If The Guard was a strong, entertaining if somewhat slight caustic comedy, Calvary keels over and knocks things back down to Earth, hinting at even greater things under John McDonagh’s sleeves in the process. The film, which details one week in the life of Father James (Brendan Gleeson) and takes place in a quintessentially Irish countryside, deals with crises of faith with an uncustomary humanity and sincerity (especially considering John and brother Martin’s reputation for snarky, brittle humor). The warmth shouldn’t be confused for lack of despair though – the center of the plot is James being told in a confession booth that the man confessing plans to kill him at the end of a week. The reason? He was molested by another priest in his childhood and, after trying to cope for years, he can no longer come to terms with himself and needs to lash out to acquire some sense of vengeance. Continue reading
Update 2018: Uhhh these early reviews from my youth burn my eyes so. Vampyr is too sublime a film for the quality of review below to do it any kind of justice, yet there is never enough time to revisit even such a foundational film in writing. (I mean, it is only the banner image of my website!) Of course, part of the reason that I don’t have time to fully explain the film is that a work like Vampyr so capably resists any definition or sedimentation. All these years later, my favorite thing about it remains that, despite its heavily imagistic texture, Dreyer’s conjuration seems to resist imaging, to thrive primarily below the perceptual barrier, like a shadowy outline or impression discarded on an abandoned wall.
Dreyer’s work is quite pragmatic in this sense; its images burn into our brain not with the tendentious force of a grand theory but with a worrisome in-definition, a sense in which the images aren’t solidified enough to “represent” anything. They dislocate us with their refusal to additively mount-up as most films do. Instead, they seem to unfurl outwards without emanating from any perceived essence or center, not even a portal to hell. Thoroughly estranging in its refusal to declare, the only thing Vampyr mounts are moments of severe uncertainty, curiosity, active deconfiguration, ultimately effusing a bewildering refusal to illustrate certainty to us, a prophetic inclination to decline revelation. Instead of subterranean tunneling toward essence, Dreyer’s films hover over unstable, constantly fluctuating foundations, in this particular case witnessing space as a diaphanous flutter while remaining thoroughly removed from it.
In this sense, the film’s modality is truly singular, resistant to any definitive statements. Despite frequent comparisons to German Expressionism, the film’s contours actually incline quite a ways away from that estimable Weimar tradition. Absent in Dreyer’s phantasm are any of expressionism’s aspirations to manifest the latent, to tear apart the exterior surfaces of the world and extract the psychological interior beneath. Vampyr holds no psychological pretensions, no suggestion of access to the furthest reaches of the human mind. Perhaps because psychology can so easily tilt from modernistic advance guard of the mind to rote regurgitation of heavily prescribed, obviously underlined meaning emboldened in cinematic boldface, carefully keyed to “tell us” what the characters are thinking and feeling, Vampyr’s resistance to the sublime actualization of crystalline imagery is all the more intoxicating today. Its meaning seems not locked in a time and a place, to have been actualized on the screen in the film’s present, but to come from some far gone past, or some alternate plane, and whisper into our future.
To the extent that this is frightening, it is quite a different psychic turmoil than Weimar Expressionism usually offers. If Expressionism tortures us with the realization that our psychological selves will never be as complacent and composed, as whole, as they seem on the surface, Vampyr terrorizes us with a more spectral appreciation of a more fundamental indefinite(ness), one which cannot be reconciled by “telling” us what psychologically dwells beneath that surface. Dreyer’s later films advance this question further, but already in Vampyr, his films seem not sculpted for accessible meaning, but rather divined, even necromanced, from another system of meaning entirely. A system, in this case, where characters are not so much inlaid with psychological architecture – the work of the film being to unpack this architecture as the “core” of the person – but iconographic. They are figures in the wider montage of an artist.
So if Vampyr’s images rhyme with the rest of the world, they are nonetheless all their own, allowed to freely resonate and reverberate on their own terms and at their own frequencies as a portrait of a specific location. Without any fashionable post-modern opacity, Vampyr lurches about alarmingly at a sinister, slothlike tempo, struggling to represent the seemingly unrepresentable, to visualize a seemingly occult knowledge that seems to be obscuring itself as it comes into being. Not because the film is trying to confuse us, but because it seems to have tapped into a genuinely uncomfortable, unsupportable base, to encrypt a truly ephemeral sense of ontological decomposition, to truly and unabashedly ponder cinema’s fundamental aspirations toward knowledge and truth. Continue reading
Edited June 2016
One of the most perturbed and disturbing parables of childhood adversity ever found in fiction, The Night of the Hunter is primarily famous for one thing: a magnetic all-time tempter in Robert Mitchum, starring as a criminal disguised as a preacher who stalks two children, John and his younger sister Pearl. The film ultimately ruined director Charles Laughton’s budding career (he had been a respected actor for several decades, but we can’t but see his career behind the camera slipping away with every depraved, anti-realist shot). But today it wears this fact like a badge of honor. Accolades have been lumped upon the film left and right in recent years, but the primary target is still, in regrettably narrow fashion, Mitchum’s undeniably inhuman evil. The commendations are entirely deserved but something of a shame – Mitchum, sometimes quite literally, towers over the film, but it’s a far more challenging, innovative, and spellbinding effort than one performance can muster.
Jame’s Agee’s mournful, soul-shaken script (based on a book by Davis Grubb that clearly spoke to Agee’s childhood experiences) and Laughton’s genre-crossing direction in tow, the film works not purely because of Mitchum but because its storytelling – equal parts Southern Gothic tone poem and German Expressionist parlor trick – conjures a surreal world for Mitchum to slither around in. The filmmaking legitimizes him, giving him a depleted, damaged energy to feed off of and human souls to take. It establishes the storybook geography that could create, and hopefully contain, him. In 1955, it was positively radical. Today it is all the more so. Laughton’s anxious beauty looks into our soul and never comes back. Continue reading