GERALD’S GAME: One Woman’s Revelatory Odyssey Into Misogyny

Gerald’s Game. 2017. Directed by Mike Flanagan. Screenplay by Flanagan & Jeff Howard.
Starring Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Henry Thomas, Carel Struycken, Kate Siegel, & Chiara Aurelia.
Intrepid Pictures
Not Rated. 103 minutes.
Horror/Thriller

★★★★★

DisclaimerThe following review discusses the film in-depth. As such, it contains spoilers in reference to important plot points and themes in the film. If you haven’t, get on Netflix, watch, then come back for a lively discussion.
Lest ye be spoiled!

Gerald's Game 1I’ve long adored Stephen King, ever since my mother introduced me to his books; I first saw them on her shelves, unable to read them until she said I was old enough, then I fell in love. His writing is so human, even when he’s dipping into the supernatural. Of all his novels, Gerald’s Game is entirely human, despite touching on aspects that are definitely not of this world. Best of all, the novel’s protagonist Jessie Burlingame (played here by the fabulous Carla Gugino) is at her most vulnerable in a situation requiring her greatest strengths.
King’s story explored so much of Jessie’s life, her experience with the men in it, the events those relationships further precipitated. Director Mike Flanagan and his co-writer Jeff Howard manage to illustrate all the important moments in the film’s 103-minute runtime. Sticking so close to the novel, it allows Flanagan to bring its imagery to life in a unique way that’s exciting even for readers like myself who’ve read and revered the book already.
More than that it’s the themes at play which resonate, especially at a point in time where we need more strong films taking on the horror of misogyny. Gerald’s Game explores the dichotomy of truth and lies within a marriage, how sexual fantasies – particularly rape-fantasy – turn men into dangerous foes instead of husbands to the wives they supposedly love, as well as how those titles like husband, or father, don’t mean anything when in the face of predatory men.
And all of this relies on the powerhouse performance of Gugino, whose Jessie – the centrepiece of the story, despite the title – must either transform into the powerful women lying in wait inside herself, or else perish.
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Well, Im pretty sure you just lost your mind.”

At its core, King’s novel is a metaphor of the overall misogyny women experience at the hands of men in every facet of life. Gerald’s Game works on several levels. It’s Gerald’s (Bruce Greenwood) game to bring the handcuffs to the cabin, to spice up his and Jessie’s marriage. However, it’s also the game many men play, making a woman feel as if she has to conform to his idea of sexuality and how they express it as a couple in order to ‘save the marriage.’ Jessie must play the game with Gerald, though later on we discover how, stuck between her father and mother, young Jessie had to play an entirely different game.
The main ideas floating around from the start centre on Jessie and Gerald’s marriage. Is your partner who they truly are, or merely who you want them to be? Do they, after a time, just become our vision of their personality instead of themselves? Through her predicament, left handcuffed to the bed after Gerald has a heart attack and cracks his head on the floor, Jessie forcibly confronts herself, ultimately. Both her own identity and also her relationship to her husband, how she views him as a man and a husband; plus, how being a man is inextricably linked to any other role a man plays.
Being stuck in the cuffs is a literal event, but it’s likewise an allegorical one. Jessie’s been controlled by men, one way or another, her entire life. So now, she must wholly rely on herself to break those figurative and literal bonds and free herself, to live again and to keep on living. The later we go on, the above quote transforms into more of a gaslighting question than one we understand as Jessie actually having a mental breakdown, stuck to the bed. She has to overcome the fantasies men wish to impose on her to survive.
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Youre only made of moonlight

Gerald's Game 4Jessie’s mental state and her perspective are, obviously, crucial to the novel, which is the major reason Flanagan creates such a perfect adaptation with his film. There’s a stream of consciousness feel, as he weaves back and forth from past to present, dropping us in and out of memory. We slip from waking visions to nightmarish sleep, blurring the edges of reality until the actual moments of genuine reality crash in, frightening the viewer as much as Jessie.
Like in the novel, the Moonlight Man (Carel Struycken), the Space Cowboy, is where the idea of the supernatural exists, on the edges of the story’s heart. We never know what’s pure fiction, dreams and nightmares interchangeably. The Moonlight Man is like a shadow cast by real life into Jessie’s subconscious, conjuring up awful things she sees between sleep and struggling to get out of those cuffs. Until the finale, where the men in Jessie’s life, from her father to her husband, come to a culmination in the worst of man – a necrophile serial killer. He was real all along. And with this reality comes the other reality: the worst she believed about the other men in her life – her paedophile father, her misogynist husband masquerading most his life as a loving one while harbouring a dark rape-fantasy – is also very real.
At the same time, the film’s ending validates Jessie, her struggle. Throughout her ordeal, she faced not only her spacial limitations, stuck on that bed, she pushed past the mental violence that’s been afflicted on her with the physical violence that accompanied it. She’ll never forget what’s happened to her. But she’ll also never let it dictate her life.

Youre so much smaller than I remember

Gerald's Game 5The victory of Jessie is what makes everything worth it. Yes, there’s horror, there’s so much tension and suspense it could eat you alive. Same as it was in King’s novel. By the end, Flanagan offers us the hope and the power in Jessie that King did, Carla Gugino’s quiet power punctuating the character’s transformation.
Again like the novel, the end is phenomenal. Flanagan gives us one important set of images in those last moments that hammer home the allegory at work. Gerald’s line “Dont ask a question you dont wanna know the answer to” becomes the crux on which the film and Jessie’s journey hang. Because she’s asked the questions, she’s confronted their answers, and still, she stands.
Gerald’s Game, for Father Gore, is perfect. Out of the park adaptation, on top of the pile with the best. Flanagan works on the viewer’s nerves, using the isolated setting and plot to his advantage, the paranoia coursing through each frame, so much so it’s the quiet moments which truly land the hardest impact.
Many who aren’t familiar with the original King novel might get a different impression just by the poster or the trailer or reading a plot summary, but this is a movie about a powerful woman. She doesn’t know she’s powerful in the beginning. It’s the transformative journey she undertakes at the hands of her husband, a microcosm of general misogyny, which reveals this power to her. For all its graphic qualities, Gerald’s Game goes for the emotional, existential terror lurking inside the relationships of women’s daily lives.

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DARK MOUNTAIN: Blair Witch Feels in the Arizona Mountains

Dark Mountain. 2013. Directed by Tara Anaïse. Screenplay by Anaïse & Tamara Blaich.
Starring Sage Howard, Andrew Simpson, & Shelby Stehlin.
Superstitious Films.
Not Rated. 82 minutes.
Horror/Thriller

★★1/2
posterAh, found footage! I love thee. I love thee not.
There are times the sub-genre is used to great advantage. I’m going to talk a bit in this review about the movie which put it right in the spotlight: Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick’s The Blair Witch Project. Now, not all found footage is emulative of that 1999 breakout hit. There’s no shortage of movies that try and capitalise off its success by cherry-picking moments to homage – or straight up rip-off. Sometimes that’s not so bad, as long as within the framework somewhere you can find a nugget of originality. Even if it’s tiny, now and then it’s worth it. But not too often.
Dark Mountain is a movie that relies too heavily on its Blair Witch influence. The movie teeters on a precarious edge, where the filmmakers fall into copying Myrick and Sánchez too much while also having enough originality to do interesting things. They fall over the edge rather than spin their spooky little tale into gold. And it’s a shame. Using the jumping off point of the legendary Lost Dutchman’s Mine, director Tara Anaïse (and co-writer with Tamara Blaich) had the potential to make a truly scary found footage flick. Leaning too hard on the movie that obviously was a huge influence – not only this film but so many others, as I already mentioned – really hinders even the best efforts and tricks up Anaïse’s sleeve.
img_3981img_3983One thing I really do enjoy is that the Lost Dutchman legend is a central part of the screenplay. While the movie devolves into Blair Witch rip-off at too many turns, this real legend (oxymoron?) makes things eerily fun. Named after a German immigrant, Jacob Waltz, the mine was supposedly discovered in the 19th century, after which Waltz kept the location secret. Lots of other macabre details weave through this odd story, including deaths and disappearances of those who went out searching for the Dutchman’s fabled gold only to come across something sinister.
Where the writing falters most is they never come to a clear decision on what kind of presence is in and surrounding the caves. It goes from ghostly spirit-like activity to possibly extraterrestrial presence to plain old madness. Fine to leave parts of the plot ambiguous. To my mind, they went a little too deep on the ambiguity and didn’t do the plot any favours. There’s a good deal of paranoia, some nice tension. Ultimately, without anything more concrete in the story none of it goes anywhere spectacular.
img_3984There were creepy bits, despite those flaws. An early moment sees Kate (Sage Howard) witnessing a mist-like apparition in the caves, which nobody else sees, and that starts her fright. Of course that’s just like a stutter step before the more chilling moments. Perhaps the more unsettling is when Paul (Andrew Simpson) goes insane during the night, speaking in a strange, otherworldly voice before collapsing to the ground. This leads into the more suspenseful stuff when Paul’s paranoia runs out of control, believing Kate and Ross (Shelby Stehlin) are getting unusually close. My favourite is a little later once the trio stumbles across an ominous diary and even more disturbing tape recorder.
But again, the Blair Witch influence crosses over into infringement of artistic ideas. Paul disappears into the night, sending Kate and Ross on their inevitable, fateful journey into the night after him. Although they find him in a much stranger place, eating a bloody organ. This is a little less of a rip-off. Kate and Paul nearly get swallowed alive by the caves. Gold gets pulled away by an unseen force, scary and prophetic visions of death; Paul briefly appears, for a split second, with blood coming from his eyes. So we don’t exactly get the influence being copied totally. Some of these moments divert away into their own territory. Yet when the finale comes, The Blair Witch Project courses much too heavily through Dark Mountain‘s DNA.
The end is very much like that of Myrick and Sánchez’s, and worse it doesn’t feel as scary. Except that it genuinely could’ve been! Really. Maybe if we got some kind of quick glimpse of the Lost Dutchman, or someone dressed in 19th-century period clothing, there would be a bigger impact to the finish. I dig the lead up to the last few minutes. There are a couple spooky images on the way. Just feels like a let down once those final frames play and you realise this movie borrowed way too liberally from a supposed influence; yeah, more like a template.
img_3986I gave this a 2&1/2-star rating because I do feel that Dark Mountain was enjoyable. Problem is it’s only barely enjoyable. Because of the need to copy Blair Witch at too many turns, Anaïse’s movie never gets where it wants to go. The Lost Dutchman’s Mine is a super fun story to involve in the plot of a horror. I wish that Anaïse and Blaich were able to craft a better screenplay without having to glom onto what Myrick of Sanchez created. Part of why that was so good is because the legend of the Blair Witch was a fabrication on their part; the mythology was entirely created. So that gave them more to work with altogether.
Dark Mountain struggles towards its own thing and can’t ever amount to anything beyond medicore. There’s a handful of good stuff, at least worth one watch. Don’t expect anything more than a copy of a movie you enjoyed more. It’s too bad. As I said, the legend they opt to use for the backdrop is awesome. Perhaps next time Anaïse can do something better because I was rooting for her.

Ridley Scott’s Alien: Gorgeously Horrific Isolation

Alien. 1979. Directed by Ridley Scott. Screenplay by Dan O’Bannon; story by O’Bannon & Ronald Shusett.
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, Bolaji Badejo, & Helen Horton. Brandywine Productions/Twentieth Century-Fox Productions.
Rated R. 117 minutes.
Horror/Sci-Fi

★★★★★
POSTER
I’m not even a huge science fiction fan. Of course I love any good movie, no matter the genre. But even as a nerd, someone who grew up loving Star Trek: The Next Generation and plenty of other science fiction, it isn’t my first choice. Yet you can’t keep a great film down. No matter if it’s your preferred genre or not. Now, when you start to mix genres together, that’s my favourite. So at a crossroads between horror and sci-fi, Ridley Scott’s Alien converges on my tastes to make for an altogether frightening experience. The undeniable legacy of the film is plastered over many genre films that have come out since. Likely that’ll be the case for a long, long time. Scott’s genius as a director is matched in the writing of screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, collaborating here on the story with Ronald Shusett. Working on the isolation of space, in ’79 still a relatively new frontier with untold terrors lurking in its dark and uncharted territories, Alien coils you into madness through its horrifying scenario playing out on a previously quiet ship called the Nostromo amongst a bunch of shipmates trying to get home to Earth.
The atmosphere here is tantamount to actually being out there in the depths of outer space, stuck on a ship somewhere where nobody can hear you scream. Scott makes you feel the despair, the fear, the isolation and its effects. Each set piece is better than the last, every corner and hallway exudes the sense of a real environment. The writing of O’Bannon is one thing. The imagination of Scott is entirely another beast, one that isn’t finished working as of this writing. But the clever effectiveness of one of his most satisfying works never fails to hook me. Watching it right now, nearly 3 AM here in Newfoundland, I’m watching Harry Dean Stanton’s Brett walk through the corridors alone, calling out for Jones the cat. And when he finds that facehugger skin, the chills still run up my spine.
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First and foremost, Sigourney Weaver as Ripley is obviously the star of the show. What I dig, though, is how O’Bannon sets the entire crew up as characters. Once we get to the excitement and all the wonderful thrills(/chills), Ripley is our woman. She carries us through the action, the horror, as our tour guide almost. Regardless of her status as protagonist, O’Bannon gives us the time to get to know the others around her, so as not to stick us totally in one perspective. It’s a testament to good writing when a screenplay is able to setup a cast of characters behind the one real main character, to make them interesting, to have us spend time with them and let each one build instead of ending up as simply expendable victims for the alien to kill. Mostly, O’Bannon writes the characters so that they’re natural. In any genre, any writer will have a better chance at making their script more powerful if the characters feel like they’re organic. With a crew like those on the Nostromo, the chemistry has to be tight, like the sort of chat and relationships you’d generally see from any group that spend so much time together. Add to that a bunch of good actors who give it their all and you’ve got one enjoyable feast of emotions that run the gamut from strength to paranoia to bald fear and everything in between.
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That first reveal of the Xenomorph is forever etched in my mind. Having the cat there makes it unique. Those shots of Jones hissing, then the eyes watching poor Brett get nibbled up, they’re really something spectacular. Not sure why it’s so interesting. Perhaps to see a cat, a fine predator in its own right, witness such an apex predator at work is the reason this scene works to such a degree. Either way, when the Xenomorph, so quiet, drops down behind Brett, there’s a HOLY SHIT moment, and you immediately understand how threatening this creature is truly. Forget the size, the look, the nasty jaws and acid blood, just the sheer physical prowess of the Xenomorph to curl down from above, slow, silent: that is horrifying. Later, the scene with Dallas (Skerritt) and the Xenomorph is the stuff of which nightmares are made. Then things only get more frightening, the tension mounts until you feel your spine sucking up against the inside of your stomach. There’s a lot of downright exciting moments, too, but it’s the frights that keep me enthralled with Scott’s work in this movie every damn time.
My favourite sequence? When Ash (Holm) goes haywire. The first time I’d seen the film I never once expected it to happen. Now, I’m still impressed. The eerie way Holm plays the scene, the unsettling close-ups shot tight on Ash’s face as he starts leaking a bit of liquid, starting to go crazy. Then when Parker (Kotto) discovers the secret Ash is hiding, the nastiness of the simple effects make it all the more wild.
The sets are elaborate and Scott is able to take us away to another place. You become completely absorbed in the future world. Right down to how they’re shot and the way we initially follow a tracking shot through portions of the Nostromo before coming upon the crew in their stasis. A fine opener to the film, but a visual aesthetic Scott keeps up throughout the film’s entirety. The coldness of the camera, the silence, I find it works well with the advanced looking technology of the ship itself. At certain times you’re sure to be reminded of Stanley Kubrick. Others, you’re most definitely in a Scott landscape. What I like most are the exteriors, as opposed to the clean looking interiors. Outside we get this idea that yet it’s the future, but it is a dirty, rough and tumble one.
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There’s no denying Alien is a whopping 5 stars. A fantastic ride into the heart of science fiction-horror. Scott blew everybody away, and still does with this piece of work. When people try to tell you horror or sci-fi can’t be art, you show them this film. Tell them they’re wrong. The imaginative direction on Scott’s part, the writing of O’Bannon. The strong central performance of Sigourney Weaver as the beloved Ripley, the beyond excellent support of a cast with the likes of John Hurt and Ian Holm. There is much to love. I can never get enough. I personally love the first three films of the series, and Prometheus.
But this one started it all. The dangerous aliens of the outer reaches have never been so vicious, so adverse to humanity as they are in this Scott masterpiece. Feast on it. Learn from it. This film won’t ever get old, except in the way that it gets better with age in all its horrific, science fiction goodness.

Maryland: A Post-Modern Analysis of PTSD

Maryland (also billed as Disorder). 2016. Directed by Alice Winocour. Screenplay by Winocour & Jean-Stéphane Bron.
Starring Matthias Schoenaerts, Diane Kruger, Paul Hamy, Zaïd Errougui-Demonsant, Percy Kemp, Victor Pontecorvo, Franck Torrecillas, Chems Eddine, Philippe Haddad, Jean-Louis Coulloc’h, Rachid Hafassa, David Colombo, & Rabia Elatache. Dharamsala/Darius Films/Mars Films.
Rated PG. 98 minutes.
Drama/Thriller

★★★★1/2
POSTER
There have been plenty cracks, as of late, at tackling PTSD through cinema. Some good, some not so good. It’s all in the way you go about it. You can show many sides. Each person suffering with the disorder can experience it much differently, depending on the event which triggered the symptoms. Along comes Alice Winocour, writing alongside Jean-Stéphane Bron, giving us Maryland; a film that so deftly handles PTSD with suspense, tension, and a few good thrills.
All the elements are in place here to have made a proper thriller, filled by interesting interpersonal drama and a couple heady doses of action. First, there’s Matthias Schoenaerts, whose talents at doing more with his face, expressions, body language than many actors can manage to do with their entire repertoire. Second, Diane Kruger gives her character more weight than simply being a poorly written female character tossed in to give the plot a feminine angle. And finally you can’t deny Winocour’s talent as a director. Personally, I’ve not yet seen anything else she’s done so far. Shame, really. Because clearly she knows how to make magic on the screen. Not only is there a great look, Winocour combines the visual aesthetic with one impeccable aural feast, from sound design to the soundtrack itself by Gesaffelstein. Honestly it’s one of the better movies of its kind in the last few years. Like I said, the PTSD film has really become more of a thing again since the Invasion of Iraq, and everything soldiers have been mixed up in since. But Maryland offers up a look into that type of mind, one fractured deeply by the horror of war (and perhaps later the necessity for a life filled with violence). We don’t get all the typical moments you’d expect. Rather, Winocour shows us the genre we’re convinced is in front of our eyes, then makes it into something else more interesting.
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One of the immediate elements of the scripts is the paranoia. A technique Winocour uses that we’re given often in a film that leans towards a psychological story is that for the better part of the whole runtime we’re right alongside, behind, near Vincent (Schoenaerts). Sometimes we follow behind him. Others we’re at mid-range, as he talks to others, interacts with Jessie (Kruger) and the various people at the Maryland estate. Further than any of that, Winocour uses the cinematography of Georges Lechaptois to draw us into the sometimes hallucinatory headspace of Vincent. We’re not always sure exactly when reality ends and the PTSD working overtime within Vincent’s poor head begins. In fact, the very final shot has such impact due to the fact we’re consistently drawn into a place where the reality we witness is undermined by Vincent and his penchant for hallucinating. While the major events of the plot are clearly real, that final shot begs to question exactly how unstable is Vincent, as well as whether he’ll ever be able to fully heal again. Or maybe it’s real. You can never be sure. Although my two cents? I think the final moment is a hallucination. Essentially, he retreats into that world inside his mind when he’s all alone. Aside from seeking out violence, or violent situations, because of his time in the war – who knows what happened to him over there – Vincent likely works in security still due to the fact he needs to be near people, he has to have noise to occupy his brain. You’ll notice that while Vincent does have a couple moments of intense stress, most of the party is a distraction to him. It’s only once he gets to a quieter, less populated area of the party does his paranoia get into overdrive. Interesting little distinction.
The music from Gesaffelstein pushes certain scenes to the limit of psychological suspense. A tension ratchets at times until you think either you or Vincent are about to burst. People will pass off the music as “derivative of ’80s synth-pop” (something I actually read online if you can believe that) when it’s just electronic excellence. Plus, as I said, the music then works in conjunction with the cinematography and Winocour’s directorial choices to make the mental state of Vincent a thoroughly visceral experience. That sequence at the beach? The heavy electronic notes ramble until Vincent’s able to calm himself. And that whole minute or so is an exercise in how to draw out a tense scene. This of course leads up to another wild moment, which confirms for sure if Vincent is seeing things or if it’s all real. Nevertheless, on numerous occasions the visual and aural elements of the film combine to make the action and the drama exciting in equal measures.
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Schoenaerts is beyond a good actor. He has all the wonderful energy of a De Niro or a Pacino, a Hackman, a Hoffman (Dustin or Phillip Seymour), a Vincent Cassel or a Jean-Paul Belmondo, anybody you can think of really. He’s got the physicality to play any number of tough guy characters, already proving that in spades through his performance in my favourite film, Bullhead. However, he gets to show even more of his acting chops here (even though I still prefer that one). The way he paves a path into the world of Vincent, that inner paranoid inside the hulking exterior, is fascinating. His vulnerability is always present. He’s this big time security guard, and at the same time he has this gaping wound in his soul that comes out from time to time, piercing the outer shell of his military swagger, that built up, constructed masculinity. Again, as in the aforementioned performance, he taps into that side of masculinity, what it means to be a soldier in modern times/what it means to be a man, as well. It lifts the film up with how deep the performance goes, right to the last drop.
Likewise, Kruger does a pretty solid job, too. She plays a woman wrapped up in something that she doesn’t exactly understand. At first, she’s hesitant to treat Vincent with much more than awkward, casual conversation. Then, as events evolve and change her perception, she’s forced to rely on a man she does not know. Moreover, she has no idea of his real personality, the PTSD he deals with on a regular basis. So to watch her performance along with what we know, it makes for good excitement. Jessie isn’t a character just left helpless, she’s a mother also ready to shield her child from any danger. Added to the fact Kruger doesn’t play her as helpless, nor is she a waif-like woman. The bravery in her comes out after she plunges into a dangerous world with a man charged to protect her against whatever comes next, as she never gives up or hesitates to do what’s necessary.
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I can’t say it enough: Maryland is a god damn amazing movie. I’ve not stopped raving about it since getting the chance to watch it recently. There’s a soft spot in my heart for filmmakers who take a chance on subverting genre expectations. While many think this is a typical story from seeing the trailer, once you get into the mix and let Alice Winocour take you for a pulsing, frantic ride right next to Vincent, the irreparably damaged soldier, you’ll find out this film is something more than its foundation suggests. Schoenaerts and Kruger sell the characters, giving us more to latch onto than any number of recent movies trying to ride off the success of stuff like Taken. This film shows us the tough guy protecting the woman we’ve seen all too often in a different light. The well written screenplay takes on PTSD, using sight and sound to push the envelope. All the while serving up some piping hot action and thrills in the midst of its engaging drama.
And if you don’t find yourself impressed by the surprise of Maryland, you may have an empty chest. Not an empty head; this isn’t a cerebral drama in that there’s anything utterly life altering being presented. But the excitement is such that by that last shot, if you’re like me, you’ll want to watch the whole thing over again to pay closer attention.

Take an Eerie Vacation to The Ruins

The Ruins. 2008. Directed by Carter Smith. Screenplay by Scott B. Smith, based on his novel of the same name.
Starring Jonathan Tucker, Jena Malone, Shawn Ashmore, Laura Ramsey, & Joe Anderson. DreamWorks Pictures/Spyglass Entertainment/Red Hour.
Unrated. 93 minutes.
Horror

★★★1/2
POSTER For the past couple decades especially, heading down South on vacation is popular among North American men and women, often breaking away from work or school to do a week of all-inclusive eating and drinking at some resort; a rich resort planted right next to some of the poorest areas of Mexico, and other similar places. At the same time, most of them never experience any real Mexican culture or whichever culture in the midst of which they find themselves. I’d go straight to see the ruins and depending on where I was castles, the whole lot. Whatever I could.
Often when people associate a kind of horror with these types of vacations, we imagine the real life horror that’s all too prevalent in the world: kidnappings and ransoms, armed robbery, murders and the like. The Ruins takes a more supernatural styled look at the Mexican vacation, depicting what happens when the ignorance of tourists leads them towards a fate more dangerous, more evil than anything human beings had planned. In a tale of culture shock mixed with an eco-creature feature, director Carter Smith uses the screenplay from Scott B. Smith (based on his own novel) to give us an exciting, dread filled ride into unknown terror. Best of all, where so many similar films preying on the tourist’s fear of foreign places opt to make the people of those places the villainous presence, The Ruins unearths a far more ancient antagonist than anyone living near the Mexican jungle.
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I’m honestly not a huge fan of supernatural horror, if that’s what you can call this one. Either way, there are only a certain number of these types of movies I genuinely enjoy. Many of them classics of the genre. Regardless, I have an affinity for stories about ruins, of any type. Their history, the possibly alternate history of what we know, there are so many incredible stories behind a lot of these monoliths, megaliths, and other structures. This story involves the Mayan temples, so depending on what you read there is a plethora of ways this can play in your mind. Part of why The Ruins works is because there’s a slight mystery. Despite getting plenty eeriness involved with the ruins in question, the vines and whatever grows inside and around them, there’s still a lingering mysterious nature to what’s happening. We’re never fully explained anything. Rather, we glean the terrifying nature of whatever lurks in those ruins via the Mexican locals surrounding the temple, their actions. On top of everything else a main factor in the deaths of most characters is paranoia. Once the madness of the plot really kicks into gear there’s all sorts of second guessing, paranoid thought, and general insanity. In fact, only one character is actually killed by the vines. I didn’t realize that until watching it once more this time around, yet there we have it. So there’s an interesting quality to a movie about an evil growth inside the Mayan ruins that defers most of its horror kills to an entirely human element.
Added to that writing does some interesting stuff with the characters. While I felt they could’ve been developed a bit more there is solid tension created between them. For instance, Amy (Jena Malone) tries to kiss Mathias (Joe Anderson) while she has a boyfriend, Jeff (Jonathan Tucker). Then Mathias ends up falling down that shaft and getting injured. So there’s this weird aspect where Amy feels for him yet still loves her boyfriend. This doesn’t get explored enough, though it’s interesting as an additional element to all the paranoia that ends up coming out later.
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I dig the effects, too. We get a quick head explosion within the initial 25 minutes, so that’s never a bad sign when we’re talking horror. That whole part is great, as the guy gets hit with an arrow, followed by a slight silence, followed by getting his head blown off. A nasty, true genre effect. Not sure, but the headshot looks CGI, and still it’s well done. They don’t linger on any close-ups too much. It’s a nice effect that works, as this then sends the rest of the group up onto the temple, ensuring there’s immediate suspense to the location.
One of the most devastating moments – to me – is when Mathias falls down the shaft of the temple into complete darkness. It’s such a subtle moment that could’ve been louder, more brash. Anderson doesn’t even scream, he just drops into the darkness and lands with a cracking thud, a small noise. All around an unsettling moment, which then of course gets things going in terms of tension.
Things only deteriorate amongst the group, all the while those nasty vines work their way – literally – under their skin. And of course ours, as well. When Stacy (Laura Ramsey) wakes up with the vines pushing into her leg, then Jeff also finds Mathias in the same state, it is horrendous. Almost verges on body horror, so there are many aspects which play into the film overall.  Some time afterwards they wind up having to amputate a leg from poor Mathias. You can imagine how sloppy things get. Even scarier is when the vines come out to take the chopped off shins and feet. They assimilate it, and the group really discovers the sinister side of this awful vacation.
Another absolutely scary bit is after the flowers on the vines start repeating Stacy, screaming in their high pitched, growling voices. It’s such a creepy scene that always makes me cringe, as the sound gets louder, more abrasive, more chilling.
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Even if the characters could’ve used more development, the actors do well with the material. I’ve been a fan of Jonathan Tucker specifically ever since The Black Donnellys, he did a wildly unsettling turn on Hannibal. Here he plays a normal guy, an M.D. hopeful (who even gets to put some of his knowledge to use). He doesn’t fall into all the classic horror movie tropes, though some of the others do at times. Aside from him the others are decent, Shawn Ashmore is solid, Joe Anderson, too. Jena Malone’s performance is another I enjoy because her character is complex, conflicted, so with all that and this completely disastrous vacation there’s a wealth of emotion in her.
This is definitely worthy of 3&1/2-stars. There are certainly aspects in the screenplay that could be improved, and some of the acting does border on cliche. Although on the whole The Ruins is intense, it’s suspenseful. There aren’t really jump scares, so much as there’s a generally pervasive air of dread that’s present from the moment this group wanders into the jungle. With an interesting premise, the story worms inside your head the way the paranoia does to these characters, how the vines crawl under the skin of its victims. You can do a lot worse than this interesting horror. At least it tries to do something different without having to fill the script with expository dialogue, big explanations. We do get bits and pieces. Otherwise, the mystery is perpetual right to the end, and this only helps all the creeping, crawling horror of the vine-y creatures. What has a supernatural air to it also comes along with body horror, paranoia, violence, and lots of other macabre delights.

Refn’s Fear X: Paranoia Abound as Turturro Goes Mad

Fear X. 2003. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Screenplay by Refn & Hubert Selby Jr.
Starring John Turturro, Deborah Kara Unger, Stephen Eric McIntyre, William Allen Young, Gene Davis, Mark Houghton, Jacquline Ramel, James Remar, Nadia Litz, Amanda Ooms, Liv Corfixen, & Frank Adamson. Moviehouse Entertainment/Det Danske Filminstitut/Fear X Ltd.
Rated PG-13. 91 minutes.
Mystery/Thriller

★★★★1/2

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This is one hell of an interesting film, for a whole host of reasons. First of all, Nicolas Winding Refn is a director-writer whom I find incredible, one of the closest filmmakers currently making movies that has sensibilities of some of my favourite old school directors. Refn continually proves he’s got vision, willing each subsequent project to be weirder and wilder than the one it follows. Secondly, John Turturro is a talented character actor. He is often recognized for his talent, just never recognized enough. Far as I’m concerned he should be in many more films, as well as even better calibre films than some of the projects he’s been in. Because regardless of what the movie is, Turturro is sure to provide an odd thrill.
Fear X rots the gut of some viewers because it defies explanation. Moreover, Refn himself has all but thrust his middle finger at the audience; not in profanity but more as a challenge. He says “what the fuck is an ending” in response to those turned off by lack of resolution. I guess the same people worried about that have a ton of trouble with stuff from David Lynch, or someone even more mad like Andrzej Żuławski, both of whose films usually say ‘fuck meaning’ – not in that there is NO meaning, rather in the sense of being hard to pin down with a singular explanatory idea/sentence.
In the vein of Lynchian storytelling, Refn, along with all the dialogue written by Hubert Selby Jr (author of Requiem for a Dream and Last Exit to Brooklyn), draws us into the fever dream of a man grieving terribly for his wife after her inexplicable murder. The story is labyrinthine and coils around you until there’s a feeling of tension that won’t let go, much like that which grips the protagonist. Never do we know for sure the final answer. We are left to hypothesize on our own, to cobble together the bits Refn and Selby offer.
What we make of this journey is ours.
And ours alone.
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Psychological films can get boring if they’re not handled with some sort of technique or style which speaks to those elements. Refn is undoubtedly influenced heavily by Stanley Kubrick. This shows often in many of his works post-Pusher era. It’s particularly prevalent here in the psychological aspect of the journey Harry (Turturro) takes to find out the truth behind what happened to his wife. Some of the symmetrical frames and zooms that Refn uses throughout the film are the child of Kubrick’s directorial technique. None of it is robbery. It is pure and plain homage to a master whom Refn so clearly idolizes. Also, the Lynchian influence is not only in the film’s plot. Often times the cinematography here reminds me of Blue Velvet in particular with its shadowy interiors, colourful yet dark and ominous, so rich and vibrant while simultaneously feeling entrenched in black, negative spaces. Cinematographer Larry Smith has gone on to work with Refn on a couple other pictures, this being only his second feature film credit; impressive to say the least, as the work here is impeccable from by eye. He and Refn cultivate an unsettling atmosphere that keeps you right in the paranoid mindset of Harry, at the center of a life marred by doubt and unresolved questions, never far from the bent reality of nightmares.
Add into the atmosphere a bit of Brian Eno, and things get all the more interesting. He works alongside Dean Landon and J. Peter Schwalm to create an ambient layer of sound that hovers around every last scene like a ghostly presence. The score is foreboding, it makes more unsure than we already are about what lies beyond the peripherals of Harry’s vision, both figuratively and literally. Most of all, the music and sound design alike is powerful in its quietude just like the central performance from Turturro.
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Turturro is the reason Fear X is able to stay so emotionally credible. His performance as Harry is such a subtle one that you never find it hard to empathize with him. Watching his descent into further paranoia as the plot wears on becomes a revelation. Much like his character from Barton Fink, Harry is sort of dropped into an environment that’s totally foreign to him, where nothing makes sense only what he’s able to glean from his own thought process. In a way, the character is similar to the audience in that we’re left to our own devices, as Harry must piece together the faint bits of clues without any explanations or answers. Turturro’s abilities as a character actor are on display throughout our witnessing Harry nearly crumble to nothing in front of our eyes, slipping down a rabbit hole of paranoid fear.
I also can’t not mention James Remar. He does a fantastic job with his role. There are many places he turns up in film and television which surprise me, and this movie may take the cake. Regardless, he gives a top notch performance here as a cop with a guilty conscience, exacerbated by the arrival of Harry in his jurisdiction. From moment one, Remar fascinates with his portrayal of Peter and really makes his character honest, laying bare the remorse, or maybe lack thereof, in a killer.
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Fear X is not on my top list of Best Nicolas Winding Refn. At the same time, it is still a remarkable work of cinema. Many pore this film over looking for exact clues, artefacts within the script and the dialogue and the particular events or down to the shots where they’ll say “Oh here it is; the answer” – except that’s not the point.
This film is about fear and paranoia. It is about the dangerous path we find ourselves on when the answers are not able to fit inside a tiny, pre-packaged box, when our idealism runs afoul in a world not built for the idealistic. So within the intentions of the film itself, I believe there was always meant to be an open end to the questions being confronted. I have my ideas about the concrete elements that might make up a nice, neat little package in which Fear X could slot itself. But for me, the grey area feeling of the movie is what appeals to me. The fear of the title, the paranoia of the protagonist, these are what drive me towards feeling Refn did something excellent here. No matter how I look at things, this is an underrated mystery-thriller with a massively engaging performance out of Turturro.

The Witch: Religious Madness and Persecution in Early America

The Witch. 2015. Directed & Written by Robert Eggers.
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson, Bathsheba Garnett, Sarah Stephens, Julian Richings, & Wahab Chaudhry. Parts and Labor/RT Features/Rooks Nest Entertainment/Code Red Productions/Scythia Films/Maiden Voyage Pictures/Mott Street Pictures/Pulse Films/Special Projects.
Rated 14A. 93 minutes.
Horror/Mystery

★★★★★
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People will tell you that The Witch is overhyped, that critics are simply trying to sell Robert Eggers’ feature film debut  as something more than it really is, or rather that anyone calling the movie a modern horror masterpiece is, to put it plainly, full of shit. I’ll put my two cents in to say Eggers has made an impressive, unapologetic horror about witchcraft, religion, repression, and above all paranoia. Eggers’ talent is enormous as a director, not to mention he brings with him the further talents of cinematographer Jarin Blaschke (who will no doubt see a spike in his being booked for future films), as well as a host of others who elevated this picture to its level of art. The quiet and subtle essence of the film is its strongest point. Around the edges of all the amazing cinematography and direction is a score from composer Mark Korven, which at times calls to mind classic horror films and at others brings its own feeling while keeping you on edge, engrossed in the moment and continually wondering what may come next. There are so many things to love about The Witch, from its look and entire atmosphere to the cast whose willingness to go all in on the characters makes each scene worth relishing.
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The year is 1630. In New England, William (Ralph Ineson) and his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) live as devout Christians, so much so that they do not fit in with the colony, and William’s refusal to conform with the church sends them out into the wild on their own with their children Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), Mercy (Ellie Grainger), Jonas (Lucas Dawson), as well as the newborn infant Samuel.
After settling into their new life, one day Thomasin plays with the baby. But out of nowhere, Samuel goes missing. They search for  aweek for the child, to no avail. While Katherine is distraught, blaming Thomasin for the disappearance, the children believe it is a witch hiding out in the forest, stealing and eating babies. William, steadfast in his religious ways, assures Katherine of their favour with God, that he is merely testing them. However, once Thomasin goes into the woods hunting with Caleb, and only she returns, the search is on once more. Only this time, even William begins to suspect his daughter may have been wed to the devil.
As religious paranoia and repression take hold, the family’s land becomes haunted. And the devil slowly but surely creeps his way into their hearts and minds.
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I’ll admit, maybe Eggers isn’t for all horror fans. My expectations, though they were huge and still paid off, were also subverted, completely. There were many times I expected things to happen, or the plot to go a certain way, yet Eggers defied me at nearly every turn. There isn’t anything particularly revolutionary in terms of plot here, but the way in which it plays out is lots of terrifying, horrific fun. The dialogue may be a problem for some, as I’m sure not every horror fan will enjoy the Early Modern English dialogue. But that’s part of why I love the screenplay, we truly feel in the time and part of what makes everything so scary is that the story feels real. So all the different elements to the movie make each aspect seem true to life. Part of what sometimes angers me in period pieces is that the characters don’t speak properly for that period in time (we see much of this similarly in films that have people supposedly Russian or German speaking English only with the respective accents; another piss off we sometimes have to endure for Hollywood to make the stories they want). The Witch brushes that off by having the dialogue all in Early Modern English, which drives home, along with so much of the natural-looking cinematography, the authenticity. Furthermore, I love the way Eggers keeps us guessing. Without revealing too much of any actual plot detail, other than the obvious, what intrigued me most is that we’re never quite sure whether or not what we see is reality, if everything in each scene is truly taking place. At least not until the plot develops more and certain events (see: Caleb and the apples) force us to realize exactly what is happening. Again, not an overly fresh idea as a whole, but certainly Eggers takes it and puts his spin on it, absolutely providing us with a fresh take on an old tale. And the fact there was lots of research put into the writing in terms of looking at actual records (et cetera) from the period that still remain, folktales and other bits of writing as well, only makes the movie more enjoyable for its attempts at getting things right.
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The dark beauty of the film is very much a result of Eggers’ direction, Jarin Blaschke on duty as cinematographer, and Mark Korven creating a tense, moody score to compliment their work. Even shots of the forest itself seem ominous, as it stands tall and shadowy in the midst of day, the stands of trees casting a deep sorrow within the woods. Putting Korven’s score on top, Eggers shows us ominous, foreboding frames of the vast wilderness, which itself almost becomes as terrifying as the witch out there. The natural lighting of the interior scenes, inside the family’s small barn or its main house, casts everything in long shadows, flickering on the walls and on the faces of the characters; again, this technique amplifies the authentic feeling of the entire film. The rich texture of the movie’s look makes things feel perfect, as if you’re right there in the trees watching them go by, right next to William as he chops wood, or in the field with the children playing.
Best of all, though, are the brief and unsettling scenes where we see the witch herself. Barely do we ever get a straight look at her, but still, she is a devilish presence. Very early on we’re treated to a scene where she mashes up what we’re to believe is a baby, smearing its blood all over her body, all over a large thin tree, and every last bit of this is covered in shadow, so that there’s barely much you can see. What you do see is disturbing. It sets the tone for everything to come. Another aspect of the film I dig, that Eggers gets the macabre atmosphere going almost from the start, within very little time. So much so there is rarely a moment without tension, not many moments where you’ll feel able to breathe a sigh of relief. Just another reason this film is a modern work of horror art.
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Aside from the technical aspects, The Witch is dominated by powerful acting. Each of the actors brings their role to life, even the young kids who add their own authenticity to the scenes. Particularly, both Ralph Ineson and Anya Taylor-Joy are magic here, as they are both faithful, religious people in their own rights, but who end up walking down quite different paths. Taylor-Joy does spectacular work with the character of Thomasin, which isn’t easy, and especially once the finale arrives I found myself hooked on her eyes; watching just her face in those last few minutes will chill any warm heart. Ineson is perfection as William, a man trying to keep his faith and family together as one, and a father confronted with the ultimate evil at his doorstep, invading his home; his delivery of lines will keep you glued, even if Early Modern English troubles you, as he can reel you in with just a look, a motion. Two excellent performances heading an already solid cast.
5 stars go to Robert Eggers and . Everyone in the theatre with me today seemed transfixed, whether they liked it or not. Certainly this isn’t a film for everyone, and those looking for a modern horror with all the modern cliches will be disappointed. Likewise, don’t go in expecting the same thing as It Follows or The Babadook, two other notable modern horror movies that did well recently. The Witch is entirely its own brand, despite taking on a timeworn sub-genre in witchcraft. This creeped me out royally at many points and I’m liable to see this again someday soon, as the atmosphere and the entire production itself really hit the spot, I’d love to experience it another time around. Until it hits Blu ray; then I’ll watch it to death, whether I die or the disc dies first remains to be seen.

Breaking Bad – Season 1, Episode 4: “Cancer Man”

AMC’s Breaking Bad
Season 1, Episode 4: “Cancer Man”
Directed by Jim McKay
Written by Vine Gilligan

* For a review of the previous episode, “…And the Bag’s in the River” – click here
* For a review of the next episode, “Gray Matter” – click here
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Agent Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) introduces a new operation for the DEA. They have their eyes on Krazy-8, whose car was found in the desert recently with high-grade meth in it. Turns out, he was ratting on people. They’re both missing, which we know already. But the focus here is the methamphetamine – purest their lab “has ever seen“. The gas mask found out there tested for the same grade meth.
Amazing editing here. Cutting from Hank talking about a new kingpin in the city to Walter White (Bryan Cranston) in his tighty whiteys, brushing his teeth like a dummy and looking hilarious, it is absolute genius. Makes all the difference for the writing and a juxtaposition for us to see what irony there is in this statement.


At the White residence, everyone is having a nice barbecue. Walt and Hank are poolside by the grill, as Skyler (Anna Gunn) and Marie (Betsy Brandt) are sitting in the shade, the latter having a drink. The happy family is happy, though, Skyler eyes Walt; not suspiciously, but with a sad eye. At the end of the previous episode he was about to reveal something to her. She knows something now, and it weighs on her. Heavy. In fact, as the story of Skyler meeting Walt for the first time (over crossword puzzles) comes out from his lips, she breaks down slightly and their strong front is weakened. Walt then tells everybody what’s been going on: he has terrible cancer. Everyone is obviously shocked, Walt Jr (RJ Mitte) is devastated. Worse than that is the fact Walt hid it from his family so long, a whole month. He’s just such a strong, independent type. He doesn’t want people doting on him, worrying, and most of all he doesn’t seem like a person who wants other people to make his decisions. Walter is a man of principle, despite his faults. When Hank says “Ill always take care of your family“, you can see the look on Walt’s face; an appreciation is there, but the fact is he wants to take care of them. Only him.


Walt: “You know I, I just think, that ah, things have a way of working themselves out.”


Jesse (Aaron Paul) introduces his friends Combo (Rodney Rush) and Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) to the new product he and Walt cooked up. Now, the meth is out there. It’s already digging claws into addicts. Even Jesse alone, who we find in the next scene alone by the window, paranoia running wild as he peers outside, smoking another bowl. The editing again here is perfect. It brings out his paranoia so well. Then he has a vision of two bikers coming up over his lawn wielding weapons. This entire sequence really plays with your head for a few seconds before you figure out what’s actually happening – two Mormons are knocking at the door, leaving a pamphlet when nobody answers. Meth psychosis is real, folks.
Tending to the plate shard wound in his leg at home, Walt uses a bit of glue to seal the wound, patching a bandage over top. Then a little blood seeps through his pant leg. The whole time he coughs and hacks over the sink. His double life is ever so slowly, like the blood through his pants, soaking into the fabric of his regular life, Skyler just outside the door knocking and wondering what’s going on.
More money piles up in debt at Walt’s door, as Skyler and Marie have hooked up a five-star oncologist to give a second opinion on the lung cancer. There is a further need for money now, worse than before. This will likely drive Walter back to the meth instead of staying away from Jesse and that entire world. The double life reels him back in. For the time being, he uses money from the stash in a vent, conveniently in the baby’s new room.


We see Walt have a run-in with a guy who steals his parking spot. Well, there’s no confrontation, only a pissed of Walt left waiting in the lot. Inside the bank this guy talks loud enough to fill the room, everybody noticing his obnoxious nature, which isn’t easy to ignore. Walt eyes him with an evil eye, then goes about his business. This is not a red herring, a passing thing. We’ll come back to this guy and his vanity license plate.
Cut to Jesse falling all over the patio furniture at his parents’ house. They’re not overly thrilled to see him. His younger brother is a vastly different person than Jesse. Although, it’s clear the parents haven’t given up on their oldest boy. He is no doubt a disappointment, especially considering all the stuff they don’t know, even while they know a good deal. Still, if they could see what he’s been doing they might never look at him in the eyes again. They clearly worry for him. Jesse wants to try setting things right with his parents, after the events of the first few episodes have rocked his soul to the core. But they’re reluctant to just dive right into forgiving him, letting him do what he surely does every time. With one scene we feel the history of the family, so evident and in your face. Again as I’ve said plenty already the writing in this series from Vince Gilligan has been something special.
Parallel to Jesse and his family there’s Walt and his own. The opposite situation. They’ve all watched Walt live his life as a straight and narrow type of guy. Suddenly, he’s transforming into a starkly difference human being. Seeing the two characters of Jesse and Walt go through their separate yet oddly similar troubles, it’s a great way to bring out the life in them. We feel bad for Walt, even if he is resorting to criminal activity; his situation sucks. Likewise, even though Jesse is a bit of a washout, smoking meth and cooking it, generally going nowhere, you feel bad because now we’re seeing more of him – who he used to be, before drugs took him. As a former drug addict, I know what it’s like to change, and see the person you once were. Strangely enough, Jesse finds an old chemistry test he failed, big red marker on it from Mr. White. Then after all this beginning of growth, our feelings for Jesse starting to rise, Combo calls and needs some of the new meth. Tempting Jesse away from any thoughts of trying to change.


Jesse goes to Walter’s place, after the “ball breaker” leaves. He wants to have a little meeting with Walt, to “touch base“. Only it turns out Jesse has a bunch of money, and everyone is loving their meth. To an extreme. Junkies on the street are already dying for more of the product, they want, need, any and all of it. Seems as if Jesse’s fleeting dreams of something more were exactly that. Now he only wants to do more cooking.
And perhaps the $4,000 from the initial batch might start to change Walt’s mind, too.
At the same time, Walt also goes to meet the new doctor. He’s told about great, supposedly effective treatments at the clinic aimed towards prolonging life. What we’re seeing now is Walt having to make a choice: chemotherapy, or no chemotherapy. It is a tough choice, no doubt. Problem being others want to try and make it for him. He doesn’t feel in control, yet this is one way he can control his life; by choosing to not do something, if that’s what he truly wants. His family, obviously, is concerned.
Over at the Pinkman house, the maid finds a joint. Everyone assumes it belongs to Jesse. His parents confront him. Then after all sorts of argument, Jesse discovers the weed belonged to his little brother, the angelic little boy nobody expected. Jesse takes the fall, but also crushes the joint instead of giving it to his brother. An admirable moment here from a guy nobody seems to want to help. He’s a lone wolf.


The White family has a confrontation over Walt’s decision to possibly not seek treatment. Walt Jr is upset, as is Skyler. They want him alive. He just doesn’t really want to go that route, having to hook up to chemo, to suffer through all that brings on. He also is afraid of the money, not wanting to leave his family in crippling debt. “Then why dont you just fucking die already?” Walt Jr yells at his father. “Just give up and die.”
Walt coughs blood into his hand a little while later while driving. It just so happens this nasty surprise brings a better one. Pulling into a parking lot, Walt ends up seeing the tool from earlier: KEN WINS, on his license plate. The man parks at a gas station, still talking on his Bluetooth headset. Walt saunters over to the pump and picks up the windshield squeegee, pops the hood and jams the thing inside. It sparks, creating fire. It explodes, as Walt walks back to his vehicle and heads out.
Maybe Walt can’t control cancer. Maybe he can’t beat it. For now, he’ll take settling up with one of the world’s assholes.
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Next episode is titled “Gray Matter”. We’ll start to get more into the family dynamics and the cancer diagnosis, as well as the series starts to bring in more of Walt’s life from earlier on after former research partners reach out to try and help funding his treatment. Stay with me.