My short story, “Everyone Here Comes from Somewhere Else,” is now live at THE COURTSHIP OF WINDS. Please check it out. And if you don’t like me enough to read it, at least click on it and give the journal a hit, mmmmkay?
Recently, I finally got around to watching Revolutionary Road, in which Michael Shannon plays a small but key role as a recently released mental patient who disrupts the marital façade of a suburban couple. Over the last several years, Shannon has proven himself an invaluable and versatile actor, in both film and on the television series Boardwalk Empire. His General Zod notwithstanding—a loud, overbearing performance that I blame more on the writers’ and director Zack Snyder’s fundamental misunderstanding of their source material—Shannon has done excellent work. He seems most at home playing edgy, borderline-insane authority figures. In Guillermo del Toro’s masterful, moving magical realist film, The Shape of Water, Shannon’s Richard Strickland is, in some respects, the straw that stirs the drink, so much so that I recently told my wife it might well be my worst nightmare to awake and find Shannon standing over me, watching me sleep with those bug eyes of his.
Except for the visually muddled destruction-porn mediocrity that was Pacific Rim—a movie that could have been Snyder’s work, except that it had some semblance of character development and a more-or-less coherent plot—I love del Toro’s work. Were I to rank his films, always a dicey and subjective and ultimately useless proposition, I would put The Shape of Water ahead of everything but Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone. It’s a strongly directed, well-edited movie with super makeup, beautiful retro set design, and a script that is equal parts Creature of the Black Lagoon monster-adventure and suspense-romance.
The plot: Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute cleaning woman at a research facility that looks like a dank VA hospital, lives a life of strict routine, right down to the perpetual tardiness that bemuses her best friend, Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer, who—in a situation that will likely please Academy voters even as it annoys cultural critics—plays a similar black-domestic role as her Oscar-winning turn in The Help). Each night, Elisa goes home to a small apartment located next to the near-identical residence of her other best friend, gay painter Giles (Richard Jenkins, who will also likely be recognized this award season).
Elisa’s dull life is disrupted with the arrival of Strickland and a mysterious research subject encased in a water tank. None of this affects Elisa much until, one day, an injured Strickland stumbles out of the lab, having gotten too close to whatever he brought into the facility. As the cleaning crew are left alone in the lab, Elisa discovers exactly what it is—a creature the film’s credits call Amphibian Man. He will look very familiar to fans of the old Warner Brothers Creature series. Played here by Doug Jones, who has made a career of embodying strange and/or homicidal humanoid creatures in del Toro films (see the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth), the Amphibian immediately bonds with Elisa and demonstrates a human capacity to learn and communicate.
Many viewers’ experience with this film may hinge on how deeply they buy into the romance between Elisa and Amphibian Man, which includes not only an underwater sex scene but a later explanation of exactly how this kind of interspecies coupling is even possible, given the Ken-doll appearance of the Man’s bathing-suit area. Perhaps Elisa’s enchantment comes too easily. Perhaps we might wonder why and how the Man reciprocates her fascination, given the physical and communicative barriers between them. One answer is that Elisa finds ways to communicate sensually without a voice, through food and music. Another is that we are probably supposed to understand that these characters, voiceless and lonely as they are, thrive on empathy. A third reason is, perhaps, revealed in the (imagined?) final underwater scene, and while you may see the revelation coming, it still feels impactful.
The eccentricities of this love story should come as no surprise to del Toro devotees, nor should the excellent performances he coaxes from his cast. Hawkins’s expressive face and the timing and tenderness of her gestures could serve as an acting class in portraying emotion without words. Shannon, all self-righteous glower and rage, conveys the personal and the universal threat of a xenophobic government; it feels all too timely.
Spencer’s quiet strength radiates in her every scene; she makes Zelda’s roles as Elisa’s fierce protector, as wife of a no-account man, and as background player in a government facility oozing masculinity and classism, more than the sidekick-of-color comedy relief she might otherwise have been. The script helps, giving Zelda key roles in facilitating Elisa’s opportunities for romance and in the ultimate rebellion against Richard Strickland’s angry-white-male tyranny. Though this is primarily still a story about white characters, the occasional nod to the period’s racial injustices at least assure that those problems are not erased.
As Giles, Richard Jenkins, always a strong addition to any cast, delivers an award-worthy performance dripping with the loneliness of the outsider. A painter, a gay man who lives alone and wants desperately to find love, best friends with his mute neighbor and—using symbolism that is becoming more common—owner of a couple of cats (one of which is quite unfortunate), Giles steps out of his melancholy but entrenched life to help Elisa on her great adventure, and Jenkins makes Giles’s every moment, every decision, every out-of-character act both funny and uplifting.
Whether the film earns our understanding of Elisa and Amphibian Man’s romantic connection is a key question for viewers and critics, and my main quibble with the film is that it spends key screen time on a couple of scenes that seem to add little to the narrative or characterizations—Strickland at home, for instance. This time could have been used to deepen and broaden the connective tissue between Elisa and Amphibian Man. I was also a bit surprised at how Strickland’s story ends. Given what we learn about the nature and powers of Amphibian Man and how the movie generally rejects aggression as problem-solving, I expected something else. Still, as a writer, I know you have to tell the story inside you, and not every reader/viewer will applaud every narrative decision. Even so, my disagreements are relatively minor.
Overall, The Shape of Water deserves the critical love it has gotten since its release and makes a powerful addition to del Toro’s canon. I look forward to buying my copy.
In the first act of Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, a woman marches into the local advertising office and pays five thousand dollars to rent three derelict billboards located on a seldom-traveled rural road. That woman is Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), and from the first words she speaks, from her hard facial expression, from her indomitable body language, the viewer—and the poor ad agent—understand that you mess with Mildred at your peril.
These billboards, set at perhaps fifty-yard intervals, catalyze a communal crisis that involves Mildred, her son, her friends, the local police, the advertisers, and one dentist who picks exactly the wrong time to take a political side. Mildred has the billboards painted red and sequentially messaged:
Raped While Dying
And Still No Arrests
How Come, Chief Willoughby?
These messages represent Mildred’s shot across the bow of the local constabulary, led by William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). We soon learn that Mildred’s daughter was raped and murdered, her body set afire, months before. The police have no leads. And Mildred has waited long enough.
Though you might think a small conservative town would rally behind the victim’s family, much of their loyalty to their fellow citizen ends where their adoration for Chief Willoughby begins. Mildred learns this almost immediately when Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell, who, like most actors in this film, disappears into his role so well you forget whom you’re watching) spots the billboards and reports them to Willoughby (yet another excellent Harrelson character). This leads to a talk between Willoughby and Mildred, in which the complicated nature of the film is epitomized:
Willoughby: I’d do anything to catch the guy who did it, Mrs. Hayes, but when the DNA don’t match no one who’s ever been arrested, and when the DNA don’t match any other crime nationwide, and there wasn’t a single eyewitness from the time she left your house to the time we found her, well… right now there ain’t too much more we could do.
Mildred: You could pull blood from every man and boy in this town over the age of 8.
Willoughby: There’s civil rights laws prevents that, Mrs. Hayes, and what if he was just passing through town?
Mildred: Pull blood from every man in the country.
Willoughby: And what if he was just passing through the country?
Mildred: If it was me, I’d start up a database, every male baby was born, stick ’em on it, and as soon as he done something wrong, cross reference it, make 100% certain it was a correct match, then kill him.
Willoughby: Yeah well, there’s definitely civil rights laws that prevents that. (This quote courtesy of IMDB.com)
From this exchange, we can see that Willoughby is less a bad man than a flawed human being. We can never forget those flaws, but we can acknowledge his empathy and the real problems law enforcement faces in cases without leads. From the same scene:
Willoughby: I don’t think them billboards is very fair.
Mildred: The time it took you to get out here whining like a bitch, Willoughby, some other poor girl’s probably out there being butchered.
The brutal rape, murder, and desecration of Mildred’s daughter has hardened her past the point of empathy with Willoughby’s problems, including his slow and agonizing death from pancreatic cancer—though there is a later scene in the police station that suggests that isn’t quite true, either. In short, from the opening moments of the film, we realize that we have entered a complicated world, where those who deserve our sympathy don’t always get it and no one is clearly and purely good or bad.
Chief Willoughby, whom, we might assume, is the antagonist—and who is capable of saying things like, “If you fired every cop who was just a little bit racist, you’d have, like, three cops. And they’d hate the fags”; who is capable of strong-arming the mother of a rape/murder victim; who continues to employ Dixon in spite of rumors about his torturing black suspects—is also a self-sacrificing man who can see the smallest, dimmest spark of humanity in a goon like Dixon and the likely outcomes of his disease for his loved ones. A series of letters he writes to the other characters reveals further depths in this man, who, against your better judgment, you may come to love a little.
Mildred, so strong and so broken, backtracks and shows honest concern over Willoughby’s health just before she commits an act of protest that may well shock you. In many ways—hence this review’s title—she is like her own character from Joel and Ethan Coen’s first film, Blood Simple, moved to a new town and sick of men’s bullshit. If McDormand is not nominated for Best Actress, I shall cry foul.
Dixon, at first a cartoonish buffoon who embodies the worst characteristics of southern white men and police officers, reveals layers of compassion and dedication underneath those borderline-inhuman traits.
In short, the film never lets us settle comfortably into rooting for any one character, and it forces us to see all sides of a complex, maddening, tragic situation. There is nothing wrong with a good guys vs. bad guys tale, but Three Billboards’ story is one we could imagine occurring in a thousand small towns anywhere in America. That universality and the depth of the movie’s character development make this story impossible to forget.
Plus, for a narrative that hinges on racism, sexism, rape, murder, Missouri citizens versus the police, terminal illness, suicides, severe injuries, and familial strife, Three Billboards is often surprisingly and refreshingly funny. At times, you may laugh and cry after one scene.
Supporting characters, played by always-welcome film and television veterans like Zeljko Ivanek and Clarke Peters, play key roles. Caleb Landry Jones’s advertising man is the hinge on which key plot points turn. Peters, playing a black officer who sweeps in and takes over a station with a history of racial problems, brings his typical no-nonsense gravitas to a minor character, as well as a few key lines that remind us of the stakes: looking about at the all-white force in the station, he says, “Ain’t y’all cracker motherfuckers got work to do?”
Some viewers might not appreciate the film’s non-resolution resolution, but for this writer, it perfectly encapsulates the world of Ebbing, Missouri, which, in its turn, perfectly encapsulates so much of American life in the 21st Century—questions without clear answers, strife on intersectional levels without clear solutions, individual pain rippling through a community and vice versa.
Underrated director Martin McDonagh and his stellar cast and crew have crafted one of 2017’s best films. If you missed it in theaters, rent it as soon as you can.
I have never seen any of Pixar’s Cars movies. Something about the concept never really appealed to me. I’m not sure why. Old dude who flies his house across continents using helium balloons without losing so much as a shingle? No problem. A rat who wants to be a chef? Sure, I’ll watch that. A family of superheroes, sentient toys, a robot that can love? I’m there. A film about talking cars, co-starring Larry the Cable Guy? I just couldn’t.
What all this means is that I will follow Pixar almost anywhere. Moreover, I usually love the trip. They tell stories that work well for the typical target audience of Disney animation—little kids—and the people who buy the tickets.
I saw Coco with my wife, my son, and my youngest daughter, who is eighteen. Our theater, while not packed, was well-attended. Families with up to half a dozen kids piled in, popcorn and sodas and hot dogs in hand, ready to experience the latest Pixar magic.
We had heard that a twenty-minute short film preceded the feature, a point of contention among some local and vocal viewers we had encountered, but our showing got right to the main event. I’m not sure why. I was disappointed in that part of the experience, because I usually dig Pixar shorts, but that’s not Coco’s fault.
To the movie—Coco tells the story of Miguel Rivera, a pre-teen would-be musician born into a family that hates music. Why? Miguel’s great-great-grandfather abandoned his family—including his daughter, the wheelchair-bound and so-old-she’s-barely-aware titular character—for a music career. Formerly a passionate singer, Miguel’s great-great-grandmother, Mama Imelda, forswore music, banning it from her house and passing the edict down in the family ethos all the way to Miguel’s day. If his parents—or, worse, his fiery grandmother, known only as Abuelita—so much as catch him near a Mariachi, woe be unto that poor musician.
The film is set on Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. As Miguel tries to sneak away to practice his musicianship—the film never reveals how he procures a cheap guitar or builds a hideaway complete with a television or learns to play his instrument so well—Abuelita and the rest of the family try to teach Miguel the importance of building an altar to their dead ancestors, displaying pictures of the departed and leaving offerings, like food.
Convinced that his great-great-grandfather was the famous singer/actor Ernesto de la Cruz (voiced with plenty of self-satisfied ooze by Benjamin Bratt), and infuriated with his closed-minded family after Abuelita destroys his guitar, Miguel runs away and attempts to steal de la Cruz’s guitar from the mausoleum. This is, of course, a problem, because the cemetery is full of families cleaning and decorating tombstones. Stuck within the tomb, Miguel strums the guitar while standing on top of a carpet of flower petals and, through the magic of Dia de los Muertos, is transported to the light-filled, celebratory, walking-and-talking-skeleton-populated Land of the Dead.
The catch? Miguel is a live boy, but he can only stay that way if he returns to the Land of the Living before the holiday ends. To do so, he must get the blessing of his dead family—who will only grant it if he forswears music forever. Rejecting this condition, Miguel sets off on a quest to reach de la Cruz, whose celebrity status makes a visit nearly impossible. Aided by a mysterious figure named Hector, who desperately needs to reach the Land of the Living, and chased by Mama Imelda’s griffin-like spirit animal, the ever-more-skeletal Miguel races against time and the ways that the deepest, darkest truths of his family tie him ever tighter to the Dead.
If it seems like it took me a while to reach the film’s central conflicts, like this review leans heavily toward multiple points of exposition, that’s because the movie does, too. Along with some unanswered questions, like those mentioned above, the initial plot threads—Miguel’s love of music vs. his family’s unwavering rejection of it! Miguel’s need for an instrument and an audience! The identity of his great-great-grandfather! Mama Imelda’s ultimatum! The chase through the Dead’s city! The question of just who this Hector dude is! Why the film is named after a secondary character who barely moves or talks! The purpose of a lovable but doofy stray dog!—fly in many different directions, making for a haphazard and overly busy first act. When compared with the emotionally devastating yet economical storytelling of Up, for instance, Coco feels muddled.
Once Miguel runs from his dead family, just as he ran from his living one, and the race to find his musical ancestor coalesces with his race against time, the film gels, and its twin arcs—Miguel’s fate as a musician and his understanding the true importance of family history—interweave beautifully. From that point on, the already visually stunning movie churns at a quick pace, hitting key emotional beats at just the right time.
Pixar has gone dark before—Ellie’s death in Up, the third act of The Incredibles, the torture of toys in Toy Story and the attempted murder of our fave characters in Toy Story 3, the end of the world in Wall-E, et cetera. Somehow, though, parts of Coco feel even darker. There are long-kept family secrets, a devastating betrayal, a murder (!!!), questions of what happens in life after the afterlife, issues of legacy, Miguel’s increasingly skeletal body, and more. While some parents might find these elements a tad too dark for the film’s youngest viewers, they add gravitas and high stakes to the narrative, making Miguel’s journey feel urgent and intensely personal.
Yet the movie, rightly lauded for its commitment to diversity, also feels universal. Voiced by an entirely Latinx cast and exploring Mexican cultural traditions in a time when American leaders talk of bad hombres and border walls and travel bans, Coco, with its emphasis on family ties and the extraordinary power of art, feels necessary and timely in a way it might not have before November 2016. In fact, though the timeline of Pixar filmmaking almost guarantees that this is coincidental and not an intentional decision, Ernesto de la Cruz—vain, concerned above all else with his legacy and image, loyal only to his sycophants, greedy, myopic—bears, in terms of personality and values, more than a passing resemblance to certain Muppet-headed American leaders of today.
For all that, though, the story is, at one level, about one boy’s acceptance of and into his family—finding his place in the world. The scene between Miguel and Grandma Coco, praised in Entertainment Weekly as one of the top ten movie scenes of the year, may well break your heart, even as it makes you smile.
With excellent voice acting, Pixar’s high standards of astonishing visuals, cultural significance, timeliness, and poignant humanity, Coco overcomes its haphazard first act and proves itself a worthy entry into the Pixar canon.