Summer is the perfect season for escapist B-movies about man-eating killer sharks, the film equivalent to the paperback beach read. The famous marine predators have become a Hollywood industry unto itself. Just add “shark” to a pitch and you got yourself a movie or at least an Asylum movie (the studio behind Sharknado and Sharktopus). 47 Meters Down was originally titled In the Deep and was scheduled to come out on DVD in 2016. It’s low budget, light on stars, and driven by its concept. It’s also not good enough to be good and not bad enough to be enjoyable. It just is.
Lisa (Mandy Moore) and Kate (Claire Holt) are sisters vacationing in Mexico. Kate is wild, Lisa is a bore, and they meet some cute local boys. They all agree to go swimming with sharks in a giant metal cage that will lower five meters into the water. Captain Taylor (Matthew Modine, you bet it is) takes the gang out to the ocean and dumps chum and blood in the water to attract the great whites. The ladies are in the cage, the shark has made itself known, and that’s when the cable snaps. The cage descends the titular 47 meters (approximately 150 feet) onto the ocean floor. The sisters are stranded, trapped with limited oxygen, and there’s a hungry shark waiting to strike.
47 Meters Down has many challenges to overcome and it ultimately falters under the pressure. For starters, having a movie take place almost entirely on the bottom of the ocean provides filming and storytelling limitations. The suspense sequences are going to be restricted because there’s only so much variance that can happen. The geography is also rather murky and it’s very dark in presentation, which means that it’s hard to fully understand what’s happening around the characters. This detracts from implementing suspense sequences that need multiple points of action. Take a sequence in The Shallows, where Blake Lively has to time the shark’s pattern to determine how many seconds she has to retrieve a valuable item in the water. She plunges into the water with the ticking clock letting us know about the impending window of danger. That’s a good arrangement. An audience appreciates being in on the suspense and that requires clarity. 47 Meters Down supplies some immediate mini-goals that feel organic to the situation but it can’t last long. The immediate need to try to get out of the cage supplies a cleanly understood series of goals. They need to remove the debris on top of the cage’s entrance. Before that they need to slip out of the cage. Before that they need to remove their mask in order to fit through the bars, which provides another even more pressing danger.
Beyond that promising early challenge, 47 Meters Down essentially becomes a contained thriller with a boogeyman repeating the same routine. Once this realization settled in I started losing significant interest. Because of the overall murkiness of geography we’re stuck with repetitions of jump scares. A few of them are pretty good as far as jump scares go, but without anything else to subsist upon the tension fades precipitously. It’s the aquatic equivalent of a big scary monster jumping out of the dark and yelling, “Boo.” In moderation and with effective setup, this is fine. When it’s all you have then diminishing returns is to be expected. 47 Meters Down supplies cinematic “fetch quests” for the characters to leave the relatively safe confines of their station, but the larger particulars are never fleshed out efficiently. Much of the second act involves a character having to leave the cage to grab something and worrying about the shark appearing out of nowhere. The hypothetical omnipresent nature of the killer shark is meant to foster a claustrophobic sense of anxiety. Instead it achieves the opposite. I grew bored wondering what random moment the shark was going to rear its CGI head.
The third act goes into a more mainstream action-survival mode and supplies the heroics that mass audiences have come to expect. The problem is that 47 Meters Down tries to have it all and actually loses everything in a misapplied series of endings. This is one of the most egregious cases since A.I. of a movie not knowing when to call it quits. Kate and Lisa are given the bare minimum of back-story before being thrown to the sharks (Lisa just got dumped for not being spontaneous enough so… swimming with sharks… to prove the ex wrong… that she still wants back?). They’re mostly annoying and whiny, and perhaps I have a heart of stone but I was indifferent to whether or not they became shark food.
Then when the third act rolls around (spoilers to follow), Lisa decides to take charge and becomes an action movie heroine. She’s active and rescues her injured sister, swims to the surface, and even kills a shark after it chomps down on her leg twice. It feels like a climactic finish and serves at least as a modest endpoint for Lisa’s character arc, going from meek to assertive. Then Lisa notices the blood floating from her cut hand and it’s revealed, twist, that everything relating to the escape was a hallucination caused by nitrogen narcosis. Captain Taylor was worried that switching to another oxygen tank would be too much for the ladies and produce strange behavior and hallucinations. If the movie decided to end at this point then it could have worked. However, 47 Meters Down unwisely keeps moving for a needless resolution that left me staggered. Lisa is rescued by faceless Coast Guard diving members and brought to the surface. That’s it. Dear reader, what’s the point of having a dark twist ending if she’s just rescued immediately? For that matter, why even have the twist then if she’s going to be rescued? Why not just keep the earlier sequence where she gets her heroic moments of action? The filmmakers replaced an ending where the protagonist is active with one where she is passive. That’s not a satisfying decision and it erases Lisa’s entire agency as a character (end spoilers).
There’s also a massive plot hole in how exactly are Kate and Lisa able to hear anything? Astute audience members will notice that there is no listening device in either woman’s pair of ears and their scuba helmets cut off their ears. How can they hear anything? A simple fix would have been just literally having a speaker in their ear like local newscasters. This way the illusion would not be broken and it would also allow the filmmakers to directly communicate with their actors while underwater. It’s win-win. Maybe they can introduce in-ear speakers for the sequel, 48 Meters Down.
If you need to beat the heat this summer for 90 minutes, you could do worse than venturing into the shark-infested waters of 47 Meters Down. The visuals are pretty grimy and indistinct but it does offer the occasional thrill, though to stark diminishing returns. I would advise everyone to instead just watch The Shallows, a superior shark thriller with natural style, tautly wound suspense sequences, and the luxury of an emotionally compelling character arc to go along with the benefits of a sun-kissed Blake Lively. If anything, this feels like the Asylum knockoff on The Shallows. Audiences with a deep abiding fear of the water or killer sharks may find enough entertainment to be had, but for everyone else 47 Meters Down is an exercise in treading water.
Nate’s Grade: C
Was Prometheus really as bad a movie as fans made it out to be? While the 2012 Alien prequel could be rather obtuse, and the characters made some of the stupidest decisions as reportedly intelligent scientists, it had an intriguing central mystery, moody sense of atmosphere, great sets, some viciously memorable sequences like Noomi Rapace’s self-directed surgical operation, and a delightfully supercilious Michael Fassbender bot. By the film’s end there were still plenty of outstanding questions unanswered, and so five years later director Ridley Scott has returned with Alien: Covenant to further confound and entertain. The crew of a colony ship takes a detour to land on a habitable world and trace the mysterious transmission belonging to the android David (Fassbender). As expected, all is not what it seems and the crew is almost immediately put into jeopardy. For fans who wanted more answers from Prometheus, there is a surprising amount of carryover to serve as a resolution for the prior film. There are a few big reveals, particularly about the xenomorph evolution, but the overall Alien storyline is moved just mere inches forward, slightly closer to the events of the 1979 original. The biggest problem with Covenant is that it’s too pedestrian for far too often. It sticks pretty close to the formula we’ll all familiar with, so we know it’s only a matter of time before the xenomorphs hit the fan. There is a dearth of memorable scenes here. The characters in Covenant aren’t that much smarter and make their fair share of stupid decisions (hey, let’s ignore the existence of wheat on an alien world or the possibility of killer microbes being in this breathable air). There’s just more of them to be killed off. The movie doesn’t really bother getting to know a far majority of them, consigned to the fact that they’re only here to be later ripped apart and exploded in gore. Katherine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) does a fine job as a Ripley replacement. Danny McBride (Eastbound and Down) has some effective dramatic moments too. But the best reason to watch Covenant, an altogether middling Alien sequel/prequel, is for twice the Fassbender robot action (there’s a Fassbender-on-Fassbender kiss, which will likely break Tumblr). Alien: Covenant is a missed opportunity of a movie hampered by a disappointingly predictable script, tedious characters, and a lack of strong set pieces. It’s acceptable entertainment but not much more. The moral: don’t be a dick to robots.
Nate’s Grade: C+
An efficient B-movie with a crazy high body count, The Belko Experiment is just about everything I wanted. The residents of the Belko office in Bogata, Columbia are informed by a disembodied voice that if they do not kill two people in the next 30 minutes, there will be further casualties. Everyone thinks it’s a joke until four people’s heads explode (the company placed “tracking devices” in them in case they were kidnapped). The office workers are now informed that if they don’t kill 30 people in the next two hours then 60 will die. The typical breakdown in order and moral relativism follows, although perhaps a bit too quickly for our main antagonist to assume his role. The bigger surprises for me were what Belko was lacking. There isn’t any real satire of office politics, corporate subcultures, or even capitalism and American culture. There is also only one office-specific kill, which is a real creative shame. I was expecting the Belko-ites to take their office supplies and turn them into post-apocalyptic-styled weapons. There is also much more implied gore and violence than you would expect; it’s certainly a bloody film, but it seems oddly restrained. I was expecting some level of commentary to provide further substance, but it was merely a well-developed, kill-crazy B-movie. With that being said, The Belko Experiment held my attention early with its foreboding clues that something wasn’t quite right, and it does a great job of visually identifying about twenty characters for us to follow through the stages of carnage. Writer James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) definitely relishes his return to his horror roots, like a refresher on how awful human beings can be to one another. He purposely subverts our expectations at several points, though sometimes he’s hitting the same beat too often. Even the mostly satisfying ending provides as much of an explanation as you would require for a premise that has no serious rationalization. The Belko Experiment is like a Twilight Zone episode given extra length and extra violence. It does just enough with its attention-grabbing premise and familiar setting to justify a casual viewing if one has a certain taste for Battle Royale meets Office Space.
Nate’s Grade: B
The Wolverine solo films have not been good movies. The 2008 first film was widely lambasted and while it made its money it was an obvious artistic misfire. The second film, The Wolverine, directed by James Mangold was an improvement even though it had its silly moments and fell apart with a contrived final confrontation. The Wolverine movies were definitely the lesser, unworthy sidekick to the X-Men franchise, and this was a franchise that recently suffered from the near abysmal Apocalypse. Mangold returns for another Wolverine sequel but I was cautious. And then the cheerfully profane Deadpool broke box-office records and gave the Fox execs the latitude needed for a darker, bloodier, and more adult movie that’s more interested in character regrets than toy tie-ins. Thank goodness for the success of Deadpool because Logan is the X-Men movie, and in particular the Wolverine movie, I’ve been waiting for since the mutants burst onto the big screen some seventeen years ago. It is everything you could want in a Wolverine movie.
In the year 2029, mutants have become all but extinct. Logan (Jackman) is keeping a low profile as a limo driver and taking care of an ailing Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) south of the border. Xavier is losing his mind and a danger to others with his out-of-control psychic powers that need to be drugged. Caliban (Stephen Merchant) is also helping, a light-sensitive mutant with the ability to innately track people across the globe. Logan is ailing because his healing power is dwindling and he can’t keep up with the steady poison of his adamantium bones. A scared Mexican nurse tries to convince Logan to help out the little girl in her care, Laura (Dafne Keen, feral and a better non-verbal actor). She’s an angry, violent child and built from the DNA of Logan. She too has unbreakably sharp claws and a healing ability. Bounty hunter Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) is trying to recapture the runaway merchandise/science experiment, capturing Caliban and torturing him to track his prey. Logan goes on the run with Xavier and they try to make sense of what to do with Laura, a.k.a. X-23. They’re headed north to Eden, a hypothetical refuge for mutants to sneak over into freedom in Canada, and along the way are deadly hunters who aren’t afraid of leaving behind a trail of bodies to get their girl back.
It feels like it shouldn’t haven taken Jackman’s reported final outing for the execs to realize that a guy with freaking knives attached to his hands might be a concept that would work in the more grisly, more adult territory an R-rating creatively affords. It’s about time this man got to fully use his claws, and it was a joyous explosion of violence and gore built up for fans such as myself for a long time coming. It feels like Fox has been planning for this event as well, as if they stationed a production lackey to devise all sorts of grotesquely fun ways that Wolverine might skewer his competition in bloody beauty (“Finally, your preparation will not be in vain, Ronald”). There’s one scene in particular where a bunch of armed henchmen are psychically frozen in place and Logan struggles to move past each, and we get to anticipate just how each one will be viciously stabbed. For a series that has shied away from overly gory violence, Logan certainly celebrates its new opportunities with bloody glee. The fact that the first word spoken is an f-bomb and there’s a gratuitous moment of drunken sorority girl boob flashing is like the producers trying to directly communicate to the millions of ticket buyers and saying, “Hey, we’re sorry it took so long. Hope it was worth the wait.” Oh dear reader, it was worth the wait.
It’s not just the action that’s invigorating but the emotional core of the film is deeper and more compelling and ruminative than ever before, and finally these great actors are given material to deliver great performances worthy of their talent. Stewart and Jackman have never been bad in their respective roles even if and when the movies have been. They just have never been called upon for much more than genre heroics, anguish, and pained moral dilemmas. With Logan, both actors are finally given meaty material that affords nuance and ambiguity, and they are excellent. Charles Xavier is losing his battle with Alzheimer’s and ALS, which is a major concern when his mind is considered a weapon of mass destruction by the government. He’s going through his own end of life deliberations (“You’re waiting for me to die,” he groans at Logan) and it brings out a far different Xavier than we’ve ever seen, even with the youthful cockiness from James McAvoy. This is a cranky, defiant, and doddering Xavier, someone who is barely outpacing his sense of grief, guilt, and depression. There’s a tragic back-story we only get a glimpse of but it’s suitably devastating for a man who has devoted his life to others. He’s looking for a few last moments of grace and looking to hold onto something by journey’s end.
Thanks to his healing ability and the star wattage of Jackman, there was little fear that anything serious would ever befall Wolverine in his many previous film appearances. Sure bad things happened to him and he lost plenty of female love interests, but you never feared that he wouldn’t be able to ultimately handle himself. That’s not the case in Logan, which opens with a Wolverine who has clearly lost more than a step or two. He’s tired, rundown, and his adamantium skeleton is slowly poisoning his body. His healing powers are slowing down and he’s not as berserker fast and agile as he used to be. For once there’s an uncertainty attached to the character and a vulnerability. This turn greatly increases the intensity of the fight sequences and the greater stakes of the drama. The comparisons of the samurai were rife in The Wolverine and now the comparisons to the aging, lone gunslinger are ever-present in Logan. He’s drawn into a conflict that he was not seeking and he’s found a little bit of his remaining humanity and compassion to do right in the face of overwhelming odds and near certain destruction. There’s a subtle moment that the film doesn’t even dwell on that stuck with me. It’s after an accident, and in the thick of confusion, Logan is trying to save his mentor but he’s also worried that Xavier will think he betrayed him. “It wasn’t me,” he repeats over and over, not wanting this man to suffer more. It’s a small moment that doesn’t get much attention and yet it really spoke of their relationship and the depth of feeling during these fraught final days. This is the first Wolverine movie that feels like the characters matter as human beings just as much as purveyors of punching and kicking (now with gruesome slashing at no extra cost). Jackman showcases more than his impressive physique this go-round; he delivers a wounded performance that’s built upon generations of scars that he’s been ignoring. It’s the serious character examination we’ve been waiting for.
I also want to single out Merchant (Extras) who gives a performance I never would have anticipated from the awkwardly comedic beanpole. He even gets a badass moment and I never would have thought Stephen Merchant would ever have a badass moment in life.
Mangold’s film plays as a love letter to Western cinema and uses the genre trappings in ways to further comment on the characters and their plight. This is a bleak movie. It’s not a dystopia. In fact it resembles our own world pretty closely with a few technological additions; automated machines and trucks, the common knowledge that mutants have been wiped out like the measles. Knowing that it’s reportedly the end for Stewart and Jackman playing these characters, I was anticipating the film to strike an elegiac chord. His past and legacy are catching up with Logan. He becomes an unlikely guardian to Laura and explores a fatherhood dynamic that was never afforded to him before. The unlikely partnership, and it is a partnership as she’s a pint-sized chip off the block of her tempestuous father, blossoms along a cross-country road trip for a paradise that may or may not exist, while desperadoes and powerful black hat villains are out to impose their will upon the weak. This is explored in a leisurely pit stop with a working class family (welcome back, Eriq La Sale) that welcomes Logan and his posse into their home. We get a small respite and learn about greedy landowners trying to pressure them into giving up the family farm. It’s completely reminiscent of something you might see in a classic Western of old, just transported to a new setting. There’s even an extended bit where Laura watches 1953’s Shane on TV, and when those final words come back in expected yet clunky fashion, I’d be lying if they didn’t push the right emotions at the right time.
But when it comes to action, Logan more than satisfies. The action is cleanly orchestrated by Mangold in fluid takes that allow the audience to readily engage. The film doesn’t go overboard on the Grand Guignol and lose sight of the key aspects of great action sequences. There’s a refreshing variety of the action and combat, and the action is framed tightly to the characters and their goals. It makes for an exhilarating viewing. If there is anything I would cite as a detriment for an otherwise incredible sendoff, I think the movie peaks too soon action-wise. The emotional climax is definitely where it ought to be (tears will be shed whether you like it or not) but the third act action doesn’t have quite the pop. Also, while Holbrook (Narcos) is an entertaining and slyly charismatic heavy, the villains in the movie are kept relatively vague as is their overall plan. The vacuum of villainy is kept more one-dimensional, which is fine as it allows more complexity and character moments to be doled out to our heroes, but it is a noticeable missing element.
One of the best attributes I cited from last year’s Captain America: Civil War is that the full weight of the character histories was felt, giving real emotional stakes to all the explosions and moralizing. When our characters went toe-to-toe, we felt a dozen films’ worth of setup that made the conflict matter. Logan carries that same emotional weight. We’ve been watching Wolverine and Professor Xavier for almost two decades and across nine films. These characters have gotten old, tired, and they carry their years like taciturn gunslingers looking for solitude and trying to justify the regrets of their lives. It’s a surprisingly emotional, serious, and altogether mature final chapter, one that provides just as many enjoyable character moments and stretches of ruminative silence as it does jolts of gritty, dirty, hard-charging action and bloody violence. It’s as much a character study as it is a superhero movie or Western. I cannot imagine this story as a watered down, PG-13 neutered version of what I saw on screen. This is a movie for adults and it pays great justice to the characters and the demands of the audience. The final image is note-perfect and can speak volumes about the ultimate legacy of Wolverine and by extension Xavier and his school for gifted youngsters. Logan is the second-best X-Men movie (First Class still rules the roost) and a thoughtful and poignant finish that left me dizzy with happiness, emotionally drained, and extremely satisfied as a longtime fan.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity is a classic film noir and a classic crime drama about bad people doing bad things and doing them badly. It’s a rich narrative environment that has been explored in droves before and after. Double Indemnity was a box-office sensation, critical hit that was nominated for seven Oscars, and solidified Wilder as one of the most creative and daring writing and directing voices in cinema. This was only his third directing effort and it provided the freedom to make his own way through Hollywood. There’s a certain danger in going back to cinematic classics. It’s easy to see their influence in a sea of imitators and sometimes the accomplishments can be taken for granted just because the viewer is too removed from the initial splash the film made. Double Indemnity is a sharp, surefooted, and highly influential film that still resonates with suspense and intrigue. The formula was refined with Wilder at the helm and his genius can be readily recognized.
Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is a mid 30s insurance salesman in Los Angeles. He gets into some big trouble when a prospective client, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), intimates that she would like to bump off her husband and profit from the act. Walter is appalled but also intrigued, drawn to the charms of the sexy Mrs. Dietrichson. He agrees and says they’re going to do it right. She takes out a hefty insurance policy on her husband that pays double for rare accidents, which spurs Neff to stage a phony accident where the injured Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers) fell to his death off a train. The scheme is elaborate, with alibis, swapped identities, hiding places, and a minimal of public interactions. It seems perfectly executed that is until Neff’s boss, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), starts inspecting closer feeling something is amiss. Neff must outwit his boss and co-workers and keep the scheme from getting further out of control.
“I killed him for money – and a woman – and I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman.”
Thanks to the morally and creatively restrictive Hays Code, it’s easy to see all the roadblocks that could have sabotaged the movie from getting made, let alone becoming a great film. It’s a movie not just about adulterers but they’re also murderers, and the script places you in their perspective, clinging to hope they might succeed in their scheme. Admittedly, the characters are punished for their misdeeds by the film’s end as the Hays Code would demand, but the film experience was different, and Wilder made it so early on. Within minutes, as Walter Neff dictates his confession in his boss’ empty office, he admits to being a killer, to killing Mr. Dietrichson, and in doing so out of a desire for Mrs. Dietrichson. By the very fact that he’s slumped over, panting heavily, and confessing in sordid detail, we can rightfully assume that he did not get away with it. What’s left for the audience to discover? Wilder has already established the major turns of his story for his audience and seemingly robbed us of any notion of surprise. But that’s where Wilder’s storytelling prowess emerges, because it’s not so much a story of whether something was done or would be done, it’s a story of how and how to elude capture.
We’re locked into Neff’s perspective, and with it as an experienced insurance salesman, he knows the proper way to stage a murder, make it look like an accident, and not get caught. It’s in the details that Wilder hooks us, and as we watch the trap unravel, the movie becomes an exercise in nervous tension wondering what will trip up our lovers. An audience generally gravitates to smart characters trying to outwit others, appreciating the wiles but also, perhaps, wanting to see if the scheme can be accomplished. It pushes the audience into an interesting position of rooting for our murderer. There’s a wonderful scene right after Neff and Phyllis have deposited the body of her dead husband. They’ve hopped in her car and are ready to flee the scene of the crime, and that’s when her car won’t start. Wilder simmers in the moment, luxuriating in the encroaching panic as key turn after key turn only results in the sounds of a stalled engine. Finally, it starts, but during the sequence you empathize with the killers and their panic. Wilder and company have done their job and at least some part of the audience is pushing for them to escape. What happens later tests audience loyalty, but we’re still firmly in the perspective and in the shoes of the film’s killer, the only killer in the picture at that. He’s our man.
“I think you’re rotten.”
“I think you’re swell – so long as I’m not your husband.”
The staples of noir cinema really came alive with Wilder’s excellent crime drama. The visual signifiers we associate with the genre are all here in accordance, like the chiaroscuro lighting that bathed the actors in swaths of invading darkness. The lighting does a great job of reflecting the sordid schemes of our lovers. As soon as Walter accepts, the lighting changes drastically and the layers of dark creep in on the actors’ faces. The dialogue by Wilder and Raymond Chandler (his first screenwriting gig in Hollywood) has that robust rat-a-tat rhythms of hardboiled genre fiction that we love. The twists and turns keep an audience glued even though we have already been told the major plot particulars. The inclusion of Mr. Dietrich’s twenty-something daughter Lola (Jean Heather) from his previous marriage presents an intriguing complication. She suspects her wicked stepmother might have something to do with her father’s death as well as her mother’s death. Walter Neff keeps tabs on her as a means of trying to dissuade whom she tells her suspicions to, as a means of manipulating her, but then when Lola reveals that her ex-boyfriend has been seeing Phyllis on a nightly basis, we don’t know what to think. Is Phyllis setting up her own scheme to kill Neff? Is Lola knowingly manipulating Neff to enact vengeance against her hated stepmother? Is there anyone a guy can trust? It’s a fine character and played sincerely by Heather (Going My Way) almost to the point of ache. She stopped acting altogether in 1949, to the detriment of us all.
But the ultimate femme fatale is Stanwyck (The Lady Eve). I think what makes her work is the fact that she doesn’t immediately leap to mind as a femme fatale. She’s not the most gorgeous actress in Hollywood, though clearly still an attractive woman. The stiff blonde wig they saddled her with doesn’t help on that front. She’s a temptress that doesn’t sizzle off the screen so much as step from the mind because she feels more realistic. Working within the repressive confines of the Hays Code, Stanwyck still knows how to provide a sexy smirk to things left unsaid with her character. There are a few looks she employs that could make you melt. A standout scene focuses entirely on her face. Her husband is being murdered just off screen. That violent act is left to our morbid imaginations while we watch Stanwyck’s subtle expression of satisfaction cross her face only to dissolve when she knows better. I wish MacMurray (The Absentminded Professor) was a better scene partner with her. He seems overly stiff like he’s trying harder to get out the stylized dialogue in the tone the director wants. Wilder finds ways to subvert the actor’s tendencies but I feel like he’s at best a likable but limited dolt of an actor.
“You’re not smarter, Walter… you’re just a little taller.”
Phyllis is a classic femme fatale figure and Stanwyck plays her with a beautifully controlled sense of menace, but I want to offer a different theory as to what kind of twisted love story inhabits Double Indemnity. I think Walter Neff was never in love with Phyllis, though he acknowledged her beauty and general seductive effect. This much is clear from his first meeting with her where the insurance veteran can’t help himself with how forward and transparent his flirting is. He’s interested, though he’s also interested in getting a sale, and then when she floats the idea of life insurance, his tone immediately changes. The flirting stops cold and he promptly sees himself out. But he can’t stop thinking it over. I propose he isn’t drawn to Phyllis so much as he’s drawn to the intellectual challenge of pulling off the “perfect crime.” He considers himself a clever man and this would put all his skills to the test. He knows what agents look for to suss out foul play. He knows what the police ask about. Now he gets to see if he can fool them all. In this interpretation of mine it’s not Neff’s love for the dame that gets him but his love of his ego. There’s a cold manner in how often he calls Phyllis “baby,” lacking apparent affection and instead seemingly turning the pet name into something dutiful. Oh, but you’ll argue, his voice over goes into great detail about the magnetic and sexual appeal of Mrs. Dietrichson, and that’s the point to remember, that it’s his voice over. Neff is retelling this story, knowingly dictating his confession, and perhaps he’s playing into a narrative that removes some of the emphasis from his true intentions. I propose Neff is an unreliable narrator. Since it’s from his perspective, his words are all we know about Phyllis and her assumed seductress ways. Having the final word on his story would provide a perfect opportunity for Walter to alter the story as best he sees fit, shifting some blame onto the woman who done him wrong. I believe that in the end it was Walter Neff’s desire to prove he could outsmart the world of law enforcement and get away with murder that drove him onto this wayward path and not a woman as fetching as Stanwyck and her anklet may have been.
There’s a very unexpected emotional current that surfaces fully by the conclusion of Double Indemnity. Edward G. Robinson was at a transitional point in his career, having been the lead in a slew of older crime pictures. An audience was prepped from association to consider Robinson a disreputable character, just as they had prepped to consider MacMurray’s character a likeable fellow from his previous comedic roles. Wilder’s film flips audience expectations to great effect. MacMurray is the cunning murderer and Robinson is the moral center. Keyes is exceptionally skilled at insurance fraud and it naturally should be him that unknowingly tightens the noose around his beloved employee as he gets closer and closer to the truth. He just can’t see it; Walter Neff is so close he inhabits a blind spot. When Keyes does discover the truth, his crushing sense of disappointment he tries to hold back is an emotional moment that hits hard. It’s the professional and loving relationship between these men that helps to add something more to Double Indemnity; it’s got the noir staples we come to expect nowadays but it also has a surprisingly sweet and affecting father/son relationship between mentor and student. Robinson is terrific in the bravado moments like when he unleashes a torrent of statistical categories on suicide types and methods and he also sells the quiet hurt of a proud man who must admit he placed his trust in the wrong recipient.
“I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.”
Double Indemnity is a film classic that holds up thanks to deft plotting that puts the audience in the place of the killers, solid twists and turns, and a clear understanding of the strengths of the genre. It’s a standout film noir that still stands rather tall. It’s always reassuring when the great pieces of art can still transport, still excite, and still resonate with the same feeling that communicates why they deserve their decades of plaudits and acclaim. Wilder was one of Hollywood’s greatest storytellers who could hop genres like few others. His foray into noir cinema left a long lasting legacy for the genre and its fans to follow, and Double Indemnity is still the crackling crime thriller it was under the Hays Code. Perhaps the scrutiny of censorship forced Wilder and Chandler to get more creative, and the finished product is a taut and stylish imprint that others eagerly copied. There’s just something inherently interesting about bad people doing bad things badly no matter the best intentions of the moral crusaders of its day.
Nate’s Grade: A
It’s hard to even remember a time when writer/director M. Night Shyamalan wasn’t a cinematic punching bag. He flashed onto the scene with the triumviri of Sixth Sense, Unbreakabale, and Signs, what I’ll call the Early Period Shyamalan. He was deemed the next Spielberg, the next Hitchcock, and the Next Big Thing. Then he entered what I’ll call the Middle Period Shyamalan and it was one creative and commercial catastrophe after another. The Village. Oof. Lady in the Water. Ouch. The Happening. Yeesh. The Last Airbender. Ick. After Earth. Sigh. That’s a rogue’s gallery of stinkers that would bury most directors. The promise of his early works seemed snuffed out and retrospectives wondered if the man was really as talented as the hype had once so fervently suggested. Then in 2015 he wrote and directed a small found footage thriller called The Visit and it was a surprise hit. Had the downward spiral been corrected? With a low-budget and simple concept, had Shyamalan staked out a course correction for a mid-career resurgence. More evidence was needed. Split is the confirmation movie fans have been hoping for. An M. Night Shyamalan movie is no longer something to fear (for the wrong reasons), folks.
Split is all about Kevin (James McAvoy), a man living with twenty-three different personalities in his head. One of them, Dennis, kidnaps three young ladies, two popular and well-adjusted friends (Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula) and the introverted, troubled teen, Cassie (Anna Taylor-Joy). The girls wake up locked in a basement and with no idea where they are and whom they’re dealing with. Kevin takes on several different personas: Barry, a fashion designer, Hedwig, an impish child, Patricia, a steely woman devoted to order, Dennis, an imposing threat undone by germs. The altered personalities, or “alters” as they’re called, are preparing for the arrival of a new persona, one they refer to as simply The Beast. And sacrifices are needed for his coming.
Right away you sense that Split is already an above average thriller. This is clever entertainment, a fine and fun return to form for a man that seemed to lose his sense of amusement with film. The areas where Split is able to shine that would have normally doomed the Middle Period Shyamalan are in the realms of tone, execution, and ambition.
Very early on, Shyamalan establishes what kind of feeling he wishes to imbue with his audience, and he keeps skillfully churning those sensations, adding new elements without necessary breaking away from the overall intended experience. You’re meant to be afraid but not too afraid. It’s more thriller than outright horror. There is a level of camp inherent into the ridiculous premise and in watching a grown man act out a slew of wildly different personas populating his brain. Shyamalan swerves into this rather than try and take great pains to make his thriller a more serious, high-minded affair. His camera lingers on the oddities, allowing the audience to nervously laugh, and he allows McAvoy extra time to sell those oddities. It’s especially evident in the introduction of the Patricia alter ego, where McAvoy uses a lot of faux grave facial expressions to great comic effect. Shyamalan no longer seems to fear being seen as a bit silly. Shyamalan even knows in some ways that he’s making a genre picture and an audience expects genre elements or the reversal of those elements. At one point, Dennis insists that two of our girls strip to their underwear because they’re dirty. I shook my head a bit, believing Shyamalan to sneak in some PG-13 T&A. Except it’s just enough for some trailer clips. Shyamalan’s camera doesn’t objectify the teen girls even after they run around in their skivvies. He doesn’t have to indulge genre elements that will break the film’s tone. He also doesn’t have to overly commit to being serious. He can be serious enough, which is the best way to describe Split. It treats its premise and the danger the girls are in with great seriousness, but the movie still allows measures of fun and intended camp. The cosmos themselves don’t have to be responsible for all of time’s events to click together to form his climax. It can just be a young woman trying to escape a psycho thanks to her wits and her grit.
Execution has also been a nagging problem of the Middle Period Shyamalan (affectionately his Blue Period?). I may be one of the few people that thought 2008’s Happening had some potential even as is if another director with a better feel for the material and less timidity embracing the full possibilities of an R-rating had been aboard. With Last Airbender and After Earth, both movies were exceptionally bad from a number of standpoints, but Shyamalan’s botched execution of them made the anguish all the more realized. You walked away from both disasters and openly wondered why Shyamalan was given such large-scale creative freedom and at what point the producers knew they were sunk. With Split, Shyamalan has pared down his story into a very lean and mean survival thriller anchored by a mesmerizing performance from McAvoy. The story engine kicks in very early, mere minutes into the movie. The man doesn’t even wait the usual ten minutes or so before introducing the inciting incident. This Shyamalan has no time to dawdle, and the rest of the movie lives up to this pacing edict. It’s efficiently plotted with the girls in a position of discovery and learning their surroundings, the different alters, and how to play them against one another. Each piece of info builds upon the last. It’s a survival thriller where you think along with the characters, and their decisions make sense within the internal logic and story that Shyamalan commands. There are scattered interruptions from our subterranean terror, mainly exposition from Kevin’s shrink and some hunting flashbacks from Casey’s childhood with her father. I figured they would show Casey to be similar to the feisty heroine from You’re Next, revealing her as a fiendishly clever and capable survivalist that the villain underestimates to his great peril. It’s not quite that but the flashbacks do serve a purpose, a very dark purpose, and a purpose that could lead to some very uncomfortable personal implications others may interpret.
Shyamalan’s ambition has often exceeded his reach when it came to his post-Signs oeuvre. The man never seemed like a great fit for the fantasy and sci-fi blockbusters that Hollywood was hoping he’d sprinkle his “Spielberg scion” magic all over. The number of moving parts seemed to overwhelm and his worst instincts took over. To be fair, Shyalamlan is also to blame as his ego became inflated and he started chasing after his cinematic windmills convinced he was creating great works of art. In Lady in the Water, he inserted himself as the writer that will eventually save all of mankind. That’s a step above arrogant. And he reserved time in that fishy-woman-out-of-water misfire to literally eviscerate a crotchety film critic because the man obviously held no grudges. My point is that when Shyamalan’s stories got too big so did his sense of himself. He lost limitations and people reeling in his excesses and wayward plotting. Even Shyamalan’s early successes are smart examples of how to get the most bang for your buck. Unbreakable is his “comic book movie” and that has like one fight scene. Signs left most to the imagination. Shyamalan has always been a better filmmaker when he holds back and embraces the limitations of his situations, finding more resonant creative solutions. Shyamalan has blossomed under the Blumhouse model, a factory for cheap high-concept thrillers in the $1-10 million range. With that kind of minimal budget, it forces Shyamalan to be very economical with his filmmaking and very meticulous with his storytelling. It worked for The Visit and it especially works with Split. This is a movie that emphasizes its strengths, storytelling and performance, and a large-scale budget is not essential for those elements to flourish. You want to know Shyamalan’s cameo this time? It’s a computer tech literally billed as “Jai, Hooters lover.” We’ve certainly come down from savior of the human race, and it’s a welcomed sign (no pun intended).
The movie would be so much less without the intensely captivating performance from McAvoy (X-Men: Apocalypse). A character with multiple personalities totaling twenty-three, with twenty-four on its spooky way, must be an actor’s dream. McAvoy loses himself in the sheer playfulness of the part. The characters are distinct down to his poise, posture, the way he carries his body, subtle facial expressions or movements that he’s keyed into specific altered personalities. It’s a lot more than silly voices. It’s a shame that this kind of performance will never really get the recognition it truly deserves. This is an Oscar-worthy performance from McAvoy as he transforms himself again and again. The man finds several different ways to be creepy and menacing, never overdoing the same note. It’s an astonishing chameleon-like performance and definitely deserving of future awards consideration, and we’re in the general cinematic dumping ground of January. I would like to also call attention to Taylor-Joy (The Witch) and her resourceful and thoughtful performance. She’s playing a scared and scarred young woman but a fighter worth rooting for who rises to the many challenges. She’s a Final Girl you can love.
Split is a solid and atmospheric thriller with a killer crazy performance by James McAvoy. The movie flies by, drawing you into its clutches, and the ongoing twists and turns feel organic. There really isn’t so much a twist ending as a culmination of flashback implications. The end has an uncomfortable implication in its resolution, but that’s the worst of it. As long as his head doesn’t get too big, I could welcome Shyamalan cranking out fun mini-budget thrillers in the Blumhouse model. It could be the beginning of a, dare I say, Shyamassaince. I’m sorry (I’m not sorry).
Nate’s Grade: B+
A nearly three-hour movie about Portuguese Jesuit priests facing persecution in 17th century Japan and struggling with the personal demands and costs of their faith sounds like a hard sell for your casual moviegoer. It may seem even stranger coming from the likes of director Martin Scorsese. This is a deeply personal film and perhaps the greatest movie about the nature of spiritual faith, both good and bad, I’ve seen. Two priests (Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver) sail to Japan in 1635 to find their mentor after hearing he has renounced his ties to Christianity and taken up a Japanese wife. Christianity has been outlawed and those caught practicing the religion can be turned in for 100 pieces of silver, and a priest for 300 pieces. The repression forces Christian converts to make difficult choices, especially when their refusal to recant their faith causes suffering for others. The Inquisitor (Issei Ogata) is a fascinating figure who argues that these misplaced missionaries never understood Japanese culture and that this foreign religion simply cannot flourish. The meaning of individual faith is explored beautifully with existential highs and lows. When the priests come across a village of secretly practicing Christians, it’s a powerful example of the goodness of faith, as these people are nourished body and soul, empowered. They can also finally confess their sins and garner a clean slate. However, much of the film is about the internal struggle to retain one’s faith in the seeming absence of confirmation. The priests are eventually caught and ordered to apostate, and their ongoing refusals are met with harder and harder challenges to bear. It’s an ongoing process for many people to square the concepts of a loving God and the horrors and general torment that do not merit said God’s intervention. At one point one of our priests, shaken by his experiences, asks if he is merely praying to silence. In some regard, I think the movie is about coming to terms with the fact that faith is often a relationship with a silent partner. Silence may be the greatest spiritual epic about doubt. It feels like a thriller at times and also the most Christian movie at other times. It puts the simplistic tripe starring the likes of Kirk Cameron to shame. Scorsese’s camera is unmistakably his and the movie is often dazzling to just experience. The pacing is very much a slow burn but the historical context felt increasingly intriguing for my tastes. Ogata is the real star of the movie, embellishing his antagonist with a magnetic power. Every time he was off screen I wished for his return. Silence is not going to be a movie for everyone or for many. It’s too long and airless, but it’s a deeply serious, deeply meditative, and deeply searching film about the power of belief and the price we pay to hold on.
Nate’s Grade: B+
With only three films, Ben Affleck has successfully reinvented himself as one of Hollywood’s most talented directors when it comes to adult crime thrillers. It’s not just his superb directing chops; the man also serves as producer, lead actor on most films as well as a screenwriter, and Affleck’s ability to write flawed yet deeply human characters within genre parameters has accomplished actors flocking to work for him. Beyond his 2012 film Argo winning Best Picture, Affleck has gotten three different actors supporting Oscar nominations (Amy Ryan, Jeremy Renner, Alan Arkin). He’s an actor’s director and a man who knows how to satisfy an audience hungry for authentic genre thrills and interesting characters. His latest film is an adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel and is Affleck’s most ambitious film yet and it’s gorgeously brought to life. There’s still plenty to like and entertainment to be had with his Prohibition era gangster flick Live by Night, but it’s also unquestionably Affleck’s weakest film yet as a major director.
Joe Coughlin (Affleck) is a hardened WWI veteran who says he came back to Boston as an “outlaw” (he seems to turn up his nose at being called a “gangster”). Joe settles into an easy life of crime with the local Irish gang lead by Albert White (Robert Glenister). Unfortunately, Joe’s lover, Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), happens to be White’s main squeeze. Joe and Emma sneak around and carry on their relationship without proper discretion. Their secret is found out, Emma is dealt with, and Joe escapes with his life, serving a prison sentence and then enlisting in the Italian mob under local boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). Joe is sent to Tampa to manage the rum-running business, starting his life over. The area is ripe for expansion and it isn’t long before Joe is making friends and enemies over his exploits. He falls in love with Graciella (Zoe Saldana), a fellow criminal with a working operation of Hispanic bootleggers. Joe warms to a local police chief (Chris Cooper) and his daughter, Loretta (Elle Fanning) a girl who experiences the darker side of vice and becomes a troublesome born-again leader. All the while Albert White has relocated to Miami, and the specter of vengeance looms just within reach.
It’s a Prohibition gangster flick and Affleck makes sure to check as many boxes as he can when it comes to audience expectations for a pulpy hardboiled action drama. The production design is aces and the cinematography by Robert Richardson (The Hateful Eight) is beautifully composed with its use of light, shadow, and framing. There are shots of violence that are exquisitely rendered so as to be their own art, like a man falling down a stairwell with a Tommy gun blasting above bathed in light. The production details are a sumptuous aspect that Affleck and his team put supreme effort into to better make their movie transporting. The action sequences have a genuine delight as they pop. A shootout throughout the grounds of a mob-owned hotel is an exciting climax that finds fun ways to provide genre thrills. The rise-and-fall structure of the story, mingled with a simple revenge motivation, is a suitable story vehicle for the audience to plug into. There are fun characters, fun moments, and sizzling action, all decorated in handsome period appropriate details. While Live by Night has its share of flaws, a dearth of entertainment is not one of them.
Tone and coherency end up being Affleck’s biggest obstacles he cannot overcome. It’s somewhat of a surprise considering his other directorial efforts brilliantly melded several genres while telling invigorating stories. I think the main fault is a screenplay trying to do too much when more streamlining was optimal. The specific goal that sets Joe in motion is a bit hazy and fails to provide a larger sense of direction for the arc of the tale. Affleck’s previous films were rock-solid in crafting overarching yet specific goals that propel the scenes onto a natural narrative trajectory. With Gone Baby Gone, it’s finding the missing girl. With The Town, it’s getting closer to a bank employee without having that relationship discovered by his cohorts. With Argo, it was rescuing the hostages. With Live by Night, it’s mostly getting vengeance against Albert White, though we don’t know how. In the meantime, we have episodic incidents failing to register connective tissue or at least a cause/effect relationship where it feels like a natural order of organic conflicts. The opening act in Boston that sets up Joe’s tragic love, jail time, and enmity with White could be removed entirely. I’d miss the thrilling 1920s car chase, which is also unique in that it’s the first period car chase I can think of that utilizes the mechanical limitations of the vehicles for extra tension, but it’s at best a moment of flash. Having the story pick up with Joe putting his life back together in sunny Florida would have been a cleaner entrance into this world for an audience. Once Joe ingratiates himself into this new world, the audience has to play another game of character introductions and assessing relationships and the balance of power. It feels a bit redundant after having our previous act pushed aside to reboot Joe’s world.
It feels like Affleck is trying to corral so many historical elements that he loses sight of the bigger picture. Joe’s criminal path seems comically easy at times as he builds a fledgling empire along the Floridian west coast. First it’s the law and then it’s the KKK and then it’s religious revivals that need to be dealt with. Each incident feels like a small vignette that observes the historical setting with an angle that will be perfunctorily dropped in short order. The conflicts and antagonists don’t feel sufficiently challenging and that lessens the intended suspense. When Joe is dealing with the KKK, it feels like he’s restraining himself out of politeness rather than a series of organic restrictions. The elements and tones don’t really seem to inform one another except in the most general sense, which leads to the film lacking suitable cohesion. It’s easy then for Affleck to overly rely on stock genre elements to provide much of the story arrangements.
The characters have difficulty escaping from the pulp trappings to emerge as three-dimensional figures. Graciela gets the worst of it, proving to be a capable bootlegging criminal in her own right who loses all sense of personality, agency, and import once she becomes romantically entwined with our hero. It’s as if she erased herself to better heal his broken heart. How kind of her. The religious revival element is ripe for further examination but it’s kept at a basic level. We’re never questioning the validity of Loretta’s conversion and sudden celebrity. Chris Cooper’s pragmatic lawman has the most potential as a man trying to keep his morals amidst the immoral. The character isn’t utilized in enough interesting ways that can also flesh out his dimensions, and his conclusion suffers from that absent development. The characters serve their purpose in a larger mechanical sense but they don’t feel like more recognizable human beings.
Affleck’s innate talent with actors reappears in a few choice moments, just enough to tantalize you with the promise of what Live by Night could have been. The standout moment for me is a sit-down between Joe and Loretta where she unburdens her self-doubts. This is a woman who has been preyed upon by others, had her hopes dashed, and is trying to reinvent herself as a religious leader, but even she doesn’t know if she believes that there’s a God. The scene is emotional, honest without being trite, and delivered pitch-perfect by Fanning (The Neon Demon). It’s the kind of scene that reminded me of The Town and Gone Baby Gone, how Affleck was deftly able to provide shading for his characters that opened them up. Miller (American Sniper) has immediate electricity to her performance and reminds you how good Affleck is at drawing out the best from his actors. British TV vet Glenister is so good as a villain that seems to relish being one that you wish he were in the movie more. He has a menace to him that draws you in closer. Maher (The Finest Hours) is a memorable cretin who you’ll be happy to be dealt with extreme prejudice. There isn’t a poor casting choice in the film (hey Clark Gregg, hey Anthony Michael Hall, hey Max Casella) except possibly one, and that’s Affleck himself. I know part of the reason he selects his directing efforts is the possibility of also tackling juicy acting roles, but this time he may not have been the best fit. He’s a little too calm, a little too smooth, a little too out of place for the period, and his director doesn’t push him far enough.
A strange thing happened midway through, namely how politically relevant and vicariously enjoyable Live by Night feels specifically for the year 2017. It’s a movie largely sent in the 1920s with characters on the fringes of society, and yet I was able to make pertinent connections to our troubled times of today. After a contentious presidential election where many feel that insidious and hateful extremist elements are being normalized and emboldened, there is something remarkably enjoyable about watching a murder montage of Klansmen. The Tampa chapter of the KKK takes aim with Joe’s business that profit from fornicators, Catholics, and especially black and brown people. They’re trying to shake Joe down for majority ownership but they’re too stupid, blinded by their racist and xenophobic ignorance, to accept Joe’s generous offers, and so they can’t help but bring righteous fury upon their lot. There is something innumerably enjoyable about watching abusive bigots brought down to size with bloody justice. I could have seen an entire movie of Joe and crew tearing through the Florida chapters of the KKK and just cleaning out the rabble. This sequence whets the appetite for what comes later. Without going into specific spoilers, the climax of the movie involves the put-upon minorities rising up against their bosses who, like the Klan, felt they were too powerful, too indispensable, and too clever to be seriously threatened. In its own way, it’s like a dark crime actualization of the American Dream. Unpack that if you will.
Live By Night is Affleck losing the depth of his world to its surface-level genre pleasures and they are indeed a pleasure. This isn’t a bad movie by any measure, only one of slight disappointment because it had the markings and abilities to be much more than the finished product. The tonal inconsistency and storylines provide episodic interludes and enticing moments, whether in action or acting, but they don’t blend together to form a more compelling and impressive whole. It’s a gangster movie that provides the gangster genre trappings but loses sight of what makes the characters in these movies so compelling, the moral complications, shifting loyalties, the impossible positions, and enclosing danger. I don’t think you’ll sweat too much over whether the main character will come out on top, which somewhat hinders the intensity of the action. When your movie is more predicated on those genre thrills than character or story, that’s an even bigger hindrance. It’s a fun world worth visiting but it doesn’t have the staying power of Affleck’s better efforts.
Nate’s Grade: B
I’m glad there’s still a filmmaker at the talent level of director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) dedicated to making genuine Gothic romance with style and reverence. The Handmaiden is a ravishing, enrapturing, and momentously engaging movie with dark delights, startling depths, palpable romance, simmering tension, and high-wire twists and turns that keep redefining the story. The absurdly talented filmmaker takes a novel set in Victorian England and adapts the setting to 1930s Korea during the time of Japanese occupation, a fascinating and little-known time period for a Western audience. A poor orphan Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim) is pressured into a scheme to trick the wealthy Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) into being admitted to an insane asylum, her family riches sold. From the opening minutes, The Handmaiden produces immersive drama that pushes the central characters into consistent conflict to achieve their varying goals. They’re constantly at odds with one another and themselves. There’s even tension between those who hold onto their Korean culture and those who adopt the culture of their oppressors, namely Lady Hideko’s perverse and treacherous uncle. Sook-Hee grows an unexpected affection for her mistress, and this includes a burgeoning attraction that the movie communicates with serious sensuality. The passionate lesbian sex scenes are, if anything, a tad restrained from what I was expecting from Chan-wook, and they’re definitely far more restrained and absent the male gaze than the still excellent Blue is the Warmest Color. I felt the same carnal desire the characters were discovering, a feat worth celebrating for still staying true tonally without veering into tawdry exploitation. More than the sex or the top-notch technical aspects, it was the characters that hooked me and refuse to relinquish. The deepening relationships and the subtle shifts of loyalty, perception, and desire make what is essentially a twisty and twisted chamber-play into world-class drama. You think it’s one kind of movie, and then it flips the script, and then it does it again, each time opening wider this mysterious, dangerous, and invigorating world. My one quibble is that the final twenty minutes feels unnecessary and self-indulgent, Chan-wook finally scratching a few violent tendencies he had been keeping as veiled up to that point. The Handmaiden is a ridiculously entertaining movie that is handsomely mounted, wonderfully acted by its leading ladies, and a romance worth losing your self over. Plus, there’s also the sex.
Nate’s Grade: A-
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-