In Sunday’s New York Times, inspired, I suspect, by Black History Month, movie critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis had a long piece on the glaring absence of black writers, directors, and actors in this year’s Oscar nominated movies. They refer to this phenomenon as a “whiteout.” Some might say that Scott answered his own question—why there are no major movies this year by or about black characters (never mind the rest of America’s non-white racial panoply; Scott never mentions them)—with his rather insightful piece of a few weeks back, “Hollywood’s Class Warfare,” which argued that in the wake of the financial crisis, in the midst of mass unemployment, mortgage defaults, and forecloses, many American filmmakers became preoccupied by class, and that some of the best of this year’s movies (The Fighter, Winter’s Bone, The Town) were about working-class and underclass lives, the kinds of lives that the dominant American class mentality—we’re-all-middle-class-here—doesn’t acknowledge or examine all that often.
Yes, I know: there are still a great many statistics that demonstrate that race and poverty’s fault-lines still mirror each other, still have a causal rather than accidental relationship, and thus that class is not the new race: that race is the new race and the old race. But, it’s Hollywood we’re talking about, and we can’t ask them to attend to too many weighty aspects of American life at once. So, at least for this year in American movies, the answer to the rhetorical question in “Hollywood and the Year of the Whiteout,” “Is class the new race?,” is yes: For Hollywood this year class was the new race.
That doesn’t mean that this year’s “whiteout” isn’t a problem. But neither the problem nor the answer to the problem are quite what the authors here take them to be, though they touch on the real answer fleetingly.
The problems with the argument? First, and most obviously, when there’s a whiteout year in Hollywood, black isn’t the only color that’s missing. And, second, the solution to the whiteout is not, as is suggested, a new black indie cinema movement—a few new Spike Lee/Lee Daniels-style black moviemakers. Or, at least, that’s not the full answer.
My sense is that the way out of the whiteout requires something more subtle, something unprecedented. The answer isn’t just a new coterie of black directors making movies in the line of Do The Right Thing or Precious. More serious films about black American life in our yearly cinematic output would be great, don’t get me wrong. But there’s something else American cinema needs more now—something we’ve only had accidental and fleeting glimpses of thus far.
What we need are more serious movies with multiracial characters/casts that aren’t SCARE QUOTES MOVIES ABOUT RACE END SCARE QUOTES. We need more movies that simultaneously are and aren’t about race: movies that are dramas and comedies, about love, death, the usual human plots—and also happen to be about race. We don’t need only highly self-conscious, politicized movies about race, but movies that look at race the way Ben Affleck’s The Town look at class: askance—Affleck uses a popular genre, a crime-thriller, to smuggle a story that’s really about class onto the big screen. This is also how Lisa Cholodenko asks us to think about sexual orientation in The Kids Are Alright: The movie’s lesbianism is sort of incidental. The movie is about a marriage undergoing a crisis brought about by a daughter’s departure for college–oh, and the couple happens to be gay. Cholodenko does not tell us that gay love, marriage, or family exist in a special category of experience unfelt and un-feel-able by heterosexuals: She tells us that the struggles marriage and children involve are a basic human experience, whatever the sexes of those involved.
I’m not saying that we as a nation have arrived at an idyllic, post-racial (or post-sexual orientation, or post-class) age in which we do not need MOVIES ABOUT RACE, but we could also use a less melodramatic, less strident cinema of race in the vein of The Kids Are Alright that’s just about sort of normal human plots inflected by the post-racial-ish reality that has come to define more and more of our lives. Because in some American communities, in some American homes and workplaces—more and more, I think—a version of the post-racial age has arrived and it’s not because we have a biracial president. We’re married to and related by marriage to and work with and hang out with people of other races and nationalities, and at the end of the day our relationships with these people aren’t really all that different from our relationships with those of our own races. It’s sort of mundane, actually. Bi-racial marriages and friendships are actually pretty much like any other marriages and friendships most of the time.
Are there moments of fracture sometimes—a sense that your partner of another race is experiencing or feeling something you can’t? Yes, certainly. And are there strange moments in bi-racial relationships in which you suddenly feel as if your marriage/friendship is some sort of radical political choice—that you’re poster-children for something (usually caused by other people’s delighting in/awkwardness about your biracial-ness)? Again, yes. And I hope that this new cinema I imagine would capture and explain such moments with the subtlety they deserve. But most of the time in interracial relationships, it’s all the same laundry-on-the-floor, bills, celebrations, in-laws, dishes, fights, compromises that the same-race couple next door are dealing with. And I hope my new cinema would capture this too—how normal and humdrum inter-racial relationships can be.
This American experience has yet to make its way onto the screen, but we catch glimpses of it: A.O. Scott sort of touches on this idea of naturalizing race when he talks about 2009’s The Hurt Locker and its focus on “the volatile friendship between two soldiers, a hot-headed white bomb-disposal specialist played by Jeremy Renner and his cautious black sergeant played by Anthony Mackie. Race in that movie was not a theme or a problem to be solved, but rather a subtle, complex fact of life.” This is what I’m talking about. In an ever-increasing number of American lives it’s probably this kind of representation—race as “subtle, complex fact of life”—that feels most resonant. This understated mode (friends and coworkers first; incidentally, black and white) is a norm for more and more Americans and it should become a stronger presence in our movies. Race, for some of us now, isn’t a be-all-and-end-all melodramatically determinative fact of life, but a fact nonetheless—one that inflects our lives in increasingly subtle, nuanced ways—ways that have only just begun to be reflected in our movies.
What we need now are not white movies with Benetton tokenism (think Harry Potter: Cho Chang and the Patel twins), nor movies that ghettoize racial experience. What we need now, if our movies are to reflect American life as it is lived by more and more of us, is not white or black, but multiracial, biracial—movies whose plots and characters show how people of all races, not just white and black, combine and intersect in more mundane ways (marriage, friendship, work) and how these intersections have their particular, subtle racially-inflected nuances but are also just that—friendships, work, marriages.
“You may say what you want to, but in my opinion she had more sand in her than any girl I ever see; in my opinion she was just full of sand. It sounds like flattery, but it ain’t no flattery.”
Appraising this cinematic year, it’s these words, Huckleberry Finn’s description of the resourceful and feisty Mary Jane Watson, that offer the best summing up. It was, to be sure, a year of great film roles for women—Natalie Portman and Barbara Hershey in Black Swan; Julianne Moore, Annette Bening, and Mia Wasikowska in Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are Alright; Greta Gerwig in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg, the eternally mesmerizing Tilda Swinton in the operatic I Am Love, an all too brief glimpse of the effortless Sissy Spacek in Get Low. If there was a reigning ethos in the films (and cinematic novels: think The Hunger Games) of 2010, it was girls on fire, girls doing men’s work. A.O. Scott contends that this movie year was all about class, and it certainly was, but it was also about gritty girls. 2010 gave us the first best director Oscar for a female director, Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker (a film about the very masculine world of war), Angelina Jolie as Evelyn Salt (a role originally written for a male lead, Tom Cruise), and Helen Mirren resplendent as Prospera, a transgendered version of Shakespeare’s Prospero, in Julie Taymor’s exuberant and impressive (if, as usual, somewhat chaotic) adaption of The Tempest.
But perhaps more noteworthy than these great performances, blockbusterings, and transgenderings was this year’s critical mass of girls on fire: self-possessed, irrepressible young female characters played by self-possessed, irrepressible young female actors—girls, as Huck Finn would say, “just full of sand”:
Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly in Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone. Set and filmed in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, Winter’s Bone offers a vision of another America, somewhat evocative of that depicted in James Agee and Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It is a world of stoic, rural poverty, crank cooking, and intense, absolute clannishness. “Bred and buttered” in this world, 17-year-old Ree Dolly, played by the quietly luminous and quietly assertive Jennifer Lawrence, finds herself suddenly the head of her household, caretaker to a virtually catatonic mother and two much younger siblings, and in desperate need of answers that violate her community’s strict code of silence and hierarchy. “Ain’t you got no men to do this?” a hard-bitten, suspicious meth matriarch asks Ree when she comes seeking answers about her father’s whereabouts. Ree doesn’t. In the absence of parents and guardians, she must make her own way among the brutal, hostile adults who hold the means to her family’s salvation. Lawrence hits just the right balance playing Ree: as capable of a square-chinned, fend-for-myself, (even) fuck-you attitude—while splitting logs, shooting and skinning squirrels, standing her ground with belligerent police, drug kingpins, and bail-bondsmen—and of the vulnerable, frightened fragility of a child out of her depth. It is this balance that makes Ree’s courage (and Lawrence’s performance) more impressive—because we know her ability to challenge the rules of her world isn’t reflexive: it’s an act she wills herself to out of love for her family and her certainty that justice is on her side.
Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire. Feel as you will about sexual politics, prose, or plotting of Steig Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy, I dare you not to be impressed by Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish film versions of Larsson’s novels. Among recent filmic evocations of androgyny, Rapace’s Salander stands on par—perhaps above?—Lina Leandersson’s Eli (Let The Right One In), Jonathan Rhys-Meyers’ Brian Slade in Velvet Goldmine, Ally Sheedy in High Art, even Tilda Swinton’s masculine/feminine gold standard (Orlando, Constantine). Rapace embodies Salander, Larsson’s dark recasting of Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking (she who outwits and overpowers men many times her size and age). The most obvious vehicle of Rapace’s masculine femininity is her body, which she trained meticulously before filming began: the squarely set, muscled shoulders, the corded sinews and veins in her arms, neck, and hands; her somehow simultaneously masculine and feminine breast/pectorals. More impressive still is Rapace’s total and absolutely convincing masculine affect: how she sets her mouth, how she takes off her jacket, smokes, eats, drinks, stands, walks. (Nota Bene: You can’t fully appreciate the quality and extent of Rapace’s morph without seeing her out of character, say being interviewed on Charlie Rose). In one of the movie’s best scenes, Lisbeth, in half-fastened combat boots, smokes outside the cabin she’s sharing with the middle-aged journalist, Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist). It’s a morning after: the night before, Salander has rather unceremoniously had her way with Blomkvist. She walks in brusquely and sits down; Blomkvist looks solicitously at her as she, avoiding his eyes, squirts ketchup on the plate of eggs he’s cooked for her. While Lisbeth shovels down her food with the gusto and unselfconsciousness of a teenage boy, licking her strong, nail-bitten fingers, gulping her coffee, Blomkvist eats small bites delicately, watching her intently, curiously. Nyqvist’s evocations of Leopold Bloom’s “new womanly man” are good, but Rapace’s indomitable, inscrutable Salander is breathtaking.
Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, in True Grit. Strange to say that among the gritty cast of the Coen brothers’ latest, the straight-backed, apple-cheeked Hailee Steinfeld is grittiest of them all. Steinfeld plays Mattie Ross, a hard-bargain-driving, Bible-quoting, law-minded 14-year-old determined to bring her father’s killer to justice with her own hands—and a little help from crusty US Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and the be-fringed Texas Ranger LeBeef (Matt Damon). The crux of Mattie’s character is her unwavering faith in the righteousness of her cause and her absolute determination to “see the thing done” herself. Mattie is also preternaturally articulate and unnervingly, delightfully at home in the world of men, a sort of puritan Calamity Jane. She attempts to engage Cogburn in business negotiations through the door of a barroom jakes and when this doesn’t work invites herself into his bedroom, unfazed by his filth and undress; when LeBeef shows up in her boardinghouse bedroom with his rifle, Mattie’s verbal sparring and continued poise leave LeBeef visibly disconcerted. But, as in Winter’s Bone, the beauty is in the balance: For all her crackshot repartee, Latin, and Scripture, Mattie’s still very much a tenderfoot (flinching reflexively at gunshots and severed fingers, weeping at the death of her pony). The clear-eyed Steinfeld delivers Mattie’s steel and fragility with a light touch—a perfectly natural, steady frankness that is as charming as it is convincing.
Kristen Stewart as young Joan Jett in The Runaways. Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning starring together in a movie that doesn’t, in a word, suck. Fanning is as good as Stewart in this biopic about the original all-girl rock band, The Runaways (often better known as Joan Jett’s launching pad), but her character, the Runaways’ lead singer, Cherie Curry, is that all too common creature: a thin-skinned, compulsively seductive young woman and she doesn’t, in the end, have the hunger or stamina for fame or rock and roll. Sultry and lipstick-feisty but ultimately tediously fragile and difficult, Fanning’s Curry just isn’t as interesting a specimen as Stewart’s Jett—a little feral, sure and not sure of herself at the same time, aggressive and shy by turns. Gruff, hunched, and twitchy—almost stuttering at times, almost pre-verbal—Stewart’s Jett is portrait of the artist as a young woman on the verge of finding her voice.
And, perhaps a rogue choice: Hayley Atwell as Lady Aliena of Shiring in The Pillars of The Earth (an adaption of Ken Follet’s historical novel of the same name). Yes, gothic ridiculousness abounds in this tale of the building of a medieval cathedral and its attendant machinations: poisoned cups, self-flagellating monks with unholy ambitions, bloody dreams and rhyming prophecies, the Michael Bay/Ridley Scott-style galloping-high-drama-at-every-turn theme music. But if you can stomach the melodrama, this production also has a ripping rise-and-fall plot and about as fine a cast as you’re likely to see anywhere, including Donald Sutherland, Matthew McFaddyen, Rufus Sewell, Eddie Redmayne, Allison Pill, and Ian McShane (as the unholy priest, Bishop Waleran—seeing the man who played Deadwood‘s Al Swerengin tonsured and in episcopal robes is a meta-delight of its own). Foremost among the female cast is the young, English actress Hayley Atwell. Atwell’s still waiting for a great role (she was Julia Flyte in the recent, ill-concieved Brideshead Revisited and Bess Foster in the equally ill-conceived The Duchess) but even in flawed productions Atwell distinguishes herself. In Pillars, she plays the spirited Lady Aliena, whose family loses their land and title in the political upheavals of the 12th-century English succession crisis known as “The Anarchy.” Determined to regain her family’s name and prominence, Aliena turns wool merchant and builds the family’s prospects again, one fleece at a time. Atwell plays the fall from the charmed life and the determined climb out of poverty with a passion, almost a rage, that’s sometimes electrifying—made the more striking by her diction and delivery (classical training highly apparent).
And finally, in brief: Chloe Moretz who played the c-bomb dropping, infant assassin Hit Girl in Kick-Ass and Abby the infant vampire in Let Me In (the unsubtle American remake of the Swedish Let The Right One In). While some (me among them) found Kick-Ass disturbing and not as clever as it thought it was, Moretz did manage to project an actorly verve superior to her surroundings, as she did in the redundant Let Me In. And perhaps meatier roles lie ahead: Moretz has her eye on the role of Katniss Everdeen in the inevitable film versions of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy. And really finally, last but not least: Elle Fanning in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere. Coppola’s film is quieter than the others here: Fanning II’s character, Cleo, isn’t toting guns (she packs an iPhone and the most expressive pair of eyes since Pruitt Taylor Vince) or going toe-to-toe with outlaws (just a jaded moviestar dad in crisis) but she radiates the poise, the same woman-girlishness, the same knowingness beyond her years (as well as a child’s fears, loves, needs), that animates so many of these fine roles.
This is Huck Finn, signing off: “She was the best girl I ever see, and had the most sand.” And may girls, on screen and off, grow ever sandier in 2011.
The Oscars, for as long as I can remember watching them, have been a tangle of thorns. The bramble invariably bears fruit, but the berries are often difficult to reach, or worse yet, unripe. Last year’s Slumdog Millionaire was not the worst movie to win Best Picture—let us not forget Crash, Return of the King, and Million Dollar Baby, just to name three from this decade—but it was still green: a simple film in the basest sense, one that glanced at big themes like poverty and class warfare, but refused, ultimately, to scrutinize them. As I wrote in a review of a much better film last year (Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre):
Slumdog was a financial success for the same reason that it was an artistic failure: it skimmed, both cinematographically and emotionally, over its subjects. It purported to be about class struggle in India, and the requisite horrors of poverty. But instead it was a shiny, loud, and clean fairytale. Slumdog overcame tragedy, but the adversity dramatized was so disingenuous that the triumph seemed saccharine at worst, and shallow at best. A lot of people, though, must have seen Boyle’s allegory as fresh and optimistic, and the film rode that sentiment to the Oscars.
The Best Picture award, expanded this year to ten nominees, seemed at first like an ecumenical gesture on the part of the Academy. I loved the idea that more small films, hypothetically, would get to stand beside the studio epics. And though The Hurt Locker and A Serious Man made the cut, so did Avatar, District 9 and The Blind Side, suggesting to me that the dilution of the category was more a wink and a nod to thoughtful filmmakers than a sincere unification with them. Where was A Single Man? Where was Antichrist? Why was Up nominated for Best Picture and Best Animated Feature?
The Hurt Locker is another sort of film. It follows the fate of three soldiers in Iraq charged with disarming IEDs in Baghdad. Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) replaces Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce) after Thompson is killed in the line of duty. James is as unconcerned with danger as James Bond is with venereal disease, and he approaches his work with the spiritual calm of a man raking a rock garden. What is immediately evident watching The Hurt Locker is that the film is existential rather than polemical. The soldiers aren’t interested in why they’re in country. The other men on James’ team—Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are concerned only with surviving until they leave. James, on the other hand, seems captivated by his work and pursues it with the Platonic conviction that all labor is ethically sound if done excellently.
Along with The Messenger, which I reviewed for The Millions, I saw The Hurt Locker as a testament to what “popular” cinema should strive to be. Just because I love Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, and feel that, stylistically and ethically, it’s one of the most important films of the decade, doesn’t mean I expect it to ever find a broad American audience (it’s in black and white, for one, and for another, the actors speak German). The Hurt Locker, on the other hand, combined with the suspense of more traditional action fare (say, The Bourne Identity) the moral quandaries of Dr. Strangelove and the chauvinistic camaraderie of The Decline of the American Empire, all without delivering a simple message. In The Hurt Locker, war is both despicable and intoxicating. Some soldiers can’t wait to get home, and others dread leaving the battlefield. And yet it was popular amongst servicemen and critics alike. Emily Colette Wilkinson, who commented on my review “The Holy Trinity: Three Iraq War Films Define a New Apolitical Aesthetic,” wrote that her sister in Afghanistan loved The Hurt Locker. “It seems to have really connected with soldiers.”
All of this is to say that, from a commercial and an artistic perspective, The Hurt Locker was a revelatory example of the kind of film that could be made near Hollywood, if not exactly inside it. If it were to beat out Avatar, somehow, the Academy Awards were no longer a circle-jerk (as a friend of mine so quaintly put it), but, if briefly, a coronation ceremony for some damned fine art.
Before the show began, I was convinced that Avatar would win, though in retrospect that conviction came from the fact that everyone else seemed convinced it would. I have friends who enjoyed it, and I even lunched with two acquaintances a month back who thought it was not only the best film of the season, but perhaps the greatest achievement in cinematographic history. But, as my roommate Ty (who was born around the time Pete Rose broke Ty Cobb’s hitting record and was named, somewhat ironically, after the great, morally bankrupt Cobb) put it, to paraphrase, the Avatar champions were confusing spectacle with good storytelling. Avatar was a miracle if you saw it stoned in 3-D IMAX and ignored the performances and the dialogue, but a disaster if you paid attention to the actors and the lines they delivered. A technological marvel does not a best picture make, one could say. Avatar deserved every special effects award it got nominated for. But how, phenomena aside, can a film that garners no writing or acting nods possibly be an appropriate candidate for Best Picture? Fundamentally, shouldn’t a great film be an amalgamation of writing, acting, photography, and direction? The Hurt Locker was nominated, in addition to sound editing and mixing, for acting, writing, photography, and directing, as well as for the overall product. Avatar, on the other hand, was up for sound, special effects, cinematography, and directing, but received no acknowledgments whatsoever for its screenplay or the actors—digitally rendered or otherwise—who brought those stale lines to half life.
This polemic (for what else could you call my assault on James Cameron?) may seem a little cruel in the wake of the awards. Avatar, as it turns out, lost to The Hurt Locker on all the narrative fronts, and some of the technical ones, too. It won for best special effects, cinematography, and art direction, but The Hurt Locker won Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture. Perhaps I’m in shock still, and expect to read in a few days that all of Kathryn Bigelow’s accolades got rescinded and heaped upon the Na’vi. But I think my unrest, or at least my disbelief in The Hurt Locker’s success, is grounded in my fear that the 82nd Academy Awards were an anomaly rather than the birth of a trend. Last night’s ceremony was, undoubtedly, an unprecedented victory for small films. The Hurt Locker cost $14 million to make, and Avatar $2 billion, if I’m misremembering my figures correctly. And James Cameron doesn’t lose many contests he’s expecting to win, especially to his ex-wife.
My hope, in the end, is that the incessant hype around Avatar didn’t simply annoy voters until they voted against it, out of nothing more than spite. My dream is that the republic of Hollywood, in its lovely dresses and tailored tuxedos, realized that a poor story poorly told papered over with handsome colors and textures is still nothing more than a poor story. Avatar has revolutionized, one suspects, the way big movies will get made in the future. But it did nothing to illuminate the human condition. The Hurt Locker, though, will haunt moviegoers long after Cameron’s virtual camera technology is commonplace on Monday Night Football broadcasts. Avatar is the new technological benchmark—which means it’s transient. Eventually something will surpass it. The Hurt Locker, conversely, like any true work of art, is permanent.
For the last five years, movies about America’s various Middle East conflicts have been, broadly speaking, polemical, didactic, and forgettable. Brian De Palma’s Redacted, which grossed all of $65,000 domestically and received stateside critical acclaim comparable to Surfer Dude, typifies, at least statistically, this first generation of contemporary American war films. Then in July came The Hurt Locker (the Father), and in November The Messenger (the Son), whose hands-off approach to desert warfare politics signaled, shall we say, an aesthetic sand-change. Neither Katheryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) nor Oren Moverman (The Messenger) spent much time moralizing about the war; they exchanged national horrors for personal ones, and the results have been revolutionary. As I wrote in an earlier review of The Hurt Locker:
The Hurt Locker is not a sentimental portrait of brotherhood (the soldiers bond by drinking and punching each other in the stomach). And yet somewhere within the first half-hour I found myself wishing I were with them in the desert. The soldiers’ work is arduous, to say nothing of deadly, but Staff Sergeant James’ (Jeremy Renner) approach to defusing his bombs is elegantly simple. He appears at peace working, and that calm amidst one of the tensest dramas in recent film history is intoxicating. He is not so different from the poet striving to write a clear image.
Two films, though, do not make a movement any more than solid and liquid represent the states of matter. But Brothers, Jim Sheridan’s semi-masterpiece about the aftermath of war, appeared last Friday, and like the Holy Ghost—that gaseous limb of the set—completed the trinity.
The Hurt Locker and The Messenger document, with almost mutual exclusion, the poles of deployment. The Hurt Locker, save for ten minutes near the end of the film, takes place in Iraq. Conversely The Messenger, excluding a brief flashback to an army base near Baghdad, plays out in the United States, following around two soldiers who deliver the news of combat deaths to next of kin. Brothers attempts a synthesis of these two stages. It is the most ambitious of the three films, and accordingly the least successful. Captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) gets shipped off to Afghanistan, where his helicopter is promptly shot down. Back in the States, his young wife, Grace (Natalie Portman), and brother, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), both believe he’s dead, and in a moment of mutual need one night strike up a pseudo-chaste affair. They do nothing more than kiss, but that’s enough. Whether out of desperation or something more permanent, they fall in love. Then one afternoon Grace gets a phone call. Captain Cahill was captured, not killed. He’s alive, well(ish), and shipping home.
This scenario should be an equation for great filmmaking, and Jim Sheridan delivers no shortage of drama (cabinets are smashed, guns are waved). But Captain Cahill’s arc—specifically his imprisonment in the mountains—feels somehow gratuitous. Though the events that take place in Afghanistan are the cause of Sam’s psychological break, Brothers could have been a much more powerful film if the cameras hadn’t crossed the Atlantic with him. In The Messenger, for instance, all the violence takes place offstage, leaving us to imagine the trauma overseas, but forcing us to watch the domestic horror as family after family loses a child. Oren Moverman, whether due to budgetary constraints or simple good taste, doesn’t recreate the battlefield on screen.
The great revelation of The Messenger happens on a couch. Near the end of the film, Staff Sergeant Montgomery (Ben Foster) and Captain Stone (Woody Harrelson) sit in a living room, and Montgomery tells the story of his last firefight in Baghdad. A lesser performer than Foster might have failed to convey, through anecdote, the gravity of losing your men in war, so one could argue that Brothers didn’t have the talent to pull off such a narrative coup. But Sheridan’s movie is full of astounding, subtle acting. Tobey Maguire is as menacing silent as he is loud, and at times he gets very loud. It seems ironic, therefore, that Sheridan, who inspired some of the most extraordinary performances of the last twenty years (Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot is almost unbeatable, even by Lewis’ other egos), didn’t trust his cast to do the heavy psychic lifting.
Sheridan is more comfortable at the dinner table or in the kitchen than he is in a burning helicopter. Therefore the dramatic inconsistencies between his staging of his Afghani and American scenes lie in his inability, or at least lesser ability, to illustrate violence effectively. Following that logic, it might not come as a surprise that the most harrowing scene in Brothers is not when Cahill hides from a sniper under a rocky outcropping, or falls from the sky in a burning airship, but rather when he meets the young son of Private Willis, a Marine he watched die in Afghanistan. The boy crawls out of the family room, where Willis’ widow and Grace are talking. From all fours the boy stares at Cahill. This tension between man and infant is more terrifying, and more saturated with complex guilt, than anything Sheridan conjures up on the battlefield between soldier and terrorist.
No doubt the success of that scene, and for that matter all of Sheridan’s domestic scenes, has something to do with visual patience. During a meal, Sheridan’s camera isn’t dynamic. But when a scene is supposed to be hectic, like in the mountains of Afghanistan, Sheridan directs his lens hectically. Conversely, The Hurt Locker, a far superior action film to Brothers, induces anxiety through stasis. That film’s most tormenting scene—a man approaching an Army checkpoint wearing an explosive vest—does not utilize music or manipulative editing that might detract from the impending horror. Thus The Hurt Locker’s violence unfolds, instead, with the visual calm of a conversation. If Sheridan had shot his war like Bigelow shot hers, or like he did his Thanksgiving dinner, he’d deserve to stand alongside Bigelow and Moverman as one of the best directors this year.
But Sheridan does succeed (though still not as well as Bigelow or Moverman) in removing most of his personal political perspective. Perhaps not since Franklin J. Schaffner made Patton has a director—or in this case three directors—abstained from commenting on the ethics of war so thoroughly. Granted, Sheridan makes a caricature of the Afghani tribesmen who kidnap Captain Cahill, but you certainly couldn’t convict him of demonstrating liberal bias. If anything, his depiction of the enemy is flat and narrow; and at least publicly, that’s the conservatives’ characterization.
War is in the end too devastating and too personal to expend much energy concocting a general morality lesson. Bigelow, Moverman, and Sheridan aren’t lionizing battle, but neither are they condemning it. Nations fight, they seem to be saying, our men and women bleed, and everything beyond that is a distraction. For that objectivity alone, all three of these films deserve to be lauded, if Brothers a bit more reservedly. Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone may arrest the trend next spring (March is historically a bad month for film releases), but for now we have a renaissance on our hands.
Whether or not Invictus—Clint Eastwood’s forthcoming film about South African rugby—manages to sentimentalize apartheid, the 2009 film season has already been defined by gritty, emotional realism. Kathryn Bigelow’s anti-epic, The Hurt Locker, was the first fictional film on the Iraq War to approximate the conflict psychologically. Save for David Simon’s HBO miniseries Generation Kill, only The Hurt Locker achieves verisimilitude; sitting through the picture in the theater must feel something like serving in country. More recently, Lars von Trier’s harrowing, and ultimately, despicable masterpiece Antichrist, was at least as unwatchable, to those who haven’t suffered such a loss, as losing a child is unimaginable.
Lee Daniels’ second feature, Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, (the novel was adapted by Geoffrey Fletcher), does for life in the ghetto what Bigelow did for modern war, and von Trier for filicide. At the start of the film, Precious (Gabourey ‘Gabby’ Sidibe) is sixteen, illiterate, obese, and pregnant with her own father’s child—for the second time. She’s a quiet girl in the initial scenes, and when we first hear her speak it’s in voiceover. Though she may be piteous—in fact, there may never have been a character more deserving of sympathy—her tone isn’t pitiable. Precious lives in her imagination, and it is only in her fantasies that she finds sovereignty. At home with her mother, she is a slave in the truest sense: she’s an indentured servant and a source of income for her master. Welfare is the lone industry in the film, and the greater the recipient’s need appears, the larger the monthly check. For Precious’ mother, Mary (Mo’Nique), to survive without working, she must keep Precious—and whatever issues from Precious—under her ward. Before a visit from their social worker, Mary’s mother brings over Precious’ first child, whom Mary, on paper, claims as her own. The girl is a product of incest and afflicted with Down syndrome. She’s called Mongo, short for mongoloid. We’re never given her real name.
Precious is, throughout, a film about perverse subjugation. Mary profits from her control over Precious (the fuller the house, the greater the yield), but the gains themselves are dependent upon stasis. If Precious leaves the house, Mary can’t eat. Precious, therefore, is a resource and a crutch, and as any head of an empire, Mary fights violently to keep her progeny in the commonwealth. In an early scene, after a counselor from Precious’ school stops by the apartment building to conference with Mary, thinking she’ll be reported—for abuse and neglect, ostensibly—Mary attacks her daughter, throwing at her whatever she can find, in this case a shoe. Later, she throws a television.
The film is in many ways unbearable to watch, and because of that all the more necessary to see. But unlike Antichrist, for instance, which was relentlessly horrific to no purpose (and still astounding in spite of that), Precious strives to alleviate misery. Precious moves to an alternative school where she meets Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), who commits herself wholeheartedly to Precious’ resurrection. What keeps this plot point from turning saccharine, though, is the fact that Precious herself may be past saving. Even if she were to earn her GED and go to college, by the end of the film, one feels, as an observer, that her psychic wounds are too deep to close. How can she, for instance, tell her son about his father?
Precious is the preeminent victim of her circumstances. But at the same time, excepting a few intense moments of introspection (the grandest one being the final encounter she has with her mother at the welfare office, a scene that may be the most terrifyingly cathartic of the year—surpassing even Charlotte Gainsbourg’s self-mutilation scene in Antichrist) she doesn’t dwell very long on her plight. And that she remains optimistic in spite of everything is either this film’s greatest flaw, or its triumph. If it’s the latter—and I would argue it is—Precious is much more than an exposé of poverty or an argument against government aid. It earns its optimism, if only because the labors necessary to achieve that hope are so awful.
When Precious leaves the welfare office, carrying her son, and holding her daughter’s hand, I thought of the close of Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. After the execution of the innocent deserters in that film, the surviving soldiers sit in a mess hall. A beautiful young woman comes out onto the stage. The men jeer her as she begins to sing. But soon they stop. They’re unable to summon more insults. The beauty of her art, for that moment, eliminates their horrors. Similarly, Precious’ love for her children wipes away, temporarily, the mess of her circumstances.
Lee Daniels, by making this film, trained his eye—subjective as that eye may sometimes seem—on a family whose abhorrent situation, terrifyingly enough, isn’t unique. For many audiences (even those familiar with the fourth season of The Wire), Precious ought to come as a sickening shock. Despite its dream sequences and fantasies, it is overwhelmingly real.