Take your most cherished, important relationship. Draw a line from now back until the day you met. What do you see? Memories. A collection of past events that shape your relationships. The present is fleeting and the future isn’t here yet. We use the past to try to shape what comes next. What if the very beginning of your relationships were suddenly changed? Adjust the angle of any line just a bit and it no longer aligns with what it used to. By the end of the line, it’s in an unrecognizable place. 45 Years, an extraordinary film written and directed by Andrew Haigh, is about a couple whose four-and-a-half decade marriage is shaken by an adjustment to that line, a literal unearthing of a tragedy that occurred before they met.
Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate (Charlotte Rampling) are less than a week away from their 45th wedding anniversary when he gets a letter. It’s in German, but he can make out enough of it to get the news. Fifty years ago, he went to the Alps with his girlfriend, a German woman named Katya. She fell into a crevasse and died, her body disappearing in ice and snow. He moved on, married Kate. They are now living in apparent contentment. Then comes the letter, letting Geoff know that Katya’s body has been found, preserved in the ice.
Over the next few days, Geoff and Kate attempt to reckon with this news. Geoff vacillates between going to see Katya’s body in Switzerland and not. Kate tries to live her life as if nothing has changed until she can no longer. It’s clear that Katya was one of the two most important people in all of Geoff’s life. It’s possible that she is still the most important.
What a stark, human story this is. Its premise is so specific and odd (based on a short story by David Constantine) that it could easily have run off the rails into melodrama. But Courtenay and Rampling deliver such measured, vibrant performances that the film feels like it’s happening in the present moment. Their marriage isn’t suddenly upended by this discovery. The ramifications develop more slowly. Geoff needs time to discover just how much his grief over Katya’s death still affects him. Kate needs time to figure out how much she needs to reevaluate her position in Geoff’s life, and how much what he never told her about Katya matters to her.
Their conversations about the topic are realistic. They feel rooted in the decades of their relationship. Not one word sounds like a writer trying to manufacture drama. Kate tries to be pragmatic at first. Geoff tries to act like the news is only a fleeting worry. Their nightly conversations in bed reveal truths neither wants to acknowledge. Their attic becomes a sanctuary of secrets for them both. Kate realizes that Geoff is looking at old pictures of Katya in the attic while she sleeps, and demands to see them. She looks at a photo, puts it down, and goes back to bed. For a moment, both of them betrayed their true feelings more than they intended, and she seems frightened by that.
45 Years leans heavily on Courtenay and Rampling to carry it, to give us an understanding of their marriage in only a few scenes, and to invest us in it. They deliver. Consider a scene where Geoff wonders aloud if the library has books about climate change. In the next scene, Geoff and Kate are in a cafe, with Geoff reading a large book on the subject, talking about an impending glacial tsunami. You could argue that the dialogue is symbolic about Katya, whose body was found in a glacier. However, my biggest takeaway was how absolutely convincing, even charming these two were as a couple, and how realistic this scene was. Characters are so rarely allowed to talk to one another about the silly little things real people talk about. Their gestures and mannerisms carry decades of understanding, love, and frustration.
Later, there is a stunning sequence when Kate finds old slides with pictures of Katya. She looks at them through a projector while Geoff is out of the house. Rampling’s reactions to the images feature some of the best acting you’ll see in a film this year. Her heart seems to break three ways, betrayed only in slight shifts in her eyes.
The ambiguity of the ending of 45 Years might frustrate some. I thought it worked. The final shot is a stunner, a gorgeous, dialogue-free unbroken take that aims for poetry over definitive conclusions. 45 Years does not attempt to answer if Geoff and Kate’s marriage is forever altered, or even destroyed, by the re-introduction of Katya into their narrative. The story takes place entirely in the days leading up to and during their anniversary party. The full effect of Katya cannot realistically play out in that time. This isn’t a story about the aftermath of a tsunami; it’s about how the ripples of the beginning of the story become the visible crest of a wave at the end.
Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant is a gorgeous depiction of terrible things happening. I wish there was more to say about it than that. Many harrowing events unfold; as empathetic people we wince and cringe and remember that this is based on a true story, so there’s decent chance some of this awful stuff really did happen. It looks lovely. It’s very well acted. And aside from its intermittent gross-outs, I can’t recall much else that it made me feel.
OK, so I’m a sucker for good visuals. Let’s talk about those for a bit. Emmanuel Lubezki has nature photography down. We knew this ten years ago when he was nominated for an Oscar (which he should have won) for Terrence Malick’s The New World. Look, I’m an unabashed Lubezki fan. Whether he’s working with Malick, Alfonso Cuaron, or Iñárritu, his camera swoops into the scene and skittishly looks around like someone getting their bearings. His wide shots are always painterly but not overly luxe; pretty as they are they’re still doing their job of setting the scene. And when situations call for mud, blood, and spittle, he makes sure we feel caked in it.
I just wish it was in service of a movie that was about something more than its face value. Many things happen in The Revenant, but there’s not much under the surface. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a tracker and hunter and guide for a large hunting party. The group of 40 is reduced to 8 in the opening minutes, when a party of Arikara warriors attack the hunters’ camp. The survivors include Hugh’s son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Fitzgerald wears villainy like a medal. He repeatedly makes clear that he cares more about making his money from this excursion than any individual’s life. He tries to goad Hawk, who is half-Pawnee, into attacking him with racist diatribes. All of this is before Hugh is attacked by a bear, after which Fitzgerald really gets his evil on.
The bear attack scene has been widely talked about, and rightly so. It is a spectacular set-piece. The Revenant comes alive during its action sequences, and this one is a standout. It’s a harrowing single-take sequence that uses that technique well; it refuses to look away from the horror, keeping us trapped up close as Glass fights for his life. When it’s over, Glass is so shredded we wonder how he doesn’t bleed out in seconds. It seems likely that only the bitter cold keeps him from succumbing to infection.
This sequence, plus the attack that opens the film, are The Revenant at its best. The technical craft is so sublime, the tension so brutal that it’s impossible not to be riveted. The problem is, the film is 2 hours and 36 minutes long.
No amount of time is inherently too long for a movie, of course; a bad 90 minute film feels longer than a good 3 hour film. The Revenant‘s biggest issue isn’t its length; it’s that it doesn’t use that time to amount to much. Once Hugh Glass is abandoned by his men, the film becomes about his survival. He goes through a gauntlet of terrible things. There comes a point where these ordeals are no longer inherently riveting. He doesn’t grow as a character. Nor does anyone else. Fitzgerald, who abandons Hugh for dead and murders Hawk in the process, only grows more brazenly evil as the film progresses. Hardy, to his credit, gives this character his all. He could have gnashed his teeth and wrung his hands and cackled the whole time and it would have been more in spirit with how Fitzgerald is written. Hardy is a very charismatic actor. We reflexively want to assume his characters have depth, but Fitzgerald is maddeningly one-dimensional; his scenes consist of his doing bad things or insisting that those bad things are justified. Are more nuanced antagonist would have done wonders to give this film, and Hugh’s desire for revenge, more weight.
Hugh’s journey does have some interesting moments. He meets a wandering Pawnee hunter who feeds him, builds him a shelter, and helps him recover from his injuries. The film does a decent job of bringing First Nations characters to prominence. For example, the Arikara chief who leads the raid that opens the film is looking for his daughter, who has been kidnapped by white hunters. We also get glimpses of Hugh’s earlier life, how he lived for some time with a Pawnee tribe and fell in love with Hawk’s mother. These interludes are welcome, but feel stretched thin by the long running time.
Unfortunately, for all its beauty, The Revenant simply isn’t interesting. For the most part, it’s not even as harrowing as you’d expect. A series of unfortunate events is not inherently fascinating; we have to be invested in the people going through them. Hugh survives ordeal after ordeal, and once in a while reminds us that he wants revenge on Fitzgerald by carving “Fitzgerald killed my son” into the earth. But we don’t see him grow or change or express much emotion aside from desperation. The third act feels like it should be triumphant or cathartic or something, but it all feels obligatory. There’s been no narrative buildup, and thus no satisfying payoff. It’s not a boring film; it’s just not gripping. It’s always beautiful, and the performances are all strong. This isn’t DiCaprio’s best performance, but it might be his most… well, “most” by itself is a pretty good descriptor. He is asked to portray a man who begins his story already a weathered shell of a person and whose only arc is to slowly transform into leather. He does this as well as I imagine it can be done. DiCaprio has always been best at broad, big emotive acting, and he has ample opportunity for that here. It’s not surprising he’s the Oscar frontrunner; he doesn’t have a killer monologue, but I sense that won’t matter voters when they see him desperately carving out a dead horse’s guts to use the carcass as a shelter. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is much like the horse corpse he turns into a bed; bloody, messy, and pretty hollow.
I watched The Big Short about 12 hours after I watched Ex Machina. Ever in search of patterns, I looked within this time. Here was a film I enjoyed easily with only a few hiccups. Ex Machina left me exasperated as often as it had me hypnotized. And yet, if pressed to arbitrarily pick one (because hey, sometimes movie watching choices come down to that) I’d likely recommend Ex Machina over The Big Short, despite my numerous frustrations with the former. What gives?
Well, think of it this way: Ex Machina is a film of significant ambition that couldn’t quite figure put its pieces together perfectly. The whole assembly is a bit of a mess, but from certain angles it’s astonishing. The Big Short is much easier to appreciate at first. Its edges are sharp and its surfaces polished. But no particular angle makes me stop and gasp. It’s not particularly more than the sum of its parts either. Its aims are obvious, less starry-eyed than Ex Machina. It is an entertaining story of several men who predicted an impending economic collapse that just about no one else in the world saw coming. It delivers the goods, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
To be fair, in delivering those goods, director/writer Adam McKay and writer Charles Randolph have to work around some serious inside baseball. The Big Short is laden with financial jargon that made me appreciate how Moneyball must have read to people who knew as little about baseball as I do about investing. To explain some of the more important, inscrutable terms, the film regularly breaks the fourth wall. A string of celebrity cameos (including
Malin Akerman Margot Robbie in a bathtub, Anthony Bourdain preparing fish stew, and Selena Gomez playing blackjack) explain mortgage bonds and CDOs in layman’s terms. These moments are actually quite helpful, considering how much understanding at least the gist of the subprime mortgage crisis is necessary to follow the story. But the movie overplays this hand; characters regularly stop mid-scene to deliver monologues into the camera, often to let us in on details that could easily have been provided without interrupting the scene, or that add nothing to the narrative but a wink. It becomes repetitive to the point of monotony; moments like when a character admits that a scene that played out didn’t really happen are too clever by half. Breaking the fourth wall is best used as flavoring, not a course.
Still, The Big Short is far more energetic than not. It’s aided by a set of three lead performances that aim all over the comic spectrum and land on both feet. Christian Bale provides most of the movie’s pulse as Michael Burry, a hedge fund manager whose relentless attention to detail lets him see, as clearly as if he’s reading Cliff’s Notes, that the US housing market is doomed to collapse within two years. Burry is single-minded but not unfriendly; he spends days in his office working, reading every word of every detail he can find about the housing market He bets more than $1 billion shorting the housing market, making his clients apoplectic. When confronted, he presents his findings matter-of-factly; they aren’t debatable, he says. Housing will collapse. His boss looks at him like he’s speaking in tongues.
Elsewhere, Trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) hears about Burry’s work and does some digging himself. Dollar signs in his eyes, he goes looking for business partners to short the housing market with; he’s laughed out of room after room, only finding a willing ear in hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carrell). Baum is in this profession for god knows what reasons; he despises the banks and seemingly anyone who makes any money from them. He’s open to Vennett primarily because he is so unsurprised that bankers would run a sure like housing unto the ground.
Ryan Gosling is one of the few actors who could make Vennett’s unapologetic profiteering work. His character isn’t likable, but he’s so open in his motives and gobsmacked at this opportunity that so few other can see in front of him that his attitude becomes, against our best instincts, infectious. It’s in addressing the morality of profiting off of a worldwide catastrophe that The Big Short gets a bit muddled. This isn’t a film that needs a moral center, but it would help to have a consistent viewpoint. Aside from Vennett’s zeal for profit, there’s Burry’s straightforward practicality (he’s simply doing his job, basically) and Baum’s crisis of conscience (he almost gives up at the end rather than make money off of the misfortune of others). There’s an entire separate plotline involving two twenty-something investors (played by John Magaro and Fill Wittrock) who also cash in on the meltdown, aided by a banker-turned-hippie Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt). When they begin to celebrate, he chides them, spelling out statistically how many people will suffer as they’re raking in the money.The film’s coda is essentially a warning about how the banks are going to continue this cycle of pursuing profit at everyone’s expense. It’s a worthwhile message, but it doesn’t feel at one with the film that preceded it.
These characters aren’t the cause of the crisis, of course, but The Big Short seems less than eager to explore the moral conflicts it raises. It uses broad strokes (at one point Carrell literally says “this makes me no better than them” before reluctantly cashing in) or glib winks (when Gosling speaks to the camera one last time to rub in how happy he is with his success, regardless of what we think of him). In not engaging with its characters beyond their place as the pieces in an inherently interesting story, The Big Short limits its scope and narrative impact. I don’t blame McKay. He tells a fascinating tale with a lot of humor and energy. I learned a lot about a subject I might never have otherwise. The film does good work simply in educating a wide audience on a subject we all really ought to know about. This isn’t a frustrating film. But my frustrations with Ex Machina came from a place of love for what it did well and a desire to see more of that. The Big Short goes down easy, but it never compelled me to want more.
I saw myself in Brooklyn. Not my own story. I am not Irish. I am not a young woman, nor was I alive in 1952. I doubt I would ever be played by Saoirse Ronan. The events in Brooklyn don’t much reflect my own life. But watching the film I felt the warm familiarity of stories told to me by my mother. She was not officially an immigrant (she was born in Georgia to an American father and a Filipina mother and grew up in the Philippines) but her stories were often filled with the same feelings of loneliness and discovery that are at the heart of Brooklyn. Thirty-nine years ago, she was in Montreal with the University of the Philippines classical chorus as they went on a world tour. Their bus had a minor accident. Everyone got off. Seizing the opportunity for a totally new life, she never got back on. I wouldn’t be here if she hadn’t done that. If I have any children, they will owe their existence to that decision. At some point in the bloodlines of most of the people who live in this country, someone came here from somewhere else. Brooklyn is a pure and lovely story of a young woman making that decision. In its specificity, its details, and in a magnificent performance by Saoirse Ronan, it finds depth and truth. Like the films of Ozu, it holds a mirror to our souls.
“Bright Star” was the poem that hooked me on John Keats. It’s one of his best known, of course, but when you fall in love with a work of art, it always seems made for you. I was a sophomore in college, interested in the Romantics, pouring over their work. Here was a poem that captured my interests, my view of the world, my dreams both good and bad, in 100 words. When you’re 19, the world seems open and ready for you to take. And everything that seems to grand about it can be dwarfed by a single moment of feeling. It can be love. It can be despair. Your sense of scope is constantly in flux.
Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors: Red is among the films I love most of all. I like to say to my friends that I don’t have a favorite movies list. Differentiating and ranking them is too painful. Instead, I have a pyramid. The very top level of the pyramid is where my favorite films reside. Princess Mononoke. Children of Men. The Godfather. A Streetcar Named Desire. It is here that I keep Red.
Red states its thesis in its first moments. This is a poetic film that doesn’t want to be difficult to decipher, because solving it isn’t the point. The magnificent opening shot of telephone cables snaking underground, underwater, across Europe, has the same effect at ground level as the shots of the cosmos in The Tree of Life: We’re all part of this canvas. We’re all connected. Let’s talk.
The film proceeds to be about people who have trouble with talking. We follow them as they run into each other, miss each other, circle each other, and occasionally learn to talk, to communicate, to empathize. The common thread that binds them all? They all dream. And they’re all terrified that their dreams have long faded.
The protagonist is a model named Valentine. On the surface, she is doing well. She has been chosen to model for a bubble gum company’s billboard. Her face towers over the streets of Geneva. She calls her boyfriend in London. Just from the phone calls, we can tell he’s possessive and distant. She reads the paper and sees her brother’s name. That’s never good news. She has a full schedule, but she’s unhappy.
A typical story would have her find someone to fall in love with, and all her problems would magically be solved. Kieślowski is far more interested in poetry than that.
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,–
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
I was panicked the spring when my sister graduated from college. I was a freshman the same year she transferred to my school. Having been homeschooled through high school, I wasn’t exactly well versed in walking up to and befriending strangers. Thankfully, my sister was. And in the vast swath of friends she made in her time in school, I was all too happy to let her be my comfort zone. I made a lot of friends through her. But they all graduated when she did. I was facing three more years of school and everyone I knew and liked was graduating.
It ended up being the best thing that happened to me. I’m a deeply anxious person, but sometimes living within one of your most anxiety-inducing situations can be a great way of learning to solve them. I took a deep breath and plunged in. Many of my closest friends to this day are people I met in the two ensuing Septembers.
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.
The Judge is a strange, bitter man. The particular events of his life seem not to matter so much as their sum. He has no one. His last connection to humanity is his habit of listening in to his neighbors’ phone calls. Kieślowski asks us to believe that Valentine would befriend this troubled old man. Somehow, we do. She may not be a happy person, but she has not yet abandoned all hope of real connection to humanity. For the Judge, happiness and sadness are beside the point; he’s not depressed so much as he is drifting blindly. By choosing to insert herself into his life, Valentine hopes to provide mooring. He becomes part of canvas again.
At some point this year (right around when I wrote my article about Blue Ruin) I fell into one of the worst emotional ruts of my life. I’ll spare you the precise details, but perhaps the one thing that was keeping me going as a freelance- my belief in my ability to write- fell apart. For a few weeks, I was listless and distraught. I had put so much into writing, and I felt as if it had slipped away, permanently. I could barely get out of bed. I felt like I was floating through each day aimlessly. I had spent years trying to improve my writing, going to journalism school, loving movies and writing about them, and for a few weeks it all felt pointless. I was 28 years old and drifting, having wasted all my time. I thought my dreams had passed me by. I was ready to give it up. For the first time, I felt completely unmoored.
What got me out of it? Well, I realized I was still very much part of a canvas. I, who had once worried that I was incapable of connecting with people, found myself being pulled back into reality by my friends. One of my grad school teachers reached out to me, talked to some people, gave me some great contacts. My future as a freelancer is suddenly quite promising. The friends I made in those Septembers that I’d once dreaded as a socially anxious 19 year old have been my rocks. My family; so persistently there for me that I can make the mistake of taking them for granted; re-bolstered their support for me. I pulled myself back into humanity, and my dreams came back into focus, back within the scope of reality.
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
-“Ode on a Grecian Urn”
Every English major thinks they know what this ending means. I think falling in love with Keats involves letting trying to solve this line go. The approach I take now would have infuriated college-me: how does it make you feel?
Well, for me, this line completely humanizes a young man who died at 25, 194 years ago, leaving behind only letters and poetry. It tells me he looked at an ancient object and saw it rife with stories that would never be told. It tells me that he never, never stopped looking for the beauty in all things, whether he was writing about joy, about depression, about death, about love. Keats bled into everything he wrote. He is on the same canvas as I am. I sometimes feel like I owe it to him to keep writing. I will never write as well as him, but he inspired me to write, so I continue to do so.
In college, I remember having a brief debate in a film class about which of the Three Colors films was the best: Blue, White, or Red? My professor was adamant that it was Blue, a deeply moving and sad story of a woman coping with the loss of her husband and child. But it’s always Red for me. Its greatest stroke of genius is its ending, which doesn’t just call back to Blue and White: it pulls them into its canvas and includes them as part of its emotional coda. The characters from all three films appear on screen and we see the judge smile. At the beginning of the film, the sight of them wouldn’t have affected him in the slightest. But by the end of the film, he is not just in Valentine’s orbit; everyone, in all three films, and perhaps the world, is a possibility. It’s never too late to be part of the canvas. You probably never left in the first place.
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.
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.