Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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© Harrison Swan, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cabin in the Woods (2011)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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© Harrison Swan, 2020

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

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

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

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

Michael Clayton (2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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© Harrison Swan, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riding Giants (2004)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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© Harrison Swan, 2020

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

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

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

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

Arrival (2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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© Harrison Swan, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

The Raid: Redemption (Indonesia, 2011)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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© Harrison Swan, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

Locke (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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© Harrison Swan, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 it 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 great 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, it 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, and his arc demonstrates 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.