"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris

 

 

© all material on this website is written by Michael McCaffrey, is copyrighted, and may not be republished without consent

The Mustang: A Review

****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. Really no need to see this uneven film which thoroughly misunderstands the true nature of American masculinity.

The Mustang, directed and co-written by Laure de Clermont Tonnerre, is the story of Roman Coleman, an anti-social prisoner in a Nevada State prison who gets put into a program where prisoners train captured wild mustang horses to be sold at auction. The film stars Matthias Schoenearts as Roman, with supporting turns from Bruce Dern, Connie Britton and Gideon Aldon.

I like horses…I don’t own one or anything, but I have been known to wager a few dollars on one at Santa Anita. I also think horses are actually a wonderful archetypal storytelling device and am down for giving most any movie about a man and his horse a try.

All I knew about The Mustang prior to seeing it was that it was about a horse and it starred Matthias Schoenearts, an actor I like. I had some expectations about what kind of movie The Mustang would be, but none about whether it was good or not. That said…I certainly wanted it to be good…but sadly, it isn’t.

The story of The Mustang is about broken men trying to break horses but at its essence the film is really about the current state of masculinity, particularly American masculinity, which is deeply in crisis. This narrative and sub-text is right up my alley as it is something I think and write about a great deal, especially being a man myself and a father to a young boy.

The problem with The Mustang though is that it is completely clueless about the true nature and experience of masculinity in general and American masculinity in particular. When the film ended and the credits rolled I quickly discovered why the film felt so foreign to me…the director was a French woman, Laure de Clermont Tonnerre. Now there is certainly nothing wrong with a French woman directing a film, hell, the last movie I saw prior to this was High Life directed by the fascinating auteur Claire Denis, a French women, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The problem with Tonnerre though is that she is biting off way more than she can chew about a topic of which she has no comprehension. Tonnerre writing and directing this movie about American masculinity is the equivalent of me writing and directing a movie about the experience of women in a remote Amazon tribe…that isn’t to say that I couldn’t do it, but maybe that I shouldn’t do it.

Mustangs are singular American archetypes, symbols of powerful wildness being harnessed as the country moved into the vast expanse of the west. The Mustang is a quintessentially American story set in the west about American masculinity trying to find its way in the modern world. The fatal flaw of the film is that writer/director Tonnerre has a deep and profound misunderstanding about the true nature of not only America, but about masculinity. Tonnerre brings little but surface assumptions and presumptions to the story which make profundity on her themes an impossibility. Tonnerre is telling a story of American masculinity through the eyes of French femininity and that was bound to fail. It is the equivalent of a tourist trying to pontificate on the finer points of a complex local issue…it brings no light to the topic but only succeeds in accentuating the foreignness of the tourist.

Tonnerre is also never able to penetrate the subject of masculinity deep enough to discover what is in the DNA of the American male. It is no surprise that Tonnerre fails to grasp the intricacies of American masculinity, it is an unwieldy topic that most film makers, regardless of gender, fail to adequately understand.

Tonnerre also lacks any sort of understanding of the complexities and politics of the American prison system. Her ignorance of this very lethal form of brutal interpersonal politics undermines her story to a great extent. It seems like all Ms. Tonnerre knows about the American penal system is what she learned watching bad American television and old movies.

I couldn’t help but think of American screenwtiter and director Taylor Sheridan (Wind River, Hell or High Water, Sicario) as I watched The Mustang, as he is one of the rare writer/directors who could have successfully tackled the subject matter of this film. Sheridan understands masculinity, particularly American masculinity, on a primal level, and is able to explore the psyche of man as a resident, not a tourist.

On a film making level, the film’s narrative is structurally and rhythmically unsound and there are numerous plot lines that are unclear, unneeded or unfulfilled. The lack of clarity and storytelling cohesion wears thin as the movie meanders without any significant or satisfying dramatic payoff.

The movie does boast some decent acting, with Matthias Schoenearts giving a brooding and at times explosive performance as Roman, the combustible felon. Schoenearts certainly elevates the weak material he is given, but ultimately even his dark charisma is not enough to save the film.

Bruce Dern gives a quirky and engaging performance as Myles, the man in charge of the horse training. Dern is a compelling actor and he does his very oddball best in the role, but again, it isn’t enough to raise it from its depths.

The horse in the movie, Marcus, is a beautiful animal, but Tonnerre fails to adequately exploit the animal’s beauty with her middling camera work. Marcus’ natural power and grace are never captured enough to make the horse anything but a prop.

In conclusion, The Mustang was a disappointment because it tried to tackle a very important topic but did not have the requisite understanding of that topic to be able to conjure even the remotest amount of insight. The film feels like a terribly wasted opportunity to tell a profound story about the tortured state of American masculinity, which is a story that desperately needs to be told and understood. At the end of the day Ms. Tonnerre was unable to control The Mustang which, like the American Male, was just too powerful and wild a force to tame.

©2019

The Sisters Brothers: A Review

****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. An at times funny and also surprisingly moving French, art house “western” that boasts a career best performance from John C. Reilly and a very stellar cast.

The Sisters Brothers, written and directed by Jacque Audiard, based upon the book of the same name by Thomas Bidegain, is the story of the Sisters brothers Eli and Charlie, assassins in 1850’s Oregon. The film stars John C. Reilly as Eli and Joaquin Phoenix as Charlie, with supporting turns from Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed.

The Sisters Brothers is a strange film that American audiences, conditioned by Hollywood to expect certain things from certain genres, will probably find frustratingly obtuse. On the surface, The Sisters Brothers is a standard western, with all the revenge fueled shootouts and horse-ridden treks through wilderness you’d expect from that genre, but buried just beneath that veneer of conventionality is the gold of a rich and complex foreign art house film and biblical parable.

I had no idea what to expect from The Sisters Brothers, as far as I knew it could be a slapstick western in the vein of Jack Nicholson’s Goin’ South or something, so I just went along for the ride on which the film took me, and I am ever so glad that I did.

Director Jacques Audiard is a terrific filmmaker, having made three distinctive and at times fantastic French films, A Prophet, Rust and Bone and Dheepan. Audiard’s directing touch on The Sisters Brothers, his first English language film, is exquisitely deft, and his artistic vision and cinematic aesthetic are a perfect match to turn the western genre on its head.

The film is a comedy, of sorts, with the Sisters brothers Eli and Charlie acting like an old married couple, bitching and bickering with one another to much hilarity. But the film is also gripped with an existential and hereditary darkness that gives it a resonant dramatic power.

The film is elevated by four outstanding acting performances. The best of them all is John C. Reilly, a remarkably versatile actor, who gives a nuanced and complex performance as Eli which is the very best of his stellar career. Eli is the more thoughtful of the Sisters brothers, who has a gentle heart and caring soul. Reilly imbues Eli with a palpable sensitivity that, like the character, evolves and reveals itself over the duration of the story. Reilly’s ability to make Eli a genuine human being, rather than a buffoonish caricature, gives The Sisters Brothers a dramatic grounding that is the heart and soul of the film.

Reilly’s Eli is the archetypal feminine in the movie, which is symbolized by his relationship to the spider. In Jungian psychology and in Shamanic traditions the spider is representative of the feminine and of the weaving of fate. Eli has a fateful and intimate encounter with a spider in the film and literally gives birth to a brood of spiders.

Eli’s kindness extends not only to his troubled younger brother Charlie, but to his second rate horse, with whom he grows a deep bond that is quite moving. It is Eli’s feminine nature that is both his greatest strength and also his crippling weakness as it has led to his being usurped and passed by his more archetypally masculine brother for the position of leading brother in the family.

Joaquin Phoenix is one of the best actors on the planet, and he is in the midst of a terrific year in cinema. Thus far in 2018, Phoenix has given stellar performances in both You Were Never Really Here and Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot, and he keeps that streak alive as the combustible Charlie in The Sisters Brothers.

Phoenix is an actor that vibrates with a viscerally chaotic and unnerving unpredictability, and his Charlie is the perfect avatar to highlight that talent. Phoenix’s performance is one of understated brilliance as it is filled with some startling moments of primal anguish and pain.

Phoenix’s Charlie is a deeply wounded soul carrying a grievous original sin, but who has been elevated to the “right hand” of the Father not in spite of that sin, but because of it. Charlie’s great weakness is that he is so wounded he can never mature and evolve enough to survive in such an exalted position. In other words, crazy will only get you so far, but to be fair to Charlie, he comes by his crazy honestly.

What makes both Phoenix and Reilly shine is that they are blessed to have each other off of which to play. Eli ingests spider energy and is transformed, whereas Charlie slays a bear, a symbol of the power of the unconscious and the dawning of a personal spring. Eli’s encounter with the spider leads to transformation, whereas Charlie’s encounter with the bear is symbolic of his breaking of the connection with the unconscious and with that connection goes his chance at self-realization and transformation.

Jake Gyllenhaal gives a solid performance as John Morris, a tracker and wannabe Thoreau who, like the Sister brothers, is trying to understand and deal with the affliction that his father passed on to him. John, Eli and Charlie are all victims of the archetypal father wound, and the malady they carry unconsciously guides them through their lives and propels the film forward. Gyllenhaal’s Morris is more aware of his ailments than the Sisters brothers, or at least becomes more aware of them, which leads him to question the entire purpose of his life.

Gyllenhaal is always at his best when he is understated, and his John Morris is a perfectly subdued and technically proficient performance. Gyllenhaal never pushes or prods with Morris, he simply let’s him be, and that decision makes for a solid contribution to the film.

Riz Ahmed plays Hermann Kermit Warm, a chemist who is hunted by the Sister brothers. Ahmed is absolutely fantastic in the role. Ahmed has a, pardon the pun, warmth about him as an actor that is captivating on screen and that trait serves him well in The Sisters Brothers. Ahmed’s Warm is a Christ-like figure, who radiates a near-defiantly fervent gentleness that is remarkably compelling.

Besides being a biblical and Jungian parable, the film is also a political, religious and economic parable. Mr. Warm is a pied piper for a socialist (and Christ-like, but not necessarily Christian) utopia which is alluring to the idealist and dreamer in all of us. In contrast, the uber-capitalist corporate town of Mayfield is held up as a bastion of deception and debauchery.

The film also touches upon the need for a dismantling of a patriarchy that produces such twisted and tormented forms of masculinity as the Sisters brothers and much of the other violent men in the film. The patriarchy in its old form, namely the character the Commodore, needs to die for these men to ever have a chance to be free from their afflictions and to find the utopia that deep down they have yearned for their entire lives.

The religious aspects of the film are glaring for those with eyes to see them, for instance there is the brothers grooming of each other like apostles or the men anointing themselves with oil in a pseudo-baptismal ritual before they wade into the river. There is also the connection between Mr. Warm and Eli’s horse…who are both, in their own way, beasts of burden, and the viewer should keep a keen eye out for the similarity in the eyes of Warm and the horse at pivotal moments in the film.

The Sisters Brothers is a film with a multitude of layers, each one more interesting, revealing and insightful than the last. If you are planning to see the film, put aside your cultural conditioning and your expectations for a western, and instead watch the film as if it were a dream. Keep a vigilant eye out for spiders, bears, raccoons and the plethora of other signs and symbols that show the way to the film’s profound message.

The Sisters Brothers opens with a shout in the silent darkness of the Oregon night, but then there are flashes of light that splinter that darkness ever so quickly. That opening scene is the story of The Sisters Brothers, for it is a film about alchemy, where finding the gold in the darkness is an act of transformation which leads down the road to redemption. I never expected to be, but I was deeply, deeply moved by The Sisters Brothers, and found it be a profoundly satisfying cinematic experience. I wholly recommend you suspend your expectations and go see this film in the theatre, it is well worth the time, money and effort.

©2018

Leave No Trace: A Review

****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. An understated but well acted and directed film that speaks quietly but says volumes.

Leave No Trace, written and directed by Debra Granik (based on the book My Abandonment by Peter Rock), is the story of a father with PTSD and his teenage daughter who live off of the grid in the woods of Oregon. The film stars Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie as the father Will and the daughter Tom.

Leave No Trace is not a spectacular film riddled with dazzling camera work or explosive dramatic gems, instead it is a deliciously understated and subtle movie exquisitely acted and masterfully directed.

Director Granik's last film was 2010's Winter's Bone which was Jennifer Lawrence's coming out party as a major talent and movie star. Lawrence was nineteen when she shot Winter's Bone, and her performance was so transcendent it garnered her an Oscar nomination and catapulted her to the A-list.

Leave No Trace's teen star is Thomasin McKenzie, and while she won't be on the express train to the A-list just yet, she certainly proves she will have a very bright future with her genuine work in the movie. McKenzie is a much more reserved actress than Jennifer Lawrence (and at 17, younger than Lawrence when she worked with Granik), but she shares the same vibrant inner life and grounded humanity that JLaw possesses.

What is so endearing about McKenzie's work in Leave No Trace is that, like a fawn taking its first steps, she carries the awkwardness of a teen girl with both a compelling mix of insecurity and bravado that is a joy to behold. When a scene arises where a typical actress would be trying to cry, McKenzie takes the wise and inspired choice to try and NOT cry. Watching her contain her emotions and only allow them to sneak through in the most understated of ways, like a quivering chin, made my acting coach heart burst with joy.

Teaming McKenzie with Ben Foster, one of my favorite actors and also one of the most underappreciated actors working today, makes for a dynamic pairing. Foster is blessed with both a gravitas and air of combustibility that makes him a magnetic and uneasy screen presence. Foster is, like McKenzie, understated in his performance in Leave No Trace, but the less he does the more mesmerizing he becomes in the role. Foster's layered and subdued work, sans his usual fireworks, is a testament to his skill and mastery of craft.

Speaking of mastery of craft, director Debra Granik takes the same subtle route as her actors. Leave No Trace is a straight forward film, and Granik shows her craftsmanship with her impeccable pacing, letting the narrative take its sweet time. Never in a rush, never showy, never over the top or even nearing it, Granik's proficient direction is proof that being able to tell a story without dramatic pyrotechnics and camera acrobatics is a dying art form.

Granik's Winter's Bone was a similarly directed film and proves that Ms. Granik is a throwback type of director from a fading cinematic era, the 1970's, when story and characters were the most important part of the film making process. I hope Granik becomes more prolific as a director in the coming years as her style and approach to the art form are a breath of fresh air in a sewer of over-the-top, look-at-me conformity.

While Granik's film is deeply poignant for many reasons, as a coming of age story, as a story of a wounded parent, I found it most poignant of all as an unwitting epitaph for the American male. Our society and culture has been emasculated and is feminized beyond recognition. All we are left with is a distorted masculinity (think of Trump or hip-hop culture) that no longer nourishes the society that contains it, but rather is a cancer that is toxic to all that come into contact with it. Real men...defined as self-sufficient, independent, individualistic, rugged, rough, straight-forward and trustworthy, are reduced to being either outlaws (echoes of writer/director Taylor Sheridan) or phantoms left to wander the wilderness but never be seen...like the mythical Sasquatch. As father to a young son, this is the reality that disturbs me to my core. In modern day America men like me and the man I am raising my son to be, are dinosaurs post-comet, a dying breed playing out the string while waiting for our extinction to become official.

As evidenced by the work of Taylor Sheridan (Wind River, Hell of High Water, Sicario), women cannot survive in the world of men, but as Granik shows in Leave No Trace, men cannot survive in the world of women either. Containing the unruly beast of man is no easy task, as evidenced by Tom, who enjoys being able to control her toy horses and who learns to lose her fear of bees and enjoy handling them even though they could kill her (but would die in the process), but she realizes that man (her father) is a hell of a lot more difficult and dangerous to control than honey bees.

The film also highlights the broken promise of America, especially to men. Leave No Trace peels back the band-aid that covers the bullet wound of America's forgotten. The dark underbelly of America, populated by men sold a bill of goods and exploited for their misplaced sense of duty and patriotism, is a striking indictment of the vacuousness of American culture and political rhetoric.

As the film shows us, America is dying because the American male is dying and with him the American dream. An entire generation of American men are being corporatized and neutered, thus left without any sense purpose or meaning in their lives. This America of eunuchs is a nation that simply will not survive for very long as it will collapse under its own pretensions.

In conclusion, I really loved Leave No Trace. I found the acting and directing to be top notch and the storytelling and sub-text to be truly fascinating and insightful. I recommend you go see Leave No Trace in the theatre, not because it is the type of film that demands the big screen, but rather to send a message to Hollywood that smart, well-crafted, understated and character-driven stories can garner an audience and make them some money.

Whether you are a man or woman, I believe that Leave No Trace will move you, as it reveals that the painful wound currently afflicting America is ultimately fatal...and that there is no turning back and walking away. Go see it now.

©2018