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

Poster for "Dear Evan Hansen"

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

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

Still from "Malignant"

May contain NSFW language.

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

Show notes:

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

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

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

Poster for "The Suicide Squad" (2021 film)

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

Still from "The Green Knight"

May contain NSFW language.

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

Show notes:

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

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

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

Poster for "The Green Knight"

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

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

Still from "The Green Knight"

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

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

Still from "The Green Knight"

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

FilmWonk rating: 9 out of 10

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

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

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

Still from "Mosquita y Mari" (2012)

May contain NSFW language.

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

Show notes:

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

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

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

Poster for "The Forever Purge"

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

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

Still from "The Forever Purge"

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

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

Still from "The Forever Purge"

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

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

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

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

Still from "Look Back in Anger"

May contain NSFW language.

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

Show notes:

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

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

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

Poster for "Spiral: From the Book of Saw"

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

Still from "The Go Between" (1971)

May contain NSFW language.

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

Show notes:

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

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

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

Poster for "Voyagers" (2021 film)

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

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

Still from "Short Term 12"

May contain NSFW language.

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

Show notes:

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

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

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

Poster for "Source Code"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still from "Source Code"

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

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

Still from "Source Code"

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

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

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

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

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

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

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

Still from "The Lincoln Lawyer"

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

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

FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10