The most harrowing passage of Room is also its most lovely. A young boy, attempting to escape a lifetime of captivity sees the full, unobscured sky for the first time. The shot holds for a long time. The boy’s face is expression is something beyond awe and disbelief. It is said that medieval mapmakers would draw dragons to represent locations yet unexplored. For 5-year-old Jake (Jacob Tremblay), the protagonist of Room, everything outside the tiny shed in which he has lived his whole life is dragons.
Room was directed by Lenny Abrahamson. Emma Donoghue adapted the screenplay from her own novel. They have created a story of remarkable focus and empathy. It opens with Jake’s mother, Joy (Brie Larson), going through their morning routine on his fifth birthday. She wakes him up. They exercise within their tiny space. They bathe together, and assemble a meager breakfast. Their groceries, we learn, are provided by someone named Old Nick. We quickly understand the situation without it being spelled out. They are being imprisoned by Old Nick. And given that Jack believes he dropped into this place he calls Room from outer space, and has no concept of the outside world, we can quickly put together the sinister reality of his conception.
Abrahamson’s commitment to Jake’s point of view almost never wavers. It allows us, people from Outside, to figure out a lot of expository detail. The toilet tank has no cover. They eat with spoons. The one knife they use to prepare food is blunted. This isn’t just a setup; the visual detail tells the story of years of failed attempts by Joy to escape, of Old Nick’s relentless covering of his bases in keeping she and Jake captive.
Larson and Tremblay don’t simply carry this movie; they uplift it to greatness. In the film’s first act, Tremblay is an innocent and Larson a focused survivor, a woman with her focus drilled to two objectives: raise her son, and when he gets old enough, escape with him. There’s an astonishing scene where she, all at once, tries to explain the outside world to him. Her frustration at his disbelief is heartbreaking. Think of a screwball set piece of maddening misunderstanding with all the humor replaced with desperation, grief, and hopelessness.
After escaping Room, Joy and Jake find themselves in a world that is permanently changed for her, and unbelievable for him. The second act, which takes place outside Room, is where Tremblay delivers one of the best performances I’ve ever seen from a child actor. Cynical critics often dismiss child actors as simply being themselves. I can’t fathom Tremblay simply doing that as he begins to explore a world that consists entirely of new things. His performance is physically and emotionally convincing, as he tries to figure out stairs, Lego, and dogs. He never falters even as he is asked to play a character like none I’ve seen before.
Room is not a film that one enjoys. It is at times unrelentingly tense, or overwhelmingly sad. But a week after seeing it I haven’t been able to shake it its power. Its characters go through horrors all too real, all too within comprehension. They emerge together. They are shaken. They are frightened. But they emerge. That in itself is more affirming and affecting than a more sentimental approach could achieve. Jake’s narration imparts no cloying wisdom. He describes things as he sees them. At the end of the film, I was happy simply that he had more to see.
There is a difference between a happy film and a film that makes me happy. OK, so those aren’t mutually exclusive categories. But I think you know what I’m getting at. It’s like the difference between a friend who has a particularly happy personality, and a friend whose presence makes you particularly happy. Both are wonderful to have around, but the respective happiness you feel with either is distinct. The former you are thrilled to see at a party. They liven everything up. They brighten everyone’s mood. The latter sort of friend is the one you find someplace quiet to talk to once the party gets loud.
The happiest film I’ve ever seen is probably My Neighbor Totoro. The happiest movie would have to be a movie about childhood. It’s not simply that it’s easier to be happy as a child. It’s that children more easily accept the possibility of wonder in everything. To a kid, My Neighbor Totoro is a reflection of the world as they see it. It is the opposite of whimsical. The happiest movie also needs to have some sadness in it. That was one of the wisest insights from this year’s wonderful Inside Out. Sadness is the companion to happiness, not the enemy. Both are part of the human experience. My Neighbor Totoro might be Hayao Miyazaki’s most deftly told story. The way he finds moments of joy that rise from moments of despair is heartbreakingly true to life. Most of the film’s sadness comes from the unending worry of two children about their mother, who is sick and hospitalized. The movie’s most joyful moment involves two children simply checking to see if their mother is doing well. This isn’t the happiest movie because it is endless sunshine. It is the happiest movie because you know the sun will eventually peak through the clouds.
The movie that makes me happiest is Whisper of the Heart. How do I define this quality? It is like an old friend. I watch it and feel immediately comfortable, warm, at peace. Your closest friends are those you know the most about; even their imperfections round them out as people and deepen your affections. The same can go for movies. I have spent much time trying to rationalize the strange ending to this movie, which involves an impromptu marriage proposal between its teenage protagonists. It’s the one time where seeing the man behind the curtain might be beneficial to the movie as a whole. Hayao Miyazaki, this time the film’s writer, decided to get preachy about the lack of commitment in “kids these days” by having these kids make an absurdly adult decision. Well, Miyazaki gets preachy sometimes. It’s how he rolls. We know that about him. The director, Yoshifumi Kondo, does his best to craft an epiphany out of the scene. Its aesthetic beauty when no one is talking is radiant. Without Miyazaki’s dialogue, it would have been a perfect ending. Its dialogue-free opening, for that matter, is perfect without qualification. It is as lovely as any movie’s, a slow descent into the Tokyo skyline at night, moving closer and closer until we are at street level. We meet the protagonist, Shizuku, leaving a store. The camera stops descending, and instead we see Shizuku walking home, waving at friends, greeting neighbors. It’s all so cozy, so alive, so familiar, so friendly without declaring it. My closest friendships are defined, for me, by their ease. We pick up where we left off, whether it’s been days or months.
It’s no surprise that Hayao Miyazaki was behind both of these films. Miyazaki’s sense of wonder is his most touted quality as a filmmaker, but I think his best is actually his ability to effortlessly capture basic emotional truths in his films and spin them into beautiful tales. When he makes a movie with the intent of delivering happiness, the screen sings.
Still, it means something to me that Yoshifumi Kondo took a Miyazaki script and turned it into the film that makes me happiest. And I wonder, sometimes, what might have been had Yoshifumi Kondo not passed away in 1998, with Whisper of the Heart as his only film. Miyazaki has made masterpiece after masterpiece. His movies are the life of the party. And it’s Kondo’s one movie that I pull away from the crowd to have a heart to heart chat on the porch.
One of the side effects of love is an inability to view the actions of those you love objectively. It’s not simply a matter of automatic approval; If they do something wrong you are more inclined to give the ones you love the benefit of the doubt, to see things from their perspective, to not simply assume the worst about them. And when they do something controversial or debatable,you view their actions in the context of how you have come to love them. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s how love works. It’s how humans operate.
What I’m saying is, you might well hate Crimson Peak. But I am incapable of viewing it objectively. Everything Guillermo del Toro has ever done has nestled so perfectly in the wrinkle of my brain that produces delight. Critics adored Pan’s Labyrinth, liked Pacific Rim, and have been bitterly divided over Crimson Peak. I could not begin to tell you how critics see any differences between those three films. I love them all the same.
I suppose if I make a serious effort to separate myself from the material, I can do the math. Pan’s Labyrinth combined a simple and dead serious war story with a tantalizing but not overdone fantasy, and deftly balanced the two, creating a tale that could be seen as either a straightforward fable or the tragic story of a girl desperate to escape from trauma. Pacific Rim was so filled to the brim with simple geeky genre pleasures that could easily be categorized as dumb fun (a categorization I fervently dispute, but that’s for another time). Crimson Peak is the sort of headlong dive into silliness that can only end in either disaster or triumph. Obviously, many see it as clearly the former. But I can’t begin to put myself in a position to understand them. God help me, I loved it. When I hear del Toro is cooking something, I don’t question it. I just shut up and enjoy it.
I admit that I’m a sucker for great visuals. Visual creativity goes a long way for me. Not just special effects of course; in fact, Crimson Peak is weak in that regard. There are a number of ghosts and ghouls that appear in this film, all rendered in underwhelming CGI. As a red rotting skeleton woman crawled across a dark hallway floor groaning for Mia Wasikowska to run for her life, I found myself missing the incredible makeup used for the creatures from from Hellboy 2.
So del Toro’s creature creation was on the fritz this time around. Why did I like Crimson Peak so much, then?
Well, imagine the a movie filled to the brim with ghosts, walls oozing red (it’s just the estate’s unique red clay, we’re assured) where blood comes out of the faucet (sorry, clay), and lots and lots and lots of stabbing and face smashing and extraordinarily bloody violence (or is it clay?). Del Toro knows this material is absurd and he approaches it with glee. I could only hate this material if it was presented with self-serious solemnity. Del Toro takes the opposite approach. This is glum, grim material, made with del Toro’s special sort of joy.
The plot concerns a young writer named Edith (Mia Wasikowska) who falls for a British aristocrat named Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). He lives with his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) in a manor that produces a very red clay that he hopes to sell on the merits of its very redness. Unsurprisingly, he is quite poor.
Edith marries Thomas and moves in with him despite crystal clear warnings from her mother’s rotting ghost to stay away from “Crimson Peak”. Again, consider that sentence. Does it make you want to see the movie? I hope so. It would win me over if I wasn’t already won.
They move into his manor in England. Oh, what a glorious manor it is. When he carries her across the threshold, they are greeted by autumn leaves falling into the entrance hall, courtesy of rot-induced sunroof. Thomas steps too hard on a floorboard, and red ooze seeps up through. Yes, clay. But come on. Del Toro wanted to create a manor that bleeds. He achieves it, and has fun with the “logic” of it all by providing an utterly goofy explanation for it. This isn’t the dumb silliness of a lesser goof. It is a gloriously goofy filmmaker let loose in a toy store of gothic horror. Everything looks magnificent and feels right. The house breathes and bleeds and ghosts crawl through the shadows. For me, that would have been enough.
But hark, there’s a story to go along with the Grand Guignol. Edith can’t seem to get Thomas to consummate the marriage (red flag). She attempts to seduce him in a room full of puppet heads (red flag). Lucille interrupts them (EDITH, RED FLAG). For some reason she seems to want to prevent their physical coupling. Edith’s greatest skill seems to be an inability to see or hear clear warning signs. Or in this case, ghosts repeatedly screaming “GET OUT”, her sister-in-law’s quest to prevent her from getting any, her walls oozing perpetually with, heh, clay, her husband trying to make a living out of the clay, and (I think this is the last one) the fact that he’s into puppets. Edith is undeterred. Edith takes Thomas to the post office to at last have sex with him in privacy.
The post office.
At this point, I remembered Roger Ebert’s review of Pulp Fiction: “I knew it was either one of the year’s best films, or one of the worst. Tarantino is too gifted a filmmaker to make a boring movie, but he could possibly make a bad one.”
I’m not saying Crimson Peak is as good as Pulp Fiction; it’s the latter portion of that quote that I’m focusing on. Del Toro will never, ever make a boring film, but he could plausibly construct a series of lurid set pieces with no coherence or story to hold them together. But somehow, the story del Toro tells in Crimson Peak coalesces into something perfect for its gorgeous silliness. Lucille and Thomas are, shockingly, hiding Very Dark Secrets. Edith is expressly forbidden to go to certain rooms and, shockingly, finds out some of these Very Dark Secrets.
Guillermo del Toro is not a one MacGuffin filmmaker. Reveals tumble over each other one after another, and the ending is less a single twist than an untying of a simmering, scandalous knot. Along the way, there is ample bloodletting, as Very Dark Secrets threaten to be revealed. Not all the oozing redness can be clay. One character suffers an unfortunate fate in the shower, and you can almost hear del Toro cackling as blood runs down the drain. Hitchcock should never have revealed that his reason for filming Psycho in black-and-white was that red blood running down a drain was too gross. He tempted generations of descendants to see for themselves. He wasn’t wrong.
Charlie Hunnam, a good actor I like quite a bit, has some scenes as Alan, a nice doctor friend of Edith’s. Poor Alan is in the wrong movie. He belongs in Downton Abbey, not here. He has no idea what he’s getting into. I feel compelled to mention him because Charlie Hunnam is a good actor I like quite a bit But Del Toro knows the score. He knows why this movie needed to happen. It needed to happen so Hunnam could sit around helpless and thoroughly stabbed while Jessica Chastain, armed with an oversized meat cleaver, could chase Mia Wasikowska, armed with a butcher knife, around the snow, everyone and everything stained with red. Some of it, I imagine, must be blood by now.
I love Undertale. I love that it has gotten a lot of praise in the press and a significant word of mouth following. And as the game has picked up a wider and wider audience, there was bound to be pushback against the near universal praise it has received. Kill Screen, a site I admire very much, recently published a mixed review of the game. The comments are already filling with readers telling the reviewer, Jake Muncy, that the game went over his head. I don’t see it that way. The review is a fair account of his experience. I don’t agree with his take, per se, but it’s absurd to tell him he was wrong in not enjoying himself. If the gameplay and structure frustrated him, that’s entirely fair criticism.
That’s all beside the point, however. What bothers me isn’t Muncy’s review, but the culture surrounding gaming criticism that sort of demands that games have universal appeal to be great. How did I get here from there? Here’s what I mean: Muncy gave Undertale a middling review because he found it largely inaccessible. Responses have insisted “no, you are wrong, you missed obvious points that would have pointed you in the right direction”. In other words, critics of Muncy’s criticism are largely defensive of the idea that Undertale is not for everyone.
The thing is, it’s not. Muncy has done no wrong here; he is simply recording his experience with the game, which is a critic’s job. It doesn’t negate anyone else’s experience, positive or negative.
On the other hand, to Muncy and critics of Undertale, I would say this: Perhaps it’s a good thing that Undertale was hard for you to get into. I don’t mean that pretentiously. I mean that if a second and third hand at the development wheel other than Fox had fine-tuned the difficult and muddled aspects of the game, that it might have diluted Fox’s voice. And it’s the potency of Fox’s voice that people who love the game are responding to. In just about every other art form, we accept the pratfalls of great artists for the heights of their visions. If you tell Terrence Malick to find a plot and knock it off with sunbeams already, it wouldn’t be a Terrence Malick movie. It’s time for gaming to get on that boat.
Gaming is the one medium where we expect something that is an unqualified masterpiece to also have a sort of universal appeal to it. We obsess over Metacritic scores. When a game scores more than 90, we pick it apart, either justifying the grade or decrying it. We expect games made largely by huge teams of people to both move us like poetry and entertain us like a wild dream. I’m guilty of participating in this cycle. We rarely see this “praise/backlash/backlash to the backlash” cycle in other mediums to this level, especially with independently developed titles. And it’s sort of silly. It sort of goes without saying that in film, music, painting, even comic books, important works will also be challenging in ways that limit their overall appeal. We accept “well, this movie didn’t do it for me” more easily than “this game isn’t quite the masterpiece you say it is”. Yes, part of that is how personal our favorite games feel to us, but I think it’s something more. We want games that are universally beloved. We want games that do everything for everyone, that satisfy twitch gaming impulses as well as our desire for a rich, interactive story. And I think that universal desire for the universal “great game” is holding gaming back. Rich storytelling is rarely designed to appeal to everyone.
Undertale is an important work in gaming, because it is such an uncommonly singular expression, a story told by one person how they wanted to tell it. It is unvarnished, ambitious vision, the likes of which we rarely get in this medium. It’s almost impossible in AAA games. Even when a developer with a strong voice controls the story of a AAA title, like Ken Levine and Bioshock Infinite, too many concessions end up being made to make the game as widely accessible as possible. The story becomes watered down, reliant on cliche, and unsatisfying. But it’s rare even in indie game development for a game to be so focused in its expression and intent as Undertale. That makes it special, even if Toby Fox’s design choices make the game inaccessible for many. Fox is telling this story how he wants to tell it. That flies in the face of how we are used to playing games. It’s no surprise that much of the backlash aimed at Undertale has focused on the gameplay muddling the story. And it’s unfortunate that the response to that backlash seems to be insistence that people who did not enjoy the game are wrong. If you loved Undertale like I did, its value is in how it moved you, not in making sure everyone else has your exact experience.
As much as I love this game, I understand those who find the cries of “Play it twice!” from its fans maddening, who dislike the bullet hell aspects of the gameplay or who find its storytelling muddy and vague. It’s like with Terrence Malick movies: I get why you don’t respond to it even if I love it, but the movies need visionaries, whose works have the potential to inspire epiphanies in those they do connect with, even if half the audience finds it impenetrable. That’s the tradeoff that keeps art moving forward. We need more games like Undertale. And we need to start getting used to the reality that for gaming to advance as a medium for artistic expression, we need more titles that don’t please everyone.
In my efforts to get as many people to play Undertale (one of the best games I have ever played) as possible, I have tried to avoid spoilers in this piece. However, for a truly fresh Undertale experience, you might want to avoid reading this until you’ve played it.
As a child, I didn’t comprehend death until a whole bunch of it hit my family all at once. When I was five years old, over a six month span aunt died at 23 of bone cancer, my grandfather died at 62 of pancreatic cancer, and my uncle died at 30 after he was struck in his car by a drunk driver. I learned then, before I knew much else about anything, that death was permanent, that death disabled entire families (some temporarily, some permanently), that death presented a wall of grief that simply has to be endured until every individual affected has the strength to move on, on their own terms.
As I grew older, the stories I consumed pretty much ignored all that.
In stories, death is typically a device. It is an obstacle for a hero to avoid. It is a convenient way of setting stakes. It is a means of taking large numbers of enemies out of the equation and assuring that they will not bother you again. It is a way of showing how much a character has changed, for the good (in how and why they face death) or for the bad (usually in inflicting it). This is not inherently a bad thing. Storytelling relies on tension. To create tension, characters need to have something to worry about. Death is hard to beat in that regard. Of the greatest TV dramas of all-time, how many didn’t rely on the possibility of death to provide impetus for the plot? Breaking Bad, The Wire, The Sopranos, Deadwood- all had death and killing around every corner. The same for Lost, The-X-Files, 24, and Game of Thrones.
Or what about films? Of the AFI’s top 50 films, by my count 35 feature death as a major plot point. Citizen Kane opens with the protagonist’s final breath. The Godfather is about a man’s descent into cold-blooded killing. Shane is about a man’s inability to escape a life of killing. Some Like it Hot is about two men who witness a murder and go on the run. Death moves stories forward. It’s natural to use to it to that effect. But sometimes, I wish more stories reflected on the aftermath. Sometimes, I wish more stories were about what happens when it feels like everything is crashing down at once, because someone you know and love has died. The way death affects the living is different for everyone. Stories are rarely about this.
That video games feature killing and death goes without saying. Ludonarrative dissonance permanently entered the gaming thinkpiece lexicon a few years ago as it became harder and harder to sympathize with a protagonist who commits mass slaughter simply to move the plot forward. I remember checking the stats while playing Uncharted 2 and seeing that I had amassed more than 900 kills and wasn’t close to finishing the game. The sheer absurdity of the number made it impossible not to imagine Nathan Drake- the game’s jovial and good-hearted protagonist- as a harbinger of death, wiping out entire bloodlines. It’s easier to make no attempt to reconcile the dissonance. It’s easier to accept it and get back to having fun.
My favorite work of literature about death is James Joyce’s short story The Dead. It’s title is up front about its theme, no? And yet the story itself meanders through a day in a man’s life, not broaching its titular subject until the very end. You’ve probably read it. If you haven’t, please do so now. It won’t take that long. The plot isn’t really about death. It’s about a man named Gabriel who builds his ego up a bit too much over a speech at a Christmas party. He hears someone singing “The Lass of Aughrim” in another room. He gives the speech. He is proud of himself. He is flushed with affection for his wife, Gretta. On the way to their hotel for the night, he asks her how she feels. Gretta reflects sadly on a boy she’d loved when she was young. He sang “The Lass of Aughrim” to her. Got caught in the rain. Died. Snow falls. Gabriel reflects on how this young man whose life was so short, who accomplished so little during it, could still so deeply affect his wife. They are all still bound together. The dead never really abandon the living. Humanity is in a perpetual state of overlap, those who knew the dead keep living, passing on their memories to others who never knew them. Joyce writes: His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
We never leave Gabriel’s point of view. Somehow, by the story’s end, we know Michael Furey. Time stopped for Gretta when he died. Sometimes, it still does.
Undertale. What does that title evoke? Graves, perhaps. A vague sense of the unknown. It takes place in a world of monsters. You are thrown into this world with no preparation. Early on, one monster asks you very kindly, to please have mercy when you get into a fight. This is easier said than done. You play the game as you are accustomed to doing with these games. Fight monsters, defeat them, level up. Progress through the story. But this game gives you options. You don’t have to fight. And if you do, you don’t have to fight to the death. Granted, it can be hard. But you don’t have to. You are reminded of this regularly. A character you kill might be referenced by someone else later on in the game. Characters you speak to might mention a frightening entity who has come down from above, killing innocents. But this isn’t new. You move on. You reach the end, beat the game. There’s much, much more to it than that, but I’m trying leave this experience as fresh as possible. The first playthrough of Undertale took me about six hours, and I enjoyed every minute.
After winning, the game does something that was surprising when it happened and, in hindsight, is sort of remarkable.
It asks you to play again. With absolutely no killing.
Is this a gimmick? It might look to be. It’s not. It’s where Undertale becomes something truly remarkable.
One of my favorite films about death is The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Have you seen it? There’s a good chance you haven’t. It was directed by and stars Tommy Lee Jones, and written by Guillermo Arriaga. It generated some buzz at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, where Jones won best actor and Arriaga won best screenplay. It came and went in February 2006, earned mostly strong reviews, grossed less than $10 million. I believe it’s one of the best films ever made about the living and the dead.
Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cellido) is a rancher in southern Texas. Pete Perkins (Jones) is his work partner and closest friend. Estrada (this isn’t a spoiler, look at the title) is killed senselessly by a border patrol agent (Barry Pepper) who, as men in positions of power and holding weapons that kill often do, fires without regard. The agent attempts to cover up the killing. Pete digs deep, finds out what happened, and exacts justice. A normal telling of this story would involve revenge. Eye for an eye. A killing for a killing. Death as a device. Jones and Arriaga have a better story to tell than that. Pete wants the agent to see what he has done. To honor the life he stole. Pete kidnaps the agent and takes him on a journey to Melquiades’s home town in Mexico. To say any more would be to spoil the quiet richness of this film. In refusing the easier path, it finds truth and beauty. Revenge makes for shallow stories. Pete’s method of justice accomplishes something deeper. He makes sure his friend is not forgotten. He ensures that Melquiades will survive for unforgiving march of time.
On my second playthrough of Undertale, I noticed a detail in one of the first locations. A diary. Its contents were amusing at first. Knowing their full context is impossible without beating the game once. Seeing it again, I felt my spirits lift with a sort of happy recognition, its meaning coming full circle., before falling back down with sadness, knowing its full context.
I found myself being more careful. Not just refusing to fight. Getting to know characters I hadn’t talked to before. Talking my way out of conflicts that I thought could only be resolved through violence. I found myself unlocking new relationships, new stories, and even new places in the game. I was more than happy with the novelty of this experience, of how different the game was with this approach. Then I neared the end.
A character who’d been my adversary in both playthroughs found themselves changed by my actions. They wanted to change. But time was running out for them. I hadn’t fought them. As in life, death comes to all, one way or another. I was given the chance to reach out to them, to forgive them for our differences. They reached out physically and embraced me. I don’t want to let go, they said.
They were the first character to die in this playthrough. I was moved to tears. Screw that. I was sobbing. Games are so often rife with death. Undertale, more than any I’ve ever played, is about the dead, as well as the living. It’s a game where the dead are meant to be remembered. And for the living in their wake, time stops.
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.