Category Archives: American Films

Cinematic Folk Ballad

Film review of David Lowery’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”

(IFC Films, USA 2013)


“Every day I wake up thinking today’s gonna be the day I’ll see you again. And one of these days, it will be so.” – Bob Muldoon

A timeless ballad of love and loyalty that strikes humanistic and metaphysical chords under the open Texas skies, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is wistful American folk mythology at its finest. Lowery’s rural portrait lives up to its festival circuit hype, borrowing from but not clinging to the literary tradition of Faulkner and the lyrical cinematic strands of Malick’s earlier work. The film is a fully blossomed tale replete with stunning visuals and substance to boot.

At the epicenter of this tale are nuanced and captivating performances by Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck as the outlaw duo Ruth Guthrie and Bob Muldoon. The strong chemistry between the lovers is the mainstay of the film, lending credibility and piquancy to a plot that’s rather simple in its Odyssean core. When Ruth and Bob are arrested following a farmhouse shoot-out that leaves one person dead and a local Sheriff wounded, Bob takes the hit entirely and receives a twenty-five-to-life sentence. While Bob’s in jail, Ruth, pregnant with their first child, vows to wait for his return, which he promises in poignant letters. Some years later, Ruth learns of Bob’s recent jailbreak, and her previously uncomplicated life turns on its head as she grapples with her lover’s imminent homecoming. But Ruth’s not the only party anxiously awaiting Bob: latent resentments have been stirred, and it’s clear that Bob’s life will be in considerable danger if he dares to show his face in town again.

Affleck brings Bob to life with bracing passion and perilously unbridled idealism; Rooney’s restrained, meditative, and quietly agonizing Ruth is emotionally engaging as she weighs her own safety and that of her child’s with her desire to be reunited with Bob. According to Lowery (via Filmmaker), the pair was only on set together for three days. That said, Affleck and Rooney’s lack of screen time together is inconspicuous, which is a testament to the power of the film’s remaining elements. Editors Craig McKay and Jane Rizzo have engineered a pace that oscillates between slow-burn emotional moments and the suspenseful build-up of dread. The film’s score, by Daniel Hart, speaks to both sides of the pacing continuum with a succession of hand claps and long-winded evocative notes. The score pays homage to the film’s folksy roots without resorting to, say, archetypal banjo strums, and in doing so it helps to elevate the film from a straight Western to a modernist art house achievement. Most evident of all is the cinematography by Bradford Young, who appropriates the sun flare unapologetically and draws an array of precise and romantic exercises in light. 

Lowery’s script is notably short on dialogue and exposition, which works in the film’s favor by allowing Lowery the space in which to engage us viscerally through small gestures, pregnant pauses, dreamlike imagery, and subtext. The characters’ motivations are rarely explicit, largely forcing us to extrapolate their emotional architecture, but there’s plenty of substance to render this effort fruitful. Oftentimes the lack of specificity in the narrative allows the film to play like a dream: the details are never quite as important as the sensations, symbolism, and overall immersive quality. (Not surprisingly, this quality of the film bears a striking resemblance to Upstream Color, which Lowery himself edited.) This emphasis on simplicity of narrative has attracted much criticism–as if Lowery’s restraint were akin to laziness–but many critics fail to remember that the film’s self-proclaimed identity as a folk poem calls for a certain sobriety of exposition, therefore encouraging fullness of presence and feeling. 

In a powerful moment of circularity at the end of the film, Lowery manages to evoke through the simplest interaction between Bob and Ruth a nostalgia for unfulfilled dreams, youthful idealism, and the tragedy of a life not fully lived.


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Phenomenological Poetry

Film review of Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color” (USA, 2013)

Upstream Color

“The echo is, to some extent, an original sound, and therein is the magic and charm of it.” – Walden, Henry David Thoreau

Nine years following his groundbreaking sci-fi feature debut, Primer, Shane Carruth returns with a vengeance. Upstream Color is an amalgam of sensory experience, unfurled narrative threads, human longings, and cosmic inquiry in the form of a sci-fi film with literary underpinnings. If that sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. Carruth doesn’t want to waste time tying up loose ends; he’d rather play with questions and metaphors in an impressionistic adventure that leaves no stones unturned.

It’s better to talk about Upstream Color in terms of its gestures and impact rather than its explicit narrative. This is because, in a nonlinear sequence of muddled events that circle back and interconnect throughout the story, there’s only a certain amount of surmisable plot. A skeletal sketch: In the beginning, Kris (Amy Seimetz), a young creative professional, experiences a life-altering encounter with a stranger. The stranger hypnotizes her, forces her to recite passages from Walden and complete origami puzzles, prevents her from sleeping for days at a time, injects a worm into her body, makes her withdraw all of her savings from the bank, and then leaves her to wake up in a puddle of blood in a ransacked house. Upon awakening, Kris is quite literally a different person. She’s unemployed, broke, and utterly alone with only a hazy, obscured memory of having been terribly violated. You’d think this scenario would be the last place for a meet-cute. But then comes a man named Jeff (Carruth) who, inexplicably drawn to Kris, pursues her despite her guarded front and multiple warnings against potential intimacy. It emerges that Jeff, too, has experienced a horrific life-altering episode which has rendered him unsure of his identity. The two forge a fraught yet passionate romance that spans the rest of the film and culminates in an attempt to piece together their shared traumatic experience and ultimately exact revenge on the responsible parties.

That’s the plot… sort of. Upstream Color also swims in lyrical montages of naturalistic imagery, evoking a cosmic awareness of the life cycle and our indelible ties to the natural world. Worms fertilize, orchids bloom, pigs procreate, and water flows as Carruth highlights our interconnectedness and reminds us that nature is still a timeless, mysterious force that drives us and cannot be trumped by the conditions of modern society. Aided by relevant passages from Walden that are recited intermittently, the interaction of the natural world and the more bone-chilling sci-fi elements (such as genetic reconstruction and sinister mind games) happens organically and keeps us on edge even as it awes us. These senses of wonder and fear pervade the entire film. However hit-and-miss the specific plot threads, Carruth countervails the film’s flaws with his bold and uncompromising desire to captivate. There’s never a dull moment. Whether we’re navigating the narrative ellipses of Kris and Jeff’s relationship as they argue over ostensibly shared memories or whether we’re being subjected to horrific images of worms crawling under skin, the film is by all means engaging. 

Upstream Color is the kind of film on which you impose your own framework. It explores subjectivity through the idea that Kris and Jeff must construct personal narratives from chaotic external circumstances. Through the assemblage of assaulting soundscapes, nonlinear editing, and attention to nuance in visual detail, Carruth has us experience the film in much the same way. The film’s (and Kris and Jeff’s) reality–instead of existing within the delineated constructs that are prevalent in commercial films–is experienced as a fractured, illogical ride in which the facts are always under scrutiny and the only reliable element is the circular force of nature. Carruth asks us to consider cause and effect on both a cosmic and interpersonal scale, raising questions about ontology and our perceived control over our own existence. While at first it seems as if Kris and Jeff experience little to no control over their own lives, they develop agency amidst the tides of uncertainty, creating a shared subjectivity that strengthens their bond and defends against the overwhelming losses they’ve respectively experienced. And so, viewed through a more humanistic lens, the film is also about the possibility of human connection between two people who deem themselves damaged. Through unspoken words and delicately crafted space for inference, Carruth shows us that intimacy is not only possible, but that it can actually flourish under these (or any) abject circumstances if one is only willing to be vulnerable. 

In all its inchoate glory, Upstream Color is an exercise in phenomenological poetry. Whether interpreted within the purview of science, literature, film, philosophy, or humanism, there’s a lot to work with here. The film will leave you reeling even if you’re unable to articulate why, and that alone is a hallmark of good filmmaking.


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Adaptive Reverie

Film review of Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (USA, 2012)

Hushpuppy: “When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me flying around in invisible pieces.”

At six years old, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is the youngest warrior of the bayou. Raised by her abrasive alcoholic father, Hushpuppy knows nothing of the world beyond “The Bathtub,” a small, destitute, off-the-grid community of people on the bayou determined to live on the land (or water, in the case of flooding) despite the adverse conditions. Merely a levee separates it from mainland Louisiana, however The Bathtub is a world of its own, governed intermittently by raucous celebration, communal endurance of hardship, and a fierce spirit of independence. Like all residents of The Bathtub, Hushpuppy and her father subsist on a diet of alcohol, fish, and chicken, own only what can be found and assembled, and rely upon the most primal of instincts to maintain survival. Save for her father, who cares deeply about Hushpuppy but is seldom affectionate and often abuses her after binge drinking, Hushpuppy is very much alone in this world. The one enduring thing she does have, though, is her capacity to dream.

Through the lens of magical realism, Benh Zeitlin allows us to enter the realm of a unique child’s vivid imagination. Hushpuppy’s imaginative capacities are bolstered by her extremely limited educational resources and the persistent need to cope with trauma through mental escape. She invents answers to all of the timeless questions that plague her life and existence at large with an effortless lyricism. “I see that I am a little piece of a big, big universe,” Hushpuppy muses,  “and that makes it right.” We escape with Hushpuppy into visions both intimate and grandiose: we watch as Hushpuppy cooks a can of cat food for her mother, inventing the conversation; we watch as Hushpuppy delves into visions of ominous melting glaciers and massive prehistoric boar-like beasts. To engage her imagination, Hushpuppy’s father tells her mystical stories of her origins and of the love he shared with her mother. In Hushuppy’s world, imagination reigns.

When Hushpuppy’s father disappears for days on end and abruptly returns in a hospital gown sans explanation, what was already an unpredictable existence begins to assume a new kind of chaos. The community teacher/shaman warns of an impending storm that will flood The Bathtub. The hurricane is seen as an augury of cosmic changes to come, and only weak members of the community will flee in the face of destruction. Hushpuppy’s father, determined to teach Hushpuppy resilience and self-sufficiency, barricades them inside a small shack. While Hushpuppy’s father descends into alcoholism, the storm rages outside, the water rises, and Hushpuppy retreats into her imagination inside a small, precarious boat. The aftermath of the hurricane brings what every resident of The Bathtub fears most: relief efforts. A haunting depiction of modern life follows as we view the relief effort from Hushpuppy’s vantage point. Strange, soulless people from the other side of the levee have intruded upon The Bathtub in order to capture and control its residents in an evacuation camp, and though Hushpuppy’s father is becoming critically ill, he will have none of it. Hushpuppy, then, is left to fend for both her father and herself. Somehow, they must find their way back to The Bathtub, and somehow Hushpuppy must save her father from death, but first Hushpuppy is going to look for her mother… on this side of the levee.

Quvenzhané Wallis, a non-actor, delivers an unforgettable performance that would demand viewing of the film even if the content were mediocre. (Her raw talent is reminiscent of the four-year-old French child actress Victoire Thivisol in Ponette.) With breathtaking charisma and soulful eyes, Wallis ushers us into Hushpuppy’s dreamlike narrative, filling the wide gaps between sparse dialogue with heartrending moments of humanity. Wallis’s performance affords a visceral experience of the more surreal elements of the film; the intensity of her body language serves as a portal into both her own internal landscape as well as the surrealist scenes without a clear cause-and-effect structure. Watching Beasts of the Southern Wild feels a lot like watching yourself wander through a reserve of your most poignant childhood memories, overcome with intense colors, sensations, and sounds as a pervasive sense of longing and wonder envelopes you. The experience is as haunting as it is sensational.

In one scene, Hushpuppy, in search of her mother, wanders into a Nola nightclub filled with female dancers. One dancer takes an interest in her, and the two lost souls dance together, temporarily filling one another’s voids. In the woman’s arms, Hushpuppy recalls the touch of her mother, whispering, “This is my favorite thing.” Because of the dreamlike, fragmental quality of this scene and the fullness of sensation, we are unsure whether it is wish-fulfillment or reality, but in the end, it doesn’t matter; it’s a simple, honest, unpretentious meditation on how it feels for a young child to have lost someone she never had the chance to love.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is of a new breed of film (think: Tree of Life, Martha Marcy May Marlene) wherein surrealistic impressions coupled with intense moments of realism drive us to uncover depths of humanity that often remain dormant in our everyday lives. It’s a must-see.

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