The World to Come

Abigail and Tallie get close


Mona Fastvold’s second film, The World to Come, continues her tick-tocking exploration of timebomb relationships, much as did her first one, 2014’s The Sleepwalker. And like The Sleepwalker, this also toys with the viewer, delaying the explosive payoff until its moment has started to recede over the hill.

Has Fastvold been watching Hungarian master miserablist Béla Tarr, I wondered. If so, it might explain the disengaged atmosphere. An early shot, of frontier couple Abigail (Katherine Waterston) and Dyer (Casey Affleck) sitting down to eat a solitary boiled potato, was reminiscent of a scene in Tarr’s final film, 2011’s The Turin Horse, a drama so bleak that it dares you not to titter.

Also like The Sleepwalker, this is a four-hander. Into the lives of Abigail and Dyer come new arrivals Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) and Finney (Christopher Abbott). From first flashing glance there’s obviously something cooking between Abigail and Tallie, a relationship that develops into a full-blown romance, while spouses Dyer and Finney hover at the edges in different stages of disbelief – Dyer deciding that patience might yet win him the day, Finney invoking a wife’s biblical duty. “Submit to your own husband as to the Lord,” he fulminates. Ephesians Chapter 5, Verse 22, if you’re interested.

Béla Tarr might be a fanciful reference point and there are many ways in which this is absolutely not Tarr. It’s not long enough, dark enough, or monochrome enough, and it isn’t making intellectual points but emotional ones. It’s not an arthouse movie but an entertainment with a familiar setting (the Frontier) and unusual subject matter.

An exhausted Abigail
Laid low by love



But. Big but. Fastvold’s approach is to have all the mood settings flicked to “muted”. Waterston’s flat contemplative voiceover (which runs through the entire film), the soundtrack of earthy woodwind instruments, the intimate, close-up camera and the lights down low.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire Way Out West, perhaps, though The World to Come is more about the simmer than the boil.

“I have become my grief,” says Abigail early on, right after she loses her chid to diphtheria. “Astonishment and joy,” she says to herself later on, three times, after she and Tallie have first converted charged glances into touches. Opposite ends of the emotional register but both in the same near-monotone.

What a cast this is. The film belongs entirely to Waterston. The story is about her, the action focuses on her, the camera is with her and the voiceover is hers. Even so, you have to admire her ability to get any purchase at all with Kirby among the players, and the character of Tallie – lively, sexy, a low voice to charm the dead back to life – is a gift. But Kirby knows whose film this is, as do Affleck and Abbott, the pair of them more a seasoning than an ingredient.

The men are not the heroes of this film but the men are in charge. That, in a sense, is what’s going on here – cat and mouse sexual politics. The women are playing away, but will the men actually catch them at it, as they share their bodies in a leafy glade or trade fiery kisses by the hearth?

So much for Way Out West, it’s all shot Way Out East, in the Carpathia and Transylvania regions of Romania – and every shot says “book now for a getaway-from-it-all holiday” – imposing mountains, clean air, sparkling water, it looks fabulous.

It’s exquisitely made in ever respect, in fact, though the languid tone and intense subject matter aren’t so much contrapuntal as neutralising. As for the dead child who’s meant to be haunting Abigail, it’s a case of same/same – is Tallie a stand-in, a focus for Abigail’s displaced grief? A possibility hinted at and never really explored.




The World to Come – watch it/buy it at Amazon


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© Steve Morrissey 2021







Our Friend

Jason Segel and Dakota Johnson

 

I’m not sure who the audience for terminal disease weepies is. Not me, for sure. But Our Friend is a remarkably good one. When we die, or as we die, the highs and lows of the life just lived end up being tallied. That’s what this film does, taking particular account of one high that would have passed unnoticed if something really bad hadn’t come along.

The high is Jason Segel as the titular Friend, the something really bad is the cancer diagnosis that Nicole (Dakota Johnson) receives. The action actually snakes back and forth through 14 years of the relationship between Nicole and her husband Matt (Casey Affleck) but it’s the diagnosis that’s the baseboard everything springs from and which propels Dane (Segel) back into their lives. On-screen words tell us how far in months or years we are from this central definitive Event.

As the story opens, it’s some years before. Dane has just asked Nicole out, only to discover she’s married. Cue an awkward meeting shortly after with her husband (Affleck), a variation on the meet-cute, when it’s not-at-all clear that floppy haired, slouching, massively unsure-of-himself Dane is going to feature at all in the lives of bright go-getting Matt and Nicole. From inauspicious beginnings etc.

Some years down the line, Dane now has his hair brushed back but is still living in low-status land, much to the befuddlement of current girlfriend Kat (Marielle Scott). Selling hockey gear for a living, riding his own waves of self-doubt, he’s not much of a catch.

And then the call comes. Nicole has cancer. It’s terminal. Dane drops everything and heads back to his home town to help out – making sandwiches for Matt and Nicole’s kids, driving them to school, mangling Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me, Maybe to make them laugh, taking the dog to the vet to be put down (!) – so the family can map the new landscape. He moves in with them, becoming an honorary uncle. In other circumstances he’d be the fifth wheel.

 

Dane, Matt and Nicole
For real: Dane, Matt and Nicole

 

The “loser” – as pretty much all of Nicole and Matt’s friends see him – comes good, to the point where his own relationship suffers. That’s what’s being scrutinised and celebrated: the extent to which a person will help another person or persons out.

Against the current situation, we learn more about Nicole and Matt from the oscillating timeline, which goes back to reveal that struggling journalist Matt got a big break and became a war correspondent, neglecting his family into the bargain. That Nicole might have had a dalliance with someone. It’s the story of a marriage in snapshots – happy but with its ups and downs.

Even adding these details, the terminal-illness weepie’s demands assert themselves. And so we get familiar elements. Nicole’s bucket list, the wigs and headscarves, the rallies and collapses, the pills and the medical interventions, too fragrant for some apparently but how much suffering do you really want to see? And, eventually, the palliative care nurse and… the end.

It’s familiar but it doesn’t feels rote. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s background is in documentary – you might have seen the powerful Blackfish, about a killer whale driven murderous by captivity – and she brings a fresh eye to familiar situations, helped by the actors who rise to the challenge in scenes lifted by ad-libbing.

Johnson – who somehow brought dignity to her ridiculous sex-slave role in 50 Shades of Grey – also gets out unscathed here, generating empathy without squeaking into mawkishness. It is a great cast all round, not just Segel, Johnson and Affleck but also the support characters, who all arrive on screen fully formed. Like Aaron (Jake Owen), boyfriend of Nicole’s best friend Charlotte (Denée Benton), who looks from a distance like an asshole and who turns out, when we properly meet him, to be an asshole. Or Faith (Cherry Jones) the nurse who comes in for Nicole’s last days – sweet, efficient, seen-it-all, core of steel.

Friend Segel recedes a touch as Nicole’s end looms, as you’d expect from a film expanded from a piece written for Esquire magazine by Matt Teague, who was writing about his own life and wife.

The broken timeline wasn’t there in Teague’s original piece, but Brad Inglesby’s adaptation, and Cowperthwaite’s direction shift the emphasis. The arc still runs from health to death, but the broken chronology allows Nicole to be glimpsed again as vividly alive even as she’s slipping away, and for friendship, not just death, to stake a claim.

 

 

 

 

Our Friend – Watch it/buy at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Casey Affleck and Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

3 April

 

Jesse James dies 1882

On this day in 1882, the outlaw Jesse Woodson James died. Born in Missouri, he had come to prominence as the leader of the James-Younger gang having served as a Confederate guerrilla in the American Civil with his brother Frank. Continuing in peacetime the activities that had been sanctioned during the war, he robbed banks, trains, stagecoaches. His gang was most prolific from the years immediately after the War, which had ended in 1865, and it continued successfully until 1876 when its raid on a bank in Northfield, Minnesota, failed, resulting in the death or capture of several gang members. Harried by the law and the Pinkerton men (whose founder, Allan Pinkerton saw the James-Younger gang as a personal affront), James continued recruiting new members. The gang lived almost beyond the law in Missouri, where former Confederates in the government refused to vote in favour of increased rewards for the gang’s capture, in spite of public opinion gradually turning against the gang when it was realised it wasn’t a Robin Hood organisation. In spite of reluctance of the legislature the governor managed to get the bounty on the James brothers’ heads increased to $5,000 each, by appealing to the railroad and postal services. Robert Ford, newest recruit to the gang, took the bait and fatally shot Jesse James in the back while he was dusting a picture. James was 34.

 

 

 

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007, dir: Andrew Dominik)

The title comes from Ron Hansen’s original book, and that comes from the epitaph that James’s mother wrote for him: In Loving Memory of my Beloved Son, Murdered by a Traitor and Coward Whose Name is not Worthy to Appear Here. This fictionalised retelling of the last months of the outlaw’s life makes claims for authenticity and does stay close to the known facts – it was Robert Ford who shot him, aged 19, largely, it seems, because he was a young man in a hurry. Here a 44-year-old Brad Pitt plays a 34-year-old James, and Casey Affleck is also around ten years older than the real Ford. It doesn’t matter much – we get the drift. Pitt plays James as a little mad, a little bad, a legend already in his own eyes, a paranoid man growing increasingly keen on staying alive rather than risking all for glory and cash. We’re following him through the last stretch of his life, when, much like a film star, he is hemmed in all sides, his reputation preceding him, his options limited though he still lives a life many would envy. Pitt plays James in the way Burt Reynolds might have done a generation back, all smiles, white shirt and bluff masculinity, a touch smug. It’s a good performance, possibly one of his best, but Casey Affleck’s is better: he’s urgent, alive, as Ford, the “coward” who did him in.
Andrew Dominik’s film is as long as the title suggests, similarly flowery and its goal of accuracy was initially resisted by the studio, who eventually relented (because Pitt backed Dominik). Maybe they had originally expected something more like Dominik’s aggressive madhouse Chopper. Well they didn’t get it.
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend” is the banner statement that ends The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and Dominik has that movie in mind with his frequent cutaways to remind us that American pulp fiction was immortalising James even before he was dead. It’s a framing device that isn’t necessary and it slows the film down. But its existence does add a bit of weight to the idea that the entire film at a meta level is about stardom, the onerous responsibility of it all, the noblesse oblige – watch again the scene in which Ford kills James and how James, Christ-like, approaches it in a “they will be done” manner. Oh, the humanity. And again notice how meaningless and routine Ford’s life becomes once James is gone. At this level the film is either much more interesting, or as big a laugh as it’s possible to have, depending on your point of view. Brad, we don’t deserve you. Either way, Roger Deakins’s cinematography – surely this is one of the best-looking westerns ever made – would have you incline to the former.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Deakins’s cinematography
  • Brilliant performances – Pitt great; Affleck better
  • The period detail
  • Pompous? The argument starts here

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Killer Inside Me

Jessica Alba in The Killer Inside Me

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

15 November

 

 

The Clutter family murder, 1959

On this day in 1959, ex-prisoners Dick Hickock and Perry Smith killed wealthy farmer Herbert Clutter, his wife and his two teenage children in their remote farmhouse home in Holcomb, Kansas. Acting on information gleaned from a cellmate while inside, Hickock believed that Clutter kept a safe full of cash at his house and that he would easily be able to get his hands on it, abscond and start a new life in Mexico with the money. Clutter, a solid methodist, a conscientious family man and well-liked employer who paid his workers above the going rate, did not in fact keep any money at the farm, and did not even own a safe. Hickock had picked up Smith en route as wingman, and on the night in question the duo broke into the isolated house and roused the family from their beds. On learning that there was no safe, no money, it is believed that the probably psychopathic Smith murdered all four members of the family. The two fled the murder scene but were picked up in Las Vegas six weeks later. Smith claimed in his police interviews that Hickock had murdered two of the Clutters, though when it came to signing the confession Smith said wanted to accept responsibility for all four as a kind of favour to Hickock’s mother, who had been kind to him. The writer Truman Capote read a short report on the murders in the New York Times and decided to investigate, turning the results of his lengthy investigations (conducted along with Harper Lee, later of To Kill a Mockingbird) into his celebrated work In Cold Blood, which is often cited as the original non-fiction novel, a landmark piece of what has since been called New Journalism.

 

 

The Killer Inside Me (2010, dir: Michael Winterbottom)

Capote’s In Cold Blood examined a psychopathic murder in chilling detail, from set-up to payback on the end of a hangman’s rope. Jim Thompson’s original 1952 novel takes a similar path, except that instead of working his way from the facts back to the men, as Capote did, Thompson is inside the killer’s head looking out at the mayhem. Michael Winterbottom’s film cannot, of course, situate itself inside someone’s head, so instead has to rely on an actor who can suggest inner mental life without going down the Vincent Price route. In Casey Affleck Winterbottom has his man, an intelligent actor willing to take on roles that more conventional stars would run a mile from. After The Killing of Jesse James etc etc, this was Affleck’s second “coward” role, as Lou Ward, the smalltown deputy sheriff in 1950s Texas who kills because “I had to destroy them”, as the lurid tag line on the cover of the original Thompson novel put it. Winterbottom understands that to live up to Thompson’s brutal original, he’s going to have to include some shocking stuff. Hence the much discussed ugly nasty murder of Joyce Lakeland, a “hustling lady” played by lovely Jessica Alba, whom Ward has been ordered to go see and warn off a local bigwig’s son. It is horrible, gruesome, through-the-fingers stuff, but then this is murder we’re talking about; it’s not meant to be nice. The sexual stuff, too, is dark meat – Ward’s girlfriend (Kate Hudson) giving him a blowjob and tasting Joyce’s vagina on him – a moment that leads to more ugly unpleasantness. Affleck is the smiling killer par excellence, his light high voice the antithesis of the Clint Eastwood growl the most of Hollywood favours – and Winterbottom pairs it beautifully with Hank Williams on the soundtrack, singing songs of love and loss that hint at what has so disturbed this man. If you haven’t seen the film you might be surprised to hear that it is in fact, atrocity aside, a work of quiet restraint, of beautiful interiors, gorgeous clothes, elegant cars. Which makes Winterbottom’s choice of finish all the more surprising and welcome, funny even, in a rasping kind of way.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A film about a psychopath that doesn’t prettify or condone
  • The original book is a pulp classic
  • Jessica Alba as a cheap prostitute – so unlikely it’s funny
  • Richard Redlefsen’s gruesome “beat-up” make-up for Jessica Alba

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

The Killer Inside Me – at Amazon