Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ category

The Lighthouse

January 12, 2020

lighthouse2 Among about 51 other things, The Lighthouse may be Robert Eggers’ idea of a stoner comedy. This writer-director, who debuted with 2015’s indelible The Witch, has decided this time out to move away from severely pious 16th-century Puritans and shake hands with severely strange 19th-century “wickies,” or lighthouse keepers. The excessively bearded Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) is in charge — “I tend the light,” he growls — and the younger Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) is his assistant, charged with such chores as swabbing the floor and making sure the cistern is free of human waste and seagull carcasses. The two men quarrel and drink and share many sullen meals and drink and fight and drink and dance. Eventually they run out of drink and get into the turpentine, which Ephraim cuts with honey. Shit gets trippy.

The Lighthouse was shot old-school — like, ancient-school — on black-and-white 35mm film, in the square Academy ratio of 1.19:1. So it looks like an experiment from the silent era, except that it isn’t silent; a foghorn rattles and hums throughout the proceedings as it might in a David Lynch movie, and indeed The Lighthouse might be one of the few films imaginable on a plausible double bill with Lynch’s Eraserhead. In both movies, the universe — a shared, understood reality — seems dizzyingly akilter, the world a lump of Play-Doh shaped by incomprehensible and inhuman hands. Both are works of gnarled beauty, rooted in the muck and runoff of human industry, almost atremble with fierce sexual impaction. You could say that The Lighthouse is the story of men driven mad by the encroachment of post-humanity, and Eggers might be fine with that. You could say it’s about repressed homosexuality and how it surfaces as fear of women — mermaids, seagulls, tentacles — and Eggers might nod at that, too.

With a few brief exceptions, the whole movie is Dafoe and Pattinson, who dig hungrily into the situation and the opportunities it affords to go hog-wild. Dafoe’s Thomas is a blustering, one-legged stereotype of a sea dog, but the actor burrows into it and makes Thomas a man of guttural poetry. Pattinson counters with an almost entirely physical performance (“I ain’t much fer talkin’,” says Ephraim) that ramps up into fear and loathing. Both men, Eggers hints, may or may not be dangerous. When they come to blows, we fear for Ephraim the most, even though Thomas is older and disabled, because Dafoe is traditionally intimidating. But Pattinson’s Ephraim has the edge in terms of delusion fed by horror and guilt. The creatures of nightmare around them may be supernatural or psychological, but the implication is that the men, individually, have played this battle out before, and were only awaiting each other so that the lunacy could come to full fruition. A thousand thousand slimy things live on, and so do they.

The Lighthouse has echoes of Melville and Lovecraft as well as Coleridge and Greek mythology, all stirred together in a psychedelic stew, or a cup of turpentine and honey. The honey is the film’s sumptuous aesthetic — Jarin Blaschke’s sharp, finely grained photography; Mark Korven’s score, shrieking like seagulls or booming like a kraken; Craig Lathrop’s unfriendly-to-human-consciousness production design. (The lighthouse itself, it surprises me not at all to learn, was built for the film.) There is also fart humor — I told you this was Eggers’ stoner comedy — and squalor involving human and seagull scat, and a prosthetic that, we are told, was “based on shark labia.” If, by this point in the review, The Lighthouse sounds like your thing, it most assuredly is; if not, then boisterously not. By the end of the film, when we see the lighthouse’s working Fresnel lens — historically accurate, we are assured, though it looks like a spaceship engine — the luminescent awe and horror recall the soul-blasting finales of 2001 as well as Eraserhead, before the very final shot, which evokes the legend of Prometheus. The Lighthouse is like an entire literature-and-film course whittled down to an hour and forty-nine minutes, but fun as all get out, capped off with an (of course) authentic shanty that will corkscrew its way into your temporal lobe for a day or so. Go look for this thing, or don’t; you know where on the spectrum you fall.

Rabid (2019)

December 8, 2019

Rabid-2019-3If you’re going to remake a David Cronenberg film, you’d better not try to ape his ideas, because Cronenberg’s ideas are inextricable from his filmmaking. They are the source of the horror: in much of his work, a disease is a misunderstood monster, just doing what it has to do to survive. Jen and Sylvia Soska, who like Cronenberg are Canadian, have now remade Cronenberg’s 1977 cult favorite Rabid, and they have filled it with their own notions about surgery and transhumanism and fashion. The Soska sisters don’t try to be Cronenberg, but they sure pay tribute to his films throughout their own. Their Rabid, a project that was offered to them and possibly would have been made with or without them, expresses more than anything their deep and abiding love for Cronenberg’s work. As Cronenberg is one of my movie gods, I’m on board with that.

The new Rabid takes off from a premise similar to the original. A woman, Rose (Laura Vandervoort), is badly disfigured in a motorcycle accident. Her case is taken up by a surgeon (Ted Atherton) who applies experimental skin grafts. Rose’s looks are restored; the procedure even smooths out scar tissue from a previous, less extreme accident. But Rose is also left with a craving for blood, and when she feeds off of a victim, that person in turn is infected with the blood delirium. It all boils down to the doctor trying to cheat death (aren’t they always?) by developing this grotesque parasite that perpetuates itself violently. But in the Cronenberg aesthetic, the horror is that this new thing — this new flesh — brought to life is not in itself evil. It just evolves incidentally into a threat to humans. In the Soska playbook, it’s simply one of many things that twist mind and flesh, generally to the detriment of women.

The script, by the Soskas and John Serge, puts Rose to work for a fey, decadent fashion designer. The Soskas seem to liken the fashion world to the moviemaking world: in both, art and transgression are possible — a post-infection Rose produces some tormented gothy dress sketches that her boss flips over — but so are body dysmorphia, drug abuse, and a self-destructive quest for perfection. The Soskas’ interests and emphasis deviate from Cronenberg’s own, but the end result honors his work. There are any number of Easter eggs for Cronenberg fans, such as a wink to the famous “college of cardinals” scene in Dead Ringers, and others I will leave you to discover. Eventually the action leaves the realm of Cronenberg and incorporates elements of, if I’m not mistaken, Re-Animator and John Carpenter’s The Thing. Like many young filmmakers, the Soskas like to pile everything they’ve been obsessing about into the latest film because there’s no guarantee they’ll be granted the keys to another.

Ultimately, Rabid has a warmer center than the original — Cronenberg had to make do with adult-film actress Marilyn Chambers as Rose (he’d wanted Sissy Spacek), and about the most you could say about Chambers was that she was surprisingly competent. Laura Vandervoort brings a lot more vulnerability and pain and spiky anger to Rose, and when the action around Rose gets outlandish, Vandervoort grounds it all in credible female angst. When Rose feeds on a loutish, abusive man, it’s partly you-go-girl revenge, but it’s also pragmatic: a dude this stupid and single-minded makes the perfect prey. Vandervoort doesn’t play it like Zoë Tamerlis in Ms. 45; Rose is driven by her need for blood, and this idiot makes himself known to her.

There was a certain way-before-its-time non-binary/intersex thread in Cronenberg’s Rabid — his Rose was left with what read as male and female sex organs in her armpit (!), with which she fed on blood. We see a bit of that in the new film, but since it deals far more organically with a female point of view, the threat is mainly and viscerally phallic. The Soskas’ 2012 body-horror original American Mary showed they had more on their minds than grrl-power snarls and splatter, and Rabid confirms it. It ends on an image comparable to the bleak nihilism with which Cronenberg sealed his film, only with a distinct nightmarish Gilead tinge to it. As in Alien: Resurrection, perhaps the most Cronenbergian (and most underrated) of the Alien films, a woman isn’t even going to be allowed the peace of death if her existence will benefit men.

Scandalous: The True Story of the National Enquirer

November 11, 2019

Apr 05, 1978 - Boca Raton, Florida, U.S. - National Enquirer Publisher Generoso Pope oand copy of the photo of Elvis Presley. Pope died at 61, GENEROSO P. POPE JR., the millionaire owner and publisher of The National Enquirer, suffered a heart attack yesterday at his home in West Palm Beach, Fla., and was pronounced dead on arrival at the J.F.K. Medical Center in Atlantis, Fla. He was 61 years old. Mr. Pope, whose father founded Il Progresso, the New York City Italian-language newspaper, bought a weekly newspaper, The New York Enquirer, in 1952 for $75,000. It had a circulation of 17,000 copie A gore-soaked tabloid, whose publisher had mob connections, was ultimately involved in helping install the President of the United States. This story, worthy of James Ellroy, is at the heart of the documentary Scandalous: The True Story of the National Enquirer. Aesthetically, the movie is both cold and cheesy, a weird combo platter. Various interviewees (Carl Bernstein is probably the film’s biggest “get”) sit in lonely, swanky rooms or in dimly lit bars, and the interviews are broken up by vintage news footage — grainy film stock, bleary video. It’s ugly, but then so is the subject; director Mark Landsman means to show that the tabloid that’s been an unavoidable patch of the American cultural wallpaper for much of our lives has left a mostly corrosive footprint wherever it has stepped.

Or stomped. By 1997, the Enquirer’s reputation as a ghost haunting the closets of celebrities was so entrenched that the paper went through a period of disfavor following the death of Princess Diana. The paparazzi who chased Diana to her death were not working for the Enquirer, but the association was made anyway — the paper was a synecdoche for all other intrusive tabloids. (For what it’s worth, the paper’s then-editor Steve Koz made a performative violin solo of refusing photos of the wreckage and called on other tabloids to do likewise.) Before then, the Enquirer had actually been gaining a rep as an unexpected source of hard-nosed journalism during the O.J. trial. But the sacrifice of Diana at the altar of enquiring minds that wanted to know seemed to shame, for a while, the supermarket gobblers of tabloid burgers.

What Scandalous makes clear is that the paper, for decades, reported all the news that was printed to fit — it was custom-made to slake the public thirst for lightweight squalor. The Enquirer’s original goodfella-in-chief, Generoso Pope Jr., gradually shifted the rag’s angle from sub-Weegee shock-horror to “Why Jackie/Liz/Oprah is as miserable as you are, Jane Q. Public.” That formula held for a long time, until, in those more innocent times when such a thing could still happen, Gary Hart was captured on film with Donna Rice on his lap and his political career was generally acknowledged to be toilet-bound. The Enquirer’s vampire fangs had drawn a new kind of blood, and it liked the taste. Bill Clinton found himself similarly drained. But all along, in Scandalous, we also hear about stories Jane never saw — contemptible behavior by Bob Hope, Cosby, etc. We’re told that the Enquirer kept mum about certain stars in exchange for access. That will take on grim relevance later, when what Ronan Farrow has recently exposed as the “catch and kill” mechanism (he’s in the film briefly) was employed to keep Donald Trump’s mushroom out of the pages of America’s favorite tabloid. Hillary stared zombie-eyed and pallid from many an Enquirer cover, contrasted with the insensate orange vigor of the MAGA who would be king. The paper that had followed America’s lead was now leading America.

That was under the jurisdiction of Trump pally David Pecker, who has since sold the Enquirer, after the paper’s attempted sliming of Trump foe Jeff Bezos backslimed. Today the paper sits in its usual point-of-purchase slot, itself zombie-eyed, a mewling wisp of its former robust ghoulishness. It continues to harass celebrities and the Royal Family just like the good old bad days of 1985, but having ended and expedited presidential dreams, where else can it go? It seems a spent force. And yet the hunger for the Enquirer’s stock in trade remains, only it’s filled elsewhere. For what is Fox News if not tabloid journalism at its slickest and most dangerous, speaking to an audience of the fearful and incurious? The network’s serpent-in-chief, Rupert Murdoch, of course slithered from the brackish waters of British supermarket rags. As James Ellroy knew, America is a tabloid country, and so Scandalous is not just a movie about that thing Grandma reads at the hairdresser’s. At its “best” and worst the paper is a souvenir from our national shadowland; we want to think we’re better than the Enquirer but we kind of know we deserve each other.

Brightburn

September 1, 2019

brightburn “I never said, ‘The superman exists, and he’s American.’ What I said was, ‘God exists, and he’s American.’” – A character in Alan Moore’s Watchmen

Well, what if Satan existed and he were American and a superman? The sensationally effective horror movie Brightburn meditates on that. A low-budget production by today’s standards, it’s horrifically violent at times — at least two bits made me gasp and/or avert my eyes, and this ain’t my first time at the gore-movie rodeo. The premise mashes up Superman’s origin story with that of Damien Thorn (of the Omen series). A young couple living on a farm in Kansas are trying for a baby. Soon enough, they find one — in a spaceship that crash-lands in the fields outside. The couple raise him as their own, and when he hits puberty he starts manifesting strange abilities and weird obsessions. Except that the abilities include flight and super-strength, and the obsessions boil down to an unearthly voice instructing him to “take the world.”

The notion of a superpowered being who’s more psycho than hero is not new, of course. Even discounting the throngs of supervillains in comics over the last 81 years, stories like Marshal Law, The One, the above-mentioned Watchmen, and The Boys (recently treated as an Amazon Prime series) have tackled the existential threat of creatures who are physically heightened but morally bankrupt. Brightburn just takes its Juvenalian-satirical approach directly to the source — the genesis of Clark Kent, raised as an unassuming, righteous farm boy who eventually leaves Smallville for Metropolis, where he’s needed more. Here, the Clark is a 12-year-old named Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn), and his parents are Tori (the ubiquitous Elizabeth Banks), an artist, and Kyle (David Denman), who works the land and raises chickens. When the chickens all turn up mutilated one night, a wolf is suspected. But it’s not a wolf.

If you agree to overlook a couple of plot infelicities, such as Brandon leaving a Zorro-style signature on his crimes and the cops somehow not figuring it out until far too late, Brightburn is an intelligently made thriller whose director, David Yarovesky (The Hive), knows how to draw out dread with silence and turn it up to 11 only when necessary. As Brandon starts to slip into homicidal madness — though it seems the spaceship hidden in the barn activates his demons in some way — he makes a creepy costume for himself, although I’m not sure if superheroes even exist as a fictional concept in the movie’s universe, so Brandon probably isn’t emulating any comic-book outfit. (Perhaps the spaceship gives him the costume design.) The violence, when it comes, is startlingly vicious and ugly, toying with the outer limits of an R rating. This movie about an alternate-world Superboy is decidedly not for children.

Is the story a metaphor for how a lonely, smart kid, bullied by peers and rejected by a cute girl, explodes into mass murder of the sort that’s become so grindingly familiar in recent years? Could be, but then stories like this predate our current horrors (and Brandon’s victims are mostly adults, anyway). Its commentary seems pointed more at the superhero-messiah narrative; during the end credits, an actor who turns up often in the work of this film’s producer James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) cameos as a raving conspiracy theorist who gives examples of other weird threats. This seems to promise sequels unfolding in a shared universe with Brightburn, though the film probably didn’t do well enough at the cash registers.

The problem is, this sort of thing is probably only good for one movie. It turns out that it’s roughly as difficult to write about a villain who can do anything as it is about a hero who can do anything. The structure becomes predictable, almost like a slasher film: Someone draws Brandon’s wrath, then spectacularly becomes an ex-someone. Maybe we should just be left to imagine the expansion of the Brightburn-verse. Not everything needs to be a franchise (although I won’t be surprised if an outfit like Dynamite or Avatar, specialists in profanely gory comics, puts out a Brightburn line). Though horror has its own needless-franchise problems, it’s better to think of Brightburn as supernatural, or übernatural, horror. If we’re being honest, the superhero genre — with its costumed gods who could as easily incinerate as save us, due to one frayed wire in their brain — should always have been horror, anyway.

Pet Sematary (2019)

July 14, 2019

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.

The Perfection

June 9, 2019

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.

The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot

January 13, 2019

the-man-who-killed-hitler-and-then-the-bigfoot“It’s the Bigfoot, Ed. They want me to kill it.” That’s ol’ Calvin Barr (Sam Elliott) talking to his brother (Larry Miller) over a cup of powdered cocoa and mini-marshmallows. Some forty-odd years prior, Calvin also pulled the trigger on Hitler himself, hence the title The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot. Like Bubba Ho-Tep, that title promises something different from what the movie delivers. A feature debut by Robert D. Krzykowski (who co-produced Lucky McKee’s The Woman), Hitler/Bigfoot has unexpected pathos and gravitas, and the titular killings are anti-climactic, almost beside the point. Calvin lost what was really important in the war — his innocence (a killer is something you can never un-become) and the love of his life.

Why did Calvin never track down his stateside sweetie, schoolteacher Maxine (Caitlin FitzGerald)? Probably because he felt stained by killing a man, even if that man was Hitler. As Calvin explains to the two government suits who recruit him to deal with Bigfoot, killing Hitler didn’t matter because his words survived him; like the deadly virus that the Bigfoot carries (which is why it urgently needs killing), Hitler’s hateful ideas radiated outward from his corpse and infected millions. Hitler and the Bigfoot both turn out to be smaller and less impressive in the flesh, and more easily killable. Killing them doesn’t make Calvin any happier or even more heroic. As he says, he just did what he was told.

That Hitler/Bigfoot is more subdued, humanistic and poignant than the title indicates doesn’t mean it’s a cult classic like Bubba Ho-Tep, though. It’s a little underdone, with an elaborate flashback structure that sometimes confuses us — we’re watching Calvin (played as a young man by Aidan Turner) during the war, then as a nail-tough codger in the ‘80s, then as a young man again before heading off to war. I suppose this structure is justified by being a tall tale about a man looking back on an eventful life. Krzykowski, though, either neglects or forgets about narrative beats we’re expecting. What happened to Maxine? Why does Calvin fake his own death if he’s just going to be seen publicly with Ed later on? And what’s that in his shoe that bothers him for the whole movie? A tracking device, I’m guessing — how the government keeps tabs on him. (It’s also implied there’s a painting in his parlor that’s bugged.) But Krzykowski has Calvin dump it out of his shoe in a medium shot, and we never get a good close look at the thing. For all we know, it’s the ring he never got a chance to give Maxine.

Still, if you enjoy Sam Elliott and his rich baritone, there are worse ways to spend your evening. Calvin is the sort of flawlessly ethical American who finds a $100 scratch ticket on the sidewalk but refuses to collect the winnings himself; who lives modestly with his trusty ol’ dawg and kills brain cells at a bar, saying he’s thinking about giving up the booze but knowing he won’t. Elliott puts all of this across effortlessly — he’s an iconic presence playing an iconic man who would rather just be obscure. “This is not the comic-book story you want it to be,” he tells the somewhat starry-eyed younger agents who pull him back in. The unemphatic directorial style promises that much, but it’s Elliott — his sad, measured voice the sound of a bruised soul who has seen more blood than you — who really delivers on the promise.