The Thin Red Line (1998)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Harrison Swan, 2021

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

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



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

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


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

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

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


Take Shelter (2011)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Harrison Swan, 2021



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

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Harrison Swan, 2021

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

[ii] Scott gets it, as always:

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

[iv] Burr gets it, too:

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Live (China, 1994)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Harrison Swan, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spotlight (2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Harrison Swan, 2021

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

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

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

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

[v] Another good review, by David Edelstein:

[vi] The Boston Globe’s own review!

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

The Witch (2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Harrison Swan, 2021

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

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

Gattaca (1997)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Harrison Swan, 2020

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

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

From Janet Maslin of the New York Times:

From Roger Ebert:

And from Valerie Kalfrin:

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.


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.


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.)


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.


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.


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.”


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:

[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:

[iii] Another terrifically insightful video essay, which explores how and why Fincher does this in greater detail:

[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.” (

[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:

From Manohla Dargis at the New York Times:

And from Sean Fennessy and Chris Ryan at Grantland:

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]


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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:

[ii] This video essay is quite helpful in detailing how Sheridan’s work helps defines the Neo-Western:

[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.



[vi] Get past the inane Oscar politics of the first several paragraphs, and this is a pretty interesting article:

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.


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.


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.


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.


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]


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.


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: