Sharad Nerulkar — the titular disciple in Chaitanya Tamhane’s sophomore feature — is, by most accounts, unexceptional. He’s devoted his life to archiving, preserving, and, most importantly to him, practicing and performing classical Indian vocal music that’s considered outdated and inert by most contemporary standards. It’s the kind of music that he’s consistently reminded will never reward him with such trivialities as fortune or success, and that he should instead be performing devotional songs if he wants to be famous. But this type of behavior would be regarded as “selling out” by his mentors (as would engaging in any form of popular artistry that might risk even a measure of commerciality), a cardinal sin for those who worship a certain ethos and abide an authenticity that, as Sharad’s father — a well-known “raag” singer and promoter from years past — puts it, “doesn’t exist,” and probably never did. A generous reading might suggest sincerity and fervor about one’s art existing outside of cultural hegemony and consumption; a more cynical and frequently accurate assessment would be to ascribe this to arrogant pride that’s fostered and promoted within smaller art scenes to make up for a lack of financial resources and critical recognition. For Sharad, it’s supreme confidence that spurs him on (as it does many young, stubborn artists) as he continues in his pursuit of a career that seemingly no one else understands. He competes in local community contests during his spare time, practicing for weeks just for the opportunity to sit patiently (and apathetically) as the third, second, and first prizes are all called without uttering his name. Meanwhile, his mother and aunt chastise him for making “peanuts” working at a niche, boutique music label that barely makes back licensing fees.
An arc begins to develop with Sharad, one that resonates with anyone who’s spent time and energy on a passion that didn’t provide financial compensation immediately, if ever. It’s a vulnerable trajectory of impending rejection, wherein he pushes forward in the hope that one day his talents pay off in some form of personal satisfaction — add to this the grind of everyday existence, which likewise rubs against his ambitions through the years. It’s here where The Disciple functions best as a meditative, ambitious rumination on the tensions and frictions that consume one’s creative life. Much like the framework of a classical raag, the film is structured both formally and narratively around variations on the same abortive theme — it also employs a contemplative editing rhythm that matches the raag’s slow-moving meter — one that builds into a grueling cyclicality; by repeating certain visual and thematic motifs regarding Sharad’s fruitless efforts, Tamhane is able to isolate and accentuate the dread that slowly develops when something that once brought you joy now brings nothing but pain. Lovers abandon him, he’s forced to take a job teaching music at a local school, and his family’s apprehension starts to become more understandable — The Disciple’s second half, which skips forward about ten years in time, evinces how little his dedication has brought him.
While Tamhane never explicitly states that the first 50 minutes or so takes place in the past (there’s a few minor signifiers: Sharad uses a flip-phone to text his girlfriend he’s sorry after a small squabble, for example), by framing the narrative as a diptych, employing two distinct tonal and thematic modes — youthful naiveté and beleaguered compliance — the full weight of Sharad’s choices becomes easily discernible. We witness him a decade later: older, balder, more portly, still masturbating to the same porn, and still toiling away at a craft his colleagues have long abandoned for more rewarding lives singing music that wasn’t exclusively popular several centuries ago. He cares for his aging guru, unable to care for himself (the obvious financial burden of creative autonomy), and now also unable to live off the elitist prestige he once held. To Sharad — and to many others like him, who continue to find ways to pursue their grand passions, even if their originals plans didn’t pan out (spoiler: they almost never do) — this is the future that might be endured if ambitions are pursued, one filled with precarity and endless self-doubt. He decides on something different by The Disciple’s second time-jump (thankfully, this one not as long), and it’s a choice that doesn’t feel cheap or unearned. Sharad recognizes he’s unexceptional, ultimately bringing him some form of the satisfaction he’s been craving his entire life. Tamhane, like his protagonist, understands that compromise is sometimes the only acceptable — and the most difficult — option in moving forward with one’s life. Paul Attard
Writer-director duo Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli have been making provocative short films together since 2017, and with Violation, they’ve finally got a feature-length runtime to expand on their thematic and formal concerns. One of the most discomfiting films of the year, Violation is in some ways a relatively straightforward rape-revenge thriller, albeit one that takes its time digging deeper into trauma and familial discord to complicate that familiarity. If that description brings to mind the dreaded “elevated horror” descriptor, the film at least gives that loaded (and vague) label a good name. Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli patiently introduce their characters and the psychological dynamics at play over the course of a long first act. Sims-Fewer herself plays Miriam, a woman traveling with her longtime partner Caleb (Obi Abili) to visit Miriam’s younger sister Greta (Anna Maguire) and her husband Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe). Greta and Dylan live in a large house in a secluded spot in the woods, which is slowly revealed to be a point of contention between the sisters (Greta seems to have fled from something, although we don’t know what). The group has clearly known each other for a long time, and that shared history comes through in the actors’ easy-going camaraderie between. But soon the seams start to show, and after an abrupt cut the relationship between Miriam and Greta is suddenly infused with tensions and barely concealed recriminations.
This is the first clue that Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli have jumbled up the timeline, with scenes taking place across at least two different summers and two separate visits. Far from being a simple affectation, the fractured narrative instead allows various scenarios to play out as a kind of subjective memory piece. It’s difficult to describe the rest of the film without delving into spoilers, and Violation certainly has a few shocking moments best experienced without forewarning. Suffice it to say, Miriam is raped (a heartstopping moment that manages to be queasily disturbing without being needlessly graphic) and then sets about enacting a very bloody revenge. There’s a long stretch of the film involving the highly detailed, step-by-step disposal of a corpse that made this critic’s stomach churn, even as most of the blood is kept off-screen or shot at oblique angles. But there’s also much more to the film than this: the second half of the narrative maintains the fractured timeline to investigate the assault itself, the events leading up to it, and the emotional fallout that follows. One suspects that most of the conversations around Violation will be about whether the punishment fits the crime; for their part, Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli are very willing to manipulate the viewer’s emotional reaction to each character. Each of the four principals veers from cheerful to menacing over the course of the movie, these shifts matched by the film’s visual beauty, the lush forest setting (shot on location in rural Ontario) simultaneously Edenic and foreboding. Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli employ a stark, minimalist score replete with ominous strings and atonal drones. Even before something bad happens, the mood is ominous, with extreme closeups and strange textures destabilizing the mise-en-scène. What sets Violation apart from the slow-burn, genre-adjacent pictures popularized by A24 and Neon is both its sensitivity to brutally realistic interpersonal dynamics and its willingness to go just a little further than you think it will. (Flipping the script on a typically male-dominated subgenre, the filmmakers include multiple scenes featuring an erect penis.) It’s a stunning debut film, one that pushes past any pat, easy #MeToo discourse and is instead willing to antagonize its audience. Daniel Gorman
Good Joe Bell
Good Joe Bell is the kind of movie that seems designed to make straight people feel better about themselves but does very little for the LGBT people it claims to support. Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, the film stars Mark Wahlberg as a grieving father who decides to walk across the country to raise awareness about bullying after his gay 15-year-old son commits suicide. Written by Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry, the Oscar-winning duo behind Brokeback Mountain, Good Joe Bell is yet another example of straightness being centered in an otherwise queer story. In one shining moment that could almost be mistaken for self-awareness, Wahlberg’s Bell laments that he made his son’s sexuality all about him. But rather than acknowledge that thematically, the film focuses on “redeeming” Bell and absolving him of his sins rather than diving into the experiences of his son, Jadin (played by the remarkable Reid Miller), whose vibrant presence is sorely missed in the film’s second act. At its heart, Good Joe Bell is little more than gay misery porn, wallowing in tragedy and homophobia for most of its runtime in ways that feel maudlin at best, exploitative at worst. Everything about it screams “Very Important Issue” movie from the early 2000s.
Yes, bullying is real. Yes, homophobia is still rampant in the year 2020. But films like this just feed into that cycle. LGBT people are clearly not the target audience for this movie, but dwelling on bullying and suicide feels reductive. Queer stories don’t have to end in tragedy, and Good Joe Bell’s lugubriously dated outlook seems to think it’s helping when it’s really doing the opposite. This isn’t queer cinema. But if it were, it would set it back by approximately 20 years. Rather, this is queer cinema for straight people, designed to make them feel good about their allyship by using gay people as tragic martyrs to teach heteros a lesson in tolerance. Written with its heart on its sleeve, its themes spelled out in ponderous expository dialogue, Good Joe Bell is a well-intentioned drama that feels a few decades too late. Reid is a talent to watch, but the film underuses and misuses him so much in its attempt to center straightness in a queer narrative that the effect is stifling. Reid deserves better, and so do we. Matthew Lucas
Enemies of the State
Produced by genius documentarian and foremost interviewer of American war criminals, Errol Morris, Sonia Kennebeck’s Enemies of the State comes marked with a certain air of importance. As Morris is the closest thing nonfiction cinema has to a household name (Morgan Spurlock excepted), his stamp of approval means something — not just in terms of the quality of the piece, but also its formal and thematic concerns. The film Kennebeck has made fits neatly into the veteran director’s wheelhouse: It’s a mix of talking head interviews, archival recordings, and reenactments that tell the story of Matthew DeHart, an Anonymous-associated hacktivist convicted on child pornography charges, whose family insists he was actually targeted by the US government for possessing state secrets. It’s a spy thriller with all the genre’s bells and whistles: surveilled visits to foreign embassies, midnight border crossings, and an evil government conspiracy to take down one dangerous man.
Like Morris’ landmark The Thin Blue Line, Kennebeck’s film is filled with conflicting reportage and ambiguity, which keeps it compelling all the way through. In a centerpiece sequence returned to several times, a reenactment of DeHart’s refugee hearing in Canada is dubbed with the audio of the actual hearing, collapsing fact and performance into one and providing the first clue that DeHart might not be the hero of this story. But this is also a film undone by its own narrative framework, as late-breaking reveals about DeHart reframe the film and start to take it into the lurid, exploitative territory of recent Netflix true crime documentaries. The victims in this story are, by this point, so thoroughly pushed to the margins that their reemergence plays more like a gotcha moment at the expense of a whole host of journalists and free speech advocates than anything actually approaching justice.
Just as disappointing is Kennebeck’s refusal to pull on arguably the story’s most interesting thread and explore the troubling connection between hacktivism and the seedier parts of the Internet. After all, Anonymous grew out of 4Chan, a site notorious for formerly hosting child pornography, and which continues to be a breeding ground for incel and alt-right ideologues. It would seem impossible to discuss the case of Matthew DeHart without at least questioning whether or not there is something rotten within the core of the movement, yet Enemies of the State somehow manages. In the end, it is content with peddling its own narrative at the expense of the bigger picture. Christopher Mello
I Care a Lot
Those searching for a scathing indictment of the power-hungry 1% would be wise to look elsewhere than J Blakeson’s twisty thriller I Care a Lot. Opening with voiceover narration that contains would-be barbed musings — “Playing fair is a joke created by rich people to keep the rest of us poor” — it’s only fair to expect what follows to be a rollicking tale of wish-fulfillment caste inversion, wherein working-class folks finally score a victory and the wealthy elite are delivered some just comeuppance. Yet, there are no heroes in I Care a Lot, and, indeed no one who is even remotely likable, beginning with the film’s protagonist, Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike). She’s a successful businesswoman who serves as a court-appointed guardian to senior citizens who have been turned over to the state due to severe health conditions, or so their doctors claim. It’s soon made clear that it’s all an elaborate scam in which everyone, from health officials to care facility managers, profits handsomely. Patients with a certain amount of wealth are targeted, placed against their will in homes, and Marla comes in to help liquidate the assets, making a small fortune in the process. However, Marla picks the wrong senior citizen when she crosses Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest), a spry old woman with a checkered history and connections that will likely manifest Marla’s downfall.
From that point, the plot twists begin to pile up, and while there are individual moments that briefly titillate, it quickly becomes tough to invest any rooting interest in Marla. She is, after all, entirely reprehensible, a woman unbothered by the collateral damage she creates in pursuit of personal wealth. Perhaps the entire enterprise is some sort of inciting joke on Blakeson’s part: it could be viewed as an implicit indictment of audience members and their complicity in upholding wealth culture, asking them to reflect on their capacity to root for a woman who would broker the death of her own mother for a penthouse with a view. It’s too bad, then, that the ending negates such a potentially inspired take, delivering a dose of karmic fate that feels both cheap and contrived. Blakeson clearly wants to both have his cake and eat it, leaving the rest of us only crumbs; ironic, as it’s the very sort of thing he is here railing against. Pike is in full Gone Girl mode, all steely determination, her demeanor as severe as her angular haircut; at this point, she could deliver this kind of role in her sleep. The stacked cast, including Wiest, Peter Dinklage, Chris Messina, and Elia Gonzalez, is clearly having a ball, and it’s nice to see Blakeson back in the mode of his inspired break-out, 2009’s The Disappearance of Alice Creed, rather than the Hollywood bloat of his failed YA-adaptation The 5th Wave; he knows how to craft a slick, engaging thriller. Next time, he would be wise to leave the hollow pretensions at the door. Steven Warner