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
If I told you I had a movie where Angelina Jolie is on the run from a team of assassins and under the backdrop of a raging forest fire, you’d likely be intrigued. Then if I said that it was co-written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, one of the best screenwriters working today who excels at taking muscular genres of old and providing uncommon depth and poetry, then you might say, “Why aren’t we watching this right now?” Those Who Wish Me Dead, based on the book by Michael Koryta, is Sheridan’s second directing effort after 2017’s excellent Wind River, and while I would not classify it as a bad movie, it is easily Sheridan’s weakest film to date. There’s so much amazing potential here with these plot elements, this cast, and this rising filmmaker, and to only produce a square, straightforward 90s action throwback feels deeply unsatisfactory. There could have been so much more.
We follow Hannah (Jolie) and her team of Montana forest fire fighters. She is still recovering from a recent tragedy where she was unable to save campers from a fire. She’s been reassigned to a lonely lookout tower to deal with her guilt and PTSD. Along comes Connor (Finn Little) whose father is being hunted down by a team of hired assassins (Aidan Gillen, Nicholas Hoult). His father is killed but Connor escapes, finding refuge with Hannah and wary of trusting anyone new. The two of them make a trek to find help while the killers narrow their search and start a forest fire to provide a very attention-grabbing distraction for the local authorities.
The problem with the plot description I just provided is that there really isn’t much more to anything. You can probably see the progression of Hannah’s character arc immediately, having to confront her past trauma through combating the forest fire and saving this young boy’s life to make amends mentally for those she could not save in her past. The Sheridan of his past work would recognize that familiar arc and provide extra nuance, commentary, and make the character more emotionally resonant. Unfortunately, this version only produces a lead protagonist that is, shockingly, disposable. You could have eliminated the entire character of Hannah from this movie for all the personal significance she provides for this story, and that stunned me. We don’t really get insight into he beyond generic observations. She doesn’t really bond with this kid in any meaningful way. She doesn’t really teach this kid anything generally useful for his own safety. This is the type of relationship dynamic where the adult teaches the kid some means of defense, and then in a pivotal moment in Act Three, the child uses that technique to save themselves or the adult. It’s textbook (think: Face/Off with the butterfly knife as but one example). This movie doesn’t do that. In fact, once this kid hands over to Hannah the “unseen paper carrying dead dad’s important information” then he also comes across as disposable. I guess he’s still a witness to murder but the valuable intel seemed more pertinent to thwart. The fact that these two characters can arguably be removed from the story, either entirely or far earlier, is not a good assessment of their value added.
The competing storyline with Jon Bernthal (The Punisher) is surprisingly the one that feels most attached to the events of the plot and could have been its lead vehicle. He plays Ethan, a small-town sheriff’s deputy who happens to be Connor’s uncle. Ethan also has a pregnant wife, Allison (Medina Senghore), and they both take up a generous amount of screen time. There’s a good reason for this because they’re the best part. The loving yet pointed interactions between the two of them are the best example of characterization evident in the movie. When Allison is confronted by the assassins, she’s sees through their law enforcement disguise easily. When the bad men want to torture her to get key information, she manages to subdue them and escape, all while being seven months pregnant. In two short scenes, this woman proves more capable and fearless and badass than our lead character.
It’s easy to see a version of Those Who Wish Me Dead where the Ethan character and his drama completely cover the same narrative territory that Hannah offers. Ethan’s wife is pregnant, the baby is due soon, and yet Ethan feels scared and unsure about whether he has what it takes to be a father. He comes across a young boy on the run from big trouble and protects him, and over the course of their shared experiences, he bonds and discovers paternal capabilities within himself, he teaches the kid a thing or two about defense, and he becomes more self-assured about his own personal future. Admittedly, you could say that’s a simplistic character arc, but is the one presented any less simple where we watch a person haunted by trauma confront that trauma by the end? My point in this revisionary hypothetical is that this version would be more aligned with the plot elements that seem to get the most care and screen time. I know it’s based on a book, but it clearly feels like Sheridan has shown what parts he cares about more so embrace those parts.
It’s also quite easy to identify the parts of the movie Sheridan did not care as much about. There is a surprising sloppiness to much of the setup here, where key connecting information is excluded from the viewer perhaps out of a sense of trying to be ambiguous but also perhaps out of a sense of general indifference. I was confused why the assassins blew up a house in their opening moment, what information Connor’s father had stumbled upon, and even who these killers were and what their connections were with an unexpected Tyler Perry cameo where he appears to be their boss or handler or buyer or someone. The plotting can also be disappointingly redundant, as Hannah and Connor fall into a frustrating pattern of leaving the lookout tower, going back to the lookout tower, leaving the lookout tower again, repeat. Perhaps most egregiously, the raging inferno doesn’t even seem to matter. How can you make a movie about a forest fire where the forest fire barely matter in the scheme of things. It exists as an immovable obstacle but more so as a means of emotional catharsis for Hannah’s prior trauma. Far too often it feels like the fire is practically standing still, watching the actors from afar and not wanting to interrupt, and then at the very end, it’s comically overcharged, zooming at super speeds to compensate for its earlier lazy pacing. There aren’t any real specific survival scenarios tailored to the circumstances of a forest fire, which means this movie could have easily been a flood or earthquake or any disaster or none at all.
Those Who Wish Me Dead reminds me of the vanishing mid-level thrillers that Hollywood used to crank out on a near weekly basis. That’s probably also part of the reason it feels like a throwback to an earlier time, a time where a big star could be thrown into a disaster and given evil-doers to topple and we’d all gladly gobble it down with a heaping helping of popcorn. Perhaps that unassuming nostalgia will prove enough for some people, especially in the wake of a year of minimal big screen blockbusters. There are still moments here that feel like the Sheridan of old, but too much of this movie cannot escape the gravity of being a dull action movie without anything to say and without characters to invest in. It’s not even that the movie is too simple, because simplicity can be its own virtue, but that it’s underwritten, with characters that could be exorcised completely from the narrative, and a batch of villains lacking entertaining personalities or memorable menace. It’s hard not to feel like everyone’s talents involved were wasted somewhat on something so basic, which is even more baffling when you again recognize those fantastic story elements. Chases. From assassins. Into a forest fire. There’s an obvious movie to be had there. Unfortunately, Those Who Wish Me Dead doesn’t capitalize.
Nate’s Grade: C
I don’t care one lick about cars and I was greatly entertained by Ford vs. Ferrari, a thrilling look back where the gear-heads at Ford wanted to build a new model of racing car that could challenge the seemingly unbeatable Italians at the Le Mans raceway. The smartest move the movie makes is placing this as a character-driven story with a group of big personalities solving a puzzle and trying to prove the arrogant suits wrong. It has such winning elements that it’s got crowd-pleaser DNA all over it, even if you’ll likely predict every step of the story. Even if you know nothing about the history of racing and motor vehicles, you can suspect that designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) will, through grit and confidence and outside-the-box thinking, overcome their obstacles to win the 1966 Le Mans race. The movie even realizes this, and that’s why the climax of the movie isn’t whether or not Ford will triumph but on a very personal dilemma and choice. It’s less about the mechanics of cars and more about simply solving problems with innovative solutions, and there’s a great satisfaction in watching characters we care about get closer to solving a puzzle that has outwitted the masses. As the characters get excited, we get excited because the personal is what is felt most. Miles is an arrogant, disgraced driver that Ford doesn’t want being the face of anything for the company. Shelby is trying to transition from being in a car to the head of a company, and he’s the heat shield for his team, taking the corporate ire and laying more and more on the line for their experiments. Damon is great, and sounds uncannily like Tommy Lee Jones, but this is chiefly Bale’s movie and he is fantastic. He once again just disappears into a character, this time the lanky, cocky, hard-driving family man, and the scenes with Miles’ wife and son actually provide important dimension to all the participants. They aren’t simply there to express concern or admiration. The screenplay by the Butterworth brothers (Edge of Tomorrow) and Jason Keller (Machine Gun Preacher) have opened up these characters, their fear, anxieties, hopes, and dreams in a way that feels genuine and considerate. They hook us in with the characters early, so that the rest of the film serves as a series of payoffs for our investment. The racing sequences are thrilling as director James Mangold (Logan) has his camera career around the cars, placing the audience in the middle of the RPMs and feeling that immersive sense of speed. I never knew that the Le Mans race is 24 hours long, and the scene of these 1960s cars, with 1960s windshield wiper technology, driving in the rain and dark at 200 miles-per-hour is starkly terrifying. I still don’t care much about cars or their history, but you present me engaging characters and Oscar-caliber performances to boot, and I’ll watch those people anywhere. Ford vs. Ferrari is a bit long (150 minutes) but a well-crafted, potent crowd-pleaser with exhilarating racing and strong characters worthy of cheering.
Nate’s Grade: B+
With just two finished movies attached to his resume as screenwriter, Taylor Sheridan has enjoyed immediate success. Sicario and Hell or High Water were both some of the finest films of their respective years. Sheridan has a classical sense of structure but he also pumps his big, bold Hollywood dramas with meaningful commentary and substance to communicate a systemic rot from within, whether it is the spiraling war on drugs, the rapacious banking industry, or an entire enclave of people that are ignored as an act of historical penance. When you come to a Taylor Sheridan movie, you leave feeling full on a banquet of superior screenwriting. Wind River is his next feast.
A young Native American woman, Natalie (Kelsey Asbillie), is found barefoot and dead in the snow on a Wyoming reservation the size of Rhode Island. A confluence of law enforcement officers investigate while questioning who has rightful jurisdiction, the state police, the Native police, or FBI Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen). She’s frustrated that, while the coroner will confirm she was raped the night of her death, Natalie is not being dubbed a homicide because of the cause of her death. Jane seeks out the assistance of Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a wildlife hunter for the Fish and Game Department who watches out for predators. He knows the land, he knows the people, he personally knows Natalie’s family, and he knows the loss of a daughter. Cory agrees to help Jane discover who is responsible for the murder and seek justice and, possibly, vengeance.
This is a deeply felt character-driven mystery that examines the lingering damage and defenses of a group of people often left on their own and often forgotten. Sheridan is quickly establishing himself as cinema’s finest voice when it comes to a twenty-first century cowboy ideal, the taciturn, wounded man soldiering onward in an unfair world. Sheridan has a commanding sense of place and character, but his perspective rarely connotes judgment. He’s more an observer, a therapeutic device for his characters to finally express themselves and their brokenness and how the world made them this way. He can be downright poetic but his instincts are for a large canvas with Hollywood thespians. He writes meaty, distinguished, and humane characters all around, not just for the leads. One of the hallmarks of Sheridan’s writing is how precise and generous he can be with his stable of supporting actors. As the story develops, we see just how the death affects the small community, a community struggling to hold itself together anyway through poverty, drug abuse, and limited work opportunities (according to a 2012 New York Times feature, life expectancy on the reservation was 49 years). There is a pervading sense of hopelessness that carries over the land. The people in this movie feel real, lived in, and haunted, and the location feels exactly the same. The ending text leaves a stark reminder of this feeling like a world on our peripheral: no statistics are kept for missing Native American women. Nobody has any sense how high that figure could be.
The leading man of Wind River is Renner (Arrival) but the real star is his character, a gritty and experienced wildlife hunter with an abiding reserve of unresolved issues pertaining to his own teenage daughter’s murder. He has some beautiful monologues in this movie, exquisitely written by Sheridan to showcase characterization and back-story. The first is when he helps his grieving friend by sharing the routine he went through with his own personal loss, specifically how forgetting the person, and the pain of their loss, is the worst thing one can do to honor them. “Take the pain. It’s the only way to keep her with you,” he says. Renner delivers his best performance since 2010’s The Town and it’s one that asks him to slow things down. This isn’t a flashy role, and even though there are some stunning monologues, it’s a role that asks for more understatement. Sheridan has a clear favorite archetype but he finds ways to make each person distinct.
Elisabeth Olsen’s (Ingrid Goes West) character is intended as the audience entry point into the land and history, so as such she will suffer as the rookie who always seems to be out of her depth. This is exemplified by just about every assailant getting the drop on her, even after a meth head answered the door by spraying her with pepper spray. To her character’s credit, other characters befell these same missteps but they aren’t the next most significant character. She’s an outsider trying to find her footing in delicate territory. Olsen is the one asking questions often, pushing others to explain, which usually means much of her performance is reactive, with characters uncorking those fantastic monologues. However, her best moment is during the end, when Cory is talking her through a traumatic recovery. It’s so obvious that he’s saying the words he always wish he could have said to his daughter, and so the psychological projection becomes too much for Jane who breaks down sobbing, serving as therapeutic vessel for empathy. It’s a powerful scene and the closest thing to catharsis the movie has to offer.
As such, the story is more a reflection and outlet for the characters, but it’s also an intriguing mystery until Sheridan decides to just throw up his hands and explain everything. Until the third act, the central mystery of who killed Natalie is filled with curious and dangling questions that are made all the more interesting from the unique setting and circumstances. Her lungs exploded from the cold after she ran, barefoot in the snow, for six miles for help before collapsing. That’s an interesting aspect I’ve never considered before when it comes to environmental dangers. Tracing back the events of her last night, Sheridan opens up an analysis on the precipitous lives of small-town America, except it’s a Native American reservation that’s sovereign from America. It’s an engrossing look into a culture and way of life few ever see. It’s a very unique setting that unfurls gradually over time, allowing the viewer to engage with the people, their fraying community, and the pain endured. And then the film hastily introduces its obvious culprits, shifts into an extended flashback sequence that explains everything, and zooms right into its tense climax. It all still works, don’t get me wrong. You’ll feel the mounting dread gnaw away at you during that flashback, and you’ll feel the rush of adrenaline during the shootout, and the sense of vindication by its conclusion. However, Sheridan was doing such a fine job at parceling out his elegiac story before that it almost feels like he quickly looked at the time and decided to rush into the finish.
This is also Sheridan’s first time behind the camera as director and he acquits himself well enough. A distinct sense of style doesn’t emerge but his directorial instincts follow his screenwriting strengths; the man knows when to get out of the way. The conclusion has a nasty snap of tension to it and the action hits its marks with power, having given quite the windup. Sheridan is best at directing his actors, who as stated above, give strong, emotive performances that linger with you. Wind River doesn’t prove that Sheridan has more to offer from a directing chair, but it does provide a baseline for a start to grow. I imagine from here on, having built up a reputation for writing critically acclaimed adult thrillers that big name actors flock to, that Sheridan will be directing the majority of his favorite scripts. He might not have the visual acuity or sense of vision that a Denis Villeneuve has, but he’ll reliably deliver strong performances from capable actors. He’ll also be the best steward for his stories, and I need so, so many of them.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Car chases are one of the greatest things in movie history. The visceral sensation, the speed, the urgency, the thrills, the syncopation of edits to carry out the escalating collateral damage and stakes, it all works to seamlessly create one of the pinnacles of the moving pictures. If you’re going to create a musical where car chases are the chief instrument, then you could do no better than having director Edgar Wright as the maestro. Baby Driver is being hailed by critics as a blast of fresh air, an eclectic wild ride of an action movie with style to spare. That’s true. Unfortunately, this is the first movie of Wright’s career where it feels like the gimmick is all there is to be had.
Baby (Ansel Elgort) is the getaway driver for Doc (Kevin Spacey) and his crews. Baby was in a car accident that killed his parents when he was a child and he was left with tinnitus (a “hum in the drum” as Doc dubs it). To drown out the ringing, he listens to music at all times, including during those high-speed getaway chases. In his downtime, Baby romances Debora (Lily James) a diner waitress eager to hit the road without a map. Pulled into one more job, Baby is paired with a hotheaded group of dangerous criminals (Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Eiza Gonzalez) that could threaten his future plans with Debora.
Baby Driver is a gimmick movie, but this isn’t exactly unheard of from Wright. Each of his movies has a strong genre angle that can tip over into gimmicky, so a gimmick by itself is not an indictment. This is, by far, the least substantial film of Wright’s career. Let’s study his previous film, 2013’s The World’s End. Like the other entries in the Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), that film has a clear adoration for a certain genre and its styling, in this case alien invasion/pod person sci-fi. It didn’t just emulate the style and expected plot trappings of its genre. It spun them in a new direction while telling an engaging story on the strains of friendship over addiction and stalled maturity. It’s the heaviest and most emotionally grounded film in the trilogy. Every single moment in that movie adds up, every line, every joke, every plot beat, it all connects to form an inter-locked puzzle that would make Christopher Nolan whistle in appreciation. It wasn’t just clever plot machinations of genre parody. It was a layered and heartfelt story. It all mattered. With Baby Driver, what you see is pretty much what you get.
It’s a car chase musical, a novelty that certainly entertains with Wright’s visual inventiveness and ear for music. The film has that alluring quality of wondering what will happen next, especially with its extensive collection of songs on the soundtrack. A trip to get coffee can become a long take perfectly timed so that graffiti and prop placement along street windows lines up with lyric progressions in the song. Some sonic standouts include “Bellbottoms” and Queen’s “Brighton Rock” during the climax. There’s a fun sense of discovery with the movie and each new song presents a new opportunity to see what Wright and his stunt performers do. The car chases are impressively staged and the stuntwork has dynamism to go along with Wright’s high-level energy output. The emphasis on physical production goes a long way to add genuine excitement. This isn’t the ricocheting CGI car chase cartoons of the Fast and Furious franchise. As far as gimmicks go, it’s at least an amusing one. Perhaps I’m just a musical philistine, or more likely my brain just isn’t as accustomed to sound design idiosyncrasies, but I actually wish Wright had done more with his central gimmick. I’m fairly certain I missed half of the connections with the music. If this is the film’s calling card then it needs not be subtle; rub my face in all the clever edits and how the gunshots equal the percussion, etc.
The ceiling imposed upon Baby Driver is because of its characters. Wright and his collaborators have done effective work shading depth to genre characters in the past, even Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which examined unhealthy usury relationships and entitlement. The characters in Baby Driver are defined by their archetype designations and often behave in unbelievable ways just because the plot necessitates them. The worst offender is Baby’s love interest, Debora. Her initial scenes with Baby are sweet and work on their own, but when she’s ready to abandon her life for a guy she met days ago, Debora comes across like one of those people who write engagement proposals to incarcerated felons. Her decision-making leaps don’t feel plausible. I don’t think she’s acknowledged her lingering co-dependency issues. The problems are magnified when so much of the second half involves Debora being put in harm’s way or needing to be rescued. Then there’s Baby, a kid with a conscience who uses music as an escape figuratively and literally. He’s too bland and uncomplicated for the lead. Baby takes care of a deaf foster father. He surreptitiously records conversations to remix them into Auto-Tune cassettes. Yes that really is as dumb as it sounds especially when those conversations involve criminals. All we know about Baby is he’s nice, he wants out, and he’s good at driving. Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars) doesn’t have the space to do anything but look cool and springy. The supporting characters are assorted hardasses and nincompoops. Foxx (Django Unchained) seems like he’s there always to push contrived conflict.
As a genre movie with above-average execution, Baby Driver is going to be a suitably enjoyable time at the movies for most. Wright couldn’t make a boring movie if he tried. However, it doesn’t feel like he tried hard enough with Baby Driver, at least to make a full-fledged movie. It’s an admirable assemblage of music and visuals but after a while it feels like a collection of music videos, albeit with highly impressive stuntwork. The movie suffers from overblown hype because it doesn’t have the characters or story to balance the action. There isn’t much of an attachment to what’s going on beyond the surface-level thrills of Wright’s central gimmick. As a result, you may get restless waiting for the next song selection to kick into high gear to provide another pert distraction. It feels like the gimmick has swallowed the movie whole and Wright was too busy timing his precise edits to notice the absence of appealing, multi-dimensional characters. Baby Driver is a fun movie with plenty of sweet treats for your senses but it’s too devoid of substance to be anything other than a rapidly dissipating sugar rush.
Nate’s Grade: B
Christian Wolff (Affleck) is autistic and one of the top accountants in the world, able to quickly penetrate stacks and stacks of numbers to analyze trends and problems. His clientele varies from an older couple trying to save their family farm to the mob. He’s also a very dangerous assassin who takes out bad guys with exacting precision. As a young boy, Christian’s autism caused great anxiety within his family, and his father was determined that his son would be able to fight back against a world that didn’t accept him. Ray King (J.K. Simmons) is a retiring Treasury agent trying to track down the identity of Christian and possibly bring him to justice for his vigilante status. On the run from hired guns, Christian decides to stay and fight rather than flee and start a new identity because a co-worker, Dana (Anna Kendrick), is also targeted. Together they must stay one step ahead of killers and the ensnaring investigation of Ray King.
It would be easy to dismiss the movie as an autistic Bourne imitation, except that The Accountant is exactly that and takes ownership over its more ridiculous plot turns. The major problem with the Bourne series, which I believe is only now fully coming to light now that Jason Bourne has run out of legitimate past memories to remember, is that its lead character is a bore. Jason Bourne is a pragmatic and resourceful killing machine, but you wouldn’t want to talk to him at a party. He’s a boring character who is only interesting when he’s moving forward and inflicting damage. The Accountant has a lead character with the same set of skills but it also makes sure that he’s compelling even when he’s not killing the bad guys. Christian Wolff is a compelling lead character because he doesn’t fit in, he doesn’t relate easily to others, and he has social and emotional vulnerabilities that make him easy to root for while also serving to ground him. I’m not saying that those on the autism spectrum would make the world’s greatest assassins, though the job does require a dispassionate, detail-oriented mind. I was amused just watching Christian talk to others because I didn’t know how he would respond or how others would respond to him. He acts differently and it makes regular interactions interesting, and that’s before he becomes a superhuman assassin later. He’s leading a double life, and that provides just about every scene with an extra layer of irony, mystery, and intrigue. Christian is an intelligent warrior, working through strategy and improvisation but also luring his opponents into traps. He’s deadly but also efficient. He goes for headshots and dutifully moves along. He doesn’t play around and neither does the movie. When Dana is trapped in her bathroom with a hired killer on the other side, she takes the toilet lid and smashes the guy’s hand. That’s exactly what a thinking person should do in this life-or-death scenario. I appreciated that even with the action thriller heroics that the actions of the characters were still credible to their behavior.
The larger world is also populated with interesting characters and a complex story structure to match. I’ll readily admit that the screenplay by Bill Dubuque (The Judge) doesn’t need to utilize all of the subterfuge it does. We open on one perspective, circle back later with a richer understanding, jump around in time, and then we even sit down with Ray King and the movie takes a 10-15 minute pit stop to explain everything. It’s a strange moment where Ray gives us his full back-story, which is unexpected and unnecessary in the overall big picture but I enjoyed the commitment to larger world building. Another great addition was Brax (Jon Bernthal), treated as a parallel storyline for the first half of the film. In two very effective scenes he’s introduced with menacing efficiency and he’s a memorable foil we know will have to be faced later. I recently watched the atrocious revenge thriller I Am Wrath that was filmed in my city of Columbus, Ohio. There wasn’t one enjoyable moment, memorable villain, or even memorable death. In one scene with The Accountant, where Brax convinces his target the reasons why he should kill himself with an insulin overdose, I had an interesting and intimidating foe. The impression is immediate and unmistakable and in one scene you establish his danger. There’s a level of detail that isn’t seen that often in these kinds of films. There are several storylines and timelines and lingering questions but by the film’s end they’re all reasonably put back together and the audience is left satisfied. There will be some twists that a quick-witted viewer will be able to anticipate knowing the economy of characters but that doesn’t take away from their impact.
Affleck has rightfully earned serious acclaim as a director and screenwriter during his career rebirth but the man deserves his due for his acting as well. By most accounts, he was the best thing about the steaming pile that was Batman vs. Superman, and this is after the Internet exploded in apoplectic fits over his casting. With The Accountant, he gets to play a superhero and a socially challenged outcast, which must seem like the best of both worlds for an actor. Affleck is wonderfully dry and matter-of-fact as Christian. When he jumps into action he has a disciplined sense of purpose that can be fascinating. It’s a great lead role for Affleck and he finds interesting ways to demonstrate various emotions through an unorthodox lens. Christian doesn’t break down and blab his feelings, nor does he necessarily process emotions in the same conventional sense. He commands the screen whether he’s talking or running and shooting bad guys, and that’s all I can ask for.
After leaving The Accountant, I desperately wanted more adventures with this lead character and this world, and I was even dreaming up the idea of adapting this concept into a weekly TV crime procedural. It’s rare that a movie leaves me wanting more, and it’s even more rare when a movie leaves me wanting to watch a weekly variation of Christian Wolff living as whiz kid accountant by day and enforcer of justice by night. Director Gavin O’Connor (Jane Got a Gun) has given me a glimpse of a world that has plenty of shades of moral ambiguity but still dishes out the action thriller goods. It begins like A Beautiful Mind, shifts into a Bourne adventure, and then concludes like a mixture of Haywire and O’Connor’s own Warrior. There is far more action than I thought there would be. It blends the influences and tones without losing its own sense of identity as well as its pinpoint sense of what an audience craves for entertainment value. The movie doesn’t treat those on the autism spectrum as freaks or as “others.” It feels far less exploitative or borderline manipulative with its inclusive message than, say, Rain Man. The reason he’s a super assassin isn’t because he has autism but because his insane father trained him to be Batman to combat his autism. The non-linear narrative doesn’t need to be as purposely hard to follow but it does keep the audience guessing until the climax. The Accountant is a character study, a twisty thriller, an exciting action movie, an overall satisfying slice of good vs. evil, and a world that I need weekly adventures, please.
Nate’s Grade: B+
The word “sicario” is Spanish for hitman, we’re told in a helpful opening text. It’s a term that has greater meaning in the landscape of the war on drugs, a war that has ravaged Mexico and its citizens. Sicario, the film, is grim and gripping and director Denis Villeneuve doesn’t hold back from the brutality of its reality. Sicario is a flat-out tremendous film. It’s the most intense film I’ve sat through since 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty, so much so that for long stretches of the 121-minute film I was literally tearing my hair out with delicious anxiety.
Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) is a Phoenix FBI Agent called in by her superiors with a very special offer. Matt (Josh Brolin), a government agent whose affiliation is classified, has a task force that he would like Kate to join. She’ll be taking it to the drug cartels by destabilizing their chain of power. Kate accepts the job. Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) is a foreign agent in alliance with Matt, and he seems to be deeply knowledgeable of the cartel and their practices. As the chaos swirls and the team gets closer to the cartel bosses, Kate has to reckon with what she is part of.
Let Sicario be a blueprint for how to brilliantly develop suspense sequences in mainstream cinema. I’ve written about it before but the key to suspense and horror is simply characters we care about and the worry of what will happen next. Sicario places our characters in the middle of an ongoing battle and serves them up as the change agent, the proverbial stick rattling the hornet’s nest of deadly cartels. There’s a wonderful sequence when Kate joins up with the team for her first mission. She’s been told she’ll be based in El Paso but in reality she and a team of Army Rangers are venturing across the Mexican border into Juarez. They’re picking up a high-level cartel informant and transporting him back to American soil. The ride into the country sets the stage as the caravan of black SUVs tears through the streets of Jaurez, bracketed by Mexican state police vehicles. We’ve previously been told at what points a likely trap might be staged, and so we wait, taking in the terrain, the distance, the exits, the personnel. We’re already sizing up the Mexican state police cars; is that one on the take? It’s at the end that the scene coalesces into an even stronger whole, as we literally have a climax in traffic. The border entrance is backed up, and so Kate and our team wait, all the while identifying some suspicious armed men in traffic lanes parallel to their vehicles. They’re told they cannot fire until deadly force is used, and so they wait and we wait. It’s a top-notch sequence where you’re nervously waiting for the boil, waiting for the explosion.
Writer Taylor Sheridan (best known as Deputy Chief Hale on Sons of Anarchy) has taken what could have been an empty Michael Bay-styled drug war thriller and given it a soul. Sheridan’s structure is ingeniously tied into his larger message about the moral futility of the escalating war on drugs. As Kate becomes more immersed into the costs of her new role, of the mounting ethical compromises and legal loopholes, she becomes a background player and Alejandro takes center stage. Rather than simply harden up and sacrifice her ideals for the sake of her mission, Kate holds true to her principles, even if she might be the only one continuing to stick to the rules and a need for oversight. It makes her a far more interesting character and it all comes to a terrific climactic scene that hinges upon two characters at a forceful crossroads, each with diametrically opposed viewpoints. For all the action, Sheridan has found a great way for his story to have a character-based climax that hits harder than simply killing the Worst Bad Guy. As we learn more about the reasons Kate was selected, her literal marginalization in the story makes thematic sense, especially as she’s unwilling to become a “wolf” in a “country of wolves.” Alejandro is that wolf, and in the last act he becomes the film’s focus as the pieces of their destabilization plan fall into place. There’s a scene with Alejandro that is so cold-blooded yet badass that it made my audience gasp. As the bodies drop and blood is shed, Sicario doesn’t lose sight of its characters even to the very end.
Sheridan’s script tackles its subject with a propensity for acknowledging the messy reality. There are no easy solutions and perhaps the best solution is really one that is at odds with conventional legality. The United States is losing the war on drugs, and innocents are suffering in droves. Matt’s cavalier attitude is in response to the overwhelming evidence that the war on drugs has done little except to enshrine certain violent elements into power. He’s trying to clear a path for Alejandro, but for what aim afterward is ethically questionable. When you’ve got nothing but bad solutions, perhaps the best option is still one that’s a step too far. Sicario tackles the harsh realities of the war on drugs without ever dragging out a soapbox. The messages and debates are suffused in every frame, every taut sequence, even pained expression. It’s a message movie where the morality and the escalating action go hand-in-hand.
With Prisoners and now Sicario, Villeneuve has proven to be one of our finest directors when it comes to making adult movies that get your palms sweaty. The execution of these suspense sequences left me breathless. Villeneuve uses long takes of aerial photography hovering over the topography of Mexico and the American southwest. It has the effect of feeling like you’re surveying an alien planet. Added with the ominous score by Johann Johannsson (The Theory of Everything), the tension can feel overwhelming at times. The menacing and percussion-heavy score makes it feel like an army is approaching. The movie also looks absolutely beautiful thanks to the cinematography from Roger Deakens. There are several lovely shots lit with the dying rays of sunlight, which I would admire further if my heart weren’t in my throat while watching. Villeneuve also knows when to pump the brakes, letting his film breathe, and letting his actors take center stage. There are several moments of restraint that allow the actors to flourish. From top to bottom, Sicario is a technical marvel that impresses as it continues to horrify.
Blunt as a badass is nothing new after her killer turn in last year’s vastly underrated Edge of Tomorrow, but there’s way more to her than being a superhero with a gun. She’s the moral conscience of the movie and you may discover, as she does, how irrelevant such a stance may be in this underground world. She’s trying to make sense of it all, trying to go along with what she thinks is right, or at least making a difference, and swallowing her frustrations. She saves the best for last in a finale scene that pushes her character to the breaking point of her ethics, and Blunt floors you. While Blunt is our entry point into this world, and Brolin is amusing as a cavalier rogue agent, this is very much Del Toro’s movie. Alejandro could easily be the slick movie-cool hitman, a soulless killing-machine, but he’s a haunted man who knows he’s damned and goes about his business with steely resolve. Benicio Del Toro can often be confused with doing little acting because he so naturally underplays his characters, but keep watch and you’ll see a man who inherently knows his character. There are subtle shifts and small reveals that open up Alejandro, who is so hardened that this will be all you get.
There have been some complaints citing the film’s lack of perspective from the Mexican side of the border, which is fair but also overlooking Sicario’s complexity. With its fear of cartel war violence spilling over into American neighborhoods, it’s not hard to see this film becoming supposed evidence in a xenophobic political campaign. Surely Donald Trump will be talking about Sicario. There is a small degree of representation with a minor character involved in the drug trade. The movie flashes back to him and his family a few times, setting us up to expect he’ll return at a pivotal moment later. He’s a completely unremarkable character and the brief scenes we spend with him made me anxious to get back to Kate and the main story. I didn’t care, and then he did reappear and I was quite surprised to find myself actively caring for this minor character’s well being. In a scenario where it seems like there’s a lack of vulnerability, this character provides it. He’s not a bad person per se as just another cog in a corrupt machine trying to provide for his loved ones. It’s a window into the larger ramifications of Kate and Matt’s actions. The very last bittersweet image doesn’t feel like victory, more like a warning of impending consequences that will befall innocents, and they aren’t Americans.
It’s rare to get a Hollywood thriller that excels at what it does and exceeds lofty expectations, but Sicario is that movie. Here is a thriller that excites, unnerves, provokes thought as well as terrible anxiety that you sweat in buckets over. The general feeling while watching Sicario is one of disquieting dread. The challenging and disturbing reality of the war on drugs blends with the brilliantly executed suspense sequences. The characters don’t get lost midst the clatter of violence, the direction enhances the actors and allows them to better inhabit their engaging characters, and the overall orchestration of all the many moving parts is so polished, so in tune, so electric that Sicario often does more than just entertain, it forces you to react. Leaving my theater was akin to coming down off an adrenaline high and I wanted to tell everyone I knew to see this movie. That’s the power of great cinema and Villeneuve has created a compelling feature that deserves to be soaked up and studied. This is exhilarating moviemaking, folks.
Nate’s Grade: A
In many ways Me and Earl and the Dying Girl feels like the perfect specimen that was programmed and brought to life in some mad scientist Sundance film lab. It’s got a hip point of view, a meta commentary on its plot and the directions it doesn’t take, style to spare with lots of self-aware camera movements, and even Wes Anderson-styled intertitles and colorful visual inserts, including stop-motion animation. It’s about two amateur filmmaking teenagers, Greg (Thomas Mann) and Earl (R.J. Cyler), who befriend Rachel (Olivia Cooke) who happens to have terminal leukemia. The movie has a good heart and it deviates from convention with its storyline, though it has to stop and add narration to point out how it does this, like it demands a pat on the back for not being a “typical cancer weepie.” The big problem is that we’re stuck with the perspective of Greg, who is the least interesting character and just trying to stay invisible. He has a low opinion of himself and his friendship with Rachel will somehow make him a better person. Earl and Rachel are both tragically underwritten but valiantly played by their actors. The annoying aspect is that Greg makes everything about him and so does the movie. The supporting parts are broadly portrayed and fit awkwardly with the larger setting, like Greg’s overenthusiastic teacher, Rachel’s lush of a mother who seems one drink away from committing statutory rape, and Greg’s mom, who forces Greg to hang out with Rachel, even though they were acquaintances at best, because the plot demands it. The script by Jesse Andrews, based upon his YA book, sets up the completed tribute film as an emotional climax that cannot be met, and the abstract movie results prove it. This is a likeable, funny, and entertaining indie with a sense of style and wit. It’s good, but it could have been better. I wish the “Me” had been removed from its title.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Why haven’t there been more tank movies? We have a slew of war films in all shapes and sizes and yet there are hardly any movies from the unique point of view of the battle-tested tank crew. Perhaps it’s the claustrophobic shooting conditions and limited breathing room, but then both of those are usually assets to the submarine sub-genre, and we got plenty of movies set primarily in less-than-spacious submarine quarters. Maybe it’s the sheer cost, since a submarine can be replicated with a model and a tank requires its own onset crew just to get exterior shots. Then there’s the issue of just watching close-ups of people looking through telescopes, squinting, and pulling triggers. I don’t really have a working hypothesis to explain the paucity of tank movies from Hollywood but now there’s at least one mainstream effort on the big board.
Fury follows the brave men of the titular tank that’s traveled from Northern Africa to France and now Germany in the dwindling days of World War II. Norman (Logan Lerman) is the new guy, replacing a fallen comrade on Don “Wardaddy” Collier’s (Brad Pitt) crew. The average life expectancy on a tank was only a handful of missions, but under Collier’s leadership his squad has defied the odds. Now the presence of a rookie puts all their lives in danger especially so close to the end of the war.
Writer/director David Ayer (End of Watch, Sabotage) delivers a meat-and-potatoes kind of war film, a movie that knows what it’s doing and how to satisfy its audience but rarely steps outside of this mission to resonate further. There’s a requisite pathos and air of contemplation to the proceedings, especially with the conflict of Norman’s innate goodness getting in the way of killing soldiers, armed and unarmed, in the line of duty. What does it take to be a soldier? Can you still recover as a man or does one have to shut off those elements of concern, the quibbles over moral actions that would otherwise haunt. In one sense, it’s a little contrived that the new recruit has to be so green to the battlefield that everything needs to be taught to him including the us vs. them mentality of war. On the other hand, it provides an ongoing source of conflict that leads to some striking moments, like when Collier literally forces Norman’s hand to get him his first kill. Much like Saving Private Ryan once it settles down, the movie progresses as a series of vignettes that showcase a variety of consequences and realities of the war. Naturally some are more engaging than others, but for the majority Fury holds your attention nicely. Ayer’s direction of action is astute and a tank-on-tank battle is wondrously taut thanks to the stubborn and fascinating tactics of tank warfare. I just don’t know how all these guys can make out whose order is for whom with all the other noise going on.
It’s during the concluding act where the movie abandons most of its sense of realism to completely double down on exaggerated action movie heroics, and it’s unnecessary. Beforehand, we’ve been treated to this crew and their town-by-town escapades, watching them come together but also watching them deal with the vagaries and lasting traumas of war. And then it suddenly shifts gears and becomes a last stand movie where our small crew in one immobile tank has to take on, literally, 300 Nazi soldiers. Ayer makes a specific point of clarifying them as Nazi S.S. men and not your casual German soldier. Pitt and company all decide to stay and fight valiantly rather than hide, and so we’re treated to their preparations for what is sure to be an Alamo in a tank. It then just becomes a rote action movie where they fire into the smoke, more Germans keep coming, and we just patiently watch them run through their last remaining desperate options for defense. Ayer doesn’t falter with his depiction of the action or the logical nature of his plot beats, though I don’t know why they didn’t keep more of the gun ammo in the tank. There’s a repetition and expectation of casualties with this section, perhaps intended to magnify their sacrifice and heroism but it feels too forced. The movie was working perfectly fine prior to this new shift in tone. Now we have Germans that are plainly idiotic, with poor marksmanship, and who can’t just wait out the tank. They have rocket-propelled weapons and the tank only shoots in one direction. The ending action assault still works as an entertaining barrage of blood and violence, but if you were liking Fury for what it was then be prepared to be a little disappointed.
What really hooked me with the film was an extended sequence that doesn’t even involve the tank at all. Stopping to regroup with their company in a small, bombed-out German town, Collier and Norman enter the home of two women, Irma and Emma. Initially the scene plays out like they’re scouting for any hiding soldiers, so there’s an initial carryover of tension. Then the gentlemen stay and the scene transforms organically into something more interesting. The scene is allowed to linger, and we see a different side of Pitt’s tank captain. The women set up a dinner and there’s a moment of reserved calm. Norman and the youngest German woman get some privacy, much to the knowing approval of the other two older adults in the room. Then just as their little scene has reached serving time, the other members of the tank storm the room, drunk and confused. They came seeking to deflower Norman with an ugly prostitute they each had a turn with. Their eyes settle on the young, much prettier women, the food about to be served, and you can feel the resentment starting to build, the old conflicts and tensions sneaking back into the scene, particularly a sneering Jon Bernthal (Wolf of Wall Street), who relishes being hostile. You don’t know where this is going to go. Are they going to make a fuss? Will they mistreat the German civilians, maybe even assault them, and if so how will Collier and Norman respond? What will they say about the appearance of preference with these civilians than with their tank company? How far will this go? I am not kidding when I say that for a movie with plenty of war violence, this was the tensest scene in all of Fury. It plays out so naturally, leisurely, but every moment pushing forward and building in tension. It’s a shame then how Ayer decides to conclude this entire episode, glibly turning these women from characters into a cheap plot device. Until then, though, it’s a 12-minute oasis from the genre machinery of war movies.
The other aspect where Fury falters is when it comes to fleshing out the characters in that dangerous tin can. With war movies the characterization can often get lost in the shuffle of violence and messages, so there’s something of a sliding scale; if you can get one good sequence, perhaps one solid insight into a character that opens them up as more than “Hispanic Gunner” or “Vaguely Southern Religious Marksman” then you call yourself fortunate. The characters don’t stray far from their archetypical orbits: the rookie, the hotheaded one, the Bible-quoting philosopher, the commander who hides his fear and… the Hispanic Gunner (sorry Michael Pena). The assembled actors do fine work with what they’re given, but so much of the part is reactionary to off-screen, out-of-the-tank action. Pitt (World War Z) has a stolid clam that commands leadership but boy does his character lack a personality. He’s just settled into that authority figure role. Shia LaBeouf (Nymphomaniac) gives a performance with enough edge, the emotions just peaking through during key moments, to leave you wanting more, both from the character and the actor. Lerman (Perks of Being a Wallflower) is suitably wide-eyed and out of his element early, finding his requisite spine and becoming a “man” over the course of the film. It works as a point of view entry into this world though his character can come across as naive and then later also unjustly criticized. After two hours with this crew, you won’t be fighting back too many emotions as they make their last stand and their numbers dwindle.
Fury is a fairly gritty, bloody, and sturdily entertaining World War II action thriller that is unwaveringly serious for a solid two acts until an all-out assault into over-the-top action movie land for its final, admittedly enjoyable, conclusion. It decides to just skimp out on the characterization so as to spend more time pumping up the virtues of tone and action. The film never bored me, and during stretches it was riveting with suspense and a gritty realism, all before retreating back to archetypes and Hollywood standoffs. For long stretches it’s a series of vignettes but there are moments that rise above, which cut through the carnage and stay with you. Ayer’s direction of action is rather impressive and this is easily the finest work behind the camera for the famous screenwriter. In many ways, Fury is a no-nonsense throwback to World War II war movies, with a similar no-nonsense pack of characters. An older audience will definitely find the movie appealing. It does more than enough well to recommend but just don’t expect the next Saving Private Ryan in terms of lasting impact. Still, give me more tank movies, Hollywood.
Nate’s Grade: B
Martin Scorsese. The greatest living filmmaker on the planet. Enough said. When his latest, The Wolf of Wall Street, was pushed back due to an editing crunch, the rumor mill started as it normally does. Are there problems? Is it any good? Will it be forgotten this late into the awards season? While I can’t speak for the Academy, but for me The Wolf of Wall Street just about blows every competing movie out of the water this season. It’s brash, exhilarating, uproarious, mesmerizing, and just about every other adjective you can fetch from a dictionary. This is first-class filmmaking from a master, and consider Wolf of Wall Street the white-collar companion piece to Scorsese’s gangster masterpiece, Goodfellas. It’s that good, folks.
Based on his memoirs, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) rises on Wall Street from a rookie stock trader to the king of his own empire. From the late 80s to the 90s, Jordan assembles a cutthroat team that knowingly sells lousy stocks to gullible investors and stuffing their pockets with hefty commissions. “Better there money was with me. I knew how to spend it better,” he admits. His closest friend and business partner, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), literally quits his job to work for Jordan after spying one of his pay stubs. The guys start their own firm, specializing in high-pressure sales and on penny stock commissions. From there, they expand and expand until they’re making their own noise on Wall Street. The trading floor more closely resembles a frathouse party, complete with chimp, strippers, marching bands in their underwear, midget tossing, and other objectionable behavior. Jordan easily succumbs to the sex and drugs of the high-finance world of money, leaving his plain wife for Naomi (Margot Robbie), a gorgeous underwear model. He’s got a giant estate, a huge yacht, his own helicopter, and more money than he can spend. He’s also got the attention of the FBI and Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler). With the feds circling in, Jordan has to take extra steps to keep the good times rolling.
With a running time exactly one minute shy of three hours, it’s easy to call The Wolf of Wall Street self-indulgent and excessive, except that’s exactly the point. The movie is an orgy of unchecked male ego, a perverse bacchanal of Earthly pleasures that Caligula might blushingly admire. They are literally two orgies depicted in the movie and plenty of thrust-heavy sexual congress (I counted eight walkouts in my theater, most of them the little old lady variety). Here is a tilt-o-wheel of madness. These people were living like there was no tomorrow, had more money than they knew what to possibly do with, and would figuratively dance while Rome burns (in this instance, the stability of the U.S. economy). What’s important is to communicate that these individuals were having the time of their lives. It wasn’t just the hedonistic pleasures and the mountains of drugs; it was the power, the uninhibited embrace of a life available via poorly regulated capitalism. Many of those brokers in Jordan’s company were people from ordinary backgrounds. Their self-made success (that wasn’t so much earned as swindled) is a point of pride that fills them with purpose. They are seizing their full potential. There is no doubt in my mind that every broker in this movie would do it all again in a heartbeat. There is no remorse on display anywhere. The only remorse is having the ride unceremoniously end. “Was it obscene? Yeah it was obscene. In the normal world,” Jordan narrates. “And who wants to live there?”
I won’t say that there aren’t scenes and moments that could have been trimmed, but I was enjoying myself way too much to care about the bloat. This is the fastest three hours you’ll ever experience in your life. There’s some fat, yes, but man does this picture just move along like a freight train. The screenplay by Terence Winter (creator of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) is impeccably drawn. The movie just courses with energy and watching it is often an exhilarating rush, communicating the highs the characters are undergoing. The supporting players are used to great effect to punctuate the comedy moment to moment. I loved Rob Reiner’s exasperated and profane performance as Jordan’s father. Naturally the bad behavior is entertaining in how absurd and over-the-top it can get, but one key sequence ranks up there with the finest sequences Scorsese has ever put to film. It’s the “Lemon” sequence, named after a legendarily potent batch of Quaaludes. It is a sequence of pure movie bliss, brilliantly edited and staged, as Jordan is placed in a precarious position when the drugs kick in, and his comic floundering is riotous. Winter and Scorsese have taken what, in other hands, could have been a modern American tragedy and decided to portray it as a darkly comic fantasia. I laughed long and hard throughout the movie. There are numerous scenes I can think back on and start laughing again. The ridiculous nature of moments, like discussing the logistics of tossing midgets at a dart board (“This is their gift”) is to be expected, but it’s the overall degenerate lifestyle these clowns chase after with impunity that kept me laughing.
I’ve read cantankerous critiques of the film, chastising Scorsese for celebrating the lavish lifestyle and excessive hedonism of his characters. I could not disagree with this appraisal more. The error is assuming that witnessing Jordan behaving badly is akin to celebrating it, as if adopting the perspective of our lead is the same as excusing his actions. Scorsese makes it clear early, and often, that Jordan Belfort is not a good person. Hopefully you don’t need him hitting his wife for this point to stick. This guy is fleecing people out of their life savings, living high off the fat of the land, and openly admitting to the camera how deeply illegal his activities are. But you’re under his spell, much like his brokers that worship him with unflinching zeal. Jordan, especially as portrayed by DiCaprio, is a volcano of energy and single-minded determination. He whips his troops up like a religious revival, manipulating you with every tactic in his employ. Early on, he’s defrauding ordinary middle-class and low-income clients, but because we’re all addicted to the adrenaline rush of the sale, of the con, we push this troubling reality from our minds. When he moves onto wealthier clients, we adopt a similar attitude of Teresa, Jordan’s first wife, mainly that these people can afford the losses and therefore get what they deserve from a silver-tongued shyster. It’s the audience that proves to have a selective memory because we’re drawn to Jordan’s charisma, expertise, and talent, so we ignore the pesky details of who gets stuck with the bill. Don’t pin that on Scorsese. He makes it abundantly clear that Jordan is a bad man, and the depths of his greed is but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Wall Street. Jordan’s firm was a tiny player. Think of what horror stories Goldman Sachs or Lehman Brothers would offer if ever exposed.
This is my favorite Scorsese film since Goodfellas, and they have plenty of similarities. It makes sense because these men of finance take their cues from movie gangsters, styling themselves as tough guys. At one point, brokers hold a guy over a building to intimidate him. There’s also certainly as much cocaine as there may have been in Scarface. But like that classic of the gangster cinema, Scorsese propels us into the hidden world of the financial institution run amok, allowing us a backstage pass to the people profiting from wrecking the economy. It’s a fascinating perspective that confirms some of our worst fears about stockbrokers. It’s a misogynistic boys club and the few women that do participate have to play by their hyper masculine, juvenile rules. These are people that find any number of ways to skirt the law, rip off their clients, and live in luxury until they can find another sucker. It’s a system built for the entertainment of the few on the backs of the many, and it’s just as relevant today as it was in the 90s. With Jordan’s inside knowledge, we’re educated on the many corrupt ways of Wall Street.
Marking the fifth collaboration with Scorsese, this may be the finest DiCaprio (The Great Gatsby) performance yet. The man sheds his vanity, easily fitting into the shark that is Jordan Belfort. He’s ruthless in one moment and completely inept in another, at the whim of his vices. DiCaprio taps into Jordan’s leadership qualities with the dynamite sales speeches, but he also shows what an insecure man he is at heart. He’s got a taste for the good life and is reinventing himself, including trading up in wives to attain that proverbial American Dream. He’s living empty pleasure to empty pleasure and he doesn’t care. DiCaprio acts as our ringmaster through his own circus, and you’ll be delighted and horrified by his actions (and also his peculiar, bird-like dance moves). There’s not a bad performance in the whole cast, and this is one huge cast. Hill (This is the End) is a becoming more and more credible as a dramatic actor, though he excels at the blustery outrageousness as Jordan’s number two. He’s a treat. Robbie (About Time) nails her New Yawk accent but more importantly nails the portrayal of a trophy wife who recognizes and eventually resents her lifestyle. And oh does she just exude sexual heat.
I want to focus on the very end of the film, so there will be some mild spoilers in this paragraph but nothing I feel that would ruin the viewing experience. You have been warned, spoiler phobes. As expected, Jordan eventually winds up in jail for his felonious misdeeds. Ordinarily this would be the end of our traditional law-and-order morality tales; the bad guys are locked away to pay for their crimes. Jordan tells us how nervous he was on his first day of prison, that is, until he remembered one very important fact: he’s rich. White-collar prison is not the same as other penitentiaries, and we see Jordan loftily playing tennis. His sentence is only three years as well, which seems like an insult given the thousands of lives he may have instrumentally ruined. But that’s the ultimate condemnation in the end: the system is rigged for people like Jordan, people with money. In the end, he wins. He goes to prison, his family life is torn asunder, and his personal relationships are strained, but the guy wins. He continues his speaking engagements motivating everyday saps how, with his cherished expertise, they too can rake in wealth. The final shot of the movie tells me everything I need to know. It’s a slight pan out to the crowd in attendance of Jordan’s speaking session. We see the collection of faces, each person hanging onto Jordan’s every word, each filled with idolatry. They want to be him. Despite everything, the bad behavior, the crimes, the waste, they all want to be him, and that’s why people like Jordan will always succeed, will always prevail, will always have the last laugh. There will always be a healthy supply of suckers that want to believe whatever nonsense he’s peddling. That’s the point. He won.
Recently I watched the very good crime caper American Hustle and noted that its director looked to be fashioning a loving Martin Scorsese homage. Well, after watching The Wolf of Wall Street twice (not back to back, mind you; I’m not nuts) I can say that there is no Scorsese like the source. This is vintage Scorsese. This is brilliant filmmaking, a bold movie that practically sings, it flies by with exhilarating force and acumen, daring you to keep watching. The fact that 71-year-old Scorsese could make a movie this highly energetic, this debased, this brash, this borderline indecent, and this awesomely entertaining is encouraging. It’s even more hilarious to me that older Academy members at a recent screening of the film accosted Scorsese, essentially being termed a “debauched scoundrel.” That’s got to count as some badge of honor. Yes, at three hours the movie can get long but it’s never dull or taxing. The propulsive narrative, the hilarious humor, the shrewd characterization, the wanton excess, the filmmaking bravado that hums, it all coalesces into a disturbing and disturbingly enjoyable condemnation of greed and our inherent celebration of this lifestyle. There is not one aspect of this movie that falls flat. The Wolf of Wall Street is an invigorating piece of cinema. The choice of music, the swinging cinematography, the wide ensemble of actors, the feverish editing, it all comes beautifully together to form a whole that surpasses everything else in cinema this year. Dig in.
Nate’s Grade: A