Under 800: It Comes at Night (2017)

It Comes at Night can only be described as an overtly competent film. There is no denying its impeccable atmosphere, generated, surprisingly enough, mainly by its haunting soundtrack that never misses a beat or misplaces a tone. The close confines of the cabin in the woods that Paul has hid his family in in order to ride out the apocalypse in relative safety make for a quaintly unsettling experience that is constantly teetering on the edge of terror. The interwoven nightmares that we experience along with Travis, Paul’s son, are an impressive attempt at combining the tone of Cormack McCarthy’s The Road with constrained surrealism à la Lynch in The Straight Story, where he found the perfect balance between coherently telling an emotional story and sprinkling in moments that are closer to his typical dream-like absurdity. The set is well constructed and presented, an incredibly important detail when it comes to creating paranoia and low-burning fear. Director Trey Shults has admitted to taking inspiration from Kubrick’s The Shining for the layout of the house that Paul and his family live in, deliberate leaving it unclear and confusing, a maze that the viewer’s mind can’t help but attempt to navigate. Overall, there’s no denying that the film is pretty damn good. So why, then, have audiences shunned it? Why do some hail it as the best horror movie of the past few years while others see in it nothing more than a polished turd?

The first part of the answer is simple – people hate being misled. The trailers for It Comes at Night made the movie seem much closer to the typical horror movie than it actually was. Most of its audience went in to see a straightforward monster flick, expecting the “It” in the title to refer to a zombie or a ghost. What they got instead was a visceral meditation on the nature of trust and the unreliability of the human brain’s perception of reality. Travis is as unreliable as narrators get, and that is where many of the seeming inconsistencies and plot holes arise from. None of the scenes we see through his eyes are representitive of what actually happens in the movie’s world. And that’s one of It Comes at Night‘s main stregths – the viewer is never put in a position of omniscience. We’re given just as much information as the characters dealing with the situations on screen. When Will, another survivor who happens upon the family by chance, moves his wife and son into Paul’s house, we’re given visual cues that make us doubt their true intentions. As Paul grows ever more suspicious and begins regretting his decision to invite them in, the viewer is still unsure as to the reality of the situation. Is Will a good guy? Is he simply waiting for the right time to strike? And no, in the end we realize there are no bad guys in this situation. Will and Paul both work towards the same goal – protecting their loved ones. They like each other as people, they like being together and keeping eachother company in the face of the overwhelming sense of isolation and ennui that is inherent to the deepest parts of any forest. But the world as they know it has collapsed, and no one can truly be trusted, except if they aren’t an immediate family member. The loneliness runs deep in It Comes at Night, bubbling just below the surface of each character’s perpetually uneasy demeanor.

The second thing that seems to have left many people upset is the lack of resolution to many of the film’s themes. It’s true, It Comes at Night raises many questions but rarely even so much as approaches an answer. How did Stanley the dog make it through the first door to the house, especially considering it was sick and lost in the woods just hours prior? Who opened the second, red door? Did Travis really see Will’s son sleepwalking? Were the events at the end of the movie indicative of the existence of some creature outside the house? Many audience members weren’t satisfied by the notion of a truly confused and possibly insane narrator. And it’s hard to argue this point because it comes down to personal preference. I personally thought that seeing the most important parts of the story through Travis’s eyes was a brilliant touch that fit the movie like a glove, thematically speaking. The way I saw the movie, there never really was an “It”. “It” is fear, coming at night when the characters are at their most vulnerable, creeping in the gloomy, dimly lit edges of the house. Travis is only unreliable during the night, when he is scared out of his mind and unable to stay asleep, constantly seeing scarier versions of the things that terify him in his waking life.

It Comes at Night is very much an experience and is definitely worth a watch for anyone willing to go into it with an open mind.

 

 

Under 800: Contagion (2011)

Contagion is about as realistic as epidemic movies get. Not once does it jump the shark and succumb to the seemingly innate ridiculousness of its genre, and that is perhaps its greatest strength.

The movie follows the story of a global epidemic, somewhat reminiscent of SARS, through the eyes of a variety of characters. From civilians to military officials and CDC workers, we’re allowed a peek into every facet of life during a catastrophic disease outbreak. We see Mitch (Matt Damon) dealing with the death of his wife and step-son while doing his best to protect his daughter; Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) going around the continental US in an attempt to contain the spread of the virus, while Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) of the CDC tries to coordinate the scientific community’s efforts to find a cure; and then there’s Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) spinning his online web of conspiracy theories and profiting from his followers’ naiveté. Oh, there’s also Marrion Cotillard as Dr. Orantes in a plot line that never really converges with the main one and is quite pointless, only serving to demonstrate the global reach of the epidemic while not adding anything of import to the story.

There are quite a few characters in this movie, and all of them are given a sufficient amount of time to grow on the viewer and develop. Some remain boring and two-dimensional (the aforementioned Dr. Orantes is possibly one of the most useless characters I have ever seen in an otherwise good movie), but the majority are decently fleshed out and, perhaps more importantly, behave like rational human beings. There is very little incompetence in Contagion, if any at all – Mitch is ever alert and ready to protect his daughter, both from the disease and from the consequent collapse of the rule of law; the scientists all talk and behave like, well, scientists; even Alan Krumwiede is good at what he does, which is making money off a fake cure by convincing all of his viewers and readers that it actually works. All this may seem somewhat trivial, but take for example one of the movies that influenced Soderbergh, Outbreak (1995), which relied heavily on lapses in communication between the characters and scientific teams and on a sort of universal dullness, as if the overall level of intelligence in the world the movie was set in was somewhat lower than it is in reality.

Contagion succeeds in making the viewer feel uneasy, uncertain of what is going to happen next during its civilian segments. Mitch isn’t connected to some telepathic pool of knowledge that feeds information from the script straight into his cranium. His actions are often frantic, reactive. There’s always a look of slight confusion on his face, a great touch on Matt Damon’s part that shows just how shell-shocked Mitch is, to the point where he is somewhat removed from reality. The scenes he and his daughter are involved in give us a taste of what the average Joe might have to endure during a worldwide disaster – looting, food shortages, but most importantly, constant fear. The camera work goes a long way in translating the anarchic confusion of Mitch’s world to the viewer. Close-ups, clever angles that conceal some of the information that could be gleaned from the screen. In contrast with most disaster movies, Contagion is shot almost exclusively with steadicam and never resorts to shakiness and distortion as a means of creating artificial suspense or confusion. It’s a well-shot movie that doesn’t reach particularly high with its visuals because it doesn’t need to. The grounded, calm style of filming really fits the tone of the movie, while the more intimate, close-quarters shots that show us the reaction and shock of the characters in the face of death offer a great look into the psyche of a regular man faced with unimaginable circumstances.

Contagion is the most plausible disaster scenario ever put to the silver screen. At the end of the movie there is a sequence that shows us the very beginning of the virus. It spreads from forest bat to pigs in an industrial pork farm. It mutates during its brief stint in the pigsties and finds its way to its first human host, a chef in Macau, who becomes infected through his contiguity with the sick pig’s infected blood. From there it spreads to an American tourist, Mitch’s wife Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow), as well as one of the waiters in the restaurant, a man from Hong Kong. Each of them spreads it to the people who come into contact with them, et voila – we have the beginning of a bona fide epidemic. The CDC does its best to find patient zero, while virologists try to isolate and examine the new pathogen. Director Steven Soderbergh, of Ocean’s Eleven fame, consulted multiple virologists during the making of the movie, while some of the cast members even learned how to do things like taking genetic samples. Unlike most disaster movies, Contagion doesn’t end with the destruction of humanity or even the collapse of civil society. The movie sounds and feels like it was ripped straight out of a handbook on viral outbreaks, and that’s what makes it worth a watch.

On Christopher Nolan and Interstellar (2014)

Interstellar is a mediocre movie. And the reason lies not in the product, but in its creator and his hubris. What was supposed to be a modern sci-fi epic in the vein of 2001: A Space Odyssey, turned out to be no more than a melodramatic adventure movie with pretences of intellectual depth.

Around the release of the movie, many gushed over the stunning visuals of Interstellar, praising its beauty, as well as the realism of the CGI. I’d be inclined to agree, if we were discussing still photography. But the fact of the matter is that Interstellar is a boring movie in every sense of the word, and that includes its visuals. See, most great directors have mastered the art of visual storytelling. Blocking, lighting, transitions and editing, different in-camera effects. What Interstellar presents us with is sterile cinematography. There’s nothing clever about the way things are shown and presented to the viewer. No depth to the image. No meaning behind it. Everyone remembers the match cut in 2001, the one that transitions from a bone thrown in the air, the very first weapon in the history of humanity, into an orbiting satellite with nuclear capabilities. There is very little of that in Interstellar. The cinematography of Interstellar can only be described as functional. It shows you what is happening. Nothing more, nothing less. There’s very little symbolism or world building to be derived from it. Take a look at this still from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

2001-A-Space-Odyssey-024.jpg

This is a great example of a meaningful shot. As the apes huddle around the black monolith that has appeared in their lair over night, the camera is placed at its very bottom, staring up at the rising sun. It’s the dawn of man. The beginning of our long journey, our evolution. There is much more that can be said about this in the context of the film, but I won’t go any further than that.

Now look at this page full of stills from Interstellar. Thousands upon thousands of them, probably every single shot of the movie is in there. And what do we see? Establishing shots. Close-ups. Mid-shots. Shot-reverse shot during conversations. The occasional view of the Earth from far away. Some stills of a CGI black hole. Dust. Space. There really isn’t much to look at, and really the only memorable shot was during the chase sequence with Dr. Mann, when the geography is distorted and seems to be closing in on the camera, heightening the tension and raising the stakes.

Now, one must agree that the lighting is quite exceptional and van Hoytema did a great job, considering the spacial constraints inside the space ships. It’s never easy for a cinematographer to work with practical effects, especially ones that move and are as complex as those in Interstellar. That is one thing I will always praise Nolan for – avoiding CGI when it isn’t strictly necessary and using practical effects where possible.

The issues I have with Interstellar’s cinematography play into a much wider problem I have with Nolan’s work, and that is his tendency to tell instead of show. There is a constant barrage of ‘why’, ‘what’ and ‘how’ in Interstellar. Characters spend minutes describing things to each other that both parties should already know. Whole discussions end up being nothing but very thinly veiled exposition. Nolan’s movies aren’t known for their riveting and believable dialogue, his brother Jonathan, the one who writes and co-writes all of his movies, is no Tarantino. It’s an issue that was most obvious in Inception, where one of the main characters served almost no other purpose than to ask questions so the audience could learn the rules of the world. Much the same can be seen all throughout Interstellar. Scientists, considered the best the world has to offer, sit around and discuss relativity like 8th graders, just so the viewer could learn that 1 hour on the planet they’re about to touch down on is equal to 7 years on Earth. Which in and of itself is hooey. Kip Thorne, an astrophysicist and scientific consultant for Interstellar, did his best to explain to Nolan that it was impossible for something like that to occur, but alas he was forced to bend the rules of physics in order to come up with a half-way plausible scenario.

The final scenes of the movie are always completely spoiled by this insatiable need to placate the audience with needless information. Initially, the inside of the black hole is interesting, it’s odd, it’s mysterious. But as the viewer tries to piece together the puzzle, to understand how this queer place, one that modern scientist aren’t even close to understanding, works, he’s overwhelmed by narration. The sense of wonder vanishes, as does our interest in what is happening on-screen, as everything is explained, down to the most minute detail. Connections are made instead of us. There is no payoff because Nolan takes it from us, replacing the satisfaction of figuring out a complex sequence of events with a melodramatic shouting session, courtesy of Matthew McConaughey.

And that brings me to the last point I want to touch on. As the credits roll, we’re hit with a realization – this movie wasn’t about saving the world from starvation or lack of oxygen. It was about family. Now, that could work, of course, anything could work as long as the execution is good enough. I’m sure that someone somewhere has a brilliant idea about how to put together a movie that combines familial struggles with epic space opera. That someone isn’t Christopher Nolan. Why? Because his characterization is abhorrent. His protagonists are almost always tropes, as are most of his characters in general. They act like walking clichés. Everything about them is plastic, it feels like you’ve already met them before, quite a few times at that. And that’s because Nolan doesn’t care about his characters, or his story for that matter. The man has a set of abstract ideas in his head, and very rarely do those ideas translate into anything more than a good popcorn movie with well-choreographed stunt work, great practical effects and horrible fight scenes. And I say that as someone who considers The Dark Knight to be the greatest blockbuster film ever made. But at the end of the day, that’s what his movies are – blockbusters. They’re meant to make money, not push boundaries. And decent movies make quite a bit more than bad ones.

 

 

Under 800: Come and See (1985)

Come and See is possibly one of the most bleak, depressing experiences that cinema has to offer. Elem Klimov’s film about the Nazi invasion of Byelorussia follows a young boy’s descent into madness and desperation at the sight of the unspeakable horrors unfolding around him. At first the boy, Florya, is excited to become a partisan and defend his country. He digs through the sand near his village in search of a gun, a remnant of past skirmishes, in order to join the resistance forces and aid his fellow countrymen in the Sacred War. But his enthusiasm is short-lived. Every bit of Florya’s innocence is dismantled and discarded. First he loses his childish looks and the happy gleam in his eyes, then he loses his hearing and, finally, his mind.

What makes Come and See the definitive portrayal of the horrors of war is its detachment thereof. When Florya’s forced to give his boots to an older and more experienced partisan and is left behind by his comrades, there is no judgement on the film’s part. When the bombs fall and Florya and his new friend, Glosha, are nearly killed, there is no judgement. When Florya finally realizes his mother and sisters are dead, there is, again, no judgement. The list of atrocities grows ever longer, yet Klimov refrains from giving the viewer anything other than Florya’s reaction, his pain, his fear and confusion, only occasionally interrupted by the camera’s meandering through the bloody mise-en-scene.  It’s simply the story of a boy that is forced to endure, to survive in a climate that so many succumbed to, that haunts our collective consciousness even today, more than 70 years after the end of the war.

Not once are we, the viewers, permitted to avert our gaze. The camera focuses on the hellscape that surrounds Florya. There is no optimism to be found in Come and See, no respite for the boy or for the viewer. In scene after scene we see charred fields, misty villages full of unhealthy-looking common folk, bogs and swamps, destruction and decay. Nothing remains whole in this world for long, not the characters, not the scenery, not even the animals. When Florya and his uncle steal a cow in order to feed the people of their village, they are almost immediately beset by sentry fire in the middle of an open field. The uncle dies, but his passing is quick, painless and almost tranquil. The cow on the other hand stands amid the whizzing bullets, utterly confused and unable to process what is happening before finally being hit and killed. Much like the common people, those who suffered the bulk of both Stalin and Hitler’s murderous fantasies and power games, it was caught in the middle of something much larger than itself, something it couldn’t comprehend. And maybe it shouldn’t be able to comprehend it. After all, war is not part of nature. It’s a human creation that escaped our grasp and morphed into something that runs contrary to everything we are, everything we should be.

One of the main components of this carefully composed parade of confusion and terror is the sound design. There is overlapping babble of soldiers during the scenes in which the camera is left to wander, abandoning Florya’s nightmarish perception of what is unfolding around him and taking a stroll through the devastation, giving us an unflinching look at the pain and suffering caused by the Nazis on their march through Byelorussia, which we are told at the end of the movie resulted in 628 villages burned, along with the people in them. Back in Florya’s skin, we’re subjected to constant noise, reminding us of his damaged hearing and acting as a sort of barrier between him and the rest of the world. It is only at the very end of the movie that we hear music, uninterrupted and pure, as the camera looks up, towards the snow covered peaks of the pine trees in the forest and Mozart’s Lacrimosa from Requiem plays. The viewer is left to make of that what they will. Is it a hint of optimism at the end of a film that portrayed the beginning of a bloody campaign? Or is it Klimov’s way of saying c’est la vie and turning to the sky in a sign of complete bewilderment and desperation?

And, of course, I can’t help but mention the one sequence that most people talk about after seeing this movie. Florya, after witnessing the execution of the men responsible for the mass murder just minutes earlier in the film’s run time, sees a portrait of Hitler floating in the mud. As he points his gun at it and pulls the trigger, he witnesses time running backwards. All the events at the end of World War 2 are reversed. We see Hitler’s life in rewind all the way back to his first days on this planet, as a new-born babe in his mother’s hands. And Florya, shocked, lets go of the trigger. Again, no clear-cut answer is provided. Was Florya taken aback by the realization that his sworn enemy was not, in fact, an alien or a monster, but rather a human being just like him, yet capable of unspeakable evils, testament to the darkest parts of our psyche? Or did Florya simply snap at that moment and lose what remained of his marbles, going off with his comrades to fight in the war as a way of coping with his complete loss of humanity? Most great movies are ambiguous, and this one is no exception.

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.