars of heroism whilst they’re chased down by enemy pilots who wear black, grinning skull-like masks (one of many nods to Eisenstein’s stylisation of the Teutonic knights in Alexander Nevsky, 1938). Artoo is badly damaged by Vader’s gunfire. Luke again experiences Kenobi’s guidance and switches off his targeting computer, signalling his new confidence in using the way of the Force, pure instinct, for the last possible chance at a day-saving shot, which he’s only saved to give thanks to Han’s intervention, which accidentally saves Vader in turn when his fighter is flung off into space. There’s an extra edge of malicious pleasure supplied by Tarkin, as intense and nervelessly cool as ever, calmly ordering the moon’s destruction and confidently expecting victory until he and everything else that comprises the Death Star explodes like a small sun, spraying the void with a trillion gleaming pieces of superheated matter – the end of evil and the death of thousands becomes a brief vision of strange and perfervid beauty.
This all works on both the level of pure myth – the pure knight guided to victory by the hand of his magic guardian and the aid of his fated companion. And on a rather more profane level, a very American story of the star quarterback scoring the winning touchdown thanks to his own personal Jesus and his defensive tackle. The film’s last scene sees Han and Luke presented with medals by Leia and the fully repaired and lively Artoo making his presence known, before they’re applauded by the ranks of Rebels. This climax has been a strange object of contention despite seeming to offers plain old heroic validation, as snarky commentary has been levelled at this noting its seeming similarity to some shots in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935). Most likely, the reference points are the same, both drawing from Lang’s rectilinear framings and fascination with a finely balanced tension between order and decay as the ranked humans and the grandiose cyclopean surrounds, as well as the Michael Curtiz swashbucklers that drew on Lang. In that regard Star Wars is of course much truer to the source, particularly as, again, the tone here is at once officially noble but also comedic. Han, Luke, and Leia can’t keep a straight face through the ceremony, Han winks at Leia, and Luke gives Threepio the nod to let Artoo come out, shattering the formality of the proceedings, telling us these heroes remain themselves and not puppets of power.
No-one looks at Star Wars as a work of private imagineering and pop art anymore; it’s become its own sequestered thing, practically a substitute for the mythologies it references. How well Star Wars works, then and now, depends on one’s attachment to the fantastical, to that state it evokes that’s located in the subliminal zone between childhood and adulthood, the place of epitomes and symbols and the need for excitement and release, even as it masquerades as a story. Such art is generally described as escapist, but there’s no such thing, really, as escapism, as such works simply transmute experiences into other less immediate, less realistic, but, conversely, more powerful forms. It’s a truism now to state that Star Wars begat a specific style of cinematic blockbuster that gained a complete stranglehold on pop culture. What’s more peculiar, though, is that it didn’t. Certainly Star Wars gave science fiction box office voltage for a time, proved that special effects could be a force equal to star name marquee appeal in drawing people into movie theatres, and inspired a host of cash-ins ranging from cheap and cheerful to monumentally expensive. But for decades after Star Wars most successful movies were still in old-fashioned genres driven by old-fashioned filmmaking precepts, in large part because aspects of it were too hard to mimic. Rather than revive space opera, Star Wars permanently foiled it by assimilating it all into an essential glossary. Star Wars rather laid a seed for imitators constantly trying to revisit the specific feeling it captured, a feeling it was trying itself ironically to recall. Which is perhaps the deepest underpinning reason for Star Wars’ indelible success, on top of all the basic cinematic things it leverages to effect. The ultimate act of homage it tries to pay is to the cinematic experience 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.