Monday, May 21, 2012

Hear That Undertaker's Bell

[Spoilers for both Chronicle and The Grey follow below]

Director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis's found-footage superhero origin film Chronicle begins with unhappy teenager Andrew (Dane DeHaan) setting up a video camera in his bedroom and announcing to his angry, drunk father (Mike Kelly), who is pounding on Andrew's bedroom door that he is going to "film everything." Well, sure. You have to let the audience in on your conceit somehow, and this line functions in that way, and also serves to scare off the father, who might reasonably wish that his drunken abuse not be captured on video. Of course, it's strange that the father seems to regard his son's decision with the same gravity he would afford to a TV news crew who are in possession of the correct permits, as opposed to saying "Oh yeah?", busting down the door, smacking his kid, and smashing the camera, as one might expect an abusive drunken father to do, but what Chronicle is really doing in this early scene is making its own announcement, subtly but unmistakably, which might best be boiled down to "We don't know what the fuck we're doing."

Approached with this understanding, Chronicle delivers, and how. In the telling of its story, about three teenagers -- Andrew the sullen outcast, Andrew's cousin Matt (Alex Russell) who is very smart and is able to quote things, and Steve (Michael B. Jordan) who is popular and running for class president -- who, while attending one of those horrifying parties where people wave around glowsticks in the hopes that passers-by will kick each of them square in the teeth (I can only assume this is their motivation), find a hole in the ground that leads to a cave that has a big bright thing with lights in it that gives them nosebleeds and also telekinetic powers which they are eventually able to control so well that they are able to fly, Chronicle pulls a District 9 on its whole found--footage idea. In case you've forgotten, District 9 began in the style of a documentary made in the aftermath of the actions eventually depicted in the film, but after a little while it kind of sheepishly put that aside and went on to be what it was always going to be, an action movie with some aliens in it. In the case of Chronicle, the idea that everything we're seeing was filmed on home video or camera phones or whatever by the characters in the film isn't so much set aside as it is used as a (poorly executed) con job. Found footage movies are the thing now, or were the thing, and continue to occasionally be the thing, especially in the horror genre, but even the worst films of this type, that I can think of anyway, tend to actually want to be that thing, or at least stick to it out of a sense of honor. Chronicle has no honor, and it's very clear that it exists in the form it does only because someone noticed how much money the Paranormal Activity films raked in. Chronicle doesn't need to be made like this, and Trank and Landis don't want to deal with the limitations inherent in the style, so they make the creative decision, or whatever the opposite of "creative decision" is, to not deal with those limitations at all.

Well, they almost do. The one clever loophole Trank and Landis provide themselves is they make Andrew so proficient with his new powers that he's able to do whatever he doing while manipulating the camera with his mind at the same time. So sometimes when no one is in the scene who might be holding the camera, and the camera is even panning and so forth, you can say "Well, those kids have telekinesis, so that explains that." And it does, and it was a good idea. But not only does the idea get abused (Andrew likes overhead shots at funerals, apparently) but it also finally gets shitcanned. The film's closing action scene, which involves Andrew, who by now has let his sullen teenager-ness get the better of him, so that now he views himself, in evolutionary terms, as an alpha predator, even though he never actually preys on anything, acting as the film's super villain, and Matt, who is a good guy who for whatever reason has hitched his wagon to a smirky blonde stuck-up little princess (Ashley Hinshaw) who also happens to be recording her entire life on video, just in case these guys ever need some 2nd unit work done, or even coverage, is, the action scene I'm talking about here, a fucking disaster. Who, I wonder, the hell is cutting this shit together? If Andrew is deploying his floating camera when he and Matt are hovering in the air yelling at each other, why is he, as must be implied, giving them each their fair share of close-ups? And again, who cut this shit together??? NASA? Trank even calls attention to his own stylistic cowardice by showing a group of people inside an office watching these two super beings and filming them with their camera phones. This shot is from inside the office, so it must be assumed that the shot was taken from one of those phones (by NASA) in a sobering nod to How Technology Has Effected Our Lives, but no effort is given to explain how any of the shots that were not taken from an established and identified source (there are some good shots meant to have come from police helicopters) were achieved.

This happens throughout the film, which ultimately reveals itself to be just a cynical piece of garbage that is supposed to make us reflect on how difficult it is to be a teenager, and how power in the hands of the abused can be a dangerous thing. And those powers change, too, because at one point one of them seems like maybe he can control lightning? And in another scene, one of the kids has a bus thrown at him and the bus hits him and then he and the bus slam into a building but he's okay, but shortly thereafter another of the kids gets a metal pole thrown at him and he dies. Telekinesis is an unpredictable force.
The complete absence of craft or brains on display in Chronicle is reasonably appalling, but so far this year there has been at least one other kind of sleeper genre hit that should restore faith. Joe Carnahan's The Grey is a survival-adventure-thriller about members of an oil-drilling team in Alaska whose plane goes down in the middle of nowhere. The survivors must battle the elements, and, perhaps more to the point, a pack of deadly wolves who seem to be killing them for sport rather than food.

As is usually the case in films like this, one man steps up to rally the other men, to give them hope that they might live through this ordeal, and to lead them through his greater knowledge and experience. In The Grey, that man is Ottway (Liam Neeson) who was hired by the rigging crew to shoot wolves that threatened the men’s safety. Now, though, he is without his rifle, and the group’s success depends more on wits and luck than anything else.

So the story, as you can see, is simplicity itself. What’s surprising about The Grey is how seriously it takes its themes of survival, and hope versus hopelessness, “hope” not necessarily being a winner in that match-up, and how intelligently it deploys its story to their service. The fact that Ottway is shown early on to be suicidal (due, we learn through some actually quite good narration from Neeson, to something about a woman who, for reasons we will learn, he’s no longer with) might indicate that Carnahan might choose to scream his points, or even – and frankly his filmography up to now made this a real possibility – fetishize the idea of Male Existential Suffering, but no, Carnahan means it, and is serious about it.

It would be very easy to praise this film in the way I want to praise it and accidentally make it sound ponderous or pretentious or dumb. For instance, the title, The Grey would appear on the surface to be a reference to those wolves mentioned earlier, and it is, but as the film goes along, and as the despair of the survivors, whose number is dwindling, threatens to reduce them to immobility on the grounds of there clearly being no point in this charade, “the grey” can be taken instead to represent the middle ground between the blackness of the void and the whiteness of…what? Its opposite? “Not dying,” anyway, would appear to be the primary goal. But you see what I mean about praising this film while also doing it a disservice. If Carnahan had anyone make plain what I’ve just written, if he’d made Neeson or Dermot Mulroney (a name not chosen at random, he’s in the film, too, and is very good) break into the bawdy laughter of his fellows as they sit at night around their campfire telling stories and trying to stave off their bleakest thoughts, and say “When I was a about ten years old, my dad got his leg caught in our thresher. I was playing catch with my brother, across the field there, and I could see it happen. He looked like a puppet. Near about tore his leg clean off. He lived another three days, and when he was conscious me and my mom and my brother, we’d all sit with him, and when he was awake he’d joke with us, just like always, and we’d laugh with him. But other times he’d pass out ‘cuz it hurt so much. It’s like for those three days he was stuck in the grey…” – if Carnahan had done that, you would picket outside his home, and you’d be right to do so. He doesn’t, though, he just lets things lay there, and when he chooses to address things more directly through his characters, it plays like these guys talking about it because what the hell else are they gonna do?

Probably the best indicator of the film’s strength is the way it approaches the deaths of its various characters. After the fast obliteration of the plane crash, the first death comes as a man lies dying, but unaware of it, amid the wreckage. Ottway is aware of it, and instead of having Ottway try to trick the man into his grave, as most films would do, by having Ottway tell him he’ll be fine, just relax, we’ll get you taken care of, he instead tells the man, bluntly, but with gentleness, that he is going to die. It will be warm, and he should think of someone he loves and let that person take him to it. Rarely have I watched a scene that was at once both so chilling and so moving. And while some of the early deaths-by-wolf do follow a certain thriller/horror pattern (without ever being egregious about it), this approach relaxes as The Grey eases into itself and becomes a film about dying, rather than a film about getting killed.

Before watching The Grey, I was rather down on the works of Joe Carnahan. I never saw his first film, Blood, Guts, Bullets & Octane, whose title betrays its desparate need to be seen as tough, and the greatness of the opening scene of his second film, Narc, was not paid off with a film that actually managed to live up to it. After that the wheels really appeared to have come off, as the withering Smokin’ Aces led, some years later, to the dull The A-Team. But it was on this latter film that Carnahan met Liam Neeson. Or maybe they’d met before that, I have no idea, but if The A-Team played some part in allowing The Grey to happen, then I shall allow it to continue to exist. Because one thing left unsaid by me so far is how crucial Neeson is here. This is one of his best performances in years. I could speculate about why, but the result would be a mixture of unnecessary, tasteless, and probably just outright stupid. All I will say is that The Grey makes me kind of angry with anybody who says Neeson is coasting into the “paycheck” phase of his career, and makes me wish, even more so than usual, that they would shut their goddamn mouths.


Stacia said...

I'm not sure how spoilery we can get here, so I will just say that the metaphor(s) in The Grey seem to have gone over a lot of peoples' heads. I blame the marketing which, as someone else on another thread mentioned, framed the film as LIAM NEESON: WOLFPUNCHER.

No one in the theater I was in got it as far as I could tell. The teenage ticket-taker told everyone to stay until the end, and I heard numerous conversations as credits rolled from people who were irked at the film, then the final brief scene and a loud "What the hell was that?!" and booing. After my husband and I left the restrooms, a largish group stopped us and demanded to know if we liked the film, and we both answered no because answering yes would have probably lead to fistfights.

Similar comments have been made online, too, and I am genuinely confused about the reaction. Critics seem to like it, though -- that's why I saw it, so many of you crazy kids were praising the film on Twitter.

You really need to start writing a novel about a man, a thresher, and blackberry vodka cocktails.

Patrick said...

I didn't really like The Grey, I had problems with it just from the literal point of view. I kept thinking that the men weren't making smart decisions regarding survival, and I had the idea that wolves just don't act that way, the writers only gave them those supposed behaviors for the purpose of moving the characters in a certain direction. I would have needed to accept that wolves really do these things and the actions of the men were a reasonable reaction before I could have gone along with the theme of the movie.

Stacia said...

Patrick, my husband had some very similar concerns. When we were talking about it over post-movie burgers, he said the only way you could reconcile the "wolves do not work that way" element was to take the film entirely as metaphor. I still don't know quite how I feel about it, I'll definitely need to see this again.

Patrick said...

I was expecting your conventional adventure story when I went into this one, so I just kept finding things that didn't seem credible in their actions (why leave the plane? for one).

Nice looking blog you run, I don't think I've seen it before, I'll have to bookmark it.

Stacia said...

Thanks, Patrick. I'm in the midst of a blog move and the new digs won't be as pretty.

bill r. said...

Jeez, sorry I missed all this. Okay, first of all -- wolf behavior. My only response is that the shark in JAWS doesn't really behave like sharks do, does it? I think that's a little bit beside the point. Plus I don't personally know that no wolves have ever acted like that, so it didn't bug me. Anyway, Neeson's reaction is, as I remember, that this is sort of unusual. Can't wolves behave unusually sometimes?

Stacia said...

I'm not trying to speak for Patrick at all, and I hope this doesn't sound like I am:

My theory is that some people who didn't like the film couldn't fully explain why, and the issue of wolf behavior was something tangible they could focus on.

Personally, I think the dying dream and/or he's already dead and/or he's leading all those people through death metaphorical layers of the film were extremely subtle. They flowed with the "reality" layers of the film, but audiences are used to having some kind of trigger to let them know what's going on. Without something definite to point to, people had to go with what they DID see, which is weird wolf behavior, or not being able to see the final fight, etc.

As I said, I'm not sure how I feel about the subtlety of some aspects of the film. I don't think films need to go all Hanna-Barbera and walk you step-by-step through every bit of plot, but I also think there was some clumsiness in The Grey where it tried to be both action-adventure and meditation on death and didn't quite succeed.

It reminded me of American Psycho where Mary Harron once said that the moment the lead sees the ATM telling him to feed it a kitten is supposed to be the official psychotic break, but she didn't think she made that clear enough in the film for the audience to get it, and I think she's right.

I've gone on far longer than you wanted, I'm sure, so I'll be off.