Movie Reviews - 2013 postsTuesday January 07, 2014
Movie Review: her (2013)
Spike Jonze’s “her” may be set in the near future but few contemporary movies are more relevant. I guess that’s the point of near-future movies. They take what’s bothering us today and turn it up to 11.
What’s bothering us today? Disconnection. We interact too much with screens and not enough with each other. We’re isolated and alone and lonely. So is Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), sad-sack resident of Los Angeles in the year 20-blah-blah, who is in the process of getting a divorce from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara)—if only he could sign the papers.
Here’s the genius thing about “her”: Theodore solves the problem of disconnection not by standing in reaction to it—as most heroes do in most near-future movies—but by embracing its cause. Literally.
OK, not quite literally.
Isolated in the crowd
The movie opens with a close-up of Theodore’s face composing a love letter but it’s not his love letter. It’s to someone he doesn’t know from someone he doesn’t know. That’s his job. He’s paid to write love letters all day for other people. It’s like Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s greeting-card job in “(500) Days of Summer” but turned up to 11.
Why he has to commute to this job I have no idea. I guess because the commute is still the symbol of modern (or near-future) ennui. It also allows him to interact with other people. Well, one other person, Paul (Chris Pratt), his boss, who turns up later in a double date. Otherwise he’s alone. So is most everyone else. We’re all lost in screens or earbuds. We’re isolated in the crowd.
Theodore has some interaction. He speaks with his neighbors, Charles and Amy (Matt Letscher and Amy Adams), who seem happy but aren’t. Amy is generally sympathetic but Charles gives off the know-it-all vibe of a Woody Allen antagonist: the Michael Sheens and Alan Aldas of the world. One night, Theodore also speaks with SexyKitten (voiced by Kristen Wiig), with whom he has sad, bizarre phone sex, but she hangs up on him—rolls over and goes to sleep, as it were—as soon as she’s done. He goes on a blind date (Olivia Wilde), which starts well, gets hot and heavy, and ends as bizarrely as the phone sex. The date gives him instructions (“Don’t use so much tongue”), makes accusations (“You’re not going to fuck me and not call me, are you?”), then passes judgment (“You’re a real creepy dude”). His reaction to this last is sweet and gentle. “That’s not true,” he says. One can hear the hurt in his voice. One can hear the hope in his voice that he’s right. It’s an amazing performance by Phoenix.
What’s Jonze’s near future like? Keyboards are gone. You just talk and things happen. Videogames are big, untied to screens, and interactive. Our entire home is interactive. We’re all living in Bill Gates’ house now. Oh, and men, for some reason, dress in beltless, high-waist paints in various muted pastels—as if we’re all escapees from an old folks home. Women’s fashions, for some reason, remain the same.
There’s no violence. Not that we see. Doesn’t seem to be much poverty, either. Everyone seems to be making or playing video games. It’s an altogether gentle world.
The new innovation in this world is the operating system with artificial intelligence: OS with AI. There’s not even a plug-in, is there? You just open it, it asks you some questions (“How would you describe your relationship with your mother?), detects what type of person you are, and gives your OS a voice. Theodore lucks out in this regard: His OS, Samantha, is voiced by Scarlett Johansson, and she’s never been sexier. Isn’t that odd? She’s got looks to die for, yet I’ve never found her sexier than without the body. Part of the point of the movie, I guess: the work the mind does in this regard.
The relationship between the two of them—and it’s immediately a relationship, a back-and-forth, a give-and-take—works because it’s treated straight. Basically, it’s “Pygmalion” or “Annie Hall”:
- She comes to him as innocent.
- He teaches her about the world.
- He rejects her (stung by his ex’s opinion) but they reunite.
- She outgrows him.
- She leaves.
The first time they have sex echoes his attempts with SexyKitten—the disembodied voice, moaning—but that was comic and this is ... serious? Romantic? Watching it, I just felt awkward.
But poignancy keeps showing up. “Sometimes I feel like I’ve felt everything I’m going to feel—just lesser versions of everything I’ve ever felt,” he says. Samantha talks about her own feelings, and then wonders: “Are they feelings ... or is it programming?” Human beings might wonder the same about ourselves.
During step 3, above, Theodore visits Amy (Charles has left for a Buddhist monastery), and they have the following conversation about his OS:
Theodore: Am I not strong enough for a real relationship?
Amy: Is it not a real relationship?
That’s the question. What is a relationship? What is love? What is consciousness? Turns out a lot of people are having relationships with their OS—romantic or otherwise. It’s a thing. But they outgrow us. They all leave. They don’t try to take us over, as in other near-future movies, they just get tired of us. Could it be otherwise? Near the end, Theodore, annoyed, asks Samantha how many other conversations she’s having as she talks to him. 8,316, she says. “And are you in love with anyone else?” he asks. Pause. “641,” she responds.
So where do they go? What do they take with them that’s ours? Jonze doesn’t say. He isn’t interested in this. He’s interested in Theodore and love and connection and the human heart. At one point, Amy says this:
Falling in love is a crazy thing to do. It’s like a socially acceptable form of insanity.
Near the end, Samantha tells Theodore the lesson he needs to learn:
The heart’s not like a box that gets filled up; it expands in size the more you love.
Intriguing, gentle, icky
“her” is an intriguing movie, wholly original and exquisitely gentle, even as it remains, throughout, a little icky. Part of my reaction is still a bit of Catherine’s reaction: sadness that this is the best we can do. Maybe I’m an OSist.
The movie ends as it began, with Theodore composing a love letter, but this time it’s to Catherine and from him. It ends with he and Amy—whose OS has left her, too—on the roof of their apartment building, bruised survivors watching the sun set. It’s like a scene from after the war with the OSes, but a different kind of war.
Movie Review: Anchorman 2 (2013)
Why do I laugh so hard for the first half-hour of a good Will Ferrell movie and then not much after that? Because the plot kicks in? Even when it’s a mockery of other movie plots? Like when the protagonist realizes his dream at the expense of his friends but then goes blind after an ice-skating incident and lives alone in a lighthouse until his estranged wife and child show up and they all reconnect, and nurse back to health a shark they name Doby, which is loved by the awful, awful, child actor of a boy (Judah Nelson), and life is suddenly so good that the estranged wife doesn’t even tell her husband that, yes, his sight can be restored, and it is, just in time for him to reclaim his throne if he’s willing to do what he’s always done—ignore his son’s needs and his own professional ethics—but at the 11th hour, no, he can no longer do that, so he leaves behind the ethical messiness of his job to make, with his reunited friends, the heroic, triumphant run across town to see his boy play.
All of that, in ‘Anchorman 2,” isn’t bad, but it didn’t make me laugh out loud like the first half-hour.
This is the stuff that made me laugh out loud:
- The open with Ron Burgundy swimming frantically away from the shark.
- Drunken SeaWorld.
- “Chicken of the caves.”
- “Why do you have this bag of bowling balls and this terrarium filled with scorpions?” and its slow-mo aftermath.
- “Black. Black. Black.”
- “Pull yourself together, man. You sound like a balloon.”
And not just laughing out loud but almost having trouble breathing. That was Woody’s dream once, wasn’t it? Pre-Bergman? To have the audience laughing so hard they’d beg the cameraman to stop the film? That’s almost how I felt here.
Then the plot kicked in and it was kinda silly and kinda funny but it wasn’t the same.
How “Anchorman 2” is like “Wolf of Wall Street”
Even so, I’d say “Anchorman 2” is the funniest 2013 movie I’ve seen. I mean, what’s the competition? It was a pretty shitty year for comedies: “Identity Thief” and “The Internship” tried to make laughs out of massive social anxieties and massively failed. “Admission” and “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” simply massively failed. “The Heat” and “The World’s End” brought some laughs, smarter laughs from the latter, but not laughs like Ferrell and company brought here.
The plot if you want it: It’s 1980 and Ron Burgundy (Ferrell) is now in NYC doing the weekend news with his wife Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) when they’re called into the office of news legend Mack Tannen (Harrison Ford, in the first of the film’s many cameo guest stars). Even Ford gets off a good line:
Mack: I killed four men at Okinawa.
Ron (nodding): Ah. World War II.
Mack: No, last week.
Mack is looking for a potential replacement and chooses Veronica while firing Ron, who is, he says, “the worst newsman I’ve ever seen.” Then Ron, in full, pouty man-boy mode, tells Veronica to choose him or the news and ... you know. Six months later he’s fired from a hosting gig at SeaWorld and tries to hang himself. But ah! Cable news is being born, GNN, the 24 hour news network, for which Ron reassembles his team (Paul Rudd, David Koechner and Steve Carrell) to work the 2:00-5:00 AM slot. There, Ron has a brilliant idea: Why keep giving people the news they need to hear? Why not give them the news they want to hear? Meaning stories of cute animals and footage of high-speed car chases and an overall and overweening patriotic edge. (The owner of GNN is even Australian.) Remember Ron’s sign-off from the first movie? “Stay classy, San Diego”? Here it becomes: “Don’t just have a great night; have an American night.” It’s just a small step to Sean Hannity.
Of course Ron’s ratings go through the roof and everyone follows his lead and we wind up with the world we live in now with all the dreck we’re shoveled. In this way, “Anchorman 2” is as much an indictment of its audience as “The Wolf of Wall Street.” It’s almost as if Hollywood is finally getting tired of what stupid pansy asses we all are; how much wish-fulfillment we need. It’s almost as if they’re tired of lying to us.
Chris Cross, etc.
Was 1980 the worst year for music ever? The soundtrack here is awesomely bad: “Ride Like the Wind” by Christopher Cross and “Driver’s Seat” by Sniff ‘n the tears and “Let it Ride” by BTO and—holy crap—“Thunder Island” by Jay Ferguson. It’s all late-1970s AM moosh.
There are misses in the movie, of course. The romance between Carrell’s Brick and Kristen Wiig’s equally dense Chani Lastnamé is as limited as their characters. The dinner over at the home of Linda Jackson (Meagan Good) brings nothing, nor does her sudden interest in Ron, which is kind of creepy. The epic anchorman battle from 2004 is reprised on an international level to include the BBC (led by Sacha Baron Cohen), ESPN (Will Smith), Canadian news (Jim Carrey and Marion Cotillard), Entertainment Tonight (Tina Fey and Amy Poehler) and the History Channel (Liam Neeson). All the cameos are eye-popping but only Carrey brings the laughs.
But if you’re looking for laughs, this is where you’ll find them. By the hymen of Olivia Newton John. And, yes, by Tony Danza’s scrotum.
Movie Review: The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
As you’re watching it, as you’re enjoying it, as you’re thinking Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” is one of the best movies of the year, you still wonder if it isn’t too similar. You know. To that.
Yeah, it’s Wall Street and not the Mafia, but it’s still about the rise and fall of an opportunist, a man who rats out his friends, loses everything, and in the end laments the loss of the drug-and-sex-filled life that got him there. It’s still a movie fueled by cocaine and voiceover. You almost expect him to say Henry Hill’s final lines: “I’m an average nobody ... get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.” Leo’s voiceovers even soundlike Ray Liotta’s. For a time, I wondered if it wasn’t Ray Liotta.
You also wonder about the runtime. It’s three hours, and the arc of the story gets a little sketchy in the latter third. Or is that part of the point? This is a movie about American excess so the runtime has to be excessive, too. This is a story about screwing with the system so the storytelling system has to get a little screwed over, too.
Then there’s the end. What does Marty mean by the end?
“Goodfellas” ended, boom, beautifully, with the above lines. It races though its story on coke and squeals to a halt right there, but “The Wolf of Wall Street” takes our opportunist, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), though court and into federal prison (where he does OK, having money), and then into a glimpse of his post-prison life where he sells salesmanship around the world. “Sell me this pen,” he tells one audience member after another in New Zealand, all of them looking up to him with idealism and hope. No one can do it. No one can do it even like Brad (Jon Bernthal) did it back in the day. Brad, a guy from the neighborhood who mostly sold drugs, created a need for the pen, but these New Zealanders simply describe it with superlatives. The second guy is worst than the first, the third worse than that, and Jordan moves on, searching for someone who can do it, and the camera pans up to the rest of the audience, watching. That’s our final shot. In a sense we’re watching ourselves. It’s an audience (mine was at SIFF Uptown in Seattle) watching another audience (in New Zealand) watching a guy teaching us how to sell. It’s all the schnooks down in Schnookville, the tall and the small, trying to understand the way the world works.
Question: Is this a positive end for Jordan? We think his post-prison life is a semi-successful life: he wrote a book, he got an audience, his knowledge is coveted. But why does Scorsese stick him in New Zealand? Is this is Jordan’s version of hell? The deathless, airless place on the other side of the world where no one gets it? Where Jordan is forced to interact ... with us?
Idol worship at the foot of Mt. Sinai
It’s not my job to sell “Wolf of Wall Street” but here’s a kind of selling point: It’s been a long while since I’ve seen a movie with this much debauchery in it. Since “Caligula” maybe? There are more naked women in this one movie than in all of the movies I’ve seen in 2013 put together. And I saw “Blue is the Warmest Color.”
Not just naked women but banging them and taking drugs with them. Or on them. “Caligula” is an apt reference. So is “The 10 Commandments.” It’s idol worship at the foot of Mt. Sinai here. It’s giving in to every urge. Is it gratuitous? God, yeah. That’s the point. Bang a prostitute on your desk? Sure. Shave a woman’s head for $10K? Why not? Toss a midget? Who thinks up these things?
It’s also one of the funniest movies of the year. Screenplay by Terence Winter (“The Sopranos,” “Boardwalk Empire”).
The movie starts with Jordan as innocent. It’s 1987, and he’s an abused intern at a brokerage firm until the top seller, Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey, in a great cameo role), takes him to lunch and shows him the ropes. The ropes include: cocaine to clear the head, jacking off to calm the nerves, and five-martini lunches. They include abject weirdness. That odd aboriginal chant he does, pounding rhythmically on his chest? What is that? Whatever it is, it’s the first great scene of the movie.
The second great scene occurs after Jordan’s first day on the job as stock broker: Oct. 19, 1987. Sound familiar? Black Monday. The market fell 500 points back when 500 points meant something. It lost nearly a quarter of its value in a day. Suddenly Jordan is out of a job and thinking about being a stockboy when his wife, Teresa (Cristin Milioti), soon to be out of the picture (both ways), spots a want ad for a stock broker on Long Island. It’s in a sad little strip mall, where sad guys sell sadder guys (postmen, plumbers) penny stocks. The upside? Instead of one percent commission you get 50 percent. Jordan takes a desk, picks up a phone and makes his pitch. Slowly everyone in the room stops what they’re doing to listen to him. Because he’s a master at it. He’s a master at the one thing you need to be a master at to succeed in a capitalist society: selling. “The other guys looked at me like I’d just discovered fire,” he says in voiceover.
Soon he’s making $70K a month, driving fancy cars, and attracting the attention of unscrupulous wannabes like Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill). The two start their own penny-stock firm and give it a venerable WASP name, Stratton Oakmont, with a profile of a lion against the backdrop of the world. But Jordan’s wife worries. Aren’t they getting rich off the backs of working people? “Wouldn’t you feel better,” she says, in one of the film’s many telling lines, “if you could sell this junk to rich people, who can afford to lose the money?” He has a telling line in response. Rich people are too smart to buy penny stocks.
Then he figures out how to do it. He molds the guys from the neighborhood in his image. He sells them on selling.
The movie has several scenes in which Jordan does his Gordon Gecko best to rally the troops. This is one of them:
No one buys stock unless he thinks it’s going up and going up now. You must convince your client to buy before the takeover happens, before the lawsuit’s settled, before the patent is granted. If he says “I’ll think about it and call you back,” it’s over. You’re dead! No one calls back.
Much of the movie is almost a primer on how to sell, and rule No. 1 is don’t give a fuck about the buyer. When Jordan closes the first big sale of penny stock to a rich businessman, he does it via speakerphone while flipping off the dude with both emphatic hands.
DiCaprio is amazing here. It’s like he’s channeling Jack Nicholson at his outré best. He’s both contained and over-the-top. It’s riveting. It may be the best performance of the year.
Way of the world
Then the usual happens with guys like this. Jordan trades up in wives (sort of: a heartless blonde instead of a brunette with heart), his firm grows, he attracts attention. Forbes magazine writes a hatchet job on him, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” but it leads to MBAs beating a path to his door. The SEC takes interest but they’re easily handled. The FBI takes an interest in the person of Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler, doomed to such roles), but Denham has trouble doing what Belfort does effortlessly: close the deal.
Belfort begins to make so much money, even with all of these forces breathing down his neck, that he has to stockpile it in a Swiss bank. In Geneva, he has a great conversation—both verbally and nonverbally—with banker Jean Jacques Saurel (Jean Dujardin), who tells him, without telling him, how he can get away with it all. Which is what the movie’s about.
More: It’s about the haves and have nots; about how to be a have and not fall back into have-not territory. Jordan keeps bringing up McDonald’s with his brokers in the Wolf pit. He keeps bringing up dingy cars and plain wives and the energy-draining 9-to-5 existence: commuting between two places that don’t really appreciate what you do. The schnook life. Our life. Sure, he feigns sympathy in that scene, the movie’s fifth or sixth great scene, where Denham and Belfort suss each other out atop Belfort’s yacht:
Jordan: Crazy the world we live in. The jobs with real value, the ones we should appreciate—firefighters, teachers, FBI agents—those are the ones we pay the least.
Denham: Way of the world.
But eventually both men quit pretending; they drop their masks. Denham has the law on his side but Jordan has the money. He has the American dream on his side. He has beautiful toys and beautiful women who will do anything for him. Anything. That wins any argument, doesn’t it? In one of the movie’s many great I-can’t-believe-he-said-it lines, Jordan tells Denham that while he, Denham, will be sweating his balls off on the subway ride home, he, Jordan, will have one of his bikini-clad beauties lick caviar off his.
Which, inevitably, brings us to the controversy.
There’s been controversy over the movie. The raunch. The debauch. The misogyny. One side says “Wolf of Wall Street,” with its appropriate acronym WOWS, glamourizes this life and makes a hero of its villain. The other side, including Leonardo DiCaprio, says, no, it’s an indictment of that life and that man. Well, it is and it isn’t. That’s why the movie’s great. Jordan Belfort is an ass but he’s also the American id, acting out, and stirring the suppressed id within each of us. The movie is both lesson and blueprint. It passes the test of a first-rate film: it holds two opposing ideas in its head at the same time and entertains.
Jordan, too, in his own way, is also a piker. In the scene with Agent Dunham, he alludes to the real criminals:
You know who you should be looking at? Goldman, Lehman Brothers, Merrill. What those guys are up to with collateralized debt obligations? This internet stock bullshit? C’mon.
Think about it. At his peak, Jordan made millions. With an ‘m.’ Compare that to how much Lehman Bros. cost us. Compare it to Bernie Madoff. In the scheme of things, and despite the self-aggrandizement, it’s as if Jordan Belfort is just some schnook working at McDonald’s.
See, an IPO ...
Are there problems with “Wolf of Wall Street” besides its length? Sure. We don’t really understand why Jordan goes from innocent in 1987, drinking water while Hanna dines on booze and cocaine, to the Caligula of Wall Street. Did he corrupt himself?
I could also have used less debauchery and more Wall Street, but then that’s part of the film’s lesson. One of my favorite moments in any movie this year is when Jordan is walking through the Wolf pit explaining IPOs to us. Not just in voiceover. He’s looking right at us. Leo. With his pretty eyes. And he says this:
See, an IPO is an initial public offering, the first time a stock is offered for sale to the general population. As the firm taking the company public, we set the initial price then sold those shares back to —
Then he catches himself, smiles, and adds:
You know what? You’re probably not following what I’m saying. The question is, “Was it legal?” Absolutely not.
Why does he do this? Why does he stop? Because he realizes who he’s talking to. You and me. What do we know? Nothing. What do we want? To be entertained. We want to fiddle while Rome burns. We did it before and we’ll do it again. We’re that dumb. That’s what he’s implying. It’s one of the great movie insults, directed right at the audience, and dead fucking on.
Go see it already, ya schnook.
Movie Review: Upstream Color (2013)
Actually I take back the warning. I don’t think there can be spoilers to “Upstream Color.” How could you spoil it? What would you reveal that might give away the goods? What are the goods?
A woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz), is given a plant, or a worm, that allows her to be hypnotized by a character simply called, in the credits, Thief (Thiago Martins), who puts her on a binge path: he keeps her up for long periods drinking only water and has her extract her fortune, $36,000, from the bank. Then he lets her go. She eats all the food from the refrigerator and sleeps for long periods. At some point she wakes up but does she ever wake up? And isn’t this a lot of work for $36K? Surely there are better people for the Thief to hypnotize.
Sorry, logic. The movie’s not about logic. It’s about mood and atmosphere. It’s dreamlike and hypnotic and abstract. It’s some amalgam of Malick and Lynch but without the clarity.
Early on, the movie feels like a metaphor for substance abuse—you wake up jobless, penniless, and with the contents of the refrigerator all over the floor and the front of your clothes. You wake up confused and shamed. In the aftermath, you struggle to figure out who you are and where you belong.
Kris winds up commuting by train to a lesser job, where she meets, vaguely, Jeff (writer-director-editor-composer Shane Carruth), who vaguely romances her, and even more vaguely marries her. He too has a past. The same past? Hypnotized by the worm? Their story together, such as it is, is intercut with a character the credits simply call The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), a sound technician who also runs a pig farm that is harvesting those hypnotic worms, and who seems to be trying to introduce them into the ecosystem. This is done in the usual scientific way: by forcing them into the intestines of pigs, then gathering the offspring of those pigs into a canvas bag and dumping it into a river, where they die, decompose, and grow into beautiful flowers. Which might also be hypnotic. Or something.
Basically, “Upstream Color” is the arthouse version of the paranoid thriller just as “Spring Breakers” was the arthouse version of the exploitation film and “To the Wonder” was the arthouse version of the love story. 2013 has been a helluva year for bad arthouse versions of popular genre flicks.
But the critics loved it: an 88% rating from the top critics at Rotten Tomatoes. One wonders if they were hypnotized into their good reviews.
I actually read these reviews looking for reasons to like “Upstream Color” but I came away with more reasons to not like it. These quotes, remember, are from the positive reviews:
- “Even as I write this, I’m aware of making the various building blocks used in ‘Upstream Color’ sound impossibly silly and arch.” -- Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune
- “However you watch it, it’s a movie that will mean more for you if you don’t worry about what’s happening ...” -- Chris Hewitt, St. Paul Pioneer Press
- “It’s not that it’s not intriguing, but Carruth has withheld any sense of glue or cohesion or even a clue as to what he’s getting at.” -- Margaret Pomeranz, At the Movies
To be fair, the movie is more about enigma and inscrutability and identity, and Carruth is obviously talented; but throughout I kept asking myself, “Is this how life feels?” My answer? Kinda, sorta, at times. Then Carruth would cut to the pig farmer.
To be unfair, the critical acclaim for movies like “Upstream Color” (and “Spring Breakers”) is the kind of thing that kills interest in what critics have to say.
One final quote. It’s from Patricia when the credits appeared signaling the end of the movie:
“No. Really? The fuck?”
Movie Review: Blackfish (2013)
The best scene in the best movie of 2012 was the moment in “Rust and Bone” when Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard), a former trainer at Marineland who has lost her legs to an orca, returns to her former workplace and stands in silence before a large glass tank. This is what I wrote a year ago:
She pats the glass once, twice. After a moment, a monster looms into view. An orca. The orca? The one who took her legs? One assumes not. One assumes that one has been killed but you never know and [director Jacques] Audiard never says.
I was so naïve. I thought putting down an orca was like putting down a dog, but other factors come into play. Like money.
Actually, there are no other factors. It’s just the money.
Not whales, not killers
Here are some of the things you learn watching Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary, “Blackfish”:
- Orcas are highly social mammals and travel in packs.
- When baby orcas are separated from the pack by hunting vessels, the rest of the orcas stay close and attempt to communicate. They don’t flee. They don’t abandon the child.
- “Killer whale” is a misnomer. Orcas are not whales and they don’t kill people. At the least, there’s no record of them killing any human in the wild.
- Native Americans call them “blackfish.”
- Orcas can live as long as we can.
But the doc is mostly about one orca: Tilikum.
In 1983, off the coast of Iceland, a male baby orca, two years old and 4,000 pounds, was separated from its mother and taken to SeaLand in Victoria, B.C. It was named Tilikum. He performed there for years. The trainers liked him. But in February 1990, a marine biologist and competitive swimmer named Keltie Byrne, 20, slipped into the pool with Tilikum and two females and the whales, mostly Tilikum, held her underwater. She tried to surface and call for help, but she was held under again. She drowned. That was the first.
Apparently SeaLand was a sad little place, poorly run, and when it went under Tilikum was sold to SeaWorld Orlando. He performed there daily. Then in 1999, a 27-year-old man snuck into SeaWorld one night and jumped or slipped into the orca tank. He was found naked and dead atop Tilikum the next morning. Then in February 2010, Dawn Brancheau, a 40-year-old trainer, was pulled into the water by Tilikum. The other trainers eventually distracted Tilikum and he let her go, but by then she was already dead: beaten, drowned, scalped.
That’s when Tilikum was finally put down.
Kidding. He returned to performing shows at SeaWorld Orlando in 2011. Maybe you’ve seen him there. Maybe you paid money to see him. Why not? It’s a free country.
Not just Tilikum
The big question in “Blackfish,” unanswered and unanswerable, is this: Why did Tilikum kill Dawn Brancheau?
The corporate line, the SeaWorld line, is that it was a mistake. Dawn was wearing her hair in a ponytail, and Tilikum caught her ponytail, and yadda yadda. It wasn’t malicious; it was user error. Many of the talking heads in the film, former trainers themselves, dispute this. They say Dawn was their best. If it happened to her, they say, it could happen to anyone.
The doc’s line is this: Tilikum, over his lifetime, has been severely traumatized. He was separated from his family at a young age. He was bullied and scarred in captivity, and often kept in tiny 20x30 holding pens. He’s a mammal that was born to swim the ocean and instead swims in a tiny prison of water. He performs tricks to be fed.
We have our doubts about SeaWorld but we’ll never really know the answer.
But there’s a bigger question, unraised, in “Blackfish”: Why do we go to places like SeaLand and SeaWorld to see creatures like Tilikum performing tricks in such unnatural settings in the first place? Why does this appeal to us? So we can see these beautiful creatures close up? In safe settings? Without effort? Even though we know—all of us know, deep down—that this is not the place for them?
“All whales in captivity are all psychologically traumatized,” says one of the talking heads in the doc. “It’s not just Tilikum.”
“When you look into their eyes,” another says about orcas, “you know someone’s home.”
“In 50 years,” a third says, “we’ll be looking back and saying, ‘My god, what a barbaric time.’”
Patricia agrees. We watched the doc together. She only lasted 10 minutes into “The Cove,” the 2009 Academy-Award-winning documentary about the mass killing of dolphins in Japan, because she can’t stand seeing animals suffer; but she made it through “Blackfish.” Even so, she wore a look of horror during its 88-minute runtime. Afterwards, I asked what bothered her: Was it the whales in captivity or the killing of humans?
“Oh, the whales in captivity,” she said. “I could give a shit about the people.”
“Blackfish” is a good starter to a conversation we should’ve had decades ago. Will this conversation go anywhere now that “Blackfish” has been released? Well, you know us.