Interesting missteps

After wasting my time, like Chris, on the B13 sequel — how can you do a follow-up to a movie celebrated primarily for its parkour antics and pretty much dump the parkour? — I shifted my queue around to try and expand my horizons a bit. This was not entirely successful, but both of the following films offer intriguing performances and filmmakers playing to their own uncommercial instincts. Worth seeing, yet…

Scott McGehee and David Siegel have long been filmbuff film-makers, from their first feature (the excellent Suture) riffing on cinematic theory and history, in ways that led them toward brilliance (The Deep End). And then this weird sidetrack into the middlebrow mainstream, with the limpid Bee Season. Uncertainty returns to ‘buff roots, with an exact formalist riff on narrative and character. Its two young lovers (Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Lynn Collins) are on the Brooklyn Bridge, trying to decide …. something, something important. In to Manhattan, or back to Brooklyn? They suddenly break from one another, sprinting in opposite directions, each climbing into separate vehicles to find their partners (now in different clothes), and the film splits in two. One storyline is domestic melodrama, a reasonably-affecting study of their relationship as they return to her family home for a fourth of July barbecue. The other starts with a found cellphone and escalates into reasonably-suspenseful paranoid intrigue, as they try to blackmail the phone’s gangster owner but get more than they bargained for.

Emphasize the “reasonable.” This is often gorgeous, it’s an idea done before but rarely with such effortless yet exacting formal precision, and the film embraces the title–allowing the audience an associative pleasure in the links and echoes and divergences between the tales. So why didn’t I love this? Despite all its great ingredients, the film feels inert — unlike Suture, where the theory-tinged shenanigans and gorgeous cinematography were linked to a sly wit and a vibrant narrative momentum, this film is one that kept me at arm’s length, reflecting but rarely engaging. Alas.

Peacock is a lot more conventional in its filmmaking, Small-town Nebraska, mid-twentieth-century. Its central storyline involves the ever-uncanny Cillian Murphy playing a person with a dissociative personality disorder that he effectively covers up from his neighbors and co-workers. During the day, he’s the tightly-wound, asocial, child-like John. In the evening, and early morning, he’s Emma–John’s wife. Things are lovely for him and her, until a train derails into their backyard, and suddenly Emma is revealed to others. . . and she begins to want her freedom.

That sounds terribly melodramatic, and lord knows the film milks–to ill effect–a variety of overheated plot twists and details. (John/Emma’s horrid past with an abusive mother; a young sort-of prostitute, who had a relationship with John and now has come back in seeking… something; etc.) The film never really figures out its purpose or tone, and so it throws narrative at the problem, trying to plot-twist its way along. Meh. (It also throws some astonishing supporting actors at the work — Susan Sarandon is particularly fine and well-used; others–Keith Carradine, Bill Pullman, Ellen Page, Josh Lucas–are more like background furniture of a particularly lovely form.) But it’s worth seeing just for Murphy’s tough, beautiful performance. He never offers an easy take, underplays even the most outsized events, and captures something broken and wonderfully heartfelt in these two characters. Would that the film were half as good as he is… but it is still worth a look.

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