Review: Skyfall


Update 2018:

Another viewing clarifies that I am not in love with this film like some others, but the one-on-one scene is a truly sublime brawl along with a motion poem that not only animates Mendes’ and Deakins’ visual sensibility but clarifies Bond’s anxiety about being an old war dog surrounded by a rapidly enveloping, corseting, even emasculating technological future that renders his classicism fragile at best, useless at worst, quite literally visualizing him as a shadow of his former self.

Original Review:

Edited

Skyfall has a lot of problems, problems all Bond films apparently must have, and which I’ll get to later. But it’s also subversive, perceptive, character-focused, and all manner of other accolades not normally associated with 007 or his genre of choice in general. We get a haunted, aged Bond here, no longer youthfully ignorant and bitter like in Casino Royale but world-weary, beat-down, and conflicted due to a too-personal relationship with boss M, here rendered the questionable, inhuman, power figure she is. And that’s besides all the usual Bond strengths, shown here in full bloom. Great action, pithy one-liners, beautiful locations, suspense, dry humor, and tension are back in abundance. This simultaneous desire to be the ultimate Bond and to re-conceptualize and critique the Bond mythos through subverting it is too fundamentally complicated for the film to work as it wants to (it’s ultimately a bit of having your cake and eating too on the film’s part),  but this film is just plain too well-constructed to pass on.

Skyfall’s narrative begins as we’d expect any Bond film too: with a big action scene. The end of it however is most unexpected. I won’t spoil it here, but it leaves Bond flustered and broken-down in non-reparable ways. He soon returns to service but is a shadow of his former self, a greater challenge when Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) soon shows up to wreak havoc upon M’s (Judi Dench) life and the Britain the film uneasily explores her command of. There’s a lot more lurking behind Silva’s desires than mere conquest though. He has a personal vendetta to settle, one which forces Bond to confront aspects of himself and his relationship to M and a command structure and job which the film critiques as much as it validates.

What can I say about Skyfall? Its opening twenty minutes is classic pedal-to-the-metal Bond, with a nasty twist. But then the film cools down a bit before slowly but surely building up the energy of a tenacious bull ready to strike. This is dynamite action filmmaking from a filmmaker, Sam Mendes, I never expected could direct action, amped up here with artistic touches that shoot straight for the gut (the final action sequence is unspeakably, and hauntedly, gorgeous, located on a Scottish moor and filmed as a battle between fiery, dying embers threatening to overtake the oppressively empty blackness of geography long past its prime, a literal manifestation of Bond’s aged psyche, hollow core, and how the fiery villains he faces keep him alive and going even as they threaten to tear him apart). Craig is on top form here as always too. Everything we’d expect from a Bond movie is here and done extremely well. But what about what we don’t expect? What about the unspoken linkage running through every 007 picture: the film’s attitude toward Bond? On one hand, it’s a little too-expected. It’s hard to distance the film from the long history of macho misogyny somehow excused due to its nominally classy pretensions. This has plagued Bond for 50 years and I don’t expect it to stop any time soon.

In other ways though, the film is more self-reflexive. At one point, M gives a speech that’s highly conservative and steadfastly militaristic. It’s not a throwaway or lacking import – the film is in many ways as much about M as Bond. The film’s villain, Silva is a past agent motivated by revenge against M for having used, abused, and thrown him away, as she earlier in the film appears willing to do with Bond. She’s a strong woman, but her strength, befitting less explicitly misogynist but still heavily patriarchial times, is defined by her willingness to “do the job”, to commit violence, and to maintain a semblance of rationality. In other words, she, as a woman, can exhibit these qualities which historically were associated with men, but it still maintains a certain hegemony of traits considered masculine as ideal. It does not challenge the worth of “masculine” traits, but argues that a few women here and there can exhibit them as well, itself a highly conservative belief and a stain on the film as it upholds masculine identity by simply implying women can now be “like” men too (as does the entire action movie world in general).

The film’s exploration of gender is deeper still, especially when a presumed Bond girl is unceremoniously dispatched as a result of Bond’s inability to “shoot” properly; it’s hard to miss the commentary on masculinity in the pun, and its effect on his character. The film here is entirely willing to use and abuse a female to explore Bond’s character, exactly as it has done for decades. But here, he’s impotent rather than commanding and debonair; usually he’s able to overpower women with his sexual charms, to render them helpless to him. Here, he’s shooting with a different kind of gun, and yet she’s been restrained for him, rendered helpless, and ready for him to have his way with her by “saving” her through a steadfast aim, the same thing he has used for decades to “save” women, in the film’s eyes, by letting them experience him. But he’s unable to. The film here fairly openly critiques Bond’s womanizing by explicitly linking it to violence and abuse, and indeed openly stating that Bond’s control over women is connected to his masculine ability to do violence unto others. He, like “villain” Silva, is a dehumanized killing machine, constructed by the necessities of his borderline-fascist job to have no soul. Here, any joy audiences feel for him is rendered as the result of their implicit upholding of gender relations and male violence done for “justified” purposes.

Thus, the film explores complicated themes in intriguing ways, but what is less clear, ultimately, is how it feels about all this. I’m not sure it really knows, for any critique the film poses to the formula is challenged by the fact that we are still meant to sympathize with Bond and his shattered masculinity, and ultimately to sympathize with the film and have fun with it. This is what I mean by “uneasily” exploring complicated themes and trying to “have its cake and eat it too”, which the film undeniably is. Thematically, it tries to push the boundaries of its genre and challenge the norms of Bond’s problematic character, and it’s not entirely successful, nor, perhaps, could it ever be while still technically a Bond film –  for all the commentary on the series’ attitude toward women, the film still doesn’t have one interesting female character other than M. Ethically then, the film is on shaky ground as it tiptoes between radicalism and conservatism, and this makes the film simultaneously more fascinating and more openly difficult to truly accept. The question remains: can we have fun with something that the film is trying uneasily to acknowledge is problematic? I’m not we should,  but I’d be lying to myself if I said I didn’t.

This is especially true when the film is most critical, in fact, toward the M who here is painted as having to act masculine to prove her worth in a society and job predicated on masculine posturing, as Bond is wont to do – if the film upholds her as a strong woman only insofar as she is masculine, it also criticizes her, and Bond, for being so masculine in the form of the tortured Silva who has come back to haunt M. She’s stripped Silva of his humanity, Bond of his humanity, and her of her own humanity in upholding her masculine position, and the film doesn’t devalue the consequences of her actions. Does the film ultimately find fault with her? Yes and no – at other times it seems willing to paint her as a lesser of two evils, an evil necessary to combat men like Silva, like when she gives a speech all-done-up with symphonic swells and intercut with her man in action fighting off the very “evil” force she’s talking about, thereby rendering her argument real and legitimate. Then again Silva’s point is that she made him a villain, and the film, unlike so many other films that address the notion of heroes creating villains, actually sympathizes with him and even sees him as correct. So what does this mean for the film’s view of militaristic justice and even shadowed neo-imperialism? It’s hard to say, but Skyfall addresses the question in nervous, tense ways and expects us to find the answer.

Bond’s relationship with M is also somewhat strained as a result of her own militaristic attitude, her willingness to use and abuse others just as Bond does to get what she wants, something the film doesn’t conveniently drop as it hurtles toward its conclusion. And in turn, we’re unsure of what this means for Bond either; he’s angry at M, not only because he’s been rendered somewhat impotent by the film’s proceedings but because he sees in her a lot of what he’s been forced to do. He comes to see that the dehumanized killing machine he’s become as a result of her is also what she’s become as a result of her own perhaps misguided perception of the fears and danger in the world. What happens at the end of the film may shock viewers, but it’s also perfectly in sync with the film’s own mixed view of the whole Bond world. Films have passingly explored these tensions with Bond before, but to develop M in this manner is in some ways even more difficult.

Elsewhere, the film’s most discussed element, a homoerotic confrontation between Silva and Bond, crackles with tension on multiple levels. In a way,  it’s a commentary on the homoerotic relationship in all masculine action films, where one male, frequently buff and unadorned, quests to best another male, ideally in a heated fight of passion, or perhaps by shooting him with a phallic bullet through his gun. In other ways, it’s a commentary on the close relationship between Silva and Bond, two men who were given power and rendered impotent and powerless by M, two men who can perhaps better understand each other than they understand women. Beyond this, it’s also cheap attempt to throw in something for audiences to discuss or find amusing, especially in light of Bond’s ambiguous reaction “what makes you think this is my first time?” , spoken to Silva, with a smirk, in reaction to Silva’s  question to Bond about being tied up and prey to another man’s desires. “What makes us think it’s his first time?” is that he’s the masculine, debonair symbol of the Western world’s heterosexual male population, and the filmmakers’ know it. They also know that we won’t believe Bond and that we’re afraid to. This allows them to acknowledge a tension but in a perhaps half-hearted way. Again, I’m not sure, nor is the film, of it’s own morality here. I cannot say whether it intelligently comments on Bond’s masculinity and criticizes him for it, upholds it problematically and feels sorry for him for being rendered impotent, or does both. But the scene, opening with a long take with the camera behind Bond as Silva walks toward him slowly from an impossibly far distance while giving a monologue that is the stuff of film-legend, is extremely well constructed and delightfully on-point filmically.

The film ends tragically, but with an epilogue that closes it on the upbeat, “what adventure will come next” attitude the series has also had, makes us realize that Bond is still Bond. The film bends the rules but it doesn’t break them. For all its seriousness and self-reflexivity, it’s a big-budget entertainment with a high action quotient, a truly dynamite thriller. It also realizes that there may be something wrong with that, but, as has been true for Bond with women (in all but one film, 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), it’s unwilling and perhaps unable to commit.

In other words, this is a postmodern Bond, but, as mentioned, it’s also one interested in reclaiming Bond for a modern audience and not only sticking to, but recreating, formula even as it works to subvert that formula. It tries to give us one-liners, Q, Moneypenny, and all manner of other formula staples even as it shakes things up. That’s a difficult proposition, and a dangerous one, but god-dammit this movie is too good to pass up. I’m not going to argue that the film is as radical as it wants to be, but in terms of pure entertainment, it’s undeniably a winner. It runs the gamut, from the rip-roaring to the caustic and haunted, and it does it all with the smooth energy of its titular hero (recaptured here in a brilliant scene when Craig jumps onto a moving train car from a bulldozer he had just whipped into tearing that train car in half –  when he lands, the back half of the train car crumbling behind him, he pauses to reattach his cuff links in a moment of pure cinematic cool).

So we have cuff-links, and we have formula subversion, and we have great action and characters, all rolled into one in what should be a mess of a film but manages to just work, and work damn well, despite the jumbled tones that ought to shoot the film in the foot (Bardem’s high camp performance in particular is much more a recollection of the Moore era than we might think, and it does admittedly clash hard against the dour spirits of much of the film). Maybe it’s just my soft spot for fiendish, devious camp  ( or the fact that Bardem’s character is, in perhaps the film’s ultimate subversion, absolutely right 100% of the time about M and about Bond), but I went with it, warts and all. It’s dangerously likable, and it knows its dangerous and attempts to deal with questionably but in undeniably compelling terms from a filmic perspective (the film is stunningly shot by the best working cinematographer in the biz, Roger Deakins; it is absolutely the best looking Bond film ever).  It’s a thing of bitter irony that Craig opened this revamped series with a classic play on, and rejection of, Bond’s “shaken, not stirred line” when Craig’s three films have been all about shaking Bond to his core. Now that this has been accomplished about as well as seemingly possible for a series predicated on implicit conservatism, let’s hope there’s room in this next Bond for a little martini umbrella, or something else to spice up a series which now threatens to mire itself in a glum seriousness that’s perhaps (hopefully) run its course over the past ten years.

Score: 8/10 (down from 8.5 –  the more I think about it the more the hard turns from sour comedy to aching drama are a problem, both narratively and ethically, and the less subversive this still fairly conservative, neoliberal film is)

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