Gladiator (2000)

This was an interesting one, ReWatch-wise. It had always been there on my ‘movies deserving of an article’ master list, but on the basis of increasingly vague and distant memories. At the time of its release, I was ten years old and a wimp, particularly about movies, meaning I’ve still never experienced it on the big screen it was clearly meant for—but whenever I finally did see it was still a very long time ago. So when I sat down to re-watch it, I wasn’t at all sure if it would hold up as well as I hoped. Fortunately, though, my past judgment held up, albeit in some unexpected ways. Gladiator is as good as I remember, but mostly for reasons that I probably didn’t recognize—and certainly couldn’t have articulated, even to myself—at the time.

It’s kind of wild how neatly our recent history has lined up with the numerical system we devised to catalogue it, with the year 2000 being an inflection point for so many aspects of society. Or maybe that’s just confirmation bias; it’s easy to cherry-pick examples. In any case, the turn of the millennium was, among other things, a watershed moment in action cinema. I’m referring, of course, to the computer-generated imagery revolution, which has, as we’ve all seen, transformed the way filmmakers approach action, especially of the historical-epic variety. It wasn’t instantaneous, but in retrospect it was quite a rapid shift: just five years before Gladiator, Mel Gibson was shooting at real castles and hiring 1,600 extras for the battle scenes in Braveheart; just a few years after it, Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital was marshalling thousands-strong CGI armies in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and movies like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) and Sin City (2005) were shooting entirely in front of green screens. And the rest is history, as just about any non-Christopher-Nolan blockbuster shows.

Released squarely in the year 2000, Gladiator exemplifies that shift not just numerically, but cinematically as well, making liberal use of both then-cutting-edge CGI and the kinds of practical effects—highly elaborate, often quite high-tech, and extravagantly expensive, to be sure, but still focused on real objects in real space—that had previously defined action cinema.  Nowadays, when digital effects have fully come into their own, the movie plays as an interesting cinematic mélange, with visual elements that feel thoroughly contemporary and ones that register as throwbacks to an earlier era in equal measure.

So among the ways that Gladiator seeks to recreate its ancient setting, some are essentially familiar. The grand, sweeping CGI shots of Rome; the distant crowds of animated thousands filling it up; and the constructed sets with digitally added cityscape looming in the background; are not so different from the visuals used to immerse us in ancient and fantastical worlds today.

Much of the action, on the other hand, looks distinctly old-school, more like movie combat of the 1990s than the heavily digitized action of the past decade or so. I’m thinking, for example, of the way slow motion is used: regularly but selectively, and to exaggerate impacts rather than wounds or dismemberments, which were still achieved primarily with practical effects that wouldn’t benefit from slower, more detailed examination. Same for the frequent instances of that blurred, stuttery stop-motion effect that was commonly used to amplify the frenzy of battle in the pre-CGI era—achieved, here by cinematographer John Mathieson, via the camera tricks of low frame rates and tight shutter angles.[i] In the opening battle sequence, we also get a prime example of what I call the ‘many-shot’ technique, another common pre-digital way of portraying battlefield mayhem on a large scale, in which we see a many shots of real arrows (and, in this case, pots of flaming oil) raining down in quick succession, rather than a huge, digitally enhanced number of projectiles raining down in a single shot.[ii] Similarly, the movie still relies often on fundamentally old-school methods of editing, showing deaths, impacts, and other aspects of the action in a way that masks the limitations inherent in even extremely skillful stunt work. For example, CGI can now easily animate weapons and wounds convincingly enough to show the flight of an arrow all the way from the bow to its unfortunate recipient. In Gladiator, that wasn’t quite possible yet, so we still see the release and the impact in separate, often relatively close, shots.

That sounds like a jarring mishmash, but these modern and the old-fashioned elements coexist, sometimes in the same scene, with a degree of harmony that would be surprising, except that the director is Ridley Scott. One of the most famous and prolific of all working filmmakers, he was a big-budget heavyweight for twenty years before Gladiator and remains so twenty years later, still making successful, mostly acclaimed blockbusters at the age of 84. His work has varied considerably over a 45-year career, going through ups and downs and touching on pretty much every form of blockbuster (sci-fi, war, and historical epics, yes, but also crime sagas, star comedies, and rom-coms), all while continuously incorporating new technological capabilities. But from the very beginning, among many other talents, he’s been one of the best in the business at world-building—creating and capturing ancient, far-flung, or outright imaginary settings of all sorts.

This is a major reason why Gladiator holds up so well, and why visual elements that seem so disparate today still feel like parts of a visually coherent whole. Scott is one of those, not rare, exactly, but at least somewhat uncommon blockbuster directors who’s also a proper visual stylist. The look that he creates varies considerably depending on the subject matter, but it’s always striking, and can be counted on to deliver the kind of truly memorable images that remind us why we go to the movies. In Gladiator, Scott eagerly used what was then cutting-edge CGI, but he had plenty of experience doing immersive world-building without it, including in a couple of famously immersive (and consecutive!) sci-fi flicks, now classics: Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982).[iii] CGI was just another tool in his bag, and his visual filmmaker’s instincts are sharp enough that when he did use it, it was often in ways that are largely immune to the test of time. So the shots that rely most heavily on CGI, like those sweeping panoramas of Rome, are, unsurprisingly, the ones that look the most dated now, but I was struck by how few of those there were in the movie. (Scott, always tech-savvy, probably surmised that such images weren’t likely to age well, and every second of them must have eaten up a hefty chunk of his budget.) Interestingly, the other most noticeably dated aspect is a straightforward matter of color scheme; the washed-out, almost grayscale look of Maximus’s farm and the grand spaces of Rome was in vogue around the turn of the millennium, less so today. I wonder if it helped make the CGI of the time look more convincing…

In many other instances, though, it’s a different story. The prime example—and, not coincidentally, one of the moments I recalled most vividly—is when Maximus and his fellow gladiators enter the Colosseum for the first time; the shot starts in the confines of a tunnel and then bursts out into the arena, drifting around them at a low angle as they look up at the vast structure full of spectators. The datedness of the CGI is real, but it’s a decidedly secondary characteristic of the shot, which still works because Scott recognized the right staging and camera movement to capture how it might have felt to enter that remarkable space. The same is true of the images with a digital Colosseum towering over physical sets in the foreground; the CGI isn’t up to today’s standards, but the way Scott frames the shot, it still gives a sense of the massive scale of the Colosseum compared to everyday buildings, and the awe of seeing such a structure for the first time.

As with almost all directors who venture into it, Scott’s portrayal of action has improved with time and experience, but he’s always had an instinctive feel for it; even back in 2000, he had already made Black Rain (1989) and G.I. Jane (1997), plus with action scenes in several others, and would make Black Hawk Down (2001) soon after. That talent is on full display in Gladiator; Scott includes a wide range of screen combat, from full-on battle to crowded arena mayhem to one-on-one swordfights—all skillfully choreographed, excitingly paced, and with impressively committed stunt work. The movie delivers mostly, for lack of a better term, ‘90s action,’ which is a particular thing with certain limitations, as we’ve mentioned. But it’s thoroughly good 90s action: creatively staged, reasonably clear, and with plentiful bits of enjoyable badassery. Everyone remembers the line that became iconic, but for pure ‘it’s-about-to-go-down’ thrill value, I’ve always preferred Maximus’s understated “Anyone here ever been in the army?” before organizing his fellow gladiators into an ad hoc fighting unit to pull off an underdog victory in the arena. That outrageous two-sword decapitation, which I remember being much talked about at summer camp that year, is still pretty awesome, too.

Gladiator also holds up for plenty of more conventional reasons, unrelated to its interesting place in action movie history. Scott is popular with actors, who have long appreciated his willingness to consider their input, and he gets a slate of good performances that make the ample non-action sections of the movie engaging and exciting. I can barely remember a time before Russell Crowe was a star, but this is the role that made him one, and it’s easy to see why. There’s a degree of hamminess and machismo inherent in a protagonist like this, and Crowe exudes all the basic qualities we expect—decency, loyalty, toughness, fighting skill and a hint of swagger—but he also manages to delve a bit deeper, also giving us a strong sense of Maximus’s initial humility bordering on shyness, his agony when he loses everything, and the almost nihilistic ferocity that it brings out in him. In other words, he’s convincing across the full range of the character’s arc, from respected general yearning to return to a simple life, to ruthlessly vengeful warrior with nothing left to lose.

Connie Nielsen, meanwhile, should have been made into more of a star that she ultimately was. Hers is the role that women are typically consigned to in a movie like this, but she gets the absolute most out of it, making Lucilla’s complex, shifting motivations clearly felt and subtly striking a delicate balance between inner strength and cunning on the one hand and constant, gnawing terror on the other—with all those emotions largely repressed beneath a veneer of imperial decorum. And then there’s Joaquin Phoenix, who was more well-known beforehand, but whose turn as the loathsome emperor Commodus also took him to another level. It’s easy to see why this performance earned him his first Oscar nomination, as his distinctive variety of onscreen derangement was less of a known quantity at the time. It’s more familiar now, more open to parody, but it’s still a sight to behold. Does he overact at times? Probably, but he still does a fine job of making Commodus both detestable and pathetic, and what struck me most in re-watching the movie was how good he is when it really counts; his famous “busy little bee” speech remains as spine-tingling as ever.

And of course, it wouldn’t be a proper historical epic without an aging British screen titan absolutely crushing a magnetic supporting role. Here we get not one, but three of them, all reminding us why they’re so venerated: the late Richard Harris as the wise emperor Marcus Aurelius; the late Oliver Reed[iv] as Proximo, the gladiator trainer with a bit of decency left; and Derek Jacobi (still alive, still nailing every line) as the posh but courageous Senator Gracchus.

The actors have solid dialogue to work with, in a story that is another of Gladiator’s strengths. It’s very long, but I found that it hardly ever drags, which cannot be said of all (or even all that many) movies that run over two and a half hours.[v] It’s not the most brilliant story ever told, but it’s not trying to be; this a movie that knows exactly what it is, and delivers on it. Since its release, Gladiator has been credited with giving new life to what’s known as the ‘sword-and-sandal’ genre,[vi] exemplified by the massively scaled, lavishly expensive historical epics that Hollywood churned out in the mid-20th century—Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960), Cleopatra (1963), and so on. Such movies had fallen out of fashion somewhat, but the success of Gladiator sparked a revival—with movies like Troy and Alexander (both 2004) and 300 (2007), for example, and the television series Rome (2005-2007)—that more or less continues to this day.

Gladiator remains one of the best entries in this new wave, though, because it was not only a throwback, but also a reinvention. Scott and the screenwriters, David Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson, recognized that the sword-and-sandal genre had once been so popular for good reason, and that the elements that made those classics seem outdated even in 2000 could be updated for the new millennium. Make the protagonist more like a modern action hero; let the female characters be something more than damsels in distress; go R-rated in a way you couldn’t four decades ago; use the latest technical wizardry to bring the spectacle to life, with lighting and costumes up to modern standards of authenticity, plus action and stunts up to modern standards of awesomeness—and you’re in business.

But, and this is crucial, don’t obsess over absolute historical accuracy. You’ll never get there, for one thing—it’s hard enough for movies to accurately depict history within living memory, never mind 2000 years ago—and in any case, that’s not the essence of the genre’s appeal. By Hollywood standards, Gladiator actually does decently well with historical accuracy,[vii] but still: the barbarians of the day probably didn’t do their war cries in modern German, and I seem to remember that the Romans (quite significantly, as it turned out) never fully conquered them. Commodus was an insane-asshole sort of emperor, but he didn’t murder his father Marcus Aurelius, and wasn’t killed in the arena. (He was apparently strangled in the bath by his personal trainer, though, which is pretty damn cinematic.[viii]) In many respects, the costumes, weapons, and props are not quite right.[ix]

And so on and so forth, but that’s ultimately beside the point. It is, of course, perfectly possible to go for full-on historical accuracy and make a very good movie. But Scott and company understand that that’s not the only way, and not the main reason why movie audiences love Ancient Rome. The move, instead, is to make full cinematic use of a basically perfect setting, picking freely from the historical record and creating a narrative vehicle for action, passion, intrigue, and immersion in a far-off world—the stuff that cinema does best. And then you can have a fictional character named Maximus go on an epic quest for revenge and save Rome by killing the evil emperor in the Colosseum.

No, it didn’t happen, and if it had, it wouldn’t have looked much like this. But are you not entertained??

© Harrison Swan, 2022

[i] I’ve read the entire article, and still have basically no idea how this process works:

[ii] I have plenty of complaints about CGI, but this is one area where I think it has definitely improved action movies; the many-shot technique can wear thin pretty quickly, and attempts by older films to convey large-scale destruction in this way often look faintly ridiculous now. Which is too bad, because getting those shots probably took a ton of time and effort.

[iii] My knowledge of filmmaking careers is nowhere near exhaustive, but that’s got to be a candidate for the best two-hit combo of all time, don’t you think?

[iv] Late, as in died of a heart attack during the production, a tragedy that Scott and company somehow managed to work around quite seamlessly in the final cut.

[v] Ridley Scott is exceptionally good at making very long movies, to the point that extended director’s cuts sometimes end up being the definitive versions of his work. Blade Runner went through a whole saga of revisions, and the movie that’s now considered a masterpiece is the seventh (!) version to be released, not the one that came out in 1982. Similarly, the 144-minute theatrical version of his Crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven (2005) was not that great. Almost immediately, Scott released a director’s cut that ran over 3 hours, and which was near-universally acclaimed. I eventually saw it, and it is indeed fantastic—the only version of that movie worth seeing.

[vi] Technically, this term refers to low-budget Italian knockoffs of the same period, but I’ve also seen it used more broadly, to describe any sufficiently epic film set in Ancient Greece or Rome. (

[vii] These videos, with experts in something or other rating the realism of movies that depict it, are a thing on YouTube now, and I’m not sure how I feel about them. On the other hand, I’ve watched at least five just in the course of writing this, so who knows. (



Roma (Mexico, 2018)

How do you do something original in cinema these days? Nostalgists have been asking that question for decades, usually to imply that you can’t, because the best days of film are long gone. Minus that cynical subtext, though, it’s an interesting question, and for most of the short history of film, the go-to response has been the advance of technology: As cameras get better and the capabilities of special effects expand, so do the boundaries of what can be shown onscreen. That’s true, but recently—like, very recently, within my own lifetime and lately enough for me to have noticed—something seems to have shifted. Filmmaking technology continues to improve, but it seems to have reached an inflection point; for about five to ten years now, it’s been truly possible (with sufficient financial resources, of course) to put basically anything onscreen, convincingly enough to fit into a live-action movie. (The possibilities of animation have always been wonderfully boundless.) That needn’t mean the end of originality or novelty—when anything is possible, the opposite should be true. But with the rise of the Marvel-verse and the global, multibillion-dollar blockbuster, it can often seem like all the innovation is going towards the same stuff: ever more epic battles, ever wilder and more outrageous action, fantastical creatures and far-off worlds rendered in ever more breathtaking detail. Which is great fun, and can result in great art, but if you love film, it leaves you wanting more.

So it’s especially impressive, and feels like a special gift, when a movie reminds us that it’s not that simple—that the possibilities for innovation are infinite and always have been.

You could hardly find a better candidate to make such a movie than the Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, a filmmaking virtuoso who has managed to stay refreshingly selective about where he deploys his talents. He first gained international recognition with A Little Princess (1995) and Great Expectations (1998), adaptations of old-timey English novels that had little else in common. Then he returned to Mexico, ditched the high-tech equipment, the Hollywood stars, even the fixed screenplay, and proceeded to make one of the best (and sexiest) road movies of all time: Y tu mama también (2001), which seamlessly fused a poignant coming-of-age story with incisive cultural and political commentary. Back in England, he helped begin the necessary transition from kids’ adventure to grittier fantasy in the series highlight Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004),[i] and created one of the grimmest, most unnervingly convincing dystopias in cinema history with the stunning Children of Men (2006). Next, after seven long years, was Gravity (2013), which saw a rather trite emotional journey happily overshadowed by a wild battle for survival in space, pitting Sandra Bullock against Newtonian physics—and which remains one of only two movies I’ve seen that make truly indispensable use of 3D.[ii] That was a $100 million CGI extravaganza; when Cuarón finally made another movie, five years later, he was back in Mexico, shooting in black and white with few special effects, and an unknown cast, on a $15 million budget. This is clearly a man of rare gifts, with zero interest in rushing himself or doing the same thing twice. Even his visual style is uncommonly flexible, shifting considerably to fit such disparate narratives—with the one (admittedly pretty eye-catching) constant being a penchant for impossibly long, ingeniously staged single takes. All of Cuarón’s films show us things we’ve never seen before, and they’re all terrific. But even in those respects, his 2018 family drama Roma is in a class by itself.

I’ve watched quite a few movies over the years, and I can’t remember the last time a first viewing felt like such an utterly new experience. Which is both remarkable and a bit odd, because it’s hard to pin down exactly what Cuarón does in Roma that’s so groundbreaking. He’s not the first filmmaker to shoot in black and white since color took over, nor the first to use lots of long, unbroken shots. He’s certainly not the first artist to grow up comfortably, then revisit his childhood with a story centered on, and dedicated to, the nanny who helped raise him. And yet, Cuarón combines these elements into a movie that feels completely original—or perhaps the better word would be singular. There’s nothing like it, and it’s unforgettable.

The reasons for this are abundant and various, and they begin with choices Cuarón makes even before the camera gets involved. As with the best of his previous work, he also wrote the screenplay (here, for the first time, as the only credited writer) and the story he crafts is richly compelling and nuanced, a far cry from the saccharine sort of narrative that a director’s homage to a family servant could easily have been.

He doesn’t deviate from the basic setup: our protagonist, Cleo, is a quiet, warmhearted young woman working for the upper-middle-class household in Mexico City where she and Adela, the cook, live in a cramped room above the garage. We follow her story, with its own twists and travails, and that of the family she serves, because she is, as Christopher Orr puts it, “that most perfect of cinematic interlocutors: central, intimate to everything that transpires within the household, even more than the parents themselves. Yet she is still, on a fundamental level, an outsider, with all the perspective that entails.”[iii]

So far, so typical, but Cuarón is not a simplistically repentant child of privilege, revisiting his own upbringing in a way that seeks to atone (artistically, long after the fact) for its inherent injustices. Which is not to say he shies away from that aspect of the story; he clearly shows us how hard and endlessly Cleo works, how essential and often underappreciated her services are, and how the parents—mostly the mother, Sofía, but only because we see so little of the father—tend to take their own frustration and anxiety out on her. Less explicit but still forcefully felt is the racial element, and the history of colonialism underlying it; Sofía’s white family would blend seamlessly into any street in Spain, while the dark-skinned Cleo hails from a rural indigenous community far to the south. We never learn why she left her village to seek work in the big city, but it’s not hard to imagine the sorts of inequities that led to that choice, and while Cuarón offers no easy answers, it’s clear how he feels about a social order that pushes indigenous people into service work that enriches the lives of others at the expense of their own.

At the same time, however, it’s also clear that Cleo’s relationship with the family contains plenty of genuine affection; when she says she loves the children, or they say they love her, it comes across as entirely sincere, and when Sofía puts her down, it stems more from insecurity or simple insensitivity than any serious ill will. As Ty Burr more succinctly puts it, “Without stooping to the podium and without ever losing empathy for all concerned, Cuarón is very concise and clear about the entitlements and blindnesses of the master/servant relationship. Roma is a welcome corrective to a film like The Help…in that it sees its outsider hero through the neutral gaze of a dispassionate onlooker (or a movie camera) instead of the eyes of a white or upper-class savior.”[iv]

That notion of ‘empathy for all concerned’ is crucial, because whatever their differences in status, Sofía and Cleo are very much on the same side of the social struggle at the movie’s core. Racial hierarchy and class division are thoughtfully explored, but the primary targets of Cuarón’s thematic firepower are sexism, misogyny, and the male entitlement that inevitably comes with it. More than anything else, Roma is a movie about the selfishness and childishness of men—but one that takes the novel and effective tack of paying barely any attention to the men themselves. Antonio, the family patriarch who runs off with a younger woman, and Fermín, the dangerous young man who abandons Cleo after getting her pregnant, have very little screen time between them, functioning in the narrative only to use women and then shirk their responsibilities in spectacularly callous fashion.

Cuarón focuses instead on the wreckage, both material and emotional, that their actions leave behind, with the women struggling to manage in a society stacked against those without a man by their side, and the children flailing in the face of a betrayal that they can’t wrap their heads around. A telling example comes in the second act, when a playtime dispute between the two older sons, Paco and Toño, escalates into a fight. “Nothing new in that,” Anthony Lane writes, “until one of them hurls something hard and heavy at the other, who ducks. It smashes the glass panel behind him, and both boys stop, rendered blank and mute by the nearness of genuine harm. And we know, as they also know but cannot yet digest, the cause of battle: their father is gone, and he will not be coming back. They are now the men of the house, and already they are trashing it in their distress.”[v] In between the moments of dramatically heightened stakes, the movie is full of scenes like these: carefully observed slices of normal life, comfortably ordinary yet oddly riveting, brimming with import and nuance just below the surface.

Meanwhile, just as he shows their personal ramifications in such intimate detail, Cuarón also explores the deep, mutually reinforcing connection between all these issues and the political turmoil that simmers in the background, occasionally boiling over into our characters’ lives with harrowing immediacy. He wisely chooses not to explain the complicated politics or offer any definitive judgments; his point, to the extent that he makes one, is simpler, broader, and applicable to any society: this is what happens when these social ills go unaddressed. Racism, misogyny, class division and economic inequality, and even (perhaps especially) simple selfishness, abdication of responsibility, and desire to see others marginalized for one’s own benefit—these things don’t just cause damage at the personal level; eventually, they end up fueling national conflicts that harm everyone, particularly the innocent and the vulnerable. In the end, it’s impossible not to see Cleo’s stillborn baby as a victim of all this, which makes it all the more heartbreaking when she inevitably blames herself—unable to grasp or unwilling to blame the complex, largely invisible web of societal forces behind that personal tragedy.

The emotional and thematic power of Roma is certainly a credit to Cuarón’s screenplay, which weaves so much meaning and subtext into very straightforward, mostly quotidian dialogue. But he still needs his actors to bring it to life, and he elicits fine performances everywhere, from the key supporting players to the countless extras filling out his meticulously recreated Mexico City of the past. Still, this is a movie that revolves around its lead actresses, and Cuarón gets outstanding performances from both. His casting of Yalitza Aparicio, a trained pre-school teacher with no acting experience or training, is a great star-discovery story, but as Burr notes, she “is no ‘found object’ playing herself; the performance is real, immediate, and honestly observed.” Without stating much explicitly—and often without saying much at all—she still conveys so much about Cleo: her kindness, desire to do a good job, devotion to the children, and subtle sense of humor, as well as the reality that she’s still an uncertain young woman trying to find her way in the world, with an unspecified yet powerful yearning for the fully realized life of her own that her social status denies her. Meanwhile, as Sofía, Marina de Tavira paints a moving portrait of a woman just barely holding herself together, trying to hang on to her natural dignity and decency as she deals with the emotional turmoil of losing her husband and figures out how to raise four children on her own. Aparicio and de Tavira carry the movie, and both are quietly captivating, giving us a vivid sense of the inner lives of people so different from ourselves.

All of this helps make for excellent viewing, and yet it’s possible, at least in theory, to imagine everything we’ve discussed so far—the absorbing narrative, the poignant social commentary, the superb performances—being brought to the screen in a basically conventional way. What makes Roma great is that it’s so very far from conventional; take away any one of the elements that make it so wildly distinctive—the black and white photography, the meandering camera, the offbeat pacing and moments of almost stealthy transcendence—and it becomes not just a lesser movie, but a different one entirely.

Several months ago, I wrote that Zhang Yimou’s great historical drama To Live manages, despite its narrow focus on a single family, to make you feel like you’ve learned a great deal about China in the middle 20th century. Roma achieves something similar, but different in one crucial respect. Coming out of this movie, you don’t necessarily feel like you’ve learned much about the history of Mexico in the 1970s; Cuarón doesn’t explain the political context, doesn’t identify the real events he includes,[vi] doesn’t even specify the year except in a passing line of dialogue. What happens instead is even cooler: watching Roma, you feel like you remember Mexico in the 70s—even as you remain, on some level, fully aware that you don’t.

Cuarón uses them in many compelling ways, but he includes the artistic peculiarities of Roma primarily for what they contribute to his overarching goal, which is to immerse us, not just in Mexico City, 1971, but in his memory of it—which is filled with specifics of that time and place, but also turns out to have quite a lot in common with our own memories of childhood. The black and white photography is gorgeous, and in a way that doesn’t so much imitate the look of old movies as build upon it, retaining the wistful elegance of those images while adding a quality of radiant clarity that goes beyond anything from that time. But I think the black and white also, paradoxically, makes the story and setting more accessible than they would otherwise be, folding them in to a broader ‘past’ that resonates even with those of us who don’t remember the 70s and haven’t been to Mexico. Cuarón’s unusual choice to not specify which kid is a stand-in for his younger self has a similar effect; few of us remember growing up in Mexico City, as a particular child among three brothers and a sister, but most of us remember growing up in a family and having siblings. Political turmoil and social injustices were present in Cuarón’s childhood, and he has points to make about them, but their presence in the narrative is (for the most part) random and inconclusive, sprinkled into everyday conversation without the context explained—the way most people typically learn about serious issues in their early years.

Another key factor in this is Cuarón’s attention to detail, by which I mean not general meticulousness in recreating the setting (though he certainly has that), but his habit of zeroing in hard on highly specific details. Roma captures, better than any movie I’ve seen, the odd extent to which our remembrance of childhood is dominated by very precise impressions of somewhat random, often mundane features of our environment. Cuarón lavishes outsized attention on toys, electronics, dishes, and particular features of furniture and architecture—the things that loom large in his childhood memories, and that we can readily imagine looming large in ours if we’d grown up in that time and place. One of my favorite scenes is the first appearance of Dr. Antonio, in which we see only his hands around the ashtray and gearshift as he inches his car into the narrow driveway; this quickly establishes a sense of the father as a distant, unknowable figure, while keeping the focus on the features of the car that would define the perspective of a child in the back seat. (I can remember being similarly fascinated by the column-mounted shifters in my dad’s old pickup trucks.)

Likewise, the decision to have no musical score seems downright reckless in the abstract, but in practice it works so well that the absence barely registers. Music is an incredibly powerful tool, but Cuarón is confident enough to realize he doesn’t need it to achieve the desired emotional impact. His primary goal is immersion, and real life doesn’t unfold to a movie soundtrack—in the present or in our recollections. But Roma is as aurally alive as any movie out there, full to bursting with the sorts of sounds that do form the soundtrack to childhood memories: car horns, barking dogs, the clatter of dishes, diegetic music from TVs and handheld radios, and boundless cacophony of voices on city streets.

Writing about movies on this site, I’ve usually ended up subscribing to the auteur theory of film criticism, which regards the director as the ultimate ‘author’ of the movie. There are plenty of issues with that idea, and I’ve done my best to acknowledge that film is an uncommonly collaborative art form, but in the case of Roma, the theory really does seem apt. Like many directors, Cuarón has also written and produced many the movies he’s made. But far more unusually, he has often been his own editor as well, and for Roma, somehow, on top of all that, he also served as his own cinematographer.[vii] To the extent that any movie can be considered the creation of one auteur, this is it, and between the black and while color scheme and the idiosyncratic camerawork, the vision that Cuarón brings to the screen is unlike any other I’ve seen. This extraordinary cinematography is the most distinctive aspect of Roma, and the most important to its singular ability to transport us into the past. The images are riveting, for one thing, holding our attention even when not much is happening simply because they’re so lovely to look at. And while the camera movements in Cuarón’s signature long shots are exceedingly smooth and precisely choreographed, the effect is much closer than cinema usually gets to the way we almost always take in the world around us: that is, simply looking around, without a clear purpose, not in the grips of a high-stakes narrative, with the time and mental space to notice all those ordinary details that end up defining our memories. When moments of high drama do occur, they appear as they do in real life: first as glimpses at the edges of our field of vision, intruding on otherwise unremarkable sights. When an air of transcendence and heightened reality takes hold of a scene, it does so subtly, sneaking up on us like it so often does in the real world.

You don’t realize just how much movies tweak and distort the pacing of everyday events, until you see a movie that so conspicuously doesn’t. Roma compresses about a year of its characters’ lives into just over two hours, but within individual scenes, time passes in a way much closer to reality than we typically see. That sounds simple, but it often represents an amazing technical achievement. We certainly notice when a scene, or a large part of one, plays out in a single unbroken shot, but it can be easy to miss what an exquisite feat of timing and precision it really is, by both the actors and the crew—because it’s all so precise that the scene unfolds completely naturally, as if we were there watching it in person. Nor is it just about those long takes, which are significant but don’t take up as much screen time as you might think. Just as often, Cuarón cuts between different angles fairly normally, but in a relaxed, deliberate way that maintains this uncommonly lifelike pacing—and which has got to be wickedly difficult to get right.

Cuarón even extends this principal to the background activities that make the setting feel so authentically alive, including them whenever possible as full, self-contained events. When a marching band walks by the house, we see them approach, pass, and recede; when Cleo passes a political rally, we watch the speech build to a crescendo, capped off by a human cannonball act; when a wedding photo is taken in tragicomic contrast to a miserable family ice cream outing, we see the whole process: arrangement of subjects, flash, and celebration afterwards—again, much as these things often exist in our memory. As Brian Tallerico writes, “It’s that balance of truth and art that is so breathtaking, making Cuarón’s personal story a piece of work that ultimately registers as personal for us, too. And you walk out transformed, feeling like you just experienced something more than merely watching a film.”[viii]

It’s one of the loveliest mysteries of cinema, how it can cast this kind of spell on you, and how a filmmaker can make that happen. I’ve had only the most cursory experience in proper filmmaking, just a few fleeting jobs on low-budget sets, but enough to get a sense of how odd, fickle and messy an undertaking it is—so unavoidably chock-full of cheats and contrivances, so swamped in endless technological complexity. That a person can wrap their head around that dizzying process enough to even form an idea of how to cast that spell, much less actually go out and do it… I still find it basically inconceivable. It’s got to be mostly a matter of luck, right? How could anyone really know how to make a movie turn out that way?

But Cuarón clearly does know how—he’s done it so many times, in such wildly different movies. And never more gloriously than in Roma, when he turned the camera on his own childhood, and the remarkable, ordinary woman who shaped it, and invited us to remember them, too.

© Harrison Swan, 2021

[i] The ever-sharp Nerdwriter on why it’s so good:

[ii] The other is James Cameron’s seminal Avatar (2009); both are fine but forgettable without 3D, and transcendent with it.




[vi] Principally the Corpus Christi Massacre of June 10, 1971, in which dozens of demonstrators were killed, and which was just one incident in the long-running ‘Mexican Dirty War’ between the US-backed government and various leftist groups.

[vii] His Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography was one of four that he personally received for Roma, and made him just the third person ever to be nominated for Academy Awards in six different categories. (The other two are Walt Disney and George Clooney.)


Road to Perdition (2002)

I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about the 20th century. I’ve always found it fascinating, as so many others have and probably always will, given how much significant stuff happened and how well documented it is, compared to earlier historical periods. I’m not a history buff, and for me it’s always been a layman’s interest, low-key and not very sharply focused. But it has, perhaps inevitably, been supercharged in the past year and a half. Nowadays, any time before Covid belongs to a bygone age of innocence, and the years before the new millennium…come on, now. Of course, my rational mind knows it’s not ancient history—I was, after all, born in the 20th century, deep enough to remember a bit of it—but now more than ever, it seems like the days of yore, more similar to the murky, distant past than the world we live in.

Tom Hanks, director Sam Mendes, cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, and the rest of their collaborators obviously couldn’t have foreseen the Covid pandemic—or the Trump presidency, or the rise of social media, or any of the other phenomena that now make the early 20th century feel so far removed from the present. But that fact is, I think, a key reason why Road to Perdition, the solidly good Depression-era gangster movie they all made in 2002, remains so appealing today.

It was only Mendes’s second feature, but he had been a prominent stage director in England since the late 80s, and his debut, American Beauty (1999), had been a massive success, winning several of the most prestigious Academy Awards. (In more ways than one, that movie hasn’t aged particularly well, but it remains an impressive display of Mendes’s skill.) He’s been a dependable, respectable fixture in the industry ever since, making mostly good movies at a measured, steady pace. He made two well-received dramas, Jarhead (2005) and Revolutionary Road (2008), then a sweet-tempered dramedy, Away We Go (2009) that I, like some critics, found unremarkable, and more than a little smug. He made one of the best James Bond movies of all time, Skyfall (2012), promptly followed by one of the worst, Spectre (2015), of which only the spectacular opening tracking shot is worth seeing.[i] Most recently, he went all in on that concept with 1917 (2019), a First World War movie whose single-take conceit was so technically stunning its other elements were not so much overshadowed as rendered practically irrelevant. His work has been criticized, with some justification, as excessively deliberate and composed, holding the emotional core of the story at arm’s length. But it’s impossible to deny his great talents, both as a director of actors (most stars seem eager to work with him, and he guides almost all of them to fantastic performances) and as an elegant visual stylist with a keen eye for detail.

So it is with Road to Perdition, which, unlike some movies I write about here, I wouldn’t call a spotless masterpiece, sublime from start to finish. One could take issue with its rather cold and clinical approach to the story, for example; or with its conception of some supporting characters and the resulting performances: Jude Law as the twisted freelance killer Maguire, and Daniel Craig as the hotheaded Connor Rooney; or with the way that a random but important elderly couple, and the perfunctory episode where the protagonists recuperate at their farm, end up feeling somewhat shoehorned into the larger narrative. Still, these are minor flaws, and all are notably tempered in some way; how significant they are is likely to be different depending on the viewer. I, for one, think the movie would benefit from being a little less aloof, but I understand why Mendes took that approach, and it pays great dividends in other ways. Whatever you think of Law and Craig, neither of them actually has much screen time, and that efficiency of use is a key reason why I find both their performances quite effective. For similar reasons, I don’t mind the interlude at the farmhouse; it’s a bit awkwardly handled, but it quickly and efficiently fulfills its function in the narrative, and it is in keeping with Mendes’s restrained vision for the movie.

None of these issues, certainly, are serious enough to overshadow the movie’s great strengths—with which they are often closely intertwined. Mendes, as we’ve mentioned, has always been great with actors, and whether those supporting characters work for you or not, Road to Perdition is undoubtedly anchored by some fantastic lead performances. It was marketed as a major departure for Tom Hanks—America’s friendliest, most neighborly movie star plays a cold-blooded hit man! There’s some truth to that, and Hanks is more than capable of pulling off the transformation: with a slightly bulked-up frame lurking under a thick overcoat and fedora, and that subtly intimidating moustache, he looks the part of Irish Mob enforcer Michael Sullivan, and despite the character’s outwardly calm demeanor, his willingness to kill comes as no surprise. And yet, the role isn’t quite as radical as the promotional materials claimed; as Stephen Holden writes, “because Sullivan is played by Mr. Hanks, an actor who invariably exudes conscientiousness and decency, his son’s question [whether his father is “a good man” or “no good at all”] lends the fable a profound moral ambiguity… Acutely aware of his sins, Sullivan is determined that his son, who takes after him temperamentally, not follow in his murderous footsteps.”[ii] The ruthless gangster who’s also a devoted husband and father, striving to shelter his family from the violence of his work life, is a classic figure in cinema, and Hanks turns out to be an ideal actor for such a role. He has the dramatic range to convincingly capture both the character’s hard edges and his tender core, and perhaps because of his broader image as the designated decent guy of Hollywood, his performance illustrates more vividly than most how easily a basically decent person, who might otherwise have led a perfectly moral life, can become a killer if they are rescued from deprivation by a violent community like the mob.

That element of the story also comes across especially powerfully because of the masterful performance on the other side of it: the late, great Paul Newman as mob boss and local patriarch John Rooney. It was something of a swan song for the 77-year-old star: his final role in a movie, at least in the traditional sense. (He would go on to appear a few more times on stage, on television, and as a voice actor before his death in 2008.) It’s a perfect part for him, and the Oscar nomination he received for it was not one of those token nods given to an icon at the end of an illustrious career; Mick LaSalle expressed it well when he wrote that “Newman, who has [apparently] been playing too many crotchety geezers lately, finally gets a role that does justice to his gravity and presence. As Rooney, he’s a picture of healthy old age, straight-backed and clear-eyed, but with the look of someone who has seen horrors. Like virtually everything else in Road to Perdition, not much is on the surface of Newman’s performance. Yet every moment is alive with what’s underneath it—the weight of a misspent life, of guilt, of the certainty of damnation.”[iii] Like Hanks, Newman seamlessly captures both sides of his character: the ruthlessness and resulting capacity to inspire fear, as well as the better angels—devotion to those he loves, guilt for the violence he’s done, and desire to limit it as much as possible—struggling for space in the soul of a deeply conflicted man.

Hanks and Newman are superb on their own terms, and their performances are also crucial to the success of Mendes’s subtly unconventional approach. At first glance, this movie seems like a prime example of what’s often called ‘prestige’ filmmaking, in which major studios (DreamWorks and 20th Century Fox, in this case) attempt to bolster their artistic integrity by bestowing their unmatched financial resources on reputational counterweights to all those frivolous, spectacularly profitable blockbusters—often lavish period pieces that lean into the ‘magic of cinema’ aspect of the medium. Road to Perdition is undoubtedly such a movie, and it bears some of the hallmarks: the star-studded cast, the richly realized Depression-era setting, the mostly classical-Hollywood score by Thomas Newman, and the thematic focus on the emotional complexities of family bonds in the midst of crisis.

Here, that focus rests squarely on fathers and sons, and it’s not limited to the primary, relatively familiar journey of the hardened Sullivan learning to connect with his son, Michael Jr., when the rest of their comfortable existence is violently torn away. The movie explores a triangle of father-son relationships—between Sullivan and Michael, of course, but also between Sullivan and his surrogate father, Rooney, and between Rooney and his biological son, Connor—which feed off each other and collectively serve as the primary driver of the story. Technically, the inciting incident is when Michael, consumed with curiosity about what his father really does for a living, ends up witnessing a murder, leading Connor, who doesn’t trust him to keep the secret, to decide to kill the whole Sullivan family. But Connor’s reckless plan is also motivated by jealously and resentment of the special relationship between Sullivan and Rooney, full of the sort of paternal love and approval that Connor himself craves—and which, going back even further, is the ultimately the reason why Sullivan is involved in the mob in the first place.

The thematic implications of this tangled emotional web, and the story it sets in motion, are interesting and varied, and Road to Perdition does a compelling job of exploring them. As Holden writes, “the movie captures, like no film I’ve seen, the fear-tinged awe with which young boys regard their fathers and the degree to which that awe continues to reverberate into adult life. Viewed through his son’s eyes, Sullivan, whose face is half-shadowed much of the time by the brim of his fedora, is a largely silent deity, the benign but fearsome source of all knowledge and wisdom.” Tyler Hoechlin (in a fine performance for a 14-year-old actor) makes this dynamic clear, but it also persists, in a subtler way, between Sullivan and Rooney, blinding the younger man to the darker sides of their relationship (a definitive highlight of Newman’s performance is the scene in the crypt when he eloquently disabuses Sullivan of his illusions). And it’s certainly the case for Connor, who flails in his efforts to please his father and make a name for himself, and still wilts in the face of the old man’s anger.

And at the same time, we see the same dynamic working in reverse, confirming Rooney’s early pronouncement that “sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers.” Sullivan’s determination to keep his children away from his violent world is complicated even before wife and younger son are killed, by the mounting evidence that Michael has inherited some of the harder edges of his personality. Connor, of course, causes all sorts of problems for Rooney, who, in turn, finally meets his maker at the hands of the surrogate son whom he loved more, but who was, at the end of the day, not his own flesh and blood.

Another closely related theme is the effect of violence on these relationships. Is it possible for a father to shield his son from the cost of his own sins—or even, perhaps, achieve some measure of redemption through that effort? How does exposure to violence affect children, and does it inevitably lead them to violence themselves? These are thorny issues, and the movie doesn’t presume to offer definitive answers. On the latter question, we initially get the pessimistic answer in the characters of Sullivan and especially Connor, whose psychosis seems to be, at least in part, an inevitable result of growing up in the mob. But the ending, in which Michael finds himself unable to pull the trigger, offers a more hopeful conclusion that tempers some of the grimness that came before.

That grimness also stems from the air of inevitability that follows these characters for much of the movie. This isn’t so much about the old truism that it’s impossible to walk away from the mob; in fact, Sullivan is effectively offered that chance multiple times, and he refuses. Nor is it about the damage that the mob does to society; as Roger Ebert notes, “the movie shares with The Godfather the useful tactic of keeping the actual victims out of view. There are no civilians here, destroyed by mob activity. All the characters, good and bad, are supplied from within the mob. But there is never the sense that any of these characters will tear loose, think laterally, break the chains of their fate.”[iv] There are twists and revelations here, but for most of the movie, the main source of audience engagement isn’t a burning desire to find out what will happen, or what a character will do. As Rooney points out, Michael was always going to find out what his father did sometime. Once he does, and Connor sees that he has, and Rooney, enraged at his son’s reckless response to that problem, relents and hugs him tightly, the paths of the main characters are more or less set. In the tradition of classical tragedy, the story feels driven not so much by mounting pressure as by the pull of gravity, as that tangled web of relationships and motivations gently but inexorably nudges the characters toward their fates.

And yet, most of us don’t come out of Road to Perdition feeling that we saw a brutally bleak movie, or a boring one. It may not be particularly ground-breaking in a narrative or thematic sense, but great acting nevertheless makes those aspects powerfully felt, and that gives Mendes the space to put a more distinctive stylistic stamp on it than we often see in this sort of prestige filmmaking. To characterize his style, the first word that comes to mind is ‘minimalist,’ but that’s only true in a narrative sense. The movie is based on a graphic novel by Max Alan Collins, but only loosely, as the screenplay by David Self and some uncredited re-writers (probably including Mendes, in some capacity) ended up departing quite a bit from the source material, adding the Maguire character, toning down the carnage and the brutality of the protagonist—as great an actor as he is, Hanks can’t convincingly play a character known as ‘The Angel of Death’—and distilling the narrative down to its fundamental elements.[v] As a result, the story unfolds at a stately pace, but with great efficiency, and most of the dialogue remaining after all those cuts is concise and expressive, allowing the actors to convey great deal not only through words, but through the other tools of their trade.

A better way to put it is that Road to Perdition is narratively minimalist, but sensorily lavish. It’s simply a lovely movie to experience, in both a visual and auditory sense, and this is the other major reason it’s so engaging. The sound design is understated but highly effective; all gun-related sounds, from shots firing to the slides and clicks of other functions, ring out in harsh contrast to the otherwise subdued soundscape, representing the jarring incursion of violence into everyone’s outwardly respectable lives. And Mendes has a cool habit of subtly jacking up tension at key moments by slowly increasing the volume of a single sound within the scene: music in the other room at a brothel, the whir of a stock market ticker tape during a standoff, or waves breaking outside as Michael tries to pull the trigger on Maguire.

But first and foremost, we’re talking about the visuals here, because they are remarkable. As it was for Newman, Road to Perdition turned out to be a swan song for the legendary cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, who died in 2003, less than a year after the movie came out.[vi] Taking inspiration from the paintings of Edward Hopper, Hall does exquisite things with light, shadow and darkness, crafting a vision of the early-30s Chicago area that’s too gorgeously stylized to be called realistic, yet somehow never completely abandons realism. It would be futile to try to unpack the gorgeous images that result (where would you even begin?), but suffice it to say that I never get tired of looking at them; I think Holden put it best, writing that Hall and Mendes “have created a truly majestic visual tone poem, one that…inspires a continuing and deeply satisfying awareness of the best movies as monumental ‘picture shows.’” Even the thrill of so-called ‘action,’ of which there is a decent amount (this is a gangster movie, after all, in which many people get shot), is mostly conveyed not through stunts, but through visual flourishes that are conspicuous without being overly indulgent. When Michael witnesses the shootout, we see it all from his vantage point, under a door; when Rooney’s men are gunned down, we see the muzzle flash in darkness, then a slow tracking shot, drifting from man to man as they fall; when Sullivan finally gets his revenge on Connor, we see the dead man only in the mirror on a door swinging shut.

This is what I meant earlier, about the 20th century and the enduring appeal of Road to Perdition. There are many reasons for the lasting popularity of gangster movies, but Mendes, Hall and the rest understood that especially in recent years, a large (and underappreciated) part of the genre’s appeal is simply aesthetic. So they chose to lean in to that element of the story, an effort that involved not only Hall, but also production designer Dennis Gassner, art director Richard L. Johnson, costume designer Albert Wolsky, and the countless artists and technicians working under them. They did a magnificent job, and the result is a movie that, even back in the carefree year of 2002, when they didn’t even have to worry too much about climate change (I mean, they did, but the world wasn’t literally on fire yet), indulges the nostalgia for the 20th century that we can’t help but feel, even though we know better. Of course we know that clothes in the 30s were pretty uncomfortable, but people sure did look good in them. Of course vehicles back then didn’t work nearly as well as they do today, but god damn, those cars are cool. Of course these cities and towns were pits of despair at that time, but man, those images sure are stunning.

We don’t really wish we were back in that world. But especially amid the madness of 2021, it’s lovely to spend a couple hours there.

© Harrison Swan, 2021

[i] Very awesome. The rest of the movie, not so much.





[vi] Newman and Hall had collaborated before, with impressive results: Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

The Thin Red Line (1998)

The relationship between war and cinema is an odd one: a narrative match made in heaven, shot through with narrative conundrums. With its ability to harness both image and sound, film seems ideally suited to impart the maxim that ‘war is hell,’ but François Truffaut had a point when he said there could be no such thing as an anti-war movie,[i] because war is also action, and action is one of the main draws of film. Same deal with accuracy; the tools of film can create a uniquely precise representation of combat, yet whenever a war movie is praised for its realism, the reaction from veterans of the actual war always seems to be the same: ‘Good movie, but that’s not what it was really like.’

Which makes sense, because another truism about war is that it’s fundamentally unknowable, impossible for anyone who hasn’t experienced it to truly imagine. And the best filmmakers recognize that this is not discouraging, in an artistic sense, but liberating. The object is not to portray war with perfect accuracy, because that’s impossible; it’s about figuring out what aspects of it you can convey, and what the story can say about the the world we live in.

And that’s why those of us who love film can count ourselves lucky that Terrence Malick was able to make a war movie.

In the history of cinema, there’s never been anyone quite (or even all that much) like Malick. Born in Illinois in 1943, he grew up in Oklahoma and Austin, earned a B.A. in philosophy from Harvard, and started a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford, but quit over a disagreement with his thesis advisor[ii] and left without a degree. He taught philosophy at M.I.T. and worked as a freelance journalist for a time, then finally turned to film, earning an MFA in the inaugural class of the now-famous AFI Conservatory in 1969. Thus began one of the most compellingly peculiar film careers of all time, one that’s been debated, mythologized, and puzzled over to a remarkable degree for a director who’s still alive and working. After some early work as a screenwriter, Malick made two of the most gorgeous movies of the 1970s: Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978), dual masterpieces in which relatively familiar, straightforward stories—murderous lovers on the run in the former, secret lovers plotting to kill a rich husband in the latter—reach a state of odd transcendence through the grandeur of the world around them. (They also helped launch some stellar acting careers: Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek in Badlands; Richard Gere and Brooke Adams in Days of Heaven.)

After that wondrous directorial entrance, Malick could have done almost anything, but instead, he disappeared—moved abruptly to Paris and didn’t make another movie for 20 years. When he finally did, it was our chosen war film: The Thin Red Line, released in 1998. In the intervening decades, he had become a mysterious, quasi-mythical figure. When word got out that he was finally making another movie, it caused a bit of a sensation in Hollywood, with virtually every big-name actor of the era clamoring to be involved. (The ‘Casting’ section of the movie’s Wikipedia page is quite entertaining, and worth reading in its entirety; the catalog of prominent actors who shot scenes that didn’t make the cut, were involved at some earlier stage, or met with Malick at some point—many of them willing to work for a pittance, or nothing at all—is remarkable, and too lengthy to enumerate here.[iii]) He continued to work after that, but so slowly and irregularly that a new Malick project continued to cause a stir in the industry for over a decade. Following The New World (2005) and The Tree of Life (2011), he changed pace again, putting out several smaller-scale movies that, living as I often have in areas that limited releases don’t reach, I haven’t been able to keep up with. As is traditional for an enigmatic artist like Malick, critical reception has been divided on his post-hiatus work; for every recent entry, you can find critics who were enchanted and critics who were exasperated.

On the surface, Malick seems like a stereotypical eccentric-genius filmmaker, and in some ways, he is—yet his eccentricities, both personal and artistic, turn out to be more nuanced than that, defying easy categorization. He’s an intensely private person who refuses to give interviews (or even have his picture taken), but the common image of him as a recluse is misleading; the British film scholar David Thompson “met him in the 90s and it turned out that there was nothing reclusive about him. He was friendly, every bit as intelligent as you expected, and informed and experienced in many subjects—but disinclined to talk about movies.”[iv] Even during his 20-year hiatus, he didn’t leave film behind—just lived abroad, did a lot of work on a grand project that never came to fruition, and wrote some scripts that never got filmed.

Similarly, many people have found him difficult to work with, from crew members who walked off his sets to producers he drove to madness and despair (and almost to financial ruin)[v] to actors who found that their parts in the final cut bore little resemblance to the parts they thought they’d been playing.[vi] But  he has also formed lifelong partnerships with collaborators like production designer Jack Fisk and editor Billy Weber, and plenty of others, including actors, have been captivated by him and his unorthodox methods—Woody Harrelson and John Savage reportedly hung around the set of The Thin Red Line for a month after their scenes were finished, just to watch him work. Thematically, he’s a deep thinker and an idealist who wears his philosophical intellect on his sleeve, but, as we’ll see, he’s also a clever, technically adept filmmaker with a firm command of the medium. His movies have never made much money, but the industry (collectively, at least) will never stop letting him make them, because his gifts are undeniable and no one else can do what he does.

What that is, exactly, is at once obvious—his work is instantly recognizable once you’re familiar with it—and difficult to put your finger on. Some elements of his style are clearly identifiable: the “rambling philosophical voiceovers; the placid images of nature, offering quiet contrast to the evil deeds of men; the gorgeous cinematography… the striking use of music.” The results, as Chris Wisniewski goes on to note, are “narrative films that are neither literary nor theatrical, in the sense of foregrounding dialogue, event, or character, but are instead principally cinematic, movies that suggest narrative, emotion, and idea through image and sound.”[vii]

All that is true, but it makes his movies sound more experimental, formally radical—and, as a result, inaccessible—than they really are. The way I’d put it is that Malick uses the same basic devices as more mainstream filmmakers, but in such an unusual way that words like ‘experimental’ and ‘radical’ seem like appropriate descriptors. He ‘does’ plot and emotion, but his stories don’t unfold or affect us like anyone else’s. He does dialogue, but it doesn’t sound like anyone else’s. He doesn’t edit like anyone else—he messes with physical continuity far more than most directors would dare—but our sense of what happens in a given sequence is somehow not seriously affected.[viii]

What happens, then, when this singular style is applied to a war story? You get a movie in The Thin Red Line that, despite its undoubtedly polarizing aesthetic, deserves to be considered among the very best war films, based solely on its visual splendor and the subtly interesting ways it explores its unknowable subject. Unsurprisingly, Malick deviates significantly from his source material, a decidedly non-mystical 1962 novel by James Jones about the Guadalcanal campaign. But you can see why the story appealed to him, apart from his great respect for the author;[ix] its tropical paradise setting dovetails with nature-oriented sensibilities, and its intensive focus on the taking of a single hill allows him to eschew conventional narrative structure without losing the primary appeal of the genre.

That appeal of course, is the action and awe of combat, and the Malick aesthetic, achieved this time with the great cinematographer John Toll, turns out to be surprisingly well suited to it. Malick’s non-negotiable insistence on shooting outside, on location,[x] and in natural light whenever possible, makes the beauty and strangeness of the battlefield and its surrounding environment palpable in a way few other movies have achieved. And he can orchestrate organized chaos with the best of them; as Roger Ebert notes in an otherwise lukewarm review, “the battle scenes themselves are masterful, in creating a sense of the geography of a particular hill, the way it is defended by Japanese bunkers, the ways in which the American soldiers attempt to take it.”[xi] By some combination of training and instinct, Malick has a remarkably keen feel for on-screen motion, of both the frame itself and the subjects within it. If there’s an overarching visual quality to his work, it’s one of exceptional fluidity and grace, whether the camera is hurtling through chaos, drifting dreamlike through bliss, or simply sitting still and observing. So it is throughout The Thin Red Line, and especially in the battle scenes. Whether it’s between separate shots or, in a few amazing instances, between multiple distinct frames contained within one long shot, the images flow extremely smoothly, portraying the excitement, terror, and headlong momentum of combat as clearly and forcefully as any great war film.

Meanwhile, Malick’s contemplative side, his particular interest in the natural world, and his related talent for finding tension in moments of stillness and closely observed details, let him portray the thrill and strangeness of war in ways that are uniquely his own. Who else would think to show, in the middle of a battle scene, two men stopped in their tracks by a venomous snake, or another man reaching out and touching a leaf that shrivels up in response, or a wounded bird in the aftermath of an artillery barrage? Who else would show the descent into the inferno of war with not the standard progression—idyllic home front, tough training, brutal combat—but starting with two soldiers gone AWOL with the natives on an island paradise, then a tense wait in the confines of a transport ship and a long, surreal trek through the jungle before the battle begins? Malick certainly doesn’t glorify combat, but in depicting it, he doesn’t shy away from his ability to craft wonderfully striking images. Think of the moment when, as the soldiers are first approaching Hill 210, they all drop to the ground and abruptly vanish into the tall grass, and then, in the moment just before they charge, the grass is suddenly illuminated by the sun emerging from behind a cloud. Or the sequence of them advancing through the fog on their way to the Japanese camp, the mood set by Hans Zimmer’s gorgeously eerie music. Or, towards the end, one of my favorite static shots of all time: a jungle stream that looks tranquil until, with nerve-racking slowness, dozens of camouflaged enemy soldiers start materializing out of the undergrowth.

This all makes for captivating cinema, but it’s somewhat stylized and cerebral—pretty far removed, you’d imagine, from the day-to-day, moment-to-moment experience of the war for these soldiers. But there are also ways in which Malick’s style makes The Thin Red Line, not more accurate than conventional war films, but accurate in different ways, capturing different aspects of the subject. His focus on the natural environment, for example, combined with his deft and liberal use of the moving camera, result in what seems like a good representation of how the battle for Hill 210 would appear visually to the men fighting it: namely, grass, grass, and more grass, seen from inches above the ground. By the same token, he makes other sensory aspects of it unusually tangible: the mud, the rain, the heat, and the suffocating stillness of the jungle.

And even more so than his visual style, Malick’s approach to character and narrative structure allows him to explore the war experience in interesting ways. In contemporaneous reviews, many critics complained that while the actors give excellent performances, there are simply too many characters, too thinly drawn. They weren’t technically wrong, but I think they may have been missing the point: that the movie is less focused on the arcs of individual characters than on the arc of the entire unit—specifically a company, which is apparently the largest unit with which most infantrymen readily identify. That’s the reason, I think, why the voiceovers quickly lose their specificity, and why so many of the men seem to have one-syllable names: Witt, Bell, Welsh, Doll, Keck, Fife, Dale, Gaff, Coombs, Band, and so on; Malick is interested in them primarily as parts of a larger whole. He does include plenty of character development that fleshes out the group, often in interesting ways. In the ruthless, embittered Colonel Tall, we get a thoughtful case study in what makes a bad commander, and in his two captains, Staros and Gaff, two possible ways to counteract his destructive tendencies. In Private Bell, we explore the soldier’s love for the woman he left behind, how it affects his war experience and, as her letter late in the movie implies, how his fervent, almost delirious yearnings can start to become divorced from reality. In Private Doll, we see a soldier who comes into the war cocky, discovers heights of terror and reserves of bravery he didn’t know he possessed, and doesn’t lose his innate swagger, but comes out of the war more thoughtful and self-aware than before. And then there’s Witt, the closest the movie comes to a protagonist, who appeals to us (and to his comrades) more and more as he reveals new sides of himself: unshakable idealism, a seemingly contagious serenity in the face of war’s cruelty, and eventually, exceptional toughness and bravery. He’ll go to great lengths to escape the war (we don’t see how he made it to the island paradise, but it must have been pretty intense), but once he’s forced back into it, he’s locked in, focused, and able to meet death with something like the calm he hoped for.

These character arcs, and the others that populate the narrative, may not be complete according to traditional standards, but they all combine to give us a strong sense of a unit and its war experience, which rarely conforms to narrative conventions. The Guadalcanal campaign for the men in an actual company was probably more like what we get here: a brief explanation of the larger strategic situation that’s quickly forgotten amid the nitty-gritty of their own circumstances; then a big, hellish battle that defines their combat experience and reaches some sort of resolution (they succeed in taking Hill 210, but at great cost); then a lot of downtime, punctuated by a few, far less conclusive bursts of action, until they’re eventually relieved and taken off the island.

With this unconventional narrative, Malick is able to convey aspects of war that are well documented, but that conventional narratives aren’t as well suited to. He builds a strong sense of the fundamental disorientation of 20th-century combat, the feeling of never being sure exactly where you are or what you’re supposed to do, and the fundamental strangeness of not only the environment, but the enemy when you finally encounter him up close. I could understand someone taking issue with the way the Japanese are depicted here, in both directions: that the movie skates over their exceptional brutality, or that it dehumanizes them too much. But I think it does make an honest attempt to show how utterly alien they might have appeared to American soldiers at the time, and we do catch brief glimpses of a wide range of characters as the Americans overrun their camp: crazed guy laughing, crazed guy screaming, terrified kid, guy meditating amid the chaos, and so on. In just a few minutes of screen time, Malick also poignantly illustrates how the suffering of war affects the civilians caught in the middle, contrasting Witt’s opening idyll with a later scene in which he wanders through a village and finds the natives distrustful, fighting amongst themselves.

Likewise, The Thin Red Line does a notably good job of portraying downtime in war, the mind-numbing tedium and the way it messes with time in general; we get well over an hour of screen time (basically a short movie) about a few days of combat, and then it just, sort of…keeps going, for nearly an hour longer—which is structurally radical for a movie, but not necessarily for real war experience. Another element of combat that the movie captures better than most is its randomness—of death, certainly, but also of experience, who ends up doing what to influence the outcome of a battle. Malick’s long, tortuous editing process played into this nicely by subverting the norms of casting, and the expectations that they engender. John Travolta and George Clooney are on screen so briefly that their presence barely registers, and other big names, like Woody Harrelson, Jared Leto and John Cusack, appear in only a few scenes, while relative unknowns like Jim Caviezel, Dash Mihok, and Ben Chaplin end up with some of the most prominent roles.

The movie conveys the futility of war, and how arbitrary one’s role in it can feel. As we’ve mentioned, the strategic significance of the company’s action is stated but quickly forgotten, and to a greater degree than most war movies, the action and killing—all to capture a single uninhabited hill—seem to occur in a contextual void, and the long, listless coda only adds to that feeling. And the movie captures the almost existential confusion that the soldiers feel as a result, not by showing them struggling to vocalize it years later, but in the straightforwardly powerful ending scene in which they’re taken off the island. As the camera moves among them while they crowd onto the landing craft, they look relieved to be alive, horribly traumatized for sure, but also simply bewildered, unable to fully wrap their heads around this place or what they did there.

And in that scene, as in the rest of the movie, we have those voiceovers, ruminating on the philosophical and spiritual implications of it all. These are likely the most polarizing aspect of The Thin Red Line, and I can certainly understand how one might find them pretentious, or at least distracting. All I’ll say about them is this. Malick studied philosophy much more seriously than I ever did, but I think that even for the select few like him with the deep analytical mindset—those who become philosophy professors, or write scripts like The Thin Red Line—the basic draw of good philosophy is the same as it is for the rest of us: that it just gets you thinking about the big, unanswerable questions. My favorite philosopher was Nietzsche, not because his ideas were the most convincing (they weren’t), but because whenever I read him, my mind would be absolutely humming for hours afterwards.

For my money, that’s all Malick is trying to do. I think he knows that most of us aren’t going to remember and analytically deconstruct every idea in those voiceovers. He just wants to get us thinking about the same things that fascinate him about this story. Seems like he’s suggesting that conflict is an essential part of life, and modern war is just a tragically destructive iteration of that? Huh, now he’s floating the idea that every living thing is part of one big soul, so maybe war is a reflection of the conflict within ourselves? No definitive answers here, but it makes you think, huh? It’s not the only way to make a great war movie. But it’s a fascinating, often thrilling, visually magnificent way—a cinematic feat only Terrence Malick could pull off. And I’m very glad he did.

© Harrison Swan, 2021

[i] An insightful exploration of that concept, and the history of war movies more generally:

[ii] The noted British philosopher Gilbert Ryle, whose work I seem to remember reading (or, more likely, slogging through and eventually declaring unreadable, since most ‘philosophers of mind’ turn out to be weirdly terrible writers) in my own undergraduate studies.



[v] In this contemporaneous article, Peter Biskind goes into great detail about Malick’s eccentricities and the wild, Herculean effort it took to bring him out of retirement to make The Thin Red Line:  

[vi] My favorite example from The Thin Red Line is Adrien Brody, who thought he was going to “carry the movie” and was surprised to find his role reduced to two lines and several shots of him reacting to stuff.


[viii] Wisniewski’s article above ^^ examines Malick’s distinctive disregard for continuity editing in more detail.

[ix] As Biskind notes in the Vanity Fair article above, Malick felt the need to ask Jones’s widow for permission for every deviation from the novel, until she reassured him that he had her blessing to adapt it as he saw fit.

[x] Mostly the jungles of northern Australia, but a bit in the actual Solomon Islands as well.


Take Shelter (2011)

How do you make a horror movie that matters? Sure, many of them technically examine deep questions: how do humans behave when the façade of society crumbles, how do you react when a supernatural entity manifests your worst fears, and so on. But to make a horror movie that, like, really matters, that takes place in the world we know, and has something genuinely profound to say about it? That’s something special—extra-difficult for a filmmaker to pull off, and a rare treat for audiences when they do.

That Jeff Nichols did pull it off—at the age of 32, in only his second feature film—is an indication of his talents, both as a storyteller and as a cinematic craftsman. He’s a paragon of what we might call the ‘regional’ filmmaker, whose sensibilities revolve around a certain type of setting rather than a certain genre or visual style. For Nichols, who grew up in Little Rock and studied film at the University of North Carolina, that defining setting is close to home—call it ‘rural America, leaning towards the South.’ His body of work is still small, but his area of interest is clear, even as he’s ranged widely within it and explored several different genres: violent family feud in rural Arkansas (Shotgun Stories, 2007), coming of age story on the Arkansas Mississippi River (Mud, 2012), supernatural sci-fi in Texas (Midnight Special, 2016), and historical biopic in 1960s Virginia (Loving, also 2016). Take Shelter is a bit of an outlier, but only in a strictly geographical sense; the small Ohio town where our protagonist, Curtis LaForche, and his family live has just as much in common, thematically and aesthetically, with the Southern locales of Nichols’ other films as it does with the Northern metropolises of the surrounding region.

In terms of genre, the movie fits nicely into Nichols’s pattern—in the sense that its genre is markedly different from his other works. The great categorizers of Wikipedia and IMDb don’t call it a horror movie, counting it instead as a psychological drama or thriller. I understand the reasons, but for once, I think they’re wrong; Nichols engages too deeply and effectively with the conventions of horror for Take Shelter to be called anything else. Consider the time-honored horror tropes that show up here: ominous storm clouds dropping unnatural precipitation, weird changes in animal behavior, creepy figure standing stark still and staring creepily into the camera, faceless strangers turned psychotic by unknown forces, door battered by unseen intruder, and many more. The way these moments are played by the actors, filmed by Nichols and cinematographer Adam Stone, edited by Parke Gregg, and scored by David Wingo, is all textbook horror-movie stuff, and they achieve the desired effect as well as any.

That being said, Take Shelter is notably restrained, very much a slow-burn, mounting-dread sort of horror flick, as opposed to the jump-scare, blood-and-guts variety. I’ve always preferred this approach to horror, because it’s harder to do well and more fun to watch when it is. And some part of my affection for this movie surely stems from the way I first saw it: in a packed-to-bursting theater in Paris on a rainy night. Their reputation for snobbery may be largely deserved, but Parisians love good American cinema as much as anyone, and the tension in the room was electric. Which was no accident, because Nichols does a masterful job of creating pervasive, understated suspense.

For one thing, he does it without resorting to number of fairly easy (and thus very commonly used) horror shortcuts. He doesn’t have his protagonists living in a typically creepy setting; their home and neighborhood are intentionally not distinctive in any particular direction. Nor does he utilize the ultra-dreary color pallet that horror movies often go for, which can give even the most pleasant image an air of impending doom. He doesn’t even set the story in the bleak midwinter, when the unembellished colors he does use would have added a bit of gloom; instead, he shoots his Ohio setting at the peak of its verdant midsummer pleasantness.

There are thematic reasons for this plain aesthetic, which we’ll get to in a bit, but Nichols’s willingness to stick to it is also a mark of justified confidence in what he does do to build tension. His camerawork is unshowy but precise, using straightforward techniques to emphasize the unsettling aspects of a scene: close-ups on something important, static shots carefully framed to highlight the anxiety in key moments, or an extra movement that ends a tracking shot on a weird and unexpected note. The sound design is also impeccable, giving a nervous edge to unremarkable sounds—rustling leaves, rain on windows, engines of all kinds—and holding uneasily on the silence of someone tuned out of their surroundings, before a jarring jolt back to reality. Wingo’s score helps to maintain tension between the scares, with soft, often lovely tones interwoven with notes of anxiety, lulling us into a sense of security we know is false. Nichols even does it through casting, and not just the two leads; consider his decision to have Curtis’s friend and workmate Dewart played by the unknown-but-ubiquitous Shea Whigham, a terrific character actor with a wonderfully peculiar face and manner, equally ideal for giving an air of offbeat humanity to a bad character, or (in this case) an air of offbeat menace to a good character.

Especially important is the widely varied way that Nichols portrays the source of all that dread: namely, Curtis’s deteriorating mental state. The vivid nightmares that set it off—cleverly indistinguishable from real life at first, then veering abruptly into madness—account for most of the standard scares. But these are quite concentrated near the beginning; just when their repeated intrusion into the real world is starting to get tiresome, Nichols switches it up, deriving suspense from other sources in Curtis’s waking life: an ominous doctor’s visit, some mild but alarming visual and auditory hallucinations, or a terrifically eerie visit with his schizophrenic mother, featuring one hell of a single-scene performance by Kathy Baker. Curtis’s nightmares continue, but they’re portrayed differently as they begin to feature the people he’s closest to; the one about Dewart is related in a chilling monologue, and when Curtis’s wife, Samantha, finally appears, Nichols shows only the dream’s opening act before cutting away, leaving the violence that follows to our imaginations.

These smart decisions wouldn’t add up to much, however, without a strong lead performance holding the story together. Michael Shannon, in the midst of a long and impressive career, has also emerged as Nichols’s muse, having appeared in all the director’s movies, and his role in Take Shelter remains one of the best uses anybody has made of his singular gifts. He convincingly captures Curtis’s many virtues—his work ethic, devotion to family and friends, thoughtful practicality, and sense of personal responsibility—and yet, as A.O. Scott writes, “[his] scarecrow frame and sharply angled features seem designed to repel sentimentality.” By his very presence, he creates a subtle, conflicted sort of tension, vividly conveying not just Curtis’s mounting instability and its potential for harm, but the fundamental decency that remains at his core. Playing regular old sinister, threatening derangement may not be easy, but it’s not that complicated; Shannon, in particular, could do it in his sleep. In Take Shelter, he does something much harder and more emotionally resonant; as Scott continues, Curtis “is hardly a wild-eyed prophet on the street corner, screaming that the end is near. His diffidence makes his desperation especially painful, and his increasingly strange behavior is made more unsettling by his generally calm demeanor. Mr. Shannon’s taciturn, haunted performance manages to be both heartbreaking and terrifying. You feel sorry for this guy, even as you want to run in the other direction.” [i]

It’s this element of pathos, more than anything else, that sets Take Shelter apart from other psychological horror movies. In most of these, the protagonist’s mental devolution would be scary and destructive for themselves and their family, but its cause would be a mystery, and they would spend the movie trying to figure out what supernatural force or M. Night Shyamalan-esque narrative puzzle is causing it. Curtis, on the other hand, is well aware of what’s probably happening to him, giving his fear and helplessness in the face of his delusions an undercurrent of sadness that makes them more realistic, and thus more effective. Nichols understands that for these scares to really stick with us, we need to genuinely care about the characters and relate to their pain. And stick with us they do, more forcefully (or, at least, in a different way) than what even the nastiest, most nihilistic horror flicks typically throw at us.

This is also the reason, I think, why Nichols chooses to give Take Shelter that naturalistic aesthetic, why he keeps the dialogue so grounded in everyday speech, why he doesn’t even jack up the conventional scares too far past believability. It’s important that the world of the movie looks just like our own, because the fears he’s working with are unnervingly familiar and close to home: losing one’s mind, certainly, but also the loss of family, home and security that follows. This is where the power of Jessica Chastain’s performance as Samantha really shines through; she makes the material and emotional stakes of Curtis’s affliction poignantly clear, but never lets her character revert to the entirely reactive victim she could easily have been. So many psychological horror movies try to do this, showing us the protagonist’s wonderful life before the encroaching madness strips it away. But it rarely has the emotional impact that it does here, because that good life is rarely so familiarly modest and so convincingly portrayed, and the protagonist’s loved ones are rarely such active participants in the fight against the darkness.  

This is how you make a horror movie that really matters. It’s not just that Nichols makes his protagonist’s ordeal more affecting than most on a personal level; as David Edelstein writes, “his feelers for the country’s bad vibes are supernaturally keen.” He recognizes the horror potential of “a time when the Book of Revelation has entered mainstream politics, when each year brings a new prediction of the exact date the world will end, when hurricanes and floods and earthquakes and heat waves and melting ice caps and industrial accidents and no jobs and Michele Bachmann’s crazy eyes are fixtures of our conscious and possibly unconscious lives.”[ii] Take Shelter came out ten years ago, and Michele Bachmann has mercifully receded from prominence, but it’s tough to celebrate when she’s been replaced by the forces of Trump, Cruz, and Hawley, and across the board, without exception, the topical fears that the movie explores have only gotten worse.

A horror movie turns out to be a grimly effective way to illuminate the darkest features of American society, and the range of these that Nichols is able to channel here, without the effort feeling forced, is remarkable. Some are plainly stated, and integral to the story; financial inequality, the obsessive binding of security to a certain type of employment, and the barbarity of the American healthcare system, are all clear factors in the danger that Curtis’s affliction poses to his family. Others are less clear-cut, but their presence is no less forcefully felt. The role of extreme weather in Curtis’s nightmares is a clear nod toward fears about the destructive forces of climate change. The movie also deals with overwrought individualism, toxic masculinity, and the American aversion to mental illness; even though Curtis is a sensitive guy who acknowledges his problem and seeks treatment, his sense of shame and tortured awkwardness as he does so, shows the insidiousness of these social pathologies. Most compellingly for me, the movie captures the uniquely American propensity for paranoia and conspiratorial thinking; it’s easy to imagine a family being similarly ruined by spiraling obsession with Judgment Day or QAnon or any number of other conspiracy theories.

David Simon, whose justly celebrated TV series The Wire was exploring many similar issues in a different way around the same time, had an incisive phrase that summed up his view of things: America as a horror show.[iii] Ten years after it came out, Take Shelter still illustrates that point as well as any movie I can think of, while still working remarkably well as a low-key, modestly scaled horror flick. Nichols scares us by showing the world as it is, not as it might be if upended by supernatural forces or horrors on the far outer reaches of possibility.

Or at least, that’s what he does until the mysterious ending, which throws everything into doubt. Some viewers may justifiably wonder why Nichols would abruptly jettison the realism that’s worked so well throughout the movie, but I rather liked it, and I have a guess as to what he’s up to. The impulse to end on a cliffhanger, on an oh-shit moment, is understandable, because this is a horror movie and horror movies don’t end with happy families relaxing on the beach. And I think there’s a thematic point to it as well, something about the way that Curtis’s affliction and the suffering it causes, or maybe just the broader social ills it represents, inevitably spread outwards and, one way or another, affect everybody in the society.

This is America, and it’s a horror show. And at the end of the day, except, perhaps, for a ruling few, no one is safe from the storm.

© Harrison Swan, 2021



[iii] A great video of him talking through it with Bill Moyers:

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)

Numerous people have made the point over the years: when you get down to it, there are only so many stories. Even if we move beyond the ultra-foundational elements identified by Joseph Campbell and others,[i] it’s still true that almost all the stories we encounter could fit neatly into a handful of templates, at most. And nowhere more so than in cinema, where the vast sums of money involved tend to push (or force) artists towards safe, well-established narratives. Remember when Inception came out eleven (!) years ago, and the few sparks of originality that it threw into the standard action-blowout mix felt like such a big deal? They were a big deal, because making a story feel genuinely fresh is a tall order, rarely fulfilled. How about this one: anxious, awkward slacker meets the girl of his dreams, and must grow up (in some ways, at least) to win her heart. That story has been told many times before, especially in recent years. So the creative minds behind Scott Pilgrim vs. The World—Bryan Lee O’Malley, writing the original comics, and Edgar Wright, directing this movie adaptation—couldn’t avoid the fact that they were telling a familiar story. But they could make damn sure to tell it like it’s never been told before.

That they do, in a way that’s easy enough for the viewer to grasp, even as it defies concise explanation. On the real-world surface, Scott Pilgrim is a classic rom-com slacker protagonist: 22 years old, unemployed and immature, still emotionally reeling from a bad break-up a year ago, bassist in a local garage band called Sex Bob-Omb, and therefore a fixture in the attendant hipster/artist social scene. But there’s a significant twist: the unremarkable premise is infused with the aesthetics of old-school video and arcade games—to such a thorough extent that, as A.O. Scott puts it, “the line between fantasy and reality is not so much blurred as erased, because the filmmakers create an entirely coherent, perpetually surprising universe that builds on Mr. O’Malley’s bold and unpretentious graphic style without slavishly duplicating it.”[ii]

That last point is important, because, as anyone who’s seen the movie knows, ‘retro gaming’ is not the only aesthetic filter at play here. Indie music is a big one, and not just as a typical soundtrack to enliven the action; it’s also a window into the way Scott experiences the world, the foundation of his broader social environment, and fuel for the subplot about Sex Bob-Omb trying to score a record deal, which runs parallel to, and occasionally overlaps with, Scott’s primary quest to vanquish the Evil Exes of his new love, Ramona. The movie’s other defining aesthetic, however, is obviously comic books, and the Japanese manga that they’re closely related to. I haven’t read O’Malley’s original comics, but in the reviews, every critic who had read them noted the movie’s exceptional fidelity to the source material. That in itself is not especially remarkable; what sets this movie apart is its unusual way of getting there. For all the legions of comic book movies that have come out in recent years, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is the only one I’ve seen[iii] that takes this approach, aiming not just to translate the story to the screen, but to re-create the whole experience of reading the comic in film form. Those aren’t quite the same thing, and Scott Pilgrim is a showcase for how much fun the latter can be. And the approach such a natural fit for the source material, it’s easy to forget that Wright and his collaborators made a conscious choice to film it this way. That was a crucial, smart decision, but I expect it was a pretty easy one, too; it’s almost hard to imagine how dull a traditional, pseudo-realistic adaptation of this story would have been.

And to be fair, this story is notably unlike the ones in those typical adaptations. Batman, for example, is a quintessential superhero, but it’s plainly ridiculous to think of him reading superhero comics in his spare time. For Scott Pilgrim and his supporting characters, however, comic books are most likely a significant presence in their lives, just as music and retro video games are shown to be. So those zany aesthetic filters have the paradoxical effect of making the movie less traditionally ‘realistic,’ but a more authentic representation of these characters’ inner lives and the world they inhabit. Which is significant, because that subject matter is mighty specific in just about every way. As Ty Burr writes, Scott Pilgrim captures the world “through the eyes of an over-caffeinated 23-year-old man-boy playing retro video games on a handheld and listening to a jangle-core iPod playlist while waiting for his girlfriend in an all-night diner in a largish North American city. Which is to say that the movie is of this precise moment and you should probably see it now, since it will be dated by next Tuesday.”[iv]

It’s a fair point, and on that note, it’s true that my affection for Scott Pilgrim is, at least to some degree, a product of timing and personal experience. When it came out in 2010, I was 20 years old, romantically adrift in the typical way, and settling into my small Northeastern college’s version of the social scene depicted in the movie, eagerly soaking up the superior taste and encyclopedic knowledge of my peers. (When Scott’s 17-year-old girlfriend, Knives Chau, laments, “I didn’t even know there was good music until like two months ago!” it rings true to my early-freshman-year self.) And there are certainly elements that seem dated these days: the absence of smartphones (even hipsters can’t avoid them now); Ramona working for Amazon and having the time and energy to do anything else besides eat and sleep; and the fact that Scott no longer comes across as “but another in a looooong line of mopey, tousled kidults played by [Michael] Cera,”[v] who, as it turned out, was at the peak of his anti-macho ubiquity in those years. Being an early-20-something music hipster has presumably changed as well, but I aged out of the authority to speak on that several years ago, at least.

On the whole, though, Scott Pilgrim holds up surprisingly well—except that shouldn’t be a surprise at all, since it’s Edgar Wright working his magic behind the camera. I’ve long since given up trying to determine the ‘best’ director working today, but Wright is right at the top of the list. He’s unquestionably one of my favorites, and even more so than other auteur filmmakers, nobody else can do what he does—once you’re familiar with it, his madcap, uber-kinetic style is instantly recognizable. Scott Pilgrim is actually a minor entry in his filmography, and hardly anyone would call it his best. Not when his body of work also includes Baby Driver (2017), a wondrous hybrid of comedy and straight-up action mayhem, and the cheekily named Three Flavors Cornetto[vi] trilogy of endlessly entertaining genre spoofs: romantic comedy and zombie horror in Shaun of the Dead (2004), buddy-cop action in Hot Fuzz (2007), and alien invasion sci-fi in The World’s End (2013). He was also the original director hired for Ant-Man (2015), but ended up quitting over creative differences with the Marvel overlords, which is a damn shame—the movie was good, but he could’ve done something special with it.

I actually don’t think Scott Pilgrim is Wright’s best movie, either (that would have to be the remarkable Baby Driver, which will absolutely get its own article on this site someday) but do think it’s his most underrated, and one of his most subtly interesting. Every movie Wright has directed, he’s also written or co-written, which makes some sense; unique and exhilarating as his style is, you can see how he might have trouble applying it to a script he didn’t write. And he usually starts from scratch; Scott Pilgrim is his only movie with a screenplay adapted from someone else’s source material.[vii] But it works, because everything about his style—the snappy dialogue laced with wordplay, the fast-paced cuts and transitions, the frenetic-yet-precise movements and amped-up soundscape—turns out to be an ideal fit for this story. The comic book flourishes blend quite seamlessly with those Wright hallmarks, and they all help to imbue mundane events with outsized drama and exaggerated energy, which is what O’Malley’s comics are all about. Scott Pilgrim shows that in certain instances, Wright’s talents can not only dovetail with a printed story, but elevate it, making the movie adaptation funnier and perhaps more poignant than it would have been in the hands of someone with a more straightforward style.

Without a doubt, he makes it funnier. Wright is a type of artist that’s frustratingly rare among major filmmakers these days: not just a director of comedies, but a comic auteur. Like everyone else, he delivers plenty of standard laugh lines through dialogue, some of which inevitably land better than others. But in his movies, those jokes are only a fraction of the total. Among live-action directors, at least, he’s unmatched in his ability to use the other tools of filmmaking—editing; sound effects; and especially movement into, out of, and around the frame—to get a laugh.[viii] In short, there’s a kind of infectious comedic rhythm that permeates an Edgar Wright movie at every level, and Scott Pilgrim is no exception. Add in those comic-book flourishes—the text and other animated accents livening up the frame—and there’s such a wealth of visual and auditory comedy here that it hardly matters if some of the traditional jokes don’t land.

Behind this great abundance is an inclination that’s essential for any successful comedian: keep the jokes coming, and try everything. Wright knows that what people find funny is largely subjective, and he can’t ever be sure a given joke will get a laugh—all he can do is guarantee that another one is just around the corner, and that they don’t get too predictable. His style has its trademarks, and he has the wherewithal to make Scott’s evil ex battles into comedic musical numbers as well as epic action sequences, but that try-anything instinct yields some delightfully unexpected curveballs. How else to explain an exchange between Scott and his roommate, Wallace, accompanied by a lame-sitcom laugh track, or a pair of ‘Vegan Police’ officers doing a hammy slow-motion high-five as they exit, or filling a few seconds of dead air with evil ex Lucas Lee looking at something on his phone (that we never see) and going, “Haha! That’s actually hilarious…” (Something about the way Chris Evans delivers that line gets me every time.)

It’s worth noting that, especially since the movie is apparently such a faithful adaptation of the source material, many of these flourishes and comic touches are shared achievements by Wright and O’Malley, and since I haven’t read the comic books, I don’t know where the dividing line is. It’s safe to assume that O’Malley is responsible for the glorious character names; Scott Pilgrim and Ramona Flowers may be nothing special in that regard, but their supporting cast is another story. Envy Adams, Wallace Wells,[ix] Roxy Richter, Knives Chau, Young Neil—those names are the work of someone who understands the comic value of a well-conceived character. The simple act of presenting Scott’s final foe, the video game End Boss reimagined as a manipulative, intimidatingly successful older-guy ex-boyfriend named Gideon Graves, is good for a laugh. Credit O’Malley, too, for the wry little info boxes that pop up next to a new character: Comeau, Age: 25, Knows Everyone; Julie Powers, Age: 22, Has Issues; Stacey Pilgrim, Age: 18, Rating: T for ‘Teen’. Wright, meanwhile, throws in some jokes specific to the film industry: Scott’s bemused reaction to the news that movies are made in Toronto (one of Hollywood’s go-to stand-ins for other, less accommodating North American cities), and some subtly clever bits of casting. For cinephiles, there’s something sublime about seeing Chris Evans, fresh off the Human Torch and soon to be Captain America, scoff at Michael Cera, “You really think you stand a chance against an A-lister, bro?” Same with seeing Brandon Routh, who had recently lost his Superman gig, as the evil ex Todd, whose vegan superpowers are zapped away by a kryptonite-green ray gun, or Roxy; the evil ex from Ramona’s bi-curious days, played by Mae Whitman, who was once paired with Cera on Arrested Development as his hyper-religious girlfriend, Ann Veal.[x]

When it comes to the ‘serious’ side of Scott Pilgrim, the romance and youthful angst undergirding all the comedic mayhem, I can’t say which ideas originate with which creator, but it’s clear to me that Wright’s and O’Malley’s sensibilities complement each other, resulting in a movie that, silly as it often gets, is still emotionally coherent. Through those text boxes that introduce the characters, the Sex Bob-Omb music composed by Beck, and countless other details, they evince an intimate familiarity with the social clique portrayed here, and while the specifics of hipster culture are probably a bit different now, I expect that the movie still feels relevant, because beneath the ironic, awkward-yet-cool exteriors, the core emotions and yearnings—for love, acceptance, self-assurance, creative fulfillment, etc.—are pretty timeless, and have not changed much.

How well the central romance between Scott and Ramona works will vary depending on the viewer—and Wright includes plenty of comedy and action to keep you occupied if it doesn’t (like them or not, his movies are never, ever dull)—but it’s worth noting that their relationship, even setting aside the evil exes, isn’t entirely a retread of the loser-and-woman-way-out-of-his-league dynamic. As A.O. Scott notes, “Somehow they make it work, in part because Ramona never lets go of her skepticism even as she warms to Scott, and in part because Scott is never the abject weakling he often wants everyone to believe he is. His quivery diffidence contains quite a bit of guile, and what we know of his romantic history suggests a wolf in wet noodle’s clothing.” The supporting characters play a key role in this, too; Scott’s traits and behavior are often exasperating enough that it would be hard to root for him without the likes of Wallace, Stacey and others consistently on hand to call out his immaturity, or speak uncomfortably truths about his relationship with Knives, or simply tell him to buck up and grow up.

Then there’s the fantasy element, with Scott acquiring the durability and fighting skills of a video game avatar to battle Ramona’s evil exes. The symbolism of this isn’t particularly mysterious, but Wright (and O’Malley before him), use the conceit creatively enough to keep it from getting stale. (I especially like the point bonuses that Scott accrues on the way to his second attempt at the climactic battle, as he makes things right with Kim, shoves a couple of random hipsters, and tells Gideon how much he sucks.) The superpowers that it grants the characters also have a way of smoothing out some of the story’s rough edges; for example, we’re asked to sympathize with Scott even as he treats Knives pretty badly, and while she does end up more emotionally mature most of her older counterparts, her storyline might still be problematic if she didn’t also get to become an avenging badass in the process. The fact that there really is no visible divide between the video game world and regular old Toronto, is a consistent source of humor, especially when it comes to the reactions of bystanders, who regard Scott’s battles with equal parts amazement and bemusement—as wild and crazy, but also not particularly extraordinary, just two people working through their emotional baggage in public.

If I have one issue with the central romance, it’s the way Scott and Ramona also work through those emotions in regular dialogue. It’s a minor quibble, though, and these lines are not so much badly written or poorly delivered as simply unnecessary—in effect, telling literally what Scott’s outlandish battles are already doing a fine job of showing figuratively: that responsibility and self-respect are essential to true happiness, and that building a healthy relationship and dealing with the baggage of the past requires effort, vulnerability, and growth from both people involved.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is hardly the first movie to tell that story. But no other movie tells it with this kind of energy.

© Harrison Swan, 2021

[i] Including a peripheral college acquaintance of mine, Will Schoder, who has since become a legit YouTuber, and made this video about it:

[ii] Scott gets it, as always:

[iii] With the possible exception of Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City (2005), which is so wildly different in every other way that it doesn’t seem like a very useful comparison.

[iv] Burr gets it, too:

[v] That’s Robert Wilonsky, for the Village Voice:

[vi] As in the packaged ice cream dessert found in British convenience stores, which is referenced in all three movies.

[vii] Wright’s script for Ant-Man was adapted as well, of course, but the studio’s demand for a rewrite by somebody was the main reason he left the project. He retained a writing credit, but who knows how much of his original script made it into the final version.

[viii] The great Tony Zhou gives a more detailed explanation of the ways Wright does this in one of his fantastic Every Frame A Painting videos:

[ix] Not to be confused, these days, with the journalist David Wallace-Wells, whose terrifying 2019 book The Uninhabitable Earth ought to be required reading for anyone with any control over climate policy.

[x] Speaking of shows that absolutely crushed their character names. I still laugh out loud every time I remember the Bluth family’s lawyer, Bob Loblaw.

To Live (China, 1994)

China is kind of a big deal right now. But for a country that plays such a pivotal role in the world, how much do you know about the four thousand eventful years of history behind it? If you’re like me, the answer is… well, not much. My classes in school never really went there, focusing on the supposedly more relevant history of Europe and the U.S.A. Even the past several decades—when the world has been interconnected enough that what happened in East Asia was of at least some consequence to us in the West—are so dauntingly complex that it’s hard for a layperson to know where to start. Fortunately, as with any foreign culture, in addition to the many informative books and articles out there, a great deal can be learned from its cinema, even if we’re only able to explore it at a surface level—the greatest hits and the biggest names. In China, one of those names is the director Zhang Yimou, whose prolific career has included some of the Chinese movies best known to Western audiences. If you ever saw Hero (2002), with Jet Li as a nameless kung fu master recounting his exploits to (and possibly trying to assassinate!) the emperor, or House of Flying Daggers (2004), a gorgeous martial-arts romance that doesn’t feature quite as many flying daggers as one might hope—in both cases, that was Zhang behind the camera.[i] Amid such a high-octane body of work, it’s all too easy to overlook To Live, his deeply affecting 1994 drama that brings recent Chinese history to life with an eloquence and emotional clarity that most historical epics can only gesture towards.

At first glance, it might seem strange to call To Live[ii] an epic at all. It focuses on a family of no historical significance and takes place almost entirely in a single unnamed town in the north of China, far from the major cities where all the big, society-shaping decisions are being made. There’s very little historical exposition, yet as a Westerner,[iii] you come away from this movie feeling like you’ve learned a great deal about China in the middle of the twentieth century. How does Zhang do it? The solution is deceptively simple: he depicts the grand historical events through the eyes of a married couple, Fugui and Jiazhen, whose modest aspirations anybody, Chinese or otherwise, can relate to. The idea isn’t original to Zhang; storytellers have been using ordinary people as windows into history for centuries. But Zhang has assets that elevate that familiar device into something truly moving: a skillful and heartfelt adaptation of powerful source material; a pair of masterful lead performances; and his own great talent for gorgeously expressive visual storytelling.

The result is a movie that’s thoroughly captivating, even as it hits the standard emotional notes (both high and low) of the family-across-decades subgenre. Marital strife and reconciliation, financial catastrophe, war, political upheaval, children growing up and having children themselves, tragic loss, strained friendship—it’s all there, and while none of these plot developments are exactly original, Zhang and screenwriter Lu Wei avoid many of the narrative pitfalls that historical epics commonly run into. They take care to ensure that events arise organically, with plausible origins in the historical context and in the personalities of the characters, so that despite the prodigious catalogue of woe that befalls Fugui and Jiazhen, it doesn’t feel like the trials and tribulations are being piled on purely for tear-jerking purposes.[iv]

It’s not just about logical cohesion, though; more often than not, these familiar elements are subtly tweaked, redirected, or inverted in a way that makes them feel fresh. Sometimes it’s clear enough to be spelled out in the dialogue: Fugui gambles his family into financial ruin, but it ends up saving their lives a decade later, when the Communists take over and any link to the old aristocracy becomes a potentially lethal liability. Mostly, however, the adjustments are more finely drawn. Long’er, the man who conspires to take Fugui’s fortune, is hardly a monster, just a suave aristocrat with a greedy streak running through an otherwise decent personality; he does all he can to ease Fugui’s transition into his new life of poverty, even offering to take care of his aging mother for a time. In the manner of a straightforward antagonist, he coldly denies Fugui’s request for a small loan, but then proceeds to give him something much more valuable: the beautiful set of hand-crafted shadow puppets that allow Fugui to earn a living, and end up saving his life on multiple occasions. Indeed, the puppets are set up to be another common element in the historical epic: the heirloom (or some other emotionally significant object) that accompanies the protagonists across the decades—except here, the puppets don’t make it all the way through, falling victim to the paranoia of the Cultural Revolution. When Fugui and his friend Chunsheng get swept up in the civil war, the grizzled, jaded veteran they meet doesn’t advantage of their fear and naiveté, but takes them under his wing and provides life-saving advice. The town’s top Communist official, Mr. Niu, is a true believer who eagerly carries out cold-hearted policies, but he’s also a friendly, attentive leader with a genuine desire to improve the lives of his people. When Fugui brings his son Youqing to work after days without sleep, tragedy results not from a steel-smelting mishap, but from a much more mundane, preventable, and even darkly ironic accident. A hastily arranged marriage for the couple’s shy, mute daughter Fengxia feels similarly ominous, until her husband turns out to be a thoroughly decent man who falls in love with her and fits seamlessly into the family.

And the list could go on; all throughout the movie, Zhang deftly subverts our expectations in this way. The adjustments are minor, but the effect is exponential. The story is more interesting, but it also feels more accurate, more attuned to the twists and turns of real life, which so rarely align with tired plot points.

Moreover, everything is depicted in Zhang’s typically elegant visual style, expertly rendered here by cinematographer Lü Yue. To Live is actually quite visually restrained by Zhang’s standards; in other movies both before and after, he tends to go all-out on the vivid colors and stylized compositions, as if testing the limits of overused critical terms like ‘sumptuous’ and ‘visual splendor’.[v] Still, his restraint here dovetails neatly with the modest scale of the story, and the movie is still far from visually dull. Zhang is one of those gifted artists who will take care to compose an arresting image even for unimportant, throwaway-type moments: a man walking away down a deserted street, the beautifully intricate work of the shadow puppet troupe, or a pauper selling trinkets on the street, huddled against the winter cold. Such visual generosity is always welcome, and it’s crucial in a historical fiction film like this, which aims to immerse us as much in the setting and the time period as in the plot.

Zhang’s visual instincts are even more impressive in important moments; he has a knack for finding images that perfectly illuminate massive historical forces on an individual level. At the beginning, he draws our attention to the ledger full of Fugui’s debts, a charming relic of an earlier era that, with blood-red thumbprints along the bottom in lieu of signatures, is also slightly ominous, portending not only Fugui’s bankruptcy, but the downfall of the whole social order that he represents. Zhang signals the arrival of the Communist Revolution with a bayonet punching through the screen used in Fugui’s puppet shows—a simple, almost comical image that evokes the dangerous cocktail of violence, excitement, and uncertainty that comes with civil war. A wide shot of Fugui and Chunsheng fleeing down a snowy hillside, quickly dwarfed by an endless wave of soldiers in pursuit, forcefully illustrates the helpless position of ordinary bystanders in the midst of such a conflict. Later on, when Zhang lingers on the aftermath of a festive night of steel production, the people sleeping around the forge look disconcertingly like corpses, suggesting that as jubilant as this community-wide project has been, it’s probably not going to end well. For me, one of the most powerful shots is a simple close-up of Fugui’s treasured puppets burning, succinctly showing how not even the most treasured and beautiful artifacts of the past are safe from the relentless modernizing forces of the Cultural Revolution. And finally, the human cost of that upheaval is made brutally clear in the image of an experienced doctor, weakened by imprisonment and starvation, passed out on the floor as a medical emergency unfolds behind him.

Another key factor in the movie’s success is Zhang’s excellent sense of pacing. Any movie that condenses three decades into just over two hours is going to feel rushed at times, but Zhang does a remarkably good job of making us feel the weight of all those passing years. He doesn’t succumb to the cliché of signaling a significant jump forward with a quick montage of nostalgia-tinged images, an approach that rarely (if ever) really works. He knows it can be done less obtrusively, through changes in clothing and hairstyles, the arrival and departure of minor characters, and especially the seasonal backdrop—the progress from spring and summer towards fall and winter is clear and persistent, appealing to our hardwired sense of time in annual chunks, but also irregular, so we intuit that this is happening over many different years. He’s also helped immeasurably by Zhao Jiping’s wistful theme music, which evokes old memories and the long-term passage of time even when the images don’t show it.

Zhang also makes the smart choice to divide the movie into three distinct sections, each covering one decade and quite narrowly focused. (The middle chapter, covering ‘The 1950s,’ unfolds over no more than a couple of weeks, and even the two more expansive ones linger on key moments rather than painting in broad brushstrokes.) Concentrating on these short but consequential time periods is another slight adjustment that adds a great deal to the movie, giving both the story and the characters room to breathe. It lets Zhang make use of a clever narrative device not available in most other circumstances: namely, creating tension simply by focusing on ordinary, mundane events. In a movie that spans many years, we know we’re seeing only the most important moments—the highlights, so to speak, of a much more detailed story—so when the movie lingers on things that seems trivial, we’re left in a muted but persistent state of anticipation, until something momentous finally does come to pass. To adapt and paraphrase another critic’s excellent description of this technique: The big community-steel-making sequence goes on forever, and you’re not quite sure why—until, suddenly, you are.[vi] We see it elsewhere as well, in the tense lead-up to Fuigui’s capture by the Communist forces, and when he and Jiazhen nervously make small talk while Fengxia is in labor. This willingness to delve into the details of everyday life is especially valuable for foreign viewers, serving to immerse us more fully in a fascinatingly unfamiliar world.

Most important of all, Zhang is free to give us a more complete portrait of his characters. Fugui and Jiazhen could easily have been one-dimensional victims, nobly suffering through one hardship after another. But by narrowing the movie’s focus, Zhang is able to expand its emotional range. It’s not just about fitting some welcome moments of levity into the proceedings; the lead performances, by Ge You as Fugui and Gong Li as Jiazhen, are much more nuanced than they would otherwise have been. We see them in crisis, but also in less serious moments, learn a bit about their quirks and, crucially, their flaws, so that we come to know them not just as pawns on a historical chessboard, but as human beings with recognizable personalities and many normal facets to their lives.

I often find it rather difficult to judge performances in Chinese, with its intonations and vocal rhythms so different from English, but Ge and Gong’s work here transcends such barriers. Even back in 1994, Ge was already a well-established star in China, known mostly (I was initially surprised to learn) for comedic roles. But his gangly frame and angular features turn out to be just as well suited to a serious role as an ordinary rural citizen: not movie-star handsome in a way that might stretch belief, but distinctive and expressive enough that our attention is always drawn to him. His low-key but undeniable screen presence is a perfect fit for the role; apart from skillfully navigating the emotional notes of the story, he projects a combination of decency, optimism, and practical-minded resilience that make Fugui easy to root for—with a near-constant undercurrent of mild bewilderment that makes him an ideal audience surrogate in this confusing, rapidly shifting milieu. It says a lot that although Fugui can be obstinate and misguided, the only time he’s truly unlikable is at the beginning, when he’s a spoiled son of the aristocracy. Ge manages to make that arrogant asshole and the modest family man he becomes recognizably the same person, someone who only grows more sympathetic even as he makes some significant mistakes. And his background in comedy actually informs another compelling facet of his performance: an understated way of bringing out (or sometimes simply gesturing towards) notes of irony and bitter humor even in deadly serious parts of the story.

Gong, meanwhile, is even more interesting. She, too, was already famous when To Live was made, fresh off a lead role in Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine (1993), which was well on its way to becoming one of the Chinese films most admired in the West. But like Ge, she manages to slip quite seamlessly into the movie’s setting. Her statuesque features are more recognizably those of a movie star (she has convincingly played empresses and nightclub singers, and was once voted the most beautiful woman in China) but with a plain haircut and workaday clothes, she doesn’t look out of place in a crowd of provincial townspeople. She’s undeniably gorgeous, but in a way that’s only a few steps removed from ordinary, if that makes any sense.

I think of Gong a bit like the Meryl Streep of Asia; the actresses are analogous in a number of ways, from the particular qualities of their screen presence (strikingly, almost imposingly elegant, yet still appealing and accessible) to their prodigious acting skills: unless a character is spectacularly ill-conceived, or the dialogue truly terrible, they’re going to be compelling to watch even if the movie isn’t. Neither of those obstacles exist in To Live; Gong works from a good script, playing a character who is almost entirely sympathetic. Fugui may technically be the movie’s protagonist, driving the plot and giving voice to the main ideas, but Jiazhen is its heart and aching conscience; the movie would not be nearly so poignant without the moral and emotional clarity that she provides. There’s no shortage of capital-A Acting in the role; Gong is called upon to tearfully walk out of a marriage, break down at the return of a presumed-dead husband, and weep for a dead child on three different occasions, and she does so with a raw, straightforward power that speaks to the universality of basic human emotions. Near the end, when Fengxia dies from complications in childbirth, Zhang zeroes in on a close-up of Jiazhen, crying and begging the nurses to save her last surviving child, and you don’t need to speak her language to feel the full force of Gong’s performance.

Such scenes are the emotional backbone of the movie, but as powerful as they are, Gong’s portrayal would still feel rather one-dimensional if she didn’t have more to do. Jiazhen doesn’t evolve in the same way as Fugui; her humility, good judgment, and heartbreaking willingness to take responsibility for misfortunes that aren’t her fault, are all fairly constant throughout the movie. It’s she who benefits the most from the story’s narrowed focus, and the corresponding attention to ostensibly mundane details. So along with the instances of high emotion, we see Jiazhen going about her normal life: washing clothes, fussing over a child’s school lunch, planning a practical joke with her son to cheer him up, meticulously poring over fabrics at a shop, and so on. For me, it’s these minor elements that really complete Jiazhen as a character; this woman of a distant culture and an earlier era, whose life experience is almost entirely alien to most of us, becomes much more familiar, perhaps even reminiscent of any number of unassuming, devoted mothers that we’ve encountered in our own lives—a connection which, in turn, makes her suffering all the more heart-rending. And while these fleeting moments may not demand her most impressive efforts, Gong clearly recognizes their importance; unmarried, without children, and only twenty-nine years old at the time, she approaches them with the same attention to detail as the big dramatic scenes, ensuring that she gets them right.

Meanwhile, just as impressive as the individual performances (and just as important, especially in this sort of movie) is the way that the two leads share the screen. Fugui and Jiazhen’s story is not a genre-typical one of impassioned romance amid turbulent history; we don’t see how they met, and the lone rough patch in their marriage is over and done with by the end of the first act. There are tragedies and disagreements afterwards, but never much doubt that the couple will stay together for good. Ge and Gong portray that deep commitment largely without overt displays of affection, focusing instead on the easy rapport and comfort in each other’s presence that characterize any solid marriage. Fugui and Jiazhen are portrayed less as passionate lovers than as a mostly well-functioning team, a romantic dynamic that’s much harder to convincingly capture onscreen. Ge and Gong even manage (aided, of course, by Zhang’s expert storytelling) to make these subtler bonds grow noticeably stronger as the movie goes on.

The same understated realism can be found in the movie’s approach to aging. No actor, filmed over a period of months, is really going to look like they’ve aged thirty years, and Zhang makes the wise decision not to use prosthetics and visual effects to try and sell it. (Such efforts aren’t always convincing even now, and certainly wouldn’t have been in China twenty-five years ago.) New costumes and altered hairstyles help,[vii] but Ge and Gong depict the aging process mostly through changes in the way they carry themselves. They don’t overdo it, shambling and hunched over like young people imitating the elderly. They understand the way most older people actually move: a bit slower and heavier, each motion taking just a little more effort, more deliberate but less controlled (Gong, in particular, nails the faint loosening of limbs and joints that age brings on)—in other words, doing their best to move with the same ease and grace that they did when they were younger. Fugui and Jiazhen are not ancient at the end, and don’t look terribly different at a glance, but the effects of thirty hard years are relatively convincing, precisely because they’re so subtly telegraphed. To illustrate the strength of their acting and of Zhang’s storytelling: pause the movie near the end and think back to the beginning, and you may be struck (as I was) by just how long ago it feels.

There are obvious reasons for such thoroughness: the movie feels more realistically lived-in, and the more we feel that we’ve actually been with the characters through many years, the greater our emotional investment in their well-being. But I think Zhang also intends for the inexorable passage of time to become an odd source of comfort; apart from the family’s instinctive love for each other, it’s about the only thing in the movie that’s completely predictable, straightforward, and unwavering. And this is the way that Zhang, working in an environment of strict artistic censorship, manages to engage with the fraught history and sensitive politics of the story he’s telling. For all its verisimilitude, To Live does not offer a totally accurate depiction of its time period—or rather, not a complete one, since it glosses over perhaps the most painful event in those three decades: the devastating famine that ravaged the country from around 1959-1961. It killed anywhere from 15 million (official government statistics, of course) to 45 million people (as some scholars contend), and was largely caused—or, at best, made markedly worse—by the sweeping policy changes of the Great Leap Forward. Zhang, in need of at least a decent relationship with the Party to have any career at all, had little choice but to leave it out if he ever wanted the movie to see the light of day.[viii]

And as strange as it sounds to say it, skipping over the famine makes some artistic sense as well. It was especially bad in rural areas like the town where Fugui and Jiazhen live, and would have been impossible to portray as anything other than an unmitigated horror show. Here in the West, that’s basically how we (encouraged by our own leaders, with their own agendas) think of Chinese Communism at that time: civil war, starvation, mob violence, and ruined lives, the whole nine yards of human misery. Millions of people did suffer those things, but Zhang was never going to be allowed to make a movie about them. He chose to focus on the lives that weren’t utterly destroyed by the Revolution, the untold millions of ordinary people just doing their best (as the movie’s title indicates) to live through turbulent, dangerous times. He knew that even without going fully polemical, he could still show the effects of such a massive social upheaval. So along with the undercurrents of sadness, there’s a mild but persistent atmosphere of uncertainty and instability, of things never quite working out the way we expect—or indeed, the way we feel they should. Zhang’s way of subtly modifying genre conventions is just one example. Isolated moments verge on the comical, like when Fugui, upon learning that his former home was burned down, feels the need to denounce it as “counterrevolutionary timber,” or when Mr. Niu deftly steers a wedding ceremony into a celebration of Chairman Mao. In a broader sense: three main tragedies befall the family, and while they are all in some way Fugui’s fault, the depth of the pain is inversely proportional to the extent of his poor judgment. His reckless hedonism plunges the family into bankruptcy, and it ends up saving all their lives. It seems a bit harsh when he insists that the exhausted Youqing go to school, but given the political climate, we can understand his apprehension about being seen as “politically backward.” And when Fengxia begins to hemorrhage, no one can help her because Fugui gave a starving man something to eat.

The sad fate of Youging and Fengxia also carries an implicit message that’s more straightforwardly political. It’s not always spelled out in the rhetoric, and no one in the movie says so outright, but revolutions are always, in some sense, about the children—it’s the only way that the true believers can get most ordinary citizens on board. Very few people will lay down their life for a political ideology. Pretty much everyone will lay down their life for their children. This is the revolution’s simple, often irresistible promise: a better life for future generations. In China (as everywhere else) it wasn’t nearly that simple, and what better way to illustrate the collision of high ideals with messy reality than that simple tragedy: the revolution is supposed to be for the children, and both of Fugui and Jiazhen’s children end up dead—from accidents whose connection to the revolution is indirect but unmistakable. It’s also no accident that the characters most committed to the revolution, Mr. Niu and Chunsheng, end up getting screwed by it in the most predictable fashion, denounced as capitalists by ambitious subordinates.

There’s a scene near the beginning that perfectly encapsulates the expansive, multi-faceted way that Zhang portrays this instability onscreen. Fugui and his companions, having slept through the retreat, wake up to find the military encampment deserted. The Communists are coming, and we’re imploring Fugui and the others to get the hell out of there, or at least get out of sight until the enemy shows up. Instead, Chunsheng hops into a truck. We see him in close-up, pretending to drive the way a child might, and the tension is palpable because it seems like the setup for a classic way that movies announce the arrival of an advancing army: a sudden bullet through the windshield to dispatch a minor character. But it doesn’t come, and both Chunsheng and Fugui survive. Yet this moment, which seems at first like a clever bit of directorial sleight of hand, will come to resonate much more profoundly. Chunsheng eventually realizes his dream of becoming a driver, only to accidentally kill Youqing. And by the end, when he’s been denounced as a reactionary, his wife has committed suicide, and Jiazhen is calling in the life he owes them to keep him from killing himself, we can’t help but think that maybe it would have been better for everyone if a bullet had come through that windshield, like we thought it would.

Still, this isn’t a simple case of an angry director finding clever workarounds to condemn a repressive regime. I think Zhang’s politics are genuinely more complicated than that; some of his major works—movies he clearly cares about—lie comfortably within the Party’s strict confines, and he readily includes some of the positive sides of the Revolution: the atmosphere of merry cooperation at the steel works and the communal kitchens, the genuine pride of the townspeople when their efforts produce a modest lump of steel, or the generous camaraderie of the son-in-law Erxi and his crew of Red Guards. And whatever criticisms Zhang may lob at the government, he clearly sees a great deal to admire in regular people. Perhaps his cleverest act of subversion—and the main reason that the movie isn’t a long slog through misery—is that flashes of basic decency and emotional honesty keep overriding ideology and dogma. When Fugui returns home, Jiazhen leaves a water jug overflowing, and no one calls her out for wasting resources. The young nursing students who take over the hospital are arrogant and dismissive, but when things go wrong, they’re as distraught as everyone else. When the family’s modest funeral for Youqing is interrupted with a gaudy arrangement of flowers proclaiming him a hero of the Revolution, Jiazhen flings it on the ground and tells them all to go shove it, and Mr. Niu lets it slide, recognizing that this isn’t the time for Party purity.

For Zhang, the Revolution may not have delivered the utopia it promised, but it wasn’t all misery, and he clearly feels no nostalgia for the society that preceded it, when a few undeserving louts (like Fugui at the time) had it all, while the rest of the country literally carried them on their backs. Some societal realignment needed to happen, and what they got was Communism, which brought some real benefits for many people, but wasn’t immune to the structural problems and human flaws that have been causing small, personal tragedies since the dawn of civilization.

True to form, Zhang closes with a moment that succinctly encapsulates that ambivalence. In a short epilogue “some years later,” the family’s tragic past still weighs heavily on them, either at the forefront or in the background of everything they do. But it’s not all despair: Jiazhen has some version of the quiet life she wanted, and although they’ve suffered great losses, she and Fugui still have a family. They don’t have much, but in some sense, they have enough—the movie ends with them sitting down to eat.

After watching To Live, we don’t necessarily know a great deal more about the history of China in the middle twentieth century than we did before. But we may feel that we understand it in a whole new way, because we’ve been through it with people whose virtues, flaws and aspirations we can all relate to. Just before the credits roll, Fugui and Jiazhen spin a little parable for their grandson about his new chicks growing into oxen. The boy wants to ride an ox, and Fugui declares, “[He] won’t ride an ox. He’ll ride trains and planes, and life will get better and better.” The statement is full of optimism, but the poverty of their surroundings, and the note of resignation in his voice, speak to their own sad experience.

If there’s a more beautifully concise way to capture the emotional life of China in the early years of Communism, the grand promises and the hard reality, I’m not sure what it could be.

© Harrison Swan, 2021

[i] Zhang did attempt a mainstream American blockbuster a few years ago with the Matt Damon action vehicle The Great Wall, but the less said about that, the better.

[ii] And since you’re already thinking it: yes, I’m aware of how clunky and even pretentious that title sounds. Some English versions translate it as Lifetimes, which isn’t much better, but this movie earns such a weighty title as well as any, and it presumably sounds more elegant in Mandarin.

[iii] Throughout this article, I’ll be discussing the movie as it appeals to a Western audience, since that’s the perspective I know. I imagine that the experience would be quite different (and probably more powerful) for a Chinese viewer, especially someone more immediately familiar with the history being depicted.

[iv] This is, by the way, the clearest example of smart adaptation from the source material. The original novel seems (based, it should be said, on the Wikipedia plot synopsis, not my actually having read it) to be more of a fable-esque tragedy; by the end of it, everyone in Fugui’s family has died, leaving him a destitute peasant with only an ox for company. It may well be a powerful read, but I don’t think that version of the story would’ve worked nearly as well onscreen.

[v] Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that. Lavish visuals are lovely to look at, and they often feel quite appropriate in Zhang’s operatic sagas set in quasi-mythical versions of ancient China, like Hero, House of Flying Daggers, or Curse of the Golden Flower (2006).

[vi] That was the Boston Globe critic Ty Burr, writing about the Italian epic The Best of Youth, in a review that seems to have pulled off the rare feat of disappearing from the Internet.

[vii] I liked the solution that the filmmakers found for Ge’s balding: give him a fashionably shaved head at the beginning, then let his greatly receded hairline grow back a bit when he’s playing an older man.

[viii] It was, unsurprisingly, still banned in China, where movies must be transparently pro-Party to make it into the multiplex. But perhaps in winking recognition of the movie’s nuanced view of history, Zhang’s punishment was a relatively lenient two-year ban from filmmaking.

Spotlight (2015)

Hollywood likes newspapers, and not only because their writers pen the official artistic judgments of its work. The news business is one of those subjects that’s just well suited to cinema—who can resist a good tale of intrepid reporters speaking truth to power and exposing entrenched corruption? It may not show up in the blockbuster ranks as often as war heroism, superhero romp, or comic romance between beautiful people, but that story is just as essential a part of Hollywood’s repertoire. So given that the Boston Globe’s ‘Spotlight’ investigative unit has, as one character notes, been around since 1970—a few years before Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman took down Richard Nixon in All The President’s Men, setting the tone for journalism cinema ever since—it’s almost surprising that (as far as I know) there wasn’t a movie made about it sooner. A small team of hard-driving reporters in a city that Hollywood loves,[i] who are not just permitted, but specifically assigned to spend months or even years on deep-dive investigations? That’s almost too perfect a setup for newsroom drama, one that would seem like a stretch if you couldn’t state up front that it’s based on real events. Add that in 2002 (at a crucial moment in the history of newspapers, no less), that team dropped some quintessential bombshell reporting about a textbook case of high-level wrongdoing—the Boston Archdiocese’s systematic coverup of child sex abuse by Catholic priests—and it was only a matter of time. That this movie would be made was inevitable. That Spotlight would be an all-time great journalism movie was anything but—the result, instead, of smart choices and top-notch work by everyone involved.

It starts (as it tends to) with the director: in this case Tom McCarthy, who also co-wrote the script with Josh Singer.[ii] McCarthy isn’t a particularly prolific or flashy filmmaker, but he’s been around for nearly two decades now, quietly building up an impressive body of work. Before Spotlight in 2015, he had made just three smaller indie features: The Station Agent (2003), The Visitor (2007), and Win Win (2011). I haven’t been able to see any of them yet, but they’ve all been widely acclaimed for their touching humanism and exceptionally strong performances. Which isn’t surprising, because McCarthy is an actor, too. He entered the industry that way, and has never completely abandoned it as he’s pursued his career behind the camera; once you recognize him, you catch him appearing in all sorts of supporting roles since the early 2000s, ranging from big releases (Meet the Parents; Flags of Our Fathers) to artsy indies (Good Night, and Good Luck; Jack Goes Boating). Funnily enough, his most prominent role so far has been in the final season of The Wire—as an ingratiating, increasingly unscrupulous reporter at the Baltimore Sun.

McCarthy the visual stylist is all but invisible in Spotlight, but that’s not a deficiency; it’s a conscious choice, and a smart one. For one thing, an unobtrusive docudrama style is right for as story that closely based on the facts of recent history, and driven mostly by the everyday sight of people talking to one another. But the style is also the right aesthetic fit for the setting. As New York Times critic A.O. Scott writes, the movie “captures the finer grain of newsroom life in the early years of this century almost perfectly… As the story unfolds, there are scenes of pale-skinned guys in pleated khakis and button-down oxfords gathering under fluorescent lights and ugly drop ceilings, spasms of frantic phone-calling and stretches of fidgety downtime. Not even the presence of Mad Men bad-boy John Slattery can impart much glamour to these drab surroundings. Visually, the movie is about as compelling as a day-old coffee stain. As I said: almost perfect.”[iii] This is not a film in which it makes sense to indulge your more radical stylistic impulses, and McCarthy wisely does not.

Still, that’s not to say he and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi are phoning it in; behind the scenes, they make smart choices that define this aesthetic and make it effective. When characters speak to each other, the framing is clear and straightforward, the cuts between them thoroughly inconspicuous. When characters move, the camera moves with them, in simple, intuitive motions that draw very little attention to themselves. McCarthy also makes frequent and skillful use of the so-called ‘oner’ (as in the number one), meaning a single shot in which an entire scene, or a large chunk of one, is allowed to play out. When we think about such shots, the most ostentatious examples typically come to mind, the dazzling long takes of mayhem that war and action movies love. But that’s not the only way to use the technique, and just as impressive, in their own way, are the long takes that are so subtle, they effectively pass below our radar.[iv] That’s what McCarthy does so well here: low-key oners in which the camera glides along with characters as they walk, or, if the characters aren’t moving, simply posts up at a good vantage point and lets them talk. These shots are unobtrusive, but their effect is significant: they allow the actors to convey ultra-fine notes and rhythms of performance that even good editing can obscure; and they contribute to the movie’s sense of realism, showing things from the matter-of-fact perspective of another person who happens to be nearby. All this, in turn, serves to make the McCarthy’s judicious use of the close-up all the more effective; because it happens so infrequently, the simple act of cutting in close, so that an actor’s face dominates the frame, is enough to inject a small jolt of urgency into a scene.

Also worth noting is the way that McCarthy, in wide shots around the city and the Globe offices, employs telephoto lenses, the kind that hold many layers of background in focus and appear to collapse the distance between them. Filmmakers love shooting cities this way, especially when they’re going for a claustrophobic, stress-inducing vibe; having all those people and vehicles and buildings appearing densely layered on top of each other, helps to portray the city as a seething mass of humanity, and life within it as a soul-crushing grind. That’s not the case here, though; the effect is limited to simply building a sense of the city as a single, multi-faceted human entity, and the characters as individuals operating within it.Put another way, the telephoto shots function as part of the movie’s overarching realism, which doesn’t try to suppress the fact that Boston—especially in the summer and fall, when the movie takes place—is, by and large, a pretty nice place. The city we see in Spotlight is about as close to the real thing as you’ll find in a fiction film. It looks basically the same, the accents are good (i.e., neither ubiquitous nor overdone), and for those who know the region, there’s plenty of, for lack of a better term, ‘Boston stuff’ to be appreciated: a reference to the endless road closures of the notorious ‘Big Dig’; “freakin” outnumbering “fuckin” as an intensifying adjective; complaints about the sorry state of the Red Sox, just a few years out from one of the great championship runs in sports history; and a rushed Mike Rezendes instructing a cabbie, “Don’t take 93!” (meaning Interstate 93, an epicenter of the city’s uniquely ludicrous traffic). And this authenticity makes the central drama all the more powerful: even in this unembellished Boston—mostly pleasant, plainly recognizable from real life—we find the same kinds of horrific cruelty and suffering that define the stylized urban hellholes of other movies.

McCarthy handles this heaviest of subject matter brilliantly—in the script with Singer, on set with the actors, and in the cutting room with editor Tom McArdle. In his understated, seemingly effortless way, he manages to capture the weight and scope of the priests’ abuse and the human misery it causes without making the movie miserable to watch. He wisely chooses not to show any of the actual abuse in flashbacks, which, powerful though they would surely be, would probably fail to capture the true horror of what happened, yet also be so disturbing that it would overshadow the rest of the movie. Instead, he doesn’t spend much screen time on the abuse itself at all: just an opening flashback succinctly showing how the Church swept it under the rug for decades, and two harrowing interviews with survivors that are fairly brief and grouped together in the first act. The way McCarthy crafts them, though, these scenes are all we need; the opening flashback provides an important point of reference for the Spotlight team’s later discoveries, and thanks to fantastic performances by Michael Cyril Creighton and Jimmy LeBlanc, the interviews are so wrenching that for the rest of the movie, all it takes is a quick shot of another survivor breaking down for us to know the sort of pain they’re feeling, or a quick glimpse of present-day children in the background for us to see them as potential victims, too. McCarthy makes the trauma of the abuse and its emotional toll powerfully felt without losing sight of how they function in the narrative: as wrongs to be exposed, and hopefully remedied as a result. Fundamentally, this movie is about the reporters, the paper, and the way they uncover those horrors.

That’s a complicated story with a lot of moving parts, and McCarthy and his collaborators handle it just as skillfully, with creativity and precision that, like everything else about this movie’s aesthetic, goes largely unnoticed. Key exposition that introduces characters, identifies places, and explains processes, is worked into the dialogue with impressive seamlessness. The line at the end of a given scene will often contain some factual or thematic setup for the next one, making the complex narrative easier to follow and absorb. And although there are no ostentatious editing flourishes, McCarthy and McArdle do engage in some subtle cross-cutting, alternating between two scenes so that each informs the other.

Most consequential of all is McCarthy’s deft hand in juggling the development, and role within the narrative, of the principal characters. They’re fairly numerous (a quintessential ensemble cast), and the movie is a terrific portrayal of collective effort, giving a detailed sense of how the newsroom works and how the investigation progresses, how the reporters operate individually and work as a team, and how their efforts are guided and influenced by those at each level of the editorial hierarchy. Nor are they the only ones crucial to the story; we see them not just going out and actively collecting information, but processing information and pressure coming in from outside sources, and subtle character choices by McCarthy make that aspect of it more compelling. The survivors’ network leader Phil Saviano provides insights into how the abuse happens and the damage it does, and serves as a voice of conscience exhorting the reporters to follow through on doing the right thing. He’s also one of several ways that the movie dispenses information about the scale of the abuse and the Church’s coverup, along with the victims’ lawyer Mitch Garabedian, the Spotlight team as they talk through their findings, and the ex-priest psychotherapist Richard Sipe, who is heard only as a voice on the phone—the better to represent a broader body of expert analysis that the Church has successfully suppressed over the preceding decades. McCarthy had a compelling historical record to work from, but these choices he makes about character and structure make the narrative exceptionally clear, exciting, and poignant—and still very much in keeping with the movie’s down-to-earth realism.

A central aspect of that realism is the fact that, while the issue they’re investigating is as morally clear-cut as they come, the characters are portrayed with much more nuance. For a movie about the exposure of such horrific crimes, there’s a notable dearth of plainly odious villains. McCarthy head-fakes with a few characters, making them seem like possible antagonists early on before they end up making key contributions to the investigation. The Globe’s new executive editor, Marty Baron, comes in with a reputation for cost-cutting layoffs, and initially seems skeptical of Spotlight’s financial viability, but soon afterwards he all but orders them to take on the clerical abuse story, and quickly earns their respect. The team’s managing editor, Ben Bradlee Jr., also makes early gestures towards editorial interference, but soon becomes an unquestioned supporter of their work, while still plainly dreading the idea of publishing what they find. Even the smooth-talking lawyer Eric MacLeish, perpetuating and profiting off an unjust system that leaves victims without meaningful legal recourse, turns out to be more complicated that he first appears, his cynicism at least partially rooted in disillusionment after the paper brushed off his earlier attempts to go public.

The closest we have to true villains in Spotlight are decidedly minor characters, and even they are not cartoonishly evil. Cardinal Bernard Law, the Archbishop of Boston, is revealed to have done some seriously awful things, but he comes across as merely pompous, so long accustomed to being respected, admired, and deferred to that he can no longer conceive of himself being wrong, or not doing right. Pete Conley, a congenial member of the city’s Catholic elite who tries to tamp down the story, is just a well-connected guy with P.R. instincts who has fully bought into the old ‘just a few bad apples, and the Church does more good than harm’ argument. And then there’s Jim Sullivan, old friend of Spotlight leader Robby Robinson and distinguished lawyer, whose services the Church enlisted in shielding priests from prosecution. In a great performance from Jamey Sheridan, who “knows how to show the demon under the human face—and the human under the demon face,”[v] he’s an antagonist for much of the movie, warning Robby off with an air of menace, but he ultimately relents and provides the final confirmation that Spotlight needs to run their story.

McCarthy maintains this nuanced characterization across the board; there are no true villains, but no traditional heroes, either. The Spotlight team inevitably comes close—we spend most of our time with them, and they’re shown to be smart, capable and empathetic as they investigate heinous crimes—but McCarthy takes great care to show that they’re not perfect. They make mistakes, experience friction and conflict, and have to contend with an array of forces, from the personal (raised Catholic, firmly rooted in Boston and its traditions) to the institutional (working for a paper in a deeply Catholic city, with a heavily Catholic subscriber base) that, taken together, form a powerful imperative to look the other way—as the Globe mostly has done for decades. As Ty Burr writes, “Spotlight makes the sharp, sobering point that it took an outsider, Baron, to notice what the locals didn’t, or couldn’t, or maybe even wouldn’t, and that the Globe had more than one chance to open an investigation years earlier than it did. The movie paints this as the regrettable bureaucratic oversight of a hectic workplace. It’s also true that people are flawed and that institutions thrive by not making waves. Until something changes, and they do.”[vi] The unshowy genius of this ensemble (Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian d’Arcy James, and John Slattery) lies in the way they so clearly and powerfully capture that dynamic. Remember, while the actual abuse is a crucial and moving aspect of the movie, direct engagement with it is concentrated near the beginning, and it’s an unambiguous atrocity thereafter. The emotional progression of the story comes mainly from the reporters as they overcome those many inhibitions and hang-ups, willing themselves to see and expose what the paper has missed before. The actors make that progression subtly but forcefully felt; their initial resistance feels entirely natural, and their various evolutions easy to understand and relate to.

Moreover, and crucially, the Spotlight reporters aren’t the only fully developed characters. Their journeys form the emotional backbone of the movie, but they’re all, for the most part, variations of essentially the same arc. A subtly large share of the emotional impact comes from other characters whose development is less readily apparent. One is Marty Baron. In one of the great feats of underacting in recent cinema, Liev Schreiber captures not only Baron’s essential, unchanging traits—his thoughtful intelligence and absolute, almost uncanny reticence—but also his growth from a recent transplant to a new city into a quietly confident leader; think of the difference between his painfully awkward attempt at a ‘Hi, I’m your new boss’ speech at the beginning, and the eloquently candid one he gives at the end, praising the Spotlight team for the great work they’ve done.

Even more importantly, there’s the always-fantastic Stanley Tucci as Mitch Garabedian, the eccentric, workaholic attorney waging an endless uphill legal battle on behalf of the victims. Mitch, too, has a defining personality—melancholic, cantankerous, and magnificently humorless (his response to a rhetorical “You’re shitting me!” is to look confused and insist, “What? No, I’m not shitting you!”)—but Tucci also gives us a powerful sense of how he grows: slowly and guardedly opening up to the reporters, clearly agonizing over it at every turn, having to work through legal constraints, his own natural irritability, and a longstanding, hard-earned cynicism about all forms of institutional authority, including the press. Of all the various moments in the climactic montage, when the Spotlight report is finally printed, the sight of Mitch just barely choking back his emotions as he shyly asks, “Can I keep this?” may be the most affecting of all.

That line is emblematic of McCarthy and Singer’s writing, which manages (again, inconspicuously) to strike a very tricky balance: articulate and impassioned, yet mostly unremarkable, made up of sentences that you can easily imagine real people saying in real life. We get the obligatory Rousing Speech, but you get the sense that it’s there at least partly because studio higher-ups demanded it (this is still the movie business, after all). The dialogue in the Speech is fine and Ruffalo delivers it well, but it ultimately doesn’t make much of an impression—on us or, significantly, on the person it’s directed at, Robbie, who stands firm in his decision to hold the story until it’s truly ready. The most memorable lines, for me, are thoroughly straightforward: Ben, dismayed by the news that Spotlight is nearing confirmation on seventy abusive priests, somewhat dazedly remarking, “It’s just surprising, that’s all”; or Mike declaring, “It really pisses me off,” after seeing proof that Cardinal Law knew about the abuse and did nothing to stop it; and Sacha sadly agreeing, “It’s a shitty feeling.” Simple dialogue like this, expertly delivered by the actors, is a key aspect of the movie’s overarching realism, and does a much better job of conveying the characters’ sense of moral horror and betrayal by a Church that, lapsed though they are, they inevitably still feel a strong connection to because of their upbringing and where they live.

Spotlight is a great movie because it engages with this defining reality of the story: that what the Spotlight team uncovers is shocking, but it’s not completely surprising. As Sacha bitterly notes, “It’s like everyone already knows”; their work is not so much about exposing hidden abuses as about finally confronting an open secret. More than anything else, Spotlight feels true to life because it’s an uncommonly realistic depiction of how goddamn difficult it is to challenge entrenched authority and remedy entrenched wrongdoing. Even when the reporters are committed, and the citizens inclined to believe the story, at the end of the day the paper is still one of the city’s institutions of authority, and inevitably finds itself rubbing shoulders with the others. As Scott writes, referring to Baron’s early meeting with Cardinal Law, “the image of two prominent men talking quietly behind closed doors…haunts this somber, thrilling movie and crystallizes its major concern, which is the way power operates in the absence of accountability. When institutions convinced of their own greatness work together, what usually happens is that the truth is buried and the innocent suffer. Breaking that pattern of collaborating is not easy.” I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Spotlight team makes their most meaningful progress by, not breaking rules exactly, but venturing outside social norms—listening to stories about stigmatized trauma, yes, but also waylaying uncooperative sources on the street or leaving work, confronting old friends with difficult questions, and, on one occasion, offering a rather farcical bribe to a sullen clerk.

They eventually uncover the truth and run their big story, of course, but even that climactic success, while exhilarating, is notably low-key. There’s a triumphant montage of the paper being printed and sent out, but no groups of shocked citizens poring over it, no big crowds protesting, no offenders being handcuffed. Instead, it’s just Matt pointedly dropping the paper on the stoop of the Church ‘treatment center’ near his house; Sacha’s grandmother (an effective stand-in for the city’s legions of loyal Catholics) reading it with quiet dismay; a secretary in an empty Sunday office telling Mike and Robby, “great ahticle, guys”; and, finally, all of them back in their office, overwhelmed with calls coming in from other survivors who are now emboldened to tell their own stories.[vii]

That’s in keeping with the realism that McCarthy has been going for throughout the movie, and it’s also thematically important. The final image shows the reporters not victorious, just getting on with the work, because the work isn’t done—on this issue or any of the ones that really matter. The sense of triumph is real, but ultimately muted, and not just because of the sobering postscript showing the extent of clerical sex abuse throughout the world. The movie refers only tangentially to the dire straits of local newspapers in the internet age, but the issue is clearly very much on McCarthy’s mind, having only gotten worse since 2001. He doesn’t imply that we should return to the pre-internet days of journalism, even if we could—as the movie makes clear, things were hardly ideal then, either. He just lays out the facts, and the concerns that go with them. Here’s a story of great progress in holding authority accountable—but only in Boston, on this one issue, and only because of the investigative expertise and resources of Spotlight.

Who still has Spotlight now, and for how much longer?

© Harrison Swan, 2021

[i] Seriously, I feel like there’s been something of a Boston cinematic renaissance recently—starting roughly with The Departed in 2006. Since then, it seems like Boston has been the go-to classic American city, full of deep emotions, long memories, and heavy accents ripe for the big screen. Or maybe Hollywood has always loved Boston, and before 2006 I was just too young to notice.

[ii] Singer may not be famous like some in the film industry (very few writers are, unless they also direct) but it’s worth noting that he seems to be something of a press-film specialist. He’s also written The Fifth Estate (2013), about Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, and The Post (2017), about the publication of the Pentagon Papers. More recently, he’s moved away from journalism, but stayed firmly in the realm of fact-based stories, with First Man (2018), about Neil Armstrong, and a yet-to-be produced biopic of Leonard Bernstein.

[iii] A great review, as all of Scott’s are:

[iv] One of the great masters of the understated oner is, of all people, Steven Spielberg—as shown here by Tony Zhou and Tyler Ramos in one of their fantastic Every Frame A Painting video essays:

[v] Another good review, by David Edelstein:

[vi] The Boston Globe’s own review!

[vii] I never quoted it, but this review by Stephanie Zacharek was also super helpful:

The Witch (2015)

[First off: my apologies for the past several months of silence on this site. A move halfway around the world, surgery and recovery, and an irregular work schedule have resulted in a far-too-long hiatus. But I’ll be back from now on with the monthly articles. Thanks for sticking with me, and I hope you continue to find the site useful.]

There’s something about the New England woods. I was born in Maine, grew up there, and will move back for good someday. I went to camp every summer of my youth, did camping trips all over the mountains and waterways, and got to spend many, many nights on an island without electricity or running water. Even among New Englanders, I have a great deal of familiarity with and affection for the region’s vast forests; indeed, they’re one of the main reasons I’m drawn to live there.

And yet, as I believe any New Englander could tell you, there’s just something about those woods. They’re beautiful, bountiful and life-giving, but they can just as easily scare the crap out of you. In the brightness of daylight, all is well, and you can see the forest for the stunning, essential wellspring of life that it is. But at some point, inevitably, the sun reaches some undefined point in its downward arc, or a dark cloud passes in front of it, and everything changes. The dense stands of trees seem to suck in the light and absorb it, darkness becomes their defining quality, and you can never entirely shake the resurgent, childish apprehension of imminent danger lurking just out of sight in those murky depths.

And that’s how it is for us, living in twenty-first century society, with its comfortably sweeping mastery over nature. Imagine what it was like back in the olden days—for those first European settlers in the 1600s, say, arriving with their superstitions and ill-adapted skills and narrow understanding of how the world worked, trying to survive in the vast primeval forests of what they called the frontier. Small wonder that they were, by all accounts, so thoroughly terrified of the wilderness. My friends and I, in rambling conversations, have long speculated that this could make for wonderfully spooky cinema. Imagine a horror movie set back in the early colonial days, Salem-meets-Spooky-Hollow type stuff—heck, the inherent scariness of those woods would do half the work for you! And so on. I have my own filmmaking aspirations, but this one never quite settled as a movie I want to make. For all the talk of how awesome it would be, concrete ideas remained elusive, and the discussions with my friends never substantially progressed beyond, ‘Yeah, man, somebody really ought to make that movie…’

Well, wouldn’t you know it: somebody did make that movie, and it’s everything we imagined it could be, and more. That somebody was a young filmmaker named Robert Eggers, whose biography may be atypical for a feature film director, yet makes perfect sense for the director of this movie. With an innate interest in mythology, folk tales, and the occult, shaped by his upbringing in the small town of Lee, New Hampshire, Eggers went to acting conservatory in New York City and worked there for several years as a production designer, responsible for every visual detail of various film and theater productions.[i] He wrote and directed a few short films of his own, and got a chance to make that first feature, The Witch, in 2015. He has made one other since then: The Lighthouse (2019), another terrifically wild and weird horror story (this time in black and white!) about a pair of 19th-century lightkeepers losing their wits on an isolated island outpost. You’d be hard-pressed to find another filmmaker who has so quickly and confidently established such a distinctive cinematic niche: chilly psychological horror movies drawn from the dark recesses of distant (Northern) history, produced with obsessively fastidious attention to period detail. I can’t quite argue that Eggers is the best working filmmaker (whatever that means), but he may be the one who makes me, with my own particular background and interests, happiest to know that he’s out there and able to bring his singular visions to the screen. Apparently his next one will be a revenge thriller set in 10th-century Iceland… so yeah, that should be pretty awesomely unhinged.

The Witch is where it all started, though, and the movie is exceptional in many ways beyond the fact that it’s so unusual. It’s as confident and well-crafted a debut feature as you’ll ever see; from the start, Eggers evinces a born filmmaker’s talent for crafting deeply evocative images, making compelling use of every shot and minute of runtime, and implying a great deal beyond what he shows. For all its notable peculiarities, The Witch also contains a lot of fairly standard horror elements, and Eggers, working on a small budget, makes them wickedly effective without shock-CGI or elaborately gory violence—just through clever and deliberate use of filmmaking fundamentals. A clear example comes early in the first act, when the eponymous witch first makes her presence felt. Banished from their small settlement following a religious dispute, our Puritan characters have set up a homestead on the edge of the forest, when in the course of a normal day, their infant son, Samuel, inexplicably vanishes. It’s a great oh-shit moment, and Eggers does it all through simple editing: cut back and forth between Samuel on the ground and his upward view of his teenage sister, Thomasin, playing peek-a-boo, until she pops out and her laughter turns to shock, and we cut back to Samuel’s blanket on the ground, suddenly empty. This is quickly followed by the one of the movie’s few forays into the kind of grisly bloodletting that’s so common in the horror genre, as Eggers shows us Samuel’s gruesome fate. Even here, though, his approach is a marvel of forceful restraint: just a few dimly lit shots that show very little, but leave no doubt as to what that wizened old crone does to that baby.

In a broader sense, too, this is a pretty literal, largely conventional story of haunting and torment by a supernatural entity—one with shape-shifting abilities much like those we’ve encountered in countless other horror stories. As such, it inevitably contains many other classic elements: characters in dark and murky outdoor settings (once with a lantern!) spooked by faint movements off-screen, a beautiful seductress’s hand turning suddenly gnarled and nasty, characters in the grips of deranged visions, a couple of demonically possessed animals, and a wildly escalating scene in the family’s loft that deserves a place among the great possession/exorcisms in cinema. With the basic tools of the trade—evocative lighting, precise camera placement, committed performances, skillful editing and sound design—Eggers and his crew remind us how potent these familiar tropes can still be when they’re done right.

Also interesting is his use of another classic horror technique: the jump scare, or startling the audience with a sudden loud noise and/or disturbing image. As one of the easiest and most reliable ways to technically ‘scare’ the viewer, it’s often overused and often a bit of a cop-out, thrown in to paper over a lack of other, more difficult types of scares. Eggers doesn’t shy away from it, and does use it a few times in the conventional way—that is, accompanying a sudden gruesome reveal or act of violence. But most of his jump scares are more understated, lurking between moments that aren’t strictly ‘scary.’ He’s fond of dropping us into a new scene in the middle of something loud and abrupt, like an axe splitting wood or an obnoxious children’s song, making an otherwise innocuous transition into a jarring moment that jolts us out of any encroaching sense of comfort or complacency.

Editing is far from the only foundational element that Eggers and his crew employ in this effort to keep our nerves tightly wound. Another key example is Jarin Blaschke’s epically gloomy cinematography, in which direct sunlight seems almost nonexistent, every color infused with a deadening gray, and the setting stripped of every last trace of joy, fun or hope. It’s an ideal look for this story: too stylized to rightly be called realistic, and yet, as any New Englander will tell you, perfectly captures the threatening murkiness of those woods, and the dreary, gray vibe of the late autumn and early winter ‘stick season.’ Also crucial is the composer, Mark Korven, who combines low thrums of menace, classic Halloween-y oooooohhs, and dissonant percussion and strings into a score that reminds you what powerful sensations that rather campy word ‘spooky’ can evoke. With that music underlying it, even an image of a quavering rabbit, which could be cute in another context, becomes a nerve-racking harbinger of doom.

These are the key elements that make The Witch a fundamentally solid horror flick, rather than a succession of jump scares; Eggers clearly understands the difference between fright and dread, and he does an excellent job of creating and sustaining the latter. But, as is obvious from the beginning, there’s also a lot going on here that’s quite radically distinctive, and what makes The Witch a great horror movie is the way he brings these unique qualities to bear in his overarching aim of scaring us. Most conspicuously, there’s the commitment to historical authenticity, which is truly next-level: Eggers worked closely with museums on both sides of the Atlantic, consulted experts on 17th-century agriculture, and brought in a thatcher and a carpenter with esoteric knowledge of period techniques. He forbade Korven to use electronic instruments in the score, and had designer Linda Muir fashion all the costumes out of period-appropriate materials. Forced by financial incentives to film in Canada, he dragged the production deep into the wilds of Ontario before he found an acceptably exact stand-in for the New England woods. He and Blaschke even went to the great technical trouble of filming only in natural light, and lighting the indoor scenes only with candles.

Visually, this obsessive level of accuracy isn’t always apparent to the viewer, but it comes through vividly in Eggers’ remarkable script, a product of such intensive research that, as an endnote informs us, much of it was lifted directly from primary sources.[ii] I know of no other movie with dialogue quite like this: Eggers immerses us fully in the archaic, elaborate constructions of the period, yet somehow ensures that the overall meaning and progression of the scene is always fairly clear, even when the individual sentences may not be. The feat belongs equally to his talented actors: Anya Taylor-Joy in her first film role as Thomasin, several years before her high-profile turns in The New Mutants and The Queen’s Gambit; Ralph Ineson, under that beard a quintessential ‘Oh yeah, that guy…’ actor, and Kate Dickie, aka the unstable Lysa Arryn in Game of Thrones, as the parents, William and Kate; and especially the young Harvey Scrimshaw, who, despite very little previous experience, does a bang-up job of spouting complex period ramblings in the throes of demonic possession. It’s a small cast, but all of them are excellent, managing to express the intense emotions of a horror story while also delivering florid, often abstruse dialogue in a way that’s natural, convincing and comprehensible.

This a crucial factor in the effectiveness of The Witch, yet a somewhat curious one. How does such painstaking historical accuracy add so much to a movie that’s centered on a shape-shifting force of evil, and thus obviously not ‘realistic’ in any normal sense of the word? Because by immersing us so completely in these characters’ world, Eggers makes their antiquated beliefs feel a bit more grounded, and their fear and suffering more immediate, than we might expect—or, indeed, than we might be ready for. There’s a reason, I think, why horror movies in particular get so aggressively, analytically picked apart, with every last plot hole and irrational decision laid bare: unconsciously (or not), we’re looking for crutches, for reassurances against the fear that the story seeks to engender. And in a period piece, it ought to be easy, as anyone with a passing knowledge of history can intuit some ways in which the 17th century we see onscreen is not entirely accurate. But here, it’s not so simple; the authenticity of the setting and the dialogue, embodied in such skillful performances, subtly takes away a crutch that we’d instinctively reach for in a period horror movie, making the scare elements that much more effective.

Eggers does something similar with the movie’s occasional brushes with humor. They do exist, but they’re few and far between, and they arise within an atmosphere of dread so potent that any laughter is bound to be uncomfortable, nervous, and brief. Most are not true comic moments at all, but touches of brutally bitter irony: Thomasin’s mean but understandable trick on her sister Mercy, and the way it comes back to bite her; Caleb coughing up an apple after his ordeal in the forest; a goat’s udder producing blood instead of milk; or William being finally gored by the possessed goat Black Phillip and buried under the pile of wood he’s been compulsively chopping. This is pitch-dark humor, so laced with cruelty as to negate any true sense of levity—almost as if the evil spirit is not just tormenting the family, but gloating about it, toying with them, reveling in its ability to play on their worst fears and deepest desires.

And then there’s the great overarching irony of the story, and the witch’s cruelest assault of all: namely, the way it plays upon the family’s diehard Puritan faith. Eggers gives us the standard horror of people tormented by supernatural trickery and violence, but he also explores another strain of horror only tangentially related to the witch’s machinations: the internal, psychological torment of simply trying to exist in the grips of a punishingly strict religion. The characters may not notice it, but for us, there is something subtly frightening about seeing these people so utterly consumed by blind, fanatical faith, and not just because it leads them to take ill-informed and counterproductive actions in moments of crisis. We also get a forceful sense of the damage wrought by its impossible standards of conduct, warped conceptions of honor and responsibility, and brutal instinct towards self-flagellation—and how that bleeds over into self-pity and even its own form of vanity, exacerbating such flaws rather than mitigating them.

Eggers’ talent for making this sort of horror central to the movie is what makes The Witch exceptional, elevating it from a spooky midnight flick to one that can truly get under your skin. There really is an evil spirit out in the woods, but the family’s strife arises just as much out of mundane household troubles that are all too familiar: lies, breaches of trust, the burgeoning sexuality of an increasingly precocious daughter, physical and social isolation, material hardship, homesickness. As good as the actors are at portraying terror of the supernatural, two of the most unnerving lines, for me, are firmly grounded in the real world: “We will starve!” and “I want to be home…”—both masterfully delivered by Dickie, who makes the mortal terror behind the words agonizingly vivid. We can convince ourselves that witches don’t exist, but our ingrained fear of starvation and the dangerous unknown has lost very little of its power since the 1630s. Take a step back, consider the narrative more broadly, and the truly frightening thing about it becomes clear: Witch or no witch, these people are screwed. Out in the wilderness, cut off from community support, woefully ill-equipped to survive, unable to hunt or trap game, crops failing, and fervently believing that it’s all God’s just punishment…

The actual history of the English Puritans in New England is more complicated than that, of course. But set aside the qualifying context for a moment, and you’ve got to admit: that situation is just intrinsically terrifying, and not just because they were so convinced witches were real. Eggers recognized it, and with exceptional craft and attention to detail, he made it into as perfectly scary a movie as it could be.

Like so many of us, he knows what those woods are capable of.

© Harrison Swan, 2021

[i] This interview with a regional journal provides some interesting information about Eggers’ background and creative process:

[ii] Wikipedia even goes so far as to list the movie’s language as ‘Early Modern English.’ although the more-reliable IMDb does not.

Gattaca (1997)

For a certain type of science fiction story, there are few higher honors than to be characterized by the much-coveted phrase: ‘thinking person’s sci-fi’. In a perfect world, such a descriptor would be superfluous; you’d think that science fiction, by its very nature, would give us something to think about every time we venture into it. And, technically, I suppose it does, but as with any well-defined genre, in reality there’s quite a chasm between the genre’s full potential and most of what the entertainment industry offers up. So it has always been with science fiction, and especially in the past few decades, as superhero and fantasy movies have come to dominate the box office (to the point of providing the lion’s share of yearly revenue for the studios who make them). Most sci-fi movies these days seem to fall into two broad categories. On the one hand, we have the ‘serious’ ones for the thinking audience: small and narrowly focused, engaging us on lower budgets either by venturing into wild and weird territory, or by creating imagined worlds that look mostly like our own, with only a few select suspensions of disbelief. And on the other hand, we have the massive blockbusters, using the now-basically-unlimited capabilities of special effects to entertain us largely through extraordinary visuals: the physics-defying action set pieces and the vividly rendered fantasy worlds. There are exceptions (Ex Machina, The Martian, pretty much everything Christopher Nolan does), but overall, the combination of interesting ideas, compelling visuals, and excellent filmmaking is so rare in sci-fi that it feels like a real gift from above when it does come about. And there are few better examples of this than Gattaca, a wonderfully crafted, visually exquisite dystopian parable whose concerns about genetic engineering are just as thought-provoking today as they were when it came out in 1997—so much so that a 2011 poll of NASA scientists rated it the best sci-fi movie of all time.[i]

Gattaca isn’t perfect (no movie is) but it’s still something of a cinematic miracle—and an interesting one, both on its own terms and in the ways it stands out from its genre counterparts. It’s always notable when a speculative sci-fi movie still feels relevant and insightful multiple decades after its release, and that’s certainly the case here. Gattaca’s vision of a world based on genetic discrimination arose out of events and realities specific to its time: the use of genetically modified crops was exploding; the Human Genome Project was humming along and nearing completion; and Dolly, the first successfully cloned mammal, had just been born. But the issues the movie raises have only grown thornier in the intervening years, especially recently. With the new CRISPR gene-editing technology potentially enabling exactly this sort of selective conception, and with growing awareness of the depth of humanity’s discriminatory instincts and of its commitment to the increasingly dubious social ideology of meritocracy, some version of the (smartly unspecified) ‘not too distant future’ portrayed in the movie seems both closer and more dangerous than ever.

The movie was written and directed by Andrew Niccol, a thoughtful Kiwi filmmaker who left New Zealand at age twenty-one and paid his dues in London, directing TV commercials for over a decade before he finally got the chance to make a proper movie. Gattaca was that first feature, and it’s kind of miraculous that Niccol was ever allowed to make another; like so many eventual classics, the movie was popular with critics but a pretty resounding failure at the box office. I’ve noticed that this has become a standard feature of these articles: the part where I explore, in perhaps unnecessary detail, how this month’s great director got to this point, how we might define their artistic sensibilities, and how our given movie relates to the rest of their estimable body of work. We’re still doing that, obviously, but it’s at least a bit different this month. Niccol’s story is a somewhat rarer one in the film industry, and one that I actually find much more interesting: the filmmaker who makes an inspired first (or early) feature, but whose subsequent work never quite rises to the same level. Niccol’s interest in science fiction and the human ramifications of new technology has continued, and he’s still had a successful career, working slowly but steadily over the past twenty-odd years. Some of his movies have been so-so (S1m0ne, 2002), some bad yet commercially successful (In Time, 2011), and some quite good (Lord of War, 2005 and Good Kill, 2014)—but so far, he’s never quite managed to equal the peculiar magic that he worked with Gattaca, when he was still in his early thirties. (Interestingly, his best work besides Gattaca was around the same time, on a movie he wrote but did not direct: the 1998 dramedy classic The Truman Show.)

The reasons for Niccol’s uneven filmography are perhaps unknowable, but we can certainly shed some light on why Gattaca, in particular, works so well. I mentioned before that it’s not a perfect movie because no such movie exists—and that’s true, but in this case there are specific weaknesses that even an ardent admirer like myself can identify. Especially in the first act, the movie is a bit too heavy on exposition, delivered via voice-over narration that starts to become excessive. There are a few holes in the plot and world-building that can rankle if you can’t suspend disbelief. And while the writing and acting are strong overall, there are clunky phrases that, combined with the rarefied, highly mannered setting in which the story takes place, lead to moments of awkwardness in the performances. These are all minor issues, none of which would come close to spoiling the movie for me in any case. But Gattaca is one of those happy instances in which such minor flaws are almost completely overshadowed by other aspects of the movie that are not just great, but genuinely unusual and interesting.

The most obvious of these strengths would have to be the movie’s wonderfully distinctive aesthetic. In its own unique way, this is one of the most visually stunning sci-fi movies I’ve seen, which is remarkable when you consider how few stunts and special effects are involved. Slawomir Idziak’s cinematography, for example, is a gorgeously interesting exercise in contradiction. On the one hand, it’s very reserved, almost stately, working mostly with carefully framed static shots; the camera moves, when they do occur, tend to be discreet and intuitive, rarely drawing attention to themselves. The few instances of jittery, handheld camerawork are reserved for moments of high tension, and specifically those involving real physical danger, like a scuffle and chase through a back alley, or the nerve-racking swimming competitions between our protagonist, Vincent, and his brother Anton. Obstacles that are conquered via quick wits and composure, like an endurance test at Gattaca or a nail-biting traffic stop, are depicted with the usual precision and restraint. But on the other hand, ‘restrained’ is not necessarily how you’d describe the cinematography as a whole, because it doesn’t account for Idziak’s dazzling use of color. He infuses all those stately images with strikingly rich color schemes: warm yellows for the sleek, sun-drenched living areas and outdoor spaces; cool blues and greens for clinical settings, like the Gattaca testing facilities and the home laboratory where Vincent and Eugene prepare the tools of their deception; and for the grander areas of Gattaca and the ritzy public establishments, a lavish medley of silver, gold, and deep brown, evoking the mixture of cutting-edge modernity and old-school elegance that defines this world. The cinematography captures the essential, contradictory nature of this imagined future and the lives of those who inhabit it: beautiful and luxurious, representing new heights of human sophistication, yet so aggressively refined and tightly regimented that it becomes impersonal and oppressive—sometimes even surreal.

And yet Gattaca is just as much (if not more so) a triumph of another key aspect of visual filmmaking: the purview of a small army of people who are essential to any movie, but whose names are hardly ever known outside the film world. Case in point: I’ve barely mentioned the art department in previous articles. But you can’t discuss what makes Gattaca great without noting the work of production designer Jan Roelfs and his many lieutenants: art director Sarah Knowles, set decorator Nancy Nye, costume designer Colleen Atwood, and the dozens of stylists, concept artists, carpenters, painters, and laborers of all kinds who (often literally) craft the remarkable images that the camera captures. Niccol is instrumental in this as well—it’s his vision that these people are bringing to the screen—but the task is so comprehensive, and the work so varied, that it’s hard to see it exclusively, or even primarily, as the achievement of one person. Gattaca is a prime example of a wonderful thing that sometimes happens in the movies. Maybe Niccol always had a crystal-clear vision, maybe Roelfs and the rest guided him to it, maybe it was a happy instance of the right people linking up with the right premise… only those who worked on the production can know the exact reasons, but however it happened, everyone seems to have let their imaginations run away with them in the best possible way. We see this in some of the other great sci-fi and fantasy movies of recent years, like The Matrix, or the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or Dark City and Mad Max: Fury Road (both of which I’ll write about someday): the sense that the art department was inspired to go above and beyond the call of duty, creating an imagined world that’s not just exceptionally detailed and beautiful, but genuinely original and unique.

Specifically, they’ve done one of my favorite things in speculative sci-fi, which is to infuse the aesthetic of the future with various aesthetics of the past. This is a whole realm of artistic possibility all too often ignored by movies set in the imagined future, which tend to restrict themselves to some combination magnifying the style of the present, and creating a new one far removed from the world we know. There’s plenty of that in Gattaca, to be sure; many of the sleek interior spaces and the (now rather charmingly) retro-futuristic technology are in the same vein as the ultra-advanced futures of Star Trek, or 2001: A Space Odyssey, or even the 1972 Russian classic Solyaris. Here we must note the accomplishments of yet more unsung crew members: location manager Robert Earl Craft and his scouts and assistants, who managed to not just find, but wrangle permission to film at, some choice specimens of California architecture that fit perfectly into the movie’s elegantly streamlined world.

Yet even these advanced-future elements sometimes seem to be filtered through the aesthetics of the past. The Gattaca headquarters, for example, is played by Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1960 Marin County Civic Center, and to varying degrees, the other locations share a similar kind of postwar-futuristic vibe. And the world of the movie is filled out, so to speak, with a wonderful mash-up of past styles, like this future society has cherry-picked the aesthetic highlights of the 20th century. The interiors of leisure spaces, like lounges and concert halls, showcase the opulence of the Gilded Age; the clothing and hairstyles harken back to the glamorous 1940s and 50s; and while the cars are electric, everything else about them is straight out of the 60s, the decade when cars looked best. It’s all lovely to look at, and it also helps to deepen the overall impact of the movie; just like the cinematography, the production design captures both the great sophistication and the stifling rigidity of this imagined future in a beautifully unconventional way.

Something similar is going on with another element that I’ve rarely discussed before: the score, composed by Michael Nyman, which is not exactly what you’d expect in this sort of movie. I’m far too musically illiterate to analyze exactly how Nyman does it, but his music dovetails so well with the movie’s overall aesthetic that it’s easy to miss how unconventional it is for the genre. I don’t recall hearing any synthesizers, or many electronic tones of any kind—certainly none of the doomy, low-thrumming synths that the soundtracks of dystopian sci-fi thrillers are often built around. In keeping with the old-fashioned elegance of this world, Nyman sticks mostly to traditional analog instruments, most notably some beautifully resonant string arrangements, which also give the movie an undercurrent of melancholy that’s crucial to its emotional impact—it’s almost as if, even as the characters rarely express as much, the music is mourning the flawed but essential facets of human life that this society has stamped out in the name of progress. A perfect example is my favorite scene, when the adult Anton, now a detective, comes to the home of the Gattaca employee known as ‘Jerome Morrow,’ hoping to expose Vincent as an imposter; after his agonizing crawl up the stairs, the real Jerome, now known as Eugene, impersonates himself and foils Anton’s blood test. It’s one of the most conventionally thriller-like scenes in the movie, and Nyman’s music does add tension, but the oscillating strings also capture the essential weirdness of the situation, the underlying sadness, and the emotional turmoil beneath the composed facades of every character involved. It’s unconventional, but it dovetails perfectly with the movie’s larger aesthetic.

It all fits together because Niccol, takes a similar, subtly unconventional approach in his dual role as writer and director. Gattaca is a dystopian sci-fi thriller, and it holds our attention like one, but for a good chunk of its overall runtime, it moves away from the sort of storytelling that typically defines such movies. For one thing, the near-total absence of stunts is conspicuous enough to make you realize just how much contemporary sci-fi relies on action elements to keep us engaged. Here, many of what I call the ‘oh-shit’ moments, the surges of tension and the big reveals, are actually built around very simple things: an eyelash being sucked into a vacuum; the results of DNA tests popping up on a screen; Anton yelling, “Vincent!!” down a dark alley; a pair of contact lenses being surreptitiously removed; or a distinctive trinket placed on the hood of a car. Even the scenes of real physical peril, when you get down to it, simply raise the stakes on otherwise ordinary actions: swimming, running down an alley, crossing the street, or that house call of Anton’s, which consists, in the end, of a simple blood test. And then there’s the murder that he’s investigating, which seems set up to be a major focus of the plot, but then just as quickly recedes into the background; the victim is a character we never meet, and the story never feels primarily like one of a suspected murderer evading justice. Instead, Niccol folds the investigation into the larger narrative, using it not only to raise the stakes, but to give us a clearer sense of the way Vincent-as-Jerome lives in constant danger of being exposed, and to make more immediate the struggle he’s waging—both on a societal level, rebelling against the oppressive systems that restrict his prospects; and on a personal level, proving his worth to his genetically optimized brother. And despite the fact that the movie doesn’t unfold like a murder mystery, the investigation is still an essential part of it, both narratively and thematically; whatever his faults as a writer of dialogue, Niccol structures the story tightly and thoughtfully, ensuring that everything in it serves a clear purpose.

He also benefits from the efforts of his actors, who do a great deal to help sell this speculative, stylized world as a place that feels real to the people living in it. As is often the case, Ethan Hawke’s performance is, upon reflection, better than it initially appears. He can seem, at first, almost like a caricature of the obsessively driven, seductively brooding genius who often shows up in dystopian sci-fi, but after a while, Hawke lets us see how this persona is at least partly an act, making Vincent more sympathetic and lending credence to the idea of his transformation being so complete that the outside world sees no trace of his old self. Uma Thurman has less to do, but she lets just enough emotion sneak through her meticulously refined exterior to make her eventual change of heart seem plausible. Loren Dean, an actor I’ve never seen in anything else, is similarly effective as Anton, mixing flickers of doubt into his character’s air of ingrained confidence. And then there’s Jude Law (before he was famous!), who gives the movie’s best performance as the paralyzed Eugene, capturing the character’s understandable bitterness, his deepening investment in Vincent’s success, and his undiminished intelligence and wit—he’s the source of much of the humor that helps set Gattaca apart from most dystopian sci-fi. So too is Xander Berkeley as Lamar, the doctor who administers Gattaca’s DNA tests; it’s a small but important role, and with a twinkle of mischief in his eyes and a certain deadpan humor in his lines—bookended by two of the most decorous dick jokes in movie history—Berkeley conveys hints of a much gentler, more interesting guy behind the veneer of professionalism. Alan Arkin does something similar as Anton’s partner; as great a threat as he poses to Vincent, his canny instincts and blunt mannerisms carry a certain inevitable appeal amid the stifling refinement of Gattaca. And who better than Gore Vidal to embody the haughty entitlement of those who thrive in such exclusive spaces?

The point of all this is not to claim that the world of Gattaca is exceptionally realistic or believable. Which is fine; in fact, dystopian sci-fi that makes credibility its primary goal, trying to explain every conceivable plot hole and convince us that this absolutely could or will happen someday, tends not to work very well. And to be fair, I don’t think that’s really what the movie is going for; Niccol and his many collaborators, from the art department to the camera crew to the cast, choose instead to make full use of the creative freedom that speculative sci-fi allows—hence the beguiling aesthetic and the restrained storytelling. And they do it without sacrificing the one quality that really matters: whether or not this imagined future is strictly plausible, it is, in its own way, coherent—a world that adheres decently well to its own internal logic, and to which the characters respond in relatable ways.

And this, I think, is the main source of the Gattaca’s thematic resonance. Its immediate concerns about eugenics and genetic engineering were relevant in 1997 and are newly relevant today, and the movie posits a world that’s rather far-out, but coherent enough to make us think seriously about what a social order based on genetics might look like. But for me, it comes across even more powerfully as an indictment of institutionalized discrimination of any kind; the language used to enforce the genetic hierarchy echoes the language of oppression throughout history, and scenes like the one where a young Vincent is wordlessly intimidated out of a job interview by the prospect of a DNA test, bring to mind contemporary realities of unequal access to opportunity.

And more broadly, Gattaca is a forceful critique of any attempt to fully quantify human capability and potential. The message is ultimately hopeful: we may know more than ever about our genetic makeup, but we’re not slaves to it. Tellingly, almost every character goes against their genetic code in some way, and the results, good or bad, are always hugely consequential. There’s Vincent, obviously, overcoming his genetic limitations to realize his dream of going to space. Irene, the model of corporate conformity, turns out to be not just tolerant of, but actively attracted to someone who defies the system, and receptive to the idea that her own limitations might not be set in stone. Anton’s superior ‘helix’ leads to a level of overconfidence that nearly kills him, while his partner, older and more experienced but genetically relegated to subordinate status, turns out to be a better detective in pretty much every way. The director, who doesn’t have “a violent bone in [his] body,” turns out to be perfectly capable of cold-blooded murder. And Lamar, who was presumably hired for his genetic predisposition to do this job impeccably, is perfectly willing to bend the rules when he knows it’s right.

And then there’s Jerome, who doesn’t exactly go against his genetic code, but is still the movie’s best character. A lesser film would have made the arrangement between him and Vincent a major source of tension, with Jerome coming to resent Vincent using his genes to get ahead. But after bit of initial suspicion, that source of conflict melts away; the two men become good friends, and Jerome is soon just as committed to the deception as Vincent is. And he’s much more interesting as a result, exemplifying the problems with treating our DNA as the final word on who we are, and the dangers of organizing society around it. His genes place him at the tip-top of the privileged elite, but in a world that ranks people by their capabilities, his paralysis renders his perfect helix largely irrelevant. And even worse, we learn that this society is the reason he’s paralyzed in the first place; despondent over finishing second, and thereby not realizing his full genetic potential, he attempted suicide by stepping in front of a car. He could have been just another antagonist; instead, he’s a living, breathing reminder of the ways that discrimination hurts everybody in the end.[ii]

Whatever happens with genetic engineering, and whether or not future society adopts this retro-chic aesthetic, that message will continue to resonate.

© Harrison Swan, 2020

[i] They chose the all-time worst sci-fi movies as well, with interesting and amusing results:

[ii] Like last month, I wasn’t able to work in any of their words, but these reviews and articles were very helpful:

From Janet Maslin of the New York Times:

From Roger Ebert:

And from Valerie Kalfrin: