Week 61 : The Perks of Being a Wallflower
"We could be heroes, just for one day"
For Alice Rain
We watch as 15 year old Charlie (Logan Lerman) navigates the hall on the first day of his freshman year in High School. Walking on eggshells through the jungles of 'just another high school', he diverts his eyes from any interested passerby while finding his desk firmly in the middle of Mr. Anderson's (Paul Rudd) English class. Anderson quizzes the class, querying his students with one of those inane questions that teachers only seem to ask when they want to impress their students with their own knowledge.
"Can anyone tell me who invented the paperback book?" Anderson said.
Charlie scribbles the answer hastily in his notebook before pausing to wonder if anyone is taking the time to notice. He peers straight ahead, concentrating on the blackboard before him as if there were some holographic mirage embedded in the yellow chalk that slashes through the forest green of the blackboard. His scribble is correct: Charles Dickens invented the paperback novel. Charlie doesn't raise his hand, rejecting the opportunity to gain extra credit, impress his new teacher, or get recognized as intelligent by his peers. He just sits and idly looks forward, hoping that the teacher- nay, no one, will notice; it is as if he is hiding in plain sight, a translucent rare flower pressed against an everyday wall, as if it belonged there.
Steven Chboksy's film adaptation of his novel The Perks of Being A Wallflower, is great because it completely understands the subjects it takes the time to observe. It is a movie of unflinching truth, realism and beauty- the kind of picture that makes you cry not out of sadness, or even happiness- but recognition. This one gets it right.
Stop. Think about when you were fifteen years old. Contemplate it. Swim in the recesses of your memories. What emotions come back? Do you remember the trepidation you felt when trying to figure out where you would sit in the lunch room? Did you ever know the answer to a question in class to intentionally not answer it, as to not draw attention to yourself? Were you ever so confused and sad that you felt like you couldn't, under any circumstance, face your peers the next day in the hallway? Certainly there was the girl.. or the boy, that probably got away. Perhaps you are Facebook friends now or distant acquaintances; perhaps you have not seen them in years, but find yourself thinking of their face in passing randomly throughout your day. I am sure as you read this someone comes to mind. I am positive that we have all felt these emotions, regardless of how popular or unpopular we may have been growing up. If you were an outcast you probably longed for acceptance; If you were popular, I bet you did everything you could to not lose it. There is one universal truth to adolescence. Growing up sucks, and friends are the only thing that make it bearable.
Charlie, our fifteen year old major depressive hero that just happens to suffer from post traumatic stress disorder as well as repressed memories, is fortunate enough to find a group of people that he can connect with. At a football game he meets Patrick (Ezra Miller), a gay senior that flamboyantly seeks attention in class to mask his own sense of alienation. Patrick introduces Charlie to his stepsister Sam (Emma Watson, as lovely as ever), who seems to immediately accept Charlie's presence without really acknowledging it. Teenagers have a tendency to do that. You will be hanging out with one person, they will introduce you to someone else, and before you know it you are all drinking beers (or taking bong hits) without even the slightest introduction. Sam, Patrick and Charlie spend the night talking about music- that great leveler that brings so many of us together. They discuss their favorite songs, bands, lyrics and what those lyrics mean to them. Their conversation is as rich as any I have had in real life-- forcing me to recall countless nights of swapping CD's, and listening to different artists with friends. Never has a song sounded more beautiful than when experienced through one headphone, with a best friend using the other.
Charlie is invited to a party and given some extra-special brownies. The movie is smart because it never shows us the (non-existent) "dangers of pot." It doesn't overplay the drug angle, or even use it for comedic effect. It is what it is. Charlie is stoned, and wants a milkshake. He asks Sam to make it for him. As she interrogates him about his experiences of the evening, Charlie lets his guard down:
"So, I'm guessing you've never been high before." Sam says.
Charlie smiles, replying "No. No, no, no. My best friend, Michael, his dad was a big drinker, so he hated all that stuff. Parties too."
"Well, where is Michael tonight?"
"Oh, he shot himself last May. I kinda wish he'd left a note. You know what I mean?"
It is in scenes like this that The Perks of Being a Wallflower reveals its greatness. Sam doesn't immediately grab Charlie and hug him, tear up, or intervene. She hands him the milkshake and behind his back tells Patrick that they had to adopt Charlie as their friend. Patrick agrees and Charlie is accepted into a group that will become the strongest friendships of his life. The film is so impeccable due to its accuracy. Acquaintances hang out- friends know you as you really are. Chbosky understands that this difference is everything in the world.
I love this movie, and I love the book that inspired it. Chbosky was given the rare opportunity to direct and adapt his own novel- which, let's face it- is something unheard of in modern Hollywood. He cast actors that were respected but (with the exception of Watson) not necessarily well known. Every character is realized, every scene alive, fresh, and most importantly: real. This is a movie that every high-schooler should see; one that parents should share with their children.
I wrote earlier of the importance of acceptance. I think that is what this movie is really about: accepting truths, accepting who you are and where you belong in this insane planet of ours- accepting the differences of others. Patrick is gay, and while he is loved by his boyfriend Brad (Johnny Simmons), he is not accepted by him until late in the picture. Charlie must watch his sister Candace (Nina Dobrev) get hit by her boyfriend only to kiss him later. Charlie dumps one girl by inadvertently showing his true feelings for another, only to be accepted back into the circle after some cooling off time. Parents accept their child, in spite of his sickness and isolation. Some of the teenagers steal, some lie and fabricate stories compulsively, some sleep around, some dress in drag and dance to Rocky Horror: the picture works because it demonstrates that once you determine labels (slut, jock, hick, homo, clepto, nerd, psycho) cease to matter-- well, anyone can really be friends with anyone- can't they? It is once we stop caring what others think and be honest that people will truly care about us.
This is also a film about letting go of the past, about sharing and accepting repressed memories. It is about growing up knowing nothing about yourself and beginning to figure it out. It is about understanding that we all have trauma, all make mistakes, and all need forgiveness and acceptance.
I read one of those trite business articles the other day about how to "win friends and influence people." Normally pieces like this get under my skin in their arrogance-- but this one actually had a great piece of advice: one that I now know I have actually been following for several years now. The article said, almost profoundly: "Making friends is easy. All you have to do is show interest in people." The more I think about it, the more I realize it is true. We pass wallflowers every day, at work, school, even walking around town. Some of the wallflowers we pass may even live in our own homes-- our familiarity with our family members can cause them to change below the radar so that we don't even recognize we are losing our connections with them. It is our responsibility as members of a collective community to go the people we meet and say "Hey. How are you" and actually care about the answer. It is only when we do this- when we accept those around us in spite of their perceived flaws and inadequacies, that we grow as human beings. That is a hell of an important lesson-- and this movie teaches it.
I shared this movie with my fiancée recently. By the end, she was in tears. She couldn't articulate completely why-- but she said to me "that is a movie that I can relate to." This i the greatest "high school film" I have ever seen.
This film, in my opinion, has one of the finest last lines in all of cinema. Our heroes are driving through a tunnel, with the windows open and their bodies stretching out of the vehicle to feel the wind of the open evening.
" Right now we are alive and in this moment I swear we are infinite."
I watch the ending and, even if I do not cry, I feel a swell in my heart. I was fifteen once. My daughter is twelve now. I had my friends. She has hers. I think of long telephone conversations into the night, discussions of movies, music and books. I think of how much I didn't want to appear smart in English class, and regret not answering more questions. I remember relationships and how important they were to me on those amazing endless nights with the few friends that really knew me and loved me anyway- those nights when we were infinite. I look at my daughter, in all of her unimaginable beauty and complexity and hope she gets the same.
Review and Analysis by Shaun Henisey
Cast and Credits:
Charlie: Logan Lerman
Sam: Emma Watson
Patrick: Ezra Miller
Mom: Kate Walsh
Dad: Dylan McDermott
Mr. Anderson: Paul Rudd
Summit Entertainment presents a film written and directed by Stephen Chbosky based on his novel.
Running Time: 103 minutes. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, drug and alcohol use, sexual content including references, and a fight — all involving teens
Feature: The Best Films of 2014
It is that time of year again. One of the burdens of being a film critic is that every year people undoubtedly want to know what the “best pictures” of the year were. Most insist on rankings. I have said it before, and I will continue to say it every year in which I have to create one of these lists: they are pointless, silly, frustrating and ridiculous. How does one look at DaVinci’s Mona Lisa and Van Gough’s Starry Night and compare them? Is one really better, more beautiful, or more important than the other? Isn’t this all a matter of subjectivity?
Yet, here we are again: counting down what are, in my opinion, the ten “best” films of 2013. This was a particularly difficult year. It has been a hell of a great year for the movies. There were fewer remakes and sequels. Many of the films that were released were fresh, daring and original. Frankly, any other year any of the below films could have been in the top spot and all are simply a matter of preference. Nonetheless, here are the ten best that I have experienced. If you have not seen them, I implore you to seek them out. Every single one of them is amazing.
Starring Hugh Jackman, Jake Gylenhaal, Paul Dano, Melissa Leo
Directed by Denis Villeneuve.
Some movies make you want to take a shower after seeing them. Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners is one of those films. It belongs in the same league as David Fincher’s Seven or Joel Schumaker’s 8MM- in that it is a picture about pure despair, grief and anger. It is very dark, violent, depressing, and good.
A hard working father (Hugh Jackman) completely loses his grip on reality when his young daughter vanishes without a trace one afternoon. He is told his daughter has been playing around a van owned by a strange, mentally impaired man (Paul Dano- in an incredibly underrated performance) that is an obvious suspect. When the police fail, the father takes things into his own hands. The results are horrifying- but we as the audience relate to his behavior, almost justifying it. This is the kind of movie that makes you question your own sense of morality. There is not a bad performance in the film, but Jackman, Dano and Leo completely steal the show. Prisoners is in no way feel good movie, but it is a great film because it does not ever take a unrealistic turn. Villeneuve follows his characters until their bitter end with an ending that is one of the most unsettling I have seen in a long time. This is a fantastic, uncompromising picture.
9. This is the End.
Starring: Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and Emma Watson.
Directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg.
This is the End was the funniest movie of last year. It is a ridiculous experience: a movie that never takes itself seriously. The fact that it was even able to be made in the first place makes me smile. It reminds me of those great early Kevin Smith films of the nineties, except with a huge budget. It is the kind of movie me and my friends would write, while drunk, and film in our backyard. I mean that as a sincere compliment. It is not often that movies are this irreverent and fun. Is it great cinema? Absolutely not. Seth Rogen knows his niche: dick, fart, and weed jokes: and he takes them to their glorious pinnacle. I can also honestly say that no ending made me smile wider this year. If comedy is truly more difficult than tragedy (which I believe it is) then Rogen and Company are nothing short of national treasures.
8. Saving Mr. Banks
Starring Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, BJ Novak, and Paul Giamatti
Directed by John Lee Hancock
I did not want to like Saving Mr. Banks. The trailers did not necessarily interest me and I figured that I knew what the picture would be about before ever watching it: an overly sentimental, saccharine, two hour long Disney advertisement. Yet, my fiancée loves all things Disney so I willingly took it all in, and found that it really is a lovely little film. I question how faithful it is to the real story regarding the battle between P.L. Travers and Walt Disney over the rights of Mary Poppins, but I don’t care. The Emma Thompson performance is fantastic (definitely Oscar worthy) and Hanks is very believable as Disney. The flashbacks are poignant (with Colin Farrell playing Travers’s reckless but loveable father, in his best performance) and the scenes between Thompson, Whitford and Schwartzman are all charming and enjoyable.
There is a glorious sequence in the middle of the picture in which Travers finally succumbs to the concept of her work with music and begins to tear up as the Sherman Brothers sing “Let’s Go Fly A Kite” that is as good as anything in any movie released this year. Travers is protective because it is her story, and the characters were her family. The flashbacks work because we understand that the Travers novels are not based on how things were, but how things ought to have been.
I think perhaps what I enjoyed the most about Saving Mr. Banks was its sense of fleeting innocence. Mary Poppins remains Disney’s finest live action picture and one of the greatest musicals of all time. It is charming, whimsical and yet also very deep with perhaps the greatest songs in the entire Disney catalogue. This picture made me realize how magical the original Julie Andrews film really is, causing me to reflect on that period of the fifties and sixties. There was a time before the new Hollywood era, where movies were just movies, and you could write whatever ending you wanted.
7. The Conjuring
Starring: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor
Directed by James Wan
The Conjuring is the most effective horror film I have seen in a very long time. Traditional “scary movies” rarely frighten me. I don’t even normally jump when startled. They are almost always just too predictable. The Conjuring is an exception. Its period setting makes it feel like a throwback to the great horror films of the seventies, like The Exorcist or The Omen. Time is spent on the characters and you begin to care about the Perron family: they seem real, unlike the one dimensional cardboard cutouts that most horror films give us. The scares are well executed, the story disturbing but not exploitative. I probably put this film higher on the list than it deserves, but it is my damn list and I had a wonderful time with this picture.
The Conjuring is one of a slew of horror flicks that is advertised as “based on a true story.” Obviously, the events that take place in the picture openly invite skepticism. You either believe in ghosts or you don’t. I have never had any kind of supernatural experience, but I know many that have, and I trust them beyond all measure. The Conjuring works because it does cause you to question things. Did this really happen? Is this really based on a true story? These questions cause it to become a rather unnerving experience.
SIDENOTE: If you liked The Conjuring, I recommend checking out a documentary called My Amityville Horror, released in 2012 featuring the really Danny Lutz, the son in the family the book and movie The Amityville Horror is based on. This documentary isn’t very good (in fact it is pretty horrible) but there is a scene featuring the real Lorraine Warren (the character Farmiga portrays in The Conjuring) that really freaked me out. It takes place in the Warren’s real home. As the documentarian is interviewing Lorraine, they tour their house, walking through the basement. If you recall The Conjuring, the Warren’s basement is a very unique setting in the film. I was shocked and a little frightened when, in a real documentary, I saw a display case holding a doll in the frame of a scene. It was just in the background, and no one mentioned it- but it’s there. Yep. That’s the doll.
6. American Hustle
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner and Jennifer Lawrence
Directed by David O. Russell
In his most recent film, American Hustle, David O’ Russell tries his damndest to be Martin Scorsese. The beauty of the film is that, for the most part, he succeeds. This is a movie about con men and women, sleazy alcoholic wives, bad perms, comb-over’s and disco. It bursts at the seams with energy, star power and charisma. The characters all have an undeniable chemistry and the acting is all top notch.
Of course, everyone is talking about Jennifer Lawrence in this picture. She has certainly become America’s sweetheart. Her performance here is very good, but seemed to emulate Sharon Stone’s in Casino a little too much for me. In fact, if there is a complaint that I have about this film, it is that it is trying too hard to emulate those great Scorsese gangster pictures (Mean Streets, Goodfellas, and Casino) without the story to really achieve their level. That is not to say that I did not like American Hustle. I liked it very, very much. It’s just that if you asked me about the plot details right now I would be challenged to remember them. This is not a movie about story, but about attitude, performances, music and energy. This is not a bad thing, but if the story was more compelling to me it would have been much higher on my list.
Sidenote: Jennifer Lawrence is not the performance to watch here. It is great, but Amy Adams is the star actress of the picture: giving the best work in her career. This is the acting I left the cinema talking about. Adams is in everything these days, it is easy to forget how fine of an actress she is capable of being.
5. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Benedict Cumberbatch, Orlando Bloom and Evangeline Lily
In 2010 I called The Lord of the Rings the best picture of the last decade. I stand by that statement. Fifty years from now there will be many that haven’t seen No Country for Old Men, City of God, or Where the Wild Things Are, but The Lord of the Rings will still be a cultural phenomenon. The Desolation of Smaug returns the prequel series to a level of quality matching the original epics. While I was entertained by last year’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, everyone I know pretty much universally agrees it was the weakest Tolkien adaptation that Jackson and company have come up with. The Desolation of Smaug wipes any ill memory of that misstep away. It is a spectacular entertainment from start to finish.
Adventure and fantasy films like The Lord of the Rings offer a level of escapism unparralled in any other art form. When buying a ticket to this movie you will see vast mountains, beautiful, winding rivers, underground kingdoms, gargantuan spiders, wizards battling specters, and the finest dragon I have ever seen on the big screen. This is the kind of movie that makes me feel like a kid again. I sit and watch with a stupid grin on my face, and when it is over I just want to see it again.
Ok, here is where things get dicey. The next four films are all what I would consider masterpieces, and their rankings are all pretty arbitrary. If you love the movies every single one of the following pictures should be considered essential viewing.
3 (TIE). The Wolf of Wall Street
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Every Scorsese picture is an event, and The Wolf of Wall Street is no exception. It has been over ten years since he has made a bad movie, and this film is the greatest in what I like to call his “DiCaprio Era.” Yes, Leo and Marty have worked together five times now, and it is clear that their relationship is just as important as that between Scorsese and DeNiro. In his new picture, Scorsese pushes DiCaprio—probably the finest actor of my generation, to the limit. DiCaprio is a movie star, and will be remembered with the same level of fondness as Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart 100 years from now- making it all the more electrifying to see him completely unhinged in this tale of greed and excess. It is his greatest acting work and it is electrifying.
What would you do if you had a billion dollars? Think about it. You could say that you would donate it to charity, or feed and shelter the poor, but let’s face it: there is a part of us that would probably be just as easily corrupted as Jordan Belfort. This is a film about excess: the culture of more. When money grows on trees you can have anything: Cars, Yachts, Booze, Drugs, and Women (five and six at a time if you would like). Scorsese shows us what this type of debauchery looks like in a raw and direct way. Critics have said that this picture does nothing but glorify such behavior, but I disagree. It simply shows us the reality of life on Wall Street for the super rich. This is based on a true story. Everything in the film, including the midget tossing, the orgies, and the mountains of cocaine and Quaaludes, are real. This happened, and is still happening. For Scorsese to censor, to saturate, or skirt around the facts would be dishonest. The Wolf of Wall Street is about the true American dream. We watch the story of Belfort unfold over three hours that fly by, and as he slowly disintegrates into himself we understand and begin to pity what he has become. The fact that the film is bitingly funny—even hilarious at times, makes it all the darker. We laugh because we can’t believe what we are seeing and hearing- we then reflect because it is true.
It is of note that Scorsese gives one of the best endings of his career in this picture. The final scene is the one that has stuck with me more than any of the bare breasts or cocaine snorts. Watch the picture, view the ending, and reflect on what it says about the modern world. It is a wakeup call.
3 (TIE). Her
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde and the voice of Scarlett Johansson
Directed by Spike Jonze
Spike Jonze’s new film Her is the most original piece of cinema since Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. I am sure many will not like it, but I found it to be absolutely wonderful. It is the story of a man named Theodore Twombly (Phoenix) that makes a living ghostwriting hand-written letters for other people. Want to impress your wife on her anniversary with a hand-written love letter? Hire this guy. He is applauded as one of the best in the business. His poetic letters always find the perfect thing to say, but in his own life he can barely carry a conversation. It is the near future—a future that theoretically could be within the next five years. Dictation into cell phones has replaced the need for keyboards, and a new Operating System (OS) is released that is designed with Artificial Intelligence. The OS evolves, learns, grows and has the same intuition as a human being. Theodore immediately purchases it. The OS asks what type of voice it should have. Theodore says “female” and soon meets Samantha (Johansson), who will soon become the love of his life.
Here is a picture that is elegant and beautiful. The word “emo” at times may come to mind, but it is much more than that: it is perhaps one of the most insightful films I have seen about longing, loneliness, and the complexities of human relationships. I am reminded of Steven Spielberg’s underrated AI: which posed the question: If a robot could love, could you love it back? Jonze’s film is about the ramifications of what would happen if you could.
It is also one of the most bizarre pictures I have seen in some time. Jonze’s work with Kaufman in Being John Malkovich and Adaptation have rubbed off on his screenwriting ability. It is as if the inventiveness of these two pictures were mixed with the heart and underlying melancholy of his masterpiece, Where the Wild Things Are. At times the movie is bewildering. It is often very funny, sweet, and devastating. There is never an uninteresting moment in the picture. Jonze will win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Entire passages have a sense of poetic lyricism, as if the dialogue was in the form of a sonnet. Part of the genius of the screenplay is that it never treats Theodore’s predicament as a novelty. If you think about it, it kind of makes sense. What if there was something you could talk to, that knew everything about you- all of your darkest secrets, and that would never judge you, or criticize you, and unconditionally believed in you? Those of us that have had the privilege of meeting those people define that as love. This film simply poses the question: what if this thing wasn’t a person, but a machine?
There is an air of sadness to all of Jonze’s films. All of his characters are more or less him. Look at a picture of Jonze, with his short, choppy mustache and strangely dressed demeanor- then look at the character of Theodore. Even when he is at his most ridiculous he is baring his soul. This picture is art at one of its highest forms. Love it or hate it, it is a singularly unique vision- and one I happen to find very wise about the human condition.
Starring: Sandra Bullock and George Clooney
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
Gravity is the essential theatrical experience of this decade so far. It is a film that demands to be seen on the largest screen possible in 3D. Watching it in IMAX this October, I left the theater in a state of awe. I have never seen a movie like this. It has the greatest special effects I have ever witnessed in a motion picture. The 3D cinematography is unparalleled: entire shots go on for 15-20 minutes at a time without cuts. We know what we are seeing is not real, but we are so immersed in the experience that we join Bullock and Clooney in space.
The premise is simple. Two astronauts are on a routine mission. Space Debris knocks them off of their lifelines, and they drift aimlessly in space attempting to get back home. The film contains two actors on the screen, and virtually everything you see is digital. With this premise, the amazing Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá También, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Children of Men) crafts one of the finest spectacles I have ever seen. I have not spoken to a single person that has experienced this film in a theater that was not blown away. It is a movie with universal appeal. I took my twelve year old daughter begrudgingly to see it even though she really had no interest. Her eyes never left the screen.
The closest theatrical experience of my life that I can compare Gravity to is seeing JurassicPark in the theater when I was ten years old. I remember looking at the screen and having an overwhelming sense of wonder. The dinosaurs on the screen were real. I imagine viewers in 1968 felt the same way about Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, just as viewers in the 70’s felt when watching the original Star Wars in theaters for the first time. This is a film that is a game changer, plain and simple. It is not about the story- though it is a great one, or even the performances- which are equally fantastic. It is the experience that defines this picture. I am eagerly awaiting the 3D Blu-ray of this to view at home, but I know that the experience will not be the same.
Words do not do this picture justice. It is not a long film, clocking in at only 90 minutes. For 89 of those minutes you will be absolutely enthralled. The other minute is the credits.
1. 12 Years a Slave
Starring: Chiwitel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson, Lupita Nyong’o and Brad Pitt
Directed by Steve McQueen
I was completely convinced in October that Gravity would be the best picture of this year. I had never experienced anything like it. Then I saw this film, which did nothing short of shake me to my very core.
As much as I loved Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (which is featured on this site), there were only moments in that picture that opened my eyes to the evils of slavery: the Mandingo fight and the scene in which a slave is eaten alive by dogs. The rest of that film is such an irresistible good time, such a perfect mix of exploitation and Spaghetti Western, that it became easy to accept the slavery that was being shown on the screen. After all, in the end, Django got his revenge: the slavers got what was coming to them. It was whimsical, irreverent, over the top, and a lot of fun.
12 Years a Slave is not a lot of fun. There is not a single thing funny about it. It shows slavery for how it really was- and opens our eyes to the horrors that human beings are capable of in a way that few films have. I believe that history books will refer to this picture as a reference point for the experience of slavery in the United States. It is not enough to contemplate what slavery meant, or to read a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and pretend to understand the history of the era. You have to experience it. That is what 12 Years a Slave does. It forces you to experience slavery from the inside. It is gut-wrenching, horrifying and true.
Steve McQueen’s picture is the single most important piece of cinema since Schindler’s List hit theaters twenty years ago. I never really understood the holocaust until I saw that film- which is equally horrifying. Spielberg opened my eyes, and to this date I believe that Schindler’s List is the most important commercial film of all time. 12 Years a Slave joins that rank. It should be required viewing in high schools. Parents should have their older children watch it. There were more entertaining films this year, but none as powerful or essential. Every single performance in the film is Oscar Worthy, and if Chiwitel Ejiofor and Lupita Nuyong’o do not win, the Academy will have made a grave mistake. While I do not believe it is the best directed film of the year (that definitely goes to Cuarón’s work in Gravity), McQueen tells the story as it happened. Many of the films moments brought me to tears, and some I had to force myself to watch due to their cruelty- particularly a scene towards the end of the picture involving a bar of soap, which is as gut wrenching as anything you will ever see in the movies. Yet there is never an exploitative moment in the picture. It is not violence for violence’s sake. Like Schindler’s List, the violence is ultra-realistic but subdued. The nudity is graphic, but not used in excess. I felt as imprisoned as Solomon Northup, and when the film’s final scene came there was no solace, but only quiet dignity followed by title cards that made the experience all the more alarming. This is a movie that every human being on the planet should see. It is one of the greatest films ever made.
Review and Analysis by Shaun Henisey
Week 60 : No Country for Old Men
"That is no country for old men.
The young In one another's arms, birds in the trees
Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect Monuments of unageing intellect."
-W.B. Yeats, "Sailing to Byzantium"
"This is the way the world ends,
This is the way the world ends,
This is the way the world ends,
Not with a bang, but a whimper."
-T.S. Eliot, "The Waste Lands"
A long time ago I knew a woman with a horrible substance abuse problem. Over a period of decades she popped pills, snorted cocaine, injected heroin and methamphetamine, prostituted herself and lived her life in squalor with her two young sons, having given a third son up for adoption in her early twenties. Thanks to modern psychology the woman cleaned up, got her act together, and proceeded to earn a Masters Degree in Psychology to help those struggling with substance abuse. She lived alone with her dog, "Baby," a large brown pit bull that she found at a local pound. In spite of all of her victories in life- in spite of the fact that she conquered her demons, she still had difficulty sleeping at night and had bouts of extreme depression. She went to the doctor one day; the doctor prescribed her a variety of different barbiturates, sedatives, and pain medications. On one fateful July evening, she accidentally overdosed on the prescription medication and died in her bed.
Baby was always a great dog. She was friendly and loveable, yet she had her nature. A hot house, on a warm summer's day with a dead body in it must be tempting to a dog. When the woman was finally found she was missing both of her eyes, pieces of her tongue, chunks of flesh from her abdomen. Body parts and pieces of human remains were found throughout the house while Baby happily continued to survive off of her newfound food. The dog, after all, was subject to their own nature. It is in this nature that true horror dwells, survives and lives on. I think of the woman often, sometimes in my dreams. She survived a life of drug addiction and prostitution to only be killed by prescription medication and have her corpse eaten to death by her best friend. I think of what Ellis (Barry Corbin) says in the great final scene of No Country for Old Men:
"You can't stop what's coming. It ain't all waiting on you- that's vanity."
I am not frightened by the supernatural; stories of ghosts, hauntings, and demons do not necessarily scare me. What terrifies me more than anything else in this world is the nature of some living things. I do not believe that humans are born evil, like some philosophers do. I believe that we begin this world with a blank slate and work with the hands we are dealt. I believe that some people can become so completely broken they become evil-- in such a way that their fundamental nature changes. Call it nature, call it mental illness or psychosis, call it what you want. The truth is-- some people that walk this planet are completely devoid of human emotion. That is what scares me: meeting one of those people. Baby the dog had no idea what she was doing when she brutally ravaged that woman. It was just her nature. Her nature was to eat, while the nature of others is to kill.
Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is such a man-- a man without emotions. We only vaguely know his motives. He has been hired by a drug cartel to hunt down two million dollars that was taken from a bloody shootout. Chigurh is to retrieve the money by any means possible and not stop until he is finished. He is tall and built, with perhaps the world's worst haircut. He speaks quietly, exactly. After strangling a police officer he drives off in a police cruiser, pulling over the first civilian he comes in contact with. He gets out of the car with what appears to be a large oxygen tank with a hose attached. He asks the gentleman to get out of the car. The man performs his civic duty, even though Chigurh is not in uniform. He stands beside the car. Chigurh looks at him: "Give me a second," he says. Chigurh pulls out the hose and places it against the forehead of the law abiding citizen, squeezes a trigger and we hear a small "thud" as brain matter sprays out the back of the man's head before he collapses on the ground. Chigurh rolls the body down a hill, gets in the car with his tank, and proceeds to drive away. There is no remorse. No sweat. No orgasmic delight. He just drives away, as his nature dictates. You can't stop what's coming.
Chigurh is probably the most frightening villain in film history. He is methodical, quiet, smart, and resourceful. The oxygen tank that he carries is not actually an oxygen tank at all-- it is a captive bolt pistol: the same weapon they use in slaughterhouses on cattle. Wikipedia informs us:
"The principle behind captive bolt stunning is a forceful strike on the forehead using a bolt to induce unconsciousness. The bolt may or may not destroy part of the brain. The bolt itself is a heavy rod made of non-rusting alloys, such as stainless steel. It is held in position inside the barrel of the stunner by means of rubber washers. The bolt is usually not visible in a stunner in good condition. The bolt is actuated by a trigger pull and is propelled forward by compressed air or by the discharge of a blank round ignited by a firing pin. After striking a shallow but forceful blow on the forehead of the animal, spring tension causes the bolt to recoil back into the barrel."
Well, there ya have it: an animal using a tool to kill animals against other animals. It is practical, measured, and brilliant. There are no shell casings or gunshot residue. Nothing is traceable. The murder is quick and (honestly) probably painless. It is this measured, practical thinking that makes Chigurh so utterly terrifying. He knows how to kill without getting caught and will do it to you in a moment’s notice. When his victims die there are no last words, no cries for life, no begging or bargaining. There is only a thud and then a lifeless corpse falls to the ground. If this man doesn't scare you then I don't know what could.
No Country for Old Men is one of the finest films I have ever seen. It was directed by the most important directorial team in history-- The Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan, based on a novel by perhaps the most important American writer living today, Cormac McCarthy. The Coen's have had such a varied career that it is almost surprising that they directed this masterpiece. After all, their previous Magnum Opus, 1997's Fargo, is very different type of movie. In their careers they have made us laugh hysterically (The Big Lebowski, Fargo), gawk in incredulity (Burn After Reading) and even sing bluegrass (O Brother, Where Art Thou?). They made the finest Western of the last decade with their remake of True Grit. Here are two men that have made a lot of movies (22 to be exact), and have never, or perhaps will ever, make one greater than this tale of drug money gone missing in West Texas. It is a perfect movie. I don't use that phrase lightly. In 2008, when it won Best Picture at the Academy Awards against the likes of There Will Be Blood, Atonement, and Juno I was not surprised.
I would claim that 2006-2010 was the greatest time for postmodern American film in the last 25 years. Between Daniel Plainview—Daniel Day-Lewis’ masterwork of an oil man in There Will Be Blood, Bardem as Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, and the following year’s posthumous award to Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight, the Academy cemented three legendary villainous performances that will all go down in cinematic history. It was a brief era in Hollywood, right in the middle of the Iraq war, when the Academy was voting for violent pictures again. Scorsese’s bloodbath The Departed won best picture in 2007, followed by No Country for Old Men in 2008. It is ironic that the darkest American films come out when the public is at its most disillusioned. A Clockwork Orange, Easy Rider, The Godfather, The Excorcist and The French Connection all came out during a similar era in the midst of Vietnam, all equally celebrated. We become drawn to violence, perhaps subconsciously, during these times of war. Why? I have no idea. Perhaps it is our nature.
All I do know is that No Country for Old Men is a great film- a film that defies the implicit boundaries of genre. The chase scenes are tense. Josh Brolin gives an understated performance as Llewelyn Moss—the man that finds the money and is chased by Chigurh, in one of the most thankless performances in the movies. Tommy Lee Jones is sort of brilliant as Sherriff Ed Bell, the downtrodden and matter of fact old timer Sheriff who looks at violence and sees something he does not understand. It is his best performance in a long career. Roger Deakins cinematography is also a character in itself, portraying the Texas land as if it were the Old West.
But the film is about Chigurh- always about Chigurh. Those dead eyes, the small limp in which he walks, the bolts that fire and retract from human bone, the quiet way in which he taunts a gas station attendant while making his life amount to nothing short of a coin flip. There is beauty in chaos, I suppose- but there is also despair; Despair which becomes fear. I look at men like Chigurh and think of Baby the puppy, growing up and not knowing her nature. I think of men with holes though their foreheads, all while the dog continues to bite, gnaw, and chew into marrow, and think of men like Amon Goeth, Raph Fiennes character in Schindler’s List, as he randomly shoots Jewish prisoners as target practice. It is the ongoing theme of many films that are considered supreme works of art- from the Night of the Hunter, to Apocalpyse Now and No Country for Old Men. The nature of man—the world, is cold, dark and cruel. Happiness lies in avoiding this knowledge, but Chigurh forces us to confront it, with his dead eyes and quiet smile. When Carla Jean (Kelly McDonald) tells him that “there is no coin, only him, and his choices,” Chigurh fails to understand because it is not his nature. Or maybe he does understand, and simply doesn’t care. These are the movies that scare me-stories of real people, performing horrible actions. I am fearful, yet I enjoy it at the same time. I don’t know what that says about me—other than that it is my nature. After all, this is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but with a whimper.
Review and Analysis by Shaun Henisey
Dedicated to Patricia Smith, my late biological mother, and her dog Baby
Cast and Credits:
Ed Bell: Tommy Lee Jones
Llewellyn Moss: Josh Brolin
Anton Chigurh: Javier Bardem
Carson Welles: Woody Harrelson
Miramax Films and Paramount Vantage present a film directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.
Screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy.
Cinematography by Roger Deakins. Edited by Roderick Jaynes.
Running Time: 122 minutes. Rated R for extreme graphic violence and language.