Gattaca (1997)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Harrison Swan, 2020


[i] They chose the all-time worst sci-fi movies as well, with interesting and amusing results: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/nasa-picks-best-worst-sci-fi-movies-what-are-yours-41527422/

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

From Janet Maslin of the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/1997/10/24/movies/film-review-the-next-bigotry-privilege-by-genetic-perfection.html

From Roger Ebert: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/gattaca-1997

And from Valerie Kalfrin: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/gattaca-1997

The Social Network (2010)

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Over the past couple of decades, the film industry seems to have become seriously enamored of a certain type of movie: namely, the fact-based historical drama or biopic. You can understand the instinct; ‘based on a true story’ has always been a reliable draw for audiences, and human history is full of wild and compelling stories that deserve to be retold on the big screen. But recently, Hollywood has gone distinctly overboard, setting out to dramatize and monetize every halfway interesting bit of recent history—and I mean very, very recent, to the point that it often feels barely removed from the current news cycle. Remember the Chilean mining disaster in 2010, when those guys were trapped underground for months and then finally rescued? Within five years, there was a movie about it, nicely inspirational but fairly straightforward and predictable. Barely one year after that youth soccer team was rescued from the flooded cave in Thailand, there was a similarly formulaic Thai movie about it, and Ron Howard is currently gearing up to make the American version. It’s not that such movies can’t be good, or even great—think of Dog Day Afternoon (1975), an all-time classic made only a few years after the incident it dramatizes. More recently, Bombshell (2019), about journalists fighting back against the culture of sexism at Fox News, was highly relevant in the MeToo era, well received by critics, and nominated for many awards. And yet, when I saw the trailer, a part of me rolled my eyes—another ‘historical’ drama made barely three years after the fact; portraying famous people who are not only still alive, but still in the middle of the same careers shown in the movie; commenting on a social movement that’s still very much ongoing and unresolved… It was clearly a compelling story, but why so soon? Again, I understand the impulse, both creatively and financially: these are interesting stories, largely pre-written, and Hollywood wants to cash in while they’re still in the public consciousness. But I find it slightly annoying, to say the least. (I give it two years, tops, before the big Oscar-bait dramas about the Mueller investigation start showing up.)

And I doubt I was the only one who reacted similarly when The Social Network came out in 2010, a mere six years removed from its story about the founding of the now-ubiquitous social media platform Facebook. Oh great, I thought, we’re already doing the ‘rousing origin story’ thing about Facebook, an innovation that’s not even particularly impressive or consequential, etc., etc… But I turned out to be wrong in pretty much every respect. This is, and always will be, one of the defining films of the 21st century. It’s masterfully executed across the board—about as close to perfectly made as a movie can be—but also emotionally resonant to a surprising degree, and still endlessly thought-provoking. That last point is especially remarkable; the story of Facebook has seen some significant developments in the past ten years, and it would seem impossible for any pre-2016 movie about it, in particular, not to feel quite dated today. And yet The Social Network is, if anything, even more interesting now than it was in 2010, owing both to its impressive prescience about many issues that have only grown more urgent, and to its keen understanding of the timeless struggles and themes at the core of the story.

In retrospect, it should have been no surprise that the movie turned out so well, given the director, David Fincher, and the screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin. Both are masters of their respective crafts, and The Social Network is arguably the best work either man has ever done. Which is saying something; Sorkin, for his part, has been a prolific and exalted writer for over 30 years. He wrote the stage play A Few Good Men (1989) and its 1992 film adaptation, as well as witty, wordy movies like The American President (1995), Moneyball (2008), and Steve Jobs (2015). He’s been even more of a doggedly high-performing workhorse in TV, creating The West Wing (1999-2006) and writing practically every episode of its first four seasons, and playing a similar creator/chief writer role for the entire runs of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (2006-2007) and The Newsroom (2012-2014). And that’s not even the full extent of his remarkable career.

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The setting and subject matter has varied, but Sorkin’s writing has always been peerlessly distinctive, defined by fast-paced, densely layered, and endlessly inventive conversation between intelligent, hyper-articulate characters. As David Denby writes, “His adrenaline-pumped men and women anticipate one another’s best shots; they fill out or overturn one another’s half-finished sentences, answering what’s implied rather than simply what’s said.”[i] His dialogue can’t exactly be called realistic—real people simply don’t speak so quickly, in such cleverly coherent sentences, and with such command of relevant facts and references—but coming from skilled performers, it’s so exhilarating to listen to that this hardly matters. It’s a joy to hear language so skillfully deployed, and anyway, true realism has never been Sorkin’s goal; he harnesses the full potential of the spoken word as a narrative tool, expressing far more about the characters, the themes, and the subjects informing the story than he ever could if the dialogue were more strictly naturalistic. And at the same time, he’s adept at striking a fine balance between cleverness and accessibility. As rich as the dialogue in The Social Network is, it consists mostly of words that are not only understandable, but common in everyday usage—the artistry lies in how they’re arranged. Indeed, some of the most riveting lines, the resounding punctuation marks that finish off elaborate verbal exchanges with a flourish, are plain and direct, the kinds of sentences any normal person might say: “It’ll be because you’re an asshole.” “Oops.” “Go home, Sean.” On two different occasions, it’s a simple, heavily loaded “No.”

This whole screenplay finds Sorkin in peak form. He’s one of the few working screenwriters who can create the gripping energy of a thriller through words alone—a talent perfectly suited to a story centered on esoteric, largely abstract concepts like computer programming, complex business dealings, and the rarefied social structures of elite American universities. And it’s not just a series of great scenes; Sorkin reworks the facts into a classical narrative of ambition (more on that later), while also making deft use of an intricate, multi-layered structure. The script jumps between Mark Zuckerberg and his cohorts creating Facebook in 2004, and two separate legal depositions a few years later, one with the Winklevoss twins and Divya Narendra suing him for intellectual property theft, and one with his former business partner and best friend, Eduardo Saverin, suing him for being unfairly cut out of the company. That could have been a mess, but the three storylines are so intuitively intertwined that it’s never confusing; instead, we can appreciate the way the depositions often function like incisive running commentary on the main story, sometimes to the point that there seems to be a sort of meta-dialogue between the different settings—all contributing to the movie’s emotional and thematic depth, and its relentless sense of narrative momentum.

This is clearly exemplified in the celebrated opening scene. In broad strokes, it’s straightforward: two college students sit in a bar and talk, then argue, and finally break up. But so much is being communicated, between the characters and from them to us, both above and below the surface. The dialogue (which begins even before the opening logo fades out) is captivating in the typical Sorkin way: plentiful and dazzling, zipping around in unexpected directions, with a rapid, rhythmic quality to it that inexorably draws us in. But it’s also tightly focused; tangents and turns of phrase that seem like little more than fun verbal flourishes turn out to have narrative and thematic significance by the end. It seamlessly conveys a great deal of exposition about the physical setting, the social context, and the characters—all crucial to understanding the story to come. Even as they navigate the rapid-fire dialogue, Rooney Mara establishes Erica as a normal, good-natured young woman, and Jesse Eisenberg gives a sense of Mark’s formidable intelligence, cringey social ineptitude, and obsessive desire to belong to the in-crowd; she keeps trying to introduce some levity into the scene, to make it more like a normal conversation, while his every attempt to repair the damage only succeeds in driving her further away. The progressive deterioration of the relationship is clearly perceptible beneath the surface, even as the dialogue rarely engages with it directly.

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And then there’s David Fincher’s direction, which is less noticeable but equally crucial to the scene’s success. He shoots it in a straightforward manner: static tripod shots, no particularly unusual framing, and a color palette that’s richly evocative without drawing attention to itself. This keeps our focus on the faces of the characters and what they’re saying, as it should—that’s where the action is in this scene, and it’s so fast-paced that even a minor distraction would be hard for the audience to handle. At the same time, though, Fincher assembles these simple images with immaculate precision, deftly directing our perception of the scene. He includes wide shots only very briefly: at the beginning, middle, and end, just enough to clarify where we are and what’s happening. Otherwise, Mark and Erica are never together in the frame, which emphasizes the widening gulf between them, and Fincher mostly keeps them at medium distance, cutting to close-ups only for the most important and consequential lines, nudging us pay special attention to them. Fincher’s carefully considered filmmaking does just as much as Sorkin’s carefully considered words to make this straightforward scene thrilling to watch—and to make the themes, subtext and unspoken implications apparent and compelling.

The qualities on display here and throughout The Social Network—the careful camerawork, the subtly vibrant colors, the meticulous attention to details of all kinds—are characteristic of Fincher’s unique and impressive career. He’s a self-taught filmmaker, to the extent that anyone can be; raised in Denver, Oregon, and Northern California, he never went to film school, or college of any kind. He started out at age seventeen as a camera operator, and worked his way up through the special effects department (including on Return of the Jedi and Temple of Doom!) to music videos (for Aerosmith, George Michael, and Madonna, among others), and finally to his own features, beginning with Alien 3 (1992, largely as a director-for-hire) and Seven (1995), which is generally regarded as the first true Fincher film. He’s an all-time great craftsman of cinema, nearly unparalleled in his ability to bring his own idiosyncratic style to the screen. As we’ve mentioned, he has an old-school affinity for static, precisely framed shots, and a finely-honed ability to construct dynamic sequences almost entirely from such simple images.[ii] He uses CGI quite extensively, but usually in ways so subtle and seamless that you barely notice it, or else quickly forget about it as it blends into the texture of the movie: fastidiously recreating 1970s San Francisco in Zodiac (2007), aging and de-aging Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), or, in The Social Network, contriving to have both Winklevoss twins effectively played by one actor, Armie Hammer—along with Josh Pence in a thankless but essential role as a body double. And as partial as Fincher is to static frames, he also makes wickedly effective use of the moving camera, matching it with the movements of the actors so precisely that it creates a subconsciously hypnotic effect, drawing you in to an almost uncomfortable degree; as the brilliant Nerdwriter1 puts it, he “hijacks your eyes.”[iii] Given all this, it’s not surprising that Fincher is a legendary (and occasionally infamous) perfectionist, frequently demanding multiple dozens of takes to get exactly what he wants from the camera and the actors. (That opening scene in the bar took a mind-boggling ninety-nine takes before Fincher was satisfied.) His formidable talent enhances The Social Network at every turn, as it would pretty much any story he might choose to film.

This particular story, however, is an especially good fit for Fincher’s style, just as it is for Sorkin’s. As many critics have noted, Fincher has a creative affinity for outcasts and rebels, as well as a fascination with the darker, more sinister aspects of human nature. But while a distinctive aesthetic is a great strength for any artist, it can also be, if not exactly a weakness, then something of a stumbling block. Fincher’s technical prowess, combined with disturbing subject matter and a misanthropic worldview that can sometimes equate bleakness and shock value with profundity, results in movies that get under your skin in a way few others do. That’s very impressive, but it’s entirely possible to find yourself admiring Fincher’s craft without finding the movie particularly enjoyable. As objectively good as Seven, Zodiac, and his English-language remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are, I don’t have much desire to watch any of them again. And it’s not always clear-cut one way or the other; you could make an equal case for Fight Club (1999) as a juvenile manifesto of straight white male grievance, or as a biting satire of that same idea. (I like Fight Club a lot, just not in the same way I did when I was seventeen.)

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Sorkin, meanwhile, has some weaknesses of his own. Women in his screenplays, smart and articulate as they are, often end up dependent on approval, guidance, or validation from the men in their life to fully grow and develop as characters. (This was a notable issue in his 2017 directorial debut, Molly’s Game, though by no means a crippling one.) And he can be slightly overindulgent with his dialogue; occasionally, he’ll let himself get a bit too clever, draw out a witty exchange one quip too far—so that it all suddenly feels too cute by a few degrees, if that makes any sense. Take this exchange from The Newsroom (it’s not the best example, but Sorkin has written a lot, and for some reason, this is the one I remember). News anchor Will McAvoy is talking with his boss, Charlie Skinner, about how movements on the far left and right influence the moderate political establishments…

WILL: Bob Bennett, the most conservative member of the Senate, is going to lose is primary race to a guy named Mike Lee, because Lee found room to the right of Bennett.

CHARLIE: You wouldn’t think that was possible.

WILL: Back in 1968, when Randy Davis and Hayden and their guys organized the SDS, it was specifically to end the Vietnam War—but that movement got eaten by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin and the Yippies.

CHARLIE: Hoffman and Rubin were a lot more charismatic.

WILL: Yeah, but it was impossible to define what the Yippies were protesting; they were about giving the finger to anyone over 30, generically hating the American establishment, dropping out and getting high.

CHARLIE: And?

WILL: That’s how the progressive movement would be painted for the next 40 years: people passing out daisies to soldiers and trying to levitate the Pentagon.

CHARLIE: I was there; that damn near worked.

WILL: No it didn’t; the Pentagon’s a really big building, you can’t levitate it.

CHARLIE: How is there room to the right of Bob Bennett?

…And it so on from there. It’s objectively good writing, and of course everyone’s tastes are different, but for me, that last rejoinder by Will is a bit too much—a joke that doesn’t really add anything else to the dialogue, registering instead as cleverness for its own sake.

To be clear, these are all very minor quibbles. Both men are still undisputed masters of their respective crafts, among the best in the world at what they do. Sorkin has never written a bad script, and Fincher has never made a bad movie. But The Social Network is a rare, remarkable instance of two great artists making each other even better through collaboration. Their aesthetics are quite different, but that turns out to be a good thing, because each ends up modulating the other’s worst instincts. This is still a Fincher film, so it’s still dark, ominous and cynical, but no one will be getting stabbed to death in lurid detail or finding their wife’s head in a box. Women are not a major presence in the story, but Erica, at least, cuts against some of Sorkin’s vexing tendencies. And while there’s plenty of classic Sorkin back-and-forth here (Responding to skepticism about the potential value of Facebook: “Sir, I honestly don’t think you’re in any position to make that call!” “I was the U.S. Treasury Secretary. I’m in some position to make that call.”), Fincher will never make a movie with dialogue could be dismissed as ‘too cute.’ With his exacting style, Fincher adds all sorts of subtle cinematic touches that deepen the movie’s impact, and extracts the sharpest possible performance of the dialogue from his talented cast. With his great command of the medium, he handles the tricky narrative structure with confidence; the work by him and his longtime editors, Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter, is just as important as Sorkin’s in ensuring that the story flows smoothly and with such terrific momentum. Meanwhile, Sorkin gives Fincher the best script he’s ever had to work with, and reveals in him comedic chops that, for all his impish tendencies, he hasn’t really shown before—none of his other films are likely to feature a comic stage-fall, or a character proclaiming, “I’m 6’5”, 220 and there’s two of me!” The creative partnership makes both Fincher and Sorkin better, and the result is the best work either of them has ever done.

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And yet, as impeccably crafted as The Social Network is, that alone doesn’t explain why it resonates so deeply, why it feels so richly emblematic of its time and place. That’s a tricky question, because, as many people have pointed out, it’s not exactly an accurate retelling of the rise of Facebook. But it seems clear that that’s not what Fincher and Sorkin are after; instead, they use the facts as a jumping-off point to construct a more familiar narrative about ambition, about the meteoric rise and the ultimate emptiness of success, in the same (general) mold of Citizen Kane and many other venerated, classically American stories. The real-life figures are recast as fictional characters who fit, to varying degrees, into archetypes typical of these sorts of stories. Mark has elements of the eccentric, socially inept genius, the scrappy outsider aspiring to the inner circles of entrenched wealth and power, and the striving capitalist corrupted by an addiction to ever-increasing dominance. Eduardo is the loyal friend who gets left behind, and the loyal partner, crucial to the early success and eventually sacrificed in the name of further advancement. Dustin Moskovitz, a major player in the actual founding of Facebook, is the easygoing comic relief. The movie version of Sean Parker is the smooth-talking huckster eager for a piece of the action, and the wild-card, hard-partying bad boy nursing a grudge against the ‘respectable’ society that rejected him. The Winklevosses, on the other hand, are classic emissaries of the entitled elite: effortlessly self-confident and complacent, haughty and condescending in ways they may not even be fully aware of. And Erica is akin to Charles Foster Kane’s Rosebud—an idealized, tragically lost symbol of wholesome fulfillment that fuels the drive for success, and that no amount of wealth or power can ever replace.

You can understand why the real-life people in question might be angry about this; as articulate as the characters are and as gripping as their story is, most of them are not, in the end, portrayed in a particularly flattering light. The movie doesn’t actually show any text claiming to be ‘based on a true story,’ and Fincher and Sorkin probably could have avoided most of the controversy simply by changing the relevant names, positioning it unequivocally as fiction. That they didn’t do so is no surprise; it’s typical of Sorkin to freely interweave fiction with the historical record, and typical of Fincher to not give a rat’s ass about the bruised egos of a bunch of super-rich public figures. And creatively, it was the right decision; the movie’s departures from strict accuracy all contribute to the emotional impact and thematic import of the story, while the fact that it’s clearly taking place our own world makes the impact that much greater, and the insights that much more thought-provoking.

The real Mark Zuckerberg, for example, was keen to point out to anyone who’d listen that he had no interest in joining Harvard’s elite ‘final clubs,’ and had already met his future wife when he created Facebook. So okay, that opening scene in the bar never happened, and maybe he wasn’t driven by rejection from the opposite sex, or obsession with gaining access to an exclusive social group and jealous resentment of a friend who did. But the story of Facebook’s founding is infinitely more interesting as an exploration of these timeless, universally relatable human emotions—struggles are central to both the addictive appeal and the sinister ramifications of Facebook and other social media: the longing for social and romantic status, the primal need to be desired, to feel we belong, and to prove wrong those who dismissed and rejected us. No, people probably weren’t actually passing notes in a Harvard computer science class in 2004, but that scene vividly and concisely conveys the anguish of being ostracized in the world of college, where social status is so desperately important. No, parties at the Phoenix club are probably not the orgies of entitled debauchery that we see in the movie, and maybe the Winklevoss twins aren’t really so arrogant and attached to outdated social codes, but their portrayal says a lot about the persistent role of class in American society—the inborn self-assurance and materially better lives enjoyed by those at the top, and the way they instinctively look down on outsiders and resist any challenge to, or intrusion upon, their privileged position. The Winklevosses have a pretty convincing case for intellectual property theft, but we also nod along with Mark’s assertion that they’re really suing him “because for once in their lives, things didn’t turn out the way they were supposed to for them.”

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Maybe the real Eduardo Saverin wasn’t so innocent and naïve, or so blameless in his dishonorable discharge from Facebook. But as portrayed here, his character arc offers a time-honored tale of friendship and betrayal, and a compelling exploration of what modern capitalism does to people—the ruthlessness and ruined relationships that even the glittering successes always seem to leave in their wake. In an intriguing wrinkle, Mark and Sean both seem to have genuinely better business instincts than Eduardo, and yet the movie’s most memorably heartbreaking line comes from him, a poignant distillation of the emotional cost of success in an enterprise meant to improve social life: “I was your only friend. You had one friend.”

Sean Parker, for his part, is probably the character furthest removed from his real-life counterpart,[iv] but he’s central to the movie’s exploration of issues that have only grown thornier and more relevant in the years since its release. Sean embodies the maxim that what drives the true ‘winners’ of contemporary American capitalism is not financial success, but a savage, deeply personal, and ultimately destructive version of all-out competition. His primary drive is not to make money—he, like most everyone else in the movie, is already rich, and will only get richer—but to screw over the business world that, as he sees it, screwed him. And this, far more than the girls and the parties, is what draws Mark to Sean, because it’s driving Mark, too; even when he gains the capacity to live large like Sean, he chooses not to, just as he doesn’t use his newfound resources and stature to force his way into the traditional aristocracy, but to tear it down and make it irrelevant. Meanwhile, for all of Sean’s ridiculousness, he’s shown to be shrewdly perceptive about people, and the ways the internet will affect their lives. (His paranoid declaration about the death of online privacy—“Whatever it is that’s gonna trip you up, you’ve done already”—is almost eerily prescient today.) His combination of paranoia and exuberant wonder at the age we’re living in is crucial one of The Social Network’s great strengths: although it begins long after the digital infrastructure has been established, and doesn’t actually show much of Facebook the website, the movie captures better than just about any other what a radical development the internet has been in society—the ways it has amplified, transformed, and confused so many timeless aspects of the human experience, from privacy to social structures to the consumption of information, and everything in between.[v]

No, the founding of Facebook probably didn’t happen this way. But The Social Network is the kind of sharp, insightful fiction that will be as valuable to future historians, and anyone else who wants to better understand this moment, as a hundred primary sources. And in the meantime, it’s still a remarkable achievement: a gripping thriller, with emotional depth and stakes that feel like life or death, about some college kids making a website.

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© Harrison Swan, 2020

[i] This long, in-depth review is wonderfully informative about many aspects of the movie, not just Sorkin’s writing: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/10/04/influencing-people

[ii] Tony Zhou, of the great YouTube channel Every Frame a Painting, breaks down this and other aspects of Fincher’s exceptional craft in this illuminating video essay: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPAloq5MCUA

[iii] Another terrifically insightful video essay, which explores how and why Fincher does this in greater detail: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GfqD5WqChUY

[iv] The real Parker was a pretty good sport about it, praising the movie overall and remarking that, while the portrayal of him was inaccurate, “it’s hard to complain about being played by a sex symbol.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sean_Parker)

[v] I wasn’t able to work their words directly into this article, but I also found these reviews very  incisive and helpful.

From Ty Burr at the Boston Globe: http://archive.boston.com/ae/movies/articles/2010/09/30/the_social_network_pokes_into_facebook_founders_tangled_web/?page=full

From Manohla Dargis at the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/24/movies/24nyffsocial.html?ref=movies

And from Sean Fennessy and Chris Ryan at Grantland: http://grantland.com/hollywood-prospectus/david-fincher-career-arc-gone-girl-zodiac-social-network-dragon-tattoo-benjamin-button-genre/

Hell or High Water (2016)

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Even if the genre isn’t your thing, you’ve got to admit that there’s no movie experience quite like a good Western. Even before the invention of film—heck, before the era itself was even over—storytellers were instinctively drawn to the Old West, whose natural splendor and violent, individualistic culture lent themselves so easily to tales of adventure, romance, and redemption. Film, with its newly sophisticated visual component, was an ideal medium for these stories from the very beginning; indeed, one of the earliest and most innovative narrative films, The Great Train Robbery in 1903, was a Western (actually filmed in rural New Jersey, but the history of cinema is full of funky twists like that). Having been a defining fixture of film for its entire history, the genre has evolved in all sorts of directions over the decades. Most famously, the ‘Revisionist Westerns’ of the early 60s eschewed the simplistic (and often grotesquely racist) heroes-and-villains morality of the earlier classics, in favor of the more complex characters and nuanced explorations of violence that any honest depiction of the Old West, even the deeply mythologized Old West of cinema, demands.

At the same time, the Western has also produced many fascinating offshoots, as its defining elements have been creatively reimagined and reworked into all manner of other contexts, from martial arts to screwball comedy to outer space. And while I’m hardly well-versed in all of these, one of the offshoots I find most interesting (despite being one of the least conceptually far-out) is the Contemporary Western, more succinctly known as the Neo-Western, which depicts the modern world through the lens of this most traditional of genres. Wikipedia describes it with characteristic efficiency: “these films have contemporary U.S. settings, and they utilize Old West themes and motifs (a rebellious anti-hero, open plains and desert landscapes, and gunfights). … For the most part, they still take place in the American West and reveal the progression of the Old West mentality into the late 20th and early 21st centuries.”[i] They’ve actually existed for decades, but they’ve seen a notable resurgence of interest beginning around the time of the Coen Brothers’ masterful No Country for Old Men in 2007. Neo-Western influence has shown up in all sorts of disparate works, from tragic gay romance (Brokeback Mountain, 2005) to superhero flick (Logan, 2017) to gangster crime saga in the great series Breaking Bad (2008-2013).

But if you had to pick out one artist who best defines the 21st-century Neo-Western, it would certainly be Taylor Sheridan, a steadily rising star in Hollywood who has established a compelling creative home in the contemporary West.[ii] He started out as an actor, eventually landing a supporting role as a cop in the first few seasons of Sons of Anarchy—itself a Neo-Western in many respects. But then, still struggling to make a decent living and recognizing that his acting career was unlikely to rise much further, Sheridan refocused his energies on screenwriting, where he found considerably more success. (He had compelling stories to tell, as it turned out, his acting experience had given him an especially keen sense of what to avoid.) In the past decade, he has written three officially unconnected movies that nevertheless form a kind of thematic trilogy, exploring classic Western themes of revenge, remorse, and frontier justice in the 21st century: Sicario (2015), about the ghastly drug war along the border with Mexico; Hell or High Water (2016), about two brothers on a bank-robbing spree; and Wind River (2017), a murder mystery set on a Native American Reservation that marked his directorial debut.[iii]

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All three are excellent, but for me, Hell or High Water is undoubtedly the best, partly because it’s inherently the least bleak, and partly because its engagement with classic Western conventions is the clearest and most thought-provoking. That isn’t to say the other two aren’t interesting takes on the genre, or that they should have been more lighthearted; Denis Villeneuve’s knack for creating near-mystically immersive onscreen dystopia was a great fit for Sicario’s descent into hell, and Sheridan, while he sometimes lacked the assurance of a seasoned director, treated Wind River’s subject matter with the grim seriousness that it deserved. But the ratio of ‘enjoyable viewing’ to ‘necessary viewing’ is easiest on the viewer in Hell or High Water, precisely because it hews closest to traditional Westerns, with the same qualities of thrilling action, hard-bitten wit, and alluring swagger that define the best of them. Like its two companion pieces, the movie deals passionately with serious, very contemporary issues, but at its core, as Ty Burr notes, “It’s just a lean little saga of two bank-robbing brothers and the aging hound dog of a lawman on their tail”—which could pretty well describe any number of old classics set back in the Old West.

And there may be no working screenwriter better suited to telling such a tale in the 21st century than Sheridan. He’s a naturally talented storyteller, and even more so than Sicario or Wind River, this story has to have been deeply personal for him; he grew up on a ranch near the tiny town of Cranfills Gap in central Texas, and his family lost the property in the economic recession of the early 90s. His work has always had a strong element of social conscience, focusing to an uncommon degree on victims of institutional neglect and oppression, and his intimate experience with this particular facet of such hardship is surely a major factor in Hell or High Water’s exceptional sense of sincerity and narrative confidence.

The movie also has an ideal director in David Mackenzie, a gifted Scotsman whose career so far may be best described as a committed, ongoing project of defying easy classification. He’s been around since the early 2000s, mostly making small independent dramas in the U.K. The streaming gods don’t deign to provide access to most of them, but even a cursory overview of Mackenzie’s filmography reveals a wide range of tones and genres, and movies that consistently mess with conventions within those genres. Case in point: his best-known works before this were Perfect Sense (2011), an intermittently captivating romance set in the midst of a pandemic that deprives people of their senses (and which is seriously weird to watch in the age of COVID-19), and Starred Up (2013), a brutal, relentlessly tense prison drama that’s also, somehow, more tender than you might think possible. What’s clear enough is that he’s a born filmmaker, bringing a distinctive cinematic vision to all sorts of disparate narrative contexts, and constantly seeking out new ones to try his hand at.

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Continuing that pattern, Hell or High Water was unlike anything Mackenzie had done before, but he certainly had the skills to make it work, and he and Sheridan were clearly on the same page about what they wanted it to be. The result is a movie that’s exceptionally well-conceived, and equally well-executed in pretty much every way; every minute of its lean, sub-two-hour runtime carries an air of assurance that’s rare even among very good movies. (I’ve said essentially the same thing many times in previous articles, but I suppose that’s rather inevitable on a site devoted to exceptionally good movies; as Peter Rainer writes, “There’s a special pleasure in watching a movie that knows exactly what it’s after and then, in scene after scene, gets it.”[iv])

It starts with Sheridan’s script, which is tightly focused: funny but not silly, poignant but not overly sentimental, everything in it contributing in a substantive way to the development of plot, character, or larger themes. And Sheridan does so with remarkable efficiency, with almost every scene developing the story on multiple fronts. A single early scene, plus a few lines of dialogue in various later ones, give us a clear sense of the miserable family history underlying the unique bond between our bank-robbing brothers, Toby and Tanner. Much about the precise nature of their scheme is revealed mostly through the correct deductions of Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton as he investigates the first few robberies—establishing his shrewd lawman’s instincts at the same time. What seems at first to be a standard innocuous, character-building stop at a diner ends up having major narrative and thematic significance as well. Sheridan also contrives some deliciously satisfying instances of dramatic irony, most of which arise so organically that they’re easy to miss on a first viewing. When Toby and Tanner find one of the small-town bank branches unexpectedly shuttered, it throws a tension-heightening wrench into their plan, but also ends up saving it; had the bank been open, they would’ve robbed it and then proceeded to the other small town where the Rangers lay in wait, rather than changing up the plan and robbing the bank in the larger town of Post. Meanwhile, Marcus’s decision to confiscate the outsized tip that Toby left at the diner, a harsh but procedurally justifiable move at the time, ultimately renders him unable to prove Toby’s involvement, as the indignant waitress and sympathetic diners steadfastly refuse to identify him after the fact. And of course, there’s the righteous irony at the heart of Toby and Tanner’s scheme, which pays off in the exhilarating penultimate scene, when Toby pays off the mortgage on the family’s ranch with the bank’s own money, then enlists them to manage the lucrative trust, ensuring that they have a financial incentive not to cooperate with the police investigation. In ways both large and small, this is just an exceptionally well-constructed story, with the various components fitting together and playing off each other beautifully.

Meanwhile, Mackenzie understands how to bring it all to the screen for maximum effect. The images that he and his longtime cinematographer Giles Nuttgens come up with are arresting but not ostentatious, capturing the harsh beauty of the setting in a precise, efficient way that rarely draws attention to itself. As in some of his earlier work, Mackenzie makes masterful use of the moving camera, tracking quickly but smoothly alongside the brothers as they rob the banks, their cars as they make their escapes, and eventually the lawmen as they give chase. As thrilling and ultimately violent as the movie is, the action in Hell or High Water is actually fairly understated; it’s all stuff that you could imagine real people doing in the real world, but lively camerawork and editing give it the kind of adrenalized, pulse-pounding momentum that we typically associate with more bombastic action cinema. Mackenzie is also adept at creating what might be called ‘micro-doses’ of tension that increase the excitement considerably. During the first robbery, the arrival of the bank manager is framed so that we see everyone: the man, the teller on the floor and the brothers lurking out of sight—getting maximum suspense out of the moment between him realizing that something’s wrong and the brothers raising their guns. When they bust into the last bank, Mackenzie almost seems to slow down time for a few seconds, emphasizing the brothers’ shock at how crowded the place is. The best of all comes near the end, when Toby seems to be in the clear after a nail-biting wait at a police roadblock, but then his car struggles to start, cranking the tension back up to an almost unbearable degree. A gripping sense of momentum also defines the movie as a whole, which is not to say that it’s constantly rushing headlong through the narrative. Indeed, most of the movie unfolds at a slower pace, with no action or stunts to speak of, but Mackenzie handles these scenes with the same sureness of touch, expertly attuned to the way each one can keep us engaged and move the story forward. The pacing varies widely, but it always feels right.

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It’s often in these slower sections that another great strength of Hell or High Water shines through. Sheridan and Mackenzie understand that ‘no wasted moments’ is not the same as making every single moment ‘deliver’ one or another of the standard cinematic goods, like tension, comic relief, and emotional or thematic resonance. Like many great works of art, the movie is full of great moments that aren’t so much tense, consciously resonant, or outright funny as simply deeply satisfying—bits that just make you grin and think something like, “Ha, nice. Well done.” They pop up throughout the movie, often coming across through precise intonation of lines that would seem fairly unremarkable on paper. Think, for example, of the men Marcus questions in the diner, carefully tiptoeing around overt obstruction of justice while making sure not to provide any information of real value. Or Toby’s high school-age son refusing the beer he’s been offered, and the subtle but unmistakable pride in Toby’s reply: “Good boy.” My favorite may be the brief confrontation at the casino between Tanner and a Native American man who tells him that ‘Comanche’ means “enemies forever”; “Enemies with who?” Tanner counters, and the subtext fairly hums beneath the man’s perfectly delivered response: “Everyone.”

Such moments are closely related to (indeed, they mostly arise from) something else that the movie does exceptionally well. The setting is harsh in many ways—physically, socially, financially—but it doesn’t come across as a miserable wasteland. The people who live here are clearly struggling, but they’re not portrayed simply as wretched, nobly suffering victims. After all, hardship doesn’t quash the universal human capacities for wit, humor, yearning and all the other forms of vivid individuality—if anything, it accentuates them. So, as in many of the best Westerns, the protagonists in Hell or High Water encounter all sorts of quirky characters along their respective journeys. This makes the movie more entertaining (especially in depicting the outsized, hard-bitten Texas personality that the area is known for) and it must have been wonderful for the supporting actors, who get to do some real acting in bit roles that typically wouldn’t give them much to work with. I think of Dale Dickey as an acerbic bank teller who speculates, even at gunpoint, “Y’all are new at this, I reckon…” Or Kevin Wiggins as a local vigilante guides Marcus into position, then tries to take the shot at Tanner himself (“You’re pretty winded; oughta let me take the shot. Hell, it’s my gun!”). Sheridan himself turns up briefly as a cowboy fleeing a wildfire with his herd, marveling that he’s still doing this in the 21st century. Gregory Cruz makes a strong impression as the Native American poker player, while Nathaniel Augustson is briefly hilarious as an overcompensating thug at a gas station. And who could forget Margaret Bowman as one of the most gloriously cantankerous waitresses in film history, against whom even the brash Marcus wilts like an obedient child. Most memorable of all is her polar opposite: Katy Mixon as the diner waitress Jenny Ann, who, despite being several steps removed from conventional beauty standards, is so seductive when she flirts with Toby that it practically burns a hole in the screen. (I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a throwaway line like “Bye” carry so much heat.) Sheridan and Mackenzie do a wonderful job with these characters, who are memorably colorful without crossing too far into caricature, making the social landscape vibrant in a way that feels true to life.

More significantly, the main characters are equally well-conceived and well-acted, with the four principal actors giving finely calibrated performances that make each one compelling in their own way. Chris Pine, known mostly for dashing roles like Captain Kirk in the recent Star Trek reboots or the love interest Steve Trevor in Wonder Woman, evinces a diminished, hollowed-out version of his movie-star magnetism, retreating to an impressive degree into the taciturn, worn-down Toby. Even as he explicitly says relatively little, he gives a detailed sense of who Toby is: a man of keen intelligence and deep feeling, yet who often seems to exist at a certain remove, compelled by years of disappointment and hardship to maintain a protective shield between himself and the world. In Pine’s nuanced performance, the character’s arc is clear and convincing—both his history as the ‘good’ brother who played it straight, and the acute desperation that drives him, like characters in many great Westerns, to take justice into his own hands.

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Ben Foster is in more familiar territory, having already acquired something of a reputation for playing unhinged characters, but Tanner is still one of the most convincing portraits of a born hell-raiser to grace the screen in recent years. Foster gives the character the requisite air of danger, a palpable tension in his movements and edge in his voice, constantly threatening t0 boil over into violence. But he also captures the unique charisma of such a figure, grounding him in qualities that we might be able to recognize from people in our own lives. Most people aren’t so violent, of course, but I feel like many of us know someone at least a bit like Tanner: outsized personality, socially combustible, yet also enticingly self-assured, fiercely loyal to those they care about, and (ideally) self-aware enough to recognize their flaws and laugh about them. The way Tanner calls out, “Cold beer in the fridge!” upon entering the ramshackle trailer he calls home, speaks volumes about who he is and how comfortable he is in his own skin. Foster makes every moment count; coming from him, a simple “Fuck you, old man!” as the brothers make their escape is not only funny, but also gives us a sense of how much Tanner loves the thrill of the crime. That last part is important; as magnetic as Tanner often is, Foster and the filmmakers never lose sight of the fact that he’s a true menace to society, capable of horrific violence up to and including cold-blooded murder. His doomed last stand, in addition to being another interesting modern take on a staple of the Western, is also a satisfying fate for this complex character; he deserves to die, but he’s allowed to be blissfully, utterly in his element right up until the bullet finds his head.

These characters wouldn’t work nearly so well, however, if the relationship between them were not so convincing. Foster and Pine don’t look much alike, but they manage to be quite believable as brothers, capturing the unique rapport of men with a deep ancestral bond and a lifetime of shared experience, giving them unparalleled abilities to be mutually supportive and to get under each other’s skin. Each is a good foil for the other, with Tanner bringing out more lively sides of Toby that would otherwise stay hidden behind the mask of stoicism he presents to the world, and Toby bringing out tenderness and loyalty in Tanner that we’d likewise never see in other company—even as they struggle to openly express their emotions to one another. This gets at one of the few commonalities with Mackenzie’s previous movies, which, as Tasha Robinson writes, “similarly explore passionate but muted relationships, and the conflict between self-interest and sacrifice, especially among people too solemn and self-contained to talk through their feelings. In Mackenzie’s films, the macho need to create and sustain a personal image at any cost, keeps cropping up and complicating characters’ attempts to get what they want.”[v]

This applies even more directly to our protagonists on the other side of the law: Marcus Hamilton and his partner, Alberto Parker. The garrulous, larger-than-life Marcus may be inherently the easiest character to read, but there’s still a great deal of nuance in Jeff Bridges’ winning performance. Marcus’s swagger never quite slips into arrogance—partly because, as a talented Ranger coming to the end of a long and distinguished career, he’s earned it; and partly because Bridges conveys the underlying anxiety of a lawman well past his prime, coming up on forced retirement with his wife gone and no real idea of how he’s going to pass the time. By the same token, Marcus’s constant racist teasing of Alberto would seem simply abhorrent on paper, but Bridges lets us see that it’s not so much genuinely hateful as it is the result of an antiquated, repressive masculinity that precludes expressing affection too directly. Sheridan himself put it best: “I think that kind of casual racism comes from insecurity—guys who don’t know how to express their affection with each other, so they revert to these insults. They think it’s playful. But it creates a divide.”[vi] The movie doesn’t fully excuse it, but treats it as less actively harmful—when the chips are down, Marcus and Alberto have each other’s backs—than simply tragic: Marcus is only able to openly express his affection in the form of grief, after Alberto’s been killed.

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Gil Birmingham is similarly compelling as Alberto, despite having somewhat less to work with. The character is less animated than Marcus, partly because of his more restrained (i.e. normal) personality and partly because his large family, ardent faith, and relative youth give him a much clearer sense of his place in the world. Birmingham strikes a tricky balance, giving Alberto that air reserved composure while also convincingly participating in the sardonic banter with Marcus. He never lets on how much Alberto is truly bothered by the casual racism, but he hits back with his own barbs about Marcus’s advanced age and outsized self-regard, which are more subtle but perhaps even more cutting since, as both men seem to recognize, they’re more rooted in truth. (I especially like how he keeps interrupting Marcus’s overblown explanation of where the final robbery is most likely to be.) The relationships between both pairs of protagonists are consistently entertaining and ultimately quite poignant, and they both represent interesting modern takes on Western trope of the mismatched gunfighter duo.

Meanwhile, as in any good Western, the physical setting becomes something of a major character in its own right. This is another of Mackenzie’s great strengths: an ability to imbue relatively normal spaces with a kind of visual and emotional charge, giving them an air of poetic grandeur without coming untethered from the real world. In Hell or High Water, he does so for the Texas prairies; the huge skies and sparsely populated landscapes are grounded in the present day, yet they have the same sort of mythic beauty as the frontiers of the Old West—a visual representation of how much and how little has changed. Wide shots of our characters driving across the empty plains aren’t so different from those of lone riders in the same environment. The hollowed-out downtown strips where the brothers stage the robberies aren’t so different from the dusty, forlorn villages in old Westerns. The ranch they’re trying to save has the same sense of far-flung isolation and rugged beauty as the homesteads of the old frontier. Nor is the connection purely visual; in one slightly histrionic but elegant speech, Alberto ties this very contemporary struggle into a larger cycle of plunder and exploitation reaching back to the beginning of human history. You might say that the movie’s topicality is a bit heavy-handed—one too many lines about the bank robbing the people, one too many shots of ‘For Sale’ signs and billboards advertising debt relief—but even that feels honest in its own way; the region is economically devastated, and you better believe people are vocally pissed off about it.

The movie also wrestles with the notion of vigilantism, a standard feature of the Old West with an uncertain status in the world of today. The fact that practically everyone seems to have a gun around here is largely comical at first, and rather exhilarating—a potentially catastrophic X factor humming beneath the surface of the robberies and other confrontations. Sheridan and Mackenzie suggest that in a sparsely populated region where law enforcement is often far away, such vigilantism may be technically justified, but not necessarily a good idea. For one thing, it’s based on a contradictory mindset: most people are happy to see someone sticking it to the banks, but equally eager to pull their guns if they have a chance to stop a robbery. Armed citizens do make things more difficult for the brothers, but they also markedly increase the violence; the two men who are killed in the final robbery likely wouldn’t have been if they hadn’t been armed. And they ultimately prove ineffective at actually stopping or apprehending the brothers—for those of a certain political persuasion, one of the most satisfying moments in the movie is when Tanner pulls out an assault rifle and obliterates the ‘good guy with a gun’ argument. And yet, the vigilantes are not totally useless, either, as they end up providing Marcus valuable assistance during the final shootout.

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And of course, the brothers’ scheme is itself a form of vigilantism—righting an obvious wrong that can’t be remedied through legal means. In broad strokes, it’s easy to see justice in what they’re doing: using the bank’s own money to break out of the poverty induced by its predatory lending—all without the bank even knowing. And while the plan does succeed, it’s thematically crucial that people end up dying as a result, especially since one of the victims is someone we’ve come to care about. If only the other two had died, it wouldn’t have the same effect, because they’re inherently anonymous characters. The impact would be more diffuse, a general statement about the human cost that violence always exacts in the end, and the way even convincingly justified lawlessness ends up spiraling out and causing collateral damage. But when it takes Alberto as well, that makes the cost palpable in a way it wouldn’t be otherwise. One might criticize this as falling back on the tired stereotype of the doomed non-white character, and there’s something to that, but there’s also an important distinction: Alberto’s death is not the typical noble yet necessary sacrifice for the sake of white characters. Compared to the others, his death feels particularly needless; Tanner knows it’s the end of the line, but he can’t help taking as many people as possible with him. It makes the cost of violence sting on another level entirely, and forcefully reminds us that as charismatic and loyal as Tanner is, he’s never been a good person. Not to mention the fact that given the history of the region (and the genre fiction that loves it), it’s infuriating but perhaps grimly fitting that the Native American character ends up paying the highest price.

You wouldn’t mistake any given frame of Hell or High Water for a traditional Western, but it has the same enduringly compelling aesthetic, and explores the genre’s time-honored themes with as much insight as any old classic. Fittingly, the ending is as classically Western as it gets: a standoff between two gunfighters, rife with palpable tension, and with a conclusion even more satisfying than if they’d gone through with the shootout. In effect, it’s a whole complex moral argument contained in one brief exchange between Toby and Marcus. I did what I did for my family. Your partner got killed; you killed my brother in return. I can live with that; you say you can’t. So if you feel that strongly about it, come find me and let’s “finish this conversation.” That’s captivating stuff, the kind of fleshed-out, character-driven conflict that has defined the best Westerns for a hundred years—and it’s every bit as satisfying in the West of today as in the mythical West of yesteryear.

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© Harrison Swan, 2020

[i] For a more detailed explanation, and an enticing list of the subgenre’s most famous examples: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_(genre)#Contemporary_Western_or_Neo-Western

[ii] This video essay is quite helpful in detailing how Sheridan’s work helps defines the Neo-Western: https://web.archive.org/web/20200412150608/https://theplaylist.net/taylor-sheridan-neo-western-20180102/

[iii] Sheridan also wrote the Sicario’s 2018 sequel, Day of the Soldado, but I wonder if that was something of a contractually obligated rush job, because it’s a definitive step down from his first three scripts, with an awkward mishmash narrative and queasily reactionary politics.

[iv] http://www.csmonitor.com/The-Culture/Movies/2016/0826/Hell-or-High-Water-is-just-about-perfect-with-its-satisfying-construction

[v] https://www.theverge.com/2016/8/12/12454490/hell-or-high-water-movie-review-western-chris-pine

[vi] Get past the inane Oscar politics of the first several paragraphs, and this is a pretty interesting article: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/09/arts/a-respected-film-a-vivid-script-an-oscar-chance.html

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

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When we think of spy movies, our minds instinctively gravitate towards certain conventions: nifty gadgets, exotic locales, dangerously beautiful women, nefarious conspiracies—and, eventually, fights, shootouts and car chases that obliterate any possibility of secrecy or deniability. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course; those movies are popular for a reason, and I loved Skyfall and the Bourne trilogy as much as anybody. But that’s entertainment espionage, refracted through a mass-market Hollywood lens, and as fun as it often is, it’s not the only way to make a compelling spy movie. There have always been those that take a more subdued approach, aiming instead to immerse us in a shadowy, paranoid world where trust, certainty, and moral clarity are luxuries the characters can ill afford. Tomas Alfredson’s gripping 2011 thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is something like a perfect distillation of this understated aesthetic: relatively light on dialogue, heavy on atmosphere, chock-full of haunted faces, heavily weighted silences, anxious framing and drab, cheerless colors—and yet, all so masterfully done that it never crosses the line into inanity or self-parody.

That’s not surprising, though, given the director’s skill set and the venerable material he’s working from. Alfredson grew up in a Swedish filmmaking family, started out working for various TV stations, and eventually became (and apparently still is) the resident director for a nationally famous comedy group, with whom he made his first feature in 2004. His only other film before 2011 was the internationally acclaimed Let the Right One In (2008), a bloody, very spooky, weirdly sweet pre-teen vampire horror/romance that announced his talent for creating onscreen atmosphere as intoxicating as it is unsettling.

There are no vampires and very few children in Tinker Tailor, but it’s an ideal fit for Alfredson’s brooding style; teamed up again with the gifted cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, he delivers a master class in creating tension and excitement through restraint. The color scheme, as we’ve noted, is gloriously dreary, dominated by grays and browns, dull blues and greens, and sickly shades of red and orange. This serves to immerse us in the setting—the gloom of Britain in winter as well as the aesthetic awfulness of the 1970s—and to echo the inner life of our protagonist, George Smiley, and the rest of the characters, mostly aging spies who are all, to one degree or another, emotionally and morally worn down by the life of secrets and lies that they’ve committed to. Even a comparatively free-wheeling interlude with the younger field agent Ricki Tarr in Istanbul (the only part, if memory serves, where we see proper sunlight) is nonetheless similarly muted—even here, we’re still moving in the same devious world.

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Which is not to say the movie isn’t visually stunning. Alfredson creates beautifully clean and precise images—it’s just that they’re composed to evoke anxiety and dread. On multiple occasions, we find ourselves looking from ground level at a figure in an upper-floor window, a time-honored way to induce a sense of being watched. Even more strikingly, during that Istanbul flashback, we see a whole scene of domestic conflict and abuse from Tarr’s point of view: through binoculars trained on the big windows of the hotel suite from a building across the street, which both heightens the feeling of surveillance and makes the Russian woman, Irina, all the more mysteriously alluring. Whenever possible, Alfredson shoots his actors with other objects (walls, doorways, furniture, trees) crowding them slightly in the frame, echoing their boxed-in, paranoid mindset. He favors static, carefully composed shots—appropriate, given the story’s subject matter and stately pacing—but he also makes judicious use of the ultra-subtle, ultra-slow zoom in, another textbook way to suggest encroaching danger. Indeed, all of the camera moves, even quite complex ones, are deliberately paced, never more conspicuous than they need to be. And the effect of all this is only heightened by skillful editing, which Alfredson and Dino Jonsäter provide, cutting between these various shots in a way that rarely draws attention to itself, but still squeezes maximum tension out of each scene.

This policy of restraint is consistent throughout the movie, even at overtly dramatic moments that tempt towards greater showmanship. As pensive as Tinker Tailor is compared to a Bond flick, it’s not without violence, and while Alfredson portrays it starkly, he tends to cut around it, opting to focus on the gruesome aftermath rather than the act itself and let our imagination fill in the rest. His conveys other major plot points in a similarly measured way, through precisely intoned lines of dialogue and subtle visual cues that play off of the understated style of the rest of the movie. One example comes towards the end, when we return once again to Jim Prideaux’s ill-fated mission in Budapest. The camera pushes in on a man we now suspect to be the Soviet spymaster Karla (his face still cleverly obscured by shop window lettering), and then on to the detail that finally confirms it: Smiley’s engraved lighter. The music indicates that this is significant, but so too does the way the camera moves: quickly and somewhat unsteadily, a motion that recalls ‘big reveal’ moments in older movies and also notably stands out in comparison to the subtle camerawork in the rest of the movie. Most spectacular of all, at least from a technical standpoint, is the scene where Smiley extracts a key piece of information from the Eastern Europe expert Toby Esterhase. Smiley essentially kidnaps him, a much more aggressive tactic than we’ve previously seen, and brings him to an airfield to threaten him with extradition back to the Eastern bloc. Alfredson and van Hoytema frame the two figures in a wide shot down the runway, using a seriously massive telephoto lens[i] that compresses the space to such a degree that the plane seems to be right on top of them from the moment it lands—a vivid illustration of what a terrifying prospect it represents for Toby.

Alfredson’s other secret weapon is exceptional sound design, which captures the setting in all its clackety analogue glory and also proves to be a potent dramatic tool. Sharp, sudden noises, like knocks and gunshots, ring out like thunderbolts amid the hush that usually predominates. Irina’s capture is deftly signaled by the ominous scraping of a sliding door, even before we see the Soviet agents behind it. A quick view of the captured Prideaux, bruised and forced to listen to disturbing, scream-like noises, tells us all we need to know about his interrogation by the KGB. On multiple occasions, Alfredson deploys the low, slow-building rumble of passing metro trains, cranking up the tension to an almost unbearable degree. A pop song on the radio adds a dash of humor to one scene, only to resurface later as a chilling signal to Smiley’s lieutenant, Peter Guillam, that they’re being watched.

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Fittingly enough, all facets of Alfredson’s understated approach are on full display in the movie’s climactic scene, when Smiley and his motley crew spring a trap for Karla’s double agent. Tarr hijacks the Paris office at gunpoint to set the ruse in motion, and Mendel, their colleague from the Special Branch, notes the arrival of all four suspects at the ‘Circus’ (MI6) headquarters in ominous tones, but when the mole then reveals himself by rushing to alert his Soviet handler, there’s no fight, no chase, and no shootout. Instead, we’re with Smiley in the house that serves as their secret meeting place, waiting and listening. We hear the soft but unmistakable sounds of one car pulling up and footsteps entering the house, and then another. Then we get Smiley in a chair and a long, deliciously slow pan over to reveal the man he’s holding at gunpoint: Bill Haydon, his treachery finally confirmed. It’s a climax so uncommonly quiet that we might not even register it on a first viewing, but it’s wonderfully effective nonetheless, creating thrills entirely through narrative setup, sound design, and careful camerawork.

Alfredson’s skillfully restrained suspense would be fun to watch in any context. But it also happens to be perfectly suited to this classic story by the great scribe of the somber (you might say ‘anti-Bond’) school of spy fiction: John le Carré, who worked for the British intelligence services in the 1950s and 60s and has spent the decades since writing consistently excellent espionage novels, full of soulfully beleaguered characters; heartless, heavily bureaucratized agencies; and vaguely defined, morally murky conflicts. No layperson can know for sure how realistic this is, and yet, almost by default, it feels more honest than Bond-ian action and adventure; we know that super-spies aren’t real, but these subtler stories, especially when populated by memorable characters as le Carré’s are, carry an enthralling air of credibility. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, first published in 1974, is universally considered to be one of his best works, and it is indeed a masterpiece of the spy genre, with its richly imagined world of Cold War intrigue, its twisty, timeless narrative about the search for a double agent at the top of British intelligence, and the sneakily powerful emotional (and philosophical) impact that it ultimately carries.

And this movie is a prime example of smart adaptation; even before Alfredson works his stylistic magic, the screenplay, by the husband-and-wife team of Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor, has already done a lot of crucial legwork in translating the story to the screen. Which is no easy task; as dour and cynical as le Carré’s characters are, they tend to talk quite a lot, and the omniscient narrator often delves liberally into backstories and the intricacies of both international and office politics. His plotlines, meanwhile, are elaborate even by spy fiction standards (critics eagerly break out the great word ‘labyrinthine’ to describe them)—and few more so than the sprawling Tinker Tailor. O’Connor and Straughan wisely don’t attempt to include all of that, partly because it would be impossible in a feature-length movie, and partly because it’s already been done, inimitably, in a six-hour BBC miniseries from 1979, anchored by Sir Alec Guiness’s definitive performance as Smiley. Instead, they manage to streamline the plot considerably while maintaining its essential structure; apart from a couple of minor changes in setting (Prague becomes Budapest, Hong Kong becomes Istanbul), the major twists and turns of the Smiley’s hunt for the mole are pretty much faithfully replicated. And even more importantly, the writers are able to preserve, for lack of a better word, the soul of the novel: the idiosyncratic characterization and deep undercurrents of regret, longing and existential malaise. This is the main reason, I think, why the movie doesn’t play like the rushed highlight reel of a richer narrative, and why the story in general is so rewarding to revisit even after we know how it ends—it’s exciting, but also genuinely moving, grounded in recognizably human psychology.

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To capture all of this in two short hours, O’Connor and Straughan craft exceptionally concise and expressive dialogue, but they’re also keenly of how much can be expressed without words. Consider the great, wordless scene where one of Mendel’s bees gets trapped in the car, and “the other characters flail and panic while Smiley calmly opens the window and lets it fly off—his approach to spy-catching in a single image.”[ii] Even the fairly lengthy opening credits contain a lot of narrative development, again without dialogue: a trip through the interior spaces of the Circus builds atmosphere, Control’s death advances the story, and the empty routines of Smiley’s life in forced retirement—including a trip to the optician, where he picks out this movie’s version of Guinness’s iconic, thick-rimmed glasses—develop character. A more complex example is Smiley’s serially unfaithful wife, Ann, a full supporting character in the book whom the screenwriters include only in fleeting moments, her face never fully revealed. Her identity as a character is lost, but her role in the plot is preserved, and it’s still clear what she represents for Smiley’s character: a symbol of his awkward, agonized relationship with the real world beyond the Circus, a key weakness for Karla to exploit, and an illusory but powerful ideal to keep fighting for. The screenplay is a model of this kind of quiet expressiveness, and with Alfredson firmly on the same page, the result is an oddly gripping sort of thriller, in which the dialogue is spare and the pacing is slow, but there’s always a lot happening—narratively, thematically, emotionally, or sometimes all three at once.

Alfredson is also blessed with a cast that’s remarkable even compared to other large, star-studded ensembles. John le Carré characters seem to be, for British actors, a bit like founding fathers or Civil Rights leaders for American actors—if one of those movies is in the works, everybody is going to be interested. Those assembled here are all seasoned veterans, able to deliver every line, even an ostensibly unremarkable one, for maximum effect. In a pivotal early exchange between Smiley and the government undersecretary Lacon, Simon McBurney ratchets up the sense of anticipation via deliciously loaded intonation of a simple phrase: “The thing is…” When the late, great John Hurt, with his magnificently craggy features and singular voice (aptly described by one journalist as “nicotine sieved through dirty, moonlit gravel”[iii]) tells Prideaux, “There’s a rotten apple, Jim; we have to find it…”, it adds tension and also hints at Control’s increasing obsession and paranoia. When Smiley takes his leave of the recently ousted analyst Connie Sachs, Kathy Burke’s poignant (offscreen) delivery of her final line (“If it’s bad, don’t come back. I want to remember you all as you were…”) does a great deal to capture the emotional stakes of the investigation and the history these characters share. It would be tedious to run through every example, but suffice it to say that all the main actors have their share of similarly choice moments. And it’s not just about line delivery; they know how to make the most of every bit of screen time, speaking or otherwise, so we get a clear (if not always especially deep) sense of who all the principal supporting characters are. Which is especially impressive when you think back on it and realize that in a movie running barely over 2 hours, most of them have only a few scenes to really work with.

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The key to it all, of course, is Smiley himself, masterfully portrayed by Gary Oldman, a certifiably great actor who was nevertheless not the most obvious choice for the role; after a career of being “often asked to play kinetic, frenetic characters,” he has said, he was “thrilled to be asked to play someone still.”[iv] The manic energy that defines Oldman’s earlier work is nowhere to be seen in the owlish Smiley, a thoroughly unremarkable, even outwardly pathetic figure memorably described by le Carré as “one of London’s meek who do not inherit the earth.” Such blandness is his nature, and Oldman makes it feel authentic, but he also conveys how Smiley has learned to use it to his advantage—that beneath the nondescript exterior lies a man with a penetrating intelligence and a scrupulous but potent capacity for ruthlessness, well aware of the value of being underestimated. Oldman delivers, in one critic’s words “a fascinatingly gripping performance that doesn’t so much command the screen, dominating it with shouts and displays of obvious technique, as take it over incrementally, an occupation that echoes Smiley’s steady incursion into the mole’s lair.”[v]

This dovetails perfectly with Alfredson’s restrained style, which is also about creating suspense with as little overt flair as possible; there’s always a certain intensity about Oldman’s Smiley, even when he’s technically doing very little. When he doesn’t speak at all for the first 18 minutes, it’s something of a gimmick, but we’re still learning a lot about the character: how keenly observant he is, the deference shown to him by colleagues, how carefully considered every word and action is—so that when he finally does speak, responding to Lacon’s request to look into Tarr’s theory, we’re on tenterhooks, even though all he’s saying is that he’s retired. But then Lacon mentions that Control also believed in the Soviet mole, and Oldman signals a clear shift as Smiley’s mind begins to whir, rapidly assessing his next move: Okay, this could be real, the first thing to know is how Lacon reacted…and thus his first question: “What did you say to him?” And from that moment on, he’s fully locked in, hunting for the answer in his own discreetly effective way—meticulously investigating every lead, making deft use of his colleagues and their skills, steadily accruing the only weapons that count in this world: information, and the leverage that comes with it.

The question remains, though; why does this movie stick with us? Smiley is ultimately an easy character to root for, a master of his craft and a figure of some pathos, but that alone doesn’t quite explain how this story continues to resonate so deeply. On the surface, it never goes beyond its brief as a suspenseful, unusually affecting spy thriller. And while the setting and context feel more and more like relics of the distant, dusty past with each passing year, it’s not without contemporary relevance; as Andrew O’Hehir puts it, “I don’t think John le Carré or much of anyone else laments the demise of Soviet communism, and all the spies of the Circus and the CIA and whatever the KGB now calls itself have kept right on going without it. But the question of whether Western democracy has recovered from its Cold War hangover, from its addiction to secrets and spying and the erosion of both rights and liberties, certainly remains topical.”[vi]

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More importantly, however, the story works because it engages poignantly, if mostly indirectly, with facets of the human experience that most everyone can relate to on some level. It delves into questions about loyalty and identity; at the end, after Haydon is exposed as the mole, he tells Smiley that his choice wasn’t based on some rational assessment of which side is better, that it was just as much an “aesthetic” decision—and in turning against a West that has “become so very ugly,” he seems to see some reclamation of agency. Smiley is no fanatical Western ideologue, but the one and only time he raises his voice is in response to that idea, countering that in the end, Haydon is just another tool for Karla being used in service of the same ugly struggle that has brought out so much nastiness in both sides. The Second World War is referred to only briefly, but the memory of it lingers heavily over the movie, as the characters now find themselves living off the past (like Connie) or trying in vain to recapture it (like Bill and the others). As nostalgic as he may be, Smiley knows that the moral clarity of that conflict is never coming back. Now it’s all various shades of gray; both sides are equally rapacious, domineering, and ruthless in the end, so he serves the one he can call home, however flawed it may be. It’s this same sentiment that impels him to search for the mole in the first place. Lacon muses, “Damn it, George; it’s your generation, your legacy…” and Smiley still wants that to mean something—out of loyalty to the country he was born to, and even more so to the people he’s fought with.

This gets at another reason why the complex machinations of this rarefied world feel so emotionally relevant. For all the rational analysis and deductive reasoning that the central conflict entails, it’s driven just as much by interpersonal factors that we can all understand: friendship, love, ambition, rivalry, and all the other dimensions of human interconnectedness. At the end, it becomes clear that on some level, Prideaux knew Haydon was the mole all along; a visit he paid Haydon before the Budapest mission was an unspoken warning, and eventually leads to a clue that’s crucial to Smiley’s investigation. Meanwhile, the broader chess match between Smiley and Karla feels more personal than ideological, their moves heavily influenced by what they revealed to each other in a single brief meeting decades earlier.

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On a similar note, the movie is also, in an elusive but profound way, about the pull of the past—how we can never really escape it, how it’s constantly influencing our present selves. The investigation takes place along a certain timeline, but as is often the case in le Carré’s stories, most intelligence gathering involves reaching back into the past—reviewing documents, questioning witnesses, revisiting memories. In the book, Smiley’s capacity for reminiscence is described as approaching an altered state of consciousness, sinking so deeply into his recollections that he nearly loses all sense of time and place—a valuable skill to have when considering which of your close associates has actually been a traitor for years. In this story, as in the real world, finding the answer isn’t just about gathering evidence; it’s also about confronting history, making a full accounting of actions taken, secrets kept, and lies told. And as such, I think Smiley’s hunt for the mole is also about the lies we tell ourselves—the way we let emotion shape memory, rationalizing and papering over the parts we don’t want to know or can’t face, in service of what we want the truth to be. Along with the machinations of Karla and his own erstwhile colleagues, this is what Smiley overcomes to find the truth, to see his world as it truly is—and it makes him, in his own watchful way, heroic, because we know from our own lives what a fraught prospect that is.

Amid all the subtle and overt changes necessary to compress that story into two hours, Alfredson, Oldman, and everyone else involved manage to preserve that crucial element air of emotional honesty, making Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy a top-notch adaptation and a masterwork of paranoid spy cinema.

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© Harrison Swan, 2020

[i] 2000 mm, to be exact! (For reference, most shots in most movies are filmed on lenses ranging from 24 mm to 100 mm.) A quick explainer, if you’re interested: https://www.redsharknews.com/production/item/3195-what-a-2000mm-lens-can-do-for-you

[ii] http://archive.boston.com/ae/movies/articles/2011/12/16/ty_burr_says_updated_tinker_tailor_as_compelling_as_the_original_thanks_to_gary_oldman/?page=full

[iii] https://www.theguardian.com/film/2006/mar/12/features.magazine#maincontent

[iv] https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/la-xpm-2011-dec-09-la-et-tinker-tailor-soldier-spy-20111209-story.html

[v] https://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/09/movies/tinker-tailor-soldier-spy-with-gary-oldman-review.html?ref=movies

[vi] https://www.salon.com/test/2011/12/09/pick_of_the_week_bleak_and_brilliant_tinker_tailor_soldier_spy/

The Cabin in the Woods (2011)

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Spoofs—or parodies, take-offs, sendups, whatever you want to call them—have got to be some of the most inherently appealing movies out there. It’s a rare viewer who truly dislikes the Mel Brooks and Monty Python classics, and even the lesser entries are much easier to enjoy than mediocre movies of other kinds. Even a parody that’s actively bad, like the Family Guy Star Wars spoof Blue Harvest, can often pull off a memorably inspired moment (that one involves the cantina band, and it’s hilarious). Humor will always have a certain hard-wired appeal, and I think we’re especially drawn to parody because it finds an entertaining way to keep genre film honest, calling out clichés, hackneyed elements, and all the other bits of artistic laziness that test the patience of even the most devoted cinema lovers. The irony is that more often than not, movie spoofs can fall prey to the same tendencies. And to an extent, I get it; comedically, there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit to go for, and even the silliest movies are still crowded, frightfully expensive enterprises. Originality and creativity are financially risky, and, in such a collaborative art form, difficult to achieve even under favorable circumstances. So it feels like a rare and special gift when a spoof is not just funny and incisive, but a great movie in its own right, managing to work on some of the same terms as the movies it’s making fun of. (The Princess Bride, for example, is ridiculous, but often as genuinely affecting as the stories it pokes fun at. And is there anyone on Earth who doesn’t like The Princess Bride?) This is the sublime state of parody that we find in Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods, a modestly scaled but enormously clever movie from 2011[i] that’s equal parts love letter to and trenchant critique of the slasher/horror genre.

It’s a confident directorial debut for Goddard, who had spent the 2000s writing for TV and movies with a similar focus on science fiction and the supernatural, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Alias, and Lost to Cloverfield in 2008. But while Goddard certainly does the heavy lifting in bringing the story to the screen, The Cabin in the Woods is best understood as a team effort from him and Joss Whedon, his co-writer and longtime creative kinsman. From Buffy to Firefly, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Serenity and the first two Avengers installments, Whedon has had one of the more influential TV and film careers of the 21st century, with a distinctive ability to infuse effective sci-fi action and suspense with a witty, knowing sense of humor.

The Cabin in the Woods is a classic expression of this aesthetic sensibility that Whedon and Goddard share. They’re not content to simply lampoon horror tropes through ridiculous exaggeration; they also add the novel element of a secret government agency managing the whole slasher experience—a comedic conceit that proves surprisingly durable, consistently delivering laughs while avoiding the cheap and easy silliness of the Scary Movie franchise, for example. Some critics complain, not unreasonably, that this prevents the movie from managing the artistic coup of being truly unsettling even as it spoofs the genre, but most also recognize that this probably wasn’t the filmmakers’ intention. Dana Stevens describes it best as a “horror-inflected black comedy…a playful riff on the ‘last girl’ slasher movie, in which a group of young people in isolation are hunted down one by one by a murderous, often supernatural entity who tends to save the pretty virgin for last.”[ii]

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Whedon and Goddard know their stuff, and they manage to squeeze a prodigious amount of comic twists and in-jokes into the movie’s lean 90-minute runtime. But the great thing about The Cabin in the Woods is that you don’t need to be a horror connoisseur to enjoy it as a parody. I’m not particularly well versed in horror, and definitely not in slasher movies—there are probably dozens of jokes and references that went right over my head. But simply through general cultural osmosis, even the most casual moviegoer has absorbed enough to recognize the genre conventions that are being made fun of here. Of course our characters will be naïve undergraduates who fit into easily recognizable archetypes, all played by actors who are clearly several years older. Of course they’ll breeze past a bunch of glaringly obvious signs that something is amiss with their weekend getaway in the woods, including the requisite run-in with a menacing local. A game of truth or dare will lead them down into a dark cellar filled with spooky old artifacts. There will be a lot of gratuitous, teasing jump-scares before the horror begins, and the camera will ogle attractive young bodies of both sexes before they start getting dismembered. At which point they’ll either be killed with gory certainty, or else continue to function pretty much normally after what ought to be seriously debilitating injuries. And so on and so forth.

Broadly, then, everything goes the way we expect it to in a slasher movie. The parallel plotline with Sitterson, Hadley and their army of worker bees is the comedic key to the whole enterprise—and while the critics are right that it dampens the potential for true horror, it’s important that this element is there from the beginning. The central joke that keeps on giving is that it’s not just the supernatural stuff; everything about this sequence of events is so far-fetched that it takes a secret government effort on the scale of NORAD to make it happen the ‘right’ way. All sorts of elaborate systems are in place to prevent our characters from leaving the area. They must be dosed with advanced chemical cocktails to make the blatantly counterintuitive decisions that keep the story on track. Cleverest of all is the way their personalities have to be altered to fit the requisite tired stereotypes. It would have been easy to give this part of the premise more expository attention than it really needs, but Goddard and Whedon convey it efficiently, with brief, early glimpses of the characters’ more realistic selves and a few dialogue references to the covert actions the agency has taken beforehand to nudge them into their assigned roles. And of course, the one person it doesn’t work on is the perpetually high Marty, who has reached such great heights of stoner-dom as to be effectively immune to any chemical tampering with his stash.

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Only once this all becomes clear can we fully appreciate—largely in retrospect—what solid work the actors are doing. These aren’t the sort of roles that will win anybody an Oscar, but the task set out for our five principals is more nuanced than it might seem: they have to sell the jokes and parody elements, yet remain convincing as students who’ve been manipulated into the typical personalities of a slasher movie—the horrors of which are very real for them. That’s a tricky balance to strike, but everyone is fully dialed in. Before she gets a few of the better laugh lines towards the end, Kristen Connolly sells Dana’s standard arc of the ‘good girl’ turned hardened survivor, and does an unironically good job with the terrified screams that no slasher flick would be complete without. As Jules, Anna Hutchison has a few good ones as well, and manages to embody the stereotypical loose party girl, but slightly awkwardly, so Marty’s speculation that something weird is going on with her doesn’t seem totally unfounded. The same goes for Chris Hemsworth,[iii] who definitively portrays Curt as a jock, but also hints at a more thoughtful side before subtly regressing to the standard meathead—and, eventually, the doomed avenger of his dead girlfriend. (His speech before jumping his dirk bike across the gorge is even kind of rousing, though of course we’re laughing at the same time, aware of the forcefield he’s about to crash into.) Holden is the archetypal sensitive hunk from the start, but Jesse Williams does a good job of maintaining his scholarly manner even as he’s steered into the illogical decisions that the story demands. The all-star, however, would have to be Fran Kranz as Marty, which must have been one of the most fun roles he’s ever had. As the paranoid stoner who turns out to be on to something, he’s arguably the key to the movie’s success as a spoof, and thus gets a lot of the cleverest lines as he becomes increasingly clued into the absurdity of what’s going on. But he also gets a lot of laughs simply by being a goofy pothead, and has the comic chops to make a line funny mostly through delivery, like when he looks down at a pile of zombie body parts and reflects, “Yeah, I had to dismember that guy with a trowel…” I didn’t see the twist coming on a first viewing, but in retrospect, it seems only natural for Goddard and Whedon bring Marty back into the story for the final act.

And we haven’t even mentioned Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, perfectly cast as the secret agency controllers Sitterson and Hadley. Exposition of the oddball premise falls largely to them, and they do a good job of bringing out the humor inherent in those lines, but they’re also able to make the underground-bunker storyline hilarious on more than just a conceptual level. They and their colleagues could have been hard-driving covert operatives, like those CIA officers who are always trying to track Jason Bourne from high-tech control rooms, and that still would’ve been pretty funny. But Goddard and Whedon know this premise and these characters have greater potential, and Jenkins and Whitford—along with Amy Acker, Brian White, and the many bit players who round out the team—are fully in tune with their vision. Everything about them, from their bland shirts and ties reminiscent of old NASA control rooms to their combination of swaggering nonchalance and ‘same shit, different day’ insouciance, helps to portray the job as just another nine-to-five grind, full of the same inane politics, lame diversions and awkward camaraderie that one finds in any office. It’s a much more comedically nimble conception of the enterprise; a simple cut from a gruesome killing back to Whitford’s dazed, jaded expression is good for a laugh.

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As always, such fun performances wouldn’t be possible without solid material to work from. As silly as it often is, Goddard and Whedon’s script is also impressively concise, demonstrating a keen understanding of comedic technique as well as the horror genre it’s making fun of. There’s very little in there that’s not a joke, or setting up a joke, or contributing in some way to the world-building of the movie’s spoofy premise. Meanwhile, comic elements build on each other in refreshing ways. So clever bits of parody, moments that might elicit a knowing chuckle, sometimes double as setup for inspired comic flourishes only indirectly related to horror tropes. The ‘Harbinger,’ Mordecai, is mildly amusing when the protagonists encounter him at the gas station, but then he calls the secret headquarters and turns out to be hilariously insecure, callously taunted by colleagues who think he’s a weirdo and self-conscious about who’s listening to his overly portentous prophesizing. A clever bit about similar agencies and sacrificial efforts all over the world—of course the Japanese team has a perfect record, and of course their scenario has a ghost terrorizing a classroom of nine-year-olds—sets up the comically sublime sight of Richard Jenkins yelling “Fuck you!” at the adorable schoolgirls celebrating their victory over evil. Even the very first thing we learn about Dana—her recently, rudely terminated affair with a professor—ends up informing one of the movie’s last (and funniest) one-liners. Goddard and Whedon also have the chops to create plenty of moments of simple, straightforward comedy, be it the bland workplace banter straight out of The Office or Office Space, Marty’s retractable bong/thermos, or my personal favorite: a shot that lingers on a disembodied hand slowly finger-walking up to a dead man’s face.

Still, even in the midst of so much overt humor, the filmmakers don’t lose sight of the fact that for significant stretches, we’re going through a slasher movie with these characters. The premise may, as we’ve said, prevent the movie from becoming truly unsettling, but the traditional horror sequences sometimes work on the most basic level, and they also function as an implicit critique of the genre, highlighting how it so often falls back on heavy-handed foreboding, easy jump scares, and cheap cruelty rather than attempt the much harder task of creating genuine, deep-seated dread and suspense. And once Dana and Marty find their way into the underground bunker, the central conceit allows for a fun twist on the standard final killing rampage, managing to remain hilarious while far surpassing the body count of even the most vicious slasher film. (“You want blood and violence?” the movie seems to say. “Fine, here’s every movie monster ever, and dozens of expendable employees for them to dismember.”) And how fitting that the big, tables-turning moment that kicks it all off isn’t the yell of a character finally pushed to bloodlust, or the gory impact of weapon on flesh, but perhaps the most satisfying ‘ding!’ of elevator doors in movie history—followed by gory impacts and fountains of blood, naturally.

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This all-out splatter-fest is an explicit illustration of just how broad Goddard and Whedon intend their critique to be. The central conceit makes for great parody as far as this specific story goes, but the brilliant thing about it is that you can think back on practically every horror movie through this lens; the controllers even mention that humanity has been doing this sort of thing as long as we’ve been around, trying to appease these all-powerful gods.

And the premise pays dividends right up to the final minutes. It’s always hard to satisfactorily end a horror movie, even a spoof, but what the filmmakers come up with is, in its own way, kind of perfect. Dana and Marty fight their way to the heart of the matter, finding that their ordeal wasn’t exactly the supernatural horror show they thought it was—only to learn that behind that, there are supernatural forces far beyond the ones that just subjected them to the plot of a slasher movie. What can you really do then, but light up a joint and share some stoned musings about it all before the end of the world? Our protagonists still die in the end, but this time they get to take the rest of the world (including all of us watching in the theater) with them.

This may not be the sort of movie that changes lives or gets analyzed in film theory courses. But in its modest goals of making us laugh, squirm, and think critically about horror cinema, it’s a resounding success. As Ian Buckwalter writes, “Goddard and Whedon have created a wonderful puzzle of a film that is loving in its appreciation of good horror, even as it takes the genre (and its blood-lusty audience) to task for the unimaginative banality that has been too typical of recent scary movies.”[iv] We can give you pretty young people suffering and dying, they say—look, it’s not even difficult. But if that’s all you want, then you’ve basically got the same artistic taste as a bunch of capricious, bloodthirsty ancient-deity assholes.

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© Harrison Swan, 2020

[i] Well, sort of; the movie has a convoluted backstory that makes dating it rather complicated. Filmed back in 2009, it was set to be released by MGM in 2010, until the company inconveniently went bankrupt. The movie hung in limbo until Lionsgate bought it in 2011, and finally released it in 2012. IMDb lists the date as 2011, perhaps figuring that it’s the most representative approximation.

[ii] http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/movies/2012/04/cabin_in_the_woods_reviewed_with_no_spoilers_.html

[iii] The above-mentioned delay in the movie’s release makes it a mildly interesting entry in Hemsworth’s filmography. Between initial production in 2009 and the premiere in 2012, his debut as Thor in the Marvel universe catapulted him up to the A-list. So although he was an established star when The Cabin in the Woods came out, getting the role probably felt like a significant step for his career at the time.

[iv] https://www.npr.org/2012/04/12/150299147/cabin-in-the-woods-a-dead-serious-genre-exorcism

Michael Clayton (2007)

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On the one hand, how is the ‘legal thriller’ such a successful subgenre? The subject matter is all but impenetrable; however intuitive the concept of justice may be on the surface, the actual legal system seems to defy clear understanding even in the simplest of cases. Few other aspects of modern life engender such a stark and longstanding divide between regular people and those in the know—they speak the language, and it may as well be Greek to the rest of us. No one really enjoys this stuff apart from lawyers, judges, and some specialized reporters, and even they acknowledge that the proceedings are almost always exceedingly dull, to the point that attorneys sometimes design lines of questioning specifically to bore the jurors and cloud their thinking. And there’s a whole subgenre centered on this stuff? How is that popular?

And yet, on the other hand, of course it’s popular. This is one of the things that fiction, and cinema in particular, is best at: making an esoteric corner of society accessible and exciting, at least temporarily. And with the legal thriller, there’s an added attraction: the kind of ethical clarity that the system, in theory, is supposed to be all about. As Wikipedia succinctly puts it, “Usually, crusading lawyers become involved in proving their cases (usually their client’s innocence of the crime of which he is accused, or the culpability of a corrupt corporation which has covered up its malfeasance until this point) to such an extent that they imperil their own interpersonal relationships and frequently, their own lives.”[i] Reality doesn’t work that way, of course; cases get bogged down in technicalities, nothing ever seems truly finished, and that intuitive sense of justice is so rarely satisfied. Legal thrillers, as tense and cynical as they often are, provide a kind of moral escapism, a chance to live in a world where some form of justice is served according to the clean, manageable parameters of fictional narrative. This is certainly the case with Tony Gilroy’s 2007 contribution to the subgenre, Michael Clayton, which carries the added benefit of being a great moviewonderfully acted, skillfully written and brilliantly restrained, managing to create life-or-death stakes with minimal violence and to deliver the righteous payoff we desire without ever setting foot in a courtroom.

Gilroy is an interesting guy, and in his own subtle way, a perfect fit for this material. Raised outside of New York City in a very artistic household (his mother was a sculptor, his father was a Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning theater man, and both his brothers work in the film industry), he’s been in the Hollywood trenches since the early 1990s, quietly carving out his niche as a skillful, fairly prolific screenwriter-for-hire. Even before Michael Clayton back in 2007, his body of work was eclectic in more ways than one, ranging in tone from romantic comedy (The Cutting Edge, 1992) to dead-serious psychological drama (Dolores Claiborne, 1995) and running the full spectrum of critical and commercial success. He’s worked on his own and as one of multiple credited scribes on big-budget blockbusters, including Armageddon (1998) and the work that he’s still best known for: all three entries in the original Bourne trilogy of the 2000s, in which he was the lone constant on an otherwise shifting team of writers. Michael Clayton was a big artistic step for him, but his earlier work had prepared him well: he had worked more in the thriller genre than any other, and had even written about the legal system—in a radically different way—in The Devil’s Advocate (1997); and in watching his words brought to the screen for so many years, he had presumably accrued a lot of secondhand experience of creating atmosphere and suspense, not to mention working with large budgets and big-name actors. So although Michael Clayton was his directorial debut, it’s perhaps no surprise that it plays like the assured work of a much more seasoned filmmaker.[ii]

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Side note: you wouldn’t get much indication of that, or even an accurate sense of what the movie is about, from the poster. Which doesn’t really matter, of course, but I mention it because it’s the first glimpse one gets of the movie on this site, and it’s got to be one of the most mystifying movie posters of the past few decades. The out-of-focus image of Michael makes sense (he works at the blurred edges of the law, and such) but his glowering expression deceptively paints him as some sort of fiendishly clever antihero. Even stranger is the tagline that dominates the poster in aggressive red block letters, ‘The Truth Can Be Adjusted’—a line that’s never uttered or even paraphrased in the movie, and together with the image, indicates a Wag the Dog-esque story about a master spin doctor. Which isn’t totally off-base, but certainly isn’t accurate, either. It’s a trivial detail, but just odd enough that I sometimes wonder how it came about.

Gilroy, on the other hand, knows exactly what he’s doing, and has a Hollywood veteran’s familiarity with the cinematic tradition he’s working in. As Ty Burr notes, the movie “falls squarely and satisfyingly into a long legacy of New York morality plays, specifically those directed by Sidney Lumet. Like SerpicoPrince of the City, and The Verdict (Boston-set but New York in feel), Michael Clayton is a drama of dwindling options in a concrete jungle.”[iii] The big class action[iv] lawsuit at the center of the story, which sees the agrochemical giant U-North accused of marketing a lethally toxic pesticide, is a nod to those earlier classics, which often focused on sweeping institutional corruption. Yet the corporate criminality that Gilroy concocts is also satisfyingly timeless, just as relevant today as it was in 2007 (Monsanto was more prominently in the news back then, but the sins of the agrochemical industry are still very much a live issue). In fact, the movie as a whole has aged remarkably well; no one has a smartphone, and the hitmen have a harder time tracking Michael’s car than they probably would nowadays, but otherwise, the world of the movie looks pretty much like the world of today. This thematic durability, along with nuanced characters who mostly defy tired stereotypes of good and evil, gives the movie a refreshing veneer of realism. It’s fictional and thoroughly entertaining, but for the most part, it’s also uncomfortably plausible.

This is one of many reasons why Michael Clayton works so well. Gilroy proves to be an able director, but unsurprisingly given his background, the bedrock of the movie’s success is a screenplay that’s razor-sharp and exquisitely crafted in several mutually reinforcing ways. First, like any good script, it’s exhilarating to listen to on a moment-to-moment basis. Gilroy maintains a delicate balance, crafting dialogue that’s inventive and articulate (he’s clearly done his homework on the relevant legal stuff), but not so dense that it’s difficult to follow; he doesn’t shy away from so-called ‘big words,’ but nor does he show off by using them—or any other ‘writerly’ theatrical flourish—when more straightforward language will do. No one who hasn’t spent time in a high-powered law firm can know for sure how realistic the result is, but it’s perfect for a movie made for a lay audience: a comprehensible and convincing depiction of the way smart people in this rarefied professional setting might talk.

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Even more impressive is the way those words flow together. There are brief bursts of physical action in Michael Clayton, and some developments conveyed through visual and musical cues, but for the most part, it’s a story driven by dialogue: argument, discussion, negotiation, and the mental gamesmanship beneath the surface. Already a veteran screenwriter when he wrote this script, Gilroy understands that words can not only move a story forward, but do so in a way that’s just as entertaining as anything else in the cinematic toolkit. The conversations between his characters have a distinct and thrilling rhythm, with fast-paced verbal sparring, tense buildups and resounding crescendoes that create the sort of gripping momentum we typically associate with louder, more bombastic scenes. Even short, incidental interactions have an energy to them that draws our attention. The characters talk, but the dialogue sings.

And at the same time, somehow, it’s wonderfully concise; Gilroy has a knack for loading his lines with plot and character development without making them sound forced. (In this sense especially, the movie generously rewards repeat viewings, even if you understood it pretty well the first time; there are always new dimensions and kernels of significance waiting to be discovered in the dialogue.) There aren’t many scripts out there with fewer wasted words; careful consideration finds every line making a clear contribution to the narrative, thematic, or emotional development of the movie. That gives us a lot to pay attention to, but it doesn’t feel like overkill so much as generosity, the writer going out of his way to make this narrowly focused story as rich and involving as possible. Nor is it restricted to the lines themselves; like all great writers, Gilroy is able to imply a great deal beyond what’s actually said. A brief bit of poker-table banter gives a vivid sense of the underworld where Michael nurses his gambling addiction; U-North general counsel Karen Crowder’s fleeting scenes with her mentor and predecessor, along with a few references to him later on, indicate a lot about the nature of their relationship and the way it informs her decision-making; Michael’s conversation with his son about Uncle Timmy’s various issues leads us to imagine the previous talks they’ve had on the same subject.

It’s not all Gilroy, of course; such a sharp script needs highly skilled actors to fully bring it to life, and the cast delivers—anchored by George Clooney’s engaging, carefully observed performance in the title role. He looks the part, dialing down his naturally-occurring glamour without completely shedding it (he’s still a high-powered attorney, after all), and moving through this rarefied upper-crust setting with convincing ease. He sounds the part, too, delivering the rich dialogue and navigating the emotional turns of the story with the confidence of a born actor who, even thirteen years ago, had already been getting meaty leading roles for nearly a decade. The heart of the performance, however, lies in its restraint; a lot of stress and hardship is heaped on Michael in a fairly short time, but Clooney, in keeping with the tone of Gilroy’s script, doesn’t get theatrically over-dramatic. The toll that it’s all taking on him is conveyed through an ineffable air of loneliness, occasional notes of desperation in his dialogue, and a subtly increasing weight in his face and shoulders—as Manohla Dargis writes, “he’s a variation on those soulfully alone Lumet cops and lawyers who fight the system and struggle to do the right thing, though not necessarily because they want to.”[v] Michael does the right thing in the end, but his character arc is not that of a heroic figure standing up for truth and justice on principle. He’s just a capable, dutiful guy whose moral compass has been slowly ground away by innumerable small compromises in a long career as the firm’s shadowy ‘fixer,’ and who finally pushes back when the fallout starts landing too close to home. “Gilroy,” David Denby notes, “has a sardonic, rather than a melodramatic, view of life: Michael will never be an anti-pollution crusader like Julia Roberts’s Erin Brockovich or John Travolta’s lawyer in A Civil Action. The fixer is hardly shocked to discover that the world is corrupt; he has just had enough of it.”[vi] Clooney makes that subtler, more nuanced arc both entertaining and emotionally compelling.

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Meanwhile, Tilda Swinton, the lone Oscar winner among a slew of nominations that the movie received, is less appealing but no less brilliant as Karen Crowder. She’s as close as the movie comes to a traditional villain, and Swinton certainly doesn’t shy away from that aspect of it. She makes Karen a vivid embodiment of predatory capitalism, as zealously committed to the corporate overlord she’s chosen as any other extremist—coming from her, even the blandest business-school language turns unsettling. Yet nor is she a straightforward demon; as Burr notes, Swinton “tempers a corporate counsel’s arrogance with deep fissures of insecurity; you’re always aware of how naked Karen feels in this world of men she has chosen.” Just as much as her own ruthlessness, it’s an overcompensating desire to handle things on her own that drives her to nefarious acts, which she tiptoes around so carefully and awkwardly that at one point, her henchman has to ask: “Is that…okay, you understand, or…okay, proceed?” Swinton expertly manages the tricky task of synthesizing such disparate characteristics into a single convincing person, a memorable incarnation of the banality of evil.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Tom Wilkinson as Arthur Edens, the firm’s eccentrically brilliant top attorney in the U-North lawsuit—a man who, after a long and distinguished career in this morally murky world, suddenly has an epic meltdown in the middle of a deposition, tearing off his clothes and yelling that he has blood on his hands. For me, this is one area where the screenplay falls a bit short; colleagues refer to Arthur as a “killer” and a “bull,” but Gilroy isn’t quite able to fully convey that legal-heavyweight side of the character. It’s hard to see how he could have worked that in, though, and Wilkinson is still exceptional in the role, finding a sort of demented music in Arthur’s manic ramblings and, most importantly, managing to make a flawed and difficult character deeply sympathetic. Arthur has impulsive and self-destructive tendencies, his actions cause endless trouble for our protagonist, and his sudden crusade against U-North seems to stem mostly from an infatuation with a much younger plaintiff; it’s a credit to Wilkinson’s thrilling performance that we root for him anyway, and understand the respect and admiration professed by his colleagues.

What makes Michael Clayton exceptional, however, is how deep the great acting goes. The late Sydney Pollack is engagingly convincing in the minor but meaty role of Marty Bach, the firm’s seasoned head honcho and Michael’s boss. He’s self-assured, obviously intelligent, and a genuinely good friend to Michael, but also possessed of a certain killer instinct—the kind of cynical, morally flexible sense of honor necessary to thrive in this high-powered world. More than anyone else, he seems not just comfortable, but truly at home in this setting, an exemplar of the old-school, authoritative masculinity that the whole institution is, for the most part, still founded on. In a brief scene when he agrees to help Michael with his debt problem, then makes it contingent upon cleaning up the mess with Arthur, and in response to Michael’s protest, claps him on the shoulder and asks, “Hey, when did you get so fuckin’ delicate?”, Pollack communicates volumes about the character and his worldview.

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Pollack was a well-known veteran, accustomed to getting good material, but Gilroy’s succinctly loaded script lets even the second-tier supporting players make a strong impression. How refreshing it must’ve been for Sean Cullen, for example, whose small role as Michael’s police detective brother, Gene, still gives him space to show us the kind of guy he is, the easy rapport between him and Michael, and the prickly but caring relationship they have. Michael O’Keefe, in similarly little screen time, is entertainingly awful as a haughty superior named (of course) Barry, his asshole-ish nature signaled by the suspenders he always wears. Denis O’Hare has only one scene (only tangentially related to the main plot) as the rich client who just hit someone with his Jaguar, but he makes that scene crackle, and his embodiment of arrogant, upper-class entitlement gives a strong early sense of the kind of work Michael does. Bill Raymond subverts stereotypes as Gabe, an enforcer for the unseen loan shark who funded Michael’s recently failed bar venture; he’s technically an antagonist, but so unassuming and sympathetic that you almost forget he’s threatening Michael with kneecapping or worse if he can’t pay up. The same goes for Robert Prescott and Terry Serpico as Mr. Verne and Mr. Iker, the off-the-books corporate operatives called in to spy on Arthur, who are certainly sinister, but aren’t faceless thugs, either. They seem uncomfortable with the violent direction Karen heads in, and while they’re highly competent and discreet, they’re not immune to close calls and mistakes. Merritt Wever is not just innocent, but strikingly odd as Anna, the Wisconsin farm girl who triggers Arthur’s moral epiphany. It’s not often that actors in these minor roles get such rich material, and they jump at the opportunity to make their roles memorable.

They’re able to do so because of another great strength of Gilroy’s screenplay. He packs numerous side- and sub-plots into the story, enough that you could call it ‘sprawling,’ but it’s also tightly and precisely structured. As with the dialogue, nothing is superfluous; everything in there has not just symbolic significance, but a concrete narrative purpose, even if it isn’t always discernible until the end. Michael’s malfunctioning GPS indicates that he has lost his way in life, but also turns out to be caused by Mr. Iker’s rushed exit from the car, where he was planting a bomb. The quiet moment when Michael walks up the hill to the horses is similarly symbolic, but also winds up saving his life. The fantasy book that Michael’s son is reading adds atmosphere and foreshadowing, but also has a concrete effect on Arthur’s progression from accomplice to crusader. Most significant of all is the whole subplot with Michael’s brother Timmy, their failed bar venture, and the $75,000 that Michael now owes to the loan sharks. For a while, it seems to be simply about raising the stakes, heaping another source of stress on Michael along with the main plot, but it turns out to be crucial to Michael’s eventual triumph over Karen and U-North: he uses the bar situation as a pretext to get a fresh police seal from his brother Gene, which lets him break into Arthur’s apartment, where he gets caught but does manage to pocket the receipt from the copy shop, which in turn leads him to the smoking gun. Likewise, Anna doesn’t just serve as the impetus for Arthur’s change of heart; she eventually provides Michael with a key piece of information, confirming his suspicion that Arthur didn’t kill himself. Even her awkward strangeness is revealed here to have had a clear purpose, adding ominous atmosphere to the scene in a subtle, naturalistic way.

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This is part of a broader trend; as a director, Gilroy may not have the distinctive style of some famous auteurs, but he does pursue an aesthetic of restraint and relative realism that’s very well suited to a thriller without much violence or kinetic action. He engineers a number of small visual touches that subtly ratchet up tension and unease: a close-up of a mysterious machine covered in blinking green lights among shots of the law office, Karen suddenly revealing a hand inside a plastic bag to handle a sensitive document, a quick pan over to a message Arthur has scrawled on a hotel room wall, or the introduction of movement into the opening montage when Arthur’s story reaches a turning point. As we see in that scene, Gilroy can monologue with the best of them, but he never overdoes it; Arthur’s opening rant is tempered by the fact that we don’t see him, while other monologues are realistically brief and arise organically: Michael leaving an imploring voicemail for Arthur, his background being read out by one of Karen’s associates, and the touching reassurance he offers his son after seeing Uncle Timmy. We see similar restraint in James Newton Howard’s moody score and in Robert Elswit’s cinematography, full of richly realistic colors and deep shadows that evoke the murky moral landscape of the story. The images are stately and mostly straightforward, rarely drawing attention to themselves, but they contribute a great deal to the tension and atmosphere of the movie.

All of this is textbook good filmmaking, from the writing to the acting to the directorial restraint. Michael Clayton remains one of the most compelling legal thrillers out there, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.

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© Harrison Swan, 2020

[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legal_thriller

[ii] Gilroy has directed two more features since then: the romantic comedy caper Duplicity (2009) and the franchise spinoff The Bourne Legacy (2012)—both successful, but neither as well-received as Michael Clayton. He’s also continued to work as a writer, including on the Star Wars anthology film Rogue One (2016).

[iii] http://archive.boston.com/ae/movies/articles/2007/10/05/clooney_makes_a_case_for_clayton/

[iv] Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve heard this term regularly over the years and always found myself rather embarrassingly unsure of its meaning, and this project finally compelled me to look it up. Turns out ‘class action’ simply denotes a lawsuit where one of the parties is a group of people officially represented by one or a few of its members, which is why you hear it mostly in cases about large-scale corporate or institutional wrongdoing.

[v] https://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/05/movies/05clay.html?ref=movies

[vi] https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/10/08/lost-men

Riding Giants (2004)

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One year into the life of this site (!), and it’s high time we talked about a documentary. Film is a wonderful medium for fictional storytelling, but its value as an educational tool is just as great; in a well-made nonfiction film, even a complicated or emotionally difficult subject can become highly engaging. And at its best, the genre can make a comfortably obscure topic, one that might never have captured our attention otherwise, interesting and fun to learn about. Case in point: I, like most people, know very little about surfing. I don’t follow the sport or think much about it at all, and the couple of times I’ve tried it, I mostly sat on the beach, completely gassed, my lack of stamina and swimming ability making themselves all too clearly felt. Even more inconceivable is the most extreme version, big wave surfing, which is so far outside the realm of normal experience that even for most recreational surfers, to even attempt it would be a virtual death sentence. But that does little to lessen the appeal of Riding Giants, Stacy Peralta’s documentary treatment of this most ludicrous of human pursuits.

Now, I grew up with outdoor activities to some extent, and might call myself a casual fan of the cinematic subgenre that showcases the exploits of skiers, rock climbers, and other extreme athletes. So I am technically in the target audience for a movie like Riding Giants, and that probably colors my perception of it somewhat, but I also think there’s a lot to engage with here even for people with no interest in extreme sports. Because the movie isn’t just about the awesomeness of surfers riding multi-story waves (though it is certainly about that). It also explores the social history, technological development, and complicated psychology behind the whole endeavor, and finds fun and creative ways to relay all that information, making it an entertaining and informative introduction to the subject even for the lay-est of lay audiences.

It would be hard to find someone better suited to such a project than Stacy Peralta. Growing up in the still-hardscrabble Venice Beach of the 60s and 70s, he was immersed in the local surf and skateboard scenes, becoming a professional skateboarder when he was still a teenager and remaining an avid surfer throughout his life. He’s as intimately familiar with his subject as any documentarian out there; his interview subjects are clearly at ease with him, and his passion comes across in his earnest narration and exuberant filmmaking. Riding a giant wave is a remarkable feat of human physical capability, and Peralta’s fast-paced, musically enhanced surfing sequences, with stunning shots of tiny figures flying across the water at incredible speeds, dwarfed by the towering walls of water breaking over them, invite us to marvel at it as much as he does. At the same time, he’s an astute nonfiction storyteller, having directed several TV documentaries about other subjects before his acclaimed breakout feature Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001), which chronicled the influential skateboarding scene that he was involved in as a youth.[i] In Riding Giants, he has one of the crucial elements of a good documentary—an inherently entertaining subject—but in the wrong hands, it easily could’ve been little more than a collection of crazy surf footage. It appeals to a wider audience because of Peralta’s sound journalistic instincts, and the smart decisions he makes about what to include, how to convey it, and how to structure the story.

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Riding Giants is one of those cases where all sorts of factors, from the obvious to the obscure, come together to create a uniquely, enduringly entertaining documentary. Released in 2004, the movie is now missing over 15 years of recent surfing history—including the now-largest waves ever surfed, in 2011 and 2017 at Nazaré, Portugal.[ii] But Peralta made it at the perfect time: the original big wave pioneers were elderly but still lucid and full of personality, still able to tell their stories with clarity and gusto, while the then-current generation, living the sponsored lives of contemporary extreme athletes, had just put the finishing touches on a major innovation that radically expanded the boundaries of the sport.

Peralta also recognizes that as fun as his principal footage of big wave riding and the surrounding subculture is, he can’t rely on that alone to hold our attention, or even to fully capture the essence of his subject. So he also finds other, subtler ways to keep the energy up and the vibe loose, starting right off the bat with a playful segment that gives us, as the title card promises, “1000 years of surfing in 2 minutes or less”, tracing the sport from its Hawaiian origins to postwar Southern California in a jocular imitation of an old-timey slide show. And thereafter, except for a few quieter moments, Peralta maintains a vibrant soundtrack of surf-themed rock and roll, drolly repurposed film scores, and then-contemporary alternative rock. In what has become a staple of extreme sports filmmaking, he embellishes still photographs with added sun-bleaching, and transitions between them with a herky-jerky imitation of damaged film in an old projector—a far cry from the stately stills of a Ken Burns documentary, for example. (For my money, he overuses those transitions a bit, but given the subject, I understand his inclination to keep things moving, and it’s important to remember that in 2004, the residual influence of the hyperactive MTV aesthetic was more powerful than it is now.) Peralta’s canniest, subtlest move is the way he films the numerous interviews that provide the bulk of the movie’s spoken commentary. He films his subjects against the backdrops you might expect—palm trees, the ocean, surf-themed interiors—and he frames them in the standard close-up, but he shoots them with a handheld camera rather than the usual static shot. The camera doesn’t move around so much that it distracts from the interview, but the fact that it’s not completely stationary maintains a certain subconscious sense of urgency and forward momentum.

He’s also smart about whom to interview. In any extreme sports documentary, we obviously want to hear from the participants, and Peralta includes a great many of them from all eras, letting their personalities and enthusiasm shine through in engaging ways. But he also knows that for a movie like this to truly work for a lay audience, it helps to have a guide, usually a journalist or a writer of some sort who can provide the basic facts clearly, concisely, and with a bit more color than the voiceover narration. In Riding Giants, that role is largely shared by two men: Matt Warshaw, author of The Encyclopedia of Surfing and many other books, and Sam George, a longtime surfing journalist who was then the executive editor of Surfer magazine. Both are former pro surfers, but they aren’t ‘featured’ the way the other interviewees are, and their richly informed commentary runs throughout the movie rather than being concentrated in a certain section. Warshaw provides numerous valuable insights, but it’s the eager, quintessentially surfer-ish George who emerges as our primary guide, his articulate enthusiasm and nerdy-savant storytelling (together with the narration he co-wrote with Peralta) providing a solid foundation for the rest of the movie to build upon.

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Most important of all is the overarching framework that Peralta creates for the story. He divides it into three principal chapters, each focused on the discovery of a different big wave surf spot and anchored by the surfer who most famously embodies it: Waimea Bay with Greg Noll, Mavericks with Jeff Clark, and Pe’ahi with Laird Hamilton. This simple, intuitive structure is the key reason why Riding Giants works so well for the uninitiated; not only does it provide a sense of chronological and narrative progression, it also allows Peralta to create a clearly discernible sense of variety in the proceedings, which is crucial in winning over a lay audience. (After all, as incredible as it is, big wave riding is a very specific activity, and one can only show it so many times before might start to lose interest.) So the first section, about Waimea Bay and the North Shore of O’ahu, is a heady rush of pure, uncomplicated nostalgia, defined by the rich colors of old film footage, breezy period music, and the lively personalities of Noll and his fellow trailblazers as they look back fondly on what must be a wonderfully memorable bygone era. The Mavericks section, meanwhile, is noticeably grittier, more in tune with the next-level ferocity of the location. The interviews are in black and white, highlighting the contrast with the vibrant, sun-soaked Hawaii of the preceding chapter. There’s a newfound fitfulness and anxious energy in the surf footage, while the soundtrack is heavier and more intense. And we learn very little about the history and social context of the surfers, a different generation whose comments focus more on the unique harshness of the place and the moment-to-moment realities of surfing it. For the final Pe’ahi section, we’re back in the bright sun, but it’s a different Hawaii now, immersed in the world of modern, high-tech extreme sports. Now we have swooping helicopter shots and jet skis roaring around the margins. The surfboards are small and sharp-nosed, ridden in a very different manner than we’ve previously seen. The waves, filmed with the clarity of relatively advanced cameras, are noticeably more massive, and with the conditions so savagely life-threatening, there’s a deeper exploration of what drives the surfers, the nature of the experience that makes the danger worth it, and what it’s like to live with that psychology.

It’s not just about creating distinct vibes, however. The structure also proves to be valuable from an educational standpoint, as Peralta uses each chapter to explore a different aspect of big wave surfing that deepens our overall understanding of the subject. The Waimea section is about straightforward history: surfing is a fringe pastime in postwar Southern California, then a single newspaper photograph triggers a migration of surfers to Hawaii, where the North Shore is discovered and the first true big wave surfing community is born. Peralta explores the sociological side of the story as well, noting the importance of fiberglass in making surfboards easier to handle and the role of some spectacularly cheesy Hollywood movies in popularizing the sport, and placing the carefree culture that developed around it in its proper social context: as a localized iteration of the broader rebellion against mid-century conformity. At Mavericks, he delves into the mechanics of big wave surfing, examining the components of a successful ride and the consequences of failure, as the surfers attempt to describe what the punishing wipeouts we’ve been watching are actually like. And at Pe’ahi, he focuses on the conceptual innovations and technological advances that lead to modern big wave surfing, and way the extreme conditions force it to become a team endeavor.

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Like any good journalist, Peralta also knows that for a lay audience to become truly invested in a topic like this, it needs a personal touch, so to speak—an individualized narrative that we’ll find memorable and relate to on an emotional level. So each chapter also includes a self-contained narrative, centered on an individual surfer, that’s compelling or mind-blowing or a little bit of both. In the Waimea Bay chapter, we have the story of Greg Noll: the way he channels the pain and frustration of being bullied as a kid into a both a uniquely bold surfing style and a larger-than-life persona, helping to popularize the sport and making him into one of the first instances of something that’s quite common today: an extreme athlete with a personal brand. He’s cocky, brash, perhaps overly bullish—some of his contemporaries indicate that he wasn’t always the easiest guy to get along with—but we’re with him in the end because he backs it up, putting his life on the line in the middle of a once-in-a-century swell to paddle into what was then the biggest wave ever attempted. My favorite story, without a doubt, is the one that follows: growing up in a sleepy seaside town, surfing the frigid waters off Northern California, Jeff Clark discovers Mavericks while still in high school, but, in a rather charmingly dated twist, no one will believe the place is legit, so he surfs it alone for 15 years before word finally gets out. It’s a wonderful, unique variation of a familiar story: the intrepid, solitary adventurer facing the fury of the elements in epic fashion, and having no one to tell about it afterwards. The final chapter is centered on the more complex story of Laird Hamilton: the fairy-tale meeting with the man who becomes his adoptive father, the youthful alienation that drives him to pour all of his considerable talents into surfing, and once established as a pro, the series of eureka moments that allow him and his contemporaries to invent the methods that let them tackle previously un-surfable waves. This is less an archetypal story than an interesting psychological profile, showing the unique combination of factors that makes Hamilton the unquestioned greatest big wave surfer in the world—culminating in his stunning ride at Teahupo’o on a wave the narration aptly describes as a “freak of hydrodynamics.”[iii]

Hamilton’s wave at Teahupo’o is a prime example of another clever decision that Peralta makes. It’s a thrilling moment, but also one where the movie, in a sense, slows down noticeably: the editing is less frenetic, the music is less bombastic, and the narration and commentary mostly cease. Each chapter has a sequence like this where Peralta slows things down, giving us a bit of a breather and making a point through visuals more than words. In this instance, the historic Teahupo’o wave drives home the enormity of the waves that the new methods allow surfers to tackle. In the first chapter, the ‘slow-down’ sequence is a beautiful, wordless montage of the life that Noll and the others led on the North Shore in those early years, giving us an emotional sense of what a perfectly idyllic existence it was. In the Mavericks chapter, the slow-down moment is a somber one, as the death of the legendary Mark Foo causes the fun to temporarily grid to a halt, shaking the big wave surfing community and making forcefully clear how high the stakes are.

In this most difficult aspect of the subject, Riding Giants again works especially well for a lay audience. Peralta manages to strike a compelling tonal balance; with this subject, death is inevitably part of the story, but we wouldn’t describe the movie as particularly heavy or depressing. At the same time, though, Peralta doesn’t blow off or dismiss the possibility of death; he lets the surfers be open about how rattled they are by it, how it changes their perspective and makes them question the risks they’re taking.

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And yet, they all keep going back out, willing, in the end, to accept the danger for the adrenaline rush of the ride—a dynamic that a few of them freely refer to as an addiction. The nature of that experience, the thrill so pure and joyful that it’s worth risking your life for, is the big question whose answer we regular people are always looking for in an extreme sports documentary: What could that possibly feel like, that you’re willing to endure so much suffering in pursuit of it? The surfers try to put it into words, some quite eloquently, but like most extreme athletes, they can’t quite express it in a way we can fully understand. But it still feels honest, because they all seem to be expressing the same inexpressible thing, if that makes any sense. [iv]

The fact that we can recognize that is a testament to how well Peralta has educated us. Before watching this movie, most of us had barely even thought about big wave surfing, but after 100 minutes with him, almost without our realizing it, we’ve become sort of knowledgeable. We know how it began, and how the culture around it developed. We can begin to appreciate the differences between the waves at Waimea Bay and Mavericks, the colossal scale of the waves at Pe’ahi, and the insane power of the wave at Teahupo’o that closes out the movie. And we even have a vague understanding of what drives these people to do something we would never even consider—something even they can’t clearly express.

You might say our horizons have been expanded. Not in any world-changing way, but it was a heck of a ride.

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© Harrison Swan, 2020

[i] He also wrote the screenplay for Lords of Dogtown (2005), a fiction film of the same story directed by Catherine Hardwicke, with the young Peralta played by a soulful, splendidly long-haired John Robinson. The movie received mixed reviews, but has since become something of a cult classic, anchored by what ended up being one of Heath Ledger’s last and most far-out performances.

[ii] [awestruck emoji x3]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J56BYWQcX2w, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=58a9xYOweU8

[iii] In this respect, at least, the movie is not yet dated; for this ride 20 years ago, Hamilton still holds the rather nebulous but still badass record for ‘Heaviest wave ever ridden successfully.’

[iv] For anyone with even a shred of interest in this stuff, I’d highly recommend the book Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by the journalist William Finnegan. It’s one of the best memoirs of any kind that I’ve ever read, and does a brilliant job of making the reader understand why a person would structure their entire youth around surfing. (Or any related outdoor sport, for that matter; I don’t surf, but the sentiments that Finnegan expresses are precisely those that I feel, much less intensely, about skiing.)

Arrival (2016)

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If intelligent beings from outer space ever do visit us, it’s safe to assume they might be a little creeped out. Looking at our pop culture from their perspective, it would seem we’ve recently developed an ardent obsession with them; as long as we’ve known that other planets exist, we’ve been imagining their potential inhabitants. You’d think we would’ve exhausted the possibilities of such stories long ago, but there’s just something about aliens. We can’t get enough of them, especially in our cinema, so perfectly suited to the subject as the medium is. Movies about extraterrestrial life are as old as film itself; the first science fiction film—and one of the first narrative films, period—was A Trip to the Moon, which the French illusionist George Méliès conjured up in 1902, less than ten years after the Lumière Brothers’ 45-second vignettes, widely considered to be the first true films ever made. Funny, boisterous, and full of charmingly rudimentary special effects (which nevertheless must’ve blown audiences’ minds at the time), A Trip to the Moon is still fun to watch over a century later; you can sense the giddy exuberance of a skilled entertainer just beginning to discover the possibilities of a brand-new art form.[i] And of course, as his protagonists explore the fantastical lunar landscape, they encounter some wacky local inhabitants. Méliès, who still had one foot in the aesthetic of 19th-century fantastical theater, imagined them rather like feral mimes, and in the hundred-plus years since, movies have depicted extraterrestrials in all manner of ways, from friendly humanoids to immaterial spirits to monstrosities straight out of our worst nightmares. With technology now able to put pretty much any creature you can imagine up on the screen, and a glut of movies each year doing exactly that, it’s reasonable to wonder how a movie about aliens could possibly feel original anymore. But that’s exactly what happened in 2016 with Arrival, a gorgeous head-trip of a thriller that manages to evoke something like the sense of wonder and discovery that Méliès’ audiences must’ve felt in those earliest days of film. So how did it happen?

It certainly helps to have exceptionally compelling source material—in this case, a sublime, mind-expanding short story by the revered sci-fi writer Ted Chiang.[ii] That’s already impressive; Chiang’s work is uncommonly thoughtful and moving, but he leans heavily into the ‘science’ part of science fiction, resulting in dense, heady (yet somehow compulsively readable) stories that don’t translate easily to the language of film. He’s been around for decades, but this is the first of Chiang’s stories to make it to the big screen, and if nothing else, Arrival is a model of smart, imaginative adaptation from a difficult literary source. Screenwriter Eric Heisserer makes significant changes to the story, adding and subtracting characters, altering timelines, and even inventing an entire subplot that provides a great deal of dramatic tension and significantly expands the thematic scope of the narrative. But the movie nevertheless feels wonderfully true to its source material in the ways that matter; the changes serve to transmute the intellectual curiosity and wistful soul of the original story into a form more suitable to the more visual medium of film.

This is perhaps the first and foremost reason why Arrival feels so distinctive. Aliens are everywhere in our pop culture, but they often fall into two broad categories, especially onscreen: either enemies to be defended against (from War of the Worlds to Independence Day to Alien and its successors) or everyday inhabitants of an alternate universe living side by side with humans, as in the worlds of Star Wars, Star Trek, and Guardians of the Galaxy, to name just a few. Arrival falls into a smaller sub-category: the ‘first contact’ story, in which Earth is visited by aliens who don’t automatically want to exterminate us, and the human world (usually not markedly different from the real one) tries to make sense of it. The best-known example would probably be Steven Spielberg’s 1977 classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but the cinematic tradition goes at least as far back as The Day the Earth Stood Still in 1951. It’s not surprising that the analytical, scientifically-minded Chiang would go this route, or that he’d construct his narrative around the basic challenge of communicating with an unfamiliar alien species, with his characters using roughly the same approach that they would with a newly contacted human society. So the very nature of the story it has to tell sets Arrival apart from most other movies about extraterrestrials, and even compared to other first contact movies, its willingness to delve into the practical nitty-gritty of cross-species communication makes it unique.

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It also helps that the person bringing all this to the screen is one of the smartest, most technically accomplished directors working today, as Denis Villeneuve most certainly is. The French-Canadian auteur’s rise to prominence is fairly recent, and he can be a polarizing figure, hailed by some as a visionary and dismissed by others as a cynical, cold-hearted manipulator. I tend to fall somewhere in the middle; his consistently outstanding craft is refreshing, but it can lend his movies an air of intellectual seriousness that’s not always warranted, and his relentlessly bleak worldview can get a bit exhausting and pretentious. As great as it looks, I don’t understand anyone who actually enjoyed Prisoners (2013), a trashy revenge thriller disguised as a philosophical meditation on the need to buckle down and torture the hell out of anyone you think might know something about your missing daughter. The Oscar-nominated 2011 drama Incendies, which catapulted Villeneuve onto the directorial A-list, is a similar case: very well made, and so unrelentingly brutal that I don’t intend ever to watch it again. On the other hand, I was captivated by the Sicario (2015), which managed to explore classic themes of the western amid the horror of the contemporary drug war along the U.S.-Mexico border. (Although I think its success is due at least in equal part to a brilliant performance by Benicio Del Toro, and to the musical wizardry of composer Jóhan Jóhansson—more on him later.) Same with the gloomy, visually stunning Blade Runner 2049 in 2017, which proved a worthy successor to the classic original (if not quite its equal), and provided a small measure of justice by finally securing an Oscar for the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins. But Arrival is still Villeneuve’s best work, precisely because the story, by its very nature, tempers his darker inclinations. There’s drama and tension, even emotional anguish, but these don’t arise from physical violence, and the story is anything but despairing.

Meanwhile, the movie still benefits from Villeneuve’s exemplary, seemingly instinctive command of the medium. He almost always elicits compelling performances from the talented actors who flock to him, and even in collaboration with different cinematographers—three times with Deakins, here with the super-talented Bradford Young—he has developed a beautifully distinctive visual style. His shots are mostly steady, his camera movements fluid and precise, his framing meticulous and full of subtext, yet uncluttered and easy to wrap your head around. He also holds shots longer than many of his contemporaries, long enough for us to consider it as a deliberately crafted image, rather than simply another visual piece of an unfolding plot. There is, for lack of better terms, a unique visual grace to Villeneuve’s movies, but crucially, this goes hand in hand with an instinct for understatement and restraint. He stages and films action in a matter-of-fact sort of way, and he’s perfectly willing to let a moment play out or establish tone in a single shot if it’s getting the job done. It’s not that he’s doing his utmost to minimize the number of shots—a laudable impulse given the current epidemic of scissor-happy editing, but one that can easily turn into a gimmick—he’s simply confident enough in his images that he doesn’t feel the need to cut unless logic or artistry demands it. The result is a compelling visual aesthetic: carefully calibrated, even stylized, but also straightforward and instinctive, edited without a lot of flash—a closer-than-usual approximation of the way we might watch this stuff happening in real life.

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This signature visual style, highly polished yet firmly rooted in the real world, is a perfect fit for the kind of high concept sci-fi that Arrival represents. It may seem odd to speak about realism in a movie that features seven-tentacled aliens arriving in 1500-foot stone vessels shaped like skipping stones and teaching our protagonist, Louise, an entirely new language that lets her see the future—and save the world while she’s at it. But the realism is there, and it’s a key reason why Arrival works so well; this is an alien movie that thrills us not with an interspecies war or visions of a multi-species universe, but with a vivid depiction of extraterrestrials visiting an Earth that feels tantalizingly similar to our own. Villeneuve makes judicious use of special effects; the cavernous, otherworldly interior of the so-called ‘heptapods’’ ship is almost entirely CGI, but Louise’s house, her office, and the hallways of the university where she works have the ineffable but unmistakable feel of real locations, as opposed to sets in a studio. And the Montana field where the heptapods land is unmistakably a real field (actually in Quebec, but still), with CGI providing only the massive bulk of their ship, a significant but relatively simple and unobtrusive addition to the setting. The silent, stationary vessel is amazing, yet so unassuming that after a while, it starts to feel almost like a regular feature of the landscape; Villeneuve uses special effects not to create a new world, but to enhance the real one.[iii] Even the military’s small tent-and-trailer city beneath the ship feels true to life, despite the fact that very few of us know what such a thing would actually look like. The tightly organized cluster of heavy machinery and cramped, utilitarian structures full of state-of-the-art technology, convey what feels like an accurate combination of impermanence and cutting-edge sophistication. There are numerous small details it this unfamiliar setting that, taken together, ground it in the world we know: the hydraulic construction lift that raises the humans into the ship, the generic pickup trucks that transport them there and back, or the neat tablet app, presumably whipped up by military programmers, that Louise uses to construct sentences in the heptapod language.

The military encampment also contributes to a sense of realism that pervades the movie on a broader scale. Like the best sci-fi stories, Arrival only asks us to make a few suspensions of disbelief—pretty substantial ones here, but still, only a few—from which everything else follows quite realistically. This invariably makes the story more thrilling and engaging; we recognize that if this wildest of situations were ever to happen, this is more or less what it would look like: the government/military is in charge of things, but since the aliens aren’t attacking us, our principal envoys are the world’s top scientists and linguists—the people best equipped to communicate with and learn from them. The movie even has the guts to take a convincingly unflattering view of the general population, who react, quickly and across cultural divides, by losing their heads on a massive scale. To be fair, humanity’s political leaders aren’t much better; while mostly unseen, they’re forcefully present as a bunch of ignorant, overbearing supervisors, impeding Louise and her team’s progress and seemingly itching for an excuse to declare the heptapods our enemies and start attacking them. Given the global political shitstorm of the past few years, the tension feels more legitimate than ever.

Here again, Villeneuve’s knack for concise, understated storytelling is a huge asset. The movie unfolds on an epic scale, but he stays focused on its dramatic heart: the effort to learn the heptapods’ language and its effect on Louise. He makes a point of not taking us on distracting detours away from the encampment, conveying the chaos beyond its borders only through brief, evocative news clips. Some excellent supporting performances play a key role here; in lieu of a bunch of interchangeable political leaders, government oversight is efficiently represented by Michael Stuhlbarg’s snooty, officious CIA officer, while Mark O’Brien, as the team’s menacing military escort, Captain Marks, comes to embody a fearful humanity’s urge to lash out violently at what it doesn’t understand. For the more sensible side of humankind, we have Forest Whitaker as Colonel Weber, the mission commander. His accent is a bit mysterious (Boston? New York? Somewhere else on the Eastern Seaboard?), but we get used to it, and its air of levelheaded authority fits well with the character. The excellence of Whitaker’s performance is easy to miss; he makes Weber first and foremost a paragon of unflappable military discipline, but it’s always clear that there’s a human being beneath that tough exterior. He’s revealed to be a shrewd and effectual leader, by turns boldly authoritative and gently encouraging, deferential to the scientists’ expertise yet willing to override them if he feels he has to—whatever is needed to keep the mission on track and making progress. He’s a stabilizing presence, and a realistic one; if this ever actually happens, you’d expect and hope the military would have someone like him running the show.

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As we’ve mentioned, this sense of (relative) realism provides a certain inherent thrill on its own, but it also has a compounding effect on other, more common techniques for creating tension and excitement. Villeneuve has always been a skilled manipulator of audience emotions, and in Arrival, he does a masterful job of creating a captivating aura of mystery and anticipation—a nice change from his usual vibes of horror and despair. He gives us a vivid sense not only of what first contact might look like, but of how it might feel. Especially in the first act, there’s a palpable atmosphere of threat and wonder in equal measure, and like Louise, we feel both at the same time and vacillate between them. All first contact stories traffic in such emotions, though; Villeneuve’s great achievement is to keep them sustained and slow-burning through large chunks of the movie. He does this through skillful deployment of a simple storytelling technique, similar to what Spielberg did in Close Encounters: instead of one big, shocking reveal—‘Aliens have arrived! Look how bizarre and cool they are!’—he doles out information in small bits, letting the situation build at a deliberate, almost agonizing pace. Louise walks into work to find a hubbub in the halls and her classroom almost empty. She turns on the TV and we see her shock, but not the images causing it. We get a few indications of growing panic: evacuation of the university, a fender bender in the parking lot, a pair of jets screaming overhead, and a tense phone call between Louise and her mother. The next day, she finds the university totally deserted, and the news channels describe worldwide chaos. Every aspect of the story develops this way: in baby steps, often concurrently with other aspects. The government mission to the aliens appears first as Col. Weber in Louise’s office, dressed in civilian clothes; then as a helicopter thundering out of the night sky; then as the Montana encampment, which also expands as we see more of it. We hear vague descriptions of the ship and catch glimpses of it in news footage before we fully see it—and even then, it remains in the distance for a time. Before the characters go inside, the ship gets closer and closer until the scale becomes impossible to fathom, then there’s a slow lift ride up, and finally a close-up of our awestruck characters touching the hull. We hear a brief snippet of garbled alien-speak before we actually see the heptapods, and even then (in an especially clever touch), they remain partially obscured by mist until much later, when we finally see their massive upper body. Their language goes from unintelligible noises to mysterious symbols to a written language that our characters begin to understand, until finally Louise is speaking fluently with them. Et cetera, et cetera—there’s a constant feeling of rising action and new discovery. And the drive for verisimilitude is what allows Villeneuve to proceed in such small steps without losing our attention; any given development, even one that’s fairly insignificant on its own (and that anyone familiar with the basic premise could halfway anticipate) is charged with sense of awe that it would carry in real life, because it’s happening in a world we recognize. In Villeneuve’s hands, realism and wonder need not be mutually exclusive—in fact, they’re mutually reinforcing.

Not to mention the fact that amid these thrilling moments, there are curveballs thrown in—developments that are genuinely wild and unexpected. Which ones these are is subjective, but a few stand out to me: that beautiful, drawn-out shot of the initial approach to the Montana site; the trippy reorientation of gravity within the ship; the first glimpses of the heptapods’ elegant, calligraphic script; and the third act revelations, when the Louise’s comprehension of the language, and the newfound conception of time that comes with it, are finally made (mostly) clear. As effective as the more routine story beats are, these bursts of true originality are an essential part of what makes Arrival exceptional. They’re delightful to watch, for one thing—the sorts of moments that film can capture in a uniquely compelling way—but they’re also crucial in engendering the sense of wonder that’s essential to any great sci-fi movie. We may not be able to fully wrap our heads around the heptapods’ language (I certainly can’t), but in experiencing moments so unlike anything we’ve seen before, we feel the same way as the characters that can: like our intellectual horizons are widening. That such a gifted filmmaker is crafting these moments for us only enhances their sublime impact. Other efforts are crucial to all this as well, notably Patrice Vermette’s elegant production design and Joe Walker’s crisp editing, but especially at moments like these, Villeneuve is aided immeasurably by the efforts of composer Jóhan Jóhansson. Arrival was one of the last scores Jóhansson did before he tragically died in February 2018, at the age of just forty-nine, and he was one of the few truly original composers in the industry, well on his way to becoming one of the greatest of all time. His score for Villeneuve’s Sicario is, for my money, the best of the past decade or so (I swear, those throbbing, infinitely deep bass tones could inject a sense of doom into anything), and he does similarly compelling work here. There are strange, trippy electronic tones, otherworldly vocals, bursts of sound that seem instrumental one moment and entirely synthetic the next. I don’t know nearly enough about music to describe how he did it, but the score is both enchanting and unnerving, highly unconventional yet never grating in the way that experimental music often can be. It’s hard to describe, clearly, but the quality that runs through it all is beauty and a sense of strangeness and awe. It is, in other words, the ideal musical complement to the vibe that Villeneuve generates through other aspects of filmmaking—an appropriate soundtrack to a radical expansion of the boundaries of human experience.

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All this excellent technique wouldn’t amount to nearly as much, however, without such a quietly commanding lead performance to anchor it. Amy Adams has done excellent work in all manner of roles,[iv] but her performance as Louise Banks is in a class by itself. As always, her ability to convey emotion is impressive; she makes the opening sequence of her daughter being born, playing around, and dying young about as devastating as any actress could in less than five minutes, and convincingly projects not only the intelligence of an accomplished linguist—one of the world’s most prominent, given the reverence with which her team greets her—but also the sorrow, self-doubt, and reticence of a damaged individual. And this skillful navigation of the movie’s emotional beats, combined with her natural air of openness, make her a uniquely accessible and empathetic set of eyes through which to experience this story. We believe that she’s a brilliant academic with a great deal of esoteric expertise, but we can also relate, each in our own way, to her sense of melancholy isolation, not to mention the roiling cocktail of emotions that she’s feeling when the aliens arrive—her performance, embodying the way we’d feel in similar circumstances, is as important as Villeneuve’s technique in creating that mesmerizing aura of fear and wonder that rings so true to life.

She also helps to keep us oriented when the complicated work of deciphering the heptapods’ language begins in earnest. The movie doesn’t delve as deeply into the intricacies of linguistics as Chiang’s story, but the translation process can still be difficult to follow, despite screenwriter Heisserer’s rigorous attempts to streamline and simplify it. Perhaps the problem is that he overdoes it a bit; the big breakthrough, from realizing how the language works to being able to communicate in it, is the one part of the movie that doesn’t quite feel sufficiently developed. But I think that’s mostly because the heptapods’ script is so aesthetically pleasing, and the central conceit (that every stroke and whirl in the logogram conveys meaning, all at the same time) so intriguing that we naturally want to learn more about it. Meanwhile, Adams’ magnetism allows us to run with it without feeling too lost—we trust Louise, in a sense—and in broader storytelling terms it’s a minor issue, because the main focus of the narrative is not the process of learning the language per se, but the radical new perspective that the process gives to Louise. (It also helps that while this is pure fiction, it’s based on a bit of actual linguistic theory called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, even if it does take the concept farther than any linguist would.[v]) Arrival succeeds as a realistic and thrilling vision of first contact, but in the tradition of all great sci-fi, it manages to find, amid all that spectacle, an emotionally powerful exploration of the human condition. Chiang has stated that the original story arose not from speculation about aliens or even linguistics, but from philosophical questions about time and memory, the emotional consequences of knowing the future, accepting the inevitable and finding a way to live even if you know that tragedy lies ahead. Villeneuve and Heisserer wisely follow Chiang’s lead in making these universal questions the thematic core of the movie, and Adams brings them vividly to life onscreen.

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Which makes it especially impressive that the movie also manages to expand upon the source material in significant ways. The subplot about rising global tensions and General Shang of the Chinese Army is almost entirely invented, and here again, Adams’ sympathetic performance is a key reason why it works. In the face of the mind-bending challenge of communicating with the newly arrived heptapods, Louise’s shock and uncertainty are easy understand, but her intellectual curiosity is also contagious—we identify with her and her view of the situation as an opportunity for intellectual growth, rather than with certain other characters who see it as a threat to be overcome. One fascinating thing about Arrival is that it has no clear villain. General Shang and Captain Marks could fit the role, but only at certain points and not in any thoroughgoing way; instead, the main antagonistic forces are simply our own worst impulses. Suspicion, fear-mongering, misunderstanding and willful deception, lashing out in panic at the unfamiliar ‘other’—these are the threats to be overcome. It’s another thematic facet of the story that Chiang only touched on, and one that’s downright starry-eyed by Villeneuve’s standards. On top of everything else, Arrival is an ode to the power of communication, science, diplomacy, and learning from one another.

It’s a message that we need more than ever these days. And we still get all the fun of aliens and spaceships and time-bending shenanigans along with it.

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© Harrison Swan, 2020

[i] A fun fact to consider is that the actual moon landing occurred only 67 years after the film was made, meaning that a not-insignificant number of people probably lived to see both—not to mention two World Wars and a radical transformation of human civilization in general.

[ii] The enigmatic Chiang happens to be one of my favorite contemporary writers. Reticent, self-effacing, and willing to immerse himself in a subject for years before writing about it, he has kept his day job as a technical writer for a software company throughout his nearly thirty-year career, during which he’s published just fifteen short stories and one novella. Not bad for someone widely considered one of the best and most influential sci-fi writers of his generation. The New Yorker did an interesting (and intriguingly sparse) profile of him last year: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/persons-of-interest/ted-chiangs-soulful-science-fiction

[iii] Although he can certainly bring an entirely fictional world to life as well as anyone, too. I refer you again to Blade Runner 2049, preferably on a big screen; one area in which the movie equals, and occasionally even surpasses, Ridley Scott’s original is in the way it uses the latest cinematic wizardry to create a stunningly convincing vision of the dystopian Los Angeles of the near future.

[iv] Watch this and American Hustle back to back, and marvel that it’s the same actress in both movies.

[v] An interesting discussion of the movie and the heptapods’ language with one such linguist can be found here: http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2016/11/22/a_linguist_on_arrival_s_alien_language.html

The Raid: Redemption (Indonesia, 2011)

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Of all the unique capabilities of film as an art form, I think you can make a decent case that the most significant innovation—the biggest game-changer in the way we entertain ourselves—is its ability to record and depict exceptional physical feats. There have always been people who push the boundaries of human physical capability, but before film, their exploits were always more legendary than famous. The work of great storytellers could be set down in writing, great music could be reproduced, great visual art could still be seen long after the artist was gone—but until the 20th century, unless you were physically present at a circus or a sporting event, you couldn’t truly experience the achievements of great athletes and acrobats. Words can describe these things in great detail, but only moving pictures can fully capture the power and grace of a great physical performance. Our appetite for this sort of thing is seemingly boundless, and unlikely to diminish anytime soon. Look no further than the massive share of TV content devoted to live professional sports and feats of daredevilry, and the enduring, widespread popularity of action movies. From The Great Train Robbery way back in 1903 to the breathtaking comic stunts of Buster Keaton to the high-octane blowouts of modern times, we simply can’t get enough of those genre-defining physical extremes that are, for most of us, mercifully absent from real life: chases, battles, explosions, fights and shootouts.

It would be hard to find a purer, more exuberant expression of this than The Raid: Redemption, a 2011 Indonesian martial arts flick that’s (almost) entirely about the spectacle of bodies in thrilling, violent motion. (Quick note: If you’re thinking that Redemption sub-title is a bit silly, the filmmakers would probably agree; it was added for rather banal legal reasons, and from now on, I’ll refer to the movie by its intended title The Raid.[i]) We should say up front: this is clearly not everyone’s cup of tea. If you see no appeal in watching a few dozen people shot, stabbed, kicked, punched, and otherwise violently dispatched, no matter how beautifully it’s all put together, then this movie isn’t for you and makes no attempt to persuade you otherwise. But for those of us who do enjoy such spectacles, The Raid is a glorious breath of fresh air; it knows what we’re here for, and seeks only to deliver the goods as expertly as possible. Made for the relative pittance of $1.1 million,[ii] it runs for a lean 100 minutes, the vast majority of which contain ‘action’ in some form or another. The setup is almost primal in its simplicity: a police squad is trapped in a tower run by a ruthless drug lord, and must fight their way out or die trying. It’s a prime example of the so-called ‘worst day ever’ movie, which could technically describe a pretty wide range of work, but is traditionally applied to action flicks that trap their heroes in some restricted space to fight off hordes of homicidal enemies, from Die Hard (1988) to Black Hawk Down (2001) to Judge Dredd (1995) and its underrated 2012 remake Dredd. The dialogue is sparse, and mostly restricted to the exclamations of amped-up combatants: “He’s here!”, “No, wait!”, “Get me the fuck out of here!”, etc. The characters are developed just enough to technically register as characters, capably filling archetypal roles: skilled but green rookie; tough-as-nails sergeant; enemy leader with complex loyalties; wounded comrade who must be saved; cold-blooded killer with a perverse sense of honor. While there is some CGI—muzzle flashes, bullet casings, presumably (hopefully?) some of the more egregious impacts and injuries—in an era where far too much action is nothing but zeroes and ones, The Raid offers the inimitable thrills of real performers in real space, dazzling us with stunts and acrobatic maneuvers that few normal people could even attempt. And most importantly in this genre, it’s all clear as day, shot and assembled with exceptional care and skill.

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The story behind it is nearly as fun as the movie itself. It begins not in Indonesia, but in Wales, where a young film school graduate named Gareth Evans, probably feeling a bit unfulfilled teaching Welsh over the Internet, “sidestepped an apprenticeship in the British film industry by moving to Jakarta.”[iii] I doubt that was his exact thought process, but in any case, he makes the move and becomes fascinated with the place and its culture. He gets hired to direct a documentary about pencak silat, an Indonesian variant of the Silat style of martial arts practiced throughout Southeast Asia. There, he meets Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian, pencak silat champions then making their livings as a truck driver and a trainer, respectively. Evans hires them as actors and fight choreographers on his next film, Merantau (2009), which becomes a hit in Asia and among martial arts buffs—clearing the way for the trio to try something more ambitious, if still far removed from Hollywood action extravagance.[iv]

The result is The Raid, a movie with an interesting blend of influences reflecting its unique origins. Low-budget Silat action movies are apparently a fixture of Southeast Asian cinema, and while they’re little known (and probably impossible to even access) in the West, Evans is surely familiar with the subgenre, and seeking to channel some of its best features. The movie also exhibits many defining elements of Asian action cinema as a whole: the commitment to live stunts, the reduction of plot and character to the most basic necessities, and a preoccupation with honor and integrity even in the midst of violence and chaos that would seem to render them obsolete. At the same time, the influence of Western action cinema is also evident in the filming techniques; the macho, profanity-laden dialogue (“When it comes to the lives of my men, you’d be wise to shut the fuck up!”); and in the depiction of violence with (relative) realism, as opposed to the more stylized/comic approach of Asian stars like Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan. The juxtaposition of these differing aesthetics could have been awkward, but the streamlined simplicity of the plot helps keep things tonally consistent; as Andrew O’Hehir writes, “there’s not the slightest iota of snarky, jokey, postmodern pastiche in The Raid. It never feels like a tougue-in-cheek, Tarantino-style East-West hybrid… and if you didn’t know the director was British, you’d never guess it from the internal evidence.”[v] The movie is informed to some degree by Evans’ Western sensibilities, but he’s careful to let it remain an Indonesian film at its core.

Evans does exemplary work (more on that in a bit), but the success of The Raid is rooted first and foremost in the remarkable talent of its performers. There’s a certain ineffable quality, I find, to the movements of truly exceptional athletes: Michael Jordan, Jackie Chan, Simone Biles, Mookie Betts, Kylian Mbappé, and countless others who noticeably stand out even among their professional peers. They’re not always the fastest or the strongest, but they move with a seemingly instinctive efficiency, each motion flowing into the next, constantly calibrated for maximum efficacy—when they jump, they seem to hang in the air longer than the rest. We see that same quality in the martial-arts stars of The Raid: Uwais as our rookie hero Rama, and Ruhian as the psychotic enemy enforcer Mad Dog, whose moniker is so apt that we never learn his actual name. One of them is centrally featured in each of the fight sequences, giving us ample time to marvel at their skill and creativity; there’s an internal rhythm to the choreography that makes it all the more gripping, and every sequence contains multiple moves that would be the climactic capstone of a lesser action movie. We can even begin to register subtle differences in their fighting styles—Rama more focused on precision and anticipation, turning his enemies’ attacks back on themselves, and Mad Dog, described by one critic as “the closest the movies may ever come to a live action Tasmanian devil,”[vi] more about speed and athleticism, turning his entire body into a weapon—making it all the more stunning when they finally square off against each other. And it’s not just them; several supporting actors, all with varying levels of martial arts training, are also given central roles in the action and prove to be thrilling fighters in their own right: Joe Taslim as Sergeant Jaka, Donny Alamsyah as Rama’s estranged brother Andi, and Eka Rahmadia as the skilled police officer Dagu. And of course, there’s also the rest of the police squad and the thugs on the receiving end of Rama’s prodigious ass-kicking—dozens of anonymous stunt performers who have the different but equally difficult job of not only performing their moves, but also convincingly acting out the brutal hits, throws and maimings that their parts entail. The violence is harrowing, but so impressively performed that it’s wondrous to behold.

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It also helps that the insane stuff these guys are doing is so expertly assembled onscreen. Directing action is a highly specific skill, one that some of the most accomplished filmmakers struggle with, and if it’s done poorly, no amount of ebudgetary largesse or post-production wizardry can really save the sequence. There could be (and probably have been) entire books written about action film theory, and obviously the best directors put a great deal of thought into every moment of their sequences, but I also believe that just as some people are naturally gifted musicians, builders, writers, or anything else, certain directors simply have an instinctive feel for action. It’s not restricted to any particular style; Paul Greengrass uses quick-cutting shaky-cam, Kathryn Bigelow goes for docudrama realism, George Miller has his smoothly roving camera, and Jackie Chan uses carefully sequenced static framing, but they all have that seemingly innate talent for creating exhilarating, visually coherent action sequences. Watching The Raid, it’s clear that Gareth Evans has it, too.

Which is not to say we can’t identify some of the technique and decision-making behind it. First, Evans keeps things quite visually consistent; the movie was filmed mostly with a Fig Rig, a steering-wheel-like mount for smal digital cameras that produces images somewhere in between the jerkiness of handheld and the less maneuverable smoothness of a true Steadicam. So almost all the shots are fundamentally similar: halfway between shaky and steady, mostly at standing eye level, prowling nervously around the edges of the fight. The angles change regularly and sometimes quite rapidly, but the perspective is almost always the same: that of a bystander watching the fight at a close remove. Because of this, our eyes don’t have to make split-second adjustments to a new type of image, like a handheld close-up or a static wide shot—we have a rudimentary idea of what we’re going to see next even before it comes. When he does go to something different, typically a near-static wide shot or one looking down on the action from above, the motion of the camera or the figures in the frame always leads smoothly into it. In general, Evans also frames his shots wider than many action directors; we can usually see multiple combatants, and enough of their bodies to tell what they’re doing. The camera moves feel intuitive, reflecting the way we would shift our gaze if we were actually there watching the fight. Evans also takes special care to keep the action in or near the center of the frame, so that when he cuts, our eyes don’t have to scan the image for the thing they’re supposed to be focusing on. Some cuts might seem unnecessary in the moment (‘That shot was fine; why change it?”), and some significantly alter the point of view, shifting a full 180 degrees around the fight, but whenever that happens, Evans is setting up the next moment, making an upcoming camera move or combat flourish easier to register.

Most notable of all is what Evans doesn’t do, and here again, the skills of his cast are crucial. In lesser, merely passable Western action movies, the stars typically don’t have the skills to convincingly perform all the moves, especially when it comes to taking hits. So in addition to using shaky close-ups to exaggerate motion, they’ll often cut right on the hit; it’s a tried-and-true way to paper over the impact, stitching together the beginning and end of it without showing the whole thing. But it’s also visually confusing, asking us to register something that we didn’t actually see, because it didn’t actually happen—and cutting exclusively for that reason. If that happens a lot, as it often does in movies where it’s necessary, it wrecks the visual coherence of the action, and the sequence becomes exhausting rather than exciting. Evans, even when he’s cutting rapidly, almost never cuts on impact, because he doesn’t have to; his performers are good enough to make the fight convincing without disguising anything. Their skill means that Evans can cut in the softer moments between the hits, complementing the rhythm of the fight rather than working against it, and that he’s always able to show the most awesome stunts—the crescendos in that combat rhythm—in a single shot, so we can see clearly how amazing they are.

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Nevertheless, coherent action isn’t the only thing Evans does exceptionally well. The Raid is often described as constant, unrelenting action, and that’s accurate, but it’s not pure martial arts combat from start to finish. The fight sequences are numerous, but they’re also clearly demarcated, and relatively short compared to the overall runtime. The key is what occurs between them; Evans has fun devising sequences that are relatively simple to film (no real ‘stunts’ to speak of) but still keep the tension relentlessly ratcheted up. He never uses slow-motion in the fights, but he makes judicious use of it to draw out two key moments early on: once when a sentry just barely relays word of their presence before they silence him, and once when an ill-timed muzzle flash betrays their position to gunmen lurking in the darkness above. Otherwise, Evans almost never strays from the quasi-Steadicam type of images that he uses in the action sequences, infusing the rest of the movie with a similar tense energy. The early scenes of the police infiltrating the tower are, in their own way, just as thrilling as the fight scenes that follow, because they’re filmed in much the same way. Once the mission goes awry, whenever our characters get a reprieve from the fighting, the nervously hovering camera keeps us on edge, reminding of the danger that might lurk behind every door. Evans devises some very effective sequences of cat-and-mouse tension, mostly involving Alfridus Godfred as the leader of the machete gang, who becomes a menacing presence long before he fights or says anything, repeatedly appearing in the frame just after the cops have left it, slowly tapping his machete against the tiles as he searches the bathroom where they’re hiding, and finally driving his blade through a wall behind which Rama and his wounded comrade are hiding.

This is another advantage to the simplicity of Evans’ premise: our police protagonists are trapped in a building full of criminals who want to kill them. There’s no nuance between the sides, no negotiation; the second the thugs spot the cops, they’re after them with murderous intensity. As in a real-life war or ‘action’ scenario like this, there’s no clear dividing line between combat and rest, and it never feels like our characters are truly safe. There are only a few scenes—the kingpin Tama strategizing with his two lieutenants, and the conversation between Rama and Andi—where we don’t feel the imminent threat of violence breaking out at any moment.

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The story may be aggressively simple, but that doesn’t mean the constant intensity is the only interesting thing about the movie. Evans does a good job of making the narrative just involving enough to leave us with a little bit to think about besides the action badassery. As Western viewers, we don’t learn much about Indonesia except that corruption is a problem, which isn’t exactly a shocking revelation in that or any other part of the world. But it’s still fun to listen to the lively rhythms of the Indonesian language, and to get even a vague, genre-specific sense of a place that most of us know next to nothing about, even though it’s the fourth-most populous country in the world. The plot twists are predictable, but interesting enough to pay attention to, and as the story goes on, they change up the combat dynamics in entertaining ways. Moreover, as primal as the battle between police and thugs is, Evans does allow for some gray areas: some of the police are cruel or corrupt, some of the thugs fight honorably when they have the choice not to. Not a groundbreaking sentiment, but certainly more satisfying than the rah-rah bellicosity that often defines action movies, especially those that go as all-out on the violence and mayhem as this one does.

At the end of the day, though, the story isn’t what anyone watches a movie like this for, and Evans knows it. We watch it to be amazed, and he delivers on that expectation many times over. There’s violence in The Raid, so much ghastly violence, but Evans, Uwais, Ruhian and their small army of committed artists make it as beautiful and exhilarating as anything you’ll see at the movies—and for a tiny fraction of a Hollywood blockbuster.

Forget whatever Transformers sequel some studio just paid $200 million for. In a hundred years, The Raid will still be blowing people’s minds.

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© Harrison Swan, 2019

[i] Apparently the distributor, Sony Pictures Classics, was somehow unable to secure rights to the title The Raid, so they had to tack something on to release the movie in the U.S. The original Indonesian title is Serbuan maut, and I think it would have been great if they’d simply gone with the literal translation: The Deadly Raid.

[ii] My favorite stat: that’s less that the cost per minute of your typical Transformers flick, which makes the fact that The Raid is so much more entertaining than that garbage all the more satisfying.

[iii] From a good review: https://www.npr.org/2012/03/22/148945789/the-raid-hand-to-hand-thrills-in-a-jakarta-slum

[iv] There’s actually a good chance you’ve seen Uwais and Ruhian before, if only briefly. A few years ago, I was thrilled to see their names among the cast of Star Wars: The Force Awakens—but all they were allowed to do was bark a few menacing lines at Han Solo and then get eaten by a monster, which has got to be the most inexcusably wasteful cameo in recent memory. Oh, what they could have done with lightsabers…

[v] Also insightful and informative: https://www.salon.com/2012/03/23/pick_of_the_week_a_dazzling_martial_arts_sensation/

[vi] Also very good, like all of Ty Burr’s reviews: http://archive.boston.com/ae/movies/articles/2012/03/30/the_raid_redemption_movie_review____the_raid_redemption_showtimes/

Locke (2013)

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What makes a movie? What are the essential component parts of every story we see onscreen? That’s a silly question, of course, the answer so basic that it’s almost difficult to come up with. I mean, ok: I guess there will be an assortment of characters, portrayed by various actors. Through dialogue and action, they’ll perform the story, in various places and at various times as the plot demands. There will be various camera angles, hopefully with some striking images among them, edited together with a musical score and sound design to steer our emotional response. And so on and so forth; it’s obvious, right?

Stop and think about it, though, and you realize it’s not quite that simple. The above statements do apply to the vast majority of movies, but they’re not quite universal. In every art form, there are works that upend conventional practices—not just in content, but in the basic building blocks of the medium. Visual artists create paintings and sculptures from unconventional materials. Musicians make music with objects designed for other purposes, and with manipulated, non-musical sounds. Writers tell stories with all sorts of self-imposed technical, narrative, and grammatical limitations.[i] And cinema is no different; even within the relatively narrow category of fictional feature films, there have always been works that function at least partly as experiments in limitation: how much can you strip it down and still have a compelling movie?

It would be hard to find a better example than the 2013 British drama Locke, a movie that’s maximally stripped down in just about every aspect. It’s less than 90 minutes long and takes place on a single evening, unfolding more or less in real time. It’s set almost entirely in a single, narrowly restricted location: inside a car on the motorway from Birmingham to London. Only one character appears onscreen—and after the briefest of opening sequences, only the top third of him. There are a number of other characters heard as voices on the phone, but for the duration of the movie, we’re with Ivan Locke in that car, making that drive.

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Strictly speaking, there is cinematic precedent for this; indeed, these sorts of self-imposed restrictions may be more common in film than in any other art form, probably because it’s so damn expensive to make a movie. (You can imagine any reduction in scope playing well in a pitch meeting.) Movies that take place in a single day or night are quite common once you start looking out for them, and even a list of those that unfold in real time is surprisingly extensive, including many classics and mainstream releases that you may not have noticed were structured that way.[ii] Single-location movies are also more common than you might think, from venerated classics (12 Angry Men, 1957) to indie horror flicks (Green Room, 2015) to high-octane action blowouts (Die Hard, 1988) where it’s safe to assume that cost wasn’t the main motivating factor. Even those that ride on a single performance aren’t confined to experimental films and micro-budget indies; Cast Away was one of the biggest hits of 2000 and won Tom Hanks an Oscar.

Such movies are uncommon, of course, a tiny fraction of cinema as a whole, but they do exist, even in the mainstream. And yet, Locke still feels like a radical, daring experiment—for two principal reasons, I think. First, it is genuinely rare for a movie to pile limitations on top of one another like this: if it takes place in a single day or in real time, it’s usually pretty typical in most other respects; if it’s set in a single location, we’ll probably see multiple actors, or some jumps in time, or both. And you’d be hard pressed to find any movie willing to show its protagonist exclusively from the chest up.

The second reason has to do with narrative content; Locke’s most distinctive limitation is that it’s a one-man show, so to speak, and other such movies are often similarly stripped down. The key difference is that the others usually involve some sort of physically extreme situation, with the lone protagonist lost in the wilderness, say, or being hunted by shadowy pursuers, or stranded in space, or imprisoned for some mysterious reason.[iii] Extremes certainly define the closest recent cinematic relative to Locke that I’m aware of: Rodrigo Cortés’s Buried (2010), in which Ryan Reynolds wakes up six feet underground in a coffin, with only a lighter, a cell phone, and a rapidly dwindling supply of oxygen. (I confess I haven’t been able to track that one down yet—and might not be able to get through it when I do, given my reaction to the buried-alive sequence in Kill Bill: Vol. 2.) Locke, on the other hand, is a single-actor movie that rides entirely on interpersonal interaction, and features little in the way of life-or-death danger—indeed, the only possible threat to Ivan’s physical well-being would be a car crash, and it’s never suggested that that’s likely.

It’s worth noting that when any work of art is restricted in an unconventional way, it’s always, on some level, a gimmick. Movies in particular need to attract the attention of fickle audiences, and something like this is guaranteed to at least arouse curiosity in those who might not otherwise notice. But that doesn’t mean that the choice can’t also be artistically valuable. Locke is one of those special movies that not only works within narrow restrictions, but is actually enhanced by them: a small-scale character study and family drama with fairly conventional narrative elements is given the gripping urgency of a thriller with much higher stakes.

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So how does it work so well? I think there are three key factors in the movie’s success, starting with its primary creator, the writer/director Steven Knight. He’s been in film and television for three decades, mostly as a writer, and on an uncommonly wide range of projects. In TV, he’s worked on comedy shows—Canned Carrott (1990 – 92) and All About Me (2002 – 04)—and more recently as the creator and sole writer of the historical crime dramas Peaky Blinders (2013 – present) and Taboo (2017 – present). He was also one of the original creators of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? in the late 90s. His film work is similarly varied, from romantic comedies to contemporary thrillers to historical dramas, and all sorts of stuff in between. He’s written small indie films like Woman Walks Ahead (2017) and action extravaganzas like Seventh Son (2014). His screenplays have been brought to the screen by various big-name directors: Michael Apted’s Amazing Grace (2006); Lasse Hallstrom’s The Hundred-Foot Journey and Edward Zwick’s Pawn Sacrifice (both 2014); Robert Zemeckis’s Allied (2016). The one thing Knight has done very little is to direct his own scripts; before Locke, his only directing credits were a few episodes of his comedy series The Detectives in the mid-90s and the unconventional Jason Statham action vehicle Hummingbird, which came out earlier in 2013. Overall, the critical and commercial reaction to his film work has been mixed, and interestingly, his most highly regarded movies as a screenwriter are also some of his earliest: Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things (2002) and David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises (2007)—both chillingly effective thrillers about the dangerous, off-the-books London underworld where organized crime and illegal immigrant communities intersect. But no matter how his words have been translated to the screen, he’s always been impressively versatile, with a natural writer’s instinct for expressive dialogue and sound dramatic structure.

Those talents are perfectly suited to a self-consciously limited movie like Locke, which conveys story beats and character development mainly through dialogue, and which must be carefully structured to keep us from getting lost or losing interest. Knight handles it with the assuredness of a veteran storyteller, beginning with a doozy of a premise: Ivan, ultra-competent construction manager and dedicated family man, had a one-night stand several months ago with a woman he barely knows named Bethan—the only major mistake in his eminently respectable life, which fate has now contrived to make him pay for in the worst possible way. Bethan has gone into premature labor, so now, as Ivan drives to London to be there for the birth, he will be on his Bluetooth car phone juggling three closely intertwined crises: her childbirth and its complications; the reaction of his blissfully unsuspecting wife and sons; and his attempts to coach his colleagues through preparations for the biggest concrete pour (excluding nuclear and military) in European history, for which he will now, suddenly, be absent. That’s a lot to set up, but Knight’s dialogue does so clearly and naturally; the major plot threads are all established quickly, yet the characters rarely sound like they’re explaining things only for the sake of the audience. An initial suspension of disbelief is necessary—that Bethan has gone into labor at this particular time, on the night before the pour—but it’s far less significant than most movies demand, and once you’ve made it, everything else follows quite plausibly: why the birth is premature, why Ivan hasn’t told his wife yet, how the pregnancy happened in the first place, everyone’s utter shock upon learning about it, the twists and pitfalls that arise and the steps Ivan takes to deal with them. The premise creates an ideal situation, a sort of narrative symbiosis in which realism and drama reinforce one another.

That symbiosis is far from inevitable, however; Knight makes a number of smart decisions in the way he structures the story, maintaining a consistent, highly effective narrative balance that enhances both realism and dramatic payoff. Tension steadily mounts as the main narrative threads feed off one another: the increasingly dire complications with Bethan’s pregnancy, the increasing anger of Ivan’s wife, Katrina, as the truth settles in; the increasing uneasiness of his sons as they realize that something’s not right; and the increasingly complex problems that he has to help his subordinate, Donal, to solve—all growing more intense in tandem. But it’s not just a slow build to a final unraveling, which might seem too contrived; we also have smaller-scale detours in the narrative that make it seem more natural. A significant plot point—Ivan losing his job—happens fairly early on, and his frantic attempt to secure a road closure permit is begun and concluded in a similarly brief time. Knight also includes, along with main supporting players, a handful of other characters from whom we hear only once: an apathetic police officer, a friendly but harried doctor, a splendidly annoyed city official and a subtly judgmental nun. These third-tier characters, if you will, make Ivan’s ordeal feel more grounded in the real world, and contribute a lot to the occasional hints of Kafkaesque comedy in the story. (In the third act, the car itself becomes a character of sorts, its monotonously chipper declarations of “You have a call waiting” landing almost like slaps across the face as Ivan struggles to keep a grip on things.)

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We can also see that balance in the way Knight handles the principal storylines: not simply rotating through them, which would come to feel overly schematic, but never staying away from any one long enough that we lose track of how it’s progressing. Instead, he’ll put one thread on the back burner for a bit, developing the other two more deeply; it feels more organic, but it’s also carefully calibrated, creating a subtle spike in tension when a storyline that we’ve half forgotten about rears its head again—a call comes in with the associated name on the screen and we think, “Oh god, that’s right, he’s got that to deal with, too!” This happens over and over again, but Knight ensures that it never becomes a slog. Ivan is subjected to a pretty relentless cascade of anger and grief from these people, but individually, it’s hard to blame them for reacting the way they do. This, along with Ivan’s steadfast refusal to make excuses or claim that he somehow hasn’t done them wrong, ensure that they never quite come across like a chorus of tormentors, unfairly ganging up on our intrepid hero.

Which makes sense, because the same realistic balance is the defining characteristic of Ivan himself. Like most people in the real world, he’s a man “whose strengths and weaknesses are so bound together that it’s difficult to know where one ends and one begins,” as critic Mick LaSalle writes. “This is someone with a strong will, but too strong; who has confidence, but too much; who is honest, but sometimes ought to think about lying; and whose sense of responsibility is so pristine that he’s about to nail himself to a cross.”[iv] The plot reflects this complexity, as the aura of competence and dependability that Ivan has so assiduously cultivated ends up being a double-edged sword: it allows him to call in two favors, from the city official and from an old construction worker friend, that help to save the concrete pour, but it also means that his confession comes as an especially brutal shock to his wife, who never imagined that he’d do anything of the sort. His adherence to his principles is commendable, but it sometimes rises to absurd levels: when his wife asks him if he still wants a work-related phone number, he won’t lie or betray his other responsibilities even though it seems likely to cost him his marriage. His refusal to be like his alcoholic, absentee father has been the driving force behind his success so far, and is now leading him down a path likely to tear it all down.

Knight isn’t reinventing the wheel when it comes to character psychology; Ivan’s conviction that order and stability can be constructed out of even the worst situation, the attendant reverence for concrete as the ultimate material for making that happen, and its source in his hatred for his father—none of it is necessarily groundbreaking, but it is coherent and skillfully portrayed. Knight’s one misstep, in my opinion, is the inclusion of Ivan’s monologues to his imagined father in the back seat. I understand the inclination, but they don’t really tell us much that isn’t communicated elsewhere, and they have a stagey quality that the movie, powered as it is almost entirely by dialogue, otherwise does a remarkably good job of avoiding. But that’s a very minor quibble; necessary or not, the monologues are still forcefully written (you can imagine Knight’s reluctance to kill those particular darlings) and Tom Hardy still makes them into compelling viewing.

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Which brings us to the second key factor in Locke’s success. If a movie limited to a single face in a single location is going to work, it needs an exceptional performance to anchor it, and Hardy gives that and then some. Acting exclusively with his voice, face and hands, he nails the emotional beats of the story, vividly portraying coolheaded authority, tortured confession, fierce introspection, wrenching devastation and everything in between. Even confined to the driver’s seat, his inherent onscreen magnetism is undiminished; he holds our attention as completely as any actor with a normal range of motion. Ivan’s mellifluous Welsh accent was apparently Hardy’s idea, and it’s a perfect fit for a character who has built his entire identity around being competent and dependable. Hardy makes him an endlessly watchable and appealing protagonist, one whose obvious decency makes him easy to root for even when he’s making mistakes, or doing things that seem to border on self-sabotage. We like him because this is how most of us like to think of ourselves, at least at our best: capable, reliable, even-tempered, able to face adversity with aplomb.

At the same time, however, Ivan doesn’t come across as a one-dimensionally virtuous, perfectly unflappable hero. He’s defined by his sangfroid and professionalism, but he wouldn’t seem human if he never bent under the pressure. In moments of acute vulnerability, Hardy shows the toll this is taking on Ivan, and we see him trying to work through that along with everything else; he struggles to keep himself focused and under control, but he doesn’t always succeed: cracks appear in his unruffled facade, and his conflation of what he’s doing with the physical act of building eventually becomes sort of strange. And while Hardy embodies all the admirable qualities we mentioned, as David Edelstein writes: “The low boil is his natural state… Civilized as Locke is, nothing can soften Hardy’s innate volatility. He never seems still, even when his face is immobile, even when he’s trying so carefully to modulate his tone.”[v] This aspect of Hardy’s performance helps to connect us with Ivan on a deeper level, despite his specificity and exceptionality. I’m not British, don’t have a wife or kids, know nothing about concrete, and will probably never drive a BMW X5, but that vague undercurrent of restlessness, discontentment and regret feels deeply universal.

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We should also note that while Hardy delivers the tour de force that the movie needs, his performance isn’t the only one. The supporting actors are never seen, of course, but you’re probably more familiar with them than you realize. The voice of Bethan is Olivia Colman, who later played the pregnant spymaster in The Night Manager (2017) and won an Oscar for The Favourite last year. Ruth Wilson, who plays Katrina, had a starring role in The Affair (2014 – 18), and played the brilliant sociopath Alice Morgan in the British crime series Luther. The voice of Donal is Andrew Scott, better known as the wildly psychotic Jim Moriarty in Sherlock. Ben Daniels, who plays Ivan’s boss, was that photographer who had an affair with—and then inevitably had his life ruined by—Claire Underwood in House of Cards. And Ivan’s older son, Eddie, is none other than Tom Holland, now known round the world as the young Spider-Man in the great Marvel extravaganza. These are accomplished actors, and they make their characters’ personalities and emotions vividly felt, given the limited tools they have to work with. Knight set up the production to aid in this, devoting the first of two weeks to rehearsals and then filming the whole thing twice each night, with Hardy cruising down the real motorway in a car mounted on a flatbed truck, making real-time phone calls to the other actors, who were gathered in a conference room. They stopped only for cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos to change the memory cards, every 35 minutes or so; otherwise, Knight had them to perform it like a play, dealing with any irregularities in real time—surely a reason why the conversations sound especially natural and free-flowing.[vi]

The work of Zambarloukos and his crew is the third key factor in Locke’s success. It turns out there are a lot of ways to film a single journey on the motorway, and Zambarloukos captures it in widely varied, often beautiful images. Shooting with three cameras simultaneously, he changed the lenses when he changed the memory cards, and changed the camera angles for each run-through, generating what must have been a daunting amount of material to sift through. The production’s secret weapon is editor Justine Wright, who assembles all that footage in consistently creative ways, cutting quickly between disparate perspectives and often laying multiple shots over one another, resulting in a movie that, given its narrow scope, is quite visually compelling. And this approach has thematic significance; as Ty Burr writes, “Locke also intercuts skillfully and rhythmically between close-ups of its hero and the visual night music of England’s motorways. Occasionally the patternings of headlights, taillights, road signs and slipstream metal blur with a surreal beauty. It’s a universe that could so easily slip out of control, and all a man can do is grip the steering wheel tighter.”[vii] Headlights drift across the frame, so far out of focus that they appear as oval discs of light, while cars and signs pass by at odd, almost abstract angles, often layered over clearer images of Ivan at the wheel—a visual representation of his weakening grip on life outside of the car. Wright also creates visual parallels with the course of the narrative. At the beginning, we cut often to Ivan’s GPS navigation screen, which shows him moving along a straight, clearly defined path. But these images fade away as the movie progresses, and in the second half, we begin to get shots of the motorway from a static position, not moving along with the cars, again reflecting that loss of control.

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The visuals also express some deeper themes that Knight is exploring. The story may be narrowly focused, but Locke also gets at something fundamental about the way we live now, about the isolation and alienation that we often feel even as the world grows more interconnected. Ivan is deeply connected to other people, at times oppressively so, yet he spends the whole movie alone with his electronic devices, cocooned in a metal box as the world outside grows increasingly confusing and unmanageable. And on a separate but related note, Locke also examines, indirectly but powerfully, a certain unforgiving quality that persists in modern adult life. Ivan moves through an ill-defined, increasingly abstract blur of civilization, watching the place that he’s built for himself within it gradually crumble away. As he says to Donal during an impassioned speech about the purity of concrete, “You make one mistake, Donal, one little fucking mistake, and the whole world comes crashing down around you.” Perhaps this is something felt more strongly by younger generations like Ivan’s young Gen-Xers and my Millennials, whose entire adult lives have been spent in a cynical context: rising income inequality, worsening climate change, loss of old notions of financial security, ever more extensive documentation of everything we do, and so on. Life seems to keep getting freer and more comfortable, but there’s still a persistent sense that it can all be upended if you step too far out of line. Grow up poor, or didn’t get into a good college? The deck is already stacked against you. Get fired from a job, or get a bad review from a past employer? That’ll follow you around for the rest of your career. Make one mistake on the road? Say hello to a massive deductible and jacked-up premiums. Have trouble with rent, or get a bad review from a landlord? Good luck finding another decent place to live. Fall behind on student loans or credit card payments? You’ll be paying for it the rest of your working life.

It’s not as bad as all that, of course; heck, the world is probably more forgiving now than it ever has been in human history. And yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that, as in Locke, there’s very little latitude for any kind of major screw-up.

And a movie manages to explore such deep and tricky themes in just 85 minutes, showing only a guy in a car—all the while keeping you riveted from minute to minute? Knight, Hardy and their collaborators outdid themselves.

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© Harrison Swan, 2019

[i] My favorite example is the 20th-century French writer Georges Perec, who wrote a grammatically correct, 300-page novel without using the letter ‘e’—then wrote another one using only ‘e’ and no other vowels. You don’t even have to be familiar with the language; just look at any paragraph of regular written French and you’ll appreciate how mind-boggling that is.

[ii] Pretty interesting, if you’re interested: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Real_time_(media)#Film_and_television

[iii] Examples taken, if you’re interested, from this internet list of movies carried by a single actor. I’ve only seen a few of them, but they all look interesting, even if they aren’t all masterpieces like Locke: https://brightside.me/wonder-films/14-movies-with-only-one-amazing-actor-248910/

[iv] For the rest of this good review: https://www.sfgate.com/entertainment/article/Locke-review-Tom-Hardy-on-the-open-road-5445558.php

[v] Good, insightful reviews are just great: https://www.vulture.com/2014/04/movie-review-locke.html

[vi] Most of these fun facts about the production found in this informative review: https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/moviesnow/la-et-mn-locke-review-20140425-story.html

[vii] More good reading: https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/movies/2014/05/08/locke-lets-tom-hardy-face-tell-story/kdAjKyGTu44ryyimshk02J/story.html