In some other dimension I’m a film reviewer. And with the brief surplus of time that winter break provides a low-rank college instructor, I like to spend a little time creating harmony in the multiverse. Here are three of the movies I saw in the last month of last year, and what I thought.
Unbroken is Faulty
dir. Angelina Jolie, 2014
Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut is an accomplished film in almost every way. The cinematography is striking, the acting is uniformly strong, the music, set design, and period details are assured and convincing. Not to mention that the true story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who fought in WWII, survived the crash of his bomber, and became a prisoner of war, is utterly compelling. And yet there is something off about this film. It took until halfway through before I could identify the problem: Jack O’Connell’s hair.
O’Connell, the young English actor who plays Zamperini, is mostly excellent. He has charisma and dramatic chops, and the dignity he brings to the role is especially crucial when, in the second half of the film, the plot essentially becomes a series of violent beatings. It’s grim stuff—dialogue is scarce down the stretch, and cruelty is common. And yet despite the accumulation of bruises, dirt, and grime, O’Connell’s hair remains coiffed. All the prisoners, in fact, are more “stylishly mussed” than “battered and desperate.” I point this out because it’s indicative of a broader problem the film never solves, or even seems aware of. Watching Unbroken, you never quite forget that you’re watching a movie. A big, expensive, handsome Hollywood movie, with sad string parts to score the sad scenes, and uplifting string parts to score the uplifting scenes.
If that sounds persnickety, I apologize. Nor do I mean to imply that “Hollywood” is always a bad word. But Unbroken’s aesthetic does not match its subject, and the problem with the disjunction goes back to those beatings. A colossal amount of screen time is devoted to the physical brutalization of Zamperini, during which the plot stays on hold and the characters become static. Yes, there are flashbacks to Zamp’s childhood introduction to running and his Olympic career, meant to fill in biographical data while showing us the iron resolve that will serve him in the Japanese camp. But that’s a facile connection, and cursory compared to the sustained focus on violence. The second half reminded me of The Passion of the Christ. This is a movie about suffering.
Which is a worthy and topical subject, of course, but one that gets the wrong treatment here. Say what you will about Mel Gibson’s foray into religious torture porn, but stylistically it took its premise to the logical, bloody conclusion. Jolie’s film, meanwhile, gives us bleakness and sadism in a picturesque, PG-13 package. It insists on the power of the human spirit, and equates the determination to win a footrace with the ability to survive months of merciless torture. It is a well made and occasionally gripping picture, two-thirds inspiring, one-third unseemly.
Go Ahead, Let Him In
dir. Jennifer Kent, 2014
The jump scare technique is overused because it is effective. Loud noises, combined with the sudden appearance of the ghost (or the killer, or a teddy bear), are frightening. Or at least alarming. Especially in the theater where the noises are loud and the scary thing is big. Some good horror movies use this technique; many terrible ones use it incessantly. The Babadook, I am both sorry and pleased to report, has a much wider array of tools with which to frighten the bejeesus out of you. In it, a slow zoom through a quiet hallway is unaccountably threatening. A shot of a charcoal drawing oozes menace. In one early scene the camera settles on a particular chair, half-hidden in shadow, in the corner of a bedroom. Nothing happens, and it’s terrifying. This is due simply to the composition, lighting, and set design, which are impeccable for any genre. And the visual elegance of the film persists when, later, things do start to happen.
The story concerns Amelia, who is trying to raise her son alone after the death of her husband six years ago. The son, Sam, is somewhat of a terror, obsessed with imaginary monsters and prone to hysterical fits. We sense in Amelia a deep well of grief, weariness, and loneliness, even as she does her best to care for a child who might have been called “touched” in a different time. One night, Sam selects a new book for his bedtime story. It’s called Mister Babadook, and Amelia isn’t sure how it got on the shelf. Inside is an ominous nursery rhyme about the titular character, drawn as a dark figure with a top hat and sharp fingers. The book informs them, “A rumbling sound then three sharp knocks, that’s how you’ll know that he’s around.” Sam screams in panic, but Amelia soothes him, and closes the book. Are there three sharp knocks at Amelia’s door the next night? Give you one guess.
The director, Jennifer Kent, adapted from a short she made in 2005. This is her first feature film, and it’s lean and smart. As you might predict from the description of the plot, it deals in timeworn horror themes surrounding The Mother, but does so with intelligence, empathy, and complexity. Mothers in horror films, and other media, must be entirely self-sacrificing and loving—if they are not, they enter the realm of the evil, and become prey to demonic forces or impulses. Kent is aware of this dichotomy, disdains it, and subverts it to moving effect. Essie Davis, as Amelia, shows incredible range in the movie’s ninety minutes, with a performance that is visceral and nuanced. Same goes for Noah Wiseman as Sam, who was six years old during filming, and is frankly remarkable in a role that requires him to be intolerable in one scene, vulnerable in the next.
And then there’s old Babadook-dook-dook himself, who haunts the production design of every frame, and who is eventually responsible for “jump scares” that are anything but—the scares have such a light touch, you could hear a hat drop. I don’t think it spoils anything to say that there are between zero and three monsters in this movie, and that you and your friend might disagree about the total on your way out. During the runtime, that ambiguity works to unsettle and frighten. Afterward, it keeps working.
dir. Antoine Fuqua, 2014
Walking away from a fireball—in slow motion—is a cliché so well known that even making a joke about it is a cliché. The Equalizer knows this, I think, but it doesn’t care, and provides Denzel Washington a straight-faced doozy in the third act. The thing blowing up blows up for a full minute, through a dozen camera angles, set to a soundtrack of distorted guitar and pounding drums. The explosion, if it happened in your state, would be visible from wherever you are right now.
If that sounds good to you, then you will enjoy Antoine Fuqua’s update of the eighties TV show of the same name, about a retired black-ops agent who becomes a protector for society’s downtrodden, and a nightmare for those who would prey on them. In this iteration, Robert McCall (Washington) works at a big box hardware store during the day, and reads novels in a local diner at night. Another of the diner’s regulars is Alina (Chloe Grace Moretz), a kindhearted prostitute who would rather be a singer, if she could ever get away from the Russian mobsters that own her. Soon she’s in the hospital, having been brutally beaten for standing up to them. McCall confronts the bad guys and offers a peaceful solution. They decline. Big mistake, Russian mob.
That’s the plot, anyway. The movie is about Denzel kicking ass and chewing bubble gum, with all the bubble gum parts edited out. Fuqua and his star previously collaborated in Training Day, for which Washington earned the Best Actor Oscar. That film created tension not just through shootouts and standoffs, but through a complicated and compromised morality, a dark but credible vision of systemic corruption and the codependence between crime/chaos and law/order. This one, though it could be said to involve a similar milieu, mostly creates tension by having the protagonist murder people with unusual instruments. (The best gag involves a bit of vigilante justice that we don’t see—a thief robs the store, McCall gets the license plate number, and the next morning we see him calmly wiping off a large hammer with a rag before restocking it on the shelf.) Otherwise, with respect to moral or practical credibility: the bad guys are really bad, the good guys are really good, and automatic weapons are ineffective against anyone who can roll quickly.
Having said that, it’s worth mentioning how much the movie benefits from its lead actor’s magnetism. Washington is not asked to do as much as in, say, The Hurricane, but his natural dignity, sly humor, and convincing physicality (fifteen years after The Hurricane!) elevate The Equalizer by a full letter grade. It’s easy to imagine a Jason Statham-type in this role, and perhaps that would have satisfied ninety percent of the target audience. That’s probably what we deserve. But Washington isn’t the actor that action fans deserve; he’s the actor we need. The Equalizer isn’t the action film we need; it’s the action film we’ll watch half of on TV some random Sunday in 2026, and not be too put out. If TV still exists then.
Photo by Mark Lorch