Emma. (2020) is a Major Work, Goddamnit

When Boomer reviewed Autumn de Wilde’s recent adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, he approached it from a state of deep genre fatigue. He wrote, “Its biggest weaknesses are not in the film itself, but in its timing. If it wasn’t nipping at the heels of Little Women and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, I’d be spending a lot more time gushing over its color palette and period costumes, but despite the vibrancy and the spectacle of virtually every piece of clothing, I wasn’t as blown away as I would have liked to be.” This is certainly a valid POV in approaching the film. At least, it’s one I’ve seen validated by many other critics’ & audiences’ response to the movie – citing it as one of this season’s lesser specimens of its “genre” or, worse, an admirably solid adaptation of a book & character most people don’t seem to like to begin with. No matter how many times I see this sentiment repeated, though, it’s one I cannot match in my own, much more enthusiastic appreciation of Emma. It’s somewhat embarrassing to admit, but I found a stronger personal connection to Emma. than I did with any one of the more Prestigious films of recent years on a similar wavelength: The Favourite, Little Women, Love & Friendship, etc. I liked all those movies a great deal and understand that any one of them would be a more respectably Intellectual choice as a personal favorite, but I really can’t help it. In my eyes, Emma. is a great work of that same caliber, if not higher.

Even from Emma.’s (admittedly mild) detractors who might dismiss it as a decent 3-star frivolity, you’ll hear concessions that it looks great. Its confectionery production design and deviously playful costuming are too intoxicating to ignore, even if you find the comedy of manners they service to be a bore. That visual achievement is no small, ancillary concern in my estimation. Its confectionery aesthetic is a significant aspect of its substance as a work of art, not least of all because cinema is an inherently visual medium. Director Autumn de Wilde is primarily known as a portrait photographer – making a name for herself shooting musicians’ album covers before transitioning into filmmaking through the music video. A strong, precisely defined visual style is essential for an artist of that background (consider the stylistic hyperbole of Hype Williams’s Belly) and it’s a genuine thrill to see that crisp, modern formalism applied to a period piece (consider Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette), given how stuffy & buttoned up the costume drama can feel at its laziest. There’s a tendency to devalue the visual artistry of fashion design & carefully curated color palettes as secondary concerns in cinema, as if they only exist to serve more Important criteria like performance & plot. Personally, I often find them far more exciting than those more frequently discussed concerns – especially in the “costume drama,” where costuming is emphasized right there in the name. When, for instance, Emma wears a free-floating lace collar as if it were an S&M-inspired choker or wears an overly frilly perfumed ornament that dangles from her hair like a mace, it’s more thrilling to me than any action sequence in Fast & Furious or Mad Max: Fury Road could ever be.

Of course, Autumn de Wilde’s precise eye for visual composition extends from what her characters are wearing to how they are positioned in the frame. Emma. is largely a story about the politics of social hierarchy among wealthy 19th Century fops (dressed up as a tittering rom-com about a misguided matchmaker), so much of its minute-to-minute conflicts are hinged on microscopic social cues in both spoken dialogue & performed body language. The film dutifully allows Austen’s dialogue to speak for itself on this highly stylized stage, but it does add its own spin to the source material by paying careful attention to blocking. Characters are constantly maneuvering their bodies in private parlors & public spaces to communicate unspoken dominance & conflict with their social adversaries. Emma Woodhouse herself has more perceived adversaries than most, as someone who constantly plays with social configurations as an idle pastime, so she’s the most obvious example of this purposeful body language display. When she spies through a store window that a new person is entering the room, she prepares by positioning her body in the most advantageous position she can manage, like a war general seeking higher ground. When she greets a potential beau who she finds romantically intriguing in her private greenhouse, she shifts her position to where the glass pane with the best lighting hits her just right with an artificially warm glow. Seemingly simple conversations in the film visually play out like complicated dances as characters mechanically shift around each other in closed-off rooms, an attention to blocking that’s emphasized by an elaborate ballroom scene where those body language politics become unavoidably explicit. It’s framed as being deliberate choices made by the characters themselves, but I think it also reflects the film being the vision of a director with an eye for how figures are arranged in photographic compositions.

As sharp as de Wilde’s visual compositions are in this debut feature, I can see how detractors could believe the movie falls short as an adaptation in its unwillingness to tinker with the source material. Emma. will not win over any naysayers who were already displeased with Austen’s novel or Emma Woodhouse as a character. This is a faithful translation from page-to-screen in terms of narrative content, only asserting its own voice on the material through visual style & comedic performance. It works for me, but I was already a fan of the novel before I arrived. Emma Woodhouse is a deeply flawed brat whose lifelong idleness in comfort & wealth has trained her to treat people’s private lives like playthings. Anya Taylor-Joy was perfect casting for the role in that she’s already been walking a tightrope between quietly sinister & adorably sweet since her breakout performance in The Witch. Her dips into thoughtless cruelty at the expense of her social inferiors hit just as hard as the physical comedy of the goofier subordinates she’s adopted as pets (the MVPs in those roles being Mia Goth as her absurdly naive protégée & Bill Nighy as her hypochondriac father). Both Emma’s icy manipulations of her social circle’s hierarchy (disguised as playful “matchmaking”) and her closest family & friends’ pronounced goofiness are majorly enhanced by the buttoned-up tension of the setting, where the smallest gesture or insult can mean The World. The laughs are big; so are the gasps when Emma fucks up by allowing her games to hurt “real” people’s very real feelings. When Clueless modernized the character for the 1990s, it softened the blow of these thoughtless miscalculations by making Emma something of an oblivious Valley Girl ditz. De Wilde’s film makes no such accommodations, sketching her out as a very smart, sharply witted person who should know better (and ultimately learns from her mistakes). Continuing to like her in that context is a bigger leap than some audiences are apparently willing to make.

I really like Emma., both the movie and the character. Autumn de Wilde seemingly likes her as well, even if she can’t resist ribbing her for not being half as smart or talented as she believes herself to be (most hilariously represented in her limitations as a painter & musician). I wish I could fully hinge my appreciation for this movie on its exquisite visual artistry or its shrewdness as a page-to-screen adaptation, but the ultimate truth is that it’s a comedy that I happened to find very, very funny from start to end. Whether that’s because the physical humor hit me just right in its stuffy setting or because I just happen to generally get a kick out of Women Behaving Badly is anyone’s guess. Similarly, I wonder if critics who were underwhelmed by the film in comparison with fellow costume dramas of its artistic caliber just simply didn’t find it humorous, as there’s no rationale that can intellectually save a comedy you simply don’t find funny. No one seems willing to argue that Emma. isn’t accomplished as a visual feat, so I suspect it’s the specificity of the humor or the thorniness of Emma Woodhouse as a character that’s weighing down its initial reputation. Personally, both the quirky character humor and the thoughtless dips into ice-cold cruelty worked for me, and I consider Emma. to be a major work. I doubt I’m the only one.

-Brandon Ledet

Emma. (2020)

I really think that I would have liked Emma. a lot more if it hadn’t come right on the heels of Little Women and Portrait of a Lady on Fire. I’m reaching a saturation point on period pieces, and it isn’t helped by the fact that the title character is one of the least likable of all of Jane Austen’s protagonists. While waiting outside the bathroom for the two friends with whom I went to see the movie, I overheard a family of four—mother, father, middle school daughter, 13/14ish son—discussing the movie. The boy said he thought it was “boring” and there were “only like two funny parts.” And honestly? I didn’t agree, but I don’t begrudge him this feeling. If I were a teenage boy, I probably wouldn’t have seen much of myself in the film either. My companions emerged shortly after, laughing; inside, one had asked the other (a huge Austen fan) whether the film had encouraged him to like Emma more as a character, and the answer was “No.”

It’s not a completely unique opinion. According to A Memoir of Jane Austen, the author herself wrote that, in creating Emma, she would craft “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” To that end, the opening lines of the novel (and the film) are thus: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition [had] lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” In the sense and intent of the era, this meant that Emma was unusual: handsome (stately and elegant, but not “cute” in a traditional sense), clever (to quote this review of the book, “not ‘accomplished’ or ‘intelligent'”), and rich (as opposed to less judgmental synonyms like “affluent”). Emma is, as a character, spoiled sweet, and is possibly the first example of the archetype, which makes it possible to read her as less kindly as other examples.

In the new film directed by Autumn de Wilde and stylized as Emma., period and all, Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) is found in the film’s opening moments creating a bouquet of flowers for the wedding of her dear friend and governess, Anne (Gemma Whelan), who is preparing to marry Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves). She doesn’t clip the flowers herself, of course, but selects them. Her father, Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy), complains that the house shall be empty soon, given that Emma’s older sister Isabella (Chloe Pirrie) has married, and that it will only be a matter of time before Emma follows her example. Emma repeatedly declares that she has no interest in marrying, but considers that she finds matchmaking a pleasant enough enterprise, as she aided in the courtship of Anne and Mr. Weston. When she learns that a new young woman—of indeterminate breeding and ancestry, which is important because this is the Georgian regency—named Harriet Smith (Mia Goth) has arrived at the local school, Emma decides that she is best matched not with Robert Martin, a local farmer who reciprocates Harriet’s interest, but with vicar Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor).

Emma’s meddling invites rebuke from George Knightley (Johnny Flynn), Emma’s brother in law (his brother married Isabella), who lives at the nearby Donwell Abbey and oversees its farms, one of which belongs to the Martin family. He is proven correct when Elton reveals that he has no interest in marrying someone as “low” as Harriet and instead seeks to climb the ranks of society by courting Emma, who rejects him outright. Emma herself is enamored of the unknown but oft-referenced Frank Churchill (Callum Turner), son of Mr. Weston who was adopted and raised by his wealthy aunt and uncle while Mr. Weston was serving in the militia. He finally appears in the town of Highbury not long after the arrival of Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), the niece of Miss Bates (Miranda Hart). Miss Bates, the widow of Highbury’s last vicar, was born into relative wealth and now lives in genteel poverty, dependent upon the largesse of her more affluent neighbors. The orphaned Jane has long been suggested as a proper friend for Emma, but Emma rejects this, although if it is because Jane is of a lower social station (which is true) or because she is more talented than Emma herself in the areas on which Emma prides herself, like music (also true) is unclear. Miss Bates herself is considered a nuisance by Emma, who finds her to be a prattling bore, but her politeness (almost) never falters.

Austen adaptations are a tough business, and I’m not sure that the world needed another adaptation of Emma, given that Clueless did all of the work 25 years ago, but as adaptations go, this is a decent one. It’s extremely faithful to the source material, down to phrasing and monologues—Knightley’s dressing down of Emma after she unthinkingly insults Miss Bates is a particular highlight—but there’s just something … off. Taylor-Joy seems to be incapable of providing anything less than a perfect performance, and although there are moments where Emma’s blindness to her own privilege is actually more frustrating and enraging than in the text (such as when she defines the Martins as being too high on the social ladder for her to think about them as charity cases, but too far below her station to be considered as peers), Taylor-Joy imbues those scenes with such innocence that you can see that she truly is a good person possessed of horrible (and period accurate) ideas about social class.

Emma.‘s biggest weaknesses are not in the film itself, but in its timing. If it wasn’t nipping at the heels of Little Women and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, I’d be spending a lot more time gushing over its color palette and period costumes, but despite the vibrancy and the spectacle of virtually every piece of clothing, I wasn’t as blown away as I would have liked to be. The film is also held back by the aforementioned fact that Emma the novel is sparsely read and even more rarely enjoyed. The trailer set a high bar for the film’s energy and pacing, and I was cautiously optimistic about whether that kind of energy could be sustained over the length of a feature, especially given that it is de Wilde’s first film after a career largely consisting of helming music videos (although we’re talking about “Big God” and “Rise Up With Fists” here, so nothing to scoff at). The film itself is less chaotic than the trailer would have you believe, which is not to its detriment; the pacing is instead pitch perfect. Ironically given de Wilde’s past, my major complaint about the film as a film (as opposed to a transposed complaint about the source material) it would be the score. It’s not bad per se, but the hymns which accompany Emma. pale in comparison to Portrait‘s silence, periodically punctuated with musical moments as well as Alexandre Desplat’s lively piano compositions for Little Women. The music is unmemorable, which is unfortunate when adapting something as slavishly as this film adapts the novel; it’s one of the few areas in which there is room to embellish or create, and that possibility is squandered here.

Emma. is not a bad film. It’s not a great film, either. There’s a lot of conversation about class but very little commentary on class, which is something that a modern Austen adaptation really ought to address. Compare this, for instance, to the 1995 adaptation of Persuasion, which took great pains to show servants hustling and bustling about in the background of virtually every scene; here, we see virtually no servants at all save for a few faceless coachmen and Mr. Woodhouse’s two footmen, who are only “dissatisfied” with their lot in life so far as it extends to catering to Woodhouse’s hypochondria and not, say, their frustration with having to perform useless and silly manual labor in a society where birth determines everything about one’s station in life. Instead, everyone is happy and content in servitude or gentility, which makes the film feel more dated than Persuasion, which, lest we forget, came out 25 years ago. I foresee Emma. becoming one of those pieces of media that, like the 1978 Peter Hammond version of Wuthering Heights or Robert Mulligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird, is used as the most triumphantly faithful adaptation for students to watch before test time if they procrastinated. That’s not high praise, I know, but it does put Emma. in good company, and it’s a fun little movie to have with tea.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Glass (2019)

M. Night Shyamalan films typically don’t have the best reputation, and for the life of me, I just can’t understand why. Who doesn’t love a beautifully shot mainstream thriller that is guaranteed to have at least one major plot twist? I’ve seen the majority of Shyamalan’s films in theaters (I even saw Lady in the Water five days in a row) because they’re always a treat and well worth the money. Recently, I headed to theaters to see his latest masterpiece, Glass, and it was exactly as amazing as I expected it to be.

Shyamalan’s Unbreakable and Split come together in Glass to complete the trilogy we didn’t know we were already watching until recently. Only the Master of Surprise would take a film from 2000 (Unbreakable), throw in pieces of it at the end of a 2017 film (Split), and combine the two into a concluding film in 2019 (Glass). Personally, I love what he’s done. This surprise trilogy has given me hope that the end of all my favorite movies may not truly be the end. There’s always hope!

David Dunn aka The Overseer (Bruce Willis) and his adult son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), both characters from Unbreakable, work in a home security store while secretly teaming together to bring some vigilante justice to the streets of Philadelphia. Joseph does all the research and tech stuff while David uses his super-human gifts to take down criminals. The duo is set on finding the location of four missing teenage girls, who happen to be kept prisoner by Kevin Wendell Crumb, a.k.a. The Horde (James McAvoy), the main character from Split. The Overseer ends up locating the girls and has a classic superhero versus supervillain showdown with The Horde very early on in the film. Once the fight really starts to heat up, authorities catch them both. After being captured, they are taken to a psychiatric facility to be studied alongside Elijah Price, a.k.a. Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) from Unbreakable. Mr. Glass is probably my favorite character in Glass. He’s this insane master manipulator wearing a suit comparable to Prince’s in Purple Rain, and he made me laugh way more than I expected to. Once this trio is brought together, the plot becomes absolutely insane and unpredictable. You just have to see it to believe it.

Glass is a strange combination of a superhero movie and psychological thriller. Unlike the average superhero movie, there’s not really a distinct villain. Sure, The Horde and Mr. Glass do some pretty evil shit, but they both don’t really fit into the “bad guy” mold. It’s like Shyamalan leaves that up to us to decide. I will definitely need to see this at least one more time to wrap my head around everything, and I’m more than willing to do so. I enjoyed the complex stories within stories in Glass, but unfortunately, that’s not something everyone appreciates (hence the horrible reviews).

-Britnee Lombas

Morgan (2016)

Ever since Anya Taylor-Joy made her grand entrance as a name to watch in her stunning, starring role in The Witch (Swampflix’s 2016 Movie of the Year), she’s continued to be a compelling presence in modern genre cinema. Perhaps typecast for her wide-eyed, witchy visage that appears as if she just stepped out of a Victorian oil painting, Taylor-Joy has continued to dwell in genre cinema corners ranging from the Gothic horror vibes of Marrowbone & The Miniaturist to the highly stylized modernist thrillers Split & Thoroughbreds. I’m unsure if that reflects her personal taste in choosing roles or just the range of options being made available to her, but it seems constant to her career path stretching back even before her name became synonymous with The Witch. The same year The Witch was released to wide audiences, Taylor-Joy starred as the titular character in a more mainstream production that made much less of a splash. The sci-fi horror Morgan, directorial debut of Ridley Scott’s son Luke Scott, was largely dismissed in its initial run as merely being an obvious, Hollywood-style rehashing of the superior work Ex Machina, perhaps rightfully so. As hyperbolically negative as I find the film’s general critical reputation to be, I somewhat understand that dismissal and can mount no defense of the mediocre-at-best thriller as some great lost work worthy of reclamation. After recently falling in love with Anya Taylor-Joy’s screen presence all over again in the BBC miniseries The Miniaturist, however, I did find Morgan worthy of a revisit, if not solely for the merits of her performance.

Like Ex Machina, Morgan is a Turing Test thriller where an outside party is hired to determine the commercial viability of a femme A.I. creation in captivity at a remotely located science facility. Toby Jones, Michelle Yeoh, Rose Leslie, Paul Giamatti, and Jennifer Jason Leigh round out an over-qualified cast of scientists & staffers assigned to this A.I. experiment, but they mostly amount to archetypes who hang around to get slaughtered once things inevitably go wrong. Only two characters really matter in this movie: Anya Taylor-Joy as the titular, dangerous A.I. creation and Kate Mara as a corporate “risk management consultant” hired to assess the artificial creature’s commercial viability. A very human-like creation with a recent history of violent episodes with the staff, Morgan presents two ethical questions the movie only pretends to wrestle with: “Is her advancement of technology worth the risk of her potential violence?” and “Is she a person or is it property?” These very basic sci-fi concerns are mostly just time-wasters in the lead-up to the film’s true payoff: Morgan’s escape & horrific slaughter of every human that held her captive, even the ones she once considered close friends & family (as much as an A.I. creature could). These horror genre leanings are reinforced by the sci-fi lab’s locale in a spooky Gothic mansion & a few last-minute, telegraphed twists that are much more concerned about in-the-moment thrills then they are philosophical ponderings. Morgan’s main concern is an attempt to be coldly creepy, and it’s something the movie often pulls off well thanks to the seething animosity that binds Mara & Taylor-Joy’s performances.

As a sci-fi horror about an A.I. creation that escapes captivity & erupts into bloodshed, Morgan doesn’t offer much of interest that can’t be found elsewhere. As a showcase for Anya Taylor-Joy’s acting range, the film does feature some deviating touches in performance that feels like a far cry from her more typical modes in The Miniaturist & The Witch. Although often cast in spooky genre fare, Taylor-Joy typically plays a traumatized, delicate victim, batting her giant doe eyes to convey innocence in a world ruled by evil (deceptively so in Thoroughbreds). Here, she’s allowed to be fierce & dangerous throughout, even opening the film in a vicious lunge to tear out one of her captor’s eyes. Taylor-Joy plays Morgan with the brooding anger of a teenage girl who’s been wronged and stripped of her agency, expressing a quiet, violent anger halfway between explosive emotional outburst & cold, machine-like calculation of who exactly to strike. You can even sense this atypical use of her screen presence in her costuming, which forsakes her usual period-specific garb for a modernist sweatpants & hoodie combo – the comfy outfit of a pissed off teen locked in their room by parents who Just Don’t Understand. Her striking looks are intensified by a cold makeup effect that almost renders her silver, as if she’s in black & white while the rest of the film is in color. It’s a different approach to how her appearance & talents are typically deployed in genre films and that deviation is largely what makes Morgan a worthwhile watch. As a Hollywood companion piece to Ex Machina the film could only suffer through comparison, but as a demonstration of explosive teenage anger from a compelling actor who doesn’t often get to express it, it finds a way to feel worthwhile.

You’re unlikely to walk away from Morgan with any intense interest in whatever follow-up project Luke Scott has in the works. The film is competent enough to get by as a passable sci-fi horror diversion about a Killer A.I., but it’s ultimately nothing special in terms of style or texture. The takeaway is more the question of what other sides of Anya Taylor-Joy’s abilities as a performer are we not yet privy to this early in her career. I appreciated seeing her as a teenage killing machine here, but I’m even more excited by what that indicates about what she might be able to unleash in future roles. It’s a career worth keeping a (gigantic, doe-like) eye on, to say the least.

-Brandon Ledet

Marrowbone (2018)

It’s difficult to gauge how wide of an appeal the straight-to-VOD sleeper Marrowbone might hold for a contemporary audience. As an obedient participation in the tropes of the Gothic horror genre as a cinematic tradition, the film starts off with a slight disadvantage in its aesthetic’s commercial appeal. As demonstrated by del Toro’s Crimson Peak, the modern Gothic horror is often dismissed & unacknowledged even when it’s done exactly right, so a much cheaper, small-scale production like Marrowbone doesn’t have much of a chance to make an impression. To make things harder on itself, the film also adopts a distinctly literary, romantic tone that invites more cynical audiences to not take its emotional core seriously, the exact same way the tragically undervalued Never Let Me Go undercut its own potential commercial appeal as a sci-fi genre picture. For fans of the Gothic horror as an onscreen tradition, Marrowbone offers a wonderful corrective to the year’s other major offering in that genre, Winchester (which I’m saying as the only person in the world who got a kick out of Winchester). It’s an oddly romantic, admirably deranged entry into the modern ghost story canon. It’s frustrating for the already-converted to know that the film’s unhinged charms will be met with more shrugs than enthusiasm on the contemporary pop culture landscape, but its choice of genre at least lends it to feeling somewhat timeless, even if not an instant modern hit.

Although it’s set in 1960s small-town America, it’d be understandable to mistake much of Marrowbone for 19th Century Europe. Its haunted house narrative and feral children aesthetic feels like the lore of 1800s peasants, which makes the occasional intrusion of recognizable modernity almost surreal. The most frequent representation of this modernity is a girl-next-door sweetheart played by Anya Taylor-Joy. In her introduction she’s teased to be a kind of woodland witch (appropriately enough), but it turns out she’s just a darling small-town librarian with an A+ 1960s wardrobe. Her calm provincial life is upturned by the arrival of a small English emigrant family (including familiar faces Charlie Heaton, George MacKay, and Mia Goth) who are obviously in the process of escaping a troubled past. This is one of those immigrant stories where American is framed as a cure-all reset button meant to heals old wounds in a battered family’s identity. The past continues to haunt them, though—at first figuratively, then literally in the form of a ghost that stalks the attic of their new home. As the hauntings worsen, the family becomes more reclusive, never leaving the house to venture into town. Only the sweetheart librarian and her petty, jealous suitor have any interest in the goings-on of the cursed home, the family’s mysterious past, and the well-being of the four children who’re left to face their demons alone within that insular space. It does not go well.

Because Marrowbone is so obedient to the tropes & rhythms of a long-familiar genre, most audiences will clue into the answers to its central mysteries long before they’re revealed. However, the details of those mysteries’ circumstances and the effect of their in-the-moment dread carry the movie through a consistently compelling continuation of a Gothic horror tradition. Creepy dolls, cursed money, miniatures, bricked-over doorways, a covered mirror, a menacing ghost, a pet raccoon named Scoundrel: Marrowbone excels in the odd specificity of its individual details and the deranged paths its story pushes to once the protective bubble of its central mystery is loudly popped. There’s also a delicately tragic sense of romance that guides the picture’s overall tone, both in the librarian’s love life and in the children-fending-for-themselves literary imagination. If you’re not especially in love with the atmospheric feel of the Gothic horror genre, these aesthetic details and the film’s bonkers third act might not be enough to carry you beyond the sense that we’ve seen this story told onscreen many times before. The tempered response to both Crimson Peak & Winchester suggest that will be the case for many viewers. More forgiving Gothic horror fans should find plenty of admirable specificity to this particular story, though, the kind of tangible detailing that allows the best ghost stories to stick to the memory despite their decades (if not centuries) of cultural familiarity. It’s a shame that tradition isn’t currently profitable, but we’ll eventually come back around to it as a culture and Marrowbone will still be oddly, wonderfully unhinged in its menacing details.

-Brandon Ledet

Thoroughbreds (2018)

I’m fascinated by the career Anya Taylor-Joy is building for herself fresh out of the gate as a stark, young talent. I don’t know if it’s her pale, wide-eyed look that steers her casting or a personal sensibility, but there’s a sinister streak to her project choices that reminds me a lot of the actors I grew up loving most in the 90s, people like Winona Ryder, Fairuza Balk, and Christina Ricci. Taylor-Joy’s starring role as Thomasin in (Swampflix’s favorite film of 2016) The Witch is obviously her most striking acting showcase to date, but following her career through Split and, now, Thoroughbreds has only solidified what an intriguingly dark, expressive persona she’s establishing onscreen. I’m even tempted to seek out the objectively terrible-looking pictures Morgan and Marrowbone now, just to see how they fit in the sinister genre film catalog Taylor-Joy is building for herself. She’s becoming a huge draw for me in a way few young actors are, the way I’d usually seek out releases from an auteur director. I doubt I would have rushed to see Thoroughbreds as quickly as I did if her name weren’t on the marquee.

Thoroughbreds joins past indulgences in dark humor about young girls’ bloodlust like Heathers & Heavenly Creatures to deliver the year’s first great femme thriller. Anya Taylor-Joy stars as a spoiled, but emotionally fragile rich girl who can barely contain her seething hatred for her macho brute stepfather. Olivia Cooke balances out her intensely emotive energy as a sociopath struggling to feel anything at all, while also navigating her own status as a public pariah awaiting trial for animal cruelty (it’s probably a good thing this horseriding-themed film is light on actual horse imagery). The former childhood friends & fellow “horse girls” share their dilemmas in that precarious period at the tail end of high school where it feels like every struggle will last for an eternity, but you just need to hold your breath & survive the next few months. Their initial dynamic is a dual tutorship: one learning empathy (or at least how to fake it) and the other learning how to be honest. It evolves into something much more sinister, of course, blossoming into a shared murder plot to kill the wicked stepfather. He didn’t necessarily do anything wrong. He’s just a dick & a convenient target for all their frustrations & emotional crises, a personification of the evils that rot what should be privileged life of leisure.

It’s likely somewhat burying the lede to single out Anya Taylor-Joy here, when the film features what’s presumably the final substantial role for the tragically deceased Anton Yelchin. With the greasy, panicked desperation of a drowning rat, Yelchin is perfectly cast as a small-time drug dealer the girls attempt to blackmail into committing their planned crime. As such, he’s the only external witness to the intense, morbid friendship they’ve coldly developed and is thoroughly freaked out by their communal lack of basic empathy. Oddly, Yelchin also starred in a film adaptation (that I have yet to see) of the trashy novel I’d most readily compare to Thoroughbreds: Fierce People. An anthropological study of the cut-throat social politics of the wealthy elite, Fierce People is a kissing cousin to Thoroughbreds’s tribal drum soundtrack & meditations on the selfish violence of life-long privilege. Yelchin does an excellent job (as always) of devolving this tough-guy posturing as a working-class outsider into abject horror at the coldly applied viciousness of his teen girl foils, allowing his usual aptitude for vulnerability to gradually overtake the character as he sinks further into the plot. It’s touching that the movie is dedicated to his memory, as his stopped-short career is one of modern cinema’s greater losses.

I somehow knew first-time director Cory Finley got his start as a playwright before I googled it. For a tense thriller about murderous teens, Thoroughbreds is noticeably heavy on stage play dialogue, concerning itself more with exploring the two girls’ psyches than with ramping up the tension of their violent deed. One is prim; the other is excessively laidback. One doesn’t feel anything; the other feels everything. Their re-convergence after years spent apart feels like old lovers reuniting in a moment of crisis, helping each other get past a current trauma by picking apart past wounds & unearthing deep-seated emotional issues (last year’s microbudget found footage drama Damascene is an excellent point of comparison there). Finley also impresses as a visual stylist. Tanning bed coffins, strobe light dance parties, and blank stares into the wilderness feel like they were plucked form an eerie sci-fi picture in the way they’re applied here. Guided tours of gaudy mansion hallways are paired with tense, ambient sounds that feel like they were borrowed from The Witch, affording a blank page setting a sinister mood. The girls’ wardrobes range from hip, haute teen fashion to the inherent creepiness of seeing a young girl in lipstick & pearls. The setting can often feel meticulously stylized & genuinely unsettling, but it’s ultimately all in service of Finley’s dialogue, which enters the canon of pictures like Jennifer’s Body, Ingrid Goes West, and the aforementioned Heavenly Creatures that extensively dwell in the intoxicating danger of intense female friendships.

It’s unclear if Anya Taylor-Joy is being typecast in these dark genre film experiments or if she’s actively seeking them out. Either way, I’m wholly on the hook for the trajectory of her career so far, which is seemingly typified by a defensive, vulnerable steeliness in a morbid atmosphere. Thoroughbreds transports that vibe to a affluent setting where carefully guarded secrets and the maintenance of social reputations can stir up just as much darkness on their own as a haunted house or the midnight woods. Like with most intense stage play dialogue, there’s a sinister sense of humor informing that deadly privilege & femme bloodlust set-dressing and Taylor-Joy is remarkably comfortable with the nuance of that tone. Playing off Olivia Cooke’s (intentional) emotional blankness requires Taylor-Joy to tell most of the story through her own reactionary expressions & hesitations. She’s incredible to watch, as always, and Thoroughbreds owes much of its allure & staying power to her striking screen presence.

-Brandon Ledet

Split (2017)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

I left M. Night Shyamalan’s last trashy horror experiment, The Visit, with mixed, but cautiously positive feelings on the director’s redemptive comeback potential. That film’s follow-up, Split, laughs in the face of my caution by revealing a filmmaker who excels as a stylist & a tension-builder on a near-masterful level, a newly confident auteur who’s just starting to get a full grasp on what he can accomplish within his own artistic boundaries two decades into his career. He just happens to be a near-masterful stylist that makes undeniably stupid movies. When an M. Night Shyamalan film is great, it’s brilliantly stupid, combining over-thought & over-stylized art film pretension to an empty, trashy property that doesn’t really deserve it (think Richard Kelly’s The Box as a reference point). When a Shyamalan movie is bad, it’s boringly dumb, the worst kind of limp, undercooked cinematic inanity Hollywood dumps into wide distribution without giving enough thoughtful consideration. Split is brilliantly stupid.

James McAvoy stars as a mentally unstable blue collar worker suffering with the scientifically controversial Dissociative Identity Disorder. While his well-meaning therapist quietly studies him from a distance and tries to build a high-profile career around his exceptional example, the troubled man’s more unsavory personalities begin to dominate his daily actions, keeping his less harmful multiples in the dark. This is not the empathetic, humanist portrait of D.I.D. delivered in United States of Tara, but it’s just as silly & wildly inaccurate. Much like with The Visit, there’s an indelicate genre film cheesiness to the way this movie handles mental health issues that doesn’t exactly deflect criticism, but pushes its depiction so far outside the context of reality that you’d have to reach pretty damn far to be personally offended. McAvoy’s unhinged villain is a scary white man with a debilitating mental disorder who sets in motion a confined space/women-in-captivity thriller plot when one of his most violent alters kidnaps three teenage girls and locks them in a basement for a vague, menacing purpose. The film slowly evolves into a very strange beast in that basement, both asking you to sympathize with the troubled man (an abuse survivor) and to fear the impending revelation of his 24th alternate personality, described as an all-powerful, inhuman monster that will test “the limits of what man can become.” He threatens his captives with ominous declarations like “You are sacred food,” and “The time of ordinary humanity is over,” but nothing could possibly prepare them for the brilliantly stupid weirdness that goes down in the film’s third act.

Of course, the most readily recognizable calling card for M. Night Shyamalan as an auteur is the last minute twist and I’ll do my best to avoid Split‘s ultimate destination out of respect for that trashiest of traditions. I will say, though, that Split‘s best quality is that its Big Twist Ending does not at all cheapen or undercut the plot the film lays out before its arrival. In fact, it at first appears there may be no twist at all. Everything Split introduces as a central theme and a narrative thread, from the therapist’s assertion that D.I.D. might be able to unlock “the full potential of the human brain” & “all things supernatural” to the way privilege can soften competence to the life-long effects of childhood familial abuse to one of the imprisoned teens (The Witch‘s Anya Taylor-Joy) utilizing survivalist skills her father taught her while deer hunting in a Final Girl context, is fully explored in a linear A-B story with very few sharp turns or gimmicks to distract from their impact. Then, when each storyline is fully satisfied & neatly concluded, the Twist Ending arrives to recontextualize everything you’ve seen until that point in a way that expands the film’s scope & somewhat explains its oddly goofy tone instead of shifting its reality entirely. It’s still stupid, but it’s brilliantly stupid.

As genuinely creepy as Split can be in any given scene, especially once it finds itself in the threatened sexual assault territory of generic teens-in-their-underwear horror, it’s also a sublimely silly affair. McAvoy at one point has way too much fun making a show out of his solo bedroom dancing after a character desperately pleads, “I want to hear your Kanye West albums.” He also delivers what is sure to be a strong ironic contender for an MTV Movie Award for Best Kiss. Split‘s D.I.D. premise provides a near-borderless playground for him to chew scenery and he does so admirably, fully committing himself to the film’s brilliant stupidity. I think Split works best when it is genuinely creepy, though. Shyamalan is confidently playful with the film’s tone at every turn (even appearing onscreen to practically wink at the camera), but still mines his pulpy premise for plenty sincere tension & dread in a highly stylized, artfully considered way. Split truly does feel like the director’s return to glory. This is the moment when he loudly broadcasts to the whole world that he can still be highly effective within the pulpy genre box he often traps himself in without having to blow the container open with a last minute twist. Here, the twist is allowed to comfortably exist as its own separate, artfully idiotic treat, another sign that the filmmaker has finally become the master of his own brilliantly stupid game. I don’t think I’ve ever left one of his films this deliriously giddy before and it’s an exciting feeling. I now need to see whatever expertly dumb thing he pulls off next.

-Brandon Ledet