ALL TOMORROW'S PARTIES
on FAHRENHEIT 451, HOTEL ARTEMIS, NICO 1988, ON CHESIL BEACH and FIRST REFORMED
I can’t say I care much about Ramin Bahrani’s adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. True, the Iranian-American director’s film is up-to-the-minute contemporary, with its glossy techno-dystopian visuals enforcing a “Big Brother is watching you”-meets-social-media-emoji aesthetic. Its gloomy look at an anaesthetised future makes you think of current “must-see-TV” like The Handmaid’s Tale and Westworld.
But I don’t care much about it because it seems as if Bahrani and his co-screenwriter Amir Naderi thought, “how cool would it be to remake Fahrenheit 451 in our days of populism, fake news, Facebook and VR?”, and then got so enthused about the optics and the political allegory that they simply dropped the narrative ball.
This new take on Bradbury’s mid-fifties classic about a future totalitarian America where books are banned and thought is policed may indeed gain a disturbing topicality from the current political moment. But it expects the viewer to fill in too many narrative gaps, and it relies as much on stereotyping as the mindset it criticizes (any number of futuristic dystopias, from THX-1138 to Equals, come to mind).
It needn’t have been this way: the initial setup is quite impressive, with a truly shaded performance of mysterious ambiguity from Michael Shannon as the fire captain Beatty – suggesting at some point that he is the real hero of the piece, not Michael B. Jordan’s nominal lead Montag. Then it all collapses. I felt as if the character arcs were either accelerated or excised in order to make sure the message got through, all ambiguity and mystery devolving into a didactic denunciation of totalitarianism that is as urgent as it is well-meant.
Bradbury’s writing has always been about the little nugget that is seeded in your head and starts doing its patient work as you walk away; Bahrani turns it into a civics lesson that is no less manichean than the one Jordan and Shannon give to a classroom early in the film. It feels like you’re being bludgeoned to “think the right thing”. In a way, this Fahrenheit 451 is basically preaching to the converted, with little of the thoughtfulness of François Truffaut’s 1966 film (also flawed, but more lingering).
Perhaps Bahrani should have taken a leaf off Drew Pearce’s book: there’s a political undercurrent to Hotel Artemis that is all the stronger for not being put to the forefront. The film takes place over the course of one night in a near-future LA where the water supply and the police force have been privatized. There’s a “water riot” going on in the streets, but it’s just another night at the Hotel Artemis, a secret membership-only hospital for the criminal set where a series of plots converge to bloody effect.
Pearce, who wrote Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation and Iron Man 3, is working here from the early-Tarantino crime-mosaic style book that has become a genre unto itself. But interestingly enough he’s also cribbing from the hyper-stylized Korean take on the genre movie: the film’s dark, brooding visuals, all cracked stone, aged wood paneling and sickly screen glows, come courtesy of Park Chan-wook’s regular DP, Chung Hoon-chung. Oldboy is here as much a reference as Reservoir Dogs, though Hotel Artemis is probably better put next to derivatives like Smokin’ Aces, Seven Psychopaths or Lucky Number Slevin.
But it did take me a while to realize the better model for Pearce’s film is Jackie Brown – the film’s beating heart is a grizzled, wonderfully affect-free Jodie Foster as “the nurse”, the medical professional who runs the Artemis, both as penance for a painful past and as shelter from the storm outside, her days listening to California Dreamin’ on an old record player. Foster isn’t slumming it, and neither is the rest of the spot-on cast (Sterling K. Brown, Sofia Boutella, Charlie Day, Dave Bautista, Jeff Goldblum), but Hotel Artemis lacks that extra something that would make it memorable rather than just enjoyable. Pearce seems to let himself just float on the hardboiled, snappy dialogue and on the genre posturing it affects, and the film seems content to just stick to an updated B-movie template with no ambitions beyond that.
On that note, Jodie Foster’s portrayal of “the nurse” has a lot in common with Trine Dyrholm’s portrayal of the mythical Nico during the last two years of her life. Both are women who have made some sort of peace with themselves and their lives, but can’t shake off what the world outside thinks it knows about them.
Nico, 1988 is at its best when it focuses on the cult German chanteuse’s desire to just, finally, be herself. In one of the film’s opening scenes, she is interviewed in a radio station by a DJ that, to her glacial annoyance, goes on about her being the Nico whom Andy Warhol introduced to the Velvet Underground, the Nico who was on the cover of a record that became the Bible for whole generations of fans and musicians.
But she was not that Nico anymore, and maybe she’d never really been her; Dyrholm’s jagged-edge performance is all about the woman who would be blunt about herself, not the star everyone wants her to be. Even if the men around her – especially her impresario Richard, wonderfully played by John Gordon Sinclair - are attracted by the aura at first, they stay because of the force of nature.
Susanna Nicchiarelli’s film is unusual as far as most pop biographies go; I could only think of Anton Corbijn’s Control as a comparable effort, for its attempt to capture the person in context and explain some of their art. It’s more of an impressionistic thing, though; the film was made with the blessing of Nico’s estate and is based on actual events and on the recollections of those who knew her at the time, but there’s really not much of a plot, rather a layering of episodes that gives us the measure of the woman but may seem a bit thin or loose.
And yet, despite the sense the film never really makes its point as a biographical study, Nico, 1988 hits the bullseye with the mesmerizing invocation of Nico by Dyrholm. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her phone in a performance – she won best actress in Berlin a few years ago for her turn in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Commune – but what the Danish actress does here is simply otherworldly in its conjuring of Nico’s force and presence, almost a channeling of a spirit, and another well-rounded portrayal of a woman to add to Dyrholm’s already well-stocked curriculum. I wanted to like Nico, 1988 more than I do, but Dyrholm alone is worth the price of admission – and will make you want to go back and see her again.
It’s a gossamer-thin narrative web that McEwan weaves, elegantly juggling timelines to fill in the puzzle slowly (the editing is by Nick Fenton) as it builds towards its devastating climax – and, since sex is one of the great unspoken things in this pre-Beatles, pre-swinging sixties days, climax is exactly the right word to use here. It’s McEwan’s film through and through, literary, patient, with first-time feature director Cooke taking tender care of it through an impressionistic translation of the writer’s words (all attentive close-ups and ravishing landscaping) while delicately giving the actors the space they need to inhabit these characters.
We should know by now Saoirse Ronan is a remarkable actress, but the poignancy and emotional control she displays here as the bruised and determined Florence is beautifully judged; Billy Howle gets just right the self-doubting of the struggling Edward, who sees his own intelligence as much of a nuisance as it is a help and often feels he’s punching above his weight. Both young actors may carry the film, but even the minor roles are superbly played, and the story unfolds with a quiet, deterministic fatefulness.
I’m not sure about the coda – I found it somewhat unnecessary, a little too much on the nose – but it does reflect a sense of the changing times, of how Florence and Edward’s love was ahead of its times. What McEwan is aiming for, in a way, is a snapshot of a very specific moment in time, of a Great Britain lost in reveries and stifling its children – and he does so by giving voice to two of those children, by showing us how the “system” stunted them and doomed them.
There are also children stunted by the system at the heart of Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, a sucker-punch of a movie that reconciles the divine with the earthly in ways not seen in American film in a very long time. They’re Mary, possibly the youngest churchgoer to a small and declining upstate New York parish at the First Reformed church, and her husband Michael, a hard-line ecological activist whose emotional stability, brought on by his dismay with his impotence to affect political decisions on climate change, is worrisome to Mary.
She confides in the pastor, Ernst Toller, a former military chaplain who has lived a barren, lonely existence after the death of his son in Iraq, and is now the reverend of First Reformed. Toller is the man who assumes the mantle of the martyr, who seeks to cleanse the world by taking on his fellow man’s sufferings, in the long tradition of Schrader’s films and scripts. He is Mishima, he is Travis Bickle, he is Kazantzakis’ Christ, in short, he is Schrader himself – a literate, spiritual filmmaker who admired Ozu and Bresson but never could reconcile his devout cinephilia with the American movie idiom the way his close collaborator Martin Scorsese.
First Reformed is Schrader’s return from the desert: a metaphysical meditation for the world we live in, a summa cum laude of the director’s obsessions and tastes, and literally a film you did not see coming. Let’s just say it’s been a really long time (since, maybe, Auto-Focus or Light Sleeper) since he has made a film this good, this powerful. It’s not just that the always worth seeing Ethan Hawke gives a performance for the ages as Toller, or that the film explicitly invokes the tutelage of the great austeres of classic film like Bresson or Dreyer. It’s that Schrader has gone full-on into this, like a man with nothing to lose. He turns five- or ten-minute spiritual conversations between two men, filmed in shot-reverse-shot, into riveting filmmaking; he is not afraid to let loose on the viewer the big questions - civility, belief, stewardship, corruption, fundamentalism, prayer, danger, life and death itself - on a film screen for everyone to see.
I’ll admit that, towards the end, Schrader lets the mysticism run away from him into the abstruse – but even then he comes back from it with immense elegance and strength. It feels as if Schrader has been freed of the shackles and made the film he’s wanted to as opposed to the films he’s been allowed to do (the recent case of Dying of the Light is Exhibit A here). I wish Scorsese’s Silence, a twin film to First Reformed if ever there was one, had been as well received as First Reformed - but I’d think Scorsese himself is pleased his old friend is getting the attention he rightly deserves.