Barry Jenkins’ follow-up from his Oscar-winning masterpiece Moonlight is an affecting adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel exploring a larger picture of the African-American experience through the life of one family under pressure. It’s a beautifully tender movie that aches with human feeling, tragic and joyous. We follow a young couple where Tish (Kiki Layne) is pregnant and Alonzo “Fonny” (Stephen James) is in jail for a crime he did not commit. Jenkins jumps around in time, providing mirrored juxtapositions that enliven the emotional outpouring of the scenes on screen, adding a sense of dread at the hardships we know await and a extra compassion for the good times while they last. Regina King is so outstanding as Tish’s mother, who goes out of her way to gather evidence to free Alonzo, that I wished she had more to do than her handful of big Oscar moments. There’s a racist cop that comes into the picture and is easily sidelined again. Many moments follow this lyrical, free-floating structure, zipping from one memory to another, which nicely presents a fuller picture with less. However, it also makes the film feel like it doesn’t fully come together by its very end and whether all of the assorted moments and insights are as helpful. It presents a case study of criminal justice reform and reminder that this family is only but one example. The intimate cinematography is gorgeous and the use of color is spellbinding. The music by Nicholas Britell is also highly involving without being overbearing. If Beale Street Could Talk might not have the awe-inspiring power and artistry of Moonlight, but it’s a moving, compassionate, and beautiful movie that confirms Jenkins as one of the greats.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Serving as a feminist reclamation project, Mary Queen of Scots attempts to re-contextualize “Bloody Mary” in the royal dispute for the English throne. As played by Saoirse Ronan, Mary is portrayed as an empathetic, open-minded but strong-willed ruler looking to make peace between the two nations, and Elizabeth is portrayed as a flinty, scared, aloof woman that literally tells her younger cousin that she is her better in every manner. It’s a flip of how the two women are often portrayed throughout history, which raises the question of whether history has been twisted from centuries of revisionist and political obfuscation. There are definitely elements in this movie that I know are historically questionable, like Mary accepting a gay man into her royal court of ladies with open arms and a dismissive view of his sexual leanings. I find it hard to fathom that a devout Catholic woman who ordered heathens burned at the stake would be so anachronistically tolerant of homosexuality. If there’s a new theme for this costume drama it’s that women, even those in power, even those who were deemed wicked or corrupt by historians (universally men for centuries), were hemmed in by scheming men who were trying to usurp their power, undermine them, and manipulate them. Mary is thrown into one faulty suitor after another, positioning her as the victim of a patriarchal society. Again, I suspect there is validity to this context but it treats Mary with kid gloves, denying her righteous impulses. Ronan (Lady Bird) delivers a fine performance of grit and grace, but it’s Margot Robbie (I, Tonya) as Elizabeth that really misses the mark. She is sadly miscast and seems to shrink in the role. The depiction of Queen Elizabeth is also a disservice for drama and the concluding makeup reminded me of the Queen of Hearts from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderand. Mary Queen of Scots is an acceptable costume drama told with a little more heat (it’s R-rated for some reason) and a little more consideration to its subjects, but Mary Queen of Scots made me question the voracity of its portraits and made me really wish I was watching the Cate Blanchett Elizabeth movie instead.
Edit: There are two Marys at this time, Stuart and Tudor, and I have conflated them. In my defense, it seems like there shouldn’t be more than one Mary by name when you’re talking about a Catholic rival who is related to Elizabeth. I’ve left my review uncorrected to further own my ignorance.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Mortal Engines is a confusing movie. I mean what does the title even mean? I was all but certain somebody would explain what it meant during the two-hour-plus movie, but nope. My best guess is that it refers to the people operating the roaming cities of the future, the tiny instruments of flesh and blood that have become the gears to these monstrous mobile cities. That’s only the start and it’s simply the title. Mortal Engines is the latest in dystopian YA to make the leap to the big screen, but this time with the guidance of Oscar-winning blockbuster maestro, Peter Jackson. If anyone could elevate a YA novel into big screen eye candy, it has to be Jackson and company, right?
In the distant future, the world we know it was decimated by a war that took all of 60 seconds. In the ensuing years, cities have taken on a new life. They have become mobile and roam the land, swallowing and attacking other smaller cities, and the most notorious is London. Tom (Robert Sheehan) is living a blissfully ignorant existence on London until he runs into the scarred, feisty Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmer) who attempts to kill Valentine (Hugo Weaving), accusing the leader of London of killing her mother. Tom hears too much and Valentine tries to dispose of both of them while he can also assemble a weapon from the old world to gain total supremacy.
I think the good slightly outweighs the bad when it comes to Mortal Engines, but this is definitely a sci-fi action blockbuster where the sum fails to weigh more than its moving parts. The world building on display is more imaginative and intriguing than I was expecting. I was expecting a PG-13 steampunk Mad Max and I got a larger, more developed, weirder and wilder world. Early on, the opening sequence gives a sense of the dangerous reality of predatory cities, and it’s thrilling and large-scale. Immediately you understand why Jackson and company wanted to tell this movie on a big canvas. From there, we get a better sense of how the world has rebuilt itself in the ashes of our civilization and how others have adapted. If London is the scourge of this new world, others have taken to hiding, eking out fragile lives on the fringes of this society. That leads to smaller moving buildings designed to hide. This leads to the skies being an escape from the earthbound cities. This leads to outer reaches where slave auctions occur. This also somehow includes zombie cyborgs, which I don’t quite follow how a world of giant cities that covets “old tech” somehow has conquered life and death, but hey. With each new location, the world got a little bit bigger, and it was already plenty big to begin with. That’s something that Mortal Engines has in spades – a sense of scale and scope. The visual grandeur of the film is expansive and richly detailed, pushing the outer boundaries just a little bit further. There’s a fun chase scene through a city as it’s sliced and diced into smaller parts by grinding gears and sparking saws. The budget was only $100 million but it looks like it could have easily been double that. Even at its worst, Mortal Engines is a visual treat that surprises with ingenuity and terrific special effects.
The good is drowned out by the messy, bombastic, ridiculousness that takes flight. This is a big, dumb movie that readily announces itself as big and dumb. The dialogue is often cheesy and occasionally painful, with characters spouting self-parody lines like, “I’m not going to tell you my sad story,” and then 30 minutes later, “So that’s my sad story.” It’s the kind of movie where every character seems to be angling for that movie quip. One character says, “I’m not known for subtlety,” which could have been the message of the movie as a whole. Another character says her name relates to her desire to have her ashes scattered by the wind upon her death. Guess what doesn’t happen at all? My friend Cat McAlpine wrote in her notes for the movie, “Why is the dialogue so bad?” four separate times. There’s one moment late where a character with a bowler hat is shown and it’s meant to be played like some big moment of leverage or betrayal (“Oh no, not Bowler Hat Man!”) but I don’t recall any scene establishing who this man was or his connection to the Mayor of London. It’s just like a man in a bowler hat appears and the movie treats it ludicrously seriously, and I wanted to laugh uproariously. It was not the only time I felt this impulse.
It’s never boring even when it’s being patently ridiculous and dumb. The main characters are powerfully bland, and they also give way to bland supporting friend characters who serve no purpose other than to be the eyes needed to oversee certain villainous revelations. The romance between Hester and Tom is nonexistent and painfully contrived. Much like the equally bonkers Jupiter Ascending, the main characters and their story are the least interesting parts of the world. Sheehan (TV’s Misfits) seems a bit too old to be playing a 16-year-old. Hilmar (DaVinci’s Demons) has little to work with but is very leaden and flat. There’s no spark of charisma between the two of them. Hugo Weaving (The Hobbit) is clearly enjoying himself as the hammy villain bent on bringing back old imperialism into this brave new world. The entire population of London is only seen cheering in reaction shots, which makes it harder to believe when characters talk about innocents amongst this throng of happy imperialist cheerleaders. I was happy to see Frankie Adams (TV’s The Expanse) as a do-nothing role as Revolutionary Fighter Pilot #3.
There is a massive plot hole in the second act that Mortal Engines cannot recover from (minor spoilers). The entire motivation for Hester is her vengeance against Valentine, enough so that she’s willing to risk her life by running out on her zombie Terminator surrogate father Shrike (Stephen Lang, in CGI mode) to see this through. But if Hester has a zombie Terminator surrogate father, why doesn’t she simply say, “Hey new dad, help me kill this one evil guy, and I’ll happily do whatever you want after”? In flashbacks, we see her open to the idea of transforming into some form of a robotic hybrid, shedding her humanity and losing the ability to feel any pain. It makes no sense why she wouldn’t use this new asset to her advantage, especially when the second act is mostly spent proving how formidable a threat he can be. This plot turn is further evidence at how sloppily the storytelling can get with character choices. Shrike is introduced as another antagonist to chase our heroes, but by introducing him at all, it makes me wonder about the better version of this movie, the Leon: The Professional version where a young girl teams up with a zombie Terminator father figure for vengeance. Don’t you, dear reader, want to see that movie too? It already sounds far more interesting and a better use of the unique story elements.
Here’s another example of how confusing this movie is – the poster image. Go back to it in this review and study it, then ask yourself why the marketing team decided to put the visual emphasis on a woman’s face covered by a bandanna. It’s a movie about giant cities on wheels attacking each other and it also has a zombie Terminator… and the emphasis is on a bandana? If all you saw about the movie was the title and that key poster image, you would never suspect what kind of movie you were in store for, which seems like the exact opposite purpose of advertising. What’s the hook of this image? What’s underneath that bandanna (spoilers: a second smaller bandanna)? What about the tagline which talks about her scar? Did the marketing team actively try and hide the buzzier genre elements?
Mortal Engines feels assembled from the many scattered pieces of other, better movies. I wish we spent more time in this world and less time with the bland assembly of characters not played by Hugo Weaving. I wish we saw more about the intricacies of life on the move and the working infrastructure of these new environments. I wish we had more importance with the Anna Fang (Jihae) character where she didn’t feel like she just ported over from a Matrix sequel. I wish a lot of things were different about Mortal Engines and yet even when it’s bad, even when it’s dumb, and even when it’s insane, the movie is always worth watching and fairly entertaining, for a variety of reasons. I could see a select group of audiences enjoying this for ironic and non-ironic purposes. It’s a big shambling mess of a movie but it puts on a solid show.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Sometimes second place might as well be last place in the film industry. Pity Andy Serkis and the years he spent making a live-action, mo-cap enhanced version of The Jungle Book only for Disney to scoop him years in advance and deliver a billion-dollar hit. It’s impossible not to compare the two and unfortunately Serkis’ passion project is found wanting in many areas. For starters, there’s far less Shere Khan (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), which is a shame. He’s really only in the film for very little. I think Cate Blanchett is miscast as the voice of the snake, Kaa, who acts like a grand keeper of the jungle’s history and future. I’m not sold on Serkis as Baloo, a grumpy paternal figure present from the beginning that trains the wolf pups so they can join the pack. The middle half-hour Mowgli spends in the company of man with a kindly poacher also feels like the movie is spinning its wheels. It keeps the rest of the jungle on hold. There are some rather dark asides that can be quite surprising, from wolf pups plummeting to their doom, bloody scars, cute severed heads to haunt your dreams, and three separate occasions where characters will watch the light vanish from a dying animal’s eye. It’s definitely a more brutish, cruel, and dangerous world, but at what greater expense? The characterization doesn’t add up to much. The character relationships are minimal. The CGI creatures and settings look unfinished. The whole enterprise feels rushed even though it’s been on the shelf for some time, which may be why the studio was eager to sell it to Netflix for a cool $90 million. You’ll watch Mowgli and nod, generally entertained, but questioning whether it’s 90-million worth.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Widows has an all-star cast, an Oscar-nominated director, and a best-selling novelist-turned screenwriter, so my expectations might have been turned up a bit too high. It follows a team of titular widows (Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Dibecki) picking up the pieces in the wake of their husbands’ deaths. It seems their dearly departed spouses stole money from a local criminal who very much demands the sum returned. The women must enter into a criminal heist, using notes left behind by a dead hubby, to settle the debt and spare their lives. Widows is a higher caliber crime movie with notable texture given to a wide assortment of characters; even the villains are given small character touches to better flesh them out and feel more realized. There’s a concurrent election tying together different corrupt and criminal enterprises that widens the scope of the film into a grander scale. The characters and performances are the selling point of the movie and provide consistent entertainment. Davis (Fences) is the strong-willed linchpin of the group and I could watch her boss around people for hours. Dibecki (The Great Gatsby) has a nice turn as a trophy wife accustomed to being abused. The problem is that there might be too many characters. Rodriguez has far more significance in the first thirty minutes and then is put on ice. Likewise, Carrie Coon and Cynthia Erivo are hastily added when the plot requires something of them. That plot, adapted by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), proves to be the film’s biggest hindrance by the end. The second half plot turns seem to come from a schlockier version of this story, not the classier version we had been treated to beforehand. There are character decisions that baffle credulity and personal safety. The quality of the characters deserved a movie that could refrain from the hacky genre twists. McQueen’s precise camerawork is still alive and well and highlights tension and also moments of social commentary, like when we watch a car travel mere blocks from a rundown inner city neighborhood to a fancy gated residence. There’s a lot to like with Widows, and plenty to get excited about, but I wanted to like even more.
Nate’s Grade: B
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was an international best-selling trilogy that gave way to three hit Swedish movies, one Hollywood remake that netted a Best Actress nomination, and millions in worldwide revenue. The problem was that its author, Stieg Larsson, died of a heart attack in 2004, before the publication of any of the original novels. The property was too valuable to simply collect dust and thus a new author came aboard to tell further adventures of Lisbeth Salander, the pint-sized Gothic avenger. A new set of novels began being published in 2015, and after David Fincher’s 2011 version underperformed at the box-office, it seemed expected to reboot the franchise with a new big screen story that had yet to be adapted. In steps a new director, a new dragon-tattooed lady for The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Unfortunately, my fears have come true and the eventual reckoning has happened: they have made Lisbeth Salander boring.
Lisbeth (Claire Foy) is thrown into another criminal conspiracy with shadowy forces at play. A network of high-powered assassins, known as “spiders,” has stolen a dangerous technology that will allow the user control of nuclear arsenals. Lisbeth is hired to retrieve this tech, betrayed, and then on the run from Swedish authorities, professional killers, a dogged NSA operative (Laketih Stanfield), and the head of this cabal, Camilla Salander (Sylvia Hoeks, Blade Runner 2049), her long lost sister Lisbeth left behind years ago.
In her first 2010 outing, Salander was presented as a complex, emotionally withdrawn figure, eminently capable but flawed, hurt, and looking to punish others from her fraught history with terrible men. Strip away all the Gothic trinkets and camouflage, her assertions of identity, and she’s still a deeply intriguing human being. However, even the latter Swedish films started veering in this more derivative direction. As I wrote presciently with the second Swedish Dragon Tattoo movie back in 2010: “We project the interest we felt for her from the first film to the Salander stand-in represented in the second film. She’s still a resourceful, loyal, and cavalier presence, but the plot corners her into being a creature of action. She becomes the fantasy bisexual ass-kicking protagonist that was merely hinted at previously. That sounds like a good thing, but trust me, it does the audience a disservice to box in such a fascinating character.” With Spider’s Web, Lisbeth Salander has become a Gothic Jason Bourne spy figure, and as anyone who has seen the Bourne movies can attest, he’s the most boring character in his own movies, which is why he needs to be kept constantly on the move and hunted. He’s only interesting when he’s getting out of jams, and Lisbeth is now sadly in that realm.
Lisbeth has been reduced to her most essential, and most superficial, characteristics, which also go for the film as a whole. The Dragon Tattoo series began as a twisty investigative procedural with a litany of suspects and dark secrets worth killing over. From there, the Swedish films turned Lisbeth into an indestructible Terminator capable of getting the drop on anyone and axe-fighting oversized men. The Swedish series began more grounded as a mystery/thriller and suddenly, and regrettably, transformed into a preposterous Hollywood-style action-thriller, following the edict of bigger being better. That same mentality has carried over past Larsson’s contributions, and now Lisbeth has become an action superhero and the series has become trashy fun, high-calorie junk food, a safe excursion to a seedy underbelly. The Girl in the Spider’s Web still provides a consistent degree of entertainment, but it’s not playing at a higher level, content to hand-wave away its story for cool chases and fights. It’s the kind of movie where, to escape an encroaching fireball, Lisbeth dives into a bathtub of water. It makes for a visually interesting shot but it’s pretty cliché 90s action movie stuff. Director Fede Alvarez has a slick handle with visuals and evidenced real talent at sustaining and developing tension with 2016’s Don’t Breathe. He has obvious visual talent. There are some engaging fights, like a close-quarter struggle in a bathroom, and some nifty chase scenes, like a motorcycle chase over a frozen lake. I would have liked even more action if Spider’s Web was going to brush aside narrative and moral complexity for stylish set pieces.
The story of The Girl in the Spider’s Web feels like a lukewarm repackaging of spy clichés, and the film does little to make any of it feel important or relevant. There’s a super powerful technology that everyone wants, which falls into the wrong hands, and now it’s about retrieving this device and saving the world. That’s like the plot of just about every James Bond movie. It’s a formula, but where Spider’s Web missteps are that it doesn’t add anything else to this staid foundation. There are scenes but it’s usually about this group going after this group, or this group now going after this group, and without wider relevance it becomes redundant plot placeholders, something meant to distract long enough to get our characters from Point A to Point B. With a mystery, there’s a natural momentum that builds as the case builds coherency and the investigation focuses the direction. With action thriller mode, Spider’s Web just has a bunch of guys that occasionally interact until the movie needs some of them dead. This model by itself can work but it requires concerted effort, and that just isn’t present here.
The most interesting aspect of Spider’s Web is the further examination on Salander’s troubled upbringing, this time introducing a sister that has been plotting vengeance. Salander is, first and foremost, the selling point of this franchise; she is, after all, the titular girl with that particular tattoo. She is what separates this from any other paperback thriller. The Swedish sequels opened up her past traumas with her Soviet-defected father. He was the Big Bad Man behind the scenes trying to institutionalize and neutralize her. While skirting into the above-stated dangerous territory, the Swedish sequels still knew that Lisbeth Salander’s complicated history was the real mystery the audience craved, and it set up a series of antagonists ready to be foiled for years-in-the-making payback. I don’t really know how the events of Spider’s Web gibe with the overall series. I had to look up whether the evil father in the opening was the same evil father in the other films (both are listed as Alexander Zalachenko, so I think so). But the established history has Lisbeth committed after trying to set dear old dad on fire to save her abused mother. I don’t see how any of that is likely if she escapes her father’s clutches as a pre-teen and is supposedly on the run. The secret Salander sister revelation also impacts little. She was the one left behind, whose continued abuse and degradation are strongly referenced. It doesn’t feel like Lisbeth harbors great guilt over leaving her sister behind. During their final face-to-face, Camilla actually poses a worthy question: “Why did the woman who hurts men who hurt women never come back and save her own abused sister?” Because this storyline is flagrantly underdeveloped, the evil sister angle is a cheap twist. There’s nothing to the Camilla character, so she serves as a symbol of shame, and yet the movie doesn’t seem to capitalize on this in the slightest, which is a puzzling disservice.
Foy (Netflix’s The Crown, First Man) is having a big year for herself but feels slightly miscast. She never really gets an opportunity to show off her range, which is a byproduct of the streamlined, reductionist screenplay emphasizing bare plot mechanics. She is missing the intensity or fire that we’ve seen in prior Salanders, breakout-star Noomi Rapace and the Oscar-nominated Rooney Mara. When Foy tries for glower you see the effort. She’s more grumpy than tortured, like maybe she skipped a meal. Even with the requisite piercings, tattoos, and black leather wardrobe, Foy seems a bit too clean-cut for the part. Personal admission: Foy with her sharp bangs, saucer-eyes, facial shape, and Gothic accessories, looks remarkably like an ex-girlfriend of mine from the early 2000s. That was something that kept sneaking into my mind throughout the film, which made the experience a tad stranger as if I was imagining an ex engaged in action heroics. Even excusing that personal connection, Foy ranks a distant third place for the Girls With.
The new Dragon Tattoo movie will likely also be its last. I can’t imagine fans getting too much pleasure out of a streamlined, underdeveloped spy thriller that sands away the edge and complexity of its characters for rote action movie chases. It’s not a bad movie and it does carry moments of excitement and entertainment, but it’s also become a standard Hollywood thriller, no different than a dozen other high-tech, junky hacker thrillers. The Girl in the Spider’s Web gets caught in its own formulaic web. If Lisbeth Salander has been transformed into a standard action hero, then we don’t deserve more adventures.
Nate’s Grade: C
Melissa McCarthy adopts the Oscar bait route of pre-approved credibility, which usually means playing a tragic, self-destructive real-life figure, stripping away any sense of vanity, and working with an up-and-coming indie film director (Diary of a Teenage Girl‘s Marielle Heller). The recipe is alive and well in the consistently entertaining, but only for so far, Can You Ever Forgive Me? which traces the life of literary author Lee Israel, a biographer who nobody wants to read, that is, until she starts “discovering” lost letters from the likes of Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker, and other famous authors. In total, Israel forged 400 letters and sold them to private collectors and archivists until the FBI charged her with fraud. Because of the relatively low-stakes nature of her accidental jaunt into criminality, the “how” is less interesting than the budding friendship formed between Israel and a malcontent bawdy barfly/partner in crime (Richard E. Grant). Their rapport is wonderful and they truly seem to be having a ball with their ill-gotten gains, yet they still maintain a vulnerability even to the very end. In many ways this film does for McCarthy and her standard barrage of caustic, anti-social characters what Punch-Drunk Love did for the Adam Sandler introverted goofball sad-sack barely concealing his explosive rage. It’s a grounded deconstruction on that familiar movie archetype we’ve seen from a popular comic actor. There are some interesting aspects about Israel’s lonely life, like a timid female bookshop owner who circles around a potential romance with Israel, but it’s really a two-hander of a movie between Grant and McCarthy. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a slight character-driven drama with comedic elements, but McCarthy shows that she has the acting chops to play multi-faceted characters in any genre if given the right opportunity.
Nate’s Grade: B
Who could have guessed that splatterhouse horror director Eli Roth (Hostel, The Green Inferno) was the right candidate to helm a children’s movie that hearkens back to the 90s era of Disney Channel? The House with a Clock in Its Walls is a whimsical and enjoyable family movie that is definitely made primarily for those under the age of twelve. It features a young boy (Owen Vaccaro) going to live with his uncle (Jack Black) who is a warlock and where the neighbor (Cate Blanchett) is a witch. He learns magic, self-confidence, and the legend of the hidden clock that may or may not trigger a doomsday. The 1950s house itself and its magical elements is practically another character in the movie and there’s a cheerful sense of discovery throughout, with a dog-like armchair, a topiary griffin, and a stained glass window that keeps changing. The school scenes could have been trimmed entirely, especially when you consider our main kid had enough motivation to try and bring his departed mom back to life. He didn’t need to impress a bully at school because he wanted a friend. Black (Jumanji 2) is charming as ever and a natural with children. The visuals are colorful and fun. The signature weird and icky details Roth adds made me smile, like pumpkins that vomit pumpkin guts as a weapon. Kyle Maclachlin (TV’s Twin Peaks) plays an evil wizard who wants to end the world after seeing the horrors of the Holocaust. That’s a dark implication for a “children’s movie,” and I appreciate that the film allows for the existence of darkness, which also includes unvarnished appearances of the occult and a red-eyed demon. How about that? The House with a Clock in Its Walls is an entertaining fantasy adventure for families whose kids like to tip-toe into spooky material but aren’t quite ready yet for the harder edged PG-13 scares.
Nate’s Grade: B
If you’re a fan of slow burning Gothic horror, the kind where characters wander slowly inside ornate and empty houses investigating various noises, then The Little Stranger is the movie for you. It’s about a laconic doctor (Domhnall Gleeson) inserting himself in the lives of a wealthy family who has fallen on hard times, their once glorious estate left to wither in post-WWII Britain. The family is convinced the spirit of a dead little girl haunts their estate and has its ghostly sights set on destroying the last vestiges of their bloodline. It’s a ghost story by design but the supernatural elements get placed on pause for long stretches. The rest of the movie is a restrained romance between the doctor and the introverted and awkward lady of the house, played by Ruth Wilson (TV’s The Affair). In reality, the doctor is more infatuated with the house than the people inside, fondly recalling his early obsession from childhood. It’s easy to see why. The house, and its exquisite production design, is enchanting. At points it feels like the movie has to remember that it’s a ghost story or a mystery as it shifts narrative tracks. The Little Stranger is a movie simmering in eerie atmosphere and is pristinely directed by Lenny Abrahamson (Room), a man proving how readily he can adapt his artistic style. For a good hour, I was on board with the movie and enjoyed its patient, controlled buildup. It’s practically the opposite of the more visceral horror set pieces we’ve become accustomed to. By the end, I was unsure whether the somewhat ambiguous ending justified the time and path taken to get there. If you don’t have a healthy love of Poe-styled Gothic horror, you’ll likely be restless as you watch understated, refined, restrained British family going through understated, refined, restrained drama.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Both First Reformed and You Were Never Really Here use sly genre subversion to act as commentary on what kinds of movies the audience associates with these kind of haunted men, their arcs, and the nature of violence. Subverting audience expectations is in and of itself not necessarily a better option. You can have unexpected things happen but the narrative that happens after needs to be compelling, and if possible, unavoidable in hindsight (Game of Thrones is good at this). By the same notion, the finale of Breaking Bad was pretty easy to anticipate but that’s because of how well written the storytelling trajectory was pointing to its natural end. I can tell a tense father-son reconciliation story and then if I end it with a meteor wiping out the Earth all of a sudden, well that’s unexpected but that doesn’t make it better storytelling. What helps elevate both movies is that the subversions are thematically related to the relationship between violence and vengeance, absolution and atonement, and the audience and our desires with these films.
In First Reformed, Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke, enthralling) is the caretaker of a small upstate New York church where the weekly attendance can be counted on one hand. The church, First Reformed, is nearing the commemoration of its two hundred-fiftieth anniversary that will be celebrated by local dignitaries and the governor. Reverend Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer, surprisingly adept in drama) is the pastor for the mega church that seems to have everything that First Reformed lacks. Jeffers wants to help out Toller but the humble man of the cloth refuses. Rev. Toller is pushed out of his comfort zone by the husband of a pregnant woman (Amanda Seyfried) who challenges him on man’s stewardship of the environment. The husband worries about bringing a child into this world and contributing the larger problem of climate change. This interaction gets Rev. Toller to think about his own culpability and sets him on a path of righteous justice.
Writer/director Paul Schrader is famous for his stories about violent men confronting the wickedness of the world around them. From Taxi Driver to Raging Bull to Hardcore, Schrader has a penchant for documenting the self-destructive recourse of flawed men who feel removed or constrained by a society they feel is out of step with morality. What better canvas then for Schrader than a middle-aged pastor at a small, reclusive church? Rev. Toller is so humble he doesn’t own more than a few sticks of furniture in his home, the adjoining parsonage to the church. He’s friendly but often choosing to keep to himself, forgoing comforts and perceived handouts from the people around him. A woman his own age keeps trying to connect with him, their romantic coupling in the past a platform for her to continue hoping he’ll come around to her. She’s a perfectly nice woman, a choir headmistress for the mega church down the road, but she reminds Toller of his weakness and maybe even something worse. The aforementioned mega church basically keeps Toller’s small parish afloat as a charity (First Reformed is nicknamed the “gift shop church” for its historical notoriety). Rev. Jeffers is concerned about his fellow man of the cloth and the toll his solitude and seclusion is taking on him. It’s like he’s trying to atone for something, taking on a very Christ-like path of penitence. It’s around here that the character is activated into a higher calling in conflict with the church.
I’ll explain what I was expecting given the premise and presence of Schrader. I was expecting a movie much in keeping with A History of Violence, where a small-town man is thrust back into a past life of violence by outside forces and he has to confront how far this “new him” has come from the sins of “old him.” I was expecting Toller to become more violent and radicalized, pitting others in his cross-hairs for retribution. That’s not really First Reformed at all. First off, it’s the slowest of slow burns. You better be prepared to luxuriate in the day-to-day details of Rev. Toller’s simple life, from unclogging toilets to visiting with parishioners in their homes and having long philosophical conversations with them about faith and man’s role in the ecosystem. That conversation specifically teeters toward ten minutes and serves as the end of Act One, and I think if you’re still invested by then, you’ll be along for the rest of the film. However, it’s not going to be an easily accessible movie. This conversation stirs something deeper inside Toller, dissatisfaction with the church and how it coddles with big business, the chief polluters of God’s kingdom. Toller becomes a late-in-life environmental activist who questions the stewardship of the church body. This sets him on a path that seems destined for bloody violence. He’s going to go out in a fury of righteousness. We’re expecting a big bang by the end, especially given Schrader’s history of these kinds of stories with these kinds of men. But that doesn’t happen.
I’ll try and avoid spoilers but discussion over the thematic relevance of the end of First Reformed will unavoidably suggest to the reader some significant plot developments, so please feel free to read this paragraph or skip to the next one. The second half of the movie is setting you up for a very specific ending, one where Toller strikes back against forces he feels are detrimental to the well being of the church. It’s setting you up for a climactic showdown with powerful forces that feel unaccountable for their actions. I was ready for a final rush of violence to serve as the crescendo to Schrader’s slow burn. This is where the movie swerves away from audience expectations. We’re prepared for a meaningful death but instead Schrader’s ending, in retrospect, makes us question why we should have desired such a violent and vengeful finale. Why should this character be a martyr for our bloodlust against the powerful? Ultimately, Schrader’s movie ends on a romantic, optimistic note of personal salvation after setting you up for a dark story with a predetermined, self-destructive end. The abruptness of the ending may inspire some titters, but when you look back at the film, it makes complete sense and calls into question why we would wish for blood and violence over human connection and forgiveness. Schrader is saying that you wanted the wrong kind of movie.
First Reformed takes the modest aims of its protagonist to heart when it comes to the presentation of its story. Schrader films the entire movie in the old-fashioned 4:3 aspect ratio, the square box of old pre-high definition televisions. It’s an aspect ratio that keeps everything centered for the audience and on display. I think there was exactly four camera movements in the entire movie; almost the entirely of the 113 minutes is from a stationary, documentary-styled camera. It’s a very specific visual style that limits the visual information and dynamism but manages to personalize the main character even more. It’s his movie and his journey of self, so the visual representation is also restrained. There’s really one flash of upsetting violence in the whole movie, as if to remind the audience how a violent death is not something to be celebrated. For an R-rated Paul Schrader movie, it’s far more reserved, subtle, and thoughtful. It left me thinking about Rev. Toller and his messianic mission and our desire for a big bloody finish. The idea of a selfless death directed toward violent retribution is inherently self-involved. It’s not death that provides meaning but life, it’s not how we end but what we do with the days beforehand.
You Were Never Really Here is built as a hitman thriller based on Jonathan Ames’ novel. Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a hired gun who specializes in rescuing young women. He’s hired to find the missing adolescent daughter of a senatorial candidate. He investigates the underbelly of sex trafficking to save this little girl, but larger forces are at play and will make Joe suffer gravely for interfering with their wanton exploitation.
The average audience for You Were Never Really Here has been steadily fed a diet of these kinds of movies, from the artful (Luc Besson’s The Professional), to the pulpy (The Long Kiss Goodnight), to any number of hollow, nihilistic video game-styled murder fantasies (Hitman, a thousand straight-to-DVD movies). We’re expecting men of action who are ruthlessly efficient and clever when it comes to their killing. We’re expecting stylish merchants of death who leave behind a heavy body count with swagger. That’s not what brilliant Scottish writer/director Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin) has in mind at all. She takes the iconography of the hitman thriller and turns it into an expectation-smashing existential character study, but not just of its disturbed main character but also for the audience and our relationship to these movies. We expect remorseless killing machines that turn death into splashy and cool tableaus. These movies aren’t so much key on mediation and reflection, beyond the standard “reap what you sow” adage.
Much of the violence is kept off screen or purposely denied to the audience. I’m trying to remember if we even see Joe kill anyone on screen. The infiltration of the sex trafficking organization hops between fixed security angles, edited together in a dissonant manner, where the last shot doesn’t fully line up for a smooth edit, leaving a half second. The effect is one that’s knowingly alienating and challenging. When Joe does unleash his violent skills, it’s rarely given a showcase for entertainment. This is a movie that doesn’t celebrate its violence. There’s a moment where Joe lies on the ground beside a mortally wounded bad guy. They exchange a few cordial words, he procures some vital information, but then Joe stays with the man and the two sing a song together. It sounds bizarre when written out but it’s a moment that really stuck with me. After everything, these two men can find a small sliver of humanity between them to share. Even the final confrontation, the big climactic set piece of any other movie, ends with a shoulder shrug, as if Ramsay is saying to the audience, “Why would seeing all that be cathartic?”
For Ramsay, the focus of the movie is on the man committing the acts of violence rather than how stylish and cool and cinematic those acts of violence can be. This is the one area where I feel a longer running time could have better helped her goal. I think Ramsay might be the best filmmaker we have for triptych narratives. 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin is a startling and insightful movie that opens up the guilt of a woman whose son grew up very badly, jumping around time periods, using a repetition of images to provide visual stings and associations. You Were Never Really Here does similar labor, establishing our strong silent protagonist through glimpses of a troubled past, from a childhood with an abusive father and a mother he would have to save, to incidents during military service and police investigations that reminded Joe about the depravity of others, in particular the ability to exploit and dehumanize women as disposable property. Ramsay offers discorded images and brief flashes and asks the audience to put together the pieces to better understand Joe as a man propelled and haunted by his bloody past. However, at a slim 89 minutes, the audience could have used more time and opportunity to better develop and analyze this central character. The pieces are tantalizing but I wanted more, and as a result I found Joe to be an interesting start to a character that was in need of more time and attention to transcend the boundaries of his archetype. I needed a little more from him and his world.
There are several moments that quickly come to my memory, sticking with me because of the level of artistic arrangement or implication. Because Ramsay wants to take the Hollywood hitman revenge thriller and deconstruct it and provoke her audience and its desires for violence, there isn’t much of a plot to this movie. I could literally spoil the whole thing with the following sentence: a man of violence is hired to find a missing girl, finds her, loses her, and finds her again at great personal expense. The movie is more of a poignant and intriguing exercise in our relationship to these kinds of stories. There are moments of beauty in the movie that took my breath away, like when Joe lowers a wrapped body into the depths of a lake, and with the shafts of light, the curls of hair, the small visual details, it felt like watching a living baroque painting. There are also several bizarre moments that stand out, like when Joe fantasizes about blowing his brains out at a diner while the patrons, and the blood-soaked waitress, go about their day. It’s these little flourishes that make the movie stand above other hitman movie deconstruction exercises like George Clooney’s overly solemn The American. It’s not all tragedy and inescapable dread. Amidst Joe’s tortured past and troubled future, there’s a necessary sense of hope. You don’t know what will happen next but you’re not resigned to retrograde nihilism.
Both First Reformed and You Were Never Really Here are slow burn indie character studies that ask their audience to question the movies they’ve been set up for. Schrader and Ramsay are deft storytellers who pair their visual gifts to the psyches of their damaged, haunted, and self-destructive middle-aged men. Hawke is phenomenal as Rev. Toller and Phoenix is suitably unsettled from a life of confronting predatory violence. Both movies have also stayed with me, though First Reformed I find to be the better developed, better executed, better acted of the two films. It’s enough of a comeback for Schrader, whose last film I remember seeing was the laughably bad Lindsay Lohan “erotic thriller” The Canyons. These are two movies that aren’t exactly the most accessible. Both challenge the audience to analyze the personal relationships with genre storytelling. If you have patience and an open mind, both First Reformed and You Were Never Really Here provide thoughtful and methodical examinations on genre, violence, and the visceral appeal of empty bloodshed.
First Reformed: A-
You Were Never Really Here: B