by Mason Leaver
It’s not every day that a film comes along like The Green Knight (2021). The entire premise is weird. The story is based on a folk tale over 600 years old, focusing on the journey of a young knight who enters a bargain with a mysterious green skinned knight. The plot itself is odd, and it doesn’t seem like the sort of tale that would appeal to a modern audience. However, The Green Knight somehow manages to make this story captivating. It’s strangest elements are actually some of its strongest, and writer/director/editor David Lowery dives head first into this Arthurian legend. The Green Knight is a miracle of a film- one which manages to create a sensational cinematic experience from the blueprint of something which, on paper, seems doomed to fail.
One of the things which I most admire about Lowery’s process for The Green Knight is his willingness to take risks. There are tree-people, wandering naked giants, talking foxes, sorcerers, and so on. Yet all of these elements feel grounded in the world of the film- a strange, dark adaptation of the classic setting of King Arthur’s kingdom. The plot does not hold the audience’s hand. Instead, it forces the audience to interpret much of what is happening. Magic is mysterious and unexplained, and the viewer is left to guess at what exactly is happening at times. All of this leads to a final product which is very open to discussion, debate, and interpretation. It is a risky move for Lowery to leave so much to the audience, but it makes for a rewarding experience for the engaged viewer.
One of the stranger elements of The Green Knight
Another incredible aspect of The Green Knight is its use of color. Every frame of the film is masterfully composed. The village and castle of Camelot are rendered in harsh grey and brown tones, with high contrast lighting creating very interesting set pieces. As Gawain goes out on his adventure, the landscape is full of vibrant color. Each major plot point along Gawain’s journey is defined by a color scheme- red, yellow, white, green. This is certainly the largest project that Director of Photography Andrew Droz Palermo has worked on (Palermo previously worked with Lowery on Ghost Story (2017), and he shines through in this film. I could see an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography for The Green Knight this year. I hope to see him work with Lowery again in the future. Audiences should be looking forward to Palermo’s next project, which is sure to be fantastic. Indeed, if his work in this film is any indicator, Palermo could go on to be a legend in the business.
The use of color in The Green Knight
The Green Knight continues to shine through in its thematic explorations. The film manages to strike a balance between inspiring a sense of wonder and a sense of existential dread. The film is thematically centered around the human awareness of our own finitude, what Martin Heidegger called being-toward-death. Gawain is forced to confront two possible scenarios: to live and contribute to the horrors of humanity or to die an honorable death. The film asks us to question whether we could stand in Gawain’s place, journeying bravely towards our deaths. The film also shows that leading a life of kindness, bravery and courage is hard, and it is rarely rewarding. Nevertheless, The Green Knight inspires us to live out such a life for the sake of the adventure itself.
The titular Green Knight
Despite all of these strengths, The Green Knight has still proven to be divisive among critics and audiences alike. Some seem to love the film, and others believe it’s pointless. I fall in the camp that says that The Green Knight is an excellent film. Many have commented on the film’s pacing as a serious problem. Green Knight often features lengthy sections of landscape shots, with Gawain travelling across a mythical England on his journey. While the film can be slow at times, the lengthy shots of Gawain’s journey are meant to set a tone and a mood for the viewer. I would liken these sequences to the many colorful space sequences from 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968). Indeed, I believe that many of the strengths of 2001 are on display in Green Knight. It’s pacing is largely similar- an episodic adventure with lengthy visual sections interspersed between. During these sections, the score similarly plays a vital role in setting the tone of the film. Both films explore deep questions and themes related to the human experience and human mortality. And both films offer an ambiguous ending which lends itself to discussion and interpretation by the audience. I realize that this is a bold claim, but my hope is that in time The Green Knight will come to be recognized as a film of a similar level of mastery. I would certainly recommend giving it a watch, and perhaps a rewatch.
by Samantha Shuma
As consumers of digital media, we have formed some assumptions about how films are structured. Especially with fictitious works, we’ve become accustomed to ignoring illogical aspects. This does have its limits, but we are more willing to believe impossibilities in order to enjoy a film. Our suspension of disbelief allows us to ignore fantastical elements and over the top plots in exchange for enjoying a film's story and characters. This also helps us follow along a film’s mapping of reality. We know that when a character wakes from bed that the scene previous was likely a dream sequence, and therefore didn’t really happen. Keeping these ideas in mind, we use our interpretation of film conventions as a tool to impose our own meaning onto a film’s narrative. Since so many film’s follow a certain structure of reality, our impositions are usually correct. We end up imposing meaning, that ends up revealing the truth or covering up what a film’s narrative intends to achieve. Relevant information is lost to preserve one’s assumption of film structure. Our tools of understanding a film’s narrative can be turned against us. Shutter Island (2010, Martin Scorsese) intends to use our ideas of film conventions and genre to displace our sense of reality.
This remainder of this article contains spoilers for Shutter Island, reader discretion advised.
U.S Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and partner Chuck Alue (Mark Ruffalo) arrive on an island housing Ashecliffe Hospital, a mental institution, to solve the case of a missing patient, Rachel Solando. Teddy has not only come to solve the case, but has landed in the institution in the hopes of exposing it’s unethical practices on it’s patients. As he digs deeper into the possible truth, Teddy starts to believe that the head doctor, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsly), hopes to turn him into a patient and keep him from sharing his findings. By the end, Teddy manages to get into where he believes the patients are taken to be lobotomized, a lighthouse on the far side of the island. It is there we discover the real truth, that Teddy, real name Andrew Laeddis, is a patient at Ashecliffe Hospital, who has just been through an elaborate role playing scenario, where the doctors hoped it would break him out of his psychosis.
Since the film is shown through Teddy’s perspective, we see what he believes is real. Following his clues, his suspicions, most viewers would never guess the ending. Small actions over the course of the film build our suspicions, not to disbelieve Teddy, but other characters around him. Teddy’s paranoia spreads into the heart of the viewer, as “aspirin” causes Teddy to experience vivid dreams and intense hallucinations. It is in these moments where reality is hidden from the audience, and misleads us into following the story’s imaginary narrative. The dream sequences are obvious to discern, as they take place in places off of the island and are often a conversation between Teddy and someone who has died or doesn’t exist. Through these sequences, the film is drawing on the audience’s idea of a dream sequence as a means of misdirection. By stating that the dream world of Teddy talking to his dead wife is taking place within Teddy’s mind influences our assumption that the investigation of Rachel Solando is real. This line of dream and reality is drawn so clearly in the film, that his hallucinations become unnoticeable or at least are not questioned as being imagined.
Towards the climax of the film, Teddy leaves Chuck behind to traverse the dangerous edge of the island to infiltrate the lighthouse. Unable to make it there due to the terrain, he heads back to retrieve his partner, only to spot his body, waves crashing on him and the rocky bottom of the cliff’s drop. Teddy climbs down to check on his partner, only to realize the body is only a pattern formed on the discoloration of the rocks. It’s easy to believe that the spot could’ve looked like a body from a great distance. We are given a reasonable excuse for Teddy’s misjudgement, widening our suspension of disbelief. Sneakily, the film is giving us more reasons to dismiss Teddy’s mistakes, and we slowly ignore more and more warning signs of Teddy’s mental illness.
This analysis of Shutter Island techniques of misdirection is drawn from personal experience. Through an initial viewing, this belief of Teddy’s dire investigation felt real to the end. Always wanting to believe Teddy, anything that may have stuck out as odd never swayed my opinion. Even after the truth was revealed, I still did not want to believe Teddy was actually a patient at Ashecliffe Hospital. The film uses many strategies to shape the facts of the film. It is important to understand that not everyone will fall for the film’s tricks. To say that everyone will fall for it, or won’t ever notice the reveal early on is being too general. However, the belief that many film goers will believe Teddy through and through. The more movies you watch, the more you can make assumptions of how a movie will play out. Shutter Island shows itself as a drama, thriller, and a mystery. One would expect to see an exaggerated but interesting story along with endearing characters that will discover the culprit in the end. The film follows that expectation for a while, but ultimately pulls the curtain to show a completely different narrative.
While misdirection is an excellent narrative tool that gives a film rewatchability, Shutter Island also uses our sense of film reality and narrative to call out our assumptions. The ending is only unclear to those who impose meaning based on past ideologies. Our ideas of how films are takes place over the intended artistic vision, leaving us to experience a lesser version of what the film hopes to show. Many must realize our assumptions do not construct the law of film, rather they restrict us from viewing a film’s meaning in its entirety. In this way, we are not far off from being like Teddy. He has assumptions about how the world works. His past trauma has led him to see the cruel through a cruel, broken gaze. In order for him to be a U.S Marshall solving a big case, there are events, people, and images that must exist. Whether consciously or not, Teddy is blocking out the truth or his mental illness to live in a reality that allows him to be free from his actual situation. Viewers who believe Teddy’s perspective will go along with his perspective, ignoring any reflags for the sake of preserving their assumptions of how the film will end.
Even when watching films, ideology has the potential to undermine a film’s message. What we believe can be so heavily embedded into our minds that we aren’t able to accept any truth outside of that. That is what Shutter Island is proving to us. Those who always believe a film will play out in a certain way are blinding themselves to new and contrary takes on a film’s reality and story. Although our thoughts on a film’s structure may not have any lasting effects, not understanding or flat out ignoring something that doesn’t follow with what you already believe is a dangerous thing. It limits one from experiencing the world entirely and being open to new ideas. Shutter Island shows the consequences of ignoring the truth for the sake of what we may think is actually going on. Our ideas and personal truths shape our reality, and in Teddy's case, hides reality completely.
by Ravi Ahuja
Somewhere in the snowy north of Canada, a woman is telling a secret to her niece, “I’m going away to live in Paris.” The child agrees without much thought saying, “I’m going to live in Paris too.” Decades later, the child, Fiona, now a grown woman and a librarian, is still stuck in the same cold and desolate part of Canada. One day, the door blows open with the mail and Fiona receives word from her aunt Martha. After 48 years of living alone in Paris, ‘they’ want her to live in an assisted living facility. The letter ends with just the word “help”. And like that, Fiona’s journey to Paris begins.
Fiona (Fiona Gordon) gets a picture taken in Paris
Fiona’s trip to Paris is far from simple, losing her comically oversized rucksack on the first day, and being unable to contact or find her aunt. In the midst of her panic and desperation, she finds a few people who are able to help her, not the least of whom is a charming vagabond named Dom who comes across her rucksack. Dom is not the most convenient helping hand, often misunderstanding Fiona’s broken French and stealing her things upon first encounter. Still, the two are drawn together time and time again through both coincidence and their efforts to find Martha. Fiona Gordon and Dominique Abel are not just lead actors through this movie, but also co-writers, directors, and producers, Lost in Paris being their fourth film written together. While the side actors do a fine job, it is unmistakably Dom and Fiona’s movie, with their energy and personality dominating the feel and essence of the movie. Their acting is, as one might imagine, a perfect fit for the deadpan comedic writing of the film, with any scene featuring the both of them being sure to elicit a smile.
Dom (Dominique Abel) and Fiona dance at a floating restaurant
There isn’t too much more to say about the plot of Lost in Paris, but then that’s not its greatest draw. The movie is great fun, working off of constant physical and visual gags reminiscent of Chaplin and Tati. When the mail arrives in the opening, the door literally blows open with a gust of wind, causing everyone inside to exaggeratedly hang onto something. The acting, delivery, and setting of Lost in Paris also always work together to great comedic effect. Due to an innocent misunderstanding and some bad timing, Martha’s neighbor, Martin, is caught by Fiona and the police going through Martha’s underwear. Perhaps my favorite set-piece is the floating restaurant where Fiona and Dom meet. There are so many threads of visual, physical, awkward, and ironic humor interweaving through the whole dinner until the inevitable climax where Fiona realizes Dom has all of her belongings, and the pacing and humor works terrifically.
Fiona sits in front of a door
Besides just the old-school physical humor, Lost in Paris is also made great through its neat and colorful visual style. There is an emphasis on bright primary colors and clean, simple compositions. The overall effect is not unlike a watered down Wes Anderson, providing a similar innocent storybook feel to the story. I am reminded also of Amélie in how its bright, colorful visual style is used to help make the viewer fall in love with Paris as a city and a setting. Paris comes across as such a blend of small and big, modern and vintage, clean and dirty, and this is represented not only through the physical details on screen but the characters that live in it. Dom is a roguish, independent vagrant of Paris, and yet he falls in love with the polite and naïve woman from Canada.
Dom, Martha (Emmanuelle Riva), and Fiona sitting on a beam
Lost in Paris is short, fast-paced, and light, caring more about delighting its audience than making them think. Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon do a fantastic job of keeping the film fun and fresh with their performances the whole way through. Fans of Tati and Chaplin, or anyone looking for a whimsical, old-fashioned rom-com should be sure to give the movie a watch. Lost in Paris is streaming now on certain Kanopy memberships.
By Mason Leaver
Denis Villeneuve has consistently made films of breathtaking quality, including Prisoners (2013), Sicario (2015), and Arrival (2016). Yet, he is a less recognized name in film when compared with other directors. One of the reasons for this lack of popularity may be due to the fact that the director does not have a specific visual style, unlike contemporaries such as Wes Anderson or Quentin Tarantino (though Villeneuve’s partnership with cinematographer Roger Deakins has led to some visual similarities between his works). While Villeneuve’s filmography may not be held together by a common genre or mise-en-scene, it does still bear certain, less obvious commonalities. One of these commonalities is a repeated characteristic of his protagonists. Denis Villeneuve has demonstrated himself to be an auteur in the quality of his films by the common thematic exploration underlying his work, which examines isolation from a variety of perspectives and contexts.
Detective Loki, framed in his cramped office space
Last year I wrote a review of Prisoners and praised it for it’s storytelling and visuals. It is one of Villeneuve’s best films, and it highlights the start of the common trend surrounding the theme of isolation. The protagonists Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Dover (Hugh Jackman), are examples of isolated characters. Loki is a man who appears to be completely detached from others. He has given himself completely to his job as a detective. As the film progresses, Loki loses himself in his obsession to solve the case at the heart of the film. Dover, on the other hand, embodies a very different sort of isolation. Dover is a family man, and at the beginning of the movie is a very sociable and engaged person. However, after his daughter goes missing, Dover begins to isolate himself from his family, becoming equally obsessed with finding his kidnapped daughter. On screen, both Dover and Loki are often shown in cramped spaces- Dover in his truck, Loki behind his desk, both men restricted by the frame. Prisoners uses these two men as examples of the isolation which stems from obsession.
Villeneuve (left) and Gyllenhaal (right) on the set of Enemy
Enemy (2013) was released the same year as Prisoners, and also stars Jake Gyllenhaal. The film centers around Adam (Gyllenhaal), a history professor who discovers a man who looks exactly like him in a film. Adam attempts to track the man down, and begins to lose his mind in the process. Enemy, like Prisoners, examines loneliness and isolation, but Enemy examines two different forms of isolation. Firstly, the film deals with the suffering through a mental breakdown. Adam begins to question his own sanity and he begins to spiral further and further out of control. Yet, he finds out that others cannot relate to, or even understand, his condition. Villeneuve uses the two characters to show the isolation which comes from infidelity and lies. Adam sleeps in a small apartment with very little in it, and has no attachments, save for his girlfriend. Anthony (Gyllenhaal), Adam’s counterpart, is a successful actor with a wife. Yet both men are unsatisfied in their relationships, seeking more than what they have. The two characters come to represent a way of living a double life, with infidelity and selfishness at their core. The final shot of the film shows the ultimate isolation which one is forced into when they must confront their inner demons.
Emily Blunt in Sicario
Sicario (2015) follows Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an FBI agent who becomes involved in a fight against the cartel. At the beginning of the film, Macer believes that she is fighting the good fight, and is optimistic about her role in serving justice. However, as she is recruited into a secretive mission to arrest high ranking members of the cartel, she crosses lines she never thought she would have to. Macer’s partners resort to torturing criminals for information and using Macer herself as bait in order to further their investigation. By the end of the film, Macer is disillusioned with the system that she has been working with. Nevertheless, she is forced to sign a document stating that everything that she and her team did was legal. Sicario depicts a sort of moral isolation. Macer is the only ethically upstanding person in a wholly corrupt system. As Macer continues with her mission, she becomes immersed in the corruption that she was initially revolted by, until she does not recognize herself- her moral compass tells her that the things she has done are wrong, yet she cannot take them back. Again, Villeneuve depicts an isolation in his protagonist- this time through the corruption of a system much larger than she is.
Amy Adams stands alone in Arrival
While Villeneuve’s previous work depicted isolation as a result of some negative circumstance, Arrival (2016) examines this experience as a result of epiphany. As Louise Banks (Amy Adams) begins to study the language of the aliens that have visited Earth, she begins to see the world differently. The aliens understand time in a different way than humans, able to see the present, past and future simultaneously. As Dr. Banks learns their language, she begins to be able to see the world from their perspective. She dreams in the alien language, and as she understands their language more thoroughly, she begins to see time as they do- past, present, and future all at once. The film shows us that as Banks continues her life, this new knowledge of time causes conflict with her husband. Banks is aware that their daughter will die young of an incurable disease, as she has seen it in the future. Nevertheless, Banks chooses to have the child. When Banks reveals this to her husband, it leads to a conflict which results in divorce. Ultimately, Banks’s enlightenment leads her to being isolated from the rest of humanity, as she is able to conceptualize the world in a way no one else can.
K (Gosling) in his apartment with Joi (de Armas)
Villeneuve’s most recent film, Blade Runner: 2049 (2017), tells the story of K (Ryan Gosling), a detective who tracks down rogue androids known as replicants. K lives a fairly depressing life. He lives in a small apartment, and has no social relationships. His only meaningful connection is to a computer program named Joi (Ani de Armas), who appears to him as a hologram. As the film continues, the hollowness of K’s life begins to become apparent to him, as all of the pseudo-relationships that he had with A.I become useless to him. Of all of Villeneuve’s films, Blade Runner: 2049 offers perhaps the least nuanced examination of isolation, though it is not any less impactful. Gosling captures the sorrow of living a lonely life, and the despair of discovering that one is even more alone than they thought.
Villeneuve’s authorship does not come from any single stylistic consistency, but rather in the thematic exploration underlying all of his recent films. His work has been dedicated to exploring an aspect of human experience from a variety of perspectives. Some films, such as Sicario or Enemy offer an outlook on seclusion which is cynical, suggesting that we may become overwhelmed by our physical or moral isolation. Other films of his, such as Prisoners or Arrival offer a more hopeful view, depicting characters who still find hope and value even after experiencing an emotionally traumatizing event or an epiphany. No one except Villeneuve himself can say why it is that he seems to have this fixation with various forms of isolation in his protagonists. Regardless, this commitment to a consistent theme has shaped his career and helped him to become the impressive director that he is today.
Villeneuve’s next film, Dune, is set to be released in theaters this October. Time will tell if Villeneuve has chosen to continue to explore the themes of isolation and loneliness in his newest film.
by Mason Leaver
This article contains heavy spoilers for most of Rian Johnson’s career
Director Rian Johnson (right) working with Joseph Gordon-Levitt (left) on the set of "Looper"
Rian Johnson is a director that is both loved and hated for his practice of intentionally subverting audience expectations. This storytelling method can be found across various forms of storytelling media, in books, video games, television, and film, and seems to be becoming more popular recently. “Subverting expectations” is a method of surprising the audience with some element of a story, be it the plot, themes, characters, etc. This goes beyond a “twist” in a film. Expectation subversion actively works within the genre of a story, and attempts to reinterpret or subvert the conventions of that genre, breaking patterns in surprising and interesting ways. However, this method of surprising the audience is not always well received- it can sometimes be the source of heavy criticism from fans of the tropes which have been subverted. Johnson is both famous and infamous for this practice- the man has made a career out of it. His most recent work, Knives Out, is a perfect example of Johnson’s style. With Netflix announcing a $450,000 deal to acquire the rights for a Knives Out 2 and 3, directed by Rian Johnson, it seems like a great time to explore Rian Johnson’s authorship, and how he subverts the audience’s expectations to keep them hooked.
Brick (2005) is Johnson’s debut film. It is the story of a high school student, Brendan, who discovers that his ex-girlfriend has been murdered. Brendan begins to investigate the case, and soon stumbles into a dangerous local crime circuit, led by a young kingpin named “the Pin”. However, Brick is not just a high school mystery. It is styled like a noir film, full of lingo and slang, fast talking, heavy shadows, speakeasies, etc. It doesn’t take long while watching Brick to be surprised by the stark contrast between the style and plot of the film and the film’s setting. This is the first way in which Johnson uses expectation subversion, through the use of genre and setting, to keep his audience engaged.
Johnson’s next film is The Brothers Bloom, a heist film about two brothers that are con men. This is most likely Johnson’s least subversive film, but it still employs the technique in an intriguing way. The style and setting of The Brothers Bloom is not subversive in the same way as Brick was. The characters, Stephen Bloom and Bloom Bloom, and their assistant, Bang Bang, fit the standard genre tropes of the heist movie- they are two con men and their dangerous demolitions expert assistant. What is subversive about The Brothers Bloom is the film's structure. The film begins with an extended narration, depicting some crucial events from the Bloom brothers’ lives, establishing their characters and personalities. However, this childhood sequence is fairly stylized, the children speak unusually for their age, and it all feels “fairy-tale” like. As the film progresses, the narrator drops out, and the majority of the film lacks any narration, preferring the standard approach. The film’s second subversion of expectations is almost paradoxical- it is the doubling down of genre tropes to such a degree that it is actually surprising. One of the classic tropes of the heist genre is the reversal, or the twist toward the end of act II or in Act III. Johnson uses this in The Brothers Bloom, but he actually doubles down on it. The film could conclude at the end of Act II- the Brothers have separated, and Bloom has given up Penelope, his love interest. However, at the very start of Act III, Johnson actually has the characters begin a whole new heist- it’s almost like a sequel built right into the third act. At the very end of Act III, there’s a rapid series of reversals- you think characters are dead, and then they’re not, but then they really are again, and then you’re not quite sure. It’s extremely rapid, and can be a bit jarring. But Johnson is tapping into the very essence of what makes heist films great and is turning it up to 11, to such a degree that it feels ridiculous, and as such, subverts our expectations.
Walter White hunts a fly in "Breaking Bad"
It is important to briefly mention Johnson’s work on the television series Breaking Bad (AMC, 2008-2013). Johnson directed three episodes for the series, and they are widely regarded as some of the best episodes of the show, if not some of the best episodes in television history. I would like to focus on his first episode, titled “Fly”. Fly is the tenth episode of season 3, a season which consistently raised the stakes for Walter and Jesse. However, all of that momentum comes to a grinding halt for episode 10, where the only concern of Walter and Jesse is to kill a fly in their meth lab before it contaminates the meth. The episode is such a change of course from the reset of the season, it can be funny and refreshing. While Johnson did not write the episode, it is interesting to note that he directed one of the most subversive episodes of Breaking Bad.
Johnson’s next film, Looper (2012) is about a hitman named Joe, who is a “looper”- a man who kills people that have been sent back in time for him to execute. Joe works for the mob of the future, where time travel has become possible, and when the mob wants someone dead, they send them to Joe so that the victim cannot be traced. It’s an interesting enough time-travel concept, but Johnson once again subverts the audience’s expectations, when he sends Joe from the future, referred to in the script as Old Joe, back in time to be killed by Young Joe- the two begin to fight, as Old Joe wants to kill someone that Young Joe is determined to save. In creating this set up, Johnson has actually created a film in which the hero and the villain are the same person. Because of this, Johnson is able to subvert all kinds of expectations of time-travel movies, including, mainly, the actual time travelling. Young Joe doesn’t travel in time at all throughout the film. Instead, he uses his memories, which Old Joe has, to communicate with his future self. It’s mind-bending at times, but it winds up creating a unique time-travel film.
Now we come to The Last Jedi (2017), which is Johnson’s most divisive film. Whether you love it or hate it, it’s clear that The Last Jedi subverts expectations in a major way. Johnson takes many of the “genre tropes” of the Star Wars series and subverts them. Luke, the hero of the original trilogy, who was set up in The Force Awakens to be a mentor figure to Rey, is actually a depressed hermit, intentionally exiling himself from society. Secondly, there is the reveal regarding Rey’s lineage. The Star Wars series is full of characters who are from important families, the Skywalker lineage most among them, but Johnson chose to reveal that Rey was not actually from any important family; instead, she came from two drunken scrappers on a backwater planet. Finally, Johnson’s choice to kill off Snoke, who had previously been set up to be the main villain of the sequel trilogy, is a major subversion of the standard Star Wars formula. However, these subversions were not popular with everyone that watched the film. Many thought these twists were unwarranted- they simply changed the Star Wars formula for the sake of shock value. Johnson’s other work is relatively uncontroversial because they are self contained- they rely on no other intellectual property. However, Johnson’s work in The Last Jedi is built upon many previous films, and as such, some fans felt these surprises were unearned. At the same time, many other viewers loved The Last Jedi- many have called it the best film of the sequel trilogy. Regardless of what you think about Johnson’s choices in The Last Jedi, it’s obvious that he was centrally focused on subverting audience expectations.
Johnson’s most recent film, Knives Out (2019), is a return to form for the director. It is back into an area he’s comfortable within- the mystery thriller. Once again, Johnson is committed to playing with aspects of the genre to create a new and surprising experience. Knives Out was advertised as a gentleman detective story, much like Murder on the Orient Express, centered around Mr. Blanc, played by Daniel Craig. The film begins by making us think that is what we will get- we are shown a dead body, and a detective is called quickly. But after a short while, the audience is made aware that Marta, the victim’s nurse, is responsible for his death, but that the victim did not want Marta to be blamed. All of a sudden, Marta becomes the protagonist of the film, and we are on the edge of our seats as she tries to hide the evidence of what happened, and as she eventually realizes the greater mystery behind it. This rapid change of perspective is what makes Knives Out such a great mystery film- it completely subverts the audience’s expectations about who they would be rooting for, and why. Johnson almost immediately solves what we expected would be the central mystery of the film, and simultaneously slowly alludes to the fact that there is more than meets the eye. It may be his finest work yet, and it’s certainly the greatest example of his practice of expectation subversion.
Rian Johnson’s career has consistently shown a commitment to subverting the audience’s expectations. At times he does this through the setting or genre conventions, such as Brick, Looper, The Last Jedi, and Fly. At other times, he does this through the plot itself, such as The Brothers Bloom and Knives Out. While this has given Johnson success in varying degrees up to today, it’s unclear whether he will able to maintain this trend into the future. After all, how can you subvert an audience’s expectation of subversion? Perhaps Johnson’s next film, Knives Out 2, will actually be a relatively straight-forward detective story? I can’t say for sure. However, Johnson has proven himself to be a skilled director and writer, and as such, I’m very excited to see his future work.
For more on Knives Out, read our review here: http://www.cinemablography.org/blog/knives-out-a-revew
By Ravi Ahuja
Kim Ki-Duk is not one of the three big Korean directors (Bong Joon-Ho, Park Chan-Wook, Lee Chang-Dong) who have achieved household name status (in film buff households, at least) in the west, but this does not make him in any way their lesser. He is in fact the only Korean director ever to win major awards at each of the Cannes, Venice, and Berlin film festivals, winning each award with a different movie. His most famous film, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003) garnered much critical attention and love, and he is very well-known in the Korean film scene, but his films still remain popular mostly only among foreign arthouse fans. Sadly, Kim Ki-Duk died only a few months ago in December due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but his movies remain here for audiences to enjoy and remember him. Among his large catalog of low-budget thrillers and dramas is his 2006 film, Time, a bizarre character drama following two lovers and their relationship struggles, to put it lightly.
Ji-Woo (Ha Jung-woo) being served at a cafe
Seh-hee and Ji-woo are a couple in love, but after two years together their conflicts have risen to catastrophic levels. Ji-woo is charming, attractive, and gets plenty of attention from women, which drives Seh-hee insane with jealousy and paranoia. Despite not being unattractive herself, she feels insecure and stale, blaming her appearance on why Ji-woo sometimes looks at other women. After a huge fight in a cafe, Seh-hee moves out of her place and disappears without a trace. Ji-woo discovers that Seh-hee undertook a plastic surgery operation and will return to him in 6 months with an entirely new face. But when she eventually does return, their problems have not been all solved, leading to a climax of regret, insecurity, and insanity.
Despite a simple plot and short runtime (or perhaps because of it), the film and the characters within it are captivating. The cinematography and score are simple but effective, letting the story and acting carry this movie. Ji-woo and Seh-hee are both brilliantly written characters that showcase the madness that love sometimes drives people into, going from relatable and sympathetic to horrifying at the drop of a hat. While their relationship seems crazy when it is first introduced, the longer we get to know the couple, the more their pain and grief can be understood and their actions make sense, even if they aren’t justifiable.
Seh-hee (Sung Hyun-ah) alone at the sculpture park
Because we only take the perspective of one character at a time when they are separated rather than an omniscient perspective, the audience feels the same confusion and uncertainty that Ji-woo and Seh-hee feel, making their predicament much easier to empathize with. And once you get past the extremeness of their actions, they really are easy to empathize with. Time feels very Shakespearean in how outwardly simple, yet deeply complex the story is, raising universally humanistic questions and themes of identity, love, and moving on. What does it mean to be someone, and then change who you are? How different are we from each other really? What does loving and moving on from someone entail? The questioning gets even deeper with the mysterious and abrupt ending that is impossible to interpret literally. Yet despite the fact the film rewards deep thought and analysis, it is still highly entertaining and enjoyable on a pure story level, allowing the viewer to interact with it as much as they choose to.
Ji-Woo alone and waiting for Seh-hee at the same sculpture park
There are some flaws with Time, mainly in other non-narrative departments. The visual style with its high-key, often natural lighting has aged poorly, with some scenes appearing more like a telenovela than a modern blockbuster drama. This is perhaps an unfair standard for a low-budget foreign drama however, as it does look good in many if not most scenes. The sound design is likewise a little low-budget and occasionally cheesy, but also doesn’t distract from the story except for rare occasions. Overall, however, Time more than manages to be the exciting and philosophical relationship-based drama it tries to be. I strongly recommend it to foreign film fans looking to explore Korean cinema, especially those with a bent towards Shakespeare. Time is streaming now on Kanopy with certain library memberships.
by Samantha Shuma
The plan of restoring a country ruined from a zombie apocalypse is executed by the American military. As procedures are followed, mistakes are made, their plans quickly backfire. With no good evacuation plans, horrendous mistakes and poor planning, the death of thousands of people and the resurgence of the population diseased, man eating monsters happens. All of the pitfalls lead to horrific events, and the military is all to blame. This is the main story in 28 Weeks Later (Jaun Carlos Fresnadillo, 2007), showing the world the damaging implications of having the military in charge of a rescue plan. Seeing how incompetent the military’s procedures are, a clear idea of anti-proceduralism is established. This perspective frames the film, letting us know that the military is wrong and that the lives of who we see on screen really mater.
This analysis contains spoilers for 28 Weeks Later, which contains topics that may be disturbing for some readers. Discretion is advised.
Defined by the Encyclopedia of Global Justice, proceduralism justifies procedure over making moral choices. It’s an act of orders over goodness, that the ‘right’ thing to do in the moment is what has been laid out by law or some government power. Although procedures can be tedious and sacrifice time, energy and livelihood, it instills a system and creates order. Proceduralism rejects moral decisions for some unforeseen ‘greater good.’ The procedures that the U.S military follows in 28 Weeks Later will result in the death of hundreds of people for no visible justification.
A disease called the rage virus took hold of the population of Europe. It created a kind of ‘zombie,’ not interested in eating human flesh, but used biting as a means of spreading the virus. Eventually, only a population of infected remained, causing the infected to die of starvation and dehydration. It was at this point, the U.S military came in to dispose of all of the corpses. When it seemed that no infected remained, civilians were brought back to live inside a military base. Once the main characters were established, the military base collapsed. A new zombie outbreak took hold, leaving the civilians defenseless and all the decisions to the military. As the virus spread, the ultimate choice was made; total and utter annihilation.
As it became impossible for infected and survivors to be distinguished through a sniper scope, Code Black was put into effect. The military’s procedures lead them to mass genocide, using snipers, fire bombing and chemical warfare as an attempt to stop the spread. The main characters aren’t only running away from the infected, but evading the tactics of the military to avoid certain death. Most of the soldiers are compliant with these methods except for Sergeant Doyle, one of the rooftop snipers. He chooses his moral compass over orders, helping the remaining survivors to safety. It is in his actions that we see the problem with procedure. If it was justifiable, why would a soldier choose to abandon their post? By Doyle leaving, he is demonstrating the morals go beyond procedure, contrasting the compliance of his comrades and commanding officers. If Doyle was complicit, this anti-proceduralist perspective would not land as well. The perspective would become less anti-proceduralist and more anti-human, giving points to a process that resulted in the death of thousands of people.
That being said, there is a reasonable point to make for proceduralism; through mass genocide, the military is ending the spread of the virus and saving the whole world of being swallowed by the infected. Without seeing the film, it’s a sound argument, it brings back this idea of the ‘greater good.’ However, there are two main ideas in the film that prevent this procedure from being justified in this way. Firstly, the plan doesn’t work. By the time the procedure is put into effect, the infected go underground and thus avoid all forms of military attack. The infected flea the drop zone and continue to spread the virus. If all the infected were destroyed, we could say that civilians were sacrificed for the rest of the world and things can go back as they were. However, seeing how their plan backfires, civilians lost their lives in vain.
Secondly, the setting of the film completely detaches audiences from seeing that larger scope. The film is set in smaller areas, with most of the film being self contained within the military base. There is no tv coverage or any sense that there is a bigger world beyond what we see. It can be inferred, but the idea of a population bigger than what we see on screen is purposely avoided. 28 Weeks Later wants us to focus on the smaller picture, to relate to the characters and situations of the here and now. It distracts us from this idea of the ‘greater good,’ leading us to emotionally believe that this is all there is. The audience becomes so detached from the outside world of 28 Weeks Later that we end up not caring if the world lives or dies. Instead we care more about the people on screen and how they are being needlessly killed by the military.
The military is the enemy of this film. It is the power at be that is forcing in this idea of procedure and order. By doing your jobs and following your orders, everything will be okay. The soldiers and commanding officers live for this idea of proceduralism and see it as the only way to live. Even if people die, following the process will be the right call. The film itself, along with the protagonists, are the ones pushing back against these ideas. This small scale portrayal of events supports the protagonists’ will to live. Through character action and setting, we learn to see the protagonists as the most important element. Their survival becomes more important than procedure. Regardless of the harm they could cause, their survival is what keeps us on the edge of our seats. 28 Weeks Later is anti-proceduralist, antagonizing the military because of their strategies and ideals. Typically, the army is an organization to respect. Those who serve put their lives at risk for the livelihood of the nation. However, when placed under extreme pressure, bad things can happen. They chose to act on orders other than morals, villainizing the military’s efforts. Other zombie movies look at how zombies destroy the world, including the military. That their sheer force in numbers brings down society. Although the zombies are a destructive force, the real enemy throughout this film in the U.S military.
Work Cited: Rocheleau J. (2011) Proceduralism. In: Chatterjee D.K. (eds) Encyclopedia of Global Justice. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4020-9160-5_367
By Ravi Ahuja
Swedish director, Roy Andersson’s film Songs From the Second Floor impressed me when I watched it a few months ago. Somehow it found a way to tie together a few dozen short vignettes into a meaningful and compelling film, albeit a very unusual one. I was a little wary that the sequels to that film would not be able to strike the same balance between comedic and depressing, or if Andersson could find a way to keep his formula of surreal vignettes as fresh and as interesting as his first film. You, The Living (2007) is the second film of his so called “Living” trilogy, following the same style and formula of Songs From the Second Floor, and I’m entirely pleased that my fears did not come to fruition. Rather than lose direction or ideas, Andersson only found ways to improve upon the recipe that made Songs From the Second Floor unique.
The structure is still built around short static vignettes following a few loosely connected threads, but now the more important scenes include two or three different shots rather than have every scene take place in a single wide. Although the camera still remains largely static, there are also at least a few occasions where it moves. Like the only camera movement in Songs From the Second Floor, the camera only moves for slow tracking shots, but when used in You, The Living, it affects the frame and shot composition much more, essentially transforming the initial wide shot into an entirely new frame. This slight increase in flexibility with the shots helps emphasize the most important scenes and make the narrative easier to follow while still maintaining Andersson’s trademark style. His characteristically drab but meticulous set design also returns, looking as if Wes Anderson wanted to do a movie using only beiges, greys, and sickly greens. The majority of the vignettes are still static one shots and are used for standalone little stories, mood setting, and transitioning between more important scenes. While their purpose is not always obvious, they are critical in setting a foundation for the style and thematic content of the film.
A brass band practices while it rains outside
For example, one recurring setting is a bar during closing hours serving the last drinks of the night. Sometimes the bar is just a place for a character to exist in. Other times it is the focal point of the scene, and the emotion and mood of the bar is the whole point of the vignette. Regardless, the repeated use of the bar locale and the seemingly perennial last call for drinks serves to reinforce several of the themes of the movie. One of those themes is a quote that comes up several times throughout the different stories: “Tomorrow is another day”. This quote is repeatedly used to comfort a character going through a tough time, or someone who has just made a mistake. No matter how difficult the present circumstances are, there will always be tomorrow as a brand new opportunity to reinvent the day. The quote, like the film, is an odd mix of uplifting and depressing. It reminds us that we can do better, that even in our worst hour there will always be another day to try again. However, in the context of vignette after vignette of regret and pain, closing hour after closing hour at the bar, it seems like an empty hope. Tomorrow is another day yes, but what reason is there to believe it will be a better one? The crowd of patrons anxious to get a last drink every night when the bar is closing certainly give the impression that more likely than not, tomorrow will be the same as today.
A window washer looks at a man pointing out a missed spot
Another common theme throughout the film is the feeling of loneliness and being misunderstood, with the opening vignette introducing a woman who tries to push away her boyfriend with self-pity, repeating again and again, “Nobody understands me”. This cry is echoed and carried on by other characters throughout the movie, including a man who brings flowers for the same woman from the beginning only to be rejected. While most characters do not explicitly repeat the same line, a large portion of the vignettes deal in some way with the themes of loneliness and alienation. A teacher breaks down crying in her class because her husband called her a hag that morning. Elsewhere, her husband vents about the hard day he’s been having, having fought with his wife and been called an old fart. Both are more comfortable turning to strangers to talk about their problems than each other. In another set of vignettes, a girl has drinks bought for her by a guitar player who she falls in love with, although he gives her the wrong address. Later, she tells other patrons at the bar the dream she had of marrying him and having everyone in town love her. The patrons, being at a bar, listen patiently.
Drug use and abuse are also recurring themes, especially used as a form of medication. The bar patrons all seem desperate to be drunk every night, and combined with the bleak set design of the bare, sickly green bar, it becomes a rather sad setting every time it is shown. Drug use also returns as a theme in the vignette of the psychiatrist. After 27 years of work, the psychiatrist is worn out and can no longer bear to give advice to his patients when most of them are simply mean, ungrateful people. Instead, he now just prescribes pills, “the stronger the better”. While these two vignettes seem to cast judgement on the act of using drugs as a form of escapism, there are also moments that have a little more sympathy for drug users. The misunderstood woman from the first scene is also an alcoholic, and gets angry at her boyfriend’s mother for serving non-alcoholic beer with dinner, yelling “Is this what's best for me? Enduring this damned existence... with all the shit and deceit and wickedness and staying sober? How can you expect or even want a single poor bugger to put up with it without being drunk? It's inhuman.” Andersson deliberately avoids choosing either side of the argument, choosing rather to show what truths he sees on both sides and letting the audience decide for themselves.
A man runs on a treadmill while a child watches
While there are a host of other themes one could pick out of this movie, the centralizing connection between all of them, and the thing that truly makes this film a sequel to Songs From a Second Floor, is the honest exploration of what it means to be human. Andersson provides a look at the mundane, the ugly, the problems of human life. In one scene, a woman prays on her knees as a congregation leaves a small church, asking for God to forgive “those who are greedy and cheap… those who are dishonest and false… forgive newspapers and tv channels that mislead… forgive those who bomb and destroy cities and villages,”. The woman continues like this for over a minute, listing many of the horrible things humans do or face. By the end of the scene, there is a general feeling of uneasiness and discomfort at the rapidfire presentation of so many of the world’s wrongs. Being a human is tough business. But You, The Living is not just concerned with pointing out problems, but also how to live through them. Throughout the film, there is an undercurrent of a call for a return to morality. This is not necessarily a religious morality (although there is a fair amount of religious imagery), rather Andersson is calling for people to just respect each other. There were parts of You, The Living where it seemed like Andersson was throwing his hands in frustration and telling the world to ‘just be nice for once’. The psychiatrist points out that most of his patients are egocentric, selfish, and ungenerous while also demanding to be happy, that “they are quite simply mean, most of them”. This seems to be the state of the world in Andersson’s films, and likely how he sees the state of our real world.
A girl dreams of a whole town celebrating her marriage to a famous guitar player
For all of the depressing scenes and set design, Andersson also has a way of making his movies seem uplifting, if only just a little. The woman having a breakdown in the first scene has a few more recurring vignettes after that, showing her relationships with her boyfriend and his mother. Despite her constant attempts to push people away from herself, the self-absorption and self-pity she demonstrates, she still has enough self awareness to apologize for her actions and be accepted by those around her. The individual players of the band seem a bit lonely, unwanted, and out of place when practicing alone, but fit perfectly with each other when they get together to play. And while tomorrow may seem just as grim as today, you never really know what it will bring. While the cyclical nature of the vignette structure can make a better future seem hard to hope for, it also always leaves some sense of possibility and therefore hope. It is true that most of the vignettes showcase suffering and loneliness, but not every scene is a painful one. Some moments are just peaceful, and some scenes are even beautiful. As long as the possibility exists, so does hope, and the bad times become easier to withstand because there is a hope for the future.
A crowd of people wait for the rain to stop
Like the previous film before it, You, The Living presents a grim but beautiful exploration of humanity through snapshots of ordinary city life in Sweden. Incredibly foreign and bizarre in presentation, but still deeply familiar and personal, Roys Andersson succeeds again at tying together slice of life filmmaking with something very theatrical, meticulous, and thought-provoking. You, The Living is streaming now on Kanopy with certain library memberships, and is a great film for anyone looking for an odd but accessible entry point into European arthouse.
By Mason Leaver
There was a movement in Italian cinema beginning in 1945 called “Italian Neorealism”. The movement focused on realistically capturing the small, intimate details of life. Filmmakers in the neorealist movement hired nonprofessional actors, filmed on location, and focused on simplistic, character driven stories about everyday life. This emphasis on “true to life” narratives has continued to this day, being reflected in various cinematic movements, like the French New Wave and Cinema Verite. Nomadland, directed by Chloé Zhao, follows in this long standing tradition of realistic cinema. Nomadland is a film about the small details of life, using a mixture of narrative and documentary style, which creates a unique tone amongst the films of 2020.
Nomadland is the story of Fern (Frances McDormand), a woman who has lost everything in the Great Recession. We watch as Fern begins her life of living in a van, and starts a job at Amazon. She decides she wants to live a nomadic lifestyle, moving out into the desert and joining a nomadic community. As the film progresses, she travels in and out of various nomad communities, taking various jobs and connecting with various unique individuals. Ultimately, Fern is forced to confront her fear of attachment, and is faced with a decision to either settle down or keep moving with her life on the road. The film’s ending leaves us to debate Fern’s ultimate fate and what she will decide. This ambiguous conclusion forces us to reflect on the meaning of the film overall, questioning what we believe Fern ought to do and what we believe she will in fact do.
Frances McDormand has had an incredible career, giving a variety of terrific performances in Fargo, Moonrise Kingdom, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Her performance in Nomadland is extremely impressive, even in a career as densely packed with strong roles as McDormand’s. Her performance as Fern feels improvisational and vulnerable- her lines of dialogue and movements feel genuine and unrehearsed. One begins to wonder how much of Fern is a pre-written character and how much is McDormand expressing herself on screen. McDormand has been nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role at the Oscars this year, and I would not be surprised if she takes it home.
Besides the terrific performance given by McDormand, one of the most impressive aspects of the film is the cinematography. Director of Photography Joshua James Richards and Director Chloé Zhao have managed to pull off an incredible feat. Certain sections of Nomadland are not difficult to capture beautifully- shots of various picturesque locations; vast desert landscapes, snow capped mountains, and rushing rivers. Even the smallest, least interesting places are rendered magnificently- they make fast food restaurants and the inside of Fran’s van look beautiful. For a film with such a simple story, the cinematography is still astonishing.
One of the aspects of Nomadland which most makes it stand out from other films released this year is it’s hybridization of fiction and documentary filmmaking approaches. The narrative of the film is fictional, but many of the characters within the film are real people, portraying themselves on screen. For instance, Swankie, one of the nomads Fran meets on her journey, is a real nomad. In fact, almost all of the nomads that are featured in the film are actual nomads, living in the desert. This approach to capturing life as accurately as possible gives the film a feeling of realism and honesty. It very much follows in the wake of the realist movements of the past- focusing on non-professional actors and a simplistic story.
Nomadland is an exploration of the real-life situations of many nomadic Americans. In post-recession America, many people have been forced to live in these situations, working draining and sometimes dangerous jobs for poor pay just to scrape by as they live out of a van. Of course, others have willingly chosen the nomad life, preferring freedom to security. Nomadland seeks to document the lives of these individuals by filming real-life people, and inserting them into a fictional, but true to life story. It is beautifully executed at every level- the acting, cinematography, editing, and dialogue of the film are all exceptional. The pacing of the film may be a bit slow for some viewers, but the film is much more character driven than plot driven. As such, it takes it’s time, focusing on exploring Fran’s psychology and character rather than any elaborate plot. It’s certainly worth a watch.
Viewers who enjoy “Nomadland” may also enjoy “Into the Wild”, “Captain Fantastic”, and “Leave No Trace”
by Emilie Rush
This analysis contain spoilers for Uncle Frank, reader's discretion advised.
In a world of Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name, at first glance Uncle Frank (Alan Ball, 2020) doesn’t seem like the revolutionary coming of age story we needed at the end of 2020. But it’s the unexpectedly powerful performance of Paul Bettany that makes this film one to watch. The movie follows a simple country girl named Beth (Sophie Lillis) travels to the big city, and is introduced to the world through the lens of the relationship of her cool Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany) and his partner (Wally). Their family back home in the south reacts to this new revelation about his lifestyle! Luckily, all is revealed after the death of the beloved family patriarch softens the blow of all the devastations, and in fact brings them all closer together in a true nostalgic American family tale. This is not a traditional story, where Beth would be the one navigating her coming of age journey. No, it’s Frank who comes of age, giving this emotionally heavy film the unique deposition of flipping conventionally on it’s head.
Recently, the world of acting has been plagued by an ongoing conversation surrounding what exactly an actor's job is. Is an actor person who steps into the shoes created for him by a writer, and sculpted by the director, leaving him to be only the clay in the performance? Is an actor himself the scribe, bequeathed with inspiration from a script, and illuminated by lights and a camera, writing and establishing a character like pulling a rabbit out of a hat? How much agency does an actor have? Does he possess permission to stand on stage or on set, and transform himself into someone else, perhaps a different race, sexuality, or creed. And if he does not, who does? And why not?
In the conversation of authenticity in the world of acting, director Russell T Davies, creator of Queer as Folk, remarked “I feel strongly that if I cast someone in a story, I am casting them to act as a love, or an enemy, or someone on drugs, or a criminal or a saint...they are not there to “act gay” because “acting gay” is a bunch of codes for a performance.” Queer as Folk was one of the first shows to showcase and talk about the LGBTQ+ experience on television, and it featured straight actors in playing gay roles.
Neil Patrick Harris remembers how much that moment meant to him, both personally as a gay man and in his career, “It was one of the real true turning points for me as examples of sexy guys behaving as leads in something of import, not as comic sidekicks. I think there’s something sexy about casting a straight actor to play a gay role, if they’re willing to invest a lot into it. There’s a nervousness that comes from the newness of it all. To declare that you’d never do that, you might miss opportunities.”. Harris’ biggest career moments come from his performances in shows like How I Met Your Mother, where he played a straight character.
Like many other LGBTQ+ actors, making the decision not to take straight roles would be especially damming. Although the tide is changing for marginalized communities onscreen, the amount of these characters available is still small. Although Davies and Harris have differing opinions, the conversation about performance authenticity has the potential to spur big change in Hollywood.
Enter Paul Bettany. He is an icon in the making, especially in 2021, and it’s so interesting to see this performance right off the heels of the newest episode of Wandavision, which most people may recognize him from. The MCU has been criticized for its lack of acting, pacing, depth, but here Disney proves that they have a good eye for talent. Some people spend years waiting for the spotlight, for their big breaks, but Bettany has had multiple. Reinventing himself before the camera time and time again, he’s an actor with as much chameleon-esque bravado as Johnny Depp. In 2001 he was in A Knight’s Tale and A Beautiful Mind. In 2006 he was in The Da Vinci Code. For the past twelve years he’s been routinely in conversation as Jarvis/Vision, and he even hopped franchises and did a stint with Solo: A Star Wars Story.
But how does Bettany and Uncle Frank fit into this the conversation of performance authenticity? Bettany is straight, but Frank Bledsoe, the title character of the film, is gay, and it’s the developing characteristic of the main plot line in the movie. Bettany’s performance justifies Harris’ argument that it’s not about the actor really identifying as gay or straight at all, rather it’s about the passion, humility, and cadence brought to the craft that matters.
In Uncle Frank, Bettany plays Frank Bledsoe with humble and charming confidence. He fits into the 70s’ like a ball to a glove, like an old man reliving his prime. He wears his mustache with pride as he struts among the cast, weaving in his own blend of humor and the passion of someone who is in love with their work. The linchpin of it all, is that Bettany is a fantastic actor and he’s ridiculously believable.
When Frank holds back Beth’s hair at the apartment party scene, as she vomits, I believe his performance, which is always easier said than done. One of the hardest relationships to act, to fake, is the relationship between family members. The more intimate the script forces them to be, the harder the job it becomes. But looking into Bettany’s eyes it looks natural, as if he himself is Frank Bledsoe and Paul Bettany is just an illusion, not the other way around. Bettany himself has a young daughter (and son), which probably helped him build the foundation arguably the central, and the most changing, element of the film. It's hard to act out something that is completely unfamiliar to you, and a lot of times when an actor has nothing to pull from, weakens their performance and severs the link between the character and an audience, which is why performance authenticity matters.
Russell T Davies worried about the invisible codes used to portray a gay character, and how they might pull the audience out of suspended disbelief if done in correctly, if done by someone who had to fake it. The difference between Davies’ fear and Bettany’s performance is that this transcendent possibly futuristic view of sexuality and love that allows a person to be a human first, and who they love isn’t inherently a personality trait. The audience gets confirmation that Frank is gay within the first thirty minutes of the film, but considering how his family acts towards him at the film’s opening, it’s no surprise. Still after the big reveal, Bettany does not revert to the old-fashioned coding and performance stereotypes of portraying a gay man. Bettany pulls on love, unacceptance, and fear to create his performance, he loves Wally, and he loves him the same way, and with the same capacity that any human loves another. This is authenticity.
Paul Bettany as Frank Bledsoe is the best performance that Uncle Frank has to offer. Bettany spirals from a man living divorced and in contempt of his family, to one that is tortured by his past and present. The art of being Frank Bledsoe is so well crafted that it seems like it would fit better on stage, rather than the small screen of an indie movie.