Manchester by the Sea (2016) Review

Manchester by the Sea (2016) Review

Manchester by the Sea is a masterfully-crafted misdirect.

Judging from the trailers (or any of the marketing), it clearly presents itself a certain way and establishes certain audience expectations, namely that it will be an emotionally-taxing, grief-stricken journey that ultimately proves to be uplifting(ish) if not a little bitter sweet. And while those expectations are certainly met and the movie takes you to the emotional places you think it will take you, the journey it takes getting there is not what you’re expecting.

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a custodian/handyman living a secluded life in Boston. One day, he gets a call that his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), has died, and Lee must return home to the eponymous Manchester-by-the-Sea to see to Joe’s funeral arrangements. While there, Lee learns that he’s been named the legal guardian of his now fatherless nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), which he believes he’s ill-suited for. The arrangement also presents the logistical problem of either uprooting Patrick’s life by moving him to Boston or uprooting Lee’s life with a permanent return to Manchester, where he’s forced to confront his troubled past.

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His troubled past is presented in a series of flashbacks to when Joe was still alive and Lee was still married to Randi (Michelle Williams). In general, I think flashbacks are both overused and misused, and they’re surprisingly hard to do well (if you don’t believe me, read a handful of amateur screenplays…). So when flashbacks are so seamlessly woven into a narrative the way these are, and when they’re as substantive and illuminating as these are, it’s all the more impressive and remarkable. The flashbacks are presented as answers to narrative questions raised in the main story line. Sometimes that means an immediate answer to an immediate question – like when it flashes back to tell us that Joe had a rare heart condition, making his death not quite as sudden as we may have initially assumed. Sometimes that means more drawn-out answers to more nuanced questions – like how Lee went from a happily-married life in Manchester to a disgruntled life in a one-room basement apartment in Boston.

So while the story is centered around the fallout of a family tragedy, it’s not really the focus you might expect. Joe’s death is obviously the impetus of the story, but it’s – surprisingly – not much more than the impetus. Minus one or two scenes, Patrick actually seems pretty at peace with his father’s passing, and he doesn’t need much consolation. Lee doesn’t even seem all that concerned about how Patrick would fare with Lee as his guardian. Patrick’s already 16 and reasonably self-sufficient, and he doesn’t appear to need Lee to “raise him” or anything (mostly just to drive him to his girlfriend’s house). The places where you expect the most conflict and drama are fairly drama-less.

The drama is instead found in Lee’s homecoming and in his seemingly-inexplicable resistance to returning to Manchester (and, eventually, in his very explicable resistance to the same). Despite how it presents itself, it’s less a movie about dealing with the loss of a brother and father and more about coming home, confronting your past, and making peace with who you were and what you’ve done. It’s a movie about forgiveness, self- or otherwise. And if that sounds more tame than dealing with concrete loss (like losing a brother/father), I promise you that it’s not.

There’s a scene between Lee and his ex-wife towards the end that I’ve been referring to as “the scene” (because it’s featured heavily in the trailers, because it’s one of only four-ish scenes that Michele Williams appears in and yet it’s going to get her a fourth Oscar nomination, and because it’s the clearest manifestation of this forgiveness theme). There’s a distinction to be made between earned emotional moments and unearned emotional moments, and “the scene” is a textbook example of the former. Lonergan puts in work to get us here, and even if you hate the rest of the movie (not sure how you could…), the scene itself is worth the price of admission. In other years, I might call it the most moving scene of the year, but unfortunately for this movie, Moonlight came out this year.

In addition to the well-deserved praise heaped onto Michelle Williams (limited screen time aside), there have also been Oscar whispers for Casey Affleck since the film premiered at Sundance eleven months ago. With the huge caveat that I haven’t yet seen Andrew Garfield in Silence or Denzel Washington in Fences, I’m confident in calling Affleck’s performance the best I’ve seen from any actor this year: from the way his early scenes hint at buried rage and repressed heartbreak, to the way that these things are slowly brought to the surface, to the way that he ultimately succumbs to emotional vulnerability.

Newcomer Lucas Hedges does well with what he’s given, but as I alluded, his performance is far less demanding than Affleck’s or Williams’ just by the nature of his character. That actually might be for the best, because if Patty had been emotionally traumatized and really needed Lee’s care and support, then the overlap with Good Will Hunting would become excessive.

And while I know that Matt Damon’s producer role, the Massachusetts setting, and the presence of an Affleck at center stage all invite comparisons to Good Will Hunting (to say nothing of Hedges’ creepily-close resemblance to a young Matt Damon), it really does feel like a spiritual sequel in a lot of ways.

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Wicked hahd to tell them apaht

Both movies center around characters keeping themselves hidden from the world in order to protect themselves from heartbreak (by working as a janitor in Boston, no less). Both main characters project a rough exterior to mask immense pain (unsuccessfully, in the end). Both movies’ central relationship is an older mentor and younger mentee trying to get used to each other. Throw out the Will-is-a-genius-for-some-reason plot line and the audience-friendly love story, and Manchester By The Sea is basically Good Will Hunting from the point of view of Robin Williams’ character, a man trying to tend to the well-being of his young associate while also being crippled by his inability to move on from his past marriage.

I wonder if Sean Maguire would have any advice for Lee…

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Loving (2016) Review

Loving (2016) Review

Jeff Nichols’ movies all seem to be about normal people that find themselves pushed into extraordinary circumstances. It was the Bard who said “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em”, and looking at Take Shelter, Mud, and Midnight Special, it’s clear that Jeff Nichols’ protagonists all seem to fall into the thrust-upon-them category.

With this in mind, it’s not that surprising that Richard and Mildred Loving are very reluctant revolutionaries (or at least that’s how they come across in Jeff Nichols’ retelling). They’re just two people that love each other and want to be allowed to live the quiet life that they’ve chosen for themselves. It was the socio-political climate around them that pushed them into the spotlight and the history books.

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This push begins in 1958 when Mildred (Ruth Negga) learns she’s pregnant and Richard (Joel Edgerton) sensibly decides that they should be married. The problem is that Richard was white and Mildred was black, and such a union was illegal in Virginia at the time, in violation of the state’s anti-miscegenation laws. Luckily, that was a problem with a seemingly simple solution: a two-hour drive into Washington, D.C., where interracial marriage was perfectly legal.

Richard and Mildred presumably thought no one would notice or care that they were living together as man and wife in rural Caroline County, Virginia, despite the law forbidding it. However, an anonymous tip alerts authorities, and the county sheriff and two deputies burst into their home while they’re sleeping to arrest them in the middle of the night.

Let me pause here and acknowledge that this scene (featured in the trailer) strikes me as something dramatized for effect. The naively innocent couple, wide-eyed and confused. The overtly and confidently racist authorities. Breaking into their home while they’re asleep in bed, making it an uncomfortably personal invasion of their marriage, in every sense of the word. This scene was clearly something made up by Nichols to help get his point across, right? Apparently not. According to The New York Times, reporting on Mildred Loving’s death in 2008, that scene is word-for-word how it happened, at least according to the Loving’s themselves.

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The Loving’s are arrested and sentenced to a year in jail, which they plead down to probation provided they promise to leave Virginia and not return to the state together for at least 25 years. They first break the terms of this probation for the birth of their child, as Richard’s mother was a midwife and they wanted her to deliver their baby. That lands them back in front of a judge, who releases them with a stern warning. They’re tempted to break the terms of their probation again years later, when they decide that they just don’t want to keep living in the urban D.C. environment when they’re born and raised country folk at heart. This provokes Mildred to write a letter to then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy on a whim, which leads to a call from an ACLU lawyer, and the landmark Supreme Court case is built from there.

While this story does build toward the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case, this is very much *not* a court room drama. Outside of the early scenes where a local judge gives them their sentence to stay out of Virginia, we barely see the inside of a court room in this movie, and considering how many appeals are involved getting a case before the Supreme Court and how many lower courts had to hear this case before it got there, that’s surprising and worth noting. The focus of the movie is instead the people and their relationship. Like I alluded earlier, while the Lovings’ story eventually got them nationally recognized and brought about this landmark victory for Civil Rights, they really just wanted to live their lives, raise their kids, and not bother anybody. I’d be willing to bet that if the county sheriff who arrested them in 1958 had agreed to just look the other way, the Loving’s would’ve happily agreed to that.

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Regardless of how accurate of a portrayal that may be – and apparently it’s pretty much how they viewed themselves, by all accounts – it’s effective in a dramatic sense, because it shows that the Loving’s view their relationship as not a big deal. They didn’t see themselves as this ideal couple to be held up as an example to show the American people how backwards these anti-miscegenation laws were; they never felt the need to explain their relationship (because why would they?) and neither does the movie. To them, and to the movie, it’s as simple as they love each other and they should be together. Period, Amen.

I think this is reflected, not just in the movie’s chosen focus, but also in the performances. Let me back up and say that I completely understand how much Loving appears on the surface to be a finger-quotes “Oscar bait” movie, and I appreciate how one might assume it would be pompous and aggrandizing. And in case I haven’t been clear, I want to stress that the movie is definitely not that, and I think Joel Edgerton’s and Ruth Negga’s performances are the clearest indication of the movie’s tone. In the highly-dramatized “Oscar-bait” version of this movie, I’m sure both Richard and Mildred would get their fair share of melodramatic, ostentatious, over-the-top speeches or teary, emotionally-charged exchanges that would act as their Oscar clips. And we really don’t get that here. Instead, both performances are subtle, beautifully understated, and – most importantly – tonally appropriate. I appreciate a teary, emotionally-charged moment as much as the next guy – don’t get me wrong – but they can sometimes feel… inauthentic, and in this particular movie, they would be inauthentic. Instead, Edgerton’s and Negga’s restrained performances are perfectly-suited to the restrained narrative that they’re confined to.

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There’s a great image that Nichols returns to periodically throughout the movie of Richard laying brick. One of the very first scenes of the movie is Richard promising Mildred he’s going to build them a house, and shortly after, we cut to a close up of Richard applying concrete to a cinderblock. It’s a brief trick for the audience, as we assume that he’s physically building their home in that moment, but then it’s revealed Richard is actually a construction worker, and he’s just a part of a team building a random house. But Nichols keeps coming back to this close up of Richard laying brick, and after one such moment, Richard takes a step back away from his work and appears perturbed. The way I read this moment – regardless of whether or not this is what Nichols intended – is that Richard no longer feels like he’s building a home, and instead just feels like he’s building a wall, and those two feel at odds with each other. And in this moment of clarity, Richard decides what he wants his marriage to be – in a “part of the problem or part of the solution” sense, building the wall or tearing it down.

Reluctant as they may be, Richard and Mildred decide that their marriage, their children, and the life they want for themselves were worth fighting for.

The Overwhelming Beauty of ARRIVAL’s Ending

The Overwhelming Beauty of ARRIVAL’s Ending

The following contains spoilers for the ending of Arrival (2016) and assumes the reader has seen the film. If you haven’t, go do so immediately. If you have, might I suggest some background music while you read? I don’t know, maybe this?

In a meaningless discussion of semantics, I would argue that the “twist” in Arrival isn’t really a twist so much as the fulfillment of a promise. The movie poses a question (“why are they here?”); the characters spend the run-time trying to answer that question; and Louise Banks (Amy Adams) finally arrives (heh) at the answer. Regardless of how surprising and revelatory that answer may be, it’s still just the movie holding up its end of the bargain in the implicit contract it made with the audience, that the posed question will be answered.

Whether you want to call it a “twist” or a “third-act reveal” or (more accurately) a “slowly unraveling mystery that gradually reveals itself from the very first line to the very last”, what makes the reveal effective is how much it propagates through the rest of the story. It’s more than showing that the prologue is actually the epilogue; it’s that there are no prologues and epilogues. There is just the story as it happens, and “before” and “after” are useless qualifiers.

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It’s crucial that we see the ups and downs (especially the downs) of Louise’s motherhood “before” we see the genesis of it, because Louise does too. Becoming a parent is often a purposeful decision that people come to carefully, but very few would-be parents take the leap knowing ahead of time that it will end with indescribable sorrow and suffering, which makes Louise’s decision all the more illuminating. She chooses to put herself (and her daughter) through the worst pain imaginable — and in fact “embraces every moment” — because, to put it simply, it’s worth it. She similarly chooses to be with Ian (Jeremy Renner) despite knowing it will end in a painful separation, again, because it’s worth it.

The ending of Arrival hit me like a ton of bricks, and I’m not the slightest bit ashamed to say I cried a lot (because, seriously, why would I be?). I’m sure part of it was due to the fact that a movie urging us to set aside our differences and unite in cooperation was probably something I needed to see after a divisive election days earlier (Amy Adams’ pleading line to Michael Stuhlbarg “We need to talk to each other!” might as well have been screamed directly into the face of 90% of Americans). Part of it was due to me being deeply moved by the idea that, in a world where brinkmanship and doomsday clocks have been the order of the day for decades, the world is saved by words (vis-a-vis diplomacy with General Shang and in the literal sense of the heptapod’s language giving Louise, a linguist, the time-perception power to execute that diplomacy). But I think it was mostly just that I thought Louise’s decisions — both to be with Ian and to bring Hannah into the world — were a tragic and achingly beautiful metaphor.

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Even without knowledge of the heptapod language and the powers therein, every one of us makes a similar decision. Part of the human condition is knowing that our life is going to end someday, and that it will almost certainly include pain and suffering, if not for us then for the ones we love, and yet we choose to live anyway. Because life is worth it. Love is worth the pain and hardship. Arrival is so convinced of that, it pins love against the most difficult and punishing life experience one can have, and Louise still picks love.

[And yes, I just published a 28-minute video on Boyhood, so I realize I’ve probably leaned on the term “human condition” wayyyy too much this past week, and I don’t want to turn into The Boy Who Cried Human Condition, but come on — choosing to live despite knowing we’re going to die? That shit’s textbook.]

Arrival is a clever, patient, life-affirming, meticulously constructed gift to science fiction canon on the level of Blade Runner (the long-awaited sequel to which is coincidentally director Denis Villeneuve’s next project). The circular structure of the film is not only a nice homage to the heptapods’ language (and therefore their reality), but it allows the audience to share in Louise’s unique, non-linear journey through Hannah’s story. And while that’s all well and good, these implications of the revealed non-linearity are what set it apart, inviting us to ponder these impossibly heavy ideas as the credits roll.

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Science Fiction has always been a useful tool for social and political commentary (The Day the Earth Stood StillBrazil, Children of Men, District 9, etc) but the more significant, lasting impact is usually in regards to the questions that sci-fi raises about humanity. What characteristics define our humanity (Blade Runner)? How far have we evolved, how much further will we evolve, and what is mankind’s ultimate place in the universe (2001: A Space Odyssey)? At what point does the technology we yield become an irresponsible rebuff of the natural order (Jurassic Park)? Is free will worth the destruction and mayhem it can cause (A Clockwork Orange)?

“If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you change things?”

In Louise’s case, no. Because love is worth the pain that comes with it.

The Threat of Feminine Power in THE WITCH (2016)

The Threat of Feminine Power in THE WITCH (2016)

Author’s Note: This post was previously published by B*tchFlicks on October 28, 2016.

SPOILERS AHEAD!

Judging it against other modern horror films, a lot is surprising about Robert Eggers’ outstanding debut, The Witch. It’s not a slow build like so many others in the genre, as one of the very first scenes shows us a witch and is as horrifying as anything I’ve ever seen in the first 10 minutes of a movie. It manages to be deeply unsettling and creepy without resorting to jump scares, a staple in the genre sometimes leaned too heavily upon. And it fully commits to its ending without going the ambiguous route that many have come to expect from this type of story.

The ending that the film ultimately commits to also illuminates another surprise: the eponymous witch alluded by the title may not be the hooded figure from the first 10 minutes or the bewitching woman in the woods who curses Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) in the second act. It could just as easily refer to the protagonist, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy).

Sure, Thomasin’s climactic decision indicates this may be the case, but so does Katherine’s suspicion and treatment of her daughter. And that’s the biggest surprise: the film presents a family-vs-witch situation as the main dramatic conflict, but the fates of the characters show that – from a narrative standpoint – Thomasin is the definitive protagonist, and the antagonist is actually her mother, Katherine (Kate Dickie). Considering some of the heinous things done by the witches in the movie – and the fact that Satan himself is a literal character – revealing Katherine to be the ultimate antagonist is quite the statement.

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Recognizing the witch hunts dotted throughout the U.S.’s early history as a feminist issue, Eggers smartly constructs his film to be a power struggle between the two main female characters, each representing a different conception of femininity. Katherine, a middle-aged woman and mother, believes her power comes from her ability to give life, from her ability to have children. This fits nicely into the patriarchal Puritan society of the time, as women were relegated to be mothers and caregivers. The disappearance of her infant and the untimely death of her son compromise her caregiving abilities, leaving her powerless without her children (visualized by the nightmare image of her breastfeeding a crow, laughing maniacally as it gores her breast).

Unlike Katherine, the witches – who live outside the patriarchal Puritan society – at least partially draw their power from their sexuality, giving them (potentially) even more power than men. It’s no accident that Caleb’s demise stems from his male (hetero)sexual curiosity, as a witch takes the form of a young, attractive woman to lure him in and curse him. It’s also no accident that Caleb takes particular note of Thomasin’s developing chest (unbeknownst to her), around the same time Katherine announces to her husband, William (Ralph Ineson), that Thomasin needs to be sent away to work for another family now that she “begot the sign of her womanhood.” Now that Thomasin is a woman – with youth, beauty, vitality, sexuality, and fertility – she’s a threat to Katherine’s power.

In her final scene, Katherine, who is quick to blame all of the family’s hardships on Thomasin and her blossoming womanhood, attempts to strangle her scared and crying daughter to death. After Thomasin cuts her, Katherine bleeds all over Thomasin’s face, as if trying to insist that she (Katherine) still has the womanly power too (blood being “the sign of her womanhood”). But she doesn’t.

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Directly contrasting Katherine, the witches in this world reject motherhood in the most drastic way imaginable, as evidenced by young Samuel’s fate. Eggers has mentioned in interviews that the macabre scene involving the infant was inspired by legends of witches using the entrails of an unbaptized babe as a “flying ointment,” hinted at by a blurry image of the witch floating in front of the moon directly after rubbing the… “ointment”… all over herself. Following the above metaphor, the witches are literally stealing Katherine’s source of power (her children) to further their own.

By rejecting motherhood, the witches reject their feminine role in the patriarchal Puritan society (although they still seem to follow a male leader). And that is what makes the witches so scary to the family in the film (and to the Puritans in general); they refuse to use their feminine power in the service of the patriarchal family, which threatens the patriarchal family. Add this to William’s inability to either protect or provide for his family – i.e., the man’s traditional source of power – and Thomasin’s feminine power becomes even scarier to them.

In a symbolic final act of desperation, William locks Thomasin away with her young siblings, as if attempting to force her to be with children (perhaps as indirect punishment for her failed moment of motherhood, where her infant brother was stolen from under her nose). Instead, the witches – and Satan – rescue her from this prison of mandated maternity. Ultimately, Thomasin decides that she has no use for the societal structure (or pious religion) that her family tried to confine her in, and she leaves it behind in order to embrace – and fully realize – her feminine power. As a witch.

Moonlight (2016) Review

Moonlight (2016) Review

Author’s Note: This review was previously published on MonkeyGooseMag on October 24, 2016.

About half an hour into Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, 10-year-old Chiron is sitting with Juan, the man who sells crack to Chiron’s mother, at Juan’s kitchen table. He timidly asks Juan, “What’s a faggot?”

Juan and the audience both know where this question is coming from, and so he chooses his answer carefully, explaining to the child that it’s a word people say to make gay people feel bad. Chiron follows up with an equally-timid “Am I a faggot?”

It’s a truly devastating moment. It’s a moment where this young child, whose life is already very hard (black, poor, single mother addicted to crack, bullied at school), is learning that his life will be even harder. It’s a moment where this adult, who recently realized that the mother of this child he’s taken a liking to is one of his customers, is learning that his actions affect more than just himself, and he has a responsibility to other people that he was previously unaware of.

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That’s the end of the first of three acts in Moonlight, which follows Chiron as a child, as a teen, and as an adult. It seems as good a place as any to give an idea of what kind of movie Moonlight is: one where every character – but Chiron in particular – has the deck stacked against them, and they’re just trying to get through it (“it” meaning…life). In particular, it’s about how the people around us try to dictate who we are – intentional or otherwise – and sometimes self-discovery is hindered or squashed entirely by the expectations other people have for us.

Earlier in the first act, Juan (Mahershala Ali from House of Cards) takes Chiron to the ocean and teaches him how to swim. Afterwards, he tells him of a time that an old woman told him he was blue because “In moonlight, black boys look blue” (which was the title of the play upon which the film is based). It’s a simple, forgettable anecdote, but Juan rails against the label, telling Chiron that other people are going to try to tell him who he is, tell him that he’s blue, but he is only what he chooses.

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That may be true in theory, but it’s really hard to swallow in practice, as Chiron learns again and again and again throughout the course of the movie (/his life). Chiron’s life is difficult – unbearable at times – because other people make it so. And every time another person brightens his life in some way, it’s fleeting, and that same person is tearing him down and making him miserable a scene or two later.

Most people (at least on the internet) seem to agree that 2016 has really sucked: from beloved celebrities dying too soon, to the garbage-fire of an election that is mercifully almost finished, to the Cubs reaching the World Series (Go Cards, always). But despite a disappointing slate of big blockbusters this year, I think that 2016 has actually been a wonderful year for movies so far: 10 Cloverfield Lane, Zootopia, The Lobster, Everybody Wants Some!, Sing Street, The Nice Guys, Swiss Army Man, Don’t Think Twice, Hell or High Water, etc.

I just want to emphasize that in order to add due gravity to this statement: Moonlight is easily the best movie I’ve seen in 2016. Granted, Arrival is still two weeks away and La La Land is six, but still. The performances are perfect, the script is painfully compelling throughout, and Barry Jenkins’ direction is subtle and spectacular.

I’m a student and disciple of Roger Ebert, and even though I’ve cited this quote before in a review, it’s so universally appropriate I just keep coming back to it:

“We all are born with a certain package. We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We’re kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”

I didn’t choose to be born white, I didn’t choose to be born straight, and I didn’t choose to be born to loving parents who were willing to work their fingers to the bone to give me a better life than they had. Similarly, Chiron didn’t choose to be born black, he didn’t choose to be born gay, and he didn’t choose to be born to a poor, crack-addict mother. This may be a trivial and obvious observation, but it’s something I couldn’t get out of my mind after seeing Moonlight. I also couldn’t get out of my mind how badly I wanted to give Chiron a hug throughout the movie; whenever I thought I couldn’t feel worse for this kid (/man), more things happened and I was proven wrong, and I just wanted to hug him even more and tell him everything’s going to be ok.

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According to Roger Ebert, that is the exact purpose of movies: to show us other people and other things that we don’t know about and make us understand them, at least a little. And given how much “other people” (in the most generic sense) play such a pivotal role in Moonlight and Chiron’s life, it’s even more appropriate. I don’t spend much of my day actively thinking about poor, gay, black kids with crack-addict mothers, but during the two-hour runtime of Moonlight – and in the hours afterwards – my heart was breaking for Chiron (and even more so for the real people just like him). Or, as Ebert put it, the movie helped me “identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.” Yes, there’s a reason he was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize.

I’ve already written a fair amount about why representation matters and why we need more movies about characters outside of the realm of straight, white men, and whenever I see a movie like Moonlight, I’m further convinced of how essential these movies are. In a time when a lot of people are trying to divide us based on our differences, empathy and understanding are crucial to our survival. Chiron in particular is desperate for someone to understand him. Desperate. And I guarantee real people in the world feel that same desperation.

Barry Jenkins and Moonlight helped me understand, even if it was just a little. But I’ll take a little.

 

The Birth of a Nation (2016) Review

The Birth of a Nation (2016) Review

Author’s Note: This review was previously published by MonkeyGooseMag on October 9, 2016.

Considering that Nate Parker began writing his Nat Turner script seven years ago, it’s remarkable that the timing of The Birth of a Nation is both the movie’s biggest draw but also one of its biggest hindrances (even setting aside the behind-the-scenes controversy). Black Lives Matter, a movement born from the acquittal of George Zimmerman in 2013 and the shooting of Mike Brown in 2014, hadn’t yet brought racial inequalities to the forefront of the national conversation when Parker began the script in 2009, but it certainly had by the time production began in late 2014. And the movie’s universal acclaim at Sundance was almost certainly influenced by the second consecutive year of all-white acting nominees at the Oscars, announced mere weeks before the movie’s premiere in Park City.

However, another relevant event happened between 2009 and now: 12 Years A Slave won Best Picture at the Oscars three years ago. Both fact-based historical dramas telling the story of American slavery through the lens of one man, both brutally violent, and both with award season ambitions, The Birth of a Nation is bound to draw comparisons to Steve McQueen’s epic, to the detriment of Parker’s film.

 

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Outside circumstances aside, the movie itself tells the story of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in 1831 Virginia. As a boy, Nat is taught how to read (exceedingly rare for slaves at the time) so that he can learn and preach the Bible. Likely threatened by the idea of being replaced by a slave (or resistant to the idea of a slave preaching to whites), the white preacher who owns Nat orders him to work in the fields instead of in the church, leaving Nat to preach the Bible to fellow slaves instead. Years later, the now-deceased preacher’s son, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), begins to bring Nat to various plantations in the area to give sermons to more and more slaves, turning a healthy profit in the process. The incentive for this traveling preaching is to spread carefully-chosen church teachings (namely the unquestioning obedience aspect) to as many slaves as possible, which the white slave-owners believe will be better received if delivered by a fellow slave. As you can probably guess, this plan backfires, as Nat’s eyes are opened to the senseless brutality endured by slaves all over, inspiring him to hatch a plan for rebellion.
Let’s start with what works. Yes, even without the on-going national discussion on race, the message the movie delivers about fighting against injustice and oppression will always be relevant. However, I acknowledge that that message comes already built in to a story like this and has nothing to do with Parker’s execution; just by making this movie, regardless of how well or poorly it’s made, that message will always be a part of it. And while the movie has plenty of violence, it’s mostly used purposefully and effectively. There’s a brief moment early on when Nat drives a stagecoach past a dead slave lying on the side of the road, and flies are gathering around the crusted-over, bloody hole in his skull. While it’s shocking for the audience, Nat passes it by with barely a second glance, establishing that what’s shocking for us is routine in Nat Turner’s world. As for Turner himself, Parker’s performance as the lead is superb, and while his stock in the Best Director race has all but vanished and the movie’s Best Picture prospects have dimmed drastically since January, his performance is certainly worthy of a Best Actor nomination.
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That said, Parker’s performance is practically the only one in the movie, and the supporting characters mostly fall flat. While Aja Naomi King has a few nice moments as Turner’s wife, the potential for her character is largely wasted and she’s mostly just fodder for Turner’s arc. Perhaps Parker was so focused on molding Nat Turner into the character he envisioned, he forgot to properly develop everyone else, leaving his other actors without real roles to sink their teeth into like he has. Armie Hammer was assumed to be a Supporting Actor contender (as Michael Fassbender was nominated in that category for his ruthless slave-owner turn in 12 Years A Slave), but even his character – who probably has the most (attempted) nuance of anyone besides Nat Turner – is underwritten.
It feels disingenuous to explain these flaws by pointing out this is Parker’s first screenplay, because we don’t know if it’s his first screenplay (we just know it’s his first writing credit, and those two often aren’t necessarily the same thing). However, we do know that it’s his first time directing a feature, and it shows. The most glaring problem with the movie is its jumbled pacing, which a more seasoned director may have been able to streamline. The first act feels like it’s an hour long and the third act feels like it’s five minutes (it’s not and it’s not, but they feel that way). I understand the emphasis on setup; there’s an interesting idea that needs to be explored about how the slave-owners wanted to use the Bible and Nat’s intelligence as weapons to keep slaves oppressed but both backfired and led directly to the uprising. That’s some interesting and ironic payoff. But… that idea isn’t really explored very much, and instead, the strongest catalysts for Nat to hatch his plan have little or nothing to do with his preaching.
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Once his plan is hatched, Turner doesn’t really look back or second-guess himself, convinced that his chosen course of action is the right thing to do. Parker seems to agree, as the final shot of the movie directly ties Turner’s rebellion with the Union’s victory in the Civil War and subsequent abolition of slavery a few decades later (tacitly implying one led to the other). That’s clearly Parker’s view; others might argue that Turner’s rebellion did more harm than good, given the hundreds of slaves killed in retaliation of the rebellion and to squash imitators. But minus a title card before the credits and a brief moment where a cowardly house slave expresses his doubts about the plan, the negative impact of Turner’s rebellion is largely ignored.
Parker has no obligation to include or highlight the negative impacts; he’s the storyteller and he can tell what story he wants and how he wants (this is merely based on a true story, after all). But leaving them out drains the movie of nuance, not unlike American Sniper (2014), where Clint Eastwood similarly portrayed a very complex, troubled figure as simply as possible, stripping him of nuance and leaving a one-dimensional hero who can apparently do no wrong. And that’s just…boring. The Birth of a Nation has a very worthwhile message; exploring (or at least acknowledging) the flaws of Nat Turner wouldn’t have detracted from that message. It just would’ve made him (and thus the movie) more interesting.
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By bringing up 12 Years A Slave, I don’t mean to imply that The Birth of a Nation shouldn’t have been made because we already have 12 Years A Slave. There can obviously be more than one “American slavery movie” — just look at how many Holocaust movies we have — and given how much the subject is ripe with conflict and drama, I’m sort of surprised there aren’t more. That said, you don’t want to be the one to make the first Holocaust movie after Schindler’s List, because there’s almost no way to follow that. And while The Birth of a Nation is far from bad — there are certainly some very effective moments — it’s just not as good as I wanted it to be. If Parker’s movie had been the definitive movie on American slavery (as it could’ve been, if Parker had been able to finance it sooner), it would be much easier to look past its flaws and embrace the movie for its message and subject.
But we don’t need to.

Hell or High Water (2016) Review

Hell or High Water (2016) Review

There’s something refreshing about a simple setup. Here’s what a character wants/needs; here’s what’s preventing him from getting it; here’s why we care. You can pare most stories down to something this basic, but few arrive already that pared down. However, Hell or High Water does everything else so well, the gaps are filled in and a simple setup becomes a rich, rewarding experience.

Brothers Tanner and Toby Howard (Ben Foster and Chris Pine) rob banks in west Texas. A pair of Texas Rangers (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham) pursues them. Here’s what the characters want/need: money. Here’s what’s preventing them from getting it: the law. Here’s why we care: …we eventually get to that.

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This last part is what sets Hell or High Water apart from being essentially a retelling of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) but with brothers robbing banks instead of lovers. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow – or at least the fictionalized versions from Arthur Penn’s movie – robbed banks at first as a form of flirting and later as a way to get back at the banks for their perceived role in the Great Depression (as the movie takes place in 1934). And though the Howard boys aren’t Robin Hooding quite as directly as Bonnie and Clyde before them, the parallels between the Great Depression of the early 1930s and the Great Recession of the late 2000s are utilized. These parallels are emphasized by the west Texas setting, which – a few obvious technological advances aside – appears relatively unchanged since the 1930s. But the exact reason of why Tanner and Toby are doing what they’re doing – and the manner in which they’re doing it – eventually reveals itself in a slowly unraveling quasi-mystery that Bonnie and Clyde doesn’t have, and once that reason is revealed, it adds a welcome layer of nuance and moral ambiguity to the otherwise familiar story.

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And this is a familiar story, even beyond the Bonnie and Clyde parallels. One of the brothers is reckless and unpredictable while the other is cautious, hesitant, and morally-grounded. One of the Texas Rangers is literally days from retirement, out for one last case. There are more than a couple instances of visual parity, showing that the cops and criminals are not so different. Yadda yadda yadda, you’ve seen movies. But pepper in some interesting cinematography from DP Giles Nuttgens, a great score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (similar but slightly inferior to their masterful work on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), and some fantastic performances (expect to hear a lot about Jeff Bridges in the Supporting Acting categories come award season), and the result is more than worthwhile.

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Visual parity

More than anything else, what sets Hell or High Water apart is the humor. It’s consistent, effective, charming, and quite surprising to find in a movie like this. For the first two-thirds, the movie has a lighter-than-expected tone, until suddenly it doesn’t, offering a very effective contrast when the stakes are inevitably raised in the final third.

As evidenced by The Town, Inside Man, and the opening of The Dark Knight (and countless others), there’s something inherently compelling about bank robberies (probably the huge stakes, the unpredictability, and the stressful time-sensitive aspect). Hell or High Water delivers the thrills inherent to stories like this – regardless of how familiar – but more importantly, it’s just good filmmaking, even if it’s not earth-shattering. There’s a great scene where the two Rangers stop in at a tiny diner that only serves T-bones and iced tea with or without green beans, and that’s perfectly good enough for the fine people of west Texas, thank you very much, because they don’t need anything too fancy.

When the simple T-bone is this good, neither do we.