‘1,000 Times Good Night’ presents a family portrait torn by a mother’s zeal for danger — a film review
October 25, 2014
It’s not always another person that can get between two lovers. In his first English-language film, Norwegian director Erik Poppe finds inspiration by looking to his own experiences and the dissolution of his marriage during a time when he was a war photographer. With 1,000 Times Good Night he presents a woman who is so caught up in her work she will risk not only her life, but her place as a mother to follow her ideology. There’s an empowerment of gender in his choice to explore his story through a woman’s perspective, but it also never softens the sacrifice involved, and Poppe delivers the point in a nerve-racking opening scene with hardly any dialogue, as a good photographer-turned-filmmaker would.
Juliette Binoche plays Rebecca, who has somehow found a way to photograph the ritual of a female suicide bomber as she heads out to detonate herself. The film’s title alludes to the explosive-laden vest and the ritual, but also reflects on Rebecca’s personal notion of martyrdom for her own ideology, though she prefers not to recognize it. When her zeal to get as close to the explosion as possible starts to clash with her conscience, she inevitably gets hurt. Though she survives, physical wounds reverberate to emotional difficulties that affect her entire family, which includes two daughters — one a child, the other a teenager — and a husband, played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau.
The film plays with the dynamic between husband and wife as if another lover has come between them. After Rebecca’s husband Marcus takes her home from the hospital, there’s a tension of something profoundly unmentionable between them. The two are almost on entirely different wavelengths about what has happened, and they dare not speak about it. That the movie shows this with hardly any dialogue, speaks to the performances and Poppe’s eye for showing a story rather than relying on heavy-handed exposition.
The film takes its time to follow a neat story arc that ends with a significant pay-off that will hopefully lead to some growth for this woman, but it will not come without sacrifice. These people have issues, and they keep them inside for some time. The film appropriately has to spend some time in tense silence for much of the early part of the film so that it might allow the audience to appreciate and contemplate a genuine tension between the couple. It will then earn the confrontation between the two when one of them finally finds the courage to say something about the ever-widening gulf between them.
Coster-Waldau and Binoche rivet the film with strong performances. The actors deliver in both silence and the inevitable explosion of their repressed feelings. When Marcus confronts Rebecca about how her work has detrimental effects on the family, Binoche transmits the pain and shame of having been trapped between her family and a passion for her work as if she had been caught in an infidelity. It’s a brilliant moment that reveals the silent precision of Binoche’s acting chops. Throughout the movie, Binoche never seems lost in some haze of ambiguity. This is a woman of convictions, and she carries that burden heavily.
The film has a conscience, but it also explores the flip side, which is the pain of sacrifice one makes for ideals, and it’s complex impact on loved ones. There’s a moment when Rebecca schools her elder daughter Steph (Lauryn Canny) on the problems in Africa, the role of corporations in those problems, including a lack of human rights and the news business’ interest in celebrity photographs over her war journalism. Steph has an admiration for her mother informed by her love for not only a mother but also a hero standing up for human rights. But that love will be put to the test at a refugee camp in Kenya, which a colleague tells Rebecca is completely safe for her to bring her daughter to.
This refugee camp is the site of another intense sequence of danger when marauding rebels come in with AK-47s blasting. Rebecca cannot seem to contain her impulsiveness to get shots of the conflict, despite leaving her tearful daughter to enter the melee. It might seem illogical for a parent to do that, but Binoche is so good at capturing the passion of this woman she genuinely sells her as someone who can hardly control her addiction to adrenaline. It almost seems like a reflex for the woman, as not even the worried tears of her daughter can sway her from her job.
The film could have easily drowned itself in over-the-top melodrama, but it never does thanks to the carefully modulated acting of Binoche and the patient, deliberate construction of the story by Poppe and his co-writers. 1,000 Times Good Night does not glamorize the photographer. It presents her as a torn person who never seems whole without her camera and conflict but still understands her place as a mother. Poppe’s personal experience informs this complex character profoundly, and because he once was that person, he understands an end point will come. Whether a family can survive this force in their life is never fully resolved, but he builds toward a finale that shows there may be a wake-up call coming for this woman, and it relies on much of the film’s painstakingly constructed drama.
Note: Read my interview with Coster-Waldau on this movie, working with Binoche and his personal investment in his character here:
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau talks about bringing personal experience to his role in ‘1,000 Times Good Night’
1,000 Times Good Night runs 117 minutes and is not rated (contains violence and language). It opened in South Florida this past Friday at the Bill Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables and the Tower Theater in Miami. It’s opening across the U.S. right now. To see other play dates across the nation, visit this link. Film Movement provided a screener link for the purpose of this review.
Before the very first stark image hits you, Fury director David Ayer unnerves the audience with a simple title card describing the all-out war they are about to witness. The text establishes this is 1945, the end of World War II and U.S. troops are advancing on Berlin. Hitler’s forces are down to recruiting children and old men to fight, but they still have tanks that outgun the comparably puny Shermans of the U.S. army. Then the land fades up from black. It’s all gray and black mud, destroyed war machines and crumpled, muddied bodies. The camera tracks and tracks across this for enough time to set up that this is not a film out to glamorize or romanticize war but to present it as stark and as harrowing as Hollywood can.
For the most part, Ayer succeeds. Forgiving an early sequence that tries too hard to reveal the heart of Brad Pitt’s character Don “Wardadddy” Callier, where he frees a horse from an SS officer, the film’s power lies in its ability to present the unforgiving quality of war. Soldiers are burned alive and torn apart. Faces are removed and bodies burst below tank tracks. These events of horror occur in the film’s first 20 minutes. “This ain’t pretty,” Don tells his new, fresh-faced co-pilot Norman (Logan Lerman). “This is what we do.”
Ayer not only stages vicious battles and skirmishes but presents aftermath as horror: stacks of squishy, gelatinous body parts quivering in rumbling truck beds and even a bit of stiff, pancaked human road kill. He does it all in sharp, steady deep focus. Unlike Spielberg, who, in Saving Private Ryan, stylized his presentation of war violence by enhancing the imagery with tints, shaky camera movements and ratcheted shutter speeds, Ayer wants to present something more unadulterated. Even the interior of the titular tank is far from romantic. Besides photos of loved ones, there is nothing but cold, hard metal bits, much of which blocks out the faces and bodies of the five-member tank crew. They have been consumed by this machine and are only partly human. They are family and hive with various capacities in making “Fury” run while trying to cling to their individual tiny, salvageable bits of humanity.
All actors deserve nods for realizing their characters. Michael Peña’s Mexican character, Trini Garcia, nicknamed “Gordo,” the tank’s driver, handles anxiety with cool determination. Don refers to Jon Bernthal’s Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis as an animal when we meet him trying to fix a broken-down “Fury” on a smouldering battlefield. Bernthal infuses Grady with an unstable sort of menace, even when he tries to show affection to his mates by tugging at their ears and noses. Then there’s Boyd “Bible” Swan played with tortured heart by the too often underrated Shia LaBeouf. His Bible-quoting could have easily been a contrivance had LaBeouf not brought such expressive heart to his character. He’s a focused psychotic but also has great affection for those in his company. Sadness and anger with righteous Christian logic used to rationalize behavior never appeared more conflicted.
Yes, they are a motley crew, but to fault the film on that means you should fault all ensemble adventure films for such tropes since John Ford’s Stagecoach. It’s Ayer’s unflinching sensibility that makes the film stand out as a statement film because this is not entertainment. This is a nerve-rattling confrontation with the sublime. The tank battles are not CGI, and the effect only enhances the weight of their power on soft humans — both internally and considering the unforgiving science of visceral matter. Ayer’s only enhancement to the tension is a score by Steven Price featuring swelling, rhythmic horns, voices and timpani and bass drums, but it’s plenty enough to tune into for the sense of dread the director is trying to present with this anti-war film.
We follow these men as they show little mercy to surrendering SS troops, the most fanatical of Hitler’s military. Early in the film, Don gives Norman, who was a mere Army typist before being sent to the front, a brutal lesson in killing. After taking a town “decorated” with bodies of hanged children with signs around their necks dubbing them cowards, Gordo mows down an unarmed, surrendering SS officer alleged to have committed the atrocities. Then, one splice cut later, he makes out with a now gracious, liberated fräulein. The boys can have a civilized extended meal at the home of two rattled women, and Norman can have a moment to fall in love. But nothing quiet can last in this all-out war. So the mood can be brought down when Fury’s crew brings up France and their methodical execution of scores of wounded horses, and then there’s worse… the return to killing for their lives.
The brutality of the end of World War II was harsh. I’ve heard stories from my father who was forced into the Wehrmacht at 16 years old, when his family tried to flee to Spain. It was that or face a firing squad. He survived Africa and Stalingrad (I’m still looking for a translator of his diaries from that era as pictured in the following post: Bonding with the filmmakers of ‘The Book Thief’ over my father’s German WWII story). I’m glad that Ayer did not turn this film into some fluffy adventure movie. You might nitpick the characters, but the real star of this film is violence and the strain for humanity to break through it. The culminating skirmish that ends the film speaks to both random luck both good and bad but also a little more: a sense of hope for the only strategy that can end wars: just stop fighting.
Fury runs 134 min. and is Rated R (it’s one of the most justifiably, unflinchingly violent films I’ve seen in years). It opens today at your local multiplex. Sony Pictures invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.
‘The Blue Room’ captures the sense of memories in murder-mystery full of telling imagery — a film review
October 15, 2014
I’ve only ever noticed Mathieu Amalric as an actor. I had no idea he could direct, and what an introduction to his directing is The Blue Room (La chambre bleue)! What first strikes the viewer is the gorgeous work of cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne and set design by Christophe Offret. The framing is sometimes ideally symmetrical or fractured by strategic placement of foreground. Colors are either vibrant or obscured by shadow. These visuals carry an important weight because it will be hard to trust what anyone in this movie says. This is a murder-mystery, after all, and even though police detectives have caught their suspects at the start of the film, what actually happened will remain a mystery until the movie’s still intriguing finale.
Based on Georges Simenon’s 1955 novel, a book that reads like a puzzle gradually coming together and into focus, Amalric co-wrote the script with co-star Stéphanie Cléau with great respect to the work both literally and figuratively. The recurring image of a woman’s legs opening to reveal a glistening pubic bush half-covered in shadow is lifted right from the book. Oh, the trouble that lies within. But the story takes on another quality as a movie. It’s a fractured mirror inviting the viewer to both judge these people and sympathize with them, as the film takes a while to arrive at any sense that a horrific crime was committed.
The director/actor plays the lead role of adulterous husband Julien Gahyde married with a young daughter to the quietly suspicious but repressed Delphine (Léa Drucker). We meet him in the afterglow of sex with Esther Despierre (Cléau). She’s the wife of his family’s pharmacist. Julien seems both nervous and excited by the liaison. But this is only a memory. In fact, the film seems filled and informed by the haze of memory. At a curt 76 minutes in run time, the movie is best thought of as a series of vignettes reflected on from the trial. Hidden in the edits could lie the truth. “Life is different when you live it and when you look back on it after,” Julien tells a magistrate early in the film during questioning.
Visually, blocking and vertical lines fracture many images, reflecting half-remembered situations. There are many windows, passages, doorways that represent obscured and maybe not completely honest memories. Presented in the 4:3 academy aspect ratio, which speaks to the influence of early mystery masters like Hitchcock and Chabrol, masters in the game of perception, the film’s framing also creates a window in and of itself. The movie is filled with many a lush image loaded with probable meaning. The score by Grégoire Hetzel is often overwrought and steeped in nostalgia. Strings swell and woodwinds modulate from wispy to soaring. It’s a bit over-the-top, but it’s by design.
Not only does Amalric show an incredible eye for beautiful staged images. He has pacing down to a brisk clip, and his interpretation of the source material is brilliant in how it embraces mystery and suspense giving no sign of relief but also no solid answers. The Blue Room is a baroque thriller that presents more than an answer to whodunit but offers the questions and stories in layers of tantalizing teases toward a subtle reveal that speaks more to the notion of judging people than any ultimate, definitive truth.
In some ways, the movie has a kinship with Gone Girl (‘Gone Girl’ examines perceptions we make with stories we tell — a film review). Like Fincher, Amalric prepares the viewer early on for the film’s unique quality. In the titular bedroom, Esther bites Julian on the lip, drawing blood. “Will your wife ask you questions?” she asks Julien. During his recounting of this incident to the magistrate, Julien is asked, “Could she have bitten you on purpose?” This is a film that says more in its questions than it does in any of its scenarios, so Amalric prepares the audience quite nicely to play interpreter and judge. Questions can only lead you so far, but they can also lead to great post-movie conversations, and many viewers will not always come away with an exactly similar viewing, as the film also features blink-and-you-might-miss-them behavioral reveals that will maintain the film’s intrigue long after the house lights go up. The Blue Room is an exquisite movie made for the dark chamber of the movie house.
The Blue Room runs 76 minutes, is in French with English subtitles and is not rated (but expect violence and frontal nudity). It opens this Friday, Oct. 17, in the Miami area at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. It then expands the following week, on Friday, Oct. 24, at the Bill Cosford Cinema at the University of Miami’s Coral Gables campus. IFC Films provided a DVD screener for the purpose of this review. It began screening across the U.S. on Oct. 3, so it may already be screening at your location, check local listings.
“Where perception is, there also are pain and pleasure, and where these are, there, of necessity, is desire.” –Aristotle
There are two things you need to know about Gone Girl before going in to enjoy this movie. The first: it’s about a young woman who goes missing in a small town, and the husband is suspect. The second, nothing is really what it might seem to be. Now, that last point can mean many things, and because spoiling the plot of this film seems so sacrilegious, most of this review will focus on the latter without saying much about the story except its intentions to reveal a certain existential, grim truth about couples: how no one can ever truly know the other — a trap that the pair could either fall into or transcend.
The myth that intimacy between lovers gives them the power to read the other’s mind is demystified pretty early in Gone Girl. In flashback, the two lovers at the center of the film, Nick and Amy (Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike), exchange presents: the same bed sheets. Amy makes a sarcastic comment about how endearing they must appear. Indeed this is a film not about the cute couple whose members think alike, but the appearances of the individuals in the relationships, the players who reach and shape behavior so they might appear acceptable to the other. Furthering that, the film questions the repercussions of such behavior on the interior of these people. Well, according to director David Fincher and novelist/screenwriter Gillian Flynn, it can rot them should they become slaves to them.
Fincher is perfect for adapting this huge hit of a book by Flynn, who closely collaborated with the director to realize her 18-million-plus bestseller for the big screen. The film is a showcase for the cinematic details Fincher — one of Hollywood’s few auteurs — so painstakingly often highlights. Dilated pupils stand out without resorting to ultra close-up shots. Beyond the usual dark cinematography featuring a pallet of grays, blues, silvers and browns, there is also the darkness in the soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross who have become regulars of the Fincher aesthetic. The flashbacks featuring Nick and Amy engaging in their games of seduction are given an undercurrent of dread with swelling synthesizers that recalls the work of Angelo Badalamenti for David Lynch.
It all successfully serves to sustain an atmosphere of nothing-is-what-it-seems throughout the film, and Fincher can mess with perception so grandly. Those who know this probably noticed the final note of The Social Network or the overall feeling of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Zodiac or even the heavy-handed revelation at the end of Fight Club. But no film in Fincher’s oeuvre has ever so blatantly considered manipulation of perception, both conscious and unconscious, so consistently, from one scene to another than Gone Girl.
After five years of marriage, Nick cannot seem to maintain the convincing face of a lover, which must make him guilty of the disappearance of his pretty young wife. Plot twists are revealed with a heightened sense of self-awareness that come across as almost satirically comical. But these instances are just plot elements that invite the viewer to examine how human beings relate to one another. All Gone Girl wants to do is mess with perception, from one scene to the next. Even the film’s title harbors a double meaning.
Early in the film, before Amy is declared missing, Nick sits at a bar and shares a drink with the barmaid (Carrie Coon). There’s an intimacy between them that makes the audience wonder. Why is he confiding in her about troubles in his marriage? Why is she giving him crude sex advice? It is not until a couple of scenes later that the film reveals that this barmaid is Nick’s sister, Margot. A bit later in the film, more information is revealed about her: she is his twin. The game of fact versus perception is played on the audience while revealing a relationship that begs inference of closeness. It signals to the audience that not everyone is ever truly who they might seem to be and some bonds may be too close to fully comprehend.
The significance of the truth of the relationship between Nick and Margot versus its initial presentations is key on a subtle level. For something more direct, one could also quote the film’s opening monologue by Nick, but it’s so good it’s not worth spoiling. Just understand that Gone Girl will be dense with scenes that call attention to people who try to alter how others might see them, and the audience is often invited in on the joke. For instance, as the investigation into Amy’s disappearance begins, Margot tells Nick the next day not to shower so he might look like he was up all night. Still, even the bond between a twin brother and sister cannot be fully knowable. Before his first press conference she watches him basically bullshit on the phone. Responding to her WTF expression, he says, “I was trying to put on a good face.”
There are flashbacks that present Nick and Amy as both playing roles in seducing the other while also trying to figure out what lies below. We learn they met at a party. Their conversation is full of easy-going banter but also lots of questions. At one point, Nick asks her flat-out, “Amy, who are you?” She gives him a trio of choices, two of which are false and one… well, not so false. When he pays her a compliment, she wonders about the sincerity of his statement coming from a face with a “sinister” cleft chin, so he covers it up with two fingers and repeats himself adding “no bullshit,” a character tick that will appear twice more in the film as he pursues her. These are not genuine people, no matter who they claim to be. They are indeed putting on masks. They are trying roles that might please the other and bring them closer. It’s the dating game, and it’s happened for eons.
Ultimately, no matter what anyone says or how they behave, no one outside that person can ever truly, honestly nor fully understand the other. These are not characters in a traditional sense of movies asking you to sympathize with them. They invite you in and dare you to relate with them in an incriminating way. There is also a meta layer of awareness that calls attention to the actors playing people trying play roles. Affleck famously suffered some flak last year when, during his Oscar acceptance speech, he called marriage “work” while giving credit to his wife, the actress Jennifer Garner. In Gone Girl, Amy writes in her diary, “Everyone told us and told us, marriage is hard work,” underlining the last two words.
These characters are ultimately roles, and while we know the names of the actors who play these roles, reality is always deeper and more complex. It becomes hard to fault the film for any stereotyping of which it could be called guilty of. The media persecuted Affleck for his statement so much so that Garner had to come to his defense. It’s egotistical to think anyone knows what really happens in the Affleck/Garner household. No matter how we struggle to understand behavior, much less statements, what really happens remains obscure. Gone Girl plays with this dynamic between actions, motivations and reason in a playful way, both keeping mystery interesting while also amusingly going for some laughs of dramatic irony. It’s what keeps the nearly 2-and-a-half-hour-long movie interesting.
Fincher also has a wonderful cast to work with beyond the leads, which includes Neil Patrick Harris as Desi, a man with a romantic history with Amy, and Missi Pyle as a histrionic, judgmental Nancy Grace clone. Fincher and his regular casting director Laray Mayfield have also recruited a wonderful pair of actors for Amy’s parents. David Clennon and Lisa Banes embrace their roles of not just the parents of Amy the human being but the creators of her alter ego “Amazing Amy,” a character in a popular series of children’s books inspired by Amy. She’s both real and an idealized figment for these parents, who come across as contriving in a superficially sincere way. Banes is even made up heavily to look as though she is wearing a mask.
The film is rich with all this stuff. The popular news media, which is well known to pick and choose what missing persons story to follow, is also shown little mercy. The pop culture media machine eats up information like the superficial voracious recycling machine it is, and Gone Girl presents it on the superficial level it deserves. In Gone Girl, facts of course matter little. Facts only get in the way of assumptions, expectations and bias. Who needs honest inquisitiveness that might allow for a peak below the surface at what lies beneath, which only complicates perception? Looking below the surface is often complicated and messy. It tears down clear-cut heroes and villains. It means cracking open the skull of a surface you might love, to poke in the messy brains below the pretty surface. No one really wants to see and understand that … do they?
Gone Girl runs 149 minutes and is rated R (there’s bloody, gory violence, nudity and adult language). It opens pretty much everywhere today. Find screening times and places here. 20th Century Fox invited me to a preview screening Thursday night for the purpose of this review.
What if you didn’t bond with your baby right away? What if after giving birth, your life changes in ways you’re not ready to accept? The motherhood debate has long been a sensitive topic, one which is explored with tact and honesty in Kelly & Cal. It premiered this year at SXSW, a fitting place to unveil this independent film that focuses on a midlife crisis told through a female perspective. There, the film received the Gamechanger Award, which honors women filmmakers — a big boost to director Jen McGowan and first-time screenplay writer Amy Lowe Starbin. By focusing on middle-aged women as a multifaceted, dare I say, complex people, McGowan and Starbin are truly game-changers. Some of the issues they delve into include the search for personal identity as life gets complicated with motherhood and the struggles within relationships that reach a level of maturity.
Kelly & Cal opens with an exhausted Kelly (Juliette Lewis), six weeks after having her first child. When she visits her doctor, Kelly seems detached and even a little scared. Her doctor tells her she is healing and that she is ready to engage in sexual activity again. Kelly looks less than thrilled and comes back home to her newborn and husband Josh (Josh Hopkins), who quickly hands off the baby. She tells him about the news, and he responds by turning on the TV. The mood at home is far from romantic not only with a blaring TV and crying baby but also a new neighborhood that creates a widening gap between husband and wife.
Indeed, it’s the old tale of suburbia. With her husband gone most of the day at work, Kelly looks for an outlet to cope with her perpetually bawling baby but has a hard time fitting into the neighborhood. She goes out for long, lonely walks with her newborn. During one such walk she encounters a group of happy mommies. After a brief exchange of polite introductions, the queen bee mom informs her that their group has an application to join with dues for activities and adds at the end: “but everyone is welcome.”
Kelly is out of her element, for she was hip once, which she soon decides to reveal to a much younger, frank-talking, wheelchair-bound neighbor, Cal (Jonny Weston). She impresses him with a cassette tape and a story of an earlier life as the former bassist for a riot grrrl band called Wetnap, which went nowhere beyond existing in the ’90s zeitgeist. The embittered angsty teen becomes smitten, the aura of which is not lost on Kelly. Back to reality: adding to her woes, Kelly’s in-laws make it clear that they think she is seriously in need of a motherhood intervention. Cybil Shepard plays her passive-aggressive mother-in-law who sees Kelly adrift and tackles her as a project, providing her with babysitting, a makeover and even cooking. The well-intentioned mother-in-law only succeeds at making Kelly feel more awkward about her new role.
But then there’s 17-year-old Cal, a neighbor who not only listens to Kelly but also finds her attractive. For Kelly, the attention — though unwanted — is most welcomed. Weston gives an earnest delivery as a teenager trying to find his footing after losing the ability to walk and some of his motor skills in an accident. During his first interaction with Kelly it becomes apparent that both are running away from their current circumstances. Their encounter comes as Kelly sits in her backyard smoking while her infant cries, Cal asking for a smoke:
Your kid is crying, Kelly.
I know. The whole fucking neighborhood can hear him cry.
So, you’re just gonna let him cry it out?
Cry it out? It’s called ferberizing. When they cry.
Right, I think I heard of ferberizing.
I’m sure you have.
No, I’m not kidding.
You have great tits.
This little junior in there should be more grateful.
Though the exchange might seem shocking; it is the first bit of attention they both get. Their relationship ensues as both get something that they crave from the other, something lacking in their lives. The collaboration between McGowan and Starbin successfully maintains a female point of view on the hardships of motherhood and maintaining relationships with the in-laws. Although there are some sincere moments of vulnerability portrayed onscreen thanks to some great acting by Lewis, who appears subdued and frail, by the film’s mid-point the dialogue starts to lose its punch and wanders off to commonplace, predictable areas of over-sincerity of good intentions. For instance, Kelly reaches out to Cal after she rejects him and offers him a piece of wisdom, “You cannot let your chair define you.” Although adventurous, Starbin easily dials back the dynamic between Kelly and Cal, which gets resolved not without conflict but neither in any original way. While the ideas behind the film are impactful, the delivery and execution become less so, as the film lumbers toward its finale. One feels like there was a compromise somewhere between the beginning of the film and the unraveling of the relationship between Kelly and Cal and the subsequent mending of affairs between Kelly and her husband, Josh.
An enjoyable film nonetheless, Kelly & Cal comes from a sincere place that does not forget its sense of humor while tackling the seriously complex issue of growing up in adulthood. Hopefully it marks the occasion of many more films featuring middle-aged women as leads with honest, human flaws.
Kelly & Cal runs 104 minutes and it is not rated (but there is language and nudity). The film opens in South Florida on Oct. 3 at the Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables and Oct. 17 at Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale and Cinema Paradiso in Hollywood. It is also on demand. But see it in a local theater! Check listings outside of South Florida, visit here.
September 16, 2014
Some of the bleakest films in recent memory have been based on books by Cormac McCarthy. The Road almost felt like an exercise in hopelessness. No Country for Old Men had a sense of inevitable futility. Respectively directed by John Hillcoat and the Coen Brothers the films captured McCarthy’s dark sensibility via cinema. Now comes the media factotum James Franco to take on McCarthy and one of his earlier novels: Child of God, which is not only told from the demented perspective of a serial killer who has sexual relations with corpses but does not forget those who failed to stop him. Whatever you might think of this actor/director/author/poet who seems to spread himself kind of thin, there is no lack of quality direction invested in his adaptation. It follows Lester Ballard, a man abandoned by his family, community and humanity as a whole. What becomes of such a person is disturbing in its implications of society, and that Franco pulls off channeling that from the book as well as he does — though not flawlessly — deserves praise.
Smartly constructed, Franco’s Child of God (like the book) unfolds across three distinct acts that subtly grow baser and more harrowing as the story unfolds. The film takes place in rural, mid-20th century Tennessee. It’s winter, and the trees are mostly stripped bare of their leaves. Actor Scott Haze puts himself into the titular character of Lester Ballard with a grandiose lack of inhibition. We meet him confronting a group of people and an auctioneer on what Ballard says is his rightful property. Rifle in hand, he yells bloody murder at those who show interest in the land and large house. The scene, as with much of the film, is presented via handheld camera. It establishes the movie’s raw tone early on. Furthering the film’s earthy quality, the extras and bit players come across as non-actors genuinely recoiling as this beast of a man in a scruffy beard spits angst and frustration in an almost unintelligible drawl.
Child of God would probably not be as watchable were it not for Haze’s go-for-broke performance. His version of Ballard recalls what Denis Lavant did with Mousier Merde, a remarkable monster who could hardly speak and ate bouquets of flowers after emerging from the sewer in two films by Leos Carax, a short film in the omnibus Tokyo! and his terrific feature Holy Motors. But Haze doesn’t get the cartoonish flourishes of living underground and devouring flowers. Ballard feels more realistically and frighteningly grounded in the primal.
What Child of God is more interested in exploring — if it’s not already apparent in the title — is the underlying, universal basis that everyone needs human connection. In one scene after another Ballard is denied genuine, vested sympathy by others on screen. Haze channels Ballard’s anguish with a visceral performance beyond his unkempt exterior and a nose prolific enough to produce large globules of mucus when he’s at his most desperate. His hangdog face and over-bite add to his character’s pitiable quality, but there’s also a conviction in his eyes and posture that never wavers throughout the movie.
Franco also uses cinematic flourishes that speak to his keen skills as a director. The perspective of this man is of course easily manipulated through cinema. It’s about editing and the decision of what to show of the narrative, but it is a film that “shows” in the best narrative sense. The banjo music by Aaron Embry brings Deliverance to mind and unknown narrators give background vignettes that allude to the ghost of the person Ballard once was, though they make him no less frightening. “He’d grown lean and bitter. Some say mad,” says a voice-over narrator as Ballard stalks the side of a road, his gun in plain view, yelling at cars. Oh, Ballard also defecates in the woods and scrapes between his butt cheeks with a stick (just one more element of Haze’s conviction to his character).
With a harsh, layered musical sting out of a horror movie, Franco turns to Part II of the film. The unseen narrators have dropped out at this point, reflecting the notion that what lies ahead will seem inconceivable to the civilized person. Eventually, Ballard stumbles across a pair of young lovers who have died in their car of carbon monoxide poisoning, and during an extended sequence that features him having his way with the corpse of the young woman, he finds love. Ballard is now cuddling up with the young woman’s body in an abandoned home, saying “it’s me and you.” Companionship at last. As noted, the film is only headed further down a grim path. The sheriff (Tim Blake Nelson) who enters the film to the sound of bells is half on alert for Ballard. As the unkempt, homeless man is left to roam the woods, he eventually finds shelter in a cave. Ballard is mostly regarded as a nuisance… until his crimes are revealed.
This is a man presented with little human connection from the beginning of the film and alluded to as much by the mysterious narrator(s) who help flesh out Part I of the film. It’s an extreme and ultimate example of the dissolution of humanity, but it stays true to the McCarthy ethos. Yet, deep under the murder and necrophilia, Franco finds a way to keep the humanity of the film’s protagonist relatable while maintaining an objective sensibility that does not make his acts forgivable. The film only seems to jump too ambitiously toward the end, after Ballard seems to have come to terms with his impulses, giving him an alien quality that betrays the film’s ambitions… or maybe it’s making its point even more harshly.
It’s tough to say because Child of God demands a lot from the audience that dares to seek out truly adventurous filmmaking. Far from a feel good film yet not deserving of the label of exploitation, Child of God aspires for a kind of enlightenment via the shadows that should not be ignored. As with much of Franco’s work, it’s the fact that he dares to explore certain themes that does not always make him easily palatable but no less worth shrugging off as irrelevant. He’s not. Of course there is no excusing Ballard’s crimes, but the film speaks to the need of sympathy for such people. It’s a cautionary tale that supposes psychosis as a social problem and not all psychological. A lack of moral guidance can happen from the outside as well as from within. The film dares to indict society and the onlooker as much as its protagonist. No one is innocent of horrors because, let’s face it, stuff like this can happen.
Child of God runs 104 minutes and earns its R rating. It opens exclusively in South Florida at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on Friday, Sept. 15, which provided a screener link for the purpose of this review. On Wednesday, Sept. 24 at 7 p.m., actor Scott Haze will join “Variety” film critic Justin Chang and “Hudak On Hollywood” film critic Andres Solar for the Knight Foundation-sponsored series “Speaking In Cinema” to discuss this film. A meet-and-greet party at the Sagamore Hotel ends the night. Tickets for each screening and the event can be found by visiting mbcinema.com.