The Magnificent Seven
Comparing a film to its predecessor is an exercise in defeat and dredging up the past when the present is here for us to intake on its own. Besides, with The Magnificent Seven, it doesn’t really get us anywhere; “seven fighters protect villagers from bad stuff” isn’t exactly robust enough a concept to qualify as a specific, remake-able object or a debt owed from one film to another. It’s more like a mythology passed down through generations. What makes the 2016 The Magnificent Seven’s amorphous scrawl a fumble more than a rumble (I couldn’t resist) is its own doing, irrespective of its forebears or any questions about “adaptation”. One doesn’t have to watch the 1960 film to see how feather-light the attempts to catalyze a parched throat are in this new one. Or the inchoate, failed efforts to germinate camaraderie in this supposed family affair. The mediocrities are on the screen, and they speak for themselves. The song is fine, but the cover is weightless. It’s dry-bones competence, well filmed in the “I guess so” sense. But Fuqua’s film – in what is quickly becoming an almost auteurist tick of his – is habitually addicted to being the most mediocre version of itself it can possibly be.
I guess that’s some kind of goal, after a fashion, but not much of one. If I was going to compare, Seven Samurai remains one of the formal masterpieces of cinema, a thoughtful exegesis on the text of social camaraderie and the interpersonal relationships of individuals who shift from insider to outsider and back not only by the shot but within each shot. Kurosawa’s blocking in the quietest of scenes could raise the pulse and excite the mind more than any two thousand gun salute Fuqua can possibly pull out of his directorial bag of tric… err, corporate funding. Even the Sturges remake, the original film to bear the Magnificent name, didn’t so much reduce the material as pare it to its essentials and restabilize it as a less lyrical but still poignant study in male dynamics. This new Magnificent Seven, unlike the titular individuals it gallantly attempts to personalize and variegate, never attains an identity of its own. Scratch that: the film’s characters never achieve unique identities either, but unlike this feature film, they at least try.
If Fuqua’s film aims for difference, it’s mitigated to the level of concept and halfhearted political critique (as in: don’t look for variety in the actual filmmaking). Unlike the crypto-conservative original (seven more-or-less whites against an undifferentiated mass of “otherized” Mexicans), Fuqua’s Seven pits its multi-racial rough-riders against Bartholomew Bogue (played by Peter Sarsgaard; the character’s name is the film’s most singular triumph, that’s for sure). No individualized criminal element, Bogue is explicitly identified as a stand-in for the encroaching arm of industrial capitalism and the oppressions of miserly big business at large.
The film, in other words, dares to suggest an ethnic rainbow as a freedom fighter’s guild, essentially. Which is fair enough, although the screenplay is distinctly, even actively, unwilling to personify the protagonists outside of their race and a few every-day, seemingly compulsive scenes that are lit with a neon-sign flashing “character moment”. More or less, it rests on the fact that the names and the actors are appealing: gruff, taciturn black cowboy commander Sam Chisholm (Denzel Washington), knife-wielding assassin Billy Rocks (Lee Byung-hun), brash criminal Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), bow-wielding Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), and a few white guys for good measure (ok, they have names and actors too: Goodnight Robicheaux – Ethan Hawke; Josh Farraday – Chris Praat; Jack Horne – Vincent D’Onofrio).
But, flutters of momentary character aside, they’re just that: names in search of identities. As for the appended races that the film tries to pay more than lip-service to, the script ultimately stumbles into the dominant “nominal diversity” model of most modern middlebrow multiculturalism where the simple presence of individuals of different colors necessarily implies that the film is truly progressive in ideology. The racial minorities in this film (along with the white characters, to be fair) are seldom more than types, essentialized to their status as totem to diversity rather than flesh and blood characters.
Outside of that, it’s all just so … adequate. I suppose the grotty, blown-out, jaundiced colors in Mauro Fiore’s cinematography invoke a kind of aestheticized nightmare West (what kind of nightmare I cannot say, but it’s best not to ask for specifics from a film like this). That aside, it’s all flash but not enough bang; say what you will about him, but Fuqua was at one point a stylist of a sort. His films were distinctively bad, heading down the wrong road in a souped-up vehicle. The Magnificent Seven, in contrast, is just a non-entity, a work driving around in circles, going nowhere. Fuqua is down to resting on his connection with megastar Denzel Washington (commanding here, as he always is) rather than exploiting his medium in any particular way beyond pointing the camera at things and hitting go.
While the heroes are differentiated at the level of movement and physical kinesis (not that the film has eyes for being the next Charlie Chaplin), it’s no surprise that the camerawork is depressingly monochromatic, even paralyzed. Every character is filmed in exactly the same way, reflecting the film’s inability to transcend diegetic difference in characters’ physical appearance to achieve formal variation in the style of the filmmaking (you know, the whole reason behind having a film camera in the first place). That fact is as indicative as any toward summarizing what Fuqua hath wrought: not magnificent, but nor is it disreputable, rebellious, or disfigured enough to slide into the register of killer B-pic either. Although it could be labeled competence, whatever mode the film inhabits, it sticks to from minute one to the very end; never the loose cannon it needs to be, it’s trapped in a state of arrested evolution.
Following on the trail of his arid, sour, solemn remake of The Evil Dead – sans any of the slimy soliloquies or tonal schisms of Sam Raimi’s original version – it is perhaps ironic that director Fede Alvarez’s second film has taken up stock in Raimi’s wheelhouse with a tragic-comic riff on the nasty, slithering Wait Until Dark. Maybe the criticism of his first film gave him a change in heart: Don’t Breathe is a mordant swerve into gleefully ghoulish delight. It’s not especially great, but the effort is appreciated. This film’s got a little of the devil in it.
Pitting three underclass youths (Rocky (Jane Levy), Money (Daniel Zovatto), and Alex (Dylan Minnette)) against a blind veteran (played by Stephen Lang) of similar economic grounding, Don’t Breathe isn’t exactly writhing with concern for the marginalized poor of the world. The conceit is clearly an attempt at some trivial metaphor (horror films from young and clever but under-talented writers always reduce themselves to concept-based metaphors in order to feign genuine depth rather than concentrating on form and filmmaking to seal the deal). And, admittedly, the vacancy of the thematic exploration does double as a kind of ambivalence about the characters (who should live, who should die) that effectively sells thenobody-wins caliber of a world that pits the poor against the poor. But, that aside, the film is an after-thought as far as social commentary is concerned.
But many of Don’t Breathe’s small triumphs are displaced from the social realm, even the real world altogether. For Don’t Breathe, that three working class youths are torn to robbing another impoverished soul is more a situation – a catalyst for a pitch-black carnival – rather than a social polemic. A play of disfigurement and deception, Alvarez’ film is a deathly screwball riff, with the wily idiosyncrasies and screwy uncertainty of murder and physical mayhem replacing the social impropriety (and disinterest in the rules of time, place, and property) once folded into Graucho Marx’s asocial one-liners. Terror bleeds into absurdist comedy, the film being balanced at that precious and perilous devil’s crossroad where coal-black anxiety and throbbing, unmoored silliness comingle. The film bleeds laughter into bafflement into existential panic.
The pleasures of Don’t Breathe are that of Tom and Jerry, Bugs and Daffy, of kinetic characters felled when they become victims of their own momentum. Like all of Raimi’s best films (which Don’t Breathe can only stalk behind, but at least it doesn’t slander them), this work’s wicked perplexity is that of people in a muddle of ostensibly contradictory emotions who suddenly reach the demented epiphany that terror and bedevilment are mutually constitutive rather than exclusive.
That achievement is appreciated, since the film’s social musings are specious and neutered at best, ignorant at worst. While the set design within the veteran’s house (where most of the action occurs) is a dynamite rendering of impoverishment as a rotted-out coffin to die in, the film is totally non-committal with its vague attempts to characterize the cartilage that links the various buildings of a city devoured by capitalism. The Detroit setting is more a matter of fact, a mere ornament, than a question to peruse or a tombstone to shape the contours of. Worse, though, is the indifferent attempts at “back story” – the bane of almost every modern genre film – that implies a work attempting to bite off more than it can chew.
Although devoid of anything resembling class, Alvarez clearly at least knows his stuff, staging intermezzo upon intermezzo of prickly, anarchic abandon, reined-in just enough by the catharsis-defying narrative to tighten the bolts on your skin until the film bleeds with mortal fear. Sure, his camera isn’t exactly applying the rules of guerilla warfare to throw a Molotov cocktail toward the regulations of cinema, nor is the demonic use of silence and negative sound space in the film exactly concocting some kind of aural terrorism. But everything that’s here is – within its own limits – worthwhile. Call it (funny)bone chilling.