Amsterdam (2022)

David O. Russell | 2hr 14min

As Amsterdam speeds through its political conspiracies, assassinations, and attempted coups with darkly comedic zeal, it often feels as if David O. Russell is struggling to keep up his ever-expanding, densely plotted mystery. On one hand, such convolution works to the detriment of the narrative, introducing subplots that are thrilling within themselves yet end up fizzling out. On the other, Russell wields his breakneck pacing with dramatic flair, wholly soaking his film in an uneasy atmosphere of double crosses and concealed identities that transports the neo-noir genre back to 1930s America, where the remnants of one World War are still being felt, and the trauma of the next is just on the horizon. The product is enchanting, if not entirely cohesive, accompanying the investigation into one high-profile senator’s suspicious death with playful, formally adventurous intrigue.

Christian Bale, John David Washington, and Margot Robbie are at the centre of this plot as a doctor, attorney, and artist who connected fifteen years prior in a French military hospital, lived bohemian lives together in Amsterdam, and now reunite in New York over a mystery that has implicated them all on personal levels. Even beyond these actors, there is barely a role in the film that isn’t filled by a big name, as Russell calls on the talents of Anya Taylor-Joy, Rami Malek, Michael Shannon, Mike Myers, and Zoe Saldana among others to carry the supporting cast, and even dropping Taylor Swift into an impactful minor role. Perhaps the greatest casting choice beyond our charming leading trio though is Robert de Niro as General Gill Dillenbeck, a respected army veteran who carries an air of immense weight and narrative importance in his relatively little screen time, much like the equivalent de Niro role in American Hustle.

Russell’s impressive casting across the board is crucial to his accomplishment in building this ensemble of eccentric characters, each of whom are instantly memorable for their peculiar mannerisms that simultaneously help keep track of their individual movements and offer up a wealth of comedic material. Bale especially maintains an electric screen presence as Dr Burt Berendsen, the Catholic-Jewish doctor with a glass eye, wildly frizzy hair, and scarred face, and it is through his voiceover that Russell instils his narrative’s intricate construction with warmth and humour. Even while it spins out in unexpected political directions, we find an upbeat consistency in its core character dynamics, calling up a youthful nostalgia for the titular country where the main trio’s friendship flourished in the wake of wartime.

Even behind the camera, Russell is taking a self-conscious approach to his historical storytelling, using freeze frames on three separate occasions to step back from the chaos and recognise the absurdity of what he’s laying out before us. The effect is playfully stylish, as even while Amsterdam’s ironic detachment is laid on thick, the film also happily immerses us into a beautifully rendered recreation of pre-war Manhattan, complete with vintage automobiles, rainy streets, and plumes of steam puffing from subway grates. Russell’s team-up with cinematography Emmanuel Lubezki also pays off remarkably in the lighting of interiors and exteriors alike with warm, golden lighting, while the camera itself moves with dynamic vigour through lavishly designed sets brimming with ornate, period décor.

Lurking behind this grand splendour though is a Machiavellian threat with earth-shaking ambitions, and it is in the uncovering of this plot that Russell reveals the basis of his narrative in a true conspiracy that directly presaged the rise of Nazi Germany. War tragically lies in both the past and future of our central trio of friends, but then again so does the oasis of their uninhibited joy, Amsterdam. Certainly there is madness to Russell’s elaborate plotting throughout the film, but with some intimately framed close-ups and inviting fourth wall breaks on hand, it is the sweet affection between his main characters that outlasts any vicious political manoeuvring surrounding them.

Amsterdam is currently playing in theatres.

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