Thoughts on The Killing of a Sacred Deer

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From Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos comes an unsettling psychological thriller set in the suburbs of Cincinnati. Cardiac surgeon Steven Murphy lives an idyllic life. He has a beautiful home, a loving, supportive wife named Anna, and two sweet children named Bob and Kim. Everything about his existence is so pristine and pleasant that the presence of an outlier is immediately apparent. That outlier is a young man named Martin. Odd and particular, at first it seems as if there’d be no good reason for Steven to spend time with Martin. He’s distracted, ornery, and seemingly unconcerned with violating personal boundaries. Yet Steven entertains him, gives him gifts, and even invites him into his home. Why?

Something happened to Martin’s father during his heart surgery the year before and unfortunately for Steven, the young man thinks his death is Steven’s fault. And so it comes to pass that Martin, unappeased by Steven’s meagre offerings, tells Steven that he must kill a member of his family or they will all succumb to paralysis, eventually refuse sustenance, begin bleeding from the eyes, and then finally perish. Steven—whose relationship with Martin has always been strained and almost perfunctory thanks to Steven’s deeply suppressed guilt—thinks Martin’s declaration is ridiculous. Yet one by one Steven’s family members begin to lose sensation in their limbs, eventually leaving him with the impossible choice: kill his wife, his daughter, or his son. Or perhaps kill Martin.

I was a big fan of Yorgos Lanthimos’ previous film, The Lobster, which used dry humor and a biting sense of wit to explore the bizarre conventions of modern romance. The Killing of a Sacred Deer exists in a similar vein, though this time, Lanthimos seems almost completely transfixed by the idea of consequence, and specifically, male consequence. Steven has potentially committed an awful act and now he is suffering because of it. The entire film is thematically entrenched in the idea of paralysis—the paralysis of thought, of action, of the literal body—and Steven’s family suffers due to his indecision. His reticence at first to even consider meeting Martin’s demands is not because he believes he has been wrongly accused; rather it is a stubborn denial made to preserve his ego. Steven even admits his children to the hospital where he works and runs them through a gamut of tests in hopes of seeking a cure, though it becomes increasingly clear there is only one act that will set things right.

Loosely based on the myth of Iphigenia—in which a father must choose whether or not to kill his child to please a vengeful god—The Killing of a Sacred Deer plays out like a modern-day parable. There is no explanation as to how Martin has called down this cosmic punishment and the story is better for it. It is a slow-burn, bottle thriller, except here Steven is not confined by his environment, but by his horrific set of choices, which are exacerbated by his inability to take responsibility for literally anything. I wrote earlier that this film is an exploration of male consequence. I write this specifically because one gets the sense that if it were up to Anna, Steven’s wife, these circumstances would’ve never come up in the first place. In every part of the film, Anna practices her agency whereas Steven is reactionary. This distinction even reaches into their love life, where Steven’s biggest turn on is having Anna pretend that she’s been anaesthetized while they have sex. Unfortunately for their family, Martin’s curse can only be lifted by Steven, whose patriarchal hubris seems to make him incapable of action until the film’s shocking and upsetting denouement.

Once again, Lanthimos, along with frequent co-writer Efthymis Filippou, creates a world of surface interaction with stilted dialogue meant to convey the shallow nature of most of these characters. Kim and Bob only speak to their parents about their chores. Steven and Martin converse about what’s going to happen to Steven’s family over sandwiches. Steven speaks to the principal of his children’s school and tries to parse who is more academically gifted. The blithe, almost surgical nature of his questions is at once unsettling and oddly funny, something that can be said for this film as a whole. It’s so dark you can’t help but laugh. However, the film’s purposefully mannered dialogue exists with a healthy dose of subtext that renders even the most blasé interaction meaningful.

The subtext is only successful thanks to the incredible efforts of the actors present here. Colin Farrell (in his second collaboration with Lanthimos) once again inhabits the role of an emasculated dope with ease. Steven, beyond all his quiet pleasantness, simmers with barely contained frustration, angered by the seeming injustice of what is happening to him rather than the consequences to be inflicted upon his family. Nicole Kidman is, unsurprisingly, excellent as Anna, the woman hitched to this doomed enterprise. She’s a decisive and incredibly intelligent person. However, she is often ignored by her husband and, in one argument, he insults her as being “only an ophthalmologist.” In the end, no matter how poised and level-headed she is, her main obstacle is that she cannot make the decision for Steven and so the fate of their family falls to him. Though both wonderful, no one makes the same impression as Barry Keoghan, who plays Martin. Keoghan somehow manages to make a small, twitchy teen one of the most disturbing characters in recent memory. Wildly emotional and unpredictable, with a penchant for slurping spaghetti, Martin is an achievement in writing and performance: an impish force of godlike consequence that weaves through this film like the shark in Jaws, making hairs rise in every scene in which he appears and his presence felt in every scene in which he does not. These performances combined with the cold, sterile cinematography by Thimios Bakatakis and a selection of jarring classical music accompaniments make the sum total of The Killing of a Sacred Deer horrifically unforgettable.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a chilling and wonderfully bleak film that offers no easy answers. An artfully crafted exercise in tension and atmosphere that manages to make even the most mundane settings and people utterly unnerving. Another singular work from Yorgos Lanthimos. You owe it to yourself to see this film.

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Thoughts on Lady Bird

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I remember reading an interview from the early 2000s with singer/songwriter Conor Oberst. Known for his dark, emotional, and often melancholic lyrics, the interviewer basically asked him if his life as a middle-class 20-something was really that bad. He replied with something to the effect of, “Of course not. But when you’re experiencing it, it’s real.” This half-remembered response (which I may have read elsewhere or simply made up, who knows) has always stuck with me, especially as I went through my own strange journey of adolescence. Being a teenager is tough, no matter one’s circumstances. Even people in generally comfortable situations still suffer in this emotionally turbulent time and Greta Gerwig’s semi-autobiographical directorial debut, Lady Bird, explores this period of uncertainty with charm, nuance, and a true sense of heart.

Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson is struggling. It’s the early 2000s. America is flux. People feel aimless and scared, even in the idyllic suburbs of Sacramento. Worse, Christine is in the emotional purgatory of her senior year at an all girl’s Catholic school; that ugly, yet unique time where you begin to lose old friends, but investing in new ones seems like a risky emotional proposition thanks to your looming, inevitable graduation. Add to this mix the stresses of first love and an overbearing, nitpicking mother and you have all the requirements for an early-life existential crisis. And to top it all off, no one will call Christine by her new, self-given name, “Lady Bird.”

Like many people her age (including myself at the time) Christine longs to feel purpose, to live in an age where important stuff is happening. I guess getting older is realizing that important stuff is happening all the time, however, like the Conor Oberst quote above, it’s easy to get tunnel-vision when the scope of your world is so small. Everything feels at once so momentous and so trivial, each pain raw and potentially world-ending. Yet no one suffers in a vacuum and that’s the beauty of Lady Bird. It never seeks to invalidate how Christine feels, or anyone for that matter. Though the scope of the story is small, the film’s world is populated by people in the midst of their own stories and struggles. Sure, we get to learn about Christine’s mother and the rest of her family, but we’re also given glimpses into the lives of everyone else.

The film is at its most powerful when Christine is privy to these private moments and she, for a second, is able to look beyond herself. She’s able to see that her overworked and underpaid mother, Marion (an infuriating and enthralling Laurie Metcalf) is worried about her future because of how much she had to do to get her to this point. Her father, Larry (a warm and hilarious Tracy Letts), is an aging IT technician who’s struggling with feelings of inadequacy as the tech world passes him by. Her dickish proto-hipster crush Kyle (played with an infuriating deadpan by Call Me By Your Name’s Timothée Chalamet) may just be using his cool detachment as a coping mechanism for the bleak reality of his home life. Even Christine’s drama teacher gets a moment of real sincerity. It all feels so insanely tangible and lived-in; it is a testament to Greta Gerwig’s talent that she’s able to relate these moments of emotional rawness in a way that feels organic and meaningful, each part adding to the larger whole of the film, which is really a story about everyone just trying to figure out what they’re doing with life.

And all of this is led by a truly transcendent performance by Saoirse Ronan. She so perfectly captures the emotional whirlwind of that age; the seemingly endless ennui of your late teenage years where you begin to question what, if anything, matters; if you’ll ever be happy, or at least content; if you’ll ever be loved (in a romantic sense) or if each new, debilitating crush is just a waste of rampant emotion. The way Ronan shifts from hopeful to hopeless, from ecstatic to distraught is, once again, revealing of her incredible skill as an actress. She’s a subtle performer that lives through her characters and in this film in particular, she never seems to be playing an approximation of a middle-class American teen. She just is and she truly shines.

Beyond the potent writing and the assured direction of Gerwig, the cinematography by Sam Levy (who previously lensed Gerwig in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha and Mistress America) also somehow manages to evoke the themes of the film. Sacramento is pictured like a hometown should be; always captured in glimpses of the familiar. It’s only when Christine takes a moment to stop and look around that she sees the true beauty of the place where she grew up and why it is actually special to her. This, like each part of the film, feeds back into the greater whole, creating an experience that is pretty much perfect.

Lady Bird is certainly worthy of the wild praise it has been receiving. A touching ode to teenage uncertainty, to angst and ennui and tenderness and love, for your family, for friends, for a place even. A truly wonderful experience.

Thoughts on Blade Runner 2049

What does it mean to be human? Can something sentient yet artificial achieve humanity? If so, what then is its value? These are the questions first presented in Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi noir classic, Blade Runner. Now, thirty-five years later, we return to the dystopian sprawl of Los Angeles to further explore these themes in Blade Runner 2049. This is a difficult film to write about, mostly because I feel that it is best experienced cold. Ideally, you should just stop reading this right now and go see it. However, if you’d rather have a hint of what to expect, read on. I shall try to be as vague as possible.

MILD SPOLERS FOLLOW

Blade Runner 2049 follows a Blade Runner named K. At the onset of the film, K is just a Blade Runner doing his job: hunting replicants. The catch: he himself is a replicant, albeit one of the newer models with an inhibitor installed that disallows him from violating orders. Lonely and isolated thanks to virulent speciesism—humans are even more despairing of replicants since a series of violent rebellions and a worldwide blackout in 2022—K spends most of his days in quiet contemplation, his only companionship found in Joi, an AI projection that exists solely in his apartment. She seems to love him and he’s clearly fond of her, but can anything between them be considered real? Worse, K seems cognizant of this question, and haunted by it.

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Ryan Gosling as K. Property of Warner Bros.

His troubled state of mind is further compounded by the discovery of an old replicant’s gravesite, one that contains a potentially society-shattering secret. His superior tasks him with tracking down every shred of evidence related to this discovery and destroying them. Through his investigation however, the parameters of K’s agency begin to be tested. His desire to fulfill his duty is slowly countermanded by his growing curiosity. He wonders what this secret means for the future and, more importantly, the nature of his existence. His digging however soon sees him pursued by a number of hostile forces, all intent on using the secret for their own purposes. Thrust into a conflict he does not fully understand, K races against time to find the answers he seeks. All his leads point to the one person that can explain everything, one person who disappeared long ago: Rick Deckard.

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Property of Warner Bros.

That’s all I will say about the plot. However, let it be known: you will not guess what happens in this film. It is a finely crafted noir mystery, filled with red herrings and false leads. However, none of them ever feel cheap or contrived. The reason that the mystery succeeds in being so enthralling is its subject matter: humanity. What is it? What does it mean? The layered nature in which the film investigates these questions is spectacularly subtle and yet deeply moving.

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Ana de Armas as Joi. Property of Warner Bros.

K is a replicant in an existential quandary. He’s a synthetic being questioning whether or not he is “real.” Meanwhile Joi, his AI companion, is merely a holographic projection wishing she inhabited a physical form so she could truly be with K. Their problems are two sides of the same coin, making their relationship both intriguing and incredibly sad; worse, it is something that would probably be dismissed by any human that encountered it. In contrast, the human characters that populate the rest of the story range from figures of authority to slaves. Yet no matter their status, when faced with K, their actions usually speak to the same mindset, “At least I’m human.”

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Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard. Property of Warner Bros.

Deckard exists in an entirely different sphere altogether. He is a man that loved a replicant; a person who saw humanity in the supposedly inhuman. It only makes sense then that K’s journey of self-discovery is radically altered when he encounters Deckard, whose entrance not only marks the film’s shift from the second to the third act, but also a vital reframing of the film’s main narrative question; “Am I human?” becomes “Does it matter?” and the answer is something to behold.

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Property of Warner Bros.

Beyond the already great storycraft on display thanks to writers Michael Green and Hampton Fancher, the direction of Blade Runner 2049 is stunning. Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario, Arrival) proves once again to be a master of tension and tone. This film is a slow burn, but it is an artisan’s slow burn: delicately crafted and monitored; built slowly and purposefully so that when it explodes, it does so in spectacular fashion. Between the scenes of action, like Arrival before it, Villeneuve manages to ask lofty questions through character, using deft juxtaposition and symbolism in moments of silence to make the scenes of dialogue that much more impactful.

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Property of Warner Bros.

What I appreciate most about Villeneuve is his choice of projects. His narratives are always challenging, ones that rebel against common tropes and structures to deliver experiences that are altogether unique. Blade Runner 2049 is not an exception. It forges its own narrative path and, oddly, manages to be an incredibly focused film despite the impressive scope of the world it presents. Many have said Villeneuve is the modern Kubrick. I think he’s better.

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Property of Warner Bros.

Much of the film’s stunning visual flare can be attributed to cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose work here is nothing short of breathtaking. Each shot is a wonder, highlighting unmatched set and costume design in a grounded, yet stylish manner. His eye makes this nightmarish, dystopian version of Los Angeles feel not only real, but lived-in, tangible. Light and color in particular are used to great effect, paired with specific characters to give each scene a distinctive tonal flavor. If Deakins does not win every cinematography award this year, I will be very surprised (and displeased).

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Property of Warner Bros.

The performances, like the direction and look of the film, are also wonderful. Ryan Gosling once again shows his incredible range, turning in an impressive performance for a character that could have easily fallen flat. Though subdued, K is not emotionless and Gosling manages to convey so much with just his eyes that you always know what K’s thinking despite his relative silence. Gosling’s inspired performance ultimately makes K’s arc that much more satisfying. Ana de Armas (Hands of Stone) plays Joi, and is likewise excellent. Even more removed from humanity than K, Armas imbues within many aspects of Joi a very specific, precooked quality. However, as the film progresses and she becomes more independent, Armas is deftly able to convey Joi’s growing agency and commitment to K. The two performances join together to make their improbable love story both tragic and extremely affecting. Lastly, Harrison Ford returns to the role of Deckard. I don’t know if Ford has ever been better. I can’t say much for fear of spoilers, but rest assured, Ford is given a lot of dramatic material and excels in every scene in which he’s featured.

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Property of Warner Bros.

Lastly, I’d be remiss not to mention the film’s score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch. Filled with buzzing electronic noise and crackling synths, Blade Runner 2049’s score is perhaps the most atmospheric music I’ve ever heard in a film. It perfectly echoes the Vangelis score of the original while adding something new and distinctive to the mix. Though incredibly loud, it is never unbearable and, thankfully, the film knows when silence is best. Inspired work.

Put simply, Bladerunner 2049 is a masterpiece; a triumphant display of story and filmcraft that fulfills the incredible promise of the original and shows the true, towering potential of science fiction as a cinematic genre. This is the type of movie that makes people want to make movies. That is the highest praise I can possibly give. An achievement on all fronts and without a doubt one of the year’s finest films.

Thoughts on Stronger

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By the time you’re an adult, narrative is burned into your brain. Even if you only watch a few movies a year, eventually you become accustomed to the story beats that serve as the foundation for most popular media. The romantic comedy is perhaps the most well-known narrative structure for film. Two people get together, have a falling out, and then a dramatic, emotionally satisfying reunion. It’s a perfect mixture of conflict and saccharine fantasy. However what happens when a film commits to a representation of reality? Sometimes an audience rebels against such a presentation. Despite being critically lauded, upon walking out of last year’s Manchester by the Sea, I heard a lot of people from my audience scoffing at the abrupt nature of the ending; their chief complaint: the main character didn’t triumph over his grief. This is true. He didn’t. He came to accept it as a part of his life and had only just begun the healing process by the end of the film. Narratively, it may be unsatisfying in a certain respect, but it was the truest, most honest conclusion for that story. Stronger, the new film based upon the life of Jeff Bauman, a man whose legs were destroyed during the Boston Bombing, is a similar case. It is so real, so messily authentic in its depiction of struggle, that it may turn off some people, but for those looking for a moving story about overcoming tragedy, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better character piece this year.

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Jake Gyllenhaal as Jeff Bauman. Property of Lionsgate.

Stronger wastes no time in establishing the character of Jeff Bauman. Though a personable everyman with a wide circle of family and friends, Jeff is not perfect. He’s unreliable and selfish. In the words of his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Erin, he just doesn’t show up. Jeff decides he wants to make a change (at least in order to sway Erin to get back with him) and decides to show up for once. Unfortunately, he does so at the finish line of the Boston Marathon in 2013. In the ensuing terrorist attack, Jeff loses his legs and the remainder of the film deals with the rehabilitation of both his body and him as a person.

The physical hardship of losing both legs is devastating. Rehab is painful. Feeling like a burden to those around him is embarrassing. Simple processes like using the bathroom or getting out of bed are suddenly perilous tasks. Though Jeff faces many problems with wry witticisms, his humor is also a shield to mask his pain and his growing removal from those who care about him. This is further exacerbated by his instant fame, which his family, and particularly his overbearing mother, Patty, seem enamored with. He unwillingly becomes the symbol for the “Boston Strong” movement, lauded as a hero though he feels like anything but. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time and happened to survive. There was nothing heroic about it. Jeff’s attempts to embrace this persona only succeed in making him feel more like a fraud, valued for the very thing that’s irrevocably altered his life, he feels, for the worse.

Erin, driven by both her love for Jeff and guilt for being the reason for his presence at the marathon, attempts to support him and his recovery. It is a difficult, moving journey and one that never ceases to feel real. Jeff fails more often than he succeeds; he gives into self-pity and anger; he pushes Erin away. But he comes back and slowly, grudgingly makes a change for the better. His ultimate success is incremental in the film. And that’s okay. This is not a narrative bound to fictional beats; it undulates wildly, as fickle as reality and real people tend to be. And that is why it is affecting, because it shows that Jeff’s journey, in a way, will never end, but neither will his development as a person. If he can struggle and strive and push to overcome his horrific circumstances, so can each and every person who sees the film. That is Stronger’s greatest accomplishment: it is staggeringly hopeful.

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Property of Lionsgate.

This film, however, would’ve failed without a powerful central performance, and thankfully Jake Gyllenhaal answered the call, cementing himself once again as one of our best modern actors. He inhabits Jeff’s Bostonian everyman with ease, never overdoing the accent, and nailing the subtle ticks and details that make him feel like a real person. His pain is our pain, and Gyllenhaal does so much with just his eyes to let us know Jeff’s emotional state from scene to scene: his fear, his anger, his joy. It’s a beautiful, layered performance that proves Gyllenhaal is an artist of the highest caliber.

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Tatiana Maslany as Erin. Property of Lionsgate.

The same can be said of Tatiana Maslany, who plays Erin. No matter what’s demanded of her, Maslany delivers. Her performance runs the emotional gamut, ranging from frustration to desperation. You feel every moment of her journey beside Jeff and become invested in how much she’s sacrificed in order to see him get better. Now that her star-making show Orphan Black is over, I can’t wait to see what Maslany does next. She is a truly brilliant actor.

Finally, I’d be remiss to not comment upon Miranda Richardson’s performance as Patty, Jeff’s mom. A trash-talking alcoholic, Patty nonetheless loves her boy, though she often has a self-serving way of doing so. Her conflict with Erin over Jeff’s rehabilitation is one of the most interesting running storylines of the film as Jeff is caught between these two powerful personalities. Richardson puts in sterling work, making a potentially unlikeable character not only believable, but sympathetic.

Director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave, Shame) also do great work here. As written in John Pollono’s brilliant script, the film’s focus is not on the bombing, but Jeff, and the filmmakers are stalwart in sticking with his journey rather than the event that began it. The way he’s framed and the shot selection reflect this choice. Even the depiction of Jeff’s injuries is done in an artful way, focusing instead on Jeff’s face and emotions, instead of the violence perpetrated upon him. It is a well-shot, well-paced film with humor and heart to spare. The emotional gut punches come hard, and when they do, they’re the perfect mixture of film craft and performance.

Stronger is not only a wonderful performance piece, but one of the best, most hopeful films of the year. See it and be inspired. If Jeff Bauman could come back from what he did, what can you do?

Thoughts on mother!

Darren Aronofsky returns to us with mother! a visceral, haunting film presented in the director’s trademark, singular vision. This film is going to be divisive and was meant to be so. It is disorienting, bizarre, and thoroughly upsetting. However, it is also a work of staggering complexity, nuanced and layered. The qualifier however is if you understand the subtext and commentary that is taking place. In no way am I trying to judge you or your intelligence if you do not pick up on the inspiration for the story that Aronofsky is attempting to tell here; that being said, I believe the film is a much richer experience if you do. So for the less discerning audience members, seeking out even the barest hint of the subtext might be beneficial to your understanding of the finished product, which I wholeheartedly adored.

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Jennifer Lawrence as mother. Property of Paramount Pictures.

The overlying premise of mother! is this: the young second wife of a famous poet works to complete their paradisiacal country home while her husband struggles to write a follow-up to his world renowned debut. In the beginning, their relationship and their house are as one: pristine, unblemished, perfect. It is as if they live in a space outside of time, made only for them.

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Property of Paramount Pictures.

Then an unwelcome stranger shows up: a man lost in the wilderness. Soon, his wife follows and despite the young woman’s protests, her husband allows them to stay in their house. Slowly, the cracks in their relationship begin to reveal themselves, highlighting the skewed power dynamic between them. Though the husband is clearly fond of her, he is often dismissive and selfish, thinking only of his unfinished work rather than considering his wife’s happiness. This is exacerbated by the revelation that the strange couple are actually ardent fans of the husband’s writing and he, despite all his talk about loving his wife, yearns for adoration above all else. The young woman and the guests begin to war for the husband’s attention, even as strange events start occurring in the house, including bleeding floorboards, the discovery of a secret doorway, and the destruction of an indefinable object.

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Javier Bardem as Him. Property of Paramount Pictures.

Then more people come. The young woman is staggered by their careless disrespect of her home and, more importantly, each other. Their humanity starts to give way to blind fanaticism and the young woman’s life devolves into a funhouse of horrors as she must weather this escalating home invasion while attempting to hold onto her husband, whose need for adoration ends with awful, deadly consequences.

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Property of Paramount Pictures.

mother! is a journey of a film, a primal, thought-provoking experience that most certainly benefits from going in as cold as possible (unless you’re worried about missing the subtext as mentioned before). It’s a struggle even writing about it in such oblique terms because I have so much to say about it and so much I want to discuss with people who’ve seen it. The characters, for example, are nameless, granted broad titles that speak to their underlying narrative purpose. Jennifer Lawrence, who plays the young wife is simply called “mother.” Javier Bardem, who plays her husband, is “Him.” That’s it. And though those titles may seem pretentious, they’re not. Nothing in the film is present without purpose. There are no needless artistic flourishes. This is a deftly crafted narrative machine designed by Aronofsky with the intent to cause disruption, then conversation.

The performances are the beating heart of this film and both leads (and the extended cast) kill it. Lawrence is wonderful here, crafting a character that is at once resilient, yet frustratingly passive (at least at the onset). She is confused and often hurt by her husband’s actions, but she seeks to continue on, to persevere in hopes of there being something better in the future. Lawrence gives her most calculated performance since The Silver Linings Playbook, effortlessly conveying a broad range of quickly cycling emotions, from confusion, to outrage, to horror. She is our window into the film and succeeds in serving as a vessel for the audience, taking us on this journey into madness, making us feel the paranoia, claustrophobia, and loneliness of her character in every moment, no matter how quiet or how loud.

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Property of Paramount Pictures.

Bardem, on the other hand, is a pleasing, purposeful cipher. He is at once loving and distant; amenable, but also capable of wrath. He clearly loves his wife, but he loves the feeling of being loved more. One gets the sense that everything that occurs, in his mind, must come back to him and how he feels. When remarking upon an awful incident that happens early in the film, he can only speak to how he was involved. When talking to the strange couple about whether or not he and his wife want children, he speaks for both of them. It’s a demanding role and Bardem, as he is wont to do, delivers, crafting a character whose arc is meaningful and unsurprising in the context of the commentary that Aronofsky is seeking to provide.

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Property of Paramount Pictures.

From a stylistic standpoint, mother! is the latest in a slew of movies that love handheld close-ups. Like Black Swan before it, Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique spend the majority of the film with the camera less than two feet from Lawrence, swimming around her as she navigates her labyrinthine house. The technique makes each shot feel visceral and dynamic, lending added weight to her increasingly distressed emotional state as her world continues to shrink. This, paired with the increasingly nightmarish imagery and lack of a traditional score, make mother! an unforgettable sensory experience.

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Property of Paramount Pictures.

A final word on mother! This film is meant to upset you; it’s also meant to make you think and generate discussion. Though still a meaningful experience without the subtext, I feel like it is necessary to fully appreciate the amount of care and detail that went into crafting this experience. Aronofsky, as he always does, has something to say and does so with style and purpose. This is more than just a drama. It is an absurdist parable with a clear, necessary message. When placed beside the rest of his filmography, I would say this is more a companion to Noah and The Fountain than anything else. It plays with narrative structures and expectations, while offering layered, challenging commentary on a well-trodden subject. If you get the subtext, the moment that everything clicks for you is, in a word, divine.

A staggering film. It is easily one of my favorites this year so far. See it.

Thoughts on Good Time

2017 has been a wonderful year for movies. Though blockbusters have stumbled at the box office, a slew of smaller films have succeeded in delivering a range of excellence, from nuanced character studies and touching comedies to tense thrillers. The level of quality dished out in a few short months—especially in the whizz-bang realm of the summer—has been staggering. Despite its relatively early release (as far as awards contenders go) I really do hope Good Time gets the recognition it deserves. Not only is it a gritty, tense urban thriller, it also features the second award worthy performance of the year from Robert Pattinson, who last wowed me in The Lost City of Z. Here he manages to surpass even that impressive performance in what is surely the best work of his career.

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Property of A24.

Good Time is a classic day-in-the-life crime nail biter. It begins innocuously enough, with a mentally impaired young man named Nick attending a meeting with his counselor. The emotional headway he’s making is interrupted by the whirlwind of chaos given human form that is his brother, Connie (Pattinson). Connie pulls Nick out of his appointment only to immediately make him an accomplice to a bank robbery. Events, as they are wont to do in Good Time, quickly go horrifically wrong. Nick is arrested and sent to Riker’s Island and Connie, struck through with guilt because of his brother’s incarceration, decides he will do whatever it takes to get him out. A bail bonds attorney tells Connie that he can get his brother set free if he comes up with ten thousand dollars and so Connie’s ill-fated mission begins.

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Robert Pattinson as Connie. Property of A24.

The remainder of Good Time is a mixture of character study and crime thriller as Connie haplessly tries to navigate an increasingly fraught situation which he complicates and worsens at every turn. Connie, as embodied by Pattinson, is not a smart man. However he is possessed of a sort of idiot cunning that somehow sees him through each and every challenge, with literally everyone else around him suffering because of his actions. Pattinson imbues the character with such fast-talking, kinetic charm that it’s impossible not to be strung along like the many people that Connie manages to screw over in the film’s relatively brisk runtime. The hypnotic nature of Connie’s presence is further highlighted by the visceral style of the film.

Good Time

Bennie Safdie as Nick. Property of A24.

Directed by the Safdie brothers Josh and Bennie—the latter, who plays Nick, delivers a brilliantly subdued performance in his limited screen time—Good Time is infused with a style all its own. Its New York City is a hellish, bad acid trip reflection of NYC; a claustrophobic, threatening place painted in varying shades of red, blue, and pink. Paired with a buzzing, synth-laden score by musician Oneohtrix Point Never, this is NYC as you’ve never experienced it before. The grit is artfully framed by cinematographer Sean Price Williams, who also manages to accentuate Connie’s continually shrinking, stressful world through the generous use of handheld cameras. The majority of the film is spent in punishing close-ups, hovering only a few feet away from Pattinson’s face as he breathes life into Connie’s detestable yet mesmerizing character.

Good Time

Robert Pattinson as Connie. Property of A24.

If anything that’s the greatest accomplishment of the film: the ineffably enchanting nature of Connie. There’s no reason to like him. Every bad thing that happens in the film is directly tied to his relative shittiness and yet you can’t help but be fascinated by him, wholly invested in his misguided, ill-conceived quest and the ruin of wrecked lives left strewn in his path. Robert Pattinson elevates already sterling writing with a career best performance that deserves to be on every awards short list there is. Simply brilliant work.

What more can be said? Good Time is one of the best films of 2017: tense, thrilling, and surprisingly funny (trust me). It tracks the exploits of one of the best characters in recent memory, given life by one of our most talented modern actors. If you have the opportunity, see this film as soon as you can. You’ll be sure to have… a lot of fun watching it.

Thoughts on IT

Something’s wrong in the town of Derry. Tragedies occur with startling regularity. Violence is many times the national average. And children just disappear. Is it merely some freakish grouping of statistics? Of course not. The mind of Stephen King could not deliver something so bland. Instead the force that haunts Derry is worse than anyone could imagine: it’s whatever you’re most afraid of.

It

The Losers. Property of Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema.

IT, the newest adaption of Stephen King’s 1986 horror classic, follows a group of children who must band together to face the ancient evil that lurks beneath their town. Unfortunately, that evil is a shapeshifter of incredible power, one that’s capable of sensing their greatest fears and inhabiting them. If children are the main food source of It, fear is Its seasoning. The film’s exploration of children’s fears is its main conceptual appeal. Fear requires imagination and who imagines better than children? Whose fears are more varied or powerful?

It

Property of Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema.

The main group of kids that we come to know as The Losers Club range from an asthmatic hypochondriac to a fast-talking nerd with coke bottle glasses, the chubby bookworm to the stuttering hero. They are each unique people with their own histories and the film does a great job (like the book) of couching fear in character; the manner in which Pennywise the Dancing Clown (or It) appears to them is appropriate and terrifying. Some fears are more serious. Bill, ostensibly the main character, fears his insurmountable guilt over the death of his younger brother Georgie, who’s killed (in horrific fashion) in the opening scene. For Beverly, who’s suffered the gross attention of older men (and her father) for far too long, her fear is of maturing, of becoming a woman in a predacious world. For Mike, whose parents perished in a fire, his fear is of being burned alive. Other characters’ fears are more irrational or abstract. For Stan, who’s much more sheltered and childish, his fear is merely the weird woman in the painting of his father’s office; Eddie on the other hand fears the idea of sickness, rampant and unchecked.

It

Property of Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema.

Each of the actors who play the Losers is pitch perfect. This is perhaps the most impressive young cast ever assembled for a movie, with each actor fully inhabiting their roles, making these characters not only feel like real kids, but also real friends. You feel for their struggle, you root for them to succeed, and you’re terrified alongside them as they face the primordial terror of It. Also, props to Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema for making IT a hard R film; thanks to that allowance, the kids talk and swear like real people, which was incredibly refreshing compared to the sanitized product we could’ve received.

it

Property of Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema.

However, the stakes for the children would be meaningless if Pennywise wasn’t an absolute terror, and thanks to the supreme efforts of Bill Skarsgard, he most certainly is. Skarsgard (Hemlock Grove) gives an iconic performance as the film’s titular antagonist. Through merely his voice and mannerisms (accented by inspired costume and makeup work), Skarsgard is simultaneously able to make Pennywise feel incredibly ancient and inhuman. In every action, one gets the sense that this is a creature parodying human life, his skinsuit always on the verge of giving way to his utterly alien nature. Even more disturbing, one gathers that Pennywise has assumed the avatar of a clown merely because he enjoys the sadistic irony of it. The gleeful, almost childish joy he takes in tormenting these children never ceases to be chilling. The filmmakers add to Skarsgard’s incredible performance by using a number of inspired camera techniques that only serve to accentuate It’s otherness. This, in addition to shooting Skarsgard from almost exclusively low angles to highlight his size (he’s 6’4”; towering in comparison to the young cast), make you believe in horrifying threat that he represents to these children. Overall, this is a definitive take on a classic character, imbued with new life by a wildly talented performer and a director with a clear vision.

It

Property of Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema.

Andres Muschietti (Mama) has done a wonderful job of adapting King’s novel. Along with writers Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman, Muschietti has been able to capture the unique tonal shifts of a Stephen King story, creating a film that’s more akin to Korean cinema than a standard American horror. I laughed more in this film than any other film this year, and that’s saying a lot for a movie that also heavily features the murder of children. Appropriately, Korean cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung (frequent collaborator with master director Chan-wook Park) fills It with lavish imagery and just the right amount of spooky Dutch angles. All of this is accented by a nicely varied score by Benjamin Wallfisch, which manages to be discomfiting or hopeful when necessary.

It.png

Property of Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema.

On a final note, perhaps the greatest achievement of the film is its depiction of the helplessness that one sometimes feels as a child. The kids are the ones experiencing the horror. Though one gets the sense their parents, and the adult populace of Derry, know something is and has always been amiss, they turn a blind eye. The people that are supposed to make children feel safe are reneging upon their responsibilities, and often, particularly in the case of Beverly, assume the role of the predator instead, a chilling and all too real reality. This is a common theme in many of King’s works, from Misery and Salem’s Lot, to The Shining and Carrie: the ugliness and perversion that lurks just beneath the idyllic sheen of small town American normality. It’s horrifying as a timeless cosmic entity; it’s almost worse when you realize that evil is often just people.

IT is not merely a staggering accomplishment for horror, it is an excellent film. Filled with heart, humor, and hope, it shows that friendship and love are and always will be the surest weapon against absolute evil. A terrifying, wonderful film that I can’t wait to see again.

Thoughts on A Ghost Story

Life. Death. Love. Time. Permanence. A Ghost Story, the new film by writer/director David Lowery tackles these subjects in a way that is both unexpected and challenging. The result is a mesmerizing meditation on meaning in the vastness of the universe.

A Ghost Story

Property of A24.

Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara star as C and M, respectively, a couple living in an old house. We’re only afforded a few scenes of them together before C is killed in a car accident and M is left to her grief. Unbeknownst to her, C returns to the house as a ghost, imagined here by Lowery in familiar imagery: a white sheet with two eye holes. What follows is C’s experience of the afterlife, tied to the house in which he’d lived.

A Ghost Story

Property of A24.

Perhaps the most striking element of the film is how it relates C’s experience of time. As a ghost, he is not necessarily present in the same way as a living person. He has autonomy, but only to a certain extent; and he’s able to manipulate his environment if angered or frustrated. However, he’s more of an emotional shadow than a thinking person, an echo of the man he used to be trying to make sense of what’s going on around him. This interpretation of ghosts is especially effective as it allows Lowery to jump through time, showcasing the drifting nature of C’s attention span. Using clever edits and a freeform style of pacing, Lowery invites the audience into C’s altered headspace, showing a world that’s passing him by.

A Ghost Story

Property of A24.

Early in the film, he watches M eat an entire pie to deal with her grief, then he looks away and a season has passed and M’s in the other room, getting ready for work; another turn and it’s been a year; M is returning from a date with another man and the house has been scoured of C’s belongings. It’s a somber take on the afterlife, one which is impressively powerful given just how little we know of the central characters. However, the slices of life that we are offered are intimate, relatable, and incredibly moving. M changes the comforter to her bed shortly after C’s death, then stops to inhales his familiar scent; she listens to a song C made, remembering the first time she heard it. C seeing her experience these moments compounds the film’s somber quality, imbuing it with unexpected weight.

A Ghost Story

Property of A24.

This is also due to Rooney Mara’s wonderful performance. She is largely silent throughout the film, but she is able to imbue her character with such emotion that you see each stage of her grief, no matter the time period. C’s loss of life is also her loss and Mara, once again, proves the depth of her talent, effortlessly conveying a challenging mixture of emotions in another subdued, yet powerful performance.

A Ghost Story.png

Property of A24.

However, this film would not succeed as wildly as it does without a compelling ghost. C’s frustration, sense of loss, and feeling of aimlessness are palpable thanks to a deft performance by Casey Affleck, who certainly made use of his mask work classes here. Also largely silent throughout the film, Affleck nevertheless manages to make C a sympathetic character through a mixture of stillness and measured movements: a head tilt, a slouch, a yearning glance. Thanks to him, C’s ghostly, silent presence is never dull, but rather filled with tangible moments of emotion.

A Ghost Story

Property of A24.

As M gets further away from him, eventually leaving the house entirely, C becomes increasingly unmoored, cast adrift in time. The pacing of the film from here on is unique, as stated before, in that C skips through time, observing small moments between the ever-shifting inhabitants of the house, then become laser-focused on a single thing that interests him. Through these moments of intense concentration, the underlying message of the film is laid bare. I won’t go into it specifically for fear of spoilers, but I will say that I appreciate the complexity of the two-fold worldview posited. Overall, it is a commentary on life, death, time, and the meaning of art; the importance of permanence in a world that is itself impermanent. The true takeaway depends upon your point of view, but I admire that the film was able to discuss such a weighty subject in an abstract, nuanced, and meaningful way.

A Ghost Story

Property of A24.

Much of the film’s success must be attributed to David Lowery, who used his proceeds from his previous directorial outing, Pete’s Dragon, to fund this film. His writing is spare, yet effective and he, along with cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo (You’re Next) are able to capture the everyday beauty of spaces, specifically within a house. They imbue these spaces with meaning, then break your heart as they show the passage of time; how others move through the very same places, oblivious to the significant moments that took place there. The ghost’s iconic design is also a stylistic boon for the film. It may seem humorous at first, but the white sheet soon takes on a wholly different quality as the story progresses. Its color fades; its edges becoming dirty, frayed. Everything about its design speaks to the character of C, his growing detachment and the endless, aimless nature of his existence. The way the filmmakers shoot Affleck beneath the sheet is immediately compelling and picturesque no matter the setting. The visceral, atmospheric beauty of the film is heightened by Daniel Hart’s haunting score, which fills C’s world with repeated motifs of grief and hope using a mixture of strings and subdued percussion.

A Ghost Story

Property of A24.

Overall, A Ghost Story is a strange, powerful, and deeply moving film. It is definitely not for everyone, but for those willing to give themselves over to an experience and take the plunge, I do not think you’ll be disappointed. It offers a unique outlook on universal human experiences while also showcasing a worldview that might just be the most hopeful, uplifting thing I’ve seen in a long time. I adored this film and hope you do too.

Thoughts on American Gods, Season One

American Gods

Religion is a constant presence in the modern world. Every day billions of people bend their heads in prayer to their chosen deity, whether it be the God (or Gods) of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc. Yet how broad is the definition of religion? Is a deity anything more than something to which people give their time and precious belief? For every second spent in prayer in this modern age, tenfold are given freely to glowing screens; whispered adorations have been supplanted by Likes, Hearts, Views, and Comments. These new gods command our time and devotion, threatening to usurp traditional gods in the very same way those gods usurped the gods of old. American Gods, the new show by Hannibal and Pushing Daisies showrunner Bryan Fuller and writer Michael Green, seeks to explore this heady subject in a first season that is as challenging as it is mesmerizing; a blistering, challenging proof-of-concept that shirks normal storytelling rules to deliver an experience that is as captivating as it is strange.

Based upon the 2001 novel of the same name by Neil Gaiman (praise be his name!), American Gods centers on career criminal Shadow Moon. Shadow took the fall for a crime and ended up in prison. Some years later he’s released early due to the distinct misfortune of his wife having been killed in a car crash. On the way to the funeral, he encounters a mysterious smooth-talker named Mr. Wednesday who offers Shadow more than just employment: he offers him purpose. Although at first reluctant, Shadow eventually makes a compact with Wednesday and begins his peculiar road trip across America to fulfill the old man’s incredibly specific task: he wants to start a war. Specifically, he wants to start a war between the Old gods and the New.

In the universe of American Gods, belief is what brings deities into being and gives them strength; collective consciousness at its most powerful. Every immigrant who ever came to America and gave praise to a foreign god gave birth to a different aspect of that god: a shade reflective of their conception of the being which they worshipped, seen through the lens of their culture and experiences. As depicted in the show for example, a Mexican person’s concept of Jesus is much different than an Irish person’s concept of Jesus; in American Gods both aspects exist as separate entities embodying those beliefs. The problem for Mr. Wednesday and his ilk is that no one believes in them anymore. Save for the more popular religions that have been commodified and commercialized, the Old Gods are largely neglected, supplanted by a new class of deity powered by the constant adoration of modern humanity. Technology and Media reign, led by the enigmatic Mr. World: interconnectivity personified, the avatar of globalization.

Peace is offered, but Mr. Wednesday is of a different time; a time of blood sacrifice and fire. He doesn’t want to limp on in obscurity. He wants to be worshipped as he once was. And so he recruits Shadow to serve as his bodyguard on a road trip across America to recruit the remaining Old Gods for the war to come.

American Gods is a triumph of imagination, style, and casting. Bryan Fuller has taken his distinct aesthetic sensibilities (as evidenced in Pushing Daisies and Hannibal) and combined them with a daring, almost freeform plot structure that centers, above all else, on character. The show is not slow, but meticulous. The plot grows and spins its many threads, but instead of stringing the viewer along at a breakneck pace, it allows for time to explore characters that would only be supporting players in another program. Shadow himself is largely absent for two whole episodes—quite a risk in an eight episode season—and instead the audience finds themselves following anyone from a disgruntled leprechaun to Shadow’s dead wife come back from the grave. These storytelling risks slow the advance of the central storyline, true, but they also flesh out the world of American Gods, making it feel bizarre and heightened, but also lived-in. Shadow is the central character, but he is only one player in a larger game and because of these tangents the world feels as big as you’d want it to in a story concerning a godly war.

The series is also peppered with fascinating vignettes that range from wistful to tragic. These five to ten minute segments (labelled Coming to America and Somewhere in America) highlight how the Old Gods came to be in America as well as showing how they live now. Some of the show’s most powerful segments stem from these daring asides. One of the most moving features the incomparable Orlando Jones as Anansi, an African trickster god, who appears to a group of slaves on a ship as they’re being taken to America. It’s a mesmerizing scene that functions on many levels: Anansi speaks to them with full knowledge of the abuse and oppression that awaits them and their future ancestors in America, simultaneously urging them to resistance and sacrifice. It’s potent material and American Gods never shies away from confronting and commenting on the many issues facing America today. From gun rights to immigration, American Gods has something to say in its own unique and potent way.

There’s also a focus on identity, on both a macro and micro scale. American Gods discusses America’s confused and often contradictory identity with itself and its citizens (see the current events above), then takes it deeper as characters seek to determine who they are rather than what they’re expected to be. Shadow struggles with purpose in a country that’s labelled him as a lost cause. Laura Moon struggles with self-love, having already endured what many would consider the dream of suburban life. And perhaps the most touching vignette: a gay Middle Eastern man named Salim struggles to find comfort and understanding in a country that has a largely homogenized view of his culture and people. The care with which Salim’s story is handled is one of the most beautiful parts of the series and I hope American Gods receives recognition for such a nuanced, sex-positive, and thoughtful depiction of homosexuality and intimacy.

Aside from American Gods’ weighty themes and incredible visuals, it is an actor’s showcase. As expected, Ian McShane is wonderful as Mr. Wednesday. He imbues the elder god with the mischievous spirit of a lifelong grifter, but also gives a hint of the menace and wrath lingering just beneath the surface. Ricky Whittle, formerly of The 100, makes for a capable, charismatic lead a far cry from the stoic, near-silent Shadow of the book. Whittle’s committed performance makes Shadow’s journey from skeptic to believer as fun as it is captivating. Emily Browning (Sleeping Beauty, Sucker Punch) is sublime as the recently deceased Laura Moon. Laura is a truly unlikable character. She’s nasty, selfish, and fickle and exactly what we need right now. The experimental structure of the show allows us the time to come to understand why Laura is the way she is. It certainly doesn’t make her more redeemable, but it does flesh her out as a real human with all the contradictory, ineffable what?-ness present in actual people, which I believe is important to show in female characters. I could go on, but really you’re better off seeing the show for yourself. Every actor—from Peter Stormare as the bloodthirsty Czernobog to Gillian Anderson as Media, Pablo Schrieber as a luckless leprechaun to Crispin Glover as Mr. World—is excellent and perfectly cast. Here’s hoping season two continues the trend (and casts Mads Mikkelsen as an Old God because, well come on, he’s Mads Mikkelsen!).

Lastly, I shall comment on the music. Brian Reitzell returns to collaborate with Bryan Fuller once again. Similar to his Hannibal score, Reitzell imbues the universe of American Gods with a cacophony of discord: a beautiful, unsettling mishmash of violent strings and caterwauling horns. If you need a sampler, look at the opening credits. It never fails to set the mood and get you excited. Overall, it’s some truly sterling work that manages to always strengthen and never overbear the drama taking place on screen.

Much more could be said of American Gods, but it is truly something that needs to be seen to be believed. A singular experience: beautiful, bizarre, and utterly compelling. There’s nothing like it. Watch and then be overwhelmed with the need for a Bryan Fuller-led adaptation of Sandman. Revel in the sheer Gaiman-ness of it (PRAISE BE HIS NAME!). And maybe, just maybe, allow yourself think critically about the power of belief, what America is, and what it should be.

 

American Gods is available to watch now on Starz.

Thoughts on The Lost City of Z

Lost City of Z

In this age of connectivity, it is strange to imagine a time when the world was not at our fingertips, when much of the globe remained unmapped. That mystery bred fear and trepidation in most, but to a select few it granted something else: a fervent, obsessive desire to discover. The Lost City of Z, the latest film by director James Gray (The Immigrant, Two Lovers) explores such themes through the true-life story of British explorer Colonel Percival “Percy” Fawcett, whose pursuit of an ancient city deep within the Amazon became a lifelong obsession.

Lost City of Z

Property of Amazon Studios.

The story begins in the early years of the 20th century with Percy Fawcett (a career best Charlie Hunnam) struggling to overcome the stuffy classicism of British society. Seeing an opportunity to advance himself and his wife Nina (a wonderful Sienna Miller), Percy accepts the opportunity to map an unexplored region of the Amazon. The journey, though perilous, leads to the discovery of artifacts that may prove the indigenous peoples’ civilizations predate those of Britannia. This bold claim leads Percy to fame and controversy. Ridiculed and revered in equal measure by the scientific community and the British elite, Percy nevertheless manages to gather funding to mount a number of other expeditions, becoming increasingly obsessed with what he believes to be a lost city deep in the jungle, which he has labeled “Z” (pronounced zed).

Lost City of Z

Charlie Hunnam as Percy Fawcett. Property of Amazon Studios.

The Lost City of Z is a fantastic film: both an adventure and an in-depth character study presented in a deft and striking manner. Its deliberate pace allows the viewer to experience the wonder and dread that Percy feels when he first arrives in the Amazon. The excitement and color of these segments provide a striking contrast to the muted affairs of his home life when he returns to Britain. The only time he seems alive is when he must defend his discoveries before a board of his peers. You feel his anger and frustration as he tries to present his findings to the British elite, tries to make them look past their pride to understand the truth that though a world power, they might not have been first in all things.

Lost City of Z

Property of Amazon Stuidos.

Through his journeys, Percy becomes an advocate for the native peoples of the Amazon, thinking of himself as a bridge between them and western civilization. It’s fascinating then to see that his progressive nature only stretches so far as he forbids his wife from accompanying him on his explorations, leaving her to raise their children alone for years at a time. These odd contrasts are what make Percy such an intriguing, complex, and vexing character. He obviously cares for his family and his wife, but the call of the Amazon is too much for him to resist. Time and again he chooses return, drawn by an obsessive need that only grows stronger as the years roll on. Even within the trenches of World War One, facing certain death, his thoughts are not of his family, but of the jungle and the fabled city that eludes him.

Lost City of Z

Charlie Hunnam as Percy Fawcett. Property of Amazon Studios.

Charlie Hunnam is the beating heart of this film. His Percy is a driven, stubborn man who constantly seems to be at war with himself over what he wants. The cause for his misfortune at the onset of the film—his father was a drunkard and gambler, crippling his class mobility—serves as a plausible foundation for his obsessive need for acceptance. However, that can only remain his driving force for so long and soon Z becomes his only motivation. Hunnam’s nuanced, careful performance deftly handles this handoff in a subtle manner that is both realistic and tragic. Though Percy comes to gain what he originally sought, it isn’t enough and eventually, neither is his growing family. All of this makes for a compelling and frustrating main character that you support and condemn in equal measure: a rarity in modern film. Though the writing should also be credited for Percy’s success as a character, it is Hunnam’s stellar performance that keeps the audience keenly invested in his quest until the very end.

Lost City of Z

Sienna Miller as Nina Fawcett. Property of Amazon Studios.

Sienna Miller is also a highlight as Percy’s long-suffering wife, Nina. Unfairly saddled with the responsibility of raising their family alone, Nina remains a steadfast advocate for her husband, even as he betrays his promises to stay again and again. However, Nina is never portrayed as a pushover and she makes Percy consider the full weight of his actions every time he seeks to leave. Miller succeeds in showing Nina’s strength and resolve as a woman in an incredibly sexist time period while also remaining vulnerable; every time Percy chooses to leave Nina, it hurts and Miller explores this hurt in subtly different ways in each segment of the film. Like Hunnam’s Percy, Miller’s Nina is not the same person who she was at the onset of the story, and it’s an accomplishment of both writing and performance that the film manages to have a full arc for two wildly different characters within the span of two-and-a-half hours.

Die versunkene Stadt Z

Robert Pattinson as Henry Costin. Property of Amazon Studios.

Lastly, Robert Pattinson plays Percy’s aide de camp, Henry Costin. He too has a memorable arc, starting as an aimless alcoholic with a knack for mapping, he eventually becomes Percy’s most reliable friend and advocate. Despite his support of Percy’s pursuit of Z, Costin comes to represent the voice of reason in the film. Though proud of their work in their expeditions, his life is more than the jungle, serving as a point of conflict between the two characters as the film progresses. Pattinson is one of the most promising, daring actors working today and I continue to be impressed with the diversity and strength of his performances. His work here as Costin is truly inspired; Pattinson walks the tightrope between reliable friend and well-mean devil’s advocate in a way that contrasts perfectly with Hunnam’s strained, unflagging drive.

Lost City of Z

Property of Amazon Studios.

Though mainly a performance piece, the work of the actors would mean nothing without the remarkable script by writer/director James Gray. How he wrestled such a broad and detailed book into so sprawling, yet concise a film is beyond me. His characters are filled with life, have fully realized stories, and grow, change, and regress in a number of compelling ways. His artful direction, further realized by cinematographer Darius Khondji (Midnight in Paris, Se7en, Delicatessen), presents the Amazon in a spellbinding, multifaceted manner; it’s dangerous and beautiful, ancient and exciting, filled with wonder as well as dread.

Lost City of Z

Property of Amazon Studios.

A triumph of classic filmmaking, The Lost City of Z is one of the best film’s I’ve seen this year. It’s a story of obsession and need, both epic in scope and painfully intimate. I would be satisfied with nominations for Hunnam, Miller, and Pattinson, as well as the script, direction, and cinematography; it’s really that good. James Gray has created something truly special here. See it and experience the wonder of the Amazon and the tantalizing promise of Z.