(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2003)
Master and Commander
Peter Weir’s films generally evidence a painstaking interest in communities placed under threat, often combined with a sense of the otherworldly. These meld most fruitfully in Fearless, my favourite film of his, about a man who survives a plane crash and then finds his relationship with the world transformed. Psychologically, the film is about denial and delayed reaction; in its impact, it’s almost like The Sixth Sense, studying someone who might literally be a ghost snatching some unsustainable last gasp with the world. At other times it’s a scrupulous examination of the activity that surrounds such an accident. Fearless was a commercial failure, but Weir’s list of successes is estimable: Gallipoli, Witness, Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show and others.
Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World, based on Patrick O’Brian’s much-admired series of seafaring novels, continues Weir’s anthropological investigations. Russell Crowe plays Jack Aubrey, captain of a British ship in the early 19th century, far from home in the South Pacific on the trail of a French vessel from Napoleon’s army; Paul Bettany is the ship’s doctor, his closest friend. The plot is basically just a series of encounters with the enemy ship, but the film’s substance is its evocation of life on the ship. It’s not a small achievement to evoke monotony and stasis while avoiding becoming merely monotonous and static, and Weir seems here like almost the ultimate craftsman. His film has immense physical and visual impact, without ever being overbearing in the manner of recent Ridley Scott.
Crowe is the film’s dominant presence, but he doesn’t overwhelm it: the captain is clearly the ship’s leader, but still a functionary of the Empire, subject to institutional constraints. He flogs an insubordinate sailor because the code demands it, without any Bligh-like relish. Events take the ship to the Galapagos Islands, at this pre-Darwinian point largely unexplored and undocumented, where the sense of an unspoiled evolutionary bubble provide a graceful counterpoint to the ship’s contrived but coherent society. This is the main outlet here for Weir’s more ethereal interests. All in all, it’s not surprising that Master and Commander has been a relative disappointment at the box office – for a big-budget epic venture, it’s remarkable intimate.
The title of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s English-language debut refers to the body weight that’s supposedly lost at the moment of death, and the film is to some extent a meditation on how normal life, placed in proximity to death, breaks down. Sean Penn plays a professor whose life is saved by a heart transplant; Benicio del Toro is a career criminal who finds Jesus; Naomi Watts is a wife and mother whose life collapses when her family is killed in a hit-and-run accident. All three suffer considerable anguish, and of course their stories eventually intertwine. The film is told in a highly fragmented style, switching madly between plot lines and points in time. Some critics have suggested that if the stories were told in a linear style, the film would seem like litte more than overwrought melodrama.
Which is neither here nor there – by what weight is profundity ever separated from banality? Around 21 grams at the most I guess. On its central theme, the film isn’t as subtly paradigm-challenging as the aforementioned Fearless. It’s a big film with big gestures, but its biggest idea lies exactly in the manner of its telling. Near the start there’s a beautiful shot of birds taking off, silhouettes against a deep sky, suggesting the film’s trajectory – it circles events like an aerial visitor caught in a gale, first making out strange details that only gradually cohere as it fights to a landing.
It also has big acting, acting of transformational power that’s central to the film’s fabric. The three main performances have a grungy contour we recognize as realism, but in an outsize way that facilitates Inarritu’s quasi-epic ambitions. 21 Grams is easy to criticize in various ways, but few films this year have matched it for sheer power.
Halle Barry hasn’t exactly used her Oscar as a catapult to more challenging material: X2, Die Another Day, and now the horror film Gothika, which is the English language debut of French director Mathieu Kassovitz. Kassovitz is making his own voyage downmarket (but, undoubtedly, up-pay cheque) – from La haine via The Crimson Rivers to Gothika. Berry plays a criminal psychiatrist in a creepy old institution, married to the boss (Charles S Dutton), worrying about the case of a woman who insists she’s continually raped in her cell (Penelope Cruz). One night, driving home in a thunderstorm, she has an accident, and wakes up to find herself on the other side of the bars, locked up after murdering Dutton. The explanation for this belongs not to this world.
Gothika’s main point of interest lies in its vague glimpses of a feminist theme. The way that Berry reevaluates the plausibility of Cruz’s claims after finding herself in a parallel situation seems to be a stand-in for a broader notion of how a legitimately different female reality may be dismissed as mere hysteria. But, of course, the movie is generally a matter of sound and fury. It’s difficult to get caught up in a story where ghostly intervention allows for so much lazy, arbitrary plotting; still, it has enough grim diversity to avoid boredom. Berry is, I would say, stoic. Kassovitz does much the same directing job he did on Crimson Rivers. Everyone involved should have been doing something better, and it’s inconceivable they don’t know it.
For me, the title of Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa evokes Abel Ferrara’s memorable (especially if you’ve seen the uncut version) Bad Lieutenant, which means I was looking forward to something wildly offensive. Well, not so. Sure, this shambling comedy about a drunken low-life store Santa (whose annual grotto gig always ends up in him and his midget sidekick cleaning out the safe) occasionally raises half an eyebrow – mainly via references to Santa’s sexual practices. But this runs out of juice pretty quickly, and then the film spends way too much time on the fat kid who gradually warms his heart, and thus becomes yet another glossy self-actualization treatise. When I saw it, the crowd initially seemed primed for laughter, but got quiet pretty fast.
A big part of the problem is that Billy Bob Thornton (who, you’ll recall, is a wiry, laconic kind of guy) doesn’t look or behave like any kind of Santa to begin with – the physical mismatch really undercuts the material’s transgressive edge. The movie’s only raison d’etre would have been to go to the very edge of the envelope and then keep going – it probably needed to be debauched beyond reason. Zwigoff (who’s been complaining about studio constraints, but doesn’t seem to have been going that far out to begin with) was much better suited to the more gently surreal explorations of Crumb and Ghost World.