Adam Brooks’ “Definitely, Maybe” (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.

Ad exec Will (Ryan Reynolds) wanders through Manhattan to pick up his daughter, playing “the perfect song” for when you’ve just been served with divorce papers: “Everyday People” by Sly & the Family Stone. Let’s agree to disagree, movie. This is perhaps the most generic song until “ABC” the following year, and it isn’t nearly as catchy. My overt hostility this early into the film should tell you what to expect here – this is the first 10YA film I’ve rewatched and found substantially less enjoyable than my first viewing a decade ago. So let’s do this thing. Will’s tiny individual Bluetooth earbuds indicate that he is abundantly wealthy and tech-savvy by 2008 standards (these are still barely a thing). He interacts with a series of New York street people from central casting as the credits play, then wanders up to his daughter’s school.

“Sometimes, no matter how carefully you plan your playlist, there is no right track for what awaits you.”

I normally begin my 10YA reviews with a selection from the opening voiceover, but this is really the first time it’s been this trite and inconsequential. His song is uninspired, his metaphor is now dated, and “what awaits him” is a bit of a cacophony at the school because the kids have just started sex-ed. His daughter Maya (Abigail Breslin) explains the mechanics of sex, and asks a perfectly reasonable question – her friend Sammy Boigon’s sister says he was an accident, and how do you accidentally thrust a penis into a vagina? Will shuts her down, telling her to stop saying such accurate words (“say tinkle-part or wee-wee or something cute”) – bad form, Will. Comprehensive sex-ed is better for a reason. She then asks more pointedly, “If they didn’t want to have a baby, why did they have sex?” Will misses a second teachable moment, and says they were rehearsing. He’ll miss another one later when his daughter asks, “What’s the boy word for slut?” One thing I’ve done since 2008 is become a parent, and I really try not to judge how other parents handle common pitfalls. But Will seriously biffs this moment, and given that it’s one of the only consequential moments with his daughter until the end of the film, it seems worth noting.

Anyway, all of this was an awkward lead-in to Maya asking how Will met her mother. Does this premise sound familiar? The CBS series “How I Met Your Mother” was in its third season and largely unknown to me in 2008, although seeing this film may have seeded my interest in it. Now that I’ve seen that whole series, which spawned a skip list and series-end podcast in which I called it “one of the finest sitcoms on television,” this film suffers by comparison, both in the credibility and structure of the story, and the likability of the characters. More on that later. Will agrees to tell Maya the complete story of his adult dating life, but he’s going to change the names, and he won’t reveal until the end who her mother is. Definitely, Maybe does a poor job of justifying its premise. It attempts to lend a sense of urgency and purpose to the story by couching it as Maya’s precocious attempt to “solve” her parents’ impending divorce. And Will makes it clear (to the audience) that he knows this, but never that he’s doing this for some definable purpose, or even against his better judgment. Beyond the appropriateness of the subject matter, this just really seems like a bad idea. But…what the hell do I know, I’ve never been divorced. To call this situation desperate and sad seems a bit obvious, but it’s all I’ve got going in.

The tale begins. In 1992, Will is a volunteer for the Young Democrats of America in Madison, Wisconsin, and we meet Lady #1: Will’s college sweetheart, Emily (Elizabeth Banks). If I remember correctly, this is Maya’s mother. I obviously didn’t know this the first time I saw the film, but seeing it now, the film definitely pats itself on the back several times for hiding this result. Maya even guesses that it’s never the first girlfriend you meet – which implies that she knows more stories in this “rom-com mystery” genre that I’m unaware of. The only other one I can think of is Extraterrestrial, and the mystery there was “What’s up with the alien spaceship hovering over our one-night stand?”, but no matter. These particular early-90s Democrats work for the Clintons, and Will is leaving for New York to work for Bill’s presidential campaign. Because Will wants to be president. I give the movie kudos for presenting Will’s political aspirations (with a mix of real and fictional politicians) as something admirable and sincere. Reynolds plays Will’s later disappointment with President Clinton’s scandals in a way that feels genuine and devoid of cynicism. Clinton is his idol, and his fall from grace disappoints him. It doesn’t count for much of the film’s plot, but it’s something.

Emily, who is staying behind, sends Will along with a book-sized package to return to one Summer Hartley (Rachel Weisz), whom she met on her exchange program at Cambridge. You may be assuming that this means Weisz will speak with her native British accent, and you would be wrong. Emily notes that all the guys wanted to sleep with her, and Will suggests that perhaps she should mail it instead. Whoops. We haven’t seen her yet, but Summer is Lady #2, and Will is definitely, 100% going to sleep with her. Flying into New York, Will looks out the window and sees…what looks like archive footage of the NYC skyline. The WTC towers are visible, but also it looks a bit grainy, which is a strange thing to see in HD. He’s handed a cellular telephone just slightly more advanced than the one Zack Morris carried in ’92, and is sent to get coffee and bagels. When he returns, he wipes out offscreen into the men’s room with a comically huge pile of TP while the campaign manager briefs everyone, and screams “what am I doing here?!” We get it, movie. Shit rolls downhill. This film largely predates the gig economy, but Will’s bitching about his no-future entry-level political job feels petty. Suck it up, intern.

Will meets April (Isla Fisher) at the copy machine, and they flirt. April is apolitical – this is just a gig for her. She’s also Lady #3. Will makes some vague promises about how great Clinton will be for African-Americans and women, and then the Gennifer Flowers scandal breaks. Whoops. The campaign gang goes out for beers, and they spontaneously compare notes on who their romantic “types” are. Will’s type is brunettes with horn-rimmed glasses (neither Emily nor April). He drunk-dials Emily, who correctly concludes that he’s never coming back from NYC. Back in his room, with some prodding from his campaign roommate Russell (Derek Luke), Will rips open the package from Emily and finds…a diary. They decide they can’t read it. Then they read it, it plays as light erotica written by a dude, and it seems that Summer might be Emily’s ex-lover. I’ll go ahead and admit an area of personal growth for me here: This is definitely something that would’ve seemed like a bigger deal to me in 2008 than now – I didn’t really grok the Kinsey scale in those days, and this sort of revelation would’ve made me feel insecure in a more categorical way than the existence of ex-boyfriends. But it’s a personal hang-up that I find silly in retrospect (you’re either confident the person you’re dating likes you, or you’re not), and I’m glad to be past it.

Will heads over to Summer’s apartment without calling first, and finds Kevin Kline in an open bathrobe. He is Professor Hampton Roth. Will asks if he is Summer’s father, and he confirms, “Yeah, I’m her daddy.” Gross. Then – and I’ll pause here to note that it’s about 10AM – he pours some Johnny Walker. The boys get hammered and pass out, and Will awakens to the face of Summer, who introduces the professor as her boyfriend (and thesis advisor). They engage in some flirtatious banter in Weisz’s hit-or-miss American accent. This was a miss. The accent, and the character. She asks if he read the erotica-diary, throws it at him and suggests that he read it when he’s lonely, then follows him into the hallway and kisses him. “Sorry,” Summer says, “I was just curious. Hampton encourages me to cultivate my curiosity.” Ugh. These two met 60 seconds ago. This is utterly bizarre, even in this genre.

Back at the campaign, Will is stapling signs, nearly staples his hand, and screams aloud again, “What am I doing here?!” Each of these complaint beats feels like the failure mode of an “As Seen on TV” commercial. Luckily, the movie has also lost patience with this, and campaign manager Arthur Robredo (Nestor Serrano) realizes he needs someone with a Wisconsin connection to court Madison donors in the NY area. Will now has a desk and a real job, and it turns out he’s an ace at it, selling out an entire fundraiser table. He runs into April buying cigarettes at the convenience store, and the two have a dumb argument about which of their brands is healthier and/or burns faster. Then they proceed to have a competitive smoke-off. During the ensuing chat, we learn that it’s April’s birthday, her musician boyfriend stood her up (on her birthday!). She wins the bet, but declines the payoff, and they haggle their way into attending a party together. They end up on a rooftop, and Will reveals that he plans to propose to Emily when she comes to NYC. April invites Will to practice the proposal on her. He starts with a half-assed “Will you, um, marry me?”, and she gives a solid rehearsed speech excoriating him for it. This is a decent scene – not because of the overwritten rom-com speeches, but because April is not being a ridiculous caricature here – perhaps just a hit heightened. She’s neither manic, nor pixie. I buy that she has a life outside of this moment. They go back to her apartment for tea, and they have a nice chat about a copy of Jane Eyre that her father inscribed and gave her before his untimely death. This’ll be important later. They chat all night about music, politics, travel, etc, and she tosses in a line about how this is nice that they can just sit here and chat and not have to worry about flirting or all the attraction stuff. Then they frantically make out, and then he leaves. It’s a mess. So far, I believe this relationship the most of the three.

Back in the hotel, Emily – Will’s actual girlfriend, remember – has arrived on the red-eye to surprise him in the morning! She takes the elevator, he takes the stairs, and he magically gets to the room…long after she does. Well played, movie. But it’s fine, because his roommate has covered for him. They kiss, and Emily notes a bit frantically that his tongue tastes different. They wander through Central Park, and Will tells a rambling story of how his father ran into an ex on his way to propose to his mother (meta-story!), and it turns out he’s proposing to Emily now, and Emily panics and scream-admits that she slept with Will’s roommate Charlie. So it’s over. And I now remember with absolute certainty that Emily is the mother, so at some point this will all be a double-reversal. Back at the campaign, Bill Clinton has won the New York primary (and three others, including Wisconsin), and it’s party time. April drops by to see why Will is so miserable, and they banter and apologize for the kissing. They have a competitive metaphor-off for how disastrous their hypothetical romance would be, and she wins with “Sandpaper and bare ass (you’d be the ass)”. Then she asks him to dance. I continue to buy this relationship the most of the three.

Will and Russell hit the road to continue with the campaign. And then time advances, montage-style. Once Clinton is elected, the two form their own political consultancy, and they join the [fictitious] gubernatorial campaign of their old boss, Arthur Robredo. Will starts dating again, April dumps her loser boyfriend and goes traveling, and the two become pen pals, and fast friends. It’s 1994 in New York. Will lazily informs us that the internet is getting started, everyone on the street has a large (but not huge) cell phone, and I start to think this movie has Forrest Gump ambitions of being a time capsule for future rosy-eyed nostalgia. It would really need a better soundtrack for that. Will gets invited to a book signing with Professor Roth, and runs into Summer again. Summer is writing for NYMag, and the professor has moved on to dating a pair of college freshmen. Legal, but still gross. And the three of them engage in more preposterous banter. It is utter nonsense that any of these people would remember each other from a single meeting two years earlier (kisses and drunkenness notwithstanding), and all of this feels forced. Summer agrees to write an article about the campaign. She and Will go out for dinner again, flirt like crazy some more, and montage their way into a relationship (much of which is weirdly musically-focused and takes place on the same park bench). They make out on various couches, decide to spend the whole day in bed together, then they’re immediately called away to the hospital to tend to Professor Roth, who has had an aortic rupture (a condition with a 90% mortality rate) and is somehow still alive. Roth is just conscious enough to criticize her for not writing a sufficiently hard-hitting exposé on Robredo’s campaign, seeding the destruction of this relationship, which is barely five minutes old in movie time.

And then April returns. They wander the streets, and she tells a story of bursting into tears after making out with a hot stranger on a Cretan beach, because she realized that she couldn’t see a relationship with this guy going well. And then she realized she simply had to tell someone specific about this, and that someone is right in front of her face- annnnd while they’ve been talking, they’ve walked into a jewelry store because Will is picking up a diamond engagement ring for Summer. Whoops! Back in the present day, daughter Maya recites some subtext: “Weren’t you listening? She came home for you!” Will looks pensive, as if he somehow didn’t realize this. This is where the structure of the movie strains credulity a bit. It’s certainly possible for someone to interrupt a personal anecdote to say, “Hey, you were the asshole there”. But it doesn’t really make sense that Will would tell this story, which obviously emphasizes April as a major participant, if he never realized that April was one of his own love interests. He can tell the story of how he met Maya’s mother, but April is only an important character if she’s a potential mother, and it sounds like Will is supposed to be gobsmacked by this sudden realization.

Back in ’94, he goes to meet Summer. NYMag has asked her to do a followup on Robredo, which she has already written, and it’s a doozy: Robredo abused his political influence to get a friend an early parole from prison. Will says this is bad…that his boss is the “tough-on-crime Democrat”. Then he tells her if she hands this in, “we won’t survive this.” Summer starts to equivocate, and then he makes it clearer. “I’m talking about you and me.” This is the point in the story in which I interrupt Will and say, “Hey, you were the asshole there,” because that’s a hell of a thing to say to someone you’re about to propose to. It’s also the point where I say the same thing to Summer, because writing an exposé about her boyfriend’s campaign…well, I’m no journalist, but it sounds like a serious conflict of interest. And it turns out she’s already handed it in, so the campaign and the relationship are over. The relationship careening off a cliff makes sense, since this relationship was utter tosh to begin with – but politically, this feels quaint in a post-2016 world. This is a mundane bit of patronage, and it’s hard to imagine this scandal would torpedo a campaign today, when every politician with a national profile is gleefully ignoring multiple career-defining scandals each week. The world got weird and ugly. The GOP backed Roy Moore. And this would barely make a dent today.

Speaking of scandal, we flash forward to 1997, when Clinton is about to be impeached, and April finally calls Will back, leading with “Are you watching?” I guess their meta-awareness that they’re in a story is just something I’ll have to suspend disbelief on, because this is a weird way to call someone after a three-year break. They banter. April is quite sure that Bill did it, saying of Monica Lewinsky, “Look at the picture of her! I love her, she’s so his type.” I was rather incredulous at this line – both because we seem to have found the one person in 1997 who was kind to Lewinsky, and because… Well. I’m not going to pretend we (or I) have found some sudden piety on the subject of powerful men abusing their positions to make advances on the women in their employment in the past six months, much less the past decade since I first saw the film. This is an issue we’ll be coming to terms with for a long time as we begin the slow, generational task of reducing the incidence of women being drummed out of male-dominated industries by sexual harassment from men in supervisory roles. That said, it seems worth acknowledging that “she is so his type,” while perhaps a period-accurate statement for someone to make in 1997, is a little fucked up. As if type has much bearing on it when he’s the President of the United States.

Later, Will and April are back in a diner, and they discuss the nature of finding “the One”. April says it’s not a matter of who, but when – you reach a point where you’re ready to settle down, and whoever you’re with then becomes The One. More on this at the end. But first, Will dopily inquires if there’s ever been a guy that made her think, “This is it, this is him.” Isla Fisher kills this moment, because standard rom-com misfortune dictates that she has had this exact thought about Will, but April reveals just enough of this for the audience, but not enough for dunderhead Will. Then she reveals that she’s seeing someone (a dude named Kevin), and Will gets drunk. He’s disappointed with his life, Clinton’s linguistic dickery over the word ‘is’, and obviously the April situation. He checks his answering machine (kids, this was like a Google Home that only worked offline), and finds messages from April about his upcoming birthday, a surprise call from Emily (who is in New York), and April again. He wraps himself in a blue blanket of sadness, and April shows up at his door. This is the second time she has come looking for him when he’s being a sad sack and avoiding a party. This happened to me once in my early 20s, and I also failed to pick up on its meaning at the time. Will fails similarly, falling on his face off-screen as April marvels inconsequentially as his disheveled apartment, and- WHOA. Aggressive smash cut to them arriving at the party, and it really feels like there was supposed to be more dialogue here. I guess the movie was running long.

Here we see most of the minor characters from earlier in the movie. They chat about Bill Clinton, whom Will has genuinely lost faith in, and thinks maybe should be impeached. Will leaves the party, gets drunk (again), and wanders to April’s doorstep, where she finds him and cheekily berates him for missing his cake, which she baked (*sigh*). And hang on, folks, because this scene is quite a ride. He quotes Nirvana. She takes an intimate swig of his beer without asking. He calls her beautiful and she thanks him. He drunkenly confesses that he likes her, then soberly confesses that he’s in love with her. He then projects some insecurity onto her, and she says he’s an idiot. He kisses her, and she pulls away and demands to know why he didn’t tell her sooner, instead of like this, when his “shit is a mess”. And he apparently took the ‘mess’ thing personally because he gets personal, and nasty. Nastier than their friendship can withstand. He insults her life and her career and her choices, and then twists the knife by saying he’s just saying this as a friend. She slaps him and goes inside. Reynolds made his bones playing the loveable asshole, but I’ve seen him play truly unlikeable only a handful of times. It works for the villain at a nostalgic theme park, but not the hero of a romantic drama.

Will wanders past a bookstore and finds the lost copy of Jane Eyre that both he and April were looking for, with the inscription from her father inside. Finding a specific lost copy of a book is a ridiculous plot device, but we’re moving at lightning speed now, and this is the only artifact that can save this relationship. He arrives at April’s apartment to deliver it. April’s roommate answers the door, and she is visibly amused by the torrent of sad sack apology messages he has apparently been leaving on the answering machine, because restraining orders don’t exist in Comedy World. She lets him into their gargantuan apartment, where he finds April’s boyfriend Kevin, who is Model-Hot, and who mentions he lives with her. This means Kevin should also be aware of the apology messages, so he’s either the most chill dude in the world, or he just sees Will as that non-threatening. Will leaves. Oh, and April’s in grad school now, so his abusive rant apparently stoked her ambition. More on this later.

Next up, he’s at a sidewalk café, a waitress brings him a gigantic glass of wine, and asks, “Do you know what you want yet?” “No, ” he responds, with a dumb double meaning. Summer wanders up, and is pregnant. Baby-daddy’s out of the picture, and she invites him to a party to make amends, and – whoa whoa whoa. Back in the present, Maya is now completely freaked out and demands to know if Will is really her father, and I have to say, the movie is being downright sadistic now. He is her father, and he’s a terrible one at that. He says this story has a happy ending, and she demands to know how that could possibly be, when whoever her mother is, they’re getting divorced. He offers to stop, then goes to get her a cup of tea before they continue. She falls asleep. Poor kid. The next morning, they get a bagel and continue the story. Will arrives at Summer’s party, and gives her flowers. She makes niceties, we learn that Professor Roth died alone in his office, and he…accuses her of planning to seduce him. Seriously, this rom-com narcissism is getting tedious. It’s like Will has read the script and knows these women are required to be into him (à la Black Mirror‘s “USS Callister”). She shrugs that off and asks if they can be friends, he agrees, and she leads him across the room to meet an old friend…his ex-girlfriend Emily, who lives in New York now. The two share some easy banter over whether he intended to call her, and he puts her number directly into his Motorola StarTac (I had one of those!) because he actually means to call her back this time. Later, Emily and Will wander in the park, and she makes overtures about continuing the relationship, and reaches up and strokes the side of his head, and BAM – Maya figured it out. Emily (real name: Sarah) is her mother, because she does that head-stroking thing to her too. Do I even need to point out that it would seem a bit odd for Will to include this particular visual detail in a story told verbally? No? Okay, let’s move on.

Sarah (who is Emily, remember) walks up, and they all share a stoic trip to the zoo. They stand in front of the penguins, and Maya teaches them all about lifelong penguin monogamy. It’s sad. We don’t know why these two are splitting up any more than we know why they got back together, so it’s hard to invest much in this scene apart from the grim knowledge that there must be a good reason. Maya leaves with her mother, then runs back to thank her dad for telling her the story. Will says he forgot to tell her the happy ending. He looks his daughter in the eye: “You.” They embrace. It’s a sweet and completely unearned moment. Bless her, Abigail Breslin adds almost nothing to this film. This girl was Little Miss Sunshine, and here she is relegated to a sympathetic sounding board for a midlife crisis. Then Bill Clinton (impersonator Dale Leigh) jogs by with a Secret Service detail, and Will shouts a greeting. Clinton waves, and…Will has closure, I guess? About something?

Will goes back to his office, signs the divorce papers, and finds the copy of Jane Eyre that he located for April, now many years earlier. And it’s happy ending time. He finds April at the offices of Amnesty International, in an unspecified do-gooder dream job. And here’s something I definitely didn’t realize in 2008: the movie is pretty clearly telling us that the torrent of drunken abuse that Will threw at April earlier was instrumental in helping her go back to school and get her life back on track, and this feels deeply unsettling in retrospect. All that we saw of April earlier was that she was confident, capable, gainfully employed, had saved enough money to go traveling (and then did so), and was in multiple relationships that we have no particular reason to believe were unhealthy. Will’s criticism of her in that scene is all the more baffling because it comes out of nowhere, and if the movie intended for him to be wrong or misguided, it does a terrible job of showing it. April laughs at him on arrival (in a “happy to see you” sorta way). They trade details: No one’s dating anyone, no one’s currently smoking, he just got divorced (which she somehow heard already), and the two are maybe finally ready to be together? He gives her the book. She cries and thanks him. He completely unnecessarily tells her that he’s had it for years, and apologizes. She tells him to leave. Come on, movie. Coffee is for closers.

Back home, Maya berates him, and reveals that Summer’s real name is Natasha (“who writes for that magazine”), and asks why he didn’t change April’s name in the story. She tells him he’s not happy. He tells her to get her coat. They head for Brooklyn. This is incredibly inappropriate, and I guess it’s really happening… They buzz April’s apartment, she demands to know who the kid is speaking in the background. He tells her. “That’s kinda cheating, isn’t it? Bringing your daughter?” Yes, April, yes it is. They decide to count to thirty and leave if April doesn’t come down. As April listens to this on the intercom, Maya tells Will he should tell April the story, and “Then she’ll know!”. They reach 30 and start to walk away, and April bounds out the front door, surprising no one, to ask, “What story?” He says he kept the book because it was the only thing he had left of her, and he couldn’t let her go completely. They embrace. Then they go inside for some awkward storytime, but not before the two grownups pop back out to the front step for a huge smooch. Annnnd we’re out. Good luck folks.

At the risk of vaguely spoiling How I Met Your Mother, the series did all of the same things as this movie, and it certainly had its share of redundancy and meandering subplots. It tried to have its ending both ways in a similar manner, giving the main character a happy (but ultimately doomed) romance with one character, only to pair him with another at the end. But what was it all for? Well, in How I Met Your Mother, the explicit message (as narrated by Bob Saget) was that love is hard, but it’s worth it, because it’s the best thing we do. The only thing close to a coherent message I can extract from Definitely, Maybe is April’s speech about finding The One – that at a certain point, everyone just decides they’re ready, at which point they love The One they’re with. It’s a glib message, but it’s one that’s supported by the complete lack of foundation for Will’s romance –
and re-romance – with Emily/Sarah. All we ever saw of this relationship was failure. I don’t know why these two were ever together, apart from the convenience of college geography, and I have no idea why they got back together, apart from quarter-life desperation. But at least they got a nice kid out of it?

FilmWonk rating: 4 out of 10

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Ben Affleck’s “Gone Baby Gone” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Poster for

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. Further, it contains candid discussion of kidnapping, child abuse, and sexual assault as it pertains to the film’s subject matter. 

I always believed it was the things you don’t choose that makes you who you are. Your city, your neighborhood, your family. People here take pride in these things, like it was something they’d accomplished. The bodies around their souls, the cities wrapped around those. I lived on this block my whole life; most of these people have. When your job is to find people who are missing, it helps to know where they started. I find the people who started in the cracks and then fell through. This city can be hard. When I was young, I asked my priest how you could get to heaven and still protect yourself from all the evil in the world. He told me what God said to His children. “You are sheep among wolves. Be wise as serpents, yet innocent as doves.”

Opening voice-over is hit-or-miss with me, but this is the second 10YA film and review that I’ve began with that clause, so it’s as solid a framing device as any. Or at least better than what I feel obliged to start with, in light of the past few weeks. Gone Baby Gone is a film that I remember fondly. It’s a compelling detective story with a provocative ending, it launched the surprisingly laudable directing career of Ben Affleck, and it helped to launch the lead-acting career of his younger brother Casey (which includes one of my favorite films of this year). It continued a long collaboration between the elder Affleck and Miramax, the production company co-founded by the ignominious [alleged] sexual predator Harvey Weinstein and his brother Bob (who had already departed for The Weinstein Company by 2005, and had no involvement with this film). Meanwhile, Casey Affleck was sued in 2010 for alleged abuses of his female co-workers on and off set (the suits were settled under terms of confidentiality), Weinstein has been revealed to be a rapacious creature on par with Bill Cosby or Donald Trump, and a litany of actors and producers (including Ben Affleck) have lined up left and right to excoriate Weinstein out of one side of their mouth, and grouse unconvincingly that they didn’t know a thing about it out of the other.

These 10YA retrospective reviews are meant to showcase how my thinking on a film has changed since I first saw it a decade ago, and one belief has certainly not changed: Art must stand on its own. It’s the inanimate product of a thousand decisions by a thousand people. While I still occasionally nod to my auteurist leanings by referring to a film as the possession of its director (as I’ve done in the headline above), I recognize that it neither exists in a cultural void, nor is the product of a single voice. I can’t judge art retroactively by the artists that created it, no matter what happens afterward – although it’s a fine argument for expanding the pool of artists. That said, all of this sucks. My awakening to the hardships of sexism, discrimination, harassment, and assault that women are categorically more likely to face is older than the past few weeks, but its latest hashtag iteration (#MeToo) is a grim reminder. I still believe that art must stand on its own, but it is equally true that art can have a cruel human cost that taints it in retrospect. And I’d be lying if I said that this feeling of disappointment wasn’t on my mind while re-watching this film. I’ve been writing about film for over a decade, and right now, Hollywood and its margins give me an icky feeling, just as surely as the casual outspoken racism, sexism, and homophobia of older films. Society will move on, and some of these people – who either did wrong, or knew about it – will have their misdeeds ignored, or experience tepid, PR-friendly redemption narratives, or win Oscars (some already have). And we’ll be judged by history accordingly. Now on with the film.

The missing little girl is Amanda McCready (Madeline O’Brien), and she’s understandably not present for much of the film. She is stolen from her bedroom in a dank apartment ill-maintained by her mother Helene (Amy Ryan), and as we begin the film, her disappearance is a known quantity, and Lionel and Bea (Titus Welliver and Amy Madigan), Helene’s brother and sister-in-law, are in the market for a pair of detectives to supplement the police investigation. There’s no love lost in this family – Helene openly mocks Bea for her infertility, and Bea refers to her as an abomination. “Helene has emotional problems,” says Lionel. “It’s not that, Lionel… She’s a cunt,” says Bea. Ryan is simply marvelous as Helene, flitting between disinterested party girl, casual Boston racist, and broken, prideful parent with incredible ease. Her television career runs the gamut from The Wire to The Office, and all of her range is on display here. Helene is…not a charmer. And her unreliability and unfitness as a mother is essential to the film’s ending.

The detective couple is Patrick Kenzie (Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan). If I might rave about Monaghan for a moment, this is an actress who spent much of the 2000s in do-nothing love-interest roles, and is frankly a talented enough performer to deserve better. This film, along with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, is one of the few opportunities she’s had to do something interesting on-screen. Angie and Patrick have several private chats about how to proceed over the course of the film, and her reluctance to take on the case is key. She’s a skilled detective who doesn’t want to take on a missing kid – not because she’s afraid they won’t find her, but because she’s afraid they will – either dead in a ditch, sexually abused, or both. As police captain Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) – whose backstory includes a murdered child of his own – puts it, “I don’t care who does it. I just want it done.” In light of the film’s ending, it’s hard to make sense of these initial reactions as each character joins the investigation, but the film does thoroughly sell the notion that anyone who willingly investigates a kidnapping is performing an important duty, but also welcoming abject horror into their life.

Patrick and Angie head for a local haunt and interrogate some barflies, who quickly reveal that Helene was not across the street for a quick sandwich when her daughter was taken, but rather pounding rails of coke and getting busy with her boyfriend Skinny Ray in the bathroom. This is where we first learn of a violent Haitian drug lord named “Cheese” Jean-Baptiste (Edi Gathegi), for whom Helene is occasionally employed as a drug mule. Then it gets nasty, words are exchanged, all of the barflies get aggressive and start threatening the pair with violence and sexual violence respectively. Patrick pulls a gun, and they leave to meet their fellow investigators assigned by Captain Doyle: Sgt. Detective Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) and Detective Nick Poole (John Ashton), who introduce a possible suspect, convicted pedophile Corwin Earle (Matthew Maher), who’s known to hang out with a couple of cokeheads. Not much to go on – and Remy and Patrick have great fun throwing barbs at each other. “You got something to contribute, be my guest,” says Remy, “Otherwise, you can go back to your Harry Potter book.” At which point Patrick gives up the goods on Cheese, and they go to interrogate Helene (after briefly pausing to hand off the pedophile info to a shady acquaintance, played by Boston MC Slaine). 

This is all an odd sort of mash-up between a police and private investigation (which seems to be author Dennis Lehane‘s specialty). Helene is confessing to multiple felonies in the course of this, and Remy vacillates between mocking her obvious half-truths (“No. It don’t ‘sound familiar’, Helene. He’s a violent, sociopathic, Haitian criminal named ‘Cheese’. Either you know him or you don’t.”), and demanding whether she even gives a fuck about her kid. This is all terribly convincing, perhaps because both Remy and Lionel already know where Amanda is at this point, and their disapproval of Helene’s lifestyle is the one sincere detail of the scene. Regardless, it plays brilliantly. Helene confesses that she and Skinny Ray conspired to steal drug money from Cheese (under cover of the police busting their contact and seizing the drugs), which makes all of the investigators in the room presume aloud that Cheese kidnapped Amanda for ransom. They all drive over to have a chat with Skinny Ray.

Helene rides with Patrick and Angie, and they bond over some casual “faggot” talk about a mutual high school acquaintance. This is how blue-collar Boston talks. Got it. Helene is still not taking this particularly seriously, but she does lay out her self-inflicted dilemma: She couldn’t just call Cheese and confess to ripping him off, and she couldn’t just tell the cops that she ran drugs. Amanda disappeared, and she had no recourse but to report the disappearance and hope for the best. She also reveals that she hid the money. From everyone, including poor Skinny Ray, whom they find tortured and shot to death. And this is when Helene finally loses her shit. As soon as she sees Ray, it suddenly becomes real for her. She knows Cheese must’ve taken Amanda. She knows it’s her fault. She remembers that when she left Amanda alone at bedtime, the last thing the child said was that she was hungry. Helene wonders whether they fed her – begs Patrick to tell her that her daughter isn’t still hungry. I was prepared here – this is the part of the film that I expected to bother me more, as one of the things I’ve done in the past decade is have a child of my own. And it’s fair to say, I did find these scenes (and the whole concept of a kidnapped child) a bit more upsetting than I did the first time. But…not as much as I expected to. Perhaps because this time through, I knew Amanda wasn’t in any real peril, and perhaps because she’s little more than an offscreen MacGuffin for most of the film. Helene’s emotions are real (and Ryan renders them brilliantly), but she’s such a selfish and unfit parent whose feelings are so fleeting that I had a hard time internalizing them. Sure, she wants her kid to be fed, warm, and safe – and these are feelings I can relate to. But she didn’t bother to feel them until a half-day past the coke wearing off, and I assume another quick bump will sort that out. The team digs up the money (which was buried in the backyard, 20 feet from where Ray was being tortured – poor bastard), and makes a gameplan. Remy and Nick acknowledge that if this is a kidnap for ransom, they have to bring in the FBI. Patrick and Angie volunteer that they can do what the cops cannot: negotiate with Cheese for a clean swap – the money for Amanda (no one seems overly concerned with avenging Skinny Ray). So off they go.

Gathegi plays a marvelous cartoon gangster in this scene. This is an actor I’ve seen pop up all over TV and the occasional film over the past decade, and he’s always a pleasure. He plays up the Cheese shtick for a bit, declaring that, “Bitches love the cheddar.” I turn to my wife and ask, “Do bitches love the cheddar?” She considers a moment, and says, “Yes.” Good. That’s why I always keep a loaf of Lucerne Sharp in the fridge – as true a decade ago as now. Meanwhile, back on the screen, Cheese is not happy. If we believe the Haitian, not only did he have no idea he’d been robbed, he doesn’t know anything about a kidnapped girl, and is offended by the suggestion that he’d ever mess with a child. He pulls a gun, demands that Patrick lift his shirt to reveal any wires, demands the same of Angie a bit more aggressively, says the title of the movie aloud, and insists that he’s not involved. Patrick stares him down and issues an extremely elaborate threat to ruin Cheese’s life and business if he’s lying. Cheese points the gun in his face and offers to get “discourteous” if they should ever return. Patrick doesn’t blink. Man this scene is great.

The cops don’t buy it, and start surveillance on Cheese, who promptly calls into the police station offering to make the trade – Amanda for the money. Captain Doyle has a transcript of this call, and is pissssssed that his officers have involved him in an illegal ransom exchange without his knowledge or consent. And he agrees to make the deal anyway – nice and quiet. At this point, Angie is the voice of reason in the room, asking whether keeping the deal quiet is better for Amanda…or better for them. Doyle promptly shuts her down with the my child was murdered card, which is…admittedly a pretty good card. He insists he cares as much about Amanda as anyone in the room, and believes that this is the best way to keep her safe. Freeman…sells this deception well. We don’t learn until later that the whole point of this farce at the quarry is to fake Amanda’s death and throw Patrick and Angie permanently off the trail, but Doyle is speaking the truth when he says he believes this is what’s best for Amanda. And so it plays out. We see a gorgeous flyover of the flooded quarry at sundown. Then cut to darkness. They take their positions on opposite sides, in accordance with Cheese’s “instructions”, and all hell breaks loose. Shots are fired in the distance, and Patrick and Angie run around to the scene to find Cheese dead on the ground. There’s a splash – someone or something went into the water. All of the dudes stand around dumbfounded, and Angie jumps the fuck off the cliff into the water to rescue the girl. It’s downplayed, but this is an awesome and quite dangerous piece of heroics. Angie is the one who didn’t want to find a dead child, and she’s the first to leap for that possibility – good on her. But it’s all for nothing. We cut to Angie in a hospital bed, where Patrick tells her that divers are searching the quarry. Nothing is found – Amanda is presumed dead, and Angie blames herself. Captain Doyle takes official responsibility, loses half his pension, and retires. Helene gets a death certificate and a donated casket, and life goes on. I honestly can’t recall how I felt watching this a decade ago. I asked my wife afterward how she felt at this point, and it all seemed familiar: Hopeless. Aimless. Disappointed. Unsure how there could still be 40 minutes left in the film.

Two months pass, and a boy has gone missing. I’m going to TL;DW this sequence: Patrick’s contact tells him he’s located the pedophile from earlier, Corwin Earle. Remy and Nick show up for backup, an extremely well-staged shoot-out ensues, and Patrick enters Earle’s upstairs room to find him whining on the floor that “it was an accident”. A series of horrific montage shots: the missing boy is dead in the bathtub, Patrick vomits, Earle begs for his life, and Patrick executes him on the spot with a shot to the back of the head. I don’t want to write any more about this, because frankly, this is the part that disturbed me more as a parent. I’m with Angie on this. I know that a dead child is a necessary plot element in this film. I know that murdered children exist in real life. But I don’t want to see it. I don’t want my lizard brain to become terrified of every stranger and dark alley, when the people I know, and who have a pre-existing relationship with my kid, are statistically more likely to kidnap or harm him – and the overall risk of such an event is extremely low compared to more mundane harms. I know that. But I also know that I don’t want to ponder that scenario, because I’ll want to lock my child indoors and hold him in my arms and never let him go. As I recall my reaction from a decade ago, I was as baffled and disturbed by this sequence as my wife was this time. She said afterward that she was wondering what the point of all this would be – just an extended Law & Order: SVU episode? And then, finally, it all comes together.

In the next scene, Remy – whose partner Nick was fatally shot – drunkenly comforts Patrick about the summary execution. I haven’t said much about Ed Harris, but he also gives a fine performance in this film. In the fundamental conflict at play in this film, he represents the side of vigilantism, and he argues his case well. Many years earlier, he and his soon-to-be-dead partner received a snitch tip from Skinny Ray about a minor criminal, and they raided his house. And in that house, they found a disgusting hovel with pair of strung-out criminals, but no drugs – and an abused, neglected child in an immaculate bedroom who just wants to tell Remy all about how he’s learned his multiplication tables.

“You’re worried what’s Catholic? Kids forgive. Kids don’t judge. Kids turn the other cheek. And what do they get for it? So I went back out there, I put an ounce of heroin on the living room floor, and I sent the father on a ride. Seven-to-nine.”
“That was the right thing?”
“FUCKIN’ A. You’ve gotta take a side. You molest a child, you beat a child, you’re not on my side. If you see me coming, you’d better run, because I’m gonna lay you the fuck down! … Easy.”
“It don’t feel easy.”

This exchange, right here, is what this film is all about. It’s imperfect, grandiose, and both of these men have violated the principles that they claim to believe in. It describes the War on Drugs in myopic, moralistic, clash-of-civilizations style terms, and I’ll be honest – a decade ago, despite leaning college-libertarian at the time, I probably would’ve taken this at face value. Jack Bauer spent a decade popularizing torture in the War on Terror. These guys – along with every cop flick since the 1980s – justified vigilantism in the name of a war on a convenient other – “drug-people”, who aren’t like us regular, law-abiding citizens. It’s only the reluctance, and the moral complexity of the film’s ending, that makes this a better treatment of this issue than most. Because we know now what comes of fighting a war the way that Remy describes. More war. Mass imprisonment. An ouroboros of societal decay. And at the same time – you ask me what I’d like to do with someone who harms a child (which the film is keen to associate with the war on drugs, not entirely unfairly), my lizard brain says the same thing as Remy: Lay him the fuck out. It’s not a rule to run a functional civilization with, but it’s sure as hell satisfying. But more importantly, it causes Patrick to realize that Remy has been lying to him – he pretended not to know Skinny Ray during the investigation, but the dead man had been snitching to him for a decade.

This isn’t the last great scene in the film – there’s a tense moment back at the Fillmore bar, where Patrick confronts Lionel about his involvement with Amanda’s disappearance, Remy shows up in a mask to stop Lionel from telling him the truth under cover of a fake armed robbery (and the movie makes almost no effort to hide his identity from us), leading to a shootout and chase in which Remy dies on a rooftop proclaiming that he loves children. The exposition of this conspiracy (between Lionel, Remy, Nick, and Captain Doyle – without the knowledge of Bea, who hired the two detectives) feels a bit rushed, but is probably one of the tightest and most coherent reveals this side of Gone GirlIt’s a great sequence, but as I often say of falling action, I don’t have much more to say about it. At this point, I was just waiting for the consequences. Patrick and Angie wind their way down a wooded lane and arrive at the home of the retired Captain Doyle, only to find Amanda McCready, alive and well, where she has been the whole time.

And Patrick faces another choice between law and vigilantism. Does he do his duty, telling his client that he’s found her missing niece, and send Captain Doyle and the surviving conspirators to prison? Or does he leave her there? Angie’s answer is clear – leave that child where she is, in that safe, affluent house where a nice couple makes her sandwiches. I do wish the conversation between Patrick and Angie had been a bit longer – all that we gleaned of Angie’s point of view was that she was so glad to see Amanda alive that she was willing to do anything to see her safe. She warns Patrick that she’ll hate him, he does the stoic detective thing and calls the cops, Angie leaves him, and that’s that. All the conspirators go to prison, and we cut to Patrick visiting Amanda and Helene on any given Friday, with Helene about to go out for the evening. And Patrick realizes that Helene is still a terrible mother, and by making this choice, he has essentially volunteered to be Amanda’s babysitter until adulthood. This is a fine ending – it seems to be a marginally less disturbing version of a village raising a child than the conspiracy of Amanda’s relatives and the police to steal her away. Kids forgive. Kids turn the other cheek. But they still need meals and blankets and hugs and rides to school, and once a grownup – any grownup – has decided to take on that responsibility, they have a duty to keep it up for as long as the kid needs them.

But let’s talk some more about that moral choice. When Patrick arrives at Doyle’s house, he has to decide whether to continue – and become an accomplice to – Amanda’s abduction. While this dilemma prodded my incredulity a bit, I was willing to accept it on its own narrative terms, because it’s fundamentally the same question about vigilantism that he and Remy had discussed regarding the shooting of a criminal or planting of evidence. It’s about going outside the law to pursue your own definition of justice. The state holds a monopoly on deprivation of civil liberties for a reason (whether we’re talking about executions or forced forfeiture of children), and while our system of social services is an imperfect, underfunded mess that’s rife with abuses and due process violations of its own, it’s hard to imagine a situation where carrying out a life-long extrajudicial disappearance ends well. Not even a state could do this – I mean, it’s literally a crime against humanity for a reason. Amanda may well need to be taken away from her mother – at least one of the anecdotes was of Helene leaving her in a hot car and nearly killing her. But denying a mother closure on her child’s fate is a cruel and unusual punishment. That’s not my opinion – it’s legal fact, even as applied to a mother as execrable as Helene. For a film that strove for some ambitious moral complexity, I’m inclined to think that making Amanda a 5-year-old was a misstep. This is a girl that’s old enough to remember her former life. When we see her at Doyle’s, she seems to be treated well – but when you really think about what she’d have to look forward to in this scenario, she would be a phantom, hiding her true name and face in public, and only living half a life.

This ending forcibly called to mind the story of Elizabeth Smart, who was abducted as a teenager in 2002, forcibly “married” to a religious extremist (who horrifically abused and raped her over the course of nine months), until she was found on a public street with him and an accomplice. I don’t imagine that Doyle and his wife would dream of hurting Amanda – but I have to believe that the mere act of plucking her away from reality is still an act of abuse. Morgan Freeman was 70 years old when this film was made. Did Doyle expect to hide this girl from the world until his mid-80s, when she presumably found her true identity on Google or while applying for student loans? How would she even go to school? Have friends? What would she say to any of them about her upbringing? How long could this charade really last without some serious brainwashing of Amanda to keep it all nice and quiet? A “happy” ending for this story seemed implausible to me even in 2007, which is perhaps why the film doesn’t dwell on it – in 2017, when mass surveillance is a known quantity, and even children’s toys are spying on them, it’s hard to imagine a film even attempting that version. The audience simply wouldn’t accept it. Unless Doyle means the child harm, he simply couldn’t keep her a secret forever. If I were in Patrick’s place, I think I’d have a hard time living with either outcome, especially if Helene continues her reliable track record of being a terrible mother – but at least in this version, he can stop by every once in a while, call Amanda by her real name, and let her know that someone cares about her. And perhaps that’s enough.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine” (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.

Our sun is dying. Mankind faces extinction. Seven years ago, the Icarus project sent a mission to restart the sun, but that mission was lost before it reached the star. Sixteen months ago, I, Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy), and a crew of seven, left Earth frozen in a solar winter.
Our payload: a stellar bomb with a mass equivalent to Manhattan Island.
Our purpose: to create a star within a star.
Eight astronauts strapped to the back of a bomb. My bomb.
Welcome to the Icarus II.

Opening voice-over is hit-or-miss with me, as are on-the-nose ship metaphors. Naming your solar rescue mission Icarus seems problematic, especially for a second attempt. I suppose we could’ve revived Apollo (a literal sun-god) for this, but the first Apollo mission…erm…died in a fire, so I guess there’d be trouble either way. In any case, it seems branding wasn’t a major priority – we don’t actually see much of Earth in this “solar winter”, but the planet seems to have unified, at least to the point of mining and transporting all of Earth’s fissile material (including, presumably, all of the nuclear weapons), so assuming Dr. Capa (Cillian Murphy)’s second attempt to save the dying sun manages to succeed, Earth might be a bit more peaceful than before. Or at least return to conventional warfare.

I first saw Sunshine in theaters on a friend’s recommendation. She assured me it was “two thirds character-based indie sci-fi, one third aggressive slasher flick”. This is largely accurate on its face – in fact, the movie has a handful of plot beats in common with Event Horizon, the Doctor Who episode “42”, and even Aliens if I’m playing a bit loose with it. “The first group went missing so now you have to complete their mission and grapple with the [unknown] problem they failed to solve” is a solid adventure trope, and imbuing it with world-ending stakes and psychological torment definitely sets this film up for success – that, plus its powerhouse cast. Besides Murphy, the crew includes Rose Byrne, Hiroyuki Sanada, Michelle Yeoh, Chris Evans, Cliff Curtis, and Benedict Wong. Most of them have gone on to bigger and better genre projects, and they really do have a chance to shine here. And of course there’s Mark Strong, who generally gets a more comprehensible voice than this, but has made a career of playing equally creepy villains. The key takeaway here is that I went into this film knowing that it would eventually turn horrific, and that tension may have compromised my objectivity when it came to evaluating the movie’s world-ending stakes. Nonetheless, Capa’s opening voice-over spells it out concisely enough – this is Earth’s last, best shot, and if it fails, the species is done – and this cast (Evans and Curtis in particular) does a stellar job of letting those stakes inform their every action and character beat, even as the slasher elements gradually appear.

The screenplay, written by Alex Garland (Never Let Me Go, Ex Machina), begins at just the right moment, right when Icarus II is about to enter the “dead zone” – an area in which the sun’s electromagnetic field is so powerful that they will be unable to send transmissions back to Earth. So they get one final round of messages home, and then it’s radio silence for two years. I don’t know if this dead zone is based in fact, but the movie does get one other detail right that I didn’t know when I first saw the film – flying into the sun from the Earth is really hard – actually harder than leaving the Solar System! That’s to say, if you point a rocket directly at the sun and fire it off, you’ll just keep missing it, because the rocket begins by orbiting the sun at the same relative velocity as the Earth (30km/sec). So you need to fly very, very fast in the opposite direction along the orbital plane (or do something much cooler and more difficult to slow yourself down) before you’ll be able to fly toward the sun in any meaningful way. MinutePhysics on YouTube tells the tale better, so I’d encourage you to check them out. But the key takeaway is that this rocket had to expend a massive quantity of fuel to make it to the sun, and we briefly see a photo of the crew which confirms that it nailed this (record-fast) velocity at some point. What’s my point in bringing this up? This movie is not a scientific documentary (its scientific advisor is quite explicit on this point, and is happy to hand-wave things like artificial gravity), but it at least seems interested in science, and that was something I very much appreciated while watching it. Like Moon and Interstellar after it, this movie gets enough details right for me to believe that it respects the audience’s intelligence, and doesn’t toss away science for mindless peril like so many others.

Back to the imminent comms blackout – Capa and Mace (Evans) have a bit of a brawl. I like this moment, not because I think a fistfight on a spaceship is particularly professional, but because this is over a legitimately unsolvable issue. Capa took a bit too long to send his message, and now Mace won’t be able to talk to his family for two more years (or perhaps ever again). It’s more than just an accident – it’s a wound, and it won’t heal. There will be more of these. These astronauts, collectively, are the most distant humans in history from the rest of humanity, and this moment exemplifies that loneliness. The ship’s pilot, Cassie (Byrne), is not having it, and promptly calls the entire crew in to deal with the “excess of manliness breaking out in the Comm center”. Before too long, Mace is baring his soul with the ship’s doctor and shrink, Searle (Curtis), then basking on the holodeck grinning into a simulation of crashing waves on a boardwalk. We’re just now starting to understand the full psychological effect of long-term close quarters space travel and isolation, and virtual reality has been proposed as a means of mitigating its effects. 2007 was the year of the first iPhone, and portable computing power is finally starting to reach the point where VR could make a serious comeback. And by allowing the astronauts to feel like they’re outside of a confined space, perhaps their minds will forget their cramped quarters and intractable quarrels for a while.

And then the trouble really starts. Harvey (Troy Garity), the ship’s comms officer and XO, informs the crew that they’ve received a transmission from Icarus I. Apparently the previous ship survived, and is floating in orbit of the sun like Russell’s teapot, cloaked in the dead zone, just waiting for a ship to get close enough to hear their distress call. Trey (Wong) says – pending some very complicated math – that they could adjust their course and intercept with Icarus I. Mace, the consummate rationalist, immediately shuts down the idea. This is one of my favorite scenes in the movie. Mace is, of course, correct – they have one bomb, and one chance, to save humanity. So literally nothing else matters – not the other ship, not its crew, and not any of them. Searle chimes in to agree, but with a dangerous caveat: it may be worth it to retrieve the second bomb. Everything about the bomb is theoretical, and even with an ingenious physicist like Capa aboard, they still don’t know, can’t know, if it will work. So they have to decide whether or not the potential benefit of a second bomb is worth the danger of trying to retrieve it. This is a movie. We know the answer they’re going to choose. But I must emphasize, this is the moment where I really believed this was a crew of professionals. Mace may be correct in his assessment of the mission’s objectives and stakes, but it’s not his call. Captain Kaneda (Sanada) says it’s not his call either. There won’t be a vote, like some of them clamor for. The most qualified person will decide on the best course of action. “Shit,” says Capa, realizing who that means. Putting Mace and Capa on opposite sides of this debate, right after they’ve just had an irrational brawl, was an inspired choice, particularly since there is no perfectly correct answer to this question – they just have to make a choice. And so they go.

After a minor miscalculation, the ship is in peril. Two of them have to go outside to repair the heat shield, and the butcher’s bill is heavy. I won’t dwell on this sequence for too long, but suffice to say, it is one of the most tense and thrilling sequences in the entire film, is the first of several appearances of John Murphy‘s outstanding Adagio in D Minor (which would go on to appear in Kick-Ass and innumerable other projects). As the crew deals with the fallout of this minor arithmetic hiccup, they do so in gigantic gold spacesuits on a massive, James Bond-sized setpiece, and the sun’s imminent rise hangs ominously just over the ship’s tiny horizon, with the fate of the ship (and thus, the entire species) at stake. It is awe-inspiring, as is the battle of wills between Cassie, Mace, and the ship’s computer over whether or not to let the captain die for the sake of the mission. These are some smart, tense thrills, and I felt the same way watching this as I did watching Ryan Stone re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere in Gravity – that astronauts are the closest thing we have to superheroes in real life, strapped to a nuclear-powered chariot hurtling through the heavens. Ideally, with the utmost safety and professionalism. But it’s still glorious.

I’m starting to sound a bit like Searle here, who – in addition to semi-religiously hanging out in the ship’s forward observation room and subjecting himself to higher and higher brightness levels recreationally – seems to be starting an internal sun-worshiping cult of sorts. As Kaneda is facing his imminent demise on the prow of the ship’s heatshield, Searle demands to know what he sees. Curtis plays this character with remarkable stability, and this fleeting, creepy moment almost feels like him indulging his hobby. But it’s a moment that comes back to mind as we meet Captain Pinbacker (Strong) later on in the film. Searle is tapped with maintaining the entire crew’s mental health, and he seems to be casually creating his own god. The rest of the crew should probably be a bit more concerned about this. But they have bigger problems at the moment. Not only is the captain dead, but the entire botany bay is destroyed, sapping the ship’s oxygen. They now have no choice but to rendezvous with Icarus I.

Cassie and Capa have a moment in the payload room, which appears to be a massive cube. Cassie thinks they’re going to die. Capa describes how he thinks the bomb will go off, in semi-poetic terms. He’s not scared. She is. I’ll say here, Byrne does an admirable job with Cassie, even though she’s a fairly limited character (and naming your resident doomsayer Cassandra sounds like more of that on-the-nose naming that Garland is so fond of). But the friendship between Cassie and Capa is one of the film’s only reasonably fleshed-out relationships, and it’s probably for the best that they didn’t take it any further into space romance territory. Really not the movie for that.

I’m going to skip ahead a bit on the recap, because the scenes of exploring Icarus I and discovering the fate of its crew (minus Pinbacker) are genuinely tense and well-staged, and lead to another moment of tense pragmatism. The ship’s airlock mysteriously explodes, and they have no means of getting the four of them back to Icarus II. And this is the moment when Harvey, the comms officer, XO, and least mission-critical person on the ship, reveals himself to be a selfish coward, demanding the only spacesuit for himself. Mace has already volunteered Capa for that slot, because he knows the physicist is more important than any of them. Searle finally solves the situation by volunteering to stay behind and die. He doesn’t do this out of suicidal nobility – it’s just that someone has to stay behind and cycle the airlock from inside, and he knows Harvey (the next least important person) can’t be trusted to do the job. So Searle does his duty, waiting in the sun room to literally meet his maker (if we’re being poetic about our parent star), while his three colleagues are blasted out of the airlock: Capa in a spacesuit, the rest in open vacuum, wrapped in shipboard insulation. My only objection to this scene (apart from being the most direct ripoff of Event Horizon) was that it was a bit narratively tidy – the movie still needed Capa and Mace, so they got to live. But it’s not like an exploding airlock has a sense of justice or practicality, and the conventional hero (Mace) surviving rather than the briefly selfish jerk (who floats away and dies horribly) was pure dumb luck – one of the only times the movie indulges in such contrivance.

Mace gives a post-mortem. He concludes that the ship’s airlock could only have been destroyed by sabotage, and the only possible saboteur is Trey, who at last word, was on suicide watch, blaming himself for Kaneda’s death. And there’s more, chimes in Corazon (Yeoh), who was responsible for the now-extinct oxygen garden. If Trey dies, they’re down to four breathers, and they have enough oxygen to make it to the sun and complete their mission. And so…we get the next scene of hyperrationality. These scenes hammer away at my psyche every time I watch the film, and as I watch these scientists coldly calculate the costs and benefits of murdering their colleague, I can’t help but think this alienation of their humanity is one of the film’s most important themes. Save the world, the movie asks? Sure. But it’ll cost you all the best parts of yourself. Mace volunteers to do the deed himself, but insists on a unanimous decision. “Kill him,” says Capa. But Cassie refuses. “You’re saying you need my vote, and I’m saying you can’t have it.” Their own mini-Circle has failed to reach a consensus, and Mace treks off to murder Trey anyway. But he quickly finds that Trey has beaten him to it, with a scalpel from the infirmary. Mace takes a moment to blame Capa for Trey’s death, and literally smear blood onto his hands, and then they have another feckless brawl while the women look on in disgust. And this is where Mace officially got on my nerves. I still like the sum of this character, but he is just as much of an emotional creature as the rest of them, and the film’s insistence on his rationality strains when he continuously engages in petty bickering, especially over the corpse of a man he was about to murder himself. He may be more reliable than someone like Harvey, but he’s not much better in the end. But as much as the character manages to put me off by the end, Evans’ performance is outstanding, and I can see why he was tapped for Snowpiercer after playing this character. His hyperrationality and stoicism were inflated to villainous excess in that film. He may have eventually become the cheery and optimistic Steve Rogers, but between those two films, I’ll never forget what Evans is capable of.

And finally, we have a showdown with Pinbacker, who was responsible for the airlock sabotage and has made it onto Icarus II. It’s a well-done thriller sequence (resulting in two more cool deaths), but I can’t help but wonder at this point what kind of film this might have been without Melanoma Man (props to Daniel for this) as the final twist. Pinbacker represents the worst excesses of mankind’s failure, monologuing about our foolishness in the face of annihilation by God. My final verdict on Pinbacker is that he was good, but not essential. Humanity could be destroyed by an asteroid or a gamma ray burst in the blink of an eye, and the collapse of our sole lifegiving star is on the same level. The Great Filter is terrifying enough without carefully-vetted professional humans bringing irrationality and quasireligious nihilism to the party. Humanity may bring its own demons to bear on its extinction, but it strikes me as unlikely that those demons will be quite so literal. But I may be trying to thread an impossible needle here. My main complaint about Europa Report was that watching competent professionals do their jobs well – even if that job is something that would utterly capture my imagination in real life – is pretty boring. Sunshine gets this balance right, whichever side it lands on.

Once the cinematic terror is sorted, it’s time for the surviving crew to fall into the sun, and that’s when things get a bit magical and weird. Earlier in the film, when Capa and Cassie were discussing the prospect of changing course, Capa explains, “Between the boosters and the gravity of the sun the velocity of the payload will get so great that space and time will become smeared together and everything will distort. Everything will be unquantifiable.” This is as close as we ever get to an explanation for the film’s ending, and you know what? It works. Humanity’s best scientist and smartest computer both can’t say what the subjective experience of falling into the sun strapped to a giant bomb approaching relativistic speeds will be like. Time dilation kicks in, and perhaps there’s room for a conscious being to experience its own annihilation in the elongated space within an instant. Either way, Murphy’s score is playing its heart out, Capa’s voiceover kicks back on, and the film is over. An ever-so-slight brightening of the sun over a snowy Sydney, Australia reveals that the crew succeeded, eight minutes after the crew becomes stardust. This isn’t an ending that belabors itself or grasps for meaning. This tale of salvation is big enough on its own, even after a decade and plenty more to compare it to.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

D.J. Caruso’s “Disturbia” (2007) (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.


Consider yourselves spoiler-warned.

Disturbia is a film that I never thought I’d watch again, yet inexplicably own on DVD. As I recall, I was on a paid internship, had few other expenses or responsibilities, and routinely went to Target and looked for brand new DVDs for films that I hadn’t seen, to purchase at full price (about $22.99 at the time). Silly, silly thing to do – but that’s the sort of weirdo (living with my parents) I was in 2007. I’ll begin this recap by saying, Disturbia is a film which both reminded me intensely of Alfred Hitchcock‘s Rear Window (more on this below), and yet, managed to do a few innovative things with the formula, and genuinely impressed me at the time. Many aspects of the film have aged poorly, however, and the rest of this review will be a scene-by-scene litany of them.

Right off the bat, it is deeply unnerving to see Shia LaBeouf refer to an someone as “Pop”. He and his father (Matt Craven) share some banter while fly fishing, before the shot surges wide and we see their stand-ins hike out of a stunningly gorgeous valley. It’s lovely, and OH FUCK THEY CRASHED AND HIS DAD IS DEAD and my wife just turned and asked why I would ever watch this movie as Shia is selling the hell out of staring into his father’s dead eyes beneath the crushed hulk of a former Volvo. Seriously, whatever other snark I bring to bear on this film, the acting prowess of its leading man-boy (even as he’s delivering some truly atrocious dialogue) is genuinely beyond reproach. This is the guy who played Mutt Williams the very next year, and I honestly can’t get enough of him. Title card. It goes without saying that in the next scene, Shia will be wearing a hoodie and doing poorly in school. He gets into a serious altercation with his teacher, and ends up in front of a juvenile court judge, who sentences him to an electronic ankle bracelet for 3 months. Also, if I heard correctly, Shia’s on-screen name might actually be Kale? No, that can’t be right.

The top of the next scene is a commercial for Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter on the then-new Xbox 360 – an Ubisoft game whose single-player campaign, as I recall, begins with the main character in a helicopter receiving a briefing before – in a shocking and unprecedented twist – the helicopter is shot down, but the main character survives and is forced to shoot his way out of an unexpected firefight. The game doesn’t last long, as his mother Julie (Carrie-Anne Moss) has apparently cut his Xbox Live and iTunes subscriptions to finance his incarceration. I should mention, I’m actually rather impressed that the film included the backward real-world detail that a convict under house arrest gets billed (sometimes quite exorbitantly, and by a private company) for their incarceration, precisely when they’re least in a position to be able to earn income to pay for this. This is also true of people out on bail awaiting trial, and people out on parole, and it’s one of the more shameful aspects of our prison system. Ten years ago, I might still have casually made jokes about being sent to a Turkish prison, despite not really understanding the reference. In the same breath, I would also have made jokes about not dropping the soap in an American prison, because rape as a punishment for the largest per-capita incarcerated population in the world was something I still considered funny at the time. I also cringed a bit as the judge tells Shia that he’s cutting him a break (by not sending him to juvie until he’s 21) because his parent died, because this is a break that he’s categorically and statistically more likely to get as a white kid. We only hear about the most egregious cases like Brock Turner or Ethan Couch, but it happens every day in this country – children and adults of color getting harsher sentences for the same crimes compared to their white co-offenders. I don’t joke about American prisons anymore. They’re just not as hilarious as they used to be.

Before too long, Shia (whose character name we finally see in print, and it really is Kale) goes stir crazy and starts building a Twinkie fort. Shia, my dude – I won’t call you Kale, but what did I just say about that single-player campaign, and also do you own any books? Next, in another stunning twist for a mid-2000s teen adventure film, a pretty girl in daisy dukes (Sarah Roemer) moves in next door, and the long shot appears to be framed to ensure two distinct appearances of her posterior and thigh-gap. Her face does not appear in this scene. Shia’s mind is blown as a bag of flaming dog poop is dropped on his doorstep by some neighbor kids, and he seems legitimately confused by the concept. A brief chase ensues, and Shia breaches the monitoring perimeter. He will be in handcuffs at the end of this scene, and only then will the front end of the girl next door be shown. As her family looks on in shock and confusion, she throws Shia an intense stare. She’s SMIZING, my wife remarks. “Smiling with her eyes?” I ask. Yes. This is why we’re together. Indeed, The Girl is throwing the sort of simmering look at Shia that portends the pair’s eventual awkward cinematic lovemaking, but lacks the psychic foresight to watch a similar scene in Lars von Trier‘s Nymphomaniac and instinctively steer clear. If you’re curious what the hell I’m referring to… “3+5 Scene”. YouTube it. Prepare to be intrigued and disturbed. Then go watch the whole thing if you can handle it, because it’s awesome.

Next up, Shia uses a series of pristine lawn implements and fishing line to mark the frontiers of his kingdom. Those tools are going to be rusty as fuck by the end of this movie, and as I recall from my first viewing, this will not be the last time Shia disrespects an expensive piece of metal. Shame. There also appears to be a hedge row three feet past this line, so I’m really not sure what purpose the Line serves. 22 minutes in, we have our first genuine Rear Window moment. After briefly watching The Girl undress, Shia realizes the power of peeping, and aggressively explains it to his buddy Ronnie (Aaron Yoo). “This is reality without the TV,” Shia actually says out loud with his mouth, and makes a few tawdry observations about the soap opera ensuing outside his door. Shia finally meets The Girl, whose name is Ashley, and she comes from The City, and I can already tell by the quality and detail of her dialogue that she will have a great deal to contribute to this narrative. He peeps on her some more later, this time with binoculars, and she seems to know it, since his window is wide open, his lamp is on, and she looks directly at him. “She can’t see you,” says Shia, “it’s too dark.” He’s wrong. There’s also an aggressively specific news report blaring in the background about a missing woman who may have been snatched by a man driving a classic car with dents on the front left fender, but that’s probably not important. He then sees his Murder-Neighbor (David Morse) pulling that exact car with that exact damage into his driveway after unloading a couple of garbage bags, each roughly the size of a human torso. Probably also not important.

The next morning, he peers through the fence and sees Murder-Neighbor (whose name is Robert Turner) murder a garden bunny, and I don’t want to dismiss this scene out of hand, as it’s emblematic of this film’s legitimately clever visual use of their suburban landscape. Rear Window took place facing what was essentially a two-dimensional apartment block – really just a vast cinema screen divided into different scenes playing out en masse, with Jimmy Stewart free to peer between them. In this film, Shia is in a house with a preternaturally awesome view of every house around it, and he not only has to run around his room and house and yard to get a proper view of everything that’s going on. The film is forced to create some elaborate visual setups in order to make all of this work, and I can scarcely imagine how difficult it was to find (or build) a housing complex that fulfilled all of these requirements. For all of the film’s superficial Hitchcockian touches, it still manages to innovate on its own terms. The bunny-murder scene is one such moment, and it turns out the three-foot gap between the monitoring boundary and the hedge row/fence forces Shia to lie on his belly and peer through a tiny gap in a fence in order to both gather information and keep his foot within his kingdom. We see his POV through the camera, and it’s quite a tense scene.

Shia and Ronnie peep on Ashley some more. Her sole outdoor activity seems to be sultry undressing – she even stands next to the pool in a bikini for an awkwardly long time and tests the water, as if expecting it to have changed substantially since she swam in it yesterday. Then she catches them, gets dressed in a matter of seconds, and comes over to confront them. And by confront, I mean hang out with. A brief, murderous exposition dump later, she has joined the Scooby Gang, which dumps out a bag of unspecified stakeout gear (“My uncle is a Type A Sociopath,” explains Ronnie), and they continue their surveillance of Murder-Neighbor. The camera pans past Ashley, who’s twirling a pen and also typing at a computer. She clicks multiple times while scrolling (which is just bad mime), then gets hungry from all the googling, and suggests they order pizza. Ronnie falls asleep holding hands with the pizza, leaving the lovebirds to Connect. Ashley changes Shia’s ringtone to something loud, obnoxious, and vaguely sexual (like all the 2007 kids were doing), and in a manner which I’m sure won’t be important later. She draws little hearts on his ankle bracelet, and he breathes heavily as she explains that her family moved out of the city because of her father’s extramarital dalliances. “City life has its temptations,” Ashley explains, because she’s a badly written noir floozy and not a person. Poor thing. At some point during this scene, Shia says the title of the movie aloud.

Suddenly, some brakes squeal next door, and Murder-Neighbor brings home a badly written floozy of his own. Ashley successfully identifies the woman’s club bracelets (making her first definite contribution to the plot), and they watch him start an awkward sexual encounter and are actually pretty mean about it, before it gets aggressive and creepy later. The next morning, Shia is making a bagel and cream cheese with a red-handled butcher knife. He shuts the fridge, and Murder-Neighbor is standing right behind it. Turns out he ran into Julie at the grocery store, and she seems a bit taken with him, even as neither of them are reacting naturally to Shia’s brandishing of a butcher knife.

“It’s a knife, what’s the difference?”, asks Shia.
“About sixty bucks at Bed Bath,” schmoozes Murder-Neighbor.

I’m going to talk briefly about David Morse in this film, because I actually quite like his acting, but I think the film couldn’t quite make up its mind as to Robert Turner’s motivation or strategy. The character is a serial killer – the Scooby Gang has him pegged correctly on that point. And Morse manages to play up that superficial, predatory charm quite well. But it’s genuinely unclear what the character is trying to accomplish from scene to scene. When Ashley is surveilling him later on at the hardware store, he hops into her car and gives her a talking-to about how much he likes his privacy, and how he’d really appreciate it if they left him alone. And for a man looking to maintain his cover and keep on murdering, the scene works great. But he also hits on her (a twenty-something playing a 17-year-old), which seems like an excellent way to keep them watching him. This will continue to be a problem throughout the rest of the film – the wild inconsistency in Murder-Neighbor’s strategy, skill, and personality. Morse does the best he can with this material (and he’s really quite an effective creep), but it’s a serious flaw in the script, even if I’m totally on his side about the butcher knife.

About an hour into the film is its very worst scene, in which it poorly attempts to continue the love story of Shia and Ashley. Ashley wants to throw a party, which Shia will be unable to attend because of his ankle bracelet. Quel dommage! Shia responds most immaturely, insulting her motives and taste in friends, then saying that she has disappointed him by being the type to conform so fast. This scene made me squirm internally, because I definitely said things that were this selfish, stupid, and condescending to girls I liked at that age. But that’s not what makes this the film’s worst scene – that’s Shia’s continuing surveillance of the party, and his possessive, jealous behavior which includes a merry prank of pointing his stereo speakers out the window and playing some obnoxious music to mess up the party next door. Ashley, rather than calling the police, storms over, and after a brief struggle over his iPod and stereo receiver, Shia tells her to wait a minute and then explains exactly why he Loves Her So Much. What ensues is a litany of thinly justified character observations he’s made by creeping on her with binoculars in her bedroom. You can read the whole damn nonsensical thing here, and it’s honestly one of the worst romantic speeches I’ve ever heard.

“That’s either the creepiest… or the sweetest thing I’ve ever heard,” says the girl. Literally one minute later, the party has ended, several hours have passed, and the newly merged entity known as Shiashley is furiously making out. And, I swear, Shia drops this sultry line between kisses: “Remember last night where we talked about my issues?” Meanwhile, next door, Robert drags a bloody tarp with “dead body” written on the side down some stairs, and this somehow causes the couple to peel apart and surveil him some more. And it is at roughly this point that I lost interest in painstakingly recapping the film, because honestly, it turns into a conventional slasher film from this point onward. With the exception of some poorly rendered Blair Witchery with Ronnie breaking into Murder-Neighbor’s house with a jury-rigged wireless camcorder (a pretty impressive feat of homebrew engineering in 2007), all that’s left of the film at this point is some shadows and musical jumps and hand-to-hand combat, followed by Shia stabbing the neighbor to death with a pair of garden shears to save his mother’s life. The whole sequence compounds the film’s inability to deal with Morse’s character in a consistent fashion. Where’s the urgency? All of the adults are on his side, and Shia’s about to have to go face a judge in the morning. There’s simply no reason for him to suddenly turn violent and attack all of his neighbors at once – particularly Julie, who is coming over to apologize on her son’s behalf. These violent thriller elements are seemingly less motivated by any imminent need for Murder-Neighbor to blow his cover and leave a pile of bodies in his wake, but rather by the film’s sudden need for an unearned climax and resolution. And it gets genuinely comical by the end! All of the basements of their houses are connected somehow (this is very briefly discussed earlier in the film), and the final showdown takes place in actual fucking catacombs. It’s bizarre. And feels tonally out of place with the rest of the film.

When I first watched this film, I was reviewing movies for the website of UW’s Rainy Dawg Radio, which I’m pleased to see still exists. I launched FilmWonk two years later, and I like to think that both my writing style and film standards have evolved since then. My tolerance for contrived romance (and disposable, useless female characters) has decreased, even as my tolerance for contrived action has remained about the same, and I’m still able to laugh about taboo subjects even if I’m a bit more aware of the implications. I’m sure that evolution will continue as I continue into middle age, but the most steady tendency that I’ve noticed in the intervening years is that I’m much less concerned with a film presenting a completely original plot – a rare thing – than I am with how well it puts its own spin on a familiar tale. Disturbia may bear a superficial resemblance to Rear Window, but that’s a premise that I can only imagine has become more relevant in an age of social media and mass surveillance (only the first of which we were aware of in 2007). If Disturbia had executed its character and thriller elements with a more consistent level of quality, I think it would be a much more memorable and relevant film today than it turned out to be. But if someone else wants to take another crack at it after ten more years, I’m in.

FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #5: Adam Green’s “Frozen”

Poster for "Frozen"

First we met the Devil, then we got Buried, and now, in the latest installment of this inadvertent “One-Word, One-Room” marathon, Glenn and Daniel pull on their ski boots and review Frozen, a horror film new on DVD and Blu-ray from writer/director Adam Green, starring Shawn Ashmore, Emma Bell, and Kevin Zegers. (19:59)

[may contain some NSFW language]

FilmWonk rating: 6.5 out of 10

    Show notes:
  • Music for this episode is a little cheeky.
  • Shawn Ashmore, who plays Joe Lynch, also played Bobby “Iceman” Drake in the X-Men films. There’s an awful joke in there somewhere, but it must’ve slipped our minds…
  • Stick around at the end for a blooper!

Listen above, or download: Frozen (right-click, save as)

FilmWonk Podcast: Matthew Vaughn’s “Kick-Ass” – Thank heaven for little girls

Poster for "Kick-Ass".

In this episode of the FilmWonk podcast, Glenn and Daniel review Matthew Vaughn’s “Kick-Ass”, starring Aaron Johnson, Chloe Moretz, Nicolas Cage, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Mark Strong. [may contain some NSFW language]

Part 1 (spoiler-free) – 14:32

Part 2 (with spoilers) – 16:39

FilmWonk (Glenn) rating: 8 out of 10
Daniel’s rating: 5 out of 10

    Show notes:

  • This episode was actually our first, which was recorded prior to our Expendables episode from last week, so I make some introductions and acknowledgments to that effect.
  • The “trusted lieutenant” whose performance I enjoyed was “Big Joe”, played by Michael Rispoli.
  • During the spoilers section, we had a minor recording glitch, and I had to reinsert the section in which we discuss Red Mist. So if the edit sounds a little awkward, sorry about that.
  • I badmouthed Michael Cera a bit… Let’s just say, I hadn’t seen Scott Pilgrim yet.
  • Correction [SPOILER]: During the spoilers section, we discuss a particular character having seen Hit-Girl kill a bunch of mobsters on video. The video in question actually shows Big Daddy killing the mobsters.
  • FilmWonk would like to thank David Chen, Devindra Hardawar, and Adam Quigley from the /Filmcast, the official podcast of slashfilm.com, for the thousands of hours of entertainment and insightful film criticism, and random asides about theater etiquette. Cheers, fellas. You inspire me.

Listen above, or download Part 1, Part 2 (right-click, save as)

Yôjirô Takita’s “Departures” – The ritual of mortality

Poster for "Departures".

Last week, I had a chance to catch up with the 2009 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film, Yôjirô Takita’s Departures. The film stars Masahiro Motoki as Daigo, a Tokyo cellist who finds himself out of a job after his orchestra is disbanded, and is forced to move back to his hometown with his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue). He reluctantly takes a job as an encoffiner, performing a series of delicate ceremonies to prepare a recently deceased body and place it in a coffin before the family. He initially acts as an assistant, gradually learning the trade from his boss, Ikuei (Tsutomu Yamazaki).

The film initially seems to rely on a knowledge of Japanese culture, attitudes, and rituals surrounding death, and it quickly becomes evident that Daigo’s employment, while financially lucrative, is not considered remotely respectable in society. He keeps the job a secret from his wife, and is subject to constant shame by the townspeople. In the first act, the film strangely takes on the air of a quaint little after-school special. As I took stock of this seemingly contrived intolerance from my cynical American perspective, my reaction was pretty dismissive: Wow, those Japanese sure are uptight about death.

If that’s all Departures had been, my [borderline offensive] reaction would have likely remained unchanged, and I may have found the film to be a waste of time. In fact, this film – with its 131-minute runtime, ponderous themes of life and death, and frankly masturbatory poster shot (above) – seems to fit the exact formula for a film that’s likely to be seen by no one. But in spite of my initial reaction, I found myself completely drawn in by it. As the film goes on, it proves itself an adept and thoughtful exploration of the ritual of mortality, driven by some very strong performances.

We see many “prepping the dead” scenes performed in front of the families of the deceased – each one almost plays out like a short film, and the first has several unexpected comedic beats that aptly set up the tone of the film. For a film about death and mortality, Departures turns out to be surprisingly light viewing. And while showing the entirety of each death ritual for several minutes at a time may have dragged out the film, I found it to be a brave and surprisingly effective choice. Joe Hisaishi’s score is particularly striking throughout the film (and in these scenes in particular). There are a number of sequences in which the film cuts back and forth between Daigo prepping a body and playing his cello – even prodding the fourth wall a bit as the score syncs up to accompany him. It’s a shameless and slightly jarring trick, but the illusion never quite breaks, and the film’s none-too-subtle parallels between playing the cello and prepping a dead body are aptly conveyed.

It certainly helps that Takeshi Hamada’s cinematography is absolutely gorgeous. We get the sense that Daigo’s hometown of Sakata is meant to be a bit of a dive, but you wouldn’t know it from the scenery. As Daigo preposterously plays his cello outdoors in the winter cold (a feat that would probably crack it down the middle in real life), I just couldn’t stop marveling at the wondrous backdrops and taking in the rich, flowing orchestral beats.

But as the film went on, I was struck the most by the beauty and dignity of the death rituals, and chastised myself a bit for the “after-school special” vibe with which I cast the film initially. Are the Japanese uptight about death? Certainly. But we all are, even if American culture handles it with slightly different ritualistic trappings. Daigo and Ikuei may not be well-respected, but the film effectively conveys the nobility of their profession.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

Mild spoilers will follow.
I wish I could end my review here, but the fact is, Departures takes a 15-minute detour at the end that I found completely jarring and unnecessary. Much of the film’s conflict stems from Mika’s disapproval of Daigo’s profession, and it’s not much of a spoiler to say that she eventually changes this opinion. While the character transformation is fairly standard, it is Ryoko Hirosue’s performance that made me completely buy it. She starts off as a devoted and loving wife – visibly bothered by their new living situation, but staying supportive. As the film goes on, the character could easily have turned shrewy, but Hirosue keeps her completely sympathetic, and her chemistry with Motoki is impressive. And then, not two minutes after that conflict is entirely and satisfactorily resolved (in front of another needlessly gorgeous outdoor backdrop)…

Someone else dies. And no, it’s not who you think, because this fresh corpse has not been around for any part of the film. We’re treated to a shocking revelation about a secondary character that comes completely out of left field, and the ensuing plotline completely abandons and undermines the well-established surrogate father/son relationship between Daigo and Ikuei (and aided by their masterful performances). The first two hours of this film felt like a complete story, but this denouement sent it completely off the rails. Much like this review, Departures would have been better off ending just a little sooner.