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.

Oslo, August 31st (2011)

Joachim Trier | 1hr 35min

Before we even meet our main character in this instalment of Joachim Trier’s Oslo trilogy, Joachim Trier introduces us to the city itself – or at least, the city that exists in the memories of its inhabitants, listing off short anecdotes over archival footage that reveals its streets, structures, and passing seasons. Pieces of Oslo’s past spill out in fond recollections, collectively moving towards reflections on those people and places that are long gone, until a loud, resonating demolition brings the collage to an abrupt end.

“I remember when they tore down the Philips building.”

You can always count on the editing in a Joachim Trier film to be among the best of the year, here opening on a montage of home videos and documentary footage to build the city of Oslo as a character.

The core conflict in Oslo, August 31st is between the future and oblivion, and the mind of recovering drug addict Anders is the battleground upon which it is fought. The titular date might as well be a deadline for him to find some sort of salvation, or at least direction, though with much of the film being set on August 30th, there are precious few hours left for that miracle to take place.

It is a close call to begin with for Anders who, upon leaving rehab, fills his pockets with rocks and goes to drown himself in a river. By the time he is already underwater though, he appears to have a change of heart. He splashes back to the surface, gasping for air, either unable or unwilling to go through with it. The slow, quiet leadup to this moment which teases out his character introduction could not be further from the opening of Trier’s previous film, Reprise, which vivaciously flits through the prospective futures of its two leading men in energetic montages, detailing their exploits in an authorial voiceover. Still, Oslo, August 31st very much remains a piece of his larger cultural examinations, studying the loneliness and failed ambition of youths wandering an uncertain world.

A thoughtful, sensitive performance from Anders Danielsen Lie, poignantly capturing one of Trier’s darkest characters.

Rather than energetically driving his narrative forward, here Trier’s editing deliberately disrupts its continuity, interrupting conversations with jump cuts while dialogue continues over the top, or briefly flashing back to shots from recent scenes. At one point, Anders finds himself sitting in a coffee shop, eavesdropping on the conversations of strangers casually considering bucket lists, potential schools for their children, and news stories about suicides, and as he ponders their lives outside this moment, Trier inserts cutaways to their speculated journeys home, where their mundane futures patiently wait. As for Anders, the space he occupies is often out of focus, leaving him not quite present in his own life.

Anders out of focus, barely inhabiting his own space as the women in the background draw our attention.

Over the course of this one day, Anders drifts between the remains of his old life, seeking out his best friend, his ex-girlfriend, and his sister, though whether because of lingering bitterness or simply moving on, there seems to be little room left for him. Neither does there seem to be a place for him anywhere else in Oslo’s future – or at least it looks that way in his mind. He is more than qualified for a position as an editorial assistant, though when his past as a drug addict surfaces in a job interview, he ashamedly brings it to an abrupt end.

It is just as much through the sensitive, intelligent performance from Anders Danielsen Lie as it is Trier’s thoughtful development of his story that the tragedy of Oslo, August 31st is revealed in all its heartache. The subtle reactions that pass across Danielsen Lie’s face during his quiet observations of others brings layers of history and trauma to the character, earning him compassion even in those moments that he falls back on bad habits. As he steals wallets from coats at a party and returns to his old drug dealer, he carries with him the same shame which ruined his job interview, landing him in a perpetual cycle of self-ruin.

As Anders wanders Oslo, Trier forms these lovely frames out of trees and architecture every now and again.

Those brief instances where Anders can disappear from his immediate surroundings and simply absorb himself in some detached mental state are blissful, particularly in one party scene where the surrounding noise is dropped out to bask in the pure, eerie high of an electronic track ringing through his mind. At the same time, he realises this remote way of living is no way to spend his last hours on Earth. A dreamy bike ride around Oslo and a skinny dip with a girl he just met at a party unfolds with unrestrained elation, bathing in the soft, blue light of the city’s early morning sunrise. Their conversation is light-hearted and free from judgement, so much so that we might even hope within it lies his salvation. Maybe we are just fooling ourselves though that anything that might have happened within the span of this film that could have improved Anders’ outlook. Perhaps he was not looking to be saved, but rather just a taste of happiness before departing.

The most joyous sequence of the film as Anders spends the rest of the night with Rebekah – drinking, riding bikes, skinny dipping, enjoying their youth until the sun rises.

Trier lands the final eight minutes of Oslo, August 31st with a single, sobering long take, floating through Anders’ family’s home, half of its furnishing packed and ready to be moved. With no cutaways or montages to sweep us away on waves of emotion, we are simply left to navigate this fading vestige of his past, soon to evaporate just like everything else. He lingers by some old family photos, tries to call his sister one last time, and tinkles around on the piano, but it is ultimately his childhood room where he finally settles. Through the open doorway, Trier lands on an affecting frame of Anders shooting up for the last time, slowly dollying forward until we cross the threshold into the room with him as he lies down.

A stunning 8-minute long take through Anders’ childhood home, exploring this fading remnant of his past.

The following montage of all the places visited over the past day moves in the reverse order that we saw them, as if letting the past slip away with Anders and replacing it with the new day which sees Oslo keep moving on without him. Unlike the rest of his thematic trilogy, Trier does not temper the cloud of depression that gathers over his film with some glimpse of hope. Like Anders, Oslo, August 31st submits to the cycle of time, poignantly fading away the sentimental memories of history into a melancholic recognition of their widespread irrelevance.

Recalling the ending of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise with the montage of all the places our main character has visited in reverse order, though with a deep, melancholy tone.

Oslo, August 31st is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

A Ghost Story (2017)

David Lowery | 1hr 32min

Even before Casey Affleck’s character C passes away in a car collision, it feels as if we are watching the events of A Ghost Story unfold from behind a thin gauze. The unusually boxy aspect ratio with rounded corners that David Lowery filters the film through gives the impression of an old-fashioned camera viewfinder, often set back in static, detached wide shots captured in a shallow focus. With an extremely minimalist approach to dialogue, the material world becomes a quiet limbo of poignant self-reflection, inhabited by a silent ghost caught between planes of existence. There is no horror that comes from this premise though – A Ghost Story is exactly what its name suggests, using its narrative form to watch grief, time, and existence play out from the perspective of the titular spectre.

C’s new, ghostly appearance would almost be comical in its setup if it wasn’t played with such melancholy. His partner, M, arrives at the hospital to confirm the identity of the body under a white sheet, and then as if to instinctually suppress the heartache, she pulls the sheet back up above his face and solemnly departs. From this point on it never comes off his body, covering him like a home-made Halloween costume, though also visually concealing any traces of his old identity. Reading his facial expressions is impossible, and even body language is hard to gage when he isn’t moving his arms. In the mind of a bereaved M trying to move on with her life, his presence is a haunting symbol of grief, far removed from the man she used to know. He is not quite a monster like the Babadook, actively trying to tear her apart, but he rather manifests as a colourless, shapeless, passive entity, marked by the negative space he numbly inhabits.

The death and rebirth of C, held in this melancholy frame created from layers of curtains and doorways.
A very simple character design, almost comical, but it serves its purpose in suppressing C’s individuality.

With limited ability to interact with the real world, time moves slowly for C. Lowery delineates the first half of A Ghost Story with long, lingering takes, some lasting almost up to ten minutes as we simply sit and watch Rooney Mara’s M suffer through her grief. As we peer through doorway frames and slowly pan across the setting, we too become an invisible entity existing at the edges of her periphery, sluggishly dragging ourselves from one room to the next while she puts herself back together, finds new love, and eventually moves out. Still, the expressionless ghost of C remains, dealing with his own grief as the world he is familiar with changes bit by bit.

A good number of shots framed through windows and entryways, confining M to a single location.
The longest shot in the film held for almost ten minutes as we watch C devour this pie out of grief, all the while M lingers in the background just on the frame’s peripheral.

It is at A Ghost Story’s midpoint where the careful control that Lowery exerts over his pacing reveals itself more clearly, rhythmically accelerating its heavy lethargy until we tangibly feel the past slipping away. His commitment to slow, real-time scenes early on makes the shift even more disorientating, passing through the single minute that passes between M moving out and strangers moving in with barely a disruption. Elsewhere, Lowery’s elliptical editing takes shortcuts between weeks, months, and years, and graphic match cuts find common threads between the present and the distant future. By the time we find ourselves in an advanced, sprawling metropolis standing on the grounds of C’s demolished country house, there is nothing left of his modest life. Still, that anguish lives on, bearing witness to a shifting world that doesn’t return the recognition of its quiet existence.

Lowery transposes the feeling of grief onto film, letting time slip away as the world moves on, and then suddenly we’re centuries into the future – but the heartache is still there.

In skilfully translating the overwhelming, inert feeling of grief into the language of film with such little dialogue, Lowery effectively follows through on the creative premise he sets out, slicing through time like a sharp razor that can cut everything but the eternal emptiness that silently hides in the corner. That heartache doesn’t just travel in a single direction here though, but it echoes out across history as well, right back to the foundations of the house being built in the 19th century, and eventually doubling back on itself to the moment it was born at C’s mortal death. In frustration, the ghost C strikes a cluster of notes on the piano in the middle of night, recalling the same noise which woke him and his wife many centuries ago. This grief has been haunting the world not just before he died, but before he was even born, running threads of fatalism and nihilism deep into C’s very existence, and poignantly recognising the inevitability of its expiry.

Perhaps we can identify the key to his escape via the monologue that Lowery lands at about the halfway mark of A Ghost Story, offering Will Oldham an entire scene to wax lyrical about the tiny remnants of humanity which carry on through collective memories, and their ultimate obliteration. For C, that remnant is a note stuffed in a wall left behind by M as a token of her life in the old country house. One must wonder whether it is tying C to the location against his will, or whether the pull it has over him is purely emotional, keeping him from finding any sort of resolution. Given his conscious decision to not step into the light when he first dies, the latter looks like the more likely possibility. In A Ghost Story, resolution is found not in being released from life, or even in trying to preserve our immortal legacy, but rather by looking into and understanding the minds of our loved ones. Perhaps there may come a point when we are no longer remembered, but Lowery ultimately has no qualms about the fragility of human existence, contentedly accepting its insignificance and simply pondering – maybe eternity is overrated.

M always looking through windows, out at a world he can’t be a part of.

A Ghost Story is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

Cemetery of Splendour (2015)

Apichatpong Weerasethakul | 2hr 2min

In a former elementary school somewhere in Thailand, a temporary clinic has been set up to manage the overflow of comatose soldiers from a nearby hospital. A mysterious “sleeping sickness” has been taking over military units, and the only way nurses have been able to treat them is by soothing their dreams through light machines, each one standing tall above the beds like over-sized, neon canes. Outside, palm trees and bamboo try to peek through the upper-storey windows into these classrooms, but every night the shutters are closed to cut out any natural light, letting the artificial glow of red, green, blue, and pink hues softly bathe the room. As the machines rotate through colours in this otherwise pitch-black space, Apichatpong Weerasethakul invokes a hallucinatory dreamscape of hypnotic effervescence, described by one character as looking “like funeral lights”, though often feeling more like ethereal representations of human souls, constantly shifting in cyclical patterns as if they were alive.

For all the beauty of these psychedelic sequences, and as unique a cinematic artist as Weerasethakul is, Cemetery of Splendour does not go down as one of his finest works. The extended middle sequence which sees those neon colours reach out into public spaces like some spiritual infection and which lets the camera gaze down several storeys of intersecting escalators as if descending to hell stands out as a highlight, but elsewhere there is little that matches the delirious jungle madness of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives or the masterfully mirrored structure of Syndromes and a Century. For the most part, Weerasethakul largely commits to long, static takes of tropical nature reserves and rural interiors – a formally consistent choice, effectively infusing a quiet stillness into Weerasethakul’s tableaux, if not particularly exciting.

The greater intrigue here lies in the quiet air of mystery that envelops this clinic and the surrounding forest in a dreamy shroud, blending sleeping and waking life to the point that they are not just indistinguishable, but virtually the same. Jen is the clinic volunteer who we quickly latch onto and follow through these obscure states, as she develops a particular attachment to one specific patient, Itt, who is among the many soldiers that have fallen into a coma. Their relationship is initially one-sided with her being the only one between them talking, but then Itt begins to talk back. Soon, they are going out for lunches and dinners together, and as he learns about her family and cultural background, she learns about what lies on the other side of unconsciousness.

As we discover, the answer has been foreshadowed all along by the motif of the digger outside the clinic excavating earth. Beneath the surface are the graves of ancient villagers and soldiers, buried on the site of a once-great palace where a king was defeated in battle. Now, he is using the spirits of modern-day soldiers to fight his battles in the afterlife, enlisting them against their will while they helplessly slumber. They are never expected to recover from this haunting illness that has forced them to serve a monarchy they don’t believe in, but the closest they might come to regaining consciousness is this in-between state that Itt exists in with Jen, seeing both the modern buildings and jungle which conceals the land’s history, and the kingdom which once dominated the landscape.

Weerasethakul is no stranger to mystical stories that ponder processes of healing, reincarnation, and dreams, but in the allegory at the heart of Cemetery of Splendour he also evokes his common themes from an unusually political angle. This kingly command over dormant soldiers echoes the anti-defamation laws protecting Thailand’s monarchy, subjugating and forcing its people to lend their arms to a ruling power that no longer holds any relevancy. Their sleep is a disturbed one, trapping them in an afterlife that blocks the natural cycle of reincarnation from taking place.

As Jen wanders a park of concrete Buddhist sculptures and wooden gazebos, Itt points out the features of the palace that once stood, seeing through time via the supernatural sickness that has taken over his body. Perhaps whoever is operating the excavators outside the clinic is similarly trying to gain a better understanding of the past by exhuming its artefacts, or maybe they are digging even more graves for those casualties of a cruel, careless government. Either way for Weerasethakul, the pits they create are symbols of death and permanent stasis, trapping the minds of the Thai people in a half-conscious state that keeps them powerless against the abuses of human rights visited upon them.

Cemetery of Splendour is currently streaming on SBS On Demand.

Happy End (2017)

Michael Haneke | 1hr 50min

At its best, Happy End is a summation of every significant idea that Michael Haneke has ever examined throughout his career, from the suppression of French bourgeoisie guilt in Cache to the chilling sociopathy of children in The White Ribbon. At its worst, it never quite escapes from under the cloud of any of these films, spreading itself too thinly across so many subplots that it struggles to become its own cinematic statement. It takes until one of the final scenes between 13-year-old Eve and her grandfather, Georges, for the film to effectively congeal into anything more substantial. As the two sit across from each other, unsettling confessions begin to spill out, and for the first time there is a mutual acknowledgement between characters of the depraved darkness which is only barely obscured beneath their stoic, loveless expressions.

Even as these two generations open up to each other though, Haneke never unites them a single shot the way one might expect from a union of characters. Like so many other conversations in Happy End, each actor is kept isolated in their own frames, entirely cut off from their scene partners. The cold loneliness felt all throughout the film has a quietly crushing effect, leaving behind long stretches of silence that force us to simply sit with the visual horror of a dying hamster, a collapsing retaining wall, and an aggressive online affair.

And then there is Haneke’s violence, landing with muted thumps that draw as much attention to the sadistic intent of its perpetrators as it does to the physical pain exacted upon their victims. He is not one to push our attention around with moving cameras and cutaways, or to didactically carve out moral statements from the sins and virtues of his characters. When one young man is beaten by another outside an apartment building and when a mother breaks her son’s finger to stop him from acting out, he instead stifles these acts of brutality by staging them just offscreen, or otherwise relegating them to the background of long, static shots. Within the upper-middle class of French society that the Laurent family inhabits, violence is a useful tool that they would rather not directly acknowledge. In fact, the only offender who does face consequences in the film is the underprivileged son of an injured labourer, clearly unable to afford the same legal protection that keeps Haneke’s wealthier characters safe from repercussions.

With misanthropy like this being allowed to fester within the Laurent family and no threat of accountability, one could even assume it is hereditary, intensifying with each passing generation. We do feel real heartbreak for Georges when he admits to mercy killing his sick wife, but this almost feels trivial next to Eve’s poisoning and incidental murder of her own mother, Anaïs. In the film’s opening sequence, we watch through her phone’s voyeuristic lens as she records Anaïs from a distance gradually growing sluggish, until she falls asleep on a couch. The livestreamed comments she writes with these videos are disturbingly heartless, speaking of her mother’s coldness that has bred an even worse contempt in her.

When we return to Eve’s phone video again at Happy End’s close, there is something a little more sympathetic behind its intent. She, more than anyone, understands her grandfather’s suffering, and so she becomes an accomplice in his attempted suicide, letting his wheelchair roll down a ramp into the ocean where he hopes to drown. With the phone once again acting as a barrier between her and her dying relative, the detachment is still present, but there is also some shared relief between them that neither needs to pretend to be anything but their own angry, disdainful selves anymore. Her aunt’s horrified face as she rushes past the camera towards a sinking Georges in the very final second of the film says it all. For those with pristine reputations to uphold, these displays of cruelty and misery are best kept on in the inside, never to be shared with the outside world. To Haneke, this is both the curse and ultimate hypocrisy of living a privileged life.

Happy End is currently streaming on Stan, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

The Coen Brothers | 1hr 45min

Like a folk ballad that keeps returning to the same chorus over and over, Llewyn Davis’ life moves in circles, always sending him back to the dim, smoky Gaslight Café in New York City’s Greenwich Village to play the same familiar set. The spotlight that casts him in a pale grey wash also cuts out silhouettes of the audience and industrial brick arches, framing him as he plucks and sings a melancholy tune. “If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song,” he charmingly quips after he strikes the final chord three minutes into the film, but by this point Oscar Isaac has already won us over with just his singing. After his performance, Llewyn encounters a shady man wearing a low hanging hat in the alley outside, and soon gets beaten up for some incident that occurred the previous night.

Bruno Delbonnel’s lighting is gorgeous all throughout Inside Llewyn Davis, but especially within The Gaslight Café where spotlights are diffused in the smoky air, and silhouettes of audiences and architecture are imprinted against the club’s walls.

By the end of Inside Llewyn Davis, we will recognise these events as part of a Groundhog Day rotation that pins our hapless protagonist down in a perpetual cycle of misfortune. This is not some supernatural time loop though, but a trap of Llewyn’s own making, propelled by the same bitterness and self-loathing that leads him to lash out at others. This outward anger is not one we see until a little deeper into the film though. For a long time, the only hints that he might have an obnoxious spiteful side come from the way we see others treat him. The only people he gets along with tend to be abundantly generous and tolerant, while those like Jean, his friend’s girlfriend, hold nothing for him but derisive contempt.

This masterful character study from the Coen Brothers may very well be their greatest to date, and with a desaturated colour palette that follows Llewyn between American cities hoping to find success, it proves to be one of their most impressive visual accomplishments as well. The frigid New York winter that lines sidewalks with snow and hangs a chilly fog in the air also appears to seep into the Coens’ interiors, where rundown apartment complexes and steel train carriages enclose Llewyn within rigid, oppressive structures. One particular hallway is even framed to look like a dead-end in the way it narrows to a point, and every single time we return to this location Llewyn is shot walking away into its apex where his path terminates.

The Coens have crafted few films with as strong a visual aesthetic as this, using industrial and rundown structures to set Llewyn on narrow, oppressive paths.

Rarely has a Coen Brothers film been as bleakly beautiful as this, and it is no coincidence that Bruno Delbonnel is the cinematographer here either, bringing his flair for stylised pictorial textures to scenes of crushing destitution and melancholy. At the same time, there always remains that touch of darkly comedic wit that the Coens wield with such sophistication over, offering Llewyn some sort of hopeful resolve before knocking him down again. It comes with an especially sharp jab when he is invited by a friend to help with a studio recording, only to discover that they are recording a cheap novelty song with no artistic integrity, and again later on the road to Chicago when his driver is arrested for suspected intoxication, suddenly leaving him stranded in the middle of nowhere.

Pairing a washed out colour palette with shots through dirtied windows to compose these gorgeous frames.
A chilly winter mist hangs in the air through the film, adding a light textural touch to Llewyn’s bleak misfortune.

Isaac wears the weight of Llewyn’s poverty and hardship with a beaten down acceptance, so much so that it has almost become part of himself, giving in to despair the moment it arises. There is no version of this character that one could imagine being better off – this is the way he has always been and will continue to be beyond the bookends of the film. Still, the cutting comments hurled his way hurt no less, cutting down any remaining shred of hope. When F. Murray Abraham’s music producer, Bud Grossman, tells him “I don’t see a lot of money here” after a gorgeous, soulful rendition of ‘The Death of Queen Jane’, it might as well be a death sentence to his musical ambitions.

Then again, maybe that hope was lost long ago along when his best friend and musical collaborator, Mike, died of suicide. In the returning motif of ‘Fare Thee Well’, the Coens give this tragic backstory its own poignant theme, and the hole that has been left in Llewyn’s life feels even deeper when we discover that there is a missing harmony in the song that Mike once filled in. With him gone, Llewyn resists any suggestion of playing with others as a permanent act, abruptly chiding one friend who tries to fill in Mike’s harmony and later rejecting an offer of joining a trio. The uninformed suggestion from Bud that Llewyn “Get back together” with his partner makes every other criticism feel all the more damning. If Mike was his only path to success, then he is effectively out of options.

An achievement of production design as well, especially in this diner where patterns are mirrored between chairs, tables, and hanging light fixtures.
Negative space dominating compositions, exposing Llewyn’s crushing loneliness.

Without any one person to ground him to the world, perhaps then we can look to the tabby cat he is tasked with caring for after accidentally locking it out of its owner’s apartment. With its name remaining largely unknown throughout the film and its habit of running away, it too becomes a slippery figure much like Llewyn, rejecting stability in favour of an untethered life that simply puts a burden on others. There is a distinct irony that he is the one who must deal with the consequences of that behaviour for once, but even with that new perspective there is little hope that he will change much. Just as the same chorus will always be around the corner, the Gaslight Café will always be at the end of the road, and Llewyn will always drunkenly self-sabotage his own friendships. The Coen Brothers more than anyone recognise the grim humour that lies in a stubbornly nomadic character like this, and it is in its quiet tragedy that Inside Llewyn Davis becomes one of their most movingly tactile cinematic portraits of adversity.

“Llewyn is the cat” – a misheard phrase near the start slyly hints at the Coens’ own well-crafted metaphor.

Inside Llewyn Davis is currently streaming on Stan, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.

Incendies (2010)

Denis Villeneuve | 2hr 10min

There are shocking family secrets buried within the Marwan family history that are enough to make your skin crawl. Even more chilling is just how obscured they are – no one living or dead really knows the whole truth until the puzzle pieces come together in the present day, revealing a devastating reality entwined with the very being of its parents and descendants. Simply the process of uncovering these fragments of history is a hefty task unto itself, seeing twins Jeanne and Simon travel back to their deceased mother’s home country in the Middle East so they may deliver letters to a father they didn’t realise was still alive, and a brother they never knew they had. Incendies in English translates to ‘Fires’, plural, but as Denis Villeneuve drives his gripping narrative towards a moment of truth, each of these tiny mysteries coalesce into something far more singular than anyone might have predicted.

Though it is the children who peel back the layers of the past, it is their mother, Nawal, who we stick with for much of the film. Her character is based partially on real-life figure Souha Bechara, a Lebanese communist militant who attempted to assassinate Antoine Lahad, the prominent leader of the South Lebanese Amy. Parallels aren’t drawn too heavily given the creative licence present, and so the Middle Eastern nation in this story goes unnamed, with only the fictional Daresh being named as the city that Nawal must escape from after a civil war breaks out. Right from the start, we recognise her life as truly harrowing – her lover is murdered, she is exiled from her family, her baby is forcibly taken, and this isn’t to mention her fifteen years of imprisonment during which she was raped by a guard.

Villeneuve skilfully weaves in these flashbacks throughout Jeanne and Simon’s search for their missing relatives, tracing paths through old neighbours, nurses, caretakers, and warlords who all seem to hold some piece of the puzzle. Chapter titles also serve to introduce new characters and locations, cleverly interacting with our assumed perspective at one point when we believe we are following Nawal’s son, Nihad, scavenging for food through bombed streets. Suddenly, the boy is shot, and we discover that the real Nihad is perched up in a building with a sniper rifle, training to kill for the Christian nationalists.

All through these flashbacks, Incendies doesn’t let up in its brutality. It is evident that Nawal is only able to get by on her own wits, but even that isn’t enough to save those around her as well. Though she disguises herself as a Muslim to escape a city on a bus, she quickly reidentifies as Christian after the vehicle is stopped by nationalists, and upon being let go free, she pushes her luck by pretending to be the mother of another’s child. Sadly, the young girl doesn’t possess the same self-control under dire circumstances. As the bus burns in the background, Villeneuve captures an affecting shot of Nawal’s profile in the foreground, set against the orange flames and black smoke, and suffering through a tremendous grief.

Given the scope of a single life that Villeneuve covers in Incendies, it is also appropriate for him to blow it up in scale as well, and through the abundant helicopter shots capturing urban and rural landscapes, the widespread harshness of it all sets in. Tied to that harshness is a tragedy that is as equally extensive, and between the two there is a symbiotic relationship, allowing them to feed off each other across war zones and within individuals. As much as Jeanne and Simon would like to believe the conflict of their mother’s past was a case of inherently bad men and victims with pure souls, the lines are revealed to be blurrier and far more disturbing than they would like to believe. The characters of Incendies contain remarkable depths, hidden not just to others, but to themselves as well, and it is only when they are brought light that anyone can reckon with the true root of human suffering.

Incendies is currently streaming on SBS On Demand, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.

The Witch (2015)

Robert Eggers | 1hr 32min

There have been countless artistic depictions of 17th century Colonial America when religious superstition supplanted rationalism in Puritan culture, though the pure dread which seeps through The Witch’s gradual disintegration into madness manifests as something tangibly Satanic. While mistrust and self-preservation ultimately bring about the downfall of this exiled pilgrim family, there is also no doubt that there is something beyond their understanding that is staging paranormal acts of terror, intending to incite sinful actions. Among barren New England landscapes of withering trees and crude wooden shacks, Robert Eggers unfolds this folktale of horrific misfortune, blending occult mythology with eerily authentic renderings of the era.

In later films, Eggers would craft legends around demented lighthouse keepers and vengeful Vikings, curating intensely acute ventures into history with period-specific vernacular and authentic production design. To say that each progressive movie is bigger and madder than the last should not suggest any lack of ambition in The Witch, but rather that you can see the marks of a first-time filmmaker working out his artistic voice. His experience in production design is especially evident in the distressed fabric of Puritan costumes and the small family homestead, where slanted ceilings trap characters in claustrophobic, off-kilter compositions.

Slanted ceilings closing in on claustrophobic compositions.

With extensive research backing up his screenplay and visual design, Eggers also instils a strangely antiquated sort of realism into The Witch. It is there in the poetic Early Modern English dialogue, but also in the curses brought upon this rural family, from the ruined crops to the blood in the goat’s udder. Particularly impressive is how much Eggers integrates his mind for tactile detail into his direction on a holistic level – the soft lighting of rustic interiors through candles, the desaturated colours of bleak, natural scenery, and even the slow, barely perceptible dollying in on shots that seem to conceal some deeper horror beneath the surface.

Such painstaking detail in Eggers’ production design, building this 17th century New England homestead with great authenticity.

Mark Korven accompanies the terror and drama of The Witch with an ethereal vocal score, wavering in high-pitched discordant harmonies as if to represent the monster at the heart of the film on some aural, unseen level. We are often kept at a foreboding distance from its true visage, though Eggers doesn’t keep us waiting to confirm its presence in this narrative. Ten minutes into the film, right after baby Samuel is stolen, he carries out an eerie montage revealing it as a pale, naked creature participating in some kind of ritual sacrifice.

This isn’t a sprawling film, but it is worth savouring its bleak, desaturated landscapes, isolating this family on a barren rural farm.

Eggers manifests supernatural malevolence quite literally in The Witch, and yet at the same time it appears to represent something inherent in our characters’ sinful humanity. Suspicion within this Puritan family slowly turns into vengeful wrath, so much so that at a certain point one must draw comparisons to Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible as a key influence, which turned accusations of witchcraft from this era of American history into an allegory for the Red Scare. Mass hysteria effectively turns innocents against each other in both pieces of fiction, distracting them from the greater threats to the foundational liberty upon which this young nation is being built.

Thick darkness smothering pale, illuminated figures, making for powerful imagery.

The entire family here is well-drawn in their characterisations, but it is Thomasin, the daughter played by Anya Taylor-Joy, who is especially fascinating in the way she straddles sin and virtue, placing her at the centre of their accusations. She has the greatest motive to bring them down, as she overhears her parents’ plans to send her away, though we also see the ways in which she too is targeted by forces beyond her understanding.

Such gripping dramatic tension in The Witch does well to sustain its underlying horror throughout, as the unseen evil maliciously targets the weaknesses of individuals to bring them down as a whole unit. Along with these characters to whom we have attached our own sanity, we too are grinded down to the point of submission, unable to apply full reason to the situation. At the end of that path though, once the rigid constraints of Puritan culture have been diminished, there is ironically a new liberty to be found – a liberty which moves beyond the bonds of colonial America, and which can finally revel in the release of morbid chaos.

A haunting, macabre ending, featuring what might be becoming a trademark shot for Eggers – the silhouette in front of a ritualistic bonfire.

The Witch is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

Certified Copy (2010)

Abbas Kiarostami | 1hr 46min

As a French antiques dealer known only as “She” wanders Tuscany with British writer James Miller, a transformation slowly takes place between the two. It isn’t purely visual, though we do begin to pick up on subtle changes in both Juliette Binoche and William Shimmell’s performances. It is more of a metaphysical shift, as if something in the air has moved around them. What starts as a friendly conversation between two intellectual strangers picking each other’s brains gradually becomes a fifteenth anniversary celebration between a husband and wife, sparring over the rifts that have widened between them over the years that have suddenly sprung into existence. Certified Copy might be able to be divided into two halves, but it isn’t so easy to pinpoint where one ends and the other begins.

For Abbas Kiarostami, the thin gap between fiction and reality has always been woven deeply into the fabric of his films, as has his affinity for naturalistic performances and pragmatic cinematography. Certified Copy may initially seem to be not so different. At first it could be read as an alternate version of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, studying the burgeoning affection between a pair of romantic intellectuals through long tracking shots and eloquent dialogue. Miller’s recent book theorising that artistic copies and originals aren’t so different from each other is a matter of friendly debate in these scenes, and it is a testament to Kiarostami’s screenplay that such theorising still feels so loaded with emotional intrigue between both characters.

The architecture of Tuscany makes for some beautiful compositions as our couple wind through its stony streets and buildings. Very much influenced by Richard Linklater’s Before films.

Eventually though, these high-minded discussions give way to a copy of their own. The strange period of time which exists between the two ends of this narrative is confounding in its formal shifts, setting up key character and narrative points before swapping them out piece by piece. Kiarostami’s sleight of hand is magnificently subtle, in one scene letting Miller tell a story of the disconnection he once witnessed between a woman and her son many years ago, before She hints that he is talking about her. If they just met, this isn’t at all possible, but soon enough even more contradictions arise that back it up. Miller’s monolingualism disappears to reveal that he in fact speaks French, thereby sharing a language with She, and references to “my child” soon become “our child”.

Are She and Miller merely hypothesising what their lives might be like if they were actually married? Or is the meeting at the start really the lie, meaning they have been together this whole time? If we were to take Miller’s word for it, the differences may be negligible, and both are equally valid. The comparisons to Before Sunrise eventually lead into Before Midnight parallels, where marital arguments erupt from micro-aggressions and silences simmer with mutual frustration. As Kiarostami skilfully and imperceptibly folds two realities in on each other, he continues to ponder the same questions that Miller posed earlier, though in a far more indirect manner. How can a copy lend us a better understanding of its original? Aren’t all artistic renderings a copy of something? And by that logic, must an original necessarily be more or less valuable than the copies it spawns?

For the most part, Kiarostami fights off the temptation to conform to shot/reverse shot editing in dialogue-heavy scenes by instead tracking his camera in long takes through Tuscan buildings and streets, where ancient and modern architecture co-exist. Reflections of our couple are frequently caught in windows and mirrors, creating visual facsimiles that continue to call back to their earlier discussions. In his layering of copies on top of other copies, we are forced to both confront the distance of these characters from reality and, at the same time, accept the emotional authenticity of what we are presented with.

Reflections in mirrors and windows – visual copies of people, who themselves are copies of the truth.

Even when Kiarostami does resort to cutting between both She and Miller in static compositions, the staging is rarely so inert as to be unengaging. In some of their most integral conversations they are shot centre-frame, visually cut off from each other, though also gazing directly into the camera. Again, there is a duality baked right into the formal construction of these scenes, delivering two alternate perspectives of their fifteen-year marriage which has seemingly manifested out of nothing, and yet also appears fully formed in its depth and complexity.

Newlyweds used as a running motif through She and Miller’s journey. Notice the reflection of another bride in the upper left corner – duplicates are subtly present everywhere in Kiarostami’s mise-ens-cène.

In one close-up shot of Miller sitting across a restaurant table from his now-wife, a wedding party is being prepared in its background, setting up a striking contrast with the heated words spilling out in front of the camera. In fact, newlyweds basking in the excitement of marriage can be found dotted all along our passage through Tuscany, and an older couple even takes the time to offer She and Miller some marital advice during a friendly stroll. We may recognise these people as embodying the “real” thing, but they don’t exhibit nearly the same amount of complexity and detail as the two facsimiles at the centre of it all. Copies She and Miller may be, but this is not to the detriment of these compellingly malleable characters, who can barely settle on a single version of objective reality. To Kiarostami, such is the nature of our deepest relationships that they can feel freshly original and frustratingly repetitive at the same time, and it shouldn’t be a huge leap to accept both as equally valid truths.

This is how to make shot/reverse shot interesting. Great framing of both characters, especially in setting Miller against a wedding party being set up outside the window.
A lovely frame as this scene ends, bringing the wedding into focus as She and Miller leave with flowers running along the bottom of the shot.

Certified Copy is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Kathryn Bigelow | 2hr 37min

It was a full 10 years between the September 11 attacks and the killing of Osama Bin Laden in 2011, but given the anonymity of the CIA operatives involved, the details of the people involved largely remain hazy. It is clear that Kathryn Bigelow is not purporting to deliver a fully accurate account of these events in Zero Dark Thirty, though this is no obstacle to her exacting study of every detail pointing to his location. Time stamps, locations, and chapter titles sort through the historical facts, setting up a slow burn of an investigation akin to All the President’s Men that similarly circles an infamous man hiding within walls of secrets. And much like the exposé that took down President Richard Nixon, all it takes is one opening in Bin Laden’s defences to unravel a trail of clues leading to his door.

It is in the CIA officers and analysts of Zero Dark Thirty where Bigelow indulges a little creative licence, setting up the character of Maya Harris as the unrelenting force behind the hunt for Bin Laden, while her colleagues waver in their focus. Integrity is not highly valued among these intelligence agents, and Bigelow does not hold back in depicting the physical and psychological torture to which they subject detainees. Though Maya expresses a little more disgust and hesitancy in these unethical methods, she is not entirely inculpable either. Rather than trying to justify her protagonist on some personal level, Bigelow resists probing into her mind, keeping us at a disquieting distance.

As we eventually learn though, Maya has no friends, and with this piece of information it isn’t hard to surmise that all of her energy instead goes into her gruelling, tiresome work. Any empathy we might feel towards her comes not from the screenplay, but rather from Jessica Chastain’s steady, reserved performance, bearing the emotional toll of a thankless job that sees her lose several of her colleagues in terrorist attacks, while becoming a target herself. Most importantly though, it is the intuition and confidence she instils in Maya that makes her such a magnetic figure, willing to place 100% of her certainty in hunches where others are only ready to give soft 60s.

Chastain makes for an especially good match for Zero Dark Thirty’s realistic style, playing the material about as natural as Bigelow’s handheld camera and location shooting. The seamless inclusion of archival footage only grounds us deeper in the war on terror, supplemented by helicopter shots of cities, camps, and compounds that expand it out into something monumental. Though the final, giant set piece depicting the stealthy raid on Bin Laden’s compound is suspenseful in its uneasy quietude, it is just as much the time we have spent working through every tiny detail to get there that makes the result feel so rewarding. Such is Bigelow’s fine control over action-driven sequences that even as Zero Dark Thirty delivers on its raw thrills, she also manages to coordinate them remarkably tightly in her narrative’s ambitious, driving pursuit of justice.

Zero Dark Thirty is currently streaming on SBS On Demand, Binge, and Foxtel Now, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.