Some Thoughts On… Project Nim (2011)

Last year, the French documentarian Nicolas Philibert produced Nenette (2010), a film that used footage of an orang-utan and recordings taken in a zoo to demonstrate the human tendency to project human emotions onto animals. Nenette also demonstrated that human speculations about the inner lives of apes tend to tell us a lot more about the humans than they do about the apes. James Marsh’s latest documentary Project Nim ploughs much the same furrow by exploring the attempt by a group of 1970s scientists to teach a chimp to sign.

Project Nim focuses upon the story of Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee who was removed from his mother and brought up by humans in an attempt to see if treating a chimp like a human might encourage him to think and communicate like one.   Initially, Nim is entrusted to the care of a wealthy hippy family whose laid-back approach to parenting results in Nim effectively taking control of the house.  Concerned that the chimp is getting what he wants through social dominance rather than by acquiring language skills, the project director Herbert S. Terrace removes Nim from his surrogate family and places him in the care of a group of specialised teachers.  While these teachers manage to imbue Nim with an incredibly rich vocabulary, the older Nim becomes, the harder it is to control him. When Nim bites his teacher’s face, Terrace decides to end the project and place the chimp in a research facility where his life gets progressively worse.

The foreground of the documentary is devoted to a somewhat uneven engagement with the project’s ethical standards. Terrace is depicted as a shameless opportunist who uses both his students and Nim to build an academic career before cutting both adrift without a moment’s hesitation or regret.  While this foreground narrative produces a number of touching moments, it is fatally undermined by Marsh’s bizarre insistence upon reminding us that Nim is a wild animal who should not be thought of in human terms.  The result is a film that coaxes its audience into empathising with a chimp before slapping them down for doing precisely this.  Mercifully, the film’s background proves far more rewarding.

Stepping back from the details of Nim’s life, Project Nim does an absolutely brilliant job of conveying the weirdness of 1970s academic culture. For example, Nim’s original foster family included a woman who breast-fed Nim and then allowed the chimp to ‘explore her body’ as part of her informal personal research into the Oedipus complex. Predictably enough, once Nim is transferred to the care of a group of scientists, they follow the original foster mother in using Nim as a vehicle for their own desires and ambitions. One ambitious graduate student wrestled control of Nim’s education from the foster family as a means of acquiring Terrace’s attention, this lead to a brief affair that resulted in one dumped graduate student and one chimp deprived of a mother-figure. The more figures from Nim’s life the film introduces, the more obvious it becomes that while everyone was eager to do what was best for Nim, their assessments of what was ‘best’ usually depended upon what was convenient for them.  This is particularly obvious in the case of Terrace whose termination of the project results in Nim being sold for medical research.  His charge cast into the outer darkness, Terrace promptly produced a book in which he argues that Nim was nothing more than a hugely accomplished beggar who never really understood the language he was using. Unsurprisingly, the humans who come across as most sympathetic are the ones whose visions of Nim emphasise his human characteristics.  Particularly sympathetic is the Dead Head primate handler who treats Nim as just another pot-smoking fellow traveller.

The fact that our sympathies tend to lie with those who treat Nim like a person rather than an animal says a lot about our own empathic tendencies and the film’s capacity for inviting us to fall into the same trap as Nim’s original handlers.  However, as clever as this manipulation may be, the film’s refusal to engage with empathic projection head-on results in frustratingly lightweight fare. Yes, we extend empathy to a chimp because the chimp behaves like a human but so what? What does this say about us? What does it mean for our relationships to animals as a whole? Are we wrong to treat animals as humans or are those who treat chimps like animals unethical monsters? Project Nim tries to address some of these questions without getting bogged down in the sort of heavy philosophical speculation that might alienate audiences but by raising questions in such an oblique fashion and then failing to develop them in any meaningful way, Project Nim only manages to remind us of quite how much can be achieved with footage of an orang-utan and the sound of zoo visitors wildly projecting their own worries onto the indifferent figure of an ape.

Some Thoughts On… Cell 211 (2009)

Based on a novel by Francisco Pérez Gandul, Daniel Monzon’s prison drama Celda 211 hits the ground running.  Without wasting a single shot or line of dialogue, Monzon introduces us to the film’s setting and many of its principle characters: Juan (Alberto Ammann) is the new guard at a prison where violent offenders are kept separated from the general population. Malamadre (Luis Tosar) is one of these violent offenders, a violent offender who orchestrates a riot in order to bring attention to the failures of the current prison regime.  As alarms sound and roofs collapse, Juan finds himself abandoned in an empty cell by his new colleagues.  Aware that the rioting inmates will kill him if they find out that he is a guard, Juan decides to pass himself off as a newly arrived prisoner.

Boasting some of the most elegantly simple and unadorned storytelling I have ever seen, Cell 211 starts by building up an incredible amount of tension in very little time. Not only does Juan have to convince Malamadre’s gang that he is a prisoner, he also has to guide Malamadre’s actions so as to both minimise bloodshed and maximise his own chances of getting out alive. While tensions build inside the prison, they also begin to build outside as prison administrators find themselves trapped between the desire to cover up Juan’s capture and the desire to get him out safely. In what slowly emerges as one of the film’s recurring visual motifs, black-clad SWAT teams swarm over roof-tops and stand poised to storm the building before a compromise is reached and mass slaughter is averted.

Half an hour into this film, I was convinced that I was seeing a work of real vision. Aside from building tension like a master, Monzon also reveals himself to be a dab hand at actor wrangling as Juan emerges as an intriguing character with an intense relationship with both his wife and the charismatic sociopath Malamadre. However, having introduced us to all of these fascinating balls and thrown them gracefully up into the air, Monzon promptly forgets how to juggle and they all come crashing down on the ground.  Indeed, the first act complete, Cell 211 loses focus horribly as plot lines unravel in all directions, spilling tension as they go. Needless to say, my heart sank.

Then Monzon begins the process all over again as something dreadful happens on the outside and Juan decides to throw his lot in with the prisoners.  Suddenly aware both that Juan may not be in his right mind and that he might be a guard, Malamadre finds himself trapped between his loyalty to Juan, his convict’s hatred of guards and his suspicion that Juan is right when he says that all this is going to end badly.  Again, Monzon does a brilliant job of stoking up the tension and again, he allows it all to slip away as the film resolves in an ugly and unsatisfying mess.

The problem is that, while Monzon knows how to build tension, his commitment to the film’s characters is such that he is unwilling to simplify their arcs for the sake of the over-arching narrative.  As a result, tension builds and builds until denouement at which point the film switches to a melodramatic register in which characters respond in great depth to everything that has just happened and, like a river flowing into a vast set of swamps, all urgency is lost forever in the murky heat of soap-operatic swampland.  Of course, this is not to say that the melodrama is boring to watch… far from it.  Luis Tosar’s Malamadre is a wonderful combination of outer toughness and inner softness mediated by a keen mind.  Similarly, Alberto Ammann does a great job of presenting a character so skilled at thinking on his feet that he cannot stop plotting even when his world starts to come apart. With so many conflicting agendas and competing factions at work, Cell 211 also works as a commentary upon the Spanish prison system and public attitudes to prisoners.  However, while there is no denying that this film is smart and possesses some brilliant moments of tension and character-based drama, I cannot help but feel that co-writers Daniel Monzon and Jorge Guerricaechevarria failed to make the sorts of tough decisions you need to make in order to adapt a novel for the screen. I suspect that Cell 211’s changes of pace and register work quite nicely in a novelistic context as the increased time of consumption means that characters have more space to bloom and changes in register are less sudden and jarring.  However, reduced to a 113 minute running time, Cell 211 needed to be either a character-based melodrama or a thriller set in a prison as, while Monzon handles both elements with equal panache, his attempts to force the two together are distracting to say the least.

Some Thoughts On… The Big Picture (2010)

Before I share my thoughts on L’Homme Qui Voulait Vivre Sa Vie, I feel under the obligation to point and laugh at the film’s British trailer. Watching the trailer, one could be forgiven for thinking that this is yet another film in the great art house/indie tradition of stories about middle-class French people who are a bit unhappy until they encounter a life-changing event that forces them to question who they are and what they do. See Romain Duris cry!  See Catherine Deneuve pout with disapproval!  See a wealthy French man fleeing responsibility in search of his true self.  Oh the terrible pathos! Mais ou est mon Cesar? While it is fair to say that this narrative is present in Eric Lartigau’s The Big Picture, the trailer completely fails to convey the fact that this bog-standard existential narrative is presented in the form of a thriller… and a deliciously odd one at that.

Paul Exben (Romain Duris) is a wealthy and successful lawyer living in the suburbs.  His wife Sarah (Marina Fois) is beautiful and his kids are charming.  His professional practice is thriving and his partner (Catherine Deneuve) has just announced that she is dying and that she is intending to sign the practice entirely over to him.  Exben has everything he needs to make him happy and yet he is miserable and he is miserable because his life is a lie.  He never wanted to become a lawyer, he never wanted to marry his wife and he never wanted to settle down in the suburbs and have kids.  He wanted to be a photographer and all the high-priced gadgets and art books in the world are not going to turn him into one.  Paul is living a lie and he hates himself for it.

Painfully aware of the deep vein of misery lurking beneath her husband’s outward shows of manic happiness, Sarah knows that Paul hates himself and so she has started an affair with a local man who did decide to pursue the dream of becoming a professional photographer.  Aware that something is wrong at home, Paul begins sniping at his wife until she leaves with the kids.  Playing a hunch, Paul visits his neighbour and winds up getting into a struggle that leaves the man dead.  Refusing to panic, Paul starts to draw up plans that will allow him to get away not only with murder but also with living the life of another person.

Lartigau treats this first act as a straightforward thriller. Full of sneaking and plotting, the scenes pop with tension as Duris uses a horrific accident as a springboard to construct a new life.  Having successfully stolen his neighbour’s identity and faked his own death, Duris flees to Hungary where he starts to build a career as a professional photographer. Once the action is transferred to Hungary, The Big Picture shifts from Highsmithian thriller to traditional art house as Duris attempts to find himself amidst the shipyards and mountain views of Eastern Europe.  Freed from the burden of his old li(f)e, Exben finds himself labouring under a somewhat different one.

As a Parisian lawyer, Exben fooled himself into thinking that he had no choice but to live the life he had. Terrified by the possibility of failure, Exben buried his dreams beneath a veneer of self-confident professionalism where they rotted into a form of self-loathing so intense that it destroyed his marriage and claimed the life of a neighbour.  As a French photographer in Hungary, Exben may well be living under an assumed identity but his real fear is that people will discover that the gifted photographer really is nothing more than a bluffer.  A chancer who bullshitted his way in the door and then used the opportunity to carve out a slice of fame and fortune. Far from being unique to Exben, these are the sorts of lies that fuel the anxieties of millions of people every day: Do we really love our partners or did we just settle? Are we really happy in our jobs? Are we deluding ourselves into thinking we can make it? When will they realise that we don’t really know what we are doing?  It is not the unique character of these lies that make The Big Picture a memorable film but rather the different ways in which Lartigau forces Exben to confront them.

When Exben first realises that he is living a lie, he reacts to a catastrophic event with astonishing calm and competence.  Masking his inner turmoil from his wife, he plans his escape and swings into action: problem solved. His escape made, he then finds himself on the receiving end of a problem that demands an entirely different approach.  While Exben can escape his first lie by becoming an action hero, his second lie cannot be solved in so straightforward a manner.  Indeed, in order to overcome the lie that he is just not good enough to work as a professional photographer, Exben has to resort to emotional exile and the slow but sure payment of dues.  As the months tick past, he slowly builds a new life for himself, a life that not only allows him to work as a professional photographer but also to look at himself in the mirror and know that he is a talented artist.

What I adore about The Big Picture is the fact that, while it shows a man overcoming self-delusion in two completely different ways, it also makes the point that self-delusion is not something that can ultimately be solved.  Not by sneaking around and not by exile and therapeutic introspection.  Indeed, having created a new life for himself as a photographer and escaped two toxic lies, Exben finds himself having to escape from a third lie, that of the assumed identity.  Again, the film shifts register.  This time from introspective art house drama to mad psychotropic Horror film.

The Big Picture’s final act finds Exben alone on an oil tanker on his way to South America.  Having fled two different li(v)es, he now finds himself poised to rebuild again.  However, one night he is locked in his room by the crew. Upon sneaking out and grabbing his camera, Exben discovers the crew about to chuck a pair of stowaways overboard in the middle of the ocean.  After snapping a few shots and deciding to challenge the captain, Exben is chucked overboard too.

The film ends with Exben having successfully faked his own death twice. No longer either a Parisian lawyer or a Parisian photographer working in Hungary, he looks across at his fellow dumpee and smiles the first unself-conscious smile of the film.  He is free… he has escaped three lives and three lies and worked his way through three separate genres… but for how long is he free?  Are lies really the sorts of thing that can be escaped or are they instead the things that make up our lives?  Exben has had more than his fair share of lives and both of them have been good ones.  Why does he think that the next one will be any better?

Given its conspicuous lack of a clear ‘take home’ message and its bewildering shifts in tone, it would have been easy for The Big Picture to come across as a muddle and a mess. While Lartigau’s direction is creditable and the film’s photography is impressive, what really holds the film together is Romain Duris’ performance.  Duris, let it be said, is not a handsome man.  He is a short man with spindly legs, a lantern jaw and hair that looks like matted pubes.  As a lawyer, he seems too young and insouciant.  As a photographer he seems overly steely and serious.  However, it is precisely because of these weird inconsistencies and tensions that Duris is perfect in this role.  As with his international breakthrough performance in Jacques Audiard’s The Beat With My Heart Skipped (2005), Duris plays a man who is at war with himself.  In both films, Duris’ character is trapped between a real life and a dream life and, in both films, there is the distinct possibility that he fits into neither.  The Big Picture raises the question that there is no single path that we ought to be walking. Lives are not things that we deny ourselves but things that we live.  Yes, life demands that we lie but so what? Duris’ brittle fragility and manic excesses make him the perfect choice for the role of a man who peels back lie after lie after lie only to realise that, deep down, there is nothing there.  Humans, it turns out, are lies all the way down.

Some Thoughts On… Beginners (2010)

Let me begin by saying that I went in to Beginners with an open heart. Mike Mills’ semi-autobiographical story of a man groping towards a sense of identity and a reliable source of happiness in the wake of parental death is pretty much where I have been living for the last twelve months. However, rather than seeing elements of my own experience in Mills’ gently affecting comedy-drama, I was struck only by the grinding mediocrity of his insights, the laziness of his exposition and the shameful over-reliance on art house narrative techniques to pad out a story that involves far too much hand-waving and not nearly enough heart-tugging or head-scratching.

Writer/director Mike Mills projects himself onto Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a professional illustrator who is struggling to put his life back together after the death of first his mother and then his father.

As Oliver cleans out his father’s house, he comes across a personal ad drawn up by his dad in the wake of his mother’s death, a personal ad written in hope of attracting some younger male lovers. Indeed, though Oliver’s parents Hal (Christopher Plummer) and Georgia (Mary Page Keller) were married for decades without a hint of either separation or divorce, Hal was actually gay. His wife buried, Hal comes out of the closet aged seventy-three and spends three years living the sort of life that he should have been living all along.  A life filled with sex, socialising, clubbing and political activism.

Oliver’s experiences nursing his father through grief, self-realisation and terminal illness are laid bare in a narrative that is inter-cut with scenes from Oliver’s present, a present in which he has embarked upon a relationship with a French actress named Anna (Melanie Laurent). By interweaving elements from Oliver’s past and his present, the film slowly points out the similarities between Oliver’s life and that of his father:

Hal grew up at a time when being gay was treated as both a mental illness and a moral failing. In the hope of living something approaching a ‘normal’ life, Hal decided to marry a woman he could not love in the hope that happiness might come to him by osmosis.  We later see Hal repeating this pattern with his younger boyfriend Andy (Goran Visnjic), whose desire to sleep with other men clearly hurts the naturally monogamous Hal. Oliver, by contrast finds himself unwilling to make any concessions to the women he dates.  Easily trapped in love’s initial dizzying updraft, Oliver soon finds himself getting bored and restless with his relationships. Incapable of understanding why he should tolerate anything other than perfect happiness, Oliver sinks his relationships and winds up alone again and again. Beginners is essentially the story of Oliver’s realisation that happiness and love are born of compromise and realism rather than rare passion and emotional perfectionism. Neither of Hal’s relationships were perfect and yet he lived a happy life.  Oliver is unwilling to put up with anything short of absolute happiness and is unwilling to compromise or work at being happy and so he winds up being far more miserable and alone than a man who was gay in the 1950s.  In other words, Oliver is as spoiled and narcissistic as he is self-involved.  This is ultimately why the film fails to convince.

Beginners’ root problem is the fact that it really does not have very much to say.  The fact that Oliver is utterly self-involved is obvious in almost every beat of the film.  We can see it in the fact that the film’s most insightful comments emerge during Oliver’s one-sided conversations with his dog, we can see it in the fact that he initially falls for Anna because she literally cannot speak and we see it in the fact that Hal’s story is used largely as a prop for Oliver’s generic brand of soul-searching. Indeed, it turns out that when a gay man spends fifty years living a lie only to snatch a few years of happiness in the shadow of terminal cancer, it really is all about the straight guy. By choosing to focus not upon Hal’s story but upon what Oliver learns from Hal’s story, Beginners reduces the social history of an entire generation of gay men to the status of props in the on-going indulgence of a generation of white, middle-class straight people whose dull and shallow problems already form the backbone of the indie canon. Worse still is the fact that, despite plundering the lives of a generation of gay men, Mills still struggles to come up with anything to say.  Oliver begins the film as a sad, self-involved narcissist and he ends the film as a sad, self-involved narcissist without budging an inch or generating a single spark of insight in the process.

Aside from the dubious treatment of homosexuality and the general lack of insight into the human condition, what most annoys about Beginners are its rare flashes of complexity. For example, Mills occasionally transports us beyond the two interweaving narratives to Oliver’s relationship with his mother. Intriguingly, despite Hal and Georgia’s marriage coming at Georgia’s insistence, Georgia is presented as the victim of Hal’s dishonesty.  Witty, wise and spunky in the best traditions of mid-century femininity, Georgia is endless lovely and this loveliness filters through into Oliver’s present in a decidedly Oedipal way. Indeed, while the foreground of the film suggests that Oliver’s unhappiness may be due to his similarity to his father, the film’s background subtly hints that Oliver’s failure to find love may be due to a lingering and yet intense sexual longing for his own mother. We see this in the way that Oliver’s seduction of Anna allows him to replay moments shared with his mother and we see it in the fact that Oliver meets Anna at a costume party where he is dressed as Sigmund Freud. The truth of Oliver’s emotional dysfunction is further hinted at in the fact that, when Oliver first meets Anna, she is dressed as a man.  Sadly, while Beginners may hint at some real emotional complexity, the hints are never connected to anything in the film’s foreground and so remain nothing more than free-floating suggestions that could just as easily be the product of a starving critical brain in desperate search of insight.

Mills’ potential as a writer/director is also evident in his willingness to play tricks with the genre.  For example, one of the most popular genre templates for romantic comedies is the story of a depressed man who learns to love again thanks to the life-changing ministrations of a quirky female love interest whose vivacity cuts straight through his emotional exile.  These quirky female love interests are generally known as Manic Pixie Dream Girls. Initially, Beginners suggests that Anna may well be such a dream girl but, as the film progresses, it rapidly becomes clear that Anna is nothing of the sort.  In fact, she is just as moody and self-involved as Oliver. In fact, if Beginners can be said to possess a Manic Pixie then the Manic Pixie in question is Andy, Hal’s Manic Pixie Dream Boy. However, while it is undeniably good news that American film has progressed to the point where it can happily transform heterosexual clichés into homosexual ones, it is frustrating to note that none of Wills’ genre-bending exertions serve any wider purpose.

Aside from being frustrating and stupid, Beginners is also a crushingly boring film.  Billed as a comedy-drama, Beginners contains few laughs and little drama. What drama it does have is stretched to breaking point by the sort of long, drawn-out silences and palate-cleansing interludes that one would normally associate with art house film. Recent months have seen numerous critics rallying to the cause of cinematic boredom as a response to the on-rushing tide of cinematic spectacle that is the Hollywood blockbuster. Critics routinely cite the work of directors such as Yasujiro Ozu, Kelly Reichardt and Andrei Tarkovsky as proof that you can make beautiful films which, because of their lack of plot, are boring. However, while I agree that slow-paced films in which nothing happens can be superb, I do feel the need to point out that none of Ozu, Reichardt or Tarkovsky’s films are actually boring, they simply rely upon a suite of visual and atmospheric storytelling techniques that require lengthy pauses to allow the audience to assimilate what they have seen.  Beginners is a boring film, not because it contains numerous pauses, but because it lacks the sort of visual, atmospheric and emotional complexity that requires careful assimilation and reflection. While Tarkovsky’s pauses allow us to realise the depth of his thinking, Wills’ pauses reveal only a lack of insight and a series of wasted opportunities.

Some Thoughts On… The American (2010)

Directed by Anton Corbijn and based upon the Martin Booth novel A Very Private Gentleman (1990), The American is far too formulaic and slow of pacing for it to function as an effective thriller.  However, if approached as more of a character study, the film does suggest some insight.

The film begins with Jack (Clooney) living in a snowy wilderness with a ‘friend’.  When some assassins turn up and the ‘friend’ dies in the firefight, Jack the former spy is lured out of retirement and placed in the field by his former handler.  Right from the start, Jack is a rootless and isolated man who walks through the world acutely aware not only of that world’s hostility, but also his lack of place in it.  Like all spies, he is the resident of a demimonde of assumed identities and hidden skills.  Corbijn communicates Jacks demimondaine status by having him instantly recognise a fellow demimondaine who hires his to make a custom-built gun for her.

As Jack attempts to pull together the tools that will allow him to work on the gun, he is forced to make friends with the local priest; a man who not only knows his place in the ‘grand order’ of things but also within his local community. Much like Jack, the priest has secrets but, unlike Jack, he does not allow these secrets to isolate him from the people around him.  In fact, his secrets only serve to embed him even further in the local landscape.  He is a rock of his community, a man completely at home in the world for all of his propensity to dwell on that which lays beyond it.

As he works on the gun, Jack begins two contrasting relationships: The first is with the fellow spy.  Corbijn does an excellent job of communicating their rootless flirtation by having the pair demonstrate the extent to which they trust each other (they aim loaded guns at each other and even fire in their general direction and yet they do not shoot one another) while the traditionally trappings of seduction and romance are revealed to be nothing more than props in case the police should pass by.  The second relationship with a local prostitute resembles the first in so far as it too spurns the traditional trappings of romance and seduction but here the oddness of the flirtation is presented more as a sign of openness and complete honesty than of guile and mis-representation.

When Jack decides that he wants to get out, his handler predictably turns on him and Corbijn struggles to fill the formulaic denouement with anything approaching tension or dramatic charge.  In a way, it simply does not matter if Jack gets out… the heart of the film lies in its portrait of a man struggling to deal with his sense of alienation from community and landscape alike.

The American is one of those films that reminds me why it is I think that spies are posterboys for the postmodern condition: Isolated, deracinated and living in a world they not only do not belong to but actively fear, spies fill their days with the ritualised mundanity that is tradecraft: Check to see if anyone has been in while you were out, check to see if anyone is following you, check in with your handler, check the dead letter box, check to see if your contacts have gotten back to you and all along make sure that nothing you do makes you stand out as anything other than ‘normal’.  Spies are people alienated from society who spend all of their time trying to pass for members of the societies they live amongst.  That sense of alienation combined with paranoia and intense longing for membership and place are the constituent parts of that postmodern existential urge to belong and to know where one stands.

The fact that Jack’s flirtations are with women who exist on the margins of society is telling.  By virtue of being a spy and a prostitute, the film’s female characters are both people who, like Jack, pass as normal thanks to having learned the rules of normality from the outside, as aliens.  Jack’s stilted and technical conversation with the female spy reveals what the aliens’ language might be like while Jack’s awkward flirtations with the prostitute seem to hint at a path out of the demimonde and into the sunlight of normality.

As much as I liked the film’s capacity for capturing the postmodern condition, I was not all that convinced by Jack’s desire to return to the real world.  At the beginning of the film, he is living a ‘normal’ life in the middle of nowhere and it is not clear why it is that a life embedded in the real word should be superior to that or why Jack should require ‘the love of a good woman’ to save him.  The slow pacing of the film and the atmosphere of art house detachment and depression invites us to speculate about Jack’s inner state but with a plot this formulaic, I found myself unwilling to turn a blind eye to the lack of depth.  A few extra scenes fleshing out Jack’s existential dread beyond there merely generic would have transformed this from a perfectly watchable film into a good one.  A missed opportunity but very much part of a growing tradition of existential spy films.

Some Thoughts On… A Lonely Place To Die (2011)

Back in 2007, Julian Gilbey co-wrote and directed a film entitled Rise of the Footsoldier.  Boasting some execrable cockney dialogue, vast amounts of violence and an intent to glamorise football hooliganism that was as morally repugnant as it was artistically derivative, Rise of the Footsoldier sank rapidly, leaving behind it only a greasy slick of DVDs that clogged up the ‘3 for £10’ aisle for months on end. Four years later and Julian Gilbey returns with his co-writer Will Gilbey to offer us a film that is just as violent and unpleasant as Rise of the Footsoldier but which somehow manages to work.  A Lonely Place to Die is a lean and misanthropic action thriller that warns middle-class thrill seekers to be careful what they wish for.

Dateline Scotland where Eagles soar over rocky mountainsides of almost unbearable beauty.  As the camera swoops past outcrops and peaks, we suddenly see a series of coloured fleeces picked out against the barren greyness of the Scottish peaks.  These fleeces belong to three friends on a climbing holiday.  Well… I say friends but the tensions within the group are obvious from the get-go as Alison (Melissa George) scolds Ed (Ed Speleers) for his lack of focus while experienced climber Rob (Alec Newman) rolls his eyes at the couple’s bickering.  A potentially fatal fall narrowly averted, the group trudge back to a nearby cottage where they meet up with another couple and spend the evening getting drunk.  Unlike many films that attempt to stress the camaraderie of the protagonists, A Lonely Place To Die makes it abundantly clear that these people hate each other.  They not only hate each other but they tease and antagonise each other to the point of nearly coming to blows.  “I’d rather eat my own shit” harrumphs Ed when he is handed a fish-based sarnie after a morning’s hiking. This is a group that is tired, bored and spoiling for a bit of adventure.  Needless to say, their wish is granted.

As the group make their way through a forest, a noise is carried to them on the wind.  Is it an animal in pain? Is it a human voice? Spreading out to search, the group soon discover a pipe sticking out of the ground leading to a box that contains a young girl. Clearly, she has been buried alive… but by whom? Squabbling as they go, the group split up with the more experienced climbers taking the direct route to civilisation while the others move more slowly across country with the girl.

Forced out of comfort zone, the climbers are forced to climb fast and hard.  Gilbey’s camera spins around and plays up the sense of vertigo as Alison and Ed hang on for dear life.  However, after a nasty fall and an inexplicable rockslide, it soon becomes clear that the pair are not alone.  Someone out there is after them.

In a slick move, Gilbey holds off introducing us to the villains of the piece, choosing instead to play up the sense of oppressive paranoia gripping both sets of climbers as they move across the brutal Scottish hillside. With the identities and motivations of the kidnappers still unclear, Gilbey introduces us first to a pair of hunters and then a carload of heavies who both seem to be involved in the kidnapping in some way.  However, in the first of a series of reversals, Gilbey rapidly pulls the rug from beneath our understanding of the situation as people slowly reveal not only their true motivations but also their true character. People you would expect to be immoral speak of the need for trust while people that seem good and upstanding are revealed to be cold and calculating mercenaries.

By the time the group has made it back to civilisation, there are three different groups in play.  All of them desperate and all of them ready to kill in order to get whatever they want.  Here, the film transitions from paranoid thriller to all-out action as the three groups go to war in a small Scottish town in the midst of a spectacular street carnival populated by flame-wielding demons and strange naked figures.  As flames belch into the sky and fireworks detonate above the village, the three groups go to war, filling the streets of the Scottish town with blood and bullets in a series of well-conceived and exquisitely directed gun-fights that easily rival the climbing set-pieces from earlier in the film.

In his book The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood (2004), the film critic David Thomson speaks of the role of Californian light in helping to establish the American film industry.  Indeed, by building their studios in Los Angeles, executives were able to tap into a free natural resource that would have cost them an absolute fortune to artificially replicate.  Because of the climate and because of the environment, films made in Hollywood just flat out looked better than films made elsewhere. While there is previous light to be had in the Scottish Highlands, Gilbey’s film benefits hugely from the awe-inspiring natural beauty of its mountain backdrop.  From the opening frames, A Lonely Place to Die is a film that looks absolutely stunning.  Even when the action moves to the town, Gilbey makes brilliant use of a Scottish Winter Fire Festival to create a bizarre world of flickering firelight and sinister figures.  Add to this some beautifully devised set-pieces, some neat structural tricks, some clever use of camera filters and an absolutely flawless feel for pacing and what you have is one of the best-directed action thrillers I have seen in a long time.  Based upon A Lonely Place to Die, I would put Gilbey in the same bracket as the Frenchman Fred Cavaye whose Anything for Her (2008) recently received a Hollywood remake and whose Point Blank (2010) confirmed his status as one of the best thriller directors working at the moment.

For all of its technical accomplishment, A Lonely Place to Die does suffer from a regrettable lack of interiority.  Gilbey introduces us to characters and plays games with our attitudes towards them but at no point does any of this game-playing really result in anything that I would call a dramatic arc; the story is that there’s a group of climbers and a kidnapped girl and people are chasing them… there is no sub-text, there is no emotional core, there are no character arcs… there’s just lots of chasing, lots of excitement, lots of people falling off of things, getting shot and being blown up but nothing really beyond that.  Were A Lonely Place to Die any less technically impressive as a piece of action cinema, this lack of dramatic interiority would be a terrible problem but with pacing this good and spectacle this well constructed, I am inclined to forgive Gilbey and Gilbey their somewhat lightweight plot, particularly as the characters are well-defined and well served for dialogue despite their lack of dramatic ‘movement’. Had maybe a scene or two been devoted to giving this film some sort of ‘message’ then I would be hailing A Lonely Place to Die as one of the best films I have seen so far this year but, because of the lack of substance, I am reduced to saying that this is one of the best thrillers I have seen this year and that is still something.  A Lonely Place to Die has appeared at a couple of festivals and is slated (according to IMDb) for an autumn release, this release may be theatrical or it may be on DVD but either way, it is a film that deserves to find an audience. I would be intrigued to know what Gilbey could accomplish with a really good script behind him.


Some Thoughts On… Retreat (2011)

Kate (Thandie Newton) and Martin (Cillian Murphy) are in trouble.  Married for a number of years, the couple’s relationship has been soured by the loss of a child resulting in them visiting an isolated island retreat in the hope of forcing themselves to have a proper conversation. Unfortunately, once the pair arrive on the island things go from bad to worse as instead of forcing them to communicate, the isolation offers up a myriad of displacement activities including fishing, running and the writing of incredibly bitter articles about why their marriage is doomed.

Slowly retreating into paranoia and mutual resentment, Kate and Martin are jolted out of their bitterness by the arrival of a wounded soldier.  Jack (Jamie Bell) informs the couple that a terrible pandemic is sweeping the world and that their only hope is to barricade themselves into their house and seal all the windows. Understandably sceptical, the couple play along on the grounds that even if Jack is lying, he is clearly a dangerous man who needs to be handled with care.

As he boards up the windows, Jack sets about playing on the couple’s fears and desires.  Initially, he plays upon Martin’s presumed masculine desire to protect Kate and to wear the trousers.  He then moves on to attempting to seduce Kate by suggesting that she resembles his late wife thereby tapping into both Kate’s frustration and her presumed feminine attraction to tough guys with a softer side.  While the couple remain sceptical about Jack’s claims of a pandemic, Jack’s ability to play Martin and Kate off each other does allow him to gain the upper hand, a position he begins to use quite skilfully once he finds Kate’s laptop and reads all about the couple’s marital difficulties.

Retreat is a film all about a relationship struggling with the cancer of distrust.  For a while, Jack’s ability to tap into the couple’s fears seems so uncanny that one begins to think that he might be some phantom either supernatural or psychological in nature and while the film regrettably down-plays this aspect of Jack’s character, there is a very clear evolution in the nature of the fears he uses in his attempts to manipulate the couple. For example, initially knowing nothing of the couple, Jack draws on quite widespread fears such as disease as well as a husband’s fear that he cannot protect his wife.  However, as Jack gets to know more about the couple, his lies become a whole lot more specific.  While I regret the fact that the script did not allow us more of a peak behind Jack’s thought-processes, I would still argue that Jack is the best thing about this film.  In fact, Bell’s performance is spell-binding and constitutes a timely reminder of why his name continues to carry a good deal of buzz despite its tendency to be attached to terrible films. Sadly, while Retreat offers Bell the opportunity to shine, the same cannot be said of Newton and Murphy who are forced to contend not only with a tangible lack of chemistry but also a tragically under-written script.

Retreat’s suffers for the fact that Martin and Kate’s relationship never feels unique enough to be real. This is somewhat odd given that the film takes a long time to settle into ‘thriller’ mode allowing oceans of space for the development of its central relationship. However, despite ample time and some real acting talent to draw upon, first-time director and co-writer Carl Tibbetts never quite manages to make the relationship progress beyond the merely generic. The problem is that while the idea of a couple struggling to stay together after the loss of a child is a firm grounding for a film about trust, it is not a particularly original idea.  In fact, the idea has featured in so many films that by the time Tibbetts and his co-writer Janice Hallett get round to it, it feels dated and generic.  This means that, in order to make the relationship seem real, the script and the actors needed to personalise it to the point where we feel that Martin and Kate are more than genre figures. Sadly, because neither Murphy and Newton’s performances nor the script bring that specificity to the table, Retreat’s central relationship fails to engage meaning that the film’s primary dramatic arc is as dead as Martin and Kate’s un-named child. The failure of this central relationship has a knock-on effect on the rest of the film.

The lack of emotional substance to Kate and Martin’s relationship means that Jack’s attempts to play on the couple’s mutual distrust is more interesting than it is emotionally compelling and because we are forced to engage with this unevenly paced thriller on intellectual rather than emotional terms, the film’s fundamental lack of depth becomes increasingly problematic as time goes on.

Retreat is, at root, a psychological thriller and as such it is part of a genre that thrives on the new.  Script-lead, these films typically rely for their effectiveness upon their capacity to surprise audiences through narrative innovation. This means that each new psychological thriller needs to work that little bit harder to break through to an audience raised on Basic Instinct, The Tenant and Memento. In fact, these three films demonstrate quite how much pressure there is on writers to generate something new.  Basic Instinct shocked mainstream audiences with its explicit sexuality, The Tenant shocked audiences with its inherited surrealism and Memento shocked audiences with its bizarre structure and psychological quirkiness.  One could argue that there is a screen-writing arms race raging in the psychological thriller genre and that this arms race has forced screenwriters to skew the genre away from the psychological and towards the fantastical.

As humans, we are trapped in a prison of pure subjectivity.  We know how we feel and we know how we see the world but we are forever separated from our fellow humans and we can never really know how they feel, what they see or what they think.  Because of this gap between minds, humans have developed an incredibly sophisticated of the human mind that we use to attempt to infer what it is that other people are thinking.  This model in referred to by philosophers as Folk Psychology.  The folk psychological model that we draw on as individuals is determined both by our individual experience and by our cultural history.  Indeed, one reason why the characters in classical plays frequently appear stilted and weird is because authors wrote them with radically different folk psychological models to our own.  Because our need to interact with other humans has forced us all to become amateur psychologists, we humans tend to have a pretty good nose for bullshit when it comes to characterisation.  In fact, one could argue that the challenge of characterisation is that of walking a tightrope between writing characters that we recognise as human and characters who act in individual enough ways that our folk psychological model is forced to adapt and encompass these new artistic insights into the human condition.  Unfortunately, our innate capacity to smell bad characterisation is something of a problem for writers operating within a genre that thrives on novelty and the unexpected.  Memento works as a psychological thriller because its central character feels real despite suffering from a condition that is genuinely novel from an artistic point of view but there are not that many psychological conditions that satisfy these twin demands.  As a result, many recent psychological thrillers have tended to rely upon a narrative twist grounded not in human psychology but in either fantasy or the madness of the main protagonist.

By anchoring a plot in magic and madness, a screenwriter is effectively admitting to throwing the rules of drama out the window. Once magic and madness have been invoked, audiences can never quibble about plot as all quibbles can be defused with a terse ‘of course it doesn’t make sense… it’s magic’.

Retreat attempts to double bluff its audience by raising the possibility of the fantastical only to resolve to a set of rules that are ultimately purely psychological; Jack is neither a phantom nor a delusion, he is just a desperate man with a knack for playing on people’s fears. Tibbetts and Hallett’s decision to forego madness and magic in favour of an old school Cape Fear-style psychopath is refreshing but it does show quite how sophisticated our folk psychological model has become, particularly in the light of numerous films that have set out quite explicitly to fuck with our capacity to read people.  Despite some neat ideas, Retreat never feels smart enough to scratch that genre itch.  It never surprises, it never wrong-foots, it never moves us out of our psychological or emotional comfort zones and it never for even an instant capitalises on its potential.  Perhaps if Martin and Kate had been better drawn then the film might have been more emotionally involving.  Perhaps if the script had explored Jack’s motivations a bit better then the film would have been more interesting but for a psychological thriller hoping to find an audience in this day and age, Retreat is nowhere near psychological enough.