Bear good

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I pity any film up against The Revenant at this year’s big awards. Not because I personally think it is an unassailable piece of filmmaking – although, incidentally, I do think that – but because it has that prevailing wind behind it already, the one that saw films as diversely deserving and undeserving as Shakespeare In Love, Gravity, Terms Of Endearment, The Artist, Amadeus, Kramer Vs Kramer, Gandhi, On The Waterfront, From Here To Eternity, West Side Story and Ben-Hur win big, and across the board, leaving all comers in their jet-propelled wake. As I always state for the record at awards season time: I prefer to be surprised on Oscar night (and Bafta night, and Golden Globes night), but a consensus can sometimes build, whether it’s within the Hollywood Foreign Press Association or the British or American Academies. If The Revenant does what I expect it to (and what it has already done at the Globes, with the big three in the Drama category all nabbed: Picture, Director, Actor), then its nearest rivals may find themselves heading for the exit, pursued by a bear.

I don’t often do this, but I have seen The Revenant twice. I saw it twice in the space of four days. I was so enraptured by its broad canvas, its artistic vision, its sodden tactility, its elemental power, and its on-the-hoof, let’s-eat-the-snow-right-here acting, I had to return to see how it felt when I knew what was coming. I have to tell you, foreknowledge is no witherer of its strange, ugly-beautiful magic. The only hope for the other big nominees is in the female categories, as the women in The Revenant do not get very much to do, it has to be said.

Put away the Bechdel test. It meets the first criterion: it must have at least two women in it. But not the second two: the women must talk to each other, about something besides a man. The film’s principal cast list contains two women: Grace Dove, who plays Leonardo Di Caprio’s deceased Pawnee wife, and Melaw Nakehnk’o, who plays Powaqa, the kidnapped daughter of an Arikara (“Ree”) tribal chief. The first is seen only in wordless flashback, where she is shot dead by a British soldier; the second is glimpsed being dragged off to be raped by a French trapper, then rescued by Leo, but empowered to exact her own poetic revenge on her abuser. You might applaud that outcome, but it takes Powaqa being enslaved and sexually assaulted for it to happen.

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I make no claims for the feminism of either the fictional or fictionalised 19th century menfolk in this western. Will Poulter and to an extent Domnhall Gleason play male characters with a moral compass, but by and large the American and English protagonists are a bunch of cavemen in furs with muskets and Bowie knives. Tom Hardy essays another venal baddie to add to Alfie in Peaky Blinders and both Krays in Legend; he is Leo’s nemesis, and very much a loner, out for himself, with no crumpled photograph of a sweetheart in his man bag. This is a rough, tough world of hunting, shooting, fishing, whoring and breaking things (in which sense: how very like our own Conservative cabinet). There is a fine tradition of independent and able women in westerns, but they tend to be subjugated in what is a deeply patriarchal world.

The Revenant makes no retrofitted liberal concessions to modern thinking, and in a way, why should it? These are violent men, raping the land and natural resources of indigenous people for profit. From this testosterone-stinking malaise, Leo’s Hugh Glass is as close as a Guardian reader as you could hope for: a principled man who married a Pawnee and had a “half-breed” son with her, risking disenfranchisement and worse for sleeping with the enemy. But his Pawnee empathy gives him a spirituality – and a drive to survive – that his peers perhaps do not possess. Their mistreatment of him forces him to live for revenge. The world of The Revenant brutalises even the most open-hearted. It’s like a war movie that’s really an anti-war movie; it can only be such by showing that war is hell.

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Aware of all of this, I was surprised at the vehemently negative response of trustworthy Observer writer Carole Cadwalladr. In a piece at the weekend, she unleashed these sentiments (having seen The Revenant before Christmas). Kicking off with objectively fair images of what’s in the film (“Ritualised brutality. Vengeful blood lust. Vicious savagery justified by medieval notions of retribution”), she then moves to undermine what is a serious film by calling it “the hottest blockbuster of the season … and yours for around £10-£15 this weekend at your local multiplex”. I assume she knows that not all films at your local multiplex are romantic comedies or Pixar animations. She quotes male critics (alright, too many national newspaper critics are male), who have praised the film’s “revenge, retribution and primal violence” and “unthinking, aggressive masculinity.” However, I don’t see this as a binary issue of male versus female, violent versus non-violent, blockbuster versus arthouse.

She does: “I’ll summarise the plot for you: man seeks revenge, man gets revenge. That’s it, basically, for two and a half hours, though there is a brief reprieve when you get to see Leonardo DiCaprio being mauled by a grizzly bear.” She counts the women onscreen, as I have done, but she misses out the silent squaw in a ruined encampment whom Will Poulter’s character feeds and leave alone, daring not to alert his aggressive “partner” Hardy to her presence. (She does not speak either, but the Native Americans we see seem to be men of few words and many thoughts.)

“The woman is not actually raped, of course,” Cadwalladr faux-complains. “She’s faux raped. Because this is what we call acting. And because The Revenant is what we call entertainment.” Who is calling The Revenant “entertainment”? It’s a fair question. It’s not the first noun I’d reach for. It’s an experience, maybe even an endurance, but was I “entertained”? By the spectacle, the scope and the thrill of the escape, certainly. But it’s tough going, this film. It’s not like a fairground ride, with sanitised ups and downs, it’s a slog. A wet, dirty, infected, sore, painful, blood-stained and spit-flecked assault course for the senses. It’s not boring, but it’s not a showbiz spectacular and there are few jokes or dance routines. To call it “entertainment” – as I rather suspect people in marketing aren’t even calling it – is to make a spurious point.

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I like Carole Cadwalladr’s writing, but she freeforms after this, saying that we “choose to pay to watch women being pretend raped rather than watching women being actually raped for free.” I’m not sure that’s a conscious choice for me. “Even the ending is ambiguous, and leaves many questions unanswered and issues unresolved. Nobody rides off into the sunset,” she correctly observes (in the Observer), thus undercutting her own sneer that The Revenant is “entertainment.” Oh dear. She speaks, disapprovingly, of a “well-oiled publicity machine of the type that fuels an Academy Awards clean sweep”, as if The Revenant isn’t entitled to pitch for recognition by its industry peers. Some Academy members may be disengaged enough to be “bought” by studio enticements, but most of these old, white men will only vote for a film because they liked it, now matter how old, white and male they statistically are. Many of them will still have freewill.

She mocks how “gruelling” the shoot is known to have been, and how “authentically” the actors “suffered”, belittling even that aspect with the aside, “They got a bit cold, apparently.” (Hey, either they suffered or they didn’t. If they didn’t, then the acting is even better.) The cinematography is “gorgeous,” she concedes, but, in conclusion, “the whole thing is meaningless. A vacuous revenge tale that is simply pain as spectacle. The Revenant is pain porn.”

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Putting a word before “porn” is a cheap trick. I should know, I’ve done it on numerous occasions. Certainly there is power in seeing pain acted if it’s done well, and it is done well. But is it pornographic? Leo’s mauled by a grizzly and bears the weeping scars, but this is clever makeup, aided by clever acting. (“Porn,” in the true sense, is sort of not acting, isn’t it? Otherwise customers would demand their money back.)  By the time she compares the artificial, acted violence with real violence, as seen in Isis videos, I was as lost as Glass. That Isis “lift” the techniques of Hollywood to make their nihilistic, barbaric point is not the fault of Hollywood. More people get killed in Gone With The Wind than in The Revenant. When she concludes that Isis “has seen what we want, what we thrill to, and given it to us,” she seems to want to make viewers of fiction feel in some way culpable for Islamic State. “The Revenant isn’t responsible for this,” she then points out, going back into the ring one more time to call a film she didn’t like “tedious” and “emotionally vacant.”

I found it to be otherwise. I would not argue that it’s a violent, masculine, macho film with little space for the input of women. But it is possible to watch it, with its sexual assault and brutal feuding, and not “enjoy” it in the way Carole Cadwalladr implies that we all do. (Unless she just means all men. It’s still inaccurate, if so.)

“Don’t pay £10-£15,” is her entreaty. Do, if you want to see an amazing piece of high-impact, naturally-lit, visually poetic cinema, is mine. And then you will have your own opinion.

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Film threat

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Two violent films, seen within 24 hours of one another. Starred Up is out this week on DVD. Joe is in cinemas. The first, from debuting writer Jonathan Asser – who, as a psychotherapist who’s worked with prisoners and young offenders, knows of which he speaks – is a prison drama. And already you’re thinking: oh no, not another prison drama. It’s true, the genre has long since hardened into if not cliché, certainly formality. But Starred Up – and you’ve heard this before, but stick with me – is different.

Yes, it resonates with the clanging of metal doors and gates, and makeshift weapons are furtively manufactured from toothbrushes and razor blades, and everyone says “fuck” or “cunt”, and there’s a sadistic, unsmiling deputy governor whose faith in rehabilitation is not devout, and a prisoner hierarchy with an unlikely, weaselly geezer at the top, and lags walk around in a circle in the exercise yard, but … it’s not about prison, no more than Hunger or Un prophète were about prison. It’s about a father and son.

Jack O’Connell, whom I never really saw in Skins but appreciated in Chris Chibnall’s United and James Moran’s Tower Block, is the son, and Ben Mendelsohn, one of the Aussie breakout stars of Animal Kingdom and brilliant in supporting roles in Killing Them Softy and Girls, is the father. The son, Eric Love (brilliant name), has been “starred up”, that is, moved from a young offenders’ institution to a grown-ups’ prison, where his dad, Neville, has carved out a functional life for himself, nearer to the top of the tree than the bottom, but he’s no Mr Big. He and his son have been estranged for most of Eric’s life, who grew up in care. He’s still in care. So is Neville.

What differentiates Starred Up – the best work from Scottish director David Mackenzie since the brooding and alarming Young Adam (although I’ve enjoyed plenty of his commercially under-loved work) – is that from the first scene we glimpse the human being under the self-generated armour of Eric’s cocksure invincibility when, after the long walk through the prison induction system to his cell, the door is shut on him and he allows his face and posture to retract from self-preservation and convey sadness, frustration and fallibility. It’s incredible acting from O’Connell (this film will make him if he isn’t made already), and infuses the rest of the film with depth.

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Eric is a coiled spring of curtailed ambition whose reflex reaction is to lash out (a request for the borrow of a lighter results in a brutal attack very early on), which makes his introduction to a modest therapy group run by Rupert Friend all the more jarring and counterintuitive. This is not a film about fairytale transformations, but the way Eric’s story plays out is not predictable. Nor is the way the father-son reunification unfolds. Mendelsohn plays Neville as recalcitrant and proud – also a man who thinks with his fists and would clearly have parented with slaps had he actually attempted to do so – but not without a heart. Friend is a chameleonic actor (proven by his transformation into an American CIA officer in Homeland) who is utterly believable from word one as this voluntary shrink whose commitment to rehabilitation is everything Sam Spruell’s cold governor’s isn’t. A peacemaking speech he makes later on in the story where he calls the black prisoners in his group “black cunts” and Eric “a white cunt … I’m a cunt, we’re all cunts” is far more profound than it sounds.

Asser’s screenplay, worked through over a number of years, with the help of many professionals at workshops – to whom he pays sincere tribute in interview – was also honed during the tight 24-day location shoot at Belfast’s former Crumlin Road Prison and the infamous Maze, with Mendelsohn particularly involved in fine-tuning his character. All of this shows in the incredible depth throughout, even in exchanges that seem trite or functional. And there’s a terrifying stand-up stand-off in the therapy group that’s as exquisitely and exactingly choreographed by Mackenzie as a dance routine.

However, and here’s why I suspect Starred Up only showed for a week at my local arthouse in March and then disappeared: it’s defiantly repellent stuff. Strong meat. Hard on the ears as well as the eyes. A film I love, but not a film I would recommend to anybody with a weak constitution. A low-level threat of violence persists throughout the entire 106-minute running time. It’s not if, but when it explodes. The violence is not as explicit as it seems (that’s clever directing and editing), but the sheer physical force with which it erupts is quite distressing. Blades, table legs, teeth, fists, all are pressed into service. Fathers and surrogate fathers are attacked by their sons and surrogate sons, and their sons and surrogate sons are beaten back. It’s tactile-Oedipal. And they’re “all cunts”. (It was a hot evening when we watched the DVD but we eventually had to close the skylights for fear of our neighbours being offended by the language.)

I appreciate that the violence inherent in the system is a valid subject for fiction, and Starred Up is a supremely intelligent depiction of that violence. But I would actually warn people from watching it. You have been warned. (Actually, I found myself wholeheartedly evangelising it to a woman I met at the Inbetweeners 2 aftershow and literally gave that warning.)

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I’d read a lot of praise for Joe, the new film from director David Gordon Green (George Washington, Pineapple Express – that’s some CV), adapted by Gary Hawkins from the 1991 novel I’ve never heard of by Mississippian Larry Brown (about whom Hawkins once made a documentary). It’s also violent. It’s also about fathers and sons, and surrogate fathers and sons. It’s also tactile-Oedipal, and a lesson in restraint. What a coincidence.

It’s also very different. Shot in areas around Austin in Central Texas, it’s not quite a Southern Gothic, although the relationship between Tye Sheridan’s 15-year-old grown-up Gary and his good-for-nothin’ dad Wade, played with unadulterated authenticity by non-actor and actual alcoholic drifter Gary Poulter (who died after filming), is a dark entry indeed. In the very first scene, Gary berates his wizened soak of a father without any fear until Wade slaps him, hard, around the face, and retreats to his preferred cycle of guzzling spirit and passing out. Gary’s surrogate father turns out to be Joe, an ex-con played with admirable restraint by Nic Cage – a restraint that has earned him endless plaudits, although it turns out that this is all relative.

Joe runs a gang of casual workers – all black – whose task it is to literally poison trees to make way for a corporate re-planting, a job they merrily do without gloves, let alone masks. But their camaraderie and joshing are genuine and inspiring, and there’s two-way respect between the workers and their genial employer. Everyone knows Joe has “a past”, and he himself explains that “restraint” keeps him from “hurting people” and keeps him out of jail. He drinks, loves his guard-dog (who lives in the crawlspace under his home, always tethered), and uses prostitutes. He also knows his way around skinning and butchering a deer. He’s more than a little bit country.

Violence erupts more than once, and again, that threat lingers. It’s difficult to relax into the scenes of socialising and ball-breaking, as bad things are always round the corner. The director paints his pictures in dark greens, buff browns and queasy yellows, but finds beauty in the way sunlight bounces off surfaces, or through a glugged bottle of rose wine. Coincidentally, Mackenzie creates a red light in Eric’s cell when material is fixed up over the only window – an effect akin to that which Green conjures for the brothel. It ain’t pretty, this backwoods world he depicts, but it is not without natural beauty, perhaps best personified by a box bridge (a key location) that’s being gradually wrapped in vine. You can poison nature at the behest of a corporation, but it always finds a way. Perhaps, Joe seems to be saying, male violence is a natural state, and restraint is unnatural.

The characters in Starred Up are in a physical prison. In Joe, they’re out in the wide open spaces; there are worse places to work than a forest, even if you’re poisoning it, but it still feels like a high-viz chain-gang, especially as the workforce is exclusively African-American. When hardworking, personable Gary and – briefly – the workshy Wade join the herbicide detail, they are in the minority. But there’s little to elevate Wade from the bottom of any social heap: he’s cruel, selfish, vicious and callow. When he launches into an implausible breakdancing routine, it is the only ray of humanity we are privileged to see. (We must imagine that Poulter, who apparently enjoyed acting in the film, started a Twitter account and had been in and out of rehab, was more redeemable than Wade.)

Gary’s relationship with his father is less complex than Eric’s with Neville. Gary is the de facto adult, but Wade is dominant through threat of violence (and actual enaction of violence); we barely see the submissive mother, who also seems to drink, and Gary’s sister appears to have been rendered mute by family life. He’s the one who must go out and earn money (he saves to buy a truck from his new role model, Joe). I won’t go into the plot, as you may wish to see it, but I have to say, I felt Joe was over-praised. I felt like I’d seen all this before. Calling a drama noir doesn’t instantly bestow it with class. Some of the story is too neat – the way it’s bookended, for instance – some of it is too messy. There’s no resolution to some strands (such as Joe’s relationship with an ex who sort of moves in with him and then just moves out), and too much resolution to others (a stand-off that brings Joe’s relationship with the local law enforcement to a head).

There’s a scene in Joe that’s more explicitly violent than even the most violent scene in Starred Up. (People in the cinema audibly groaned and said “No!” when it happened.) I’m not against violence artistically, or politically, but I can personally do without seeing a skull being caved in, or a cheek slashed with a blade. There are a lot of movies about violence. We live in a violent world. Hundreds of men, women and children are killed every day in acts of violence – albeit much of it long-range, and not perpetrated with metal bars on bone – and these acts do not act as neat catalysts for dramatic resolutions.

But I can tell you, I was in the mood to watch The Inbetweeners 2 last night.

 

You’ve been shamed

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Wow, this is a film with a takeaway message. Compliance is an American. Sundance-stamped indie from writer-director Craig Zobel, who’s pretty new to feature films (and totally new to me), and it’s surely the talking-point movie of the year. I’m going to do everything in my power not to give too much of the story away, as the experience of watching it unfold is devastating, and all the more so for not knowing how far it’s going to go.

Based on true events, conflating a number of hoax calls to fast-food restaurants in America and one particular case at a McDonald’s in Kentucky that went to trial in 2004 (I knew nothing about these appalling “pranks”), it takes place over a day in the working life of an Ohio chain fast-food restaurant, fictionalised as ChickWich. Shot in a real restaurant, with fake livery, Compliance is a realist study in human nature, in particular the worst recesses of it. We begin the day with a meeting of the outlet’s small staff, led by middle-aged manager Sandra (a totally convincing Ann Dowd, who’s played “the mother” in so many films and TV shows you’ll feel you know her already). She’s not a jobsworth in the worst sense, but she’s a franchise boss, and as such exists in deference to a managerial supply chain that goes right up to “Corporate”. She’s already on the back foot for a batch of bacon that’s been spoiled due to a freezer not being closed properly, and she’s not about to break any protocols.

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A call comes in, once the working day is underway (it’s a Friday, it’s a busy day, adding to the stress of Sandra’s lot), apparently from a police officer, Daniels, who claims he has the regional manager on the other line and a customer with him who swears she had money stolen from her purse by one of the counter staff. He describes her as young, female, blonde … and Sandra does the rest, offering up Becky (Dreama Walker – you may recognise her as Zach’s girlfriend from seasons one and two of The Good Wife). We’ve seen some tension between the older, unmarried manager and the young, sexually promiscuous server (Sandra boasted of her fiancé “sexting” her after Becky revealed she has three boyfriends on the go, and Becky and a workmate were overheard mocking her).

From here, the situation builds to a grim, depressing crescendo. (When Sandra reports the story back to anyone, she mistakenly says that Officer Daniels knew Becky’s name; we know that Sandra gave him the name.) Daniels remains on the line while Sandra is instructed to apprehend Becky and take her into a back room where she is to be held until the police arrive. Daniels, authoritative and gruff, flatters Sandra and imbues her with a sense of civic responsibility, as well as subtly filling her with fear: for her own job, for punishment from head office, and for the consequences of standing in the way of a broader police inquiry into Becky. Sandra becomes the willing accomplice in the caller’s crime. It is no spoiler to reveal that “Officer Daniels” may not be an officer at all, and as the “prank” (more of a sadistic social experiment, you surmise) escalates, along with the blameless and cowed Becky’s humiliation, we the audience becomes suspicious and eventually learn things that – in a skilfully constructed script – various characters are not party to.

The acting is naturalistic and all the more haunting for it. I must admit, I had my face in my hands at the more uncomfortable parts. It’s been a while since I was so glued to the screen and affected by what I was seeing. You buy into the fact that this is really happening. Sandra remains calm, and compliant, while other staff react in different ways to what Daniels requires of them, as the phone is passed around, and a busy Friday at ChickWich grinds on. Zobel seems to be offering a critique of fast-food and corporate culture in America, constantly cutting from the back room to actuality of the burgers being chomped down out of their waxed-paper wrappers and shakes being vacuumed up from brightly-decorated pails.

It may seem a soft target, junk food, but Zobel isn’t criticising the individuals who choose to put something called a “cookies and cream shake” into their fat faces, but the system that has mechanised our eating habits into one big battery farm, with ample car parking out front. The music, by Heather McIntosh, is stealthily built from deep, melancholy strings, lending a tragic inevitability to the events that occur, and a poignancy to Zobel’s regular, beautifully-framed stills of discarded cups in puddles, ploughed snow, bent drinking straws.

You won’t see what’s coming. And you won’t guess the way the denouement to the crisis plays out, but it’s not a thriller in the conventional sense. You’ll wish it was a fantasy, but, apparently, it’s not. Even if it was a pure fiction, and had never happened, you’d start to wonder if it could.

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I defy you to see Compliance and not still be thinking about the what-ifs days later. It’s hard to watch at some points, but not because, like other films that seek to shock, it involves seeing somebody having their skull caved in – the fashionable money-shot of our times. The violence herein is not gory, or heightened, it is subtle, insidious, terrifying in its banality, disturbing because of the brightly strip-lit surroundings of a fast-food joint’s unlovely office, and all the more horrific for largely happening away from our prying eyes. Bravo to Walker for an uninhibited performance – this was a brave role to take, especially when one audience member at the Sundance Q&A seemed to imply that Zobel had effectively exploited her and another accused him of (beware spoilers in this link) “making violence against women entertaining.” He hasn’t. This is not “entertaining” in the traditional sense.

Some will say that Becky is weak. But she is young, and she is in fear for her job, and if you accept that she believes Officer Daniels is legit and that his threats are real, you have to wonder what you might do in the same ugly, disorienting circumstances. Go and see this film. It’s difficult to get too specific without spoiling it. (Incidentally, I’d read Hannah McGill’s long and thoughtful review in Sight & Sound – not available online – and knew the whole plot, but as I say, my heart was in my mouth nonetheless.)

Big Mac, lies to go.

 

PS: Do not read this is you haven’t seen the film, but there’s a Wikipedia entry about the real-life prank calls, including the one in Kentucky in 2004 that formed the basis of Compliance. It makes the film more disturbing that it actually happened, not less. Shame on McDonald’s, too.

Just give ’em whiskey

Here’s the proposition: Lawless tells the true tale of the Bondurant brothers, moonshine suppliers in early-30s rural Franklin County, Virginia whose nice little cottage industry takes a turn for the dicey and dangerous when a new G-man comes to town and attempts to clean it up. We all know that Prohibition gave birth to gangsters and, in its attempt to rid the United States of liquor, merely drove it underground, or, in the case of Franklin, up into the mountains. (There’s a shot early on in John Hillcoat’s handsome-looking film of a hillside aflame in the evening sky with whiskey stills pumping out their heady brew, soon to be decanted in jam jars, and swigged with the accompanying sharp intake of breath.) This pivotal era in American history is, unfortunately for Hillcoat and his writer Nick Cave, currently being played out in operatic style by HBO’s Boardwalk Empire – the Blu-Ray of whose second season was, ironically, or cruelly, advertised before Lawless at the Curzon this afternoon. What can the Australian pair add?

Well, Boardwalk is set amid the dandies, whores and brokers of Atlantic City, and concerns the intricate handover of power during temperance. Lawless, based on the book by one of the three brother’s grandsons, is an everyday story of country folk. When a city mobster drives into this one-horse town – Gary Oldman, whose role is a swiz-like cameo – he shoots the shit out of it with a Thompson sub-machine gun. (He will come to have a more significant bearing on the story, however.) Frankly, in Franklin, things are ticking over nicely in the beginning: the jam jars are unloaded from a flatbed truck, money changes hands, the brothers are working it out, and nobody gets hurt, only drunk. It’s only when the city slickers come over the hill that the applecart of entrepreneurial equilibrium is upset.

Sounds intriguing, doesn’t it? If only this promising premise made it past some striking imagery and some violent set-pieces. Tom Hardy, bulked up for Bane, is the central Bondurant, Forrest, a man of thick neck and few words. His dialogue is mostly grunts and varying deliveries of the phrase, “All right.” It’s unnerving, but it gets self-parodic. I was more intrigued by the fuck-up Bondurant, Howard, played by Aussie Jason Clarke (ever see Brotherhood on TV?), but he is sidelined in favour of Shia LaBeouf, the Michael Corleone of the family, Jack, whose “journey” is the film’s. Can he step up to the plate and grow the “balls” his elder brothers mock him for not having?

What has all the makings of a Biblical saga constantly fails to take flight and become epic. Some of the violence is memorable – Forrest’s secret weapon is a knuckle duster; and revenge is always a dish served sadistic in this kind of film – but Jessica Chastain’s ex-exotic dancer from the city has little to do except smoulder, and Guy Pearce as the pantomime villain is so over the top he seems to have stepped off the pages of Sin City (he even looks inked in).

Cave and Hillcoat have a sixth sense for the mythic, as seen in their outback Western The Proposition, and you’ll enjoy gazing upon the almost colourless Lawless and its lovely period detail (one hotel’s battered sign advertises the establishment as “fire-proof”) – and the eagle-eared, if that’s such a thing, will note Cave and Warren Ellis’s old-time bluegrass renditions of modern songs from the Velvets, Link Wray and Beefheart (the latter two sung by Mark Lanegan); an unobtrusive but wily twist on the period fidelity. But all this good doesn’t quite add up to the modern gangster classic it seemed to advertise.

Maybe a fictional story would have hit more notes of drama? Although having said that, the budding romance between LaBeouf and preacher’s daughter Mia Wasikowski was pure Hollywood, and I rather doubt it happened as neatly as that. Hey, maybe it’s Tom Hardy. He’s a striking looking man, and he mumbles as well as anybody from the Actors Studio in the 1950s, but he’s such a solid, immovable-looking rock of a performer, there’s no scope for lightness or surprises. (Imagine Daniel Craig after a few more weeks in the gym, and without the twinkle in his eye.)

Jason Solomons got in below-the-line trouble in the Guardian for spoilers when he reviewed it back in May at Cannes, so I’ll keep off the plot. Needless to say, there’s a lot of shooting. You’re going to have to really want a lot of shooting, and punching, and slitting, if you’re going to get more out of it than a sharp taste at the back of your throat and the occasional intake of breath. I still love Hillcoat’s eye – The Road was colourless, too, but compelling and complete – and perhaps Anthony Lane in the New Yorker is right: he should get on with it and make a war movie.

Now we see the violence inherent in the system

Everybody’s raving about Drive. I’m a week late on it, but I caught up with it yesterday at the Curzon. People are right to rave about it. Nicholas Winding Refn’s first American film (after – most famously – the Pusher trilogy, set in his native Denmark, Bronson, made and set in the UK, and Valhalla Rising, a Denmark/UK co-production) is a neo-noir in the Tarantino mould which which plays its LA-set criminal comings and goings much straighter. It is, therefore, much more disturbing.

The trailer hints at such (the scene with the hammer and the showgirls pictured above is in the trailer), but until you see it, you can have no idea just how violent it is. To the degree that I feel I should actually put out a warning: the violence in this film is pretty horrible. You know me – I’m fairly squeamish, but this has never stopped me seeing violent films, and many of my favourite films have violence in them. I just think it’s worth knowing in advance, as you might think you’ll be watching a stylish thriller with some driving in it. You will be, but, once a certain dramatic flashpoint is reached, you’ll also be on a rollercoaster of violence. It is the kind of violence where the camera does not discreetly look away. It is the kind of violence that is often enacted in broad daylight. It is the kind that involves sharp implements going into flesh and shotguns fired at close range, but also the kind that is more primal and shall-we-say impact-based. (That’s the kind I’m finding I have less of a stomach for,  as it becomes more and more fashionable. The big display of violence in the excellent Kill List is impact-based.)

In many ways, Drive is about violence, even though its first hour builds up to the flashpoint with patience and calm and subtlety. I say that because it’s not really about much else. It’s a fairly standard crime story revolving around a holdall full of  money and double-cross and threats and revenge, albeit one that’s elevated by its selling point, and the selling point, presumably, of the source novel: Ryan Gosling’s supercool and unnamed driver. He works as a stunt double and car mechanic by day, and as a getaway driver by night. He does this in his trademark silver bomber jacket with a scorpion emblem on the back and his trademark leather driving gloves, and with his trademark toothpick held in the corner of his mouth. He is beyond cool. Gosling plays him beautifully. He’s in the business of crime, but he just drives, and is thus, in some wishful way, innocent. In the opening robbery, we see him just walk away from the scene once his work is done. Heading up a superb and offbeat supporting cast, Bryan Cranston from Breaking Bad is his limping, good-hearted enabler and handler. Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman are the local gangsters, one calm, the other hot-headed (although it’s always the calm ones you have to watch out for in this kind of drama). Carey Mulligan is the young mother next door whose husband is in prison, but whose husband comes out of prison just when she and Gosling – and her little boy – are forming a happy little unit. The bad stuff goes from there. (Oh, and Christina Hendricks from Mad Men totters through all top-heavy on her high heels all too briefly, but it’s another clever bit of casting.)

So, it has this sweet little love story at its centre, and Gosling and Mulligan pull this off with easy realism, all glances and gestures and mounting passion that remains largely unconsummated. If they have sex, you don’t see it. This is so restrained on Winding Refn’s part. Apart from the topless showgirls watching the violence in the above still, there is no sex on view here. He pulls back from sex, but does not pull back from violence. Violence, it seems, is more important to the narrative.

I came away full of admiration for this film. It’s a very impressive film. It’s framed exquisitely, with characters nearly always ranged left or right in the panorama. The soundtack, by Cliff Martinez, is all pulsing 80s synth (a faux-period illusion supported by the pink, hand-written credits), and if it weren’t for the mobile phones, you’d swear it was set in the past. This is a classic, almost timeless LA, one that verges on cliché but wilfully, with its neon, and its freeways, and its diners, and its underground car garages, and its vast lots. Winding Refn’s nationality – he’s Danish but moved to the US and was educated there – explains this idealised, artificial attitude to the city. It’s as if it’s been shot through a prism of previous American cinema.

I’m not sure there’s much else to Drive beyond a soundly constructed crime yarn with its attendant domestic impacts and some brutally inventive set-pieces. But the getting there is amazing.

The nasty things in life

Here’s a film I’d like to recommend, but I can only do so with a warning. The low-budget British horror-thriller Kill List, the follow-up to even-lower-budget crime chamber piece Down Terrace from one-to-watch Ben Wheatley, is easily the most exciting film released this week. Nothing else touches it. In fact, the Disney-produced, all-star, 15-certificate, big-budget horror remake, Fright Night 3D, shrivels to nothing next to it. Fright Night has some shocks, and some fancy effects, and some “Boo!” moments (none of which made me jump), but Kill List has a sense of dread that is maintained from one end to the other. And that’s much harder to cook up.

I didn’t catch Down Terrace, but I remember reading a lot about it. If it’s anything like this, stylistically, it won’t be everybody’s cup of tea. Kill List starts out – as every other critic has spotted, but it’s true – like a Mike Leigh drama, with a hellish dinner party going off the rails. This is uncomfortable enough. But when the two male characters, Jay (Neil Maskell) and Gal (Michael Smiley), are revealed to be professional contract killers, their domestic lives become all the more charged. They take on a lucrative job, which involves a list of three people they must kill, and their friendship is sorely tested by what ensues. It’s effectively a thriller that turns into horror, but it’s best you don’t know quite how, as I didn’t, and it makes the third act all the more explosive.

It’s sly and witty, and at the same time, often unbearably tense and brutal. The script, written by Wheatley and his wife Amy Jump, has been enhanced by improvisation from the four main leads, and it helps to underpin the realism. Its strength lies in the believability of Jay and Gal’s relationship, so when the cracks appear, we know what’s at stake: years of mutual support and empathy. They understand each other, and we understand them. They are not the cartoon, superfly hitmen of Tarantino’s hyperreal universe; they are two blokes getting on with their work. When they steal shampoos from a hotel, it’s humorous, but also entirely credible. Of course they would. Who wouldn’t?

Maskell and Smiley (with whom I used to work on Channel 4’s Naked City in the early 90s) are first rate. Though there are conventional thriller elements at play here – the jeopardy that spreads from their professional lives into their private lives – the destination is anything but predictable. Much of it is confusing, although Wheatley insists it fits together if you look at all the clues. I’ll have to watch it again. And you should watch it, too. Except …

You might not enjoy it. It contains “very strong bloody violence” according to the BBFC. They’re not joking. There is one scene, in particular, that almost turned my stomach. It had me trying to look away from the screen – and, naturally, being drawn to turn back and face it. This is not a film with a big special effects budget, but it’s been done brilliantly and resourcefully, such that the violence is horrifically, noisily real. This is not cartoon violence. This is messy. And ugly. I was surrounded by jaded, seasoned film critics at a screening this week, and after the scene in question ended, you could hear a mass exhalation, a mix of relief and exhaustion.

So I can’t recommend it, unless you have a strong stomach. I got through it. You might prefer not to watch a film that you have to get through.

I have seen the nasty bits in all the main nasty films, from the bit where the guy gets his head smashed in on the marble steps at the start of Wild At Heart to the act of self-harm in Antichrist, and in many ways, I wish I could wipe them from my mind. I can’t. I sort of admire filmmakers for having the power to do this. But I have always been forewarned, and ignored the warning, so I’m warning you now, pansies, so you can ignore me.

Punching above its weight

Thwak! It’s taken me a few weeks to catch up with Michael Winterbottom’s new film The Killer Inside Me, and there’s a reason for this. I kept putting it off. On a couple of occasions I was all set to go and see it at the Curzon, but talked myself out of it on the day, as I wasn’t “in the mood.” The mood I imagined I would have to be in was one in which I felt like seeing women being graphically beaten up. Like me, I guess you’ll have read all about Winterbottom’s decision to show us two women being beaten up, rather than imply it, or have it happen offscreen, or disguise it with clever editing. He chose this fairly sensational approach for entirely sound artistic and political reasons: because to do the opposite and to glamorise violence, whether against women or otherwise, which is what Hollywood routinely does, is irresponsible and fainthearted. Michael Winterbottom is a director it’s impossible not to admire: for his sheer workrate, for one thing, and for the glee and skill with which he attacks any number of genres: period drama, sci-fi, comedy, period comedy, hardcore porn mixed with concert movie, war movie, docu-drama, docu-mentary. I interviewed him once: he’s a smart man. And only 49. Why wouldn’t he have a crack at a pulp noir, based on a 1952 Jim Thompson novel? And why wouldn’t he attempt something different?

Unfortunately, the thing that he has done differently from any number of other pulp noirs, is to show two women being graphically beaten up, one more horrifically than the other, but both still pretty shocking. It’s not Winterbottom’s fault that the violence is all that the media has been fixated upon since The Killer Inside Me‘s premiere at Sundance, but he certainly knew he was taking a risk when he decided to remain true to the book – or so I understand, not having read it, or any other pulp novel – and put what was on the page on the screen. The first of the two violent beatings is the one that’s hard to watch, the one that Rachel Cooke in the Observer described as “sickeningly protracted” and in which “facial bones crunch repeatedly to the sound of classical music,” leading her to feel “so queasy” she “had to go and stand outside”; the same scene that caused a female audience member at Sundance to stand up at a Q&A and proclaim, “I don’t understand how Sundance could book this movie! How dare you? How dare Sundance?”

Let’s put this scene into context. The film is about a psychopath who also happens to be a 29-year-old West Texas deputy sheriff, Lou Ford, played with icy and disturbing insouciance and good manners by Casey Affleck, who is better at acting than Ben Affleck. As with many previous fictional killers, and factual ones, he manages to keep up appearances and hold down a job, but this outer layer of respectability cracks before our eyes. Sent out into the sticks to evict a prostitute, played by The Fantastic Four:Rise Of The Silver Surfer’s Jessica Alba, he falls into a consensual and even loving sado-masochistic relationship with her, and then hatches an evil, self-serving, self-destructive plan to use her, and abuse her, in the cause of a fairly labyrinthine subplot about revenge, blackmail and unions. This is where the Bad Scene comes in. Without giving anything more about the plot away, he beats her half to death, punching her repeatedly in her beautiful face until she is unrecognisable, all the while telling her he’s sorry and that he loves her. (The later scene of psychopathic misogyny involves another woman, played by Kate Hudson, who is his girlfriend and another seemingly willing partner in sado-masochistic bedroom antics. It’s not as bloody, but it’s no less upsetting and humiliating.)

We’re talking about just two scenes in a two-hour movie. In the service of the story, they illustrate that Lou Ford wants to destroy everything he loves. He is filled with a self-loathing that manifests itself through acts of cold, calculating violence. He commits acts of violence towards male characters, too, but these are not shown, or not shown in any detail. Winterbottom insists that this is true to the book. He shows what Thompson described. But reading and seeing are very different things. When Mary Harron made American Psycho for the screen – easily the most disgusting book I have ever read – she showed almost none of the violence depicted by Bret Easton Ellis. It was too revolting to show. It was revolting enough to imagine. This violence, interestingly, was also largely aimed at women. But American Psycho was a satire. The film was even more of one, teasing from the text more comedy than I picked up on when reading it.

The scenes of violence in The Killer Inside Me tell us important things about the state of Lou Ford’s damaged and deteriorating mind. He’s pretty unhinged already; he’s descending into madness; he’s convinced he can get away with anything, due to his badge and his reputation. In that sense they are justified. However, my feeling is this: had we heard him punching Jessica Alba, or had the scene faded out, or had he punched her while she was out of shot – just as Kathy Burke was out of shot when Ray Winstone decisively beat her in Nil By Mouth – the narrative effect would have been the same. (He was doing a bad thing for reasons of personal interest and to a woman who loved him.) We might not even be talking about the film. I might not be blogging about it and adding to the chatter. It might have passed without much comment at Sundance and at Berlin, and it might have arrived on our screens celebrated only for being the latest film by a talented British director, and his first shot in America. but instead we’re all talking about the sickening violence and the bloodied pulp that they made Jessica Alba’s face look like.

These two scenes unbalance the film. When, in Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist, Charlotte Gainsbourg mutilates herself – again, one of the most shocking things I’ve ever seen on film – it acts as a climax to an already out-of-control story, which is itself almost a fantasy. It’s revolting. It’s graphic. It’s memorable. But, to my mind, it’s necessary. The frankness of the violence in The Killer Inside Me isn’t necessary. It is theoretically justified (hey, it’s in the book), but by staging it in full view, it strays into exploitation. You might easily argue that showing an actor’s erect penis ejaculating in Nine Songs also strayed into exploitation. (Not of the actor, but into a type of cinema that is exploitative.) Again, it had everyone talking. But again, it unbalanced the film. The Killer Inside Me is not a film about domestic violence. It is a film about a nutcase doing bad things. These bad things are kind of explained by some flashbacks, but they are still bad things that are bad even if you tell someone about them. My own view is that you didn’t need to show the first beating in such candid and unflinching detail. What more does it tell us by being in full view? Would we imagine he was only giving her a friendly slap if we hadn’t seen the punches?

It has plenty going for it, this film. The performances are exceptional – Affleck, Ned Beatty, Elias Koteas, Tom Bower, Simon Baker, a show-stealing cameo from Bill Pullman – and the atmosphere is evocative and unnerving. And the story, which has all the hallmarks of a classic noir – albeit one in which the femmes aren’t fatale in the traditional sense – unfolds at a languid but involving pace. I would have gone to see it anyway. And possibly sooner. But it’s not worth this much fuss, or that many column inches.

Or is it?