This has been a weird year, movie-wise, for a number of reasons. Reason number one, of course, is that I live in France, and not in America, where the past couple months have seen the release of more prestige movies than the rest of the year combined. No such luck here: December brought Life of Pi and The Hobbit (and Beasts of the Southern Wild, a good six months after its American release), but Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, Django Unchained, Cloud Atlas, The Master, and even Silver Linings Playbook will have to wait for 2013 (meanwhile, Richard Linklater’s Bernie may never be released here). That’s the way distribution’s always worked, but this year it seems that more “big” movies didn’t make it here in time for Christmas—or it might be that there were more such movies to begin with.
Another, more personal reason is that I simply didn’t care all that much for most of the “big” movies we did get (including most of the Cannes lineup). I profoundly disliked Amour (to be honest, I’ve always been ambivalent, at best, towards Haneke), had huge issues with Life of Pi and Beyond the Hills, and was largely disappointed by Beasts of the Southern Wild, a film I’d been waiting for since Sundance and which turned out to be, as Ignatiy Vishnevetsky so rightly put it, bullshit. Even Holy Motors, acclaimed by critics everywhere, failed to entirely convince me, despite having some of my favorite cinematic moments of the year (including the intermission, which would probably top my list).
Yet in spite of all that, 2012 was still a very good year for film, thanks to a baffling number of strong genre efforts. In fact, 2012 may have been the best year for genre cinema in quite some time—the past two years were very top-heavy, with brilliant movies like Attack the Block, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, or Let Me In, while this year just had so many great genre films. That, to me, more than makes up for the (relative) lack of great prestige movie, and for having to wait until January to see Jessica Chastain kicking ass and Joaquin Phoenix running around like a lunatic.
My top 10 for the year actually has 12 movies on it, because I couldn’t get myself to cut two of them, and the whole exercise is completely arbitrary anyway. The rules are the same as last year, and the year before last: any movie released for the first time in France in 2012 is eligible, except for films that were released internationally in 2011 (if you want to see what my list would look like were those films included as well, just head over to the French version of this blog (my top of 2012 list should be up tomorrow, with any luck). As usual, this is of course highly subjective, and if you disagree with my picks, you’re probably wrong. Unlike the last two years, when Breathless and A Separation respectively topped my list, 2012 didn’t have one film I felt was head and shoulders above the rest (or rather, there was one, but it was one of those 2011 holdovers), and at least all the films in my top 3 could have ended up in first place (and probably would if you asked me on any other day).
10. Robot & Frank/The Deep Blue Sea/The Grey
In Jake Schreier’s Robot & Frank, Frank Langella struggles with old age; in Terence Davies’s The Deep Blue Sea, Rachel Weisz struggles with the disappointments of life, which never turns out the way we thought it would; and in Joe Carnahan’s The Grey, Liam Neeson struggles with his own mortality and with the loss of his wife (a case of reality turning an unsurprising plot development into quite the emotional sucker punch).
Despite their differences in terms of genre and approach (one’s a science fiction film about a retired crook and a robot teaming up, another one’s a survival movie in which Liam Neeson doesn’t quite get to punch wolves in the face), all three films turn out to be unexpectedly layered and heartbreaking, thanks in large part to great performances by their lead actors and, in The Deep Blue Sea’s case, by their supporting cast as well. If you’re feeling too high on life, try watching all three right after the other, it should bring you right back down to earth.
(Also, this is relevant.)
Here’s the thing: I’m usually no Steven Soderbergh fan. I tend to dislike his ensemble pieces immensely (I hated both Traffic and Contagion, and the Ocean’s movies range from mildly annoying to unwatchable), and to like his smaller efforts only marginally better (that being said, Out of Sight’s really good). But here’s the other thing: I really, really loved the two movies he put out this year. Magic Mike was smart and fun and OMG Channing Tatum’s abs, but Haywire was just a great action movie, period (and it also had Channing Tatum, natch). Gina Carano makes for a much more convincing action heroine than pretty much any other actress, the action scenes are brutal and beautiful and shot in a way that actually makes sense, and the script has a ton of fun with meta commentary about the way action films treat women. Simple, elegant, and tough.
8. The Raid: Redemption
Speaking of action, Gareth Evans’s The Raid: Redemption (what a dumb subtitle, really) was the adrenaline rush of the year, a relentless onslaught of violence punctuated by the occasional moment of visual poetry. It doesn’t get much simpler than “a bunch of cops are trapped in a building and must fight their way out,” but Evans milks that set-up for all it’s got, staging brutal set piece after brutal set piece, culminating in a two-on-one fight that keeps going for much longer than it has any right to, yet never feels too long. The Raid: Redemption is the kind of film you come out of physically exhausted, as if it was you who’d been getting your ass kicked for two hours.
Brave, Wreck-It Ralph, and even Rise of the Guardians were all good animation films, but Chris Butler and Sam Fell’s ParaNorman was by far the best of the bunch. It starts off as a sort of comedic twist on The Sixth Sense, then turns into a PG zombie movie, before going into some genuinely dark and scary places. Like another film a little further down this list, it also has a lot of fun with archetypes and horror tropes. The best thing about ParaNorman, though, is its awesome (as in awe-inspiring) climax, an astonishing sequence of visual bravura that plays out like the most thrilling video game boss fight while keeping the emotional stakes as high as they can be.
6. Paris by Night
Philippe Lefebvre’s Paris by Night is an old-fashioned noir, reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Melville’s films, and particularly Un Flic (the film’s original title, Une Nuit, even seems to be a deliberate Melville homage). For one night, we follow Roschdy Zem, as the commander of the Paris vice unit, as he visits bars, restaurants, and nightclubs, and tries to remain a step ahead of internal affairs and of the crooks that are trying to set him up. This is a moody and surprisingly complex film, and Zem, who seems to play nothing but cops and gangsters these days, delivers a great performance as a man who knows he’s doing the wrong thing but can’t find a way to do the right one. Not a single shot is fired in Paris by Night, but there’s more tension than in almost any other film that came out this year.
5. The Cabin in the Woods
In terms of pure fun, nothing this year beat Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods. Co-written with Joss Whedon, this is a marvel of a meta horror movie and a hilarious puzzle, full of twists and turns on top of more twists, and even more turns. I don’t like using the word “clever” to describe a movie, as it often implies shallowness, but The Cabin in the Woods is one hell of a clever film. And, yes, there’s no particular profundity to it. It is what it is, but what it is is a ton of fun, and one of the tightest screenplays this side of last year’s Attack the Block. Plus, you gotta love the way Goddard embraces the mayhem of the third act (one word: unicorn).
4. Oslo, August 31
From the year’s most fun movie to the most devastating. Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31 is a merciless character study, following 34-year-old Anders, a former drug addict who just got out of rehab. Anders (another one of the year’s great performance, by Anders Danielsen Lie) wanders around Oslo, a city he used to know so well, bumping into old friends turned strangers, trying to find a reason to go on living when the world seems to have passed him by entirely. In one of the best scenes of the year, Anders sits in a coffee house and listens to people, imagining what their lives must be like. No one seems able to show Anders the same empathy and compassion. “It’ll get better. It’ll all work out,” he tells his friend Thomas. Then his smile freezes. “Except it won’t, you know.”
3. Moonrise Kingdom
Perhaps my favorite Wes Anderson movie since Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom focuses, as usual, on an assorted group of outcasts and sad sacks, from Edward Norton’s inept scout master to Bruce Willis’s sad (but not dumb) police captain. It’s the kids that steal the show, though, and Anderson perfectly captures the awkwardness of adolescence with Sam and Suzy’s clumsy attempts at replicating adult courtship, followed by a no less clumsy moment of sexual awakening. The external world, so often a threat in Anderson’s films, is eventually integrated into the kids’ world rather than the other way around, and even Tilda Swinton’s inflexible social services agent (brilliantly named just “Social Services”) eventually softens up, making Moonrise Kingdom the most open of all of Anderson’s films.
Okay, so maybe Looper, and not The Cabin in the Woods, was the most fun you could have at the movies this year. Rian Johnson’s third feature (and second starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the perfect remedy to all those mindless science fiction blockbusters, a big-budget action movie with a brain—and one hell of a big heart. Like the best time travel movies, Looper isn’t so much about time travel itself as about its moral implications, about free will and determinism (“So I changed it” has got to be one of my favorite lines of the year). It’s the kind of movie I wish I could see for the first time every time, except it’s too much fun to see just how everything fits together.
If ever there was a movie for the 99%, David Cronenberg’s adaptation of the Don DeLillo novel is it. A brutal critique of capitalism run wild, Cosmopolis is set almost entirely in a limo drifting through a Tonronto barely disguised to look like New York going through the apocalypse. Everything in the movie happens on the edges of the screen, because its hero, golden boy Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), is too bored and self-obsessed to pay attention to the world that’s coming crashing down around him—even as he’s about to come crashing down with it. The esoteric dialogue (“I don’t understand that,” Samantha Morton’s character keeps repeating in her one scene) and somewhat slow pace make it a tough sell, but Cosmopolis is nothing short of phenomenal, and once again proves that Cronenberg is one of the very best directors working today.
Honorable mentions, in alphabetical order: Anna Karenina, Argo, The Avengers, The Day He Arrives, Holy Motors, Keep the Lights On, Killer Joe, Laurence Anyways, Premium Rush, Magic Mike, Skyfall, The We and the I.
With The Taste of Money, Im Sang-soo continues the portrait of South Korea’s ultra rich he started with his 2010 remake of The Housemaid. Designed like a spiritual successor to his previous film (one line of dialogue actually connects them more clearly), The Taste of Money follows the Yoons, a wealthy family controlling one of South Korea’s biggest conglomerates. The company, like the family, is ruled by Geum-ok (Yoon Yeo-jeong), the matriarch whose father—a paralyzed, wheezing man wheeled around by his personal assistant—still has a stake in the company; if Geum-ok’s husband (Baek Yoon-sik) is nominally the chairman of the board, his job consists mostly in carrying suitcases full of money to various officials so that they don’t look too closely into the company’s shady dealings.
The film actually opens with such a transaction, as the Yoons bribe a judge so that the corruption charges against their son Chul (On Joo-wan)—the CEO of the company—are dropped. This in turn allows them to resume their dealings with Robert Altman (Darcy Paquet), a corrupt American living in South Korea. Everything seems back under control, until it transpires that Chairman Yoon is having an affair with Eva (Maui Taylor), the family’s Filipino maid.
If that sounds like the synopsis to a soap opera episode, that’s because The Taste of Money, much like The Housemaid, feels a lot like a glossy soap opera to begin with. That’s not the only similarity between the two films, either. Here, like in The Housemaid, Im Sang-soo chooses to focus on an outsider to the family: in his previous film our main character was Eun-yi, the maid who falls for her employer (notice a pattern?), while here it is Joo Young-jak (Kim Kang-woo), a young man who’s worked for the family for close to a decade as a driver and a personal assistant. Like Eun-yi, Young-jak isn’t an entirely innocent character and has ambitions of his own, but he can’t imagine just how corrupt the Yoons, and particularly Geum-ok, really are. The character of Na-mi (Kim Hyo-jin), the Yoons’ divorced daughter, is also a nod to The Housemaid, in which Na-mi was the name of the girl Eun-yi was hired to look after. (Another amusing nod is the casting of Yoon Yeo-jeong, who played the sympathetic older maid in The Housemaid, to play the monstrous Geum-ok here.)
While The Housemaid was a claustrophobic thriller set almost entirely in one house, though, The Taste of Money is a sprawling, often aimless affair. At the center of it all is Young-jak, who is, sadly, a pretty bland protagonist, whose main characteristic is to be extremely good looking. (A hilarious scene has another female employee, with whom he has just had an argument, whimper and run away as he takes his shirt off, revealing his ripped chest.) Young-jak remains a passive observer for most of the movie; instead of holding the film together, this has the effect of making it seem all the more fractured.
It doesn’t help that Im Sang-soo doesn’t seem particularly interested in the business side of his story, which quickly becomes a problem when so many scenes are devoted to Chul and Altman hashing out a vague plan to establish a slush fund, and to the consequences of their actions. The affair between Yoon and Eva is clearly more interesting to the director, and for a while he has fun letting you try to figure out everyone’s motivations. That is, until he decides to have Yoon make a long speech about the whole thing, then another, then another. Yoon loves making speeches, and he’s not alone; every other character seems determined to hit you over the head with his or her own version of the film’s theme: money corrupts, and only love redeems. Nothing groundbreaking, and certainly not something that needs to be made explicit over and over again.
That’s not to say that The Taste of Money is all bad. Much like The Housemaid, it’s often trashy fun. There’s lots of sex, lots of ridiculous secrets and over-the-top twists, a truly evil villain, and if Im Sang-soo can’t quite match the brilliance and insanity of his previous film’s finale, he sure tries. The problem, of course, is that The Taste of Money isn’t much beyond trashy fun, which becomes painfully apparent as soon as the film starts lagging even a little. Or, you know, after Yoon tells you for the third time that money’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
Kim Han-min’s War of the Arrows begins the way you would expect a film with that title to begin, i.e., with a battle. The opening sequence shows the fall of a castle in 17th-century Korea, in what seems to be the waning days of a civil war (actually the conclusion of the 1623 coup that brought King Injo to power). The lord of the castle is branded a traitor for opposing Injo’s coup and murdered in front of his children, teenage Nam-yi and his younger sister Ja-in, who nevertheless manage to escape, taking with them their father’s prized bow, and to make it to Kaesong, where their father’s best friend takes them in.
Thirteen years pass, with Nam-yi (Park Hae-il, seen perhaps most notably in Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder and The Host) becoming an extremely talented archer but a bitter and jaded young man. When he learns that his host’s son, Seo-goon (Kim Mu-yeol) intends to marry Ja-in (Moon Chae-won), he opposes the wedding, on the grounds that he and his sister are still seen as the children of a traitor and that such a marriage would bring ruin to everyone involved. Seo-goon’s father overturns Nam-yi, though, and they go forward with the wedding.
Viewers unfamiliar with Korean history might at this point expect the film to turn into a war epic, perhaps the Korean answer to John Woo’s Red Cliff. The constant talk of Nam-yi and Ja-in’s status makes it seem as though civil war is once again brewing, and it is easy to imagine Seo-goon and Nam-yi joining forces to fight King Injo and avenge Nam-yi’s father. The film’s title, of course, only reinforces such expectations. (An alternative title is Arrow, The Ultimate Weapon, which, while quite the hyperbole, might fit the film better.)
That’s not quite what happens, though. Instead Seo-goon and Ja-in’s wedding is interrupted when a Manchu army storms the castle, killing Seo-goon’s father and capturing everyone but Nam-yi, who vows to find and rescue his sister. From then the film becomes not an epic chronicling the second Manchu invasion of Korea, but an action movie that follows Nam-yi as he mows down scores of Manchu warriors in his search for his sister.
If anything, War of the Arrows is more indebted to the western than it is to the war epic. Nam-yi is the cynical gunslinger—sorry, archer—who finds a purpose in life when he thought he had none, while Seo-goon is an awkward manchild who, when forced to face his responsibilities, finds that he is actually quite the brave and competent leader. The film is also in love with the Mexican standoff and features at least half a dozen of them, including not one, but two consecutive ones during the climax. More disturbingly, the depiction of the Manchus is reminiscent of that of Indians in pre-revisionist westerns. They’re cartoonishly evil monsters who use their prisoners for target practice, trick unarmed women and children into trying to flee so that they can ride them down and kill them, and are periodically taken by fits of maniacal laughter. Only Jyuushinta (Ryoo Seung-ryong), the Manchu general and only one to understand at once the threat Nam-yi poses, seems to have some depth and not to revel in gratuitous mayhem and destruction.
War of the Arrows doesn’t tread any particularly new ground, but what it does, it does well. The action is thrilling and doesn’t generally rely on too many close-ups and quick cuts (though there is an unfortunate scene involving a CGI tiger that looks straight out of a late-‘90s made-for-TV movie), and Nam-yi’s Green Arrow-like ability with the bow makes for some impressive sequences. The film is also surprisingly funny, most of the comic relief coming in the form of slapstick and physical comedy—a memorable fight in a high-class brothel early on in the movie ends in a most unexpected manner, and at some point we’re treated to a heavily-armed Manchu warrior fleeing in terror from a lone peasant with a rake. And if there are some uncomfortable overtones of South Korean nationalism, they’re not enough to detract from just how fun the whole thing is.
Watching Gary Ross’s The Hunger Games, I found myself wishing, quite possibly for the first time in my life, that a movie were darker and grittier. I am by no means a fan of the “nolanization” of Hollywood, the recent trend of making absolutely everything edgier—especially since in edgier all too often translates to dull and humorless. (And I say that as someone who likes many of Christopher Nolan’s films very much, in spite of how inept the guy is at directing coherent action scenes.) One might also consider The Hunger Games, a film about kids killing each other for the entertainment of a privileged elite, dark enough to begin with. Yet Ross and Suzanne Collins (author of the Young Adult novel series the film is based on and co-author of the screenplay with Ross and Billy Ray) are content to use that premise to create an admittedly competent and often thrilling action/adventure movie, while their reluctance to delve into some of the more disturbing aspects of their story limits its impact.
The film revolves around Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a 16-year-old girl hailing from the 12th district of Panem, a futuristic and dystopian version of the United States. After the districts rebelled against the Capitol of Panem and lost the subsequent civil war, the titular Hunger Games were created: every year, each district would have to send two randomly-chosen teenagers (a boy and a girl, referred to as “tributes”) to the Capitol, where they would be made to fight to the death in a giant free-for-all until only one was left standing. The Games serve to remind the districts of their defeat and to prevent any further rebellion (which doesn’t entirely make sense, if you think about it), but also to provide entertainment for the elites living in the Capitol, as the whole thing is filmed and broadcast all across Panem.
When Katniss’s younger sister Prim is picked for this year’s Hunger Games, Katniss immediately volunteers to replace her, and she soon finds herself aboard a bullet train to the Capitol. She’s joined by her fellow tribute Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and their “mentor” Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), the only person from the 12th district to ever win the Games, now a cynic and a drunk who seems at first not the least bit useful. Once at the Capitol, the tributes are paraded for all to see and interviewed by talk show host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci in a garish blue wig), while behind the scenes they train under the watchful eye of Hunger Games producer Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley). Soon enough the Games begin, and an entire nation watches rapturously as 24 kids proceed to murder each other on prime time television.
The Hunger Games has a lot going for it, starting with Lawrence as Katniss. Katniss is a great action heroine, headstrong and driven, an adept hunter with survival skills to make Bear Grylls jealous. She’s clearly in over her head when it comes to currying favor at the Capitol, and throughout she remains torn between the promise she made her sister to win the Games and her desire to do it on her own terms. Her relationship with Peeta is refreshingly complex, her initial animosity (likely caused by hurt pride, if her reaction when he makes her “look weak” and a recurring flashback are to be believed) slowly morphing into respect and friendship without losing any of its ambiguity. Lawrence continues to impress after her strong performance in Winter’s Bone, using the film to showcase her emotional range and screen presence. If the film feels a little too long at times (it clocks in at almost two and a half hours long), especially in its second half, it is never because of Lawrence, who is as comfortable outrunning CGI fireballs as she is sharing an intimate and emotionally complex scene with Hutcherson.
Where the film breaks down a little is at the allegorical level. Like many science fiction stories, The Hunger Games is set in a sort of funhouse mirror version of our world, a dystopian future that’s not quite as unbelievable as it seems. Early scenes are set in Katniss’s native 12th district, with a muddy-brown-to-dark-grey color palette that highlights the poverty and squalor in which most people outside of the Capitol live. The action then moves to the Capitol with its tall, gleaming buildings, its superior and easily accessible technology, and its decadent people wearing gaudy costumes and layer upon layer of makeup as they feast on cakes and candy. It’s neither the most subtle nor the most original commentary—last year’s In Time, to name just the most recent example, used similar imagery—but it’s effective at portraying a society split between have-nots and have-way-too-muchs.
More interesting are the titular Hunger Games and the way they serve as a commentary on our collective relationship, as a society, to televised violence, especially used for entertainment purposes. The first half of the film, in that regard, is much more successful than the second, thanks in large part to Tucci, equal parts slimy and seductive as reality TV host Caesar Flickerman. Even before the kids get thrown into the arena to try to kill each other, they are subjected to intense pressure and made to understand that what matters is not who they are, but the way they are perceived. Flickerman’s interview of Katniss, a few days before the Games begin, is a master class in audience manipulation; after building her up in front of several hundreds of the most garishly dressed Capitol denizens, he makes her look vulnerable and, with a final comment directed more at his audience than at her, subtly implies that she is doomed to lose. If you’ve ever watched a reality TV show, this should feel familiar.
Unfortunately, once the Games proper start, the commentary loses some of its bite. Some of it is undoubtedly to blame on the fact that this is a movie about an ultraviolent television show that, for obvious economic reasons, had to secure a PG-13 rating. And although, to be fair, The Hunger Games pushes that PG-13 rating pretty far, the violence remains sufficiently abstract to detract from the horror we should be feeling. It’s Hollywood violence, which we immediately recognize as not real; when, in what’s arguably the film’s most physically disturbing scene, a character gets his neck suddenly and audibly snapped, we wince, but the camera moves on immediately, and so do we. This refusal to dwell on the violence paradoxically turns it into the very spectacle the film seems to be decrying.
The main issue, though, has nothing to do with how graphic the film is or isn’t, and everything with Collins and Ross’s narrative choices and how they portray Katniss and the other participants in the Games. The night before the Games are set to begin, Peeta tells Katniss that he fully expects to die in the arena, and that he won’t let the Games’ organizers turn him into something he isn’t, to which Katniss responds that she understands but can’t think like that if she wants to win. It’s a great conversation that sets her up to make some difficult moral choices down the line, which sadly never materialize. Even when Katniss teams up with the adorable Rue (Amandla Stenberg), she’s never forced to face the fact that she will eventually have to kill her if she wants to win the game, which in turns means that we are never made to realize that rooting for Katniss to win actually means rooting for her to kill other kids. This is compounded by the fact that most of the kids Katniss faces are evil bastards who actually enjoy killing, stereotypical movie villains rather than characters with whom we can empathize, and whose death would actually mean something. At the screening I was at, a sizeable portion of the audience actually cheered when a particularly heinous character bit it. Perhaps they were missing the point; or perhaps the film lost track of its own point halfway through.
Of course, eliciting that kind of reaction could be Collins and Ross’s goal. Perhaps we are meant to cheer for Katniss and boo Cato and Marvel and other cardboard cut-out villains, only then to realize that we’re acting just like the people watching the Games from the Capitol. “Root for your champion, cry when he gets killed? That’s sick,” Katniss’s best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth, whose brief appearances only serve to set up the sequels) comments at the beginning of the film. Then, of course, Katniss becomes a tribute, and Gale ends up watching the Games and rooting for her. And so do we. Katniss’s unflinching heroism makes her easy to root for, after all, and The Hunger Games provides plenty of entertainment and thrills. Still, I wouldn’t have said no to some additional moral complexity.
The best thing about Bullhead (Rundskop), Michael R. Roskam’s feature-length debut, is by far its lead actor, Matthias Schoenaerts. Schoenaerts, playing cattle farmer and small-time crook Jacky Vanmarsenille, is huge, a mountain of a man with hypertrophied shoulders and bulging neck muscles, with a broad, broken nose and a perpetually half-closed right eye that make him look even more imposing. But Jacky’s not a gentle giant. There’s an intensity to him, an anger that he constantly struggles to repress and that comes out in explosive bouts of violence. Yet he is also a profoundly sad being , a man always looking at the world as if he didn’t, couldn’t ever belong to it. A perpetual outcast whose condition tears at his very soul. All that Schoenaerts conveys not through dialogue, but through sheer physicality. He is not a handsome man by any means, but he has presence, charisma, even a sort of uncalculated and dangerous charm. Whenever he is onscreen, you can’t take your eyes off of him—and not only because he occupies so much of it. And when he’s offscreen, you find yourself waiting for the next scene in which he’ll be.
There are actually a number of plotlines that run concurrently through Bullhead, although all end up revolving, in one way or another, around Jacky and his Limburgian cattle farm (“It’s in Belgium,” as Colin Farrell would say). There’s the West Flemish gangster and beef trader Marc Decuyper (Sam Louwyck), with whom Jacky might be about to make a deal, encouraged by the crooked veterinarian who sells him the growth hormones he uses on his cows. There’s the murder of a federal police officer who was investigating Decuyper and its fallout, with which Decuyper’s henchman Diederik (Jeroen Perceval) has to deal. And then there’s the thing that haunts Jacky, that drives him to inject himself with steroids and human growth hormones every day, to stalk a young woman who sells perfume for a living. “There are things,” he says in a voice-over at the very beginning of the film, “that you can’t ever talk about. Not ever.” But you can’t forget them, either, as much as you might want to.
The film’s narrative structure is sometimes problematic, especially when it comes to the way Roskam (who wrote the screenplay) uses flashbacks. While Jacky’s back story is obviously central to the film, Roskam goes into a little too much detail, bringing the story to a complete stop when it’s just getting started so he can recount what happened to Jacky twenty years earlier. (I have been thinking a lot about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy lately (I think the word I’m looking for is “obsessed”), and that’s a movie that uses flashbacks (and there are a great deal more of them than here) in truly remarkable, never disruptive ways. Not that the comparison is necessarily fair or even all that relevant. Moving on.) The back and forth between the different plotlines isn’t always seamless, either, partly because the scenes that don’t feature Jacky are inherently much weaker than the ones that do, partly because the connection between the different plotlines seems a bit contrived at times.
But that is also what the film is about. Bullhead is built like a tragedy, like a death trap that’s closing in on Jacky without his even being aware of it, and all the contrivances and coincidences are just cogs in the machine that’s slowly crushing him. “I don’t believe in coincidences,” a character says on two different occasions, and she’s at once extremely wrong and extremely right. Call it fate, if you will. Or just plain old bad luck, and worse decisions. Bullhead often feels like it could have been written by the Coen Brothers; it’s sort of a grimmer Fargo. Instead of a Marge Grundersson, you get a tortured giant, a man of terrifying, barely-restrained violence and self-destructive impulses, a pathetic freak you can’t help but feel sorry for.
The film also contains a few almost absurd elements that wouldn’t feel too out of place in a Coen movie. Take Christian (Erico Salamone) and David Filippini (Philippe Grand’Henry), for instance, two bumbling Walloon mechanics who unwittingly find themselves linked to both Jacky and Decuyper. They provide broad comic relief, and although they are often indeed funny (there’s a hilarious exchange regarding a bullet hole which, I’m afraid, loses much of its comic impact when translated from French into English), they’re also an endless source of whiplash. The rest of the movie’s humor, what little of it there is, is more subdued, but also more effective, and much less distracting than the Guy Ritchie-esque montage of the two mechanics being interrogated by the police.
Much of Bullhead, like its use of flashbacks, or its comic relief, is clumsy. But even more of it is arresting, even beautiful. There’s Schoenaerts’s performance, of course, but there’s also Roskam’s undeniable technical skills, and the sense of implacability that permeates the whole film and drives it towards its inevitable (and, yes, a little awkward, with its final flashback) conclusion. Fate. Or, as Jacky puts it, those things “you can’t ever talk about.” He does try, because he has to, but by then it is too late, and what should be the film’s most important conversation turns into two people talking past each other about two entirely different things. Or perhaps that’s just fate again.
Rage, the title card that opens Christopher R. Witherspoon’s thriller informs us, is a “violent, uncontrollable anger.” The bright red title card, though, gives way to a series of an apparently calm Portland suburb. A little too calm, perhaps. Witherspoon knows his horror movies (and, I imagine, his David Lynch), and the deserted streets are filmed as if from the point of view of a lurking serial killer in a slasher movie. The impression that something isn’t quite right, reinforced by the eerie music, is hard to shake off. Rage, though, is anything but yet another commentary on life in the paradisiac hell that is American suburbia, and if danger looms somewhere, it’s in the big city next door. Portland, Oregon, that den of iniquity and violence. (I kid, I kid.)
That’s where protagonist Dennis Twist (Rick Crawford), a thirty-something writer and teacher, is headed, to spend his day off and get his wife Crystal (Audrey Walker) a present. Or at least that’s what he tells her. What he doesn’t mention is that he’s first meeting with his mistress, the very eastern European Dana (Anna Lodej), to break up with her. Which, admittedly, goes relatively well. But somewhere along the way, Dennis somehow attracts the attention of a mysterious biker (played by Witherspoon himself), who proceeds to follow him around and play what are at first harmless pranks on him. As the biker becomes more and more threatening, though, Dennis starts wondering about the man’s identity and his motivation. Perhaps the guy is Dana’s former convict of an ex-boyfriend, out to hurt his rival. Or perhaps, Dennis muses, it’s just karma, the universe’s way of getting back at him for cheating on his wife.
Rage is, of course, reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s Duel, in which a man driving a Plymouth Valiant in the California desert is relentlessly hounded by a truck and its unseen driver (Dennis’s car, like Dennis Weaver’s Plymouth, is bright red). The connection is made explicit when Dennis overhears two people discussing Duel and its symbolic meaning in a somewhat clumsy scene that’s all the more redundant because it echoes an earlier, much more interesting (and funnier) discussion between Dennis and his best friend/shrink Stan (Richard Topping). While Dennis is busy wallowing in self-pity, Stan assures him that all the bad stuff that’s been happening to him isn’t karma, “it’s bloody life.” A little forward, perhaps, but I guess that’s what you get when you routinely get plastered with your shrink.
Witherspoon’s film is a solid thriller and, as a sort of revisiting of Duel for the 21st century, nicely effective, with a few good scares (and a handful of laughs). The biker, who never takes his helmet off and remains silent throughout, exudes an aura of menace that makes Dennis’s predicament convincing when it could easily have been laughable. At the same time, there’s a sort of playful mischievousness to his early pranks that makes his crossing the line into violence, which he does suddenly and without warning, all the more horrific. There’s a very nice scene in which a terrified Dennis, having managed to escape his pursuer, finds refuge in a subterranean parking lot. There’s a long close-up of Dennis, hunched up behind the wheel of his car, illuminated by the unnatural blue light of the neon, listening intently for any sign of the biker. It goes on for the longest time, and just when you see Dennis’s face begin to relax, you hear the bike’s motor revving, a second before the bike itself appears, going down the ramp into the parking lot.
In its last third, Rage cranks up both the tension and violence, as the biker follows Dennis home and invades his private life. Witherspoon seems aware of just how over the top his story is, and revels in it. There is for instance a surprisingly bloody (and hilarious) scene involving a chainsaw and Dennis’s clueless neighbor Clancy, who was introduced at the beginning of the movie contentedly patting his potbelly on his front lawn. Not that Witherspoon can’t do serious horror: the chainsaw incident directly follows the film’s most chilling scenes, and the laughs are more than welcome.
Duel, one of the Spielberg aficionados mentions, was about an everyman facing a seemingly unstoppable force of nature. Rage is more about the stress inherent to life in the big city, in more ways than one. (The biker is basically a more focused version of the muckers of John Brunner’s science fiction classic Stand on Zanzibar.) In the end, Dennis can’t escape the biker, who pursues him even into his dreams. One may wonder whether that faceless, voiceless man isn’t simply a projection of Dennis’s pent-up frustration and anger, a doppelganger born of stress and self-pity. Witherspoon keeps you guessing until the end, and the eventual revelation of the biker’s motivation, in the film’s final minutes, thankfully doesn’t resolve everything neatly.
The opening sequence of Jeff Nichols’s Take Shelter is the first of many nightmares protagonist Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) will have over the course of the movie. That it is a dream isn’t immediately obvious, although it’s clear that something is off. Curtis stands alone in his backyard, as if he were the last person left in the world. He stares at the dark clouds that gather in the distance, unnaturally turning and twisting, a storm that threatens to engulf everything. Then it starts raining, a yellowish rain so thick it feels, as Curtis will describe it later, like “fresh motor oil.” The camera lingers for a while on the rain flowing down Curtis’s hand, before cutting to a profile of Curtis, awake, head down under the shower, trying to wash the nightmare away. The sound of the shower, though, is indistinguishable from that of the rain (there’s actually a subtle shift a few seconds before the cut from one scene to the other, but good luck catching it on first viewing), and your brain is tricked into not registering the scene change for a couple seconds. Curtis is still very much trapped in his nightmare, and we’re trapped with him.
Had Take Shelter been released here just a few weeks earlier, it would have ended up near the very top of my best of 2011 list. Nichols’s masterpiece (there, I said it) is smart and affecting, beautifully shot, and put together with incredible skill and care. Above all, Take Shelter is fearless. Here’s a film, and a filmmaker, prepared to follow their main character all the way down the path to madness and self-inflicted alienation. That first dream awakens something in Curtis, a 35-year-old construction worker living in a small Ohio town with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and young daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart), who is deaf. The nightmares come back and back again, and with them comes a fear that some catastrophe is about to happen, some unnatural and vicious storm is about to sweep down and take everything away from him. Or perhaps Curtis is just losing his mind, a prospect no less frightening.
“It’s not just a dream,” Curtis says at some point, “it’s a feeling.” One of the most impressive achievements of Take Shelter resides in the way that feeling, of dread and impending disaster, is communicated from Curtis to the viewer. Curtis’s nightmares are vivid, and although you quickly come to recognize them as dreams as soon as they start, they never stop being terrifying. They all play on the same primal fear, that of something that you can’t control happening and turning your whole world upside down, your best friends into savage enemies. No less scary is Curtis’s waking life, which starts slipping more and more out of his control. Michael Shannon delivers an extraordinary performance; he’s a man walking on the edge of a precipice, constantly wondering whether it wouldn’t be best to just jump, his anxiety and desperation almost palpable as he tries to hold on to his life and his family.
He does so at first by pretending that everything is fine, resorting to the age-old male tactic of not acknowledging a problem in the hopes it will go away on its own. He goes to see a counselor, but says nothing of it to his wife, and mentions neither his dreams nor his fears to her. “I didn’t want you worrying about it,” he says when she confronts him about all the money he’s sinking into the house’s old tornado shelter. But of course she can’t help but worry. That Curtis isn’t fine is obvious, and his silence and occasional outbursts, far from keeping his family together, are threatening to tear it apart. It comes as no surprise when one of the film’s very best scenes begins with Curtis telling Sam, “I haven’t been honest with you.” And if Michael Shannon is amazing as Curtis, it’s Chastain that holds the movie together (just like it’s Sam that holds the family together), with a subtle performance that beautifully responds to and complements Shannon’s.
One of the many small pleasures of Take Shelter is the way the screenplay, also written by Nichols, never hits you over the head with exposition. Although the fact that the film is set in a post-economic crisis America is vital to the plot (especially if one considers that the storm Curtis dreams of may not be a literal one), the LaForches’ economic situation is dealt with obliquely, through a series of subtle visual markers and throwaway lines. Whether it’s Curtis paying close attention to how much gas he’s pumping into his car or Sam haggling with a customer and keeping her savings in a small metal box, we understand that money is a concern long before the topic is actually broached. In one of my favorite scenes, Curtis, who has just come home late at night, stands in the doorway of his daughter’s bedroom, watching her sleep, when Sam comes out of her own bedroom, stands beside Curtis, and drapes his arm around her shoulder. “It’s funny,” Curtis says, “I still take off my boots so I won’t wake her up.” “And I still whisper,” Sam says. This tells us that Hannah’s deafness was only recently diagnosed (which becomes relevant to the plot later on), without taking anything away from a sweet and touching scene with unwieldy exposition.
The gorgeous cinematography by Adam Stone (who also worked on Nichols’s debut, Shotgun Stories) only adds to the elemental terror the film evokes. The clear Ohio skies suddenly fill with dark swirling clouds and flocks of birds flying in strange circular shapes, or with lightning that Curtis may or may not be the only one to see. But as scary as Curtis’s visions of apocalypse may be, in the end you may find yourself not so much afraid that he may be right, but that he may be wrong. For madness would be just another sort of nightmare, and one he would have to face alone.