Westerns, by their cinematic nature, have a slow burning agency which hasn’t become derivative to the present day; even though the templates of amorality and emotional recession always concur with explosive duels and mortal dangers on the frontier.
Which is why the sparse Western palette of Kelly Reichardt’s FIRST COW is a welcome change of pace. It is as gentle and refreshingly serene as the languidly flowing brook by the woods or the morning wind. Something hence unusually compassionate gets under our skin, producing a haunting quality to the bond of almost spiritual amity among two men who sell edible cakes for a modest living within the 19th Century ethos of Oregon territory. This is a location that unfolds as a settlement and source of opportunity for these two quiet men.
As Orion Lee and John Magaro mould them, they become emotionally transparent vessels who imbibe the dangers associated with the titular animal. More than the mortal danger and class heirarchies, their looks convey more than a simple friendship or even a transactional one. It’s a life force that belies definitions or easy labels. Cue the second time that Magaro meets Lee at a bar, note his instant attraction to the man he once rescued from a near death experience in the wilds. He looks at him with admiration now that he’s well dressed, confident and remembers his old friend. It’s a curiously, transparently innocent look that recognises the idea of attraction within the same gender so beautifully without leaning over to anything resembling lust or extraneous agency.
This achievement of an intimacy borne from trust and camaraderie needs to be taken into cinematic account because that’s how often it is in real life. In a world of brutality and debauchery, the leads in FIRST COW give us a retrospective look into how men should be and were, numbered perhaps among the patriarchal system of living. Yet they prevailed.
By being united in their last moments, the two pals further counter the brutality and mortal dangers of a frontier tale with something tangible. Delicate. Real and enduring. A viewer’s characteristic patience will produce that effect.
FACE TO FACE(1976)
Ingmar Bergman’s FACE TO FACE was to the manner born for this cinephile and writer. Suffering from troubling thoughts of bodily siege and experiencing two near traumatic encounters of a sexual kind, I was intrinsically drawn to the psychological depth that Liv Ullman brought to her part here. She plays a woman who’s professionally a successful psychiatrist. During the course of a summer where her immediate family members are out of town and she relocates to her grandparents’ apartment where she grew up, she unravels. The unfinished business regarding her childhood traumas involving parents’ untimely death and disciplinarian and emotional abuse by her grandmother finally catch up with her. A near sexual assault by two miscreants at her under construction house further trigger her.
Dream sequences invoke the depths of a lifetime’s burden. She breaks down mentally, unable to bear that toll. Especially striking is when she imagines being physically mired by her patients, mirroring her anxieties regarding the job, and when she encounters her parents’ ghosts and the darkness of being silenced by her authoritative grandmother. This sequence and her visual of being clad in a crimson dress ala The Handmaid’s Tale was very striking, eerily reminding me of the suffocating nature of our subconscious finding an outlet in dreams.
The way her experience with the two men acutely make her shudder and yet seek an almost counteracting interest in being sexually aroused bring out the manner in which tears and horrid laughter mingle in her unraveling in the presence of another colleague. A tragic experience, when piled on top of an irreconcilable past, can do that, break the symmetry of one’s understanding of evading or wanting the forbidden. I can absolutely identify with that inexplicable feeling. It’s like the body reacts to danger sometimes as an incoming challenge. As if fear as an entity is being traded for a bold moral compass, seeking to identify the depths of one’s threshold for pain, by calling the perpetrators towards its easy target. It has happened to me over the past year especially, consonant with a deluge of daily verbal and sometimes physical abuse, dynamics within the home that I’ve faced as a young man over the longest stretch of time, making me often run towards a point where I want to be defiled in some way. As an asexual person, I have been able to evade absolute danger perhaps owing to that trait of my personality and my innate faith.
The reality then of being naturally aromantic, asexual and being almost at the receiving end of sexual advances and threat to the body from members of my own gender ( and no I’m not calling out any orientation here at all, just individual responses) hence was the most debilitating blow to me. FACE TO FACE was the first time I felt seen. It felt real to then finally write down aspects about myself that I wouldn’t ever speak openly among mortals. But by being visually stirred by a respectable and dignified, no holds barred take on mental horrors invading one’s adult personality, I could air my thoughts. So I want to accord Ms. Ullman the highest regard because the way she handles the final stretch of her confessions, imploding within and exploding emotionally in her body and spirit, illustrates the most accurate representation of how I feel. Only I haven’t found a personal agent or friend to lend an ear to my ordeal which bears scars of a lifetime, like she does with her patient colleague.
FACE TO FACE is also a realistic portrayal of the way mental health professionals themselves go through dangerous motions. Maybe that’s why they can possess the ability to treat their patients effectively or maybe it’s a reverse form of therapy for their own unfinished pasts and experiences. Bless Mr. Bergman for always probing the human mind with such empathy and tact.
Of course, the pain never goes away. But the feeling of sharing one’s life script lessens the pull of the psychological noose.
WENDY AND LUCY (2008)
Kelly Reichardt’s minimalistic strokes of realism again occupy this list. This time, it’s courtesy the linear journey of the two titular women, one a human, the other a canine, in her emotionally wrenching 2008 feature.
Stricken by the sticky end of financial misfortune, Wendy goes through what we may view as fairly common trials of being a have-not. Broken car, almost no money, no job at sight and dissociated from her cash-strapped family members who anyway don’t want to even entertain a phone call from her. That’s her profile.
Michelle Williams is a miracle of a performer because she lends it the gut-punch of a documentary and the emotional implosion of youth falling by the wayside in real time. Those are the qualities she shares with her selflessly empathetic director/ writer/ editor Reichardt. The latter has a way of focusing on her subjects with a sublime lens that uplifts them from the modern desert of generational stasis without losing track of the way society is mostly composed of these sundry strugglers. They make up the demographic that occupy her ecosystem.
In WENDY AND LUCY, I was reduced to tears at several points, most poignantly where Wendy doesn’t give up on finding her true best friend after losing her in an inopportune moment despite the fact that she herself has nothing to keep up with. Her ultimate sacrifice for the sake of Lucy’s well-being with her current owner just broke me completely.
This feature is like that, offering hope, strength of character in people and slim chances but a real possibility of general, day to day decency as Wendy finds in the elderly watchman and the automobile shop owner. She is stranded in a ghost town and maybe these three are the only living souls occupying the margins of a forgotten economy reeling from a recession.
Wendy’s powerful tale then isn’t about her destination or her prospect of finally mustering up the courage to go to Alaska as she had planned. It’s about the fact that she just doesn’t give up on her dream of reuniting with Lucy, her only soulmate, and earning her share through honest hard work. Her struggles make up her living reality. To me, Williams’ authentic to the core embodiment here is a welcome precursor to the widely appreciated ethos of NOMADLAND.
THE INVISIBLE MAN (2020)
That Elisabeth Moss can conjure darkest passages of our own lived experiences through her committed, intensely riveting body of work has become an international fact.
THE INVISIBLE MAN takes the mantle forward after her stellar performances in such titles as TOP OF THE LAKE, MAD MEN and above all THE HANDMAID’S TALE.
What I truly appreciate about Leigh Whannell’s scripting and direction here is that he is able to conjoin his technical forces with Moss’ singular trajectory which actually exposes the social faultlines we are only too eager to overlook in the context of private, domestic spats. Until it snowballs into a terrifying reality, a habitual demonstration of gender disparity, a nightmare demographic going beyond statistics of domestic abuse.
The opening ten to fifteen minutes themselves ratchet a very urgent, choking sense of things to follow, in the way lead protagonist Cecilia escapes from her gilded prison shared with her billionaire partner ( Oliver Jackson Cohen)
The financial, emotional, even legal struggles portrayed here in the wake of her flight let us intrinsically grasp the interiority of gaslit women; women and individuals who have to relive the blunt force of trauma again and again, in order to make others believe their truth. It’s a particular aspect of THE INVISIBLE MAN that makes it go above the usual beats of a science fiction/ horror/ drama hybrid.
The dramatic stakes are real and nerve-racking. It’s how the psychological sense of horror comes into play effectively, making the invisible perpetrator a symbol and stand-in for the very roots of abuse and mental disintegration. Whannell and Moss thus enable this iteration of an H.G. Wells classic title to possess a contemporary appeal.
The psychological portrayal of horror, literal and metaphorical, is again embedded in stark, universal truths of gender relations and gaslighting in SHIRLEY.
First of all, the dynamics of a middle aged couple hosting a younger one at its home, within an university town, and the interpersonal tugs is like a contemporary take on Edward Albee’s play WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? Ditto the domestic sphere where love, lust, normalcy and sheer mental anarchy rule the roost.
Josephine Decker here ups the stakes by making real-life horror literature legend Shirley Jackson an intriguing personality who’s utterly bewitching even as her lack of social graces gut her within a hypocritical ethos. But she stands her ground, combating her own husband’s narrative doled out to others with insight into the very foundations of isolation for women, the ‘lost girls’ who never find allies. This parallel of observing and imbuing her writing with details collected from daily experiences is stirringly put to the screen along with her eventual camaraderie with the younger lady( Odessa Young)
Both become an unlikely pair, giving SHIRLEY a charge that electrifies with the sheer magnetism of their individual performances. But collectively, this pair dismantles the patriarchal codes around it to bring a sensual reckoning with the very core of womanhood.
I highly recommend this one, in no small part because its music and cinematography too elevate the material.