Movies start to lose their ability to surprise after a while, but that’s not always so bad. There’s comfort in convention. Watching a horror film, it helps to know the cues: how when day breaks, or when the music fades, or when a cat jumps out instead of a killer, that means we in the audience are “safe,” at least for a few minutes. A good filmmaker can work within formulas to produce something satisfying, not unlike the feeling of snapping the last few pieces of a puzzle into place. A great filmmaker, though, can bend conventions, and leave audiences unmoored.
It remains to be seen whether Jennifer Kent will be a great filmmaker in the long run, but her feature debut The Babadook is, I would say, a great film. What’s most remarkable about it is how Kent starts with the rudiments of the haunted-house picture—with all the attendant trappings and beats—and then turns the screws, cruelly and insistently. Essie Davis stars as young widow Amelia, raising the 6-year-old problem child, Samuel, that she gave birth to on the night her husband was killed in a car accident, while driving her to the hospital. Samuel is so obsessed with monsters—and with constructing weapons to fight monsters—that he gets kicked out of school, costs his mother her remaining adult companions, and keeps them both awake at night with his incessant monologues and crafts projects. It’s in this sleep-deprived state that the two of them read a deranged pop-up book called The Babadook, about a creature that torments families and won’t leave them alone, ever. (“You can’t get rid of The Babadook,” the book gleefully warns.) After they read the book, everything in The Babadook starts coming true.
On an intellectual level, I could tell you that what makes The Babadook so brilliant is how it ties its scares to something real, and more deeply frightening than any boogeyman: namely the loss of a spouse, and the fear that an unusual child will become a lifelong burden. But none of that would matter (much) if The Babadook didn’t work so well on a visceral level. Simply put: This movie is absolutely terrifying, from its guttural croaks (“baaa baaa dook dook dooooook…”) to the creepy design of The Babadook itself. As to what I was saying above about convention, The Babadook plays rough, beginning its assault on the heroine—and the audience—so much earlier than most films of this type that at one point I checked my watch and got a little nervous when I saw that there was still an hour to go. The nightmare just keeps recurring for poor Amelia. And even when the sun rises and the ghost disappears into the shadows, Our Woman still has her grief, her loneliness, her crappy job, and her frequently unlovable son to deal with. You can’t get rid of The Babadook.
While The Babadook is the kind of horror movie that’s more soul-shaking than “fun,” Adam Wingard’s The Guest is so silly that it’s unlikely to give anyone more than a mild shiver. But that’s okay, for one big reason: Dan Stevens. The former Downton Abbey star is all but unrecognizable in The Guest as a bronzed, buff, frosted-haired super-soldier, who shows up unexpectedly at the doorstep of the family of one of his KIA buddies, and proceeds to improve their lives by hurting everyone who’s hurting them. The Guest is an overt John Carpenter homage, from the font on its opening credits to the minimalist score. It’s not a Carpenter rip-off, though, which is nice. I wasn’t a fan of Wingard’s You’re Next, and The Guest didn’t exactly convert me into a Wingard-booster. But I do love that the movie keeps opening up, expanding from one small-town farmhouse to encompass a secret military base and a high school “Halloween maze,” where the final showdown takes place. And did I mention Dan Stevens? Because Holy B. God, is he ever a hoot. He gives one of those iconic badass performances—like Patrick Swayze in Road House—that’s all arched eyebrows, plastered smiles, smoky gazes, and cool dialogue delivered laconically. (Sample: “Burn their houses down with their families inside. What’s the worst they could do?”)
Besides Stevens, the best thing about The Guest—and what sets it apart from You’re Next—is that its plot keeps developing, beyond what it initially seems to be about. But The Guest has nothing on Jim Mickle’s Cold In July, a movie that changes so much between its first half-hour and its last that it’s almost like an anthology of short films involving the same set of characters. It starts out as a gripping as The Babadook, as a small-town Texas shop owner (played by Michael C. Hall) shoots and kills a home invader, and then finds himself the subject of threats from another ex-con (Sam Shepard) seeking retribution. One thing leads to another, and soon the hero is staking out a former member of the Dixie Mafia alongside a garrulous Houston private eye (played by Don Johnson). The first third of Cold In July, which is practically a horror film—again, complete with John Carpenter font and minimalist score—is better than the last third, which is more of an excessively violent noir. And I’m not sure that overall the film has anything new or profound to say about masculinity or the allure of danger. But the unpredictability of the plot is a major selling point, as is the film’s ruthless efficiency. No time is wasted on set-up, or backstory. Cold In July begins with the botched robbery, and from there it’s go-go-go.
Compare that to The Signal, writer-director William Eubank’s slow-burning science-fiction/mystery, about a budding computer engineer named Nick (played by Brenton Thwaites) who goes in search of a hacker who’s been trolling him, and ends up going through a mysterious supernatural encounter before waking up in some strange medical facility. Unlike Cold In July, The Signal is chock-full of dicking around. Laurence Fishburne plays a beatific scientist in a hazmat suit, and his deliberate way of asking Nick questions—and avoiding answering any questions directed back at him—sets the tone for The Signal, which tries for as long as it can to avoid explaining what’s going on. And there’s a good reason for that: What’s going on is super-hackneyed, familiar from hundreds of science fiction stories. There are some awesomely freaky special effects in The Signal, particularly in its last 15 minutes, but Eubank positions the film at the start as being on the brainier side of science-fiction, when it’s actually on the pulpier, geekier end. As far as I’m concerned, it’s absolutely essential for a genre film to know its own level. That’s why I’m so jazzed about The Babadook, The Guest, and Cold In July: They’re at varying degrees of seriousness, but each film is exactly what it means to be.
Ditto The Raid 2 (a movie whose subtitle should be Come And See The Violence Inherent In The System). Gareth Evans’ first Raid was the very definition of a genre film that knew what it was. Set almost entirely in one apartment building, The Raid was essentially one long fight scene, working its way up floor by floor. I liked The Raid fairly well—though I’ll admit it wore me down eventually—but I like The Raid 2 more, even though it ups the level of ambition without substantially deepening the premise of the series. Iko Uwais returns as Rama, a cop who keeps getting used as a hyper-effective crime-fighting tool by his superiors, who themselves may be criminals. In The Raid 2, Rama goes to prison and then goes undercover with the mob, joining a family that’s about to undergo both an internal power struggle and a citywide gang war. Pretty much everyone Rama knows is a bad guy, but his commitment to his family and his sense of duty keeps him jumping into the fray, dispatching creeps with speed and savagery.
The 30 percent of The Raid 2 that’s not fight scenes is fairly tedious, because there’s nothing in the “last honest man in a world of thieves” action movie subgenre that hasn’t been done much better. But that tedium is offset in a major way by some of the most jaw-dropping, bone-crunching, flesh-ripping setpieces ever filmed. The Raid showed that Evans and Uwais are masters at choreographing and shooting gunplay, swordplay, and fisticuffs. With The Raid 2 they add car chases, as well as a pair of hired goons who use a pair of hammers and a baseball bat and ball to execute their prey. There is zero emotional resonance here—The Raid 2 is no The Babadook—but remember what I said up top about completing a puzzle? When Rama is facing down a muddy field full of would-be assailants, and he’s knocking one aside so that he can kneecap another, it’s like he’s doing a Rubik’s Cube, twisting human bodies around to get the solution he wants. It’s thrilling to watch. The Raid 2 isn’t the kind of movie that chills people to the core. It’s the kind of movie that makes a crowded theater wince in unison, and then chuckle with pleasure, having gotten exactly what they expected.
Also seen: Voiceover narration is often derided as a crutch for lazy filmmakers, but two of my favorite films at this year’s Sundance use voiceover so well that it would be impossible to imagine them any other way. Nathan’s already written about one of the two, Listen Up Philip, a somewhat one-note yet consistently amusing salute to/pillorying of the literary assholes of yore. Writer-director Alex Ross Perry overcomes the misanthropic monotony of his premise by shooting on Super 16mm film (which adds striking visual texture), by jumping from character to character and ignoring linearity (which makes the movie feel more like a novel), and by adding an omnipotent, articulate narrator (whose observations add a perspective the characters lack). I was enthralled all the way through.
I also fell pretty hard for The Better Angels, first time writer-director A.J. Edwards’ sumptuous black-and-white portrait of Abraham Lincoln as boy. The obvious point of comparison for The Better Angels is Terrence Malick, because Edwards has been Malick’s second-unit director and editor for the past several years, and because Malick is a producer on this film. Also, the way Edwards uses narration—having Lincoln’s older cousin mutter some impressions of the future president every now and then—and the way he shows characters scampering dreamily through the fields is undeniably Malickian. But I was reminded just as much of all the historical novels I read as a kid, about pioneer life in all its rewards and hardships. Edwards does an excellent job of structuring the young Lincoln’s story as a series of major and minor life events, all pointing him toward a life of education and empathy. Even better, Edwards creates the atmosphere of life in the woods in the early 19th century, which could be edenic when nature was kind and hellish when the weather turned or disease crept in. Before The Better Angels started, I saw a lot of older moviegoers and a few teenagers, and I worried they were going to be bored and confused by a Lincoln biopic so esoteric in approach. But I don’t think the movie is that difficult, actually. It’s quiet and slow, but it flows like a brook.
Gregg Araki’s White Bird In A Blizzard uses narration in a more conventional way, with Shailene Woodley’s character Kat telling her story to her therapist, all about how one day her mother disappeared, right around the time that Kat was becoming sexually active. White Bird is an odd movie all around, playing like Araki’s own delirious reminiscence of the 1980s of the Cocteau Twins and David Lynch, mixed with the Laura Kasischke coming-of-age novel that he’s adapting. The story Kat tells follows the form of a mystery, except that the solutions are so obvious that something else has to be going on here—something about how young people can be so self-absorbed that they’re blind to what’s really happening in their lives. Honestly, I’m not sure Araki modulated his pitch properly with this one, which feels stilted by accident and not by design. But Woodley is terrific as always, and the movie has been rattling around in my head since I saw it, making me eager to give it a second shot.
Like Nathan, I also saw the two baseball documentaries here this year, The Battered Bastards Of Baseball and No No: A Dockumentary; and like Nathan, I found both very entertaining, but also frustrating for not digging deeper into the subject matter, and not doing anything challenging with the documentary form. (Both are in the “Here are a bunch of interesting anecdotes in no particular order” school of documentary filmmaking.) That said, as a fan of the game—who grew up in the 1970s, no less—I was delighted and even moved to near-tears by long stretches of both. No No in particular has a sequence about Roberto Clemente’s death that’s a lovely and appropriate little memorial through cinema to one of baseball’s greats.
Lastly, some of you may be aware that Sundance held a “secret screening” a couple of days ago, dropping hints in advance that it was an eagerly anticipated upcoming film by a major director. Critics spent the weekend speculating on what it might be. The Grand Budapest Hotel? Snowpiercer? Noah? By the time the curtain rose, pretty much everybody was aware that it was going to be Lars Von Trier’s Nymph()maniac, Vol. 1. (Yes, the parentheses are unavoidable.) I don’t want to say too much about the movie, not because I’m under embargo, but because the first part of Nymph()maniac is very much an incomplete story, needing an ending to contextualize the early chapters, in which a bruised woman played by Charlotte Gainsbourg recounts her long sexual history to a fascinated scholar played by Stellan Skarsgard. I will say that the first two hours of Nymph()maniac are eclectic, explicit, funny, and clearly very personal to Von Trier, with sections I found hard to watch and sections that held me completely rapt. I’m fairly certain this is going to be one of Von Trier’s essentials, if not the film that people need to see to “get” Von Trier. I know I’ll be watching Vol. 2 as soon as I’m able.
Tomorrow: Nathan Rabin on the bizarre new live-action serial-killer comedy The Voices, from Persepolis creator Marjane Satrapi.