“Encounter” (dir. Michael Pearce) – A family roadtrip through a demon-haunted world

Poster for "Encounter" (2021 film)

In the riveting opening moments of Encounter, the paranoid, insect-filled, meteor-pelted world of former USMC Staff Sgt. Malik Khan (Riz Ahmed) is revealed in impressive vfx detail and expository set dressing in parallel with Malik’s own status as an unreliable narrator. He awakens in a roadside motel surrounded by maps and pages that represent his amateur attempts to learn everything there is to know about neuroparasitology. On his shoulder, we see the tattooed names (in Arabic) of his children Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and Bobby (Aditya Geddada), and we learn, via a letter in voiceover, that he hasn’t seen them in over two years, owing to unspecified “secret missions”. And we can plainly see that he is not being entirely forthcoming with them. Malik gives an immediate impression of a man who is quite willing to lie to his children in service of some perceived greater good, but ultimately loves them and wants what’s best for them. This duality persists and becomes increasingly important as the film goes on, because Malik’s next move is to sneak onto the farm of his ex-wife Piya (Janina Gavankar), who is remarried to a nice enough fellow by the name of Dylan (Misha Collins), in order to abscond with both kids in the middle of the night. After spiriting them from their beds and spinning a yarn that their mother and stepfather are going on a skiing vacation, he starts laying out the sort of rules that would be well at home in a cult: Don’t talk to anyone. Eat as much candy as you want and sleep whenever you want. Cover yourself in bug spray to keep the monsters at bay. Seriously, don’t talk to anyone. C’mere, I’ll teach you how to shoot my gun. Oh, and by the by, keep your fucking mouth shut (this is a hardscrabble Marine in an R-rated film who swears around his kids every bit as much as that description implies).

The tension at play in this film is not the Google-friendly spoiler question of the existence and precise nature of the alien parasites, but whether Malik really loves his kids or not, as well as whether they are truly safe with him – questions which may or may not be one and the same. Like Take Shelter before it, it doesn’t actually matter that much whether the apocalypse taking up space in your head is real. Because as his pursuers (Octavia Spencer and Rory Cochrane) soberly point out, a trained Marine who believes in mind-altering parasites can justify any amount of violence against other humans, including their immediate family or even themselves, on the basis that they have effectively been replaced by an programmed imposter. But estranged or not, abducted or not, these three are a family, and they spend every minute of this film acting like one. Ahmed, who is Pakistani-British, brings the same unassumingly tough-as-nails American accent from Sound of Metal, which works fine for the John Deere-capped jarhead that he portrays here. Chauhan and Geddada have curiously mismatched accents, with Jay sounding every bit the American-born English speaker as his father and mother, and Bobby speaking impeccable English but bearing a trace of some Indian accent. There are any number of plausible family scenarios that explain this tonal mismatch (including, I’ll admit, me just mishearing the child), but I only mention it to point out that the ethnicity of this family and how it is perceived by the strangers they encounter seem essential to the plot and vibes of this film. Because the hostility and alienation that these three are navigating doesn’t just come from their belief that they’re surrounded by mind-controlled zombies, but because – despite being as American as apple pie, they are still often treated as the other because of their race. Hostility and suspicion for strangers is thus a mutual and persistent feeling, and the racism this family experiences is subtle, but ever-present. Just another layer of the thoroughly modern paranoia on display in this film – the sort that stems from a belief that the world itself – its institutions, social contracts, and ability to perform collective actions – is coming apart at the seams. And our capacity to trust others dwindles in some sadly predictable ways.

Still from "Encounter" (2021 film)

I call this film’s paranoia modern by way of contrasting it with many previous heartland alien invasion films, which were all on some level about our fears: run-of-the-mill American xenophobia, fear of foreign invasion, Cold War anxiety about humanity’s mutual annihilation (an outcome still very much on the table!), fear of our own governments’ authoritarian tendencies, and later, somewhat perversely, nostalgia for all of the above. After briefly donning some post-9/11 imagery with Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, this genre largely retreated to comfortably generic territory – sometimes enjoyable, but not really about much of anything except blockbuster spectacle. On the smaller side, Take Shelter director Jeff Nichols‘ weakest film is probably the 2016 E.T. retread Midnight Special, and Andrew Patterson‘s quiet, small-town thriller The Vast of Night was as much about old-timey radio and telephony as it was about any specific paranormal mystery: Aliens as conceptual window dressing for a pastoral, small-town life that hardly exists anymore.

Encounter feels fresh and new, and that is an invaluable thing. It casts alien invasion as a fear that we can turn fully inward, because in a world that feels increasingly hostile and alien, the last bastion of hope may be the bonds of family, whatever that means to each of us, plus the inside of our own heads and good judgment, for whatever that’s worth. And the tension between these dueling forces, the space between hope and fear, is right where this film thrives tonally. Every moment with this family feels precarious and crisisbound, but also every bit the jovial road trip that it seems to be. Because Malik not only feels like a real father to these children, but the kids themselves are well-drawn and react in ordinary ways to the situation, alternating between excitement, cooperation, bickering, skepticism, and terror, and ultimately just wanting everything and everyone to be okay. Chauhan, who plays the 10-year-old Jay Khan, is pitch-perfect in this role, with the kind of screen presence I’ve seldom seen from an actor so young. Like Tye Sheridan before him, this boy is someone to keep an eye on. Because every bit of intensity that Ahmed can bring to this role is matched exactly as needed by the kids. Chauhan subtly sells Jay’s bitterness that his brother seems to like their stepdad, as well as his disappointment at who and what their absent father turned out to be as compared to his own memories. Jay sees Bobby following the simple, desperate childhood program of giving unconditional love to any grownup who reliably shows up and treats him decently, and sees his own disappointment in his younger brother’s future. All of this simmers in the background amid the highs and lows of this road trip, and it is essential to why I cared so much about this family.

Still from "Encounter" (2021 film)

Ultimately, the mystery at the heart of this film has only a couple of possible answers, but the film does a solid job of offering evidence in either direction as it goes on. Malik seems to go out of his way not to harm people, and mentions early on that those possessed by alien parasites are still alive and still human: Just in need of a rescue and a cure. Sometimes he resorts to violence, and sometimes he goes out of his way not to. The script even takes a few bold chances (perhaps to prod Malik’s moral lines a bit), throwing in some Three Percenter militia dudes (as loathsome an infestation of the American West as any of the other parasites in this film), portraying them as every bit the affluent, racist Large Adult Sons they are in real life, but also giving them some semi-legitimate reasons to join the chase. Every confrontation during the chase is cleverly conceived, including a showdown in a ghost town that feels straight out of a western, plus or minus a few weapons.

Ultimately, one of the most interesting things about Malik is that is that even outside moments of crisis, many of his actions place himself and the boys in physical danger. Of course, he believes they’re already in physical danger, and anything he does to serve their rescue mission is A-OK. As a consequence, we the audience are constantly forced to evaluate, from the first time he picks a fight with an armed assailant to the moment where he revs his SUV up to 100mph and pretends to sleepily drift onto the shoulder in order to give the kids a thrill, whether we – or they – should really be trusting this man’s judgment. And we also must wonder whether these innocent children will pay the price for the trust they have little choice but to place in their father. The audience is invited into this circle of trust, simply riding along with this family (and in turns, riding along with their pursuers) and hoping for the best. Riz Ahmed’s dualistic and steady-handed performance is a big part of what makes Encounter work so well as a character study, but what makes the film memorable is that it managed to do all of that while presenting such a tense and well-drawn thriller. The camera floats up and away as Malik drives on, two spotlights in the gathering darkness, carrying whatever hopes, fears, and well-rendered, macro-photographed bugs exist in his world, in search of whatever is out there.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

Encounter is in theaters now, and will be available on Prime Video this Friday.

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #191 – “The Power of the Dog” (dir. Jane Campion), “Bruised” (dir. Halle Berry)

Poster for "The Power of the Dog"

This week, Glenn and Daniel welcome back Erika to check out the directorial debut of Halle Berry in Bruised, in which she stars as a disgraced MMA fighter trying to connect with her estranged son. And then we check out Jane Campion‘s gorgeous, but narratively unfocused adaptation on toxic masculinity in the early 20th century American West, The Power of the Dog, which provoked a wide range of reactions on the podcast. Both films are now available on Netflix. (01:24:17).

Still from "Bruised" (2021 film)

*CW: This episode contains mentions of suicide, alcoholism, familial and intimate partner violence, and rape, as pertains to the subject matter of each film.
May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (Bruised): 5/10 (Erika), 6/10 (Daniel), 7/10 (Glenn)
FilmWonk rating (The Power of the Dog): 3/10 (Daniel), 5/10 (Glenn), 9/10 (Erika)

Show notes:

  • [02:01] Review: Bruised
  • [26:34] Spoilers: Bruised
  • [39:58] Review: The Power of the Dog
  • [55:46] Spoilers: The Power of the Dog
  • There was a minor technical issue with the remote recording, and it is occasionally possible to hear a brief echo – we edited this out as much as possible, and we do apologize for the disruption.
  • CORRECTION: Jane Campion was not the first woman to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director – she was second (for The Piano, for which she would win the award for Best Original Screenplay). The first woman to be nominated for Best Director was Lina Wertmüller for the 1976 Italian film, Seven Beauties.
  • Erika plugged the 1989 TV miniseries Lonesome Dove, starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones, which is streaming on StarzPlay as well as for rent on multiple platforms.

Listen above, or download: Bruised, The Power of the Dog (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #190 – “Eternals” (dir. Chloé Zhao)

Poster for Marvel Studios' "Eternals"

This week, Glenn and Daniel once again had a busy week as a Marvel film came out for us to review by itself, and we promise that’s a coincidence. Academy Award-winning director Chloé Zhao tries to tell a tale as old as time and bring a new superhero team to life. Tune in as we give Eternals more credit for ambition than execution, in that good, Chronicles of Riddick sort of way (49:43).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10

Show notes:

  • [01:36] Review: Eternals
  • [25:53] Review: Eternals

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

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #189 – “The French Dispatch” (dir. Wes Anderson), “Last Year at Marienbad” (1961) (dir. Alain Resnais)

Poster for "The French Dispatch"

This week, Glenn and Daniel check out a French Dispatch, and a series of meandering vignettes which may or may not coalesce into a coherent narrative. And it’s up to our intrepid podcasters (with special guest and friend of the show Jason) to determine which is which. First, we check out Wes Anderson’s vision of The New Yorker as a star-studded anthology film, then venture back to the 1961 French Left Bank film, Last Year at Marienbad, a bizarre and experimental film that mesmerized us (01:01:03).

Still from "Last Year at Marienbad"

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (The French Dispatch): 5 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (Last Year at Marienbad): 7.5 out of 10

Show notes:

  • [01:09] Review: The French Dispatch
  • [25:35] Review: Last Year at Marienbad
  • Connect with Kanopy via your local library, and you too can watch Last Year at Marienbad!
  • Daniel referenced an extremely self-aware Wes Anderson interview in The New Yorker:
    How Wes Anderson Turned The New Yorker into ‘The French Dispatch’“.
  • Daniel referred to a real-life incident not depicted in the film which occurred during the May ’68 protests: student protestors temporarily occupied (and attempted to set fire to) the Bourse (the Paris Stock Exchange). The building did not burn down (it is largely built of stone), and still exists today as Euronext Paris.
  • The matchstick game in Last Year at Marienbad is Nim, which features a variety of mathematical strategies you can read all about on Wikipedia.
  • We mentioned a few previous review selections that came to mind while reviewing Marienbad, including Holy Motors, Under the Shadow, Fish & Cat.

Listen above, or download: The French Dispatch, Last Year at Marienbad (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play)

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)