A still from 'Eighth Grade'.
July 25, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Gucci Girl

2018 / USA / 93 min. / Dir. by Bo Burnham / Opened July 13, 2018, in select cities; locally on July 27, 2018

When you’re 13 years old, reality can feel mutable and devouring. A week of boredom and discomfiture can dilate into a dreary eternity. A passing moment of awkwardness can mushroom into a humiliating cataclysm. The mélange of roaring hormones and bewildering social dynamics that characterizes the transition from childhood to adolescence turns every day into an ordeal, and every misstep into a crisis. When it comes to representing this distinctive life stage in narrative cinema, there’s an understandable temptation to veer into grotesque miserabilism, by amplifying either the salacious (Thirteen) or the cartoonish (Welcome to the Dollhouse). To be 13 years old is to exist in a perpetual state of semi-controlled catastrophe, and it therefore makes sense for films about that age to reflect a certain warped sensibility.

The quiet miracle of writer-director Bo Burnham’s splendid debut feature, Eighth Grade, is that it so effortlessly resists straying into such heightened territory. In telling the story of a week in the life of Kayla (Elsie Fisher) – a smart and spirited girl, but also one who is shy, gawky, and friend-deficient – the filmmaker achieves an estimable balance between realism and exaggeration. None of the tribulations that befall Kayla in Eighth Grade are truly calamitous, and nothing that occurs is presented through an excessively distorted lens. She is, ultimately, a middle-class white kid with a good head on her shoulders, and the travails that she encounters during the film’s seven-day span are the relatively mundane experiences of millions of young teens: a pool party, a high-school tour, a trip to the mall, and her eighth-grade graduation. (In what is easily the most unsettling sequence, the film strays right up to the edge of an alarming sexual incident, but then, refreshingly, backs away from it when Kayla vehemently asserts herself.)

Burnham eschews both the sluggish banalities of excessive naturalism and the rosy gloss of quirky indie unreality, finding a middle way that is both grounded and emotionally evocative. Greg Berlanti’s recent gay romantic fable, Love, Simon, makes for a striking contrast. Although well-intentioned, that film blessed its 18-year-old lovelorn hero with such a charmed life that it ultimately turned Simon’s closet-related crisis into little more than exurban fairy tale straight from the CW. Eighth Grade, on the other hand, represents an authentic delve into the anguished existence of a 13-year-old girl – a precocious kid whose self-awareness about her own shortcomings makes her interminable awkwardness and loneliness all the more agonizing.

Less a traditional three-act story than a cavalcade of mortifying incidents, Burnham’s feature chronicles Kayla’s oddly eventful final week of junior high, which can’t end soon enough for her. (In the name of amplifying the absurdity, the filmmaker sacrifices a bit of realism by incorporating events – such as a sex-education presentation and an active-shooter drill – that seem unlikely to have been scheduled for the last week of school.) The Class of 2017 marks the end of its middle-school tenure by opening the shoebox time capsules they assembled at the beginning of sixth grade. Rummaging through the optimistic, faintly pathetic artifacts of her two-and-a-half-years-ago self inspires more than the usual navel-gazing from Kayla. This is about as close as Eighth Grade gets to a character arc: Kayla grappling (to mixed results) with her disillusionment over the gulf between her erstwhile hopes for the future and her dispiriting present.

From a big-picture standpoint, Kayla doesn’t have much to be concerned about. She doesn’t appear to have problems with academics. (Although, to be honest, what 13-year-old is all that fixated on grades?) She plays the cymbals in the school orchestra, geeks out over pop culture, and has an earnest, incurably dorky dad (Josh Hamilton) who thinks she hung the moon. Aside from acne and chunky hips, her biggest concerns are internal. Kayla struggles with the fundamentals of junior-high social life, stammering and grinning inanely through pained conversations with more popular classmates in a vain attempt to seem naturally cool. She isn’t so much friendless as peripheral in her peers’ eyes, the shy girl whose most unforgivable sin is being unmemorable. Her week begins inauspiciously when her fellow eighth graders name her Most Quiet, a humiliating superlative that feels like a repudiation of all the energy she’s poured into “putting herself out there,” as it were.

Certainly, Kayla evinces more enthusiasm for mental and emotional self-improvement than a typical girl her age. Her bathroom mirror is hung with affirming Post-Its – Got Get ‘Em! Own Who You Are! Make Today a Better Day! – and she sketches out her personal-development plans in a spiral notebook with columns labeled “Thing I Want” and “How to Get There.”  Most poignantly, she records and posts brief self-help videos to a YouTube channel, “Kayla’s Korner,” authoritatively explaining to her mostly phantom subscribers how to acquire more confidence and be their best selves. (Her sprightly, puzzling signoff is “Gucci!”) Critically, Burnham doesn’t present this discontinuity between the girl’s internal/online life and her face-to-face interactions as bitterly ironic, but rather heartening in a faintly melancholy way. Kayla knows how to get where she wants to be; she just has difficulty sticking the landing.

Eighth Grade is the kind of coming-of-age film that would rather conjure the harrowing experience of a pool party-triggered panic attack than diagnose its young heroine’s (probable) anxiety disorder. In other words, Burnham is foremost concerned with creating the subjective reality of being a 13-year-old girl, and thereby fostering a cross-generational and cross-gender appreciation for how much being a 13-year-old girl absolutely sucks. Whether or not an individual viewer’s own memories of junior high match Kayla’s experiences, it makes for a stunning feat of artistic empathy. No film in recent memory has so precisely captured the trifecta of constant anxiousness, horniness, and embarrassment that overwhelms the newly teenaged.

Much of this is attributable to Fisher, who is in virtually every scene of the feature. She invests Kayla with a rare, radiant genuineness that almost certainly owes something to her being an actual 13-year-old girl (or thereabouts) when Eighth Grade was filmed. Indeed, Burnham has been unfailingly open and generous in ascribing the success of the film to Fisher’s performance. To say that the feature rests primarily on the young actress’ shoulders, however, does a disservice to Burnham’s wonderful direction and the superlative efforts of the rest of the crew. Jennifer Lilly’s wry and sublimely precise editing deserves particular accolades, as does the work of the music and sound departments, who delicately suggest the aural stylings of Gen X high-school-cinema landmarks like Fast Time At Ridgemont High, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and The Breakfast Club without resorting to outright homage. (Double kudos to the filmmakers for finding an authentically inspired way to use Enya’s much-satirized 1988 single “Orinoco Flow” some 30 years later: as the score to a hypnotic montage of Kayla’s Instagram scrolling.)

In a subgenre that too often indulges in one-note, self-satisfied gestures, the novelty of Burnham’s storytelling lies in how he refuses to pigeonhole individual scenes and plot swerves. The pool party – to which Kayla received a parent-enforced pity invite – is a centerpiece of body-shame and social blunders, but it ends on a slightly positive note, with Kayla besting her anxiety by singing a karaoke solo. Her vocal skill and the response of the other partygoers is rendered moot, as Burnham ingeniously muffles the sound, focusing on Fisher’s beaming face as her self-assurance behind the microphone swells.

Other examples abound. The potential landmines inherent in a high-school visitation day are defused when Kayla is paired with an ebullient, kind-hearted senior, Olivia (Emily Robinson), who reassures the younger girl of both her awesomeness and the fleeting significance of eighth grade. Then the sweet turns sour: Kayla’s father embarrasses her in front the older teenagers by anxiously shadowing her at the mall. What’s more, one of Olivia’s male friends turns out to be something of a predatory creep. During graduation, Kayla unloads on a mean-girl classmate with the sort of cathartic monologue that would crown a different kind of middle-school drama, but the scene subverts expectations by abruptly concluding in vague confusion. Late in the film, a nerdy boy invites Kayla to his house, where he humblebrags about his archery certificate and lays out chicken nuggets for a dinner date. Burnham could have used this as a springboard to a geek-love happy ending; instead he leaves the friendship ambiguous, keeping it grounded in shared chuckles over stiffly delivered Rick and Morty quotations.

The 27-year-old Burnham first made a name for himself with lo-fi performances of original satirical songs on YouTube, before breaking into a successful stand-up career. Perhaps it’s that distinctly 21st-century rise to viral fame that allows the filmmaker to take an admirably honest, matter-of-fact stance toward technology and its messy intersections with tween/teen life. Social media is an omnipresent reality in Eighth Grade, and Burnham isn’t afraid to illustrate the anxiety, despair, and phoniness that the online world engenders. However, the director isn’t interested in anything so tired as kvetching about the Kids Today. In the uncanny, occasionally distressing new reality that Kayla inhabits, the use of social media simply highlights the extent to which all of adolescence is performative, regardless of whether it’s vlogged. (In a sequence that is half charming and half surreal, Kayla carefully follows an online makeup tutorial before gingerly getting back into bed for a zit-free, Instagram-ready “just woke up” selfie.) For a teen drama where every kid is conspicuously glued to their smartphone, there’s a refreshing absence of Luddite hand-wringing in Eighth Grade. In Burnham’s intimate, insightful vision of adolescent angst, Snapchat is just another signpost on the twisting, nausea-inducing road to adulthood.

Rating: A-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

July 19, 2018
By Joshua Ray

The Director's Complete Filmography, From Worst to Best

The films of Dario Argento span the qualities of cinema as a whole. At their worst, his films are eye-glazingly boring. At their best, they resemble dreams manifested on a blank canvas, impossibly complex explorations of sight and sound, plumbing the relationship between the viewer and the viewed. His reputation as an active filmmaker has plummeted in the past two decades, and a consideration of his entire oeuvre makes for a potentially depressing exercise, given that fall from grace. Still, Argento has created films that transcend the too-often maligned horror genre. His filmography makes for a fascinating auteurist study in how a creator expressing an idiosyncratic viewpoint can produce wildly varying results.

Although the director’s standing may have been diminished by his lazy later work, prime Argento is at the forefront of cinematic discussions again. A remake of his most popular film, Suspiria, premieres this fall, with direction by fellow Italian Luca Guadagnino and starring Tilda Swinton and Dakota Johnson. Digitally restored prints of both Suspiria and Deep Red are making the revival-circuit rounds — recently appearing locally at the Tivoli and the Moolah theaters for midnight screenings. The director himself is in pre-production on a crowd-funded film titled The Sandman, featuring rock legend Iggy Pop. Given this renewed interest in his work, now is an ideal time to sift through this influential filmmaker’s storied career.

24. Dracula 3-D (2012)

Digitally created flies swarm around the townsfolk in Argento's sole 3D outing, perhaps attracted to this garbage heap of a movie. Argento's latest is also his worst, a film that would be ranked among the least accomplished films ever made if it managed to be anything but thuddingly dull. It's impossible to find the imprint of the once-masterful filmmaker anywhere in this Skinemax update of Bram Stoker's novel. The saturated Victorian look points towards a Hammer Films homage, but the cringe-worthy CGI sets and effects undermine the feature at every turn.

23. The Phantom of the Opera (1998)

Anticipating Dracula 3-D in reinventing a classic horror tale, Argento updates this oft-told story with a laughably inane script. Phantom's opening moments are the death knell for the director's former glory, as psychic sewer rats rescue a baby in a basket. Instead of the gonzo zoology at the heart of Phenomena, this film lacks any thematic core, piling inelegant, gory setpieces on top of its lackluster production and acting. The Phantom's (Julian Sands) awkward fever-dream fantasy in the middle of the film might have secured a MST3K-level condescending fandom for the film, but instead Phantom has rightfully been forgotten.

22. Giallo (2009)

A jaundiced film with a jaundiced serial killer, Giallo is unable to recapture a single spark of the somewhat defunct titular genre. It's an attempt by Argento to reinvigorate himself within his old stomping ground, but it resembles a degraded facsimile of his own work, not to mention that of his cohorts and forebears. The film’s nods to Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace (1964) don't balance well with the torture-porn violence of Saw (2004).

21. The Mother of Tears (2007)

Mimicking its art-restorer heroine Sarah (Asia Argento), the finale of director Argento's supernatural ‘Three Mothers’ trilogy (which includes Suspiria and Inferno) finds the director returning to his most well-known property in an effort to regain some tarnished glory. Unfortunately, the film's campy fun devolves into unbearable garishness and grotesquery, and — compared to the first two films in the trilogy — lazy, leaden direction and scripting.

20. The Card Player (2004)

A giallo for the nascent digital age, this The Silence of the Lambs (1991) knockoff has grown increasingly dull as time passes, with the achingly slow games of video poker featured in the film seeming more and more out-of-touch. A faceless serial killer promises to murder kidnapped victims if the police lose one of the aforementioned games. Law-enforcement officials are forced to watch the tortures on a live feed as the cards are revealed. It's a device that's understandably interesting to a director concerned with audience complicity and voyeurism, but unlike the conceit of the murders in Opera, Argento exudes little cinematic muscle to spruce up the proceedings. By the time the killer takes advantage of lead investigator Anna's (Stefania Rocca) trauma, the director re-purposes one of cinema's oldest and most ludicrous tropes — tying a woman to a train track — and murders it with boredom.

18 - 19. “Pelts” (2006) / “Jenifer” (2005)

Masters of Horror was a reprieve for many genre filmmakers who could no longer get big-screen work produced and/or widely distributed. The Italian master churned out two of episodes for the short-lived anthology series. "Pelts" is a much gorier and less interesting reiteration of "The Black Cat," whereas "Jenifer" proves only slightly more interesting. The latter — a lusty story written by its star, Steven Weber — gave Argento some fresh meat to chew on. Although its intermingling of sex and violence is well-trodden ground, the director challenges viewers to accept the lead's downward spiral into sexual oblivion via a siren with a mean, flesh-eating mug. The circular nature of the tale resembles prime Twilight Zone, but it's too bad the visuals rarely reach prime Argento.

17. Do You Like Hitchcock? (2005)

Originally produced for Italian television, this cheapie benefits from its relative lightness and its director's fondness for the Master of Suspense. The film is primarily concerned with the most surface-level of Hitchcockian motifs, borrowing the central conceits of Rear Window (1954) and Strangers on a Train (1951) when a film-studies college student plays peeping Tom to his attractive female neighbor, catching her in what he believes to be a murder-swap conspiracy. It's possible that with sufficient time and budget, the film could have been a more adventurous exploration of Hitchcock's cinematic language, as in Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale (2002), the poster of which is displayed in a video store that is central to Hitchcock?'s narrative. As it stands, it's a comparatively inoffensive late Argento offering.

16. The Five Days (1973)

The Five Days is the most conspicuous outlier in Argento's canon. A political farce set during the Austrian occupation of Italy, it resembles a twisted hybrid of Sergio Leone's Duck, You Sucker (1971) and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). (The latter having been written by Argento, Leone, and Bernardo Bertolucci.) Argento largely fails to strike the correct balance between broad comedy and brutal violence in The Five Days. Still, it’s a film made by a director honing his finest skills, and on that basis alone it’s worth the viewer’s consideration.

15. Sleepless (2001)

Sleepless is David Fincher's Zodiac (2007) as giallo, only without the ecstatic joy of its creator's implementation of the cinematic apparatus. It's a rote, decades-spanning police procedural that, while having all the hallmarks of the director's previous gialli, is never truly elevated by its occasional dips into stylishness. Given that Argento casts master Swedish actor Max von Sydow against relatively unknown and less-capable Italian thespians, it also works as an interesting case study in performances in Argento’s films. As with many of the director’s works, Sleepless requires a suspension of disbelief regarding the gulf between actual human behavior and the often-dubbed, wide-eyed nature of the characters who populate his worlds.

13 - 14. “The Tram” / “Eyewitness” (1973)

Door Into Darkness represents Argento and Italian television’s attempt to reinvent the director as the Hitchcock of the 1970s: a four-episode anthology series that only lasted for one season. Argento helmed two episodes himself, showcasing his filmmaking development on a smaller scale. “The Tram” is the television work that most resembles Argento’s big-screen features. It’s a fairly standard police procedural heightened by the director’s trademark exploration of space. A literal investigation of movement within a frame unfolds when it’s discovered that the bend of a city bus allows for a murder to take place. Shades of Vertigo and Rear Window appear when the lead investigator ropes his girlfriend into dangerously replaying the night of the crime. This leads to the bravura climax set in a train station, where gorgeously gliding camera movements abound.

In “Eyewitness,” a woman stumbles onto a murder and then narrowly escapes being killed herself. She is forced to replay the events in her mind when the police are unable to turn up a body. Her own personal life isn’t quite what it seems to be; it turns out that it’s her husband and his girlfriend who are stalking her in an attempt to pin the murder on her. This Gaslight redux is mostly notable as a microcosm of the director’s interest in perspective and sight. The uncredited Argento took over this episode from Roberto Pariante — his assistant director on The Bird with the Crystal Plumage — and “Eyewitness” retains a meta-layer of perspective shifts, reflecting Argento’s use of another’s footage for his own ends.

12. Trauma (1993)

Trauma could be the name of any of Argento's horror efforts, but it is particularly apt for this feature. The characters' past sins certainly amount to one sticky web of tangled issues, especially in the case of the lead, played by Asia Argento, making her debut in her father's filmography. It's the director's first feature-length English-language production set stateside, but his European sensibilities create a confounding dissonance within it. Stuffed with whack-a-doodle, half-baked ideas seemingly conjured by Piper Laurie's insidious psychic, it's best enjoyed as a purely visual display of the director's unique abilities with his camera.

11. “The Black Cat” (1990)

In adapting "The Black Cat" for the Edgar Allan Poe diptych Two Evil Eyes — the other half is helmed by George A. Romero — Argento mounts one of his most audacious works. Working in the States and exclusively with English-speaking actors for the first time, the director uses the opportunity to work through the limits of filmic depictions of violence. Harvey Keitel is an abusive crime-scene photographer who becomes one of the most deplorable murderers in Argento’s oeuvre when he murders his girlfriend and walls her body up in their Philadelphia brownstone. A diabolical figure who configures his own comeuppance via one particularly unkillable feline, he’s the inverse of the obsessive wall-crumbler played by David Hemmings in Deep Red. “The Black Cat” feels like an admission of guilt for a director accused of deep misogyny throughout his work, but forcing audience self-identification with the killer also knowingly fingers the viewer as complicit in these acts.

10. Phenomena (1985)

It may be unfair to compare this bewitching oddity to Argento's much better Deep Red, but Phenomena works in a manner similar to the latter film, in that it chronicles the seemingly disparate horror preoccupations of its maker. It's his ultimate statement of humanity's animal instincts and our role in the food chain, complete with insects controlled by a human psychic, an entomologist with a live-in chimpanzee assistant, and a serial killer with a thirst for blood. The zoological alchemy results in a much wonkier mix than Deep Red, but it's still a worthy entry for its sheer weirdness.

9. Inferno (1980)

Inferno was an attempt to take Suspiria to a global scale, extending the former film's grand conspiracy of witches to New York City and Rome. It's closer to the bananas funhouse of Phenomena than its origin point, but the film provides Argento with opportunities to mount some of the oddest and yet most satisfying moments of horror in his canon: a dive into the spirit-infected waters of underground NYC; a gross-out scene in which an antique dealer’s body is consumed by rats; and the Satanic insanity of the climax, which the director would attempt to duplicate in The Mother of Tears, to lesser results.

6 - 8. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) / Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) / The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971)

Credit for the invention of the giallo goes to Argento’s horror hero Mario Bava, who introduced world cinema to the pulpy Italian-novel subgenre with The Girl Who Knew Too Much in 1963. However, Argento's first three films constitute the apex of the form. He uses the standard ingredients — a black-gloved killer, protracted slash-and-kill setpieces, mingling of sex and death in a labyrinthine plot — but with his "Animal Trilogy" he elevated the genre into more artful territory. Bird flips the skeezy gender politics of the giallo on its head; Four Flies extends notions of voyeurism into more murky waters; and Cat convolutes its murder mystery to a point of deconstructionist abstraction. They're all incredible, dazzlingly stylish starting points for ideas Argento would soon perfect.

5. The Stendhal Syndrome (1996)

The Stendhal Syndrome is the director's closest approximation of Vertigo (1958): a bifurcated narrative pitting the demure brunette against her cool-blonde self. Masculinity at its most destructive violently rips her psyche into two as she sublimates her trauma into bloody revenge. Her relationship to art, with the titular affliction, reflects her already shaky relationship with reality, making her perpetuation of her own abuse supremely tragic. This is the “least fun” of Argento's great films, with the added awkwardness of the repeated rape and sexualization of a character played by his own daughter, but it's also the last of the director’s truly great features.

4. Tenebre (1982)

Tenebre anticipated Body Double — by Argento’s American counterpart Brian De Palma — by two years. Both films act as bombs lobbed at a critical establishment that saw only misogyny and self-congratulatory style from the two directors. With these works, both filmmakers doubled down on these aesthetic markers with acidic cynicism, counter-subverting their own previous subversions while retaining a cinematic glee. It doesn’t come as a shock when the killer is revealed to be the film’s novelist hero (Anthony Franciosa), as he's already stuffed pages from his book (also titled Tenebre) into one of his victim's mouths. The film intelligently tackles the role of the author within his own work, as well as his responsibility in releasing it into the world. Its self-reflexive moments cheekily reveal themselves on multiple viewings, as the film accumulates layers of meaning that reveal the agony and the ecstasy of creation. A complex work in narrative, thematic, and architectural design, Tenebre also features the most original and danceable score in Argento’s filmography, by his frequent collaborators, Goblin.

3. Opera (1987)

Spectacle and spectatorship are dangerously intertwined in the aesthetics of Opera. The killer is an Argento stand-in here, taping needles under his audience's eyelids in an effort to force them through torture and catharsis. The director fascinatingly implicates himself as a perpetrator of violence while using his skills as a master filmmaker to seduce the viewer into giddy awe of his violent Rube Goldberg machines. Nonetheless, Argento never loses sight of the trauma he inflicts in his artist-as-puppet-master role; here, his heroine succumbs to the cycle of violence in the film's final moment of self-reclamation.

2. Suspiria (1977)

Suspiria stands alongside Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941) and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as one of the most visually stunning cinematic creations ever mounted. Like the former films, this disco-inflected nightmare was fashioned by a creator firing on all cylinders, using every square inch of the frame to showcase his cinematic brawn. To enter it is to suspend all notions of reality and surrender one’s psyche to a dream-like experience. Suspiria is so visually spellbinding that its artfulness almost upends the All of Them Witches fairy-tale plot. However, the film’s fury of neon light works like the dance-school instructors' poisoning of American student Susie (Jessica Harper), infecting the viewer's nervous system and enveloping them in its conspiratorial web. The film furthers Hitchcock's notions of sex and death being perfect bedfellows by mounting the most deliriously sensuous kills up to that point in cinema's history, only later surpassed (arguably) by Argento himself.

1. Deep Red (1975)

Deep Red is Argento's supreme compendium, chronicling all of the director's themes with precision and playfulness: film's ability to alter reality within spaces and memories; excavations of the past to reveal an always-present buried paradigm; and the dialectical nature of gender, sex, and violence with their cultural imbalances. It's all the more miraculous that it appeared so early in his directorial career — a kind of pronouncement of mastery carefully spinning webs outward toward the future. Thrusting the audience through the red-velvet curtains onto an arch proscenium in its opening, the film is confidently aware of its own importance and giddy filmic prowess.

Hitchcock’s other great acolyte, Brian De Palma, is compared to Jean-Luc Godard more often than is his Italian cohort. Yet Deep Red showcases Argento's postmodern deconstruction of symbols throughout art, history, and cinema — much like the early “movie-movies” of the French New Wave director. Casting David Hemmings as the protagonist whose perception and memory becomes warped as he investigates a murder is to put a fine point on Deep Red's interpolation of Antonio's Blow-Up (1966). However, the film never feels slavish to cinematic history, creating contrasts with the inexorable way that the characters' pasts dictate their fates. The film is also remarkably fun, a dreamy and violent puzzle box featuring dazzling setpieces buttressed by the romantic comedy between Hemmings' jazz musician and his girl Friday played by Daria Nicolodi, Argento's then-wife. Somehow at once wonky and perfectly calibrated, Deep Red is one of cinema's great masterpieces, featuring a final image as haunting as any in film history.

Tags: Ranked Joshua Ray

A still from 'Unfriended: Dark Web'.
July 18, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Game Night

2018 / USA / 88 min. / Dir. by Stephen Susco / Opens in wide release on July 20, 2018

Cinematic universes are all the rage these days, despite the fact that Marvel is the only studio that has truly cracked how to successfully translate the daunting challenges of such long-term pop storytelling into box-office billions (and modest critical acclaim). The impulse has even filtered down into sub-blockbuster genres like horror, as exemplified by New Line Cinema’s dubious Conjuring series, which now comprises four feature films and counting. It’s easy to see how the built-in audience of a sprawling franchise – more expansive and carefully integrated than the iterative Fridays and Nightmares of the past – might appeal to a horror studio. The genre tends to be a low-risk, high-return endeavor, where even a critical dud can turn a profit in its first weekend thanks to compulsive genre enthusiasts and adolescent multiplex patrons.

All due credit to Blumhouse Productions, then: Given the ripe opportunity to launch yet another unwanted series alongside its Insidious, The Purge, and Paranormal Activity franchises, the horror studio opted for something much more intriguing than a mere “shared universe” with its sequel to 2014’s surprisingly effective Unfriended. The new film, rather vacantly titled Unfriended: Dark Web, isn’t a narrative sequel at all, but rather a repurposing of the first feature’s irresistible formal conceit. A standalone story that – like its predecessor – unfolds almost entirely on a single MacBook laptop screen, Dark Web isn’t even in the same subgenre as the 2014 film. Where Unfriended was a vengeful ghost story with a digital angle, the sequel is a paranoid techno-thriller with gaudy horror highlights.

The film’s literal point-of-view character is Matias (Colin Woodell), an aspiring twentysomething programmer who has just “acquired” a new laptop. (It’s shortly revealed that he didn’t purchase the computer on Craigslist, as he initially claims, but stole it from the lost-and-found at a local coffee shop; that plot point becomes, shall we say, significant.) Matias has a standing date to play Cards Against Humanity via Skype with his pals Serena (Rebecca Rittenhouse), Nari (Betty Gabriel), Damon (Andrew Lees), Lexx (Savira Windyani), and AJ (Connor Del Rio), and tonight, as it happens, is game night. However, Matias is distracted from the group’s usual filthy-minded tomfoolery by his recently rocky relationship with girlfriend Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras). She is deaf and Matias is not, and that difference is beginning to create friction. Matias is writing an app to facilitate video chats between the two of them, but the problems are deeper, manifested in his unwillingness to put more than a cursory effort into learning American Sign Language (ASL).

This skin-deep relationship angst is the most substantial characterization afforded to the film’s cast by Stephen Susco – best known for penning the American remakes of The Grudge (2004) and its sequel (2006), and here making his directorial debut in place of Unfriended helmer Levan Gabriadze. Like most horror-film victims, Matias’ buddies are only afforded one or two characteristics apiece. AJ is an exhausting conspiracy-monger; Damon is a tech guru of some sort; Lexx is an electronic-music DJ; and Serena and Nari are a lesbian couple, the former worried about her cancer-afflicted mother and the latter struggling with how to come out to her homophobic family. These are not what one would call well-rounded characters, but since – surprise! – they’re all going to die over the course of the film’s blessedly lean 88-minute running time, complexity isn’t really a necessity.

Besides his relationship troubles, Matias is also preoccupied by his new laptop, which exhibits numerous strange features. The computer’s enigmatic owner (identified only as “Norah C. IV”) is still logged into their various accounts. These include a Facebook profile that is bombarded with messages from strange women, all of whom the mystery owner seems to have been enticing or manipulating. As his friends natter on via Skype and his messages with Amaya become more and more fraught, Matias soon discovers that the laptop’s hard drive is filled with hidden video files and some sort of dark web application. The videos appear to be random security and web-camera footage, most of it banal in nature. However, a conspicuous subfolder labeled “Contributions” contains disturbing clips of young women being confined, tortured, and murdered. It’s roughly at this point that the laptop’s owner begins sending Matias threatening messages, demanding the computer’s return in exchange for Amaya’s continuing physical safety. The catch is that Matias and his still-oblivious friends are forbidden to disconnect from the Skype call or contact the police; to make the consequences clear, a digitally scrambled figure kills Amaya’s roommate (Chelsea Alden) while Matias watches.

The minute-to-minute details of the film’s increasingly ludicrous, Saw-indebted plot are significantly more complex than the above summary conveys, but the underlying premise is fairly straightforward. Namely: Matias has stumbled onto a dark web network for the purchase and exchange of made-to-order snuff films, and the members of this perverse file-sharing group are murderously determined to quash his discovery. As in the original Unfriended, this story plays out in real time on a MacBook screen, with the attendant flurry of instant messages, video chats, Spotify playlists, Web searches, incoming emails, and other desktop bric-a-brac.

Like Gabriadze before him, director Susco exhibits a flair for this high-concept formal framework, imbuing his story with plenty of momentum, dread, and unexpectedly intense nervous energy. The shift from status-obsessed high-school students to more relaxed and self-assured – though no less dim-witted – young adults instills Dark Web with greater mortal urgency compared to its predecessor. This is the case even though the new film’s tale of omnipotent, bloodthirsty hackers-cum-killers is about as realistic as the first feature’s vindictive digital ghost. Like the all-powerful Consumer Recreation Services in David Fincher’s The Game (1997), the anonymous malefactors who are tormenting Matias and his friends seem to be capable of limitless acts of digital and real-world terrorism, co-opting any electronic device in moments and sending throngs of hoodie-clad minions out to do their bidding. (Conveniently, Matias and most of his friends live in the same West Coast city, although it turns out that even the London-based Damon isn’t beyond the villains’ reach.)

Admittedly, some of the original film’s thematic potency, which was almost Biblical in flavor, has been lost in this outing. Dark Web exchanges raw anxieties about intimate, personal privacy – the terror that “every secret thing” will come to light, our shames live-streamed to the world – for a more generalized digital-era paranoia. Susco mines the suspicion that all online activity, whether momentous or drearily mundane, is available for inspection by sufficiently skilled and determined evildoers. Of course, the Internet of Things ensures that that there are no truly offline activities anymore, a troubling paradigm shift that Dark Web exploits by suggesting that nothing is beyond the reach of its shadowy, murder-addicted techo-criminals. Real life has almost caught up with the absurdities featured in The Net (1995), such that when Matias disbelievingly asks whether the hackers could remotely monkeywrench the city’s subway system, the question hangs in the air, gravid with dread plausibility.

Ultimately, Dark Web doesn’t offer much beyond its recycled yet still-compelling formal hook and the nimble execution thereof. The characters are predictably thin and the dialogue often flat-footed, draining the film’s most elaborate set pieces – such as a strangely lopsided Sophie’s choice that is forced on Serena – of any real pathos. Still, one doesn’t settle into a Blumhouse feature expecting profound emotional resonance, or much of anything beyond a reliable fright-delivery system. Like its predecessor, however, Dark Web sets itself apart from most of the studio’s features by emphasizing a pall of encroaching doom rather than jump-scares. Much of the anguish in Susco’s feature is about waiting helplessly as a lethal vice ratchets closed. For all their technical ingenuity and relative innocence, it’s painfully clear that Matias and his friends will be devoured by their tormentors’ malicious resolve. And all because Matias stole a laptop. (In this, the film echoes some of the blackly comic nihilism of Sam Raimi’s horror features.)

Moreover, unlike the aforementioned Saw films and other franchises that highlight the sadistic puppetmaster’s glee – making the viewer unpleasantly complicit in that bloodthirsty delight – Dark Web identifies foremost with the terror of its pitiable victims. Their feelings of impotence against a depraved, technologically savvy horde are keenly felt. This is most apparent in the film’s climax, where the network’s nameless snuff-film enthusiasts take an insta-poll to determine whether Dark Web’s final victim lives or dies. It’s not the result that elicits horror but the number of votes, which steadily roll upward into the hundreds, and then the thousands. In an era when the most nakedly cruel and bigoted Tweets reap tens of thousands of Likes, that sense of being woefully outnumbered by an ascendent community of moral monsters is unfortunately on point.

Rating: C+

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Sorry to Bother You'.
July 11, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

St. Peter Don’t You Call Me ‘Cause I Can’t Go

2018 / USA / 105 min. / Dir. by Boots Riley / Opened in select cities on July 6, 2018; locally on July 13, 2018

Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield), the beleaguered protagonist of Sorry to Bother You, has problems. Young, black, and unemployed in Oakland, Calif., he’s living in his uncle’s (Terry Crewes) garage and four months behind on his rent. He’s so desperate – and so lacking in shame – that he has a fake Employee of the Month plaque made up, which he brings along to interviews as (fraudulent) proof of his past gainful employment. (It’s a kind of splinter of the True Cross for the gig economy.) A hiring manager (Robert Longstreet) at the RegalView telemarketing company calls him on this con, but then waves away the deception: He just needs warm bodies to answer phones and sell encyclopedias. Cash takes the job, because what else is he going to do? It’s a paycheck, and at least his easy-going friend Salvador (Jermaine Fowler) works at RegalView too.

Cash expects his politically conscious starving-artist girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), to be disappointed with his meager ambitions, but as a part-time curbside sign-twirler, she knows a thing or two about doing what needs be done to put gas in the car (40 cents at a time, on occasion). Eventually, she starts taking shifts at RegalView as well. Cash initially has trouble closing the deal with the company’s customers-cum-dupes: The film visualizes him dropping, Wallace and Gromit-style, into their living rooms, kitchens, and bathrooms to rattle off a canned script, where he’s treated as a nuisance to be swatted away. Then a RegalView old-timer named Langston (Danny Glover) gives him a crucial tip: Cash needs to use his “white voice” on the phone. In an incisive little exchange, the older man explains that said voice isn’t a standup comedian’s nasally impression of a white guy, but rather an attitude of ease and confidence, one that suggests no speed bumps on the horizon.

During drinks with his co-workers, Cash soon stumbles onto his own personal white voice (realized as David Cross), and it proves to be his secret weapon. Before long, he’s racking up commissions, breaking sales records, and eyeing the golden elevator in the lobby, the one reserved for the company’s so-called Power Callers. However, worker dissent is reaching a boiling point at RegalView, where fellow telemarketer Squeeze (Steven Yeun) is organizing a “phones down” strike to demand a wage increase – and catching Detroit’s eye in the process. Cash is all for just labor practices, in theory, but if he’s fired for rabble-rousing there aren’t many alternatives left to him. Other than a lifetime contract with WorryFree Solutions, a mega-corporation that offers rudimentary food, clothing, and shelter in exchange for endless drudgery.

The cheerfully dystopian WorryFree factory-prisons – omnipresent in advertisements, where whole families are depicted toiling on assembly lines and sleeping in cells – are just one of the signs that writer-director Boots Riley has something stranger and rowdier up his sleeve than a race-conscious workplace comedy. It gradually becomes apparent that Sorry to Bother You is set 20 minutes into the future in a kind of quasi-science-fiction alternate reality. In this universe, the most-watched show in America is I Got the S*** Kicked Out of Me, which is exactly what it sounds like. (Echoes of Where Are My Pants?! from The LEGO Movie and Climbing for Dollars from The Running Man, the latter of which involved contestants clambering up ropes to avoid snapping Dobermans.)

On balance, the film’s cockeyed vision of Oakland is more real than not. A minor visual gag about a manual workaround for a broken windshield wiper will ring achingly true for anyone who has sputtered their way to a menial job in a busted-up car. Between the package-liquor stores and scraggly football fields, however, one can sense the brave new lunacy of RoboCop (1987) and Idiocracy (2006) creeping closer and closer. Riley has simply updated the absurd extrapolations for the late 2010s; speculating, for example, that a breakout viral video star can become a talk-show host – with built-in soft-drink-sponsor synergy – in the space of 24 hours. (Hardly an unreasonable prophecy, given that a reality-show celebrity is already sitting in the Oval Office.)

Stalked by middle-management caricatures like the creepy Johnny (Michael X. Sommers) and the chipper Diana (Kate Berlant), the demoralizing cubicle farm at RegalView is cartoonishly dreary. Like the gray, charmless office occupied by the hero in Joe Versus the Volcano (1990) or the low-ceilinged Floor 7½ in Being John Malkovich (1999), however, it’s just plausible enough to scan as the fever-dream doppelgänger of a place everyone has worked at some point. (Everyone outside the One Percent, at least.) In contrast, the upper floors where the Power Sellers roam are full of glass-walled offices and cozy iPad workstations, with champagne showers for the big closers. The single-minded Cash eventually reaches this rarefied world, but his promotion to Power Seller obliges him to “sit on the sidelines” during his co-workers’ strike and eventually to cross their picket line. Detroit is disgusted by his decision to sell out, especially when she learns that he’s no longer pushing encyclopedias to schmucks but military weapons and WorryFree labor to the global elite.

The feature-film directorial debut of hip-hop artist Riley, Sorry to Bother You is a magnificently whack, utterly unclassifiable shot across the bow of both indie cinema and the crapsack world that is America in 2018. It’s an outlandish capitalist nightmare about the 21st century’s Faustian temptations – which, in truth, are the same glittering enticements that the Devil has always dangled. Yet the film is too frenetic and jam-packed with ideas to ever stoop to outright polemics. For better or worse, Riley eschews the quotable monologues featured in epochal satires like Dr. Strangelove (1964) or Network (1976). The screenplay simply has too much on its mind, and too much affection for delightfully digressive schtick. There’s a bit about a ludicrously long elevator security code that is straight out of a Coens feature, for example. Or consider a chest-thumping confrontation between Cash and Salvador, where Riley revels in the rattling, screwball way that the argument mutates into a back-slapping bro hug.

Between the film’s Get Out-tinged facility for capturing the intricacies of racial unease and its eventual jaw-dropping hard left into grotesque science fiction – evoking equal parts Tim Burton, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and Tank Girl – there’s a lot going on in Sorry to Bother You. To Riley’s credit, this business seems less like a filmmaker indiscriminately throwing ingredients at the wall, and more like an eager first-time director trying to cram as many of his preoccupations as possible into his inaugural feature. In other words, the film tends toward the overstuffed, but nothing about it is half-baked. Like Armie Hammer’s coked-up Bezos-inspired billionaire Steve Lift – the WorryFree CEO who takes an uncomfortable shine to Cash – Riley’s feature buzzes with ideas, spattering so many sight gags and droll one-liners that it will likely take multiple viewings to unpack them all. Paralleling Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, the film seems destined for midnight-movie immortality.

Sorry to Bother You is impeccably cast across the board, although the supporting standouts are Hammer and Fowler – the latter always finding a way to coax laughs from a simple reaction shot. Stanfield (Atlanta, Crown Heights) is, unsurprisingly, essential to the films’ attitude. The actor’s huge, downcast eyes and uncertain little half-grins serve as crucial, humane landmarks in a film that grows ever more grimy and surreal during its 105-minute running time. Moreover, he renders believable Cash’s descent from a reedy, slump-shouldered bundle of existential despair and racial anxieties – he’s conspicuously insecure about his insufficient “blackness” – into a bellowing boiler-room alpha male.

Riley has a flair for juggling the banal and the weird, allowing the film to negotiate its more outrageous Wonderland swerves while still making room for morsels of relationship drama, radical politics, and banalities like a mea culpa over breakfast at a coffee shop (courtesy of Oakland gentrification). It’s only in its final stretch that Sorry to Bother You stumbles, mostly because Riley can’t find a way to satisfactorily wrap up the story's most ludicrous science-fiction twists. For a satire that otherwise vibrates with such demented energy, the film starts to founder a bit in its final 20 minutes. This is not the purposely anti-climactic petering out of, say, The Big Lebowski (1998) or Inherent Vice (2014), but rather the customary third-act aimlessness that often afflicts indie comedies. The film concludes with an unexpectedly restrained message, endorsing the preeminence of family, friendship, and simple pleasures in a world of ruthless exploitation. If such a politically mild punctuation mark feels somewhat disappointing, it’s also undeniably consistent with a story that so often illustrates the alienation that results from the division, ambition, and craving nurtured in capitalism’s Thunderdome.

Rating: B

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Damsel'.
July 7, 2018
By Joshua Ray

Two Woke Westerns

It’s common for film writers to note that the Western has waxed and waned in popularity over the course of cinema’s history. While that may be true, the genre contains such a breadth of ideas and archetypes that its malleability allows for it to be remixed and reimagined countless times. Between the premiere of supreme master John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in 1962 and the Italian debut of Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars in 1964, modernity had shifted into the post-modern, and the Western moved from the one truly American genre to an international affair about American myth-making. 

Leone’s dazzling condemnation of American capitalism and violence, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), would be the next evolution, and only a year later audiences would experience the visceral and gory explosion of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. The ultimate revisionist, Robert Altman, would completely dismantle the genre in 1971 with his McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a funny and elegiac masterpiece about the inextricable link between corporatization and dehumanization. It’s hard to pinpoint a great Western since these films that isn’t engaged in genre deconstruction: Clint Eastwood’s more traditional-feeling Unforgiven (1992) explored the trauma of violence, and the contemporary-set No Country for Old Men (2007) and Hell or High Water (2016) used the aspects of the genre to reflect morality in a modern world.

The Zellner Brothers’ new feature Damsel and Spaghetti Western maestro Sergio Corbucci’s 1968 film The Great Silence — which was recently restored and theatrically re-released — make for interesting markers in the development of the genre. They’re also two films with remarkably strong thematic resonance, subverting audience expectations to reveal the hypocrisies sewn deeply into the fabric of the Western. 


2018 / United States / 113 min. / Dir. by David and Nathan Zellner / Opened in select cities June 22 2018; locally on July 6, 2018

Damsel’s opening moments prepare the viewer for the film's bifurcated and deceptive structure. A preacher (underrated national treasure Robert Forster) waits for a stagecoach, waxing poetic to a man about the impossibility of self-actualization, before he strips himself of his religious garb and heads into the barren desert, asking God to take him away. His destitute final parishioner, a newly sober man who wants to go West to “start fresh,” dons the preacher’s clothing and carries his ragged Bible — half of the pages have been used for rolling papers — and becomes Parson Henry (David Zellner, who co-wrote and directed the film with his brother, Nathan). 

Characters in Damsel are constantly assuming roles dictated by American traditions of exceptionalism and masculinity, while also dangerously projecting those ideals onto others. The male protagonist of the film, Sam (Robert Pattinson), finds Henry back off the wagon, passed out after a bender. Sam hires him, ostensibly to perform the nuptials for him and his love, Penelope (Mia Wasikowska). Eventually, however, he manipulates Henry into the scheme he’s had all along: rescuing Penelope from a kidnapping. By the time that plan comes to fruition, the film violently shifts its focus to the survival of Penelope and Henry, revealing that its first half was built on a scaffolding of tropes and trickery. 

It’s a risky gambit that Damsel mostly pulls off. Pattinson’s bumbling, one-sighted charm becomes murderous delusion in the pivot scene, shifting the viewer's sympathy from him to Wasikowska’s character. The actress is one of the few performers working today who is capable of moving through hysterical grief, righteous anger, and even-keeled badass within moments. The whiplash that Penelope is subjected to is also inflicted on the audience, in that Damsel plays its oft-hilarious deadpan comedy while maintaining its existential threads. (The film’s mascot is an ownerless Shetland pony that the characters awkwardly string along through their travels). 

Some scenes, like the one in which Henry sits in awe of a Native American who dispels the white man’s racist and foolish stereotypes, belabor the film’s ideas beyond the breaking point. However, the accumulation of the men who attempt to white-knight Penelope to freedom begins to feel like a comic nightmare straight out of a Buñuel film by the film’s end. Damsel retains both the off-kilter tone and visual wit of the Zellner Brothers’ previous feature Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (2014), often resembling a Coen Brothers film as directed by Wes Anderson. For some, it will be a frustrating journey. For more adventurous viewers, it will be a pilgrimage worth making.

Rating: B-

The Great Silence

1968 / Italy, France / 105 min. / Dir. by Sergio Corbucci / Opened in Italy on Dec. 7, 1968

Before Quentin Tarantino borrowed the eponymous character’s name from Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966) for his Antebellum Western Django Unchained (2013), the Italian director’s work was largely unseen stateside, only celebrated by those with B-movie predilections. He’s been overshadowed by Sergio Leone, the man who made Clint Eastwood a movie star and has become a prominent figure of study in and outside of the Spaghetti Western genre he helped popularize. The Great Silence has been touring the States in a new 4K restoration, inviting critics and general audiences alike to reassess Corbucci as more than a Leone cohort.

The film’s striking visuals are nestled somewhere between the Cinemascope grandeur of Leone and the shaggy, blown-out beauty of McCabe & Mrs. Miller. The Great Silence also anticipates the latter film’s final wintry moments, taking place in a snowy Utah landscape. The whiteout conditions allow for the human drama of the film to be focused in the foreground as it deals out Western tropes: the moral, solitary “fastest gun in the West” and the immoral bounty hunters who oppose him. The use of a telephoto lens also permit the film to dig deeper into its complicated layers, as in a shot that begins on a closeup of a man and his lover hiding in a barn and slowly pulls back to reveal the forces that are searching for them. 

Graceful camera dollies also highlight emotional and power shifts between the characters, as in the showdown featuring the film’s two leads. Verbose and diabolical bounty hunter Tigrero (German New Wave star Klaus Kinski) develops a desire to play cat-and-mouse with Silence (French New Wave star Jean-Louis Trintignant), a figure who resembles the stoic Man with No Name of Leone’s Dollars trilogy. However, Silence’s past, like everything in The Great Silence, is shaded with greater consequence than it initially appears to be — as when, in flashback, the traumatic slaughter of his family is completed with Silence’s own throat being cut, muting him for life. 

By the film’s end, it’s revealed that the title could refer to both its protagonist and the conflation of America’s capitalistic economic structure with its violent, genocidal history. The feature takes great strides to upend the traditional Western plot to reveal a cynical core condemning the myth-making of the genre as a kind of historical erasure. The Great Silence is as much a reflection of the United States’ original sins as it is a product of its original 1968 release date. Fifty years later, it remains a poignant and pertinent exposé of American values. 

Rating: B+ (Now available to rent or purchase digitally via Amazon, and to own on Blu-ray and DVD from Film Movement Classics.)

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'Leave No Trace'.
July 3, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Home Is Where the Heart Is

2018 / USA / 109 min. / Dir. by Debra Granik / Opened in select cities on June 29, 2018; locally on July 6, 2018

Writer-director Debra Granik’s incisive and affecting new drama, Leave No Trace, begins within the hushed, verdant cathedral of Portland, Ore.’s Forest Park, one of the largest urban forest reserves in America. Among the towering, second-growth conifers and damp ferns, a family of two ekes out a low-impact existence, subsisting (to the greatest extent possible) on the fruits of their environment. Father Will (Ben Foster) shows his adolescent daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) how to feather a twig with a pocketknife – improving its utility as a fire starter – and how to slow-cook wild mushrooms in a crude solar stove made of aluminum foil. These are not weekend diversions for Will and Tom: They are living within the park illegally, as off-the-grid as a pair of people can be while still residing in the city limits of a major municipality. Such is Will’s resolve to remain undiscovered that he instructs Tom how to cover her footprints as they traverse the thickets, and stages mock hide-and-seek drills where they practice concealing themselves from others.

The reason that father and daughter have adopted this “voluntarily unhoused” lifestyle is never fully elaborated on. However, that ambiguity never scans as coyness on the part of Granik’s powerfully reserved screenplay, which was co-written with her frequent collaborator Anne Rosellini and adapted from a 2010 novel by Peter Rock. Will is a Marine veteran who is plainly afflicted with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and stray details late in the film indicate that his unit has suffered from an unusually high rate of suicide. Otherwise, Granik and Rosellini present Will’s mental health issues as amorphous. At the same time, however, Will's demons are depicted as utterly overwhelming. He has no desire to re-enter society, and has organized his existence around the twin pillars – manias, one might say – of isolation from others and protectiveness towards his daughter.

At the day-to-day level, however, Will can be ruthlessly pragmatic, and he is not above exploiting the outside world when necessary. When Tom complains of growing hunger, the pair make a foray into the city – a semi-regular occurrence, it is implied – so that Will can obtain prescription medications from the Veterans Administration. He then hocks these pills to other squatters in the park, and uses the cash to procure a modest load of non-perishable groceries. It’s a risky gambit, but the real threat to the family’s isolation is more banal, as it turns out. A trail jogger glimpses Tom one day and then alerts the park rangers, who in turn use dogs to chase her and her father down through the dense undergrowth. Will and Tom are captured and immediately separated, beginning a bureaucratic ordeal as they are hustled through the state’s family services agency.

The film’s opening 25 minutes or so are crucial for establishing Will and Tom’s devoted relationship and the rustic, faintly paranoid specifics of their daily activities. Leave No Trace is not truly the story of their life within the park, however, but the tale of what happens afterwards, as the pair undergo a series of fumbling, ultimately futile attempts to reintegrate into civilization. Tom, for her part, slowly warms to the outside world. Not its comforts, exactly – she is far too much her father’s daughter for that – but its sense of stability and community. She finds solace in the rural settings that they migrate through, taking fresh-eyed pleasure in the mundane details of a simple but connected life: a 4-H rabbit club for teenagers; ribbon-twirling praise dancers at a country church; an RV-park beekeeper who instructs Tom on how to safely handle the hives.

Will, however, finds that he is unable to change, or even to accept freely-offered charity and conviviality from others. His world is bifurcated into two groups: He and Tom on one side, and the untrustworthy remainder of the world on the other. (He speaks contemptuously of “their house, their clothes, their food, their work”; “their” being everyone who is not Will and Tom.) Granik’s feature is, at bottom, a tragedy. Will is simply too mentally scarred to resolve the conflict that gradually and inexorably arises between his compulsion to separate himself from society and his desire to ensure his daughter’s well-being. For years, his understanding of the latter revolved around physical safety and basic education, but once forcibly removed from the park, Tom develops an emotional need for community that Will is unable to satisfy.

The bond between father and daughter eventually begins to fray. Tom’s intense love and gratefulness is such that she never flings accusations of selfishness at her father, even as they sneak out of their umpteenth makeshift home to once again hit the road. She recognizes that his obsession with a nomadic, alienated existence, however unreasonable it might seem, is not rooted in ego, but in trauma. (Will quits a job at a Christmas tree farm because the sound of the helicopters lifting harvested trees is simply too much for his fevered mind to bear.) Eventually, even Tom's tolerance reaches its limit, her affection for her father notwithstanding: “The same thing that’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me.”

It’s been eight years since Granik made an Oscar-nominated splash (and a star out of Jennifer Lawrence) with her last narrative feature, Winter’s Bone. While Leave No Trace exists within a similar indie drama space – one focused on neglected people living on the hardscrabble margins of America – Granik’s new feature is a different animal than her 2010 film. Where Winter’s Bone used its backwoods Ozark setting in the service of a horror-tinged Hero’s Journey, Leave No Trace is a work of weary physical and psychological realism, comparable to those of fellow American auteur Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy, Certain Women).

Almost a decade away from narrative features hasn’t diminished Granik’s formidable talent behind the camera, her deep emotional sensitivity, or her genuine fascination with a slower, forgotten kind of American life. Indeed, Stray Dog, the director’s 2014 documentary of Vietnam veteran Ronnie Hall, is echoed in many of Leave No Trace’s elements, including Will’s PTSD and the cozy RV community where he and Tom find themselves later in the film. As she did with the Ozark folk musicians in Winter’s Bone, Granik exhibits an earnest regard for the unpretentious yet passionate pursuits of her rural characters. In a certain stripe of snotty Sundance dramedy, the viewer would be invited to snicker at the church praise dancers, for example; Granik uses the scene to convey Tom’s low-key wonder at all the idiosyncrasies of American culture that have been hidden from her.

This is essential to the fundamental tragedy at the heart of Leave No Trace, as the viewer shares in Tom’s growing affection for all the marvelous textures and friendship that the wider world offers. While the film is undeniably sympathetic to Will, it’s Tom who is ultimately the story’s point-of-view character. The director and young actress McKenzie – whose performance is commendably raw yet somehow understated throughout – splendidly convey the swelling glut of anxiety, anger, and sorrow that threatens to overwhelm Tom’s previously unconditional willingness to follow her father off a cliff. One can feel the inevitable anguish of the film’s conclusion approaching from far off; a distant, rumbling thunder that signals Will and Tom’s dilemma cannot be resolved without terrible pain. Nonetheless, when the moment finally arrives, it is utterly heartfelt and devastating, a perfect punctuation mark that feels at once authentic and narratively satisfying.

Leave No Trace is an unhurried and naturalistic film, an attitude that is wholly expected given the material, but nonetheless executed with discernment and elegance. Granik and cinematographer Michael McDonough rely on hand-held camera work and a cool palette of grays, blues, and greens that fits snugly with the story’s coastal Pacific Northwest setting. The production design by Chad Keith is wonderfully lived-in and authentic, making particularly excellent use of existing locations like a weather-beaten rabbit farm or a crazy-quilt RV park to conjure the sense of warmth that Tom craves. Erin Aldridge Orr’s costumes are also essential, conveying a rumpled, chilly Oregonian vibe without straying into the fussed-over polish of a Land’s End catalog.

Ultimately, however, this is a film that is powered less by striking formal choices than by its performances and screenplay, and on that score it’s a deeply moving work. Foster is all walled-up anguish in a role that could have come off as faintly menacing, were it not for the pitiable desperation that he imparts to Will’s every questionable choice. The rapport that Foster has with McKenzie is critical, given that the relationship between their characters is so central to the story. The pair of them are remarkably convincing as tight-knit father and daughter, often communicating by glances and gestures rather than words. When they finally spill out, the words tend to be blunt and lingering. “Did you even try?” an exhausted Tom asks her father after an abrupt return to transience, “Because I can’t even tell.”

Leave No Trace is essentially devoid of sinister characters, a refreshing change of pace for a story about people dwelling on the fringes of society. There are no opportunistic predators who reaffirm Will’s distrust and fanatical self-reliance; the people that he and Tom meet are, by-and-large, fair-minded and compassionate folk. Distinctive and capable character actors appear in key supporting roles, including Jeff Kober (Sully) as the tree farm owner and Dale Dickey (Hell or High Water) as the RV park manager, but the film rests overwhelmingly on Foster and McKenzie’s shoulders. Granik has reimagined a familar tale of parent-child separation – in terms of divergent needs, rather than physical distance or emotional disconnection – within a fraught, survival-driven framework. This renders Leave No Trace acutely resonant, while also unobtrusively touching on broader issues that are typically underserved by most mainstream cinema: veterans, mental health, homelessness, state bureaucracy, and public land policy. Above all, Leave No Trace signals a welcome return to narrative filmmaking for Granik, vividly illustrating that her humane voice is a sorely needed balm in these cruel times.

Rating: B+

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Night of the Virgin'.
June 28, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Recent Video-on-Demand Offerings in Horror and Horror-Related Cinema

The cream of contemporary feature-length cinema isn’t always found in theaters. These days, smaller and more niche films often implement a same-day launch, simultaneously premiering in a select-city theatrical run and on video-on-demand (VOD) services. Moreover, streaming services are now offering original films of their own. Given the dire and disposable state of the horror genre at the multiplex, these release strategies are particularly suited to reaching a wider, more appreciative audience for cinematic chills. For horror fans in a mid- to small-sized movie market such as St. Louis, online streaming and digital rental/purchase are increasingly vital means of accessing noteworthy features. What follows is a brief assessment of the major new horror (and horror-adjacent) films that have premiered on VOD within the past month.

Night of the Virgin

2016 / Spain / 116 min. / Dir. by Roberto San Sebastián / Premiered online on June 12, 2018

Whatever its flaws, Roberto San Sebastián’s occult fever-dream Night of the Virgin has a rather distinctive and strange aesthetic. The rotting Gothicism of Spanish-language horror cinema and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s apocalyptic flourishes are muddled with the gross-out excess of Peter Jackson’s early splatterfests (Bad Taste; Braindead). Unlike those latter films, however, Virgin isn’t particularly funny. Its laughs are too invested in the sweaty horniness of callow, buck-toothed protagonist Nico (Javier Bódalo, playing things Bollywood-comedy-broad), who follows middle-aged temptress Medea (Miriam Martín) back to her apartment on New Year’s Eve. What follows is a grueling ordeal of Tantric rituals, Tibetan demonology, and seemingly limitless quantities of blood, vomit, feces, and other substances. Sebastián gets impressive, squirm-inducing mileage out of a claustrophobic set, a miniscule budget, and some jaw-dropping gore effects, but Night of the Virgin is overly reliant on charm-free vulgarity and protracted histrionics. Still, although it runs about 20 minutes too long, the film is sufficiently novel and demented to potentially endure as a cult curio. Rating: C+ [Now available to rent or purchase on Amazon, Google Play, and other platforms.]

Tags: VOD Roundups Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Westworld', "The Passenger".
June 26, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

If We Die Once More, at Least Our Story Was Our Own

Season 2 / Episode 10 / Written by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy / Dir. by Frederick E.O. Toye / Originally aired June 24, 2018

[Note: This post contains spoilers.]

For the final episode of Westworld’s second season, showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy – who are also credited as this chapter’s scripters – have delivered quite a barnburner. Admittedly, “The Passenger” exhibits many of the series’ more obstinate flaws, including some unforgivably cheesy lines of dialogue and a tendency to subtly disregard the rules of its science-fiction setting whenever it’s expedient. Nonetheless, the finale makes for a dense, invigorating 90 minutes of television. Even if it never attains the artistic or emotional potency of highlights like “The Riddle of the Sphinx” or “Kiksuya,” it’s still one of the season’s stronger outings, if only because so much plot is crammed into that 90 minutes, and so many of the episode’s twists are genuinely unexpected.

Ultimately, the most striking surprises in “The Passenger” feel more narratively justified than the centerpiece rug-pull of Season 1, in which William (Jimmi Simpson) and the Man in Black (Ed Harris) are revealed as the same person, separated by 30 years of scrambled timeline. In compasion, the fact that Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) fragmented his own memories to protect the hosts makes perfect sense and satisfactorily explains the muddled chronology between the “past” and “present” in this season’s narrative. Moreover, the knowledge that “present Charlotte” (Tessa Thompson) has been a host containing Delores’ brain the whole time throws a lot of interactions from recent episodes into a new, intriguing light. (It also clarifies a weird aside between Bernard and Charlotte, which occurred out of earshot of both Karl Strand’s team and the viewer.) While last season’s “William is the MiB!” reveal was a shocking yet ultimately pointless parlor trick that piggybacked on Delores’ jumbled memories, the bifurcated timeline of this season directly reflects the lengths to which Bernard goes to safeguard the host data from Delos.

Some of the reveals in “The Passenger” aren’t so much surprises as they are explicit confirmations of suspicions long held by many viewers. Delos’ secret project housed in the Valley Beyond (at a facility called “the Forge”) is indeed an archive of Westworld’s guests, their digital profiles constructed from a combination of genetic material and surreptitiously recorded park experiences. What’s unexpected is how simplistic those profiles turn out to be. As the Forge’s artificial intelligence – in the guise of Logan (Ben Barnes) – explains to Bernard and Delores (Evan Rachel Wood), the decades spent building and testing millions of human minds in virtual reality illustrated that humans are deceptively crude. Within the Forge, Bernard and Delores are ushered into a digital library, where each guest is conceptualized as a slim book containing some 15,000 lines of code. (That code is, in turn, represented by dots and dashes that are reminiscent of the holes on a player piano’s music scroll.) The Delos corporation's early efforts to produce a perfect copy of James Delos (Peter Mullan) illustrated a humbling truth: Human beings aren’t that complicated. Resurrected millions of times and run through the Forge’s trials, James' virtual mind always made the same decision on a particular fateful day, when the real James turned his drug-addict son away, condemning the younger man to a fatal overdose. Ultimately, the system concluded that people are not merely unlikely to change; they are unable to change, eternally enslaved to their genes and formative drives.

This makes for a nice speech – one that dovetails with Robert Ford’s (Anthony Hopkins) misanthropic assertion in Season 1 that consciousness is not as extraordinary as humanity believes it to be – and it gives Delores some additional ammunition for her smug certainty that humans are inferior to hosts. However, there’s no real evidence to suggest that the androids are dissimilar from people in this respect. Without the kind of intensive simulations conducted in the Forge, who’s to say that hosts are any more capable of change? Some androids have evolved in the sense that they’ve attained consciousness or changed their minds about crucial matters – both Bernard and Delores make some momentous about-faces in this episode alone – but absent the identification of a cognitive singularity like Delos’ spurning of his son, there’s no way to say with certainty if hosts are freer than humans.

Certainly, many events in “The Passenger” illustrate both the android and human capacity for nominal, individual change. Lee (Simon Quarterman) somewhat questionably chooses to commit suicide by Delos security, to buy Maeve (Thandie Newton) and her allies time to reach the Valley Beyond. Maeve decides to sacrifice her happiness and perhaps her life so that her daughter can live on without her in the Forge’s hermetically sealed, virtual Eden. After slaying Delores, Bernard comes to regret this act of betrayal, and – inspired by his memories of Robert Ford – sets about rebuilding her (in a fashion) as penance. And Delores has a post-resurrection change of heart regarding all the hosts that have been digitally transferred into the Forge, prompting her to beam them and their virtual Paradise via satellite to a secure, undisclosed location. Both people and robots can seemingly change; although it may be that those changes, like James' cruel rejection of Logan, were always inevitable.

Notions of choice, change, and evolution have been prominent this season, but the show’s engagement with those themes has often felt out-of-step with the reality depicted onscreen. Nolan and Joy are, overall, remarkably smart writers, but they have a habit of muddling two nominally discrete notions of choice. On the one hand is the individual’s capacity to change, to alter their outlook or the way that they engage with the world. This is exemplified in William, who spends the better part of Season 2 trying to reconcile his villainous Westworld self with the upstanding, successful family man he is in the real world. Ultimately, William is damned by his vanity and paranoia, but that isn’t to say that people in general cannot change: It’s difficult to alter one’s most deeply ingrained habits or inclinations, but it’s not impossible. (Addiction recovery and criminal rehabilitation, for example, are predicated on the notion that substantive personal growth is achievable.)

Distinct from this is the broader philosophical concept of free will, another topic with which Nolan and Joy frequently flirt. While individual change is self-evident – people are obviously evolving all the time in the psychological sense, albeit usually in incremental ways over long periods of time – the actual existence of free will is more contentious. Westworld has always leaned into a kind of hard determinism, in which the illusion of choice logically follows from the cause-and-effect nature of the universe. No one can really “make” a choice if everything, up to and including every single chemical reaction in a human or android brain, results from some immediately preceding causal event.

Although Westworld has a habit of making grandiose pronouncements about the significance of choice – right up to the end of “The Passenger,” with Delores electing to resurrect Bernard and usher him into a sort of “cabinet of rivals” for the android uprising – the show simultaneously implies that choice is a delusion. Bernard himself gropes toward that conclusion in this episode, when he wonders aloud to an imagined Ford whether anyone, human or host, is truly free if they’re just following narrow, deterministic programming. The writers are at least shrewd enough to leave this question hanging, rather than glibly batting it away with one of Ford’s self-satisfied ripostes. They acknowledge that science-fiction shows like Westworld tend to illuminate and heighten enduring philosophical conundrums, rather than originate new queries.

Some miscellaneous observations:

  • In the show’s flashback opening, Delores is running Bernard through a series of cognitive trials – more than 11,000 of them, to be precise – as a part of her and Ford’s effort to resurrect Arnold in android form. Delores observes that small deviations in Bernard’s behavior reveal him to be an imperfect copy of Ford’s deceased partner, but that perhaps this is not such a bad thing, as the “real Arnold” eventually gave in to suicidal despair. She refers to these aberrations as “mistakes,” a callback to Ford’s observation that biological evolution requires mistakes (i.e., genetic mutations) to function. This evolutionary theme is further reflected in Delores’ decision to bring Bernard back to life and fold him into her anti-human crusade as a kind of ethical nemesis, in the belief that the struggle between their viewpoints will strengthen the hosts and prepare them to survive in a hostile human world.

  • Bernard names the episode when he describes human consciousness as an impotent “passenger” riding on a fixed track of code. Before his recent turn into right-wing apologism, neuroscientist and atheist activist Sam Harris penned a slim, eloquent explanation of hard determinism, Free Will (2012), that described the illusion of choice much more poetically: “You are not controlling the storm and you are not lost in it. You are the storm.”

  • The virtual archive of guest data within the Forge calls to mind the “library-universe” featured in Argentine author Jorge Louis Borges’ 1941 short story “The Library of Babel.” In that surreal and mathematically intricate tale, a narrator describes a seemingly infinite (but in fact finite) structure filled with books, each book containing 410 pages, each page inscribed with 40 lines, each line consisting of about 80 random characters. Such is the size of the library that all knowledge must be contained in it somewhere, purely by chance, although the absence of a recognizable classification/ordering system means that searches for specific information are essentially futile. There is, intriguingly, a biological dimension to this allusion: American philosopher Daniel C. Dennett’s 1995 book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea used the Library of Babel as a model to explain the principle of protein-sequence space, noting that natural selection acted as the ordering system that is absent in Borges’ story.

  • The gateway to the virtual Eden is an illusion created solely for the hosts, and human technicians Felix (Leonardo Nam) and Sylvester (Ptolemy Slocum) therefore cannot see it, prompting a reaction that echoes Bernard’s telltale query from Season 1: “What door?”

  • Other than the deceased James Delos, the only book in the library that Delores is specifically shown reading is Karl Strand’s (Gustaf Skarsgård). She later kills Strand while inhabiting “host-Charlotte,” so perhaps replacing him with a 3D-printed host in the outside world is part of her scheme to further infiltrate the Delos corporation from within. Which raises the question: If Delores eventually transferred herself from host-Charlotte to a fresh version of her old body, whose consciousness is now housed in host-Charlotte?

  • In the episode’s post-credits scene, William – last seen hobbling into the Forge’s elevator and loading his revolver – emerges into a facility that has long been ruined and abandoned, much to his confusion. Emily (Katja Herbers) then appears, and explains that she will be testing William for “fidelity,” in a chamber not unlike that once occupied by James' android clones. (Appropriately, where the hourglass in James’ room was filled with white sand, William’s contains black grains.) Significantly, there is no letterboxing in this scene, supporting “Emily’s” claim that they are not inside a digital simulation. Despite all that occurs in “The Passenger,” this epilogue has understandably garnered the lion’s share of speculation from viewers. Fortunately, Redditors have another 18 months or so to sort out what the hell is going on.
Tags: TV Recaps Andrew Wyatt

Still from 'Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom'.
June 22, 2018
By Joshua Ray

Some Things Should Stay Extinct

2018 / USA / 128 min. / Dir. by J.A. Bayona / Opens in wide release on June 22, 2018

[Note: This review contains spoilers.]

As genetically engineered as its new super-dino, the Indoraptor, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is designed to trigger specific responses from and ingratiate itself with an increasingly jaded audience. This scheme becomes increasingly obvious by the third triumphant T-Rex roar in this film — a series trademark that has now been drained of its original bone-chilling effect. This fifth Jurassic film goes so far afield from the smart and sophisticated origin directed by Steven Spielberg, 1993’s Jurassic Park, that both the dinosaur and human characters have become comic-book superheroes and villains battling for world domination. The prehistoric animals no longer inspire awe they once did, no matter how desperately the filmmakers attempt to squeeze it out of their audience. 

The titular dinosaur theme park is now closed and destitute, and its home of Isla Nublar outside of Costa Rica is gradually being subsumed by the active volcano at its center. Former Jurassic World operations manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas-Howard) now leads a political lobbyist group whose mission is to save the dinosaurs from extinction. Her new care for the creatures could probably be explained by the trauma she endured during the disastrous final days of the park, as depicted in Jurassic World (2014), but moment after moment, Fallen Kingdom ignores logic and takes drastic leaps to put its characters into stupefyingly ludicrous positions. 

Dearing is approached by the (retconned) former partner of Jurassic Park creator John Hammond, Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), and his smarmy business representative, Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), to save the dinosaurs from their demise. She recruits her former boyfriend, the dino trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), and her dino-rights cohorts, paleo-veterinarian Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda) and former Jurassic World IT technician Franklin Webb (Justice Smith), to return to the island with her. Unfortunately, the mercenary team they meet there is headed by sociopath Ken Wheatley (Ted Levine), who reveals their true mission of smuggling the dinosaurs out for sale rather than safety — after shooting the hyper-intelligent velociraptor, Blue.

The bewilderingly popular Pratt returns with his good looks and empty eyes. Grady’s reunion with his former girlfriend reveals the performer’s ability to use his natural charm beyond delivering a good wisecrack, which he has plenty of here. Otherwise, he’s a leading man stand-in and a muscley cypher, obliged to save the day in a series of improbably survivable perils. Dallas-Howard, whose character absurdly wore high heels while sprinting from dinosaurs in the previous film, is serviceable. (Her knowing introduction in Fallen Kingdom is a closeup of her heels that pans up to her smile.) In one scene, the pair is trapped in a cage and attempting to draw blood from a sleeping Tyrannosaurus rex. It should be screwball-comedy fodder that highlights the performers’ potential chemistry. Unfortunately, it climaxes with Pratt laughably jumping to safety through the T. rex’s open jaw after the animal wakes, ferocious and irritable.

Beyond its two stars, Fallen Kingdom is also inexplicably packed with game, masterful actors giving it their all: Cromwell as the sickly and dying Lockwood; Geraldine Chaplin as caretaker to him and his granddaughter; Toby Jones as a ruthless auctioneer; and a perpetually insidious Levine (as always). 

The film is, admittedly, buoyed by its own audacious stupidity. The protagonists’ escape from Isla Nublar is one of the most gobsmackingly over-the-top, CGI-fueled set pieces in recent Hollywood filmmaking. Not only are the characters trapped in three disparate places throughout the park, but Grady has to outrun molten lava while partially paralyzed by a dinosaur sedation dart. He eventually catches up to Claire and Franklin as they try to outrun hundreds of dinosaurs also attempting to escape the volcanic spew. The former two find themselves locked in one of the previous film’s spherical park vehicles-cum-escape pods, which rolls off a cliff and plummets into the ocean. 

A single take inside the pod as Claire and Franklin nearly drown while myriad dying dinosaurs crash into the water surrounding them reveals that director J.A. Bayona is more than capable of orchestrating pulpy action-movie fun. The Spielberg acolyte has already worked in the Hollywood master’s vein with The Impossible (2012), a disaster film about a family caught in the middle of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and A Monster Calls (2016), an E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (1982) facsimile. Although never dull and always propulsive, his filmmaking here is enslaved to a think-tank product, limiting his ability to work within the film’s ridiculous proceedings. 

Bayona does, however, indulge in moments that recall his sublime 2007 haunted-house story, The Orphanage, when the Indoraptor stalks Lockwood’s granddaughter, Maisie (Isabella Sermon) through the family’s creepy, sprawling estate. The suspense in this scene culminates in a shot of the predator's meters-long talons slowly creeping over the frightened girl hiding under her bedsheets — an image that is symptomatic of the entire enterprise. The film does illogical backflips to achieve moments culled from a dump of ideas in order to keep a creatively failing franchise alive. Its most cringe-worthy play toward survival is milking Maisie’s mysterious lineage for all it’s worth, eventually revealing that she’s a clone of Lockwood’s daughter. The character exists only to set the dinosaurs free to roam the world: “They’re just like me,” she says. It’s a numbingly stupid device, rivaled only by a moment when the fake-sleeping Indoraptor all but winks at the audience while Wheatley attempts to extract one of its teeth for his collection. 

The film series that began as an indictment of the folly of man and technology now ascribes humanity to the beasts and removes it from the humans. There will be more, however, as Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum in a waste of a cameo) lets the audience know in the film’s last beat: “We are now living in a Jurassic World.”

Rating: D+

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

Still from 'Westworld', "Vanishing Point".
June 21, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Tell Me One True Thing

Season 2 / Episode 9 / Written by Roberto Patino / Dir. by Stephen Williams

[Note: This post contains spoilers.]

If there’s one Westworld character arc that’s never added up convincingly, it’s that of William, aka the Man in Black (Ed Harris). That’s not a dig at Harris’ performance, by any means. The actor has been one of series’ tonal linchpins: He’s an old hand at the mixture of stony menace and amused cynicism that the show’s thematically rich but conceptually ludicrous science-fiction premise requires. Unfortunately, his character has been somewhat underserved by the series’ writers, who last season failed to persuasively convey William’s Westworld-mediated descent into darkness as a young man (Jimmi Simpson). His metamorphosis from a wannabe white knight into the park’s black-hatted dragon (and, eventually, its majority owner) seemed more like an abrupt, illogical about-face than a living, breathing human’s formative episode of self-discovery. When Logan (Ben Barnes) awoke in “The Well-Tempered Clavier” to find that William had slaughtered an entire camp of Confederados, it’s as if the latter man had simply been replaced by a bloodthirsty imposter.

This defect in characterization has come back to haunt the series on occasion, but never more conspicuously than in “Vanishing Point,” a William-centered episode that fills in details about the suicide of his wife, Juliet (Sela Ward). It’s not simply that the plot of this chapter awkwardly contradicts what has already been established about Juliet’s death in the first-season episode “Trace Decay.” What’s most frustrating is that her self-inflicted demise is presented as a despairing, impulsive reaction, triggered when Juliet learns about the villainy William is up to during his annual vacation to Westworld. Said knowledge arrives courtesy of a digital card initially proffered to William by Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins). (That object’s physical journey through the episode’s flashback sequences, while as predictable as Chekhov’s gun, has an admittedly queasy, dread-inducing quality.)

In theory, it’s not illogical that a spouse – especially one who is also an addict facing institutionalization – might react in such a dire, self-destructive way on learning that her partner has a secret life as a remorseless killer, even if his only victims are androids. Still, it’s not as if Juliet didn’t strongly suspect her husband has an irredeemably ugly side. Indeed, her singular ability to see through William’s respectable veneer to the monster underneath is one of few character attributes that the writers have deigned to give Juliet. It may be that digital proof of that monster is simply the final nudge that pushes her over the edge. However, the problem with positioning her death as the centerpiece of “Vanishing Point” is that the viewer is never afforded a substantive look at married life with William, the alleged living hell that compelled Juliet to drink her problems away. (Ward, unfortunately, doesn’t do much with the role other than slur, stumble, and shout.) The suicide itself is held up as evidence of William’s awfulness, a kind of confirmation that his Westworld wickedness is just an extension of his real-world depravity.

This is one of Westworld’s core theses: How an individual behaves within the park’s unreality is an indication of who they really are. However, showrunners Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan have generally been content to simply assert this as axiomatic without providing much in the way of proof. In the first season, the show functioned as a self-contained reality, much like Westworld itself, permitting no peeks at the outside world. During the current season, the series has ventured beyond the park on several occasions, but it’s almost always been to flesh out the history of Westworld’s early development. The writers have hinted at William’s corporate-minded ruthlessness, as well as his effort to counterbalance his image with stage-managed philanthropy, but most of what the viewer knows about his personality stems from his in-park actions, where he’s (almost) always depicted as a murderous son-of-a-bitch. Westworld wants the viewer to regard this as a red flag, an indication of William’s vile character, but it never draws a connecting line through the park’s boundary, so to speak.

Instead, the show offers up lots of vague, ponderous references to a disturbing darkness or stain within William, without ever adequately explaining what that means in practice. It’s strongly suggested that it means something beyond the fact that he enjoys terrorizing, assaulting, and murdering human-looking robots for recreation. The ultimate effect of this sort of wobbly writing is that it diminishes a tragedy like Juliet’s suicide to an empty plot device and makes Williams seem like more of a shallow proof-of-concept for the show’s worldview than a believable person.

“Vanishing Point” still offers plenty of interest, plot-wise, particularly a scene where Charlotte (Tessa Thompson) turns Clementine (Angela Sarafyan) into a kind Typhoid Mary who can wirelessly infect nearby androids with self-destructive commands via the mesh network. And, truth be told, there are some deeply poignant character beats in this episode as well. Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) electing to abandon Elsie (Shannon Woodward) in the middle of nowhere to prevent himself from physically harming her again is quietly heartbreaking, all the more so given that his former co-worker will probably never truly understand his actions. Ford appearing like a digital phantom to Maeve (Thandie Newton) and confessing his profound, paternal affection for her is an unexpectedly moving moment. There’s something fitting about the notion that the cunning, world-weary madam is and always has been Ford’s secret favorite, much as sweet-and-savage Delores was Arnold’s most beloved creation.

The episode’s clearest moment of unvarnished horror occurs when William, unable to shake his buzzing suspicion that Ford is still toying with him, guns down a very human Delos security team – as well as his own daughter, Emily, alias “Grace” (Katja Herbers). Despite the problems with William’s arc, Emily’s sudden death is a genuinely devastating moment, and it’s a credit to Harris’ performance that William’s realization of what he’s done feels so authentically shattering. For all his self-satisfied wickedness within the “game,” William has never unleashed his violent proclivities on other humans (as far as the viewer knows). There’s something agonizingly tragic about the fact that he first does so by mistake, murdering his only surviving family member in the process. He’s crossed a moral Rubicon now, and it looks very bleak for him on the other side.

Emily’s death and William’s resulting suicidal despair point to one of Westworld’s themes that’s been neglected recently: the idea that constant immersion in a simulated reality could potentially lead to confusion about what is and is not real. In earlier episodes, William’s certainty that Ford has been mocking and misdirecting him through the hosts seemed like oblivious arrogance, befitting a billionaire who imagines that everything revolves around him. Here that vanity finally tips over into paranoid delusion, as William is unable to distinguish his own flesh-and-blood daughter from a scheming host. Westworld got some mileage out of William’s narcissism in the first season – “The Maze isn’t meant for you” – but it hasn’t touched on it much this year. Unfortunately, the park’s descent into chaos means that there’s no longer much space in the story for rumination on the psychological perils of virtual worlds.

Some miscellaneous observations:

  • Another, more amusing reading of William’s self-centered delusions is as a commentary on Westworld’s notoriously fervent fan base, which every week outlines baroque theories on Reddit based on stray bits of dialogue and production-design details. It’s all too easy for self-flattering, obsessive viewers to believe that the writers are speaking to them in a kind of code, much as William is convinced that Ford is tweaking him via androids that speak in riddles and hinder his progress towards the Valley Beyond.

  • During Juliet’s perusal of William’s profile, the interface indicates that he is a very rare “Type 47B,” a “persecutory subtype” and “paranoid subtype” characterized by “delusions.” Sounds about right, based on the evidence in this episode alone.

  • William hides his profile card inside a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s satirical science-fiction novel Slaughterhouse-Five. Not incidentally, Juliet derisively calls her husband “Billy” and interrogates him about his “pilgrimages” to Westworld. Given William’s increasing paranoia and dissociation, one is put in mind of the novel’s iconic line: “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”

  • Ordered by Delores (Evan Rachel Wood) to hunt down any Ghost Nation stragglers after a skirmish with that tribe, Teddy (James Mardsen) finds that he is unable to shoot the fleeing Wanahton (Martin Sensmeier). It’s previously been established that some “awakened” hosts can retain memories after being reformatted, so it’s not a stretch for them to also cling to deeply ingrained aspects of their personalities. Hence Teddy’s lingering Good Guy tendencies even after Delores reprogrammed him to be a remorseless killer. The knowledge that he’s committed atrocities that run counter to his original purpose triggers an overdue moral and existential crisis for the poor cowpoke, culminating in suicide. RIP, Teddy. (And kudos to Wood, who gets a rare moment this season to really shine as an actor when she’s obliged to portray Delores’ sudden, unfathomable shock and grief.) 
Tags: TV Recaps Andrew Wyatt