STILLWATER (2021)

July 29, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. It’s understandable if you are taken in by a trailer that hints at a movie featuring an unknown dad going non-stop in cold pursuit of justice for his daughter (those numerous Liam Neeson references were for my own pleasure). In fact, this father has his own particular set of skills: he’s a master at carpentry and electrical, he speaks the Oklahoma version of English, and he owns two guns (neither of which he has with him). And yes, this film is billed as a crime thriller, but you should know, we see very little crime, and the thrills are mostly non-existent. Despite all that, I connected with the story, not as a thriller, but rather as a character study of a flawed man trying to do the right thing by his daughter and find redemption for himself.

Oscar winner Matt Damon plays Bill Baker, a quiet out of work oil worker whom we first see on a clean-up crew after a disastrous tornado. Not long after, he’s on an international flight to Marseille to visit his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin). She’s been incarcerated for five years after being found guilty of stabbing her French-Arab lover, Lina, to death. In a highly publicized trial, Allison held fast to her claim of innocence, and still does. Her father visits regularly, delivering supplies and clean laundry. Although they hug on the visits, a definite chasm exists. We later learn that Bill previously struggled with drugs and alcohol and never received votes for Father of the Year. Allison asks her father to deliver a sealed letter to her attorney claiming there is new evidence in her case – she heard a guy named Akim had bragged at a party about committing Lina’s murder.

You likely noticed the similarities to the 2007 Amanda Knox case. The differences being that was Italy, this is France; and it was Amanda’s roommate, not lover. In this movie, the media fascination is derived from the ‘rich’ entitled American white girl brutally murdering her minority working class lesbian lover (a textbook Hollywood rendering). Allison growing up poor in Oklahoma mattered little to the media.

Damon plays Bill as a stoic, Heartland of America man who’ll do anything for “his little girl”. But he’s no Jason Bourne. He’s the proverbial fish-out-of-water on this mission. He doesn’t speak a bit of French, and depends on the kindness of local actress Virginie (Camille Cottin, ALLIED, 2016) to be his interpreter and cultural guide in a world he doesn’t comprehend. Bill quickly bonds with Virginie’s precocious daughter Maya (a sterling film debut by Lilou Siauvaud), and soon a platonic family unit has formed. Bill’s frequent prayers and odd American manners are the perfect cultural clash with Virginie’s artsy French ways. Of course, this ultimately leads to a shift in the platonic nature of their relationship.

The film is directed by Tom McCarthy, an Oscar winner for SPOTLIGHT (2015). I highly recommend two of his other films, the excellent THE VISITOR (2007), and his sinfully under-seen directorial debut THE STATION AGENT (2003). McCarthy co-wrote this script with Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain, and Noe Debre, which explains why the French details are so spot on. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi delivers brilliant camera work to go with the story’s methodical pacing, and Mychael Danna’s music adds intensity and depth to situations both quiet and fraught with emotion. Damon does some of his best work here as a man burdened with his own past and slowly becoming aware of possible personal and family life redemption. Ms. Breslin burst on the scene in 2006 with LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, and she has transitioned well to adult roles … though this role is somewhat abbreviated, she still does nice work in her scene with Maya and Virginie.

Bill and Virginie and Maya have some terrific segments together, including a dance to Sammi Smith’s “Help Me Make it Through the Night”. I’m guessing the rousing applause the film and actors received at Cannes was due partly to its French setting, and also to the depth of Bill’s character (and Damon’s performance). There are elements that seem far-fetched and maybe even overly complex, but viewed as the story of one man, it delivers some thought-provoking topics to the big screen. And yes, “life is brutal”.

Opens in Theaters Friday, July 30

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THE SISTERS BROTHERS (2018)

September 27, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It was a good news – bad news kind of day for westerns. First, it’s announced that Mel Gibson will direct a remake of Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 classic THE WILD BUNCH. Talk about an undesired and unnecessary project! Fortunately, the movie gods understood this gut-punch and as a peace offering, delivered this near-masterpiece that doesn’t so much re-invent the Western, but rather provides a tonal and stylistic twist to the genre.

This is the first English language project from writer/director Jacques Audiard, who has previously delivered such powerful and well-crafted films as A PROPHET (2009), RUST AND BONE (2012), and DHEEPAN (2015). Based on the Patrick DeWitt novel, with a screenplay from Mr. Audiard and his frequent collaborator Thomas Bidegain, this latest is a very unusual film that teeters on satire at times, but is simply too bleak to be a comedy – although it’s too darn funny to be an outright drama.

A terrific opening sequence in 1851 Oregon features a nighttime shootout that sets the stage both visually and tonally for what we will experience for the next couple of hours. It’s beautifully shot and there is some misdirection on what exactly the Sisters brothers are made of. John C. Reilly is absolutely wonderful as Eli Sisters, the soulful forward-thinking one who also has a dash of goofiness to him. His younger brother Charlie Sisters, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is the slightly unhinged one who frequently follows in his hated father’s footsteps by drinking heavily. Charlie is alternatingly quietly menacing and drunkenly menacing. The two brothers are hired assassins, and while Eli dreams of a peaceful retirement, Charlie can’t imagine not doing what they do.

The brothers have been contracted by ‘The Commodore’, a rarely seen power broker played in brief glimpses by the great Rutger Hauer. They are to meet up with advance scout John Morris (played by Jake Gyllenhaal with a quasi-British accent) and kill Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), who has supposedly stolen from The Commodore. Of course, there is more to the story. Warm has actually developed a chemical compound that allows for the easy gathering of gold from waterways – remember this is the height of the Gold Rush.

This is kind of a road trip film … only it’s on a horse trail from Oregon to San Francisco, and it’s kind of a buddy film … only it’s two brothers. Along the way, bonds are forged and broken, and paths are crossed with a kind-hearted saloon gal (Allison Tolman), a greedy town lord (trans actor Rebecca Root), and the brothers’ mother played by the always interesting Carol Kane. There is also a cringe-inducing run-in with a spider, an unfortunate end for a favorite horse, and the hilarious first use of a toothbrush. There is also a Dallas joke that drew quite the laughter from my Dallas audience.

It’s such an unusual film, and it’s presented with a non-traditional pace and rhythm. The moments of laughter surround a core with a dramatic story of destiny, the meaning of life, dreams and visions, and the greed of man. All of this is set to yet another terrific score from Alexandre Desplat and the visually striking photography of Benoit Debie. Director Audiard has delivered a bleak comedy or a comical drama, and he’s done so with more than a fair share of violence. Whether you consider yourself a fan of westerns or not, this one deserves a look.

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DHEEPAN (France, 2015)

May 25, 2016

Dallas International Film Festival 2016

dheepan Greetings again from the darkness. Wars exist in many different forms. Some are over contested international boundaries, others are religious conflicts, while others are more personal and intimate. The stories of many refugees could be described as fleeing one type of war only to end up fighting a different kind. Such is the story of Dheepan.

Jacques Audiard is one of the most exciting filmmakers working today. A Prophet (2009) and Rust and Bone (2012) are both compelling films, and though his latest may not be quite at that level, it’s still full of intensity and personal drama. Mr. Audiard co-wrote the screenplay with Thomas Bidegain and Noe Dibre, and some of it is based on the remarkable real life story of lead actor Jesuthasan Antonythasan.

Dheepan is a Tamli soldier who is so desperate to flee Sri Lanka that he teams with a woman and young girl he doesn’t know to form what looks like a real family. By using passports of people killed during the war, the pre-fab family of three is issued visas to live in France. Dheepan gets a job as the caretaker for an apartment complex riddled with crime, violence and drugs – and learns to keep his mouth shut and eyes open.

It’s fascinating to watch these three people navigate their new life as they struggle with the language and a new culture. There are flashes of real family problems, but also the awkwardness of three whose only true bond is their escape from their previous life. Living in such close proximity means their true colors are bound to shine through no matter how much effort goes into the family façade.

Jesuthasan Antonythasan (Dheepan) and Kalieaswari Srinivasan (as Yalini his wife) are both excellent and powerful in their roles despite being so inexperienced as actors. Their exchanges are believable, as is their disparate approach to the future. Ms. Srinivasan is especially strong in her scenes with local thug Brahim, played by Vincent Rottiers.  The two have such an unusual connection … alternating between warm and frightening.

Some have found fault with the final action sequence, but it’s such a fitting turn of events given Dheepan’s past … plus the camera work is outstanding. The film won the Palme d’Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, and it’s another notch in the belt of filmmaker Jacques Audiard. It’s also a reminder that we can never really escape the past.

watch the trailer: