Big Game (2014; Directed by Jalmari Helander)
An appreciative pastiche of the sort of dimwitted, morally unambiguous action movies that Hollywood churned out with arrogant imperialist panache in the 1980s and 1990s, Big Game transposes a fistfighting President, devious, well-armed terrorists, and concerned national security officials in secret Pentagon control rooms to the vast mountainous forests of northern Finland. There, a 13-year old boy must protect the President of the United States from those threatening his life while also hunting down and killing a wild animal to prove to his father and fellow hunters that he is now a man.
Big Game sounds like it should be completely nuts, but it oddly isn’t. It also sounds rather ambitious, but is in fact fairly low-budget and reasonably brisk without exactly being limited in scope (though its action sequences are a bit proscribed). Directed by Finnish filmmaker Jalmari Helander and co-written by Helander and Petri Jokaranta, Big Game doesn’t have a whole lot on its mind, ultimately, but it does muster both some vestigial admiration for the masculine rituals of rural hunting culture as well as simultaneous comedic derision for the smug, thoughtless manner that American power is applied globally. In this overheated fantasy telling at least, the hegemony of the world’s dominant superpower is so fragile that the only thing safeguarding it from disaster is a Finnish teenager who can barely release an arrow from a bow.
That teenager is Oskari (Onni Tommila), scion of a Lapland clan of formidable hunters who has ventured alone into the remote forest on a proud rite of masculine passage. On his heels follows the encouragement of his father (played by Tommila’s real-life father, Jorma) and the doubts of the other hunters in his prowess. Oskari is set on a (very literal) collision course with the AWOL POTUS, William Alan Moore (Samuel L. Jackson), whose survives the downing of Air Force One by surface-to-air missiles fired by the motiveless (apparent) terrorist Hazar (Mehmet Kurtulus) with the collusion of Moore’s embittered Secret Service agent, Morris (Ray Stevenson). Oskari isn’t terribly impressed by Moore’s Yankee posturing (he claims the boy’s ATV as American property in order to transport him) and won’t take him to civilization until he becomes a man (ie. kills himself a deer). The mismatched pair bond by the campfire before engaging in a high-stakes escape from Morris and Hazar, while the Vice-President (Victor Garber), a canny old CIA hand (Jim Broadbent), and Army grandees watch the drama, agape, via satellite uplink from “the Pentagon Headquarters” (there are a few such endearing outsider’s inaccuracies, and it’s not entirely certain that they aren’t intentional).
Helander recombines bombastic, ideologically regressive American blockbusters like Air Force One, Die Hard, Red Dawn, and many more of that ilk into a film that is both a homage to the dumb, violent jingoism of the genre (indeed, often a mere parroting) and an almost imperceptibly subversive parody of it. Jackson’s President Moore is characterized as hapless and soft, a radar echo of the right-wing funhouse-mirror caricature of Barack Obama. Hapless though he may be, he proves hardy and hard to find (with Oskari’s help), to the continuous frustration of the brass back in Washington. It is repeatedly said, emphasized and underlined, that the whole missing President debacle is embarrassing (what, then, was Iraq?, one is tempted to ask), and perspiring generals are mortified that the Navy SEALs are forever 30 minutes away from saving the day.
To a great extent, Big Game is a standard populist cultural response to the almost ungraspable dimensions of American power and influence: all of these pompous, self-important people who run things don’t know as much as regular folk! This has been such a common trope in American popular culture (much of which is at least funded if not purposely crafted by the very elites that it purports to lampoon) that it has been taken seriously enough by enough people to form the form the basis for an insurgent movement in one of the nation’s two dominant political parties.
That Helander’s perspective is that of a foreigner – from dreaded social-democratic Scandinavia, no less – contextualizes the nose-thumbing opposition differently, especially given the way Big Game contrasts the traditional grassroots tribal wisdom of Laplanders with the brash technocratic expertise of high American officials. Big Game invests more value and infinitely more pride in the former than the latter, and Jackson’s sheltered President Moore only earns the sort of mythic cinematic framing that follows Oskari throughout the film by sharing in his liminal journey of maturation through the Finnish wilderness. Big Game is not precisely conservative in its scope and viewpoint, but it is at least traditionalist in its sympathies and distrust of the imperatives of neoliberal democratic capitalism and makes its point with efficiency and humour. Not bad for a ridiculous Finnish action b-movie.
Near the end of the much-discussed agitprop Netflix true crime narrative Making a Murderer, defence attorney Dean Strang laments the pernicious persistence of certainty and the mistrust of doubt, second-guessing and reflection in the operation of the American criminal justice system. His client, Steven Avery, has been convicted of first-degree murder in the death of Teresa Halbach, a crime that Avery is adamant that he not only did not commit but believes he was framed for by the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department in Wisconsin. For 10 hours of the engrossing documentary series, numerous procedural and ethical irregularities, suspicious evidence-gathering and testing techniques, and troubling police interrogation and state prosecution practices have been presented, much as they were during Avery’s trial. The minimum threshold for reasonable doubt seems to have been reached, and yet the jury ultimately thrust aside that doubt and convicted Avery.
Making a Murderer considers why but also details the how of the Avery case, interweaving the two with an almost pitiless drumbeat of inescapability. Directed by Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos after filming in Wisconsin (mostly with Avery’s family and lawyers) for ten years, the series wears its pro-Avery bias on its sleeve, which some observers have seen as detrimental and others have viewed as its strength as sharp-edged advocacy journalism opposing official biases. But the series has risen to the level of a cultural phenomenon because it has crafted Avery’s complex saga into an engrossing, outrage-inspiring narrative entertainment with clearly-drawn heroes and villains and a tragic ending that exposes deep institutional injustices.
Steven Avery, born and raised in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, belongs to a family of rural salt-of-the-earth white Americans, who are concentrated clan-like around a vast auto salvage yard that acts as their primary source of income (and a resonant symbol of post-capitalist decay) but generally treated as pariahs in the community. Saddled with a low IQ, limited education, and questionable socialization, Avery had predictable brushes with the law in his youth, one of them a spectacularly unwise confrontation with the girlfriend of a sheriff’s deputy that put him in the department’s crosshairs. This history put him under suspicion for the rape of prominent citizen Penny Beerntsen in 1985, a crime for which he was convicted and served 18 years in prison before the real perpetrator’s confession and ironclad DNA evidence led to his exoneration.
This is all summed up in Making a Murderer’s first episode, and the series’ early stages also cover Avery’s response to his wrongful conviction. A state investigation found that the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department targeted Avery in a tunnel-visioned and irresponsible manner (he had alibis from something like 20 family members) while ignoring other potential suspects – most importantly serial rapist Gregory Allen, who was eventually implicated by DNA evidence while serving time for a subsequent sexual assault – both during the investigation and after the conviction. But the state declined to mete out any punishment to the sheriff’s office, so Avery sued that department in federal civil court for $36 million. Conveniently for the sheriff’s office, Avery was arrested, charged, tried and convicted for Teresa Halbach’s murder while the civil case was playing out, forcing him to settle the civil case for a lower amount in order to afford the legal fees for his murder defence.
The rest of Making a Murderer documents the state’s case in court against Steven Avery, his defence team’s arguments about the sheriff’s department’s attempt to frame him, his appeals and quest for a new trial, the trial and conviction of his teenaged nephew (and only alibi) Brendan Dassey for aiding in Halbach’s murder (proceeding from an extremely dubious and likely coerced confession), and the reactions of his family and community to the entire saga. On the basis of the evidence presented in the series alone, both at trial and in the build-up to and aftermath of Avery’s conviction, it seems reasonably evident that, at the very least, something is rotten in the county of Manitowoc (and in neighbouring Calumet, too, the county in which Avery was tried and whose law enforcement ostensibly conducted the investigation).
That Hamlet reference may not be errant, since Making a Murderer is presented at least as much as drama than as documentary, shaped as a tangled but ultimately starkly delineated morality play on the subject of American (in)justice. Real people, whatever their unglimpsed nature, assume a set of fixed roles. Strang and fellow defence attorney Jerry Buting are the dogged heroes of the piece: intelligent, rational, decent Midwestern sorts with respectable conservative clothes but highly liberal perspectives on the fraught operations of the criminal justice system. They’re presented as contemporary heirs to that American archetype Atticus Finch, humble men of law toiling thanklessly against injustice, protecting fundamental citizens’ rights in the face of institutions either bureaucratically indifferent to suffering or actively and malevolently encouraging it.
Opposing them is the Calumet County DA Ken Kratz: hefty, mustached, soft-voiced and smug, an exquisitely hateable personification of the banality of evil. He disseminates shocking, sensationalist details of Halbach’s murder in press conferences prior to the trial, seriously compromising the possibility of a fair trial for Avery or for Dassey, and after gaining both convictions is ruined by an equally compromising sexting scandal. Arrayed below these figures are any number of particular characters, from stiff-lipped small-town police to Avery’s sprawling clan, notably his crusty parents, his mercurial ex-fiancee, and Brendan Dassey’s formidable mother. Brendan Dassey is a learning-disabled manchild, caught up in and chewed up by institutions well beyond his ability to comprehend, let alone defend himself against. Avery himself is an odd cipher-like absence at the centre of Making a Murderer. With no on-camera interviews between the filmmakers and their subject, a version of him emerges from prison phone calls and archival video, bewildered and discouraged at being charged with a crime he claims not to have committed by the same police who already put him away unjustly for such a crime. He’s determined to prove his innocence but also dogged by trouble in a manner that he cannot be fully absolved of.
There has been official pushback against Making a Murderer‘s incendiary conclusions about considerable bias and unethical (if not outright illegal) conduct on the part of the sheriff’s office, the district attorney’s office, and even Brendan Dassey’s public defender, Len Kachinsky, who comes across as one of the weaselly, semi-hapless sub-minions of the ringleader of horrifying normality Kratz (think William H. Macy as Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo and you’re 75% of the way there). Kratz, although no longer a DA after his scandal-plagued tenure and resignation in shame, claims copious trial evidence less favourable to Avery is left out of the series, particularly testimony establishing the defendant’s obsessive behaviour towards Teresa Halbach.
This might be true, and, like much of Kratz’s evidence, feels like it might be; Steven Avery’s character (and crime history prior to his wrongful conviction in particular) is a bit too rosy as presented by Ricciardi and Demos. But even at 10 hours, some details must inevitably hit the cutting room floor, and further outrages on the part of the court system were also left out. These include the whopper of a revelation that one of the jurors for Avery’s murder trial, the investigation of which the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department was supposed to have stayed away from due to a clear conflict of interest in relation to Avery’s lawsuit against them for his 18 years served in prison for the wrongful rape conviction, was the father of a Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Deputy and himself had logged over 200 hours as a volunteer officer for the department. This fact, absent from Making a Murderer, places the revelation of a juror excused from deliberations that two jury members dead-set on a guilty verdict swayed the rest, who had been leaning towards not guilty at first, in a different light. The devious evil masterminds of the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department even had an agent doing their bidding in the jury room to ensure that Avery was sent down.
The prosecution case against Avery had holes in it – reasonable doubt-sized holes, you or I may believe – but the jury ultimately came to the conclusion that they were not enough to bring their collective faith in law enforcement and the courts into question, which is what would have been necessary for an acquittal. The overarching defence theory of a police conspiracy to point the finger directly at Avery that so daunted Strang and Buting is fuzzy at points and always impossible to properly pin down (even if the sheriff’s office had a much clearer motive for setting Avery up than Avery did for murder). It certainly did not help that Avery’s defence team could not present alternate suspects for the murder, which they gestured vaguely towards elsewhere in Avery’s family circle as well as in Halbach’s. The conclusions that may seem obvious to the viewing audience of a documentary with a very particular focus and perspective may not have been so clear in the Calumet County courthouse in 2007, and may have been further obscured by a heated local atmosphere both before and after the proceedings.
Making a Murderer, like Strang in his summary indictment against the arrogant certainty of institutions, looks at the Steven Avery saga and sees a sea of doubt. So expertly made is it that it allows us to see that same sea, and to damn the myopic arbiters of Avery’s fate, police and prosecutors and judges and media and victim’s family and rural Wisconsion rank-and-file, who either cannot glimpse it or simply refuse to. Are the filmmakers and the work they ultimately delivered biased in Avery’s favour? Without a doubt, yes, they are infected with a certainty in the truth of his innocence and pass this infection on to Making a Murderer. But such extreme bias is an act of radical balancing in this case, a redistribution of weight in the face of an arrest, prosecution and conviction with no less formidable a bias against Avery. The series is a muscular response to a perceived injustice, and it is muscular enough to make us perceive it as well.
Tomorrowland (2015; Directed by Brad Bird)
Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland has a theory about what’s wrong with America (or the world, really, but for Americans, there is little difference), and it just can’t wait to tell you all about it. It will entertain you a bit first, maybe unleash some visual wonder, and definitely go straight for the jugular as far as rose-tinted Space Age cultural nostalgia goes. Being a Brad Bird joint, it would be foolish to expect anything less than all of that, as well as numerous action sequences of impressive force-and-counterforce precision. But what we come out of Tomorrowland with is less than should be expected. Because, despite all of its delights, it has a point that is must make, and that dogged insistence is a joykill.
Directed by Bird from a screenplay that he co-wrote with Damon Lindelof, Tomorrowland features much of the latter’s literary, scientific, and historical referentiality as well as dimensional and spacetime chicanery, as displayed most clearly in Lindelof’s Lost (Bird and Lindelof came up with the story along with Jeff “Doc” Jensen, whose informed, erudite, and endlessly digressive deep-dive Lost episode recaps for Entertainment Weekly were almost more of a weekly highlight than the actual episodes of the show themselves by the end of its broadcast run). The basic concept exists independently of the futuristic Disney theme park land, but leaps off from the now-dated 1950s image of an optimistic future that Tomorrowland presented. As such, it begins with young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson), a precocious inventor, visiting the 1964 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, New York, that boomer-era distillation of the Space Age’s dayglow futurism. His homemade jetpack, which doesn’t exactly work (the witty Bird cuts to young Frank test-crashing it through his cornfield at home), fails to impress invention assessor David Nix (Hugh Laurie), but does catch the eye of a young girl (or so it seems) named Athena (Raffey Cassidy). She invites him on a journey to a wondrous city of the future of Space Age sci-fi vintage (flying cars and the lot), with a small “T” pin as his golden ticket.
This distinctive pin reappears half a century later, this time in the personal effects of bright, idealistic troublemaker Casey Newton (Britt Robertson). The Florida teenager is being sprung from prison after she is caught breaking into government property, namely the NASA launchpads at Cape Canaveral. She’s committed regular industrial sabotage on the demolition cranes bringing down these symbols of America’s vaulting ambition and scientific achievement, now a casualty of the tightening budgets and narrowing vision of a diminishing imperial power. Her aim is not simply romantic, as her dad (Tim McGraw; yes, that one) is a NASA engineer (yes, that’s what Tim McGraw plays) who will be out of work once the facility is taken down. But her spirit grabs the attention of Athena, amazingly still a young girl 50 years on, who points Casey in the direction of a middle-aged, disillusioned Frank Walker (George Clooney) and both of them in the direction of that optimistic, shining city on a dimensional hill.
This synopsis renders in basic form what Tomorrowland tells with delightful misdirection, meta narrative shaping, and Bird’s trademarked movement of precise abandon, at least in its first couple of acts. Young Frank’s arrival in Tomorrowland is couched in Clooney’s grizzled narration, frequently interrupted by edits by the irrepressibly perky Robertson’s initially-unseen Casey, who then introduces her own introductory narrative. Both Frank’s and Casey’s first glimpses of the gleaming city are memorably rendered by Bird: young Frank escapes from peril with contruction-bots erecting a bridge before blasting through the fog into the awe-spun pinnacles of the futuristic land on his jetpack, while Casey drinks in the cornucopia of wonders on the streets of the city along with the audience in a sweeping, masterful multi-minute single shot.
Casey’s first proper meeting with Athena in a Houston pop-culture memorabilia store (manned by Kathryn Hahn and a dredlocked Keegan-Michael Key) and her introduction to the older Frank in his booby-trapped house in upstate New York are models of Bird’s singular facility with visual gags and witty sequences of action and motion, as our protagonists battle off robot pursuers bent on their immediate demise. Athena, in particular, is a deliriously bizarre character, a robot (or Audio-Animatronic, to be precise) in the form of a little girl with huge blue eyes, freckles, and a posh British accent (an important marker, as I’ll discuss) who fights off attackers with martial arts and drives motor vehicles and fiddles with her circuitry to speak foreign languages. It’s a loopy touch that convincingly destabilizes the all-American milieu of the world that Bird and Lindelof are creating in Tomorrowland.
What they are also creating, however, is a stunted, heavy-handed allegory of American decline, a sample of liberal social commentary with a strong vein of smug elitist disdain to it. When Casey, Frank, and Athena finally make it to Tomorrowland, they discover that it’s still run by the pessimistic Nix (what else would you expect, with such a name?). The place has already been established as a secret social, scientific, and cultural experiment by the best-and-brightest elite that called themselves (with an unacknowledged Orwellian flourish) the Plus Ultra, a brilliant example of what the world could be, a kind of permanent 1964 World’s Fair, if you will. But, as Frank puts it, everything went to hell before its creators were ready to reveal it to the world. In a Bond-villain-like monologue, Nix reveals why, with Laurie summoning every iota of his considerable upper-crust British dismissiveness in doing so: a tachyon machine developed by Frank allowed the Plus Ultra to see into Earth’s future and predict the exact day of its demise, but instead of heeding the machine’s persistent warning signals and mending their broken ways, the world’s citizens embraced the coming apocalypse with a sense of the grimly inevitable.
Nix’s lengthy lecture, devolved upon naive New World provincials by the authoritatively-accented RP voice of the distant imperium that they revolted against two-and-a-half centuries ago but whose inbred sense of superiority they still lingeringly respect, stops Tomorrowland absolutely dead, and with Bird’s canny sense of momentum thus arrested, it’s death to the surface affect. But it’s the fulcrum point of the film’s interminably preachy dominant interlinked dichotomies: optimism vs. pessimism, dreamers vs. pragmatists, hope vs. cynicism. An early montage in Casey’s school is a series of object lessons in these poles. Her teachers deliver withering, Nix-like lectures on nuclear proliferation, environmental collapse, and dystopian literature, but won’t even answer Casey’s quasi-penetrating query about what can be done to fix things (if they could, they’d be Plus Ultras, not high school teachers).
Bird and Lindelof are crystal clear about what’s broken and what can fix it: America lost its way when it stopped dreaming big, and will only divert its course away from alternating decadence and mass suffering when it rediscovers the pie-in-the-sky ambition that allowed it to put a man on the moon. Of course, it could be argued just as reasonably that those grand social projects of America’s post-war renaissance were bought with deficit spending that puts an eventual ceiling on such ambitions, as well as that the technological advances undertaken by the space program have largely been diverted into the military-industrial complex and the never-ending foreign wars and interventions that have drained the national purse. Limitless dreaming puts a lovely glow in your heart, but it costs a pretty penny and the bill has come due for America’s dreamers.
At least it has for those who aren’t making someone less imaginative a lot of money. As Bird and Lindelof should know, the creative class has been marshaled for capitalization, to prop up the sagging tower of American capitalist might with their “innovation”. What they achieve, what they create, is generally more wealth for the upper percentile of oligarchs, while the physical and social infrastructure that undergirded the Space Age daydreaming crumbles, leaving millions behind. Tomorrowland takes a strong stance about America’s ills and offers the sort of solution Casey begs her teachers for: grand, optimistic, and feel-good. Realistic and achievable, though? Even asking that question puts the questioner on the wrong side of this movie’s overriding binary.
Despite Tomorrowland‘s grandiose, didactic position-taking, it’s hard to lose sight of the fact that this is a big corporate studio product named after a section of the same corporation’s popular (and expensive) theme parks, furiously cross-promoting while simultaneously hard-selling optimistic dreamers as a preferred elite in an ideological boot-licking of its legendary founder (and its beknighted Bay Area technological wizard connections, specifically at Pixar). It becomes even harder to do so when faced with a scene like the one in the memorabilia store, with Iron Giant figurines (a nod to Bird’s cinematic breakthrough) appearing alongside a glut of Star Wars merchandise (and even music), an unmissable reminder of Disney’s ownership of that franchise’s rights. Tomorrowland insists that pessimistic fatalism and lack of imaginative vision has doomed America to decline at least partly to divert attention from how aggressively commodified every aspect of American life has become, but it undoes this work because it can’t help but engage in aggressive commodification while doing so. Whatever one might think of the film’s firm diagnosis of its culture’s illness, it should be fairly evident that Tomorrowland itself is no kind of cure.
The Revenant (2015; Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu)
A visceral grind of a survival western with pretentions of sublimity and grandeur, The Revenant is one of the most technically impressive, visually astonishing, and powerfully transporting films that I’ve seen in a long time. But it transports us somewhere exhausting and miserable whose power is never as edifying or as uplifting or as meaningful as it would like us to believe. Its aesthetic claim to the title of art is equally grounded in its beauty and its pain, but does art need to be this painful to be beautiful, to be relevant?
The Revenant is set in the vast wintry wilderness of the West during the frontier era (evidently South Dakota and Montana in the 1820s, although no dates are mentioned in the film and only the slightest geographic orientation offered). Its protagonist is the grizzled woodsman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), acting as scout and guide for an American fur-trapping expedition led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson). Accompanied by his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) and haunted by the ghost of his Pawnee wife (Grace Dove) killed in an army massacre of their village, Glass nonetheless knows the land better than any of the other trappers and has the absolute confidence of Henry, although the roguish Texan Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) mistrusts him and attempts to get under his skin. The situation worsens as the band is ambushed and reduced by half by Arikara First Nations braves in search of their chief’s kidnapped daughter, and they continue to harass the haggard Yanks as they flee back to their fort.
For Hugh Glass, however, the road becomes unbearably difficult when he inadvertently gets too close to some bear cubs and is mauled nearly to death by the protective mother in an utterly harrowing sequence that is already the film’s best-known moment (though perhaps not its pinnacle of human suffering). Fitzgerald is all for leaving Glass for dead, but Captain Henry insists that their guide must be carried along with them.
Without detailing every beat of the rest of this draining cinematic odyssey, what follows is a repeatedly gorgeous, remarkably staged but ultimately dispiriting extended orgy of bloody flesh, dirt and snow, trees and rivers, murder and rape, mutilation and hanging, broken bodies and frozen corpses. Sublime bursts of natural majesty are chased too soon by slaughtered beasts and festering wounds, simple reveries like catching snowflakes on one’s tongue are viciously cut short by scalping Native raiding parties. Cautious, fleeting transcendence is hounded back into its secluded den by filthy-handed revenge.
The survival quest of Hugh Glass in The Revenant is, one supposes, intended to inspire or at least impress onlookers by virtue of the sheer amazing stubborn will to endure in the face of such unceasing agonies. Likewise, DiCaprio’s performance as Glass, which is buzzed about as being likely to earn the veteran prestige film lead his first Best Actor Oscar, is defined by the same herculean determination and commitment, the same aesthetically and philosophically heightened endurance of suffering. Having no reliable metric to account for great acting, the Academy consistently leans firmly on physical transformation and exertion as well as visible hardship in annually rating the upper percentile of the craft. The greatest acting, by such a measure, appears extremely difficult, and by that criteria alone, there can have been few performances in film history greater than DiCaprio’s here.
The Revenant is helmed by the Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose rambling meta-theatrical quasi-satire Birdman won him three Oscars only a year ago. Iñárritu mixes the technical exactitude of a virtuoso perfectionist with the vaulting, unfulfillable ambition of a shaggy-minded artiste whose reach inevitably exceeds his grasp, and The Revenant is a work of maximum idiosyncrasy in both of these regards. The technical accomplishments of this film are truly remarkable, indeed nearly unsurpassable: not only DiCaprio but also Hardy, Gleeson, and conflicted young trapper Will Poulter all do tremendous work, the costumes and makeup are incredibly convincing, and the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki, shot using mostly natural light and steadicams, is thoroughly superlative.
But what’s it all for? A modern bloodlust western with dirt under its fingernails and an unshakeable tone of masculine sangfroid that would make even Quentin Tarantino sheepish? A document of human extremes that the surrounding untouchable natural grandeur either elevates, diminishes, or both at the same time? In between Glass’ crushing adventures in wilderness misery, Iñárritu gives us a fireside respite. Hardy’s Fitzgerald monologues to Poulter’s Bridger about how his father, stranded in a copse of trees in the forbidding wild, found God in the form of a squirrel. Then he ate the God-Squirrel, because he was starving. It’s a predictably Iñárritu-esque moment, a strident thesis statement to too-neatly sum up an absorbing mess of complexities and contradictions, a metaphorical lighted marquee reading “This is What I Mean To Say!” standing amongst exquisite piles of beautiful wreckage.
For all of its visual glories and inspired simulacrum of a vanished (and too-often romanticized, and absolutely vital) historical context, for all of its implications of depth and progressive understanding of the trespasses of colonialism (whose hollow core it symbolically approximates), The Revenant is ultimately a cheerless film, wretched in its soul. It’s the product of a culture that found and ate the God-Squirrel and, to paraphrase an American cinematic classic with a great deal more cheer in its soul, found that it only aroused its appetite without bedding her back down. It’s a spectacular embodiment of the absence of God, though it’s not like his presence would avail us, either. The survival quest of Hugh Glass is convincingly harrowing in its grinding detail but depressing in its motivation of grimly hateful revenge over enervating love of living (the latter quality which Birdman, whatever else one could say about it, had in spades).
Perhaps this objection should reside with the original novel’s writer Michael Punke and not the unquestionably fantastically talented and capable filmmaker who brought it to such red-blooded life. But it’s such a defining and characteristic effort by Alejandro González Iñárritu, so well-matched to his established work, its core elements and tendencies, and the ideas that he tends to return to, that both the credit and the blame must lie at his feet. The credit for stewarding such a magnificent and memorable succession of images into existence, and the blame for drawing only the most facile conceptions and artistic possibilities out of those images. The Revenant expertly drains our emotions but doesn’t deign to fill us back up with anything but desolation. We’re left famished, with not even so much as a God-Squirrel to snack on.
Jessica Jones (Netflix; 2015)
As comic-book superheroes gradually take over television like they have taken over the movies, any variation in tone, subject matters, and thematic content from the standard male adolescent power fantasies and authoritarian postures so common to the genre is highly welcome. And so the 13-episode-long mission undertaken by the hard-drinking, distinctly prickly trauma survivor and superhero-turned-P.I. Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) to foil her mind-controlling nemesis Kilgrave (David Tennant) carves out its own distinct territory of guilt, regret, and dogged feminism in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Jones was dominated, tormented, and raped against her will for years by the violet-clad Kilgrave before breaking free at great, painful cost. Residing in a cruddy apartment building of the sort that probably only exists in a fictional version of New York City like this one, she now uses her superhuman abilities to delve into other people’s lives for a fee in order to support herself, although she never seems to change her clothes and spends money on very little other than cabs, alcohol, and her cell phone. Not that much different from most other young underemployed Manhattanites, then. She’s single and has no family to speak of, with the sole exception of her best friend and adoptive sister Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor), a radio talk show host and former child star with her own painful past of being used and abused by her stage mom. Jones’ attempts to fly under the radar and stave off interpersonal involvement are frustrated when she crosses paths with fellow “special” Luke Cage (Mike Colter) and, even more seriously, when Kilgrave returns to enslave the mind and body of a young college girl (Erin Moriarty).
Jessica Jones mightily resists and even scoffs at the manner in which comics superheroes have been portrayed onscreen, even within the MCU itself: Jones joins bitter citizens in sneering at the exaggerated godlike heroics of the Avengers, sneering at the “green guy” and the “flagwaver” and distancing herself from their mass-destructive planet-saving exploits. If the show increasingly gives in to comics-style plotting, frame-like visual compositions, and showpiece fight scenes as its initial season moves along, creator Melissa Rosenberg refuses to compromise her staunchly righteous feminist perspective. Jessica and Trish resist and battle against the smugly patriarchal Kilgrave’s sexualized assaults and manipulative violations, and don’t need any muscle-bound man to do the heavy lifting for them (even the indestructible Cage, who is headed for a Netflix Marvel series of his own). This is an onscreen universe wrapping its tentacles around much of big-budget American entertainment but still struggling to square decades of representational tradition and gendered tendencies with progressive politics. Jessica Jones is a vicious punch to that hoary old proverbial glass ceiling, and the cracks are spreading.
Detectorists (BBC; 2014-Present)
A sweet, droll, and sneakingly profound Britcom set in a town in Essex, Detectorists amusingly follows hobbyist metal detectorists (not detectors, they are constantly correct others; that’s what you call the machines that they detect with) scanning England’s green fields for hidden Anglo-Saxon gold hoards like the treasured Sutton Hoo find. Of course, they mostly dig up buttons, ringpulls, toy cars, and other detritus of modern life, not to mention accidentally unearthing piles of personal issues.
Andy Stone (Mackenzie Crook, who also writes and directs), a schooled archaeologist and temp worker, detectorizes with Lance Stater (Toby Jones), a forklift driver. They are members of the Danebury Metal Detecting Club, which is really just a half-dozen oddballs who bicker at each other in the parish hall once a week (like most other clubs, I imagine). The club has a fierce (or perhaps just stroppy) rivalry with the AntiquiSearchers, a competing detecting group with institutional backing, and they clash over detecting on the property of the eccentric Larry Bishop (David Sterne). Lance still flutters around his ex-wife Maggie (Lucy Benjamin), who runs a New Age supply shop, dates a jockish sort (Adam Riches), and takes advantage of Lance and his money while treating him with shoddy disregard. Andy’s longtime girlfriend is schoolteacher Becky (Rachael Stirling), who mocks his hobby and the sad sorts it brings him together with, but becomes more sharply resentful of the pursuit when she discovers that one of those sorts is a young university student named Sophie (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) who seems to fancy Andy.
Crook’s stewardship of this portrait of quotidian absurdity is steady-handed and sometimes even transcendent, leaving aside the indulgent auteur’s conceit of having two attractive women fighting over a bloke of such a, shall we say, interesting appearance. Detectorists gives the always-underrated Toby Jones ample space to craft a singular pathetic but pluckily funny character, and has a fine recurring folk-song soundtrack via Johnny Flynn (Scrotal Recall). But it’s also a stealthy commentary on both the common reality of modern Britain, scouring for gems of a rich but fleeting past among the discarded effluvium of Americanized capitalism, and the contemporary existential truth of searching ever deeper for glinting treasures of meaning beneath the undifferentiated dirt of our lives.
It Follows (2014; Directed by David Robert Mitchell)
Fêted at Cannes, released Stateside to great acclaim, and referenced analogously in the pages of the New York Times to apply to a leading Republican Presidential candidate, It Follows has been understood as a singular indie revivification of the horror film genre in America. It is that, admittedly, but you may be surprised to learn that it’s more, much more. It’s a creepily resonant, eerily ambiguous meditation on sex and death, the transitory nature of youth, the immutability of the past, and even urban planning, socioeconomic divisions, and the persistence of history in contemporary America. It’s Freud meets The Ring filtered through dialectical materialism and social stratification, Ingmar Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock, and classic slow-pursuit slasher and zombie flicks.
It Follows teases its core concept in an initially unexplained but indelible opening sequence. A young woman exits her suburban home at dusk, frightened, frantic, paranoid. She runs out into the street, alarming her neighbours and father, then circles back into her home, always looking at something behind her that remains unseen but clearly terrifying. Rushing for the car in the driveway, she speeds far away into the night, finally stopping at a park at the edge of a body of water, where she she tells her parents that she loves them on her cell phone, gazing fixedly into the beam of the car’s headlights for something. It must have found her, because the next shot is of her shockingly broken body on the beach in the morning.
From there, writer/director David Robert Mitchell sets about establishing Jay (Maika Monroe), a pretty but unremarkable college student in suburban Detroit, and her circle of friends. These are contemporary young people in a consciously, almost archly intelligent retro-indie suspense-horror, so they hang out while watching black-and-white B-movies rather than keeping up with the Kardashians, and the only smartphone any of them seem to own is used only to read germane excerpts of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot related to mortality. Jay’s friend since childhood, Paul (Keir Gilchrist), still tends a flame for her, but she’s dating a guy named Hugh (Jake Weary). They like each other, even if he wigs out at the movies when he seems to see a person who isn’t there. Jay has sex with him in the back of his car in an abandoned lot (plenty of those to choose from in Detroit, and I doubt that it’s a random choice by Mitchell). And there, gazing at a flowering plant growing from a crack in the pavement, is where her troubles begin.
It’s more fiendishly difficult than it might initially seem to describe the core concept of It Follows without inviting ridicule (as Mitchell himself claims to have realized, and therefore tended to avoid describing). But the film accomplishes the feat of direct and unmockable explication well enough on its own in a scene already verging on iconic cultural status, so why not go direct to the source?
The following “thing” is transmitted from victim to victim by sexual intercourse, a too-obvious metaphor for STDs that Mitchell spends most of It Follows dismantling and contradicting only to re-assert again. It can be outrun, but not easily outsmarted or outfought. The only way to be rid of this implacable curse is to “pass it on” through sex with another, and even then it can kill its way back to you if its new quarry isn’t wary enough. As Jay and her friends slowly come to grips with the horrifyingly reality of the follower, more rules and elements of the being become evident, and they attempt to formulate plans to evade, escape, and finally defeat it.
The schematics of this horror are well-defined, like those of post-modern horror films like The Ring or Scream or Cabin in the Woods, but it sticks stubbornly to those rules instead of unsettling them in a quest for a harder scare like the aforementioned genre entries. Instead, It Follows unsettles genre convention with its beguiling visual textures, its aural landscapes (an unnerving old-school electronic score by Disasterpeace), its lulling pace, its subtle silent compositions, and above all its metaphorical, psychological, and social suggestions.
The follower invokes the prudish streak of slasher films and their gruesome punishments held in store for sexually active youth, with its transmission methods and graphic close-ups of its dripping nether regions. But the sex in It Follows is intimate and corporeal, an act of tenderness to stave off an imminent demise, and it leads Jay and Paul to an eventual sense of besieged security. The curse’s Freud-by-way-of-Hitchcock dimension simmers long and low before boiling over in the kids’ climactic attempt to ambush and electrocute the thing in a closed-down swimming pool, as Jay’s pursuing ghost takes the form of her dead father come to slay her.
Most unexpectedly, however, is the sociohistorical dimension of It Follows. Michigan native Mitchell sets scenes in shrunken Detroit’s vacant lots, abandoned houses, and other locations of urban decay, as well as in the sturdy but samey residential sprawl of the suburbs. To whatever extent these settings in this leering grin of a city missing half of its teeth are merely atmosphere, texture, or background symbols, they become something else late in the film. As the friends march to the abandoned pool to set their trap, one of the girls reminisces on their childhood, when protective parents forbade them from crossing 8 Mile Road, Detroit’s long-recognized socioeconomic border between the more affluent white suburbs and the low-income African-American ghettos of the urban core, even to attend the State Fair. She recognizes the larger injustice lurking behind this prohibtion like a dull ache.
What are we to make of this scene and its bearing on the metaphorical meanings of the curse of the follower? I’m loath to dismiss it as a simple localized shout-out, a hometown indulgence in Mitchell’s screenplay, largely because it comes at a such critical juncture in the narrative. Intercut with shots of shuttered homes and Jay’s Rubicon-crossing act of confronting that which is haunting her (no surprise that she sees her father in that moment, when you consider it), is this Mitchell’s way of connecting his imagined horror with the very real horrors of dislocation and disenfranchisement in what was once one of America’s most thriving metropolises? Is the follower a spectral embodiment of the death of the American Dream, or of the nightmare that this Dream always was for those with no access to the images of society’s plenty that it broadcasts?
From this psycho-socio-historical perspective, the follower encompasses America’s disavowed past of terror and exploitation, taking the form of the discarded, the unproductive, the struggling unfortunates cleaved apart from the fortunates by permeable but still rigid membranes like 8 Mile. It is a history of death and pain, a return of the repressed, intruding into the carefree suburban security that is all Jay that knows, penetrating her house, her school, her circle of friends. It’s the more grim side of the Janus face of the American cultural war, the other segment constituted in the symbolized alarmism over youth sexuality. It’s a history that cannot be outpaced and can never ultimately be escaped, especially because it is also inescapably the present.
It Follows is a skillful and memorably creepy genre film, but it’s also an arresting tone poem of a nation that is rapidly decaying as it flees the truth of what it really is, what it always has been. In a land (and specifically a city) that defines itself above all by perpetual mobility, death always follows. And eventually, it catches up.
This thinkpiece on the death of David Bowie will undoubtedly be lesser than most of the plethora of eulogistic tributes that haved budded across the Internet like a fresh, sad spring today. Unlike millions who glimpsed even some fleeting, twinkling reflection of their own quotidian struggles in the music, words, performance, and public image of David Robert Jones, who passed from life late yesterday at the age of 69, Bowie’s art did not uplift me at critical or vulnerable times in my development. It did not save me from despair, inject me with a timely elixir of hope, or steel my spine against the homogenizing imperatives of conformist society and culture. It is not a failing of Bowie’s work that it did not touch me somewhere deep and true when it mattered most. It very much could have, but vagaries of context and circumstance kept David Bowie at a certain remove in my not-insubstantial music fandom as a younger man, and only tentative forays into his voluminous and intimidatingly varied ouevre have followed since.
One doesn’t require intense personal investment to acknowledge and appreciate the breadth and depth of influence of a cultural giant, of course. I could consider David Bowie’s artistic variation, career longevity and image reinventions, his seemingly boundless creative curiosity and tremendously open and insightful intelligence. I can muse over the legitimacy that his embrace of countercultural difference in the midst of an era of encroaching hegemonic conformity of consumer capitalism gave to all those who felt likewise different, who conceived themselves in resistance to centralized forces somehow. I could boldly state that David Bowie created what we now know as “indie” music and culture, for good or ill, and I wouldn’t be wrong.
I won’t do any of these things, but I will briefly consider, in two very famous and definitional musical examples, how David Bowie tapped into the fundamental anxieties of modern life in the 20th Century and molded those fears and uncertainties into grand and moving artistic statements.
The first example, without much doubt, has to be the immortal title track from Bowie’s 1977 album “Heroes”. The song was a hit at its edited three-minute version, with the ubiquity of that single edit such that, as a non-specialist in Bowie’s work, I wasn’t even aware that a more patient, grand, complicated, and magnificent six-minute version had featured on the album.
The story behind “‘Heroes'” has passed into cultural legend: its subject is a tragic pair of lovers locked in an embrace in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, their doomed romanticism and messy, fragile humanity fêted and magnified by a triumphal anthem of great magnitude. Composed and recorded by Bowie and collaborator Brian Eno within a literal stone’s throw of the Wall, the dark penumbra of authoritarian oppression haunts its aural footsteps, invoking the ominous converted into the transcendent with the most strenuous and inspired effort.
On certain level, it is classical Romanticism, reifying sentiment and gilding love as the most vital bulwark against the dead-eyed conformity of central-state control. A flower growing up from a persistent crack in the grey concrete barrier between freedom and tyranny. But Bowie reproduces Romanticism in order to deconstruct it, to render it as more difficult and less rote, and to suggest that politics, too, is not so cut and dry. Those quotation marks around “Heroes” are so often forgotten by a culture thirsty for easy glorification, the ironic distance they were designed to impart (and that is fully apparent in Bowie’s remarkable vocal performance) far too frequently trampled by platitudes that buttress status quos no less oppressive and limiting to some world citizens as the Wall was to East Berliners.
Bowie grounds social, cultural, and political nuance in the relatable messiness of romance, and contrasts it with chivalric fantasies: “I will be king / And you will be queen” alternates with “You would be mean / And I’ll drink all the time”, dreams and faults get equal time. By symbolically associating doomed lovers with the harsh consequences of the seemingly intractable ideological differences of the Cold War, Bowie elevates his musical tableau to the plateau of myth. By refusing to conceive of this tragic love in the glow of fantasy and returning it to recognizable complexity and difficulty, he likewise demystifies the epic black-and-white, good-and-evil dichotomy of the Cold War, suggesting that it too cannot be painted with too broad a brush.
The underlying socioeconomic and political struggles (which were always already personal in his work) behind “‘Heroes'” are revisited and recalibrated in Bowie’s closing verse in “Under Pressure”, his lightning strike of a hit collaboration with Queen in 1981. In a song best known for Freddie Mercury’s trademarked vocal calisthenics and John Deacon’s iconic bassline (later sampled by Vanilla Ice), Bowie’s contribution is often overlooked, but his verse building into the song’s coda (“But love’s such an old-fashioned word…”) is a thesis statement for better collective living. Perhaps the most succinct and powerful paean to the platonic ideal of the robust, empathetic welfare state ever committed to a recording device (all apologies to LBJ), Bowie manages to do what artists so seldom do when faced with interminable, impossible struggle: reach out for a practical solution, a solid lifeline.
What did the life and art of David Bowie mean to me? Not as much as it might have meant to many, many others, and I bow to their thoughts on the matter of his passing. But writing and singing, with his singular mastery of modulation of emotiveness and implication, words like “Love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night”? That will never not mean a great deal as we pass through a hard, open world of pain and wonders.