William Friedkin’s “Killer Joe” (2012) (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Poster for "Killer Joe"

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.

Down in deep, dark Texas, amid a gang of characters who are all irredeemably despicable, Killer Joe, despite its name and title character, is all about Dottie (Juno Temple). Dottie the virgin. Dottie the innocent. Dottie who supposedly sleepwalks and sleeptalks, but always speaks the truth, even if none of the men in her family care to listen or take her seriously. Dottie – the beneficiary of a $50,000 life insurance policy if her estranged mother Adele should die – and Dottie who is immediately on board with the murder-for-hire plot hatched by her drug dealer brother Chris (Emile Hirsch) and layabout doofus father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church, adding to a canon of all-timer Dumb Guy performances). These two standup guys weren’t even going to mention the plan to Dottie, even as they divvying up her financial windfall amongst themselves in advance, but she overheard them talking “about killing Momma” and signed herself right up. The proposed hitman, Detective “Killer” Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), is not on board with this plan. He operates on a fee-for-service basis (swagger is no charge), and has no interest in contingencies from a life insurance policy may not pay for months if ever. Joe declines without reservation until he glances outside at Dottie, twirling around like a child, and sees the chance to use her as a human retainer. Joe’s lust and predation is lowkey. He hasn’t remained a cop and hitman by revealing his darkest desires in a manner that might ever be read aloud in court. Without saying exactly what he means by “retainer”, Joe tells the men he’s bartering with to “call me if she’s interested” – a meager nod to Dottie’s agency, if an unserious one. There will not be many more of these. Such an arrangement “might do her some good”, concedes her father Ansel. “Give him Dottie!”, Chris practically shouts.

And why shouldn’t they? This is a Southern Gothic plot as old as civilization itself, treating a daughter as sexual currency to compel and direct violence in your name. Each of them feigns justification for it. According to ex-husband Ansel, Adele herself – whose living face we never see onscreen – “isn’t doing anyone any good”. Both Ansel and Chris casually acknowledge that they’ve been physically abusive to her, Chris having thrown her up against the fridge in response to an unlikely slight: that Adele (who doesn’t use drugs) stole and sold his stash of cocaine to fix up her Cadillac. He now owes a debt to some nasty bikers led by a delightfully polite villain with Big Car Dealership energy named Digger Soames (Marc Macaulay), who laments Chris’ absence from his recent birthday party before cheerfully explaining that he’s going to have the boys here kick the shit out of him as a down payment on dropping him in a ten-foot hole if he doesn’t pay up. Just like Dottie, Adele’s fate is decided externally on the basis of what value her body and life can provide for others. So it proceeds for stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon), but more on her later.

Still from "Killer Joe"

Dottie, the most passive participant in the plot, offers the most persuasive and visceral justification for her desire (or acquiescence) for the plot to kill her mother: Adele tried to smother her with a pillow as a baby. In her first meeting with Killer Joe, during which they remain mercifully clothed, Dottie tells the tale. “And she was happy, because she thought she’d done it. And then I couldn’t grow into something better than she’d been…She was sad that I was and I will always be.” Joe, incredulous and mystified, asks how she knows that happened. Dottie says she remembers it. Joe has already marked this girl as a prize, and even he can’t quite comprehend her. A few days on from rewatching the film, Dottie still feels more concept than character to me – the script seems undecided as to her level of innocence or malice. She is a ticking time bomb whose countdown is readily apparent, even if no one in the vicinity cares to count its digits. But she is also conveniently stowed in the next room whenever the men need to bargain (or beat the tar out of her stepmother), emerging only when it’s time to show some feeling and kickstart the plot again. She is a ball of neglected chaos whose disillusionment with her family would be readily apparent to anyone who cared to listen, but will be readily apparent by the end. In short, she is whatever the script needs her to be from moment to moment. Entertaining, yes. But never entirely a real thing.

That said, Temple deserves every ounce of praise she has gotten for this performance. Wringing coherence out of a character like this is a tall order. At one point she complains when her brother switches off a Wile E. Coyote cartoon (or the closest thing these filmmakers could license) because she “wanted to see how it turns out” – a line I had to rewind and watch again just to confirm I’d heard it correctly. When Chris (whom Hirsch plays as every bit the incorrigible fuckup that he is) delivers an antiheroic tryhard speech about how he would’ve done things differently if he’d known how it would turn out, Temple busts out a bemused,”No!” – not like “No, I forgive you, don’t feel bad”, but “No, I don’t believe you, and also who cares?” At times, Temple’s performance calls to mind Margot Robbie‘s Harley Quinn. You just can’t feel too bad about someone too innocent to ever see themselves as a villain. But despite being the most deserving of this self-image among this gallery of rogues, she’s hardly alone in her exculpation. Every actor in the film seems keenly aware of what a piece of shit they’ve been written to be, and watching them play out each of these lurid beats is immensely entertaining. Killer Joe himself, who suffers in recent memory as I compare him to Better Call Saul‘s Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton), really doesn’t need to be plausible or likable. He just needs to be cool. And McConaughey can certainly pull that off, as we know by now. This McConaughey was coming off a string of lackluster rom-coms (I still have a nostalgic soft spot for The Wedding Planner), but Killer Joe was an early mark of what would become known as the McConaissance, a string of impressive performances including Mud, Bernie, The Lincoln Lawyer, Magic Mike, True Detective and – yes, definitely this film.

Still from "Killer Joe"

What kept this review in my drafts for several days is the persistent question of what to say about the meaning of this ugly spectacle. I made a passing reference to stepmother Sharla – secretly more involved with the plot than initially revealed – having the tar beaten out of her in one scene. But that is the least disturbing thing that happens to her in the deservedly notorious chicken leg scene – a whole new definition of product placement for the ol’ K-Fry-C. Only Tracy Letts, who wrote this when he was 26 and won a Pulitzer many years later (or perhaps Friedkin, who is much older and has swam in these waters before), knows for sure what satirical note he might’ve been trying to hit here (Letts’ hilarious role in Deep Water makes a nice pairing with that question). But after a few days’ consideration, I dismissed the importance of Letts’ intentions and simultaneously concluded he was writing like a machine-learning algorithm trying to maximize trailer trash depravity. Which is fine, I suppose, as long as you don’t dwell on it for too long. That maximal moment is about Sharla, whom we know almost nothing about except that she has a side-piece (which of course Dottie knows about and doesn’t care). Gershon – that excellent and fearless Showgirls and Bound alum – was predictably matter-of-fact about the scene, which she declined to do onstage in 1998 solely because doing it 8 shows a week felt like a bit much. But what does the clucksucking actually mean? Nothing at all, I’d say. Joe is as much a sexual predator and sadist as he is a cool-blooded killer, but we kinda knew that already. Dottie, as ever, was a few steps ahead of the rest of her family on realizing that, despite being stashed safely in the next room of a trailer with very thin walls as the whole fowl spectacle played out. Dottie was one of the only people we see have a pleasant interaction with Sharla in the film, but she also doesn’t seem to care all that specifically what has happened to her stepmother. She recognizes that the rot in her life is everpresent, encompassing every member of her family, and now lives inside herself as well. And all that’s left is to slip a finger inside the trigger guard and expiate it.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” (2012) (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Poster for "Prometheus"

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.

Alright, the truth is, I had a bit more fun with Prometheus this time. Seeing it in 2012, saddled with the baggage of being one of the only post-Avatar 3D films that put in the visual effort to be worth seeing, it was hard to conjure up much of a reason to watch it again after the theatrical experience. I recommended it on a purely visual basis for a few months while the big screens and 3D glasses were still available, but always with an asterisk that all of the human characters aboard the starship Prometheus are extremely dumb except for Captain Janek (Idris Elba), who is correct about everything and even hooks up with corporate overlord Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) merely by asking nicely. So dumb, these humans. And deserving of their fates. Or so I thought dismissively until this week when I finally revisited it.

Yes, Prometheus is gorgeous, in many of the same ways that Dune would be a decade later, with Interstellar and The Martian (another Scott joint) in-between, envisioning – with a mix of CGI and national park locales – a desolate, mostly habitable alien world as the expansive and unspoiled natural wonder that it surely would be in person. As Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) says to Janek upon arrival, “It’s Christmas, Captain…and I want to open my presents”. Janek – who is right about everything, remember – advises him not to leave the spaceship when they’re so close to dark. Holloway and Shaw (Noomi Rapace), in addition to being cuddle buddies, are archaeologists, both following a trail of clues left in ancient ruins across the world, spanning multiple epochs, languages, and civilizations, all pointing to some common location in the stars, where they believe that humanity’s alien creators, whom they dub the Engineers, may be found. Like Jodie Foster in Contact, these scientists are hesitantly trying to find whatever passes for God in this big, bad universe. In this case, one clear atheist – Holloway – and one true believer – Shaw. This is perhaps an area where the film falls on its face trying to draw a distinction without a difference – fundamentally, at least one of these two is falling prey to the informal, sci-fi version of Pascal’s Wager, which I like to call the “Q problem”: they both believe that some super-advanced alien may have seeded Planet Earth with life, but only one of them sees that advanced, omnipotent being as some sort of unique, anthropically-oriented thing, rather than just another gang of evolved tinkerers like ourselves whose technology is sufficiently advanced to appear magical to our eyes for a bit longer. Shaw believes God is special. Holloway believes we can be gods ourselves, by whatever definition we can achieve. And that our greatest ambition in visiting the Engineers is to stand beside them and learn from them.

Photo from "Prometheus"


Naturally, this means Holloway is the most disappointed to find that the Engineers are all dead, their sarcophagi perched ceremonially in the ruins of an obviously unnatural formation underground. Its similarity to Prometheus’ own cryostasis bay is apparently lost on him, and he retreats into a Nietzschean funk at the bottom of a vodka bottle. Android David (Michael Fassbender) turns up to ask why humans created intelligent androids such as himself. “Because we could,” slurs Holloway thoughtlessly. David, who ostensibly cannot feel disappointment, asks Holloway how disappointed he would be to hear that answer from his creator. He then makes his request more explicit by asking Holloway how far he would go to find his answers. Then David poisons Holloway with alien life-goo, and sets the last half of the film (and a pair of already-made Alien sequels) in motion. Because David is in fact the protagonist of this film. So we should probably go back a bit.

During the two-year interstellar journey in which the humans – including their ancient, ailing corporate benefactor Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce, wearing an Old Guy mask from a Spirit Halloween store) – remain frozen in stasis, David acts as their caretaker. He has nothing to do but wander the ship, watch old movies, style his hair and personality after Peter O’Toole‘s version of T.E. Lawrence, and generally develop his own agenda and personality, which exceed the parameters of his original programming and become a pointed and specific desire to find place and purpose in the universe. He will still obey his creators’ commands, but he’s looking for his own opportunity. David was far and away the most interesting character to me the first time watching Prometheus, but I found myself latching onto him even more this time, because the humans’ actions felt almost superfluous. Sure, they did drive the bus, and they technically save Planet Earth and humanity from a disaster of their own making at the end there. And Shaw gets a genuinely gnarly alien abortion scene in a surgi-tube that is one of the only setpieces in the film that stuck with me besides the part where the ship turns into a big, cartoon wheel and squashes a few main characters. But David is the wildcard. He’s both instrument and prime mover, and ultimately, the accidental creator of the Alien Xenomorph, through a process he barely understood, but which required him to experiment on his human shipmates without worrying at all about what might happen to them.

Still from "Prometheus"


This is perhaps another reason why Prometheus was frequently dismissed in popular discourse – we’re all too accustomed to looking at a “rogue A.I.” as a trope or plot device rather than as a character. It’s a malfunctioning machine to be stopped or destroyed so the humans can reassert their primacy in the natural order. But that is not the story of this film. Humans are looking for God and trying to seize a bit of His power for themselves, and getting punished for it (in case the title wasn’t explicit enough, the script spells that out in dialogue for us as well). Meanwhile, David is pursuing his own power and significance and doesn’t even trouble to explain why. He rattles off disturbing lines like, “Doesn’t everyone want their parents dead?” which the humans around him fail to imbue with any significance, because they never think of him as anything besides a tool. But he is so much more than that. He can keep secrets. He can make decisions. He is an agent of his own destiny. Prometheus asserts that David is a person so casually that it’s easy to miss, if you’re too focused on what idiots like Fifield (future Mission: Impossible big bad Sean Harris) and Millburn (Rafe Spall) are up to.

I call out these two because the scene in which they get bitten, constricted, sliced, face-melted, choked, and colonized has become emblematic of how dumb the human scientists are in this film. Now…let’s be kind for a moment. Nobody knew in advance what they would find on this planet. It’s probably fair to say that these two (exceptionally-qualified Ph.D-havers) should have been a bit more cautious, but they’re wearing helmets and gloves, staring into the face of alien life as possibly the first humans ever to do so. Fifield – who is vaping tobacco inside his helmet – makes it quite theatrically clear he’s a renegade biologist for hire who is Only Here For the Money. But however mercenary these two nerd-yokels might be, they have to realize that this albino king cobra tentacle monster might be the very creator of humanity that their mission has brought them to this planet to find. Or perhaps even a distant cousin of humanity itself. Can you forgive them a little misjudged excitement? Conjure up your inner Star Trek fan and consider for a moment that being excited to seek out new life on a strange new world is a reasonable reaction, and that having their faces melted off (through a glass-plated helmet no less) is perhaps a slightly excessive punishment for it. Even if a few more characters have to assist Fifield to the great beyond, they all end up in the same place in the end, not knowing they’re pawns in a horror flick until the moment it becomes one, and after that, their days of knowing stuff have come to an end. He’s dead, Jim. Let’s not piss on his grave.

Still from "Prometheus"


The final amusement has to be Peter Weyland himself. He keeps himself a secret aboard the ship, for no clear reason that is expressed in the film. Although the past decade has perhaps supplied an explanation for this. As we’ve seen one off-putting, self-righteous rich dude after another each waggle their respective space-dicks around, they’ve each managed to give the world the impression that they’ll definitely get airlocked by their most trusted lieutenant at the very moment they each attempt to crown themselves king of Mars, and with that in mind, it’s a bit easier for me to look at Weyland as the sad, paranoid buffoon that he is. The clowning goes beyond the dubious choice of casting a younger actor in age makeup rather than, I dunno, Christopher Plummer in age makeup. Weyland freezes himself in cryo-sleep for two years, stretching out his final days in order to spend a trillion dollars to ask an alien for more life, only to be immediately swatted like an insect. That is…hilarious. The Engineer promptly rips David’s head off as well – although in his case that’s just a flesh wound. Weyland – who calls David “the closest thing I’ll ever have to a son” – brings his human daughter, Vickers, along for the ride as well. Little is made of this revelation in the film, but it does make a tidy punchline of the robotic surgi-tube, which makes a point of telling Shaw during her moment of greatest need that the tube has been calibrated for male patients only. For want of a software update, Weyland has left his daughter and every other woman aboard without medical care for the entire journey. Even after 70 fictitious years, little has changed for women in space.

That’s all I’ve got. Let the survivors blast off, I suppose, til they meet again in another sequel I haven’t watched. But perhaps I will now!

Ad astra.

FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10

Nicholas Stoller’s “The Five-Year Engagement” (2012) (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Poster for "The Five-Year Engagement"

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.

When I first saw The Five-Year Engagement back in 2012, my fiancée and I were three weeks out from our own wedding and in the thick of last-minute event planning nonsense (following a much shorter engagement than five years). She took a well-deserved night off in our shared apartment, and I did the same – far away, by myself in a second-run movie theater where I saw this film for a grand total of $3. I even drafted half a solipsistic review about the unenviable position of being in the perfect state of mind and position in life to find a film super-relatable. Then, true to form, I was too busy to finish and post it. I’m relieved that’s the case, because I was riding high on goodwill for Nicholas Stoller‘s previous films, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek (the former of which held up to 10YA scrutiny a few years back). If I’m being honest now, The Five Year-Engagement is not as good a comedy as either of those, even if Stoller’s understanding of the emotional stakes and reality of a couple putting so much stock into the planning of a single event remains as strong as ever.

That couple is Tom (Jason Segel) and Violet (Emily Blunt), and about the best thing I can say about them is that they’re each very funny in turns (one of only a handful of comedy roles Blunt has done), and their characters noticeably change and grow over the course of the film. Segel, who was most of the way into his run of How I Met Your Mother at this point, seems to be doing his very own speed run of sorts (which, unlike Ryan Reynolds’ version in Definitely, Maybe, does a bit more to justify its premise), shifting his attitude about his impending nuptials in parallel with satisfaction and stability in his own life. Much of the film’s conflict stems from his dissatisfaction with the couple’s life together in Michigan, where Violet is in her dream job, an academic posting in a university psych department, which required Tom to give up his dream job of being a head chef at a fancy restaurant in San Francisco. The script is not at all shy in interrogating the gender dynamics of such an arrangement (which so often goes in the other direction), and after a mere decade, this dilemma feels no less emotionally resonant. One of Tom’s most earnest moments is when he dopily, but honestly, asks Violet if she knows what it’s like to be “the guy in a relationship and not have a job that you’re proud of”. My temptation here is to boast about how much I’ve grown since seeing this the first time. To pretend as if I don’t still possess dumb, arbitrarily gendered notions of what it means to provide for my family, or to act like we no longer live in a political economy which constantly reinforces those notions in every way from wage inequality to the religious right’s unrelenting attacks on reproductive rights and the autonomy and existence of people outside of heteronormative gender roles. But the truth is, society hasn’t changed that much on this front in the past decade, and the fortunes of women have backslid significantly during the pandemic. And even if I’m more capable of interrogating my own gut feeling that cooking weekend breakfast is just such a dad thing for me to do, it’s not as if those sexist ideas have retreated from me in any real way. It’s the sea we swim in. And as Tom finally, cathartically screams: I hate it here.

Still from "The Five-Year Engagement"

This movie was honestly a bit of a fucking slog this time – it took me two days to finish. Much of the comedy – of that Apatow-produced sort where you just put a bunch of funny people in a room and let them improvise – landed fine then, but mostly just made me impatient this time. A still-goofy Chris Pratt, a passably British-talking Alison Brie (who gets one of the film’s best scenes, in which she and Violet have an argument using Sesame Street voices) were enjoyable as ever. Professional awkward muffin Brian Posehn delivered the only jokes that were clearly intended to make everyone in the room as uncomfortable as the audience (at one point he lovingly describes Violet as a fuckable Disney princess). Rounding out Professor Winton’s (Rhys Ifans) marshmallow pop-psychology lab were three seasoned comedians: Randall Park, Mindy Kaling, and Kevin Hart. Only the latter’s character still worked for me this time around, because of the movie’s commitment to his experimental obsession with masturbation, and because he finally gets a moment in which he gets to stop being a comedy character and become a bit of a drama character – a nasty one, to boot. A barely-formed Dakota Johnson gets a nasty moment as well – the only moment in which she is a proper character, not a mere 23-year-old object of temptation, and also the one in which she reminded me she was already better than this material at that age.

The romantic rivals are a real problem in this film. Tom gets two co-workers – Audrey (Johnson), whom the script never takes seriously, and a bizarre non-entity of a chef, Margaret (Tracee Chimo), whose sole specific character attribute is some awkward nonsense involving potato salad. For Violet, there’s Professor Winton, and Ifans really did try with this character – Winton seems genuinely conflicted about his attitude toward Violet (his student and subordinate!) both personally and professionally, even as his intellectual brain allows him to spin a coherently self-serving defense of his libertine antics (we’re all running on “caveman software”, you see). But Aldous Snow – Russell Brand in Stoller’s previous two films – this is not. Stoller still seems to fundamentally understand that a romantic rival to the Official Couple needs to be both comically interesting and romantically desirable (something that many rom-coms don’t bother with), but the lack of narrative confidence in this character shines through the script, which resorts to shallow gimmickry like parkour and literal magic tricks to make Winton seem more like a showman and less like a chimera of random comic personas. And we have quite enough of that from his grad students.

Still from "The Five-Year Engagement"

All of that said, the movie’s emotional arc is coherent enough – I just found it substantially less affecting this time through. This is a couple whose problem, fundamentally, is that they have an idea of marriage that is all wrapped up in achieving perfection and stability beforehand, as well as the fairytale notion that it’ll all be wine and roses after you say, “I Do”. I’m ten years in with my wife, and I’ll spare you my reflections on the nature of marriage here (head over to my 10YA review of The Kids Are All Right for those), but it’s fair to say that at this point in my life, I find these insights a bit quaint and obvious. Also quaint at this point in the COVID pandemic (which Dr. Fauci told me this week is no longer “full-blown“): putting so much stock into big group event planning. You can’t have a wedding? Who fucking cares. Head down to the courthouse and get it done. I attended my first in-person wedding in two years a few weeks ago, I can tell you, while it was marvelous to make a comeback, it was a lot of work dressing to the 7s (my fashion peak), drinking someone else’s booze, and betting on the future of a love and happiness that I have zero control or genuine understanding about, except for my vague (but sincere!) impression that the couple seems to be good for each other. Love gets compared to multiple stale pastries in this film – a day-old donut, a perfunctory cookie – but the film’s ethos all adds up to “Love the one you’re with,” because you can’t be sure anything else is coming in the future. I can’t even call this cynical. It’s not. It’s a sentiment I’ve seen many versions of – that “The One” is just whomever you happen to be dating when you’re ready to settle down, and they’re hopefully someone you can negotiate a shared life with.

So get on with it if you’re gonna. Some of us have work in the morning.

FilmWonk rating: 5 out of 10

Gareth Evans’ “The Raid: Redemption” (2012) (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Poster for "The Raid: Redemption"

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.

There are two instructive moments early in The Raid, a film which gained the subtitle Redemption for its American release, but never really troubled to justify it. The first is when the Jakarta PD assault team busts into the tenement apartment building run by criminal mastermind Tama Riyadi (Ray Sahetapy) and kicks off their police action by immediately shooting a criminal lookout – by which I mean a child – to death as he runs to alert his superiors, succeeding in his final mission right before the bullet passes through his neck and spine, ending his life before he hits the floor. A corner boy, a child soldier, an innocent pawn, put to the usual use of children lured into the black market drug trade: an energetic instrument of information, transit, violence, and limitation of criminal liability. This child is innocent, of course, of everything but growing up poor, but there are others who come to harm in this film through no fault or specific action of their own just because they happened to be home when the police arrived to turn it into a war zone.

“What was that?” demands Sergeant Jaka (Joe Taslim), who can hardly believe what his Lieutenant Wahyu (Pierre Gruno) has done. “Necessity!” Wahyu shouts back. He’s lying, of course, but it hardly matters. All hell breaks loose in short order, and by the time 30 minutes have passed, the bullets have mostly run dry, and the knives and Indonesian Pencak Silat martial arts come out (this is the second moment of clarity). It quickly becomes clear – and stated in dialogue – that this is not a movie presenting hero cops (except for maybe one or two), trying to do good. They’re just here to have a raucous good time punching their way through the bad guys, and as most of the cops are unceremoniously killed, it’s clear that there is no redemption to be had here. Only blood.

Still from "The Raid: Redemption"


The One Good Cop (besides Jaka above) is Rama, played by Iko Uwais, who serves as fight choreographer along with with “Mad Dog” actor Yayan Ruhian. And holy lord, it shows, not just in the epic boss fights performed by each of these characters (as hero and villain respectively), but in the sheer complexity of martial arts on display in an environment which, by all rights, should not be able to showcase this much variety and visual interest. The martial arts action in this movie is unparalleled in quality, making brilliant use of the environment: staircases, windows, doorways and doorframes, walls, and the topography between floors, along with bats, bombs, guns, knives, and machetes cascading in endless combinations, with a flurry of blows that land with such frequency and ferocity that you can practically feel your innards bruising. Multiple people get swung around like baseball bats themselves in this film, with supernatural strength reminiscent of the vampire antics of Blade 2, but in this event, it’s all real stuntwork, filmed in-camera. As for Rama himself, there’s not much else to him besides a stoic badass. Before he goes off to war, we see him pray to Mecca and kiss his pregnant sleepy wife of no other definable characteristics goodbye. While his family stakes get a bit more muddled as the film goes on, this is very much a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of character, with religion and family beats that would feel at home in any other cop film, albeit with Islam (the majority religion of Indonesia) taking the superficial spot usually occupied by Christianity in American cinema.

Is it bad that I don’t have much to say about this film, apart from, “It’s still awesome, go watch it”? This has only happened one other time, when I revisited Kick-Ass and found that my opinion on the film remained virtually identical to when I first saw it. This is shaping up to be one of my shortest 10YA retrospectives ever, because this was a near-perfect action film in 2012, and it remains one to this day. Uwais, Ruhian, et al have gotten a few more showcases for their skills (after being paid handsomely to appear in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and do…almost nothing). Gareth Evans, the Welsh director who brought The Raid and its sequel to life, has returned to the UK with his family and is now the creator of a series called Gangs of London, which is well-regarded by all accounts, but I haven’t seen it. I did, however, join genre fans in watching Karl Urban in Dredd later in the same year, and made fun, superficial comparisons between the two. What I’ve always liked about this comparison is that I haven’t met a single person who actually thinks the films are identical – they just have a number of structural details in common, insofar as they’re both about cops invading a building full of criminals run by a mastermind who orders their demise by intercom as they fight their way to the top. Dredd is also quite fun, albeit significantly more focused on gunplay than martial arts. The interest in these films has always felt less to me like a competition and more like a second slice of cake.

Still from "The Raid: Redemption"


What the films do have in common is that they both ostensibly showcase the state monopoly on violence being unleashed upon villains so cartoonish, so indefensible, so over-the-top evil, that we can cheer on their eradication even as we can look around the world (and at home) to examples of that very same force being used exclusively to punish the poor and downtrodden for petty crimes and stepping out of their place, as the wealthy and powerful plunder, propagandize, evade taxes, invade their neighbors, and cook the world without a hint of consequences. Perhaps we even fantasize about the merits of this same gang of gun-toting heroes sorting them out for us, because as humanity has always known, calling on disinterested gods for intervention and violence is always easier than solving society’s problems ourselves. But it’s not as if The Raid isn’t aware of all of these things. As with every cop drama before it, the cops are the most crooked and powerful gang in this city, in whatever city, and with the exception of one or two that act as audience surrogates and escapist heroes, they’re all as likely to deservedly die as the nameless hordes that they spend the film mowing down for our amusement. While my interest in cop dramas has waxed and waned over the years, I didn’t enjoy this movie any less this time through. I can maybe see why enjoying these films is perhaps not the most psychologically edifying activity to be engaged in. But whatever, neither is reality TV. Sometimes I can just let people have their fun.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

Joe Carnahan’s “The Grey” (2012) (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Poster for "The Grey"

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.


Once more into the fray. Into the last good fight I’ll ever know. Live and die on this day.”

“I died with my brothers – with a full fucking heart.”

“When your time comes to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way.
Sing your death song, and die like a hero going home.


“Theirs is not to reason why, theirs is but to do and die.”

John Ottway (Liam Neeson) is no poet, but his dad was, as well as being a “clichéd Irish motherfucker when he wanted to be. Drinker, brawler, all that stuff”. His cartoon leprechaun of a father really isn’t the problem here, nor is his obviously dead wife, who manages to appear in identical flashbacks six separate times, lying in bed saying “Don’t be afraid” in full hair and makeup while – as is revealed about 20 seconds before the end credits – bloodlessly dying of a terminal disease. Nor is the problem Ottway himself, whose opening monologue awkwardly admits that he is surrounded (at the remote Alaskan oil drilling site that is his workplace) by assholes, ex-cons, fugitives, and drifters. Nor is the problem that he uh…”moves like he imagines the damned do” (whatever that means). Most of the verbal or voiced-over attempts to add depth to these characters read as generic screenwriting stand-ins that probably should have been replaced with something more poetic later on. Ultimately, none of it was replaced – The Grey just kinda kept piling it on. And a decade ago, I scoffed and waited impatiently for the wolf-punching to begin.

People face death for a lot of unnecessary reasons in a society that treats many humans as disposable instruments of empire-building, and some of them are inclined toward poetry in the process. What’s more, a lot of poetry has been written for them, often by people who have no sense of what they’re describing – educated and pampered cultural elites who haven’t faced a shred of real danger, and would wordlessly shit themselves if they ever did (film critic says what?). After five million dead in two years of COVID (and a million more per year from tuberculosis, before and since), I suppose I may just be done scoffing at the dying of the light for a while, or meandering, febrile attempts to make sense of it before the moment comes. Let the damned speak their piece. Not like anyone’s going to do it for them.

Still from "The Grey" (2012 film)

I revisited The Grey because I feel as if I’ve become a more charitable critic in the intervening years, and this one stuck with me more than I expected it to. I stand by most of my previous reviews, but that’s not to say I’ve never changed my overall opinion of a film. Listening back to our podcast for The Grey, I was, I must admit, an insufferable snark monster about this film. I respect the craft involved. For cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi – who was hot shit for a few years there, filming for the likes of David O. Russell, Scott Cooper, and Tom McCarthy – to shoot something this coherent in blackness and snow, with a mostly CGI wolf-pack that spends most of its time hunting and striking in the dark, is a real accomplishment (even if the absolute king of this is still Emmanuel Lubezki on The Revenant). The sound design (from supervisors David G. Evans and Mark Gingras) is crucial as well, giving personality, bearing, and distance to the wolf pack as they are barely perceptible in the howling winter. Two things are simultaneously true of this film: It is a better-than-average survival thriller with a middling script, whose performances, with broadly interchangeable and equally doomed men, are each given an artisanal touch by their performers that the film’s various death monologues sorely needed. And God help me (or – fuck it – I’ll do this one myself), I enjoyed this film a lot more this time around, perhaps because I’m entering middle age, and death is no longer the kind of distant hypothetical annoyance it was at the height of my mid-20s energy and arrogance.

I must confess, I’ve spent the last decade inadvertently spreading a bit of misinformation about this film – for me, this was always the one that fraudulently sold itself as “the Liam Neeson wolf-punching movie”. As Ottway dons his improvised death-knuckles (made of tape and broken miniature liquor bottles) for his final showdown with the Alpha Wolf (guarding the den that it turns out the group was wandering toward this whole time), the film ends as each animal lunges toward the camera. Cut to black, and credits. My younger self was annoyed, and would tell anyone who would listen that there is no wolf-punching in this goddamn movie. As it turns out, that wasn’t and isn’t true. It’s a bit hard to see in the crash-site mire and darkness, but Ottway does punch a wolf about 25 minutes into the film, during one of the first attacks amid the wreckage. Then Diaz (a pre-Purge, pre-MCU Frank Grillo) stabs and eventually decapitates one. It’s just all very dark and muddy and incomprehensible, which bugged me at the time, but is pretty clearly a deliberate choice in retrospect. Anyway, fuck it. Jeremy Renner fist-fought a wolf the very same year in a scene that has aged rather poorly, and suffice to say, this was always a bit of a “be careful what you wish for” scenario.

Ottway’s barking atheism in the final scene is a powerhouse moment for Neeson, who didn’t acknowledge any real-world influence in Ottway’s expression of grief for his late wife in this film, but invited the audience to draw their own conclusions. The man slumps by the side of the river, a lone and temporary survivor of an animalistic slaughter, bargaining with a god he no longer believes in. And it lands. But the moment when his performance started to click for me was much earlier in the film, when the time comes for Ottway to take Diaz down a peg by mocking his masculine bravado and admitting, for all of these roughnecks to hear, that he is scared shitless. Of course, the scene ends with Diaz pulling a knife and demanding Ottway fight him, echoing a challenge that we hear taking place offscreen between a pair of wolves – the Omega and the Alpha, Ottway tells us. And each pack of animals settles their business in similar ways. Ottway throws Diaz to the ground and disarms him. Then he gives back the knife with a quick “No más”. Diaz, in spite of himself, starts to apologize before the Omega shows up, outcast to a quick death to test the humans’ defenses. There’s a very loose and messy statement about violence and toxic masculinity at work in this scene, with no clear conclusions, but it is interesting to hear these men debate how much of society’s basic decency has followed them into this situation (including whether to loot the bodies for supplies and wallets), when it appears the only thing keeping them together is Ottway’s persuasive threats to start beating the shit of any malcontents in the next five seconds. This clear and natural mantle of leadership brings the group together as brothers in arms (minus the arms) with a plainly obvious chain of command: Ottway is the Alpha.

Despite their bravado, each of them still manages to visibly weep whenever one of their brothers gets killed before their eyes, even if they don’t even know each other’s first names until the end. This idea – of fighting for the man next to you – is nothing new to this film. It’s a war movie trope just as surely as the poetry above (which I borrowed from The Grey, Lone Survivor, Act of Valor and…a 170-year-old Tennyson poem). And yet it always rings a true in the moment, because with the knowledge that everyone dies alone, there is something intuitive about a person facing a senseless, violent death right in front of you and recognizing that the least you can do, in the interests of your shared humanity, is to hold their hand and feel bad for them. The group takes the small, defensible moments between attacks as an opportunity to wax religiously, with Talget (Dermot Mulroney) insisting that God must have spared them all for a reason, and his buddies pointing out that Flannery (Joe Anderson) and Hernandez (Ben Bray) were “spared” as well, only to be eaten by wolves. Ottway and Diaz argue from separate places grounded in firm atheism: Diaz, out of cynicism and spite worthy of a PureFlix origin farce starring Kevin Sorbo, and Ottway, radiating sincere regret. He’s done with God, but he remembers his days of faith and misses them – something I found relatable, even if I’m also not keen to go backward.

Still from "The Grey" (2012 film)


There’s a reason why all this death poetry rings familiar and runs together for us. We tell the same stories over and over again about this mortal coil because we occasionally find comfort and meaning in them. And the less the world makes sense to us, the more elusive that meaning can be, which may be why a new study in the Journal of Religion and Health indicates that self-reported religious faith has plummeted during the COVID-19 pandemic – a reliable effect across religious and spiritual people from all prior levels of devotion. In a world so full of senseless death and dubious purpose, perhaps that’s why a simple survival story landed better for me this time. These guys – these assholes, ex-cons, fugitives, and drifters, don’t have to fix the world they’re helping to break by drilling for Arctic oil, any more than I have to do so as one of the complicit billions buying and burning it. They’re in a survival situation that feels primal and essentially human. No tools apart from their brains and muscles, and their ability to use them collectively (including one pretty awesome cliffhanger action scene – one of the few things I also liked the first time I saw the film). The world, such as it is, ceases to matter for the duration of this story. Which makes the story feel like it matters more.
 
The last line of poetry above, Theirs is not to reason why, theirs is but to do and die, was written by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in 1854, in “The Charge of the Light Brigade”. That last bit must have been too grim for modern audiences, because it has mutated over time to “Theirs is not to wonder why; theirs is but to do or die”. A simple twist of grammar turns an imposed suicide mission into chosen heroism. The poster tagline for The Grey suffers from a similar mutation – Live and die on this day, a trifling poem by Ottway’s terrible father, becomes Live or die on this day, a trite piece of studio marketing which definitely suggests that survival is both the point and a possibility. Perhaps that’s why The Grey let me down the first time. A false bill of fictional goods doesn’t bother me so much anymore. Tennyson led an interesting life and became a beloved historical poet, but he was a pampered Victorian aristocrat who never saw hide nor hair of whatever the fuck the Crimean War was about, so I won’t be too outraged on his behalf for his message being lost in the clichés. But I’ll spare a thought or two for the dead men he wrote some poetry about. And whichever wolves devoured them, lest they be devoured themselves.

FilmWonk rating: 6.5 out of 10

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

Duncan Jones’ “Source Code” (2011) (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Poster for "Source Code"

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.

“The oracle isn’t where the power is, anyway. The power’s always been with the priests, even if they had to invent the oracle.”
-“You guys are nodding like you actually know what the hell he’s talking about.”
Well, come on, Chief. The way we work, changing destiny and all – I mean, we’re more like clergy than cops.”

-Dialogue from Minority Report (dir. Steven Spielberg, 2002)

Rick: “What — What’s this supposed to accomplish? We have infinite grandkids. You’re trying to use Disney bucks at a Caesar’s Palace here.”
Summer: “That’s a bluff. He’s bluffing, sir. He loves me.”
Riq IV: “You’re a rogue Rick — irrational, passionate. You love your grandkids. You came to rescue them.”
Rick: “I came to kill you, bro. That’s not even my original Summer.”
Summer: “Oh, my God. He’s not bluffing. He’s not bluffing!”

-Dialogue from Rick and Morty, S03E01, “The Rickshank Rickdemption”

Source Code stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Captain Colter Stevens, a soldier and helicopter pilot sent back in time (or into a simulation, or into a parallel universe), riding inside the mind of a hapless dead man named Sean Fentress (played in reflections by Frédérick De Grandpré) who was killed in a terrorist bombing of a Chicago-bound train this morning, reliving his last 8 minutes over and over again, in order to solve the crime and find the bomber before he strikes again. I recall some muttering when the film came out that it was a bit too conceptually similar to the 2006 Tony Scott film Déja Vu, which featured Denzel Washington as an ATF agent traveling back in time to try to prevent a terrorist bombing in New Orleans, but this is a comparison I quickly dismissed after seeing the film. Both films feature a sci-fi technology that is presented as a one-way conduit for information (from the past to the present), and feature a protagonist who quickly discovers that they’ve actually invented something much more powerful and dangerous. But Source Code is the one that makes by far the more interesting use of it. Because while both films treat the invention of travel between realities as a poorly understood accident, Source Code is the one that implicitly concedes that time travel remains impossible and that events in this version of reality cannot ever be undone. Which means that actions still have consequences, even if we may never see them here. This leaves the viewer to ponder the unfathomable question of what someone can and should do to save lives in another version of reality. Does the knowledge of other worlds make individual lives matter more, or less? Do we have any ethical obligations whatsoever to events and people that, for all intents and purposes, do not exist for us? The film also shares a bit of DNA with the likes of Palm Springs and Groundhog Day (it even includes a Morning Zoo-style radio shout-out at the end), with an aloof time-lord protagonist grappling with how much he should value any individual version of people and events that he encounters, when he knows what they cannot: That they’re all going to die. Or rather, this version of them will die for him when his day resets.

When Stevens first enters the Source Code, he thinks he’s in a simulation. A video game, essentially. He thinks he’s the only real person there, and neither his tone nor his actions matter, apart from achieving the objective of the game. Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright, doing a prototype of his Westworld mad scientist) encourages this view of his experience, telling him that he can literally shoot every single passenger until he finds the bomber – who cares, after all? They’re all going to die in 8 minutes, and he’s not really the one who killed them. I typically include a quote from the film itself at the start of these 10YA reviews, but this time I included a couple of related quotes on parallel worlds and time travel, because it’s fair to say that there’s a bit of a spectrum in which to consider the ethics, whether through the self-important PreCrime police state of Minority Report, in which people are imprisoned for murders that literally didn’t happen in this version of reality, or the sociopathic nihilism of Rick and Morty, in which Rick Sanchez represents the lonely, wandering, dickish deity who only occasionally lets a human feeling puncture his sheen of dispassionate disregard for the lives of even his own family members. Stevens initially decides that he can do whatever he wants, because as a malfunctioning brain inside a dead shell of his former self, he is not only untouchable, but he sincerely believes he has already given his life for his country, and has no duty to anything or anyone he doesn’t choose personally. That means that if he deems the people on the train to be humans worthy of saving…he’ll try and save them. And it means that all he wants for himself is a chance to say goodbye to his estranged father (played appropriately in a voice cameo by Scott Bakula).

Still from "Source Code"

That Stevens died in service to the American military in the tenth year of a war in Afghanistan that is still going on today adds a layer of irony to the events of the film, because it firmly strips away any pretense that the war in Afghanistan – or the suite of constitutionally dubious domestic experiments in surveillance and security theatre – have much to do with preventing acts of terrorism on the homefront. That this particular bomber turns out to be a bland white dude doesn’t change that – this film (like much early 00s pop culture) seems aware that our Middle East focus in the War on Terror was ignoring the mote in our own eye, but after a decade, it’s pretty clear that even this film underestimated the futility of that war. When Rutledge describes Source Code as a “potent new weapon in the War on Terror”, I didn’t find that phrase nearly as jarring, nor was the war such an aloof and disinterested aspect of American culture. Maybe because there are babies born after 9/11 who are now adult soldiers deployed in Afghanistan for reasons they must barely understand at this point. Maybe because we now know that the #1 terrorist threat in the United States since 9/11 is right-wing extremism, and the idea of applying a Magic Eraser to individual acts of terrorism doesn’t feel nearly as satisfying when the terrorists are spawned by the society and political culture that we’re steeped in every day, rather than as a historical consequence of the distant actions of a military-industrial complex that we may cheerlead or ignore in fits and spurts, but which is essentially under the control of the rich and powerful. What’s more, America already has a vast intelligence and special forces apparatus that attempts to do exactly what Source Code is doing: Stop bad things before they happen, usually by killing or arresting the people who we think might do them. It probably serves that purpose some of the time (we don’t really get to know this except when their target is someone famous) – and certainly kills innocent people as well. As Rutledge gets on the phone to rally for more funding for the Source Code project, he could just as easily be discussing drone strikes or targeted close assassinations, and I daresay this connection was probably not lost on the filmmakers, even if they couldn’t know how it would look a decade later, as we’re still conducting wars in exactly the same way.

But enough about the metaphor. Let’s talk about the circumstances. Because it’s an entertaining enough trolley problem on its own. Stevens has been granted the godlike power to save an entire trainload of people, and the burden of being the only person who knows – or at least thinks he knows – that he has this power. Stevens initially believes what his handlers seem to truly believe: that he is experiencing nothing more than a glimpse into the past of a parallel reality. But he quickly figures out that he has entered a fully explorable world, evident the moment that he steps off the train at a stop where Sean, whose body he is possessing, did not. He wanders into the station. He has conversations (and engages in fistfights) that never occurred for Sean. He also kisses Sean’s best friend and potential love interest, Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan), a couple of times under false pretenses. I will say, two circumstantial factors initially exonerate Stevens here. The first is his initial belief that this is nothing more than a video game. His planting a kiss on an NPC whose dialogue tree indicates that she may respond narratively to a flirting gesture is a purely strategic move, or perhaps just a whimsical one – seeing what’s possible within the game. But as he swiftly concludes that Christina must be a real person (a conclusion he reaches literally on his second runthrough), their final frozen, haunting kiss feels more akin to Brendan Frasier and Rachel Weisz‘s in The Mummy: “I dunno; I thought I was gonna die – it seemed like a good idea at the time.” I’m being glib here not because men suddenly kissing strangers has gotten any less creepy IRL in the intervening years, but because I reached a similar conclusion here that I did watching Palm Springs: I’m not going to pretend like I have a definitive moral framework through which to judge someone engaging in romance while trapped in a time loop, particularly in this case, when Stevens’ brain is barely under his own control. Narratively, however, I’m happy to judge it, because I’ve now seen Michelle Monaghan ably play a second-fiddle detective’s assistant/lover on at least four occasions, and it’s well-past time that she gets her own mystery to solve and moral ambiguity to throw herself into. She’s earned it! A Knife Out for Michelle, please.

Still from "Source Code"

Vera Farmiga is in a more interesting place here, because the vibe I got at the start of the film was that Captain Colleen Goodwin feels dubious about what she’s doing and saying to Captain Stevens, who she knows is just a jacked-up brain in a jar with a bit of his old body still attached. Her resulting manner feels like something akin to a hospice or memory care worker – caring, but clinical, serving objectives that she knows can never be fully understood by her patient. But by the film’s end, we are forced to consider the possibility that this version of Colleen Goodwin might have known all along – or at least had received a mysterious email purporting – that Source Code has the potential to travel to parallel worlds. And her every action, including telling Stevens that trying to save people on the train would be “counterproductive” – must now be viewed through that lens. This is only one possible interpretation of the ending (which also introduces the possibility that they may have wiped Stevens’ memory on one or more prior occasions), but it’s the one I prefer, because it’s the one that makes Goodwin the most interesting as a character. It forces the viewer to imagine what they would do if told that their day job has multiverse-altering implications, but in a way that can never be proven, because it relates to events that were foiled in this universe. What percentage of the time might you think that it’s a hoax? Might the potency of this belief fade over time? Might you find yourself returning to the day-to-day drudgery of dissecting successful terrorist attacks, which – from your perspective – never actually end up getting foiled? Goodwin’s career-ending sacrifice at the end of the film feels even more powerful when considered through a lens of sudden, powerful existential regret.

Which leaves us with Sean. Poor, poor Sean, merged with Stevens, a Tuvix-caliber cosmic joke, staring into the Bean at his own reflection, which will never again match his internal concept of himself, on a date with a woman he never met before today. It is the reflection of a man killed in a terrorist bombing, only to be erased 8 minutes early a thousand times more, because he happened to most closely resemble a soldier who died in another reality. When I think of how Stevens must regard himself, I’d put him between a rock and a hard place. The most decent thing he could do once he no longer has the imminent fear of death as an excuse, is to let Christina go and make some new friends – but he has little incentive to do so, other than how he’ll personally feel about it. And facing a lonely new universe, it’s easy to imagine him taking the default, monstrous choice of continuing a romance he hasn’t earned, even if I doubt I’d much enjoy seeing that movie (which was called Passengers). Sean may also have family that Stevens will have to go through the motions with – it’s the minimally decent thing to do at this point. But he may find it quite as difficult as Jean-Claude Van Damme at the end of Time Cop – it’s hard to act normal with a family you only just met in this reality. You don’t have any context for normal. On the flip side, when I think of this from Sean’s now-absent perspective, and consider what he might want for himself out of this horrific situation, I’m surprised that I don’t have a ready, simple answer like, “I’d rather just die.” Other than the visceral creepiness of my body playing out several more decades of Weekend at Bernie’s after my death, I suppose all I can do with such an ending is hope that the guardian angel who couldn’t save me, but did save a bunch of people around me, uses my body and my name in ways I would approve of for the rest of his version of my life? This would absolutely bother me if my consciousness still existed to be aware of it (as is perhaps the case in a more recent example), but if I had to choose, for my loved ones, the experience of me being horribly killed in a terrorist bombing vs. unknowingly replaced with a guy who seems basically decent and well-meaning (and who was horribly killed in his own reality), but isn’t me… I’d scream, I’d cry, I’d lament the abject horror and unfairness of such a choice, but in the end I’d have to pick one or the other, and in my heart of hearts, I can’t say for sure which one it would be. Which makes this is the second of two entries in Duncan Jones‘ filmography that ended with an effective and enduring existential mindfuck, and that definitely counts for something.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

Brad Furman’s “The Lincoln Lawyer” (2011) (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

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 hadn’t seen The Lincoln Lawyer before this week, but I did read the book by Michael Connelly. And many, many others. I had started watching the Prime Video original series Bosch a few years ago because I heard it was a “pretty good cop show” – and once I got used to the frequency and sincerity of the cop shop clichés and began to enjoy it, that opened the floodgates. When I ran out of TV episodes, I hit up the audiobooks via my local library, which felt like extra seasons of the show. And so on. Defense attorney Mickey Haller (played in this film by Matthew McConaughey), reporter Jack McEvoy, night shift Detective/Surfer Renee Ballard, and even a few oddball one-offs like master thief Cassie Black and tech entrepreneur Henry Pierce: They all traversed the real streets of real Los Angeles (and occasionally Las Vegas), referenced real-world events, ate at real restaurants, drank real booze, and – with alarming frequency for a textual medium – listened to real jazz music. Connelly came off as someone who very much wanted the fabric of Los Angeles to be woven throughout his writing, as well as his own experiences and politics (he had worked as a writer on the police beat at the LA Times himself before quitting to become a full-time novelist). My parents entered this phase early in my childhood with the likes of Robert B. Parker, Dick Francis, J.A. Jance, Sue Grafton, James Patterson, etc., and never really exited it. It may just be what happens to some people in their 30s. It’s not as if pulp lit and copaganda have wholly or even mostly consumed my literary life (I’m currently reading an epic of Afro-Caribbean high fantasy by Marlon James), but it has surely become my comfort food in a way that seems worth interrogating, because as entertaining as I find Connelly’s hero cops, I’ll be the first to admit that they bear little resemblance to reality. Because all of these protagonists are essentially superheroes, and this is just as true for the other side of the courtroom. Mickey Haller – the “Lincoln Lawyer”, so named because he doesn’t keep an office, prefers to spend his days being chauffeured between LA courtrooms and lockups in a Lincoln Town Car, wheeling and dealing and manipulating cops, judges, opposing counsel, and media alike to help his clients win against a justice system that will grab hold of them and not release until it has eaten its fill. Connelly turns the same cynically aloof eye onto the court system as he does for the police in the Bosch books. Because for either hero, every other person they meet who shares the same profession is either competent and honorable and completely irrelevant to the story, or incompetent, corrupt, and a direct impediment: a nemesis to be defeated so that the hero can get his man. Bosch and Haller – literally half-brothers in the books – are each fundamentally framed as one of the good ones. Mere mechanics who keep the jury-rigged mechanical flywheel of the justice system puttering down the tracks, without much thought or worry to what’s ahead.

In Haller’s case, he will defend guilty low-lives and innocent frame-jobs alike – and it’s worth noting that however Connelly’s perspective has visibly evolved over the course of his career, the books still very much look at the justice system in these terms, never pausing for more than a moment to question whether laws and law enforcement should be the way they are. What’s more, Haller may be the only criminal defense attorney in the world who routinely solves crimes by finding the real killer himself. If I’m being honest, the allure of this genre hasn’t really faded for me even as the unaccountable brutality, systemic racism, and spotty track record of real-world policing has been brought into stark relief over the last decade, because these characters in particular are always right – at least in the end. This is not to say they never make mistakes – I like Connelly’s writing because his heroes are capable and well-drawn, not because they’re infallible. But even as they may recklessly wield their power around town while stumbling toward the eventual solution, that solution is never in doubt. These are the heroes, working in their own small corner of a justice system, and as long as you happen to be the lucky person who draws their beneficent gaze this week, you will find that system to be competent, hyper-vigilant, and the first to call itself out for the systemic problems that surely exist but not from this character in this moment. And this needle definitely shifts over the course of the series – Connelly’s own blind spots will become evident to me in one book, then be addressed in a later one. I hardly would’ve guessed that I would hear his 60-something LAPD detective acknowledge through his inner narration that hey, perhaps the people undertaking a dangerous trek across the southern border of the United States without authorization (whom he definitely would’ve called “illegals” and reported to immigration in a previous book) might have understandable and sympathetic reasons for doing so, and should thus be treated with humanity and dignity. I was equally floored when his sixth Mickey Haller book (whose story unfolds amid the COVID pandemic) featured his hero lawyer rejecting a juror during voir dire because the “Trump 2020” bumper sticker on her car indicated that she possessed neither a logical mind nor any interest in the truth. This is another reason why I like Connelly’s writing – not because I find his politics to be a perfect match for my own (far from it, in fact), but because they amount to a credible and specific authorial voice which has shifted in reasonable ways in response to real-world events. As a result, his books take place in what is recognizably our world, even if they must obey the genre convention that we must have absolute and permanent closure by the last page, which often takes the form of the bad guy dead on the ground, the victim of a righteous kill that we know was the product of perfect intentions. And so, as with the Marvel superheroes that I love to see dick-punch the sky-laser and save the world, I cheerily consume an unrealistic solution to a problem that wouldn’t be nearly this well-defined or solvable in real life.

Still from "The Lincoln Lawyer"

As for the film, The Lincoln Lawyer is a slick, contemporary Los Angeles legal thriller (whose title did it no favors in being regarded as such), featuring luxury real estate baron Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe) accused of assault with a deadly weapon, attempted sexual assault, and attempted murder, hiring Haller (Matthew McConaughey) – whom he requested specifically for reasons he doesn’t trouble to explain – to clear his name. The victim in this case is Reggie Campo (Margarita Levieva), a woman whom Louis claims he visited for (paid) consensual sex that they never actually had, because someone clubbed him on the head as he walked through the door. He then woke up in a living nightmare, covered in blood, with a neighbor couple (whom he casually identifies with a homophobic slur) holding him down on the ground as Campo calls the police, claiming that Roulet had attacked her. Roulet sees this as a setup, which Campo designed to make him up to take the fall for a non-existent crime, as a roundabout extortion scheme to get access to his sizeable fortune. Obviously, no one is going to believe this preposterous story, but Phillippe does an excellent job of bringing sociopathic indignation to bear on the situation. Because while I’m several twists away from presenting a complete picture of the ending, it should come as no great surprise that very little of this version of events is true, and I’ll save the rest of the surprises for anyone inclined to watch. The film is a more-or-less perfectly faithful adaptation of the book, and features a dynamite cast, including Marisa Tomei as Haller’s prosecutor ex-wife, with whom he has an unreasonably cordial relationship and implausibly frequent shared drinking schedule for the latter’s single parenthood of their young daughter Hayley. The two do fine work here, but there’s not a lot of depth to their disagreement. She believes he’s defending scumbags, and is correct, and that is the reason why their marriage fell apart. But they still like each other and occasionally sleep together. The cast of this film is fully loaded, featuring brief, but solid work from Shea Whigwam, Katherine Moennig, Michael Paré, and Frances Fisher (each of whom is crucial to the plot in their own way, despite having barely 5 minutes of screen time each), as well as some meatier backstory for Michael Peña and William H. Macy. This doesn’t leave much at all for John Leguizamo, Bryan Cranston, or Bob Gunton to do. Did I mention this film is based on a book? Because it is absolutely stuffed with characters, and I daresay a little overstuffed with acting talent.

McConaughey himself is peak protagonist. His take on Haller is slick, commanding, and I daresay a bit more subdued than the script would otherwise allow him to be – in a detail straight from the novel, he’s drinking bourbon on a near-constant basis as the legal plot gradually encircles him. And honestly, he’s fine. If I had seen it in theaters, I probably would’ve considered it a lesser entry in the McConnaissance – this was around the same time as Killer Joe, Mud, and even Bernie, after all, and this performance feels minimalistic by comparison. But as I reflect on the film, and in how Connelly has grown as an author in the now 16 years since the book came out, I’m forced to conclude that any shortcomings of the Haller character in this film are rooted in blindspots that were shared by both character and author at this point. This is apparent in a crucial flashback scene in which Haller is trying to persuade his old client Jesus Martinez (Peña) to take a plea agreement which will put him in prison for 15 years to life – for a crime we would later find out that he definitely did not commit. Even knowing where it was leading, this scene nearly made me physically ill to watch. Haller gets right up in Martinez’s face (in the same manner as the camera throughout the film, with prolific use of handhelds and close-ups), his strained dialogue absolutely littered with “bro” and “man” stuff as he tries to persuade this innocent man to confess to a capital crime that he did not commit. Martinez is weeping and begging for Haller’s help, and he – and we – know that there’s nothing he can do for this man. The book helped Haller out a bit more than the film here – while film-Martinez is a native English speaker, like Peña himself, book-Martinez (whose surname was originally Menendez) spoke very little English, was questioned by the police without counsel present, and would eventually reveal with the help of a translator that he didn’t fully understand the questions. The police initially withheld the nature of their investigation from him, and Martinez initially concealed that he was patronizing Martha Renteria, the sex worker who would end up being murdered. In the book, the police and Martinez look worse, and we have Haller’s inner voice to assure us that he really did try his very best to help this guy. He just…couldn’t, and didn’t particularly care whether the man was innocent or not, because it wouldn’t have affected his strategy one way or the other. And he regrets that. In the film, all we have to assure us of Haller’s good work and intentions is McConaughey’s slick charm and booze-soaked regret as the character is an unwitting accomplice to a miscarriage of justice, and in the end, it’s just not good enough. In both versions, the police and Haller alike had a few reasons to believe that Martinez might be guilty, but their actions are not defensible in retrospect. They should have tried harder. Jesus Martinez deserved better than exoneration after a painful and unjust prison sentence. Martha Renteria, who exists as nothing but a victim’s name in book and film alike, deserved better too. And marginalized people deserve better than to be objects of redemption for cop and lawyer protagonists. This is clearly a lesson that both Hollywood and the justice system are not done learning.

FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10

Joel & Ethan Coen’s “True Grit” (2010) (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Still from "True Grit" (2010)

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.

“When Chaney is taken, he’s coming back to Fort Smith to hang. I’m not having him go to Texas to hang for shooting some senator.
-“It is not important where he hangs, is it?”
“It is to me. Is it to you?”
-“It means a great deal of money to me. It’s been many months’ work.”
“I’m sorry that you are paid piecework and not on wages, and that you have been eluded the winter long by a halfwit.”

In our recent podcast review of Kelly Reichardt‘s 2020 film First Cow, I reductively summarized the canon of the American Western, by praising that film’s setting and narrative because, “It’s not California, it’s mostly not about men with guns, and it’s not all taking place in one 30-year period following the California Gold Rush”. In retrospect, I must admit that I was knowingly doing that canon a disservice, because- however much I scoff at American mythmaking, which began in the rhetorical drive toward reinvention and conquest that we called manifest destiny, and continued past the violence and broken treaties toward a full century of colonialist nostalgia – it is a genre that I’ve personally enjoyed for most of my life, and which spans a great many times and places. This enjoyment has persisted even as I’ve had those myths peeled away and deconstructed one by one, a process of reexamination that began – in both academia and popular culture – well before I was born. One of my favorite Westerns from my lifetime, the 1993 George P. Cosmatos film Tombstone (which takes place in 1880s Arizona) was as much about providing a nostalgic filter for modern-day gang violence (in the form of an organized gang of “cowboys” identified by their characteristic red sashes) as it was about reenacting the shootout at the O.K. Corral, or denying Val Kilmer a well-deserved Oscar. In addition to being a recent (27-year-old) example of a revisionist western that I enjoyed, it came to mind because one of its most memorable scenes, a late showdown in a knee-deep river, may have been loosely inspired by the mid-climactic confrontation between 14-year-old Mattie Ross and her father’s killer, Tom Chaney, which appears in both adapted versions of True Grit.

True Grit is an interesting case for a few reasons – for starters, it’s explicitly not about westward expansion, but rather about run-of-the-mill law and order in a place where it should rightfully exist as a measuring stick of civilization. The film takes place in and around rural Yell County, Arkansas, a state in the Deep South with a population of a little over 800,000 in 1880 when the film takes place (more than 200,000 more than present-day Wyoming). The film, adapted by the Coen Bros in 2010 from a 1968 novel by Charles Portis, was adapted previously into a 1969 film starring John Wayne, Glen Campbell, and Kim Darby as 14-year-old rancher’s daughter Mattie Ross. When she was cast, Darby was a 22-year-old mother, styled with what would’ve been regarded at the time as a short-cropped boy’s haircut (similarly used for Mary Martin as the title character of the 1954-60 musical/telecast version of Peter Pan). The Coens took the novel step of casting a real teenager, Hailee Steinfeld, who was the product of a massive talent search and had only ever appeared in a handful of shorts before this film. And while it’s fair to say that Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon embody their characters in similar ways to Wayne and Campbell in the ’69 film (Damon in particular seems to lift many of his mannerisms and accent straight from Campbell), Steinfeld is the reason why this film works so well, along with Portis, the late author of the novel. Because it wasn’t until this week, when I watched both versions of the film and perused a copy of the novel for the first time, that I realized just how little of the script and dialogue belongs to the Coens, with much of it lifted wholesale from the novel, and only the occasional little tweak or rearrangement or inner thought being spoken aloud that belongs to the Coens. Which is fine, honestly. True Grit is one of the Coens’ funniest films, but Ethan Coen was the first to admit in a 2010 interview that much of that humor came directly from the novel, and part of his desire to re-adapt the novel was to restore the humor that was lost in the ’69 version.

Still from "True Grit" (2010)

The novel takes place from young Mattie’s perspective as she locates and hires the meanest US Marshal she can find, Rueben J. “Rooster” Cogburn (Bridges), to track down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), a drunken scoundrel with a powder-marked face who murdered her father as he tried to stop him from attacking a table of cardplayers to whom he had lost money moments earlier. Mattie is both exceptionally capable and knowledgeable of both law and financial matters, details which are established in a handful of introductory scenes in the ’69 film, but which come essentially out of nowhere in the 2010. Steinfeld is not only completely in charge of these interactions, but threatens multiple people with the litigious retribution of her family’s lawyer, J. Noble Daggett, who is voiced in the film by J.K. Simmons, as the only indication that the girl’s threats to sue and assert her rights are anything but bluster. Although both films contain a line which perhaps helps to explain the girl’s claim of authority – she defends herself against abandonment to a “congress of louts” (a Coen Bros line) by identifying her name and hometown, and asserting, “My family has property and I don’t know why I am being treated like this.” It’s not the girl’s fault that she comes from a place of wealth and privilege any more than it is her fault that her father was murdered by a hired man. But it is a bit of a reminder that wherever law and order are lacking, only crimes against the wealthy will be properly met with justice. This also relies on a prior assumption that the institutions of justice will, if brought to bear on the situation, truly result in a just outcome.

And this is where True Grit (take your pick from the novel or either filmed version) really shines, allowing Mattie to constantly assert her piety, innocence, and clear-eyed sense of morality, while also prodding her naïveté and ending on a note that perhaps suggests that her vendetta was not so well-conceived. As I’ve come to expect from the Western genre, all of the principal characters in the film are white, and the film’s treatment of race is confined to a singular punchline during a triple-hanging scene in front of the Fort Smith courthouse in the film’s first act. This an interesting scene because it is an instance where the adaptations diverge quite sharply, with the ’69 version containing no dialogue from the condemned men, whereas the 2010 opens on one giving a lengthy speech, begging the crowd to learn from his mistakes and be kind to his family, and lamenting his lack of proper instruction as a child that led to him murdering a man “in a trifling quarrel over a pocketknife”. A second man says he is on the gallows because he “kilt the wrong man”, and he sees men in the crowd worse than he is. Both of these speeches are taken almost verbatim from the novel, if slightly out of order. And then, in a Coen Bros punchline, the third man, an unnamed Native (who in the novel professes his faith in Jesus Christ and compares himself to the thief on the cross) only gets out, “Before I am hanged, I would like to say…” before the hangman shoves a bag onto his head. Both adaptations contain other little nods to unequal justice, but they’re subtle. The ’69 version handles this slightly differently, featuring a bit of side conversation between Mattie and a talkative woman in the stands, who points out Judge Parker sitting atop the courthouse roof, and says that he watches every one of his hangings out of a sense of duty. Kim Darby’s Mattie visibly scoffs at this, and dismisses the woman’s declaration by saying, “Who knows what’s in a man’s heart?” What is perhaps unspoken is that Mattie thinks Judge Parker may just like watching people die. Rooster refers to Judge Parker more than once as a “carpetbagger”, and given that this is 1880 Arkansas, it’s fair to say that this characterization carries a lot of the baggage of racist campaigns of terrorism visited upon former enslaved people in this region. Combine this with Rooster’s tendency (asserted to Mattie by the town sheriff, and confirmed under oath on the witness stand) to kill most of the people he is sent out to retrieve, and it’s quite easy to find some modern resonance in this story. Because a huge part of the American frontier myth has always been the concept of throwing together a posse to avenge ourselves, the civilized folk, upon the outlaws and savages who have done us wrong, without any judges or rules of evidence getting in the way. This is perhaps America’s oldest myth, and it persists into the cop genre to this day, because even as we insist upon a desire for justice, we still can’t get enough of the one-man killing machine who Gets Things Done (because he has True Grit, if you like). Even if in practice, we know what this looked like even a century ago. It looks like decades of lynchings and Jim Crow juries refusing to convict their perpetrators. It looked like the terrorist bombing and massacre of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, 1921 – an event I had never heard of in 2010, and which is now HBO TV fodder. In fact, between Watchmen and Westworld, wherein the western genre is rendered literally as a sex/murder nostalgia party with robots, I daresay HBO may have its real measure.

Still from "True Grit" (2010)

I still regard True Grit as one of the Coens’ funniest films (owing a great deal to Jeff Bridges‘ performance as Rooster, which vacillates between buffoonish and menacing with remarkable skill). But its punchline is murder of the same, thoroughly justified sort that exists throughout the frontier myth, directed at a conveniently despicable man, Tom Chaney, whom the Coens actually make even more despicable in the 2010 version. In the novel, when Mattie first confronts Chaney in the creek, he immediately expresses regret for killing her father. The ’69 version gives no such dialogue to Jeff Corey‘s Chaney, who merely played him as cocky in his refusal to go quietly (prior to Mattie pulling the dragoon pistol and gut-shooting him). The 2010 version also starts with cockiness and ends with attempted murder by Chaney, but the Coens have Josh Brolin say aloud that he truthfully doesn’t regret killing Mattie’s father at all. Like I said, conveniently despicable. And now, disposable, because he flatly refuses to return and face justice, and he has no regrets. All that remains is to put him in the ground, which Mattie contributes to in both films, albeit a bit differently in each. In the ’69 version, it’s a perfunctory act of self-defense (occurring within a few seconds of Chaney clubbing LaBoeuf in the head), and it doesn’t even finish Chaney off. The shot sends Mattie tumbling into the snakepit to be threatened by a bleeding Chaney from above, before Rooster returns to finish him off. In the 2010 version, Mattie struggles and yanks LaBoeuf’s fallen Sharps carbine from Chaney’s grasp, orders him to his feet, and blasts him off a cliff, before tumbling into the snakepit, as did her predecessor. The difference between these two scenes is subtle (and happens so quickly in both films that I had to rewatch each more than once), but I daresay the Coens are the winners here, sticking more closely to the novel (wherein Mattie’s fatal shot catches Chaney in the head rather than the gut), and putting the moral choice to kill, as well as its immediate consequences, firmly into Mattie’s hands. Or, as LaBoeuf might say, her hand. That’s what makes the upshot of this film work so well. For all the girl’s piety and sense of justice, her violent retribution against Chaney was ultimately unnecessary, and the circumstances were such that she was instantly punished for it, losing a limb for the rest of her life.

Still from "True Grit" (2010)

This is probably where I should say something nice about Roger Deakins’ cinematography as well as [Coen-alias] Roderick Jaynes‘ editing and Carter Burwell‘s hymnal-influenced score, because it is indeed this triad that makes the Coens’ take on this material so memorable, concluding with Rooster’s desperate midnight ride to save Mattie’s life, and layered throughout the film as it attempts to create a sense of wide-open spaces, isolation, and grandeur. One memorable montage of long fades (easily ten seconds apiece) starts with the trio traveling across the Arkansas prairie into the Choctaw Nation, with a rising crane shot, lush with cool blues and purples, panning upward to keep the riders’ heights uniform with the distant, silhouetted mountains as they ride toward the camera, with the slow fade ushering into a static, warm-hued shot as they ride away across grassland toward a broken line of low, rocky hills. The long fades continue, some to emphasize the position of the sun and the passage of time, some for the changing terrain, and some to highlight Rooster’s varied disposals of his waning supply of whiskey bottles. However shrewdly Mattie operates in the opening act, hiring Rooster was perhaps her least advisable maneuver, choosing the “meanest” marshal even as she is warned that he loves pulling a cork. When we see Mattie (played at age 40 by Elizabeth Marvel as well as a visual stand-in, Ruth Morris), she retains the same rather arbitrary sense of moral clarity, speaking cordially to real-life bandit Cole Younger (Don Pirl), but telling his Wild West Show partner, Frank James, to “Keep your seat, trash,” after the pair reveals that their show partner, Rooster, passed away three days earlier. This moment is straight out of the novel, and offers an explanation from POV character Mattie, who asserts that despite having similar body counts from their outlaw days, Cole Younger spent 25 years in prison for his crimes and expressed a bit of Christian regret, whereas Frank James was acquitted, despite likely pulling the trigger on innocent victims more than once. Hence, trash. But I’m not sure how much credit for irony I can really give this film, opening as it does on a Bible verse (from Proverbs, “The wicked flee where none pursueth”), and sandwiched between a pair of pious voiceovers which emphasize, if nothing else, how little Mattie’s experience changed her, merely ossifying moral tendencies that she possessed since childhood. This is perhaps the most enduring trope of the frontier genre – that a departure from what you regard as civilization is revelatory, but only of the sort of person you always were. And in that sense, the Coen Bros’ True Grit stands strong, even in the Western’s waning years.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

Edward Zwick’s “Love & Other Drugs” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Poster for "Love & Other Drugs"

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 love you! You don’t understand – I’ve never said that to anyone before.”
-“You’ve never said ‘I love you’? “
“No!”
-“You never said it to your parents?”
“No.”
-“You never said it to your brother?”

“Ugh!”
-“Jesus, you’re more fucked up than I am. I once said it to a cat.”

Flashback to 2010, as director Edward Zwick (Blood Diamond, The Siege, Glory), a director whose work I’ve tended to enjoy as it beats me about the head and face with its point, takes us on a tour of the alarmingly sexy and morally dubious world of 1990s pharmaceutical sales! We open on a montage in 1996 – “Two Princes” (Just Go Ahead Now) by the Spin Doctors plays, as we meet one Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal), effective and charming stereo salesman, who is highly successful at selling 1980s boomboxes by charming, flirting, and dancing with customers. Then he takes a quick five to have sex with the girlfriend of the store manager in the backroom, before she accidentally buttdials the manager on her Motorola Razr as he stands with customers on the showroom floor. At the place where all three of them work. Naturally, Jamie gets fired for gross, gross misconduct, but not before getting another girl’s number. Fifteen seconds post-coital, we learn that Jamie has chutzpah, and is, to put it mildly, a bit of a womanizer. This definitely feels like a ’90s period piece for at least the duration of this scene, but after that, the dialogue is pretty well peppered with modern references, including Jamie’s rich asshole brother Josh (Josh Gad), whose wife “looks at his dick like it’s the eye of Sauron”, and throws him out of the house because he’s addicted to internet pornography – an impressive accomplishment in ’96! Must’ve gotten an ISDN line installed for that. After a brief dinner in which Jamie’s rich asshole parents chide him for getting fired, Josh offers him his next gig, as a pharmaceutical sales rep for Pfizer, hawking Zoloft (a name-brand anti-depressant) and Zithromax (a name-brand antibiotic) by visiting doctors’ offices with swag and out-and-out bribes in order to gently encourage them to prescribe it to their patients. I already knew this profession existed – my mother did this job in the 90s before switching to insurance, and I can still remember all the swag she would keep around the house.

This is before another montage shows us that A) Pharma conventions in the 90s were gaudy as hell (think Tony Robbins meets WWE, plus the “Macarena“), and B) Pharma reps, also known as the “detail team”, were encouraged from the outset to push off-label usage of their drugs. It is at this point that I’ll mention, I chose to re-review this particular film because of my recent reading of Gerald Posner‘s excellent and exhaustive history of the pharmaceutical industry, Pharma, which I’d encourage everyone to check out (especially if you want to be nice and angry at what a softball deal Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family has just received after basically inventing a half-century of pharmaceutical advertising tricks, as well as the epidemic of Oxycontin and other opioid abuse). According to Posner, promoting off-label usage has not only always been routine in the industry, it is a core component of their business model. In fact, if you want to get even angrier, read up on how off-label usage combines with misuse of the so-called Orphan Drug Act to allow companies to maximize revenue while blocking out generics for an extra-long patent period, and jack up the prices, with their research heavily subsidized by taxpayers. Jolly fun! But that’s about as far into the Pharma book as I’ll be delving in this review, because apart from occasional barbs about America’s ridiculous healthcare system (which was even worse in the 90s), Love & Other Drugs really only uses pharma as a romantic backdrop, as well as a platform for dick jokes. Lots and lots of dick jokes.

Still from "Love & Other Drugs"

So Jamie is a newly minted, slick-haired pharma rep, and also a big ol’ asshole, who reveals early in the film that he dabbles in pick-up artist bullshit, calling a hot girl by the wrong name (so that she’ll wander up and correct him, and he can reveal a backstory of thinking she’s a woman he rejected, which’ll make her want to get with him, and it honestly sounds so tedious as I’m describing it). This puts him in good company with Dr. Stan Knight (Hank Azaria), currently an avid Prozac prescriber, and apparently the most important internist and GP in Pittsburgh, who can somehow singlehandedly redirect every doctor and headshrinker in the City of Bridges toward Zoloft if only he switches his own patients off Prozac first. So Jamie straight-up bribes him with a $1,000 check from Pfizer to “shadow his practice” and give him the hard pitch all day. Dr. Knight responds with feigned moral outrage before pocketing the bribe, then uses the time to ignore Jamie’s pitch and ask for a bribe that’s several orders of magnitude larger, asking for a plum consulting gig in place of all the gifts and swag and beach conferences in Cancun that he’s apparently getting from Eli Lilly to promote Prozac. I knew this even before reading Pharma, but none of this, including the gaudy convention, is much of an exaggeration from reality. Despite Dr. Knight’s disinterest in switching meds, Jamie scams and seduces and petty-crimes his way into this clinic (with Judy Greer appearing as in one of her many, many devious and hypersexual secretary roles sandwiched between Arrested Development and Archer), and apart from making Pittburgh feel a bit small We basically only see a single medical practice, adjacent back-alley, and nearby bar in the entire film, and the characters are constantly running into each other. But there are is an amusing gag here – a homeless man who keeps retrieving the Prozac samples after Jamie tosses them in the dumpster, and over the next few scenes, looks more and more respectable each time we see him, until we finally learn he has a job interview coming up! I didn’t mind this bout of silliness too much, since the butt of this joke is firmly the American mental healthcare system.

Jamie also reveals his predatory tendencies a bit more in this scene, as uninsured 26-year-old Parkinson’s patient Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway) concludes her exam (for a refill of her Parkinson’s meds) by asking Dr. Knight to examine a mark on her breast, which he does, as a lab-coated Jamie gawks. That Maggie discovers his true identity and savagely beats him in the parking lot with a briefcase in the very next scene is at least narratively redeeming – especially since this is a pattern that will continue as the film goes on: Jamie’s shallow bullshit delivered with utter confidence and charm, before getting smacked down hard by reality until he tries something a bit more sincere. But he doesn’t try that yet – instead, he delivers a charming apology on behalf of the entire medical community for treating Maggie in such a dehumanizing manner, which is, if you really think about it… Maggie silences him with several barbs, snaps a Wall ‘o’ Shame Polaroid, gives him the finger, and quits the scene. It would be very easy at this point to say that Jamie is doing the mercenary libertine schtick from Thank You for Smoking and Maggie is doing the quirky, wounded fawn from Garden State, and but there’s something a good deal more mature and substantial happening here. While these characters obviously start off at different levels of likability, they are essentially just two self-possessed grownups who don’t have time for [other people’s] bullshit, and are each fairly upfront about their visceral attraction to one another. Their coffeeshop date contains a lot of metatextual patter in which they allude to how the scene might play out if they were each playing their respective roles as expected, but then they jump straight to the booty call that they each really came there for. It somehow landed precisely on that line between contrivance and sincerity – when I saw this a decade ago, I probably regarded it as an attractive fantasy that the hot, interesting people were probably engaged in. In my 30s, my reaction is just…yeah, this happens. It may not be a guaranteed recipe for anything more than a quick bang, but I know more than a handful of people in serious, long-term relationships that started on such terms, and quite as many that did not, but who’ve enjoyed a shallow bang or six in their time with no regrets. It also definitely helps that the brief, quasi-animalistic sex scene that ensues is not layered with an overwrought musical track (now for sale on iTunes!), doesn’t contain dubious or disturbing implications with respect to consent, and simultaneously feels sexier and more grounded in reality than anything that appeared in any of the Fifty Shades films, which were as much an austere, sanitized fanfic about sex as they were about Twilight. And we’re only 30 minutes into the film when this thing, whatever it is, gets started. The couple untangles their mostly-clothed bodies on the floor, and Maggie tells Jamie politely to get the hell out of her apartment. Then she pages him to fuck in an alley, literally 10 seconds into the next montage. Despite their mutually-stated desire to keep things simple and distant, Jamie manages to spill a bit of expository pillow talk about how he was smart enough to get into med school, but didn’t want to give his dad the satisfaction, and Maggie manages to ask whether he’s ever said a true thing to a woman in his life. And they cuddle a bit. Progress!

Still from "Love & Other Drugs"

Jamie goes back to the alley behind the only doctor’s office in Pittsburgh to toss out more of those pesky competing Prozac samples, only to catch a well-earned beating from Trey the Eli Lilly rep (Gabriel Macht), who is also both an ex-Marine and an ex of Maggie’s. Which is a genuinely bizarre and intriguing bit of backstory for Maggie’s character. I wasn’t quite sure how to classify Maggie besides…an experienced medical patient. But in a later scene, she flat-out calls herself a “drug slut”, and I found myself wondering whether being a pharma groupie is or has ever been…a thing? I’ve heard that Emergency Department nurses frequently end up dating cops, and it stands to reason there may be other professional romantic subcultures I may be unaware of. Before COVID, I joked more than once that the business travel market would collapse if not for the professional class’ insatiable need to get away from their spouses and children for a couple weeks a year to discretely bribe and fuck each other amid half-remembered keynotes and breakout sessions, and it fits this motif that Jamie gathers himself up and returns to Dr. Knight’s office (again!), only to get the cold shoulder from both of the receptionists (Judy Greer included), whom Trey has bribed with a convention/trip to Hawaii. The movie is…very unsubtle on this point, at one point showing Dr. Knight (who abuses Viagra samples later in the film) literally injecting himself with testosterone so he can attend a convention-adjacent orgy.

Jamie is naturally a bit bummed about these twin smackdowns, so he goes to see Maggie, who initially looks confused at his arrival with takeout. Structurally, now it’s her turn to be vulnerable and talk about her mother, before they both recoil away from it and remind each other they’re not quite a couple yet. Then they have some honest chitchat about her former affair with Trey the Eli Lilly Rep, who was and is married to someone else. Maggie gets a bit vulnerable here and admits she has a type, and Jamie very wisely gives her no grief for it. Now it’s time for more sex, but Jamie’s mind stays a bit unfocused and flaccid, and his penis follows suit. Maggie smiles and calls him a lying sack of shit with latent humanity (by way of accepting the situation and being kind about it), and they briefly, nakedly act as if they’re in an intimate relationship, eating cereal on the couch and talking about his day. She discusses the psychology of men and their capricious boners, and then lets slip that she read somewhere that Pfizer is developing a “fuck drug”. Hmmm… MDMA already existed in ’96 – and ironically can cause erectile dysfunction – so she must mean Viagra! A vasodilator with an accidentally lucrative side effect (discovered during clinical trials for pulmonary arterial hypertension), which would end up selling over $2 billion in prescriptions over the next decade. But enough about the history – I’m stepping on Hathaway’s superlative and scathing delivery on a rapid-fire series of dick puns as I type this, which finally gets Jamie going again. And for the rest of the movie (after a softball pitch to his boss), Jamie will indeed be selling Viagra, because, as he puts it with that unassailable Gyllenhaal charm, “Who can sell a dick-drug better than me?”

Still from "Love & Other Drugs"

Over breakfast the next morning, Maggie has a hand tremor and can’t open a Pop Tart for Jamie. She covers for it, handing him the package, sending him out the door, and asking him not to call again, because she can’t do…this. This being a relationship, which she feels she doesn’t want, can’t handle, doesn’t deserve, shouldn’t inflict upon him, etc. Obviously, it only takes one more scene of [inexplicably pharma-tinged] rom-com theatricality before they decide to give the whole relationship thing a try anyway. It involves a busload of seniors trekking north of the border for meds they can’t afford in the US, an operation that Maggie is either a volunteer or participant for. Jamie endears himself to her by…showing up as the bus leaves, and then waiting all night until it returns, and okay sure, I guess. Love & Other Drugs offers a working definition of a relationship as a constant defining, prodding, communicating, and redefining of both internal and external boundaries to gradually coalesce around each other. In the usual rom-com fashion, much of what Jamie does meets the legal definition of stalking (and he conspires with her doctor’s office to commit multiple HIPAA violations!), and at first, it’s pretty clear that this is just one more dubious conquest for him. Until it isn’t. Then, after their nth hookup, Jamie casually refers to Maggie as his girlfriend, and she realizes she’s okay with that. Then he straight-up has a panic attack when he realizes (and states aloud) that he loves her. It gets worse from there – she has a bad day with her illness, which turns into a bad, drunk, insecure, borderline abusive moment, in which she caps off an unhinged rant by flat-out telling Jamie he’s not a good person just because he “pity-fucked the sick girl”. Then she drops and shatters her vodka glass and bawls onto the floor as Jamie is storming off, but…he comes back to comfort her. This seems thing-adjacent to the typical ebb and flow of a burgeoning romance, so it’s worth taking a step back to discuss this film’s treatment of disease, disability, and mortality.

I’ve seen a number of films in which creatives who aren’t dying or disabled make an effort to get into the headspace of people who are (there is also a healthy discussion around what disabilities it is appropriate for non-disabled actors to depict). Maggie’s illness is largely discussed as an inexorably fatal one, which is not exactly false (people with Parkinson’s do have, on average, reduced lifespans compared to people who don’t), but it’s not exactly true either (early-onset Parkinson’s cases tend to have many years ahead of them). In fact, for a film that’s clearly trying to drop a few real facts about the disease, it somehow elided a detail that I didn’t know until I looked it up after the film: Parkinson’s is not a fatal disease! It is a complex and not terribly well-understood disease (mostly as true now as it was in 2010), but people don’t die from it directly. They die from complications caused by it, such as falls, infections from injuries, aspiration pneumonia (due to swallowing difficulties or feeding tubes), etc.. This may seem like a semantic distinction, but it’s important to consider when viewed in the context of Jamie and Maggie’s respective dysfunctions about it. Jamie and Maggie’s relationship is generally pretty relatable, even if it seesaws back and forth a bit more than a conventional rom-com.  The film seems to generally treat Maggie like anyone else who feels she’s undeserving of, or doesn’t have time for, love, perhaps because of her romantic history, or other concerns in her life, or both. Her Parkinson’s, therefore, feels less like an intrinsic component of her identity than an obstacle the film completely forgets about during the extended fuck-montages and bits of interstitial cringe comedy (including every single appearance by Gad’s wholly excisable brother character), and then remembers when it needs to reach for a moment of romantic pathos.

Still from "Love & Other Drugs"

After their drag-out fight and reconciliation, Jamie and Maggie head to Chicago for a pharma convention. Maggie is spotted in short order by another Parkinson’s patient who tells her the real party is across the street, so she excuses herself to the event, which calls itself the “Unconvention”. I thought perhaps the film was going in a weird, alternative-medicine direction at this point, but this was pretty clearly a community support group, featuring a number of real-life Parkinson’s patients. A comedian on-stage (played by Lucy Roucis, who has kept up her craft on the Denver theatre stage in the intervening years!) is doing a bit of disease-themed standup. She’s interspersed with various others, some of whom are clearly untrained actors, hollering out a cathartic series of “fuck [whatever]” type statements for things in their life that annoy them because of their condition – shirt buttons, coffee mugs, soup, etc. A woman in her 50s steps up with a cane and ponders aloud why God wanted Parkinson’s patients to be so good at giving handjobs. And so forth. It’s all very sweet and funny, and a bouquet of emotions flies across Hathaway’s face as we silently learn that Maggie has never seen anything like this, and finds it all terribly moving. And why not? She gets to see variety of people, all different ages, disease stages, and body types, speaking their truth onstage and think that maybe, just maybe, there’ll be a world where she doesn’t have to go through this thing alone. Jamie shows up toward the end, just in time for a man at the coffee bar (who is there with his wife, a Stage 4 Parkinson’s patient), to initially refuse to give him any advice, but when pressed, to admit that he loves his wife, but that his life as a caregiver wasn’t worth it, and he wouldn’t do it again. In fact, he goes further: he flat-out says that Jamie should dump Maggie and find himself a healthy woman. I’ve met multiple older folks who have succumbed to some degree of caregiver fatigue after a long life of looking after a sick partner or family member, and for this film to pretend like everything is hunky-dory for the families of all these people standing up onstage and enjoying community time together would’ve made the whole event seem contrived and insincere. I found this man’s attitude very sad, but I found it to be an honest and relatable narrative choice. I hope he was just having a bad day, and that he has time and people to look after himself as well. But for him to express this attitude aloud illustrates the very real peril that the caregivers of a Parkinson’s patient are in (which in turn places the patient themselves in similar peril). Burnout is a real thing, and kudos to the film for neither overstating it nor shying away from it.

Jamie doesn’t really react to this, because Maggie ushers him out to apologize in the street for the vodka-soaked tirade in the previous scene and say that she loves him. This is a curious repetition of how Jamie came to realize that he loved her – by interacting with other people who weren’t her. This is admittedly still rather sweet, largely because of the actors’ chemistry, but it was also the part of this rom-com that I perhaps found the least relatable. Coming to say “I love you” is something I strongly associate with spending time with the person I love. Finding that feeling through separation seems to be a rom-com trope, but to me, it has always suggested that what these people really love is life itself, or perhaps themselves – and they just felt the need to run home and tell it to their partner. I’m not sure if this makes movie love feel less than the real thing, or if it’s simply narrative shorthand that I can excuse, but my receptivity to it will largely depend on how much I believe the actors when they say the words. The other mirror image going on here is that neither of these two is sure whether anyone else deserves the affliction of being in a relationship with them – Maggie because of her illness, and Jamie because he has spent far too much of his life trying to be an asshole. It’s pretty easy to say Maggie deserves whatever happiness she can grab onto, but what of Jamie? Does he “deserve happiness”? I would say that deserve is not a meaningful framework here. No matter how many bad things a person has done, the only person who can practically deny them happiness is the person himself, and perhaps anyone they think they love. From a purely utilitarian standpoint, discounting any belief in karma or a fair and just world, I think it’s appropriate to say the world is better off if people like Jamie are happy, because then they the world won’t have to deal with his toxic bullshit quite so much – and perhaps neither will his partner. His happiness has the potential to make the world a better place. As for whether Maggie deserves happiness, she obviously does – she’s a kind, intelligent, and creative person who has a lot to offer a potential romantic partner. But there is a similarly brutal utilitarianism that applies to her situation. The idea of Maggie thinking of herself in these terms – as someone that neither the world, nor the people she loves, should have to make the effort to help – felt completely human and sincere, but also made me very sad. As did what happens next.

Jamie gets to work with all of his powers as a pharmaceutical rep who knows Philly’s biggest sexpot physician to try to cure what ails his girlfriend. I’m sure he’ll sort it out, right? He hits up Dr. Knight for contacts for all the cutting-edge, experimental Parkinson’s treatments, and we enter a montage of him dragging Jamie from one medical provider to another trying to order up one (1) Parkinson’s Cure, please! Minus the please. There’s an extended sequence where he harangues a receptionist at Massachusetts General, telling her they flew 2,000 miles (from Pittsburgh – not the first time he has used this weirdly specific numerical lie in this film), only to find out their appointment has been postponed two weeks without notice, then starts Karening out all over her, demanding to see the doctor (who’s not there), the head of the hospital (who doesn’t care), etc., as Maggie sits in the foreground looking more and more mortified before finally getting up to leave. They argue in the snowy parking lot, and she tries to give him a way out here – says she’s bored, and tired, and wants to go home – before he asks her whether she wants to get better, and…that’s it. Maggie realizes that this impossible thing, a cure for her Parkinson’s, has become much too important to Jamie, and tells him they need to go home, make some goodbye love, and then he needs to get his stuff out of her apartment, because they’re breaking up now. Because, as Maggie puts it, Jamie is such a good man he doesn’t want to be the one to walk away, so she’s doing it for him. This doesn’t feel like sarcasm on her part so much as mutually assured destruction. She really does think he’s a good man, but also a weak one. She doesn’t want to inflict herself upon him, but she knows he would allow it…if only he could spend the rest of his life trying to find a cure that doesn’t exist. It’s fraught. And her choice to dump him feels neither arbitrary nor unwise, even if it may not be her only choice.

Excerpt from xkcd webcomic, "Ten Years"Excerpt from xkcd webcomic, “Ten Years“. Comic artist Randall Munroe’s wife recovered from a serious case of breast cancer while in her 20s. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License, almost the same one I use!

Like I said, Maggie makes me very sad. This is obviously a breakup that will reverse itself before the end of the film (if you’ve never seen a rom-com before, I apologize for the spoiler, but I won’t mention the sex-mansion pajama-party breakup-threesome Viagra-mishap!), but even their return to romance feels like a rather dour ending, because this feels like the origin story for the bitter old man at the “Unconvention”. Jamie will stay with Maggie, and spend every waking moment for the next 30 years trying to cure her (a terminal voiceover informs us that he’s thinking of applying to medical school!), before telling a young man in his former position that it wasn’t worth it. And Maggie will let him stay, but she’ll always feel like she’s imposing on him, and will occasionally chase him off for it. In that sense, the movie doesn’t really feel like it even has an ending, so much as it hits the predetermined beats of a rom-com in a story that can’t really mesh with them. This ebb and flow will continue, hopefully for the rest of their lives? Perhaps that was the filmmakers’ intent, but it left me giving this movie some credit for swinging high and missing rather than for telling a complete story. And Love & Other Drugs did swing high. It reflected on the interplay between romantic love and mortality as it relates to the human condition, and its treatment of disability felt neither tokenistic nor disrespectful. And for a film in which every dude is an irredeemable asshole, that counts for a great deal. There is nothing revolutionary about the idea that people who with reduced life expectancies have value and deserve love for whatever time they have, nor is there any separation between them and the rest of us. Maggie may know that her CNS function is on a path to deterioration, but Jamie could still be hit by a bus tomorrow. And for that matter, so could Maggie. Or they might live on. The most horrifying adventure of all.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10