Sundance TV’s Rectify might be a quiet, modest, unassuming small town drama but in its narrative is contained a cosmos of human experience, pain, suffering, love, joy and sadness in one Georgia county. It’s a show that was conceived by an actor called Ray McKinnon, who is very memorable in everything from Deadwood (the preacher who has seizures) to Sons Of Anarchy (the anachronistic federal agent) to the Coen’s O Brother Where Art Thou (“He’s bona-fide!!”). I had no idea that his mind contained the kind of emotional and empathetic wellspring of creative enterprise to pull off something like this though, because it’s one of the most staggeringly mature, emotionally intelligent and uncommonly compassionate stories I’ve ever experienced onscreen. It tells the story of Daniel Holden (Aden Young) a man who was once convicted of raping and murdering his girlfriend as a teen one hectic night and has been sitting on death row for something like two decades. When new evidence comes to light and he is tentatively exonerated pending a trial on the horizon, he experiences freedom for the first time in a long time, gets reacquainted with his family, faces animosity and controversy from many who are convinced he’s still guilty and must find a way to reintegrate into his community. There is also the matter of who is actually responsible for the girl’s murder so many years before but if you’re thinking this is any kind of thriller well then cool your jets because this is about as slow burn, introspective and deliberately paced as television gets. This isn’t your garden variety murder mystery, it’s a studious anthropological undertaking, a dignified observation of one man in an unthinkable position and the humans who orbit him in a nebulous nexus of relationships fraught with complexity, contradictions and the mysteries of the human soul. He’s faced with retooling relationships with his parents (J. Smith Cameron & Bruce McKinnon), the sister (Abigail Spencer) who never gave up on him, his misunderstood stepbrother (Clayne Crawford) and wife (the angelic and wonderful Adelaide Clemens) who is also something of an old flame to Daniel, a boorish US Senator (Michael O’Neill) determined to see him back behind bars, a former childhood friend (the inherently shady Sean Bridgers) who was there that fateful night and many, many more. His time out in the world is beautifully woven together with painful, illuminating flashbacks to his many years on death row where we see a kinship and brotherhood form between him and and another inmate (Johnny Ray Gill) who will become his best friend. Along with all these tangible, traceable relationships he has there are also several key allegorical figures who appear to him on his journey including a charismatic antiques dealing socialite (Leon Rippy), a compassionate prison chaplain (Matthew Posey), a flirtatious conventioneer (Frances Fisher) and a mysterious booze swilling, livestock thieving wanderer (W. Earl Brown) who imparts to him in a dreamlike journey the haunting wisdom: “It’s the beauty that hurts the most, not the ugly.” It’s quite a journey, and every step of the way the show’s creators make the right decisions for characters they love and care for deeply, even the challenging ones who are tough to relate to. This isn’t a story about whether or not Daniel is guilty or not or who actually committed the crime and if you’re expecting resolution, you’ve come to the wrong place, however if catharsis is what you seek then you’ll be rewarded greatly, just not in the ways you might think. Consider a moment where Daniel experiences a sunrise for the first time in twenty years of being locked in one room, or enjoys a bag of chips and a pop in the afternoon sun on a grass field, or simply shares a deep conversation about the rain with Clemens’s impossibly soulful Tawney. These are moments that to you and I might seem trivial because we take them for granted, but to Daniel who hasn’t been able to do these things in a cruelly prolonged amount of time they mean the world. This story takes its time getting to know its characters, allows for deep moral complexity to unfold, has some of the best writing I’ve ever heard, explores the passage of time in a way I’ve never seen attempted and is just overall legitimately one of the finest pieces of art I’ve ever seen in any medium an at times reaches levels of pure transcendence.
I’m not sure why a gorgeous, thrilling horror/western/adventure like Ron Howard’s The Missing didn’t win over audiences as much as it should have upon release, but it’s one of my favourite in the genre, the best film overall from Howard (IMHO) who has always felt like an uneven, ‘play it safe’ Hollywood filmmaker to me and one of my go-to films to revisit. This films plays it anything but safe, blanketing a very personal, desperate set of protagonists and their struggles with a cloak of menace, mysticism and marauding danger around every corner of a threatening New Mexico brush-scape. Cate Blanchett gives one of her most raw, affecting turns as single rancher and single mother Magdalena Gillekson, a woman with a great deal of trauma in her past who is simply trying to live the isolated homesteader life and raise her two daughters (Jenna Boyd and Evan Rachel Wood) right, with the help of her friend, ranch-hand and sometimes lover Brake (Aaron Eckhart). Their lives are first upheaved with the reappearance of her ne’er do well father Samuel (Tommy Lee Jones), a halfbreed nomad who is disgraced most people in his past, and then with the arrival of a terrifying witch-doctor (Eric Schweig) who kidnaps her eldest daughter and makes off with his gang of Apache and white human traffickers towards the Mexican border to sell her and a whole bunch of other girls they’ve taken. So begins a journey of reconnaissance, rescue and reconciliation as Magdalena, Samuel and the younger daughter voyage across wintry plains of New Mexico into barren badlands to square off with this evil cabal of predatory psychopaths and return the stolen girls to their homes. These two characters that Blanchett and Jones play fascinate me; she’s cold, bitter and has clearly been robbed of some of her humanity in the past. He’s an outcast loner with a life story so dysfunctional that his Native name literally translates into English as ‘shit for luck.’ Their struggle to salvage any kind of father daughter relationship between them is almost as daunting as the brutal rescue mission they undertake, and the narrative pays just as much careful attention to character development and human interaction as it does to action and violence. Schweig is utterly despicable as the evil Apache shaman, a hateful, volatile, ugly as fuck rotten bastard monster who haunts the film like the very wind over the terrain itself with his unholy magic spells and sudden outbursts of shocking violence. The supporting cast is full of rich talent including Elizabeth Moss, Steve Reeves, Jay Tavare, Ray McKinnon, Max Perlich, Simon Baker, Clint Howard and a surprise cameo from Val Kilmer. As good as everyone is overall, my favourite performance of the film goes to Jenna Boyd as the youngest daughter.. it’s hard enough to find child actors who will be able to to the minimal amount of believable emotion in a role like this, but she is uncannily talented and her potent terror, fierce resilience and undimmed love for her mother and sister woven into her work simply knocked me flat. The late James Horner composes a score that tops the list of prolific work from him for me, an ambient collection of classic yet somehow eerie western motifs that play along the sideline for the first two acts and then swell with orchestral release later when the finale rolls around. Cinematographer Salvatore Totino makes spooky use of the wide open vistas, craggy, labyrinthine geological structures and captures the rugged natural beauty of the region splendidly. I wish Howard would do more edgy, off the beaten path and thoroughly dark pieces of work like this because for my money he’s never been better. Perhaps that’s why this wasn’t received so well though, it’s a harrowing far cry from what we’re used to seeing in Hollywood westerns, full of black magic, dark deeds, horrifying imagery and bloody, unforgiving violence. It has a soul too though, present in the bittersweet relationship between its main characters and the ruthless resolve they fuel in each other to seek retribution against the forces of darkness at their door. This is a great film and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, I think it was just either misunderstood, ahead of its time or people simply couldn’t reconcile the heavier aspects. I’ve recently acquired the only existing Blu Ray put out by Shout Factory which is an absolutely gorgeous release that includes an extended version with twenty minutes more footage that enriches and deepens this story wonderfully. One of the best films of the last two decades.
Anyone who has ever experienced identity theft will relate to Sandra Bullock’s desperate situation in The Net, one of those lynchpin 90’s thrillers that captures the dawning internet culture in ways both silly as well as frightening. I mean this is kind of an off the wall film but it’s an old favourite of mine and always works as perfect escapist entertainment. Plus Sandra Bullock just makes the perfect protagonist, she’s so down to earth, humble and sweet that I always find myself right there in the passenger seat, sympathetically along for the ride in whatever crazy scenario she finds herself in. Here she plays Angela Bennett, a garden variety computer programmer who unwittingly stumbles into a deep set conspiracy that’s not only out of her pay grade but way beyond her level of comprehension or ability to dodge. Soon whatever forces out there have noticed and scary shit starts to befall her: her credit cards decline, law enforcement is hijacked into believing she’s a fugitive, a mysterious operative (Jeremy Northam) first appears attractive and friendly before becoming despicable and malevolent and her life begins to spiral out of control. I further sympathize with Angela because she’s virtually alone and has no one to really turn to, no boyfriend, no obligatory supportive coworker, no kindly boss, even her mother (the great Diane Baker) suffers from Alzheimer’s and barely recognizes her. She’s sort of a loner anyways but in that characteristic she finds the necessary resilience, defence mechanisms and edge to fight back against the nefarious net that’s closing in around her. This gets ragged on a lot and sure you can write it off as just another creaky 90’s cyber-tech thriller but it’s Bullock who wins the day with sheer star power and believable work the whole way through. Love this one to bits.
Making films about mental illness is always tricky because of how sensitive, subjective and all too easily misunderstood and misrepresented the subject matter can be. Take one wrong turn and your script can be hokey, let one performance have an ill advised timbre and the whole thing feels hollow and under researched. With all that in mind I can say that Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter is one of the most moving, mature, heartbreaking and realistic portraits of an ailment I’ve ever seen, not to mention an overall superb piece of filmmaking.
Michael Shannon shines bright in another deeply felt, wonderful performance as Curtis, a blue collar Ohio family man with a loving wife (the always amazing Jessica Chastain) and deaf daughter (Tova Stewart). He has what his best friend (Shea Wigham, seriously is this guy even capable of a wrong note? He rocks) describes as a “good life”, until things go wrong. One day Curtis begins to have dark, threatening and very realistic nightmares. He imagines massive, menacing lightning storms on the horizon that begin to rain a thick, oily substance and his reality becomes an anxiety laced, constant source of panic. How does one deal with it? Well in a lesser film things might become rote or sensationalistic but instead we see him visit his estranged mother who was once diagnosed with schizophrenia, pick up books at the library to understand mental illness and rationally try to process his dreams. But his delusions are strong, and soon he has spent money his family doesn’t have on feverishly landscaping a tornado shelter into his property to weather the oncoming storm, a storm that seems to exist only for him and causes anger and confusion from his wife.
There’s always two sides of the coin in stories like this, the literal and what’s perceived internally by the protagonist. Certainly in many cases it’s up for debate what’s really going on but for me this was a story of him losing his grip on reality, teetering on the edge of a psychotic break and honestly what better use of metaphor for that than a giant incoming storm? There are two scenes that stand out to me as some of the best directed, acted and overall crafted sequences I’ve ever seen in cinema. The first takes place at a company lunch for Curtis’s job, where he and Wigham get into a heated argument and it escalates into him having a full blown, wide eyed meltdown, ranting like someone who’s lost it which, naturally, he almost has. It’s painful because his wife and daughter are standing right there and this is hard for them to see but what lifts the scene up is instead of her storming out, retorting or going numb she simply walks over to him, puts her hand on his face and tries to comfort him, to calm him down. Talk about using one’s intuition in a scenario like that. The other is the final scene of the film which I can’t say much about without spoilers but it’s a brilliant way of illustrating acceptance, understanding and the willingness to move forward when a family member becomes ill and needs love and support. I could go on for paragraphs about this one but I’ll close in saying that few films approach this material with the tact, careful imagination and reverence for humanity that we see here. Masterpiece.
Ron Howard usually plays it both straight and safe, never taking too many risks, never siding too much with abstraction or grey areas, and over the years this has made me somewhat of a non fan. Not a hater, simply seldom blown away or challenged by his work. With The Missing, however, he strayed from the path and brought us a dark, threatening picture of life on the frontier in all its brutal, treacherous glory. With the success of last year’s brilliant Bone Tomahawk, I couldn’t help but be reminded of this beauty, as there are elements of horror and evil dancing on a thread with origin points in both films. Different altogether, but from the same elemental stew and highly reminiscent of each other. Cate Blanchett is hard bitten single mother Magdalena, trying her best to raise two daughters (Evan Rachel Wood and the excellent Jenna Boyd) with only the help of her sturdy farmhand (Aaron Eckhart). One misty night, someone or something snatches Wood right out of her bed and disappears into the wilderness with her. Magdalena is raw and determined, launching a desperate search across woods and plains to find her kin. Joining her is her half breed injun father Samuel, played by an eerily convincing Tommy Lee Jones. Samuel left her years before and only re-emerges in her life for fear of being punished for forsaking his family in the beyond. Gradually he turns around and a bond is formed through the crisis, an arc which Jones nails like the pro he is. It turns out they are tracking a group of despicable human traffickers who take girls and sell them across the border into sex slavery. They are led by a mysterious witchdoctor (Eric Schweig) whose tactics border on voodoo prowess. It’s scary stuff, never outright horror, but sure aims for that with its hazy nocturnal atmosphere in which any denizen of the night could be poised behind the next thicket or cluster of trees, ready to pounce. Blanchett is tough as nails, a terrific female protagonist blessed with a mother’s love and a winchester to back it up. Jones is gruff and badass, believable as a native american and treated as a well rounded character seeking redemption in his twilight years. There’s also fine work from Steve Reevis, Clint Howard, Elizabeth Moss and a cool cameo from Val Kilmer as a sergeant who helps them out. My favourite Ron Howard film by far. Just a mean, dark genre piece that aims to thrill and chill in equal measures and comes up aces.