by Liam Scheff
It opens with an assassin scoping civilians through a marksman’s rifle. He’s on a bridge, they’re walking along a riverside park in Pittsburgh. The scene unfolds without mercy, for them or us. The rest is a who-and-why-done-it, and despite its bleak and brutal premise, it’s a spry, well-photographed, smartly observed film. It’s bleakly funny. Its violence tries to favor the realistic physics and concussive limitations of a human frame. The writing is taught and careful and based in a reality that action movies rarely bother with (that of personal pain, fear and a culture of personal isolation). It gets its verve from the popular novels by Lee Childs. (Christopher McQuarrie wrote the screenplay.) The ensemble all take their play seriously and are all very good.
The main character (Jack Reacher, played by Tom Cruise) is an ex-military policeman who’s gone off the Federal Reserve into no man’s land, inhabiting the low spaces beneath state-issued ID numbers and tax codes. His feelings for the world mirror those preppers who see a collapse approaching for our western way of life. The film plays that bleakness against the backdrop of his investigation of the shooting, but the movie is really about a society that is starting to fail, infested with bored, day-rate thugs and off-duty mercenaries, spoiling for something, anything at all to claim as their own.
You do have to buy into the spectacle of a much smaller man beating up – strategically, with attention to details – many larger ones – but the fights are staged as real fights go – they’re short and sharp, and the damage is specific.
Girl in Progress
“Girl in Progress” is an adorable, strange and brave movie about a messy single mom (Eva Mendes) whose immense sex appeal is causing her to make terrible decisions with her life, and with her teenage daughter’s. She’s working any job she can, cleaning houses while waitressing at a beachfront crab shack. She’s sleeping with a wealthy, married doctor, whose wife is aware that the woman cleaning the toilets is doing more polishing after hours.
But the star of the show is her precocious, brilliant, eccentric daughter who is plotting her own coming-of-age story based on the outline of the hero’s journey, as cribbed from her English teacher’s coming-of-age syllabus. The girl, Ansiedad (“a girl named ‘anxiety”), wants to get away from the life her mother has cut out of cardboard, so begins to scheme her passage into adulthood. She pins the passage to the wall in colorful cut-outs: first, throwing away childhood things (including friends), trading up to “popular,” and planning to lose her virginity with the school’s James Dean – all done at hyperspeed, and all so she can get past the pain of youth and arrive at adulthood.
As she joyously manipulates the people around her, the real-world consequences begin to take their toll. Mom is trying to improve her lot in the world, taking responsibilities at work (that keep her away from home even more), fending off amours and failing to be a parent, but trying not to fail. If it’s all a little improbable, the film is much better than more successful movies about teenagers, because it focuses on the disastrous dynamic created by our isolating society – the disaster of ‘nuclear’ families, where two people end up in a lifeboat, desperate to get to shore, or in any other way, get to freedom – for themselves, and sometimes from each other. It’s a lovely and unusual script populated by fully-loved performances. I don’t know how it got made in a world of super-sequels and robot assassin movies, but it did; it’s a small gem.
Jake Gyllenhaal is a beefy guy – not fat, just wide in shoulders and back. In “Enemy,” with a heavy, thick beard, he looks like he’s trying to dissolve out of movie-stardom into being a full-time character actor; all internal glances, muttering anxiety, trying leaving the “Prince of Persia” and Hollyweird all the way behind. He takes strange roles with hard political messages (Rendition, Source Code); movies that people won’t easily like, but should see.
And he does again in “Enemy,” the through-the-glass-darkly fable from French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, which shows its European sensibilities in every frame. It’s a Soviet version of modernity; the city as an endless gray expanse littered with small black windows. A concrete and glass world of high-rise isolation in shitty (or pretty) apartments, speckled by the strained intimacy of couples living far away from the ground, in their heads, without their hearts, without the brown and green of soil and plants, (without nature).
There is a plot, but it’s almost secondary to the visual and emotional anti-spectacle; the deadness of our urban environments makes the ticking story seem possible, even plausible: do you have an exact double in the machine world? A precise doppelgänger living a very different life, with a very similar girl or boyfriend, with a different job, but a similar disaffection? You might, and if you make the wrong turn, you might find that the world is a dark mystery whose uncontrollable energy will destroy your ordered machine.
The intrusion of the mystery of life is figured in three ways in the film: the recurring, shocking, awakening nudity of women; sex with a very pregnant wife, and the spiders. Ah, the spiders. If that intrigues you, then buy the ticket. The movie is about what we’re missing, and it is shocking in an interior space that knows that all of this western experiment is, like all dystopias, doomed.
Ugh, I know. A remake. But. Besides the absolutely standard-action ending, it’s a potent, shocking and psychologically intrusive film that transcends its genre for 2/3rds of its running time. Directed by José Padilha (a Brazilian), the movie, like “Enemy,” has more to say in short, morbid, terrifyingly silent scenes about our state of removal from life than a thousand PBS documentaries about ‘global’ whatever. The special effects are used not to thrill, but to mortify the viewer into recognition of our loss of a cultural soul. We see, without shaking or moving cameras, a man reduced to a brain in a jar with a face that lies about what’s beneath – a human soul cut to a sliver and put in a toaster, and sold to a numbed public. And we can never forget it when we’re watching him be “hero.” (No wonder audiences didn’t like it.)
I’m amazed the film was allowed to be so clear about the monster that was created to fill the title role. And I’m not sure the filmmakers knew where to go once they’d accomplished this goal. The film moves assuredly, bravely and without regard to your feelings, and then, at once, it hits the ‘sequel’ button and issues a standard-issue shoot-and-shoot-and-shoot-again ending. The film should have known and done better with the brainy goodwill it spent building. But it is an affecting movie about the death of the western soul, kept afloat in a world of plasma TVs and high-speed connections. Oh yeah, and it is about a cop who becomes a robot cop. In case you were wondering. See it. It’s disturbing.
After the Wedding
If it’s improbable and even extremely manipulative, it’s also impossible not to be drawn into to this Danish production about a man (Mads Mikkelsen) returning to the western world (Denmark) from India, where he’s left it all behind to manage an orphanage and give more to the world than he could have done in his own country. The tale is a reverse morality play; everyone has to lose something, everyone gains something – precisely what they thought they didn’t want. It’s an impossible ending and the great sacrifice of the fatted bull is unbelievably obvious and impossible. And yet – if you watch it, you’ll be willing to concede that it might be a really nice break for everyone involved if good things really did happen to good people; and people who’d turned sour might also get a second chance – and take it.
Liam Scheff is author of “Official Stories,” drilling to the core of the gooey religious center of science.