DIRECTED BY: Lee Eubanks
FEATURING: James Feagin, Kristin Duarte, David Brownell
PLOT: A man and woman make preparations to attend a burial: existential dialogues and strange events happen along the way.
WHY IT WONT MAKE THE LIST: Given the suffering on display, the film could just as easily be titled Life Takes from Within, tearing away at the character’s insides. It’s certainly weird, but also derivative of films that have done existential angst much more effectively.
COMMENTS: Drawing equally from , , , and , this independent feature gets off to an engaging start with a vignette involving a patch of grass illuminated by high key overhead lighting. A male and female pair drag themselves across the grass in some form of wailing agony. A different couple (who eventually emerge as the film’s leads—James Feagin and Kristin Duarte) enter the light and stand statically before us, their faces unknowable and shrouded in shadow. A third male and female, much older, lie on a bed on the lit grass, before being assailed by Feagin and Duarte, who in turn are clamored on by the crawling couple at the beginning. Feagin lowers his head and body, prostrate before existence perhaps, while Duarte raises her hands to the heavens in appeal. It is a largely wordless and beautifully lit sequence begging multiple interpretations and capturing the viewer’s attention with its evocative and allusive nature.
Sadly, its largely downhill from that point on, with two opening exchanges between Feagin and Duarte setting the existential tone of the film and hinting at a “Waiting for Godot”-esque pairing (Feagin and Duarte in Vladimir and Estragon’s roles, respectively) without ever capitalizing on that potential. Feagin still believes in a “finish,” a possible meaning to their existence, while Duarte has resigned herself to the pointlessness of creation and seeks distraction and amusement. They are bound to their location by a funeral later that day, but their relationship has reached “its end” and they’ll go their separate ways to the service.
Capitalizing on the Gogo and Didi relationship could have injected some much-needed humor into the proceedings, but sadly director Eubanks opts for the bleak, existential angst of a Bergman films, without the dramatic weight of Bergman actors to soften the suffering. With her fleshy, open features and “make the best of it” attitude, Duarte makes a fairly engaging lead, a sympathetic figure in stark contrast to Feagin’s squinty scowl and petulant, unending mewling. Unfortunately Eubanks has us follow this disagreeable combination of Nick Cave and Hodor for much of the run time. If the male lead, genuinely suffering under the weight of reality, had ached in a manner that was sympathetic for the audience, i.e. his anger and pain represented a challenge to the inertia of creation and he was fighting for answers, then this film could have been tense and engaging. Instead we get a sullen crab spouting emo poetry, listlessly kicking around nature, possessing all the cinematic charisma of a wet dishcloth.
The sound design is alternatively haunting and engrossing (the opening vignette) or aggressive and abrasive to the point of making the viewer feel ill (just after Feagin leaves the motel room for the first time). If the latter outcome was the endgame, then full points for counterintuitive filmmaking in alienating the audience to the point of “I’m just going to mute this nonsense and deny myself half of your film’s experience”.
The film is dull to the point of distraction, and we are never given any compelling reason to care about anyone involved. The characters are representational figures or figures of absurdity; we know nothing about them and can only take them at surface value. But on the surface no one in It Takes is all that interesting. Bergman got away with sketchily defined characters in Persona because of the strength of his two female actors, dialogue which provided oblique but striking insight into said characters, and inventive compositions and editing. It Takes nearly matches Persona in terms of compositions and beautiful cinematography, but fails in the dialogue stakes, and has limited moments of invention. There is a very clever shot that uses panning and a dolly move to essentially separate a café into three worlds, aided by distinctive sound design for each “world.” It starts with Duarte and a random male chatting her up, then their conversation is swallowed by abrasive bass sounds, and the camera pans over to an old lady, absurdly arranging her meal using oil painting tools, underpinned by low frequency sounds. Finally the camera pans round to a new couple in a booth, this one in the kooky Jarmusch mold, consisting of an absent woman learning French words and a man worried about the petrol they’re burning through by constantly stopping at coffee shops. Their “world” is underscored by bouncy jazz music and is one of the few recognizably comedic elements in the film. While the shot is inventive it doesn’t seem to serve the themes or narrative of the film; another area where Persona trumps It Takes.
The film claims to take its inspiration from art house films of the 1960’s and the black and white torment of films like Persona, Fando y Lis (1968) and The Face of Another (1966) are strongly reflected here. While It Takes achieves the aesthetic and tone of those films, it fails to register on their emotional level. (For the record, this reviewer disliked Fando and is yet to get through the alienating Face). Its pain is more akin to the unpleasant whining of a brat with a skinned knee. Everyone feels the anguish of existence at some level; however, the specifics of that experience are quite personal, and unless the filmmaker can craft a subjective film that somehow encompasses this breadth of experience, the film will fail to land with its audience. Such was the fate of ’s Knight of Cups, and sadly, despite the beautiful photography, such is the case here.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…works best if audiences try not to ascribe meaning to what is being shown and simply let the spellbinding images (by ace cinematographer Jason Crow) wash over them.”–Gary K. Kramer, Film International
OFFICIAL WEBSITE: It Takes from Within