It’s easy to see the appeal of contained thrillers from a production standpoint, but I’ve always found them to be a fun, crafty thought exercise that I’ve often enjoyed playing along. I’ll rename them “survival thrillers” because I think that’s truer to what they encounter, whether it’s in a small, contained environment or whether they are simply a victim of unique circumstances. I enjoy watching a character analyze and attack a problem and find workable solutions. There’s a natural vehicle for satisfaction there, whether it’s Matt Damon learning how to farm on Mars, or Ryan Reynolds being buried alive in a coffin, or a group of teenagers stuck on a ski lift. It’s a fun scenario to try and solve, especially in the relative comfort of your own home. Given their success and general low-cost nature, it was only a matter of time before these kinds of thrillers would dominate indie direct-to-streaming cinema. I guess then I shouldn’t be that surprised the Christian movie market would want in too. Shut In is the first original film distributed by The Daily Wire, the subscription run by conservative political wunderkind Ben “debate me!” Shapiro. Shut In began as a 2019 Black List script, the list of the most liked unproduced screenplays, and at one point Jason Bateman was going to direct. From there, it’s now Ben Shapiro’s Godsploitation thriller, and it has its own virtues and sins.
Jessica Nash (Rainey Qualley) is doing her best with some of the worst circumstances. She’s got two young children, one still an infant, and scraping by for money. She’s a recovering meth addict and has inherited her grandmother’s home that she’s looking to sell. As she’s cleaning up the premises, she accidentally locks herself inside a pantry. Making matters worse is that her meth-addict ex-boyfriend Rob (Jake Horrowitz) and his no-good pedophile pal Sammy (Vincent Gallo) come around looking for a score. Jessica must use her wits, strength, and fortitude to escape the pantry, keep the dangerous men away from her children, and also reject the temptation of indulging in drugs as an escape for her mounting troubles.
From the vantage point of a survival thriller, Shut In makes more under its circumstances that I would have assumed but also, strangely, less with the personal stakes. Whenever developing a problem-solution story structure, you need to make sure the dots connect and there’s a natural progression of events. You’re stuck in a room, now what? Jessica benefits because she has a helper on the outside; however, that person is only a young child, and therefore unreliable and unable to firmly grasp multi-step instructions. This also allowed me to channel the main character’s frustrations as well, especially when she was asking her kid to find things like tools to better claw away at the door and floor. This gives her an outlet but another challenge as well because the child becomes a point of vulnerability. When Sammy comes back into the picture, his presence is immediately the priority, and Jessica needs to neutralize him or make sure he cannot reach her daughter on the other side of the door. Screenwriter Melanie Toast seems to understand that the predicament she devises runs into natural end points, so she throws in extra escalations, which then become the next challenge. It’s self-aware scripting, but it also runs the risk of the challenges feeling not as challenging and the movie feeling more episodic.
The most confounding plot point was how underplayed the drug addiction angle is. It’s part of her overall tragic past, and the movie hints about past sexual trauma as well to further haunt our lead’s dark “before time,” but we don’t ever really feel her trouble with staying clean. It’s more like the drugs represent her former life, the one with her ex who is still in the thrall of meth. We could have used maybe even a monologue of Jessica talking about the pull of drugs, how important they were to her before, and how she never liked the persons he was, perhaps the shame she feels for the things she had down previously for drugs, and her intent at redemption, all to the audience of the child she’s meaning to do better by. There’s an entire character arc worth of detail that can be unleashed to really provide better depth. When her ex tosses his three grams of meth into the pantry, it’s meant to be a significant temptation, but the movie never really plays this as a sufficient challenge. It would be as if the guy just tossed in a small packet of laundry powder for how much personal attention it’s given. There was a short moment where it looks like, with all hope lost, that Jessica might succumb, but for the far, far majority of the running time, this drug temptation is underplayed. If this Jessica wasn’t going to struggle over using drugs again, why not just have her toss them down the sink? It’s a curious mitigated plot point for something that seems more significant than presented.
This is also directed by D.J. Caruso, a man who was making big-budget Hollywood action movies in the early 2010s like Eagle Eye and I Am Number Four. This is likely the lowest budget Caruso has ever worked with, but he doesn’t make the movie feel visually dull. There’s way too much imagery with apples though, including apples rotting at their core (you get it?) and eventually Jessica peeling the brown from an apple and saying the rest is still plenty good (you get it?). It feels like the apple was a lazy visual symbol meant to appeal to its, presumably, more Christian-affiliated target audience (“You see, the apple… means… temptation”). The tension can be finely attuned especially when we’re trapped in the pantry with Jessica and having to rely upon the sound design to understand the looming threats. I wish Caruso had pulled back at more points. Later, Sammy holds Jessica’s kid hostage with a knife to her little throat, promising to kill her, while everyone is screaming so loudly that it almost feels like we’ve landed in farce. The exploitation thriller elements feel in conflict with the lighter Christian elements. The God parts feel almost tacked on, especially when Jessica doesn’t reveal anything about her own faith. Looking at a hanging cross and deciding not to do drugs does not count as sufficient integration.
This is also Vincent Gallo’s first film role in ten years. for a period in the late 1990s, Gallo was the toast of the indie film scene and then he burnt through all that collective good will (also credit The Brown Bunny making people question those earlier accolades). I’ll credit Gallo acting like a believable creep and a snarling threat. He’s the best actor in the movie, and he delivers enough in this do-nothing part that makes me wish he would act more often. Qualley (sister to Margaret Qualley, also the daughter of Andie MacDowell) is fine, though her Southern accent seems to get the better of her at parts. Her performance is more physical than emotional.
Shut In is a small movie likely intended for a small audience while it drafts off the genre formula of larger, more polished survival thrillers. It goes through stretches where it relatively works, stripped down to its bare genre essentials, and then moments where I wish more was going on viscerally and intellectually. That’s where the movie needed to open up its protagonist more substantially, give more consideration to her internal struggles rather than keeping everything strictly externalized. Her drug addiction and the immediate proximity of drugs needed to be much more a trial of will. If you’re stuck with characters in a confined space, you need to either use that time to make the character more intriguing and compelling or keep the obstacles coming. Shut In transitions with new obstacles to overcome, but it still doesn’t feel like enough for this 89-minute movie. It’s an acceptable genre entry but had more potential with its lead character and with its thrills. It settles too often, and there’s nothing godly about settling when you could have been an even mightier movie.
Nate’s Grade: C+
There is little else like a Pedro Almodóvar movie. The famed Spanish writer/director has been making movies since the 1980s and across an eclectic array of tones and genres. He can make a sexual farce, an unsettling thriller, a moving character-based drama, or a movie with elements of all three in harmony. Almodóvar has found ways to take some of the strangest story elements and make them feel real. Watch a movie like 2002’s Talk to Her, which he won his only (!) Oscar for, or 2011’s The Skin I Live In, or 2006’s Volver, and marvel at how seamlessly Almodóvar can combine any element, any genre, any twist, and turn it into genuine emotional pathos. He’s a witty man but rarely is he flippant, especially as he matured throughout the 1990s. He genuinely cares about his characters and treats their dramas as serious business no matter the content. Parallel Mothers is another example of Almodóvar, even in his seventies, operating at the top of his unique artistic capabilities. This is definitely one of the best movies of 2021. Find it when you can, dear reader.
Janis (Penelope Cruz) and Ana (Milena Smit) are both recent mothers in Madrid; Janis is pushing 40 and planned on having her first child, and Ana is in her late teens and her pregnancy was an accident. They share a hospital room, bond over their ordeal, and exchange phone numbers to keep in touch. Months later, both women are acclimating to the growing demands of motherhood, except for a gnawing doubt that has taken hold of Janis. Her boyfriend and the reported father of her baby, Arturo (Israel Elejalde), believes he is not the baby’s father and wants a DNA test. Janis is outraged, but the more she begins to think about it, the more she cannot let this nagging doubt go.
Parallel Mothers is an unpredictable drama that also has a surprising heft to it when it comes to emotional substance. When I read the premise of this movie, I erroneously thought it was going to be a two-hander of a story about two different mothers, one older and one younger, connecting over their new babies and sharing their experiences, hopes, and fears about raising a child at their respective ages. That is a fraction of the movie, but Almodóvar’s deft storytelling is refreshingly nuanced and unexpected. There were several turns in the movie where I audibly said, “Ohhhhh,” or, “Did not see that coming.” Instead of resting on his plot turns, Almodóvar makes sure that the aftermath is given its due time. I really appreciated that; here is a writer who knows throwing sensational elements or twists is not as important as focusing on how they affect the characters and narrative. When Janis begins to doubt whether her child is hers, that’s when Almodóvar is just getting started. There are several twists that are so well staged and developed, and each one brings added intensity and another chance to revise everything we know. I loved watching the movie because I genuinely could not anticipate where things would go next, and each additional turn was organic, meaningful, and would compound the guilt or fears of the main characters. It might seem like a soap opera when you distill all these outrageous elements to their essence, but Almodóvar has always excelled at taking the outrageous and making it sincere.
The movie explores motherhood but also generational connections and understanding the past to better understand the present. Janis and Ana have different though distant relationships to their mothers. For Janis, her mother died of a drug overdose at the age of 27 when she was only five years old. She was raised by her grandmother and has no picture of her biological father (the only thing she knows about him is that he was a Venezuelan drug dealer). By having a child, a goal she’s wanted to do for some time before 40, it allows her a chance of bringing her father’s genetics back into the world, to potentially see what he may look like, to bring back life that has been absent. It’s such a beautiful idea, and also articulated in 2009’s Away We Go to poignant effect. For Janis, having a child is a way for her to reconnect with her past, her parents she’s never known, and honor her grandmother. For Ana, her own mother left her when she was younger to purse her acting career, and now that she’s having a baby history is repeating as she’s once again leaving to tour with a theater show. Janis thought she knew who the father of her baby was, and insists she was only intimate with Arturo, but this ends up being another point of connection between the two mothers. Ana is unsure whom the father is of her child, though hopeful it’s a select person she had feelings for at the time. These babies mean different things for each woman but they both love them completely, no matter what devastation happens later. These beloved children are means of connecting to their past.
Another aspect that Almodóvar includes strengthened this movie as great for me, and initially it seemed like an odd fit until the thematic richness becomes realized. Before she was pregnant, Janis was determined to secure an exhumation of what is believed to be a mass grave in a small rural village from the Spanish Civil War and Francisco Franco’s regime. Using modern technology and careful attendants, they can uncover this crime of the past and provide closure and dignity to generations of family members still left with unanswered questions. The movie returns to this storyline again late, as if Almodóvar is putting a fine point on bringing home his message of reckoning with our past and the importance of uncovering painful truths. Janis and Arturo return to this small village and interview descendants about what they can remember about their departed loved ones, the men whose remains may be found. It’s such a sincere expression of empathy and generosity, and the short snippets of interviews allow the movie to broaden its scope, adding different mothers and daughters to the sphere and creating even more spokes of human connection. What Janis is doing is a legitimate kindness, an act she hopes to better understand her own history and family ties to the worst that her country had to offer under Franco. One villager recounts how her grandfather had to dig his own grave, then was sent home for the night, only to be reclaimed and never return the next day. “Why didn’t he run if given the chance?” Janis asks. The descendant relates he couldn’t be without his wife and daughter, even for a night, even if it meant his certain doom.
Cruz has never been better than when she’s collaborated with Almodóvar (2006’s Volver was her first Oscar nomination). She goes through some emotional wringers here, the details of which I will not spoil, but it is an understatement to say that Janis is presented with a very complicated scenario. Each scene, especially in the second half once Almodóvar’s box of twists has been unpacked, has so much conflicted emotion for Cruz to cycle through on her face, swallowing guilt and hope and desire and dread. She’s fully deserving of another Oscar nomination for her heartbreaking work with the messiest of material. Smit (The Girl in the Mirror) is a screen partner equal to the challenge but her character is more in the dark by narrative necessity.
I’m loath to reveal too much more when it comes to the potent central drama of Parallel Mothers, because it’s so well developed and so well performed that you should really experience it for yourself. Knowing ahead of time the added complexities won’t ruin the movie, but I had more appreciation for how Almodóvar was so nimbly able to keep upending my expectations and my sense of understanding as it pertained to the two mothers. It’s a delicate drama, nourishing with empathy and also heart-rending in the dread of what Janis may choose to do next. Thank you, filmmakers of the world, for lifting the 2021 year in cinema for me. Parallel Mothers is one of the best films you’ll see this year and an affecting examination on reconciliation.
Nate’s Grade: A
As a film critic part of a credited organization, I’m used to getting goodies in what I call “screener season,” the months of October to December when studios want to court critical favor for year-end consideration of their assorted movies for awards and titles. Netflix has sent me enough heavy coffee table books that I could, in Cosmo Kramer-style, fashion a literal coffee table made from them. For The Lost Daughter, Netflix sent me quite a bundle, including the film’s source material, a 110-page novella written by Italian author Elena Ferrante (My Brilliant Friend), which I read, and an actual bottle of sauvignon blanc wine. This was the first time a movie studio had sent me alcohol (my girlfriend drank a glass and did not like it, so thanks anyway, Netflix, but we dumped the bottle). I found the novella to be well written with plenty of poetic insights and turns of phrase, but I didn’t see the movie there. After sitting down and watching the two-hour feature film, I still don’t quite see the movie in this story.
Leda (Olivia Colman) is 48 years old, a literary professor, and vacationing on a small villa in Greece. Her time away is disrupted by a large, boisterous family sharing her resort. Leda is intrigued by a mother, Nina (Dakota Johnson), and her young daughter, Elena. It makes her reflective of her own time as a mother (played in flashback by Betty Buckley) to her two daughters, now both in their early twenties and having little to do with their mother. One day, Leda picks up Elena’s forgotten doll from the beach with the intention of returning her to the child, and then she simply does not do this. Leda grows closer to Nina, disapproving of her arrogant husband, her boorish relatives, and some of her risky personal choices, and we’re left to question whether she’s relating to this young, besieged mother or judging her from afar.
This is one of those character study films that will ebb and flow on the level of the performers, and the actors elevate the material beyond what is present on the page. There are several intriguing conversations that shed light on characters and their view of parenthood, like Leda explaining how she feels that she gave the best of herself to her daughters when they were born, and now what she’s left with are the scraps. It’s not breaking new ground to view motherhood in non-glamorous terms. I thought 2018’s Tully did this with great observational detail, unsparing honesty, and great empathy. The Lost Daughter is not exactly Tully, which explored the hardships of motherhood with a put-upon woman who was valiantly struggling to keep her head above water, but it was a woman who wanted to be in the fight. With this movie, you never quite get a clear sense of Leda’s relationship with her two children, who are mostly kept to flashbacks when they are very young. Writer/director Maggie Gyllenhaal (yes, that Maggie Gyllenhaal) employs a non-linear plot to better inform the interior thinking of Leda, so we’ll have past and present juxtaposed for our ongoing evaluation. This is a smart way to follow the imprecise nature of hazy memory. There will be moments that will cause you discomfort, like when one of Leda’s young children is pleading through tears for her mother to kiss her wounded finger, and Leda withholds doing this as a power play, as an act of spite, as a knowing punishment for her wailing child. It’s also potentially relatable for others out there who too have, at the apex of their frustrations and exhaustion, lashed out at children and regretted it later, acknowledging that every parent will fail at some point over the long journey of time and to only attempt to minimize the inherent damage that will be left.
The Lost Daughter becomes an exercise in how long you want to spend with a pleasantly unpleasant woman. Leda is complicated, yes, but she’s also admittedly cruel and selfish, and the movie is trying to make her a case study, to shed our moral judgements and acknowledge that parenthood can be a draining experience. I understand the intention for embarking on empathy for unsympathetic characters; hundreds of movies have invited us into the minds of unlikable and downright psychopathic characters. I’ve always said that I need not like a character, I only need to find them interesting to keep me watching. Leda is an interesting woman because of where she veers from common practice. Most of us would return a missing doll to her rightful owner, especially as that child is grief-stricken and her wave of terror is affecting everyone in her family. Most of us would recognize others suffering and our ability to ease this, to absolve that suffering in an instant, and we would do so. Then the question becomes why isn’t Leda returning this doll to this child? The movie is an elusive attempt to answer, and each person’s interpretation will undoubtedly be different. I don’t know if this doll, perhaps the “lost daughter” of the film’s title, is Leda attempting to hold onto her own daughters, reclaim a version of motherhood that suits her, that doesn’t require of her. Or maybe she views the doll with derision. Whatever the case may be, have at it, dear reader, and enjoy not getting this question resolved.
I completely understand viewers growing frustrated with watching two hours of a middle-aged woman holding onto a child’s doll and refusing to return it. It’s spiteful, and maybe that’s the point. Maybe Leda wants to impart the same lessons of hardship she endured as a struggling mother at her wits end. Maybe it’s her way of trying to shake Nina to re-examine whether being a mother is a role she is cut out for. Maybe it’s simply the continuation of a sadistic rationalization, “I had to suffer through this, so then you should have to suffer too” that props up whenever sociopolitical reforms and progress are met with generational push-back. By the end of the movie, I don’t know if Leda has seriously changed her outlook or sense of self. I don’t know if anything has really changed, and I don’t know if we’ve gotten to understanding her any better. Again, maybe that’s the point; people are complicated and possibly unknowable. But as a filmmaker showing us a character’s interior life and flashbacks, maybe you should try.
There is a late revelation in the movie that is going to be a deal-breaker for many. I won’t spoil it, though I will say that this reveal is covered in the first chapter of the novella, providing you this key piece of info as a prism for your early assessment. It explains why Leda has a strained relationship with her adult daughters and why thinking back about her perceived parenting failures causes her shivers of grief and guilt. At the same time, there are plenty of feminist stories about women shirking societal demands, so others could perceivablly view this revelation as an act of empowerment or self-determination, and others may just find it as the final straw in giving up in trying to sympathize with an already difficult person.
Fortunately, if you’re going to build a movie around a challenging character, Colman (The Father) and Buckley (I’m Thinking of Ending Things) are two of the most compelling actors for the cause. Much of their performances is naturally guarded, requiring each actress to hold back and utilize more subtle acting muscles. Colman’s middle-aged Leda is more set in her perception of self, more settled though not quite self-assured, so her performance seems more like cracking through a veneer and pushing back, trying to find the real Leda’s feelings about her life and the people she is socializing with. Colman is mesmerizing as always. Buckley’s young Leda is the version that is fraught with being an attentive mother as well as a burgeoning literary academic. Hers is the role of frustration, of shutting down, of desiring an escape hatch from the perils of motherhood. When young Leda is away on an academic retreat, she’s like a completely different person, and Buckley makes it clear that she covets this version of herself. Both women are gifted actresses and provide lifelines for the viewer to better analyze and unpack Leda as a puzzle.
Gyllenhaal makes an impressively natural debut as a director. Her camera is usually very closely tied to her actors, bobbing to catch up and keep them in frame, afraid of leaving their sights. Her attention to detail is solid and her command of the actors is strong across the board. Her adaptation makes smart choices to better visualize the drama. After I read the novella, I genuinely wondered how the movie could even convey the material. It was so insular, so personal, and again, much of the onscreen drama was a woman hiding a doll from a child. I was worried the movie might become a ridiculous thriller of waiting for Leda to be caught, how she had to go to greater lengths to keep her secret, and thankfully that is not the case.
I can easily foresee The Last Daughter becoming a polarizing movie upon its Netflix streaming release at the end of the month. Some will hail it for being challenging and thorny, an indictment on the expectations of motherhood from a society that sets ambitious women up to fail. Some, and I predict the majority of viewers, will find the movie to be an insufferable character study of a misanthropic protagonist. I know the movie wasn’t trying to make an audience like its lead character, but I don’t know if by the end we are better at understanding her and her choices. It leads to a sort of, “That’s all there is?” ending that will frustrate many. The acting is strong to excellent overall and Gyllenhaal has a bright future ahead as a director, but The Lost Daughter might be too lost for too many to care. Just give the kid back her doll already, lady!
Nate’s Grade: B-
Every so often I’ll watch a movie and be really intrigued or hopeful with the premise, something that really grabs my imagination, and then that hope crashes and burns in disappointment of a story that never fully takes advantage of all the tantalizing possibilities of its start. In short, I say, “That movie didn’t deserve its premise.” That’s the first thing I thought about after watching Netflix’s new apocalyptic thriller, Awake, where humanity is suddenly incapable of going to sleep. There’s an engrossing drama about the psychological descent and a potent political thriller about the destabilizing of civilization once people are unable to get their forty winks. The premise peculates with such promise, and for it to become yet another end times road trip, hewing so closely to a solidifying formula, is like trapping everyone in a (bird) box.
Jill (Gina Rodriguez) is a former soldier, recovering addict, and current security guard who is also selling opioids on the side to make ends meet. One day, people are no longer able to sleep, everyone except her young daughter. Jill rescues her two children, gets into a car, and drives off for a far off scientific research base where a scientist (Jennifer Jason-Leigh) studying sleep might have the knowledge of how to solve this worldwide mystery.
I think most people have dealt with the effects of sleep deprivation at some point in their life, especially if they have ever had a newborn child. The subject matter is very relatable. I had a bout of insomnia years ago where I was averaging less than two hours of sleep for weeks, and it was the worst physical endurance I’ve gone through in my, admittedly privileged, existence. I felt like a zombie, barely able to function, my head forever fuzzy, and I lost all desire to eat and had to compel my body to consume food I knew it needed for fuel. I even purchased the Ensure nutritional drinks. It was a miserable time and I was even getting a minimal amount of sleep rather than none whatsoever. I’ve had rough sleep certain nights and feel like I’m running on fumes for the rest of my workday. It takes far more time to bounce back from bad sleep, and I’m wondering if I’ll ever actually get consistently restful sleep again for the rest of my life. With all of that stated, Awake should be an easy movie to plug right into and relate to the deterioration. However, it’s so unclear and clumsy in its depictions of the world. It’s unclear until the very very end how long the world has gone without sleep, and so we run into examples that seem to paint two different pictures of our apocalyptic environment: overplaying and underplaying.
At times, Awake is overplaying the effects of the mental breakdown of society. At points, it feels like society has broken down so completely and over a confusing timeline. There are run-ins with a group of elderly naked people just standing around and acting serene, a prison where the inmates walk out for unspecified reasons involving the guards, and a church that has already gone full-borne cult crazy by thinking that sacrificing the little girl who can sleep means they’ll be able to share in her slumber. The movie didn’t establish these people as crazy religious fundamentalists, so this sudden bloodthirsty turn feels like a leap. Even in 2007’s The Mist, the trapped townspeople gave into the corrupting influence of the religious bigot over time and distress. It reminded me of another Netflix apocalyptic, parental road movie, 2019’s The Silence, where it seemed like it was mere hours before a select group of people started cutting their tongues out and declaring they needed to kidnap women for the purpose of re-population. I suppose some people are just looking for the first good excuse to indulge their baser impulses, but then explore more of this feature with meaningful characters that will matter when they break bad. I think the movie would have greatly benefited from a clear timeline, some helpful titles keeping up with the clock, things like “50 Hours In,” and the premise could have been revised to be a slow evaporation of sleep rather than a strict cut-off. Maybe people are only able to get two hours a night, then one hour, then 30 minutes, and people are freaking out because they know it’s getting less. Let society have some measure of reconciling with the totality of what is to come.
At times, Awake is also paradoxically underplaying the effects of the mental breakdown of society. For the majority of the movie, our characters aren’t really acting differently even though they have been awake for multiple days. This is what also made me so confused. How much time has passed if nobody seems to be making a big deal about it? The slips in reaction time and awareness don’t really feel integrated until the chaotic conclusion. The family comes across the wreckage of an airplane and make no big deal of it. For that matter, if we’re establishing that sleep deprivation is causing planes to fall from the sky, I think there should be thousands of these crash sites dotting the landscape, unless the airlines have wised up and decided to ground their pilots because they’re afraid of potential post-post-apocalyptic class action lawsuits. Travels with Jill become too leisurely for everything that is going on (note to self: pitch an Anthony Bourdain-style travelogue during an apocalyptic social breakdown and tasting the new culinary delicacies). She senses that she will die and needs to train her children to survive in this new world without her. However, if only her daughter can sleep, then presumably only she will be left alive in due time and it’s less about fending for herself against other people and more how to live off the land. There’s an existential and more poetic, prosaic version of Awake where Jill is trying to cram years and years of parenting into a precious couple of days, where she also tries to secure a fortified hiding place for her daughter to wait out the rest of humanity dying off before she can come out like a hibernating animal. For Jill, its about securing her child’s survival rather than reversing this plague that is dooming humanity. There’s a stronger movie that could have been made had Awake been more personal and more serious rather than schlocky and muddled.
The movie does have a few moments of bizarre effect or risible tension, but these moments are few and far between and director/co-writer Mark Raso (Kodachrome) is very transparent about his genre influences. There’s a roadside checkpoint where a group of armed people try and break inside Jill’s vehicle and pull her and anyone else out the windows. The car is still driving as the assault goes on and the camera remains inside the vehicle while rotating around the interior as the attack plays out in a real-time long take. If you’ve seen the sci-fi masterpiece Children of Men, then this description should already be ringing a few bells of recognition. It’s not that Raso cannot pay homage to the sci-fi inspirations of his tale, but when you draw direct comparisons by emulating very specific artistic choices done by superior filmmakers, you’re inviting a negative impression. A standoff between Jill and an increasing exodus of prisoners had a queasy anxiousness to it because the movie lets the scene build with direct, immediate stakes. There’s a similar scene where Jill is hiding in a garage from voices, but the stakes don’t translate as well because our knowledge of who the other men are is limited. She could just sit in a corner and wait. The plane wreckage scene is impressively designed, and there are a few genuinely surprising moments, like the crowd of naked old people, to keep things curious, but Awake too often settles again and again for the most formulaic and least interesting creative path.
If this all sounds a lot like Netflix’s Bird Box, then congrats, because you’ve likely caught onto the reason this movie exists. Both movies feature an unexplained worldwide phenomenon that results in the breakdown of society where mobs and cults have formed, and both movies feature a single mother trying to lead her two children, one boy and one girl, through the hazards of the road so they can reach a supposed secure place where authority figures will have answers, and both movies feature a normal facet of human existence that, once removed, is making people go crazy and mess with their perception. Both of the movies also provide plum roles for high-profile actresses. Rodriguez (Miss Bala) is a compelling actress who has shined in lighter, rom-com material (Jane the Virgin), in quirky character-driven indies (Kajillionaire), and in somber existential horror (Annihilation). She has the tools to be great. Awake did not give her enough. There are a couple of scenes, late, of her starting to lose her bearings, and it’s here that I wished the filmmakers had realized that showing the effects of this cataclysm would be best than underplaying or overplaying the deprivation. Awake is an apocalyptic road trip that will bore more than excite and frustrate more than engage. Who knew sleeplessness was such a snooze?
Nate’s Grade: C-
More an acting exercise than a fully developed movie, Pieces of a Woman is a punishing experience for the audience as much as the actors onscreen. The entire first 30 minutes is comprised of watching a home birth in an extended long take, which doesn’t so much immerse you in the situation as beg the question of, “How’d they do that?” The sequence concludes with a rushed delivery and an asphyxiated child, and then we cut to the title screen. From there, it’s 90 minutes of what agonizing grief does to this family. Vanessa Kirby (The Crown) plays the mother and she doesn’t want to let go but also feels uncomfortable that their flustered midwife is being charged with negligent homicide. Her boyfriend (Shia LaBeouf) is struggling to maintain their relationship and move past their shared tragedy. Her mother (Ellen Burstyn) is a domineering presence and wants the boyfriend gone and the midwife in jail. It’s all very well acted and Kirby does a fine job dredging up pure emotional devastation. The problem is that Pieces of a Woman has seemed to confuse drama with plot. There are many dramatic moments that occur but they don’t really provide greater insight into the main characters who are, at their core from that half-hour mark onward, broken people coming to terms with their response to the unimaginable. It seems paradoxical because the concept of a grieving family, angry and looking to blame someone, a relationship splintered where each party is potentially having an affair to feel something diverting, mother-daughter head-butting, it all seems like foundational elements of compelling drama. The problem is that we don’t ever get progression with the characters and their emotional states from these very dramatic events. They’re suffering, they’re unhappy, they’re numb to the pain yet carrying on, but are they interesting? Are we getting more of a sense over who they are or how they’ve changed? I would argue no. The movie feels locked into stagnation. I think a major stumbling block was spending so much time establishing a realistic birthing sequence opening, aided by a roving and unblinking camera, when the same information could have been covered in the first ten minutes and not first 30. It’s excessive and repetitive, but then so are the 90 minutes that follow that wallow in unchecked misery. It’s an approach that can take some of the devastation out of the horrific. Pieces of a Woman will be available on Netflix streaming starting tomorrow and despite its artistic merits and good acting I can’t exactly argue that it’s worth enduring the pain over.
Nate’s Grade: C+
I’m Your Woman does for the gangster/crime genre what You Were Never Really Here did for the loner revenge thriller, namely demystify popular tropes and find a humanity often missing below the surface. We’ve been inured to gangster cinema for decades and love following the criminal antics of bad men without fully thinking about the collateral damage on the periphery of their story. I’m Your Woman imagines a typical crime story but from a very human perspective, focusing on the wife who has to deal with the confusion and fallout from her husband’s misdeeds. It’s a refreshing and modern take that works as moody paranoia thriller just as much as it does a subversion of them.
It’s the 1970s. Jean (Rachel Brosnahan) is married to a man who she knows does some very bad things. One day Eddie (Bill Heck) comes home with a baby that he declares is theirs. Where did this baby come from? Jean cannot say but she chooses to raise this child as her own son. Another day, her husband goes out with some friends and never comes back. One of his associates barges into her home in the middle of the night, bloodied, and tells her that Eddie is gone and she needs to likewise be leaving in a hurry. He tasks Cal (Arinze Kene) to drive Jean and her baby out of town, watch over her, and wait until the heat dies down or everyone else just ends up dead.
And with that, the movie is off to a gallop and Jean doesn’t know what’s happened to her life, only that it’s bad, and she doesn’t know where her husband may be, or even if he’s alive, but she’s told that people will be coming for her to get to him or to punish him, and so she must be whisked away in the middle of the night into hiding. We as the audience are left very much in the dark with Jean, and this precious little information allows us to very strongly feel her paranoia and anxiety. Every scene when she’s been left alone and sees a car coming closer, every knock on the door, it raises the suspense because your mind, like hers, is questioning everything. Admittedly, some will find this to be rather boring and a lacking perspective, but I thought the approach of director/co-writer Julia Hart (Stargirl) was to highlight the perspective of a character often taken for granted and forgotten in gangster cinema and its celebration of doomed antiheroes. We’re used to criminals neglecting their molls, and I’m Your Woman declares its allegiance right in the title. We’re on the run with this woman, trying to make sense of the plight as we go, and being trapped in a position of limited information is an intriguing and relatable dash of realism.
There are violent outbursts from time to time, but much like You Were Never Really Here (the two of these movies would make a good double-feature, folks), the violence is far from glorified and often denied to the viewer. Much of the violence is depicted off-screen and we watch Jean stumble upon its awful consequences, again linking up with the perspective of a bystander to the careening violence and mayhem from her romantic attachment to a life of crime. There’s a mass shooting inside a club that is deeply unnerving because of our limited perspective. We’re tethered to Jean and hear the off-screen gunshots getting closer, the screams of civilians, and the camera keeps running without a cut as she dashes down a long corridor but cannot find an exit. She ducks into a phone booth and we watch armed men pass by. She waits and makes her escape, tripping over bleeding bodies, and the camera continues in one ongoing take. It’s nerve-wracking but it also denies us coherency or clarity which makes it so much scarier (I was having visions of what people might have gone through with the Pulse nightclub massacre). Given its subject, there are moments of sudden, shocking violence but often it’s to disorient us and not as some delivery system of satisfaction. It would be very easy to follow a more traditional formula for Jean where being thrust into fending for herself turns her into a steely killer that lays waste to the men hunting her as finds her own means of authority. That was essentially the plot of last year’s The Kitchen, a fairly mediocre and disappointing movie about threatened mob wives. That’s not this movie. Jean doesn’t become a ruthless mob boss. She certainly attains an agency that she didn’t have at the start of the film and a well-earned resilience, but she’s always a grounded, frantic, and relatable person trying to keep their wits and not serve up a witty retort.
Because much of the movie involves the protagonist in wait and picking up small pieces of information to reform her sense of self and her dire circumstances, the digressions had better be worth it. I fully believe I’m Your Woman is going to be a divisive movie and it will entertain likely as many people as it leaves cold. I found the small digressions to be interesting and doing their part to strip away the movie world heroics and trappings, allowing people to simply act like recognizable people. There are little things that stand out, like a kind neighbor simply recognizing how exhausted a new mother looks, or a method of soothing a baby passed down from father to son, or the discussion of making a child laugh being the clincher for parental ties. There’s a lovely moment halfway through where Jean and Cal are stopping at a café. She delivers a monologue about her unexpected child, about her inability to carry a pregnancy full-term, about her prior miscarriages and her divining what that means about her involvement in crime, and it’s one of those moments where it feels like a character is just baring their soul. Jean is so vulnerable, so remorseful, but also so lost yet hopeful of what being a mother could mean for her, a title she says she tries to downplay but had really been her heart’s desire. I enjoyed getting to spend time with Cal and those he links Jean up with later. There’s a found family aspect of dislocated people trying to navigate the hand they’re dealt without pity or commiseration. When the movie stops to take a breath, that’s when it kept solidifying its growing authenticity for me.
Brosnahan (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) is a fine anchor. She has to constantly be alert and anxious, as well as exhausted, so even when she’s at rest her character can never fully be rested. It means that even during the quiet moments alone, Bosnahan is giving the viewer a terrific sample of non-verbal acting prowess. I appreciated that Jean isn’t stupid. She’s ignorant insofar as she lacks crucial knowledge, but throughout I’m Your Woman she responds to potential threats and suspicions in ways you would hope and avoids more than a few disasters. Brosnahan also has an easygoing chemistry with Kene (How to Build a Girl) that makes them a winning team.
I found I’m Your Woman to be a refreshing take on crime stories by re-examining life from a character very often left behind while the men run their schemes and accrue their violent demise. It’s an interesting character study of a gangster’s moll and what living with the consequences of a bad marriage can involve. There’s terror and bloodshed but it never feels sensationalized or glamorized. Our heroine proves herself capable of surprising those who discount her, but that doesn’t mean she transforms from a scared, confused, and desperate person into an action hero. The filmmakers have brought a reflective and humanist take on the gangster genre, and your appreciation will likely also benefit from familiarity with the genre and its tropes. If you’re subverting expectations, knowing those expectations is somewhat essential to the desired effect. I’m Your Woman is worth your time if you ever wondered about the life of so many of those underwritten, possibly stock supporting roles in a gangster movie and asked about their interior lives.
Nate’s Grade: 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+
I was fortunate enough to actually hear co-writer/director John Whitney and co-writer/star Dino Tripodis discuss their hardscrabble indie drama, The Street Where We Live. It’s an Ohio indie that was filmed over the course of several weekends from the fall of 2015 to the summer of 2016, had its festival run throughout 2017-2018, and became available for the general public to watch via Amazon Prime in 2019. I was lucky to hear both men talk about their experiences making this movie on a small budget under a constrained time frame, as well as their hopes for it, paying homage in particular to the hard-working mothers that both men credit for their upbringing.
We follow Mary (Kristina Kopf), a recently unemployed factory worker, struggling to stop her family’s descent into greater financial ruin. Her children, Jamie (Katie Stottlemire) and Thomas (Dylan Koski), are trying to hide the shame of their living conditions, though it’s getting harder. Things go from bad to worse as this family tries to regain their stability.
The film does a very good job of communicating the vulnerability and struggle of poverty as well as how susceptible a majority of people living on the fringes are. As has been said, many Americans are simply two paychecks away from disaster; in a survey, a majority of Americans would be unable to pay for a sudden expense of $400, meaning most Americans lack even that amount when it comes to personal savings. That day-to-day anxiety of simply getting by, of persevering and not prospering, is best expressed by the layers of sad, quiet resignation that hang on lead actress Kopf’s face. Hers is a performance steeped in quiet suffering (more on that later) and her fight for dignity and opportunity. This isn’t a very dialogue-driven movie and instead is more like one long sigh slowly eliminating all breath. One calamity leads to another in a succession of setbacks, and it’s clear to understand just how difficult it is to reset your life when that chasm seems more insurmountable by the day. You don’t have enough money to pay electricity leads to not enough money to pay for rent, leads to living in your car and washing in the bathrooms of gas stations, leads to having your car towed, leads to an impound that expects even more money if it cannot be immediately paid, and all the while that deficit grows and grows. The Street Where We Live is at its best when it’s opening up about the slippery slope of poverty and how it’s not some choice, not the result of trenchant laziness, but just bad timing, bad luck, and limited opportunities. In that way, the film works extremely well as an empathy project to convey the toll of poverty on the human condition and one’s hope.
Much like the mumblecore sub-genre of indie dramas, the observational little details and natural give-and-take are what help give the movie its sense of authenticity. This feels like a world where Whitney and his crew are well versed and can supply exacting insights. There are a few devastating moments in the movie, one of them being how out-of-touch a person can feel in a quickly changing marketplace. Mary has held her factory job for years and is applying for, what she has been told, is a simple secretarial position in an office, something she feels she can at least keep up with even if her typing skills are mediocre. Instead, she’s pummeled with questions of technical insurance jargon, and each one further shatter the idea that a “simple secretarial” job is within reach for Mary. Her sinking realization that this job is closed to her is such a hard moment to watch and Kopf, once again, plays it tragically and beautifully. It’s a small sucker punch of a moment, and from here she’s fighting even to get underpaid dish washing gigs. There are some aspects that are stretched a bit in order to maintain the family’s tragic desperation (one would think Mary wouldn’t have to venture all the way out of the state to contend for a paying job). It’s excusable because we’re meant to feel the crushing uncertainty of a character struggling with what is the best of her limited bad options. The only aspect of The Street Where We Live that didn’t feel realistic was the seconds before the factory workforce was about to find out their jobs were all gone, because I have to think everyone was suspecting the worst and wouldn’t be so amped for noisy chit-chat prior to the news.
The acting is another component that helps compliment the movie’s valued sense of reality. The Street Where We Live and its success hinges on two fulcrums: 1) its everyday realism, and 2) Kopf. The characters feel very recognizable and the performances rely on subtlety more than histrionics. More is gained by watching the pained expressions of ordinary people than listening to a character explode in a well-polished monologue about the hardships of living in poverty. There are a few emotional outbursts but they’re saved for the end, and even these moments are crafted to better maintain that well-earned sense of cinema verité.
Much of the film’s impact is reliant upon Kopf (Constraint, Axe Giant) and the micro-expressions that cross her face. Hers is a role about suffering in silence, her weathered gaze its own shattering scream, and you study her to see how she’s coping with each new added indignity. A terrific moment is when Mary is trying to square a very personal, moral-crossing decision she made for the greater good of her family only to have a cruel man use his small amount of power to further wound. You feel how powerless this woman is and while you want her to punch the creep, there will be no release. You want the “movie moment” where she can upstage her tormentor but it won’t happen. Kopf has long been a staple of Ohio indies and there’s a very good reason why. Tripodis (Bottom Feeders) has an immediate well-worn charm that’s heartwarming. One of the best scenes in the movie is his character Ben and Mary sharing a small moment of compassion after hours of hunting for recyclables to turn in for meager money. This moment is so naturally written, with their interplay feeling relaxed, natural, and organic, that I instantly wanted more. Stottlemire (Tragedy Girls, My Friend Dahmer) has begun to branch out into bigger movies and her burgeoning talent is clear to witness. She follows Kopf’s lead and works in underplayed tones to great effect. Koski gets the least to do as Thomas, like him strumming his father’s guitar is all that is needed to communicate his longing to connect to his past. There are also small roles and cameos from other central Ohio indie faces like Ralph Scott (After), Daniel Alan Kiely (Bong of the Living Dead), Heather Caldwell (After), and Richard Napoli (After), and several others.
If there is one thing holding back the film from achieving a greater level of success and viewer engagement, it’s that the characters are defined entirely by their ongoing suffering. I call it the Lars von Trier School of Storytelling (not that it’s only associated to the Danish sadist) where you establish a character that takes the slings and arrows of their society, but this props up a protagonist as more of a symbol/metaphor/martyr than a human being. This approach can still work when given a major theme that is complex enough to take on the extra brunt of attention. However, this approach can also make the protagonist feel less active, more reactionary, and also less complex. If you were deconstructing Mary as a character, I know very little about her as a person. I know she had a job for many years. I know she lost her husband. I know she doesn’t feel comfortable asking others for help. I know she’s willing to make sacrifices for her children. Internally, I don’t know much about her, nor do I know much about her personality, interests, flaws, quirks, the things that make people more fleshed out, nuanced, and appealing. Mary certainly serves a purpose and she voices this in the film’s very last scene as Whitney unleashes his thesis statement about how our society should be better with its inherent social promises. For some, this will be a minor quibble and for others it will be, in essence, a cap for their empathy levels.
The Street Where We Live is an affecting and honest little movie about the everyday hardships many people face when their lives are suddenly in free fall. It’s a potent drama packed with small, telling details that better create a world that feels lived-in, compassionate, and authentic. The acting is mostly sharp and anchored by a standout performance from Kristina Kopf. The technical details are pretty solid overall for a movie made for less than $13,000 and under the start-stop circumstances that the filmmakers had available. The cinematography and editing can feel like there wasn’t much in the way of additional options, but the look of the movie, muted greys and rusty browns, adds to the overall dreary tone. It’s a sparse film in execution but that’s because it doesn’t need bells and whistles and fancy camera setups to make its story felt. It’s a deeply empathetic movie that could open some hearts about the struggles of others. It’s so easy to fall down and much harder to get back up without a support system. The movie might be hitting repeated points without enhanced characterization but it still hits its marks. The Street Where We Live is the kind of movie where its small budget can actually be a plus, not just in forcing creative ingenuity from the filmmakers but also in lending a blue-collar validity. It’s a story that resonates because of its universal themes and lessons in empathy, and it’s worth watching to see what a group of well-meaning artists can do when inspired to do good.
Nate’s Grade: B
As a film critic, I feel compelled to write about Bird Box because, apparently, one third of the entire Internet is currently talking about this Netflix sci-fi horror movie. It’s about killer monsters that cause people to violently kill themselves upon sight. Netflix has reported that over 40 million customers have watched Bird Box in its first week of its streaming release, which basically means 35 million people likely fell asleep to Netflix and it started playing the new high-profile movie on auto play. I know people that love this movie. I know people that hate this movie. I know people who hate this movie with a passion and go into apoplexy trying to describe their disgust. Bird Box isn’t a movie worth strong feelings, both good and bad. It’s a fittingly entertaining movie with too many structural flaws, underdeveloped ideas, and diminished tension and stakes.
Malorie (Sandra Bullock) is trying to navigate the post-apocalyptic world of monsters. She’s traveling down river with her two children, all blindfolded. Meanwhile, she flashes back to the first few days of the monster outbreak when she found security in a stranger’s home until things went from bad to worse to murderous.
Part of the problem with Bird Box is that the monsters never feel that threatening because the hazy rules manage to defang them. Given the unknowable nature of monsters, I’m not expecting a textbook but some level of consistency that won’t rip me out of the film. The monsters are only a threat when you look at them, which is fine, except they cannot or choose to refrain from physically interacting with their human targets. I don’t know if this is a natural limitation, a choice, or simply anecdotal evidence that will be disproved. Just because the monsters haven’t done something yet doesn’t mean they might not be able to. Just because the monsters don’t attack anyone wearing a blue sweatshirt with a googly-eyed reindeer doesn’t mean this is standard. We see at one point the collateral movement of a monster chasing after Sandy and the kids, shoving trees and other forest vegetation aside. They do physically interact with the world; they just do not interact with our characters. This takes away much of the danger of these creatures. There’s one scene where a character is struggling to get indoors and, oh no, the garage door is opening. Look out; all he has to do is… continue not looking at the monsters as he was doing without effort. It makes me think of The Simpsons Halloween episode where the key to defeating killer mutant advertisements was not to look (it had Paul Anka’s guarantee).
The monsters also adopt the voices of loved ones, so survivors would start to learn from these experiences and begin to carry a deep skepticism about suddenly prevalent loved ones begging for blindfolds to be removed. Does this mean the monsters can psychically read the thoughts of human beings to know what voices to tap into? It made me think of The Bye Bye Man and its Bye Bye Man-induced hallucinations (“Is this cop’s face really oozing black blood through empty eye sockets, or is that you Bye Bye Man, you scamp?”). This is an interesting aspect that never feels fully developed, the mistrusting nature of the calls for help. Instead of adopting the voice of dead loved ones, I wish the monsters had chosen more judiciously. You could feature a sequence with someone genuinely calling for help and being left behind by Sandy because, in their blindfolded state, they cannot tell the difference in the authenticity of the speaker’s claims.
But what I kept coming back to is why can’t the monsters go indoors? This was a hurdle I could never fully get over because it cheapened the threat for me. As with any apocalyptic or viral outbreak, there is danger in having to leave the sanctuary, and there will be a need to gather supplies, but once you have a home base the monsters can’t enter, it loses a level of stakes. It makes me think of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs where space aliens can travel the stars but cannot open a pantry door. Having limitations on your monsters is essential or else the threat will feel too overwhelming, but these limitations need to make consistent sense. The monsters in A Quiet Place had superior hearing but were essentially blind. The monsters in Bird Box are deadly to look at, will tempt you with auditory siren songs, but as long as one remains indoors and stays away from windows, you can live a happy and healthy albeit sheltered life of repose.
This is one reason why the story has to find a new threat that is allowed to venture into the safe spaces. There are certain people who seem immune to the suicidal impulses of the monsters. The screenplay by Eric Heisserer (Arrival) implies people who were crazy beforehand are unaffected, though what degree of crazy or mental instability is up to interpretation. These people worship the monsters and actively try to force others to look at them, to also be enlightened. This could have been an interesting addition to the world of Bird Box but it plays it too straight. These cultist people are just another obstacle, a group of standard movie crazy killers. I was hoping that the screenplay was playing coy with this subject and biding its time only to introduce this group in a more meaningful and manipulative fashion later. It never happens. They’re just crazy killers meant to enter buildings and pose a new indoors threat. Now you can’t trust anyone!
The structure of Bird Box constrains the overall impact of its story. The movie is divided almost equally between two different timelines, one shortly after the start of the monster attacks and one five years later. I was waiting for these two different storylines to inform one another, and they do in essentially superficial ways. We know in the future story that it’s only Sandy and the kids, so it’s only a matter of time before everyone in this house will end up dead. It also hurts that this segment is best described as “dime store Stephen King.” We’re stuck with a group of strangers who have all been given one note to play, therefore the extra time feels tedious because we don’t care about them or what happens to them next (sorry John Malkovich, Jacki Weaver, BD Wong, and others). Winnowing these extended flashbacks and sticking with the current day storyline would have improved the movie. There’s a more immediate threat and it presents a more intriguing scenario of being on the run and learning as we go about the monsters and the accrued survival tactics. I think learning on the run would be more exciting rather than conveniently finding refuge with a guy who explains everything because he was doing a book report on the supernatural and somehow knows the rules. This would also better hone the theme because the “before” of our before-and-after dynamic doesn’t establish Sandy enough as a disinterested mother.
Much of this could be forgiven or mitigated if the suspense sequences were engaging and smartly developed. I can forgive any nagging plot quibble with A Quiet Place (Why don’t they live closer to the waterfall? Why don’t they have a sound system to draw away monsters?) because the suspense sequences were brilliantly executed and highly unnerving. This just isn’t the case with Bird Box. There is one clever sequence that seems to capitalize on the possibilities of its sight-challenged premise. During the house half, the gang climbs into a car and uses its motion sensors and GPS to navigate a trip to the local grocery store for a supply run. It’s fun and decently staged. The inclusion of caged birds being a monster alarm is interesting until it starts to become more ridiculous. People never seem to listen to these birds and pay the price. The initial outbreak in the opening, with cars flipping and people flipping out, has a nice escalation into madness and chaos. The movie never quite recovers that same tense feeling. Watching people wander with blindfolds doesn’t make for great visual tension unless we see what they do not and dread what’s to come. Bird Box settles into a generic paranoia thriller about who can be trusted, and that’s even before the crazy cultists come knocking. Outside in the woods, the final act involves running to sanctuary, but without the killer cultists, it’s only running away from a thing that can’t touch them. It makes for a curiously inept climax and a sentimental resolution that feels unearned.
The arc of the movie is about Sandra Bullock’s character accepting motherhood and attachment to others but this theme is murky. She named her children “Girl” and “Boy” because she didn’t want to think of them as her own. This is the kind of thing that seems more symbolic and meaningful in theory than practice. She tells the children that in order to survive in this brave new world that they must be ready to cut another person loose at any moment. Attachments to others will get you killed, or so Sandy argues but not in deed. Because this storyline covers half of the film, the relationship she has with the kids feels underdeveloped but not by Sandy’s choice, by the filmmakers. If Sandy’s character arc was going to end at the destination of her realizing love is not a detriment even in a horrible, terrifying world, then we needed more time spent on this emotional journey, which is another reason why we could have used more time in the present-day storyline. A degree of self-sacrifice feels missing to better signify the theme of attachment and the emotional stakes.
I reiterate that Bird Box is not worth the strong feelings of love or hate. It’s got a wobbly structure where either half fails to better inform the other, the limitations of the monsters guts too much of the tension and stakes, and the actors deserve better. Bullock delivers a strong central performance and serves as our entertainment anchor. She makes the movie more watchable and does her best with some less-than-stellar expository dialogue. It’s enough to make you wish this movie was better and better realized with its spooky premise.
Nate’s Grade: C
I don’t know what this movie was trying to say about anything. Vox Lux stars Natalie Portman as the adult Celeste, a survivor of a school shooting as a teen who became an international pop star in the months after. Is there something writer/director Brady Corbet wants to say about the transformation of tragedy into mass entertainment? The dulling effect of an entertainment industry to grind up human beings and re-purpose them into shiny, inauthentic, easily marketable figurines? I don’t know. I warily thought as we open on an upsetting school shooting, “I don’t know if the final product will justify this tone,” and it doesn’t. There are decisions that feel like they should mean something, like having the same actress, Raffey Cassidy (Tomorrowland), play both young Celeste and her eventual teen daughter, but what? It feels like an idea looking to attach to an interpretative message. Then there’s a modern terrorist group dressing like one of Celeste’s iconic music videos. She distances herself from the violence and even publicly challenges the perpetrators. This will obviously come back and mean something, drawing upon her own beginning stages of fame derived from the bloodshed of others, right? Or during her big concert the terrorists will invade and attack her, bringing the main character face-to-face with the ramifications of hubris. None of these things happen. Instead, Portman enters the scene at the 45-minute mark and proceeds to lash out at others, lament her parenting deficiencies, gets drunk, and then puts on her show. That’s it. It’s like Vox Lux forgot to be a movie for the final 20 minutes and just becomes a numbing series of EDM pop dance numbers. Portman is actually very good and digging deep into her anxious, entitled, and spiraling pop star, rounding out her dimmed humanity when Corbet cannot. There’s a solid storyline here between the adult Celeste trying to reconnect with her teen daughter who she’s been neglecting. This isn’t it. The pretension level of the pedantic exercise made me think of Lars von Trier as filmed by Darren Aronofsky. Skip it.
Nate’s Grade: C-