I’m taking this week’s Quick Takes as an opportunity to correct some of my major blind spots, all by directors with new releases this fall.
Grade B | 1st Viewing
The first feature film from Irish playwright Martin McDonagh has achieved nearly cult-status devotion, and it’s easy to see why. Professional killers hiding out in the sleepy tourist-stricken Belgian town take in the sights like a retired bucket-lister and his petulant teenage son, trading decadently idiosyncratic barbs and cursing in brogue. It’s also easy to see that the writer/director McDonagh comes from the theatre, bringing a wordy sensibility attuned to the sound of language and paced with an appreciation for dialogue. The film capitalizes on the easy humor of the “sensitive hitman,” but follows through with necessary emotional weight on its characters’ struggles with guilt, loyalty, and mortality as they await their final judgment in the purgatorial Bruges.
McDonagh walks a puzzling line as he endows the film’s protagonist, Colin Farrell’s superbly twitchy and puerile Ray, with a penchant for racist, bigoted protestations and cheap jokes. Sometimes his humor fails to land, rightly positioning Ray’s outlandishness as absurd and pathetic, but in other moments I felt coerced to enjoy his reckless xenophobia and see his clueless belittling of a character with dwarfism as a sort of adorable flaw. There is a general feeling of delight in skewering sacred cows which works for and against the film, and I’m not sure how I should read its confrontations with race, sexuality, disability, and nationality. Ray’s ache for penance and salvation is nevertheless deeply affecting, and the slow build to its ethereal climax is as strangely satisfying and peppered with detail as a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Farrell returns in McDonagh’s new film Seven Psychopaths, which was Davin’s most anticipated film of the fall.
There Will Be Blood
Grade A | 1st Viewing
I know. I’m ashamed. I’ve finally seen it, so haters can no longer be hating.
I have to admit I’m somewhat intimidated to reflect on Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood with only one viewing under my belt, given the considerable thought and analysis undertaken on this film in only a few years. I was captivated, disturbed, and sort of amused. It seemed complete in a way few contemporary films manage. Similar to my first experience with Magnolia, I felt in the presence of something great, and grand, although I didn’t feel emotionally ensnared. Also like Magnolia I was aware of an abundance of overt and covert thematic and symbolic imagery even if I couldn’t always name it. And I was so relieved to finally have context for the oft-quoted “I drink your milkshake!” (see Justin’s excellent breakdown of that scene here).
What first struck me as I watched this epic was the idiosyncratic and sometimes overwhelming soundtrack, starting with the quiet and wordless introduction, leading into the unnerving, anticipation-laden underscoring of the first act, and the cacophonous musical passages thereafter. I found myself really led through the film by its sound, which profoundly intensified the heartbreak of H.W.’s injury. Daniel Day-Lewis is, of course, stupefyingly good as oil man Daniel Plainview, adding a mellifluous and meticulously crafted voice to the aural landscape. I now feel ready for PTA’s newest character-driven opus The Master, which Alex raves about in his review.
Grade: B- | 1st Viewing
Andrea Arnold’s coming-of-age film starring first-time actress Katie Jarvis as the tough, British teenager Mia, hits a lot of familiar notes, but stands out for its patience, realism, and heart. Mia wants to be a hip-hop dancer, and lives with her mother and her sister on an East London council estate when her mother’s new boyfriend comes into their lives. I really enjoyed this film’s attention to both those intoxicating and suffocating moments of youth, and its exploration of a fifteen-year-old girl’s sexuality without sensationalism or simplification. This is a hard, unsentimental film, and it respects its characters even as they disgust or shock us. I badly wanted certain expected actions not to come, wanted the charming Michael Fassbender to do good, wanted Mia to find uncomplicated validation. Fish Tank refused to give me what I wanted, serving up its painful and confusing turns without ever falling into bleakness or melodrama.
While the characters are harsh and often cold to one another, there are sustaining moments of warmth that carry the film through a sometimes-lagging narrative. Arnold’s story moves between small amplified moments, the camera lingering on electrified touches – bandaging a foot, a piggyback ride. One of the most stirring sequences is a scene toward the end of the film where Mia dances with her mother and her sister, a profound moment of connection and letting go. Arnold’s characters are tough to love but lovable nonetheless. I look forward to her latest directorial effort, Wuthering Heights, the first film she didn’t write (although she co-wrote the adapted screenplay). Read Duncan’s review here.