Philosophy of the modern Western, part I – No Country for Old Men

Sergio Leone once described the Western as “set in a world in which life has no value”. Nowhere is this concept more readily recognizable than in No Country for Old Men where Anton Chigurh, the primary antagonist, determines the fate of his victims in a simple coin toss. Heads or tails. One means he gets to kill the person calling the toss, the other means said person walks away with his or her life. Life has no intrinsic meaning in No Country for Old Men, it is no more valuable than a speck of dust. That point is further hammered in with the death of the protagonist, which happens off-screen and in what some might describe as a rather anti-climactic manner. Chigurh simply shoots him. There is no monologue or long stand-off. The bad guy wins because he’s a professional assassin, the ‘good’ guy (who’s actually no more than a regular person whose blessing turns out to be a curse) loses because he’s not well-versed in the game he’s playing. Like most of the Coen brothers’ other movies, No Country for Old Men showcases the reality of the human experience, its complete absurdity (in the purely philosophical sense, as coined by Albert Camus) and our, at times, fruitless attempts at dealing with whatever comes our way. And, in a sense, that’s the very essence of the Western. The stakes are never particularly high. Win or lose, it’s usually only the protagonist and his family and friends that are involved in the situation. There is no existential threat to humanity or its way of life. It’s an intimate story that pits man against man, that’s what a Western is at its very core, once you strip off all the extra layers that are necessary for the creation of an easy-to-watch and at least somewhat entertaining plot. But No Country for Old Men goes further than most other films in its genre.

Let’s return to Camus for a bit. In the very beginning of his essay titled The Myth of Sisyphus, in which he details his philosophy of absurdism, he writes, “There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide” (MS, 3). It is the decision whether to partake in existence, as it were, to indulge in life or to reject it and everything it has to offer, to reject oneself and to return to non-existence.

…The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure. It’s not that I’m afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job — not to be glorious. But I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand.

You can say it’s my job to fight it but I don’t know what it is anymore. More than that, I don’t want to know. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He would have to say, OK, I’ll be part of this world….

This is a transcript of the voice-over during the opening scenes of the movie. Sheriff Bell, a sort of secondary protagonist and in-universe narrator, is basically saying the same thing that Camus did more than 60 years earlier – a man has to agree to be part of this world. It’s his choice and his choice only. The whole monologue is a barely-concealed metaphor for life in general. We all know that, in order to appreciate life, we have to be fully aware of death’s constant presence, it’s the looming last stop at the end of the joy ride. Glory isn’t guaranteed, hell, it’s probably not even preferable to most people.  But possibly the most human part is the last line of the first paragraph. It’s a vulnerable admission of fear in the face of something that is alien to us, something that we do not and cannot understand. And it’s what makes the movie so beautiful, as Tommy Lee Jones’s character struggles under the sheer weight of what he perceives as his approaching demise. Retirement for him is the second to last step of the ladder. But there is no clarity as he nears the end. No answer occurs to him.

There’s a scene in which Bell reads a horror story from the morning newspaper to his deputy, Wendell, who barely contains his nervous laughter. “That’s alright, I laugh myself sometimes,” Bell muses, “There ain’t a whole lot else you can do.” Wendell’s laughter isn’t out of amusement or ignorance, it’s desperation, acknowledgement of the extraordinary nature of what’s happening. This very response is also one that Camus has explored in The Fall, where the main character, Jean-Baptiste, often laughs during inappropriate moments, at times that most would find offensive or even horrifying. He laughs not because he finds his world particularly funny, but because he realizes that it is fundamentally absurd. In The Fall, laughter is the sound of the Universe judging man’s futile attempts at rationalizing his condition of constant suffering.

One last point that I’d like to discuss in regards to No Country for Old Men is the role of Anton Chigurh in the story. Much and more has been said in reviews and analyses about his violent and brutal nature, some have even gone so far as to misrepresent his character as a glorification of what they see as a culture of aggression and destruction. But it’s disingenuous to think of Anton as a manifestation of politics or any other aspect of the modern world. He represents something much more ancient. Anton Chigurh is the shadow of death. The point of his character is to act as a source of impending doom, a force of nature that cannot be reckoned or bargained with. All that matters in its face is chance. As Harvey Dent puts it in The Dark Knight, “The only morality in a cruel world is chance. Unbiased. Unprejudiced. Fair.”. That’s exactly how Anton sees the world. He is merely an instrument, a function of the Universe. Death is a fact of existence, a constituent part of our reality, as paradoxical as that may sound.

Furthermore, Anton acquaints his victims with the thought of their own mortality before letting chance run its course and decide their fate. He looks them in the eye, enters their personal space, makes them uncomfortable, aware of his imposing presence. His shadow is often the focal point of some of his scenes, especially those that try to subtly reveal the power he has over whoever has had the misfortune of crossing paths with him. The laws of man do not bind him, for he only follows those that govern the Universe as a whole. Anton Chigurh is, for all intents and purposes, a personification of Death itself. He almost single-handedly drives the plot, just as the knowledge of our own mortality drives us to live our lives the way we want and to do with them as we please.

The final monologue sums up the story quite nicely.

Had dreams… Two of ’em. Both had my father in ’em. It’s peculiar. I’m older now then he ever was by twenty years. So, in a sense, he’s the younger man. Anyway, the first one I don’t remember too well but, it was about meetin’ him in town somewheres and he give me some money. I think I lost it. The second one, it was like we was both back in older times and I was on horseback goin’ through the mountains of a night. Goin’ through this pass in the mountains. It was cold and there was snow on the ground and he rode past me and kept on goin’. Never said nothin’ goin’ by – just rode on past. And he had his blanket wrapped around him and his head down. When he rode past, I seen he was carryin’ fire in a horn the way people used to do, and I-I could see the horn from the light inside of it – about the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin’ on ahead and he was fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold. And I knew that whenever I got there, he’d be there. And then I woke up.

On its surface, it seems like a fairly straightforward visualization of moving on, beyond life and into whatever awaits us after death. But there’s something else about it that represents the most fundamental part of absurdism – the fire in the middle of the dark and cold. It’s our existence despite the knowledge of life’s perverse nature. Our perseverance in the face of the Absurd. Just as Bell realizes that losing all hope and accepting reality frees you and permits you to live with at least a certain degree of contentment, Camus, in the last sentence of his Myth of Sisyphus, tells us that “one must imagine Sisyphus happy.”.

The art of violence in Bronson (2008).

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson is 92 minutes of pure rage. There’s no rhyme or reason to Charles Bronson’s actions. He’s the most notorious and violent prisoner in the history of Britain, despite never having actually killed anyone. There doesn’t seem to be any contempt for his fellow man in his behavior. Bronson simply fights for the heck of it. He wasn’t raised poor, his parents in the movie were fairly well-off and in real life they were mayor and mayoress of his home town. There’s no rebellion against an unjust system, no attempt to escape attempts at subjugation or indoctrination, poverty or systematic discrimination. There is quite literally no reason for Bronson to be the way he is. And yet he exists, both in the film and in modern day England.

There are a few possible explanations for Charles Bronson’s seemingly (and most likely truly) insane actions. The most obvious and succinct one is that Bronson is simply a masochist and enjoys getting smashed to a pulp over and over again. Another is that he suffers from a severe mental illness. But I’d like to present an alternative view, one that is based more in interpretation than original intention and shouldn’t be considered as an attempt to legitimize Bronson’s violent behavior, but rather to rationalize it and use it as a means to explore questions that quite possibly haven’t even entered his head at any point in his life. Also, the following thoughts shall be based mostly on the film, so bear in mind that they might slightly misrepresent Bronson’s current image and attitude, as he seems to have mellowed over the past few years.

The one recognizable emotion that Bronson, portrayed masterfully by Tom Hardy in one of his career best performance, expresses is his distaste for mental facilities. Why would that be? Because there he can be subdued. He is tranquilized and spends a large chunk of his time there in an immobilized state that does not permit him to do the one thing he does best. It’s that one thing, fighting, that gives him agency over his life. In a sense, one could see Bronson’s constant indulging in short bouts of fisticuffs against numerous foes as an expression of freedom, of his ability to choose when and how hard to be walloped. In prison, everything is fairly simple – the hierarchy is clear, as are Bronson’s foes. He knows who’s going to give him the best beating, and he knows exactly how to ask for it. His biggest joy is being able to strike back and knock a few teeth out. The people he holds hostage are merely catnip, a way to attract more attention and thus, more guards to hit.

Furthermore, Bronson isn’t a man focused on the material. His only possessions are practical, like butter to cover himself in to make it harder to for his opponents to grasp. He’s seen escaping to the rooftop of one of the prisons he’s kept in, not in an effort to leave the facility and start anew, but to destroy property and cause damage.

There is no growth, no character arc. Bronson simply is. Towards the end, we see him practicing his painting skills and becoming close with a member of staff in the prison who helps those incarcerated to find the beauty in art. The viewer is left, even if only for a while, under the impression that Bronson is rediscovering himself, that there might be hope for him yet to be reintegrated into civil society. But what does Bronson do once the warden notices his interest in painting and begins making plans for his future? Bronson once again rears his animalistic side, the one that is ever present, and destroys everything in the final showdown between him and the guards in the movie. Does he achieve anything? Not really. He gets to paint a clown mask on a man’s face while listening to classical music. Then he hits some people over the head and causes a bit of a ruckus. It’s not grand. It’s not some overarching philosophical achievement that advances him as a person. It’s just a man doing what he does best, doing what he enjoys. Incidentally, that turns him into a celebrity among the British prison population, and Bronson seems to enjoy that. He, like every man, enjoys recognition and appreciation for his work, if you could call it that. It’s all very basic, very reminiscent of primitive societies that saw violence and physical strength as a sign of spiritual freedom and a basis for respect.  And fame and recognition are two things that Charles Bronson seems to enjoy – he’d rather reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.

What Bronson does to assert his freedom of the spirit and will is abhorrent to most, and justly so, but it’s an extreme response to a feeling that everyone experiences. That creeping sense of worthlessness that comes whenever we realize that we have no effect over whatever is going in our lives or in the world in general. It’s an idea that’s been explored in many great films over the years as well. Taxi Driver, Fight Club, Brazil, as well as many others, explore this lack of individual agency from different angles, but fundamentally it all boils down to the same feeling of insignificance in a world that is moving on and growing ever smaller in the distance as the protagonist watches it with despair and disappointment in their heart. The difference is that Bronson doesn’t justify its main character’s actions, it doesn’t rationalize his behavior or glorify him. Refn doesn’t give us much backstory or motivation for Bronson’s current attitude towards the world, but simply presents the man as he is and lets the viewer decide what to make of him.

The movie itself is very well made. It walks the thin line between indie arthouse and action-fuelled romp, and it keeps the balance thanks to its levity and good direction. The editing is great, combining a more subdued take on transition and visual imagery with what I can only describe as the old English gangster movie style that emerged in the 80s and was mainly popularized later on by the likes of Guy Ritchie, with flashy cuts, matching or fading transitions and constant narration that adds an extra layer of entertainment. The action scenes are decently choreographed, though at times it’s a bit too easy to tell just how far Tom Hardy’s knuckle stopped from his fellow actor’s body, making the punches feel floaty and weightless, thus causing the fight to lose traction. And, last but not least, Tom Hardy delivers a phenomenal performance which alone makes the movie a must-see. Hardy switches effortlessly between schizophrenic stage performance based loosely in classical acting and more modern method acting that he prepared for with the help of Charles Bronson himself. A truly masterful display that cements his place as one of the greats of our generation.

 

Under 800: The Tree of Life (2011)

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is quite possibly the most frustrating, uneven movie I’ve ever seen. It was also the most profound cinematic experience I’ve ever had.

As Preisner’s Lacrimosa crescendos, the dust finally settles. What started off as a slightly confusing sequence showing the birth of everything that is, turns into a visualization of the grandeur of existence. We see galaxies in their full brilliance from impossible angles that make the viewer feel immaterial, a ghost flying through the beauty of this finite Universe that we have found ourselves in. We see the clouds of creation, we move towards them, through them, despite their size, despite the physical impossibility of it all. It was at this moment, as Lacrimosa reached its very peak, that I felt The Tree of Life had achieved something unimaginably profound and meaningful – it had dwarfed the viewer. It’s a visual experience that beats even Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s art in its most raw, unfettered form, and it’s cinema as Tarkovsky saw it – no symbolism, no ideology or attempts to make a point, no place for rationalization or coherent thought. It’s an emotional experience that gives a sort of nebulous appreciation for the very essence of being and nothingness. It’s not something that can be precisely put into words, because it’s not meant to be. I urge everyone to watch at least the first 40 minutes of The Tree of Life.

And this is where the frustration sets in. The rest of the film focuses on the life of an American small town family in the 1950s. Mr and Mrs O’Brien have three kids and we see them growing up, but the story is mostly told from the point of view of Young Jack, the oldest of the children. He goes through multiple phases during his adolescence, from witnessing the death of one of his friends and questioning the existence of God at a rather tender age, to praying for his father’s death and even considering bringing it about himself. Sounds interesting enough, right?

Except it isn’t. What we get is a jumbled mess of poor cinematography and unlikable characters. Constant close up shots, dutch angles and poor cutting and editing make the experience a particularly jarring one, as the viewer struggles to understand what’s happening on-screen. The themes this latter part of the movie explores aren’t particularly hard to spot. There’s contemplation on the constant cycle of life and death (which is a recurring theme even outside of the family’s story, as evidenced by the frequent underwater shots of overhead waves, penetrated by rays of light, and the pitch black transition shots that linger long enough to make their presence known) and its effect on those of us left behind after a person’s passing; there’s religion, spirituality, a child’s realization that their childhood is slipping away from them and there’s nothing they can do to stop the process, innocence, anger, the list goes on. And that’s exactly the problem – while trying to tackle almost every single aspect of human nature, The Tree of Life fails to flesh out and truly explore any one of them. The result is the cinematic equivalent of name dropping during a rap song. It’s void of any sort of substance to the point where it’s almost insulting at times. I firmly believe that the only driving force behind this part of the movie is the viewer’s imagination and projection. I could definitely understand someone who grew up in the same environment enjoying this part of The Tree of Life, but it did very little for me. I appreciate what Malick wanted to achieve here, but it just felt like a complete mess, despite the interesting yet underdeveloped themes. Oh, and there’s Sean Penn’s part of the movie that is somewhat confusing, to the point where even he’s admitted he had no idea what he was doing.

And this isn’t to say I disliked this movie. If I were to compile a list of my ten favorite films of all time, The Tree of Life would be a strong contender for a spot in it. If only because the first half of it left me awestruck and managed to transport me into a place that’s both real and magical at the same time. In a sense, The Tree of Life suffers from the Full Metal Jacket syndrome. Kubrick’s film about the Vietnam war also starts off incredibly strong, a beautiful look into the way young men’s identities were subverted and replaced by predatory instincts. The main character of that first part is Pvt. Leonard Lawrence, who is out of shape and out of depth in the military world. He’s bullied, beaten and shamed into complete madness and, in his madness, kills Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, a vile man with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, before turning the rifle on himself in a haunting scene that showcased the cold determination of a suicidal man. Then the movie moves on to Vietnam and loses a lot of its steam, though the drop-off isn’t even close to being as steep as that of The Tree of Life. Are both of these movies worth watching? Definitely. But don’t be surprised if you’re left feeling that they could’ve been so, so much more.

The Master and power.

Paul Thomas Anderson is a controversial figure. Some laud him as the greatest contemporary film maker and a potential inductee to the pantheon of cinema, while others remain unconvinced by the former’s enthusiasm, and that’s putting it mildly. Accusations of baseless pretentiousness and lack of coherence, both in thematic and narrative structure, have accompanied the release of most of Anderson’s films. Before I get to discussing the work at hand, I’d like to make clear my own thoughts on the matter. The rules of art are not set in stone. In fact, I’d go even further and assert that there are no rules when it comes to creating a work of art. The writer cannot be held at gunpoint by a set of arbitrary requirements or expectations. Neither can the painter, the singer, the actor or the director. The rules should only exist as a guideline, as a means for the creator to keep in check his or her unrestrained flight of fancy. Bearing this in mind, one cannot fault Paul Thomas Anderson for creating films that aren’t cut and dry. That ask the questions but provide few answers. He engages the audience and challenges it to find the truth, their truth, wherever it may be, whatever it may be. Does a free man need someone else to tell him what is good and what is evil, what is just and what is not? No, because a free man is a thinking man, and the mind needs quandaries and inner debate like an engine needs oil.

So what is the deal with The Master? A great many viewers felt disappointed or confused upon finishing the movie because of what they perceived as a lack of payoff, be it in terms of character arc or closure of the story. But what’s important to note about The Master is that it is not a story as such, it’s a character study that pokes and prods, like all memorable works of art, at the very heart of the human experience, in this case power. Power is an abstract term, I know, but it’s a fundamental component of our societies and has been since the very dawn of our existence. There has always been a leader at the head of the group, someone who’s achieved superiority in one way or another. In primitive societies this superiority stems from the physical abilities and traits of the would-be ruler. In our modern, advanced world the difference between the leader and his followers is much harder to notice, much harder to perceive from the outside. Yes, money and birth factor in, but these two alone wouldn’t be enough to convince a large group of people, each member of said group being an educated, thinking, semi-rational human being with needs and desires of their own, that this particular person is worthy of climbing the ranks and receiving a great deal of influence over the group. And this is where we can learn much about the dynamics of power from The Master.

People are prone to becoming invested in ideas. Whether it be the thought of travelling the world or writing a book, an idea is something that gives purpose to our existence, it’s the driving force behind each of our conscious actions and decisions. But there is a particular set of ideas that is more lucrative than the rest, as evidenced by the creation of countless religions and philosophical schools of thought – those that explain our existence and give us a rough outline of what to expect after death. Fear is motivational, but hope even more so. Even if it isn’t well-defined or expressly stated, hope resides in the mind and heart of each individual with the will, power and opportunity to continue existing. And that is what Dodd, like many religious and spiritual leaders in the real world, offers to the followers of his doctrine. He claims not only that each and every person has lived and died before, but that this process is a continuous loop, as old as time itself. Life, according to him, is as intrinsic a part of the Universe as death. Add to that the fact that the knowledge of your previous lives is lost upon rebirth, and you have a cautiously optimistic theory that provides each person with an endless amount of blank slates and start-overs. This is the basis for Dodd’s cult following. The other important part of his success is he himself. He’s charismatic and well-spoken, fiery and emphatic when needed but tender and mannered when not challenged. His view of the world is that of a visionary, at least in the eyes of those who choose to drink the cool-aid and accept him as their master (quite literally, as that’s his title among his followers). At first he seems to single out potential members of his cult, vulnerable or useful people who he manipulates easily enough and keeps by his side as boot-lickers, body guards or, as was implied by his wife, sex dolls. It is this tendency to surround himself with a group of blind and easily manipulated fools that puts into question Dodd’s committal to his own idea. Does he truly believe in what he preaches? Or does he simply feel an innate desire to be followed and revered? Again, this film does not tie any loose ends. It merely asks and gives out hints, leaving the conclusions to the viewer. But of hints there are plenty. It’s hard to ignore the camera work in The Master, and it is the most obvious way of recognizing the relationship between whichever group of characters is on screen. The actors are placed and presented in certain ways or in certain parts of the frame so as to indicate their importance and their place in the hierarchy, and this is made blatantly obvious fairly early on, during a wide shot of the ship where Lancaster Dodd and Freddie Quell first meet. As the ship sails, the lower deck is full of people dancing, drinking and laughing. It’s hard to discern any one of them, it’s a large group of people having fun. But just below, on the lower deck, we see a lone couple having a discussion. The woman is seated obediently, staring up at her husband who towers over her and talks down, while a waiter stands a good distance away and tries not to interrupt. This shot shows us not only that power will play a role in the movie, but also that there will be a striking difference between the surface and the substance, between what’s visible to the public and what stays in the family. As the film goes on, we learn that Dodd isn’t nearly as powerful or all-knowing as he would have everyone believe. He isn’t even the strongest and most influential member of his family when it comes down to it – his wife defies and at times even controls him, his son believes him to be a hack. Scientists mock him and run circles around his idea of the way life works and his theory of processing which supposedly induces a sort of counter-hypnosis and permits the subject to become one with time and glimpse their past lives that aren’t actually past, but parallel (because cult ideologies are weird that way). But still, his following grows larger as the years go on, his detractors, as well as eventual inconsistencies in his teachings, remain largely unheard and ignored.

Another visual example of power dynamics in The Master is Quell’s hunched back, which shows that he is neither the leader nor the follower. He takes both roles at different times in the film, never committing fully to either. The hunched back shows that he’s not a kneeler or a ruler, but an amalgamation of both that comes out somewhat awkward and stunted. He comes to see Dodd as his surrogate father, but at the same time he can’t completely come to terms with his viewpoint or the way he runs things. Nevertheless, Dodd recognizes the fact that Quell is much stronger and sturdier mentally than any of his followers and in an effort to once more and for the last time assert his dominance, he tells Quell that, if he didn’t fully commit to the Cause, he would be his mortal enemy in the next life. This is possibly a throwback to Greek mythology, where Cronus realizes the threat his children pose to his rule and chooses to devour and destroy them before they can grow strong enough to defeat him. Quell doesn’t accept Dodd’s influence. At the end of the film, we see him using Dodd’s method on a woman he meets at the bar, further solidifying the point that Quell is a man in the middle of the road between master and mastered.

The Master is an intriguing movie, brilliantly directed and gorgeously shot. At times it even defies some of the most basic cinematic conventions like the shot-reverse-shot dialogue, but it does it in style, in part thanks to astounding performances by Joaquin Phoenix and, one of the greatest of all time, Phillip Seymour Hoffman. It’s a great, if somewhat loose, package thematically and visually and a must-watch for anyone willing to experiment with films that push the envelope.

Under 800: Drive (2011)

There appears to be an unspoken consensus that action movies are supposed to be low-brow summer flicks that offer cheap thrills and excitement without being anything to write home about when it comes to the technicalities of film making and story telling. But for every twenty or so new entries in a redundant franchise like The Fast and the Furious, there is one movie that pushes the envelope and delivers something that is actually worth more than a cursory glance.

One such movie is Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. It’s a slick action-noir story that follows Ryan Gosling’s unnamed character (who I shall henceforth refer to as the Driver for clarity’s sake) in his quest for… well, nothing, really. Drive is an interesting beast in that it offers very little in terms of backstory or characterization when it comes to the protagonist, while still turning him into someone the viewer can root for and sympathize with. He’s a deeply cautious and introverted man who seems to share Neil McCauley’s philosophy in Heat – never get attached to anything you can’t walk out on in 5 seconds’ time once push comes to shove. His face is an emotionless mask that manages to appear both awkward and intimidating at the same time thanks to Gosling’s amazing performance. The Driver’s sullen silences prompt his interlocutors to talk more than they usually would, and while this could’ve easily resulted in a series of expository monologues that would’ve taken away from the movie’s atmosphere and understated presentation, not once does any of the information we are fed feel forced or out of place. 

The story itself is nothing spectacular. Sure, it’s quite a bit darker than your run of the mill action flick, but it isn’t particularly complex or hard to understand. What’s interesting about it is that it offers a cyclical sort of development for the main character. The Driver goes through three distinct phases: first, we see him as a cool-headed getaway driver with a stoic complexion and nerves of steel; then he falls in love with his neighbor, Irene, and his budding relationship with her and her son Benicio takes him on a journey towards something resembling a normal life; and in the third act of the movie we find the Driver back where he was in the beginning, except now he’s filled with a lust for vengeance and violence. There is no redemption for the main character in Drive. The Driver ends up in an even darker spot than he once was, a sort of existential hero that has once again fallen out of love with life and realized that meaning cannot be derived from anything worldly.

Script aside, possibly the most exciting part of Drive are its visuals, which is unsurprising, considering it’s a prime example of the so-called arthouse action film genre that was spawned by Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai in 1954. The lighting is practically a character of its own in this movie, it parallels the Driver’s internal struggle and reflects his choices. The elevator scene is a prime example of this. The shadows change position as the Driver switches between the reality he wants to achieve and exist in, in which he is with Irene and nothing else matters, and the one that he is presented with and is forced to deal with, in which he has to fight for his life and be as brutal and unforgiving as possible. There are countless examples of brilliant lighting tricks in this movie, and their effects are enhanced even further by the consistently interesting framing of the shots. There are other techniques used as well, the type you usually see in foreign movies nowadays, which aren’t exactly central to the story but all add up to make the gloomy atmosphere as enveloping and crushing as possible. One of them is the Vertigo effect, as the Driver looks out at the city from his apartment. The foreground remains stable but the city itself seems to shift further away, its size changes and morphs ever so slightly, just enough to make the viewer completely cognizant of its slow retreat. It’s a form of perspective distortion that works remarkably well when used in the appropriate moment and to the appropriate degree.

Overall, I believe Drive to be one of the best action movies ever made. I do have a few minor nitpicks, like the nauseatingly annoying vocals in some parts of the soundtrack and the admittedly lacking story, but they just aren’t enough to eclipse the movie’s great technical and visual efforts. The car chases are as intense and gritty as they come and their influence on movies like Mad Max: Fury Road and Baby Driver is obvious. And at the end of the day, isn’t that the most important thing about a movie that doesn’t set out to be a huge box office hit? To push the boundaries of its genre and ask of us, as viewers, to pay a little more attention to the smaller, more subtle beauties that the medium can offer? I believe that to be the case, and Drive does it in style.

Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead and a closer look at zombies in fiction.

It’s extremely unlikely that there exists a single person on this planet who hasn’t heard the word ‘zombie’ or seen a movie that features the living dead. We can thank (or curse, depending on your stance on the matter) the late, great George A. Romero for turning what was then an obscure subgenre of horror into one of the biggest film categories to ever exist. According to this list on Ranker, there were more than 400 zombie movies being streamed on Amazon Prime and Netflix Instant at the time of writing, and I’m confident there are quite a few missing as well. But, looking through this long list, one would be hard-pressed to find movies that are objectively good. Sure, there are some outliers like 28 Days Later and Dawn of the Dead, but the majority is just C-movie schlock that somehow slipped through the cracks and added to the slow yet steady decline of a genre that was already suffering from untimely erosion in terms of raw quality.

Shaun of the Dead was the first movie to signal both the emancipation and death of zombie cinema. Its story beats closely mirror those of other movies in the genre, but unlike them it rarely takes itself seriously. Shaun is a loser and a bit of an idiot. None of that changes throughout the course of the movie. His plan is to quite literally have a pint in his favorite pub and wait for the whole mess to blow over. It’s not elaborate, it’s not heroic, hell, it’s not even reasonable. It gets most members of his group killed, but even that doesn’t make Shaun reconsider. There are dramatic moments, and they work very well because, in the midst of all the madness and hilarity, these rare minutes of somber clarity catch the viewer by surprise. But they’re just that – moments, minutes. The whole movie is just 100 minutes of satirization and dismantling of genre tropes and cliches. It’s almost ironic that Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead is cited today as possibly the greatest zombie movie ever created, when its whole point was to show how ridiculous the genre was and how easy it was for someone with actual talent and film making flair to come in and trample all the low-brow efforts that came before.

Then came Zombieland in 2009. While Shaun of the Dead was, like the rest of the movies in the Cornetto trilogy, Edgar Wright’s take on a tired genre, Zombieland seemed more like an effort to reinvigorate this particular dead horse. If I was only allowed but one word with which to describe this movie, that word would ‘fun’. It’s a lighthearted play on action movies in general, but instead of making fun of their relative simplicity, it takes the ridiculousness even further and uses it to create a story that is genuinely amusing. The characters are likable and witty, the dialogue and banter between them is engaging, with some neat reference sprinkled in to reward the more observant fans. Bill Murray’s cameo is one of the best I’ve ever seen, and possibly one of Bill’s best performances to date. The atmosphere switches effortlessly between optimism and melancholy, never lingering too long on either. The editing is crisp (if at some points too heavy-handed and distracting), the action is well shot and rather imaginative, with zombies being killed by all manner of items, such as banjos, pliers and even falling pianos. We’ve seen countless zombie movies try to be cerebral and deep, but none of them succeed because the people behind them have no idea how to achieve anything meaningful. George A. Romero was the first and last to successfully use the zombie as a vehicle for social commentary. The Walking Dead, AMC’s hit TV show, came close to being philosophical at times during its first two seasons, but then Frank Darabont was ousted and the role of director was given to a makeup artist who hasn’t the slightest clue about how to create a coherent, engaging narrative. Zombieland is the anti-thesis to all of this. It is, at its core, a movie that aims to entertain, while still successfully weaving in some more serious elements.

Both Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland failed to change the genre’s direction. Zombie movies are still fairly common, good ones are still a rare and valuable commodity. Train to Busan is the only recent one I can name off the top of my head, and it isn’t even a Western production.

But there is one movie in particular that has, over the past few years, made me appreciate just how mediocre the genre is, despite the incredible potential that it has. Brad Pitt’s World War Z is a bland, unbalanced and horribly paced mess that shambles its way to the finish line, carried only by Brad’s acting ability and its high budget action sequences that offer some degree of satisfaction. All of this in and of itself is not particularly bad, plenty of movies like this one get released every year and make huge sums at the box office, but what is particularly infuriating about WWZ is that the book this movie is supposed to be based on is one of the best pieces of zombie fiction ever created. It’s a series of interviews with various people from around the world, with occupations ranging from marines on a Chinese nuclear submarine to bodyguards of Hollywood celebrities. All of these people are survivors, meaning they made it through the outbreak of the zombie virus, and they recount their stories to the interviewer, a man working for the UN. The stories reveal the changes that the world went through during the crisis – religious, political, social, environmental, psychological. Does this sound anything like Brad’s movie? Not at all, because all the studio needed was a name that would sound well and make it easier to bank on the zombie craze.

I feel this is a case of ‘I’m not mad, I’m disappointed’. There is an incredible deal of potential not only in zombie movies, but in the apocalyptic genre in general. There’s so much room to explore deep themes, to create immersive and interesting environments a la Mad Max: Fury Road, to introduce the viewer to characters that aren’t your run of the mill Mary Sue or Mary Stu. And I believe there’s still hope for that. With David Fincher directing the sequel to World War Z (which is rumored to be a reboot, rather than a continuation of the first movie’s story) and Zombieland 2 in the works, maybe it’s finally time for the apocalypse to become interesting again.

 

 

Under 800: Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Wes Anderson is a director who knows his craft incredibly well. And it shows. He picks and chooses from the styles of some of the greatest film makers of all time and puts his own spin on their techniques and ideas. Moonrise Kingdom is a great example of this very tendency of Anderson’s as there’s something distinctly Lynchian about the movie. From the Americana setting to the unique quirks of the side characters. There’s even a little nod to Lynch’s uncanny obsession with ears. But what makes Moonrise Kingdom patently different than pretty much every one of David Lynch’s movies (excluding a wonderful film he directed for Disney called The Straight Story) is that there is no sinister surrealism in the background. While Lynch shows us the randomness and sheer strangeness of our world, Anderson aims to create a sweet story that focuses not on the external world, but on the turbulent changes that every one of us goes through. And he succeeds in doing just that with Moonrise Kingdom, the story of two outcast kids that fall in love and proceed to do everything in their power to remain together despite all odds.

The first thing the viewer notices when being introduced to this movie is its color palette, warmer and brighter than any movie I’ve seen in the past few years, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Spring Breakers being the only ones that I remember even coming close. Next, we have the camera, and, oh, what a delight it is to observe its movement and fluidity. The use of steadicam is very welcome in the age of handheld shakiness. The opening scene in particular is made entertaining by the work of the cameraman – first the camera glides along a rail while facing left, before making a few rapid 90 degree turns to introduce us to the surroundings and shows us what’s going on in other parts of the room. It’s effective, it’s appealing to the eye, but most importantly it makes visual storytelling that much more easy and efficient. Wes Anderson is a director who spends a great deal of time crafting his scenes, and the interior of the house in the beginning of the movie is no different. We’re introduced to the story before so much as a single word has been uttered. And just one more thing before I finish gushing over the opening scene – the use of diegetic sound, particularly the music, is a fun touch that makes the story even more immersive. The atmosphere is one of magical realism. It captures what it’s like to be a child, to explore yourself and the world you live in, thanks to both the colors and way the story is told. From the get go, the viewer can surmise that the movie takes place in a village or a small town, a notion that is confirmed later on. But the place is never shown. It never becomes the mise-en-scene, but it’s a key component to understanding the childish theme of the movie, illustrating how little the kids care about the outside world. Both Sam and Suzy are loners who spend their time doing whatever they do away from the public eye. They both have psychological issues. The town remains irrelevant up until a devastating storm decimates the local pier. That’s when the in-universe narrator first mentions it and shows it to us from afar, probably because toward the end of the movie the main characters have finished their journey and are on their way to recovery. They have families, possibly even friends. They finally notice the outside world.

The story itself is well-paced, excluding some random bits of the third act. The dialogue is brilliant, though it does sound somewhat strange at times due to the quirky and unique world that Anderson’s created for the movie and said strangeness is made almost unnoticeable by the cast. Who would’ve thought that Bruce Willis would be cast in a role that doesn’t suit his usual stoic macho exterior? And he actually acts in this movie. For the first time in years, Bruce Willis doesn’t play Bruce Willis. Delightful, isn’t it? Not that I mind his usual roles, far from it, but it’s nice to see a talented actor outside of his comfort zone. Bill Murray delivers an impressive performance that shows both external emotion and internal struggle and depth. The leads are kid actors and, while not nearly as good as some of the other cast members, they do their job admirably. Oh, and did I mention Edward Norton is great in this as well? Yeah, he’s great in everything he appears in. Even in the disaster that was The Incredible Hulk.

Overall, Moonrise Kingdom is a testament to Wes Anderson’s talent and ability to create a unique story with stunning visuals and interesting characters. It’s a shame he missed out on the Best Motion Picture award in 2015 for The Grand Budapest Hotel, though, in the movie’s the defense, it had to contend with one of the best movies made in the past thirty years, Birdman. Anderson is one of the greats of our time and I’m confident that one day Moonrise Kingdom will be considered one of the weaker movies in his filmography, not because it’s bad, but because he has so much time and potential to grow as a director and create films that surpass anything he’s put out up to this point.