After receiving such blistering and excoriating responses, I went into writer/director Andrew Dominik’s Blonde with great trepidation. The near-three-hour biopic on the iconic Marilyn Monroe, played by Ana de Armas, is the first movie to earn an NC-17 rating since 2011’s Killer Joe, and as such, there’s a natural curiosity factor to any movie receiving such hostile reactions. Fans and critics have called the movie exploitative, navel-gazing, misogynistic, and redundant misery porn. One critic even said Blonde was “the worst movie Netflix has ever made.” I was a major fan of Dominik’s verbosely titled 2007 film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and less so 2012’s Killing Them Softly, though I recognized sparing artistic merit. It’s been ten years since Dominik has directed a movie, so surely Blonde, based upon the novel by Joyce Carol Oates, had to have some merit beyond all its hype and criticism, right? Well, no. I processed my general disgust for Dominik’s three-hour slow-mo car crash. This movie is so stupendously misguided and cruel and filled with bizarre, outlandish, and maddening artistic decisions. For my movie review, I felt I needed to break my standard formula, so I decided to give voice to my analysis and criticisms by writing a pretend conversation between Dominik and a stand-in for the Netflix production. Enjoy, dear reader, and beware.
Andrew Dominick sits in front of the desk of a very concerned Netflix Producer, who fidgets uncomfortably in his seat and shuffles papers in his hands.
Netflix Producer: So, thanks, Andrew for making time for this meeting. We’ve seen your full movie and we have some… well, concerns.
Andrew Dominik: That’s life, man. You can’t tell stories without risk. Break a few eggs.
Netflix Producer: Yes, sure, but, well, I guess one of our biggest questions is why did you need almost three hours to devote entirely to the lengthy suffering of Marilyn Monroe? This is supposed to be a biopic, but all we get, scene after scene, to a fault, is a moment of Marilyn being abused, or crying, or being generally exploited. It’s… a lot to take in, Andrew.
Andrew Dominik: Hey man, that was her life. She was this glamorous star, but behind the glamor is a lot more dirt and grime. Everyone wanted to be her, and I wanted to show the world how wrong that would be. This is a woman who was desired by the world and she was still a victim in the Old Hollywood system, which was a rape factory. I was just being honest, man.
Netflix Producer: I get that principle, but it really feels like the only version of Marilyn we get in this movie is the role of a long-suffering victim. It’s practically a passion play: The Passion of Marilyn Monroe. You’re cheapening her real-life suffering by making it so redundant to the point of self-parody, and also, if you were so concerned about creating an honest portrayal of what this woman went through, then why are you also making things up to add to her legitimate suffering?
Andrew Dominik: What d’ya mean? I adapted the book.
Netflix Producer: Yes, but you do know that Oates’ book is explicitly fictitious, right? It’s made up. Marilyn never had a throuple relationship with Charlie Chaplain Jr. and Edward G Robinson Jr. Marilyn had a positive relationship with her mother. Even worse, you’re adding fictitious suffering, like her relationship with her mother, or Marilyn being raped during an audition.
Andrew Dominik: Yeah, that might never have happened, but the rape represents the-
Netflix Producer: I’m gonna stop you there. You should refrain from sentences that include the phrase, “The rape represents [blank].” We don’t need literal sexual violence, of which we return to time and again, to stand in for a larger thematic message. Also, it’s quite disingenuous to add extra traumatic experiences when you’re purporting to tell this woman’s real trauma and conflict.
Andrew Dominik: Agree to disagree, then.
Netflix Producer: No, not really, but, okay, Andrew, can you tell me any personable impression you get of Marilyn from this movie? And-and you cannot say “victim.”
Netflix Producer: …Yes?
Andrew Dominik: Sexy?
Netflix Producer: Okay, sex symbol for nearly 60 years after her death, sure. What else?
Andrew Dominik: She was…. Um…. Uh… Can I look this up on my phone?
Netflix Producer: See, Andrew, this is our problem-
Andrew Dominik: Oh, she has daddy issues! There. That.
Netflix Producer: And for an hour you have her referring to all the men in her life as “daddy,” which is very uncomfortable especially when those men are literally abusing her.
Andrew Dominik: But, y’see, she calls ‘em all “daddy” because she has-
Netflix Producer: Oh, we get it. Thank you. You have 160 minutes and you keep hitting the same point over and over, bludgeoning the viewer into submission. It’s more than a bit gratuitous, especially when you factor that you’re adding even more trauma.
Andrew Dominik: What d’ya mean by “gratuitous?”
Netflix Producer: I have prepared several examples. For starters, it might be a bit much within the first twenty minutes of your movie to subject your audience to a mother trying to drown her child in the bathtub and Marilyn being sexually assaulted at one of her first auditions.
Andrew Dominik: Okay. Okay. I get that.
Netflix Producer: Then there’s the ghastly POV shot from inside Marilyn’s vagina, which by God happens twice, and both times it’s during forced abortions. Did we really need that queasy angle that is literally invading her body against her will to accomplish what exactly?
Andrew Dominik: The purpose of any true artist is to go deeper-
Netflix Producer: I’m gonna stop you there again. It’s just bad taste, Andrew. Also, speaking of bad taste, maybe we don’t need the entire sequence where JFK rapes her and then hires government goons to abduct her and force Marilyn into an abortion. And then, on top of all that, she hears the pleas of her first aborted fetus calling back to her. Yikes. Can you at any point step outside of your position, Andrew, and realize how shockingly gratuitous all of that can be?
Andrew Dominik: It’s all designed to separate the person from the icon. Marilyn Monroe never really existed beyond the fantasies of the public, man. It’s about bringing back her humanity.
Netflix Producer: Separating the legend from the person would be a natural artistic angle, but that means spending time establishing the person, building her up through multiple dimensions, multiple opportunities to flesh her out. You only spend time seeing her as a victim, that is when we’re not meant to partake in the same sexualization of her that you seem to be criticizing. I mean the 1996 HBO TV movie managed by having two different actresses portray her, with Naomi Judd as Norma Jean and Mira Sorvino as Marilyn. That literalized the differences and even had Marilyn converse with her former persona as a plot device. You have none of that.
Andrew Dominik: I might not have that, but my movie has a cross dissolve that goes from Marilyn getting banged to the literal crest line of Niagara Falls.
Netflix Producer: I don’t think that really makes up for a lack of character substance.
Andrew Dominik: Agree to disagree, man.
Netflix Producer: You really can’t keep using that as a defense.
Andrew Dominik: Agree to disagree, man.
Netflix Producer: Your horror show of relentless trauma and bad taste might undercut your stated goal of humanizing this woman. She’s not a character but a symbol of abject suffering, a martyr, and you increase her suffering, and sometimes in grating, absurdly grotesque ways. Do you even care about this woman? You’ve devoted three hours to reanimating her as a powerless punching bag.
Andrew Dominik: Well, I did say Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is about “well-dressed whores” and that Blonde is “just another movie about Marilyn Monroe. And there will be others.” I also said that the most important part of her life was that she killed herself.
Netflix Producer: Exactly. That makes us question whether you have the passion and sensitivity for this project. Why does this movie even have to be NC-17? Will your three hour torture chamber be bereft of meaning if the audience doesn’t see two inner vaginal camera angles?
Andrew Dominik: How dare you even question my artistic integrity. If you remove those shots, you might as well be removing the soul of this movie. Why even tell this story?
Netflix Producer: Yes, why indeed?
Andrew Dominik: It’s meant to be disorienting.
Netflix Producer: Congrats.
The Netflix producer leans back in his chair and releases an extended, wearying sigh.
Andrew Dominik: So… after everything…. Are you going to make me cut anything?
Netflix Producer: Please. We’re so hungry for Oscar recognition, we don’t care. Go for it.
I want to cite de Armas’ (The Gray Man) performance as one of the few attributes to the movie. It’s hard to watch this woman suffer and cry in literally every scene, but I also just felt so sad for not just her character but for de Armas as an actress herself. She shouldn’t have to endure everything that she does to play this character. She is undercut by Dominik’s artistic antics and avarice at every turn, like the story jumping around incoherently so every scene fails to build upon one another. There is no genuine character exploration to be found here. It’s a cycle of suffering, and the movie wants to rub your nose in the exploitation of Monroe while simultaneously exploiting her. De Armas deserves better. Marilyn Monroe deserves better. Every viewer deserves better. Spare yourself three awful hours of pointless suffering in the name of misapplied art.
Nate’s Grade: D-
Originally released September 20, 2002:
Secretary is a new romantic comedy with a few kinks to it. It’s actually the most romantic S&M movie ever. It’s the first S&M romantic comedy since maybe Garry Marshall’s disastrous 1994 Exit to Eden. I’m still trying to get the image of Rosie O’Donnell in a bondage mask out of my ongoing nightmares.
Lee Halloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is fresh from a stop at a mental institution for her hazardous habit of cutting herself to feel relief. Her overbearing mother stashes the entire kitchen cutlery in a locked cabinet. The sheltered Lee resorts back to a kiddy make-up box stashed under her home bed. Instead of colorful brushes and arrays of lipstick, she has a selection of sharp objects. Lee goes job hunting to step back from her habit, and is hired as a secretary to E. Edward Gray (James Spader). He is a rigid taskmaster who delights in pointing out typographical errors with his red marker, his weapon of choice. Gray enjoys his dominance and Lee complies, even if it’s routing through garbage. He ticks away Lee’s flaws like a checklist of annoyance but also appears to have genuine concern for her. When he notices her wounds Gray confronts her and convinces Lee to stop cutting herself.
The turning point arrives when Gray orders Lee into his office one afternoon. He commands her to bend over his desk and then delivers a sound spanking. Lee stares at her purple rump with fascination, like something has been awakened inside her. Soon enough Lee purposely makes typos so she can re-assume her spanking position.
Maggie Gyllenhaal is a cinematic find with a fearless and breathtaking performance that is at once delicate, nervous, self-controlled, seductive and delightful. Gyllenhaal, with her heart-like face and pert lips, radiates star quality. She allows the audience into Lee”s head and we quickly fall in love with this peculiar yet charming heroine. If there is any justice in this world Gyllenhaal should at least get an Oscar nomination (she didn’t). Spader can do this left-of-center creepy character stuff in his sleep.
Secretary on the surface may seem like a fetish flick but it’s no different than boy (sadist) meets girl (masochist) and falls in love. Director Steven Shainberg treads carefully around serious subject matter, like Lee’s self-mutilation, to focus on these two very special characters. Secretary isn’t making any loud statements on sadomasochism or post-feminism, it’s just showing us that S&M is the route these two people take to find true love. It doesn’t judge them for their unconventional tastes and neither should we. This is one of the finest romances in recent memory and it seems to come from one of the most unlikely places.
Sadomasochism has been predominantly shown involving pain or some leather-masked madman evoking torture. Secretary may be the film that shows there can be pleasures with pain. Some people regard what Lee and Edward do as sick, perverted, or downright wrong. Secretary is a foot in the door to get people to understand what willing sadomasochism really is about. We all have fetishes and interests, and S&M is the number one fetish truth be told. This isn’t your everyday romance.
Obviously, this is a movie that will not appeal to everyone. The relationship between our leads is surprisingly complex but gentle and even sweet (if that’s the proper word for an S&M romantic comedy). Secretary shows that it truly takes different strokes and, despite an overly silly ending, is the most pleasing romance of the year. You’ll never look at red felt pens the same.
Nate’s Grade: A
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
I’ll be honest with you, dear reader, because I think you deserve that. I didn’t recently re-watch Secretary. I did re-watch it a year or two ago, and the return experience was so jarring that I didn’t feel that I would greatly benefit from watching it so soon again, but I knew I would have to include it on my 2002 re-watch list when it was time. When I first watched it in 2002, I was smitten with its offbeat charms about an unconventional romance through the BDSM community and a young woman’s self-actualization through accepting her kinks. It was a star-making performance from Maggie Gyllenhaal (originally was going to be Gwyneth Paltrow) and as a sucker for quirky romances, it was one of my favorite films of the year. Nearly two decades later, I took out my DVD copy to share with my now fiancé, who is also a fan of quirky romances and who had never watched Secretary. Surely, I thought, she would be entertained. Dear reader, she was very not entertained. She was horrified. She was shaking with disgust. She was having a literal violent reaction to the movie and its onscreen display of what constituted romance, and I will say it struck me differently too. I understand that not every film will age well, as our sense of what is funny or acceptable or what is even compelling will change over time as our culture inevitably shifts. That’s art. But hoo boy has Secretary aged about as well as milk in the ensuing twenty years.
The very nature of the S&M relationship between boss and secretary was already problematic when it was released in 2002, but in a post-Me Too universe it is inexcusable and taints any charms the movie may have had. Mr. Grey (James Spader), the dominant boss and rigid stickler for rules, is the villain of the movie and not its Byronic hero, the brooding and damaged man that a pure-hearted woman just needs to find a magical way to reach and reform. He is not romantic. He is appalling, and the early critical praise, myself included, excused far too much of his behavior. While not condoning his excesses, critics may have given more leeway because the end result was framed as a happy ending, with Lee (Gyllenhaal) being cared for by Mr. Grey. However, he completely uses his position of authority in many inappropriate manners, and while they do develop a mutual relationship, eventually, the power dynamic is not equal at all. This takes away the agency of Lee and makes the romance feel like a false choice. Much of her relationship can be summarized by the awful moment he ejaculates on her back: she just has to take whatever he dishes and like it. That’s not romantic. That’s not cute. That’s toxic. It also hurts the overall movie that the way Lee proves her devotion as the film’s climax is to stay fixed at her boss’ desk for many days, to the detriment of her physical health. Yes, Mr. Grey gets Lee to kick her habit of self-harming but she replaces one need with another. He resembles a predator by most every definition, and to try and say, “Well, he’s just complicated,” is bad man excuse-making.
I tried imagining tweaks and alterations that could make this all work, but anything where he is her boss muddies the issue of consent. Maybe if he was a visiting businessman, but that would also offer a questionable dynamic. The core of Secretary is built upon the secretary/boss interplay and imagery. The tagline is, “Assume the position,” and depending upon the poster, you might only get a woman’s rear in fishnets as the sole imagery. Director Steven Shainberg (Fur) and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (Chloe, The Girl on the Train) are clearly veering into the obvious office power dynamics for provocation. They are very intentional about subverting romantic clichés and looking for something different for our heroine. We have a nice guy, played with squirmy energy by Jeremy Davies, who just won’t cut it. He’s too vanilla for her and afraid to be too forceful in his spanking. It’s like the filmmakers are declaring that Lee demands more, and her specific combination of qualities just so happens to align with this gross man. The movie wants us to hold our judgment, and I could in 2002 in a “love is love” declaration, but what I see on-screen in 2022 is not indicative of love. It’s obsession. It’s codependency. It’s sad.
The other problem, sadly, is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s fragile performance. The choices she makes collapse Lee, greatly infantilizing her and magnifying all the icky feelings I had. She’s playing Lee less like an adult woman who is struggling to figure out her confusing life, and impulses, and more like a teenager who woke up in the body of an adult woman. Part of this is the screenplay but it’s not helped by the acting choices that Gyllenhaal engages with. I do really enjoy her as an actress, and it’s easy to see why she could captivate so many circa 2002 with this performance, but it plays so differently now. Today, she comes across as another young woman trying to remodel herself to please a man. Her little girl acting choices only make the courtship feel even more abhorrent. I wonder if they were trying to aim for the movie to be its own kinky fable, wherein the infantilization would harken back to older fairy tale tropes and Mr. Grey as the unorthodox knight in shining armor.
This is one of the biggest critical swings I’ve had since re-watching twenty-year-old movies and my initial reviews, and I’d say even one of my biggest changes on any movie I’ve watched. I do think you can make a funny and sexy S&M rom-com; for years I thought Secretary was it. Not so. I wouldn’t even recommend this movie and it used to be in my top of 2002. I suppose people who are curious could give it a chance, but I think the objections outweigh whatever positives can be gained from viewing. Oh well. That’s the nature of art. Not every movie or book or song will have the same power over time. They stay the same but we, the prism upon which art is judged and related, are constantly in flux. That’s just the way it is. This won’t be the last movie where my opinion changes dramatically. I just won’t watch Secretary again, and that’s okay.
And you’ll never be able to convince me that E.L. James didn’t take her BDSM character’s name from this film.
Re-View Grade: D
Part COVID character study, part Blow Out murder conspiracy, and part corporate thriller, Kimi is a lean 90-minute thriller that doesn’t overstay its welcome even as it’s constantly morphing. Kimi is the Siri./Alexa-esque personal A.I. assistant device found in millions of consumer homes. Angela (Zoe Kravitz) is an agoraphobic Seattle tech worker who clears the Kimi user problems, and one day she overhears a recording of a woman being murdered, the same woman who accuses the Kimi CEO of assault. The first half of the movie is establishing the crippling anxiety and welcomed routines for Angela as well as the geography of her home, a point that will be more important in the final act. Kravitz is good but too much time is spent analyzing the captured audio and getting her ready to leave. From there, she ventures outside to report the crime, and that’s when powerful people try and abduct or kill her. The movie is brisk and has a constant nervous energy to it, never better than when Angela meets with her shady corporate HR rep (Rita Wilson). However, these killer corporate goons committing don’t seem as scary efficient like in Michael Clayton, so mundanely proficient at ending lives. These guys are more bumbling goons, which takes some of the threat away, though I still relished Angela getting the better of her attackers. For so much buildup about Angela’s terror of the outside world, I was expecting more obstacles relating to her personal agoraphobic fears, but these concerns are dropped too easily once she’s running away from scary bad guys. It’s a thriller that doesn’t exactly transcend its influences and inspirations, but there should still be room for well-made, derivative B-movie thrillers that still know how to entertain. Director Steven Soderbergh and writer David Koepp are genre veterans so even a lesser effort will be effortlessly better than most. Kimi is a narrow but enjoyable thriller that had some room for improvement but still satisfies.
Nate’s Grade: B
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