Tagged Politics

The Childhood of a Leader is One Darkly Vivid View of the Birth of Dictatorship at the Family Level

The Childhood of a Leader. 2016. Directed by Brady Corbet. Screenplay by Corbet & Mona Fastvold.
Starring Tom Sweet, Robert Pattinson, Liam Cunningham, Stacy Martin, Bérénice Bejo, Caroline Boulton, Sophie Lane Curtis, Rebecca Dayan, Luca Bercovici, Yolande Moreau, Scott Alexander Young, Michael Epp, Jeremy Wheeler, & Roderick Hill. FilmTeam/Bow and Arrow Entertainment/Bron Capital Partners.
Not Rated. 115 minutes.
Drama/Horror/Mystery

★★★★1/2
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For a long while now I’ve tracked the career of Brady Corbet. It was perhaps Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin where I first truly noticed Corbet and his talent for quality acting; one of those quiet, subdued sort of actors more interested in the internal workings of a character than any melodrama. He’s worked on countless films as a mere supporting actor, though his talent is absolutely worthy of being the lead. When Simon Killer came around I was extremely happy to see him holding that film up by its bootstraps.
I expected much of his sensibilities to crossover into his directorial career eventually. The Childhood of a Leader is one of the more ambitious debuts of any filmmaker in years. Not simply due to the scope of the story, but in the sense that this is a dark, at times morbid rumination on the nature of power, and how the quest towards it can often turn a person into a monster. On top of that it’s a period piece set around the drafting of the Treaty of Versailles around the end of World War I. So in no way is Corbet making anything easily digestible for the viewer. At the same time, this isn’t a pretentious, contrived bit of cinema either. Corbet shows us what’s underneath the actor’s skin. It is the blood and bones of an artist. The story of the film surrounds the Treaty of Versailles and other pieces of history, everything from Bolshevism to the lack of comprehension of what communism and socialism were in reality. However, the tale of the little dictator-to-be is first and foremost a story of family, of upbringing, of the way in which a boy is shaped by not just historical events during his formative years, but also by the day to day life he leads under the influence of domineering parents.
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The score is absolutely fantastic, from the mind of Scott Walker (Pola X). Nothing emotes better for the suspense of a film like this better than a properly intense score. With the various pieces, each section of the film goes by with maximum tension. Even right off the top we’re drawn in quick by a frantic arrangement of strings that makes you feel like you’ve stepped into a Bernard Herrmann score. In the darker, quiet scenes everything is so mysterious, eerie. You really feel like this is a horror, despite any of its subject matter or themes. Corbet uses his directorial choices and the music to conjure up a genuine feeling of dread. In the last moments there’s this insane piece of music that spins you around with the camera, as if you’re directly in the midst of this history, in the centre of the crowd being thrashed about. So many of these scenes work well and they’re given such weight because of the combination of excellent imagery with the pounding brass, wailing strings, and so on.
Corbet absolutely has an eye for directing. His aide comes in the form of cinematographer Lol Crawley (45 YearsMandela: Long Walk to Freedom). Using what looks mostly to be natural lighting, Crawley evokes the time period in such vivid beauty. The dark corners of the low lit hallways, bedrooms, offices makes for a nice parallel to the darkness of the character development, as well as the story overall being embedded in the despair coming out of the First World War. Corbet’s directing makes the work of Crawley stand out, and vice versa. I hope to see both of these artists make more stuff that’s challenging, as this film is certainly. The techniques and eye of Crawley are wonderful to watch. Corbet allows us lots of enjoyment by weaving all those images into an altogether delightfully horrific piece of art.
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Prescott: “I dont believe in praying anymore

Best of all is the dissection of dictatorship, in a very vague sense. Not that it doesn’t accomplish anything directly. Rather that the vague qualities of the screenplay, its character development tracking the rise of Prescott’s (Tom Sweet) ego into something of megalomaniac proportions as time passes, doesn’t try to lay a ton of exposition on us. This is probably a sticking point for some viewers. They’ll want specifics. They want to see little Hittler, little Benito, someone like those figures. Yet that isn’t what Corbet and Mona Fastvold are trying to do in this film. Yes, at the end there’s a very definitive idea of who they wanted to use as a figurehead for the type of politics Prescott was picking up along the way to his transformation from young sociopath to tyranny; note the hair, the facial hair, the flags and symbols, these all clearly indicate the person in question (click here if you want to spoil yourself). But then you realise that even though that dictator is clearly who Corbet is aiming at, the timelines and the age of Prescott (and obviously his name) do not line up. So again, even with this seemingly definitive answer at the finish, the film is not pointing to a single man.
The basis of this story comes from one of the only short stories philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre ever wrote, right down to the exact same title. Bits and pieces come from that story, though many aspects of Prescott’s life are cobbled together from the childhoods of various mad leaders throughout history. What we’re mainly seeing is the birth of a hideous ego, the development of a scary narcissist whose track in life has all but been predetermined due to his proximity to politics for the better part of his life. While some deride the plot as not having much happen other than act as a view into the tortured childhood of a spoiled child, everything going on around Prescott is building him up into a lad poised for truly bad things. Coupled with the fact he’s a budding sociopath, a young child much too aware of his own blasphemy, the ugliness of his personality shows you a means to his tyrannical end. The most important moment comes when Prescott’s father (Liam Cunningham) finally shows his hypocrisy, being an ambassador working on a peace treaty in public while privately thrashing his own child. Prescott then learns that you can be whatever, whomever you want behind closed doors, as long as the appearances tell a different story; thus is the start of his eventual cult of personality, the case for most of the worst dictators ever to live. There are several poignant, formative moments serving to lead Prescott towards his fate. I think this event with his father makes for the one that has the most impact on Prescott, particularly in regards to his understanding of the boundaries between political and personal life.
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Ada: “Its going to take time. But youll arrive at where youre headed.”
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Although there are a few flaws – no first time feature is perfect, even the greatest – The Childhood of a Leader is one of the best debut features from a director that I’ve seen in a long time, if not ever. The plot slowly unfolds beneath the story of the end of World War I, the period afterwards, all shaped through the lens of a supposedly peaceful time. Or at least a time where there was hope for peace. Meanwhile, underneath all that bubbled the rise of a dictator, of a true monster, as is the case in many places. Young Prescott represents the situation many of these horrifying leaders went through coming of age in a time where young people weren’t exactly free to play; they were burdened by coming to terms with both their changing childhood and lives, as well as the upheaval of everything around them politically and socially. Corbet manages to cover a lot of ground in just under two hours. Not only that he instils the picture with the sensibilities of a classic director. I can only hope he makes more of this innovative, ambitious cinema as a director and writer. He challenges the audience with this audacious first feature film. In a time where a lot of people are caught up in remakes, big film franchises, artists like Corbet are much welcomed in my world. I love a bit of fun, but film, words, images, these can help us dig into and understand subjects that elude us. Maybe there are no answers, though I can’t help feeling this sort of psychological approach to the typical films about war (and the human figures which get caught up in it) is something that can foster better discussion than other work that’s getting vomited out into the Hollywood system.

But How Scarily Close to Truth is THE PURGE?

The Purge. 2013. Directed & Written by James DeMonaco.
Starring Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Max Burkholder, Adelaide Kane, Edwin Hodge, Rhys Wakefield, Tony Oller, Arija Bareikis, Tom Yi, Chris Mulkey, and Tisha French. Blumhouse Productions. Rated 14A. 85 minutes. Horror/Thriller.


★★★★
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Now to start – I have an aunt who is a full-fledged American, I have friends who are American – so when I say things about America, please don’t assume that I’m talking about EVERY SINGLE AMERICAN. I’m not, at all. Many of you who read this are American, and I bet you’re awesome people.
However, American society as a whole has an obsession with violence. Not just violence, gun violence in particular. It’s an epidemic. Anyone who denies that is in denial, in my opinion. It’s an obvious observation; nothing revolutionary about what I’m saying here. Every single day there’s a new story about police killing unarmed black men, every week or two a mass shooting in a public place. Violence is on the news almost endlessly, it seems.
So when people bash on The Purge for not being realistic, sure – it isn’t meant to be a documentary. This is also not science fiction, as the IMDB categorization would have you believe. This is speculative crime fiction in my mind. There are elements of a thriller, obviously, as we’re treated to a snapshot of what American life might be like on nights when a Purge would happen. Also, a few good moments you can say are straight up horror.
It isn’t a perfect movie, but I think that it’s pretty damn good. There’s solid acting in the lead roles, as well as several of the supporting ones. Director & writer James DeMonaco doesn’t rely on any ridiculous CGI to get the job done. What he does rely on is the acting, but also his own script affords opportunities which draw on the fears of everyone watching: what if The Purge was a real event? Yeah, I know in the real world the likelihood of this actually happening is so slim there’s no point in discussing it as a real event (perhaps there is in a more educational perspective than my shitty little blog). However, there doesn’t have to be a perfectly plausible world where this would happen. It’s speculative fiction, it represents a metaphorical space where this could happen because of the far right-wing conservative views that some groups/parties hold in America. I could see some politicians backing a ridiculous policy like The Purge, trying to pass it as an alternative to reducing crime/et cetera; it would never pass, clearly, but is it so hard to believe some nutjob would actually suggest something wild like this? I don’t think so. That alone is enough to justify The Purge as a fun little horror flick.
Regardless, it’s about totalitarianism, the concept of a police state – in every single American state – and how extreme right-wing politics have the ability to rise in the wake of economic collapse.
the-purge-sandin-familyThe American government becomes a totalitarian regime in the early 2010s. After the economy collapses, a police state emerges to combat the effects felt across the nation. Every year, on March 21st an event named “The Purge” occurs where all crime is legal, as well as the fact all emergency services are suspended for 12 hours until 7am on the 22nd. Very few restrictions are involved, mostly pertaining to government officials and Class 4 weapons. Apparently, The Purge is responsible for a drop in both crime and unemployment, bringing the American economy back to a level of unparalleled growth.
In 2022, as The Purge begins, James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) heads home after having an excellent day – he sells security systems designed specifically to lock down houses for The Purge (ah ha – commentary!). He and his wife Mary (Lena Headey), plus their two children Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and Charlie (Max Burkholder) are getting prepared to lockdown for the evening. However, things don’t go as planned this year for James and his family. First of all, Zoey’s boyfriend Henry (Tony Oller) has snuck himself in to stay overnight; he’s older, which pisses her father off. Unfortunately for Zoey, Henry unknowingly has plans to confront dear ole dad. Even worse, though, is the fact that young Charlie lets in a man off the street (Edwin Hodge) who claims he’s being tracked, saying they’re trying to kill him. With the man inside, James is unprepared for what will come next.
Soon, a group of people come knocking. They’re out for The Purge – to “release the beast” as it’s frequently called – and are lead by a man who unmasks himself (Rhys Wakefield). He rings the doorbell, politely explaining himself, and tells James + family that they’re looking for the man who was let inside. Ultimatums are given, James tries to stand his ground, but eventually those “fine, young, very educated guys & gals” will get in, one way or another. Even if they’ve got to huff and puff and blooooow the house down.
purge5We don’t want to kill our own,” he says. “Please just let us Purge!
There are a lot of things going on in this movie that I think people ignore. Sure, maybe the logistics of everything are not perfect, but whatever. There are a lot of messages in here about the social issues, violence included, which plague America on a daily basis.
Right now, on a day when Officer Dipshit or whatever that piece of garbage’s name is who shot Sam DuBose, is it so hard to look at The Purge and admit it says things which are downright true about America overall?
The line above screams the problems of race which America faces on a day to day norm. Black men are killed by the dozens every year, it seems, worse and worse as the years go by. Here we’ve got a bunch of lily-white American “guys & gals” out having their Purge and who do they choose? That’s right, a black man. Because he’s not one of their own. So they hunt him down and any sympathizers in their way? Release the beast on them, too.
Just like nowadays, people who support the victims are treated like the Sandin family. Clearly not literally, but you catch my drift.
ThePurge4_720What I love, though, is that James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) is not an innocent in all this debacle. While his wife and children are indeed innocent bystanders, essentially, James is guilty as anyone. He may as well be out Purging with the rest of those people; even explaining to his son what the night ‘means’ he says that if they felt the need to, he and his wife would Purge because the annual night “saved this country“. So while we feel terror for James, and certainly his family, he’s still culpable partly in the overall societal go-along with The Purge as an event.
Sandin makes money selling systems that are built solely because of The Purge. Now, I don’t mean to say that’s how it started off. I’m sure James probably worked for a security company of some sort and once The Purge was enacted as an official event they probably just up and capitalized on the opportunity to make money. Regardless of the process (I just know there are people who nitpick so let’s get to the fucking nitty gritty then), James and the company he works for are exploiting this, so they’re only going along with the entire totalitarian government which has a deathgrip on American society here in DeMonaco’s film.
I just find that whole angle interesting because there are elements to that part of James – guilt, fear for his family and what he has been a party to as a profiteer of totalitarian policy – which I felt Ethan Hawke really brought out in the character. He’s one solid actor. I love that he’s done some horror/horror-ish stuff as of late, including the not amazing but a lot of creepy fun – Sinister. Brings a bit of credibility to genre pictures when you have good actors; they don’t have to be big time names, but that certainly does not hurt. Here it works with both Hawke, as well as Lena Headey. She gets a break from being a hard ass bitch – Cersei motherfuckin’ Lannister on Game of Thrones – to play a woman who is thrust into a world she never ever wanted, hoping her family can make it through the night. She and Hawke play well together as husband and wife, especially in some incredibly tense moments.
vlcsnap-2013-07-23-02h42m00s62There’s a cold calculation to the character Rhys Wakefield plays, the unmasked Purge vigilante at James Sandin’s door. The way he shoots one of his fellow Purgers who screams “just give us the homeless pig, you fuck!” into the house, I found it perfect. It’s not just sly acting on Wakefield’s part, who does well with his performance. The character shows us how those sort operate – the type who have problems with the homeless, the black, the people of any other colour, yet they act civilized, as if politeness on the level of manners is in some sense a way to validate all their other disgusting behaviour (racism/sexism/you name it). So I think this moment, when he shoots the masked Purger, is a real great bit that works on a couple levels: shock, as well as a brief insight into the polite Purger.
a_bun_ejszakaja_8We get some morality play as well with the conflicted character of James Sandin. Eventually, he has to make a choice, and in the end: is it worse to kill some straight out, or to hand them over to people knowing they will be killed? Isn’t it the same?
Part of that is a total moral/philosophical debate that could really rage on for a while, depending on who’d be doing the debating. Anyways, I think it adds a fun level to the action in the last half hour of The Purge.
Not only that, there’s a great twist in the finale.
AHHHHHH – LADIES & GENTLEMEN, AHHHHHHH – THIS IS YOUR CAPTAIN SPEAKING. PLEASE BUCKLE UP: WE WILL BE EXPERIENCING SOME SPOILERS COMING UP FOR A MOMENT OR TWO.
I thought it only added to the commentary of the film that already existed to have the neighbours, who we’d previously seen only briefly at the start of the film, be the ones who want to have the thrill of killing the Sandin family. It’s just bloody and poetic justice, really. In a disturbing sense. I’m glad that things played out in the very end how they did, but still – the neighbours were a good touch.
Because it speaks so well to the idea that we don’t know the people around us, not truly. We never can, no matter how long we spend around them. Sometimes the same goes for people you even live with, but here it does well to show how even the “normal” people around the neighbourhood would indulge in their Purge fantasies, willingly

One of my favourite moments: the masked girl skipping on down the hall, machetes in town swinging at her sides. It is super creepy, I dig it so hard. Only for a moment, long enough to set in. Perfectly executed shot that I thought worked wonders.
the-purge-27In reality, this movie is a 4 out of 5 star horror-thriller, with some speculative social fiction mixed into the pot.
Balls to the folks who say “This would never happen” – okay, well let’s throw out Friday the 13thA Nightmare on Elm Street, and countless other horror films that are wonderful. Not saying this is on the level of those, which I do consider classics and I don’t care what kind of bullshit people get on with like that it’s typical to like those movies; whatever the fuck ever, man. They’re great stuff and helped the genesis of what horror is now today.
So I had a lot of fun watching The Purge. I also enjoyed the sequel, despite what others seem to think about it on the whole. For me, it’s an interesting concept with both horror and thriller elements. Like I said, it also has some social discussion going on. If people want to ignore that, fine, but it’s there. You can’t shake that fact. I tend to believe there are some good statements here, too. Not just all nonsense and scriptwriting creation – there are things to which we ought to pay attention. But if you want, think it’s trash and that horror movies can never say anything worthwhile.
I’ll take what I can from it, and enjoy a good viewing every now and then – it’s a fun modern horror movie with lots of tense thrills.