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.




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© Steve Morrissey 2021







Black Bear

Aubrey Plaza and Christopher Abbott

 

Aubrey Plaza fans, here’s your film. In Black Bear she plays one, two, three or even four roles, depending on how you’re counting, as an actor/director trying to hash out a screenplay out in a cabin in the woods.

From the first instant that Allison (Plaza) arrives at this B&B “for creatives”, as owners Blair (Sarah Gadon) and Gabe (Christopher Abbott) put it, it’s obvious there’s going to be trouble. She, a self-declared “difficult” actress who went into directing because no on would employ her any more, immediately starts that bantering, joshing to and fro with host Gabe which indicates that she fancies him. As they walk up from the main gate, he responds similarly, even though he has a pregnant partner (Gadon) up at the house, who instantly sniffs which way the wind is blowing when she gets to meet Allison.

At dinner that night drink is taken, and the obvious differences between Gabe (a conservative) and Blair (a liberal) get a thorough airing. Relations deteriorate and Allison finds herself in a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? whirl of shouting and acrimony. If Gabe is going to cheat on the pregnant Blair then this might be his moment. Allison is looking wanton in an old fashioned way and earlier that day she’d made sure Gabe saw her heading for the lake in her red swimsuit cut very high on the thigh so… you know…

A rapid change of gears. The same three characters – Gabe, Blair and Allison. The same location – the cabin out in the woods. Except now the three of them are in the middle of a film shoot. Now it’s Gabe (Abbott) and Allison (Plaza) who are the item and Blair (Gadon) isn’t pregnant. She’s a support actress in a film being directed by Gabe. Allison is his star, an incredibly difficult one, drunk, hysterical and needy. Gabe, meanwhile is conspiring with Blair to make Allison think he’s cheating on her, to provoke her into giving the performance of her career.

There’s no need for any more plot than that, except to say that this collision of one reality with another does not stop there; there’s yet another reality floating in distorted meta style above all of them.

 

Allison starts to lose it
Allison, pushed right to the edge

 

It sounds confusing on the page but it’s less so on the screen, though that doesn’t mean this isn’t an immensely tricksy drama (horror movie?). It’s improved a lot by writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine’s decision to make the second half of the movie also a dramatised look at the making of an indie movie – the First AD with volcanic diarrhoea, the cameraman with an eye for the leading lady (or has she got an eye for him?), the wardrobe guy valiantly being the cool professional, the continuity person too stoned to keep up, the lesbian sound person trying to hit on the latest ingenue to come her way. Levine’s restless camera catches them all as the chaos builds, Gabe struggles to keep a grip and his star goes into a spectacular meltdown on and off camera.

Ingmar Bergman’s Persona lurks conceptually in the background somewhere, as Plaza, Gadon and Abbott work their way through an actorly exercise in shifting characters and emotional registers. All are excellent – it’s Plaza’s film, no doubt, and Gadon only really has a chance to shine in the first half. It’s Abbott, who was so wan recently in Possessor, who is the real surprise, revealing himself to be an actor of more range, subtlety and skill than I’d seen before.

Is it a horror film though? Yes, I think it is, an arthouse horror at some level, with unrestrained ego rampant as the “black bear”. Another great movie to add to the list of ones set in a cabin in the woods – 2002’s Cabin Fever, 2009’s Antichrist and 2011’a Cabin in the Woods (of course) being three that spring to mind. But then there was the terrible Secret Window (Johnny Depp in a Stephen King story) so let’s not get carried away.

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

Possessor

Andrea Riseborough

 

Stab a human being in a vital area of the body and what happens? In most movies, after one clean thrust a modicum of blood seeps decorously into an item of clothing and the victim promptly drops dead. But this is a Brandon Cronenberg movie and Brandon is the heir to David Cronenberg, king of the body horrror.

So when someone is stabbed in the neck in the pre-credits sequence to Possessor, the blood-letting is spumungous, nasty, frenzied and inconclusive – this victim isn’t going down without a fight. Even as he dies he’s summoning all his forces to keep the only show he has on the road. That’s what happens.

Remarkably, this is Brandon Cronenberg’s first feature – there have been a handful of shorts – since Antiviral, his 2012 feature debut, a cerebral incursion into dad David’s body-horror territory but with a critique of celebrity culture whose subtext made Antiviral all Brandon’s own.

Possessor is a touch of same/same and borrows not just a bit of dad’s 1999 wild ride eXistenZ, but also one of its stars, Jennifer Jason Leigh, who plays the control sending assassin Tasya (Andrea Riseborough) on missions into other people bodies, using “them” to perform some murderous deed before Tasya is ported back into her own world, where her body has been waiting Matrix-style, plugged into life support while her mind was gambolling murderously.

eXistenZ, quick recap, is about Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh lost inside a computer game. Possessor sends Riseborough Tasya off on “one last job” – to assassinate a tech squillionaire (Sean Bean), and his heir-presumptive daughter (Tuppence Middleton), in the guise of her wrong-side-of-the-tracks boyfriend (Christopher Abbott), leaving him to take the rap so the client, a mysterious stepson, can instead inherit.

 

Christopher Abbott
Taking over from the halfway mark, Christopher Abbott

In Tasya goes, at which point Andrea Riseborough more or less exits the movie (boo) and the acting torch is handed to Abbott, who struggles to match Riseborough for sheer magnetic oomph – but then who doesn’t?

In “one last job” movies, the assassin rarely has an easy time of it, and so it proves here – Tasya gets stuck inside her host’s body and he starts fighting back to establish who has the upper hand.

There’s no point going into the rest of the plot except to say that there is an awful lot more blood, gore and splatter before the end credits. People do not die easily in Possessor. Eyes are levered from sockets, teeth are bent out of reluctant jaws. Tons of fun.

It’s a little like Christopher Nolan’s Inception without the budget and relies an awful lot more on imagination rather than tech wows for its effects.

Cronenberg Jr wrote and directs and has the right stuff in spades, particularly the ideas, and an eye for a striking image, which is two pluses more than a lot of directors have.

Even so I couldn’t help feeling that for all its moments of mad excess and cool procedure, BC never quite found a register to fuly meld the “job” movie with the fugitive thriller.

On top of that there’s a lunge at profundity with a discussion about human identity and culpability – who is the author of the act if the person is possessed (or ill, for that matter)? – which is not only a step towards Christopher Nolan too far but also a resurrection of a trope that’s been done to death, revived and done to death again.

I see no upcoming details for BC on the IMDB and hoping it’s not going to be another eight years before his next film. Niggles apart, there’s an awful lot to like, admire even, in Possessor, particularly if severed body parts (still twitching) are your thing.

 

Possessor – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020