Can the Bad Fight Well?: Only God Forgives
If Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, the slow burning thriller that essentially made its director a household name in the United States and launched a plethora of cutesy memes of its leading man, is the “accessible art house appetizer”, then I think it would be appropriate to call Refn’s most recent project, and second collaboration with star Ryan Gosling the full buffet. Well, at least it looks like it. The problem is, however nice it the meal may look, you could not find a more impenetrable film that was more stuck in its own concept.
Julian’s brother is killed after raping and murdering another man’s daughter in Thailand. Julian’s mother comes to Bangkok to see the corpse of her son. Her sons were drug dealers, and, meanwhile, both harbored a unique relationship with their mother, both equally incestuous, though Julian’s from more of a distance. The chief of police and Julian’s mother are at war, though it’s never explained explicitly why that is.
Only God Forgives indulges in its slow, neon drenched cinematography, and the camera moves, much like its narrative pace, as If it is walking and meandering around the city of Bangkok. Everything is red and blue, presumably representing the clashing ideals of passion and repression, heat and cold, and life and death. Although Refn could be, to some extent, labeled a little bit of a visualist, particularly with a film like his experimental Valhalla Rising or even his earlier Pusher Trilogy and Fear X, the cinematography is both overt and opaque here, servicing no one but Refn himself. All the meaning in the world that Refn could elaborate on does not make up for the fact that the inherent coldness of the film and its cinematography very often undermines its beauty. The cinematography, however, is not without its charms. It is often haunting and hypnotic, putting the viewer under a trance, regardless of whether that trance or whether those shots mean anything other than a visual manifestation or representation of machismo.
Which might be part of the problem. A few days later and I am still not entirely sure what the film was trying to do, but I do know that masculinity was an important part nonetheless. What I do not know is whether the film is the mouth of Refn, flashing the audience his fascination with masculinity in any culture, or whether it is a commentary therein of masculinity. Almost like Tarantino’s own foot fetish, Refn admits to having a fascination, even a fetish for fists. So many of his films about masculinity and how it functions in society, and more often than not, there is a close up shot of someone clenching, or unclenching, their fists. Only God Forgives is not exception, but that fist clenching, and Goslings singular delivery of “Wanna fight?” do nothing to actually clear the waters as to what the film is attempting to do. Commentary or not, no one is nice or good or even pleasant in this film. They are all deeply masculine characters, inhabiting deeply masculine prejudices, overreactions, and desires for sex and violence. There is no hero.
Heroes and protagonists are, of course, not mutually exclusive, but one wonders who the protagonist is and what exactly they are trying to overcome. Yes, Ryan Gosling is the lead actor, but what exactly is he trying to do? He’s given orders from his overbearing and manipulative mother, and the two clearly have a very Oedipal tension between them, but what Gosling’s character actually does is very little, except for stare blankly from scene to scene, either at another character or into the lens of the camera. One could argue that the protagonist is the Thai cop, Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), but even his motives are fairly murky. Murky, but not ambiguous. The primary issue then is that the film is so bent on making all these characters (perhaps inadvertently) loathsome that there seems to be no depth to them at all. Where Drive’s main man at least had baggage and was not a good man through and through, Gosling’s Julian is nothing but a caricature or a badly drawn representation of male blood lust and misogyny.
As far as I can recall of Refn’s career, Refn has not worked in the area of provocation very much, at least not intentionally and not in the way his fellow Dane Lars von Trier has. Yes, Bronson got some criticism for Tom Hardy’s bizarre (and perfect) performance as a hyper violent, incredibly theatrical villain, but it fit and it made sense. But it was Drive’s head smashing scene that raised a few eyebrows, but even then, it wasn’t as if he was subjecting his characters to, say, the smashing of their “manhood” (which, to be honest, is kind of surprising what with the subject he often explores). But while I didn’t ostensibly have any issue with the violence in Only God Forgives, it is undeniable that it was over the top and provocative. Worse than that, it became redundant. Certainly, there were scenes where it felt necessary, such as a very On the Waterfront-esque fight scene, but like the Korean film I Saw the Devil, it simply became tiring and it reached a point where one would cross their legs, quickly roll their eyes, and say, “Okay, I get it, can we move on now?” In terms of a von Triersian brand of provocation, it’s not inherently successful. Extensive use of music is used in certain violent scenes, arguably to juxtapose the beauty and splendor of both/neither, but, at this point in the game, it feels too late and it feels desperate.
Gosling’s role is little more than a staring contest, which was charming and meaningful the first time (because there was a reason), but obnoxious and cold the second time around. Gosling is beautiful to look at, even to stare at, but if his character does almost nothing else, there’s little reason to care. Yes, I know, Driver did very little else, but his stares, while certainly more soulful, were often motivated by that of Irene. Here, he just looks like a loner, someone who you would be torn between avoiding on the subway and asking if he has Resting Asshole Face. You have to hand it to Gosling, though, for doing all that he can with what little he was given. Refn says it’s about the character channeling his impotence through violence, and while it is indeed conveyed by some sublime camerawork, it is little to actually sustain the character or the story of the film.
Kristen Scott Thomas is an interesting trifle in the film. She’s seductive, but repulsive; sexy, yet terrifying. Despite these attempts at dualities, her character remains one of the shallowest. Many of compared her to Lady Macbeth, but that technically doesn’t make sense. Although both she and Lady Macbeth are ruefully manipulative, Lady Macbeth actually felt remorse and guilt (“Out damn spot!”). Maybe it was incredibly selfish, but Lady Macbeth felt these emotions nonetheless. It’s certainly intriguing to watch Gosling do her bidding, but the Oedipal tension between the two actually goes almost nowhere. It seems to be more of a play on Oedipal tension than an actually well sketched out, primal, dangerous, even taboo relationship. Instead, Refn just sort of spells the whole thing out, especially over a dinner sequence. The masculine power that Thomas has, though, is interestingly offensive. Again, I refer back to the other Danish auteur Lars von Trier: he has, throughout his career, from the Golden Heart Trilogy to Antichrist, been accused of misogyny. Regardless of whether these allegations are true, his female character are, at least, noble in their own way. Perhaps condescendingly so, but noble nonetheless. They’re not one dimensional or even two dimensional. They may not inhabit dualities or paradoxes like Julian’s mother, but they are consistent and admirable. Thomas is the Dragon Lady, someone who is out only for herself, obsessed with power in a way that isn’t shown through exposition but through body language and action. She drapes her arms around a couch “like a man”, owning everyone and everything in the room she’s in. She approaches everyone with aggression, not like a lioness, but like a lion. She could easily be the Devil or the God of Carnage. She looks like Donatella Versace, but she hones the masculinity to a point where her character, so shallow and evil, becomes inherently misogynistic. I’m not saying female characters must be admirable, I’m saying that they should be able to oscillate between different dimensions, feelings, and be written with depth. Thomas is flat, but intriguing nonetheless. She’s one of the most fascinating, most repulsive characters that Refn has ever produced.
But there’s a running problem throughout the film and it’s never fully resolved as to whether the misogyny depicted is simply there, something a part of the film, or a criticism of machismo’s penchant for misogyny in general. The violence towards women, the demeaning language towards Julian’s hook-cum-faux-lover Mai, etc. Generally, an ambiguity of this sort would intrigue, much like the ambiguity of whether Harmony Korine was treating his subjects in Gummo as sideshow freaks or merely observing them. But here, it feels gross and wrong.
What did appeal to me, however, was the obvious Lynchian influence (as well as the influence of Alejandro Jodorowsky, to whom the film is dedicated) on the film. The soundscapes in this film were as refined, if not more so, than in Drive, not merely because the sound was filled with the ambiance of the city. ON the contrary, it was selectively beautiful, channeling in on the perceived silence and light fuzz and atmosphere of rooms and emotions. The sound could manifest itself as a series of louder noises, clangs that, with composer Cliff Martinez’s music, make your blood run cold, or scenes that could stop your heart altogether from the tension of “nothingness”. If there’s one thing that Refn can kind of do well, it’s the ability to hold tension via music and/or sound, which, as aforementioned, is something he definitely learned from Lynch.
Refn doesn’t just take from Lynch in the sound department: He also includes some Lynchian influences in the editing. The most interesting aspect of the film, besides the look I suppose, is the editing. Not “tight” per se, nor outwardly “non-linear”, but the narrative structure (for what little narrative there is, oops around sometimes and flashes back to different scenes fluidly and without being intrusive. The editing and the sound elevate this film from disaster in some ways. It is an attempt, if not a successful one, to be engaging and to keep the audience on its toes. Nothing else in the film seems to really do that.
What does the title mean? I’m still not sure. I suppose, on the plus side for Refn, I’m still thinking about the film, but the more I think about it, the less I like it and the more I think of its flaws and how they negate any of the film’s positive qualities (of which there are very few). Who exactly is God? Is it the cop? Would he be the representation of God’s carnage, as seen in the Old Testament, since he seems to have vendettas of his own? Is it Julian’s mother, for she gave birth to a killer of man (one who is also impotent) and she herself is blood thirsty? Kind of like Mother of the Earth but, you know, vindictive. Is it Gosling’s Julian, a man who lacks control of a set of events he did not create or put into motion? And if the tagline is “It’s Time to Meet the Devil”, who is the Devil? I won’t go into that, as it would basically be a reiteration of the whole paragraph, which is in itself a problem. I do not have an issue with films being opaque in order to convey certain ideas, but when those ideas don’t go anywhere or even clearly understand what they are, then I have a problem.
While I don’t think it’s nearly as awful as the boos as the Cannes Film Festival suggested, I definitely understand why one would be prone to do that. Whether it’s a commentary of modern masculinity in society or merely a projection of it, Refn’s film gets stuck in redundancy and fails to move anywhere totally interesting. There are moments where the sublime photography, where the combination of image and music are totally haunting and hypnotic, but not enough to forgive the errors and flaws of the rest of the film. It’s a shame, though, because there are some genuinely interesting ideas here but a majority of them are sort of left hanging in the air for the audience to try to reach and explore, but are left dangling. Refn responded to critics by saying that “Silence is cinema!” Yeah, but that doesn’t mean it’s inherently good cinema.
(Note: For an intriguing alternate take on the film, check out Simon Abrams’s essay here.)
A Woman is a Woman: Lars and the Real Girl
While it is more than fair to say that Ryan Gosling is a versatile actor, it would be hard to believe that Gosling could portray awkward so well. This is not to disregard his ability, but most people have ever seen him as a leading man, suave, sophisticated, and undoubtedly sexy. While The Notebook and Crazy, Stupid Love gave him the romantic lead, The Ides of March gave him the suave-Cary Grant-esque quality, and Drive made him an existential fighter, these roles allowed him to be the object of much swooning from the female sex (and some males, one In particular whom I know personally, ahem). Lars and the Real Girl is, in many ways, a revelation, both in terms of how people will see Gosling as an actor and in terms of its subject matter within filmmaking. Gosling plays awkward, socially inept, and he does so with pathos. Gosling brings Lars, and Bianca, to real life.
When Lars is fatigued of his social ineptitude and his insecurities stunting his ability to interact with nearly anyone, he tries to solve his predicament by deciding that it may be time for him to finally find a partner, someone with whom he can relate and be emotionally intimate with. Along comes Bianca, who, while personable, kind, and pleasant, just so happens to be a sex doll. She even comes with her own back story! While his brother and sister-in-law are initially wary of Lars’ delusion, his kind sister-in-law decides that, if this is one way that Lars will finally branch out to people, it may not be a problem. And surprisingly, the rest of the small town community is quick to follow.
Lars and the Real Girl, probably unintentionally, is the best argument for tolerance and acceptance. Slowly but surely, Bianca finds her place in the community and begins to help everyone out. It starts out as a subtle gesture of acceptance, but essentially becomes more than that, and meaning more to themselves than they could imagine. Without overstepping its boundaries and jarring the audience with some oft trodden message about acceptance (something that has been advertised ad museum these days), the film makes all of its characters likable and sympathetic, easer to root for, easier to love, and then easier to buy in to what it may be saying. This is greatly aided by the tremendous acting from the cast, the small characters bringing the small town to life. But the film would be nothing without the man who brings Bianca herself to life, making Bianca just as real of a character as everyone else. What is also a relief is that it, again, is not a PSA for anti-bullying. Thus, there is no obligatory “Lars gets bullied by town hoodlums”, something I worried about constantly as I watched the film. To my relief, there was no such scene. The town loves Lars so much, they were willing to buy into it without that usual tension.
Though it may be strange at first seeing Ryan Gosling, who is so devilish in Drive, romantic in The Notebook (which I actually abhor), and quick witted in Crazy, Stupid Love, lean over and emulate real emotional intimacy with a life sized doll, this subtle, controlled performance becomes so real that it brings one to tears by the end. When Bianca comes into Lars’ life, there is new life and confidence to Lars. It is an exceptional performance, almost electric in its emotionality. With all the confident awkwardness that Gosling is able to portray when he is with Bianca, there are beautiful and subtle moments of ambiguity. These fleeting moments of ambiguity, often when Lars looks down at the ground, often seem as Lars is trying to make himself believe that Bianca is real. He knows he wants her to be real wants to be able to channel his emotions like a “normal” person, but it seems that he sometimes struggles. He needs so much to manifest these feelings with a “person” he is comfortable with, and Bianca seems to be the person he wants focus on. His performance is so nuanced and moving, his interactions with Bianca so real, that he brings Bianca to life for the audience. We care so much about Lars that there are moments when we want to fight for him, hope for him.
Emily Mortimer plays Lars’ sister-in-law with just as much realness. Karen is the sympathetic communal catalyst in terms of getting people to play along with Lars’ delusions. Her honesty, though, is refreshing and sweet. She never seems like she is being demeaning or condescending to Lars, but honestly looking out for him, which is more than Lars’ own brother seems to be doing. Paul Schneider’s Gus, the older brother, reveals certain details about their past which may or may not be a factor into Lars’ insecurities and delusions. Patricia Clarkson is elegant as the local doctor who, little by little, tries to weasel out details from Lars. But Lars knows better than to immediately trust her.
The film is startlingly honest about relationships and the effect they have on other people and the acceptance that it takes to welcome someone into your life. While it may not be the mouthpiece to any political commentary, the film is so subtle and gentle, that it could be just that and no one would notice consciously. There is humor in its pathos as well, making the film both a tender and funny experience. There are few films that can have such power over the viewer where it allows them to buy completely into an unrealistic situation and see it as ordinary and nothing less than real. By the end of the film, I may or may not have been in tears. Though, the film gives both Lars and the viewer a sense of closure that, again, seems logical and warranted. Gosling’s portrayal is brilliantly realistic and nuanced and he, along with director Craig Gillespie and writer Nancy Oliver, bring Lars and Bianca to life. Because, at the heart of the film, it manages to say that a person is a person, no matter how much plastic is in their skin or how they manifest their feelings and quirks. And, in the case of Bianca, a woman is a woman.
2012 in Film: #37 – Drive
2012 in Film: #37
Drive (2011) | Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Thoughts: Drive is a memorable exercise in subtly as well as showmanship. It is at once complex and simple. Its protagonist embodies the existential hero, so well portrayed by Gosling. Paying homage to the great car chase films and even Scorsese and Paul Schrader’s “Lonely Man”, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is a carefully executed thrill, and one of the best films from 2011. Fasten your seatbelts; it’s gonna be an exhilarating ride.(See Review)
Fasten Your Seatbelt: Drive
I do not drive, personally, so generally speaking I can’t speak from experience about the thrill of driving a car in any situation whatsoever. But if driving is anything like the thrill of Nicolas Winding Refn’s newest film, maybe I should stop procrastinating on getting my license. Winding Refn’s near masterpiece of a film, Drive, is a sucker punch to the gut, something that can be as subtle as, to use driving analogies, strolling down a street at midnight and something as thrilling as getting into a car chase.
Winding Refn hones in his mastery of the medium in this film, which was pretty up to scratch anyways, as evidenced in his previous works like Valhalla Rising and Bronson. Here, the director and the star become one, in a way. Ryan Gosling’s stunt driver/getaway driver is a silent enigma, his introversion and solitude reminiscent of Camus’ Meursault and Melville’s Le Samourai. The director’s piece is just as silent as his driver, using long tracking shots, slow pans, and very little dialogue. The script, by Oscar-nominated screenwriter, Hossein Amini (The Wings of the Dove) changes the original novel’s format, written by James Sallis, making it into a more linear story line with a more coherent plot. As opposed to a standard and conventional driving thriller, it becomes a character study, almost a silent psychoanalysis of its protagonist. Heady though it sounds, that fact does not affect the thrill of watching the film.
What is it about this film that makes it so spellbinding? I am honestly not quite sure. The mood of the film is spelled out in its music, much of the time, using neo-1980’s sounding tracks that are, in a way, characters themselves. The music, though, helps underline the character of the Driver, someone so contemplative and one whose expressions could be used to fill a book that the character remains complex and not completely readable. A film that transcends every genre you could try to pigeonhole it in (neo-noir, crime, action, thriller, etc.); the music acts somewhat as a narrator. Illustrating the complexity of Gosling’s Driver with No Name, the music’s tone shifts appropriately to whatever the mood is in the current scene, reflecting the feeling of Gosling’s emotions. It makes complete sense that the music would play an integral part into the construction of Winding Refn’s film. What else do you do when you’re in the car, especially as a passenger? You stare out the window, contemplating the meaning of life and you listen to music. The music shifts from diegetic to non-diegetic, where sometimes the Driver is aware of the music and others when only we, the audience can hear it. It may be only conjecture, but if the music can be accepted as both an underlining of who the Driver is as a character as well as a narrator, the music can not only be seen as soundtrack to the film but also to the Driver’s life. It is almost as if the Driver is perfectly conscious of the music playing in his head, the mental playlist he has created that describes who he is. Regardless of what it is, the use of songs like “Nightcall” and “A Real Hero” accentuate the gritty mood for this masterpiece.
Every emotion is discernible on Ryan Gosling’s face and, while that may be true, it doesn’t make him easier to read. It does, however, make his performance that much more interesting and powerful. He is a mystery, one whose past is unknown to anyone in the film, even to the two closest people to him in the film, Bryan Cranston as Shannon, the boss of an auto-repair shop, and Carey Mulligan, the woman whom he falls for and whose husband he attempts to help so that she and her family are safe from the men after her husband, Standard Gabriel (Oscar Isaac). Perhaps this is a defense mechanism, but nevertheless, the Enigmatic Driver never really reveals himself to anyone. Gosling’s portrayal of such a stunning character, a silent one who is mostly influenced and moved by the sheer atmosphere, is incredible. Well known for his romantic leading roles in stuff like The Notebook and Crazy, Stupid Love, Gosling feels much more at home here in a hybrid crime drama-neo noir. He is able to delve into character and become the Driver, an important aspect of the film. Without him, the film would probably fall to pieces. Because the film is so contemplative and devoid of dialogue, it would take complete dedication for an actor to really jump into the role. What Gosling does with the character is make it his own, creating a perfect amalgam of the existential hero from so many great films. It is not a derivative character, but one molded and shaped at Gosling’s (and Refn’s) will. He is one of the most elusive and intriguing characters in recent memory.
The supporting cast is great, filled with interesting and colorful characters. Mulligan plays Irene with a sensitive fragility, just as quiet as the protagonist, and just as tender. This mutual tenderness may be why the two characters work so well and fall in love with one another so easily. Even though it’s a quiet portrayal, it is not so understated that it is not noticeable; it is a perfectly noticeable role. The silence between the two, especially when in the car, is their own form of communication. They are, to some extent, kindred souls. They are able to create intimacy without anything physical. Just a look and just the music on the radio; that’s all they need. It reminds me of the line from Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction in which Uma Thurman’s Mia says, “That’s when you know you’ve found somebody special. Where you can just shut the f*** up for a minute and comfortably enjoy the silence.”
Albert Brooks plays against type in a stunning turn as a mobster who, originally, planned on investing in this Driver to race cars for him. Shame that didn’t go so well. This Brooks, who is certainly not the same guy we love and kind of loathe in Broadcast News or even Finding Nemo, is violent, unpredictable, and smarmy. He takes pleasure in getting as much as he can and at any cost. It is honestly a little shocking to see Brooks in such a violent role, verbally and physically, but it is thrilling nonetheless. Ron Perlman (Sons of Anarchy, Hellboy, Cronos) also shows his villainous side as a foul mouthed, ruthless Jewish mobster who owns, of all things, a pizzeria. With a slight Stallone-esque mumble, Perlman remains just as fearful as normal.
Ryan Gosling may be the star of the show, but an element of the film that accentuates the existential tone of the film is Drive’s superb cinematography. Newton Thomas Sigel, who worked with Bryan Singer on The Usual Suspects, creates a perfectly constructed symphony of slowly moving images. Slow and swift, the tracking shots throughout the film again accentuate the tone of the film. The film is so beautiful looking that you could blindly pick a random still from the film and it would be a work of art. The lighting is extraordinary, the tones shifting from scene to scene to reflect the mood of the Driver. Looking at this film wowed me and intoxicated me, for it is a stunning film to see.
Cut to the chase (scenes)? Yes, it can be a rather violent film. But the violence comes out of nowhere, which shook me to my core. The shocking inclusion and unexpectedness of the violence is perfect. Refn has said that the film is a bit of a tribute to Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece Taxi Driver, and like that film, its violence quakes on the screen. Drive, with its somewhat glacial pacing and quiet and serene mood, lulls you into a false sense of security and then, to put it bluntly, blows your mind. The car chases are just as exciting. Resembling the car chases more like Bullitt and The French Connection, in that the cinematography and look is cohesive and discernible (as opposed to chaotic, ahem Fast and the Furious), the chases pumped adrenaline into my veins. Tense and taut, the chase scenes were memorable and exciting.
Drive is a memorable exercise in subtlety as well as showmanship. It is at once complex and simple. Its protagonist embodies the existential hero, so well portrayed by Gosling. It is fair to say that the film was robbed of several Academy Award nominations this year: Director (Refn, who luckily won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival), Cinematography, Actor (Gosling), Supporting Actress (Mulligan), Editing, and Supporting Actor (Brooks). It managed to nab one nomination and an important one for the film, Sound Editing. Sound plays a huge role in the tone, making one feel there with the characters. It is not complete silence, as the whirring of cars pass by. Paying homage to the great car chase films and even Scorsese and Paul Schrader’s “Lonely Man”, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is a carefully executed thrill, and one of the best films from 2011. Fasten your seatbelts; it’s gonna be an exhilarating ride.
“Et Tu, Gosling?”: Review for The Ides of March
It seems that politics, more than any other subject, is absolute fodder for filmmakers who want to critique culture or create some sort of relevant commentary. From The Manchurian Candidate to The Great Dictator to Wag the Dog, directors not only love to look at the corrupt state of government by imbuing its characters with absurd stereotypes but they also love to expose the cunning wit that politicians have. They’re smooth talkers and they’re supposed to be. Just take a look at the iconic speech that Chaplin gives at the end of The Great Dictator, lampooning Hitler a couple years before World War II had actually begun.
George Clooney joins the band of merry satirists in a darker fashion, trying to create and emulate suspense more along the lines of The Manchurian Candidate, and, to some extent, Coppola’s The Conversation. Playing a governor and almost presidential candidate just prior to a Democratic Primary in Ohio, Clooney, who directed and co-wrote The Ides of March, isn’t even at the front line of the film. It’s Ryan Gosling, the debonair, smart, young, and very qualified campaign advisor Stephen Meyers, working separate but next to Mike Morris’ (Clooney) official campaign manager Paul Zara (Phillip Seymour Hoffman).
The competition between Mike Morris and Arkansas Senator Ted Pullman (Michael Mantell) is close and tense, and throughout the film, you’re never quite sure who’s leading. Logistically, it only matters insofar that we know that Morris is a nice guy, just like Clooney, and we root for him initially. We want him to win, just like Clooney, were he to run for President. He’s a swell, logical guy.
Gosling’s Stephen is just as swell, but he’s harder on the outside and more ambiguous. He makes the statement that, despite whatever the statistics of Morris’ campaign, he will do what he does if he believes in it, not merely to win, in comparison to Zara. We can thus assume that, regardless of how many campaigns he’s actually been a part of, he’s rather naïve. He’s slightly disillusioned about Marisa Tomei’s New York Times correspondent Ida and whether or not she’s an actual “friend”. To what extent can he trust her is something that pops up throughout the film every so often. He plays the character well, with finesse, like he has with his previous roles in Crazy, Stupid, Love and Drive. He uses that same charm, but he knows, and we know, that it’s not the same character.
The point of this morality play, which is based on co-screenwriter Beau Willimon’s Farragut North, is to observe the moral ambiguity in politics. The idea is nothing new. Even the aspect of the character study is not new. Maybe that’s the problem with the film. It’s not new or fresh, despite the very contemporary setting and the feeling that Barack Obama is watching behind you and will resent you if you don’t like it. Moral ambiguity is usually a key point in political thrillers. What one candidate will do or not do to win or get the advantage is the drama, and here it plays very predictably. The center though, is not the candidate himself, but the advisor.
Meyers, while doggedly “married” to the campaign makes the dangerous mistake of acting on a phone call from the opposing team and visiting the opposing side’s own campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti). From there, you have your drama. To what extent is Stephen Meyers still that honest, likable, charming guy; the one who can easily bed the sexy intern Molly (Evan Rachel Wood) and still be seen as the cool guy on campus. But his weakness is ambition. His ambition is his downfall, as, typically, he’s not as honest as he presents himself. It’s his ambition that propels him to see Giamatti, just to see if they can pay better, if the payoff allows for more power.
Its direction is fine, but the dialogue is, thankfully, interesting. If anything, it does make one wonder why the screenwriters and playwrights who pen these contemplative and methodical works don’t run for office themselves. They seem to have a good grip on what’s going on and can articulate the solutions well enough to sound convincing coming from the mouth of an actor playing a candidate. What the characters say, primarily the political ones spark the ongoing debate within the audience’s mind about the honesty of politics or lack thereof.
The title is reminiscent of those tragic Greek plays, but most reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The voting day for the Democratic Primary is, you guessed it March 15th, otherwise known as the Ides of March, the same day that Caesar was so iconically betrayed and murdered by Brutus and 60 other co-conspirators. Metaphorically, Meyers is, of course, Brutus with Morris as Caesar. However, perhaps to the disappointment of Clooney, it never seems as tragic as the play. It’s a bummer, somewhat of an accident on Meyers’ part, but it’s not tragic.
The screenplay is strong, but this is one of the few films that I would have preferred seeing on the stage. The characters are far more important and the constant switch in setting, as contemporary and “relevant” as they seem is actually distracting. It’s trying to be directed more like a film than like a stage play, but there’s no balance between the transition from one medium to the other. The politics are interesting, but the moral ambiguity of its characters is less interesting than you would think, even with Clooney at the head. You walk out with your mental ballot only being half punched through.