Produced by Marvel Studios and Walt Disney Pictures
Directed by Taika Waititi
Screenplay by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost
Distributed by Walt Disney Studios
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Produced and Distributed by A24
Written and Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Produced by Armory Films
Directed by Dee Rees
Screenplay by Dee Rees and Virgil Williams, from the novel by Hillary Jordan
Distributed by Netflix
Two years ago, I swore off Marvel films. With the exception of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002), there’s not a one of the 50 or so other superhero productions that exhibits a scrap of genuine wit, despite the actors cocking their eyebrows to say otherwise while delivering their supposedly arch lines.
I confess bulging muscles stuffed into colorful spandex are not my cup of entertainment these days. Although, to be fair, I’m sure they would have been 65 years ago. But then there were only cheesy black-and-white serials featuring such comic-book eminences as Superman, Batman, and Flash Gordon. While I eagerly awaited each new chapter at my town’s cinema, even at ten years old I could tell they weren’t cinematic art.
So I was going to pass up Thor: Ragnarok until I noticed that several commentators were marveling at the satiric touches that New Zealand director Taika Waititi had introduced to the usually leaden series. I became curious enough to see for myself what his Maori-Jewish sensibility brought to the party.
What I saw was this: A film whose plot is wildly overstuffed to the point of incomprehensibility; a kid movie burdened with an indecipherably tangled backstory; a denouement devoid of any logic other than its obvious mission to set up the next sequel. What’s more, I got thoroughly lost early on and never got my footing thereafter. Maybe my expectations were too high. Not that the film is without some amusing moments. Cate Blanchett shines as Hela, the Norse goddess of death. I understand she did her own stunts, which included walking along the polished metal sheath of a spaceship traveling at ungodly speeds. She slinks along in her glistening black jumpsuit, sprouting retractable antlers whenever she’s especially piqued. Her especial enemy is a Valkyrie played by Panamanian actress Tessa Thompson, who has that perfect café-au-lait complexion so characteristic in Nordic climes. Whenever this young lady fuels her anger with a bottle of whiskey, she goes on a tear swinging her beautiful clash-worthy sword. I couldn’t understand why Waititi didn’t have her humming the music to Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries in her many, many battle scenes. Missed opportunity, that. Chris Hemsworth as Thor is amusing at times, especially when his burly body is being knocked about by the film’s dainty damsels. Tom Hiddleston as Loki looks sinister enough, but he lacks the trickiness for which this god is famed. When the furious editing and light-speed fleeing and chasing took over, I’m afraid I became bored into a state of somnolescence. When I awoke, I instantly renewed my resolve to stay away from Marvel films. They simply aren’t marvelous.
Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’s film The Killing of a Sacred Deer also draws on mythical antecedents, but does so with a cheerless, murky heartlessness. As far as I could make out, the film seems to transplant Europe’s fashionable self-loathing to Cincinnati.
It opens with an overhead shot of a patient undergoing open-heart surgery at the hands of a seemingly skilled practitioner. Several years later, said surgeon, Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) and his family have come under a curse that ineluctably shreds their once-comfortable existence. Murphy and his wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), had confidently plotted their and their children’s lives with the care one would take to master a particularly challenging engineering problem. Although their children are barely into their teen years, the parents have already scripted their educational and professional careers to a fare-thee-well. When their daughter has her first menses, Steven informs others of the event in a dispassionate clinical voice as if he were charting her progress through her mechanically arranged life. Everything is as methodically controlled as the medical procedures conducted in the chrome and glass interior of the hospital where he works. In one scene, we watch Anna meticulously floss her teeth. The soundtrack is turned up so that we can plainly hear the floss flicking in and out of her molars in the otherwise hushed environment of their immaculate home. She’ll not abide clutter in either her person or her house. When Anna prepares to make love, she disrobes, lies across the bed motionless, and asks Steven, “General anesthetic?” He regards her with all the emotion of a frozen clam as they take up what seems to be an erotic ritual in which her role is to remain motionless lest genuine passion disrupt their orderly existence. This is Lanthimos’s supposedly witty portrait of the upper-middle class, going through life antiseptically as if by prescription.
But then seemingly out of nowhere things begin to go seriously awry. A creepy 16-year-old boy named Martin starts showing up at Steven’s office asking him odd, portentous questions. Though Steven is busy, he agrees to talk to the boy, patiently answering his inquiries. He even gives Martin an expensive chronometer. Why? In the world of the film, this betokens Steven’s obsession with scheduling and controlling events. It takes another 40 minutes before we learn that Martin is the son of the patient who died on Steven’s operating table in the opening scene. Martin has somehow learned that Steven had been drinking before the procedure. Despite Steven’s denial of any professional lapse and his reasonable explanation of the risks surgery inevitably entails, Martin holds Steven personally responsible for his loss. In a rushed, uninflected little speech, he announces that to expiate his lapse Steven’s children and wife will soon sicken and die. The only way to prevent this fate is for Steven to kill one of them himself. Indeed, the prophecy starts coming true. Steven’s son awakens one morning to discover that his legs are paralyzed. Then his daughter suffers the same affliction. What’s more, the children begin to refuse food. Fate is closing in, as indeed it must in Lanthimos’s Greek-inflected imagination. Here’s where we discover the meaning of the film’s title. The plot is the reworking of the ancient Iphigenia legend in a 21st-century setting. When Agamemnon provoked Artemis, the virgin goddess of the hunt, by killing one of her stags and then bragging of his deed, she demanded the king sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to atone for his hubristic crime.
Some commentators have seen this as Lanthimos’s jolly nose-thumb to middle-class arrogance. This reading seems perfectly legitimate save for the jolliness it’s supposed to evoke. To my way of thinking the film is dankly lugubrious and more than a little ridiculous. Its attempts at humor consistently misfire owing to their sophomoric, snide inspiration.
The ancient Greeks had the tact to keep tragic violence offstage. But not this modern Greek. Lanthimos has insisted on showing us his vile conceit in bloody close-up: beatings, bitings, and shootings involving young children and their supposed guardians. Just what the middle class deserves. Very funny, indeed.
Mudbound also deals with the past’s fatal weight upon the present, but it does so without sneering. It tells the story of two Mississippi families, one white, the other black, living side by side on Mississippi Delta farmland during the Jim Crow 1940’s. The whites, of course, are the owners, and the blacks, their tenants, but there’s no difference in their shared living standards. Each is as economically downtrodden as the other. It’s a very plausible recreation of the era with none of the standard distortions and evasions about the racial relations of the time.
The director, Dee Rees, is a black woman, lesbian as it happens. This would have made her doubly an outsider in the past, but today doubly qualifies her as an insider in the eyes of many of the bien-pensants. However Rees feels about this, I couldn’t detect any politically correct posturing in her story, which is adapted from Hillary Jordan’s 2008 debut novel. While I’ve only had time to read excerpts from the book, Rees seems to have treated it with an uncommon fidelity. Many will find the story cathartic. I certainly did.
It begins with brothers Henry (Jason Clarke) and Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) burying their father (Jonathan Banks) during a stormy evening on the farm Henry owns. As they dig the grave, the older brother, Henry, finds a skull with a bullet hole in it. They can’t use the site, he abruptly announces. The bullet hole in the skull makes it more than likely it belonged to a slave shot while fleeing from his owner. And he knows that their father would be outraged to share the site with a nigger. Jamie resists Henry’s decision: The storm will make it impossible to dig at a new site for days. The corpse must go down before it begins to decay. So they place the old man in the already dug grave, leaving the white man to find his eternal rest alongside a black man. Rees’s point is plain. However dissimilar their stations in life, there’s little difference between these men in death, the ultimate equalizer.
The rest of the narrative finds other grounds on which to erase racial differences, principally in the scenes dramatizing the war experiences of two young men related by living on the same patch of Delta mudland: Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), the sharecropper’s son, and Jamie, brother to the owner.
Ronsel drives a tank in France, where the local civilians treat him as an equal, including, to his astonishment, the white women, one of whom becomes his lover. Jamie, on the other hand, becomes a bomber pilot, nearly losing his life on at least one mission flying through a flak-filled sky.
Once home again, both men find they can no longer accept their town’s cultural and racial assumptions. As a consequence, they build a friendship that so defies local proprieties that they run afoul of the town’s bigots.
This material could have been handled with heavy dollops of white guilt and black righteousness, but Rees hasn’t taken this sanctified path at all. With the exception of the McAllans’ racist father, the characters are rounded human beings with both virtues and failings, the latter exacerbated by their morally purblind environment, ingrained as it is with institutional racism.
Rees may be a director to watch in the years ahead.