Short Cuts: A QUIET PLACE

a-quiet-place

Over coffee once, a friend of mine said he has a principle: that the true measure of a movie is how much you can remove its gimmick and still be left with something special. It’s a good rule of thumb, and like any rule regarding movies, it’s made to be broken: it’s perfectly possible to double down on high-concept premise so wildly that there’s no need for niceties like meaningful drama. A Quiet Place, this year’s horror sleeper hit, directed by John Krasinski, is nothing if not high-concept. In a post-apocalyptic future, vicious monsters (aliens? mutants?) have invaded and almost exterminated mankind. The hook is that the monsters, while seemingly indestructible, can’t see, but can hear the slightest sound. So a surviving family, played by Krasinski, his real-life wife Emily Blunt, and a duo of children-in-peril, have to scrape by in near-total silence, communicating by sign language and watching every step. It’s all an excuse for jump-scares, for squeezing fear out of otherwise ordinary environments, and for the quiet place to be suddenly rattled by a frenzied set-piece. (One involving red lights and fireworks does very well).

Yet I can’t help but think of the aspects of its concept left unexplored. Consider the psychological implications of never being able to speak, laugh, or cry after a lifetime of doing so. Consider that it had gone on for a year, and there’s no sign that you’d ever get it back. It’s enough to drive any sane person mad, even without aliens/mutants/etc. And then consider that A Quiet Place is almost entirely unconcerned with such psychology. The film’s engine is more the usual combo of physical danger and underlying family pathos—and given the movie’s achievements, which include ruling the spring box office and getting green-lit for a sequel, that might be for the best. It is the psychological aspects of a horror movie that really have the potential to disquiet an audience; the rest is just for fun.

So this is slumber party stuff, through and through: some frights, some showdowns, some drama, some surprises, some light squeamishness, and some triumph, never breaking the boundaries of PG-13 while getting in and out in 90 minutes. The fact that $188 million worth of American ticket buyers were captivated by so little talking speaks to the draw of a good clean fright night; in my experience, it’s the genre where young moviegoers are most likely to roll the dice on a novel pitch. On that level, it works, capitalizing on its ambitions by taking them only so far. Even its stretches of implausibility can’t rightly be chastised as flaws. They’re more like conversation pieces for a monster-movie audience—something for you and your friends to fondly joke about after the show, having been engaged for the duration, pleasantly goosed, and able to sleep soundly.

✬✬✬✩✩

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A Quiet Place is now available on home video and streaming. I don’t know why I keep seeing outlets refer to this as John Krasinski’s directing debut—it seems kind of unfair to the two features he directed before it.

Short Cuts: DOUBLE LOVER

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The first thing you see before the opening title of Double Lover, the new thriller by François Ozon, is its young star getting her long hair cut very short, throwing away one look for a completely new one. She seems strangely agitated, and when she makes eye contact with the camera, there’s something of an instant challenge to anyone staring back. Is she preparing to play a role? Having a mental breakdown? Or simply getting her hair done?

The first thing you see after the opening title is an extreme close-up of her vagina. The scene is a trip to the gynecologist, and it is, by design, among the least erotic nudity you’ll ever witness. But for a movie in which sex and intimacy play such leading roles, it’s a way of immediately and squeamishly giving you the most physically private sight of its heroine possible and letting her stay no less an enigma when she comes out the other side.

There is intrigue in such gamesmanship, in a director playing with what we see and what we know. And this approach, not to mention the plot built around it, finds Ozon in De Palma territory: doppelgängers, split-screens, and lethal unreliability. And so, in an apparent state of physical and psychological pain, the heroine (Marine Vacth) visits a therapist (Jérémie Renier) to pour out her subconscious. She starts a love affair with him in an emotionally unhealthy sort of way, and then learns that—unless she’s imagining things—he has a twin brother with a nastier and kinkier streak. It’s a solid concept for a character study doubling as a mystery, and it has a heartfelt destination in mind. But the intrigue starts to wane when the film, god help it, has to find ways to sustain its middle hour in that dangerous duality of pretension and camp.

And here, Double Lover is useful mainly as a case study in the difference between Good Ridiculous and Mediocre Ridiculous. As the sexy bad twin, Renier comes across less as a force of irresistibly dangerous masculinity and more like a 50 Shades of Grey impersonator for bachelorette parties. The film’s in-the-streets, in-the-sheets psychoanalysis of its characters is thumpingly literal, bluntly scripted, and visualized in ways that seem like the stuff of underfunded art school projects. Set it next to something like Brian De Palma’s Obsession or Dressed to Kill or Femme Fatale (which are no less insane) and you can see what Double Lover is missing: a more skilled and dextrous command of what film can accomplish as a dream state. Double Lover tells you straight out too much of what it should be implanting subconsciously. It makes disbelief something you have to suspend rather than something you’re happy to throw away. It breaks and recasts its own spell several times over long before the final revelations bring the fractured psyche back together.

The unexpected and intense turn towards body-horror at the end means that anyone who picks it out of the New Releases lineup for purely lustful reasons will get exactly what they deserve. But forbidden desire at the movies—particularly the kind with such outlandish twists—needs to transform its excesses into the audacious kind of wit that Double Lover keeps losing control over. The good people at Cohen Media had the devilish sense to premiere the film in American theaters on Valentine’s Day. It’s almost the wittiest thing about it.

✬✬✩✩✩

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Double Lover played in the main competition at Cannes in 2017 and came out on US home video this summer. I can’t say I recommend doing so, but if you can safely watch it with your significant other, you have a very healthy relationship.

Short Cuts: THOROUGHBREDS

thoroughbreds

The sociopathic elite haven’t changed much since the 1980s—or at least, there are still people willing to take Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero as a trenchant critique rather than a zeitgeist-y piece of knee-to-the-gut prose. Thus, riding out of Sundance, comes Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds, about two teenage friends (Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy) who plan to murder the latter’s stepfather.

In part, they do so because the stepfather is an unpleasant man. But it’s more because, ensconced in a world of privileges, the anti-heroines are too affluent, too imbalanced, or too disaffected to have much perspective on human life. Cooke’s character is recovering from a scandalous, rumor-inducing episode in which she euthanized a horse. Taylor-Joy appears to have more composure, but can’t hold it for long. And the film that unfolds is less a valuable examination of American wealth than a dour, self-serious take on a soap opera staple: rich people doing awful things. From the dialogue alone, you can tell that the action is set somewhere in Connecticut or near Westchester County. I grew up in one and went to high school in the other, and god knows there’s enough material there to keep a satirist busy for a lifetime. But this particular cinematic murder is so very high-concept in its construction, so surface-level in its observation, and simultaneously so vague in its central metaphor and so unsubtle in its overall meaning.

What remains, then, is the simple pleasure of a plot that keeps you wondering who will be killed and whether anyone will face the consequences—and that simple pleasure is not unsatisfying. Between Cooke as the psycho version of the sarcastic girl you always kind of liked in high school and Taylor-Joy looking perpetually like she knows something she won’t say, the two have an icily engaging chemistry. The film needs their bond, because that bond is far sturdier and more human than the plot mechanics. The rest is filmmaking craft that generates mood from very few moving parts, but whose aspirations still lean towards knee-to-the-gut bluntness and whose aim is less than precise. It is a movie—a real movie-movie, with technique, contrivances, and all—that struggles with whether it is, or wants to be, or should be, as detached from the world as its subjects.

✬✬✬✩✩

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Thoroughbreds is now available on Blu-ray and as a digital rental. It’s always nice to have noir where you grew up.