Wind River (2017)

Wind River follows the story of Cory Lambert, a tracker for the Fish & Wildlife Service, and his efforts to aid the FBI and local law enforcement in their investigation into the murder of Natalie, a Native girl found raped and killed miles away from civilization.

Wind River is the conclusion of what many critics have come to describe as Taylor Sheridan’s frontier trilogy. Like Hell or High Water and Sicario, Wind River takes place far from the booming cities and the glitz of the modern world. The story is set, unsurprisingly, in the Wind River Indian Reservation and portrays the struggle of those left behind by the march of technological and social advancement. This particular theme, that of survival and fending for oneself after being left behind by the very institutions that should be protecting the general populace, is one that has shaped all of Sheridan’s work and has won him near endless praise for his ability to shape his screenplays around a solid thematic core while still managing to deliver entertaining and engaging moments. His directorial debut, though, in the form of Wind River is by far his weakest outing and fails to live up to the brilliance of his previous work. It feels like a lesser version of the movies that are based on his screenplays. It delivers very little of the interesting commentary of Hell or High Water and only manages to sprinkle in the occasional moments of terrifying tension that made Sicario as good as it was. That isn’t to say this is a bad movie, far from it, especially considering it’s the work of a first-time director. But it’s mediocre by comparison.

With that said, I enjoyed Wind River quite a bit, if only because of how obvious the learning process that Sheridan goes through during the film is. As it goes on, Wind River becomes more confident in itself, the gelatinous blob of beautiful scenery, constant shaky cam and mumbled dialogue with awkward editing takes form and becomes a competent movie with a clear arc. The progress is impressive, as the final 30 minutes of the film offer one of the greatest Mexican standoffs in recent memory, as well as some excellently planned shoot outs that remind us of Taylor Sheridan’s penchant for suspense and crushing tension. This latter half of Wind River alone is enough to reassure me that Sheridan has the potential to direct some very interesting movies in the future.

The movie is a murder mystery at its core, a sort of quasi-police procedural that doesn’t actually play out like one. There are no clues or hints to be pieced together by the viewer, or by the characters themselves, for that matter. Cory Lambert is as good as trackers get and he does pretty much all of the police’s work for them. Not that Ben, the chief of police in the reservation, minds. Wind River succeeds in creating a sense of small town familiarity; everyone knows everyone, there are very few secrets to be uncovered in such a large, yet sparsely populated area. This brings me to the biggest positive aspect of the film, and that is its tone and all-encompassing atmosphere. There are many wide angle establishing shots in this film, but for once they serve a narrative purpose rather than existing solely as eye candy that is supposed to cover up the lack of interesting cinematography. The sense of isolation is almost crippling. There is nothing around save for the snowy mountains and sleeping forests full of predators. Wind River, at its core, seems to be a story about the relationship between predator and victim, hunter and hunted. That’s established very early on, during the first scene of the movie, as Cory kills a pack of wolves that have gotten dangerously close to a flock of grazing sheep. The movie seems to posit that, in the absence of the powers that be or rather when said powers are asleep at the wheel and ignore the troubles of a part of society that is deemed unworthy of attention, the only thing that can protect the community is individual agency and the willingness of said community to survive. This is a point that is continuously reiterated through the actions of the characters, through the very nature of the story and, in the end, by a monologue by Jeremy Renner’s character, Cory Lambert. If nothing else, Taylor Sheridan knows how to present his ideas and weave them into the plot, and that is a feat that shouldn’t be understated. Perhaps it wasn’t done quite as well as it could have been in this instance, but the effort is still commendable.

Speaking of Jeremy Renner, this is possibly his best performance to date. His stoic exterior is reminiscent of the Western cowboys of yore but with at least a tinge of emotional depth, making Cory Lambert a much more interesting character than most protagonists in Western movies. Elizabeth Olsen delivers in her role as Jane Banner, an FBI agent that flies out to the res in order to help out with the investigation, while most of the Native American actors also do a great job, particularly Gil Birmingham.

Overall, Wind River offers much in the way of entertainment, even if it is lacking in the technical department, especially earlier on. Some viewers might be bothered by the occasional hiccups in some of the most basic aspects of film making, like the shot-reverse-shot that seems to be mistimed in a few instances, but the movie more than makes up for this in its later parts. It feels exactly like the type of film that Tarantino would take inspiration from, had it been made 30 or so years earlier. It’s good but not great, somewhat slow but never boring, very atmospheric and definitely worth a watch.

The Full Monty, the charm of British comedy, and some thoughts on the state of the industry.

The Brits know comedy better than anyone else in the world, that much has become abundantly clear to me over the past few weeks as I’ve slowly made my way through a long list of comedy movies set in the UK and directed by Brits. But what exactly is it that sets these movies apart, and why do mainstream American comedies pale in comparison?

I believe the answer lies in the very nature of the British comedic form. It is highly situational, arising from seemingly random events. The characters are left to deal with the consequences of something that they had little to no effect over in the first place. The Full Monty illustrates this point rather well. Sheffield, as seen in the movie, is a broken place. A city that was once an industrial hub has reached its expiration date and its inhabitants are left searching for work and dealing with the psychological effects of long-term poverty and unemployment. That’s the undertone of the movie, it permeates the atmosphere and leaves a lasting impression on the viewer. But this is never the focus of the movie. It exists as a set up for things to come, as the characters find ridiculous ways to make some money on the side while searching for employment. The Full Monty feels like a look into someone’s life, someone who we can even trick ourselves into identifying with, despite the occasional over-the-top moments of hilarity. The protagonists, Gaz and Dave, have remarkable depth, they’re not cardboard cut-outs waiting to recite their next line of dialogue. The moments of humor come about naturally, we see the most hilarious scenes forming, as the characters build up towards them and set the tone by just being themselves and, more importantly, being real people.

And this is where I feel compelled to voice one of my main complaints when it comes to the US style of comedy, and that’s the way the script plays out and how the jokes are relayed. TJ Miller is, I feel, the very personification of modern American humor in film, his role in Deadpool being an especially egregious example of poor joke conception and delivery. He stands still, center frame, stares right at the character opposite him (in this case Ryan Reynolds’s Wade Wilson) and comments on his looks. What’s funny about that, you might ask, and the answer would be the ridiculous comparisons made by Miller in order to describe what he thinks Wilson looks like, along with a bunch of childish metaphors and gratuitous swearing. This could work, of course, but it rarely does. It never feels earned, there is no progression or build up, movies like Deadpool simply exist as a series of random outbursts of creative playground insults and frankly cringe-worthy scenes that are supposed to shock the viewer and send him or her into a laughing fit, borne not so much out of the quality of the scene but out of how misplaced and nonsensical it feels. It’s incredibly lazy. What’s more, it’s insulting to the audience’s intelligence, dumbing everything down and turning the genre of comedy into a cesspool of slapstick punchlines and insult trading. That isn’t to say Hollywood can’t get comedy right. Films like 50/50, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Groundhog Day and Dr. Strangelove have shown just how good American humor can be and just how well it can be translated into film. But you look at these films and you see a common theme, one that runs through the majority of good British comedy as well – there’s always something below the surface, something more profound than the exterior lets on. It’s this versatility that makes a good film, not just one in the comedy genre. There’s nothing more satisfying than finding a movie that can be enjoyed superficially while standing up to deeper analytical scrutiny at the same time. By this I do not mean to posit that every movie, or indeed every comedy movie, should have strong philosophical undercurrents. Depth could refer to many things, and comedy lends itself best to the exploration of certain aspects of our nature as a species and our response to certain external stimuli. The World’s End is a brilliant look into the life of man whose glory days are behind him but he is unable to let go of them and move on. The Full Monty shows us how important meaningful and rewarding work is to a man and how worthless and directionless we feel when left to face the crushing reality of unemployment. And so on. Of course, this too is not a recipe for success and there are plenty of films that are light-hearted to the bone yet still provide brilliant visual and conversational comedy (see Baby Driver, some of the Monty Python movies or Snatch for examples of this very phenomenon). But these are films that are incredibly stylish and well thought out, conceived by people with a clear vision of how they want their movie to look and how they want it to play out. There’s an actual plot to follow, characters to meet and get to know. American comedies skimp on all that and go for complete satirization of everything and everyone, turning themselves into parodies first and foremost while omitting the whole ‘movie’ part and becoming a boring slog to get through, as is the case with the recent Hitman’s Bodyguard.

Acting is another point I’d like to touch on. British comedy is very physical. This very aspect of it greatly enhances the effectiveness of the script, partly because it gives the writer more to work with. The Cornetto Trilogy is brilliant because Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are amazing actors who are more than willing to go the extra mile in order to make the most out of every scene. Passivity in moderation is fine. That is to say that a single character being the equivalent of a vending machine for jokes can be quite amusing and can be a great asset, given the right context. But having all your characters mope around and move at a snail’s pace, without having any sort of physical reaction to whatever is happening around them could potentially make for an incredibly dull experience. Likability is also important, though much more subjective. There’s just something that clicks with Pegg and Frost or Carlyle and Addy, a sort of chemistry that makes the viewer privy to their friendly relations, both inside the movie and out. This could just as easily be my bias making its presence known, though.

In the end, it comes down to the one thing that I’ve advocated for in almost every one of my posts here at Total Misfire and that is for film makers to put more thought into their movies. I don’t mind blockbusters. I don’t mind commercial ventures. I just want to see some passion, I want to see flair. There is no humor to be found in any of the Avengers movies. It’s not because it’s impossible, it’s because superheroes have been turned into a corporate cash cow and artistic integrity has taken a backseat to the business expertise of men with linear programming and minimax solutions in their minds. The audience isn’t comprised of imbeciles, we know when a movie is good and we turn out to watch it, and I will most certainly praise any film that shows respect and love for the medium and reaches for something that is at least slightly interesting.

Under 800: The Guard (2011)

I’ve well and truly run out of superlatives to describe Brendan Gleeson’s acting with, especially when it comes to his work with the McDonagh brothers. His role as the straight man in Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges showed just how much depth and likabilty he can bring to the table, while his performance in The Guard is everything you could ever want from the protagonist of a movie that falls under the British gangster comedy subgenre.

The Guard is the story of Sgt. Gerry Boyle, policeman on the island of Galway, who finds himself in the middle of a joint effort between Ireland and the US to bust a local drug ring, rumoured to have a new deal worth half a billion euros… or thereabouts, anyway. The plot isn’t particularly important, it’s merely a vehicle for John Michael McDonagh’s subversion of police procedural tropes and common story beats.

The beginning of the movie finds Gerry Boyle nonchalantly looking on as a car full of drugged up young men crashes, killing all of them. Gerry is left unimpressed, his first order of business being to make sure that the drugs are taken out of one of the boys’ pocket, either because he doesn’t want the parents to find out about them (as he says to himself while popping one of the pills into his mouth) or because he simply wanted to keep some of them for himself. We don’t really get Gerry throughout the movie, we just sort of watch him go about his business and wonder if he’s a genuine idiot or simply uninterested in his job.

Then Gerry meets his new partner, a young and enthusiastic man who wants to do everything by the book and to bring justice to any and every wrongdoer. It comes as no surprise that this young idealist is killed early on in the movie, as can be expected from a movie about a jaded cop and his new partner. Usually what follows is a sudden change of heart on the jaded cop’s part, but The Guard isn’t interested in any of that. In fact, this particular movie does its best to avoid exploring any of the themes that are common throughout the police procedural genre. The Guard mocks the modern Hollywood infatuation with sound bite philosophy and surface-level interpretation of otherwise nuanced and complicated concepts. The group of drug dealers spends its car rides quoting philosophers like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, they throw around quotes without context and accuse each other of not having read the source material. Mark Strong’s character even has faux-serious moments of contemplation regarding the pointlessness of his criminal activity and of life in general. It never comes across as overly absurd, but the satirization is overt and enjoyable, as is the case with the majority of the film’s brilliant script.

Speaking of the script, it could have done with some editing, despite its overall stellar quality. Certain plotlines exist seemingly for the sole purpose of humanizing Gerry, something that is somewhat unnecessary considering the nature of the film. Gerry Boyle, to me, isn’t supposed to be a serious character. He’s very much a caricature, both of the jaded, alcoholic cop archetype and of a certain type of Irishman, one that is ignorant of the outside world and its rules, preferring to think only of the rules of his local village or town. When FBI agent Wendell Everett (portrayed by Don Cheadle) arrives on the island, Gerry Boyle proceeds to badger him with questions about the projects and Compton, despite Everett’s saying that he grew up in a privileged family, away from the “hood”. Boyle either doesn’t hear him or doesn’t care, continuing to ask questions about the ghetto and thinking of Wendell as a gangster. All of this is done with a straight face, leaving the audience to wonder whether Boyle is an idiot, a legitimate racist, or simply someone who is interested in hearing about things that he has never seen or experienced.

The last 20 or so minutes of the movie are a bit too dramatic and seem almost out of tone when analyzed as part of the whole movie, and the ambiguous ending feels a bit forced, leaving the audience to wonder whether Boyle survived his confrontation with Mark Strong and Liam Cunningham’s drug dealer characters.

The dialogue is witty and quick, the character interaction is very reminiscent of that in movies like Snatch and Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, every exchange feels like a verbal spar. I also appreciated the amount of non-intrusive foreshadowing in the script, it sets up the latter part of the film very well and gives everything that happens a sense of realism and logical consistency. All of this is also helped by the editing, which is fast-paced and gives the film a fresh and energetic look, much like Guy Ritchie’s gangster movies and Edgar Wright’s rapid fire and smash cut comedy, except more understated. It’s not the focus of the funny moments, but it underlines them and gives them some extra oomph. What is it with Brits and visual and technical comedy these days?

Overall, The Guard is an incredibly fun movie, elevated by brilliant acting and an inventive script that brings its characters to life and turns them not into real people, but into people we might wish existed, if only for the comedic value of their very presence.

Under 800: A Ghost Story (2017)

A Ghost Story is the greatest meditative experience of the year, bar none. It’s a miracle that such a movie was made in America, considering it bears all the hallmarks of Eastern European cinema – it moves at a snail’s pace, relies on symbolism and visual imagery more than dialogue, and features long, transformative takes that play with the viewer’s perception of time and space.

There isn’t much of a story. A married couple lives in a small house in the American South. It’s all rather idyllic, until the husband is killed in a car accident. The recently deceased comes back as a white-sheeted ghost and returns to his home, where he watches on as his wife deals with his death. Eventually, she moves on and leaves the house, never to return, leaving the ghost trapped inside. The rest of the movie follows the ghost’s journey through time, witnessing other families live their lives in what was once his own home.

There is one scene in particular that seems to have attracted more attention than the rest of the movie, and it is the five-minute-long take of Rooney Mara (the wife) eating pie as the ghost looks on. It’s been used as an example of the film’s pretentiousness and self-indulgence, but in reality it serves a very important narrative purpose. As the story progresses, the time jumps become more frequent, the ghost turns around and finds himself with a new family, or sees the house changed, transformed in the space of two frames. This is in stark contrast with the first half of the film which is much, much slower, with less cuts and more long takes. The passage of time speeds up as the ghost ages, it’s a phenomenon that we all experience as we progress through life. Our formative years seem much longer, each day feels like a whole eternity in and of itself. But as time wears us down, we start to realize that everything is passing by us at a much faster pace. One minute you’re enjoying your summer vacation and the next you’re stuck home, working, snow falling right outside your window. The passage of time is a cruel thing, especially once you become completely cognizant of it. But it’s also an integral part of the formation of memories. We cherish our past because it is unattainable. We look back on it fondly because it is a moment that is forever trapped in time, untouchable and impossible to change or taint. David Lowery knew that when making A Ghost Story and used it to make the viewer empathize with the ghost, despite its being a walking sheet. We see a slice of the husband’s life in the very beginning of the movie, we see how alive he is, we see he has things to do and to live for. All of that is gone in an instant, and his ghost is left wandering through time and the space of his house, constantly remembering what he had and will never have again. He becomes lost in his own home. The first part of the movie sees the wife grieving the loss of her husband, while the second part shows us a man that is nothing but a remnant of the past, helplessly looking for an anchor. The feeling of entrapment is further augmented by the film’s unusual aspect ratio (1.33 : 1, the original silent film ratio) with rounded edges and the constant use of frames within the frame.

Another point of contention has been the longest speaking part of the film, a monologue, delivered by a man at a party as the ghost watches on. In a nutshell, it’s about the finite nature of both our own existence and that of the Universe as a whole, as well as an admission of defeat in the face of pointlessness. It’s somewhat heavy-handed, but in my mind it was very necessary. It ushers in the latter part of the film that sees the ghost moving on from mourning himself and his own fate and realizing the nature of time and the futility of life. It could’ve been done in a more subtle way, but it would’ve meant extending the film’s run time, which would’ve been a disservice to it, as A Ghost Story works much better as a short but heavy and mentally tasking experience.

The score is great and sets the tone perfectly, guiding us through the ghost’s feelings. The editing is also key to setting the tone and controlling the pacing. Some shots linger for what feels like an eternity, but at other points the film cycles through years or decades in a matter of seconds, while still managing to emphasize the emotions of its characters. The pie scene is one such case. The longer we watch the wife eating pie, the harder we’re hit by the realization that she is utterly, completely alone, but also by the recognition of our own selves in Mara’s brilliant performance – the feeling of emptiness after the passing of a loved one, the lack of direction, the listlessness and apathy.

A Ghost Story is a beautiful film that delivers an understated exploration of grand themes through great cinematography and editing. It’s one of the best films of the year and most definitely worth a watch, if only to see Casey Affleck wearing a ghost costume.

Shin Godzilla (2016)

Here’s a movie that has left me rather conflicted. On one hand, I can confidently say that this is the most fun I’ve ever had watching a Godzilla flick, while on the other I’m not at all certain that I can objectively describe this movie as anything other than middling.

Let’s start with the good. Godzilla is finally back in Japan where it belongs and I firmly believe that most gigantic monsters work best there, in part due to how culturally ingrained they are in the Japanese psyche and what they represent. The kaiju genre has always reflected Japan’s biggest fear, be it nuclear weapons or natural disasters. Shin Godzilla doesn’t break with tradition and provides a look into the country’s response to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and the public perception of its handling. Director Hideaki Anno inserted some rather interesting commentary on the nature of Japanese bureaucracy through satire and self-awareness, adding to the overall schlocky goodness of Shin Godzilla. Government officials debate which conference room they should hold their meeting in while Godzilla ravages the city and sends its inhabitants running for their lives in absolute terror. There are long, drawn out conversations about logistics, paper work and politics that take up almost three times the screen time that the monster itself does. These scenes of politicking and strategy-devising are often interlaced with moments of melodrama and cheesy dialogue, but all of this works because the film is aware of its own ridiculousness and embraces it, along with all the tropes and cliches that come with the genre. Some of them are rather annoying to me, as someone watching from the sidelines and only slightly aware of Japanese film culture (which is heavily influenced by anime), but overall they do not detract from the viewing experience due to Anno’s direction, like using overly-dramatic battle music during fairly tame back-and-forths between officials and having the actors staring into the camera and proclaiming something with wide-eyed terror, makes the movie a great throwback to its creature-feature predecessors.

And now for the bad. There’s one thing that bugs me more than anything else in this movie, one thing that I cannot forgive due to it being a crucial component to my enjoyment of a movie like this – Shin Godzilla‘s abhorrent characterization. See, in a movie where monsters the size of the Eiffel tower are roaming the streets of a big, densely-populated city, you have to have a reason to care about all the destruction that will inevitably arise from this tricky predicament that the citizens have found themselves in. The viewer needs someone to root for, a hero that is fleshed out and believable, an anti-hero with honorable motivations, hell, even an everyday person who’s found themselves in the middle of all the carnage like in the original Godzilla from 1954. That’s not the case in Shin Godzilla. There is no character ark in this movie, though, no growth or change whatsoever, no sympathy or connection to be established. What’s the reason for this? It’s because none of the characters in this film have any motivation behind their actions. Sure, they all want to defeat Godzilla and protect their home, but none of them have any direct contact with the creature. We never see their families, hell, they never even mention them. It’s as if all the experts working on a way to deal with this gigantic monster that is ravaging their country are robots, one-dimensional beings that have a single purpose for their existence and nothing else interests them. Shin Godzilla is filled with cardboard cut outs. The only semblance of emotional depth that we see in this movie is when the US announces its plans to drop an A-bomb on Godzilla, prompting another interesting look into the way the Japanese view their history and how that relates to them today. But this isn’t even actual depth, it’s just a reflection of my own ignorance. I find it intriguing because it’s something that I never would’ve seen or experienced if I hadn’t been for this movie. Someone more ingrained in Japanese culture, or someone completely uninterested in it for that matter, would find that there is very little of interest when it comes to the characters in Shin Godzilla. Their interactions are somewhat stiff, mostly professional and straightforward. The hierarchy is mostly clear and there is very little chaos involved in this system, though the movie does do its best to make it clear that it is chaos that is necessary in order to make bureaucracy more flexible and useful to the general populace. It does get that point across, but I didn’t think it did it in a rather effective manner. One more thing – Satomi Ishihara’s character is the most boring one I’ve seen in years. She’s an anime archetype that can be found all throughout Japanese cinema – the cocky hottie that frequently uses English words. Though in this case I found it even more egregious due to Ishihara’s inability to enunciate, despite her character being half-American. Speaking of American, all the US officials’ dialogue (there isn’t much of it, thankfully) sounds like it was written by someone with very limited knowledge of the English language and with the help of an online translation tool. The “actors” they picked didn’t help either, they all behaved and sounded like random tourists the producers had plucked off the street.

Godzilla itself has an interesting design, though the CGI might seem rather dated to Western audiences. Its skin looks rubbery and plastic on purpose, giving it a more authentic look. This Godzilla is rather different than the ones we’ve seen over the past few decades, it’s more passive, more akin to a force of nature than an actual creature. It’s path is predictable and rarely changes and most efforts to stop or stall it are completely ineffective, prompting mass evacuations. This is something that Shin Godzilla absolutely nails – it lets us feel the monster’s immense power. There are hundreds of government workers and officials running around, quite a few of them have at least one or two lines as well. We feel that the efforts to stop Godzilla are those of a whole country, rather than the President and a select few, as is the case in the American versions. Each unsuccessful attempt feels that much more meaningful exactly because we’ve seen just how many of Japan’s brightest and most prepared minds have failed at providing a solution. Everyone is doing their best, yet it just isn’t enough. For the most part. Of course we know that Godzilla is doomed from the very get go, it is a kaiju movie after all.

There are some issues with the sound editing that might jump out at you if the movie has failed to engross you completely, but nothing too glaring or jarring. Visually, it’s nothing too impressive, though some of the bureaucratic segments are filmed rather competently. The lens used throughout most of the movie is anamorphic (as has been the case with quite a few movies I’ve reviewed of late, interestingly enough), but what DP Kosuke Yamada did was squish the shots in order to give the impression of a long telephoto lens but with a wider FOV, allowing for more space in the background of the frame, as is necessary when filming offices and boardrooms. There is some rather annoying shaky cam, filmed with an iPhone, that is supposed to mimic the motions of a real person but ends up making the viewer nauseous.

Overall, Shin Godzilla isn’t particularly good, but it isn’t bad either. It’s a passable movie that acknowledges some (not all) of its shortcomings and subtly makes fun of both itself and its cultural and social context. It’s also an interesting look into Japan for all of us sheltered and uncultured westerners who don’t even know that Japan has its own means of defending itself.

Under 800: Locke (2013)

Minimalism is a rare sight in modern cinema, as it seems to be wholly incompatible with the contemporary style of escapist film making that aims to transport the audience as far away from the mundane and realistic as possible. This is particularly obvious in blockbuster movies, the same ones that owe their very existence to Alfred Hitchcock who famously said that “Cinema is not a slice of life, but a piece of cake.”. Hitchcock was at the forefront of American cinema’s growth during and after WWI so it comes as no surprise that modern Hollywood follows his philosophy quite closely.

Locke sets itself apart by embracing the minimalist style that has been shunned by commercial film and presenting its story in a manner that is both intriguingly unique and, perhaps paradoxically, rather tame and grounded. Ivan Locke has monumentally screwed up his life. A woman that he barely knows is having his baby in London, more than an hour away from where he lives, while his wife and kids are at home, waiting for him to finish work so they can watch that night’s football match together. Ivan himself is an illegitimate child and his sense of duty and honor gets the better of him, prompting him to drive over to London for his child’s birth, abandoning both his family and work in the process. The whole film takes place in Locke’s car, during his 85 minute drive to London, as he does his best to pick up the pieces of his shattered life over the phone. He loses his job because he won’t be able to show up for a historic concrete pour that he was supposed to be overseeing, leaving his employer scrambling to find a replacement in the middle of the night. He tells his wife about his “one-off affair”. Understandably, she doesn’t take it well.

That’s all fine and dandy, but one might be inclined to think that watching a man talk over the phone while driving a car for 85 minutes would be an incredibly dull affair. And perhaps it could be, for the viewer who goes into it without having any experience with European cinema (yes, British films do count as such) and its typically slower and more human approach to film making. But Tom Hardy is able to turn anything into a spectacle, delivering perhaps his best performance to date, and showing for the umpteenth time in his career that he can do pretty much anything on the screen. Locke closely resembles a stage-play, relying solely on Hardy (the only actor who we can actually see) to provide subtext and foreshadowing for the events to follow. It’s something that he is no stranger to, as one of his first big leading roles (in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson) featured some segments that were, quite literally, stage plays, with Hardy performing in front of a live audience. Locke‘s success hinged almost solely on its protagonist and it absolutely needed someone as talented as Hardy to pull it off properly. Few actors have the ability to express so much with just their face and upper body while in the close confines of a moving car. He cycles effortlessly between emotions, switches between his work and family selves, delivers his dialogue so naturally that at times it seems like he’s making it up on the fly. Of course, the voices over the telephone help quite a bit in that respect, and Olivia Coleman, Andrew Scott and Tom Holland all deliver some great voice work.

Visually, the film goes for a certain style and rolls with it all throughout. The camera can’t exactly around too much while in a moving car, so DP Zambarloukos had to come up with ways to convey as much meaning as possible while keeping the imagery almost completely stationary, save for the occasional bumps in the road. One of the main camera angles is directly in front of Hardy and uses the front window of the car as sort of canvas. Lights dance across it and prevent the image from becoming stale and sterile. These lights also serve a narrative purpose, occasionally acting as a visualization of Ivan Locke’s inner turmoil, blinking in and out of existence, shining right next to his head before going out to signify the end of something – his marriage, his career, his hatred for his father. The imagery in the film is fuzzy and quaint. I personally find it almost uncanny in its resemblance to my own memories of travelling at night, it captures the sense of constant movement and transition, by putting an emphasis on bokeh, at times letting it take over the whole screen and using it as a transition to wider angles that show the highway. The lengthened light bubbles produced by the anamorphic lens are frequently superimposed on the windows of the car or on Hardy’s face, which we also frequently see through the front window rather than through the camera placed in the passenger seat next to him at a slightly lower angle.

Overall, Locke is a great example of making do with very little, both financially and spatially. Its script could have done with some tweaking in order to make Ivan’s decisions more impactful (because a lot of the time we’re left with the feeling that whatever happened would’ve still happened even without his involvement in it), but the writing is superb, the direction is delightfully minimalist and Hardy is at the top of his game, making for a movie well worth watching.

The Turin Horse (2011)

Hungarian director Bela Tarr has long been hailed as one of the greatest film makers of all time. Most oft-cited is his undeniable magnum opus, Satantango, a towering achievement of cinema that is as intimidating and intellectually challenging as any great piece of art that has ever been created. But don’t worry if you’ve never heard of him or his films, they’re not exactly easy to come by, least of all because of how long they are (Satantango boasts a run time of precisely 450 minutes or seven and a half hours).

The Turin Horse is Tarr’s latest work, as well as his last (the director himself believes that he has said all that he has to say and anything past this point would be the cinematic equivalent of verbosity), and it really does show. It’s the story of a farmer and his daughter living in a rundown house in the middle of nowhere. They’re poor as dirt and completely unable to escape their dreary homestead. Not that they truly want to. There is nothing to say past this point. That is the story. We see six days of their life, each day being more or less the same, with some slight yet noticeable variations to each iteration.

It all begins with a black screen. The narrator recounts the story of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s final moments of sanity. As Nietzsche left his hotel in Turin, the narrator tells us, he saw a man whipping his horse in frustration. Nietzsche ran over and put his arms around the horse’s neck, collapsing into a sobbing heap. I find it interesting that the narrator doesn’t mention the philosopher’s words during those emotional moments, a simple “I understand you!”. I assume Tarr thought it would have made the general theme of the movie much too obvious if he had included that tidbit in the opening narration, for most have come to see Nietzsche’s words as his final admission that life cannot be positively affirmed. His work was based around the idea that life should be celebrated, that it is something beautiful and valuable and must be cherished even in the face of the Universe’s horrifying coldness. Could it be that, in his final moments of lucidity and relative sanity, he realized that he was wrong, that his idea of nihilism as a phase that one must go through in order to better themselves and achieve a new, higher level of understanding was fundamentally flawed? That I cannot say. What I do know is that Nietzsche fell ill shortly after and spent the next ten years of his life in his mother and sister’s care. The narrator then tells us Nietzsche’s final words, “Mutter, ich bin dumm.”, meaning “Mother, I was dumb.”. Now that I think of it, the subtext here is quite similar to that of the omitted quote.

The opening is a beautiful horizontal tracking shot of a horse-driven cart with an elderly man sitting in it. We follow the horse’s movement for more than four minutes before we reach the true mise-en-scene of the film, the man’s home, situated in a geographical depression. There is nothing to see there, nothing to focus on except for the dying tree at the top of the hill opposite the house, and the leaves blowing in the harsh wind. The film is shot entirely in black-and-white and features the intense celluloid texture that all of Tarr’s films have in common, making the dreariness of the imagery even harder to miss. Or escape, for that matter. There is absolutely nothing in The Turin Horse that could be described as even mildly optimistic. It is, in a sense, Tarr’s admission that all is lost. In fact, the preterist notion that the apocalypse has already occurred is present multiple times throughout the film. There is even an anti-Bible, as Tarr describes it, that is heavily influenced by Nietzsche’s writings.

The inside of the house is brilliantly crafted, drawing inspiration from stage-lighting practices in an effort to make the space that the two characters occupy as dramatic and claustrophobic as possible. It is there that the father and his daughter spend a majority of their time, slowly moving back and forth and going about their day. The camera moves gradually and slowly, it takes its time to switch from place to place. There are very few cuts in this film, just like Werckmeister Harmonies which consisted of 39 shots in total. Tarr resorts to the shot within the shot technique in order to make us privy to the desperate boredom and sadness that the characters feel, confined to their decrepit home. The outside is practically inaccessible to them, as the weather is shown to be extremely cold and the wind is a constant sight – yes, sight – in their one window. They only go out to fetch water from the well or to feed the horse, their only connection to the outside world. But the horse refuses to pull the cart. Then it refuses to eat. It gives up. Just like everything else in The Turin Horse, apart from the two main characters who continue to exist as biological automatons with no real substance to their depressing lives. The well dries up. Their fire goes out and the two seem unable to light a new one. The wind stops blowing at one point, despite being a constant for more than two of the two and a half hours of the movie. Everything in the movie just stops functioning, flat out refusing to play a part in this ridiculous exercise in futility that the main characters call life.

There are only a few moments that break up the monotony of the family’s daily life. At one point they are visited by their neighbor (though we never see any other buildings, the horizon is completely clear of any signs of human habitation) who says he has run out of booze and has come looking to buy some from the main characters. He seems like a rich man, much better off than the elderly man and his daughter, but we never actually learn anything about him. He rants about the debasing of all that exist at the hands of those who have renounced morality and holiness and wholeheartedly embraced their own egotistic desires upon realizing that God does not exist. Tarr has described his movie as diverging from Nietzsche’s idea that God is dead and we have killed him, thus freeing ourselves to forge a new morality. Tarr sees this not as an opportunity for progress, but as evidence of degradation and decay, of man’s inability to see and appreciate the immaterial, to value anything that is spiritual and fundamentally human. It’s important to note here that God is not, in this context, a religious figure, so much as a representation of our inner selves.

In conclusion, I can confidently say that this is pure cinematic genius. It’s beautifully shot, excellently acted and remarkably poignant in its commentary on philosophy and the human condition. That said, I don’t particularly like it. It’s hard to enjoy something as bleak and hopeless as The Turin Horse, a work that renounces existence and, in a sense, argues that non-existence is preferable to life. It also marks a bit of a turning point (the final one, mind you) in Tarr’s career, as his previous works have all harbored at least a hint of hope, despite the depiction of the heaviness and cruelty of our shared existence. Nevertheless, The Turin Horse is an extremely high note to end your career on, it is a feat that few can so much as hope to achieve even at the apex of their film making days.