The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Miguel Penabella | 4 January 2012

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Dir. David Fincher, 2011

Not long into David Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the introverted, often belligerent hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) prepares a meal of Ramen noodles and Coca-Cola under the director’s investigative eye. Later into the film, Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) pores over a cluttered desk of notes, photographs, and journals with the same meticulous observation from Fincher’s camera that slowly documents every single step of a sequence to obsessive detail. Much of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo plays out with such zealous appreciation for the tiniest of particulars, possessing an expansive running time of 160 minutes full of minute, seemingly irrelevant details despite writer Steve Zaillian’s streamlining of its source material, the late Stieg Larsson’s massive 2005 novel. From Zaillian’s script, Fincher translates drama into sequential data, striving to answer the film’s premise of a serial killer mystery in terms of how and in what way rather than the stereotypical why. Like his 2007 wonder Zodiac, Fincher takes precedence over the investigative process rather than the motives and solution, hypnotically luring audiences in with his wintry atmospherics and measured, careful direction.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is Fincher’s labor of love following his masterwork in 2010’s acclaimed The Social Network, so it’s not surprising that this movie picks up on very similar themes right where the last left off. Fincher continues the 2010 movie’s interpersonal, rapid-fire dialogue and acknowledgment of the digital age’s omnipresent takeover, even connecting Salander to The Social Network’s own apathetic hacker punk Mark Zuckerberg in terms of characterization (cold and aloof) and visual cues (close-ups of fingers typing away). Yet The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo also channels Se7en’s religion-impelled violence and the enraptured, methodical whodunit setup of Zodiac, complete with a crawling pace and characters just as fixated in seeking answers as Jake Gyllenhaal’s Robert Graysmith. And contrary to the masses of popular belief on the blogosphere and beyond, Fincher’s movie isn’t a remake of the 2009 Swedish film but an adaptation of Larsson’s novel, completely avoiding any similarity with Arden Oplev’s inferior work. Instead, he corrects it, commendably placing the importance of characters over the largely nominal serial killer plot, and readily combatting those vague complaints of the film as “American-ized,” Fincher’s skilled handling of the source material leaves barely a trace of cheap Hollywood theatrics. Instead, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a tightly disciplined film made by adults for adults, whose aesthetic and storytelling rigor resides less in its source material than in the delicate channeling of all the forces involved under the hands of a sophisticated contemporary director.

As in Se7en, Fight Club, and Zodiac, the aesthetic and thematic consistencies give no doubt as to who’s in control here. David Fincher presents his usual investment in stories tinged with sadism, murder, and sexualized violence, depicting human cruelty and butchery with little heed into the impulses and motivations behind these simply because Fincher acknowledges that the present circumstances are more convoluted than the banal horrors that prompt it. Stieg Larsson’s novels, though attention-grabbing distractions upon first read, are nonetheless pulpy trade paperbacks when critically dissected. The sincerity and passion behind the so-called Millennium (named after the fictional magazine firm the ties the books together) trilogy’s story is apparent because of the motivations behind it. The first novel, originally titled Men Who Hate Women, calls attention to Sweden’s disquieting history of sexual abuse and domestic violence, a particularly personal story to Larsson after having helplessly witnessing a gang rape as a teenager. Furthermore, the book also addresses issues with faulty investigative journalism and Sweden’s extreme right-wing government, two factors that directly tie in to Larsson’s hiding over his risky investigative reporting. Despite these motivations, the actual story remains hackneyed bestseller material, featuring Nazis, religious fanaticism, sex, and whodunit contrivances without a whole lot of depth. Even pretensions to feminism in the Millennium series through the lead character Lisbeth Salander’s actions remains faulty, as women are ultimately relegated as mesmeric ciphers to be investigated from a singularly male point of view, i.e. Larsson.

David Fincher and Steve Zaillian avoid the hindrances that tarnish both Larsson’s original novel and Oplev’s Swedish film through the sheer quantity of details present throughout the film, committing its plot on the actual investigative process rather than a cheap, cathartic solution. In this snowy, moody vision of Sweden, aging industrial tycoon Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) hires the recently censured journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Craig) to solve a forty-year-old mystery concerning the disappearance of his niece Harriet Vanger. Convinced that a close relative murdered Harriet because of an annual presentation of flowers by mail on his birthday (a heartless throwback to Harriet’s own birthday tradition), Blomkvist sets off on the case. Vanger’s promise of compensation of damning intelligence on the corrupt businessman Hans-Erik Wennerström, the man whom Blomkvist lost all credibility to after losing a libel case, ultimately drives the downtrodden journalist. Meanwhile, independent researcher and computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Mara) receives a new legal guardian after her previous one suffered a disastrous stroke in the form of the burly Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen), a manipulative figure who violently takes advantage of Salander’s physical frailty.

After Salander eventually takes her brutal revenge on her rapist guardian however, she is employed by Blomkvist (whose background check was done by her) as a researcher, and together they slowly pick apart at the cryptic puzzle laid out before them. All in all, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo essentially becomes the pristine example of Fincher at his most familiar. The blizzards of Hedestad, Sweden, and the moody color palette reflect the filmmaker’s own depiction of coldblooded characters existing in the snowy locale, and Jeff Cronenweth’s crystalline cinematography with the RED digital camera gives the picture an atmospheric, somber quality. When Blomkvist initially steps out of the train for the first time unto the wintry Hedestad, it’s as if he steps unto a whole other planet of icy, desolate landscapes where everything is obscured by snow. Most directors lack Fincher’s unrivaled mastery at enhancing mood through lighting and color tone, but the director’s dichotomy between freezing, lifeless exteriors and the warm, golden interiors augmented with base lighting setups add visual substance and texture to the picture. The sleek, minimalist Swedish architecture further adds a level of emptiness when paired with the frigid cold outside, especially when populated with the dispassionate Vanger family whose innate treachery Blomkvist slowly unravels.

Everyone speaks in accented English with occasional bouts of Swedish thrown in for good measure, as well as newspaper clippings and advertisements completely in the foreign language. But despite the remote locale, David Fincher grounds The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in familiar territory, employing his usual short-term quick cuts and long-term protracted pacing to keep the 160-minute film drawn out, but constantly moving and never tedious. Even the golden-tinged aesthetic returns from The Social Network, here used as demarcations of flashbacks bathed in Fincher’s heavenly buttery light. In terms of overall visual style, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo drifts towards Zodiac’s obsessive eye for detail than The Social Network’s moody lighting, with Fincher passionately logging every tiny action in the film to break down each and every scene and deconstruct each character. Take, for example, the aforementioned scene recording Salander preparing a bowl of Ramen noodles. In the hands of most filmmakers, the scene would probably serve as a mere stylistic quirk with little penetration into the character, but time and time again, Fincher meticulously logs the minutest aspects: a McDonald’s happy meal here, a vending machine stint there, a cup of coffee and pack of cigarettes here, and yet another close-up of incidental objects once again. Fincher’s choice of framing small objects is absolutely fascinating; with his use of static shots, creeping dollies, and quick cuts, he allows meticulous detail to be mesmerizing rather than monotonously unremarkable.

Ultimately, these sequences of characters going through each and every step in a process mirrors the movie’s own exploration into investigative study and painstaking crime-solving. From the sprawling epilogue in which Salander undergoes one final heist singlehandedly to the thorough process of piecing together all the family members in Hedestad, Fincher details everything as he does in Zodiac, shifting to his obsession for a narrative that loses its objective—cathartic resolution as expected from Larsson’s novel—and the hunt itself becoming the end result. Fincher’s distinctive style further reveals itself through the opening title sequence of the film, a pulsating mass of black tar set to Trent Reznor and Karen O’s cover of “Immigrant Song,” that molds into barely perceptible shapes like a James Bond intro from hell: writhing bodies, fists, wasps (a tattoo of Salander’s), blooming flowers, intertwining computer cables, shattering faces. The sequence not only recalls the playfully dark titles of Se7en and Fight Club (the former set to music from Reznor’s band Nine Inch Nails), but also provides a glimpse at Salander’s own subconscious (the presence of fire here plays a key role in, you guessed it, The Girl Who Played with Fire) and hints at thematic elements of the film. If The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is about anything, these fragmentary images shown in the first few minutes of the film offer visual cues on the potential for technological advance to ruin us all. Computer cables ensnare bodies like snakes, suggesting not only the all-pervasiveness of technology in the digital age but also how these tools will eventually lead to violence and destruction later on in the film. Fincher connects his images with his characters and plot, revealing Salander’s tattoos coming to life and the image of a fist shattering a woman’s face like a vase, linking the image to the misogynistic violence of Bjurman and others.

The connections The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo makes during the opening titles between sexualized violence and its characters arrive later on in the film after the lengthy introduction of Mikael Blomkvist and Millennium magazine. Fincher focuses on Blomkvist fixatedly, documenting his smoking habits, wanderings, purchases, and romantic life with co-worker Erika Berger (Robin Wright) to thoroughly unpack his character inside out. Daniel Craig returns to form after the James Bond hiatus and his unfortunate stints in this year’s Dream House and Cowboys and Aliens, maintaining a veneer of cool levelheadedness and rationality that reminds audiences how Craig can effortlessly exude his natural swagger, a factor that undeniably points to the reasoning behind his role as the titular James Bond. Fincher also makes the shrewd change from the Swedish film and novel in downplaying Blomkvist’s hyperactive sex life with multiple female characters throughout the story, instead grounding him as a composed, disciplined character rather than allowing Craig to don his usual Bond pretense. Nevertheless, it isn’t until the stories of Blomkvist and Salander converge that a level of chemistry actually emerges from the numerous characters in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a narrative aspect that also occurs in Larsson’s own original novel.

When Lisbeth Salander is first introduced, actress Rooney Mara radiates the same calculated, cynical reprimands of her Social Network co-star Jesse Eisenberg, apathetically distancing herself from others while simultaneously demonstrating her own command of the screen. Unlike the slightly muscular frame of Noomi Rapace from the Swedish series, Mara more closely resembles the physically frail description from the novel (“She had simply been born thin, with slender bones that made her look girlish and fine-limbed with small hands, narrow wrists, and childlike breasts. She was twenty-four, but she sometimes looked fourteen.” Larsson, 41). Rapace had a more apparent ability to fight back, but Mara’s more noticeable weakness here emphasizes her vulnerability and loneliness despite her ability to occasionally exhibit profound independence and willpower as a troubled human being. Fincher’s decision to cast her as the cipher Lisbeth Salander isn’t surprising because of Rooney Mara’s acting achievement in The Social Network despite being limited largely to that opening five-minute prologue. As Salander, she delivers total role commitment, selling her character’s paradoxical defenselessness and uncontrollable rage with equal measures of bravado. She often averts her eyes in conversation with insecurity or impatience, but during times of duress, Mara’s eyes blaze with monstrous intensity like another creature entirely.

Lisbeth Salander’s “Fuck you, you fucking fuck” t-shirt (an indispensible piece of cinematic apparel like the Driver’s scorpion jacket) promptly signals that Fincher does not tone down her character one bit, instead opting for full characterization as a withdrawn, often belligerent, always unknowable leading figure. Like Zuckerberg, Lisbeth is highly intellectual (having photographic memory and computer expertise), but she never has a solid grasp on personal relations (the film hints at the possibility of Asperger’s syndrome), instead choosing to hack into others’ personal lives as a means of understanding over easy communication. She simplifies all those around her, though she herself could never be abridged so straightforwardly. A lot of her backstory remains undisclosed and cryptic, often insinuated in the briefest of moments (a distant recollection of Salander killing her father, for example, is nonchalantly whispered to Blomkvist towards the end of the film), nicely setting the stage for the following sequels that ultimately flesh out these details. Nevertheless, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo does illustrate present-day horrors haunting Salander, namely the briefly aforementioned dealings with her rapist guardian which provide the film’s most unsettling moment.

Much of Fincher’s credibility in translating Larsson’s source material rests on the delicate portrayal of the anal rape scene, a segment of the 2009 Swedish movie that was ominously graphic to begin with. In Fincher’s adaptation, his depiction includes those tiny details so characteristic of the rest of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that the scene isn’t more graphic as it is more disturbing. The camera’s attention to the cold light fixtures and intense close-ups of struggling facial expressions have an increased emotional impact when paired with the filmmaker’s amplification of key sounds – the slow exhalation in sadistic pleasure, the muffled shrieks of fear, the thrashing limbs. The power of the scene attests to Fincher’s controlled discipline in filmmaking, giving us a steady, unflinching camera voyeuristically observing the nauseating events like French filmmaker Gaspar Noé’s equally grueling rape scene in Irréversible. Fincher strips down all unnecessary background, only providing what needs to be seen for full emotional impact. Thus, the natural reaction can only be that of repulsion and an eventual lust for vengeance, similar to Oplev’s work in his 2009 film. Then Fincher gives a vital corrective to the Swedish film/book, punishing our voyeuristic impulse as film audiences for being so manipulated to its sexualized violence. He gives the same rock-steady camera when Salander returns for revenge, leering over every detail as she harrowingly exacts payback through violent anal penetration of Bjurman with some incidental phallic object and an amateur, bloody tattooing of “I AM A RAPIST PIG” on his torso. While the initial rape scene is appalling beyond words, Fincher presents her counter-violence with an emotionlessness that robs her vengeance of its rationality. In the theater, I recall hearing some approving “hmms” during the first few seconds of reprisal, but then a stunned silence when she continues unrelentingly, showing how violence isn’t something to celebrate regardless of context.

It should be made clear, however, that David Fincher distances his characterization of Lisbeth Salander from Larsson’s questionable female empowerment setup (as explained beforehand in this review), deciding his own brand of female authority for the character coinciding with Rooney Mara’s exceptional performance. This auteurial control begins with the highly divisive movie poster depicting Daniel Craig wrapping his arm around a naked Rooney Mara, a promotional piece that has been accused of sexualizing the character on loosely misogynistic grounds. This is an unconvincing view given contextualization with the film’s actual portrayal of the character – Craig isn’t protecting Mara; he’s holding her back and hiding behind her. Fincher reverses the traditional male gaze of feminist philosophy by having Mara not merely look at a viewer but actively stare through the screen and into audience consciousness. Furthermore, claims that Rooney Mara’s frequent nudity sexualizes her character are sexist assumptions that equate a topless woman with an exploited sex object. In contrast, it’s Salander who is always in control, always the sexual initiator in all of her encounters rather than the book’s problematic wish-fulfillment portrayal of Salander and Blomkvist’s romantic relationship. Here, Mara plays Salander’s attraction to Blomkvist with aggression and dominance, an affirmation of control to overshadow her impulsive, deeply psychological feelings that warrant further critical scrutiny.

To those unappeasable critics and fans of the series who claim that Rooney Mara isn’t “assertive” or “badass” enough, David Fincher presents a more admirable characterization of the hacker apart from the commercialized, simplified view of feminist “badassery” like Oplev and Larsson’s handling of the character. Instead, Fincher and Mara present a more believable characterization of a rape victim, portraying an inner stoicism and disciplined control that reflects a withdrawn, interior power. Furthermore, a more sexualized Lisbeth Salander often seen nude actively opposes the arrogant desexualization of female rape victims in both society and cinema. By allowing Salander to fulfill herself sexually after the distressing event on her own terms, Fincher elaborates the character in showing her current emotional and psychological state rather than merely relegating her as an archetypical rape victim bound to inertness. Thus, her relationship with Blomkvist can thrive into true chemistry and mutual dependency. One talked about moment in Fincher’s film in which Salander asks permission from Blomkvist to hunt a man down highlights their reciprocal relationship that they’re in this together, further increasing the emotional impact of the outstanding half hour dénouement of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

The concluding action of the film uncovers a greater development of Lisbeth Salander’s internal hurt with the preceding two hours showing the character defensively hiding and restraining these vulnerable feelings (though not enough to clue us in on her innate fragility and emotional deprivation). Nevertheless, Fincher and Mara refuse to deny her vulnerability any longer once the film moves past its window-dressing pulpy mystery plot, with Salander even declaring that “you and Harriet fucking Vanger have kept me pretty busy,” almost implying the sudden character development to come. With the ending that won’t be explicitly spoiled here, Mara convinces audiences of a character deeper beneath the seemingly unfriendly façade, and her reaching out for affection and hollow feeling of sadness afterward remains the single most memorable aspect of the film, a scene that still runs through my mind today. The Swedish version rushes through the ending, but here, Mara’s performance injects more emotional depth to the character than ever before.

There’s a depth to Fincher’s thematic elements not found in either Oplev or Larsson’s material, namely in his depiction of technological pervasiveness throughout The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The director has always been interested in the influence of technology on daily life, with his digitally tinged narrative of The Social Network and turn of the millennium Fight Club attesting to his investment in the topic. Here, technology is all encompassing. Characters are defined by their fluidity in computer expertise, with the graceful Salander hacking away at impenetrable encryptions while Blomkvist bumbles about just to maximize a window. Fincher also reminds audience about the ubiquity of technology when Blomkvist first steps unto the frozen landscape of Hedestad, seen spending a long stretch of time aimlessly searching for cellphone reception. Indeed, cellphones serve as vital tools in the film as evidenced in one scene where characters unconsciously reach for their phones when one rings, as if grabbing a gun in self-defense. Communication plays a key role in the film, especially considering its lack thereof during inopportune moments for the various characters. The gap between the technologically driven Salander and the old ways of Blomkvist and Vanger further exposes greater rifts in the digital divide. Blomkvist initially reprimands Salander’s illicit computer hacking as a testament to the degradation of journalistic integrity, but Fincher portrays the character ultimately ceding to her methods not to tie up loose plot points but to make a statement. After forty years of ineffective investigative work, perhaps the only successful way to solve the Vanger case is to yield authority to Salander and what she represents: the latest digital way, like Zuckerberg of the Social Network’s own self-important, though ultimately truthful recognition of changing times. 

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score touched on these themes of omnipresent digitalization in The Social Network, evident through the pulsating, electronic synths and beats that compliment the film’s visualization of computer wizardry. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the pair return to work with David Fincher, providing a few tracks with their usual synth pulses but focusing more on lengthy, chiming atmospherics that work well with the chilling visuals Fincher portrays. With a total runtime nearly three hours long, the score exceeds the actual film, containing icy, somber sounds and deep piano notes that speak to the lifelessness displayed before us, completely immersing audiences with sounds that replicate cold heartbeats or the biting winter wind. And while drawn-out, ambient noise sprinkled with bits of haunting piano comprise the bulk of the score, Reznor and Ross also provide hard-hitting rumbles and aggressive percussion work that harken back to Nine Inch Nails’ With Teeth and Ghosts I-IV. Nevertheless, it’s the cold atmospheric work that the score keeps returning to, connecting picture with sound as characters operate on the screen.

The minimalist, always stylish mise-en-scène Fincher delivers throughout the film is just as sleek and polished as director Christopher Nolan’s (and frequent collaborator Wally Pfister) thanks to the work of the film’s own cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth. Architecture and set design seeps of contemporary cleanness, but unlike Nolan, Fincher chips away at this elegant beauty (à la Fight Club), showing the grimy underbelly that accompanies scenes of polished exquisiteness. When the protagonists do eventually come across the killer’s hideaway, the tiniest of details speak to Fincher’s strict attention to design as a means of building mood: power tools on a wall, tiny cages stowed away, and other minute details work their way into audience imagination to fill in the gruesome particulars. Fincher even deconstructs the “heavenly” superficiality of the golden luminosity of his flashback scenes, depicting hellish actions of rape, cruelty, and past crimes under his warm, impassive lighting. Ultimately, the seemingly pristine set design and cinematography so masterfully executed by David Fincher throughout his filmography carries an ominously expressionless tone, conveying all the vile immoralities done behind closed doors. 

David Fincher’s take on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a dark picture (figuratively and literally), building a distinctly menacing, atmospheric mood throughout its sprawling runtime that no other contemporary director has the capacity to duplicate. Fincher conveys true commitment to his craft with meticulous detail work, resulting in every piece of the picture falling into place flawlessly, whether the sequence consists of an elaborate heist (as in the last half hour) or a simple action of Blomkvist ordering a coffee. Of course, the director’s own obsessions project themselves unto his characters, whose unending drive in the investigative process fragments the self (as in Zodiac or Se7en) amidst the frozen landscape that envelops them. The solution to Harriet Vanger’s disappearance is never particularly overpowering given the surreal and far more interesting process of solving it. Fincher’s foregrounding of his characters over Larsson’s plot remains the saving grace inherent at the film’s core, thus allowing its profound dénouement to ring with pangs of sadness and sympathy for such a cipher of a character, Rooney Mara’s rendition of Lisbeth Salander.

Notes 14

The Tree of Life

Miguel Penabella | 30 December 2011

The Tree of Life

Dir. Terrence Malick, 2011

When discussing Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, many will likely gravitate towards the majestic nebula shots, the dinosaur sequence, and the multitudes of nature imagery. Yet it’s Malick’s quiet artistry in his ability to channel these forces into an impressionist prayer to the human experience that makes the film so atmospherically, spiritually, and extraordinarily beautiful. The Tree of Life – this year’s big winner at the Cannes Film Festival – observes the scattershot memories of a middle-aged man on his childhood growing up in Waco, Texas, in the 1950s, while also capturing the origins of the universe and its ultimate end. Malick employs the meditative voiceover narration and creeping camera so typical in his filmography, but here, these elements tackle some of the most profound of life’s questions, exploring into spirituality, existence, death, and time. Gazing and listening, the film immerses in its paradoxically simple yet multifaceted narrative structure as every image blends in a dreamlike ambiance and we slowly become aware of our place in the universe. Whether or not a viewer completely understands Malick’s enigmas is irrelevant because when the credits roll, it’s almost impossible to fault the scale, wonder, and significance of his overpowering vision.

Malick has always been interested in merging philosophy, science, and religion into one (he graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa for philosophy at Harvard in the 1960s), a concept only ever comprehensively and insightfully realized on screen in the form of Stanley Kubrick’s equally expansive 2001: A Space Odyssey. In The Tree of Life, Malick finds himself not just contemplating the deepest questions of human life through these three disciplines, but also becoming the film’s own invisible god by definition, creating characters in his own image and having them suffer and marvel before his own creation. The film presents all-encompassing, daring ideas through Malick’s rich, vast filmmaking designs, ideas and imagery that likely stretch back decades into the director’s own personal experiences. And the result of his ruminations translated on the big screen is a gargantuan paradox. Focusing on disjointed moments, tones, and an abstract essence, Malick downplays the traditionally significant role of narrative and character, yet the outcome finds The Tree of Life richer, deeper, and more complex than any other film released this year. In the same vein as Tarkovsky, Kubrick, and Bergman before him, and leaping across mediums to literature with authors Joyce, Woolf, and Proust, Malick creates an ethereally cosmic atmosphere surrounding his characters yet remains personal on a level that seems so impossible when taken to a greater context of the film’s overall scope. Infinite yet minute, The Tree of Life captures both the intimacy and the vastness of existence.

Opening with an epigraph from the Bible’s book of Job, the film establishes its rumination on theology and the creation sequence to follow. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding… when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” Malick’s meditations in The Tree of Life center around the passage from Job, a widely scrutinized and highly challenging segment in the Bible that seeks to answer why, if God is good, evil exists in the world. After misfortune befalls the eponymous figure, he initiates a philosophical discourse between himself and God over why the righteous should suffer, leading to an assertion by God that Job, as a mere human, does not have the capacity to understand the broader meaning of why misfortune indiscriminately befalls on all people. The book of Job harrowingly concludes that the reasons for humanity’s oppressions are above our human understanding (a precursor to Immanuel Kant’s Critiques on the finiteness of human knowledge), and that humanity can only speculate and search for true meaning. Terrence Malick addresses Job’s “why” question ambitiously, contemplating abstract philosophies with his trademark voiceover paired with the scattered imagery throughout The Tree of Life. And while religion plays a highly noticeable role in the thematic elements of the movie, the theological interpretations Malick considers are not the cookie-cutter, mainstream representations of religious analysis in cinema that church groups come flocking to (we have Second Glance for that, eh?).

The film’s depiction of the universe and the unresponsiveness of God plays out in an intricate, often abstract manner that instantly recalls Stanley Kubrick’s ponderings in 2001: A Space Odyssey. As in The Tree of Life, the film portrays this inability to understand topics above our knowledge as the fundamental characteristic that makes us human, albeit less explicitly. When Dave Bowman becomes the ‘Star Child’ in 2001, he undergoes an evolutionary leap from mere man to a step higher removed from human, thus transcending human cognition to a more mystic level. Of course, Malick’s The Tree of Life isn’t concerned with the sci-fi elements of Kubrick’s 1968 classic, opting instead to project the philosophy of the book of Job onto an American family living in the 1950s. Beginning with an observation from Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) that people must follow either “the way of nature” or “the way of grace,” Malick sets up oppositional forces that his characters undergo. Mrs. O’Brien maintains an assumption of faith and wonder through “grace,” believing that human “nature” can be perfected through transcending innate human flaws and living with divine ideals. Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) follows the professed “way of nature,” often seen losing his temper and emphasizing the world as corrupted, abusive, and unforgiving. The parents have three kids – Jack (Hunter McCracken), R.L. (Laramie Eppler), and Steve (Tye Sheridan) – and they operate as an idyllic Christian family, attending church services and saying grace before meals. During one of the longest extended stretches of dialogue in The Tree of Life, a priest’s sermon on Job reminds the congregation that “misfortune befalls the good as well,” reminding the family that no one is exempt from suffering and death.

And that’s exactly how The Tree of Life begins its nonlinear foray into spiritual philosophies passed down across millennia from theologians and everyday people alike. Mrs. O’Brien receives a telegram informing her that her son has died (whom the film never reveals save for the age, 19), thus setting the existential trauma of the film in motion. All these events are filtered through the reminiscing of an adult Jack (Sean Penn), who is dealing with an emotional crisis that has a connection with the events of his childhood and his grand scheme in the cosmos. To Jack, now a successful architect in the present day, death serves as a reminder that life is not a privilege and that nothing is ever promised, even existence. Life and death play significant roles in the actual story behind the fabled “tree of life,” linking the two together and all forms of life, even appearing in the Bible in both Genesis and Revelations, the beginning and end. Accordingly, Malick constructs his film with mundane, random moments of the family at midcentury to holistically create his world, creating an impressionistic view of life and interconnectivity. As for The Tree of Life’s God, Malick presents a distant, passive entity of deism, indifferent to Mrs. O’Brien’s questioning of the heavens after her son’s death, thus mirroring Job’s own affliction at the Supreme Being supposedly considerate for the world’s struggles. When the woman of grace scans the heavens and demands consolation from Malick’s silent God, she only appears more alone in the universe than ever before.

Jack as a child views his parents as conflicting forces wresting for influence inside him, forces that continue to trouble the adult Jack, often seen gazing out into the Houston skyline in quiet contemplation. Nevertheless, Sean Penn as the largely silent adult self remains a specter whose presence is more felt than actually seen or heard, much like the unseen protagonist himself, Terrence Malick. Indeed, Jack’s insinuated occupation as a modern architect reveals the character as Malick’s stand-in, the builder of memory and image. The Tree of Life builds upon Jack’s reflections like Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror and Solaris, striving for the eternal essence of human knowledge and man’s place in the universe through meticulously constructed memories that feel more like subconscious dream-states. The exploration into 1950s Waco largely consists of Jack’s memory, but perceptions often glide in and out of other characters to create disparate viewpoints from all individuals. The human consciousness guides the film, framing Jack’s childhood as part of a grander universal narrative that leaves The Tree of Life with strong, evocative impressions of a sight unrestrained. Malick’s presentation of Jack’s perspective gives every image a distinctly dream-like quality, consigning the movie in the domain of the poetic.

To Jack, Mrs. O’Brien embodies spiritual purity and absolute goodness, even going so far as to envision her in one sequence as a fairytale sleeping beauty in a glass box. Certainly, actress Jessica Chastain radiates the warm, glowing spirit that Jack envisions with her peaceful temperament and whispery, delicate performance. On the other hand, Mr. O’Brien’s authoritarian treatment of his three children anger the young Jack to the point where he wishes for his father’s death like a young James Ramsay in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Thus, Mr. O’Brien becomes the seemingly unsympathetic God of Job as Jack finds his indiscriminate coldness a reason not to love him back. Like Job’s perspective of God, Jack views his father as an uncaring figure whose ignorance of the lessons he tells his kids overshadows his alleged virtue. Indeed, Mr. O’Brien is prone to gossip, wrath, and envy, but these feelings are exacerbated by his own harbored feelings of inadequacy. He is not an evil man; he only projects his self-loathing over his own children, and Jack finds fear in his father’s conduct. Thankfully, actor Brad Pitt never falls prey to the “abusive father” clichés, instead subtly exhibiting greater emotions for his family behind his stony façade, namely a secret, unfiltered admiration for his children that he simply does not know how to show. 

And just as Mr. O’Brien isn’t a true embodiment of corruption and rage, so too is Mrs. O’Brien not a true embodiment of total purity. She remains a cipher despite the film’s investigation into her thoughts, dreams, and her own reflections of her childhood, leaving her a foggy mystery compared to her husband. Seemingly possessing no interests or motivations, she acts as an enigma to be unraveled while Mr. O’Brien plays the divine maker that Jack must eventually confront. Hunter McCracken plays the young Jack gracefully and earnestly, his eyes perpetually searching and his voiceovers always cryptic, conveying his interior turmoil more poignantly than any other child actor this year (sorry, Super 8 kids). With his adolescent understanding of the world, he’s forced to make sense of the chaotic, apathetic world that surrounds him. Moments throughout the film slowly chip away at his purity and innocence obtained from his mother’s “grace,” including the sight of man having a seizure, alcoholics, his parents fighting, the drowning of a young child at the town pool, the fury of a man forced into a cop car. Both parents try to shield Jack’s young eyes from human shortcomings and mortality, with Mr. O’Brien drawing invisible lines in the yard to suggest the harmfulness of the outside world. Yet these events, while occurring in a flash, linger in the minds of the O’Brien children as they strive to maintain their empathy amidst an indifferent world.

In The Tree of Life, the evolution from childhood innocence to hardened experience reflects the human race itself, showing how time naturally corrupts Mrs. O’Brien’s revered way of grace. Jack slowly loses his grace when he realizes that all are doomed to suffer and die without ever recognizing why such an existence should even occur. Shots of Jack succumbing to the innocent cruelty of fellow neighborhood kids – killing a frog with a rocket, fighting one another, inciting peer pressure – do not portray a failed child-raising on behalf of the O’Brien parents, but rather that the passing of time naturally unveils the darker aspects of life. It’s only when the young Jack recognizes the imperfections of the way of nature that he strives to return to his mother’s state of grace, no matter how impossible it may seem. “What I want to do, I can’t do. I do what I hate,” remarks Jack in The Tree of Life’s most enveloping contemplation, recognizing the difficulty of grappling with the profound existentialist topics concerning life, conduct, and seeking answers. 

For Terrence Malick, seeking answers serves as the foundation for his movie, suggesting that humanity’s aimless quest to fully understand unanswerable mysteries is a beautiful act that allows humans to at least find a subjective sense of meaning to a challenging world. Clear-cut “cause and effect” does not exist in The Tree of Life as the director refutes the shallowness of this conceit, instead thinking in terms of Joyce or Woolf in raising questions that will often be left unanswered and scenes fading to black instead of finding resolutions. The film actively reflects life as it is – difficult, frustrating, and obscure – by blending together the perceptions of many different characters under Jack’s questioning eye. As Malick pores over the mysteries of the universe, he identifies that there exists the known and the unknown, finally leading to the film’s profound assertion. Like Job, all humans are doomed to suffer and remain ignorant to any real absolute truths, but the act of contemplating and putting these obscurities into dialogue over what it truly means “to be or not to be” is the most important human characteristic we have. Malick reminds audiences that the world is sad and frustrating, but there also exists the wonderful and the sublime in the life all human beings live. The purpose of art, as is the case with The Tree of Life, is to address both sides of the spectrum, tackling weighty, abstract topics that require plenty of repeat viewings but will definitely leave a lasting impact on any who experiences it.

Just as musings on the known and unknown coalesce in The Tree of Life, Malick allows his skillful command of time to structure the film as something of an orchestra. Everything happens at once, with characters’ perceptions blending together as an obscure, seemingly universal whole. Alexandre Desplat’s original score and a handful of classical compositions ranging from Tavener’s hauntingly beautiful “Funeral Canticle” to Preisner’s emotionally shattering “Lacrimosa - Day of Tears” evokes motion and energy, allowing sequences of the film to resemble musical movements than narrative scenes. Progression plays a significant role in The Tree of Life much like Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film whose resplendent score also evoked such cosmic wonder and stirred the deepest of emotions through cinematic movements – the waltzing spaceships, the interstellar light sequence, and so on. In a film where dialogue remains sparse and plot disseminated throughout the picture, music and visuals play vital roles in evoking particular moods because of Malick’s refusal to rely on traditional techniques of narrative cinema. Camera shots are often in motion, suggesting the ceaseless flow of time as indifferent to the existence of the people that inhabit the film. His visuals are also a way of showing the film in the broader context of the cosmos, mixing his profound ideas with visuals that evoke the sort of remote self-exploration necessary to arouse even deeper sentiments.

The much talked about but largely unanalyzed sequence exhibiting the beauty of outer space – inaccessible nebulas, star clusters, immeasurable galaxies – immediately captures and places into context humanity’s existential insignificance amidst the timeless, infinite universe. All the while, voiceover narration by the film’s characters ask philosophical questions, namely Mrs. O’Brien’s “Who are we to you?” to a distant God. The Tree of Life’s god, Terrence Malick himself, responds with the most epic of replies: the formation of the universe. Nevertheless, the vast expanses of universe largely remain the backdrop of The Tree of Life, much like World War II in The Thin Red Line or the cross-country killing sprees in Badlands. Malick simultaneously revels and distances himself from the broader subject, at once immersing audiences into his vision and retreating back to his philosophizing meditations which have defined his decades-spanning filmmaking career (with a grand total of five films).

Examinations of metaphysics from the minds of Carl Sagan, Martin Heidegger, and Baruch Spinoza comprise The Tree of Life’s magnificent formation of the universe sequence, a segment of the film that witnesses Malick exercising his familiar thematic motif, that of humankind’s direct link to nature. After all, humanity is made of the same stuff as the rest of the universe, a thought that Malick reminds audiences through his scientific Big Bang creation sequence. Depicting gas coalescing into stars, planets emerging, violent oceans and storms, tumultuous volcanoes, and the eventual primordial ooze, Terrence Malick transcends the countless nature/science documentaries like Planet Earth, whose broad generalizations over the interconnectivity of all living things is a distant, often overlooked thematic element, by viewing creation through philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s profound mindset. Rather than a spectator or manipulator of all things, God is the universe, time, and nature. Too all-encompassing to be relegated into a singular, specific entity, God remains omnipresent within each and every character portrayed in The Tree of Life, a challenging notion that only speaks to Malick’s emphasis on the interchangeability of the human and the divine. Watching the tumultuous volcanoes spewing magma easily parallels Jack’s own violent fury of emotions, while the angelic movements of nebulas can be found in the soft billowing of curtains. These shots of nature and outer space induce such a profound childlike wonder, a sentiment that deepens even more with the knowledge that zero CGI was used in the making of this segment save for the dinosaurs of a later scene.

The legendary Douglas Trumbull, a special effects guru renowned for his groundbreaking work in 2001: A Space Odyssey employs practical effects rather than resorting to digitalized artificiality, often the norm for “modern” films of this day and age. Liquids, dyes, paint, experimental lighting, smoke, and advanced microphotography comprise the creation of the cosmos scenes, rendering Malick’s artistry as mysterious and unknowable rather than digitally well-defined. When digital effects do come into play during the radical detour into the perspective of various dinosaurs, the creatures appear so noticeably digitalized, an abrupt reversal from the painstakingly constructed imagery from before so much so that it feels intentional. Indeed, Malick’s dinosaurs share the same role as Kubrick’s ersatz primates of 2001: A Space Odyssey, symbolizing not a literal dinosaur but another philosophical examination once more. When a small dinosaur encounters a fallen one, it places its foot upon the creature’s head. Viewers conditioned to the Darwinian struggles of Jurassic Park anticipate prehistoric carnage, but the dinosaur unexpectedly lifts its foot off and runs off. The director wordlessly suggests various questions to ruminate – What is the dinosaur thinking? Is this an early sign of compassion? – much like the great sci-fi Blade Runner asks regarding artificial intelligence. Do androids dream of electric sheep?

To those critical viewers who thought dinosaurs in Malick’s 1950s drama was too over-the-top and pretentious, need I remind you that 2011 also brought the cinematic world the not so subtle films in which cowboys fight aliens, robots transform for the third time, and a man with a color-coded ring destroys a giant blob/tangle/essence of evil by disintegrating it in the sun. To those with serious arguments over Malick’s dinosaur scene such as the repeated accusation of pretentious anthropomorphism, these claims are more understandable. Malick’s insinuation of altruism amongst dinosaurs initially seems like a human wish fulfillment of universal, timeless harmony and compassion, but these flickers of humanity are ultimately projections of human values. While watching any film, the act of gazing into its images evokes Friedrich Nietzsche’s own “the abyss gazes also into you” passage from Beyond Good and Evil. Projecting human qualities to the dinosaurs is Malick’s equivalent of gazing into Nietzsche’s philosophical void – the object of the gaze and the gazer become one, each and together tackling these profound questions under Malick’s tight direction.

Of course, one needn’t study up on Nietzsche or the book of Job or Spinoza or Sagan to fully “get” Malick’s vision in The Tree of Life. His movie can be digested on its own terms because Malick’s succinct command of centuries of thought leaves his ideas immersive and fulfilling for those willing to sit back and engage with his motion picture. The aesthetic experience that the filmmaker delivers provides weighty philosophical and theological thought, though he never allows things to be wordy or dull. Rather, imagery does the talking, and it commands the philosophical inquiry even during the quiet moments of subtle observations to the cosmic explosion into the very beginnings of existence. And while a college level philosophical education isn’t necessary to enjoy The Tree of Life, Malick’s influences from various schools of philosophical thought deserve some attention for those looking to delve deeper into his thought-provoking vision.

The complexity of Terrence Malick’s actual vision borders Finnegans Wake territory because the film appears full of suggestive ideas and memories that only the director himself completely understands the significance of. Malick presents all the ideas in his head on a universal scale, organizing his thoughts via inscrutable reflections and cryptic images that likely travel back into the filmmaker’s own memory on a personal level. The Tree of Life certainly is partially autobiographical, as the reclusive director himself hails from Texas and has his share of experiences that parallel events in the film. For one, Malick’s younger brother committed suicide while abroad, perhaps explaining the telegram received in the beginning of the film and further linking the director with the adult Jack looking back on his childhood and his sibling’s death. Nevertheless, the director’s own past life fails to fully resolve the mysteries of The Tree of Life simply because the material conveyed is too personal, too intimate for audiences to grasp. Many critics have hailed the film as an impressionist work, and it certainly is, an obscure essence of Malick’s recollection of childhood memories that stir the emotions more profoundly than a straightforward drama. There’s enough room for personal interpretation and guesswork here, and Terrence Malick’s cipher of a film is ready to unravel for anyone willing to see life through his own terms.

The Tree of Life represents Malick’s metaphysical playground with which to visualize his past memories, capturing 1950s Texas with an intimate, almost private touch. The narrative strikes familiar chords with coming-of-age images and themes, floating over Oedipal complexes of brothers vying for motherly attention, first love, and exposure to violence. But The Tree of Life never falls to cliché, instead quickly gliding through Jack’s young life with the humanism and authenticity necessary for audience identification rather than merely existing as hackneyed cinema. The film’s eventual conclusion with the adult Jack arriving on a beach with all the characters on his spiritual journey initially calls to mind some heavenly afterlife, but Malick quickly refutes the notion since many figures converging are not dead. Instead, what Jack perceives is a metaphorical representation of his own thoughts and memories, a setting in which past, present, future, subconscious, and the cognizant self have no boundaries and all transgressions are finally cast aside. Malick’s returning motif of an empty doorway on the beach further supports the indiscriminate setting of the beach, revealing that there are no differences as one passes through. As an adult Jack walks through the doorway, he remains the same, finally recognizing Robert Plant’s eternal “when all are one and one is all” epiphany that all things exist accordingly. 

From the formation of the universe and back down to the intimate, the personal, and the minute, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life validates existence and experience, preserving life from the meaningless throngs of empty films released year after year. With images and ideas as profound as those in 2001: A Space Odyssey or Citizen Kane, The Tree of Life feels just as out of time, just as significant to cinema that future releases will be measured against Malick’s overpowering vision. What he has fashioned is a tribute to cinema, to nature, to God, to humanity, all merging into one serene entity visualized on Malick’s metaphysical beach. For him, epiphany can be found everywhere, from a butterfly resting on a blade of grass to the tenderheartedness of all those around him, but first, one must be willing to love others and search what’s beyond us. Jack’s mother concludes, “Unless you learn to love, your life will flash by,” echoing the meditations of Job. For Jack, his love and searching leads him to the beach; for others, it can lead to God, poetry, nature, family. As for Terrence Malick, his place of peace is the cinema, the only medium in which he can make sense of what he cannot fully fathom, where he can finally locate his place in the universe.

Notes 3


Miguel Penabella | 27 December 2011


Dir. Rodrigo Cortés, 2010 

A number of factors plague Buried to potentially bog it down in the pitiless refuse of film wastes: its exclusive setting in a claustrophobic coffin buried underground, its singular onscreen character in the form of Ryan Reynolds, and Spanish director Rodrigo Cortés and writer Chris Sparling’s relatively unknown work in cinema, for starters. Yet with all these factors mounting up against it, Buried manages to climb out of obscurity against all odds. What would normally be a lowbrow thriller with just another cheesy narrative gimmick actually turns out to be a purely visceral experience under Cortés’ tight direction, enticing audiences to sink deeper into the controlled chaos he unveils. Buried’s story of a lone character trapped in a coffin may strike critical viewers as a cheap stab at intrigue upon first glance, but Cortés infuses within his film an expression of American diplomacy’s weakness and ineptitude amidst faceless antagonists, itself an analysis of immense political complexity. Despite the film’s limited setting and sparse plotline, it’s a monster in its own right, an overbearing structure ready to burst apart in image, idea, and pure exhilaration.

Ryan Reynolds plays Paul Conroy, an American truck driver in Iraq who wakes up buried alive in a cheap wooden coffin, fighting internal psychological struggles as he tries to piece together what exactly happened to him. Initially bound and gagged, he squirms free and discovers a number of incidental items at his disposal: a Zippo lighter, a BlackBerry cellphone, a flask, etc. Using the phone to contact family, employers, and an FBI rescue group led by one Dan Brenner (the voice of Robert Paterson), Conroy eventually burrows deep within his own thoughts amidst complete helplessness and total isolation. He has no idea of his location and consequently, Brenner’s distant words of reassurance only lead to Conroy’s exploding frustration and misery. Adding to the chaos is a call from a faceless hostage taker who demands a million dollar ransom from the United States government to release him alive, thus escalating the situation into a game of American diplomacy by Brenner’s hard-lined FBI bureaucratics and a race against time for fear of the kidnapper’s threats to kill Conroy’s co-worker if instructions are not followed.

The numerous plot twists and dangers that emerge along the movie’s restless, agitated storyline traps Conroy more sinisterly than the coffin does, placing him within the confines of stalwart American foreign policy and the drawbacks set by the limitations of technology. The calls made on cellphone are restrained by the poor reception and waning battery life, forcing Conroy to deal with the phone’s connection loss and the ceaseless ticking away of time. All the secondary difficulties like these exacerbate the greater frustration of claustrophobia that runs through Buried, as a feeling of sheer hopelessness accompanying being buried alive transforms into a nerve-wracking, highly sensory affair. By limiting the camera to the sole protagonist’s perspective, Cortés crafts a minimalist exercise in delivering tension on the same level as filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock (see Lifeboat and Rope for examples of films taking place in an extremely cramped, single-location position, two titles that Cortés himself cites as influences). Like Hitchcock, Cortés stretches out tension to agonizing lengths, employing various sensory devices to intensify scenes as the film slowly unravels its bleakness inherent at its core. Diegetic sounds in Buried such as the creaking wood, breathing, the sound of a lighter igniting, and the ringing of a cellphone are all amplified and lowered according to the various circumstances of a scene, establishing an eerie atmosphere to reinforce mood. When Conroy shifts his position around 180 degrees, the sound of the box straining against his shoulder’s push and the slow seeping of sand through the cracks instantly evokes the inescapable feeling of dread and entombment. 

The widely dubbed “film set in a box” even includes action sequences, a ridiculous sounding notion that actually rings true because of the inventive way that the director manipulates his visuals to elevate suspense beyond expectations. Throughout the entire duration of Buried, the camera’s voyeuristic eye sticks with the protagonist inside the coffin without any use of flashbacks, outside exposition, cutaways, or any other kind of external shot, thus resulting in the most genuine sort of claustrophobic hysteria ever shot on film. Viewers may find its realism too difficult to absorb, and those who find themselves gasping for breath or remaining frozen as if in the same predicament Conroy himself is in are all testaments to the director’s knack for cerebral filmmaking, a talent very similar to Danny Boyle’s equally magnetizing (though not nearly as masterfully executed) 127 Hours. Even the varying sources of light carry unanticipated significance in developing apprehension, from the psychologically menacing reds and oranges from fire, the ghostly blue of a cellphone, to the green light of a glow stick. Each contain their own emotional triggers, foreshadowing events to come and solidifying whatever mood Cortés has in mind. The resourceful use of cinematography in Buried immerses audiences into the picture, with various shots from overhead, the first person, and through the cellphone’s own camera capturing the growing madness of Paul Conroy.

The lack of context further drives the uneasiness home, with wordless close-up shots and the rain-like image of trickling sand conveying authentic emotion as opposed to dialogue or expository narration. Nevertheless, Cortés also employs conversation as a means to direct attention to the greater conflict at play, namely the battle between Conroy’s kidnapper and the automated FBI hostage negotiation group. Contacting his wife and potential rescuers initially yields a “boy who cried wolf” mentality as his cries for help are ignored or simply left to voicemail. Even when the FBI eventually does pick up, his pleas for rescue only get lost in a tangle of bureaucratic handovers that cut off his words before he even has a chance to fully explain the situation. The ultimate introduction of Brenner’s FBI hostage negotiation team reveals the film’s contempt for useless American diplomacy as government agencies simply refuse to “deal with terrorists” out of stubborn principle rather than care for one of their own citizens. Instead, Brenner can only provide soothing words that stall time since Conroy never actually knows whether or not a rescue effort is en route to his location. What Buried aims to depict with Conroy’s back and forth calls to his apathetic employers and the distant bureaucracy far removed from his circumstances are the true terrors of the modern world. Ultimately, the cruelty being shown on film doesn’t come from the kidnappers (besides their sinister voices and one particularly shocking moment on the cellphone’s video camera), but from the cold, impersonal bureaucrats in America who could care less if Brenner lives or dies, showing the true insignificance of civilian life amidst war.

Conroy’s private employers are just as unconcerned, casting him off as an asset or a simple expenditure rather than a human being. The incessant redirecting of calls and the infuriating, dispassionate “please hold” motif reveals the true impersonality of the situation, commenting on the sad state of American foreign policy and bureaucratic affairs. Ryan Reynolds sells his character’s mounting anger with his brilliant performance, proving that he’s not just some senseless Hollywood hotshot but a capable actor given the right material to work with (Unfortunately, his work in recent movies Green Lantern and The Change-Up have not helped his career since). He grounds his emotions in realism, never venturing out to exaggerated melodrama or over-the-top catharsis, instead working with the script to use his many phone calls to establish his character as a man with humanity and his own share of personal flaws. A scene with Conroy contacting his mother is exceptionally shattering when the film slowly insinuates her state of dementia. Paul Conroy can only play along with her faulty memory, failing to connect with a family member who can neither sympathize nor even remember him.

As an extremely low budget film, Buried tackles weighty topics including the dissolution of American diplomacy and the shortcomings of technology with poise and substance. The film is definitely a hard sell with its daring premise, but Buried manages to remain absolutely intense with each and every passing second, driven by raw emotion and Reynolds’ personal, expressive performance. And unlike other single-location films like Devil (inside an elevator), Rodrigo Cortés actually sells its claustrophobia with eerie, believable atmospherics and even a few action sequences including one of the film’s most tense points involving the presence of a snake. The film is a great cinematic experience that chronicles and points out the plight of hostages abroad, keeping audiences guessing as to the ultimate conclusion of the movie as plot twists and contrivances turn the action this way and that. Ultimately, the filmmaker’s decision not to have his camera leave the coffin to see the world above Conroy is a smart decision, leaving the film unfueled by its characters (there’s only one ever shown), setting/cinematography (a box?), or a substantial plot (can’t really do much inside a coffin), instead employing sheer hysteria and emotional pull to craft a masterwork in minimalism.



Of course, one of the biggest topics that must be addressed concerns Buried’s final conclusion, an ending to a film so meticulously built up that even the final seconds of film can keep an audience guessing as to Conroy’s fate. Rodrigo Cortés’s decision to stick to an ambitious dénouement with hostage Mark White saved over Conroy is a refreshing change from the overly melodramatic, “feel-good” clichés seen elsewhere. Brenner’s concluding “I’m sorry, Paul. I’m so sorry,” words reverberate long after the film cuts to black, casting an ominous spell over audiences simply paralyzed by Buried’s overwhelming power. In fact, it’s the movie’s own ability to swallow audiences into its darkness (literally and figuratively) that keeps the director’s inexorable struggle in keeping viewers anxious and helpless so enthralling. And the film’s decision to have the unseen Mark White saved over its own sole protagonist further touches on the darker aspects of moral ambiguity and the nature of its “happy” ending: one life is saved, and one is doomed to die. Cortés begs the question, what would be the difference had Conroy actually been saved? 

Upon much deliberation, I’d say not much difference. One life would be spared, and another doomed to die, though the characters would simply be reversed. Naturally, the cathartic blow would differ between the two endings simply because the film’s voyeuristic eye chronicles the struggles of Conroy and his fight for survival rather than White’s, thus investing emotional connections with Conroy’s character. The genius of Buried’s construction lies therein: Cortés builds the very same impersonal relationship between audiences and the unseen Mark White as a parallel to the impersonal relationship between Dan Brenner and (from his point of view) the unseen Paul Conroy. The visual barrier that he establishes creates a sinister formulation that leaves audiences just as indifferent to other unseen hostages’ situations as Brenner is to Conroy’s own. We as viewers feel distant to Mark White because he himself is distant and concealed, thus illuminating the hypocrisy inherent in impersonal relations between people. So even as the final seconds pass, Buried offers no release, no respite from the entombment presented. 


Notes 131

Red State

Miguel Penabella | 23 December 2011

Red State

Dir. Kevin Smith, 2011

Essentially a satirical take on extremist, homophobic religious groups disguised as a lowbrow horror film, director Kevin Smith’s Red State dares audiences to take it seriously. Its over-the-top caricatures of organized religion and American bureaucracy, its Eli Roth-esque campy gawkiness veiled under harsh violence, its consistent role reversals and traces of moral ambiguity – these are all elements that work together in fabricating a mocking, contemplative look at modern America. Nevertheless, Red State has sparked a fury of debate amongst the film community over the actual worth of the director’s inherent political, social, and religious commentary underneath his glib sleaze and camp, topics that feel alien to the director’s cult comedies, though actually fit quite nicely into Kevin Smith’s long, proud history of not giving a fuck. Smith operates in a defiantly alternative filmmaking register, mixing the maniacal with the refined in order to play a chaotic game with audiences to toy with their expectations and emotions. The impact of Red State slowly seeps through long after the credits roll, a resonance that reveals more than Smith’s surface pleasures of Eli Roth/Rob Zombie-esque violence and storytelling. Nevertheless, the eternal question still arises over whether or not Kevin Smith’s rant against church and state is really as multifaceted as it’s made out to be. 

Smith stabs indiscriminately at relevance, examining multiple topics all at once to make for an unfocused storyline and a disorganized thematic center as if the director hastily jotted down random thoughts for a script simply for the sake of in-the-moment blogosphere discussion. Rather than actually fleshing out concrete thoughts on the thematic elements of Red State, specifically modern homophobia, corrupted organized religion, and the inane American bureaucracy, he simply blusters. Of course, the end result is visceral, angry, and dark, but Red State is by no means as commanding as Smith’s 1999 Dogma, a film in which his deep study into Catholicism gives it greater narrative strength. Nevertheless, the director’s trademark wry humor remains and an essence of modern paranoia can be discerned from the messy tangle of images and arguments assembled. The tangle begins with three horny teenage boys looking for sex – Travis (Michael Angarano), Billy Ray (Nicholas Braun), and Jared (Kyle Gallner) – via an invitation from Sarah Cooper (Melissa Leo in an unfortunately negligible role following her Oscar success in 2010’s The Fighter) on an online sex website.

Like all great movies of this caliber, the sexual fantasy of the three teenagers quickly turns into a nightmare after being drugged by Sarah and finally waking up caged in the middle of a service by a cult-like extremist religious group known as the Five Points Trinity Church. Kevin Smith channels the dark atmospherics of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, envisioning a bright, cheery church above and a nightmarish hell down below where the boys are trapped to the maniacal whims of the crazed church members. Red State develops its tension and imagery from its derivative setup, channeling the aforementioned Texas Chain Saw Massacre but also films like Deliverance and Hostel. Yet what really creates such a terrifying quality to the unfolding events rests in Smith’s portrayal of the three teenagers’ aggressors, the Five Points Trinity Church. Absent from the church are the horrid-looking Deliverance/Texas Chain Saw Massacre characters (though a mild semblance of country dialect remains), opting instead for a normal bunch of folks conditioned by the ultra-radical, single-minded Pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks). Described as so radical that even neo-Nazis and ultraconservatives like the real-life Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas avoid him, Cooper heads the congregation whose isolation from the rest of society harkens back to the crazed Waco cult and the obscure secrecy of Scientology.

The mundane appearance of the Five Points churchgoers quickly shatters when Cooper delivers a hate-filled rant before a cloaked and tied victim, a rant that his audiences quickly digest out of brainwashing, sensationalism, and the pastor’s own forceful, commanding energy. Smith pushes his depiction of Christian extremism to its limits, showing the effects of unsubstantiated, sensationalized religious rhetoric on an increasingly cult-like group. Cooper pleads the first amendment for his right to protest at funerals and the second amendment for his arsenal of weaponry he sits on for “security purposes,” further dramatizing his caricature of modern organized religion as organized army. And while Kevin Smith relentlessly drives for a radical view on religious fanaticism that might push Red State over the cliff of believability, his depictions promptly call to mind that beliefs like these actually exist in America, affirming that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

Driving the credibility home is actor Michael Parks, whose acting talents exhibit fiery and vicious speech but also warm, believable humanness when the pastor eventually steps down from his explosive sermons. Parks’ groundbreaking acting performance as Pastor Cooper finds a sense of sinister villainy and determined idealism from the very start, but what makes the character such an able villain rests in Parks’ ability to mask his evil with tenderness, charm, and genuine charisma. Cooper maintains an off-putting optimism while sitting atop his throne of homophobia, violence, and hatred, an element that exacerbates his menacing, cheerful sadism when contrasted with his human actions – bonding with children, sharing jokes with the police, singing and dancing. Michael Parks is very close to being utterly perfect in his role, capturing the feverous energy and arrogance of his real-life parallels, specifically those aforementioned figures from WBC. Nevertheless, Cooper’s occasionally soft-spoken, gentle demeanor overshadows all other characters in Red State, a factor that is very problematic because the most likable character when the credits roll turns out to be the one Smith aims to condemn. 

Finding a moral center in Kevin Smith’s fidgety, erratic film proves quite difficult because Smith aims for a Coen brothers vibe, ultimately concluding that all human beings are fickle and senseless à la Burn After Reading or Fargo. Yet what Smith overlooks is that these two films do actually have a character to latch unto despite the Coen brothers’ penchant for misanthropy, like Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson or Richard Jenkins’ Ted Treffon. In Red State, the original trio of teenage boys clearly lacks the moral strength necessary to back the film’s inherent sociopolitical/religious messages, leaving ATF Special Agent Joseph Keenan (John Goodman) as the upright protagonist. Unfortunately, Smith is also interested in critiquing the inane bureaucracy of law enforcement (a topic of significance after the controversies surrounding the police raid in the Waco compound), thus leaving Goodman’s character distant and ultimately unapproachable as an identifiable character. Sticking mostly to an omniscient point of view as Red State weaves in and out of perspectives, the film plays it too safe over a topic that Smith clearly has ideas on, and his discourse isn’t as engaging as it should be. Teenage Five Points apostate Cheyenne (Kerry Bishé) momentarily takes on the role of moral center but Smith makes clear that he has no interest in developing her character as the main hero to follow, instead continuing his presentation of modern day topics rather than actually formulating coherent answers.

Regardless, Kevin Smith still manages to construct a fairly engaging “horror” movie at times, employing all the typical clichés successfully to make for a fast-paced, visceral picture. Escape sequences filmed with hand-held camerawork, fast cuts, and claustrophobic hallways inject moments with fire and brimstone, leaving scenes with a tense, often frightening quality. The filmmaker also attempts to channel Quentin Tarantino’s ability to employ dialogue as a means of building tension but to a much lesser realization, leaving Red State with less engaging, less dynamic shot reverse shot dialogue essential to draw true suspense. One would assume that a director whose work experimenting with language and atmospherics (in comedy of all genres) to draw out excitement for a cathartic punch line (Clerks, the obvious example) would manage to deliver the same level of expectation as Inglourious Basterds’ opening cross-examination scene, but Smith fails to construct meaningful dialogue. And this failure is a significant problem given that Red State is a very talkative film, but Smith somehow pieces together his picture efficiently enough to keep it from being a true slog to experience.

If one of the main things we ask out of Red State is that Kevin Smith avoid presenting a strenuous plot device, then the incoherent, senseless shootout that transpires on and off for approximately half an hour (much like the bafflingly slow Inception van fall) contributes profoundly to viewer malaise. Unlike Rob Zombie’s magnificent construction of a desperate opening shootout in The Devil’s Rejects, Red State’s shootout lags on against Smith’s own dying vision. Luckily, the film accelerates during the last half hour before Smith implements a troubling series of anticlimax and deus ex machina to supplement his commentary on the sporadic nature of providence and that unexpected occurrence can completely and permanently change the direction of a narrative, a style that Smith derives from the Coen brothers’ more successful work in deus ex machina seen in films like A Serious Man and No Country for Old Men. What may have seemed intellectually profound on paper as a scrutiny on the voids left by unsubstantiated resolutions and abrupt falling actions actually carries with it a sinister stigma that Smith is merely tired of protracting Red State any longer, a factor that may explain why the movie runs a meager 88 minutes long.

During the last stretches of film, a Coen brothers-aspiring, farcical deus ex machina emerges that insinuates a completely off-the-wall resolution to the conflict built up over the course of the entire movie. Nevertheless, Smith decides against using the implied resolution, instead rushing to close Red State with an abrupt ending meant to draw attention to the incompetence of American bureaucratic politics and the police force in the vein of Burn After Reading’s anti-conclusion conclusion. Yet Smith’s theatrical ending is a toothless, unsatisfying affair and a far cry from the film’s earlier critique of homophobia and religion. I would have gone with the more ambitious, even more deus ex machina of a deus ex machina dénouement which I won’t go on to spoil here but can be found on the Wikipedia page for Red State, a far more daring finale more in the vein of Smith’s unflinching storytelling vision and tongue-in-cheek farce.

After amassing such a solid collection of capable actors and actresses and a contemporary issue rife with possibilities for cinematic analysis, Red State comes up short on delivering profound insight on religion and politics, instead consisting of long-winded monologues and unambitious plotlines. Kevin Smith’s own impatient, easily distracted direction leads to cop out after cop out, stumbling towards a pathetic ending meant to tie together a scattershot story beyond repair. Holistically, the film contains just enough pleasantries – namely Michael Parks’ fantastic acting performance – to stave off total disapproval over Smith’s muddled storytelling, though Red State offers no exit from its overly serious exploitation once the film bombards audiences with rambling, half-explored themes and an unfocused narrative with an uncanny ability to bludgeon viewers into total submission amidst the chaos on screen. Rather than evaluate and pick apart present-day topics with the director’s poisonous wit and insight, Red State is less cinematic shorthand for settling matters of church and state than it is for a director grasping for short-term blogosphere cult status.

Notes 4

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

Miguel Penabella | 20 December 2011

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

Dir. Brad Bird, 2011

There is a sense of self-deprecation running through the Daniel Craig-helmed James Bond films because of the gritty, de-romanticized realism of British espionage, a style that seems to advocate modern “contemporary-ness” in the vein of one of the most successful action thrillers this past few years, the Bourne series. This pervading sense of needing to maintain a level of stark, dirty realism in Bond films is a bizarre lapse from the overly fantastic, glamorized films of the past, though the shift looks to be working out quite nicely for the franchise after such quality films as Casino Royale and (yes, I do defend it) Quantum of Solace. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol on the other hand, serves as the yang to Bond’s yin, a counter-concept that imagines ludicrous action and larger-than-life characters delivered with such adrenaline-pumping gusto by director Brad Bird’s alluring, seemingly unflinching direction. Ghost Protocol instills its characters with invincible personas, a far cry from Daniel Craig’s rendition of a more reserved, flawed, and vulnerable outing as James Bond. While both series have their own strengths, Bird’s film manages to deliver an exceptionally tight and enthralling spectacle that easily surpasses any Mission: Impossible film effort of the past.

Lacking the faux political/sociological commentary of films like The Bourne Ultimatum or Quantum of Solace which probe into capitalist corruption and governmental bureaucratics, Ghost Protocol instead opts for a straightforward premise in which the IMF (Impossible Missions Force) team is falsely accused of wrongdoing and promptly disavowed while an unobserved villain carries out a greater plot behind the scenes. Tom Cruise returns as IMF agent Ethan Hunt with Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) returning from Mission: Impossible III and a new character to the series, Jane Carter (Paula Patton). The latter two agents break Hunt out of a Russian prison (because all great espionage films need Russian prisons) without so much as ruffling Cruise’s tufts of long hair resurrected from Mission: Impossible II. Taking the reins from a failed assignment by agent Trevor Hanaway (a surprise appearance by Josh Holloway) investigating a cryptic person of interest codenamed ‘Cobalt,’ Hunt, Dunn, and Carter infiltrate the Kremlin to make for some tense, claustrophobic infiltration and espionage sequences. 

Nevertheless, the IMF team eventually finds themselves at a loss when framed for a bombing of the Kremlin shortly after exfiltration, leading to a disavowal of IMF to the point where only Hunt’s team and a train car full of gadgets are all that is left. Of course, this scenario only serves to lend a greater hand in elevating the edge-of-your-seat danger and rapidity of chase scenes à la The Bourne Ultimatum as protagonists are often operating blindly and frantically, a setup that echoes Brian De Palma’s first Mission: Impossible film. Hunt’s team eventually recruits a reluctant William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), a mysterious IMF analyst who worked with the chief secretary (Tom Wilkinson) before the organization’s dissolution. Together, they unravel the work of Russian nuclear strategist Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), apparently the true face of the alias ‘Cobalt.’ Clocking in at two hours and fifteen minutes, Ghost Protocol actually feels significantly speedier than expected because the sparse plot makes way for heaving energy and time-warping pacing. Action overflows with consistent chase sequences (Cruise seems to run from danger more and more with each film), brief yet viciously physical fight scenes, and globetrotting outings to exotic locales.

Tom Cruise, despite his controversial personal life and aging demeanor, stands out like no other in Ghost Protocol as the actor rather than the character, foregrounding his own personal traits over Ethan Hunt’s non-character disposition. Hunt has never really had any substantial, distinct characteristics/backstory of his own. Neither a tuxedoed, witty ladykiller like James Bond nor a troubled, pensive ghost like Jason Bourne, Cruise instead instills his own idiosyncrasies to the character to give primacy to his own top-bill actor status. Loquacious and self-assured at times, but also capable of displaying seemingly hyperbolic conviction and seriousness with steely eyes, Tom Cruise simply plays Tom Cruise, albeit with more running… from explosions. Cruise and Bird construct the character as pure energy, regularly displaying superhuman capacities from enduring great falls to continuous sprinting, all while the actor pushes fifty years old. When other, younger characters have their chance to participate in action sequences, Cruise only surpasses them once more, effortlessly running down sides of buildings (literally) and jumping out of moving cars while barely even getting a scratch. He’s simply the best, a larger-than-life figure whose entire bearing – movements, emotions, facial expressions, lines – derive from Cruise’s own iconic presence.

Apart from Cruise’s action work, director Brad Bird nearly attempts to instill within the character a level of emotional depth not seen since J.J. Abrams’s direction of Mission: Impossible III, a film that observed Ethan Hunt and fiancée Julia (Michelle Monaghan) battling against all odds apart from the typical “save the world” plotline. Abrams constructs more personal stories with a semblance of a beating heart, and Bird attempts to recapture that same emotional depth in Ghost Protocol but with less remarkable results, opting to intersperse Ethan’s background with Julia to, well, the background. As for Hunt’s present colleagues Jane Carter and Benji Dunn, they prove to be a more likable affair than M:I-III’s largely forgettable bunch. The delectable Paula Patton, an actress who resembles a cross between Alicia Keys and an older Rashida Jones, exerts command over her role as fierce yet alluring platonic team member far better than forgettable predecessors Maggie Q, Thandie Newton, etc. And the fact that there exists no forced love subplot between her character and any of Hunt’s team is a refreshing aspect of the movie, apart from Cruise pulling an “Inception Arthur” by stealing a kiss to distract enemies. Simon Pegg as the familiar Benji Dunn serves as the always pleasing comic relief because of his meta-recognition of the absurdity transpiring around him, a self-commentary of the film expressed through looks of defeated resignation, shock via mouth slightly agape, and the quick smile-to-serious expression change.

The introduction of Jeremy Renner to the series as William Brandt provides further actor awareness for his forthcoming 2012 roles in The Avengers and The Bourne Legacy. Ghost Protocol creates Brandt as an enigma from the very onset of his arrival, originally assigning him the role as bumbling IMF analyst but obviously harboring deeper secrets and invisible prowess beneath his public frame. By leaving these cryptic inquiries into the character as an overarching backdrop of the film, interest slowly mounts as Brandt proves himself as a capable, formidable character who goes toe-to-toe with Hunt himself. Nevertheless, the backstory behind the character is ultimately left frustratingly underused and dropped, concluding with a throwaway ending meant to bring emotions full circle but actually comes off as a cheap attempt at pathos. Renner’s own degradation from a secretive and detached character to another source of comic relief (albeit hilarious comic relief) is the film’s own unintended, mocking parody of itself as overblown blockbuster fare uninterested in investigating deeper into its characters. Nevertheless, it’s Bird’s own recognition of the film’s role as blockbuster fare that saves it from becoming excessively theatrical, and this adherence to the positive aspects of blockbuster standards essentially separates Ghost Protocol from other films that try too hard to reach plausibility and faux seriousness (see: Salt). 

The antagonists of the movie are competent enough but are fairly unremarkable, from Russian actor Vladimir Mashkov’s portrayal of operative Anatoly Sidirov hunting down Hunt’s team to strong-man Wistrom (Samuli Edelmann), Hendricks’ right-hand man. The exquisite Léa Seydoux as French assassin Sabine Moreau is far more attention grabbing, recalling old-school spy archetypes of lone assassins for hire who are at once ruthlessly implacable but also professional and shadowy. As for Michael Nyqvist, he channels his cold, slightly detached demeanor of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s Mikael Blomkvist (the Swedish version) to the psychotic Russian nuclear strategist who advocates for war between America and Russia. Nevertheless, his scenes of villainy lack Philip Seymour Hoffman’s calmly focused, disconcerting treachery in M:I-III, instead ending up generic and disposable.

The exotic globetrotting presented in Ghost Protocol circuits around Moscow, Dubai, and Mumbai, spending much time in each glossy location rather than reporting to each point of interest only to sluggishly continue to the next. Scenes in Moscow culminate in a prison escape sequence that includes an ironic, contrapuntal use of Dean Martin’s “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” given the events unfolding on screen, as well as the team’s goofy infiltration of the Kremlin. And while the CGI special effects are questionable at times, specifically the Kremlin bombing during this stretch of film, Bird raises his action game exponentially when the team visits the steel and glass desert oasis of Dubai. Benefitting significantly from the IMAX camera, an extended sequence atop Dubai’s Burj Khalifa (not to be confused with Wiz Khalifa), the current record holder for tallest tower in the world, maintains a level of danger and vertigo because of the picture’s glorious widescreen lens and Robert Elswit’s (There Will Be Blood, The Town) near perfect cinematography. When Hunt initially peers down from over a hundred floors up, the heavily detailed IMAX picture makes the sense of danger palpably close. The nerve-wracking scale up the side of the Burj Khalifa and the eventual escape down initially suspends all disbelief, yet CGI is never discernible because Tom Cruise LITERALLY runs down the side of the building in order to maintain complete authenticity rather than resort to green screen parlor tricks.

The ace stunt and camera crew stage some of the most impressive action sequences during the Dubai chapter, most revolving around the film’s tower centerpiece. Regardless, an eventual foot and car pursuit through a sandstorm in the style of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 adds moments of further jeopardy and exhilaration before the film eventually makes its way to an outrageously affluent section of Mumbai, India, where million dollar Bugattis and Ferraris are mere props to the developing story. Renowned Indian actor Anil Kapoor plays a goofy Indian telecommunications playboy during this segment as he tries to woo an unenthusiastic Carter with his wealth and a hairstyle that surpasses Cruise’s own. Nevertheless, a subsequent car garage fight sequence recalls Quantum of Solace’s scaffold fight, a technical playground of shifting levels that visualize loud, physical violence and incessant struggle over nuclear launch codes contained inside, what else?, a briefcase.

At times, the globetrotting and flashy extravagance borders on James Bond maximalism, though Ghost Protocol always feels faux stylish, lacking the contemporary aesthetics that make these films so unforgettable: sophisticated, clean, composed. Instead, Bird’s movie unfortunately feels subpar in terms of visual style, taking cues from gritty action flicks and carrying an air of bright, popcorn blockbuster style rather than a classier, more refined look. The crypto spy jargon (“alpha rendezvous!”) accompanying the infiltration and action sequences is especially ridiculous, and the outdated Cold War nuclear conspiracy throwback all but counterbalances with Bird’s sharp direction and unyielding kineticism. Brad Bird recognizes the over-the-top preposterousness of the film, recycling every element to his advantage, including the ridiculous gadgets used throughout. A magnetic levitation device, adhesive gloves, giant illusion screens, portable mask fabricators are all overblown devices that simply escape practicality, instead selling the film as pure popcorn fantasy.

Nevertheless, there are numerous stabs at Bond sensibilities, from Hunt’s signature futuristic BMW supercar to the aforementioned Bond-like girls reinforcing the power of the series to have a future greatness. And while the product placement remains leagues more noticeable and excessive than Bond’s more tasteful approach (Aston Martins and Omega watches are arguably more elegant and in line with the character than BMWs and iPads), Ghost Protocol contains a visual flair and restless power buried beneath the blockbuster surface simply awaiting liberation. Bird’s movie isn’t even a return to form for the series simply because the franchise has never really been off-track given the varying directorial styles of each and every film. Rather, Ghost Protocol is simply the best interpretation of the series in recent memory, surpassing Brian De Palma’s original foggy crime thriller bravura, John Woo’s slow-mo, dove-flying action stunts, and J.J. Abrams’s small-screen sensibilities that combine the designs of Alias and 24. Each previous film exhibits surface signs of their respected filmmaker’s trademarks, but none ever fully display their own respective auteurial voice or authenticity. Only Bird apparently notices the larger-than-life, overstated fantasy of the franchise unlike anyone else, manipulating this quality to suit his own style. Following previous work in the realm of animation, specifically The Incredibles, Bird crafts a supercharged, unrestrained action picture with the very same sensibilities employed in his preceding titles. And unlike his predecessors, he succeeds because he identifies what makes Mission: Impossible so enjoyable to watch in the first place.

Retrospectively, the distinctly contemporary emphasis on realism found in films like Quantum of Solace and The Bourne Ultimatum feel too overly banal when used to such godly extent. Of course, that’s not saying that these films are in any way bad films, it simply means that the style looks to have finally jumped the shark. In the case of Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, the director opts for unpolluted popcorn fun and overindulgence, using these very qualities to magnify the enormous, invigorated world to potentially pave the way for a new direction for the series. The film is cheesy and overblown, but it strives for excitement and genuine blockbuster entertainment that the others have failed to realize because past filmmakers have overlooked the fact that the world of Ethan Hunt and the IMF could never be real. Bird pulls off smart, mainstream filmmaking because he revels in cheesy, overblown action, finally coming to a different conclusion than his forerunners. It’s not called Mission: Impossible because the missions are so demanding out of the team; it’s called Mission: Impossible because these scenarios can only exist in the cinema.

Notes 0

Mischief Managed: A Retrospective Film Criticism of Harry Potter I-VII

Miguel Penabella | 18 December 2011

When British born author Joanne “J.K.” Rowling set out to write Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 1990, she probably didn’t anticipate her work reaching worldwide critical and commercial success that not only uncovered the strata of piercingly insightful political and social commentary but also an unyieldingly human story for which the series is known. Rowling upholds her unique vision throughout the eventual film adaptations of her novels, beginning with the two Chris Columbus directed features in which the author worked with screenwriter Steve Kloves to lend her narrative voice. Staying irrevocably British in terms of casting, location, and the approach to filmmaking, the Harry Potter movie series epitomizes the power to preserve determined constancy even as characters and struggles change under the variable directorial visions of contemporary action-fantasy.

Placing special emphasis on the dichotomy between kinetic fantasy visuals and cinematic restraint, the Harry Potter series contains a visual virtuosity of large-scale action sequences and powerful character drama. At times, the pictures are haunting and atmospheric, capable of alluring audiences with beautiful, hypnotizing cinematography like Eduardo Serra’s work in the Deathly Hallows: Part 1. From the warm, highly digitalized visuals of Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets to the sparse but stylized color palate of haunting blues and grays in later films, the collective movies neatly shift in tone from piece to piece to impart a progressively growing feeling of dread. As a decades long experiment in establishing mood and mise-en-scène, Harry Potter tracks Rowling’s original story thoroughly while also saving room for directorial freedom in crafting a latent assemblage of political and social themes, coming of age comedy quirks, and dramatic character performances with each and every turn of the story.

Oftentimes, the films pull surprises that keep each title fresh and electrifying despite the series’ tendency to stray away from the source material towards unexplored, untapped cinematic storytelling ground. Movies are granted unexpected stylistic cues and unconventional plot structures that lean towards the ambitious and experimental rather than stick to by-the-numbers adaptation. In place of overstated emotional melodrama or action-packed set pieces, Half-Blood Prince prefers quiet existential rumination; Goblet of Fire visualizes macabre horror over whimsical fantasy; the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 chooses epic, cathartic battle over protracted action scenes. That the series can redefine itself under each and every director, and retrospectively, with each and every title, entitles the complete franchise as one of the greatest cinematic achievements this past decade. Individually, each movie contains its own special quirks and moments masterfully executed by its respective directors, allowing each film to have its own identity separate from the broader context of the series. Yet each piece of the franchise ultimately submits to a grander pattern that makes it even more special, more intelligible, and more brilliant. Watching the Harry Potter series gradually darken from Columbus’s lighthearted affairs to the mature, more foreboding installments later on speaks to the haphazard precision of the series as each piece seamlessly falls into play to make for holistically climactic, emotional visual affair.

The ever-darkening tone established in Alfonso Cuarón’s Prisoner of Azkaban would slowly develop into the emotional catharsis witnessed at the end of Half-Blood Prince, a tonal transformation that carries impact because of the holistic framework of the entire franchise. A wide, comprehensive control of the series invests characters, locations, and music with deeper contexts and emotional pulls, explaining why John Williams’ “Hedwig’s Theme” can still send shivers down spines when interpolated in Alexandre Desplat’s score in the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 and why witnessing a decimated Hogwarts at the end of Half-Blood Prince and its eventual, glorious return in the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 carries so much profound significance to fans. Looking back on the series as a whole, it’s easy to recognize the climax of the eight films precisely embedded within the final hour of the Order of the Phoenix with Dumbledore and Voldemort’s visually and emotionally arresting duel, signifying the unstoppable rise of the villain. Even one of the most contentious film entries – the Half-Blood Prince – makes even more sense when looked at in a broader context as a buoyant respite before the unrelenting finale to follow. So even as loyal Rowling fans groan at the directorial freedoms exercised in the film and the aimless portrayal of mundane teenage life and teenage drama unfold, it all develops for a reason – to infuse Hogwarts with warm, welcoming pathos and familiarity with the last normal year of classes before the final epilogue and its sole focus on Voldemort’s end and final battle.

Even contemplating the directors of films past make sense from a retrospective vantage point, as Chris Columbus’s innocuous, unaspiring first two films fulfill the meticulous task of world building necessary to fuel the conflict of later, more economic films. To defend Columbus when taken in a larger context, one only needs to look towards his fairly successful foundation of the basic presentational aesthetic and his augmentation of Rowling’s original material in visual form. Filmmakers with a darker aesthetic like Cuarón and Yates lack the innocent sentimentality necessary to ground Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets to the past, and concurrently, Columbus lacks the maturity and sharp, concise storytelling vision of later directors. Cuarón remains my favorite director of the franchise because of his spectacular accomplishment in turning the series around towards a more serious, ominous affair through his exploratory tracking shots, organic sets and cinematography, and the general direction that Prisoner of Azkaban moves away from Columbus’s aimless whimsy. And while Mike Newell’s direction of Goblet of Fire is competent enough, it’s David Yates that easily takes the second place spot, with his looser yet more concentrated direction and his ability to tell stories and radiate burgeoning emotions through cinematography, camera movements, tone, and overall pacing.

Yates skillfully completes the far more appealing darkened visuals of the Harry Potter franchise, immersing viewers with his matchless aesthetic and his engaging portrayal of the characters that have continuously grown along with its audiences. As the childish wonder fades away from Columbus’s early romps towards the frightening gravitas of events unfolding, the films themselves mature and become markedly contemporary rather than remain a medium to display fantasy tricks and silliness. The successful maturation of the three perfectly cast heroes – the brave (Daniel Radcliffe), the wise (Emma Watson), and the enduring (Rupert Grint) – unravels the humanism underlying each and every film. The trio has always seemed larger than life, larger even than the story itself as they deliberately detach themselves from the main action as in the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 and their hunt for horcruxes as war rages outside. The films have magnified the characters from mere text to visual reality, walking a fine line between faithfulness and innovation in terms of character portrayal, acting, and characterization. This achievement seems rudimentary upon first viewing of the series, though the significance slowly seeps through when taking into account the social consciousness and contemporary resonance interspersed with the empathic portrayal of each character (even faceless ones within the masses of figures in battle), a marker that signifies the series’ ability to handle a dissimilar array of talent into a structured, unified whole.

That Rowling’s novels and the film adaptations can remain separate, respectable entities is a feat in and of itself, though the films look to be more enduring, more prominent in the public consciousness, an exploit very similar to Peter Jackson’s work translating J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to the screen. It’s not terribly often that the public film-going body receives a film franchise that can fittingly be identified as epochal, masterful filmmaking, though the Harry Potter series yields outstanding results so vastly and so poetically. The decision to give audiences the privilege to witness Rowling’s vision of happiness and innocence, but also broody and ominous moments speaks to the franchise’s ability to keep a levelheaded vision even as this cinematic decade has witnessed a steady march towards obsolescence and shallowness. Nevertheless, screenwriter Steve Kloves, David Yates, et al. have an enduring faith in the medium, as do we all after years of steady releases and gradual development of the story. Yates, along with his predecessors of the Potterverse, craft a breathtakingly uncompromised vision of Rowling’s material while refusing to provide audiences with brainless thrills and action. Measuring the greatness of the Harry Potter film adaptations is a difficult trial, and the tens of thousands of words written about each and every installment (each article can be found via their respective title card below) barely even scratch the surface of why these films deserve such attention and appraisal. But I’ll still take these words to heart if it means getting closer and closer to unearthing its brilliance and why the film is such a profound experience. As film enters into another year, Harry Potter comes to its final close, but not before letting audiences know how brilliant and how enduring of a run it’s had these past few years. Because at the end of the day, it’s people like Rowling, Yates, Kloves, Radcliffe, Watson, Grint, Gambon, Rickman, and many others who are the real wizards. Watching them perform for the screen, that’s the real magic.

[Click pictures for reviews.]

Notes 1

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

Miguel Penabella | 27 November 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

Dir. David Yates, 2011

All glittering pretenses aside, the collective scope of the Harry Potter film adaptations is nothing short of the finest visual and interpretive achievements of filmmaking in the past few decades. The series’ unique ability to organize thousands of pages of J.K. Rowling’s written material, dozens of acting professionals and newcomers, and a multitude of locations into a coherent, structured whole verifies its stately position amongst contemporary big-budget cinema. With comparisons already made to Peter Jackson’s masterfully-executed The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in terms of sheer epic scope, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 defines a filmmaker’s ultimate realization of melding action, story, humor, drama, character, and composition. David Yates’s final outing as director with tried-and-true writer Steve Kloves at his side solidifies their collective effort in crafting strikingly resonant, oftentimes profound blockbuster films. The second half of the Deathly Hallows delivers the final onslaught of imagery that the first half wisely sidesteps (in order to make for a uniquely atmospheric, slow-paced turn in the series), an element that synchronously strengthens and undermines it. A touchingly fulfilled finale rather than simply a tortuously overdramatic episode, the film nevertheless rides on the coattails of its superior predecessor rather than standing alone as a sturdy, individual installment.

David Yates (directing all the Potter films since Order of the Phoenix) has maintained a fragile balance between faithfulness to Rowling’s original text and true innovation in filmmaking, sometimes venturing out to flex his creative muscles. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 remains a product of mainstream Hollywood cinema, yet also miraculously salvages the politically and socially reflective consciousness of the original material, an ability that Yates has neatly established throughout his stint in adapting J.K. Rowling’s novels. So even as the fiery, action-heavy resolution to the franchise contains more explosions and deadly spells flying across the screen, Yates still grasps a sense of empathy and identification with the characters who have continuously grown throughout the series. The Harry Potter adaptations are a film franchise that grew up along with its audience, and consequently, Deathly Hallows: Part 2’s glorious ensemble has a prominence virtually unsurpassed by any other series. Peter Jackson’s aforementioned work comes to mind, and may be the only other blockbuster franchise that effectively extracts audience responsiveness despite its colossal scope and diverse collection of talents.

After a hasty recap of the concluding scene from Part 1 (Voldemort acquiring the Elder Wand), Deathly Hallows: Part 2 reintroduces that sense of empathy from its onset, quickly cutting to one of the finest opening shots in all the Harry Potter films. The gaunt ribs of the dementors as they loom over the castle grounds of Hogwarts and the film’s dark, saturated photography gracefully establishes the gravity of events to come before the camera slowly fixes itself upon the silhouetted figure of Severus Snape (Alan Rickman). Looking over his students amidst an environment of black and grey, the shot closes in on his ponderous, eternally introspective face before cutting to the titles. Not a mere stylistic exercise or a cheap stab at emotional pull, the shot manifests the fundamental center inherent at the film’s core that Yates spends his two hours attempting to break down and reilluminate. The center is Severus Snape, a relatively underused character throughout the film series who ultimately owns this film with Rickman’s total refusal to surrender his eroded presence without, for a moment, possessing and controlling the closing moments of the franchise and suggesting a greater authorial presence. 

Rickman’s performance in Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is layered in three dimensions, desiring to conflict ingrained perceptions of the typically underdeveloped character with a powerfully stirring last bow here. Not offered the opportunity for substantial dialogue or interaction with other characters long after the film has begun, Snape is left to his own devices off-screen as a figure entirely apart from the world. Yates, Kloves, and Rowling, the collective “authorial voice” of the film, establishes an undercurrent of Snape’s distressed consciousness beneath the action seen through the main trio’s (Radcliffe, Watson, Grint) point of view. All throughout the movie, the main trio are reminded of Snape’s authoritarian administration of Hogwarts School after Voldemort’s (Ralph Fiennes) coup d’état in Deathly Hallows: Part 1, a thought that produces afterthoughts of how such an unseen character (often utilized for quick comic relief or a witty observation) could possibly take command of the center stage. Yet Rickman manages to do just that, essentially blurring the divide between authorial vision and character subjectivity with his multilayered performance of a figure plagued by a present-day ill fortune and an even darker past. The character’s shifting allegiances throughout the series and his treacherous actions surmounts his humanity until the final revelation of his motivations is disclosed. Ultimately, it’s this dynamic from enigmatic shadow to translucent tragic hero that grounds the film apart from its viscerally overpowering fantasy visuals. 

That Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 operates with full-blown fantasy action sequences is again, concurrently good and bad. Overwhelming spectacle has the potential to undercut emotional pull amidst the heat of the moment, though Yates’s experience in presenting grand action pieces and knowing when to step back from the immediacy of battles to individual characters attests to the film’s sense of levelheadedness and restraint. And so even as the body count increases throughout the film, the combination of having Rowling’s original story in mind and Yates’s careful, emotionally resonant visuals present yields a surprisingly profound sadness. The wartime frenzy portrayed onscreen has its tense, affecting moments that instantly call to mind the German Blitz campaign of WWII as low rumbles of explosions are heard in the distance. Yates manages to keep the sense of wartime danger present through his audiovisual atmospherics, and this sense of impending peril intensifies exchanges between characters that may be conversing for the very last time (i.e. George uneasily asking Fred if he’s feeling alright moments before the heat of battle).

The grandiose battle scene of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 fulfills the promise of an explosive, sprawling tangle of action that puts into play a number of elements to intensify the final hours of the series. Firstly, the numerous characters partaking in the conflict add a level of disarray and mass frenzy as the camera pans out to reveal giants, stone sentinels, oversized spiders, etc. joining the ranks of the witches and wizards fighting in a massive struggle à la Two Towers’s Helm’s Deep. With so many figures in play, the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 feels as robust and physically grand as a Tolkien-esque large-scale fantasy battle, complete with an omniscient bird’s eye view of the field. Consequently, the characters’ hopes and trepidations spill forth before the camera’s curious eye. Remus Lupin (David Thewlis) can only conclude to Kingsley Shacklebolt (George Harris) with his timely observation mere moments before battle, “It is the quality of one’s convictions that determines success, not the number of followers.” Nevertheless, Voldemort and his sinister Death Eaters still seem too monstrously capable of overtaking the school despite all steps to hinder their unavoidable advance.

One of these steps is Minerva McGonagall’s (Maggie Smith) assembling of Hogwarts’s stone sentinels to take one desperate last stand in defending the castle grounds. Often disregarded as incidental set design in previous films, these ancient stone soldiers now carry an unexpected importance as a key advantage in repelling the invading forces. Secondly, the colossal shield positioned around the castle grounds adds a level of last-minute fortification that recalls The Phantom Menace’s deflector shields to the point where quoting “Our shields can’t repel spells of that magnitude!” would be entirely justified (to borrow Sam Woolf’s glorious observation so shamelessly, my apologies). Its eventual crumbling away under the constant bombardment of the Death Eaters’ spells carries a substantially more tangible air of dread and alarm because Yates’s direction is markedly more visceral, more affecting. The slow deterioration of the shield protecting Hogwarts signifies not only the loss of a final line of defense, not just the steady demise of the Order itself, but also deeper, more distressing losses like the destruction of adolescent innocence and the way in which each character’s hope and resilience can be chipped away over time by the external forces of the ominous outside world. The special effects are far more purposeful in this film as indicative of real danger given the context of what’s really at stake, and thus, the gradual disintegration of the last remaining defenses carries with it unmistakable sentiments of loss and downfall as the body count steadily rises throughout.

David Yates manages to fabricate praiseworthy realism and authenticity with his shots of wartime paranoia, a triumph in visual mapping largely realized through a mixture of lavish IMAX-ready special effects and attention to minute detail. The bridge collapse sequence with Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) demonstrates the film’s ability to excite audiences with its undeniably impressive pyrotechnics and imagery that feels huge with its monumental widescreen space. David Yates crafts an impressive technical feat in terms of sheer spectacle and scale, a triumph that points to the veteran Potter director’s rising aplomb in filmmaking. And even as a number of scenes carry a dreamlike, ethereal quality, Yates still retains the wartime helplessness and utter vulnerability in the face of mounting dangers slowly creeping in. In Deathly Hallows: Part 2, the breathtaking craftsmanship of the in-the-moment action in one particular scene is quite simply beyond belief. After hushing the tone into contemplative melancholy when the trio hunts down the horcruxes apart from the battle, Yates brings back the wartime adrenaline from out of the blue when the trio rushes through the onslaught in the school courtyard, avoiding flying spells and ducking behind rubble to avoid the attacks of giants. Though the trio’s struggle eventually falls back to a stretch of repose following the sudden run-in with war, the images still linger in the mind, reminding audiences that the conflict still continues in its ruthless vehemence and tireless persistence. Self-conscious flourishes such as these intensify the film, especially when paired with the infinitesimal details the film employs in formulating the wartime atmosphere – Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) giving an inaudible speech to Voldemort’s army in the margins of the screen, characters holding back from enunciating spell names to accelerate the action, the impartial camera revealing familiar faces among the dead. 

Aside from the film’s technical and visual accomplishments, the filmmakers’ ability to exercise restraint and levelheadedness even during the fury and madness of war is a revelatory aspect of the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. David Yates often chooses to step back from the midst of heated battles and zoom in on individual characters so that distinct human moments take command of the screen – Luna giving Harry advice, Ron and Hermione sharing a long-anticipated kiss, Harry pacifying the ghost of Helena Ravenclaw – but also consistently reminds audiences how small the characters are in the context of their surroundings as the incessant rumbles of off-screen explosions and the shattering of the castle architecture resumes around them. And then in one transcendent moment, Yates holds the film in a haunting freeze frame as both sides pause from fighting to collect their wounded and dead. A sense of solace appears amid the shattered stone edifices of Hogwarts and the scattershot fires blazing around the remaining characters, and the camera’s slow journey into the Great Hall, now converted into a makeshift hospital, creates a feeling of shock at what has transpired. The main trio is present at Hogwarts not to directly fight in the front lines but to locate and destroy the horcruxes, placing the large-scale mayhem into terrifying context. Thus, the sudden reintroduction of the background undertakings back to the foreground carries with it a greater sadness as the camera moves past an injured Argus Filch (David Bradley), a grieving Sybill Trelawney (Emma Thompson), and at the crux of it all, the Weasley family petrified at the loss of Fred Weasley (James Phelps).

Of course, the film maintains a wry, deathly cynicism at the final confrontation to come, but not before each and every actor in the film has their chance to deliver one poignant last bow. Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall partakes in one of the most arresting feats of acting towards the beginning of the film and nicely concludes her role in the series with fiery resolve. Revealing a stricken expression and real conviction in her eyes, she wordlessly and furiously expels Snape as headmaster of Hogwarts from out of nowhere, simply unleashing a pent-up rage with each and every flick of her wand. Molly Weasley’s (Julie Walters) “Not my daughter, you bitch!” one-liner does not carry as much profound weight as Smith’s forceful, silent reprimand, but still manages to satisfy with its obvious throwback to Sigourney Weaver’s no-nonsense Ellen Ripley in Aliens. Contrariwise, the target of Mrs. Weasley’s rebuke, Helena Bonham Carter’s Bellatrix Lestrange, also has her moments of acting finesse. Carter, in a stroke of quiet but commanding brilliance during the Gringotts bank heist sequence, lets her subtle talents seep through the screen as she relays multiple facets of behavior and personality as a Polyjuice potion character. In effect, Carter must act as Emma Watson playing Hermione Granger who in turn is attempting to mime Helena Bonham Carter’s own rendition of Bellatrix Lestrange. Offsetting her usual over-the-top idiosyncrasies and macabre quirk, Carter instead portrays a terse Hermione Granger under a thinly veiled masquerade through the delicate movements of her eyes, her nervous lip biting, lumbering high-heeled stride, etc. The scene witnesses Helena Bonham Carter as both present and absent (she speaks with Watson’s voice; she only impersonates her physical action) as she naturally approximates and ultimately inhabits the idiosyncrasies of Hermione Granger herself.

As is the case with many other of the minor actors involved, a fitting last bow emerges in the final Potter flick to allow their roles to come around full circle. Seamus Finnigan (Devon Murray) gets a nod at his proclivity for explosions; Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) delivers an emotionally shattering grief-stricken face at the sight of Harry’s presumably dead body; Actor Warwick Davis contrives separate acting renditions as both the deceitful Griphook and the comic relief-turned-wartime militant Filius Flitwick; Luna Lovegood’s (Evanna Lynch) endearingly charismatic yet shrewd disposition. Nevertheless, the main trio – Harry, Ron, Hermione – are the revitalizing protagonists of the film, with their familiar nuances and down-to-earth authenticity striking resonant chords even up until the last film in the franchise. Both Rupert Grint and Emma Watson bring out the best features in Radcliffe, whose iconic portraiture of Harry Potter can only be triumphant when grounded with the warm, emotive luminosity of Grint and the platonic affection and understanding of Watson. Radcliffe himself has gracefully reserved and disciplined his rendition of the titular hero, avoiding comical outbursts and melodrama in favor of allowing subtle flashes at humor and tenderness to develop his character for him. Furthermore, Watson and Grint’s intimate emoting is a chief pleasure of the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, with their burgeoning affection for each other revealing the series’ ability to authentically realize humanity and poignancy beneath the grandiose action and explosions at the film’s core.

More marvelous still are Matthew Lewis as Neville Longbottom and Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy, two figures in the Harry Potter series who have continued to reveal progressively more multifaceted and complex characters. Both refuse to fall under the shadows cast by the film’s larger names (Snape, Voldemort, Harry); Instead, Lewis and Felton wield a tremendous, powerful display of acting fortitude that bind their characterizations into true greatness. Longbottom’s impassioned speech and rebuttal of Voldemort at the face of mocking laughter (regardless of how much he’s proven himself already as an able, multilayered character) imprints on the mind as a characterization far removed from the inept, awkward Neville Longbottom of Sorcerer’s Stone. And in stunning counterpoint to Longbottom’s redemption is Malfoy’s disintegration as an eternally conflicted, increasingly tragic figure who carries the angst and oppression forced upon him by Voldemort. Even Malfoy’s parents (Helen McCrory and Jason Isaacs) play the part of desperate, tragic figures whose desertion from the battle signifies not a personal hypocrisy but a tired submission to the ugly, loathsome circumstances they have fallen prey to and can no longer undo.

Perhaps even more stunning a presence on screen is Michael Gambon as the fantastic, otherworldly, enduring Albus Dumbledore during the “afterlife” scene in which Harry finds himself in limbo between life and death. The blindingly white sterility of the mise-en-scène exists in a state of ethereal unbelievability, unreal and entirely real as if in a dream. The startling, grotesque fetus of Voldemort in the scene contorts the moment without warning, revealing an untarnished nightmare that directly clashes with Dumbledore’s pure, trancelike figure and untouchable virtue. Time and time again he heralds a satisfyingly sagacious insight and a detached gaze that speak to his innocence apart from the harsh, gritty violence going on out of space and out of time from the afterlife sequence. Alternatively, Snape’s flashbacks offer a completely dissimilar view on the character, affirming Dumbledore’s inherently Machiavellian nature as he willingly accepts the fact that Harry must be killed to achieve peace (a fact that he concludes without remonstration). To further darken and complicate Gambon’s character are the revelations from his brother Aberforth (an unrecognizable Ciarán Hinds) on Dumbledore’s history with indifference and selfishness to him and his sister Ariana (Hebe Beardsall). Nevertheless, the rich, intricate backstory on Albus Dumbledore’s treatment of his family lacks significant screen time as Yates completely sidesteps a potentially multifaceted side narrative. Still, the decision to merely hint at a flawed, Machiavellian Dumbledore and instead opt for the dreamy, perceptive character he is allows Gambon one of the finest of Potter movie quotes: “Of course, it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

Ralph Fiennes’s eccentric take on villainy as the reptilian Voldemort has had its ups and downs throughout the series, and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 exacerbates these strengths and imperfections in distinct ways. Voldemort’s delicate wand balancing act on the tips of his fingers suggests a careful, controlled face of evil, yet the character is prone to man-child eccentricities like bursts of over-the-top vainglorious giggling when wraithlike treachery should take its place. On the other end of the spectrum lies Voldemort’s moments of true terror, such as his fight with Harry above and through the castle grounds as his face contorts into menacing, monstrous impressions of pure evil. Furthermore, the fact that Voldemort has Snape killed not with his usual “Avada Kedavra” killing curse but with Nagini unceremoniously striking at his dying body carries a dark, twisted gravitas. It’s only when Voldemort is seen capitalizing on the torment of others and surmounting all opposition that his lack of humanity truly becomes more substantiated and dynamic.

At the very root of the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 lies Snape’s glorious flashback scene, a five to ten minute long sequence that conveys the mesmerizing, often heartrending pathos of a character in need of true redemption. All throughout the franchise, Snape has steadily revealed a hidden attachment for Harry like a watchful guardian, from his act of throwing his arms around the main trio in Prisoner of Azkaban to shield them from Lupin’s werewolf state to his various moments of keeping a vigilant eye over Harry’s exploits in nearly all the films. His ubiquitous role in nearly every Potter title finally culminates in a scene of great catharsis here, contemplating a greater, deeper function in the narrative itself. The shot of Snape gazing into Harry’s face and remarking that he has “his mother’s eyes,” suggests that Snape is seeing himself, the life he could have had, and the love that he has safeguarded. This moment for him is the redemptive final revelation that he has long awaited and now comes to full fruition under Alan Rickman’s Oscar-worthy acting.

Especially deserving of praise is his tearful enunciation to Harry, “Look at me,” three words that carry profound weight with the actor’s affecting presence and steady gaze moments before the end of his screen time. Confronting the only figure remaining of his affection, Snape offers himself up as the last tie to bind the story together: his involvement in Dumbledore’s plan to finish Voldemort, his relationship with the Potters, and so on. The very secrets that have imprisoned him now serve to set him free, with the flashbacks slowly unfolding as if in a half-remembered dream, a series of memories whose scant seconds allow him an ascent into redeeming himself and finally clearing his name for good.

Individual moments as these allow Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 to linger on in the mind, but when taken in a much broader perspective, Yates’s film feels lacking as a standalone film. Part 1’s atmospheric, moody progression solidifies it as one of the best Potter films, yet this film really does live up to its title as a mere extension of its predecessor, serving as a final fight scene more than anything. At almost exactly two hours long, the film has the shortest of run times, and Yates fills his time with staccato flashes of scenes rather than living, breathing cinematic pieces that constitute a greater whole. Nevertheless, the specific elements that Yates does employ are fine in and of themselves, from the numerous memorable scenes to Alexandre Desplat’s moving end-of-days score. But what truly defines Yates as a capable director for the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is his ability to think loosely in adapting Rowling’s text to the screen, allowing for an open-ended flexibility to capture that “magic” necessary to transcend the pages of the book. The film feels immersive in its narrative approach and aesthetic, from the Gringotts sequence that employs “bank heist” mechanics suitable for The Town and then leaping across genres to full-blown battle spectacle appropriate for The Lord of the Rings and then back down to quiet, contemplative mise-en-scène characteristic of moody period pieces ranging from the recent Jane Eyre to The King’s Speech. Far from being derivative of other films, David Yates melds together the positive aspects of Rowling’s complex mythology while remaining noticeably contemporary and resonant.

From the film’s holistic narrative framework to its by-the-numbers dénouement, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is as much a hesitant film adaptation as Chris Columbus’s own Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets. And perhaps that’s exactly how the last film should be. The entire Potter series has been an immense cinematic experiment in pushing the limits of Rowling’s original source text while venturing out from it with each and every director’s unique directorial vision. Yet what Yates and Kloves focus on in this last installment is sticking close to the source material, while also preserving the film’s unique emotional breadth. Harry’s unending resolve, Neville’s fearlessness, Snape’s redemption – these are but a sample of traits that have been borne out of the franchise’s concurrent maturation with its audience, a fact that may result in the film’s displacement of Rowling’s original text to a higher stance in popular culture. Yates’s concluding Potter film entrenches itself with Rowling’s iconic narrative and expressive qualities, yet also takes an unexpectedly unique path to its close. The film’s depiction of adolescent youth and coming-of-age growth, both unsure and excited of the life that emerges and is yet to come, expresses a closing chapter of innocence, wonder, childhood, and love while also signifying the birth of a new beginning and a cycle of life once more. In retrospect, the Harry Potter films did not get better with each year under director David Yates, but they definitely matured. And while Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 may not be the best finale, it’s definitely the right one, a fitful goodbye to that great and powerful wizard.

Notes 1


Miguel Penabella | 12 October 2011


Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011

     1955. Director Robert Aldrich unleashes a storm of controversy with the release of his nihilistic noir Kiss Me Deadly, with critics charging him of sadism and promoting repugnant ultraviolence. Implied, off-screen onslaught builds the film’s framework, lustily appreciating the agony and mutilation inflicted on others in contrast to the stylized kinetic action of modern films. Nicolas Winding Refn’s own Drive moves through comparable moments of brutal violence without recoil, as synthpop tunes engross the film’s dreamy pulp ambiance and postmodern retro aesthetic. Additionally, the bloody resolve hidden in 1955 all but floods out unto the screen for all to witness in artful corporeal butchery even as Ryan Gosling’s nameless, baby-faced, toothpick-chewing Driver remains existentially bound in the archetype Refn aims to deconstruct.

     Drive presents a profound shift in Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s career, earning him a nomination for the prestigious Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and garnering further worldwide attention after previous English-language films Valhalla Rising and Bronson. Earlier films display Refn’s approach to filmmaking, with Valhalla Rising witnessing a tonal reverence to masculine savagery, while his Pusher trilogy chronicles a crime epic that synthesizes the relationship between individuals and the shady criminal underbelly of urban centers. In Drive, unexpectedly feminine delineations emerge from Refn’s brutal foreground as Gosling’s Driver radiates genuine emotional frequency and gracefulness through his gentle gaze and whispery vocal delivery during moments of rest. The film lacks the gritty, hyper-real style that has defined modern filmmaking, instead opting for mathematical, clean lines that linger on the camera’s glamorized eye observing the extreme violence that bleeds postmodernism and arthouse undertones.

     Ryan Gosling’s own precise, mechanized proposition uttered throughout the film attests to the painstakingly systematic quality inherent in Drive: “You give me a time and a place, I give you a five minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes and I’m yours, no matter what. One minute in either direction, and you’re on your own. I don’t sit in while you’re running it down, I don’t carry a gun… I drive.” Like a lone wanderer in the vein of an Arthurian knight or Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, Gosling meshes the tightly disciplined control of one attuned to bursts of profound action and the reserved, ghostlike quality of the existential wanderer. His lack of substantial dialogue crafts the stoic abstraction of any character silently battling the troubles of existence, constructing identity and thoughts from the harsh surroundings that compose his very life. Like a nameless protagonist straight out of the mind of Dostoyevsky or Camus, the Driver seeks genuine affection and human connection even as torrential violence aims to shatter all likelihood for normality.

     Building from the past meditations on existential restlessness perfected by Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and the aforementioned “Man with No Name” in Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy, Ryan Gosling’s Driver constructs his own sense of justice that calls attention to the conceptual skeleton of the film itself. Working odd jobs including movie stuntman and mechanic by day, the Driver maintains an invisible life while keeping largely to himself, much like a lonely Travis Bickle minus the penetrating soliloquies brought about by total ennui. Instead, Gosling plays the stoic and silent act, with eyes that constantly watch and a disposition content with staying in complete stillness. A large cut of the film, especially the rising action of the first half, witnesses the aforementioned feminine quality that Gosling imparts through his performance. Rather than focusing on testosterone-fueled kinetic vitality and frantic shots stressing masculinity, the camera loiters on the ghostlike form of Ryan Gosling at rest, progressively accumulating stamina for Drive’s periodic moments of relentless violence during nighttime scenes.

     By night, the Driver works as a wheelman for hire, maneuvering getaway vehicles for criminals that his trademark proposal (stated above) explains in professional, resolute detail. All is well until his neighbors Irene (Carey Mulligan) and ex-convict husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) are pulled into a ruthless criminal underworld after a heist meant to pay off Standard’s prison protection money quickly spins out of control. The latter half of the film observes Gosling unleash his pent-up energy as he stabs, shoots, hammers, and thrashes his way through Los Angeles’s underworld, with Refn’s chiefly silent direction conveying comparable savagery and bloodlust to 2009’s Valhalla Rising. Displaying straightforward bloody mutilation rather than the kinetic build-up of action sequences that modern cinema zealously regards, Drive unfolds with the sheer anguish of its images that range from bashed skulls to slit necks. Nevertheless, the film’s heated concluding half remains fluid and poetic even as the film gazes upon the brutal close-ups and slow motion of gun blasts, stomped upon heads, blood splatter, and a particularly tense moment concerning an eyeball, a bullet, and a hammer.

     Of course, the explosive turn from ennui to energy largely attests to Ryan Gosling’s dynamic acting ability, with recent roles in Blue Valentine and The Ides of March reaffirming his faculty for profoundly weighty performances. The dichotomy he presents is consuming, radiating brutality and grace as the Driver preserves total control in the most intense of moments. Refn’s ability to interweave the arthouse polish with the vicious, animalistic drive of grindhouse unites the artfulness of Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop and Walter Hill’s The Driver with the bloody resolve of Takashi Miike’s Ichi the Killer and Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible. The product looks and feels much like something from the mind of Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance), Kim Ji-woon (I Saw the Devil), or the aforementioned Gaspar Noé. Refn is no stranger to shocking violence however; one only needs to look at Valhalla Rising and actor Mads Mikkelsen forcefully gouging out a man’s innards with his bare hands to comprehend Refn’s approach to film. Of course, one of the more striking elements of Refn’s film is implied violence, a cinematic device that carries on the work of the previously mentioned Kiss Me Deadly. Gratuitously leisurely build-ups before the emergence of gore and off-screen carnage have an overwhelming effect on the mind as it strives to comprehensively fill in the imagery presented on screen. The hybrid blend of implicit violence and bloodshed exhibited in unrestrained fruition (now politically correct in this day and age) amplifies the force in which Drive’s hardboiled style can shock audiences with its unflinching violence and the abrupt tonal shift into grim austerity and back to the lofty ambiance accompanied by synthpop tunes.

     The electric opening scene comes to represent Drive at its most irrevocably arresting, coolly witnessing the Driver executing a getaway job that recalls the first scene of Louis Leterrier and Corey Yuen’s The Transporter. Apart from the basic setup that Refn constructs, all similarities with the 2002 action film cease as motionless tension and anti-kinetic action possess the imagery of Drive while heavily choreographed chase sequences and stuntwork comprise the opening segment of The Transporter. As the Driver awaits the thieves who hired him as their getaway man, Refn layers together polyphonic sounds that intensify the tension of the moment: a Clippers basketball game, a police scanner, the pulsating beats of The Chromatics, and the eventual engine roar when the drive begins. The layered soundscape is one of the many able audiovisual presentations throughout the film, accentuating the unease inside the Driver’s car as the police scanner provides an auditory (rather than visual) point of view of the opposing situation. Additionally, the nocturnal, ticking clockwork of The Chromatics on the soundtrack delivers the same dark pulse as Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score in The Social Network or The Chemical Brothers’ work in Hanna. Noise catches Refn’s characters caught in the middle of the Los Angeles sprawl, as the far-off police sirens and the roar of a helicopter creates the long cat-and-mouse game that witnesses the Driver stumbling upon different cop cars and helicopters after extended intervals of quiet, seemingly safe stretches of driving.

     The process remains as an irregular chase sequence rather than the stereotypical pedal-to-the-metal consistency of films like Fast Five or The Transporter. The effect forms a suspenseful escape sequence that combines empty spaces of deadness with the rapid editing suddenly brought about by a stray police cruiser or helicopter light eventually spotting the car once more. Every element operates like clockwork, producing nervous expectation and an immediate sense of danger that Refn emphasizes with the constant image/sound binary of Gosling’s clenching leather glove on the steering wheel. The director returns to noise as a means to elevate certain scenes, augmenting violence and tension through intelligible, clear sounds. By leaving the film principally devoid of much dialogue, noise is sparse but profound. The sounds of beatings, shotgun blasts, cracking skulls, and knives plunging into throats comes through distinctly and shockingly cringe-worthy. Refn wrings tension out of these moments, making damn sure Gosling’s strained breathing and the leather of his glove pulling taut pervades the soundscape he constructs.

     Regardless, Refn’s economic direction and editing finesse is only one example of Drive’s proclivity for delivering tense, noteworthy moments of brilliance. Perhaps one of the strongest elements of the film lies in actor Albert Brooks’ performance as leading antagonist Bernie Rose, a sinister movie mogul turned mobster who carries more villainy than his partner (Ron Perlman), a character who’s all muscle but no true craftiness. Brooks, known largely for his more vibrant stints doing voice work in Finding Nemo (Marlin) and The Simpsons Movie (Russ Cargill), unearths an unexpected treachery with a deathly gaze that speaks murder, cunning, and pure wrath. Refn focuses on the details that surround scenes with Brooks, once again manipulating sound to make its absence carry a sinister quality as if Brooks may unleash his fury at any moment. And he does. Brooks’ Oscar-worthy performance isn’t merely a product of an actor working against type, he actually generates (exquisitely so) an artful balance of cunning discretion and bloodthirsty ruptures of evil. And when Brooks and the odd character share screen time together, the outcome tends to lean towards shattering, brutal confrontations of flesh and razor. The actor even contributes to Refn’s untiringly ingenuous undercurrent, remarking, “I used to produce action movies in the eighties. Some critics called them ‘European.’ I called them shit.” The comment is tongue-in-cheek enough to mock the film itself (in true self-aware arthouse pretension) while also observing and substantiating the pastiche of the cheesy 80’s films that Drive strives to cynically imitate and deconstruct.

     Some viewers may be surprised by Drive’s derivative imagery, with a number of cinematic influences mentioned earlier (Kiss Me Deadly, Irreversible, Oldboy, Two-Lane Blacktop) flourishing through Refn’s familiar glimpses of hammer-wielding protagonists and hardboiled gangsters dining in off-hours restaurants. Nevertheless, Drive makes use of its influences to craft its own identity, employing the already lauded hot pink cursive type (in the retro Mistral font) and the wistful synthpop score as a construction of postmodernism. To deride Drive’s heavily borrowed smörgåsbord of stylistic cues as hackneyed and uninspired is to deride the combination of blue and yellow as less earnest than the color green (Apologies to Jake Cole for employing his shrewd insight here). Refn calls to mind Quentin Tarantino’s affinity for piecing together a postmodern patchwork of styles, blending elements from neo-noir, samurai films, arthouse, and existentialism that function as pieces to form the whole. To add to all the above-mentioned cinematic precursors that have influenced Refn with Drive, nods to David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and Michael Mann are also apparent in forming a simulacrum that combines elements from each of the directors’ trademark styles. The pop culture sensibility of Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction oozes past the violence throughout the film, while also maintaining a dreamlike quality akin to Mulholland Dr. and Lost Highway. One specific nighttime scene under a moonlit beach set to Riz Ortolani’s “Oh My Love,” produces a surreal, trancelike essence that transcends reality, only to fall back again to the grounded existence of the serious events that Nicolas Winding Refn presents.

     In terms of plot presentation, Drive clearly resembles the traditional Jo-ha-kyū structure of an Akira Kurosawa film that follows the typical three act “beginning, break, rapid” approach to storytelling. At certain points of the film, the differing tempos converge into obscurity as Refn’s direction accelerates while longing, madness, wrath, vengeance, apprehension, and unpredictability crash in the final act under the camera’s meticulous eye for detail. The product maintains the same effect as a conventional samurai film, containing an extremely slow build-up with little to no action before an abrupt onslaught of extreme violence that serves as catharsis for the characters left standing onscreen. The abstracted atmosphere within the Driver’s car feels leagues distant from the reality outside it, always wistful and preoccupied with the lofty ambiance removed from the neon underworld complex of downtown Los Angeles. As such, the Driver’s subsequent transformation into the mathematical killing machine he embodies attests to Refn’s ability to nimbly glide from place to place, tone to tone, and style to style without breaking the fluidity of the movie.

     Drive also attempts to walk the line between the unearthly existentialism of Alejandro Jodorowsky films, specifically El Topo, and the lone urban remoteness of Taxi Driver or Le Samouraï, but finds comfortable territory in its niche as a quiet, contemplative neo-noir maneuvering through nighttime city streets in the same vein as Michael Mann’s Thief, Miami Vice, and Collateral. Refn explores the fluorescent after hours spaces of empty city, moving through its violence and action with a poeticized touch, allowing silence and subtlety to command the screen, revealing little while appreciating the environment with anxious eyes. In this light, there are a number of moments throughout Drive that call to light on Scorsese and Mann’s meditations on existential wanderers. Refn’s direction tracks and drifts over Ryan Gosling’s silent figure in the same pursuit to replicate and share what his near emotionally impenetrable protagonist feels. His warm relationship with Irene and her inseparable tot in tow instantly mirrors Travis Bickle’s too good to be true connection with Betsy. It’s almost as if the Driver constructs himself as the hero for his own inner movie, aiming to realize an unattainable fantasy even as his character is described as “a guy who’s seen too many action movies.”

     Refn visualizes the notion in the remarkable elevator scene, finding the Driver and Irene in an elevator with a mobster out to kill them both. There’s no comparable moment in Drive that matches the level of ethereality and beauty as this scene, with Refn flexing his editing muscles by quickly shifting tones in a matter of seconds. A sudden rush of angelic lighting emerges during the Driver and Irene’s grandiose kiss before Irene is pushed aside and a darkness falls as the Driver proceeds to slam the mobster’s head on the wall and crush his head into bloody pulp. But the true beauty of the scene rests not on the adept tonal shift but the Taxi Driver-esque ambiguity on reality after contemplating the sequence over and over again. Like the closing shot of Martin Scorsese’s opus, the build-up and the actual moment feels more like a wish fulfillment fantasy brought about by the Driver’s stunted psychology and desperate longing for human affection. The notion hinges on the abrupt shift in mood and the strange lighting alteration, leaving the moment ambiguous, undefined, and certainly open to interpretation.

     The combination of soft, delicate expressionism to initiate character development and the tense, hyper violent conflict witnessed in the latter half of the film is a tool of juxtaposition that Refn makes engaging and absolutely magnetic. His dichotomies – night/day, silence/noise, rest/power – are conflicting contradictions that break through and emphasize the ruthlessness with which the Driver operates. Nevertheless, Refn upholds a spirited pastiche underneath the despairing images portrayed onscreen, strikingly realizing his dreamlike vision of Los Angeles with searching, restless eyes. With Drive, Refn moves along with more ambitious encapsulations of savagery and violence than ever before, swaying between his atmospheric qualities and making clear that his portraiture and abstraction of his character will remain a cryptic meditation to ruminate long after the credits roll.


Notes 13