Mr. Robot (USA; 2015-Present)
Opening its first season with a blast of consumerism-critiquing iconoclasm and highly particular potentiality, this acclaimed series about troubled anti-corporate computer hacker Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) and his inculcation in a daring, revolutionary hacktivist plot led by the unpredictable titular figure (played by Christian Slater) reverts to soapy melodramatic plot turns before too long (murder! sadomasochism! gangland intrigue! murder again! secret family connections!). But it never abandons its sharply questing writing, its uneasily-framed cinematography, and its committed, mercurial performances. And it is always eminently watchable.
Working as an engineer at cyber security firm Allsafe, Elliot’s practical and intellectual brilliance melds with near-debilitating psychological problems and social awkwardness. Perhaps to assuage manifest misanthropic tendencies as well as to address latent guilt about past family trauma and corporate servitude, Elliott hacks the people around him, learning every private detail of their lives through email, social media, bank and credit card records, and anything else about them that is within his digital reach: his childhood friend Angela (Portia Doubleday), her doofus boyfriend Ollie (Ben Rappaport), his boss Gideon (Michel Gill), his neighbour, drug dealer, and semi-girlfriend Shayla (Frankie Shaw), even his therapist Krista (Gloria Reuben).
Elliott also wields his hacking prowess as a tool for social justice and personal retribution. The series’ arresting opening scene shows him exposing the child pornography habit of a coffee shop franchise owner to police; he later blackmails the married man having an affair with Krista into breaking it off (and giving Elliott his dog) and gets Shayla’s drug-lord supplier jailed for this crimes as well. But his true outlet is an insurrectionist anti-corporate hacktivist cell known as fsociety, helmed by a loose-cannon fanatic known only as Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) and also including a firebrand hacker named Darlene (Carly Chaikin). fsociety recruits Elliott (or is it vice versa?) for a grand anarchist scheme to infiltrate the vast server farms of the world’s largest corporation, technology and financial giant E Corp (nicknamed Evil Corp by Elliott and other critics of its activities, and sometimes even by its employees), and permanently wipe the reams of data stored there.
Created by Sam Esmail, Mr. Robot is such a particular piece of television craft with such rich and often nuanced things to say about modern corporatism and technology-inf(l)ected life that it’s easy to miss its clear influences. David Fincher is the most obvious point of reference. The chilling noir-ish view of digital age alienation suggests The Social Network, whose memorable score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is taken as a model for Mac Quayle’s flittering (and, if anything, superior) electronic soundtrack to Elliott’s mounting troubles. Fight Club is an even bigger inspiration, although Mr. Robot thankfully leaves out its tendency towards fascistic masculinity. It does borrow a key portion of Fight Club‘s revolutionary activist group Project Mayhem’s grand plan to undermine corporate capitalism by wiping out all consumer debt, as well as (double spoiler coming) the protagonist’s disassociative identity disorder. The show tips its hat to these roots by utilizing an instrumental version of the Pixies’ “Where is My Mind?”, featured at the conclusion of Fight Club, at a key moment late in the first season.
Mr. Robot‘s dominant tones of paranoia and alienation are consistently, strikingly conveyed through its cinematography, and specifically through its framing, technically referred to as lower-quadrant framing. Without getting too deeply into the technical visual theory (which James Manning does for us in this helpful video essay), this show looks different from anything else on television on a consistent basis and therefore feels different. Its characters are stranded and disoriented within the frame, especially the wide-eyed, heavy-lidded Egyptian-American Malek, who finds the distinction between reality and fantasy, the tangible and the digital, ever more difficult to discern. Mr. Robot has its foibles and its melodramatic tangents and can take it self too seriously by half, but it might be the sharpest and most trenchant narrative and metaphorical exploration of how we live now airing on American TV.
Rams (Hrútar) (2015; Directed by Grímur Hákonarson)
Rams is a movie about family and sheep. Although the Icelandic rural drama was sold in the North American arthouse market with trailers playing up its quirky off-beat deadpan humour, this film is in truth deeply lonely and desperately sad (although there is one inspired dark-comic sequence that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling: a peculiar “ambulance” of the icy barrens). It’s a portrait of simmering, below-the-surface sibling rivalry and bruised, threatened masculinity pinned down to a vast landscape, with a symbolically-charged deadly sheep epidemic as a strong impetus for conflict, confrontation, loss, and healing.
In the rugged, forbiddingly beautiful countryside of Iceland, two estranged brothers and sheep-farmers tend to adjacent flocks of animals locally renowned for their quality. Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) lives a solitary existence, the occasional strained chats with neighbours his sole form of companionship beyond his beloved sheep. His elder brother Kiddi (Theodór Júlíussson) offers little succor despite living on the very next plot of land; their only interactions are conducted via Gummi’s written notes couriered by Kiddi’s dog, to which Kiddi replies with either stony silence or furious, drunken late-night assaults (Kiddi shoots out Gummi’s windows in one such inebriated rage, to which Gummi responds by stoically invoicing him for the repairs). Although Kiddi’s prized ram tops Gummi’s in a local competition, Gummi reveals to an officious visitor that their father did not think the choleric Kiddi was suited to shepherding the family flock, and thus left all the property and sheep in Gummi’s name.
The sting of this paternal judgement is the source of the brotherly enmity that has endured for 40 years (writer-director Grímur Hákonarson leads us to believe that Gummi’s envy of Kiddi’s finer sheep is the catalyst for the sundering before deftly pulling the later-act switch). The chilly distance between them, in spite of their proximity on the land, is visualized by an early shot of Gummi warily crossing the fence line between their plots to examine a dead sheep. The carcass is a portent of calamity for the brothers and the entire sheep-farming community in the remote valley, as is a troubling lethargy that Gummi also notes in Kiddi’s prize ram. The devastating virulence known as scrapie (basically mad cow disease for sheep) is found in the flock, necessitating a wholesale slaughter of all of the sheep in the valley as mandated by the national agricultural authorities.
While Kiddi rages against those authorities and refuses to cooperate, Gummi takes the painful task of slaughter into his own hands. Sigurjónsson’s shaken performance both before and after this bloody act is riveting, and its poignancy is only increased by the portrayal of the crushing loneliness of his life (his solo Christmas, dressed up in vest and tie, lighting candles, playing music, and eating a leg of lamb, is saturated with pathos), from which his adored sheep are his only relief. But his unauthorized cull (the authorities perform a sanitary slaughter of other flocks) only serves as a cover for a secret plan to preserve a small portion of his proud flock, his family heritage, for the future.
Without spoiling too much more, Gummi’s bold ruse will collapse the fences between himself and Kiddi in the dire straits of mutual necessity, and lead them to such lengths as to bring them as close as is humanly possible, symbolically conjoined twins in a womb of winter. The title also refers to the brothers as symbolic hard-headed rams, forever stubbornly butting skulls. Both of these symbolic linkages feed into Hákonarson’s dominant theme in the film: male anxiety, isolation, and impotence.
Both Gummi and Kiddi are unmarried (Kiddi had and lost a few women over the years, Gummi mentions, driven away by his cantankerous temperament) and childless, with no heirs to their humbly proud but gradually dying shepherding legacy, which the scrapie epidemic threatens to erase entirely. Their sense of masculine worth is tied up in their flocks, which are an inheritance from their father, along with their bitter, prolonged feud. Their battle of male egos is transmuted into their best rams, which compete to be the best in the valley (“The sheep intertwines with the farmer’s being,” a grandiose speech at the awards ceremony proclaims as a thematic guidepost). Even their sense of male sexual virility is poured into the animals: the crowning ritual of Gummi’s lonesome Christmas, a moment given a great ceremonial importance, involves freeing his ram and cheering him on to rut with the ewes and breed a new generation, which the old man himself cannot do.
Rams is no mere critique of these tenacious male drives, but an empathetic, affecting depiction of those egoistic but deeply-held tendencies being worn steadily away, leaving raw nerves and fundamental, tenuous human connections. It’s telling that only when literally everything else has been stripped away can the brothers accept and love each other, to comfort each other in tragic extremity. Hákonarson’s beautiful and wry film might sometimes incline in the direction of a comedy so deadpan as to require life support, granted. But it feels its key movements with a poignancy as deep as the vistas of the Icelandic landscape are wide, and that steady sincerity is its saving grace.
Stranger Things (Netflix; 2016)
The early fall’s undisputed internet buzz champion of online video streaming series, the Duffer Brothers’ exercise in nostalgic Spielbergian/Carpenterian genre film homage has generated far more involved discussion than has been strictly earned by the text itself. Despite its sci-fi subject matter of telekinetic abilities and shadow dimensions inhabited by predatory monsters, Stranger Things is predominantly concerned with broad, conventional themes: high school hierarchies, teenage hormones, secretive and oppressive authorities, grief and loss, family and friendship. But when those recognizable themes and speculative elements are put together with narrative verve, visual flair, and solid characters played by likable actors, a slightly-above-average success in genre entertainment can present as much more.
Stranger Things is set in the 1980s, and from its period clothes and technology to its pulsating synthesizer soundtrack and constellation of popular culture references and period movie homages, it doesn’t let the viewer forget it for a moment. In the small town of Hawkins, Indiana, two concurrent mysteries arise simultaneously: a boy disappears, and a girl appears. The boy, Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), vanishes from the vicinity of the run-down home he shares with his mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) and brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) on the edge of the woods, after leaving an evening game of Dungeons & Dragons (the game’s fantasy nomenclature provides the boys with frames of reference with which to discuss the odd happenings to come) with his friends Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo). Around the same time, a wordless young girl (Millie Bobby Brown) with a shaved head wearing a hospital gown wanders into a roadside diner. Both children and their mysterious ordeals have something to do with a well-guarded Department of Energy laboratory on the edge of town, lorded over by the white-haired Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine).
Joyce remains convinced that her son is alive and has been communicating with her, even when presented with firm evidence to the contrary and disagreement on that point with Jonathan. She outfits their home with strings of Christmas lights, believing (and not wrongly, it seems) that Will, wherever he might be imagined to be, can blink out messages to her through lightbulbs. Also convinced of their friend’s endurance are Mike, Lucas, and Dustin, into whose protection the girl, soon dubbed Eleven (“El” for short), drifts after fleeing pursuit at the diner. She speaks few words, shows little understanding of the world, and displays an impressive and unexplained ability to, well, do things with her mind. Additional allies include Mike’s older sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer), whose best friend Barb (Shannon Purser) disappears soon after Will does, and the Hawkins Police Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour), whose astute investigative skills lead him to suspect that there is more to both disappearances than meet the eye.
What proceeds from this premise, and indeed what informs it, is fairly standard genre classics of the time period, much of it telegraphed through overt allusive references: Steven Spielberg’s E.T. (Mike’s crew rockets around town and outskirts on their bikes, hiding their precious visitor from the sinister government authorities that wish to capture her), John Carpenter’s The Thing (the movie poster is conspicuous in Mike’s basement), Stephen King (in one scene, a suburban mom is reading It). Other reference points are not signposted quite so clearly but are still hard to miss: the shadow-dimension of the Upside-Down from which the titular stranger things emanate is a slavish (and thus distinctly unimaginative) homage to Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (Nancy even enters it at one point by crawling through a goopy aperture in a tree trunk), and the monster that inhabits it is a hybrid of that film’s terrifying Pale Man, the xenomorph from Alien, and the carnivorous plant from The Little Shop of Horrors.
Another 1980s film totem for the Duffers would appear to be John Hughes high school movies, and much of Stranger Things‘ episode runtimes is taken up in school social politics. Nancy, a bit of a staid straight-A student, is dating rich, opular big-man-on-campus Steve (Joe Keery) but increasingly feels a tug towards awkward loner Jonathan, whom Steve and his dickweed friends pick on, as their shared paranormal mission heats up. Mike and his friends are harrassed by a pair of bullies as well, and Eleven’s telekinetic powers help to even the score.
Indeed, for the most part, Stranger Things‘ character interactions and sci-fi mythology serve to build up to big, dramatically-satisfying standoffs that are resolved with violence: Jonathan against Steve, Nancy and Jonathan (and a special, redeemed guest!) against the creature who snatched those close to them, Eleven against that monster, the school bullies, the DoE thugs, and her surrogate father Dr. Brennan. That these resolutions are telegraphed does not make them unenjoyable or dissatisfying, but the inevitability hews to a generalized feeling while watching Stranger Things. It’s a reasonably involving experience (though like a lot of narratives with a secret enigma at its heart, it becomes less engaging the more of its central mystery is revealed) that is well-made and well-acted (Brown is a particularly riveting young actress, and Ryder is excellent as a mom who refuses to give in to grief, no matter how outlandish her reasons for hope become) but could benefit greatly from pushing at the boundaries of its formula, of expanding its borders at least a little. Stranger Things could, in other words, stand to be stranger.
Amanda Knox (2016; Directed by Rod Blackhurst & Brian McGinn)
A fascinating, absorbing documentary account of a sordid and troubling saga of murder, sex, and miscarried justice that captivating the tabloidized media for years, Amanda Knox is a series of bursts of outrage between sober details and thoughtful analysis of an odd episode in true crime. The titular young American woman became a notorious figure in the media due to her apparent involvement in the brutal 2007 murder of her British roommate Meredith Kercher in the house they rented while both were studying in the Italian city of Perugia. Wildly spun as a nutty, ice-veined nymphomaniac manipulator who led her naive Italian boyfriend of a few days as well as a crime-prone stranger in a sexualized group killing, Knox endured four trials in the Italian court system before finally being exonerated of having any role in Kercher’s death.
The documentary about her travails finds that Knox and then-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito were the targets of a breathless media whirlwind, increasingly pressured and harried police investigators who resorted to coercive interrogation tactics to pin the high-profile murder on them, and a prosecutor with delusions of detective genius grandeur and an almost absurd imagination for elaborate criminal fantasies. These forces interweave and feed into each other, with scoop-obsessed media outlets amplifying and reinforcing the fabulisms of incautious and over-certain investigators, whose questionable conclusions were then strengthened by public dissemination.
In a development seemingly out of Albert Camus’ L’Étranger, the attractive blond Knox became suspicious to police and to self-styled Italian Sherlock Holmes prosecutor Giuliano Mignini for supposedly strange behaviour in the wake of her roommate’s death. None of this behaviour suggested in any way that she had anything to do with the murder, but rather that she coped with it in a manner that contrasted with the conventional platitudes of grief that are supposed to govern reactions to such shocking tragedies. Knox self-describes as a bit of a goofball and is accused by Mignini of having a rebellious attitude towards authority, as if that itself was a crime (when authority is as capricious and irresponsible with its power as Mignini is shown to be, rebellion seems the only reasonable option). Standards of behaviour doomed Knox as much as any specific evidence ever did.
Media involvement cannot be wholly ignored, either, and the documentary focuses on English reporter Nick Pisa in particular. An unctuous representative of the particularly dirty-fingered London gutter press, Pisa grinningly defends the frantic spreading of any and every rumour and statement about the case by himself and his media compatriots, citing the pressure of scoring the scoop, the public’s insatiable appetite for scandalous detail, and the difficulty of verifying that anything he reports is actually true before reporting it. The press irreparably coloured the wider perception of the case with their tabloid tales of “Foxy Knoxy” and her sex-crazed antics, and carry a sizable measure of responsibility for the legal railroading of innocent people in this instance.
The real responsibility, though, lies with Italian police and their faux-cuddly boss, the prosecutor Mignini. Amanda Knox proves that, for all of the prominence that the malfeasance of American police has achieved in recent years, questionable police and prosecutorial practices are hardly the sole purview of, say, Manitowoc County, Wisconsin. Coercive interrogations of the separated lovers Knox and Sollecito accomplished dubious admissions of guilt from both, later recanted in a manner that Mignini found dissatisfying. Disgustingly, the police insinuated to the jailed Knox that she might have HIV, apparently in order to obtain a list of her past lovers and slut-shame her in the media to strengthen their case against her. Evidence collection placed both of them in the murder victim’s room via DNA profiles (it also placed the aforementioned stranger, Rudy Guede, there more definitively, and he was separately convicted of the murder which it seems clear that he committed alone). But later independent inquiries into the Perugia police’s evidence collection at the crime scene found their methods to be shambolic and chaotic, making contamination not only possible but likely and tainting the only solid physical evidence tying Knox and Sollecito to the murder. These errors would be key to the eventual exoneration of the pair by Italy’s highest appeals courts.
More egregious than any of these official mistakes were the elaborate and unrealistic theories formulated by Mignini, supported above all by a guiding tendency towards confirmation bias of even the most extreme construction of events. Amanda Knox develops into a kind of juxtaposed character study. It alternates Knox herself, pained by her ordeal but bitingly self-aware and trenchant about the flawed institutions and assumptions that hurt her, with the smug Mignini, cocooned in his Catholic-derived certainty of righteousness and purpose and self-justifying his overwrought quasi-Holmesian deductions (in addition to the Knox case, Mignini also targetted some respected local Masonic lodge members for an incredible Satanic conspiracy and killing spree). If Mignini was really the rabid and knowledgeable fan of detective fiction that he claimed to be, he might have heeded Arthur Conan Doyle’s warning that even the most brilliant of detectives could be led astray by the workings of his own mind (it would be more than too much to ask that he had read Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Garden of Forking Paths”, an even more forceful intellectual warning about such tendencies). The unsettling story told in Amanda Knox gives a startling example of what we might be willing to believe about other people, the broken transmitters of information and authority that enshrine those beliefs, and the costs and consequences of such belief.
The Witness (2015; Directed by James D. Solomon)
A more focused and personalized documentation of the power of public perception when conclusions are jumped to, The Witness examines one of the most notorious and sociologically resonant crime stories in American history to show that it was not what it once seemed.
The brutal 1964 murder of bar manager Kitty Genovese in the Kew Gardens neighbourhood of the New York City borough of Queens shocked the nation at the time and for half a century afterwards not only because a young woman was viciously stabbed and left to bleed out in the street. As reported by the venerable New York Times at the time, Genovese cried out loudly and repeatedly for help and was heard by up to 38 witnesses in the apartment building in which she lived, adjacent to the sidewalk upon which she was fatally attacked. Per the Times article, no one came to her aid or even so much as called the police, allowing the murderer to return and finish her off. Kitty Genovese became a byword for the apathy of America’s largest city and for the alienated condition of urban life in general. Her killing and the reported unconcern of her neighbours, their unwillingness to get involved (the vaunted “bystander effect”), was the subject of many books, was studied and lectured upon by sociologists, has been referenced as “Genovese syndrome” in works of literature and entertainment including Perry Mason, Law & Order, and Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and was an important impetus for the development of the 911 emergency reporting system in the United States.
The Witness might not constitute the comprehensive probing of the underlying facts and implications of the formidable Kitty Genovese myth that it demands, but it’s a robust examination that cuts through assumptions and conventional knowledge of the situation to find a sort of truth at the soul of it. The wedge that pries open this long-closed interpretive box is Kitty’s beloved younger brother Bill Genovese. Still a child when his sister was murdered, Bill tells us through the film how he coped differently with the notorious case than the rest of his family did. While they buried their grief with Kitty, Bill was driven by resentment at the legendary apathy of Kitty’s neighbours to buck what he saw as his generation’s abdication of national duty: he enlisted in the US Army and fight in the Vietnam War, where he lost both of his legs in an enemy ambush. On the cusp of his elder years, Bill’s obsessive emotions around both the loss of his sister and the heavy personal sacrifice it led him to drive him to understand as much as he can about that fateful night in 1964.
At a remove of 50 years, many of the answers that Bill seeks are lost in the passage of time. Many of the purported witnesses (only five testified at the trial of her convicted murderer, Winston Moseley) are dead themselves, though he pores through trial transcripts, police reports, and newspaper articles to reconstruct their accounts. What he finds is a more complex event than the somewhat erroneously reported one from the Times, where an image of three-dozen lit-up windows gazed down with fearful unconcern on the bloodied body of a slain woman.
Some witnesses report only hearing a scream, others claim to have seen her on the street but then saw her leave the scene under her own power (a widely unreported fact of the crime was that Moseley’s return attack occured around the corner, out of sight of the apartment windows). Still others claim to have called the police only to be told that multiple calls had already been received; the station logs record only a single call about it that night, from the elevator operator in the lobby well after the initial attack, but other studies have found that initial calls were received but the police were reluctant to intervene in what they thought to be a domestic dispute, a reluctance that may have been passed along to the witnesses to deflect blame from the NYPD. One key surviving witness, a good friend of Kitty’s, claims to have rushed down to be with Kitty on the blood-soaked stairwell foyer where she breathed her last.
Bill Genovese finds that the principle figures in the murder also had unglimpsed nuances. Kitty herself was a quick wit, greatly appreciated by the bar patrons whom she served and occasionally cut off from alcohol. She was also a semi-closeted lesbian in a relationship with another woman. Moseley, meanwhile, may or may not have been criminally active prior to killing Kitty Genovese, and spent the majority of the remainder of his life in prison for the murder and subsequent crimes upon brief release, periodically fabricating accounts of the killing and showing what was judged to be insufficient remorse for what he did when he came up for parole (he died this year in prison at 81 years of age). But he had a wife and family prior to the crime, and one of his sons, now a reverend, has a tense and unpredictable interview with Bill that convolutes his feelings about the man who killed his sister rather than offers them any measure of closure (Moseley himself refused to speak with Bill).
At some certain point in the many-years-long investigative odyssey that takes up The Witness, Bill Genovese acknowledges that his mission has become less about finding the “truth” or any measure of peace and closure than the act of searching itself functioning as a form of therapy, to scour his own mind and heart of whatever anxieties and pain linger there from the loss of his sister. This certainly seems to be the only explanation for his climactic project, which involves hiring an actress to re-enact Kitty’s blood-curdling nocturnal screams and desperate final moments outside the building where it happens 50 years earlier. Even if Bill’s personal investment in the murder sometimes proscribes the breadth of his examination and dispelling of its dominant myths, his proximity to its victim allows him to evade the conventional interpretations of the event, or at least to work to push beyond them. Like Amanda Knox, The Witness is an effective caution against the power of assumptions and encourages observers of events to doubt initial narrative around them and dig for deeper truths, difficult as both that digging and the truths themselves may be.
The Witch (2016; Directed by Robert Eggers)
“What went we out into this wilderness to find?” asks William (Ralph Ineson), family patriarch and religious nonconformist in colonial New England, in the opening moments of Robert Eggers’ arresting “New England folktale” The Witch. He stands in judgment with his clan before the governor and church elders, who banish him from their God-fearing colonial plantation for dissenting from the Puritan orthodoxy in his expressed beliefs. There is no small irony in this splitting, seeing as how the Pilgrim colonists of 17th Century New England were themselves painfully severed from the Church of England for their dissenting faith to come to the American continent in the first place to begin anew. Such principled breaks from the community on religious terms were hardly uncommon in New England, either; this was how Rhode Island was founded, for one, and other communities trace their origins back to strict Puritan believers who could not play well in the religious sandbox with others and struck out on their own to build a new Jerusalem in the continent’s unfathomably vast wilderness.
Eggers lingers on foreboding wide shots of the woods that tower on the fringes of the humble homestead that William and his family erect. “We will conquer this wilderness,” William vows. “It will not consume us.” But, of course, we know it will. Although the forest in The Witch is a place of mystery and peril as per both the folktale and the horror film tradition, visually it is not so much magical or nefarious but merely tangible, not looming or threatening so much as existing. Menace leeches from it into William’s family’s lives and they find nothing but misery and evil in their interactions with it. But the pregnant query at the core of The Witch asks whether evil persists in the wider natural world or if all ill emanates predominantly – or even exclusively – from the corruption of man. Furthermore, it considers quite openly whether personal liberty and fulfillment lie down the path of righteousness or with indulgence of the flesh.
As its ending titles claim somewhat righteously, the scenario of The Witch is based on copious primary documentary sources from colonial New England’s 17th Century witch hysteria (not to mention horror genre convention), as is much of the dialogue spoken by its characters. This assertion of fidelity feels faintly ambiguous considering the way the film treats the demonological phantasms of witchcraft as being all too real, but then to Protestants of that era – oppressed by an intense, practically physical fear of sin and damnation – it was all too real. The evil powers of the witch and her demonic master, while potent, exploit and indeed meld with the internal rifts within the family. It becomes difficult to tell where their desires, grief, flaws, resentments and recriminations end and where the witchcraft begins.
The matriarch Katherine (Kate Dickie) is harsh and shrewish, towards her husband but especially towards her eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), under whose care her youngest son Samuel suspiciously disappears. Thomasin resents her mother’s attacks on her, forms a fonder compact with eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and needles her hellion twin siblings Jonas and Mercy (Lucas Dawson and Ellie Grainger) with dark suggestions of practicing witchcraft, jests which will come back to haunt her. Caleb, for his part, gazes with adolescent lasciviousness upon his older sister’s body while absorbing but quibbling with his father’s sermons about the stern certainty of sin, but precipitates a family crisis when he becomes lost in the woods and ensnared by a dark force. Meanwhile, the twins spend much of their time playing with the family’s he-goat Black Phillip, and claim that he sometimes speaks to them in dark voices. All family members old enough to recognize William’s weakness and ineptitude as a provider, survivor, and nurturing patriarch (namely Catherine and Thomasin but Caleb as well in an unspoken way) resent him for it, too.
All of these cracks and fissures are exploited by dark forces, but the darkest force of all is basic human doubt and frailty. The Witch is sort of a dark mirror Book of Job (Katherine compares herself to Job’s wife at one point), only the calamities with which William and his family are beset consist not in the stress tests of an ultimately benevolent deity but of the Great Enemy. And this 17th-century Job fails the test quite comprehensively. The film weaves the family’s own all-consuming Puritan paranoia about Satan and witches lurking in every copse, about the immutability of sin and judgement, and about the temptations of the flesh and of the material world with the stock imagery of witchlore: twisted, cackling old hags, huts in the woods, eerie flight by moonlight, and fireside witches’ Sabbaths in communion with Lucifer. It’s both a practically flawless chamber horror film and a deep and true approximation of the scripture-fed superstitions and unstable social conditions that made the English colonies on the Eastern Seaboard such a hotbed for witch hysteria.
If The Witch was only those things, it would be a genre film triumph. But Eggers’ film cuts deeper than that, functioning as both an excavation into the anthropological mists of the American nation and a compelling exploration of the conflict between the hedonistic pull of personal liberty and the fetters of dogmatic, accusatory religion. No story set in Pilgrim times can claim not to be about modern America as well; such is the legacy of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Arthur Miller, and The Witch joins that august metaphorical/allegorical tradition. Is Eggers’ film about the contemporary American siege mentality, the heady and dangerous mix of security anxiety, xenophobia, and wounded self-assurance that archconservative demagogues like Donald Trump shamelessly exploit and threatens to unwind the bonds of the republic? Is it about the destructive, church-fed tendencies towards magical thinking and irrational superstition that have hamstrung one of the world’s most robust societies on consistent occasions? We may not be able to say with confidence that it is saying any of these things, but the film operates with enough ambiguity to give those possible meanings plenty of oxygen.
As hinted at (and as can only be properly discussed by indulging in spoilers, so fair warning), there’s a strong feeling that the core meaning of The Witch, at least for Thomasin, considers the costs of freedom versus those of self-restriction. Blamed for all of the family’s troubles by her imperious mother, left undefended by her milquetoast bible-thumping father, and betrayed and accused of witchery by the twins, Thomasin finds herself standing alone amidst the shattered remnants of her family, face-to-face with the Great Satan himself.
“Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” the male human incarnation of “Black Phillip” whispers seductively, and she has endured through too much trauma to resist him, lost all the safe ground that she might cling to in defiance. Though why would she bother to resist? Her father’s precious piety has only served to smash his familial unit and leave him dead in a pile of his uselessly-chopped firewood, crying out in his final guilt-ridden throes, “Corruption, thou art my father!” Her life is only preserved from her mother’s wrath by the sharp edge of a blade. For Thomasin, a literal deal with the Devil is her only path to freedom from the godly misery of her society and culture. Her species of liberation through the embrace of witchcraft, through communion with evil forces but also with the corrupted, amoral natural world, is not a matter of choice but of last resort, of resigned but bleakly delighted inevitability. “I will guide thy hand,” Black Phillip promises Thomasin when she tells him that she cannot write her name in his book to seal their pact. Her agency has been relentlessly reduced until it has been taken from her, all while she is plied with the promise of pleasures that come with final, total surrender.
Thus, Thomasin’s “choice” is no choice at all, her veering in the direction of delicious indulgence a purposeful channeling by forces stronger than her burgeoning womanhood. Buried deep in its symbolic implications, The Witch suggests that her unfree choice of freedom is the one America took and the one Americans are likewise offered. What did early American colonists go into the wilderness to find, after all? A new Kingdom of God, and nationalist myth and historical impetus has long maintained that they carved this kingdom, the “city upon a hill” of Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop’s long-echoing 1630 sermon, out of the unforgiving wilderness by dint of their tireless work ethic and pious, god-fearing determination.
The Witch, as befits a cinematic text from an American era of deep ambivalence, doubt, and perhaps even dread recognition of decline and decadence of that exceptional settlement on New World shores, provocatively suggests that this myth should be understood in reverse. Americans did not conquer the wilderness, the wilderness consumed them even as they consumed it. Its primal, instinctual drives became internalized and transmuted into human desires, into that venerable “pursuit of happiness” that has translated into a liberty of acquisition, of consumption, of indulgence. This “folktale” offers this alternative myth of America’s founding, lurking beneath the trappings of an excellent indie-arthouse period horror movie. It lives deliciously.
Elstree 1976 (2015; Directed by Jon Spira)
Elstree 1976 is a modest movie about modest actors and extras whose modest film careers included bit parts in an immodestly successful and influential movie called Star Wars. Crossing paths one unseasonally warm English summer at London’s Elstree studio, they donned goofy costumes to make an odd science fiction movie (okay, I know, space opera, thanks) that some thought was a low-budget TV film but others more versed in the genre recognized as something potentially special. They moved on from there, some to the surprise megahit’s two sequels, others to prolific background careers, still others back to the respectable theatre roles that they took a break from to play exotic aliens or foot soldiers in a galatic conflict. But as the cultural profile of Star Wars grew to saturating proportions, many were sucked up in the maelstrom of its dedicated fandom, and began making lucrative appearances on the convention circuit.
I’m not at all certain what Elstree 1976 ultimately adds up to. Its subjects are too diverse, their experiences with both the film and its decades-long comet trail of fan enthusiasm both too variant and too samey to land any sort of impactful statement. There are internecine controversies in the geek-movie bit-player convention-circuit world, we are told. Cast members listed in the credits resent the uncredited extras who claim an equivalent mantle of fleeting notoreity and occupy autograph-signing booths next to them at fan events. One extra’s claim to be the infamous clumsy stormtrooper who bumps his head on a rising door on the Deathstar (certainly no laurel-draped honour) has even faced multiple counter-claims from other background players.
The most prominent cast member interviewed is clearly the towering English strongman David Prowse, who played megavillain Darth Vader in all facets except his voice. Prowse, whose mild West Country accent earned him the snickering behind-the-scenes nickname “Darth Farmer”, had his line readings later iconically overdubbed by the inimitable James Earl Jones, which he is paradoxically flattered and irritated by, seemingly at once. Prowse is also glad to have been involved in Star Wars and to continue to derive an income from it in his advanced age, but reserves some bitterness towards Lucasfilm and defied its corporate controls just enough to get himself banished from officially-sanctioned franchise events. One doubts that he’ll be invited back into the Vader suit for this year’s Star Wars film, Rogue One, which includes at least a cameo appearance by Darth.
Prowse himself may have been a rich enough subject for a documentary, but the group of veteran thespians, former models/bartenders, and flaky entertainment world hangers-on interviewed by director Jon Spira provide curious colour as well. All seem more than a little bemused at their continued relevance to Star Wars superfans, whether they were cool alien bounty hunters like Greedo or Boba Fett, the stormtrooper who gets an assist from the Force in realizing that these aren’t the droids he was looking for, or briefly-glimpsed Rebel Alliance honour guards. Fan obsession has given them a chance to cash in on their momentary brush with history, and they’ll take the opportunity with a smile.
Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made (2015; Directed by Tim Skousen & Jeremy Coon)
A no less obsessive but far more creatively active facet of movie fandom is witnessed in Raiders! The enthusiasm that the throngs who line up for the autograph of the unglimpsed actor playing a stormtrooper or bounty hunter in a galaxy far, far away was likewise felt by a trio of teenaged boys in 1980s Mississippi for the daring adventures of rough-and-tumble archaeologist. So inspired were Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala, and Jayson Lamb by Steven Spielberg’s 1981 action-adventure classic Raiders of the Lost Ark that they decided to make a film of their own. Or rather, they decided to remake that same film, shot for shot, starring themselves and their friends, over nearly a decade, with a scraped-together budget approaching a final figure of $5000 and loads of brazen inventiveness.
The dedication, ingenuity, and sheer juvenile recklessness involved in this long-term project is more than a little astounding and more than worth the documentary feature treatment. Raiders of the Lost Ark is pure blockbuster fare: impressive sets, cutting-edge special effects (for its time, anyway), thousands of extras, and, most of all, thrilling stuntwork that would be extremely dangerous for even trained professionals to attempt. These plucky teenagers tackle it all: they’re chased by rolling boulders, beset by a tomb full of snakes, and dragged behind a truck (albeit one without an engine). They even set themselves (and the basement of one of their parents’ home) on fire. The resulting giddily amateur fan film, entitled Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, has been touring the U.S. to cheering film geek audiences for a decade since cult filmmaker Eli Roth sprung an old VHS copy of it upon the attendees of Ain’t It Cool News‘ annual marathon film festival, creating major internet buzz and earning the film its own packed screening at Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse Theatre (whose production arm oversaw this documentary). Spielberg himself even came across the fan film, and set a meeting with its three creators as adults to praise them for their efforts and tell them how they inspired him further as a filmmaker.
The best moments of Raiders! involve the reminiscences of the principal trio and the legion of family members and friends who participated in the venture, but there’s more to the film than stardust memories of misspent youth. But there’s more to the film than that, even though the incredible stories of the years-long production could fill an hour or more on their own. Intercut with the backstory of the Raiders adaptation is the documentation of Zala and Strompolos’ current-day attempt to raise necessary funds and surmount the necessary challenges to film the one sequence from Spielberg’s classic that stymied their teenaged resources: the explosion-filled white-knuckle fight scene between hero Indiana Jones and a towering Nazi muscleman beneath a life-sized prototype airplane.
Both the high production values and standard behind-the-scenes challenges that Zala and Strompolos face to complete this sequence are far out of step with the DIY aesthetic that made their childhood re-creation so charming. But the struggles that they face as adults – Zala with a family to provide for and a demanding boss insisting that he return to his paid work, Strompolos to find direction and stability after struggles with poverty and drug addiction, even Lamb to reconcile with the duo of friends whom he felt minimized his contribution to The Adaptation – put the more whimsical obstacles of their youthful moviemaking into context. The documentary’s juxtaposition of these challenges is a fine exemplification of the nature of maturation and conforming forces of American society. But the film’s postscript – Zala leaves his constricting job to start a film production company with his childhood compatriot Strompolos – suggests that in the creative class that springs from and feeds on the energy of fandom, the conventional narrative arc of “growing up” can have unexpected detours.
American Hustle (2013; Directed by David O. Russell)
David O. Russell’s breezily fictionalized spin on the FBI’s Abscam sting operation of the late 1970s and early 1980s opens (after a droll disclaimer: “Some of this actually happened”) with a scene of its protagonist con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) meticulously arranging his elaborate combover in a luxury hotel suite mirror. Russell’s camera lingers on the detail of Bale’s exertions on his coiffure as the actor subtly revels in the flourishes of Rosenfeld’s preparations. His care and attention to detail in presenting a false follicular front to the world have little to do with male vanity, however. They are about perfecting the correct appearance to achieve the desired effect, and the desired effect is always for his mark to believe in him not because he wants them to, but because they want to.
This is the essence of the con man’s hustle, expressed as clearly and as resonantly as it perhaps ever has been onscreen in American Hustle. But Russell, a famously exacting filmmaker whose films always feel looser and more casually-constructed than they really are, is not content to simply doodle entertainingly on the level of the confidence caper potboiler, a slick Ocean’s Eleven transposed to the plush glare of the ’70s. American Hustle is Russell’s Goodfellas, stylistically and thematically. And it suggests a close kinship between its double-crossing, role-playing scammers and the vaunted American Dream in much the same way that Goodfellas melded the brash alterity of Mob life with American middle-class aspiration. The con is not a bug in America’s construction, it’s a feature.
Russell and co-scripter Eric Warren Singer change the names and many of the personas of the Abscam principals, and spice up the scenario with criss-crossing liaisons and shifting loyalties, but the broad strokes are similar. Rosenfeld is the owner of a New York-area dry-cleaning chain, the son of a glazier, and a seasoned scam artist who dabbles in fake-loan schemes and forged art dealing. His partner and paramour, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), impersonates a British aristocrat and weaves her particular seduction of victims with his own. Although they have a productive shadow-business and a passionate love life, Rosenfeld also has a family on Long Island to go back to: his mercurial, disastrous wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and son Danny (Danny and Sonny Corbo), towards whom he is a devoted father.
Rosenfeld’s split allegiances become further bifurcated when he and Sydney are busted in their loan scam by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) and he presses them into an ever-broadening sting operation aimed at the dedicated but corrupt mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner, sporting a spectacular coif). Polito is employing his tentacular influence in New Jersey politics to raise funds to rebuild the legalized gambling business of Atlantic City, a venture now legendary for its embezzlement, corrupt application of public funds, and Mafia involvement in skimming construction costs and casino profits. DiMaso, steamrolling over the reasonable Midwestern caution of his embattled superior Stoddard Thorsen (Louis CK), looks to snag Polito for taking bribes from an invented Middle Eastern sheikh (impersonated by a Mexican-American agent played by the indispensible Michael Peña, in what now plays like an inadvertent shot at Donald Trump’s nativist anti-immigration fulminations). He wants the cooperation and expertise of the entrapped Rosenfeld and Sydney in pulling off this sting, and needs it more and more as the web of corruption in the Atlantic City deal catches U.S. congressmen, a Senator, and a menacing Mob enforcer-turned-captain (Robert DeNiro).
I must admit to my shame that I’ve missed out on Russell’s later-period transformation from the brazen iconoclast of Three Kings to the super-skilled director of sprawling, audience-friendly awards-bait genre prestige pictures like The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle. His cast for Hustle draws liberally from his recent efforts. Bale achieves the opposite physical transformation from his Oscar-nominated role in The Fighter, where he was gaunt and hollow-cheeked in contrast to Rosenfeld’s pot-belly; the sultry, unwaveringly sharp Adams was also in that film. Cooper, whose overgrown-bro-trending career was put on a more respectable path by Silver Linings Playbook, ricochets from overconfidence to self-doubt, from aggression to desperation, from triumph to deflation. Lawrence, Russell’s megawatt muse since Silver Linings Playbook, is great as usual, saddled though she is with the stock hysterical wife role (Lorraine Bracco left so little of such a role for anyone after Goodfellas) and is only sometimes given free reign to subvert it, as when she celebrates a vengeful attempt to break Rosenfeld’s cover with her putative Mafia boyfriend (Jack Huston) via a pugnacious singalong to Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” while cleaning the house.
Technically, American Hustle is superbly crafted, flashily and subtly in equal measure. Even in what many directors would stage as static dialogue scenes, Russell moves his camera with even-handed drama, pushes in and pulls away for precisely calculated effect that feels spontaneous and effortless. When DiMaso and Sydney (the former is deeply attracted to the latter, who purports to be honeytrapping the federali but might have more feelings than she lets on) go out dancing, Russell revels in the sexiness of a Manhattan club night, all UV floods and chopped-up strobe lights.
All the fine performances and technical acumen would be wasted, however, if American Hustle‘s themes did not land so firmly on an uncomfortable and infrequently-acknowledged truth about the pursuit of wealth and happiness in America: the ends are forever justifying the means, and driving those means past the threshold of legality and morality (which are not always the same thing). In a year in which a shamelessly transparent con man stands a disturbingly good chance of becoming President of the United States, Russell’s film from a few years ago shows how the nigh-unchecked processes of American capitalism turn everyone – striving con artists, ambitious cops, politicians, mobsters, even unstable housewives – into scammers.
“Let’s be real,” says DiMaso to Sydney at several points, ironically unaware that she is not only pretending to love him but faking an entire identity and maybe conning him on deeper levels as well. DiMaso cannot play as fast and loose with reality as Sydney and Rosenfeld can, despite all of his swagger and attitude, and this problem makes him a juicy mark. The problem with America, in the 1970s as now, is the slippery nature of the “real” in the face of constant personal reinvention and relentless sales pitch bombardment of daily life. Donald Trump is not a good businessman, strong leader, brilliant thinker, or even a particularly functional human being, but he plays those roles on TV with enough blustering conviction to persuade a significant minority of American voters that he might be. American Hustle‘s characters are putting up similar false fronts for similar selfish gain; for them as for Trump, the idea of reality, the concept of truth, is just another facet of the long con they are running on the world. Early in their tense partnership, Rosenfeld and DiMaso stand in front of a Rembrandt portrait in an art museum and Rosenfeld tells DiMaso that the painting is a skilled fake that no one has recognized. But what does that matter? What is the palpable difference between the real and the fake if it is too difficult to distinguish one from the other to be worth the dubious effort, and, furthermore, if the effort of making and observing that distinction offers no tangible reward? America itself is a hustle, indeed chronically rewards the hustle, and David O. Russell’s resonant caper epic understands and demonstrates this with enjoyable and skilled bravado.