Operation Anthropoid

It is with a heavy heart that I begin to write today. Last week I decided to write about a movie called Anthropoid, which is a dramatization of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich which took place in 1942. It’s a movie with a lot of gun violence, and after what happened in Las Vegas after the weekend I wondered if it was the right movie to write about. I’m going to go through with it, but this week in addition to the standard spoiler warning I’m just going to say that this post will be getting into some pretty dark stuff, so if you don’t want to read about a film in which many people are killed with guns only a few days after dozens of Americans were actually killed with guns, I completely understand.

That being said, let’s get to the movie. Anthropoid is a movie which was released last year, starring Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan, and was written, produced, and directed by Sean Ellis (he was also the cinematographer). Ellis is an English filmmaker with only a handful of directing credits, but Anthropoid is one of the best-directed films I’ve seen in quite some time. It flew under the radar last year, but it’s a great movie and deserves to be more widely known.

Image: Universal

Reinhard Heydrich was an evil man. He was one of the highest-ranking Nazi officials and one of the main architects of the Holocaust. Hitler himself referred to Heydrich as “the man with the iron heart” and the people of Czechoslovakia nicknamed him the Butcher of Prague. I’m not going to say much more about him because I am not a historian and because writing about such a monstrous person is depressing. Suffice to say that if one were to compile a list of the most evil humans to ever exist, Heydrich would more than earn his place.

As I talk about the film, I’m going to be talking about historical events as the film depicts them, and I’m sure the movie takes some liberties with the actual events (as all movies based on true events inevitably do). Just letting all the historians out there know that in advance.

The movie’s main characters are Josef Gabcik, played by Murphy, and Jan Kubis, played by Dornan. Both Gabcik and Kubis were real people, and the performances by Murphy and Dornan are excellent. Murphy is a talented and versatile actor, while Dornan is unfortunately known best as Christian Grey from those godawful Fifty Shades of Grey movies (no, I haven’t seen them, nor do I ever intend to). For those of you who think Dornan is a bad actor based on those movies alone, I’ve got some potentially surprising news: he’s really good in Anthropoid. Amazing what an actor can do when given good material and a director who gives a shit.

For me, one of the most remarkable things about the movie is how genuine it feels. A lesser filmmaker could have taken this story and turned it into a Dirty Dozen-style action thriller about heroic underdogs assassinating a horrible person and subsequently going out in a blaze of glory. But director/producer/screenwriter/cinematographer Sean Ellis wisely and correctly realized that that would be a false way of telling the story, and instead makes the film frighteningly realistic. It portrays its characters as deeply flawed and unsure if what they’re doing is really the right course of action, and doesn’t gloss over the horrific consequences of their actions.

Image: Universal

Gabcik, Kubis, and their fellow conspirators are scared and uncertain. They were airdropped into Czechoslovakia with orders from the exiled Czech government in London to assassinate Heydrich, but the way the movie portrays it the details were mostly left to them. The first part of the film follows Gabcik and Kubis as they meet up with their contacts and form a plan to ambush Heydrich while he is out taking a drive. One of the biggest complications is that Heydrich sometimes travels with an armed escort and they haven’t been able to discern a pattern as to when Heydrich will be guarded.

They decide to wait for a day when Heydrich is unguarded, but when they receive news that Heydrich will be returning to Germany in a few days, it forces their hand and decide to ambush him regardless of the presence of an armed escort. Fortunately, when the moment arrives Heydrich is alone, but when Gabcik steps into the road in front of Heydrich’s car and attempts to open fire on him with a machine gun, his gun jams. As Heydrich and his driver prepare to shoot Gabcik, Kubis, who was positioned nearby, throws an anti-tank grenade at the vehicle and wounds Heydrich. Heydrich stays in the vehicle while his driver pursues Gabcik, who is able to shoot him and escapes.

This is the way the film portrays it, and from what I’ve read the film’s depiction of how the assassination played out is highly accurate. Ellis extensively researched the actions of every member involved in the assassination, and even portrays the events of the assassination in real time, meaning that the amount of time the film spends showing the assassination is the actual amount of time the events themselves took to occur.

That’s an impressive commitment to detail and historical accuracy. The entire film is tense as hell, and there’s very little artificiality to it. There’s little in the way of background music for most of the film, and Ellis uses this to increase the tension to nearly unbearable levels. There are no scenes of Gabcik and Kubis’ bosses back in London strategizing, and no scenes of Heydrich himself doing whatever it was that a sick bastard like him did in his day-to-day life. The viewer doesn’t know anything more about Heydrich’s movements than the assassins do. There is also a strong sense of just how isolated Gabcik and Kubis are. They have a few co-conspirators but little to no outside help. They are on their own.

At first, they fear that they botched the assassination, but a few days later, as they are hiding out in a church, they get the news that Heydrich died as a direct result of the wounds he sustained during the assassination attempt. From what I’ve read it sounds like he died of infected shrapnel wounds. The Nazis get a hint of the assassins’ location when one of their own, a Czech resistance operative named Karel Curda, betrays them for the sum of one million Reichsmarks.

Curda leads the Nazis to the home of the people Gabcik and Kubis stayed with during the planning of the attack. The mother of the family kills herself with a cyanide capsule before the Nazis can take her, but the rest of the family is not so lucky. There’s a horrific interrogation scene where the Nazis learn of the assassins’ location in a church from the teenage son of the family. I won’t describe the interrogation scene, but it’s appalling, and once again, from what I’ve read the depiction of the Gestapo’s interrogation methods is accurate, which is all the more horrifying if you see the film.

This leads to the final confrontation, which is one of the most epic and harrowing last stands in cinematic history. When the Nazis arrive at the church, three of the Czech resistance fighters are standing guard (one of which was Kubis) with the remaining four taking refuge in the crypt below the church. When the three start shooting, the four hiding in the crypt want to help but know that they can’t reveal themselves to the Nazis. The church shootout is intense and unrelenting, as the three Czechs desperately attempt to hold off wave after wave of well-armed and relentless German soldiers. Inevitably, all three are killed. The last to go is Kubis, who loads his last bullet into his gun at points it at his own head.

Just as he is about to pull the trigger, the film cuts to Gabcik’s horrified face in the crypt below as he hears the shot, and the expression on his face tells the whole story. It’s a quietly devastating moment, and is exemplary of the way Ellis directs the film. It’s not showy, it’s not stylized, it’s not drawn-out. It happens and it’s devastating and then it’s over and the survivors have to carry on. The Nazis soon realize where the remaining conspirators are hiding, and attempt to flush them out by flooding the crypt. Cornered, with the chamber flooding and the Nazis closing in, the surviving conspirators take their own lives.

Concluding text informs the viewer that Hitler’s reprisals were swift and terrible. Tens of thousands of Czechs were arrested, many of whom were later executed or died in concentration camps. The Czech villages of Lidice and Lezaky were burned to the ground and all their inhabitants either executed or imprisoned. It’s estimated that 5,000 innocent Czechs were killed as a direct result of Heydrich’s assassination. While the film mercifully doesn’t depict these events, it doesn’t ignore them either. Heydrich was the highest-ranking Nazi to be successfully assassinated during the Second World War, but it came at a terrible cost.

Image: Universal

The movie is a poignant examination of morality and justice, and doesn’t shy away from depicting the violence of war. Anthropoid is not a combat movie like Saving Private Ryan or Hacksaw Ridge, it’s closer to Schindler’s List or The Pianist. It’s hard to watch at times but is well worth the effort, even if you never want to see it again after the first viewing. It’s not as graphic as Saving Private Ryan or Hacksaw Ridge, but is no less emotionally draining. It’s vividly realistic and fantastically-directed, with excellent performances across the board. It’s a movie that is challenging but very rewarding, and will stay with you for a long time.

Coming up next week is a long-awaited sequel to a bona fide sci-fi classic. It’s Blade Runner 2049.

Hell or High Water

Sometimes, a movie’s title is so perfect that I don’t need to think of a title when I write about it. 2016’s Hell or High Water is such a film. I’m going to get real with you guys here. We’re going to get into some intense emotional stuff, and I’ll be quoting a lot of the film’s brilliant dialogue, which will include uncensored f-words. Also, there will be a lot of spoilers. Here we go.

Image: Lionsgate

Hell or High Water is the story of four men. Two are brothers by blood, two are brothers by friendship. The blood brothers are Toby and Tanner Howard, played respectively by Chris Pine and Ben Foster. Tanner, the older brother, was recently released from prison after ten years for killing the brothers’ abusive father in a hunting accident that may not have been so accidental. While his older brother was incarcerated, Toby cared for their terminally ill mother. Toby is estranged from his wife and two sons, and the recent death of their mother has left Toby deep in debt, unable to pay child support to his wife, and the bank is about to foreclose on the family ranch, on which oil has recently been discovered. Desperate for money, Toby enlists his brother’s help to rob a series of banks.

Toby is the brains of the operation, and the robberies are well-planned. They hit the banks early in the morning when there are less people there, and they take lower denominations of bills. They then launder the money at a casino, where they convert the stolen cash into poker chips, and then after a bit of drinking and gambling, they have the casino convert their “winnings” into a check made out to the Texas Midlands Bank, the same bank they’ve been robbing. Toby’s clever plan pays the bank back with their own money, and the bank has no way of tracing it.

Despite Toby’s well-crafted scheme, his big brother Tanner is unpredictable. He is aggressive and takes unnecessary risks, which frustrates Toby. But Toby also has a conscience, and despite being the brains of the operation, he would be a terrible criminal without his brother’s help. Toby needs Tanner, and they both know it.

There’s a lot of pent-up resentment between the brothers, exemplified when Toby tells Tanner that “while you were in prison, I was taking care of Mom, so you can go fuck yourself.” Toby resents Tanner’s wildness, while Tanner feels he’s doing Toby a favor, and since they both know Toby would suck as a criminal without Tanner’s help, Toby should just shut up and let him help. “How the fuck have you managed to stay out of prison for a year?” Toby asks his brother at one point. “It’s been difficult,” Tanner admits.

The relationship between these two characters is utterly fascinating, and all of it feels completely real. Pine and Foster have a relaxed, easy chemistry, and are completely believable as brothers. The film was written by Taylor Sheridan, a former actor who also wrote the bleak thriller Sicario in 2015, which is an incredibly good movie. Hell or High Water demonstrates many of Sheridan’s strengths as a writer: sharp dialogue, believable characters, and murky morality. The viewer of Hell or High Water is never sure who to root for, and the film wisely withholds judgment on its characters, leaving the viewers to form their own decisions.

Image: Lionsgate

But Toby and Tanner are only half of the equation. The brothers by friendship are Marcus Hamilton and Alberto Parker, played respectively by Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham. Hamilton and Parker are the two Texas Rangers investigating the brothers’ bank robberies. Marcus is nearing mandatory retirement, and figures this bank-robber caper will be his last hurrah. Alberto is half-Native American, half-Mexican, and endures constant jabs from Marcus about his heritage. After one of many insults, Alberto sighs and says, “You know I’m part Mexican, too.” Marcus’ response: “Yeah, well, I’m gonna get to that when I’m through with the Indian insults, but it’s gonna be a while.”

It may not seem like these men are brothers, but they are. In the special features on the film’s Blu-ray, Sheridan talks about how Marcus insults Alberto because he doesn’t know how to express how much Alberto means to him. It’s a toxic way of expressing love and friendship, Sheridan says, but it’s the only way Marcus knows. Sheridan’s writing is so good at capturing characters that feel like real people. He is also good at suggesting backstory without overly explaining everything. Much of the backstory I talked about between Toby and Tanner earlier isn’t spelled out or shown directly, but Sheridan’s dialogue is so good that it doesn’t have to be. Sheridan respects the viewers to be able to put the pieces together for themselves.

And there are many moments that are quietly heartbreaking. When Alberto suggests to Marcus that he needs a hobby, maybe horseback riding, Marcus rejects the idea. “Marybeth was the horse rider,” he says. “It would just remind me of her.” The knowledge that Marcus lost his wife makes the viewer reconsider Marcus’ actions. Without his wife, Marcus’ work and his friendship with Alberto mean that much more. There’s never any mention of Marcus’ wife aside from this one line, but it speaks volumes about his character.

Image: Lionsgate

The movie was directed by David Mackenzie, a Scottish filmmaker who does a brilliant job capturing the feel of rural, small-town America. The movie mostly takes place in west Texas, although it was filmed in New Mexico. The environment is as much of a character as the people who inhabit it. As Toby and Tanner drive to and from their various bank heists, they constantly pass signs and billboards reading “FOR SALE” and “FAST CASH” and “DEBT RELIEF”, making the reality of Toby’s financial woes all the more real.

Toby is a good man whose life is falling apart, and he’s been forced to take extreme actions to help his family. I’m not trying to say robbing banks is a good idea, but Toby is a deeply sympathetic character. You could even argue that his motives are altruistic, since the money from the robberies goes towards paying off the bank and setting up a trust in his family’s name, so that they will be able to keep the ranch in the future, and live off the money the oil-drilling will provide for them. “I’ve been poor my whole life, like a disease passing from generation to generation,” Toby tells Marcus near the end of the film. “But not my boys, not anymore.”

Even the volatile Tanner is a complex character. While many of his actions are horrendous (he kills a bank security guard, a civilian, and a cop without a hint of remorse) and his behavior is sometimes despicable (he scares off a woman putting the moves on Toby at a bar, only to seduce a hotel receptionist mere minutes later), you could still make the argument that he does what he does in order to help his brother and his family. Conversely, you could argue that he’s a cold-blooded killer who only does it for the thrill. The fact that you could make a convincing argument either way is another testament to the strength of Taylor Sheridan’s writing.

It should go without saying that things eventually go wrong for the bandit brothers. They eventually bite off more than they can chew when they try to rob a larger branch of the bank when there are a lot of people there. They soon learn the perils of bank-robbing in Texas, and are pursued by a heavily-armed posse when their attempted robbery devolves into a shootout. It’s an incredibly tense sequence, but it’s also wryly funny. “Those concealed-carry permits sure complicate bank robberies,” Tanner says as they drive away in a hail of bullets.

After Tanner scares the posse away by unloading three clips from an assault rifle at them, the brothers go their separate ways in what is my favorite scene in the film. Toby, taking the money and limping from a bullet wound in his side, staggers over to his car. As he opens the door and gets in, Tanner leans out from the driver’s side of his bullet-riddled pickup truck. “Hey, Toby,” he says.

Toby looks up.

“You know I love you, don’t you?” Tanner says.

Toby smiles faintly. “I love you, too,” he says, and shuts the car door.

“Hey, Toby,” Tanner says again.

Toby looks up again.

“Go fuck yourself,” Tanner says with a grin.

Toby grins back. “Go fuck yourself,” he replies.

They both laugh and drive in different directions, never to see each other again.

That short scene is, to me, the definition of brotherly love. These two men don’t always see eye-to-eye, they frequently don’t even like each other. But they love each other just the same. It’s not a long, drawn-out goodbye, because it doesn’t have to be. But it’s deeply moving just the same. Tanner leads the cops away, singing merrily to himself as they chase after him. He leads them to a mountain ridge, where he takes shots at them with a rifle.

Marcus and Alberto are among the pursuers, and as they take cover behind a police car, a shot rings out and hits Alberto in the head, killing him instantly. It takes Marcus a few seconds to realize what has happened, and once he does, his strangled gasp is heartbreaking. But Tanner has the high ground, and the cops can’t get to him. Marcus finds a local resident who knows the area, and manages to get behind Tanner. Tanner, unaware of this, continues firing at the lawmen. “Lord of the plains,” he grins to himself. “That’s me.” The view changes to Marcus aiming down the scope of a rifle, right at Tanner’s head. He fires, hitting Tanner square in the head, and it’s over. Tanner slumps lifelessly forward, blood pooling in the ground at his feet. There’s no drawn-out, blaze-of-glory death sequence. Just BANG, and he’s gone. Marcus leans against a rock and half-laughs, half-cries.

Meanwhile, Toby is able to pass a police checkpoint without incident, and heads to the casino to launder the money. He is sitting at the bar having a drink when he hears about Tanner’s death on the news on a TV behind him. He doesn’t even turn around to look at the TV, just raises his glass and silently takes a drink. Then he visits the bank, pays off his debts, and sets up a trust fund in his family’s name.

Some time later, Marcus visits his old office to talk with his replacement and get some closure on the Howards. He learns that the Texas Rangers have cleared Toby as a suspect, since his record is clean and he has no motive because the oil wells on his family’s property make more money in a month than what was stolen in all the bank robberies combined. The bank is also not cooperating with the investigation, since they don’t want to lose management of the family’s trust fund. The Rangers never got descriptions of the bank robbers, since the brothers wore hoods and masks to all their robberies, so Toby and his family are in the clear.

Although he has no proof and no authority, Marcus knows Toby was the brains of the operation. He visits Toby at the now-lucrative family ranch, and their conversation is fascinating. These two men have every reason to hate each other, but there’s no real sense of enmity between them. Just a grudging sort of respect. Marcus tells Toby that he knows Toby was the mastermind, and wants to know why. Toby is evasive, and this is when he says the line to Marcus that I quoted earlier, about how his family’s poverty won’t be passed down to his sons.

As Marcus gets up to leave and heads back to his car, Toby stops him.

“Hey,” he says.

Marcus turns around.

“I rent a little house in town,” Toby says. “If you wanna stop by and finish this conversation, you’re welcome anytime.”

“Oh, I’d like that,” Marcus replies. “Be seeing you.”

“Yeah,” Toby says. “Soon, I hope. I’m ready to be done with this.”

“You’ll never be done with it no matter what,” Marcus says. “It’s gonna haunt you, son, for the rest of your days. But you won’t be alone. It’s gonna haunt me too.”

“If you stop by,” Toby says, “Maybe I’ll give you peace.”

“Maybe,” Marcus agrees, nodding, then says “Maybe I’ll give it to you.” He turns away, gets in his car, and drives off. And that’s the end of the movie, leaving the audience to wonder if that peace will come from a shared six-pack or the barrel of a shotgun.

Who wins? Toby provides for his family, but at the cost of several deaths, including that of his own brother. As Marcus says, he’s just going to have to live with that for the rest of his life. Marcus kills one of the robbers, but he’ll never be able to nab the man he knows is the second one, and his best friend was killed before Marcus was able to tell him how much he valued him. And while Tanner’s motives are questionable and his behavior is frequently deplorable, in the end he gives his life for his brother, and there is no greater sacrifice.

With most movies I see, there are pros and cons. But while the pros of Hell or High Water could fill a book, when I think about cons, I can’t come up with a single one. It’s damn near perfect. It’s tense, relatable, wryly funny, deeply moving, and the writing, acting, and directing are superb. It’s an achingly human story and its characters and their relationships are profoundly real. The movie was nominated for four Academy Awards in 2016, including Best Picture, and while it didn’t win any of them I’m glad it was recognized. Chris Pine has never been better, nobody plays a crusty Texas Ranger better than Jeff Bridges (he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor), and the supporting work from Ben Foster and Gil Birmingham is commendable, as is the rest of the supporting cast.

It’s a tremendous movie. Oddly, the back of the film’s Blu-ray package lists the film’s running time as 122 minutes, when it’s actually 102 minutes. The fact that the movie does what it does in such a relatively brief amount of time is extraordinary. There are plenty of big blockbusters with ten or even twenty times the budget that are 45 minutes longer, and don’t have nearly as much pathos as this film does.

Image: Lionsgate

See it. It’s unforgettable.

Also unforgettable (albeit for entirely different reasons) is the movie I’ll be talking about next week. It’s the weirdest movie of 2017 and one of the weirdest movies to come out of Hollywood in a long time. It’s a twisted tale full of slithering eels and dark secrets. It’s Gore Verbinski’s bizarro fright flick A Cure For Wellness. See you next week!

Logan: A Brutal and Epic Sendoff

For the longest time, I had a list of my top five favorite movies. They were Die Hard, The Dark Knight, Hot Fuzz, Casino Royale, and Gladiator. Then in 2015 Mad Max Fury Road was released, and my top five became a top six.

Well, now it might have to become a top seven.

James Mangold’s Logan is a deeply moving film, and I left the theater with tears in my eyes. I was saddened by the end of the film. Saddened by the end of a story I love, and by the fact that one of my favorite fictional characters will not be seen again onscreen the same way. But at the same time, it was a good sort of sadness, the kind of sadness that you feel when a story you love is over, but you feel that it couldn’t have ended any other way.

Logan is an aptly named film. In many ways, this is not a superhero movie. It’s not a story about Wolverine, the superhero. It’s a story about Logan, the man.

It’s also a story about the toll that all the years of fighting and world-saving can take on a person, even one with superhuman regenerating powers. This movie takes beloved and iconic characters and brings them lower than they’ve ever been before, and the results are breathtaking.

Unlike its predecessors, this is a not a family-friendly movie. Seriously, leave the kids at home for this one. The success of Deadpool last year paved the way for R-rated superhero movies, and Logan takes full advantage of the freedom provided by the R rating. This is a far more violent film than Deadpool, much more realistic and less exaggerated. There are buckets of blood and gore. Limbs and heads are severed, bodies and craniums are slashed and impaled in gruesome detail.

But the film isn’t violent just for the sake of being violent. The violence in the film comes from a place of character, and all of it has meaning. Fans have long wanted a Wolverine movie that lets him really cut loose with his claws, and this is that movie. One review I read described the movie like this: the language is blue and the violence is red. It’s a completely accurate description.

In the movie, which takes place in 2029, mutants are a dying breed. We’re told that no mutants have been born in 25 years. Logan makes a meager living as a limo driver, and hides out in a compound on the Mexican border, where he cares for an ailing Charles Xavier.

Logan and Charles have both seen better days, to say the least. Logan’s healing factor isn’t as potent as it once was, and his body has started to betray him in other ways. He wears reading glasses because his eyesight is starting to go, and when he pops his claws early in the film, one of them only comes out halfway, prompting him to look at it in bewilderment.

Charles is in arguably worse shape. He’s now in his nineties and is starting to become senile. He takes medication to suppress his seizures, and what happens when the world’s most powerful telepath has seizures? Nothing good. The first time we see Charles, he’s rambling incoherently and refusing to take his meds. He’s belligerent and uncooperative, and tells Logan how much of a disappointment he is, and accuses Logan of wishing he would just die so that he wouldn’t have to take care of him anymore. As a person with a grandparent with Alzheimer’s, all of this cut me right to the bone.

But even if you don’t know someone with a degenerative brain disease, it’s not hard to sympathize with Charles. This is a character who in his previous appearances has been the embodiment of civility and intelligence, a bastion of order in the chaos. To see him brought down so low is upsetting. It hurts.

This is a film that deals with things no other superhero or comic book movie ever has. It’s about getting old. It’s about the inevitability of death and the unstoppable current of time. It’s part western, part road-trip movie, part passing the torch to the next generation.

That next generation arrives in the form of Laura, an 11-year-old girl with the same powers as Wolverine, right down to the claws that come out from between her knuckles, who is being pursued by sinister forces. Logan reluctantly agrees to take her north to the Canadian border, to a safe haven for mutants that may or may not even exist, with the bad guys in hot pursuit. Along the way we find out more about Laura, where she came from and what she has already gone through, and the three of them, Logan, Charles, and Laura, start to become a family.

Laura is played by a young actress named Dafne Keen, making her big-screen debut. And she knocks it out of the park. Laura is silent and unexpressive for much of the movie, and when her ferocity is unleashed it’s truly frightening. The mystery of Laura’s origin is compelling and provides a strong driving force for the movie’s plot.

And it conveys so much about the personalities of Logan and Charles. Logan doesn’t want to help Laura at first. He doesn’t do that kind of thing anymore. But in the end, he can’t help it. He simply has no other choice. Charles does want to help her, perhaps feeling the same kind of motivations that led him to open his school for mutants all those years ago. Maybe he just wants some purpose to his life, some light in the darkness that the last years of his life have become.

It’s hard to tell exactly where this film fits in to the X-Men series’ cinematic continuity. The series has gone through several reboots over the years so it’s not clear what is canon and what isn’t. But that doesn’t bother me with this movie. I prefer to think of the X-Men films like I think about comics. They’re different interpretations of the same characters, and maybe they’re not meant to take place in the same universe. The point is that the fractured continuity of the X-Men film series doesn’t effect one’s enjoyment of this film. I don’t care if it takes place in the same universe or not, it’s still a superb movie.

And let’s talk for a second about Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart. The first X-Men movie came out in 2000. Jackman and Stewart have been playing Logan and Charles for nearly two decades. When we see them in such dire straits, part of the reason it’s so affecting is that we’ve never seen them this way before, and we have memories of them in better days. Seeing them brought so low would have been moving anyway, but the fact that the movie carries nearly twenty years’ worth of previous movies behind it lends it even more weight. Needless to say, both actors are magnificent in this film, in what both have said will be their final appearances as these beloved and iconic characters.

There is a lot of action in this movie, and all of it is thrilling, but not necessarily what I would call “fun.” The action is well-filmed and choreographed, and it is easy to tell what is going on. But again, this is not a fun movie in the way that, say, an Avengers movie is fun. I would equate the experience of watching it to something like watching Gladiator. Spectacular action scenes, but hard to watch because of the brutality and the sheer emotional weight. The movie is beautifully directed by James Mangold, who also co-wrote the screenplay. He also directed Logan’s previous solo movie, 2013’s The Wolverine, and has a strong understanding of what makes Logan a compelling character. He directs the film with skill and grace, and it really feels like he cares about the characters. He has created a riveting film, from its startling opening scene to its haunting final image.

The movie’s first trailer was accompanied by a Johnny Cash song, “Hurt.” The trailer was one of those rare movie trailers that turned out to perfectly encapsulate the feel of the film it was promoting. It captured the movie’s melancholy tone, while conveying the emotional strain of the pain these characters experience. The song includes the line “I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel. I focus on the pain, the only thing that’s real.” Logan and Charles live in a world of pain of all kinds: physical, mental, emotional. But the movie is about them realizing that there’s more to life than pain. There are things like love and family, and those things are what matter, those things are what last. It’s a lesson Logan and Charles have to learn the hard way, but it resonates throughout the film and beyond.

On Love, Loss and Superheroes

Hey look, I’m writing about Batman again! I didn’t expect this to happen so soon, but this time I am talking about an animated Batman movie, 1993’s Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.

Batman - Mask of the Phantasm _1993_

Mask of the Phantasm is done in the style of the animated series that began in the early 90’s, simply called Batman: The Animated Series. It is my humble opinion that the show was one of the best interpretations of Batman that has ever been done in any medium, and Mask of the Phantasm featured all of the elements that made the show so great, while also providing a deeply moving emotional foundation to rest its story upon. Mask of the Phantasm is one of the most tragic and affecting superhero movies ever made, and as a big superhero fan, and with the plethora of caped heroes running amok in movies and on TV these days, that is not a statement I make lightly.

Here’s the story. A masked, caped figure has been killing mobsters in Gotham, and since Batman had been seen at the scenes of some of these murders, the populace assumes he’s started whacking bad guys instead of bringing them in, and the police turn against him.

Long story short, Batman hasn’t become a murderer. There’s a new player in Gotham, and he’s the one knocking off mob bosses.


While all of this is going on, the movie repeatedly flashes back to a time before Bruce Wayne became Batman, and tells of how he fell in love with a woman named Andrea Beaumont. Bruce’s relationship with Andrea complicates his efforts to figure out how to keep his promise to his dead parents. The film never states specifically what Bruce promised his parents, but it doesn’t need to. Anyone who knows anything about Batman knows that Bruce made a promise to his parents to rid the city of the evil that took their lives.

And he desperately wants to fulfill his promise, but he’s terribly conflicted because his romance with Andrea has led to something he didn’t expect to happen: his own happiness. In the movie’s most wrenching scene, he goes to his parents’ grave and pleads with them.

“It doesn’t mean I don’t care anymore,” Bruce tells them. “I don’t want to let you down, honest, but…but it just doesn’t hurt so bad anymore. You can understand that, can’t you? Look, I can give money to the city, they can hire more cops. Let someone else take the risk, but it’s different now!” At this point, lightning flashes across the sky and thunder rumbles.

“Please!” Bruce continues. “I need it to be different now. I know I made a promise, but I didn’t see this coming. I didn’t count on being happy. Please…tell me that it’s okay…”

“Maybe they already have,” Andrea says from behind him. “Maybe they sent me.” Bruce turns to her, and they embrace in the rain.

Now I don’t care who you are or what you think about Batman in particular or superheroes in general, that is heartbreaking. It’s not that Bruce doesn’t still care about the promise he made his parents, or that he doesn’t still miss them, but the passage of time has helped dull the pain, and the introduction of Andrea into his life has led to him being happy in his life, and this kills me, because he didn’t expect this to happen. He didn’t count on being happy.

In the wake of his parents’ deaths, Bruce was so distraught that he didn’t think he could be happy again, and it took a person, Andrea, to show him he was wrong. And now that he has that happiness, he desperately wants to hold on to it, but he feels that to do so would be to let down his parents, which leaves him at a crossroads.

Andrea Beaumont

Man…just, man. This one scene in this one animated movie from 23 years ago is one of the best portrayals of grief I’ve ever seen. It’s also a brilliant deconstruction of the Batman myth, and shows heartbreakingly the sacrifice that Bruce makes to become Batman.

Bruce decides to change the plan and actually proposes to Andrea. She accepts, but their happiness is ruined when Andrea’s father gets in trouble with the mob, and the two of them go on the run. After she leaves, Bruce finally takes the plunge and becomes Batman, and doesn’t see Andrea again until she suddenly returns to Gotham years later, right around the time a mysterious masked figure starts bumping off mobsters.

Spoiler alert: it turns out that Andrea is the one killing mobsters, in revenge for their killing of her father earlier. In a further twist, it turns out the one who actually did the deed of killing her father was none other than the Clown Prince of Crime himself, the Joker, before he became the twisted villain we all love to hate. After she bumps off the other mobsters, she sets her sights on Joker, but in trademark Joker fashion, he isn’t going to make it easy for her.

I’m simplifying the story a bit here, but to me the real heart of this movie is about the relationship between Bruce and Andrea. Despite the genre elements, the relationship between them is complex and compelling. They both figure out the other’s secret, and Batman comes to her rescue when she bites off more than she can chew with the Joker.

But Andrea doesn’t want to be rescued. In some ways, maybe it’s too late for her to be rescued at all. “They took everything, Bruce.” She entreats him. “My father, my friends, my life, you. I’m not saying it’s right, or even sane but it’s all I have left! So either help me, or get out of the way!”

“You know I can’t do that,” Batman responds.

“Look what they did to us!” Andrea bursts out. “What we could have had! They had to pay!”

“But Andy,” Batman begs her, “what will vengeance solve?”

“If anyone knows the answer to that, Bruce,” Andrea replies, “It’s you.”

Wow. That exchange just floored me. Most blockbuster movies these days don’t have dialogue anywhere near that good, or emotional thrust anywhere near that powerful. Mask of the Phantasm is able to do in 76 minutes what some three-hour movies have difficulty achieving.

It’s also a very well-animated movie. Some animation from the early 90’s can look a bit dated by today’s standards, but the animation in Mask of the Phantasm holds up very well. It’s also surprisingly violent. The fact that it was a theatrically-released film probably allowed the filmmakers to get away with more violence than they would have been able to pull off in the TV series. It’s not gratuitously violent, but it’s still pretty noticeable (for example, late in the movie Batman kicks Joker in the face, which spurts blood and sends one of the Joker’s teeth flying).

The voice acting is also top-notch. Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill will always be THE definitive voices of Batman and the Joker for me, and both are as excellent as always. Conroy lets you feel Bruce’s pain, and Hamill’s Joker is as unhinged as ever. He also gets to let out what has to be one of the all-time greatest Joker laughs. He just completely loses it.


Also strong is Dana Delany, who voices Andrea. Delany provided the voice of Lois Lane in Superman: The Animated Series, and she is great as Andrea. She has the kind of smooth, sexy voice that I could happily listen to read from the phone book, and she really nails the emotional ups and downs (mostly downs) of Andrea’s character.

Mask of the Phantasm is more than just a superhero movie. It’s a tragic romance. It delivers all of the things that made the animated series great: the story, the emotion, the (surprisingly brutal) action, it’s well-written, well-animated and the voice acting is superb.

I don’t think it’s been entirely forgotten, as I hope this post has demonstrated it still has its loyal fans. But it has been overshadowed somewhat by the bigger, flashier movies of recent years. It’s underappreciated these days, but still well worth checking out.

As a final note, the movie also provides one of the best explanations as to why I love Batman so much. After the final encounter, where Bruce fears he has lost Andrea forever, he sits despondent in the Batcave, and his loyal butler Alfred attempts to console him.


“Vengeance blackens the soul, Bruce,” Alfred says. “I’ve always feared that you would become that which you’ve fought against. You walk the edge of that abyss every night, but you haven’t fallen in and I thank heaven for that.”

That’s it right there. Batman walks the edge of the abyss, but he doesn’t fall in.

And I, too, thank heaven for that.

A Slasher Movie Disguised as an Action Flick


That’s the best word I can use to describe Arnold Schwarzenegger’s latest movie, “Sabotage.”

Other words that would be appropriate include “icky,” “gross,” “bleah,” and “I never want to watch that again.”

2014 movies sabotage

Arnold plays John “Breacher” Wharton, the head of an elite DEA anti-cartel task force, or something like that. On one of their drug busts, they attempt to steal $10 million of drug money. But when they go to where they stashed the money, they find it gone. A few months later, members of the team start getting picked off one by one.

It’s a decent enough premise, one that was allegedly inspired by Agatha Christie’s classic novel “And Then There Were None”, although the movie has nothing to do with the book aside from the basic premise of a specific group of people being picked off one at a time by an unknown/unseen killer.

Generally I like the movies I see in theaters. I’m pretty good at knowing what kind of movies I’ll like, and most of the time when I write about a movie on this blog I’m pretty positive about it.

There is very little to be positive about with Sabotage.

Where to begin? Let’s start with the characters. All of them (with the possible exception of Arnold’s character) are either completely unlikable or have little to no personality at all.

This sucks for a whole bunch of reasons. First off, they’re all played by pretty good actors, so it’s a shame when they either get nothing to do, and/or are so unpleasant that you just don’t like any of them. This means that it is extremely hard to care when they all start being killed in various gruesome ways, which robs the movie of any sort of emotional connection.

Now, I get that people in real life aren’t always nice. Not every person you meet in life is going to be a very likable person. It’s a fact of life. I get that. But the problem with the unlikable characters in this movie is that in order for the plot to work on any sort of emotional level, you have to at least be able to sympathize with them. And none of this movie’s characters (with, again, the lone exception of Arnold’s character) are remotely sympathetic. They’re cocky, arrogant, foul-mouthed jerks. You’re almost glad when they start getting killed, because it means there’s one less asshole around to drag the movie down.

Surprisingly enough, Arnold himself actually gives what I thought was a pretty good performance. He’s very believable as the leader of a group of badasses (as douchey as all those badasses may be), and it’s not hard to believe that the group would fall apart completely if he weren’t around to keep them in line.

sabotage arnold 1

He’s also the only remotely sympathetic character in the movie, which is mostly due to his backstory. His wife and son were kidnapped by the drug cartels and horribly tortured to death.

And this leads us to the movie’s other biggest problem: the violence. You might want to grab a raincoat or something, things are about to get messy.

This movie has enough gore to easily rival just about any horror movie. I have a high tolerance for violence in movies and video games and the like, but even I found much of the violence in Sabotage to be completely repellent.

For starters, Arnold’s character has a video of his family being tortured to death, which he views multiple times throughout the movie. Literally the very first scene in the movie is of him watching his wife being tortured and killed. The first sounds of the movie are of a woman begging for her life.

And it only gets worse from there: entrails hanging from the ceiling, multiple grisly autopsy scenes, and a refrigerator that gushes blood when opened are just a few of the horrors on display. Early on in the movie, I started wondering when my Arnold movie turned into Saw. Seriously, I want entertainment, not torture porn.

sabotage arnold 2

There are a couple of decent action scenes, including a couple of close-quarters shootouts and a pretty good car chase. But even those are splattered with an excessive amount of the red stuff, which makes them not very much fun either.

The movie was directed by a guy named David Ayer, who made a movie called End of Watch a couple of years ago, which was a very good cop movie anchored by a pair of solid performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena as the two main characters.

end of watch poster

It’s a really good movie. If you like cop movies you should check it out. It has good acting, good dialogue, and really great chemistry between the leads. So I had reasonably high hopes for Sabotage, none of which came to fruition, aside from Arnold himself.

Sabotage is just a dirty movie. It’s relentlessly gruesome, it has a triple-digit F-word count, it’s covered in so much grime and filth that I wanted a shower when it was over and I gratefully left the theater. There’s a place for violence in movies, and it’s certainly not impossible to make a movie with unlikable characters still be compelling (Brian de Palma’s Scarface comes to mind).

But in Sabotage, there is no redemption, no emotional connection, and no hope. Just a river of gore and a bad taste in your mouth.

The Heart of Darkness

I recently played a video game called Spec Ops: The Line. The game has been out for a while and I picked it up for twenty bucks at my local Gamestop. At first glance, the game appears to be yet another cover-based third-person shooter, the mechanics of which will be immediately familiar to anyone who played the extremely popular Gears of War series.

And indeed, the gameplay is solid, if unspectacular. But I hesitate to call the game “fun.” This sounds odd to me, since if a game is not fun, it must not be a very good game, right? In most cases, yes. But that is not the case with Spec Ops: The Line. The game’s storyline is one of the darkest of any game I have ever played, and it made me question my desire to play video games in which you mow down countless bad guys. It made me question the very morality of what I was doing, which to me was quite extraordinary.


The game takes place in Dubai, which has been ravaged by the worst sandstorms in recorded history. When the storms started getting really bad, Dubai’s politicians and wealthy citizens abandoned the city, leaving everyone else behind. A decorated but troubled military commander, Colonel John Konrad, volunteered his unit, the fictional Damned 33rd, to help the relief efforts, and then deserted when the 33rd was ordered to abandon the city.

Dubai became cut off from the world, and 6 months later a looped radio signal is broadcast, saying: “This is Colonel John Konrad, United States Army. Attempted evacuation of Dubai ended in complete failure. Death toll: too many.” Hearing this, the US military covertly sends in a three-man team of Delta Force operators: Captain Martin Walker (the player-controlled character), Lieutenant Alphonse Adams, and Staff Sergeant John Lugo. Their mission is to confirm the statuses of Konrad and any other survivors, and radio for extraction.

What starts out as a simple recon mission soon turns into a soul-shattering descent into madness. Given the setup, you’d think that maybe the 33rd was taken captive by some sinister group, you, the player, would rescue them, save the city, and everything would be fine, right?


Very, very wrong.


It turns out that there’s a whole civil war going on in Dubai, being waged by various factions. Some of the 33rd is still loyal to Konrad, while some of them rebelled against him. There is also a group led by a handful of CIA agents, who don’t want the truth of what happened in Dubai to reach the rest of the world.

When you, the player, first encounter members of the 33rd, they think you’re with the CIA and attempt to kill you. This leads to the very unusual (for a video game) scenario of you having to fight and kill fellow American soldiers.

Wait, what? Aren’t you supposed to be killing the bad guys? The question the game asks is a familiar one, but relevant nonetheless: Who is the real bad guy? The answer, the game suggests, might surprise you.

As you progress through the game, you eventually come across an area heavily fortified by the 33rd. There’s a mortar nearby, and Walker decides to use it to clear the area with white phosphorus shells.

Now, white phosphorus is extremely nasty stuff. It causes deep second and third degree burns, and it sticks to the skin and can cause extensive damage to internal organs due to being absorbed by the body. If you really want to, you can go to Wikipedia for an image of the kinds of injuries it causes, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s an image I’m not going to post on my blog.

So, in the game, you use the white phosphorus mortar to clear the area of hostiles. As you move through the carnage afterward, you encounter a severely burned soldier, on the verge of death.

“Why?…” the soldier croaks.

“You brought this on yourself,” Walker replies.

“We were helping…” the injured soldier tries to say, but dies before he can finish.

“What?” Walker asks, confused. He looks around, and sees something. “Oh, no…” he says softly.

It turns out that the 33rd had been providing shelter for civilians, and you, the player, have burned them all to a crisp.


Here’s the scene on YouTube, if you can stomach it.

Walker is heavily traumatized by this turn of events, and Adams and Lugo begin to lose their faith in their commander. Walker vows revenge against the 33rd, blaming them for, as he sees it, forcing him to fire the white phosphorus.

A little later, you find a small radio through which Konrad begins communicating with Walker, and openly questioning the morality of Walker’s actions. Walker refuses to take any responsibility for what he has done, and blames Konrad for forcing his hand. Adams and Lugo grow more and more distrusting in their commanding officer, and begin to voice their distrust more openly.

Walker, Adams, and Lugo eventually team up with a CIA agent named Riggs, and help him hijack the tanker trucks carrying Dubai’s water supply. Riggs, however, intentionally crashes the trucks, intending to wipe out the entire remaining population of Dubai so that no one will know about the atrocities committed there. And so you, the player, are once again (at least partly) responsible for an atrocity: the inevitable death of Dubai’s entire remaining population.

 Walker before and after

This image is of Walker as the game progresses. The deterioration is pretty obvious.

Walker is beginning to hallucinate, and Konrad continues to question his judgment, as do Adams and Lugo. After a helicopter crash, Lugo is lynched by an angry mob, and the player is given the choice to either scare the crowd away by firing into the air, or gun them down in payback.

Let me reiterate this: you, the player, are given the option to fire into a crowd of civilians to pay them back for the death of your comrade. This is almost unprecedented. I almost can’t believe something like this made it into a widely-released video game.

Walker continues to hallucinate, and Adams clearly no longer trusts him. Walker informs Konrad that he is coming to kill him, and Walker and Adams make their way to the tower (which I think is supposed to be the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building) where Konrad is holed up.

After another fierce firefight, Walker barely makes it to the tower, while Adams goes down fighting the last of Konrad’s men. As Walker enters the tower, the last of the 33rd surrender to him and inform that Konrad is on the penthouse deck of the tower. Walker goes to confront him, and at first Konrad appears to be the man behind the atrocities, until Walker finds his decaying corpse.

Yep, Konrad committed suicide well before the game began, and Walker has been imagining everything Konrad said to him in an attempt to rationalize his actions, and to distance himself from his guilt over having caused the deaths of so many civilians and fellow American soldiers. Walker’s projection of Konrad tells him that he had many opportunities to leave Dubai, but didn’t and pushed recklessly ahead from a misplaced desire to be a hero, and only ended up causing more death and destruction in the process. The game ends with Walker’s projection of Konrad pointing a gun at him (which is of course Walker pointing a gun at himself) and beginning to count to five.

There are a couple of different endings to the game after this point, but I will again refer you to Wikipedia for the details since there are other things I want to discuss here.

Spec Ops: The Line is nightmarish in many ways. What starts as a recon mission becomes a massacre, with the player character starting the game looking like this…

 spec-ops-3 good

And ending it looking more like this:

 spec-ops-the-line-e3-2012-screenshots-1 bad

In this game, you objectively fail your mission. Not only do you fail, you fail spectacularly: you spend the majority of the game fighting and killing American soldiers, and are responsible for mass killings of civilians on more than one occasion. Your actions have helped lead to what will probably be the extinction of Dubai’s remaining population, which is pretty much the exact opposite of your mission going into the game.

For much of the game, Walker blames Konrad for what has happened. The twist that Konrad has been dead the whole time of course means that Walker himself was entirely responsible for everything that happened. Revenge against Konrad was just a smokescreen, and Walker’s attempted rationale for the atrocities he himself commits turns out to be meaningless.

All of this is very fourth-wall breaking. Walker’s actions throughout the game are also the player’s actions, and the player is therefore responsible for some truly horrific deeds.

In most games, when you die and the game reloads your last checkpoint, a hint appears on the loading screen to help you out. Spec Ops: The Line does this as well, until late in the game, when different sorts of messages begin to appear on the screen.

Messages like this:

Do you feel like a hero yet?

Can you even remember why you’re here?

The United States Military does not condone the killing of unarmed noncombatants. But this isn’t real, so why should you care?

Killing for yourself is murder. Killing for your government is heroic. Killing for entertainment is harmless.

And perhaps most devastatingly:

You’re still a good person.


Spec Ops: The Line is a game that makes you question your desire to play violent video games, even as you are in the process of playing one. It makes you think about all those violent games you’ve played in the past, and how you were so proud of yourself for setting a new personal record for most kills in one round of Call of Duty. It makes you question all those achievements you’ve gotten for killing certain numbers of enemies with different weapons in game after game after game. It makes you question the choices you make. It makes you question why you are playing this particular game, even as you continue to play it, and why like Walker, you stick it out to the very bitter end. It’s a deconstruction of the entire shooter genre, and while it’s not exactly subtle, it deserves credit for the questions it raises.

The implications of these questions are ones I don’t really want to think about, but at the same time, I admire the creators of this game for having the stones to bring them up. I think I read somewhere that one of the main inspirations for the story was Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the parallels to which are pretty clear in the game.

Also of note is the terrific vocal performance of the great voice actor Nolan North, who does a tremendous job of conveying the erosion of Walker’s sanity as the game progresses. At the beginning of the game, Walker sounds cool and composed, as you near the end, he sounds downright frantic. Even if the name Nolan North isn’t familiar to you, I can all but guarantee you’ve heard his voice if you’ve played just about any game over the past several years. Seriously, the guy’s IMDB page is about a mile long.

There’s not really any specific point I wanted to make with this post. I spent a good portion of this last weekend playing this game, and it affected me so much I just had to get my feelings out, since writing is such good therapy. I’m sorry this post was such a downer, if you read it to the end, thanks for hanging in there with me.

The next movie I’m going to write about will be The World’s End, the reunion of everyone’s favorite crazy British actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost with everyone’s favorite crazy British director Edgar Wright. I’m really looking forward to it.

But until then, I need to go lie down.

RIP Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert died yesterday at the age of 70, after a decade-long battle with thyroid cancer.

He was unquestionably the most well-known film critic in the world, but his legacy and his influence go much deeper. I’ve referenced Ebert a few times in other posts I’ve written on this blog (at least I’m pretty sure I have), and I know I’m far from being the only person who was influenced by him.

I feel like it’s somewhat self-aggrandizing of me to say that Ebert was an influence on me. I’m just some Podunk blogger who likes zombies, Batman, and Bruce Willis movies, yet here I am saying that the most influential and widely respected film critic to probably ever exist was an influence on me.

But it’s true, and I feel like Ebert was the sort of person who would have appreciated that.

In a truly extraordinary essay, Ebert wrote about how he did not fear death. I won’t summarize the essay, because you really should read it yourself. (here’s the link: http://www.salon.com/2011/09/15/roger_ebert/) There is one paragraph in particular that really stood out to me, and I hope I won’t get in trouble for copyright infringement or anything for reprinting it here:

“’Kindness’ covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.”

That’s just…amazing. That is the effect Ebert had on people. He contributed joy to the world. He helped make people happy. That is the effect he had on me, and so I’m pretty sure he would have been pleased with me citing him as an influence, as he would have with the many, many other people whose lives he touched. And that’s really what I’m trying to do with this blog, to make people happy, and maybe make them think a little bit, too. If I have succeeded with that with even one person, then I am happy.

But it wasn’t just his outlook that I liked about Ebert. It was his style. He wrote about movies in a way that made them accessible and appealing to all sorts of people. He embraced everybody’s opinions, and embraced all kinds of movies. His reviews were always written in a welcoming, conversational style, one that I like to think I have attempted to emulate here.

He made movies fun, while also acknowledging when they moved him on a personal level. He wasn’t afraid to talk about how a movie made him feel, which I think is really something of a lost art. He didn’t let popular opinion really faze him either, if he liked a movie no one else did or disliked a movie everyone else seemed to like he would stick to his guns and not back down from his opinions, while still being aware that not everyone would feel the same way he did.

And on top of all that, the man was simply a great writer. He always found a way to hook you with every review, which isn’t easy to do once, let alone thousands of times. His reviews were funny, thoughtful, intelligent, and often moving, sometimes all at once.

He didn’t even let the loss of his voice slow him down. If anything, it had the opposite effect, since he became very active with his blog and on Twitter and still cranked out those wonderful, oh-so-readable reviews. He punched cancer in the face for ten years without letting it get him down. His work ethic and his integrity were truly remarkable.

He was also a man who just loved movies. He devoted his life to the art of film, and in so doing he made it fun and accessible for generations of fellow film-lovers. I didn’t always agree with his reviews, but I always, always enjoyed reading them. He was a man of great integrity, strength, intelligence, and wit, and he is already sorely missed.

The Closest I’ve ever Felt to Death at the Movies

I mentioned a while ago that I was going to write about death in movies, and here it is. You probably don’t need me to tell you that this isn’t going to be very much fun, but it’s something I’ve wanted to write about for a while so here it is. Instead of talking about the general portrayal of death in films, I’m going to talk about three specific films that really affected me in this regard. Those films are Saving Private Ryan, Aliens, and The Grey. There will be spoilers for these movies, so be aware of that also.

A quick clarification. The title of this piece is meant to be FIGURATIVE, NOT LITERAL. I stress this in the wake of the horrible shooting in Colorado at the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises. I have never been in a situation like that and I pray to God I never will. My purpose in writing this is not to try to make light of a tragedy, it’s to explore something meaningful to me that films have helped me think about. Though I suppose you could say that the Colorado shooting brought some of these thoughts more to the forefront of my mind.

Besides, I don’t think there’s anything I can say about the shooting that Christopher Nolan hasn’t already said himself: “I would not presume to know anything about the victims of the shooting but that they were there last night to watch a movie. I believe movies are one of the great American art forms and the shared experience of watching a story unfold on screen is an important and joyful pastime. The movie theatre is my home, and the idea that someone would violate that innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way is devastating to me. Nothing any of us can say could ever adequately express our feelings for the innocent victims of this appalling crime, but our thoughts are with them and their families.” I wanted to share that quote from Nolan because he really is a class act, and like I said, there’s nothing I could really add that Nolan hasn’t already said himself far more eloquently than I would be able to.

Now that I’ve said all that, let’s move on to the actual films I’m going to talk about here. First up is Saving Private Ryan. This is already a fairly infamous movie, both due to its extremely graphic violence and the fact that it somehow lost the Best Picture Oscar in 1998 to Shakespeare in Love, which was good but not that good. Saving Private Ryan is one of those movies that is amazing but that I’ve only managed to actually watch all the way through maybe twice. There’s a lot to say about this film, from the fact that the opening D-Day invasion scene is so realistic that WWII veterans who saw it had flashbacks, to the fact that Vin Diesel of all people is in it, and so much more. But there is only one scene I’m going to focus on here, a scene that has haunted me since the first time I saw it and remains indelibly burned on my memory.

This particular scene happens during the final battle of the film. One of the outnumbered American soldiers (I think his name was Mellish) is holed up in a wrecked building and is attacked by a German soldier. The Mellish’s friend has been shot in the throat and lies gurgling on the floor while Mellish desperately fights the German soldier in hand-to-hand combat. It’s an almost unbearably tense scene, and the desperation inherent in both combatants is elevated by that other soldier, lying on the ground choking on his own blood while all of this is going on.

But the worst part comes when the German soldier gets the upper hand, and starts slowly, agonizingly, moving a knife towards Mellish’s heart. Mellish pleads with the German soldier, imploring him to stop, but the knife slowly, inevitably, pierces Mellish’s chest and you can see, you can feel the life ebbing away from him. His body shudders as the blade goes in deeper, with the German soldier whispering to him hauntingly the entire time. I don’t speak German, but according to IMDB this is what the German soldier says as Mellish dies: “Give up, you don’t stand a chance! Let’s end this here! It will be easier for you, much easier. You’ll see it will be over quickly.”

I have a high tolerance for violence in movies, as you may have gathered, but all of this combines to make a scene that is nearly impossible for me to watch. Steven Spielberg films it in such a way that he makes you feel Mellish’s death almost as much as if you were actually there. It’s also remarkable that Spielberg manages to humanize the German soldier who kills Mellish, as he could easily have come off as a soulless monster. But he’s just a soldier too, doing his duty like everybody else. There are other agonizing death scenes in the film, but this is the one that made the biggest impression on me.

Next up is Aliens. Now I know that the inclusion of this film here may seem odd, since it’s an 80’s sci-fi action flick directed by James Cameron, but stick with me. There’s a scene late in the film where Sigourney Weaver’s famous heroine Ripley and the few survivors of previous alien attacks are fleeing from yet another alien attack, and one of them, a Marine named Vasquez, falls behind. The Marine sergeant, Gorman, tells the rest of the group to keep going while he goes back for Vasquez. It’s basically a suicide mission, as Vasquez is too badly injured to walk, and Gorman soon runs out of ammunition. Knowing the situation is hopeless as the aliens are closing in, Gorman pulls a grenade, looks at it, and activates it.

What follows is roughly five seconds of the most excruciating cinema I’ve ever seen, as Vasquez and Gorman wrap their hands around the grenade and wait for it all to end. Cameron draws out the moment, and like Spielberg, he makes you experience every single nerve-shredding moment of it right along with the characters. The first time I saw Aliens, I almost felt in a way like I too had only a few seconds to live along with these characters. Those few seconds were over in a flash, and yet at the same time felt like they went on forever. It was extraordinary and terrifying at the same time.

Last is The Grey. I wrote about this film a few weeks ago, but I left out some things about it since I wanted to save them for later. So, here they are now. I want to talk about the way this film depicts death. It’s surprisingly intimate, really. After the plane Liam Neeson’s character Ottway is on crashes, he makes his way back to the crash site, where some of his fellow passengers are trying desperately to save a man who has clearly been severely injured. He’s been graphically cut open and blood spurts from his wounds. He’s understandably starting to panic.

The men with him look to Ottway for help. Ottway puts his hand on the injured man’s shoulder and says, very simply, “You’re going to die.” The man is understandably unwilling to accept this, but Ottway manages to reassure him. “It’s all right, it’s all right,” he says. “It’ll slide over you, it’ll start to feel warm, nice and warm. Let your thoughts go. Who do you love? Let them take you…” and the man dies, peacefully. Ottway knows he can’t save the man, but he manages to make the end easier. It’s a remarkable scene, graphic and disturbing yet also beautiful and intimate and heartfelt.

The thing about this film is that it doesn’t cheapen death. Often in films, death is portrayed almost casually. I fully admit that this is especially true of the action movies I love. But The Grey treats it with seriousness and compassion. One of the characters who survived the crash starts taking wallets from the bodies of the dead until Ottway stops him, telling him vehemently that “we’re not looting dead bodies for swag.” The man reluctantly relents, and the group collects the wallets and takes them with them as something to give to their families if they make it back alive, knowing that they probably won’t. The wallets become a reminder of every life lost. At the end of the film, after he has stumbled into the wolves’ den, Ottway takes the wallets out of his backpack and looks through them, seeing the pictures of wives and children that he has heard about but never met, and never will, and who will never see their husbands and fathers again. The film acknowledges that the dead are gone but never forgotten.

A character asks Ottway later in the film if what he said to the dying man in the plane is true. “Does it slide over you? Is it true?” and Ottway says, “Yes.” How does Ottway know this? How could anyone still living know what death is like? I don’t know, but The Grey is a film that brings you closer to knowing.

One more scene, then I’m done. It pains me to even think about this scene, let alone write about it, but here goes. When there are only two characters left, Ottway and an extremely likable fellow named Hendrick, they are struggling along as best they can when the wolves show up again and start chasing them. Hendrick trips and falls into an icy river, where he is swept along by the unforgiving current. His foot gets stuck between some rocks, and his face is just inches below the surface of the water. Ottway tries to free him, to life him up to the air, but he can’t quite do it.

Hendrick drowns, mere inches away from air.

Drowning is one of my biggest fears. The idea of being completely helpless as darkness overwhelms you terrifies me beyond words. The thing about this scene in the film is that it’s agonizing even if you don’t look at it, as Hendrick’s desperate gurgling cries underwater are as heartrending as anything else in the film. It’s made even more unbearable by the fact that Hendrick is the most appealing, reliable, and genuinely likable character in the film, and watching him die so painfully is nearly impossible.

Well, there it is. The closest I’ve ever felt to death at the movies. I’m sorry this post was so dark. I don’t want to depress people, and I don’t want to trivialize something important. I just really wanted to write about this, it’s one of those things I just couldn’t shake. It was difficult to write and probably difficult to read, but it was worth it to write and hopefully worth it to read. I promise to do something more lighthearted and uplifting next time.

I find it truly extraordinary how art is capable of making us feel like we can actually know the unknowable. Life is precious, and I’m grateful to these films for reminding me of that.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.

The Call of the Wild

Liam Neeson is probably my favorite actor. He’s one of those actors where if I hear that Liam Neeson is in a movie, I automatically make a mental note to see that movie. One of the things I like most about him is his voice. It’s very distinctive in a way I’m not quite sure how to describe, and it’s instantly recognizable. I remember seeing Taken in the theater, and during his now-famous “I don’t know who you are, but if you let my daughter go…” speech, the way his voice filled the whole theater was just awesome. It sent chills down my spine.

Lately he’s been re-establishing himself as a badass, and in my opinion, he’s been doing quite well. Since 2005 he’s done Batman Begins, Kingdom of Heaven, Taken, Unknown, The A-Team, Clash of the Titans, Wrath of the Titans, The Grey, Battleship, and voiced Aslan in the Narnia movies. So he’s been a busy fellow. Perhaps he’s been trying to work his way through the tragic death of his wife Natasha Richardson, who died in 2009 in a skiing accident. She was 45. My condolences, Liam.

Many of his recent films have gotten somewhat mixed reviews, but it’s safe to say that I have enjoyed them all (except Battleship, which I haven’t seen). Neeson is one of those actors where even if the movie around him isn’t all that great, he makes it watchable. One of Mr. Neeson’s most recent films is The Grey, about a group of oil workers whose plane crashes in the wilderness, and the survivors are stalked by a group of vicious wolves. When I first saw the trailer for the movie, my immediate reaction to the question of “Liam Neeson vs. the wolves” was “my money’s on you, Liam!” and promptly resolved to see it.

What I did not anticipate was just how intense and genuinely harrowing the movie ended up being. I’m not saying I expected a barrel of laughs, given the premise, but what I was certainly not expecting was to be so stressed-out and relentlessly wracked with nerves that my hands were shaking and there were tears in my eyes by the end of the movie. When the movie was released on DVD some weeks ago, I wasn’t sure I wanted to see it again. Eventually I decided that I did, so I bought the DVD, and as with “Black Death,” it took me about a week before I managed to muster up the courage to watch it.

Man oh man. I’m still recovering. When it was over, my hands were once again shaking and there were once again tears in my eyes. I don’t think I could manage a third viewing. The film opens with Neeson’s character Ottway as he writes a letter to his wife and considers suicide. Ottway is a sharpshooter who kills wolves that threaten an oil drilling team. It’s unknown initially what happened to his wife, if she left him or if she died. His opening narration sums up where he is at this point in his life: “A job at the end of the world. A salaried killer for a big petroleum company. I don’t know why I did half the things I’ve done, but I know this is where I belong, surrounded by my own. Ex-cons, fugitives, drifters, assholes. Men unfit for mankind.” He gets as far as putting his rifle in his mouth, and even pulls the trigger, but for whatever reason the gun doesn’t go off, so he gets on the plane.

Those who have seen the film’s trailer and/or know the basic plot outline of the film know what happens next: the plane crashes, and only Ottway and about six others survive. The plane crash scene is one of the most terrifying scenes I have ever seen in a movie. It’s the worst nightmare of anyone who has ever been on a plane, which would be everyone. The plane starts shaking, and your initial thought is “oh, it’s just turbulence.” But as the shaking gets worse and worse and people start to freak out, you keep trying to reassure yourself that everything is going to be okay, while everyone in the audience watching the movie knows exactly what is going to happen next.

I’ve thought about this scene a lot and I think I’ve figured out what makes it so effective, for me at least. It’s shot from the perspective of the people in the plane. There are no exterior shots of the plane being buffeted by wind, or of the pilots in the cockpit struggling with the controls, or anything like that. We don’t know any more about what’s happening than the people in the plane do. There is literally nothing to ease the terror of what’s going on. It’s a scene that is both extremely difficult to watch and impossible to turn away from.

The rest of the film is fairly straightforward, plotwise (SPOILERS AHEAD). The survivors try to find shelter and are stalked by the aforementioned vicious pack of wolves. There is dissent among the group as more of them are picked off, and there are a number of scenes that are so teeth-gratingly suspenseful that it is seriously hard to breathe. It reminded me of “The Hurt Locker” in that respect, since most of the film is nonstop nail-biting tension with only the occasional reprieve.

There was some controversy regarding the portrayal of the wolves in the film. Animal-rights activists were upset that they were portrayed as vicious man-eating killers. So yeah, PETA wasn’t very happy with this film. I know next to nothing about wolves, so I can’t comment on how realistic their portrayal is (or isn’t) in the movie.

But frankly, I don’t care. I don’t care if the movie’s portrayal of wolves was realistic or not, and here’s why. It’s effective filmmaking. The wolf attacks are as harrowing as anything else in the movie. The movie isn’t really about the wolves anyway. It’s a survival story. The wolves aren’t villains any more than the devastating cold. They’re just there. I don’t think the film portrays them as evil, per se. They’re defending their territory, as most animals would (one of the few things I do know about wolves is that they’re highly territorial). They see the survivors as a threat, they don’t just attack them for fun. They aren’t mindless, faceless, invincible slasher-film villains. Wouldn’t human beings defend their territory from invaders? Of course they would.

And here’s something else surprising about the film: it’s actually very philosophical. The survivors discuss their views on the afterlife, and speculate where their dead friends may have gone. One says that they’re not in heaven because there is no God, another disagrees. Ottway says that he too is an atheist, and that he wishes he could believe in that kind of thing, but he just can’t. I read some reviews of the film by people who thought this kind of thing was unnecessary. Frankly, I find it fascinating. What else would you talk about in a desperate situation like that? Wouldn’t you wonder why it had happened? Wouldn’t you wonder why you had survived when so many others hadn’t? What would there be to hang onto? These are questions I don’t want to think about, but I think it’s good to acknowledge they’re there.

One significant gripe I do have with the film is the ending (MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT). After all of the other survivors have died in various heart-wrenching ways, Ottway is the only one left. Alone and suffering from hypothermia, he unwittingly stumbles into the wolves’ den, where he comes face to face with the giant, ferocious alpha wolf. He tapes a knife to one hand, and in the other he tapes a couple of small liquor bottles in between his knuckles which he then breaks on a rock, essentially giving himself improvised Wolverine claws. This was it. This was the moment showcased in the trailers, where our beleaguered hero would finally do battle with the ferocious beast who had been so relentlessly stalking him and killing his friends! This was going to be awesome! Ottway stands up, charges toward the wolf, and…


Fade to black. End credits.

Wait, what? Everyone in the theater couldn’t believe it. There was no wolf fight? That was it? That badass moment in the trailers that promised an epic wolf battle that wasn’t even in the movie?!?! WTF?! And now I read online that the filmmakers never intended to end the movie with a wolf fight at all! I still feel cheated by this. Marginally less so the second time around, but it is anticlimactic any way you slice it. It ends an otherwise extremely intense and harrowing film on a flat, dull note. It ends with a whimper instead of a bang. I just don’t understand it. Why would you have this showcase moment in the trailers and then not deliver on it? It’s like having a superhero movie with no climactic battle between the hero and villain at the end of the movie. Seriously, what gives?

Sigh. I really wish the movie hadn’t ended that way. It’s really a great film otherwise. The acting is excellent throughout, especially when you consider that most of the actors other than Neeson aren’t very well-known. The cinematography of the landscapes is really quite beautiful. The director, Joe Carnahan, previously directed Liam Neeson in “The A-Team,” which, personally, I thought was awesome. Carnahan is mostly known for big, loud, over –the-top action movies, but he proves with “The Grey” that he can direct small-scale, more character-driven films as well, while still managing to make it terrifically exciting and genuinely harrowing. “The Grey” is his most mature and well-made film, though A-Team certainly has it beat in terms of entertainment value.

It’s not an easy film to watch. It’s intense, bloody, and unrelenting, not to mention the fact that the F-word count is easily in the triple digits. I’m still bitter about the ending, but it didn’t spoil what was otherwise an extremely well-made, effective, and thought-provoking film. Check it out if you’re in the mood for something extremely intense, just as long as you’re aware of what you’re getting yourself into.

As a side note, I’m planning a follow-up piece to this exploring some other aspects of the film that I felt I didn’t really have time for here, since what I’m thinking of connects to other films besides this one, and I didn’t want this piece to feel overcrowded. It’s about death in movies, and it’s not going to be fun, but hopefully it’ll be worthwhile. So look for that in the next few days if you’re interested.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.

A fun movie to start things out

The first time I saw the movie “Black Death” sitting on the shelf at Target or Fred Meyer or wherever it was, I thought, “Nah. Too dark. A horror movie set during the time of the black plague? Sounds way too depressing.” So I passed it up. This was a fairly big deal for me, since I buy a lot of movies. I’m one of the few people in the country who actually enjoys buying DVDs. I know, I know, I’m old-fashioned, but what the heck.

Anyway, what I’m saying is that it was unusual for me to not buy a movie where Sean Bean is on the cover with a big sword. I think part of me probably knew that I would buy it eventually, and so I did sometime later. I’d read about the film and had seen the trailer, but I didn’t know much about the plot beyond the basic setup. I was a bit nervous about actually watching it, I’ll admit. Heck, I was so nervous about it that I didn’t screw up the courage to actually watch the damn thing until about a week after I bought it.

So, on a Friday night, I popped the disc into my Xbox 360 and pressed “Play”.

102 minutes later I was thoroughly traumatized. But despite the therapy I needed after watching the film, I was glad I had watched it, in a way. You all are going to think I’m insane for saying that once I actually describe the film, but it’s true. It’s a film that sticks with you, and I gradually began to screw up the courage to watch it again, which I did just last night, a couple of months after the first viewing.

Okay, so what I’m going to do now is go through the film, detailing the plot and some of the lines of dialogue that stuck with me. It’s going to be a bit long and there will be some gory details, since it’s a violent film, so stick with me. After that, I’ll offer some of my own opinions on the film. Also, SPOILER ALERT!!! There WILL be spoilers, so if you have some interest in seeing this film, I would recommend seeing it first and reading this afterward. Now, onto the film.

It is the Year of Our Lord 1348. England is in the grip of the Black Plague, and death lurks around every corner. The opening narration sets the scene for the rest of the film: “The fumes of the dead are in the air like poison. The plague, more cruel and more pitiless than war, descended upon us. A pestilence, that would leave half of our kingdom dead. Where did it come from? What carried its germ? The priests told us it was God’s punishment. For what sin? What commandment must we break that could earn this? No, we knew the truth. This was not God’s work, but devilry. Or witchcraft. But our task, to hunt down a demon, was God’s cure.”

Yeesh. Sounds fun, right? But bear with me.

Osmund, a young monk, lives in a monastery where he has fallen in love with a girl named Averill, who I guess had taken sanctuary in the monastery. When some of the monks start dying from the plague, Osmund tells Averill to leave because it is no longer safe. She is reluctant to go, but tells Osmund that she will wait for him at a certain spot in the forest every morning for a week. She leaves, and Osmund prays that God will give him a sign, so he can leave to go with her.

And as luck would have it, in walks a group of soldiers, led by the Bishop’s envoy Ulric, played by Sean Bean. They tell the abbot of the monastery that they require a guide to lead them to a remote village in the forest that they have heard is untouched by the pestilence. Since Osmund is familiar with the area, and since the meeting spot with Averill is on the way, he volunteers to go with them as their guide, believing this to be the sign from God that he had prayed for. Osmund meets the rest of Ulric’s group, which, to quote Wikipedia, “consists of the experienced leader Wolfstan, Wolfstan’s longtime friend Griff, torturer Dalywag, the fearless Mold, the mute Ivo, and the charismatic Swire.”

Osmund is played by an English actor named Eddie Redmayne, who I was unfamiliar with, but he did seem vaguely familiar. Wikipedia tells me that he was in “The Pillars of the Earth” TV series, which I had seen snatches of on TV, so that’s probably why. Also he reminded me of Michael York for whatever reason. Sean Bean gets top billing in the credits, which is understandable since he’s the more well-known actor, but Ulric is honestly more of a supporting character. “Black Death” is Osmund’s story.

Before he leaves, the abbot tells Osmund that “Even if you survive, the world out there will change you.” “Perhaps that is what I want, Father,” Osmund replies. It turns out that, somewhat unsurprisingly, Ulric was less than truthful. They are indeed looking for a village hidden in the marsh, but what Ulric had neglected to mention was that the village is supposedly led by a necromancer, who, as Wolfstan puts it, “Is someone who plucks the dead from the cold earth and breathes new life into them.” Ulric and his group have been charged to capture this necromancer and bring him or her back for confession, trial, and execution. Ulric proclaims, “We have the tools, we have the will; we travel into hell, but God travels with us.”

And so they set out on their journey. As expected, it doesn’t start out well, with the group encountering an angry group of villagers about to burn an accused witch. Osmund implores Ulric to not let this happen, and he seemingly agrees, cutting the woman free and leading her, sobbing, away from the villagers, where he cuts her throat. He tells Osmund later by way of explanation that “The woman was already dead, but I freed her. The mob would have caught her again and burned her. I spared her suffering. Sometimes that is all you can do.”

The group loses two members on its way to the village: Griff is revealed to be sick with the plague and is subsequently killed by Wolfstan, and the mute Ivo is killed in a bloody fight with bandits, in which Osmund is also wounded. Along the way, Osmund goes to his meeting place with Averill, only to find her bloodstained clothes and her horse abandoned. Naturally, he fears the worst. Eventually the group trudges through the rest of the forest and finds and enters the mysterious village.

Words seriously cannot explain how creepy the damn village is. As soon as they enter the place, you want to start screaming “GET OUT OF THERE YOU IDIOTS” but of course they do not because if they did, there would be no more movie. No one talks to them as they enter the village, all of the villagers retreating into their houses as Ulric and his group passes by. They are eventually greeted by an unsettling fellow named Hob, who grins ominously and tells them they are welcome after Ulric, unsure of who the necromancer is, tells him they seek only food and shelter.

It is then that we meet Langiva. Langiva is a lovely blond woman, first shown mixing some type of herbs. She is played by Dutch actress Carice van Houten with an air of charm, but with subtle menace lurking just below the surface. She offers to treat Osmund’s wound, which is looking pretty bad at this point. Osmund asks if she has a husband, to which she replies that her husband is dead. He asks how her husband died, and she replies, “Men like you killed him.” “Men like me?” Osmund replies, confused. “Men of God,” she says.

Ulric’s group is given the village church as a place to rest, and it is apparent that the church has not been used for worship in a long time. Ulric grows suspicious when he finds a villager wearing a necklace bearing the seal of the Bishop’s envoy, which he also wears. He tells the group that the Bishop sent another group of four men to this village earlier, and none returned. Tension builds…

Despite his suspicions, Ulric accepts an invitation for dinner from the townspeople for himself and his men. Tension continues to build when Ulric prays before the meal, and is ignored by the villagers. “I expected Grace, not the entire Lord’s Prayer,” she says to Hob, who laughs ominously. During the meal, Langiva lures Osmund away and shows him Averill’s body, telling him that the villagers found it in the forest. Osmund, distraught, returns to the church where he asks God why He took her instead of him.

Langiva later leads Osmund into the marshes, where he witnesses Langiva perform some sort of pagan ritual that apparently results in bringing Averill back to life. Fleeing in panic, he stumbles across the mutilated corpses of the Bishop’s men Ulric mentioned earlier, and is captured. Meanwhile, back at dinner, Ulric and his men begin fading into sleep and by the time they realize their drinks have been drugged it is too late. “As a Christian,” Hob growls as he takes Wolfstan’s dagger and puts it to Ulric’s throat, “you’ll appreciate the concept of betrayal.”

Okay, everything up until now has been thoroughly creepy and unsettling, but it is here where the unsettling and the ominous become the downright horrific. Bear with me.

Ulric, Osmund, and the rest awake bound and imprisoned in a water-filled pit. Langiva appears and shows the villagers the weapons the group brought with them, including the bizarre iron maiden-esque cage they brought with them to transport the necromancer. She declares that the pestilence is a Christian disease, and that their village is kept safe by the spilling of Christian blood. She and Hob offer freedom to anyone who renounces God. None do, all vying brashly with Ulric for the right to die first. Langiva tells Hob to pick one, and he decides on Dalywag, the torturer. “Die well, my friend” the rest of the group tells him as he is hauled away. “Oh, I will,” he replies as he dragged to a crude X-shaped wooden cross. “Now you will learn about pain,” Hob tells him. “There’s nothing you can teach me about pain,” he replies, before screaming as he is nailed into the cross and Hob cuts him open with a knife.

Upon seeing this, Swire offers to renounce, despite his friends’ warnings that the villagers will kill him anyway and he will burn in hell for renouncing. Swire renounces anyway at Hob’s prompting, and is taken away, where he is hooded with a bag and hanged from a tree.

Langiva then frees Osmund and tells him to go to the hut where his supposedly resurrected love now resides. “Why are you doing this to me?” Osmund asks Langiva. “Because I like you,” she replies, frowning as if it is a completely obvious answer. Ulric warns him that it is not her and he should not be tempted, but Osmund enters the hut anyway. He finds Averill mumbling incoherently, and she seems mentally damaged. Unable to bear seeing her in such an unnatural state, Osmund tells her she is with God and that he will join her soon, before stabbing her with a dagger and watching her die.

He then brings Averill’s corpse back outside, where he lays it down in front of Langiva. “Averill is with God,” he says, “and so am I”. He then attacks Langiva with the dagger, cutting her across the cheek, but is then subdued and viciously beaten by Hob.

Ulric becomes reinvigorated seeing Osmund stand up to Langiva, and continues to proclaim that not one of his men will turn from God. “You have no power here! You cannot tear a true man of God away from his faith!” Ulric yells, starting to sound a little unhinged. “I do not fear you, or your pagan lapdog!” Langiva, furious, orders Hob to “bring out the horses.” Ulric is tied between two horses and the horses begin to move in opposite directions, slowly starting to tear him apart. As the ropes strain and his bones break, Ulric still refuses to renounce.  After a few agonizing minutes of this, he asks them to stop so he can talk to Osmund.

“You did well”, he tells him, before ordering Osmund to “open my shirt.”

While this is happening, Wolfstan and Mold have been busy freeing themselves with the dagger Osmund dropped after attacking Langiva.

Osmund opens Ulric’s shirt, and he is revealed to be sick with the plague. “I am Death,” he mutters. “Vengeance is mine.” He then turns to the heavens and roars “GOD’S FURY RAINS DOWN ON YOU!!” before weakly bringing his head back down and murmuring, as if in acceptance, “God is restored.” Hob then slaps the horses and Ulric is torn apart. Wolfstan and Mold then escape, grabbing swords and cutting down the all the villagers in their path. Mold is killed by Hob, who is then incapacitated by Wolfstan and placed in the iron maiden-looking cage intended to transport the necromancer. Langiva flees into the marshes, and Osmund picks up a sword and follows her.

He stumbles blindly through the swamp, screaming “WHERE ARE YOU?!” and swinging his sword uselessly. Langiva tells him in an omnipresent voice that Averill had never been dead, simply drugged and subsequently “raised” to convince Osmund of her power to bring the dead back to life. Osmund refuses to believe her, thinking that he had freed Averill’s soul from purgatory. “Bring her back, I beg you bring her back!” he yells, to which Langiva replies, “No, I can’t. Pray to your God, see what he can do,” and disappears. The revelation that he is the one who really killed her reduces him to crying in the muck of the swamp, silently whispering, “Averill… she was dead…”

“There is nothing beautiful or uplifting in returning people to God,” Wolfstan’s narration begins, as he surveys the carnage. “There is no place in heaven for those who kill.” He goes on to explain that the village was soon struck by the plague. They had not been protected by Langiva, it had simply been the village’s remote location that had kept them from harm. Wolfstan brings Osmund back to the monastery, he tells the abbot to look after him. “There is no need,” the abbot replies, “He’s back with God.”

Wolfstan goes on to explain that he never saw Osmund again, but he heard stories. Stories that, when Osmund confronted his grief, he did not find comfort, only hate, and that his heart turned cold. Osmund took up the sword in God’s name, and “vengeance became his creed.” Osmund is shown capturing a woman who appears to be Langiva, but who pleads her innocence and tells Osmund that he has the wrong woman. “I want a confession and I want her alive,” he tells his guard. He continues torturing and burning women accused of being witches, and Wolfstan’s narration tells us that he never knew if Osmund actually found Langiva, or if “it was only her guilt he saw, in the eyes of the accused.”

“I like to think that he found peace,” Wolfstan continues, over a shot of Osmund staring at a fire where he has just had a woman burned. “That he continued seeing beauty in the world. Goodness.” Fade to black. Roll credits. End of film.

Whew. Sorry the whole plot summary was so long, but I didn’t really know how to write this without it.

There’s a lot to digest with this film. Yes, it is dark. Yes, it is gruesome. Yes, it is very, very depressing. Sometimes with movies that are really dark, I ask myself, what’s the point? What’s the point of watching all of this suffering? I wondered that about this film, to be sure. It was far darker than I had expected it to be. Not that I had expected a barrel full of laughs or anything, given the title and the subject matter, but that just goes to show how dark this film is, that it was so much darker than I had expected it to be.

But here’s what really strikes me about this film. It is a film about faith. It is a film about faith in a time of incredible uncertainty, and I think that that is part of what intrigues me so much about it. Keep in mind that people in the Middle Ages didn’t know what the Black Plague really was or where it came from. They didn’t know how germs spread, or even that germs existed at all. The film reflects this, as people thought that the Plague was God’s wrath or God’s punishment. How else could they explain where it came from?

But getting back to the main point, this film is all about faith. What I realized after managing to watch it a couple of times is that the times when you need God the most are the times when it is hardest to believe he’s there.

Look at Ulric. He’s about to be literally torn to pieces, and he still refuses to renounce his faith. He needs God more than ever when he is being subjected to such excruciating torture. But put yourself in his shoes, if you can. How would you be able to sense God’s presence in the midst of such pain? How would you be able to focus on anything besides the pain?

Another thing that intrigues me about this film is that, while it may be brutally violent, it’s really not about the violence. I would classify it as a horror film in a broad sense, as it is frightening and disturbing. But what the makers of this film have realized is that being effectively frightening is not all about blood and gore. It is about atmosphere and dread as much as the threat of physical pain. There is more dread and malice in one shot of this film than in any six-pack of slasher movies put together. The entire mood of the film is so ominous and eerie that it is easily one of the downright creepiest movies I’ve ever seen even before anything really awful happens.

The more violent scenes in the film are even downplayed a bit. When Ulric is ripped apart, there is no full-screen shot of limbs flying and blood spraying. You see an arm separate, there are some nasty sound effects and a quick shot of a horse dragging away a few limbs. It’s horrifying to be sure, but is presented in such a way that it does not come off as gratuitous. That scene in particular is handled about as tastefully as it is possible to handle such a gruesome sight. The film is violent but it uses that violence effectively, not cheaply. It isn’t violent just for the sake of being violent, which pretty much makes it the antithesis of almost every other horror movie being made these days.

I would also like to talk for a second about the acting. I mean damn, Sean Bean is a hell of an actor. He completely sells his character. Yes, I realize that he’s done this kind of role before and could probably do it in his sleep, but there’s something about his tone of voice in particular that just gets to me. The way his voice quavers when he says “I do not fear you” to Langiva stands out to me in particular. His voice suggests that he does not fear Langiva, but maybe he fears what she is capable of doing to him. Or perhaps he fears for her. Perhaps he fears what will happen once the plague is unleashed on their village. It’s impressive when an actor can convey so much emotion with just a few lines of dialogue.

I would also like to give credit to Eddie Redmayne, who pours his heart and soul into the character of Osmund. He makes him a completely relatable protagonist, and he completely nails the really intense emotional scenes. It’s heartbreaking at the end to see him reduced to a sobbing, broken man, whimpering pathetically waist-deep in a swamp, only to turn into a monster.

This is a film that sticks with you. It’s hard to shake. The image of Sean Bean with disgusting oozing plague sores screaming “GOD’S FURY RAINS DOWN ON YOU!!!” before being ripped apart is an image I will remember for the rest of my life. And isn’t that kind of the point of film, or really of art as a whole? To create images, thoughts, and ideas that stick with the viewer? In that respect, “Black Death” certainly succeeds, even if some of the images it leaves you with are ones you may wish you hadn’t seen.

I can understand that “Black Death” is a film that could put off a lot of people. It’s gruesome, dark and depressing. There is also a lot of ambiguity, to the ending in particular. Was Langiva actually a witch, or did she lie to Osmund to get him to doubt his faith? Did Osmund ever actually find her? Would it have even mattered if he did? I don’t know.

It’s hard to recommend a film like “Black Death.” Not because it is bad, but because it is so relentlessly nerve-wracking and dark. But I can give it a cautious recommendation, because it is very well-made and well-acted, and it really is thought provoking. See it if you think you can handle it, just so long as you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into. And be prepared to maybe binge on Disney movies afterward to cheer yourself up.