Tag Archives: Guilt

LIST CANDIDATE: THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (2017)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Barry Keoghan, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic

PLOT: A cardiologist’s odd relationship with a teenage boy reveals a secret about his past, and will lead him to a dilemma in the future.

Still from The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Two-time Certified Weird director Giorgos Lanthimos never fails to deliver weirdness; it’s in his DNA. His first official stab at a horror movie is every bit as disturbing as you might hope—which is to say, every bit as disturbing as his comedies and dramas.

COMMENTS: The Killing of a Sacred Deer flips the script of The Lobster. That was a comedy with terrifying moments, while Deer is an unapolagetic horror movie with a few funny bits (most of which come from blasé or inappropriate conversations about weighty or grotesque subjects). As is always the case with Lanthimos, what you notice first is the anti-acting acting style: the characters barely register emotions, and when they do express, say, marital tenderness, it’s strained, like they’re pod people trying to fake it to fool the humans. That’s the case here, where Steven, Colin Farrel’s cardiac surgeon, trudges through relationships with both Martin, a pleasant but mysterious teen boy, and his own family with the usual Lanthimos-imposed rigidity. This lack of humanity magnifies the mundanity of the family’s suburban existence. The drama is accented by heavy, obtrusive bursts of dissonant classical music (e.g., cue a Ligeti chord at the conclusion of mother/daughter conversation re: smartphones) to give it that ominous horror film feel. It sounds forced, but it’s effective; combined with the awkward interpersonal relations, the technique creates a real sense of dread that rises for nearly an hour before the first major revelation.

Despite the initially repressed thesping, an interesting thing happens in Deer. Delving into horror forces the director to allow his actors to reveal genuine feelings, however briefly. You can’t remain restrained and unreactive when faced with immediately horrific situations like mental or physical torture, however absurd the premise from which they flow might be. Farrell (and Kidman, but mainly Farrel) gets to play furious, frightened and bereaved here. The further into the plot they venture, the more emotions are unleashed, an unexpected progression that feels natural and satisfying.

Although this isn’t a thriller that depends on a twist, I still don’t want to give away too much of the plot. I think it will be more rewarding if the viewer is in the same position as Steven when Martin quickly and casually recites the rules of the game at a cafeteria. I will say that the tale involves a moral dilemma, of sorts. I also feel obliged to say that I found the final resolution unsatisfying, for reasons I can’t discuss in detail without crossing the border into spoiler territory. Let’s simply say that the way Lanthimos resolves the situation, though perhaps the only reasonable solution, allows the protagonist to avoid responsibility for his choices—a surprising cop-out in a movie otherwise so uncompromising, both formally and in its cruelty.

Before sailing to Troy, Agamemnon, the high king of the Greeks, unknowingly killed a deer that was sacred to the goddess Artemis. Angry, the goddess calmed the winds so that the fleets could not sail. To atone for his sin, she demanded that Agamemnon sacrifice his own beloved daughter, Iphigenia. Even though Steven’s daughter Kim got an “A” on her presentation on Iphigenia in class, it’s not necessary to know how that story ends (versions of the myth differ, anyway) to understand Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer. But the title is intentional foreshadowing that lets you know you’re in for something approaching classical tragedy—and if you know your ancient Greeks, you know they liked their tragedy gruesome. So do modern Greeks. They also like it a little weird.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…as things spun out of control, getting ever stranger, I started to wonder if the director had merely written himself into a corner and was doubling down on weirdness to get himself out. And yet the film never quite loses its mythic drive. You walk out feeling like you’ve truly had an experience.”–Bilge Ebiri, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

 

CAPSULE: IN A GLASS CAGE (1986)

Tras el Crystal

DIRECTED BY: Agustí Villaronga

FEATURING: Günter Meisner, David Sust, Gisela Echevarria, Marisa Paredes

PLOT: Hiding out in Brazil, an ex-Nazi pedophile and child killer is confined to a iron lung after a botched suicide attempt; it turns out that his new young male nurse knows about his past crimes.

Still from In a Glass Cage (1986)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Disturbing, but there’s nothing exactly weird about this horrific pedophilic psychodrama, other than its enigmatic ending.

COMMENTS: Well-acted and suspenseful, as well as brutally sadistic, In a Glass Cage has a clever setup: a decrepit ex-Nazi, confined to an iron lung after a suicide attempt, becomes both a prisoner and an unwilling accomplice to further crimes at the hands of one of his former victims. The film, while seriously intended, depends on the type of shock torture tactics usually seen in films, with an even more unsettling pedophiliac edge. Any film that starts out with a young boy stripped, hung from the ceiling, and beaten to death with a plank is probably unsuitable to watch with your mother (or pretty much anybody’s mother). There are not many of these scenes, but it doesn’t take many shots of a torturer sticking a needle into a child’s heart to make an impact.

Technical aspects of the film are superb, from the shadowy blue-grey cinematography to the music by Javier Navarette. Villaronga shoots suspense well, drawing out the stalking and alternating closeups, pans and overhead shots with sinister little details (Griselda’s black stocking falling around her ankle) in a way that recalls Dario Argento at his most nerve-wracking. David Sust is chilling as the second generation killer, and Günter Meisner expertly portrays Klaus with hardly a word, conveying  warring emotions of horror and guilty pleasure purely by facial expressions. All of this quality makes the movie more difficult to dismiss; the producers spent too much money and artistic effort for accusations that they were merely trying to make a quick buck off salacious material to stick.

The torture Angelo devises for Klaus is subtle. He demonstrates that there is no escape from the Nazi’s past atrocities, that mere regret will not absolve him from the evil he has unleashed in the world. He forces Klaus to relive his crimes not as memories, but as actual ongoing atrocities for which he is still responsible, despite long ago having lost the ability to commit them. For Angelo the sadist, this may be the biggest turn-on; knowing that a part of Klaus still enjoys watching these horrors, while another part of his mind is screaming in anguish. Through this complexity Glass Cage transcends exploitation—although just barely. Its insights into the psychology of sadism don’t cut deep enough to compensate for all of the scarring imagery, making it a good, but not great, movie about capital-E Evil. Those who like their horror served up with a side of extreme moral depravity will consider it a classic; others may want to pass.

Cult Epics DVD or Blu-Ray includes a 30 minute interview/documentary about Villaronga (mainly focused on Glass Cage), a screening Q&A, and three (not scary) experimental shorts from Villaronga spanning 1976-1980.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Like the film’s characters, we find ourselves party to scenarios involving the most extraordinary fetishisation of suffering and death, horrors which invoke a troubling combination of impressions: they are sensual, grotesque, dreamlike, oddly beautiful, almost pornographic, usually painful to witness. But however horrifying the experience, Tras el cristal is bound to make for rewarding viewing… easily one of the most lyrical nightmares ever concocted.”–Chris Gallant, Kinoeye, Nov. 2002

(This movie was nominated for review by “w depaul.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

282. DEMENTIA [DAUGHTER OF HORROR] (1955)

“Do you know what madness is, or how it strikes? Have you seen the demons that surge through the corridors of the crazed mind? Do you know that in the world of the insane you’ll find a kind of truth more terrifying than fiction? A truth… that will shock you!”–Opening narration from Daughter of Horror

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: John Parker

FEATURING: Adrienne Barret, Bruno VeSota, Ed MacMahon (voice in Daughter of Horror cut)

PLOT: A nameless woman awakens from a nightmare and makes her way out onto the city streets. She meets a wealthy man and agrees to go with him, and imagines a bloody family drama enacted in graveyard while riding in his limousine. Later, she stabs the man and throws his body off his penthouse balcony; she is then pursued by a cop with the face of her father, who chases her into a jazz club.

Still from Dementia (Daughter of Horror) (1955)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film contains no dialogue, although it’s not technically a silent film as some sound effects can be heard.
  • Director John Parker has only Dementia and one short film (a dry run for this feature) in his filmography. We know little about him except that his parents were in the film distribution business.
  • Star Adrienne Barrett was Parker’s secretary, and the film was inspired by a nightmare she related to Parker.
  • Co-star and associate producer Bruno VeSota is perhaps better known for his work as a character actor in numerous pictures, including a memorable turn as a cuckolded husband in Attack of the Giant Leeches. VeSota later claimed to have co-written and co-directed the film (no director is listed in the credits).
  • Cinematographer William C. Thompson also lensed Maniac (1934) and Glen or Glenda? (1953), making him the rare craftsman to serve on three separate Certified Weird movies (all for different directors).
  • Dwarf (Freaks) plays the uncredited “newsboy.”
  • The score was written by one-time bad boy composer George Antheil, whose career had plummeted into film and TV scoring after having once been the toast of Paris’ avant-garde with “Ballet Mechanique” (1924).
  • Dementia was submitted to the New York Censor’s board in 1953, and refused a certificate (they called it “inhuman, indecent, and the quintessence of gruesomeness”—which they didn’t mean as praise). It was approved in 1955 after cuts. (Reportedly they requested removal of shots of the severed hand). The film was banned in Britain until 1970 (!)
  • After failing to find success in its original dialogue-free form, Dementia was re-released in 1957 with narration (from future late night talk show sidekick Ed McMahon) and retitled Daughter of Horror.
  • Daughter of Horror is the movie teenagers are watching in the theater when the monster strikes in The Blob.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Our protagonist (the “Gamin”) surrounded by faceless onlookers, who silently and motionlessly stare at her victim’s corpse. (Daughter of Horror‘s narrator unhelpfully informs us that these unearthly figurants are “the ghouls of insanity”).

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Precognitive headline; graveyard memories; throw on a dress

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A skid row nightmare, Dementia dips into post-WWII repression and exposes the underbelly of the American night. It’s a boozy odyssey through a netherworld of newsboys, flower peddlers, pimps, murderers, and hot jazz, with our heroine pursued by cops and faceless demons. It’s noirish, expressionist, and nearly silent, except when Ed MacMahon interrupts the proceedings with pulpy purple prose. Perhaps it was not quite “the strangest motion picture ever offered for distribution,” as Variety famously claimed, but, warts and all, it’s like nothing else you’ve seen. It was too much naked id for its time, taking the spirit of Allen Ginsburg’s “Howl” and channeling it into a guilt-drenched B-movie dream.


Original trailer for Daughter of Horror

COMMENTS: The first thing the Gamin sees when she wakes from Continue reading 282. DEMENTIA [DAUGHTER OF HORROR] (1955)

274. NUIT NOIRE [BLACK NIGHT] (2005)

“Often when we go to the cinema we feel like we’re being taken for fools because things we have instantly understood are laboriously explained. Here it’s a little the other way round.”–Olivier Smolders

Weirdest!

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Olivier Smolders

FEATURING: Fabrice Rodriguez, Yves-Marie Gnahoua, Iris Debusschere

PLOT: A solitary entomologist works at a natural history museum in a world where it is only light for fifteen seconds a day. One day, he comes home to his empty apartment and discovers an African woman sleeping in his bed. She is ill and pregnant and eventually dies, leaving him to deal with the body.

Still from Nuit Noire (2005)

BACKGROUND:

  • Olivier Smolders was born in the Congo, which explains the source of the film’s African imagery.
  • A prolific short film maker, Nuit Noire is Smolders’ only feature film to date.
  • The movie received a very limited theatrical release even in its native Belgium, and did not appear in U.S. theaters (outside of a few film festivals) at all. Little has been written about Nuite Noir in the English language (an only a little more in French).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The African woman’s dead body turning into a pupae, then splitting open as a new life emerges.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: 15 seconds of sun; elephant in the alley; African corpse cocooning

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Set in a world of eternal midnight, with troubled dreams of dead children and troubling realities of sick foreign women who mysteriously show up in your bed, Nuit Noire manipulates time and concepts in ways that only film can. One woman changes into another, and then into another. This story could not take place in the light of day.

Short clip from Nuit Noire

COMMENTS: Closeups of squirming bugs a la Blue Velvet. A reserved protagonist taking care of a sick charge in his isolated apartment a la Eraserhead. Billowing red curtains a la… every Continue reading 274. NUIT NOIRE [BLACK NIGHT] (2005)

233. DEATH BY HANGING (1968)

Koshikei

“You mustn’t think our film is just labored theorizing. The officials’ attempts to convince R that he is R are amusing and bizarre. I think it’s a spot-on depiction of all us Japanese in all our amusing bizarreness.”–Nagisa Ôshima

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Yung-Do Yun, Fumio Watanabe, , Akiko Koyama

PLOT: After the failed execution of a Japanese-Korean double murderer, various state functionaries are at a loss as how to proceed when the criminal’s body refuses to die. Going to increasingly outlandish lengths to remind the convict of why he is there and condemned, the prison’s officials inadvertently explore the nature of crime, nationality, and culpability. Eventually a young woman is introduced to the group, and the captors decide to get drunk.

Still from Death by Hanging (1968)

BACKGROUND:

  • The criminal in Death By Hanging is based on Ri Chin’u, who also murdered two Japanese school girls. In addition to his crimes, Ri Chin’u gained a degree of fame for his extensive writings while in prison.
  • Much of the dialogue between R and his “sister” is taken from actual correspondences between Ri Chin’u and a Korean journalist.
  • Death by Hanging came during Ôshima‘s most experimental period, made back-to-back with the Certified Weird satire Japanese Summer: Double Suicide. Like most of Ôshima‘s mid-to-late 1960s work, Hanging was initially ignored in America, not even screening for the first time until 1974 and not officially reaching home video until 2016.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The movie is stuffed to the gills with claustrophobic shots of slapstick fused with philosophy, none more so than the penultimate scene: an unlikely combination of prison officials getting hammered around a “table” while the convict “R” and his (probably imaginary) sister discussing the nature of guilt. The drinkers take turns discussing how they came to this kind of work while R, reclining with the young woman beneath a Japanese flag, comes to the conclusion that though he committed his crimes, he is not responsible for them.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Stubborn corpse; rape re-enactment; hallucination participation

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Death By Hanging starts with a very traditional documentary approach, including narration reeling off statistics and some expository shots of a nondescript execution facility in a prison compound. Quickly, however, the aura of formality disintegrates as the hapless officials endeavor in vain to make sense of the film’s central conceit: a young convict refusing to die. Their efforts to restore his memory and edge him toward accountability grow desperate and extreme until a point is reached where everyone involved in the process begins to believe in the unreal.


Original trailer for Death by Hanging

COMMENTS: While most leftist directors merely point a shotgun at Continue reading 233. DEATH BY HANGING (1968)

CAPSULE: THE SUICIDE THEORY (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Dru Brown

FEATURING: Steve Mouzakis, Leon Cain

PLOT: A suicidal man hires a hitman to off him, but there’s a catch: the intended victim claims he’s under a curse and can’t be killed, and he miraculously survives every attempt on his life.

Still from The Suicide Theory (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Suicide Theory is a psychological thriller with an intriguing Twilight Zone-ish premise, but it’s not weird enough by a long shot.

COMMENTS: A hitman who can’t kill and a suicidal man who can’t die star in a psychological thriller that can’t… wait, we’ll cut that gibe short, because although The Suicide Theory doesn’t ultimately hit the mark it aims at, there is enough here to count as an interesting attempt. First, there is the macabre scenario, which offers opportunities for moments both chilling and blackly comic. Even more beneficial are the performances by the two leads, who forge a bond that is both sick and touching. Steve Mouzakis’ troubled assassin come off like a seedy, psychotic . Leon Cain’s role is less demonstrative, but the desperate resignation he shows as a suicidal immortal provides the appropriate counterpoint to Mouzakis’ fury.

That said, The Suicide Theory has a script whose ambitions exceed its ability to meet them. Although plot strands meet up at the end, they are more crammed into place than flowing together naturally. The resolution works, in one sense, but it doesn’t wholly satisfy, either on a literal level or a metaphorical level. Potential plot holes come to mind. If Steven were truly as ruthless as portrayed, it seems like there are at least a couple of more severe, less avoidable options for disposing of Percy that come to mind: decapitation, for example, or dissolving his body in acid. An arbitrary rule (Percy’s “theory”) requires Steven to spend time getting to know his victim; a useful contrivance from a dramatic standpoint, but it’s not successfully sold to us as a necessity. The story also arguably goes one twist to far at the end, and ultimately, the lattice of guilt the film proposes can’t support the weight of the premise. A great setup, and well-acted, but it runs out of steam at the end; it doesn’t slay, but call it a near-miss.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a contrived but weirdly compelling thriller…[l]arded with bizarre twists…”–Justin Chang, Variety (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “michael.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

219. THE PORNOGRAPHERS (1966)

“Erogotoshitachi” yori Jinruigaku nyūmon

“What kind of fish is that? What is it doing there?

“Very strange…”–dialogue spoken over the opening credits of The Pornographers

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Shôhei Imamura

FEATURING: Shôichi Ozawa, Sumiko Sakamoto, Keiko Sagawa, Masaomi Kondô

PLOT: Ogata makes illicit pornographic films to support his widowed landlady, who is also his lover, and her two teenage children. The widow believes her ex-husband was reincarnated as a carp she keeps in a fishbowl next to the bed and that he disapproves of the arrangement, but she cannot control herself. When she dies, she insists Ogata marry her daughter, but the pornographer has become impotent and obsessed with building a mechanical woman to be the perfect mate.

Still from The Pornographers (1966)

BACKGROUND:

  • Shôhei Imamura apprenticed as an assistant director under Yasujirô Ozu, and although he was considered a major figure in the Japanese New Wave, his movies are little known outside his native land. In the West, The Pornographers is his best-known work.
  • The scenario was based on a 1963 novel by Akiyuki Nosaka (who also wrote the story on which Grave of the Fireflies was based).
  • The Pornographers was made by Nikkatsu studios, who ironically turned from producing art films to making pornography (“pink films”) soon after the scandal over ‘s “incomprehensible” Branded to Kill in 1967.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Shôhei Imamura frames many of the shots in The Pornographers oddly, including a couple of bedroom scenes viewed through a fish tank; the idea is that we are watching the jealous carp as he spies on his human wife making love to Ogata. The weirdest of these shots, however, has to be a Haru’s deathbed scene, also shot through the carp cam—improbably, this time, from above, as if the fish is looking down from heaven on the spouse who is soon to join him.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Carp ex-hubby; slow schoolgirl porn star; Ogata floats away

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A cavalcade of perversions flecked with short dream sequences and unannounced flashbacks, almost every scene in The Pornographers is eccentric, if not flatly surreal. The main character delivers a philosophical monologue as he walks though an orgy, the matron freaks out to the surf-rock soundtrack in her head, and a new wife strips to garter and stockings as she walks down the corridor to meet her mother-in-law for the first time. Although the story is based in realism, the film’s tone is melodramatic and dreamily erotic—but, ironically, hardly pornographic at all.


Original trailer for The Pornographers

COMMENTS: The key to understanding The Pornographers may be Continue reading 219. THE PORNOGRAPHERS (1966)

174. VERTIGO (1958)

“If Vertigo remains, unchallengeably, Hitchcock’s masterpiece, this is surely because there the attitude to the unknown and mysterious is not simply one of terror but retains, implicitly, a profound and disturbing ambivalence.”–Robin Wood, “Hitchcock’s Films

“Only one film had been capable of portraying insane memory, impossible memory: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.”—Sans Soleil

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: James Stewart, , Barbara Bel Geddes

PLOT: During a rooftop pursuit of a fleeing suspect, John “Scottie” Ferguson finds himself hanging from a drainpipe; the uniformed cop who tries to save him slips and falls to his death. Suffering from debilitating acrophobia and vertigo, as well as survivor’s guilt, Scottie quits the police force. An old college acquaintance offers him a job tailing his wife, and Scottie becomes obsessed with the beautiful and mysterious woman who believes she is possessed by the spirit of a suicidal ancestor.

Still from Vertigo (1958)
BACKGROUND:

  • The source of Vertigo was the novel “D’Entre Les Morts” (translated in English as “The Living and the Dead”), by the French writing team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. Hitchcock had wanted to adapt the pair’s first novel, “Celle qui n’était plus,” but the rights were sold to a French company and it was made as Les Diaboliques by Henri-Georges Clouzot. Boileau-Narcejac would later write the screenplay for Les Yeux Sans Visage [Eyes Without a Face] (1960).
  • Hitchcock bought the rights to Vertigo back from Paramount (along with four other 1950s-era films), then willed them to his daughter. The film went out of circulation for many years. The rights eventually ended up with rival studio Universal, who restored and re-released the film theatrically (in 1983 and again, after a major restoration, in 1996) to great acclaim.
  • The dizzying “vertigo” effect (sometimes known as the “dolly zoom” or “trombone shot”) is the film’s most famous technical innovation: the camera tracks backwards on a dolly while simultaneously zooming the lens, resulting in  a disorienting visual experience of moving backwards and forwards simultaneously.
  • Abstract Expressionist painter John Ferren designed the dream sequence.
  • A controversial flashback scene reveals the “twist ending” about two-thirds of the way through the movie. Before the film’s release Hitchcock decided to remove this sequence, over the strenuous objections of his producer, Herbert Coleman. After preview audiences were unimpressed by the flashback-free cut, the studio ordered Hitchcock to return the film to the way it was originally shot.
  • Vertigo, which was exceedingly dark compared to the average Jimmy Stewart vehicle, was not as successful as Hitchcock’s previous hits such as 1954’s Rear Window, and barely broke even at the box office. The scale of its initial failure is often exaggerated, however, for the sake of a good story: it qualified more as a minor disappointment than a flop. The contemporaneous reviews were also mixed (leaning towards positive with reservations about plausibility and pacing), rather than universally negative, as is sometimes implied.
  • In the 2012 Sight & Sound critics poll, Vertigo replaced Citizen Kane, the top vote getter every year since the poll’s inception in 1962, as the greatest movie of all time. (It ranked #7 on the director’s poll, where Tokyo Story took the top spot).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It has to come from the dream sequence. Although we chose Jimmy Stewart’s head floating against a shifting kaleidoscope background to illustrate this review, the most thematically significant image is the male shadow falling, first onto a terracotta rooftop and then through a white void (this figure is incorporated into the original Saul Bass-designed poster, where it combines with the movie’s other significant motif, the spiral).

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Vertigo may be one of the most subtly strange movies out there. It’s entirely possible to watch it and see it as no more than a conventionally (if implausibly) plotted mystery. But peer into its vortex closer and you’ll see why this brightly lit but oddly dreamlike tragedy has fascinated generations of moviegoers: in its depths hides madness, illusion, necrophilia, sexual domination, a perverse longing for death, guilt, and the grinding gears of merciless fate. There’s a reason Vertigo is a cult movie. It doesn’t give up its secrets easily. Watch it again, with your weird eyes.


Re-release trailer for Vertigo

COMMENTS: Did any movie produced under the Hollywood studio system ever torture its protagonist as mercilessly as Vertigo torments Scottie Continue reading 174. VERTIGO (1958)

CAPSULE: THE TRUTH ABOUT EMANUEL (2013)

DIRECTED BY: Francesca Gregorini

FEATURING: Kaya Scodelario, Jessica Biel

PLOT: A troubled teenage girl becomes obsessed with the single mom who moves in next door.

Still from The Truth About Emanuel (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This metaphorical psychodrama is dreamy, but not quite dreamy enough to qualify as “weird.”

COMMENTS: Although it flirts with head games, The Truth About Emanuel is steadfastly a drama and not a psychological thriller; it does contains a twist, however, that makes it hard to discuss the plot without giving away an intended surprise. Suffice it to say that the twist arrives early, isn’t too terribly difficult to guess, and is milked almost entirely for its surface metaphor rather than as a source of suspense. Emanuel (Scodelario) is a smart but sullen teen girl, a female Holden Caulfield with a morbid streak. She has her name (spelled in the masculine form) tattooed on her arm, and nothing but sarcastic comments for her desperate-to-connect stepmother and a nerdy coworker. Emanuel feels existential survivor’s guilt due to the fact that her mother died giving birth to her. Enter new neighbor Linda (Biel), a young mother in constant need of babysitting services, with whom Emanuel immediately connects (inspiring vicarious maternal jealousy and lesbian panic in her stepmom). The two women’s relationship quickly takes a turn for the symbiotically, and symbolically, unhealthy. Despite the fact that the film’s big bombshell is dropped at the end of the first act, the movie as a whole feels very slow-developing. It can also be heavy-handed, moving its characters around stiffly so that they hit their psychological marks on cue. On the plus side, the acting and general technical quality of the film is good. Kaya Scodelario has a fine presence (the camera loves her big, haunted blue eyes), and although her role as a morose teen doesn’t require her to stretch her talents too much, I expect to see more of her in coming years. Biel is natural as always, putting in another of her effortlessly classy performances that make me wonder if maybe she shouldn’t be a bigger star than she is. The two women share good chemistry in this very gynocentric film. Even aside from the thematic obsession with motherhood and the mother/daughter relationship, Emanuel is very much the aggressor and dominant partner in her budding romance with her Elijah-Wood-as-Frodo-looking boyfriend; this movie, in fact, would fail the reverse Bechdel test. Despite some slightly distracting budget CGI, a lovingly constructed dream sequence works as an emotional and symbolic centerpiece. Along with one glancing shot that introduces some subjective ambiguity into the entire scenario, that dream gives the film just a touch of weirdness, although there’s not much here that will stretch the aesthetic boundaries of anyone who’s seen an independent film or two in their times. The Truth About Emanuel isn’t subtle in its symbolism, but it is an earnest and a generally effective exploration of maternal longing, brainier and more poetic than the average chick flick.

The Truth About Emanuel played Sundance in 2013 under the more intriguing title Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes. The revised, generic title may sound less weird, but it is arguably more misleading than the Truth About Fishes. It’s being released on video-on-demand contemporaneously with its limited theatrical release, which has now become the official distribution strategy for independent films.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…has elements that are weirdly creepy, yet it still manages to be surprising and achingly sad.”–Nina Garin, San Diego Union-Tribune (contemporaneous)

 

CAPSULE: THE ACT OF KILLING (2012)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous

FEATURING: Anwar Congo, Herman Koto, Adi Zulkadry

PLOT: A Western documentarian encourages leaders of Indonesian death squads, now grandfathers and respected elders of paramilitary groups, to make a movie proudly re-enacting the massacres they committed as young gangsters, on condition that he can film them behind-the-scenes as they work.

Still from The Act of Killing (2012)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Though gut-wrenching, the movie itself is not really weird—although the outtakes of the film the gangsters produce (particularly the musical numbers) reveal something authentically surreal (in a heartbreakingly ironic mode).

COMMENTS: The Act of Killing may be the most moral prank ever pulled. Retired Indonesian gangsters responsible for killing thousands of alleged Communists and ethnic Chinese, especially those who failed to come up with protection money, believe they will be creating an epic film to celebrate their heroically homicidal contributions to the current dictatorship; instead, they are the unwitting stars of a psychodrama that is one of the most frightening and nuanced testaments to the banality of evil ever made. Asked to recreate their greatest massacres, the men come up with amateur productions that would be hilarious, if the real life backstory wasn’t so monumentally tragic. Pink-clad dancing girls (“eye candy,” explains one director) emerge swaying from the mouth of a giant concrete goldfish. In a sagebrush-inspired scene, a woman is gang raped—but she’s played by the heaviest of the killers, in drag. In front of a waterfall, ghosts of the dead hang medals around their executioners’ necks, while “Born Free” plays. Insulated in a cocoon of propaganda that treats them as national heroes, it never occurs to these retired killers to feel shame, and their lack of comprehension of the way outsiders view them manifests itself in bizarrely unselfconscious narratives. The Act of Killing could be seen as a psychological survey of the various ways killers cope with the dried blood on their hands. Some of the gangsters, such as the buffoonish Herman (who is oddly eager to dress up like  for the camera—there is a strange undercurrent of homoeroticism running through all of the gangsters’ friendships), come off as completely clueless. Others, like the bloodcurdling Adi, embrace their evil, arguing that the winners make the rules. He takes pride in his ability to own his own cruelty, seeing it as a sign of mental strength. Then, there is Anwar. Anwar has nightmares about the innocent people he’s killed, but he complains of them in the matter-of-fact way a fishing buddy might complain he has a touch of arthritis in his knee. As the movie goes on, it focuses its lens more and more on Anwar, on his smile that curiously fades as he watches the daily rushes; he seems to be the only one of the major players with the capacity to feel remorse. Is it possible to feel sympathy for someone who bluntly admits he’s strangled more than 1,000 people? Or, is Anwar’s budding conscience just another act for the camera—has he intuited what his director needs from him? Regardless, Anwar is the greatest and most complex character you’ll see on screen this year—his naïve dialogue would be almost impossible for a writer to convincingly script, his curiously opaque facial reactions almost impossible for an actor to convincingly perform. The Act of Killing far transcends a simple political event, however tragic, and becomes a movie about the intersections of human perception and reality: about our blind spots, about how we create and recreate our identities, about the strategies we adopt to justify the unthinkable. It’s movies inside of movies, arising from guilty subconsciouses. Kill a man and you go to prison. Kill a thousand men, and you celebrate the feat by making a movie where dancing girls in pink chiffon strut out of a giant goldfish’s mouth.

The Act of Killing also contains some of the most chillingly bizarre credits you’ll ever see: about three fourths of the entries read “Anonymous.” Two of the greatest living documentarians, and , were so impressed by an early cut of The Act of Killing that they signed on as executive producers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

 “…we spend the next two hours in the company of laughing, joking mass-murderers, blithely revisiting their blood-drenched past in a manner that is at once insanely surreal and distressingly domestic… even in his most hallucinogenic moments, Alejandro Jodorowsky himself could not have dreamed up images to match such eeriness.”–Mark Kermode, The Observer (contemporaneous)