More of Williams's past is revealed. Dolores continues her quest, at any cost. Bernard cannot shake Dr. Ford.
Maeve continues her journey through Shōgunworld. Dolores sees a violent change in Teddy after messing around in his head.
Bernard meets a familiar face. The story of James Delos unfolds further, from past to present.
But, is this now?
Bernard wakes on a beach, not fully remembering what happened. Dolores continues forging a new reality.
Season 1, Episode 10: “The Bicameral Mind”
Directed by Jonathan Nolan
Written by Lisa Joy & Nolan
* For a review of the penultimate Season 1 episode, “The Well-Tempered Clavier” – click here
* For a recap & review of the Season 2 premiere, “Journey Into Night” – click here
We begin as Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) is put together. Her skin is attached to the robotic skeleton, Bernard Lowe a.k.a Arnold (Jeffrey Wright) assembling the pieces. She comes online, not full yet physically but mentally put together as a whole. “Welcome to the world.”
In the present, she shaves The Man in Black (Ed Harris) with the blade of a knife. He continues on about the centre of the maze, how she brought him there once. For a long while the town was buried, after which Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) resurrected it. She still sees Arnold, too. And off she goes after him, Black behind her following.
William (Jimmi Simpson) continues on with former buddy Logan (Ben Barnes) tied up. He wants to find Dolores. He needs to find her. Now he’s looking for an army to help him: the Confederados and Lawrence (Clifton Collins Jr) will do just fine.
Poor ole Teddy Flood (James Marsden), he wakes up after another day of being murdered only to start the whole Sweetwater experience over again. Except time starts slowing down. He sees corpses everywhere he turns, remnants of his former life. Then he sees Dolores in her blue dress, a wolf running past the dead. And then all returns to normal, as Teddy ends up in a quick draw with a stranger. Life carries on. But he’s intent on finding Dolores. Seems like all roads lead to her.
She finds Arnold kneeling in a pew of the church we see over and over. “I know where your maze is,” she tells him gladly. We switch back and forth between her with Arnold, and her with Black. She’s lost between the two spaces somewhere. At the church’s graveyard, she uncovers her own grave. A cross with her name on it. When she digs into the earth she finds a tin, and inside it is the maze’s pattern. Arnold tells her about the maze. It concerns consciousness. First, it started with a pyramid, then it became the maze: “Consciousness is not a journey upward, it‘s a journey inward.” Arnold hasn’t been pushing her towards hearing his voice. He’s been pushing her to hear her own. But how does Dolores give Black his answers when she hasn’t quite figured them out for herself?
What we see more of is how Arnold wanted the hosts to be, versus what Ford wanted for his vision. Then there’s Arnold and his plan: he wanted Dolores to kill all the other hosts to prevent Ford from doing his will with the park. Is that why Teddy killed everybody in that town? Did she enlist his help?
Well we also come to find Black has bought Westworld. “This place feels more real than the real world,” he says, mocking the place for all its lies. He wants to make the place very real; “one true thing.” But she believes in William, that he’ll come to find her.
Ole Will. He and Lawrence are scoping out the next move ahead. This is going to involve a good deal of violence. More with each episode now, each scene almost, we see William is turning his back on that former nice guy persona. He’s really getting into the swing of things. Out in the real world, Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) and Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson) discuss her plans of nudging Dr. Ford away from Westworld. I just keep thinking everybody’s underestimating the old guy.
In other parts of the company, Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton) is taking things up a notch. She’s making adjustments to park security, as well as her “friends” such as Hector Escaton (Rodrigo Santoro) and Armistice (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal). Oh, this I can’t wait for!
Charlotte reveals to Ford the board has voted for his retirement. After he premieres his new narrative. Things are changing at Westworld.
The creepy lab tech who has sex with the hosts is tasked with taking care of Hector. This dude is a serious weirdo. He puts in some earbuds, ready to rock. Now you know something bad’s about to happen. One tech has to slip his hands in Armistice’s mouth, which gets him a digit bitten off. Meanwhile, rapey tech is greasing up for a session with Hector, and the other guy gets his finger fed to him. No longer can the techs contain the hosts. More people are about to die. “They don‘t look like gods,” says Armistice of the real people when Maeve arrives to round them up. The hosts then finds who revised them to be able to wake from their sleep manually: Arnold, or so it seems. It’s a lot of fun to see the humans frightened of the technology of whom they assumed to be masters.
Dolores takes a bad beating from The Man in Black, as Flood and William are both headed for her. Who’ll get there first? Right now, anybody would do. Or, can William actually find her? Black knows about William, and where his path actually took him. Is he really The Man in Black? IS HE? TELL US WESTWORLD! You’re sure teasing us well. I can dig it.
We see William, becoming more violent as time passes. Getting a taste for murder. Sure wouldn’t surprise me at this point if he and Black were one and the same. Then, we finally get to see him pick up that black hat. After so much speculation, here we are at a definitive identity. We watch as William went back to Sweetwater, searching for Dolores, as he couldn’t stop thinking of her for a second. And she didn’t remember a thing, not like the love that existed in him. He saw it for what it was: all a game.
And now Dolores sees nobody is coming for her. Not like she thought. Black wants to go further, to find what lies at the centre of the maze. Even better? Dolores needs no man, no one to save her. She has discovered herself. She’s heard her own voice, like Arnold hoped. Everything has changed. When Dolores takes a knife to the gut, she does get a little help from none other than Teddy; the one man in her life that won’t ever change.
Dolores: “Time undoes even the mightiest of creatures. Just look what it‘s done to you.”
Outside in the Westworld facilities, Maeve and her band of merry hosts head for the basement, filled to the brim with inactive robots. Also where Arnold a.k.a Bernie lies in a pool of his own blood. And now he’s being brought back online, with intense purpose.
On the plains of Sweetwater, Ford and William meet. The doctor says there is nothing at the centre of the maze, not for the guests. It’s just a game. William needs more, to validate himself and his life’s meaning. “This is your petty little kingdom, Robert.”
What exactly will Ford’s newest narrative be? I feel like everyone’s in for a damn big surprise.
Someone altered Maeve’s storyline. She’s been tasked by somebody to escape. “These are my decisions, no one else‘s,” she claims. Someone has been controlling her. But WHO? WHO? Nevertheless, the hosts are rising up, they’re manipulating people and the system. Westworld’s soon going to have major trouble on their hands.
Dolores tells Teddy about being trapped in their world, forcibly, made to feel and think everything, made to do what their makers want. Then she dies in his arms. One of many deaths she’s already experienced, and surely will experience again. Unless the uprising changes all that for good.
Then we pause a moment. It’s all part of the new narrative “Journey Into Night” by Ford. A new beginning, for him, for the park. Charlotte, Lee, they all assume this is the end for Dr. Ford. I don’t see it. There’s something left up his sleeve. He has Teddy taken off to be cleaned up, but Dolores, she’s sent to the “old field lab.”
And just as the techs of Westworld track down their problems, the place locks tight. Security measures in full force. Maeve, Armistice, Hector, they head up to the higher floors. Their plan all but in full action. Men with guns show up, and that’s only the beginning of what’s sure to be a wild fight. With real guns in hand, there’s no telling what the hosts can accomplish. And they’re loving it. At a certain point Armistice stays behind to let the others go ahead, taking on armed men likely to gun her down. Hector gets left as well, as Maeve prefers to go it alone.
Oh, these violent delights indeed have violent ends.
Hector (to Armistice): “Die well.”
In the lab Ford takes care of Dolores. He talks about her love of painting; Arnold encouraged it with a painting of “The Creation of Adam” by Michelangelo on the wall of the lab. Then Ford introduces the second coming of Arnold in Bernard. This rocks her world. We see a little more on Arnold, his maze. We see more of Ford and his argument with Arnold about the park, Arnold’s loading of the Wyatt narrative. So much to absorb, but incredibly written. This leads to Dolores killing Bernie a.k.a Arnold, and Teddy, as well. Before putting a gun to her own head. This was Arnold’s plan, although it didn’t work. The park still opened. Life went on. Fitting how Ford quotes Oppenheimer in this scene, worth mention.
Arnold: “The stakes must be real. Irreversible.”
Maeve goes on ahead, further into the real world. She further discovers her daughter is alive, in the park, of course. And out she goes, into the world of human beings, walking amongst them unknown. She boards a train and leaves Westworld, headed anywhere. Or will the desire to be with her daughter change that?
We find out more about Ford. He isn’t all bad. He encourages the hosts, particularly Dolores and Arnold/Bernie, to discover themselves. To escape. And then he too leaves the fake world behind. His narrative is the narrative he’s created to set the hosts free.
Dolores has discovered the voice inside herself, the guide. She is at the centre of the maze: consciousness, personhood, humanity. “Who I must become.” Who every host must become.
In the last moments, those numerous hosts from the basement of discarded people encroach on the people listening to Ford speak, coming out of the darkness. And in front of the crowd, Dolores shoots Dr. Ford in the head. Even William in his tux takes a bullet. And the hosts start their massacre of the onlooking crowd with their drinks and their fancy finger foods.
Thus ends the first season of an amazing series.
In a scene after the credits we watch Armistice cut her own arm off then attack a group of soldiers. Bad ass.
Wow! I saw a lot of these things building, but holy shit. This was an impressive finale that held me from moment one. I really need Season 2 already. The story can lead so many places. What will Westworld become at the mercy of the hosts? Will we see them lead an army out of the park, or will they stake a claim for their world as their own? We’ll just have to wait and see.
Season 1, Episode 4: “Dissonance Theory”
Directed by Vincenzo Natali (Splice, Cube)
Written by Ed Brubaker & Jonathan Nolan
* For a review of the previous episode, “The Stray” – click here
* For a review of the next episode, “Contrapasso” – click here
Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) is tinkering away at Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood), as usual. She tells him that losing everyone she’s loved “hurts so badly.” She speaks of grief. As if she knows the feeling. Like instead of being a robot, she’s become human in her emotion. But it’s all a “scripted dialogue.”
Is the machinery at Westworld becoming more sentient than it ought to? One thing’s for sure: Dolores believes “there may be something wrong with this world,” like an evil lurks below it all. Then Lowe tells Dolores of a game called The Maze. He wants her to play. Apparently if she can play it and succeed, she may also find freedom.
And what exactly is the greater purpose of Westworld’s grand illusion? We know there are… levels. However, what does that mean, exactly?
When Dolores wakes up on the plains of Sweetwater she’s with William (Jimmi Simpson), who last whisked her away from trouble in the previous episode. Back at the saloon, Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton) and Clementine Pennyfeather (Angela Sarafyan) chat while The Cure’s “A Forest” plays on the player piano. Really dig the song choices, especially how the fit in anachronistically with the Western setting. All of a sudden Maeve’s world goes funny. She sees blood all over Clementine. Then she’s on the floor. A man fires his gun into people around the saloon, over and over. The sick fantasy of a player enacted on the helpless hosts. Just another day in Sweetwater. Robot life. Afterwards, in come the cleanup team to get things sorted for the next team of players visiting the park.
Then Maeve snaps back. Everything is fine. Clementine’s still yammering on. Ah, the flashbacks of a previous day, a death some time before. But it’s set Maeve off and nothing is the same as it was before. She continually flashes back and forth between the present and those awful memories. So, she draws a picture of a man in a Hazmat-like suit. Before finding a bunch of similar drawings beneath a floorboard in her bedroom.
Out in the lab, Elsie Hughes (Shannon Woodward) is running Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen) over the violent malfunction of the stray from last episode. The one who smashed its own head in with a rock. Bernard drops by to check in. But it seems Theresa is taking over, sick of how things are going lately. Like any right-minded person, Elsie’s worried this problem is spreading like an infection through the hosts. And she airs those grievances to Bernard. He’s lost, though. Lost in the memory of his own loss, that of his boy. He is blinded by love and science at once and I don’t think he’s the best judge of who’s doing what right at the moment.
William wants to take Dolores back to Sweetwater, while his buddy Logan (Ben Barnes) would rather kill her off. It’s only a game, right? In other parts of the world, The Man in Black (Ed Harris) is trying to figure out “what this all means” and how the game is supposed to end. Again: what exactly is the whole purpose, the deeper meaning to everything? Well, The Man in Black and his hostage Lawrence (Clifton Collins Jr.) run into Armistice (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) and her gang. He proceeds to kill a few of them, ingratiating himself to her company.
Poor Dolores, she looks adrift every time we see her. She wanders around in another little town. She meets a girl who draws a maze, like the one from the scalp we’ve seen, in the sand and then disappears. When Dolores is confronted by a man things get eerie. But William interrupts and everything goes back to normal. At least for the time being. Either way, Dolores is wary of her world more and more. “Sometimes I feel like something‘s calling me, telling me there‘s a place for me somewhere beyond this,” she tells William.
Then she fades out. The moon becomes a light above her. She’s on the ground, corpse-like. Men in Hazmat-style suits are around her. And just as quickly William whisks her around in his arms, frightening her. Reality – whatever reality she exists in, I guess – is slipping.
We start to hear The Man in Black talk about Arnold. You remember him, right? The old partner of Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins). Once more, The Man in Black takes out that bloody scalp he procured in the first episode. Now he’s hoping to get help from Armistice in order to enact the next portion of his plan. Deliciously devilish. I still don’t think he’s an older version of William. I don’t see this as happening in two different eras. Could still find a surprise there, but I just can’t see that. Moreover, with the little trickles of information concerning Arnold, I feel like Dr. Ford has skeletons in his closet, and the Bad Dude in Black just may rip a few of those out into the daylight just yet. We do get a clue about Ed Harris’ character when another visitor at the park mentions his “foundation.” Interesting stuff.
Armistice, The Man in Black, Lawrence, their crew, they head to a nearby prison. Black is tossed in alongside Hector Escaton (Rodrigo Santoro), as the police take Lawrence to the firing squad. Black plans on breaking Hector out. Outside, Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) approves some pyrotechnics. Oh, baby – the cell door gets blown open. So does one cop’s face, having taken a cigar off Black not expecting it to explode in his face. Literally. For the second time, The Man in Black saves Lawrence from an execution: “Mo–therrr–fucker,” he exclaims upon rescue.
So what’s the next step for ole Black? Armistice tells him about Wyatt, one of the men who killed everybody in her town when she was younger. Maybe there’s another hunt together in their future.
More problems for Maeve. She sees a little girl from a Native American tribe drop a wooden toy. It’s shaped just like one of the suited men from her visions. Part of “their religion,” a man from town says.
Outside, Bernard and Theresa talk about Westworld troubles. She has to meet with Dr. Ford because of his recent, troubling behaviour. The next morning she meets the eccentric man, he’s out watching equipment clearing out new space in the desert. All a part of his latest, massive narrative. Theresa worries it’ll take much longer than projected, and that it won’t do his “legacy” right. For his part, Ford believes she doesn’t exactly like being there at Westworld. She doesn’t particularly. Ford speaks of Arnold and his preference of the hosts over real people. He likewise remembers that Arnold went crazy. There are slight and plain warnings from the doctor: “Please, don‘t get in my way.”
On their adventure, Logan and William head into a gang’s hideout and start blasting. A huge gunfight erupts, as Logan has a laugh and William tries getting into it. Just like a damn video game come alive!
The Man in Black and Lawrence come across a mutilated body: Teddy Flood (James Marsden). He is in terrifying shape. All the fellas can do for him is cut him down.
Into Sweetwater rides Hector and Armistice. They unload their weapons and then their bullets into anybody nearby. Like it always is during this storyline. Into the saloon goes Hector until Maeve pulls a gun on him. Upstairs, she questions him about the drawings of the men in the Hazmat suits. “Native lore,” he tells her. She also tells him about having been shot. She wants to see if there’s anything inside her as evidence. When he won’t cut into her, Maeve does it herself. But Hector, he puts his hand in the wound to do some searching. Sure enough there is lead inside her belly.
“What does this mean?” Hector asks.
“That I‘m not crazy,” she replies. “And that none of this matters.” Right after, men burst through the door to gun Hector down.
What a solid episode. The writing is insane! I love it. Such wonderful concepts and a lot of different angles, different characters. So many things happening.
Next episode is titled “Contrapasso” – will we learn more of Dr. Ford and his old pal Arnold?
Season 1, Episode 2: “Chestnut”
Directed by Richard J. Lewis
Written by Jonathan Nolan & Lisa Joy
* For a review of the premiere, “The Original” – click here
* For a review of the next episode, “The Stray” – click here
Poor old Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood). A voice tells her to wake up, asking: “Do you remember?”
Cut to William (Jimmi Simpson) on a futuristic-looking train. A friend of his makes a quip about his sister having rode her “share of cowboys” while at the resort. So William is headed for a nice vacation stay. Or will it be? A guide brings William through to get ready for his adventure. You can tell already that he’s got a slight problem with the place.
Elsie Hughes (Shannon Woodward) and Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) talk about Dolores’ father having an “existential crisis” and how they’re going to fix it. She wants to make sure this episode won’t spread to other robots. That it may be infectious, as it were.
Well, Dolores, she keeps on keeping on. Yet all of a sudden that voice again – “Remember” – and she stops. Dolores sees a vision of people read in the streets, everywhere, screams in the distance. A wolf runs through the middle of the road. Dolores once again quotes her father, and Shakespeare to a baffled Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton). Uh oh. Is that the phrase which triggers the illness in the hosts?
“These violent delights have violent ends.” (Romeo & Juliet)
Inside Westworld, William and his buddy Logan (Ben Barnes) start experiencing the immersive thrills. It seems like Logan’s got lots of love for the place. He believes the resort reveals your true self. So, who is William exactly?
On a ranch, a man named Lawrence (Clifton Collins Jr.) is about to be hanged. Up turns The Man in Black (Ed Harris). He seems to not like the idea of a hanging today. A gunfight breaks out, naturally, and you know who comes out on top of that one. Bodies lay everywhere at his feet; is he the cause of all those bodies that Dolores saw? For now, The Man in Black tells Lawrence he’s going to help him discover the “deepest level of this game.” Although the bad dude enjoys killing, he’s there for something far bigger than murder.
Another great player piano cover: Radiohead’s “No Surprises” rolls on in the background. Maeve runs her sweet game on a client, telling tales of romantic intrigue. Then, the host in her glitches. She remembers a violent scene of Native Americans attacking people, blood, scalping. Quickly, the engineers have Maeve pulled out, callously talking about her like there’s nothing human inside. There is – there has to be – and still, they’re robots.
Bernard and Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) talk about Dolores’ father and his glitch. Lowe believes something else must’ve gone wrong other than him looking at that picture. The doctor tries assuaging his fears. A little cryptically. He also relays the idea that they essentially dabble in witchcraft. That if they did these things hundreds of years ago, they’d be burned at the stake.
Finally arriving in town, Logan and William see the sights, as the latter gets acquainted with things in Sweetwater. They briefly encounter Clementine Pennyfeather (Angela Sarafyan), a drunk, and Logan explains how it’s all part of the game. Every host has an adventure or story to sell you.
Out for a bit of maintenance, Dolores speaks with Lowe. He analyses her, asking specific questions to see if there’s been any tampering. He keeps telling her that they ought to keep their little chats between them. “Have you done something wrong?” Dolores asks. Lowe swiftly erases their conversation on the log and ends their conversation. Hmm.
Maeve is back in business, no glitches or problems like before. She’s up and running just fine. Except Clementine, she also complains about having bad dreams, trouble sleeping. The head mistress makes sure Clementine goes back to work, but Maeve keeps on having those visions. To the point Teddy Flood (James Marsden) notices nearby. Now it looks as if Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) and his team outside have marked Maeve for decommissioning. That’s really sad.
Meanwhile, Lowe chats with Theresa Cullen (Sides Babett Knudsen) about the goings on at the company. She’s had an especially rough day. They get on about updates, upcoming events. He says things are “back to normal” yet I’m not so sure. Even worse, Theresa refers to their customers as coming in to “rape and pillage.” Yikes. Know your market, I guess.
During dinner that evening William gets a visit from the drunk he’d helped in the street earlier. Logan gets pissed off, no time for fucking around with their game, and puts a fork into the old guy’s hand. The sight of the blood alone is enough to turn William off from it all. Logan’s more interested in having some weird sex with the host prostitutes. William isn’t so thrilled about all that, he has a lady at home.
Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) is in the workshop getting a new narrative ready. He’s a bit of a psycho, too. Uptight and genius-like. Cullen tries to make sure he’s on budget, though it seems he likes doing things his own way. Whatever works.
We find out that Dr. Ford of course has his own little elevator into the Westworld interior. He heads through the desert and comes across a young boy, one who could almost be him years and years ago. They head off for a walk together.
Back to The Man in Black, stringing Lawrence along through the desert. He’s brought him to a little Mexican cantina. Turns out Lawrence’s family is there, a wife and a daughter. “The real world‘s just chaos, an accident. But in here every detail adds up to something,” The Man in Black explains. He wants to find the entrance to “the maze.” That labyrinth from the scalp tattoo. Soon, the violence erupts. Outside we see Stubbs make a remark about The Man in Black getting whatever he wants. Afterwards, the bad, bad dude takes out a gang of Mexican men hoping to help Lawrence. No such luck. Things get a lot worse for Lawrence before they get any better. And now se know that The Man in Black is in this trip for the long run.
Side note: Ed Harris is a god damn bad ass, which I knew before, but GOOD LORD! Westworld is bringing out his quality acting, as well as his nasty nature. Dig it.
The Man in Black: “When you‘re suffering, that‘s when you‘re most real.”
Out on the desert plain, Ford and the boy come across a rattlesnake. The doctor stops it in mid movement, commanding its movements. Control over every aspect of his created world. In the distance is an odd structure with a cross on it. A church? Or something far different?
Lowe heads back to his futuristic, cosy little apartment. Awhile later Cullen comes to his door to apologise for their bit of an argument. Oh, and they’re lovers. I actually hadn’t seen that coming already. They don’t do much talking, more lying in bed and such.
In the maintenance room, Elsie takes a look at Maeve. She works on the madame’s qualities, to make her more emotionally perceptive. We find out that the hosts are given “the concept of dreams,” which often comes in the form of nightmares. Elsie believes she’s got Maeve fixed up. Back to the whorehouse floor with her! A tragic life. She recites her lines, this time with more emotion than hardness. Everything in its right place. She winds up talking to Teddy along the bar, who sees right through her act. Oh, the life of the hosts. Teddy then gets murdered at the bar viciously: “Now that‘s a fuckin‘ vacation,” yells the guest.
This takes Maeve back to memories, dreams of another life. She sees herself on a farm with a little girl, her daughter. They run and play, as if they were actually happy. Only those moments bleed into those of the Native Americans attacking, nearly scalping her. A terrifying massacre, ending with The Man in Black walking through her door, impervious to her gun’s bullets. She wakes before any further bloodshed.
Some surgeons work on Maeve’s inside parts, removing bad bits. Except she comes to while being worked on, pulling a blade on the men. They try calming her back onto the table. Not good enough. She escapes into the darkened halls of the Westworld facility, trying to find somewhere to go. She sees other hosts being taken apart, hosed down. It’s too much for her. The surgeons catch up and put her into sleep mode. But will any damage linger? Maybe they’ll just take her out of commission altogether now.
In the night Dolores wakes. She goes outside and finds a gun hidden in the dirt. What will she do with it?
Inside the facility, Lee is unveiling his latest narrative – the “apex” of the park’s attractions. He’s a very confident man. His new program is called Odyssey on Red River, an immersive experience to help people understand themselves better through a new Wild West journey. But Dr. Ford doesn’t believe it’s any good. He knows the true idea of the park, and that Lee’s narrative only reveals his personality, nothing about the guests.
So into the desert go Ford and Lowe. The doctor has something brewing – “something quite original” – and it has to do with that structure out there, with the cross on top. Almost looks like an old oil well structure combined with a church. Either way, it looks intriguing. And what does Dr. Ford have up his sleeve?
Loved this episode! Amazing follow-up to the premiere. Next is “The Stray” – really glad HBO served this up early before the Presidential Debate on Sunday. A true treat for us fans that were going to perish before then.
Needful Things. 1993. Directed by Fraser C. Heston. Screenplay by W.D. Richter; based on the Stephen King novel of the same name.
Starring Max von Sydow, Ed Harris, Bonnie Bedelia, Amanda Plummer, J.T. Walsh, Ray McKinnon, Duncan Fraser, Valri Bromfield, Shane Meier, William Morgan Sheppard, Don S. Davis, Campbell Lane, Eric Schneider, Frank C. Turner, & Gillian Barber. New Line Cinema/Castle Rock Entertainment.
Rated 14A. 120 minutes.
As an avid reader of Stephen King I’m always happy when I can tout one of the film adaptations as worthy of his writing. With any book the movie never seems to match up in quality, though on rare occasions this happens. What an adaptation for the screen can hope for is that it preserves the spirit of the source material. Not all adaptations of King novels work out appropriately, as I’ve mentioned in my other reviews recently. At least with a good couple hours directors and writers are capable of turning a large-sized novel into something worthwhile of the author’s efforts.
Needful Things makes use of every minute out of the two hour runtime. Screenwriter W.D. Richter manages to turn a large cast of characters into interesting people within that time frame, not jamming anything down our throats. Rather the screenplay allows for so much in 120 minutes because it’s structured well, it focuses on the right elements. Doesn’t hurt that the cast is spectacular, right down to the smaller roles. Then you’ve got Ed Harris, Max Von Sydow, Bonnie Bedelia leading the ensemble with strong performances. In particular, Sydow presents us with a version of the cinematic devil that stands out amongst so many other similar depictions of that mythic character. I can’t help loving this King film when so many never hit the mark, nor are they given the proper level of production in order to achieve what potential they have inherently. There’s a little bit of cheese here or there. Maybe you dig it, maybe not. Either way, Needful Things is a devilishly fun and mysterious mix of the supernatural and personal stories of drama, crime, and all sorts of small town issues. The novel is treated well here in this uneven yet awesome fantasy that takes place in that little town of Castle Rock, Maine.
First and foremost, Max Von Sydow is great. A perpetually fantastic actor whom I always find interesting to watch. He’s well suited to play a man such as this, one whom we know little of but glean that he’s, essentially, the devil. Literally. Even the name works, Leland Gaunt. But Sydow is what gives this screen character such fearful depth. His voice, his way of dressing, how he laughs and sweetly ingratiates himself to the men and women alike in Castle Rock; only part of that is the writing. Sydow’s abilities as an actor come out quite nicely with such a classic character as the literary Satan in disguise. He makes the devil so flawlessly friendly to those around him. Really one of the best devils out of any movie, regardless of how you may feel about the rest of the film.
Part of the performance is also his look in terms of makeup and costume. For most of the film we get that elegant, suit wearing look that suits Sydow so well. In brief moments the makeup renders him into a nearly goblin-like creature, his long nails protruding, yellow and thick, his nasty teeth shining in the light of certain head movements. Plus, much more. This isn’t always outwardly visible, only in those brief shots is it clear and that makes it more unsettling.
Everyone else is mostly great, even if Sydow is the centrepiece. Harris and Bedelia are both excellent, just as their chemistry makes their characters relationship sweet and loveable. Even young Meier does well as Brian Rusk, a tough and complex role for an actor of any age. Most of all I love Amanda Plummer – the character is good enough, but she automatically makes ANY character that much better. She turns up and I’m usually ready to keep glued to the screen. She does not disappoint, and her final showdown, warring with neighbour Wilma (Valri Bromfield) is so satisfying in a morbid way that you’ll have trouble not cheering a little. Don’t worry, I did. So we’re both sick fucks. If the acting weren’t so good then it wouldn’t be this hard to resist.
Visual callback to The Exorcist, as Polly (Bedelia) walks down a set of stairs and witnesses Alan (Harris) shaking hands with Danforth (J.T. Walsh). I’d never noticed that until this last time watching. Funny how that escaped me. Right now, it stood out so evident. Not in a hokey sense, but a stellar homage to William Friedkin’s supernatural, religious horror masterpiece. The movie isn’t built on homage. Not in the slightest. Everything else is pretty well shot. It doesn’t stop at the cinematography from Tony Westman. The entire flow of the film in its writing to the directing choices and the editing is a huge reason why everything works. Alone the way most scenes are edited together is good filmmaking, but better yet are certain scenes. For instance, when Brian (Shane Meier) is tossing the baseballs, then there are the flashback moments certain residents have as they make their dirty deal with Gaunt, among others.
Also have to mention the inclusion of classical pieces. I’m a huge fan of classical music, so it’s even better that the soundtrack here is used to such advantage. Beautiful, soul-filled pieces play over moments of wild destruction and violence. Always an interesting, effective juxtaposition.
Furthermore, in terms of writing, I find Richter does impressive work. A lot of movies insist that linear storytelling means you can’t move back and forth between moments in time. In a sense, yes. Many others prove that you can tell a linear story and also include plenty of non-linear aspects. What the screenplay here accomplishes is a linear plot that gives us 99% of the current story, then peppers in the whole cast of characters within that whole structure with their own histories. The overall story never gets bogged down because of how well the writing is adapted. Again, this is how Richter manages to fit all these characters into one two hour span without making a mess of things. The writing, the editing, the direction on Fraser C. Heston’s part, all comes together to make Needful Things a horrific bit of fantasy inside a story of intense human drama.
Another solid King adaptation. Lots of negative reviews out there. Although I’m totally in the other camp, this is a fantastic little movie. Not perfect by any means and a couple of the actors leave some to be desired. I can’t fault anybody in particular for not making the movie better. Needful Things is a good deal of fun. The story is one that could easily go epic in scope, instead King’s original novel takes that type of plot about the devil making deals with ordinary people for their souls and crafts that into a tale of corrupted innocence in a coastal town in Maine, bringing the scale down to a personal, emotional level. Sydow looms large as the Satan figure, Leland Gaunt, and everyone from Harris to Bedelia to Meier and Plummer all play their respective characters well.
I know not everyone will always feel the same. A typical story is done differently and done well with this film version. In a world of terrible movies made from Stephen King stories, let’s appreciate the ones that genuinely work. We get all the character, all the setting and the terror and the familiar macabre qualities of King, including some blood and psychosis along the way. If that can’t please you, nothing will.