Name five soulless, relentlessly evil criminals from the movies.
Characters who are defined by their utter disregard for human life.
Characters who scare the life out of everyone else on screen, usually before actually killing one of them.
It’s not hard.
Here, I’ll do it:
Tommy from Goodfellas
Mr. Blonde from Reservoir Dogs
Nicky from Casino
Mr. French from The Departed
Frank Booth from Blue Velvet
That’s not a comprehensive list. It’s just from the top of my head. The point is that this was not a hard exercise, and I could probably poll ten people and get ten lists with very little crossover.
The allure of the psychotic mobster in crime fiction is obvious: having a character who is nothing but menacing, who might decide to shoot or stab anyone at any time, can create tension in any scene they are in. Which is why it’s one of the tropes that I have long grown tired of. It’s not tension created from stakes inherent to the film’s story. It’s a cheaper sort of tension, a preemptive visceral reaction to bloodshed. Joe Pesci does give an electric performance as Tommy in Goodfellas, but behind the constant boiling is a character who is never fully humanized, never given much to do beyond snapping and killing at random. The brilliance of Pesci’s performance in a scene like this masks that we are never shown why on earth his friends would hang out with him in the first place. Scenes like the bar scene in Inglorious Basterds are more compelling because they begin innocuously and slowly back into an inescapable corner. Characters like this turn every scene into the corner, and not all of them have performances as good as Pesci’s to turn a writing shortcut into a gripping scene.
Walking into Black Mass I prepared myself for a movie chock full of this sort of brutal shorthand. Whitey Bulger’s violent reign over Boston organized crime was operatic in its grisliness. As I settled into my seat, I was prepared for an endless parade of face-stomping, neck-stabbing, and snap judgment executions. All I wondered beforehand was how soon it would be before the film exceeded my tolerance level for such carnage.
Only the barrage never came. And, to my surprise, I think the film was actually worse off for it.
I don’t think Black Mass simply needed more gore. It’s a solid but dry crime movie, elevated by some excellent performances, especially from Johnny Depp as Bulger and Joel Edgerton as John Connolly, the corrupt FBI agent in cahoots with him. Depp tries his damnedest to create an indelible character in Whitey Bulger. He doesn’t quite succeed. He snarls and seethes but he doesn’t snap. When he kills a longtime colleague, a voiceover explains that he suspected the guy had ratted out a friend and gotten him killed. In the world of mob movies, less frightening characters have done much more frightening things. Nothing Whitey does in this movie exceeds the crimes of Clemenza in The Godfather, and I defy you to find someone who watches The Godfather who doesn’t love Clemenza. Yes, he’s a killer, but he brings his wife cannoli.
Perhaps it sounds like I have developed a sudden and out of character craving for wanton violence. I think (hope?) it’s more complex than that. Black Mass‘s edge is too dull to shock, and its narrative too shallow to derive much emotion from scenes clearly intended to be charged. Consider the scene where Bulger strangles Deborah Hussey (Juno Temple), the girlfriend of his enforcer Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane). He carries out the hit right in front of Flemmi. The camera moves away from Bulger and Hussey, and focuses strictly on Flemmi’s reaction. Cochrane’s acting in the scene sells it. Through minuscule changes in his expression he conveys the conflict between sadness and loyalty. That, in turn, sells us on how deeply twisted Flemmi must be to be conflicted at all over the horror unfolding in front of him.
However, the performances outshine the writing. We barely know Hussey and Flemmi as characters when she is murdered. In shying away from the violence of her murder, the film, director Scott Cooper seems to be attempting to focus on human emotions. This isn’t unwelcome, but if you are going to humanize this story, you need fully dimensional characters. A tragedy without an arc is simply violence and death. Three characters are in this scene, and only one of them, Bulger, has been given any dimension.
For that matter, the dimension given to Bulger mostly attempts to humanize him. Again, this isn’t necessarily a problem; crime movies more often than not ask us to empathize with killers. But the script refers to Bulger as a “sociopath” time and time again, without ever demonstrating why Bulger was so feared. Yes, he is shown killing people. Again, Coppola never asked us to be scared of Clemenza, who carries out the exact same sorts of crimes Bulger is shown committing in this film. But Clemenza was a fictional character. Bulger’s victims were real, and the film owes it to us to treat his crimes with greater gravity. In The Godfather, “it’s just business” is repeated in the face of brutality until we see it’s a lie. Black Mass seems too intent on convincing us that Bulger actually meant it. At best, it’s a copout for Cooper to go out of his way to make each of Bulger’s killings “strictly business”. At worst, it’s callous.
Black Mass wants to be a work of cinematic journalism, and yet the facts of the story it’s trying to tell are far more lurid and grotesque than it’s willing to depict. Which brings me back to my original point: I usually find the “maniac mobster who kills for sport” trope to be tiring and unnecessary. But here was a movie that actually kind of needed it, or at least a shadow of it. Most mob movies are based on fictional or otherwise deeply fictionalized characters, and if you turn their violence up to 11, it can become their only defining characteristic. But with this story, and these characters, you need to capture that unrelenting sense of menace.
It was mid-June, 1993. The perfect warmth San Diego is famous for, mid to high 70s. Don’t ask about humidity. I didn’t know what that was until I moved to Massachusetts.
I was five years old and my life was dinosaurs. Dinosaurs should be a stage of development taught in psych classes. At some point children discover that before there were people, there were massive reptiles, and yes, they were as cool as you hope.
Dinosaurs were my life. I read every book about them in the library, each one with fewer pictures than the last. I collected any and all magazines I could find about paleontology. Dinosaurs had been my main thing for almost a year now. And here was a movie about them, directed by a guy my older sister Mercy assured me was the best and most famous guy who made movies. I didn’t know movies were made by people until this week. I couldn’t comprehend how one would make a movie, as one might make a dinosaur out of clay, or draw a dinosaur with crayons. But Mercy knew things, and I trusted her word: this guy named Steven Spielberg had made other movies I had seen. ET. Jaws. This was a good sign. Mercy also told me that someone named Meryl Streep was the best person at acting in movies. But she wasn’t in this one. I would have to care about Meryl Streep at a later date.
It was the perfect warm. Even in a life lived within constant perfect warmth, this was special. I got a good taste of it, because the line for tickets was all the way around the side of the movie theatre. Edwards Cinema. I wondered who Edward was. It was nice waiting in the sun. My grandmother held my hand tight. She had a vice grip. It was one of the reasons my mom was happy to let her take us places. We couldn’t get free and run loose if we were covered in popcorn grease.
The blast of air conditioning. It’s one of the joyful sudden changes in senses that movie theatres deliver. There are others to come. The overwhelming smell of popcorn. You just can’t get that with an air popper. The sudden darkness of the theatre, the bright orange lights on the floor. It’s a sci-fi experience, walking into a movie theatre at age 5. All this and you haven’t seen the movie yet.
Right. Dinosaurs. Dinosaurs. We see a glimpse of them at the beginning. Scary noises, glimpses of claws. A guy gets eaten. A good start. I didn’t know this was a scary movie, but I’m ready. I know which dinosaurs are carnivores, and so when they are on screen I know there might be something I need to cover my eyes for. Except… my dad’s not here. My Lila never tells me to cover my eyes. What if I just keep watching when it gets scary?
The music swells. That means something. I’ve never noticed that before. The characters, the paleontologist guy and the lady who studies ancient plants (I’ll have my uncle Johnny what that is, he tends to know these things) react to something we can’t see. The music swells and they react. A cold, isolated chill trickles down my spine and through my fingertips. The shot pulls back for the big reveal. Dinosaurs. As real as I’ve ever seen them.
It was March, 2002. I’m a homeschooled, 15 year old theatre kid. I don’t have many hobbies. Movies are starting to become one of them. I’ve started posting on this message board Mercy told me about. Nothing special about it, just a bunch of people who love movies and talk about them and have fun handicapping the Oscars and talking about that and well, I give it a go. TO my shock, they welcome me and my pitiful repertoire of movie knowledge. Lots of the other members are people about my age, eager to learn more about movies, eager to talk about them, wide-eyed at the vast number of movies that already exist, thrilled at the possibilities of falling in love with movies yet unseen.
That’s my problem, I guess. I haven’t really fallen in love with a movie yet.
Not since I was a kid. It almost seems unfair to bring nostalgic movies into the equation. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a movie that really bowled me over. One that took me to new places. One that seemed made just for me.
But I watch. I watch endlessly. I’m a homeschooled theatre kid and it’s summer time. No big shows on the slate for a while.
HBO, Starz, and TCM become by companions on my search. I turn them on and watch whatever there is that has just started. It’s not a great way to catch up, but it’s already been paid for, unlike movie rentals. On this afternoon I flip over to Starz and see that a film called Princess Mononoke is on. The title is striking. I turn over to it.
It’s animated. Looks like anime, to be more precise. But lusher and smoother than the handful of anime shows I was familiar with. I try to pick up on the plot. A young man riding some sort of deer is being pursued by warriors on horses. He fires an arrow and one of his pursuers’ heads pops clean off. Another is relieved of his arms. Well, this is charming. But interesting. I keep watching.
It turns out, this isn’t an altogether violent movie. It’s character driven. And what characters. San, a girl raised by wolves, dedicated to killing Eboshi, a ruler as ruthlessly pragmatic in pursuit of power as she is benevolent and loving to her people.
I am hooked. This is unlike anything I’ve seen before. This story doesn’t give me easy answers. A war breaks out, and I want neither side to win, because I like characters on both sides.
And my god, this film is just lovely. I have never been so bowled over by a film’s visual creativity before. A giant boar turns into a spirit that consists of writing, black worms. A benevolent forest god, who looks like a deer by day, turns into a towering sort of kindly kaiju at night, shimmering with starlight.
This is thrilling, courageous storytelling, I think. No easy answers. Flawed characters. The movie ends with everyone having been deeply affected by the conflicts. And the final shot is the film’s loveliest, silently conveying hope after and endless onslaught of conflict. The movie ends. I sit back in my chair, dumbfounded and in tears.
I’ve found it.
I think every movie lover reaches a point where they wonder if they can be surprised. Not if they can fall in love again with a movie. No, that will happen so long as people who love movies continue to make movies. But being surprised, walking out of a theatre with your expectations totally shattered? That’s a special kind of joy.
It’s late August, 2012. I’ve been seeing a lot of movies lately. Not much else to do. I’d gotten some bad news. My application for an academic internship has been denied. I’ll have to leave my university-owned apartment in February, not May. I thought I’d be doing work at a magazine or even a newspaper that Fall. Instead I’ll be working at the library. At least that application worked out.
The job meant I could see movies on the regular now. And that’s grand, because there’s a wonderful theatre that’s walking distance from my apartment. The Brattle is like an new friend you feel like you’ve known for a long time. It gets me. It’s small, intimate. Movie posters are plastered haphazardly everywhere. And their lineup delightfully eclectic. Classics. New classics. Tiny arthouse flicks. Movies they just seem to like. Citizen Kane might show one week, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World the next. Tonight, it’s a movie I feel like I should have seen before: Mulholland Drive.
I know David Lynch’s work. It’s… odd. But he’s good. The Elephant Man is a favorite of mine, but it’s also one of his more conventional stories I guess. Whatever. Push that out of your mind, JM. Go into this fresh. I get my job-funded bucket of popcorn and root beer and settle into my favorite seat in the house (balcony, front and center).
The movie opens with a car crash, amnesia, and a creepy turn by Ann Miller. Ann Miller, who got her start at age 15 in You Can’t Take it With You. I wonder what stories she had to tell between that film and this one, 65 years apart.
A scene begins to unfold involving a hitman, whose hit goes wrong in every possible way. I know Lynch doesn’t care for conventional narrative, but I’ve never seen a movie jump around quite like this one. And by god, this scene is funny. I haven’t laughed like this in a theatre in a long time.
A scene begins to unfold involving two friends in a diner. Again, we haven’t seen them before. There’s something off about their dialogue. It’s stilted, kind of soapy. One of them men is describing a dream he had. A recurring nightmare. Slowly we begin to realize that the nightmare is on the verge on unfolding for real. The scene turns unrelentingly terrifying. The best sort of scary: where something cosmically indescribable is happening. I haven’t been this scared in a movie theatre in a long time.
A woman is on a stage, singing Roy Orbison’s “Crying” in Spanish. This is one of my favorite songs. It’s, on its own, a spectacular rendition of it. I actually want to cry. The two main characters of the film (played by Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring) actually do begin to weep. There’s no particular reason for them to do so. But it makes sense. It makes sense the way dreams do when you’re having them. I have never seen a film capture that so perfectly before, not even a David Lynch film. The singer collapses on stage, is pulled off. Her voice continues to sing. It makes sense.
I walk out of the theatre, feeling like I’ve lost time. I realize that if someone asked me to describe this film to them, I would be hard pressed to do so. I don’t care. I feel a buzz in my step, and there’s a smile on my face as I walk back to my apartment in the dark.
Damn it feels good to fall in love.
Wes Craven has died. I admit, when I heard the news I immediately checked to see how others in his generation of horror directors were doing. John Carpenter. George Romero. Tobe Hooper. Dario Argento. Morbid? Perhaps. But artistic movements come in generations, and generations age (by the way, all are doing well, as far as I know). Eventually, people whose films we remember seeing in theatres are spoken of in the past tense. And when that happens, it shakes us. Like any celebrity who passes away, I never knew or met or otherwise have any means of judging Wes Craven on any basis than his art. That I feel such a loss today is all that needs to be said about the power and reach of art.
There is no denying Craven’s place on the pantheon of all-time great- and important- horror filmmakers. The Last House on the Left shook the genre to its core in 1972. It has been imitated so many times over that it perhaps has not held up as well as some of the less narratively straightforward horror films of the era (like Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Argento’s Suspiria) but to watch it again today is to peer into a time capsule, when films that raw, that uncompromising, that willing to showcase unfettered evil, were simply unheard of. It’s an unpleasant film, and one that had to be for the genre to evolve.
Few horror directors have been such stylistic chameleons as Craven. When sweaty grim slaughterhouse movies of the 70s gave way to the slicker, post-Halloween deluge of slasher films, Craven stayed ahead of the curve. In a genre of increasingly nondescript villains defined by the body counts in their wake, A Nightmare on Elm Street swooped with and gave us perhaps the most iconic horror villain of all time, and for good reason. How many horror movies characters have been as quotable as Freddy Krueger? Hell, how many non-Nightmare horror movies do you have to come up with to equal the number of Freddy’s memorable lines?
Craven’s sense of humor and ever-increasing skill reached their apex with Scream, a massive hit in 1996 (almost a quarter century after The Last House on the Left). Scream wasn’t just popular; like his debut film, it was a game-changer. Whereas Last House shocked audience’s sensibilities, Scream subverted their expectations. It was a horror film about characters who knew they were in a horror film. It had a blast cracking jokes about the tropes of the genre while still delivering goods with scares that relied on those same tropes. It was a daring tightrope dance for Craven, but he didn’t just pull it off- he excelled. Scream was a cultural touchstone that remains every bit as entertaining almost 20 years later.
I didn’t know Wes Craven. The outpouring of tributes to him from his actors and colleagues are evidence that he was a lovely person. I only knew his art. His art was important to me. And in a genre that I love dearly, he was one of the most important figures ever to work within it. That’s a connection that will never be lost. Rest in peace, Wes.
I have anxiety. I have been battling it for a long as I have been capable of worry. Usually it manifests in inexplicable, low-level worry that just sort of sits there, wisps that never really disappear. Over the years I became good at masking it. Sometimes, anxiety takes the form of days of truly crippling worry. I think of it as a fog. It sets in and I can see nothing else, just a blinding sea of thinking about every possible thing I can worry about.
Oh, it has gotten bad at times. The fog can roll in very quickly and unpredictably. In his book “Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety”, Daniel Smith describes it as fear of “existential ruin”. He describes how a slight worry that his anxiety is stopping him from concentrating at his work can create an explosive chain of absurd hypotheticals culminating in mortal terror that he is going to die of AIDS. If that seems absurd to you, trust me, I know exactly what he is talking about. There were times where I spent days indoors afraid of leaving the house. I have gone to the movies and cried for two hours in my seat consumed with worry that my life would be ruined because I pirated a film. Yeah, it’s that level of plausibility. It’s easy to look back and laugh, but the fear as I was rocking back and forth in my seat weeping during “The Chronicles of Narina” (I imagine the other moviegoers assumed I just really disliked the movie) was very real. Once the fog cleared, I would think “well that was stupid” and try to move on. I thought that since I was rarely worrying about plausible things, I could deal with it. As a teenager I developed insomnia. In my early 20s, I suffered regular full-fledged anxiety attacks. Now, I go to therapy. I try to maintain routines. It can be a challenge. Routines can lead to complacency if I’m not careful. Complacency can let anxiety trickle back in, just enough to keep me looking over my shoulder. I try to vary my routines to avoid that. My therapist helps me sort things out. I’m better than I was before. I no longer have insomnia, no longer live in fear of anxiety attacks. I manage pretty well.
Before I go on, let me tell you about Yasujiro Ozu. Trust me, I have my reasons.
Yasujiro Ozu was a filmmaker of endless empathy. His stories are about people, families, marriages, gentle sadness, quiet contentment, conversations where the silences between words contain all the meaning. His style was unobtrusive, conversational. His camera stays low, imitating the point of view of someone kneeling on the floor, in the traditional manner of Japanese homes. Characters regularly speak to the camera, looking right at you. The camera does not move. Objects linger in the corners, sometimes moving from shot to shot in defiance of continuity, as if Ozu just wanted them there. Every film features a teapot as a subject in at least one scene. When he began making color films in the 1950s, every shot contained the color red. Often it was the teapot. Every shot says exactly what it means to. Every scene says everything there is to say.
Anxiety has a way of interrupting my movie watching. I like to give my full attention to a film. Anxiety is the presence of worry where it shouldn’t be. Stories become difficult to follow. I love movies more than anything, but it becomes difficult to devote my attentions to fiction when my mind is constructing its own fictions and trying to tell me they’re real. The fog blocks out everything, even my favorite escapes. It’s one of the reasons, I think, I became such a fan of horror. Horror is sharp and deals heavily with anxiety-inducing subject matter. The best horror doesn’t simply frighten, it shoves the creeping feelings that ruin your day right under your nose. It lets me confront those feelings in a controlled space. But it’s temporary. Horror is a visceral genre, of the moment. It doesn’t make for effective lasting therapy. Besides, for a horror nut like me, horror ought to be fun. It’s best enjoyed when I am enjoying myself first.
There’s a moment in Ozu’s Late Spring I think of often. An old man sits in his living room. His daughter, in her late twenties, has just gotten married and has finally moved out. He is alone for the first time in decades. He sits, reflecting in his living room. He begins to peel an apple. He stops, suddenly, his head falling. Ozu cuts to a shot of waves crashing on the beach. There is nothing more to say. The shot of the man, his shoulders stooped, his head and hands just dropping, shows so much feeling without saying a word. The film has built to this moment, and it is so unassuming, so quiet, so pure, so sad. The fog can’t touch moments like this. So many films are clutter. Ozu is clean lines, meticulous arrangements, and gentle displays of humanity.
I remember when I realized I needed help. It was about three years ago. I’d gone to a bar, met some new people, had a very good time. A few days later, one of them texted me. They were hanging out at the bar again, wanted to know if I wanted to join them. Suddenly I felt terrified and confused. I felt miserable about both those things. But the fog had set it. All around me were questions. Were they trustworthy? Did they actually like spending time with me? Was this some sort of elaborate setup of some kind? The good feeling of the days before were replaced with a sudden onset of fog. I knew it was all silly, that it was absurd for me to worry, let alone feel distress. That’s how anxiety works. You run a red light and three seconds later you’re wondering if you need to assume a new identity. You pirate a movie and spend two hours crying in terror that you are going to prison for it. You meet some new people and instantly (and I mean instantly) consider every utterly silly scenario besides them actually having had a good time meeting you. These might range from “they felt obligated to text you but they really thought you were stupid” to “I mean none of them said they WEREN’T Hannibal Lecter, so do you want to risk it?”
I realized that somehow, through years of quietly trying to cope by myself, I was losing my ability to trust new people. This was new. This was scary. This was something I could not let happen. I knew, at last, that I could not deal with this alone anymore. I could not disconnect from humanity like that. The fog in my mind was becoming impenetrable. I needed to clear the haze.
There is a moment in Ozu’s Tokyo Story I think of often. A old man and old woman have had a visit with their grown children cut short. The children grew impatient with their parents, considered them a burden, and finally just sent them to a spa. The couple are trying to make the best of it. They try to enjoy the spa, try to see it as a generous gift from their children. But it becomes apparent that this is not a place for the elderly. The other spa-goers are young. They party late and loud into the night. We see a shot of young people dancing and drinking late one night. Then we see the old couple’s shoes, neatly placed outside their door. It’s a shot both sad and funny, as life often is. There’s no symbolism here, just narrative. We see this shot and immediately understand the situation and the people. Ozu has a way of telling us everything we need to know in a shot. I think a lot about visual language in movies. What filmmakers tell us without saying a word. No filmmaker was more a poet than Ozu. I latched onto poetry in college partly as a way of coping with anxiety. That’s what helps during an anxious episode, really. Not so much finding something happy to counter the sad, but finding something sharp and deep and true to cut through the muck, something sturdy to hold on to and ground you in reality.
Therapy has helped me. I mean that in the deepest sense of the word “help”. In practice, we often think of “help” as a mild sort of word, like offering a hand with chores or giving a few bucks to charity. But I needed help, and therapy has given it to me. I’ve managed to undo a lot of the toxic worry I’d been quietly fostering, letting build up into a sea of static in my brain. I still have a bit of a haze. Wisps that float by in quiet moments. I imagine I always will. But more than ever it’s barely visible. The fog made movies hard to enjoy. When it’s just a haze, movies help me, for a moment, clear it up completely. So does spending time with friends and loved ones. And sometimes, so does confronting the things that give me anxiety head-on. As I said, I manage. I’m doing better. The fog doesn’t blind me anymore.
There’s a moment in Ozu’s Floating Weeds I think of often. Two characters, a man and a woman, are sitting at a train station. Earlier in the film, they had an argument so fierce it seemed for sure they were dead to each other. But they sit there, quietly, both having since been through things bigger than their fight. They smoke cigarettes, and begin to talk. Nothing grand. Nothing life-changing. The man considers where he wants to go. She proposes to go with him. He considers, and accepts. They get on the train together, and drink sake. Two people who have inflicted much pain on one another, who have since been through greater pain, ride together on the train into the night. Ozu has no lectures to give us, no lessons to teach. Here are two people, and here is how they arrived at this point, and this has been their story. Their train pulls away from the station. The camera sits low, at ground level. The train’s lights slowly getting smaller as they disappear into the night. This moment brings tears to my eyes. There is no fog. No wisps or haze. Only the red lights of the train.
Revenge is a tiresome engine for storytelling. While it makes constructing the plot easy, I don’t usually care much about a character whose only motivation is killing another character.
Movies about revenge have to offer me something else. Kill Bill, for example, is as much an exercise in style, choreography, and dialogue is it is about revenge. Beatrix Kiddo talks about her all-consuming need for revenge, but by the end of Vol. 2 we have learned quite a lot about her and her relationship with Bill. And there comes a point during a fight scene as wild as the showdown with the Crazy 88 that the plot ceases to matter; we’ve gotten this far, so we might as well sit back and enjoy the spectacle, regardless of how we got here.
Blue Ruin goes about as far from Kill Bill’s approach as is imaginable. It is a spare, uncompromising film that follows one man’s revenge process, never shifting its focus to anything else. In doing so, it becomes hypnotic. In being about nothing but revenge, it humanizes the process. Revenge is not the driving force of this story. A person is.
The story of Blue Ruin is simple as they come. A Dwight (Macon Blair) is a homeless drifter who finds out that the man who murdered is parents has been released from prison. He tracks the man, named Wade Cleland, down, and stabs him to death in a public restroom. He takes refuge with his sister Sam (Amy Hargreaves), who hasn’t seen him in years. She is furious at him for his recklessness, but glad that her parents have been avenged. Dwight watches the news all day. The murder is never reported. He realizes that the Cleland clan put two and two together. They never reported Wade’s murder. They are coming after Dwight and his sister. This all plays out in the first act. The rest of the film is about Dwight’s attempt to keep his sister and nieces safe, and finally put an end to the cycle of bloodshed that he has reignited.
This plot alone could have been the basis of something conventional, action driven, and very likely boring. But writer/director Jeffery Saulnier is obsessed with details. He does not simply abandon scenes and locations that have served their purpose in the plot. This attention to detail gives Macon Blair a remarkable amount of material to create a memorable character in Dwight. Early in the film, Dwight attempts to steal a gun from an unattended pickup truck. The gun has a trigger lock, which Dwight spends a considerable amount of time feebly trying to remove, before finally giving up and throwing the weapon away. Sailnier could easily have dispensed with this scene, and shown Dwight showing up to confront Wade with the knife he ends up using. But instead we get to learn something about Dwight. He seems hopelessly ill-equipped to carry out a one-man war against a family that seems to have a proclivity for violence. Blair gives an extraordinary performance here, as a man whose instincts for survival are at constant odds with his need for vengeance.
Scene after scene lingers just enough on details that bring these characters to life. When Dwight seeks out his old friend Ben (Devin Ratray), in hopes of getting a gun from him, they talk about everything but Dwight’s revenge plot. Ben is happy to provide a weapon, and doesn’t want to know the details. We sense he knows exactly what is going on. Perfunctory, plot-driven dialogue quickly gets boring. Characters talking like people is far more interesting. Ben and Dwight talk about old times, in the broad, sentimental way friends who haven’t seen each other since those old times sometimes do. A brief exchange about an old photograph Ben still has of them both reveals a lot about the fondness they still have for one another. Consider what Dwight asks Ben to do with the photo; it’s a beautiful example of a film covering the bases of its plot through character-driven action.
Dwight’s final, inevitable showdown with the Cleland clan at their home is drained of the kinetic energy of an action film. By focusing so heavily on Dwight’s preparation for it, Saulnier ramps up the tension. It’s reminiscent of the sort of sweaty dread of No Country for Old Men, which relied far less on action than the anticipation of a character with his finger on a trigger. The difference is that Blue Ruin provides no primal forces of evil like Anton Chigurh. No Country For Old Men was about the baffled people left in a killer’s wake. In Blue Ruin, the baffled people are the ones doing the killing. At one point in the film, Dwight reacts with horror after someone who was trying to kill him is shot. Ben tells him, like a parent trying to comfort a scared child, “That’s what bullets do”.
No country’s cinema has so thoroughly explored the family as Japan’s. The master Yosujiro Ozu focused almost exclusively on interactions within families in his films. Animation, such a robust part of Japan’s cinematic legacy, is no exception. Among animators, I don’t think anyone, from any country, has asked what it is to be a family with such inventiveness and curiosity as Mamoru Hosoda.
Today, I hope to bring to your attention two of the very best animated films of the 2010s: Summer Wars and Wolf Children. Both films center squarely on families: one a huge, sprawling clan gathered for a reunion, the other a mother and her two children, simply trying to get by.
Summer Wars is one of those films so loaded with detail that explaining all of it can seem dizzying. The protagonist is a young man named Kenji. He is a mathematician who helps moderate a social network called OZ. OZ is a vast virtual world that is half-RPG, half every app you have on your smartphone. You can have a duel with a ninja rabbit there one moment and take care of your banking the next. Kenji gets invited by a pretty young woman named Natsuki to her great-grandmother’s 90th birthday party. She explains that her family expects her to have a boyfriend, and she asks him to pretend to be hers. He accepts. We think we know where this story is going: a sweet summer romance plot, where the two characters find they actually like each other. It goes there, sure, but that ends up only being a fraction of the film’s plot.
There are two overarching plots in this film. First, Kenji goes around meeting Katsuki’s family. Her great-grandmother, Sakae, is a matriarch in every sense of the word. The family bends to her wisdom, and thankfully she possesses an ample supply. A vast army of parents, cousins, uncles, aunts, and every other form of family in between shows up for the birthday party. There is nowhere to run without bumping into multiple sets of scrutinizing eyes.
The other plot involves a hostile AI called Love Machine taking over OZ. This has global implications: most of the tech-using world uses OZ, including entire banks and militaries. Somehow, Summer Wars manages to meld these two storylines together. Kenji ends up getting mistakenly blamed for creating Love Machine, and ends up having to recruit Katsuki’s family to defeat it. In classic anime fashion, we see these showdowns in full theatre: real time fights play out in the virtual world between the family’s characters and the AI.
What I just described could easily be a plot for a mindless yet fun story. What elevates Summer War is how deftly it works the story of a family into the fabric of its gleeful sci-fi absurdity. Long before we witness combat between avatars, we meet every member of the family. There are long breaks in the action for dinners, conversations, and arguments. The story is always driven the characters, and the cast is large and lovingly written. When the showdown with Love Machine ends up threatening the world, and the family rallies together to attempt to defeat it, it’s a joyful moment. The climax of the film involves a series of escalating stakes we might expect from a sci-fi adventure, but the stakes are higher and the moments more meaningful because we know and like everyone involved. We are rooting, not for a character, but a team.
Wolf Children is a major change of pace from Summer Wars, but its plot is similarly unusual. Its protagonist is a college student named Hana. She meets and falls in love with a man who (it is revealed on their first night together) is a werewolf. That doesn’t affect her feelings, and they settle down and have two children together; a daughter, Yuki, and a son, Ame. The children are also werewolves, changing between their human and wolf forms as they see fit. What happens after that I will not spoil: this is a film that spans years in Hana’s life, whose power is derived from the small moments it uses to tell the story of those years. Wolf Children is abundant with splendid scenes that deserve to be seen without being spoiled. This film is full of heart and empathy. At its core, it is about the struggles of raising children with few resources. Hosada gracefully integrates the wrinkle: the children are werewolves. Raising human children is hard enough. When an argument can turn into a literal dogfight, or if your apartment forbids pets, it creates challenges that demand some extraordinary resourcefulness from Hana.
Hosada takes this material seriously. We are soon drawn into its rhythms, its portrayal of a family with a unique set of challenges. We never see the expectations of genre storytelling creep in. Hosada has more important questions to ask of these characters. As the children get older, do they have to continue to hide their identities? How do they handle those identities? Yuki and Ame begin to develop fiercely independent streaks: Yuki wants to blend in with her friends, while Ame finds himself drawn more and more to the woods. Hosada casts no judgements on the characters for the decisions they make for themselves. He is simply observing, letting this most unusual and fascinating story play out on its own terms.
Hosada is a storyteller of immense ambition and precise touch. Both Summer Wars and Wolf Children could easily have succumbed to their inherent strangeness. Instead, both films achieve a familiar quality without pandering to genericness. Summer Wars achieves this through an extraordinary balance of its stories. Wolf Children, meanwhile, is a fable told by a scribe more interested in the characters than in lessons. Both films are lovely to look at as well. OZ is one of my favorite science fiction movie locations. Like the very best places sci-fi can take us (my personal favorites are the cities from Dark City and Metropolis) OZ is both vividly rendered (my favorite detail is a shot of half a dozen stadiums, each for a different sport, floating in an arch in the void) and replete with possibility. It is full of charming minutiae and seemingly infinite in size. And Wolf Children is often extraordinarily beautiful, in Hosada’s mastery of its tone and his attunement to its emotional beats.
Mamoru Hosada has been cutting his teeth in animation since 1999. He worked on shows like Digimon and Samurai Champloo before getting his feature film break with The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. That film, a more straightforward sci-fi (based on a beloved novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui that has had 8 total film and TV adaptations), hinted at what he was capable of as a filmmaker: taking old-fashioned genre plots and propelling them with strong characters. Summer Wars and Wolf Children show Hosada in full command of these strengths. With both films, he turns plots that look like grab bags into stories of remarkable beauty and power.
In college, a favorite debate among my friends was over which adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was superior: the 1995 BBC miniseries, or Joe Wright’s 2005 film? The public consensus usually seems to be the miniseries. This is understandable. Its 327 minute runtime allows it to more thoroughly cover the breadth of Austen’s novel. It has charming performances and is as faithful to its source material as one could imagine an adaptation being.
And yet it’s Wright’s film I find myself returning to again and again. Its opening shots are what convince me, every time, that this is how Austen ought to be adapted, and how her books rarely are. We meet the characters in a rush. They are lively, hair tousled, faces sweaty, the sort of traces of dust and dirt on their skin and clothing that appear after one gives up appearing tidy in front of their family at around midday. No attempt is made to quote or evoke the legendary opening lines of the book. I won’t quote it here because you know them, I know them, and the last person you spoke to today knows them too. The movie knows that we know them. Quoting them would be a matter of course, something perfunctory and expected.
But how often do we think about those words? How charmingly conversational they are. Austen disarms us by jumping headlong into the nuts and bolts of the story; in her bluntness, she makes us feel at home. The opening to this film has the same effect. I have four sisters and a brother. I grew up always an arm’s length from at least three cats and a dog. I cherish fictional homes that clatter with the the sort of perpetually awake half-chaos I grew up immersed in. Joe Wright’s vision of Pride and Prejudice matches mine.
So, too, does Keira Knightley’s take on Lizzie Bennet. Watching the film again recently, I was taken aback by her ferocity. There are many ways to play Lizzie Bennet. Jennifer Ehle’s take was drier, her wit more for her own amusement than for weaponry. Knightey uses words like a sniper. They are her first plan of attack, and she is always ready to open fire. Knightley’s performance puts a charge into the film that Wright uses to propel the narrative.
There is a headlong urgency to this film. It’s too easy to say it feels rushed; if anything, this suits the material. The tone is set the moment Brenda Blethyn, as Mrs. Bennet, realizes that a window has opened for one of her daughters to be married. She pursues setting up her daughters (primarily her eldest, Jane) with a relentlessness that comes from true desperation; they are poor and have no inheritance coming their way, meaning that good marriages are the main source of security for her daughters’ futures. She buzzes with energy in every scene she’s in. Her contrast to her husband (Donald Sutherland) is amusing, but his comparative aloofness serves the narrative as well. He seems to be coasting, hoping for as little stress as possible in his older years, unable to keep up with the pace of his family. When Lizzie comes to him at the end with the announcement that she loves Mr. Darcy, he is about four steps behind everyone else.
Period films rarely resemble a time and place in which people lived. They usually represent a vision through a modern lens, either romanticized or a deliberate deconstruction of romance. Wright attempts neither here; he aims for realism, and succeeds. The Bennet household is constantly in movement. Animals wander in and out of the frame. Lizzy’s youngest sisters, Kitty and Lydia (Carey Mulligan and Jena Malone- this movie was astoundingly prescient in casting young stars before they took off), seem to have learned sprinting before walking, dashing from room to room. Her middle sister, Mary, is glued to the piano. Despite her practicing, she is quite bad. The Bennets have quite a lot in common with the Sycamore family from You Can’t Take it With You. Both families have little use for convention and want simply to lead happy lives, pursuing their personal interests. They also have some trouble adapting when those conventions are thrust upon them. In the cheerfully un-capitalist world of Kaufman and Hart’s play, the the Sycamores always get by, rejecting currency and drawing anyone willing to listen into their lifestyle. In Austen’s world, male primogeniture isn’t so easily brushed over.
Finding a way through the quagmire of societal mores that reject the Bennets’ lifestyle is one of this story’s most potent sources of drama. Wright vividly highlights the contrast between the Bennets’ world and those of the Darcys and Bingleys of the world. Wright is perhaps a bit too fond of tracking shots, especially the type that call great attention to themselves. But in this film, a long tracking shot does its job well, swerving through a house during a ball as the Bennets attempt to make it through a ball at Bingley’s estate. The tracking shot condenses a lot of story material into a sequence of a few minutes, far more than enough time to take in everything that Darcy ends up objecting to. Our greater knowledge of this family makes us sympathetic to them, but empathy for Darcy’s view is essential for this story. The shot keeps things centered on the action. Rather than seeming like a shortcut, the camera turns voyeuristic. Not in a prurient sense, but rather like Kitty and Lydia frantically going from room to room looking for gossip material.
Jane Austen films so rarely move like this. Austen’s prose is awake. When her characters aren’t speaking, Austen is moving them like chess pieces, setting up as many interesting encounters between characters as she can until the story is spent. On the DVD commentary for the film, Wright said he wanted to make the film as subjectively from her perspective as possible. We meet characters when she does. Major story beats (Bingley’s apparent rejection of Jane, Darcy’s sudden proposal, Whickam running off with Lydia) hit with such pace as to leave her breathless. Even the film’s indulgences (cinematographer Roman Osin makes constant use of how the magic hour looks on the English countryside) coincide with Lizzie’s emotions. When we take in a wide view of a cliffside, she is doing the same thing. It’s a moment to breathe for the audience, and no doubt the same for her. Likewise, a trip to Mr. Darcy’s gargantuan estate feels hushed and overwhelming. It’s a startling contrast in the difference between his wealth and Lizzie’s relative poverty, and yet the sheer beauty of it is itself breathtaking.
Matthew Macfadyen makes no attempt to make Mr. Darcy a heartthrob, and that is right for this film. It is invested in Lizzie’s perspective, it would be a mistake to make him immediately attractive, to make the audience swoon before Lizzie works through her dislike of him. Macfadyen plays Darcy as well-intentioned and socially awkward, woefully ill-equipped to match Lizzie’s initial weaponized verbal contempt. His proposal to Lizzie, and his reaction to her rejection, contains some splendidly subtle acting. Tom Hollander, as the hopelessly stiff Mr. Collins, also nails a scene where Lizzie rejects a marriage proposal. Mr. Collins is a uniquely Austenian character, and Hollander’s performance is equally unique. And somehow, Wright landed Judy Dench as Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Her role demands the sort of authority and spite that Dench can deliver in her sleep. Casts this deep are a luxury. The give every scene the opportunity to be memorable.
The BBC miniseries does cover far more of the novel. In many ways, television is an ideal format for adapting novels if your aim is to adapt as much of the written word as possible. However, Wright’s film captures the spirit of Austen more than any other adaptation I’ve seen. Above all else, it is a delight. This is not just a film about conversations, but the places where they take place. This story is driven by the heartbeats of characters driven by high tempers and emotions. A film like this discredits its material when it becomes a respectful recitation. Wright’s visual bombast works because it is in perfect synch with the massive emotional peaks and valleys of the story. There is a moment near the where Darcy and Lizzie have at last fallen in love, and they rest their heads together as the sun rises symmetrically between them. It’s Wright at his most self-indulgent. For this movie, it’s perfect.