Movie Reviews - 2014 postsFriday January 30, 2015
Movie Review: Selma (2014)
First, yeah, it screws up LBJ.
Second, it gets almost everything else right.
Let’s start with the casting. I kept going “That’s got to be...” and every time it was: Andrew Young (André Holland), John Lewis (Stephan James), Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson). Nigel Thatch looks more like Malcolm X than anyone who’s ever portrayed him on screen. Wendell Pierce isn’t exactly a dead ringer for Hosea Williams, but he brings that Wendell Pierce “shit is fucked/I got your back” spirit with him. Check out the scene where he calls John Lewis—who put his body on the line during the Nashville sit-ins, the Freedom rides, and as president of SNCC—“young blood.” When it’s announced that Harry Belafonte is coming to Selma, Hosea leads everyone in a rousing version of “Banana Boat Song.” Seriously, who wouldn’t want to hang with Wendell Pierce?
Then there’s Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King (David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo). Screenwriter Paul Webb and director Ava DuVernay make them real people again. They give them a sense of intimacy. It’s hard to view a man as a saint when you’ve seen him put a plastic lining in the trash bin under the sink. Watching “Selma,” I had this obvious thought for the first time: “He really did marry up in the looks department, didn’t he?”
We get that sense of intimacy right away. It’s December 1964, and King and Coretta are in their room in Oslo, Norway, where he is about to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He’s trying to practice his speech but he spends more time fussing with his ascot. He doesn’t like it. He doesn’t like the message it sends back home. She argues for it. It’s the miniscule details of the scene, the subtle tensions, the promises he makes to her that we know (and he knows, and she knows) he won’t be able to keep: about becoming a pastor in a small church somewhere, and teaching a class, and raising their kids in a home they own rather than rent; about leading a regular life rather than leading a movement that brings death threats and the hate of half the country down on them. I was immediately won over.
Eyes on the prize
“Selma” is divided into three basic types of scenes: attempts to undercut movement leaders from outside; attempts to bolster movement leaders from within; strategizing among groups. The strategizing scenes are best.
Undercutting: The FBI spies on King, calls his house, plays sex tapes for Coretta over the phone. It tries to bring down the movement by getting between him and his wife. “That ain’t me,” he tells her, as they listen to two people in the throes. “I know,” she says quietly. “I know what you sound like.” Another humanizing moment.
The most unnecessary bolstering scene involves Coretta. Martin’s in jail, and Hosea and the others are going “uh oh” because Malcolm X just arrived in town. What will they say to him? What will he say? We don’t get that. Instead, we cut to an older black woman walking with and giving advice to Coretta. Aren’t we undercutting the drama here? We don’t even get to hear Malcolm X give the speech he gave, but at least we get to hear Martin and Coretta arguing over Malcolm X. Another nice scene.
The best bolstering scene starts out poorly. It’s after the first two Edmund Pettus bridge incidents: a police crackdown that horrified the country, and the one where MLK led everyone away from confrontation. Had he lost courage? Faith? John Lewis, still scarred from the first bridge incident, talks to him about the beating he took in the Freedom Rides. At first I didn’t buy it. Is John Lewis schooling Martin Luther King on the history of the movement? But no. He’s telling him about how, at that moment, Lewis began to lose faith, and King propped him up with a sermon. “What did I say?” MLK asks quietly. I love that. He’s forgotten, of course. For him, it was just another day; another sermon in 10 years of sermons.
Both of those types of scenes are fine; but the strategizing scenes is where the movie, and history, come alive.
A good reminder: It wasn’t just Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston) who didn’t want MLK in Selma; SNCC didn’t want him there, either. Lewis and James Orange (Omar J. Dorsey) had been in Selma two years already, working on registering voters, and the worry—and it was always a worry, of which King was painfully aware—was that MLK would come in and grab the glory and the headlines. Plus SNCC was the younger generation. It was getting tired of waiting and tired of marching. It was moving away from MLK, nonviolence, and the civil rights movement, and toward Black Power. Interestingly, in ’63, Lewis was “young blood.” He was the firebrand, demanding to say use the word “black” instead of “Negro” during his March on Washington speech. A year after the events in “Selma,” Lewis would lose the SNCC chairmanship to Stokely Carmichael for being too middle-of-the-road; for siding too much with King. You see some of this dynamic in his arguments with Orange. The movement is already fraying. Black Power will end it.
I love the way the history of the movement is subtly layered into the strategizing sessions. The protests of Albany, Ga., in 1962 didn’t work because Chief Pritchett kept his cool; they did in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963 because Sheriff “Bull” Connor didn’t. So the big question for Selma: is Jim Clark a Pritchett or a Connor? Orange and Lewis admit, reluctantly, that he’s a Connor. So the SCLC stays. So the protests and marches begin.
(Related: In the Obama years, do you think the Republican party has been a Chief Pritchett or a Bull Connor? There’s a good discussion there for the GOP to have with itself; or for Roger Ailes with his self.)
As King and the movement strategizes, so do—separately—Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth) and his deputy (Stephen Root), and President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and his (Giovanni Ribisi). The former is interested in defeating King, the latter in deflecting him. LBJ is the voice of restraint here. He’s the institutional voice saying “Wait” on voting rights.
Which I suppose brings us to the LBJ question.
A change (is gonna come)
I’ve read less about Selma than other civil rights hotspots (Montgomery, Nashville, Birmingham), but I know that when Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 he told an aide, “We’ve lost the South for a generation.” Not only was he right, he was optimistic. (It’s been two generations.) So if anything, Johnson wanted blacks in the South to vote. To give the Democratic party a chance there.
Here are two excerpts from “Eyes on the Prize,” the companion book to the seminal documentary on the civil rights movement. The first backs up the movie’s portrayal; the second doesn’t:
- “In his State of the Union address, President Johnson articulated the goal of eliminating ‘every remaining obstacle to the right and the opportunity to vote,’ but voting rights came seventh on his list of domestic priorities.” (pg. 258)
- “On the day of Malcolm X’s speech [early February 1965], President Johnson held a press conference. ... It was his first direct response to Selma and a welcome surprise to the activists. ‘I should like to say that all Americans should be indignant when one American is denied the right to vote,’ said Johnson. ‘The loss of that right to a single citizen undermines the freedom of every citizen. That is why all of us should be concerned with the efforts of our fellow Americans to register to vote in Alabama. ... I intend to see that that right is secured for all our citizens.’” (pg. 262)
At this point in the movie, DuVernay actually implies that LBJ was silently conspiring with J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) to undercut MLK via the FBI sex tapes.
Here’s DuVernay herself on the subject:
The script was the LBJ/King thing, but originally, it was much more slanted to Johnson. I wasn't interested in making a white-savior movie; I was interested in making a movie centered on the people of Selma. ... Johnson has been hailed as a hero of that time, and he was, but we're talking about a reluctant hero. He was cajoled and pushed, he was protective of a legacy—he was not doing things out of the goodness of his heart.
Goodness schmoodness. Let’s ask the Watergate question: What did the president say and when did he say it? What did the president do and when did he do it?
Here’s a transcript of LBJ strategizing with MLK on January 15, 1965, before most of the events in the movie. He hardly seems the reluctant ally DuVernay makes him.
The greater insult might be how dull she makes him. For all his faults (and there were many), LBJ was still one of the gladhandingest, craziest, talking-your-ear-off-while-he’s-sitting-on-the-crapper control freaks to ever occupy the Oval Office. He dominated rooms and people and the world. He went out of his way to control inflation. Color TVs too expensive? Talk to RCA. Egg prices up? Tell the Surgeon General to issue a warning on high cholesterol. But for most of the movie, he’s back on his heels, fretting in silence over newspaper headlines, taking guff from George Wallace of all people. George Wallace! Every report I’ve read of their meetings ends with Wallace as soft putty in LBJ’s giant hands—at least until he gets back to Alabama—but here Wallace stares down the President of the United States and doesn’t blink. Was Wilkinson wrong for the role? Was Roth? Should Southerners protest that they’re constantly being played by Brits? Maybe DuVernay just doesn’t know how to direct white people? They’re certainly the weakest part of her movie.
We shall overcome
Look, I get it. Hollywood’s been awful on the civil rights movement. It’s made heroes of historical obstructionists: the FBI in “Mississippi Burning”; southern whites in “The Help.” “Selma” is actually the first theatrical release to feature MLK as the main character. How awful is that? That it took more than 50 years to get him front and center and in the theater?
I also get that LBJ’s reluctance to go along with the Selma campaign gives the movie its dramatic structure. We spend most of the movie waiting for two things to happen: the march from Selma to Montgomery to go forward and the Voting Rights Act to get pushed through Congress. The march is stymied by troops first, and MLK second, before Judge Frank Minis Johnson (Martin Sheen) declares it lawful; then it goes. The Voting Rights Act is stymied mostly by LBJ’s reluctance; but then he has a change of heart (somewhere), gives the big speech in front of Congress, and appropriates the movement’s signature phrase: “And we shall overcome,” So: happy ending. But I think there are better—and more honest—dramatic structures. I think more could have been done, for example, on why King led the march away from the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
(Sidenote: According to movement leader C.T. Vivian, when Johnson said “We shall overcome,” Vivian looked over at Dr. King and saw a tear running down his cheek. In the movie, King is dry-eyed. Because DuVernay didn’t believe Vivian? Because dry-eyed is more dramatic? Because that’s the way DuVernay wants it to be?)
I do think some of DuVernay’s choices weakened the movie. I suppose she’ll just have to settle for directing the best film about the civil rights movement ever made.
Movie Review: Belle (2014)
Here’s how our concerns for the title character—what we and she worry about—keep shifting in “Belle.”
It’s 1761, and an impossible pretty black girl named Dido (initially Lauren Julien-Box, eventually Gugu Mbatha-Raw), is brought by her white father, Capt. Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), to his uncle’s estate in England. Her African mother has died and Lindsay is about to go to sea again. Someone needs to care for the girl.
That’s our initial concern: Will this impossibly pretty black girl find a place to live in superwhite England, or will she be left to the wolves?
She finds a place to live. (Whew.) The reluctant aunt and uncle, Lady and Lord Mansfield (Emily Watson and Tom Wilkinson), agree to bring her up on their estate—along with her cousin, Elizabeth (Sarah Maden), whose mother has also died, and whose father has abandoned her for some Italian wench. So these two girls, one black and one white, grow up together—laughing and chasing each other around trees, as girls in period pieces are wont to do.
But then the increasingly engaged grandaunt and uncle worry: What happens when we die? Dido will be penniless (and left to the wolves)!
Except Capt. Sir John dies first. And leaves Dido his fortune. Second problem solved.
Except, of course, it’s England in the 1770s, and Dido, while impossibly pretty, is still black. No one, certainly no one in society, will be interested in her as a wife. So that’s the next worry: She’ll wind up an old maid like Lady Mary! Lady Mary, by the way, is played by Penelope Wilton, the annoying Isobel Crawley of “Downton Abbey,” whom no one ever wants to be like.
Except ... aha! ... a handsome man, John Davinier (Sam Reid), arrives on the estate, and he and Dido meet cute. She’s polite to everyone but him, which means, in movie terms, that she totally likes him. Plus he’s interested in the Zong case—about the destruction of property (slaves) aboard a ship, and what it means for insurance law, not to mention English law. Dido’s grand uncle, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, and the Lord Chief Justice, is the man deciding the case. Even if he is taking his own sweet time about it. (Cf. Wilkinson’s LBJ in “Selma.”)
Not only that, but cousin Elizabeth, who can’t play the piano as well as Dido, is being pursued by James Ashford (Tom Felton, forever Draco Malfoy), and he’s got a taller, handsomer brother, Oliver (James Norton), who’s totally interested in Dido, and not in a creepy way, either. Which is good because Davinier impetuously blows it with Dido’s granduncle and has to leave the estate forthwith. Plus Davinier a mere vicar’s son. It would never have worked.
And there’s no need! In London, Oliver proposes marriage! So this problem is now solved. She won’t wind up an old maid like Lady Mary.
Except ... does she truly love him? Like with John Davinier? Which leads to our next and final worry: Will she wind up with the right man? Also known as: Will she find TRUE LOVE?
You can guess the ending. Oh, and the Lord Chief Justice rules properly on the Zong case, paving the way for the eventual abolition of slavery (or at least the slave trade) in England in 1807.
I was bored throughout. The movie is glorified BBC: the heroine ascending the ladder of worries until she winds up with it all. It’s “Masterpiece Theater” with a tan.
Movie Review: American Sniper (2014)
Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” doesn’t believe in gray areas. It’s about God, country and family. It’s about protecting your own, and the greatest country on earth, and taking down the bad guys. Maybe even a record number of them.
At one point, on the second tour of Iraq for Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history, Kyle greets his younger brother, Jeff (Kier O’Donnell), a skinny dude who is about to be shipped back home. But something’s off. Jeff has a thousand-yard stare, and eventually he tells his bigger, beefier brother, “Fuck this place.” Soon after, Chris is talking to another soldier, who tells him, “I just don’t believe in what we’re doing here.” Chris is stunned. “You want these fuckers to come to San Diego or New York?” he asks. “We’re more than just protecting dirt.” So off they go. To kill more savages.
Now, you could bring up the fact that these fuckers in Iraq weren’t going anywhere until we arrived and toppled Saddam, and allowed anarchy to break loose, and al Qaeda to move in, and ... Sorry. Gray area. The movie isn’t any more complicated than that.
For whom was the war more complicated? Pat Tillman, for one. An NFL football player with a lantern jaw, he joined the U.S. Army after the attacks of 9/11 with the hope of fighting al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Instead, he wound up fighting an insurgency we created in Iraq—a war which Tillman regarded as illegal. That’s not a thought that enters the mind of Chris Kyle, not to mention Eastwood. In “American Sniper” we have to be in Iraq because that’s where evil men—“savages” in the language of the SEALs—do evil deeds. That’s why we’re going door-to-door in bombed-out cities. And that’s why Chris is on a rooftop with gun trained: to protect his fellow soldiers. He has milliseconds to decide whether or not to kill not only bad men but women and children.
Psst: He’s never wrong.
It’s a helluva thing killing a man
What an interesting career Clint Eastwood has had. Forty years ago, he was a darling of conservatives everywhere, and a fascist in the eyes of movie critics like Pauline Kael, for his portrayal of trigger-happy and Miranda-rights-dismissing lawman Dirty Harry Callahan. Twenty years ago, he became a celebrated Oscar-winning director for his somber, violence-begets-violence western “Unforgiven.” Ten years ago, he actually became an enemy to the pro-life right for the sad, euthanasia-ish ending of “Million Dollar Baby.” More recently, he starred in and narrated a Chrysler commercial trumpeting the return of Detroit, orchestrated by Pres. Obama, then showed up at the 2012 Republican convention to dismiss Obama as an empty chair.
Now he’s a hero of the right again. He’s recreated the Iraq War in the Hollywood mould, which is, one imagines, how Pres. Bush, and many pro-war conservatives, imagined it in the first place. Eastwood even manages to put a positive spin on the phrase “Mission accomplished.” No small feat.
The great lesson for Chris begins early, when his father, Wayne (Ben Reed), takes him hunting. His father is stern (never leave your gun in the ground), but complimentary (you’ll make a good hunter some day), and then at the dinner table, when younger brother Jeff shows up with a black eye, he lays it all out for the boys.
There are three types of people in the world, he says, and lists them:
- Sheep (victims, essentially)
- Wolves (bullies, essentially)
- Sheep dogs (those who protect the victims from the bullies)
I don’t raise sheep, he says.
You begin to raise a finger, a counterpoint, that none of us are any one thing, and that sheep dogs, for example, have a troubling tendency to spill over into wolves territory. But then you realize: Eastwood. “Don’t Mess with Texas.” Screw your gray area, Brainiac.
In 1998, after the al-Qaeda-orchestrated U.S. embassy bombings in Africa, Kyle joins the SEALS, and we get some brutal training footage, as well as a not-bad meeting and romance with his eventual wife, Taya (Sienna Miller, going brunette). Then 9/11. As the SEALs say, “It’s ON!”
Kyle quickly gets a rep as a sharp-shooter. Eventually he’s known simply as “The Legend.” He kills a young boy, about to throw a rocket-propelled grenade at Kyle’s fellow soldiers, then takes down the woman (the boy’s mother?), who was definitely trying to blow up the men. He keeps killing bad men with big guns, then grows weary of rooftop patrol and goes door-to-door with other SEALs and Marines.
When he gets home, he can’t adjust. It’s like the supermarket scene in “The Hurt Locker” but more protracted, and with more complaints from the Mrs. Then he returns to Iraq. Did he re-up? Was it stop-loss? Who knows? There’s an expert sniper on the Iraq side, Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), who pins down Kyle, kills this and that guy, and becomes the bête noir: Kill this guy, it’s implied, and the war will go right.
At home after the third tour, Taya tells him, “I need you to be human again.” (But we don’t, since the inhuman hero is an action-movie staple.) She tells him, “I need you to be here.” (But we want him to be there, since that’s where the story is.)
It’s on his fourth and final tour that Kyle kills Mustafa—with an impossible, slow-mo shot from a mile away. “Mission accomplished,” a fellow soldier says with a grin and no trace of irony. Then Kyle returns home, has trouble, adjusts, becomes a good husband and father again, and ... tragedy off-screen.
We all got it coming, kid
Apparently the real Chris Kyle wasn’t as conflicted as Bradley Cooper’s cinematic version. He might not have been as humble, either. In the movie he’s the perfect man for imperfect times: tough but polite, witty with women, gentle but firm with kids, conflicted about killing, but in the end mostly interested in protecting the greatest country on earth. He carries the Bible and believes in God and Jesus Christ.
The script by Jason Hall (“Spread,” “Paranoia”), and based upon Chris Kyle’s book of the same name, is often witty. Early, Jeff and Chris witness Chris’ girl cheating on him, and after Chris beats up the dude, and quietly but firmly kicks out the histrionic girl, Jeff asks, “So when’s the wedding?” During SEALs training, the men are lambasted as “Cheetos-eating and Dr. Pepper-drinking motherfuckers,” which drew an appreciative laugh from the popcorn-munching and Coke-drinking folks at Pacific Place. After one tour, Kyle comes home and wonders where the war is. “It’s not even on the news,” he says. After another, he stares into the blank TV set while the noises of the war resound in his head.
“American Sniper” is an unapologetic portrait of an unapologetic man, and in that regard it’s kind of fascinating. Even so, I was often bored. Nothing is questioned (most particularly: why Iraq?) because answers are assumed (sheep/wolves/sheepdog). The world is actually more complicated than that, and to assume otherwise can be dangerous. Pres. Bush didn’t believe in gray areas, either.
Movie Review: Inherent Vice (2014)
The only Thomas Pynchon I’ve read—and that was 30 years ago—was “The Crying of Lot 49,” which I found bizarre, beautifully written, very L.A., and almost completely incomprehensible.
The movie “Inherent Vice,” directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, and based upon Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same name, shares with “Lot 49” everything from outsized names (Petunia Leeway, Sauncho Smilax) to the pungency of L.A. at the end of the 1960s (drugs and hippies, Orange County Republicans and real estate, skateboarders and bikers) to incomprehensibility. Halfway through, I thought, “It’s like ‘Chinatown,’ but with the Dude rather than Jake Gittes as the P.I., and steeped in the spacey nihilism of the 1970s rather than the grittiness of the 1930s.” Then I thought, “Actually, it’s just a lot like ‘The Big Lebowski.’ The stoner take on noir. The detective work that goes nowhere. Except ...”
Except, I thought, it’s not as good. The tone is off. It’s smart, well-acted, but ...
And then it hits you: Is the problem the director?
I say all of this with trepidation. In 2007, after seeing Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood” at the Guild 45th, I dismissed it. I thought it wasn’t quite there. Then a few years ago my friend Vinny forced me to rewatch it. And I was blown away.
So maybe I’m missing something here, too. Maybe I need to see it again. That, at least, is an option with Anderson. Even when his movies don’t quite connect, you still want to see them again.
“Inherent Vice” opens the way all noir detective movies open: a girl enters the office of the detective with a case. Except here, the office is a run-down near-breachfront apartment, the P.I. is a pot-smoking slacker, Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), less hippy than fallen hipster, while the girl, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston, Sam’s daughter), is Doc’s former girlfriend, and now paramour of real estate mogul Michael Z. Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). She talks vaguely, and circularly, of a plot to kidnap him and put him in a mental institution. She’s worried for him. Doc is worried for her. He still loves her, you can tell. Soon, she goes missing.
Other cases, connected to this one, keep turning up at Doc’s doorstep. Tariq Khalil (Michael Kenneth “Omar” Williams), fresh out of prison, wants Doc to find his former cellmate, Glen Charlock, a member of the Aryan brother and current Wolfmann bodyguard. He also wants him to find his old neighborhood, which has been razed for one of Wolfmann’s new developments: Channel View Estates. Blacks being booted for the whites. In the development, at the end of a cul-de-sac, Doc finds a brothel, gets hit on the head, and wakes up next to a very dead Charlock while dozens of members of the LAPD train guns on him. They’re led by Lt. Det. Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin, in a standout peformance), a crew-cutted chest-thumper, who earned his nickname by beating up suspects, and who has a comic oral fixation with black phallic symbols—mostly chocolate-covered bananas. In turns, we find out he’s 1) smarter than we thought, 2) henpecked at home, 3) disrespected or at least disconnected at work. He has issues. And he’s the closest thing Doc will have to a partner in the movie.
He’s also the subject of one of the film’s more meaningful lines. The last time we see him, he literally breaks down the door to Doc’s beachhouse, glowers down at a stoned Doc, takes a puff of his joint, then eats the rest of it. It’s almost an “I-drink-your-MILKSHAKE!” moment, isn’t it? Stunned through his haze, Doc says something like, “Take it easy, brother,” and we get this exchange:
Bigfoot: I ain’t your brother.
Doc: No, but you need a keeper.
Nice. And both in the simian and Biblical sense. Maybe we all do.
Another case that winds up on Doc’s doorstep? Hope Harlingen (Jenna Malone) wants him to find her husband, Coy (Owen Wilson). If almost everyone in the movie has a habit of going missing, Coy keeps turning up in Doc’s path and on Doc’s TV. There he is disrupting a speech by Pres. Nixon before a right-wing “Vigilant California” rally. So is he a left-wing agitator? Not really. He’s an informer now for the feds, and the disruption is supposed to give him street cred. But he wants out. Except there is no out. That’s why he’s missing. He’s staying away from his wife and child to protect them.
All of these various mysteries soon revolve around an organization called the Golden Fang, which is either an Indochinese drug-smuggling cartel or an association of Orange County dentists. Or both. The latter is led by Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short), a coke-snorting, secretary-schtupping mess, who dies in a trampoline accident off-screen. But it’s not an accident.
Paying the rent
“Inherent Vice” has all the trappings of a noir detective story but not much is solved. We want right angles and get curves, endings and get fizzle. There’s a paranoid sense of a menace, a monstrosity shifting the world beneath our feet, but it’s not just paranoia. It’s Gov. Reagan releasing mental patients, and in effect privatizing mental health care (as he would do nationally as president), and it’s in one of these institutions where Doc finally finds Michael Wolfmann, who made the mistake of thinking he could give away his real estate holdings. It’s the collusion of money and politics, which is backed by shocktroops both public (LAPD) and private (the Aryan Brotherhood). It’s the return of Shasta, who was never kidnapped or killed, as Doc feared; she just went away for a while. But she returns damaged goods. Wolfmann abused her sexually, and she liked it, thrived on it, and still wants it. And Doc gives it to her. That scene—love turning to sadomasochism—is a death-of-the-sixties moment. It’s Woodstock becoming Altamont, the hope of RFK becoming the reality of Nixon.
Which is why, I assume, Doc engineers the ending he does. Sitting on a stash of Golden Fang heroin, he brokers a deal with Vigilant California bigwig Crocker Fenway (‘90s indie favorite Martin Donovan, in a pitch-perfect cameo): the return of the heroin for the release of Coy Harlingen from his informant obligations; so he can return to his wife and child; so Doc can have ahappy ending, even if it’s not his.
Their dealmaking conversation is instructive:
Doc: How much money would I have to take from you so I don’t lose your respect?
Crocker (smiles): A bit late for that. People like you lose all claim to respect the first time they pay anybody rent.
The look Doc gives him on that one. Rent as a sucker’s game. You and me playing by the rules even though the game is fixed. There’s a sense here, and throughout the movie, that this is where we went wrong. During this pivotal moment, the left got stoned while the right got busy. It shifted the ground. It rigged the game even more.
I don’t know. Maybe I’ve written myself into liking the film more than I did while watching it. In the theater, I kept thinking Anderson was screwing up. Despite everything happening on screen, it all felt flat, extended, poorly edited.
But I wouldn’t mind seeing it again. There’s something there. If we could just figure out what it is.
Movie Review: Force Majeure (2014)
I was surprised that the avalanche occurs 12 minutes in. Then there’s the silent accusations that become vocal during a squirmingly awful dinner with another couple. That takes us 30 minutes in. The movie, I knew, verged on two hours. I looked over at Patricia, stricken, hand on my chest, and said, “I can’t believe this goes on for 90 more minutes.”
But it does. “Force Majeure” may be the most uncomfortable comedy I’ve seen.
Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), is the young, handsome patriarch of a photogenic Swedish family on a ski vacation in France. But he recalls Richard Nixon in this way: It’s less his crime than his cover-up.
After skiing one morning, the family is having lunch on a picturesque veranda when they hear the muffled explosion of a controlled avalanche. Then they see the snow coming toward them. Everyone stands, oos and ahs, and takes pictures and videos. Tomas does this, too, even as his youngest, Harry (Vincent Wettergren), struggles to get away. But the father assures him it’s alright. Until, that is, this monster of white all but envelops them, and Tomas flees. That’s his crime. He leaves his wife and children behind on the veranda.
In that split-second, their lives are irrevocably changed.
The avalanche turns out to be a ghost avalanche, a snow cloud, and as it dissipates the sky turns blue again. But the skies aren’t really blue again.
It’s the kids who silently accuse Tomas first. Nothing is said, but they act bratty with both parents and kick them out of their hotel room.
Then it’s Tomas’ wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli). They’re having dinner with Charlotte (Karin Myrenberg), a Swedish free spirit, and her ski-lodge pickup, a wide-eyed American (Brady Corbet). Tomas acts the patriarch: he noses the wine, nods approval to the unseen waiter, they talk about their day. It’s all rather dull business until Ebba mentions the avalanche, and Tomas running away from the avalanche. Tomas denies it. Except it’s a weak denial. It’s not angry—as it should be, since he’s being accused of cowardice—it just hangs there awkwardly.
The poet John Berryman once said that the problem with modern society is that a man can live his entire life without knowing whether or not he was a coward. I don’t know how true that is, but it’s certainly no longer true for Tomas. He knows. So why doesn’t he admit it? Because it’s about the worst thing you can admit. So he acts like Nixon; he covers up. It’s his second cowardly act, and, in a way, the more unforgivable one.
Ebba, like a one-woman Woodward and Bernstein, tries to break through, but she only works up the courage when they’ve been drinking with other couples. First there was Charlotte; the next night it’s Tomas’ heavily bearded friend Mats (Kristofer Hivju of “Game of Thrones” and “Kraftidioten”), dallying at the resort with his young girlfriend Fanni (Fanni Metelius). Initially I thought Mats would represent the strong, “natural” man to Tomas’ cowardly, “civilized” man, but thank God no. Instead, Mats plays the awkward diplomat:
I believe that the ‘enemy’ is the image we have of heroes. All those stories about heroes. And the pressure to be a hero and do heroic acts in terrible situations. ... Very few of us are heroic.
Ebba listens, then plays the trump card—the video Tomas was taking as he ran away. It’s played; and Tomas is revealed to himself and to the world.
A shell of a man
That’s the uncomfortable. Where’s the comedy?
Here, for example. On the way back to their room, Mats and Fanni have the following conversation:
Fanni: I wonder how I would react if you had done that to me.
Fanni: You might have run, too, and left your kids behind.
Mats: You might also have run.
Fanni: We’re talking about you and Tomas.
Mats: [Odd noise]
Fanni: Because I think I would react like Ebba: I wouldn’t be able to run.
Is Fanni overidentifying? Does she not know what she’s accusing him of? Is she just young? She gets hers, though. Mats keeps her up for hours trying to prove the negative she dumped into his lap.
If Fanni regrets her bizarre accusation, Ebba comes to regret her sleuthing. Tomas was a shell of a man, and she broke through that shell, but it turns out it was the only thing holding him up. The next day, he all but melts into a puddle. He cries with Mats, locks himself out of his room, wanders around the hotel. At the ski “bar,” a girl tells him that her friend thinks he’s the best-looking guy in the place, and he has seconds to bask in this thought before she returns to tell him, in essence, “Whoops, she meant another guy.” When he finally gets into the room again, with his wife and kids around, he goes into another crying jag, and all gather around to comfort him.
The next day, their last day at the lodge, visibility is slight but the family goes skiing anyway. You’re thinking, “Disaster.” You’re right. Ebba gets left behind, and Tomas trudges after her, calling her name. The camera stays with the kids. Time passes. They plop to the ground. They call out for mother and father. We see their point of view. It’s all white.
For a second, I thought the movie would end there. It wouldn’t have been a bad end, to be honest.
Instead, triumphantly, through the white, we see Tomas carrying Ebba. He smiles, exhales; she walks away. Why was he carrying her if she could walk? Because the whole thing was staged by Ebba? Either to test Tomas (would he try to rescue her now?) or to prop him back up? I assume so. And I assume the latter reason. She broke through his façade to this quivering jelly of a man, and he was so unpalatable, and so much work, that she created a situation where he could be whole again. And they could be a family again.
The image of heroes
The atmosphere of “Force Majeure,” written and directed by Ruben Östlund, is distant, cold, spooky. It’s the modern, mechanized society Berryman alludes to. All of their needs are met but no one is really present. We only see two employees and both are silent and incompetent. Otherwise, everything is just there and vaguely menacing: the booms of the controlled avalanches; the creaking of the ski lifts. And it’s not just the ski resort. One of my favorite shots, which Östlund keeps returning to, is the family waiting through their electric toothbrush routine. No brushing is actually involved. They’re all just waiting for the mechanism to finish its task. Its task is us.
What do you make of the end? The family, vaguely whole again, is taking the resort bus down the winding narrow mountain roads; but the busdriver is an incompetent who can’t handle the sharp turns. He freaks out Ebba, who demands an exit, and everyone gets out except for Charlotte, the self-satisfied free spirit, and the bus continues on its way. The crowd looks around, wondering what to do. I suppose you could say they’ve left the mechanism and they’re not sure what to do. Then they do. They walk down the mountain.
Are they free now? Hardly. Tomas first rejects, then accepts, a cigarette from a fellow walker. He leads the way—with his heavy boots, aviator shades, and cigarette dangling from his mouth. He’s the image we have of heroes.