Jeff Nichols’ “Take Shelter” (2011) (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Poster for "Take Shelter"

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.

I was reluctant to revisit Take Shelter, and when I called dibs on this retrospective a few months ago, I didn’t know difficult it would be to write about. It’s a movie that hit me hard the first time, as Curtis (Michael Shannon) and I each have a close family member who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when we were young, and have dealt with the transformation of that person into someone new. In the decade since the film came out, I’ve followed its playbook more closely than I intended. I married a redhead, had a couple of kids, and…in the film’s most devastating prophetic turn so far, reached the same age as Curtis and watched my father die, back in August. In his grief over the man that raised him, Curtis succumbs to the onset of paranoid delusions, and fears that he is following in his mother’s footsteps. That is where Curtis’ experience diverges from my own, but I nonetheless find myself reflecting on mental illness from the standpoint of both the person going through it as well as their loved ones. Curtis doesn’t eschew his diagnosis – instead, he visits an honest-to-goodness public library to pick up a set of dusty old books about schizophrenia, all so he can deliver a convincing book report to the counselor at his town’s public health clinic: he meets 2 of the 5 diagnostic criteria for schizophrenia. And that is just such a sane-person thing to do, isn’t it? Hallucinations operate on a spectrum and are sometimes experienced by people with no other psychiatric symptoms (neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote an excellent book on the subject!). But delusions, by their very nature, are illusory and hard for the person experiencing them to detect. For that person, their dangers, their persecutors, their oncoming storm, are all very real, because the part of their brain that should tell them it isn’t real isn’t working properly. As in a dream, their mind is failing to test reality and think critically. Because it can’t do what it can’t do.  And their terrifying new reality feels as ordinary to them as the real world does to us. What absolute hell it must be for the person experiencing it.

But for the people in your life, what do you become? A maddening mystery. Their reliable provider, their hard worker, their good and faithful friend – all those things they saw in you, and which you might’ve seen in yourself, suddenly feel askew, missing, possibly never to return. Who knows what they must think during that early onset? Have you just become an unreliable asshole all of a sudden? People have been known to do that, and pathologizing it is not always appropriate. I reflected upon the ordeal faced by Curtis and his family in this film through my own personal lens because it’s something I’ve watched play out in real life. And while my family’s own experience is not identical to what is portrayed here, I do feel comfortable saying that Curtis feels like a fully realized human being, and despite his financial woes, he is very fortunate to have the people he has in his life. His work friend Dewart (Shea Whigham) makes a Shea Whigham face as they sit in his car, avoiding their respective homes with post-work beers, and says simply, “You got a good life, Curtis. I’m serious – I think that’s the best compliment you can give a man. Take a look at his life and say, that’s good. That guy’s doin’ somethin’ right.” And he is.

Still from "Take Shelter"

Dewart is an interesting case, because despite seeing Curtis every day at work (and even working under him as a manager), he feels aloof from his friend’s deteriorating mental state, and seems to think that Curtis is merely making a few bad choices. When Curtis enlists Dewart’s help borrowing a backhoe from their employer’s equipment yard to expand his backyard storm shelter, Dewart doesn’t say no, exactly. He just says, “You sure about that?”, and when Curtis confirms, he replies, “I just don’t wanna see you fuck up.” Curtis’ brother Kyle (Ray McKinnon), mere seconds before offering to whoop his little brother’s ass like they’re kids again, takes a similarly glib posture, warning him about the cost of the storm shelter he’s building, “You take your eye off the ball one minute in this economy and you’re screwed.” This feels like an ordinary and expected reaction to men spotted making mistakes. Rich men can buy their way out of mistakes and spin their way out of crimes, but ordinary men are presumed to be in control of – and responsible for – their actions. People might ask, “Are you okay?” (Dewart does ask this in the very same scene), but they’re not necessarily prepared for a sincere no. Hence all the memes about how far men will go to avoid going to therapy. I don’t mind these memes, because the stats seem to bear them out. But Curtis does go to therapy – or at least to his GP. All it takes is a half-dozen apocalyptic tempest dreams, and one bout of bedwetting that he is obviously pretty upset about.

The dreams follow a similar cadence. As Curtis puts it, “They always start with a kind of storm. Like a real powerful storm. And then there’s always this dark, thick rain. Like fresh motor oil. And then the things, people, it just makes ’em crazy. They attack me. Sometimes they go after Hannah [his daughter]. First one I had, Red [the dog] nearly chewed through my arm.” He also sees massive flocks of black birds flying unnaturally and dive-bombing (or falling dead from the sky), and has the occasional daytime hallucination that may or may not be real – phantom claps of thunder or bolts of lightning in a clear sky. Perhaps more alarming is that he seems to recognize these things as not real, or coming from his mind, but he is still acting upon them in the real world. His dog attacks him in a dream, and he separates the dog from his daughter, and eventually puts him outside and gives him away to his brother. His friend Dewart attacks him with a pickaxe in a dream, and he has him transferred to a different work crew. His wife gives him a creepy stare while standing dripping wet in their kitchen and looking at a bread knife, and he recoils from the touch of her hand at the breakfast table. In Oliver Sacks’ book, Hallucinations, he writes,

“Any consuming passion or threat may lead to hallucinations in which an idea and an intense emotion are embedded. Especially common are hallucinations engendered by loss and grief…losing a parent, a spouse, or a child is losing a part of oneself; and bereavement causes a sudden hole in one’s life, a hole which – somehow – must be filled. This presents a cognitive problem and a perceptual one as well as an emotional one, and a painful longing for reality to be otherwise.”

Still from "Take Shelter"

And what is Curtis’ reality? And what is missing in his life? His mother (Kathy Baker) is alive, but a shadow of her former self, institutionalized and separated from him most of the time. And the only functional parent he had known for 25 years is gone. And here he is, a man in his 30s, suddenly facing the rest of his life, a family to look after, and all the labors and dangers that now fall squarely upon his shoulders. And it’s easy to see how those dangers could grow and mutate until they become apocalyptic terrors, even if that isn’t how it goes for most people. I hadn’t read Sacks’ book when I saw the film a decade ago, but looking at Curtis’ hallucinations through this neurological lens helped me make a bit more sense of them this time around, even as a psychological layperson. We act in accordance with what our senses tell us about the real world, and how our minds interpret that information. In a person with schizophrenia…or a person having some other, less intractable psychological disorder, one or more of these processes has gone awry. And they may act in a way that is consistent with their revised worldview, even if they may still be able to articulate reasons why they shouldn’t be acting that way. When Samantha (Jessica Chastain) finally confronts Curtis about his behavior (in response to him asking whether she plans to leave him), she points out the moment she knew that this was more than just her husband making reckless financial decisions and not trusting or respecting her enough to explain why. Because these two are close enough that he wouldn’t recoil from her touch. This moment – played with equal parts love and ferocity by Chastain – only works if you believe this is a real family that has functioned properly in the past, and that is one thing this film and these actors sell exceptionally well. This is a blue-collar Rust Belt family with a patriarch who works in resource extraction, a stay-at-home wife and mother who runs the flea market booth on Saturday and goes to church on Sunday. They look after their daughter (who is deaf from birth and preparing for cochlear implant surgery as her parents learn ASL). They save for a nice beach vacation on Erie. They have worries, dreams, and a social life. And the overriding feeling going into Curtis’ crisis is that this family is real, and their life feels lived-in, which is a necessary condition for me to become invested in Curtis’ spiraling destruction of that family life. And it makes Samantha’s decision to take charge of the situation and safeguard Curtis’ mental health that much more cathartic.

Still from "Take Shelter"

This review feels incomplete without addressing the elephant in the room. But what is that elephant? What is that looming doom on the horizon that is stressing all of us out? The neo-fascist Republican Party feels like an easy choice. Or the mostly ignored threat of climate change. Or the COVID-19 pandemic, which so thoroughly revealed the lie of American exceptionalism and the fragility of our social contract that I’ve lost any sense of what patriotism and Christian morality means to those who pretend to espouse those virtues. And then there are the various dooms that I know to be nonsense, but which feel no less real for the people who believe in them: anti-vaxxers, QAnon freaks, and other people on the spectrum between victims and spreaders of apocalyptic disinformation. The centre cannot hold when our functionality as a society collapsed the moment we were asked to make even the most basic of sacrifices for our neighbors. And watching a movie about a generalized feeling of doom creates a temptation to overfit this film to the times we live in now. I’ve possibly done that above, ascribing Curtis’ psychological deterioration to the death of his father, because that’s something I find intensely relatable at this moment. What say you, Take Shelter? Shall I compare thee to a summer’s doom? No. That’s a bit too easy. Apocalyptic tales have existed for as long as human storytelling. There’s always a storm coming, and not a one of you is prepared for it. Because…we’re all pretty terrible at taking the long view and preparing for things, because we live in a society that punishes anything but relentless, stress-fueled hustling to survive. But maybe, if we get to know our neighbors a bit, stockpile a few basics, and reassert our collective belief in this project we call civilization, it’ll all be okay in the end. I don’t suppose I’d still be writing about movies if I didn’t believe that on some level.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #188 – “Dear Evan Hansen” (dir. Stephen Chbosky), “Malignant” (dir. James Wan)

Poster for "Dear Evan Hansen"

*CW: This episode contains mentions of suicide, substance abuse, familial and intimate partner violence, pregnancy loss, and rape, as pertains to the subject matter of each film.

This week, Glenn and Daniel check out the misfiring adaptation of the Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen, whose narrative problems stem as much from its original book as from its later casting decisions, then differ sharply on James Wan‘s ’80s VHS bargain bin throwback, Malignant, whose “Seattle”-set monster antics charmed one and perplexed the other (1:11:05).

Still from "Malignant"

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (Dear Evan Hansen): 4 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (Malignant): 7/10 (Glenn), 2/10 (Daniel)

Show notes:

  • [02:27] Review: Dear Evan Hansen
  • [32:28] Review: Malignant
  • [43:51] Spoilers: Malignant
  • Daniel went all the way back to the early days of the FilmWonk Podcast by referencing the 2010 film from writer/director Adam Green, Frozen (not that one), a survival horror flick that takes place entirely on a stalled ski lift with three skiers trapped aboard, which we reviewed all the way back on Episode #5.

Listen above, or download: Dear Evan Hansen, Malignant (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #187 – “The Suicide Squad” (dir. James Gunn), “The Green Knight” (dir. David Lowery)

Poster for "The Suicide Squad" (2021 film)

This week, Glenn and Daniel gaze back into last week, when Glenn wrote 2,000 glowing words about writer/director David Lowery‘s rich, gorgeous, legendary tone poem The Green Knight, which captured both of our imaginations. And then we venture into James Gunn‘s post-Super return to R-rated comic book storytelling, in a American intervention tale straight out of the Cold War (not in a good way), which is never quite sure whether it’s doing the thing or satirizing the thing. But The Suicide Squad is a hoot-and-a-half nonetheless, and we really can’t blame the film for pretending its precursors don’t exist (1:12:15).

Still from "The Green Knight"

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (The Green Knight): 9 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (The Suicide Squad): 7 out of 10

Show notes:

  • [02:04] Review: The Green Knight
  • [12:18] Spoilers: The Green Knight
  • [30:40] Review: The Suicide Squad
  • [52:35] Spoilers: The Suicide Squad
  • CORRECTION: In my eagerness to draw parallels between A Ghost Story and The Green Knight, I carried forward an error from my original review by stating that the films shared a 4:3 aspect ratio. This is not correct. AGS was indeed 4:3, but TGK was actually 1.85:1.
  • As promised, here is my debate with Somebody on Twitter about whether The Green Knight is “too dark” – a criticism I found legitimately baffling at the time. They clarified that this was a s pecific aversion to the use of natural lighting, which they felt was a poor fit for this specific story. I still don’t agree, but they did do a very good job of clarifying their position, and we can always use more nice, friendly interactions on Twitter.
  • [Minor spoiler] We mentioned Gawain’s “supernatural side-quest” involving a ghostly maiden who asks him to retrieve her decapitated head from the bottom of a marsh. We didn’t know at recording time that this was a representation of Saint Winifred, whose biography makes her reaction to Gawain’s vague proposition of a quid pro quo even more understandable.
  • Check out this excellent interview by Carlos Aguilar of Variety with the makeup and prosthetic team at BGFX that helped transform actor Ralph Ineson into the Green Knight.
  • The Film Twitter argument I (rather poorly) alluded to was inspired by RS Benedict‘s seminal article on the avoidant sexuality of the modern American blockbuster, “Everyone is Beautiful and No One is Horny,” as well as Caroline Siede‘s excellent write-up of the long-neglected romantic adventure film genre, “Long before Jungle Cruise, Hollywood mastered the adventure romance genre.”
  • Polka-Dot Man’s mom was played by Lynne Ashe, previously seen in I, Tonya.

Listen above, or download: The Green Knight, The Suicide Squad (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play)

David Lowery’s “The Green Knight” – You’ll never meet your heroes

Poster for "The Green Knight"

By the time Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) reaches the midpoint of his yearlong march to face the Green Knight (played under lush tree-creature effects by Game of Thrones genre legend/UK Office dickhead Ralph Ineson), the legend of the Christmas Game they performed before the Round Table at Camelot has already spread far and wide across the land, and the facts have drifted accordingly. The version we see at the outset is that ailing King Arthur (Sean Harris) welcomes the Green Knight, an unexpected and terrifying presence, into his hall, and invites him to speak his piece. The Knight’s rather invasive offer – he ventriloquizes Queen Guinevere (Kate Dickie) to read it out in his thunderous voice – is that any man willing should try to land a blow upon him. Should they succeed, they will win the Green Knight’s massive battleaxe. And one year hence, that selfsame knight shall come and meet him in his own hall, the Green Chapel, where he shall return whatever blow that he received, be it a nick or a cleave. When the king’s nephew Gawain (pronounced “GAR-win” in the film) steps past a dozen armed knights to volunteer, he is neither armed nor even a knight himself. The other men awkwardly mill about not giving him a sword until King Arthur hands off his own legendary blade, Excalibur. And as the Green Knight sets down his axe and kneels to present a typically blunt-edged fairy tale lesson on the great wisdom and just rewards that mercy toward the helpless can bring you, Gawain promptly earns a different lesson by chopping the Knight’s head clean off, after demanding that everyone remember what has happened this Christmas Day. After a beat, the Green Knight rises, plucks his severed head off the floor, and walks away, reminding Gawain of the single year he has left to live. And lo, by the time a peasant is drunkenly repeating this pointedly pointless tale back to Gawain in a village pub, Sir Gawain bested the Green Knight with his – that’s to say, Gawain’s – mighty axe, you’d better believe it. Gawain is wielding a mighty axe now, so it’s an easy mistake to make. Indeed, we’re forced to presume a great deal about Gawain’s travels and deeds offscreen by the ways in which people react to him – he is not merely a knight of the Round Table, but one on a noble quest! And he is not at all afraid to be killed in nasty ways.

When FilmWonk Podcast co-host Daniel and I emerged from the Seattle International Film Festival screening of writer/director David Lowery‘s 2017 film A Ghost Story, we were the only ones in the lobby and on the street, with the rest of the audience having stuck around to hear Lowery do a Q&A (as a rule, we don’t stick around for these if we’re reviewing the film). We wandered in silence to our waiting vehicle as the film and the fullness of time washed over us. A Ghost Story was an elegiac reflection on mortality from the point of view of a lingering ghost, played impassively onscreen by Casey Affleck under a sheet. The Green Knight has many bones in common with that film, insofar as both contain reflections on the impermanence of life, deeds, houses, and the stories we tell about them, and they both feature a desperate central performance from a character on the same long march to the grave. The difference here is that Patel plays an avatar for us to root for as he walks the path of all mortals just a bit more consciously than most, rather than a blank, dead canvas on which to project our own feelings on the matter. As in A Ghost Story, there is a scene in which a character explicitly calls this out – here, the unnamed Lady of a forested hunting manor (Alicia Vikander) monologues about the evanescence of the grand idols that men build, each waiting to be reclaimed by creeping vines and the unrelenting green of nature. Of course, the joke’s on her, because her medieval aristocrat’s view isn’t nearly long enough if she thinks that the green will outlast the brown, the red, and the black as the sun expands and the Earth is scoured of all life, just as may have happened to all the other huge dancing gravestones that share our orbit around an unremarkable star in an unremarkable galaxy in an indifferent universe. Must I really go there? The film seems to invite it, with Lowery smugly slipping in a Hubble Deep Field image of thousands of galaxies in a tiny patch of sky, whose light stretches all the way back to the Big Bang, amid Gawain’s half-starved, psilocybin-induced hallucinations. If you missed that, don’t fret. It’s where we all came from, and it’s where we’ll all return, spread out infinitely as our stories echo onward, attenuated beyond recovery even as they blast forth from our planet at the speed of light, ripples in an unfathomably massive pond.

Still from "The Green Knight"

On my honor, The Green Knight is more upbeat and more of an advancement on Lowery’s themes than I’m making it sound. Patel is forced to depict Gawain’s conflicted stoicism and grapple with his impending doom in more overt and specific ways than whoever that fellow beneath the sheet might have been (possibly the key grip in a scene or two?). Gawain also struggles with the vast lore and legend that has already cropped up around this dumb, vainglorious thing that he did to show off for his royal uncle, which has earned him accolades and presumably free drinks from strangers which are utterly failing to make up for the fact that he is the one who will have to die for it. He’ll have to watch the pain behind the eyes of his paid lady friend Essel (also played by Vikander) who truly seems to love him in spite of (or on top of) their transactional relationship, even as she watches him march off to a doom entirely of his own making – perhaps twice. A doom that his uncle even warned him not to seek out, reminding him in a veiled whisper to remember that it’s “just a game”. In some accounts of the Triumph of Julius Caesar, a slave would march behind the glorified would-be emperor whispering in his ear, Memento mori – “Remember you are mortal.” To hear another legendary monarch say to his own nephew and heir apparent that he should remember to play the game feels akin to this. Even in the rough-and-tumble world of medieval England, rulers seldom have to worry about their own mortality on any field of battle with the same frequency as the thousands of peasants they drag to the same slaughter (Richard the Third notwithstanding). Memento ludere feels like a similar utterance – remember to play, whether great games or minor ones, because yours will be a privileged life as long as you play it well. And yet, Gawain doesn’t choose that life. He opts into the grand gesture. Becomes the legend. Throws himself into a doom for the ages. How many heroes do we laud whose stories amount to little more than this? I recall poor Pat Tillman, whose name we’re only still speaking because he gave up an NFL career to be killed by friendly fire in a war that failed to achieve any of its purported objectives and which lasted for nearly as much time on this planet as Tillman himself. I won’t mention his name again, because I really don’t mean to pick on him, or even to single him out. He is just the one who came most readily to mind as a modern face of men winning glory, and in the wake of his death, the amoral husk of American patriotism has hollowed out the flag into a series of multicolored lines by people who think that if we can just empower a few more hypothetical heroes with thoughtless and robotic gestures of gratitude for their service, we’ll never have to think too hard about the conditions of the society that they’re meant to serve and then rejoin. As George R.R. Martin said, by way of lowly not-quite-knight Sandor Clegane, “Knights are for killing!” Perhaps that’s why we need Great Men. Why they become tools of bellicose propaganda, whether or not they might have desired this in life. The powerful need symbols to persuade the rest of us that their power is worth dying for. Or killing for.

By and by, Gawain’s travels take him to a lonely Scottish battlefield, tended by an unnamed scavenger (Barry Keoghan) who offers directions (in exchange for coin), while milling around grave-robbing and lamenting that there was nobody left to bury the dead. “But don’t ye fret!” he assures Gawain, “Nature will do its trick,” pulling them into the ground and erasing any trace of them. On top of whether to trust and compensate this dubious source of directions (whom Keoghan plays with maximum creep factor – you can practically smell the Plague on him), Gawain finds himself in other fairytale morality plays as well, including one grand bargain involving sex, honor, and loyalty – and the transactional dimensions of each. This happens at the hunting lodge mentioned above, where the Lord of the Manor is played by Joel Edgerton, and his wife (Vikander) seeks to tempt Gawain into sexual compromise, and the three of them, strangers yesterday, are somehow in a more intimate version of the Green Knight’s bargain above: a promise to return whatever is given. There’s a lot going on at this manor. But if I’m being honest, the film’s soporific quality had fully kicked in by this point, and I don’t have much to say about this sequence except that Patel and Vikander’s performances continued to impress me. At the Ghost Story screening (which began at close to 10PM), Lowery had told us beforehand to feel free and fall asleep during the film if we need to, and at least one critic in the row behind me seemed to have taken that advice to heart for The Green Knight, quietly snoring away. I managed to stay conscious, but it hardly matters. I only mention this because as much as this film hits a number of complex thematic beats, its narrative is that of a bedtime story, and it is very easy to follow. What’s more, unlike A Ghost Story (which affected me in ways I do not care to repeat), this is one that I’ll definitely be revisiting, and I expect this morality play will give me more in repeat viewing than the sum of the film’s lush visuals did the first time. The Green Knight is absolutely gorgeous, it must be said – cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo (A Ghost Story) returns to work with Lowery and makes an absolute feast of the UK countryside, occasionally enhanced with what I presume were wholly CGI castles. Some early, shaky CGI fire is a minor distraction in the opening shot, but the remainder of the film’s backgrounds are as deep and expansive as its themes. Costumer Malgosia Turzanska, as well as the entire hair and makeup department, deliver a treat here as well – and for a film with appropriately muted medieval lighting (a mix of flame and cool, clouded outdoor sun), they frankly could have gotten away with a lot less.

Still from "The Green Knight"

The film has two final shots – one a living* title card that appears and fades away before the end credits, and one a minor vignette involving a child’s plaything that appears afterward. Stay for both. Not only because you’ll need a moment to let the experience of this film wash over you, but because the latter feels like a tidy expression of hope amid the film’s dour things. All of our grandest works, our holiest places, our most elaborate cathedrals – in time, they all become overgrown and discarded, desanctified and repurposed until nothing beside remains. But they also become the playthings and wandering places of whoever and whatever innocent and wide-eyed life comes next. And no matter how many self-insert characters Lowery puts into his films to make it nice and clear that everything we know and love will fail to outlast the heat death of the universe, he still inexplicably feels like an optimist about it.

FilmWonk rating: 9 out of 10

*Correction: The original version of this review stated that both A Ghost Story and The Green Knight shared a 4:3 aspect ratio. AGS was indeed 4:3, but TGK was actually 1.85:1. We regret the error, which embarrassingly persisted even after adding stills to the post.

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #186 – “Old” (dir. M. Night Shyamalan), “Mosquita y Mari” (2012) (dir. Aurora Guerrero)

This week, Glenn and Daniel see what’s new from the twisted mind of M. Night Shyamalan, who now has a body of work that we actively look forward to, however we end up reacting to each film. And then we go back to 2012, to check out an overlooked indie coming-of-age LGBT teen romance from that year’s Sundance Film Festival, Mosquita Y Mari, from director Aurora Guerrero (49:18).

Still from "Mosquita y Mari" (2012)

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (Mosquita y Mari): 8 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (Old): 7 out of 10

Show notes:

  • [01:26] Review: Mosquita y Mari
  • [16:46] Review: Old
  • [27:28] Spoilers: Old
  • Daniel first heard about Mosquita y Mari from a plug on the Twitter feed of Talia Lavin (@chick_in_kiev), an excellent political writer and scholar of online right-wing extremism – her book, Culture Warlords, is definitely worth a read if you’d like some insight into how the United States got into the mess we’re currently in as a country.
  • Glenn declined to re-litigate Moonlight on today’s episode, in which Daniel chose violence by casually referring to it as a “depressing slog” – check out our Moonlight review on our 100th episode.
  • The movie starring Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando was The Missouri Breaks, a 1976 western directed by Arthur Penn. Probably not worth a stabbing or a cartoon portrayal of schizophrenia.

Listen above, or download: Mosquita Y Mari, Old (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #185 – “Black Widow” (dir. Cate Shortland)

This week, Glenn and Daniel check out ScarJo‘s MCU swansong, and perhaps the start of an action blockbuster career for director Cate Shortland (40:17).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

Show notes:

  • [01:30] Review: Black Widow
  • [25:33] Spoilers: Black Widow

Listen above, or download: Black Widow (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play)

“The Forever Purge” (dir. Everardo Gout) – Delivers on a promise it only just made

Poster for "The Forever Purge"

The Forever Purge benefited from the frivolity and camp that the franchise has indulged in up to this point. My base expectation was that none of the characters would matter much to me, some of them would die, and little narrative progress would be made, because the real villain of the Purge is always ourselves – our division, our hatred, and our stubborn refusal to build anything new as we dance to a hateful tune played by dead men. In the real America, that’s how we’ve gone from two “failed” impeachments – neither of which were the product of a real deliberative process – to a riot over a failed Trump reelection by a pack of malicious and deluded morons whose political bosses have no interest in investigating the flames they deliberately stoked. Despite the Republican Party’s hard turn against democracy and voting rights, America has a long way to go before it reaches Purge World, largely because most Americans are too desperate, lazy, or geographically diffuse to bother with such a thing. That’s my quasi-optimistic view: America will slouch its way into national survival, give or take a half million hapless souls every few years from one preventable disaster or another. But there are other schools of thought, including that of screenwriter James DeMonaco, whose pre-Purge filmography includes co-writing the 1996 Robin Williams comedy Jack, which seems appropriate. Because like the premature aging disease that Jack suffered from in that film – I know The Purge would be a bit less funny in real life. And hey, that’s fine for a campy horror franchise. In the earlier days of the podcast, we praised this franchise’s attempts at world-building, but I’ve never expected The Purge to be anything more or less than it is: An excuse to indulge in some guilt-free escapist murder at the movie theater in a world that’s already over-saturated with the zombie genre (Ana de la Reguera‘s recent sortie in Vegas notwithstanding), and wants to see a bit more light and terror draining from its victims’ eyes. And oh, the camp it delivers: There have been frat kids with creepy monologues, furries, over-elaborate traps, and teenagers in lingerie who try to murder shopkeepers for trying to stop them from stealing candy bars. When the series first tried to ground itself in the real world with The Purge: Election Year, my reaction was to say that any mass-murdering government that can be canceled with a single democratic election hardly deserves to be called a dystopia. So you can imagine my surprise at The Forever Purge, a franchise conclusion which not only swapped out most of the camp for daylight, dire sincerity, pessimism, and a wider but credible scope, but did so with a group of characters that showed me just enough of their inner lives to make me care whether they lived or died. The film may be a plausible conclusion of what came before, or a sharp turn into critical respectability, but either way, it is certainly the best of the franchise.

A bit of the camp is still there – we see a pair of creepy men dressed as bunny rabbits capture Adela (de la Reguera) in a goat-cage neck-trap before she is rescued by a combination of her bat-wielding boss and her own hard-nosed past. For you see, good people, none of this was supposed to happen in broad daylight. The Purge was last night, and Adela was merely returning to work the next morning to find that most of her kitchen staff – undocumented immigrants from Mexico just like herself – have disappeared. This is merely the first sign and portent – we also see a newsman shot dead on camera in the middle of his post-Purge roundup of sanitation crews packing up the corpses and hosing blood into the storm drains. What’s one more body? Archive footage. Fake news. Perhaps we didn’t really see what we saw. We’re already 30 minutes into the film by the time the Ever After Purge gang shows its hand, and this is easily when it gets most exciting. What the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA) did with their power (after an off-screen ousting and presumed execution of the Purge-canceling President Roan), was return to their previous method of holding power: persuade the poor to kill each other once a year. Their grift spawned an entire Purge industry, of which we’ve learned bits and pieces throughout the series. There are security systems, dropdown gates, and some gleeful participation for the upper middle class, immunity for government officials, weapons restrictions and paid protection militias for the poor, and an annual bloodbath that has canonically only been going on since 2014, the year after the first film came out, and continues through at least 2040. This bent version of America has gradually morphed and molded itself into a perennial murder machine, and The Forever Purge reveals what they’ve been preparing so carefully for: an accelerationist boogaloo. A 26-year water slide into a white supremacist-instigated second American Civil War, which will kick off with a campaign of well-organized ethnic cleansing against anyone deemed Unamerican, as measured by the pigment of their skin, deemed “invaders” by their haunting main street broadcasts and creepy skull-logo flag.

Still from "The Forever Purge"

Adela, her husband Juan (Tenoch Huerta from Narcos: Mexico), and their friend T.T. (Alejandro Ella), are all on the run with the Tucker family, a clan of white ranchers, and Juan and T.T.’s employer. The Tuckers have narrowly escaped the populist clutches of the first purger of the morning, another Tucker ranch-hand named Kirk (Will Brittain), who seems keen to do a bit of righteous wealth reshuffling before being smacked down with an appropriately hacked and slashed white-moderate speech from Tucker patriarch Caleb (Will Patton). Caleb tells Kirk he’s a hypocrite and a liar who is nonetheless correct about this country’s unfairness, racial and wealth inequality, and inhumanity dating back to its land theft from the continent’s Indigenous people, and concludes his rant by telling him, on behalf of the Tucker family, to go fuck himself. Several shootouts later, the remaining Tuckers are on the run with their immigrant rescuers. When the race war kicks off in earnest, Juan has worked with Tucker son and boss Dylan (Josh Lucas) for long enough that they might have become friends if not for Dylan’s none-too-subtle racism against Mexicans. By the time the two are sitting in a truck cab, no love lost between them despite each having saved the other’s life in turns, we end up with a fascinating conversation in which Juan (whose English is a bit less practiced than Adela’s) asks Dylan to “slice the shit” and explain his problem with Mexicans. Dylan, a rich redneck who has spent the entire opening act engaging in minor racist hostilities but doing the usual white person thing of keeping the racist bones in his body nice and deniable, does something unexpected: he tells the truth. Dylan says he doesn’t have any problem with Mexicans (or Latinos in general), but he doesn’t understand them any better than they understand him, and he thinks the world would be better off if we all – that’s to say, each of the arbitrary, inconsistent, and overlapping racial cohorts on Earth, “stuck to our own”. That Dylan makes this observation – an outright confession of his belief in white nationalism – at a moment in which he feels both vindicated by reality and conflicted about how to treat the trio of Mexicans to whom he and his family owe their lives, made this character far more interesting to me than he had been up until this point, even if his beliefs aren’t much less despicable than those of the Ever After Purgers. Because white separatists know what they’re really asking for. Donald Trump knew what he was asking for when he demanded that tens of millions of people get deported, because sometime at Wharton, I expect one of his professors (or the smarter kids he presumably paid to write his term papers) might have mentioned to him that the only way that such a massive forced migration has ever been performed in human history is through an act of genocide. That an avowed white separatist is willing to admit his beliefs even as their veiled hatred and fence-straddling impracticality is being brought into sharp relief did make me care a bit less about his survival, but it also made me wonder just how many people in the United States – with most of their neighborhoods, schools, churches, and employers more segregated than they were in the 1960s – feel the same way.

The film’s last hour is an exhilarating ride as the real silent majority – the people who just want to dodge the carnage and stay alive – makes a run en masse for the Mexican border. This is where the action gets more elaborate and large-scale, and the cinematography (by longtime Gout collaborator Luis David Sansans) and editing (by Blumhouse/Michael Bay vet Todd E. Miller and French pulp action editor Vincent Tabaillon) keep everything nice and coherent, even as the light waxes and wanes, and the action setpieces vary from a close-quarters melee in the flickering aftermath of a flipped Sheriff’s van to a nearly 3-minute nighttime tracking shot as Ever After Purgers, the NFFA-controlled US military (including tanks), and numerous innocent bystanders battle it out for control of downtown El Paso. Everyone creeps closer to the border wall cutting straight through the center of the Paso Del Norte – the binational metroplex formed by El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. It is during this sequence that The Forever Purge tames the practical and geographical chaos (and ably demonstrates what a dumb fucking idea a border wall is and always was) and gives an impression of dozens of simultaneous low-level urban skirmishes happening just off screen as our heroes creep through, with a vibe that’s equal parts Sicario and Cloverfield. I can’t say much about the subplot involving anti-Purge activist Chiago Harjo, played by the outstanding Lakota actor Zahn McClarnon (whose depiction of Akecheta was a highlight of the second season of HBO’s Westworld), but what I can say is: I wanted more of it. The inclusion of this subplot feels like an overdue acknowledgement that any discussion of who America truly belongs to is incomplete without its Indigenous peoples, but it is functionally a deus ex machina, providing cover for the main characters without ever giving much of an individual reason why – only a tribal one which verges on noble savage stereotyping. This is a hard balance to strike, because similar shorthand is used with other characters, helpers and villains alike. But given how crucial Chiago’s contributions are to the film’s ending, I daresay he deserved better than to be identified on television as “Texas Tribal Leader” in order to add to the train of exposition about the country being a boiling cauldron of white rage, and then swoop in at the end to save the main characters. But this is a comparatively minor complaint. Chiago and his friends also get to flip vehicles with compound crossbows and explosive arrows. It’s all very cool, even if it revives a bit of the camp from above while remaining self-serious.

Still from "The Forever Purge"

Anyway, if you want to see neo-Nazis die, this movie’s got em in droves, and we get to see them shot, stabbed, and blown apart in all sorts of entertaining ways, as they richly deserve in both fiction and the real world. One such moment is performed with gusto by Juan and Adela, making satisfying use of the language barrier that exists with a pack of inept hillbillies who refuse to learn a word of Spanish despite living in Texas (which has 7 million native speakers). I’m tempted to scoff at the seemingly hopeful voiceover that plays into the credits, but for the film to end with the knowledge that anti-Purge militias are springing up in New York and elsewhere to fight the Ever After Purgers is only a minor consolation, because it functions as a friendly reminder that if we ever do have another civil war in the real America, it is the right-wing militias that will have a head start, being that Antifa only exists as an organized force in the fevered dreams and knowing lies of right-wing politicians and pundits. Also, we have yet to hear what’s happened with any of America’s vast store of larger weapons, up to and including nuclear bombers, and it’s perhaps best not to think about those. We also don’t learn which parts of the military, National Guard, and police have joined in with the Ever After Purgers, but the answer is certainly greater than zero. That would be a rather unpleasant story to experience, I think, which perhaps helps to explain why I also didn’t scoff at Mexico and Canada briefly opening their borders to American refugees. Because when it comes down to it, we’re a scary bunch sometimes, and it’s definitely better to have us as invited guests than the entitled invasion force we would surely be otherwise.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #184 – “Fast and Furious 9” (dir. Justin Lin), “Look Back in Anger” (1959) (dir. Tony Richardson)

This week, Glenn and Daniel return to the car play franchise where the F stands for Fast, Furious, Family, and Fhysics. And then we venture back to 1959 to review Look Back in Anger, a play adaptation starring Richard Burton as a working class bloke in post-war Britain who hates his life and his wife (played by Mary Ure) nearly as much as he hates himself. We explore whether the film/play which spawned both kitchen-sink realism and the “angry young man” trope can still resonate even 60 years on (01:05:55).

Still from "Look Back in Anger"

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (F9): 6 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (Look Back in Anger): 8 out of 10

Show notes:

  • [01:52] Review: F9
  • [29:42] Review: Look Back in Anger
  • [46:28] Spoilers: Look Back in Anger
  • On the subject of Dom’s signature Dodge Chargers, check out this excellent piece of journalistic film writing from Priscilla Page, who has behind-the-scenes details on every one of Dom’s cars from 20 years of the Fast franchise.

Listen above, or download: F9, Look Back in Anger (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #183 – “Spiral: From the Book of Saw” (dir. Darren Lynn Bousman), “The Go-Between” (1971) (dir. Joseph Losey)

Poster for "Spiral: From the Book of Saw"

This week, Glenn and Daniel see Chris Rock‘s latest standup-routine-in-dialogue, Spiral: From the Book of Saw, as the comedian attempts to reinvigorate the Saw franchise as a ripped-from-the-headlines issue drama from returning series director Darren Lynn Bousman. With dubious results. Then they cleanse their palate at Daniel’s request with the Palme d’Or winner from the 1971 Cannes Film Festival, a Victorian costume drama and coming-of-age tale, The Go-Between (01:07:39).

Still from "The Go Between" (1971)

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (Spiral: From the Book of Saw): 2 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (The Go-Between): 8.5 out of 10

Show notes:

  • [01:53] Review: Spiral: From the Book of Saw
  • [21:25] Spoilers: Spiral: From the Book of Saw
  • [34:22] Review: The Go-Between
  • [46:51] Spoilers: The Go-Between
  • We mentioned the Saw franchise was created by James Wan and one other horror director of note whose name escaped us at the time – that would be Leigh Whannell, the director of last year’s outstanding version of The Invisible Man.
  • We mistakenly referred back to Saw V as the film in which Jigsaw tortures health insurance executives for their policy on pre-existing conditions (which already makes this franchise legally dated) – this was in fact Saw VI.
  • We jokingly compared the Jigsaw Killer’s grisly tableaus to the elaborate music videos of OK Go (a comparison in which the project management victory goes thoroughly to the latter!) – while several of them have gone viral over the last decade, there’s a good chance there’s one or two you haven’t seen – you can check out the complete playlist on their YouTube channel.
  • We misstated the age of former actor Dominic Guard who is now a child psychotherapist and author of children’s lit – he is 64 years old as of this writing.

Listen above, or download: Spiral: From the Book of Saw, The Go-Between (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #182 – “Voyagers” (dir. Neil Burger), “Short Term 12” (dir. Destin Daniel Cretton)

Poster for "Voyagers" (2021 film)

CW: This episode contains discussions of sexual assault, physical and sexual abuse, self-harm, and suicide.

This week, Glenn and Daniel see how the young people are doing, starting with Neil Burger‘s half-baked Lord of the Flies non-adaptation, Voyagers, whose cast is let down by material that seems unwilling to commit to its most interesting ideas. And then we check out director Destin Daniel Cretton‘s film Short Term 12, whose cast – including Brie Larson, Lakeith Stanfield and Rami Malek, could fill an entire shelf with all the awards they’ve earned in the 8 years since this film was released. It is also a film whose dark and harrowing subject matter doesn’t preclude a persistent feeling of sweetness and warmth that says to its audience: Look how well we can take care of each other when we try (01:22:22).

Still from "Short Term 12"

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (Voyagers): 4.5 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (Short Term 12): 8/10 (Daniel), 9/10 (Glenn)

Show notes:

  • [02:28] Review: Voyagers
  • [18:26] Spoilers: Voyagers
  • [38:05] Review: Short Term 12
  • [01:03:20] Spoilers: Short Term 12
  • See Glenn’s review of Passengers, which we referenced during our discussion of Voyagers.

Listen above, or download: Voyagers, Short Term 12 (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play)