Sunday, February 26, 2017



SNOWTOWN        B            
aka:  The Snowtown Murders
Australia  (115 mi)  2011  d:  Justin Kurzel

The ultimate in trailer trash movies, where this film lives and breathes the depravity of the impoverished lower class, not the least of which includes some rather crazy notions about exacting revenge for alleged wrong-doers, specifically pedophiles, drug addicts, and gays, who are seen as the ultimate sinners and the scourge of the earth.  Bordering on the fanatical, this is a film of raging, out of control male hormones, where similar to Todd Field’s LITTLE CHILDREN (2006), this neighborhood watch group also has a specific anti-pedophile agenda, but their way of handling it is decisively different, wiping them off the face of the earth.  Based on true events, this is a graphically raw and crude depiction of sadistically gruesome events literally pulled from the headlines, adapted by the director and screenwriter Shaun Grant, combining Debi Marshall’s book Killing for Pleasure with Andrew McGarry’s The Snowtown Murders, telling the story of John Bunting (Daniel Henshall, terrific as the only experienced actor), Australia’s most notorious serial killer who went on a 1990’s killing spree, where a sad and cruel event leads to a supreme overreaction, where one family’s lives are literally taken over by a raving lunatic on the loose who prides himself in ridding the earth of its lowest scum, using supremely horrifying methods to carry out his apocryphal Revelations.  While most filmmakers eliminate onscreen depictions of nauseatingly brutal violence, this director unsparingly provides every graphic detail.  On the other hand, while most filmmakers attempt to provide narrative clarity, Kurzel prefers to alter the sequence of events and intentionally leave out narrative detail, like the connecting tissue that explains how all this comes together in the first place, or the driving force behind these heinous acts, where by the end we barely even know who some of these guys are.  What is clear from the opening few seconds of the film is that this first time director has a way of providing emphasis, where the pulsating beat of the adrenal rush in the opening sequence has a way of generating anticipation while synchronizing the audience heartbeats.  The director’s brother, Jed Kurzel, the guitarist and vocalist for the Australian rock band The Mess Hall, writes the jarring musical score. 

Using mostly non-professionals from the northern Adelaide suburbs, this is a seriously grim psychological horror story with torture sequences that could send the unprepared streaming for the exits, where one can certainly question the inclusion of such gruesome detail, especially since so many other details are merely suggested and never spelled out, but this is not exploitive torture porn that sensationalizes explicit gore, instead the direction for the most part is actually restrained.  While the pervasive atmosphere is drenched in an unsettling layer of bleak despair, the director’s approach is an accumulative build up of meticulous detail, utilizing a relentless sense of detachment, so that when horrors occur, they are a natural byproduct of the inhumanity already inhabiting this mercilessly harsh world.  The squalid neighborhood seems littered by stray children with nowhere to go, who aimlessly ride their bikes in circles, where the everpresent eyesore of collected junk inhabiting these tiny back yards surrounded by corrugated fences offers a claustrophobic feel of confined space.  Jamie (Lucas Pittway) has that dreary-eyed look of a bored 16-year old teenager who will never amount to much, never setting his sights on anything, who along with his two young brothers comprise the brood of “the boys,” raised by a single mom (Louise Harris) who always appears harried and worn out from continually looking after them.  What anyone does for income throughout the film remains unclear, but no one is ever seen getting up in the morning and heading for work.  Nonetheless, there is food on the table and appreciative hungry boys who politely thank their mom.  All that is about to soon change, where the mom goes ballistic on the neighbor across the street when she learns what he did to her “boys,” taking semi-nude pictures of them and posting photos on the Internet, which brings an odd assortment of weird and demented characters into the home, led by the ever-smiling face of John Bunting, a charismatic, all-embracing spirit who has a way of filling a void with boys, providing the father figure influence they never had.    

How this guy weasels his way into the family is never known, as he arrives out of nowhere and literally takes over, never once seen spending time with the mother, as he instead surrounds himself with a bunch of derelicts from the neighborhood who continually mouth off against the kind of perverts and other riff raff that they continually have to deal with, literally a self-help course on hate and bigotry and how to set your prejudices free, embracing all the pent-up anger and bitterness, taking the ever sullen Jamie by his side and giving him a refresher course on how to fight back.  Starting with the neighbor across the street, but continually expanding their role, Bunting provides vigilante justice, Australian-style, where these guys think eradicating the neighborhood of the punks and lowlifes is doing the country a favor, where someone ought to give them a medal.  Shown largely through Jamie’s ever listless point of view, the only emotion he’s familiar with is indifference, but Bunting tries to instill in him a revengeful rage, showing how he can get back at an older brother living with his father who has continually bullied and molested him, leaving Jamie at his core an empty shell of a human being.  Bunting’s methods are sadistically unorthodox, but to the point, the kind of strong-armed, neo-Nazi behavior that simply shifts the power of the bully, putting the shoe on the other foot, becoming the neighborhood enforcer, and taking an inordinate amount of pleasure in his methods, eventually enjoying killing for killing’s sake.  This radical shift in personal demeanor from ordinary guy to maniac serial killer is a stunning turn of events and the centerpiece of the film, sure to catch the audience off guard, as even though we may suspect something dark and hidden in his nature, no one would suspect a descent into such sinister madness as this, so cold-bloodedly calculated, as Snowtown is a town 90 miles away where in an abandoned bank vault Bunting disposes several of the bodies in barrels of acid.  The pervasive tone of the film is all about control, how society has lost it, how Bunting attempts to reclaim it, but then goes overboard, unable to suppress his basest instincts, becoming a human predator where the audience begins to dread his every move.  This is a shockingly different kind of horror film, one that unleashes the enemy within, but also a film you can’t get too close to, leaving plenty of unanswered questions, particularly Jamie’s chilling transformation from a traumatized witness to a reluctant accomplice, but also the director’s motives, where Kurzel clearly relishes overpowering the audience, perhaps taking a bit too much pleasure in the gruesome detail, 2011 winner of the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes.    

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Ardennes (D’Ardennen)

THE ARDENNES (D’Ardennen)            B-             
Belgium  (96 mi)  2015  ‘Scope  d:  Robin Pront                   Official Facebook 

A tone poem of malice and wounded masculinity, reminiscent of several iconic neo noir thrillers, recalling the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple (1984) and Fargo (1996), David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom (2010), Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown (2011), and Michaël R. Roskam’s 2012 Top Ten Films of the Year: #6 Bullhead (Rundskop) , yet instead of demonstrating that kind of dazzling cinematic flair, first time director Pront has created a style over substance film, where he seems to love to rub our noses in the mud and murk of Antwerp, filling the screen with typical low-life characters no one gives a whit about.  And therein lies the problem, as we’ve seen this sort of film before, elevated to much greater heights than achieved here, yet because of our familiarity of the genre, we kind of like what it’s trying to do, but it just never gets there.  While BULLHEAD director Michaël R. Roskam was initially on tap to direct the film, instead he ended up as an associate producer, BULLHEAD star Matthias Schoenaerts was initially chosen to star, but dropped out when one of the co-writers was given the go ahead to direct his first film, where these choices make a sizeable difference.  The other co-writer is one of the leads in the film, where they both may be too closely stuck to the material, unable to offer improvements, which eventually undermines the film.  While it has a hyper-masculine, super aggressive style, the story itself is fairly generic and overly fatalistic, where it’s all gloom and doom from the outset, opening with an adrenal surge of a man in a mask crashing into a pool of water, making his way to the getaway car, informing the driver, “Just drive.  There was nothing I could do.”  While we immediately think he may have left a dead partner behind, subsequent courtroom sequences reveal his brother Kenny (Kevin Janssens) has taken the rap for a bunged burglary, sentenced to seven years in prison.  Dave (co-writer Jeroen Perceval) managed to get away scot free, taking advantage of his brother’s absence by moving in on his girlfriend Sylvie, Veerle Baetens from The Broken Circle Breakdown (2012), aka the driver.  Not only that, both have gotten sober in the interim, straightened out their lives, and are trying to lead respectable lives.  All that changes when Kenny gets out after four years.  

The brothers are polar opposites personality-wise, as Kenny is a high-strung hot-head with a hair-trigger temper, the enforcer, afraid of no one, while Dave is more reserved and inwardly introspective, the more deliberately thoughtful of the two, most likely the planner of their earlier crimes.  While Dave lives separately with Sylvie, he’s never gotten the nerve to tell his brother about their relationship, forced to keep it secret, which eats at him every day, even as he has sworn to his mother that he would look after his little brother.  Sylvie on the other hand fends off Kenny’s initial advances, reminding him things have changed, even though she works as a waitress in a risqué strip club for Moroccan owner Khalid (Rachid El Ghazaoui).  This announcement shows signs of racial contempt, as the alpha-male Kenny still sees Khalid as a punk kid unworthy to hold an outranking position, though obviously jealous he maintains any kind of existing relationship with his former girl.  As the boys rehash old times under their mother’s roof (Viviane de Muynck), an all-too-familiar reminder of Jackie Weaver in Animal Kingdom, Kenny is already exhibiting out of control and abusive behavior, but the more mild-mannered brother seems to think he still has influence, though he is constantly ignored as Kenny simply violates all rules of conduct, getting in all manner of mischief, including a well-choreographed fight scene inside an activated car wash that gets them both fired from the job, a reminder of what a destructive force his brother really is.  Dave has to invent a lie, creating a girlfriend that doesn’t exist, which greenlights Kenny’s desires to go after Sylvie, even after she decisively shuts him down and refuses to answer his phone calls, where building tension comes to a head when he visits her on the job, getting a little too close for comfort while dissing Khalid, ridiculing him in front of his patrons while drinking too much, getting high on drugs, being out of control and just generally running amok.  When he breaks into one of Sylvie’s recovery meetings, just generally being an abusive ass, all bets are off, as the story only spirals downward from there.  

When Kenny meets Dave in an underground garage with a dead body in the trunk, both are pulled into an amoral morass that leads only to hellish consequences, like an involuntary journey into Dante’s Inferno, as there’s only one place to dispose of bodies, apparently, and that’s the Ardennes, a rugged terrain of dense forests and hidden rivers, a popular locale for hunters, so it’s an interesting intersection of natural beauty and guns, while also a place the two brothers fondly remember visiting as kids, perhaps one of the few happy memories they both share.  But this is a distinctly different occasion, where the force of Kenny’s criminal acts has pulled his brother into the same toxic wasteland, where they sit around in a bar waiting to meet with Stef.  Of course, it’s never as easy as that, as they’re only being sized up by a zealously closed-minded community that instantly recognizes strangers in their midst and has an inherent mistrust.  When someone other than Stef arrives, a giant hulk of a man dressed as a woman, named Joyce (Sam Louwyck), the atmosphere immediately turns creepy beyond description, like a turn into a dark alley with no way out.   Both brothers are out of their element and out of their league, as Stef, Jan Bijvoet from Borgman (2013) and as the European intruder into the Amazonian forest in 2015 Top Ten List #8 Embrace of the Serpent (El abrazo de la serpiente) , seen earlier in the film as Kenny’s cellmate in prison, turns out to be a barbaric psychopathic who, by contrast, makes Kenny look like a boy scout.  Crudely disposing of body parts for sport, his particular specialty is played for laughs, as he has such a good time doing it, yet he maintains a folksy, down home style, exhibiting little to no emotion, but his beady little eyes seem demonic, capable of just about anything.  His über masculinity maintains control through utter calm, though the hatefully misogynistic dialogue coming out of his mouth permeates danger, where the tension rises accordingly.  Of course, nothing goes as planned, but instead falls off the rails, turning into an apocalyptic vision of hell on earth, as if Pandora’s Box has been opened and all the demons unleashed.  It’s a bit preposterous, unintentionally humorous in its hubris, and indescribably contrived, designed to raise eyebrows, yet exists in a hollow universe of emptiness, where there’s little character development, no attachment to any of the less than appealing characters, so let them have at it.  At the end of the day, none of it means anything, but it’s viciously conceived, most of it in dimly lit space, with an element of testosterone eye candy.