Wild

You’re a woman!

WildWild, based upon Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, has all the makings of 1) a heroic self-acceptance tale, and 2) an Oscar-winning film.  In the first five minutes, we get gruesome suspense, body horror, Reese Witherspoon topless, endearing humor, and lots of cussing.  It’s the type of underdog story that the Academy loves, but it’s riskier and more dangerous than any of the year’s contenders because not only does it have a female hero, but it makes no effort to portray her as a synthetic ingénue whose purity cannot be pierced.  Here, we have a three-dimensional, decision-making person with recognizable foibles, which is to say a real person.  I suppose it helps that she is a real person.

Cheryl, played by Witherspoon, walks away from scrambled memories of divorce, drug use, destructive sexual escapades, and the loss of her mother (Laura Dern) to hike a thousand miles on the Pacific Crest Trail.  It’s clear from the start that she has not trained for this: she does not pack enough food, carries plenty of supplies she doesn’t need (which causes fellow hikers to refer to her pack as “monster”) has no clue how to ignite her camping stove, and her tent is far too large (which is probably a filmmaking flub, not a commentary on Cheryl as a greenhorn).  Gradually, events are revealed as they happened, and Cheryl’s perilous journey becomes a quest not to “redeem” herself for acting out (as Strayed has put it herself on plenty of occasions), but to come to terms with her experiences, and hopefully, to move forward.

Unlike Tracks with Mia Wasikowska earlier this year, Wild is more about Cheryl’s reasons for making the trek than the trek itself.  There is not much “hiking” to speak of in the film – there’s some walking up hills, some climbing over rocks, some ambling through the expected assortment of wilderness tile-sets (green forest, hot expanse of sand, snowy plains, and even rundown suburban road), but the film gives us the Hollywood version of the hike, and the one that appeals to this generation of filmgoers: the version that doesn’t take up much time or get bogged down in actual details.  Instead, the home drama drives the film toward its goal while the hike serves as the parable/myth: Chery’s feet are bruised, then bloodied, then broken, then stripped of boots (protection), then repaired by hand with Cheryl’s resourcefulness and improvisation, and then finally, last we see them, they’re in brand new boots.  She displays her foot injuries to other hikers to show how far she’s come.  There are animals and children deliberately placed to evoke certain somethings in an audience (and I say “deliberately placed” as in the filmmakers using elements of Strayed’s real-life narrative to cleverly, albeit sometimes predictably, perpetuate its own themes). There’s even a symbolic fox whom Cheryl initially begs to “come back” and is eventually able to let go.

The film’s core emotion is fear.  In the broad sense, it’s the fear of not succeeding, that Cheryl’s journey will yield nothing but hunger and exhaustion.  Cheryl’s biggest threat in the wilderness is not wild animals (in fact, she barely meets any, other than a spooked rattlesnake, a caterpillar, a horse, and a domesticated alpaca), but the men she comes into contact with.  There is a clever mislead early on when a farmer (W. Earl Brown) promises to give her a ride, then says he’s bringing her back to his place for dinner and a hot shower, just after Cheryl finds a pistol in his truck.  When they arrive, the man’s wife is home, having prepared a meal, and while the man has some antiquated ideas about what women should be “allowed” to do, his intentions are completely benevolent.  This scene isn’t just a good mislead; it plants a seed that stays with us: throughout the rest of the film, we’re just waiting for an aggressive pervert to show up and antagonize Cheryl for real. This happens in the form of two hunters who amuse themselves by directing rape jokes at Cheryl and later making very real threats (which one of them considers to be harmless flattery), and Cheryl stands her ground.  It’s a vital scene because it forces the audience, regardless of gender, to inhabit the receiving end of the dangerous “Can’t a guy give a woman a compliment?” attitude/behavior that threatens and victimizes so many in our current culture.

Wild‘s feminism is evident in its premise alone, just as it was in Tracks: a woman leaves it all behind to find herself in the wilderness, and survives conditions that would have made Hemingway shudder (as would the assertion that roughing it in the bush could be anything other than a “manly” pursuit).  In fact, a male hiker Cheryl befriends (Kevin Rankin) quits the trek after mentioning how rigorously he trained for it.  Cheryl is already an activist and an avid reader, but the idea of feminism is continuously denormalized, particularly in a scene wherein a traveling journalist (Mo McRae) mistakes Cheryl for a hobo and mentions that there are “almost no female hobos,” treating Cheryl, along with her ideas about the responsibilities heaped upon women vs. the fact that very few women are reckless adventurers, as novelties.  Later, a group of young male hikers refer to Cheryl as their hero.  These incidents (and the fact that they’re not just movie fabrications) make Cheryl’s eventual triumph all the more gratifying.

I’m tempted to mention that Robyn Davidson’s completely-on-foot journey across Australia involved no home-cooked meals, bus rides, or prolonged human contact (not to mention being deep-fried by the sun), but these films really should not be stacked against each other.  Both stories deal with big decisions, solitude, and identity.  Both involve lost parents and the execution of a beloved pet, and the hardships that come with those for emotional, thinking people.  Robyn and Cheryl are both incredible role models and vital figures in his/herstory, and these films are continuing (and more importantly, helping to normalize) the tradition of the empowered, independent female hero, and of depicting this character as a person, not an archetype, something that the Brontës had to hide their identities to do, and that Kate Chopin’s work was ostracized for.  Things that matter: you’re not gonna get them from Clint Eastwood.

Wild (2014); based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed; screenplay by Nick Hornby; directed by Jean-Marc Vallée; starring Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern.

Tracks

Hey, Camel Lady

tracks

In Tracks, based on Robyn Davidson’s memoir, Mia Wasikowska plays an Australian character in Australia.  We’ve certainly come a long way since Mad Max.

Tracks‘s introverted nature makes its achievements that much more profound.  Robyn (Wasikowska) procures several camels, says farewell to her (few) close relations, and sets out on a 1,700 mile trek across West Australia.  She and her dog, Diggity, whom she refers to as the greatest gift given to humans (never mind the fact that we created them through centuries of genetic meddling and inbreeding), make the entire trip on foot, never actually riding the camels.  Before she even begins the journey, Robyn is informed that Rick Smolan (Adam Driver), a National Geographic photographer who probably fits this generation’s definition of “adorkable,” will meet up with her several times in order to satisfy the publication’s interest in her adventure.  Robyn wants to do this alone, but reluctantly agrees to the occasional meetings.

The film achieves a lot in the way of characterization early, not relying on outside knowledge of celebrity to fill in a voidlike silhouette.  Sparse flashbacks hint at the suicide of Robyn’s mother (a real-life event), but Robyn’s thematic voiceover (what’s with filmmakers having Mia Wasikowska do this all the time?) assures us that there’s no highfalutin reason for her journey.  She proves able to tame camels and use a rifle as well as any of the confident males who are paid to do the same, and begins her walk with no one’s help – in fact, the idea of those peppered occasions of human contact with Smolan seem to do the opposite of comforting her.

The film’s story movement remains consistently focused on Robyn’s progress, Robyn’s morale, Robyn’s sun-dried body, and especially Robyn’s mind.  Director John Curran, working from a tight screenplay by Marion Nelson, makes no attempt to contrive outside drama by showing the hype that generates from Robyn’s exploits; it’s all-too-well illustrated in the mobs of tourists who swerve off of desert roads to get a quick glance from the “Camel Lady” (a name Robyn appreciates about as much as Benny Siegel appreciated “Bugsy”).  There are the inevitable beats that may have been retroactively (read: post-real-life-adventure and memoir, pre-finished-screenplay) invented or placed – for example, Robyn is told by an experienced camel-wrangler that if she encounters a feral camel in the wild and hesitates to kill it, she’s toast.  Before she knows it, she’s got a slobbering monster charging her way with nothing but a barely-tested rifle to ensure that this story continues.  Already in possession of a hardened personality, however, Robyn’s actions as she’s faced with these increasingly dire (and sometimes horrific) tests are neither surprising nor synthetic.  Wasikowska carries every moment of the film as naturally as if this were a documentary (a vibe that the filmmakers are undoubtedly reaching for, given this story’s origins and previous forms in media), and the growth of Robyn as a character never feels stage-managed.

It’s difficult not to give a film like this a feminist reading, but it almost hurts to call it a “feminist film,” simply for the reason that it should not be a shock when there’s a story about an independent woman who does something alone because she wants to.  Robyn decides to make this journey alone.  No one makes her.  Furthermore, she actually succeeds at what she sets out to do with little discussion about what biological snafus might prevent her from doing so (apart from having to adhere to native practices regarding this-and-that out in the places where travelers require guides).  She hooks up with Smolan once, and anyone with a basic sex drive can figure out why.  The next morning, when the heart-of-gold Smolan (with all of Adam Driver’s goofy charm) clumsily attempts to attach some strings, Robyn wants none of this chivalry, and on one of those rare occasions in film, the woman is not criticized for rebuffing a dude’s advances or accused of “playing with his feelings.”  As emotionally confused as Smolan might be, he gets it.  So should you.

The film also makes use of actual Australian natives in the roles of themselves, including the significant speaking role of Mr. Eddy (Roly Mintuma), who acts as a part-time guide in accordance with regional tradition.  Here, Curran has dodged yet another Western film trapping: using any old non-white person to play any old non-white ethnicity (for example, Native Americans played by pretty much anyone [including Johnny Depp], actors of various Eastern European descent playing “Arabs,” etc.).  This, combined with on-location shooting and natural characterization/plot movement at the expense of heightened drama, serves to create a work of incredible authenticity.

Tracks will inevitably be compared to (and unfortunately overshadowed by) Oscar Season’s Wild, another one-word-title, female explorer film based in reality, and I will doubtless be comparing them once I get to see it, but here’s my suggestion: let’s not stand them against each other.  Let’s not continue to think of films about brave, indomitable women as novelties, or worse, as a “genre.”  Let’s not read reviews of such films with the intention of only seeing one.  Let’s understand that the intrepid, courageous woman is not a character trope.  She’s reality, and she’s not going away.

Tracks (2014); based on the book by Robyn Davidson; written by Marion Nelson; directed by John Curran; starring Mia Wasikowska.

Only Lovers Left Alive

You just can’t run from the funnel of love

loversleftJim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive takes a few cues from Karen Russell’s short story “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” and continues the recent trend (perhaps popularized by Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mysteries and HBO’s True Blood) of stories about vampires who have evolved past their savage desires to feed on human blood in favor of either mixing with society or keeping to themselves.  In Russell’s story, the main characters, a couple not so different from Jarmusch’s protagonists, discover raw lemons as a temporary placation.  In True Blood, human blood is synthesized into a bottled beverage, eliminating the need for murder altogether.  Jarmusch’s vampire yarn is a bit grittier and more cynical, although not overtly so: vampires must keep themselves hidden from humans, who have no idea they exist, and must scrounge up whatever blood they can find by looting hospitals and making deals with blood bank doctors.

But of course, this isn’t really a vampire story.  The word vampire is never spoken, and the parameters of vampirism are never laid out, aside from drinking blood, not going out during the day, and being able to “turn” others.  It’s a film about the failure of the twenty-first century and the bleakness of humanity’s future due to willed ignorance and backwards ways of thinking.  Not a particularly fresh theme in and of itself (truth and accuracy notwithstanding), but Jarmusch explores it through a fascinating character study, absent of silly exposition or literal dystopia.  Dystopia might be coming, but somehow, it’s more frightening to be a prisoner in the actual world we live in.

Eve (Tilda Swinton) and Adam (Tom Hiddleston) have been married for several centuries.  Eve has spent the past few years in Tangier, where she obtains her blood from Elizabethan dramatist Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), who goes by the name “Kit” since he is “supposed to be dead.”  No explanation is given for how Marlowe was turned, but the film’s great efforts to shove aside lore and backstory aid its focus, and these omissions never actually feel like omissions.  Just think of the degree of “hiding” that Marlowe has to do: he’s not only been hiding his identity for hundreds of years, but he’s also been hiding his influence on Shakespeare, whose portrait, complete with a dart in its head, he keeps on his wall.  Adam, on the other hand, lives in an abandoned Detroit neighborhood as a reclusive (albeit massively wealthy) musician obsessed with anonymity.  He broods, contemplates the sad state of the world and its treatment of artists and scientists (“They’re still bitching about Darwin.  Still!”), creates complex music that the underground scene cannot get enough of, and procures rarities from local rock-n’-roller Ian (Anton Yelchin).  One of these is a wooden bullet, and we know what those can do if applied to a vampire’s heart.  Eve blames Adam’s suicidal romanticism on “Those people he used to hang out with” – y’know, Mary Shelley and Lord Byron, without whom Jarmusch’s movie would not exist.

Adam is saved by a video chat with Eve, and the two reunite in Detroit.  The couple do not interact with each other until roughly a half-hour into the film, and thus the amount of time we spend with them driving the streets, exploring museums at night, listening to rough cuts of Adam’s new tunes, and lying around in bed, is well-earned and well-put-off until we have some context.  Adam obtains his blood from Doctor Watson (Jeffrey Wright), a blood bank worker who is more than happy to drop some “O-Negativo” off the back of a truck in exchange for a thicker wad of cash than he’s making doing honest work.  Notably, Adam goes by the pseudonym “Doctor Faust,” a reference to the most famous of the real-life Marlowe’s work (a derivative work in which a deal is made with the devil).  Still, Adam claims to have no heroes.

The film’s movement is made up of anti-narrative, as many of Jarmusch’s films are, though critics’ claims that the film continues Jarmusch’s “rebellion against narrative” may be a bit erroneous.  Dead Man‘s exploratory scenes relied entirely upon plot points, rebel against them as it might.  Similarly, Broken Flowers, The Limits of Control, and Ghost Dog feature a protagonist on a journey initiated by himself, and the real exploration (as well as the occasional inaccessible philosophizing) happens during the breaths in between.  Here, with Eve and Adam, we have two characters who want nothing to do with plot.  They do not want a story.  They’ve had enough of it.  Yet inconveniences are thrust upon them, and when the story does move forward, it is dragged kicking and screaming (not that its quiet characters do either).  The few “happenings” in the film involve Ava (Mia Wasikowska), the young vampire sister of Eve, who has lately invaded everyone’s dreams as a way to say that she’s coming to visit.  Neither Eve nor Adam wants Ava around to spoil what they have, especially Adam, who wishes Ava were dead (a reference is made to something that happened 87 years ago, but Eve and Adam were both there, so the specifics are not revealed, as that would be a violation where exposition is concerned).  Ava shows up, and things change.  Unlike Eve and Adam, Ava is curious, fresh-faced, eager for new experiences.  Do they dislike her because she’s been a perpetual teenager for centuries?  Or because she’s an amalgamation of who they used to be (name and otherwise)?

As expected, Ava ruins things in a single night, and again, movement is forced upon the couple.  In the end, as two blood-deprived vamps descend upon unsuspecting lovers in a back alley in Tangier, following Adam’s haunting justification – “What choice do we have?” – we see how quickly and easily one’s identity can be compromised in a world wherein that identity is not even acknowledged, let alone nurtured.  This is not to say that the film’s ending constitutes some broad idea, or even that is has to mean something, but there is, on the part of the characters, at least a “shift” if not flat-out growth – it’s subtle and reluctant, and greater parts sad than happy.

This is Jarmusch’s best film in a while.  Unlike many of Jarmusch’s others,  Only Lovers Left Alive is not saturated by obvious themes, nor does it revolve around a sainted everyman.  In the tradition of those films, however, it grooves to a magical, sludgy soundtrack that makes the tiniest of movements seem dire and urgent.  Planning a flight is excruciating.  Tiny interior things such as Adam taking interest in another musician (Yasmine Hamdan) contain multitudes of significance, while major flourishes like kicking Ava out of the house seem routine and likely to happen again.  The main cast make up a sad, wonderful family that is not only worthwhile to spend time with, but also carries the pain and quintessence of the “last people on Earth” while simultaneously being unaware of it and just trying to live.  It’s particularly affecting to realize in retrospect that Mia Wasikowska’s mischievous Ava inhabits the truest identity in the film, representing where things once were and where they’re unknowingly going again, and she, much like the film’s featured recluses, goes undernourished.

Only Lovers Left Alive (2014); written and directed by Jim Jarmusch; starring Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, and Mia Wasikowska.

 

Stoker

Shoemaggeddon

India StokerDoes Stoker mark the return of symbolism in film?  Regardless of how you read the interwoven narrative imagery, the post-Hitchcock camera acrobatics, and the sheer haunting uniqueness of it all, Stoker does things with cinematography unlike anything any of us are likely to see duplicated in the foreseeable future.

I may have used the term “image pattern” when looking at films before, but it’s a literary term, and this is the first film I’ve seen that uses image patterning in a literary way.  Consider the opening, in which a spider crawls up the stockinged leg of the lead character, India Stoker (the incomparable Mia Wasikowska) while she’s playing the piano.  An inexplicable sense of suspense follows the spider, despite the fact that we have no clue what kind of spider it is, whether it intends to harm her, or what it means if she smashes it.  But this scene is not resolved yet, despite the seemingly miniscule stakes relying upon its resolution.  Instead, since it revolves entirely around the image of the spider, it joins a string of short scenes, collected as the film’s story moves forward, that also revolve around nebulously-related imagery, including India lying in tall grass with a hunting rifle and awaiting her father’s (Dermot Mulroney) okay to take a critical shot at a fluttering bird; the image of the bird itself; people making snow-angels on surfaces other than snow; and others.  These scenes, which I might call micro-narratives, weave into the forward action in such a way that wondering where that spider ends up (and why) weighs as heavily on the audience as do thoughts about who’s going to live through the film’s central ordeal.  The starkest and most overt piece of imagery, though, focuses on India’s shoes and feet – we first see her popping a blister after running through the woods, realizing that she has outgrown her favorite shoes (unique blue-and-white low-tops which, were the world still small, would be selling out of department stores right about now).  But on her 18th birthday, as on every other birthday, she receives another pair of the same shoes.  I use the word “symbolism” because there are very clear “Who is what?” and “What means what?” questions silently posed to the audience through color and repetition.

The story that collects these images involves the young India, whose father, Richard, has recently died in a rather mysterious car accident.  India’s mother, Evelyn Stoker (Nicole Kidman), is known to be very dependent, and the wealthy Stoker family’s servants assume that India will be the one taking care of things from now on, not her mother.  Out of nowhere appears India’s uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), who claims that since his brother is dead, he will temporarily stay with the family and help take care of their massive property during their time of grief.  The catch?  Neither Evelyn nor India ever knew that Richard had any siblings.  Evelyn, ever reliant on others, is intrigued by Charlie and welcomes all of his methods of comfort.  India, introverted and sheltered, doesn’t know what to make of her uncle.  Does he want to replace her father?  It doesn’t help that her relationship with her mother is strained and loveless, and that she will let no one touch her.  When Charlie claims that he just wants to be friends, India responds that “We don’t have to be friends.  We’re family.”

The beautiful and haunted piano/string score by Clint Mansell demands that this film take a turn for the macabre, and the red lights surround Uncle Charlie as soon as he appears.  What, we must wonder, does he want from the family?  Thankfully, India asks this the first time she’s alone with him, and we’re not left with a list of obvious questions that inept characters in horror movies never ask.  But the film’s sense of unsettling perplexity, not to mention what amounts to gorgeously-presented visual and aural poetry, allows us the knowledge that Charlie is the villain early on without ruining any of the intrigue.  During dinner with India’s visiting great-aunt Gin (Jacki Weaver), Evelyn mentions Charlie’s world travels, and a horrified look washes over Gin’s face before she tells Evelyn they need to talk about Charlie.  Before this can happen, Charlie murders her and a housekeeper who also seemed to know something about him.  Even more interesting is the fact that it seems like Charlie wants India to know about his penchant for killing and burying people (regardless, she finds out when she attempts to phone Auntie Gin at her hotel, and hears the latter’s ringtone coming from beneath the soil in the backyard).

Meanwhile, the greatest conflict is a case of Character vs. Self: India is eighteen and ready to wake up, ready to be “free,” as she puts it in a too-telling-but-not-telling-enough voiceover.  But she’s been cooped in her parents’ home her entire life and her only solace is in music.  She’s an accomplished pianist.  She is ostracized at school for being “weird” and seemingly asexual.  When she witnesses her mother and Charlie growing intimate, she imitates them and seeks the affections of Whip Taylor (Alden Ehrenreich), a classmate she trusts.  But she only wants to kiss him.  He has other plans, and attacks her.  Charlie, who shamelessly stalks India, materializes out of the shadows, and the body count rises.  She helps him bury the body, and we begin to worry for her.  Later, in the shower, she masturbates while thinking about the murder.  India, whose coming-of-age has seemingly been delayed, is awakening, but the admixture of Uncle Charlie and the violent nature of her own life prevent this awakening from being her own.

Through one thing and another, with the assorted micro-narratives vying for top-shelf plot importance, the truth comes out: Charlie, while on his apparent world travels, wrote dozens of letters to India as she grew, hoping to one day meet her.  The letters were intercepted by Richard, who locked them in his study for reasons unknown to India until she looks at the back of the envelopes and realizes that Charlie never traveled the world; he was shut away in a mental institution for most of his life.  India also discovers that her father and Charlie had another brother, Jonathan, whom Charlie killed as a child out of jealously for his relationship with Richard.  On India’s eighteenth birthday, Charlie was released from the institution, but then murdered Richard after the latter refused to let him meet India (and for good reason).  But India’s inner conflict is still approaching a boil, and she does not act out as we expect the protagonist of a thriller to do.  Charlie’s beautiful prose still dazzles her, and after another fight with her mother, she tells Charlie she will travel with him to New York.  He presents her with another box of shoes, but this time, they are not the identical blue-and-whites she has worn her entire life; these are high heels, the societal symbol of female adulthood (and, I might add, a patriarchal device for physically constraining women, and there’s something to be said for that here).  India steps into them and walks with ease.

Evelyn, realizing what is happening and reaching the point of ultimate fury at being unable to bond with her daughter, asks, “You were supposed to love me, weren’t you?”  When Charlie’s last plan before leaving the Stoker home is to seduce and kill Evelyn, expecting India to help him, the results are quite different, and as India brings out her old hunting rifle, the mosaic of micro-narrative images comes to a crescendo (as does Mansell’s score).  This scene – and this bears repeating – is so disparate from anything in recent film narrative, that it’s a miracle we are able to cling to the characters through the fantastically musical realization of virtually everything we have encountered in the film so far – including the spider.  It begins on the floor, makes its way up India’s leg, crawls up her thigh and past the hem of her skirt, and is last seen slipping across Charlie’s doornail-dead face.  No, India seems to say, I will not be controlled this way; this gift you gave me, I will give back.

The final scene, whether needed or not, poses some questions and answers other ones.  What kind of woman has India become?  Whether or not she’s leaving the Stoker home for good, and regardless of her methods, one thing is clear: she’s going to protect her family’s name, and to a separate-but-equal extent, her mother.

Mia Wasikowska, who gleamed as Jane Eyre in 2011, finally gets another starring role in which to showcase her various gifts.  Look at the difference in these performances.  More importantly, India is a strong character.  She’s layered and exists beyond her quirks, beyond what the plot calls for.  An introvert, a musician, a painter, a hunter. Reflexes like you’ve never seen.  A sheltered girl considering what it means to come of age before she goes ahead and does it.  Is the film commenting on womanhood?  I imagine that different viewers will have different readings of it, but all of the clues (think micro-narrative) must lead somewhere.  I am still flabbergasted that this film was scripted by Wentworth Miller (and kind of impressed that he submitted it using a pen name so that the film could be published upon its own merits and not his fame), an actor I would not have thought to possess such feminine sensibilities (violence notwithstanding).  The joke is on me.

This is an important film.

P.S. Thematic voiceover is still sloppy and flaccid.

Stoker_teaser_posterStoker (2013); written by Wentworth Miller; directed by Park Chan-wook; starring Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, and Nicole Kidman. 

Lawless

Year of the Southern

Lawless, based upon Matt Bondurant’s historical novel The Wettest County in the World, is violent to the degree that it makes something like The Expendables look like The Wizard of Oz.  This isn’t due to gratuity, mind you; the various malicious acts in Lawless occur due to some unspoken code of violence upheld by its characters, and while there’s a lot of blood, violent scenes are effective not because of spectacle, but because of what is happening to whom, and the degree to which the event itself frustrates or discomforts the viewer – I’ve always said one of the most most violent scenes in film was Sonny’s death in The Godfather.

The film follows the historical Bondurant brothers, Virginia moonshine bootleggers in Prohibition-era Franklin County.  Forrest (Tom Hardy) is effectively the boss, and is feared for being legendarily invincible.  Jack (Shia LaBeouf) is the youngest, who feels he has something to prove to Forrest, who often treats him like a child.  Howard (Jason Clark) is apelike and unpredictable.  Together, they are a local treasure, and along with the lovable Cricket (Dane Dehaan), they make and jar the best moonshine available, supplying everyone from local yokels to fearsome gangsters, including Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), who seems at the outset like he might become the villain, but despite his tendency to walk into the street and casually mow down groups of people with a Thompson submachine gun, Banner is actually quite agreeable.

Jessica Chastain, who created the greatest female performances of 2011 (and, to be honest, maybe some of the best film performances ever) in Take Shelter and The Tree of Life, appears as the enigmatic Maggie, who wanders into town and snags a job in the Bondurants’ restaurant in order to escape the Chicago city life.  This role is not the stuff of her characters from last year – in fact, she is given criminally little to do – but her limitless dedication to every one of her characters produces the film’s best dramatic scene when she finally reveals to the mumbling Forrest (at this point her romantic partner) that she’s tired of him going out and sustaining near-fatal injuries every single day.

Mia Wasikowska, who also had one of the most moving performances of last year in Jane Eyre, appears as Bertha, playing opposite LaBeouf’s character, who goes so far as infiltrating a church meeting in order to steal a smile from her.  Her performance is great, but I get the feeling she’s acting around a group of Hollywooders indulging so deeply in their own project that they don’t realize she’s secretly a leading actress, and one of the better ones we have right now.

The trouble reaches new levels when Special Deputy Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce) ventures into Franklin County, ordered by corrupt feds to seize the Bondurants’ operation: first, he offers a deal, but his foppish nature and condescending personality illicit a belligerent response from Forrest, and we soon have a turf war on our hands.  If he can’t have a share of the Bondurants’ profits, he must destroy them, and he succeeds on most levels: razing their still with explosives, brutalizing Jack, murdering innocent parties, harassing (and later unspeakably harming) Maggie, and sending multiple goons to get rid of Forrest while framing Banner for it.  The brothers aren’t duped, however, and before you know it, one of the most intense firefights since The Guard takes place at an otherwise gorgeous covered bridge.

The film features one of Hardy’s best performances in the unbelievably tough and lovably soft-spoken Forrest, and LaBeouf’s character is surprisingly sympathetic, proving he can do things other than yell and fidget in big-budget shlock about giant robots.  Even his accent seems authentic (it should be noted, however, that I’m a Northerner).  My one major regret about this film is that Jessica and Mia, two of the best actresses working today, are relegated to supporting cast and never have a single scene together (at the end, we see them in the same room together, but they never share so much as a glance).  I suppose, at heart, this is a movie about dudes shooting each other, and I understand the concept of focus as well as anyone, but it still seems a waste, as these two could carry a film with no other actors at all, if it came down to it.  Pearce, accustomed to playing irredeemably evil characters, basically plays the Devil here.  “You know, I don’t much like you,” he is told by a local lawman forced to work with him.  “Yeah?” he responds, unshaken.  “Not many do.”  It would have been interesting to see him clash with Oldman’s Banner, but the film doesn’t lend time for it.

Lawless is reaching for an Oscar, but its plot is actually a carbon copy of John Nichols’ novel The Milagro Beanfield War (also adapted into a film featuring Christopher Walken), a story about regionalism and also featuring a showdown between simple country folks and federal law enforcement.  The main difference is that in Nichols’ story, the main character is defending a beanfield instead of a distillery, and the women are tougher and better respected.  Lawless deals with (most of) its own characters well, though, and being one of those derivative-yet-supposedly-true stories this country knows and loves, it may yet bag the glory its American underdogs feel they so duly deserve.

Lawless (2012); written by Nick Cave; based upon the novel by Matt Bondurant; directed by John Hillcoat; starring Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Shia LaBeouf, Guy Pearce, and Mia Wasikowska.

Jane Eyre

Anything but plain

It has been a long time, maybe forever, since I attended a movie that drew actual gasping and sobbing from the audience.  Nothing surprises us anymore.  Maybe it’s something about the clientele of an independent theatre vs. Regal (the latter of which makes one cry because of the ticket/concession prices, not the quality of the film).  Regardless, Cary Fukunaga’s film adaptation of Jane Eyre, based upon Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 Gothic novel, made that happen.

For those of you non-literary readers (a term which seems backwards and perverse in and of itself), the first thing to note about Jane Eyre is that the novel is not simply a period romance, which is how it has been adapted in about twenty-four films and TV specials.  The novel itself is a Bildungsroman story featuring elements of Gothic horror and social criticism, and is most notably one of the earliest examples of the phrase “ahead of its time”: a gorgeous work of literature featuring a self-reliant female protagonist.  Jane is highly moral, but mature and individualistic, capable of evolving on her own, never appearing as a damsel in distress, never in need of rescue.  Fukunaga remembers all of this.

The story follows Jane Eyre, of course, played in this version by the staggeringly talented Mia Wasikowska (about whom I gushed in my Alice in Wonderland piece).  Growing up in the house of her horrid aunt, Mrs. Reed (Sally Hawkins), Jane is frequently abused, physically and mentally.  Reticence, however, is not in Jane’s vocabulary.  She educates herself, sneaking a look at books when no one is around, as well as talking (and striking) back when provoked by her cousins.  As a result, she is told that she is deceitful, and is sent off to a special girls’ school.  Fukunaga gives us these early sections of the story in the form of flashbacks, with the interest of showing us that Wasikowska plays the version of Jane with whom we’ll be spending the most time.  This shifts the linear storytelling of the novel, but in the film, it’s not terribly distracting.  It’s not terribly needed either, but there you go.  With one thing and another, Jane becomes Governess at Thornfield Manor, teaching the young ward of Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender), with whom she will eventually fall in love, and befriending the aging housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench).

An amazing aspect of this film is that it retains the storytelling point of view of the novel: Jane Eyre is told from Jane’s perspective.  In the film, we never get a scene without Jane.  Mia Wasikowska (and to a lesser but nearly as powerful degree, young Amelia Clarkson) carries this entire film on her shoulders.  Often, in films like these, it’s ninety percent first-person, then the filmmaker caves in because (s)he can’t figure out how to tell an important piece of exposition without cutting away from the established perspective – not here.  We’re always with Jane, and more importantly, we want to stay with her.

Michael Fassbender appears as the story’s Byronic hero, and does so with a humor that makes us love Mr. Rochester but never even approaches the fourth wall, as many period pieces feel they must.  As a friend put it, “Fassbender not playing a douchebag in a military uniform, for once?”  Yes, and it’s magical to watch.  This film’s release was limited, but I’m holding out hope that the two leads will get the recognition they deserve from these performances. Appropriately, Rochester’s apparent love interest, Blanche Ingram (Imogen Poots) actually performs one of Lord Byron’s musical pieces.  Everything from the score, the architecture and the atmosphere to the social and scientific assumptions of the time period are retained.  Judi Dench, as usual, is sweet and grandmotherly, and can set the tone of an entire scene with one facial expression (one that comes to mind is the scene in which Mrs. Fairfax first sees Jane and Rochester together).  Jamie Bell also appears as Jane’s cousin (a detail left out in the film), the pious St. John Rivers, who takes Jane in after her unceremonious exeunt from Thornfield.

Fiction writer David Jauss suggests, in his essay, Autobiographobia: Writing and the Secret Life, that we authors of fiction try to write our way into characters whose lives we know nothing about. On paper, we become different people.  In Charlotte’s time, she was writing about herself – Jane Eyre, judging from what we know, mirrors Charlotte as a person in the most striking of ways (often summed up in brusque phrases such as “a woman with a strong heart,” but take from it what you will).  If I may be so bold, I think if Charlotte had lived to see the dawn of film, or hadn’t passed away with an unborn child, she/her descendants would have been more pleased with Fukunaga’s adaptation of the story and Mia Wasikowska’s portrayal of Jane than any version of either done before.

It might be worth mentioning that in Charlotte’s time, people were still figuring things out – things like the way sound travels.  In several sections of the story, Jane hears voices, the most important of which occurs when she hears Rochester calling her name and decides to return to him.  In all our romanticizing, we forget that in this period of the world, people weren’t sure this kind of thing wasn’t possible – that you couldn’t hear someone softly calling your name from leagues away.  In this adaptation of Jane Eyre, I promise you’ll hear Charlotte’s, just a little.

Jane Eyre (2011); written by Moira Buffini, based on the novel by Charlotte Brontë; directed by Cary Fukunaga; starring Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Judi Dench and Jamie Bell.