“How would you like your face smashed in?” was the bold slogan of a memorable English anti-drunk-driving public-service ad. With the 2006 holiday-and-awards mashup of a movie season, getting your face smashed in, as with the agreeably by-the-numbers pugilistic poundings of “Rocky Balboa,” would be getting off easy.
There’s something in the air, and not just in the mainstreamed torture-porn of the lucrative “Saw” and “Hostel” series or Christmas Day’s “Black Christmas.” It’s also in major studio releases. Even the grown-ups, the “artistes,” are acting up.
Development and production schedules of theatrical movies usually require two to three years to move from conception to release. It’s been five years since September 11; four years since we moved into Afghanistan, and how long has that war in Iraq been going on? What’s been stewing in the creative kitchen across this stretch of time?
Consider “Apocalypto,” the season’s current top grosser, Mel Gibson’s vivid, very violent follow-up to the bloody sadism of his “The Passion of the Christ”: among the pre-conquistador era violence, you can choose from spearings, beheadings, poisoning and a blow to the head that results in an aerated stream of blood as pink and encompassing as body primer at an auto shop. There’s one particularly grisly death that recalls the panoply of implements used to flay, slice and dice the body of Christ. (Not for nothing did Gibson make a movie in 1999 called “Payback.”)
Curmudgeon Richard Schickel, a forty-year veteran of the reviewing wars, is “discomfited” by the sexual component of Gibson’s work, and its “ritualistic staging.” Gibson, writes the 73-year-old reviewer, “loves to get people painfully restrained and then do really bad things to them…We are dealing with ritualized sadomasochism—an open manifestation of one of those dark fantasies that those in thrall to them must endlessly repeat and that have, of course, some sort of psychosexual component.” There’s a larger question, however, of when horrors like these are part of the cultural zeitgeist. The blood of war, and of incidents like Abu Ghraib, is not only on the hands of warriors and artists.
No, Gibson is not alone and the dark doings aren’t entirely in Mr. Schickel’s fantasies of Mr. Gibson’s fixations: The spirited revival of the 007 franchise, “Casino Royale,” is also a kind of sustained footrace and throughout, it’s hand-to-hand violent, with Daniel Craig a Bond who’s shaken, stirred, bled and testicle-tortured. The barbarism on display inevitably evokes thoughts of other licenses to kill, torture and disappear in the middle of the first decade of a dark new century.
Beyond Bond, the absence of escapist franchise pictures is conspicuous. Summer was home to “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” “The Da Vinci Code” and “Superman Returns.” But Will Smith’s turn as an endlessly beleaguered dad in hyper-emotional hit “The Pursuit of Happyness” is the closest thing to a reassuring sob-maker this season; Nancy Meyers’ souped-up woman-centered comedy soaper “The Holiday” could also be considered in league with her hit, “Something’s Gotta Give.” But more typical than those successful brand extensions is Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed.” Like many of his pictures, it’s about corruption, male vanity and the hope for redemption, but it is also sleek craft whose deeper concerns are neatly layered into a profane and violent action movie. Cruelty is unabated, unabiding.
Even “Charlotte’s Web,” a misguided adaptation of E. B. White’s classic children’s tale, while deadly, also deals with death and hints, “Babe”-like, at child characters who love their piglets, but bacon, too. Oliver Stone, naturally, took the crack he was offered at the biggest of historical subjects with “World Trade Center,” and threatens now to make a movie less about uplift and more about the Byzantine pathways of conspiracy and collusion that he ordinarily favors. 9/11 also provided grist for Danny Leiner’s unlikely follow up to “Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle,” an ensemble melodrama called “The Great New Wonderful,” capturing a sense of post-attack unease a year after the events.
Not many of 2006’s awards-coveting movies are overtly political, in the manner of David O. Russell’s 1999 acid, cynical “Three Kings,” set during the first American war in Iraq. Instead, they deeply inhale the dour, subversive odor of metaphor. I can’t get a question out of my head that Sacha Baron Cohen, in his Ali G guise, asked of Gore Vidal: “Is history happening all the time?” It’s a gorgeous non sequitur in league with the best of the entanglements of language and unexamined prejudice in what is probably the year’s most overtly political movie, “Borat.”
But history-for-history’s sake went awry elsewhere, with Steven Soderbergh’s “The Good German” compacting “Casablanca” and “The Third Man” into a profane, violent story that winds up being less about an ironic “good” German than a very bad Jew; Emilio Estevez’s “Love Boat’-style “Bobby” is less about the death of RFK than the extinction of 1960s-style idealism; “Blood Diamond”’s virtues of conscience and visual craft are scuppered by a laundry list of the ills of Africa, quickly leading to Atrocity Fatigue. More successful are the acting showcases of “The Last King of Scotland” and “The Queen” (which are both written or co-written by Peter Morgan), with Forest Whitaker’s cannibal dictator the fire to Helen Mirren’s frost as Queen Elizabeth in the days after the death of Diana.
Other filmmakers have been more successful in fashioning their earnestness into less didactic form. A chain of miscommunication that begins with a good deed and continues with an errant, misunderstood rifle shot is at the core of Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s “Babel.” David Lynch says his three-hour digital-video opus, “Inland Empire,” is about “a woman in trouble,” yet so many movies in theaters between now and the Oscars at the end of February are about men, women, children and nations in trouble.
Todd Field’s superb, tonally impudent “Little Children” juggles comedy, satire and earnest drama, exploring the effects of the return to a sunny suburb of a convicted sex offender who’s taken for a child molester. By story’s end, there’s a question whether we’ve seen a single grown-up taking their lives into their own hands. Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men” partakes of canny present-tense futurism, a thriller set in the London of twenty years from now, yet also in the present moment, dispensing with superficial science-fiction trappings to weave an enthralling fable about the issues of immigration presently facing both First and Third World nations.
Documentaries are in a class of their own, from the portrait of the teaching of hate to children by American Taliban in “Jesus Camp,” to the death threats against the Dixie Chicks in “Shut Up and Sing,” to James Longley’s impressionistic, tripartite view of the early stages of the war in “Fragments of Iraq.” (See sidebar for more.) But sixty-plus years after the end of World War II, there are still fragments of the twentieth century to be pieced together. Seventy-six-year-old Clint Eastwood made two laconic pictures back-to-back about the World War II battle at Iwo Jima; “Flags of Our Fathers” shows the psychic violence visited on veterans of that conflict; “Letters from Iwo Jima,” subtitled in English, examines the Japanese side of the story, with even more melancholy results. What does Old Man Clint describe about psychic baggage and pyrrhic victories? How young men are sent to die for the glory and power of old men.
And the small movie that deserves the kind of critical encomiums that would draw a larger audience for its substantial virtues that opens in a few weeks is titled… “The Dead Girl.” Karen Moncrieff’s ensemble drama etches the changes in half-a-dozen women’s lives after a woman’s body is discovered in a field, and there is blunt power and a pitiless stare to her filmmaking. Shards of female fears and the effects of loss are as brutal as anything in the jungles of “Apocalypto.” Moncrieff seems to demonstrate the same knowledge as Gibson, who said something years ago to Canadian critic Brian D. Johnson: “People who don’t deal with guilt have a problem, unless you never do anything to transgress what you know to be right or wrong. And there are very few people who don’t step over the line, because it’s fun to fuck up. It is. You can’t deny it.”