Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

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I fully understand how it would be easy, at first glance, to dismiss this movie as just another one of the forgettable, CGI-drenched blockbusters that Hollywood churns out each summer. In the poster, Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt stand poised in futuristic exoskeleton-cum-battle-suits with war raging behind them. His forearms bristle with large-caliber weaponry; she slings an outsized, cleaver-like sword over her shoulder. They look into the distance with grim determination. The title, Edge of Tomorrow, is typical of these sorts of movies—vaguely epic, but essentially meaningless once you stop and think about it. Nevertheless, it’s not hard to guess how the story will unfold. Our handsome hero will fight a war with the nifty, advanced technology of an imagined future. Emily Blunt will pay her Hollywood dues as the secondary female comrade. The two of them will probably start out at odds, then find common ground and work together. It looks like they’ll save the world. Probably from aliens.

The thing is, that’s all pretty much correct. The impression we get from the poster isn’t so much inaccurate as incomplete. Only the tagline, “Live. Die. Repeat.”—which is, for some reason, more prominently displayed than the title[i]—hints at the time-travel antics and wry, winking tone that make this movie exceptional. It’s no great masterpiece like The Godfather, but it is a great summer blockbuster: exciting, solidly acted and cleverly written, not to mention smarter and more emotionally resonant that it initially appears.

None of which will come as a surprise to those familiar with director Doug Liman, who’s been a skilled cinematic showman throughout his career, from early cult classics like Swingers and Go to the action flicks that he has mostly made since. Sometimes his movies work (The Bourne Identity, Fair Game, or the recent American Made), sometimes not so much (Jumper, Mr. and Mrs. Smith), but Liman always makes the screen crackle with an infectious verve and energy. His enthusiasm and lightness of touch are perfectly suited to a movie like Edge of Tomorrow, with its frequent, often darkly comic battle sequences and its tongue-in-cheek vision of the near future. Working with an engaging screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie and Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, and with lively visuals by cinematographer Dion Beebe and editors James Herbert and Laura Jennings, Liman continually finds entertaining new dimensions in this twisty sci-fi story.

Even in the initial exposition—related via a newsreel montage of general calamity and the pronouncements of a brusque Irish general (Brendan Gleeson) in the first scene—there are indications that Edge of Tomorrow is not just another mindless blockbuster. Start with the alien invaders, first glimpsed in the vividly hectic battle sequence that rounds out the opening half hour. Dubbed ‘Mimics’ for their uncanny ability to anticipate our actions, they’re tough, merciless, and refreshingly bizarre—typically visible as little more than whirling, seething masses of tentacles, with heads and legs vaguely discernible on the rare occasions when they stand still. While perhaps not truly frightening, they’re genuinely convincing as an existential threat to humanity, emerging from underground burrows and zipping lethally around the battlefield; it takes a great deal of firepower to kill even one of them, and their shape-shifting limbs quickly decimate entire squads. Indeed, the writers seem to have conceived the Mimics with the explicit goal of silencing skeptics. Don’t believe that the nations of the world would band together in fairly uncomplicated fashion, with every able-bodied human desperately needed for the war effort? Check out these monstrosities—if we’re ever going to create a ‘United Defense Force’ (UDF), this is what it would take. Just to hammer the point home, the Mimics have landed in Germany and quickly steamrolled most of mainland Europe. The conflict is never given a name, but it might as well be called ‘The Perfectly Unquestionable War of Self-Defense.’

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Things aren’t looking good for humanity, but we join the story at a pivotal, relatively hopeful moment. New weapons (those badass exoskeletons) have given our troops a fighting chance, and some have even mastered them to the point of becoming true super-soldiers. Chief among them is Blunt’s Sergeant Rita Vrataski, whose heroics have led to a crucial, improbable victory at Verdun,[ii] buying time for a retreat across the English Channel. At the outset, the UDF is preparing to launch a massive, last-ditch counterattack—landing on the Normandy beaches, no less!—and Sergeant Vrataski has become an icon, lionized in the media as the ‘Angel of Verdun’ and known to the rank and file by the half-derogatory, half-admiring, very semantically satisfying moniker ‘Full Metal Bitch.’

And if you still find yourself thinking, “Okay, that all sounds fun, but… Tom Cruise, really?”—well, I’m right there with you. I’m definitely against him as a human being, and pretty torn on him as an actor. He’s almost always an engaging screen presence, but it can be hard to tell if you’re actually watching a good performance, or simply appreciating the fact that he’s so clearly giving it everything he’s got.[iii] The wonderful thing about Edge of Tomorrow is that you don’t need to like him—indeed, Liman almost seems to be banking on the fact that many people don’t.

Cruise plays Major William Cage, a smooth-talking military PR officer leading the effort to drum up public support for the impending attack, and at the beginning, he’s thoroughly unlikable: vain, self-absorbed, and a coward to boot. He’s happy to look pretty and project confidence on TV, convincing millions of people to enlist in a war against a near-invincible enemy, but he balks at the idea of going anywhere near combat himself. When Gleeson’s General Brigham assigns him to film the landings in France (only mildly dangerous, since the beach appears to be undefended) he dodges, flashes a million-dollar smile, and does everything he can to wheedle his way out of it. Whatever Cruise’s limits as an actor, he excels at this sort of thing, and it’s worth pausing for a moment over that smile. It’s central to some of his best roles (Magnolia, Jerry Maguire) and one of the keys to his overall success—a strange but beguiling mix of sleaze and genuine charisma. Anyone can see that there’s manipulation behind that smile, yet you can understand how people would still fall for it. It’s a perfect fit for a character like Cage—the confident grin of a man who has coasted through life mostly on his good looks and his ability to charm and disarm. (In a satisfying dig at a few other deserving targets, we learn that before the war, he was an ad executive from New Jersey.) It’s not as if no other actor could have played this role well, but Cruise’s presence dovetails perfectly with the cheekily self-aware tone that makes the movie work.

This is still a summer blockbuster, so we know that Cage will eventually learn his lessons, become a better man, and rise to the occasion. After an ill-advised attempt to blackmail his way out of combat, he finds himself stripped of his rank, thrown in with the grunts of J Squad, and dropped, in a dizzying single take, out of a troop transport and into battle. He’s completely ineffectual, but he manages, mostly through dumb luck, to kill the Mimic that massacres the rest of the squad. In a lesser movie, this would be his wake-up call, and he’d quickly acquire a sense of duty, master the battle suit, and generally become a skilled and honorable soldier—all in time to single-handedly turn the tide and save the day. But wait, now a half-dozen more Mimics are gathering nearby… maybe they won’t notice him? That would be a little hard to believe. But nope, the big blue one sees him! He has the presence of mind to grab a claymore and blow its face off, but—yikes, now his own face is a mess, and apparently Mimic blood corrodes like acid. Until a movie finally goes there, you don’t realize how rare it is to see an A-list leading man like Cruise die painfully onscreen, and Liman has fun lingering for several nasty seconds on the blood burning through Cage’s face and liquefying his brain—just to remove any lingering doubts that, yes, this guy really is dead.

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Then Cage wakes up back at the base as if from a bad dream, and we have the movie’s central conceit: he’s trapped in a time loop, doomed to live the day of the battle over and over again. And this trippy-est of sci-fi plot devices has the welcome effect of making Cage’s character arc, and the story in general, a great deal more convincing. The UDF really does have no chance on that beach, and Cage doesn’t magically become a super-soldier in the course of a single battle. If a clumsy coward like him is eventually going to do his duty and help save the world, it makes sense that he’d have to be dragged kicking and screaming into it. It’s the perfect role for the polarizing, sometimes overly ingratiating Cruise; those who like him still get to watch him carry the movie and do the action-star stuff, while those who hate him get to point out that he becomes a hero only when all other options have been exhausted, and watch him die dozens of times along the way.

The time-loop gimmick is also central to the movie’s sense of humor, allowing Liman to eschew the kind of trite solemnity that often pervades big blockbusters when the fate of the world is at stake. (Think of the two needlessly dour Matrix sequels, which had eye-popping action galore but lacked the original’s anarchic sense of fun.) Cage’s first death is shocking in both senses (graphic and unexpected), but once dying has become a mere minor setback, Liman is free to stage most of the subsequent deaths with a healthy dose of slapstick comedy. He puts Cruise through quite a gauntlet; Cage is crushed, drowned, blown up, slashed by Mimic tentacles, run over by large vehicles in two different contexts, and, once he begins his ‘training,’ repeatedly clobbered by whirling Mimic simulators and unceremoniously put down by an impatient Rita Vrataski. It’s amusing, and even becomes rather profound as the deaths keep piling up. Viewed a certain way, Edge of Tomorrow is an oddly powerful meditation on the absurd, arbitrary brutality of war—to survive, you need either incredible luck or an unlimited number of chances to get it exactly right.

This setup is hardly original; several other recent movies have put their protagonists through similar existential wringers. The most obvious parallels are with thrillers like Déjà Vu and its much-better, criminally lesser-known cousin Source Code, which sees Jake Gyllenhaal trapped on a doomed commuter train until he can identify the terrorist who blows it up. In spirit, however, the closest companion to Edge of Tomorrow is probably Harold Ramis’s classic comedy Groundhog Day. The settings are wildly different, but both movies feature an arrogant protagonist forced to relive the same day until he learns not to be a selfish asshole. Liman wisely doesn’t try to hide this, opting instead to be cleverly self-aware about Edge of Tomorrow’s relationship to its obvious antecedent. A clear example is the way the two movies signal the day starting over. Bill Murray, effortlessly magnetic even when acting like a jerk, wakes up in a cozy bedroom to a soothing Sonny & Cher ballad. Tom Cruise, somewhat grating even when he’s doing his utmost to be magnetic, gets a literal kick in the ass and a drill sergeant in his face, yelling, “On your feet, maggot!”

Liman also follows Groundhog Day’s fine example by not getting too bogged down in time-travel mechanics. Ramis recognized that such explication wasn’t necessary for his story, and didn’t offer any. Liman can’t quite get away with that, but he knows that the movie’s appeal doesn’t lie in the specifics of how the time loop works. He gets most of the explanation out of the way in a few efficient scenes, mostly from the mouth of a dotty scientist played by Noah Taylor, who unfortunately isn’t given much else to do.[iv] Even here, Liman doesn’t push too hard; Taylor’s Dr. Carter simply tells Cage that there’s an ‘Omega’ hidden somewhere, which constitutes, along with those big blue ‘Alphas,’ the central nervous system for all the Mimic drones. It’s the standard Achilles heel of invincible alien invaders—destroy it, and we win the war. Cage got that blue blood into his veins the first time he died, so now he can reset the day, because, well, “The Omega has the ability to control time.” Even when sci-fi movies do flood us with esoteric terms, inventing whole branches of pseudoscience to make things sound plausible, the exposition essentially boils down to the same thing: this is just how it is. Suspend your disbelief and let’s get back to the fun stuff.

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Taylor may get stuck with a largely functional role, but not so for the other supporting actors, most of whom play Cage’s sardonic J Squad comrades. Liman and the screenwriters take care to give them at least rudimentary personalities, and find ample humor in their increasing confusion as Cage learns more and more about them, while they keep meeting him for the first time. The mostly unknown actors have fun with their hammy dialogue, and everyone gets at least one laugh line. Tony Way gets several of them as the archetypal overweight slob, and those who recognize her will be amused to see Charlotte Riley, best known for embodying the upper-class English charm of bygone eras, clearly enjoying herself as a scrappy, foul-mouthed grunt. (At one point, she even gets to grin at Cruise and yell, “Hah! Jinx, bitch!”) The late Bill Paxton probably has the most fun of all as an uptight, built-Ford-tough platoon sergeant, spouting southern-fried platitudes about the glory of combat that evoke militaristic philosophies of the early 20th century.

Such sentiments aren’t just amusing characterization; they’re central to the appeal of the movie’s imagined future. The outlook for the human race may be grim, but Liman’s inclination to keep things lighthearted leads him to imagine humanity in a way that rings weirdly true. The soldiers of J Squad (and, by extension, the rest of the UDF) aren’t terrified conscripts; they’re fully and enthusiastically immersed in the military mindset: the human race on all-out war footing. Assuming the pre-war world was as morally murky as ours is now, it makes sense that they might find the simplicity of the situation perversely refreshing. Faced with the prospect of annihilation, humankind hasn’t just united, but morphed into a slightly brasher, more cocksure version of itself. They almost seem to be relishing the role of the underdog: if we win, it’ll be a truly epic triumph; if we lose, at least we’ll go down swinging. Either way, the choice is clear: get out there and kick some Mimic ass. This is the world of all sorts of punk-inflected sci-fi, especially video games and comic books (the screenplay is adapted from a Japanese graphic novel with the delightfully barefaced title All You Need Is Kill) and Liman imbues the movie with a heightened-reality vibe that echoes such influences.

One of these parallels is particularly striking. Even among other time-loop protagonists, Cage is uniquely similar to a whole other category of fictional characters who find themselves temporally imprisoned, even when their stories don’t revolve around it. I’m talking, of course, about video game avatars. It might seem like a stretch to compare these controllable masses of pixels to the richer, more autonomous characters of traditional fiction, but as technological advances have made games ever more impressively photorealistic, the line has become increasingly blurred. The biggest contemporary video games feature settings at least as vividly detailed—and characters as intricately expressive—as those of early 3D-animated movies, and the scale of the creative enterprise has grown in concert, with crews, budgets, and revenues often rivaling those of the biggest movies.[v] The stories have a mostly deserved reputation for being lazy and hackneyed, but most games do have a narrative framework, and game developers, equipped with ever-improving visual tools (and faced with ever-rising financial stakes) have increasingly invested creative resources in sophisticated narratives, decent dialogue, and complex characters—sometimes including top-tier actors to supply their voices.[vi] I’m no expert on video games, but as they continue to proliferate, diversify, and be taken more seriously as works of art, the similarities with other creative industries are striking. Game categories increasingly resemble those of film; the big, action-focused blockbusters look amazing and offer simple escapist thrills, but rarely have much of a soul, while scrappy ‘indie’ games are less dazzling, but make up for it by being smarter, wittier, and more emotionally stimulating.[vii] And we haven’t even touched on the now-ubiquitous practice of adapting movies into video games, and vice versa.

My point is simply that there is a considerable and increasing amount of overlap between movies and video games, especially the big action blockbusters of both mediums. The world of Edge of Tomorrow could easily be that of a first-person shooter—the Omega even functions as the requisite ‘end boss’—and the story makes the same demands of Cage that we make of our avatars. Welcome to the world! Now charge into the chaos of war. Die a violent death. Now do it again. (On your feet, maggot!) In the second act, Cage and Rita work, through lethal trial and error, to plot a survivable course through the battle, which is exactly what the player does in a game set to the highest (i.e. most realistic) difficulty. This is something that older generations often don’t seem to understand about the appeal of difficult games; it’s not just about killing and blowing stuff up, but about learning from your mistakes and mastering a sequence of actions: turn here, take cover there, get that one, move before that one sees you—over and over until you make it through alive. And for as long as digital avatars have looked even mildly realistic, artists have imbued them with human consciousness and imagined the tragicomic results. In fact, an entirely new video art form has arisen over the past twenty years, in which players record certain points of view in multiplayer games, effectively turning them into cameras. The multiplayer map becomes the set; the other avatars, plus recorded voiceovers, become the actors. Known by the unwieldy term ‘machinima,’ these stories are usually quite amateurish and juvenile, but the best among them imagine the inner lives of the avatars with genuine insight and humor.[viii]

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Working with flesh-and-blood actors rather than pixels, Liman explores how a more recognizably human character might be affected by the mind-bending absurdity of such an existence. And it truly is mind-bending; one of the hidden pleasures of Edge of Tomorrow is letting your imagination run wild with the implications of the time loop. The movie encourages such speculation; no sooner have we wrapped our heads around Cage’s predicament than Liman starts messing with our newly adjusted sense of time and scale. In a crucial early scene, Cage saves Rita from incoming fire, and as he kills a few Mimics with practiced efficiency, we realize along with her: he’s done this before. In almost every subsequent scene until Cage loses his power, Liman repeats the gimmick, dropping sly and frequently entertaining hints that although we’re seeing this part of the story for the first time, Cage has been here many times already. We quickly lose track of how many times Cage has lived and died, and Liman refuses to give us even a vague indication of the total number. Indeed, there’s no guarantee of continuity even within individual scenes; whenever a conversation or sequence of actions reaches a halfway plausible endpoint, the next thing we see could be many loops further down the line. The images we see aren’t a sequential story so much as a highlight reel lifted from hundreds—if not thousands—of iterations of the same journey. Cruise does a fine job of imagining what the effects might be; an almost imperceptible sag comes into his shoulders, and his face hardens into a grim mask as frustration gives way to resignation. The fact that Cage’s experience so far outstrips our understanding also makes the incremental rewiring of his personality all the more believable. Even as he becomes numb to death and destruction—he probably sees more of it than any other person in history—he’s inevitably growing closer to the people who are his only company in the midst of it, and whom he has to watch die every day.

None more so, of course, than Rita. The arc of their relationship is formulaic, but relatively plausible for multiple reasons, and Liman handles her character in refreshing, even subversive ways. Well, mostly. Three repetitions of that shot of her rising up in slow motion from a yoga pose is probably overkill, but you can understand the inclination. It’s a remarkable image, and one that says something about the movie’s attitude: even here, at the moment that most plainly objectifies Rita in the way action movies so often do to women, she’s attractive in a way that’s as much impressive as seductive. This is still Emily Blunt playing her, so Rita is gorgeous to an improbable degree, but she’s also strong and athletic enough that her in-story reputation remains credible. That is to say, she’s entirely convincing as a super-soldier who happens to be as gorgeous as Emily Blunt—still the kind of coincidence that happens only in movies, but she looks the part in a way that such characters rarely do.

She’s allowed to act the part as well. That thrice-repeated shot is easy to roll your eyes at, but it’s in slow motion for a reason: it’s the split second of simple curiosity when she first sees Cage, before reality and her personality kick in, and she greets him with undisguised contempt: “Who said you could talk to me??” The movie even allows her to play that icy demeanor for laughs, something only men are typically allowed to do. The one person who actually calls her by her vulgar nickname gets a turbocharged punch to the gut, and the one time Cage does bring up sex, her response is exactly what I presume most women envision for men who won’t take a hint. The dynamic between them is (mostly) a subtle inversion of the usual one between male and female leads in action movies; this time she’s the reticent, battle-hardened veteran subjecting the new recruit to brutal training regimens and instilling the values of duty and self-sacrifice.

She even gets to be—in a subtle, roundabout way—the real hero of the movie. The story is centered on Cage’s redemption, but if you think about it, Rita’s journey is far wilder and more impressive. Prior to their meeting, she spends an indeterminate amount of time as the only person on earth to have gone through the craziest experience in human history. She’s the only soldier in the UDF who truly understands the enemy they’re fighting, and as such, the only one who can formulate and carry out the near-suicidal plan that has a chance of winning the war. She has to charge into a battle that she’s virtually certain will be a massacre, while at the same time staying on the lookout (then and throughout the preceding 24 hours) for someone else who’s stumbled into the time loop. And she has to be mentally prepared to play her part at any point in the plan’s progression, while knowing that she’ll only actually experience a few possible outcomes: a slaughter on the beach, or an epic journey to kill the Omega. In either case, she’s unlikely to survive. If she does, then all she’ll probably ever know about her part in saving the world will be a story told to her by someone she’s just met. Just try to imagine her radical state of mind as the battle approaches; how beautifully apt that she trains by balancing on one hand amid giant spinning blades.

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Not to mention her emotional state; along with the near-certainty of imminent death, she has to be ready to meet and work with a stranger who already knows her very well. Here again, the time-loop premise makes the movie’s adherence to blockbuster conventions feel less arbitrary and more honestly earned. As tough and withdrawn as Rita is, it makes sense that she might open up somewhat to Cage; having been in the time loop herself, she understands that they’ve already spent countless days together. And while Liman doesn’t completely eschew the genre-prescribed romantic element, he notably downplays it. Cage falls in love with Rita because she’s beautiful and a straightforwardly admirable person, but his deep emotional attachment to her is more rooted in the intensely harrowing experience that they go through together. When Rita does kiss him, it’s a gesture not so much of romantic attraction as of respect for his bravery and gratitude for his assistance—the quick and perfunctory farewell of two warriors who know they’re about to die.

As such, it’s of a piece with the sequence it takes place in. The endings of time-loop stories are always tricky—even the excellent Source Code struggled to come up with an emotionally satisfying resolution that also made logical sense. The climactic showdown in Edge of Tomorrow certainly isn’t perfect; only a couple of J Squad grunts get a proper resolution, while the heroes, so realistically mortal beforehand, become more conventionally damage-proof once Cage is out of the loop. But the sequence is agreeably efficient and straightforward for an action blockbuster, and does a surprisingly good job of holding to the story’s internal logic. Meanwhile, Liman handles it with his usual panache; the action is lively and coherent, while the flooded, abandoned Louvre and Tuileries Gardens have a bleak and arresting beauty.

Nor does the movie overstay its welcome with extravagant scenes of celebration once the world is saved. Cage lands in London amid ringing church bells, watches a brief news report on TV, and just like that, he’s on his way to the place we know this scene is headed. He sees that J Squad is still alive, then walks into the training center to find Rita, who of course greets him just as coldly as she always has. In one final satisfying moment in a movie full of them, Liman leaves the interaction that follows up to our imagination. Cage just chuckles, and for once there’s no obvious manipulation behind that smile; he’s simply thrilled that a person he’s come to admire and care about isn’t dead after all. And when someone is that genuinely delighted onscreen, their happiness is inevitably contagious.

Even if that person is Tom Cruise.

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© Harrison Swan, 2019

[i] This was supposedly considered for the actual title right up until the last minute, then seized upon as a sort of alternate title in the studio’s attempts to re-brand the movie for home release after it performed badly at the American box office (as so many of the best ones do). The DVD release just went ahead and used both in concert, yielding the terrifically nonsensical title Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow.

[ii] Yes, that Verdun—the threat of the ‘Mimic scourge’ is such that it must be likened to the antagonist of not one, but both World Wars. It also confuses the allegory in subtly humorous ways; the Mimics are a merciless force of pure destruction, but maybe they’ve started this conflict due to fears of strategic encirclement, and the breakdown of a convoluted galactic alliance system.

[iii] My favorite assessment of his acting comes from Christopher Orr’s review of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation: “You don’t overcome the ‘impossible’ by thinking it over a little more carefully… You overcome the impossible through the application of sheer, unvarnished willpower, a quality that Cruise has always possessed in abundance. Other performers might cry more persuasively, for instance, than Cruise did at Jason Robards’ bedside in Magnolia, but none will cry harder. Others may juke more gracefully in their underwear than Cruise did in Risky Business; none will juke with greater conviction.”

[iv] Taylor looks the part and delivers his lines well, as always, but I’ve found him much more compelling when he takes his eccentric demeanor in more sinister directions—most famously as the loathsome mercenary Locke, who cut off Jaime Lannister’s hand in Game of Thrones.

[v] For example, the latest Call of Duty game made $500 million the weekend of its release, and surpassed $1 billion within two months. Meanwhile, the video game industry as a whole grossed a staggering $74 billion worldwide in 2015, and continues to grow.

[vi] This trend is, of course, hardly universal; some older games—the Legend of Zelda, Deus Ex, and Thief come to mind—are known for their compelling storylines, while many contemporary games are as narratively vapid as ever. For interesting (and hilarious) commentary on all this, check out the Zero Punctuation YouTube series by Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, a motormouthed, flamboyantly profane British critic who articulately skewers weak narratives in his often scathing reviews of new games.

[vii] One of the most widely acclaimed games of all time, for example, is Portal, a bare-bones puzzle game with plain graphics and an impish sense of humor, in which the player uses a portal-generating gun to move through spaces that they otherwise couldn’t. I’ve heard of sniper simulators that take place in real time, so you might have to wait hours for the chance to land an almost impossibly difficult shot, and entirely text-based games about depression and suicide so shattering that they reduce the player to an emotional wreck. The cleverest indie game that I’m aware of is Papers, Please, in which you play an immigration officer at a checkpoint in a drab, fictional Eastern-bloc country, and must review paperwork for an endless parade of immigrants and returning citizens. You gain points for following the increasingly heartless and convoluted laws, and lose points for bending the rules or mistakenly letting in political undesirables.

[viii] As teenagers, my friends and I watched countless episodes of the best-known machinima series, Red vs. Blue, which turned the armored avatars of the Halo games into characters in a M.A.S.H.-esque sitcom. Stranded in concrete bunkers at opposite ends of a desolate box canyon, the lazy, dim-witted, and otherwise inept grunts in the eponymous armies have no incentive to actually fight each other, and spend most of their time the way real-life soldiers do: bickering and goofing off in an attempt to stave off boredom. The humor is often crass and immature in the ways one might expect from the gamer crowd, but when it’s good, it reaches impressive heights of screwball comedy and absurdist satire. When the Red and Blue squads each receive a new recruit, their separate attempts at hazing spiral out of control in classic sitcom fashion. The onboard computer in a massive tank asks to be called ‘Sheila’ and grows increasingly sassy as the story progresses. A mute soldier on the Red team turns out to be an android with a missing speech unit; he gets a new one and it promptly short-circuits, causing him to speak only in flat, robotic Spanish. And when one recruit asks why the flag at the base (the object of the ‘Capture the Flag’ multiplayer mode) is so important, his superiors falter: “Because it’s the flag, man… It’s blue, we’re blue…” A fantastic layman’s introduction to the series and to machinima more generally can be found in this rather charmingly dated article from 2005: https://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/07/magazine/the-xbox-auteurs.html

In the Bedroom (2001)

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In describing quality cinema, it’s often said that a movie ‘knows what it is,’ meaning it works well within its brief and doesn’t feel the need to pile on story elements and cinematic flourishes to keep us entertained. Going one step further, we might say there are ‘no wasted moments’—that everything we see serves a clear narrative and/or thematic purpose. Maybe we can’t break down the significance of every shot on the fly, but as with an exceptionally clear and concise piece of writing, there’s a constant, palpable sense of forward momentum. We feel that it’s not so much the artist pulling us along as the work itself; we want to learn more, and it’s eager to show us. And at a certain point, the two phrases begin to converge, both referring to a degree of focus and confidence that’s rarely reached in filmmaking, or indeed in any medium of storytelling. These are the truly exceptional movies, the ones that stick with you—big famous classics, sure, but also more modest masterworks like Todd Field’s often-overlooked 2001 drama In The Bedroom. It still blows my mind that this was Field’s first feature; the movie is many things—beautiful, understated, devastating, even occasionally funny—but the defining quality is one of assurance.[i] No element is superfluous; everything serves to draw us more deeply into the story and the characters. This is the work of an artist who knows exactly what he’s doing every step of the way; all elements, from camera placement to sound design to minute details of acting, have been carefully considered and impeccably executed by everyone involved. And most remarkable of all, it always feels this way, even as the movie makes not one, but two unexpected turns, revealing itself to be something quite different from what we had previously thought.

Such outstanding cinematic craft is always a joy to behold, particularly when it turns up in such an unassuming work.[ii] In The Bedroom features no stunts, no special effects, no fancy editing, and no flashy camera moves. It takes place almost entirely in one small town, in contemporary times; there are no exotic settings or world-significant events or even any particularly remarkable people (which isn’t the same as saying there are no interesting characters.) A few of the excellent cast are quite well known, but none are A-list movie stars. And there aren’t many of them; you could practically count on two hands the total number of speaking roles. In a story driven mainly by interpersonal relationships, they don’t even say very much. In every sense, the movie is almost forcefully small-scale and intimate—as if Field wants to remind us how much can be achieved with a good script, a well thought-out vision, and not much else.

The answer is, of course: an astonishing amount, and you don’t have to dig deeply into film theory to appreciate it. There’s a great deal going on beneath the surface, but Field ensures that on the level of what is explicitly stated and shown, In The Bedroom remains an engrossing piece of work. It starts out as one kind of movie: a young man, Frank Fowler, is back home after graduating from college, enjoying an idyllic summer romance with a slightly older woman named Natalie. She has two young sons and a volatile ex-husband, but Frank’s parents are more concerned that the relationship is distracting him from his graduate school applications. And his father, Matt, isn’t taking the situation as seriously as his mother, Ruth, would like. It’s all recognizable setup for the kind of impassioned but slightly stuffy drama that the Academy loves to shower with awards, one degree removed from soap opera. (The family of Natalie’s ex-husband, Richard, even owns the cannery that employs half the town.)

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Except that impression is violently stripped away at the end of the first act, when Frank is killed in a scuffle with Richard. Suddenly, we see that the movie’s true subject is not so much Frank and Natalie’s romance, but Matt and Ruth’s emotional turmoil after the murder of their only child. Field is hardly the first storyteller to abruptly shift directions in this manner, but unlike many others, he doesn’t treat the pre-twist story merely as filler, hastily sketching out an idyllic context just to blow it up with a shocking murder. Indeed, his narrative misdirection works so well precisely because he does devote an uncommon amount of time and creative attention to the story before the twist. Although there are plenty of subtle hints (especially noticeable on a second viewing) about where things are ultimately headed, the movie engages seriously with the matters at hand; the characters act, realistically, like people who don’t know that disaster is just around the corner. The result is a genuinely involving story to hold our attention as we’re being misled, with interesting character dynamics and story elements that seem set to develop further.

In a lesser drama, for example, Frank would be treated from the outset as a doomed golden boy, too good for a cruel world. Here, in the screenplay by Field and Robert Festinger and in Nick Stahl’s casually appealing performance, Frank is smart and amiable, but he can also be carefree to a fault, tempted to give up his ambitions in favor of the simple lobstering life that he dabbles in every summer, naive about the danger posed by the hotheaded Richard, and unwilling to admit, even to himself, how genuinely in love he is with Natalie. He is, in other words, a realistically complex young man; like Matt and Ruth, we don’t quite realize what an agreeable and interesting presence he is until he’s gone. Natalie, for her part, isn’t just the beautiful older lover seducing him away from real life, à la Mrs. Robinson. While less educated than Frank, she’s considerably wiser and more clear-eyed about their relationship—when he goes on imaginative flights of fancy about staying together, she pushes back with some of the same counterpoints his mother might make. She’s much more familiar with the ups and downs of adult life (marriage, children, divorce), and Field pays close attention to the way her experience has shaped her personality. So she’s naturally tough and perceptive, but also anxious, uncertain, and easily flustered—we get the sense that she’s still struggling to come to terms with the difficult turns her life has taken, and sees Frank as a wonderful, if necessarily transitory, escape. Even Richard is more than a straightforward monster; the script and Field’s direction inject some real pathos into what could easily have been a fairly one-note character. Richard is still a nightmare ex-husband—short-fused and domineering, probably at least halfway sociopathic—but we also see the source of some of that anger. Having grown up free of struggle—scion of a wealthy family, star athlete in high school, married to the prettiest girl in town—he’s still a spoiled child in many ways, ill-equipped to handle difficulty when it comes and unable to get his life together afterwards.

Most of all, Field takes care to develop the personalities of Matt and Ruth, ensuring that we’re interested in them even before they become the story’s main characters, and thereby making their grief all the more immediate and shattering when it arrives. Matt comes across mostly as a typical affable dad, with the good-natured confidence of a man who has worked hard and been duly rewarded for it. Field subtly telegraphs the broad outlines of Matt’s life story: a local guy who left to pursue his education and satisfy some youthful wanderlust, now comfortably settled into his role as the town’s primary care physician. However, you can understand Ruth’s wish that he’d take things more seriously; he’s possessed of the same easygoing attitude that Frank often exhibits. He’s similarly deaf to concerns about Natalie—partly, one imagines, as a result of his own life having mostly gone well, and partly, although he’d never admit it, out of pride for his son’s conquest of a beautiful older woman. He clearly takes a certain amount of vicarious pleasure in the affair, coming as it does at a time when he might be inclined to think ruefully back on his own marriage, which seems to have been happy, but perhaps not very eventful. Ruth, meanwhile, is much like Matt in many respects: intelligent and well-respected, highly educated but very much at home in a small coastal town, even though the outlet she has found for her refined interests—teaching Eastern European folk music to distracted girls in the high school choir—doesn’t seem to be quite as fulfilling as his. And while she’s better able (or simply more willing) to see the potential pitfalls in Frank’s relationship, it isn’t always in good faith. Without beating us over the head with it, Field makes the dynamic clear: Ruth is right that Frank is being naive and letting the relationship distract him, but her disapproval has at least as much to do with her slightly condescending view of Natalie, reinforced by teachers’ lounge gossip: a nice young woman, but unsophisticated and with suspect morals. Moreover, it’s hard to argue with Matt’s point that Ruth’s harping on the issue won’t accomplish very much, and might even make Frank less inclined to follow her advice, even if it is sound.

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These are rich and interesting character dynamics, and the actors explore them with exceptional grace and insight. Without ever saying so, Tom Wilkinson signals both Matt’s vicarious enjoyment of Frank’s relationship and the personality traits underlying it.[iii] William Mapother deftly conveys the nuances of Richard’s belligerence, making him both terrifying and vaguely pathetic, somehow at his most menacing when he’s trying to make things right—I don’t know that I’ve ever seen another actor make a single aggressive twitch-fake so startling and unnerving. Especially impressive is Marisa Tomei, who combines into a single coherent personality both the shock and stress brought on by Natalie’s divorce, and the keen vivaciousness that’s the source of Frank’s attraction and of Richard’s lingering obsession. And all hail the great Sissy Spacek, who delivers one of the most true-to-life performances I’ve ever seen. Through precise line readings and subtle facial expressions, she communicates volumes about Ruth—little, long-percolating resentments; sophistication sliding into snobbery and back again; and formidable, mutually reinforcing intelligence and pride.

Our burgeoning investment in the interplay between these characters makes Frank’s violent death all the more shocking, and the emotional fallout all the more believable and devastating. Richard’s selfishness and sense of victimhood preclude any chance of real remorse, while Natalie’s anxiety, understandably heightened after such a traumatic event, leads to a small but crucial mistake at the trial. Even Matt’s lifelong best friend Willis becomes a quietly wrenching presence as he struggles to help Matt through an ordeal he never thought their friendship would have to face. Most powerfully, though, we see the consequences for the parents. Matt’s laid-back demeanor tragically mutates into an almost aggressive stoicism as he pushes relentlessly forward with his life, burying his emotions and putting on a brave face at all costs. Meanwhile, Ruth’s tendency towards aloofness curdles into a complete withdrawal from the world—there’s a bitterly poignant irony in the images of her smoking and watching crappy TV for hours on end: exactly the sort of behavior she would’ve previously scoffed at—while at the same time, and not so much through overt acting signals as through sheer force of will, Spacek shows her grief and wounded pride settling into a deep-seated, merciless rage. (It’s telling that the two physical displays of that rage, a slap across the face and a smashed plate, land with almost as much force as the two outbreaks of deadly violence elsewhere in the movie.) Field’s deliberate, economical storytelling is especially powerful here; with very little dialogue, he and his cast make palpable not only the crushing emptiness of the weeks after Frank’s death, but the mounting tension as Matt and Ruth stew silently in their toxically contradictory forms of grief. That directorial restraint, and the careful character development that comes before it, pay off beautifully in the remarkable scene when Matt and Ruth’s resentments finally boil over. The movies are full of characters hurling verbal abuse at each other, but it rarely feels so powerfully vicious as it does here. That’s because Field has made sure we know Matt and Ruth more intimately than is typical of characters in a movie—we feel the sting of the insults because we know that they’re grounded in truth. And in a broader sense, even though our own lives may not align with those of the characters, their motivations are understandable, their flaws are relatable, and their struggles—love complicated by family and social pressures, the separate and conflicting ways that parents grieve the loss of a child, what might drive law-abiding citizens to exact violent revenge—are universally compelling, not tethered to any one place or even to a particular era.

Which is especially remarkable, because the setting is highly specific, and thoroughly spliced into the movie’s artistic DNA. I’ll admit I can’t be entirely objective about this; I grew up in Mid-Coast Maine and have spent a great deal of time in the area right around Camden, where In The Bedroom takes place. So it’s distinctly satisfying to see a movie that’s not only set in Maine, but actually filmed there—a much rarer occurrence than you might expect. Largely thanks to Stephen King and his extensive, very film-adaptable body of work, Maine is, if anything, over-represented at the multiplex in proportion to its size, yet for whatever reason, filmmakers almost never shoot within the Pine Tree State.[iv] It’s a distinction that may well be invisible to non-Mainers, but take it from a native: this movie captures Maine—more specifically, the tourist/fishing villages like Camden—like no other that I’ve seen.[v]

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This is unusual but not surprising; Field lives just down the road in Rockland. He’s intimately familiar with the look and feel of coastal Maine in the summer, and the movie is full of wonderfully apt details that no substitute location could convincingly replicate. The authenticity is visible in the color palette, which is rich but not stylized, dominated instead by natural hues: the vivid, pervasive green of the vegetation, tinged with a yellowish haze of pollen; the golden fields of long grass drying out after weeks of hot weather; the forbidding yet somehow magnetic darkness of evergreen woods at dawn. It’s visible in the soft sunlight still filtering into a dockland bar long after work; in the hushed, almost ethereal tones of a long evening, with twilight lingering through a whole choir recital; and especially in the blazing sun, amplified by reflections off the white granite shoreline and water vapor in the air, still retaining a hint of the harshness typical of natural light at northern latitudes. It’s visible in the sturdy brick and wood-clapboard buildings, built primarily to withstand wind and cold, looking ever so slightly incongruous amid all that green and sunlight. It’s even audible in the soundscape: the harbor mélange of lapping water, squawking gulls, and distant boat engines; the ubiquitous rustling of leaves in the sea breeze; and the soothing, long-familiar voices of Joe Castiglione and Jerry Trupiano calling the Red Sox game.

Field’s deep understanding of the setting is most apparent in his characters, who, despite being uncommonly relatable, feel so seamlessly rooted in their environment that it’s hard to imagine them anywhere else. This is evident, first and foremost, in the way they speak. Field and Festinger’s script (adapted from, and intelligently expanded upon, a beautifully tense short story by Andre Dubus) is conventionally compelling: eloquently expressive, but also markedly straightforward and concise, lacking in the rhetorical flourishes typical of ‘prestige’ cinema—all of which is perfectly representative of the region, where candor and brevity in speech are still traditionally valued. In The Bedroom even attains that Holy Grail of regional filmmaking: getting the accents right. Although the problem is usually apparent only to residents, New England accents are notoriously difficult for movies to get right; actors have a tendency to bury their Rs under vowels so broad that they stretch the word halfway to a Southern drawl. It makes for fun scenery-chewing, but no one in New England actually talks like that (except perhaps if they’re a lifelong Bostonian, and hammered.) But here, Marisa Tomei doesn’t just nail it, she nails the subtle differences between the Boston brogue and the coastal Maine variant: the slight upward inflection of the dropped Rs, and the vowel sounds broadened but clipped at the ends, carrying the faintest trace of a Canadian twang. Field also understands that the accent varies considerably even within a small town, dependent upon one’s family, personal history, and social class. So Richard, having grown up wealthy, has a less pronounced accent than the thoroughly working-class Natalie. Ruth’s measured, halfway patrician speech patterns reflect her advanced education and cosmopolitan background, while Matt’s time away from town and his pursuit of a medical degree have largely neutralized whatever accent he may have had. Frank’s speech is similarly neutral, with only the occasional dropped R to indicate his birthplace and, perhaps, his growing attraction to the simple life it offers. Willis and his wife Katie have the casual but pronounced accents of people who have spent so much of their lives in one place that they don’t notice the accents anymore.

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Still, vocal inflection and body language are only part of it; the actors, none of whom are from Maine, fit seamlessly into the Camden milieu, right down to the clothes they wear. With his slightly lumbering gait and semi-formal attire resting rather awkwardly over his tall, hulking frame, Wilkinson looks so thoroughly local that you might never guess he’s from northern England, trained at elite British acting schools. Stahl’s flowing hair and embroidered jeans are effective, if slightly dated, indications of Frank’s artistic leanings and easygoing confidence, and while no character played by Marisa Tomei could ever be described as ‘plain,’ her unstyled hair and workaday clothes are just right for a busy single mom of the Maine coast. With his thick blue jeans and plain-colored work shirts covering an ample gut, William Wise, whose performance as Willis is in many ways the movie’s secret weapon, could have stepped out of any greasy spoon diner in the state. And Spacek, with her clogs, wool-lined denim jacket, and flowing, vaguely Sixties-ish shirts, is uncanny in her embodiment of the rural, educated New England women of her generation—only a few artsy degrees removed from own mother, and a spitting image of some of her peers. (All that’s missing is the Maine Public Radio tote bag.) I don’t mean to belabor the point, but I can’t emphasize enough how true these people feel, to the place, to the time, and to the story—and that deep sense of authenticity only makes the movie more realistic and emotionally relatable.

Most of all, however, In The Bedroom works because of Field’s superb command of the fundamentals of narrative filmmaking. The actors are all skilled enough to communicate a great deal without speaking, and Field has a gift for getting us on the same wavelength through careful, understated camerawork and editing, priming us to notice non-verbal cues and register the depth of the performances. The clearest example is his highly selective use of the handheld camera, which makes itself apparent on only two occasions when passions boil over and throw the world violently thrown off balance: Frank’s murder, and the moment when Matt and Ruth finally lash out at each other. In both cases, Field switches to handheld several beats before the breaking point, subtly setting us on edge as the situation begins to spiral out of control, and he immediately switches back to static shots as the consequences settle firmly, brutally, and irrevocably into place. Significantly, the camera remains smooth and steady throughout the long, tense sequence when Matt kidnaps and eventually kills Richard—this isn’t a spontaneous crime of passion, but a coldly premeditated murder.

Nor is it just the big, memorable moments; Field’s visual precision enhances every scene, no matter how minor. Early on, Natalie comes home to find Richard in her dining room. The scene is fairly straightforward: two people talking, alternating between static, front-angle views of the actors—the conventional ‘shot/reverse shot’ method. But all the way through, Field’s framing complements the scene. He focuses on one character at a time, but includes both of them in the frame, emphasizing how entwined their lives still are. He frames Richard at the same distance, but moves a few steps closer in on Natalie, reflecting how increasingly threatened she feels. At the point of direct confrontation, when she tells Richard to leave, we see them both in close-up, with Natalie, trying to break free, finally by herself, but her shoulder still in the frame with Richard, who still won’t leave her alone. The framing is similarly, deceptively expressive in the scene at the lawyer’s office. Matt and Ruth are together only when she loses it and shouts at the lawyer; when they’re simply talking, trying to make sense of things, Field isolates them in the frame with conspicuous empty spaces beside them, signaling the bitter divisions that their grief and anger will soon expose. Even the sound design plays into it; Field establishes a contrast between sounds closer to nature (rustling leaves, chopping wood, clipping branches) which are softer and less obtrusive, and noises from man-made sources, which are notably loud and grating—a lawn mower, boat and ATV engines, and especially the grind of the cash register at the mini-mart where Natalie works, which becomes almost unbearably jarring as it interrupts her and Matt’s whispered, tortured attempts to put their emotions into words. A static shot of Matt and Frank down at the harbor that shifts with the motion of the floating dock, indicating the rocky foundations that this normalcy rests on; the last of a wine bottle poured into Matt’s glass in the foreground and Ruth’s veiled disapproval behind it, setting up the stinging remark that will eventually ignite their argument… I could go on, but it would be both tedious and impossible to enumerate every example of Field’s exemplary craft. Indeed, discovering more of these subtle touches is one of the principal pleasures of watching (and re-watching) this movie.

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Craft alone doesn’t guarantee quality, though—as demonstrated by the countless mediocre works by skilled directors. In The Bedroom benefits not only from masterful execution, but from an exceptionally well thought-out narrative structure. Every moment reflects Field’s carefully considered vision, lending the movie the ineffable sense of assurance that makes it a masterpiece. Nothing is superfluous; everything circles back and resonates later on, in ways unexpected and often wrenching. For example, we meet the local priest, and he seems to be there mostly to add color to the setting (look at this quaint, laid-back little town, where the priest will drop by a cookout have a beer!) and to deliver a bland eulogy for Frank. Except he turns up again during Ruth’s visit to the cemetery, where he tells a surprisingly weird, borderline trippy story about another mother who lost a child. Frank’s friend Tim starts out as a bit player, there to speak a few lines reinforcing Frank’s popularity and cry at his funeral. But then he shows up much later on at the bar, where a desperate Matt corners him in search of new evidence, and he gets to deliver one of the movie’s most ominously loaded lines: “It’s funny running into you…here, Dr. Fowler…” At first, the background sound of the Red Sox game on the radio adds to the carefree-summer vibe; in tense moments later on, its incongruousness becomes downright eerie. The wistful folk songs performed by Ruth’s choir are pleasantly evocative, then crushingly ironic, and finally (especially in retrospect) horribly portentous of the dark final act. Matt placing an old Navy hat on little Jason’s head, a slow zoom in on a Maine Veteran license plate, a pan across Willis’s old war photos and medals—only in retrospect do we realize that Field is setting up a psychological context for the final act. Both Matt and Willis served in Vietnam; they’re acquainted with violence, and depending on what the war did to their sense of patriotism, perhaps more skeptical than most of the state’s commitment to true justice. My favorite is their friend Carl, a poetry buff who comes across as an amusing eccentric, driving the guys crazy with poetry recitations during their poker games—until after Frank’s death, when he recites (beautifully) a stanza by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that perfectly captures the roiling emotions of the moment.

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Once again, I could continue like this ad nauseam, and even then, I wouldn’t have fully articulated how wonderfully layered and immersive In The Bedroom is. That’s a sure sign of great filmmaking: that even when you know the twists and understand why the movie works, there’s always more to unpack, more moments of unassuming brilliance waiting to be discovered. Even without a big budget or Hollywood flash, Field made a masterpiece back in 2001, a compelling exploration not only of grief and revenge, but of a region, a culture, and a generation—and it still deserves to be remembered alongside the great dramas of all time.

Here’s hoping he comes back and makes another someday.

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© Harrison Swan, 2019

[i] This isn’t the only unusual thing about Field’s biography. Born in the L.A. area but raised mostly in Portland, Oregon, he was well on his way to being a recognizable character actor, playing the lead in a couple of late-90s indie movies and a crucial supporting role in Stanley Kubrick’s flawed but compelling final work Eyes Wide Shut. Then he sidelined all that to try his hand at directing, reportedly encouraged by Kubrick, who allowed Field to observe him behind the camera on off days. After the success of In The Bedroom, Field took his time until 2006, when he directed and co-wrote, with Tom Perrotta, an adaptation of Perotta’s novel Little Children. The movie, also about the dark side of a pleasant New England town, was lauded by critics and showered with Oscar nominations, and Field seemed set to do pretty much whatever he wanted. Instead, he abruptly dropped off the map and hasn’t made a movie since. He lives far from Hollywood, which probably doesn’t help, but it’s still unusual for a filmmaker to disappear so completely after such a promising start.

[ii] The budget, by the way, was $1.7 million: not nothing, but tiny for a feature film with established actors, especially considering that it went on to receive five Oscar nominations. It also ended up earning $43.4 million at the box office—enough to make it, in terms of the expense-to-profit ratio, one of the most financially successful movies of all time.

[iii] It’s interesting to consider that despite being solidly established as a working actor both in the U.K. and increasingly in America, Wilkinson still wasn’t known to a wide audience at the time. In The Bedroom came out in 2001, still a few years before Wilkinson’s meaty supporting role as the gangster Carmine Falcone in Batman Begins. Since then, he’s become one of the more recognizable ‘hey, it’s that guy!’ actors in Hollywood, appearing in all manner of big-budget productions. Likewise, Sissy Spacek, despite being widely recognized as a prodigiously talented actress, had largely (if not completely) retreated from the big screen since starting a family in the 1980s. In The Bedroom was the beginning of her return to a busy acting career.

[iv] In fact, a reliable sign that a movie set in Maine wasn’t filmed there (aside from the IMDb page saying so) is a scarcity of pines and other evergreen trees in the background. Conifers are quite common throughout the Maine woods, while deciduous trees quickly begin to dominate as you move further south.

[v] To nitpick: Field does take one (very) minor bit of dramatic license involving Old Orchard Beach, a bizarre tourist town that, for some reason, openly seeks to replicate the look and feel of Coney Island or Atlantic City. Gaudy, seedy, and party-oriented, it makes perfect sense as the place where Richard would end up tending bar, but the geography is slightly off: O.O.B., as it’s known, is part of a string of beach towns near the New Hampshire border, nearly three hours south of Camden. The timing of Matt and Willis’ plan becomes a bit of a stretch at that distance, and in any case, if Richard were living so far away, it’s unlikely that Ruth would regularly see him around Camden.

Captain Phillips (2013)

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If, like me, you can’t help but love action movies, then you may have noticed a recent trend in the way they’re made. No, I’m not talking about CGI—although computer-generated effects have certainly come to dominate action movies as well, and rarely with good results. I’m talking instead about the ‘shaky-cam’ technique, as I’ve often heard it described, in which we watch the action through handheld cameras constantly jumping and swerving around, never staying in one place (or on the same shot) for more than a second or two. A scene filmed in this way is certainly exciting, but it can often feel disappointing as soon as it ends, as you find yourself struggling to reconstruct exactly what you just saw. It’s exhilarating in the same way that wiping out hard on a surfboard is presumably kind of exhilarating—not because you’re watching cool stuff happen, but because your senses are scrambled and you’re not sure which way is up.

Which is a shame, because the shaky-cam technique can be deeply compelling when properly deployed. No working filmmaker has a better track record of doing so that the British director Paul Greengrass, and for me, the movie in which the elements of his style combine most powerfully is Captain Phillips (2013) about the real-life attack on the container ship Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates in 2009. It presents a slightly condensed but meticulous reconstruction of all sides of the incident, from the pirates’ initial pursuit and capture of the ship to the U.S. Navy’s mission to rescue its captain, Richard Phillips, whom the pirates had taken hostage aboard a lifeboat. More so that Greengrass’s previous movies, there’s also a strong undercurrent of humanism in Billy Ray’s script, which, combined with Greengrass’s journalistic instincts, results in a survival-kidnapping thriller that’s uncommonly empathetic towards everyone involved, and contains a profound (if largely implicit) message about the dynamics of power and privilege in today’s densely interconnected world.

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The deeper implications are easy to miss on a first viewing, because Greengrass uses his jittery cinematography and rapid-fire editing keep the tension cranked up even during relative lulls in the story. But, as always, the chaos is carefully controlled; he’s a gifted director of action, with an instinctive feel for when to cut and where to place the camera to ensure coherence amid all that manic motion. After all, there’s nothing new or insidious about shooting handheld. It’s been around pretty much as long as the equipment has been light enough to allow it, and the increasing maneuverability of cameras has been instrumental in the development of film as an art form, allowing productions to move more easily into real locations and proving especially valuable to documentary filmmakers, who need to be able to follow their subjects in real time. Indeed, the idea that handheld cinematography equals realism has its roots in the ‘cinéma vérité’ school of documentary filmmaking that emerged in the 60s and 70s, which made frequent use of handheld cameras as it sought to portray the subject as objectively and unobtrusively as possible. This is probably how most directors, if asked, would defend the shaky-cam technique: it makes you feel like you are the cameraman, right alongside the action. Yet without the keen spatial awareness of someone like Greengrass, the results tend not to be exciting so much as chaotic and confusing.

It’s tempting to blame Greengrass for the recent outbreak of shaky-cam in action filmmaking, but that wouldn’t be entirely fair—it’s not his fault that no one else (so far) has proved able to use the technique quite as well as he can. He started out directing programs for a British news channel, and you can see those origins in most of his feature films, which tend to be fact-based dramas depicting episodes of recent history. So it’s hardly surprising that he would develop a mostly handheld, quasi-documentary style of filmmaking; when carefully executed, it’s the perfect stylistic choice for that sort of subject matter. It’s perhaps a bit ironic that he rose to international prominence as the director of The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, two of the most consistently thrilling (but decidedly fictional) action movies of the 2000s.[i]

But perhaps not; I would argue that Greengrass’s journalistic sensibility is actually an important factor in those movies’ success. In his Bourne films (and in Doug Liman’s original, it should be noted), there is action and violence aplenty, but death, when it happens, is a somber event—decidedly not part of the fun. The thrill comes instead from simple kinetics, from watching people and things in rapid and spectacular motion. (I’m still waiting for him to make a sports movie; Paul Greengrass filming a hockey game would be absolutely bananas.) And the shaky-cam style works equally well at keeping an audience on edge in his more recent, less action-centric thrillers, like Bloody Sunday (2002), about a massacre in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, and United 93 (2006), a slow-building heart-attack of a movie about the eponymous flight that fought back against the hijackers on 9/11.

Anyway, back to Captain Phillips: the movie begins predictably enough, with merchant marine captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) at his home in Vermont, preparing to head out on his next assignment. He and his wife drive to the airport, having an unduly portentous conversation about the rapidly changing world around them. It’s a good thing all this comes early, because it’s by far the weakest part of the movie. It criminally wastes a talented actress (Catherine Keener as Phillips’ wife), the dialogue is clunky and excessively on the nose, and Hanks’ Boston accent remains woefully inadequate.[ii] This opening could certainly have been done better, but it nevertheless serves an important purpose in the narrative: it introduces us to the broader milieu that the Phillips’ inhabit. Their house is slightly cramped, but it’s cozy and situated in a beautiful, safe place. They voice concerns that reflect a certain degree of privilege, but are neither trivial nor unfounded. They both work hard and have a comfortable life to show for it. They’re not rich, but in a fundamental sense, the world economy is working for them.

But in the very next scene, Greengrass signals that this movie is about more than a decent American everyman victimized by nefarious foreigners. In an intentionally jarring transition, we suddenly find ourselves in a fishing village on the Somali coast, where political chaos and depleted fish stocks have left the inhabitants brutally impoverished. The world economy is emphatically not working here, to the point that young men are desperate to sign up for an almost suicidally dangerous job: holding ships for ransom in the service of the local warlord. The nervously roving camera captures the chaotic, crowded scene on the beach, but it also lingers on the pirate leader Abduwali Muse, allowing the first-time actor Barkhad Abdi to telegraph a great deal about the character even as he says very little. Muse is intimidating despite his slight build—an embodiment of the axiom that nothing is more dangerous than a young man with a gun and little to lose—but from the start, Abdi also establishes him as a respected and shrewdly perceptive leader.

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Greengrass keeps up that equality of attention as the story begins to ramp up, continuing to highlight the contrasts between the characters. Phillips arrives at the Port of Salalah in Oman, a sprawling metropolis of shipping containers stacked in massive blocks, and sets out on the Alabama, itself as tall as a several-story building. Meanwhile, Muse and another pirate crew launch a couple of battered skiffs with aging outboard motors into heavy surf—no mean feat in itself. We see Phillips scrolling through some foreboding email notices about pirate activity in the area and learn that he’s a bit of a hard-ass out at sea, the kind of boss who wields his authority with stern bluntness and doesn’t much care about the crew grumbling behind his back. Then we’re back with the pirates, where a rivalry is developing between Muse and the macho-posturing leader of the other crew as they search their radar screen for targets. The characters are still worlds apart, but Greengrass films them similarly, drawing—or at least indicating—parallels between them even before they first encounter each other.

In a fortunate twist of fate, the real-life sequence of events allows Greengrass to explore this dynamic still further before the two parties inevitably meet. The first time the pirates make a run at the ship, they fail, thwarted by rough seas and their motor cutting out at the last moment. It’s a sensational miniature chase sequence, its impact magnified by being shot (like the rest of the movie) using real boats on the real ocean. Phillips, already established as a humorless but solidly competent seaman, is also shown to be a wily quarry, manipulating the Alabama’s wake to make trouble for the pirates’ small craft and faking a radio conversation with a Navy warship, knowing that the pirates will be listening.[iii] At the same time, we see that the pirates are adept mariners in their own right, navigating through the huge waves and the churning wake in a tiny open boat at breakneck speed. Anyone who has been out on the open sea in a similarly small vessel can appreciate the skill and cojones required to pull that off. Muse in particular is shown to be audaciously brave; he pushes on despite hearing Phillips’ phony call for an air strike, and later, when the feud between the two crews boils over, he doesn’t flinch when a gun is pulled on him, calmly staring his rival down until he can slip his fingers around a wrench and knock the guy out.

Once again, the cinematography does more than maintain tension; it highlights both the contrasts and the similarities between the Alabama and the repurposed fishing trawler that serves as the pirates’ mother ship. The handheld camera hovers restlessly but is unable to move around much in the interior spaces, which are similarly cramped on both ships. Yet this closeness also calls our attention to the obvious contrasts: the utilitarian but pristine Alabama, with its relatively spacious bridge and expansive views of the ocean, against the derelict fishing boat with its grimy, dimly lit cabin and aging machinery. At the same time, these cramped close-ups, along with a few choice aerial shots in which both ships appear equally tiny and insignificant against the vast expanse of the open ocean, are crucial in conveying a deeper, almost subconscious sense of unease that persists throughout the movie. The two groups represent vastly different cross-sections of humanity, but everyone, however competent they may be out at sea, is by their very nature out of their element. This whole story is set in an environment that remains largely alien and mysterious to us despite being central to human life for thousands of years. The conflict is entirely interpersonal, but it occurs in a place where people fundamentally do not belong.

Things kick into high gear when the pirates make their second, successful attempt to board the ship, and while it would be tedious to examine every nuance and twist, it should be noted that the story encompasses several distinct types of suspenseful narrative. There’s another wild chase sequence, in which the pirates manage to get a ladder on the side of the ship and climb aboard. Thereafter, the nature of the suspense changes, becoming more of an interpersonal standoff when the pirates arrive at the bridge and the two contrasting worlds come jarringly face-to-face.[iv] There’s a period of cat-and-mouse tension as Phillips and others try to keep the pirates from discovering the rest of the crew. And finally, the pirates escape with Phillips in the lifeboat, and we have the multi-layered suspense of a hostage scenario—with Phillips, the pirates, and soon the U.S. Navy all maneuvering to try and come out on top of an increasingly fraught situation. The handheld, up-close cinematography adds to the tension in ways we’ve already explored, but its consistency also provides a crucial sense of narrative continuity as the story progresses through these different settings and varieties of suspense.

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However, there are also moments sprinkled throughout the story where Greengrass pulls back and gives us a larger view. With each movie, he seems to get a bit better at this: judiciously settling his camera down and allowing us to take stock of the situation before things hurtle into motion again. Nor does it always mean pulling back for a wide shot; in a wonderfully strange moment just after the pirates’ engine dies, Phillips and Muse stare at each other through binoculars, still in their separate vessels but momentarily close enough to see each other quite clearly, hinting at the rivalry and tenuous understanding that will eventually develop between them. In moments like these, Greengrass plays with scale in compelling ways that add new depth to the movie. The aerial shots of the ships against the vastness of the open ocean are just one example. Amid the mayhem of the second chase sequence, the Alabama, ringed by protective jets of water from its fire hoses, looms like a skyscraper over the small skiff, making the pirates that much more intimidating by showing what a perversely impressive feat they pull off in boarding the ship. After a long time spent in the tight confines of the ship’s interior, the pirates take Phillips hostage amid a lot of shouting and confusion, and then there’s an instant of dread-filled silence as the lifeboat detaches from its cradle and plunges at least fifteen feet into the water, signaling that things have deteriorated to a new level of uncertainty and desperation, for the pirates as well as Phillips.

And when the Navy arrives on the scene, the wild disparity between the tiny, pod-like lifeboat and the huge warships allows Greengrass to create some memorably unusual images, underscoring not just how dangerous, but how bizarre the situation has become. With no other points of reference, the first destroyer grows alarmingly quickly out of the darkness; the pirates open the hatch and find the view entirely filled by the bulk of the nearby ship. Later, the camera swoops over the lifeboat, relatively prominent in the foreground, to reveal the (now three) warships, their colossal size becoming more apparent as we get closer. Shots like these, while brief, are crucial in creating the distinctive tone that Greengrass maintains throughout the movie. We hope for the mission to succeed, but when we pull back, the scope of it starts to look slightly absurd: the most advanced navy in the world deploying thousands of personnel, the latest technological wizardry, and untold millions of dollars against a single lifeboat with four enemies, all to rescue one hostage.

It’s never suggested that all this isn’t justified; indeed, the movie shows that as a military operation, it’s brilliantly conceived and flawlessly executed. In one of my favorite slow-down moments, when the destroyer has the lifeboat under tow, the camera travels the full length of the rope linking the two vessels, underscoring the difficulty of what the SEALs are about to do. Think about it: snipers simultaneously hit three moving targets through the tiny windows of a vessel that’s pitching and rolling on the ocean—without hurting a hostage in the same confined space. It’s as straightforward a case of heroic military rescue as we’re ever likely to see, but Greengrass portrays it without the usual sense of triumph. All the action-thriller elements are there—powerful ships and heavy machinery, special forces parachuting out of planes, even a neat little gadget that lets the SEALs hear what’s going on in the lifeboat—but Greengrass doesn’t celebrate them in the way other filmmakers might. The mission is exciting to watch, but Greengrass still treats the violent results with appropriate gravity. When it’s over, there are no cheers or sighs of relief—just the blindfolded Phillips freaking out and the SEALs calmly packing up their gear, having completed their work. The U.S. military comes across as a terrifically effective but largely impersonal organization, a manifestation of the powerful forces that Phillips, along with everyone else lucky enough to live in a country like the United States, have arrayed to protect them at all times, wherever they are in the world.

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The pirates, coming from a small and impoverished nation, have no such forces protecting them; indeed, their only backup flees when confronted with the armada deployed to protect Phillips. Yet the attention paid to them by Ray’s screenplay and Greengrass’s direction ensures that they don’t come across as straightforward villains. They remain dangerous and unpredictable, and we always fear for Phillips’ safety, but we also understand their mounting panic and confusion as the situation spirals out of their control.[v] And one of the tragic ironies of the story is that the big impersonal military arrives just as Phillips and his captors are starting to reach a place of greater understanding. He sympathizes with Muse’s predicament: injured, exhausted, and desperately trying to keep control over a deteriorating situation while maintaining the composure of someone firmly in command. He appeals to their common experience in trying to convince Muse to surrender, and registers a flicker of grudging respect for his refusal to give up. Hanks and Abdi masterfully convey the nuances of this dynamic, especially in their remarkable last scene together. Muse has a gun to Phillips’s head, but at this point more than any other, they seem to be facing each other down as equally complex, evenly matched adversaries. Over the course of the movie, Muse has shown himself to be dangerous but not cruel, shrewdly diffusing multiple situations that threaten to get someone killed. Yet as he holds the gun to Phillips’s head, we believe that he’s capable of pulling the trigger, and Phillips calls him out accordingly, rejecting the idea that he’s simply a fisherman forced into a life of crime. At the same time, it’s clear that Phillips is not simply a decent, pacific captive. He’s a canny opponent when still in command of the Alabama, and once captured, he makes every possible attempt to escape. It’s never explicitly stated, but we get the sense that Phillips and Muse each recognize a bit of their own tenacity and fierce determination in the other—that maybe, had history played out differently, they could have found themselves in a similar situation with their roles reversed. They’ve ended up where they are mostly because of their origins. It’s a subtle but compelling illustration of the kind of privilege that has been much discussed recently; the difference between Phillips and Muse is the difference between a well-off kid whose parents have the resources to help him out in an emergency, and a poor kid without that security.

Captain Phillips has a clear protagonist whom we can’t help but root for (he’s played by Tom Hanks, after all), but Greengrass presents the pirates who attack him and the military that helps him in such a way that the movie doesn’t feel like a story of good vs. evil. All of the characters have understandable motivations, and everyone makes reasonable arguments. An indignant Alabama crewman is right that they have neither the training nor the financial incentive to confront the pirates, and Phillips is right that they don’t have much choice—running won’t make them any safer. Muse is right that chaos and lawlessness have left his crew with no other options, and Phillips is right that he’s “not just a fisherman.” Phillips is right that the pirates could’ve taken the $30,000 and avoided confrontation with the Navy, and Muse is right that it wouldn’t have been enough for his bosses. Even the borderline-psychotic Najee, at the end, is right that no tribal elders are coming to negotiate a deal, and although the military’s response is brutal, it’s hard to think of what else they could’ve done in that moment.

By emphasizing these ambiguities, Greengrass presents the incident instead as a tragedy, enacted by the individual players but beyond the control of any one person. Highlighting the danger and unnatural remoteness of the open ocean setting, he implies that this is being driven just as much by the powerful and obscure forces that make our deeply interconnected world turn—the global economy that leaves some people secure while others starve, and the attendant power dynamics that result in some lives being valued more highly than others. Meanwhile, the shaky-cam ends up having a democratizing effect; by filming everyone in the same nervous style, it implies that everyone, even the coolly competent military, is being swept up and co-opted by these obscure forces. No reasonable person would accuse Phillips and his working-class crew of having too much or admonish the military for doing everything they can to save them, but nor would one claim that the Somalis don’t deserve the same comfort and security. The tragedy is that they wind up pitted against each other, with predictably violent results.

Which is not to say that this isn’t still a fantastically exciting and entertaining movie. With Greengrass’s shaky camerawork and frenetic editing, the story unfolds with the natural urgency of water racing downhill, flowing so easily that it feels like it couldn’t have been filmed any other way—which isn’t the case all. In a movie so tightly focused and relentlessly intense, it can be easy to miss the underlying complexities, but Greengrass manages to explore them with a great deal of depth, making Captain Phillips into a quietly extraordinary piece of work.

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[i] He also directed the series sort-of reboot Jason Bourne a few years ago, with odd results. All the reliable pieces seemed to be in place—Bourne tearing around the world, improvising unlikely weapons and escapes in exotic locales; CIA spooks in a darkened office, tracking him with a dizzying array of high-tech gadgets, with a bit of intra-agency intrigue to spice things up; the discovery of new tidbits about Bourne’s dark past—and yet the result somehow wasn’t nearly as compelling as those earlier entries. Greengrass’s actions sequences remain as jaw-dropping as ever, though—a potent reminder of what the shaky-cam technique is capable of in the right hands.

[ii] To be fair, very few actors can successfully pull that off, and in any case, it quickly becomes much less pronounced—subtle regional accents have a way of receding when you’re stressed out and/or terrified, as Hanks’ character is for most of the movie.

[iii] In a small but significant departure from the true story, Ray’s screenplay and Greengrass’s direction choose to omit the fact that Phillips’ competence could sometimes slide into bravado—in real life, he took the Alabama within 300 miles of the Somali coast despite an advisory to stay at least 600 miles offshore. It’s too bad this wasn’t included in some way, because showing more of that side of him would have made Phillips a more interesting character, and because Phillips’s stated reason for doing so (that there was no guarantee that they’d be any safer at 600 miles out, and that he simply wanted to get through the area as fast as he could) strikes me as pretty reasonable.

[iv] In a clever bit of directorial manipulation, Greengrass didn’t allow the two groups of actors to meet until they shot that scene, lending an extra jolt of realism to the shock, fear, and uncertainty on the faces of Hanks and the other Western actors when the pirates barge in.

[v] Significantly, they’ve also run out of khat, the plant that many people in that part of the world chew for its amphetamine-like effects: increased energy and (crucially, in an impoverished place) suppressed appetite. On top of the inherent stress of the situation, they’re basically in mild withdrawal—no wonder their nerves are frayed to the breaking point.

Margin Call (2011)

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Do you understand the 2008 financial crisis? We all know about it, but how many of us could describe, with any kind of authority, what actually happened when the world economy tanked a decade ago? I certainly can’t, and I don’t think I’m alone in that, which makes it all the more impressive to me that Margin Call, J.C. Chandor’s slick, efficient thriller about a major investment bank on the eve of the crisis, manages to spin such a compelling story out of such opaque real-world events. I think it’s one of the best movies of the past several years—or at least the most thrilling, finely crafted, and piercingly insightful one yet made about the 2008 crisis and contemporary capitalism.

There is, admittedly, not a lot of competition there. Cynical though it may be, one can understand how profit-minded studio executives might be skeptical of drama manifested in numbers and balance sheets. Most other entries in the genre (let’s call it ‘financial thriller’) tend to be squarely polemical—either satirical depictions of greed like The Wolf of Wall Street or Oliver Stone’s 1987 Wall Street, or else advocacy documentaries like Capitalism: A Love Story or Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job.[i] Margin Call strikes something of a balance between the two, giving us a sense of the numbing scale and complexity of the crisis as well as the way it affects—and is affected by—the human qualities of the people involved, and for this reason its portrayal of a Wall Street firm feels both more realistic and more insightful. It’s the rare fact-based story that finds drama not just in showing what happened, but in trying to understand why it happened.

Which is especially impressive when you consider that unlike its genre peers, Margin Call depicts neither the financial shenanigans that lead to the collapse (in this case, a fictionalized version of the real one in 2008) nor its messy aftermath; instead, it unfolds over a single 36-hour period at a fictional Wall Street bank at the very beginning of the crisis. Nor does it revolve around a single protagonist, instead following a diffuse collection of employees from all levels of the company hierarchy as they grapple with the sudden revelation that their firm is on the brink of ruin. In the wrong hands it easily could’ve been stuffy and tedious, but Chandor makes the movie, in its own way, just as intense as any high-stakes thriller. It’s a different, less familiar sort of tension, though: subtle and slow-burning, based not so much on in-your-face stress as on building up a pervasive sense of dread and desperation.

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With a remarkable sureness of touch for one directing his first feature film, Chandor establishes this sense of unease right from the start. The first shot is a time-lapse of mid-town Manhattan from up in one of the skyscrapers, so high that we’re unable to see any of the human activity at street level. We only see the cityscape, distorted by a fish-eye lens, so much of it contained in the frame that it’s almost difficult to pick out individual structures. With the added distraction of the opening credits, we barely notice the clouds roiling overhead.

Then we’re inside the office, where several smartly dressed corporate operatives are walking purposefully down a hallway, carrying dossiers and boxes of pamphlets. It’s clear from the expressions of the employees watching them, and from the undercurrent of anxiety in the mournful score, that their presence is bad news. “Jesus Christ,” one young man says to another, “Are they going to do it right here?” Hearing only the audio, you might think he was watching the lead-up to some sort of summary execution.

In a sense, he is. The new arrivals are professional corporate ‘downsizers,’ contracted to carry out a cruelly sweeping (and, it appears, relatively routine) round of layoffs.[ii] The young men watching them are Seth Bregman and Peter Sullivan, junior number crunchers in the firm’s Risk Management department. The head trader, a congenially cynical Brit named Will Emerson, advises them to keep their heads down and try to ignore it.

Peter and Seth make it through the day, but one of the unfortunate ones is Eric Dale, their boss in the Risk department, whose firing we see in all its canned, courteous brutality. (The downsizers are unfailingly polite, but never allow him to complete a sentence of protest.) On his way out, Eric, his suppressed devastation conveyed with masterful understatement by Stanley Tucci, tells Peter that he was on the verge of finishing a major project, and slips his surprised protégé a flash drive containing the file.

What follows is the first major dramatic development in the story: As the elevator doors close, Eric tells Peter, “Be careful.” That phrase is common in movies, almost to the point of cliché, but I can’t remember the last time it had the kind of thrilling effect that it does here. Tucci delivers it impeccably: in an entirely natural, almost flat tone that’s still somehow laden with mystery and dread. There is no background score, but the low, dissonant thrum of the elevator door adds much to the sense of foreboding. It’s a perfect example of the subdued tension (and the skill with which Chandor and his cast convey it) that will make this movie exceptional.

Understandably intrigued, Peter stays late that night while Will, Seth, and the others are out celebrating their survival in a swanky Manhattan bar. Awash in the computer-blue glow of the darkened trading floor, he sifts through data and scribbles down lots of complex-looking math in a notebook, until suddenly, in an oh-shit moment conveyed with perfect understatement by Zachary Quinto (no hammy dialogue or hyperventilating, just stunned silence, a hand blindly pulling out his earphones, and a quiet moment of panic before he reaches desperately for the phone), he realizes…

What, exactly? It isn’t clearly spelled out, and yet the moment works because even though we don’t understand what he’s just discovered, we can still understand—indeed, we can almost feel—its implications. Margin Call falls squarely in the realm of fiction, but one of its greatest strengths is this oblique relation to real-world events. For pretty much everyone except finance industry insiders, the intricacies of what went wrong in 2008 remain far too convoluted to grasp, but the consequences for ordinary people were straightforward enough: foreclosure, loss of jobs, vanished savings and pensions, general financial misery. Our characters refer to it only in brief moments of speculation—for them, after all, it hasn’t happened yet, nor do they really care, in the moment, how it might affect anyone else—but our awareness of the devastating effects their actions will have remains a huge contributing factor to the undercurrent of suspense coursing through the story. By restricting the movie’s time frame to the day immediately preceding the crash, Chandor avoids having to show us his own narrow, most likely inadequate representation of the economic havoc that follows it. Instead, he’s able to let our own experience provide most of the gravitas and moral heft in a story that we might not otherwise find particularly relatable.

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When he frantically summons Seth and Will back to the office, Peter explains his discovery in more detail: the mortgage-backed assets that most of the firms capital has been invested into are starting to push beyond their predicted volatility levels, leaving all that capital increasingly vulnerable. I know—I’m not sure I fully understand what that means, either. But the takeaway is clear: if things continue as they are, those toxic assets will soon cause losses greater than the current value of the company.

From there, the bad news quickly works its way up the company hierarchy: to Will’s boss in the trading department, an aging company veteran named Sam Rogers; to younger hotshot executives Jared Cohen and Sarah Robertson; and finally to the firm’s charismatic, unflappable CEO John Tuld, played a terrifically suave and ruthless Jeremy Irons. Over the course of the night and the wee hours of the next morning, they debate what to do about the firm’s impending collapse, eventually making the fateful decision to perform a ‘fire sale’—that is, sell all the toxic assets in a single day of trading, which will initiate a crisis in the market once their counterparts realize what’s happening, but will save them from the worst of the damage.

There’s drama in that story, but it’s the way Chandor tells it that sets Margin Call apart from other financial thrillers. Here again, the key lies in narrowing the movie’s focus to the 36 hours before the crisis, a seemingly minor adjustment that allows Chandor to add many interesting dimensions to the story. For one thing, the characters rarely leave the high-rise offices of the firm: a slick, spotless world of cubicles and conference rooms, illuminated by soft blues and yellows evocative of high-end efficiency. It’s an entirely synthetic space, devoid of anything naturally occurring, and a fitting representation of the financial elite’s position: right at the heart of society, but closed off from everyday reality, secluded in the rarified world of their profession.

Chandor and cinematographer Frank DeMarco manage to do a lot with that limited space, filming it to reflect the mindset of the characters as the situation grows increasingly desperate. At the beginning, we spend most of our time on the trading floor, a open room full of desks and computers with expansive views of the city below. As the story progresses, the spaces degrade, so to speak, becoming tighter, more ordinary, and less indicative of wealth and power. When we first meet Sam’s bosses, Jared and Sarah, it’s in one of those glass-walled conference rooms—the kind designed to belittle everyone else in the surrounding office by letting them see but not hear the important meeting taking place within. But the setting for the next meeting, in which CEO Tuld first appears, is drab by comparison, cramped and nearly windowless, with plain white walls. From there, the movie moves into common rooms and individual offices, and by the third act, when the characters are scrambling to put together a plan, the short, on-the-fly interactions are happening in the men’s room, in the parking garage, and on the steps of a Brooklyn brownstone.

All of which is to make Margin Call seem grimmer and more somber than it actually is. However grave the consequences, there’s a thrill in watching the shock and panic at each successive level of the hierarchy as Peter’s discovery metastasizes into a full-blown existential crisis for the firm—it’s fun to see these smart, successful, almost arrogantly confident people floored by a situation they can no longer control. Chandor also manages to work in a few strains of darkly comic irony, the most obvious being that the higher a person sits on the corporate ladder, the less clearly they understand the reckless trading practices that have gotten the firm into this mess in the first place. (“Oh Jesus, you know I can’t fucking read these things,” Sam says when presented with a complex mathematical model; later on, Tuld asks Peter to explain everything to him “as you might to a young child, or a golden retriever.”) Furthermore, the person who understands the situation best, Eric, is rendered unreachable after the firm, in a classic instance of heartless corporate efficiency, deactivates his phone the moment he leaves the building.

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There’s also great enjoyment to be had in listening to Chandor’s lively, razor-sharp dialogue. Margin Call sometimes has the feel of a play more than a movie, with words serving as the primary driver of the plot and character development; the visuals could be taken out entirely and the story would be less compelling but still perfectly understandable. The dialogue is fast-paced and witty but never contrived, neatly articulate but never unrealistically dense—and, most importantly, keenly aware of the rules of etiquette that govern this hierarchical corporate culture. The characters don’t sound like the operatically greedy loudmouths of an Oliver Stone movie, or the hyper-articulate verbal machine guns of Aaron Sorkin or David Mamet. There’s an authenticity in the way they talk, swearing often but rarely with any real venom; each one subtly adjusting his or her behavior according to the rank of the other people in the room; and always referring to the crisis in carefully guarded terms, as if minimizing the damage in speech might somehow mitigate it in real life. Upon confirming that Peter is correct and the firm is headed for ruin, all Sarah can manage is a pensive, “So, we’ve gotten ourselves quite exposed here.”

And it’s here, in its approach to character, that Margin Call is most exceptional. At the beginning, Peter seems set up to be the protagonist, but after making his initial discovery he quickly becomes just one of many key players—eight including Eric, whose role is substantial despite being absent for much of the movie. Chandor’s script gives them all more or less equal attention, progressing as a series of contractions and expansions: It brings several characters together in a meeting and then breaks them off into smaller conversations. With only a few exceptions, everyone speaks one-on-one with everyone else at some point, and each scene explores the differing dynamics between them, adding extra tension and character development to interactions that would otherwise serve purely to advance the plot.

Chandor’s talented cast conveys this complex web of relationships with unerring precision. Paul Bettany is terrific as the swaggering but self-aware Will, letting us see the undercurrent of resentment in his interactions with Jared, a fellow rising star at the firm who at some point pulled ahead of him in the race to the company leadership. Even more intense is the battle of wills simmering beneath the outwardly civil exchanges between Simon Baker and Demi Moore as Jared and Sarah, who realize that as the senior executives most responsible for the current predicament, only one of them is going to make it through the night with their career intact. Zachary Quinto skillfully telegraphs the subtle transformation of Peter, a math whiz and basically decent guy for whom a welcome numbers challenge quickly escalates into an ethical quandary that he is neither prepared nor authorized to tackle. I loved Jeremy Irons’ beguiling, nuanced performance as Tuld: simultaneously charming and intimidating, receptive to criticism and misgivings yet coldly pragmatic, paying lip service to humility while retaining a supreme faith in his own intelligence and judgment, he captures perfectly the toxic attitude of those at the very top of the corporate ladder. When Peter is called upon to explain his findings to the boardroom, Tuld is courteous, takes the pressure off, listens to him and seems to recognize his intelligence, then waves him away indifferently, like he’s closing a window on a computer. But Tuld behaves differently with Sam, with whom he seems to have started at the firm many years ago; they speak like old colleagues who were once corporate equals, if never close friends. Kevin Spacey turns in the best performance of them all as Sam, expertly conveying, as the long night drags on, the incremental culmination of a crisis of faith many years in the making. At the beginning, Sam is already in rough shape—in the movie’s one foray into obvious symbolism, his dog is dying. But when he gives a short pep talk to the survivors of the layoffs, he’s sincere, even if his speech is rather trite. When he speaks to the same group at the end of the movie, trying to give them the necessary motivation to pull off the fire sale that will destroy their careers, it’s clear that he no longer believes what he’s saying.

This wide-ranging cast of characters is a departure from other Wall Street movies, which tend to explore the ambition and greed of a few individuals. Among other critics, Christopher Orr figured it out. Margin Call isn’t a corporate drama; it’s a disaster movie, genetically more similar to The Day After Tomorrow than it is to Wall Street.[iii] For me, the closest recent cinematic relative is Steven Soderbergh’s excellent pandemic thriller Contagion, which is also about an assortment of smart, capable people struggling to contain an uncontainable crisis. The difference here is that it’s not a natural catastrophe, but one they have created themselves—a kind of financial Frankenstein’s monster. Chandor gives each of his characters enough color and personality to make them relatable, but he’s only interested in them in the context of the current calamity—any extra back-story or deeper exploration of their psychology would have seemed superfluous.[iv] The larger-than-life characters of other Wall Street movies, like the famous Gordon Gekko of Wall Street, are fun to watch but also easy to write off as overdone and excessive—entertaining personifications of corporate greed but not directly representative of anyone in the real world. It’s easy for financial thrillers to have unambiguous villains like these.

But most bankers, however greedy and callous, aren’t theatrically evil, and neither is anyone in the movie. Nevertheless, the movie’s restricted time frame never lets us lose sight of the deeply unethical actions they’re taking, ensuring that they’re never absolved of responsibility. When one senior executive gets fired near the end, for example, we can’t help but share in their quiet devastation. It isn’t until that scene is over, and you remember the broader context, that you think, “Wait, this person should be getting fired! They should all be getting fired! Several of them, at least, should be going to jail!”

The thing I find most remarkable about Margin Call is that it gives compelling dramatic expression to a dramatically unsatisfying idea: that the true culprit in the financial crisis wasn’t individual wrongdoing so much as a corporate culture that has lost its sense of human decency (if it ever had one to begin with). The characters may be recognizable human beings, but the firm—the corporate ‘person’ that they collectively constitute—is a clear-cut sociopath, incapable of acting except in its own self-interest and lacking any sort of moral conscience.

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Describing to Tuld the practices that have put the firm in crisis, Peter dryly notes, “This has been enormously profitable, as I imagine you noticed.” Leading up to the events of the movie, they’ve taken the most profitable course available to them. Now it’s about to blow up in their face, and they’re faced with another choice: whether or not to go through with the fire sale. Objections are raised—selling something that they know has no value, knowingly initiating a crisis, killing the market on which so much depends, etc.—but the final decision is never really in doubt. Several characters offer variations on the phrase “We don’t have a choice,” and the unsettling thing is that in purely business terms, they’re right. What else can they do? As Peter’s findings show, the damage has already been done—the ship is heading full steam towards an iceberg, and they can either take the only lifeboat for themselves or alert the other passengers and go down with them. A movie that does much to humanize Wall Street also ends up making a cogent argument for stringent regulation of the financial industry. Anything the firm can do to make more money and preserve its own existence, it will invariably do, at the expense of everyone else. Any broader sense of right and wrong, or even of basic self-preservation beyond short-term profit, needs to be forcibly injected into its thinking.

But in a final inspired touch, Chandor also refuses to portray the crisis as the work of a single corrupted industry. In one of the movie’s few monologues, Will offers an explanation for the firm’s actions, lambasting the ‘normal’ people who benefit, however indirectly or unequally, from the artificial stimulus that the financial sector provides the Western economy. “The only reason they all get to continue living like kings,” he says, “is because we’ve got our fingers on the scales in their favor. I take my hand off, then the whole world gets really fucking fair really fucking quickly, and nobody actually wants that… They want what we have to give them, but they also want to play innocent and pretend they have no idea where it came from. Well, that’s more hypocrisy than I’m willing to swallow, so fuck ‘em.”

Margin Call is an exceptionally well-made movie, but this, I think, is what makes it truly great. It reminds us that the people who wrought economic havoc on the world, so easy to think of as cartoon villains, were human beings, and compellingly examines the role of human reasoning and emotion in creating the crisis. The worldview that Will articulates is grossly distorted and self-serving, but it is, in its own twisted way, coherent. I came away understanding, if not condoning, how a career spent in finance might lead an otherwise rational, intelligent person to think that way. This movie gets to the heart of what is rotten about contemporary capitalism: it inevitably leads people and institutions into decisions, like all of the ones the firm makes throughout the movie, that are both logically convincing and morally indefensible.

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© Harrison Swan, 2019

[i] I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with those movies the way they are, by the way. Inside Job in particular is a superb piece of muckraking journalism, forgoing the easy route of sensationalist moralizing in favor of careful, articulate explanation. It remains the only account of the financial crisis (in any medium) that left me thinking, “OK, I understand this,” and, not coincidentally, the one that left me angriest at the end. Michael Moore could take a lesson from Charles Ferguson: with the financial crisis, you don’t need to tell sob stories about the fallout or expose anyone as a hypocrite on camera. Just explain what happened, and any moral person will be left practically shaking with rage.

[ii] By the way, “downsizer” is also the position of George Clooney’s character in Up In The Air, which examines this bizarre but real profession in greater depth, and with much more humor.

[iii] For the rest of this exceptional, much more concise review: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/10/margin-call-a-financial-crisis-film-thats-on-the-money/247116/

[iv] This is the main reason, I think, why the seemingly obligatory attempts at back-story and in-depth character development tend to fall flat in most disaster movies—especially ones where the characters have a life-threatening cataclysm to worry about, like The Day After Tomorrow. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the best such movie of the last decade or so, Contagion, is also the one least interested in its characters’ personal lives outside of their relation to the disaster. That doesn’t mean the characters can’t be sympathetic or interesting (in Contagion, they very much are), it just means that these qualities have to arise naturally out of the situation at hand, which is much harder to pull off than the tired methods that lesser blockbusters typically employ.

Pacific Rim (2013)

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A lot of good movies came out back in 2013. American Hustle was a glorious whirlwind of unhinged, light-speed dialogue; Gravity was one of the great technical achievements in cinema history; and 12 Years A Slave blasted into new dramatic territory with the force of an emotional battering ram.

But my favorite movie of the year wasn’t any of those. It wasn’t even Spike Jonze’s Her, with its beautiful, heart-melting weirdness—and which I would have chosen as the Best Picture of that year, if such things were up to me. Instead, my favorite was Pacific Rim, a loud, dumb action movie that was, by almost any critical standard, not nearly as good as any of those listed above.

I saw it the way such movies should be seen: spontaneously, with friends, not completely sober. And in terms of pure enjoyment, it was one of the best moviegoing experiences I’ve ever had, in any year. I walked out of the theater wearing a stupid ear-to-ear grin that stayed with me for the rest of the day—entertained in the purest sense of the word.

And yet afterwards, even as I watched and appreciated many better movies, I found myself thinking about Pacific Rim far more that I would have expected. In the six months after that first viewing, I saw it two more times, and it never felt like too much. I still return to the action scenes again and again. It’s a feeling I’ve grown to recognize: love for a favorite movie. So what’s going on?

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First, Pacific Rim belongs to a category of movies for which I’ve recently gained a special appreciation: those that aspire to work within the conventions of their given genre as well as they can. In too many such movies nowadays, there is a tendency to pretend to some higher level of sophistication—that is, to give us not only the entertainment we expect but also a profound meditation on some fundamental aspect of life itself. This is especially prevalent in the most popular genres, such as action/adventure movies or romantic comedies—in other words, expensive big-studio releases looking to make a lot of money. One can imagine that these days, a movie wouldn’t have much chance of making past the initial pitch without at least claiming to go beyond genre conventions. (“It’s not just an action movie…”). But it very often feels awkward and heavy-handed, since such serious themes are in many ways at odds with the movie’s primary goal: fun, diverting escapist entertainment.

So I have great respect for movies that embrace their genre roots without a lot of thematic and emotional frills. Any genre—no matter how worn-out it may seem—can be done well, and one can find many examples even only in recent years. Comedies like Superbad and Clueless; escapist thrillers like The Ghost Writer and Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s movies[i], as well as darker ones like David Cronenberg’s back-to-back masterpieces A History of Violence and Eastern Promises; adrenaline-pumping sports stories like Rush and Miracle; revival westerns like True Grit or 3:10 to Yuma, uplifting family movies like Frozen and Ratatouille; and, of course, straightforward action flicks like Skyfall, all three Bourne movies, or if you want to be truly stunned, the Indonesian martial arts blowout The Raid.

And so on and so forth. The question is: what do all these movies have in common? And the answer is relatively simple: an engaging story, a good script translated concisely and competently to the screen, and, most importantly, a certain level of self-awareness. It’s not that serious themes are absent, but any sentiments about honor, love, believing in oneself, etc., are limited to whatever grows organically out of the story. Nobody involved in these movies was trying to make the most profound film since The Godfather. That wasn’t the kind of story they were telling.

Pacific Rim is a paradigm of this sort of narrative self-awareness, and the genre to which it belongs is even more narrowly defined: the big-budget action blockbuster. The story pretty much demands that sort of movie: Earth is attacked by enormous alien sea monsters (called Kaiju), and mankind’s collective response is to build equally enormous human-controlled robots (Jaegers) to fight them in hand-to-hand combat. Unsurprisingly for those familiar with his work, the main creative force behind the movie is Guillermo del Toro, the Mexican director who has made a career out of creating such comic-book-style fantasy words. He has made relatively serious and intimate movies before (Pan’s Labyrinth and the recent Shape of Water), but he is equally famous for his large-scale action movies (both Hellboy pictures) that both amaze and exude a sense of fun that their counterparts often lack. With Pacific Rim, del Toro knew exactly what he was making—a loud, CGI-drenched action extravaganza—and his goal was nothing more or less than to make that kind of movie as well as it could be done.

All the expected genre tropes are there. The protagonist is a skilled but cocky Jaeger pilot who suffers a great loss in the beginning and finds himself reluctantly pulled back into the fight. He is surrounded by the usual supporting characters: a love interest, a rigid but ultimately sympathetic commanding officer, an obnoxious rival pilot who will eventually be redeemed. There is a comic relief subplot involving a pair of geeky, bickering scientists. And, of course, lots of 25-story-tall monsters and robots—stunningly brought to life by special effects—beating the crap out of each other with maximum collateral property damage.

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So far so good. But Pacific Rim starts to get interesting when we examine how these familiar elements are deployed. Because even as he skillfully adheres to the conventions of the action blockbuster, del Toro also finds numerous subtle ways to poke fun at the genre. One example is the amusingly offbeat names of the characters, which tend to provide a perfect indication of their owner’s personality. Who else could a name like Raleigh Becket belong to, if not a cocky, wisecracking action hero? How could a guy named Stacker Pentecost be anything but a rigidly straight-laced military commander? Who could Hermann Gottlieb be, if not a brilliant, wildly eccentric Kaiju expert? Or my personal favorite: Hercules Hansen, who was destined from birth to be a hard-boiled veteran Australian Jaeger pilot.

The same sense of levity can be found in the dialogue, which is basic and unsophisticated, with an often-amusing dose of camp, and yet somehow perfectly suited to the story. Similarly, it’s hard initially to know what to make of Charlie Hunnam’s lead performance as Raleigh; when I first heard him in the opening voiceover, I stifled a laugh, as did many other people in the theater. It sounded like a textbook bad performance, a British actor trying too hard to project classic American movie machismo. But the more time we spend with the character, the more the apt the performance seems, and one imagines that del Toro instructed Hunnam to ham it up a bit, the better to fit the archetype of the badass, slightly meatheaded action hero. We have the subplot with the brilliant scientists who make a crucial discovery, just to prove that the solution isn’t all about punching things. But we have one of them, Newton Geizsler, being played by Charlie Day, with pretty much the same persona as his character in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, suggesting a lack of seriousness that many other action movies would avoid. Everywhere we look, del Toro seems to be intentionally dialing up the blockbuster tropes, pitching the tone of the movie close to (but not quite over) the line between sincerity and parody. He’s not cynically critiquing the conventions of the genre so much as winking at us behind the movie’s back, giving us an engaging story while acknowledging that it’s all rather silly. By not taking it too seriously himself, he encourages us to adopt the same attitude.

But del Toro’s engagement with the genre doesn’t end with simple teasing. Even in a movie as ostensibly conformist as Pacific Rim, he actually manages to subvert a few blockbuster conventions in interesting, even progressive ways. Raleigh is the standard white American male protagonist, but the rest of the cast relatively international: Stacker Pentecost is black and British; Dr. Gottlieb is presumably German; Raleigh’s co-pilot and love interest, Mako Mori, is Japanese. Raleigh’s is the only American Jaeger—the others are Australian, Chinese, and Russian. Much of the film takes place in Hong Kong, and there’s a distinctly East Asian vibe (albeit a rather half-baked one) in the film’s sentiments about combat and honor. In fact, Pacific Rim’s closest cinematic ancestors are not American action movies, but two subgenres of Japanese film: the kaiju (in English: ‘monster’) genre, of which the original Godzilla is probably the best known example, and the mecha genre, which focuses on humanoid robots controlled by people and has occasionally made it to American shores, usually in animated shows such like Gundam Wing. I’m not familiar enough with these genres to catch most of the references that del Toro makes, but he’s clearly tipping his hat to his movie’s lineage, and positing that what will save humanity is not star-spangled American badassery, but international cooperation. It’s the only reason I can think of why everyone in the movie (even the flyboy-jock Raleigh) can speak Japanese.

The movie is at its most subversive, however, in the characterization of Mako Mori, a protégé of Stacker Pentecost who becomes Releigh’s co-pilot, and who poses subtle challenges to the blockbuster trope of the female love interest. She is not the protagonist, but she is arguably the movie’s most interesting character; having lost her family to a Kaiju attack as a young girl, she is torn between her desire for revenge against the Kaijus and her respect for Stacker Pentecost, who raised her after her parents’ death and is reluctant to let her put herself in harm’s way. Not Shakespeare, but certainly more interesting than Raleigh’s conventional suffer-a-loss/mope/find-the-strength-to-become-a-great-warrior-again character arc, and it’s not giving anything away to say that Mako eventually gets her chance and finds the strength to prevail. When she yells out, “For my family!” before striking a killing blow, it’s both funny and exhilarating—a perfect example of the sincere yet lighthearted tone that makes the movie work. Del Toro also finds a clever way to treat her and Raleigh as fighting equals. In an inspired touch, the Jaegers are too big to be operated by a single pilot; instead, two pilots, each controlling one side of the machine, are joined in a sort of mind-meld called the ‘neural drift.’ Mako is a less experienced fighter than Raleigh, but he cannot operate the Jaeger without her. (As if to underscore that point, their Jaeger spends most of the final battle having lost the arm on Raleigh’s side, moving Mako to the forefront of their joint fight).

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The movie also makes a noticeable effort to avoid sexualizing Mako in the way that women in action movies so often are. She is gorgeous—no one played by Rinko Kikuchi could be otherwise—but her primary role in the story is as Raleigh’s co-pilot, not as his love interest. The romance that develops between them feels almost like a narrative afterthought, an inevitable result of the deep psychological compatibility that is apparently required between the Jaeger pilots for the neural drift to be successful. Del Toro drives this point home in the movie’s final shot, with Raleigh and Mako on a floating escape pod in the middle of the ocean, having finally triumphed over the Kaijus. In any other action movie, this is the point where they would kiss, but they don’t; instead they sit facing each other, arms at one anther’s sides, foreheads resting against each other—a gesture of affection between comrades-in-arms as much as lovers. And del Toro also has a squadron of fighter jets fly over them, just because.

But to read too deeply into a movie like Pacific Rim risks losing sight of what makes it great. Whatever subtle critiques del Toro may make about the modern action blockbuster, he understands the simple principle that truly makes the genre work. It has to do with the above phrase: “just because.” As I mentioned, studios today seem to need their blockbusters to mean something (or at least, pretend to mean something, which is usually as far as they get), but a fundamental part of the appeal of the film medium has always been its ability to show us sights or feats that are impossible in the real world, for no other reason than to provoke in us that wonderful reaction of gleeful amazement. Practically as soon as film was invented, a French stage magician named Georges Méliès was using rudimentary special effects and editing tricks to wow his viewers. His films had plots, but as in a magic show, the primary goal was to astound. Similarly, the great silent-era comedian Buster Keaton became famous for his remarkable stunts, many of which would have killed him had he screwed them up. His film The General was already hilarious; was that death-defying stunt with the railroad ties[ii] really necessary? No, it wasn’t, but he did it anyway, because it’s awesome.

In The Dark Knight, the Joker rampages through Gotham in a tractor-trailer, until Batman finally stops the vehicle dead in its tracks, flipping it over lengthwise. How did that work, exactly? He shot some cables into the front bumper and then wove them through some lampposts and stuck them into the pavement? Would that really have been enough to flip an entire semi truck? It doesn’t really make much sense, but when I watch the scene, that’s the last thing on my mind. I’m too busy marveling at the slow, spectacular arc of that truck as it flies through the air and crashes to the ground. In her review of The Dark Knight in the New York Times, Manohla Dargis wondered how a movie so ostensibly bleak could be so much fun to watch. Her answer was simple: “no work filled with such thrilling moments of pure cinema can rightly be branded pessimistic.” Guillermo del Toro understands this well, and the sense of fun that pervades Pacific Rim, the thing that finally makes it work, is his commitment to creating as many of these moments as possible. He understands that one of cinema’s greatest gifts to its audience—not the only one, certainly, but an important one nonetheless—is amazement for its own sake, without worrying about what it all means or whether or not it makes sense. The Jaeger’s hand turns into a giant plasma cannon? Why not just have that out from the beginning, and shoot the Kaijus from a distance? Because then we wouldn’t get to see Jaegers punching Kaijus in the face, or at one point, smashing a Kaiju’s head between two handfuls of shipping containers. At a critical point in a battle, Mako presses a button revealing that their Jaeger has a retractable sword. Why didn’t they take that out before they almost got killed? Because taking it out now yields the coolest shot in the movie, that’s why. (In another sly wink to the audience, the Jaeger has the sword out for the rest of the movie—no reason to hide it anymore.) And that part with the container ship… there really aren’t words for it, but you know what I mean.

How can you not love a movie that will give you moments of such awesomeness?

 

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© Harrison Swan, 2019

[i] Throughout his career, Soderbergh has been one of the best in the business at making genre films very well, and he’s managed to cover a great many genres, too: topical thriller (Traffic), ruminative sci-fi (Solaris), stirring biopic (Che), satire (The Informant!), labyrinthine mystery (Side Effects), straight action (Haywire), and disaster horror (Contagion), to name just a few.

[ii] Seriously, check out this stunt, performed without any special effects whatsoever: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EEDMO8iwLsM