First, the list:
Night of the Living Dead
Raise the Red Lantern
Children of Men
Being John Malkovich
La Dolce Vita
Arsenic and Old Lace
Paths of Glory
The random selection:
I’m genuinely excited about this one. Millennium Actress is a top-five favorite film for me, and I haven’t seen it in a while.
Replacing Millennium Actress in the pool:
Singin’ in the Rain
I have always been been kind of obsessed with stars. At night we can see thousands of celestial objects, larger than our world and more distant than I can comprehend. It took Voyager 1 thirty-six years just to exit our solar system. The next closest star after the sun is 4 light years away. It would take Voyager 1 another 40,000 years to reach that distance. All of us share our existence within a system of staggering size and scope.
The human story is, as far as we know, unique in our universe. The story of the universe began roughly 13.8 billion years ago, and from that moment immeasurable narratives burst. Our ability to learn those narratives beyond Earth is contained by the limits of our technology. But even then, slivers slip through space and time and find their way here. When I heard in May that scientists had detected what they believed to be an echo from the Big Bang, I was moved to tears. Another story had found its way to the only audience we know exists. It had taken almost 14 billion years and the rise of humanity and technology to a level capable of detecting it, but the story had made it.
We tend to look at the human story and the story of the universe as separate. One is ours, and one is… out there. But that is a matter of perspective. If you could look through the cosmos, through time, through the history of the universe, why wouldn’t you turn your attentions to a single family on Earth? Is their story not just as worthy of our attentions as any other story to be found in the universe? Echoes of the Big Bang are just one snapshot of the history of existence. And in The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick looks at a family through that lens. They are happening alongside the rest of the universe, and gently, slowly, we realize that that is a sort of miracle in itself.
Despite his reputation for “tone poetry” and whispered philosophizing, I think of Terrence Malick as one of our least ponderous directors. He doesn’t sit around looking for meaning and symbolism in minutiae. He’s not forcing us to listen to his pontifications. He simply observes what his characters do. All of his films have a detached quality, a sense that things are only moving as fast as the characters are willing to. Filmmakers rarely exercise this sort of patience. He lets his characters’ stories unfold at their own speed, and he makes sure it looks damn pretty. His Badlands, in which a film a teenage couple who go on a killing spree, makes no attempt to to provide an explanation for its characters’ actions. It simply shows them. Days of Heaven takes a similar approach to a plot that could just as easily have been made into a soapy Texas epic, a la Giant. Instead murder and romance take a backseat to a movie that views a storm of locusts as its climactic centerpiece. Why? Well, why not? To an impartial observer, the locusts would probably have more effect on your life than the melodrama going on around you.
The Tree of Life opens on a scene of grief, as a woman and her husband learn that their son has died. We don’t learn how or why. The movie is not concerned with that. It witnesses their grief, like a bystander suddenly made aware that they are not alone by a cry of anguish. The following scenes are potentially confusing. Shots of the universe, of stars and nebulae and planets. Dinosaurs appear for a brief, strange interlude, only to be wiped out by an asteroid. We see shots of the microuniverse that surrounds us as well, cells and bacteria and blood flowing through veins. Yes, this might seem like the artiest of artsy asides by Malick. They confused me the first time I saw the film, even as I was awestruck by their beauty. When I saw the film again recently, I realized that awe was the point.
Consider how Malick treats the scale of all things. Nebulae, the massive interstellar clouds that give birth to stars, resemble cloaked figures here, almost humanoid. Planets are shown against stars, pinpricks in their appearance. Cells dividing and consuming one another appear like prehistoric sea creatures, seemingly huge and imposing. The scenes with dinosaurs are shot against the rivers and trees that seem recognizable later in the film. The sequence has a binding effect, tying all of history to the main story. A moment of personal grief resonates against the history of time. Whole histories of the world have come and gone several times over. Humanity is barely a blip on the scale of the universe. Think of Carl Sagan talking about the “Pale Blue Dot” photograph. There are so many stories to be told just on our planet, a planet that is so tiny compared to what surrounds it. Of all those stories, Malick has latched onto this one, this moment of human sadness. And he takes us back, back to the beginning, where we can learn where the sadness comes from.
The second act of The Tree of Life is a seemingly free-form depiction of the childhood of a boy named Jack O’Brien, the oldest son of the grieving parents. The parents in the first scene are Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien, played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain. Young Jack’s story is inter-cut with moments from the adult Jack’s life as he grapples with own grief from his brother R.L.’s death, and from his broken relationship with his father. The movie is not really so formless. It’s only as fluid as actual memories. So many films show adult narrators describing their childhoods with perfect, plot-point by plot-point detail. That’s not how memories work. When telling stories we inevitably fill in gaps. Good writers fill gaps with humor, with prose, with other anecdotes. But Malick isn’t concerned with filling those gaps. The Tree of Life shows us memories as we actually remember them. We don’t remember a perfectly plotted childhood. We remember specific times we were scared, when we laughed, when mass wouldn’t seem to end and staring at how the light came through the stained glass window was a surprisingly good way to pass the time.
My most vivid memory of childhood is this one time I walked out of a grocery store with my mom and into the sunlight, and then back into the shade of another building. The sunlight felt so good that I ran back into it and basked for a few more seconds, my eyes closed and my arms outstretched. I don’t remember what else I did that day, or even exactly how old I was. But that feeling of that sunbeam against my skin in that moment has never left me. If I was writing a novel, I might use that moment of truth to color my fiction. If I was writing a memoir, I might ask my mom for some more detail, to see if she remembers it the same way, or at all. The Tree of Life isn’t concerned with making a plot out of those moments. It cares more about how sunlight feels on your face.
We don’t get a traditional plot out of these moments, but we get a vivid picture of a childhood, of a boy grappling with a strict, at times terrifying father. Mr. And Mrs. O’Brien are less fully formed characters than towering figures in Jack’s life. That’s accurate. To a child, parents can seem life the Old Testament God, all powerful and occasionally confounding and even frightening.
Chastain delivers the films opening words via voiceover: “The nuns taught us there were two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.”
It’s tempting to see this quote as a thesis. Whoever wrote the film’s Wikipedia page uses the quote to quite literally categorize Mr. O’Brien as “nature” and Mrs. O’Brien as “grace”. While this interpretation of the quote is a bit too obvious and literal for my taste, it is not entirely off-base. Mrs. O’Brien loves unconditionally and shows it. Mr. O’Brien loves his kids too, but expressing it always plays second fiddle to establishing his authority. He reacts to even slight defiance from his sons with absolute rage. The film seems to make a point that a man as square-jawed and intimidating as Brad Pitt needn’t be so desperate to assert dominance over kids a third his size. Mrs. O’Brien is shown at first as an angelic figure, the advocate for her children, a saint in Jack’s eyes (one memory shows her literally dancing in the air, floating as she does). But she cedes to her husband’s authority, leading to a moment where Jack, full of fire and venom, rages at her that she never stands up to their dad when it counts. She is hurt. The scene ends. The emotion has been registered, and it’s time for the observer that is Terrence Malick’s camera to turn its eye to something else.
The movie isn’t trying to paint a depressing picture. There’s nothing here that suggests that the O’Briens live a particularly unusual or sad life. We do see Jack learning the wrong things from his father’s harsh lessons, taking out his confusions on his younger brother. We see a moment where he hurts his brother and immediately regrets it. He snaps out of his growing pains and back into reality. These are the types of moments that we remember in our own lives, from our childhoods. The times we wish hadn’t happened, that we would give anything to do differently, even years later. Mr. O’Brien says as much at the beginning of the film, as he mournfully regrets all the times he was needlessly harsh to his now dead son. Later on, we see a moment where an adult Jack calls Mr. O’Brien to apologize for an argument they had as adults, unseen in the movie. The movie isn’t trying to pinpoint the moment their relationship broke, or provide a cathartic moment of regret in the relationship between Jack and R.L. It’s a movie that hears a cry of grief at the beginning and traces the history of the source. It then settles in and starts to learn about these people. It takes a fleeting moment and humanizes everyone involved by showing them as they were, how they came to be. We don’t need every aspect of Jack’s relationship with his parents to be spelled out in melodramatic sequences to spoonfeed us their meaning. So much is said in a brief exchange when Jack tells his father “I’m more like you than her”.
The Tree of Life is particularly lovely, even by Terrence Malick’s standards. The spacescapes and microcosmos of the opening give way to scenes in small town Texas that are achingly beautiful without seeming to try. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is one of the great film artists of our time. You probably last saw his work on Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, which won him his first Oscar. If the Oscars knew a damn thing, Lubezki would have won an Oscar for this film too, as well his nominations for The New World, Children of Men and A Little Princess. His skill lies not in painting everything lushly, but in tailoring his work to the story at hand. In The New World, the story required smothering greens of the uncut 17th century American forests, of the senses being completely overwhelmed. In Children of Men, he filled the screen with sinister grays and always managed to find something interesting or menacing to linger on the edge of the frame. In The Tree of Life, Lubezki crafts memories in the little ways we remember details. The way light comes through a window, just a bit brighter than in reality, in child-eye view closeups that mimic how children study their surroundings, and in the dry earthinesss that seems embedded in every home in the neighborhood. “Hypnotic” is rarely the most exciting way to describe a film, but The Tree of Life induces a reverie in me. Its beauty is not just cosmetic, it is embedded in the movie’s soul, constantly reminding us what it feels like to remember something from years long ago.
The ending of The Tree of Life is one of Malick’s most audacious sequences, a vision of the afterlife, heaven, the end of time, whatever you wish to call it and perhaps all those things. Jack’s memories meld in one another as the dying sun consumes Earth, and he sees his mother as she was as he remembered her from his childhood, before he knew how to be cynical about her. He hears her finally, at long lost, accept his brother’s death, relinquishing her grief. Emotions are some of the most minute realities. They are deeply personal. But here Malick gives grief, love, acceptance, and forgiveness the scale they deserve. When we die, the emotions we evoke in those left behind are what remains of us. It’s why so many cultures place such significance on funerals. Funerals aren’t for the dead, but for the living. It’s how we begin the process of remembering the dead. What will happen when there is no one left to remember? The end of The Tree of Life seems to be Malick’s answer to that question. As the earth burns at the end of The Tree of Life, bits and pieces of everything still remain, unaltered from our memories, to finally provide closure for the scenes of pain that open the movie. This is a movie that quietly, gently, takes us across the entire span of existence before finding its final notes of love and acceptance at the end of time. In that sense it is Malick’s most human film, his meditation on the scale of individual existence. It’s easy to be cynical about the significance of any given person, of humanity itself, against the sheer size of the universe. But The Tree of Life considers the life of a boy in Texas to be as significant as any fleeting moment in a universe full of them. Its ending is the closest thing it has to a statement of its purpose. Despite criticism to the contrary, this is not a pretentious or pseudo-intellectual film. It is a spiritual one.
One last anecdote, and I’ll let you go. Recently I looked out my window in the wee hours of the morning. I noticed that Venus and Jupiter were incredibly close together, and for a moment I marveled at the novelty of it. And then I realized something: I wasn’t looking at two dots against the sky. I was on Earth, looking at Venus and then Jupiter behind it. The sky took on three dimensions, and I suddenly felt dwarfed by how small I was compared to what I was looking at. The scale astonished me. Here I was, one person staying up far, far too late, looking through our solar system, through hundreds of millions of miles of space, for the first time realizing with my naked eye how vast it actually was. The Tree of Life is like that. It isn’t simply gawking at the beauty of the stars and then dipping back to earth to tell the story of a family. It is in awe that they inhabit the same universe. It is about a family, yes, but the stage is all of space and time.
I remember the thrill of his performance in Aladdin like few things from my childhood. I was five when that film came out, still at the age when I didn’t quite know or care about the difference between animation and live action. Animation seemed more real to me. It moved at the speed my mind did, created worlds like the ones I daydreamed about. And Aladdin’s Genie was THE unforgettable character from this world. His energy felt as alive as anything in a live-action movie. “Never Had a Friend Like Me” inspired both giddy awe and jealousy, as I wondered how I could acquire a friend like Genie in my own life. It’s easy for a film to pander to children. It’s difficult, truly difficult, to speak to them in their own language, which consists of an ever changing mix of colors and tones and feelings and, above all, heedless exuberance.
And so much of that was Robin Williams. Genie may have been visually created by animators, but the character needed Williams to provide the voice and, more importantly, the soul. When Williams put all his energy into a performance, it could sometimes come off as trying too hard. I like to think that he was simply moving too fast for any normal medium to keep up. Animation freed him from the shackles of performing in the real world. It was a perfect combination of character and performer.
Yes, Robin Williams was an essential performer to my childhood. I would grow up watching Jumanji, Hook, and Mrs. Doubtfire. I always felt a connection to his performances. Believe it or not, it was always something quiet and unspoken, an understanding of what he was trying to say as a performer. It’s too easy to say that he got typecast as playing a manchild in these films. It was the sense that was so much easier to convey through animation: that childlike sense of wonder and abandonment. I didn’t sense an adult playing dumb, but an adult trying to communicate to an audience that, for these films, was largely children. For me, he succeeded, more than any other performer.
He didn’t act in these films for lack of dramatic chops, after all. Time and time again he proved himself a stellar dramatic actor. Never more clearly than in Good Will Hunting. That is a film that has no business aging well, but it has thanks to the strength of its actors. Despite the screenplay Oscar that it won, Good Will Hunting’s script is far too full of indulgent flights of writerly fancy, verbose monologues that are exactly the sort of thing two twenty-somethings would write. The famous “baby seal” monologue exemplifies this. It’s the sort of writing that tries to convey too much on its own, as if forgetting that there will be an actor to do much of the heavy lifting.
But Williams nailed his monologue. Yes, the dialogue on its own is just all too neat a cutesy for me to buy being spoken by a no-nonsense Vietnam vet from Southie. It plays its hand- giving us a scene where Will is taken down a peg- too obviously. But Williams sells it. He takes a functional biographical laundry list and uses it to tell his character’s life story. Lines that would be awkward on paper are heartbreaking in his hands. It’s a deft and deeply human piece of acting.
The gulf between his chaotic comedic personas and his gentle dramatic ones was not as vast as it might seem. Either way, he trying to let the audience in to the world he was playing in, to let us share some of the fun. Sometimes that meant pouring all his energy into a performance, to try to make us happy. Sometimes that meant finding a person for us to latch onto in four minutes of dialogue, to reassure us that he would be there for us in this story. Yes, sometimes his performances could careen off the rails into a chaotic mess. But this is not judgment of an actor’s filmography. It is my attempt to come to terms with the immense sadness I feel at the death of a man I never met.
And I’m running out of things to say. Robin Williams is dead, apparently after committing suicide. It’s heartbreaking. I didn’t know him any more than any other celebrity who has passed away. But for an actor who made as many headlines for his failures as his successes, I feel a greater sense of loss right now than with any other celebrity’s passing in recent memory. I feel like I lost someone I knew. That, I think, was his gift as a performer, and perhaps why we who watched his films as children will remember him so fondly. At his best, he always made us feel included.
Edit: I accidentally cut out a line that left one of the paragraphs awkwardly phrased. This has been fixed.
Here’s the pool of candidates:
Night of the Living Dead
Raise the Red Lantern
Children of Men
Being John Malkovich
La Dolce Vita
Arsenic and Old Lace
Paths of Glory
The Tree of Life
Into the random choice machine they go… and we have a winner!
One of the definitive “love it or hate it” films. My stance is firmly in the former category. I’m going to do my best to convince you that this is not a boring movie. Can’t wait!
Oh, and replacing The Tree of Life in the pool is… The Conformist.
Almost three months past due, here’s Jaws.
39 years later and it’s still arguably the greatest summer movie.
I don’t mean “summer blockbuster”, per se (although there’s an argument for that too). I mean the movie I most indelibly associate with the season of summer.
The most wintry of movies for me, for example, is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It’s far from the most snow-covered film, but its moodiness, and its willingness to bask in both the gray misery and gentle beauty of winter make it my favorite film to watch in the January cold.
Autumn for me means Halloween, and the ultimate Halloween movie is, well, Halloween. It’s not my favorite horror film, (it ranks behind The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Suspiria, and 28 Days Later in my personal list) but it is the movie that brings to life the twinge of fear that comes with the chill in the October air.
Spring for me is liveliness and cheer. I will watch The Princess Bride any time of year, but it is best paired with the first warm evenings of April, when the snow has melted and you just want spend some time with a cheerful old friend.
And so it is with Jaws and the summer. Part of it might be regional bias. The film is set in the fictional town of Amity Island, clearly a stand-in for Martha’s Vineyard, where it was filmed. It is the most New England of summer movies. The locales will still feel familiar to anyone from coastal Massachusetts, where kinship to the ocean has never faded from the region’s seafaring days of yore. You can almost smell the salty air in this movie, the rusty musk of boats in harbor, or feel the ever present sand that tracks near any building close enough to the water.
And then there’s Quint. I hail from New Bedford, Massachusetts, the saltiest of New England sailing towns, and let me tell you dear reader, the only problem with Quint is that there is only one of him. I suppose that in a tourist haven like Amity Island, there might be more shark-crazy posers than actual fishers of very big fish. But Robert Shaw’s assuredness, the way you can tell that he knows more about the sea than he does his mother by his gait alone, is one of the crucial details this movie gets right.
I have spoken of Jaws so far as if it is a documentary about life in a coastal Massachusetts town, when you no doubt came here to read a take on a movie about a huge shark eating lots and lots of people. Trust me, I will get there. My dawdling on salt and sand is for a reason: salt and sand and crusty sailors are what separate Jaws from traditional monster fare. A lesser director could have taken this story, followed it beat for beat, and ended up with a forgettable b-movie.
It is well known that the mechanical shark constructed for the movie was a nightmare, so prone to malfunction that director Steven Spielberg made sure the audience saw as little of it as possible. While John Williams’ immortal score has rightly been celebrated for its function as a stand-in for the shark for much of the film, equally important is how Spielberg established a town where this story can to be told, and characters who live there. A monster movie can work just fine with without thinking about its setting as a place needing to be saved, or its characters as people with lives and motivations. But Jaws is a classic not just because of the shark, but because we actually care about the people chasing it.
Consider Roy Scheider’s performance as Brody, Amity Island’s police chief. Scheider had one of my favorite faces in acting, so easily shifting from quiet weariness to steeled anger, the weight of his burdens always just behind his eyes. He is not just a functional protagonist, serving his purpose in providing us someone to follow so the movie can move from point A to point B. He is a man who hates the water who gradually realizes that he has no choice but to face his fears to keep his town safe. It’s a subtle hero’s journey, conveyed as much through Scheider’s performance as the script.
Consider Richard Dreyfuss as Hooper. Again, this is a functional character in a typical monster movie: the scientist, there to spout exposition and geek out when he sees the shark in person. The film gives him just a bit more depth than that, at it makes all the difference. Hooper is a rebellious kid from a rich family, devoting his life to studying sharks much to the shame of his parents. Dreyfuss’s performance is winning and energetic where so many actors portraying similar characters wilt and die on screen as their purpose is served.
Jaws is an uncommonly quotable thriller. Scheider’s immortal delivery of “you’re gonna need a bigger boat” is a killer line of dialogue. But it also provides a terrific moment of contrast between two characters, as Brody’s sudden terror upon seeing the shark contrasts with Quint’s unaffected gaze.
And the USS Indianapolis scene, with its hypnotic monologue by Robert Shaw, is an exercise in patience in a genre that so often has none. It’s a masterfully filmed, written, and acted scene, generating tension without a single shot of the water, and elevating Quint from an archetype to a haunted, tragic character.
And yes, that score by John Williams is one of the most important in movie history. Spielberg knew that what we imagine can be far more frightening than what we see. John Williams filled that gap with the simplest but most haunting of scores. Its effect reminds me of John Carpenter’s theme for Halloween, both cases of musical minimalism hinting at terrors in the deep recesses of our imaginations.
Jaws was far from the first blockbuster to succeed by scaring audiences out of their wits. But it’s rare that it does so in broad daylight, in the heat of the summer, out on the water. There’s something primordially frightening about the ocean, something inherently eerie about small coastal towns that try just a bit too hard to be perfect. HP Lovecraft knew this. Spielberg’s take on this very New England brand of scares is less cosmic than Lovecraft’s but the source of the fright is the same, exemplified in the movie’s nightmarish, nighttime opening (where a skinny dipping young woman becomes the shark’s first victim) : there’s something lurking in the water. Have fun swimming.
Every movie inhabits its own universe, and we as the viewers can only follow the rules that we are provided. A film like Holy Motors easily lends itself, then, to long treatises devoted to trying to solve it like a puzzle.
And it is impossible not to be at least initially overcome with the film’s startling premise: A man is assigned to go through the day as nine different characters in nine situations, which range from making out with a contortionist in spandex, to eating flowers and kidnapping supermodels, to lying on his deathbed as his niece mourns him.
Is he being filmed? That doesn’t appear to be the case. The man, known only as Monsieur Oscar (Denis Levant) is driven from scenario to scenario by his stoic limo driver, Celine (Édith Scob). She picks him up from his home (which seems to be where he lives with his wife and kids) and gives him a folder. It contains the day’s assignments.
Each scene unfolds with its own sense of frenzied logic. At first, Oscar is dressed as an old beggar woman worrying that she has lost the ability to die. He soon switches into a spandex mo-cap suit and simulating a sex-scene with another actor. He doesn’t question the roles. In between scenes he climbs into his limo (which is decked out with a full changing room, makeup, minibar, and a bucket of guns) changes clothes and puts on his makeup and gets in character.
As I watched Oscar slip in and out of character time and time again, I was aware that this was not a film about an actor in a traditional sense. Holy Motors might best be described as a fantasy, and Oscar is killed at least twice (perhaps three, depending on how you keep count) only to dust himself off and take off his costume once more. Regardless, it was impossible for me to simply regard each assignment as self-contained, with no connection from scene to scene. That was not consistent with the film’s logic, either. Celine expresses mother-hen concern for Oscar, fretting that he hasn’t eaten enough during the day. Oscar runs into other people on assignments, sometimes within assignments. There is a strange logic to the film that it doesn’t care to explain fully, and doesn’t need to. What we see is enough for me to respond to the undercurrent of sadness that, the day after finishing the film, lingers with me.
I’m not a fan of parsing films for “meaning”. One of my favorite quotes from Roger Ebert sums up my view nicely: “If you have to ask what something symbolizes, it doesn’t.” So does a movie that consists of Denis Lavant running around eating flowers in one scene and leading an accordion band in another just nine examples of entertaining solipsism?
I don’t think so. Yes, Holy Motors has a lot of fun with the questions about the structure of its universe. Oscar dies multiple times, and murders at least two people, both of whom look suspiciously like him. On two occasions when he should have been dead, Celine runs out to rescue him, but performs no life-saving procedures beyond leading him back to the limo so he can pour himself a glass of whiskey. The basic logic of the film is as “anything goes” as it gets.
But that doesn’t preclude it from having any underlying mystery about the humanity of the characters. There are stories being weaved here that I couldn’t dismiss so easily. Consider the chilling sequence where Oscar plays a man picking his daughter up from a party. Their dialogue is cheerful at first. He asks her if she had a good time. She says she did. She talks about the boys who wanted to talk to her.
Then he gets a phone call from a friend of hers that reveals that she was lying. She was leaving the party early. She hid in the bathroom the whole time. She says she feels unpopular and unattractive. Suddenly he isn’t so sweet. He berates his daughter for not being more outgoing. He drops her off and tells her that she is to be punished by having to live with being herself. In a film that features shootings, neck-stabbings and finger biting, this was the most brutal scene. And it wouldn’t have been so troubling l if it was simply a believable but one-off episode. Is the girl someone else on an assignment?
Maybe. In another scene, Oscar plays out a moving death sequence as a dying old man, being cared for by his niece. They exchange tearful goodbyes as he prepares to pass on. Then Oscar climbs out of bed and asks for her real name. She is also a performer. They bid each other farewell. Was the assignment with the father and his daughter like this one, an elaborately staged dramatic scene? Or was the run-in with another performer an accident? If it’s the latter, than the scene (the father/daughter one) takes on a much heavier, even sinister tone. Even if Oscar plays these parts for minutes at a time, the larger story of that assignment is one of deeply unhappy people. The possibility of that larger story being canon somewhere in this film’s sprawling universe troubled me. And I think that was the desired effect.
Even at its most absurd, Holy Motors, specks of light of the character behind Oscar’s characters pokes through. The film’s most memorable sequence sees him playing a madman running through a Parisian cemetery, eating flowers as he sprints about and scares away visitors. He stumbles into a photoshoot, and the photographer is intrigued (he switches from saying “BEAUTY! BEAUTY! BEAUTY! as he shoots photos of the model to an increasingly ecstatic “Weird! Weird! WEIRD!” when he spots Oscar).
Yes, Oscar proceeds to bite off the photographer’s assistant’s fingers and kidnap the model (played by Eva Mendes), the scene ending with Oscar lying naked on her lap, like a recreation of the Pieta one might find in a grad school living art installment. There’s not much logic to be derived from this scene, other than that Eva Mendes’s model never once breaks out of her photoshoot expression (a real pro) and that there is something kind of haunting about the whole thing. If it wanted to be truly random, it could have been. Making the man reckless and violent and, well, prone to flower and finger eating gives the scene a narrative. And having that narrative conclude by having the man kidnap someone to have someone to lie down on ends up doing the one thing I didn’t expect from the scene: it humanizes this particular, truly strange person.
There are other scenes that are permeated with great sadness. The aforementioned “death scene” between a man and his niece takes on a sweet tone that is still gently bitter. These two people live the same lives by pretending to be others, and can only exchange names briefly before moving on. Theirs is a strange method for people to connect, but no less valid, and there is something wistful about how Oscar asks the woman’s real name before continuing on his journey.
The film’s functional climax is a whirlwind of a sequence that co-stars Kylie Minogue as a person whom Oscar seems to recognize from years before. She says they have twenty minutes to talk, to catch up on twenty years. I won’t spoil how those minutes unfold, beyond saying they are the film’s high point as a narrative and as a tragedy (insofar as the word “tragedy” can apply in this world). Is this scene an assignment for them both? If it is, does it even matter? Where is the line between performance and reality drawn? We don’t know, and that is the point. Even if this is a scene within a scene (within a scene?), the film has so convincingly tangled its many strings of logic into a knot that the ache these characters feel for one another is overwhelming. Like the one empty rifle in a firing squad, not knowing can have a more powerful effect than knowing for sure.
Holy Motors is a story about people whose stories it doesn’t want us to know completely. But there are glimpses of something more, that show that this wasn’t all an exercise in being for the sake of being. This is a movie of possibility, but the consequences of most of those possibilities are stories of great sadness, from wistful goodbyes to tragic deaths, to the simple melancholy that comes with endlessly worrying for an old friend who can’t seem to care for themselves. The movie is less a sketch show than a series of moments of staring out the passenger side window, trying to construct the stories of passersby. One glimpse can be all you need to never stop asking questions.
I have often complained about the lack of momentum in action films. Scenes that consist of incomprehensible movement and clanging metal and explosions that we know pose no risk to the heroes bore me quickly. Give me action that moves forward. Give me heroes who know what they want and where it lies, and give me an array of entertaining obstacles that lie in their path. Good action films are balancing acts within balancing acts, like a knife-juggling tightrope walker. A good action movie needs to be thrilling, which is no easy feat, and then give us a reason to be invested in the thrills.
A film like Snowpiercer, then, is some kind of small miracle. Burdened with telling a story that JJ Abrams might consider too high-concept, Bong Joon-hu moves the film forward with absolute resolution. It contains the single most thrilling action set piece I’ve seen since Clive Owen looked for a baby in the midst of a firefight in Children of Men. It has at least three more fight scenes that put just about anything you’ll see this year to shame. All the while, its curiosities never cease. Like the best sci-fi, its setting is one of the most fascinating characters. The Rattling Ark- a massive train whose route takes it around the globe, completing one revolution per year- provides the setting for a barrage of fight scenes that might be the closest quarters combat in the movies to date. Think Elle Driver battling Beatrix Kiddo in an RV in Kill Bill Vol. 2 only there are thirty of them each and you might get the idea.
I enjoy when films set up their stories with minimal clutter and then set off to play. One of my favorite aspects of Pacific Rim is how neatly it builds its world. In just a few minutes it lays out the rules. Kaiju have arrived. Jaegers fight them. Here’s Raleigh Beckett. Have fun.
Snowpiercer has a different type of efficiency. It lays out the rules via opening credit narration (17 years before the film is set, the world froze; all of humanity now lives on a trans-world train powered by perpetual motion). Its opening scenes show us that this condensed version of humanity retains all the disparity between rich and poor of the pre-Apocalypse world. The poor here eat brown blocks of gel and dream of what the world looked like before it was encased in ice. The rich enjoy steak and sushi and drug-fueled nightclub raves.
In back cars of the train, deadly raids and brutal torture are commonplace. This is the world the film’s protagonist, Curtis (Chris Evans), entered as a teenager and came of age in. The teens in the cast, like Jamie Bell’s Edgar and Ah-sung Ko’s Yona, have no memory of any other life.
The oppressed people of the rear of the train have grown beyond weary of their lives. Time has come to fight back, and take control of the train. The revolt is led in spirit by a pseudo-prophetic rail-thin stack of leather named Gilliam, played by John Hurt (who still embodies a lifetime of hardship with a glance better than anyone). In practice, it is lead by Curtis.
Snowpiercer contains more characters of note than most action films bother with. More surprisingly, we actually care about them.
Casting is essential in this genre, more than it gets credit for. The right actor can invest you in their character with a glance, a word, or in the case of Luke Pasqualano, a wordless, utterly cool entrance into a fight scene.
The film is uniformly well-cast. Octavia Spencer can make you cry by reading off an Altoids tin. That she gets to bash bad guys with a lead pipe feels like an embarrassment of riches. Jamie Bell seems like he is always going to be playing teenagers, even as he nears his thirties. But well, he plays good teenagers. He’s at his best when open-faced and earnest. That was true when he was actually 15 and it holds today. He stole the show in Nicholas Nickleby and he nearly does the same here as Edgar, the teenager who hero-worships Curtis.
Chris Evans has had a hell of a year. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was the best Marvel superhero film yet. Here he is given material that might overwhelm a typical, stone-faced action hero. He gets a harrowing monologue that explains his perpetual grimace. Curtis’s backstory nips any potential fan-theories that he is actually Steve Rogers in the bud.
He shows amazing versatility, as an actor and an action star. His earnest convictions elevated the Captain America films, and here he is just as convincing at portraying lean, efficient brutality,
Curtis is not the film’s only protagonist. Song Kang-ho, so memorable as a down-on-his-luck dad in The Host, here plays Namgoong Minsoo, a brilliant, drug-addicted engineer who built the doors that divide the cars of the train; the closest thing humanity now has to borders. The rebels need him and his daughter Yona to open the doors to carry out their mission. He initially complies for free drugs but as the film progresses it becomes clear that he has significantly deeper motives. He might be the only character in the film who believes in a future in any meaningful sense.
For the bulk of the film, the closest character to a primary antagonist is Mason, a spokesperson for the train’s government, played by Tilda Swinton. Swinton plays Mason as a sort of religious cultist Maggie Thatcher. She feels relocated from the cast of Brazil, which is never a criticism in a sci-fi film. She howls about the rear-car denizens knowing their place and frets about finishing her speech too early as her bodyguards torture a man by freezing his arm solid. And yet she’s not an utter heel, present to give us someone simply to root against. Mason is a devotee of a system and is unprepared to see it falling apart around her, failing to keep her at a safe remove from the people she has been keeping in their “preordained place”.
I can’t shake just how good the action in this film is. Yes, you might think: it’s a good movie, and it is an action movie. Therefore it has good action scenes.
But there is something truly giddy about action that is particularly suited to its environment. The entire film takes place in a train, of course, but every car of the train serves its own purpose, from the rear cars that house the poor, to the middle cars that handle utilities, to the very front where the engine (and it engineer, Wilford, who is treated as a mysterious, godlike figure). Setting up the plot by giving the heroes a series of stages to overcome is as old as storytelling itself, of course, but it feels more organic when the stages represent the known inhabitable world. Here each stage has a life of its own, with claustrophobia as the only constant.
Bong Joon-hu shows a choreographer’s eye for action. The fights are thrilling without descending into indistinguishable chaos. There is a scene early in the film that stretches a four-second sequence into one of the most astonishingly choreographed action scenes I’ve ever watched. It’s a gleeful exercise in taking the audience’s pulse a few beats faster with every cut, from the sudden chaos of the buildup to an astonishing decision that Curtis makes that instantly makes my list of favorite movie moments.
Snowpiercer’s story eventually does end up being too much to explain in real time, leading to one of my more commonplace cinematic annoyances: the villain’s grand plot explanation. But it works here, for the same reason parlor scenes work in mystery novels: if the story is told right, the audience will be adding up the pieces all along, and the big explanation becomes a moment of interaction with the story. For all of Snowpiercer’s thrills, it’s just as curious about the world it inhabits. By the end of the film, we want answers and resolution, not just a climactic showdown.
Snowpiercer is a film of many pleasures. Movies that elicit as much excitement as they do fascination are rare. This is a film I want to revisit just to gawk at its sights again. Sometimes I watch a film and wonder if the filmmaker gave more than a moment’s thought about the world the movie inhabits. Snowpiercer wants you to pay attention to the action, yes, but don’t forget to look out the train’s window. You never know what you might miss.