Film Review: The House That Jack Built (dir by Lars von Trier)


(SPOILERS BELOW)

The other night, I watched 2018’s The House That Jack Built on Showtime and I have to say that, sitting here the morning afterwards, I kind of wish that I hadn’t.  It’s a well-made film and there’s a bit more going on underneath the surface that some other reviews might lead you to suspect but, at the same time, it’s also deeply unsettling and, even by the standards of Lars von Trier, disturbing.  It’s not a film to watch right before you go to bed, nor is it a film to watch at the beginning of a long week.  I’m still feeling the after effects of having watched this movie and I imagine I’ll probably be jumpy for the next few days.

The title character, Jack (Matt Dillon), is someone who loves to talk about himself.  He’s an engineer but he wishes he was an architect.  He thinks of himself as being an artist and an intellectual and he has no hesitation about informing you that he’s smarter than just about everyone else on the planet.  He’s annoyed that he’s not better-known.  He feels that his work is underappreciated.

The House that Jack Built runs two and a half hours and, as a result, we spent a lot of time listening to Jack talk.  One thing that quickly becomes apparent is that Jack knows a lot but he understand very little.  He spends a lot of time talking about Glenn Gould, Goethe, and Nazi architecture but his thoughts on them are rather shallow and predictable.  When we see flashbacks to Jack’s youth, we don’t see any signs of the intelligence that he claims to possess as an adult.  Instead, we just see a scowling country boy who used to abuse animals.  Jack may insist on calling himself “Mr. Sophistication” but there’s really nothing sophisticated about him and one gets the feeling that his faux intellectualism is something that he developed to justify the fact that he’s a sociopath and a serial killer.  Jack claims to have murdered at least 60 people and he also says that each murder was a work of art.  If art reflects the time and place in which it was made than how can we condemn Jack for reflecting the soullessness and cruelty of the real world in his own creations?  The answer, of course, is that we can very easily condemn Jack.  Jack uses the state of the world to justify his actions but that doesn’t mean we have to buy what he’s selling.

The House That Jack Built is built around a lengthy conversation between Jack and an enigmatic character named Verge (Bruno Ganz).  Jack shows Verge the “five incidents” that, over the course of 12 years, have defined who Jack is as a person and a serial killer.  The five incidents feature Jack killing everyone from a stranded motorist (Uma Thurman) and a grieving widow (Siobhan Fallon Hogan) to a terrified mother and her two sons.  Jack has a brief and toxic relationship with one of his victims (heart-breakingly played by Riley Keough) and it leads to an act of violence that’s so disturbing that I don’t even want to relive it long enough to write about it.  Throughout it all, Jack tries to justify himself while Verge continually calls him out on his bullshit.  Watching the film, I found myself very thankful for Verge.  The film would have been unbearable if it has just been Jack bragging on himself, unchallenged.  Verge not only calls out Jack but also anyone who would idolize someone like Jack.  At times, the film itself seems to be ridiculing the whole idea of the Hannibal Lecter-style serial killer.  There’s nothing suave or witty about Jack.  He’s just a loser with no soul.

Even though I was watching the R-rated version (as opposed to the unrated director’s cut), the murders were still disturbingly graphic.  But what really made the film unsettling was its peek into Jack’s nihilistic worldview.  As much as he may try to convince you otherwise, it soon becomes clear that there’s nothing going on inside of Jack’s head.  When Jack isn’t suffering from delusions of grandeur, he’s mired in self-pity.  (Listening to Jack, one is reminded of the infamous BTK Killer, who spent hours in court describing his murders without a hit of emotion but who later broke into tears when informed that he would be spending the rest of his life in prison.)  Unlike most movie serial killers, Jack doesn’t have a flamboyant origin story or any sort of trauma-related motive for his crimes.  He kills because he wants to.  Jack is capable of being superficially charming.  As a sociopath, he’s learned how to put people at ease.  But there’s nothing behind that charm.  When he performs some post-mortem surgery to give one of his victims a permanent smile, the results are grotesque because Jack has no idea what a real emotion looks like.  (Jack weakly waves at the body, as if he’s trying to teach himself how to act like a normal person.)

Throughout the film, we get a lot of stock footage.  (It’s justified by the fact that Jack is talking about art and history, two subjects about which he only has a surface knowledge.)  Interestingly enough, we also get several clips that were lifted from Von Trier’s previous films.  At one point, Jack passes a cabin that some viewers will recognize from Antichrist.  While Jack tries to dispose of a body, David Bowie’s Fame plays on the soundtrack and it’s hard not to be reminded of how Bowie’s Young Americans played over the closing credits of both Dogville and Manderlay.  We’re left to wonder if Jack is meant to be, in some way, a stand-in for Von Trier.  Much like Jack, Von Trier is often accused of using his own artistic pretensions to justify a nihilistic and misogynistic worldview.  It’s easy to imagine Verge as a stand-in for some of Von Trier’s fiercest critics.  What then are we to make of the fact that the film also portrays Verge as being correct and Jack as being (literally) bound for Hell?  Is Von Trier telling us that, as much as some people may dislike him and his work, at least he’s not a serial killer like Jack?  Is Von Trier attacking himself?  Or is Von Trier perhaps satirizing his own controversial persona?  Perhaps all three are correct.

By the film’s end, Jack is in Hell.  Interestingly enough, the portal to Hell is found in a house that’s made up of the bodies of Jack’s many victims.  Verge — short for Virgil, of course — gives him a tour.  When Jack sees a broken bridge, Virgil informs him that it once led to Heaven but it can’t be crossed now.  However, Jack is convinced that he can climb over a cliff and make his way to Heaven.  Virgil assures Jack that many have tried but none have succeeded.  Jack, of course, tries and, needless to say, he doesn’t make it.  In the end, redemption is impossible and yet you wonder how, in a world with Heaven and, one assumes, God, Jack even came to exist in the first place.  If Jack had channeled his sociopathic nature into something more productive than murder, would he have been allowed into Heaven?

As I said, it’s a well-made film but it’s also deeply unsettling.  I’m probably going to be jumping at my own shadow for at least a week or two.  At the very least, I’m not answering the door for anyone….

 

Horror Review: Hold the Dark (dir. by Jeremy Saulnier)


Hold the Dark

Jeremy Saulnier, writer and director of Blue Ruin and Green Room, invites the brave and the curious to experience his latest creation steeped in the dark, foreboding Alaskan wilderness with a hint of the supernatural and folklore mysticism.

One could never accuse Saulnier of being timid when it comes to on-screen violence. While there’s countless other filmmakers who can and have put on the screen much more dynamic and violent sequences, Saulnier is more of the Peckinpah school of film violence instead of the Michael Bay. His films portray violence at its most unglamorous. His study of the sort of violent means man can inflict on another man are neither titillating or exploitative.

He sees man’s tendency towards violence as primal and something inherent in every man with the veneer of civilization the only thing holding it back. Man, in how Saulnier sees him, is not a civilized species but one playing at one and who feels more at home practicing such violent means.

Whether it’s as an itinerant caught up in an old school blood feud or a hardcore punk band fighting to stay alive against some Northwest backswood Neo-nazi skinheads. They all dig down deep to find that inner primal self that revels in the bloodletting even when they try to hold on to that small slice of civilized behavior they’ve been taught was necessary to survive.

With Hold the Dark, Jeremy Saulnier veers away from the much more straightforward narrative of his last two films and more like an ambiguous campfire tale that may seem obtuse for some. The very ambiguous nature of the plot will definitely confound some viewers who prefer their thrillers to be easy to follow with well-defined roles of protagonist and antagonist. While Hold the Dark veers from that very linear narrative focus of Saulnier’s last two films, it does share those films study of the blurred lines of who is good and who is bad.

The film starts off with retired naturalist Russell Core (played by Jeffrey Wright) being summoned by grieving mother Medora Slone living in a remote village in the northern reaches of Alaska. She’s just lost her young son to what she says are a pack of wolves who have also taken two other children prior to her own. She knows that he is also a wolf expert and has hunted and put down wolves in his past. She wants the animals who killed her son found and killed in order to have an answer and closure for her husband who is currently deployed in Iraq.

From the moment Russell arrives in Medora’s village of Keelut, Alaska the film slowly,  but surely moves from being a man-vs-nature story to something that’s more a dark fairytale whose ending will definitely not be happily ever after. This is where Hold the Dark will either grab a viewer and tell them to just hold on and experience the violent, albeit sometimes confusing, happenings in this grim and dark corner of the world or they will fail to hold on and remain confused to what’s transpiring. Wanting to know whats going on in concrete, by-the-numbers facts and story beats.

Like Saulnier’s previous two films, Hold the Dark doesn’t shy away from showing how brutal man can be when it comes to inflicting pain and damage on another human being. The violence comes sudden, brutal and horrifically efficient in how a body can fall apart.

The screenplay, this time written solely by fellow collaborator Macon Blair, does bring some very interesting questions as to whether violence (or darkness) is inherent in man that is held at bay by the “light” of civilization or is it something that is learned, picked up like disease and passed on from generation to generation. Is violence a natural cycle that is just part of what makes humanity human or is it one that can be broken and left behind and cured of. These are some questions that sometimes has no easy answer and that lends the film’s obtuseness that may frustrate some viewers. Yet, it’s the film’s very ambiguousness that allows the viewer to marinate on the questions and ideas proposed. Whether there’s an answer to these questions will be up to the viewer.

Where the film’s story may frustate, the performances by the cast is excellent from start to finish. Whether it’s Jeffrey Wright’s Russel Core who is the stand-in for the viewer and one who also shares some of the viewers befuddlement at the situation he has found himself in but unable to break free from. Then there are Riley Keough and Alexander Skarsgard playing the Slone’s. One the grieving mother and the other the husband away at war whose reaction to news of his son’s death pushes the film’s narrative from a whodunit and straight into horror territory (some would say slasher film trope with creepy mask included).

Hold the Dark may not be a straight progression from what Jeremy Saulnier has done before with Blue Ruin and Green Room, but it is one that shares similar themes and ideas. It’s a film that allows for Saulnier to dabble in the more esoteric but nonetheless still keep his signature style as an auteur of raw, primal violence. There’s nothing light or hopeful in this latest dark fairytale from Jeremy Saulnier, but then again fairytales were never happy and hopeful to begin with, but tales to try and explain the encroaching darkness and something to help one hold it at bay.

Film Review: Paterno (dir by Barry Levinson)


There’s a great scene that occurs about an hour into HBO’s latest original film, Paterno.

Joe Paterno (Al Pacino), the legendary and aging Penn State football coach, has been accused of knowing and failing to report that one of his former assistant coaches, Jerry Sandusky (Jim Johnson), was a pedophile.  With Paterno and his family plotting out strategy behind closed doors, a group of Penn State students gather outside of the Paterno home.  Instead of being angry that children were molested at their college, they’ve come to show their support for Paterno.

“JOE PATERNO!” they chant.

Scott Paterno (Greg Grunberg) hears the chants.  Scott is a lawyer and appears to be the only member of the Paterno family to truly understand the seriousness of the accusations.  Scott steps outside.

“JOE PATERNO!” the crowd continues to chant.

Scott thanks them for their support but then says that they also need to show the same support to all of Sandusky’s victims…

“JOE PATERNO!” the chant continues.

Struggling to be heard, Scott again asks them to remember that the children molested by Sandusky are the ones who need the most support…

Suddenly, the chant changes.  “SCOTT PATERNO!” the crowd starts to chant.  It’s not because they’ve heard anything that Scott’s said.  Instead, it’s because Scott’s a Paterno and, in the eyes of the crowd, that makes him royalty.  As the crowd continues to chant his name, Scott gives up and reenters the house.

Paterno could have used more scenes like that, scenes that explicitly showed the danger of blind hero worship as opposed to just telling us about it.  For the most part, Paterno feels like a well-written Wikipedia article.  You can’t deny the skill with which the film was made but, at the same time, it’s difficult not to get frustrated by Paterno‘s refusal to really dig too far underneath the surface of the story.

Some of the problem is with the film’s structure.  The film primarily takes place over the final six days of Paterno’s career.  Paterno spends the majority of the film locked away in his house, passive aggressively avoiding the question of what he knew and when he knew it.  His wife (Kathy Baker) and his other son, buffoonish Jay (Larry Mitchell), make excuses for him while Scott tries to get everyone to understand that the accusations aren’t just going to go away.  This is the part of the Paterno story that, in most films, would be summed up by an end credits title card.

As a result, Paterno never really deals with why Joe Paterno not only didn’t report Sandusky but also apparently protected him and that, to be honest, is the most important and troubling part of the story.  Since Sandusky is only briefly seen, we never get any insight into his relationship with Paterno and we never understand why Paterno would go to bat for an assistant who he, at one point, refers to as being “a pain in the ass.”  Was Paterno truly clueless about what was happening or did he just think he could sweep it under the rug and nobody would say anything because he was Joe Paterno?  Were Paterno’s actions the result of willful blindness or hubris?  It’s not so much a problem that the film leaves certain questions unanswered as much as it’s a problem that the film itself doesn’t seem to be all that concerned with the answers.

When the film isn’t concentrating on the Paternos, it’s concentrating on the reporter, Sara Ganim (Riley Keough), who originally broke the story.  However, these scenes are never quite as compelling as the film seems to think they are.  Riley Keough, who was so great in American Honey, seems miscast here.  For the most part. Sara seems to be there so that she can witness the Penn State students rioting and chanting, “Fuck the Media” after Paterno loses his job.

The best thing that Paterno has going for it is the lead performance of Al Pacino.  Pacino plays Paterno as a man who is very comfortable with the routine that he’s built up for himself.  His life revolves around Penn State, his team, and finally his own legend.  When the Sandusky story first breaks, Paterno can’t understand why he even has to be concerned about it.  He’s got a game against Nebraska coming up!  Awkward even around his adoring family, Paterno only seems to be truly comfortable when he’s coaching.  Pacino plays Paterno as a fragile and sickly man, a once ferocious lion brought down by a combination of cancer and scandal.  When we first see him, Paterno is coaching his team to a record-setting victory and he seems like a larger-than-life figure.  By the end of the movie, Paterno seems much smaller, a confused man who still can’t seem to bring himself to deal with why everyone is getting so upset.  It’s a great performance in an uneven film.

 

Horror Film Review: It Comes At Night (dir by Trey Edward Shults)


It Comes At Night is yet another film about people waiting for the end of the world.  In this case, the end is due to the outbreak of a mysterious disease.  It Comes At Night is a film that I meant to see in theaters when it originally released but I never got a chance.  It Comes At Night was acclaimed by critics but generally hated by audiences.  (Some of the comments on twitter, from people who had just returned from seeing the film, were incredibly angry.)  To be honest, it’s really not surprising that audiences didn’t embrace the film.  Having recently watched the film myself, I can tell you that It Comes At Night is one of the most depressing movies ever made.

Seriously, remember how depressing the Arnold Schwarzenegger/Abigail Breslin zombie film Maggie was?  Well, compared to It Comes At Night, Maggie might as well have been a musical comedy.

It Comes At Night opens with a former school teacher named Paul (Joel Edgerton) executing his father-in-law.  Paul’s wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and his teenage son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) understand that Paul had no choice.  There’s been an outbreak of a disease and the old man was infected.  The only way to keep everyone else in the family safe was to kill him and burn his body.

Paul and his family live in an isolated cabin.  At all times, the front door remains locked.  Only Paul and Sarah are allowed to carry the key.  No one is allowed to leave the house at night and under no circumstances are strangers allowed to enter the house.  Sometimes, after the sun goes down, Travis thinks that he can hear sounds in the surrounding woods.  It’s a reminder that people are out there but the majority of them are either slowly dying from the disease or scavengers trying to survive.

Paul ruthlessly enforces the rules but then, one night, a man named Will (Christopher Abbott) attempts to break into the house.  Will swears that he’s not infected.  He was just trying to find food for his wife, Kim (Riley Keough) and his son, Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner).  After Paul determines that Will does not have the disease, he agrees to let Will and his family stay with them.  If the house is ever attacked, Paul and Sarah figure, Will and Kim will provide an extra layer of defense.

And, for a few weeks, everything is fine.  The two families bond.  But Travis is still having vivid nightmares in which he sees men and women who have been infected and who are living in the woods.  And he is still hearing sounds at night…

The inevitability of death hangs over minute of It Comes At Night.  From the film’s first scene, you know that things are probably not going to end well.  When the two families do start to surrender to their paranoia, it’s upsetting but not particularly shocking.  It’s depressing because it all seems very plausible.  I think we all know that, if the world really was ending, it wouldn’t bring about peace or reflection.  Instead, people would keep fighting until the final second.  That’s just human nature.  What makes It Comes At Night so sad and disturbing is that there are no traditional heroes or villains.  There’s just six people trying to live their lives in a world that’s rapidly coming to an end.  They think they can beat the darkness surrounding them but the audience knows better.

I know, I know.  You just read that paragraph and you thought, “Yeah, Lisa, that sounds like a really fun movie.”

And you’re right.  It’s not a fun movie.  I would seriously warn anyone struggling with depression to be careful about watching It Comes At Night.  It’s definitely not going to cheer you up.  I spent the first half of thid 90 minute film convinced that I was probably going to stop watching because it was just too dark.  But I ended up watching it to the end because, even if it was depressing, it was also a very well-made film.  It sucks you in, even though you might not want it to.  The entire cast does a good job but special praise has to be given to Kelvin Harrison, Jr., who gives a searingly vulnerable performance as Travis.

It Comes At Night is a well-made, disturbing, and heartbreakingly sad movie and probably not one that I’ll have any desire to watch again for quite some time.

What if Lisa Picked The Oscar Nominees — 2016 Edition


With the Oscar nominations due to be announced tomorrow, now is the time that the Shattered Lens indulges in a little something called, “What if Lisa had all the power.” Listed below are my personal Oscar nominations. Please note that these are not the films that I necessarily think will be nominated. The fact of the matter is that the many of them will not. Instead, these are the films that would be nominated if I was solely responsible for deciding the nominees this year. Winners are starred and listed in bold.

(You’ll also note that I’ve added four categories, all of which I believe the Academy should adopt — Best Voice-Over Performance, Best Casting, Best Stunt Work, and Best Overall Use Of Music In A Film.)

(Click on the links to see my nominations for 20152014, 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010!)

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Best Picture

*American Honey*

Arrival

Hell or High Water

Kubo and the Two Strings

La La Land

Love & Friendship

A Monster Calls

Moonlight

The Neon Demon

The Nice Guys

andrea-arnold

Best Director

*Andrea Arnold for American Honey

Shane Black for The Nice Guys

Barry Jenkins for Moonlight

David MacKenzie for Hell or High Water

Nicholas Winding Refn for The Neon Demon

Denis Villeneuve for Arrival

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Best Actor

Andrew Garfield in Hacksaw Ridge

Ryan Gosling in The Nice Guys

Tom Hanks in Sully

Chris Pine in Hell or High Water

Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool

*Denzel Washington in Fences

arrival

Best Actress

*Amy Adams in Arrival

Kate Beckinsale in Love & Friendship

Viola Davis in Fences

Sasha Lane in American Honey

Emma Stone in La La Land

Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch

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Best Supporting Actor

*Mahershala Ali in Moonlight

Tom Bennett in Love & Friendship

Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water

Alden Ehrenreich in Hail Caesar!

John Goodman in 10 Cloverfield Lane

Patrick Stewart in Green Room

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Best Supporting Actress

*Naomie Harris in Moonlight

Felicity Jones in A Monster Calls

Riley Keough in American Honey

Jena Malone in The Neon Demon

Helen Mirren in Eye in the Sky

Angourie Rice in The Nice Guys

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Best Voice Over and/or Stop Motion Performance

Auli’i Cravalho in Moana

Ellen DeGeneres in Finding Dory

Ginnifer Goodwin in Zootopia

*Liam Neeson in A Monster Calls

Art Parkinson in Kubo and the Two Strings

Charlize Theron in Kubo and the Two Strings

hell-or-high-water

Best Original Screenplay

American Honey

*Hell or High Water

Kubo and the Two Strings

La La Land

The Nice Guys

The Witch

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Best Adapted Screenplay

*Arrival

The Jungle Book

Love & Friendship

Moonlight

A Monster Calls

Sully

kubo-main_0

Best Animated Film

Finding Dory

*Kubo and the Two Strings

Moana

Sausage Party

The Secret Life of Pets

Zootopia

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Best Documentary Feature

The Confessions of Thomas Quick

Holy Hell

O.J.: Made in America

Rigged 2016

Weiner

*The Witness

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Best Casting

*American Honey

Everybody Wants Some!!

La La Land

Moonlight

Hell or High Water

Green Room

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Best Cinematography

American Honey

Arrival

Hell or High Water

La La Land

Moonlight

*The Neon Demon 

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Best Costume Design

The Conjuring 2

Hail, Caesar!

La La Land

*Love & Friendship

The Nice Guys

The Witch

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Best Editing

Arrival

Hell or High Water

Kubo and the Two Strings

*La La Land

Moonlight

A Monster Calls

the-neon-demon-1-0-0

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Captain America: Civil War

Deadpool

Doctor Strange

Everybody Wants Some!!

Hail, Caesar!

*The Neon Demon

Best Original Score

Hell or High Water

Kubo and the Two Strings

*La La Land

Moana

Moonlight

The Neon Demon

8a308a7e50428af372a418faee4de0a47288a895

Best Original Song

*”Audition (The Fool Who Dreams)” from La La Land

“How Far I’ll Go” from Moana

“Waving Goodbye” from The Neon Demon

“I’m so Humble” from Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping

“Drive It Like You Stole It” from Sing Street

“Go Now” from Sing Street

americanhoney1

Best Overall Use Of Music

*American Honey

The Conjuring Part Two

Hell or High Water

La La Land

The Neon Demon

Sing Street

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Best Production Design

Arrival

Don’t Breathe

Green Room

The Neon Demon

La La Land

*10 Cloverfield Lane

review-hacksaw-ridge

Best Sound Editing

Captain America: Civil War

Deadpool

*Hacksaw Ridge

La La Land

A Monster Calls

Sully

sully-river-impact

Best Sound Mixing

Captain America: Civil War

Deadpool

Hacksaw Ridge

A Monster Calls

La La Land

*Sully

deadpool

Best Stunt Work

Captain America: Civil War

*Deadpool

Doctor Strange

Hacksaw Ridge

Jason Bourne

The Legend of Tarzan

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Best Visual Effects

Arrival

*Doctor Strange

The Jungle Book

Kubo and the Two Strings

A Monster Calls

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Films Listed By Number of Nominations:

13 Nominations — La La Land

1o Nominations — Hell or High Water

9 Nominations — Moonlight, The Neon Demon

8 Nominations — American Honey, Arrival, Kubo and the Two Strings, A Monster Calls

6 Nominations — The Nice Guys

5 Nominations — Deadpool, Love & Friendship

4 Nominations — Captain America: Civil War, Hacksaw Ridge, Hail Caesar!, Moana, Sully

3 Nominations — Doctor Strange, Green Room, Sing Street

2 Nominations — The Conjuring 2, Everybody Wants Some!!, Fences, Finding Dory, The Jungle Book, 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Witch, Zootopia

1 Nomination — The Confessions of Thomas Quick, Don’t Breathe, Eye in the Sky, Holy Hell, Jason Bourne, The Legend of Tarzan, O.J.: Made in America, Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping, Rigged 2016, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Sausage Party, The Secret Life of Pets, Weiner, The Witness

Films Listed By Number of Oscars Won:

4 Oscars — American Honey

3 Oscars — La La Land

2 Oscars — Arrival, Moonlight, The Neon Demon

1 Oscar — Deadpool, Doctor Strange, Fences, Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, Kubo and the Two Strings, Love & Friendship, A Monster Calls, Sully, 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Witness

Will the Academy agree with my predictions?  Probably not but we’ll find out on Tuesday!

2-ten

Film Review: American Honey (dir by Andrea Arnold)


american_honey_poster

You would probably be justified in thinking that there’s no way that a great film could be made about those weirdos who occasionally show up at your front door and pressure you to buy a dozen magazine subscriptions (the better to help them win a trip to Europe or go to drug rehab or get a college education) but Andrea Arnold has managed to do just that with American Honey.

American Honey features several scenes of the film’s characters swarming through neighborhoods, knocking on doors and launching into their sales pitch.  We see how the group’s top salesman, Jake (Shia LaBeouf, for once playing a role that makes perfect use of his “permanently full of shit” image), changes his approach from house to house and we listen as he explains his selling technique.  When the smarmy but charming Jake knocks on a door and then starts to flirt with the teenage girl who answers, I immediately started to have flashbacks to when I was going to college and, every summer, the magazine people would descend on Denton, looking for gullible students.  I once opened the door of my apartment and got trapped into a long conversation with a cute but annoyingly hyper guy who ended every sentence by holding up his hand and going, “High five!”  He very well could have been Jake.

We also watch as Krystal (Riley Keough), the group’s somewhat frightening manager, gives everyone their assignments and constantly pressures her crew to bring in as much money as possible.  Though the film never quite becomes an expose, it doesn’t shy away from the fact that the whole door-to-door magazine subscription industry is essentially an unregulated scam that largely survives by exploiting people who don’t have anywhere else to go.  As Krystal puts it, if someone can’t make their sales, that person can easily just be left on the side of the road.

That said, American Honey isn’t really about selling magazines.  What is it about?  It’s about many things.  It’s a road movie, one that lasts nearly three hours and which features a narrative that at times seems to meander almost aimlessly.  (Of course, that randomness is deceptive.  Andrea Arnold knows exactly what she’s doing.)  It’s a tour of what has been termed flyover county, with the crew invading neighborhoods both wealthy and poor.  (When they arrive in a poor South Dakota town, Krystal announces, “I got a lot of relatives here!”)  It’s a celebration of youth and impulsiveness because, even though the magazine crew is being exploited, they’re also having a really good time.  Most of the members of the crew were played by nonactors and they bring a rough authenticity to their roles.  They may be outcasts but, if just for a little while, they’ve formed their own family.  (Albeit a family that lives in vans, cheap motels, and occasionally a deserted farmouse…)

Ultimately, the film is coming-of-age story.  When we first meet Star (Sasha Lane), she’s 18 and she’s living in Oklahoma.  Star was born in Texas and her meth-addict mother died when she was young.  Now that she’s in Oklahoma, she’s working as some sort of live-in nanny, taking care of two children while their mother dances at a redneck bar and their father continually gropes her.  When she sees Jake and the magazine crew dancing in a supermarket (and getting thrown out by security), she’s immediately drawn to them.  When Jake offers her a position with the crew, it’s a chance to both escape and to belong.  Krystal asks if Star is 18.  Star says that she is.  Krystal asks if anyone is going to miss Star after she leaves.  Star says no one will.

And soon, Star is in the back of a van, being driven across the country.  Krystal doesn’t like or trust her.  Jake may or may not be using her.  But, for the first time, Star has a family.  For the first time, she belongs.

And, she soon finds herself discovering and seeing things that she would never have had a chance to see otherwise.  One morning, she sits out on a hill and watches as an equally curious bear approaches her.  When she and Jake attempt to sell in a rich neighborhood, she watches with barely disguised jealousy as a spoiled teenager celebrates her birthday.  In one of the film’s best scenes, she ends up attending an impromptu barbecue with three cowboys and we find ourselves, much like her, trying to figure out just how much she can trust these seemingly friendly men.  In one of film’s saddest scenes, she stops at a house and discovers three neglected children and a junkie mother.  And, in one of the film’s most disturbing scenes, an oil rig worker says he doesn’t want any magazines but he’ll pay her $1,000 for a hand job.

Through it all, we watch as Star approaches each new situation with equal doses of fear and hope, confidence and doubt.  And like her, we find ourselves wondering how far she should go and who she should trust.  Sasha Lane is in every scene of the film and gives an amazingly good performance, one that is all the more remarkable for the fact that this was her first movie.  Much like Katie Jarvis in Arnold’s Fish Tank, Sasha Lane was discovered by the director.  (Jarvis was famously discovered after yelling at her boyfriend on a train platform.  Lane was discovered under somewhat less contentious circumstances, while sunbathing on the beach.)   Sasha Lane gives a brave and unflinchingly honest performance.  At times, I found myself cringing because I could totally understand what Star was feeling and what she was going through.  (Though I never ended up selling magazines, I went through my lost phase.)  There was not a single false note to be found in Lane’s performance.

Special mention should also be made of Riley Keough’s work as the manipulative Krystal.  Keough alternates between being harsh and being strangely likable with such skill that it’s impossible not to share both Star’s fear and her occasional admiration of her.

Ultimately, though, this is Andrea Arnold’s film.  The British director approaches the so-called heartland of America with an outsider’s view and she captures some of the most unexpected and strikingly beautiful images of 2016.  American Honey is a powerful, demanding, and occasionally enigmatic movie, one that feels almost like the type of film that Terrence Malick would make if Malick could curb his tendency to descend into self-parody.  American Honey is one of the best of the year.

Here Are The Independent Spirit Award Nominations!


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Before I forget, The Independent Spirit Award Nominations were announced earlier today!  In a year that has yet to see a Spotlight, a Mad Max, or even a Big Short, the Oscar race remains undeniably murky.  Maybe the Spirit nominations will help to clarify things.

(Sad to say but I haven’t seen most of the films that were nominated.  They’ve either just opened down here in Dallas or they’ll be opening next month.  So, you’ll have to forgive me if I can’t provide much commentary beyond saying that I look forward to seeing and reviewing them all for myself!)

(I will say, however, that I’m happy to see that American Honey was nominated because, even though I missed seeing the film, it’s directed Andrea Arnold.  Arnold’s previous film, Fish Tank, is pretty much one of my essential movies.)

Here are the nominees!

BEST PICTURE
“American Honey”
“Chronic”
“Jackie”
“Manchester by the Sea”
“Moonlight”

BEST DIRECTOR
Andrea Arnold, “American Honey”
Barry Jenkins, “Moonlight”
Pablo Larraín, “Jackie”
Jeff Nichols, “Loving”
Kelly Reichardt, “Certain Women”

BEST ACTOR
Casey Affleck, “Manchester by the Sea”
David Harewood, “Free In Deed”
Viggo Mortensen, “Captain Fantastic”
Jesse Plemons, “Other People”
Tim Roth, “Chronic”

BEST ACTRESS
Annette Bening, “20th Century Women”
Isabelle Huppert, “Elle”
Sasha Lane, “American Honey”
Ruth Negga, “Loving”
Natalie Portman, “Jackie”

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Ralph Fiennes,  “A Bigger Splash”
Ben Foster, “Hell or High Water”
Lucas Hedges, “Manchester by the Sea”
Shia LaBeouf, “American Honey”
Craig Robinson, “Morris from America”

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Edwina Findley, “Free In Deed”
Paulina Garcia, “Little Men”
Lily Gladstone, “Certain Women”
Riley Keough, “American Honey”
Molly Shannon, “Other People”

BEST SCREENPLAY
“Hell or High Water”
“Little Men”
“Manchester by the Sea”
“Moonlight”
“20th Century Women”

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Ava Berkofsky, “Free In Deed”
Lol Crawley,”The Childhood of a Leader”
Zach Kuperstein,”The Eyes of My Mother”
James Laxton,”Moonlight”
Robbie Ryan,”American Honey”

BEST FILM EDITING
Matthew Hannam,”Swiss Army Man”
Jennifer Lame,” Manchester by the Sea”
Joi McMillon, Nat Sanders, “Moonlight”
Jake Roberts, “Hell or High Water”
Sebastián Sepúlveda, “Jackie”

BEST DOCUMENTARY
“13th”
“Cameraperson”
“I Am Not Your Negro”
“O.J.: Made in America”
“Sonita”
“Under the Sun”

BEST INTERNATIONAL PICTURE
“Aquarius” (Brazil)
“Chevalier” (Greece)
“My Golden Days” (France)
“Toni Erdmann” (Germany and Romania)
“Under the Shadow” (Iran and U.K.)

BEST FIRST FEATURE
“The Childhood of a Leader”
“The Fits”
“Other People”
“Swiss Army Man”
“The Witch”

BEST FIRST SCREENPLAY
“Barry”
“Christine”
“Jean of the Joneses”
“Other People”
“The Witch”

JOHN CASSAVETES AWARD (best feature made for under $500,000)
“Free In Deed”
“Hunter Gatherer”
“Lovesong”
“Nakom”
“Spa Night”

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