I was asked to review River Road by an Ohio producer, although he is the lone Ohio connection and it was filmed in British Columbia, so it doesn’t exactly count as an official Ohio indie. It’s written and directed by Rob Willey, a Canadian commercial and music video director with one previous feature credit, 2016’s Dark Cove, a horror thriller with a budget of only $25,000. Willey is definitely a talented visual stylist, that much is apparent from watching clips of his shorts or the trailers for his movies. He sure makes a pretty picture. My issue with River Road as a drama is that the plot, characterization, and structure felt not nearly on par with the alluring visuals.
Travis (Cody Kearsley, Daybreak) is a Vancouver guitarist living a wild life of drugs, sex, and rock and roll. He meets Zoe (Lexi Redman) at his journaling spot while he’s luxuriating at a friend’s home on the eponymous River Road. She’s an American visiting a friend and over the course of a party they hook up in more ways than one. Zoe’s cocaine ends up being heroin and now both become inexorably tied together, two addicts sinking lower and relying upon one another for support. Travis empties his bank account, sells his belongings, including his prized guitar, and then considers increasingly risky crime to be able to afford more drugs. This brings him and Zoe to their most dangerous option: robbing local drug lord, Fresno (Steven Roberts), and making a very bad man a very clear enemy who will want very real and violent vengeance.
In short, I found these characters to be insufferable. This is billed as a crime movie but it’s really more of an addiction narrative following the descent of two people into more desperate and self-destructive behavior. As an addiction narrative, it’s best to start with some tangible semblance of what the “before times” are like so we have a baseline to contrast with the damaging effects of drug abuse. If we followed a story about a deranged homeless man with alcoholism who suddenly started using crack, that’s not enough of a dramatic contrast to effect much added drama and tension. This is the first error of River Road. Our introduction to Travis is that he’s a traveling hedonist, playing in a rock band and going through women like water. He has a montage about “getting clean” after the band’s last tour but this literally lasts minutes before he’s right back to snorting cocaine at the local parties (maybe we have different definitions of “clean”). With Zoe, we have one meet-cute first encounter, and then she’s already at the same party snorting cocaine and introducing Travis to heroin. This all happens fifteen minutes into the movie, so not enough time to effectively establish a “before” phase, but Willey errs by failing to give us more to either Travis or Zoe as characters. They were vague before and now, for the next hour, they will be defined by the depths of their addiction. However, I was never emotionally engaged with either of them so I found much of their rather redundant wallowing to be tedious and, shocking, failing to provide further needed characterization.
My engagement was also hampered by much of the clunky and inauthentic dialogue. When people speak, you don’t really feel like you’re learning much about them; it’s like empty air unless they’re directly expositing what is, by all other means, unclear. Travis says, via helpful future narration, that he never met someone “so alive” like Zoe and he was won over by her sense of humor. I shook my head and wondered where the evidence for this was, because the previous twenty minutes did not establish either of these aspects. The dialogue often falls into being redundant or exceedingly expository. We’re told Zoe has a great sense of humor, but where did we see it? We’re told this romance was electric, but where did we see it? The conclusions are being dictated to us rather than shared and earned. And then paradoxically we’re given scenes where characters will talk in circles but just hit the same note into oblivion. I found every scene with music producer Cash Dirty (Sunee Dhaliwal) to be excruciatingly long and unnecessary. I think he’s supposed to be “comic relief” but he’s just a more verbose version of most of the men, trading in the same levels of hedonism and casual misogyny. The big villain likes to keep taking but it’s the same improv note with too much time to fill. I’ve seen this kind of haphazard writing before in other indies that confuse “authenticity” with uninteresting and bland dialogue.
If you’re making an addiction movie you chiefly go one of two tonal routes: tragedy or immersion. Naturally, you can combine the two like Requiem for a Dream, but usually a filmmaker wants you to feel an emotional connection or a vicarious immersion with an overload of style. So, if you’re falling short from a characterization standpoint you can at least provide a satisfying array of style to bring to haunting visual and auditory life what the addiction process is like. I suppose one could argue that depictions of addiction without even the attempted integrity of characters and drama is simply cheap exploitation, and that can be true. With River Road, the characters don’t cut it to supply the tragedy. It’s just not there. I think it was another screenwriting error to provide not one but two framing devices, Travis and Zoe each narrating from the future when they’ve both gotten some form of treatment or help. I understand why this would be appealing to Willey because you can immediately plug into a scene of the past and cut to the character literally explaining, via voice over, what they were thinking at any moment. The problem with this is that the insight of these future narrators is pretty deficient. We don’t need future Zoe to tell us such obvious statements like “once you’re high there is no pain, there are no worries.” I think we understood that through the serene expressions on their faces, plus the general nature of drugs. They’re appealing for a reason. The other problem is that having both of our participants in this doomed love story as future storytellers means they won’t die. It eases some of the tension of its more fraught Act Three when they begin their dangerous decisions.
There’s also a misplaced twist at the one-hour mark that I find absolutely self-defeating, but to explain further will require some spoilers, so if you want to remain pure dear reader, skip to the next paragraph. From the fifteen-minute mark until the one-hour mark, we’re beset with redundant scenes of Zoe and Travis getting high, wandering around, being happy, and then being mopey during their withdrawal times, which shockingly don’t take up more time. It’s awkward to watch Travis mess up recording his guitar part for a song, and this is one of the few instances where we at least get a semblance of personal before/after contrast, but how many stagnant scenes do we need of people getting high, then begging people for money, then getting high again? This descent into debauchery doesn’t feel like we’ve regressed too far. Then at the one-hour mark the twist detonates that Zoe… actually knew about Travis when she saw his band perform in New York City. She stalked him online and followed him and planned her “chance meeting,” and my response was to merely shrug. So what? What does this twist do for the narrative? They were addicted to heroin before the first act was finished, so what does her being a stalker change with their current addiction crisis? After he demands she leave, Zoe comes back, and it’s as if this weird twist never happened for all its minimal impact. Travis does get to scream that Zoe hooked him on heroin on purpose, to try and control him, but, again, this is not evident with what we’ve seen onscreen. Also again, what does it matter? They’re stuck now. The manipulative woman trope, added onto the crazy groupie trope, is tacky, though I don’t know if we’re supposed to adopt Travis’ assessment when he learns the real truth. If this twist were going to be effective, we needed a lot more work done with Zoe’s characterization, with more time spent establishing a clear persona before the drugs became the dominant force. As it’s written, the twist plays like, “Hey, that vague girl who got addicted to drugs really quickly had maybe some other motives while she was vague.” You can’t earn that Gone Girl-style twist without putting in the proper time and effort for the rug pulling to genuinely upend the viewer.
From a technical standpoint, River Road is a slick-looking movie with moody, neon-drenched cinematography and an atmospheric and evocative film score, both done by Willey (he also edited and produced too). There are some fantastic visual compositions here and that’s where I think Willey has his true passion. The movie makes extensive use of montage where you can tell the shot composition and arrangement and editing are just much more ambitious. It almost feels like the drug montages and time lapse montages were what Willey enjoyed making the most. In contrast, the scenes of characters talking have less appealing composition, often relying upon a stifling shot-reverse shot rhythm where each person is left in a single shot. After a while, the discerning viewer can start to categorize the scenes that Willey prioritized more. Every filmmaker invariably does this to some degree; it’s just more apparent with River Road. The drug use sequences are entrancing, like the first taste of heroin leading to Zoe and Travis losing one another in the cosmos with snow falling on them being overlapped. I’m surprised we don’t have more visual sequences trying to convey the highs. Much of the scenes after this initial jolt are watching people close their eyes and nod in contentment. The editing in the montages is also smooth and seamlessly melting from shot to shot with ease. There are other scenes where the editing gets less prioritized as well. A scene where Zoe is laying perpendicular across Travis’ stomach kept cutting at sharp forty-five-degree angles that it ruined the flow of the scene. Likewise, a climactic foot chase is hampered from edits where the proximity is hard to judge. We needed more shots of Person A being seen with Person B. Without, or without clear markers to denote progression of the chase, it’s a jumble of frantic images without forming an important visual continuity.
River Road is a production where I would recommend just about every element with one big exception, the storytelling. I don’t blame the technicians nor the actors. It’s the screenplay that doesn’t know what to do with its 85 minutes, the wasted and redundant characterization, and the shrug-worthy climax (why do I care about an ultimate showdown between the big bad dealer and the guy who Travis works with at the gym?) that mitigate the other shining qualities. I think Willey is a filmmaker with some serious chops but maybe defer on the screenwriting next time.
Nate’s Grade: C
When is a 90-minute movie egregiously too long? When it’s like Windfall and lacking plot and direction and tone to justify all those minutes. The scaled-down production follows three characters confined to the grounds of one location. Nobody (Jason Segel) is trespassing and living on a fancy estate, complete with orange grove, but when the rich owners, CEO (Jessie Plemons) and Wife (Lily Collins), come home and find the mysterious man, he holds them hostage. From there, you would think the movie might be a comedy of errors, a social satire, and it’s not really. Or maybe you would think it’s a taught thriller with each side trying to manipulate the other, and it’s not really. It’s not really a comedy and not really a thriller, so its laughs are minimal, its thrills are trifling, and it comes down to spending too much time with characters that lack the depth to justify the investment. This movie is strictly kept at parable level, so the characters are meant as ciphers, hence the generic title names. These people are not that interesting to spend this much time with. The movie feels like an anecdote stretched beyond the breaking point and by writers I respect (Seven‘s Andrew Kevin Walker and Charlie McDowell, the writer/director of 2014’s The One I Love). That beguiling little indie movie also revolved around one luxury vacation home and a feuding couple but it had an intelligent sci-fi twist that kept things focused on characters and creative ingenuity. There is no such turn with Windfall. It’s all kept so frustratingly obvious, so the movie just feels plodding and meandering, like we’re simply waiting with the characters for things to end too. The insights are too few. The burst of violence at the end as climax feels unearned and too little too late to raise the stakes. Mostly, Windfall is a hostage drama that doesn’t want to be a hostage drama, a social satire that doesn’t want to be a social satire, a thriller that doesn’t want to be a thriller, and a movie that doesn’t have a consistent tone or direction or entertainment value.
Nate’s Grade: C
Matt Reeves is a director who has found a way to inject soul into blockbuster movie-making, notably shepherding the last two films of the revived Planet of the Apes series. Who would have guessed at the turn of the twenty-first century that the two co-creators of Felicity would go on to helm such monumental properties like Star Wars and Batman? Reeves has reliably proven himself on increasingly bigger stages, and that’s why I held out hope that yet another Batman reboot would be worth the effort under his care. Let’s face it, dear reader, we’re probably never going to be more than three or four years removed from some kind of Batman movie, whether a continuation or another reboot. If we are going back to the Bat basics, I trust giving the franchise over to exciting artists like Reeves. I was hoping for a Ben Affleck-directed Batman after he slipped into the cowl in 2014, but it was not to be even though he was the best part of the Zack Snyder run. After multiple production delays, we now have The Batman, and it’s the next big box-office hope for desperate movie theaters until the oasis of summer releases (some are even charging a heftier ticket price, so consider it a blockbuster tax). As a slick comic book spectacle, The Batman is a three-course meal that could have sensibly pushed away earlier. You’ll feel satisfied, full, a little addled, but if dank serial killer thrillers are your thing, you’ll definitely be hungry for more even after nearly three hours of Reeves’ deep danky dive.
Gotham City is on the verge of a new mayoral election, and it’s also on the verge of a killing spree. A masked man identifying himself as the Riddler (Paul Dano) is targeting the elites of the city with cryptic notes addressed specifically toward “The Batman” (Robert Pattinson), the newfound vigilante trying to instill fear in the hearts of would-be criminals. The key ends up being Selena Kyle (Zoe Kravtiz), a waitress at Gotham’s grungy club that also happens to be a popular market for the big crime bosses. Batman enlists the help of Selena to put together the clues to predict the Riddler’s next target and to uncover decades of corruption infesting the city.
The Batman exists in a specific cinematic universe far more in common with the rain-soaked, gritty serial killer thrillers of David Fincher than anything from the previous DC movie universe. This is a pulpy, stylized movie that feels akin to Seven or Zodiac, and not just in its protracted length. It’s a methodical movie that takes its sweet time dwelling in the decrepit details. The plot is very similar to the serial killer formula of finding that first alarming murder and clue, leading to the next, learning more from each additional target to try and discern a pattern of connectivity, and finally learning that the grand scheme goes deeper than imagined, and is usually personal. It’s more based as a detective procedural than any previous Batman incarnation, including missions where the Dark Knight goes undercover or enlists others to gather intel for his investigation. If you’re the kind of person that’s been dreaming of the quote-unquote world’s greatest detective to do more sleuthing and less typing at magic computers, then your time has come. This is a very dark and very serious movie, though it doesn’t feel too suffocating. Fun can still be had but on its own terms, satisfaction from building momentum, seeing how this world incorporates familiar faces and Batman elements, and deepening the lore of this city’s complicated history. Nobody is going to be making any “I gotta get me one of these” quips. It’s hard to even remember a time Batman had nipples on his chest plate and a Bat credit card.
This is also the first Batman where I can vividly feel the anger resonating from its title character. In this new timeline, we’ve thankfully skipped the origin period (and even more thankfully skipped watching Bruce’s parents die on screen for the sixteenth time or so), and we’re now two years into Batman being Batman. He’s still figuring things out but his effect is evident. Reeves has a terrific introduction of various acts of crime across the city and cross-cutting the criminals staring at the Bat signal in the sky and then nervously looking at a corridor of shadow, fearful that the caped crusader could emerge at any moment. When he does finally arrive, this Batman walks with such heavy plodding steps for dramatic effect (and reminiscent of some Goth club kid). This version of Batman relishes delivering pain. He wallops his opponents with abandon, and the intensity of the physical performance from Pattinson really impresses. This is Batman as a rampaging bull, leaning into fights, and also carelessly blase about enduring damage. You will watch Batman get shot dozens of times and he just keeps fighting, so overcome in the moment with the drive of his own violent vigor. Bruce Wayne hasn’t exactly been portrayed as a stable and well-adjusted man in the other movies, but this is the first Batman that made me a little scared about what he might do to others and how cavalier he was taking all this damage.
On that note, Pattinson proves himself more than capable of shouldering the weight of the franchise. Upon news of the former Twilight star’s casting, fan reaction across the Internet was apoplectic and rotten, ignoring the fact that Pattinson has gone the 90s Johnny Depp route and purposely leveraged his good looks to work with an eclectic group of filmmakers and odd roles (see Good Time, The Lighthouse, and The Rover). Pattinson has become a very interesting young actor, and it’s funny to me that ten years after the release of the final Twilight, we have one half of the undead couple playing Batman and the other half nominated for Best Actress for portraying Princess Diana. I would say they’ve proven themselves as legit thespians. Anyway, the Batman franchise has a long history of negative fan reaction to casting, from Affleck to Heath Ledger to even Michael Keaton, that is then rescinded upon seeing the movie, and I expect the same to occur for Pattinson. He actually plays Bruce Wayne something like an atrophied vampire, barely keeping the visage because the costume is the real him. Although, if this is a Batman who prioritizes the night, I think if I was a criminal, I would just start planning on committing all my many crimes during daylight hours (strictly keeping to banking hours).
The supporting cast is as deep and as talented as the Nolan films. Several villainous characters are in their early stages of our conceptions. Kravitz (Kimi) is the real breakout star. While she cannot supplant Michelle Pfeiffer as the top Catwoman, Kravitz makes the role her own. Selena is more a socially conscious antihero trying to fight back against bad men in power abusing that power. Her own goal aligns with Batman’s, and the two become intertwined allies with a clear romantic frisson emerging. This is a Catwoman I would like to see again. Dano (Swiss Army Man) is effortlessly creepy as the morally righteous and unhinged Riddler, more akin to Zodiac or Jigsaw than Jim Carrey’s wacky version. He’s menacing and the tricks he does with his voice are unnerving, except, however, when his voice hits higher pitches and then he sounds like a whiny child needing to go to his room. Colin Farrel (The Gentlemen) is nearly unrecognizable under pounds of makeup that make him resemble a disfigured Richard Karn (one wonders why the movie didn’t just hire Richard Karn himself) and he’s having a ball. Jeffrey Wright (Westworld) has a weary gravitas as a younger Jim Gordon, the only ally on the police force for Batman. Andy Serkis is a welcome presence as the dutiful Alfred, the last familial bond Bruce has, though he spends most of the time off-screen probably due to Serkis directing 2021’s Venom 2.
Reeves might not have the signature Gothic opulence of a Burton, the visual flair of a Snyder, or the zeitgeist-tapping instincts of a Nolan, but he is a supremely talented big screen stylist. There is a deeply felt tactile nature to this movie, from the streets to the alleys to the homes. It feels wonderfully alive and especially dirty. The entire movie feels like it has a visual pal over it, favoring burnt orange, and the cinematography by Greig Fraser (Dune) is ornate and often mesmerizing, begging you to just immerse yourself in the details and compositions. The influence of Fincher is all over this movie, but there are far worse auteurs to model after than the man who elevated serial killer thrillers to high art. I appreciate how Reeves stages many of his bouts of action, including one sequence of Batman taking out a group of gunmen glimpsed only from the staccato flashes of muzzle fire. Reeves is a first-class showman when it comes to introductions. I mentioned Batman’s introduction, but Reeves also delivers splashy entrances for Catwoman, the Riddler, and even the Batmobile, which comes to monstrous life like a kaiju being awakened. The explosive car chase with that marauding muscle car is the action high-point. The movie is further elevated by Michael Giacchino’s pounding musical score. It’s not an instantly iconic Danny Elfman theme but it is stirring in how thunderous it announces itself.
I wasn’t feeling the length of the movie until its third hour, and that’s where my friend Eric Muller cites that The Batman is suffering from a Return of the King-level of false endings. Just when you think it’s wrapping up, there’s something else, and just when you think it’s now finally coming to a close, it’s got another sequence and attached resolution. It’s during this final third hour that I feel like the movie could have been trimmed back. While it ends on a high note and brings characters to the end of their arcs in a clear fashion, part of me really feels like a bleaker ending would have been appropriate for the rest of the movie we had. I won’t specify for the sake of spoilers but you’ll know it when it happens, and it could have ended on a note of the villain more or less winning the larger war on their own terms. It has such a power to it, tying elements together that had been carefully kept as background for so long as to be forgotten only to bring them back to assert the full power of an insidious virus. I think the movie would have been a more fitting ending on this dreary note, with our heroes having lost, but of course the studio wouldn’t want its $200 tentpole to end with its main star bested by pessimism. Again, this is merely my own personal preference, but after two-plus hours of rainy gloom and doom, it feels more fitting to end on a dour note (also akin to Seven or Zodiac) than on inspiring triumph.
This is also perhaps one of the most disturbing PG-13 movies. I might caution parents about taking younger children to watch. The mood of this movie is very dark and somber and the details of the Riddler’s acts of terror can be very horrific to contemplate. There are also intense moments like listening to a woman being strangled to death, twice. It all started making me think maybe Reeves and company could have pulled back and left more to the imagination. I’m not saying the movie’s tone is inappropriate for the material, it just occasionally luxuriates in the grimy details and pitched terror and trauma of its victims that can be unsettling and unnecessary.
Even with the heaviest expectations from the hardest of fans, The Batman is an unqualified success. It’s not in the same category of Nolan’s best but the ambition and execution place Reeves only just outside that hallowed sphere of blockbuster showmanship. It also hurts that The Batman lacks an exciting anchor that can break through the pop-culture clutter, like a dynamic and ultimately Oscar-winning performance from Heath Ledger or Joaquin Phoenix. It almost feels like a Batman miniseries that you might want to continue tuning into (Reeves is developing a few Batman-related projects for HBO Max). Overall, The Batman is an exciting and intelligent blockbuster with style, mood, and a clear sense of purpose. Reeves remains an excellent caretaker of any pop-culture property and proves big movies can still have souls.
Nate’s Grade: B+
The Female Hustler is one of the top movies on the streaming site Tubi, which is available for free with minimal ad breaks. Anyone can check it out, and congrats to this Columbus, Ohio-made indie thriller written and directed by Columbus native Dom Campbell (Bad Business). He’s getting his feature film projects out into the world and a wider audience and that is definitely something to celebrate. However, I think considering a larger audience will do Campbell better, as The Female Hustler feels too inert to be more than the sum of its already familiar and genre-soaked parts.
Princess (Courtney Godsey) is struggling to save her friend from a pimp and help her brother get a better life. She’s looking for work when her chatty Uber driver, Omar (Campbell too), invites her into his multi-million-dollar identity theft scam network. From there, she rises through his ranks and becomes a threat to Omar’s leadership. We jump forward in time and Princess has become “The Female Hustler” and leading her own top-notch outfit. Omar is looking to take out his one-time protégé and regain his empire, but he might not be the only threat facing Princess.
Made for $50,000 and filmed throughout Columbus, as well as stops in Los Angeles, The Female Hustler has more than a few artistic merits. It’s a gangster genre movie that knows its audience well, which is likely why there are several close-ups of butts within minutes. Campbell recognizes that this movie is going to be less a complicated, nuanced, inter-textual crime story akin to something like The Wire and more like a knockoff of a knockoff of a blaxploitation film. I think a filmmaker knowing their genre and what makes it work is essential to playing to its strengths. The Female Hustler feels like it can walk its walk. I’ve watched enough lower-budget Ohio indies to tell when the photography is a step above, and the FIVE credited cinematographers for this movie at least deliver quality with their quantity. The grimy color grade is solid atmosphere but the crispness of the images and the use of lighting can actually be quite artistic for a lower-budgeted crime flick. The sequences outdoors at night were really good looking. I’ve watched enough barely-lit outdoor scenes that struggled to convey key info. These outdoor scenes have levels of clarity and color and even reminded me of Michael Mann’s digital video thrillers like Collateral and Miami Vice. That doesn’t mean all of the visual compositions feel dynamic; too many shots come across like they were clumsily composed on the spot. It works, but the skill of the camera quality, post-production, and/or camera operators are elevating the many perfunctory camera setups. The movie is packed with modern rap and its bouncy beats give a better sense of pacing and energy, especially when what’s happening onscreen is mostly people fronting poses. A lot of the acting is enjoyable too. I’m not going to say anybody is a star in the making, but the actors can be amusing or charismatic or intimidating when called upon, and Godsey is a worthy lead to build upon.
Where The Female Hustler doesn’t quite work is as a story with enough connective tissue and a satisfying conclusion. I was shocked that there is no ending offered at the conclusion of its 82 minutes. The entire back half of the movie is setting up a climactic confrontation between Princess and her former mentor, Omar, and they each bring their crews together for a fateful summit, and then everyone scatters, a betrayal is revealed from a supporting character, and the movie then rolls credits. I suppose maybe Campbell is intending to make this into an ongoing franchise, a move I would deem dubious given what we’ve been given in this first and so far only entry. However, given everything that transpired in this dawdling movie, there is no excuse to cheat your audience out of any ending. It’s not just that The Female Hustler has a bad ending; it doesn’t even have an ending. None of the storylines have been resolved, nobody has altered their standing, and no wrongs have been righted. It’s confounding that the movie just seemingly ran out of time after doing so little for forty-something minutes of characters making threats and bragging about their successes. The decision on the ending really harms the entire movie, looking backwards. It clearly feels like Campbell had an idea for a movie and little realization how to better develop and see it through. The concept of a woman rising to power through a criminal organization, a dangerous “man’s world” of intrigue and violence, is a fine dramatic template. Watching an underdog take out their obstacles and people doubting them is an inherently satisfying and engaging narrative. That is not really what we get with The Female Hustler, a movie too content to be a longer version of a trailer when it comes to minimal characterization, plot development, and surprising twists and turns.
I can summarize the main plot as three data points: 1) Princess is learning the criminal lifestyle, 2) Princess has become successful under Omar, and 3) Princess is even more prosperous as her own boss. You would expect there to be connective tissue and sequences that served as getting us from one station to another, scenes where Princess learned harsh lessons, or rose to the occasion and surprised her boss or herself, something to note the character development from a novice to a hard-edged leader. There are few of these sequences if any. The second half of this movie almost feels like a resume bragging about Princess’ accomplishments. It’s scene after scene of characters simply relaying the state of things. Naturally, I assumed these exchanges were to ground the audience so we could then chart later changes as what had been gained is now in jeopardy. However, this doesn’t happen and the movie is awash in wheel-spinning exposition. It’s almost comical how scene after scene involves this new character and that new character just telling Princess how good a job she’s been doing. Then we’ll have scenes of Princess nodding along. In some ways it’s reminiscent of little kids in role play, less worried about how things got to be and more about establishment (more “I’m the king of the universe,” and less how it got to be). That’s why this plot feels so bare-bones as to be mistaken as simply a larger version of its trailer. It just feels like we’ve dropped into three stagnant scenarios and stuck with repetitious scenes restating the status quo while we wait for some upheaval or climax that never actually arrives.
I felt that maybe the whole back half was leading up to the final confrontation between Princess and Omar, and when she kills her mentor, it would at least feel like she has moved forward. That’s the basic setup of this kind of story, where the mentor brings in the protégé, then they conflict and then the mentor has to be put aside permanently to fully achieve a higher level of success on their own terms, no longer held back by the definitions of the past. I just watched this basic narrative recently in House of Gucci with Lady Gaga as our change agent. That’s why I’m flabbergasted that The Female Hustler doesn’t so much end as implicitly say, “To be continued?” It doesn’t need to, especially when the movie is only 83 minutes long, especially when the movie hasn’t really done as much with those 83 minutes. We could have watched Omar, in his desperation, strike back at Princess’ empire, chipping away at her power, capturing and killing her valuable team members, and Princess having to process how far she’s willing to go to take out her competition, establishing lines only to question crossing them. It’s like Campbell has assembled his key characters for a crime epic and then merely given them place-holder dramatic scenes and rote dialogue bravado (“You should have had a crash course on me… now you’re a crash test dummy”). It’s a movie with nowhere to go in its imagination.
Why introduce members of Princess’ crew, one-by-one with flashbacks showcasing their skills, if the movie isn’t going to feature these characters outside of this scene? What does it matter to the audience knowing so-and-so is good with money or good with computer hacking if they don’t even contribute to the story afterwards? Why introduce the FBI agents following the criminal goings-on if these guys will never factor in again either? It’s like teasing future conflict that doesn’t ever materialize because Princess never feels in danger. Imagine watching a heist movie that is nothing but recounting 100 members of the crew, their unique skill set, and how they came to be recruited, and then they were never seen or heard again and the movie just ended. What would the point be? What have we accomplished moving a larger storyline forward?
This brings me to my biggest complaint with many Ohio indies, and sadly The Female Hustler appears to have fallen victim too: they are too insular and inaccessible that they seem to have forgotten about playing to an audience, thus only really prove appealing to friends and family of the production. There isn’t a thrilling story, or engaging characters, or a gritty, compelling world here to keep your attention through the overly padded 83-minute run time. I’m happy for local professionals when they can pool their efforts and actually put a movie together, but unless they want it to feel like an inside joke or something only intended for the most limited of viewing spheres, they need to constantly be thinking outside themselves and ask, “Why would anyone care?” The Female Hustler has some technical plaudits that allow it to rise above some of its fledgling peers. I think Campbell is a better director than a screenwriter and would benefit from collaborators in that field. He and his production company Emperium Studios have a spinoff with the brainy kid hacker character in the works, a TV series called A Kid Named Bug, and judging from early pictures, it looks like an entirely different tone for Campbell. Good for him. Keep hustling, young man, and remember to think about movies being intended for an audience, otherwise it’s a very expensive hobby for you and your closest friends.
Nate’s Grade: C-
If you’re a fan of The Sopranos, I can’t say you’ll enjoy The Many Saints of Newark, and if you’re not a fan of The Sopranos, I can’t say you’ll enjoy The Many Saints of Newark. It’s a prequel set in the early 1970s, decades before an adult Tony Soprano was ruling his turf in New Jersey and going to therapy to deal with his rising panic attacks. The Sopranos was an era-defining, ground-breaking show for HBO and creator David Chase would captivate and infuriate audiences in equal measure, mixing shocking violence, twisted comedy, strange side steps, pessimistic psychoanalysis, and stubborn subversive storytelling to its very end with a polarizing finale that still elicits debate to this day (count me in the Tony-is-dead camp). It would be too much to expect a return to that world to pack in all the entertainment and enrichment of a peak TV series, but I was at least hoping that Chase’s return to his mobster magnum opus would present an engaging story that would add further insight or intrigue into the series and its characters. After two hours, I’m left shrugging like Silvio Dante and about as clueless as Paulie Walnuts.
As personal background, I watched all seven seasons of The Sopranos and eagerly anticipated its finale in 2007. I was one of those people that even questioned whether my cable had somehow gone out as the series suddenly shifted to a black screen without further warning. I enjoyed the show though I haven’t watched it since it originally concluded over ten years ago. It would be a worthy series to re-watch in our binge era, but I think I would keep my initial interpretation of the show and its self-loathing patriarch, Tony. I think over the course of 8 years Chase intended to demystify the perverse allure of organized crime and the glamor of Hollywood myth-making. I think he subversively took a familiar setup, a family man trying to fight for respect from his family and his Family, and knew many people would find themselves rooting for Tony Soprano and his underdog status and his potential redemption through therapy and self-analysis. Except, Chase’s point, is that these bad men are not complicated, they’re not geniuses, and they’re not capable of real empathy. Tony’s near-death experience and inevitable return to his old ways was proof of that. Chase created a vehicle where people sided with the anti-hero lead and he systematically provided more and more evidence that this man was cruel, impulsive, selfish, and incapable of redemption, and every episode, especially in that final season, pushed the viewer to ask, “How much longer can you look the other way? How many more excuses can you give?” It was Chase taking the appeal of mob movies and anti-heroes and testing viewer loyalty, making people question the appeal of these kinds of stories about these kinds of men. That’s my reading.
As a prequel, The Many Saints of Newark might appeal to the most diehard fans of The Sopranos who just want to have two hours more in this world, seeing these characters again one more time. Perhaps fans will thrill to see James Gandolfini’s son, Michael Gandolfini, play teenage Tony Soprano. Perhaps they’ll thrill to see Tony’s mother at a younger age but recognize some of her self-pitying and antagonistic quirks that would define her as an elderly woman. Perhaps they’ll thrill to watch Christopher Moltisanti’s father, Dickie (Alessandro Nivola), as Tony’s uncle, the man he said from the series who was so influential to him. In essence, this story, written by Chase and Lawrence Konner, is about how Tony got to be on his doomed path of crime. The fact that Tony is merely a supporting character in this tale is not a grievous structural fault. However, the fact that Dickie is such an uninteresting lead character in such an uninteresting and glum story is a significant fault.
The Sopranos was dark and frustrating too, though your emotional investment was grander, but it was rarely boring. The majority of my time with Newark was spent stooped and patiently waiting for something meaningful to happen. There were bloody murders and gunfights and love affairs, but I kept waiting for it to seem like it mattered to the overall bigger picture. Very little in this movie ever felt important, because the movie doesn’t invest in its own characters and its own story on their own terms, it merely coasts off the attached appeal of the TV show it’s meant to link up to and coasts off the good will of its audience. If you removed the names of the characters, thus denying its creative inheritance, then I doubt even the most ardent fans of mob movies would find that much to appreciate here. If this wasn’t a Sopranos movie, it wouldn’t have gotten this platform and attention, and that seems less a reason to run with an underdeveloped story with a dull protagonist stumbling through mundane mob cliches.
If Dickie is meant to be so influential, I don’t understand the appeal. I guess he’s slightly more emotionally stable than Tony’s father, played by Jon Bernthal, but that’s not saying much. Dickie violently confronts his father, “Hollywood Dick” (Ray Liotta), over his abuse of his young new bride from Italy, Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi), to defend her. That’s good? But when Dickie takes up an affair with the same woman, his stepmom, he proves just as depressingly violent. That’s bad. The problem is that Dickie is not a complex character to hang a movie upon. I thought there was going to be a slow temptation to begin an affair with his new stepmom, but that happens far too early, which places her as simply the “goomah” on the side he retreats to for sexual gratification and empty promises of building a life. She goes right from being a potentially interesting character, a woman with agency and danger, to another mob movie cliché, the arm candy waiting on her bad man to patronize her. Dickie says that his wife has had trouble conceiving, so I thought maybe this new stepmom would be revealed to be Christopher’s actual birth mother. That’s why she was here in this story. Nope, yet again this possibility is dismissed early. The Many Saints of Newark frustratingly takes every tedious story detour it can when presented.
The movie is set primarily in the late 60s and early 70s in Newark, barely tackling the riots of 1967 to use them as a cover for a storytelling choice for Dickie. The entire subplot featuring the struggles of the African American community feel tacked on to this movie, as if Chase is responding to criticisms that his series wasn’t diverse enough. The rise of Harold (Leslie Odom Jr.) as a gangster is given such little significance. He begins as an employee of Dickie’s and then becomes a rival, but this complicated relationship isn’t played like it’s complicated. Every time Odom Jr. (One Night in Miami) appeared I kept hoping that finally the movie was going to give him something to dig into, to really explore this perspective in a meaningful way. The rivalry between Harold and Dickie doesn’t even feel significant because both of these men are criminally underwritten. The Newark riots are played so incidentally and without consequence. Why begin to explore racial unrest and police brutality if you’re just going to ignore it after twenty minutes of movie?
As a movie, The Many Saints of Newark did not work for me. As a Sopranos prequel, The Many Saints of Newark did not work for me. I had some mild amusement and intrigue with moments like Corey Stoll going full force in his impression of a young Uncle Junior, with Vera Farmiga chewing the scenery as Tony’s mother, and the impeccable resemblance of Gandolfini to his late father. I enjoyed the weirdness of Liotta playing twin brothers. I enjoyed the period appropriate production values and music choices. Unfortunately, it doesn’t add up to a vital experience that lends better understanding and insight into the Sopranos universe. Again, some fans may just be happy enough to exist in this universe for two more hours, to soak up even the most superfluous of details (I know I would be for my TV show favorites). That’s fine, but for me, what’s on screen barely resembles the daring and complex characterization of the series. Maybe a movie was always set up to fall short but this one falls short even as a mediocre mob movie.
Nate’s Grade: C
A star-studded collaboration between director Steven Soderbergh (Logan Lucky) and screenwriter Ed Solomon (Bill and Ted Face the Music), No Sudden Move is a class in how to effectively use tension and confusion to a movie’s benefit. Don Cheadle and Benicio del Toro play a pair of low-level criminals struggling to make ends meet. They accept a quick job “babysitting” a family while the husband (David Harbour) retrieves a very valuable document that certain higher-ups are after. Very early on, you feel like something is wrong and something will quickly go wrong, and this feeling persists throughout the film’s two hours. Our two protagonists sense they’re being set up, take action, and from there the movie becomes them trying to cash out with this valuable document while constantly looking over their shoulders. There are many different parties that are willing to do whatever it takes to obtain this document. In all honesty, the screenplay by Solomon is a little too over-plotted. There are several betrayals and schemers and acrimonious relationships built upon past betrayals and mistakes that it can all be a little hard to follow at times. The dread I felt was palpable. You don’t expect these guys to get away with this, not against the forces they’re going against, and so it becomes a nerve-wracking game of assessing every moment and whether this is when disaster will strike. Soderbergh’s dashes of style don’t always jibe with the 1954 Detroit setting, like his penchant for fish-eyed lenses communicating the distortion of this murky world of shadow brokers. It feels like Soderbergh has to resort to some new gimmick to get himself excited about movie projects (at least is wasn’t filmed on an iPhone). The acting is strong throughout, though Cheadle can be hard to hear at times from his guttural, frog-in-throat speaking voice. The movie kept me guessing, with some surprise cameos, and it left me dreading what would happen next. A modest success for glamorous discomfort.
Nate’s Grade: B
Wrath of Man is the least Guy Ritchie movie of Guy Ritchie’s career. It’s a crime movie, yes, and based upon a 2004 French film, but it’s absent his trademark big colorful Cockney personalities, ironic coincidences and upheavals, and broad slapstick violence. It has some narrative shuffling on board, as you can’t have a Ritchie heist movie where he’s not cross cutting between characters explaining the steps of the heist and enact it simultaneously, but Wrath of Man has far more in common with a lean, stripped down crime thriller like Heat than Snatch or Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. Even a fun caper like 2015’s Man from U.N.C.L.E. felt like a clear distillation of his signature style into a new mod studio setting. This movie doesn’t feel like a Guy Ritchie movie. There is style, sure, but it’s far more gritty and less self-consciously flashy. It’s a solid vengeance tale, a pulpy though confusingly structured B-movie, a crime story with a message about anticlimax, and a sign that Ritchie can restrain himself when his film project calls for it.
In an opening scene, we watch an armored truck robbed and both drivers are executed. The repercussions of this will echo throughout the story. H (Jason Statham, reuniting with Ritchie for the first time since 2005’s Revolver) is a new hire for that same armored truck company, escorting large sums of money. He and his partner, Bullet (Holt McCallany), are held hostage by armed thieves and H methodically dispatches them, killing them all. Who is this man? He’s someone trying to find the culprits behind the opening robbery for his own personal reasons of vengeance, and that means setting up tantalizing traps for would-be robbers and working his way across Los Angeles to determine who is going to feel his manly wrath.
This is a darker and more somber vengeance movie where the violence has more weight to it. Everything feels heavier in Wrath of God. Even though this is strict B-movie territory, Ritchie does a commendable job of making the violence feel real and dangerous. It’s not cartoonish. There are recognizable genre moments, like too-cool interrogations, but this feels closer to a version of our own world where violence isn’t cool but awful. That may sound like the opposite of a recommendation, and I can hear someone say, “Why would I want THAT in my Jason Statham thriller?” Fair point, but the visceral nature of this depiction of crime makes the thrills feel more earned and less fleeting. The musical score by Christopher Benstead (The Gentlemen) is heavy dread personified for the entire two-hour running time. I was surprised how involved I found myself getting as the movie progressed, and during a climactic shootout I was feeling palpable nervous tension. I didn’t know who was exactly going to make it out alive, but I also wanted the “bad guys” to be taken down, but I was uncertain whether any of this would happen. Wrath of Man is an efficiently calibrated thriller when the action heats up. It doesn’t do anything special but what it does is build its moments with compounding dread. You’re waiting for bad things to happen, and you should expect bad things to happen, but you don’t quite know if they’ll happen to characters you like or don’t like, and that pumps up suspense. I was honestly surprised how invested I was during that shootout despite the limitations of characters as genre placeholders. The action and confrontations are chilly and ruthlessly efficient.
It’s the structure that’s the real villain here. I’m exaggerating a bit but there are significant structural curve balls that attempt to make Wrath of Man more unpredictable and I think take away from its overall impact and coherency. We see the opening robbery from three eventual perspectives, the drivers inside the truck, the perpetrators, and the bystander victims. We’re also shifting perspectives from chapter to chapter, but I’m not certain that all this fancy narrative shuffling is actually worth the strained effort. I’ll agree it keeps things unpredictable, but any movie where beginnings and middles are rearranged would achieve that same effect. Our first segment presents a mystery, but then it’s answered immediately in the next segment. The third segment answers another mystery, and it’s here where I started feeling like these answers weren’t quite worth the efforts to get there. There’s a notable anticlimactic design to much of the reveals, and while I believe it has ripe thematic purpose (more on that later), it also removes degrees of satisfaction that you can take from the movie. When you find out who H really is, you’ll be like, “Oh. Okay.” And from there he seems like an unkillable superhero. And when you find out who is responsible for the opening robbery, you’ll likely be like, “Oh. Okay.”
The problem is that these answers aren’t nearly as satisfying because the people are so one-dimensional. The gang involved in the robbery, and responsible for H’s tragedy, are just one-note dudes and with a super obvious liability they keep on their team that takes away from their so-called professionalism. By taking characters in and out for long portions of the movie, we can lose track of meaningful supporting characters but also it limits the dramatic appeal. If we knew who hit that robbery early, and how they’re reacting, we might feel more conflict when they come head-to-head again with H in the climax. Or we might be better off simply not knowing them at all for as much time as they are given. Getting such shrift characterization, and with an obvious psychopath on board, feels like a half-hearted shrug. Likewise, knowing H’s tragic back-story later into the movie doesn’t really produce much more than had the movie opened with that information. It feels like Ritchie and company have recognized the limitations of their mystery and rearranged the pieces just to provide some extra questions for an audience to grapple with longer. I enjoyed early on discovering just how capable H was, and I enjoyed how the movie doesn’t pretend the obvious isn’t apparent (“Your shooting was… unambiguously precise”). However, this is Jason Statham, so we already know he’s going to be more than capable on the job.
I wanted to talk about the emptiness of the movie, and I don’t mean this as a pejorative assessment but in the themes. It’s about greed and pride and vengeance and, ultimately, it’s about how little any of these motivating factors add up. This is a gloomy movie about bad people, each with a reported reason for doing the bad things that they do. There’s been a million “crime doesn’t pay” messages in movies, but this is one of the few where I felt the futility of it all. By the conclusion, as innocent people are being killed by not-so-innocent people, and then they are just as easily dispatched by even less innocent people, I kept thinking of Marge Gunderson’s inability to reconcile criminal behavior during the end of the brilliant movie Fargo: “And all for a little bit of money? There’s more to life than money, ya know?” I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that H does get his vengeance at long last in the movie’s resolution, but by that point I felt like it didn’t even matter. Sure I still wanted the antagonist to be toppled, but after such mayhem and such loss of life, and all for a little bit of money, the anticlimactic nature of the ending felt purposely designed. The movie has been leading up to this moment and yet when it comes, it’s not quite what we would have hoped. That intentional emptiness is meant to convey the hollow nature of vengeance as well as a nihilistic approach to crime movies. It kind of works but also it works because the movie didn’t do much work making this antagonist memorable or multi-dimensional so that I could relish his eventual smiting. It feels, in some ways, like the grimy B-movie equivalent of Matt Damon getting clipped at the end of The Departed (spoilers?).
Wrath of Man is a solid vengeance thriller with some heavier themes and some weightier violence, but it’s still a movie where Jason Statham cleans shop. It’s still going to scratch those very basic demands but I applaud it for trying to be a little something more. It succeeds in some areas, like tone and theme and thrills, and doesn’t so much in others, like the non-linear narrative and too many one-dimensional characters. Ritchie demonstrates some artistic growth taking just a few fateful steps outside his cocksure and gaudy signature style. I would welcome more Ritchie signature movies akin to Snatch, but I would also welcome more well-oiled thrillers where Ritchie sublimates his style for the good of the story and mood. Either way, I’d just be happier with more good Guy Ritchie movies (and a sequel to The Man from U.N.C.L.E., please).
Nate’s Grade: B
A film is taking the nation by storm and it isn’t anything from a big studio. In fact it’s the first release of a new indie production house called New Market, and these people have lassoed a real winner. Memento is a murder mystery bubbling with perfect elements of noir, suspense, and trickery. Memento is the tale of Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) who is searching desperately for John G., the culprit he believes that raped and murdered his wife. Along the way Leonard gets assistance from his friend Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) and Natalie (Carrie Anne-Moss), a down on her luck bartender.
Except Leonard has a peculiar problem plaguing his one-man investigation for justice. After the attack on his wife the assailant knocked him out, and Leonard was left with no short-term memory whatsoever. Leonard cannot develop new memories. So if something happens to him, he is liable to immediately forget it within five minutes. To aid himself he write on small post-its telling him which car is his, what hotel he’s at, etc. all over his body are tattoos of clues he has amassed. He takes Polaroids of people and writes their names on them to remind him of the faces he sees that he won’t remember. Leonard’s investigation is about what his notes tell him. He doesn’t know whom he can trust and whom he cannot.
If this wasn’t enough to make Memento interesting the entire tale is told out of sequence and run from end to beginning. The entire film is told backwards. This action robs the audience of the same information that escapes Leonard. We too know neither who to trust. The effect could fall into gimmick territory but makes the movie fresh and adds for some great comic situations as well, like when Leonard awakens with a bottle of champagne in his hand and tells himself he doesn’t feel drunk.
Pearce is gripping as the emotionally shattered and fractured Leonard. He is a man that can trust nothing and must live from repetition but is intent on bringing his wife’s killer to bloody justice. Pantoliano and Moss provide good support as the weary characters that weave into Leonard’s plight. The acting it excellent all around. They leave us guessing and reassembling our perceptions as more of the puzzle unravels.
Memento is top-notch film noir. It’s a breathless thriller of a first rate caliber. The direction given by Christopher Nolan from his screenplay is tight and highly effective. The character of Leonard is fleshed out in all his paranoia, pain, and frustration. Nolan has delivered a gift to movie audiences always hungry for fresh material. One has to see the film a second time just to see how well the segments play together.
Memento is the coolest movie around. Rush out and see it, then see it again, and then again. It’s the best movie of 2001 by far as of now and has the Best Original Screenplay Oscar locked [Editor’s note: it lost to Gosford Park of all things.] It’s destined to be a cinematic classic people will talk about for years.
Nate’s Grade: A
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
Without a doubt, there has been no filmmaker that has had the meteoric rise over the last twenty years than Christopher Nolan. The man has entered that rare, hallowed upper echelon of the Steven Spielbergs and Quentin Tarantinos where his name alone is the selling point. You go to see a Nolan movie because you know it will be an experience that no other filmmaker can quite deliver, and from 2005’s Batman Begins onward, he’s been given immense studio resources and unchecked creative control to make his big dreams come true on the biggest stage. It’s thus very fun to go back to the little 2001 indie movie where it all started for the future box-office titan. It has many of the hallmarks that have followed the director’s ascendant career, like dead wives as back-story, cool emotions, an unreliable protagonist, and especially its crackerjack, air-tight narrative. Memento already had a dynamite premise, an amateur investigator seeking justice who couldn’t hold new memories because of a mental condition. It was based on an unpublished short story by his brother Jonathan (future frequent collaborator and creator of HBO’s Westworld), which is why it qualified as an original screenplay at the Oscars, to which it would eventually lose out to Gosford Park (go figure). Nolan deliberately made the story even harder to follow in a gambit that would come to define his screenwriting experimentation. He told the entire movie backwards, so that the story began at its ending and finished at its beginning. Every few minutes, we, like our memory-challenged lead Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), are left to ask, “How did we get here?” It puts you in the stark position of the lead’s perplexed and scrambling sensibility. It’s a raised bet of a storytelling check, one that Nolan delivers with incredible panache, but twenty years later, is Memento more than a brilliantly executed magic trick?
Even after watching Memento likely half a dozen times in my life, this is still one very confusing movie to follow. There are two current storylines that crisscross and eventually overlap, like tributaries reconnecting to a source. The black-and-white segments of Leonard narrating his rules, tattoos of key clues, practices, and investigative successes as he narrows his search for the mysterious “John G.,” the man he claims assaulted him and his wife, are filmed more objectively, playing out in linear fashion, given to rampant exposition to better orient the audience to the tricks of the movie. The color segments are the main action, watching Leonard go from murdering a confidant to then explaining how we got here, roping in scummy drug dealers, violent men, sad-eyed barmaids, and people looking to take advantage of Leonard and his unique disability (the motel owner rents him multiple rooms). These sequences are played in the backwards trajectory that drives the movie, so every pit stop essentially resets the movie as we know it. It’s an amazing device because it makes every scene its own little movie with its own little payoff, with a dopamine reward for seeing how the opening of the last image came to be. Some of these are played for laughs but many are extremely well thought out to keep an audience guessing. Leonard opens a closet to find a beaten and gagged man who swears it was Leonard who did this to him. Leonard begins in mid-chase, seeing a man running parallel to him. “Oh, I must be chasing this guy,” he comments in voice over, until seeing the man’s gun in hand and his advance. “No, he’s chasing me,” he corrects, and runs in the other direction. Then there’s the question of who Leonard can trust, and your assessment of the supporting characters in his orbit will shift. You’ll feel bamboozled just like Leonard, that is, if he could remember. The backwards-narrative allows Nolan to make his revenge thriller so much more mysterious and audacious and playful, and the director takes full advantage of the possibility. It’s a rare screenplay of near genius quality.
On a later DVD release, there was a hidden special feature that could be unlocked that would play the movie in chronological order, and I feel like this would be like watching a magic performance with X-ray vision. It would completely take away the appeal. While I think the level of details and continuity and thematic connections would be even more apparent with more traditional, linear plotting, it would seriously negate much of the fun and potential of the movie. That’s not to say that Memento is only effective because of its narrative shuffling. It’s still a lean thriller with a brimming confidence that can give you an artistic contact high. The character of Leonard Shelby is a fascinating and tragic figure worth exploration, which the movie allows for deeper discussion off-board. However, when you’re witnessing a thoroughly thought-out magic trick that is performed at such a heightened degree of excellence, why blow it up with asking for convention?
It’s also fun to revisit the 2001 movie and see many of Nolan’s staples of creative collaborators. There’s his brother, who he’s co-wrote a very successful Batman trilogy with, along with Doddy Dorn as the editor (Insomnia), David Julyan (The Prestige, Insomnia) as the composer, and especially Wally Phister as the cinematographer who helmed every Nolan movie from 2001 to 2012, winning an Oscar for 2010’s Inception.
I’ll preface these next two paragraphs with a spoiler warning, which I acknowledge is perhaps overdoing it for a movie that’s been available for twenty years, but I’m going to discuss the ending (beginning) of Memento and its implications, so if you’d prefer to be surprised and are one of the people on the planet who hasn’t seen this movie, or been spoiled, then go watch it and then come back to this review. The through line of Memento is Leonard’s murder of “John G,” a.k.a. Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), a supposed ally that may work in law enforcement. The movie becomes a question over whether Teddy was guilty or whether Leonard was manipulated from beyond, and this proves to be the case, though the culprit is rather unexpected. It’s not Natalie (Carrie Anne-Moss) seeking vengeance for her dead drug-dealing boyfriend, though she plays her part, but the real manipulator is none other than Leonard himself. Teddy has set up a fall guy for Leonard to take out to get his long-sought vengeance, and maybe he can remember to be satisfied, but as Teddy recounts, it always fades. They’re always back repeating their old loops. Given the circumstances, Teddy sets up his pal to take out local lowlifes and figures why not profit from the experience (his warnings to ditch the drug dealer’s car go unheeded by Leonard, who instead chooses to drive it around town and even wear the clothes of his victim, a nice visual cue that leads to the big sucker punch reveal Nolan has coiled).
Teddy’s real offense, however, is telling Leonard a truth he does not want to accept. The back-story that has driven him is deemed fictional, conflated with an ongoing anecdotal analogy about Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky), a memory-impaired man whose wife tests him that results in her overdose on insulin. Leonard’s wife survived the assault. It was she who overdosed on insulin to test her husband’s condition. This truth runs counter to everything Leonard has defined himself by and he rejects it, and through that hostile rejection, he sets Teddy up for a cruel fate. He ensures Teddy will be hunted down as the next “John G.” suspect, and thus Leonard actively chooses to live the fiction than deal with truth. In 2021, especially after four years of a pungent presidency that shamelessly warped reality to whatever was deemed preferable, and with millions of gullible Americans still falling for the fantasy, the story of a man choosing the comforts of self-delusion over uncomfortable accountability is striking for its topicality. It’s about the lies we tell one another. Leonard says he deals with facts because memory can be fickle, it’s unreliable, and then the script proves this to be exactly the case, having hidden the answer right in front of your face. I love that the implications can be deliberated even twenty years later and the question of whether Leonard is a secret villain. He believes he’s doing righteous work, but he also proves he can never be satisfied and will very likely continue to hurt others to sustain his preferred reality. Because of the narrative trickery, or limitations of building from a foundation, it’s hard to say that Leonard is a deep character rather than a blunt force instrument. It’s in the revelation and lingering implications where the depth of Leonard Shelby emerges, and I think it’s a depth that often gets overlooked by those trying to keep up with the admittedly confusing storyline.
Revisiting Memento, there’s a definite nostalgia quality, watching two stars from The Matrix and the young upstart from L.A. Confidential bouncing around a Polaroid-snapping L.A. noir mystery from the man who would come to redefine blockbuster cinema. It’s not an understatement to say Nolan is in a class of his own, and his critical and commercial success seems to have convinced him that every movie needs his narrative sleight-of-hand. Some of those films didn’t really benefit from the extra complications. I thought the three timelines compressed on top of one another in 2017’s Dunkirk was entirely unnecessary and distracting. It got even worse in 2020’s deliberately palindromic Tenet, which was a puzzle box from Nolan I felt no desire to solve. Nolan has told movies with just about every construction of linear and non-linear plotting imaginable, and it’s hard not to feel like he’s struggling to find some new fix to hold his interest. Maybe the appeal of the Nolan signature magic trick is wearing off for me; I’ve been relatively disappointed with every Nolan movie since 2012’s Dark Knight Rises, which gets a bad rap for not being the zeitgeist-tapping flick that was The Dark Knight. Maybe he’s getting bored. It certainly felt like Tenet was more an intellectual exercise than an accessible entertainment for the masses. It would explain his experiments with indecipherable sound design. You don’t go to a Nolan movie to turn your brain off. There is an explicit demand that you will need to pay close attention. It just feels like the later films haven’t quite been worthy of the extra efforts.
Back in 2001, I recall being blown away by the narrative trickery of Memento. It was my top movie of that year, tying with Moulin Rouge! before I decided my heart was more aligned with Baz Luhrmann’s glitzy extravaganza (I’m looking forward to revisiting this one in two months). I didn’t have much in the way of critical analysis in 2001 beyond my exaltation of its greatness, declaring it a new classic that people would talk about for years. That’s partially true, but mainly because of the huge career that Nolan has undertaken since. My original review was also certain it would win that Best Original Screenplay Oscar and, honestly, this one still befuddles me (Gosford Park?). Twenty years later, Memento is still a daring and confusing movie, one that rewards close reading and invites deliberation and deconstruction. It’s a top-grade magic trick from an excellent illusionist and sometimes even that is enough. While I would argue it is more than its famous gimmick, it’s still enough to warrant two viewings for everyone’s lifetime.
Re-Review Grade: A
The Wager is a gob smacking example about the utmost significance of screenplay structure and a lesson for others to learn and avoid. I was beside myself with frustration from this 90-minute movie available on Amazon streaming, occasionally yelling at my TV screen, but mostly I was dumbfounded by the storytelling choices. The wager of the title, which is also prominently noted in the synopsis attached for the film, doesn’t even occur until 78 minutes in. That’s right, you don’t get the hook of the movie until the very end. This astounds me. The Wager is an Ohio-made faith-based indie that generally bored me and occasionally made me guffaw or scream in bafflement. I’d wager unless you’re already among the faithful flock, you’re going to be unmoved and more than a little mystified by this tone-deaf drama.
Bruce (Ty Shelton) is a young man abandoned as a child and raised in the foster system. He gets into trouble at school and eventually gets plunged into a life of crime against his will. As an adult (Jim Gloyd), he’s strung out on drugs and resorting to petty robbery to find his scores. His childhood friend Suzy (Stephanie Haff) runs into him at a casino and offers spiritual outreach, but Bruce wants nothing to do with God. That is until an angel enters his life with a big bet about reliving Bruce’s tortured past with a new perspective.
If you’re going to present a Christian spin on the classic It’s a Wonderful Life formula, having a guardian angel intervene in a person’s life to show them a highlight reel of memories and what could have been, why wait until there’s only ten or so minutes left in your entire movie? Once Bruce does review his tortured life, it includes scenes we’ve already seen, including his birth, which begs the question why we needed to see these moments twice. It’s not like what came before this celestial review needed 78 minutes of undivided attention. For the first 15 minutes, all that happens is that an abused woman gives birth, drops the baby on the doorstep of the police, and the officers call social services. Did we need that to take up 15 minutes? From there we witness young Bruce getting in trouble at school and then being kidnapped (oh, there will definitely be more on this later) and living life as a drug dealer. We spend an hour establishing Bruce’s life as being awful, from child to adult, and it’s repetitive and deflating. How many scenes do we need to see of Bruce sleeping on the ground or shooting up drugs or being pushed around? Not only could the far, far majority of this plotting have been condensed considerably, it would have been more impactful to watch Bruce reflect on his experiences by re-living them rather than dwelling in the extended misery that made me wonder if this was going to be a modern-day passion play. Truly, imagine It’s a Wonderful Life but we spent an hour of watching George Bailey haggle over business practices with Mr. Potter. This central screenwriting miscue is just so catastrophic to the entertainment factor.
We could have easily established adult Bruce being a troubled man and the people of his past having difficulty recognizing the man they thought they knew from the movie’s start. This would establish that bad things have happened, and he could hint at more that he doesn’t want to reveal, and then the end of your first act could be him hitting rock bottom and getting his angelic intervention. We don’t need more than 20-25 minutes to establish how crummy this man’s life is. When given an hour, it just becomes too crushing and risks undercutting the message of personal redemption. Learning with the character about his life’s hardships would be more engaging with him having to come face-to-face with the them and his guardian angel partner. It also allows us to not have to be dependent on chronology and jump around to the major events we need to best define Bruce. This obvious structure makes so much sense that I am shocked the filmmakers missed out. Having an angelic guide would also force the character into conversation and confrontation and potential reflection, giving us better insight into the man than simply watching the events on our own without commentary. Simply put, you shouldn’t name your movie after a key plot event that happens in the last 15 minutes unless you’re a disaster movie and the Big One is finally striking.
The mistakes in plot structure also harm the overall slack pacing. The pacing is practically nonexistent for long portions. The energy level is so subdued that I thought I might just fall asleep. The camera movements will often utilize long takes and slow pans with minimal cuts, which just makes the lack of energy that much more palpable. So many dialogue exchanges sound like people are just reanimated zombies, and so much dialogue feels needlessly expositional. People talk in that phony way where they’re constantly repeating what the other person says but turning it into a question. It’s an inauthentic way of conversing that reminded me of Neil Breen’s silly films. Take these examples of poor onscreen conversations and see what I’m talking about:
“I have no clue what we’re going to do in Science today.”
“Me neither. I guess we’ll find out soon.”
“You’re right. See you there.”
Wow, did we need to be privy for that vital information? Or how about:
“I know you have your troubles, but I know you.”
“No, you don’t. That’s just how I act around you. I don’t think you know.”
“Just stop. I know what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to make excuses rather than accepting yourself for who you really are.”
Isn’t writing better when characters just blurt out another person’s internal dilemma for the audience? Or:
“He asked me for Herb’s Garage.”
“Oh yeah. I remember that place.”
“We all did. So, I didn’t expect a thing.”
We needed less time with scenes like these, where it feels like characters are detached and drifting with excess time to fill. There’s one long hallway exchange between a young Bruce and Suzy that lasts over a minute of chit-chat that feels like they’re just reading off the script. The performances have that rushed feeling, of sentences starting immediately after the next, but lacking an energy level that would justify the delivery. Simply put, when two or more characters are sitting down and talking, you might as well go get a refill or hit the bathroom. The chances will be good they will still be in that same sedate conversation and you will have missed little. This is why the structural choice to spend 78 MINUTES OF MOVIE on establishment scenes is so maddening, because writer/producer/co-star Gloyd did not have the material to cover the time.
Let’s get into what I think is the most egregious portion of The Wager and that is the lengthy middle where Bruce gets kidnapped and coerced into a life of crime. I thought we were headed for some Oliver Twist territory and we’d watch Bruce’s struggles over the pressure to commit criminal acts he was uncomfortable doing, maybe even while he schemed to escape. First off, the fact that the criminals are stereotypical depictions of black males made me sigh. I also was confounded why they placed so much emphasis on kidnapping teenagers and runaways to serve as drug dealers. When you have access to money and power, you have people that will come to you for opportunities (you’re a job creator). You don’t need to kidnap children and hold them hostage to sell your wares, especially having to worry whether they will run away or whether someone will recognize them as missing. It’s stupid risk. Considering these men just sit in the car and watch young Bruce make his first street corner deal, it’s not like they’re being terribly conspicuous.
And then there’s the undetermined time jump, which is revealed during one of those static camera angle montages. It’s a nice surprise; however, it means that Bruce has been sleeping on this same dirty mattress in the same room for, like, twenty or thirty years (also none of the items on the shelves moved in that same time, meaning Bruce never touched a thing in his living quarters or he is very, very particular about where things should go). The same crime bosses are still alive and in their same position of leadership. Bruce is now played by Gloyd in a horrendous looking ratty wig and I needed to know desperately how much time has passed. Gloyd definitely looks to be in his 40s, and this significant jump in time raises so many irksome questions. The police haven’t found adult Bruce in 30 years but the same officer who found him as a baby, who is still alive and working as a security officer, can recognize him on the spot? How old are these same criminal leaders then, and Bruce hasn’t ascended higher up the organization than street dealer? If we’re jumping that far ahead, wouldn’t it make more sense for Bruce to be the new leader, letting us know he has been molded under the negative influence of his captors? If he’s just going to be a drug-addicted adult then why do we need to jump so far ahead in time? The answer, it seems, is so that the writer/producer can have a starring role. That’s fine, but we could have done more structurally to maximize the drama rather than dwelling in redundant misery.
Let’s analyze the spiritual message at the heart of The Wager. Bruce’s life is pretty bad. He’s in and out of foster homes, gets abducted and held hostage as a criminal lackey, becomes addicted to drugs and desperate, and then homeless and contemplating suicide. He’s had, by all accounts, a hard go of things. He’s understandably resentful about the forces he feels have conspired to lock him into agony, so when other characters raise the notion of a loving God that has his back and watches over him, Bruce scoffs and views his life as refutation. There’s even a nature versus nurture argument to be had. In fact, the first time Bruce went to Suzy’s church was when he was abducted. The cop character tells Bruce he’s been praying for him since the moment they first crossed paths, but considering what Bruce has endured, that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for the power of prayer. Now obviously Bruce will conclude with accepting the love of God and finding a greater purpose with his life, but why did we need to wait so long? The end is never going to be in doubt with a Christian-themed indie any more than whether or not James Bond will get out of his latest scrape. That’s why refocusing the structure onto Bruce having to confront an angel over his feelings of abandonment from God would be far more dynamic, powerful, and I’ll say it, even Christian than the message as presented. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not questioning the faith and credentials of the filmmakers. I’m saying the way they go about telling their story makes the overall message less believably impactful.
The acting in The Wager is typically rather flat, given that energy-sapping direction that makes each scene feel twice as long. However, there is one actor I want to single out and that’s Cameron Arnett (Overcomer) as the unfortunately named Gabe Angelus (get it?). Arnett reappears in different roles, my favorite being a batty homeless man that helps out Bruce from time to time. In that moment, Arnett is so believable and arguably natural even while playing a highly mannered character. He immediately drew my attention and I remarked, “Here’s a good actor.” As for the other thespians, it’s hard for me to tell whether they just didn’t get the material to showcase their skills or whether those skills are in need of polishing. I know KateLynn Newberry (Widow’s Point, Dark Iris) as the queen of Ohio indies, and she’s pretty much wasted as a doting wife who lives to ask her husband what he wants for dinner. Fun fact: one of the crime lords is played by former Columbus resident and famous boxer James “Buster” Douglas.
With The Wager, I couldn’t believe what I was watching. Obvious dramatic setups seem to be sorely missed, a structural reformatting was in dire need to maximize the hook, because without that it’s like watching one poor man spiral and suffer for an entire feature-length film. It feels like overwrought overkill. Do we need a half-hour of a guy slinging drugs and sticking needles in his arm, without any supporting characters to interact with, or can this information be conveyed with practiced brevity? I am amazed at so many choices that left me scratching my head. The movie ends with our guardian angel staring into the screen and laughing maniacally for several prolonged seconds, even over the cut to black. What? This is the kind of behavior we associate with evil beings. Why do we need a flashback of a young girl running out the door when the adult version could have just relayed this event in words? I know Christian movie audiences aren’t exactly the most discerning audiences, prioritizing message over storytelling and technical achievement, but the decisions that the filmmakers make impair that faithful message. You don’t make an It’s a Wonderful Life story and just reserve it for the last 15 minutes. I advise select people to watch The Wager simply to learn what not to do with the importance of screenwriting structure. That’s its ultimate cautionary tale.
Nate’s Grade: C-