Another film review for Slant Magazine, and it’s a challenging assignment. Part personal essay, part therapy session, Sara Ziff’s tedious documentary Picture Me is wholly self-indulgent and faulty as social critique, but not without interesting and conversation-worthy contradictions. For those interested in fashion, it might peak your interest. Or maybe not.
On the surface, deputy sheriff Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) walks and talks just like everybody else in his 1950′s West Texas town. Whether he’s politely nodding to female passerby’s or diligently listening to his boss’s instructions, Lou is a quiet and unassuming presence. Early on in Michael Winterbottom’s brutal The Killer Inside Me, Lou is ordered out to the local prostitute’s house to run her out of town by all means necessary. But after a tussle with Joyce (Jessica Alba), Ford instantly crosses the boundaries of law and order, sanity and insanity, violently pushing the woman to the bed and spanking her with his belt. This altercation triggers something terrible in the young man, and Lou proceeds to have rough sex with Joyce. Even more problematic, Joyce appears to enjoy it just as much as Lou does, and this interaction begins a torrid love affair between these two sides of the law.
The tonally schizophrenic opening sequence establishes Lou as a wolf in sheep’s clothing and his psychologically disturbed world a disjointed nightmare. As the film progresses, Lou becomes a diabolical anti-hero who succumbs to violence at the drop of a hat. After developing a powerful sexual relationship with Joyce, Lou gets embroiled in a blackmail scheme that turns deadly. Except he’s not the victim but the ferocious puppeteer cutting off loose ends with keen precision. Why? We’re never quite sure. Maybe Lou kills and maims to simply to see if he can get away with it. The players involved, including a corrupt businessman (Ned Beatty), his lug of son, and a brother who died a mysterious death years ago, don’t offer any indication of Lou’s motivations. Throw in a shady union boss (Elias Koteas) who spots Lou’s dark streak early on and his Suzy-homemaker girlfriend Amy (Kate Hudson), and you’ve a Noir-infused web producing many casualties both guilty and innocent.
Adapted from Jim Thompson’s notoriously violent novel, Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me sees Lou as a murderous enigma, a force of inexplicable violence that expands his brutality with each narrative complication and offense. Lou’s deadly motivations are purposefully obscure, even as Winterbottom injects scattered traumatic flashbacks in an attempt to establish his tainted character. This lack of explanation has caused some critics to label Lou a “fascinating” character, an unsolvable cinematic devil for the ages. But Affleck and Winterbottom’s creation is more ugly and indulgent than fascinating. The murder scenes are as bad as advertised and extremely difficult to watch, not simply because of the elongated suffering the victims endure or the temporal elaboration of the acts themselves, but because they represent the thoughtless lack of subtext perpetrated by the filmmakers. As Lou kicks one character to death, his ridiculous apologies offering no respite, and the film almost becomes his accomplice.
Stylistically, The Killer Inside Me constructs a surreal cross between Noir and Horror, Winterbottom vibrantly painting each scene with extreme hues and contrasting flashes of light and darkness. Lou traverses this intricate terrain with a sly smirk and nine lives from the law, a group of drunks and imbeciles that can’t put the pieces together even though the bodies keep stacking at Lou’s door. The film ebbs and flows entirely with Lou’s coverups, then in a ludicrous twist of events, The Killer Inside Me ends in a bloody, explosive finale that could be one of the most inane endings in film history. Part cop out, part offensive allegory, the finale becomes just another ambiguous and pointless flight of violent fancy from a film that’s spent two hours torturing its characters and audience.
It’s not often the title character of a film doesn’t appear in the first few scenes. But in Noah Baumbach’s simultaneously resonant and fleeting new film Greenberg, Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), just released from a mental hospital, materializes some twenty minutes into the narrative. Instead, Baumbach begins with a lengthy opening sequence surrounding the scattered life of Greenberg’s wealthy brother’s personal assistance Florence (Greta Gerwig), a young Los Angeleno looking for a connection anywhere. This switch in character introduction allows Baumbach to develop Roger and Florence’s relationship in a unique way, gradually building their conversations on the quirks and nuances of each person’s tainted point of view. Their roller-coaster relationship produces some genuinely aching moments, revealing two complex characters surrounded by a sea of artificial interaction, nearly consumed by the hazy Los Angeles locale and self-indulgent suffering.
Through the casual pacing of the script and Harris Savides’ gloriously brumous cinematography, Greenberg becomes more about other people’s interpretations of Roger than the man himself. While the rest of the world, including old friends and lovers, find Roger’s mid-life crisis an offshoot of his youthful arrogant malaise, Florence sees him freshly, a worthy open book in a town of closed off souls. And the real joy of Greenberg comes in watching this relationship deepen over the course of time, organically hitting the expected romantic plot points without being heavy-handed, finding improvisation in the small shared moments. The rest of Baumbach’s characters don’t get the same luxury, with maybe the exception of Roger’s best friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans), and their trite complaints and bitter judgements push Roger even further into mental isolation. As a collective universe, Baumbach’s characters mostly seem lost, but the most dynamic seem to understand that clarity of purpose and loyalty is the only way to stay sane.
While not nearly as inviting as Baumbach’s 1990′s films, Greenberg represents an extreme push toward warmth and compassion after the acidic vitriol infecting Margot at the Wedding or the extreme familial discomfort in The Squid and the Whale. Chalk this up to the brilliant performances by Stiller and Gerwig, both juxtaposing a tangible doubt and excitement in their many scenes together, a vibrant connection transcending the ugliness of their locale. Baumbach handles actors exquisitely, allowing them the freedom to graze in uncomfortable areas of prose and discourse, and in Greenberg his skill is on full display. Considering Baumbach’s previous forays into dark character psychology, Greenberg seems surprisingly benign, based around quiet reflections of confused people rather than bombastic outbursts of angry serpents. It’s a welcome shift in auteurism.
By the end of Greenberg, Baumbach uses our digital age to subvert romantic expectations, spinning technology as a necessary tool to communicate with our loved ones, culminating in a staggeringly beautiful scene between Roger, Florence, and a lengthy phone message. it shows that while Greenberg might be a morose grump on the outside, the seeds of change are always readily apparent, making the process of transformation far more important than the end result.
My high hopes for British genre auteur Neil Marshall are dwindling more steadily with each passing film. The days of Dog Soldiers and The Descent seem a distant memory, even more so now that I’ve reviewed his latest and by far worst film Centurion at In Review Online.
Werner Herzog confronts modern day crazy again with My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, a sort of cracked-out twin brother to his Bad Lt. I’ve written a DVD review for this complex and shifting film over at Slant Magazine.
My exploration of master Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira’s films has just begun, but I already feel permanently engrossed. I reviewed the 101-year-old’s latest film Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl at In Review Online, and it’s surely one of the best films you’ll see this year.