This week, Glenn and Daniel check out a pair of thrillers, starting with Blacklight, a Liam Neeson thriller currently only in theaters, which provoked rare agreement that it is one of the worst movies we’ve ever reviewed on the podcast. Then we found a breath of fresh air with Steven Soderbergh‘s Seattle-set (and Seattle-shot) thriller, Kimi, a thoroughly modern take on a Hitchcockian thriller set in the modern, tech-infused, poverty-laden corporate surveillance state in which we live, new on HBO Max.
Finally, speaking of Hitchcock, we concluded with the Strangers on a Train of romantic comedies, in which a thoroughly charming Jenny Slate and Charlie Day play a pair of new acquaintances who each conspire to undo the other’s recent breakup, with the messy and enjoyable I Want You Back, new on Prime Video (51:42).
May contain NSFW language.
FilmWonk rating (Kimi): 8 out of 10 FilmWonk rating (Blacklight): 2 out of 10 FilmWonk rating (I Want You Back): 7.5 out of 10
[02:41] Review: Kimi/Blacklight
[33:18] Review: I Want You Back
Glenn just wrote a 10YA re-evaluation of Liam Neeson in The Grey, a film that improved with age, which made Blacklight even harder to stomach.
Kimi prompted us to look up what happened to the Arkansas first-degree murder case that hinged on evience obtained from an Amazon Echo device – the case was eventually dropped due to what prosecutors declared was insufficient evidence to support a murder charge.
This week, Glenn and Daniel return to the elaborate moral maze of Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi with A Hero (now streaming on Prime Video). They debate what’s right and wrong, and whether moral complexity that feels calculated can still effectively serve a good story. Then they venture into the rich narrative world of novelist Elena Ferrante, as adapted by first-time director Maggie Gyllenhaal, with The Lost Daughter (now streaming on Netflix), for a different sort of moral complexity, examining the role of women who find themselves unsuited for motherhood (01:13:35).
May contain NSFW language.
FilmWonk rating (A Hero): 7.5 out of 10 FilmWonk rating (The Lost Daughter): 6/10 (Daniel), 8/10 (Glenn)
[01:37] Review: A Hero
[17:24] Spoilers: A Hero
[38:05] Review: The Lost Daughter
[52:51] Spoilers: The Lost Daughter
CORRECTION: We misstated a couple of details about A Hero. It was filmed in the Iranian city of Shiraz, not Tehran. And while the film was selected to compete for the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, it actually won the Grand Prix, which is considered the second-most prestigious prize of the festival after the Palme D’Or.
We referred back to a review of a previous festival selection, Glory, a Bulgarian political satire about a character who finds a bag of money on the railroad tracks, which came to mind while watching A Hero. As of this writing, Glory is available for streaming on Tubi.
At Daniel’s request, I also read Armond White‘s awful review of the film (which has an equally awful headline) at National Review, which I will not link here, but you’re welcome to google if you want to welcome that into your life.
This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.
“Once more into the fray. Into the last good fight I’ll ever know. Live and die on this day.”
“I died with my brothers – with a full fucking heart.”
“When your time comes to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song, and die like a hero going home.“
“Theirs is not to reason why, theirs is but to do and die.”
John Ottway (Liam Neeson) is no poet, but his dad was, as well as being a “clichéd Irish motherfucker when he wanted to be. Drinker, brawler, all that stuff”. His cartoon leprechaun of a father really isn’t the problem here, nor is his obviously dead wife, who manages to appear in identical flashbacks six separate times, lying in bed saying “Don’t be afraid” in full hair and makeup while – as is revealed about 20 seconds before the end credits – bloodlessly dying of a terminal disease. Nor is the problem Ottway himself, whose opening monologue awkwardly admits that he is surrounded (at the remote Alaskan oil drilling site that is his workplace) by assholes, ex-cons, fugitives, and drifters. Nor is the problem that he uh…”moves like he imagines the damned do” (whatever that means). Most of the verbal or voiced-over attempts to add depth to these characters read as generic screenwriting stand-ins that probably should have been replaced with something more poetic later on. Ultimately, none of it was replaced – The Grey just kinda kept piling it on. And a decade ago, I scoffed and waited impatiently for the wolf-punching to begin.
People face death for a lot of unnecessary reasons in a society that treats many humans as disposable instruments of empire-building, and some of them are inclined toward poetry in the process. What’s more, a lot of poetry has been written for them, often by people who have no sense of what they’re describing – educated and pampered cultural elites who haven’t faced a shred of real danger, and would wordlessly shit themselves if they ever did (film critic says what?). After five million dead in two years of COVID (and a million more per year from tuberculosis, before and since), I suppose I may just be done scoffing at the dying of the light for a while, or meandering, febrile attempts to make sense of it before the moment comes. Let the damned speak their piece. Not like anyone’s going to do it for them.
I revisited The Grey because I feel as if I’ve become a more charitable critic in the intervening years, and this one stuck with me more than I expected it to. I stand by most of my previous reviews, but that’s not to say I’ve never changed my overall opinion of a film. Listening back to our podcast for The Grey, I was, I must admit, an insufferable snark monster about this film. I respect the craft involved. For cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi – who was hot shit for a few years there, filming for the likes of David O. Russell, Scott Cooper, and Tom McCarthy – to shoot something this coherent in blackness and snow, with a mostly CGI wolf-pack that spends most of its time hunting and striking in the dark, is a real accomplishment (even if the absolute king of this is still Emmanuel Lubezki on The Revenant). The sound design (from supervisors David G. Evans and Mark Gingras) is crucial as well, giving personality, bearing, and distance to the wolf pack as they are barely perceptible in the howling winter. Two things are simultaneously true of this film: It is a better-than-average survival thriller with a middling script, whose performances, with broadly interchangeable and equally doomed men, are each given an artisanal touch by their performers that the film’s various death monologues sorely needed. And God help me (or – fuck it – I’ll do this one myself), I enjoyed this film a lot more this time around, perhaps because I’m entering middle age, and death is no longer the kind of distant hypothetical annoyance it was at the height of my mid-20s energy and arrogance.
I must confess, I’ve spent the last decade inadvertently spreading a bit of misinformation about this film – for me, this was always the one that fraudulently sold itself as “the Liam Neeson wolf-punching movie”. As Ottway dons his improvised death-knuckles (made of tape and broken miniature liquor bottles) for his final showdown with the Alpha Wolf (guarding the den that it turns out the group was wandering toward this whole time), the film ends as each animal lunges toward the camera. Cut to black, and credits. My younger self was annoyed, and would tell anyone who would listen that there is no wolf-punching in this goddamn movie. As it turns out, that wasn’t and isn’t true. It’s a bit hard to see in the crash-site mire and darkness, but Ottway does punch a wolf about 25 minutes into the film, during one of the first attacks amid the wreckage. Then Diaz (a pre-Purge, pre-MCU Frank Grillo) stabs and eventually decapitates one. It’s just all very dark and muddy and incomprehensible, which bugged me at the time, but is pretty clearly a deliberate choice in retrospect. Anyway, fuck it. Jeremy Renner fist-fought a wolf the very same year in a scene that has aged rather poorly, and suffice to say, this was always a bit of a “be careful what you wish for” scenario.
Ottway’s barking atheism in the final scene is a powerhouse moment for Neeson, who didn’t acknowledge any real-world influence in Ottway’s expression of grief for his late wife in this film, but invited the audience to draw their own conclusions. The man slumps by the side of the river, a lone and temporary survivor of an animalistic slaughter, bargaining with a god he no longer believes in. And it lands. But the moment when his performance started to click for me was much earlier in the film, when the time comes for Ottway to take Diaz down a peg by mocking his masculine bravado and admitting, for all of these roughnecks to hear, that he is scared shitless. Of course, the scene ends with Diaz pulling a knife and demanding Ottway fight him, echoing a challenge that we hear taking place offscreen between a pair of wolves – the Omega and the Alpha, Ottway tells us. And each pack of animals settles their business in similar ways. Ottway throws Diaz to the ground and disarms him. Then he gives back the knife with a quick “No más”. Diaz, in spite of himself, starts to apologize before the Omega shows up, outcast to a quick death to test the humans’ defenses. There’s a very loose and messy statement about violence and toxic masculinity at work in this scene, with no clear conclusions, but it is interesting to hear these men debate how much of society’s basic decency has followed them into this situation (including whether to loot the bodies for supplies and wallets), when it appears the only thing keeping them together is Ottway’s persuasive threats to start beating the shit of any malcontents in the next five seconds. This clear and natural mantle of leadership brings the group together as brothers in arms (minus the arms) with a plainly obvious chain of command: Ottway is the Alpha.
Despite their bravado, each of them still manages to visibly weep whenever one of their brothers gets killed before their eyes, even if they don’t even know each other’s first names until the end. This idea – of fighting for the man next to you – is nothing new to this film. It’s a war movie trope just as surely as the poetry above (which I borrowed from The Grey, Lone Survivor, Act of Valor and…a 170-year-old Tennyson poem). And yet it always rings a true in the moment, because with the knowledge that everyone dies alone, there is something intuitive about a person facing a senseless, violent death right in front of you and recognizing that the least you can do, in the interests of your shared humanity, is to hold their hand and feel bad for them. The group takes the small, defensible moments between attacks as an opportunity to wax religiously, with Talget (Dermot Mulroney) insisting that God must have spared them all for a reason, and his buddies pointing out that Flannery (Joe Anderson) and Hernandez (Ben Bray) were “spared” as well, only to be eaten by wolves. Ottway and Diaz argue from separate places grounded in firm atheism: Diaz, out of cynicism and spite worthy of a PureFlix origin farce starring Kevin Sorbo, and Ottway, radiating sincere regret. He’s done with God, but he remembers his days of faith and misses them – something I found relatable, even if I’m also not keen to go backward.
There’s a reason why all this death poetry rings familiar and runs together for us. We tell the same stories over and over again about this mortal coil because we occasionally find comfort and meaning in them. And the less the world makes sense to us, the more elusive that meaning can be, which may be why a new study in the Journal of Religion and Health indicates that self-reported religious faith has plummeted during the COVID-19 pandemic – a reliable effect across religious and spiritual people from all prior levels of devotion. In a world so full of senseless death and dubious purpose, perhaps that’s why a simple survival story landed better for me this time. These guys – these assholes, ex-cons, fugitives, and drifters, don’t have to fix the world they’re helping to break by drilling for Arctic oil, any more than I have to do so as one of the complicit billions buying and burning it. They’re in a survival situation that feels primal and essentially human. No tools apart from their brains and muscles, and their ability to use them collectively (including one pretty awesome cliffhanger action scene – one of the few things I also liked the first time I saw the film). The world, such as it is, ceases to matter for the duration of this story. Which makes the story feel like it matters more.
The last line of poetry above, Theirs is not to reason why, theirs is but to do and die, was written by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in 1854, in “The Charge of the Light Brigade”. That last bit must have been too grim for modern audiences, because it has mutated over time to “Theirsis not to wonder why; theirs is but to do or die”. A simple twist of grammar turns an imposed suicide mission into chosen heroism. The poster tagline for The Grey suffers from a similar mutation – Live and die on this day, a trifling poem by Ottway’s terrible father, becomes Live or die on this day, a trite piece of studio marketing which definitely suggests that survival is both the point and a possibility. Perhaps that’s why The Grey let me down the first time. A false bill of fictional goods doesn’t bother me so much anymore. Tennyson led an interesting life and became a beloved historical poet, but he was a pampered Victorian aristocrat who never saw hide nor hair of whatever the fuck the Crimean War was about, so I won’t be too outraged on his behalf for his message being lost in the clichés. But I’ll spare a thought or two for the dead men he wrote some poetry about. And whichever wolves devoured them, lest they be devoured themselves.
#11: World of Tomorrow (2015), World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts (2017), World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime(2021)
Written and directed by Don Hertzfeldt
As ever, #11 is where I cheat a bit. But hell, if Disney can consume the entire theatrical experience with their vast wealth and coterie of antitrust lawyers, and if Cahiers du Cinéma can name a season of Twin Peaks as their best film of the year, I’m pretty sure everything’s made up and the points don’t matter. These three short sci-fi films, collectively, make my list of the best of 2021, even if only 30 minutes or so were actually released last year. Don Hertzfeldt‘s World of Tomorrow began in 2015, and has continued with two additional shorts, including 2021’s The Absent Destinations of David Prime. These films are about cloning, immortality, and time-TRAV-el, centered in each case around an interaction between a distant future version of a child named Emily and a museum exhibit called David, as well as versions of their present selves who don’t know that any of this is destined to happen. Winona Mae is the child actor who voices young Emily Prime, and while both the actor and character age noticeably between episodes One and Two, this is a performance that feels like it must be judged similarly to Catinca Untaru in the 2006 film The Fall, because this is an actor (or at least a performance) that is coded as too young to comprehend the story that she’s in, making character and actor seem equally reactive to the grand, impossible yarn being spun around her. As such, I can’t really say whether this is a good or bad performance, as it doesn’t really exist for me on that spectrum, but it is certainly an adorable and effective one, functioning as a counterpoint for the oddly childlike manner of the future beings, who seem to barely understand the impact of their meandering tourism about the timeline.
World of Tomorrow presents the reductio ad absurdum of time-TRAV-el as an invention which – if it can ever be invented in a way that permits travel to the past, must have effectively always existed, and any changes that it brought have already impacted the timeline as we know it. It also speaks at length about the increasingly evasive search for meaning in a world of limitless energy and technology, and maintains a healthy degree of self-awareness that such a search is a luxury reserved for those who are unconcerned with their own material needs. It posits that, as ever, there will be people in the future who don’t have access to these wonders based on the random happenstance of their birth.
All three short films approach this nihilistic angst about the future with the same sardonic humor I’ve come to expect from the creator of Rejected (“My spoon is too big!”), where the Adult Swim-style stoner absurdism is a mask for something much darker, further-reaching, and ultimately satisfying. Because as Emily’s clone posits in Episode 1, “Now is the envy of all the dead,” past or yet to come. And there’s precious little difference between them.
#10: Petite Maman
Written and directed by Céline Sciamma
This short, sweet, and simple film from Céline Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) gave me something that I didn’t even realize I was missing from the fantasy genre: The straightforward and uncomplicated exploration of impossible things. Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is a young girl who has just lost her grandmother, and is traveling with her parents to help empty out her house. It is obviously not her first time there, and she loved her grandmother very much. As her parents deal with the boring, dour business of picking through the remnants of a life well lived, Nelly explores the nearby woods, and finds a local girl, Marion (played by the actress’ real-life sister, Gabrielle Sanz), whom she quickly realizes is her mother as a child. Literally. When they meet in the middle of the woods, they have each traveled through time from different versions of the same house. And what’s more, Nelly figures it out very quickly and they immediately discuss it, with all the candor and curiosity that children often bring to the table. Marion gets to know the exact age she’ll be when she has a child. And when her own mother dies. They discuss the life, love, and grief that they will come to share.
Fantasy often contains elements of allegory and history, but my first forays into the genre as a child were essentially just magical adventures in which children experience impossible things without any explanation or preamble, and react as children do: with open minds and a sense of wonder. The Phantom Tollbooth. Bridge to Terabithia. Narnia and Alice. Of course, you can always find deeper meaning in these texts, but it doesn’t have to be obvious to its audience or its young heroes, who are simply trying to explore a magical world and take in whatever wonders can be had there. And Petite Maman is one of those, even if its world is simple, confined to a house and family on the edge of the woods.
Directed by Michael Pearce, written by Pearce and Joe Barton
“Encounter feels fresh and new, and that is an invaluable thing. It casts alien invasion as a fear that we can turn fully inward, because in a world that feels increasingly hostile and alien, the last bastion of hope may be the bonds of family, whatever that means to each of us, plus the inside of our own heads and good judgment, for whatever that’s worth. And the tension between these dueling forces, the space between hope and fear, is right where this film thrives tonally. Every moment with this family feels precarious and crisisbound, but also every bit the jovial road trip that it seems to be. Because Malik not only feels like a real father to these children, but the kids themselves are well-drawn and react in ordinary ways to the situation, alternating between excitement, cooperation, bickering, skepticism, and terror, and ultimately just wanting everything and everyone to be okay.”
From the poster, you probably think you have a good idea of what you’ll get from this film. Markus (MadsMikkelsen) is a soldier in Afghanistan (a backstory we’ll have to retire until the next war!) who learns that his wife Emma (Anne Birgitte Lind) has been killed in a train accident back home in Denmark, so he musters out and goes home to take over solo parenting of their teenage daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg). As he adjusts to his new life, he discovers that his wife’s death (the indirect and coincidental result of Mathilde’s bicycle being stolen) may not have been an accident after all. So Markus begins what the movie posters call a “roaring rampage of revenge” against the Riders of Justice, the violent motorcycle gang whom he believes to be responsible for his wife’s death.
I saw several solid revenge flicks last year with a few bones in common to Riders of Justice, including Nobody and Wrath of Man. And while Riders of Justice is every bit the violent revenge fantasy that it appears to be externally, it also has an aesthetic of garage-bound mad science straight out of Primer, and existential detective work worthy of Dirk Gently or I Heart Huckabees. Because among the survivors of the train accident are Otto and Lennart (Nikolaj Lie Kaas and Lars Brygmann), a pair of data scientists who believe they can predict the future, and one of whom gave up his seat for Emma right before the accident, inadvertently putting her into harm’s way. And while Markus doesn’t remotely blame these two men for being witnesses and survivors of the accident that killed his wife, he gradually becomes a true believer. The two scientists are determined to remain involved, forming an odd little family with Markus and Mathilde which spends breakfast debating the broader meaning of disparate events before going on a quick afternoon killing spree. This deeply bizarre action comedy is like nothing else I saw this year, is technically a Christmas movie, and is well worth a look.
Directed by Jeymes Samuel, written by Samuel and Boaz Yakin, story by Samuel.
I like westerns. And I’ve been pleased to see the canon of the American western expand significantly in my lifetime. As long as we’re going to spend a century and a half reminiscing and mythmaking about westward expansion, we might as well get some variety, whether it’s about the first cow in Oregon, the last cow in Montana, or far-flung cows and boys which transplant the genre into brandnewlocales. But at its best, the western genre is less about historical resonance than it is about showcasing cool action setpieces and shootouts. One of my favorites in the genre, Tombstone (1993, dir. George P. Cosmatos), was almost gleefully revisionist, spending as much time and effort making each member of its ensemble look like a passionate badass as it did recapping real events like the shoot-out at the OK Corral.
The Harder They Fall is another revisionist western in the same vein, presenting a wholly fictitious tale about some very real people – nearly all of them Black. Because the canon of the American western has been overwhelmingly white, this is a welcome change. And in order to properly understand the importance of these characters, I would encourage any readers of this review to spend a few minutes clicking through the Wikipedia cast list for this film, and reading a bit about each of the historical personas on display here, because any one of them could be the centerpiece of a movie all by themselves. Of course there were black people in the American West – many of them quite famous in their time. Their stories simply haven’t been told as often, nor have they been the subject of the usual mythmaking that we foist upon any other cowboy or cowgirl whose stories we admire, as the fastest whatever in the West. We know that who wins in a shootout is as much about luck as skill. And that prevailing in a showdown at high noon is something that occurs most persuasively in a studio editing room. But we don’t watch westerns to be reminded of this. We watch westerns to see badass frontier heroes. And this movie’s got em.
Jonathan Majors and Idris Elba play Nat Love and Rufus Buck, the leaders of a pair of rival outlaw gangs (operating here and there under the blessing of law, as is often the case in both the western and pirate genres), bound by blood and revenge to do each other harm until they can’t anymore. They are joined by a fabulous ensemble cast including Zazie Beetz, Regina King, Delroy Lindo, Lakeith Stanfield, Danielle Deadwyler, Edi Gathegi, RJ Cyler, and Deon Cole, and it must be said, each and every one of these people gets a moment in this film in which they get to be cool as hell (or, as needed, scary as hell), and that is a hard thing to accomplish with such a large ensemble. The clear A-Team, B-Team dynamic also feels lived in, with established relationships, including some persuasive rough-and-tumble romance, amongst the group. As one skirmish after another paves the way for a final battle between these cowboy titans, it remains absolutely clear why everyone else is invested in this fight. Many of these beats are straight out of the superhero genre, but they are executed here with a great deal of skill and a significantly lower budget.
Casting historical personas as fictional badasses is understandably a bit fraught in terms of representation – critic Ineye Komoniboweighed in on the casting of Beetz (a particular acting standout in this film) as the real-life post rider and businesswoman Stagecoach Mary Fields, who had a darker skin tone than Beetz. This is not a debate I feel particularly qualified to weigh in on, but it seems worth mentioning even as I praise the film.
The soundtrack of this film was supervised by Jeymes Samuel himself (known on the music stage as The Bullitts) as well as Jay-Z, who also serves as an executive producer on the film. The result is a fabulous blend of old and new, mixing the familiar themes of Ennio Morricone (in style only, I believe – no direct sampling that I noticed) with a variety of genres, including R&B and reggae (the latter of which works shockingly well for the Western genre, as its relaxed beat fits beautifully with a saunter on horseback). According to the film’s cinematographerMihai Malaimare, the script was full of musical cues, and the entire film was constructed with the musical timing involved – a boast that the film thoroughly delivers on, feeling at times like an extended music video. Several characters introduce themselves in song (including Stagecoach Mary, tapping out the beat of her song onstage with the butt of her rifle). These tracks are regrettably not all on the soundtrack, but the actors really do seem to be singing. All the more reason to watch the whole film. Rest assured there’s quite as much shooting as there is singing.
Written for the screen and directed by Ramin Bahrani, based on the novel by Aravind Adiga
Goodfellas fans: Do not sleep on The White Tiger. This US/India co-production from 99 Homes director Ramin Bahrani is one of the first films I saw in 2021 (last year’s bizarre COVID awards schedule notwithstanding), but it is one of the most memorable. This film is an adaptation of the Man Booker Prize-winning dark comic novel by Aravind Adiga, and chronicles the rise of would-be entrepreneur Balram (Adarsh Gourav), a low-born member of a poorly regarded caste, who goes to work for a pair of local political strongmen brothers, the Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar) and the Mongoose (Vijay Maurya), and begins a quest for power that will take him from his small-town family life in Rajasthan to the corridors of underground power in New Delhi. This film is lush with detail and moral complexity (with Balram gradually prodding and often kicking aside his own ideas of what’s right). Gourav’s performance is an absolute wonder to behold, with the character code-switching seamlessly from his servile demeanor when around any of his bosses to his slow, bubbling desire to get a piece of power and wealth for himself, because – as he puts it – there are only two castes that matter: those with a full belly, and those with an empty one.
Also fascinating (and perhaps providing a voice for part of the Indian and Indian-American diaspora) is Priyanka Chopra Jonas, also a producer of the film, who plays Pinky, an Indian-American woman who has married the Stork’s son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and returned to India for the first time in decades. While Balram’s relationship with Ashok (which is variably that of an employee, friend, and footstool) is quite fascinating, Pinky is of particular interest. Chopra Jonas reportedly discovered this film in development whilst scrolling Twitter (one of the only times anything important has occurred in that venue since Rex Tillerson was shitcanned), and I certainly hope she was satisfied with the result, because this is a performance that contains multitudes. Pinky is American-educated, and has some very American ideas about individual autonomy, patriarchy (as manifested variably in the US and India), and economic inequality, and yet clearly relies upon and is not afraid to invoke the power that wealth inevitably brings you. Her manner swings wildly between egalitarian, paternalistic (a quintessential American tourist), and self-serving. It’s an impressive performance. Rao is also strong here, playing the thankless role of the hapless scion of a crime family who is constantly surrounded by people more capable and ambitious than himself.
When the chips are down, absolutely every character in this film contains a vicious streak, and as we watch them find their way through a world of corruption, graft, family and caste pressures, and rising economic tides in India’s favor, it is utterly fascinating to see which of these forces will win their souls. Back in February, I described The White Tiger as having a swagger in its step and a chip on its shoulder. This movie has a bite, and it is not going to provide its audience any simple answers or wholly sympathetic characters. Its vibe is fast-paced and deadly serious. It flies by, presenting an imperfect story about the rise of an imperfect protagonist in a world where India’s ascendence and nationalistic swagger isn’t going pat a Western audience gently on the bum and say, “It’s okay, you’re still number one.” This is a film that scoffs in dialogue at Slumdog Millionaire and whose main character (in an early sign of the darkness to come) makes one of his first career moves by getting his rival chauffeur fired for being a Muslim. Between these acts and a series of quick cuts from the future (2010), we know from the outset that Balram will end up in a position of power. The only question remaining is how much we’ll be able to relate with him along the way, and how many heads he’ll have to step on to get there.
Directed by Denis Villeneueve, written by Villeneueve, Jon Spaihts, and Eric Roth, based on the novel by Frank Herbert.
I had very little invested in Dune. I haven’t read any of the books or seen any other media, apart from a half-remembered viewing of the 1984 David Lynch film in high school and Jodorowsky’s Dune after that. But Denis Villeneuve’s take on this material is one of the most gorgeous 4K streaming experiences I’ve ever had (even if its sequel seems unlikely to repeat the same day-and-date streaming experiment), as well as one of the most accessible and well-realized sci-fi worlds I’ve seen since Jupiter Ascending. Rest assured for any Wachowski detractors: That was a compliment. Making a complex sci-fi world feel huge, elaborate, and lived-in is a hard thing to accomplish, and this film pulled it off in every detail from the gargantuan sandworms to the ornithopters, which felt like plausible technology from another world as I was watching them, and also felt instantly iconic in the same way as more conceptually ridiculous fare like the X-Wing or TIE Fighter. Looking real is not the goal here – the goal was looking cool, and the film largely accomplished both. It took a fairly straightforward “colonizer fights for the future of a planet he’s in the process of conquering” tale and turned it into a world where I can believe these gargantuan wonders exist. And while it remains to be seen (as with Avatar) whether that world can accommodate further storytelling, this works well as a standalone tale – something that I saw some book-readers denying, and a criticism I frankly find baffling. As with the first Lord of the Rings book and film, Dune was clearly not conceived as the whole story, but it still feels like a complete story by itself. It has all of the things a story needs, including several memorable performances by characters (whom I dare not name here) whose stories seem to have reached their narrative end. And I’m hooked. This is my Dune – and I should very much like to visit it again.
#4: Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar
Directed by Josh Greenbaum, written by Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig
While you’ve probably seen the SNL-style character-based comedy in this film before, Barb and Star, featuring Bridesmaids screenwriters and star Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, is something special. As with Bridemaids, Wiig and Mumolo wrote this film, and Mumolo has jumped in from cameo to co-lead. And what is absolutely clear from the outset of this film is that these two are on precisely the same comic wavelength, and you will know very quickly whether it’s one you’d like to get onto as well (it was about 50-50 among my friends and family).
Whether they’re gabbing on the couch at their mall retail job (where they both show up regardless of which of them is scheduled to work that day) or spinning a yarn on an airplane about a wholly hypothetical woman named Trish (a reliable woman who’s really got her act together!), you will know very quickly whether this film is working for you. Because on top of that character comedy (which includes Wiig in a secondary role as a Dr. Evil-adjacent villain), there is also a fair amount of Tim & Eric-style anti-comedy at work in this film, with many scenes either going for deliberate cringe or even outright hostility to the audience’s enjoyment (Vanessa Bayer and Phyllis Smith are excellent in a recurring dystopian friendship gag called Talking Club). Jamie Dornan appears as a henchman and love interest, and belts out one of the best and most unexpected song and dance numbers of the year. Damon Wayans, Jr. plays the world’s worst spy. And the whole thing is a wondrous vacation in a touristy Florida hellhole with two friends whose friendship is always ultimately what’s at stake and remains wholly believable. And it’s funny as hell. This is the comedy I kept coming back to this year, and it could be that for you as well.
Directed by Paul Verhoeven, written for the screen by Verhoeven and David Birke, based on the book by Judith C. Brown
I saw a criticism of Benedetta which stated that 83-year-old director Paul Verhoeven, the director of Showgirls, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers has made a film for the male gaze. The film is loosely based on the true story of Sister Benedetta Carlini (Virginie Efira), a 17th century Catholic nun and mystic who had a forbidden love affair with her fellow nun, Sister Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia). This is a criticism I find interesting to discuss when it comes to a film like Blue is the Warmest Color, because of the nexus of two points: graphic depictions of human sexuality feel inherently voyeuristic even if they can often capture the truth of a relationship better than tamer fare, and authentic depictions of female sexuality (both featuring and between women) are few and far between. As a result, each such depiction is both saddled with the baggage of audience expectations and forced to justify its own existence.
But in the case of a Verhoeven film, this chiding feels so on-the-nose as to be hardly worth discussing. Yes, Verhoeven is no less of a “boob man” in his 80s than in previous decades, and that much is evident in the text of the film. But Benedetta and Bartolomea’s sexuality is not treated as aberrant in the text of the film – merely through the eyes of some of its contemporaneous characters, who lack the words or even the conceptual framework to describe a relationship between lesbian women, and must revert to describing it through the lens of more banal sins: lust, extramarital sex, breaking of a vow of chastity, and – in one very specific case – heresy and desecration. The male gaze is definitely present in this film (and embodied by multiple characters, including a Papal Nuncio played to great effect by Lambert Wilson); it just feels beside the point, because these women aren’t being ogled by the men in the film, nor exactly are they being oppressed and stigmatized for the specific reason that they’re gay. They’re being oppressed because acting human and refusing to apologize for it is a mortal sin in a religious dogma that has no room for them. Unless of course they pay for one. Charlotte Rampling is marvelous as Mother Superior, who is not only presented as savvy in all matters pecuniary as well as ideological, but is also a mistress of church politics, pursuing her aims with subtlety and also clearly not acting purely in the interests of God and Church.
As for Benedetta, her love for Bartolomea (if that is what this is) mingles with her ambition, religious fervor, and desire for power, and is ultimately treated as just another manifestation of humanity at odds with ideology. I don’t know how historically authentic this depiction is meant to be (a question that also feels beside the point as I watch the film), but Efira’s performance casts Benedetta as essentially a true believer: Someone who has spun her own moral framework without shame, and seamlessly works it into her pre-existing religious training. This also occasionally makes her look like a sociopath, because breaking her vow of chastity is hardly the only written line that she crosses in this film. That process is utterly fascinating to behold, particularly in a film whose sexuality and religious content is the very reason why it is likely to be pigeonholed and dismissed by mainstream audiences as a niche art film. Which is a shame, because that would be such a profound mistake as well as a categorization error.
This film wasn’t a slog. It’s exciting. It also features Jesus Christ on horseback beheading snakes with a sword. And that’s not even the least subtle religious imagery on display here. As with The Last Duel, we have another aging master director putting the trials of women through a lens of, “Look how bad it was for women in the knight and castle times, and consider how little has changed since then!”. But of the two films, Verhoeven’s take was the more interesting one to me, both because it didn’t resort to narrative redundancy to hold my attention, and because every minute of this film is an absolute roller coaster. There is so much going on in this film, it moves at an unrelenting pace, and all of it feels so very primal and human. This is what humans do, no matter what ideology they find themselves steeped in. They get messy and sexy and violent, and likely as not to end the world. And during this interminable plague year, that idea feels more relevant than ever before.
#2: Drive My Car
Directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, screenplay by Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe, based on the short story by Haruki Murakami.
When I say this is one for the theatre kids, I mean it even more sincerely than I did for Birdman, and that one had some spectacle to go along with all the table reads. Drive My Car is admittedly a tougher sell. It’s 3 hours long, primarily because its runtime contains many rehearsal and performance scenes of dialogue from Chekov‘s Uncle Vanya, for an experimental theatre festival in Hiroshima in which a cast of actors from across Southeast Asia will each speak in their respective languages (including Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, English, Tagolog, and Korean sign language). The theatrical director, Yūsuke (Tsuyoshi Gorô) is paired with a young professional driver, Misaki (Tōko Miura), who must drive him to and from his residence an hour outside Hiroshima – journeys in which he initially doesn’t speak to her at all, instead reciting lines of Vanya dialogue against a recording of his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima) reading for the rest of the cast, having imagined conversations with his wife by proxy using someone else’s words. A young, handsome actor, Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) deals with his own insecurity about playing a lead role, and his recovery from repeated self-inflicted scandals. Using Chekov’s words and eventually their own, each of these people gradually reveals more about themselves, where they came from, and what pain they carry with them. And that is…about all that I dare say about the plot of this film.
I’m giving you the hard sell on this, but be assured of a few things. First, it is absolutely riveting. The 40-minute cold open presents select details of Yūsuke and Oto’s marital life in a very matter-of-fact way, with as little commentary or preamble for mundane calls and drives together as for more bizarre moments between them. The opening scene features the couple literally improvising an erotic horror screenplay aloud while entangled in bed, sometimes mid-coitus, sometimes while basking in the afterglow. Their process is bizarre, but feels absolutely lived-in, with the usual shorthand that whatever multiple humans treat as normal is normal for them and the relationship they have. And then, for the rest of the film, this cold open is gradually recontextualized. We learn more about what happened before and how it affects these people now. The result is a messy tale about messy people, touching on creativity, love, sex, loyalty, death, penance, and grief. The performances are marvelous and the pathos is fundamentally authentic and human.
And it made me cry in the end, a somewhat less common experience for me than feeling, in an aloof sort of way, that a film is dancing on my heartstrings. I’ll give a film credit for either feeling, because an emotional response is real whether I allow myself to express it or not. But getting me out of my head and kicking me across that finish line is always a bonus, and Drive My Car was one of those. Truth be told, I’ve been a bit callous for the past few months when it comes to sharing the imagined pain of fictional characters. It’s not the only way to grieve a real-world loss, but it was mine. I don’t mention that to try to make my grief and trauma seem like anything special – losing the ones we love is the most ordinary thing in the world. I imagine that whatever specific words we use to scream and beg to an indifferent universe to give them back to us…are perfectly ordinary as well. There’s a lot more going on in Drive My Car than this, including the rather provocative question of whether it’s possible to completely know and love any other person. This is one to noodle about, and it will stick with you whether you get misty or not.
“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?”
This week, Glenn and Daniel are joined by returning guest Megan to do a Scene Unseen-style review of a sequel we both greatly anticipated, The Matrix Resurrections (which Daniel was unable to see last week). Then Megan – both Japan expert and marvelous wife to Glenn – delivers a brutal reminder of the healthy interplay between fandom and family by disdaining director Ryusuke Hamaguchi‘s new adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story, Drive My Car, which we both compared to previous #1 Glennie selectionBirdman, and which Megan referred to as “pretty far up its own ass”. Glenn agreed, but the movie also made him cry, so we sort that out together, as one does.
This will be our last episode for 2021. Thank you for listening for another year and we wish you well (01:31:17).
CW: Pregnancy loss May contain NSFW language.
FilmWonk rating (The Matrix Resurrections): 7 out of 10 (Megan/Glenn) FilmWonk rating (Drive My Car): 5/10 (Megan), 7/10 (Daniel), 8.5/10 (Glenn)
In the riveting opening moments of Encounter, the paranoid, insect-filled, meteor-pelted world of former USMC Staff Sgt. Malik Khan (Riz Ahmed) is revealed in impressive vfx detail and expository set dressing in parallel with Malik’s own status as an unreliable narrator. He awakens in a roadside motel surrounded by maps and pages that represent his amateur attempts to learn everything there is to know about neuroparasitology. On his shoulder, we see the tattooed names (in Arabic) of his children Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and Bobby (Aditya Geddada), and we learn, via a letter in voiceover, that he hasn’t seen them in over two years, owing to unspecified “secret missions”. And we can plainly see that he is not being entirely forthcoming with them. Malik gives an immediate impression of a man who is quite willing to lie to his children in service of some perceived greater good, but ultimately loves them and wants what’s best for them. This duality persists and becomes increasingly important as the film goes on, because Malik’s next move is to sneak onto the farm of his ex-wife Piya (Janina Gavankar), who is remarried to a nice enough fellow by the name of Dylan (Misha Collins), in order to abscond with both kids in the middle of the night. After spiriting them from their beds and spinning a yarn that their mother and stepfather are going on a skiing vacation, he starts laying out the sort of rules that would be well at home in a cult: Don’t talk to anyone. Eat as much candy as you want and sleep whenever you want. Cover yourself in bug spray to keep the monsters at bay. Seriously, don’t talk to anyone. C’mere, I’ll teach you how to shoot my gun. Oh, and by the by, keep your fucking mouth shut (this is a hardscrabble Marine in an R-rated film who swears around his kids every bit as much as that description implies).
The tension at play in this film is not the Google-friendly spoiler question of the existence and precise nature of the alien parasites, but whether Malik really loves his kids or not, as well as whether they are truly safe with him – questions which may or may not be one and the same. Like Take Shelterbefore it, it doesn’t actually matter that much whether the apocalypse taking up space in your head is real. Because as his pursuers (Octavia Spencer and Rory Cochrane) soberly point out, a trained Marine who believes in mind-altering parasites can justify any amount of violence against other humans, including their immediate family or even themselves, on the basis that they have effectively been replaced by an programmed imposter. But estranged or not, abducted or not, these three are a family, and they spend every minute of this film acting like one. Ahmed, who is Pakistani-British, brings the same unassumingly tough-as-nails American accent from Sound of Metal, which works fine for the John Deere-capped jarhead that he portrays here. Chauhan and Geddada have curiously mismatched accents, with Jay sounding every bit the American-born English speaker as his father and mother, and Bobby speaking impeccable English but bearing a trace of some Indian accent. There are any number of plausible family scenarios that explain this tonal mismatch (including, I’ll admit, me just mishearing the child), but I only mention it to point out that the ethnicity of this family and how it is perceived by the strangers they encounter seem essential to the plot and vibes of this film. Because the hostility and alienation that these three are navigating doesn’t just come from their belief that they’re surrounded by mind-controlled zombies, but because – despite being as American as apple pie, they are still often treated as the other because of their race. Hostility and suspicion for strangers is thus a mutual and persistent feeling, and the racism this family experiences is subtle, but ever-present. Just another layer of the thoroughly modern paranoia on display in this film – the sort that stems from a belief that the world itself – its institutions, social contracts, and ability to perform collective actions – is coming apart at the seams. And our capacity to trust others dwindles in some sadly predictable ways.
I call this film’s paranoia modern by way of contrasting it with many previous heartland alien invasion films, which were all on some level about our fears: run-of-the-mill American xenophobia, fear of foreign invasion, Cold War anxiety about humanity’s mutual annihilation (an outcome still very much on the table!), fear of our own governments’ authoritarian tendencies, and later, somewhat perversely, nostalgia for all of the above. After briefly donning some post-9/11 imagery with Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, this genre largely retreated to comfortably generic territory – sometimes enjoyable, but not really about much of anything except blockbusterspectacle. On the smaller side, Take Shelter director Jeff Nichols‘ weakest film is probably the 2016 E.T. retread Midnight Special, and Andrew Patterson‘s quiet, small-town thriller The Vast of Night was as much about old-timey radio and telephony as it was about any specific paranormal mystery: Aliens as conceptual window dressing for a pastoral, small-town life that hardly exists anymore.
Encounter feels fresh and new, and that is an invaluable thing. It casts alien invasion as a fear that we can turn fully inward, because in a world that feels increasingly hostile and alien, the last bastion of hope may be the bonds of family, whatever that means to each of us, plus the inside of our own heads and good judgment, for whatever that’s worth. And the tension between these dueling forces, the space between hope and fear, is right where this film thrives tonally. Every moment with this family feels precarious and crisisbound, but also every bit the jovial road trip that it seems to be. Because Malik not only feels like a real father to these children, but the kids themselves are well-drawn and react in ordinary ways to the situation, alternating between excitement, cooperation, bickering, skepticism, and terror, and ultimately just wanting everything and everyone to be okay. Chauhan, who plays the 10-year-old Jay Khan, is pitch-perfect in this role, with the kind of screen presence I’ve seldom seen from an actor so young. Like Tye Sheridan before him, this boy is someone to keep an eye on. Because every bit of intensity that Ahmed can bring to this role is matched exactly as needed by the kids. Chauhan subtly sells Jay’s bitterness that his brother seems to like their stepdad, as well as his disappointment at who and what their absent father turned out to be as compared to his own memories. Jay sees Bobby following the simple, desperate childhood program of giving unconditional love to any grownup who reliably shows up and treats him decently, and sees his own disappointment in his younger brother’s future. All of this simmers in the background amid the highs and lows of this road trip, and it is essential to why I cared so much about this family.
Ultimately, the mystery at the heart of this film has only a couple of possible answers, but the film does a solid job of offering evidence in either direction as it goes on. Malik seems to go out of his way not to harm people, and mentions early on that those possessed by alien parasites are still alive and still human: Just in need of a rescue and a cure. Sometimes he resorts to violence, and sometimes he goes out of his way not to. The script even takes a few bold chances (perhaps to prod Malik’s moral lines a bit), throwing in some Three Percenter militia dudes (as loathsome an infestation of the American West as any of the other parasites in this film), portraying them as every bit the affluent, racist Large Adult Sons they are in real life, but also giving them some semi-legitimate reasons to join the chase. Every confrontation during the chase is cleverly conceived, including a showdown in a ghost town that feels straight out of a western, plus or minus a few weapons.
Ultimately, one of the most interesting things about Malik is that is that even outside moments of crisis, many of his actions place himself and the boys in physical danger. Of course, he believes they’re already in physical danger, and anything he does to serve their rescue mission is A-OK. As a consequence, we the audience are constantly forced to evaluate, from the first time he picks a fight with an armed assailant to the moment where he revs his SUV up to 100mph and pretends to sleepily drift onto the shoulder in order to give the kids a thrill, whether we – or they – should really be trusting this man’s judgment. And we also must wonder whether these innocent children will pay the price for the trust they have little choice but to place in their father. The audience is invited into this circle of trust, simply riding along with this family (and in turns, riding along with their pursuers) and hoping for the best. Riz Ahmed’s dualistic and steady-handed performance is a big part of what makes Encounter work so well as a character study, but what makes the film memorable is that it managed to do all of that while presenting such a tense and well-drawn thriller. The camera floats up and away as Malik drives on, two spotlights in the gathering darkness, carrying whatever hopes, fears, and well-rendered, macro-photographed bugs exist in his world, in search of whatever is out there.
FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10
Encounter is in theaters now, and will be available on Prime Video this Friday.
This week, Glenn and Daniel welcome back Erika to check out the directorial debut of Halle Berry in Bruised, in which she stars as a disgraced MMA fighter trying to connect with her estranged son. And then we check out Jane Campion‘s gorgeous, but narratively unfocused adaptation on toxic masculinity in the early 20th century American West, The Power of the Dog, which provoked a wide range of reactions on the podcast. Both films are now available on Netflix. (01:24:17).
*CW: This episode contains mentions of suicide, alcoholism, familial and intimate partner violence, and rape, as pertains to the subject matter of each film. May contain NSFW language.
FilmWonk rating (Bruised): 5/10 (Erika), 6/10 (Daniel), 7/10 (Glenn) FilmWonk rating (The Power of the Dog): 3/10 (Daniel), 5/10 (Glenn), 9/10 (Erika)
[02:01] Review: Bruised
[26:34] Spoilers: Bruised
[39:58] Review: The Power of the Dog
[55:46] Spoilers: The Power of the Dog
There was a minor technical issue with the remote recording, and it is occasionally possible to hear a brief echo – we edited this out as much as possible, and we do apologize for the disruption.
CORRECTION: Jane Campion was not the first woman to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director – she was second (for The Piano, for which she would win the award for Best Original Screenplay). The first woman to be nominated for Best Director was Lina Wertmüller for the 1976 Italian film, Seven Beauties.
This week, Glenn and Daniel once again had a busy week as a Marvel film came out for us to review by itself, and we promise that’s a coincidence. Academy Award-winning director Chloé Zhao tries to tell a tale as old as time and bring a new superhero team to life. Tune in as we give Eternals more credit for ambition than execution, in that good, Chronicles of Riddick sort of way (49:43).
May contain NSFW language.
FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10
[01:36] Review: Eternals
[25:53] Review: Eternals
Listen above, or download: Eternals (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play)
This week, Glenn and Daniel check out a French Dispatch, and a series of meandering vignettes which may or may not coalesce into a coherent narrative. And it’s up to our intrepid podcasters (with special guest and friend of the show Jason) to determine which is which. First, we check out Wes Anderson’s vision of The New Yorker as a star-studded anthology film, then venture back to the 1961 French Left Bank film, Last Year at Marienbad, a bizarre and experimental film that mesmerized us (01:01:03).
May contain NSFW language.
FilmWonk rating (The French Dispatch): 5 out of 10 FilmWonk rating (Last Year at Marienbad): 7.5 out of 10
Daniel referred to a real-life incident not depicted in the film which occurred during the May ’68 protests: student protestors temporarily occupied (and attempted to set fire to) the Bourse (the Paris Stock Exchange). The building did not burn down (it is largely built of stone), and still exists today as Euronext Paris.
The matchstick game in Last Year at Marienbad is Nim, which features a variety of mathematical strategies you can read all about on Wikipedia.
This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.
I was reluctant to revisit Take Shelter, and when I called dibs on this retrospective a few months ago, I didn’t know difficult it would be to write about. It’s a movie that hit me hard the first time, as Curtis (Michael Shannon) and I each have a close family member who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when we were young, and have dealt with the transformation of that person into someone new. In the decade since the film came out, I’ve followed its playbook more closely than I intended. I married a redhead, had a couple of kids, and…in the film’s most devastating prophetic turn so far, reached the same age as Curtis and watched my father die, back in August. In his grief over the man that raised him, Curtis succumbs to the onset of paranoid delusions, and fears that he is following in his mother’s footsteps. That is where Curtis’ experience diverges from my own, but I nonetheless find myself reflecting on mental illness from the standpoint of both the person going through it as well as their loved ones. Curtis doesn’t eschew his diagnosis – instead, he visits an honest-to-goodness public library to pick up a set of dusty old books about schizophrenia, all so he can deliver a convincing book report to the counselor at his town’s public health clinic: he meets 2 of the 5 diagnostic criteria for schizophrenia. And that is just such a sane-person thing to do, isn’t it? Hallucinations operate on a spectrum and are sometimes experienced by people with no other psychiatric symptoms (neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote an excellent book on the subject!). But delusions, by their very nature, are illusory and hard for the person experiencing them to detect. For that person, their dangers, their persecutors, their oncoming storm, are all very real, because the part of their brain that should tell them it isn’t real isn’t working properly. As in a dream, their mind is failing to test reality and think critically. Because it can’t do what it can’t do. And their terrifying new reality feels as ordinary to them as the real world does to us. What absolute hell it must be for the person experiencing it.
But for the people in your life, what do you become? A maddening mystery. Their reliable provider, their hard worker, their good and faithful friend – all those things they saw in you, and which you might’ve seen in yourself, suddenly feel askew, missing, possibly never to return. Who knows what they must think during that early onset? Have you just become an unreliable asshole all of a sudden? People have been known to do that, and pathologizing it is not always appropriate. I reflected upon the ordeal faced by Curtis and his family in this film through my own personal lens because it’s something I’ve watched play out in real life. And while my family’s own experience is not identical to what is portrayed here, I do feel comfortable saying that Curtis feels like a fully realized human being, and despite his financial woes, he is very fortunate to have the people he has in his life. His work friend Dewart (Shea Whigham) makes a Shea Whigham face as they sit in his car, avoiding their respective homes with post-work beers, and says simply, “You got a good life, Curtis. I’m serious – I think that’s the best compliment you can give a man. Take a look at his life and say, that’s good. That guy’s doin’ somethin’ right.” And he is.
Dewart is an interesting case, because despite seeing Curtis every day at work (and even working under him as a manager), he feels aloof from his friend’s deteriorating mental state, and seems to think that Curtis is merely making a few bad choices. When Curtis enlists Dewart’s help borrowing a backhoe from their employer’s equipment yard to expand his backyard storm shelter, Dewart doesn’t say no, exactly. He just says, “You sure about that?”, and when Curtis confirms, he replies, “I just don’t wanna see you fuck up.” Curtis’ brother Kyle (Ray McKinnon), mere seconds before offering to whoop his little brother’s ass like they’re kids again, takes a similarly glib posture, warning him about the cost of the storm shelter he’s building, “You take your eye off the ball one minute in this economy and you’re screwed.” This feels like an ordinary and expected reaction to men spotted making mistakes. Rich men can buy their way out of mistakes and spin their way out of crimes, but ordinary men are presumed to be in control of – and responsible for – their actions. People might ask, “Are you okay?” (Dewart does ask this in the very same scene), but they’re not necessarily prepared for a sincere no. Hence all the memes about how far men will go to avoid going to therapy. I don’t mind these memes, because the stats seem to bear them out. But Curtis does go to therapy – or at least to his GP. All it takes is a half-dozen apocalyptic tempest dreams, and one bout of bedwetting that he is obviously pretty upset about.
The dreams follow a similar cadence. As Curtis puts it, “They always start with a kind of storm. Like a real powerful storm. And then there’s always this dark, thick rain. Like fresh motor oil. And then the things, people, it just makes ’em crazy. They attack me. Sometimes they go after Hannah [his daughter]. First one I had, Red [the dog] nearly chewed through my arm.” He also sees massive flocks of black birds flying unnaturally and dive-bombing (or falling dead from the sky), and has the occasional daytime hallucination that may or may not be real – phantom claps of thunder or bolts of lightning in a clear sky. Perhaps more alarming is that he seems to recognize these things as not real, or coming from his mind, but he is still acting upon them in the real world. His dog attacks him in a dream, and he separates the dog from his daughter, and eventually puts him outside and gives him away to his brother. His friend Dewart attacks him with a pickaxe in a dream, and he has him transferred to a different work crew. His wife gives him a creepy stare while standing dripping wet in their kitchen and looking at a bread knife, and he recoils from the touch of her hand at the breakfast table. In Oliver Sacks’ book, Hallucinations, he writes,
“Any consuming passion or threat may lead to hallucinations in which an idea and an intense emotion are embedded. Especially common are hallucinations engendered by loss and grief…losing a parent, a spouse, or a child is losing a part of oneself; and bereavement causes a sudden hole in one’s life, a hole which – somehow – must be filled. This presents a cognitive problem and a perceptual one as well as an emotional one, and a painful longing for reality to be otherwise.”
And what is Curtis’ reality? And what is missing in his life? His mother (Kathy Baker) is alive, but a shadow of her former self, institutionalized and separated from him most of the time. And the only functional parent he had known for 25 years is gone. And here he is, a man in his 30s, suddenly facing the rest of his life, a family to look after, and all the labors and dangers that now fall squarely upon his shoulders. And it’s easy to see how those dangers could grow and mutate until they become apocalyptic terrors, even if that isn’t how it goes for most people. I hadn’t read Sacks’ book when I saw the film a decade ago, but looking at Curtis’ hallucinations through this neurological lens helped me make a bit more sense of them this time around, even as a psychological layperson. We act in accordance with what our senses tell us about the real world, and how our minds interpret that information. In a person with schizophrenia…or a person having some other, less intractable psychological disorder, one or more of these processes has gone awry. And they may act in a way that is consistent with their revised worldview, even if they may still be able to articulate reasons why they shouldn’t be acting that way. When Samantha (Jessica Chastain) finally confronts Curtis about his behavior (in response to him asking whether she plans to leave him), she points out the moment she knew that this was more than just her husband making reckless financial decisions and not trusting or respecting her enough to explain why. Because these two are close enough that he wouldn’t recoil from her touch. This moment – played with equal parts love and ferocity by Chastain – only works if you believe this is a real family that has functioned properly in the past, and that is one thing this film and these actors sell exceptionally well. This is a blue-collar Rust Belt family with a patriarch who works in resource extraction, a stay-at-home wife and mother who runs the flea market booth on Saturday and goes to church on Sunday. They look after their daughter (who is deaf from birth and preparing for cochlear implant surgery as her parents learn ASL). They save for a nice beach vacation on Erie. They have worries, dreams, and a social life. And the overriding feeling going into Curtis’ crisis is that this family is real, and their life feels lived-in, which is a necessary condition for me to become invested in Curtis’ spiraling destruction of that family life. And it makes Samantha’s decision to take charge of the situation and safeguard Curtis’ mental health that much more cathartic.
This review feels incomplete without addressing the elephant in the room. But what is that elephant? What is that looming doom on the horizon that is stressing all of us out? The neo-fascist Republican Party feels like an easy choice. Or the mostly ignored threat of climate change. Or the COVID-19 pandemic, which so thoroughly revealed the lie of American exceptionalism and the fragility of our social contract that I’ve lost any sense of what patriotism and Christian morality means to those who pretend to espouse those virtues. And then there are the various dooms that I know to be nonsense, but which feel no less real for the people who believe in them: anti-vaxxers, QAnon freaks, and other people on the spectrum between victims and spreaders of apocalyptic disinformation. The centre cannot hold when our functionality as a society collapsed the moment we were asked to make even the most basic of sacrifices for our neighbors. And watching a movie about a generalized feeling of doom creates a temptation to overfit this film to the times we live in now. I’ve possibly done that above, ascribing Curtis’ psychological deterioration to the death of his father, because that’s something I find intensely relatable at this moment. What say you, Take Shelter? Shall I compare thee to a summer’s doom? No. That’s a bit too easy. Apocalyptic tales have existed for as long as human storytelling. There’s always a storm coming, and not a one of you is prepared for it. Because…we’re all pretty terrible at taking the long view and preparing for things, because we live in a society that punishes anything but relentless, stress-fueled hustling to survive. But maybe, if we get to know our neighbors a bit, stockpile a few basics, and reassert our collective belief in this project we call civilization, it’ll all be okay in the end. I don’t suppose I’d still be writing about movies if I didn’t believe that on some level.