The Reflecting Skin

Posted July 21, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, cult, one of the year's best, underrated

reflecting skinI have been waiting for years to talk at length about The Reflecting Skin, one of my favorite movies few people have seen. Since it’s making its American Blu-ray debut in a couple of weeks (along with a new DVD), the time seems ripe. This is the feature directing debut of Philip Ridley, only 24 when he made it, and it unfolds in a distinct dream-logic world. The setting is the American midwest circa the 1950s (post-WWII, anyway), but the film exists aside from time and place. Roger Ebert’s much-quoted, accurate assessment goes like so: “It’s not really about America at all, it’s about nightmares, and I’m not easily going to forget it.”

Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper), “nearly nine,” is a borderline monstrous little boy, though with a sensitivity that indicates redemption is possible (though perhaps not probable). We meet him when he and two of his friends are committing a particularly grotesque form of cruelty to animals, a detail that seems partly indebted to the kids burning a scorpion alive in The Wild Bunch and partly to Ridley fighting a fever and falling asleep, bathed in sick-sweat, in front of a TV playing The Fool Killer or Night of the Hunter while a paperback of Faulkner rests tented over his chest. The movie is suffused with a febrile, half-articulated aesthetic of American gothic — vampires and dead babies and maimed sheriffs and grinning hairless werewolves in a Cadillac.

A mysterious woman (Lindsay Duncan) who calls herself Dolphin Blue lives nearby, and Seth becomes convinced that she’s a bloodsucker and that his older brother Cameron (Viggo Mortensen), just returned from a stint in the Army, is about to be seduced and drained by her. Meanwhile, Seth’s gruesome and unhappy mother (Sheila Moore) resents her life with his father (Duncan Fraser), who reeks of the gasoline he pumps out in front of the house. All the adults have secrets, perhaps none more so than Cameron, who has seen what atomic bombs do — he has a photo in his wallet of a Japanese baby whose skin “got all silver and shiny. Just like a mirror. You could see your face in it.” This image is preceded by Seth’s ghastly discovery in a hayloft, a discovery he takes to be the angel of his friend Eben. Eben was kidnapped and murdered, most likely by the strange, suspiciously amiable hoodlums in the Cadillac. People keep disappearing, not just kids. 

The Reflecting Skin will enrapture those attuned to its wheatfield surrealism and repel, violently, everyone else. Upon its release almost thirty years ago it attracted unavoidable comparisons to David Lynch, but these days it seems sui generis. Ridley, sadly, hasn’t done much in films since (though he has kept his hand in creatively with books, paintings and plays). 1995’s The Passion of Darkly Noon (with one of Brendan Fraser’s finest unseen performances) and 2009’s Heartless are about it for those who want to see more Ridley cinema. But at least he batted three for three (though Heartless, while fine, is the weak link of the three). For some, the early lead performance by Viggo Mortensen (who also shows up in Darkly Noon) will be a draw; the then-31-year-old weighs in with a cloaked, edgy turn later elaborated on in Sean Penn’s essential The Indian Runner.

Mortensen fits right into the curdled nostalgia of the piece. Truly, though, the film is held together by young Jeremy Cooper. I think he’s the reason we don’t hate Seth after his first scene. Seth is in pain, and as we see more and more of his grim home life we can understand why, even if he doesn’t. The movie’s title, as I said, is given a literal explication, but it’s also a metaphor for how, when we look at others, we just see weird reflections of ourselves, or of our expectations or prejudices. So people are vampires or perverts, or they go around calling themselves sinners, or they just go around killing children — either in a Cadillac or in a United States military aircraft. A lot of The Reflecting Skin has to do with toxic masculinity — though that wasn’t a concept back in 1990 and definitely not at the time of the film’s setting. Almost every scene is creepy or morbid or painful or all three. The people, out there in the beauty of the unnamed pastoral country, are damned from birth. The whispering landscape crawls with demons, and the angels are fishy-smelling, maggoty corpses. The vision of hell is forceful and complete.

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Pet Sematary (2019)

Posted July 14, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: Uncategorized

pet-semataryStephen King’s Pet Sematary has now had two whacks at film adaptation — one in 1989 and one this year (well, three if you count the sequel to the ’89 film). It may be that, through no fault of the respective filmmaking teams or the medium itself, King’s book is just one of those novels that resist translation. For me, it remains perhaps the closest thing in King’s catalog to a “serious work”; he approaches his greatest fear, that one of his children will die, in a sidewise manner that recalls the way Kurt Vonnegut took the traumatic material of his own World War II experience and made it easier to engage with as an author by way of genre tropes (in Vonnegut’s case, the nonlinear story and space-alien digressions of Slaughterhouse-Five).

King’s story is animated by dread and grief — the kind of powerful, deranging grief that will drive a mourning parent to do anything, anything, to make the agony stop. That sort of impact is nearly impossible to replicate in a film that also has to make room for plot and character detail and Saturday-night seat-jump scares for teenagers. Pet Sematary exists most effectively on the page, where it can enter the mind, the bloodstream, the soul with minimal interference. There are just too many factors, mostly having to do with maintaining an extremely demanding tonal balance, that make any attempt to realize it in another medium little more than a riff, a brief visit to a house of horrors instead of moving in and living with them.

I can say that Pet Sematary ’19 is better-acted than its predecessor thirty years ago. Fred Gwynne was fine and avuncular as old Jud Crandall, the son of Maine who introduces our protagonists to the Monkey’s Paw terror of the true “pet sematary,” but most of the other cast members were instantly forgettable. Here we have Jason Clarke as Dr. Louis Creed, Amy Seimetz as his death-haunted wife Rachel, and a terrific young actress named Jeté Laurence as their nine-year-old daughter Ellie. These three do as well as they can in the somewhat degraded context of a mass-market horror movie, and then there’s John Lithgow, sometimes seeming off in his own film, as the new Jud, sickened and aged by decades of guilt and grief.

The new directors (Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer) and screenwriter (Jeff Buhler) don’t hesitate to alter King’s original story to make it work as a movie. I applaud this: Many of the best films based on King (including Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining) take large liberties with the source. So I won’t get into a book-movie comparison of events, except to note that the new film avoids the ’89 film’s biggest tonal blooper, the visual of a toddler happily walking around waving a scalpel. The workaround here is far more plausible and facilitates some chilling “came back wrong” acting. The problem is that the newly imagined climax goes back to the well, so to speak, once too often. (The original scripted ending is much subtler and sadder; it can be seen on DVD and streaming.)

I’ll also say that the new film gives a bit more time to King’s conception of the pet sematary beyond the deadfall as a sour-soiled, godforsaken place ruled by the Wendigo, which feeds on people’s grief and compels them to feed it their dead. But at one hour and forty-one minutes it can only do so much. As in 1989, Rachel’s fearful memories of her stricken sister Zelda amount only to red meat thrown (in the worst bad taste, too) at the grumbling, impatient carnivores the film studio assumes the horror audience is. Pet Sematary ’19 has left me with a strong urge to revisit the novel, with all its hints of ghastly afterlife and irrational fear: “He realized he was afraid, simply, stupidly afraid, the way you are afraid when a cloud suddenly sails across the sun and somewhere you hear a ticking sound you can’t account for.” What’s missing from any film version is that ticking sound, the dread and terror of strangeness invading a bright afternoon for a moment, and then disappearing but taking something near and dear along with it. What’s missing is the poetry of nightmare.

Nightmare Cinema

Posted July 7, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror

Nightmare-cinema-The-thing-in-the-woods Only about three percent of you will be with me on this, but the uneven horror anthology Nightmare Cinema made me sad. Why? It’s the first movie that director Joe Dante has made since 1976 in which busy character actor Dick Miller does not appear — Miller passed on earlier this year at age 90. Belinda Balaski, another Dante semi-regular, does turn up here, but it’s not quite the same. Anyway, Dante is one of five directors who provide the movies-within-the-movie shown in a mysterious theater presided over by “The Projectionist” (Mickey Rourke).

We lead with “The Thing in the Woods” (by writer/director Alejandro Brugues), which starts off as a slasher yarn and gradually flips the script; what seems as though it’s going to be yet another case of an incel gone psycho breaks from that path amusingly. It’s fun, though possibly only fun for horror junkies, who may not mind that this segment — setting the tone for the other four — is surprisingly gory and graphic for a movie with the once-restrictive R rating. There are many slasher flicks from the ‘80s that would have loved the latitude given to this film’s mutilations and exploding heads and flying body parts.

Dante’s “Mirari” is next up, about a young woman (Zarah Mahler) who agrees to plastic surgery to remove her facial scars before her wedding to a rich dude. Dante keeps the shocks and suspense popping, and Richard Christian Matheson’s script has a certain malevolent wit, but something’s missing — maybe an explanation of why the story ends up where it does. The segment seems like more of a paranoid riff than anything else. It, too, is fun, though. Again, I missed the avuncular presence of the great Dick Miller, unless he’s in a photo somewhere I didn’t spot.

And that’s about it for Creepshow-esque fun. Story number three, named “Mashit” (ma-sheet) after its central demon, is kind of awful. Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura (Midnight Meat Train), it takes place inside a religious boarding school whose young students soon become hosts to abomination. Other than a ludicrous desktop tryst between the (otherwise heroic) priest and nun in charge of the school, the segment takes itself brutally seriously, with rather chintzy music that made me think this was supposed to be a tribute to the demonic cinema of Lamberto Bava. It’s certainly colorful enough, but if I want bright hues, demons, sacrilege, and fun, I’ll go to Richard Griffin.

We proceed to the black-and-white “This Way to Egress,” directed by David Slade (30 Days of Night) from a script by him and Lawrence Connolly based on Connolly’s short story. It’s not fun, but it’s effective, with a top-drawer performance by Elizabeth Reaser as a mother who may be going insane. Cinematographer Jo Willems does sharp, detailed work, and I admired the craft of the piece without ultimately finding it very satisfying; as with most of the other tales here, its ending is something of a fizzle.

Last and least interesting is “Dead,” helmed by Mick Garris, that terminally uninspired journeyman who hitched his wagon to Stephen King 27 years ago and has coasted since. Garris has always been more of a fan and arranger of projects anyway — Nightmare Cinema is more or less his baby, and he produced the Masters of Horror series back in the mid-oughts. This story, like the one before it, is buoyed by a strong lead performance, by  Faly Rakotohavana as a boy who nearly dies and finds himself able to see the spirits of the recently dead in the hospital where he’s recuperating. Its debt to The Sixth Sense aside, it’s predictable especially when the psycho who put the kid in the hospital comes looking for him. Annabeth Gish scores some creepy moments as the boy’s mom.

The problem with the stories in most horror anthologies is that they can’t all be gems — not on the level of Creepshow or even Trick ‘R Treat, and certainly not Dead of Night. However much we want Nightmare Cinema to be a rollicking slice of throwback horror, it only lands sporadic punches. It was a pleasure to see Dante working again (he’s kept his hand in on TV since his last feature, Burying the Ex, five years ago), and there are enjoyable bits throughout, but by and large this is the sort of mildly entertaining thing that’s best for a slow, rainy Sunday. And the unifying figure of The Projectionist is so sketchily drawn (and wearily enacted by a bored Rourke), I wouldn’t hold my breath for a Nightmare Cinema 2.

Call Us Ishmael

Posted June 30, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: documentary

Screen Shot 2019-06-30 at 2.29.09 PM The thesis of David Shaerf’s swift, engaging documentary Call Us Ishmael is simple: Herman Melville’s gigantic, narratively skimpy, intolerable, beloved Great American Novel Moby-Dick has the power to turn some of its readers into Ahabs, pursuing the white whale of the book. The movie isn’t titled Call Us Ahab, though, so Shaerf seems to speak for a gentler, more productive mode of obsession, and a less threatening way for the reader to be drawn in by the work. Instead of being maimed and then ultimately pulled into the deep, the readers seen in the film are, like Ishmael, taken along for a ride, a ride that sometimes usurps months or years of their creative lives — and for some, the ride hasn’t ended and possibly won’t.

Take, for example, the yearly ritual at the Whaling Museum in New Bedford, Massachusetts, which since 1995 has hosted the Moby-Dick Marathon. People get up and read aloud sequentially from the book until the entire book has been heard. It usually takes about 25 hours. Can you imagine dozens of people sitting, standing, reading, listening, lying about in sleeping bags, for better than a day, with any other book? Well, they do — this past May, UCLA’s annual Marathon Reading tackled The Handmaid’s Tale and Octavia Butler’s Parable novels. But, of course, UCLA’s inaugural marathon dealt with, yep, Moby-Dick — a year after the Whaling Museum started it. Anyway, Call Us Ishmael is about five minutes old when it shows some footage from the Moby-Dick Marathon.

From there, Shaerf moves on to various artists who’ve been inspired by the novel, and that’s what most of the rest of the movie addresses. Shaerf has the same story as many others: he tried it under duress in school, loathed it, went back to it years later, got hooked. First of all, this very thing is why I have never believed in summer-reading lists for high school, even though the selection has opened up to popular youth novels in the last decade or two. A teenager is not ready to assimilate what Melville is doing — I don’t care how smart and mature the teenager is. You need some life and loss and pain under your belt to appreciate a lot of literature, and in the case of a stark raving weird novel like Moby-Dick you need the patience and the willingness to submit to someone else’s overpowering vision for a while, with no clear narrative carrots on a stick.

But the familiar story of someone who bounces off of Moby-Dick, spends ten, twenty, thirty, forty years away, and then for some reason is lured back to it and now rises to it — we hear that again and again in Call Us Ishmael. The artists Shaerf talks to are usually interesting, sometimes a little abashed by talking about how completely the book subsumed their lives. Matt Kish gets a lot of time, possibly because he did art for the movie and its marketing; he discusses his book Moby-Dick in Pictures, wherein he made a piece of art for each page of Melville. The project took Kish a year and a half (and we see his bemused girlfriend remembering the long process); another artist in the film, Frank Stella, took a decade and a half to complete his journey with the book. We see art students who responded to the work in various ways; we see musicians (Patrick Shea, Laurie Anderson) who recorded literal or allusive songs about it.

The only medium Moby-Dick has never fully stuck to is the very medium Shaerf works in, and he covers that a bit. The most famous adaptation was, of course, John Huston’s 1956 effort, whose reception was mixed. It’s a fine strong Huston movie but it doesn’t really convey Melville, only his plot, which isn’t the book’s strong point. There have been several film versions; my ironic favorite might be the 1930 attempt (with John Barrymore), which doesn’t even pretend to be faithful to the story (Ahab reunites with his true love Joan Bennett at the end, and Ishmael doesn’t figure into it at all). Two made-for-TV whacks at the material (with Patrick Stewart and William Hurt as mad Ahab, respectively) came and went without much notice. If there were to be a point to another film adaptation today, it would need to be a $250 million monstrosity in IMAX, with Daniel Day-Lewis emerging from retirement to give us his Ahab, under the direction of Spielberg, bringing his catalog nearly full circle. (As it is, Jaws is probably about as close to a pure-cinema riff on some Moby-Dick elements as we’re going to get.)

Ultimately, Call Us Ishmael allows that the book is so many things to so many people — and maybe it speaks most clearly to those with a touch of obsession — because it seems to encompass everything. All those passages about whaling aren’t just “about whaling” — you’re getting an immersive education in the society, economy, and even ecology of the world it sets up. It gives you the bare bones of what screenwriting guru Robert McKee says is necessary for a story — an object of desire, and someone who desires it — but then surrounds it with flesh made of anecdote and cetology. The thing is insane and difficult and, for those in this film, rewarding and inspiring. But is the book really ever done with them? Call Us Ishmael tells the compelling and, when you think about it, frightening story of a literary classic that acts like the monster under the bed, grabbing readers’ ankles and pulling them into its hot close darkness. Ayuh, there goes another one.

Do the Right Thing

Posted June 23, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: drama, one of the year's best

0703_do-the-right-thing On June 30, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing turns thirty. It still hasn’t lost a step. Aside from some hairstyles and a few of the songs, it doesn’t read at all like an ‘80s film. It’s truly an end-of-a-decade work. In some respects it’s almost experimental; some of the scenes play like short theater pieces, and the movie is full of words — debate, disputation, denunciation, or just plain shooting the breeze — yet we never question it as a work of cinema. The way cinematographer Ernest Dickerson paints with skillet-hot colors, or the way editor Barry Alexander Brown snips scenes to release our laughter as well as to propel the story, or the way Ruth E. Carter dresses the characters to sketch them for us in an instant — these and more put Lee’s film, only his third, into the realm of art alongside entertainment. Its concerns are timeless and, as the film itself wearily admits, will ever be.

Nobody is really the main character of Do the Right Thing — the Bed-Stuy community itself is, it’s a group portrait — but Lee picks out Mookie, played by himself, as the character who interacts with most of the others. As a delivery guy for Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, Mookie sees the same faces a lot; one of the first things we see him do is direct an exasperated “Hell no” to a pair of girls who look like they want to talk to him about God, or get him to sign a petition, or something. Mookie does this as though this is far from the first time he’s waved these girls away; the same is true, mostly, of his relationship with the neighborhood disabled guy Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith). Everyone who lives or works here is by and large tired of each other, but nobody can afford to go on a vacation away from them, and it’s going to be a brutally hot day. (The movie takes place on August 5, 1989, according to the newspapers we see.)

The only thread of narrative we get is the attempts of the abrasive Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) to shame Sal (Danny Aiello) into putting up photos of black celebrities alongside the Italian stars on Sal’s “wall of fame.” Buggin’ Out’s logic is that Sal’s clientele is mostly black, so the decor should reflect that; like almost everyone else in the movie, he’s not wrong, but that doesn’t make him completely right, either. Buggin’ Out’s mission is debatable; the whole chatty, pop-art-colored film is. The very title has been discussed endlessly. Does Mookie, in an act of destruction that may or may not be intended to draw collective ire from flesh towards property, “do the right thing”? Lee’s line has always been that white people always ask that question and black viewers never do. Put another way, does anyone here “do the right thing”? When, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, there is no dialogue but only contrapuntal monologue, and when there are two sets of rules, one for people of color and one for everyone else, it can be nearly impossible to know if there is a “right thing.”

To Lee’s credit, he writes dialogue (or guides his actors into improv) that allows his characters to open themselves up, justify themselves, let us see how they see themselves. Even Pino (John Turturro), Sal’s rancidly bigoted son and the closest thing the movie has to a villain other than the cops, is given some breathing room to suggest why he’s so angry. (His cronies back in Bensonhurst give him a hard time for serving food to black people.) In short, everyone would like to think he or she is doing the right thing; everyone is the star of his or her drama, each of which plays itself out on the stoops and egg-frying sidewalks of New York on the hottest day of summer. Lee’s movie is as much about a community of psychically isolated people as about racial tension. Nobody can see past their own scrim of rage, sadness, regret. Everyone is irritable.

Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), one of the movie’s many great archetypes seldom seen in major films before, calls out the dichotomies that make up Lee’s film with his Night of the Hunter parable about love knocking out hate. Originally, when Robert Mitchum delivered this, it was a hypocritical little ditty that turned out to be ironically prescient. Radio Raheem looms around the neighborhood all day toting a massive, deafening boom box (playing Public Enemy’s instant classic of electric urgency “Fight the Power”) but is essentially harmless; in a way he is the film’s Jimmie Blacksmith figure, who ultimately becomes unhinged when the white power structure severs him from how he defines himself. Once he begins to lash out, he is doomed from that moment. But in his love/hate scene, Radio Raheem seems to be speaking hopefully.

And naïvely? Love, in this movie, seems short-lived, and hate persists. Mookie’s baby mama Tina (Rosie Perez in a vivid debut) closes out her time in the film cussing out Mookie. The neighborhood elders Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) and Mother Sister (Ruby Dee) — whose presence as onscreen antagonists and as real-life couple always brings a fond smile to my face — seek cover together after the climactic event. They seem sobered, though not driven into each other’s arms as a more conventional story would demand. Before that, we see Mother Sister screaming “Burn it down!” and not much later crying “No!” in despair over and over; there you have the opposite sides of the movie’s moral coin, all in the emotional inferno of an old black woman who has seen and lived great heartache. Do the Right Thing did not turn out to be the fire this time (pundits in 1989 worried about copycat violence; number of Mookie-inspired riots: zero), but the right and wrong things it deals with haven’t gone anywhere. This is, and seems more than ever like, the great American movie of the last thirty years.

Us

Posted June 16, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror, one of the year's best, thriller

us Jordan Peele has proven himself one of the most fascinating writer-directors working today — not just in the horror genre, but in general. His presence behind the camera now guarantees my interest. Us, Peele’s mesmerizing, terrifying follow-up to his Oscar-winning hit Get Out, shows that the social-horror sensibility that animated that film was no fluke. This is, among other things, a thriller that (like last week’s The Perfection) is powered by surprise and its willingness to cross genre boundaries, so it’s another one whose plot is difficult to write about — though the plot isn’t the main reason Us gets under our skin, in any case. It’s the primal punch of the images and moods that the plot makes possible. For instance, how can I explain how hilarious and horrific the use of NWA’s “Fuck tha Police” is here? It’s a joke at the expense of Siri/Alexa-type virtual assistants, but it’s also a grim warning: For real, fuck the police, they’re not going to help you here, not in this weird new world informed as much by Hands Across America and Michael Jackson as by Kubrick’s The Shining.

Has Jordan Peele ever read the snippet that Harlan Ellison once published from his unproduced The Whimper of Whipped Dogs script? There’s an image near the beginning that makes me think he has — a girl drops her candy apple in the sand of a beach, where it sticks up as ominous night rain begins to patter onto it. I recalled Ellison’s image of a knife in the sand dappled by raindrops. Even if Peele wasn’t influenced by this specific bit, it seems clear that he’s drinking from the same intoxicating and frightening well of brutal visuals that filled/fueled Ellison’s imagination. Those visuals can help an artist try to make sense of violence, and in Us Peele summons hints and whispers of the uncanny in order to make sense of, and ultimately elicit sympathy for, its mostly inarticulate monsters.

The narrative begins simply, with a well-to-do family off to kick back in their summer house. Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), the mother/wife of the family, seems to be the main protagonist by virtue of her introduction in the opening extended flashback as a little girl. She is grown now, and a bit skittish due to her experience in a strange beach funhouse, but essentially normal. So are her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and their two kids Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). They all hang out at the Santa Cruz beach with their also-wealthy friends (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker) and their twin teenage daughters, and the subtext of familial violence expressed in ironic jokes begins to surface. One night, the Wilsons are trying to relax back at their summer house, and a quartet of menacingly silent figures appear outside.

If Peele’s subversive narrative style has an Achilles’ heel, it’s that after Get Out we know to notice, and file away for future scrutiny, any number of visual, aural, or thematic Easter eggs. When a character turns up holding a sign referring to Jeremiah 11:11, and when another character not only notices that a clock reads 11:11 but calls attention to it, we know we’re meant to look up the Biblical quote on our phones in the parking lot after the movie. (Amusingly, when you google the line now, you get back a bunch of images from Us.) I’ll let you have fun with the passage, with its intimations of evil and the wrath of the Old Testament God, and what it could possibly have to do with a story that makes room for paper people chains, Minnie Riperton, rabbits, Lucas/Spielberg nods, and the discontents of what used to be called (and in the context of this movie is a perfectly appropriate descriptor) “the underclass.”

The wounded-seeming Nyong’o plays victim and victimizer with equal conviction and facility, and Winston Duke, whom I’d only seen before as the sardonic, intimidating warrior M’Baku in Black Panther, is something of a revelation here as the much less at-ease-with-violence Gabe, whom Peele almost seems to have molded in his literal image. (When Gabe is forced to grab a baseball bat and warn the interlopers away, Duke gives us the attitude with a subtle undercurrent of self-doubt.) There’s twinning all over the movie, including a real spider crawling out from underneath a toy spider, and there’s Elisabeth Moss at her stark raving scariest, staring in a mirror and rendering her face incarnadine in more ways than one (she seems ready for a David Lynch movie). The movie is spooky as hell, dealing hard and fast from a thick deck of symbolist cards, and ultimately Peele offers it as a suggestion to think about what society and prosperity are built on. It is brilliant and timely and more than a little insane in its everything-ties-together narrative sanity, which the movie also comments on. I have no idea where the actual hell Peele intends to go from here, but wherever it is, he has my eager permission to go there and report on his findings.

The Perfection

Posted June 9, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror, thriller, Uncategorized

perfection Netflix’s new thriller The Perfection (with its impossible-to-remember title) relies on the type of screaming twists and turns on a dime that can stymie a reviewer. How can you talk about a movie like this to people who may not have seen it without nuking its surprises? You can’t, so I am obliged to sketch and suggest. The Perfection is about two cello prodigies, Charlotte (Allison Williams) and Lizzie (Logan Browning). The menacing artsiness and female trauma that inform the movie’s tone put it in the same small folder as Suspiria (either version) and Black Swan. It seems to switch not just gears but genres, several times. I would recommend going into it completely cold, and not even watching the trailer, which prankishly sets a viewer up to expect a vastly different film than it turns out to be.

What you get for your trouble is a handsomely photographed (by Vanja Černjul, who also shot Crazy Rich Asians), feverishly written (by director Richard Shepard with Eric Charmelo and Nicole Snyder) thriller that gets you hating one character, then another, then someone else, until finally balance is bloodily, poetically, and somewhat ludicrously restored. The Perfection is therefore not the nicest movie or experience. It exists to pull the rug out from under you, repeatedly, until you mistrust the rug and the floor under it. Is it pleasurable? Here and there. It’s more gripping than entertaining; it squeezes us, it pulls on the short hairs of our temples. It establishes and maintains control — bullying control. Like most thrillers great and poor, it essentially takes a rapist’s attitude toward the audience. It gets you alone and has its way with you.

The redeeming factor here is that, ultimately, The Perfection shakes out as a #MeToo revenge thriller. Its brutality and manipulations come to seem necessary in order to convey the wounding tone required to get us, in the end, on the side of victims who at first seem like aggressors. We may feel betrayed at certain points, but so have its characters. The movie also ladles equal amounts of beauty and rancid ugliness into its hermetic aesthetic, breaking away from that only during a cold roadside scene that packs the most painful violence, which comes to be seen as an act of mercy. The events leading up to the scene — like much else in the movie, and indeed in most thrillers — won’t stand up to harsh scrutiny. The plot depends on a hostile bus driver behaving as a character secretly wants him to. I imagine there’s a deleted scene involving the close study of bus routes so as to guarantee winding up in a desolate area.

The Perfection also contains the following: a tender same-sex lovemaking scene; a few lovely if stressful music performances; a performance by Steven Weber that confirms my longstanding suspicion that he’s aging into William Fichtner; a laughable flashback (or rewind, really) that explains how a cooking instrument comes into a character’s possession (almost as funny as the preceding scene in which the character just randomly seems to produce said instrument — the movie is firmly in the tradition of thrillers that can’t possibly take themselves seriously and don’t want us to, either); a bit that had me thinking we were in Romeo Is Bleeding territory and on the exit into Long Jeanne Silver turf; a quaint confidence in various medications to have exactly the effect on someone that one hopes they will have.

There’s more, but I grow tired of avoiding writing about the story. I can finish by praising the intense performances of Williams and Browning, or the way a cello performance that must proceed without error elicits more sympathetic wincing than does the sometimes graphic violence, or the film’s nearly Cronenbergian reliance on body horror and disfigurement. The Perfection is strongly made, scene for scene, and it ends on a note of serene unity of soul through music in the face of ghastly oppression. But I can’t say I didn’t breathe a sigh of relief when it was done squeezing my soft bits. I won’t claim it doesn’t have the right to play with sensitive themes and elements to get its effects; I think, ultimately, it earns that right and shows itself to be compassionate. You do have to navigate a whole lot of bear traps to get there, though, and you may not agree that it’s worth the journey, with all its hurt and vomit and maggoty visions of sickness. I can raise a glass to the skill of all involved but I’m in no hurry to feel all those things, see all those things, again any time soon.