Although The Whale is an adaptation of the 2012 stage play by MacArthur Fellowship-winner Samuel D. Hunter, the film tends to feel of a piece with director Darren Aronofsky’s peak “auteur era,” at least more than anything else he’s made in quite some time. In particular, both the 1993 student short film Protozoa and 2000’s breakthrough (Hubert Selby Jr. adaptation) Requiem for a Dream favor a similar kind of verbal slugfest approach to their oddball dramas. In those films, lonely, cast-off characters monologue at each other about mundane issues that, thanks to the aesthetic accouterments of Aronofsky’s style, take on vaguely cosmic significance.
Back when those early Aronofsky films were released, the director’s name might have appeared in the same discussions around distinctive American indie auteurs that included the likes of Richard Linklater and Hal Hartley. But in the over 20 years since Requiem, the scope of Aronofsky’s cinema has expanded wildly — from the divisive, centuries-spanning folk sci-fi of 2006’s The Fountain, to the Oscar-bait of 2008’s The Wrestler, to the action film-cum-Biblical epic of 2014’s Noah, to two equally over-directed horror films, 2010’s Black Swan and 2017’s Mother!. All of these speak to nothing so much as a real lack of any authorial signature.
And while The Whale, a largely one-location shoot (fitting of its stage origins) that visually expresses itself through off-kilter blocking choices and some extreme prosthetics work, may not muster the same ostentatious style as Requiem, the two have other things in common. For one, Charlie (Brendan Fraser), the 600-pound online educator slowly eating himself to death who is the fulcrum of The Whale’s morbid chamber drama, is a character very much on the same continuum as Ellen Burstyn’s amphetamine-addicted Sara Goldfarb from Requiem. Both Sara and Charlie spend a lot of time posted up in front of their TVs — always a damning symbol of social withdrawal in Aronofsky’s films — and both waste away their days in relative solitude as fated victims of a society who’s never shown them, or the few friends and family members left in their orbit, the love and empathy that could have transformed their lives.
It’s the twinned themes of empathy and brutal, equalizing honesty that Aronofsky purports to be up to with The Whale, but his tactics (or maybe Hunter’s) are often questionable at best. Charlie’s embittered teenage daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), gets the meanest, bluntest material here, her rank cynicism, unabashed cruelty, and fondness for bigoted slurs situating her as more a symbol of the most toxic Gen X values than a convincing member of her own generational cohort. Similarly devoid of a coherent emotional life is Thomas (Ty Simpkins), the teenage missionary with a checkered past who shows up on Charlie’s doorstep just as he’s nearly succumbing to complications from his congestive heart failure. Thomas’s goal is to evangelize Charlie, but when he later meets Ellie, he becomes her new favorite ideological whipping boy.
So much of the writing here is firmly committed to the respective lane of its symbolism – gesturing toward the unfeeling cruelty of social media or the “cancer” of religion — which tends to leave little room for many of the side characters to develop beyond those broad definitions, and makes their eventual transformations feel especially convoluted. Thankfully, that isn’t as much the case for Fraser’s Charlie, partly due to the actor’s rather immensely emotionally committed performance, but also because Charlie is positioned as a moral ballast whose obscene appearance is contrasted by his rationality and calmness in the face of the more extreme characters’ assaults on him. Similarly, Charlie’s best friend and nurse, Liz (Hong Chau, almost as good here as she was in Downsizing), is animated by a compelling mix of grief and anger, the motivations for which serve to tie together some of The Whale’s disparate themes.
That said, Aronofsky never manages to resolve the tension between an ostensibly empathic view of his obese protagonist and the “honest” grotesquery of indulgent scenes of binge-eating, with cartoonishly cranked-up foley sound to emphasize the sense of disgust felt toward Charlie. Neither does The Whale fully commit to its miserabilism — instead, that gives way to a pretty banal denouement of tearful redemption that should earn the film undue awards consideration. The Whale wants to have big, showy nihilism and catharsis too, and of course that’s bullshit, but the constant talking about these ideas amounts to a more emotionally engaging form of bullshit than the empty style-over-substance of this director’s more explicit body-horror efforts. Aronofsky’s been trying to get this made for a decade, and there’s an intriguing back-to-his-roots quality to the film, even if a lot of it also affirms the worst tendencies he’s picked up since.
Writer: Sam C. Mac
Out of John Edward Williams’ three seminal novels — a trio of recently rediscovered bildungsromans about hapless young men who live uneventful lives (save for Gaius Octavius) filled with regret — Butcher’s Crossing, objectively the weakest of the bunch, was always going to be the easiest to adapt to the big screen. “Easiest” is the operative word here, as translating Williams’ prose without an easy-to-slip-into interiority was always going to be a bit of a challenge, the type that could potentially ruin the epistolary Augustus. There’s also the issue of how Williams paces his work: he’ll sometimes manipulate time by flying through several years in the span of a mere sentence, before then fixating on a few dragging seconds or some minute detail for over three pages. Stoner, an undeniable masterpiece of American fiction, would particularly be rendered as inert and a tad stogy when applied to the visual/audio-based medium known as cinema. Imagine having to re-establish, every few minutes or so, a new time leap within the same setting; the actor playing William Stoner would have to add on a few extra pounds of old man make-up as well, where the intended accumulative effect would never take hold.
Butcher’s Crossing, on the other hand, takes place over a relatively short period of time (three seasons, so not even an entire year) and isn’t as concerned with its central character’s sense of self — if anything, by the end of the novel, he finally grasps how frivolous his concerns are in comparison with the world around him. While it’s easy to retroactively label Butcher’s Crossing as one of the first major revisionist Westerns, a more contemporaneous comparison would be (and please stop me if this is getting too wild) Owen Klein’s Funny Pages: both are tangentially about inexperienced idiots from upper-middle class backgrounds who wish to cosplay as the working man, latching onto cursorily crazed figures who match up with their imagined ideals. That “hero” here (if you want to call him that) is Will Andrews, a third-year Harvard dropout who abandons his comfy East Coast upbringing and heads Westward in the hopes of finding something close to an authentic human experience — though, preferably in the most Emersonian vein as possible. He eventually teams up with Miller — a veteran trapper and a mythic, carnal-like figure throughout— his one-armed alcoholic side-kick Charley Hoge, and general asshole Fred Schneider, and together the four men embark on an expedition for a legendary buffalo herd that only Miller knows the way to, hidden away in a secret valley close to the Rocky Mountains.
It’s with this basic set-up — one that Williams leisurely moves along in the novel — where Gabe Polsky’s dry adaptation almost immediately falls apart. The setting of Butcher’s Crossing itself, which serves as a small microcosm for the outside world as a whole, has zero felt specificity — it looks, sounds, and feels like any other stock Western town, allowing viewers to disengage with the material before it even really begins to start. That slapdash feeling continues whenever any two characters are forced to speak with one another; since Polsky has no real feeling for this type of dialogue’s natural rhythm, he often forces his actors to barrel through conversations with little grace. Arguments erupt for seemingly no reason other than to instill a sense of the dramatic; again, there’s nothing about how the film operates in this section that suggests it needs to bear the namesake of an elegant piece of fiction. The actors themselves, while all serviceable in their respected roles, really aren’t bringing a lot to the table in terms of variation or liveliness; Fred Hechinger’s Will Andrews is never anything more than a series of wide-eyed stares and nervous twitches. A beautifully bald Nicolas Cage, who plays Miller, respectfully dials it back most of the time, choosing to let his anger boil into an even-headed simmer. This makes sense to a degree: Miller isn’t a loud tyrant, but an entitled, single-minded brat who will do just about anything to get his way, circumnavigating basic common sense in order to exude dominance over all. Here, at least how Cage plays him, he’s now just a super-serious dude who mumbles a lot.
Things don’t get a whole lot better as Butcher’s Crossing enters its second act: there’s a cheap, made-for-TV sheen to the film’s digital imagery — like we’re watching an episode of premium cable television — that looks phonier and phonier the heaver it relies on extreme-wide shots and sweeping camera movements to convey a false sense of scale to the journey. What should be a more pressing focus in the film is the physical tole taken, which Williams brutally details in the novel for countless pages on end. The beating heat produces chafing sweat that blisters and slowly erodes these men’s skin; that same visceral effect is hardly replicated by dumping a load of bad makeup onto an actor’s leg and having him go “ouch, my skin hurts!” really loudly. All hope nearly seems lost, until the film indulges in a brief hallucinatory freak-out sequence that includes a prostitute being fucked in the ass by a buffalo; it’s a truly go-for-broke bonkers few minutes, the only time the film ever feels like it’s coming alive or doing something fresh with the material. Unfortunately, things continue on, ending on the same ridiculous note and register that Williams ends his novel on (no spoilers, but even the original source material’s conclusion never felt remotely credible), and fails to even do that with a significant amount of flair. While doing the original Butcher’s Crossing justice would be difficult under most circumstances, the end results can be chalked up to the source material being simply too good, too graceful for talent this amateurish.
Writer: Paul Attard
In his 2017 film Those Who Are Fine, Cyril Schäublin provided a quiet yet jaundiced view of his home nation of Switzerland. He depicted the Swiss as a people so narcotized by civility and politeness that they unwittingly go through each day contributing to their own exploitation. With Unrest, Schäublin brings that idea to the level of critical analysis, articulating a precise point in Swiss history when all radical possibility became actively, even gently foreclosed. Centered on a watch factory near the Jura Mountains, Unrest begins and ends with the arrival of an outside observer, someone who is quite literally trying to redraw the bounds of society.
This observer is anarchist theorist Pyotr Kropotkin (Alexei Evstratov), who is using his identity as a cartographer to “watch the watchmen,” seeing how the principles of anarchism might take hold in this community were it not for the deceptive evenhandedness of the factory’s director (Valentin Merz) and the calm, friendly gendarme (Laurent Ferrero) who issues his diktats in the form of pleasant suggestions. By Kropotkin’s reckoning, this hyper-socialization could in fact make the citizens capable of living their lives without a power structure. In bars, meetings, and on the factory floor, everyone tries to abide by majority rule and solves problems with a show of hands.
But Unrest carefully articulates a new set of social guidelines, ones still taking shape in the 19th century. Schäublin depicts the process by which competing notions of time and space are being reconciled, always in favor of capital. When Kropotkin goes to the telegraph office to send a message home, he is confused by the clerk who asks him which of four “times” he wants to use: factory time, church time, local time, or municipal time. Unrest shows how temporal objectivity, something we now take for granted, was in fact a social development and a political tool. As Schäublin shows, this struggle over time is mirrored by the factory owners’ embrasure of “scientific management,” Frederick Taylor’s idea that the ideal worker can be made by timing and retiming all parts of the manufacturing process, minimizing hand and body movements, and thereby maximizing profit.
The irony of Unrest – that Swiss watchmakers are in the process of realigning our very idea of lived time – is not lost on Schäublin. Although we see lots of different workers on the factory floor, he focuses our attention on Josephine (Josephine Gräbli), a young woman whose knowledge about her craft, the setting of particular elements of the clockwork in pocket watches, contrasts with her interest in photography, anarchism, and Kropotkin himself. She is a working-class intellectual whose ability to thrive is being curtailed by the firm hand of industrial discipline. Kropotkin intends to draw a new map of the town, one based on the names, routes, and designations used by the working people, not those imposed by the state. But the factory and the state are obsessed with making people “go the right way,” using direct routes that shave off precious travel time. At the end of Unrest, Josephine and Kropotkin have agreed to measure such a path, only to abandon the stopwatch and disappear. Like the Italian Autonomia writers of the present day, Schäublin suggests that the labor of transforming society might just start with refusing to labor at all.
Writer: Michael Sicinski
For approximately one year between 2000 and 2001, Saeed Hanaei murdered at least 16 sex workers in the Iranian city of Mashhad before being caught, tried, and executed by the state. Home to the Imam Reza shrine, Mashhad is a significant site for practitioners of Islam and considered a holy place (its name meaning “the place of martyrdom”) that inspires pilgrimages from all over the region, though — of course — there persists a tension between the practicalities of modern urban living and the conservatism of the devout. Dubbed the Spider Killer in the press (in reference to his penchant for luring in and strangling his victims with their own head scarves), Hanaei’s killing spree embodied this tension at its ugliest and most evil, informed and enabled by sympathetic law enforcement and religious leaders who celebrated his motives.
Two decades removed from these events, and with at least two other films on the subject made in the interim (including the 2002 documentary Along Came a Spider, which has served as some inspiration today), Iranian-Danish director Ali Abbasi is now making the festival rounds with his own cinematic interpretation of these serial killings, titled Holy Spider, from a script he’s reworked and refined since the initial media buzz around the case. Spurred on by the recent successes with his 2018 Un Certain Regard winning troll drama Border, Abbasi was finally able to get this passion project into production, and then a slot in Cannes’ competition lineup where its star, Zahra Amir Ebrahimi, was awarded Best Actress for her portrayal of Rahimi, the journalist who went undercover to catch the Spider Killer. In reality, there was no such journalist (Hanaei was caught only after one of his victims managed to escape): Rahimi’s an entirely fictitious construct through which Abbasi refracts the real incident, bending it into the shape of a Hollywood thriller. Her character also allows Abbasi to double down on his film’s thesis, positioning her against corrupt, misogynistic law enforcement and government officials in her pursuit of Hanaei in scenes designed as less lurid parallels to the killings. Unfortunately, one never really forgets that Rahimi is essentially a screenwriter’s device, with Ebrahimi’s award-winning performance failing to truly enliven the thinly-written role. Abbasi and co-screenwriter Afshin Kamran Bahrami are inevitably more enchanted by their serial killer, portrayed here by Mehdi Bajestani whom they afford a more complicated range and showier dramatic moments. Even still, the script does Bajestani a disservice in the way it attempts to parse out his psychology, although the actor still manages to rise to the occasion, jumping from repressed everyman to animalistic brute to smug media star with relative grace. Quite obviously drawing upon the influence of Bong Joon-Ho’s Memories of Murder, as well as the Hollywood serial killer procedurals of David Fincher and Silence of the Lambs (which seems to be the favored point of comparison for the U.S. market), Holy Spider can’t match the former’s challenging tonal mastery and is still too self-conscious to pull off the latter films’ confident pulp edge, ultimately occupying an unsatisfying place somewhere between.
Writer: M.G. Mailloux
We Are Still Here
Festival omnibus films are always a dicey proposition. Collections of films from various directors are inevitably going to be uneven in quality, tone, and style, even if they’re linked around some central thematic idea. We Are Still Here is billed as “a sweeping tale that spans 1000 years and multiple generations — from the distant past to the 19th century, the present day and a strange, dystopian future — this landmark collection traces the collective histories of Indigenous peoples across Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific. Diverse in perspective, content and form, traversing the terrain of grief, love and dispossession, they each bear witness to these cultures’ ongoing struggles against patriarchy, colonialism and racism.” I suppose it is technically all that, but if, like me, you’re expecting something like James Michener’s Hawaii, with stories spanning the whole history of Oceania from the distant past of heroic exploration through encounters with the West and the complicated histories of colonization and resistance that began there and continue today, you’d be, like me, a bit disappointed.
We Are Still Here nods slightly toward the distant past, with one of its eight component shorts being a rotoscope animation of a mother and daughter fishing, a mythological image that ultimately gets extended into the future, linking the mother of the distant past with the daughter of the urban present. The animation has a weird charm, but the metaphor is clunky and bears little relation to the other shorts in the film, which are almost all about violent Indigenous encounters with Westerners. There’s little sense here of a world absent colonialism. Even the one live-action short that doesn’t involve the West, set in a Maori village as a leading family debates whether or not to go to war, features the leads wearing Western clothes (it’s about the 1864 Battle of Ōrākau, fought between the Maori and the British, but we only see the homefront perspective). The one short that’s not about a Polynesian is about a Samoan fighting in the trenches of Gallipoli in World War I. So, rather than a collective history of Indigenous people across the South Pacific, what we really have are a collection of encounters between the British and their colonized subjects in Australia and New Zealand.
It’s a more limited subject matter, to be sure, but the narrowness does have the benefit of focusing the film’s political argument, which is a powerful one. Ghost stories of colonial murder in the Outback linked neatly to the arbitrary violence of a present-day cop harassing a worker who’s just trying to flirt with a cashier; protests in the form of graffiti art bleed into the brutality of a police roundup and torture of street demonstrators. The lack of a real sense of the past, or of much connection to the story set in the distant future, makes the violence of colonization all the more palpable: it erases the past, and makes the future incomprehensible. Rather than play each short sequentially, as in most omnibus films, the shorts of We Are Still Here are seamlessly woven together, cutting backward and forward in time while maintaining a logical momentum toward the present. The fact that they share an editor and composers and a pair of cinematographers gives it all a stylistic coherence, more a film made collectively than a collection of films.
Writer: Sean Gilman
Increasingly perplexing are the motivations behind utilizing Super 16 to capture the angst and wherewithal of youth. It’s not that one should fully comprehend the reasons behind so many filmmakers’ desire for this aesthetic, but rather that one sees their films ultimately failing to rationalize this material choice. It’s worth mentioning, of course, that the majority of these works impressed on film very clearly blow up the detail of the stock to accentuate the chemical malleability of the medium. These sumptuous textures and their faculties, however, rarely ever manifest themselves beyond light aestheticism. One often considers whether the images could speak for themselves had the work been captured digitally, or if it’s all in the aggrandizing of grain where the entire film lives and dies. Graham Foy’s The Maiden leaves me on the fence, for where there are glimpses of evocation in the tactility of night, there are just as many redundancies in the vague aura of day.
Perhaps before going forward, we should stop to discuss the narrative and its position within the film’s Canadian context. Foy situates at his center what’s arguably a periphery, through which he crystallizes the disaffection of youth in more palatable, more muted emotion. Grief, in two distinct forms, runs through our bifurcated plot: one brought on through the loss of a friend and another through the loss of friendship. Foy fills the minutes with languish, with the mundanity of impenetrable contemplation. His protagonists are ciphers lost in the shrill noises of passing trains. They wander into and out of one another’s lives, set to the dispassionate march of time. With such unplotted narrativity, a rare occurrence amongst this new wave of Canadian fiction filmmakers, Foy still can’t quite divorce himself and his characters from the suffocating construct of linearity. While he tries to trouble the diegetic timeline with temporal disruptions motivated via the metaphysical power of certain key props, he, unfortunately, remains under the normative pressures of a narrative drive, rendering a tale that vacillates between classical and modernist sensibilities. The indecision is ultimately frustrating.
One can applaud the utility of stagnancy that envelops the entirety of the work, from its incisive lack of momentum to the handheld close-ups that linger endlessly over the dejection of characters. But there lacks a formal intervention that would endow these characters with thematic significance beyond their immediate anonymity. While this is ultimately an idiosyncratic contemplation of emotionality wrought by the inaccessible flows of maturation, it remains a derivative of Canadian film tropes. That is to say, I’m very much looking forward to the often overzealous jump of a sophomore feature, as it appears that Foy does manage a strict control of his environs — a much-needed attribute out there in the micro-budget Canadian landscape.
Writer: Zachary Goldkind
Director Tearepa Kahi’s Muru hails from New Zealand and takes a rather unique approach toward addressing the horrors that its people have endured for over a century at the hands of the British Monarchy, which has continuously opted for violence in handling so-called “subversive elements,” regardless of the evidence at hand. Both 1916 and 2007 saw police raids that resulted in the deaths of numerous individuals who were deemed potential terrorists. Muru specifically focuses on the events of 2007, although, as the opening title cards make clear, this is not a recreation of those events, but simply a response to them. Indeed, those looking for anything resembling facts would be wise to consult their history books instead, as Muru uses these events as a jumping-off point to stage a standard-issue action-thriller that is informed by the history of its land. That it ultimately works better than it should is a testament to the righteous fury that Kahi channels into the story itself, that of a people desperate to have their harrowing history heard on an international scale. Perhaps Kahi is on to something — the old adage of “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” There are worse ways of getting audiences to care about the vindictive machinations of a racial hierarchy halfway around the globe than by smuggling it into an action spectacle filled with car chases and explosions. Yet, that is also the rub: does the fact that it comes from a New Zealand filmmaker make it any less exploitative?
The great character actor Cliff Curtis stars as Taffy Tawharau, police sergeant to the small New Zealand village of Ngai Tuhoe, home to famed and beloved NZ activist Tame Iti (here playing himself). Taffy’s job as sergeant basically consists of driving the school bus, which allows him plenty of time to take care of his ailing father, who is currently on dialysis. But what Taffy doesn’t know is that his village has been targeted by the higher-ups of the British government, who believe Iti is fomenting a makeshift group of terrorists that plan on assassinating the Prime Minister. The arrival of a tactical police officer by the name of Gallagher (Jay Ryan) alerts Taffy to the impending raid of his village, forcing him to decide if he is going to sit idly by while his wrongfully accused people are taken against their will, or if he is finally going to stand up against the tyranny of an unjust government.
Muru is far more compelling in its first half, as its myriad characters are introduced and the viewer tries to make sense not only of how they are connected, but of the role they will play in the ensuing events. But once the raid finally occurs, Kahi goes into full action-mode, as Taffy potentially sacrifices life and livelihood to save those people he considers family, including a 17-year-old boy and perennial fuck-up named Rusty (Poroaki Merritt-McDonald) who is never not in the wrong place at the wrong time. It isn’t long before POV shots of rifle scopes fill the screen, while trucks flip and bad guys are thrown out of helicopters. In a rather curious move, Kahi paints several of the police officers, including the aforementioned Gallagher, as upstanding individuals who desperately try to deescalate the situation, which seems like a bit of gross wish-fulfillment and a desperate attempt to appease international audiences. See, not all of the police are bad! Puke.
Kahi’s direction, meanwhile, is the very definition of workmanlike, an emphasis on clean wide shots that are appreciated when it comes to the framing of action but which never prove especially thrilling. It’s great to see Curtis in a rare leading role, even getting a chance to speak in his native Maori language, but he isn’t playing a fully fleshed-out character so much as a one-dimensional martyr. His allegiance is never in question, no matter how much the film attempts to imply otherwise, and frankly, that makes him incredibly boring company, despite how hard those world-weary eyes would like to convince us otherwise. You can ultimately see what Kahi is attempting with Muru, and there is no denying the justifiable indignation that fuels it. One simply wishes that anger had been channeled into something a little more substantial.
Writer: Steven Warner