Tagged thriller

Personal Shopper – Olivier Assayas (2017)

The living often make use of the dead for their own purposes, but do the dead ever return the favor? What would it mean if they did? Such questions lie at the heart of Olivier Assayas’s new film Personal Shopper, which stars Kristen Stewart as Maureen Cartwright, a young woman living in Paris, working at the titular job, which she claims to hate, as a means of supporting herself while she pursues her true calling as a spiritual medium. This slightly silly-seeming turn, which is not unexpected, given the interest Assayas has expressed across multiple films in the power of the occult (in all senses of the word), is explained through plotting as being the result of newly cemented grief. Maureen lost her twin brother Lewis unexpectedly three months prior to our entry into her world, his passing a result of a heart condition which they both share (but which their doctor reassures Maureen should not deliver her to the same fate). Apparently both twins have the gift of extra sensory perception (although the film suggests that perhaps Lewis simply convinced both of them that this was the case) and earlier in their lives the twins agreed that whoever passed into the unknown first would try to contact the other in some material way. As the film begins, Maureen is trying to suss out if Lewis is haunting his old house, both as a means of seeking his company and as a reassurance to the couple who want to purchase it. She has several weird and inexplicable encounters in the building, but although one such includes a female apparition vomiting up ectoplasm, none rises to the level of what Maureen would consider definitive proof of after-life.

Maureen does start to give Lewis’s persistence on this plane of existence more credence once it seems like he might be texting her. This is where the movie turns away from what seems to be a psychological mood piece rooted in the supernatural and begins to resemble a more conventional psychological thriller. The thriller aspect arrives via Maureen’s day job; she is the personal shopper for one Kyra (last name forgotten no thanks to IMDB, but portrayed by Nora von Waldstatten), a high powered individual of uncertain profession, who we, and Maureen, rarely encounter in the flesh as the film unfolds. Maureen picks up clothes for Kyra, sometimes illicitly trying them on first (they are a similar size, but apparently the practice infuriates Kyra), and then delivers them back and forth, depending on Kyra’s whim. She acts a little like a personal assistant, and so has full access to Kyra’s residence. On an early delivery, Maureen meets Ingo (Lars Eidinger), a similarly jet setting lover of Kyra’s, who is about to get his walking papers – he is waiting around while Kyra is on an interminable phone call with her lawyer to, one supposes, beg for a second chance between the sheets. During their encounter, Maureen opens up to Ingo, and tells him that she dislikes her job, although refusing a better paying one he offers up (she tells him that even though it is more creative, she sees more “freedom” in her current, “stupid” job). Further, she confides that her brother has recently died, and that she is staying in Paris to try to contact him. Soon she is getting text messages from an unknown number which are coy in their provenance and hint, in both the rapidity of delivery and in the metaphysical nature of their demands, that they could be from her dead twin. (Of course, they could be from Ingo, who we think might be trying to seduce her or perhaps gaslight her for some as yet unknown purpose). As the texting becomes more intense and intimate, Maureen slips further down the rabbit’s hole of her own fears and desires, and the stakes become higher, both within this material plane and on the metaphysical one. Soon we don’t know if Maureen is losing her mind, unraveling a plot, making a breakthrough to the other side, or all of the above.

Assayas likes to blend genres, and this is no exception. Sometimes, as in Demonlover, the blending succeeds and creates a heady, uncanny experience – we feel we are watching something with little precedent and revel in the audacity. At other times, as in Boarding Gate, we don’t understand what he is trying to accomplish, and the generic elements of the blend fail to gel and instead grind against each other (with tedium being the result). Personal Shopper falls somewhere in between. We can see the plot points of the thriller coming a mile away, but that is beside the point, as the thriller is really just a mirror within which Maureen’s interior voyage is reflected – it allows her to answer the questions she has about her brother (or at least ask them fully) while providing a plausible real-world explanation that undermines her quest. By marrying the mundane with the possibly supernatural, Assayas creates for the viewer the same uncertainty that Maureen experiences – we are fully with her in her own confusion and in the ambivalence she feels towards believing that the “answers” are telling her what she wants to know. On the supernatural side of things, there are some genuinely chilling moments (especially later in the film) and, at the same time, some slightly stupid ones (as in the overwrought CGI ghost early on). Everything makes sense, and has aesthetic merit, in that what we are seeing might all be a projection of Maureen’s mind, and the movie really is about the difficulty of knowing who one is, and if one can trust their own feelings and perceptions to reveal TRUTH, or merely “truth.” For this viewer, however, the overall shape of the film still feels a bit like paint-by-numbers art film. There is the questioning of the coherent self, ruminations on the nature of identity, freedom, and the possibility of real knowledge. There is a doubling of women accompanied by the projection of desire, there is ambiguity and a refusal to give any firm answers, despite much accumulation of “proof.” Everything shifts and could be a reflection of “reality,” or just a reflection of the protagonist’s desires (well, more than that, a working through of issues and the prospect of some kind of interior synthesis). We have seen it all before; indeed, I at first assumed that this film was a continuation of Assayas’s prior Clouds of Sils Maria, as Kristen Stewart in that film portrayed a personal assistant who, if I remember correctly, speaks of having a twin brother. While I suppose it is still possible that this film is set prior to the other, it does seem that Personal Shopper is a reflection rather than a continuation of that earlier (and far better) film. Part of my deep interest in seeing Personal Shopper was in seeing how Assayas and Stewart would work together one-on-one, and how the themes of the prior film might expand. Sadly, they do not. While Personal Shopper has many affecting moments, the emotional core of the film cannot deliver, and I must sadly report that this is due to Kristen Stewart’s performance. She simply can’t reach the intensity of sadness coupled with fear (mostly the fear of self-discovery) that the role demands. She excels at portraying a kind of interior anomie, the blank alienation of the world-weary or the self-imposed exile (which makes her a natural match for a director like Assayas, who is interested in “cool” but also in what lies beneath such surfaces). But she just can’t deliver the intensity required when the facade cracks. In every scene where she is asked to cry, it looks forced and faked – Stewart will rub her eyes, and sniffle, and hide her face with her jacket or her hands. Of course defenders might say that such mannerisms are based in her character, but compared to an actress like Isabelle Huppert, who can build the pressure of pain behind the facade and then deliver the devastation of the facade crumbling, Stewart appears out of her depth. (Of course Huppert has 40 years of experience on Stewart, so I understand the comparison is unfair). While Stewart is a very talented actress, this role made me reconsider Clouds of Sils Maria, and how impressed I was with her performance in that film. It made me realize that so much of what made the prior film powerful was the interplay between the women (and it made me reconsider how much weight and impact the presence of Juliette Binoche lent to all the performances in the film). Personal Shopper focuses on one character, and the interiority of that character is all – so the emotional power of the film rests squarely on Stewart’s shoulders. She doesn’t fail, and neither does the film, but her limits as an actress are also the film’s limits. It ends as it begins: a thriller with some genuine chills, but without the transcendence necessary to make it more than an admittedly interesting genre mash-up.

Three stars out of five

Sicario – Denis Villeneuve (2015)

There have been many films about drugs, and about the war on drugs. Most of them deal, a la Scarface, with the “gritty” street realities of the trade, or with power struggles within and between various factions of organized crime. (Such films are really just a variation on the more traditional gangster film, with drugs sprinkled over the top as a way to provide viewers with a vicarious high). Fewer films, such as Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, attempt to view the problem from a wider perspective and look at the structures that undergird the continual failure of this war, attempting to dramatize the failure of a systemic response to a systemic problem. Sicario, the new thriller from Denis Villeneuve, hews closer to this second model, but is a fresh hybrid. In some ways, it resembles an intragovernmental procedural of the Zero Dark Thirty school, with intrigues between and internecine battling among the FBI, DEA, CIA, etc. taking center stage. In other ways, though, it is a fairly straightforward revenge thriller, less Dirty Harry and more Death Wish (although we understand this only in the final quarter of the film, even if we’ve been feeling it all along). It is also an action film, and there are touches of the Western, the war film, and the bildungsroman, as we follow a neophyte officer from innocence to experience. What makes the film remarkable, though, is that it is all of a piece; the hybrid nature does not poke out, and the film does not seem a pastiche of various genres, but one sinuous, long, smoothly moving and tightly coiling snake. Unlike Traffic, which often jerks from one place, and tone, to another, and which also often becomes leaden and boring, Sicario is extremely easy to follow and consistently pleasurable to watch.

The film unfolds in three acts, with very little connective tissue in between (that is, just enough) and no flab or extraneous material. We begin at the scene of a purported kidnapping, which turns out to be a cartel-owned house in a Phoenix subdivision, the walls of which are stuffed full of dead bodies. At the scene of this crime, we are introduced to Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), our avatar in this world, as well as her friend and somewhat partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) and her boss (Victor Garber). Kate works for the FBI, but as a liaison for kidnapping cases; she has no real experience within the world of drug dealing. After this introduction (which ends in a trauma I won’t reveal), Kate is debriefed by a room full of drug enforcement interests from various agencies. The most powerful man in the room is not her boss, but Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), the head of a task force dedicated to reducing cross-border drug violence. Matt is strange in ways that indicate he is a potential rogue presence: unlike the rest of those present, who are dressed in suits, Matt is very casually dressed (he wears flip-flops) and he takes a special interest in questioning Kate on her personal life and marital status. (We think he is hitting on her, but by the end of the movie, we understand he has a very different, and ice-cold, pretext for his questions). Kate is asked to volunteer for Matt’s task force, and after a little consideration, she does so. (Again, we spend much of the movie questioning why this seasoned force would want her on their team – it seems a Hollywood contrivance – only to have the reasoning made painfully clear in the final quarter of the film). Act two of the film involves the task force, with the aid of the mysterious Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), who seems unconnected to any official agency, retrieving a high level drug suspect from a jail on the Mexican side of the border and bringing him back to a military base on the U.S. side for questioning. Act three of the film takes up the search for a drug tunnel gleaned from information provided by said suspect’s interrogation. The drug tunnel operation is basically a ruse, however, to lure one of the cartel’s high level enforcers into contacting the big boss, revealing his location to the task force. The last part of the film deals with the aftermath of the tunnel raid, and the ultimate goal of everything that has occurred is revealed, both to Kate and to us.

There are many things this film does exceptionally well. First and foremost, it is structured in a very straightforward way, and with very little dialogue, but still manages to convey all of the intricacies and gray zones of the drug war, and of working across international borders and among multiple agencies, without ever belaboring it, getting bogged down in detail, or resorting to clichés (characters bemoaning inefficiencies, overly cynical explanations to newbies, etc). Fundamentally, the film is a thriller, and the structure and pacing pulls us through, tightening the ropes as it goes (in a way very reminiscent of Michael Mann’s best work). Each of the film’s acts centers on an action sequence – in act two it is the attempted assassination of the drug suspect before he can be brought onto U.S. soil, and in act three it is the infiltration of the drug tunnel. What makes the film work so well is not just the structure, but every other factor as well. First, there is the cinematography (courtesy of the always excellent Roger Deakins). It is both gritty and beautiful, and makes amazing use of available light – the darks (and there are many of them) are truly dark, night sequences are lucid yet atmospheric, and the sunsets of the southwest have rarely been more sensuously shot. At the same time, this beauty is grounded in a thoroughgoing realism, which is perhaps most on display during the trip into Ciudad Juarez to pick up the drug suspect. (The difference between Texas and Mexico is not night and day, but it is stark, grim, and the entire sequence seems to have been filmed on location at the border). A good part of the realism, and much of the lucidity of the staging, comes from the use of “technological” points of view. For instance (and especially in the unfolding of act two), we have many shots from the viewpoint of a drone; that is, a camera floating far above the action, but close enough to make clear the extent of the terrain being traveled into and through, and the exact location of all parties we need to care about. Unlike other films that have utilized such footage, Sicario does not spell it out as “drone footage” – we do not see HUD or targeting artifacts to betray to us “where” this footage comes from. In this sense, it is not jarring, and could simply be an aesthetic choice – the drone lies latent, behind this footage, unannounced. Villeneuve also makes use of infrared/night goggle footage and thermal imaging during the tunnel raid, and this footage is, while obviously tied to the equipment worn by the characters, equally seamless in its insertion. I would even dare to say it might be the first use of such footage that I would call lovely, and every use is purposeful in increasing the tension and putting us, as viewers, in the same zone of imperfect information as the characters. The music is subtle, spare, and works on us slowly, in pace with the increasing tension. The acting, like the rest of the film, is controlled and (unlike in some of Michael Mann’s work) never histrionic. (Indeed, Benicio Del Toro, who carries the last quarter of the film, has rarely been better). I suppose the film, like many actioners or thrillers, doesn’t have much of a politics beyond a weary, cynical resignation, but that does not bother me in the slightest, as it also keeps the script taut and without any unnecessary moralizing (we can see how failed things are, without needing to be told). Like Whiplash of last year, Sicario is a film that could easily appeal to a mass audience, but which also has much to offer lovers of serious film. I have no pithy or solemn words on which to end, except to recommend the film to one and (almost) all.

Four and a half stars out of five

The Visit – M. Night Shyamalan (2015)

Gather around, all ye children, and join me at the virtual bonfire, ones and zeroes crackling and sparking in the autumn breeze, as I recount another tale brought to us by Uncle Shyamalan. It is a tale of horrible, weird old people, and precocious young ones, stuck together in a rural farmhouse. It is a story that will leave no head unscratched, no heart unpoked, and no surprises experienced. Yes, if you deign to sit and listen, do be aware you will encounter that dread artifact of reviewerdom, the spoiler; yet rest assured, it will make no difference. Go, see this film regardless, as you will sit, a seeming amnesiac. I guarantee you will not feel a thing one way or the other. Yes, this is supposedly what Shyamalan was put on our dear earth to do: provide experiences that are so fragile they will be destroyed, like a crystalline cathedral, composed of dried hummingbird saliva, placed at the apex of a volcano at the onset of a typhoon, if one gives utterance to the “secret” they contain. The problem, as anyone who has sampled his concoctions will verify, is that Shyamalan’s so easily spoiled “secrets” are often self-evident, dumb, or mind-boggling in their tedium and contrivance. (They are mere shifts of the frame, not ontological earthquakes). His reputation having been built on The Sixth Sense, it has been all downhill from there; indeed, that hill only looks like a mountain from the bottom of the chasm he’s been mining ever since. Yes, I will admit I enjoyed The Village, although I swear I cannot remember if its twist had any artistic merit or not; indeed, I can’t remember much at all about that film, except the general contours of the plot (that is, the twist). And I have not sampled all of Mr. Shyamalan’s rather regularly proffered elixirs, but I can attest that Unbreakable, The Happening, and now The Visit all rank among the most profoundly mindless and artless films of my now rather less than brief existence. But is that a pan?

So what have we here? If you’ve seen the trailer, which looked more like a comedy than a thriller, you were perhaps intrigued as to how our director could knit such seemingly ludicrous moments into an afghan of terror. The short answer, of course, is that he doesn’t. No surprise there, but what does continually surprise me is that Shyamalan somehow manages to keep the movie on track, and moving forward, and gives the characters some depth, despite what could be called, at best, the “concept” that gives the movie its animating spark (or at least animated it some time ago in his adman’s brow). We have a pair of kids, charming if a bit overly verbose, who live with their single Wal-Mart employee Mom (Kathryn Hahn). Mom is estranged from her own parents over a never-to-be-revealed altercation, and the kids are estranged from their Dad over Dad’s own disappearing act. This family steeped in multi-generational trauma splits apart, amoeba-like, yet again, as Mom goes on a Caribbean cruise she really deserves with her new boyfriend, and the kids go to some unspecified New Englandish area to stay with their estranged grandparents. Said grandparents are now volunteer counselors at a mental hospital. (Hmm). The kids have never, ever seen them before, not even in photographs. (Hmmmmmmmm). Mom has prepped them, with her teasing tale, to expect some drama. So, the kids arrive, and Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) are a little weird to say the least. Nana is a good cook, but seems a bit uneasy and fragile. Her hobbies include chasing the kids through the crawlspaces under the house, wandering the abode during the evening hours vomiting, along with moaning, skipping, running, and clawing, also after dark, and often stark naked. Pop Pop, the more communicative of the two, is often absent, out and about on the farm, but when the kids do track him down, he is frequently cleaning his shotgun with his mouth, getting dressed for parties that existed, if ever, decades ago, stacking his used Depends in a pyramid in the shed, or, in the finale, playing Yahtzee like a man possessed. The kids are also quite a pair, but a bit more contained. The older one, Becca (Olivia DeJonge), is the spearhead of this campaign of familial bonding, mostly because she wants to sort out what happened back in the day and get Nana to confess her love for Mom on camera. This is not just for posterity, but because Becca is also a budding documentarian, and so records the entire trip on one of two cameras. The other camera is often in the hands of her younger brother, an aspiring rapper named T-Diamond Stylus (Ed Oxenbould), also known as Tyler, who suffers from microbial phobial OCD (at key moments). Thus the conceit of the film – all the footage we see is part of this documentary, shot on one of the two cameras, almost always held by either Becca or Tyler. The kids spend most of the film trying to alternately bond with and investigate Nana and Pop Pop. What’s in the shed? Poop diapers. What’s at the bottom of the well? Water. What’s in the basement? Mold (or so we are told). A few times, Becca tries to get Nana to grace her with an interview, revealing on camera what went wrong with Mom, and it becomes crystal clear that Nana has firm limits, and wants her questions screened in advance. Result of not doing so? Nana starts to spaz, froth at the mouth, twist and shout. For a week the visit goes on, with Nana getting weirder as the days go by, Pop Pop getting more morose and distant (until Yahtzee, that is), and, once or twice, strangers popping in to say hi. Somehow Nana and Pop Pop are never around when the nice doctor from the asylum where they volunteer stops in, or the nice lady who Nana and Pop Pop counseled through her rehab, or that other guy who I can’t even remember why he was there. Nope, never around. What could be going on? Is Nana a werewolf? Is Pop Pop some strange cultist? A religious nut? Are they aliens, invaded by body snatchers? (Nana recounts, in lieu of interview, a story about beings from another world who keep people in a deep sleep underwater). Why is Nana seemingly homicidal? (She runs around with a butcher knife, but never commits herself). Why does Pop Pop seem so depressed and confused? According to Mom, it’s because they are old. Nana has Sundowners Syndrome (according to Pop Pop), and Pop Pop has early onset dementia. Or maybe schizophrenia. (Thanks for this great trip, Mom!). Finally, while Skyping their mother and begging her to come get them, they happen to flash the webcam at Nana and Pop Pop powwowing in the side yard, and all is revealed. Duh duh dunnn… “That’s not your grandmother and grandfather!” Nana and Pop Pop are impostors? Oh snap! Guess who recently escaped from the local mental asylum? Guess where the real Nana and Pop Pop are? (Serves those middle class busybodies right for volunteering at an asylum). Once the cat is out of the bag, the kids do their best to play it cool, but eventually Becca winds up locked in a bedroom with Nana, and soon enough locked in mortal combat with her. Tyler is held at bay for just long enough while Pop Pop rubs his dirty Depends in the young’un’s face (sending him into microbial phobial catatonia), but soon enough the kids have fake gramps down and are pulping his head with the fridge door. Mom shows up just as the kids escape, and in the denouement, the reunited family waxes sad over Dad’s abandonment, Mom reveals what happened back in the day (she hit her own mother!), and the kids are encouraged to let go of anger. T-Diamond raps us out.

What always amazes me about Shyamalan is that he can manage such an accumulation of details and then somehow ensure they add up to not one damned thing. As you can probably tell, the film does not work as a thriller. Okay, maybe we don’t care, as we have some very meaty tropes to chew over. There is family trauma and the relationships between the generations. There is the problem of aging, which, in an apparent long con to try to make the twist at the end work its magic, is treated quite seriously by the screenplay. (Uh, just take my word on that one). There is the topic of acting – on the train ride to the grandparents’ house, and upon the visit from the doctor, the kids are regaled with failed actors reciting Shakespeare. (That’s twice in 45 minutes!). There’s grandma’s nudity. There’s her story about aliens, and forced slumber. Shyamalan doesn’t know the difference between a red herring and a real one. And this is what, ultimately, is so frustrating about his work, and so fascinating too, for he is, almost uniquely among contemporary directors, a flummoxed and failed magician. He is not a hack. The camerawork in the film is often quite beautiful and impressionistic. The characters have life, wit, charm, and intelligence. (At least, the children do). The story is overabundant with symbolism. So we keep waiting for the magic to happen. We keep waiting for the threads to connect, even accidentally. We keep waiting for a second level to develop in his films, for the symbols to begin to resonate, for a subtext to emerge, or a supertext to descend. But it never does. Ever. Across all his films, meaning is relegated to plot. The “meaning” is the twist. Yes, in the case of The Visit, there is the boilerplate message of moving on and releasing anger at the end, but it has nothing to do with anything that preceded it. No matter how hard you try to connect the dots in his films, to find some deeper resonance, or even a hoary old hidden message, you end in exhaustion and, often, tears (of laughter). His films are close to conceptual art – or better, stage magic – as practiced by a precocious 13 year old. He comes up with what he considers an amazing concept, the perfect “gotcha” (“What if you woke up as a bedbug and nobody said anything!”) and then extrapolates backwards, sewing distractions along the way. He is obviously intelligent, and talented, so why is his oeuvre so consistently samey? In a way, the thing he resembles most is a contemporary practitioner of the Grand Guignol; his is a theater not of meaning, but of effects. The Grand Guignol, however, was, if not art in the way we normally think of it, at least connected to the world it emerged from (that is, it was often working out, in its nightmare mirror, the fresh anxieties of modernity). Shyamalan does not have that. He is, seemingly, an amateur lacking self-awareness. Strangely, he brings to mind, with his campy theatrics that split the difference between horrible and funny, the films of John Waters (another poo lover, incidentally), the difference being that Waters knows exactly what he is doing, his anti-aesthetic being a political and artistic weapon. Waters is a showman, and knows the point of his tricks. Shyamalan is the only director I can think of whose work is bat-shit bonkers and deeply tedious at the same time. In this way, he is beyond (or is it beneath?) aesthetic evaluation.

Two stars out of five

The Gift – Joel Edgerton (2015)

There is a sub-genre within the thriller genre that thrived during the late ’80s and ’90s which centers on the plight of upwardly mobile, mostly white people encountering disturbed individuals – sometimes lovers, sometimes friends, and sometimes obsessed hangers-on. The good white folk try to navigate the shoals of propriety and the submerged outcroppings of potentially violent psychosis that form the course of the (often unwanted) relationship. Some examples of this genre are Fatal Attraction, Single White Female, Fear, or often any film from the era with Fatal, Deadly, etc. in the title. (Los Angeles based film and video maker Damon Packard has named this genre the “yuppie fear thriller”). The normal course of such a film is that we are introduced to sympathetic yet at least partly clueless, smug, or self-satisfied attractive young white people, who are then either seduced by, stalked by, or simply made confused by a new figure in their lives, often a “friend” who exists in a zone of ambiguity – are they really a friend, or are they threatening? Often these films dramatize the discomfort and confusion that comes from these privileged folk trying to discern if they are over-reacting and paranoid (a process which raises for them the perhaps repressed facts of their social privilege while reinforcing the need to act “appropriately”), or if they are indeed justified in feeling threatened. Often the “threat” plays along the border between interested and overly invested, sometimes being revealed to be truly dangerous, sometimes as a red herring, whose interest is in protecting the yuppie from a threat that said yuppie (and the audience) was unaware of. Anyone who was watching Cinemax in the ’90s has probably seen many, many of these films.

The Gift fits into this genre, and takes its place among the best such stories. I will not say a lot about the plot, simply because this is one case where description can’t do the actual unfolding justice, and also because if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen most of the dramatic moments of the narrative. Often this is a death knell for a thriller, but in the case of The Gift, it is not, as the film is all about how we get from one narrative moment to another, how our understanding and identifications shift as the movie unfolds, and how the characters reveal themselves. That is to say, The Gift is refreshing because there are no shocking revelations, no “gotchas,” no mental gymnastics or surprise endings; it is much more a contemplative chamber piece in which the characters make us reflect on the limits of trust, intimacy, and (perhaps righteous) revenge. Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) are a youngish couple who have recently relocated from the Chicago area to southern California. Simon has a hot new job at a tech startup, but we also learn that, while this couple seems picture perfect, there are plenty of stress fractures in the relationship. (Part of the reason for leaving Chicago, we come to understand, is that it allows the pair to put a never fully excavated past behind them, at least part of which involved Robyn miscarrying a baby and being addicted to pills). Simon is back on his home turf, and in the first few scenes runs into an old “friend” from high school, Gordo (Joel Edgerton, also director and screenwriter). Gordo is a little awkward, but seems very nice, leaving welcome presents on the steps of the couple’s new home, attempting to draw them into his orbit and, we think, Simon back into a past friendship. Simon seems put off by Gordo to a degree far beyond what is appropriate for his behavior, and Robyn, along with us viewers, tries to remain neutral. She is predisposed to trust Simon, as are we, but she also identifies with Gordo’s awkwardness and senses that Simon is hiding something behind his immature comments and overreactions. Eventually Gordo draws out Simon’s true nature, and we begin to learn the real history of the relationship, as well as the reality of Simon’s character. Our sympathies shift from Simon to Gordo by the end of the film (although staying resolutely with Robyn foremost), but are complicated by revelations about Gordo’s present and his ideas of what represents “justice.”

The Gift builds in intensity, and is a true slow-burn, as the heat comes not from surfaces or the enjoyment of generic expectations satisfied, but from the characters interacting, and how those interactions reveal hidden aspects of each. Robyn is sympathetic throughout, and our allegiance lies with her, but the great thing about having the focus on so few characters is that we do indeed identify with each – there are things about all three that we can relate to, and that cause us to question our own ugliness as theirs is, in turn, each brought forward. The ending of the film is incredibly disturbing, sad, and will stick with you far after you’ve left the theater (indeed, in its darkness and use of gender, it treads where few besides the Italians, and maybe our venerable Mr. Haneke, dare). For an American film, especially a summer thriller with Jason Bateman in it, it is shocking in its implications – suffice to say that Robyn becomes the proving ground for both men. The casting is well done, with Mr. Bateman showing more depth than expected while playing against type. Rebecca Hall seems a bit of a nonentity at first, but we soon discover her underplaying is exactly what her role needs, as she, while seemingly meek and unstable, is indeed the lone voice of “sanity” in the film. Mr. Edgerton does a great job with Gordo, walking the line between friendly but weird and dangerous finely (although we always feel that he is up to something, we also suspect it might be righteous in its motivation). Edgerton does a fine job as writer/director too. The script is subtle, and reveals a true working knowledge of the psychological complexities of men with a traumatic past. He makes use of certain symbols (like the monkey motif that runs throughout the story) very effectively by deploying them sparely, not commenting on them or overly elaborating their “meaning,” but simply letting the imagery work on us. He also has a great sense of visual displacement, as when Robyn, startled while alone in her kitchen, knocks over and spills her Gatorade all over her feet; the subsequent cut reveals her feet covered in yellow liquid, an effective externalization of the effect of her fright that is vulgar in its implications while mirroring our protagonists’ disavowal. (It is also an image that the Italians would enjoy). There is nothing ironic or distancing for us to project the growing intensity and final horrific ambiguity onto, so we are left unresolved in the best possible way. The Gift not only asks us how well we know those closest to us, but even more, how well we know ourselves, and where the difference between the two lies. In perhaps the most heartbreaking scene in the film, Robyn excoriates Simon for letting her think she was paranoid and wrong rather than own up to the reality of his past (and to his present behavior): “I thought I was crazy… and you let me.” How far will any of us go, and who will pay the price, for our inability to look at ourselves as we really are?

Four stars out of five

Blackhat – Michael Mann (2015)

I went into Blackhat more than aware that the reviews were tepid to say the least. In fact, most thought it an outright stinker. But Michael Mann has never failed to disappoint before; all he ever need do is pour his special sauce over shots of cities at night, and I’ve been satisfied. Hell, I even thought Miami Vice (the film) was pretty great. Well, it must be said that Blackhat is a very odd film. Mann goes out of his way to keep his sauce bottled, using shaky-cam “docu-style” video instead of Steadicam, and keeping the music, always one of his strong suits, to a bare minimum. Plus, the topic is not exactly his métier, and he definitely feels in old man mode when trying to juice up cyber espionage into something not only watchable, but even explicable. (The actual portrayal of the attacks, while not uninteresting, look like a cross between Tron and that sequence in Scanners where Cameron Vale mind-melds with a modem). The acting is very sedate to the point of clunkiness, and 45 minutes in, things were sagging. Not horribly so, but it just seemed that Mann was way out of his element and struggling, albeit mightily.

Then in the last hour, coincident with most of the digital detritus clearing away, good ol’ fashioned flesh and blood analog issues roared back, and the director was in his element. Call it existential bromance revenge if you must, that is the base alloy, but it is assuredly more than that. Yes, the last hour redeemed everything. Mr. Mann can still shoot action, and make it matter, like few others, and although the cyber-caper underpinnings kept poking through (“He’s using his $75 million to buy tin futures, the bastard!”), and although Chris Hemsworth is not up to the standards of a Colin Farrell, in the end, not even the random deaths of peaceful Indonesian festival-goers could undermine this one. No neon, not many cool electronic tones, and a style more ham-handed than assured, but still gripping and oh so worth it. Nobody has done to-the-death payback like Mr. Mann since Don Siegel.

Three stars out of five

In unrelated news, I also had a chance to see the trailer for Fifty Shades of Grey before the show. It is rated R for “some unusual behavior.”

The Babadook – Jennifer Kent (2014)

The Babadook has to qualify as the most over-rated film of the year. I really don’t understand the hype around this one. Horror film? No. Psychological thriller? Barely. It’s pretty much a straight allegory of the grieving process, and a damned literally minded one at that. If Freud’s Dora had a kid, this would be her song (as writ by screenwriter Freud of course). The film is so bloody straightforward there are no cracks for interpretation to slip in, and certainly no room for scares. The “horror” aspects of the movie are so cliché and banal I can’t believe critics are eating them up (bugs coming out of the wall, lights flickering, creepy voices, skittering J-horror style monster, etc etc etc). More offensive is that the director seems pretty high on her own supply, acting as if she’s reinvented the horror film by putting it on “serious” footing – in interviews, she compares it favorably against big studio horror sequel dreck, and acts like she has just invented psychological horror. What, we’ve never seen a film before concerning a mother ambivalent about her own child? We’ve never seen a horror film with “symbolism?” Perhaps such things are less frequent in American cinema of late, but certainly there is a rich history in Europe of psychological horror, and maybe she’s heard of our Canadian friend Mr. Cronenberg? It is well made, for sure, but I found it pretty boring and on the whole pretentious – a few dark humor chuckles here and there, but no scares, and no need to think about the film after the fact, as it is so… damned… literal.

One and a half stars out of five

I don’t like pooing on a female director, so in compensation I’d direct interested viewers to Netflix to see Joanna Hogg’s first feature, Unrelated, an exceptional and comparatively quiet drama about struggling through the passages of life, trying to define yourself before the clock runs out. Psychologically astute, nuanced, and unlike Mr. Babadook, the implications and resonances grow in proportion to the viewer’s observational perspicacity. This is one of the best films I’ve seen in quite a while. The performances are great too. All three of her features are streaming, so I’m very much looking forward to seeing the other two (Archipelago and Exhibition). Check ’em.

Nightcrawler – Dan Gilroy (2014)

Today I saw Nightcrawler. The Gilroys somehow make interesting films that move me not an iota (Michael Clayton being the exception, but it was still just one small iota). It makes an interesting companion to Gone Girl in its focus on the perverse (and erotic) American fascination with images, and is worth seeing for Gyllenhaal’s performance. It lacks visual interest, though, or any ability to affect via cutting or narrative structure. Like many of their films, it seems low key and interested in detail, but ultimately builds to little more than a character study. As that, it’s not bad, but for a supposed thriller, there is little lurking inside except night and sleaze.

Two stars out of five