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Posts Tagged ‘Trey Edward Shults’

As I’m sure I’ve probably said, the films that get released around this time of year generally tend to fall into a few specific types. You know what I mean – prestigious literary adaptations, stirring true stories from history, omphaloskeptic celebrations of the movie industry itself, and so on. And then of course there is the serious contemporary drama category, which is frankly not short of material at the moment. We’ve recently discussed Bombshell, which deals with current issues surrounding gender politics, and also Just Mercy, which takes as its topic racial inequality in American society. As noted, my inclination was to rather cynically dismiss the latter film as an exercise in box-ticking.

Also out at the moment is Waves, written and directed by Trey Edward Shults. Shults was also in charge of the uncomfortable-to-watch post-horror movie It Comes at Night, which was probably very good (I was seeing it under less than optimal conditions); the new movie sees him raise his game to a whole new level, though.

Again, based on the advertising, I was inclined to dismiss Waves as another pretty calculated piece of work: another film about the Black experience in contemporary America. The trailer made it look very much as though this was a film following in the wake of Moonlight (which I thought was okay, but not as great as all that) – artily independent, where a film like Just Mercy is solid studio fare.

(You know, anything I say about the actual story of Waves is probably going to lessen the impact of the film; the sheer sense of dislocation produced by not knowing quite where it is going – but fearing the worst – was an essential part of my experience of seeing it. So I would almost suggest you skip the next couple of paragraphs and start reading again after the poster. Or even just skip the rest of this review and find a cinema showing this film: it’s well worth your time, and quite possibly one of the films of the year.)

The film begins by introducing us to the Williams family, affluent African-Americans living in Florida. They have a very nice house, with the parents (father and step-mother) running their own business; the son and daughter are successful both in school and socially. But Ronald, the father (Sterling K Brown), believes in tough love: he pushes his son Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr) particularly hard, believing that the nature of the world demands it. For his part, Tyler seems to accept this, to begin with at least.

But then gradually, and almost imperceptibly at first, pressures start to mount up on Tyler. A member of the school wrestling team, he ends up badly damaging his shoulder, and starts taking painkillers to cope with it. The habit grows. At the same time, his long-term girlfriend discovers that she is pregnant. Tyler is only eighteen; he does not cope well with this, he makes some very bad decisions. As a result the whole family is affected and almost torn apart. Can his parents and sister (Taylor Russell) come to terms with the aftermath of what happens?

The first part of the film builds up to a horrible incident, the kind of thing that gets briefly mentioned on the news as a one or two-line item. What Shults does is show us the people and emotions involved in it and how they ended up in that place, transforming it from an ugly example of what’s wrong with society today into a genuine human tragedy. This doesn’t make it any easier to watch, of course. As the story develops it has that slow-motion car-crash feel to it. You know that this is building up to something dreadful, but you can’t look away as the events of the film unfold.

However, not knowing quite how long a film is going to be can sometimes lead to interesting experiences, and I was a little startled when what I anticipated would be a brief coda to the film’s story of one person’s tragic fall from grace turned out to be the start of a whole new section of the movie. The tone and focus of this is quite different: it is less intense, much lighter and more gentle. The change of gear is a startling one, but Shults makes it work. I imagine it is the first half of Waves that audiences will find seared into their memories, but it is the second which gives the film its scope and depth.

Again, this is on some level a film about race in America – were Tyler’s father not such a hard taskmaster to him, the story might have a very different outcome, but Ronald sees himself as having no option given the extra challenges they face as African Americans – but only tangentially so. It works so well because it is about recognisable and believeable people, and as such it benefits greatly from a terrific set of performances, mainly from the family members (in addition to Harrison, Russell, and Brown, Renee Elise Goldsberry plays the stepmother), but also Lucas Hedges and Alexa Demie.

However, for all the power of the story (which is considerable), what really gives the film its impact is a bravura directing job by Shults himself. The movie opens with a sequence which lights up the screen with colour and movement, the kind of thing that would surely count as showing off if it weren’t so clearly a considered piece of work. Throughout it is vibrant and colourful without ever seeming garish or lurid; choices which might seem affected – at a few key points, scene transitions take the form of swirls of colour filling the screen – are somehow absolutely of a piece with the rest of the movie.

In short, I liked Waves much more than Moonlight; I liked it much more than most films I have seen recently. ‘Liked’ is a funny word to use, for this is a serious and intense film, and not easy to watch in places – but its pace and vitality keep it very watchable, and the manner in which it resolves means it does not come across as something wholly downbeat and depressing. I am genuinely surprised this film has not received much greater acclaim and awards recognition, for it is a hugely impressive movie, and I am very curious to see what Trey Edward Shults does next.

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As soon as the theatre doors opened in the dark I felt my heart sink. Sometimes it feels like I get premonitions when it comes to this sort of thing. It had all been going so well – all the way through the adverts and then the trailers there had been only two or three of us in there, sitting far apart, obviously there to watch the film. And then they came in: four of them, young, male, juggling popcorn and drinks, muttering to each other. They had made two terrible mistakes, not that they realised it at the time: this was not their kind of film. And they had chosen to sit immediately behind me.

I went to see Hugo in 2012 and was forced to prevail upon someone at the back of the cinema to stop singing along to his smartphone in the middle of the movie. I went to Now You See Me in 2013 and found myself obliged to be quite astringent with some children who were throwing food and drink at each other a few rows behind me. I am quite prepared to put myself out there in this kind of situation. For all that I respect the quality of his thought, I would even have taken Peter Hitchens to task for not switching off his smartphone during Ex Machina, had it gone off one more time.

The whispering and rustling continued behind me, at an unreasonable level now the film was underway. I gave them Stage One, also known as a good shush. There was a brief reduction in the noise level, for a bit. But only for a bit. Subsequent shushings were followed by sniggering and ironic shushings back at me. At one point the whisperings became quite audible, along the lines of ‘this is a stupid movie, and anyone who wants to watch it is stupid, too’.

Eventually smartphone lights started flicking on and off behind me, drinks bottles were being juggled, and the noise escalated even further. It was time for Stage Two, also known as the hard word – ‘Are you going to talk all the way through this? Turn the phone off, shut up, and watch the film,’ I said, unprintably. ‘Stop swearing at us,’ said one of the confederacy of morons behind me. I was pretty sure at this point that they had not stumped up the extra couple of quid for the premium seats they were in and asked to see their tickets. ‘You don’t work here so we don’t have to.’

‘Then I’ll get someone who does,’ I said. I don’t recall ever having to go up to Stage Three before, because it really is the nuclear option, and involves missing part of the film (thus kind of defeating the point of the exercise). When I returned we had a degree of toing and froing around the cinema, but my playmates were fatally overconfident and were eventually ambushed by the manager and his minions. They were expelled into the outer brightness and the rest of us were left to enjoy the last twenty minutes or so of the film as best we could (I found myself wondering what my chances of being beaten up by the gang of them on the way to the bus stop were).

Is there a moral to this story? Not really. Except, perhaps, to say that the response of the cinema staff was pretty much exemplary, and it is a sadly necessary reminder that if you want a good cinema experience, sometimes you have to fight for it. It is also a bit regrettable that this was the only showing of the movie I could get to all week, but then I’m not entirely sure it’s a film I’d care to sit through again anyway, for all of its definite quality.

You know, in the circumstances I’m kind of wondering about my ability to give a completely objective review of Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes At Night. But hey ho, I’ll just have to do my best, I suppose. As you may know, I’m not averse to a spot of viral apocalypse, and It Comes At Night is a particularly cheery (this is not true) new entry to this particular subgenre.

The spread of a particularly nasty disease (a bit like smallpox, a bit like bubonic plague) has led to the collapse of civilisation as we know it. Paul (Joel Edgerton) and his family are leading lives of extreme seclusion in their remote home, which he has virtually fortified. He is relentless in his attempts to ensure their safety – the very first thing we see is his enforcing his cordon sanitaire in frankly hair-raising fashion when another member of the group becomes infected.

This is a hard lifestyle, to say the least, and it is taking its toll on the members of the family – especially Paul’s son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr), who is having grisly nightmares. But the pressure just gets worse and worse, when a stranger (Christopher Abbott) breaks into their house one night. When captured, he claims to be looking for food and water for his wife and child. After tying him to a tree for a few days and thinking things over, Paul decides to invest a little trust in the man, whose name is Will. The two of them will go and check out his story, and perhaps bring the new family back with them, amalgamating the two groups. But with trust in such short supply, can even a social group as simple as this survive?

No doubt about it: this is a horror movie more than anything else, with bits aplenty that viewers of a delicate disposition will find somewhat challenging. However, while it does include moments which attempt to function as jump scares – Travis’s nightmares are a slightly hokey device for this sort of thing – it is not really in the quiet-quiet-quiet-LOUD tradition which to some extent epitomises the modern mainstream horror movie. Instead, this is a brooding, rigorously paced movie, which is reliant for most of its effects on an atmosphere of almost palpable unease and disquiet.

Partly this is down to the performances – Edgerton appears to be doing most of the heavy lifting in this department, but Harrison is a good example of someone contributing much more than initially appears to be the case – but it’s also the result of the direction, as the camera drifts silently around the claustrophobic interior of the fortress-house. In the end it’s much more the case that the film is uncomfortably tense and unsettling to watch, than actually scary as such.

This is the kind of film which starts off with things in a very bad way, and the promise that they are only going to get worse and worse as the end of the film approaches. The script  does a good job of almost making you believe that things may actually improve, as the two families come together and there are moments of warmth and hope between them. The strophe (ooh, get me – I mean the moment when everything turns and starts to quickly unravel), when it comes, is perhaps not quite rigorously plotted enough, but on the other hand I was out of the screen summoning the management around this point so I can’t be 100% sure about that.

In the end, things resolve in about as bleak and horrible a way as could be, as the lurking tensions in the household hatch out, fed by the fear of infection, and… well, find out for yourself. It Comes At Night proves ultimately to be a film about death: the death of the body, the death of society, the death of trust, and in the end the death of hope. And it’s a very well-made one, though obviously this won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Definitely worth seeing if you enjoy a spot of gut-wrenching paranoid misery, but maybe take your electric stun gun if you’re going to an early evening showing and they’re going to let juveniles in.

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