(this review contains spoilers)
Strap yourselves in, because this one’s gonna be heavier on the historical context than usual.
Specifically: the Found-Footage Movie. Dedicated horror fans will probably know what this is, but for the cheap seats: Found Footage movies, as the name implies, present themselves as an assemblage of footage found by a third party and shot by a (usually) dead or missing, (usually) amateur filmmaker. The progenitor of this genre is often said to be 1999’s zeitgeist-exploding microbudget masterpiece, The Blair Witch Project, although more learned students of exploitation cinema will often point to Ruggero Deodato’s unbelievably grueling 1980 gorefest Cannibal Holocaust as its true origin. Despite Blair Witch‘s record-shattering box office take, the subgenre wasn’t really off-and-running until 2007-2008, when the genre film audience got the triple whammy of Oren Peli’s haunted-house spookshow Paranormal Activity, Matt Reeves’ Godzilla-by-way-of-viral-marketing flick Cloverfield, and Jaume Balagueró & Paco Plaza’s relentless zombie film [REC]. In the years since, found-footage horror movies have dominated the landscape to the point where I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve outnumbered conventionally shot horror movies in the past decade.
I’m not gonna bury the lede any more than I already have: I’m sick to fucking death of found-footage movies. Some of them are okay – The Blair Witch Project still holds up both as a watershed moment in horror history and a genuinely unnerving scary movie, Cannibal Holocaust, for all its moral and aesthetic flaws, is still enough to leave anyone shaken, and Paranormal Activity has its moments. But for all the beard-stroking observations one can make about how the found-footage subgenre reflects our media saturated, handheld device driven culture in the 21st century (and I do feel that the horror genre reflects a given society’s values more than most), I think the glut of often indistinguishably jittery first-person horror movies in the 2000s and 2010s comes down to two things: they work like gangbusters on people that are easily rattled by youtube videos where a ghost jumps out at you, and they finally found a way to make horror movies even cheaper and easier to crank out. It’s not like the wave upon wave of turd slasher movies that came out in the 1980s was particularly noble, but the quick-buck filmmakers behind them had to at least try to learn how to frame a shot instead of struggling to come up with reasons why someone would keep their eye to the viewfinder while leaping from building to building to escape a giant monster (god dammit, I hate Cloverfield).
Anyway, fast forward to 2012, enter V/H/S. The brainchild of up-and-coming horror director Adam Wingard (who at this point, I think, had already directed You’re Next, though it wouldn’t see wide release for another year), V/H/S sought to combine the found-footage movie with that other august horror subgenre, the anthology movie. Somewhat surprisingly, this managed to address a few of the big flaws with found-footage as a genre; for one, it taxes one’s suspension of disbelief a lot less when these protagonists are carrying their camera through precarious situations for 20 or so minutes as opposed to feature length (it was also the first found-footage movie I saw that brought hands-free devices into the mix, making for a less contrived shooting style as well as exploiting the inherent skeeviness of stuff like Google Glass). Secondly, by changing up the stories regularly, the viewer isn’t yoked to one static “look” the whole time. Graned, V/H/S also imported some of the problems of the anthology movie, such as a general lumpy unevenness from vignette to vignette. Still, it had a higher batting average than a lot of anthology movies, and though it was inarguably about 20 minutes too long, each segment genuinely felt like it brought something to the table, even the perfunctory wraparound, and overall it made for a satisfyingly creepy watch.
V/H/S/2 is significantly more lumpy and uneven than its predecessor. Indeed, apart from two segments, it’s borderline unwatchable. The first of these two is A Ride in the Park, a fun if insubstantial short by Blair Witch co-director Eduardo Sanchez making use of the irresistible high-concept gimmick “zombies with go-pros.” The second, in a whole other league than Ride and indeed anything in the V/H/S franchise is Gareth Evans’ Safe Haven (hey, it only took me 700 words to get to the point).
So, the plot: set, as with Evans’ last two films, in Indonesia, a documentary film crew headed by Malik (Oka Antara) is interviewing a mysterious cult leader only referred to as Father (Epy Kusnandar) in a restaurant. They manage to cajole him into letting them visit his compound for an exclusive look, to provide him with a chance to spread his message to the world. On arriving, they notice some of the expected Jonestown-esque eeriness: matching white uniforms, unsettling singalongs, Blair Witch style fetish dolls, and the deeply uncomfortable implication of child abuse (exposing this last aspect appears to be the film crew’s chief motivator). But they aren’t there long before things take an even darker turn; as the members of the film crew are separated, Father makes some cryptic announcements over the compound’s intercom, and all hell breaks loose, in the most direct and literal meaning of the term.
As I’ve mentioned in earlier entries in this series, Evans is no stranger to horror imagery. All the way back to Footsteps and through The Raid, he was indulging in intense bursts of gore and terror beyond what the usual action movie holds. What we see in Safe Haven then is Evans being given a chance to really cut loose, and he does so with aplomb. In half an hour (Safe Haven is the longest segment in either V/H/S movie – Wingard et al. knew they had their centerpiece), Evans takes us through a smorgasbord of horror imagery, from the subtle (the early death cult creepiness, some Rosemary’s Baby-esque behavior from the matron of the cult towards the one female member of the film crew) to the extreme (shotgun executions, group suicides, self-mutilation, and finally, white-eyed ghouls on loan from Lucio Fulci and the goat-headed Satan of The Devil Rides Out). It’s one of the most potent, concentrated doses of nightmare imagery you’re likely to find in 21st century film, and Evans parcels it out with a master director’s control.
Back to the found-footage aspect for a sec: it’s somewhat oxymoronic, but Evans proves to be a great fit for found-footage in large part because he has so little respect for its conventions. Far from the one or two camera setups usually found in the genre, cameras are everywhere in Safe Haven. In addition to the camcorders used for filming interviews, each member of the film crew has hidden cameras on their person (not a bad conceit, really – they have ample reason to want the hidden cameras, after all), and the footage from these is intercut with grainy black and white shots from the compound’s ever-present security cameras. To be blunt, I’m almost certain the movie cheats a bit; on my rewatch for this article, I couldn’t pick out any specific places where there absolutely could not be a camera, but there were at least a few where I think Evans put getting the shot he wanted over making sure that shot made strict logical sense. But to be even more blunt, I don’t care. I’ve already made it clear how tiresome I find the blandly anonymous visual aesthetic of found-footage at large, so if Evans has to game things a bit, more power to him. And more importantly, once shit starts to get real, the short moves at such a breakneck pace that you don’t have time to start poking holes in it.
Having dispensed with the found-footage movie’s weaknesses, Evans shows a keen grasp of its strengths. For all the problems I have with it, found-footage does possess a certain confrontational element that makes for great horror, and few shots embrace that like the moment when Father dives on a helpless cameraman and cuts his throat – effectively, cutting the viewer’s throat, since we see the shot from a button camera hidden in the victim’s shirt. Evans brings his characteristic video-game aesthetic into play as well, trading in the side-scrolling beat-em-up conceit of The Raid for the survivalist horror genre: there’s the hellish occult imagery of Quake, the old-school goat-headed demons of Doom, and the wailing air raid sirens of Silent Hill. One particular image used in the film’s promotional campaign, of our last hapless survivor standing before the bloodied Father and wielding a crowbar, could easily have come out of a particularly well-rendered first-person-shooter.
And so, Safe Haven was one of the best horror movies of the 2010s, but unfairly trapped within an otherwise lackluster movie. It feels kind of unfair, really. On the one hand, there’s no real market for standalone short films anymore (if there ever really was), so Safe Haven stood its best chance for being seen by fitting snugly in the modern cult favorites that are the V/H/S series. On the other hand, that series has been pretty wildly divisive, even among horror fans, and I’m sure some people who didn’t like what they saw in the first one (which, apart from the critics who just didn’t like it, also courted some debatable but hefty accusations of misogyny) were turned off of ever sitting through the sequel. And it doesn’t help that V/H/S/2 frontloads its absolute worst material before you get to Sanchez’s passable segment and Evans’ outstanding one. Horror fans willing to sift through the chaff were left clamoring for Evans to take on a feature-length horror project. And maybe that’s still in the future for him. But first, he would take another spin through the franchise that made his name. And his plans for it were big, indeed.
Up Next: The Raid 2 (2014)
A brief recap of the career of Gareth Evans: 2006’s Footsteps was a grubby, miserable little indie-crime movie largely indistinguishable from a million other films of its ilk. 2009’s Merantau was a big step up, a handsomely shot martial arts flick with a charismatic star that was nonetheless overlong, overgeneric and lacking in qualities to make it stand out from the pack. 2011’s The Raid: Redemption is very possibly one of the greatest action movies ever made. Go figure.
Like Footsteps, The Raid: Redemption has a real motherfucker of an opening scene, starting with a shot I like too much not to share:
The owner of the gun and the watch is Rama (Iko Uwais, returning from Merantau), although we don’t learn his name just yet. This shot kicks off a quiet, expertly edited montage: first, we see Rama performing Salat (the Muslim prayer; not to be confused with Silat, the martial art that he also practices). Then he’s doing chinups. Then, Salat again. Then situps. More Salat, with his pregnant wife sleeping in the background. Then hammering away at a punching bag. A fourth Salat. He loads his gun and kisses his wife goodbye. As he leaves the house, an old man with sad eyes stands and meets his gaze. “I’ll bring him back,” Rama says. Roll credits.
Not as grabby or intense as the snuff-film opening of Footsteps, but man oh man do I love this scene. The whip-smart editing, the absolutely perfect sound design (the way the ticking of the watch grows and recedes from shot to shot, the contrast between Rama’s soft, almost inaudible prayers and the startling loudness of his gun cocking and his fists on the punching bag), and all it tells us about Rama as a character in just over 90 seconds: he is devout, he is determined, and he is devoted to his family. It functions on its own as a short essay on a topic all martial arts films address to some extent: total devotion to a physical and mental ideal.
Anyway, now that I’ve spent so much time on the first two minutes, I’m very grateful that The Raid is a movie where I won’t have to spend too much time on the plot: Rama is part of an elite swat team sent to take back a 30 story tenement building controlled by the vicious druglord Tama, his two chief enforcers Andi and Mad Dog, and a seemingly endless supply of bloodthirsty henchmen. There will be some character-based wrinkles along the way, but that’s basically it, and the film’s single-minded clarity of purpose in this regard is one of its foremost virtues (an early dialogue sample between Rama and a superior officer: “Why us? Why today?” “Why the fuck not?”). It’s such an elegantly simple setup that it ended up closely mirroring Pete Travis’ excellent comic book adaptation Dredd (a movie I hope to get around to reviewing here one of these days) which was filmed concurrently, and it also shares with that film a pronounced apprehension about the logical end point of police militarization.
After a drive to the tower that stages things like Saving Private Ryan, casting the SWAT van as one of the boats on D-Day complete with glimpses of nervous, shaking hands, the film uses a technique familiar from Aliens, starting us off with a heavily-armed regiment of badasses (and one craven superior officer in over his head) who make their way deep into the foreboding building before being swiftly winnowed down to a mere handful of survivors in a brutally efficient ambush. It’s then Rama and his injured comrades versus a flood of goons in a stakes-raising series of fights that smartly raise the stakes even as they regress with each sequence from machine guns to pistols to machetes and knives to bare fists.
Evans and returning cinematographer Matt Flannery are joined by a second cinematographer, Dimas Imam Subhono (who, apart from the Raid films has no screen credits, but what a way to make your debut), and the things they do with the camera are truly wild – careening through holes in walls and floors, hanging from ceilings, moving in and out of and around the combat with a daring fleetness that would make Michael Chapman circa Raging Bull shake in his shoes. Their camera is fast, often employing a barreling dutch-angled charge on loan from Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead, but it knows when to be slow, too. Any moron can dutch an angle (see: Battlefield Earth, Thor, etc.), but Evans et al show a remarkable knowledge of when to dutch an angle for maximum effect.
This leads into my next point, and another way in which The Raid shows a massive growing up from Merantau and Footsteps; Evans’ previous movies showed an unmistakable talent for action, but The Raid is the first film of his with actual, honest-to-god tension. Evans evinces a perfect grasp of how to best put the audience into a rapidly constricting bottleneck of suspense as he subjects Rama and co. to increasingly dire circumstances that also make great use of his penchant for horror imagery, particularly Rama’s recurring encounters with a featured henchman I can only think of as Steve from Machete Squad* (and to further the Evil Dead connection, one such encounter was lifted wholesale for the 2013 Evil Dead remake).
This combination of breakneck intensity and brutal simplicity also does wonders for Evans rapport with his actors. Iko Uwais showed a bit of charisma in Merantau, but paradoxically, by stripping his character of all of the backstory and dialogue he got in that film, Rama comes across as a much more human and relatable figure. His increasingly intense stuntwork plays into this as well; like Jackie Chan before him, there’s a bit of Buster Keaton to Uwais, in the way he heedlessly flings his body around tight spaces or seems to run the length of a marathon in a late brawl taking place in a drug lab. In the endless pummeling and abuse he takes, there’s a bit of Bruce Campbell too (there’s that Raimi connection again). One particular moment, where even Rama takes a pause to be shocked at the damage he’s just done to somebody using a splintered doorframe, is one of the best nonverbal human moments in a martial arts film since Bruce Lee sized up Kareem Abdul Jabbar in Game of Death. And Uwais is not the only actor to stand out; Merantau costar and Uwais’ Silat trainer Yayan Ruhian cuts an impressive figure as the vicious miniboss Mad Dog (a character lifted in name and plot position directly from John Woo’s Hard Boiled, a sign of Evan’s utmost confidence in this project if there ever was one).
And here I’ve barely talked about the action scenes! Well, it’s very hard to do them justice, but standouts include a four-on-one showdown between Rama and Machete Squad in a narrow hallway that really milks the situation for all its worth, gluing the viewer’s eyes to each death-defying swing of the blade and Uwais’ unbelievable maneuvers. And then there’s the final two-on-one melee between Rama, his double-agent brother Andi (the movie drops this revelation with about as much fanfare as I just did), and Mad Dog, and this one truly has to be seen to be believed. Staged in an unadorned concrete room, stripped of any undue gimmickry, this scene is an absolute masterclass in martial arts film choreography and camerawork. There’s a moment when Rama does a flying kick from offscreen over Andi to hit Mad Dog on the opposite side of the frame that is as perfect a two seconds as any martial arts film has given us. It’s frankly unbelievable. Seriously, I don’t believe they made it. I can’t even wrap my head around it. Let’s just call it what it is: one of the greatest action scenes of all time.
I’m rambling and gushing, so I might as well bring this to a close. With this film, Evans crafted a watershed moment in action cinema that is hard to find comparison with. With his next project, he would take on another genre, with goals more modest but no less striking.
*this is your reminder to watch Frisky Dingo if you haven’t.
Up Next: V/H/S/2: Safe Haven (2013)
Footsteps may have been Gareth Evans’ first feature-length film, but his follow up, Merantau, represents a whole lot of other firsts: It was his first movie filmed in Indonesia, and his first filmed in the Indonesian language. It was his first film to star martial artist Iko Uwais, future star of the Raid films, and it was his first firmly within the martial arts genre. Unfortunately, a first it would not be was Evans’ first wholly successful feature film. But we’ll table that bit for now.
We open with a gorgeous shot of an idyllic open field in Sumatra where Yuda (Uwais) bends in prayer before engaging in a demonstration of his skill in Silat (the martial art Uwais specializes in) as his mother explains in voiceover narration the tradition of Merantau, a sort of Indonesian Rumspringa where he will leave his rural home to venture into the big city and make a man of himself. We get a handful of those scenes – you know the ones – of Yuda and his family eating dinner and smiling and laughing at nothing in particular while very sappy strings swell in the background and his mother offers sage bits of advice. This goes on for 12 whole minutes before Yuda finally gets out of dodge and on the bus to Jakarta, where a suspicious individual named Eric (Yayan Ruhian) notices Yuda’s Silat badge on his backpack and cautions him that, as a fellow Silat practitioner (what are the odds?), the world doesn’t pay well for their kind of skills – at least, not when applied to anything aboveboard. On arriving in Jakarta, Yuda has his wallet stolen by the young street urchin Adit (Yusuf Aulia). Chasing him down, Yuda happens to see Adit’s older sister, Astri (Sisca Jessica) in a violent argument with her boss at a sketchy dance club. Quashing the fight leads to Yuda being drawn into Jakarta’s seedy underbelly, where he’ll be pit up against the creepy Welsh mob boss Ratger (creepy Welshman Mads Koudal, returning from Footsteps) and his brother Luc (Laurent Buson) to topple their human trafficking ring and maybe do some good on his spiritual journey.
All that circuitous plot takes us about half an hour into the movie, and it’s another ten minutes or so before we get a proper fight sequence. It’s hard to put enough emphasis on it, but this forty-five minutes or so fucking draaaaaaags. For a movie that seems largely put together to serve as a vehicle for Uwais and his particular branch of Silat, it really takes its sweet time getting to the ass-kicking that it surely must know is the reason any of us are here. And the idea that Evans and Uwais just had so much faith in the extremely rote dramatic material that it just had to all be included is a little mystifying; do we need five minutes of Yuda shooting the shit with the guy who runs the diner where his wallet is stolen? How many times do we need to cycle through the same scenes of Astri or Adit or both being kidnapped to jolt Yuda into action? Individual scenes lurch awkwardly past their natural stopping points as clumsy dialogue fails to give us any reason to care about what we’re seeing. Structurally, the film Merantau most calls to mind is 2003’s Ong Bak (just swap out Uwais for Tony Jaa and Silat for Muay Thai), but that’s a movie that knew to string together just enough plot to hang an impressive series of stunts and ass-beatings on without getting bogged down in overreaching character drama. The titular framework of Yuda’s journey seems like maybe it’s going for a Candide-esque depiction of Yuda leaving his idyllic home and butting up against the cruelty of the world at large, but the script doesn’t say much about this beyond “sometimes you leave your idyllic home and butt up against the cruelty of etc.”
But the movie is not without its consolations; as I briefly touched on, the cinematography by Matt Flannery (who would work on all four of Evans’ full-length features) gets the most out of some very lush use of color, especially in those early scenes in Sumatra; a lot of Evans’ visual tics start to develop here as well, from the careful use of horizontal tracking shots to reveal information in the frame to the signature rotation of the camera around the Z-axis used to follow as Yuda chases Adit down an alley or drag the viewer down to the ground with Yuda after he suffers an early beating.
And those fight scenes – yes, the fight scenes are, to use the common parlance, pretty dope. There are a couple visceral bottle-smashing fights in Ratger’s club, where broken glass and furniture flies with the same abandon as the fighters themselves; a fight on a footbridge scored with the percussive, almost musical sound of metal pipes on concrete and bone; a brawl in a construction site that makes full use of the vertical space of the set; and finally, a multi-part roving beat-em-up that leads from a parking garage, up through Ratger’s fancy apartment building (early shades of The Raid), into a close-quarters two-hander in an elevator, and back out to a loading dock where Yuda fights both of the evil brothers (Uwais participating in two-on-one fights involving siblings would become something of a pet theme with Evans) in a labyrinth of shipping containers.
But, to put it bluntly, they aren’t enough; the film takes so long to get going and stops so frequently that the fights never seem to make up enough of the 112 minute runtime (and if the International Cut drags, I can only imagine what a draining experience the 135 minute Indonesian Cut is). Uwais himself has a natural screen presence, but he’s given such a nothing role that, apart from his impressive fighting skills, he just comes off as a blank slate – and certainly none of the other actors do any heavy lifting (excepting maybe Ruhian – who would also return for The Raid series – making a decent impression in his too-small role). The balance between story and action can be a tricky one for the martial arts film; certainly Merantau would not be the first to get by on its fights and nothing else – if, indeed, it did get by, which I’m sorry to say it does not. But there’s good news, too: with this film, it would seem Evans et al worked all of the bugs out, because their next go round would be the stuff of action movie legend.
Up Next: The Raid: Redemption (2011)
We open with grainy first-person camcorder footage of a dirty underpass: one man lies prone on the ground while another stands over him with a length of metal pipe. An offscreen voice gruffly urges the second man to kill the first. When the second man resists, the cameraman tazes him into submission and instead tells the first man to pick up the pipe and kill the second, which he does with no hesitation. Turning towards the cameraman, he is maced, drops the pipe, and feebly tries to run away. The cameraman sets down the camera, picks up the pipe, calmly follows the man to the end of the tunnel and beats him to death as well. Cut to the opening credits, where industrial music blares over more images of beatings, snuff films, drug overdoses, torture, disquieting sexual interludes, murder, and bodies being carted away in bags by guys in creepy Alice Sweet Alice masks.
This is, make no mistake, a ballsy, attention-grabbing way to open your movie. Especially your first movie. It’s also better by far than anything that follows.
Footsteps (or Vengeance Day as the title card would have it on the version I watched – neither title feels particularly applicable) goes on to follow Andrew, a sullen young man who appears to be having a rough go of it lately; his girlfriend has just dumped him, his dad has been beaten into a coma, and he’s been laid off from his shitty factory job, leaving him with not much to do but rip off booze from his stepmom, act creepy at his ex, throw rocks at empty bottles, and lay Irreversible-style beatings on random dudes at clubs. He even has a goldfish, just so we really get that he’s an angry loner. Eventually (very eventually), he encounters the cameraman from the opening scene, who, impressed with his ability to take a beating, offers him a job accompanying his associate Paul as he deals drugs, collects debts, and pays mysterious visits to those creepy dudes in masks. But all this violence and degradation may be pushing Andrew to the breaking point.
So, like many upstart indie filmmakers of the 1990s and beyond, Gareth Evans got his start with the violent, stylish crime film, with a bit of a heavier emphasis on the trendy nihilism. Unfortunately, he skipped a lot of the common elements of the Tarantino clones, such as the sense of humor, the witty dialogue, the memorable characters, and the clever storytelling. What’s left is a lot of gritty violence paired with an adolescent view of kitchen-sink-realism and how the criminal underworld must work (for all the film’s focus on the criminal organization at the center – made up of like seven people, tops – we only see any money change hands twice). Aesthetically, it’s not dissimilar from Nicholas Winding Refn’s Pusher, but even that rather grim film is a lot more enjoyable than this one.
Which is not to say that a film can’t be grim and still be good. But apart from this dreary violence, the movie gives the viewer precious little else to latch on to. Andrew takes the non-entity protagonist to a perverse extreme; he spends the first 25 minutes of the movie just sort of dicking around (and it’s 20 of those before we learn his name or get a single line of dialogue out of him), and even after what passes for a plot kicks in proper – a third of the way in to a 75 minute movie that feels much longer than it should – he spends another 35 minutes in purely reactive mode. That takes us up to a full hour in which all we really get is one perfunctory fight in a bar along with endless scenes of feeding his goldfish, curling up in a fetal position in his bed, and driving around with Paul on various boring crime-movie errands.
It doesn’t help that all this cryptic, tight-lipped terseness ends up leaving almost every character’s motivations desperately unclear. I’ve already mentioned how little sense this crime syndicate makes (which, with the weirdness of their masked benefactors or whatever they are, may be intentional, but everything in the film is so muddled that it’s hard to parse), and without the movie ever letting us into Andrew’s head, we’re left puzzled as to, well, any of the character’s actions (among other things, I remain totally unsure of how much Andrew knows about the people who put his father in a coma, if anything). For a while he seems fine with his new criminal career and then he… just isn’t. As for the ex-girlfriend that the film gives so much prominence, we don’t get any dialogue at all out of her, which one could again chalk up as a deliberate stylistic choice if anything else in the movie clued us in that it had any idea what to do with its female characters – the only other two of note are Andrew’s unnamed stepmother, who shows up in one scene to give him his dad’s watch, and a woman Paul repeatedly harasses about a debt before ultimately killing her.
One would hope that when Andrew finally snaps and starts taking action in the final 15 minutes, we’d get some of the poetic mayhem that Evans would later become known for – and there’s a little bit of that in a brief fight scene taking place at the mysterious-masked-dude headquarters, but it’s far too little, far too late. Really, this feels like a student film that, to paraphrase Peter O’Toole, wasn’t released so much as it escaped. Hell, maybe that’s what it is, in which case I’ll feel bad about bagging on Evans et al so hard for it. In any case, we can all be glad that his next film – while not without its own flaws – would set him on a much more rewarding path.
Up Next: Merantau (2009)
Gareth Evans is something of an anomaly. A Welsh-born director who is known pretty much exclusively for directing Indonesian language martial arts films. He comes by it honestly, though; as thousands learned from his 2012 sleeper hit The Raid: Redemption, the man (with the help of his enormously gifted star and collaborator Iko Uwais) can put together a martial arts fight scene like nobody’s business. And as those fans who have followed his career can attest, he’s shown an aptitude for horror as well, not just in his pure genre experiment Safe Haven (one of the short film segments in the anthology-horror sequel V/H/S/2), but in the often explicit horror movie imagery of The Raid: Redemption and its sequel.
Initially, the plan was to review that sequel, The Raid 2: Berendal, which I saw last week. But upon delving into it, I decided Evans was an interesting enough director that I’m going to try something a little different: In the coming weeks, I’ll be covering Evans’ brief but rewarding career as a director thus far. His debut film, Footsteps, is a bit of a pain to track down, so I’ll be starting with his 2009 entry into martial arts films, Merantau, which I have not yet seen, before getting into The Raid films and Safe Haven. Expect the first entry by the end of this weekend.
Strap in, folks. It’s gonna get messy.
UPDATE: Turns out I was able to track down a copy of Footsteps after all! The bad news is, this means the first part of the series is gonna get bumped back a day or two. The good news is, it’ll now be a five-part retrospective instead of a four-part retrospective!
Even the casual follower of world cinema can tell you: the Koreans are just doing it better than the rest of us, at least when it comes to stylish, violent thrillers. Among their ranks, none stand taller than Bong Joon-ho, the mad visionary stylist who has produced no less than three instant-classics over the past decade or so: the probing, true-life serial killer drama Memories of Murder in 2002, the high-intensity giant monster movie by way of family drama The Host in 2006, and Mother, his twisted take on the amateur detective/”find the real killer” movie in 2009. Like fellow Korean breakout successes Park Chan-wook and Kim Jie-woon, for his latest movie, Bong has decided to appeal more directly to American audiences by making his English language debut. This has had mixed results in the past – I loved Park Chan-wook’s Stoker; I haven’t seen Kim Jie-woon’s The Last Stand but I understand it to be very much not up to the par of the man who directed A Tale of Two Sisters and I Saw The Devil. Park chose to go for the art-house/indie crowd, whereas Kim went straight for the action blockbuster audience, going so far as to drag Arnold Schwarzeneggar’s old ass with him. The approach Bong Joon-ho has taken falls somewhere in the middle.
We open with some direct but not ungraceful exposition in the form of news broadcasts that detail how some well-meaning scientists, in trying to counteract global warming, accidentally doomed the world to a new ice age, wiping out the vast majority of humanity (whoops). Seventeen years later, the only survivors are the passengers of the Randian supertrain of the title, a kind of perpetual motion society where the haves live at the cozy front of the train and the have-nots in the dingy hyperpoverty of the rear. One such have not is our protagonist, Curtis (Chris Evans, veteran of multiple nerdy sci-fi properties), and as we meet him we can already see that the seeds of revolt have been planted long ago. Curtis, along with saintly, crippled old mentor Gilliam (John Hurt, and boy is that the on-the-nose character name to end all on-the-nose character names), is planning to launch the first successful siege of the train’s front cabins. Along the way they must free political prisoner and expert lockpick Namgoong Minsu and his daughter Yona (Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung, forming a mini-The Host reunion), rescue the kidnapped young sons of fellow passengers Tanya and Andrew (Octavia Spencer and Ewen Bremner), and contend with the iron-fisted fascistic rule of Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton) and her legions of gun and axe wielding goons.
As you can tell from that description, there’s a lot going on in this movie. First I’d like to address something that some people might have trouble with: nothing about Snowpiercer makes any goddamn sense. I say this not as a criticism, just as a plain statement of fact. If you are the type to get hung up on how the titular train works, or how the various cars we see connect to each other in any meaningful way, or how all of what we’re presented fits into the oft-mentioned 17 year timeline, or the logistics of where the food comes from, I wouldn’t say that you’re wrong to do so, but you might be missing the forest for the trees a bit. Despite the grimy “used future” trappings of the set design, this is nothing close to hard sci-fi; it is, as you might have also figured out from the plot description, pure allegory.
Which is the second big talking point. Is Snowpiercer too heavy-handed in its social commentary? I lean towards “no,” although it bears mentioning that the movie is incalculably helped in this respect by the lingering memory of last year’s big piece of sci-fi social commentary, Neil Blomkamp’s interminable Elysium. Snowpiercer succeeds where that movie failed by swapping out laughably self-important seriousness for heaping helpings of dark comedy and a warped fantasy sensibility.
And that brings us to the piece that’s frankly a much bigger part of the film than the political message or the genre trappings, and that is the movie’s overwhelming sense of style. And here I am of a somewhat divided mindset. Certainly, a demented and frequently morbid sense of a humor is one of the hallmarks not just of Bong Joon-ho’s output but of the modern trends in Korean cinema as a whole, but I dare say that your enjoyment of the movie may hinge less on your appreciation of that country’s films than those of Terry Gilliam and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (all it’s missing is the wide-angle lens closeups). Personally, I have a deep and abiding love for some of Gilliam’s films, but I think even his biggest fans would admit he’s a bit hit-or-miss, and Jeunet has never done anything for me. And with the exception of a vignette taking place in a kindergarten car presided over by a gloriously unhinged Allison Pill, a lot of the Gilliam-esque absurdity doesn’t quite work for me. To say that Bong aims for Brazil but lands at Alien: Resurrection would be cruel and unfair, but the thought did cross my mind.
The performances vary wildly. The two Korean actors give the best by a fairly huge margin, suggesting that maybe Bong just hasn’t quite gotten the hang of directing in English yet. The worst-in-show goes to Spencer and Bremner as the two bereaved parents, with the latter constantly mugging with unpleasant severity and the former giving a glassy-eyed and bizarrely unmodulated performance that reminded me far too much of the time she played an insane version of herself on 30 Rock. As the hero of the piece, Evans does a solid-enough job, coming off best in the scenes he shares with Song and in the moments when he is able to play straight-man to the comic weirdness going on around him. And speaking of comic weirdness, here comes Tilda Swinton’s completely deranged turn as the villain. It’s damn near impossible to describe, and is probably going to be the most purely subjective part of the movie; either you’ll delight in how far she’s willing to go with it, or you’ll be screaming for it all to end. I lean towards liking it, simply because Swinton goes for broke in a way you absolutely don’t see very often, although as with much of the film, I’m somewhat on the fence.
Certainly, once the film kicks into high gear about 20 minutes or so in, it remains propulsive throughout. The early action scenes are marred by some clumsy application of shaky-cam, but it settles down after a while, and it never stops being impressive how Bong, Mother cinematography Hong Kyung-pyo, and the design crew keep presenting us with fresh, visually stimulating sets all essentially based around the same shape, like some dream-logic combination of Alice in Wonderland and Das Boot. Despite all my qualms, despite the fact that this is my least-favorite Bong Joon-ho film yet, I’ll still give it a pretty unhesitating recommendation. For what’s essentially a Summer action movie, Snowpiercer is powerfully weird stuff (that it’s currently sharing screens with another of Michael Bay’s ethically and artistically rancid Transformers movies throws this into sharp relief), with a confrontational sensibility, a unique aesthetic, and an ending that refuses to chicken out from the implications it presents (again, making Elysium look extra stupid and naive). Even in a Summer movie season that’s been particularly strong, Snowpiercer still stands out and makes itself noticed.
As anyone familiar with it can tell you, the cinema of Australia has a flavor all its own. Indeed, I can hardly think of another country with such a unique cinematic language; the sun-baked aridness, the strange argot, the sense of menace just underneath everything. With The Rover, we have a kind of Aussie cinema meeting of the minds: extremely promising new director David Michôd, whose nervy 2010 debut Animal Kingdom was one of the best and most intense crime thrillers of the past several years, working off of a story he co-wrote with fellow Australian hot commodity Joel Edgerton, directing ever-reliable Australian actor and past collaborator Guy Pearce in a post-apocalyptic automobile-obsessed setting on loan from Mad Max. With all this in mind, it’s possible I got my hopes up a bit too much, but the end result just isn’t quite as awesome as all that seemed to promise.
The film opens with Pearce’s anonymous protagonist (apparently named Eric, though I’m not sure they ever call him that in the movie) parking his car outside a dingy streetside bar to do some drinking and brooding. As he does so, a trio of bandits fresh off a botched robbery crash their own truck and, not ones to pass up an opportunity, steal Eric’s car. In what is pretty unquestionably the best scene in the movie, Pearce manages to revive their crashed truck and enter into a car chase that breaks every rule of movie car chases, slowly and deliberately giving malicious pursuit as Antony Partos’ wailing, metallic score whinnies like a dying horse and brings the tension to an unbearable boil reminiscent of the best scenes in Animal Kingdom. It doesn’t end up working out well for him though, and the group gets away, leaving Pearce with little idea of where they’re headed. Luckily for him, early in his travels he comes across Reynolds (Robert Pattinson, sounding a little like Boomhauer from King of the Hill), the wounded fourth member of the crew who the rest of them, including his brother Henry (Scoot McNairy), left for dead. Reynolds is a bit slow-witted and helpless, and the violent, imposing Eric is able to muscle him into leading them back to the stolen car he seems to care so much about.
There’s something really interesting to the stolen car angle; like a lot of Australian movies and a lot of post-apocalypse movies, The Rover is heavily influenced by the American Western (with all their horizontally-defined shots of desert landscapes, rare is the Aussie movie that doesn’t feel like it owes a debt to John Ford). And any student of the genre knows the extreme abhorrence reserved for horse thieves. But by giving the focus of Eric’s unrestrained rage and violence to a revenge quest so petty and based on commodity, the film manages to give some added grim potency to the resource-starved, post-societal-collapse setting.
Unfortunately, apart from the beginning and end of the movie, the possibilities of this theme aren’t really explored in any kind of depth, and in the middle, all we get are the unlikely duo of Pearce and Pattinson bouncing around aimlessly from uninteresting vignette to uninteresting vignette. And the usually rock solid Pearce isn’t much help; depicting reactive, animalistic hurt is something of a specialty of his, but he ratchets it up a bit too far here, and the end result comes off a bit like self-parody, specifically a parody of his performance in John Hillcoat’s excellent neo-western The Proposition, the non-Mad Max movie that this one aspires the most to be. It’s not a bad performance, per se, but I’m trying to come up with a Guy Pearce performance I like less and I really can’t.
Much better, surprisingly, is Pattinson, who at first just seems like a twitchy non-entity, but as the film goes on he does a great job of depicting the character’s increased comfort around his captor through some wonderfully unselfconscious childlike mannerisms; a moment of him simply drinking out of a bottle of water alone in his room is as heartbreaking as such a simple action could possibly be, and it’s almost solely due to Pattinson’s work here that the movie has anywhere near the emotional impact that it strives for.
There are other consolations, too. The music is absolutely excellent – I’ve already mentioned Partos’ great score, and as a big Tortoise fan, it was a pleasant surprise to hear a couple of choice cuts from their early catalog sprinkled throughout. And one particular use of bubblegum pop late in the film ranks as the best use of such music in recent cinematic memory. The sound design overall is great, from the emphasis placed on the menacing growl of the cars’ engines to the long stretches of peaceful quiet that are all too often interrupted by startling violence. And the excellent cinematography by Natasha Braier combined with some frighteningly on-point production design make this… well, “a treat for the eyes” is certainly not the right turn of phrase for a movie that depicts so much matter-of-fact horror and ugliness, so lets just say it’s very well done. One tracking shot involving a series of roadside crosses might be one of the most memorably bone-chilling moments in this particular subgenre.
Still, there’s just something missing here. As I mentioned, there’s a lot of padding in the middle. As road movies go, this one is particularly aimless, and not in a way that serves the effect. For all Michôd tries for Lynchian bizarreness at the pit-stops on Pearce and Pattinson’s road trip, none of them leave much of a lasting impression. And for all the cruelly hopeless violence and the overreaching ponderousness of the climax, the movie never really feels like it has much to say. Michôd even goes so far in one scene as to have Pattinson tell Pearce “Not everything has to be about something,” but that feels a bit like a desperate dodge. I don’t mind a healthy dose of bleak in my movies – was I not just heaping praise on Animal Kingdom and The Propositon? – but the bleakness in The Rover might end up feeling as pointless to those in the audience as it does to the film’s nihilistic protagonist.