American Psycho (dir. Mary Harron): compelling satire on Wall Street society

Mary Harron, “American Psycho” (2000)

Based on the Brett Easton Ellis novel of the same name, “American Psycho” is a satirical survey of the people working at the top end of the financial industry in New York and their life-styles on the eve of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks in September, 2001. The title of the book and movie and their protagonist’s name Patrick Bateman refer deliberately to the famous Hitchcock movie “Psycho”: this in itself suggests that the society they depict is hollow and unoriginal and depends on plundering other cultures and its own social and cultural networks through media, fads and social competition to sustain itself. Death is an ever-present motif in “American Psycho” in many different forms and in Bateman himself: lacking a moral and spiritual base, he fills the vacuum he feels inside his head and heart with thoughts, images and fantasies  of violent death and killing, all acquired second-hand through and from the products of his society.

The movie presents a series of sketches, some linked to one another, others not, and many of them very comic and sharp in their social and political comment. All are joined by a narrative in which Bateman (Christian Bale) has literally axed his friend and fellow merchant banker shark Paul Allen (Jared Leto) and is being pursued for murder by a police detective (Willem Dafoe) who seems less interested in investigating Allen’s disappearance than in sampling some of what Bateman and his social set take for granted. This includes lunch and dinner dates at swanky restaurants to see and be seen by others of their kind; showing off their “knowledge” about food, wine, music, books, theatre, designer labels, whatever passes for fashionable in their insular world; and having sex with one another’s gal-pals. The narrative is embellished by Bateman’s sexual dalliances with various prostitutes, most of which result in Bateman mutilating and killing the women with surgical instruments, nail-guns and chainsaws. Bateman’s violent tendencies, having built up from his frustrations with his empty life and the empty people he hangs out with, extend through the movie to bashing a homeless man, tormenting a cat, shooting at police and blowing up their cars. In nearly all these violent acts, there is something unreal yet a little plausible, that may have viewers scratching their heads as to whether these acts are real or not: is it really possible to blow up cars just by shooting at them with a hand-gun? can women be killed loudly and violently with chainsaws and their bodies hidden in an apartment for weeks, months even, without the neighbours noticing anything? can you drag a heavy body-bag through a foyer leaving a trail of blood for the concierge and others to see and nobody raising the alarm? Funny how Bateman manages to leave so much evidence behind, not bothering to cover his tracks, and no-one notices anything. The narrative pans out in a way that leaves viewers wondering how much Bateman lives in reality and in fantasy, how much of his fantasy relies on heavy consumption of media and products (much of it second-hand and deformed by popular belief into something entirely different) to relieve what is a lonely, loveless, mundane real life in an unproductive job in an industry that consumes people and produces nothing of real worth. Viewers learn that Bateman feels disgust and loathing for himself and everyone around him but lacks the imagination he needs to escape the death world he inhabits, so he remains trapped in existential Hell.

As Bateman, Bale gives a remarkable performance that shoots from barely repressed fury and deadpan expressions to neurotic over-the-top histrionics and back again and again with smooth ease and precise timing. He’s at his funniest when most po-faced while intoning solemnly about the minutiae of Bateman’s morning beauty regime or the merits of the latest vacuous stadium rock and pop albums. When he panics, he does so big-time, breaking out into a cold and glassy-faced sweat when he sees that his pals’ business cards are glossier and more embossed than his own, or gabbling and giggling his misdeeds on the phone to his lawyer or secretary when overcome with guilt. The support cast which includes some fine actors like Dafoe and Reese Witherspoon, who plays Bateman’s fiancee Evelyn, doesn’t have much to do but then the characters played are shallow airheads after all. Viewers may feel most sympathy for Bateman’s secretary, the sweet-natured and shy Jean (Chloe Sevigny) and possibly also for Kristy the streetwalking prostitute (Cara Seymour): these women are not quite so shallow as the other people Bateman associates with and significantly they hover on the edges of Bateman’s world, wanting to enter it, so they are not so warped mentally and spirtually as its more permanent inhabitants. Still, for such women from a lower social and economic class, there’s a price to be paid to enter that world: Kristy ends up “dying” and Jean, secretly in love with Bateman, learns about his secret inner life and his opinion of women when she riffles through his work diary.

In a movie about people who worship conspicuous consumption and reconstruct class barriers between themselves and others through their materialism, the details of the background settings become important indicators of personality: Bateman’s all-white minimalist apartment with the stainless steel kitchen (never used for cooking, of course) and the TV set playing porno flicks and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” says more about the hollow life and mind of its lone inhabitant than Bateman’s voice-overs at the beginning and the end of movie do. Paul Allen’s apartment, overlooking a spectacular view, is plush and luxurious with deep colours, suggesting a personality at least different if not more mature than Bateman’s. The music soundtrack, made up songs by rock and pop acts popular in the 1980’s, is intentionally generic, shiny and vapid for the most part.

With unlikeable and unsympathetic characters, and a plot that goes into an ambiguous ending, “American Psycho” doesn’t have much popular appeal for a movie that, among other things, is about Western popular culture and the deadening effects it can have on people who selectively choose its most vacuous products and aspects to live by. The lesson the movie delivers comes with as much subtlety as the chop Bateman delivers to Allen: people consumed by consumption end up consuming one another and themselves. “American Psycho” turns out to be a bleak film filled with hopelessness about the human condition in a soulless society. It can be hard to watch at times but as a study of a character trapped in a downward spiral it’s weirdly compelling.

Funnily, in the entire movie, Bateman and his associates aren’t seen to be doing any actual work which is where the real “killing” (as in deliberately marketing and selling mortgages and other loans at high interest rates to businesses and individuals desperate for money, flipping real estate or stocks, or buying businesses to strip them of their assets, among other things) occurs. It would have given viewers some insight into the kind of industry Bateman works in and why he comes to feel the way he does about himself.

Alien 3 (dir. David Fincher): potentially interesting psych horror / slasher flick in space is a mess

David Fincher, “Alien 3” (1992)

At least in this third episode in the Alien series, people finally figured out a new original way of killing the monster other than just flushing it out through a space-ship’s airlock into deep space where eventually the thing would join similarly executed critters in the Great Alien Skeleton Garbage Patch circling a distant planetary system. Beyond that, the options for the sequel to two very different movies were limited: the first having been a space horror movie, the second being an action adventure movie, where can the third go? It goes into a film noir / slasher flick scenario set in space in which an emergency forces an escape pod containing Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and her surviving companions from “Aliens” to separate from the spacecraft Sulaco and crash-land onto a remote planet where the only human beings live in a maximum security prison. Ripley is the only survivor of that crash-landing and almost immediately has to contend with a group of condemned men, hostile and uncertain as to how to treat this “alien” in their midst, while they wait for a rescue craft to pick her up. As Ripley tries to negotiate her way through the surly all-male prison society, unusual and violent deaths begin to occur and Ripley realises that an alien of the type she’s only too familiar with must have stowed away on the Sulaco and then on her escape craft. Chaos erupts and everyone starts to panic as the alien picks off the medic and the prison supervisor and as usual Ripley has to take charge and devise a plan to get rid of the creature before the rescue craft arrives.

The only really original element is the concept of an isolated factory prison where not only are all the inmates men with violent criminal pasts, they also are followers of an apocalyptic religious cult. This means the action takes place in a claustrophobic environment of industrial machinery, huge underground tunnels, galley ways, steel catwalks and long chains: dark, moody, full of foreboding. Viewers should feel dread and abandonment throughout this film. The religious flavour adds a superficial Gothic feel with close-up shots of lit candles; nearly all the cast are skinhead monks in drab dark colours and even Ripley falls in line with the hair and clothing fashions. Unfortunately constant studio interference in the making of “Alien 3” has made for a muddled mess in which the potential offered by a prison scenario of mad misogynist monks is never properly realised and the film retreats into a re-run of “Alien” in which people scurry around the labyrinths of the prison alternately flushing out the alien so it can be destroyed and trying to avoid being killed by it. The plot starts to stretch and drag halfway through when an early attempt to trap and kill the creature ends in disaster and everyone collapses in despair and self-doubt before slowly and painfully resuming the job.

Whatever character development exists in Ripley in “Alien 3” is limited to a black sense of humour and wry one-liners: “This is a maximum security prison and it has no weapons?!” or words to that effect. The prisoners she has to deal with, played by Ralph Brown, Charles Dance, Charles S Dutton, Brian Glover, Paul McGann, Pete Postlethwaite and Danny Webb among others, are one-dimensional characters or character stereotypes who get very limited screen time: Dance and Glover’s characters exit early and Webb, playing Morse, doesn’t even become prominent until near the end of the film. The one character who shows signs of being more than a one-note role is Dillon (Dutton), the hard man who enforces discipline and leads prayer, and who in his own way has a soft spot for Ripley and sacrifices himself to give her time to kill the alien.

The theme of how institutional religion and a bureaucrat mind-set can restrict people’s viewpoints and limit their capacity for action, especially in a context where they have to deal with an unforeseen and unpredictable threat to their security and existence, and a parallel theme of how people in despair learn to cope and deal with an extreme enemy, using the few resources they have, are strong but help create a plot that can be slow for audiences used to the fast and convoluted pace of “Aliens” and who expect sci-fi movies to fit the kinetic action adventure mould.

Had Fox Studio allowed director David Fincher more freedom to make “Alien 3”, the film most likely would have developed in a way similar to Fincher’s later movies like “Se7en” in which protagonists negotiate their way through a situation, the rules of which aren’t clear, and battle their own character limitations and flaws as much as they fight through their dilemma. In Ripley’s case, she not only must learn the rules of prison society as they apply to her, she must fight against her fears about the alien and her own body which now harbours an alien embryo. (How this happened and how Ripley knows the embryo is a “queen” embryo aren’t clear in the movie.) This might have made “Alien 3” an interesting noirish psychological study of characters in crisis but it wouldn’t have resulted in the kind of box office success the studio expected.

Hitchcock gives plenty of “Rope” in excellent interior murder mystery

Alfred Hitchcock, “Rope” (1948)

Adapted from a play by Patrick Hamilton and based on an actual murder case in which two young men strangled a teenage boy, “Rope” deserves to be a better known Hitchcock film than it is. Shot on one set, the movie is a series of several mobile 10-minute “takes” artfully put together so that the action more or less looks continuous to viewers. This method of filming and structuring the script so that the action took place in real time put a great deal of strain on the cast, especially the lead actors, and on the props people moving furniture during filming so it’s a measure of their ability and composure that most of the seven actors in “Rope” look composed and show tension and strain only when required to by the dialogue-driven plot.

Rich young flatmates Brandon and Phillip (John Dall and Farley Granger) have just killed their friend and former classmate David and stashed his body inside a chest. Their housemaid Mrs Wilson (Edith Evanston) returns from shopping and the three prepare a party for David’s family and friends who include his fiancee Janet (Joan Chandler) and his best friend Kenneth (Douglas Dirk) who happens to be Janet’s ex-boyfriend. The flatmates also invite their old university teacher Rupert Cadell (James Stewart) who taught David as well. The chest is used as the buffet to serve the food. While the party guests wonder why David is taking so long to arrive and if he’s been held up somehow, the hosts steer the small talk to the art of murder and the argument, based on a popular interpretation of Nietzschean philosophy, that it’s not murder for someone of superior quality or character to kill a lesser being. Cadell gradually becomes suspicious and deduces from the mix of talk of strangling chickens, David’s absence, Mrs Wilson’s mention that she had the afternoon off to go shopping and circumstantial visual evidence that his old students have indeed applied his teaching literally.

Dall and Granger as the two gay flatmates are great in their roles: Brandon (who may be slightly sociopathic) valiantly strives to maintain an air of cool smug composure and even delight but as the day passes, cracks appear in his pretence as he becomes nervous and starts to stutter at odd times. Conscience-stricken Phillip becomes more agitated and confused and acts in strange ways that arouse Cadell’s suspicions; Granger perhaps starts too early in the film having qualms about his role in the murder and some of his acting verges on the hammy but his overall performance is good. The other guests don’t notice the hosts’ bizarre behaviour: the older people are worried about David, and Janet and Kenneth stare daggers at each other. Stewart, perhaps miscast for his role, affects a kind of stand-offish avuncular intellectual stance which fades out once he suspects his old students are up to something; but his investigative side is well done. Chandler and Dick as the estranged couple don’t have much dialogue together but still put up a credible if sketchy job sorting out their differences amid mutual suspicion and at least agreeing to be friendly again when they leave the apartment.

The film falls flat at its climax when Cadell berates the two flatmates, back-tracking and arguing against what he originally taught the two in his lectures. The suggestion is that philosophy itself as an intellectual exercise, and Nietzschean philosophy in particular, leads people into dangerous and amoral ways of thinking and behaving. The climax might have been stronger if Cadell had not only emphasised David’s humanity but made his argument against murder using the same philosophy and concepts that Brandon and Phillip had used to justify killing their friend. Cadell could have shown them that it is their narrow egotistic and self-serving interpretation of the Nietzschean idea of the Superman that has led them to murder, and in this way the flatmates learn they must be solely responsible for their actions and accept all the consequences, including a possible death penalty, that arise from them. (True Nietzschean Supermen gladly accept everything that life throws at them, including pain, isolation, shame and humiliation if necessary, as a test of their mettle and as something that guides their evolution to a higher state of being and living.) The scene could still be one full of anguish for Cadell and he could still feel guilty for his part in David’s murder, as he comes to realise that perhaps he’s not as good a teacher as he thought.

The use of one set with a constantly roving camera gives a claustrophobic feel to “Rope” and there are many touches of macabre humour in the dialogue, replete with double entendres that add more tension and make Phillip more nervous, and in the dinner party conceit itself: it is more than a farewell party (Brandon and Phillip are planning to drive to Connecticut after the party finishes), it is David’s wake as well. And what could be more gruesome and funny than to serve the food off David’s coffin?

The homosexual relationship of Brandon and Phillip is a definite subtext – Brandon as the more assured, dominant partner, Phillip as the more submissive partner – and the movie suggests they killed David because, apart from being “ordinary”, he is heading for a married life with Janet and can have what Brandon and Phillip can’t have. On the other hand, Brandon and Phillip might regard themselves as “superior” because as homosexuals they need not bother with finding marriage partners and conforming to social mores but can pursue a hedonistic high-society life-style and be and do what they like. Romance, marriage and family life are an important theme in Hitchcock’s work and here it plays out in converse ways in the form of a gay couple, in David and Janet’s engagement and in Brandon throwing Janet and Kenneth together as if they were puppets (and the film suggests that’s exactly what Brandon enjoys doing: playing people against each other).

“Rope” attempts to criticise Nazism and concepts of elitism that led to the Nazi pursuit of racial hygiene policies in which people were graded into a racial hierarchy and those deemed “inferior” were killed though whether Hitchcock misinterpreted Nietzsche’s idea of the Superman is another question. At the time the film was made (the late 1940’s), most people including the Nazis themselves did misinterpret the concept in a simplistic way (people who are Supermen can do what they like and are not bound by conventional notions of morality) so it’s understandable if Hitchcock did also.

“Rope” features excellent acting performances from its three lead actors (Dall, Granger, Stewart) and from support actor Chandler in a plot that combines suspense, tension and subtlety. The visual flow that comes from the unusual filming technique used in the 1940’s adds to the audience’s sense of being voyeurs, with camera reels changing every time the camera “bumps” into the back of one of the male characters or into the furniture; it also reinforces the tense nature of the setting. The background scenes that show day changing to night and the lighting up of the New York City skyline, thanks to the Cyclorama technique used, are interesting to watch.

Psycho (dir. Alfred Hitchcock): good psych horror thriller about predestination / free will and men’s oppression of women

Alfred Hitchcock, “Psycho” (1960)

This movie is a good psychological horror thriller with excellent performances from its two leads Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates and Janet Leigh as Marion Crane. Leigh dominates much of the film’s first half. Crane is a disaffected secretary who nicks $40,000 in cash from her real estate employer on the pretence of banking it and going home early because of a headache; she instead makes off for an out-of-town weekend rendezvous with her boyfriend Sam (John Galvin). Along the way she hurriedly changes cars at a used-car dealership and arrives at a hotel operated by lone owner-manager Bates. They have supper and a brief chat together, after which Crane suddenly decides she’ll leave in the morning, return to town and hand back the money. Her plans are thwarted when an intruder stabs her to death while she is having a shower. Some time after the killer has left, Bates comes and looks into the bathroom, is shocked at what he sees and cleans up the blood and other mess. He disposes of Crane’s body, her effects and her car in a nearby swamp.

The rest of the film introduces Vera Miles as Crane’s sister Lila, a respectable single woman in contrast to the more impulsive Marion, who engages a private detective (Matt Balsam) to inquire into Marion’s disappearance. After the detective himself disappears – he joins Crane down in the swamp – Lila and Sam decide to investigate Marion’s whereabouts and, following the detective’s last piece of information, arrive at the Bates Hotel to do their own snooping …

What makes “Psycho” more than just a psych horror / slasher film – and this is often true of many of Hitchcock’s films – is its theme that informs the characters’ motivations and personalities: in “Psycho”, it’s the choices that people must make between conforming to social expectations, duties and obligations and determining their own destiny: what Marion and Norman refer to as “the private trap”. The two sisters Lila and Marion are mirror opposites: Lila chose to conform before the film’s events and stays single; Marion chooses a de facto relationship and makes other decisions on the hop. Both women are subjected separately to knife attacks: the conformist sister survives, the nonconformist one doesn’t. Bates is both a conformist and nonconformist but in an unusual way: he’s a victim of his upbringing and fate which took away his father and made his mother turn to the son for emotional comfort; the son becomes trapped in his relationship with his mother. He chooses to preserve it even if it means killing his mother and her later lover; overcome with guilt, he resurrects the mother in his mind which “she” comes to dominate as prudish and repressive.

Romance is dealt with in prescribed ways approved by society and these ways usually privilege men’s needs and preferences over those of women. This puts Marion in an unenviable state: she’s in a relationship with a divorced man she wants to marry but who can’t afford to marry her. When a lecherous tycoon propositions her and throws the $40,000 down on the table for a property sale, it’s understandable that she would take it: she and Sam need the money, the tycoon treats it as small change. This becomes obvious after her death: her boss notifies Lila of her disappearance and the missing cash rather than go to the police, indicating that he and the tycoon are willing to forgive Marion for the theft.

Marion’s shower death scene cuts the film in two very different halves and the way it is done deserves mention: for modern audiences, it’s not gory and only once is the knife seen to pierce, or at least touch, flesh. Blood flows in the water and down the drain but is not seen much. Marion’s screams, the dull knife thuds (the film crew repeatedly stabbed a watermelon for the sound effects), the very quick camera cuts and the repeating shrill, hysterical violin music by Bernard Hermann provide the horror. The camera continually cuts between Marion’s point of view and the killer’s, and this helps to transfer the focus of the plot from Marion to Bates. A kind of sexual intercourse has occurred in the death scene. While the shower scene is structurally pivotal to the movie, the scene itself is the culmination of the chat Marion and Bates have about being free to live one’s own life versus obligations to family and how individuals become trapped in a particular groove as a result of personal history and family background. It’s during this chat that Marion decides to return to town to deal with her particular “private trap” and Bates determines that she should stay at the hotel. Viewers who watch and listen to this chat closely will link the bathroom intruder with Bates himself.

The weakest part of “Psycho” is the denouement in which a psychiatrist explains Bates’s behaviour and family history, followed by Bates sitting alone in a jail cell facing the camera. Although these scenes provide closure for those viewers unfamiliar with Freudian psychology, they cut off the possibility of multiple interpretations of Bates’s behaviour and place ultimate blame for his psychosis on his domineering mother. One could suggest that the psychiatrist imposes his own interpretation of Bates’s behaviour, based on interviews with him, and isn’t necessarily to be believed; Bates may be using his mother as a scapegoat for his crimes – a classic example of projecting blame. According to Bates, his mother disapproves of sexual desire yet earlier when Lila snuck into the woman’s bedroom, she saw small monuments to romantic and sexual love. Bates and another character in the film also acknowledge that Mrs Bates had a lover. Who is the real Mrs Bates then?

The low budget for “Psycho” at the time of filming meant it was shot in black-and-white which hinders aspects of the plot’s development and elaboration: the landscape in which the events take place looks generic and never becomes part of the movie. Colour film would have given sharpness to the film’s look and a colourful desert background would have heightened the isolation of the Bates family property and its lone inhabitant from the rest of the world. The Bates family mansion would look more dilapidated and distinctive as a character in its own right instead of merely resembling a haunted-house stereotype. The use of colour inside the mansion could have emphasised its three floors’ resemblance to the Freudian concept of the human mind: ground floor / ego, upper floor / superego, basement level / id. There is an emphasis on contrasts of light and dark within “Psycho” which colour film and a clear filter might have made more of.

The film makes several assertions about the nature of Bates’s psychosis and his relationship with his mother, all of them quite contradictory and undercutting each other, and challenges audiences on the good girl / bad girl polarity represented by Lila and Marion. Lila is the good girl but the film seems more sympathetic towards Marion, at least until she decides to turn back to town and return the money. Marion comes across as an attractive, likeable character with faults and her sister as proper, more mature perhaps, but maybe less deserving of the audience’s sympathy. The private detective is diligent in his work but ends up dead; the local police sheriff seems lackadaisical in investigating Marion and the detective’s whereabouts but survives. These positions the film revels in, many of them related to the central themes of the polarity of predestination / free will and men’s oppression of women and their sexuality, make “Psycho” an ambiguous and complex film.

Aliens (dir. James Cameron): overstretched plot meets redeemed heroine in Vietnam War fable

James Cameron, “Aliens” (1986)

Sequel to Ridley Scott’s “Alien”, this is a very different movie: “Alien” is basically a haunted-house horror story with ordinary civilian worker types set on a spaceship; “Aliens” is a combat movie about a mission gone wrong set on a distant planet. The only things the two have in common are the character Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the monsters who become a regular part of her life when she’s awake or at least not in deep sleep. Comparisons between the two films are beside the point: Cameron didn’t set out to remake “Alien”, he made a movie in a genre he was familiar with at the time (late 1980s), which is the action adventure genre. “Aliens” can be read as Cameron’s ham-fisted criticism of US military conduct in the Vietnam War, in which nearly two million US soldiers were thrown into a conflict a lot of them didn’t understand and many thousands died needlessly, being picked off by the enemy Viet Cong who knew the territory well (it was their home after all). In like manner, a group of marines armed with sophisticated weaponry sally forth into colonial territory established on an alien planet to protect the colonists and hunt down and destroy an enemy, only to be hit back hard by a determined and intelligent though technologically primitive monster species that has made the planet its home.

Fifty-seven years after the events of “Alien”, Ripley’s escape craft, having drifted in space, is picked up by a larger ship and taken back to Earth. After half a century away, one’d think Ripley had been given up for dead and all her details wiped off any databases and the cargo transporter she blew up written off as a lost asset but no, as soon as she’s back, she gets grilled by the Company for wilfully destroying its property, losing its cargo and her pilot licence (it’s still current?) is withdrawn. Worse than that, she discovers she has no family, her only daughter having died childless.

Resigned to manual labour as a non-entity in a society that doesn’t need or want her, Ripley is later contacted by Company rep Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) and an army man Gorman (William Hope) who advise that the Company has lost contact with its colony on planet LV-426 (formerly Thedus where the Nostromo landed in “Alien”) and they are sending a military mission there to find out why. Would she be willing to go as a “consultant”? After first refusing and then suffering a bad dream and a panic attack, Ripley finally agrees to go.

The mission, made up of young marines under the impression of going on a “bug hunt”, travels to the planet where it finds one surviving colonist, a young girl called Newt (Carrie Henn), and discovers the colony got wiped out by a hive of aliens. After being nearly wiped out themselves, the surviving marines retreat back to their drop-ship and decide to bomb the colony buildings and go home. Unfortunately the evacuation ship itself is attacked by an alien and explodes, leaving the survivors stranded. From then on, it’s a struggle for Ripley, Newt, Burke, the robot Bishop (Lance Henriksen) and the remaining marines to bring another evacuation ship down to the planet and get off before the colony explodes or the aliens get them, whichever is first. Along the way, Ripley must thwart Burke’s devious attempt to get two aliens on board the ship home and save Newt after the child disappears down a vent into the clutches of the aliens who want her as baby food. The remaining marines get picked off one by one down to Hicks (Michael Biehn) who barely survives the mission.

The film divides into two halves, the first half being exposition, tying up and elaborating on any loose plot strands from “Alien” and setting up the scene for the conflict with the aliens on LV-426; the second half all breathless go-go action with no let up and piling on one implausible plot twist after another. What holds these halves together is Ripley’s transformation from mere company worker with no future into a leader with a purpose: in finding and retrieving Newt, and confronting the alien queen twice, Ripley at last finds reason to continue living and achieves a kind of redemption. This makeover makes Ripley a fully realised character in comparison with rest of the cast who play character stereotypes. The former stickler for regulations throws them all out the window to risk her life to rescue Newt and her black-and-white view of the world changes too: Bishop shows her not all robots are as bad or creepy as they look and she even achieves a short-lived understanding with the alien queen in the breeding pit.

The aliens’ life-cycle and physiology reveal them as overgrown insects: they bleed lots of acid blood which they can use as a weapon, they have a parasitic larval stage, they moult as they grow and they have a “queen” whose life is completely given over to laying eggs. There seems no point in making the queen the biggest and most intelligent critter if she’s merely an egg-laying machine – one could argue she’s actually a slave to the other aliens – but the detail hardly matters in a cartoon plot. Having Gorman as combat mission leader despite having no actual experience in the field begs credibility. Ripley surviving one encounter with the aliens can be put down to luck but surviving two with a little girl in tow and nearly all the marines save one totally blown away is perhaps too much even for coin-tossers among us. Anyone who’s bad like Burke and everyone who is disposable or disrespects Ripley gets it in the neck – or the face – and the people Ripley cares about or who have a lesson to teach her come through safely. Come to think of it, a huge powerful and wealthy Company able to send ships into space should be able to afford a robots-only military mission or even just a reconnaissance satellite with Google Earth streetview (and better) technology to investigate the disappearance of a colony but then of course there’d be no movie and Ripley would have no transformative redemption and a reason to go on living. There are many “just-in-time” moments that strain credibility: the aliens cut off electricity just when the survivors decide what to do with Burke after they discover his little scheme, Ripley saves Newt seconds from being custard-pied by an alien larva, Bishop arrives in the nick of time to rescue Ripley and Newt from the alien queen’s wrath and the queen herself is about to haul Newt from beneath a grate just when Ripley in her cargo-loader challenges her to a duel.

A conservative message about the role of women may be present, in that Ripley finds her true destiny being a mother (to Newt) and is challenged by another mother (the alien queen) to prove herself worthy of that destiny. On the other hand, the men in “Aliens” become weak or compromised in some way and as they fall to the aliens it falls to Ripley to lead the expedition and to salvage whatever she can of it. Only Hicks, who respects Ripley and treats her as his equal, stays alive.

In spite of the overstretched plot, the various “in time” incidents and a weak copycat flush-down-the-airlock ending, “Aliens” is a likeable live-action cartoon movie which fleshes out a familiar character and the monsters who become, for better and for worse, twinned with her forever. The one aspect of “Aliens” that lifts it above other similar popcorn action movies is the development of a character who through her encounters with her worst enemy matures into a leader and discovers inner strength and resourcefulness.

Alien (dir. Ridley Scott): unique sci-fi/horror film with much to say about human society

Ridley Scott, “Alien” (1979)

In the wake of news that Ridley Scott has started work on “Prometheus”, the movie prologue to “Alien”, it’s timely to revisit the movie that started the whole series and made Sigourney Weaver a star. The idea of mixing science fiction with horror was not new in 1979 when the film was released and some of the ideas in “Alien” can be traced to various sources including a story in the British TV science fiction show Doctor Who “The Ark in Space”, broadcast a few years before “Alien”, in which an alien lays larvae in human hosts asleep in capsules in a space ship. What Scott brought to “Alien” that makes it stand out from its influences and from other science fiction / horror films before and after is its use of atmosphere, backgrounds, characters and plot to create a fusion of haunted-house horror, slasher flick and a survival film. The alien’s life-cycle becomes a central part of the film’s horror and this together with the alien (played by Bolaji Bodejo) itself have come to embody human fears and misunderstandings about sexuality, pregnancy and birth.

In the distant future a company cargo space transporter, the Nostromo, is bringing a refinery and various minerals back to Earth when it intercepts an apparent SOS from a spaceship on a distant alien planet. The crew of seven is awakened from deep sleep and on discovering the signal, land on the planet to investigate its source and provide assistance. The signal is traced to a crashed alien ship and the crew, led by Dallas (Tom Skerritt), sends out a rescue team. One of the team, Kane (John Hurt) is injured during the search, and is brought back to the Nostromo. Too late his crew-mates discover he has been infected by an alien parasite which has deposited a larva in him; the larva emerges in spectacularly erect fashion in the communal dining-room – it always has to be a dining-room for the yuck factor – and zooms off to hide in the Nostromo’s various labyrinthine networks, holding bays and other nooks and crannies. From then on, the movie is a mixture of hide-and-seek / cat-and-mouse game as prey becomes hunter and the hunters become prey, and along the way audiences learn more about the true nature of the SOS signal and how the crew’s employer exploited them and put their lives in danger by not advising them of the true nature of the rescue mission.

The seven actors who make up the crew had considerable experience in theatre, film, television and other forms of drama when they were cast, and their performances as ordinary technical service personnel with all their concerns about pay, work conditions and treatment by their employer are good if perhaps not exceptional. Weaver as Ellen Ripley the unimaginative stickler for rules and regulations and Ian Holm as the Nostromo’s overly detached science officer Ash who harbours a secret deliver the stand-out performances with Yaphet Kotto as the would-be hero mechanic and Harry Dean Stanton as his laconic partner not far behind. Perhaps the best scene with respect to acting is Weaver’s scene where she confronts the alien directly and fights to control her emotions as she draws the creature towards her so as to position it for blasting into space via decompression: it’s equal parts cool-headed heroism, an unyielding will to survive and the fear and horror of violent death all feeding off one another.

The Nostromo should receive an acting credit as well: its labyrinth-like interiors in which the alien hides provide major opportunities for the simple plot to advance and the alien to bump off individual crew members. The colours of the Nostromo’s interiors are dark and shadowy which give the film’s early scenes a moody, suspenseful, almost film-noir atmosphere. Flashing lights, bursts of smoke and siren sounds in its narrow corridors in the film’s later scenes build up tension towards the climax in which Weaver’s character Ripley will meet the alien. Probably the only criticism to be made about the sets is that the ones that feature computer technology were becoming dated even at the time of the film’s initial release. Film crews, even ones with great imaginations, can only look so far into the future and guess at what technologies might be popular.

Where “Alien” really excels is in its careful detailing of the alien planet’s landscapes, the crashed ship’s strange, organic shapes and interiors, and the alien’s sexually suggestive appearance based on artwork by Swiss artist H R Giger who had a cult reputation in the 1970s. The very alien-ness of the film’s early scenes, in which the rescue team investigate the crashed ship, helps to set the mood of dread and mystery for the action to come. Once the alien is out and about and has got rid of a few victims, the tension starts to ratchet up steadily and the noir-like mood gradually disappears to be replaced by a new atmosphere of competitive, urgent struggle as Ripley decides to blow up the Nostromo and sets its self-destruct mechanisms in place.

The film makes insinuations about the future society that provides the context for the nightmarish scenario the crew find themselves in: for a company to be able to send large cargo ships into the far reaches of space to ferry ores, it must be extremely rich and must hold considerable political as well as economic power. The company also has a large human workforce, so large that a few missing, even killed deliberately, barely make a dint on the company’s occupational safety records. It prefers to keep valuable knowledge and secrets in a robot that lacks an inbuilt system or database of ethics, forces humans to follow company orders and spies on them as well. One would think a company that rich and powerful should be able to build cargo ships that are entirely self-operating and need no humans, not even in emergency situations where lateral thinking is required. Perhaps this company operates on thin profit margins that don’t allow it to continuously update its operations but manages with a mixture of old and new technologies. In such ships, humans are needed in much the same way as pilots are needed on airbuses and jumbo jets, mainly to land such vehicles and set them up for take-off, and to perform other jobs as the company requires. The fact that Ripley and the other crew members address company headquarters staff collectively as “Mother” suggests the company plays a nanny-state role in its employees’ lives – among other things, it might provide housing for them and their families, schools and teachers to educate their children, and doctors and nurses to monitor their health and determine their fitness for company employment – in a way viewers would find highly intrusive and hard to understand. The company literally has the power of life and death over its workers.

Science in such a society becomes nothing more than a weapon or a mechanism which the company uses to enrich itself and its owners, and to expand its power. No wonder that the company sees value in obtaining the monster – thus its directive to Ash to preserve the monster’s life at any cost – to the extent that it would sacrifice the Nostromo’s crew. Ash admires the monster for its “purity”, meaning its lack of self-awareness that would require possessing some sort of moral code, a sense of right and wrong. The monster exists to survive and replicate itself in aggressive ways and the company wants to know what motivates this kind of behaviour in the monster. Anyone familiar with the way movie science fiction works can easily figure out what this might lead to: insane fascistic fantasies about creating hierarchies of human-alien hybrid soldiers and worker drones to colonise the universe. The mysteries of human sexuality and reproduction become an elaborate if mechanised form of mass factory production of the kind Aldous Huxley wrote about in “Brave New World” in which human embryos were customised by chemical and/or cellular manipulation to fit into particular pre-determined social and economic niches in the novel’s hierarchical society.

At least Ripley and the others discover who the real monster in the scenario is – and it ain’t the one hiding in the air shafts hunting them down. The film is not very subtle about that fact – indeed much of it plays out like a B-grade horror film – but in its set-up and characterisation that provide the basis for the plot, it makes assumptions about the future evolution of human society and its relationship to science and technology that would have most of us hanging our heads in despair.

True Grit (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen): revenge film plays straight and narrow with problematic heroine

Joel and Ethan Coen, “True Grit” (2010)

Adapted from the 1968 novel of the same name by Charles Portis, “True Grit” can be read as both a revenge film, in which a girl seeks justice for the murder of her father, and a coming-of-age film where the girl’s quest for her father’s murderer has certain life-long consequences. It’s a likeable film with lovely prairie and snow country scenery which pays homage to the Western genre with a solid story driven more by its flavoured and eccentric dialogue and the quirks of its main characters than by action, but it appears small in its scope and ambition. Perhaps the Coens, in trying to be true to the novel in spirit if not in its details, and perhaps wishing also to respect the 1968 movie version that starred John Wayne, Glen Campbell and Kim Darby in the main roles, opt for a straight and conservative interpretation of the novel with some humour and much attention to the characters’ mode of speech and their dialogue. This prevents any examination of the central character Mattie Ross’s motive for pursuing her father’s killer Tom Chaney and why she desires Old Testament “eye for an eye” justice for him.

It seems unbelievable that a 14 year old girl should take it upon herself to hire a US marshal and go after her father’s killer, even in the days of the so-called “Wild, Wild West” but this is the central conceit of the novel and the two movies based on it. Perhaps the decision to make more of the Rooster Cogburn character and less of the teenage girl in the 1969 movie was a better one: at least the story would have been more credible with Wayne garnering most attention as Cogburn and Darby as the girl trusting in his judgement and skills. The 2010 film now revolves completely around Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), the aggrieved youngster, who doggedly raises the money needed to hire the old alcoholic and vicious US marshal Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and makes sure he sticks to the “contract” they supposedly agreed on, to the extent that she buys a horse and follows him very closely into Choctaw Indian country where Chaney (Josh Brolin) is hiding out with an outlaw gang led by Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper). A Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), is also on Chaney’s trail but for different reasons. LaBoeuf and Ross clash and quarrel early on as a result: Ross simply won’t allow Chaney to be punished for killing another man, she wants him punished for killing her father. Why that should be so isn’t explained or pursued in the film; is a farmer in Arkansas any more important or special than a Texas senator? This simply speaks for an unpleasant and unimaginative character in a teenage girl, and the fact that Cogburn and LaBoeuf allow Ross to accompany them, rather than tell her to jump into the nearest snake-pit and let them sort out Chaney their own way, is a strange quirk that turns out to be one of many in the plot. Perhaps the novel in its own way is a comic undermining of assumptions in traditional Western literature and films, in which women and children knew their place (and that place was strictly in the men’s shadows), and the Coens, in following the novel closely, failed to capitalise much on the novel’s subversions.

The threesome travel both separately and together in tracking Chaney and there are some comic episodes, such as a cornbread-shooting competition between Cogburn and LaBoeuf to see who is a better shot, and oddball characters such as the boarding-house madame who snores loudly and hogs all the blankets, and a lone rider (Ed Corbin) wearing a bear’s head, followed by a horse carrying a corpse. The tension builds steadily and satisfactorily to Ross’s encounter with Chaney in a stream, at which point the drama, spiced with a little comedy from a minor character in Ned Pepper’s gang, kicks into efficient, no-nonsense action. This culminates in Cogburn’s challenge to the whole gang, at once serious and yet hilariously ridiculous: Cogburn riding full-tilt at the foursome with reins in his mouth and firing two guns, and managing to shoot all four of them, killing three, without suffering any injuries – hell, even his hat doesn’t blow off. The true climax comes soon after with Ross and Chaney again facing off against each other and this time, Ross gets her justice at last but with the recoil from the rifle (funny, Cogburn didn’t have that problem with the two firearms) throwing her into the, uh … nearest snake-pit.

Although the film is very neat and compact in its telling, its close attention to the quest of Ross, Cogburn and LaBoeuf allows for no examination of Ross’s character and motivations, or indeed of why Ross, as a mature woman 25 years afterwards, revisits this particular episode of her teenage years and why she holds it in such high regard to the extent that she has Cogburn’s remains interred in her family cemetery. What does she remember of Cogburn and LaBoeuf’s personalities? Does she remember them for being the first people to treat her as an adult and an equal? Is she grateful to Cogburn and LaBoeuf for getting her out of the snake-pit? If she had managed to catch up with Cogburn just before he died, what would they have talked about of that adventure? Why does she even want to see him again? Unfortunately the voice-over narrative, delivered by Elizabeth Marvel, doesn’t reveal anything of Ross’s reasons for wanting to see Cogburn again and the actress herself, playing the mature Ross, portrays her as an unpleasant and priggish spinster stereotype. It’s perhaps just as well that Cogburn dies before seeing her again as no doubt she probably would have demanded that he compensate her for killing her mount Little Blackie when it collapsed all those years ago.

The film’s thrust treats the relationship between Ross and Cogburn as strictly business-like and allows nothing deeper to develop between them: Ross as the substitute for the child Cogburn lost when his wife left him, and Cogburn as the father Ross lost. An opportunity is lost to make something more out of these two characters which might justify the tenderness Cogburn displays towards Ross when she is bitten by the rattlesnake. The Ross character remains one-dimensional while Cogburn, as portrayed by Jeff Bridges, emerges a complex character, one obviously liking his alcohol and not averse to bending the truth when it suits, yet brave, loyal and respectful of Ross’s precocity and stubbornness.

“True Grit” might have been a much better film if the Coens had deviated from the novel’s epilogue and portrayed the mature Ross as a changed and mellow character reflecting on how much her desire for vengeance and the adventure changed her life for better and for worse, and how life can dish out the worst tragedy at the moment of greatest triumph, demonstrating perhaps the pitiless nature of an uncaring universe; and if a father-daughter relationship had been allowed to develop between Cogburn and Ross so that both become better people at the end. Ross would come to appreciate that great qualities can exist even in the most “sinful” of men and Cogburn would find the family he had lost all hope of ever having. “True Grit” could have been as much a coming-of-age story about both Ross and Cogburn as a purely revenge quest for Ross and a test of reputation for Cogburn.

The Dark Knight: a shallow movie with one-note characters beneath the pyrotechnics

Christopher Nolan, “The Dark Knight” (2008)

Second in British-American director Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy that began with “Batman Begins” (2005) and will finish with “The Dark Knight Rises” in 2012, this movie represents Hollywood at its best and worst over the decade 2000 – 2010: blockbuster entertainment with big-name actors, some of whom deliver fine performances, as mostly one-dimensional characters in search of a clear and straightforward plot to justify the rollercoaster ride of tension build-up, peak, ride-down and repeat along with numerous exploding glass windows, transport vehicles, various deserted buildings and a growing body count. The only things missing are the product placements, the busty luscious babes and Shirley Bassey bellowing the theme song. There’s a message about the age-old struggle between good and evil which even Hollywood knows is an old-fashioned idea that needs frequent tweaking to appear fresh and vital so the variation that appears in “The Dark Knight” is one in which, at the level of certain individuals, evil defeats good; and on a collective level, for goodness to prevail over evil, good people often have to bend the rules, engage in unethical practices, even copy what bad people do. Some individuals’ reputations have to be preserved and a network of lies spun to maintain the confidence and faith of the citizens of Gotham City in the law. Everyone in the film, good and bad, comes out looking as grubby as everyone else and no-one learns any valuable lessons after the rollercoaster ride ends other than “the end justifies the means”. This ensures that the cycle of violent crime in Gotham City will continue.

What passes for a plot in “The Dark Knight” is a string of sketches, most of which form a series of “tests” conducted by the criminal mastermind calling himself the Joker (Heath Ledger) on the city residents and in particular on Batman (Christian Bale) to test their moral breaking points and if Batman himself can be corrupted. Entwined with the Joker’s ever more elaborately staged and vicious pranks is the complementary rise and fall of Gotham City District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) from heralded “white knight” hero supposedly busting organised crime networks to vengeful twisted nutcase intent on taking various people down with him. Although Dent’s transformation from good guy to bad guy is sudden, the film makes clear from the start his moral fallibility: he flippantly tosses coins to make important decisions, punches a guy in fury in court and relies on Batman risking his own life to make him look good so his sudden downfall, pushed along by the Joker, is plausible. Police lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldfield) who becomes Police Commissioner during the film, confirms Dent’s true nature beneath the squeaky-clean facade by remembering the attorney’s nickname Two-Face from an earlier encounter that took place long before the movie’s events.

Dent could have been the movie’s focus as an essentially well-meaning but flawed character who descends into the pit of evil, egged on by the Joker, and a set-up that enables him to redeem himself by recognising that he, not his coin, is solely responsible for “[making] his own luck” and to flummox the Joker into acknowledging that however hard mortals fall, they still have the potential to rise again, morally if not materially, would have made “The Dark Knight” a grander and more interesting, more thoughtful work. Batman and the Joker would play their good angel / bad angel routine and their battle for Dent’s “soul” might at least lead Batman to learn something about himself and his quest to rid Gotham City of crime and evil. The Joker might learn something too if only to make himself a more formidable enemy for Batman. They are indeed complementary if weird and polarised soul-mates.

The actors are all capable in their roles most of which are one-note anyway. Maggie Gyllenhaal as lawyer Rachel Dawes, over whom Dent and Batman as Bruce Wayne are love rivals, has nothing to do and the movie disposes of her halfway through without resolving the love triangle, Dent not even realising he has competition. Bale, recognising Batman’s essential straight-man role to counter the florid villains, plays his dual role in a minimal and blank way. That’s some achievement: playing a character with two highly opposed personalities with next-to-no acting. Eckhart as Dent has the hardest task turning a flawed would-be hero into a dangerous killer and he pulls it off well though the coin-flipping habit is excessive and tiresome. Of the minor roles, Morgan Freeman makes the deepest impression as Lucius Fox, the quietly authoritative chief executive of Wayne Enterprises and the film’s supposedly moral voice. (Though if Fox is willing to help Batman nab a crook accountant in Hong Kong, breaking various laws there, he can hardly complain about Batman wire-tapping people’s cellphones to locate the Joker.) Ledger is a mannered Joker, affecting a hunch-back walk and facial tics when it suits and having a grand time in his role, getting the film’s best lines and toying with Batman and the police like so many guinea pigs; even his role hardly calls for much depth of character and it’s arguable that any other serious drama actor in the role would have done just as well as Ledger.

For a self-proclaimed canine car-chaser, the Joker in some ways is surprisingly generous and moral in a way: a true agent of chaos wouldn’t allow innocent people to choose their mode of death or give Batman and the police just enough time to rescue people before bombs go off. Most of those killed directly by the Joker are crooks or police in the line of duty and the city authorities are allowed to evacuate hospitals before he blows one up (and it was probably overdue for demolition anyway). The Joker appears to be testing his resolve and abilities as much as he tests Batman, and his own actions nearly always disprove everything he says about himself. Viewers either accept him as a confused mass of contradictions or assume he’s deliberately lying about himself to throw people off guard and see how they react when they discover the truth.

The Joker’s duel with Batman could have been a true battle of wits, self-struggle, self-examination and who has the brain and guts to call the other guy’s bluff. Batman is supposed to be a master detective using his intelligence and cunning where other comic heroes rely on super-powers; here, he runs about like a rat on a wheel, chasing the Joker and never coming to understand his foe or his methods, much less anticipate and predict where the fiend might strike next. The Joker could be preening himself, imagining that he is conducting a giant science experiment and egging Batman on to ever greater efforts of heroism, at least until Batman has a light-bulb moment (unlikely with Nolan and Bale’s interpretation of the character) and figures out a way to turn the experiment back onto the Joker.

We get a film where gadgetry and technology are fetishised, and explosions mark the various climaxes that appear with boring regularity, signalling the end of one acting routine that features a cat-and-mouse game and the beginning of another similar routine. The special effects, fiery blow-outs and whizz-bang computer work that simulates Batman’s sonar become tiresome and the film, stripped of its pyrotechnics, ends up looking like an ordinary and over-long CSI-type episode. The film does the original comic little credit in spirit: Batman should be something above the usual forces of law and order, and compensate for what it lacks, placing him in a position of conflict against it. For him to be co-operating with a corruptible and incompetent police force when he’s an incorruptible vigilante is a contradictory and compromising position.

The duality of the Batman / Joker conflict isn’t explored much beyond Batman as moral agent and the Joker as supposedly amoral agent. Even this aspect is conflicted in the film: Batman, by jettisoning his principles to capture the Joker at any cost, becomes a corrupted individual. The Joker, in refusing to kill Batman but simply wanting to bring him down through carefully staged pranks that Batman nearly always overcomes (suggesting that the Joker incorporates sporting chances in his schemes), is more “moral” than he realises. The irony is that the Joker didn’t need to do anything stagey or strenuous at all – Batman brought himself down low.

Chinatown: film noir addresses serious issues of political and moral corruption

Roman Polanski, “Chinatown” (1974)

Chinatown” was Roman Polanski’s foray into the private eye / film noir genre and his last major film for Hollywood. A few years after making this movie, Polanski was arrested and charged with having unlawful sex with an underage teenage girl; though what he did cannot be condoned, his situation was complicated by the excessive media attention at the time which put pressure on the presiding judge, anxious for his reputation as a “hanging”-type judge, to ignore the recommendations of both Polanski’s legal defence team and his victim’s lawyers that Polanski serve a short time in jail, submit to a psychiatric test and evaluation (both conditions which he fulfilled) and then do a year’s worth of community service. The judge determined to put Polanski away for a long time which would have wrecked the film-maker’s career and tarnished the reputation of the law in California where the offence took place – in short, the judge would have acted corruptly. No wonder then, at the first opportunity, Polanski fled back to Europe where he continued to direct movies but always with his reputation under a cloud.

No small irony then that “Chinatown” deals with political corruption: in particular, with the selfish monied interests of a wealthy elite versus the public interest over the allocation of a necessary resource (water) and how politicians and public servants can be bought by rich individuals while honest hard-working poor people and communities (farmers in a valley north-west of Los Angeles where the movie is set) face the loss of livelihood and an uncertain economic future. Though “Chinatown” takes place during the Depression years of the 1930’s, its central message about political corruption and the misallocation and mismanagement of land, water and other resources is still relevant to us, especially in an age where in many countries water and electricity are being privatised and their control is no longer subject to public scrutiny, and in which cities continue to grow, putting pressure on their surrounding hinterlands and the communities there to share or supply more water from diminishing sources.

Initially the plot is straightforward and spare: private detective J J Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired by a woman (Diane Ladd) claiming to be Evelyn Mulwray to spy on Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), an engineer working in the Los Angeles city water department, and ascertain if he is having an affair. Gittes quickly discovers that Mulwray is indeed seeing a teenage girl and that he is opposed to the construction of a new dam. Gittes follows Mulwray and finds that Mulwray has unearthed a scam which involves the dumping of fresh water into the ocean even though Los Angeles is suffering drought conditions. After Mulwray’s “infidelity” is exposed in the newspapers, the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) brings a lawsuit against Gittes and Gittes realises he has been set up. He convinces Mrs Mulwray that he is an innocent party and she reveals that her husband and her father Noah Cross (John Huston) were former business partners who privately owned the city’s water department.

Hollis is later found murdered and Evelyn Mulwray hires Gittes to investigate her husband’s death. He does so and finds it connected to a land grab attempt by the LA city water department to force farmers to sell their land cheaply to the investors who bought land bonds. The “investors” are revealed to be residents of a nursing home who know nothing of what was done in their name – by none other than Noah Cross who owns the home through his Albacore Club. Gittes’s continuing investigations bring him into conflict with Cross who wants him to find Hollis Mulwray’s supposed teenage lover, put his life and career at risk, and culminate in a tragic climax in the Chinatown district of Los Angeles.

The narrow focus of the screenplay on Gittes’s investigations and Polanski’s smooth and sure direction give Nicholson plenty of space and freedom (and there is a lot of space in the movie, in the homes of the wealthy and their playgrounds, in the countryside, along the roads and the coasts of southern California) to develop his character as a louche and likeable private eye who, beneath the rakish and sometimes violent exterior, is actually a thorough, dedicated and morally principled man who observes the spirit of the law and justice if not their letter and who fights on the side of the weak against the powerful. Viewers quickly appreciate how Gittes has come to work for himself rather than continue working for the police. His relationship with Evelyn Mulwray becomes personal and complicated and partly because of this, by the end of the film he becomes a broken man. Nicholson’s performance as the multi-faceted Gittes is brilliant and convincing, flavoured with the actor’s own slightly raffish style. The rest of the cast provides excellent support, in particular Dunaway as the rich and sophisticated yet vulnerable wife hiding a terrible family secret, and Huston as her father, jovial and gracious, sinister and greedy. Polanski himself, perhaps in homage to the English director Alfred Hitchcock who sometimes played small cameo roles in his movies, plays a small role as a vicious thug who disfigures Gittes’s face.

The film might not look very film noir – it has a slightly soft yet clear look, there is plenty of blue sky and the surroundings look beautiful and clean (even the Chinatown district looks bright and not at all seedy in spite of rubbish in its streets) – but its surface appearance hides a rotten core and the film adheres to a number of noir genre conventions and subverts them as well. The hero is a disillusioned outsider with moral flaws often working on the wrong side of the law which is corrupt and which he comes into conflict with; he tries to save a victim, usually a beautiful woman who is both innocent and morally compromised somehow; and in pursuing justice, he gets roughed up by representatives of evil and corruption so that his further investigations become a test of his moral character and principles. His work may uncover yet more corruption. The world he moves in is morally dark and unsavoury. The hero might not succeed in beating back the forces of darkness, and so it is with “Chinatown”: the forces of corruption win and the hero realises his efforts were all for nothing. The victim turns out to be the teenage “mistress” of Hollis Mulwray and Gittes fails to save her from Noah Cross’s clutches. Cross is an interesting if repulsive character whose sexual abuse of his daughter Evelyn and what we can presume he’ll do to the young girl symbolise his utter disregard for what we might call “natural law” in pursuit of self-interest and immediate gratification, and parallels his greed for land and money and disregard of human-made laws.

The use of film noir and its conventions to address and investigate an issue of continuing contemporary political and social importance as well as Polanski’s other concerns about social justice and the place of outsiders in society, makes “Chinatown” a very powerful film that still packs a lot of punch. The surprising thing is that the plot is easy to follow, with no sub-plots, and includes a soap opera element. Polanski is faithful to historical detail in people’s dress, the cars and technology they use, the architecture and interiors of buildings, homes and offices, and the social and ethnic segregation almost to a fault; even his small role recalls the fact that many people in the underworld at the time were Eastern European Jewish migrants. His direction is plain, almost blank, and forces viewers to judge for themselves what the film’s events say about the world they live in. Some viewers may be unhappy that, by film’s end, nothing has been done to expose the water supply scam and that it’s a sideshow to the Cross family soap opera but Gittes’s failure is in keeping with the film noir genre and the film’s own logic. If an experienced and knowledgeable expert like Hollis Mulwray knew what was happening but was powerless to stop it and ended up being killed for his trouble, how could an outsider private eye with few resources other than his own intelligence and investigative skills succeed?

No Country for Old Men: all the right stuff and still not a great movie

Joel Cohen, “No Country for Old Men” (2007)

Is it possible for a movie to have all the “right stuff” – you know, good acting performances, great cinematography that emphasises the desolate mood of the Texan semi-desert landscapes, a tight screenplay, a plot with a steady pace that ratchets the tension up to a tremendous, heart-breaking climax – and still stop short of greatness? In the case of Ethan and Joel Coen’s “No Country for Old Men”, based on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, the answer is actually “Yes”.  The problem relates to the themes and ideas the film focusses on, in particular the nature of the universe where the film is set: a universe where randomness and unpredictability rule. Good and bad people alike have things done to them for no reason other than that there is a vicious cosmic joker at work, and having good moral principles or ethics is the same as having bad ones or none at all.  It becomes difficult for characters in this world, especially a fragmented one with little sense of community, where hyper-individualism and extreme self-reliance are valued, to understand and learn to deal with the problem of evil if it strikes swiftly and unexpectedly with no logic to it at all. A kind of complacency can result with people becoming resigned to the continuing and increasing level of evil and violence in their lives.

Unemployed welder and former Vietnam war veteran Llewelyn Moss (Brolin) is hunting game when he stumbles upon the aftermath of a shoot-out of a drug deal gone wrong, and he finds a suitcase of money. He takes the money (it happens to be bugged) and leaves the scene; later, feeling guilty that he didn’t help a survivor at that scene, he returns there with aid but is caught by various drug gang members and barely escapes with his life but must abandon his ute. Knowing that the drug gang will have checked the ute for ID papers so they can go after him, Moss bundles his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) off to safety with her mother and himself goes on the run from one motel to the next. Meanwhile two gang leaders hire a professional killer, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), to get the money back; Chigurh clinches his side of the deal by killing the leaders. The next day, Bell finds the gang leaders’ bodies and identifies Moss’s ute; he contacts Carla Jean later to offer police protection.

The rest of the film involves Chigurh hounding Moss and leaving mayhem in his wake while Bell becomes ever more perplexed at the level and intensity of the violence Chigurh commits. The tension steadily grows as Chigurh gets ever so close to Moss yet remains ever so far away and Moss comes close to danger but escapes in the nick of time by sheer luck (Chigurh picks the wrong room at one motel, Moss finds the electronic bug in the suitcase just in time in another motel). Ultimately both men fail in their objectives as they move in  a capricious world that’s indifferent to the fate of its inhabitants; a world where people must make sense of their circumstances and create their own rules of morality on the hop simply to survive. Innocent people die and even Chigurh himself, the bringer of death, is felled by a random act of very trite and unintended violence – a commonplace car accident! – that he can’t deal with on his own and which makes his future, even his survival, uncertain. If one assumes that he’s managed to get the money but not Moss – and there are clues in the film that that’s what happened – then the gang that the money “belongs to” will certainly be on his trail.

The grim justice of Chigurh’s fate would be more blackly comic if the Coens had identified the people who caused the accident and kept them alive. Chigurh would be faced with this dilemma: follow his inner logic and kill the persons responsible when he gets the chance; or acknowledge the fortuitous nature of the situation and let the people go. This would be the film’s climax and its best moment: Chigurh in a position to exercise free will by breaking out of old habits and ways of thinking.  If he follows the advice that he gave to a shopowner early in the film – the one where the guy followed a rule all his life and the rule put him into a rut so should he still follow that rule? – he might redeem himself in a small way. In spite of living in an uncaring and even malevolent universe, as long as people can exercise free will, they have the potential to be more than what life, experience and knowledge have made them so far, and can create some order in the universe. If Chigurh could do this, an irony comes into play: he finally becomes a human being, no longer the Grim Reaper’s right-hand man or an angel of death. The universe itself doesn’t change – it stays an amoral place – but one inhabitant makes his own peace with it.

One character likely to appeal to viewers is Carla Jean who, though the ultimate victim through no fault of her own, shows some inner steel. In refusing to stoop to Chigurh’s level by arguing that he has free will and more control over his decisions and fate than he knows (“… the coin don’t have no say …”), she seals her own fate but in a way that diminishes Chigurh. She shows him a way out of his implacable code of “honour” but he fails to seize it.

The other appealing character is Sheriff Bell, invested with warmth and feeling by Jones, who laments at what he believes is the passing of a more civilised world where the good guys and the bad guys alike abided by an unspoken etiquette and a code of honour. I should think a world like that would be a closeted world of bribery, manipulation and corruption if everyone understands the same language and knows one another well, perhaps too well, and it might not be less violent than the one portrayed in the film. Faced with a series of crimes his training, knowledge and experience haven’t prepared him for, Bell feels overwhelmed by their senseless and cruel nature and eventually retires from the police force, admitting defeat. There’s a parallel with Chigurh here: Chigurh sticks to a rigid code of self-reliance and not owing anyone anything, and Bell believes in a different code that implies a certain insularity and insider knowledge. Both men remain diminished as characters by not being able to open up to other possibilities in their world.

The practical viewer might inquire why Bell doesn’t call for police back-up from other parts of Texas or contact the United States Marshals Service for assistance to pursue Chigurh and understand his type of criminality. Even in the period the film is set in (1980), when the FBI hadn’t yet developed methods of serial killer profiling and predicting serial killer behaviour, violent crime of that nature was not common but did occur often enough in the US that law enforcement agencies were devoting resources to studying it so help was available then. It’s significant that the male characters in the film don’t ask for or seek help when they should and this refusal together with extreme self-reliance ends up being the undoing of some characters. In a society like this, it’s possible for people like Chigurh and the people he works for to cut a swathe of destruction without meeting much resistance while those left to pick up the pieces scratch their heads and wonder.

The Coens obviously enjoy creating a world of grim black humour where characters, good, bad and evil ones alike, flail about trying to make sense of everything that happens and to control people and events around them – only for it all to rebound and leave them forlorn, isolated, angry, violent – or stone-cold dead. Unfortunately the Coens’ perspective is likely to leave a lot of viewers, expecting to see Chigurh and Moss confront each other and one of them winning, dumbfounded and feeling cheated. Parts of the narrative are deliberately left opaque at critical points which will infuriate some viewers even more.

Here is a movie that boasts great craftsmanship and good performances but which falls short of saying something unique and significant that would make it a great film. What’s unique about saying that individuals can’t overcome evil when it is vague, lacks sense, logic or intelligence and strikes randomly and without warning, and leaving the message at that? This is a message of hopelessness, one that makes people fearful and likely to hand power over to institutions (government, mercenaries perhaps) that might abuse it. We may not be able to understand evil or combat and defeat it fully but there’s a difference between throwing our hands up in despair and perhaps giving our power over to others, and recognising and resisting evil in ourselves as individuals and as members of groups.