Black Panther (2018)

Ryan Coogler | 2hr 14min

The type of world building that Marvel Studios has refined over the past decade through a sprawling universe of superheroes and world-ending threats is certainly an impressive feat, and yet there is too often a tangibility and imagination lacking in its design that sacrifices creativity for mass appeal. The arrival of Black Panther, the 18th instalment in the franchise, does not so much shake up the genre as it sensitively applies a singular, artistic voice, unimpeded by the demands of a studio to undercut tension with cheap quips and grind its pacing to a halt for the sake of fan service. The world building that Ryan Coogler delicately crafts here is not based on crossovers or cameos, but is instead revealed through Wakanda’s rituals, politics, people, and perhaps most importantly, the striking visual design that ties each of these together.

Perhaps the greatest instance of this manifests early on at the Warrior Falls, a grand set piece that Coogler reveals through a slow tilting of the camera upwards to reveal a set of steep cliffsides, swarming with Wakandans robed in bright regalia. Across these rocky surfaces, vivid, earthy colours are weaved through intricate costume designs that divide the kingdom up into tribes, and while little time is spent expositing where each stand in relation to each other, we learn just enough to understand the expansiveness of this world.

A gorgeously staged set piece that Coogler returns to twice over, packing so much world building around rituals and tribal cultures into his visuals.
A level of detail in the production design not often found in Marvel films, weaving delicate colour palettes, textures, and patterns that tell the stories of these characters.

The Border tribe, recognised by its bright blue textiles, are the first to leave T’Challa’s side when civil war erupts, while the Mountain tribe, clothed in brown leather and furs, distantly isolate themselves in Wakanda’s snowy alps, and adopt the mannerisms of wolves. That W’kabi and M’baku, the main representatives of both communities, carry their own fully-realised character arcs through supporting roles is a testament to Coogler’s remarkably rich storytelling in Black Panther, efficiently implementing an impressive level of formal detail that sets the stage for the central, political conflict.

It is in the clash between the ideologies of T’Challa and his cousin, Killmonger, that Coogler grounds his narrative in questions surrounding the distribution of Black resources and power, though his development of a truly great cinematic villain lies in more than just his motivations. Michael B. Jordan swaggers into every scene in a blaze of fury, pain, and confidence, naturally drawing followers to Killmonger’s cause with compelling ease, but as we discover in his background as a U.S. Navy Seal, he is also a master strategist, patient and cunning in his manipulations. As he takes power, Coogler’s camera quite literally turns Wakanda on its head, beautifully silhouetting him against a scorching fire before following him into the throne room with a daunting, upside-down tracking shot.

One of the greatest villains and performances in the MCU – Eric Killmonger is wounded, vengeful, and an intimidating force of vengeance.
Coogler spiralling the camera upside down in this tracking shot into the throne room as Killmonger takes power, tying his style to the narrative.

Binding T’challa and Killmonger together though is a shared love of their people, as we see their own respective devotions and sorrows rise to the surface during their brief pilgrimages to the ancestral plane. For T’Challa, an open, African prairie lit by a vibrant aurora of blue and purple lights becomes the setting where his insecurities of ascending to the throne emerge, mixing practical sets and a computerised backdrop to create a stunningly ethereal set piece. That vibrant night sky appears once again when Killmonger enters the plane, shedding a cool, gentle light over the scene, though in his vision the grasslands are swapped out for his childhood apartment, inciting a vengeful, trauma-driven anger rather than a gracious acceptance of his father’s death.

A blend of practical set design and digital effects to create the gorgeous Ancestral Plane, glowing with blues and violets from the aurora.
It’s not quite John Ford, but the blocking of this composition is certainly in that lineage of Western staging – the low angle, the staggered bodies, the mountainous backdrop.

Back in Wakanda, Killmonger’s vulnerability manifests as violence, driving a vicious anger through Coogler’s tactile, thrillingly choreographed fight scenes. The blinding exception to this is the final clash between hero and villain, unfolding right after an epic battle fully earned by the political divisions sown throughout the film. The decision to set these inky black, digitally rendered characters against a dark environment is poorly conceived to begin with, but there is also an artificial weightlessness to their movements, sadly typical of a lot of modern CGI action scenes.

This is ultimately a lone blemish on a film which otherwise excels in its visuals though, as Coogler relishes building intricate set pieces based around unique architectural designs, such as M’baku’s throne room of hanging wood and panoramic mountain views, or the Korean casino that looks straight out of a David Fincher film. It is in the latter that Coogler stages one of Black Panther’s greatest scenes, hanging round, yellow bulbs from the ceiling to shed a dim glow over the red and gold room, and then kicking it up a notch with a camera that flies across its levels in a single, long take, smoothly shifting its focus between the smaller skirmishes inside the larger battle. Adding significantly to these scenes is the pounding score from Ludwig Göransson, often mixing African drums, flutes, and chants with more contemporary orchestral music, and thereby creating a sound that matches the Afro-futuristic designs of Coogler’s mise-en-scene.

Lighting in the Korean casino like a Fincher film, but the casino from Skyfall is another comparison that comes to mind. The long takes in the action that unfolds only continues to take the scene to another level.

Black Panther may not break the mould of its genre like The Dark Knight, but there are still lessons to be learnt here with the adaptation of classic superhero conventions into abundantly rich, thoughtfully drawn settings, offering new, specific depths to familiar archetypes. There is a great deal of pride written into its characters, but with that comes a pain that feels deeply personal to Coogler, sensitively explored through dramatically stylised environments and conflicts. That it carries the distinctive artistic mark of a director with clear adoration of its source material, cultural context, and above all, cinematic potential, fundamentally makes for a Marvel movie that stands among the studio’s finest, and certainly its most visually adventurous.

Black Panther is currently streaming on Disney Plus.

The Ghost Writer (2010)

Roman Polanski | 2hr 8min

There are two defining aspects of The Ghost Writer which distinguish it from the political thrillers of the 1970s. The first is its 21st century setting, far more in conversation with the war in Iraq than the era of Watergate, though examining a comparable mistrust in government affairs. The second is the distinctly British nature of the conspiracies which arise, characterising Pierce Brosnan’s fictional former prime minister, Adam Lang, as a direct surrogate of Tony Blair, drawing parallels through the allegations of war crimes levelled at them. Still, it is telling that so much of The Ghost Writer is set in the USA, and that the CIA’s infiltration of the British government plays such a significant role in its central mystery of assassinations, ciphers, and corruption. Roman Polanski is borrowing a lot from Alan J. Pakula’s paranoia trilogy here, and The Parallax View is especially prominent in The Ghost Writer’s pessimistic, circular plotting, leading Ewan McGregor’s inquisitive protagonist right into the mouth of the malevolent forces he is investigating.

Robert Harris’ 2007 novel The Ghost makes a smooth leap from page to screen here, as Roman Polanski infuses the gripping narrative with a wholly cinematic atmosphere of creeping, phantasmal dread. Desaturated blues and greys are painted through the film’s palette, washed out by the overcast skies hanging over windy seasides and rainy cities where McGregor’s nameless ghost writer is hired to pen Lang’s autobiography. This is a man who essentially lives off his own anonymity by adopting the voices of famous figures, and throughout the film much of his character is built on the foundation of ambiguous, obscured identities. His faceless predecessor, Mike McAra, only wrote the beginning of Lang’s autobiography before inexplicably drowning, making him too a ghost of sorts, haunting McGregor with clues that evaporate each time he wraps his fingers around them. Even beyond their shared profession, the similarities drawn between the two are striking, setting our protagonist on a fatalistic path formally mirroring that of the man whose death he is investigating.

A desaturated colour palette cast over washed-out interiors and cloudy skies, setting a tone of drab despair.

Clearly the ghost writer is getting close to the truth too, as while the link between Lang’s political secrets and McAra’s suspected assassination begins to emerge, Polanski continues extending the motif of indistinct identities to a mysterious, black car stalking McGregor through cities and country sides. Just as the ghost writer is nameless and McAra is faceless, so too does the driver here remain completely unknown, acting on behalf of some greater power dedicated to keeping whatever truth killed McAra under wraps.

Even the ferry that ships the ghost writer back and forth between the mainland and the island he is residing on carries ethereal, mythological connotations, beaming a light through the darkness as if carving out a path to the underworld where he is destined to rest. Sure enough, it is upon this giant, steel boat where he is very nearly killed, as the ominous black car follows him onto it right after his meeting with Professor Paul Emmett, a curious suspect mentioned in McAra’s manuscript. This huge set piece is classically Hitchcockian in its construction, staging an exhilarating chase through an uneven terrain, though formally it also serves a narrative purpose in recognising the immense, life-threatening stakes of the ghost writer’s mission.

The ferry is set up in the opening with this ghostly imagery, beaming lights through a pressing darkness.
A brilliant Hitchcockian set piece making the most of the ferry’s unusual terrain, as McGregor is chased through a field of inert cars by faceless assassins.

Beautifully complementing the film’s forward momentum is a lush, pulsating score from Alexandre Desplat, driving restless violins, woodwinds, and percussion through the mounting suspense of clues that don’t quite fit together. One local’s familiarity with the coastline offers an uncertainty as to how McAra’s body could have washed up where it did if he drowned so far away. Another local conveniently falls into a coma after seeing flashlights on the beach the night of McAra’s death. Most significant of all though are the inconsistencies arising within Lang’s own accounts, each one leading us through a labyrinth of twists and reveals that, like Chinatown, keep knocking us over with nihilistic despair.

Obscured identities become an intriguing motif woven through characters, and most prominent of all is the titular ghost writer who never has a name – much like his predecessor who never has a face.

Cruellest of all these plot beats is Polanski’s revelatory finale that almost promises some sort of grand reckoning for the powerful, corrupt elite, before snatching it away in a chilling final shot. At the book’s launch party in London, the ghost writer finally discovers the key to all his questions, though it comes far too late. As his tell-all note is passed through a crowd to Lang’s wife, Polanski’s camera moves with it from hand to hand, suspensefully anticipating the moment that it arrives at its destination and lets all key players see each other for who they are.

A close-up long take following the note passed through a crowd, leading to this daunting low angle.

The only scene that might exceed this one though is the second and final long take which immediately follows, though rather than moving with the action, it is instead planted statically in the dark, wet streets outside. Like McAra before him, the ghost writer is not even given the mercy of his death being depicted onscreen, and as such is effectively reduced to a non-entity. Though his violent murder takes place in full view of the public, there is an unsettling recognition that not even this will threaten the position of those pulling the strings. For what feels like the first time, we notice that Desplat’s dynamic score is entirely gone, and is replaced with the quiet fluttering of McAra’s revelatory, unpublished manuscript pages being carried away on the breeze. Much like the gold in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, these small pieces of world-changing significance are lost to a world that doesn’t realise their value, and are ultimately rendered as meaningless as the lives lost bringing them to light.

A chilling final shot, laying one last twist on us in the final seconds with barely a word spoken or beat of music.

The Ghost Writer is currently streaming on Stan, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes and YouTube.

Suspiria (2018)

Luca Guadagnino | 2hr 32min

It takes a lot of nerve and great deal of ambition to even consider remaking the masterpiece of Italian Giallo cinema that is Suspiria, and it was particularly unexpected in 2018 to hear that Luca Guadagnino would be the one to do so following his coming-of-age film, Call Me By Your Name. The Dario Argento influence here is ultimately as minimal as it could be though in a film that takes the title and narrative of his most famous work. Guadagnino is far more interested in delivering his own take on its twisted fairy tale of witches and curses, accomplishing a very different beauty in the deep red hues that don’t so much leap off the screen through vivid neon lighting as they do draw us into a deep, dreary reverie. This is not Technicolor expressionism like the original, but rather bleak, washed-out surrealism, playing heavily on occultist iconography and performative rituals that angle its story in a more psychological direction.

This is of course connected to the second major change between the two versions of Suspiria, which lifts the tale of witchcraft out of its vibrant, German fantasy and transplants it into the German Autumn of 1977, which saw an abundance of terrorist activity spill out from the Cold War. Guadagnino’s thematic aspirations are clear, drawing parallels between these historical attacks and the spate of magical murders steadily killing off the girls of Berlin’s fictional Markos Dance Company. There is also the added character of Dr. Josef Klemperer, whose investigations into the school’s strange occurrences lead him into a subplot concerning his own tragic past in World War II. Unfortunately, it is whenever Guadagnino goes off on these tangents that his filmmaking takes a backseat to political ponderings that never fully connect. That Tilda Swinton also disappears so completely into the gender-bending role of Klemperer while simultaneously playing Madame Blanc and the vile Mother Markos is certainly an impressive turn from her, and yet this too adds up to little more than a frivolous quirk in the film’s formal construction.

Where Guadagnino does effectively leave his artistic mark on Suspiria’s legacy is in the rhythmic, surreal editing of its most unsettling scenes, especially in one nightmarish montage of shattering mirrors, dancing lights, and blood-smeared walls. Even more audacious than this is one scene’s intercutting between American student Susie’s elegant dance practice and her peer’s agonising demise at the hands of the school’s witches. Alone in the building’s rehearsal room of distorted mirrors, her limbs painfully contort into excruciating angles, and as Guadagnino revels in the body horror, he visually compares the sight to Susie’s rhythmic dance, flinging her arms and legs in similarly abrupt motions.

Indeed, much of the choreography to be found in Suspiria is almost ritualistic in its unity and repetition, and as the presence of the school’s ruling witch coven grows in power, so too do these dances become more maniacally Satanic, to the point that the students are forming occultist symbols with their bodies. Here in the final act, Guadagnino’s red colour palette finally explodes in full force, washing elegantly performed rituals in a dazzling crimson hue, and creating truly gorgeous images of moving bodies that he disappointingly ruins almost immediately with some bizarre creative choices. The jittery low frame rate, slow-motion, and digital blood splatters at least show Guadagnino’s interest in experimenting stylistically, but as a climactic pay-off, these are simply just messy flaws. It would be easy enough to say that he might have been better off adapting other material that plays more to his talents, and yet even so, it is still worth appreciating his take on Suspiria for what it is – an ambitious but ultimately chaotic plunge into chilling supernatural occultism and blunt political horror.

Suspiria is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

Widows (2018)

Steve McQueen | 2hr 10min

Whether he is constructing an anthology series as enterprising as Small Axe or a character study as singularly focused as Shame, Steve McQueen rarely aims for anything less then hugely ambitious storytelling, though in the forward momentum of Widow’s energetic narrative, he crafts what is his most sprawling film yet. When professional thief Harry Rawlings’ plot to rob mob boss Jamal Manning leads to the death of him and his crew, the shrapnel ricochets through Chicago’s crime rings, political campaigns, and most crucially, the grieving women who the deceased left behind. They were never fully aware of their husbands’ exploits, and neither do they really even know each other, and yet just as McQueen efficiently wraps a number plot threads around each other, so too does he unite his ensemble around a second heist targeting tipped political candidate, Jack Mulligan.

In effect, this is Steve McQueen’s take on a Michael Mann urban crime drama, as Widows navigates the chaos and corruption of Chicago’s most powerful players with slick pacing and dynamic camerawork that keeps us from growing too comfortable in any one scene. The opening car chase that sees Harry and his crew make a panicked getaway from the police lands us right in the thick of the action, with the only time to breathe being in those aptly-timed cutaways to their modest home lives. The tension between these husbands and wives is evident, but compared to the shooting and explosions it is a peaceful refuge where we can begin to understand these characters outside the frenzy.

Interiors shot like a Michael Mann film – clean modernist architecture, large glass windows, and a pale blue wash over the sets.

Most of all, it is in the flashbacks to Harry and Veronica’s marriage where we recognise perhaps the greatest loss that has taken place, and the grief which follows her in its wake. Though they evidently love each other, there is a melancholy hanging in the air hinting at some irreconcilable sorrow, and McQueen takes another leaf out of Mann’s book in washing these clean, modern interiors with pale blue lighting. Beyond Veronica’s home, McQueen’s colour palettes fall more into murky teals, bringing gorgeously lit warehouses, shooting ranges, and Chicago’s night-time exteriors into a realm of uneasy gloom.

A consistent aesthetic dedication to this teal lighting through Chicago’s exteriors, warehouses, and a shooting range – a common pattern through McQueen’s films.

In this dour setting, the criminals tearing apart the corrupt system are just as vile as those implementing it, leaving little room for ordinary citizens to live truly free, secure lives. The notebook that Harry left behind detailing the planned heist on Mulligan’s manor thus becomes a lifeline for the remaining widows to regain the financial security that their husbands once provided, and in following through on it, they consequentially undermine the tight-knit groups of powerful men who strive to keep them in their places.

McQueen capitalises superbly on the talents of his huge cast here, led by Viola Davis whose stern presence becomes the compelling centre upon which much of this narrative pivots. Her deadpan expression only barely masks the vulnerability and deep torment that her grief wreaks on her mind, exposing behind it a raw vulnerability that she knows she must hide to get by.

If anyone is Davis’ equal in this cast, it is Daniel Kaluuya’s vicious, psychotic mob enforcer, Jatemme, who even with his limited screen time is far more terrifyingly memorable than many more significant characters. If he isn’t carrying out Jamal’s dirty work himself by torturing a disabled man in a wheelchair for information, then he will happily let his henchmen torment targets for him, while he calmly sits and watches television in their home. At Jatemme’s most frightening, McQueen formally ties his energetic camera movement to Kaluuya’s simmering temper after the discovery of some subordinates who have been slacking off. His diminutive stature, cold eyes, and menacing stare down of the men who he is seconds away from shooting are all superbly captured by the Hitchcockian 360-degree shot circling them, suspensefully anticipating the burst of violence that we know is coming.

One of the film’s greatest shots, circling Kaluuya as he stares down these two subordinates, forcing them to rap, and then shooting them. A truly chilling character.

Because as compellingly written as these characters are, it is equally the daring visual choices that McQueen is making around them which lends such gravity to their motivations and actions. It is especially the spoilt privilege of Colin Farrell’s disinterested politician, Mulligan, which receives this stylistic bravado, as elegant tracking shots through hotels soak in the opulent décor, and elsewhere note the stark economic disparity between his mansion and the impoverished Chicago neighbourhoods he is meant to represent. In one unbroken take, McQueen fixes the camera to the bonnet of his car while he drives home from a rally, and in observing the changing infrastructure of its surroundings, it becomes apparent just how out of touch he is.

Another visual highlight of the film, as McQueen plants his camera on the bonnet of Colin Farrell’s car and then observes the shift in scenery from Chicago’s beaten-down infrastructure to his opulent mansion.
The parallels between Harry Rawlings and Harry Lyme are significant, and Liam Neeson is well-cast in this role that has minimal screen time yet which carries a huge presence.

As Widows’ narrative bounces across Chicago through thickly plotted developments, McQueen patiently winds it towards the climactic heist that we have been waiting for since the start. Very gradually, the deeply entrenched noir roots of this plot reveal themselves even further, touching on The Third Man in the shady parallels between the deceitful Harry Rawlings and Harry Lyme, and calling on the meticulously executed robbery of The Asphalt Jungle in the final set piece.

By the time the political stakes of the film are settled between the wealthy elites and Jamal’s violent mob, there is no great hope that this city will be any better off than it was before, and yet McQueen does offer some solace in the newfound independence of Veronica and her associates who might finally be able to live out from under the shadow of these powerful men. This dip into genre filmmaking may not have been the most obvious move for McQueen at this point in his career, but the complex landscape of systematic, moral degradation that he so deftly builds through Widows’ rolling narrative and dazzling cinematography carries on the uncompromising style of storytelling that he has so shrewdly built his name on.

An elegant composition using these diner mirrors to divide the two widows, yet also binding them closer than ever.

Widows is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

Vitalina Varela (2019)

Pedro Costa | 2hr 4min

By the time Vitalina Varela’s plane touches down in Lisbon to meet her estranged, terminally ill husband, Joaquim, after years of separation, an apocalyptic decay has set over his dark, decrepit village. To make matters worse, she arrives three days too late – his passing has left a communal grief in its wake that she simply does not feel in the same, uncomplicated way. She sits alone in his crumbling house, speaking to his spirit with bitterness and melancholy in her voice, not so much mourning his death as the loss of the life she once had with him back in Cape Verde, and which he so cruelly ran from before they could even finish building their home together.

Around her, Pedro Costa glacially slips through cinematic paintings of a monochrome world, dimly illuminating its exposed brick, concrete, and rusted steel through harsh spotlights, and crafting a weathered production design that bears a tangibly rough texture. Though the frames of smothering shadows he shapes around her are heavily evocative of Gordon Willis’ darkness-infused cinematography, the heavy vignette effects even more clearly call to mind similar techniques Krzysztof Kieslowski used to powerful effect in A Short Film About Killing.

Frames of darkness eerily enveloping the characters, comparable to the cinematography of Gordon Willis, the ‘Prince of Darkness’.

Costa’s rigorous presentation of such an immersive visual style effectively sets Vitalina Varela up as a work of astounding formal beauty, meticulously rendered through static tableaux that demand patience from its audience. We stand in graffitied alleyways, overgrown gardens, and dilapidated churches, often waiting for characters to enter and inject the scenery with some dynamic life, though often finding instead that their appearances are limited to whispered soliloquys and stiff passages of dialogue. Much like Carl Theodor Dreyer, Costa disconnects his actors entirely from each other, leaving long pauses between each line and staggering their bodies in disjointed formations through a crisp depth of field, reaching far back into his ramshackle sets.

One of the best uses of deep focus in recent film history, building disconnection between characters staggered throughout the scenery.

From the sides of his compositions however, Vitalina Varela squeezes these cramped environments inwards, so much so that it is difficult at times to discern exteriors from interiors. Barred windows frequently become oppressive frames through which we observe Vitalina wandering Lisbon’s rundown infrastructure, trapped by the life her husband has left behind, though occasionally Costa will angle his camera up to capture a cloudy, night sky, tinged with a murky green that faintly colours the murky, earthy tones below.

Perhaps the strongest composition of the film, and one of the best of the decade – the priest caught in these metallic, web-like spokes, framed right in the centre from a low angle in a vignette of light.
Vitalina and the priest are often framed behind rusty, barred windows like these, trapped in a derelict hellhole.
One of the few shots that let the sky dominate, shedding a faint, murky green upon the Portuguese village below.

The cumulative effect of such hypnotic austerity throughout the film is quietly overwhelming, as Costa works through his eerie, distant sound design and expressionistic mise-en-scène to lull us into the same state of mournful despondency that this forlorn woman is suffering. Named after the actress herself upon whom this story is based, Vitalina Varela encourages us to make little distinction between character and performer, thus becoming a strange sort of docudrama which rejects realism and seeks a profound connection to the widow in her loneliest moments. Though visitors drop by to offer their condolences, there is little solace to be found in any of them, as she serves them food and carries out the duties of a loyal wife as if her husband were still alive. She may burn a candle on a small shrine dedicated to his memory, but she holds no personal connection towards this house or the legacy of neglect it imprisons her in.

Solid form in returning to this delicate shot of Vitalina’s tiny shrine devoted to her deceased husband.

In blinding contrast, Costa briefly flashes back a couple of times to the days of the couple’s youth in Cape Verde, where the fruits of their love and collaboration emerge in rare glimpses of daylight. Lighting thus becomes a crucial formal marker of Vitalina’s own journey in this film, representing her hopeful past and later her future as well, as she strives to find resolution in her husband’s passing. In the meantime though, she is honest about the distance she feels from the man who departed this world without explanation for his abandonment, infidelity, and debauchery.

“There is nothing left of that love, of that clarity. I do not trust you in life nor in death.”

There are less than a dozen shots that take place in daylight, and all of them are associated with either Vitalina’s past or future.

The closest thing to a companion that Vitalina finds in this place is its local priest, played by Costa’s regular collaborator, Ventura. This old, frail man has tremors in one hand and can barely carry his own weight without collapsing, but he holds a majestic screen presence with his tall, withering stature nonetheless, lamenting the state of his empty, dusty church. “There is nothing sadder than a priest in this place,” he moans, and yet as Vitalina reveals, he is not some bystander in a moral wasteland. She remembers him from his days in Cape Verde where he refused the baptism of local believers seeking salvation, only to see them all die in a bus crash immediately afterwards. Together, both Vitalina and the priest “share the mourning,” as he puts it. “You lost your husband. I lost my faith in this darkness.”

As Costa segues into his final scenes though, an elegiac cleansing of sorts begins to take form. A biblical storm bursts forth from the overcast skies, pelting down on grimy, corrugated iron roofs, and the priest turns his head upwards, sombrely quoting Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

“Our country is in heaven…”

And yet he has his own addendum for this bible passage as well.

“…But fear can also enter heaven.”

Returning to the opening shot in the final act – a pair of funerals on either end of the narrative.

The spiritual underpinnings of Costa’s work here are elusive and mysterious, and yet there is great catharsis to be found in the final scenes of daylight, as the priest conducts Joaquim’s funeral one more time for Vitalina alone. “There will be no more death, nor mourning, nor pain,” he preaches, and we would like to believe that there is indeed power in what he says beyond mere self-assurance of a bright future. If we are to find hope here at all though, perhaps it is in the closing flashback of Vitalina and Joaquim’s half-constructed house in Cape Verde, offering far greater comfort than the Portuguese shack they will be both inevitably reside in. Costa does not promise his viewers an easy experience peeling back the layers of Vitalina Varela’s solemn visual poetry, and yet the heavy grief that bleeds out into his world of neglected gardens, streets, and sewers is rendered with an uncomfortable sincerity, and starkly illuminated with abstract, melancholic sensitivities.

Daylight again in the final shots. While Costa thrives in darkness, he works just as well in these visually lighter scenes.

Vitalina Varela is not currently available to stream in Australia.

Gravity (2013)

Alfonso Cuarón | 1hr 31min

“Life in space is impossible,” Alfonso Cuarón tells us in the opening seconds of Gravity, and there is little that unfolds over the next ninety minutes of tight, suspenseful storytelling that would suggest anything different. Up in this hostile, black void where space junk moves faster than bullets and the slightest technological malfunction can lead to instant death, Earth is further away than ever, and yet it rarely leaves our sights. All through the film, it sits there in the background of Emmanuel Lubezki’s gorgeous IMAX shots, offering a distant promise of safety to those astronauts at the centre of this tale navigating an unfriendly universe.

Beautifully composed symbolism with the interior of this space shuttle, wrapping Ryan up in this womb.

For Dr. Ryan Stone, crewmember of the Space Shuttle Explorer, it is a world she has deliberately run from, numbing herself to its joys and tragedies by consuming herself in a desolate emptiness. Gravity spells out its metaphor of depression and rebirth with little ambiguity, and yet this does not imply that there is a lack of nuance in Ryan’s characterisation or Cuarón’s thrilling narrative. Rather the opposite – it is in its heavy symbolism that Gravity reaches back to our most primal instincts, evoking the warmth of a womb as Ryan curls up into a foetal position, tethered to the space shuttle she has sought refuge in by what might as well be an umbilical cord. Later, the sound of crying babies over a radio signal inspires a connection to her own past as a mother, and her eventual emergence from water to land is attached the archetypal image of evolution, tying her back to the very roots of her humanity. Much like Cuarón’s previous effort, Children of Men, Gravity displays a philosophical approach to visual storytelling, opting for bold images and rich, humanistic allegories.

Mimicking each step of evolution, emerging from the water and learning to walk again. Gravity’s critics have called this symbolism heavy-handed, but they often fail to mention how potent and earned it is within the film.

The other significant similarity worth drawing between the two films is the collaboration between Cuarón and Lubezki, who together unravel scenes of action and mayhem through marvellously choreographed long takes, refusing to release us from the grip of the narrative. No doubt the most impressive and engrossing one of all is the opening shot lasting 13 minutes, slowly drifting the Explorer into view above the Earth while its passengers float around its exterior on a spacewalk. Here, there is no sense of spatial orientation in the camerawork, which rolls and spins in wandering motions and latches to characters as if connected by an invisible bungee cord. Ryan and her playful commander, Matt Kowalski, are given just enough time during this setup to reveal their polar opposite personalities before the reveal of satellite debris hurtling their way. Chaos dominates as the ship is ripped apart, and it is only when Ryan’s connection is severed and she is left spinning into the depths of space that Cuarón finally cuts, physically marking the point in his narrative that a new complication emerges.

A bold 13-minute long take to open the film – the collaboration between Cuarón and Lubezki continues seven years after Children of Men with remarkable ambition and execution.

As we grow more familiar with our leading woman, the visceral vulnerability of Lubezki’s cinematography continues to extend beyond disorientating camera movements, and eventually fixes itself to Ryan’s face in an anxious close-up, helplessly tumbling further away from home. When her breath starts to fog up the glass, the camera drifts inside her helmet to take her perspective, effectively bridging the gap between the cold objectivity of space and the sensitive subjectivity of her own mind.

Cuarón is heavy on the close-ups of Bullock all through Gravity, moving his camera inside her helmet and taking her perspective. It is certifiably her best performance to date.

Emphasising this tension even further is Cuarón’s unique approach to sound design, fully realising the chilling potential of a vacuum where the only existent noises are those which reverberate through radios and within one’s own helmet. The sound of giant ships colliding with sharp, metallic objects and being violently torn to pieces amounts to nothing but silence here, confronting us with the merciless indifference of the universe. Instead, it is voices, breathing, and heartbeats which meet our ears, accentuating the most human elements of scenes that otherwise threaten their survival. Given the minimalism of these soundscapes, there is additionally a lot of heavy lifting done by Steven Price’s music score in coordinating suspense, blending orchestral and electronic sounds while emitting any percussive instruments that throw off conventional rhythms.

Even within Gravity’s screenplay though, Cuarón and his son, Jonás Cuarón, develop a propulsive narrative which is simple enough in its structure, and yet holds us tightly in its vacillation between pitiless violence, heartbreaking sorrow, and hopeful anticipation. For as long as Ryan remains in space, the orbiting space debris will just keep hitting her in waves, effectively setting multiple 90-minute deadlines for her to make it from one safe refuge to the next. Much like the grief she carries for her deceased daughter, this recurring threat traps her in a cycle of destruction, formally tying her immediate circumstances to her larger character arc, pulling her from the depths of despair to a rediscovered taste for life.

For a film that is largely stuck in one location, Cuarón’s scenery rarely gets boring – a combination of his moving camerawork and shots like this that peek the sun over the horizon.

For Sandra Bullock, the ability to carry such an emotional journey through scenes with no other actors is a truly impressive feat indeed. George Clooney is just present enough as Kowalski in early scenes to offer a light-hearted counterpoint to Ryan’s despondency, revelling in the extraordinary delights of their work that she carries out with routine monotony, and it is in his eventual death that she undergoes yet another process of grieving that she is well-acquainted with at this point. The difference in her reactions to both instances of traumatic loss make are notable though – rather than distancing herself from humanity and escaping into space as she did following her daughter’s passing, the grief she finds in Kowalski’s sacrifice reinvigorates her desire to ground herself once again.

Cuarón’s trademark green lighting making an appearance every now and again, most notably here as she hopelessly submits to her fate.
Re-entering the earth’s atmosphere like a falling angel – truly epic, spiritual imagery.

In this way, the black void Ryan tenuously navigates through Gravity becomes a potent visual rendering of her depression, pushing Cuarón’s narrative beyond the genre trappings of science fiction and into the realm of profound spiritual allegory. It is not through dialogue that he draws these parallels, though there are certainly pieces of mystic curiosity that are present in pieces of dialogue that ponder the value of prayer. It is rather within its restless, floating camera and graceful symbols that Gravity evolves into a cinematic wonder, teasing out that compelling tension between bleak, barren emptiness and a determined embrace of life.

Gravity is currently streaming on Binge and Paramount Plus, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

Waves (2019)

Trey Edward Shults | 2hr 15min

Oftentimes when tragedy strikes, life can feel as if it is divided into two distinct periods of before and after, and it is exactly this turning point upon which Trey Edward Shults pivots the rich character drama of Waves. There is a hint of heartbreak in the Williams family’s past with Tyler and Emily’s biological mother having passed away from a drug overdose when they were young, and though this may indicate the presence of some underlying trauma ready to spill out again in a different form, so too does it reveal the resilience of this family unit in building themselves back up from the deep pits of grief. Especially with their father, Ronald, remarrying Catherine, a woman who loves the children like her own, things look about as stable as ever, pulling us along a thread of lingering hope all the way through Shults’ steady, introspective examination of Tyler’s troubled mind. It is along this emotional trajectory that the camera energetically flies with its characters, reaching joyous heights that spin in cars to upbeat pop music, and sink to shameful lows that hang obscurely on the back of their heads, refusing to let even their most reprehensible actions shake it from its unwavering empathetic perspective.

Energetic 360-degree camera pans in cars, spinning around as if dancing to the music with the characters.
Shults begins to hang his camera on the back of Tyler’s head as we are steadily distanced from him, and he grows more isolated.

Shults is patient with his world building through the first half of Waves, sitting with the Williams family through all their modest interactions across dinner tables, diners, school gymnasiums, and workplaces, where a portrait of comfortable routine and subtle interruptions delicately forms. Perhaps just as astounding as his spirited camerawork rolling briskly through each of these environments with inspired vigour is his thorough dedication to the dual colour scheme that formally connects the calm, gentle security of everyday life to the simmering violence fighting for dominance. Though it is the soothing blue hues which dominates much of the film’s first half in Kieslowski-style palettes, gorgeously washing a romantic beach scene in a cool, natural light and representing the home colours of Tyler’s school wrestling team, a visual conflict is set up early on in his bedroom. As we energetically pan around the space, we recognise that much like the other settings we have entered so far, almost everything from the walls to the bedsheets is dyed some shade of blue, until we reach his curtains which slash two translucent lines of red down either side of a turquoise strip of fabric.

Blue in Tyler’s school gymnasium, where is most at home. Absolute dedication to a colour palette from Shults, much like Kieslowki before him.
Two thin red strips of fabric framing the window in Tyler’s room – totally integral to the formal progression of his character and visual style.

Bit by bit, as pressure begins to mount on Tyler in various directions, Shults’ blue lens flares and décor slip out of his beautifully curated designs, and angry reds begin to dominate. Ronald is far from an abusive father, and yet there is the question of whether he is pushing his son a little too hard to succeed, especially when Tyler unwisely decides that his diagnosed SLAP tear should be kept secret and simply treated with painkillers. This only feeds into other unhealthy habits that continue to degrade his mental state, as a trip to a liquor store vibrantly shocks us into a scene lit with aggressive crimson hues, and later at a party he is framed behind the flames of a raging bonfire. Just as concerning is his choice to keep wrestling and damaging his body, with his struggling athletic performance against a rival school set inside a vibrant, red gymnasium.

The first shot in the film where red dominates, as Tyler enters a liquor store right after being diagnosed with a SLAP tear. A gorgeously placed long dissolve too into the blue close-up of the bottle being poured.
The rival team’s gym is almost entirely red, once again setting up a conflict with the blue gym we are used to seeing Tyler practice in.
Warm fire blazing in the foreground over Tyler’s face at a party – a hellish image.

Throughout this spiralling, the tender love that has persisted through even the characters’ worst fights starts to fade, eventually hitting rock bottom when Tyler’s girlfriend, Alexis, decides to keep their baby she has accidentally fallen pregnant with. Where our compassion turns into outright fear for those around him comes at a house party following their breakup, where we follow his search for his now ex-girlfriend in a long take lasting several minutes. As he doggedly moves through the house, Shults swathes him in neon red lighting looking straight out of a Nicolas Winding Refn film, formally melding his vibrant style and narrative at Waves’ devastating climactic midpoint.

Vibrant neon lighting like Nicolas Winding Refn as we reach the devastating midpoint of Waves, drawing an expressionistic contrast between the colours while we hang behind him in one long tracking shot.

It is hard to regain our bearings immediately following Tyler’s outburst of violence, as a cut to black fleetingly detaches us from the shock of the moment, only to return us a few seconds later to his horrified face and Alexis’s head bleeding out on the ground. Suddenly, the world feels a lot smaller – quite literally, given that the aspect ratio has shrunk to a narrow box, containing shattering close-ups within stifling frames. Shults’ pop and hip-hop soundtrack gives way to a distorted electronic sound design, and as we frantically intercut between Tyler’s escape, his father’s desperate search, and the arriving police, flashing emergency lights swallow them all into a tunnel of despair.

A change in aspect ratio as the world closes in around us, now fully consuming Tyler in the flashing emergency lights…
…And then a smooth transition into Emily’s perspective, formally splitting Waves into two halves separated by tragedy.

Though it is Tyler we follow into it, locked up in the backseat of the squad car, it is Emily we observe coming out, being driven to her brother’s sentencing. The transition here is slick and seamless, and it is especially significant given the switch of perspective it represents, cutting the film in two halves. Even as we sit in court, Shults deliberately avoids showing Tyler’s face, severing us entirely from his side of the story and instead keeping us firmly in Emily’s traumatised, confused mind. From this point on, she is the one the camera sits with in lonely close-ups, tracking her through school where she is forced to hear the things people say about him and suffer the silent judgement that comes with being his sister. Gone is the pop soundtrack, which is now replaced by a gentle piano score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and with this more soothing soundscape Shults works back in his blue palette, now distinctly more poignant than before.

Back home, fresh wounds keep ripping themselves back open with each fight, as Emily’s parent’s struggle to reconcile their different grieving processes. As we sit in her point-of-view watching them through the bedroom door, Shults’ camera steadily zooms in on Catherine’s broken face for several minutes before shifting to Ronald’s teary face in the final seconds, leaving us torn between both sides of this emotional distress. Emily, meanwhile, cannot find the energy to fight with her loved ones. She is full of rage, and she directs it all towards the brother whose actions she cannot easily reconcile with their old, loving relationship. The easy option is to label him an evil monster, but as Ronald reminds her, he is simply a human being. To hang onto that hate is to deny herself any healing.

A long take that simply zooms in on Catherine’s broken face for several minutes, watching this argument unfold from Emily’s perspective in the next room over.

Then into her life walks Luke, one of Tyler’s old wrestling teammates. He is kind and open, though given the circumstances, she is understandably wary. As Waves gains some distance from the tragedy at its centre, Shults progressively winds it back down with a decelerating pace that falls back into the lyrical montage editing from earlier in the film. Not long after, the upbeat rhythms of Tame Impala and Kanye West join back in, and at the point that Emily finally decides to open herself up again, the aspect ratio changes yet again, though this time into a widescreen format that lays her whole world out before us. This manipulation of frame proportions to reflect the internal life of characters is not unlike that which Xavier Dolan experimented with in Mommy five years earlier, but Shults’ use of this device fluctuates even more significantly, as Emily’s decision to help Luke make amends with his estranged, dying father eventually sees a resurrection of the full-screen aspect ratio from the start, and with it, a return to stability.

Another shift in aspect ratio, this time marking Emily’s conscious decision to embrace new beginnings. There are few directors who experiment so freely with this device – Wes Anderson and Xavier Dolan comparisons come to mind.

Shults wields a dextrous hand over the symmetry of his film, not just in balancing out the joy and the tragedy in his drama, but it is even within its narrative structure and colours, always ready counterpoint one emotion with its inverse. As such, a rich duality of identities, relationships, and emotional journeys is baked deep into the formal construction of Waves, though as its title suggests, these characters’ lives will forever be an oscillation between extremes, rising and dipping like the gorgeous blue ocean we delicately hover over, watching a couple whose imminent suffering will in turn give birth to new love.

Colourful lens flares heavily evoke Punch Drunk Love, slipping us into a haze through dreamy transitions.

Waves is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

Midsommar (2019)

Ari Aster | 2hr 20min

At the heart of Midsommar there are two monsters in direct opposition to each other, fighting it out over the soul of a woman searching for meaningful stability. Traumatic grief haunts psychology student Dani following the murder-suicide that killed her entire family in one swift burst of depressive violence. The prospect of recovering from such a life-shattering tragedy seems impossible, and this is only backed up by the crushing visual darkness that dominates the first act of the film where the origins of her agony unfold. The opening minute lands us in chilly snowscapes sinking into a bleak gloominess, chilling us with the frosty isolation that defines Dani’s desolate world, and not long after, the flashing red lights of fire engines dimly illuminate a group of rescuers following a pipe leading from a carbon monoxide-filled garage into the bedrooms upstairs. The strings in Bobby Krlic’s agitated score wail like human cries, matching the awful, guttural sobs that erupt deep from within Florence Pugh’s chest. Nothing but the curious tapestry that lingers in the film’s very first shot hints at any sort of potential escape from the suffocating darkness, with each of its four panels painting out separate acts of Dani’s imminent journey, as if transcribed and prophesied in Hårga mythology.

Solid form set right from the opening shot, setting the tone of the murals and foreshadowing Dani’s journey inscribed into Hårga mythology.
Frosty scenery in America, setting the tone of Dani’s desolate world.
Devastating tragedy revealed in long tracking shots and dissolves, the red flashing lights of the emergency vehicles ominously illuminating the darkness.

And indeed, there is a light beyond this frightening shadow, bright and dazzling in its psychedelic radiance, and therein lies the second monster of Midsommar, welcoming Dani into its open arms. The Swedish commune that she is invited to visit with her emotionally distant boyfriend, Christian, and his friends could not be more culturally distinct from the cold, dark America she is familiar with, where Ari Aster’s staging is always keenly in tune with his characters’ frigidity. Dani’s relationships are frequently fragmented through mirrors and reflective surfaces that split characters into individual frames, and eye contact is scarcely found. Awkward silences and attempts to cover them up with excuses distinguish the nervous pacing of these scenes set in America, and it is especially notable that the only person offering any kind of emotional support is Swedish exchange student Pelle.

Dani and Christian’s reflections behind the rest of the group back in America, fracturing their relationships.
A bold move from Aster in tracking his camera along this road and flipping it upside down, bringing us into the upside-down reversal of everything we are familiar with – dark to light, disconnection to unity, modernity to tradition.
The camera pans and wanders through this seemingly utopian village, basking in its picturesque scenery – green with lush grass and white with linen clothing.

From the moment Aster tilts his camera upside down in an elegant tracking shot transporting us into the world of the Hårga though, a shift takes place on virtually every stylistic level. Our first impressions of this community suggest a fantastical utopia, as the camera pans and wanders in long takes through green landscapes dotted by villagers dressed in white linen, pastel flowers, and rustic, wooden buildings, and these visuals are accompanied by a small troupe of musicians playing gentle melodies on recorders. The silences shared between members of the commune are not grating, but rather linger in lovingly affectionate hugs, and Aster’s blocking takes a hard turn from icy division towards robust, collective unity. When the Hårga dance, they hold hands and gleefully run in concentric circles around a maypole, and even the camera joins in their wild jubilation. When they are still, Aster will often stage up to a hundred extras in rigid formations, seating them along lengthy feast tables symmetrically assembled in the shape of ancient runes, or arranging them through layers of the shot as they collectively shriek and yell, sharing each other’s pain.

Recurring overhead shots paint out a unity in the patterns these crowds form.
Rigidly staged ensembles from Aster creating gorgeous symmetries and visual composition, topping his already stunning debut in Hereditary.
Dazzling white light shone across this daunting set piece.

And of course all through this quaint commune of ancient rituals and modest living, Aster rarely lets his bright, shimmering light fade, piercing every shadow and bouncing it off pure white surfaces to diffuse it into a blinding atmospheric glare. In this part of Sweden and at this time of year, the sun stays up for 22 hours a day, barely dipping below the horizon, and simply this key fact of the environment sets up a strong formal relationship with Dani’s past which is conversely soaked in darkness.

Such all-consuming brightness is integral to Aster’s ravishing imagery that refuses to shy away from the more grotesque customs performed by the Hårga, including the ritualistic senicide and the gruesome blood eagle execution that manifests as a sort of body horror art. Even beyond its grisly atrocities though, Midsommar does not so much play on the terror of the unknown as it does on the subtly unnerving distortion of the familiar, pulling its characters into psychedelic trips that let flowers breathe with life and out-of-focus backgrounds subtly liquefy like a rippling lake.

Body horror art and thoroughly researched ancient practices in the blood eagle execution.

It is also in these hallucinogenic highs that Aster complements Dani’s arc of acceptance into the Hårga with a lush, visual metamorphosis. Not long after she arrives and ingests mushrooms with her fellow travellers, Aster staggers their bodies on the side of a hill in a Kurosawa-like composition, and idly pushes his camera forward until it settles on a delirious close-up of her hand becoming one with the grass. Later, a similar illusion of her feet sprouting greenery emerges amid communal celebrations, as if absorbing her into the earth, though the evidence of her assimilation is not just confined to these visions. The flower crowns that adorn the head of the Hårga and its visitors establish a powerful connection to the natural world, and one that singles Dani out as being unusually susceptible to its influences. As Midsommar winds towards its disturbing finish, she keeps taking on larger, more elaborate floral embellishments, until she has effectively become a green, flowered monstrosity, consumed by her new identity as May Queen.

A Kurosawa-like composition in the blocking of bodies as parallel lines in the mise-en-scène, with the camera skilfully tracking forward to rest on Dani’s hallucination.
A metamorphosis leading from mere hallucinations into this floral monstrosity as Dani is consumed by the Hårga, equally reflected in Florence Pugh’s anguished performance.

The clash between the disrespect of the foreigners and the traditions of the Hårga is not one Dani engages with to any major extent, though it is this tension which defines her steady slide away from her old loyalties towards her new ones. While two visiting Londoners react with noisy disgust at the ritual suicides of the village elders, Aster disappears inside Dani’s dazed mind that instinctively disconnects her from her surroundings, horrified but not entirely resistant to the way the commune willingly accepts death as part of its customs. Later, one of Christian’s friends urinates on an ancestral tree, and another takes photos of an artefact he is specifically instructed not to. If there was any remaining doubt to Aster’s distinction between the foreigners and the Hårga, he even names Dani’s boyfriend Christian in direct opposition to their paganism.

There is no such thing as sanctity in the society these Americans hail from, and as such there is an inherent mismatch between their insensitivity and the Hårga whose entire culture revolves around natural cycles and displays of collective compassion, whether those be the metaphorical seasons used to distinguish the stages of a human life or the rhythmic howling that accompanies Dani mid-panic attack. Even in smaller formal choices, Aster is building out a world thick with tradition, with the villagers giving short, sharp exhalations as an adrenaline boost. Most curious of all though is the way he lingers on painted murals of ancient symbols, procedures, and stories much like the one in the opening shot, evoking Krzysztof Kieslowski’s own iconographic cutaways that carry symbolic significance and foreshadow narrative developments.

The camera lingering on the painted iconography in this Sistine Chapel shot, gliding past its rafters.
Foreshadowing in the Hårga tapestries, lacing clues through the rest of the film of a strange love potion in the making.

The pulsating rhythms Aster weaves through Midsommar are so intoxicatingly enigmatic that it is hard not to think of the Hårga’s practices when one woman offers Christian a drugged drink which she explains “breaks down the defences and opens you to the influences.” Being a lost woman in search of human connection, there are few emotional barriers keep Dani from being fully swayed by their hypnotic thrall, and while we might find ourselves conflicted over the glorious final minutes of Midsommar, we too find ourselves swept away by the majestic destruction of her toxic relationship.

Even a conscious recognition that cults operate on false displays of empathy and promises of unending happiness is not enough to counteract the resplendent effect of Krlic’s ethereal strings and tinkling percussion, harmonising with the villagers’ chants and screams to rise to a shimmering crescendo. Never mind that the Hårga are indefensibly responsible for traumatising Dani a second time in forcing a mating ritual upon her boyfriend, or that they joyfully engage in some truly horrific practices. Finally, she is smiling for what seems like the first time in the entire film, and as Aster dissolves a close-up of her face over the sight of the ugly pieces of her old life going up in flames, he delivers one final, sinister set piece of spiritual catharsis, celebrating the liberation found in the disturbing confines of the only true community she has ever known.

One of the great endings of the decade, not unlike that of Hereditary though with a gorgeous long dissolve layering Dani’s face over the sacrificial offering of her past.

Midsommar is currently streaming on Netflix and Stan, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes and Amazon Video.

Mr. Turner (2014)

Mike Leigh | 2hr 30min

It is not enough for Mike Leigh to simply evoke the world that Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner observed and rendered through his watercolours, splashing them across canvases with energetic brush strokes and vivid pigments. On every level of its cinematic construction, Mr. Turner inhabits these paintings with ethereal elegance, basking in picturesque seascapes and hillsides that project both a coordinated sophistication and organic naturalism. That gentle, scenic beauty is right there from the opening shot where Leigh’s long-time cinematographer, Dick Pope, diffuses a pale orange sunrise across the English countryside and riverbanks, the rough stretch of horizon in the background only broken by the silhouette of a windmill rising from the grassy knolls. This is the setting for one of Turner’s many journeys through nature, searching for the view that will become the subject of his next landscape, affectingly infusing the artist with their art. It is a fascinating layering of character, creation, and environment which Leigh conducts here, and one that he even stretches to a self-referential level in one trick edit that leads us to believe we are gazing at one of Turner’s extraordinary mountain paintings, before pulling back to reveal the man himself walking among the rocky green outcrops.

Leigh’s natural lighting is impeccable, tinting landscape shots with soft pinks, oranges, and golds at magic hour.

The biopic narrative of Mr. Turner moves slowly but meticulously, eschewing plot conventions that simply would not have served as unorthodox a figure as this in favour of a measured character study that breaks down the complex machinations of his rich inner life, which could hardly be gaged from the permanent scowl drawn across his face. He mixes in circles of writers, musicians, artists, and scientists, and though he has little patience for their conversations of narcissistic posturing, he relishes interactions with similarly passionate minds fascinated the systems of logic and beauty underlying the natural world. It is within those that he grounds his own creative processes, driven by a pure wonder at the way each hue carries its own unique character and purpose subconsciously understood by all humans.

Infusing the artist with the art in this deft edit, cutting from Turner viciously stabbing at his canvas with a brush to what looks like a painting – then tilting the camera down to reveal him walking through the landscape.

This is rarely expressed so delicately as it is in one fictionalised meeting between Turner and Renaissance polymath Mary Somerville, where the scientist uses a glass prism to project a rainbow onto a canvas, exposing a thin needle to the violet light. After leaving it for a few hours, she reveals that it has become magnetic – a property that only this end of the colour spectrum can imbue. The eloquent words that come out of Turner’s mouth in response here do not seem to line up with the gruff, austere image he projects.

“Colour is contradictory.”

“Well, is it, Mr Turner? Colour is absolute.”

“Sublime but contradictory, yet harmonious.”

“You are a man of great vision, Mr Turner. The universe is chaotic, and you make us see it. In natural philosophy nothing can ever be proved, only disproved.”

“The purity of your prism, the contamination of my palette. Natural light, blackness. White is the power of good, black is the devil.”

There is something of a self-identification taking place here in Turner’s mind, as in those contradictions of colour theory he sees parts of his own paradoxical persona. All at once, he is both curmudgeonly and sensitive, bestial and intelligent, closed-off and compassionate. He callously refuses to acknowledge his daughters as his own, but he does take care of his elderly father who once worked as a barber, and from whom he may have inherited his dextrous hands. Perhaps this reflects his own complicated relationship with himself, being that he likens himself to a gargoyle far removed from the realm of his beautiful paintings, and yet he remains self-assured in his artisanship.

There are few films from the 2010s as visually accomplished as this, as Leigh and his cinematographer Pope deliver these exquisite compositions reflecting Turner’s sensitive view of the natural world.

There is little denying the richness of Turner as an intricate character possessing greater depths and inconsistencies than his visage might suggest, and though much of this can be attributed to the resonant Dickensian dialect of Leigh’s screenplay, Timothy Spall’s metamorphosis into the role goes far beyond mere verbal expressions. His grunts essentially become a language of their own, communicating everything from frustrated displeasure to downhearted defeat, and in his shambling, portly physicality he projects the image of man who by all accounts should not possess such polished handiwork. His artistry does not exist in spite of his roughness, but the two merge in the processes of creation, as he spits, blows powder, and stabs at his canvas with paintbrushes, viciously attacking it as if it were the target of his utter disdain. Unconventional as his methods are, this is simply his manner of communicating with the world. He certainly possesses no musical talent, as we discover early on when he unpleasantly mumbles lyrics along to graceful piano accompaniment, and when he cries his sobs sound like inhuman, gut-wrenching growls. Verbally, he only ever seems to string words together with keen articulation when he is speaking of his artistic passion. The only medium through which he can effectively express himself is ultimately his painting.

It is just as much through Suzie Davies’ superb production design as it is Pope’s stunning landscapes that Turner’s interior life is defined, as Leigh uses her period décor and doorways to wrap the artist up in tight frames that seem opposed to his natural habitat in the open air. Golden sunlight filters through open windows into studios where his creativity flows without restriction, and here his large, half-painted canvases become vivid backgrounds to his own cathartic endeavours. These meticulously curated sensibilities carry through to the galleries he frequents, where lush green and red walls peek out from behind golden frames of historically famous artworks. Leigh especially relishes faithfully recreating authentic showcases such as the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of 1832, which marks the most famous instance of Turner’s showboating, where he marks a single, red stroke on his seascape Helvoetsluys in response to the attention being directed towards John Constable’s neighbouring oil painting. After two days of derision from spectators, critics, and fellow artists, he returns with a rag, and with a single smear turns it into buoy floating above the waves, drawing the eye to this vibrant, colourful splash of spontaneity.

Leigh and Davies curate interiors with painstaking rigour, maintaining historical authenticity and visual splendour.

Perhaps it is this impulsive display of ingenuity which most pointedly indicates the intuitive nature of Turner’s artistry, willingly adapting to the whims of a world beyond his control. When a storm strikes, he seeks assistance in tying himself to the mast of a ship to observe the raging tempest up close. When he is lying on his deathbed, even then he is driven by compulsion to leave the house and examine the cold, grey corpse of a local girl who tragically drowned. So immersive are Leigh’s vignettes depicting pieces of Turner’s character that they may as well be considered a gallery spanning decades of his life, with the only unifying threads being his creative work and the odd, loving admiration shared between him and his landlady, Mrs Booth. Though she calls him a “man of great spirit and fine feeling” and he tells her she is a “woman of profound beauty,” their love never quite develops into anything officially recognised. Constrained as it is, their peculiar affection may be the only passion of Turner’s that exists independent of his watercolours, though even she recognises that it will always be secondary for him. His final words are telling of where his deepest adoration lies.

“The sun is god.”

It is that ball of fire bringing life to all spectral colours which he finds taking up his last thoughts, and whose light that Leigh directs his attention to in his final seconds. Atop a hill overlooking the ocean, the radiant sunset burns pink and red, and Turner’s rounded silhouette imprints against it with calm surrender. Few films have captured such aesthetic tranquillity as this, and even fewer have done so with such a coarse, prickly figure at its centre, yet Leigh’s orchestration of these beautiful contradictions elevates Mr. Turner to an exceptional calibre of historical biopics worthy of its subject’s raw talent.

“The sun is god” – Turner’s key philosophy, pointing to the natural world as the source of his inspiration.

Mr. Turner is currently streaming on Stan, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

The Master (2012)

Paul Thomas Anderson | 2hr 24min

“The Cause” is an apt name for Lancaster Dodd’s vaguely spiritual movement. His musings are rarely specific enough for us to believe in it on any level beyond its hazy, inconsistent teachings, though in a post-war American society of people looking to the stability of self-assured leaders for any sort of guidance, details are not essential. That is at least the case for Freddie Quell, whose attempts to re-join society after serving in World War II see him aimlessly wander between jobs, women, and communities, drifting on an unsettled ocean. His journey through The Master is bookmarked by overhead shots of the wake trailing behind the ships he travels on, focusing not on what lies ahead, but on the lingering remnants of the past, haunting him with memories of war, abuse, and failure. What exactly The Cause grants him and so many others is right there in its title, offering structure and purpose to the lives of those who abide by its doctrine in much the same way a human might domesticate a pet.

This visual motif repeated three times through The Master at key points, loaded with symbolism – these characters living in the wake of their trauma, drifting on a restless ocean.

This might be the simplest way to break down the unlikely relationship that thrives between Freddie and Dodd. Joaquin Phoenix plays the former as a creature of wild impulse, acting on whatever violent or sexual desires pass through his mind at any point, though this is not to say he is a shallow character. A concoction of trauma, self-loathing, and nostalgia spill out in erratic mannerisms, revealing a disconnect between the way he processes those emotions and his relation to the wider world. It isn’t just Philip Seymour Hoffman’s cool, confident aura which draws a wandering Freddie into Dodd’s orbit either. The master’s interest in the spiritual realm equally confounds and fascinates his new protégé, who can barely conceive of anything immaterial, and while he preaches against submitting to one’s bestial urges, he can’t help but cherish Freddie’s naïve devotion. Like a dog looking to be cared for and an owner searching for undying loyalty, the two nurture a companionship that arrives at exactly the right moment for them both, offering a cause to which they both dedicate their lives, and which is even more fruitful than the actual “Cause” movement they lead and serve.

It is in this complex bond that Paul Thomas Anderson draws a rich dichotomy through The Master, constantly offering formal counterpoints that are as robust as they are opaque. For every one of Freddie’s fart jokes or outbursts, Dodd reprimands him as a “silly animal.” When Dodd speaks of humanity’s supremacy over the animal kingdom, Freddie amusingly asks a total stranger if she wants to fuck. When Dodd is arrested for practicing medicine without a licence, he maintains an air of civil decorum, and of course Freddie is right there by his side, refusing to let his friend go down without a fight. In the local prison, Anderson splits the frame right down the middle of the two neighbouring cells, as if painting out the dual sides of the human brain – on one side, brutish anger, aggressively smashing a toilet, and on the other, calm, composed civility, poignantly mulling over the unfortunate situation. It is here that they have their first fight, with Dodd mercilessly taunting “Who likes you except for me?”. Really though, the question cuts both ways. While his family and followers are sceptical of his act, the current state of affairs point to the fact that Freddie is the only one willing to stick by him to the end.

A brutish loss of control compared to a calm, composed demeanour. This relationship of point and counterpoint is a huge formal strength of the film.

The obscure, almost lyrical progression of this eccentric relationship is one that Anderson builds in abstract rhythms all through The Master, eroding boundaries between scenes with dreamy long dissolves and non-linear montages that at times last upwards of ten minutes. It all begins though with the pure character work of the first twenty minutes, which sees Freddie finish up his Navy service and pass the time on a remote island. The editing here is as jagged as the primal, syncopated beat of Jonny Greenwood’s percussion and strings, accompanying Freddie humping a lady carved into the sand, masturbating into the ocean, and wrestling with his fellow soldiers. Upon arriving back in America, his psychological examination through a Rorschach test goes on to reveal more of that sexual perversion which is ingrained in his most base instincts. There always seems to be some crooked angle in Phoenix’s posture too, whether hunched over or bent to the side, and Anderson particularly emphasises it on the ship transporting him home, splaying him out on the upper deck of the navy ship in the foreground, while the crew below lounge around in more conventional positions. Besides the presence of those eccentric habits and messy vices which make him unpredictably human, Freddie is not a man who can be pinned down easily.

An overhead shot of great detail and beauty in its staging, splaying Freddie out in the foreground atop a Navy ship while others lounge around below.
Long dissolves float this narrative along, creating these hazy compositions.
Fish-eye lenses and jagged montage editing introducing us to this strange, lonely human in the opening minutes as he finishes up his Navy service.

It is on the yacht where Dodd is celebrating his daughter’s wedding and on which Freddie stows away that the two men first meet. “You seem so familiar to me,” Dodd wistfully ponders as if recalling a past life, and the chemistry between both actors is immediately palpable. How fitting it is that the initial stage of this relationship unfolds on the ocean. Just as Freddie comfortably floats through life without direction, so too is this the place where Dodd feels most focused and inspired to write. When they eventually arrive back on land, Anderson will often draw on the tight frames of doorways and windows to close in around them, binding them by the conventions of society, but for now the two simply relish the freedom that comes with the rolling waves, rendered musically in the rise and fall of Greenwood’s discordant, otherworldly scales.

Closed frames back on land, isolating both Freddie and Dodd in its confines where neither are completely comfortable.

When it comes to the “informal processing” that Dodd conducts on Freddie, there are some clear parallels being drawn to real-world Scientology beliefs, though Anderson does not brush off the pseudo-psychological practices so quickly. It is a showcase of raw talent from both Hoffman and Phoenix here, one unloading a barrage of personal questions with assertive confidence, the other breaking down beneath intense examination, confronting a sensitive pain rooted in his childhood that was only intensified by the traumas of war. While some prompts are repeated multiple times, they are not always intending to draw out different answers, but rather encourage a more profound reflection from Freddie whose responses subtly shift in tone each time. There is an entire journey mapped out on Phoenix’s face here, and which Anderson holds on in a close-up, watching the glee, anger, sorrow, shame, and desperation cut deeper into his mind than he had ever dared probe before. Compared to the earlier psychological examination conducted by doctors that merely passed over his bizarre idiosyncrasies, Dodd’s processing is a great success, as for the first time Freddie discovers an imposed structure that inspires self-reflection rather than soul-sucking conformity.

Two of the greatest performances of the decade, and the processing scene is especially a tremendous acting achievement for Phoenix. So much loaded into his facial expressions and ticks.

Though these methods belong to The Cause, it is ultimately not so much the movement that helps him than it is Dodd’s own loving friendship. Quite poetically, it is also this in turn which brings the master down to a level of casual intimacy disparaged by his uptight family. While longing to be a strong leader others can look to, his wife exerts a sterile control over him, managing his sexual gratification with cold practicality and dictating significant decisions. Like Freddie, he is still a man prone to whims of anger, and The Cause’s rigorous systems are little more than facades of perfection keeping them in check. When confronted by a stranger in public over the organisation’s logical fallacies, Dodd is forced into a tight corner of weak arguments, until a rare slip sees him lose total control. As his most blinded, loyal disciple, Freddie follows his lead, throwing a tomato at the man and later attacking him violently, like a dog protecting its owner. Later after a period of separation between the two, their reunion goes beyond friendly. While they intimately hug each other and roll around on the grass like children, it is evident that Dodd has not so much cultivated Freddie’s courtesy as he has submitted to his animalism.

While Dodd tries to cultivate Freddie, Freddie often pulls him down with his chaotic, loving intimacy.

The game of “Pick a Point” that Dodd invites Freddie to play out on a barren expanse of salt plains affectingly paints out the juncture at which the two friends ultimately diverge, chasing down an irreconcilable pair of goals. The activity itself has no stakes or competition involved, but by Dodd’s own rules, this brief adrenaline rush of driving to a point on the horizon should take one back to where they started. When it is Freddie’s turn, it is apparent that Dodd’s brainwashing has done little to suppress his impulsivity, as in this short moment that he is let off his leash, he chooses not to return. There is a difference in his movement now though – no longer is he languidly drifting between cities, but he now proceeds with velocity and direction towards a singular point in the distance, with no intention of returning. His unfinished business from life before the war beckons, and with a new understanding of human relationships instilled in him, he is ready to face it.

The salt plains make for a beautiful, barren set piece, leading to Freddie’s impulsive but decisive escape.

Despite this advancement in character development, Anderson keeps evading any conventional narrative catharsis, seemingly reverting both Freddie and Dodd back to their lives before they met. We might hope that some firm resolution will be attained at their final meeting many years later, but this new Freddie is no longer seeking the same guidance that he was before. Between the two men, Anderson illustrates the human impulse to follow and the desire to lead, both being essential parts of our psychology, but he also portrays them as fully developed characters on inverse journeys of self-control and surrender. In a future life they may even be sworn enemies, Dodd ponders, but in the meantime, he simply holds the utmost admiration for his friend’s new perspective.

“For if you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know, will you? For you’d be the first person in the history of the world.”

Even in that statement, there is still a recognition that while Freddie goes where he pleases, he has not entirely escaped the influence of society’s values, boundaries, or structures. Anyone who has may no longer even be human. But between the two men it is ironically the follower, not the leader, who has come closer to understanding life without a master. Or rather, Freddie is his own master, finally in tune with his instincts and letting them point the way. Anderson’s layering of every single interaction in The Master with character counterpoints and patterns goes beyond great screenwriting, but also affirms it as a formal masterwork, elusively drifting these soulmates through a post-war America lost in its identity and direction.

A strong sense of setting in Anderson’s modernist production design, rooting this unique relationship in a post-war Western world.

The Master is currently streaming on Stan, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.