Short Cuts: YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE

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We last saw Scottish director Lynne Ramsay at a place of organized chaos: 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, a deeply uncomfortable, sensory-assaulting narrative montage about the twisted hell of parenthood that dropped us directly into the head of arguably the strangest character Tilda Swinton has ever played. That Ramsay went so long without another feature was not according to plan: rather dramatically, she quit the director’s chair of the Natalie Portman western Jane Got a Gun on the first day of production. Lawyers descended—Hollywood has chaos of its own.

With You Were Never Really Here, Ramsay returns, dialing back but not abandoning the chaos of Kevin for a lean, intense 90-minute thriller that retains her taste for haunted subjectivity. That haunted subject here is Joaquin Phoenix, starring as a bounty hunter who specializes in rescuing children from sex trafficking rings. Much of his performance lies in physical transformation: the character is part action hero and part wreck, muscle-bound but lumpen, showing a layer of flab and a paunch, his hair an uncombed tangle and his face obscured by a mangy beard. Physically, he seems fairly impervious to pain, as action heroes are. Psychologically, it’s clear that, whatever wound he hopes to heal by doing what he does, it isn’t working. But he’s good at it, and so is Ramsay. She and her team do well with the simple art of cinematic murder: the placement of a dying man, or a pair of broken glasses, or a hallway with something dreadful around the corner, is all very meticulously composed. (The plot bears surface similarities to Taxi Driver, but a more direct Scorsese link is the way Ramsay sets a scene of Joaquin Phoenix beating men with a hammer to the tune of a classic pop song).

The real question is whether the film finds an adequate social and psychological context for its action—that is, if it can transcend being an exercise in sophisticated, aestheticized violence. That question deserves an answer both passionate and ambivalent, because some of the film can fall into the arthouse trap of looking or seeming more artistic than it is. But between Phoenix keeping a low volume and Ramsay’s taste for flash cuts, it opens itself nonverbally; like the film’s troubled, introverted hero, the camera keeps catching details that echo and resonate. The coup, I think, comes in the withheld nature of the climax, which twists the conventions of a salvation-through-heroism arc both cleverly and soulfully, and suggests that perhaps genre tropes, Scorsese’s needle-drops included, are enough of a social context of their own. On those terms, it works fantastically as one of the better films of 2018—a film whose existence examines different kinds of detachment. And so it understands the multiple connotations of the title: a movie-hero covert operative, a dissociated trauma victim, and a lonely soul who, in the scheme of things, may not even make a difference. Its setting may be the dark city of film noir, but pair it on a shrewd double bill with Shane or The Searchers, and you might realize that Ramsay got to make a western after all.

✬✬✬✬✩

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You Were Never Really Here is available on home video and Amazon Prime. Cheers to their distribution arm for treating films right.

Short Cuts: UNSANE

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Could Steven Soderbergh ever really retire? Our most prolific and eccentric of Hollywood insiders rather suddenly announced his retirement five years ago, and cooler heads cautioned us to wait and see. The retirement turned into a “sabbatical”, which turned into directing two seasons of The Knick. His hiatus from feature films officially ended after four years—i.e., the average time we wait for a non-retired Paul Thomas Anderson to make a film—with last summer’s Logan Lucky. And even if you missed it, which I did, you didn’t have to wait long for his next release: Unsane, a thriller shot quickly and in secret on an iPhone 7.

Its horror roots are as old as Dr. Caligari: a woman who may or may not be crazy gets involuntarily committed to a mental institute where someone may or may not be after her. From there, it descends from clammy to lurid, stopping along the way for Soderbergh’s recurring theme of money as the blood pumping through America’s veins. But the less revealed, the better, because a large part of the film’s suspense is whether its pieces will actually come together or go flying decadently off the rails. As a genre experiment, it uses the idiosyncrasies of its tech to wonderfully eerie effect: the digital grain, the blooms of light, the warping of the depth of field, the uncanny clarity of an HD close-up with little or no makeup—everything that seems “off” is very much in the film’s service. The choice of format and framing can put you at an almost immediate unease, and so many unbalanced compositions feel like miniature prisons of their own. Like most Soderbergh films, it doesn’t swing for the fences; its aspirations are to tinker, needle audience expectations, and provide entertainment for perversely curious cinephiles who wonder how the idea of “a movie” (one with a narrative, a genre, a star, etc.) can end up on screen feeling like such an anomaly. It works as well as it does because it’s the sort of potboiler that wouldn’t want higher production values if you offered them and would roll its eyes at you, as contemptuously as its heroine, if you asked if it was “art.” But there’s a long, storied history of respected filmmakers being influenced by disreputable, low-budget pulp. So if you’re wondering what a 21st century equivalent of those cult 1950s/60s/70s B-movies would be—brash, formally inventive, so trashy in some ways but clever in others, bouncing progressive politics off of pure exploitation—Unsane is it. So get a phone and get cracking; formal control is cheap.

 

Short Cuts: THE DEATH OF STALIN

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In The Death of Stalin, Steve Buscemi plays Khrushchev. He doesn’t sound like Khrushchev—he sounds like Steve Buscemi. He doesn’t look like Khrushchev—he looks like Steve Buscemi with a shaved head and a prosthetic nose. And all of this is very much to the film’s appeal. When addressing recent history, particularly real-life figures who already have sizable media footprints, a drama has to overcome that nasty, hairy thing called verisimilitude. But comedy can whack verisimilitude across the face with a rubber chicken and still get at the truth, especially if the truth is absurdity.

The director is Armando Iannucci, and anyone familiar with his previous work—BBC’s The Thick of It, its 2009 spinoff movie In the Loop, and his leap to America with HBO’s Veep—will know what to expect: a comedy set in entrenched government bureaucracy, where ships of state are manned by hapless, childish, recognizably human fools whose convictions are spotty and who can only try their best to avoid a very British kind of embarrassment. Only here, the stakes are raised, because we are in the dead center of Soviet power grabs, and such embarrassments are staged with violent round-ups going on in the background. In our own time, when anxious leftists might wonder if incipient authoritarianism is too incompetent to succeed, a pitch-black political comedy is a deliciously dangerous prospect: an uncomfortable reminder that it’s perfectly possible to trip and fall ass-backwards into a dystopia.

All of which makes the The Death of Stalin as disappointing as it is clever, because it is not quite the movie it could be, especially given the talent involved. The verbal flow that never stopped crackling in In the Loop and The Thick of It has become repetitive in comparison. The style has shifted from on-the-fly, quasi-documentary chaos to the semi-ironic production values of a “serious” period piece, and it leaves the film halfway towards limbo. The comedy lacks the consistency of Iannucci’s best work, the intrigue lags far behind the banter, and the pivot from dark laughs to terror isn’t seamless, as if the film’s distance from its characters and narrative is torn between short skits and dire consequences.

What that leaves you with is a long string of nice touches, like a stock scene of two politicos conspiring as they stroll through a park, only to pass by two others doing the same; or Michael Palin giving a rambling speech that leaves a table full of yes-men teetering back and forth, confused whether he wants them to vote yay or nay. The Death of Stalin feels more sincere and well-observed in such little human absurdities than it does when the time comes to face history, and I wonder if Iannucci’s lens is best suited to a mundane republic rather than a dystopian dictatorship. In the end, I’m not sure we have anything more than we started with, not even a fully satisfying realization of the idea that authoritarian regimes, like sitcom plotlines, tend to reset back to zero after the last one has ran its course. If drama has its pitfalls, so does comedy, and satire faces the challenge of somehow acting glib and provoking engagement at the same time. Make no mistake, The Death of Stalin has barbed moments that tease and wink and bite—enough to be worth the price of admission. But I wish the frenzy of the film could match, let alone illuminate, the satire playing out in every day’s headlines.

✬✬✬✩✩

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The Death of Stalin is available to rent on iTunes, where their curators made it an Editor’s Choice. Godspeed.

Short Cuts: THE 15:17 TO PARIS

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A little while ago, a group of friends and I were talking, and someone asked, when you hear the name “Clint Eastwood” in 2018, do you think of the movie star, the director, or the political figure who rambled against an invisible Obama at the 2012 Republican National Convention? The obvious answer, to me at least, is the movie star: we live in a visual media culture, and there are too many years’ worth of ponchos and Magnums to be supplanted by anything else. Yet the three Eastwoods—the icon of badass masculinity, the filmmaker who digs below the surface of American heroism and violence, and the guy who voiced support for Trump (a decision that’s aged worse in 2 years than Eastwood has in 88)—can’t and shouldn’t be taken apart. To try to separate one from the rest would do a thoughtless service to his body of work. Because whatever his blind spots, Eastwood is generally a filmmaker who asks you to think—at least, right up to the point he asks you not to.

His latest film, The 15:17 to Paris, comes with a trailer-ready hook: the reenactment of a thwarted terrorist attack on a train in Europe, starring three Americans who stopped it in real life. (“A true story, the real heroes” the poster succinctly reads). The scene of the attack itself—which, whatever else it may be, is one of the best shot and edited sequences I’ve seen this year—lasts only fifteen clammy minutes. The rest of the film is devoted to filling in their lives—three friends from Sacramento, two in the military—that led up to it. The comparison to the Audie Murphy films about World War II is both obvious and more interesting the more you think about it, since Eastwood isn’t concerned with the war heroes’ trip “to hell and back” but with their ordinariness. Even their military service is shown largely as routine. Their act of heroism is presented as stemming from a learned mixture of moral decency and physical discipline.

As actors, how do the real heroes do? Not bad, actually. Congenial presences, one and all—certainly not that natural, but even a seasoned pro would have trouble with some of the lines they’re given, and there are plenty of seasoned pros in the cast to prove that theorem. So the film is a cinematically awkward piece of work, but one that, like a conservative Rossellini, values narrative polish less than a low-key, insistent purity. This is an ideologically informed vision of how a swath of America views itself: a world of God and guns, where men are men, war isn’t taboo, and duty provides purpose. Much of it plays like a wholesome industrial film about how to live a meaningful life—and that meaningful life is far from what Eastwood so derisively termed “the pussy generation.” Accordingly, that low-key purity will, depending on your political persuasion, either serve as a moving affirmation (awkwardness and all) or a chance to look at the world through the goggles of an ideology that feels left behind by those liberals in Hollywood. (And I must admit, my curiosity in adding this to my Netflix queue is more the latter).

The chief fascination, then, is to watch where the lines are drawn. In one scene, a young boy who dreams of enlisting in the military has a Full Metal Jacket poster displayed prominently in his bedroom. In lingering on the poster, does the film acknowledge the irresolvable complexities of Kubrick’s view of a soldier’s life, or does it negate them entirely? There’s room for either reading; it all depends on what you bring. The films’ other villains, running a distant second behind terrorists, are snide public sector bureaucrats. “My God is bigger than your statistics!” a hero’s mother says to one early in the film. On an individual scale, it’s a fine and noble sentiment for a single mom to express in defense of her son. On the macro scale of 2018 culture wars, it does a fair job of explaining why our body politic is a vomit-stained alcoholic unwilling to admit it has a problem.

So by the end, you should have noticed that, as much as the film reflects on origins and choices, it is strikingly unreflective about terrorism itself. It is an act of evil, certainly, but one which The 15:17 to Paris leaves almost completely in the abstract: uncomplicated, existing outside of a political context, embodied by a scary and silent foreign face, having no real origin of its own, simply a force to be met with force—two cultures that show no signs of coexisting. As I said, Eastwood tends to be more thoughtful than knee-jerk criticism would suggest; a more crass director would tease the terror attack with a kind of loud stomp instead of his somber tone. But more than the meditations on the ordinary becoming heroic, or the revival of WWII cinematic idioms for a messier American century, or a masterclass on how to film claustrophobic action, those dualities are the takeaway. Within the world the film celebrates, there is plenty of room for nuance, subtlety, contemplation, diversity, novelty, immaturity turned to growth, naivety turned to wisdom, expectations defied, and misconceptions corrected—in short, all the necessary ingredients of humanism. But Eastwood’s humanism, and you could just as easily say America’s as well, will come with stringent borders and boundaries. And it won’t extend beyond them.

✬✬✬✩✩

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The 15:17 to Paris is now available on home video. Star ratings these days are almost pointless.