Killing Them Softly opens with a longish shot which slowly jump-cut shakes down a tunnel leading onto a debris-strewn, wind-whipped expanse full of scraps of swirling litter, a ticker-tape parade from which the revellers have long fled, backdropped by ’08 McCain/Obama campaign posters. The shot is intercut with interference-scratch over black-panel credits, a warping of an already post-apocalyptic cityscape, and the effect is apt. The rain-spattered ruins of New Orleans, already Katrina-pummelled and moribund, is now host to Andrew Dominik’s bleak update of the George V Higgins novel, Cogan’s Trade, a doubly-depressive setting for economic meltdown and an opportunistic heist gone predictably and disastrously askew.
Ray Liotta’s Markie runs Mob poker games from a gruesomely lit (rusting metals and colour-sapped portent) rogue’s den on the fringes of town. The scene is all rain rattle on cold corrugated roofs and blue-tinged twilight. These characters are ghosts hiding from humdrum life, and Liotta looks ever more like a wraith, some ghoulish, recently whacked marginal hoodlum refusing to expire. (He gets a kicking later on in the film so monumental that his reappearance thereafter only exacerbates this suspicion.) The game is interrupted by masked thieves who scarper with the kitty; Liotta, in flashback, maniac-laughs a concession as to his involvement in the in-house robbery.
Said flashback appears as part of Brad Pitt’s opening monologue to Driver (Richard Jenkins). Pitt is hitman Jackie Cogan, enlisted by The Mob via the uncomfortably straight interlocutor Driver to sort out various quandaries and internecine squabbles, ‘sort out’ in this context running from menaces to morgue-induction. Cogan runs through the backstory: Liotta, who has been robbed a second time, has to be ‘taken out’, irrespective of his involvement in the latter job, as to fail to would be to invite ridicule and a suggestion of Mob weakness: Liotta’s original give-a-shit confession, following the second heist, means his position is untenable.
The actual perpetrators of the second take are a cobbled-together duo (a superbly cast, gloriously wasted/out-of-their-depth team-up of Ben Mendelsohn (Russell) and Scoot McNairy (Frankie)), involved at the behest of Vincent Curatola’s Kenny (front: dry-cleaners), who recognises Liotta for the sitting duck he is and believes any further poker hits would lead to him bearing the brunt for both jobs, leaving any new opportunists in the clear.
It’s a dubious-at-best idea left for these self-confessed buffoons to execute: they schlepp into the poker meet through the back (wonderful sound editing during this scene that captures the sense-heightened terror of the uninvited swag-grabbers) wearing bright-yellow rubber gloves, and such bumbling conspicuousness typifies the assault. We’re never sure whether or not the pair are going to get out alive or wounded, whether or not a last-ditch Liotta plea will fall on sympathetic Mendelsohn ears or not, whether any of the empty-pocketed players will act on their understanding of the invaders’ panic and turmoil and call their bluff; we sense that something must go wrong. But, eventually, they both get out with the briefcases of booty and the raid is a seeming success.
But, of course, the amateur cash-collectors’ all-round indiscreet ineptness leads to the introduction of Cogan, who soon easily gets wind of the entire, flaw-fevered farrago. Cue the first of the film’s real problems (an overriding problem, not fatal but duly irritating, being the constant radio/TV overkill, a burbling, over-burdensome feed of carefully selected 2008 media coverage of the financial meltdown and subsequent sloganeering/commentary). There’s a drug scene, in a wonderfully obvious wrecking-ball-ready living room, involving Mendelsohn and McNairy. You get (I assume) a decent approximation of equivalent oblivion. There’s a tricksy but useful splicing of sunburst-euphoric flare effects, weird rotating fish-eye sweeps, amplified drag-and-burn spliff sounds and hollowed-out conversational fades, all coalescing and combining to comprise easily one of the better such cinematic examples. Yet it seems a little rather like a fabulous moment that the director was never going to relinquish than a crucial component. Nonetheless, the scene cleverly coils itself around a fatal revelation played accurately for hapless blissed-out laughs and is a delirious moment of respite amidst all the grimy gloom.
However: not even Scorsese (who is an unavoidable precedent in such matters, no longer merely ‘influential’ but often ‘inadvertently referenced’), who Dominik clearly and admiringly retreads, can get away with the kind of soundtrack howler that has a slow-zoom slow-mo drug (yes, heroin) scene accompanied by that Velvet Underground song. It has the feel of a slipshod post-production tinker: you can’t help wondering whether the scene was initially minus music and this was considered far too raw; it surely would’ve benefited from silence rather than a piece of music so obvious as to leave you agog with the sheer laziness of it. He may as well’ve thrown Gimme Shelter over the top of Liotta getting whacked and be done with it: we could’ve all had a heartfelt laugh rather than suffered an involuntary and rueful guffaw. Anyway: you can’t use the song Heroin during a heroin scene without running the risk of clanging a spanner into your works. Dominik then uses Nico’s Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams (do these guys get a job lot of songs cheaper? Can you soundtrack a film in bulk at a reduced rate? When they got in touch with Universal, did someone return with, “Hey, you’re taking Heroin from The Velvet Underground & Nico: how about Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams for 75% the normal fee while you’re at it? Marty did likewise with Devo, Virgin flogged him Whip It on the cheap on top of I Can’t Get No Satisfaction…”) and it starts to feel a little token. There can surely be no decent justification for such by-numbers musical equivocation. *
Cogan enlists another hitman, the exceptional James Gandolfini, to take down the assorted miscreants, but the latter is in a bad way: jumpy, seriously alcoholic (he quickly, in his opening airport bar scene, downs every drink in sight and orders another), bitter, melancholic, a vacillating ruin. Gandolfini soon proves far from up to the task (he holes up in a hotel room and continues to get hammered, ramble-rants, samples every whore in town, despairs, everything but complete his assignation) so Pitt frames him to get rid and steps into the breach (he doesn’t seem too slighted by this inconvenience). Mendelsohn has, by this point, been snagged and canned whilst procuring his carelessly stashed shank of heroin.
There’s a speech at one juncture pertaining to the title and to Cogan’s reluctance to shoot anyone close up, lest they ‘start to plead for their mother. It all gets touchy feely…I hate touchy feely. I’d rather kill them softly, from a distance.’ Cogan, in quickly amending his sloppy delegation, has to relinquish this principle. He nails the much-maligned Liotta from an adjacent car in what can only be described as a lovingly over-orchestrated sequence: you get a close-up of the gun, which is here a pornish contraption of ineffable wonder. Every drop of rain on the device is crystal-clear, and even those, as they slow-mo roll off the velvety-rubber-looking chamber or float away during recoil, seem deferential, delighted to have been extras in this particular execution. At one point Liotta falls back in death throes like a grand martyr in an operatic apocalypse. The first bullet leads Liotta’s car into a lurch-and-careening-crash-shunt that eventually swings him headfirst through the windscreen, and the slow, crisp tinkle-shatter, like the gentle, reluctant crack of a sheet of ice, that unfolds is pointlessly forensic in its languorous indulgence. It’s a bizarre finale for a character who has barely been on the screen, and yet, as well as being afforded a darkly-funny but merciless battering, replete with all kinds of outlandish sound-effect extravagances (it gets a bit arcade beat-em up cartoonish in its breathlessly inventive sonic vigour), he then gets an almost comically magnificent exit, for no good reason. So we have to assume that Dominik is just having fun. Death scenes surely need to befit the victim, at the very least. Personally, I’m never sure about cinematic demises that soften the intent, from the severe and remorseless vanquishing it is meant to represent here: the actual effect is that it feels like a kind of pyrotechnically avid hiatus of vacuous violent lust. The shards that slowly roll through the air in the wake of this murder click and tap off surfaces, the streetlight shimmer off each glass shred offering a sparkling array of euphoric sex-death luminescence.**
Cogan then punches grim-reaper sized holes in his remaining quarry to no fanfare whatsoever: just the cold blam of his gun, no longer a lingered-over angel of death, just a vicious, unanswerable tool. I’m happier with the sheer surfaces of Dominik’s films: he’s better when simply framing a spiritually abandoned, rain-sweating street in New Orleans (or, say, an approaching train in cold dark, Jesse James waiting), trails of garbage skittering in icy breezes, as two dead-men-walking conjecture their own imminent erasure than he is obsessing over artfully empty incidentals. When the film sticks to this, people talking, unadorned gloom and capricious undercurrents, pawns being moved around and misdirected by misanthropes, it’s a blast. There are just too many issues for it to be considered anything other than an interesting failure. Having said all that, it originally ran to 150 mins, the restoration of which may well unveil a masterful epic (this is the Jesse James helmsman, after all) and cast a more favourable light over moments such as the for now jarring Liotta death scene. Best wait for the DVD.
* Scorsese has form here, incidentally, and it’s something that perhaps Dominik might’ve been a little more wary: these moments are so potentially powerful, so loaded with reference points, so harking to other similar moments in the crime/thriller pantheon, that you can derail the whole thing with a bad musical selection. That Scorsese somehow gets away with so much Rolling Stones is partly something to do with his mastery of the form: when Nicholson is unveiled to the strains of Gimme Shelter in The Departed, we buy it because: it doesn’t directly reference the scene, other than as a back-reference to Scorsese’s own stuff (and prompts all kinds of self-referential questions that may be interesting in themselves) and Scorsese owns these moves now: yes he borrowed from myriad other directors but the shoot-em up and jukebox-domineered scenes you see in any film now automatically smell and feel like Scorsese-riffing tributes. In Casino, mind you, Scorsese gets it wrong: he has decided Devo will work in his film. He’s wrong. But he throws two Devo tunes on there, and the geek-bubblegum freneticisms of Devo do not align themselves well with a recreated Vegas shot Scorsese style: he even ratchets up the speed of a particular scene to adhere to Devo’s mad-synth pace on the song Whip It. The result is, to say the least, jarring. It’s like your dad rolling a Justice tune over his latest Crown Green Bowling footage: not what the action needs. And even worse, all I could think during the Devo-led Casino scenes was: someone has told ‘Marty’ about a quirky cover of I Can’t Get No Satisfaction, he’s gone out and bought Hot Potatoes to have a listen and got a little over enthused. Dominik’s use in Killing Them Softly of Jack Hylton & His Orchestra’s Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries, just before the final reel, however, is comparatively stupendous. It’s still Scorsese-esque but you can’t really play songs over violence if you want to elude that fact’s grasp. And there’s something about playing the right song over such action that’s unfathomably exhilarating and always has been. Tarantino has based an entire career on raising those hackles. Sofia Coppola still thinks her Gus Van Sant + indie records blueprint is inviolable. Dominik is as susceptible to setting the scene just so he can pop a quarter in the slot and let you know he’s happy for you to go ‘Dah-nah-nah-nah-nang!’ like Beavis or Butthead and feel the vicarious testosterone-cool buzz afforded by such lavishly unreal mash-ups. And it detracts, in the end, from Killing Them Softly. There’s too much of it that serves no purpose other than to dilute the film with thoughtless sameyness.
** Scorsese murder, be it in Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Casino, wherever, is always stylishly conceived: it is not excitable or deferential or, at any point, anything other than horrific. His mastery is in part his marrying of laughter and sheer terror: think of car boots and knives, a meal with mother and a painting. You feel everything, constantly. He’s not making cartoons; he’s certainly not making films with any sense of technical grandeur that doesn’t directly reference characterisation.
Hugo has, for a considerable portion of its swiftly elapsing running time, a grand alchemy about it, as though Scorsese has bottled this up for a while and unleashed it as his last word. That’s how it often feels: a conscious fulcrum, a summation, a tribute to an art form. It’s also great fun: Asa Butterfield sneaks, sprints and scurries amid the unseen byways backstage at a Paris railway station, jinking impishly along forgotten corridors and clattering up dusty stairwells to fulfil his inherited and diligently preserved clock-keeping role. Ben Kingsley as George Melies nowadays runs a toy shop at the station, and the two become crucially embroiled, via Melies goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Moretz, best thing in the film), some stolen items pertaining to a coveted silver automaton and, of course, the serendipities and compulsions of fate and narrative arcs that are the stuff of movies. It doesn’t seem fair to quibble, but Scorsese is perhaps too close to this for it to breathe as much as it might’ve. There isn’t a frame that feels scruffily spontaneous, and some of the thrills seem crushed by zealous propriety or immaculate orchestration. This is a mounted and polished effort, which somehow seems strangely at odds with the frenetic, boyish Melies (Kingsley in great form) bustling around his chaotically wondrous sets, grandly recreated here. Scorsese obsessively throws images of clockwork and clicking geometrical precision at the viewer and the effect is hypnotic but perhaps too freighted with insistences of legacy and wilful prestige. Regardless, there’s plenty of magic here, largely due to the great child leads.
The Descendants is a gently scathing return (overdue: he’s not Kubrick painstakingly assembling Napoleon each time, is he?) from Alexander Payne, which never quite hits his previous heights, and has George Clooney wrestling with two kids he barely knows after his estranged wife ends up in a non-returnable coma following a waterskiing accident. Cue unwelcome revelations of the adulterous sort and a troubling, sizeable family legacy he has potentially party-poopering final say over.Hawaii’s hardly an apt cinematic place in which to plonk beleagured characters that might evince maximum empathy, regardless of Clooney’s voiceover suggestions that ‘…paradise can go fuck itself.’ This isn’t hard times in Skidsville: Clooney is an affluent bumbler with a paunch whose job consists, like so many in film, of having a sprawling desk laden with teetering stacks of important looking documents you can scarcely see the protagonist recalling the import of. He also co-owns a large chunk ofHawaii as well. But money isn’t everything: inevitably reconnecting with your family is, as well as being a nice guy and forgiving your cheating, soon-to-die wife. The film, in any case, possesses some genuine belly laughs, is great fun and Clooney as slob is impressive enough. Robert Forster, though, who is barely in it as Clooney’s father-in-law, delivers the more memorable of the performances as a codger with a decent rabbit punch.
Certified Copy is much touted, possibly because it contains an awful lot of supposed intellectual extemporising and concomitant tortured air, maybe because it’s so deliberately unwelcoming (other than the majesty of the largely ignored Italian countryside – these people are serious), or even, perhaps, as it purportedly interrogates notable matters – authenticity, idolatry, existence, identity through art, etc – and isn’t deterred by piffling troubles such as being particularly compelling. The script is probably worth getting hold of. As a film, Certified Copy is admirably difficult but divulges nothing and bleats an awful lot. It’s the kind of film you wouldn’t want to deter in any way, but actually watching this one is often tedious. And Juliette Binoche tries too hard to appear unactorly and ends up looking graspingly odd.
The Guard is a bleakly hilarious romp, set on the Irish west coast, which is gleefully determined to draw shock-laughs at which it plentifully succeeds. Brendan Gleeson is great casting exemplified as a conventionally unconventional small town Garda firebrand of aimlessness suddenly given more to do than he’s entirely happy about as murderous drug-smuggling thugs, including the ever superb Mark Strong, head to town and snuff out another local copper (would they really require the services of more than one in this part of the world?) as pretty much an afterthought. Gleeson’s gruff quipper is soon thrown in with square black FBI suit Don Cheadle, ample script opportunity to tease out guffaw-worthy racist humour and subsequent cantankerously chortlesome ripostes. It’s a tremendous effort that’s simultaneously hard-edged and benevolent and unsurprisingly broke Irish box office records.
Cowboys and Aliens is an oddity: completely standard western meets alien interlopers on the one hand. Well, as standard as that premise could get. And as uninteresting as you could possibly render such a potentially outlandish scenario. Lots of uninspired CGI clogging the screen, explosions and wide-eyed gun-toting and very few characters you’re too engaged as to the fate of. Plenty of widescreen frenzy behind which you can almost feel the presence of blue screen and weary mouse-pointers swooping about. And yet someone forgot to tell Daniel Craig, who won’t have any of it and puts in a performance that really makes a mockery of the film, so tenaciously commited is he. Harrison Ford is also in it, and is in a lazy comedy bad mood throughout. He doesn’t even phone it in: he scribbles it on a scrap of paper, rolls it up into a ball and tosses it over the fence on his way to the pub.
The Rum Diary was disastrous for the 45 minutes I lasted. I do have a soft spot for the Hunter S Thompson novel, though, so my being infuriated at the pernicious liberties taken with the source dialogue perhaps clouded a correct and fair appraisal. Badly cast, shot, scripted, with a horribly uneven, capering-then-sober-then-hey-how-about-some-wig-comedy tone, terrible locations, nil dramatic interest and lifeless exchange following drab, surreally uninvolving scene. Totally misjudged.
Both Juno and Up In The Air were likeably spiky comedies, froth with a kick, their accessibly potent nature formerly attributable to Diablo Cody and latterly to the subject matter (downsizing, redundancies and intinerant, fractured living). Although any bite was largely gum, these felt relatively unflinching, up against the admittedly flaccid competition.
Young Adult continues the trend and you wonder about two things: one being whether Jason Reitman is ever going to make a film that isn’t funny/serious/funny, pleasing but gruff, intelligent but beseeching. Mordantly magnanimous. And also: will he ever make a bad one? It must be tempting to adhere to these successful self-imposed strictures and keep churning out exceedingly enjoyable and lightly provocative films one a year for decades. You’d hope he might take a few risks at some point, but if he doesn’t, no problem.
The one thing that those two earlier efforts didn’t have is Charlize Theron, and she’s so good here as to elevate Reitman’s film to a level it couldn’t hope to attain with absolutely anyone else in the role. Try and envisage anyone else doing this as effectively: it’s difficult. There’s simply no one as good as Theron, certainly not at embodying so many facets, ambivalences, subtle shifts in character, likeably contrary attributes and graceful ferocity. Here she’s a writer of ‘young adult fiction’, formulaic, brash, guilelessly clichéd books, that seem to fulfil her to the extent that she greets her morning alarm fully-clothed, face down and stupefied on her bed each day, verging on alcoholic, skimming across life, but ostensibly ‘living the dream’ in her city apartment.
Cue an emailed photo of the first child of her school ex, Patrick Wilson, now married and still stuck in the old haunt, fading away as her abrupt and convenient refashioning of reality would have it, and in need of one thing: her to save him from his drab existence.
So she ignores the imploring calls for copy from her editor and sets off for ‘home’, flinging an old mix-tape into the car stereo to kickstart the nostalgia fest. She leaves a studiedly neutral invitation to catch up with Wilson on his answer machine and he agrees to meet the following night, at which point she rolls into a local bar and starts knocking them back, a former school peer ‘victim of a hate crime’ in attendance, and an unlikely reunion is struck.
They’re a useful and obvious but enjoyable comic foil: the addled former Miss Popular and the earthbound marginal figure, both washed up and wasteful. They will fall into step throughout the film, he the only bod in town she can call on and she still a fantasy figure, now wily and wearied but still impossible to turn away: the shock of her presence, regardless of the circumstances, is keenly felt. ‘Guys like me,’ as he says at one point, ‘were born loving girls like you.’ A bit hammy but you get the idea. It’s a mutual ego-boost that becomes a reality check for both, and then an unlikely accord.
As Theron’s plot slowly, queasily accelerates, you get plenty of ‘misunderstanding’ laughs, and then the kind of looming Schadenfreude detonations of vicarious shame that bring Curb Your Enthusiasm to mind. We get the moments of misjudged propriety as Theron visits Wilson at home with wife and daughter; the over-zealous and oleaginously ill-advised attempts at re-kindling a decades-dead romance on a night out; the inebriated opportunisms; the final, devastating drunken disaster at the baby shower, where all is revealed and Theron’s brilliantly conceived performance hits its high point.
Where the film really, surprisingly succeeds, however, is where it departs expectation entirely. What might have eased into predictable and mocking mirth evolves instead into a pretty affecting tragedy, and recalibrates earlier moments of pained fun as something considerably more substantial.
Young Adult, then, does nothing new: but if we’re going to continue to have deeply cynical, double-edged comedies, as seems to be the hit-and-much-more-often-miss trend of late, then I’d much rather they span off from this enjoyably acid blueprint.
Baseball: not a game of which I understand the small print. I’m familiar with the terminology, particularly following Chad Harbach’s elegant and enjoyable ‘The Art of Fielding’, so I wasn’t totally oblivious during Moneyball upon hearing swift reference to ‘bunts’, ‘outs’ and ‘pinch-hitting’. But I’m not entirely sure about what these mean with regard to a game.
This isn’t too much of an issue, thankfully. Moneyball is a film partly concerned with minutiae, but not to the extent that it occludes the unbeknownst. It’s about squeezing the stats until several cheap, journeymen players pop out: unfashionable, awkward guys with peculiar pitching techniques, players that have underperformed or been misused, or that are mercurial or difficult – but may, were they marshalled auspiciously, ‘get to base’ and cumulatively get results.
Brad Pitt is the improbable Oakland ‘A’s ‘general manager’, Billy Beane, who, as flashbacks illustrate, was once a much-touted starlet, eventually signing for the New York Yankees and dropping any ideas of college. We see his younger manifestation choke and mis-hit time and again for a diminishing succession of clubs, the Yankees dream long over, and his luck eventually gives out. Having made a huge life decision ‘based on money’, his ill-fated memories serve as a cautionary provocation towards ‘integrity’, and his latter career on the sidelines is at a pivotal point: his owner has no money, he hasn’t yet made a name for himself and he’s backed into a corner once his best player (followed in short order by two other high-profile stars) is enticed elsewhere by the chance of success (and a big pile of green).
So, we’re privy to curmudgeonly, rankled meetings amongst Pitt and his ‘old-guard’ coaching and scouting staff, some pushing eighty by the looks. They’re not inclined to innovation, of course, and are looking to directly replace the departing talisman and make the best of it. Pitt knows the ace that’s jumped ship can’t (and shouldn’t) be replaced, and the overhaul he clearly has in mind is set in erstwhile motion once a chance meeting with Jonah Hill happens: thereafter Hill is taken on as an ‘advisor’: he will utilise his economic nous to formulate a ‘sybermetric’ mathematical system that pinpoints the aforementioned marginal, affordable players that are in career slide.
Pitt, after much disagreement with his intransigent backroom boys, takes the plunge and drafts in his mooted ragbag assortment of underachievers. Head coach (I think that’s his working title) Philip Seymour Hoffman, very much a Rod Steigerish figure, gum-chewing dyspeptic, mumbling intent and mocking mirthlessness (and contract gripes), is a bit of an obstacle that holds considerable sway (and happily takes credit for Pitt’s eventually fruitful gambit) but even he’s eventually sidelined as the ideology reaps considerable success.
Pitt does a decent job of subduing the elements that might dampen this characterisation, but is still just a little too boyish, innocuous, for the suspension of disbelief necessary. The story and the execution are such that it doesn’t hamper Moneyball too much; that aside, he doesn’t pass muster as a motivator of myriad complex, insecure charges. He’s likable but he’s not particularly well-suited to the rousing demands here: not even as much as, say, Sam Rockwell or Matt Damon would be. (I’d’ve gone for Billy Crudup: probably not a big enough name.) Jonah Hill offers an impressive tranquil-but-nervy geek, enthusiastic but initially at sea, and Seymour Hoffman is effortlessly spot-on in a relatively minor role.
Bennet Miller, who did a very decent job of bringing Capote to life (again with Seymour Hoffman), doesn’t mire you in a stat tsunami, nor play too closely to the baseball-geek crowd. He keeps things going at a clean, unclogged clip and plays to the universal elements of a game, the intrinsics of which are perhaps beyond non-US audiences. The context and the traditional sweep of the film fills in or renders unimportant any troublesome terminology, in any case, and the gist is clear: this is Have Nots v Haves in a time of acute recession and hardship: you get your trad nerve-jangler, moment of truth and precipice-plummet-or-triumph scenes, with more than enough charm, wit and verisimilitude to squeak into the playoffs.
Director Nicholas Winding Refn cleverly opens Drive with a compelling high-octane chase through the streets of nighttime LA, during which Ryan Gosling, baseball game burbling from the radio, stop-start guns a last-gasp getaway into a series of clever, nervy near-misses before eventually slipping the attentions of the law amidst the safety of the post-game crowd. I say ‘cleverly’ but the walk-outs across in UK multiplexes shortly thereafter suggest that many a punter felt mislead: that’s the most ‘in-car’ action you get, other than one other chase involving Christina Hendricks and a car seen flipping through the air through the windscreen over her shoulder (genius shot). This isn’t a chase movie, or an action film: opening in such a way sets the tone. There’s a matter-of-fact compulsion to the prologue that’s a million miles from pulverizing drum-and-bass car pyrotechnics.
By day Gosling’s a mere stunt driver and auto mechanic: throwing himself into the metal-whomp of chassis-totalling peril and tinkering under the bonnet. He’s a central character that clearly struggles to communicate, socially inert, murmur-happy, who is arrested from the automaton danger of his existence by two things: his car and Carey Mulligan. The latter seems to take him by surprise: flipping his stunt car through 180˚ and onto its roof at high speed is nothing. Mulligan, however, awakens something that he can only normally access when gripping the wheel with landscape blurring by. She should represent the opposite of danger, something to ameliorate the precariousness of his existence. But soon enough she’s the reason he’s dodging bullets as well as serious workaday injury.
There have been plenty of inscrutable, unreachable characters down the years, and the play on that trope is normally to wear them down, coax the ‘real’ them out of a cast-iron shell, thaw the ice progressively (until there’s a shallow pool of acquiescence), or have them refuse to budge an iota right through to the end, which normally entails a lot of people taking a beating, as the ‘for real’ protagonist, with glum resolve, walks off beyond a heap of nemeses into a sunset that only means something to the observer.
Ryan Gosling’s driver is a kind of re-animation of the McQueen/Eastwood prototype, a man who believes in doing a job properly within specific parameters, offering nothing beyond efficient resolve other than easy-on-the-eye intransigence. During his violent escapades here (although there’s little in the way of satisfaction involved, more a blank dutiful impassiveness) he’s a little like a child caught up in a motorway pile-up – traumatised somewhere in there but surface numb. He’s not Takashi Miike’s blind samurai, chuckling affably between ruthless limb-lopping before reverting to humble tranquillity. He’s the troubled, monosyllabic offspring of the 80s writ large, stuck behind the wheel: sexless, starved of serotonin and substance from birth, he’s an adrenaline junky, the product of e-numbers, fast food and MTV. The gestalt here is unmistakable: and the Bickle-esque central character that’s negotiating this hazy half-world will clearly face a reckoning of some sort. The backdrop, though, isn’tVietnamnightmares, it’s much more nebulous, and there’s no euphoric bloodshed and catharsis, just the negation of a dream with no resolution.
The thing is (and the film rests almost entirely on this): the protagonist is impossible to dislike and cool. Gosling has the face and demeanour of a manchild, an all-American cereal box kid kept in a vault and unleashed into adulthood, no longer registering on any kind of readable scale. When he moves in on an auto-shunted Ron Perlman, beached and bloodied, he’s wearing a mask and looks like a crash test dummy (which is funny) but he’s inexorable death and vulnerable at the same moment. It’s hard to imagine who else could carry off such a powerful dichotomy. As Perlman (a cackling minor Mob scumbag) flails and splashes before a totally immutable gaze, the expressionless executioner hoves in, playing a non-specific role, metering out unacknowledged punishment, on behalf of a girl and her son, people he hardly knows, an act of murderous faith borne out of a feeling. When Gosling kisses Mulligan for the first time, in a lift that also contains someone arrived in their building to kill them, the kiss, the moment of grace before death is duelled, is prolonged by Refn, a cauterized slow-mo shot that suggests Gosling is preserving a memory and stifling inevitablility. Therin lies the intent of the film, and the scene offers a perfect microcosmic hint at what Refn’s after. Namely, the best of any moment, to sift out all the mundanities and retain only the hard-edged or gratifying elements and string them together.
Director Refn gets it all exactly right. I have yet to read the source novel, although Max Cairnduff’s excellent review -http://tinyurl.com/82y8ens - suggests that it’s well worth checking out. But, in terms of cinema, he has fashioned an extremely interesting concoction that asks swift, serious questions, in passing, about what a modern story can do in terms of contemporary commentary on film heritage without affecting story immersion: how there’s little room for the lone hero amidst the swarming bombardment of information and overkill, and what the 80s have become in our collective consciousness. Here is an alternate 80s: the music could hardly offer more overt cues. Refn suggests: this character and these metonymical elements are best served through the utilisation of an idea of a time. It’s a distancing mechanism that’s as good as a relocation to another, analogous planet.
The film is in many ways an adolescent fantasy, punchy nostalgia rebooted, gleam-waxed, supercharged yearning for an ineffable but unnamed something. Recognition? There’s a scene in the film in which Gosling prises open the lid he’s kept an inarticulate white-knuckled hand over throughout, offering a tribute to Mulligan that seems doom-laden: ‘I just want you to know, the time I’ve spent with you has been the best time of my life.’ As though he understands his fate doesn’t involve hanging around being happy, as hanging around, whoever it’s with, means death: he needs to move to live – because he’s an idea. There exists between Gosling and Mulligan a strange, unspoken accord, surprising but futile. His fate lies elsewhere: he’s a stunt driver by day and a getaway driver by night: hardly the bedrock of a long-term relationship, nor the professional pursuits of a man likely to be home much.
You have to, I’d say, look at the film as a product of a director born at a certain point who has always trodden a difficult path between substance and visceral immediacy. The emotional affect here doesn’t quite work: it’s basically Eno’s ‘Ascent: An Ending’ as shorthand for the magic of amorous connect. Far less clumsy and sloppily overbearing would’ve been no soundtrack whatsoever during these scenes: but in writing this I realise that it’s part of the whole conflation of an Eighties-feel sensibility taken a little too far, probably deliberately. It’s a suffocating clinch when it might be a casual embrace, and such moments detract in a film where other such examples of soundtrack overkill work perfectly, such as during a montage featuring a day out in the car for Gosling, Mulligan and her son, in which he makes lighthearted concessions to his trade by delighting with some barely-dangerous manoeuvring.
These people are fairly ridiculous. They’re comic-book Mob, pulp miscreants, endangered, helpless damsels and sullen heroes. The whole set-up has been done countless times. But it all unquestionably works: the sum is a glinting, beguiling amalgamation of the parts, and it’s a very strange entity often masquerading as something very different. It’s a film about nostalgia and the impulse that demands the impossible combination of comfort and reassuring recycling with night and uncertainty, which never flinches and never doubts its method.
This isn’t a film about driving, it’s an extrapolation of a feeling prompted by the daydream gleam on a fender, a film about adolescent projections as to what a city might be like (the LA of Drive feels unfinished, a dream reconstruction, smooth-edged and uncluttered), full of elegiac slow-mo interrupts and sudden, unfeasible eruptions of violence, all based upon a singular fount: (80s) cinema, TV and music. As such, it’s clever and endearing: it relentlessly prevails on a surface level that, were it to plunge beneath, it would quickly collapse. It’s an artful, unreal, depthless riff on a collective impression of an era and a naivety, and it works supremely well. Critics that refer to formula ‘plot holes’ are looking for another film that Refn would never make. The kiss between the leads, the avid, unvarnished, staged brutalities, the cars flying onto the beach, the musical interventions: they’re all hallucinatory, boyish invocations of want. Refn’s skill is to transpose that into a vicarious cinematic experience without it becoming a ridiculous exercise in nostalgia porn. A considerable achievement.
Beginners features Ewan McGregor as a thirty-something advertising artist that can’t hold down a relationship. Dad Christopher Plummer announces his homosexuality just in time for a liberated swan song before succumbing to cancer, which forces McGregor into some serious re-appraisal re: his relationship with both his already dead mother (plenty of flashbacks throughout) and father, who now also has a much younger boyfriend, an over-kids-TV Goran Visnjic. And then radiant Melanie Laurent arrives, and she and McGregor initially share the kind of cloyingly indie overtures that prompt thoughts of Miranda July, but this is both less faux-kooky and more affecting than that might suggest, despite a dog that communicates in cuddly subtitles.
Contagion is a tight but swift hurtle into potentially (but not actually that) worrisome global epidemic territory, featuring exponential death rates and lots of opportunities for big-name actors to ‘do’ sick. Gwyneth Paltrow, the first recognisable link in the chain of death through whom we first see the ravaging effects of said virus, offers up a pretty passable rendition of ‘exceedingly ill’ as part of an intermittent cameo. We experience, in Soderbergh’s efficiently and effectively (and starkly colour-coded: the use of filters seems as overt an imprimatur as ever) plotted thriller, an increasingly wrought, ratcheted and gruelling accumulation of dread, corpses, shameless political manoeuvring, selflessness, futile professionalism and a realisation that Jude Law is often very distracting. Of the starry cast, Laurence Fishburne and Kate Winslet (along with the deservedly ubiquitous Bryan Cranston) fare best, not for the first time.
Everything Must Go is a notional adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story: very little of the referred original (Why Don’t We Dance?) survives here, other than a chap (Will Ferrell – good and pleasingly dialled down but you still get the sense that his hangdog equanimity is a serious strain on the leash) unravelled on his pleasant surburban lawn with all his belongings marshalled around him and his beer cluster as part of a pre-eviction/divorce/meltdown yard sale. (Key scene: Ferrell clutches at a cold 8-pack of beer at the local mini-mart, but is clearly in trouble as he instead clink-hauls two 8-packs out of the fridge.) Instead of a young couple rummaging and delving amongst his marital mementos we have instead a marginalised black kid, an apparently kindly cop keeping fellow feds at bay and an abandoned mum-to-be keeping him nicely dovetailed company. In other words, anything potentially troubling has been excised and replaced with the kind of situations and characters that lend themselves pleasingly to feel-good innocuousness. There are good moments and the pacing of the film is surprisingly comatose at times, but you know where it’s going before it begins. And why’s the nowhere-to-be-seen Laura Dern on the poster? Clearly she went as well.
Kill List is exceedingly powerful, almost suffocatingly so, for an hour, before it decides to become an insane Wicker Man/Eyes Wide Shut hybrid, at which point the film deflates with accompanying fart noises. It’s exceptional for a good while, though, and the director (Ben Wheatley) will doubtless produce something great. The level of bristling discomfort Wheatley develops before it all goes awry (and it’ll depend on how you feel about mad plot twists as to your tolerance level as the film veers into a ‘we’ve run out of ideas’ brick wall) is seriously impressive, and the various Yorkshire locations are not places you want to hang about, particularly not with any of the Kill List cast, though reluctantly negotiating them as part of a truly (in the main) disturbing cinematic voyage is a different matter.
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol features a fairly nifty prison break, broad comedy courtesy of Simon Pegg, the human Aardman performer, every few minutes to remind you this isn’t Brian De Palma or remotely serious, and stomach-somersault provocations by way of Tom Cruise slapping along the smoked-glass top floors of the world’s tallest building with only one functioning electro-suction glove. There’s also an occasionally confused-looking Jeremy Renner and the excellent Paula Patton. Cruise is clearly trying to find a niche between Bond and Bourne, and he’s decided that playing it all for laughs at the expense of pulsating grit is the safest route to preserving the franchise. It’s an IMAX/Brad Bird film: it’s never particularly suspenseful and it’s even less often dull. For example: the CGI Kremlin gets bombed, totters and teeters before toppling in a glorious billowing barrage of dust and debris. In other words, you get your money’s worth.
Film should do one of two things: make you feel happy to be alive or tell you the truth. Anything else is just mucking about. Steve McQueen isn’t interested in the former, but the latter: he’s your man. Hunger was shocking, impressive proof of this and Shame even more so. It’s no fun whatsoever, but is completely necessary.
Michael Fassbender is a kind of automated death gigolo, propelled through chilly NY streets towards the next pummelling, empty sexual fix. He’s scratching a terminal itch, repelling anything that doesn’t adhere to his narrow mindset and mindlessly feeding his mania with a relentless porn habit. He’s possessed by an animal urge and sates this quite easily, as he isn’t the shabbiest looking bloke. But he’s completely out of control and wraith-like, enervated by each encounter.
He picks up a girl at a bar – who his boss has oleaginously failed to entice – with horrible ease, and a quick and clamorous libido-feed down a rainy side street later and he’s momentarily cured. But he’s soon in need of another release: in the shower, in the toilet stall at work, in front of the laptop in his bleak minimalist pad. He’s a total addict, relinquished of every possible distraction that might clutter his consuming focus: the next hit.
And then sis Carey Mulligan crashes in. He has been ignoring her answer message pleas, at one point reaching back to flick the machine off with one hand as he pulls himself off with the other. Heavy-handed, perhaps, but there’s a lot of odd sibling-sexuality stuff in here that’s left hanging which adds to the inextricable murk.
Mulligan is a singer, her typical gig seemingly as the neglected musical periphery of an odious, swanky wine bar. When Fassbender, with his leeringly inept motormouth boss in tow, attends her latest set, there is a mordantly magical exchange between them mid-song (New York, New York) which articulates far more than any expositional interruptions might. It’s a breathless scene that lasts the entire song and beyond, powerful and unequivocal, yet unresolved and suggestive of hundreds of questions never answered, thankfully. But Shame isn’t the kind of film to answer questions: it doesn’t believe there are any. There are situations and occurrences, fates and teeming disquiet. There is humour, but as with Fassbender’s response following a scene in which Mulligan walks in on him masturbating, it’s a laugh likely to be spun into complex terror in a moment.
Mulligan’s arrival occasions something of a rupture in Fassbender’s descent, a contributory factor in the drawing of a few uncomfortable truths into queasy focus. But these don’t hold much purchase and are temporary self-delusions of resolve. Not even another (a quick shot of Mulligan’s multiple slash marks on her arm illustrating beyond doubt something you’re likely to have suspected) suicide attempt by Mulligan seems particularly likely to effect a wake-up call, for either of the siblings. As Mulligan suggests to Fassbender towards the finale. ‘We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.’ Wherever that is, and it’s never made explicit, it’s up in the air as to whether or not their history has a deathly grip on any kind of future.
McQueen is quick to make sure we don’t get any Hollywood-tinged ideas of reprieve: a harrowing attempt by Fassbender to initiate a relationship is foiled by the sheer fact that the whole set-up isn’t dangerous or unempowered enough a scenario in which he can exist. He flops, to put it succinctly, and it’s as difficult to watch a moment as the evening out late-on in the film during which Fassbender seems ready to invite self-destruction with keen and uncomfortable urgency. All this before Mulligan careens yet further into disaster.
There are two shots in the film that don’t quite ring true and are a little too ‘shorthand’ cute. One is the opening shot of a rather elegantly spent Fassbender, blue silk framing a rather pointedly decadent repose. The other is a tracking shot of Fassbender jogging the blues away through the quiet metropolis. The former is too jarringly iconic for such a searing inquest into sex addiction. The latter wants it both ways: any such shot is immediately loaded with reference points that are unfortunately contradictory. In film, you simply can’t expend your ire pounding the pavements anymore, certainly not in a serious film. The wide-angle street jog is synonymous with archly light fare such as When Harry Met Sally, American Beauty and Kramer Vs Kramer, to name three of about a thousand. You cannot introduce stock shorthand into such an endeavour without diminishing returns. If any of this sounds picky, it’s because the film is, whilst not perfect, certainly a carefully assembled, powerful antidote to watered-down cinema otherwise. It’s a smack in the face and such pulled punches are always particularly glaring in such an otherwise uniformly strong, uncompromising film.
Michael Fassbender clearly relishes the opportunity to throw it all in and inhabit such hellish abandon. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role: he’s a superficially coasting unspecified mid-ranking office bod watching the clock roll around for the next joyless depravity fix. His computer is missing one morning: upon it’s return, his boss queries him. ‘Anal, double-anal, cream pies. I don’t even know what that means.’ You sense a moment of relief for Fassbender, a mortifying but conversely welcome moment of conspicuous dread. He’s out of control, and here’s an unexpected but perhaps inevitable intervention. But no: ‘Do you think it was your intern?’ the boss dumbly offers. He is sliding across life without reproach amid a jumble of grimly frantic liaisons.
Carey Mulligan, though, is at least as impressive as the brashly ruined sister, all feigned exclamations and overdone intimacies, accumulated tics and deadly poise. It’s a brilliantly observed, startling characterisation, and a genuinely shocking, admirable transformation.
Shame, which Wikipedia, I find, describes as ‘erotic’, is anything but. But it is certainly a genuinely disturbing, impassioned and important piece of work.