By: Henry J. Fromage (Three Beers) –
There are a few actors and actresses whose involvement alone means I’m going to check out a film. The Blue Valentine duo of Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling certainly qualify, and Jessica Chastain’s knack for picking projects may soon put her on the list. The original inductee, though, was Edward Norton, and even with some odder choices as of late (Leaves of Grass, anyone?) I’m standing by him.
This one’s… kinda hard to describe
Stone finds him ostensibly returning to Primal Fear territory, playing an imprisoned con using his nympho wife (Milla Jovovich) to influence an early release through a parole officer (Robert De Niro) with serious anger and control issues that have long ago poisoned his relationship with his wife (Frances Conroy).
The similarities to Norton’s big breakthrough only end up running surface deep, and this is the rare film where it probably helps knowing what you’re getting into. Director John Curran also teamed with Norton on the vastly underappreciated The Painted Veil, and all of his hallmarks are on display here: beautiful cinematography, cerebral dialogue and themes, and a slower pace centered on character development. When you add in the fact that the film was based off of a stage play, you can see why Primal Fear this ain’t.
The acting here is excellent. After a bumpy start Norton brings it home like he always does and this is the most challenging role De Niro’s allowed himself in years… and he’s still got it. When they’re allowed to unfurl their wings, Jovovich and Conroy also do well, but we’ll discuss that more later. The camerawork is also top-notch, but most impressive is the sound design. It greatly adds to the disconcerting aura of the film, filled with snatches of fundamentalist talk radio and an unsettling, slow-burn score.
What I really have to toast, though, is that this movie got made at all. It’s a mental jawbreaker that’s equally unfriendly to the box office and the Oscars. Curran examines how deeply unhappy people try to fill their emptiness with various salves and belief systems, but by going through the motions only seem to hide it from themselves and others temporarily. It’s an angry, quite possibly hopeless film, but one that is guaranteed to get you thinking.
With all of this intended subtlety, it’s hard to see why Norton’s character as we first meet him is so damn unsubtle. From his cornrows down to his Joisy-ish accent (the film’s set in Michigan) the performance is off-putting, even though Norton ultimately redeems it as the character (maybe?) transforms himself.
I’m goin’ to tha Sho, yo!
The other nit I have to pick with this film is how relatively underused Jovovich and Conroy are. It’s pretty obvious what Jovovich’s refuge is, but we don’t get much of an idea of why or how she got where she is. Worse, though, is Conroy, whose character gets its animus in a staggering first scene then relatively disappears until she’s again asked to be a catalyst for De Niro towards the end. Showing more of her growth would have helped tie together a plot that could have used a bit more of that.
There’s some great acting and ideas in this movie, whatever its flaws. Also, the fewer beers you consume, you more likely you are to hang with the deep stuff.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: whenever someone says something religious
Take a Drink: whenever Milla Jovovich acts sex-crazy
Drink a Shot: when you get lost by a plot/tone change