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

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

Poster for "The Suicide Squad" (2021 film)

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

Still from "The Green Knight"

May contain NSFW language.

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

Show notes:

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

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

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

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

Still from "Mosquita y Mari" (2012)

May contain NSFW language.

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

Show notes:

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

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

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

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

Still from "Look Back in Anger"

May contain NSFW language.

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

Show notes:

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

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

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

Poster for "Spiral: From the Book of Saw"

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

Still from "The Go Between" (1971)

May contain NSFW language.

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

Show notes:

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

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

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

Poster for "Voyagers" (2021 film)

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

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

Still from "Short Term 12"

May contain NSFW language.

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

Show notes:

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

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

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