Archive for August 7, 2017

The Dark Tower

August 7, 2017

darktowerThe Dark Tower is a mediocre, overshort movie, but it has done what nothing else has done — it has made me want to read the books that inspired it. Stephen King’s eight-volume series is about the ultimate hero against the ultimate villain in a struggle over the titular Tower, which holds all worlds together. It’s all very archetypal, informed as much by Sergio Leone as by Tolkien. The movie is an abbreviated riff on several of the books; we’re informed that it’s not an adaptation of King’s work so much as a sequel — another “turn of the wheel,” since the entire saga was conceived as a narrative ouroboros (or became one, anyway). “The man in black fled across the desert,” begins the first book, “and the gunslinger followed” — and apparently the two men will go on fleeing and following until the end of time.

The gunslinger is Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), who in this iteration seeks revenge on the man in black, or Walter o’Dim (Matthew McConaughey), for killing Roland’s father. Walter goes by different names; he has turned up in various guises in King’s fiction, most prominently as Randall Flagg in The Stand. As McConaughey plays him, Walter is a saturnine Erl-King in rock-star cosplay, swaggering around and getting people to kill each other or to stop breathing with a bland command. Truth to tell, McConaughey was more sinister in those moody Lincoln commercials (the ads actually convinced me he could play the Stephen King version of Satan), and the director, Nikolaj Arcel, doesn’t even give him a juicy intro — Walter is just suddenly there, looking on as his big death machine saps psychic children of their energy and channels it into a big death ray pointed at the Tower.

When the Tower takes a big death hit, our Earth rumbles, and a boy, Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), feels it in his mother’s Big Apple apartment. Jake has been having visions of Roland and Walter, and it turns out he packs enough psychic oomph to shame Danny Torrance from The Shining. The movie seems awfully front-loaded to favor Jake, creating the unhappy sense that Roland, whose casting with a non-white actor caused some consternation among those pained by such things, has been relegated to a supporting character in his own epic story because, well, he’s black. After a while the balance evens out a little, Taylor’s performance gets better as Jake becomes more useful, and Idris Elba maintains his stoic sangfroid whether reciting Roland’s Mid-World doggerel (“He who aims with his hand has forgotten the face of his father” and so on) or performing, as Pauline Kael put it in another context, “kinetic self-realization with a gun.”¹

This Dark Tower is practically guaranteed to vex the books’ fans, who will be painfully aware of what’s missing and what a wasted opportunity it all is. Judged on its own shaky merits, the movie skims the surface of the iconic saga, and the occasional bit of strangeness — like Walter’s minions the Low Men, looking, accidentally I’m sure, like members of the Trump administration — stands out in relief against much of the conceptual dullness. But McConaughey and especially Elba have given me intriguing men to picture when I return to the books. I read the first two, in college, several thousand years ago and remember little except the lobstrosities, which sadly stay home from work here. Much is appealing about King’s good-vs.-evil superstory, and the movie, by virtue of containing at least a swallow of King’s potion, is weird and borderline acid-western enough to hold one’s interest on a slow Tuesday. I imagine, though, that it won’t be the version of The Dark Tower that endures.

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¹This was in reference to Andy Garcia’s Vincent Mancini in The Godfather Part III.