Sunday, October 25, 2015

Crimson Peak

The first thing you notice about Crimson Peak is how deliberately, consciously old-fashioned it is.  This is a movie that starts with the camera zooming in on the cloth-bound cover of a book bearing the film's title, and whose scene breaks (chapter breaks, we should say) are signaled by irising in on a prop or a character's face, as if we were watching an old-timey silent film.  The second thing you notice is that it's a movie for and about bookish people.  The heroine is a writer, and characters name-drop Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, and Arthur Conan Doyle as if these authors and their work were fixtures in their lives.  The third thing you notice--though seeing as Crimson Peak comes to us from director Guillermo del Toro, most of us will have walked into the movie theater expecting it--is how gorgeous this movie is, every set dressed to within an inch of its life, the late Victorian interiors groaning with heavy furniture, busy wallpaper, and knickknacks on every available surface.  And all shot with ceaseless attention to light and color, whether it's a candlelit ballroom, a steam-filled bathhouse, or the wintry, creaking edifice that gives the film its name.  Taken together, these elements combine to create a film that is so undeniably its own thing that it's hard not to love it just for that fact.  In a landscape in which movies--and genre movies in particular--seem to come with a preset visual vocabulary and a checklist of tropes and plot twists, it's so refreshing to see one that strikes its own path.  If Crimson Peak were shorter, this might be enough to make it an utter delight, but unfortunately, the longer the film draws on, the easier it is to notice that the originality of its ideas and execution stops short at its script.

Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is an aspiring writer in late 19th century New York.  When her businessman father is petitioned for an investment by Thomas Sharpe, an impoverished English baronet (Tom Hiddleston), Edith is intrigued despite herself, and when her father suddenly and mysteriously dies, she seizes on Thomas as a cure for her heartache.  Thomas whisks her off to his ancestral home, colloquially known as Crimson Peak because of the way the red clay stains the snow blood-red, where the couple are greeted by Thomas's seemingly solicitous sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain).  Almost at once, Edith begins to perceive ghosts who seem to be warning her off the estate, and it quickly becomes clear that Thomas and Lucille have dark plans for her.

Though marketed as a horror movie, Crimson Peak makes little bones about actually being a work of Gothic romance.  This is not, in itself, a problem, and in fact it's yet another way in which this movie is different and original.  The problem is that Crimson Peak isn't a particularly good example of its chosen genre, that it often seems a little bored with that genre's tropes, rushing through them, and missing most of its emotional beats, in order to get to its grand guignol conclusion.  At its core, Gothic romance is about a particularly feminine type of anxiety.  In a social landscape in which women have it repeatedly drummed in that their only purpose in life, the only thing that gives them value, is finding a husband, it takes the supposedly "happy ending" of a romantic story, in which our heroine is swept off her feet by prince charming, and asks: what if something that seems too good to be true actually is?  Some Gothic romances draw their tension from the fact that their heroine isn't someone who is "supposed" to end up with the prince--that she is poor, or old, or unattractive--while in others she is perfectly eligible.  In some the love story is real, while in others it's merely a trick being played for ulterior purposes.  But they all come down to the same realization--that the supposedly happy ending of a traditional romance involves a woman putting herself completely within the power of a total stranger, allowing him to take her away from everything and everyone she knows, and that this is really fucking scary.

Hardly any of this tension is present in Crimson Peak.  Where most Gothic romances will take time to build up the sense of wrongness that the heroine begins to feel in her marriage and new home, and to veer back and forth between trusting and suspecting the new husband, Crimson Peak makes it clear, even before Edith is married, that Thomas and Lucille are up to no good.  It isn't even hard to guess what their dastardly plan is, and it turns out to be depressingly mundane.  Most crucially, Edith is not the sort of heroine to whom a Gothic romance could believably happen.  She lacks the vulnerability that might leave her open to Thomas's manipulation, and thus to the psychological horror that is an integral component of the genre.  As introduced at the beginning of the movie, Edith is beautiful, intelligent, wealthy, respected by her father and social circle, encouraged in her vocation of writing, and accustomed to running her own household.  Something could have been done with this, obviously--Thomas could have taken it as a given that his good looks and charm would wrap Edith around his finger, while Edith herself remained detached, but instead the film just takes it as a given that Edith is enchanted without ever convincing the audience of this.

Wasikowska and Hiddleston are perfectly cast--she has already played the quintessential Gothic heroine, in Cary Fukunaga's 2011 Jane Eyre, while he has made a career out of playing beautiful, weak-willed, heartless young men--but the script gives them nothing to work with.  In one scene, Thomas criticizes Edith's novel by telling her that it mouths platitudes about great love and overpowering passion, but can't get at the truth of these emotions.  He might as well be talking about the film itself, which never manages to sell either Edith's fascination with Thomas, or the grief and loneliness that supposedly drive her into his arms.  The core task of a Gothic romance is to convince us that its heroine wouldn't just leave the house and marriage when things got sufficiently sketchy--either because she's so in love, or because she has nowhere else to go, or because she's been sufficiently gaslighted into doubting her own perceptions and judgment.  This Crimson Peak can't do--it's as if all its characters know that they need to arrive at and stay in the house in order for the story to proceed, and dutifully go about achieving this no matter how little sense their actions make.

del Toro's attempt to compensate for this is through the ghosts that Edith perceives at Crimson Peak (and here is where the film's claim that it is a Gothic romance rather than a horror story starts to break down).  Fittingly for him, these are a unique and striking visual touch--half anatomical sketch, half dabs of bold color that stand out against the fussy, busy sets.  As in The Devil's Backbone, still my favorite of del Toro's films, these ghosts act more as a commentary on the story than as movers of it--Edith even says, when describing her novel, that it is not a ghost story, but a story with a ghost in it, and this is clearly intended as a meta-statement about the movie.  But they are a touch of otherworldly weirdness that the film, which otherwise feels depressingly mundane despite the efforts put into the Crimson Peak set, desperately needs.  Equally engaging is Chastain's turn as Lucille, which quickly steals the film out from under Wasikowska, and particularly Hiddleston.  Lucille does very little to conceal her strangeness, or the intensity of her attachment to Thomas, and Chastain imbues her with the kind of force of personality that makes it difficult for anyone around her to comment on these things.  As with much else about Crimson Peak, there's never any doubt that Lucille is scary and dangerous, but for once, that lack of ambiguity works to the film's advantage--we understand why Edith wouldn't want to call out this clearly deranged woman, and feel motivated to appease her.

This makes it a particular shame when the film's denouement reduces Lucille to the kind of ranting monster we've seen in millions of horror movies, while trying to make Thomas a more complex, and even heroic, figure.  Once again, the casting works in del Toro's favor--Hiddleston's most famous character is a manipulative, unrepentant murderer, whom he has nevertheless imbued with enough humanity and vulnerability to make him at least a little bit sympathetic--while the script fails him.  By the end of the movie, when Thomas has decided that he loves Edith too much to let Lucille kill her, we've already learned that the siblings have killed Thomas's three previous wives.  What's more, Thomas lured Edith to Crimson Peak because he was falling in love with her, even though he knew that doing so would be signing her death warrant.  Taken together, this should make him a pathetic, weak-willed creature, perhaps capable of a spark of goodness--though only where his own lusts and desires are concerned (it seems particularly relevant, for example, that all of Thomas's previous wives were older, unattractive women).  Instead, Crimson Peak tries to make Thomas uncomplicatedly heroic, even partly responsible for Edith's survival, which feels completely unearned.

For all its flaws, and its disappointingly straightforward story, Crimson Peak is still too much its own thing to fully dismiss.  Its visuals, storytelling style, and atmosphere are so distinct and unusual that one leaves the theater less concerned with how little it does with them, and more consumed with how much could be done.  What if Edith were a more complicated figure, and her feelings for Thomas more overpowering?  What if Lucille and Edith had spent more time together, with their relationship gaining the primacy that the film gives Edith and Thomas's anemic love story?  What if there were some real question about Thomas's loyalties and affections?  The setting is so ripe with possibilities, and del Toro's visual work is so rich and evocative, that it's impossible not to imagine Crimson Peak as the richer, darker Gothic romance it could have been, instead of the rather paint-by-numbers horror story it ends up being.  So many horror movies fail because beneath their suggestive mysteries and eerie atmosphere, they have nothing new to add to the genre.  Crimson Peak creates a world that is utterly its own, and so, despite the fact that its story is entirely familiar, it lingers in the mind.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

The Martian

When coming to write about The Martian, Ridley Scott's space/disaster/survival movie about an astronaut stranded on Mars, it's hard to resist the impulse to draw comparisons.  The Martian is perhaps best-described as a cross between Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity and Robert Zemeckis's Cast Away.  Its focus on the engineering challenges that survival on Mars poses for hero Mark Watney, and on the equally thorny problem of retrieving him before his meager food supply runs out, is reminiscent of Ron Howard's Apollo 13.  The fact that Watney is played by Matt Damon (and that the commander of his Mars mission is played by Jessica Chastain) immediately brings to mind Christopher Nolan's Interstellar.  The problem with all these comparisons is not so much that they show up The Martian's flaws, as that they throw into sharper relief the very narrow limits of what it's trying to be.

Gravity and Cast Away, for example, are both, fundamentally, films about what it means to be human when you're cut off from the rest of humanity.  The former uses its heroine's isolation as a metaphor for overcoming grief, with the emotional core of the film being the question of whether Sandra Bullock's character will choose to come back to life after the death of her daughter.  Cast Away has no such metaphorical weight, but it too is deeply focused on the effect that isolation has on its character.  There have been a lot of Wilson jokes over the last fifteen years, but when you go back to the movie itself, there's no denying that that device (and many others like it) brings home just how devastating the hero's loneliness is to him, and how much he has to struggle to hold on to hope and life.  Both films have a soulfulness that The Martian never even reaches for.

That probably sounds like a criticism, but it's meant more as a statement of fact.  Based on the self-publishing phenomenon by Andy Weir (which I haven't read), The Martian is exactly what it sets out to be, and quite successful at that.  My favorite bits of the otherwise rather silly and maudlin Interstellar were the moments in which its astronaut characters acted like scientists and engineers, trying to work with their limited fuel, time, and supplies to come up with the best solutions to their problems.  The Martian is an entire movie made up of those scenes, and it is genuinely thrilling to watch its characters--the irrepressible Watney, and the dedicated but harried hordes of NASA engineers--work their way around seemingly insurmountable obstacles.  If nothing else, it's gratifying to have this tangible proof that one doesn't need an overegged, melodramatic personal story to create tension and stakes--smart people trying to work their way through a really tough problem is more than enough drama to keep the audience hooked for 140 minutes.

If there is a criticism to be made against The Martian--and again, I'm not entirely certain that it rises to that level--it is that once those 140 minutes are over, the film doesn't leave much behind it.  It's the sort of movie that you enjoy tremendously while you're watching it, and then forget almost as soon as it's over.  A movie that is incredibly tense and exhilarating, but which doesn't have a single memorable line, scene, visual, or set-piece.  (Some of that might be laid at the feet of Scott, a pedestrian director who has been coasting off the double whammy of Blade Runner and Alien for thirty years, but who hasn't produced anything to match those two movies in all that time.  His work on The Martian is never more than serviceable, even when called upon to depict an alien planet or the emptiness of space.)

Most importantly, The Martian seems genuinely uninterested in its title character.  Damon's general charisma and likability (which were used to such excellently wrongfooting effect in Interstellar) do a lot to humanize a character who might otherwise have seemed arrogant and standoffish, but in a way that's a point against the movie.  It should strike us as a lot stranger than it does that Mark doesn't seem to miss anyone during his two-year solo stay on Mars, that his interactions with NASA and his crew are friendly but never intimate, that even when sending a message to his parents he never rises above platitudes, or seems to feel true sorrow and longing.  It would, of course, have been possible to tell a story about a man who is fundamentally unsociable and unlikable, but who is still human, and still experiences the same urge towards survival, and even human contact, as the rest of us.  But The Martian, far from telling that story, is simply taking it as a given that a problem-solver is all Mark is.  It never asks what effect it has on him to be more alone than any human being in history, to live in constant danger of death, to have to produce all the necessities of human existence with his own hands.  The film wants us to admire Mark's can-do spirit and problem-solving attitude, and these are indeed admirable traits, but it never wonders what it does to a person to be forced to see life as nothing but a series of problems to be solved, nor what the cost to his humanity will be once he returns to Earth.

Apollo 13, the film that The Martian most closely resembles, has been frequently criticized for its decision to overdramatize some of the beats of an already extremely dramatic crisis--claiming that astronaut Ken Mattingly was so upset over being bumped from the mission that he left the command center to drink and sulk, or that the astronauts aboard the damaged vessel went into an emotional tailspin over their predicament.  The Martian, with its surface-level emotional beats, could be taken as a rebuke to that failure of nerve.  But the fact is that Apollo 13 is a deserved classic that has stayed fresh and worth watching for twenty years, and as much as I enjoyed The Martian, I truly doubt that it will have the same kind of longevity.  I don't mean to say by this that Ron Howard-style sentimentality is the only way to go, but I think the inevitable conclusion of all the comparisons begged by The Martian is that if you haven't got a good handle on your story's humanity, you're not going to create something lasting.  It's possible that another director, willing to be less true to his source, could have found the humanity in The Martian's story.  But as it stands the movie is incredibly enjoyable, absolutely worth watching, and incapable of climbing out of the shadow of the better, or even just more interesting, movies that it recalls.