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Posts Tagged ‘Kodi Smit-McPhee’

As I may have alluded to before, I spent three months last Autumn living with family, a situation which none of us had ever really anticipated happening pre-pandemic. As a result, even more than usual I had a constant eye out for interesting films which would, not to put too fine a point on it, get me out of the house and give them a break from me. One of the movies which popped up on the radar was Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, which enjoyed a very brief run at the local art house at the end of November. I pencilled it in. Then various people in the house tested positive for Covid, which put the mockers on any social movie-going for well over a week.

So we’ve only just got around to watching it (on TV, need it be said), which poses an interesting question. The Power of the Dog seems to have a lock on every single Best Film award going, with Campion enjoying a similar status with respect to Best Director prizes (I would have said something similar about Benedict Cumberbatch and the Best Actor gongs until he got beaten by Will Smith at the BAFTAs); it is the critical darling of the season. Do I therefore find myself more inclined to say nice things about it, than would have been the case three months ago? Have I spared myself the embarrassment of basically saying ‘Mmm, well, it’s okay,’ about what later proved to be a towering instant classic?

It’s a moot point. What is certain is that this is an adaptation of a relatively obscure novel by Thomas Savage, set in the wide open spaces of Montana in the 1920s. Cumberbatch plays Phil Burbank, one of a pair of brothers who own a successful cattle ranch – it is fair to say Phil knows his own mind and is not too concerned about social niceties like politeness or personal hygiene. He routinely addresses his mild-mannered brother George (Jesse Plemons) as ‘fatso’ and there is never any doubt over who is really in charge, certainly when it comes to ordering the hired hands about.

Then, in the course of one of their regular cattle drives, the brothers meet a widowed inn proprietress named Rose (Kirsten Dunst), and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). George takes rather a shine to Rose, much to Phil’s disdain – Phil himself is scathing about Peter, declaring him to be weak and effeminate. You may therefore be able to imagine Phil’s response when George elects to marry Rose and bring her back to the ranch, with the prospect of Peter staying with them for long periods of time, although the extent of the campaign of psychological warfare Phil embarks upon may still come as a surprise. But is there something deeper behind Phil’s vicious resentment of Rose and her son?

It would be remiss of me not to point out that the critical acclaim The Power of the Dog has received has not quite been entirely universal – ‘hate is not too strong a word’ for one friend’s response to it, while the actor Sam Elliott’s complaints that the film misrepresents the American west, being altogether too gay, and had no business being filmed in New Zealand, have been met with bemusement and some mockery (this apparent insistence on Dogme-like authenticity is a little surprising coming from someone who appeared in Hulk, Ghost Rider, and The Man Who Killed Hitler And Then The Bigfoot).

Then again, this is ostensibly a western, and that’s one of the genres that certain kinds of traditionalist can be a bit over-protective of, on the grounds that it epitomises all the key values of both America and genuine masculinity. Well, that’s a point of view, but there would be a lot to unpack there and I think the key question is whether The Power of the Dog really qualifies as a western at all. Geographically it’s on point, of course, although the mid-1920s setting is a shade after the ’classic’ period (although not by much – The Wild Bunch is set in the 1910s, after all).  But really it comes down to the essence of the genre, which for me is about issues of morality and self-realisation; how people choose to behave in a context where the laws of civilised society are still nascent and open to debate. If The Power of the Dog touches on this, it’s only very obliquely; this is a very modern film in its focus on issues of identity and its psychological depth – although I would agree there’s a lot of self-realisation, or lack of it, in the back-stories of the major characters here. It may be a western, but it’s also a brooding psycho-drama and a character piece, particularly with regard to Phil Burbank.

I mentioned a while back about how we are currently enjoying a period of Peak Cumberbatch; I’ve no idea how well the Louis Wain film actually did money-wise, but the last Marvel movie he appeared in was practically the definition of a smash hit and (BAFTA excepted) he looks set to fill up his bathroom with prizes for this one (I don’t think it’s too controversial to suggest that Netflix fund films like The Power of the Dog to get credibility rather than make money). And deservedly so: he succeeds in making Phil a colossally nasty piece of work without going over the top or suggesting he is irredeemably bad. The film gains much of its effect from the suggestion in the second half that he may not be, although this is a film with an essential element of ambiguity to it. Characters’ motives remain unclear – when Phil suddenly begins to act much more amiably towards Peter, is it out of a genuine desire to make a connection, or is it just part of his latest plan to make Rose’s life even more miserable? Questions like these are where the power of the film emanates from.

It’s a terrific performance from Cumberbatch and one which makes up the core of the film – though he is very capably supported by the rest of the cast, most of whom are also up for awards recognition, and deservedly so. (Jesse Plemons in particular deserves credit for taking a stolid sort of character who apparently says and does very little and turning him into a three-dimensional human being.)

Then again, and I don’t think I’m being wise after the fact, the whole film is of the kind which radiates class and quality – New Zealand stands in for Montana to breath-taking effect, and there’s a nicely understated score from Jonny Greenwood too. All the elements are marshalled with great precision and skill by Campion, who nevertheless never gets caught either writing or directing the film with ostentation. And while I’ve spent a lot of time talking about The Power of the Dog’s awards chances, it’s the actual quality of the film which counts. I can see how it might not be to everyone’s taste – too slow, or too oblique, to say nothing of the subject matter – but this is still a film of substance.

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You have to admire Viggo Mortensen – not necessarily in the mouth-open, eyes-wide, posters-on-the-wall way that my mother used to demonstrate so well for a few years in the first half of the 2000s, but certainly for the guy’s integrity as an artist and a human being. I mean, there he was, suddenly – and perhaps a little improbably – elevated from jobbing actor to massive international and star and, for ladies of a certain age, heartthrob, with Hollywood beating a path to his door, and what did he decide to do? Well, he made one slightly dodgy mainstream adventure movie, 2004’s Hidalgo, but since then he has concentrated on challenging, critically-acclaimed movies that have nevertheless not exactly filled up the multiplexes on a Saturday night.

He hasn’t proven completely averse to genre movies, however, although most of the thrillers and so on he’s done have been a little bit skewed one way or another. Also John Hillcoat’s 2009 film The Road, which is not quite the film it initially appears to be. This is not a remake of the lost Nigel Kneale TV drama of that title, nor indeed a movie of Jim Cartwright’s celebrated play with a definite article added, but an adaptation of the award-winning novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy.

Something terrible has happened, and civilisation as we know it has collapsed. Most of the world’s animals have died, and the plants are gradually dying. Soon everything will be dead. Making their way through the ruins of the USA are a man (Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee). They are heading for the coast, but their ultimate destination remains obscure. The boy’s mother (Charlize Theron) gave birth to him shortly after the disaster, but committed suicide when he was much younger, seeing the man’s determination to stay alive for as long as possible as foolish and futile. Yet he persists in his desperate attempts to keep the pair of them alive and raise his son well, drumming into him that they have to be good guys and ‘carriers of the fire’.

Staying positive at all is a heroic undertaking in the hellish wasteland which the duo find themselves. Food is almost impossible to procure, and bands of cannibalistic survivors are a constant menace. The duo often find themselves on the verge of starving to death. What, quite frankly, is the point of any of it?

So, as you may have surmised, not a lot of laughs in this one. It seems to me very telling that exactly what has befallen the planet is never really made clear – was it a nuclear war? An asteroid strike? Something more esoteric? – for the movie is not really concerned with the details of what has happened. The apocalypse is a necessary backdrop for the story’s concerns, which are those of paternal love and the degree to which the desire to be a good person can turn you into something quite different.

I’m not averse to something post-apocalyptic but The Road makes most films and TV shows in this kind of setting look incredibly frivolous. This is a setting in which not having enough bullets to kill everyone in your family, when the moment finally comes, is a serious problem and source of domestic strife. People just seem to be clinging on hopelessly for as long as they possibly can – and by any means necessary. The film depicts people hunting each other across country, and larders filled with human bodies. Any sense of common humanity seems to have dissipated, replaced by self-interest or the law of the pack or tribe. In short, this movie gives Grave of the Fireflies a run for its money in the bleak and depressing stakes.

As you may have figured out, it takes a fairly serious movie to be quite so downbeat, and for all that it contains moments that any horror movie would be proud of, The Road generally eschews the action-adventure stylings of films in this kind of genre for a more sober, introspective tone. This is matched by the muted, grey-brown tones of most of the movie, and the understated music provided by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. When the film jumps back to a flashback from before the catastrophe, the screen bursts into life and colour and it’s like a sudden vision of heaven – which was surely the intention of the director.

Mortensen, as you might have expected, carries the movie with another intensely committed performance, but he is well supported by Kodi Smit-McPhee (he was also notably good in the Nu-Hammer horror Let Me In, but these days seems to have become marooned in the X-Men franchise). Robert Duvall briefly appears, as does Guy Pearce (this is probably another of those movies that everyone has forgotten Pearce has been in – of course I know Pearce is a movie star, but I’ll be blowed if I can think of more than a couple of the actual films he’s made).

In the end, however, this is a very personal story, one about the precise nature of the catastrophe which the characters have suffered – the loss of security, the loss of hope, the loss of their names, even. The man has become so obsessed with doing the right thing by his son, and teaching him to be a good person, that he has it transform him into someone who has lost track of essential human decency. ‘We’re not going to eat anyone, are we?’ asks the boy, worried, but the man is quite prepared to steal from others and kill in order to protect him. Society has crumbled, but without society what morality can there be?

The movie doesn’t really attempt to answer the question, which is in keeping with the general tenor of the place. The general mood of grim awfulness is so consistently maintained that it’s those moments when the film offers up a morsel of hope which seem oddly incongruous. Nevertheless, an extremely powerful and well-made film, if not an especially easy one to watch.

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When I’m choosing what to go and see at the cinema – all other things being equal and finances permitting – sometimes it’s based on the track record of the director or star, more often on the story or the genre involved, and most frequently of all it’s a combination of all these things and a few more (good reviews from the right people and a winning trailer can’t hurt). And yet this week I found myself going to the pictures simply because of a brand name.

Whatever else is true of the current operators of Hammer Films, there’s no continuity of personnel with the company’s classic period. The company exists essentially as a marque, and one with a tremendous reputation in the horror and suspense genres. As such one should surely be deeply suspicious of this attempt to purchase the goodwill of long-term horror fans.

Yet, having said that, when the new animated Hammer logo (trading heavily on past glories, but with Raquel Welch rather more prominent than Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee – I am frowning as I type) came up the other night I felt an undeniable frisson. I’ve seen nearly fifty classic Hammers, but none of them in an actual theatre (unforgivably, I missed the chance to catch The Vampire Lovers at the arthouse cinema in Hull in 1995). The film it was showing before was Matt Reeves’ Let Me In.

Set in a wintry New Mexico in the early 1980s, the story revolves around Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a lonely young boy with terrible hair, living a fairly miserable life. His parents are in the process of divorcing and he is savagely bullied at school. The faintest glimmer of hope appears when he starts to befriend Abby (Chloe Moretz), a young girl who’s just moved into the same building. At the same time, however, corpses drained of blood begin to be found in the area, and it quickly becomes clear that in at least one respect this movie has a very strong connection to Hammer’s past – the undead are on the loose!

To say much more would be to spoil the movie for anyone unfamiliar with this story, which would be a great shame as this is a terrifically accomplished film. Reeves is probably best known for Cloverfield, which I thought was technically stunning but narratively rather vacuous – here he scores in every department, creating and sustaining a consistently ominous and unsettling atmosphere, with moments of remarkable tension along the way. He’s not afraid to break out the CGI in places, but oddly enough it’s at these moments that the film is least successful – the action sequences are convincing enough, but so frantic they’re rather at odds with the rest of the movie. (Exempt from this is the climax, which manages to be spectacular and understated at the same time.) He gets naturalistic and rather touching performances from the two young lead performers, and handles their relationship with great delicacy – probably quite wisely, given this movie could have been rather provocative if done wrong.

The only very small brick I would throw at the script is that the detective (played by Elias Koteas) investigating the murders seems a little slow on the uptake – if you’re investigating a string of murders where the victims are drained of blood, and someone in the area is bitten in the throat one night, and then said person spectacularly immolates when exposed to sunlight directly in front of you – well, you’d have to be Inspector Clouseau not to start putting two and two together.

‘You’ve got red on you.’

Apart from that, this is a thoughtful and affecting film. To me it seemed to be about the transcendent power of love and things it can make people do – but at the same time it’s deeply ambiguous about this. On the one hand, at the start of the film Owen is in a very grim situation and seems well on the road to some kind of serious mental disorder – but while his relationship with Abby is clearly redemptive and empowering for him, by the end of the film he is arguably in a much worse place. It’s hard to be sure, though: this is a film bereft of comforting moral certainties. Ironically, the only characters presented as wholly bad are the school bullies.

When embarking on the relaunch of a classic brand name, one of the key mistakes people tend to make is to feel they have to slavishly revisit the style of the original. The example I always give is Carry On Columbus, which – rather than trying to make a comedy film of its time, as the original Carry Ons were – spent ninety minutes copying a style twenty years out of date, and meeting with deserved failure as a result. Viewed in terms of how closely it resembles an old-style Hammer horror in content, tone, and style, Let Me In isn’t really recognisable as such. But if all you’re looking for from a Hammer horror is a great story, well told, then it’s a massive success for all concerned, and the best possible start for New Hammer. Horror cinema over the last few years has really suffered from an excess of Saws – if this is a sample of what the company can do, I’m all for seeing a lot more Hammers from now on.

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