Alex Garland has been one of Hollywood’s most stable sci-fi screenwriters for some time. In 2015, Garland made his directorial debut with Ex Machina, a sly and invigorating potboiler that made you think. It helped make Alicia Vikander a star and Garland himself was nominated for an Academy Award for his original screenplay. The movie even won an Oscar for best visual effects, beating out some pretty pricey competition. With one movie, Garland displayed a natural knack for directing. His follow-up, Annihilation, is based on a book by Jeff VanderMeer and has already run into some trouble. After poor test screenings, the producer tried to force changes but these were refused. In a face-saving outreach, Annihilation will only be playing theatrically in North America and will debut on Netlfix weeks later for the rest of the world. The suits are not confidant in the larger public clicking with Annihilation, and they might be right. This isn’t going to be one of those films that people leave declaring their love over in effusive terms, despite what the critical praise may lead you to believe. This is a movie that you leave saying, “Huh.” It’s so powerfully inscrutable to the point that most other conventional forms of cinematic entertainment and narrative are smothered. And yet, it’s that inscrutability that might be the movie’s biggest point and might be its biggest asset.
Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist whose husband (Oscar Isaac) has been missing for a year ever since he ventured into a strange environmental disaster zone. Then he reappears with a mysterious illness and little memory of the events. Lena joins an all-female crew of scientists (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny) to find out some answers by exploring The Shimmer, the site where an alien meteorite collided with coastal land and has been changing local life forms at an alarming pace.
Like I said, this movie is a conundrum, not just in a “What did I just watch?” sort of analysis but also in a, “Did I actually like that movie?” personal introspection. There isn’t really a mystery here to unpack as there is an enigmatic experience to explain. I’m doing something I don’t normally like to do, which is immediately type my review shortly after seeing a movie. I generally like to marinate on my feelings after experiencing a movie; however, with this one I felt compelled to put furious fingers to the keyboard, trying to explore my myriad conflicted feelings and find my way out the other side, or at least articulate that journey. I’ll try and steer away from any major spoilers though I worry that even discussing some of my confounding responses will require some thematic and plot context, so beware readers who wish to go into this experience completely pure.
Annihilation is an existential horror movie about biology’s indifference to mankind; at least that’s my best thematic interpretation. In the beginning, Lena is explaining the history of cellular life, the simple splitting of cells that begat all life on the planet. There was no larger forethought, no agenda, and no malice, only the enacting of DNA programming. Ultimately, I think the alien mutations are running on a similar principle. This isn’t an invasion by any traditional definition. This isn’t anything nefarious. This isn’t even anything as clearly identifiable as a virus spreading its illness. This is simply life stirring in a few new recipes. There’s a general level of indifference to the overall setting, which makes the environmental wonders and horrors more dispiriting. For those who demand clear answers from their storytelling, they will be left sorely disappointed. Annihilation doesn’t have any real answers for why these things are happening. They just are occurring, much like the beginning steps of cellular life that found new modes of survival on Earth billions of years prior. It’s just another stage in the development of life. The fact that humanity can be so easily cast aside, it’s hard not to feel insignificant. There’s a mounting sense of existential dread about man’s inevitable demise. One character dubs their mission suicidal and is corrected by another. “People confuse suicide with self-destruction,” she says. “Very few people are suicidal, but all of us are self-destructive.” The plotline confirms this as characters fall victim to hubris and curiosity. However, one may argue there is biological in destruction and reconstitution.
Be warned, dear reader, this is a rather slow movie with a lot of space for breathing, the kind of thing meant to establish a particular atmospheric mood. If you connect with the material, it works, obviously. The problem with Annihilation is that because it’s so inscrutable, because it keeps you at a distance on purpose, that it allows more opportunities to check out. We’re anticipating weirdness and a general breakdown in the group of scientists, and Garland seems to understand this, which may be why he gradually delivers his genre scares. There is an amazing sequence in the middle that is the fuel of nightmares, made all the more searing and scaring by a horrifying sound design that’s even worse when you connect it with the visual source. I was almost compelled to look away and spare my memory this ghastly sight. There are other unsettling moments and the overall feel of the film is definitely one of discomfort and dread, but it’s this scene I’ll always remember and that also solidified the nasty surprises from Mother Nature. Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between. The eventual ending should be easy enough to predict thanks to Garland’s flash-forwards tipping your expectations, that is, if you can actually understand the ending. I still cannot say for certain what happened and why or whether I cared about a why. If, as stated above, the point of the movie is man’s inability to find a recognizable motive in the replication of life by biological factors, then that lends itself to a generally unsatisfying end.
One interesting idea that I regret gets short shrift is just the fact that this is an all-female group of scientists venturing where literally only men have gone before. I’m not celebrating this as some sort of nod at feminism but because it offered an interesting storytelling avenue. All the previous groups were all men and they either were killed by the new environmental dangers or went crazy and killed each other. Minor spoilers, but the women fall under the same sway, destined to the same fate, and it feels like a shame. If you’re going to make a point of questioning whether the deterioration of order and sanity is related to an all-masculine entanglement of thinkers, then don’t just have the women repeat the same decline. Or maybe that’s the point? I don’t know.
Portman (Jackie) does an convincing job of alternating looking confused and spooked, mimicking most of the audience reaction. Her character isn’t asking to be found likeable, only capable, though the first time we get a little taste of her as a person is far too late into the movie. Her marriage might not have been built on the strongest foundation, which again leads to the potential thematic deliberation over self-destruction and rebirth. Leigh (The Hateful Eight) is a bit too flatly monotone for my liking. It feels like she’s sleepwalking through the film, like maybe she was on Ambien and can’t remember even performing in this movie. Tessa Thompson is underwhelming especially with knowing how fully captivating she can be onscreen (see: Thor: Ragnarok). The other notable actress is Rodriguez (TV’s Jane the Virgin) who put on some muscle and swagger and has a terrific breakdown sequence that showcases some unnerving desperation.
I still cannot even say if I liked Annihilation. There are aspects I can definitely admire, like the commitment of its actors, the emphasis on a more scientific approach to an outbreak/invasion thriller, and Garland’s general sense of place. I still think the majority of audiences are going to leave shrugging. Annihilation is more akin to an Under the Skin or Solaris than a monster hunt. It’s quiet, philosophical, and also often boring. It has its thrilling points, its moments of mystery and intrigue, but it also feels like a slow windup to the eventually disappointing reveal that won’t be enough to justify the lethargic pacing. In the end, this is a difficult movie, but not in a way that requires a thorough decoding like mother! or even in a way that requires repeat viewings to play out the twists. Annihilation is difficult by design, keeping its audience from fully engaging, and then offering little in the way of answers or resolution. And I still don’t know if I like that. Dear reader, this is a confounding movie but it might not be the good kind of confounding.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Now I know why there weren’t any promotional screenings for mother! in the lead-up to its national release. Director Darren Aronofsky’s highly secretive movie starring Oscar-winners Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem was marketed as a horror thriller, a claim that is generous at best and dishonest at worst. This is not Rosemary’s Baby by a long shot. It’s a highly personal, livid, and visually audacious think piece on mankind, so it’s no surprise that general audiences have hated it and graded it with the rare F rating on Cinemascore (a shaky artistic metric, granted, but still a dubious honor). Aronofsky is a polarizing filmmaker who routinely makes polarizing works of art, so the stupefied outrage is not surprising. mother! is a challenging film that demands your attention and deconstruction afterwards. It’s not a passive movie going experience. I’m still turning things over in my brain, finding new links and symbols. mother! isn’t for everyone or even many. It requires you to give into it and accept it on its own terms. If you can achieve that, I think there is enough to be gained through the overall experience.
Lawrence and Bardem are husband and wife living out in the country. He’s a poet going through serious writer’s block and she’s remodeling the house in anticipation of a future family. One day a stranger (Ed Harris) comes by looking for a place to stay, and Bardem invites him into his home. The stranger’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) soon follows, looking for her husband. These uninvited guests awkwardly make themselves at home, testing Lawrence’s politeness and the bonds of her marriage. More and more strangers follow, flocking to Bardem and the home, and their unpleasantness only grows, pushing Lawrence into further states of agitation, desperation, and shock.
The first thing you need to know before sitting down to watch mother! is that it is one hundred percent metaphorical. Nothing on screen has a sole literal intention. The movie is clearly Aronofsky’s statement about mankind’s harmful tendencies, as well as a larger potential indictment, but this is a movie that exclusively traffics in metaphor. Accepting that early will make for a much better viewing experience. It took a solid thirty minutes for me to key into the central allegory, and once I understood that lens the movie became much more interesting (this was also the time that more unexpected visitors began complicating matters). I was taking every new piece of information from the mundane to the bizarre and looking to see how it fit into the larger picture. I would genuinely recommend understanding what the central allegory may be before watching the film. Looking back, I can appreciate the slower buildup that, at the time, felt a bit like an aimless slog awaiting some sense of momentum. Even the significant age difference between Bardem and Lawrence is addressed and has a purpose. mother! is the kind of movie that gets tarred with the title of “pretentious,” and yeah, it is, because if you’re devoting an entire two-hour movie to metaphor, then you’re going to have to be a little pretentious. Terrence Malick movies feel like obtuse, pedantic navel-gazing, whereas mother! felt like a startling artistic statement that had a legitimate point and was barreling toward it with ferocity. It invited me to decode it while in action, keeping me actively alert.
When dealing in the realm of metaphor, much is dependent upon the execution of the filmmaker, and Aronofsky is one of the best at executing a very specific vision. Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream are both excellent examples of Aronofsky putting the viewer in the distressed mental space of the characters, utilizing every component of filmmaking to better communicate the interior downward spiral. With mother!, Aronofsky attaches his camera to Jennifer Lawrence for the entire movie; we are always circling her or facing her in close-ups, always in her orbit. She is our tether. When she walks out of a room, we follow, trying to listen to the conversations going on without us. When the revelers and mourners show up, we experience the same confusion and irritation as her. The film builds in intensity as it careens toward its hallucinatory final act. It’s here where Aronofsky unleashes his targeted condemnation with extreme vigor. It’s one confusing moment cascading upon another, strange images that ripple like a nightmare. There are some pretty upsetting and offensive acts meant to provoke outrage, and Lawrence is always the recipient of much of that cruelty. Like a Lars von Trier film, Lawrence plays a heroine whose suffering serves as the film’s thematic underpinning. Aronofsky’s commitment to his vision is complete. He doesn’t leave anything behind.
Existing as a highly metaphorical work of art, there are numerous personal interpretations that can be had from mother! although, even with that said, one interpretation seems very obvious (spoilers to follow). This is first and foremost a Biblical allegory with Bardem portraying God and with Lawrence as Mother Earth. They live by themselves in tranquility but God is bored and unable to find solace. That’s when Ed Harris (Adam) and then Michelle Pfeiffer (Eve) show up, and all of God’s attention is soaked up with these new people, who bring their warring sons (Cain and Abel) and then more and more strangers. The people won’t listen to Mother Earth’s requests and warnings, and after trashing her home and breaking a sink that causes an explosion of water (Aronofsky Noah meta reference?), she and God kick them all out. She says afterwards, “I’ll get started on the apocalypse.” It’s Aronofsky’s retelling of humanity’s existence from a Biblical perspective up until the fiery, vengeful end. From here there are all sorts of other symbols, from Jesus and the Last Supper, to the spread of the Gospels, and the corruption of God’s Word and the subsequent cruelty of humanity. These newcomers are selfish, self-destructive, ignorant, and pervert the poet’s message in different ways, caging women into sex slavery, brutally executing divided factions, all while God cannot help but soak up their fawning adulation. God finally admits that Mother Earth just wasn’t enough for him, like a spouse coming to terms with her husband’s philandering. He’s an artist that needs an audience of needy worshipers to feel personally fulfilled. Ultimately it all ends in fire and ash and a circular return to the dawn of creation. For viewers not casually versed in Biblical stories, the film will seem like an unchecked, unholy mess.
This is going to be a very divisive movie that will enrage likely far more viewers than entice, and this result is baked into Aronofsky’s approach from the start. Working in the realm of allegory doesn’t mean the surface-level story has to be bereft of depth (Animal Farm, The Crucible, and Life of Pi are proof of that). However, Aronofsky’s story just feels pretty uninviting on the surface, lacking stronger characterization because they are chiefly symbols rather than people. There are recognizable human behaviors and emotions but these are not intended to be recognizable people. This limits the creative heights of the film because the surface isn’t given the same consideration as the metaphor. If you don’t connect with the larger metaphor and its commentary, then you’re going to be bored silly or overpowered by artistic indulgences. Everything is, ironically, a bit too literal-minded with its use of metaphor. The movie’s cosmic perspective is, to put it mildly, very bleak. It can be very grueling to watch abuse after abuse hurled upon Lawrence, so it doesn’t make for the most traditionally fun watch.
mother! is a movie that is impossible to have a lukewarm reaction to. This is a shock to the system. Aronofsky’s wild cry into the dark is a scorching cultural critique, a condemnation on the perils of celebrity and mob mentality, and a clear religious allegory that posits mankind as a swarm of self-destructive looters that are as ruinous as any swarm of Old Testament locusts. It’s an ecological wake up call and a feminist horror story. It’s an artistic cleave to the system that’s meant to disrupt and inspire debate and discussion. This is going to be a movie that affects a multitude of people in different ways, but I feel confident in saying that fewer will connect with it and its dire message. Motherhood is viewed as martyrdom, and Pfeiffer’s character sums it up best: “You give and you give and you give, and it’s just never enough.” It’s about dealing with one-sided, usury relationships, surrendering to the insatiable hunger of others who are without appreciation or introspection. It’s not a horror movie like It about scary clowns. It’s a horror movie about how we treat one another and the planet. Aronofsky can confound just as easily as he can exhilarate. mother! is a provocative, invigorating, enraging, stimulating, and layered film that demands to be experienced and thoroughly digested.
Nate’s Grade: B+
The Only Living Boy in New York may have made me hate New York. I was rolling my eyes at about every moment of this movie, not just because it wads cliché, not just because it confused the cliché with transcendent and relatable commentary, not just because the characters were aggressively loathsome and inauthentic, and not because it appears to be someone’s idea of Graduate Lite (though, yes, these are all contributing factors). It’s because the movie takes the easy way out at every route and wants to be congratulated for its artistic integrity.
Thomas (Callum Turner) is a twenty-something who feels that New York City has lost what made it special. He’s drifting through life, thinking about becoming a writer, and also trying to romance his best friend Mimi (Kiersey Clemons). His mother (Cynthia Nixon) self-medicates via dinner parties. His father (Pierce Brosnan) has a different approach, namely sleeping with another woman, Johanna (Kate Beckinsale). Thomas follows Johanna and makes his presence known to her. He convinces himself he’s falling in love with her and impulsively chases her as a romantic option as well.
I think the movie wants me to be charmed by its male lead, the young protagonist that looks like a lanky Richard Gere. This twerp made me so angry and he pretty much embodied a creepy blend of entitlement. He’s tired of being in the friend zone with Mimi, but he keeps pushing, sneaking unauthorized kisses, and trying to wear down her defenses after she’s told him no. She’s annoyed that her friendship is by itself not good enough for him, and even though they had one “magic night,” that he won’t accept her repeated stances about not wanting to be together romantically. But what’s a woman’s ability to choose matter to Thomas, who we’re constantly told from every other character in this stupid movie, is clever, bright, good, virtuous, and a prized talent in the making. The movie never shows you these things, never provides evidence of his talents or even his virtues, and so it becomes another series of empty gestures. He’s just so captivating that all the women of New York can’t help themselves around him. This wouldn’t feel so tone deaf and backwards if the film did a better job of making Thomas feel like a living, breathing human being rather than some misguided, coming-of-age hipster creep.
The premise here has promise, a wayward son who ends up having an affair with his father’s mistress. That could work and devise plenty of palpable dramatic tension. Except because we never get to know Thomas beyond a superficial level, the affair only feels like another conquest of entitlement. Even a more interesting subtext, punishing his father for putting their family dynamic at risk, is only kept at a distance. What does Thomas learn about himself, his father, Johanna, or the world through his affair? If you cannot come up with a good answer then that means your plot point is lacking substance. Perhaps they just like the danger or the attention of one another, and yes Beckinsale (pick an Underworld movie) is an attractive woman so that’s a plus for a horny young lad. Most frustratingly, nothing seems to be pressed by this affair. It pushes some eventual third act confrontations but Thomas and Johanna’s tryst, for lack of a better term, just kind of lies there. It doesn’t do much, which is strange considering what it involves. It feels like its real purpose is to engineer jealousy from Mimi, which is gross. Johanna is never more than another trophy for the most blithe boy in New York.
The drama is pitched to a level that feels like it dances into self-parody, except it plays everything so unrelentingly serious. The narration begins by calling out life moments pulled from movie watching, but then it presents these very moments without any ounce of satire. We open with a New York dinner party where the attendees lament how the city has lost its soul (“The only soul left is Soul Cycle,” someone says like the worst 1980s stand-up comedian). Oh no, CBGB’s closed down. Oh no, there are Starbucks on multiple corners. Oh no, a city of ten million plus people is now only a commercialized hell, worry the rich elites from their ivory towers and their faulty memories of New York City being more pure when it was older. Not one character feels like an actual human being in this screenplay by Allan Loeb (Collateral Beauty). This is the kind of elitist, out-of-touch, artificial, self-involved characterization of New Yorkers that hacky conservative writers like to cling to when criticizing their big city targets.
The actors do relatively fine work with what they’re given, though special mention to Brosnan who tries his hardest to imbue notes of complexity in a character that, for 90 percent of the movie, is set up as a snide and disapproving patriarch. I don’t want to give up on Turner (Assassin’s Creed) as an actor because the part did him no favors. Mostly I just felt sorry for them. Cynthia Nixon deserves better. The charming Kiersey Clemons (Dope) deserves better. Jeff Bridges is an executive producer, so he deserves what he gets as an alcoholic author/mentor with an out-of-nowhere ending that feels pulled from a soap opera. These characters are powerfully boring, shallow, and unappealing.
At only 88 minutes long, The Only Living Boy in New York still feels punishing in length, protracted, and not worth the overall effort. Even the title makes me irritable. It’s a reference to the Simon & Garfunkel song that you better believe will get played, one more desperate attempt to glom onto the legacy of The Graduate. The title refers to Thomas, our entitled hipster of a lead, but does that mean that he’s the only one who really feels things, man, because the rest of us are just dead to the world, living our lives, and this hip young man just sees through all the nonsense of the day-to-day and, man, if only we could give him the platform he so rightly deserves then we’d all be better off. I wanted the cameraman to abandon the film and run a few corners and join a new set (it’s New York City, so by the law of averages, there has to be another film shoot a few blocks away). The Only Living Boy in New York is insufferable, haughty, pretentious, privileged navel-gazing masquerading as deep thought; it is smug New York hipster twaddle.
Nate’s Grade: D+
Ever wanted to see Oscar-nominated actress Rooney Mara eat a pie? Odd question, I realize, but apparently one that writer/director David Lowery felt compelled to answer. With the success of last year’s utterly heart-warming Disney remake of Pete’s Dragon, Lowery secretly made a low-budget movie with Casey Affleck and Mara, reuniting two of his actors from Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. The end result, A Ghost Story, literally involves a deceased Affleck stalking the screen in a long white sheet with two eyeholes. Lowery’s tone poem of metaphysical grief will likely alienate just as many people as it dazzles, and I fall squarely in the former camp. This movie is arthouse bluster.
This is a twenty-minute short stretched beyond a breaking point to fit a feature-length running time. It’s an impressionistic movie in the guise of the works of Terrence Malick, small and earnest and far more concerned about mood than story. That’s fine but if you’re going the impressionistic route I need scenes that aren’t self-indulgently laborious and constantly striking the same note. The majority of this movie is beautifully composed shots that eventually reveal the ghost standing in the background. It becomes a game of guessing when the camera will reveal the ghost’s presence. I understand that grief and loneliness is going to naturally deserve a slower pace to get a sense of the melancholic loss, but a slow movie that keeps delivering the same imagery is monotonous. The metaphors get old. The only thing holding the audience together is the time-traveling quest for the ghost to retrieve the note Mara’s character slipped into a door jam. It’s a long mystery that will ultimately prove an unworthy payoff. If Lowery is intending for the audience to feel the same sense of boredom and isolation as the ghost, that’s fine, but the movie dwells in this same emotional space with too little variance or further insight.
And this is where I have to come back to the pie as a symbol of the film’s self-indulgence. I have felt the urge to walk out of other movies but never acted upon them. I was minutes away from walking out on A Ghost Story, and it was the pie-eating scene that almost pushed me to bail. The idea of binge eating your feelings is a suitable metaphor for grief, and it works on its own initially, as she sniffles and holds back tears with every bite. And then she keeps eating. And then she keeps eating. The scene goes on for like ten minutes, uninterrupted, and with no further commentary. You are literally watching Mara eat a pie in real time and then throw up. After the sixth or so minute of pie consumption, I started laughing out loud, and then other people around me joined in. What can you do? Just as Mara’s character overindulges to the point of sickness, this scene pushes the beleaguered audience to the point of running out of the room gagging.
This would be different if the movie gave Mara anything really to do besides swallow her feelings. She has a few more scenes of the humdrum of moving on, painting the house she shared with her loved one, and then leaving. It seems like an awful waste of Mara’s talents but I would say the same thing for Affleck. I’m sure not having to memorize any lines after the ten-minute mark and getting to emote entirely through physical expression could be fun for an actor. It’s practically a throwback to silent film thespians. However, he’s just kind of there, like living furniture. I understand that part of grief is feeling like you’re a forgotten being and that time is infinite and punishing. I understand that sadness can feel numbing and cut to the bone. I get the mood; I even get the central metaphor of the de-contextualized ghost in a sheet just hanging around old haunts, unable to do much else, disconnected from the world and unable to move on or make sense of things. My issue is that this approach relegates the actors to stand-ins, squeezing the characters into intentionally bland ciphers for audience relatability. They are not allowed to be characters because somehow this would detract from the artistic appeal or message.
It’s frustrating because A Ghost Story has ideas, images, and moments that intrigue, beguile, and have a poignant power. It’s when the film expands beyond its limited parameters that it becomes its more interesting shape. As the ghost attempts to keep watch over Mara’s character, time moves much faster, to the point that a mere walk from one room to another can be the expanse of months. The triptych sequence of being unmoored through time, as everything speeds by so quickly, accentuates the helplessness of the ghost as well as the isolation. It’s like the world and life itself is outgrowing them, forgetting them, and leaving them further and further behind. There are also other ghosts and our ghost has a subtitled dialogue with them. It sounds silly but it’s actually one of the most sublimely affecting moments in the film, an idea that actually hits its intended mark. Take this exchange: “I’m waiting for someone,” “Who?” “I don’t remember.” Then the other ghost goes back to waiting, forever hopeful, forever clinging onto something that has long since evaporated, where even the memory, the concept of the idea of why has also vanished. Late into the movie the ghost starts going backwards and forwards in time, to a distant future of Bladerunner-like neon high-rises, to the nineteenth century to track a family of westward settlers. The abrupt careening through time says more about the ghost’s existence and it keeps things fresh. If this movie was a total wash, I could write off Lowery’s curio as self-important navel-gazing, but there are kernels of ideas, or moments, that stand out and demand a better presentation for better effect
A Ghost Story will definitely strike different people differently. It’s a deeply personal, poetic, and, if you’re not properly attuned to its metaphysical funeral procession, pretentious and pondersome film that wears out its welcome long before the end credits. I found the substance to be spread too thin over such a longer running time than this execution deserved. If you’re going for an impressionistic evocation, then the scenes need to be paced better. If you’re going for a mood of loneliness, then latch onto the character better and let’s follow Mara’s character as she rebounds and grows old. If you’re going for an existential horror movie, then present more confusion and terror and less of the same visual metaphors on constant repeat. If you’re going for Rooney Mara eating an entire pie in real time, then, well, actually you’ve succeeded. Congratulations. A Ghost Story is going to be one of those movies that critics fawn over that leaves me shrugging.
Nate’s Grade: C
Days after viewing writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch, I’m still contemplating what I just saw. That can be the sign of a good, thought-provoking movie, or it could be further proof that The Bad Batch is really an empty experience.
In a not-too-distant future, the United States has found a unique solution to crime. Those deemed irredeemable are tattooed with “bad batch” and abandoned into the American Southwest. It’s a dusty land of outlaws that the U.S. doesn’t even recognize. Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) is deposited into the wastes of the Southwest and she is abducted by cannibals who make a meal out of her right arm and leg. She escapes and finds Comfort, a small outpost where she can heal and find community. The makeshift leader of Comfort is The Dream (Keanu Reeves), a messianic figure who doles out free drugs to the townspeople. He also has a harem of pregnant women. Miami Man (Jason Momoa), one of the hunkier cannibals, loses his daughter and forces Arlen to help him.
I’m going to summarize the sparse two-hour plot, dear reader, to share with you just how little there is to this film (will keep spoilers mild). Arlen gets kidnapped. She escapes. Months later she kills one of the cannibals. She quasi-adopts a little girl. Her father goes searching for her. Arlen loses the little girl. The father finds Arlen. They find the little girl who was unharmed. They eat a bunny. The end. Now admittedly any movie can sound rather flimsy when boiled down to its essential story elements (Star Wars: “Space farmer accepts call to adventure. Rescues princess.”) but the counterbalance is substance. Characters, world building, arcs, plot structure, setups and payoffs, all of it opens up the film’s story beats into a larger and transformative work. That’s simply not there with The Bad Batch. It’s a vapid film that has too much free time to fill, so you get several shots that are simply people riding motorcycles up to the camera. I grew restless waiting for something of merit to happen. Arlen simply just walks out into the desert like three different times, and this is after she was captured by roving cannibals that are still out there in healthy numbers. If you went to a store and the owner captured you and cut off your arm, would you venture back in that direction? Maybe there’s a commentary about victimhood and the cycle of abuse and exploitation, or maybe I’m left to intuit some kind of grander implication out of a filmmaker’s lack of effort. There’s just not enough here to justify its running time. It feels stretched beyond the breaking point.
If the film is meant to be about immersion, something that holds together via hypnotic Lynchian dream logic, then it better work hard to hold my attention since plot has already been abandoned. This is where The Bad Batch also lost me. It’s just not weird enough, though even weird-for-weird’s-sake can be insufferable, like Harmony Korine’s Gummo. Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home at Night) has an innate feel for visual arrangements and little quirky touches that can burn into your memory, like the sight of Arlen sidling next to a magazine clipping of a model’s arm she taped to a mirror or a well-armed pregnant militia. The most interesting elements of the story are left unattended though. This is a vague dystopia where the government has decided to let the “bad batch” fend for themselves in a desert. It screams neo-Western with a lawless land populated with criminals and killers. There are only ever two locations we visit: the cannibal’s junkyard and the outpost of Comfort. Do we know anything about these locations? Are they at war? Is there some kind of understanding between them wherein Comfort offers sacrifices for protection? Is there an uneasy peace that could be spoiled thanks to Arlen’s vengeance? It’s all just vast wasteland, but even when they get to actual places, it still feels like empty space. How can you make something about dystopian cannibals be this singularly boring?
The characters just aren’t worth your attention and ultimately don’t matter in service of story or even a potential message. Arlen is much more of a figurehead than a person, and perhaps that’s why the director chose Waterhouse (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) as her lead. The former model certainly makes a visually striking figure and knows how to arc her body in non-verbal ways to communicate feelings. However, I don’t know if there’s a good actress here. There’s no real reason to take away her arm and leg except that it looks cool and edgy. Initially it presents a visceral vulnerability for her and a disadvantage of escape, but after she arrives in Comfort, it’s as if she’s just any other able-bodied character. It feels like the director just liked the look and thought it would grab attention or say something meaningful. Momoa (Justice League) has a natural intimidating screen presence but he’s given so little to do. He’s just on glower autopilot. Miami Man is a killer and we watch him cook people’s limbs for some good eats. It’s almost like the movie wants you to forget this stuff when his paternal instincts kick in. Rather than embracing the light-and-dark contradictions, the movie just has him shift personality modes. There’s no confrontation or introspection. Reeves (John Wick 2) gets an idea of a potentially menacing character but even he isn’t presented as an antagonist. The Dream is living large thanks to the cooperation of those in Comfort. He has a harem of willing ladies for breeding but he doesn’t seem dastardly. He’s like the grown-up rich kid throwing the party that everyone attends. Then there are near cameos by Giovanni Ribisi, Jim Carrey, and Diego Luna, which make you wonder why they ever showed up.
The depressing part is that The Bad Batch starts off with a bang and had such potential. Amirpour is so assured early on and draws out the terror of Arlen’s plight in a gripping and satisfying manner. Her drifting is then met by a futile escape, and then we witness the relatively tasteful dismembering of our heroine. It’s disorienting but establishes the conflicts of the scene in a clear and concise fashion. The odds are against her and Arlen uses her captors underestimating her to supreme advantage. The opening twenty minutes are thrilling and well developed, presenting a capable protagonist and a dire threat. And then the movie just drops off the face of the Earth. I haven’t seen a movie self-sabotage an interesting start like this since perhaps Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. The first twenty minutes offer the audience a vantage point and set of goals. We’re learning about Arlen through her desperate and clever acts of survival. The rest of the movie is just bland wandering without any sense or urgency or purpose exhibited in that marvelous opening (hey, the amputated limbs special effects look nice).
Vacuous and increasingly monotonous, The Bad Batch valiantly tries to create an arty mood piece where it re-purposes genre pastiche into some kind of statement on the broken human condition. Or something. The story is so thinly written and the characters are too blank to register. They’re archetypes at best, walking accessories, pristine action figures given life and camera direction. It’s flash and surface-level quirks with distressed art direction. It feels like it’s trying so hard to be a cult movie at every turn. I’m certain that, not counting Keanu’s cult leader, there might only be 100 words spoken in the entire film. I feel like The Bad Batch is going to be a favorite for plenty of young teenagers that respond to its style and general sense of rebellion. Until, that is, they discover movies can have both style and substance.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Fashion designer Tom Ford made a big splash with his debut film, 2009’s A Single Man. It was a gentle and introspective character study of a middle-aged gay professor determined to end his own life. It was lush, full of feeling, and anchored by a deeply humane performance from Colin Firth. In short, it is everything that his follow-up Nocturnal Animals is not. This is a movie overflowing with vacant artifice that is mistaken for profundity.
Susan (Amy Adams) is an art gallery owner and living a posh life with her second husband, Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer). She gets an unexpected present in the mail from her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). He’s sent her his newest manuscript, a departure from his usual works. It’s dedicated to Susan. With Hutton away on business, and philandering with a mistress, she dives into the story. It tells the story of Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal) and his wife (Isla Fisher) and teen daughter (Ellie Bamber) traveling through west Texas. They run afoul of some contemptuous locals lead by the sadistic Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who kidnaps Tony’s wife and daughter. Left for dead, Tony teams up with a terminally ill police officer, Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), to hunt down Ray and make him suffer for his crimes. As Susan continues reading, she goes through a mixture of emotions trying to determine what her ex-husband is trying to communicate to her within the subtext and metaphor of his sordid story.
I grew increasingly restless with Nocturnal Animals because it failed to justify its excessive dawdling and vapid artistic pretensions. This is a movie that doesn’t really know what it wants to be so it dabbles in many different genres, none of them fully convincing or worth the effort. It’s a high-gloss erotic thriller, it’s a gritty exploitation film, it’s a morally compromised revenge thriller, and it’s a subtle relationship drama amidst the upper crust of the L.A. art scene. It’s none of these. It’s two primary stories, neither of which justifies the amount of time spent on what amounts to so little. The worst offender is the frame story with Susan, which amounts to watching Amy Adams read for two hours. She takes a lot of baths and showers in response (symbolism!) but most of the cutaways and time spent with Adams is to merely watch her react. It’s like she’s a nascent studio audience handcuffed to tell us how to feel with her reactions. Would you have known that you should feel bad during onscreen death if we didn’t cut back to Susan also feeling bad and concerned? It amounts to emotional handholding and it’s grating, also because Susan is an terrible character. She’s conceited and thinks she is owed better, which is why her mother successfully pressured her to dump Edward, a man well below her self-styled station in life. Her second marriage is crumbling apart and part of her sees Edward’s out-of-the-blue note as a potential romantic rekindling. That’s right, this is a person who reads a revenge opus that may be all about seeking cosmic vengeance against her, and she thinks to herself, “Ooo, I think he like likes me after all.” Her self-involvement is rewarded in the end but the ambiguous ending is more just missing in action. Ford’s film just peters out and leaves you hanging, just like its heroine.
Edward’s manuscript is easily the best story and even that is only by default. It’s an easier story to get involved with because of the simple story elements that naturally draw an audience in, namely a revenge fable. The initial altercation with the family and Ray’s crew lasts almost a half hour. Specifically the roadside confrontation itself is a solid ten minutes and it just goes round and round, repeating its overdone sense of menace. I wasn’t dreading the horror to come but more so getting impatient for it to be over. Without depth to the characters or escalating stakes and complications, it all just amounts to a Texas hillbilly repeatedly threatening a cowering family for ten solid minutes. The vengeance in the second half of the movie is just as predictable and too drawn out. Edward schemes with Bobby Andes to take justice into his own hands, but the movie takes far too long to reach its predictable conclusion, which still manages to be so drawn out that I was screaming at the screen for the inevitable to finally happen. When the movie ended I felt a rush of relief to go along with my general sense of perplexity.
Nocturnal Animals has the illusion of highbrow art mixing with lowbrow thrillers but it lacks the substance of the former and the courage of its convictions for the latter. Ford’s mercurial taste in costuming and set design shows in every moment with Susan, as the sets feel exquisitely designed and the cinematography designed to encapsulate this. It’s a good-looking movie but there’s not enough under the surface. It’s all empty window dressing to disguise the vapid whole at its center. Let’s tackle the opening credits, which will most certainly capture your undivided attention. It’s a foursome of overweight women dancing naked and in slow motion, their large bodies bouncing and jiggling to the self-serious musical score. Eventually it’s revealed that these women are part of an installation exhibit in Susan’s art gallery, and that’s when you get a tip-off just how hollow and attention seeking the movie will be. The gallery consists of overweight women lying face down on raised platforms. That’s it. No wonder her gallery isn’t doing that well (note: not a fat-shaming comment but more a comment on the lazy application of its sense of “art”). You get a sense that Ford comes most alive in the scenes where he can arrange figures and images, not so much the demands of storytelling.
I can already hear supporters saying I just don’t get it; no, I got it because there’s very little to understand with Nocturnal Animals. It’s a story-within-a-story so we’re already training our brains to look for parallels but they aren’t obvious so they’ll be more metaphorical. I kept waiting for it all to tie together in a substantial way by film’s end, and sorry but it just doesn’t (spoilers ahead). Edward has a whammy of a day when he discovers 1) his wife is pregnant, 2) she’s aborted his child, and 3) she’s in the arms of her new boyfriend, and he discovers all of this standing in the rain for further symbolism. He has a grievance against Susan, though we’ve been suspecting it for some time. His manuscript is a revenge thriller about a family murdered and how a weak man finds the strength to seek justice and retribution. The parallels are fairly obvious there, and the fact that there are only so many characters in the story-within-a-story means there are few options to play the analogue guessing game. I’ll just claim that Ray is meant to represent Susan since he/she is the murderer of Tony/Edward’s family. There’s a reason that Tony’s family all share Susan’s red hair. He dedicated the book to her, after all, and said she was who made it all possible. From there you could argue whether Tony represents Edward’s real past, weak and remorseful, whereas Bobby Andes is meant to represent how he wishes he could be, decisive and strong (end spoilers). That’s about all the parallels you’re going to find because the story-within-a-story only involves a very tiny number of characters. There just isn’t much to go on here and yet Ford’s movie stretches and drags and just keeps going until it reaches its predictable destination. There isn’t any more depth here than straightforward avatars and even those are lean.
I was debating a question with my friend Ben Bailey while we watched this movie, and that’s whether the stakes are removed somewhat when you know that a storyline within a movie is fictitious. Knowing that Tony is a pretend person, does that eliminate some of the tension and investment in his storyline? I recognize this is a distinctly meta question considering that a majority of film characters are fictitious by nature, but I do think there’s a different set of standards for the people of the story-within-a-story. I don’t remember feeling less for the characters in A Princess Bride, The NeverEnding Story, or Adaptation. My only conclusion is that I just did not care a lick for any of the characters in Nocturnal Animals, whether they were fictional or twice fictional. They didn’t deserve my attention just because pretty people were playing them. They didn’t deserve my attention because Big Bad Things caused them to experience Big Emotions. Combined with the ponderous plot and the emaciated substance, the dull characters and the overwrought acting they inspire are a recipe for audience detachment. I can’t help but shake my head as other critics trip over themselves to shower this film with overly enthusiastic plaudits. Nocturnal Animals is a tiresome exercise in lazy symbolism, patience-demolishing pretension, and emptiness masquerading as contemplation.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Watching High-Rise left me in an agitated state of bafflement. I was desperately trying to fumble for some kind of larger meaning, or at least some kind of narrative foothold from this indie movie about a high-rise apartment complex where the rich reside at the top and the lower classes below. I was holding onto hope that what came across as messy, incoherent, and juvenile would magically coalesce into some sort of work of satiric value. This hope was lost. Director Ben Wheately’s (Kill List) movie is disdainful to audience demands, disdainful to narrative, disdainful to characters that should be more than vague metaphorical figures against the British class system. The social class commentary is so stupidly simple. At one point, the upper floor rich talk about how they have to throw a better party than the lower floor plebs (slobs versus snobs!). The movie lacks any sort of foundation but just keeps going; I would check how much time was left every fifteen minutes and exclaim, “How is there still more left?!” This is a chore to sit through because it’s so resoundingly repetitive and arbitrary. You could rearrange any ten minutes of the movie and make nary a dent in narrative coherence. There are some striking visuals and weird choices that keep things unpredictable; it’s just that I stopped caring far too early for anything to have mattered. Tom Hiddelston plays a doctor in the building and becomes the intermediary between the oblivious rich and the rabble rousing and vengeful poor. I can’t tell you why anything happens in this movie. I can’t say why the characters do what they do, why the events happen, why anything. It’s all just weightless materials for Wheatley’s empty impressionistic canvas. As society breaks down, things get violent and yet the movie is still boring. I was hoping for something along the lines of Snowpiercer but I got more of a pulpy Terence Mallick spiral of self-indulgent nothingness. High-Rise is a highly irritating and exasperating movie and I know it’s destined to be a future favorite of the pretentious. If anyone says it’s one of his or her favorite movies of all time, please kindly walk in the other direction as fast as you are able and then tell an adult.
Nate’s Grade: D
The prospect of a new Nicolas Winding Refn movie is akin to a trip to the dentist for me: long, painful, and full or regret over one’s life choices. The Neon Demon will not change this perception of mine. I hated this movie, and the more I think about it the more I hate it. Unlike Refn’s last film, the punishing, overwrought, and nihilistic Only God Forgives, there isn’t even a kernel of an idea of a movie here. I loathed Only God Forgives but I’ll at least credit Refn for crafting something with potential in its plot dynamics. In better hands, somebody could have done something with the setup for that movie. I don’t think anyone could work with what Refn offers in The Neon Demon because he offers nothing. That’s not entirely true. He offers pretty pictures and alluring shot compositions, bathing the screen in high-contrasting colors. What he fails to offer is a story, or characters, or any reason that this movie shouldn’t exist instead as a ten-minute short. Somebody enlighten me and tell me what exactly this vacuous and tedious art exercise offers.
Perhaps I’m being too cruel so allow me to explain the plot. Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a 16-year-old girl fresh off the bus to L.A. She gets hired at a modeling agency and makes friends with a makeup artist, Ruby (Jena Malone), who also works in a coroner’s office beautifying corpses. Jesse quickly rises through the ranks of the modeling world because of her fresh face and youthful, pure demeanor. She makes enemies with older models (Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee) who feel threatened by her. And Keanu Reeves plays a sleazy motel owner who sticks a knife down Jesse’s throat for fun. Or that was a dream. I think. Then there’s a confrontation that includes necrophilia, murder, and cannibalism. And even after the cannibalism the movie still goes on for another fifteen minutes!
There is not nearly enough plot or any substance to carry out Refn’s near two-hour running time, which becomes all the more obvious with one dreary, pretentious, artfully self-indulgent scene after another. There are long segments where I cannot even tell you from a literal level what is happening on screen. Is Jesse descending into madness? Is Jesse losing herself to the vanity of the industry in a heavy-handed visual metaphor? Does anything happening register with the slightest merit? Refn is possibly trying to tackle the same meandering dream logic that populates David Lynch’s more obtuse filmmaking entries, like Lost Highway and Mullholland Drive (recently voted the top film so far of the twenty-first century by the BBC). I’m not a fan of untethered David Lynch but he will at least keep things interesting. The Neon Demon is a powerfully boring enterprise in annihilating audience patience. There’s no there there.
Another problem I have with Refn’s movies is that he hangs much of his meandering on broad and obvious themes and assumes they’re revelatory. Only God Forgives was all about the pointless nature of vengeance and cyclical violence, and you felt the pointlessness with one grisly and uncomfortable moment after the next. With The Neon Demon, Refn falls back on the most general of broadsides against the fashion industry. Did you know that people working in a surface-level industry could be shallow? Did you know that young women are exploited for their beauty and then quickly cast aside? Did you know that succumbing to the appeals of vanity could be self-destructive? These are the most general themes and they are presented without able commentary. It’s like Refn thinks touching upon these shallow themes is enough substance to justify all the excesses.
This is borderline unwatchable cinema. The plot is like Showgirls without the camp but still following some of the basic plot beats. There is nothing interesting about these characters at all and that’s because they’re not people but robotic figurines at best. They’re dolls for Refn to pose and play around with his purple lights. It’s like watching two hours of somebody rearrange fancy-looking furniture. The characters are just as significant as the nearest love seat or coffee table. I’ve complained about all the empty space in Refn movies and The Neon Demon is no different. This movie is padded out exponentially to become Refn’s longest movie in his career. He cares far more about his shot compositions and cinematography than storytelling. At this point I don’t think Refn has any interest whatsoever in telling a story. He wants to construct a visually immersive film experience. The Neon Demon is little more than the misty atmosphere of the impermissible, the phantasmagorical. Refn deploys controversial imagery and plot elements but he deploys them in place of actual substance. Anybody can get a strong response by throwing in a necrophilia sex scene, but has that reaction been earned and has this moment been properly setup by careful development? Absolutely not. Things just happen.
This was also billed as Refn’s horror movie but there’s nothing genuinely terrifying, at least from an intentional standpoint. You don’t feel any sense of danger or even a sense of uncertainty until the very end, and by then the movie has meandered far too much for the horror elements and gore to have an impact beyond lazy shock value. This is a movie where pretty people stand around and then, on the turn of a dime, do something outrageous. Refn hasn’t laid the groundwork for a descent into mental instability with our lead character, which seems like the most obvious solution. I could see a Black Swan-style psychosexual story about obsession with perfection and how this blinds one woman into making a multitude of sacrifices, driving her over the edge and into murder. Black Swan was a great, often brilliant movie. Go watch Black Swan instead, folks.
I think I have a solution that will benefit us all, dear reader. Nicolas Winding Refn should forgo the director’s chair and devote his career to being a cinematographer. He has an alluring eye for visual compositions and a great feel for atmospheric lighting, but with each passing movie I feel the man’s disdain for narrative filmmaking. His skill set is best utilized at making pretty pictures. Get him away from directing actors. Get him away from writing stories. Have adults in charge of the other aspects that help make a movie what a movie should be. The Neon Demon is a confounding, obnoxious, obtuse, intellectually destitute and monotonous movie experience. It’s frustrating to deal with the Cult of Refn in cinematic circles because I just cannot see what they see (I liked Drive well enough). The Neon Demon is too shallow and tortuous to be an insightful commentary on beauty, too oblique and maddeningly dreamlike to be an engaging story, and too devoid of interesting characters to hold your attention as they drift from one scene to the next. I’d be more forgiving of Refn’s indulgences if he was a short filmmaker. I’d allow more latitude for experimentation. The Neon Demon is not a movie. It’s a collection of half-formed, shallow ideas that Refn has thrown together, a whole lot of dead and empty space connecting them together, and an 80s synth score to underline the high-contrast colors. At this point I’d rather go back to the dentist than sit through another Refn film.
Nate’s Grade: D
Jason Reitman was a director on the hottest of hot streaks with Hollywood. His first three films (Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air) were hits but also an ushering of a new creative voice that felt mature, engaging, and immediate. His 2011 film Young Adult was divisive but I loved its nihilistic narcissism and satire. It looked like this guy couldn’t miss. Then in the span of less than a year, Reitman released Labor Day and Men, Women, and Children, two surprisingly misguided movies. Men, Women, and Children aims to be a Crash-style mosaic of modern-life in the digital age, but what it really feels like is a twenty-first century Reefer Madness.
The movie feels like it was made in the 1990s, like it should be a companion piece to the equally over-the-top and alarmist Sandra Bullock thriller, The Net. The movie’s thesis statement amounts to “the Internet is dangerous,” but this is a statement that everyone already acknowledges. The ensuing evidence from Reitman is so scattershot, so melodramatic, and so cliché-ridden, that it feels like an inauthentic lecture that is already past its prime. Firstly, did you know there is porn on the Internet? I hope you weren’t standing up when I dropped that bombshell. The film posits that because pornography is widely available with a few keystrokes, it has desensitized (primarily) male sexuality. It presents a slippery slop scenario, where the user more or less forms an addiction to online porn and has to keep going to more extreme places to chase that new high. This leads to their inability to accept their imaginations for pleasure or actual flesh-and-blood females. It’s not like Men, Women, and Children is a case study but this feels like the same alarmist rhetoric that’s been hashed since the 1970s. The characters are allowed to have their lives ruined by their pornography addictions, but the storytelling feels particularly disingenuous when it’s squared with the film’s heavy-handed message. That core message is about the inability to communicate with the people around us thanks to modern technology meant to connect us 24/7 (oh, the unexplored irony). The message of the movie isn’t anything new or profound but it’s cranked up to such a comically over-the-top measure. I have no doubt the filmmakers were well-intentioned but their heavy-handed and tin-earned approach is a wild miscalculation that makes the film, and its dire message, more unintentionally funny than meditative.
It also hurts the film’s overall thesis/message when there are so many characters and storylines vying for attention. Reitman attempts to cover just about every aspect of Internet ills as if there is a mental checklist. We’ve got the porn addiction (check), there’s also a faltering marriage where both parties seek out online affairs (check), an fixation with online role-playing games (check), exploitation of teenagers for personal gain (check), stilted communication via social media (check), harmful communities encouraging body shaming (check), cyber bullying (check), and let’s just throw in general malaise (check). The plot is stretched too thin by the multitude of storylines, many of which fail to be interesting or find some shred of truth. There are two mother characters in this film that simply do not exist in real-life, at least the “regular” social milieu the film wants to portray. Jennifer Garner’s character is so obsessed with her daughter’s online life that she literally goes through every text, every tweet, every online post, and is also secretly recording her keystrokes. This militantly paranoid mother is such a broad and farcical caricature of parental concern. At the other end of the spectrum is Judy Greer’s mother, a failed actress trying to vicariously live through her teenage daughter. She’s photographing her daughter in provocative poses and outfits with the intent to jumpstart a modeling career, but it sure comes across like jailbait child pornography. There’s little chance a character could be this naïve and self-deluded to justify running a pervy website to market her underage daughter. Both of these characters are so removed from relatability that they become the two opposite poles of the film’s cautionary message.
I think Reitman was looking for something along the lines of American Beauty, but that movie had a group of characters that were fleshed out and given careful attention. The characters in Men, Women, and Children rarely break away from their one-sentence summations. That may be the biggest disappointment. Reitman has been exceptionally skilled at developing characters. However, the people that populate the world of Men, Women, and Children are really just slaves to the film’s message, plot points that rarely break away from their overtaxed duties. The teenage characters come across as the better half, especially a budding relationship between the ex-football star (Ansel Elgort, Fault in Our Stars) and Garner’s daughter (Kaitlyn Dever, Short Term 12). While their story is still underdeveloped, the actors work toward something that approximates reality, which is sorely missing throughout the movie. Sure, Dever gets to say clunky lines like, “I have a secret Tumblr account. It’s the only place where I can be who I am,” but at least this storyline goes beyond the obvious. The anorexic teen storyline has a lot of potential, even if she follows the same steps as every disappointing and disillusioned deflowering tale since Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Even the cheating spouses storyline goes slack, taking on the malaise of Adam Sandler’s character. The greater irony is that both parties use the same online service, Ashley Madison, to cheat on one another, though only Sandler pays for the service. I’ll give you one sense to how poorly developed these characters are. Sandler and Rosemarie Dewitt play Words with Friends in bed. She plays “gaze” (insight: she’s feeling undesired), and he responds with the word “sag” (insight: he’s feeling a deficit in passion).
To make matters worse, the entire film is taken to new pretentious levels of ludicrousness thanks to the entirely superfluous narration of Emma Thompson. She’s a disembodied god commenting on the foibles of these lowly mortals stumbling around, and the narration constantly cuts back and forth to the Voyager satellite and its trek through the outer reaches of our solar system. Huh? Is any of this necessary to tell this story? It creates a larger context that the movie just cannot rise to the occasion. Thompson’s narration provides a further sense of sledgehammer irony, with Thompson’s detached narration giving added weight to describing things like pornographic titles. The movie keeps going back to this floating metaphor as if it means something significant, rather than just feeling like another element that doesn’t belong muddying the narrative and its impact.
The biggest positive the film has going for it is the acting by the deep ensemble. Nobody gives a bad performance, though Sandler does come across a bit sleepy. The problem for the actors is that a good half of the movie is watching characters read or text. Reitman at least gooses up his visuals by superimposing Facebook screens and online texts, but the fact remains that we’re watching people type or scroll through the Internet. It’s not quite cinematic and feels better suited for a written medium (the film is based on a book by Chad Kultgen). You haven’t lived until you watch actors texting for two hours.
At this point in his career, I’m getting worried about the direction Reitman is headed. He started off with four very different but excellent movies, two in collaboration with Diablo Cody. Each was elevated by its careful concentration on character and by its darkly comic worldviews. With Labor Day, Reitman took a sharp left turn into a Douglas Sirk-styled domestic melodrama. It was misguided and corny and could be written off as a momentary misstep. Now with Men, Women, and Children, Reitman has delivered two miscalculated and soapy melodramas that lack any of the acuity and creative voice of his earlier films. Men, Women, and Children especially feels like an alarmist and heavy-handed message about the evils of technology and how it’s warping modern communication; if the film was better written, had fewer characters, had more relatable characters, ditched the pretentious narration, and focused its scattershot message into something more nuanced or definable, then there might be something of merit here. It’s not that the commentary is entirely devoid of merit, but Reitman’s overblown approach does him no service. Men, Women, and Children plays out like a hysterical and outdated warning that is too feeble to be effective and too thin to be entertaining.
Nate’s Grade: C
This is one of the most difficult reviews I’ve ever had to write. It’s not because I’m torn over the film; no, it’s because this review will also serve as my break-up letter. Paul Thomas Anderson (PTA), we’re just moving in two different directions. We met when we were both young and headstrong. I enjoyed your early works Paul, but then somewhere around There Will be Blood, things changed. You didn’t seem like the PTA I had known to love. You became someone else, and your films represented this change, becoming plotless and laborious centerpieces on self-destructive men. Others raved to the heavens over Blood but it left me cold. Maybe I’m missing something, I thought. Maybe the problem is me. Maybe it’s just a phase. Then in 2012 came The Master, a pretentious and ultimately futile exercise anchored by the wrong choice for a main character. When I saw the early advertisements for Inherent Vice I got my hopes up. It looked like a weird and silly throwback, a crime caper that didn’t take itself so seriously. At last, I thought, my PTA has returned to me. After watching Inherent Vice, I can no longer deny the reality I have been ducking. My PTA is gone and he’s not coming back. We’ll always have Boogie Nights, Paul. It will still be one of my favorite films no matter what.
In the drug-fueled world of 1970 Los Angeles, stoner private eye Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) is visited by one of his ex-girlfriends, Shasta (Katherine Waterston). She’s in a bad place. The man she’s in love with, the wealthy real estate magnate Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) is going to be conned. Mickey’s wife, and her boyfriend, is going to commit the guy to a mental hospital ward and take control of his empire. Then Shasta and Mickey go missing. Doc asks around, from his police detective contact named Bigfoot (Josh Brolin), to an ex (Reese Witherspoon) who happens to be in the L.A. justice department, to a junkie (Jena Malone) with a fancy set of fake teeth thanks to a coked-out dentist (Martin Short) who may be a front for an Asian heroin cartel. Or maybe not. As more and more strange characters come into orbit, Doc’s life is placed in danger, and all he really wants to find out is whether his dear Shasta is safe or not.
Inherent Vice is a shaggy dog detective tale that is too long, too convoluted, too slow, too mumbly, too confusing, and not nearly funny or engaging enough. If it weren’t for the enduring pain that was The Master, this would qualify as Anderson’s worst picture.
One of my main complaints of Anderson’s last two movies has been the paucity of a strong narrative, especially with the plodding Master. It almost felt like Anderson was, subconsciously or consciously, evening the scales from his plot-heavy early works. Being plotless is not a charge one can levy against Inherent Vice. There is a story here with plenty of subplots and intrigue. The problem is that it’s almost never coherent, as if the audience is lost in the same pot haze as its loopy protagonist. The mystery barely develops before the movie starts heaping subplot upon subplot, each introducing more and more characters, before the audience has a chance to process. It’s difficult to keep all the characters and their relationships straight, and then just when you think you have everything settled, the film provides even more work. The characters just feel like they’re playing out in different movies (some I would prefer to be watching), with the occasional crossover. I literally gave up 45 minutes into the movie and accepted the fact that I’m not going to be able to follow it, so I might as well just watch and cope. This defeatist attitude did not enhance my viewing pleasure. The narrative is too cluttered with side characters and superfluous digressions.
The plot is overstuffed with characters, many of which will only appear for one sequence or even one scene, thus polluting a narrative already crammed to the seams with characters to keep track of. Did all of these characters need to be here and visited in such frequency? Doc makes for a fairly frustrating protagonist. He’s got little personality to him and few opportunities to flesh him out. Not having read Thomas Pynchon’s novel, I cannot say how complex the original character was that Anderson had to work with. Doc just seems like a placeholder for a character, a guy who bumbles about with a microphone, asking others questions and slowly unraveling a convoluted conspiracy. He’s more a figure to open other characters up than a character himself. The obvious comparison to the film and the protagonist is The Big Lebowski, a Coen brothers film I’m not even that fond over. However, with Lebowski, the Coens gave us memorable characters that separated themselves from the pack. The main character had a definite personality even if he was drunk or stoned for most of the film. Except for Short’s wonderfully debased and wily five minutes onscreen, every character just kind of washes in and out of your memory, only registering because of a famous face portraying him or her. Even in the closing minutes, the film is still introducing vital characters. The unnecessary narration by musician Joanna Newsome is also dripping with pretense.
Another key factor that limits coherency is the fact that every damn character mumbles almost entirely through the entirety of the movie. And that entirety, by the way, is almost two and a half hours, a running time too long by at least 30 minutes, especially when Doc’s central mystery of what happened to Shasta is over before the two-hour mark. For whatever reason, it seems that Anderson has given an edict that no actor on set can talk above a certain decibel level or enunciate that clearly. This is a film that almost requires a subtitle feature. There are so many hushed or mumbled conversations, making it even harder to keep up with the convoluted narrative. Anderson’s camerawork can complicate the matter as well. Throughout the film, he’ll position his characters speaking and slowly, always so slowly, zoom in on them, as if we’re eavesdropping. David Fincher did something similar with his sound design on Social Network, amping up the ambient noise to force the audience to tune their ears and pay closer attention. However, he had Aaron Sorkin’s words to work with, which were quite worth our attention. With Inherent Vice, the characters talk in circles, tangents, and limp jokes. After a protracted setup, and listening to one superficially kooky character after another, you come to terms with the fact that while difficult to follow and hear, you’re probably not missing much.
Obviously, Inherent Vice is one detective mystery where the answers matter less than the journey and the various characters that emerge, but I just didn’t care, period. It started too slow, building a hazy atmosphere that just couldn’t sustain this amount of prolonged bloat and an overload of characters. Anderson needed to prune Pynchon’s novel further. What appears onscreen is just too difficult to follow along, and, more importantly, not engaging enough to justify the effort. The characters fall into this nether region between realism and broadly comic, which just makes them sort of unrealistic yet not funny enough. The story rambles and rambles, set to twee narration that feels like Newsome is just reading from the book, like Anderson could just not part with a handful of prose passages in his translation. Much like The Master, I know there will be champions of this movie, but I won’t be able to understand them. This isn’t a zany Chinatown meets Lewboswki. This isn’t some grand throwback to 1970s cinema. This isn’t even much in the way of a comedy, so be forewarned. Inherent Vice is the realization for me that the Paul Thomas Anderson I fell in love with is not coming back. And that’s okay. He’s allowed to peruse other movies just as I’m allowed to see other directors. I wish him well.
Nate’s Grade: C+