In '97, Anish needs his mother to send his novel by e-mail. But getting it done over the phone could prove a brutal experience.
The sweet revenge of a man left for dead comes at the end of a sharp, shiny hook.
The Godfather. 1972. Directed & Written by Francis Ford Coppola; based on Mario Puzo’s novel of the same name.
Starring Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Richard S. Castellano, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden, John Marley, Richard Conte, Al Lettieri, Diane Keaton, Abe Vigoda, Talia Shire, Gianni Russo, John Cazale, & Rudy Bond. Paramount Pictures/Alfran Productions.
Rated 14A. 175 minutes.
The Godfather is one of the rare films I believe is better than its source material. I read Mario Puzo’s novel a long time ago when I was about eleven or twelve years old, one weekend as I was in the woods hunting and fishing with my grandfather and uncles. It captivated me every waking moment when I wasn’t busy hauling gear or casting a line. The violence and sexuality and the raw language of Puzo struck me. Something I never forgot, as a reader and as a young man who eventually went on to become a published author himself. Part of reading that novel always stayed in my mind. Then when I’d finally seen the movie adaptation not long after it made me understand there was a way for film to improve upon its origins. Francis Ford Coppola and his ambition made this into a worthwhile project. As is evident, he’s a director that never backs down. Many of his choices throughout the production weren’t exactly what the studio and producers imagined, everything from the dark, shady look of the cinematography to the casting of Al Pacino. Luckily, Coppola’s iron will seems to eternally capable of winning out, and we’re left with his choices. Undeniably the best ones possible. Not every last classic of American cinema is as classic as the critics and audiences who love it want us to believe. That being said, certain classics are considered exactly that for a reason.
The Godfather nails every last bit what it aims to do. There’s not a single moment of bad acting, nor is there ever a misstep in the way its shot. If this were made like every other picture at the time, the end product wouldn’t be near as fascinating. Rather for a movie that’s considered classic, as if to signify it’s part of a type or a set of movies from that era that are alike in some way, this one is very much different from other films from the 1970s. Coppola dared to take on a dangerous story, one that accentuated the underworld of Italian-American crime while taking a legitimate look at the real people caught up in its Black Hand. Further than that he didn’t settle for making a blockbuster that appealed to the specific demographics Paramount Pictures had in mind. He came out with something more visually beautiful and intricate than an average Hollywood picture. This let the whole film industry and its varied audiences know that even the major studio productions can keep their artistic heart without being an independent project. Forever, I’ll consider Coppola – for this and Apocalypse Now particularly – a reason for why directors can still be artists within a studio system.
Let’s talk about oranges! We’ve all heard about this one, so take a deeper look.
First scene is between Tom Hagen and Jack Woltz, a bowl of them sits at the table. This is the first sinister event where the oranges give us a foreboding look at what may soon come. Of course, we know what ends up in Woltz’s bed not too long after. A gruesome scene. This sets up the whole element of oranges signifying something bad about to happen, which extends through the film, as well as its sequels. One of those nice little pieces of symbolism that makes this movie feel more akin to great literature than great movies, though it’s clearly one of the latter above anything else.
Second scene comes just prior to Don Corleone being gunned down in the street. He goes to buy some fruit, oranges to start, and this ominously lets us know there’s about to be a tragedy.
I love that Coppola decided to use this little system because it gives the whole thing greater depth, along with the good writing in general and the nicely fleshed out characters. In every way, the director makes sure this becomes more than a big studio picture with dollars in its eyes. Best part is that the orange symbolism goes on throughout the trilogy, not only a part of this first film.
The cinematography from director of photography Gordon Willis is all around fantastic. As is the editing. These aspects collide in such a perfectly classical way. Francis Ford Coppola exerts such great, effective control as director, which is in part due to him taking on the screenwriting duties, as well. The look of the scene where Don Corleone is gunned down has to be one of the best in the entire trilogy. Without a doubt. The darkness almost seems to encroach the sky, as the deadly scene commences. Then the overhead shot of Vito being shot, falling on the car, the guns going off, it’s so effortlessly gorgeous and well blocked that you know how everything is laid out came about meticulously. Some shots can appear accidentally. This is not that type, whatsoever. One example of the eye Coppola has for framing. That’s a reason why the overall film is so damn good. Every bit of the darkened camera work, the shadowy lighting, all those thoughtfully considered shots and the precise blocking, it all makes this better than any average big budget adaptation of a novel. The directorial choices out of Coppola are impeccable. Not every director can block well enough to make it evident. A guy like Coppola does so to a point of feeling like a theatre director, making his shots stand out at all angles.
So much acting talent to take in. Even during the most seemingly insignificant moments and scenes this whole cast makes everything interesting, at times powerful. Partly Coppola, through the original writing of Puzo, is able to convey gangsters in a more three-dimensional view than they’d ever been seen before onscreen. Gangsters have been around the Hollywood stories since as early as films were being made. Yet this movie takes us further into the psychology of these men. You don’t always agree with the way these characters act, nor that they’re so involved in such dastardly criminal activity on many levels. Although you will find yourself a little more informed, at least in the way they do things. The characters themselves and the performances take us into the human beings behind the business. Again, these actors won’t make you necessarily empathise, but they will always, always keep you hooked to the story and the intensity of the plots.
Above anything else, The Godfather is entertaining. The characters and the plot, every inch of the story rivets the audience. Marlon Brando is at the pinnacle of his career, no matter what other great, epic roles he’s taken. Likewise, James Caan and Al Pacino are both fantastic in their respective roles as the Corleone brothers; distinct personalities, each part of the same crime family and subject to its effects, so while they feel real different they are also just like real brothers. Add to these lead actors guys like Abe Vigoda, Richard S. Castellano and others only round out the cast making the story rumble right off the page. Oh, and Robert Duvall can never be forgotten. He crafts Tom Hagen into just as classic a character as the rest, often overlooked simply because of the other star power bursting through the screen.
If you don’t dig this movie, that’s fine. You cannot, however, claim this is not a classic. And not a perfect one. There are so many amazing aspects to The Godfather, from the powerful acting to Coppola’s adaptation of Puzo to the downright saliva-worthy cinematography. Each time I watch it, and until this writing it’d been a good seven or eight years, there’s a new love I find somewhere between those luscious, dark frames, all the brooding Pacino looks and the well delivered dialogue. This is one movie that will never fade in its awesomeness. Until the end of time it’ll remain one of the greatest in cinematic history.
Cell. 2016. Directed by Tod Williams. Screenplay by Adam Alleca & Stephen King, based on King’s novel of the same name.
Starring John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Isabelle Fuhrman, Stacey Keach, Joshua Mikel, Alex ter Avest, Griffin Freeman, E. Roger Mitchell, & Wilbur Fitzgerald. The Genre Co./Benaroya Pictures/Cargo Entertainment.
Rated R. 98 minutes.
Cell is one of the few Stephen King novels I’ve not yet read at this stage. He’s one of my favourite writers, as well as a huge influence on me as an author myself. His influence is large and encompasses generations of weird kids who read his work growing up, whose touch made us more confident in mining the darker regions of our minds. Not only does he inspire readers, writers, he further has left a mark on horror directors, many of whom cut their teeth in the genre first by reading his books. Regardless of who you are or what you do, King is able to get to you. My mother was an avid reader. Then she passed his books on down to me, as they always interested me on the shelf and she’d say “Not until you’re a little older” and so eventually I read them all, devouring each page until there was nothing left. Now, 31 at the time of this writing, my bookshelves at the home which I share with my girlfriend are filled with a small library of solely Stephen King books. His writing is almost like a family tradition between myself and my mother. His work transcends genre, which is funny because those only familiar with a few of his stories always peg him as a horror writer, or that guy who writers creepy stories, and other descriptions. But he is capable of crossing genres and while captivating you with scary moments King always has something bigger happening underneath.
With the film adaptation of Cell, King had a hand in the screenplay alongside screenwriter Adam Alleca (wrote the remake of The Last House on the Left). Some King films suffer because his writing isn’t always easy to adapt for the screen, so I’m inclined to give the movies he’s more involved with a better shot. A Good Marriage was, to me, enjoyable even if it wasn’t great. Because the writing was good, even if the casting wasn’t spot on. Here, I can’t judge versus the book. I can only come to this adaptation with fresh eyes. Although it can’t be too bad to take another ride into creepy King territory with the likes of John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson, right? Add in Isabelle Fuhrman, who was amazing in Orphan, and that’s a solid three leads to keep things grounded.
One of the more initially unsettling moments is just after the half hour mark. A bunch of the infected people scream in unison, their mouths open, and it’s super eerie to watch and hear at the same time. Quite Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a nice homage without being a rip-off. A trippy, brief scene that only gets creepier right afterwards. The imagery shows us the horde of people together in a scary huddle, then the shot goes up, fading into the cell tower, and then we cut to a beautiful waterfall. There’s an excellently juxtaposed feeling of nature v. man-made structures, further in that we’ve perverted nature and now this return to a primitive state has thrust people back into a more basic, more savage world. Subtly, the camera work takes us through that amidst the small trio’s efforts to understand the situation around them. Not long after is the terrifying scene where Charles Ardai (Stacey Keach) introduces the stadium full of infected, laying in piles, all lulled by the cellphones. Almost a parallel to those hordes of people out on the sidewalks, walking with their heads down and face, eyes, everything stuck on a screen. That’s the wholly intriguing aspect to this King story, in either form. It takes on our nearly disease-like addiction to technology in an appropriate way. Sure, this takes the form of what we’ve seen many times before, another zombie flick, another form of the same story, the same types of characters. A certain amount of that still applies. Something I dig is that these characters are a little atypical, in that they’ve come together more randomly than other movies – another one I like in that regard is the Dawn of the Dead remake. So you’ve got less of that stale family first ethic, instead focused on just a bunch of people, all with their own fears, emotions, thoughts, plans, hopes, et cetera.
Another scene that got to me was the nightmare Clay Riddell (Cusack) had – the imagery all around was scary as hell. Loved it. Not only that it leads into them all having a collective dream about the same character, one that Clay drew in his comics previously. But simply that brief scene where Clay finds the red hoodie man getting a blowjob in a decrepit bathroom, the tear in the man’s cheek, the blood, his odd demeanour, everything adds up to be totally unnerving.
I do think Alleca and King wrote a decent screenplay. There’s nothing wrong with what they’ve done. However, disappointingly enough I feel like neither Cusack nor Jackson does anything worthwhile with the characters. You can’t say there’s nothing interesting about the characters themselves. First you’ve got Clay, he’s a guy who draws comics, he has a tough family life with a son he loves, and all kinds of personal stuff. Problem being maybe we’ve seen this character type too many times from Cusack, and no longer is there anything to mine from that starved patch of ground. Secondly, Tom McCourt (Jackson) is a Vietnam veteran, he’s a tough son of a bitch. And maybe again, we’ve seen this style of character from Jackson so often that seeing him in a zombie-type story to boot only makes it more cliché. However, that’s meant to be the power of an actor, if they can make you believe them and their portrayal, over and over. Though I do love both Cusack and Jackson in their own rights, having performed a ton of great characters between them, they don’t give us what we need here.
That task is left to Isabelle Fuhrman. Her portrayal of Alice Maxwell is really good. She doesn’t always get the right amount of time to do her thing, but when she does it’s solid work. If only her character were given more then it’s possible that could have made the movie better than it comes off. She’s a talented actor who I hope will get some bigger, better roles. Here, she’s able to root us emotionally before destroying us after the arc of her character breaks your heart.
Ultimately, I’ll say Cell is about a 3-star zombie flick. There are a couple elements that make it less typical, mainly in its approach to the entire infection sub-genre of horror. Stephen King and Adam Alleca adapt King’s novel into a decently creepy piece of work. Plenty of flaws to boot and there are definitely lacklustre performances out of Cusack and Jackson. At the same time, I found myself creeped out at times. More would be better, but the terror King’s story is able to bring out makes this better than most low budget zombie movies floating around out there. In addition to the writing, there’s great atmosphere; some nice cinematography, as well as a score that’ll keep you on edge while it swells and falls and sucks you in.
Some scenes will stick out, from the one in the bar to a short time later when Clay unmasks an infected man he – for a moment – believes to be his son. There’s enough to enjoy and to make this worth watching. Plus, I really enjoyed the ending. Not near one of my favourite King stories adapted to film, though. Perhaps I’ll enjoy the novel more once I get around to giving it a read because the premise alone is horrifying. The execution of the film is what leaves much to be desired.
American Psycho. 2000. Directed by Mary Harron. Screenplay by Harron & Guinevere Turner, based on the novel of the same name by Bret Easton Ellis.
Starring Christian Bale, Justin Theroux, Josh Lucas, Bill Sage, Chloë Sevigny, Reese Witherspoon, Samantha Mathis, Matt Ross, Jared Leto, Willem Dafoe, Cara Seymour, Guinevere Turner, Stephen Bogaert, Monika Meier, & Reg E. Cathey. Am Psycho Productions/Edward R.
Pressman Film/Lions Gate Films.
Rated R. 102 minutes.
The director of I Shot Andy Warhol, as well as episodes of excellent television shows like Homicide: Life on the Street and Oz – Mary Harron – takes on Bret Easton Ellis’ most well-known and definitely most controversial novel: American Psycho. What I find interesting is that this novel has been lambasted for being too horrific, disturbing, as well as having a hot streak of misogyny running through it. And yet here is a proud woman director, who before and after did very female-centric projects, taking upon herself the heavy duty of giving Ellis a big screen adaptation. And it’s because so many seem to misunderstand the original novel, Ellis’ own intentions. While it definitely serves up a nice heap of horror, American Psycho is mainly an allegory about the murderous rampage of empty-headed capitalism and those it sweeps up in its hideous wave of destruction.
The main character Patrick Bateman is an enigma. At the same time he is beyond predictable. He is a man who wants to be better than everyone else while simultaneously hoping to be just like everyone else. Thus the reasoning for such a title, nationalizing the phenomenon of psychosis here, as Bateman represents the perfect microcosm of psychosis involved in the American Dream. While the movie alludes further than the novel to what Bateman experiences as possibly all part of his own delusions, there is still a ton of visceral horror here with all that psychological madness. In a place where the hallucinatory and the corporeal meet lies American Psycho, ready to confuse, terrify, and pull out a few dark chuckles here or there.
People are more concerned with appearance than anything concrete everywhere you turn in this film. When Bateman supposedly drags a corpse out to a taxi, an acquaintance sees him, but pays no mind to what might be in the bag Patrick is dragging – he only wants to know where he got the fabulous overnight bag. Hilariously, Patrick replies “Jean Paul Gaultier” before heading off. Frequently new business cards destroy the souls of those with their same old cards still kicking around from last printing; this is perhaps the epitome of consumerism evident throughout the film. Another funny moment is when Patrick and Evelyn (Witherspoon) are at a restaurant together later – he’s breaking things off with her, actually admitting to mass murder, and she is too busy checking out a friend’s watch across the room admiring its quality. The screenplay is peppered with these bits everywhere along the way, making not only Patrick a victim of 1980s Wall Street consumer culture, but also everyone in his world, as well.
But above all else there are many little clues and hints along the way that the events of American Psycho – the serial killings – are all a product of the protagonist(/antagonist?)’s rotten mind. He becomes an unreliable narrator to the entire experience. For instance, as Patrick drags his supposed overnight bag out through the apartment building a streak of blood follows behind, staining the floor everywhere – yet the doorman only shakes his head, and a shot from outside of Patrick leaving the building shows there’s no blood anywhere to be found. Of course, as the film wears on these instances are more frequent and also much more noticeable. It’s very likely Patrick is dreaming up/fantasizing about these murders especially once we see him running naked, covered in blood, brandishing a running chainsaw through the halls of his apartment complex. Nobody heard any of that? Not likely. Because as opposed to Leatherface, of whom Patrick is a fan (he works out while watching The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), Patrick does his hunting not on the backwoods rural roads of small town U.S.A, but rather in the heart of the urban jungle that is Manhattan. So he doesn’t have a lot of privacy, certainly not to do these types of things. That’s a large reason of why the novel and the film are both excellent in their own rights, the lines between reality and hallucination, fantasy and the truth, are blurred to the point of black and white distinctions no longer being even remotely possible. Bateman and these Wall Street types life in the grey zone anyways, so it’s no surprise Patrick heading off the deep end puts him in another morally grey zone to boot.
It’s many of the little things which make Patrick an unsettling man. The intersection of horror and sex in his life is more than disturbing. Essentially, aside from the thrill of making money – which then is even further down the ladder than appearing powerful/wealthy – a man such as Bateman is left with only the thrill of sex and murder to satisfy his deepest urges. Then there’s the fact just about the only thing Patrick can discuss at any length is either music or anything else pop culture related. He’s so unoriginal and devoid of any personality or true wit that his only go-to excuse for people is “I have to return some videotapes.” Moreover, he only relates to any real, true emotion through music, whether it’s Whitney Houston or Huey Lewis. Everything he is comes through a construct: music, his apartment, his clothes, his business card and suit and tie. Further than that, Patrick’s identity almost becomes this fluid state simply because he is often mistaken for somebody else. A man at a building’s reception desk calls him Mr. Smith. He’s mistaken for Paul Allen, too. Later on he gets mistaken for someone named Davis. In this light, you can see his ‘killing’ of Paul Allen as a way for him to kill off that identity in order to make room for his own; a plea, a cry for recognition.
Of most importance is Patrick’s narcissism. We see the narcissistic ideals of these Wall Street guys, fawning over business cards, ties, dinner reservations, so on. They’re all about status. It’s all about being the center of attention, and in turn the center of that economic stratosphere in a hierarchy of financial crooks. So what better way to gain attention and be the center of a circus than to go on a serial killing rampage? Even better if it’s all in his head.
Christian Bale breaks through the often sickening (though awesomely intriguing) subject matter to make Patrick Bateman into a complex serial killer; one that Bret Easton Ellis created then Mary Harron and writing partner Guinevere Turner expanded upon in this masterpiece of an adaptation. It isn’t for everybody. Then again, the novel wasn’t either. And maybe I’m biased, because as much as I find Ellis slightly obnoxious as a personality, his writing is often emotionally shattering and downright remarkable. Love the novel, love the film. Harron does a nice job with directing, making the Ellis novel somehow palatable and at the same time horrific as you’d imagine. It took forever to get this to the screen after a ton of pre-production nightmares, so obviously Harron was the one able to get things in the proper place as director. Using Bale’s charismatic and terrifying performance Harron crafts this Ellis adaptation into 102 minutes of pure madness, ending on an ambiguous, unsettling note.
Because whether Patrick killed those people is ultimately futile – we have no idea where he’ll go, what he’ll do after these final moments. Will he take what he’s learned from hallucinating those murders, if that’s the case, and get better at being a serial killer? Has this basically been the pregame warm-up to his big spectacle? We don’t know. And not knowing is the scariest part.
High-Rise. 2016.Directed by Ben Wheatley. Screenplay by Amy Jump, based on the novel of the same name by J.G. Ballard.
Starring Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes, Peter Ferdinando, Sienna Guillory, Reece Shearsmith, Enzo Cilenti, Augustus Prew, Dan Renton Skinner, Stacy Martin, & Tony Way. Recorded Picture Company/British Film Institute.
Rated 18A. 119 minutes.
Almost from the opening, High-Rise caught me as impressive. Part of that is because I find J.G. Ballard’s writing beyond thought provoking. The other is because Tom Hiddleston commands an audience’s attention similar to the old school Hollywood leading man. And finally, a large part is due to Ben Wheatley. Ever since I had the chance to see his debut feature Down Terrace there was something worth the attention in his directing. It only got better as he moved through an excellently varied catalogue of films including Kill List, my personal favourite of his Sightseers, A Field of England, as well as some other projects. While each film is vastly different from the other his style is one an auteur. In each of his works there’s an existential question, of some sort, whether that be about family, loyalty, love, work, and much more. Writer Amy Jump has written several of his features, alongside Wheatley. She is also a great writer with an uncanny ability to look into human nature honestly, whose talents are solo here in adapting Ballard. A job she does well.
Together in High-Rise, using Ballard as the foundation and source, Jump and Wheatley explore an earlier view of the future. Yet for all its madness this story is certainly a great analogy for the war of classes in society, at any point. Particularly, though, in a day and age where billionaires are profiting the most, paying the least for their transgressions, as the poor end up footing the societal and economic bill, this is a book and film that holds as much if not more weight than first when Ballard conceived it.
Dr. Laing: “The facial mask simply slips off the skull”
It’s literally dog eat dog now. Or man eat dog. From the beginning, Wheatley shows us the resulting chaos. Similar to how Hitchcock spoke of showing his audience ‘the bomb underneath the table’, and then for the rest of the film letting people sweat it out wondering… when will it go off? So it’s a perfect place to start the journey. Now we’re left to watch as Dr. Laing (Hiddleston) and all the other inhabitants of the towering titular high-rise complex descend into the madness of their isolated, socially divided existence.
One of Ballard’s interests as a novelist lies in the convergence point between society and technology, between human psychology and technical advancements. In Crash, he examined a very physical space of body horror where the human body and the metal of cars meet in a disturbingly erotic nature. High-Rise examines a more psychological and moral space than anything physical. As everyone of all kinds is mashed together in the elaborate complex, which for all its space becomes more claustrophobic over the course of the film, the moral compass of its various residents and their respective concern for fellow people in different social classes begins to spiral. Downward. So in effect, Ballard’s main themes are that the higher we get in terms of technology, often the lower we get in social skills, but more importantly in social and moral empathy.
Laing is completely oblivious to his class privilege. He tells a cashier to keep the change, but she can only reply: “There isn‘t any.” Brief little bit of Jump’s excellent adaptation. A little later he’s completely humiliated at a fancy costume party where everyone’s dressed in centuries old party clothing. Then thrown out. A great juxtaposition of moments for Laing to experience.
Three big characters in High-Rise have significant names. Royal (Irons) – the main sitting at the top of the throne. Wilder (Evans) – the primitively violent man, arguably the first to fully succumb to the influence of the divided complex. Then there’s Dr. Laing himself, whose name is lifted from psychiatrist R.D. Laing, which connects with his concept of schizophrenia as a type of self-defense mechanism against certain social situations and events. They all play pivotal roles, as the isolation and almost blissfully ignorant nature of high-rise living (a microcosm of social structures) takes its toll in so many intensely brutal ways.
Wheatley often works with cinematographer Laurie Rose. In fact, if I’m not mistaken he’s essentially shot all his feature films. His eye for composition, alongside the directorial choices of Wheatley, always serve the best interest of the subject matter. Plus, he captures everything so rich and full that it jumps off the screen. No matter what type of things he’s shooting. From the bigger, more grand scale shots to the close, tight moments, Rose has a wonderfully classic sense of filmmaking. At times he and Wheatley go for experimental sequences, but mostly they craft a beautiful, old school-looking film that’s modern in theme. It’s a story that was written back 1975, likely started a little earlier, so Rose and Wheatley bring this interesting ’70s vibe to their atmosphere and look while exploring the modern themes in that space rather than update it completely to a contemporary setting.
You could easily see some filmmakers shooting this, as well as writing this, in a complete vision of future today. With the trio of Jump, Rose, and Wheatley, the J.G. Ballard adaptation they give us is the one which the author imagined, as a vision of the future in the 1970s. Everything, right down to the set design, is absolutely astonishing.
Then there’s Clint Mansell, whose work many recognize from his various collaborations with Darren Aronofsky among other scores he’s composed. He does fantastic things with a bunch of orchestral pieces, as well as the iconic electronic pieces he’s known for, too. The opening sequence is accompanied by some nicely fitting orchestra. Later, electronic scores pulse us towards the violent finale. Having Mansell a part of this team only makes the film more effective.
For me, this is a 5-star cinematic experience. Ben Wheatley, Amy Jump, Laurie Rose, as well as every one of the actors involved, particularly Tom Hiddleston and Luke Evans, each do a perfect job bringing this J.G. Ballard adaptation to the screen. Notably, this was previously deemed ‘unfilmable’ in Hollywood. So take that, big wigs. Wheatley continues an impressive career. He is a visionary director and every bit deserving of his status as an auteur filmmaker. Jump brings her wonderful writing to the table, and along with Rose’s keen eye they’re able to make Ballard palatable, exciting, and every bit as brutally engaging as his original novel. This is available as of this writing today on VOD. But I’ll also be heading out to see it on the big screen as soon as it shows up here. High-Rise is the type of film I’ve seen on VOD, I’ll see in theatre, then be damned sure I’ll buy up on Blu ray. Great cinema, great minds, great actors.
Lamb. 2015. Directed & Written by Ross Partridge; based on the novel of the same name by Bonnie Nadzam.
Starring Ross Partridge, Oona Laurence, Jess Weixler, Tom Bower, Scoot McNairy, Lindsay Pulsipher, Jennifer Lafleur, & Joel Murray. The Shot Clock/Silent Helicopter.
Rated R. 97 minutes.
This is a difficult movie, in every sense of the word. It’s hard to rate. It’s hard to understand, both in intent and in the message it puts across by the end. Although I’ve never read the novel Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam, there are bound to be things lost in translation from book to film. Even seeing only this adaptation I can understand why so many book reviews compare Nadzam’s protagonist(/antagonist) to Humbert Humbert in Nabokov. However, the comparisons can’t be too close, as there are significant differences in theme.
Lamb is a terribly difficult confrontation of love’s dangerous possibilities. At the same time, the film explores this through the eyes of a lonely, washed up sort of man whose intentions are never fully clear. What director-writer-star Ross Partridge does is craft an atmospheric drama that also plays much like a thriller. The closer to the edge of morality Lamb takes us, the harder it is to pull away. And even in its most tense moments, no matter how it makes you feel, the characters will make you question just how you’ve gotten to that point.
David Lamb (Ross Partridge) just lost his father, as well as his marriage. Everything is falling apart at work, too. One afternoon, sitting on a curb and ruminating on his shit life, David is confronted by a young girl named Tommie (Oona Laurence). When he tries to be a father figure they begin a friendly relationship. But then he decides to invite her on a road trip. Except her parents don’t know. Nobody does.
So off they go. And as their trip to the mountains begins the line between what’s acceptable and what isn’t slowly blurs.
David also heads out onto his own journey of self-discovery, which is never, ever easy. He and Tommie discover things about life they’d never once imagined.
The one scene that actually made me feel downright frightened is when David spills coffee on Tommie, then insists she get in the bath. While the spill of the hot coffee wasn’t intentional there’s part of you that wonders if something like that wasn’t coming all along, at some juncture of the journey. But his insistence, his refusal to leave the bathroom even when the curtain’s drawn over the tub, his turning on of the water, so much of it speaks to that control men with paedophilic tendencies seek to gain. He slowly but surely pushes through her boundaries.
People want to debate whether he did anything sexual to Tommie. Sure, you can definitely consider it a debatable topic. However, my offer of proof is David’s breakdown later when he says: “If you discover that one day you hate me and you‘re angry with me and that I‘ve ruined your life, at any time, if I‘m 90, you‘ll tell me, won‘t you?” He gets even worse, more angry towards himself in the scene. To me, and this is merely personal opinion, David has admitted right there and then that something not right has occurred. Now maybe that’s not sexual, maybe he just feels the boundaries were pushed too far in general. Not sure. But something certainly happened, whether it’s simply the overall tone of their relationship, or something further than we saw onscreen went down – who knows. There’s just something about that speech from David, the emotion in him, which really says he’s done a bad thing. Plenty of his previous behaviour already speaks to that. This later moment is probably the most overt of them all.
Perhaps, above all else, David/Gary’s exertion of control and power over young Tommie is due to his narcissism. He may not be a paedophile at all. He could simply be the loneliest man on earth. Driven to, essentially, kidnapping a child just to reassure himself, just to have someone to love him – to make someone love him. After his life collapsed he needed something, anything. Whether he was sexual with her is up for debate, but either way his disregard for Tommie’s feelings and her innocence and childhood is horrific.
What’s most interesting, despite the tough subject matter and themes, is how Partridge manages to make this an emotional drama. There is a quiet beauty to the entire work. Even when I was horrified at the implications of many scenes, the way it’s presented comes off incredibly mature and written, performed, directed with great care. This movie is one tough sell. For some it may repulse them immediately once the plot kicks in. For others, the odd charm of its danger will lure them through to the finish. Patridge directs elegantly with the luscious cinematography of Nathan M. Miller at his side. There are so many gorgeous looking moments for such a morally disturbing and challenging story.
Both Partridge and young Miss Laurence do a fantastic job carrying a difficult piece of cinema. The final moments, regardless of how unsettling the relationship was, completely tear out your soul. Without someone young and charismatic like Laurence, this role would never have been filled with life. She managed to make it into a performance of depth and essence, not a small feat for a child actor. For his part, Partridge’s ability as an actor has impressed here because he makes you wonder, he keeps you guessing, and never are the inner workings of his mind too evident. There’s always some part of him to keep you off balance. Their chemistry is undeniable and made this movie into drama with weight.
A veritable 4-star experience. Put to the side your judgements, let it flow through you. See what happens.