Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

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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.

But that’s not, strictly speaking, true. My first written opinion about this film appeared as my 2008 Best Picture of the Year – the inaugural winner of my self-styled awards ceremony, The Glennies. #2 and #3 were Slumdog Millionaire and The Dark Knight, and as if to emphasize the youthful indolence of these picks, I couldn’t be bothered to actually write anything about TDK. This was when my film-blogging days were just getting started – I think this one might’ve actually been a Facebook note. But now that I’ve caught up to my younger self in the decade-on retrospectives, I suppose I’ll have to start being a bit more selective about my 10YA selections, lest I have to rip my younger self a new one for having bad opinions. But my glowing review of Darren Aronofsky‘s The Wrestler is largely one I can still stand behind. As it happens, my future podcast co-host (and then housemate) Daniel and I walked to downtown Seattle to see this film, and he spent the entire walk back educating me on all the real-world wrestling parallels to the events in the film – most of which I’ve since forgotten. But I’ve certainly immersed myself in the medium since, thanks in large part to his continued interest in WWE and invitations to one Pay-Per-View event or another. I’ve also developed a casual fandom for mixed martial arts, and Daniel and I have reviewed such films as Foxcatcher (a dour crime drama about an Olympic wrestling team) and Concussion (about the NFL’s abysmal treatment of CTE – which has also purportedly been an issue in pro wrestling). And on a real-world note, I’ve since learned that the highest bar for tragedy among brain-damaged pro wrestlers was far more violent and disturbing than the sad spectacle of an over-the-hill stuntman whose life and fandom are slowly petering out.

I mention my fandom for MMA because…steroid scandals notwithstanding…the action is real, and it’s a bloodsport. It’s gladiatorial combat, and my personal ethics on watching such things are an ongoing personal project. Every time a fresh spurt of blood hits the Octagon, after I’m done gasping and cheering, I think – Should I really be watching this? And then, I keep watching, because it’s awesome. And because they’re voluntary participants underpaid in a flawed and top-heavy economic system who are fighting by choice and for the twisted amusement of a decadent society that will thoroughly bill them for the healthcare they require afterward and…then I keep watching, because it’s awesome. But there is one type of semi-authentic, semi-scripted prize-fighting that has never made sense to me – a “hardcore match“, in which the wrestlers attack each other (and themselves) with dangerous-looking weapons, inflicting real (minor) injuries.

But why.

Midway through the first act, Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) participates in such a match with real-life hardcore wrestler Necro Butcher (Dylan Summers), and for the life of me, I still can’t explain the entertainment value of such a spectacle. I’ll watch a pair of UFC fighters pummel each other until the Octagon looks like a crime scene, but when I see Mickey Rourke and Dylan Summers – two human beings whose character names hardly matter – covered in [possibly real] blood and nicks and scratches and fucking staples, one of which Summers uses to attach a $5 bill to his forehead – I can’t help but wonder what the point of this self-flagellation is. Am I watching a bloodsport right now, or am I watching Jackass? The film seems to share a desire for distance from this spectacle – we first see Randy and his opponent returning to the locker room being attended by EMTs who are stitching up their wounds, removing intramuscular barbed wire chunks, and so forth – and the film cuts back and forth between the injuries and how each of them occurred a few minutes earlier. Aronofsky is an old hand at depicting people debasing themselves, but I must admit, this shtick managed to remain charming to me all the way up until 2017’s mother!, wherein he creates and eviscerates a character played by his then-girlfriend Jennifer Lawrence, for thematic purposes that I found increasingly dubious as the film went on. But I suppose this match serves a purpose, insofar as it presents a representative moment for how the Ram got the way he is. This may be a disturbing event, but it’s not an unusual one for him.

In my 2008 review, I repeated an apocryphal story about Aronofsky telling Rourke that he could resurrect his career, but only if Rourke does exactly as the director says. Then I suggested that The Wrestler – Aronofsky’s most accessible film so far – might be the one to finally launch the director out of film-nerd semi-obscurity. That wasn’t exactly true either (that would be his next film, Black Swan), but it’s fair to say that Rourke, whose comeback was already underway following an outstanding pulp supporting turn in Sin City, got a lot more attention after his Oscar-nominated performance in this film. His Oscar moment is obvious – it’s a failed, two-part rapprochement with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). Part 1 is on a pier. In the words of Megan Ganz, “Redemption follows allocution,” and Randy fully confesses the extent to which he’s failed and abandoned her as a father.

“I just want to tell you. I’m the one…who was supposed to take care of everything. I’m the one who was supposed to make everything okay for everybody. But it just didn’t work out like that. And I left. I left you. You never did anything wrong. You know? I used to try to- Huh! Forget about you. I used to try to pretend that…you didn’t exist. But I can’t. You’re my girl. You’re my little- You’re my little girl. And now- I’m an old, broken-down piece of meat. And I’m alone. And I deserve to be all alone. I just don’t want you to hate me. Okay?”

If I’ve picked up on anything about this scene in the past decade (besides lessons in what not to do as a father), it’s that it only works so well because it’s sincere in the moment, but turns out to be a lie. The film’s most heartbreaking and redemptive moment is just another Randy “The Ram” Robinson hype speech, trying to be the Face for an abandoned adult child for whom he’s only ever been the Heel. And he’s lying as much to himself as he is to her. In a later scene, after biffing the simple task of “meeting his daughter for dinner at a predetermined time and place” (in favor of doing lines of coke and an eager fan-girl in a bar bathroom, which cannot be a good idea for a man who’s just had a heart attack), he desperately strokes Stephanie’s hair and face as she initially screams that she hates him, and then finally, coldly tells him the truth.

“You know what? I don’t care. I don’t hate you. I don’t love you. I don’t even like you. And I was stupid to think that you could change…There is no more fixing this. It’s broke. Permanently. And I’m okay with that. It’s better. I don’t ever want to see you again. Look at me- I don’t want to see you. I don’t want to hear you. I am done. Do you understand? Done. Get out.”

There’s an old screenwriting tip that you should always begin your stories on the most interesting day of the characters’ life. But I think there’s something equally appealing about picking a truthfully representative day of the character’s life. What works so well about Wood and Rourke’s performances here is that while it’s unclear if this is the first time that father and daughter have tried to repair their relationship, it feels like it probably is not. With each biting word and emotional beat splayed across their faces, we see the complete history of this family, and we know the extent to which they’re following a script that they’ve played out already (see also: Wood’s various performances in Westworld). This isn’t just what Robin did today. This is what Randy does. It’s who he is. A fuck-up.

I haven’t mentioned Pam (stage name: Cassidy) (Marisa Tomei) yet, because I don’t think her storyline has changed for me much in the past decade. The Ram is performing violence, Cassidy – a stripper – is performing sexuality, each of them – however unfairly – is nearing the end of their ability to do so. And the pair of them are performing friendship and perhaps romance with each other, never quite sure whether they’re crossing any arbitrary personal or professional boundaries. This still works just fine (and Tomei’s performance is still marvelous), but what you see is what you get. Same goes for all of the stuff at the grocery store. It’s bleak, even funny at times, but straight-forward. The Ram is broke and working a normal job, and his boss is a bit of a dick, and that’s about it.

My main takeaway from this film is that Robin Ramzinski needs to stop. After a ridiculously thorough drug transaction from actor and real-life convicted drug-dealer Scott Siegel, he suffers a myocardial infarction and bypass surgery, and is warned by his doctor that he needs to eliminate all of his vices – drugs, wrestling, anything that’ll be a strain on his heart. In the very next scene, we see him collapse while going for an easy jog in the woods. He’s an old broken-down piece of meat. And in his final speech, the Ram declares, “The only ones who are gonna tell me when I’m through doing my thing, is you people right here.” And then he slams and leaps for our amusement, from the top of the ring into oblivion as the credits roll. And if the film leaves you with anything, it’s a fading, cacophonous scream from the audience. The Ram is through. His weakness, and his tragedy, is that he couldn’t accept it 30 seconds earlier.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

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Baz Luhrmann’s “Australia” (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.

There are two opening title cards to Baz Luhrmann‘s Australia.

“After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on the 7th of December 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy steamed south, unleashing their fire on Darwin, a city in the Northern Territory of Australia.

‘The Territory’ was a land of crocodiles, cattle barons, and warrior chiefs where adventure and romance was a way of life.

It was also a place where aboriginal children of mixed-race were taken by force from their families and trained for service in white society. These children became known as the Stolen Generations.”

Starting with the Hitchcockian “bomb under the table” before jumping back in time two years was an odd choice. If I’m being honest, I wouldn’t say the mention of impending Imperial Japanese bombers provoked much suspense for me while watching this film, because the first 90 minutes are a rip-roaring western epic about a cattle drive, with the initial flirtations of a period romance, mostly taking place in the middle of nowhere in the Australian Outback. This crawl had entirely left my head by the time the second film (a speed-run of Michael Bay‘s Pearl Harbor) begins, because Australia really is two and a half films crammed into one. It’s Luhrmann’s very own Down Under Lord of the Rings, seemingly with the self-awareness of a director who knew he would probably only get financing for this thing once. So, no need to trim the script – let’s just do it all in a three-hour epic, Gone With the Wind-style. The other opening title card is a warning to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers that they should exercise caution when watching this film, as it may contain images and voices of deceased persons. Between this and the Japanese bomber warning, it’s pretty clear that the film is promising that people will die on this adventure, but it’s also explicitly announcing its intention to court an audience of Indigenous peoples, as well as to tell a tale on their behalf.

As I write this a decade later, the warning about deceased persons has literally come true for two actors who each made their final appearance in this film. Ray Barrett, an actor with a career spanning five decades who played a cameo role, passed at the age of 82 from a cerebral hemorrhage in 2009. And David Ngoombujarra, who plays Magarri and was barely half Barrett’s age, was found dead in a park in 2011, of unspecified (but non-suspicious) causes. That’s all I know about Ngoombujarra. The internet can tell me a few more things. He had a winning smile. His colleagues claimed he struggled with alcoholism. He was taken from his Aboriginal parents in 1967 under government policy, adopted at 10 months old, and raised by white parents in Western Australia under the name David Bernard Starr. He originally came from the Yamatji people. This film tells me that Aborigines believe that once a person dies, you should no longer speak their name, and demonstrates occasional interest in the differences between Aboriginal tribes (at least in one extremely specific plot-serving way). But I won’t act as if I know something about this man, including anything about his preference one way or the other about his name being used after death. This is a film with pretenses of educating its audience, and I suppose in the case of the Stolen Generations, it did that in a minimal fashion – I had never heard of this policy prior to this film. But the film’s primary vehicle for this lesson is a mixed-race Aboriginal boy, Nullah (Brandon Walters), who spends nearly the film’s full runtime speaking non-specifically about his experience of not belonging, and by the end, I can’t say I learned anything more about the fictional Aborigine than I did about the real one.

The film starts in media res with Nullah’s voiceover. He learned everything he knows from an elder named King George (David Gulpilil), including to hate and fear white people, whom the elder claims need to be purged from this land. Because of Nullah’s mixed-race parentage, he is understandably worried about being taken away by the government and church – so whenever white people turn up, he makes himself invisible. Initially, he hides underwater (in a billabong – essentially a temporary swamp) from a team driving cattle. Then some vague things happen, Nullah dodges a man getting speared through the chest, then claims his horse, then runs into a derelict cattle ranch to hide in a water tower. Then Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman show up, and…the camera flies around and swoops into the sky. Title. Three weeks earlier. None of that was really necessary.

And then the story actually begins, as Lady Sarah Ashley (Kidman), an English aristocrat, packs to travel down under to sell Faraway Downs, a cattle station that she owns with her husband Lord Ashley. She suspects her husband was just using this backwater ranch as an excuse to travel far away and bang other women. I should pause here and note, it’s hilarious to me that even as Hugh Jackman gets to go full Crocodile Dundee in this film, while Australian and frequent accent-performer Nicole Kidman is being forced to play English – and not just English, but essentially Rachel Weisz‘s reluctant librarian adventurer from The Mummy. Lady Ashley is determined (despite her husband’s telegrams to the contrary) to show up in person and force the sale, so Lord Ashley promises to send his trusted man to meet her at the port city of Darwin (Didn’t we hear something about this city earlier?).

When we first meet the trusted man, of course it’s Hugh Jackman, whose name and function is Drover. He’s wearing a cowboy hat, punching a dude in the face, and drinking a beer, and…yes, this film is called Australia. This is before Jackman beefed up for the latter half of his Wolverine years, but he could still throw down in a choreographed brawl with his usual vigor. For next five minutes, while Drover brawls in the background with literally a dozen racist dudes who have a problem with his friendly attitude toward the Aborigines, the story and stakes of the film’s first half are laid out: Carney (Bryan Brown) is the Sausage King of Chicago Beef Baron of Australia, and his only possible competitor is Lady Ashley’s little cattle station, Faraway Downs. As a good monopolist who senses an imminent opportunity for some war profiteering, he doesn’t want to jeopardize his lucrative beef contract with the Aussie Army, so he’s engaging in a few dirty tricks to ensure that not a single beast from Faraway Downs makes it onto “that dock right there” in Darwin. Drover (Jackman) drives cattle on a commission basis (“No one hires me, no one fires me”), and he’s been contracted by Lord Ashley to drive 1,500 head of cattle to that very dock, on the condition that he escort Lady Ashley to the cattle station first. Because he’s a Trusted Man and all that. He wrecks a bit of her luggage (and scatters her underthings) in the brawl, welcomes her to Australia. She is scandalized, and they are off and running on a dune buggy on a soundstage.

I should mention, thanks to the crew at the /Filmcast (who were my early podcasting idols), I’d already heard a bit about the “George Lucas beauty” (flagrant CGI) of this film before I saw it theatrically, and while its intermittently spotty visuals didn’t bother me in ’08, they certainly weren’t lost on me either. Most of this film takes place in the Australian wilderness, and it is almost uniformly gorgeous whenever it’s a wide shot and I’m not thinking too hard about whether it was real or not. The film seems to have seen this coming, because when the gang stops to camp in what appears to be a studio set, an undeniably authentic visual moment ensues:

After the Drover’s shampoo commercial wraps, he and Magarri shock Lady Ashley with a bit of lightly ribald banter before treating her basically decently (this continues in the car, with a misunderstanding over horse breeding), then they arrive on the cattle ranch, which has been gutted, and her husband Lord Ashley (who turned out to be the man we saw speared through the chest in the prologue) lies dead in the parlor. The cattle station’s manager, Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), whom we already saw colluding with the ruthless Carney in the exposition scene, spins a yarn about how King George, a “murderous black”, killed Lord Ashley. He also says the windmill-driven water pump doesn’t work, the cattle are all gone, he’s not a murderer, etc., before Nullah demolishes this pile of lies pretty effectively by instantaneously fixing the windmill. Fletcher attacks him and his mother and is promptly fired. He and his men leave, but one drunk fellow, Kipling Flynn (Jack Thompson), tells the tale. The cattle ranch is facing foreclosure, and Fletcher has been embezzling unbranded cattle for years, siphoning them off into Carney’s land and herd. Oh, and Nullah is totally Fletcher’s unacknowledged son, as if the latter’s command of an Aboriginal language and casual racism and domestic violence didn’t make that clear. Flynn suggests that the only way that Lady Ashley can beat Carney and Fletcher at their own game is to drove the remaining cattle to Darwin. If only she knew someone who could assist…

Drover is outside, herding a gorgeous pack of unbridled horses. Then he stops and stands outside the ranch, and he and Lady Ashley have an intense conversation on…greenscreen? What the hell is going on visually with this movie? There are literally two dudes standing motionless on horseback in the background of Jackman’s shot, and I’m not sure if either of these movie stars is actually in this location, having this conversation. I shouldn’t find this quite so obnoxious, but…I really do. From the Star Wars prequels to Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, there’s nothing that will take me out of a film faster than the feeling that the movie is bullshitting me about where the actors actually are. And it’s not as if there aren’t equally good examples of this. Greenscreen is prolific. Avatar, Life of Pi, Game of Thrones, virtually every Marvel film… As well as innumerable other productions where the compositing is so seamless that it’s essentially unnoticeable unless you’re really looking for it. The VFX industry has gotten a lot better at this. But sets haven’t yet become optional even a decade later, and there was a period of time in the mid-2000s where the oeuvre of George Lucas managed to convince some TV and film productions that they were. Famously, he even visited the 2001 shoot in Martin Scorsese‘s full-scale replica set of 1850s Five Points neighborhood for Gangs of New York, and balked at the expense of such a set when CGI buildings are surely cheaper. Perhaps they are (as Rhythm and Hues can attest), but cheaper isn’t always better, and bad compositing can severely date a film, as it does here. From the one-two punch of these shots, what appears to be the reality of this production is that the ranch house at Faraway Downs doesn’t exist (or is a model), but some of the fencing does? So as the pair has a tepid argument about whether or not they have enough experienced riders for the drove, every shot of Kidman is on a soundstage, some of the shots of Jackman are on location, and it’s honestly pretty tiresome to watch. I’ll try to stop commenting on this quite so much, but this uneven fakery hangs over Australia throughout its runtime.

Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) stands in front of a greenscreen which may or may not be in Australia.

Following a drove-training montage, the police arrive, and Nullah and his mother Daisy (Ursula Yovich) dart into the water tower to hide. The police are ostensibly there to investigate Lord Ashley’s murder, but Fletcher also dropped a dime on his own kid, and they tell Lady Ashley to keep an eye out for him so they can take him away. As the cops wash off at the water pump, its activation somehow begins to fill the upper tank with water even faster (this mechanism makes no sense to me). The ladder breaks loose, and Nullah and his mother are in peril of drowning in the middle of the driest part of the dry season in the Outback. Lady Ashley covers for Nullah, and sends the cops on their way – and Drover runs up to save the pair. But it’s too late for Daisy, who has drowned.

I should mention at this point, as I attempt to comment on the race relations in this film, I feel a bit like John Denver. I can sing with ridiculous superficiality about the stereotypes and iconography of Australia, but I’m not about to pretend I can comment insightfully on the Stolen Generations, except to say that they’re an unambiguous case of institutionalized white supremacy, and I’ve learned in the past decade that such arrangements were more the rule than the exception throughout the age of empires. What’s more, it’s literally what the Trump Administration did (on a smaller scale) on the US-Mexico border last year – stealing children from their parents like a fairy-tale demon, traumatizing them at a tender age, and in many cases, deporting their parents and not tracking them in any meaningful way. Many of them will be adopted out or become wards of the state, never to see their families again, through the banal cruelty of a needless policy motivated by the need to tickle the sensibilities of racist rubes, combined with administrative and bureaucratic ineptitude. It is sickening. And even if Australia struggles to find a more detailed message other than “This was bad,” as I view it a decade later, the film feels like a decent prototype of the sort of cultural commentary that will inevitably emerge in the future to damn our current era’s policies in retrospect. Perhaps it’ll be under a rosy glow of romantic adventure, like this film, or quaint nostalgia, à la Forrest Gump. But one way or another, future generations will come to know some part of the present struggle through an artistic lens.

But let’s talk about Daisy’s death. I tend to think that Australia means well, and perhaps even functions as a piece of lightly educational content about the troubled racial history of the continent. But as a pair of white protagonists trade facile barbs about whether or not any specific detail of their employment of or interaction with Aborigines at Faraway Downs constitutes “exploitation,” it all feels a bit undercut when an Indigenous woman dies in the most pointless way possible to save her son from peril that was, in every sense of the word, unnecessary. Aborigines are present in this film, but by and large, their voices are not. And the child Nullah (who is also joining the drove), seems less like a character and more like an avatar for narration. Another Aborigine, Bandy Legs, screams Daisy’s name and cries as the camera fades upward – her pain as much as part of the scenery as the windmill. And the tale goes on. The Aborigines bury their dead, and the distant King George, who is also (*deep sigh*) in front of a greenscreen, seems distraught.

King George (David Gulpilil) stands separately from the rest of the cast, with little exception, for the entirety of the film.

Drover dispatches Lady Ashley, literally because she’s a woman and all that, to comfort the child. This scene is actually quite marvelous, as the well-meaning aristocrat kneels on a pair of newspapers and gives Nullah a lousy rendition of the story of The Wizard of Oz, eventually singing a randomly-keyed rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, a motif that will return throughout the film. Baz? Let’s talk for a moment. I know your country is literally called Oz, but as evocative far-flung renditions go, that song belongs squarely to Iz Kamakawiwo’ole in Hawaii. Just go with Men at Work next time. Although I must say, watching Kidman pretend like she can’t sing (after Luhrmann already showed off her singing prowess just 7 years earlier) is almost as amusingly undignified as making her speak with an English accent, and she has a giddy old time with it, mixing up verse and chorus and giggling and cheering up the boy in spite of herself. Then Nullah, who only exists to advance the plot, tells her that it’s time to get those no-good, cheeky bulls into that big, bloody metal ship, because the grief scene is over, and it’s time to move some cows!

Flynn has apparently been in rehab during this montage, as he shatters an entirely full bottle of rum before announcing he’s ready to join the party. Magarri, Bandy Legs, and another Aborigine join the crew, and Drover delivers some highly specific admonitions to the woman, the kid, and the drunk, and mostly ignores the three others. And off the herd goes, and…I must say, every wide shot of the cows is pretty stellar. The cows don’t have to do a lot (except briefly die in visually thrilling ways), and they kick up enough dust to cover any visual oddities. When the team crosses the river, there seem to be a few dozen actual cows involved. Back in Darwin, a newsreel tells the tale of war in Europe, Carney maneuvers to get the army beef contract, and Fletcher fumes. Villainy is afoot.

As the herd advances through a canyon, Nullah – who has been delivering voiceover this entire time and saying very little, utters his least substantial line yet. Speaking of Lady Ashley, he intones, “When Mrs. Boss first come to this land, she look, but she not see. Now, she got her eyes open for the first time,” and…wow this is embarrassing, “Some places got spirits. White fellas don’t know. Some places no good to go.” King George, who can teleport, is naked atop another cliff as they pass. Four goons with black hats approach to cause trouble. Nullah randomly tells Flynn that King George is his grandfather, and… the man is visibly shocked. Flynn later asks Nullah to confirm that Lord Ashley was killed by a glass-tipped spear. This seems like it’ll be important later. The sun instantaneously rises, Fletcher and his goons (also in front of a greenscreen, but on horseback) crest the hill, start a fire, and scatter the cows, who stampede toward the cliffs. A pattern ensues as this legitimately awesome action-adventure setpiece plays out: Every wide shot is great, every close-up is flat-out terrible. But these people are acting the hell out of it, and honestly, this is exactly the kind of raucous action setpiece I tuned in for. Flynn gets trampled, and a few cows fall as they drive the herd around the cliff, then Fletcher’s goons set off another miraculously well-placed fire line, and the whole bloody mess is heading straight for Nullah at the cliff’s edge. So…he sings at em. We occasionally cut to King George, who does the same. And lo, their magic quells the stampede. Nullah passes out from the ordeal of using his magic, and nearly takes a tumble off the cliff, and Lady Ashley grabs him just in time. King George, who is not in the same location as any other character, says to no one in particular, “You are brave, my grandson.” All of this is pretty stupid, but in a way I’m used to by this point.

Stop me if you’ve herd this one.

Flynn, who was just trampled by 1,497 cows, lives just long enough to tell Drover about the glass-tipped spear (and a cloistered bottle of booze under the cook wagon), then dies. Drover explains to Lady Ashley what it means: Fletcher used one of the ornamental spears inside the homestead to murder Lord Ashley in an effort to frame King George, not realizing that King George (who hails from a different region) would never carry this type of spear. Of all the points this film makes about white Australians exploiting and misunderstanding the Aborigines, this is perhaps one of the most effective, even if it comes on the heels of some melodic cow-magic. Fletcher uses and abuses an Indigenous family, abandons his child to become a ward of the state, and tries to frame the child’s grandfather for an opportunistic murder and betrayal that he himself perpetrated. And why? Because he knew the Aussie police would roll with it, just as we saw they did. The Murderous Black, King George. Rolls right off the tongue. But he couldn’t get his facts straight, so when anyone bothered to look at them with the most basic amount of Aboriginal knowledge, they saw right through it. More on this later.

Lady Ashley gives Hugh Jackman a sweltering look (yeah, her eyes are intense enough to break his character) and tells him, “We can’t let them win.” “We won’t,” says the Drover. And they high-tail it with the herd in the middle of the night. Without being seen by Fletcher and his men. Somehow. Off-screen. Don’t think about it. The next day, they pour shots from Flynn’s bottle (breaking the Drover’s code or something), and toast his memory. They empty the bottle, and as the extras supply background music, Lady Ashley and Drover have a drunken dance, followed by a drunken kiss. Get it, both of you. Then Nullah interrupts with some inane questions from the tree above, before Bandy Legs ushers him back to the fire. Drover reveals he was married before he went off to war, and his wife died of tuberculosis, because back then, the hospitals wouldn’t treat…blacks. No kids. Lady Ashley, despite being visibly shocked by this, politely intones, “What a shame. I think you would’ve made a great father.” “You?” asks Drover. “No. I can’t,” says Lady Ashley. Her childbearing difficulties will not be mentioned again in the film, but Drover echoes her sentiment that she would’ve made a great mother.

A quick aside. The tone of this scene is all over the place, and its glancing treatment of infertility screams that the script was written by multiple dudes. Giving the brooding protagonist both a wartorn past and a dead wife in place of depth is a Christopher Nolan-worthy cliché. But giving the brooding white protagonist a dead Indigenous wife merits a moment’s consideration as to the film’s overall treatment of such people – a treatment which has unceremoniously disposed of at least two such women by this point as a means of motivating the rest of the cast. This very week on the FilmWonk Podcast, we reviewed the new Western anthology from the Coen Brothers, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. And by golly we did our best to comment appropriately on the (seemingly deliberate) cartoonish depiction of Native Americans in a manner that both played into and subverted Western archetypes. And I tend to think we did a decent job of it. But I must admit, when Toronto film critic Adam Nayman convened a panel of Indigenous directors to discuss the film’s depictions of Native Americans, he surely had me pegged when he said this:

“One group we haven’t brought up that is homogenous and white is film critics. That’s maybe one of the reasons why people are more comfortable deconstructing Buster Scruggs in terms of Western tropes than actually talking about the history that it occludes or gets rid of…When you have filmmakers this brilliant, influential and taking up this much oxygen in the discussion – and I know because I just wrote a 90,000-word book on them – how much of this stuff is given a pass because it could be intellectually rationalized? And who are the people rationalizing it? It’s mostly white critics.”

This led me to an editorial by Canadian and Anishinaabe filmmaker Lisa Jackson (also on the panel). In a discussion of media depictions of Canada’s own troubled racial history, she inadvertently describes Australia as well.

“It became easy to separate ourselves from what happened at those schools. Those black-suited historical figures become ciphers onto which we could project the worst in human nature and condemn it, keeping ourselves wholly separate. We would never do those awful things.

And then there is the portrayal of victims. Victims are often voiceless, helpless and also one-sided characters. Their role is to suffer. This dehumanizes and infantilizes them, taking away their agency and complexity. This is generally how Indigenous people are portrayed even in the most well-intentioned stories created by non-Indigenous people. In fact, and unfortunately, there can be a strong correlation between the well-meaning desire to condemn what happened and lift up the victims and the oversimplification of storytelling into the good/evil dichotomy, which gives us the twin satisfaction of being better people than the terrible villains and feeling sorry for the victims, who become sort of childlike and in need of care.

All Indigenous people aren’t the same, all colonial legacies (even within the always-sunny British Empire) are not the same either. But it’s probably fair to say that the well-meaning simplicity of white directors when it comes to approaching Indigenous stories do achieve a level of homogeneity. In 2008, my approach to this subject matter, to these one-dimensional depictions and dismissals, was essentially to ignore them. Or to naively laud them for their efforts (see late teenage Glenn’s reaction to the movie Crash).

This was a good place for this aside, because the rest of the film (which ends in the next 5 minutes as the cattle arrive at Darwin) is just more of the same. Fletcher’s boys poison the wells, and the Aborigines use their magic to guide the herd across an impassable desert called the Never Never. We flash forward to Darwin, where Carney has seemingly planted a tale in the newspaper of the tragic demise of the entire drove (including Lady Ashley), and the Army Captain Dutton (played as a surprise nice-guy turn by Ben Mendelsohn!) tepidly signs the contract just as the drove arrives. Dutton, who’s no fan of Carney, mentions unprompted that the contract isn’t binding until the beef is actually loaded onto the ships, so…a brief, exciting bit of competitive cow-longshoring ensues, and of course the hero-cows make it onto the ships to be heroically slaughtered. Triumph! Happiness. Nullah, who has apparently forgotten the legal peril that he’s in along with the film, drives the last cheeky bull onto the big, bloody metal ship in full view of his father who tried to get him arrested not three days earlier, and…everyone gets drunk. Nullah summarizes, “So everybody get what they want! Everybody happy. Mrs. Boss is gonna sell Faraway Downs and go back England. Everybody happy except for me. Because I not white fella, not black fella either – me belong no one.”

Sigh. The movie is over! Dream a little dream of the credits rolling, because the second movie will begin presently.

Lady Ashley descends a staircase with a loving gaze upon Drover, and announces her intention to stay down under and run Faraway Downs. She offers Drover a job, and…he balks. And also totally misses that she’s asking him out to a celebratory ball with the local gentry – which, once he understands, says he’s “as good as black to them” and refuses. “That’s the way it is,” he says. “Just because that’s the way it is, doesn’t mean it’s the way it should be.” It may be easy to lose in my criticism of the film’s script that I really do adore these two together on-screen. The Drover will repeat this sentiment with bitter sadness later in the film, and these Jackman and Kidman do some outstanding work with what they’re given here. We cut back to the Faraway Downs crew at their camp outside of Darwin, and Bandy Legs is plotting to take Nullah to go see The Wizard of Oz in Darwin. After painting his face with ash so he looks like he’s the child of two black parents, and thus will merely be treated badly, but not stolen away to Mission Island. This is…colossally fucked up, but it’s actually one of the few bits of racial politics where the Aborigines are shown to make a decision for themselves, which really just makes me disappointed that it does nothing to advance the plot.

Back at the ball, Lady Ashley (going solo) meets the friendly Captain Dutton, and a pair of rich old women grouse about her husband barely being cold in the ground when she’s taking up with another man. And I have to say, even though they’ve misread this specific situation, they kinda have a point. Lady Ashley followed her husband down to Australia under the assumption he was traveling to cheat on her, and the film presents no evidence that this was ever anything more than her own insecurities. When she finds out that her husband was murdered by his business partner (after previously believing he was murdered by a local Aboriginal elder), she had already started smooching with the Drover not three days later. It’s a scandal and it kinda should be. Anyway, it turns out Lady Ashley just wants to inquire with the good captain about the legality of adopting Nullah in order to protect him (not sure what an Army captain would have to do with this, but okay). There’s some fine juxtaposition in the staging of this scene, because as a conversation about racist nonsense proceeds (underneath some randomly placed Chinese lanterns), Lady Ashley is literally being auctioned off (for a dance) to benefit the very same racist childrens’ missions that she’s trying to keep Nullah away from. An unspecified Old White Dude pipes up with some racist nonsense about how adopting Nullah is quite out of the question because [blah blah blah Aborigines aren’t people, it’s all awful and period-authentic and I won’t recap it in detail here]. Lady Ashley correctly points out that this is nonsense, and perhaps we should ask their fathers, since…after all, they’re in this room. Carney breaks the tension by bidding 500 quid for the lady’s hand, and they proceed with a tense dance. She accuses Fletcher of murdering her husband, which…Carney seems genuinely surprised by. And then he offers once again to buy her property, even going so far as to offer the continued residency and protection of the workers and kids into the contract. She’s on the verge of taking his offer, when a clean-shaven Hugh Jackman shows up for a Foxtrot. She tells Carney the ranch is not for sale, and romance ensues.

The Drover (Hugh Jackman) only shaves with a live crocodile.

Throwing a fancy ball really is where Luhrmann (and production designer Catherine Martin, who also worked on Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby) excel, and this one happening entirely outdoors, in period garb, on a waterfront no less, really is a sight to behold. And then a rainstorm erupts, the couple kisses, the music swells, and party hoots and hollers. Carney, who it turns out really was just a ruthless tycoon and not an accessory to murder, tells Fletcher he’s done with him (and a prior plan to marry his daughter Cath Carney is quite out of the question). Nullah, over at the movie theater, sits in the rain continuing to watch The Wizard of Oz, and, it kinda seems like this would be a convenient time for his ashen blackface to wash off and create some logically-consistent peril, but the movie has no time for that, because it’s time for the official couple to get busy. And we’re talkin hardcore “Rated PG-13 for some Sensuality”-careful-sheet-placement sex in a colossal four-poster behind an open screen-door. Getting it all the way on (in a single position with zero motion). And, yes, it’s all very sweet.

Montage. Nullah’s voiceover continues a bit less obnoxiously than before as Faraway Downs blooms in the rain. The workers work, the children play, and it’s strongly implied that Lady Ashley is bribing a cop (or perhaps just serving him tea) to turn a blind eye to Nullah’s presence on the ranch. There are many, many magic-hour kisses in front of various pristine vistas, and it’s all quite lovely. During the dry season, Drover droves – but he always comes back during the wet season.

Tee hee.

Anyway, Fletcher murders Carney with a rifle-butt into a crocodile, marries his daughter Cath (her father apparently didn’t bother to warn her about Fletcher being a murderer and stuff). Two years have passed, and Japan enters the war. Fletcher arrives at Faraway Downs to be a dick some more, threatens Lady Ashley, Nullah, and the ranch. Lady Ashley threatens to tell Fletcher’s new beef heiress wife that Nullah is Fletcher’s son, and he…essentially confesses to murdering Lady Ashley’s husband and threatens to do the same to her. Then he says his new catchphrase, “Pride’s not power!” before smirking away. Lady Ashley admonishes Bandy Legs not to tell the Drover about the conversation. Out in the yard, the Drover performs some recreational horse chores, and Nullah spews the following bits of random, plot-motivating nonsense through the fence:

“You a man, Drover? Sometimes man got to get away from woman. That’s why you go droving. If you don’t go droving, you not a man. King George tell me I gotta go walkabout. If I a man, I gotta go walkabout. Learn’em be a man.”

I have no idea what this child is talking about, but I think he needs to shut up. Captain Dutton comes back to offer a big Army drove for the next 6 months, and Drover (who has internalized Nullah’s speech with shocking haste) immediately decides to accept it. Nullah disappears on walkabout with King George. Lady Ashley and Drover argue about whether or not to go after him, with the Drover denying that Nullah is his responsibility, and expressing certainty that it’ll be impossible to find him. The Drover is making sense here – they can’t keep Nullah captive if he wants to leave – but it’s fairly amusing to see the Drover explain that it’s impossible to track Nullah down, considering the police find and arrest him along with King George not two minutes later. The argument reaches an impasse, and Drover says he’s off to the drove and will be back in 6 months. Lady Ashley issues an ultimatum. Either the Drover stays with her at the ranch, or…she doesn’t want him to return. Bye-bye, Drover.

A series of elaborate vfx shots of the now-packed Darwin harbor ensue. It’s on a war footing, littered with civilian and naval vessels and personnel, and everyone prepares to evacuate to the South. Everyone except…the mixed-race children being whisked off to Mission Island, and the Catholic clergy in charge of them. These scenes (shot in a real coastal town in Queensland, heavily enhanced with CGI) look dated, but they’re good. Nullah is taken away to Mission Island as Lady Ashley protests ten feet away behind a fence – there are literally thousands of people visible in these shots, but this town really is quite tiny. Cath Fletcher encourages her husband to do something to help Lady Ashley (and seems vaguely progressive compared to her peers). He promptly heads down to the dock to join Lady Ashley, mocks the survival prospects of Nullah (his son) on Mission Island, which has a radio tower and will thus be an attractive target for the Imperial Japanese. He orders Lady Ashley to take a job with his wife at Army HQ, and he’ll allow her to stay close, provided she signs the contract. He repeats his dumb catchphrase a few more times as he walks away. He has about two months to live.

They at least seem to be in a real place together this time.

In the Outback, Magarri – now revealed to be the Drover’s brother-in-law – challenges him on why he left Lady Ashley behind. Magarri accuses him of being afraid of getting his heart broken again like when his sister died, and says that the Drover probably never even told Lady Ashley that he loves her. Just as with Nullah, the Drover internalizes this speech with alarming haste, and the two brothers high-tail it back to Darwin. Two months have somehow passed without Lady Ashley selling the ranch to Fletcher, and he finally offers to reunite her with Nullah on Mission Island if she signs the contract. Again, it is entirely unclear to me how he has this power, but apparently beef barons own the north, and that’s just the way it is. Yet another high-stakes contract-signing gets interrupted at the last second, as an armada of Imperial Japanese bombers arrives. A handful of them peel off to strafe and bomb Mission Island, and the rest head squarely into Darwin. A red-headed woman stands before an open window and stares directly at the bombers’ approach, and an explosion destroys the wall, killing her. A bomb explodes next to King George’s cell, releasing him. He stands perfectly safe in the open like the wizard that he is, watching the bombs explode around him, and the whole of Darwin town, ships and buildings alike, are bombed to their foundations. The Drover shows up in the aftermath, and believes Lady Ashley is dead. She’s not though. It was Cath. We learn this in approximately 90 seconds. This sequence really is a visual feast, but it has zero tension.

The heartbroken Drover arrives at the only bar in Darwin (which is still standing), and demands that his brother Magarri be allowed into the segregated bar for a [PG-13] “fucking drink!”. Ivan the (Racist and Sexist) Bartender refuses, then reluctantly agrees. This is good. Magarri deserves one last drink, because he’ll be dead by the end of this paragraph. Ivan explains that Mission Island was indeed hit first, and Nullah and the rest of the children are surely in God’s hands now. Drover and Magarri promptly hijack a boat and head out to the island, where they find dozens of children alive. This seems…more cheery than it ought to be, given the amount of strafing we saw in that attack. But Drover quickly finds Nullah, tells him that they can’t say Lady Ashley’s name anymore, and warm hugs are had by all, before Imperial Japanese soldiers approach through the jungle. Drover and the kids hide under the dock and make their way to the end of the peer, and Magarri helpfully offers to stay behind and die. What the fuck, movie? Remember earlier in the film when Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman spoke of exploitation? This, right here, is exploitation. I mean, good lord, Magarri (whose name I’m about to no longer be able to say) might as well change his name to Character Shield for his remaining seconds as he buys the escaping kids no time, and dies for nothing. He hides bravely behind a pier, and engages a dozen soldiers with a bolt-action rifle as the kids float to safety. The gun jams after two shots, and he runs and dies pointlessly.

Goodbye, [ ], we hardly knew ye.
And that’s a wrap, David. Farewell, sir.

The boat makes its way back into the harbor, and King George makes literally his first tangible contribution to the plot by standing atop a Carney silo and singing toward the harbor so the boat can find its way back through the fog. Nullah plays “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on his harmonica, the other children join in, and through the magic of music, everyone stops and is reunited – Drover, Lady Ashley, Nullah, and the rest of the children. This moment is very sweet, and it’s amazing what a moment of musical catharsis – even one as hamfistedly executed as this – can bring. The concern for Lady Ashley’s and Nullah’s purported deaths lasted barely a few minutes in movie time, but this family credibly sold its anguish (even if they got over the death of [ ] pretty much instantaneously). A dumb sequence ensues where Fletcher blames Lady Ashley and Nullah for his wife’s demise, and proceeds to hunt them with a rifle. King George makes his second tangible contribution to the plot by spearing the fuck out of him from a hundred yards with a pipe from the water tower. King George also speaks the only line that he has spoken so far to another character, “He’s my grandson, and he’s your son.” Not bad, King George, I guess.

<——Just pretend this caption is an improvised spear ——<

The couple shares a merry kiss, the family returns to Faraway Downs, and Nullah gives his most nonsensical voiceover yet: “One thing I know. Why we tell story is the most important of all. That’s how you keep them people belong you…always.” In due course, King George shows up (a hundred yards away, in front of a greenscreen, as is his way). Nullah strips off his shirt and heads out on walkabout with his grandfather, who whispers a few more lines in Lady Ashley’s direction: “You have been on a journey, now we are heading home. To my country. To our country.” Then he bares his ass to the camera and walks away.

Another caption:

“The government officially abandoned the assimilation policy for Indigenous Australians in the Northern Territory in 1973. In 2008, the Prime Minister of Australia offered a formal apology to the members of the Stolen Generations.”

Fin. Credits.

This movie is thin. Thin as tomato bisque. But I have to admit, I can still see some of its appeal. Americans are spoiled for choice when it comes to mythologized narratives of our history, but one that still occasionally entertains me is the 2000 Roland Emmerich film The Patriot. That film is harder to watch now that Mel Gibson has also shown his ass to the camera and walked away (mostly), but it’s one I’ve always watched with a pretty hefty grain of salt. An action hero leads a group of guerillas with muskets who win the American Revolution because unlike those stupid evil war-crimey Redcoats, these guys were the first paramilitary force in history to think of the brilliant tactic of shooting from behind cover. Apart from the preposterous action, the racial politics of that film were also a mess, with Gibson playing a fictionalized version of a slave-holding plantation owner, with the slaves conveniently transposed onto paid servants in Colonial South Carolina in 1776. Sure. I guess my point is: a decade ago, and a number of times since, I’ve spoken of Australia as a cinematic feast (a phrase I may have also borrowed from the /Filmcast). Now, I suppose I’d call it more of an all-you-can-eat buffet. Not good for you, exactly, but it’ll fill you up. Judging Luhrmann’s undeniably loving tribute to his homeland in the same way as Emmerich’s blatant historical revisionism almost makes me give it a pass. Almost. But when it comes to laying out the details of painful chapters of institutional racism, we owe it to the future to do better. And to expand the pool of stories and storytellers to make sure those stories can be told properly.

FilmWonk rating: 5.5 out of 10

Phyllida Lloyd’s “Mamma Mia!” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Poster for Mamma Mia

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 wandering through the mall with my father on a weekday afternoon at the ripe old age of 23, and he suggested we should pop over to the local multiplex to watch Mamma Mia!. He and I weren’t mall people then, and are even less so now, and my mother had been a far more common cinema partner (the last father-son movie outing had been the second Lord of the Rings film six years earlier), so I cannot overemphasize what an odd suggestion this was. Odder still was this particular film: A jukebox musical featuring the music of 1970s Swedish pop group ABBA, a band whose music I vaguely enjoyed, but was scarcely familiar with beyond “Dancing Queen“. This was before the Shazam app existed, and ABBA sat firmly in the vague pop culture place of, “Oh, yeah – I guess I have heard that song.” Even less in my public consciousness was Amanda Seyfried, who plays the lead in this film, and whom I knew at the time exclusively as the dumbest of the Mean Girls. But apart from Moulin Rouge!, another exclamatory jukebox musical that I adored then and now, I found the disjointed exhibition format of this film to be utterly vexing. Let me explain, by way of a brief anecdote. A couple of years earlier, in 2006, I flew to upstate New York to visit some friends at Wells College, in the tiny town of Aurora, outside of Syracuse. Wells had been an exclusively women’s college for 136 years, until allowing a handful of men into the mix and officially becoming co-ed the previous year. As such, I was permitted to spend the weekend in my friends’ dorm (I recall some common-area couch-surfing was involved). The day I arrived, they gleefully informed me of the first event on my itinerary: I would accompany them, twenty minutes hence, to a meeting of the Campus Pirate Club, where we would watch all 129 minutes of the 2005 Digital Playground film, Pirates. In case you’re not familiar with that studio’s oeuvre, what I’m referring to here is a feature-length pornographic film – one of the most expensive ever made – that I watched in a common room with no less than 15 undergrad women (and I think 1 other man), with the express intention of discussing it through a feminist lens when the movie was over. This being the only occasion in which I had done this extremely specific thing, I came to the quick realization that there’s not a lot of flow to the storyline of such a film. Whenever the adult stars began to do their business, two things would occur: the crowd in my viewing parlor would start to mercilessly mock and riff on what they were seeing, and I would reach for the Stephen King novella collection that I had started on the plane, tuning the movie out. This is a slightly obscene comparison, and I won’t slander Mamma Mia! by suggesting that I thought of it in these exact terms when I first saw it. But looking back, I can see why I’m mentally grouping these experiences together. In Mamma Mia!, as each thinly-justified pop song veered into a boring digression before my eyes, the story ground to a halt, and the characters and plot contorted themselves into whatever shape the performance of the minute required of them. And I knew, with both films, that now would indeed be a safe time to leave the room.

But it was better this time. A lot better. Perhaps it’s my later familiarity with ABBA talking, or my continuing interest in Seyfried’s acting chops, but this movie sparked joy in me this time around that was mostly absent on my first viewing. And while it still has sufficient excess (and ambiguous seamen) to merit the comparison, this will be the last Pirates joke I make about it. Now on with the review.

We open on Sophie (Seyfried), a 20-year-old bride-to-be on a rowboat in the moonlight, preparing a trio of letters, and singing “I Have a Dream“, used quite a bit more happily than where I’ve seen it since. She is on a Greek island called Kalokairi, and informs her trio of bridesmaids that she’s been sneakily reading her mom’s diary from the year that she was pregnant. It turns out that Donna (Meryl Streep) had a busy summer that year, taking a trio of men in turns to this particular island, where she danced with each of them on the beach, and then, “[dot dot dot]”. Within those dots lies the plot, because Sophie has been raised by Donna as a single mother, and has no idea who her father is. Since she has correctly (and with an abundance of giggles) inferred the meaning of this euphemistic punctuation, she gleefully reveals that she has sent letters to each of the three men, inviting them each to the wedding on her mother’s behalf.

And Sophie’s three potential padres are:

  • Sam (Pierce Brosnan), an Irish-American architect.
  • Harry (Colin Firth), a British banker.
  • Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), a fisherman and travel writer.

The dads arrive on the Greek mainland and happen upon each other, quickly deducing that they’re all heading to the same wedding, and they each hitch a ride on Bill’s boat. Meanwhile, Donna is joined on the island by her two childhood friends:

  • Tanya, a wealthy thrice-divorcee (Juilliard-trained Christine Baranski, the film’s best singer by a significant margin)
  • Rosie (Julie Walters), accomplished chef, bestselling cookbook author, and confirmed bachelorette.

Let me tell you what I was grappling with as these two obviously parallel bands of older characters were introduced in obvious and coincidental ways to be obviously and coincidentally matched up by the film’s end. I’ve come to realize over the past decade (and with the 2012 Tom Hooper Les Misérables in particular) that there are narrative tricks and shortcuts that I am prepared to forgive from the musical genre that I will not tolerate from any other: love at first sight, unexplained “death by tragedy”, or the correct number and orientation of characters to get tidily paired off or kill each other by the story’s end. It’s not like the musical genre pioneered these tropes (they were common in Shakespeare as well), but they did teach me that something I would regard as a detriment in any other genre – characters acting “how the script needs them to act” from moment to moment – is an asset when it’s needed to kick off a jaunty song and dance. But therein lies the conundrum with a jukebox musical: when the songs are as thinly justified as “Money, Money, Money” was in this scene, they test my predisposition to view them charitably, nearly to destruction. The subtext of the scene and song is that Donna has been a single mom running a broken-down hotel, and hasn’t had a day off in 15 years, and she also has mixed feelings about her daughter Sophie getting married and potentially leaving the island – and herself – behind. I’m calling out this scene for a few reasons. First, because this was a particularly egregious example of the song justifying the scene, and not vice versa. Second, because this struggle, while ably played by both Streep and Seyfried, felt perfunctory and was poorly justified in the script. And third, because I wasn’t entirely correct in my dismissive assumptions about how the characters would all get paired off romantically by the end. Mamma Mia! isn’t exactly full of surprises, but it managed a red herring or two, and the first of them is set up right here. More on this later.

Apart from the singsong trickery, all of the old-friends interactions between Donna, Tanya, and Rosie – known collectively by their former music group moniker, The Dynamos – are just delightful. Their every interaction is a flurry of contradictions: Donna is in her home, dealing with work and ambivalence about her daughter’s future, but her friends are here to enjoy a vacation in paradise. The three of them are getting on in years, but they’ve known each other since they were teenagers, and fully regress to youthful demeanor in each other’s presence, dunking on and bantering with each other, with the added mix of being able to drink alcohol and, on at least one occasion, pop pills. Donna – who is about to find out that the dads have arrived – revels in the potential joys of revisiting her old flames, but also throws in a few motherly digressions – perhaps from her own intervening years, perhaps echoed from her deeply Catholic mother – literally calling herself a “stupid, reckless little slut” at one point. While Money, Money, Money didn’t work spontaneously, many of their other digressions worked well – “Chiquitita” and “Dancing Queen” come in rapid succession, just as much out of nowhere – but all of the prior scenes between these three powerhouse actresses sell these moments well. When it comes down to it, these three work brilliantly as friends, and while Baranski is clearly the most experienced singer of the three, Streep and Walters are more than adequate songbirds for this material. Streep manages to sell her signature number (“Mamma Mia!“) brilliantly, as she joyously romps around a rooftop peeping on the dads, who are cloistered in the goat-house attic.

Goat-house attic? Let’s back up. So much of this film’s setup relies on misunderstandings and secrets and lies stacked on top of outright lies – this is comic melodrama bordering on farce, but it’s wicked fun. Sophie intercepts the dads on the dock, and promptly stashes them in the attic of a building that we only ever hear referred to as the goat-house. She confesses that she sent the invitations, and Donna has no idea that the three men are there. After some brief panic and bonding, they mysteriously agree to go along with this plan, and literally ten seconds pass before Donna spots them, seeing them in flashbacks as they appeared when she knew them. And, if I might put my thumb on the scale, Brosnan is the clear winner, and I can only hope that if a needless origin sequel to this film is released today, that these exact hairstyles are retained.

Mamma Mia! flashback triptych

So – Donna falls into the attic and somehow believes that these men all arrived at the same time as a mere coincidence (with some vague blame placed on the goddess Aphrodite, whose fountain might just be on this very island!), and demands that they take off immediately before Sophie sees them. Her willful ignorance here is…a bit much, but all of these men clearly still have some feeling for her, and it plays well. The dads flee to Bill’s boat, and Sophie swims out to prevent them from leaving.

And this is the moment. Colin Firth starts “Our Last Summer“, but his sweet, boring vocals are quickly displaced by those of the deservedly notorious Pierce Brosnan. And what can I say here? He really is quite a mediocre singer – the only comparably bad vocals that come to mind were those of Russell Crowe‘s Javert in the aforementioned Les Mis – and there’s not much more to say about it without being unkind. Sam is not merely singing badly, but outside of his vocal range as well, and it’s almost bad enough to distract from the well-executed montage that occurs here, which is Sophie bonding with all three of her prospective dads – Sam makes a sketch of her, the group jumps off a seaside cliff, they share a bonfire on the beach… This whole dynamic, which continues with Sophie as the film goes on, is very nice. These men aren’t noticeably competing with each other, and – a few scenes later when they realize what Sophie’s after, are interested in the truth about Sophie’s parentage, but they still aren’t interested in fighting each other over it. To put it in reality TV terms, these people did come here to make friends, and they seem to largely succeed.

If I were to devote an entire paragraph to each song, this would be quite a long review, so I’ll gloss over the next few: Sophie’s fiancé Sky (Dominic Cooper) shows up before his stag party for a little pre-marital [dot dot dot] with Sophie on the beach, and they sing a lusty duet of “Lay All Your Love on Me” before literally twenty men show up to haul him off, flex their muscles, and then leap from the dock, before tearing off on jetskis. I guess Sky’s a popular fellow! I should mention here, I enjoyed this moment a bit more this time around, because 23-year-old Glenn had never heard the term “stag party” (British slang for a bachelor party), and had no idea who this phalanx of dudes were, or why they had abducted the groom. Huzzah for British TV!

Back at the bachelorette party (“hen party!” – silly Brits), Donna and the Dynamos jump on stage in all their fabulous, sequinned glory, and begin an awkward a cappella performance of “Super Trouper“, before hitting the boombox and suddenly getting good again. This was a fine little flourish of musical storytelling to quickly remind the audience that this is the group’s first public performance in a while, before hitting us with the deft choreography and pristine vocals that we expect of the genre. Bravo.

I’ll only make one other note here, which is the one I wrote during the rewatch: “What the hell is a Super Trouper?“. The answer…will disappoint you. Never look it up. The dads show up to watch, but are quickly shown the door by Rosie, who reminds them no men are allowed at a hen party. But the ladies (all in their early 20s) disagree, and drag all three of these…45 through 57-year-old men…back into the party for some body shots (“Gimme Gimme Gimme“)? Yeah, I’m not pulling a screenshot for that. You’ll just have to imagine it. Nonetheless, a few important things happen in this scene. The Dynamos hatch a plot to get the dads plastered tonight and…take them fishing in the morning? Possibly to murder or sleep with them? It’s all a bit vague and innuendo-laden (Baranski’s lusty delivery of “Well now that takes me back” is worth the price of admission), and meanwhile, each of the dads has a private chat with Sophie, and they each deduce why she has brought them there: to find her father among them.

Now let me say some kind words about all of these actors: This scene contains some of the only purely character-driven drama in the film. Seyfried is outstanding, and the dawning realization on each man’s face as they learn that Sophie is fatherless and of an age to be their child, really sells this film’s melodrama in a way that transcends all of its lyrical silliness. Brosnan is as good an actor as he is bad a singe – KIND WORDS, I said – okay. Brosnan is good. Firth’s eyes widen, but his real reaction comes later. And the upshot of this scene is that Bill has the most convincing paternal claim: his aunt left Donna some money to buy the hotel – money that Bill always knew had gone to someone in his family. And now he knows who that someone is: his daughter. Skarsgård owns the terror on Bill’s face as he high-tails it out of the party, with Sophie following him down to the moonlit rocks, demanding he tell her the truth. “Are you my father?” He is. Or at least he thinks he is. Speaking outside the logic of the film, I think the script’s actual answer is that Bill is the father, even if, by intention, it’s never definitively confirmed. Sophie asks Bill to keep it a secret until the wedding, and walk her down the aisle.

And then it gets weird and intense. The party gets invaded by Sky and the mask-clad dude brigade, who literally repel in, and a stellar dance number ensues to the tune of “Voulez-Vous“. This is actually the third or fourth of these big chorus numbers with dozens of featured extras, and while I didn’t call them out in previous scenes, they’re all pretty stellar. And then Sam and Harry come up in turn to identify themselves as Sophie’s father and volun-tell her that they’re walking her down the aisle. The cast and chorus swirl around Sophie, she realizes she’s in over her head, and promptly passes out.

Take a look at that sailboat. Just look at it. This film has already hit its dramatic and musical peak, we somehow still have 50 minutes remaining. The sun rises on a new day, and instead of the film jumping directly to the wedding as it should, the lobby lights blink warmly on and off, and I’m reminded that this is as close to a real-world musical theatre experience as I’ve ever had at the cinema. Mamma Mia! is directed by English stage veteran Phyllida Lloyd, who premiered the original West End production in 1999, and the film showboats extravagantly at this point, meandering as if its curtain is rising to an audience that’s paid a hundred quid per ticket to be here (half-price for students and same-days), and have all just spent 15 minutes in the lobby pounding liquor, debating exactly which costume and song they liked the best, plotting where they’ll go to have their cake and coffee when it’s over, and they simply won’t tolerate anything less than another hour of libretto and a dozen more fully-produced songs. And finally this film’s overwhelming indulgence starts to makes sense to me. The second act of this film is much more of a hoot than I remembered, but I stand by my original assessment: most of it is unnecessary.

After some brief “Previously on Mamma Mia!” banter between the respective groups, a bizarre scene ensues between Bill and Harry on the boat. Harry tells Bill that he realized something incredible and self-defining for the first time last night, and here is where I admit a minor personal failing: on my first viewing, I completely failed to pick up on the fact that Harry was gay – or at least mostly gay – until he spells it out at the end of the film. I thought this scene was just a cheeky misunderstanding that the movie was leaning into, because using a gay or presumed-to-be-gay character as a punchline was par for the course in the 90s and 00s. But I realize now that I just saw what I expected to see here, and in so doing, I did the film a disservice. This scene is as clear as mud, but it’s also cleverer than I ever gave it credit for. Bill thinks Harry is talking about being secretly gay, while Harry is actually talking about finding out Sophie is his daughter. But Harry is also secretly gay, and Bill, a worldly gentleman, is baffled that Harry didn’t know this about himself already. Bill has just gotten out of the shower and is wearing nothing but a towel in this scene, and again I’ll say: I genuinely believe now that him being alone and naked with a closeted gay man is not intended as the punchline here, except for the scene’s capacity to toy with the audience’s assumptions. Bill is actually remarkably chill about it, encouraging Harry to tell his truth out loud, and Harry, who has also mysteriously agreed to keep Sophie’s parentage a secret (despite being the only dad of the three who made no such promise at the party last night), steadfastly refuses, saying that “all will be revealed tonight”. Sigh. Next, Bill tells Harry that he also realized something last night, and Harry thinks he’s talking about hitting on Rosie. Their discussion quickly veers apart, and Rosie pops in at the open hatch above before Bill (or the audience) can really understand what the hell just happened, and the scene abruptly ends with some butt jokes. This doesn’t work so well – as after two recent viewings of the party scene, I saw no spark between Bill and Rosie. But as I noted above, they are one of the more predictable romantic pairings in the film, so it comes as no shock when they get a cat-and-mouse romantic duet at the end of the film.

Donna and Sophie meet in the courtyard to have a fight over whether or not the wedding will be canceled (which Donna offers quite out of nowhere), and…I just realized we’re 62 minutes into this film and this is the first time that this pair – mother and daughter, and the two main characters in this film – have had a conversation. This scene is even more baffling than the one that it follows, and Sophie ends it on a genuinely hurtful note: that she doesn’t want her children growing up not knowing who their father is, because “it’s crap”. Streep plays this moment with muted devastation, letting Donna feel it for just long enough before clattering on with wedding preparation. But she’s about to be even sadder, because it’s Pierce Brosnan-solo time. Of the three dads, Sam is the most clearly still in love with Donna, and he declares it here with an awkward monologue about bagpipes, followed by a bagpipe-worthy rendition of “SOS“. But let’s talk about what happened in the middle there. Sam implores Donna to let Sophie go, she’s a bright kid, she wants to see the world, etc. Sam’s knowing pretension about matters he rightfully should know nothing about should probably bother me more, but it honestly doesn’t – see above, re: forgiving this sort of thing from the musical genre. Sam is the love interest, Donna loves him right back in song, and lo, they are a couple, and he can tell it to Donna like the script says it is. This is fine, and Streep and Brosnan really do sell it, even if the latter’s singing is unforgivably bad. Speaking of unforgivably bad, Donna and Sophie’s mother-daughter dynamic is explored in one more montage before the film is over (“Slipping Through my Fingers“), which I will not be discussing any further. It’s all very pretty, but it still doesn’t illuminate this underexplored relationship one bit, or make Sophie’s quixotic decision at the film’s end make any more sense to me. These actors work. This relationship does not.

And now it’s Christine Baranski‘s time to shine. If my knowledge of Seyfried was limited in 2008, my knowledge of Baranski was even more so – The Good Wife was more than a year away, and I knew her solely from a guest appearance as a parody-Dr. Laura on Frasier. Tanya emerges from a jetski after landing a sick burn on Harry, and it’s revealed that she hooked up with the bartender (and Sky’s best man), Pepper (Phillip Michael), last night. Pepper puts on his charm in the hopes of a second round, and Tanya busts out a saucy mockery of May-December romance, in the form of a house-demolishing solo of “Does Your Mother Know?“. Baranski is absolutely in command here. Her dancing is flawless, her boy-toy dismissal is blistering, and this is as thorough a demonstration of Tanya’s dynamic with her pair of friends as the film has time for. She is on vacation, and in this place, she feels young, and can fully regress. She’s still got it, and she knows it and acts like it. “Girls,” she intones, “We done good.” Okay, Brosnan is forgiven unless he sings two more songs, and I take back everything I said about the second act. I can’t imagine this film without this joyous diversion.

Some other stuff happens. It doesn’t matter, so I’m not going to talk about it. Donna and Sophie have the montage I mentioned above, and Sophie asks her mother to be the one who gives her away. They cry. And then it’s sundown, the wedding party assembles, and Sophie gets hoisted side-saddle onto a freaking donkey like she’s Jesus Christ, and the gang parades their way toward a terrifying, tide-battered rock with a chapel perched precariously at the top. Sophie knows they’re about to blow up the sitcom misunderstanding that she and her mother have been inflating over the course of the film, so her panic should be palpable. But honestly, if I were her, I’d mostly be experiencing pangs of height-induced vertigo at this moment. The party shuffles off, and Sam intercepts Donna. He makes romantic overtures (and paternal ones as well), and Donna declares that she will be giving Sophie away at the wedding. Then she serenades him before the glowing sea (“The Winner Takes It All“), and he stands stoicly. Brosnan seems well-prepared, standing stoicly and only occasionally grabbing his own neck for support…I guess he’s studied his Garfunkel and Oates. Meryl Streep is a star. Her singing is fine, but her acting is stellar, and she makes every beat of this angsty romance and lyrical irony flow perfectly. Every twinge, every emotion, every little chuckle… You can trust Streep. She always knows what she’s doing. Even if we’ll have to hear Sam sing about it a couple more times, these two will be together if Donna declares it. And this rock (a real place with a real chapel!) is really quite stunning. I understated its fairytale beauty above, even if it genuinely looks like every actor ascending it is in mortal peril.

Donna reaches the chapel during magic hour, and the wedding kicks off. All three dads stand up, Donna and Sophie each realize what the other has done, and sweet, sweet confessions ensue. Sam reveals that he went home to his fiancée (which we knew), told her exactly what had happened, called off his wedding, and returned to the island to be with Donna – but she was off with one of the others by this point. So he went home to his ex-fiancée Lorraine, who “called [him] an idiot and married [him] to prove it”. He is an idiot, in that way that only romantic characters can be (didn’t Gosling and McAdams pull this same “just missed ya” routine in The Notebook?). Harry stands up to tell the whole church that he’s been gay this whole time (and nods to a male PYT that he apparently had a fling with at the stag party), but he’s still thrilled to have “a third of Sophie”, as she’s more of a child than he ever expected to have (I didn’t mention this above, but he cornered Donna and offered to pay for the wedding, as Tanya had bitingly suggested). Sam and Bill say similar things: they’re all happy to be Sophie’s 1/3-father. It’s all very nice.

And then Sophie goes insane. No, really, I have no explanation for what happens next. So I’ll simply transcribe it.

Sophie: You know, I have no clue which one of you is my dad, but I don’t mind! Now, I know what I really want. Sky, let’s just not get married yet.
*crowd gasps*
Sky: What?!
Sophie: You never wanted this anyway. I know that! Let’s just get off this island…and just see the world. Okay? Alright?
Sky (thunderstruck): I love you.
Priest: Donna, do I take it the wedding is canceled?
Donna (and the audience): I’m not entirely sure what’s happening right now.
Sam: Hang on. Why waste a good wedding? How about it, Sheridan? You’re going to need someone to boss around on this island of yours.
Donna: Are you nuts? I am not a bigamist!
Sam: Neither am I. I’m a divorced man who’s loved you for 21 years, and ever since the day I set foot on this island, I’ve been trying to tell you how much I love you. Come on, Donna! It’s only the rest of your life!

And then Sam sings again (“I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do“) and OH GOD JUST MARRY HIM SO HE’LL SHUT UP.

She does. He doesn’t. (“When All Is Said and Done“)
Bill and Rosie lament being spares, and have their extremely bizarre rooftop courtship (“Take a Chance on Me“). The courtyard explodes, Aphrodite’s fountain bursts, and another chorus of “Mamma Mia!” (now performed by ABBA) plays over the ensuing dance orgy, which fades out, and we see a day-for-night shot of Sophie reprising “I Have a Dream“. Credits! The Dynamos rise out of the water (in another stunning set of glittery costumes) to sing “Dancing Queen” a second time. They laugh maniacally, Meryl screams like a rockstar and asks if we want another one. We do. They sing “Waterloo“. That was 7 songs in under 10 minutes. Did I enjoy it? Yes. But this is the Return of the King ending on bath salts.

What is allegedly this film’s core conflict – between Sophie and Donna over whether or not she will get married, leave the island, or both, is almost a total miss. But everything within each group – the Dynamos, the dads, Sophie’s interactions with the latter, landed well, and the acting was dynamite, even if the singing had a clear weak link in the chain. In the end, I found revisiting this film, writing this review, and if I may say so, every moment of Seyfried’s joy in being the prime mover of this plot, to be utter delights. I don’t regret the comparison I made in the opening paragraph, as it’s fair to say that jukebox musicals are thoroughly on the indulgent side of the genre. But I would no longer place this film and Moulin Rouge! in separate categories. Moulin Rouge! may have been more elaborate, but each film was gorgeous, melodramatic, and self-indulgent in its own way, and I would say I enjoy each of them equally at this point. Mamma Mia! hooked me and didn’t let go. On a work night, I stayed awake until 1AM finishing up this review, because I just couldn’t bring myself to retrieve screenshots with maximal efficiency, and found myself essentially rewatching every musical number for a second time within a week. And with this week’s [still-unnecessary] sequel being compared, perhaps seriously, to The Godfather: Part II – I’ll concede that I may need to check this one out. Apparently Brosnan’s “SOS” has even improved. I’ll believe it when I hear it.

(“Thank You For the Music“)

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

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

Poster for

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual. Further, it contains candid discussion of kidnapping, child abuse, and sexual assault as it pertains to the film’s subject matter. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10