A Dangerous Method (Cronenberg, 2011)

Soul Meets Body

The films of Canadian director David Cronenberg are a nasty brood, wildly divergent in terms of narrative yet thematically connected by the same obsession with the un(natural) evolution of body and mind. Initially known for constructing some of the 1970’s and 1980’s most harrowing and challenging genre films (ShiversScannersThe Fly), Cronenberg has since evolved toward a more classical, calculated form of storytelling in films like A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. Despite this shift, Cronenberg’s brilliantly subversive obsessions remain the same.

With A Dangerous Method, a sly and smart examination of the tumultuous Carl Jung/Sigmund Freud relationship during the early 1900’s, Cronenberg reaches the apex of this auteurist progression. His thematic concerns (deformity, disease, repression), once so brazenly represented by external violence or sex, are almost completely internalized in A Dangerous Method, revealed meticulously through longing facial expressions, razor-sharp glares, and extended dialogue sequences. Fittingly, there’s much time spent on the process of relationships, the way people’s perceptions of each other change over time …

Read my full review at SanDiego.com.

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Fish Tank (Arnold, 2009)

I got the opportunity to re-examine Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank for the film’s Blu-ray release from Criterion (you can find my initial review here), and I’m glad I took a second look. While I still have deep reservations about the problematic third act, much of the film is a fascinating aesthetic glide through one girl’s duel with impending adulthood. Hypnotic imagery, Arnold’s ground level camera movement (influenced by the Dardennes I’m sure), and Katie Jarvis’ uncanny lead performance are all worth the price of admission, or in this case a rental of the stellar high-definition copy. Here’s hoping Arnold’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights will be at Cannes this year, because I just might get to see it.

Fish Tank (Arnold, 2009)

In Andrea Arnold’s lethargic sophomore effort Fish Tank, subtle winds of change blow 15-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) from casual teen angst into seriously disappointed adulthood. Throughout the tonally schizophrenic narrative, Mia’s rocky coming of age moments (disappointing relationships, serious father issues, fractured identity) barb the quietest sections of the film with overblown confrontations between key players. Despite Mia’s undeniable need to transcend situational conflict, her trial and error learning curve ultimately flops around like the film’s simplistic centralized metaphor – a plump fish plucked from a country river left to waste on her family’s dirty kitchen floor. Unfortunately, Mia’s elongated plight produces only knee high symbolism.

The social scales tip against Mia from the very beginning, as she loses (or alienates) a best friend and relentlessly battles with her promiscuous single mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing). To complicate things, Joanne begins seeing a charming stranger named Connor (Michael Fassbender), a tender bloke who might be slightly morally askew. Arnold treats early interactions between Mia and Connor with exciting urgency, clouding the air with the drowsy tangents and fanciful innuendo. As they spend more time together, Mia’s perception of Connor begins to dangerously coagulate, clogging the reality of their relationship with dangerous gusts of emotion. Mia’s consciousness often screeches to a halt as Connor becomes part father figure, part love interest, all poison for her impressionable state of mind. Arnold makes certain we understand this layered connection, using slow motion and heightened sound design to lyrically construct fleeting moments. In one particularly beautiful sequence, Connor tends to a gash on Mia’s foot during a countryside day trip, Arnold favoring the sensuality of elements (blood, water), instantly pushing the film into emotional overdrive. Close-ups of Connor’s masculine figure and Mia’s stricken face merge together, creating an unnatural poetry to a relationship destined to come crashing down.

Friendship, family, and community represent Mia’s own version of the Medieval stocks, institutions trapping her in a relentless vice of uncertainty and unrest. As with her breakthrough film Red Road, Arnold stalks her tormented heroine around every corner, through windowpanes, and from various vantage points surrounding the low rent London projects of the film’s setting. But the visual precision and menace of that film has all but vanished in Fish Tank, replaced by a messy handheld scattering of stagnant high rises, cramped mechanical dumps, and lonely dirt fields. Lyrical parallels to Mia’s bursting humanity and hope jump out amidst this volatile world, like the image of an old mare chained in the center of a junkyard, or when Mia’s younger sister eases her head out the car window to soak in the fresh air of the lush countryside. Mia’s salvation resides in the details, yet Arnold can’t muster enough of them to making a lasting impact.

Fish Tank exists primarily to explore Mia’s need for connection, be it with another human being, her passion for hip-hop, or nature itself. But Arnold shoves Mia toward a tragic shift in motivation during the last act, and the film’s various themes come to fruition rather haphazardly as a result. Fish Tank doesn’t bare enough teeth to make these potential conclusions valid, and Arnold seems content merely suggesting them instead of completely darkening her protagonist’s desires. If Red Road signfyed a talented filmmaker grappling with the dark interior motivations behind torturous guilt and retribution, Fish Tank submerges these considerations in a leaden vessel anchored by burdensome trauma, suffocating under the pressure of its own superficial surface.

Hunger (McQueen, 2008)

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Silence is torture, and torture is silence. So goes Steve McQueen’s riveting debut Hunger, a brutally restrained biopic about IRA prisoner Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), who in 1981 conducted a hunger strike while attempting to gain political status from the Thatcher-led UK government. McQueen makes Sands’ story the centerpiece of a larger mosaic within the prison, where guards, prisoners, and riot cops all construct a collective fabric woven by isolation, fear, and loyalty. While most of the film takes place inside cells, meeting rooms, and infirmaries – moments simmering with a predetermined sense of tragedy and loneliness – the supposed “free” spaces outside, like public roads and parking lots, remain vacant, even menacing throughout, as if war could break out at any time in even the calmest suburban neighborhoods.

Hunger whittles the standard biopic conventions down to an elemental level, where character information, bursts of violence, and crucial politics rush by in a flash, lasting just long enough for a vapor of subtext to potently linger. McQueen brilliantly builds his narrative out of silence within horrific spaces, relying on the textures of the place to speak for its characters. Feces cover the walls in Jackson Pollack-like patterns, urine flows from under doorways, and blood stains overlap on the concrete floors, stubborn displays of disobedience from the inside out.

Everything builds off of Michael Fassbender’s haunting physical performance, both before his body transforms into a riddled mesh of bones and sores, and certainly after. There’s really only one major dialogue scene in the film, and it’s a 16 minute stunner between Sands and Father Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham) shot in one static long take. Here, McQueen sums up his film’s thesis – ideological suffering and physical pain are completely different entities, yet connected by the failures of compassion and communication.

Hunger takes this momentum and churns one final silent coup, a slow, mostly still disintegration of body but not mind, showing Sands at rest remembering the simple beauty of his origins, unwavering in his dedication to the cause. Is it real, romanticized, or just memories merging together to justify his sacrifice? This mental battle is both a scary, devastating, and thought-provoking finale to a film dedicated to the horrors of interior conflict.