The Quarry's only just mediocre, but still has important things it's trying to say.
A woman meets a man after they talk online, but she can't seem to figure out anything real about him.
One of his best, Friedkin's BUG is an exploration of the toxicity in co-dependency, that darker side of romance.
Not often do we get a Civil War-era horror story. Screenwriter Simon Barrett pens this fascinating indie crossing supernatural horror with a tale of the South, slavery, robbers and gold.
The Woodsman. 2004. Directed by Nicole Kassell. Screenplay by Kassell & Steven Fechter; based on the play by Fechter.
Starring Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick, Eve, Mos Def, David Alan Grier, Michael Shannon, & Benjamin Bratt. Dash Films/Lee Daniels Entertainment.
Rated 14A. 87 minutes.
Films concerning the themes of child abuse and paedophilia can either sensationalize things too much, be far too graphic, or they can simply miss the mark on saying anything worthwhile on the subject. Recently, a Danish film called For My Brother went hard at the topic, and while it was a solid film there were times it cut to the bone, hard. There’s also Asia Argento’s feature film The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, which wades into crazy territory, and perhaps touches a little too close to home at times for some to be completely comfortable watching.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is The Woodsman. On the outside what may appear as a star-laden cast, headed by the real life couple and wonderful actors Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick, is actually on the inside a difficult and compelling work of cinema which attempts to cut through the stigma and the rhetoric concerning sex offenders, hoping to offer not a solution but a view into the world of one of these men.
And let’s get it straight – director Nicole Kassell, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Steven Fechter whose play serves as the basis for the film, is not attempting in any way to glorify sex crimes or child abuse, nor is it working towards painting paedophiles in a sympathetic light. However, the story tries to give us a view into the world of a truly repentant man, albeit one that is confused and still unsure of what his life means, what is his true purpose, how he’s finally able to break through the barrier and become a normal person; if that is even possible. No answers are given here, though questions are asked. In the end, the main question Kassell and Fechter bring up is about the nature of redemption, if that’s attainable for men like Walter (Bacon), as well as whether society – despite its laws and guise if wanting to rehabilitate criminals – really allows these people a second chance. The answers, as I mentioned, do not come in any concrete form, and we shouldn’t expect them to either. Most of all, The Woodsman points out there are flaws in the way we do things, as a society, as concerned citizens, as personal critics, co-workers, cops, bosses, every role in between. Although, never do Kassell and Fechter let the reality of these crimes escape us, even in the film’s most empathetic/sympathetic moments. For all these things, this is an honest and raw story.
The strength of this film is built on Bacon’s performance. This is the role which carries all of the thematic weight. Not an easy performance to undertake. Many actors would probably have an aversion to these types of characters. Again, the writing and the execution in unison do not try to humanize paedophiles. On the contrary, Walter is presented as someone with troubling issues stemming out of childhood, a man that may not necessarily be a true child molester but one whose early sexual experiences shaped his adult sexuality in a damaging way. He is not some career paedophile, yet still, he is guilty. He is culpable in full for his crime, and never does the character evade responsibility. In fact, Bacon brings out the self-hatred of Walter. The disgust he feels for himself and his thoughts is always prevalent, coming out at times to cause him difficulty. Better still, Bacon is able to present Walter with compassion that doesn’t fall into trying to make him likeable – simply, we watch his struggle, and we see how his past informs every last moment of his present. Without an actor like Bacon this character could easily feel as if it were pandering. Instead, his depth gives Walter life and in a tough movie, filled to the brim with tough ideas and characters and dialogue and themes, this sort of performance is ultra important to its success.
Around Walter are some other interesting characters, not the least of which is Vicki (Sedgwick). Her character is just as compelling as Walter. Her own personal history with abuse plays into part of him and his experiences. In part, Vicki represents a way forward for him. Walter starts to see some of the effects, later in life, on those people that experienced sexual abuse first hand, and in a sense this offers perspective. Also, Vicki is another sense of redemption, in that he finds a normal relationship (both emotionally and sexually) with her and sees some way out of the rut in which he sits. She is a sense of possibility.
On the other side is Sgt. Lucas (Mos Def). He embodies the often hypocritical aspect of law enforcement, which at once essentially says there’s a possibility of rehabilitation (the fact we sentence people then let them free after a certain point suggests we believe this is possible as a society), and in opposition automatically (and perpetually) condemns offenders. Police are meant to remain objective, which is part of how they’re meant to emotionally stand back from the crimes and serve justice, whatever that means from case to case. Lucas does nothing except believe he’s waiting for Walter to reoffend, to sexually abuse a young girl and go back to prison, right where he sees him as belonging. Lucas is an interesting character and Mos Def does solid work with his performance, both calling to mind our own prejudices and thoughts as concerned citizens, as well as pointing out how the law is not always impartial and justice sometimes has too big of an eyeball instead of remaining blind.
Furthermore, the side plot of Candy (Kevin Rice) is perhaps the most poignant aspect of the screenplay. While the other characters surrounding Walter allow us a window into how sex offenders rehabilitate amongst the community, family, how they manage (if they ever do) to connect with people, Candy is a perspective on self-hatred and how Walter abhors himself, his actions, his crimes. SPOILER AHEAD: for instance, when Walter tracks down Candy and beats him, for a split second you can see him punching his own face in place of Candy, showing the hate he has for himself inside. This doesn’t excuse Walter of ANYTHING. Not at all, he gets no free ride for his crimes. What it does is illustrate, in conjunction with his meeting the little girl in her red coat, how someone like Walter may actually feel remorse, despite their urges, and that SOME offenders like him genuinely want to change.
There are many tough things to swallow in The Woodsman, most significantly its overall premise. However, with the subtle performance of Bacon in the lead role and the writing of Kassell and Fechter, this film reaches its destination. It will never reach everybody, though those it does reach will be affected, in many ways. You will not be compelled to feel sorry for paedophiles. This is not the aim of this movie. Though, you will start to feel as if there are other perspectives, other views on the subject, and Bacon may even make you feel sorry for this particular character. Certainly not going to appeal to everyone, maybe a small minority of viewers with open enough minds to watch something out of their wheelhouse. The main thing I can promise is that this is not an explicit or graphic film. It is respectful, subdued. The Woodsman takes on its nearly impossible plots and main story with a grace that is not often seen with these types of movies. For that alone it deserves to be seen, and as far as I’m concerned, I’ll say this to my dying days, Bacon was robbed of a nomination at the Oscars (and all other awards) for his multi-faceted performance as Walter.
Midnight Special. 2016. Directed & Written by Jeff Nichols.
Starring Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver, Bill Camp, Scott Haze, Sam Shepard, Paul Sparks, David Jensen, Sharon Landry, Dana Gourrier, Sharon Garrison, Allison King, & Sean Bridgers. Faliro House Productions/Tri-State Pictures/Warner Bros.
Rated PG. 112 minutes.
When it comes to independent films, Jeff Nichols is a writer-director I’ve admired now for a few years. Shotgun Stories in 2007 was a great little movie that tackled the flawed masculinity inherent in Southern blood feuds as it examined two sets of half brothers in the aftermath of their father’s death. It also starred the wonderful character actor Michael Shannon, whom many have grown to love as of late particularly. Later, in Take Shelter again starring Shannon, Nichols took us into a highly psychological world that bent the limits of reality, begging us to wonder whether or not the events onscreen were real, or if they were just manifestations of the lead character’s troubled mind. Mud was an interesting, subtle look at people on the fringe, how they come together, and how they survive.
But now, teaming once more with Shannon alongside a slew of other wonderful talents from newer (Adam Driver) to classic (Sam Shepard), Nichols breaks out with an emotionally charged, intelligent, slick thriller that runs the gamut of family drama and adventure to science fiction. Midnight Special is a lot of things. Above all, it is engaging. In a day and age of remakes – some good, a lot terrible – big budget blockbusters without any soul, Nichols’ films are continually a ray of light. This is no different. There are many things to enjoy. And if I can suggest anything, go in without knowing anything. Even the plot. It won’t ruin things if you do, but the beginning is even more tense and filled with excitement if you’re relatively clueless.
And for that reason let’s just dig right in.
The plot is a lot of fun. Despite knowing from trailers that the film is heavily science fiction, there’s a very raw human drama to the opening few scenes. It doesn’t stop there either. As Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) rush Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) around from one place to the next, under cover of night, all we know of the situation for sure is that there’s a massive hunt for the boy, an amber alert, everything. So if you had no better idea it’d seem like a truly distressing situation. But slowly, Nichols lets the information trickle down. What starts and continues as a human drama also takes on elements of a larger, more complicated, complex universe that Nichols has created.
We’re introduced to people from The Ranch, the men dressed in suit and ties, the women dressed like Jehovah’s Witnesses. They all seem to have a strange fascination, or rather obsession, with little Alton. And the gravity of everything is so evident. Not only are Roy and Lucas transporting Alton extremely secretively, to the point of gunning down a cop early on, it seems the father is dead set on protecting the boy. There are a ton of things happening, too. In a movie that’s just a little shy of two hours in length, Nichols packs a good punch. All the different aspects of the screenplay are pretty well fleshed out without having to be too full of exposition. Plus, things get real action oriented past the half hour mark, which then takes the pacing to another level. The first thirty minutes are a nice, effective slow burn that picks up steam quickly heading forward.
When we finally start to see more of Alton and his powers, the whole movie gets infinitely more interesting. More and more, scene after scene, Nichols reveals further bits of the boy’s abilities. Yet there’s a cryptic nature to them until late in the game. We’re never cheated, but Nichols definitely draws it out. Expertly. The suspension and tension as the plot moves on at a steady pace really will get your heart rate up, in the best kind of sense.
Alton: “What‘s Kryptonite?”
Lucas: “It‘s the only thing that‘ll kill Superman”
Roy: “It‘s made up”
There is never enough Michael Shannon. He’s a talented actor whose work is consistent. Even in movies that aren’t so great (i.e Man of Steel, The Iceman, Premium Rush), his talent makes things more interesting, more credible. He can really disappear into a lot of different roles, which is why he’s best deemed a character actor. His strength is that he’s got the handsome look, though there’s something odd about him, too. He has an affable quality, then there is a dangerous, strange side to him that can come out just as easily. Here, he plays a devoted, loving father pushed to the limit. He is a father under special circumstances. So there’s all this conflict in his character, but above all he is a father who wants to protect his son, no matter what the cost. And he’s forced into a blind faith, all out of love for his boy. A great performance, well written role.
The rest of the cast are equally as excellent. Edgerton is a fantastic talent (also a good writer) and he plays well off Shannon. They’re very believable together, which is honestly something I never predicted beforehand. What I like is that Edgerton has the same kind of qualities as Shannon, except in a different way. He is at once that manly, tough-looking kind of guy when he wants to be, at others he has a sensitive quality. In addition, Kirsten Dunst is good here as the mother of Alton, estranged from Roy. I’ve long said she is a solid actor, having recently given a complex performance in Season 2 of Fargo. She adds an extra, intriguing aspect to Alton and Roy, as a family. That brings us more of the family drama that makes Midnight Special a more interesting science fiction themed film than many others out there.
When the action gets pounding the film never lets up. There are moments where it’s a chase movie, others the guns start to fly. Sometimes we get wild expressions of Alton’s powers. All the while, the cinematography by Adam Stone captures everything so naturally, and in turn beautifully, even in the moments of pure speculative fiction that happen throughout. Add to that some really great synthesizer score from composer David Wingo, and those moments of tension where things are tight, the pulse is pumping, they become more intense. Sometimes it’s a semi-homage to the 1980s, but most of all it is simply an effective bit of electronic music that serves to augment a film; like any good score should.
This is all around an excellent film in terms of its visual components and its sound, not just the score but also the design. There are too many moments to list really. But Nichols, as director, crafts Midnight Special into a beautiful piece of work aided by these two artists.
Absolutely a 5-star film. There are so many derivative science fiction works out there, in movies and literature. It’s nice to see Jeff Nichols take the initiative and make something different. He lets everything flow out organically, never pushing the plot too much or too far, but rather just allowing it to unfold. The science fiction, though utterly central to the story, is not always the most interesting element. The family, the cult at The Ranch, the relationship between father and son, the relationship between best friends Lucas and Roy; so many things take precedence over the presence of a little boy with sort-of-super powers. Everything comes together here and Midnight Special takes its rightful place near the top of the best list of modern science fiction over the past couple decades. Nichols turns this into something completely unexpected. By the time it’s over, you won’t know what hit you.