Andrew Wyatt

Andrew Wyatt is a St. Louis-based writer on film art. He is the film critic for Look/Listen at St. Louis Magazine, and a member of the Online Film Critics Society and St. Louis Film Critics Association. He writes about current, classic, and cult cinema from a Heartland perspective at Gateway Cinephiles. He has served as a juror and presenter for the St. Louis International Film Festival, the Classic French Film Festival, and the CinemaSpoke screenplay competition. He has also worked as a game designer and maintains an alter ego as an environmental scientist.

When the Bough Breaks

Editor’s Note: This essay contains spoilers.

The most immediately impressive aspect of Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’s chilling feature Goodnight Mommy is how quickly the film conjures a buzzing atmosphere of wrongness from mundane raw materials. This is evident even before the title card appears. The film opens with a clip from the 1956 West German feature The Trapp Family, in which the eponymous clan sings Johannes Brahms’ lullaby “Good Evening, Good Night.” Standing alone, such wholesome treacle would be innocuous enough, but juxtaposed against what follows, it becomes a point of skin-crawling dissonance.

The film follows young twins Lukas and Elias as they wander through the sun-kissed Austrian countryside, engaged in the sort of aimless tomfoolery that preoccupies middle schoolers. As cicadas trill, the boys chase each other through rows of ripening corn, bounce on the spongy surface of a bog, and creep tentatively into the echoing darkness of a culvert. In another film, such scenes of youthful summer mischief would convey warmth and perhaps a hint of nostalgia. However, writer-directors Fiala and Franz have more sinister concerns in mind, as evidenced by an extended slow zoom into the chthonian blackness of the aforementioned tunnel, and in particular by Olga Neuwith’s sparse, quiet, and profoundly unsettling score. Something dire looms over these scenes of childhood idleness.

Much of Goodnight Mommy unfolds within and around the twins’ home, a well-to-do modernist house of prim Continental tastefulness. Its rooms and corridors are comprised of white, angular spaces that are bounded by wood, stone, metal, and glass surfaces. The building’s spotless but still cozy contemporary furniture and understated objets d’art signify the antithesis of the musty, crumbling estate featured in so many horror tales. (Indeed, Goodnight Mommy’s house is a veritable inversion of the rotting, opulent manor in Guillermo del Toro’s recent gothic mystery Crimson Peak.) However, what should be a stylish but inviting space spilling with summer light is instead suffused with indefinite ominousness. The structure feels cool and faintly forlorn, like an art gallery closed for a holiday. The floor-to-ceiling windows are fitted with blinds, but these often remain shut, drenching the house’s interior in watery grays. Darkness is the preference of the boys’ Mother, a television personality who has recently returned to the house following facial cosmetic surgery. Indeed, when the twins first glimpse the Mother upon her homecoming, they find her fiddling with the blinds in her bedroom. Her appearance—her face purplish and puffy beneath a mask of white bandages—takes the brothers aback, as does the sharpness of her manner. The boys’ wide, darting eyes reveal a faint unspoken suspicion: Something seems off about Mom.

 

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In the ensuing days of the Mother’s convalescence, awkward interactions and odd behaviors accumulate like black insects on sticky flypaper. It is not always apparent whether or not such a dynamic preceded the Mother’s departure for surgery, which only accentuates the film’s gnawing sense of uncanniness. Some moments hint at latent tensions that have long been gestating, such as the way the Mother seems to treat Lukas with punitive, markedly un-parental hostility. “You only made supper for me,” Elias observes dejectedly. “You know why,” is her icy reply.

As in Yorgos Lanthimos’ demented masterpiece Dogtooth, the viewer must piece together this household’s strange dynamic from fragments. The boys are forbidden to lock the door to their room. Oral hygiene is a priority: The twins must brush and floss each night for the duration of a ticking kitchen timer, although they inexplicably share the same toothbrush. Post-surgery regulations are laid down with a dictatorial authority that the boys find curious. (Stay absolutely quiet when playing. Don’t disturb Mother without knocking. Keep visitors away. Don’t bring animals into the house.) “She’s so different,” Lukas whispers in the darkness after lights out, “She’s not like our mom.” For comparison purposes, the boys play a recording that their Mother had sent them while hospitalized, a message in which she professes her love and sings them a lullaby. The voice’s owner seems to bear little resemblance to the frosty, snappish woman who now occupies their Mother’s bedroom.

The twins’ fears appear not entirely unfounded. At times the Mother’s actions seem more akin to that of a duplicitous interloper than a parent. Yet, in its early sequences, Goodnight Mommy often unnerves for reasons that have little to do with its characters. Fiala and Franz spatter the film with odd little details that create subtle inter-textual reverberations. Wispy allusions to biblical calamity abound, thickening the pall of hovering misfortune: The boys mock-fight with hailstones during a summer thunderstorm, wander past a burning field of wheat straw, and tend hissing cockroaches in a glass vivarium. Indeed, insects seem to be everywhere. The twins’ bedroom wallpaper depicts lines of marching ants, buzzing flies dominate the sound design, and Elias is observed scorching a bug with a magnifying glass. The Mother’s gauze-swathed countenance suggests a gothic monster of old, such as Erik in The Phantom of the Opera or Griffin in The Invisible Man, beings whose masked hideousness hint at their inner darkness.

Impostor fears are a staple of horror cinema, but there remains something distinctly terrifying about the notion of parental replacement. Yet Elias and Lukas are shaky ground. All they have are hushed doubts that their Mother is not who she seems to be; an aggregation of inconsistencies that may or may not add up to a reasonable suspicion. Regardless, the twins face the acute paradox of knowledge coupled with powerlessness. Confined with the maybe-Mother in a house in the remote countryside, who could the boys to turn to for help? If their Mother has been replaced, who has replaced her? And to what end?

The picture is unclear, but perplexing signs seem to multiply. A surreptitious Internet search reveals that the house has been put up for sale. At some point, she quietly removes most of the framed pictures from the walls, leaving only portraits of Elias and Lukas. When the brothers realize this, they fetch a family photo album, which has been similarly redacted. This could be the understandable act of an embittered divorcée, but the twins remain dubious. One particular snapshot catches their eye: their Mother and a mystery woman who looks remarkably like her, the pair dressed in identical outfits.

In the basement, the boys stumble upon the remains of a cat which they had secretly rescued, contrary to the Mother’s command. They immediately assume that she is to blame. This spurs them to the first genuine act of war against their impostor parent. Emptying their vivarium of cockroaches and filling it with alcohol, they place the container on the living room coffee table with the feline corpse floating inside. Unsurprisingly, this triggers a vicious quarrel with the wrathful Mother. The twins finally reveal their hand, openly accusing her of being a fraud and demanding to see her telltale birthmark. As punishment, she slaps and physically seizes one of the boys, commanding him to repeat, like a penitent incantation, “You’re my mom. You’re my mom. You’re my mom.” The cat incident sharpens the divergence in the Mother’s treatment of the twins. Elias is on the receiving end of her screams and smacks, while Lukas is cruelly neglected and forced to listen in anguish. When Elias sniffles, “She wants to tear us apart,” it is difficult to disagree.

Almost all horror relies to some extent on violations—from the personal to the cosmic—but the upheaval of the family seems to possess a particularly toxic potential for eliciting revulsion. Despite (or because of) its appalling real-world normalcy, violent abuse perpetrated by a parent on a child has always been a fertile ground for cinematic terror. Whether Jack Torrence’s ghost-mediated degeneration into bestial axe murderer in The Shining or Amelia’s materialization of her anti-maternal id as a ravenous bogeyman in The Babadook, the seed of abuse typically takes root in individuals who already possess a predisposition to violence. One of Goodnight Mommy’s novelties is its refusal to provide a point of reference prior to the Mother’s hospitalization. Whether the “old Mother” was abusive is never clear. The viewer is obliged to defer to Elias and Lukas’ possibly unreliable assertion that something fundamental has changed in her personality. If, indeed, she is their Mother at all.

Goodnight Mommy

By the time the boys begin whittling makeshift weapons and taking guard duty shifts, the evolution of the Mother from a caregiver into an enemy within is complete. The twins later feign acceptance of the Mother’s conciliatory gestures, seizing the opportunity to flee into the woods and seek refuge with a village priest—who swiftly delivers them back into her clutches. Distraught by the boys’ aborted escape, she later swallows a sleeping pill before collapsing into her bed. When she awakens, she finds to her confusion that her hands and feet have been bound to the bed frame with gauze. Standing over her are Elias and Lukas, wearing homemade green goblin masks, the exposed vs. concealed contrast between parent and children now reversed. “Tell us where our mother is,” they demand.

It is at this point that Goodnight Mommy makes a disorienting swerve into seat-squirming “captivity horror,” exemplified by such diverse films such as The Collector, In a Glass Cage, and Hard Candy. This change also corresponds to the film’s abrupt inversion of audience sympathies. Rather than sharing Elias and Lukas’ waxing fear of their pretender parent, the viewer now finds themselves suddenly terrified for the Mother’s safety. Notwithstanding the fiendish will required to tie up the Mother in the first place, the particular acts of torture that the brothers inflict on her underline the puerility of their scheme. Perhaps most appallingly, the twins procure a length of wire from the basement and use it to subject her to a twisted version of their bedtime flossing routine, complete with ticking timer.

The twins who were once the viewer’s surrogates become the sort of unholy children that are ubiquitous in the horror genre. As with the malevolent but otherwise ordinary minors in The Bad Seed, Who Can Kill a Child?, Little Sweetheart, and We Need to Talk About Kevin, there is no supernatural corruption at play. The dreadfulness of the situation emanates from the sheer wrongness of an ordinary child gleefully perpetrating acts of sadism. With the Mother at their mercy, Elias and Lukas are positioned not only to extract the truth, but to enact every petty act of revenge that a resentful child might fantasize about in their sulkiest moments. Such violence doesn’t just offend the traditional family order; it annihilates it with disturbing enthusiasm. Relatively few films have violated the parricidal taboo, and apart from the aforementioned Kevin, most of these entail a paranormal explanation such as toxic chemicals (The Children), demonic temptation (Children of the Corn), or death-born corruption (Pet Sematary).

Throughout the Mother’s imprisonment, it is Elias who evinces flickers of reluctance and Lukas who demands that they show no pity to the impostor. When Elias tacitly accepts the Mother’s explanations for various questions—”Why are your eyes a different color now? Why has your mole disappeared? Who is the doppelgänger woman in the photograph?”—Lukas is livid. “I thought we agreed not to believe her?,” he fumes, sparking a bathroom fist fight that leads to matched bloody noses. When briefly alone with Elias, the Mother swears that all will be forgiven if he simply releases her, promising that he will be rewarded with a hot breakfast and a return to normalcy. Elias wavers, but Lukas reappears and guides him back onto their remorseless path.

What follows in Goodnight Mommy’s final sequences centers on a revelation that radically reconfigures all that has gone before. This narrative twist is like a plunge into freezing water, a reveal that while not entirely unforeseeable, transmutes the film’s terror into one of ineluctable doom. It also highlights Fiala and Franz’ astonishing attention to detail in every preceding shot, not to mention the performers’ impressive ability to straddle the line between authenticity and story-focused restraint. However, Goodnight Mommy’s final revelation also proves largely incidental to its power as a work of horror cinema. The U-turn does little to diminish the uneasy ambiguity that clings stubbornly to the feature even as the closing credits begin to roll. Nagging questions remain, like cockle burrs hitchhiking on woolen socks. Why, if the Mother is indeed the boys’ real mother, does she make no attempt to persuade them with facts that only a parent would know? Why does she seem more focused on her own outrage than establishing her identity, unless she is unable to do so? What exactly has the viewer witnessed by the conclusion of Goodnight Mommy: a malign interloper ferreted out by a pair of canny children, or a mother horribly abused by her own delusional sons?

That Fiala and Franz leave such queries unanswered points to the film’s powerful collateral dread, one that murmurs beneath the frightfulness of parental impostors and the uncanniness of murderous children. It is the awful fear of not knowing for certain whether one has committed an act of cunning survival or supreme evil.

Bloodsucking Straights: Inherent Vice and the Undeath of Counterculture

The grotesque semi-collapse of the counterculture that had once sprung forth from the American midcentury continues to preoccupy pundits, historians, and artists, some four decades since its furious vibrations were reduced to mere twitches. Journalist Rick Perlstein documented the political dimension of this process in his exhaustive history Nixonland, illustrating just how quickly and completely the Left’s activist ambitions were toppled between 1965 and 1972, what Hunter S. Thompson dolefully described as the moment “the wave broke and rolled back.” The cultural fruits of the Age of Aquarius—the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll—have proven a bit more durable, but they have been perversely terraformed by the empire of commercialism, a process that historian Thomas Frank has dubbed the “conquest of cool”. Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant, offbeat detective feature, Inherent Vice, grapples with the fact of this subjugation, and with the natural follow-up question: where might today’s free thinkers, sensualists, and revolutionaries find refuge from such zombified counterculture?

In the course of investigating the disappearance of California real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann, rumpled, pot-fogged private eye Larry “Doc” Sportello uncovers a tangle of disturbing and ever-shifting conspiracies. Although he is the hero of Inherent Vice, Doc—like his film noir antecedents—has little hope of bringing down the myriad sinister forces arrayed against him. The best outcome that he can manage is the rescue of saxophonist and reluctant agent provocateur Coy Harlington from the grasp of distinctly non-groovy powers. Still, Doc learns some disquieting truths in the course of his ambling perusal of the Establishment’s dirty laundry in 1970 Los Angeles. Perhaps most confounding to the detective is the extent to which the language, symbols, and very ranks of 1960s counterculture have been wholly infiltrated and subverted, its “claim jumped by evildoers,” in the memorable phrasing of the film’s chimerical narrator, Sortilège.

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Setting is crucial to Inherent Vices mood, and to its theme of the corruption of the aforementioned sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll for nefarious, “square” purposes. Adapted from the 2009 Thomas Pynchon novel, the film is set primarily in the fictional South Bay city Gordita Beach, a rough analogue for the real-world Manhattan Beach. Pynchon reportedly lived in that community for a time in the 1960s, but there is more than authorial familiarity behind its use as a thinly veiled backdrop for Inherent Vice’s far-out tale. Contemporary Manhattan Beach commands some of the highest real estate prices in California, but the Gordita Beach of the film is a sun-bleached, agreeably mazy town of surf shops, head shops, and pizza joints. The contrast between this scruffy period setting and its ultra-gentrified modern corollary contributes to the film’s melancholy atmosphere and underlines an essential aspect of its ethos: anything valuable created outside what Marx and Engels called the dominant ideology will one day be vacuumed up and assimilated by it.

Early in the film, Doc blearily watches a television commercial for Wolfmann’s Channel View Estates featuring LAPD detective and part-time actor Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (a former friend and long time nemesis of Doc). Decked out in an Abbie Hoffman wig, Bigfoot pitches the new development to the hippie set, testifying that the electric ranges and breakfast nooks in Channel View’s kitchens are “out of sight.” This use of countercultural signifiers to hustle products—nay, an entire bourgeois lifestyle—to an emergent youth market embodies the conquest of cool. Compared to the more complex symbiotic phenomenon presented in Frank’s analysis or in Matthew Weiner’s period Madison Avenue drama Mad Men, Inherent Vice portrays this co-option of youth/revolutionary culture as a grasping, colonialist action.

At the time of the film’s events—spring of 1970 per the Los Angeles Free Press headlines—the Manson Family murders had recently been exposed as a kind of congealed nightmare of the “Make Love, Not War” worldview. Yet Inherent Vice presents the perversion of counterculture not as the product of a few deranged malefactors, but an organized effort by a cabal of norms and reactionaries. The film’s aforementioned “evildoers” include institutions and individuals representing a host of right-wing, conformist, and violent forces: developers, the police, the FBI, anti-Communist activists, neo-Nazi bikers, Indochinese heroin smugglers, Orange County WASPs, and, improbably, a drug-dealing, pedophiliac dentist. All have contemptuously exploited the cultural currents of the 1960s for their own ends, in one fashion or another. Even baseball bat-wielding loan shark Adrian Prussia is observed spouting hippie lingo, signaling the extent to which the Age of Aquarius, if it ever existed, is thoroughly over. Doc isn’t so much horrified as he is befuddled by this:

“Was it possible that at every gathering, concert, peace rally, love-in, be-in, freak-in, here up north, back east, wherever, some dark crews had been busy all along reclaiming the music, the resistance to power, the sexual desire from epic to everyday, all they could sweep up for the ancient forces of greed and fear? Gee, he thought… I don’t know.”

Unexpectedly, Inherent Vice builds upon this recurrent theme through abundant allusions to the pop mythology of the vampire, and to the Dracula legend in particular. While somewhat unconventional given the film’s genre and tone, such symbolism is fitting in a tale that laments the draining, demise, and resurrection of counterculture into an undead mockery of its former self. This motif is most conspicuous when Coy’s wife, Hope, shows off her reconstructed “choppers” to Doc, and remarks that “heroin sucks that calcium out of your teeth like a vampire.” When the aforementioned licentious dentist, Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, turns up dead, he is reportedly found with a pair of puncture wounds in his neck, echoing an earlier shot in which Mickey Wolfmann’s deceased bodyguard is glimpsed with a torn-out throat. (Notably, that man’s killer, who also serves as Adrian Prussia’s muscle, later roughly kisses or bites a captive Doc on the neck.)

These sort of explicit references to vampire lore mingle with the film’s more subtle evocations of the various literary and cinematic iterations of Dracula. Hope, as it turns out, is but one of many ex-junkies to benefit from the questionable charity of the Golden Fang, a mysterious entity that is variously described as an Asian drug cartel, a tax shelter for a consortium of dentists, a New Age sanitarium for recovering addicts, or a legendary smuggling schooner. Much like Dracula’s transport the Demeter, with its hold full of Transylvanian earth, the ship dubbed the Golden Fang slips into the South Bay under cover of darkness and fog, bearing a malign cargo from the distant East. While relating the sordid history of the vessel, Doc’s lawyer Sauncho Smilax remarks sadly that ominous agents “removed any traces of soul she once had; it’s a horror story.” This could just as easily describe the fate of a vampire’s victim, or that of the counterculture and its unholy transmutation into another tool of the Establishment.

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Inherent Vice even has its own Mina Murray and Lucy Westerna, after a fashion. Doc is initially drawn into the Wolfmann matter at the request of ex-flame Shasta Fay Hepworth, who glides through his open door as the proverbial troubled femme fatale. Subsequently vanishing along with Wolfmann, Shasta plays the Mina role to the conspiracy’s Dracula: the maiden who falls into the clutches of the creature and provokes a rescue effort. When Shasta eventually returns on her own, such is Doc’s weed-fueled paranoia and eroded sense of reality that he is compelled to inspect the slumbering woman’s neck for telltale punctures. The film likewise features a Lucy in the person of strung-out runaway debutante Japonica Fenway, who is likely too far gone to be liberated from the Golden Fang’s grasp. Mumbling about the “the Great Beast” and declaring her ability to see in the dark, Japonica, like Lucy in Dracula, serves as a dread preview of the fate that could befall the story’s primary female character.

Unlike Dracula, Anderson’s film does not conclude with the slaying of a monster, but with Shasta’s sudden reappearance and Doc’s negotiated exchange of 20 kilos of missing heroin for Coy’s release. The Golden Fang is inconvenienced but not defeated, and several of the film’s mysteries remain pointedly unresolved. It’s tempting to regard this conclusion as unaccountably grim, a concession that the ancient forces of greed and fear will never be bested. However, the fact that the film’s final beats focus on the restoration of Shasta and Doc’s relationship points to a more nuanced message, one that presents emotional intimacy as the means to authenticity in an era of commodified cool. The film’s earlier assertion that the Golden Fang’s business would remain brisk “as long as American life was something to be escaped from” seems wholly inapplicable to Shasta and Doc. Indeed, they appear as content as can be in the film’s final shot, driving blissfully through the sort of low, dazzling sunlight that has extinguished so many cinematic bloodsuckers.

Jim Jarmusch: Expect the Unexpected

It’s easy to envy Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), the reclusive, exceedingly pale protagonists of acclaimed filmmaker Jim Jarmusch’s latest feature, Only Lovers Left Alive. Granted, the pair is forced to live under a few inconvenient restrictions. They can only leave the confines of their respective sanctuaries at night, and such forays often involve a risky search for unpolluted type O-negative plasma. Still, their (ahem) condition does have its perks. Most conspicuously, they have eternity to broaden their minds, create works of art, and savor new experiences.

 

 

Immortality is inherently appealing, of course. No one likes having the Grim Reaper leering over their shoulder. What makes eternal life so precious to Adam and Eve is the possibilities it represents. Undeath means having time enough at last to indulge in all the finer things in life, from Sufi poetry to vintage electric guitars. It represents a chance to become disarmingly accomplished, erudite, and stylish through sheer practice.

Adam and Eve are spouses, although when the film opens they are living in separate hemispheres, for reasons that remain obscure. She has settled into an inviting, richly appointed flat in Tangier, Morocco, surrounding herself with mountains of books. He is secluded away in a decrepit Detroit mansion, where he composes dark, experimental rock on ancient analog equipment. Adam has clearly fared worse during the couple’s time apart. Early in the film, he convinces a guileless human lackey to procure a single wooden bullet, a presumably modern take on the classic stake through the heart. It is not self-loathing that drives Adam’s suicidal impulses, but his contempt for the present state of the world. He’s had enough of humankind’s stupidity, vulgarity, and propensity to corrupt everything it touches. Eve eventually talks Adam down over a video chat, but she thereafter resolves to fly to America to join her husband, lest his disgust at the “zombies” (as he calls humans) push him to the brink once again.

The reunited couple enjoys a short span of marital bliss. They listen to music, dance, read, play chess, make love, and have free-wheeling conversations until dawn. They jump into Adam’s futuristic car and cruise the eerily vacant nocturnal Motor City landscape. Jarmusch presents this period as one of idyllic romance, an undead second honeymoon that blends epicurean and bohemian ideals.

For a time it acts as a balm to Adam’s despair, but like all good things it comes to an end.

The harmony of the couple’s alone time is eventually disrupted by the appearance of fellow bloodsucker Ava (Mia Wasikowska), Eve’s “little sister”. Adam visibly bristles at the newcomer’s presence, and not only because she has interrupted the languid perfection of his seclusion with Eve. Uncouth, reckless, and grasping, Ava is a girlish vampire’s skin wrapped around the worst human character traits. She’s a walking borderline personality disorder with fangs, and in short order her rash actions place Adam’s carefully constructed Stateside existence into jeopardy.

This motif—rosy expectations and idealized fantasies running headlong into the messiness of reality—is endlessly repeated in Jarmusch’s filmography. Its appearance in Only Lovers Left Alive is surprising only if one assumes that the Dracula set would be immune to such disillusionment. As ageless supernatural sensualists, vampires are eminently capable of fulfilling their desires while simultaneously nursing a chic world-weariness. This is particularly true of the über-cool rock n’ roll bloodsucker, a notable figure within the subgenre at least since Anne Rice’s novel The Vampire Lestat and Joel Schumacher’s film The Lost Boys. Only Lovers Left Alive functions as an acidic retort to this romanticization of the nosferatu as a Byronic bad boy, suggesting that immortality and flawless fashion sense are not bulwarks against disappointment.

While hardly revelatory, this observation is a vital one within the context of Jarmusch’s previous narrative features. Much of the black humor in the filmmaker’s work stems from the absurdity of a character’s affected pose, naïve hope, or cherished delusion when considered alongside grubby reality. Jarmusch’s breakout 1980 film Stranger Than Paradise is rife with such contrasts, beginning with Hungarian immigrant Willie’s clownish self-conception as a strutting, high-rolling, thoroughly American wise guy, and ending with a Miami-bound road trip that stalls out in a quagmire of confusion, hot tempers, and foolish decisions.

This deflation of expectations is Jarmusch’s stock and trade: for his myopic outsiders and befuddled innocents, simple survival often replaces wish fulfillment as the immediate goal.

Many of Jarmusch’s characters are delayed, waylaid—diverted from their anticipated paths. In Down by Law, Jack, Zack and Roberto are all plucked from the streets of New Orleans and crammed together into a parish prison, cutting short their careers as a pimp, disc jockey, and tourist, respectively. Mystery Train’s Italian widow Luisa must endure an involuntary (and hallucinatory) overnight layover in Memphis, while elsewhere friends Charlie and Will lare shanghaied into an ad hoc liquor store robbery by their volatile pal Johnny. Dead Man’s priggish accountant William Blake arrives at the frontier town of Machine to discover that his new job has been offered to another man. Later, mortally wounded, his half-formed revenge plot peters out, and he finds himself floating to the afterlife in an oceangoing canoe.

 

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Humankind’s best-laid plans almost always go awry in Jarmuschland, leading to frustration, disenchantment, and even mortal peril. In Broken Flowers, Don Johnston’s search for a former lover—and possible son—is stymied by the peculiar reality of his exes’ contemporary lives. His quest eventually ends without resolution, but only after a steel-toed beatdown at the hands of backwoods toughs. In Night on Earth’s Los Angeles sequence, casting agent Victoria is flabbergasted when teen cabby Corky rebuffs a proffered invitation into the glamorous world of Hollywood. One of the more comically painful sequences in Coffee and Cigarettes features an enthusiastic Alfred Molina attempting to ingratiate himself to a plainly disinterested and self-absorbed Steve Coogan.

 

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Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai finds the titular assassin facing an unexpected witness to a contract killing, the result of another man’s screw-up that nonetheless puts Ghost in the crosshairs of his benefactors. Even Jarmusch’s most deliberately opaque feature, The Limits of Control, pulls a fake-out, albeit on the audience: the Lone Man’s highly anticipated James Bond-style infiltration of an American stronghold happens entirely offscreen.

If Jarmusch’s filmography can be summed up in a single statement, it is probably, “Things don’t turn out the way we expect.”

This is a truism for both the aforementioned characters and for Adam and Eve in Only Lovers Left Alive. Indeed, that film’s final act is concerned principally with the unintended, potentially lethal fallout from Ava’s rashness. In need of a quick exit from Detroit, Adam and Eve take a gamble on returning together to Morocco, only to discover that Eve’s formerly reliable blood source has been compromised. Their hunger mounting, the couple end up wandering the streets of Tangier in a daze, where they are entranced by a crooning vocalist (Lebanese artist Yasmine Hamdan). The haunting melody seems to stir Adam and Eve to action, and they ultimately feed from a passing human couple, giving in to the sort of barbarism that went out of fashion centuries ago. It’s a vulgarity they never foresaw stooping to again. But sometimes even a vampire has to be a little uncool to survive.

The Siren Song

[Note: This essay contains spoilers.]

Jonathan Glazer’s mesmerizing new feature, Under the Skin, bids the viewer to peer through the eyes of a monster. The creature in question has assumed the shape of a comely human woman, portrayed by Scarlett Johansson in a performance of breathtaking precision. The film intimates that this strange entity is extraterrestrial, but does not offer specifics as to its origin or nature. Indeed, Under the Skin is positively ruthless at withholding details that are incidental to the story’s fundamental needs. Glazer presents the viewer with the minimum information that is necessary to follow the film’s alternately prosaic and abstract narrative.

The mysterious woman appears to be operating under the direction of an outwardly male counterpart. Their ultimate purpose is never established, but their proximate mission eventually becomes dreadfully apparent. The woman prowls the streets and motorways of Scotland in an anonymous van, seeking solitary men who are easily inveigled into the passenger seat and thereafter into a squalid building. Within a black, featureless chamber, the woman entices them forward in erotic anticipation, even as the unfortunate soul sinks heedlessly into the semi-liquid surface underfoot. Encased within a murky prison, the victim is slowly digested until—with an abruptness that is downright nightmarish—bone, muscle, and viscera are torn from their bodies in an instant, leaving only a floating husk of skin.

Broadly speaking, Under the Skin‘s curious protagonist has qualities that could be regarded as vampiric. Like the nosferatu, she preys upon humans for their tissues, a harvest with not-so-subtle sexual undertones. Indeed, a glib description of Under the Skin could be “Stanley Kubrick’s Lifeforce”. Conceptually the film bears some resemblance to Tobe Hooper’s notorious exploitation classic about naked “space vampires”, but its chilly aesthetic is informed by the likes of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and The Shining.

Nonetheless, Under the Skin‘s creature has a stronger resemblance to another famous monster, the siren of Greek myth. Although physical descriptions of this beast differ across Archaic and later sources, the siren typically possesses female attributes and a malevolent intent. Her most conspicuous characteristic is her entrancing song, a sound so exquisite that it can entice sailors to their dooms. Robert Fagles’ translation of The Odyssey vividly describes the sirens in terms that echo the horrific imagery of Glazer’s film: “lolling there in their meadow, round them heaps of corpses, rotting away, rags of skin shriveling on their bones.” The kinship between this mythic fiend and Johansson’s she-thing is such that the latter (unnamed in the film’s credits) might be simply dubbed the Siren.

The film’s screenplay is loosely adapted by Glazer and Walter Campbell from Michel Faber’s surrealistic science-fiction novel of the same name, a work that is more satirical in tone and much more explicit regarding the protagonist’s nature. The film subjects the traditional monster movie to a perspective flip, presenting the Siren’s encounters with humans primarily from her viewpoint. A lesser filmmaker might have used this reversal as a gimmick, a means to a shallow sort of revisionist alien abduction tale. Glazer achieves something more thoughtful, disquieting, and challenging. As in John Gardner’s landmark novel Grendel, seeing the world through monstrous eyes presents an opportunity for existentialist rumination.

In the film’s early sequences, the Siren goes about her tasks with agile efficiency. She chats up potential prey to determine whether they would be missed if they disappeared. When she deems a target unsuitable, her friendly demeanor vanishes as she pulls back into traffic to continue the search. The speed and exactness with which Johansson achieves this shift—from humane warmth to cold focus—is astonishing. It suggests that the temptress is merely a mask, and beneath it lies the resolute blankness of a prole. This can also be discerned in the way that the Siren’s come-hither routine evaporates the moment a victim sinks into darkness, leaving her to methodically gather the man’s discarded clothes.

Nonetheless, the film also presents telling moments when the Siren appears to be plagued by confusion and anxiety. She is occasionally taken unawares by human behavior, and at times seems stunned into inaction by the events around her. She stares in befuddlement when one potential victim bolts down a beach to save a stranger downing in the freezing pull of a riptide, as though such selfless imperilment were wholly foreign to her. She gazes at her own eyes in a mirror, perhaps seeking some answer to a nagging question, or a telltale flaw that will herald the end of her usefulness. (The latter is reinforced when her mute male overseer, outfitted in a motorcycle racing suit, also scrutinizes her eyes with his pitiless glare.)

The film’s turning point occurs when the Siren encounters a man (Adam Pearson) with facial disfigurements from neurofibromatosis. She successfully ensnares him by adjusting her tactics, voicing sympathy for his loneliness and complimenting his youthful hands. After the man sinks beneath the dark room, the Siren peers at herself in a dim hallway mirror for what seems like minutes. One can sense something rising to the surface in this long shot, and it abruptly breaks through in an unthinkable act of rebellion. The Siren releases her victim from his gooey imprisonment and then runs for her life.

"Odysseus and the Sirens"  by  Herbert James Baker

“Odysseus and the Sirens”
by
Herbert James Baker

The Siren’s treacherous actions neatly bisect Under the Skin into two parts that might be labeled Slavery and Freedom. Like Grendel, the film is entwined with the philosophy of Jean Paul-Sartre, and specifically with the pivotal concept that “existence precedes essence”. The former is illustrated in the Siren’s realization that she can define herself through her actions, that her seductress identity is not tied to some intrinsic quality imprinted in her flesh, but to her performance of that role. She can, at any time, choose a different role and thus become something else (the Not-Siren).

This freedom—an individual’s ultimate liberty to define themselves—is not without limits, as becomes agonizingly apparent in film’s second part. The Siren is still constrained by what Sartre calls facticity, the tangible details of her existence. She is penniless and alone in a society that she does not fully comprehend. (Post-liberation, she seems freshly infantile and bewildered by the world around her.) She discovers to her dismay that she cannot consume a slice of chocolate cake without retching, and that sex is perilous to her veneer of human flesh.

Moreover, her free state carries with it the terrifying weight of responsibility. This is true in the existentialist sense that she is “condemned to be free,” and therefore her fate ultimately hinges on her decisions, irrespective of external limitations. The Siren’s experiences also reflect the changes wrought by transformative socio-political movements such as feminism, postcolonialism, and Marxism. These offer a perilous kind of autonomy, a freedom from paternalistic forces (patriarchy, empire, capitalist) that exposes the liberated individual to unfamiliar threats.

Deprived of the protection and guidance of her masters, the Siren eventually stumbles into jeopardy when a logger attempts to sexually assault her in a remote forest. That this cruel encounter ends fatally for her does not imply that a state of self-imposed enslavement is preferable to freedom. Rather, it illustrates the inherent evil of systems that would impose a false identity on the individual. The Siren’s masters have a vested interest in keeping their charges ignorant and helpless, as it ensures that deviants such as her meet an ugly end. As disconsolate as Under the Skin‘s conclusion might seem, the film’s final shot, straight up to the zenith of a snow-filled sky, hints that the Siren is not alone in her epiphany. Elsewhere in the universe, there are countless other Sirens, and they will not remain bound forever.

What Is Hope to A Fearful Mind?

Although the serial killer is a ubiquitous presence in the pop cultural landscape, the roles that this terrifying figure is permitted play are relatively limited. Some murderers serve as an elemental force: the threat of a violent death in human form. This is the killer of the giallo and the slasher flick, an antagonist whose visceral effect on the reader or viewer is paramount. Raw menace rather than psychological texture characterizes such bogeymen, whose apotheosis is Halloween’s unstoppable villain, Michael Myers (dubbed only “The Shape” in the 1978 film’s credits).

At the other end of the spectrum, one encounters fictional predators whose fractured minds are a critical point of investigation. In this category are mid-century cinematic monsters such as Lou Ford (The Killer Inside Me), Norman Bates (Psycho), and Mark Lewis (Peeping Tom), as well as more recent fiends like Patrick Bateman (American Psycho). This self-aware stripe of killer invites rumination on enduring philosophical conundrums like the nature of the will and of good and evil. The genus of serial killer even has its own blackly absurd version of St. Augustine’s Confessions in the form of Dexter, an exhaustive and paradoxically humane exploration of ethics and the self.

And then there is Hannibal Lecter, the über-serial killer. Ever slippery, Dr. Lecter’s darkling appeal is not primarily that of a pitiless predator or disquieting case study. Although physically lethal and psychologically multifaceted, Hannibal’s most enduring quality is the distinctive manner in which his madness is expressed. He is a man of refinement: gracious, poised, brilliant, an aficionado of fine cuisine, wines, literature, and opera. He is also a murderer and a cannibal. Although concealed, Hannibal’s more unconventional tastes are essential aspects of his character. His genteel demeanor is no facade. The real Hannibal Lecter is both the cultured doctor and the cannibalistic fiend; the two are indivisible.

Hannibal is too precisely drawn to be a faceless monster, yet too inscrutable to serve as an instructive exemplar of his kind. Accordingly, the doctor’s progenitor, novelist Thomas Harris, prefers to utilize Hannibal as a narrative force, a chessboard queen whose very presence is disruptive. In Red Dragon, the doctor is an imprisoned spider, nudging others from afar for his own amusement. In The Silence of the Lambs, he is similarly manipulative, but also a perverse mentor, possessing secret knowledge that Clarice Starling must ferret out. Hannibal finds the titular doctor roaming free as a dragon in his own right, sought by those who would slay or capture him. The prequel Hannibal Rising, meanwhile, is the exception that proves rule: when Harris attempts to portray young Lecter as a sympathetic Byronic hero, the results prove lackluster. The filmmakers who have adapted Harris’ works have generally preserved Hannibal’s place in each story, although actors Brian Cox and Anthony Hopkins each provided a particular spin. Cox’s Hannibal is genial and almost off-handed, Hopkins’ more piercing and subtly bestial.

It is into this landscape that Bryan Fuller’s bold and absorbing series Hannibal descends. Updating characters first given life over three decades ago, Hannibal reimagines the relationship between the doctor and FBI investigator Will Graham prior to the events of Red Dragon. The series presents Will as mentally frazzled and socially awkward savant, cursed with an uncanny ability to empathize with murderers and thereby reconstruct their crimes. In the series pilot, Special-Agent-in-Charge Jack Crawford convinces a reluctant, semi-retired Will to return to the field. However, on the advice of Bureau consultant Dr. Alana Bloom, it is arranged for Will to partner with the esteemed psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter. The doctor serves as an informal therapist to Will, tasked to monitor the man’s increasingly disorganized and fissured mind. Hannibal, of course, is also secretly the serial killer dubbed the “Chesapeake Ripper,” devouring the organs of Baltimoreans who have offended him (or his aesthetic sensibilities).

On the surface, Hannibal follows familiar genre television patterns. Narratively, it most closely resembles a police procedural in the serial-killer-of-the-week vein, such as Millennium, Profiler, or Criminal Minds. The wrinkle, naturally, is that Hannibal is himself a cannibalistic killer, and is not above toying with Will’s investigations for his own purposes. Purely as a delivery device for nail-biting tension and ghoulish imagery, Hannibal is a success, one that benefits from being richly performed and uncommonly gorgeous. As Hannibal, Mads Mikkelsen is ruthlessly charming, giving no hint of the malevolent butcher within. His Dr. Lecter is less unnerving than prior incarnations. Debonair and witty, he is a figure of fearless style and sparkling intelligence. Will Graham could have been a mere collection of tics, but Hugh Dancy portrays him with sensitivity and depth. His interpretation of the man presents a pitiable hero who seems perpetually on the verge of collapse. The series’ striking production design and cinematography, meanwhile, are as essential as the performances. Using bold colors and compositions, the show creates divisions between safety and peril, and then gradually blurs those boundaries, establishing an air of disorientation and perversion.

One could marvel at length about the series’ formal merits or its cunning repurposing of characters and events from Harris’ novels. What makes Hannibal particularly compelling, however, is how methodically and richly the series develops its themes. Proximally, the show concerns the strange, irresistible relationship between Will and Hannibal, but this is but a means to more profound concerns. While it touches upon several subjects—violence, morality, the topography of the murderous mind—Hannibal is most fundamentally a portrait of fear. Ultimately, when the white-knuckle thrills and clotted gore are peeled away, what remains is a harrowing depiction of the way that dread dominates human behavior and relationships. This desolate thematic core, more than anything else, is what distinguishes Hannibal not only from other television dramas and serial killer tales, but from previous versions of Dr. Lecter’s saga.

Fear runs through every aspect of Hannibal, but most conspicuously through Will, who is a walking snarl of live-wire anxieties and clammy panic. The ominous, feathered stag that haunts Will’s dreams throughout Season One serves as a potent totem, embodying both his strange talents and all the misery that flows from them. The series’ other recurring characters are likewise shaped to a great extent by their fears. Crawford is unsettled by the growing wedge of silence in his marriage, and by the possibility that he will repeat past lapses in judgment. Dr. Bloom is fearful for Will’s mental well-being, but is also wary of his fumbling romantic intentions. Even Hannibal, so walled-off in the novels and films, lets his confident demeanor slip in front of his own psychiatrist, hinting at the anxieties that coil within his reptilian heart. Terrors both real and imagined also plague the show’s gallery of killers: one murderer fears expiring in his sleep, while another is convinced that everyone around her is an evil imposter.

Although Hannibal presents outrageously baroque murders—one killer turns a victim’s remains into a macabre cello—most of the fears it explores are remarkably relatable. The show unsettles not because of its blood and viscera, but because the terrors that hang so heavily on it are mundane: isolation, rejection, failure, disease, and death. Notwithstanding grotesqueries like an obelisk of rotting corpses, Season One’s most terrifying image is a scrambled drawing of a clock, sketched by Will at Hannibal’s request. When the doctor conceals this and subsequent evidence of the encephalitis that is boiling Will’s brain, a seismic shift in the series occurs. Hannibal is no longer “merely” a murderous monster: he is now a doctor who is withholding critical information from his patient. (And who hasn’t secretly feared such malpractice at one time or another?) This moment emphatically illustrates that Hannibal is not truly a show about serial killers, but about the universal anxieties that attend the contemporary human experience. With the arrival of Season Two imminent, the question that lingers is whether fear (his own and others’) has doomed Will Graham to an inescapable fate.

 

Hope Has Passed Away

Llewyn Davis is a perennial loser. The threadbare folk singer who trudges through the slushy streets of the Coen Brothers’ latest cinematic triumph is accustomed to failure. In the bitterly cold New York winter of 1961, however, Llewyn is slouching at a professional and personal nadir. His first solo record following the death of his partner is selling so poorly that he has received zero royalties. He is effectively homeless, surviving on the charity of friends and the meager proceeds from penny-ante gigs. He has systematically alienated his family and colleagues with his churlishness, thoughtlessness, and starving artist pomposity. He has not one but two possible illegitimate children, and may be responsible for the death of his friends’ cat. In short, Llewyn’s existence of late is a cavalcade of foul-ups. Sadly, this is nothing new for the musician. He is so habituated to misfortune that his reaction to each fresh indignity consists of vague disbelief followed by bitter sarcasm, eventually receding to weary resignation.

Inside Llewyn Davis presents roughly one week in the life of its titular singer-songwriter. It is a period that one might generously call “eventful” if it did not come across as dismally typical for Llewyn. Each day he faces more hardship, more opprobrium, and more chances to wound the few people who are still willing to tolerate his presence. Collar turned up against the wind’s snapping teeth, he schleps his guitar case in circles: uptown, downtown, crosstown, cross-country, and back again. Yet he never seems to be moving forward; he’s just treading water.

The Coens underline the sullen sense of déjà vu that characterizes Llewyn’s experiences through the repetition of dialogue, action, and motifs, a familiar method within the Brothers’ filmography. However, the film’s potent sense of entrapment–its “stationary motion,” if you will–is also expressed through its ingenious structure. The film begins and ends with the same vicious scene: Llewyn’s thorough ass-kicking at the hands of a stranger in a snowy, darkened alley. The narrative seam that lies between these bloody bookends–the point at which the story laps itself–passes by unnoticed at first. Gradually, the viewer grows aware of it in hindsight, as it becomes clear that Llewyn’s travails have no beginning and no end. His route is not a circle but a Möbius strip: a twisted path that provides the illusion of advancement. It ruthlessly returns the pilgrim to his starting point, where he once again faces all the obstacles he thought he had overcome.

The Coens have repeatedly interrogated the subjects of defeat, misadventure, and calamity in their work. The shambles that result from the intersection of nefarious motives and sheer stupidity are played for black humor in films such as Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, and Burn After Reading. A more serious-minded exploration is evident in the filmmakers’ masterful theodicy dyad, No Country For Old Men and A Serious Man. Llewyn bears more than a passing resemblance to the latter film’s hapless protagonist, Larry Gopnik, in that both men are magnets for suffering. However, whereas the whirlwind of woe that afflicts Larry appears suddenly and seemingly without reason, Llewyn’s miseries are both distressingly routine and directly attributable to his own actions.

At times, his missteps are the product of mere short-sightedness. For example, after he impulsively directs his sister Joy to toss his meager possessions out with the garbage, he belatedly discovers a desperate need for his discarded merchant marine license. Just as often, however, Llewyn’s selfishness and prickly arrogance are the culprits. His generous Upper West Side patrons Mitch and Lillian Gorfein provide him with meals and a bed, but when they urge him to perform for their friends, his resentment boils over and lands him back out on the street. Like many of the Coens’ long-suffering protagonists, Llewyn is pitiable but not blameless. Every time the viewer begins to empathize with his plight, he shoots his mouth off and demonstrates that it couldn’t happen to a more deserving guy.

Defeat has a strange gravity in Llewyn’s world. The bleak yet altogether characteristic week depicted in the film highlights the way that consistent failure can nudge a person into self-destructive patterns. “Do you ever think about the future at all?,” former lover Jean asks him disdainfully (and rhetorically). Repeated disappointment and debacle have collapsed Llewyn’s horizons to a few days. He smugly justifies this by declaring that “blueprinting a future” is hopelessly square, but he isn’t fooling anyone except himself. This self-delusion marks Llewyn as kin to contemporary comic art’s many snarky losers, including those of Brian Lee O’Malley, Daniel Clowes, Adrian Tomine, and Jeph Jacques. Like O’Mally’s Scott Pilgrim, Llewyn has become comfortable with his place at the bottom. Both have created self-serving narratives for their lives, stories that bestow them with a victim’s righteousness and absolve them of the need to scrutinize their own behavior.

Still, one can understand why Llewyn would avert his eyes from the future. He knows all too well how unlikely even modest fame and fortune are for a professional folk musician. Meanwhile, his elderly father’s mute dementia provides an unnerving preview of his long-term fate. In lieu of looking forward, Llewyn can only gaze at the past and wonder what might have been. While other people make their plans, he quietly hoards his cynicism and wallows in his regrets. His history is one characterized by fumbled opportunities, botched relationships, and abandoned responsibilities — each an inflection point when he was tested and failed. “Everything you touch turns to shit,” spits Jean, and Llewyn does not contest the point. However, the sorrow that looms the largest cannot be laid at Llewyn’s feet. The suicide of his musical partner, Mike, has engendered a dense grief that Llewyn has buried in alternating strata of feigned indifference and petulant anger. While he is mentioned only briefly in the film, Mike’s absence is plainly crushing Llewyn from within, like a pinpoint black hole embedded in his heart.

Llewyn presents a fascinating case study of despair as a kind of addictive narcotic. Pummeled by seemingly limitless adversity, he has fashioned his misery into a lifestyle. In a sense, Inside Llewyn Davis provides a map of the psychological hazards that surround failure and tragedy. Through Llewyn’s harsh example, the Coens illustrate the risks of allowing oneself to be defined by suffering, to the point where anything positive must be knocked down with an acerbic swipe. Such an approach to life might hold a grungy glamour to the would-be cultural radical, but the endpoint is merely drab, directionless stasis.

This is not to say that Llewyn is merely a risible cautionary example. Indeed, as written by the Coens and given marvelously nuanced life by Oscar Isaac, the musician is a wholly rounded and convincing figure. When the situation warrants, he can be resilient, resourceful, and even contrite. He is perhaps the most recognizably human character in the Coens’ entire oeuvre, a man whose essence lies not in his heroism or villainy (or in quotable one-liners) but in his struggle. He is a distinctly drawn character, yet also a surrogate for the viewer at their lowest moments: unemployment, poverty, rejection, heartbreak, crushed dreams and horrid mistakes. In Llewyn, the viewer can discern a reflection of their own ordeals and failings, as well as the toxic modes of thought and action that could ensnare them into a feedback loop of misery. This deeply personal resonance with the experiences of individual viewers is among Inside Llewyn Davis’ most splendid achievements, and one that marks it as a profoundly incisive, instructive, and humane work of cinema.

Illustration by: Jamie Toon

On Bullying & Female Adolescent Fears in “Carrie”

Twenty-first century horror cinema has been dispiritingly timid (and even retrograde) when it comes to matters of gender. A few welcome and eccentric features have tackled feminist concerns head-on, among them Ginger Snaps, May, Dumplings, Teeth, and American Mary. Nonetheless, the most audacious and probing works of female-centered horror are arguably those of decades past. Looking back over landmarks such as Cat People, Diabolique, Eyes Without a Face, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Silence of the Lambs, a contemporary filmmaker could be forgiven for feeling intimidated by their formal and thematic achievements. Similarly formidable is director Brian De Palma’s 1976 masterpiece Carrie, a veritable catalog of female adolescent fears in a deliciously baroque package.

One can therefore appreciate the tension between reverence and creative confidence that simmers within director Kimberly Peirce’s new adaptation of the film. Remakes have an especially treacherous road to traverse, given cinephiles’ almost reflexive resistance to new takes on iconic works.  No less a figure than Stephen King displayed this sort of knee-jerk disdain in 2011 when he reacted with bafflement at the news that his 1974 debut novel would be adapted yet again into a feature film. “The real question is why, when the original was so good?” King remarked.

Undeniably, the 1976 version of Carrie is a great work of cinematic craft, just as old-fashioned greed and creative laziness almost certainly motivated MGM and Screen Gems’ recent decision to resurrect American horror’s iconic terrorized teenager. Notwithstanding the merits of De Palma’s film and the cold-bloodedness of Hollywood avarice, however, King’s still-shocking tale of adolescent rage possesses abundant potential for fresh interpretation.  Now that the 2013 adaptation has arrived, grousing about the audacity of a remake seems all the more unfounded, given that such complaints must confront the new film’s rich and thoroughly engrossing vision of poor Carrie White’s story.

It’s a tale to which almost any outcast can relate. After years of relentless abuse from her fanatically religious mother and sadistic schoolmates, the latently psychokinetic Carrie at last seems to find social acceptance just as her mental powers emerge. Unfortunately, her newfound popularity is merely part of an elaborate prank masterminded by in-crowd queen bee Chris Hargensen. The very moment that she is improbably crowned prom queen, Carrie is humiliated beneath a downpour of clotted pig’s blood. With this gruesome act, the last vestige of Carrie’s cringing flight instinct turns to unholy fight, prompting her to unleash a maelstrom of murderous psychic devastation. The film that director Kimberly Peirce makes of this story is ultimately a less potent work of cinema than De Palma’s more accomplished and nightmarish version, but at every turn it reveals crevices that are worthy of scrutiny.

Peirce’s lamentably small filmography includes the Heartland transgender romantic tragedy Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and the bluntly anti-Bush war drama Stop-Loss (2008). The dominant theme that emerges in her work, Carrie included, is the consuming impact of violence (and the threat of violence) on individuals. Despite the overt sociopolitical slant to the director’s films, it is Peirce’s insistent focus on the personal over the broadly ideological that makes her work absorbing. Admittedly, the screenplay for the 2013 iteration of Carrie gives the director little space for creative flexing. Penned by playwright and comic writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, it is far too faithful to the 1976 script, relying on similar scenes presented in the same sequence, often with nearly identical dialogue. Aguirre-Sacasa astutely updates the plot for the twenty-first century in spots – a YouTube video of a mocking locker room mob assault has a pivotal role – but it often feels like more a rewrite of De Palma’s film than a reimagining of King’s novel.

Peirce’s film utilizes both Carrie and her mother Margaret to explore responses to emotional and physical abuse, particularly when that abuse has sexual and misogynistic dimensions. It’s perhaps an unsurprising thematic aspect of the new Carrie, given the presence of a socially conscious female director rather than the shamelessly prurient De Palma. Carrie has always been a female-centered story, but in Peirce’s hands it becomes more decisively concerned with the experience of American girls. Although the aforementioned fidelity to the 1976 screenplay restrains Peirce’s Carrie somewhat, the director succeeds in creating a distinctive tone, one that is more achingly tragic than luridly macabre.

The 2013 film’s opening scene is its most conspicuous deviation from its predecessor. Where the 1976 film descended dreamily onto a high school volleyball court and then wandered in slow-motion through the steam of a distinctly R-rated locker room, Peirce’s version begins with the birth of Carrie. A plainly pregnant Margaret White (Julianne Moore, all lank hair and whispery terror) flails about in her dim bedroom, confused and horrified at the swelling “cancer” that is wracking her with painful spasms. Moore’s Margaret is more simmering and pitiable than Piper Laurie’s portrayal, which resembled a demon dowager from a Japanese opera. Moore’s incarnation of the character retains Margaret’s unhinged authoritarianism, but she is more spooked than malicious, sharing her daughter’s flinching reactions to the outside world. Consistent with King’s horror fiction, Peirce’s film portrays fundamentalist zealotry as a wellspring of well-intended but toxic evil, represented in this instance by the purity- and sin-obsessed Catholic-Protestant heterodoxy that Margaret practices.

One of the fundamental achievements of Peirce’s Carrie is how comprehensively and yet subtly the director molds Aguirre-Sacasa’s script into a post-Megan Meier tale of sexual shame, ritualized humiliation, and vindictive violence. The casting of Chloë Grace Moretz in the titular role only underscores the scathing depiction of patriarchy’s no-win viciousness.  Sissy Spacek’s frail, otherworldly appearance (the sheer concavity of her) allowed the viewer to quickly accept Carrie White’s outcast status in the 1976 film. At sixteen years of age, Moretz still retains an androgynous “offness” in her countenance – exploited to fine effect in her role as preteen vampire Abby in Let Me In – but she is unequivocally a fetching adolescent. Hidden behind a shroud of tangled hair and beneath rumpled thrift store clothes, Moretz’s Carrie is but the latest in a long procession of cinematic “ugly ducklings”: teen girls magically transformed from repellent to lovely by little more than a hair, makeup, and style consultation.

Carrie seizes this obnoxious trope and sharpens it into a blade of cultural criticism. Rather than presenting Carrie’s transformation from Weird Girl to Prom Queen as a glorious triumph, Peirce’s film exposes a darker and more disturbing truth about the shaming and bullying of adolescent girls: that there is no victory to be had in striving for the perfection demanded by others, as it a hollow (and moving!) target. While the proximal cause of Carrie’s revolting prom night degradation is the cruelty of single-minded bully Chris, the hidden villain is the social system that equates physical beauty and possession of a desirable man as the pinnacles of female achievement. Where the platitudes and selfless gestures of Carrie’s nominal allies seemed earnest and compassionate in De Palma’s film, the words and deeds of good girl Sue Snell, sensitive hunk Tommy Ross, and gym coach Mrs. Desjardin in the 2013 Carrie invite wincing. From the contemporary film’s vantage point, Mrs. Desjardin’s counsel that Carrie put her hair up and wear a little mascara in order to find social acceptance seems not just naive, but woefully wrongheaded. Not only does it strengthen the sexist system that has already pummeled Carrie into near-submission, but it disregards the first principle of bullying behavior: that a bully will find any excuse to terrorize a victim, and as such, conformity offers no guarantee of safety.

Carrie’s climactic, telekinetic rampage against her tormentors – and anyone who happens to be in the vicinity – is not a rousing act of justified vengeance. Nor is it, as in De Palma’s film, an explosion of elemental power set off by an emotionally shattering event. Rather, it is an inevitable and terrifying cause-and-effect: push a person too long and too far, and they will strike back with the weapon at hand. For Carrie White, that weapon happens to be a towering reserve of psychic power, but it just as easily could be a broken pop bottle or a duffel bag weighed down with handguns and rifles. Yet Peirce’s Carrie is not an admonishment that the viewer watch over their shoulder for a suddenly vengeful victim. Rather, it offers an unsettling critique of simplistic, sexist reactions that can dominate public and private responses to bullying. What’s more, it grimly asserts that fairy tale transformations – of individuals, institutions, and culture – can be brought to a screeching halt by the figurative bucket of pig’s blood from above. One could argue that this represents a rather cynical puncturing of the progressive, long-arc-of-history view of society. However, in an age when a transgendered sixteen-year-old can be crowned prom queen, only to be merciless derided and threatened by thousands of adults via social media, Carrie’s skepticism seems closer to the mark than not.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Indian director Mira Nair’s new feature, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, is a poignant and vivid tale about what can occur when the process of American enculturation goes sour. There is, of course, no shortage of films that depict the joys, challenges and indignities of the immigrant experience, including several stellar entries in the subgenre from just the past decade (Journey From the Fall, Sweet Land, Golden Door, Goodbye Solo). On the surface, Nair’s film appears to be more prosaic than these works, wrapped as it is in the familiar constituents of the romantic melodrama and the globe-trotting thriller. Yet The Reluctant Fundamentalist is also more brooding and sharp-elbowed than its cinematic kin, a tale of angst and dissolution rather than assimilation. Just as So Yong Kim did so marvelously in her feature In Between Days, Nair focuses on immigrants’ alienation as they attempt to acclimate to an adoptive homeland. What makes The Reluctant Fundamentalist so distinctive is its unmistakable resemblance to a tale of relationship disintegration; the film is, in essence, the story of a breakup, one which is rooted in intensely personal qualities but which has broad geopolitical ramifications.

Adapted from Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 novel of the same name, the film depicts the initially exhilarating but ultimately dispiriting American experience of Lahore native and financial wunderkind Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed). Hailing from a well-to-do but diminished family—his father, Abu (Om Puri), is a secular poet of some renown—Changez makes the leap to Princeton and then to Wall Street in 2001, where he becomes an analyst at white shoe valuation consultant Underwood Samson. Quickly singled out as the firm’s rising star by his superior Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland), Changez is tasked not only with assessing the financial worth of troubled companies, but with developing possible cost-saving measures (e.g., identifying which workers should be fired). Meanwhile he tumbles into a romantic relationship with lively but troubled photographer Erica (Kate Hudson), who is just beginning to emerge from the emotional shell she had constructed about herself following the death of her previous boyfriend.

The promise of the American Dream seems to lie before Changez on a silver platter. Then, while he is abroad on assignment, Islamic terrorists attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, and his meteoric rise to the commanding heights of the West begins to stall. When he returns to New York City, he is waylaid by airport security and humiliatingly strip-searched, in a discomfiting foreshadowing of the erosion of his privileged position. Over the ensuing year, ethnic slurs are tossed in his direction, his tires are slashed by enraged workers, and he is mistakenly arrested in a street scuffle. When he returns from a holiday visit to Pakistan with a beard, whispers fly behind his back at Underwood Samson. Yet Changez’ growing disenchantment with America is a product not only of encounters with post-9/11 jingoism and racism, but also of his own gnawing doubts about his choices. He is increasingly distracted by guilt about his firm’s predatory character and by anxiety about his family’s life under a nuclear shadow back home. Eventually, the revelation that Erica has obliviously exploited Changez’s nationality for her artistic ambitions leads their relationship to an agonizing end, and also sets into motion his final break with America.

As in Hamid’s novel, the film adaptation of The Reluctant Fundamentalist—scripted by the author, Ami Boghani, Rutvik Oza, and William Wheeler—presents Changez’ tale in flashback as he relates it to an American at a Lahore café. The novel is written exclusively in Changez’s polite, precise voice, and it at times suggests that the narrator’s tale is, if not exactly unreliable, at least self-serving and subtly manipulative. Hamid never identifies the edgy, menacing American across the table from Changez, and the book’s conclusion is pointedly cryptic. Nair’s film is less formally daring, expanding the framing narrative into an elaborate (if mostly unremarkable) ticking-clock suspense scenario. A decade after his tribulations in America, Changez has evolved into a politically outspoken college professor in Pakistan. He has also recently been flagged as a person of interest in the kidnapping of an American academic, prompting investigative reporter Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber) to track down Changez for an interview. While the latter recounts his tale, the CIA and the Pakistani police begin to close in, prompting an escalating protest from Changez’ students and local allies.

Nair’s feature takes to heart the feminist adage that the personal is political, exhibiting a profound absorption with the process of Changez’s transformation from a would-be American corporate ace into a political lightning rod for Pakistani nationalism. Crucially, the film does not portray Changez as a mere reactive figure, hardened by the betrayals of a malevolent America. The portrait is more complex: while his run-ins with institutional and casual racism play a role in upending his comfortable life in New York, his growing awareness of the cold-hearted nature of his profession is just as significant, as is his discomfort with Erica’s inability to move on from her deceased lover. Moreover, Changez’ trajectory from Pakistan to the U.S. and back is governed as much by who he is as by what happens to him. He carries with him from Lahore a cluster of traits—self-conscious economic insecurities, nationalistic pride, a sense of familial obligation, and a latent religiously-inspired abhorrence of violence—that collectively propel him back into the embrace of his homeland.

This holistic perspective on Changez’ relationship with America enables a remarkably evenhanded depiction of how assimilation can go off-track, even for immigrants who attain everything that Americans themselves covet. While the film is in general agreement with Changez regarding the most objectionable aspects of the American character—militaristic meddling, cultural arrogance, corporate callousness—it also highlights the extent to which a poor fit between an individual and a culture can be rooted in real incompatibilities rather than personal failings. Changez ultimately decides that America is not for him, even though he professes that he still loves the nation and what it represents. (Jim, revealingly, reacts with desperation and hostility when Changez eventually resigns and announces his intention to return to Pakistan; like a romantic partner, the manager views his protege’s departure as a betrayal.) In this, The Reluctant Fundamentalist evinces a humanistic maturity that is lacking in most relationship dramas, where so often one partner is crudely painted as the culprit when the ardor fizzles and the bickering begins. Nair’s film allows for the possibility that it might not be Me or You, but Us: a partnership that seems promising at first may be revealed to be unsustainable in the long term.

The Last Exorcism

 

Romanian writer-director Christian Mungiu’s superb new feature, Beyond the Hills, is an astonishingly sneaky work of religious and cultural criticism, nearly as duplicitous as Old Pitch himself. Its potency relies to a significant extent on a rather nasty manipulation of the viewer’s perceptions and expectations. However, unlike the cheap twists that characterize big-budget and two-bit thrillers alike, Beyond the Hills‘ chicanery is of a generic rather than narrative nature. The film functions as a virtuosic cinematic parlor trick, designed to provoke the viewer into a stark confrontation with the most monstrous aspects of a conservative, demon-haunted religiosity. In its chilly and somber way, Mungui’s film is a fictional corollary to documentary exposés such as Deliver Us From Evil and Jesus Camp, depicting as it does the abuses that are obfuscated, rationalized, and even glorified under the auspices of the sacred. Nevertheless, despite its bluntly damning portrayal of Romanian Orthodoxy—and of patriarchal, reactionary theology in general—Beyond the Hills is a remarkably sober engagement with superstitious hysteria as an all-too-human phenomenon. The sensation that emerges from the film is not a white-hot anti-religious rage, but a sort of perplexed secularist gloom at our species’ propensity to engage in oblivious cruelty, so long as it is cloaked in whispered invocations.

A similar inhumanity is a central component of Mungiu’s 2007 Palm d’Or-winning sophomore feature, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, although in that film the depraved social strictures are of a nominally atheistic nature. In its portrayal of a back-alley abortion in the waning days of Nicolae Ceauşescu’s Communist dictatorship, 4 Months relies upon a stone-faced realism to establish the suffocating terror that suffuses its female protagonists’ desperate odyssey. In this way, Mungiu creates a first-rate thriller that also functions as pointed attack on the misogyny of autocratic authority, providing a sharp illustration of the everyday means by which women’s liberty is constrained.

Beyond the Hills explores similar thematic territory, but the two films employ markedly divergent approaches. 4 Months depends on straightforward adherence to genre, fulfilling the promise of its thriller form with an almost ruthless resolve. Indeed, the cold-sweat atmosphere that Mungiu’s 2007 film summons is strongly dependent on the manner in which its screenplay suggests each enervating movement before it occurs. Beyond the Hills, meanwhile, relies on a genre fake-out. While it dresses in the vestments of an reserved character-based drama, the film’s story is gradually revealed as a work of demonic horror—albeit one in which the supernatural exists solely in the minds of the perpetrating zealots. Other filmmakers have exploited narrative ambiguity to phenomenal effect in recent years—Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon and Abbas Kiaorstomi’s Certified Copy come to mind—but Mungiu’s new feature is the rare work that that plays upon the viewer’s assumptions regarding artistic categories.

Adapted from a pair of non-fiction novels by Romanian news producer-turned-author Tatiana Niculescu Bran, Beyond the Hills‘ screenplay relies on a tantalizing opacity to hook the viewer. Two women—diffident Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) and raw-nerved Alina (Christina Flutur)—meet at a train station in a Romanian town. The pair seems to have a history, but the film’s determined naturalism precludes the kind of spurious exposition that would quickly clarify their relationship. Instead, the viewer must piece together the background from various provocative questions, offhand comments, and frank gestures. Gradually, the past comes into focus. Years ago, the women were raised together in a local orphanage, where they became inseparable friends and eventually lovers. Cast off from the facility when she turned eighteen, Alina fled to Germany in search of work, while Voichita remained in Romania.

Alina has returned from her apparently rudderless tribulations abroad to retrieve her beloved and pursue opportunities elsewhere, but Voichita has undergone a dramatic personal transformation. She is now living as a novitiate at a tiny, austere Orthodox convent, and it is to this sanctuary that she escorts Alina, albeit with some wariness. Once the pair arrives at the humble rural monastery, the lines of conflict that will dominate the remainder of the film become apparent. Voichita, spurred by a tangle of Christian obligation and lingering affection for Alita, seeks a way to aid her troubled friend that will not conflict with her newfound religious commitments. Both her fellow nuns and the community’s governing priest (Valeriu Andriuta) take a dim view of Voichita’s efforts, regarding Alita’s mere presence as a disruption to the convent’s social order. Moreover, suspicions quickly surface regarding the “unnatural” relationship between the two women, as well as the spiritual corruption that the sisters allegedly sense in Alita.

For her part, Alita exhibits symptoms of sexual obsession and general psychological precariousness. Furthermore, she seems utterly unwilling to entertain the notion that Voichita’s pious calling might be authentic. Alita’s perverse need to possess Voichita by any means leads her to act out in ways that are alternately conciliatory and blasphemous, provoking rising vexation, fear, and anger within the convent. The newcomer’s growing emotional dissolution leads to periodic narrative detours into town—first to a psychiatric hospital, and then later to Alita’s former foster home—but the action continually returns to the remote monastery. On the cusp of the vital Easter holiday, the tension between the convent’s residents and Alita finally ignites an unspeakable act of mercy-cum-brutality. Fed up with the woman’s aggression, vulgarity, and sacrilege, the priest and nuns bind the frenzied Alita to a pair of wooden planks and subject her to an extended, grueling rite of exorcism. Paralyzed by conflicting loyalties and sheer terror, Voichita must decide whether her conscience permits her to take part in a remedy that seems more akin to the torture of a mentally ill woman than a palliative for an imperiled soul.

In a cinematic landscape ever more dominated by dreary conformity, what’s most impressive about Beyond the Hills is the distinctiveness of its concept: It is, fundamentally, a supernatural horror tale drained of its otherworldly elements and reframed as work of contemporary social realism. Indeed, Mungiu’s film is a shrewd inversion of The Exorcist—a work that remains the first and last vision of demonic possession in the pop cultural consciousness. William Friedkin’s visceral and deeply Catholic adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s pulp novel is a forceful vision of human fragility wrapped in old-school Hollywood fright tactics. Beyond the Hills, meanwhile, lands its existential sucker-punch by eschewing the formal conventions of horror cinema. Mungiu’s arid, ragged-edged approach to his tale convinces the viewer that they are witnessing a very different sort of a film. Depending on the angle, Beyond the Hills could be mistaken for a queer-flavored romantic tragedy, a socially conscious miserablist drama, or an allegory about the collaborations of the Romanian Orthodox Church in the Communist decades. Arguably, the film functions well enough as a representative of any of those species (and others), but it is the film’s sly employment of horror tropes that lends it critiques such breathtaking bite.

People of faith will doubtlessly find much that is discomforting in Beyond the Hill’s bleak depiction of religious terror gone haywire. Certainly, Mungiu could not have selected a more fitting setting for such a portrayal than a rural Orthodox convent (at least in contemporary Christendom), which in the film’s universe offers up a witch’s brew of codified sexism, snarling homophobia, and generalized anxiety regarding the encroachment of cosmopolitan modernity. Yet while Beyond the Hills does not shrink from the ugliness a hellfire-obsessed religiosity, the film never assumes the tone of a jeremiad against belief as a phenomenon. (It is, meanwhile, partly a broadside against the lingering, terror-stricken medievalism that still thrives in some parts of rural Eastern Europe). Mungiu’s film is mostly agnostic with respect to the legitimacy of Voichita’s tremulous faith, but it is clear-eyed on the question of human dignity and the sanctity of bodily liberty. While Alita’s behavior is often appallingly selfish and dangerously erratic, the moment when she is restrained and chained “for her own good” is the turning point that reveals the nature of the film’s horror: Not the fear of a mentally ill person, but for her.

The film’s coda is crucial to an appreciation of its is grim assessment of the supernatural’s awkward place in a secular twenty-first century. Following a tragic outcome from Alita’s exorcism, law enforcement authorities appear at the convent and question the priest and nuns about their role in the incident. In the harsh light of hindsight, the monastery’s residents look less like whirly-eyed fanatics and more like children with guilty consciences. A plaintive, half-hearted declaration clings to the sisters’ shell-shocked countenances: We thought we were doing the right thing. While Beyond the Hills is resolute in its condemnation of religiously-motivated abuses and blinkered belief systems, it does not gloat as the priest and nuns are handcuffed and hauled away. Rather, it rhetorically asks how it is that what seems like pity at midnight can so clearly resemble callousness at dawn. Above all, the film illustrates how seductive it is to imagine oneself as a lonely champion of righteousness in a fallen world, and how fiendishly easy it is for fear to overwhelm compassion when the phantom demons of that world seem to be drawing near.