The Moviegoer: Gangsters, Imposters, Motors, and other Awards Season Notes

Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.

Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik, 2012)

My anticipation for Killing Them Softly–Dominik’s long-awaited followup to his excellent 2007 feature, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford–was admittedly high. I thought the latter a masterfully crafted, slow-burn thriller of a western. Reunited with Brad Pitt, Dominik returns with a modern day gangster flick that is an allegory about America’s 2008 recession. Pitt plays a hitman named Jackie Cogan who is hired to restore some order to a criminal poker ring after it’s been robbed for a second time. In hard economic times, a message needs to be sent to keep the underworld relatively cool.

Pitt puts in another star turn here, and Dominik is just as effective in his visual work as he was with Jesse James–and the dialogue is sharp, too. The film’s central robbery scene features some of the best camera maneuvering I’ve seen all year. I think what most pleasantly surprised me was that the film functioned rather well as a dark comedy. This comic tone gives the film’s assassination-style themes a subdued force. Upon the film’s conclusion, I felt a bit disappointed because the economic crisis themes seemed, as many critics have noted, “on the nose.” Yet, with some distance from the film, I’m beginning to wonder if Dominik packed more of a difficult punch than he’s being given credit for. That is, I think he intended for the surface-level allegory to be “on the nose”–with brass knuckles, you might say. It’s getting at the little bits of subtle commentary at every turn that may prove worthwhile on a second viewing. It’s no question what Dominik’s killing here, but the how of this killing may be more subtle–soft–than you’d first guess. I wouldn’t be surprised if time treats this film well.

 

Jiro Dreams of Sushi (David Gelb, 2012)

If you haven’t yet, go read Jason Morehead’s excellent piece on Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Better yet, watch this documentary on Netflix Instant, and then read his take. Along with The Imposter (see below) and The Queen of Versailles, this is one of my favorite documentaries of the year. Jiro is an 86 year old owner of a famed sushi restaurant in Japan. His sushi joint seats ten and runs at least $300 a person. Jason has already covered much of what I loved about Gelb’s fascinating film. I’ll simply add that it most struck me as a multifaceted look at the art of preparation. It’s about the preparation that goes into cultivating one of the world’s finest sushi restaurants; it’s about the preparation that Jiro didn’t receive from his father; it’s about the ways Jiro did and didn’t follow his father in preparing his sons. At its heart, the documentary suggests that dreams are best achieved when couched within repetition, discipline, and tradition; but there’s also quite an underlying suggestion that priorities must factor into that equation.

 

The Deep Blue Sea (Terrence Davies, 2012)

Terrence Davies’s adaptation of the 1952 Terrence Rattigan play features a fairly conventional story. Woman is married to successful older man who leaves her feeling emotionally and physically unsatisfied; woman begins emotionally and physically charged affair with charming younger man who leaves her stranded in ways that older man didn’t; this conflict is presented as a depressing either/or. Yet, Davies–supported by all-around excellent performances–manages to craft a totally engrossing drama. If the dramatic situation seems contrived, none of its proceedings in this film feel the least bit artificial. The post-war setting lends the film an overriding anxiety; tension-filled pauses emphasize social-psychological burden; fluttering cigarette smoke adds stress to dark, muted rooms; that old strain between passion and reason is displayed on faces equally bewildered and irritated. The three main leads all manage to transcend their stereotypical roles, giving each character a soulful depth that makes the conflict believable.

Davies’s film stakes its claim to refined style in the opening credit sequence: in a shaky, foreboding voice, Weisz reads a suicide note she’s written to the man she’s having an affair with. In the background, we can hear rain falling and an incessant, ticking clock. Are they the final ticks? The unquestionable star here is Rachel Weisz as the anxious lead, Hester. In a film that begins with a suicide attempt and works backwards in flashbacks to depict the intimate, daily circumstances that help facilitate it, Weisz wears despair heartrendingly well.  The Deep Blue Sea is a deft portrait of a suicidal woman who becomes isolated in a cold marital relationship and then becomes increasingly unstable in an adulterous one. Even if the narrative options out of her plight seem unrealistically reduced, so it often is with the troubled, shriveling soul.

 

The Imposter (Bart Layton, 2012)

True story: I presently have three films on my year-end 2012 favorites list all bunched together back-to-back-to-back, and they’re all about imposters. One film is a fictional story that involves a cult leader who gains satisfaction from having manipulative control over his followers. You can tell he’s playing a sham game by the way that he desires to keep his followers out at sea and away from challenges to his authority–or in how defensiveness shapes his response to those few challenges that come his way. The second film is a potent mix between documentary and fiction about a man who murders an elderly woman, admits to it, and still has a kind of unthinking support from his small-town community. He’s a churchgoer who performs many great kindnesses. But you can tell he’s a sham given that those gifts to others have a remote quality about them such that the people seem more familiar with the gifts than the giver.

The third film is a documentary styled as a sometimes-humorous con-man thriller, and it’s called The Imposter. A Texas family’s 13 year old son, Nicholas Barclay, goes missing; there’s no sign of foul play and no trace of him. Three years later, the family receives word that Nicholas has been found in Spain, and that he claims to have experienced various forms of physical abuse. Bart Layton’s documentary doesn’t revolve around the mystery of whether or not it’s actually Barclay; from the beginning of the film we’re privy to this being the work of a French imposter. Instead, this thriller works as one which methodically unfolds the story via the calculated tactics of a grand impersonator. And this thriller has heart, too, because throughout we’re led to wonder at what kind of scarring causes a 23 year old man to impersonate missing or orphaned adolescents. And there’s still a mystery at work here revolving around the family who receives the imposter, but to say more about that would be to say too much. With Jiro and The Queen of Versailles, The Imposter is part of a three-horse race for my favorite 2012 documentary. And it just might be my favorite of this year’s three imposters.

 

Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012)

Holy Motors is the kind of film that you’re afraid to say something about too soon after viewing it (or maybe that’s just me?). At first glance, it might seem to qualify as non-sense without a trace of sanity. Or, if you’re like me and lack a finer historical sense of cinema, you may feel like many allusions go over your head. The latter you can get by without alright enough, though it probably takes away some of the film’s pleasures. The former is, for the most part, a too-convenient label for a film that simply resists conventional narrative sense. But after two viewings, I’ll give a brief comment a whirl.

Holy Motors eludes neat summation, but one way of phrasing it may give you a sense of entry into its outrageous world. The director, Leos Carax, plays himself in the very beginning of the film. He wakes up and is himself the key to unlocking a world that begins in a movie theater. We hear the sounds of seagulls and ships. Shortly thereafter, lead actor Denis Levant emerges from a house which seems shaped like a ship. Dressed in a suit and middle-aged, he waves goodbye to his conventional family and enters a stretch limo. What happens over the course of the coming day–which plays like an entire life–is anything but conventional. The man’s name is “Oscar,” the back of his limo functions as a dress and makeup room, and he has several “appointments” throughout the day in which he plays a role in a particular scenario. “Oscar” becomes old beggar woman, motion-captured beast, and tragically grumpy father–among other roles.Oh, and if that doesn’t sound interesting enough, not all of the references are relatively obscure–Kylie Minogue and Eva Mendes are involved.

This is the kind of film that communicates in recurring, expressionistic sentiments. And that sentiment sure seems to me to be one of lament. In some sense, it seems to be a lament over the state of the cinema in general. When Oscar enters the motion capture studio, he sure seems to be entering a kind of exaggerated factory. Later, a “higher-up” converses with Oscar about why he still performs. Oscar suggests that it’s for the same reason he began: for the beauty of the act. Told that they say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, Oscar notably laments a rhetorical question: are there no more beholders? And given how the film begins with Carax himself, the cinematic questions are also profoundly personal (for an interesting take on Holy Motors and selfhood, see Michael Leary’s piece over at Filmwell). Does the director’s lifelong quest to behold beauty only end absurdly–the endpoint of a kind of devolution? Or is it just that seeking beauty is an absurdity in the current state of cinema culture? Perhaps neither and I’m off base. But it does seem as if Carax is a director in search of rest. And, wow, is that search a memorable one.

About Nick Olson

Nick Olson (Associate Editor) loves the Triune God, his family, the arts, and culture. In 2010, he graduated with his MA in English from Liberty University. He now resides in central PA with his wife, Eliza, and their young son. When he’s not reading, watching films, grading papers, or enjoying his backyard, he’s plotting in hopes to pursue a PhD in American Literature with socio-philosophical emphases. He takes a James Hunter-approach to culture: affirmation and antithesis, but always in love. He watches the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NBA, and thinks that Colbert is often right, but always funny. Nick strives to live day-to-day in the eschatological Light that is the hope of the resurrected Christ. He’s written for Filmwell, Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Think Christian, Curator, and Literature & Belief.
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  • http://www.thinkchristian.net Josh Larsen

    Can you expand a bit more on the “subtle commentary” you think might be happening in Killing Them Softly, Nick? I was also looking forward to this, being a big fan of Jesse James, but was one of those who were completely put off by the hammering home of its theme.

  • Nick Olson

    Hey Josh!

    Well, I won’t expand too much because I want to see it again before feeling too confident about this point, but it seems to me that KTS may work effectively *as* an allegory. I think Dominik is being self-consciously “on the nose” here. And isn’t that the way allegories work? The main allegorical theme is usually pretty obvious; it’s getting at the symbols constructing the overarching allegory–those little maneuvers that fill in the theme–that may prove more subtle and worthwhile here. Maybe these are what critics are referring to and not simply, “it’s obviously about the 2008 recession.”

    Either way, I think it’s a film that fully intends to hit hard, which should at least alter the criticism a bit.


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