There’s something immediately and oddly sinister about Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear (2020). Opening with the bizarre image of a tearful woman (Aubrey Plaza) sitting on a dock in a red swimsuit, writer-director Levine builds up an atmosphere of dread right away, the eerie score by Giulio Carmassi and Bryan Scary putting us further on edge as we watch her barely keeping herself together. It’s a compelling scene that will repeat several times throughout the film, each iteration more wonderful than the last and unravelling this strange story in a way that will have us questioning everything.
That misty, quiet dock isn’t the only thing about this setting that appears to be off. Even the gorgeous, wooded landscape is rendered mildly threatening in the hands of Levine and cinematographer Robert Leitzell, the colours muted and grim while the thick forest hints at something hiding amongst its shadows. Might be a black bear, but could be much worse. It seems pleasant enough when Allison (Plaza) arrives though, this struggling filmmaker visiting the area in the hope that she can get inspired and write her next script. With a warm and inviting lakeside cabin at her disposal, and Blair (Sarah Gadon) and Gabe (Christopher Abbott) as her two generous hosts, Allison feels right at home, the three of them chatting with genuine ease and compliments flying thick and fast between the two women. But when dinner time rolls around, those cheery façades begin to slip away, differing voices of opinion (views on feminism) and sly looks (Gabe’s disparaging shake of his head at seeing Blair down another glass of wine) building up a delicious yet horribly taut atmosphere. You could cut it with a knife, especially when tempers flare and words can’t be unsaid. And then, suddenly…everything changes.
What follows is a terrifically inventive drama about our relationships with others and how often we destroy them to get what we want, as well as how our perception of events can be altered depending on where we’re standing. While that might sound needlessly intricate and pretentious, Levine has actually managed to create a wonderfully engrossing narrative, his confident script gradually unravelling all of these ideas in a realistic and emotional way that grounds some of the weirder moments. And it certainly does get weird. Levine uses the very medium of film itself to turn this into something brilliantly meta that deconstructs his story as it carries on, essentially making this a tale of two halves that will have us second-guessing what’s really going on. Yet it’s to Levine’s credit that the devices he uses ensures both parts are equally fascinating, his sharp dialogue and ability to coax strong, versatile performances from his cast keeping us on board with the changes when they do happen. To talk about that in too much detail would spoil the experience of watching Black Bear for the first time though – something that makes this even more fun and impactful.
This breaking down of the narrative also gives his characters a complexity that wouldn’t have been there in a normal drama – a method that has us constantly reassessing our opinion of them. All three switch back and forth from victim to villain, their anxieties and selfish desires causing them to make increasingly bad decisions, especially when they’re stomping over each other without a second thought for the consequences. The cast’s layered performances certainly enhance this too, highlighting their character’s flaws in different ways throughout. Whether they’re arguing or scheming, Blair and Gabe are played with striking realism by Sarah Gadon and Christopher Abbott, the tension that builds up between them particularly riveting (even more so when this is suddenly turned on its head in the second half). Yet it is Aubrey Plaza who literally has us hanging on her every word, her astonishing portrayal adding both comedy and huge emotional heft to the story. A scene in which she breaks down is incredibly powerful, every tear and anguished yell something that we feel ourselves. Indeed, she might be throwing flippant remarks around (“Bitches be crazy”) or chugging from a bottle of whiskey, but it’s still hard not to side with her, Plaza’s raw and tender performance resonating with us, even when Allison is needlessly destroying herself and anyone else in her path.
Switching between moments of comedy, drama and horror (all tones that Levine absolutely nails), Black Bear is a refreshingly distinctive film that becomes even more fascinating when we realise where it’s heading. Surreal without ever being contrived or incomprehensible, Levine draws the two halves of his narrative together in a way that enhances them both, letting us make our own conclusions about what’s actually happening. But what’s most wonderful is how real this all feels, Levine’s inventive direction, pitch-perfect writing (those dinner scenes are amazing) and the strong performances from the cast grounding the weirder touches of the story. With ideas about identity, desire and jealousy explored in intriguingly different ways throughout, this is an engaging piece of cinema that plays out like an updated version of The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981). Watch this, and you’ll see what I mean.
‘Complicated’ is a word rarely used to describe female TV characters, especially in the world of comedies. It’s a fact Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Aisling Bea are obviously all too aware of, their shows deliberately rejecting the age-old stereotypes normally associated with women in favour of flawed, but ultimately very relatable, female characters. In other words: real women. Yet one of the main reasons Fleabag (2016–2019) and This Way Up (2019–2021) are so innovative is that they dare to put sisterly relationships at the front and centre of everything else going on in the story, even if those relationships play out in very different ways throughout both shows.
(NOTE: Lots of spoilers ahead for Fleabag and Series 1 of This Way Up!).
Whether it’s Fleabag (Waller-Bridge) and Claire (Sian Clifford) arguing before a feminist lecture, or Shona (Sharon Horgan) picking up an ungrateful Aine (Aisling Bea) after a stint in rehab, our introductions to these characters are immediately memorable, Waller-Bridge and Bea already having fun with their dysfunctional sisterly dynamics. These introductions also make something abundantly clear: these sisters have almost nothing in common with each other. From the way they dress, to their jobs, to their personalities, they are depicted as complete polar opposites, a fact that Fleabag and Aine seem all too aware of. They’re struggling to make ends meet and failing at life in general, but Claire and Shona have it all – high-powered careers, money, and loving partners. And yet Waller-Bridge and Bea approach the sisters’ contrasting lives in wildly different ways in their narratives, Waller-Bridge showing how distant Fleabag and Claire are because of their clashing personalities, while Bea portrays Aine and Shona as quite close. Indeed, in This Way Up, their lack of similarities doesn’t affect their ability to spend time together and have a laugh, even if the jokes they make are often at each other’s expense. Fleabag and Claire might share a few tender moments here and there (awkward hugs and general words of advice), but they’re certainly going to have to work at their relationship if they ever want to overcome their differences.
Although the closeness Aine and Shona have seems to represent the ideal sisterly relationship, Bea actually shows how it can occasionally be a hindrance for both of them. Aine constantly relies on Shona for support and to combat her intense feelings of loneliness, her dependence so much that at one point it causes her to have a panic attack when Shona leaves her for the evening. In fact, whenever Shona isn’t around, Aine tends to act rashly, whether that’s by sleeping with her ex or simply going for a walk around the park at night. When we learn that Aine was close to their father who’s passed away, Aine’s mental health issues and feelings of isolation become easier to understand, as does her reliance on her sister to make them go away. And of course, Shona always comes running when Aine asks her to (or whenever she checks her phone locator app and it tells her Aine isn’t where she said she’d be). Her support is touching, but even in episode one when Shona rushes back from an important work event to find Aine, we know something’s got to give between them. Indeed, towards the end of the first series, they’re further apart than they’ve ever been, Shona realising how stifled she is by Aine’s constant need for reassurance, while Aine’s loneliness comes back to haunt her. Without the balance that their relationship so desperately needs, both sisters find themselves at a loss, and unsure if they can ever move past their problems with each other.
Grief might be the only thing Fleabag and Claire can actually relate to in their relationship, the pair still reeling from their mother’s death 3 years prior, yet able to reminisce together about happier times with her. However, it’s the recent death of Fleabag’s best friend Boo (Jenny Rainsford) that is affecting her the most, the circumstances of which are gradually revealed to us via flashbacks throughout the first series. Boo’s sudden departure has left Fleabag alone in more ways than one. No business partner to run the failing café with her. No-one to share a late night glass of red wine with. No-one to guide her when she’s feeling lost. While Claire might not be a suitable replacement for all of that, she’s willing to help her sister in other ways, whether it’s simply asking Fleabag if she’s ok, or offering her the money she needs to save the café.
It’s this grand gesture that also marks the pair finally becoming closer – a moment that is sadly not to last thanks to Claire’s husband, Martin (Brett Gelman). When Fleabag confesses that Martin tried to kiss her, Claire is hurt, but immediately believes her sister, even telling her she’s going to leave him and take the work promotion in Finland that she’s been offered. Yet the next time they meet, Claire is back with Martin and distant with her again, Martin having manipulated Claire into believing the kiss was all Fleabag’s doing. That Fleabag had an affair with Boo’s boyfriend (the act that lead to her suicide) is the very reason Martin’s lie is all too easy to believe, and which makes it impossible for Claire to fully trust her sister. After all, if she’s done it before, who’s to say she won’t do it again? After Martin’s meddling and a final stand against her domineering stepmother (the brilliant Olivia Colman), at the end of series one Fleabag is a broken woman without the only other connection in her life that has been keeping her sane. Even the fourth wall has turned against her, Fleabag shying away from our judgemental gaze after we find out the truth about her and Boo.
While the conflict between Aine and Shona might not be as extreme as the problem facing Fleabag and Claire, they both seem like points of no return for the sisters. However, Waller-Bridge and Bea actually use these incidents to help them move past other issues in their relationships – a process that ultimately helps them reconnect on a deeper level. In This Way Up, Aine and Shona argue about their dysfunctional relationship in the last episode of the first series, both suddenly revealing their deep-rooted issues with each other. But later at Shona’s work event, the pair are finally able to talk candidly about Aine’s suicide attempt, Shona revealing she constantly worries about her, and Aine reassuring her she’ll never do it again. It’s the most moving scene of the whole series, and a beautifully realistic portrayal of sisterly love.
It takes a lot more than an explosive argument to reconnect Fleabag and Claire though, their relationship (and Claire’s trust) gradually building again throughout the wonderful second series. When Fleabag discovers Claire has had a miscarriage during their father (Bill Paterson) and stepmother’s celebratory meal, Fleabag covers for Claire by drawing all the attention to herself, claiming the miscarriage was actually hers. After a callous response from Martin (“like a goldfish out the bowl”) and a few flying punches, Fleabag suddenly finds Claire waiting for her with a taxi at the end of the episode. Her lie has shown Claire how much Fleabag still cares for her, even after a year without contact. Although they struggle to maintain this closeness throughout series two, once again Fleabag helps her in the last episode by making Claire understand that she needs to stop putting others before herself. Her own happiness is far more important than that. Rather than dismissing her sister’s advice, Claire finally realises she needs to be more like Fleabag – that occasionally you need to be selfish in order to get what you truly deserve. With her sister’s encouraging words, Claire builds up the strength to leave Martin and run to the airport to be reunited with the man (Christian Hillborg) she really loves. It’s a cliché act, but Claire reveals that the only other person she’d do that for is Fleabag – a touching moment that shows all is finally forgiven between them.
Fleabag and Claire might never be as close as Aine and Shona are. But in both shows, these sisterly relationships are the crux of the larger stories at play, their love and unwavering support for each other portrayed as far more important than their relationships with any of the male characters – a refreshing approach that makes these shows truly special. While the bickering, joking, and clothes borrowing certainly captures the nuances and realism of being a sister, it’s those poignant moments that stick with you long after watching, Waller-Bridge and Bea perfectly highlighting that precarious yet unbreakable bond, and how much you’d risk for it. And as a sister myself, that’s what makes Fleabag and This Way Up two of the most vital, exciting female-driven shows of recent years, especially when it’s obvious their creators comprehend this connection so well. After all, there are few who can better understand the love between sisters, than sisters themselves.
Anders Thomas Jensen is a writer who has the ability to craft a beautiful, captivating tale, his scripts realistic and deeply poignant without ever resorting to melodrama (After the Wedding (2006), In a Better World (2010)). Yet it’s a more distinctive voice that marks all of his own directorial efforts, Jensen delving into much darker territories to deliver compelling, surreal stories, often with a deliciously humorous edge. Whether it’s a band of criminals deciding to pack it all in to open a restaurant (Flickering Lights (2000)), a pair of butchers using an unconventional method to boost sales (The Green Butchers (2003)), or maladjusted siblings fighting tooth and nail with each other (Men & Chicken (2015)), Jensen constantly finds a way to make us laugh when we least expect it, filling his narratives with oddball characters who we’re surprisingly able to relate to. Riders of Justice (Retfærdighedens ryttere, 2020) immediately feels like Jensen dialled up to 11 – his usual comedic bent with a twist not seen throughout his other works, in which revenge seems to be the perfect solution to a few personal problems.
This is more complicated than a straight-up vengeance thriller though. There’s a lot going on here, writer-director Jensen mixing in themes around coincidences, fate and making sense of the world, as well as family and the strength to overcome trauma. Yet because of his impeccable writing, Riders never feels bloated, each of his ideas explored in an intriguing way that pulls us into the story and makes us eager to see where it’s going, particularly when the characters begin to uncover the mysterious circumstances that led up to a tragic event (a shockingly dark moment that kicks off the film). Markus (Mads Mikkelsen) is just one of the many people still processing this incident when we first meet him, this stoic military man content with simply burying his feelings while consuming a mountain of beer to help him forget. He’s lost and directionless, his daughter (Andrea Heick Gadeberg) becoming increasingly frustrated at his inability to talk to anyone about what happened – something that makes them drift even further apart. But when he is visited by two statistical geniuses (Nikolaj Lie Kaas and Lars Brygmann) who tell Markus the accident was actually a plot to silence the ex-member of a biker gang (the titular ‘Riders of Justice’), he suddenly discovers an unexpected outlet for his repressed rage and emotions.
While there’s little to laugh about at the start of the film, when the mismatched ensemble of the story finally band together (including the incredible Nicolas Bro as the angry, potty-mouthed Emmenthaler) Riders really comes into its own. With the plot unravelling at a thrilling breakneck pace, Jensen lets rip in the best possible way, superb one-liners and moments of macabre humour flying thick and fast, every joke enhanced by the cast’s astounding, endlessly entertaining performances. Ranging from the brilliantly bombastic (Bro who gets the most quotable lines: “Step away from the wires!”), the slightly more restrained but still eccentric (a scruffy-haired Brygmann who plays Lennart with such manic energy that he’s often flailing his arms like a muppet), and the completely deadpan (Mikkelsen who is basically the straight man to the rest of them), they all throw themselves into the material and run wild with it, especially when the situations become increasingly absurd. A scene in which Markus has to explain to his daughter exactly where he met his new ‘friends’ is particularly fantastic, the group’s elaborate lies about child and adult therapy hilarious to watch, with Lennart proving just how well he can fit the job description. They’re all clearly having the time of their lives here – something that makes our viewing experience even more joyous.
While Riders of Justice is certainly in the same league as Jensen’s previous films, there’s a depth and maturity that elevates this above his other works. That odd blend of comedy and drama is fine-tuned to perfection here, sequences suddenly morphing from the hilarious to instances of real pain and anguish. It’s an incredible feat that often leaves us unsure if we should be laughing or crying, and one which has us hanging on every second of the story. The cast themselves also surprisingly help with these changes in tone, delivering expert dual performances that ground the more outlandish parts of the plot. Each of them has a moment that reveals exactly why these characters are so damaged and intent on seeking revenge – something delicately woven into the narrative by Jensen and given genuine potency by the cast. Even Emmenthaler’s usually rage-fuelled exterior crumbles at one point, Bro’s heartbreaking portrayal showing him to have a complexity that we might not have seen in the hands of others. And if you don’t burst into tears at Otto’s (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) story (a magnificent scene between him and Mikkelsen that may well be the greatest thing Jensen has ever written), then you’re a stronger person than me. It’s a moment given such gravity and pain by Kaas that it’s actually hard to watch. Indeed, while Kaas and Mikkelsen have appeared in all of Jensen’s directorial films, their performances in this are their most astonishing yet. Markus is certainly one of Mikkelsen’s best characters, his world-weary expressions hinting at the hidden emotional baggage that threatens to overload him as the narrative goes on – a stunning portrayal that is also beautifully enhanced by Gadeberg’s wonderful, poignant turn as his daughter.
With scenes of explosive, bloody violence, this is an outlandish but touching film about trying to move on from the trauma of your past while searching for some sort of meaning in life. Essentially, a revenge therapy film. More importantly though, this is about finding help from the most unexpected people, and being brave enough to ask in the first place. As Otto says at one point: “I sometimes think people with problems band together”. It’s a heartfelt concept brought to profound life by Jensen’s assured direction and writing, and something highlighted by those excellent, multi-layered performances from the cast. Yet this is also a lot of fun to watch, with so many incredible laugh-out-loud moments that you’ll want to revisit this over and over again. Hanging out with a band of vengeance-seeking weirdos might sound odd, but Jensen really does turn it into the best damn time you’ll ever have.
Recently, I decided to take a detailed look at the works of Quentin Tarantino – a writer-director who has fascinated me ever since I fell in love with films and filmmaking. After countless hours of research and writing, what I found was an astounding, rich world of reoccurring ideas, themes and motifs, all of which he uses to create his own sort of cinematic language: the Tarantinoesque. Even with the many references that he uses, Tarantino’s works are always instantly recognisable, his scripts filled with engaging humour and pitch-perfect dialogue, while those nods to other films are transformed in new and exciting ways – something that makes for a truly engrossing viewing experience. With the release of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), I was keen to see if Tarantino’s latest fit the framework I explored in my previous articles, or if there was anything else that now emerges as he heads towards his tenth (and potentially final) film.
(NOTE: Major spoilers for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood ahead!)
GENRE AND STYLE
Once Upon a Time… is a love letter to a lot of things, but first and foremost it’s a celebration of the 1960s – an era which is recreated in painstaking, glorious detail throughout. Tarantino will often simply let his camera roll as it takes in his characters’ wonderful surroundings, the billboards that loom over them or the TV show they’re watching or the music they listen to just as important as the bigger narrative at hand. It gives the film a pleasing, nostalgic air that is captivating to watch as it unfolds, and which makes it feel as if we’re slipping into someone else’s memories (most likely Tarantino’s own recollections of the time).
With such a specific period as its setting, it’s surprising how much of the film is actually all about the Western genre – a style that Tarantino is certainly no stranger to. While this is absolutely in the literal sense, OUATIH briefly transforming into a Western as we watch Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) during his filming of Lancer (1968-70), it also occurs more figuratively in his story, Tarantino using the genre as a way to explore Rick and Cliff Booth’s (Brad Pitt) professions. Rick’s career has been built on the back of the genre, the actor having successfully played the lead in Western TV series ‘Bounty Law’ for years, a job that in turn gave Cliff steady employment as his stunt double. But when we meet him, Rick has been relegated to guest spots on other shows, turning up as the villain each week and sneering through his dialogue before the hero beats him up (an old trick pulled by the networks says producer Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino)). When we see him on the set of Lancer in dark garb and disguised behind a bushy moustache, it’s such a contrast to the clean-cut figure of ‘Bounty Law’s’ Jake Cahill that it’s as if the world of the Western has turned its back on him, his ageing figure no longer welcome in a place filled with young, heroic cowboys. He realises this himself when he recounts the plot of the book he’s reading to his pint-sized Lancer co-star (Julia Butters), Rick suddenly moved to tears when it hits him how much this tale of an elderly bronco buster could be about his own stalled career, fears that only seem to be confirmed when his first scene on set goes disastrously wrong. That he’s then able to pull himself together and come back with “the best acting” his co-star has ever seen makes Rick realise he might still have life left in him, even if the only way he can continue working on his beloved Westerns is to move to Italy and star in a subgenre he has little affection for.
Yet these Western influences pop up in subtler, unexpected ways throughout with Tarantino often using the style of the genre to build up the tension of his narrative. This is particularly the case during Cliff’s visit to his old ‘Bounty Law’ stomping ground of Spahn Ranch – a film and TV set now dilapidated and overrun by Manson and his followers. It might take place in 1969, but as soon as Cliff puts his foot on that dusty ground, it’s as if we’re back watching Lancer, Tarantino using shots straight out of a Western (many of which he actually uses in the Lancer sequence) and turning Cliff’s visit into a Mexican stand-off. While this showdown might lack guns and bullets, it’s as suspenseful as any other scene Tarantino has created in his previous Westerns, even if it ends with a hippy’s busted jaw and a car tyre being changed.
This Western style is curiously left behind when we venture indoors though, the drawn out silences and sun-baked backdrop replaced by eerie music (an unreleased Bernard Herrmann score) and shadowy, cobweb-filled rooms, Tarantino suddenly turning this into a horror film to emphasis the danger Cliff is in. It’s terrifying to watch, Cliff cautiously moving through the shack and keeping his eye on the fearsome Squeaky (Dakota Fanning), in dread of what he’ll discover behind George’s (Bruce Dern) bedroom door. His relief at finding just a cantankerous elderly man mirrors our own, Tarantino briefly giving us a comedic reprieve as they chat about the good old days – or rather Cliff does while George tries to remember what year it is. But when Cliff steps outside again, we’re suddenly back in the lawless land of the Western, making us realise that he isn’t quite out of harm’s way yet.
CHARACTERS AND CAST
As I pointed out in my last piece, although Tarantino’s characters can almost never be trusted, in his revenge films he moves away from this, using a more archetypal hero to fight against an injustice he wants to correct (Django and slavery in Django Unchained (2012), the Basterds and the Nazis inInglourious Basterds (2009)). What’s surprising then is that while OUATIH fits into this category, setting right the wrongs done to Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her friends on that night in 1969, the one doling out the justice is almost as dubious as some of Tarantino’s earlier criminal characters. Cliff might be charming and a kind soul willing to give a hitchhiker a ride (albeit a pretty one), yet he’s also someone who admits he’s been on the wrong side of the law several times, least of all because he may have killed his wife (a moment Tarantino alludes to but thankfully leaves to our imaginations). So why does this questionable, potentially murderous character still work in this particular Tarantino revenge story?
Well, it’s certainly because of Brad Pitt’s wonderful performance, Pitt giving a thoughtful, layered turn as a man unable to fit into a world that doesn’t want him anymore (career or otherwise). But really it’s his friendship with Rick that humanises him – a pair who support each other throughout the film, Rick by giving Cliff regular work (even if it’s just around the house) and Cliff by encouraging Rick to keep going with his acting career. It’s only later on when Cliff literally saves Rick’s life during the home invasion that Rick realises how much he depends on him (and vice versa), their genuine friendship one that will never fade, even as everything else around them does. And it’s this touching idea that keeps Cliff the likeable, poignant hero that he really is, despite what he’s done in the past.
What is particularly interesting about this pair though is the comparisons Tarantino draws between them throughout – something that makes their dynamic even more gripping. Although Rick is the star and Cliff his stuntman, it often seems this should be the other way around, the athletic, good-looking Cliff (at one point he’s told he’s “kinda pretty for a stuntman”) someone that Rick can only aspire to be. It’s this fact that maybe partly accounts for Rick’s obvious insecurity, the actor constantly questioning if he’s really good enough to do his job, his overreliance on alcohol not helping matters. Indeed, Rick is a stuttering, anxious mess the first time we see him, the meeting he has with Schwarz showing him to be a man entirely out of his depth. The only person able to bring him back from the brink here is Cliff, the man comforting him and declaring he’s “Rick fucking Dalton” – a sentiment Rick will repeat later on after his victorious Lancer scene. He might not always feel like it, but Rick will always be a star. Sometimes all it takes to remind him that is a little faith from his best friend.
VIOLENCE AND THE MACABRE
There isn’t much viscera in this Tarantino tale, but when it does take place, it bursts onto the screen in the most shocking way. As I previously discussed, it’s this explosive violence that Tarantino uses as his own language for revenge, the gore an extension of the anger a character (and Tarantino himself) feels towards those who have done an unforgiveable wrong. It’s no surprise then that Tarantino reserves his violence for the Manson followers who invade Rick’s home at the end of the film – the trio who in real life killed Tate and her friends.
It’s decidedly shorter than any of the other blood-filled scenes of his previous works, yet it is nonetheless brutal, Cliff (and his dog Brandy) literally eviscerating the group, the sounds of blood spurting and bones crunching almost as horrifying as what we’re seeing. That we never feel any sympathy for the hippies is credit to Tarantino and the notes of dark, absurd humour that he adds to this sequence, the trio so hilariously out of their depth that he turns them into the butt of a joke, albeit one that culminates in the nasty use of a flamethrower. It might be OTT, but you can almost hear Tarantino telling us it’s ok to laugh and not feel sorry for them. After all, did they hesitate during that night in 1969? What precedes this scene is just as interesting though, the murderous group actually pausing their plan after a close encounter with a rampaging, margarita-fuelled Rick. When they realise it’s him, they speak with reverence about ‘Bounty Law’ (Tex (Austin Butler) lovingly describes a lunchbox he had from the show), each of them bowled over by meeting such a brilliant actor, even if it was in unusual circumstances. But suddenly, Sadie (Mikey Madison) turns the discussion into something a lot darker, pointing out to the others that they should send a message to the world about the TV violence that they, and everyone else, grew up on. And what better way to do that than by murdering Jake Cahill himself, a character who regularly killed people each week? Yet when they set their plan into action, what they encounter is so much more extreme in comparison to the restrained, bloodless stuff they saw on TV that the group are immediately floored, Tarantino turning their ‘deep’ statement into a mockery. Watching onscreen violence is one thing, but using it as an excuse to carry out unspeakable acts is something Tarantino can’t abide. These three need to be put back in their place, and Cliff is more than happy to be the one to do that.
FANTASY VS. REALITY
Once Upon a Time… might have a story that uses real figures and a historical incident as inspiration, yet most of what we see onscreen is merely Tarantino’s version of events. In other words, it’s only true to a certain degree. But the picture that he paints doesn’t exist entirely separate from reality, Tarantino actually using our knowledge of that 1969 night on Cielo Drive to build up a horrible sense of impending dread that hangs over the film like a ghostly presence. As we reach that fateful evening, we watch the characters blissfully unaware of what we know, onscreen times indicating exactly where Tate, Rick and Cliff are, Tarantino laying everything out like a true crime procedural.
When we eventually approach that final awful moment, the tension is so taut that it’s almost unbearable, our expectations of the grim scene that’s about to follow enough to make us want to stop watching. So when Manson’s lackeys enter Rick’s house instead of Tate’s, the relief we feel is so huge that you can’t help cheering Cliff on, our fears of seeing history repeat itself put aside as Tarantino unleashes his revenge. Sure, it’s not what happened, but there is something oddly powerful about having it play out this way, Tarantino creating a twist that ensures Tate gets the life she deserved – a pure Hollywood ending that perfectly sums up the wonderful tinseltown world we’ve seen throughout.
What makes this conclusion even more satisfying is that Tarantino drops hints about the changes earlier on, the airport scene featuring Tate and Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) later repeated with Rick and his new wife (Lorenza Izzo), both sequences shot in exactly the same way, while Rick is dressed in a costume similar to Polanski’s. It’s as if they’ve literally switched places, Rick (and Cliff) the replacements that Tarantino will use to set things right. And they certainly do that.
The truth never factors too heavily into Tarantino’s portrayal of real life figures as well, the writer-director using many of them as an embodiment of an idea rather than a factual representation. Bruce Lee’s (Mike Moh) cameo is a perfect example of this, the actor and Martial Arts genius making an appearance to emphasis how obsolete Cliff’s role in Hollywood has become, Lee the perfect leading man who has no need for a stunt double. He’s the whole package. So no wonder Tarantino has Cliff squaring up to him. Yet it is Tate’s portrayal which is the most interesting, this joyful, hopeful character used by Tarantino to represent an exciting new era of Hollywood that is on the horizon. This is best captured when we see Tate going to watch her new film (The Wrecking Crew (1968)), Tate’s gleeful expression completely infectious as she revels in the audience laughing and cheering at the right parts.
She’s certainly happy that everyone is connecting to the film, yet it’s also the moment she realises that a lot of opportunities are going to be coming her way soon – a fact that has her leaving the cinema with a dreamy, optimistic look on her face. While it’s true her appearance in Once is only brief, Tarantino is keeping her enigmatic so as not to besmirch the real Tate’s memory, knowing that a more detailed portrayal won’t do her justice. Indeed, there’s a reason he doesn’t digitally insert Robbie into The Wrecking Crew footage we see (Tarantino even signposts this decision by showing us Rick in The Great Escape (1963) minutes before), Tarantino recognising that the real Tate deserves to be seen in her full glory. It’s a choice that adds a great deal of poignancy to this scene, and which also makes it easy to understand why Tarantino would want to ensure Tate stays alive at the end of his film.
Tate might be the embodiment of the positive things to come, but Manson (Damon Herriman) symbolises something else entirely. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that he appears at the same time we see Rick in his Lancer costume, the dark clothes and wild hair of Caleb DeCoteau mirroring Manson’s style (Lancer’s director, Sam Wannamaker (Nicholas Hammond) even says he wants Caleb to have a hippy look). However, while Caleb is a fake villain in a make-believe Western, Manson is a very real threat, our knowledge of what he did making us fear for the unsuspecting characters who encounter him. His ghoulish presence might send shivers down our spines, but Tarantino makes a concerted effort to demystify Manson with this cameo too, his version a diminutive, average-looking guy (one of the characters even calls him a “shaggy asshole”) who drives around in a crappy Twinkie truck and who no-one really has time for, least of all Tarantino. That the name ‘Manson’ is never uttered is further evidence of this (Herriman is on the cast list as ‘Charlie’), Tarantino ensuring that he never uses that legendary name and that he cuts his appearance down to the briefest of moments, not wanting to afford Manson the attention he so desperately wanted in real life. In doing so, Tarantino is also rightly separating him from Tate’s world and reclaiming her story as her own – a story that she never had the chance to tell because of him. Yet in Tarantino’s Universe, she might just get to do that further down the line.
THE POWER OF FILM AND TV
It’s obvious throughout all of his films how much Tarantino loves cinema and TV, the genre influences and references that he uses reflecting an infectious obsession that we can’t help but be enamoured by. So it’s surprising it’s taken him this long to make one set in the very industry he feels so passionate about. Rick and Cliff clearly cherish it too, both of them determined to keep working in this world, even when every door seems to shut in their faces. But Tarantino makes us understand exactly why they persevere, the little victories they get enough to keep them powering through, such as Rick’s bad day on the Lancer set turning into one of the best of his career.
It’s during these scenes that Tarantino also allows us to experience the production process he loves so much, OUATIH camera suddenly becoming the camera used to film Rick and James Stacy’s (Timothy Olyphant) big moment together. When Rick gets a line wrong, the imaginary Lancer set suddenly breaks down, the music and sound effects (neighing horses and passing stagecoaches) disappearing as the camera resets, almost as if we’re in control of it. This sequence isn’t merely about breaking the fourth wall (there isn’t really a fourth wall to be broken), but rather its Tarantino’s way of putting us in the director’s seat, making us part of the world he so adores. The creation of film and TV isn’t just a thing he finds beauty in though. These are two mediums he also believes carry a tremendous amount of power – a concept he uses several times throughout his career. In the literal sense, Tarantino envisions cinema as a tool to help his characters, such as the film premiere in Inglourious Basterds being used to trap the Nazis, or the final girls in Death Proof (2007) who use their stunt training to enact revenge on Mike (Kurt Russell).
Similarly, it’s this idea he uses at the end of OUATIH, Cliff’s stuntman skills helping him win the final fight, while Rick’s flamethrower from ‘The 14 Fists of McCluskey’ comes in very handy for finishing off Sadie. Yet in a more figurative sense, Tarantino sees that moving images hold a power all of their own, able to preserve someone in time forever, even after they’ve gone. In Tate’s case, and in our reality, she stays in our memories through film and TV – a touching reminder of the bright young star who was taken too soon. But here, Tarantino is literally using his cinematic world to keep her alive, changing the narrative to what he sees is right. And if that isn’t a perfect example of the power of the moving image, then I don’t know what is.
While Tarantino is enamoured with both cinema and TV in equal measure, there are several moments where he seems to figuratively pitch them against each other, often as a way to show the changes in Rick’s career. This is a man who is at the bottom of the pile, his guest roles on TV giving him little to do and the only film offers ones that he’ll have to move to Italy for. But while his career is ending, Tate’s is just beginning, cinema a beacon of hope for her, and something she is obviously looking forward to being part of for a long time. If she represents the world of film, Tarantino associates Manson’s followers with TV repeatedly throughout, whether it’s the trio talking about ‘Bounty Law’ or the group of them glued to the screen in George’s house.
Indeed, during this scene it’s obvious that TV means a lot to Squeaky, the fearsome girl rattling off a list of shows that she and George watch together (and heaven forbid he fall asleep while they’re on). Although it doesn’t seem right to suggest that OUATIH is all about film versus TV, there’s certainly a way Tarantino uses this argument to make his ending more symbolic than it first appears. After all, it can’t be mere coincidence that the death of these TV-loving hippies allows Rick to suddenly connect to his neighbours – those who are literally part of the promising world of cinema. When Tate’s sweet voice invites Rick in for a drink and those huge gates to her home open, it’s as if Rick is being ushered into a new era that will let him leave all those TV guest appearances behind. Who knows, maybe he’ll even get a role in the next Polanski film.
CONCLUSION: MEMORIES AND MELANCHOLY
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood shows a director at the top of his game, his Tarantinoesque language used to create something truly powerful that says a lot more than we first expect it to. With the appearance of Red Apple Cigarettes in the closing credits (this time a literal product placement featuring Rick), there’s no doubt that this is part of the Tarantino Universe – a place that is becoming increasingly exciting as he continues to add to it. However, it’s a film that also shows a man who continues to mature and evolve in his writing, and who appears to be coming to terms with an industry that he knows he’ll have to leave behind at some point (in much the same way Rick and Cliff eventually will). It might not be his most extravagant plot-wise, yet OUATIH is a deeply melancholic work with real nostalgia in each of its frames – something that makes this an admirably restrained film that rewards many repeat viewings. His next work might be his last, but it’ll almost certainly take place in this wonderful cinematic world that he’s crafted over the years. And I for one can’t wait to see what that swan song will be.
In Part 1 of my detailed look at the Tarantinoesque, I talked about his use of structure, genre and character. But there’s still so many other traits that we can recognise in each of his films – characteristics that he regularly uses to bring his exceptional cinematic worlds to life.
(NOTE: Lots of spoilers ahead for Tarantino’s films!)
VIOLENCE AND THE MACABRE
Let’s face it, think of a Tarantino film and the first thing that comes to mind is the violence. The spectacular fight scenes, the gallons of gore, the horrid ways his characters are dispatched – his stories are rarely free from blood, particularly towards the end. However, Tarantino’s violence isn’t always as straightforward as it seems. During his later films, Tarantino plays on his own reputation for viscera, using an overstylised, exaggerated amount of gore to turn what he’s known for into his own language of revenge.
From the torrent of bullets to the Nazis’ faces in Inglourious Basterds (2009), to the cascades of blood spilling across The House of Blue Leaves as The Bride (Uma Thurman) enacts her revenge in Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003), to the almost cartoonish massacre of racists in Django Unchained (2012), it’s as if the violence is an extension of the characters’ anger, their rage literally exploding onscreen. Indeed, when Tarantino does show violence being inflicted on the slaves in Django it’s never exaggerated or tinged with dark humour as it is when Django (Jamie Foxx) kills. Instead, Tarantino portrays their brutal treatment with a realism that is shocking and incredibly hard to watch, something that King (Christoph Waltz) becomes increasingly uncomfortable with as he continues to pretend he wants to purchase slaves.
Other times, Tarantino plays on the viewers’ thirst for violence, his depiction a lot more macabre and dark than we are expecting it to be. In Death Proof (2007), we know the car crash is coming and we almost want it to happen, Tarantino hiking up the tension as Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) prepares to ram Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier) and the other unsuspecting girls. Except when the crash does come, it’s horrific, Tarantino repeating it from different angles and putting us inside the car with them, refusing to let us be detached from such a gruesome scene. It’s as if Tarantino is making us complicit in their deaths, punishing our anticipation for violence with something so much worse.
In The Hateful Eight (2015), the violence towards Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is used in a similar way. While Daisy is repeatedly and savagely beaten by the bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell), Tarantino undercuts each of these brutal moments with comedy, from stew being thrown in her face, to her being kicked out of a moving stagecoach (her chains meaning Ruth flies off right after her). However, when she meets her later demise, all the humour stops, her breath choked from her and her body convulsing in the most terribly realistic way. Tarantino is berating us for ever having found any of the violence against this woman funny, her criminal status no justification for how she has been treated throughout, and even how she meets her end.
What is more fascinating than Tarantino’s use of violence and gore though is when he moves away from this, the writer-director consciously deciding to leave out the viscera that we so expect. Of course, the most obvious example is Reservoir Dogs (1992) when Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) cuts off the ear of a kidnapped police officer (Kirk Baltz), the camera panning away to a nearby wall rather than showing the actual body part coming off. It’s one of the most effective uses of violence in all of his works, the shocking sounds echoing around the warehouse while our imagination fills in what we can’t see.
A similar lack of violence is used in Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004) for the final showdown with Bill himself (David Carradine), Tarantino building up the suspense as we eagerly anticipate a fight to rival the conclusion of Vol. 1. But when The Bride finds her way inside Bill’s home with her gun drawn, all ideas of revenge suddenly melt away when she is faced with the daughter (Perla Haney-Jardine) she thought she lost years before. Pointing back at her Mummy with her own toy gun, her daughter pretends to shoot her, The Bride participating in this make-believe showdown by falling to the ground dramatically. In the end, this is the final battle she has to face – a battle that’s a hell of a lot harder than simply confronting Bill with the barrel of her gun.
Although Tarantino’s decision to focus on a dialogue, tension-filled ending might go against the spectacular set pieces of Vol. 1, by teasing our expectations here he actually delivers something much more poignant and real. For me, it’s a perfectly fitting conclusion that rounds up the integral themes of both volumes of Kill Bill: a powerful woman seeking revenge and fighting for her own identity, and a woman finally having the chance to become a mother.
DIALOGUE AND TENSION
Characters in Tarantino’s worlds don’t always talk like us, but that hardly matters. His dialogue is always pitch perfect, Tarantino often revelling in the humour that comes up in their conversations, especially with the many, many pop culture references that they mention. From the opening Madonna diner talk in Reservoir Dogs (“Let me tell you what ‘Like a Virgin’ is about”), discussions of burger name differences in Pulp Fiction (1994) (“A Royale with cheese”), or the debate as to whether Elvis or Brando is a better actor in his unfinished short My Best Friend’s Birthday (1987) (“This is where we differ”), his characters always bring up interesting titbits of information, Tarantino using them as a way to make his fictional world real.
Yet the normalcy of these conversations can be jarring, those doing the talking often about to carry out some horrible act. When Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta) hang back before a job, we expect them to talk about what they’re about to do. Instead, Tarantino has them standing in a hallway, talking nonchalantly about foot massages. It’s unsettling how ordinary they are, and a moment that’s still on our minds as we watch them mercilessly threaten the terrified group of guys they’re there to see.
But where his dialogue really sings is when he uses it to create tension, something that he does throughout all of his work. Tarantino knows how to pace his scenes to get the most out of them, starting out small with inconspicuous dialogue before gradually amping it up, the atmosphere steadily growing until it eventually hits boiling point. And when that happens, it usually all goes wrong for one or several of his characters.
In his segment in Four Rooms (1995), Chester (Tarantino) lets Ted (Tim Roth) and us know almost immediately why he’s there – to help re-enact the plot from an old Hitchcock TV episode which involves a hatchet, a block of wood, and a little finger. Yet Tarantino keeps us dangling, breezing through the fast-paced dialogue as he tries to persuade Ted to get involved. We know where it’s going, and Tarantino plays on this anticipation, running rings around us until we’re breathless.
In The Hateful Eight Tarantino similarly hikes up the suspense as he slowly unravels his whodunit narrative, dropping clues across each dialogue-filled scene while the uneasy atmosphere threatens to turn sour at any moment. Again, we know the blood is going to start flying – we just don’t know exactly when it’ll happen. However, the big turning point is between Major Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and the General (Bruce Dern), their conversation both riveting and terrifying to watch. The racist General lets his hatred of Warren be well known as soon as he enters the snowy shack, his cutting comments seeming to amuse Warren more than anything. Yet when Warren sits down to talk to him, he turns the tables almost immediately, Warren revealing that he met the General’s son one wintery day – the same day that he also killed him. His talk of what he did to him horrifies the General with every word, the tension becoming increasingly awful as the General’s face contorts with rage and emotion. With a gun close at hand for both of them, we know there’s only one way for this particular scenario to end.
Yet it is Inglourious Basterds that most perfectly portrays how he uses conversations to build suspense throughout his narrative. The opening moment of Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) talking to Monsieur LaPadite (Denis Ménochet), is possibly one of the best scenes of Tarantino’s career, their conversation balancing on a knife-edge, even as they nonchalantly discuss his farm and the need for a glass of milk. It’s to Tarantino’s credit that we know something will happen the instance Landa steps inside, the tension simmering away in the background while he practically teases the nervy French farmer with all the information he has on him. When Landa unexpectedly switches the conversation to reveal that he knows he has Jews hiding under the floorboards, the tearful LaPadite can do nothing other than point out exactly where they are, Landa’s horrid visit quickly ending in a shower of bullets and wood.
Tarantino brings up this moment again in another incredibly taut scene later on when Landa, who killed Shosanna’s (Mélanie Laurent) entire family, appears at a meeting she has been forced to attend by the simpering Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl). Landa’s voice instantly takes her back to hiding underneath those floorboards all those years ago, the suspense almost unbearable as he insists they talk alone for a while about the security at her cinema. When he orders her a glass of milk, we’ve no idea if it’s merely a coincidence or if he’s sussed her out, Landa keeping their discussion light and airy, yet also uncomfortably sinister. Never has the eating of strudel been so intense.
MUSIC AND DANCE
Truly one of the other most recognisable Tarantino traits is the music he uses. Whether it’s an original work (Ennio Morricone’s rousing score for The Hateful Eight), a song from another film or TV show (the theme from Ironside used throughout the Kill Bill films to signify The Bride’s rage), or more popular tunes (Death Proof’s ‘Hold Tight’), the care and pride he has for his music is endearing, his own jukebox (named AMi) even making a cameo appearance in Death Proof. While a whole load of tracks featured in My Best Friend’s Birthday (Sweet, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry), it’s not until Reservoir Dogs that he really understood the power music can have when used onscreen, with a song able to heighten the narrative tension, or add a hint of irony to make an awful incident even more so.
Indeed, if the torture scene in Reservoir Dogs had been made without music, it would be completely forgettable – a moment that could have been a part of any other crime film. Yet accompanied by the happy strains of Stealers Wheel’s ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ it becomes truly gruesome, Mr. Blonde’s dance macabre toying with the police officer in front of him, while also making it unexpectedly funny. When the music fades as Blonde leaves the warehouse to go to his car, it’s almost a relief. But hearing the birds tweeting and children playing outside is somehow worse – a horrid juxtaposition to what we know is going on inside.
In fact, it has become a code in a lot of Tarantino films – when the music starts playing, something bad is on the horizon. Usually accompanied by an iconic dance number. While Mia (Uma Thurman) and Vincent’s shuffling twist moves in Pulp Fiction don’t exactly signify that death is round the corner, it certainly shows us that Vincent is getting a little too close to the wife of very angry gangster Marcellus (Ving Rhames). And although Tarantino didn’t direct From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), his script features a dance scene that occurs shortly before the Gecko Brothers (George Clooney and Tarantino) find themselves in their own private hell on earth.
Yet Arlene’s (Vanessa Ferlito) dance in Death Proof is particularly intriguing. Danger will certainly be racing towards the girls very shortly, but Tarantino also uses this moment to convey Arlene’s power and control over Stuntman Mike, the lap dance she has been coerced into giving him actually something she enjoys more than he does. Dancing doesn’t always have to be involved when Tarantino stops the narrative for a song though. Sometimes it’s just a character preparing for a battle, such as Shosanna putting on her war paint (or lipstick) in Inglourious Basterds to the thrilling ‘Cat People (Putting Out Fire)’ by David Bowie. And while Daisy might seemingly be enjoying a moment of respite in The Hateful Eight, playing guitar and softly singing ‘Jim Jones at Botany Bay’, it’s a tune that foreshadows what’s about to happen, Daisy adding extra lines about John’s death to dig at him (especially when she knows exactly what’s in his coffee).
However, the film that uses music in the most interesting way is Jackie Brown (1997) – a soundtrack that features two iconic tunes which appear throughout. One of these is the spectacular ‘Across 110th Street’ by Bobby Womack, Tarantino using the track to open his film as Jackie (Pam Grier) happily and impossibly glides across the screen (it’s soon revealed she’s on an airport travelator). Yet the song will return later in a much less joyous way, Jackie driving off to face an unknown destiny, tears in her eyes as she mouths silently along to Womack’s tune. It’s a superb juxtaposition, all hope from the opening disintegrated, Tarantino hinting that Jackie’s decision may be one she even regrets.
The other song Tarantino uses is ‘Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)’ by The Delfonics, a track that Jackie first plays for Max (Robert Forster) when he visits her at home. Max is so struck by the song that he buys a cassette tape of it and plays it as often as he can, the tune representing a sort of silent connection he has to Jackie. But gradually, Tarantino turns this love song into something bittersweet, the words becoming increasingly poignant as we realise Max and Jackie won’t exactly get the happy ever after they want. Of course, what else would we expect in a Tarantino film?
CONCLUSION: A TARANTINO UNIVERSE?
It’s amazing to see how this Tarantinoesque language has evolved throughout all of his films, the writer-director reworking his ideas time and time again in order to constantly keep his audience on their toes. What is also intriguing is how Tarantino draws a thread between each of his works, certain things popping up repeatedly as in-jokes and references (such as his cameos, his use of the same actors, or even his fictional brands like Red Apple Cigarettes and Big Kahuna Burger). But the biggest link between many of his films is often his use of the same character names, Tarantino using these to connect his narratives in the most unexpected of ways.
From the Vega Brothers from Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction (a link Tarantino has talked about before), to the Hicox name appearing in both Inglourious Basterds and The Hateful Eight, to the Schultz grave in Kill Bill: Vol. 2 which is then alluded to with King’s surname in Django Unchained, these links expand each of the narratives well beyond their final frames, Tarantino hinting at untold stories that he’s already imagined, and which he invites us to think about too. Indeed, maybe it’s even possible that all of his films take place in one big cinematic universe – an actual Tarantino Land where all the characters have cool pop culture references to hand, the violence is plentiful, and revenge is a dish best served cold (an old Klingon proverb as the title card from Kill Bill: Vol. 1 tells us).
As such, it’ll be fascinating to see where Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (2019) sits within his other works, and what his next (and final) film will be. I certainly hope that retirement is actually a long way off for this master Stealers Wheel of the cinematic. After all, I’ve still got so much more to talk about, and he certainly has too.
I still remember the first time I ever watched a Quentin Tarantino film. Sat in front of the TV one evening, I happened to catch a showing of Reservoir Dogs (1992) – a film I’d never heard about before and a title that sounded so bizarre I just had to see it. While I might have been a little younger than the certificate recommended, I eagerly devoured every second, suddenly finding myself immersed in a whole new world of fast-talking dialogue, incredible characters and unexpected plot twists. I was so taken with it that I would later watch a part of the film every day, literally wearing down my VHS copy (thank God DVDs were just around the corner) and researching everything I could about it. In fact, so monumental was this first viewing of Reservoir Dogs that I instantly knew I wanted to be involved with film in the future in any way possible. I have Tarantino himself to thank for several years on a brilliant film studies course and for my current camera assistant job, as well as my continued enthusiasm for writing both scripts and reviews.
Part of what draws me, and many others, to his work is his obvious love for cinema itself – an infectious passion that he wants to share with all of his viewers. Whether it’s by referencing another film with a piece of dialogue (Reservoir Dogs’ re-working of the line “You slap me in a dream…” from Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)), or a costume (Uma Thurman’s yellow outfit in Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) which alludes to Bruce Lee’s in Game of Death (1978)), or even the overall characteristics of a piece (the Spaghetti Western look of Django Unchained (2012)), Tarantino enjoys mixing ideas and techniques from other works with his own imaginative stories, creating his own compelling cinematic worlds in the process. The end result is an engaging, postmodern filmmaking method that rewards those who recognise his many references, while hoping it encourages others to look further into the ones they don’t get.
Although this sometimes lumbers him with the label of ‘stealing’ (a ridiculous concept as most filmmakers use homages – just look at the French New Wave influences of Martin Scorsese), what is fascinating is how often his references become something entirely different from the works they are originally used in, Tarantino looking at them from new, interesting angles in order to mess with our expectations. Indeed, he does this so much, and so well, that a new cinematic language has emerged throughout all of his films; a Tarantinoesque vocabulary that is unmistakeably his, even when he does include nods to other people’s works. With the use of certain elements that turn up time and time again in his films, we always know we’re in Tarantino Land, often before the title credits have finished rolling.
(NOTE: Lots of spoilers ahead for Tarantino’s films!)
STORY AND STRUCTURE
While most films like to hide the fact that you’re watching a story unfold, Tarantino likes to announce it immediately, sometimes using chapter titles to signify what is about to happen. Rather than jarring though, this episodic structure is inviting, almost as if he is opening a book for us right there on the screen. This use of chapters also allows him to mess around with the usual linear narrative layout we’re so used to, his tales regularly jumping back and forth in time to keep things interesting. Often, this is simply to give us insight into certain characters and their motives, such as the flashbacks to Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) and Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) in Reservoir Dogs. But on a more complex level, Tarantino uses structure to reveal something to us that the characters don’t yet know. The repeated instance of the money exchange in Jackie Brown (1997) means we see it from several different viewpoints, allowing us to slowly piece together just who is double crossing whom, while certain people are left chasing (and even killing for) an empty bag of money. And in The Hateful Eight (2015), he jumps back to what would have been the first scene in the film’s timeline, playing with the tension as we queasily anticipate what is about to happen to the unsuspecting folk of ‘Minnie’s Haberdashery’.
However, Tarantino’s greatest use of structure is in Pulp Fiction (1994), the unexpected death of Vincent Vega (John Travolta) suddenly erased when we return to an earlier timeline for the final chapter (‘The Bonnie Situation’). This time jump not only means that Vincent returns alive and well to the narrative, but that he is even enjoying a hearty breakfast right until the end of the film (diner robberies notwithstanding). While it might just seem Tarantino is simply using this as a stylistic flourish, he’s really hinting at a greater idea to do with fate – something that emerges at the start of this chapter when Vincent and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) miraculously avoid getting hit by several bullets at a job. Jules literally sees it as an act of God, immediately deciding to quit the business – a decision that we now know will ultimately save him. Tarantino doesn’t actually care whether it’s a miracle or not though, opting instead to use it as an intriguing piece of foreshadowing, and ultimately showing how their lives are as expendable as the people they go after.
Tarantino’s uses his non-linear narrative for Kill Bill: Vol. 1 in a similar way, using it to gradually reveal what started The Bride (Uma Thurman) on this vengeful path, and also as a way to keep us one step ahead of his characters. At the start of the film when she crosses Vernita’s (Vivica A. Fox) name off her ‘Death List Five’, Tarantino shows that O-Ren’s (Lucy Liu) name is crossed out too – an opponent we won’t actually see her face until much later. He’s almost certainly using this time jump so he can work up to the more impressive showdowns, but what I find particularly interesting is how he still manages to eke the tension out in these moments, keeping us biting our nails even when we know what the outcome will be. That’s the power of Tarantino’s exquisite writing though – he’s able to so immerse us in his worlds that it doesn’t always matter what will happen, just how we get there.
GENRE AND STYLE
The most immediately noticeable aspect of the filmmaker’s distinctive style is the genres that he so deftly plays with throughout all of his works. Western, War, Kung Fu, Crime, Mystery and so on: it’s an eclectic array, Tarantino excitedly delving into each new category and recreating them with the use of music, themes, settings, motifs and shots. It’s often an almost overwhelming array of homages and stylistic flourishes, the repeated Kung Fu references he uses in Kill Bill: Vol. 1 so plentiful that even the most ardent fan might miss some. Yet Tarantino’s way of immersing us so fully in these worlds is fascinating, his commitment to each of the genres he picks allowing him to replicate so many of the cinematic moments he loves, albeit in a new, thrilling way.
Although his earlier films tend to stick to one specific category, what emerges in his later works is much more intriguing – a different use of genre that defies easy classification. Keen to play on our expectations, Tarantino has begun to test the limits of certain genres, often merging several of them in one film to create an entirely new narrative.
Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004) was a deliberate step away from Vol. 1, Tarantino introducing tension-filled standoffs, majestic landscapes and sweeping scores straight out of Westerns while continuing the previous Kung Fu references from the first (returning to fast zooms and impossible acrobatics during Pai Mei’s (Gordon Liu) training). He then merged Western elements in his later works too, Inglourious Basterds (2009) becoming a sort of War-Western (in which Tarantino tested the limits of historical accuracy by rewriting what actually happened) while Django Unchained was a love letter to both the Western genre and Blaxploitation films, mixing components of both to give us something completely different. In this, the viewpoint of Django (Jamie Foxx), the freed slave, makes his narrative all the more fresh and unexpected, the underlying race tensions setting up a riotous story full of much-needed revenge. Indeed, by experimenting with genre and using such an interesting time and setting, Tarantino has made a Southern rather than a Western, one of the characters (King played by Christoph Waltz) even declaring that Django will be called “the fastest gun in the South”.
It is this daring experimentation that keeps us glued to the screen and makes us redefine what cinematic categories actually are, especially as he continues to add to his filmography. Even when he recreated his beloved Grindhouse genre with Death Proof (2007), Tarantino still mixed in elements of Horror and Slashers, turning a nasty tale about a stuntman (Kurt Russell) terrorising women with his killer car into a film all about female power and redemption. He also seems to be declaring exactly when his narrative moves away from the Grindhouse into his own, more modern world, the grainy footage of the first half suddenly disappearing when we jump ahead to meet the second set of women who will inevitably turn things around on the bewildered stunt driver. As such, if Tarantino weren’t messing around with elements of genre, it wouldn’t be a Tarantino film, and it really would just be a work dropping other references.
CHARACTERS AND CAST
No-one can ever be trusted in a Tarantino tale. People double crossing others, pretending to be someone they’re not, and often killing to get what they want. Indeed, in his earlier films the lines between heroes and villains are never as clear-cut as we expect them to be, each character as morally dubious as the last.
While Mr. White has an almost fatherly connection with Mr. Orange in Reservoir Dogs, he’s still a ruthless criminal, something Orange is starkly reminded of as he watches him unload his guns on two police officers. In Pulp Fiction, no-one is particularly likeable, even the seemingly honourable Butch (Bruce Willis) callously remarking “If he was a better boxer, he’d still be alive” after brutally killing his boxing match opponent. And although Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) is an independent, force to be reckoned with, she uses everyone she can, from the officers she tricks (Michael Keaton and Michael Bowen), to the bail bondsman (Robert Forster) who she knows will do anything for her. But despite the ambiguous nature and intentions of each of these characters, Tarantino still makes us identify with them – something that makes it even more uncomfortable as we watch them carry out such horrible acts. Vincent and Jules might be ruthless killers in Pulp Fiction, yet we still laugh along with them in the moments between their jobs, the subjects they nonchalantly chat about surprisingly ordinary. And the criminals of Reservoir Dogs are all oddly appealing, the opening diner scene letting us see their normal sides, right before the bullets and accusations start flying. These criminals might do some terrible things, but turns out they’re also just like you and me.
It is only when Tarantino moves into his revenge films that the dubious nature of his main characters disappears, the heroes that exist in these works easily definable in a more classic, Hollywood way (The Bride, The Basterds, Django). In these stories, we need to undeniably root for them, especially when they’re up against such monstrous figures.
Even in Django Unchained, the character of Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) is an outright villain, despite the fact that he himself is black and enslaved, long-owned by the Candies. It’s almost as if being part of this horrid household has made Stephen forget exactly what he is and where he came from, the enticing power he’s gained from being Calvin’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) second-in-command corrupting him, something that Django knows he should be punished for.
Yet when Tarantino delves into the world of Westerns again in The Hateful Eight, those blurred lines between heroes and villains return, the characters in Minnie’s Haberdashery all warranting suspicion in this mysterious tale. Teasing us throughout with who might or might not be telling the truth, it turns out they’re all just as bad as each other, the lack of heroes making the victory at the end bittersweet, especially in the way justice is served to Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
What is sometimes most interesting about Tarantino’s characters though is who he chooses to play them, particularly when he uses actors who have been in one of his films before. While many other writer-director’s stick to the same cast, Tarantino seems to do so in order to mess with our expectations of what role we believe an actor will be playing this time around, often bringing them back to portray a character the complete polar opposite to the one they previously were. Whether it’s actors in cameos (Michael Bowen as the officer in Jackie Brown and then Buck the rapist in Kill Bill: Vol. 1), to those with bigger parts (Walton Goggins as the racist hillbilly in Django Unchained and then the slightly more noble sheriff in The Hateful Eight), Tarantino likes to use the same actors to consciously play around with the definition of heroes and villains, literally showing us that no-one is ever quite what they seem.
Tim Roth is one of the most fascinating examples of this, his roles changing so vastly between each film that it’s almost dizzying. A cop pretending to be a robber in Reservoir Dogs, to a straight-up criminal in Pulp Fiction, to a put-upon bellboy in Four Rooms (1995), to a lying criminal with a phony, plummy accent in The Hateful Eight – Roth is never in the same type of role twice, Tarantino making us identify with his characters in starkly different ways.
However, one of the best reversals he uses is with Christoph Waltz, who went from one of the most wonderfully villainous portrayals of all time (Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds), to one of the most heroic (King in Django Unchained). Indeed, King is so different to Landa that it’s startling to see Waltz in the role, Tarantino giving his brilliant, understated performance room to breathe amongst the vengeful narrative. It’s rather telling that since his part in Basterds, Waltz has almost exclusively remained playing villains in other films. While many seemed content with reusing what had gone before, Tarantino saw a potential that he knew would convey such a perfect, kind-hearted character, and which would also allow him to mess with the audience’s expectations in the process.
While these elements are the main foundations of every Quentin Tarantino film and narrative, in Part 2 I will talk about some of the other things that are more synonymous with his works – traits that immediately come to mind when we think about this writer-director and his exceptional filmography.
Whether it’s a tyre that can blow people up with its ‘mind’ (Rubber, 2010), or a man searching for his missing dog via canine telepathy (Wrong, 2012), the work of filmmaker Quentin Dupieux has always dealt with the surreal, many moments in his films often playing out in random, dreamlike ways. Deerskin (Le daim, 2019) is no exception, Dupieux’s darkly humorous tale delving into the strange world of Georges (Jean Dujardin), a down-on-his-luck man who becomes obsessed with a new jacket that he buys for a hefty sum of money. Armed with a video camera that also got thrown into the deal, Georges finds himself in a small town in the middle of nowhere, his infatuation with his new clothing making him suddenly realise his ultimate life goal: to be the only person in the world to own a jacket. It’s a dream that the deerskin jacket is only too happy to help make come true, no matter how much it might cost Georges and the people around him.
In a lot of ways, this is very similar to Rubber, Dupieux revisiting that bizarre concept of the personification of an inanimate object and what happens to the humans who encounter it. While that was used literally in Rubber, the tyre joyfully rolling itself around to find its next victim, in Deerskin Dupieux hints that the life behind the object might actually all be in Georges’ head, this forlorn man initially using the clothing item as a way to feel less lonely. It starts out small, Georges spending a lot of time in front of the mirror so he can admire his “killer style”, or filming himself with that video camera as he narrates what he sees. But soon, he’s talking to himself as if it’s the jacket speaking back to him, the things it tells him to do becoming increasingly disturbing. With money quickly running out and his dream of being the only jacket-wearer a long way off, Georges starts to listen to the jacket’s suggestions, deciding to put that video camera to good use. And he’s not going to be using it to record a fashion show.
With a ‘talking’ item of clothing and a character who may or may not be a madman, it’s surprising that what actually makes Deerskin so interesting is the realism behind it all, Dupieux always keen to keep this in the realm of possibility rather than his more peculiar offerings. Dupieux suggests throughout that Georges’ recent divorce (and probably a mid-life crisis) are what fuels most of his decisions, his purchase of the jacket enabling him to seek out a new identity in his mundane existence. And it works, Georges feeling himself becoming more significant as soon as he wears the jacket, his pride swelling whenever anyone notices it and even bringing it up when they don’t, such as when he wrongly assumes a barmaid (Adèle Haenel) and another woman are discussing him and his superb sense of style. It’s certainly something a lot of us can understand, this idea of purchasing new clothes to fix something else in our lives extremely relatable (whether we’d like to admit it or not). And it’s this relatability that keeps us so hooked to Georges throughout his journey, our sympathies always lying with him, no matter what dubious direction he’s heading in next. However, it’s Dujardin’s amazing performance which makes this concept work so well, his brilliantly comedic portrayal also hinting at a hidden misery that Georges tries to keep at bay after losing everything in his life. As the lies pile up and he starts to take money from that barmaid to finish his ‘film’ (she just so happens to be an editor), we can’t help but feel sorry for him, even when he turns to unsavoury methods to get what he wants.
As with his other films, Dupieux skillfully walks that thin line between humour and darkness, filling his narrative with bizarre moments of comedy that we know we shouldn’t be laughing at, yet which are always hilarious. The strange, timeless setting of Dupieux’s story adds further to this surreal edge, the warm, brown colours he uses in every scene giving this an almost dreamlike feel at times – something that makes this fascinating to watch unfold. At just 77 minutes long, Deerskin doesn’t outstay its welcome too, Dupieux recognising that there’s only so much you can do with his simple concept before it becomes strained. And yet, the ending he conjures up is a little disappointing, his meaning clear enough (if a touch too literal), but the suddenness with which it happens leaving much to be desired. It’s also a shame that Dupieux (aka DJ Mr. Oizo) has chosen pre-existing songs for this rather than scoring it himself, especially when his stonking soundtrack for Rubber is what makes that film so rewatchable. Sure, the mellow disco hits he’s picked work well with Deerskin’s unusual tones and macabre happenings, but you can’t help wondering how perfect this would have been with Mr. Oizo’s beats accompanying Georges’ antics.
Although Deerskin sits comfortably alongside Dupieux’s other works, there’s a realistic aspect to the story that makes it particularly engrossing, the film a slightly more conventional outing for the writer-director as he works in intriguing ideas around identity and masculinity. Nonetheless, that surreal air is felt in every moment, from that timeless setting, to those random instances of humour, to Dujardin’s brilliant deadpan performance. It might not be as memorable as Dupieux’s other films, but Deerskin is still a wild ride while it’s happening.
The Arkansas landscape is given a wonderful, magical quality throughout Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari (2020), stunning vistas gleaming in the radiant sunlight while buzzing insects and other creatures hide amongst long luscious grasses or gigantic swaying trees. Every corner of it seems to be brimming with life. It’s the perfect metaphor for the Yi family’s own hopes and dreams when they first arrive there, that blank rural space stretching out around them and offering so much promise for the future. But while the children (Alan Kim and Noel Cho) are impressed by their new home (“It’s like a big car!”), tensions are already rising between Monica (Yeri Han) and her husband Jacob (Steven Yeun), particularly when Jacob reveals he’s going to turn the land into his very own farm.
Monica might be apprehensive, but Jacob isn’t worried about his plans, no matter how challenging they are. After all, this is the 1980s, Ronald Reagan is in office, and the American Dream is really the only thing anybody needs to get by. Indeed, this is a story all about finding a place to make your mark and having the ambition to do it, a quality that Jacob clearly has in spades. “Working outdoors makes me feel alive,” he says at one point – a poignant moment that allows us to understand just why he’s invested everything into this idea, his excitement at being able to provide for his family in a more rewarding way particularly palpable. So when the reality is harsher than Jacob expected, we’re as crushed as he is. Every dry crop and lost sale is something that pains him and causes him to walk a little less tall, Chung’s delicate writing and Yeun’s understated yet emotional performance expertly portraying Jacob’s anxiety about what he’s putting his family through, as well as the failure he starts to feel like.
Elsewhere it’s a clash of cultures that is making it hard for other members of this Korean American family to adjust to rural Arkansas life, an idea that writer-director Chung explores in intriguing and very different ways throughout his narrative. While Monica is supportive of Jacob in his endeavours at first, for her the farm is anything but peaceful, the fact that they aren’t close enough to a hospital causing her to become increasingly concerned about what will happen to her son David (Alan Kim) who has a heart murmur. She also finds herself longing for her home country and missing the Korean community she was a part of in Calfornia, the isolation of the farm further emphasising her loneliness (something highlighted by Yeri Han’s moving performance, her emotions often barely contained beneath her stoic expression). For David though, America has been the only home he’s ever known, and that’s how he’d like it to stay thank you very much. He even stomps around in tiny cowboy boots – an image that shows us just how immersed in the culture he really is. So when his Grandma (played with great vivacity by Yuh-jung Youn) comes to stay and brings several changes to the household (including a healthy Korean drink to replace his beloved Mountain Dew), David suddenly starts to think that farm life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, especially when he has to share a room with her. “Grandma smells like Korea,” he complains to his sister Anne (Noel Cho) during one hilarious and telling exchange. “You’ve never even been to Korea,” she retorts.
While there’s a striking sense of time and place in Chung’s writing, it’s his ability to focus in on the distinctive, everyday details that makes Minari truly enchanting – moments that he captures with such vividness that they can be nothing other than real (Chung based the story on many of his own memories of growing up on a farm). Whether it’s sitting down for a game of cards, playing on a handmade swing, washing outside in the sunshine, or eating a banana with a slice of cheese, these scenes feel so authentic that it’s as if we’re watching an actual family onscreen, particularly as many of them involve the adorable Alan Kim and his impressive acting skills. A sequence in which he triumphantly runs away after tricking his Grandma is especially hilarious, Kim’s enthusiastic, endearing performance allowing us to side with him, even when he’s misbehaving. Indeed, Chung’s emphasis of the lighter, funnier touches are what makes his film such a wonderful experience, these moments drawing us into the Yi’s world and letting us laugh alongside them as they try and adjust to their new rural life. We’re so enraptured by it all that when the emotional notes of the story arerevealed, they seem to come out of nowhere, hitting us that much harder and helping us identify with the family’s struggles even more.
With that compelling mix of comedy and drama working alongside his poignant and intimate writing, Chung turns this into a richly-textured portrait of family life, his confident direction of the brilliant cast further adding to the film’s realism. He explores those themes of cultural differences, ambitions and the American Dream in a refreshing, engaging manner without straying into the one topic we’re expecting to see about an immigrant family, instead showing the Yi’s being welcomed with open arms by the people of Arkansas – something that could have been sickly sweet, but which Chung portrays in a genuine, heartwarming way. With breathtaking cinematography by Lachlan Milne and a spellbinding score by Emile Mosseri to match that beautiful, sublime landscape, this is a mesmerising, tender film with a delightful message at its heart about family and the sacrifices we make for those we love. The only flaw is that it ends, so captivating is the world Chung has created that you’ll want to stay in the company of the Yi’s for a lot longer than its 1 hour 55 minute running time.
For the longest time, I wasn’t going to write a top ten list this year. With the pandemic, lockdown, and closure of cinemas, it seemed almost fruitless to talk about the best new releases. Ironically though, when I looked back at what I’ve watched, I was surprised to find that I’ve actually seen a greater number of films than previous years. Indeed, in more ways than one, the world of film has been kept alive for all of us in 2020. Streaming platforms stepped up VOD so audiences could check out the latest releases in the safety of their own homes. And several festivals moved online (LFF, FrightFest, Soho Horror) – events that were determined to go ahead in an alternative way that suited everyone. Sure, it doesn’t beat a trip to the cinema (and as soon as it’s safe to do so, I’ll be the first one sat in front of that big silver screen), but it’s comforting to see people still come together (albeit online) and show their love for all things filmic, even in these uncertain times.
Despite this, I’m sure there will be a few titles missing from my top ten that others will have included on theirs. Releases like Saint Maud, His House, Rocks and Mank are still on my to-watch list, and would probably have made the grade if I’d had the time to see them before the end of the year! And as usual, I’ve also stuck to UK release dates to make things easier for myself, so a couple of LFF films that I loved but which haven’t officially come out over here yet (Another Round to name just one) will almost certainly be on my list in 2021.
With all that in mind, here’s my top ten films of 2020. And thank you in advance for reading!:
10. I’m Thinking of Ending Things
At first glance, this story about a woman (Jessie Buckley) going on a road trip with her boyfriend (Jesse Plemons) to meet his family (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) sounds like the set-up of a million other Hollywood dramas. But in writer-director Charlie Kaufman’s hands, this tale turns into something altogether weirder. Then again, what else do you expect from the man who gave us Synecdoche, New York (2008) and Anomalisa (2015)? Based on a book by Iain Reid, and with musings on time, loss, and sense of self, Kaufman lets his eccentric imagination run wild with the plot, creating a truly bizarre and oddly humorous film that gradually becomes more unsettling as the young woman (Buckley in a perfect lead role) starts to question things around her. And that’s BEFORE the dance sequence. The result is very much like a waking nightmare – hard to turn away from, even though you want to.
After his brilliant feature debut (Antiviral (2012)), writer-director Brandon Cronenberg returns to the screen with this trippy, futuristic tale about a female assassin (Andrea Riseborough) who uses other people’s bodies to carry out hits. But with a crumbling family life and her mind already feeling adrift, her latest mission becomes fraught with problems, the host (Christopher Abbott) she’s taken over proving harder to control than she initially thought. A sci-fi rooted in realism, Cronenberg explores rich themes around identity and power while injecting his film with stunning, hypnotic visuals that put us in the assassin’s decaying point-of-view (the scene with the host procedure is particularly incredible). It’s a startling, ultra gory (with good reason) body horror featuring two striking performances from Riseborough and Abbott (who essentially plays dual roles). Here’s hoping Cronenberg doesn’t embark on another 8 year hiatus after this, as it’ll be very interesting to see what he does next.
To get not just one, but FIVE new Steve McQueen films this year was an absolute joy. Although each one is sublime in its own right, it’s Mangrove that stands out the most – a powerful, intricate look at the true story of The Mangrove Nine, who stood trial in 1970 after a protest against racial prejudice ended in a clash with police. With a script written by Alastair Siddons and McQueen himself, this tackles the issues of racism and police brutality in a stark, unforgiving light, yet never loses sight of the sense of community and hope that binds the group on trial together – something that helps them keep going when everything seems lost. Made all the more realistic by McQueen’s vivid direction and the wonderful portrayals from the cast (especially Shaun Parkes, Letitia Wright and Malachi Kirby), this is a truly beautiful film, and a vital one as well.
7. Dick Johnson Is Dead
While documenting her father’s recent illness and looking back on his life, filmmaker Kirsten Johnson also delves into that tricky subject at the back of everyone’s mind: death. But how do you tackle that when it’s your own family member you’re talking about? Well, Johnson’s solution is to invent and film different scenarios in which her Dad (Dick Johnson of the title) might die, and get him to act in them. With the help of a few stunt doubles of course. That ingenious idea, coupled with the touching relationship between Kirsten and her father, results in this surprisingly funny, vibrant documentary – a film full of heart that doesn’t shy away from other difficult matters, mainly how challenging and painful a disease dementia can be. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry and you’ll have the biggest smile on your face as you listen to the (many) anecdotes about Dick’s brilliant life.
Although I saw this back in 2019 at LFF, it didn’t get a release in the UK until early this year, albeit a very limited one (a shame as this is a film worth the hype). Trey Edward Shults’ story about a young man (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) struggling with everyday pressures and his father’s (Sterling K. Brown) expectations is an effective, realistic film that packs several emotional gut-punches that you don’t see coming. Brought to life by Shults’ perfect script and the effortless performances from the whole cast (particularly Harrison Jr. and Taylor Russell) this is a captivating tale to watch unfold, made all the more mesmerising by Shults’ exhilarating direction and the pulsing soundtrack (as well as an incredible original score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross). As such, Waves is the sort of film that immediately grabs you and doesn’t let go until its final frames, pulling you along on a breathtaking ride throughout. Seek it out if you can – you won’t regret it.
This take on the Charles Dickens’ classic succeeds in being both faithful to the source material and wildly inventive – something that lifts Armando Iannucci’s film above other adaptations of Dickens’ work. Following the titular hero (Dev Patel) as he navigates the pitfalls of Victorian England and tries to forge a name for himself, this is a funny yet also surprisingly poignant portrayal, especially when the threat of poverty begins to loom ever closer to Copperfield and those around him. The script by Simon Blackwell and Iannucci is superb, that delicate balance between comedy and tragedy held perfectly throughout, while Iannucci’s imaginative direction plays with visual storytelling techniques, giving this a wonderfully surreal edge. The cast are all clearly having the time of their lives in this too, the hilarious highlights being Tilda Swinton as a donkey-hating great-aunt and Hugh Laurie as a man obsessed with the beheading of Charles the Second. But it is Dev Patel who is the standout, his brilliant turn as Copperfield adding pathos and charm to the story.
4. The Invisible Man
This will always have a significant place for me on this list, as it was the last film I saw in a cinema before lockdown. But beyond that, The Invisible Man is simply an exceptional, terrifying horror that keeps you guessing right until the end credits. Taking the original tale and giving it a contemporary twist, Leigh Whannell creates a film full of tension and dread, as one woman (Elisabeth Moss) tries to escape the clutches of an ex (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) who may (or may not) be able to turn invisible. It is entirely to Whannell’s credit that this slightly ridiculous plot is completely believable, his excellent script building on that awful sense of paranoia, while his expert direction uses empty spaces to queasy, unsettling effect, hinting at something unseen watching her (and us). With a powerhouse performance from Moss and several WTF moments that will make you leap out of your seat, this is one of the best thrillers of recent years and an absolute must-watch.
3. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Set in the late 18th century on the remote French coast, writer-director Céline Sciamma explores the relationship between a painter (Noémie Merlant) and her female subject (Adèle Haenel) in this beautiful, moving drama. As the portrait slowly comes together, the women find themselves unexpectedly drawn to each other, Sciamma heightening the tension between the pair to great effect, all pointed glances and lingering touches made even more evocative by Merlant and Haenel’s electrifying portrayals. It’s hypnotising to watch unfold, Sciamma’s dreamy direction turning both the landscapes and interiors into deliciously inviting spaces, these gorgeous visuals perfectly matched by the haunting soundtrack (the highlight of which is the song on the beach). As such, this is a superbly crafted, poetic film that stays in your mind for a long time after seeing it.
Funny, playful yet wildly intelligent, Bong Joon-ho’s film really did deserve all of those Oscars it received at the start of 2020. Exploring themes of capitalism, social constructs and class inequality, Bong’s story about a working class family charming their way into a wealthy household is the kind of film that requires repeat viewings to catch all the subtleties you missed. However, there’s nothing quite like seeing it for the first time and being blindsided by those amazing twists and turns. Featuring excellent performances from the cast (especially Song Kang-Ho as the put-upon father and Cho Yeo-jeong as the naïve mother who invites the family into her life) Bong’s multi-layered tale is hilarious, but also startlingly sad at times, often when you least expect it. An outstanding, gripping film that is full of unforgettable moments.
Although horror might not be everyone’s favourite genre, you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you miss this one from writer-director Natalie Erika James. With an exquisite script by James and co-writer Christian White, their story follows an elderly woman (Robyn Nevin) and her family (Emily Mortimer and Bella Heathcote) as they struggle to cope with the debilitating effects of dementia – the isolation, the claustrophobia. And, of course, the fear. James uses lingering shots to eke out the tension and build on the eeriness in the creepy family home, shadowy rooms seeming to hide a wealth of forgotten memories, and a few other terrifying things. However, while the scares are plentiful, it’s the emotional scenes that give the film its real impact, the wonderfully poignant performances from Nevin, Mortimer and Heathcote heightening these moments and turning it into something truly compelling. With the narrative unravelling at a delicate pace, this is a chilling, atmospheric, and utterly devastating film that gets under your skin. Indeed, as someone who has a dementia sufferer in the family, Relic hit me hard. But it’s this honest, touching portrayal of such an insidious disease that makes this so effective, James taking care to show the price many families pay because of it, as well as how impossible it is to escape from (in more ways than one).
On the surface, Rose (Sophie Rundle) and Sam (Matt Stokoe) appear to be your average couple, domestic bliss occasionally broken up by the usual arguments about misunderstood comments or who’s doing the cooking. Slight quarrels aside, their existence is practically idyllic, their snowy woodland home giving them all the privacy they need. It’s only when dinner time rolls around that we realise there’s something else going on with this arrangement, Sam increasingly anxious about where the next meal is coming from, while Rose’s reluctance to ever step outside during the day seems like more than a bad case of agoraphobia. And as the true cause of Rose’s sickness becomes apparent, Rose: A Love Story (2020) suddenly heads in a wholly bizarre and unexpected direction.
What’s surprising is that in spite of the weirder elements of the story, Jennifer Sheridan’s film still very much feels like a drama about a couple struggling to get by. It just so happens that their circumstances are slightly different from everyone else’s. Keeping Rose and Sam’s relationship at the heart of the narrative at all times, Sheridan and writer Matt Stokoe (who also plays Sam) ensure they focus on the quieter, everyday scenes between the pair, building up a delicate portrait of their happy but strained existence. Whether they’re enthusiastically discussing the latest chapter of the novel Rose is writing, or getting dressed up to go for a night-time stroll, the love they share is infectious, these poignant moments pulling us into their contained world and making it easy to see why they stay together. Even when the stranger aspects of the plot do begin to emerge, Stokoe keeps their romance central to everything else going on, highlighting the emotional pain that Rose’s illness causes both of them. Indeed, it’s touching to see how much they sacrifice for each other in order to preserve their relationship, the morally questionable choices Sam makes actually understandable when we can see he’s simply trying to maintain their way of life.
Jennifer Sheridan’s elegant direction hints at the wealth of terrors that Sam tries to keep at bay, beautiful shots of the snowy landscape seeming to hide potential threats amongst the trees. Her shots of the interiors also make for some great, haunting imagery, the use of shadows alongside vibrant coloured lighting (bright blue UV, a deep bloody red) reflecting the darker side of Rose’s sickness. Yet when it comes to the more intimate parts of the story, Sheridan is brave enough to step back and let the emotions flow, handling these scenes with a subtly that perfectly matches the narrative. Sophie Rundle and Matt Stokoe are incredible to watch during these moments, their chemistry palpable and often making it feel as if we’re eavesdropping on actual private conversations. The fact that they’re a couple in real life certainly accounts for that authenticity. But even without knowing this, their performances are wonderfully effective, both of them heightening the impact of those sentimental scenes, as well as Rose and Sam’s constant fear of losing each other.
Although it’s a deeply engrossing film and a beautifully written story, the timing of the third act sadly lets it down. While an unexpected complication brings much-needed tension to Rose and Sam’s life, it appears a little too late in the plot, the situation not fully explored and the ending unfortunately rushed. If anything, Rose could have benefitted from being longer, allowing these parts of the narrative to unravel at a steadier, unrushed pace. The final scene also doesn’t help, feeling so out of place that it almost cancels out the emotional moments that happen before it. It’s an odd note to finish on, almost comically so. Ignore those minor flaws though and the ending is still incredibly powerful – a moving conclusion that elegantly rounds off this captivating tale.
Unnecessarily long title and slightly disappointing final act aside, Rose is a sweet, touching film with a pleasing creepiness to it that will keep you hooked. With emphasis on the monotony of their everyday lives and the claustrophobia of being stuck in one place (something we can all relate to right now), Sheridan and Stokoe highlight the realism of the narrative, keeping the surreal aspects believable, while also focusing on the emotions and tensions between the characters. But it is Rundle and Stokoe who really sell the supernatural side of the plot to us, their natural performances immersing us in Rose and Sam’s world, and making those poignant moments all the more heartbreaking to watch.