The Green Knight (2021)

It’s Christmas in July! Or at least it was last weekend when I saw David Lowery’s latest, long-delayed, gorgeous bombast, The Green Knight. There have been multiple failed attempts at bringing Arthurian stories to the big screen in a meaningful way in my lifetime (although that 2004’s King Arthur, 2006’s Tristan and Isolde, and 2017’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword all have exactly 31% on Rotten Tomatoes is impressive in its own strange way), with the most successful being the generally disappointing First Knight, which no one remembers. Fun fact: Ralph Ineson, who plays the titular pastoral paladin in this film, was in First Knight. Sorry to get into the trivia portion of this review so early, but I don’t really have a lot to say about this one. Shocking coming from an overtalker like myself, I know, but sometimes there are films that you don’t see so much as experience, and like Lowery’s A Ghost Story before it, The Green Knight is one such film. 

Which isn’t to say that there’s not a clear narrative here. There is, and it’s fairly easy to follow. Gawain (Dev Patel) is the nephew of King Arthur (Sean Harris) by way of his sister (Sarita Choudhury), who is traditionally Morgause but appears to be a combination of Morgause and Morgaine le Fay (also usually—but not always—Arthur’s step- or half-sister). On Christmas morning, he awakens beside his lover, the commoner Essel (Alicia Vikander) and makes his way back to the castle, where he washes up before appearing before Arthur, his queen (Kate Dickie), and the other knights of the realm. The elderly Arthur invites Gawain to sit beside him and tell him a story of himself, so that he may know his potential heir better, but the younger man admits that he has no great deeds of himself to share. “Yet,” Guinevere corrects him, “you have no stories to tell yet.” Elsewhere, Morgause/Morgaine and a few attendants perform a ceremony that appears to invoke or invite a large, green knight (Ineson, as noted) to appear in the great hall, riding a massive steed. He issues a challenge, asking only that one of Arthur’s fabled knights strike him a blow with the caveat that the following year Arthur’s champion goes to the “green chapel” and allow the knight to return the blow in kind. All refuse, and Merlin (Emmet O’Brien) shakes his head slightly when Arthur himself seems prepared to face the challenge. Gawain asks that he be allowed to do so, and is given Arthur’s own sword to face the knight. When the Green Knight offers his neck to the boy, he first laughs, then grows angry at the visitor for mocking him before lopping off the larger man’s head. Undeterred, the knight’s body retrieves his head, laughs, and says he’ll see Gawain the next Christmas. 

After a “too short year,” Gawain sets out on his journey to find the Green Chapel and the knight therein, with gifts like a shield which bears an image of the Virgin Mary and is anointed by a bishop and a green sash that his mother makes, and into which she inserts sigils. After departing Camelot, he first passes some older towers and buildings in decline, then through a section of deforested woods which are in the process of being cut down, and finally comes upon a field in which a battle has been fought and in which a few fires yet smolder. There he encounters a scavenger (Barry Keoghan) who points him in the right direction, but after he gives the poorer man a single coin, and even then only because he was guilted, Gawain finds himself the victim of two of the poor man’s fellow highwaymen. Now divested of his shield, horse, belt, and even the Green Knight’s axe, Gawain eventually frees himself, but is weakened. Eventually making his way to a seemingly deserted house, Gawain avails himself of the empty bed therein, only to be awoken in the night by the spirit of a woman named Winifred, who asks him to reunite her decapitated head with the rest of her body, which he does; once this task is complete, the Green Knight’s axe is mysteriously returned to him. He ventures further, facing starvation and madness, eventually meeting and becoming the traveling companion of a fox, and even encountering a group of mysterious giants as they wander in an apparent migratory pattern (this was my favorite part). 

Eventually, he comes to a castle occupied by a friendly noble lord (Joel Edgerton), his wife (Vikander again), and an unnamed, unremarked-upon sightless woman (Helena Browne). As in the poem, the Lord enters into an agreement with Gawain that would mean that anything given to Gawain in the Lord’s house would be given by Gawain in turn, and the Lady of the house tempts Gawain’s virtue. On his final day within the castle, the Lady returns Gawain’s green sash to him, claiming that she made it herself, and reiterating that it will keep him from harm; he accepts it, but not before finally giving in to her advances (albeit in more of a shortstop way, in that it’s between second and third base). Leaving the house, he encounters the Lord for the last time, but does not give him the sash (or the hand job) as their deal would require. Gawain reunites with the fox, who accompanies him all the way to a stream where a boat waits to take him to the Green Chapel, and the fox suddenly speaks, to give him one more warning to turn back and avoid his fate, but Gawain soldiers on. 

At long last, he meets the Knight, and after he flinches, the Green Knight teases him, and then Gawain flees. He returns to the place where the boat was left and finds his horse returned. He makes his way back to Camelot, where he is reunited with Essel (in the Biblical sense), knighted by a bedridden Arthur, and eventually becomes king. Essel gives birth to a son that Gawain takes to raise, leaving behind a few shekels on her bloody birthing bed; as time goes on, Camelot begins to degrade, perhaps because of her dishonored king, or simply because it is in the nature of “Camelot” to wane when Arthur is gone. Gawain marries a lady of proper aristocratic birth and she bears him a daughter, while his son dies in a battle in which Gawain himself does not participate. In all these moments, which play out with no dialogue, the sash is never removed. He becomes a pariah in his own kingdom, lacking the respect that the middling folk who adored his uncle. He finally faces his end as Camelot prepares to fall to marauders, and as he finds himself seated alone on the throne he does not deserve, he removes the sash at last, and his head falls to the ground … and then we return to the Green Chapel, and the realization that all of these moments are, to paraphrase Dickens, the shadows of things that May Be, not necessarily which Will Be. Realizing that he cannot flee from fulfilling his debt of honor, he once more submits to the Green Knight, who playfully traces his finger along the royal nephew’s throat. Credits!

That’s more of a summary than a review, but it was an exercise for myself as much as it is a recommendation for you, dear reader. When I walked out of the theater with my friends, none of us was completely certain what to make of it. When recording our recent Lagniappe episode about Stoker, Brandon referred to Nicole Kidman’s third act “I can’t wait to see the world break you down” speech as a “barn burner,” and this film has a monologue of the same caliber delivered with delicious righteousness by Vikander as the Lady; although, an equally apt comparison would be to call her speech this film’s version of “Rooney Mara eats a pie for 5 minutes,” as she describes all of the potentialities of what the color green could mean—nature, entropy, life, death, rebirth, sickness—in a way that becomes completely hypnotic. Is it “good”? I’m not sure, but it sure was huge. It’s so soporific that I’m not completely certain it even manages to tie into the film’s larger themes, but I certainly experienced something. 

This is a story about honor, and from whence it flows and how one can come to be anointed by it. Gawain, as a member of the aristocracy, fails to consider the small folk, which is traditionally the province in which Arthur succeeds, and from which his honor (and thus his power) flows. From the moment he first appears on screen, his casual disregard for those outside of the landed aristocracy is made apparent, as he ignores the burning of a commoner’s hut as he wends his way back to the castle proper. When he is followed into the plains by children who are entranced by the fledgling, yet-unbuilt legend of Gawain, he spares not a smile or a wave for them. When he meets the scavenger, he must be guilted into giving him a pittance, even though, as heir apparent to the king and a queen who has passed her child-bearing years, his funds are virtually limitless, and the man’s pitiable existence is explicitly the result of being a resident of the medieval equivalent of fly-over country during a skirmish fought in the name of kings he will never see or know. When asked by Winnifred to retrieve her head, he asks what his reward will be, and she’s shocked by his lack of chivalric benevolence. He even fails to uphold his end of the bargain he makes with the Lord in whose house he finds healing and comfort. 

Still, there is a seed of honor in Gawain which, if properly nurtured, could yet germinate and grow within him, just as the Green Knight is composed of the branches and trees which also make up the Green Chapel. After all, what is honor? What is courage? These things are not conferred upon a person by a higher power, or by that power’s earthly representative sprinkling holy water on a shield. They are not conferred upon a person by the stature of their lineage or through gifts from a progenitor, despite that this was the method by which power was transferred for much of human politik. They are not conferred by drawing a sword from a stone, or from the hand of the one who previously did so, nor are they conferred by regal clothing; although these things may stem from that which resides within, they are the noble flowering, not the source of the vine. Gawain may only complete his quest out of fear of the shame of returning home without having made good his word, but therein lies the nature of all courageousness: if we act with honor, even if it be for spite or in avoidance of shame, the performance of the thing becomes the thing itself, be it for the better and green in growth or for the worse and green in rot. Despite many opportunities to turn back and persistent discouragement from his pursuit, Gawain presses on, even passing what could be called his last temptation. He sees his life as it could be, and once more chooses to press on, and in so doing, becomes more than he had been. 

Lowery has said that, in his vision, Gawain does not survive this encounter. Which, first of all, how dare he? But secondly, this is your semiannual reminder that, as for me and my house, we will follow Roland Barthes, so I reject that interpretation and substitute my own. I feel that, textually, we are seeing Morgause/Morgaine test her son, as the Green Knight is clearly summoned or even created by her magics, and Gawain is told explicitly that the Knight is someone he knows. Our very first image is of Gawain on Arthur’s throne and bearing his crown before he is, unflinching, covered in flame, as if all that was weak and chaff within him has been burned away. To see this purification trial to its end, in order to prevent her unready and unworthy son from pulling a total Mordred and ascending to the throne and hastening Camelot’s decline, she creates this series of tests that not only prove his mettle but create it. It’s worth mentioning, in case it’s been a long time since your last literature class, that Morgaine is revealed to be the blind woman in the house of Sir Bertilak (the rough equivalent of the unnamed Lord in the film), and that she was pulling the strings of the entire narrative all along. 

I have to admit that I was slightly disappointed that there was little exploration of the relationship between Albionian pre-Christian paganism and the rise of Arthurian Christendom. (Did I already give away that Mists of Avalon is my favorite Arthurian story by insistently calling her “Morgaine” and not “Morgan”? A pox on Marion Zimmer Bradley’s grave, though.) The very concept of “England” is thoroughly tied into the rise of Christianity as an influence on politics and world events, and the application of those motifs to Arthurian legend, which is thoroughly and inexplicably tied to pre-Christian magic, makes for a truly fascinating, if muddled, historiography. The way that Gawain was first girded by both his mother’s smoke-and-incense dark magic sash and the Marian image on his shield seemed to be setting up a narrative in that vein, but if that element was carried through in any way, it’s that religion, as a creation of man, is doomed to be destroyed and reclaimed, as demonstrated by the scavengers breaking his shield almost immediately, and the way in which the foliage of the Green Chapel is superimposed over and suffused through a Christian house of worship. 

I don’t know if you’ll like this. I don’t know if I liked it. But I did experience it, and I would again. After all this time being isolated, and with the possibility that we’ll have to do this all again on the horizon, if you need to be transported, take this journey.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Drag Queen Confidence vs. Drag Queen Protagonists

Drag has been having something of A Moment in recent years. Thanks largely to the visibility of RuPaul’s Drag Race on television, the sheer amount & variety of drag entertainment has practically exploded this decade. Just watching the pageant drag traditions of New Orleans alone mutate into fresher, weirder art in recent years has been bewildering in scale. In general, I don’t know if it’s so much that drag has fundamentally changed as an artform (at least not since the NYC Club Kids days of the 80s & 90s) so much as that society has changed around it. An increased social awareness of the nature & fabrication of gender has been a major cultural shift in the 2010s and it’s no surprise to me that an artform built on gender performance & gender subversion has increased in popularity along with it. I don’t know that this cultural change has been properly represented in our cinema yet, though, at least not through the eyes of drag queen protagonists. If anything, most of my all-time-favorite drag movies arrived in the 1990s: Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Too Wong Foo, Vegas in Space, etc. Drag movies in the decades since have seemingly focused less on the drag queens themselves, but rather on how their performance & exaggeration of gender inspires confidence in cis, hetero protagonists who use them as sources of personal inspo.

The foremost example of the Drag Queen Confidence movie I can think of was something I first discovered as a Broadway musical performance during a television broadcast of The Macy’s Day Parade (the one time of year I listen to showtunes). The 2005 Drag Confidence melodrama Kinky Boots has somehow gradually transformed from a middling Sundance Festival novelty to a beloved stage musical over the last decade, making it one of the more significant drag cinema success stories of recent years. In the film, Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a London drag queen whose need for large, sturdy high-fashion heels saves a struggling shoe factory that’s threatening to go bankrupt. Facing the inevitable truth that traditional cobbler labor is a dying art, Joel Edgerton serves as our protagonist in this drag-adjacent story – a man who must save his (shoe fetishist) father’s struggling factory by pivoting to designing “kinky boots” for beefy drag queens. Ejiofor’s drag queen side character, Lola (presumably named after the Kinks song, right?), isn’t portrayed as trans, but never appears out of makeup—even offstage—because women’s clothes give him confidence. His fearlessness in entering the small-town North England factory while dressed to the nines even inspires confidence in the straight-cis-white-male protagonist to be his own man and forge his own path outside everyone’s expectations of him. Kinky Boots is a fun movie, especially in Ejiofor’s plethora of cabaret performances of drag standards like Marlene Dietrich & Eartha Kitt. There’s also some extremely satisfying montage footage of shoes being assembled on an old-fashioned assembly line that could be repurposed as one of those viral video supercuts of perfectly functioning machinery. When you boil its story down to its basic parts, though, it’s a movie that somehow combines “white savior” (in Edgerton rescuing Lola from back alley harassment & dangerously flimsy footwear) & “magical negro” (in Lola saving Edgerton’s factory & personal life for no gain of his own) tropes into one efficiently iffy package.

The 2018 Netflix film Dumplin’ is even more egregious in sidelining its drag queen inspo characters as afterthoughts without inner lives of their own. In the film, Patti Cake$‘s Danielle MacDonald stars as the nonplussed, plus-sized daughter of a small-town beauty queen played by Jennifer Aniston – Miss Teen 1991. Sick of quietly suffering fatphobic microaggressions in her mom’s beauty pageant social orbit and fueled by the defiant spirit of her favorite pop diva—Dolly Parton—she enters the local pageant as a vaguely defined political protest, one that dredges up a lot of personal insecurities with her own body & personality. Where does she find the confidence to follow through on this attention-grabbing political protest? At the local drag bar, of course, where a gaggle of nameless queens devoid of inner lives (including Drag Race‘s own veteran “glamor toad” Ginger Minj) teach her how to strut in heels and perform traditional femininity with pride. Dumplin’ is a cute, harmless movie that reimagines Drop Dead Gorgeous as a wholesome melodrama about the value of friendship & self-worth. If nothing else, it’s near impossible to not fall for the charms of its feel-good Dollyisms like “It’s hard being a diamond in a rhinestone world.” However, its drag queen characters are essentially props & cheerleaders that only pop in to teach our down-on-her-luck protagonist how to be a self-assured, glamorous woman. They have no wants, needs, or crises of their own. The exist only to serve her story and seemingly disappear into vapor as soon as their offscreen.

Curiously, my favorite Drag Queen Confidence movie of recent decades is the one with the most viciously negative reviews. The 2004 slapstick farce Connie & Carla effectively ruined the career of My Big Fat Greek Wedding creator Nia Vardalos, who cashed in on her surprise megahit to make a deeply silly buddy comedy opposite Toni Colette (who wouldn’t?). A cross between Sister Act & Victor Victoria, the movie follows two tragically mediocre cabaret performers with an airport lounge act who hide from the mafia by posing as dive bar drag queens, until their act becomes so popular that their cover is blown. Connie & Carla has the broad humor of a decade-stale mid90s studio comedy and its “Cis women drag queens?!?!” premise has become eyerollingly outdated in the last decade (I’ve been to several shows with all-lady queens in the past year alone). Still, I found it to be a total hoot. Toni Collette is especially fun to watch (duh) in the movie’s frequent, elaborate cabaret routines – doing increasingly blue material with the “male” privilege drag affords her and lighting up the screen with a drag version of Jesus (as a woman dressed as a man dressed as a woman dressed as a man, a total gender meltdown). The movie often trips over its own feet politically—both in its eagerness to forgive homophobia and in its plastic surgery-shaming version of body positivity—but as far as Drag Queen Confidence movies go, it’s the most resoundingly successful film of this batch. It does right by its drag queen characters. Not only do the queens who help Connie & Carla learn to be confident women have their own lives & conflicts offscreen & on, but Connie & Carla themselves become actual, legitimate drag queens by the film’s end – not just beneficiaries of the artform’s confidence boost.

As much as I was tickled by Connie & Carla as a broad slapstick farce, even that enjoyment was small consolation for the general lack of quality drag cinema at large in recent years. If there are still great drag queen movies being made post 1990s (or at least post Hedwig in 2001), it’s all work that’s being done in the documentary sphere: The Sons of Tennessee Williams, The Gospel of Eureka, Drag Becomes Him, Gracefully, etc. The occasional, miniscule movies like Hurricane Bianca, Alaska is a Drag, and Holiday Heart that actually have drag queen protagonists aren’t cutting it; their limited resources don’t give them a fighting chance. If a drag-themed movie is being put together with a proper, professional budget, it’s far more likely that the queens will only pop in as quirky side characters – a dash of whimsical flavor and a selfless confidence boost to the hetero protagonists. They’re a road stop on Lady Gaga’s path to being born a star or Channing Tatum’s path to rediscovering his stripper mojo. They’re rarely, if ever, the stars themselves in professional-grade narrative cinema anymore, which is a total shame. Drag has become much more popular & varied since the 1990s, but the scope of actual drag queen movies paradoxically appears to be shrinking.

-Brandon Ledet

It Comes at Night (2017)

In his debut feature, Krisha, young director Trey Edward Shults crafted an incredible level of tension & terror by staging a dramatic Thanksgiving dinner at his parents’ house. The wait to see what Shults could do with a bigger budget and a more straightforward horror tone has been blissfully short. His follow-up feature, It Comes at Night, has been pushed into wide release by modern indie distribution giants A24 and boasts recognizable actors like Joel Edgerton & Riley Keough (unlike Krisha‘s cast, which was mostly filled out by Shults & his family). First weekend horror audiences have been loudly disappointed by the film, saddling it with a “D” CinemaScore for not living up to their genre expectations, the same way a mass of people vocally derided The Witch, (our favorite film of 2016) upon its initial release. Do not be fooled by the grumbles & whines. Shults’s command of tension & terror is just as impressive here as it is in Krisha, even continuing that debut’s focus on familial discord & grief. The exciting thing is seeing that terror blown up to a slick, multi-million dollar film budget instead of a self-propelled scrappy indie production. 

Two young families struggle to survive a post-apocalyptic American landscape devastated by a deadly virus, a plague. This isn’t the outbreak horror of the more narrative-focused The Girl With All the Gifts, however. There are no zombies, no monsters, no transformations. The infected merely die, rot, and spread disease. The two families we get to know in this bleak scenario attempt to find peace & optimism in domestic cohabitation. They keep telling themselves everything will be fine, but there’s no indication that anything can or will ever improve. Edgerton’s paterfamilias often commands the room, setting firm rules on how to keep infected strangers & animals locked out of their peaceful, isolated cabin in the woods. It’s his teenage son who acts as the film’s de facto protagonist, though. Late at night, once the comfort of domestic routines and keeping busy fades away, the teen boy’s mind begins to wander into darkness. Anxieties over survival, sexuality, and sorrow for those already lost haunt him in hallucinatory dreams and late night walks through the house’s eerie hallways. What comes at night is not any kind of physically manifested evil, but rather an extreme grief for what’s already been lost and a dread for the violent, depressing end that’s fated to come in the near future.

Dream logic and nightmare imagery are a cinematic pleasure I never tire of and Shults does a fantastic job of building tension in these moments of subconscious dread. If It Comes at Night can be understood as the horror film A24 marketed it to be, those genre beats are wholly contained in the teen protagonist’s stress-induced nightmares. Nightmare imagery is not exactly unique territory for horror, though. Its presence in the genre stretches at least as far back as the German Expressionism movement of the silent era. What It Comes at Night captures more distinctly than any other horror or thriller I’ve seen before is the eerie feeling of being up late at night, alone, plagued by anxieties you can usually suppress in the daylight by keeping busy, and afraid to go back to sleep because of the cruelly false sense of relief that startles you when you slip back into your stress dreams. It’s in these late night, early morning hours when fear & grief are inescapable and nearly anything seems possible, just nothing positive or worth looking forward to. Shults inexplicably stirs up that same level of anxious terror in Krisha, with the same deeply personal focus on familial discord, but It Comes at Night features a new facet the director couldn’t easily afford in his debut: beauty. The nightmares & late night glides through empty hallways are frighteningly intense, but they’re also beautifully crafted & intoxicatingly rich for anyone with enough patience to fully drink them in.

Not everything in It Comes at Night is disjointed dream logic & slow burn focus on atmospheric tone. There’s plenty of tense dialogue, creepy treks through the woods, gunfire, and desperate scavenging for food & clean water. Often, the film’s late night eeriness is used to quietly lull the audience into a false sense of safety before a loud, disruptive threat explodes onscreen. It can even be a visually ugly film when the moment calls for it, often lighting trees & hallways like a crime scene via rifle-mounted flashlights. I’m not surprised that first weekend audiences were frustrated by their expectations of a straightforward genre film, though. Edgerton is an amazing screen presence who once again wholly disappears into his role, somewhat anchoring the film in dramatic moments of disagreement with his wife & son. There’s no explicit explanation of his demeanor or plans, however, just like how there’s no expositional explanation of the history of the plague that has trapped his family in that cabin in the woods. The highlights of the film are more image-focused & ethereal: a triangle-shaped shadow, complex tree roots & branches, sweeping pan shots & drone-aided arials, an intense fixation on a red door that separates the family from the plague lurking outside.

The subtlety of It Comes at Night‘s overwhelming potency is never more apparent than it is at its violent climax. That’s when its aspect ratio gradually, almost unnoticeably constricts its action into an increasingly cramped frame that gets more constrictive by the second until there’s no room to breathe. It’s in that climax that you get the sense that Shults may just be a master in the making. Let’s just hope that the memory of that “D” CinemaScore fades away quickly enough for more production money to flow the director’s way. If he can craft such memorably terrifying, personally revelatory works on budgets this minuscule, I’d love to see what he could do with total financial freedom, general audiences be damned.

-Brandon Ledet

Loving (2016)

EPSON MFP image

threehalfstar

With his two feature film entries in 2016, Jeff Nichols has established a very clear (although probably unintentional) genre pattern in his career. The director seems to be strictly alternating between realistic familial drama & high concept sci-fi in his work (with a little of the former category seeping in to inform the latter). The sequence so far looks like this: Shotgun Stories (drama), Take Shelter (sci-fi), Mud (drama), Midnight Special (sci-fi), and now Loving (drama). Although Shotgun Stories is contrarily my favorite title from the director, I typically find myself more enamored with the sci-fi end of this divide. Loving finds Nichols returning to the muted, sullen drama of Mud, this time with a historical bent. It isn’t my favorite mode for a director who’s proven that he can deliver much more striking, memorable work when he leaves behind the confines of grounded realism, but something Nichols does exceedingly well with these kinds of stories is provide a perfect stage for well-measured, deeply affecting performances. Actors Joel Edgerton & Ruth Negga are incredibly, heartachingly sincere in their portrayals of real-life trail-blazers Richard & Mildred Loving and Nichols is smart to take a backseat to their work here, a dedication to restraint I respect greatly, even if I prefer when it’s applied to a more ambitious kind of narrative.

Loving, which really does have a conveniently apt title thanks to history, is an exercise in directorial patience & discipline. A decades-spanning dramatization of a young Virginian couple as they raise children & defy a federal law banning interracial marriage in a historical Supreme Court decision, this film could have easily been an over-the-top melodrama about hard-fought courtroom battles & explosively violent racism in the South, especially in the hands of an Oscar-minded director like a Ron Howard or a Spielberg. In Nichols’s version of the story, however, the seething anger over the Loving couple’s interracial romance is just as quiet & deeply seated as their love for one another. The score can be a little imposing in its own tenderly sad way, but for the most part Nichols avoids cliché and mostly just makes room to allow his actors to quietly do their thing. Portraying a couple who were more interested in being left alone than (literally) making a federal case out of the “crime” of being married, Edgerton & Negga brilliantly use the negative space of non-reaction to convey the emotional swell of a scene. Negga is especially skilled at this maneuver, making the mute reaction to a phonecall or a shared physical intimacy with Mildred’s sister hit like a ton of bricks without ever calling attention to herself. The distracting presence of actors Nick Kroll & frequent Nichols collaborator Michael Shannon detracts from that disciplined subtlety, but they’re also playing characters who bring publicity & legal attention to the Lovings’ case, so their sore thumb effect might’ve been deliberately intended. Either way, all of the romance, suffering, and compassion in Loving rests in Edgerton’s & Negga’s steady, capable hands and Nichols’s best moments in this traditionalist drama is in the way he harnesses their quiet energy for a subtly devastating effect.

If you wanted to be especially morbid in your reading of the film, you could say that Loving has an alarming amount of significance in a modern context, given many Western countries’ sudden far right return to horrifying ideology like “God’s law” & “racial purity.” This isn’t the metaphorical, history-minded political statement of titles like the Hitler-themed black comedy Look Who’s Back, though. If anything, Loving reminds me of the quietly measured drama of last year’s Brooklyn (sans the pretty dresses for the most part, unfortunately). It doesn’t force attention-grabbing moments of high stakes drama, but instead details a fragile romance in a perilous era that threatens to shatter it under immense social & legal pressure. Loving is less about racism than it is about, well, loving and the movie only really stumbles when outside personalities disrupt the believable romantic ideal Edgerton & Negga establish in their scenes (Nick Kroll’s presence is especially egregious on that note). Nichols finds interesting detail to signify the era: the early stirrings of rock & roll in exciting hot rod races; playful abandon in Mason jars full of moonshine; the horror movie atmosphere of small town law enforcement creeping through the night. His best impulse here, though, is in the way he backs up to allow space for Negga & Edgerton to work their magic. It’d be tempting say that any director could’ve made Loving, because of that absence of stylistic imposition, but I don’t think many directors would’ve displayed the same level of restraint in a drama about such an important Supreme Court case. Nichols puts a relatable, knowable face to history here (with his talented cast’s help, of course). Although this is far from my favorite work he’s put in so far as a director or as a stylist (Midnight Special makes sure it’s not even his most winning success this year), it’s this exact kind of discipline & restraint that sells his higher-concept work so believably & effectively.

-Brandon Ledet

Black Mass (2015)

EPSON MFP image

threehalfstar

What the hell has Johnny Depp been doing for the last decade? It used to be that every new Depp performance was worth getting excited about, but the last time I can remember being impressed with him was as the notorious reprobate John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester in 2004’s The Libertine. Everything since feels like a formless blur of pirates, Tontos, and CGI chameleons. No matter. Depp has returned to his past life as a solid, exciting actor in another formally middling biopic packed to the gills with great performances, Black Mass. With his receding hairline, hideous teeth, ever-present aviators & pinky rings, and eyes so grey-blue they almost make him look blind, Depp plays the infamous South Boston crimelord Whitey Bulger like a strange cross between Hunter S. Thompson & Nosferatu. It’s a measured, but menacing performance that proves Depp still has it in him to terrify & captivate, completely transforming beyond recognition & losing himself in his best role of the past decade.

The worst accusation that can be thrown at Black Mass is that it’s a little formally & narratively overfamiliar. The film doesn’t bring anything particularly fresh to the 70s-era organized crime drama format, calling to mind works from names like Brian De Palma, William Friedkin, and Martin Scorsese in nearly every scene. In fact, because of the thick Boston accents inherent to Whitey Bulger & The Winter Hill Gang it’s easy to pinpoint a specific point of reference in Scorsese’s oeuvre that Black Mass can be accused of being a little too reminiscent of: The Departed. Just know that if you’re looking forward to this film as a fan of that genre there’s not going to be long stretches of brutal violence & gunfire that usually accompany organized crime films. Black Mass has its moments of brutality, sure, limited mostly to bursts of fist to face sadism & quick bursts of assassination, but for the most part it’s a calm story of political intrigue. The movie is almost entirely focused on the real-life Bulger’s secretive “alliance” with the FBI that allowed the two agencies to work together to eradicate the Italian mafia from Boston, making room for Bulger to bloom from a small time crime boss into an all-powerful kingpin. Black Mass is concerned with the audio surveillance tapes, buried/forged paperwork, and back alley dealings with the federal government that allowed for Bulger’s rise to power much more than it is with his murderous deeds, which amount to exactly one onscreen shooting & two strangling on Depp’s bloody hands. Bulger is terrifying, but the threat he poses is more systemic than it is physical, making for a film that may have defied the more bloodthirsty expectations of its audience. I noticed quite a few viewers at our screening checking their cellphones in the second & third acts . . .

Any muted expectations I had for Black Mass based on its 70s-era crime drama familiarity (an aesthetic that somehow hilariously continues well into the 90s in the film’s timeline) were surpassed merely on the merit of its performances. Besides Depp’s horrifying, career-revitalizing turn as Whitey Bulger, there’s also great, unexpected screen presence from Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, Dakota Johnson, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Peter Sarsgaard, and, my personal favorite, Julianne Nichlson (who was fantastic in both Boardwalk Empire & Masters of Sex and whom I only want the best things for). This is an actor’s movie. The 70s crime pastiche is merely a backdrop for the absurdly talented cast’s parade of heavy Boston accents & emotional turmoil. The screenplay offers very little in terms of surprise. Of course Bulger is the kind of gangster that is gentle & neighborly with old ladies, but will have a man killed for threatening to punch him in a bar. Of course, despite his official status as a “top echelon informant”, he’s prone to saying things like, “I don’t consider this ratting or informing. This is business.” Of course, because this is a gangster movie, the script is a long procession of a million “fuck”s, one with just a few homophobic & anti-Italian slurs thrown in there for good measure. I consistently got the feeling that we’ve all seen this play out countless times before, but I still enjoyed it a great deal. Just as a particularly corrupt FBI agent justifies his involvement with Bulger as “a little white lie to protect the bigger truth”, Black Mass is a little, unassuming movie worthwhile for how it supports such a massive list of excellent performances, Depp’s return to form, believe it or not, being just one drop in the bucket.

-Brandon Ledet

The Gift (2015)

EPSON MFP image

three star

In a lot of ways The Gift is a tricky film to review. Due to its suspense thriller genre, it’s at the very least difficult to discuss too much of the film’s plot without ruining the surprise of some of its bigger twists, so I’ll try to tread lightly there. What’s even more complicated about this thriller in particular, though, is that I enjoyed the majority of its run time, but the last couple of narrative twists in the concluding few minutes left me feeling deeply uneasy. So much of The Gift works, but the little that doesn’t makes a huge, uncomfortable impact. If the overall quality of a thriller relies on the strength of its twists, it’s tempting to allow the last few minutes of The Gift poison the generally likable film that precedes them, but that feels more than a little unfair to me.

Here’s a short list of things that work in The Gift: the imagery, the tone, the tension, the acting, and the brutal reflection on how cycles of teenage bullying don’t stop on graduation day. Much of the credit to the film’s success goes to the performances from the three leads. Joel Edgerton (who also writes & directs here) brings the quiet menace of an abused, but sadly loyal puppy dog on the verge of biting back to his role as the film’s would-be menace, Gordo. Rebecca Hall affords an unusual amount of intellectual competence & believable fragility to her role as the Typical Horror Movie Victim, Robyn. Jason Bateman carries most of the weight here, though, nimbly navigating a role that requires him both to be a befuddled everyman & (as the film’s advertising already spoiled, freeing my hands here) a vile, immature highschool bully that never outgrew his abusive ways. Bateman’s turn as Simon truly is the film’s bread & butter, calling into question the means by which a teenage bully can translate their brutality into adult situations, namely in professional & domestic arenas.

Most of The Gift unravels the power dynamics of Simon’s & Gordo’s shared past through Robyn’s perspective, which is where the film shines brightest. There’s a stark simplicity to the movie’s visual palette that makes for a sleek-looking thriller. Sliced apples, pills in a kitchen sink, traditional horror film reds emanating from brake lights, and a sly reference to The Shining (there’s a hospital room numbered 237) all overpower the film’s cheaper elements, like last minute plot twists & dog-exploiting jump scares. It’s when the perspective shifts from Robyn’s POV to Simon’s in the third act that The Gift wavers a bit. It’s difficult to determine if the audience is supposed to empathize with the lifelong bully in the final half hour or indulge in his comeuppance, but honestly neither effect is all that satisfying, so it ultimately doesn’t matter.

I’m firmly on the fence with how all of The Gift‘s individual elements play out in its conclusion, but there’s plenty to enjoy in each moving part as isolated components (especially in the visual starkness & the effective performances from its three leads) before they’re uncomfortably misused. I liked most of the film, but I definitely left the theater with a lingering, bitter taste in my mouth, which I guess isn’t the worst way a movie can affect you, all things considered. It’s unlikely that The Gift will have much box office staying power or be making any Best of 2015 lists as the year winds down, but it does have enough going for it that it could potentially make for some decent Netflix viewing whenever someone’s in the mood for a mostly well-executed thriller starring a bitterly unlikable Michael Bluth. There are certainly worse fates than that.

-Brandon Ledet