Released May 17, 2001:
Director Baz Luhrmann’s last project was the MTV-friendly William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (like someone else has a Romeo and Juliet) which was adored by the under 15 set that now buy N*SYNC merchandise. Luhrmann waited a long time for his follow up with Moulin Rogue, a manic musical that seems like candy for the eyes. It may have been a long time but it was well worth the wait.
The sparkling world of Moulin Rogue is around turn of the century France. Christian (Ewan McGregor), an aspiring writer, has traveled to this place against his father’s wishes. Christian believes in the beauty of love and the pull of the heart. Within minutes of setting foot in France he gets wrapped up into a production by a dwarf (John Leguizamo) and his cadre of assistants. Christian is sent to the most provocative club in town, the Moulin Rogue. Here he attempts to persuade the most famous showgirl Satine (Nicole Kidman) to help push for their musical to get financial backing. Satine inadvertently confuses Christian for the man she is supposed to seduce for a large some of money, the Duke (Richard Roxburgh). And thus the merry band of misfits get their play the backing while Christian blossoms a love for Satine. But their love must remain hidden for the Duke is led to believe that Satine is his and his alone.
Kidman owns this movie, plain and simple. From her first shattering entrance being lowered from the ceiling to the last scene, she is absolutely magnificent. McGregor gives a nice performance as the dough-eyed lover. Jim Broadbent plays the Moulin Rogue’s owner, Zidler with howling delight in all his manic expressions. Even Roxburgh gives an underwritten antagonist the right amount of weasely twitch.
One of the more surprising features is how well the two leads can actually sing. Kidman gives a soft and sexy take on “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” and McGregor can belt out a tune with some admirably throaty pipes. As these two veer in and out of songs it’s a pleasure to watch and hear.
Luhrmann has crafted a musical with ADD, but I say this as a compliment. Moulin Rogue‘s pace is fast and pounding. People twirl above the sky, the camera zooms wildly through town streets, and dump trucks worth of confetti fly through the air. Moulin Rouge is exploding with glitz and never lets up. The editing and visual artistry is stirring. By about ten minutes into the proceedings when a green fairy starts singing a seductive version of “The Hills Are Alive” you know you are in for something else. And what a something else the film delivers. There was not a moment I didn’t have a smile glued to my stupid face.
Moulin Rogue could be described as a musical for people who dislike traditional musicals. In traditional musicals people go along stuffy formula, then break out into great choreography song-and-dance. With Lurhmann’s musical is a breakneck of pomp where the characters zip around to exaggerated Hanna-Barbara sound effects and start chiming away with 70s and 80s pop songs that we all know. After the initial shock/humor of hearing characters belt out renditions of “Roxanne” and “Like A Virgin,” a familiarity sets in and it blends in to produce a surprising artistic addition.
The story of the movie is nothing new or extraordinary; it’s well worn territory. But where Moulin Rouge breaks apart and shines are with its style and exposure. The visuals are astoundingly lush and lively, the music is game and pumping, and the movie is just screaming to be seen. This was a true work of love.
The movie is bursting to the seams with life. I loved every single second, every single frame, every single moment of Moulin Rouge. I can’t wait to go see it again.
Nate’s Grade: A
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
This was a movie I was looking forward to revisiting and was partly dreading. With the movies that I loved in my past, there is more at stake revisiting them and finding that some of the luster, some of that original magic that enchanted me twenty years hence might be missing. Nothing is lost by re-learning that something like Freddy Got Fingered is still as awful today as it was in 2001. I had this same nagging concern with several of my favorites of 1999 and 2000, and not all of them held up (these re-reviews cannot help being partly biographical). Moulin Rouge wasn’t even a movie I had much interest in seeing back in 2001. I went at the behest of my friend Kevin Lowe and I remember my expectations being low, or maybe I wasn’t in the greatest mood, but within ten minutes that all changed. Moulin Rouge is a movie I unabashedly loved at 19 years old and watched repeatedly through my early 20s and consider a personal favorite. I was caught up in the razzle, the dazzle (especially the dazzle), but the sumptuous and crazed artistry of it all, where it could simultaneously be nostalgic and modern, irreverent and deeply serious, hopelessly romantic in the squarest of terms while being so quizzically weird. It could have been a spectacular disaster but it ended up being a spectacular spectacular. I’m happy to report that Moulin Rouge retains its charm and soaring passion even twenty toe-tapping years later.
This has and will always be a love-it-or-hate-it film. I don’t think there are many people who can watch this movie and remark, “Eh, it was okay I guess.” The opening act is relentlessly paced, anarchic and antic, bouncing all over the place, exploding with information, humor, colors, and bawdy and bizarre imagery, intending to shake you from your doldrums of what a modern big screen musical experience can entail. Under the mad genius of co-writer/director Baz Luhrmann, the movie is bracingly transporting and takes you for an immediate rush, and just as it slows down, you’re hooked. Or, if you’re in the hate-it camp, you’ve found the movie to be a scattershot, self-indulgent, ADD-addled, exhausting ride you’re eager to depart. An amusement park ride is a fine analogy for Moulin Rouge, a movie reverberating with energy and movement; it really does feel like it can’t possibly stand still. There’s a seductive green fairy line dancing, and a singing moon performing opera, and a narcoleptic Argentinian, and John Leguizamo as a dwarf, and plenty of ribald sexual humor and goofy slapstick comedy. It is, to put it lightly, a lot to handle.
With apologies to modern poets, for most of us, the poetry of our modern culture is the songs that have shaped us and our biographical experiences, the soaring ballads, the friendly singalongs, the bangers to shout at the top of your lungs, the love songs to swoon along to and melt away. Moulin Rouge is a major musical that only has one original song, the modern wedding staple “Come What May,” which was actually written for Luhrmann’s prior movie, 1995’s Romeo and Juliet, and thus declared ineligible for the Academy Award for Original Song (sorry Randy Newman, but your Monster’s Inc. song cannot compete). It is a musical composed of renditions and snippets of hit music, cementing its amalgamation as a pop-culture chimera. In many ways it previews the viral Glee music mashups and remixes, the effortless blending of one song into another, the melodies gliding like dancers and then becoming something excitingly new. It’s a different kind of creativity because it’s one thing just to hit “play” on some Greatest Hits CD and it’s another to make sure the songs track the emotional journeys and perspectives of its primary players. Early on, as Christian (Ewen McGregor) belts tunes from The Sound of Music, captivating his peers with his apparent genius, we immediately understand the instant appeal this man would have, seeming like a musical prophet to those lucky enough to listen in 1899 Paris. It’s a clever shorthand and another reflection that modern music has enough vitality and depth to serve as the romantic poetry of our age. Moulin Rouge also predates the sharp rise in jukebox musicals, using the songs of the past, usually limited to one artist, as part of the infectious fun.
The singing and song renditions are luscious and odd and beautifully re-calibrated. The introduction of Satine (Nicole Kidman) is a bold move, lowered on trapeze, her pale skin practically glowing, as she breathily sings “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” It’s like the movie perceives Satine as an angel being lowered to the mores of man. A male duet of “Like a Virgin” between club owner Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent) and the villainous, twitchy, possessive and foppish Duke (Richard Roxburgh) is hilarious and at points unfathomably creepy. Watching “Roxanne” performed as a sultry tango is so good that you’ll never want to hear it any other way. The singing by the famous stars is remarkably polished and without the advent of Autotune, especially from McGregor who belts his tunes with impressive range. The blending of this sonic soundscape, especially McGregor inter-cutting with that “Roxanne” number, can be overwhelming to fully process, like the movie is trying to reach you on a pure emotional, elemental level where you feel it before you can fully process it intellectually. I think that sums up the movie and its lasting appeal well, because I can logically pick apart certain artistic choices, like the exaggerated cartoon sound effects that could have been pared back, but the movie is a messy, joyously messy, exuberant love letter to big messy emotions and cheesy romanticism even to the point of mockery. This is a big screen musical for our modern age, and it’s meant to tap the right combination of buttons to make you fall in love, and I do every time.
It’s amazing to me how Moulin Rouge feels like a crossroads of the old and new, reaching back to the big movie musicals of old but with the hyper-kinetic style of modern music videos. It’s immediately fresh but also familiar, and that clever construction most notably extends to its very specific use of music. It’s not trying to erase the old school musical but drag it into a new century, drafting off of modern music hits to reach a new audience waiting to feel that same heightened reality that those old musicals might not capture for a younger generation. The movie also begat a resurgence of big screen musicals like 2002’s Chicago, 2004’s Phantom of the Opera, 2005’s Rent and The Producers (also co-starring Kidman), 2006’s Dreamgirls, 2007’s Sweeney Todd and Hairspray, and on and on to recent musicals like 2019’s Rocketman (jukebox musical) and 2020’s The Prom (also co-starring Kidman). Everything Chicago did, I felt like Moulin Rouge did better the year before, and I’m convinced Kidman’s Best Actress Oscar for The Hours was a makeup award for being overlooked for her superior performance in Moulin Rouge a year prior. I don’t know if Kidman was ever better than she was here at this moment in her career, fresh off her divorce from Tom Cruise. I feel strongly that Broadbent should have won his 2001 Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this and not Iris. The movie was nominated for eight Oscars and justly won two for Best Art Direction and Costumes, both going to Luhrmann’s wife, Catherine Martin, who would also win two Oscars for her husband’s equally lush and anachronistic 2013 adaptation of The Great Gatsby. The electric editing, glittering cinematography, and all the bravura technical elements blend into a rare artistic vision so complete and so extravagantly bold at this budget level.
It should also be noted that Moulin Rouge was adapted into a Broadway stage musical in 2019, updating with more twenty-first century hits like “Crazy in Love” and “Firework” and “Toxic” and “Bad Romance” among others. Its stage run was postponed because of COVID although a national tour is planned for 2022.
From my original review back in 2001, many of my same points still hold up and it was difficult to perfectly capture the spell this movie can have, the same difficulty I’m running into today in 2021 to try and convey its unique hold on me. Regrettably, it’s another review that I felt I needed to take a potshot on “teenyboppers” from my oh so dismissive position as critic. It’s nice when I find myself agreeing with my twenty years younger self. I especially agree with this one summative statement: “There was not a moment I didn’t have a smile glued to my stupid face.” Moulin Rouge is one of my happy movies and twenty years later my stupid face is still smiling.
Re-Review Grade: A
If you’re not familiar with quirky writer/director/performance artist Miranda July, she specializes in a special kind of weird that borders on surreal and also a surprising emotional poignancy. It’s been 9 years since her last feature film, The Future, and she’s back with what might be her most narratively focused and accessible yet still wonderfully weird movie yet. We follow a family of grifters (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger as the parents) and their day-to-day struggle to con, skim, or steal enough money to get by to the next day. Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) is their only child, and her role in the family is thrown into question when a new member joins their team. Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) has connections to a raft of senior citizens so desperate for attention that, if they all pose as Melanie’s family, they should be able to con these old folks of possessions they can resell. From there, the movie becomes a push-and-pull relationship between Old Dolio and the influence of her shifty family, and she questions her place in this fringe unit and whether her parents actually love her or see her as another means to get a score. Kajillionaire is loose in plot but populated with interesting characters who feel fully realized by July’s writing. She’s so good at studying human behavior and capturing it that the quirky details all feel so genuine and meaningful. Even Old Dolio’s name is a reminder of her parents’ opportunism and problematic parenting skills. She was named after a homeless man who won the lottery under the hopes that he would be grateful and put her in his will (he ended up spending his fortune on experimental cancer drugs). That’s the difference with July. A silly name could just be a disposable oddity, but for her it’s a reflection of a character’s worth and history. There are moments in the movie that achieve a level of artistic transcendence where every piece is humming beautifully together, like one moment where a dying elderly man off-screen directs the grifter family to pretend to be like his own flesh-and-blood family. They play pretend at domesticity, each assuming a doting role, and the tranquil scene of a fake family feels beautifully attuned. The moments stand out more than the whole but July’s empathetic appreciation of human fallibility keeps her from ever condemning Old Dolio’s scheming parents too much. Even the very end finds a way to turn betrayal into a message of humility. Wood (Westworld) drops her voice several octaves, wears baggy clothing, and looks extremely awkward when it comes to human contact. Rodriguez (Annihilation) is the voice of the audience and her test of how far she’s willing to excuse the selfish behavior of this clan of cons. Her burgeoning friendship and maybe more with Old Dolio is a rewarding enterprise for the characters and the audience. Kajillionaire is a gentle little movie that plays at a low-key range of human emotions yet it can still be deftly funny and surprising and heartfelt on its own unique terms. With Miranda July, she makes weird entrancing and human.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Spontaneous is a movie that grabbed my attention immediately, made me laugh quickly, and then made me fall in love over the course of its explosive 100 minutes. The more I think back about this bizarre little movie, based on the YA novel by Aaron Starmer, the more affection I have for it and its messy accomplishments. Writer/director Brian Duffield has been one of the most exciting screenwriters for years, penning highly inventive stories that have a distinct, vivacious comedic voice that leaps off the page and smacks you across the face with how good it is, and then you ask for more (check out The Babysitter for the closest representation of what a Duffield screenplay delivers; skip the sequel though). This is Duffield’s debut as a director and I feel like he’s a natural fit for the quirky, blood-soaked material. Spontaneous is a dark comedy that can also make you feel something because it doesn’t simply treat its characters as disposable punchlines.
So the senior class of Covington High School has a serious problem. They’re spontaneously exploding. Nobody knows why, nobody knows who will be next, and even after a government quarantine, the answers aren’t any clearer. Mara (Katherine Langford) just wants to live to grow into a badass older lady who lives on the beach with her best friend Tess (Hayley Law). Her dreams of a life after graduation might never come true. Dylan (Charlie Plummer) introduces himself to Mara and they begin a tender courtship, falling in love during a precarious time where either of them could explode and soak the other in gore and viscera. Can these two crazy kids make it and grow up when their own bodies might betray their fleeting happiness?
Almost instantaneously I was drawn into the romance between Mara and Dylan, and I enjoyed deeply how each helps to shape the other, finding a sincere connection in the most extreme and unexpected of circumstances. Their budding romance dances with tragedy and dread as we worry over the fate of our lovers; surely, with this horrific premise, they won’t end happily ever after, or could they? Every time another student exploded, I winced. I laughed a few times, I’ll admit, because the context can become darkly hilarious and absurd, but it’s also a natural human reflex to relieve tension. Each one of these kids is a potential suicide bomber and they don’t know it. It’s sudden and something that you, even as a viewer, will never get used to. What you will do is start to dread who is next and whether that explosion sound was someone you liked. With an omnipresence of tragedy, it pushes the characters to make the most of their potentially short lives and that brings a greater significance to their next steps, the little attempts to “feel like an adult,” to reach for their desires, and to declare who they are while they are still standing to do so. It takes the coming-of-age setup and deftly dials up the emotional stakes.
Make no mistake though, Spontaneous is an uproariously funny movie. We’re primarily seeing the world from the perspective of Mara and her narration and occasional fourth-wall breaks. There are some fun asides where other characters take over narration duties, but this is chiefly her movie and she’s delightfully odd, prickly, and worthy of our attention. Duffield’s screenplay is brimming with wit and the conversational banter flows with such a confident cadence, all while not being overly mellifluous and self-satisfied. I adored just spending time with the characters because I was anticipating what they would say and do next. The social satire is present but not as substantial as I would have thought. The film trades in familiar stereotypes we’ve come to associate with high school movies, yet it can take some interesting detours, like when the football team cheers in support about their fellow player for coming out as gay. This is a high school movie mixed with a horror movie, where a big party to cut loose could become the latest crime scene. Most of the adults are simply scared and don’t know what to do, and that helpless vulnerability extends outward and keeps going. Just because you may be older doesn’t mean you know what you’re doing. I cackled plenty from the physical humor, slapstick gross-out gags, but when Duffield wanted to be serious, you better believe I shut my trap and pulled up the blanket.
I think it’s worth acknowledging, and I don’t consider this a real spoiler, that the cause of the spontaneous combustion is never resolved. There is no explanation, and if that’s a deal-breaker for you then I think you’re prioritizing the wrong parts of what Spontaneous is offering. It doesn’t really matter why it’s happening because the movie isn’t a scientific mystery. As much as it might seem bizarre to declare, this is far more than the “kids blown into bloody bits” movie. It’s not about what is happening per se but how it emotionally affects the characters. The unknown bodily explosions could serve as a gory metaphor for modern-day threats of school shooters, terrorism, or even our current pandemic (pick your metaphor, anything really works). Students don’t know who will be next, when their time will be up, and an anxious pall hangs over their day-to-day lives as they trudge onward trying to regain a sense of normalcy during a troubling and uncertain time of numbing trauma. That’s really the core of the movie, the response to inexplicable trauma. Some characters maintain a blasé, nihilistic attitude, questioning whether their minute remaining time has value. Others look at the random threat of exploding as a motivator to overcome the obstacles that kept them from achieving their goals, ignoring social hang-ups and personal misgivings. It’s the proverbial kick that Dylan needs to finally talk to the girl he’s been crushing on. He elects to live with his remaining time on this planet, no matter how brief, and elects to be happy, which is about one of the bravest things a person can do. That’s why the combustible student body doesn’t need an explanation, and to be fair what possible explanation would ever have been truly satisfying (“Oh, we all just ate too many carbs. Huh.”)?
If she hadn’t already established herself from Netflix’s somber soap 13 Reasons Why, this would have been a star-making role for Langford (Knives Out). She’s captivating from her first moment onscreen when she discusses the mundane details of her day at school right before the girl in front of her explodes. Her sardonic and spiky attitude permeates the movie and gives the film an energetic jolt, amplified by Duffield’s stylish flourishes that reminded me at points of Edgar Wright with how playful and involved the visual transitions could get. Our leading lady is a force of nature, and after enough time, you can understand why Tess wants to be her bestie, why Dylan would fall in love with her, and why other students would be afraid of Mara. There are moments where Langford can be silly and diverting, like dressing in mourning over the 2016 election, and others where she feels like she’s harnessing the totality of youthful feminine rage (I loved a late declarative statement directed at our current president) to be a symbol. The “same old” just isn’t going to cut it when the stakes are this high. Langford isn’t just the too-cool gal spitting pithy insults from a safe distance. There’s some heavy-duty existential drama here that she carries while through the prism of her eccentric teenager’s attitude. Her romance with Plummer (All the Money in the World) is sweet and affecting and feels entirely genuine.
Sticky, sweet, and wickedly funny, Spontaneous is obsessed with death, the uncertainty of knowing when your time is up, and yet I came away feeling ultimately uplifted and moved. There are some jolting moments, both funny and heart-breaking, and Duffield wants you to take the time to feel the full experience of being young and angry and hopeful and anxious and in love and feeling weird. In a disastrous year of worldwide calamities, Spontaneous is a bright spot, and given the bloody premise, that should tell you everything you need to know about the year 2020. This is a delightful, heartfelt, and surprisingly mature teen drama that also happens to have people bursting like balloons. Duffield even touches upon the profound at points, which is hard to do with any filmmaker, let alone one playing with these crazy genre elements. Spontaneous is a coming-of-age drama with equal parts ache and warmth, gallows humor and personal insight. Find this movie, devote 100 minutes of your time, and wear a poncho if necessary.
Nate’s Grade: A
I’m shocked this isn’t the pilot for a new series, and maybe it one day will serve as such, because Enola Holmes is such a sprightly, effervescent, enjoyable rehash of the classic sleuth but this time from the girl power point of view of a younger sister. Millie Bobby Brown (Stranger Things) shines as the headstrong, quirky, loquacious Enola Holmes setting off on her own adventure to find her missing mother (Helena Bonham Carter) and to push against her older brothers Mycroft (Sam Claflin) and Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and their perceptions of what is appropriate for a lady. The best moments are when Brown gets to showcase her pluck and grit, proving presumptions wrong, and winning fans along the way. There is nothing new about this kind of movie where a young woman fights against sexism and proves herself capable and heroic. It’s a tried-and-true formula that works because, with enough polish, an underdog is always going to draw in the audience to watch them triumph over their doubters. Add a dash of feminism to boot and bake as necessary (not a joke on feminism, mind you). The actual plot is secondary to the situational mishaps and character bickering, which is good because there isn’t really a mystery to uncover. Enola gets pulled into protecting a young royal on the run from a wealthy family benefactor that wants to make sure he doesn’t live to collect his inheritance. Their interaction adopts a screwball romance sort of tone, which provides Brown ample opportunity to be sunny, exuberant, and overall delightful, a side rarely seen as the somber, alienated Eleven. I enjoyed the stylistic asides and visual inserts to better showcase Enola’s hyperactive thinking and sleuthing, borrowing a page from the new Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock TV series to visualize the processes of rapid-fire thought in a pleasing and amusing manner. Cavill is perhaps the most dashing Sherlock put to screen and provides a suitable establishment stand-in of accepted masculinity and intelligence that serves as contrast for what Enola is pushing against. Given that almost all the main players are attached to ongoing Netflix series (The Witcher, The Crown) I feel like we should expect more adventures down the line with the irascible Enola Holmes, and with a bubbly Brown seizing the mantle, that’s fine by me.
Nate’s Grade: B
It’s a beguiling little buddy movie about a wrestling fan with Down syndrome (Zack Gottsagen) escaping his care facility, joining forces with a runaway screw-up (Shia LaBeouf) in over his head, and the nursing home assistant (Dakota Fanning) looking to find her charge so they can all sail down the river and meet an old wrestling coach (Thomas Haden Church) who may or may not exist. It’s an episodic journey that hearkens to Mark Twain and 90s indie cinema with its unorthodox family dynamics. The real pleasure of the movie is watching LaBeouf and newcomer Gottsagen bond, whether it be building a raft, channeling larger-than-life wrestling personas, running away from a vengeful criminal (John Hawkes), getting baptized by a blind man, and simply finding time to become friends. It’s one of those “journey, not the destination” films because by the end The Peanut Butter Falcon is nice but rather unremarkable. It’s amusing and sweet but the advertising was filled with heightened exclamations such as, “The sweetest damn film of the decade.” As I sat in my theater, I was wondering if there was something wrong with my ticker; it wasn’t exactly feeling too full from the onscreen proceedings. It felt like there were core elements here that could have been further built upon, further developed, to turn The Peanut Butter Falcon from a relatively good movie into a great one. It’s well acted and the photography of the South can be gorgeous. LaBeouf (American Honey) is genuinely terrific and carries the movie on his back as a beleaguered soul still wounded from personal tragedy. The way he becomes the biggest supporter and advocate for his new friend is heartening without feeling overly trite or saccharine. However, by the end, I didn’t feel too uplifted or moved by the accumulative adventures. I enjoyed myself, but much like a Twain story, it’s more the teller than the tale, and by its winding conclusion I felt like there was too much left behind unexplored.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Men in Black International is a perfectly fine movie but it’s hard not to feel the franchise going through the motions in an attempt to recapture the elusive magic that made the original 1997 movie the standout it was. This time we’re introduced to new agents and new agencies, with Thor Ragnarok stars Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth decked out in black and on the hunt for rogue alien life forms in Europe and the Middle East. The two actors are charming and Thompson’s character is a great re-introduction to this hidden world, a woman who has devoted her life to finding and becoming a Man in Black. As we went from scene to scene, it felt like an MIB spy thriller evoking the undercover missions, arms dealers, shady informants, potential agency mole to expose, exotic locales, and crackling banter of that genre, and that’s something none of the sequels have done before. However, I also noted just how forced everything felt. What should be jaunty and droll came across as flat or overly exaggerated, trying to recreate the energy and style of the original but falling short. It feels like when someone is trying to retell a joke but has lost the rhythms that made it so amusing in the first place. The pieces are there but they don’t feel right. I also kept noting how it should be funnier. Many of the jokes are barely touched upon or developed for more potential. The set pieces are pretty humdrum and even the integration of the strange, otherworldly elements and aliens feels lacking. With that said, Hemsworth and Thompson remind you how winning an onscreen pair they are, and even with their charm kept at a lower, simmering level they are still enjoyable to watch. There’s a predictable storyline about an alien invasion and a predictable turncoat reveal, but it’s all played rather innocuously that it’s hard to get upset. Men in Black International is an intermittently amusing movie that’s hard to hate and hard to love. If you’re a fan of the series, or got a couple hours to obliterate, it should provide enough entertainment, but much like one of those handy-dandy nueralizers, you won’t remember much after.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Netflix might just be the best pasture yet for brothers Joel and Ethan Coen. The Oscar-winning filmmakers were reportedly creating a Western series for the online streaming giant but that has turned into an anthology film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The Coens’ love of the beautiful, the bizarre, the bucolic and the brazen are on full display with their six-part anthology movie that serves as reminder of what wonderfully unique cinematic voices they are. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is uneven, as most anthology films tend to by design, but it reaches that vintage Coen sweet spot of absurdity and profundity.
The best segment is also the one that kicks things off, the titular adventures of Buster Scruggs, a singing Gene Autry-style cowboy who manages to get into all sorts of scrapes. The tonal balancing act on this one is pure Coen, at once inviting an audience to nostalgically recall the Westerns of old while kicking you in the teeth with dark, hilariously violent turns that veer into inspired slapstick. There is a delightful absurdity to the segment thanks to the cheerful sociopath nature of Buster Scruggs, the fastest gun in the West that’s eager to show off at a moment’s notice. He’s a typical Coen creation, a wicked wordsmith finding himself into heaps of trouble, but through his quick wits and sudden bursts of violence, he’s able to rouse an entire saloon full of witnesses to his murder into a swinging, carousing group following him in song. I laughed long and hard throughout much of this segment. I was hooked and wanted to see where it would go next and how depraved it might get. Tim Blake Nelson (O Bother Where Art Thou) is wonderful as Buster Scruggs and perfectly finds the exact wavelength needed for the Coen’s brand of funny and peculiar. He’s like a combo Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny breaking the fourth wall to let the audience in on his merry bravado. The segment ends in a fitting fashion, another song that manages to be hilarious and strangely poignant at the same time. The Coens allow the scene to linger into a full-on duet of metaphysical proportions. I could have watched an entire series following Buster Scruggs but it may have been wise to cut things short and not to overstay its novelty.
The other best segments take very different tonal destinations. “All Gold Canyon” is a slower and more leisurely segment, following Tom Waits as a prospector who systematically works the land in search of a hidden trove of gold he nicknames “Mr. Pocket.” The step-by-step process has a lyrical nature to it, and it reminded me of the opening of There Will Be Blood where we follow Daniel Plainview’s initial success at unearthing the beginning of his fortune. Waits is fantastic and truly deserving of Oscar consideration as the prospector. He’s hardscrabble and resilient, and there’s a late moment where he’s narrating a near escape from death where he’s tearfully thankful, possibly losing himself in the moment, and so grateful that it made me tear up myself. The segment ebbs and flows on the strength of the visual storytelling and Waits. It’s a lovely short with a few hidden punches, which is also another fine way to describe the other best segment, “The Gal Who Got Rattled.” It stars Zoe Kazan (The Big Sick) as a woman making her way to Oregon with a wagon train. She’s heading west for a new life, one she was not prepared for and only doing so at the urging of her pushy brother who dies shortly into the journey. Now she’s on her own and struggling to find her own place in the larger world. There’s a very sweet and hopeful romance between her and Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), one of the wagon train leaders who is thinking of settling down. It’s also a segment that slows down, accounting for the longest running time of the six. It goes to great care to establish the rhythms of life on the road, where many people walked the thousands of miles across the plains. The budding courtship is at a realistic simmer, something with more promise than heat. It’s such an involving story that its downturn of an ending almost feels criminal, albeit even if the tragic setups were well placed. Both of these segments take a break from the signature irony of the Coens and sincerely round out their characters and personal journeys and the dangers that await them.
The remaining three segments aren’t bad by any stretch (I’d rate each from fine to mostly good) but they don’t get close to the entertainment and artistic majesty of the others. The second segment, “Near Algodones,” has some fun moments as James Franco is an inept bank robber who seems to go from bad situation to new bad situation, getting out through miraculous means until his luck runs out. The interaction with a kooky Stephen Root is a highlight but the segment feels more like a series of ideas than any sort of story. Even for an anthology movie, the segment feels too episodic for its own good. The third segment, “Meal Ticket,” is about a traveling sideshow in small dusty towns in the middle of winter. Liam Neeson plays the owner and the main act is a thespian (Henry Melling, best known as Dudley Dursely in the Harry Potter films) with no arms and no legs. The thespian character says nothing else but his prepared oratory. It makes him a bit harder to try and understand internally. I was also confused by their relationship. Are they father/son? Business partners? It’s also the most repetitious short, by nature, with the monologues and stops bleeding into one another, giving the impression of the thankless and hard life of a performer trying to eek out a living. It’s a bit too oblique. The final segment, “The Mortal Remains,” is like an Agatha Christie chamber play. We listen to five characters engage in a philosophical and contentious debate inside a speeding stagecoach that will not slow down. It’s an actors showcase with very specifically written characters, the Coens sharp ear for local color coming through. The conversation takes on a symbolism of passing over to judgment in the afterlife, or maybe it doesn’t and I’m trying to read more into things. You may start to tune out the incessant chatter as I did. It’s a perfunctory finish for the movie.
Being a Coen brothers’ film, the technical merits are mesmerizing. The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie, Inside Llewyn Davis) is sumptuous and often stunning. The use of light and color is a gorgeous tapestry, and some of the visual arrangements could be copied into ready-made scenic postcards, in particular “Meal Ticket” and “All Gold Canyon.” The isolation, hostility, warmth, majesty of the setting is expertly communicated to the viewer. The production design and costuming are consummate as well. The musical score by longtime collaborator Carter Burwell is classic in its use of melancholy strings and motifs. It’s a glorious looking movie made with master craft care.
Before its release, the Coens had talked about how hard it was to make their kind of movies within the traditional studio system, even with their 30 years of hits and classics. Netflix is desperately hungry for prestige content, so it looks like a suitable match. I’d happily welcome more Coen brothers’ movies like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a goofy Western that’s equally heart wrenching as it is heart-warming, neither shying away from the cruelty and indifference of the harsh setting nor neglecting to take in its splendor. Just give them whatever money they need Netflix to keep these sort of movies a comin’.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Two African-American filmmakers, one making his debut and another in his fourth decade of popular storytelling, have produced two of the most uncompromising, entertaining, provocative, and exacting and relevant movies of this year. Boots Riley’s absurdly comic indie Sorry to Bother You was a festival smash, and Spike Lee’s BlackkKlansman is being positioned as a summer breakout. Audiences have often looked to the movies as an escape from the woes of our world, and when the news is non-stop catastrophic woe, that’s even more apparent. However, both of these movies, while enormously entertaining and charged with fresh relevancy, are a reminder of the very social ills many may actively try to avoid. Both films, and their respective filmmakers, make cases why ignorance is a privilege we cannot afford. Also, did I mention that the movies are outstanding, daring, and hilarious?
It’s the early 1970s, and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first black officer on the Colorado Springs police force. He wants to be a detective and taken seriously, and one day he calls the leader of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan pretending to be a white nationalist. He builds a relationship over the phone with the Klan but he can’t meet them in person. Enter fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) who stands in as the public Ron Stallworth, avowed white supremacist. Problem is Flip is Jewish, a group the Klan isn’t much more favorable with. The two officers must work together to gather enough actionable evidence to stop the Klan before they kill.
This is Lee’s best film since 2000’s Bamboozled and he feels jolted awake by the material. He doesn’t shy away from the film’s relevance and potent power but also knows how to faithfully execute the suspense sequences and police procedural aspects of the story by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Lee himself, based upon Stallworth’s book. The story alone is the film’s greatest selling point. It feels like a bizarre recreation of that Dave Chapelle sketch about the blind, and black, Klansman. It’s a story inviting irony and bafflement, and it’s ribald and funny for long stretches, buoyed by Washington’s charismatic and forceful performance (close your eyes and he sounds just like his dad, Denzel). The story is so fascinating that you just want to see where it goes. Stallworth is fighting for respect in a still-racist police force, and he’s pushing Zimmerman to feel more invested in their operation from his own maligned status. “I never thought much about being Jewish,” he shares with Ron, “But I’ve been thinking a lot about it recently.” Theirs is a partnership we root for, and each new accomplishment bonds them together and increases their credibility with a wary police chief. It’s a movie that has a steady supply of payoffs and complications, leaving you satisfied by the end but also more than a bit rattled at the uneasy connections to contemporary news.
This is a character-driven suspense film that does so much so well, drawing in thrills and laughs without making either feel cheaper by their inclusion. This is an undercover operation so every scene with the Klan has the electric uncertainty of whether or not Flip will be caught and our heroes doomed. Because you have two Ron Stallworths, we already have a complicated ruse to keep up (though why Flip couldn’t simply also be the voice on the phone is likely just how it happened in real life). Each new piece of information, each new meeting, takes our characters deeper into the Klan infrastructure, including a guided visit from none other than Grand Wizard (a.k.a. head honcho) David Duke (Topher Grace in an outstanding performance). The risk escalates from being caught to thwarting a planned bombing that could kill innocent minority protestors. The movie does a great job of finding new ways to remind you what is at stake, and while the Klansman are set up to be laughed at and ridiculed, they are still seen as dangerous. They still have the direct intent to physically harm others, not just harass and intimidate.
Because of the undercover operation, you’d be right to assume that Stallworth’s personal life and blossoming romance with a collegiate activist, Patrice (Laura Harrier), would be the least interesting part of the movie. It’s not poorly written or acted by any means. She serves as a reminder of Stallworth’s split loyalties, working for the police, which many in his community see as a tool of oppression from racists with a badge (and we too see this in action). He is always hiding some part of himself, be it his racial identity, his personal affiliation, or even what he really feels about his corrupt colleagues. Even with her, he cannot relax completely. It shows the more personal side of the Stallworth character and provides something real for him to lose, especially once the local Klan targets Patrice. I understand the role she serves in the larger story but I’d lying if I wasn’t eager to get out of every one of her scenes and back into the action. That’s the problem when you have one superior storyline; the others begin to feel like filler you’d rather leave behind to get back to the good stuff.
BlackkKlansman also can’t help itself with the political parallels to our troublesome 45th president, but I loved every one of them. A superior officer warns Stallworth about his dealings with Duke, specifically that he might make good on the promise to retire as Grand Wizard and go for political office. “Come on, America would never elect a man like David Duke as president,” he says with thinly veiled incredulity. The characters might as well turn and wink to the camera and say, “We’re talking about Trump,” but I laughed all the same. At one Klan dinner, the participants chant, “America first,” which is a Trumpian campaign slogan, if you didn’t know dear reader, derived from the Klan (Trump’s own father was arrested attending a 1927 Klan rally). These parallels are destined to turn off some viewers, though I think the subject matter and Lee’s name should be enough to know exactly what kind of movie you’re electing to watch. Nobody goes to a Lars von Trier film expecting to be uplifted about the state of humanity.
It’s at its very end where the film reminds you just how sadly relevant it still is today (minor spoilers but I don’t think they will ruin anything for you). While Stallworth has bested the local chapter of the KKK, there’s another late night with a sudden alarming noise, Stallworth on his guard, and a cross is burning out in the distance. Just because our characters have foiled a band of racists doesn’t mean racism has been eradicated. Instead, as the film suggests, it evolves, and Lee concludes with an impactful montage of news footage of the Charlottesville white supremacist rally and President Trump contorting to find fault on “both sides” when clearly one side was murderous and racist. You even see real-life David Duke on the premises spewing his re-branded style of hate. The evolution of white supremacy demagoguery has become political, and it has found cover under the guise of a president eager to stoke racial resentments and divisions to his advantage. He’s normalized the abhorrent behavior and given it mainstream cover. It’s a powerful and lasting conclusion (much in the same way as the montage of Hollywood’s harmful depiction of black people in Bamboozled — including the Klan hero worship in Birth of a Nation, also featured here prominently) that should remind people that the threats of racism and Nazis and the KKK are not a thing of the past. It is very much a staple of the present, and how much it is allowed to remain a staple is up to the moral outrage of voters.
Sorry to Bother You is also sharply cutting and topical about being black in America. In present-day Oakland, Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is struggling to make ends meet, move out of his uncle’s garage, and do right by his girlfriend and performance artist, Detroit (Tessa Thompson). He gets a job at a telemarketer and discovers a new talent when he turns on his “white voice” (voiced by David Cross) and becomes a power caller, crushing his competition. He moves his way up the chain, losing touch with his base of working-class friends looking to strike to unionize. Once at the top, Cash draws the attention of the CEO, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), who has big plans for a man with Cash’s gifts and seeming flexibility when it comes to corporate moral relativism.
Sorry to Bother You is a wild, hilarious movie bursting with things to say with its shotgun approach to satire, or as my pal Ben Bailey termed, a blunderbuss approach, messy and all over the place and, sometimes, maybe missing its intended mark. I thought the movie was simply going to be about the modern-day struggles of being black and poor in America, and the movie covers those aspects with aplomb. It’s also sized up ample room to satirize consumer culture, labor exploitation and worker rights, male and female relationships, art and media, cultural appropriation, and even memes. Because of all the topics, the movie could run the danger of feeling unfocused, but thanks to the remarkably assured vision and handling of writer/director Boots Riley, it all feels connected by its unique voice operating at a risky but exhilarating level.
There are a lot of bizarre dips into the absurd that had me howling and on the edge of my seat wondering where we would go next. The most popular TV show is just watching a person get the stuffing beaten out of them, and it adopts a pretty simplistic name to go along with this transparency. A very Google or Amazon-esque company is offering “lifetime jobs” for employees to live in their factories and have all their cares taken for by a corporate slaver, I mean kindly overlord. There’s an art show that consists of hurling cell phones at a woman’s body. There’s a corporate video with a female caveman narrator where she is, 1) stop-motion animated, and, 2) topless the entire time, complete with animated swinging breasts. There’s an ongoing thread that seems to trace the life cycle of a meme. A woman throws a Coke can at Cash in protest. She gets plucked form obscurity, gains a talk show, gets an endorsement from Coke and her own video complete with dramatic re-enactment and chirpy jingle, and Cash getting hit becomes its own Halloween costume for white people. There are throwaway lines in this movie that any other major comedy would die for. This is a movie that is impossible to fall asleep to because every moment could be different and you won’t want to miss one of them.
There are moments that strike beyond the immediacy of the onscreen absurdity. One of those moments was when Cash was invited to join the big corporate after party. He’s out of his element, surrounded by rich, relatively young privileged white people. They assume, being black, that Cash will instinctively know how to rap, and they insist that he perform a free-style rap for the assorted group. This ignorant assumption is just the start for Riley, because Cash gets up there and struggles to perform, barely able to scrap together the most elementary of rhyme, and the illusion has become dashed with the crowd. He notices they’re losing their interest with him, so in a desperate ploy, he just shouts two words over and over into the microphone with enthusiasm: the N-word and a profanity. He does this for like a minute, and the crowd of privileged white people shouts it back at him, seemingly lying in wait for some tacit permission by “popular music” for them to likewise use the N-word. It was an indictment that went beyond that scene. Another is ultimately what happens to the big bad corporation by the film’s end. It literally made me guffaw because it felt completely in place with the tone of the movie.
All of this zany and funny stuff would feel passing if there weren’t at least some characters worth our time. Cash is an engaging young man trying to get his life on track. He discovers he has a gift when it comes to coding, to blending into a white-majority community in a comfortable and acceptable manner. It’s a survival technique many African-Americans have had to perfect on a daily basis, and soon to be featured in the upcoming adaptation of the best-selling YA novel, The Hate U Give. Even amidst its more bizarre moments and asides, the movie is about a black man trying to get by with limited opportunities in a society that too often devalues him.
Stanfield (Get Out) has been a strong acting presence for some time, first in the remarkably powerful Short Term 12 and most recently on Donald Glover’s Atlanta. He grabs your attention and Stanfield has a gift for comedy, particularly a nervous energy that draws you closer rather than pushing you away. His character goes on the rise-and-fall path, so we still need to be pulling for him to turn away from his newfound egotism, and Stanfield keeps us rooted. Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok) is Cash’s conscience and her wardrobe and accessories are amazing, from her declarative “The Future is Female Ejaculation” T-shirt to her large earring messages. Hammer (Call Me By Your Name) is confidently smooth and sleazy as a coked-out, venal CEO that is so blasé about his wrongdoing that it doesn’t even register for him as wrong. I appreciated that even with all the wackiness of this cracked-mirror version of our universe, Riley puts in the time and effort to make the characters count rather than be expendable to the satirical aims.
Now, there is a significant turn in the third act that veers the movie into territory that will test how far audiences are willing to go along with Riley’s raucous ride. I won’t spoil what happens but for several of my friends it was simply a bridge too far. For a select few, they even said this turn ruined the movie for them. It worked for me because it felt like an escalation in the dastardly labor practices of the corporation and was finally a visceral reminder of their cruelty. Beforehand, Cash has been making moral compromises to keep his ascending career, excusing the after effects of his success even when it’s selling weapons to foreign countries. That stuff is over the phone, part of his coded performance, and easier to keep out of mind. This escalation finally is too much to pretend to ignore. It’s too much to excuse his own culpability working for the enemy. It’s what pushes Cash back to his circle of friends he had left behind for the corporate ladder, it’s the thing that politically activates him, and it’s what pushes him to make a difference. I can understand, given the somewhat goofy nature of the plot turn, that several viewers will feel like Riley gave up his artistic high ground to self-indulgence. However, I would counter that the line between self-indulgence and an assured vision can be tenuous. The movie is so alive, so vibrant, and so weird, so having another weird detour felt agreeable.
BlackkKlansman and Sorry to Bother You are each unique and fun but with larger messages to say about the black experience and other fissures within our volatile society. You’ll be thoroughly entertained by either film and you’ll walk away with something to ponder and discuss with friends and family and maybe that one racist uncle at Thanksgiving, the one who uses the term “false flag operation” a little too liberally. BlackkKlansman tells a fascinating, comic, and thrilling story about racism of the past, drawing parallels to the trials of today, in particular under the era of Trump. Sorry to Bother You has many targets, many points, and much to say, exploding with thoughts and cracked comedy. Riley is holding up a mirror to the shortcomings and inanities of our own society and the ease we can all feel to turn a blind eye to the difficult realities of systemic racism, capitalism, and worker rights. Lee is a known firebrand and his polemic doesn’t shy from its political relevancy, but it tells a highly engaging story first and foremost, with top acting performances from its cast. In a summer of studios afraid to take chances, here are two excellent movies that take crazy chances and provide bountiful rewards.
Sorry to Bother You: A-
The quirky imagination of Wes Anderson and his stylized, symmetrical, painterly approach to filmmaking has always seemed like a natural fit for the world of animation. Stop-motion has a wonderfully tactile and woebegone appreciation that furthermore seems like a natural fit, and 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of Anderson’s best and most enjoyable films. If it were not for the considerable time it takes to make animated films, I’d be happy if Anderson stayed in this realm. Isle of Dogs is about a future where dogs are blamed for an infectious disease and as a result are banned and quarantined to a garbage island off the coast of Japan. One little boy dares to venture to this island to find his beloved missing dog. From there, he’s escorted by a pack of dogs, led by Chief (voiced by Bryan Cranston), across dangerous tracks of the island while avoiding the boy’s adopted family, the mayor of Nagasaki. This is a whimsical, beguiling, detail-rich world to absorb, but it also has splashes of unexpected darkness and violence to jolt (though the dark turns are consistently nullified). It’s a highly entertaining movie although the characters and story are rather thin. The different dogs are kept as stock roles, and the main boy, Atari, is pretty much a cipher for dog owners. However, the film can tap into an elemental emotional response when discussing the relationship between man and dog. If you’re a dog person, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of emotions when a dog is given a loving owner and sense of family. There is one element of the movie that feels notably off, and that’s the fact that the dogs speak English and the local Japanese characters speak their native tongue but without the aid of subtitles. it doesn’t exactly feel like Anderson is doing this as a source of humor, but I can’t figure out a good alternative reason for it. I’m sure Cranston’s distinctive growl would have sounded just as good speaking Japanese. Regardless, Isle of Dogs is a mid-pack Wes Anderson fantasia of inventive imagination and well worth getting lost within.
Nate’s Grade: B
You haven’t seen a romance like director Guillermo del Toro’s latest monster mash (monster smash?), The Shape of Water. del Toro, an aficionado of cinematic creepy crawlies, has swerved from big-budget studio fare into a smaller, stranger period romance between a woman and an amphibious creature who already arrives pre-lubricated (I apologize already for that joke). I was compelled to watch The Shape of Water twice to better formulate my thoughts, mostly because I was not expecting the movie to be so enthusiastically whimsical, adult, and romantic, and the best beauty and the beast tale of this year.
Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a lonely mute woman working on the cleaning staff at a classified government laboratory. Her neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), is a hopeless romantic trying to find his place in the world as a gay man. Her best friend, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), is supportive but thinks they should mind their own business. An Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) from the Amazon is confined to a cell and repeatedly beaten by Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the vile head of security at the station. They believe the creature’s ability to breathe underwater and on land will be the key to winning the space race. The scientist in charge, Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), is secretly a Russian spy, though his allegiances are more to the fragile creature than any country. Elisa teaches the creature sign language, the joys of hard boiled eggs, and lots of cheery music. She also falls in love with the creature and grows determined to save the Amphibian Man by breaking him loose.
From the get go, del Toro drops us into a world that is not our own, as he’s so skilled at doing. This version of 1960s Baltimore feels as though it’s the twentieth century equivalent of a fairy tale village, and our monster is also the princess in need of rescue. Our heroine has a strange scar that foreshadows her place of belonging. The entire film bristles with a sense of expertly curated magic realism even though there isn’t anything explicitly magical. The supernatural and fantastical are met with a casual acceptance, as they would be in any storybook legend of old. When Elisa discovers the Amphibian Man in his tank, it’s literally at the ten-minute mark or even earlier, and she is unfazed. She immediately accepts the existence of this scaly mere-man, establishes a line of communication, and befriends the creature. It’s as if del Toro is trying to prime the audience for what’s to come and hoping to skip over the intermediate waiting period of incredulity. For del Toro, the real fun is once the characters connect, and belaboring that necessary connection is not in the audience’s best interests or time.
The movie glides by on effusive outpouring of charm, given such vibrant, sweeping life thanks to del Toro’s repertoire of pop-culture influences and his passionate love of cinema. The Shape of Water feels like del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor (Hope Springs) took one of the old Universal horror B-movies and decided to make it into one of the most personal, delightful, and curious filmgoing experiences of the year. It’s film as escape for society’s outsiders. The sense of whimsy is ever-present without being overpowering or diluting the drama. It never feels quirky for its own sake of satisfaction. You’ll recognize several of del Toro’s artistic references, the re-purposing of cultural artifacts, but the magic suffused within every frame is thanks to del Toro and his team of filmmaking artists. If Amelie was going to fall in love with a sea creature, it might look something like this The Shape of Water.
The movie is also surprisingly, refreshingly adult in its depiction of human beings. Again the opening minutes set a standard of what to expect. We get a sense of Elisa’s daily routine before leaving for work, and one crucial component involves furious masturbation in her bathtub (set to an egg timer for sport?). This is a far more sensual movie than I was ever anticipating. There are multiple sequences of Hawkins disrobed and offering herself to the Amphibian Man. We never see any underwater action but we do hear about some of the mechanics of how the coupling is even remotely possible physically (“Never trust a man,” Zelda chuckles upon hearing those dirty details). It’s not all sexy time indulgences. There’s a sharp undercurrent of very real and very upsetting violence, typified by Strickland’s ruthless determination to break the creature. He’s a Bible-thumping sadist generally dismissive of those he finds different and lesser and yet he’s drawn to Elisa. Why is that? Because she’s a diminutive woman who cannot talk, and this sexually excites him like nothing else. He even comes on to her, thinking his interest is a form of masculine charity. There are some shocking moments of very real violence and its lingering effects. Strickland’s on-the-job injury becomes a metaphorical moral gauge for the putrid character’s state of being. The Shape of Water is a movie that does not blunt anything, whether it’s the sexuality or violence of its story (beware pet lovers: this is the second 2017 entry where an amphibian being hidden from the government eats somebody’s house cat). This is a fable for adults, a grimy Grimm’s tale with a sprinkle of Old Hollywood sparkle.
The Shape of Water is also a deeply romantic and earnest love story about two outsiders finding a connection in the most unlikely of places. Engineering a story that pushes two oddball characters together, each finally finding a kindred spirit, is an easy recipe for a satisfying conclusion; however, their romantic connection has to feel rightly earned. If we don’t believe the characters have fallen for one another, that this potential relationship elevates their existence, that the colors of the world seem brighter when around this person, then it doesn’t work. You have to buy the love story and it must be earned. Amazingly, del Toro is able to craft a love story with a mute woman and an Amphibian Man that checks most of the boxes of Hollywood romantic escapism. Elisa has an openhearted way of looking at the world, and her acceptance provides her with a bravery few others have. The creature presents somebody who views her not as a woman with a disability, as something lesser, but as something whole and wholly fulfilling. Everyone wants to be truly seen by someone for who they are rather than what they’re not.
While del Toro is supremely skillful at making Elisa’s romantic yearnings felt, there is one inherent weakness in this girl-meets-fish dude tale of love. The Amphibian Man isn’t really much of a character and far more of a symbol to the other characters. To Elisa, he’s her hope. To Giles, he’s a wild animal. To Strickland, he’s a defiant challenge to be tamed. To Zelda, he’s the questionable new boyfriend for her pal. To Hoffstetler, he’s a beautiful creature. To the U.S. government, he’s a potential scientific breakthrough. To the Soviets, he’s a liability and a potential future weapon. We’re told the indigenous people of the Amazon worshiped the Amphibian Man as a god but ultimately he remains a cipher others project onto. The love story feels a little too one-sided from an audience investment perspective. Still, the romance works and that fact alone is incredible considering the unique pairing.
Hawkins (Maudie) is the beating heart of the movie and delivers a wonderfully expressive portrait of a woman finding her voice, so to speak. She’s relatively upbeat and that fits the whimsical tone of the picture. Hawkins plays a woman excited by the possibilities of the world. She reminded me of Bjork’s tragic heroine from 2000’s Dancer in the Dark, a woman who saw the extraordinary in ordinary life, who could perceive a symphony of music just on the outer edges of everyone else’s hearing. Going completely wordless for the movie, save for one very memorable fantasy sequence, requires a lot of daunting physical acting from Hawkins, and she’s more than up to the task. I guarantee a scene where she tearfully forces Giles to say out loud her signing will be her Oscar nomination clip.
When we talk about the weird and wild promise of cinema, it takes a controlled, assured vision and precise execution to bring together the dispirit elements and allow them to coalesce into something that feels like a satisfying, mesmerizing whole. The Shape of Water is del Toro’s gooey love letter to monster movies while stepping outside of homage and into the realm of something daring and different. I could talk about the Busby Berkley musical number as declaration of love, or that the story is told from socially marginalized voices finding an affinity together, or the small character moments that give generous life to supporting figures like Zelda and Hoffstetler, or that it leaves implied stories to be chewed over for extra richness like Giles likely being outed at his work to the dismay of his closeted superior, or the perfect casting for secondary antagonists, or the exquisite cinematography that seems to utilize every shade of green the human eye is capable of seeing, or the stunning production design, or the sweetly eccentric whistling musical score by Alexadre Desplat, or the grace of Doug Jones’ performance in the amphibian suit, or just how funny this movie can be, even the sadistic villain. I could talk about all that stuff but I’ll simply condense it all to a plea to give The Shape of Water a chance. It’s rare to see a storytelling vision this precise that’s also executed at such a high degree of difficulty. In other hands, this could have been an unholy mess. With del Toro, it’s a lovely mess.
Nate’s Grade: A-