Locke (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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© Harrison Swan, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Nice Guys (2016)

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In the past few months, we’ve discussed (at length!) some pretty heady and heavy stuff—deeply nuanced, important films with penetrating insights about the human condition. So this month, I wanted to take a bit of a break, and take look at a straightforwardly enjoyable, recent movie that may have slipped beneath many people’s radar. As you’ll know if you’ve seen it, The Nice Guys is not a capital-G Great movie. It doesn’t have stunning stylistic masterstrokes, brilliant performances that shake you to the emotional core, or anything especially profound to say about the world. It’s just fun, well made, and appealingly retro—as Justin Chang writes, “a cheerfully aimless plunge into the scuzzy noir soul of 1970s Los Angeles.”[i] It’s also a loving homage to the ‘buddy cop’ subgenre that thrived in that flashy, rather ridiculous decade: set in the same time period and featuring the same sorts of sleazy locales and characters, while also managing to be, in some ways, better and more interesting than many of those movies it’s paying homage to.

Right from the get-go, it’s clear what kind of movie this is going to be. We open drifting over a Southern California nightscape of yesteryear—wrecked Hollywood sign, darkened hills and glistening urban sprawl—with a soundtrack of smoothly twanging guitars and bass. Our title, The Nice Guys, appears in the rounded, triple-bar font particular to the era, and as we zoom in on one of the houses in the hills, a subtitle informs us, almost unnecessarily, that we’re in Los Angeles, 1977. And man, are we ever in Los Angeles, 1977. In the house, a meandering glass box full of sickly color tones, a shaggy-haired boy swipes a porn magazine from beneath his parents’ bed. As he admires a full-page spread of an actress named Misty Mountains, a car careens off the road behind him, bounces down the hillside, and crashes spectacularly through the house. It’s a slapstick sort of moment, but the immediate aftermath doesn’t play for laughs: the kid hurries down to the wreck, only to find the selfsame actress, Misty Mountains, bloodied, topless and splayed out on a rock in a queasy echo of the magazine photo. She speaks some enigmatic dying words, and in a tender moment, the shaken kid pulls off his shirt and covers her exposed chest. It’s a solid setup for a noir-ish mystery, and one that succinctly captures what the movie is all about: cars and porn, defining features of the setting that will figure prominently in the plot; pitch-black comedy that’s effective in both traditional and unconventional ways; and a distinctive portrayal of violence that’s entertaining, but also more self-aware and, in its own way, more honest than we normally see onscreen.

At this point, it might help to know a bit about the artist behind all this, the director and co-writer of The Nice Guys: an interesting, offbeat, cleverly irreverent dude named Shane Black. He’s had an unusual career, floating between the periphery and the center of mainstream American cinema for the past thirty years, and even if you don’t know the name, chances are you’re more familiar with Black’s work than you realize. He first rose to prominence in 1987 as the writer of Lethal Weapon, the hit action-comedy that begat a hugely successful franchise. (He co-wrote Lethal Weapon 2 as well, but left the series when the studio demanded significant changes, ending up with only a story credit.) An occasional actor, he also had his most substantial onscreen role around this time—as the bespectacled, most quickly expendable member of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s squad in the original, so-bad-it’s-kind-of-awesome Predator. He went on to write The Last Boy Scout (1991), Last Action Hero (1993), and The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), all of which, however they’ve come to be judged since, flopped hard enough at the time to remove him from Hollywood’s good graces. But he found his way back in 2005, directing his own script for the fist time with the excellent Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and joined the endless Marvel extravaganza with Iron Man 3 in 2013. The subject matter is varied, but there are common elements running through Black’s best work: clever subversions of genre tropes; colorful characters spouting rich, witty dialogue; and (superhero trappings of Iron Man 3 notwithstanding) the kind of seedy settings that often attract such people.

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Which leads us to 2016 and The Nice Guys, a movie that leans heavily into these defining elements of Black’s aesthetic, especially the inspiration he takes from classic film noir. The same can also be said of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, another zany, infectiously entertaining quasi-detective story. I’m writing about The Nice Guys because I think it’s slightly more accessible, while still being, as Mike Ryan writes, “probably the Shane Black-est of all the Shane Black movies.”[ii] I think it makes a good introduction to Black for those not familiar with his work—it did for me, anyway.

In typical noir fashion, that cryptic opening scene is our gateway into a mystery of sorts, involving anti-pollution activists, quirky mobsters, imposing government officials, and shady pornographers. Apparently the major car companies are trying to suppress new technology that would reduce emissions, everyone connected to a mysterious film is dying, no one is on the side we think they are… it’s hard to keep track of, but even that is, in a way, faithful to Black’s film-noir inspirations. After watching Chinatown, do we remember every detail of the conspiracy that Jack Nicholson uncovers? Probably not—I certainly don’t—but the fundamentals stick with you: large-scale corruption, and the twisted family dynamics at the heart of it. Same deal here; we get the general idea. The big corporations are getting away with some harmful shenanigans, the powers that be may be in on it, and everyone’s looking for a missing young woman who knows the truth. Black has fun building his elaborate tangle of twists, turns and double-crosses, but crucially, The Nice Guys doesn’t subscribe to the brutally bleak worldview that defines many classics like Chinatown. Because Black isn’t just making a noir mystery; he’s also making a comedy, and the convoluted plot plays into that, with many of the twists more likely to provoke an amused chuckle than a shocked gasp. Not to mention the fact that it often veers into the ridiculous; this is a mystery in which a major revelation is a scheme to hide damning evidence inside an ‘experimental’ art film—which the makers have to keep insisting is not a porno.

In any case, the details of the plot don’t matter that much in the end. The Nice Guys is a mystery and a comedy, but more than anything else, it’s a so-called ‘buddy cop’ story. And as is often the case in these movies, be they serious thrillers or comedies like this one, the main pleasure lies not so much in solving the mystery as in spending time with the colorful personalities who accompany us on the journey. And Black nails this aspect of it; no character is entirely original, but they’re all engaging and, for the most part, fun to be around despite the litany of violence, stupidity, and general recklessness on display.

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The most important characters, obviously, are our two protagonists, the mismatched investigators whom fate brings together to solve the mystery. As in many buddy cop comedies, neither is an actual cop, and both are pretty miserable—one drifting numbly through life and one in the process of spectacularly flaming out. The straight man of the duo, to the extent that we have one, is Jackson Healy, an impassive local tough guy who will beat up anybody for the right price. He’s good at it, capable of deft bits of violent athleticism when he needs to be, but every other aspect of his life is in shambles. Still reeling from a romantic betrayal so outrageous that it slides into hilarity, he now lives with a few pet fish in a dingy bachelor pad, going aimlessly through the motions of day-to-day life, resigned to the fact that there’s no real way to be a good person using his particular skill set. He makes a good foil for Holland March, a small-time private investigator who’s been a bumbling, booze-addled mess since his wife died, and wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed to begin with (though he’d be the last to recognize that). March does show occasional flashes of real acuity, but they’re few and far between; we get the sense that he could probably be a decent investigator if only he could pull himself together, making his teenage daughter’s frustration all the more relatable.

It’s a familiar sort of pairing for a buddy cop movie, in more ways than one: we have the jaded, highly competent veteran with a lonely home life, awkwardly matched with an overconfident younger partner; and we also have two guys whom most of polite society would view as scumbags, teaming up to try and do the right thing. But Black is a skilled enough storyteller to know that solid, efficient characterization can more than make up for a lack of originality. He got to this point as a writer first and foremost, and he and his co-writer, Anthony Bagarozzi, have a knack for finding simple phrases and scenes that concisely tell us a great deal about a character. When we first meet Healy, he tells us, “I was in love once. Marriage is buying a house for someone you hate,” and we see him interrupt a scared young woman’s expressions of gratitude to inform her that she’s seven dollars short on her payment. Meanwhile, our first glimpse of March finds him in a bathtub… still wearing a full suit. He stumbles out of it too late to answer a phone call, finds a message written on his hand (‘You will never be happy’), and muses in voice-over: “I wish I wished for things, man.” So within a few minutes of meeting both these guys, we already have a basic sense of what they’re about. A few scenes further along, we’ve seen the lonely tedium of Healy’s daily routine, witnessed March’s lack of scruples about bilking clueless clients, learned the relevant bits of their respective back-stories. It all feels like standard, easygoing setup, but a lesser filmmaker would have needed a lot more time to give us this basic sense of the misery and ennui defining these characters. Black ensures that before the first twenty-odd minutes are up, we have a pretty clear understanding of who our protagonists are and how they came to be such screw-ups—setting us up to get the most out of the interplay between them and their exploits in the caper to follow.

A not-insignificant part of the protagonists’ appeal also has to do with the actors portraying them. Both are well-known stars, but mostly for more serious roles; they aren’t necessarily the first ones you’d think of as comic leads, and there’s a nice undercurrent of novelty in watching them venture a bit outside their normal wheelhouses. The role of Healy is only mildly against type for Russell Crowe; at this point in his long career, he’s played plenty of characters with a comic side to them in movies that wouldn’t classify as comedies—and Healy, with his existential melancholy, levelheaded competence and generally deadpan delivery, isn’t too different from them. Still, Crowe delivers those laugh lines like a pro, and when called upon, he displays a sharp sense of comic timing that I didn’t know he had.[iii]

As March, Ryan Gosling is more of a revelation; the character is inherently amusing, and there’s added fun in seeing him played by someone we know mostly from such wildly different roles. This is really the same guy we saw as a serious romantic lead—passionate heartthrob in The Notebook (2004), tragically self-destructive in Blue Valentine (2010)—or as a teacher barely keeping it together in Half Nelson (2006), or as the epitome of taciturn cool in Drive (2011) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017)? He’s been in more lighthearted movies (one was actually called La La Land) and even an all-out comedy: The Big Short in 2015—but that was a very different sort of movie, a satirical take on real events full of sharp, hyper-articulate characters. So it’s refreshing to see him play a character who’s kind of an idiot, who’s a train wreck at the outset and never really gets his act together, succeeding mostly through dumb luck. But it’s not just about novelty; Gosling turns out to be a genuinely adept physical comedian, most notably in a routine with a gun, a toilet stall door, and a strategically placed magazine, but also in the way he mines his character’s frequent drunkenness for laughs without ever quite overdoing it. He also has the rare ability to make a relatively normal line—one that doesn’t contain a clear joke—funny simply through inflection, as when he snaps at a cocky kid on a bike, “Nobody wants to see your dick, dude!” (In fact, one of the lines that made me laugh the hardest, for whatever reason, was just him drunkenly humming, “March, March, he’s our man; if he can’t do it, no one can!”)

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Moreover, as well as Crowe and Gosling hit their comedic marks, they’re also accomplished dramatic actors, able to make the most of the movie’s few moments of real sincerity and tenderness. When March hugs his daughter after she’s been in danger, Gosling makes it a touching reminder of the depth of his love for her, despite his myriad failings. And when Healy recalls the day he impulsively stopped a robbery, Crowe’s pitch-perfect delivery of the final line (“Just for a moment, I felt useful…”) is a poignant glimpse into the despondency at the heart of the character. These are fleeting moments, but important ones, encouraging us to care about these characters more than we typically might in a silly comedy like this.

This creative generosity extends to the minor characters as well; they aren’t as fully developed as the protagonists, but Black and Bagarozzi take care to make them more colorful and interesting than run-of-the-mill supporting players in the genres they’re riffing on. The clearest example is March’s daughter Holly, who seems on paper like a cliché. In a movie like this, a teenage daughter is usually a cheap and easy way to accomplish two things: a) to engender sympathy for an otherwise unlikable protagonist, or b) to embody innocence and goodness, helping us keep our moral bearings. But Holly is more three-dimensional than that: smart and resourceful, still dealing (in more mature fashion) with the same tragedy that’s sent her father spiraling, and eagerly inserting herself into his work until she becomes a sort of third partner in the investigation, steering March towards his better detective instincts and making a few valuable contributions of her own. It all works because of a winning performance by the young actress Angourie Rice, who captures these many facets of the character while still making Holly a recognizable 13-year-old—precocious but not unrealistically so. (In a rare instance of Hollywood authenticity, Rice was actually somewhat close to her character’s age at the time, making her performance all the more impressive.) Meanwhile, the character still fulfills those standard thematic functions, just not in a way that feels forced or unnatural. She does engender sympathy for the hapless March, but she also makes mistakes of her own, sometimes acting nearly as reckless as he does. She provides a moral check on our protagonists, but doesn’t come across as naive or preachy because she isn’t demanding sainthood, just basic decency: don’t break bones for money, don’t be shitfaced all the time, don’t profit off of senile old ladies, don’t kill people in cold blood, etc.

Even the lower-tier supporting players are more memorable than such characters typically are, the actors clearly enjoying the chance to bring some color to what would normally be filler roles. The missing young woman, Amelia, spends most of the movie off-screen as an elusive person of interest, but when we finally do meet her, Margaret Qualley gets to play more than a helpless damsel in distress. She’s afraid of the danger she’s in and correct about the conspiracy she’s trying to expose, but in a nice comic twist, she’s also pretty insufferable about it, self-righteous as only a rich kid in rebellion can be, at one point exclaiming to her rescuers, “God, have you been living under a rock?!” Keith David and Beau Knapp, playing your standard henchmen, get to swing from comically blundering to genuinely threatening and back again. Same for Yaya DaCosta as the executive assistant Tally, who goes from an innocent bureaucrat in over her head to a stone-cold killer completely at home in this amoral world. Even Matt Bomer, whose role as the dangerous John Boy consists mostly of fighting and shooting people, manages to convey some real menace in his character’s few lines. (The exception, oddly enough, is Kim Basinger, the most famous face in the cast after the two leads, who doesn’t get to be much more than a blandly corrupt government higher-up, her dialogue limited mostly to narrative exposition.)

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Still, it takes more than colorful characters to make a movie funny, and however you feel about the particular jokes and gags, it’s worth looking at Black’s approach to comedy, which is inventive and wide-ranging—a clever mix traditional elements and upended expectations. Over the course of the movie, we come across many classic comedy tropes. In a brief flashback, Crowe does one of the better spit takes I’ve ever seen. An invasion of his apartment is interrupted by a well-timed encounter with a booby-trapped bag, leaving one goon with a blue face for the rest of the movie. When Healy and March throw a dead body over a fence, it lands, predictably but still hilariously, in the middle of a dinner party. We’ve already mentioned Gosling’s bathroom stall routine; he also does an excellent, drawn-out double take upon discovering the corpse in the dark—which, in turn, leads into another good mini-routine, as he tries to scream while still too horrified to catch his breath. There are conventional jokes that wouldn’t be out of place in most comedies—“You know who else was just following orders? Hitler!”—and a few amusing, slightly meta side conversations, like when a smitten March refuses to accept that the gorgeous Tally is working with the bad guys (“You don’t know her upbringing!” he protests, as Healy gently tries to point out the obvious).

At the same time, though, Black gets just as much, if not more, comedic value from non-traditional gags—the blindsiding curveballs and the genre conventions cleverly turned on their heads. This is a defining element of Black’s aesthetic: his unique ability to create comedy in surprising ways, at unexpected moments. When Healy breaks March’s arm, an act of clinical cruelty turns comical with the high-pitched wail Gosling lets out in response. A fight breaks out at a party and an innocent bystander gets shot, but the guy turns out to be situated atop a ridiculous tree costume. When Amelia is explaining the big conspiracy, she melodramatically sighs and falls back on the bed, only to whack her head on the headboard. An early scene of March punching through a window to break into a bar plays at first as a demonstration of cool competence—until he slices his wrist and winds up in the hospital. Black even slips in a random, far-out hallucination, when March falls asleep at the wheel and finds himself talking to an enormous bee (voiced by the peerless comedian Hannibal Buress, of all people!) before crashing the car. It’s hilariously bizarre, and it serves a narrative purpose, revealing that Tally has given them a briefcase full of fake money. That last one, in particular, is classic Shane Black; he likes to arrive at important or predictable plot points, but in strange, roundabout ways that the even the characters seem somewhat bewildered by. It’s not too shocking for Healy and March to find a person of interest dead at a party, but they only do so because March takes a surprise drunken tumble off a balcony. In the shootout at March’s house, John Boy doesn’t manage to kill Amelia, only to have her flag him down as she tries to escape. When Tally is holding Healy and March at gunpoint, Holly attempts a classic surprise attack by throwing coffee on her, and it fails because the coffee is cold, then ends up working after all when Tally slips and knocks herself out.

Moments like these also exemplify another defining aspect of Black’s work: his distinctive portrayal of violence. Action, and the violence that comes with it, have been staples of cinema since the beginning, but even when they’re done well, there’s a certain flavor of realism that’s often missing. A fight or a shootout might be incredible, and yet a small part of us that might reasonably think: This is all too neat. All that kinetic mayhem, and somehow nobody runs into anything, nobody fumbles their gun, nobody trips or twists their ankle or stubs their toe. ‘Clean’ action like that, well put together, is a beautiful thing to behold—I’ll surely write in the future about movies that do exactly that—but it’s not the only way to make violence entertaining; a significant source of humor in The Nice Guys is the way the conventions of standard, graceful movie violence are tweaked and subverted. Black has a unique talent for this; who else would think to have Tally neutralized in such a bizarre way? Who else would have March try and toss a gun to Healy in the middle of a shootout and flub it, hurling the gun through a window instead? Who else would have Healy awkwardly whack his foot on a table after leaping athletically into the room?[iv]

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That’s not to say the action in The Nice Guys is realistic; what we see is still the stuff of a wild caper, taking place firmly in a fictional movie world. But it does feel more honest than most movie violence in the sense that it’s realistically messy and awkward, and that makes it distinctive in its impact. It’s funny, as we’ve seen, but I think Black is also trying to capture what real-life violence might feel like, especially for those of us who don’t encounter it much or at all—chaotic and arbitrary, a bizarre, inelegant rupture in normal life.

That’s a minor but relatively profound message in a silly comedy, and the ending demonstrates further that Black wants to leave us with a bit to think about. The conspiracy is exposed, a corrupt official goes to jail, and things are looking up for our protagonists. But all those people still died, the big corporate villains got off scot-free, and the broader antagonistic forces at work in the story keep on rolling with only the mildest of blows having been struck against them. They’re still rolling today; misogyny is still very much a thing, large-scale corruption still goes mostly unpunished, and as anyone who’s been to Los Angeles knows, that smog is definitely still a problem—with a whole lot more at stake these days than a few choking birds. When all is said and done, our heroes’ exploits didn’t make that much difference.

At least they had a good time doing it, and we had a good time watching.

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© Harrison Swan, 2019

[i] For the rest of this very good review: https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-nice-guys-review-20160515-snap-story.html

[ii] Another fun and insightful review: https://uproxx.com/movies/the-nice-guys-review/

[iii] For an entertaining discussion of this and other comedic elements in the movie by Bill Burr and Joe DeRosa—actual comedians who really know what they’re talking about—check out this podcast clip (from about 1:42 onwards): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LDvDa0smIMQ

[iv] This excellent video essay by Evan Puschak—whose ‘Nerdwriter’ channel is one of the best things on YouTube—goes into even more engrossing detail about Shane Black and his approach to movie violence: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GKiQs1dE0Tc

Memories of Murder (South Korea, 2003)

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There’s a key life lesson, handed down in different ways by both my parents, that forms the core of my politics and my views about authority in general. For thirty years, my father was the director of a small boys’ summer camp, where I worked as a counselor almost every year into my late twenties. Most evenings during the pre-season ‘Staff Week,’ we would hold semi-formal class sessions about our duties for the upcoming summer. When we discussed leading camping trips, my dad had a phrase that he always used, and which reflected his overall view of the job: “Everything is fine, until it isn’t.” He was talking about good judgment, about maintaining, even in the context of having a good time, a keen awareness that we’re in charge of these kids and responsible for their safety. Maybe they want to wrestle, jump into the water from a high place, or whatever else. It seems a bit reckless, but probably okay, and you don’t want to be an overbearing killjoy, either. And it probably will be fine… unless it isn’t, and then you’re out in the wilderness with a serious situation on your hands, suddenly in real danger of failing in that core responsibility. Which simply isn’t worth it.

My mother, who also ran the camp, would certainly agree, and she came by her convictions in another way, too. She grew up in central Louisiana, moved to Boston after college, and has never returned except to visit her family. She says that even before meeting my dad, she felt no great urge to move back; when I was only starting middle school, she had already lived up north longer than she ever had in Louisiana, and would already have identified more as a New Englander than a Southerner. As a native and (eventually) committed Mainer, I found that hard to fathom, the seeming ease with which she could leave her homeland behind. It’s not like she hates Louisiana; there was no great trauma to drive her away, and only the most uptight snob would impugn the state’s artistic and culinary sensibilities. But in keeping with her law-school education and local-level activism, she was put off by the state’s politics, enough to preclude settling there permanently. It wasn’t necessarily about conservatism, or the tortured, far-from-resolved struggles with racism and class conflict—you’ll find those issues everywhere to some extent, and she would probably have relished the challenge of being the opposition in a deep-red state, as most of her family members have done. What she found hard to stomach was a broader political culture, defined on both sides of the aisle by messy populism and deep-seated corruption. Elected officials of all stripes display a Berlusconi-like ability to stay in (or even rise to) power amid all manner of scandal and malfeasance. My uncle, in his musical Southern drawl, summed up Louisiana politics with a single incisive phrase: “If you ain’t indicted, you ain’t invited.” My mom said that many people, like her relatives, deplore this old-school, easygoing corruption but feel helpless to change it, while far too many others shrug it off as one of the state’s amusing quirks. Maybe some money gets siphoned off, maybe some regulations slip through the cracks, maybe a few positions go to well-connected people who aren’t the most qualified—but that’s just the way we do things here, and it’s harmless anyway, all in good fun, something to shake your head and chuckle at. And most of the time, it is. But then something deadly serious happens (Hurricane Katrina comes to mind) and that shoddy state of affairs suddenly has real ramifications. And it isn’t funny anymore; the state isn’t prepared, the resources aren’t there, and what you end up with is people suffering unnecessarily, because the institutions aren’t functioning the way they’re supposed to.

None of this has anything to do with South Korean cinema, or the artistry of the great director Bong Joon-ho. But similar convictions are at the soulful heart of Memories of Murder, Bong’s strangely masterful 2003 thriller about a rural district terrorized by a serial killer.

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At a glance, there’s little to indicate how nuanced, how intellectually rich, this movie is. The title resembles the tag line of an old-timey pulp thriller (Memories…of Murder!!), and in broad strokes, the movie seems like a Korean version of your typical whodunit mystery. A country town visited by savage violence; an elusive master criminal one step ahead of his police pursuers; a string of female victims raped and strangled with their own undergarments; a pair of mismatched detectives who eventually learn key lessons from one another—we’ve been here before, on CSI and Law & Order, and in countless big-screen detective stories. And Memories of Murder largely works on the same terms as its sensationalist cousins. There are unexpected twists and dramatic arrests, tense interrogations and heated debates between competing interests within the police force. The slow-building sequences of the killer stalking his next victim are as bone-chilling as in any slasher flick (I wonder if many Koreans who saw this were ever able to look at a fully-grown rice paddy quite the same way again). We get a sense of the detectives’ increasing obsession with the case and the psychological toll that it takes on them. There are oh-shit moments when they realize that another attack is imminent, and clever bits of investigative work that reveal genuinely interesting new clues and insights. The standard thrills and chills of the genre are there, and undeniably effective.

In this director’s hands, it could hardly be otherwise. Chances are you’ve never heard of Bong Joon-ho, but in the film world, he’s widely considered to be one of the most talented and idiosyncratic directors working today. Memories of Murder was only his second feature, and he’s known mostly for his subsequent efforts: the soulful monster flick The Host (2006), the twist-filled thriller Mother (2009), and most recently Snowpiercer (2013) and Okja (2017), big-budget international productions that are still defined by the director’s offbeat sensibilities. But even back in 2003, he had already honed his skills and found his voice. His style is distinctive, but not so defined by certain techniques as that of some directors, even great ones. He’ll use anything: quick-cutting handheld shots or long, intricate single takes; hectic cacophonies or quiet, precise sound design; smooth dollies or artfully framed static shots in deep focus. Yet it doesn’t feel like desperation, throwing different things up on the screen to keep us interested—just a director in firm command of the medium, making judicious use of all the tools available to him.

Bong’s prodigious skills are apparent even at the surface level. With no CGI or big action set pieces, and using (as far as I can tell) no equipment more advanced than a Steadicam, he creates suspense as effectively as any Hollywood thriller. He’s fond of framing shots so that we can see some approaching danger while the subject can’t, a time-honored way to make audiences squirm. He also cuts to the true close-up noticeably less often than usual, so that when he does, we instinctively perk up and pay attention to what we’re seeing, whether it’s a character’s face or something else that we know to be significant, like a pair of boots, the hands of a mysterious figure, or (only once, at the very end) a gun. Equally effective is his use of sound design; at suspenseful moments he often makes limited use of music, instead finding the creepier dimensions of ostensibly normal sounds: pattering rain, vegetation rustling in the wind, or footsteps on pavement. Even the movie’s lone chase sequence, which features no special effects or crazy stunts (it’s really just three guys running after another guy) is still pretty exhilarating, thanks to a propulsive score and Bong’s adherence to the golden rule of action filmmaking: when you cut, don’t make the audience search around the frame for the thing they’re supposed to be focusing on.

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So that’s one level, the surface level: detectives on the hunt for a depraved killer. And yet, the movie never feels like just a murder mystery, does it? Not just a crime thriller, but…what, exactly? I can’t rightly say. It’s impossible to put a clear label on, yet somehow it’s not a thematic mess; every element has a purpose, the story moves forward with terrific momentum, and beneath the murky surface, it rings out with moral conviction.

Before getting any deeper into this, it helps to know a bit about the movie’s fascinating relationship to real events. I’m no expert on any of this, but the basic facts (imparted to me by Wikipedia, the testimony of a helpful Korean friend, and a few informative articles) are sufficient to appreciate what Bong is up to here. The movie is loosely based on a real-life serial murder case, the most famous in Korean history, in which ten women were killed in and around the city of Hwaseong in the late 1980s. Nothing like it had ever happened before in South Korea, where crime in general (at least of the non-government-atrocity variety) had always been fairly low, even in those days. There had been murders, of course, but never a high-profile serial killer with such grotesquely specific methods, seemingly lifted from a lurid crime story. And most importantly of all, as in the movie, the killer was never caught. The case has been understandably infamous ever since, comparable to that of the Zodiac killer in the United States.

The obvious mainstream analogue to Memories of Murder would be David Fincher’s 2007 Zodiac, and there are some similarities: both movies find meaning in a murder investigation that doesn’t lead to a satisfying resolution, and both re-create their respective settings with exquisite attention to detail. But whereas Fincher adheres precisely—even relentlessly—to the historical record and depicts some of the murders with almost sickening immediacy,[i] Bong’s approach is simultaneously freer and more restrained. He indulges far less in the standard gross-outs and voyeuristic shocks of the genre—to the point that we don’t actually see any of the murders in their gruesome entirety—and like the highly regarded stage play on which the movie is based, he takes enough liberties with the story to slide it into “Inspired by true events” territory. He doesn’t include all ten murders and condenses the time frame; the real Hwaseong killings occurred from 1986 to 1991, while Bong restricts the movie to a vaguely defined year or so around 1986-87. The real-life investigation also grew to absurd proportions, eventually involving over a million police officers and thousands of suspects, while Bong focuses on a smaller cast of fictional characters: the detectives Park, Seo and Cho,[ii] a few of their superiors and colleagues, and three different suspects. These adjustments make the sprawling source material more manageable, and give Bong more freedom to explore the unique social and political dimensions of the story.

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The key thing to understand is that the Hwaseong murders occurred, perhaps not coincidentally, at a particularly fraught moment in the nation’s history. The South Korea that most of us are familiar with is so hip and modern, it’s easy to forget (or, if you’re like me, not know in the first place) that until fairly recently, it was a deeply repressive state—one of your standard U.S.-backed military dictatorships of the Cold War era, holding the line in its part of the world against a Communist-aligned neighbor. There were different periods and different strongman rulers, but for ordinary people, it just meant different iterations of typical totalitarian misery. The late 1980s was the nation’s moment of rebirth, so to speak: a time of mass protests, violent crackdowns, and heightened tensions with the North—eventually leading to major reforms that set it on a path towards the liberal democracy we know today. Bong establishes this broader context clearly, but without distracting from the main story: lines of dialogue refer to unrest in nearby areas; the police chafe under pressure from protesters and newly emboldened journalists; crisis-preparation drills regularly grind life in town to a halt; and we catch a brief glimpse of riot police clashing with pro-democracy demonstrators. For the characters (and thus for us), the murder investigation is always the primary focus, yet the surrounding political turmoil is a persistent presence in the background, affecting their work at every turn.

This is the deeper level, where the movie becomes truly exceptional: the murder mystery as history lesson and political parable. It’s easy to see why Memories of Murder remains one of the most popular movies in South Korea, so profoundly (and entertainingly) does it capture the complex stew of emotions that people must feel about their country’s painful recent history.

Start with the fact that in the upheavals of the late 1980s, the police were firmly on the reactionary side of things; as Seonyong Cho writes, they were “one of the swords owned by the military dictatorship during that time, and if they wanted, it was a piece of cake for them to turn you into a criminal, or, even worse, a North Korean spy.”[iii] Our protagonists don’t quite come across like this; they don’t voice political opinions or participate in breaking up the demonstrations (except for the violent, short-fused Cho, who jumps at any opportunity to beat people up). In their sleepy backwater district, there’s little need for them to act as regime enforcers, but, inevitably, they’ve still internalized the mindset of an institution that functions that way. So when the bodies start turning up, they follow what has become their standard playbook: find a halfway plausible suspect, get a confession by any means necessary, and close the case as quickly as possible—because their top priority is not justice but stability, reassuring the public that the powers that be have things under control.

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One consequence of this is simple ineptitude, to the point that Park, a senior detective, claims he can identify criminals just by looking at them. Acting on a bit of gossip that his wife overheard, he and Cho arrest the mentally handicapped Kwang-ho and quickly wring a confession out of him, only to have it fall apart under the most basic scrutiny. And even after that fiasco, they don’t have better methods to fall back on: Park continues to insist that Korean detectives should “investigate with their feet” and is soon consulting fortune-tellers, pushing fanciful theories about hairless killers, and generally bending the facts into knots to conform to his latest instincts. But it’s not just a matter of a few bad detectives—having operated this way for so long, the police force as a whole is woefully ill equipped to handle a crime of this caliber. Their records are sloppy. Their cars are constantly breaking down. They still don’t have forensic technology that has long been available elsewhere. Bong establishes the sorry state of things early on when Park arrives at a murder site, and in the course of a hilarious two-minute shot, we see children run freely past the corpse, a key piece of evidence ruined just after it’s discovered, and not one, but two police colleagues literally tumble onto the crime scene.

And yet, the problem runs even deeper than police incompetence. If it were that simple, then it would be fixed by the arrival of Detective Seo and his more modern investigative methods. Indeed, that would be a typical detective-movie storyline: sophisticated city cop is sent out to the boondocks and butts heads with the provincial locals, then they overcome their differences and work together to catch the killer. And for a long time, Bong seems to be adhering to it; in a less common but still familiar plot point, the investigation also gets a new leader in Sergeant Shin, who’s a marked improvement over his blustering predecessor. The new arrivals do lead to some progress, but this time, it isn’t enough. And as Bong makes clear again and again, that’s just the most visible symptom of a much broader and more insidious societal pathology. Gradually, in snippets of dialogue and quick throwaway moments, he establishes this crucial part of the historical context: The police are overmatched, but in the end, it’s the overall state of civic society, corrupted and weakened by decades of autocratic rule, that prevents the killer from being caught. The same shoddiness that we see in the police department also shows up in hospitals and factories, restaurants and farms, schools and radio stations—all hindering the investigation still further. Another factor is the prevalence of a typically antiquated attitude towards women; the lone female officer, Kwi-ok, is treated mostly as a sort of secretary/clerk—only through an explicit line of dialogue do we learn that she’s actually a detective, too. And, naturally, she winds up being instrumental in most of the major breakthroughs. And then there’s the simple, generalized threat of violence, the dual dangers of war with the North and oppression at home engendering a subtle but inescapable atmosphere of anxiety and suspicion. In perhaps Bong’s most brilliantly symbolic shot, we see the killer preparing to do his gruesome deeds on a forested hill, while in the village below, the lights go out in accordance with yet another civil defense drill. As Bilge Elbiri writes, “It’s as if a nation in fear is turning its back on those who are most vulnerable.”[iv]

Still, this is still a murder mystery first and foremost, and the rot at the core of society is still most vividly expressed in the police. It’s not just their brutality and skewed priorities; even more damaging to the investigation is the resultant erosion of their standing in the community. (Indeed, by humanizing them at all, Bong is actually more sympathetic than most modern directors in his portrayal of the police of that era.) Everybody knows how they operate—it’s one of those open secrets of an authoritarian world, widely recognized but rarely expressed out loud. As a result, no one willfully cooperates with the detectives, understandably wary of becoming the latest scapegoat. People regard them with a barely disguised mixture of fear and contempt, and greet their repeated failure to catch the killer with a sort of sardonic resignation.[v] One of the tragic ironies of the story is that even in a time of violent political turmoil, for once, everyone wants the same thing. However they may feel about the authorities, citizens want the police to protect them from sexually deviant serial killers, at the very least. And in this case, the police want justice just as badly, recognizing the straightforward monstrousness of the crime (not to mention the fact that, with its ghastly and unmistakable calling card, it can’t be scapegoated away). But in a state built on fear and repression, they’re unable do the right thing even when they want to; in one instance, the detectives finally manage to get one step ahead of the killer, but can’t act on it because all their reinforcements are off roughing up protestors. Such scenes speak volumes about the cost of authoritarianism, and the features of it still depressingly present in our freer societies today: corruption, lack of accountability, lies and oppression. The far-off regime of the dictator Chun Doo-hwan is never mentioned, but it doesn’t need to be; the point is that when a public institution is working for anything other than the public good, innocent people suffer. And in the end, so do those who uphold the system; for our characters, even more maddening than their inability to catch the killer is an inexpressible feeling that they should be able to, that in a properly functioning society, they might have—and it visibly eats at them, until, as Manohla Dargis writes, “finally…it becomes impossible not to see these impotent and crushingly overwhelmed civil servants as victims of a kind.”[vi]

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The remarkable thing about Memories of Murder is way that Bong’s direction and craft also reinforce these deeper themes; even as the movie hits typical narrative beats of the genre, there’s also a sense that with each one, the truth is slipping further away. Bong does this in creative and interesting ways, with a cumulative effect that gives the movie a distinctly different vibe from others like it. As in many fact-based procedurals, we begin on a specific date—October 23, 1986—but then we get no further information, and quickly lose our temporal bearings; there’s just a vague sense of lots of time passing with very little progress. There’s also an uneven but inexorable progression from light to darkness: it’s often sunny at the beginning, but as the story goes on, more and more of the action takes place at night, and even the daytime scenes are more muted, with the sun low in the sky or covered by clouds—so that when return to the bright and sunny fields for the epilogue, it feels like a significant shift. Another important element is Taro Iwashiro’s musical score, one of the very best I’ve ever heard. As the story demands, the music is suspenseful and propulsive, even wistful at times, but underlying it all are notes of mournfulness and melancholy that remind us of the suffering involved—and cast some subconscious doubt on our expectations of how it will end.

My favorite of these is a gradual shift in Bong’s images of roads. At the beginning, Park approaches the crime scene on a dirt lane that runs straight across open farmland, its course clear and easily discernible. When we first meet Seo soon afterwards, he’s walking along a similarly straight farm road. But as the story progresses, the various pathways become less clear-cut, more evocative of doubt and confusion. Our first glimpse of Sergeant Shin is also on a street, but it’s not completely straight, and the depth of field is compressed so that he and everything to his front and rear seem unnaturally close together, almost overlapping. We return twice to a quiet country road that curves gently out of sight, hemmed in on either side by steep embankments. The chase midway through the movie runs through narrow, intersecting alleys where we quickly lose our sense of direction. Later on, Bong includes a shot from a car’s rear window with the winding roadway unspooling behind us, unable to see what’s approaching. And in the stunning final shot before the epilogue, our protagonists appear as far-off silhouettes at the mouth of a railway tunnel, looking down the tracks that bend away into darkness. It’s a perfect visual representation of where they’ve ended up: diminished by their efforts and still totally in the dark, farther from the truth than ever.

It’s not just to sow doubt about the plot, either; Bong throws curveballs all over the place, keeping us constantly off-balance and slightly uncertain. He’ll sometimes throw in an intentionally jarring transition—cutting straight from a decomposed body to sizzling meat on a restaurant barbecue, for example. Occasionally, he’ll have something come totally out of left field, as when the passed-out, previously unnoticed Shin rises up and vomits in the middle of a drunken argument, or when the detectives do their flying-kick move on unsuspecting people, or when Kwang-ho comes tumbling out of a cupboard where he’s been napping. The effect isn’t always comedic; that gruesome thing the killer does with a peach is made even more disturbing by its apparent randomness (the peach never comes up again and we never learn why he chose it). And I like to think Bong (at least partly) had squeamish Western audiences in mind when he chose to stage a conversation between Park and his wife in the midst of some cringe-inducing deep ear cleaning.

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Nor is it just isolated moments; seemingly safe assumptions often end up confounded much farther down the line. Kwang-ho, for example, starts out as a classic opening-act dead end: an innocent, unlucky guy who barely escapes a wrongful conviction. But then he turns out to be very important in a different way, with tragically higher consequences. Similarly, an outlandish story about a madman living under an outhouse initially seems like typical schoolgirl gossip, until it comes up again later on and leads to a crucial discovery. Meanwhile, the fact that the murdered women all wore red seems highly significant, but then it fades away and doesn’t end up figuring in any of the breakthroughs. And the one time that something like justice is served, it comes indirectly, against the wrongdoer we least expect: Detective Cho, and it’s a medieval sort of justice that most people wouldn’t wish on anybody—leading to the emotion-scrambling moment when Park gazes almost wistfully at the combat boots his friend once used to beat suspects. This stuff helps to maintain tension, of course, keeping us skittish and off-balance, but I think Bong is also trying to evoke some small approximation of how it feels to live in a repressive society, where nothing is as it should be, certain basic truths can’t be expressed, and the very nature of reality is constantly disputed.[vii]

Closely intertwined with all this is the movie’s distinctively offbeat sense of humor. What you do and don’t find funny is subjective, obviously, but the humor here is noticeably unusual. A traditional murder mystery might include scattered moments of levity, just enough to keep the movie from getting too heavy. They take two forms, each with a clear intended effect on the audience: bits of witty banter between detectives (“They’re so cool and/or jaded, death doesn’t even faze them!”) or eccentricities in the people they question (“Hmm, this guy’s a weirdo… maybe he’s also a murderer!”). Bong does something different in Memories of Murder; the humor generally doesn’t come via one-liners or quirky witnesses, and it’s prevalent enough to be a defining element of the movie. And yet it doesn’t feel callous or forced, either, because it arises organically, rooted in natural aspects of the story. The farcical incompetence of the police, the surreal political environment, the ways life is warped in an authoritarian world—there’s an element of absurdity in all this stuff, terrible as this stuff is, and the movie gets considerable comic mileage out of it.[viii] This gives us the requisite break from the doom and gloom of a serial murder case, but if that were all Bong was doing, the movie wouldn’t be nearly so powerful. He leans into the comedic moments, but he never loses sight of their consequences; every joke has aftershocks that are deadly serious. We laugh at that single take through the crime scene, or at Park fumbling his way through a presentation like an ill-prepared high-school student, or at him and Cho coaching suspects through their confessions with escalating exasperation, but it’s an uneasy, catch-in-your-throat sort of laughter, because we know that none of this is getting them any closer to the killer. Even moments of pure comedy, like when Park expounds his hairless-killer theory and we cut to him in the public baths, not-so-surreptitiously checking out the naked men around him, can’t escape this cloud—we know it’s just more wasted time and effort. And Bong never goes too long without returning to the end result: another innocent woman who had her life cut short amid the worst kind of horror, each landing with more force than the last, until by the final half-hour, there’s nothing to laugh at anymore. Fittingly, the escalating gravity of the situation is reflected in the movie’s clearest running gag: those flying kicks. First, Park does it to Seo in a misunderstanding that’s counterproductive, but gets cleared up fairly quickly. The second time, Cho subdues a suspect who seems credible, but ends up being a much more time-consuming dead end. The last one, where Cho simply loses his temper, is probably the funniest, but it’s also the most damaging, literally plunging them into darkness right when they seem to be getting somewhere.

As is probably painfully clear by now, there’s a ton going on in Memories of Murder, but none of it would work without such compelling characters holding it all together. Another distinctive aspect of Bong’s craft is worth mentioning here, something I’d call ‘efficiency of camerawork.’ That doesn’t meant he always uses the fewest cuts and camera angles possible; plenty of briskly edited scenes prove otherwise. But he is willing to use a single, carefully considered shot capture to several narrative beats within a given scene, whereas most directors, worried that we’ll get bored or miss something, would change angles for each one. Especially when two or more characters are conversing about something, Bong simply places them all in the frame and lets them talk (or stay silent), allowing us to observe the behavior of the group as well as the individuals. This seemingly restrictive technique actually allows him to enrich the scene in unique ways; among other things, he uses small background details, the positioning of the actors, and occasionally subtle camera movements to develop themes and character dynamics more fully. When Shin wakes up and vomits, for example, it visually demonstrates how he forces his bickering subordinates to focus on what really matters; as Tony Zhou puts it, he “…literally provides the moral center of the frame.”[ix] Staging scenes in this way also lets Bong include valuable bits of characterization that would seem superfluous if given their own cut, like Seo complaining to a waitress about his noodles, or Cho subtly telegraphing the sincerity of his feelings for Kwi-ok, or Park having a whole mini-argument with a food delivery guy over a receipt.

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Most importantly, though, Bong has the eager collaboration of his actors, mostly unknown in the West but all immensely talented. A quick note on the language barrier: Korean obviously doesn’t sound much like English, but the two share the key characteristic of being non-tonal—as opposed to Chinese, for example, in which intonation changes meaning. So even though the words are totally unfamiliar, I find that the vocal rhythms and inflections (such crucial aspects of a dramatic performance) register with surprisingly clarity.

Anyway, Bong and his actors rise to a significant challenge, navigating significant tonal shifts within a pretty narrowly focused story and laying out the weighty underlying ideas in concrete, human terms—without drifting off into abstract symbolism. The characters are all technically fictional, but the moral implications of this fact-based story are manifested in them, all the more powerfully because they’re personalities we can recognize and relate to. Kwang-ho has an important role in the plot, but Park No-shik makes him memorable in other ways, as a colorful supporting player and occasional source of Bong’s trademark uncomfortable humor—as well as a tragic example of this repressive society’s failure to protect its most vulnerable citizens. We’ve mentioned how Kwi-ok’s character highlights the society marginalization of women, but as played by Go Seo-hee, she’s not a helpless victim of the patriarchy, quietly demonstrating a keen intelligence and making herself indispensable to the investigation. Even Park Hae-il’s brief, enigmatic performance as the final suspect has thematic significance: his chilly reticence could be that of a twisted killer, but given the reputation of the police, he could just as easily be an understandable act of defiance. One of my favorites is Song Jae-ho as Sergeant Shin; with his diminutive stature and haggard demeanor, he’s every inch the worn-out career functionary, but also a quietly capable leader who’s managed to retain some sense of basic decency even after many years of serving an authoritarian regime. Detective Cho, meanwhile, is a vivid embodiment of the way such a state encourages and relies upon cruelty and violence, but Kim Roi-ha makes him more than a simple brute; we see the loneliness and insecurity beneath the thuggish exterior, his arc demonstrating how alienating and ultimately self-destructive that situation is. And then there’s Seo, who seems on paper like the corrective to all this corruption and injustice: college-educated, trained in the big city, and fully committed to more legitimate investigative techniques imported from the developed world. In fact, he’s more complicated than that, and ultimately more interesting. As portrayed by Kim Sang-kyung, he’s an astute detective, but also a bit of a sourpuss; upon seeing how his new colleagues operate, he quickly writes them off as backward bumpkins and sets out to solve the case more or less on his own, making little effort to bring them around to his way of thinking. He comes to represent the danger, in a repressive society, of trying to reform the present without acknowledging and dealing with the trauma of the past; as his more enlightened methods keep failing to stop the killer, he grows increasingly desperate and unhinged, soon falling back on the same vicious tactics he once disdained.[x]

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These performances are all captivating and thematically vital, but the cast doesn’t quite function as an ensemble. We have a clear protagonist: Detective Park, the moral and emotional foundation of the movie. Which is kind of remarkable; how does this swaggering, often casually brutal buffoon—a seeming poster boy for everything wrong with the police force—become the closest thing this movie has to a hero? It works because of a compelling character arc and a fantastic performance by Song Kang-ho, one of the all-time great Korean actors. There are only scattered bits of dialogue about Park’s past, but Song indicates a whole life story: a kid who grew up in this quiet town and never ventured too far afield, who married his teenage sweetheart and joined the police mostly so he can enjoy a bit of authority, hang out with his best friend all day, and avoid the strenuous monotony of the only other options available to someone like him—not terribly bright, but possessed of some genuine street smarts and an infectious self-confidence. With his wisecracking asides and roguish charisma, he somehow comes across as an alright guy even when he’s doing things that are cruel, counterproductive, or both.

More importantly, though, we’re drawn to Park because his basic decency is reinforced by his growth over the course of the movie. At the outset, he’s a goon who truly believes, at least on some level, that he’s doing a public service by extracting confessions and determining guilt by instinct alone. But as the bodies pile up, Park’s inner journey is that of a man gradually waking up to the weight of his responsibility, and realizing just how badly he’s been failing in it. Beneath the cocksure exterior, Song brilliantly portrays the stages of that transformation: Park’s initial refusal to let go of his old convictions, even as they’re repeatedly proven wrong; his subtly increasing horror at each body that turns up; a quiet sense of desperation, when they arrest the second suspect, to just convict somebody in the hope that the killing will stop; the critical moment with the peach, driving home the magnitude of this evil and how overmatched he is against it; and at last, in the closest thing the movie has to a climax, Park looking into the eyes of a suspect like he’s been doing his whole career and finally admitting (in one of the best-delivered lines I’ve ever heard in a foreign language): “Fuck, I don’t know.” He cut corners, cleared cases the easy way, and maybe justice wasn’t always served, but they had order and stability and it was all fine—until, suddenly, it wasn’t, and people suffered because they weren’t ready. Park is the sole character whose arc reflects the right way for a repressive society to begin to heal: he recognizes the harm that corruption always leads to in the end, and acknowledges his role in it.

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And of course, we can’t discuss this movie or Song’s performance without mentioning the epilogue, simultaneously one of the creepiest and most moving endings I’ve ever seen. It’s 2003 (the present day when the movie was released), and Park, no longer a police officer, finds himself back at the first murder scene. A little girl tells him she saw another man there some time ago—the killer, returning to the scene of the crime as they so often do—and that he looked completely ordinary.[xi] It’s a chilling moment, made even more so by the muted horror in Song’s delivery and that rustling vegetation that Bong uses so well, but what comes next is shocking: for a few seconds before the fade-out, Park turns and looks directly into the camera. It’s an audacious move by Bong, but Song performs it beautifully, and it’s the perfect way to end the movie, with several powerful messages working in tandem. First, it makes us relate to Park on a whole new level, with such a raw, unfiltered window into the pain, guilt, and despair still roiling within this outwardly affable guy years after the murders. But Park also looks directly at us, and I think that’s Bong trying to send the audience a message, specifically aimed at those in Korea but applicable to everyone: We’re part of this, too. It wasn’t just the police who couldn’t catch the killer; it was the whole society, and it’s on all of us to make sure this never happens again.

And there’s another layer to this moment, the most unsettling and, in a way, the most powerful. The killer was never caught, but given his obvious sociopathy and the way he taunted the police, Bong felt certain that if he was still alive in 2003, he would watch this movie. So when Park looks into the camera, in one instance, he was looking at the real-life killer. The message to him is simple, and, at this point, all there really is left to say: We still see you. We let you get away, and that hurts. But you never know. We haven’t forgotten, and we’re still looking.

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© Harrison Swan, 2019

[i] This is the only real reason why Zodiac isn’t on my List. If you don’t mind that sort of suspense, then by all means watch it—in every other respect, it’s incredibly well done.

[ii] Note that, as is often the case with Romanized Korean names, the spelling is not always consistent. Depending on which version you watch, the subtitles might spell Seo as ‘Suh’, Cho as ‘Jo’, Park as ‘Pak’ or ‘Bak’, and their female colleague Kwi-ok as ‘Gui-ok’. I’m just going by the spellings on IMDB and Wikipedia.

[iii] This article is very interesting, both as a review of the movie and as a helpful primer on the history it depicts: https://www.rogerebert.com/far-flung-correspondents/a-south-korean-zodiac

[iv] Another very good review: https://www.villagevoice.com/2017/08/15/nobodys-innocent-and-everybodys-a-victim-bong-joon-hos-memories-of-murder-returns/

[v] Come to think of it, this movie could really be quite illuminating for anyone trying to understand the fraught relationship between the police and marginalized communities in our own country.

[vi] Another very good review: https://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/15/movies/unprepared-and-illequipped-for-a-serial-killer-at-large.html

[vii] Sound uncomfortably familiar? In the sixteen years since its release, this movie has never been more relevant to us in the U.S., and indeed throughout the Western world.

[viii] I’m told that most of the actors also employ an accent particular to the southern countryside, and widely regarded elsewhere as an improper, lower-class way of speaking. Impossible for non-Korean speakers to notice, but interesting to consider.

[ix] I’ve just scratched the surface here, but for a really excellent explanation of the way Bong uses this ‘ensemble staging’ check out this video essay on Zhou and Tyler Ramos’ superb (and sadly discontinued) YouTube channel, Every Frame a Painting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v4seDVfgwOg

[x] Kim apparently went so far as to deprive himself of sufficient food and sleep throughout the production in order to make Seo’s regression more convincing.

[xi] I don’t think it’s a coincidence, by the way, that the first and last scenes show Park with young children: living embodiments of what’s at stake if the conditions that let this story happen are allowed to continue.

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

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In these heated days—when controversy seems to arise from everything that everyone does, all the time—the idea of a single movie inciting a fierce nationwide debate can seem like a relic of a naive and distant past. And yet, that’s exactly what happened just seven years ago upon the release of Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s sweeping account of the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden. Already it’s easy to view the movie, what it depicts and the concerns it grapples with, as belonging to a recognizably different era in American history; as far as I can see, it hasn’t become newly insightful in the feverish, cranked-to-11 politics of today. But it’s worth revisiting now for many reasons: it remains as immersive and disturbing a piece of fact-based filmmaking as Hollywood has ever produced; it offers compelling insights about an episode of recent history that’s ongoing, with no end in sight; and the questions it explores, about morality and nationalized revenge, are just as relevant today as they were back then.

It’s worth noting what an outlier Zero Dark Thirty still is. Despite many significant developments in both politics and filmmaking over the past seven years, there’s never been a fiction film quite like it: written with such extensive access to sensitive material and directed with such close attention to realism, telling a true story so inherently thrilling and so emotionally significant to the target audience. It’s an epic—set all over the world, spanning nearly a full decade, and exploring timeless themes—but it’s also a ripped-from-the-headlines procedural that delves into the nitty-gritty of contemporary geopolitics. There’s so much to unpack here (I’m hard-pressed to think of a movie that packs more into 2 hours and 45 minutes) that it’s hard to know where to begin. But in any great movie, you can be sure that the opening will be highly significant, and this one is no exception.

Indeed, much of the controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty centers on its infamous first half-hour, with its graphic portrayal of so-called ‘enhanced interrogation.’ But, crucially, the movie actually begins a few moments earlier, with a black screen and a short mélange of actual sound bites from 9/11, including a few stomach-turning clips of victims in the final moments of their lives. This brief prologue caused a good deal of controversy in itself, with critics claiming (reasonably, I think) that using the voices of the real victims in a fiction film, sometimes without the explicit consent of the families, is ethically dubious at best. But the sequence is undeniably powerful, and it serves an important purpose. 9/11 was such a paradigm-shifting event that it’s already mythologized in the American psyche—arguably ever since the government started invoking it to justify the War on Terror, and certainly at the time of Zero Dark Thirty’s release. The prologue forcefully reminds us what this increasingly abstract event actually entailed—the horror and the real-life tragedy.

Then it’s two years later, and we’re immersed in another whirlwind of human suffering as an unnervingly easygoing CIA agent named Dan (Jason Clarke) carries out a brutal interrogation. It’s convincingly established that Ammar (Reda Kateb, doing excellent work in the thankless role of the century), is somehow involved with al-Qaeda, yet it’s hard to imagine any decent person not feeling repulsed as the bruised, helpless detainee is waterboarded, deprived of sleep, sexually humiliated, and finally locked into a horribly small wooden box. This is the movie’s first signal that it’s not simply propaganda in support of such practices; it’s impossible to watch these scenes and conclude, as the Bush administration long tried to claim, that these techniques don’t constitute torture. Bigelow confirms that this is a textbook violation of human rights, while also reminding us of the incident that initially let us convince ourselves it was necessary. (Sure, Dick Cheney is enough of a cartoon villain that he probably wanted to do this stuff anyway, but he still needed something like 9/11 as a pretext.) So we have one atrocity, the torture of detainees, in response to another: the 9/11 attacks.[i] The basic arc of the narrative to come is so well known that we already have expectations about what sort of movie this will be: part espionage thriller, part combat picture. It has elements of both, but the opening makes clear that this is, first and foremost, a movie about revenge. And if there’s one part of the American soul that’s just as forcefully present today as it was back then, it’s the desire for revenge against those who cross us.

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Like all the best revenge stories, Zero Dark Thirty uses its subject matter to examine some difficult themes—trauma, violence, obsession, and the moral cost of payback. It’s not surprising that so many people, especially those of us who consider the CIA’s use of torture a moral abomination, would be upset that the movie doesn’t present the hunt for bin Laden in a way that explicitly validates our position. That complaint is not unfounded, but it reflects an unwillingness to grapple with a deeply uncomfortable issue, not to mention a certain disdain for what film as an art form is capable of. If you’re willing to ascribe worth only to movies that reduce the mess of real life to a simplistic moral equation and come down on your side of it—well, all I’ll say is that you’re depriving yourself of most of the best movies ever made. One could claim, for instance, that The Godfather glorifies the Italian Mafia because it takes their point of view and depicts them as more than heartless monsters; that case is there to make. But people rarely do, because they realize that they’d have to ignore many significant elements of the movie, including most of what makes it interesting. Anyone who wants to dismiss Zero Dark Thirty as a nationalistic, torture-glorifying revenge fantasy can find everything they need to make that case, too.[ii] But that would be textbook bad analysis: determining the moral stance of a complex work based on a few offensive elements, and willfully disregarding pretty much everything else the movie says, shows, and implies.

Most attacks against the movie boil down to essentially this: that it depicts torture as a valuable tool in the hunt for bin Laden. There are many moments in the movie that support that idea, but if you’re willing to look deeper, you’ll find a great many others that challenge, confuse, or refute it. It’s true that in the beginning, Dan goes to work on Ammar with gusto, using exactly the sort of gloating, jingoistic language that advocates of torture might nod along with. Meanwhile, Maya (Jessica Chastain), the newly arrived analyst who will become our protagonist, is shaken by what she sees but does nothing to stop him, and coldly rebuffs Ammar’s pleas for help. It’s discomfiting because they’re supposedly on ‘our side,’ but it’s also sensible characterization—they’re committed front-line fighters in the War on Terror, and they’re also employees carrying out orders from their superiors. More importantly, though, nothing comes of it; Ammar ends up incoherently rattling off random days of the week when Dan asks him about the next attack, and then we cut to civilians being mowed down in Saudi Arabia as Dan and Maya watch the images on TV, stewing in their failure to stop it.

Of course, Ammar does finally produce a name: Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, a trusted al-Qaeda courier and the lead that Maya will eventually use to track down bin Laden. Once again, though, the role of torture is tricky—Ammar only gives it up when Dan and Maya sit him down, give him some food, and interrogate him without violence,[iii] and yet, he only does so because of Maya’s bluff, which relies on his disorientation after torture and the threat of more to come. But as the story progresses, we learn that the CIA already had the same information from other sources; we see Maya combing through old interrogation tapes in which multiple detainees (some under duress and some not) mention Abu Ahmed as well. It turns out that the CIA even has his real name—something even Ammar didn’t know—in a file that got lost in the early years after 9/11. We’ve seen how driven Maya and her colleagues are; it’s hard to believe they wouldn’t have found it eventually. It’s never explicitly stated, but the implication is clear: torture played at least some role in Ammar’s confession, but the CIA could have found the same information using more orthodox methods, and probably would have done if they hadn’t been so caught up in spinning intelligence for the pointless Iraq war and torturing people for unreliable information.

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The confession isn’t the only example that the movie’s detractors cite as evidence of a pro-torture stance. Much is made of the fact that later on, Maya herself presides over the torture of Abu Faraj, a senior al-Qaeda commander. But once again, it gets her exactly nowhere; in the very next scene, she’s frustrated and dismayed that it isn’t working. It’s also true that in the same scene, Dan warns Maya about the changing politics back home, advising her to be careful with the detainees lest she put her career in jeopardy. But, significantly, neither of them seems particularly disappointed or angry about this; although Dan insists he’s fine, he’s clearly troubled by the brutal things he’s done, to the point that he’s transferring back to Langley. In a sign of his growing disillusionment with the methods they’ve been using, he even declines her offer to interrogate Faraj himself. There’s another important moment soon afterwards, when we see the newly elected President Obama on TV, insisting that under his leadership, “America doesn’t torture.” Maya’s reaction is studiously hard to read. She doesn’t seem pleased or relieved, but neither does she sneer, throw up her hands, or hurl something at the screen—none of which would be out of character if she were outraged by this news. Instead her expression is neutral, contemplative, as if she’s simply thinking, “Well, I guess this is what we’re doing now.” The point is reiterated soon afterwards, when a CIA higher-up named George (Mark Strong) gathers Dan, Maya, and their colleagues together and rips them all a new one for doing such a terrible job finding terrorists. His language is bellicose (“Bring me people to kill!”), but his implied point is clear: what they’ve been doing up to now has failed miserably. And this is where they start making real progress—when they stop torturing detainees and devote themselves to the painstaking detective work of normal intelligence gathering: combing through files, tapping phones, cultivating local sources, and studying satellite imagery.

It’s complicated, though—it always is with Zero Dark Thirty—because the same character also has one of the movie’s most seemingly pro-torture lines. When the National Security Advisor demands proof that the mystery occupant of that famous house in Abbottabad is bin Laden and not some other criminal kingpin, a frustrated George complains: “You know we lost the ability to prove that when we lost the detainee program.” With a shrug, the Advisor replies, “You’ll think of something,” and it comes across as classic bureaucratic waffling. Except, George and the others do think of something; they do more research, come back with stronger evidence, and gradually convince the rest of intelligence community (and finally the unseen president) that their assessment is worth acting on. And in this they are hindered, not helped, by the fact that torture played a role in the initial confession. In a surprising reversal, Dan, the one who carried out the interrogation, is among those least convinced that the information is reliable. His doubts are reflected in the rest of the CIA brass, who offer only tentative agreement that bin Laden is really there. The implication is that if they’d found the house without torture (and we’ve seen that they could have) the decision to act might have been easier to make.

All of this is not to suggest that Zero Dark Thirty is really an anti-torture polemic in disguise. It may not glorify CIA torture in the way its detractors claim, but nor does it definitively show that such techniques played no role in finding bin Laden. Since the movie’s release, many people with detailed knowledge of the actual events have even asserted that it overstates the importance of torture, and I see no reason to doubt them. Indeed, there are moments that can’t be explained away, such as an early scene when Maya interrogates a former al-Qaeda financier, using the threat of extradition to Israel—and the certainty of torture there—as leverage. (No, she doesn’t use violence herself, but come on—the man literally says, “I have no wish to be tortured again. Ask me a question; I will answer.”) For me, the scene that best captures the movie’s split mindset comes later on. Dan meets with his boss, who complains about the political fallout in typically hawkish fashion: “Abu Ghraib and Gitmo fucked us,” “We’ve got senators jumping out of our asses,” etc. Dan agrees to take the heat for the program if necessary, but he does it to secure funds to bribe a Kuwaiti official for help with cell phone surveillance—in other words, to facilitate the normal, nonviolent intelligence gathering that he now recognizes as the more effective way forward.

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The most that can be said is that Bigelow and Boal are clearly going to great lengths to preserve ambiguity on the issue of torture, and I think that’s because their intellectual goal is more sophisticated than to deliver a definitive ideological verdict. As we’ve mentioned, this is a revenge movie at its core. And revenge stories are all, in their own ways, about trauma and the victim’s response to it. What sets Zero Dark Thirty apart from other revenge movies is a question of scope. The filmmakers are exploring a phenomenon that’s common enough throughout history but still difficult to wrap one’s head around: trauma on a national scale, and a nationalized quest for vengeance. Film critic Andrew O’Hehir perfectly encapsulates the central issue that I think the movie is grappling with:

We have taken Dick Cheney’s famous taxi ride to the dark side, in search of justice or vengeance or whatever payback term you like. How has that worked out for us? What are the consequences of embracing not just the enemy’s tactics but the enemy’s essentially nihilistic worldview, in which the standards of universal morality that supposedly formed the basis of the Western world’s liberal revolutions simply do not matter?

Bigelow and Boal did not invent this problem out of nothing, people, and it’s not limited to the 9/11 era or the United States of America. Every single powerful nation throughout history, whether Western and supposedly enlightened or not, has used torture and brutality and state terror as instruments of policy, pretty much whenever it convinced itself it needed to. What has changed since, say, the end of the 18th century is that the great powers are now compelled to pay lip service to higher ideals and pretend that they never do such things, or to explain them away as aberrations perpetrated by rogue elements. When all else fails, there’s always the appeal to patriotism, still the last refuge of scoundrels, as it was to Samuel Johnson. We had to break the rules to “protect the homeland,” as characters repeatedly say in Zero Dark Thirty, which was approximately the rhetoric used to justify British torture in Northern Ireland, French torture in Algeria, American torture in Latin America and the Phillippines, and on and on.[iv]

The message I take from Bigelow and Boal is this: torture was a significant, ugly part of our reaction to the trauma of 9/11, so whether it played an essential role the manhunt or not, it has to be included in any serious examination of what that trauma has done to us. Bigelow herself said as much: “Do I wish [torture] was not part of that history? Yes. But it was.”[v] You don’t get to tell the story of our response to 9/11 and pretend this wasn’t part of it.

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Bigelow and Boal really do something quite radical here: they take the most inherently cinematic story of the War on Terror, the one that would be easiest to spin into a simplistic tale of good vs. evil, and make it into one of the least triumphalist blockbusters Hollywood has ever released. For them, a movie about the War on Terror, even one depicting a clear American victory, should not leave us feeling triumphant or comfortable. With its docudrama cinematography, brisk pacing, and realistically unadorned production design, Zero Dark Thirty unfolds so naturally that it can seem like this story couldn’t have been filmed any other way. But at every turn, Bigelow makes conscious choices that inject a sense of discomfort into the proceedings. She skillfully walks a fine tonal tightrope: the movie is gripping but sobering, a story of success that’s almost relentlessly grim.

This is not to say that Bigelow completely neutralizes the story’s inherent appeal; her portrayal this rarefied world and the covert struggle taking place within it is appropriately engrossing and intense. It’s still thrilling when the characters discover a new piece of information, and the tradecraft, technological wizardry, and deductive reasoning they use to acquire and interpret it all is still fascinating and impressive. Yet at the same time, Bigelow creates an atmosphere of pervasive dread and doubt. Her principal characters are not like us; they’re zealous workaholics grasping for answers in a world of uncertainty and deception, with little evident connection to the civilian society that they’re ostensibly serving. The score is haunting and melancholy even at the most triumphant moments. The restless handheld camera keeps us on edge, moving skittishly through environments that bear little resemblance to our own: hectic Middle Eastern cities, blandly threatening military bases, and soulless office spaces. Bigelow expertly amplifies the sense of menace by focusing on odd, minute details: a rustling canopy, a single van wheel beginning to creep forward, the hem of a burkha shifting to reveal the black boots of an agent in disguise.

Nowhere is this duality more apparent than in the movie’s final half-hour, which meticulously reconstructs the Navy SEALs’ famous assault on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. Bigelow’s gifts as an action director are on full display in this remarkable sequence. She stages the raid almost in real time and largely without musical cues, forgoing typical action-movie flourishes in favor of unmitigated realism—she knows this incident needs no cinematic enhancement to make it riveting. She has a fantastic instinct for conveying space and motion, expertly cutting between close-ups and wider angles so that even as we witness a complex event with many moving parts, it’s always clear what’s going on. This is especially impressive when you consider that it’s shot almost entirely with handheld cameras and switches frequently between two distinct color schemes: the green glow of night vision goggles and the murky grays and blues of a moonless night. This nervous cinematography does much to create a sense of potential danger around every corner and behind every door; the scene is a masterwork of sustained tension despite the fact that most viewers already know how it’s going to end.

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Most remarkable of all, however, is that even when squarely focused on physical reality and moment-to-moment action, Bigelow engages meaningfully with the larger themes. If there’s any part of the story that could be presented without much ambiguity, this is it: a dramatic, successful military action that the vast majority of Americans approve of, and are intensely curious about. There are certainly moments when the sequence functions in the expected way: as an expression of our collective fantasy of revenge against the mastermind of 9/11. Yet Bigelow never allows it to stay in that vein for long, using the facts of the mission and her own directorial discretion to create frequent counterpoints, yanking us out of the fantasy and complicating our sense of vicarious satisfaction.

So during the SEALs’ initial journey to the compound, Bigelow gives us what we want: stunning images of the stealth helicopters flying hair-raisingly low to avoid detection, skillfully intercut with the nervous SEALs inside and the operators back at the base to create a rhythmic, visceral sense of breakneck flight and mounting anticipation. But in doing so, she also draws our attention to the setting, painting a brief but vivid picture of the mountains between Afghnistan and Pakistan—a rugged, desolate landscape still largely untouched by human civilization. She highlights the fact that the SEALs are flying through one of the most historically significant mountain ranges in the world: the Spin Ghar range, and the larger Hindu Kush that it connects to, have formed a natural barrier and gateway between disparate civilizations since ancient times. Bird’s-eye views of the helicopters, tiny and indistinct against the mountains, invite us to consider this small skirmish as part of a much longer history of confrontation between East and West. Technology has changed the battlefield and the geopolitics are different, but there’s nothing new or original about our War on Terror; it’s just the latest iteration of a conflict that has existed in myriad forms for thousands of years.

The counterpoints are even more pronounced as the SEALs make their way through the compound. Bigelow places us right there on the ground alongside them, encouraging us to identify with them on a gut level—their panic during a chaotic helicopter crash; their nerves as they approach a doorway, unsure of what’s on the other side; and the adrenaline-fueled surge of action when an enemy emerges from the gloom. She gives us thrilling depictions of their bravery and skill, their cohesiveness as a unit and their composure under extreme stress, but she doesn’t shy away from the devastating results of their work, either. Repeatedly, tension builds to an instant of deadly confrontation, and the SEALs prevail, but it’s immediately followed by the consequences: sobbing children, screaming women, and the peculiar, sickening sound of silenced rifles pumping extra bullets into the body. Fittingly enough, we see it most clearly when the squad reaches the top floor of the house. A SEAL lurks in the stairwell and, as we’ve seen others do, calls out the name of the man he believes is hiding there: “Osama!” In our nationalized fantasy of payback for 9/11, this is where everyone most wants to be, and Bigelow knows it. She shoots directly over his shoulder and down his rifle as he scans the doorways, as close to his point of view as we can get. A few of the SEALs have become readily identifiable by now, but this guy isn’t one of them, and with dim glints of light reflecting off the four separate lenses of his night vision goggles, he seems almost more cyborg than human—an anonymous, avenging avatar onto which any American can project themselves. But what happens next isn’t exactly rousing: just a creaking door, a muffled gunshot, a body slumping to the floor, and the family’s anguished cries. All we see of the world’s worst terrorist is a flash of furtive motion in a doorway and a lifeless body absorbing extra bullets. When the moment of vengeance comes, it’s not an epic showdown with evil incarnate, just a man being skillfully murdered in his bedroom. We don’t see the celebrations in the streets back home, and there are no cheers from the operators back at the base. Even the SEALs are pretty subdued, at least in the immediate aftermath; when they do celebrate later on, it mostly comes across as the ‘holy shit we made it!’ kind of triumph.

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In another significant move, Bigelow doesn’t present bin Laden’s death as the climax of the sequence. There is faint background music as the SEALs hastily exit the compound, but the true end of the raid—the moment of transition from hyperrealism back into standard cinematic storytelling, with its necessary distortions of space and time—is clearly signaled when the score suddenly returns to dominate the soundtrack. And that doesn’t happen when bin Laden is killed, or when the last SEALs leave the compound. Instead, the score returns when they blow up the downed helicopter—a controlled demolition to protect military secrets. The music that rises up is melancholy, almost spooky, and after such a protracted fast-paced sequence, Bigelow lingers for a notably long time on shots of the burning wreck, mining this actual event for symbolic import and driving home a crucial point: we may have prevailed, but we haven’t come out unscathed. We’ve gotten the vengeance we were after, but we’ve lost something, too.

That message is everywhere in Zero Dark Thirty—never explicitly stated, but subtly telegraphed in character interactions, implied in framing choices and musical cues, and vividly embodied in the main character, Maya. The movie’s detractors often point to her lack of scruples about the use of torture and her occasional slides into jingoism as evidence of the movie’s bad faith. But depiction is not the same as endorsement, and a protagonist (even one brilliantly portrayed by a talented actress) is not the same as a heroine. In this story, we are definitively on one side and against the other, but no one is pure enough to be considered a straightforward hero, least of all Maya. Bigelow and Chastain invite us to admire her intelligence and resolve, and to sympathize with her uphill struggle as the only woman in an organization run by men. But she’s relatable only insofar as she’s seeking the revenge that we crave; the movie emphatically does not present her as someone we should aspire to be. Even in the all-consuming profession of espionage, she’s singularly alone, with no romantic life and, as one colleague sympathetically observes, no real friends at all. She presumably has some family, but as portrayed in the movie, she never even thinks about them. The one time we see her socializing, she talks about work, and the scene ends with a harrowing explosion. She has no life outside of her job—even eating and sleeping are annoying chores that get in her way.

We still root for her as she tries to convince her wary superiors to act, but that’s largely because we already know she’s right. Imagine yourself as one of her colleagues, trying to work with her without the benefit of hindsight, and she starts to look different: intractable and unpleasant, if not downright ornery, and obsessively attached to a pet theory that’s far from ironclad. We share her frustration when Dan questions the intelligence; he seems to be cynically trying save his own skin by making his views conform to political changes. But if you think about it, his doubt makes perfect sense: we’ve seen two separate occasions where he tortured detainees and got nothing out of it—there were presumably many more. The same is true when Maya argues with her boss Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), demanding more resources to track bin Laden’s courier. She has more passion and better rhetoric, but he has the better argument. Without the knowledge that she’s right, his assessment that she’s “chasing a ghost while the whole fucking network goes all around [her]” sounds pretty spot-on.

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This is a character often lionized in the movies: the hyper-competent warrior/civil servant who lives only for their work. But Bigelow is clear-eyed about how easily such deep commitment can drift over into fanaticism. In another pitch for more resources, Maya implores a colleague: “A lot of my friends have died trying to do this. I believe I was spared so I can finish the job.” Unless you’re the sort of person who views our adventures in the Middle East as a righteous resuscitation of the Crusades,[vi] that line makes you uncomfortable, and it’s meant to, because our protagonist is starting to sound disconcertingly similar to the people she’s fighting. Apart from showing a dark side to Maya’s zeal, this crucial line suggests that the War on Terror, and the hunt for bin Laden in particular, contains more of an element of ‘holy war’ than we’d perhaps like to admit. Most of us would balk at the idea of a grand struggle between Christianity and Islam, but religions aren’t the only things that a society can hold sacred. For us, it’s more often about principles: democracy, personal liberty, happiness through consumerism and mass wealth. If there’s anything that unites the vast majority of Americans—especially when the movie was released, before the current shitstorm—it’s a deep-seated belief that we know the right way to live, and one of the driving forces behind the War on Terror is an urge (admitted or not) to spread that gospel to supposedly less enlightened areas of the world. Zero Dark Thirty suggests that in the final analysis, our endeavor is not so different from our enemy’s, and ultimately just as futile.

The movie’s final shots definitively quash any lingering sense of triumph, with Maya sitting alone in a cavernous military transport plane, finally letting her roiling emotions bubble to the surface. She’s an embodiment of America in its quest for revenge: deeply committed, but also obsessive to the point of misery and ill health, moral compass blown to bits, alone and directionless once it’s over. Not for nothing is the movie’s final line, “So, where do you want to go?” We fought brutal wars, adopted our enemy’s cruelty and disregard for innocent life, spent thousands of man hours and literally unimaginable sums of money, killed god knows how many people and sacrificed many of our own—all to kill one man who, by the time we get him, hasn’t been a serious threat to the country for years. Zero Dark Thirty wrestles with a crucial question: Was it worth it? On the level of instinctive patriotism, of course it was. He was the mastermind of 9/11; we’d do anything to get that bastard! Fine, the movie says, here’s what that looks like, up close and in human terms. Do you still think it was worth it? We got our revenge, but are we really better off? I think you’d have to ignore an awful lot of this movie to claim that Bigelow and Boal’s answer is yes. During the SEALs’ frantic evacuation of the house, the camera lingers on two significant images. We see a pool of blood on the floor of bin Laden’s bedroom, and a room full of computers and filing cabinets, only partially ransacked for valuable intelligence—the pitiable side of our revenge, and its ultimately negligible impact on the broader conflict.

Politics have changed, but Zero Dark Thirty is just as thought-provoking today as it was when it came out. It’s not always easy to watch, but it’s an achievement that deserves to be remembered: an entertaining and immersive thriller that also manages to explore difficult issues with uncommon depth. It’s a masterful piece of cinematic craft, and it will eventually be a valuable historical document, partly for its nuanced depiction of what happened, and partly for the way it captures the mindset of a nation lashing out in response to trauma. It shows us who we are, what we did and what it did to us—raw, unfiltered by ideology, without the comfort of a simple moral judgment.

No wonder it pissed so many people off.

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© Harrison Swan, 2019

[i] Bigelow and Boal don’t delve into the thorny history behind that one—after all, there’s only so much one movie can do—but anyone with a passing knowledge of the Middle East knows that 9/11 didn’t come out of nowhere, either.

[ii] Glenn Greenwald, an astute and talented investigative journalist, does so very articulately here: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/dec/14/zero-dark-thirty-cia-propaganda

[iii] Manohla Dargis makes this point well, in this excellent review: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/18/movies/jessica-chastain-in-zero-dark-thirty.html

[iv] Read the rest of this exceptionally thoughtful and incisive review here: https://www.salon.com/2012/12/14/pick_of_the_week_kathryn_bigelows_mesmerizing_post_911_nightmare/

[v] https://www.thewrap.com/zero-dark-thirty-steps-line-fire-answers-critics-68781/

[vi] And if you are, then pretty much everything about this movie probably looks very different from the way I’ve discussed it.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even if that person is Tom Cruise.

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© Harrison Swan, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Bedroom (2001)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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© Harrison Swan, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Captain Phillips (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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© Harrison Swan, 2019

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

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

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

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

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