The only Tony Scott film I can think of that successfully melds his shotgun bang aesthetics with potent, carefully observed human themes (guilt, remorse, revenge, longing, loneliness… the beat goes on). Watching the opening credit sequence, in which a ferry load of soldiers and their families are decimated by a titanic bomb blast, I couldn’t help but see Scott as a humanist, not as a showman. It’s strange to write this about such a director normally obsessed with surface visuals, but all the proof you need is in Denzel’s facial expressions, his brilliant mix of shock, sadness, and professional resolve. This might be one of the strangest and most beguiling Hollywood films ever, an example of hop-skip-and-a jump cinema that actually has something to say about the contradictions of fate.
For my fourth installment of “Meshes” over at the great streaming video/film criticism site Fandor, I address the complexities of friendship in Alexander Payne’s Sideways and Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy.
Like her American counterpart Lodge Kerrigan, Andrea Arnold is a cinematic stalker, stealthily following her tormented characters as they search for absolution in an urban sprawl, building tension until it’s too much to bear. Ironically, Red Road begins not on the city streets which make up most of it’s locale, but with a dynamic camera set-up in a closed room overwhelmed by computer monitors. Jackie (Kate Dickie) works as a CCTV operator, sitting alone watching the many cameras perched above Glasgow’s roughest districts. It’s Rear Window for the digital age as Jackie scans image after image, following citizens as they walk dogs, window shop, all with the ominous pretense that she’ll witness something awful. Jackie seems to be yearning over a past trauma, and one night she sees a ghostly face on the monitor that awakens horrible memories of the past. This event jettisons Jackie from the dark room of voyeurism to the widescreen panoramas of action.
Arnold doesn’t turn Red Road into a standard revenge thriller, but something altogether more disturbing and somber. As Jackie stalks the man responsible for her mysterious trauma, she gradually unleashes a plan so ill-conceived and overly dangerous it makes the film’s subtle plot points all the more suspenseful. Arnold often frames Jackie against the stunning high rises that give the film its title, a lone figure amongst an ocean of poverty and loneliness. If the film drags out too long, it’s because Arnold has a desire to push the audience toward understanding the methods and complexities of both lead characters, seeing them as flip sides of the same traumatic coin. The situation itself becomes the focus, and Arnold masterfully captures the numbing cold of both character and environment as her hand held camera bobs and weaves through the dank Scottish night. Red Road might not fully deliver on it’s brilliant opening act, but it does showcase a dynamic filmmaking talent willing to follow her characters into the depths of hell, and bring them back again fully realized.
Rian Johnson’s flashy and flimsy debut works best as an introduction to the complexities of Neo Noir (my students loved it), playing with the classic genre conventions just enough while injecting a modern energy into what boils down to a very standard plot. Having disliked the film immensely upon it’s 2006 release, I can still say upon second viewing that the third act is a messy hodgepodge of posturing characters and inane crescendos of violence. But that’s not to say Johnson isn’t an immense talent, especially at subverting expectations with characters.
Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Brendan is a brilliantly conflicted centerpiece who keeps evolving to his surrounding environment, at times vulnerable and melancholy, while at others deceptively brutal. Despite what the film’s defenders continue to say, Brick stands upright because of Brendan’s pain and longing for a sense of place, not because his roundabout dialogue or street smarts. In the end, Johnson’s main focus remains teen identity snuffed out by adult cynicism, an unsettling theme when considering the generation immediately younger than your own.
Tell No One, a sometimes exciting but ultimately muddled French thriller, contains far too much plot and not enough character. It claims to be an edge of your seat thriller brimming with smart twists and turns. Wrong on both counts. The premise is enticing enough – a tormented man receives a web video with his deceased spouse very much alive, eight years after her supposed brutal murder. Yet the intriguing first act turns into a mess of vague characters, convoluted narrative devices, and a lame-duck hero attempting to think outside the box. By the end of this shifty and unsatisfying story, all roads lead to redemption.
The problem lies in the fact that the hero, nor the heroine, never needed redeeming in the first place. The story doesn’t begin with a tragic inaction or guilt-ridden moment, so the ensuing conflict really originates completely for one-dimensional plot points, making the melodramatic ending even more inconsequential. Tell No One technically was released in the U.S. in 2008 and made a bundle at the box office, proving yet again American audiences prefer “familiar” foreign films, those imports that share many inept qualities with the dime a dozen homegrown thrillers gracing our silver screens each month.
Jia discovers the poetry of cinema in the facial contours of his subjects, conflicted souls longing for some explanation in the face of extreme, life-altering change. In this documentary on painter Liu Xiao-dong, Jia constructs a non-fiction parallel to his wonderful narrative Still Life while profiling an artist dealing with the contradictory physical world around him, specifically his experiences at the Three Gorges Damn Project. Long takes slowly morph into somber revelations, completely in tandem with sounds of pick axes, motor boats, and other weapons of construction overwhelming the otherwise silent destitution. Both Still Life and Dong discover an elliptical and fantastical vein running beneath the destruction of the mise-en-scene and are works screaming out for multiple viewings.
No doubt about it, Jia is one of the greatest filmmakers working today. His films, including Still Life and it’s Fengjie location, examine dynamic changing environments and the everyday people caught in the middle. Interestingly, Still Life occasionally drifts into the realm of Science Fiction, lucid and fascinating moments where Jia addresses the Three Gorges Damn project in a surreal and haunting way. These subtle genre elements show Jia’s complexity toward dealing with his characters’ inner turmoil while leaving most of the crucial themes hidden beneath silent gazes of longing.