Film review – Man of Steel (2013)

27 June 2013
Clark Kent/Kal-El (Henry Cavill)

Clark Kent/Kal-El (Henry Cavill)

After one of the most exhilarating action sequences in Man of Steel, Martha Kent (Diane Lane) tells her adopted alien son Clark (Henry Cavill), ‘It’s only stuff Clark, it can always be replaced.’ These are important words for Clark to hear from the woman who raised him as it helps reconcile the path of destruction he leaves behind while trying to find his true self. Man of Steel is an unconventional superhero origins films as the focus is not on the discovery and mastery of super-powers, although those scenes are included, but the focus instead is on the character’s psychological development. The result is a surprisingly grim and serious film that attempts to deconstruct the iconic and righteous Superman character to instead present him as a troubled man-child facing difficult moral choices and being traumatised about the nature of what makes him great.

The character is barely ever referenced as ‘Superman’ and instead is referred to throughout the film by both his human name Clark Kent and his Kryptonian name Kal-El. Much of the film is spent resolving his identity and through the film’s adoption narrative, Clark struggles with the fact that he does not have a sense of belonging. He loves his adopted parents and the inhabitants of Earth, but is aware of how different he is. He is haunted by the words of his adopted father Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) who warns him about the devastating cultural shock that humanity could experience upon discovering that he is an alien. His attempts to blend in see him continually on the run; an outcast drifter continually reinventing himself every time he tries to start afresh.

Searching for the truth, Clark gains fleeting comfort in discovering he came from a planet destroyed by both civil war and environmental destruction. More importantly in terms of character development, he learns that his birth father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) saw him to be a potential god among the human race. As well as the immense baggage of continuing an almost extinct alien race, he is torn between his natural father’s expectations and his adopted father’s caution. While Clark is mostly depicted in Man of Steel as an adult, the continual flashbacks to childhood, the multiple parental figures and the symbolic rebirths he experiences suggest that the character is in a state of mental and moral arrested development throughout nearly the entire film. Not only is Clark a nomad torn between two worlds, but he is also torn between the possibility that he is a god to be worshiped and the possibility that he is a freak to be feared. Worse yet, is that the many lives he has been covertly protecting on Earth become threatened as a direct result of him being there, when the militarist zealot General Zod (Michael Shannon) arrives looking for him.

The culmination of Clark’s psychological origins story is the film’s exploration of how a being with such advantageous powers can act morally. Clark has a genuine desire to be righteous, but as Jonathan explains to him that means making very careful decisions about when to act and when not to, resulting in potential scenarios where neither outcome is ideal. Hence the defeat of an enemy often comes with massive collateral damage that the film gleefully showcases during its big spectacle scenes. Keeping with the notion of Clark as still being in a state of cognitive development, his apparent anti-property attitude suggests the well meaning yet naïve mind of a rebellious teenager lashing out against society and its institutions. Clark nobly resists the temptation to physically hurt an obnoxious man in a bar, but still destroys property that is important to that man. It is a moment of initial catharsis that on reflection is an excessively cruel act that obliterates that man’s livelihood.

During major action sequences in Smallville and Metropolis, Clark’s battles with Zod and his soldiers lay waste to those settings, which challenges whether or not Clark’s actions and approach to defending the Earth are justified. After the unknown innocent bystander body count, the question of destroying the human race to save the Kryptonians and Clark’s final confrontation with Zod, is the moral question of what lives and what principles should be sacrificed for the greater good. Clark’s symbolic coming-of-age is not making the right decisions, but accepting and being able to live with the moral complexity from making the difficult decisions. It is a surprisingly sophisticated examination of what it really takes to make somebody a super human.

Man of Steel also serves as a curious warning about interventionism on several levels. The planet Krypton is destroyed due to over extracting its natural resources and it breaks down on a societal level due to the use of advanced genetics to enable social engineering. General Zod’s attitude towards Earth is one of aggressive colonialism and genocide, setting up a device that as it pulsates into the ground it picks up cars and bits of buildings and then smashes them back down again. The symbols of human civilisation are used as weapons back upon itself, perhaps suggesting some kind of punishment for humanity’s hubris towards how it manipulates its environment. The mass destruction in the film suggests acts of terrorism and reveals how vulnerable our constructed world can be. Notably Clark initially seeks employment in remote environments suggesting his desire to be far from the civilised world of interference. More notable is that he settles for an occupation that requires him to be an observer with supposed zero interference on what he observes.

As a psychological coming-of-age film where the destruction caused by Clark Kent is an external expression of his id threatening to overwhelm rational thought, Man of Steel is really not a conventional superhero film, let alone what is most likely expected from a Superman film. Nevertheless the team of director Zack Snyder, writer David S Goyer and producer Christopher Nolan (among others) do throw in elements that try to help the film resemble what is conventionally contained in a superhero film. Unfortunately this means the inclusion of some clunky exposition, some silly dialogue and an extended final action sequence that loses its potency and inventiveness. All this would barely be noticeable if Man of Steel were simply another inclusion in the colour saturated and hyperactive Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise, but because it aspires to be closer tonally to Nolan’s Batman trilogy, the more overt comic book elements feel out of place.

Nevertheless, for the most part Man of Steel is exhilarating and visually engaging. The film has embraced the increasingly fashionable ‘found-footage’/Instagram aesthetic that incorporates lots of sun flares, objects artistically going out of focus, and snap camera zooms and movements to capture objects onscreen that seemingly appear without prior warning. Few of the visual techniques in Man of Steel are new, but Snyder and his team have used them extremely well to blend the emotional drama of Clark’s two families with the film’s science-fiction elements resulting in an impressive photorealistic quality to all onscreen elements. While the action and spectacle in the film ultimately wears out its welcome by being overlong and becoming generic, for the most part it is genuinely exciting. Making a Superman film that does not feel like a Superman film may not have been the plan, but when the result is a mostly-entertaining dark science-fiction parable about morality, those not overly invested in the Superman mythology will find a lot to enjoy in Man of Steel.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – Mud (2012)

13 June 2013
Mud: Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Mud (Matthew McConaughey)

Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Mud (Matthew McConaughey)

What is the worst thing to tell a young teenage boy? To not trust women and be suspicious of love, or that women are to be worshiped and love conquers all? In Jeff Nichols’s third feature film Mud, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) is told both extremes. Bitter about the breakdown of his marriage, Ellis’s father (Ray McKinnon) is one of the many older male characters living in the small community near the Mississippi River in Arkansas who tell Ellis not to fall in love because women are just no good. Then there is Mud (Matthew McConaughey), the fugitive that Ellis and his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) discover hiding out on a small island in the river. Unlike all the other adult characters in the film, Mud is full of enthusiasm and hope, believing in the transcendent power of love and believing that all he needs to live happily ever after is to be reunited with his on-and-off girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).

The Mississippi River setting and distinctively southern American coming-of-age narrative reveal how influential Mark Twain’s 1876 novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) is for Nichols. Even though Mud goes into thriller and even gangster genre territory, it fundamentally remains a film about childhood and the experiences of friendship, first love and entering the adult world by accepting responsibility. Ellis is an impressionable yet good-natured boy, attempting to make sense of the conflicting messages he gets from the adult characters. As he is increasingly drawn towards the charismatic and seemingly righteous Mud, he finds the events of own life being reflected in that of Mud’s to the extent that Mud becomes both a future projection of the man Ellis may become as well as a Christ-like figure.

Mud is something of an update of the 1961 British film Whistle Down the Wind (directed by Bryan Forbes from a 1959 novel by Mary Hayley Bell) where three children mistake a hidden fugitive for Jesus Christ. While Ellis does not literally believe Mud to be the Messiah, he does increasingly regard him as a mythical figure. A transient and outlaw figure who lives in a boat that was dumped in a tree after a flood, Mud is an enticing mystery to the impressionable Ellis, and to a lesser degree the far more cynical Neckbone. After being on the run and hiding in the wild, Mud looks suitably dirty and dishevelled, yet speaks with a disconcerting eloquence. He is a capable survivalist and yet places immense value in objects and symbols, facilitating one scene where as Mud McConaughey gets to remove his shirt for reasons that are essential to the narrative. McConaughey going topless in a film is nothing new, but no previous film that he has starred in so successful justifies the display of his physique by making it an essential part of his character’s psychological development.

The crucial aspect of Mud’s mythology is that it is self-generated and a product of both self-delusion and bravado. He is larger than life figure and looms large in Ellis’s world. Most importantly is that Ellis has fallen in love with a local girl and while the other men he knows are dismissive or even hostile to women, Mud’s declarations of love for Juniper are a revelation for Ellis. Ellis becomes Mud’s disciple, assisting him with his planned escape and mimicking his behaviour. Ellis learns of Mud’s violence toward men who have reportedly hurt Juniper and in turn Ellis begins to act violently toward men he believes are a threat to the girl he has fallen for. Unrealistic idealism soon becomes destructive.

Mud emerges as a false yet benign prophet that inadvertently sets Ellis up for a crisis of faith. After establishing a clear point of difference between Ellis’s dysfunctional home life and the idealised world expressed by Mud, the film becomes increasingly complicated as Ellis learns that not everything is as cut and dried as Mud had lead him to believe. A series of emotional and physical conflicts lead Ellis to learn that while women are not the enemy, nor are they idealised beings who only exist to redeem troubled men. It is an invaluable lesson that makes Mud an extremely sophisticated and progressive examination on how adolescent masculinity is defined by often-contradictory cultural attitudes towards femininity.

Mud may not quite achieve the psychological intensity of Nichols’s Take Shelter, but it is still a strong and complex portrayal of a man grappling with how he perceives the world and how that perception affects the people around him. In Take Shelter Curtis (played by Michael Shannon who also appears in Mud as Neckbone’s uncle Galen) has visions of apocalyptic storms while Mud is obsessed with symbolism. It is fitting that in a film where women are often described as bringing about the downfall of men, the snake is a reoccurring motif, evoking the Biblical story of Eve in the Garden of Eden. A mud pit filled with snakes near Mud’s hideout is frequently depicted, Mud has a snake tattoo and Mud claims that the purpose of snakes is to create fear. It is a rich and layered set of Biblical and psychoanalytic symbolism, designed to represent male anxiety at its most hysterical and alarmist.

Despite the slightly jarring intrusion towards the end of the film of a subplot and set of characters that feel like they belong in a different film, Mud is an impressive male coming-of-age story. McConaughey impresses once more in what is possibly his most complex role to date, Witherspoon displays a depth of character that audiences have not seen from her since her early performances in 1990s American independent films and Sheridan brings to the screen a youthful intensity that suggest a star on the rise. At the heart of it all is an old fashioned yet welcome message that love is a wonderful thing, even though it does not always work out. And real men do not hold women accountable for their woes.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – Take Shelter (2011)

13 October 2011
Take Shelter: Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon)

Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon)

Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) has a good life and is told so by his best friend and co-worker Dewart (Shea Whigham), who admires Curtis’s family and the home in Ohio that he has built around him. Curtis is a good husband to Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and a good father to their hearing-impaired daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). His construction job not only brings in a decent salary but it also provides an excellent insurance plan that will help cover the costs of upcoming surgery for Hannah. And yet despite all of this, Curtis is having vivid nightmares and waking visions of an approaching apocalyptic storm and mysterious figures who threaten his family. While terrified by what he is seeing, Curtis is also grimly aware that there is a history of schizophrenia in his family. As his paranoia and visions intensify, Curtis becomes obsessed with building an elaborate tornado shelter while trying to understand what is happening to him psychologically.

Films about mental illness often present a character loosing their grasp on reality as a melodramatic tragedy or even occasionally as something that is quaintly liberating, as if that character now has a privileged view of the world. Attempts to depict how a mentally ill character views the world tend to be hysterical and romantically tormented rather than insightful. Conditions such as schizophrenia are frequently confused with various personality disorders, resulting in a common misbelief that people with schizophrenia are likely to be criminally violent. Therefore it is incredibly refreshing to see such an intelligent and sensitive portrayal of a man experiencing the early signs of schizophrenia in Take Shelter.

Take Shelter: Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and Hannah LaForche (Tova Stewart)

Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and Hannah LaForche (Tova Stewart)

Writer/director Jeff Nichols establishes early that Curtis is aware that something is not right, rather than making him a passive character who succumbs to his condition. Curtis seeks help and tries to understand what is happening to him. What makes the film so dramatically interesting is that while he is able to realise he is seeing and hearing things that are not there, he doesn’t have the same self-recognition in regards to his growing paranoia. So while seemingly aware that his premonitions about the coming storm are imagined, he still compulsively pours time, money and resources into building the shelter despite the effect it has on his work and his family. The shelter becomes symbolic of his subconscious; something for him to retreat into while the storm hopefully passes above him. Curtis also begins to increasingly distrust those around him, most tragically those he has the most intense feelings for, beginning with the family dog who gets cast out of the house after he dreams it attacked him.

Michael Shannon has portrayed mentally unstable characters several times in the past, in films such as Bug, Revolutionary Road and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done. His unconventional brooding looks give him a commanding and mysterious presence on screen that makes him so suitable for such roles. In Take Shelter he eclipses everything he has done previously with what will more than likely be a career-defining performance. As Curtis’s wife Samantha, Jessica Chastain plays a role similar to the supportive and strong mother and wife role she had in The Tree of Life. However, she gets a lot more to do in Take Shelter and like Shannon, delivers a beautiful performance. Despite the fears, confusion and anger she feels for what Curtis is going through, and putting her through, she remains by his side. The most powerful moments in the film involve either Samantha’s devastating responses to Curtis’s suffering or her determined confrontations with him. Take Shelter paints an extraordinary picture of what it means to unconditionally love somebody, making the representation of Curtis and Samantha’s marriage something profoundly moving.

Take Shelter: Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon)The final scene in Take Shelter is a little perplexing and if the rest of the film hadn’t been so well crafted and clearly considered, it would be tempting to dismiss the final moments as literal and therefore undermining a lot of what the film had previously done to present the nature of Curtis’s visions. However, upon reflection it feels far more like a deliberate attempt to create ambiguity and confusion in order to present the world that Curtis, and by extension his family, now must live in. It’s one of many aspects about the film that will leave audiences lost deep in their thoughts throughout the rest of the day after seeing it.

There is so much empathy and understanding in the way Take Shelter creates an engaging story out of a widely misunderstood condition. It is one of the most captivating and overwhelming portrayals of mental illness in a domestic setting since John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence in 1974. It certainly makes films like The Beaver feel incredible superficial by comparison. The cinematic effects used to evoke Curtis’s visions create a vivid impression of his condition without ever feeling exploitive. The slow burning nature of the drama means that a number of incredibly tense moments creep up without warning to make so much of Take Shelter heartbreakingly suspenseful.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Revolutionary Road (2008)

22 January 2009
Revolutionary Road

Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet)

The key line of dialogue in Revolutionary Road, the new film by director Sam Mendes, is spoken by John Givings, a mentally ill mathematician who features in two keys scenes from the film. When John first meets Frank and April Wheeler and identifies their desire to escape from suburbanite conformity he remarks, “Plenty of people are onto the emptiness but it takes real guts to notice the hopelessness”. This line comes during the first part of this film about 1950s middle class American life. The Wheelers are a young couple who have decided to ditch their dull and bland lives to move to Paris in order to escape from their self imposed comfort zone. The idea is that April Wheeler will work instead of playing the part of reluctant homemaker and Frank Wheeler will attempt to discover what it is he really wants to do in life, rather than waste away in a meaningless office job. However, as their plan to escape to a new life is set in motion fears, anxieties and the trappings of their secure routine lifestyle begin to threaten that plan.

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