Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is your normal malcontent teenager in late 1980s Reagan America. He bickers with his older sister, worries over the right moment he’ll kiss his new girlfriend, and tries to ignore the advice of many imprudent adults. Donnie’s your typical teenager, except for his imaginary friend Frank. Frank is a sinister looking six-foot tall rabbit that encourages Donnie into mischief and gives a countdown to the impending apocalypse. And I haven’t even gotten to the time travel yet.
One night as Donnie wanders from his home at the behest of Frank, an airline engine mysteriously crashes through the Darko home and lands directly in Donnie’s room. The airlines are all at a loss for explanation, as it seems no one will take responsibility for the engine or knows where it came from. Donnie becomes a mild celebrity at school and initiates a relationship with a new girl, Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone). One of his classes consists of watching videos of self-help guru and new age enlightenment pitchman Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze). His school has even, under the persistence of self-righteous pain Kitty Farmer, persuaded Cunningham to speak and try to help students conquer their “fears.”
Donnie is also seeing a therapist for his emotional problems and taking medication for borderline schizophrenia. Around this time is when Donnie starts to inquire about a strange old woman, obsess over the possibilities of time travel, as well as see weird phosphorescent pools extend from people’s chests. He also floods his school at the urging of Frank. This is no Harvey-type rabbit.
The longer Donnie Darko goes on the more tightly complex and imaginative the story gets. First time writer-director Richard Kelly has forged an excitingly original film that is incredibly engaging with charm and wit. He masterfully mixes themes of alienation, dark comedy, romance, science fiction, and a sublime satire of high school. Donnie Darko is the most unique, head-trip of a movie unleashed on the public since Being John Malkovich. Kelly has a created an astonishing breakthrough for himself and has ensured he is a talent to look out for in the future.
Gyllenhaal (October Sky) is superb as disenchanted Donnie, a Holden Caulfield for middle suburbia. His ghastly stare conveys the darkness of Donnie but his laid-back nature allows the audience to care about what could have merely been another angst-ridden teenager. Swayze is hysterical as the scenery-chewing Cunningham. The rest of the cast is mainly underwritten in their roles, including stars Drew Barrymore (who was executive producer) and ER‘s Noah Wyle, but all perform admirably with the amount they are given. Not every plot thread is exactly tidied up but this can easily be forgiven.
Donnie Darko is a film that demands your intelligence and requires you to stay on your toes, so you can forget any bathroom breaks. The film is one of the best of 2001 but also one of the funniest. You’ll be honestly surprised the amount of times you laugh out loud with this flick. The theater I saw this in erupted every half a minute or so with boisterous laughter.
Donnie Darko is a film of daring skill and great imagination. You don’t see too many of these around anymore.
Nate’s Grade: A
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
Not to sound too annoying, but I’ll cash in my hipster points here and declare that I was on the Donnie Darko bandwagon from the start. The eventual cult phenom was originally released in October 2001, mere weeks removed from 9/11, dooming its commercial appeal considering a major plot point happens to involve deadly airline debris. I was a sophomore in college across from a little indie movie theater, the Drexel, that was like a wonderful escape for a budding cinephile looking for his next fix of weird and daring movie experiences. I recall seeing the trailer for Donnie Darko and being immediately intrigued, but its release date kept bouncing back month after month until it finally opened at the Drexel in February 2002, and I was there opening day. I saw it twice, brought friends with me, and I wrote about it as one of my earliest reviews as my college newspaper’s film critic. I wanted to get the word out that this was something special. The first day it was available on DVD, I went to Best Buy looking for a copy and the store employee was deeply confused about its existence. He probably knows now, as the movie achieved cult status on DVD and became an iconic indie fixture for many a Millennial.
Revisiting the films of 2001 has been reliving many films that made such formative impacts on my life: Memento and its airtight structural sleight-of-hand, Moulin Rouge and its ambitious and messy celebration of old, new, reverent and irreverent, and now Donnie Darko (this isn’t even counting films I never wrote reviews for and thus were ineligible for this re-watch, like Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Amelie – 2001 was an excellent year at the movies). I have probably watched this movie more than any other in the 2000s, with the late exception perhaps of The Room that came on strong for me at the end. My friends and I would debate it, quote it, and work toward bringing others into the cult of Darko. Looking back now twenty years, I’m happy to report the movie’s power is still just as alluring and transcendental. What earned this movie its fawning fandom? Why did writer/director Richard Kelly, only in his early 20s, find success with his weird little indie while others went painfully ignored? I think it comes down to Kelly’s ambiguous approach, threading a delicate needle so that there are enough pieces present to put together an interpretation that can prove satisfying while personal and potentially different from your friend or neighbor with an equally valid interpretation.
What helps is that Donnie Darko doesn’t feel like it’s weird for weird’s sake, like a formless collection of strange ideas and confounding imagery operating on an unknowable surreal dream logic. What Kelly has done is mix and match parts of an intriguing apocalyptic puzzle. There’s relatable high school drama about pushing back against the hypocrites and phonies of the adult world, there’s a mystery about who or what is behind Frank the bunny, the creepy otherworldly figure serving as Donnie’s Virgil-like guide, and the character study of a lonely, troubled kid trying to find a better sense of understanding of himself, his place in the world, and his sense of what lies beyond. I could just as readily view Donnie Darko as a spiritual refresher, and I’ve always sided more with a divine interpretation than sci-fi. Donnie and his therapist talk about the question over God’s existence and Donnie says he doesn’t feel like he can get anywhere debating it, so he has simply agreed to give up. Donnie talks about dying alone and how if everyone is resigned to do so then this must be a condemnation of God. Kelly establishes these early conditions as the beginning of an arc that leads to Donnie not just accepting a messianic status but volunteering for one, dying alone but in a manner that serves as victory. This to me is why he laughs at the end after being transported back to a fateful spot. He rolls over in his bed and closes his eyes knowing an end for him is not an end but a vindication (the honking from Frank the second time serving as a “we did it” victory celebration). Through his sacrifice, the world will continue (“I hope when the world comes to an end, I can breathe a sigh of relief, because there will be so much to look forward to.”). Through bizarre circumstances, a young man has found spiritual renewal, bringing him to a personal fulfillment as well as the larger picture of averting a looming apocalypse for a tangent world.
This has been my preferred reading of Donnie Darko, with divine forces selecting Donnie as the universe’s lone hero and mysteriously guiding him along his journey, each intervention and urging from Frank leading to the culmination of events that would convince Donnie of his duty. When Donnie is talking to Frank the bunny in an empty movie theater (playing a double feature of Evil Dead and The Last Temptation of Christ, one of my favorite jokes), he asks Frank, “Why do you wear that stupid bunny suit?” Frank turns and asks, “Why do you wear that stupid man suit?” Under my interpretation, Frank is a supernatural force, call it an angel or whatever you want, but he is not human and only using the form of a doomed man as a necessary vessel. When Donnie breaks into his school and breaks the water main, under the hypnotic control of Frank’s urging, we see that the vandal has also spray-painted “They made me do it” on the school mascot. The school and police go class-by-class and have students rewrite the phrase on a chalkboard, analyzing their handwriting. Donnie’s handwriting is clearly different. Could it be that Donnie, under the influence of Frank, also wrote as him, adopting his handwriting? With that, perhaps instead of Donnie writing a would-be confession it was actually Frank. “They made me do it,” Frank writes in apology to Donnie, not just for prodding him along but ultimately for the pain and suffering the real Frank of this world will cause for Donnie. “I’m sorry that all of this has to happen to you, Donnie. It wasn’t my choice. They made me do it for their plan.” I think that’s a more intriguing examination than Donnie just saying he was told to flood the school by his imaginary friend.
This is one reason why I was not a big fan of Kelly’s eventual director’s cut DVD release in 2004, which added twenty minutes to the film and changed many edits, song choices, and special effects sequences. The director’s cut went too far for me, specifically spelling out Kelly’s vision of time travelers from the future trying to coach Donnie as their variable. Whole sections from Roberta Sparrow’s book, The Philosophy of Time Travel, were printed on screen, explicitly connecting the various pieces in a way that had previously been left as ambiguous. My disappointment with the director’s cut reminded me of the disappointment Star Wars fans felt when George Lucas went back and tinkered with the original trilogy. Lucas has said the re-releases were the films he had always intended them to be, that the earlier theatrical editions were the imperfect versions of his creative intentions. The problem is that millions fell in love with those versions of the movie, even if they were an imperfect vision of their creator. Richard Kelly always intended for the opening song to be INXS’ “Never Tear Us Apart,” but hearing that felt wrong to me after watching the same scene played to Echo and the Bunnyman’s “The Killing Moon” with the theatrical cut. Kelly’s imperfect version was the one I fell in love with, the one that spoke to me as a 19-year-old and as a 39-year-old, and that’s the one I vastly prefer.
Another reason for Donnie Darko’s success is more than likely the appeal and performance of young Jake Gyllenhaal. Over twenty years, Gyllenhaal has become one of the best actors of his generation and criminally overlooked by the Academy. He’s only been nominated for one Oscar for 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, not for 2017’s Stronger, or 2007’s Zodiac, or, most egregiously, for his hypnotically disturbing portrayal in 2014’s Nightcrawler. Gyllenhaal has mesmerized for so long and handles the many confusing aspects of Donnie with aplomb. It would be easy to play Donnie as a cliched rebellious teenager, but Gyllenhaal really digs into his questioning nature; he’s hungry for answers, desperate even, and tired of being disappointed in the adults of his life. That’s why it becomes emotionally satisfying for me when Donnie appears to achieve some semblance of answers by the end, his laughter is victorious and cathartic.
Jake Gyllenhaal is terrific but the rest of the cast is outstanding. This was the first time I saw Maggie Gyllenhaal, as Donnie’s older sister, one year before her star-making turn in 2002’s Secretary (stay tuned, 2022). Jena Malone (The Hunger Games sequels) was a remarkably downhearted presence, able to imbue teenage heartache and unease so preternaturally. Ever since her role as the snitty, judgmental gym teacher Kitty Farmer, I perk up whenever I see Beth Grant in a movie or show. To this day I still consider her wondrous line reading of, “Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion” to be one of the greatest achievements in mankind’s history. Mary McDonnell (Battlestar Galactica) has two scenes that still get me as Donnie’s mother, where she fights back tears at the suggestion of Donnie’s therapist to up his medication as doing what she thinks is right for her son, and a final scene with that same son where she responds to his query that having a “weirdo for a son” is, in fact, wonderful. The parental care and empathy that she exudes is poignant. I still laugh when Holmes Osborne, as Donnie’s father, cannot contain his inappropriate titter to hearing about his son’s vulgar outburst directed at Ms. Farmer. The adult actors (Drew Barrymore, Patrick Swayze, Noah Wyle) all got the bigger headlines at the time, but it’s these actors that have stayed with me the most.
With so many people being launched into success and acclaim from this movie, it’s a sad surprise that Richard Kelly himself was never able to recreate his winning alchemy. He wrote the shooting draft for 2005’s Domino, a needlessly excessive and irritating movie. His big follow-up, 2008’s Southland Tales, was a disaster at the Cannes Film Festival and Kelly cut a half-hour before it was ultimately released stateside to head-scratching. I was eagerly anticipating Southland Tales and then I watched it and minute-by-minute the sinking realization set in that this was not going anywhere and anytime soon. It was like Kelly was trying to throw every dispirit idea he ever had into one movie for fear he’d never make another. I haven’t re-watched it since and feel no need to do so. The last movie Kelly directed was 2009’s The Box, an adaption of the William Matheson short story featured on newer incarnations of The Twilight Zone. It too failed at the box-office, suffered from a confusing and muddled narrative, and from there Kelly was radioactive to Hollywood. He hasn’t a credit to his name since. With each directorial effort, you can feel Kelly trying to recreate that formula from Darko, bringing the different weird pieces and tones together by the end to form a satisfying mosaic open to interpretation. Southland and The Box both feel over-extended, strained, and cluttered with too much salient junk. I truly wish Kelly has another shot to tell a big screen story after everything he’s been through. I’m sure he has more stories to tickle our brains. Maybe he just needs an editorial guidance.
The other thing of curious note is that a sequel, S. Darko, was released in 2009 starring Donnie’s little sister Samantha, played by Daveigh Chase (The Ring). It’s not very good at all and strains to be an imitation of its predecessor, right down to Samantha having to be the sacrifice to go back in time and save her friend’s life. Kelly had nothing to do with the sequel, which was written by Nate Adkins, who would go onto create the Netflix franchise, The Christmas Prince. There is nothing of note in this cash-grab of a sequel to even reward your curiosity in watching it.
Donnie Darko was a movie I loved when I originally saw it and I’m happy so many others were able to become fans and share the good news of Darko. I’m happy this movie exists and has stuck with me all these years. It’s still transporting and invigorating and funny and soulful and tantalizing. I still love the lilt of Michael Andrews’ minimalist score. I love the scene of Donnie reaching out to Cherita Chen, the target of rampant bullying, to promise her one day everything will be better for her. I still get fascinated by the instant-iconic design of that Frank the bunny mask, an image that has lead to thousands of Halloween costume imitations. My original review was more driven by distilling its plot so that I could hook a reader into making the trip for themselves. Otherwise, my thoughts remain relative the same in twenty years of reflection. This is a gem of a movie that was never really recreated by its creator, which makes it all the more remarkable and special. If you haven’t joined the cult of Donnie Darko, there’s no time like the present, folks.
Re-View Grade: A
If you’re unfamiliar with Dear Evan Hansen or do not consider yourself among the fandom of the Tony-wining Broadway musical, then I would highly recommend watching a 2009 movie called World’s Greatest Dad, a film I will be referring to later in this review. It’s a smaller indie starring Robin Williams and written and directed by actor-turned-director Bobcat Goldthwait. It also has a very similar premise of a character exploiting the grief of others to try and better their own personal standing by fabricating an introspective life for a high school student who recently took their own life. The exception is that World’s Greatest Dad played its heavy content for dark comedy and stinging satire and it never excused the behavior of its lead character as he manipulated the collective sympathies of others for personal gain. As I kept watching Dear Evan Hansen, I kept feeling like someone had attempted to make World’s Greatest Dad but played straight and absent the satire, and that was a very bad decision.
Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) is a high school senior and has more anxiety disorders than friends. He starts the school year with cast on his arm, the result of “falling” from a tree. Evan writes motivational letters to himself as a therapeutic exercise for his counselor, but Conner (Colton Ryan) steals the paper at school and freaks out when Evan expresses interest in Conner’s younger sister, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever). Conner’s only two appearances on screen both involve him shoving, yelling, and threatening Evan. Days later, Conner has taken his life and the only letter his family has found was the “Dear Evan Hansen” paper he snatched away. Conner’s parents (Amy Adams, Danny Pino) are eager to know anything about their emotionally troubled and secretive son. They didn’t know he had any friends let alone one he would compose his suicide note for. Evan doesn’t come clean and instead plays along, happy to provide a false version of their son, one who was bristling with thoughts and compassion he could never properly express. Evan spends more and more time with Zoe, trying to share his own romantic feelings, and getting deeper into his lies.
This was a deeply uncomfortable experience for me, and I don’t quite understand how fans of the theater show were so moved and uplifted and, frankly, entertained. Maybe all this drama plays better on the stage, though I think many of the same issues I would have with the story would be evidently present for the stage productions as well. The main character is presented as lonely and anxious and depressed and longing to make connections, and this is meant to serve as the emotional explanation for why he leaps at a chance to insert himself into another family and manufacture a false identity about their dead son to score with the girl he’s been crushing on from afar for an indeterminate amount of time. Evan Hansen is, quite simply, a monster of a human being. Through tortured coincidence, he is believed to be Connor’s only friend, and Evan can at any point clarify this mistake and explain the truth. But he chooses instead to supply a fictional version of Connor that he feels every member of his family needs to hear to feel better about themselves. Evan justifies his actions as kind lies, as helping those in mourning by telling them what they want to hear, what he feels like they need. It’s not his place to decide what people need to better grieve, and Evan uses his newly favored position as the rare Rosetta Stone to Conner, the keeper of his secret internal life, to manipulate everyone to like him more.
I felt increasingly uncomfortable and upset the longer Dear Evan Hansen progressed with its treacly story, especially as Evan sets his sights on Zoe. It’s not as if over the course of his mounting lies that he organically grew closer to this woman who had been a stranger; he has been crushing on her and uses fake emails written by her brother to express his unrequited feelings for her in a song that DEFINITELY does not feel like it was written from a brother to a sister unless we’re talking like Game of Thrones territory (“There’s nothing like your smile / Sort of subtle and perfect and real”). Both of those scenarios are bad, but one of them is so much worse, and that’s the route Dear Evan Hansen goes. The romance is gross, and I knew that the movie was going to let Evan off the hook by the end. Once the truth, the real truth comes out, no one should want anything to do with this person. He says he meant well but he’s also the kind of guy who literally uses the fake suicide note, which all the characters believe to be legit, as an emotional cudgel to quiet and shame his biggest doubter as she starts to pick apart his lies. When that moment happened, I wanted to strongly yell at the screen, “Dear Evan Hansen, you dearly suck.”
There’s a worthy message buried somewhere in this movie about reaching out to people who are struggling in the shadows, that mental illness can affect anyone, and that often those who look like they live perfect lives on the surface might just be better at hiding their pain. This is best exemplified in the supporting character of Alana (Amandla Stenberg), the school president who has a raft of anxieties that she keeps to herself. Her moments of vulnerability feel the most honest in the entire movie, and she’s trying to allow Conner’s death to reach others who might also be struggling, to inspire and save lives through their fledgling organization, The Conner Project. She’s the one who is putting in the actual work, both physical and emotional labor, and she’s the one who Evan shames with the mistaken suicide note toward the end of the movie. The tone of this movie is amiss from early on, and there’s a jaunty musical number where Evan and his one friend comically write fake emails between Evan and Conner. It’s played so light and breezy that you’ll have to recall this is Evan manufacturing the evidence of his fabrications. Why is this played so flippantly and like we’re in on the goofy gag? It’s mishandled. The good intentions Evan Hansen the movie, much like the potential good intentions of Evan Hansen the character, are clouded and ultimately sabotaged by its misguided solipsistic approach to grief.
And it’s taken me this long to talk about another key hindrance and that’s the casting of Platt in the title role. Platt originated the role on Broadway in 2015, and yes he wouldn’t be the first actor in history playing a high schooler who was clearly older, but they have made a gigantic miscalculation in trying to make Platt appear as a youthful 18-year-old (for the record, he was playing a college student almost a decade ago in 2012’s Pitch Perfect). It hit me immediately that Platt does not look right for this role. Immediately. In the awkward attempts to make him more youthful, they have made him look like a shifty undercover cop at a school (“Are you a cop, dear Evan Hansen? You have to tell me if you’re a cop.”). His pasty skin is so smoothed out as to appear like a shiny mask. His hair is oily, stringy, and looks like a terrible wig, except I have read that it is unfortunately real. Evan Hansen looks like he’s wearing a bad hair piece. Platt’s performance also left me cold. His mannered, affectless delivery gave me the impression of a sterile serial killer with every fifth line. This may sound overly harsh, but the presence of Platt and his performance dooms this movie’s bid for believability. I understand wanting to reach out to the man who left his mark on the role early, but there is a reason that Lin-Manuel Miranda played an older supporting role and not the headstrong young lead for the In the Heights movie adaptation earlier this year. Let the movie be its own thing from the stage show. Then again, there’s a rubbernecking fascination with Platt in place, magnifying all the other sins. If there was going to be a bad movie for Dear Evan Hansen, and I question if a good movie was at all possible, then why not go for broke with misapplied creative decisions that make it worse?
A lone saving grace for this movie is that the music is actually pretty solid. Justin Paul and Benj Pasek, the Oscar-winning team behind La La Land and The Greatest Showman, can craft some catchy melodies with soaring choruses. If you only listen to the music you might come away with a different opinion of this show and movie. However, the context of what these songs are meant to serve in the larger story besmirches the good feelings you may derive from them. I suggest casually listening to the soundtrack and forgetting the icky context of every tune. Julianne Moore, as Evan’s overworked, stressed-out mother, has a nice song toward the very end that feels more honest and pared down than much of the drama allows.
I was re-reading my review of World’s Greatest Dad, an underrated movie that managed to make my top ten of that year. It reads so closely to this movie but also how this story needs to be told: “The movie satirizes grief culture with sharp acuity… Suddenly their fallen peer has transformed from the kid nobody liked into the wounded soul that touched all their lives. Bullies reexamine their behavior, girls that never would have given him the time of day now immortalize Kyle, and the faculty that wanted to expel him now wishes to rename the library in his lasting memory. This warm, fuzzy gauze of grief is Goldthwait’s target. He is satirizing how people turn tragedy into hypocritical attitude shifts. He ridicules the easy revision of history under the guise of collective sympathy. Not every youth is necessarily taken before their time. Not everyone was going to grow up to contribute selflessly to society, making the world a better place to live. Not every youth is deserving of canonization. Some people are just jerks from beginning to end, and Goldthwait proposes we do a disservice when we whitewash reality in the name of kindness and good taste.” That sounds like the better version of Dear Evan Hansen to me, except that’s not exactly the kind of musical that people hug over and buy a T-shirt or hat to adorn on the drive home.
If you’re among the fandom for Dear Evan Hansen, I’m sure you’ll find enough to enjoy with director Stephen Chbosky’s big screen adaptation. I don’t want this to sound condescending, but you’ve likely already built the excuses for the characters and the story and made peace with whatever ethical foibles persist, so whether it’s on the stage or on the screen matters little. For those unfamiliar with the popular stage show, I don’t know what your takeaway will be but I’m positive this is not the best introduction. Again, Dear Evan Hansen is not the first musical to deal with complicated ethical scenarios and with morally compromised characters trying to do their best with the hands that fate has dealt them. Empathy is a powerful tool for storytelling, and that’s what Evan Hansen weaponizes for his own personal gain. I found this movie to be uncomfortable, misguided, and emotionally exploitative just like its hero. If the movie was critical of Evan’s bad behavior, then maybe this would be a different matter. It wants you to understand that Evan is hurting and therefore complicated. Well, Evan Hansen, there’s a lot of people in this world that are struggling with mental health issues, and suicide ideation, but they don’t manipulate and exploit those they deem are most important to them. Sorry Evan, and sorry Dear Evan Hansen, but you can stay waving behind a window for all that I care.
Nate’s Grade: D+
The story behind The Woman in the Window is far more fascinating than the finished movie, based upon the 2018 best-selling debut novel by Dan Mallory under the pseudonym A.J. Finn, a hasty rehash of popular thrillers, notably Rear Window, mixed with recent unreliable narrator mystery/thrillers like The Girl on the Train. It’s actually somewhat shameless how derivative it comes across, so much so that you might be able to guess one of the movie’s Big Twists in the literal opening minutes. Amy Adams plays an agoraphobic psychiatrist who believes the new neighbor (Julianne Moore) across the street has been killed by her husband (Gary Oldman), and no one believes her because of her drinking and medication and general misogyny and obvious twists. I cannot tell if screenwriter Tracy Letts (Killer Joe) and director Joe Wright (Darkest Hour) were going for camp or sincerity, as the movie veers chaotically until its final groan-worthy revelation, which is apparently taken right from the source material. There aren’t any significant moments of tension. I was more confused why and how everyone was constantly coming into this lady’s opulent New York brownstone. I was also wondering why the filmmakers made Oldman look like Jon Voight. The troubled movie was delayed twice, went through several re-shoots by Tony Gilroy (hey, it worked for Rogue One, right, Disney?) and ultimately cast off to Netflix. The most interesting aspect of this movie, by far, is the author being discovered as a fraud and fabulist of the first order, lying about everything and anything to elicit pity and use it for personal and professional manipulation, and I’m talking lies about his mother dying of cancer, his brother committing suicide, himself suffering from a recurring brain tumor, and even pretending to be his brother to write emails to colleagues while still maintaining the same distinct writing voice. Mallory’s years of pathological lies (he blames it all on being bipolar now) have actually inspired a TV series where Jake Gyllenhaal is set to play him. You should spend the time you would have used watching The Woman in the Window on Netflix and instead read the extensive New Yorker article that painstakingly paints the damning portrait of Mallory as a narcissistic con artist who would weaponize people’s sympathy.
Nate’s Grade: C-
The Father is the kind of movie I’ve been clamoring for years from Hollywood, an Alzheimer’s empathy experiment using the rigors of a visual medium to place a viewer inside the mind of someone haunted by this debilitating mental illness. Film is inherently an immersive experience with a defined point of view, and I always thought it could be helpful in illuminating what it would be like to lose a sense of time, memory, and place as memories blend together and fragment. The Father is based on a play by director Florian Zeller. It’s a deeply empathetic and heartbreaking experience that works as a puzzle to decode but also as a character piece on the end of one ordinary man’s life.
Not much is known about Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) before his gradual mental decline. He had an apartment he lived in for thirty years, there’s definitely hints that a younger daughter had an accident and is no longer alive, and he listens to opera quite frequently. I think there’s a benefit to the audience knowing so little of Anthony before his illness; we do not know what variation of this man is the honest, lucid version from before. We’re only getting impressions and glimmers and some of them are non-linear, where we’ll get the context of a scene after the start of a scene, so it challenges a viewer to be constantly trying to contextualize what we’re seeing with what we know, and it’s an ongoing puzzle to determine a slippery orientation. It makes for an engaging and constantly changing environment and one tailored to engrossing empathy.
It sounds like the movie might be an overwhelming downer, and most assuredly it will leave an emotional devastation, but it’s also a very fascinating experience. From the beginning, you’re dropped into a scenario that announces to you not to fully trust your eyes and ears. You’re trying to assess character relationships. Who is this woman? Is she Anthony’s adult daughter Anne (Olivia Colman)? Is she a figment of his imagination? Is she the possibly dead daughter? Sometimes characters will be referred to by the same name but be played by different actors, and you must question which version was real, or whether either of them was? Is he projecting his dead daughter onto the face of another woman? Is he projecting an antagonistic man (Mark Gattis) onto the face of a former son-in-law (Rufus Sewell)? Which home is he in at this time? There is much to unpack here and I’m positive that additional viewings would unveil even more clues hiding in plain sight. I’m certain that the paintings on walls in backgrounds are regularly changing with the timeline, and this small detail of set design is never even emphasized. It’s just one aspect of the presentation that has been thoughtfully developed to support its artistic vision.
As one would expect from the premise and its beginnings as a play, this is an actor’s showcase. Hopkins (The Two Popes) delivers one of the best performances of his storied career. We’re so used to seeing Hopkins play men in control, dominating others. I even just re-watched him killing people in the shadows from 2001’s Hannibal sequel. This is the most vulnerable the actor has ever been on screen, and I’ll freely admit that by the end tears were streaming down my face as Anthony has descended into a childish state of need. Hopkins goes through a gamut of emotions and shifts rapidly. In one moment, he can be gregarious and charming, another cold and paranoid, cruel and cutting, but often he’s confused and afraid. He’s trying to maintain his dignity throughout. By being our focal point, we feel the same feelings that this elderly man is experiencing in this moment out of time. Colman (The Favourite) is also terrific as Anthony’s put-upon daughter trying her best but reaching her limits. The accumulation of this man’s experiences, and the weight of the burden on his family, is a devastating conclusion that reminds you what millions of families are going through every day.
The trappings of plays adapted to film is the struggle to make them feel bigger than potent conversations happening in confined spaces. Zeller’s debut as a director does a fine job of using the techniques of filmmaking to his advantage. With editing and camera placement, he can better orient or disorient an audience, and the impact of character changes has more intensity with our proximity to the actors themselves. The attention toward the visual parallels like hallway shots and people being confined to shadows present an extra layer of symbolism to be decoded. Zeller has clearly thought out how to transcend the stage and to use the immersion of film and freedom of being non-linear with editing to shape the presentation and make it even more effective.
I’ll be honest with you, dear reader, and that is that Alzheimer’s terrifies me. We’re all the accumulation of our memories and experiences, and to think those could be stripped away, muddled and tainted, and change your conception of self, well that is absolutely haunting. It’s the kind of stuff that keeps me up at night, and while my maternal grandfather went through a spell of dementia before passing away at 92 years old, fortunately this illness does not run in my family. I have friends that are dealing with it currently with grandparents and it’s like approaching death before the actual death, watching that version of the person you love shrink to the point where they have been replaced by a stranger, all the while you are helpless to thwart this process. For those people, The Father will hit close to home and might even be too much to handle. It’s such an open-hearted and empathetic portrayal that puts you in the position of having to live with the ravages of Alzheimer’s. It’s so frustrating and confounding and sad, and yet film can open us all to the experiences of others like few other mediums, and The Father might be the closest any of us ever get to understanding what this terrible illness is like for those caught in its snare. It’s a fantastic movie with fantastic performances but even more than that it’s a wonderful experiment in empathy and understanding.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Dick Johnson is Dead is a documentary but it’s a hard movie to describe because, at its core, it’s the use of art to memorialize a man, to process grief on personal terms, and as a love letter from a daughter to a father. Kirsten Johnston (Cameraperson) records her life caring for her ailing 85-year-old father. Dick is a former therapist, a widower, and starting to go through the early stages of Alzheimer’s and coming to terms with his new limitations. Kirsten is a camera operator who has worked on documentaries for over thirty years, so she turns the lens on her father and the two of them enact a series of wacky fake deaths, starring Dick himself (until the stuntmen take over), as father and daughter work to make a movie celebrating life while they still can together.
First things first, Dick Johnson is just the sweetest man. Spending time with him is a treat and watching him smile with like his whole face just made me feel happy. I enjoyed learning just what a good person he was and what he’s meant to his friends, family, and colleagues, but he’s just so pleasant and nice and compassionate that you feel the love his daughter intends you to understand. That’s the overwhelming feeling from this quirky documentary. Dick has such love for his daughter and is willing to humor her silly morbid scenarios confronting his death. Kirsten has loved this man for so long and already lost one parent to Alzheimer’s and now must go through it again. She’s using the medium she feels most capable and comfortable with, photography and moviemaking, to celebrate her father and his unheralded life of being a good man coming to an end. My heart ached for him when he breaks into tears articulating what relinquishing his ability to drive means for him and his sense of independence, looking ahead. Kirsten highlights some of the more unusual details about her father for this movie-within-a-movie, creating sequences that shed light on his faith as a Seventh Day Adventist and his insecurity over how his feet appear. It’s insightful aspects that better round out this man, like his ability to start conversations with strangers, or his knack of being able to fall asleep anywhere as long as he can prop his feet up. For Kirsten, recording these moments while her father is still lucid is a matter of documenting him while he can still recognize himself. She laments the minuscule amount of footage she has of her mother before her death. She doesn’t want to make the same mistake with her father, so why not also make him a movie star if she can? Watching Dick Johnson is Dead is to feel overcome with her adoration for this remarkably ordinary and good man.
The movie also serves as a strange way to take control over something inevitable yet unknowable. Dick Johnson is going to die, as we all will, but he will very likely die before his physical body expires. His mind will deteriorate, and he’ll stop being Dick Johnson. I wondered early why the movie kept resorting to slapstick with the many possible deaths of Dick onscreen. It’s more than a bit morbid for a daughter to direct her own father dying again and again in a variety of wild and bloody and violent accidents. I can understand many viewers being put off by this, worrying that Dick is being exploited, and at least finding it all to be in bad taste. I tried to assess why this element was so essential to the production. I suppose it functions as a gimmick that can help it get more attention and a larger audience considering the film lacks a hard-charging topic, unique insider access, or a headline-grabbing name or artistic approach. However, as I continued with the movie, I concluded that Kirsten Johnson is inflicting all manner of over-the-top goofy deaths and violent mayhem upon her beloved father as a means of processing her looming grief. She’s trying to reclaim a sense of control and offering that same ownership to her father. They aren’t running from his death but are embracing it, laughing at it, and doing it their way. The documentary is an artifact of love and a filmmaker using art to comprehend her grief.
The Seventh Day Adventist adherence presents an interesting dynamic to explore when discussing a spiritual afterlife. This smaller Christian denomination believes that the worthy will return to heaven but only after Jesus returns to Earth to kick-start the whole Armageddon deal. Until that fateful day, the dead will lay in their graves and wait for however long it takes. I had never heard about this before. Many religions are about delayed gratification, the reward coming upon the conclusion of Earthly existence, and these people believe the wait extends even beyond death. A lifetime and then some of waiting would shape very patient people like Dick. The great fear of an Adventist, we’re told, is to be one of the ones left behind, and it’s easy to see the parallels with losing one’s sense of identity through the creeping fog of Alzheimer’s. Apparently, strict Adventists also don’t approve of dancing. In a fantasy sequence engineered by Kirsten, Dick gets to dance in heaven with his wife again and knowing all these details gives the moment, which can be immediately silly on a surface-level, its own sense of poignancy and reverence.
The only thing that holds the movie back is that late into its 90 minutes I feel like it gets too manipulative and meta for its own good. There’s an emotional climax and then the movie reveals some key details that can make you feel a little bamboozled. It’s not enough to sacrifice all the emotional investment and artistic gains that came before but it’s just a few steps too far. Don’t get me wrong, I’m genuinely happy with the overall ending, but I didn’t care for being jerked around.
Dick Johnson is Dead is a peculiar, funny, heartwarming, and experimental documentary. It reminded me in some ways of 2012’s The Act of Killing where filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer finds old men who participated in Indonesian genocide in the 1960s to re-enact their crimes but playing their victims and through the surreal prism of a film production. Except this movie is far more personal and far more affirming; it’s very much a love letter to a wonderful man. You feel the intimacy of this family relationship and I felt privileged just to be let in and share these moments, the ordinary ones, the reflective ones, the emotional ones, the silly ones. This is an affecting documentary using its very form and function to use art to make sense of pain. It’s currently available on Netflix streaming and I would highly encourage you to relax, kick your feet up like Dick, and watch one of the best and strangest movies of 2020.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Hillbilly Elegy is based upon the memoir by JD Vance and in 2016 it became a hot commodity in the wake of Trump’s surprising electoral ascent, with liberals seeing it as a Rosetta Stone to understanding just how so many working-class white people could vote for a billionaire with a gold toilet. The movie, directed by Ron Howard (Apollo 13) and currently available on Netflix, follows an adult JD (Gabriel Basso). He’s a Yale law candidate forced to go back home to Middletown, Ohio after his mother Bev (Amy Adams) lands in the hospital for a heroin overdose. It’s 2011, and Bev has been fighting a losing battle with opioids for over a decade, costing her a string of boyfriends and jobs. JD’s homecoming isn’t quite so rosy. While he can take comfort in fried bologna sandwiches and his sister (Haley Bennett), the town is not what it once was. The factory has closed, poverty is generational, and his mother is one of many struggling to stay clean. In flashback, we watch MeeMaw (Glenn Close) take in the young JD (Owen Asztalos) and raise him on the right path. JD must decide how far the bonds of family go and how much he may be willing to forgive his mother even if she can never ask for help.
The subtitle of Vance’s novel was “A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis,” and it’s that latter part that got the most attention for the book and critical examination. Many a think piece was born from Vance’s best-selling expose on the hardscrabble beginnings of his personal story along the hills of Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley and his recipe for success. Given his libertarian political leanings, it’s not a surprise that his solutions don’t involve a more interventionist government and social safety nets. According to Vance’s book, he saw poverty as self-perpetuating and conquerable. It was the “learned helplessness” of his fellow Rust Belt inhabitants that Vance saw as their downfall. For me, this seems quite lacking in basic empathy. You see these people aren’t poor because they’ve been betrayed by greedy corporations, indifferent politicians, a gutted infrastructure and educational system in rural America, pill mills flooding Appalachia with cheap opioids, and a prison system that incentivizes incarceration over rehabilitation. For Vance and his like-minded fellows, upward mobility is a matter of mind over matter, and these working-class folks have just given up or won’t work as hard as before.
Now, as should be evident, I strongly disagree with this cultural diagnosis, but at least Vance is trying to use his own story as a launching point to address larger points about a portion of America that feels forgotten. The movie strips all of this away. Screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water) juggles multiple timelines and flashbacks within flashbacks as Vance follows the formula of prodigal son returning back to his home. The entire draw of the book, its purported insights into a culture too removed from the coastal elites, is replaced with a standard formula about a boy rediscovering his roots and assessing his dysfunctional family. At this rate, I’m surprised they didn’t even time it so that Vance was returning home for Thanksgiving.
Removed of relevant social commentary, Hillbilly Elegy becomes little more than a gauzy, awards-bait entry meant to uplift but instead can’t help itself from being overwrought poverty porn. If we’re not looking at the bigger picture of how Appalachia got to be this way, then Vance becomes less our entry point into a world and more just an escaped prisoner. Except the movie doesn’t raise Vance up as exceptional and instead just a regular guy who pulled himself up by his bootstraps through will and family support. I’m not saying he is exceptional, I don’t know the man, but this approach then ignores the reality of why so many others just aren’t following his footsteps of simply trying harder. Without granting a more empathetic and careful understanding of the circumstances of poverty, Howard has made his movie the equivalent of a higher-caliber Running with Scissors, a memoir about a young man persevering through his “quirky, messed up family” to make something of himself on the outside. This reductive approach is meant to avoid the trappings of social commentary, and yet in trying to make his film studiously apolitical to be safer and more appealing, Howard has stumbled into making Hillbilly Elegy more insulting to its Appalachia roots. Systemic poverty is seen as a choice, as people that just aren’t trying as hard, that have given up and accepted their diminished fates. Never mind mitigating economic, psychotropic, and educational circumstances. I imagine Howard wanted to deliver something along the lines of Winter’s Bone, unsparing but deeply aware of its culture, but instead the movie is far more akin to a sloppy compilation of Hallmark movies and catchy self-deprecating bumper sticker slogans. Seriously, about every other line of dialogue feels like it was meant to be on a T-shirt, from “Where we come from is who we are, but we choose every day who we become,” to, “There are three types of people in this world: good Terminators, bad Terminators, and neutral.” Well, maybe not that last one. The insights are fleeting and surface-level, with vague patronizing along the fringes.
The personal story of J.D. Vance takes the center stage and yet he’s the biggest blank of characters, and what we do get isn’t exactly that encouraging. I think we’re meant to engage with his triumph over adversity, but he has such disdain for his background while clinging to it as an identity, and this intriguing dichotomy is never explored. Vance as a character is merely there. His awkward experiences relating to the rich elites are just silly. He calls his girlfriend (Freida Pinto) in a panic over what fork to use at a fancy dinner table, as if this perceived social faux pau would be the difference between getting a law firm gig. He’s supposed to feel like an outsider, both at home and away, unable to escape his past that defines him, but the movie doesn’t even make Vance feel alive in the present. Most of the movie he is just there while big acting takes place around him. He listens to the life lessons bestowed upon him, good and bad, and it makes him the kind of man that when he grows up will join Peter Thiel’s venture capital firm, so hooray? I sighed when the movie established the stakes as he needs to get back in time for his big lawyer job interview, a literal family vs. future crossroads. The movie treats its frustrating main character as a witness to history rather than an active participant, and his personal growth is what? Coming to terms with the limitations of his mother? Accepting himself? Leaving them all behind to survive? I don’t know. There is literally a montage where he gets his life back on track, starts getting better grades, ditches his no-good friends, and heads out into the world. This could have been a better articulated character study but instead Vance comes across as much a tourist to this downtrodden world and eager to return to safer confines as any morbidly curious viewer at home.
I simply felt bad for the actors. This is the kind of movie where subtlety isn’t exactly on the agenda, so I expected big showcases of big acting with all capitals and exclamation marks, and even that didn’t prepare me. I watched as Amy Adams (Vice) worked her mouth around an accent that always seemed elusive, with a character that veered wildly depending upon the timing of a scene. Almost every moment with Bev ends in some alarming escalation or outburst, like when a new puppy ends with Bev declaring she will “kill that dog in front of you,” or a ride back home descends into a high-speed promise of killing herself and child out of spite. This woman is troubled, to say the least, and her addictions and mental illness are what defines the character. With that guiding her, Adams is left unrestrained and usually screaming. There’s just so much screaming and wailing and crying and shouting. It’s an off-the-mark performance that reminded me of Julianne Moore in 2006’s Freedomland, where a usually bulletproof actress is left on her own in the deep end, and the resulting struggle leans upon histrionics. Was I supposed to feel sympathy for Bev at some point? Does the movie ever feel sympathy for this woman who terrorizes and beats her child? The broad portrayal lacks humanizing nuance, so Bev feels less like a symbolic victim of a larger rot of a society abandoned and betrayed and more a TV movie villain.
Close (The Wife) disappears into the heavy prosthetics and baggy T-shirts of MeeMaw, but you could have convinced me the character was a pile of coats come to life. Truthfully, MeeMaw is, by far, the most interesting character and the story would have greatly benefited from being re-calibrated from her painful perspective. She’s the one who bears witness to just how far Middletown has fallen since her and PawPaw ventured as young adults with the promise of a secure new life thanks to the thriving factory. She’s the one symbolizing the past and its grip as the present withers. She’s the one who has a history of abuse only to watch her daughter fall into similar patterns. Think of the guilt and torment and desire to rescue her grandson for a better life and save her family. That’s an inherently interesting perspective, but with JD Vance as our mundane lead, MeeMaw is more a slow-walking curmudgeon taken to doling out profane one-liners and grumpy life lessons. Close is easily the best part of Hillbilly Elegy and deserved more attention and consideration. A moment where she clings to JD’s high-scoring math test like a life raft is heartfelt and earned, more so than anything with JD.
Another slice of America that feels forgotten and angry is on display with the documentary Feels Good Man, a.k.a. the Pepe the Frog documentary. Who is Pepe? He’s a cartoon frog created by Matt Furie as part of a comic series of post-college ennui between four friends. The character was adopted by the commenters on the message board 4Chan as their own symbol, and as their memes spread and became more popular with mainstream suers, and that’s when the 4Chan warriors had to do something drastic to save their favorite frog. They began transforming Pepe into a symbol of hate in order to make him toxic for outside use, and then the irony of their attempts at reclamation faded away and Pepe became a real symbol for Neo-Nazis and white supremacists. The character is currently listed on the Anti-Defamation League’s list of symbols of hate. The movie explores this evolution and de-evolution of Matt Furie’s creation and serves as a cautionary tale about the scary shadows of Internet culture and the nature of reclaiming meaning and intent with art.
Firstly, is there enough material here for a full-fledged documentary? We’re talking about a cartoon frog filling up the memes of Internet trolls. Is that enough? I think so, though I wish the movie shed even more critical scrutiny upon the 4Chan fringes of the Internet that have become a toxic cesspool of alienation and recrimination. These are people that self-identify and celebrate their social isolationism. The acronym N.E.E.T. stands for NOT Employed, Educated, or Trained and is adopted by many as an odd badge of honor. We even see home video footage of people sharing their personal lives in cluttered, trash-strewn basements. These are people electing not to engage with a larger functioning society and yet also feeling hostile to those that choose otherwise. Maybe it’s all a big joke to them, so why even bother; maybe it’s a defeatist mentality that plays upon social anxiety and learned helplessness. Maybe it’s just a noisy, nihilistic club that doesn’t want anything for themselves other than to disrupt others. The interview subjects from the 4Chan community are few but offer chilling peeks into this subculture. They see the world in terms of a very high school-level of social hierarchy, and the people who are pretty, successful, and having sexual relationships are the “popular kids” keeping them down. I think in terms of a Venn diagram, that incels and these NEET freaks are a flat circle. It almost feels like Vance’s cultural critiques of his poor Appalachia roots syncs up with the disenchanted 4Chan kids. This self-imposed isolation and self-persecution stews into a hateful mess of resentment. It’s not a surprise that several mass shooters have partaken in 4Chan and 8Chan communities.
This scary subsection of Internet culture has been left to fester and it went next level for the 2016 presidential election. The trolls recognized their own sensibilities in Donald Trump, a candidate whose entire presidency seemed on the precipice of being a bad joke. The alt-right celebrated the man and used Pepe as a symbol for Trump’s trolling of norms and decorum, and the 4Chan message boards became an army of meme makers to steer Internet chatter. It’s hard to say what exactly the cumulative effect of these memes and trolling efforts achieved, in addition to the successful efforts of Russian hackers and a media environment that gave Trump billions of dollars in free airtime, but the 4Chan crowd celebrated their victory. “We memed him to the White House,” they declared. From there, Pepe became a synonymous symbol of a newly emboldened white supremacist coalition and any pretenses of ironic detachment dissolved away.
The rise and mutation of Pepe makes up most of the movie, and it’s certainly the most fascinating and scary part of Feels Good Man. However, there is a larger question about the ownership of art and interpretation that the movie presents without conclusive answers. Symbols are a tricky thing. They’re not permanent. The swastika wasn’t always associated with Hitler and Nazis. A pentagram has significantly different meanings depending upon a Wiccan and conservative Christian audience. Feels Good Man examines Furie as a humble albeit slightly naïve creator. He’s a nice guy who just can’t get his head around what has happened to his creation. How far does the artist’s intent go when it comes to credible meaning? At one point, Furie tried stemming the negativity by killing off Pepe in a limited comic, but it didn’t matter. The 4Chan followers simply remade him as they desired because at that point Pepe was their own. He has been built and rebuilt over and over again, that no one person can claim interpretative supremacy. Furie’s version of Pepe might be gone but there are millions of others alive and well. This gets into the nature of art and how every creator in some regard must make amends with letting go of their creation. Once it enters the larger world for consumption, they can steer conversations but art can take on its own life. The last third of the movie follows Furie taking action to enforce his copyright law to push back against the more outlandish uses of Pepe the frog, including from InfoWars’ Alex Jones, the same man who told us the government was making frogs gay for some unexplained conspiracy. Jones makes for a pretty easy villain to enjoy seeing defeated, and the conclusion of the movie involves dueling taped depositions between Furie and Jones over intellectual trademarks and free speech. It makes for an easy to navigate victory for Furie to end the movie upon, but is this larger war winnable? I have my doubts and I don’t think the trolls of the darker reaches of the Internet are going away.
I also want to single out the beautiful animation that appears throughout Feels Good Man, giving a visual representation to Pepe in a manner that’s like trying to give him a say in his own intent.
So, dear reader, why did I pair both of these movies for a joint review? I found both of them as investigations into a sliver of America that feels forgotten, left behind, stuck in ruts outside their control, and resentful of a changing culture they see as exclusive to their hard-hit communities. I thought both Hillbilly Elegy and Feels Good Man could provide me, and others, greater insight into these subcultures and perhaps solutions that can make them feel more seen and heard. The problem is that Elegy doesn’t provide solutions other than “pull up your bootstraps” and Feels Good Man involves a destructive coalition that I don’t want better seen and heard. Both movies in their own ways deal with the nature of how very human it can be to retreat to their safe confines of people who too feel ostracized, hurt, and overwhelmed. I have pity for the people of the Rust Belt, the hillbillies experiencing generational poverty and hardships, though “economic anxiety” is not simply a regional or whites-only worry. I have less pity for the basement trolls of 4Chan trying to celebrate school shooters because it’s somehow funny. I’m amazed that so many talented people were part of Hillbilly Elegy and had such high hopes. For all of its full-tilt screaming, the movie is thoroughly boring and formulaic. Given the nature of an elegy, I was expecting Howard’s movie would be more considerate of its people, but their humanity is lost in this pared-down characterization, and the tragedy of society failing its own becomes an inauthentic Horatio Alger story of the plucky kid who went to Yale and became a real somebody. Feels Good Man might not be the best documentary but it feels more authentic and owns up to its inability to answer larger questions about human behavior, art, and interpretation. Both of these movies will prove horrifying to watch but only one is intentionally so.
Hillbilly Elegy: C-
Feels Good Man: B
With Run, now available through Hulu thanks to COVID, we follow Chloe (newcomer Kiera Allen) as she yearns to leave home for college. She was born with multiple physical maladies and has been living at home in her wheelchair. Her mother, Diane (Sarah Paulson), tends to her needs but runs a tight ship, holding Chloe to a high academic standard. One day, while looking for college returns, Chloe finds a prescription for her mother that she denies is hers. This causes Chloe to investigate the myriad of medications she’s on and her mother’s cagey behavior. She comes to one conclusion: she is being held prisoner by her own mother.
I don’t consider it a spoiler to confirm that Run is exactly the movie it assures you from its start. Because the movie was so early and upfront about its distrust with the mother, part of me began to wonder, after watching so many Hollywood thrillers over the years, if I was being set up into false complacency. I began theorizing what a late twist could be, how we’re being lulled into one perspective so maybe the final twist would be that the big bad mom is actually the hero. This is not the case at all. There are later revelations that clarify just how disturbed and committed Diane is as a doting mother, but the core relationship dynamic is the same from the get-go. That means that Run might not have much going for it other than as an escape thriller. It’s not going to give you deeper insights into life with mental illness or physical disabilities, nor is it going to channel some relatable struggles with motherhood. It’s about a crazy woman holding a teenager captive and the great obstacles that teenager must overcome to reach freedom and safety. That’s all the movie has to offer but under the guidance of its filmmakers it does so with finesse.
Let Run serve as a prime example of how you can take a simple story and create a lean, mean thriller that provides doses of satisfaction and triumph. The focus is so condensed that writer/director Aneesh Chaganty (Searching) can provide set piece after set piece to demonstrate his skills in suspense. The first act involves Chloe learning of her alarming state and getting confirmation that her medicine and ailments might not be true. From there, the next two acts are a series of planning escapes and escalating attempts at escape. There is a lovely sense of fulfillment in watching smart characters intelligently think their way through challenges. I recently re-watched 2015’s The Martian and was reminded how enjoyable it can be to just watch smart people smartly confront problems. Chloe is a formidable young woman with obvious vulnerabilities to overcome, but she has a sharp mind for science and can act like a plucky Zoomer MacGyver. It’s resolutely fun to watch her overcome her challenges. Each new set piece and setback presents a challenge and her thinking is logical and capable throughout. Even when the plot isn’t much more than a series of escape attempts, every time I wondered to myself how exactly Chloe was going to get through the next dilemma and admiring her as she persevered.
The photography, editing, and score work nicely in tandem to raise the level of suspense. The command that Chaganty has over all facets of filmmaking to serve a common purpose is impressive. It’s the same kind of assured vision he displayed with 2018’s Searching where the film screen was confined to the parameters of a computer monitor. As with that earlier inventive thriller, Chaganty has an innate understanding of how to make his moments matter, where every twist and turn has a connection to what came before it so it all feels of a whole. That is essential especially for a filmmaker working within a thriller genre. If you can tell even the simple stories well, where the pieces connect with perfect precision, and ratchet up tension efficiently no matter the scenario, then you’re already operating at an extremely high level. Given his first two entries, I would watch any movie, especially a thriller, that has Chaganty’s name attached.
This is primarily a mother-daughter two-hander in terms of acting, though Paulson is off-screen for long portions. After several Ryan Murphy TV series, including Netflix’s Ratched, I’ve come to automatically assume I should be wary of whatever character Paulson is playing. This role is well within her unstable wheelhouse and she gets to better shine in her increased desperation in the second half when Diane no longer has to pretend to be sane. Her doting manipulation and intense mood changes can be quite creepy. The real star is Allen in a very physical performance. There is much the young actress has to communicate non-verbally, from her distress and paranoia to her doubts and fears and righteous anger. Plus all the crawling. She’s great, and I fully imagine this will be the start of Allen’s promising career as she finds even more high-profile roles to demonstrate her talent.
If you’re a fan of slick, intelligent, and sneaky fun thrillers, and why wouldn’t you, then seek out Run (not to be confused with the TV series of the same name on HBO in 2020). It’s well honed, well developed, and smartly constructed to deliver enjoyable thrills and payoffs for viewers. It might not have more on its mind than entertainment but that’s fine when the movie is this well done.
Nate’s Grade: B+
My pal Ben Bailey hates me reviewing Ohio-produced indie films. To be fair, he doesn’t have anything against the idea of providing critical and professional analysis to local filmmakers on their cinematic offerings. What he laments is how mediocre many of the finished projects end up being and how, in his view, it’s establishing a negative impression that Ohio movies suck. Truth be told, I haven’t found that one Ohio-made indie that has completely floored me. I’ve found several that I enjoyed and others that had elements to be proud about. The thriller Darkest Edge was filmed throughout Ohio and Kentucky and features Ohio talent in front and behind the camera. It’s the feature debut for director Naim David and screenwriter Joe Gribble. It’s a movie that aims beyond its own restricted reach but proves one of the less successful thrillers I’ve seen.
Mark (Christopher Rowley) is a Chicago journalist who is still reeling from his sister’s suicide. He’s on the verge of divorce and never seeing his daughter again, never mind his obsessive drinking. He’s given one final assignment, the closing of a notorious mental asylum in Dayton, Ohio, the very place that his departed sister spent time within. Ellen (Jocelyn Jae Tanis) is his assistant who insists upon being his camera operator. The two travel to Dayton and investigate the asylum, interview wary doctors, and Mark unlocks memories and secrets of his past.
Where this movie runs most adrift is with mood and execution. Look at that poster at the top of the review, check out the description of the plot setup, even judging by the spooky yet unmemorable title (I kept thinking “Dark Edge,” “Dark Corners,” “Darkest Corner” in my head). Even the tagline says, “Deep shadows lie at the darkest edge of the mind.” All of this is setting you, the viewer, to expect a creepy psychological thriller in a creepy asylum and for creepy things to happen. There have been horror movies that have been little more than watching wayward characters haplessly explore a haunted old locale, uncovering its secrets and perhaps its residents, living or dead. This simple plot setup can work as long as the filmmakers can execute their intended mood with aplomb. Unfortunately, Darkest Edge makes a critically fatal error in choosing its creepy locations. To put it simply, this soon-to-be-closing sanitarium is not scary looking in the slightest. The outside looks like a high school building from the 1960s. The inside looks very non-intimidating. There are doors labeled with pieces of paper and an accessible exit door literally within feet of “patient rooms.” While watching, my girlfriend pointed out this very problematic design flaw for a mental institution and I was aghast with that slip-up. The inside of this asylum is also practically abandoned. It’s supposed to be closing soon but there’s still supposed to be patients, evidenced by our characters randomly walking around the facility and finding doors obviously locked. This sense of emptiness will be a prolific problem with the movie (more on that later), but the asylum could have always been closed down and emptied already upon investigation. Another killer error is that almost the entire movie takes place during the day, which only further hampers the scare factor of this already ordinary looking building. It’s like watching people explore an office park and finding nothing. If Darkest Edge was going to hinge so much over a singular creepy location, oh is this place a big miss.
With the location not exactly hitting the intended mood, I held hope that the central mystery tying to the protagonist’s memory, his occasional alcohol-induced blackouts, and hazy memories of this particular asylum could generate the intrigue that the setting was not. Mark is torn over the suicide of his sister, he’s been drinking so heavily he reeks at work, and this asylum might be the very same one that his sister was held at during both of their youths. Surely there has to be a dark secret afoot, or we’re being set up for some last-minute twist. I started guessing what the twist would be within ten minutes, because Darkest Edge seemed overwhelmingly like the kind of thriller that would roll out a last-minute twist. I thought maybe Mark’s daughter was really dead. My most outlandish, hacky guess was that Mark was really still in the asylum and that everything outside was a figment of his fevered imagination. Admittedly, that would have been an awful ending but it would have tapped into the psychological thriller context of its genre. There isn’t really any sort of mind-bending twist here. There is a revelation but, shockingly, the movie goes down a sentimental route that feels unearned and tonally ill-suited for the prior 75 minutes. It’s such a curious ending and goes against the very setup of this kind of movie. You’re expecting the story to end in a dark, desolate, traumatic place. If you want catharsis, you got to put in the work as a storyteller.
Unfortunately, a word I seem to find myself using often here, Darkest Edge doesn’t provide a compelling personal mystery for the audience. Mark is a boring character. He’s troubled and haunted in a general sense but the screenplay doesn’t give us anything too specific. Yes, his sister kills herself and he feels some guilt over this, but the entire movie doesn’t provide insight into the sister character or their relationship. If he’s so hard up over her death, you don’t feel why. He’s a sloppy drunk, and if you made a drinking game where you took a drink every time you saw Mark drinking, or holding a bottle, then you would black out just like Mark. It’s his lone defining characteristic and it is given again and again and again. Strangely, Mark will black out and find himself transported to distant locations, like thirty miles away from where he was (the movie, weirdly, makes sure we know the mile distances between specific Ohio cities). You would expect this would be a clue about some larger context, a deeper meaning for the torment plaguing our protagonist. Well your guess is as good as mine because ultimately those blackout long-distance travels don’t get clarified at all. For Mark to function as a character, he needs more specifics, especially when it comes to a trauma. He needs a specific fear or tragedy that haunts him and resurfaces with his trip to the asylum. We get what appear to be flashback snippets of a little boy exploring the interior of the asylum (apparently it was also just as easy to wander back then too). It’s all too vague and poorly explained, forcing the viewer to extrapolate connections and meaning. By providing a specific trigger and goal at the start, a viewer could watch Mark journey through his trauma rather than having to guess at it and its implications. I assume this was designed to make Mark’s personal history more enigmatic, but mystery only really works when you’re invested; otherwise it’s just obtuse, and that’s what we have here with Mark and Darkest Edge.
The reality of Darkest Edge is hard to take seriously, and part of this is affected by the limitations of the low budget and certain filmmaking choices that accentuate those. Just because a movie has a low budget doesn’t mean it can’t succeed or utilize a clever creative ingenuity to tell its story and entertain. If you want to tell a creepy story about exploring a creepy location, choose a genuinely creepy location, and shoot it during night time to build an effective atmosphere. Use shadows to your advantage and play up the worry of what may be around the corner next. Build that sense of compounding dread. Walking ordinary hallways during daylight hours is not making your movie scary unless people are encountering weird events or threatening folk, neither of which happens here. There are some doctors hiding extreme methods but these methods are questionably vindicated by the end. There needs to be a clear threat and for the far, far majority of Darkest Edge there isn’t and this results in the movie feeling meandering.
The technical elements can be distracting and disappointing. The fuzzy sound design is a noticeable shortcoming, often dampening from shot-to-shot. The extreme lack of background noise is unmistakable and makes the movie feel like it was filmed in a space capsule. This, coupled with the lack of background activity and extras, makes the movie feel borderline like a Twilight Zone episode where there are only five or six people left on Earth. The limits of the reported $7500 budget are also felt with the shot selections; frequently a scene will just bounce between two set shots, locked into a plodding shot-reverse shot rhythm. There are dramatic moments that are kept at a distance when a closer shot was begging to showcase the actor’s emotive powers. It leaves an impression that the production was pressed for time to get editorial coverage, and it feels like actors were often filmed at different times and cut together for conversations. There is very limited lighting overall and the photography quality is also a step removed, so why not make this entirely a found footage film? That would have allowed the limitations of the production to be an acceptable part of the presentation. The music is also far too loud at points, drowning out the dialogue, and far too generic without establishing a sense of foreboding. I kept scratching my head at the artistic choices, which routinely magnified the budget shortfalls rather than making decisions that would better compensate instead.
The acting is mostly fine especially since the actors haven’t been given much to work with. The characters are boring and have one trait they get to rub down to its nub. Rowley (Primordial) has a beaten down, hangdog expression that works well. Most of the times he’s either playing hungover or short-tempered, and without a stronger personality, it’s easy to start mentally checking out with his character. Tanis (Lilith, Cinestudy) delivers a performance that manages to mingle ambition, naivete, and a barely concealed contempt for her colleague. She had so much more potential to explore and I wish we spent more time with Ellen rather than watching Mark get drunk for the twentieth time. Anthony Panzeca (Dodging the Bullet) plays an orderly at the asylum and makes a warm impression. His performance is the closest to unveiling charm in a cast regularly acting confounded or irritable. There’s a Dayton journalist that is such a confusing character for me. She buddies up with Mark by opening up her archives of news collections on the asylum. She then asks Mark what he’s found… in her own news archives? Shouldn’t she already be familiar with what she has?
Darkest Edge is not the movie the poster, tagline, or even setup proclaim it to be. It’s not really a thriller, let alone an accessible psychological thriller, and it’s not really a horror movie. It should be creepy given the setting and its supposedly sordid history, but too much of this movie is kept vague and obtuse, failing to give the audience a reason for watching. The characters aren’t that interesting or complex or compelling and their traumas are kept too unspecified to engage. If it was going to focus on the mental torment and troubled history of a troubled man, the script needed to make him more dimensional and his issues more central to the events unfurling. Tone-wise the movie doesn’t work or build a sense of momentum. It’s hard to make a scary thriller/horror movie when nobody looks like they’re scared, and that’s for good reason considering the settings are more mundane and plainer than skin-crawling and disturbing. I feel bad saying so but Darkest Edge is really a boring jaunt along empty hallways. Even if you’re an overly generous fan of this sub-genre, there is little to engage with during the padded 80 minutes. The most frightening aspect isn’t the haunted asylum but botching a go-to scary setting.
Nate’s Grade: D+
The Incredible Jake Parker is an Ohio indie written/directed/produced by Angelo Thomas, who just graduated from his arts college this spring. The 22-year-old adapted his own book into his first feature, all while finishing college and taking on activist responsibilities. The fact he has a finished feature film before he even graduated college, a film that was scheduled to open in multiple cities, is a damn impressive feat. Thomas is already well ahead of the game. Unfortunately, Jake Parker became another victim of COVID-19’s theater closings, and the limited release has been postponed. I was graciously given a digital link of the film to review and, even though I know people involved with the production, I vow to be as objective and constructive as possible with this film review. I honestly think the delay might help the movie, allowing for further critical examination and technical tinkering. As is, The Incredible Jake Parker is a well-made, albeit criminally short, indie that feels like it’s missing necessary development and potential drama to convey the steps in the journey of its titular star.
Jake Parker (Liam Wall) is a teenage musical sensation but he’s got a secret. He’s rapidly losing weight, enough to alarm doctors and his manager. Jake is anorexic. His tour is put on hold while he checks into a treatment center that will help him reflect and grow. He’s angry and eager to leave, but the more time he spends with the doctors and fellow patients, the more that Jake is able to tackle his personal demons with his body issues and figure out the man he wants to be.
The filmmakers behind The Incredible Jake Parker have an important and very personal message they take very seriously. Thomas has been open about his own troubles with an eating disorder and has spoken across the country about his experiences and insights. The character of Jake Parker is obviously informed from his own struggles and triumphs. Eating disorders are also a malady not typically associated with men, so smashing that taboo and educating viewers is admirable. We even see this flippant attitude in the movie where catty media figures wave away the implications of an eating disorder, especially for men, and prescribe just “eating a hamburger.” Body dysmorphic disorder is particularly affected by our omnipresent media culture that applies value to being thin, desirable, and staying within the codified boundaries of what is deemed appealing. That level of scrutiny and pressure can affect anyone’s mental health, let alone a performer whose press coverage and album sales can be affected by his good looks. It’s understandable to fall sway to negative thoughts that one’s body just simply isn’t good enough. The movie is filled with useful information about eating disorders as well as steps one can take to regain control over their body and mind and make healthy choices. By that regard, the movie can provide a great outreach to connect with people, especially young people, and inspire them to improve their own mental health and physical well-being. That’s what good art can do.
Now, with all that being said, it doesn’t feel like those good intentions have latched onto a suitable and engaging narrative to carry the burden of its worthy message. The movie is only 64 minutes long before its end credits and has the unmistakable feeling of missing development. We spend the first act establishing the problems for Jake and then in the last five minutes he finds effective solutions to those problems, but the connective tissue, the work, is missing in between. I’m going to go into some mild spoilers here though I don’t consider these to be significant because, realistically, did you expect Jake to not get better? I went back and re-watched what was Jake’s breakthrough therapy session and it amounts to being told that resilience is key and to find his inner strength. The very next scene involves Jake requesting ice cream to dine with a friend, seeming to now be able to manage his eating disorder, but why? Why was this a big breakthrough for Jake and why does it come with so much movie left? There’s another personal revelation that Jake is hiding that takes precedent in the last 15 minutes, which is odd to include so late after he seemed to overcome the movie’s big conflict, and even stranger to consider the fear it could pose to his musical career given modern-day sensibilities. It’s included to provide another scandal but it’s also there to get the plot even further across the hour-mark. Even his other late conflicts resolve so easily, some over text messages, that it begs the question of why introduce obstacles if they are so quickly overcome? When you wrap up your main internal struggle so early and with little elaboration, it leaves us questioning why we still have a movie.
So absent more in-depth examination on those problems, maybe we can use the extra time allotted to get to know Jake more as a character or the other residents of his treatment center, building a friendly network of lovable people leaning on one another to get better. The supporting characters are typically defined by their problem and stay that way. Mom (Rachel Coolidge) is an alcoholic, though we don’t see her drunk or even drink in hand if I recall, and Dad (John French) is a workaholic, though we don’t see him in a hurry to leave (the closest family Jake has is his British manager). Jordan (Sarah Levitch) has an eating disorder and was abandoned by her parents. I’m assuming the supporting characters at this treatment center all suffer from eating disorders but that could be my mistake. I have to go with this assumption because there is a raft of supporting characters that don’t open up about their specific problems, only occasionally their feelings of being helpless or being ashamed. A support group is a fantastic setting to derive some character-driven drama, forcing people to confront their pasts, mistakes, sense of self, vulnerabilities, relationships, and even butt heads before growing closer. It’s a conflict crucible ready for meaty scenes and yet it too is MIA. If Jake’s ultimate triumph over his personal demons is derived from the support he feels with the friends he’s made, then it would naturally need to feature meaningful interactions with supporting characters where we get to understand them and watch that progression of friendship and trust. It’s not that the material with these characters is bad, it’s just that they could all benefit from more of it.
I do want to congratulate Thomas and his team for putting together a very professional looking movie. Even though its budget is a fraction of the Hollywood indie, The Incredible Jake Parker looks polished and proficient. The lighting and cinematography are a highlight of the movie, often finding compelling ways to frame the angular jawline of our titular star in anguish. It was filmed over nine days in Louisiana (boo) with some second unit work filmed in Columbus, Ohio (yeah). The songs we do get from Thomas and co-writers Austin Moore and Liam Wall are peppy and well composed with impressive production value. Just watching Wall sing is enjoyable and he seems at his most comfortable when he’s belting a tune and guitar in hand. The acting overall is generally good. Wall (Gold Dust) is a little stilted at times though it works for the awkwardness or clenched-jaw resentment he holds onto like a lifeline. Sasha Jackson (Blue Crush 2) has a few nicely delivered moments expressing her maternal worry and hope for Jake, who is more than just a client. The assorted supporting players make pleasant impressions, enough so that I desperately wanted them to have even more interactions to better allow the actors to shine.
Given Jake’s musical profession, I was expecting the film to include moments of his singing and guitar-playing for performances and songwriting, a reflection of his inner struggle for control and creative expression. What I wasn’t expecting was the movie to become a traditional movie musical where the characters just break into song and look into the camera. It first happens around the half-hour mark and took me aback, but I liked the two-minute introspective song and thought, “Okay, well if this is going to become a major element of the storytelling, I’m ready now.” I kept waiting for another moment of song-breaking and it didn’t occur until nearly the very end of the movie. It lasted, and I counted, 34 total seconds. Why break reality if it’s only going to last as long as a television commercial? If these two moments are the only ones that break reality to become a movie musical, then why include them if they only amount to two-and-a-half minutes? Could the sentiment not have been expressed with Jake merely playing his guitar and singing to himself rather than the music kicking in from on high? I was actually expecting more musical numbers simply because Wall can sing and play the guitar, as evidenced in the grabber of an opening scene where Jake records his amateur song that goes viral. He has talent so it would make sense that he writes a new song to discuss his journey, something he could perform at the very end to express his maturation and lessons learned, a new Jake Parker. That inspirational song, “Incredible,” plays over the end credits but why not actually see Wall perform the song to the camera, with the emotion pouring out of him, to mark the climax? It’s not like the film was running too long. Imagine the end of 2018’s A Star is Born and instead of Lady Gaga delivering that last powerful song to sum up her experiences, it just played over the credits.
There are some other technical areas where The Incredible Jake Parker could benefit from some further attention before its big release rollout. The sound mix is often noticeably amiss with different shots having fuzzy interference that’s all the more noticeable when it’s edited with shots without. Some shots don’t seem to be using sound from other takes, so an off-screen character will sound distant because their dialogue was recorded away from the boom microphone. Why not pull sound from that character when they were on mic and layer it over? The color grading isn’t consistent at points, most notably when the film transitions from purchased stock footage that is vibrant in color to the more muted colors of the actual movie. I’m also hopeful that a new musical score can be applied (not the songs, the actual score) because it’s often too plain. The bigger technical element that could use another overview is the editing. Jake Parker is edited with a formula that a spoken line equals a shot cut. A character speaks. Next shot. A character speaks. Next shot. Repeat. It’s a stolid rhythm that can gum up the visual flow of scenes. The movie is crying out for another careful pass in the editing suite. It’s little things in the edit and pacing that can help mitigate whatever filming limitations there may have been.
The Incredible Jake Parker is a musical with a message and some spiffy technical acumen, especially considering that Angelo Thomas is only 22 years old and pulled this all off. Even though it’s only 68 minutes with credits, there is much to be impressed with this first film. There’s a late montage of real people (I’m assuming) who speak about their own struggles with eating disorders and mental health, their advice, and what a figure like Jake can mean to them, and while it may be manipulative my heart felt full-to-bursting while watching this genuine outpouring. It made me even more certain that had the film given more space to Jake’s journey, I would have been even more dazzled. Rare is the film I say could use an additional half hour minimum. The Incredible Jake Parker has all the hallmarks of great drama, with the insights of a man who lived it, so I wish we could have really dived into the development of its title character and his incredible story.
Nate’s Grade: C+
The Lodge is a patient, methodical, and unsettling horror movie that establishes an eerie atmosphere, pushes the viewer to question what is going on, and then, upon finally revealing its last secret, sits back and lets the real horror play out to sickening effect. This is from the same writing/directing team behind 2014’s Goodnight Mommy, and you’ll start to wonder whether or not Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz really dislike children. The movie had me on edge early with a sudden jolt of violence, and I felt uneasy from there to the bleak ending. It’s about a father (Richard Armitage) taking his two children for a holiday retreat with his new girlfriend, Grace (Riley Keough), the person the kids blame for breaking up their parents’ marriage. She wants to get to know them and bond but the kids are having none of that. To make matters worse, the kids discover that Grace is the lone survivor of a religious suicide cult. Once at the family lodge in the snowy woods, strange events and messages torment Grace and the kids until they question where they are, what may have happened to them, and if there is an escape. The first act is the family in the wake of trauma and the children viewing Grace as the interloper worthy of their scorn. The second act becomes an existential horror movie that questions whether there has been a shift into the supernatural or divine. The last act reveals what’s really been going on and it’s the consequences of bad choices. The ending trajectory feels fated from the earlier setups, so when everything is falling apart, the danger feels incredibly real. I was so anxious during the ending sequences that I was holding my breath and covering my face. I didn’t know how far this movie would go, and while it pulls back at the very end, the implications are clear even if they aren’t explicit onscreen. Keough (Logan Lucky) plays a character with real depth as a woman trying to reclaim her life from deep-seated trauma, and when events spin out of control, that trauma resurfaces and starts to take over her thinking, placing her on autopilot, which then pushes the film into the realm of tragedy. She’s fabulous and impressively restrained as her character mines layers of self-doubt, bone-deep teachings, and shock. The atmosphere of the film is very fitting for the setting, chilly and isolated and dread-filled. The camera movements are often very deliberate to draw out tension and uncertainty. It all comes together for a very creepy little movie that gets under your skin. The Lodge is not going to be an audience-friendly outing due to its pacing and ending, but consider it an A24 horror film that somehow got away under a different studio.
Nate’s Grade: B+