Steven Sodeburgh very capably directs an intelligent script in a film which may or may not turn out to be his final cinematic feature. Rooney Mara’s performance is excellent; she’s thoroughly believable in the first half of the story when we’re led to think of her in one way, and equally so in the second half of the story which contradicts everything that’s gone before. No mean feat.
Some viewers had a problem with the lack of comeuppance for Dr. Banks (Jude Law – in a career best performance, perhaps), but I’d say the plot closely follows the formula of those thrillers in which Michael Douglas excelled in the 1980s (making Catherine Zeta-Jones’ appearance even more suitable), in which a morally dubious middle-class man gets an even more vindictive comeuppance than he deserved. He wins our sympathy because he didn’t quite deserve that, learns his lessons and returns to a diminished, but secure existence.
I had my own problem with the ending, or with one very small specific scene to be precise. SPOILER AHEAD: there is a short court hearing scene in which Banks is shown testifying that Emily (Mara) is fit to be released, and we see the DA (Michael Nathanson) with whom Law previously argued solemnly accepting the decision. For a few minutes the scene doesn’t make sense, unless you’re clever enough to guess the oncoming twist. When we realise that Banks and the police have engineered Mara’s release, we look back at the scene and it makes sense. But is it believable? Banks’ presence in court neatly communicates to the audience the fact that the court hearing has been engineered in some way. But would Emily really believe this turn of events? Earlier in the film Banks clearly states that he’d be unlikely to be the psychologist making a decision on her eventual release, so tainted had he been by the case. So why would Emily fall so meekly for this trap? Bank’s appearance on the stand is there purely to serve the audience rather than serve the believability of the story, and in my view the scene could have been handled better. (Unless I’m missing something.) Anyway, a small complaint from an otherwise smart thriller.
Park’s previous two features left me very cold, and this one did too, but being an intentionally clinical retelling of a much-told tale, the aloofness is impressively calibrated to suit the material. The story is very simple, almost seeming like a children’s film (Lemony Snickett’s A Disappeared Uncle Returns?) or the kind of adolescent drama that seems poised to burst into Tim Burton-esque fairytale fantasy at any moment.
Unlike all of Park’s previous pictures, what’s missing here is that particularly Asian brand of humour which seems to always be smirking at whatever extreme abnormalities are presented onscreen. In a way it’s refreshing to see Park in this more straight-faced incarnation. You have to admire the director’s marshalling of his HODs to create this painstakingly precise world – sound, sets, art and production design are all seamlessly utilised and in union, each filling the screen and soundsystem with their fancy footwork and clever tricks. It’s certainly impressive. The intricate production design reminded me of the highly stylized interiors of a film from another Korean director, Jee-woon Kim’s A Tale of Two Sisters.
And despite the obvious similarities to Shadow of a Doubt, the film’s bleached whites and hazy, lazy heat of the locations reminded me more of Hitchcock’s Family Plot, alongside other similar 1970s fare.
The film is also perfectly cast. Nicole Kidman yet again trades on her inherent artificiality to create the disarmingly duplicitous mother, and Matthew Goode is, similarly, charmingly chilling.
I haven’t read the book, but I dearly wanted to like this film, which has been so divisive, because several people I admire came out in favour of it. But in spite of its full-blooded ambition I felt it failed on the simplest of criteria – dramatically. The genre of multifarious interlinked storystrands has already been stripped of its early Noughties sheen by the time this film came into production, its hipness stripped away by high profile disappointments like 360 and Hereafter. But at least the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer had a much loved source novel to work from. Fate is usually the thread that binds together disparate stories in hyperlink cinema, from Amores Perros to Fish Story, but here the approach is different: there is no connective strand as such, just the repetition of themes and characters throughout history.
It’s a bizarre approach in some ways because the film could be open to scientific readings that focus on the limits of genetic variation, or some such. I’m not even going to open that can of worms. But in story terms it’s a bit of a mess, in any case. Some of these similar-looking characters (played by the same actors) also inhabit alarmingly close eras – Jim Broadbent’s Timothy Cavendish, for example, is nearly old enough to have been alive at the same time as his previous incarnation, 1930s composer Vyvyan Ayrs. They look exactly the same but aren’t related, so what’s the film saying? If genetics really worked like this, with populations randomly throwing up near-identical types so frequently they appear in subsequent decades, I think a few more people would have found their dopplegangers by now. If the riposte to that argument is that perhaps the two Broadbents in my example were made to look too similar, I’d say that the excessive makeup used to differentiate these epochal variations also throws up its own problems. More on that in a moment.
I’ve always felt the Wachowskis main problem was their casting (it hindered my enjoyment of The Matrix). Perhaps they wanted to assuage studio fears by casting bankable names, but the performers here are way out of their comfort zone. It’s one thing to go for a radical piece of anti-casting (what might be called the Tarantino-Travolta effect), but it’s another to cast a raft of formerly massive stars in roles that expect them to over-reach in not just one, but numerously new and uncomfortable guises.
The overall effect of these two scenarios – the incongruousness of the big stars and their plurality of roles – is that we’re forever looking out for them in their unlikely disguises. It’s fun, yes, to spot Whishaw as a lady and Halle Berry as a Jew, but after a while it becomes distracting. For instance I was completely wrong-footed, and am still confused, as to why Jim Sturgess seemingly plays both the savior/love interest of Somni-451 (Doona Bae) and her interrogator – in the same timeline. Would a twist eventually reveal them to be one and the same? Erm, no. (Perhaps they’re not played by the same actor and I imagined it – I still don’t know for sure – but you can see how the problems such confusions arise from too much straining to look beyond the makeup.)
But the film’s main failure is that it’s not particularly dramatic. The stories on their own are hackneyed and predictable. At least with the fate-based mechanics of traditional hyperlink cinema there’s something inherently dramatic about seeing the escalating effects of a simple action (the shooting that begins the under-appreciated Babel, for instance). But here the stories are essentially self-contained; mini-short stories that suffer all the dramatic deficiencies and hardships that are the destiny of all short stories – the perils of trying to effect meaningful arcs in a short space of time.
The main theme of all these interconnected stories is hard to fathom, but I read it as something to do with character types overcoming their genetic dispositions to transcend their fate for the overall good of humanity and its improvement through the ages. (So for example, Cavendish overcomes his cowardice, Zachry overcomes his distrust, etc.) It’s an extremely strange concept that’s wrapped so tightly amid the fanfare, bombast and absurd special effects (what is it with the Zachowski’s and their careening vehicular chase sequences?) as to be almost indiscernible.
But perhaps the film’s message about humanity isn’t the point. In his Sight and Sound review Anton Bitel hit upon an interesting point, which is that the film isn’t just about humans affecting the course of human history but about the passing down of stories from one generation to the next. The diaries, letters, musical compositions and films that result from each of the character’s lives all pass on their stories and human qualities, as surely, if not so precisely, as genetic code. There is an interesting moment where 2012 character Cavendish cites the 1970s film Soylent Green, which is echoed later in the 22nd century when it becomes clear humans really are being bred for fuel/food (another Wachowski favourite). There’s an interesting subtext here which suggests that the film isn’t about humanity, but about storylines. They repeat throughout our culture and cultural history. The individual stories are almost like mini pastiches of specific genres (the English period drama*, the 1970s conspiracy thriller, the primitive jungle adventure story). Perhaps the only relevant thing the film is saying about humanity is that we’re doomed to repeat the same tired old stories until the end of time.
(* One last point, it was completely unexpected that the English period drama section would take as its main inspiration not a more obvious Merchant-Ivory template, but Ken Russell’s Song of Summer, a film clearly referenced in the amanuensis sequences between Whishaw and Broadbent.)