You know what, I choose to write briefly but succinctly this time around, preferring to have you, the viewers and my co-film buffs and associates, share the experience of watching these triple recommendations and partaking in the very gritty and absolutely diverse visual scopes of each. Here they are, three cinematic works of the immediate current year and few months past which are of considerable notice.
** the star cast of HOLD THE DARK.
A PRAYER BEFORE DAWN(2018)
CAST: JOE COLE, PORNCHANOK MABKLANG etc.
DIRECTION : JEAN-STEPHANE SAUVAIRE.
Movie making industries have often utilized the ‘prison’ space to promote some kind of heightened heroic vigilantism within those incarcerated, at times to mock at internal corruptions and at others to trump authority. But rare is the cinematic recreation that punches us in the gut to show us exactly how notorious innards of a prison works in tandem with the unraveling of the one held captive here, away from regular society on account of his own indiscretions in the first place. How about seeing it as the indiscriminate hell hole it can be? A PRAYER BEFORE DAWN, solemn as the title seems , is no pat yarn that churns out the same false bravado of an agitating inmate who ends up rallying the forces of hardened souls to whip up a daring escape or revealing the heights of corruptible channels that run through its dank labyrinth. Instead, it resurrects the slow death of a conscience that finds itself going against the law, even though it’s not murder or assault, and leaves it hanging in those spaces until a spark for survival comes flaming to the surface.
What director Sauvaire achieves is an unblinkered view of the jail premises as a breeding ground for more crimes and indiscretions, a place meant to reform that does the exact opposite by being as unsparing as the world outside from where the inmates emerged. It’s no secret that humanity dreads this very institution and laws governing right and wrong work in mysterious ways to keep us away from it. For most of us, a jail is a distant construct and so we can never imagine how a minority ends up being exposed to elements of society and claiming this space from where a sense of shame, social ostracisation and personal evils tails it , probably for the rest of its lives .
We dread it and this film made me realize all that and more; so powerfully has the truth been internalized that we think about even those aspects that are not shown and quite a lot does occupy these frames though it’s not gratuitous for the sake of it. For a more expansive worldview, you have to read the novel by Englishman Billy Moore on which this film is based. There is a karmic underpinning here to his journey as he has to fend for himself within the confines of a Thai prison to which he’s committed for peddling drugs while residing in the country . The inside details of a South Asian chamber as this where inmates are packed to the dozens, made to sleep huddled together and shirtless, often next to other dead prisoners and deal with the wrath of long serving bullies who explicitly indulge in violence of the psychological, physical and sexual kind is something that series like BANGED UP ABROAD on National Geographic has made us privy to. This is more visceral and immediate. The grit, grime and dampness is inevitable.
** JOE COLE who essays BILLY MOORE.
For Billy, his status as an outsider is compounded because others hardly speak English and his anger issues don’t help him either. So as much courage it takes to withstand life as a prisoner, nothing really helps you especially if you have always been at the fag end of society’s rope as the backgrounds of Billy and few other men reveal in the course of the plot. They have been tethered to the lower rungs and moral choices have been far from available. It makes sense then that violence of the mind and his sorroundings find an outlet in him going back to his roots as a boxer to participate in inter prison and mainstream Muay Thai boxing bouts. In these expertly shot sequences, our empathy for Billy enters the picture most specifically as we see an individual trying to wrestle with his demons because the class he was born to and the downward spiral that has defined his adult life plus the apathy of the social order have all conspired to submit him to fate. Maybe by triumphing in these matches, he finds one spot for redemption. It’s a matter of great value for Sauvaire that he deals with this second act arc without the pretense of hollow heroism or larger ideology. Billy is doing the best he can and if it brings him a little bit of honour so be it. He holds up a mirror to his internal life than give out a profound, overarching message. He had seen the harshest points to know better and Sauvaire and his team take the resolution to tell it as it was and is for others of his ilk. Another unvarnished look at a boxer vis a vis Martin Scorsese’s classic RAGING BULL came to my mind.
The film is a breakthrough because of the sober filmmaking etiquettes of Jean Stephane, as is the wont with French cinema. For all the violence here, the silence invested in Joe Cole’s excellent performance and low hum in the spare soundtrack match the naturalistic camera movements. That’s how in reality, we endure the worst, not with an overpowering scream but a muffled stoicism. In an unsparing man’s world, politics of the physical self is paramount and twisted in its internalization. A PRAYER BEFORE DAWN comes close to examining it. Billy’s commiseration with FAME ( an au natural PORNCHANOK) unclogs sexual and emotional tapestry of this tale beautifully, with utter tenderness and the humanity in others too comes into its own.
But reality is the referee here and no little triumph is above the rough and tumble of adult life. Especially one in and around the provenance of social outcasts. By the end credits as Joe and the real Billy Moore’s faces are aligned, a quietly resonant idea of looking at others as flesh and blood individuals visits us, which only good cinema can do. A PRAYER BEFORE DAWN has a predictable ‘prison and boxing’ beat but transcends that with its documentarian eye. It has a soul that refuses to budge under the weight of a life less than ordinary. Rather it scrapes the bottoms of the barrel to arrest a silent voice of self expression.
** A PRAYER BEFORE DAWN was actually filmed in real time Thai prisons.
** I would also like to tip my hat to the groundbreaking Netflix series ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK that has portrayed the intricacies of prison and racial /gender issues with such implosive power. It has definitely paved the way for greater understanding for the lay audience.
CAST: JENNIFER LAWRENCE, JAVIER BARDEM, MICHELLE PFEIFFER, ED HARRIS.
DIRECTION : DARREN ARONOFSKY.
Anything that dares to be off the beaten track is of prime interest to me. Darren Aronofsky is a man who has always dared us to keep up with his distinctly distorted form of storytelling that translates to works of gripping, stirring import, colluding with the performances to further his constant thrust on the disintegration of the mind through agents of abuse, both personal and external.
So in BLACK SWAN, as the mental breakdown of Nina Sayers ( Natalie Portman) coupled with her challenging ballet performance reached its fever pitch of creative fulfillment and beyond , the classical score by Chris Mansell too became incessant, frantic and amplified in volume. The psychological verisimilitude was complete. Apart from that, who can forget the inject- refill-repeat rhythm adopted by him to show the process of substance abuse in REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, again used throughout its darkest passages with a maniacal pace to both enlighten us and wean us further from the evils of addiction of any kind. While the restraint in THE WRESTLER was a clever beast of another nature, internalizing the human side of the protagonist away from his image within the ring, MOTHER is something else in its entirety, almost like a one take extended dream sequence with little breathers but more than an aftertaste of contemplation. Culled from Biblical themes, Aronofsky here left me excited, convinced of his method behind the madness and at the same time drawing me into the lack of impossibility of the allegorical tale sculpted by him. It has no subtlety at face value yet is riddled with social truths, more significant than ever to our neo-rich, partisan, sexist culture as it always is.
The plot in itself is ripe for inviting mystery : after a burnt home of a famous poet is refurbished by his bride, two strangers become unlikely guests in this isolated tract of suburbia and unleash forces beyond the couple’s and especially the concerned wife’s control. This suspect couple is played with snark and tantalizing charm by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer and as the tensions of their family unit including two sons parallel Cain and Abel from Bible, mayhem comes knocking one after the other. The casting of real life siblings DOMHNALL and BRIAN GLEESON is a brilliant casting coup. So is the appearance of KRISTEN WIIG as a zealot later on in the film. She invites dualities that are always at the forefront of her comedic gifts and is a welcome presence.
The cult of personality is also at its core and as the popular husband ( Javier Bardem) soon gets swept by the other couple’s sycophancy and an army of admirers overpowers the sorroundings, the wife is made privy to greater anarchy. All of which tests her patience and makes us drop our jaws. The urgency is in looking beyond the literal and unearth points about toxicity of fame, cultural appropriation and hubris, loss of privacy, male ego and an all encompassing maternal core of the female figure, especially the wife, who is a nominal ghost in the larger scheme of things, preyed and lusted after by other folks. Jennifer Lawrence is hysteria personified with her nerve ends showing in the subversive second half and full of worldly wise composure in the unraveling of the opening minutes.
The horror, in its abstraction of presentation and multiple critiques, is a mad rush that never ceases. Of course ROSEMARY’S BABY comes to mind but so does the echo of religious cults and concerns about fertility in a slowly crumbling ecological set up. Love it or hate it, MOTHER! gives us more than the exclamation and for me approximates the noise of the present age in its kinetic momentum of human bathos. You’ll be gasping for breath and taking away your own seeds of thought from this scattershot of a plot.
HOLD THE DARK(2018)
CAST: JEFFREY WRIGHT, RILEY KEOUGH, ALEXANDER SKARSGARD, MACON BLAIR, TANTOO CARDINAL, JAMES BADGE DALE, JULIAN BLACK ANTELOPE.
DIRECTOR : JEREMY SAULNIER.
The most recent release of the lot being a Netflix original September 28th opening, HOLD THE DARK is a shot in the arm for aficionados of cerebral thrills. It’s a cipher and like MOTHER will let you take away an unique perspective depending on how you decode it. Based on an acclaimed novel, this feature by Jeremy Saulnier is independent of unnecessary frills and is realistic to a t, even as its leanings towards existential confusions are never what one may assume to be. I reiterate the brilliance of the human mind in how it is able to leave signs of deeper thought and stray away from simplistic ones when creating a work. In real life too, no matter how matter of fact things seem, we know some emotions cut deep and are much more ambivalent than the prevalent truth. It is so here.
Of course the natural world, here expressed in the slow clad interiors and expansive vistas of Alaska, is a character of its own. A naturalist ( Jeffrey Wright) is summoned to this remote backwater as a young mother ( Riley Keough ) wants him to use his hunting skills and knowledge about wolves to hunt down the pack that has supposedly taken her son to devour, besides other kids in the village. The kid’s imminent death is never ruled out but this side business of exacting revenge on beasts is something that opens up possibilities for us to think about our own animalistic instincts. At one point, the experienced man tells her that the natural order of things doesn’t warrant revenge. This made me hark back to Saulnier’s earlier film BLUE RUIN in which this seething, curdled point of view regarding revenge was at the center. However, the darkness of winter has already seeped in to enter their souls and a brief discussion about family informs us how hollow both have been in their own way. A finely constructed scene where she emerges wearing a primitive mask begins with a sense of foreboding, doom, reaches a little passage of tenderness to once again point to the intrinsic violence that has become a way of life here, for her and for others.
Her husband ( Alexander Skarsgard) is battling the war in Iraq as an armyman and that one scene where he uses his knife to kill his compatriot assaulting a local woman, only to be shot by enemy forces around the throat fits in with another where he and his son discuss about the morality of killing after they have hunted a reindeer, in a flashback. Skarsgard and Riley are conveniently low key in their mannerisms and mysterious, with the former putting his expertise at bringing forth wordless menace to good use especially after his classic stint in BIG LITTLE LIES last year.
Look at those eyes!!!
The cold environs are further a motif of the insulated nature of these villagers and xenophobia on the part of CHEEON ( Julian Black Antelope), mysticism and local folklore on the part of an elderly lady ( Tantoo Cardinal of LEGENDS OF THE FALL fame) and the pragmatic tempers of the police chief ( James Badge Dale) all combine to form a combustible whole. The standout being the instance of a tense standoff between Cheeon and the police force.
The cinematography, lighting, background score fulfill the atmospherics that make this feature evocative. It will not be everyone’s cup of tea but I recommend it to those who wish to push the boundary of thinking and interpretation as the issues handled here are timely and posit a natural rhythm of horror that resides in the mind and innards of our soul.
The mask carries that terror all the way towards an open ended climax.
HOLD THE DARK has a novelistic structure and technically creates distances and intimate spaces to haunt us with lingering images. The mystery deepens regarding who the killer in the wild is. At the end of the day, Saulnier finds its resonant heart in the silently productive ethics of Jeffrey Wright’s performance. It’s an arc brimming with details as does the screenplay by Saulnier’s creative consort Macon Blair. A stationary yak and a pack of wolves invite images laced with the confrontation between man and wild and suffice to say we are intrigued.