Black Bear (2020)

There have been a few truly great entries in what I call the Writer’s Block Thriller genre in recent years, a canon once populated only by Charlie Kaufman screenplays. Titles like Staying Vertical, Sybil, and Ismael’s Ghosts haven’t exactly dominated the pop culture discourse, but they’re fantastically frustrating headtrips for the few audiences who discovered them in their film festival & Netflix algorithm burial grounds. These are films in which a creatively constipated artist stares at the blank page until they go mad, eventually getting further & further wrapped up in pointlessly absurd, go-nowhere conflicts created mostly by avoidance of completing their own work. The Writer’s Block Thriller is often a meta, heavily neurotic genre that’s mostly about their off-screen creators’ personal & professional anxieties more than they are about characters or plot. Even when done well, there’s an embarrassing layer of narcissism that weighs down the exercise, which can feel like reading a stranger’s tell-all diary. When done poorly, it can feel like reading an exceedingly boring stranger’s diary, which doesn’t at all help with the second-hand embarrassment.

Black Bear fits very snugly in the Writer’s Block Thriller genre, if not only because it plays more like an academic writing exercise than it does a complete work. Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, and Sarah Gadon co-star in this meta mental-breakdown thriller as narcissistic filmmakers & artists who are bad at their jobs and bad at their relationships. They start the film as Brooklynite hipsters staging a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? type dinner party from hell while on an artists’ retreat in the woods. Then, their character traits are scrambled & reassigned for a second, paralleled scenario in which they all continue to manipulate & berate each other in feel-bad Edward Albee tradition – this time for twice the length. These two lopsided segments are rigidly separated by chapter breaks & a repeated image that resets the stage like a rotary dial: Aubrey Plaza sitting at a writing desk, frustrated by the blank page. It plays as if writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine had access to a nice woodland cabin location & a few talented actor friends for a long weekend, but no clear idea of what he wanted to accomplish with those resources. You can practically see him sitting at his own writing desk, unable to get any work done because petty arguments with his friends & lover are looping loudly in his own neurotic skull. The result feels labored, uninspired, self-indulgent and, worst of all, pointless.

If there’s anything useful that came out of this Creative Block writing exercise, it’s in gifting the three central actors a lot of archly hyper-emotional dialogue to play around with. I’ve seen some claims that this is Aubrey Plaza’s best work to date, which can only be assumed if you haven’t been paying attention to her work in recent years; she’s been just as great in much better films (Ingrid Goes West, The Little Hours, Joshy, hell even The To Do List & Dirty Grandpa). Still, it’s true that the second, overreaching segment of the film allows her to run wild & manic in a way we only really get to see from Elizabeth Moss in recent years (an unavoidable comparison, given the central premise’s parallels with Queen of Earth), a mode that Plaza is deliciously sinister in. As frustrating as Black Bear‘s structureless meandering can be in a narrative sense, it is consistently impressive as an actors’ showcase. That feels like an intentional feature of the writing too, which loosely sketches each character as an over-the-top stage play archetype rather than a real person. In the film’s best scene, Plaza is trapped at a dinner table listening to a couple systematically contradict every one of each other’s statements in an absurdly endless flood of bickering & snipes – the one time both the writing and the performances seem in sync instead of circling each other in search of a purpose.

The most frustrating thing about Black Bear‘s shortcomings is that it’s totally aware of its own pointlessness. In the opening segment, a character openly asks a filmmaker “How you can you make something if you don’t have anything to say?” with the incredulity of someone who just sat through a screening of Black Bear. Levine even works in a parody of a Kubrickian asshole director who allows his creative hubris to drive his collaborators into the ground with endless takes & headgames in empty pursuit of some unattainable intellectual exercise that’s above everyone else’s heads. By all accounts, Kubrick was a total nightmare to work with, but at least his films all felt like they had a clear vision & sense of purpose. By contrast, this movie feels like a placeholder for an idea that never fully formed by the time production wrapped. If the best Writer’s Block Thrillers feel like reading a filmmaker’s personal diary, Black Bear feels like flipping through an abandoned, forgotten sketchbook. It’s all very lopsided, unfinished, and not quite ready for public view.

-Brandon Ledet

Possessor (2020)

The most often repeated observation about actor Andrea Riseborough is that she loses herself in roles to the point of being unrecognizable.  Among other examples, Riseborough’s turns as the titular metalhead loner in Mandy, the titular grifter in Nancy, and the daughter of the titular dictator in The Death of Stalin are all so distinctly unique in both performance and physicality that it might not even occur to you that the same actor was cast across the roles.  That chameleonic quality might be frustrating for Riseborough’s professional need for name recognition, but it is fascinating to watch in terms of pure excellence in craft.  It’s also, I assume, a major factor in why she was cast as the lead of Brandon Cronenberg’s latest feature, Possessor, which seemingly took note of her absence of persona and built an entire fucked up sci-fi horror around it about the loss of Identity.  A damn good one too.

Riseborough stars as a near-future corporate assassin who hacks into unsuspecting marks’ bodies to pin her public executions on them, avoiding arrest and collecting massive bounties.  We catch up with the assassin one too many missions into this grotesque routine, losing her grip on her own persona as the borders blur between her host bodies and her original self.  Much of the film involves an especially disastrous mission where she cannot escape the host body she intends to assassinate a Jeff Bezos-type Big-Tech Asshole with, trapped inside his dirtbag son-in-law and becoming increasingly violent the longer she loses herself in the role.  The two dueling personae inside that one shared meatbag start to fight for control in increasingly upsetting ways, represented onscreen through surrealistic melting wax figures & video art freak-outs.  It’s a fight between actors Riseborough & host-body Christopher Abbott to take over as protagonist just as much as it is a fight between assassin & unsuspecting scapegoat.  Both performers are spectacularly upsetting as they squirm uncomfortably inside their own warring bodies, but it’s a struggle that speaks directly to Riseborough’s reputation as a chameleonic actor in particular.

Brandon Cronenberg does little to avoid the inevitable comparisons to his father’s previous triumphs here.  As the assassin’s bloodlust for grotesque, pointless cruelty escalates, the film’s genre shifts from pure sci-fi thriller to outright surrealist body horror in the Cronenberg family tradition.  Casting Jennifer Jason Leigh as the assassin’s handler and using plug & play brain ports as the company’s means to hack into host bodies at least serve as direct acknowledgements of this cinematic inheritance, directly referencing the iconography of eXistenZ in particular.  There’s plenty of modernization & innovation at play here that elevates Possessor above mere tracing-paper ditto work, though.  The horrors of the Jeff Bezos-funded surveillance state that completely obliterates the boundaries of privacy & autonomy to the point of hacking into our goddamn bodies feels distinctly of-the-moment and a worthy application of the body horror tropes that David Cronenberg helped pioneer.  There’s so much about Possessor that’s unique to our current, nightmarishly inane hellscape, including casual use of the term “cuck queen” and non-stop onscreen vaping.  It’s indebted to body horror classics of the past, but not at all tangled up in attempts to recreate them.

It’d be outrageous to claim that Possessor is about Andrea Riseborough’s eerie absence of a solid persona.  On a conceptual level, this is clearly a film that’s most interested in the identity & autonomy we’ve all given up in our march towards a corporate data-mining hell future.  Casting Riseborough in that central role of a professional impersonator who can’t hold onto her original persona as she loses herself in her assignments can’t help but feel like a deliberate, knowing choice, though.  It builds off her established reputation as an actor in fascinating, terrifying ways, which adds additional depth to the bodily & technophobic grotesqueries that drive the plot otherwise.

-Brandon Ledet

Piercing (2019)

Piercing is A Strange Movie, both in pretension and in practice. It’s a tightly wound, carefully mannered character study that titillates with deadly violence & sexual kink for a purpose neither its creators nor its audience can ever quite fully figure out. If the overall goal of the film is to humorously parody the roleplay of adult kink scenarios through the societal manners of buttoned-up dramas from the past, it’s an effect that’s been archived much more convincingly in recent titles like Phantom Thread & The Duke of Burgundy. If it’s simply trying to titillate & amuse voyeuristic onlookers with no further purpose, though, it’s living up to its full potential admirably. Sex & violence are entertaining enough on their own merits, whether or not they serve a greater purpose, and Piercing has plenty of fun with the shameless voyeurism & throwback genre payoffs its buttoned-up kink play parody affords it. It may be a little weird-for-weird’s sake, but it still at least passes for pleasant, playful entertainment – though not quite fun for the whole family.

Halfway between a giallo throwback and a snazzy Euro heist like The Italian Job or Ocean’s Twelve in an aesthetic sense, Piercing is largely a two-hander detailing the deranged sexual & violent impulses of two star-crossed combatants. Christopher Abbott stars as an uptight, sexually frustrated husband who plans to channel his violent resentment towards his wife & baby into murdering an anonymous sex worker with an ice pick. Mia Wasikowska costars as his potential victim – an S&M equipped prostitute who threatens to self-destruct before he has the chance to kill her himself. The film is constrained to stage play-scale settings & act structures as their mysterious, clashing plans play out to disastrous ends. Like all seasoned kinksters, the uptight murderous husband gets most of his thrills from planning & anticipating the act, only to find that reality doesn’t exactly match up with his fantasy. The prostitute proves to be a wild variable that chaotically derails his thoroughly detailed plans in the heat of the moment – perhaps to his own peril. As with Phantom Thread & The Duke of Burgundy, the exact power dynamics of those two sly combatants become the central mystery of the story being told, as they conceal as much of their true selves as they can beneath a falsely calm, civil surface.

Your own appreciation of Piercing may depend on your appetite for these cheeky 70s genre throwbacks in general. If your patience was tested by High-Rise, Free Fire, or Hotel Artemis, for instance, there’s even less fun to be found here despite the allure of the sex & violence in the premise. Its genre nostalgia is blatant, expressed through VHS tape warping in its opening credits, Goblin needle-drops on its soundtrack, and its high-rise apartment exteriors being digitally constructed as impossible miniatures. Still, puzzling your way through the hidden motivations & strengths of its two leads can be wickedly fun. Is the wife giving her husband permission to murder this unsuspending sex worker or is that his auditory hallucination? Is he into auto-erotic asphyxiation or just practicing his choking skills? Is he going to stab his own baby with an ice pick or just having a lark? Watching the film yourself won’t provide any clearer answers to these questions that you could derive from reading this review. Questioning the intent, motivation, and meaning in this violent kink scenario is the entirety of the entrainment value offered here – whether or not it’s been achieved before in better, more meaningful works.

-Brandon Ledet