Thursday, February 05, 2009

How Do We Live?

The new year brought with it a renewal of the need to write, and write and write. I need a beat to cover, and had been knocked into an emotional molasses-uphill battle last year, leaving little energy left in me to follow much but the political outrages of '08. That's not my territory. I don't have a lifetime of emotional or intellectual understanding of politics, save what's sieved through the celluloid colander.

I know I'm a film critic the way a wrestler knows he's a wrestler. Which leads me to my new year's resolution with Holly. I'm sticking to it, and we've both taken a pass with one movie. That's it, so I'll start my first column along those lines, dealing with two films that won't clean up at Oscar season, and covering mostly Oscar Nominees until near the end of the month.

American Duty

Sam Mendes may miss Conrad L. Hall more even than the rest of us. Every shot Roger Deakins composes in Revolutionary Road seems to invoke our memory of that great filmmaker. The desolation of fifties American life isn't buried underneath, it's overexposed. This is a cold, uninviting movie. Mendes, Deakins and crew want it that way, perhaps driven by a script that rages its id out front and center just as its characters seem to.

I haven't read the novel, but I have no trouble believing an author could be this self-aware, this unhappy, this alone. What I have trouble imagining is that people in 1950s America would be this aware of the real spiritual predicament they're in. If we're to take DiCaprio and Winslet's couple as representative of a normal couple, we're swallowing a hard enough pill. The total destruction of their dreams and their love for one another is the set-up for the movie, not the end. This makes what proceeds all the more unreal and unpleasant, which is not to leave out ruthless, and for that it has my respect.

Revolutionary Road is a curious, drawn out chick-tract with no God in sight. There's no mention of church, no crosses in any rooms, no symbols of devotion. In a depiction of 1950s America, this is a deliberate choice of omission. Its didacticism is still, however, thoroughly secular. Which brings us to Michael Shannon, most certainly an Oscar winner if not for Heath Ledger's nomination, playing this godless world's angel of death.

He flies in under the guise of Kathy Bates's character's "mentally-unwell" son, and proceeds to methodically dismantle every single move the film's central couple makes to save themselves. He sees their desperation, in fact sees in desperation, and drives them completely into the ground, using words and words alone. He frees them from the need to try and be free. Shannon's performance is the stand-alone reason to see the movie; it's terrifying in his deconstruction of their hopes. He's an actor to watch, but wear a helmet while doing so.

Bielski Justice

Films this year have noticeably fallen into a more positive mode, looking to uplift us with stories of characters' search for meaning and dignity. Defiance falls into a category with Revolutionary Road precisely because both are about struggles for survival against long odds. Those questions of survival are intertwined with meditative examinations of a corollary question, namely, "how do we live?"

I'm puzzled, a little, by critics' responses to this film. No, it's not groundbreaking, yes, it's a conventional narrative (you have seen other Edward Zwick films, yes?), and yes, the pacing is off at a few points.

Still, I think the story of the Bielski Trio is amazing enough to transcend those petty quibbles. The movie isn't bad. It tells their story, if not exploring it beyond the surface, and gives us a compelling character in Liev Schrieber's Zus Bielski. Schrieber keeps getting better, and I think his work here is being ignored. Daniel Craig's character (as well as Jamie Bell's) is a little less compelling, but it's a structural bearing and it props the rest of it up. It's a good movie, folks.

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