New Year's Eve Special
Reviews of Breaking, The Contractor, and Thor: Love and Thunder
Welcome to a New Year’s Eve special edition of The Similitude—a bit late for East coast readers, but you’re all staying up anyway, I hope, to ring in 2023. Unlike many critics, I’m not offering you my “Best of Film” list right now. Since the Oscars happen in March, I give myself a two-month grace period to catch up on this year’s movies and come up with my own list of what I think are the best films, actors, and directors of the preceding calendar year. Lazy, perhaps, but I’m doing this on my own budget and time, so please forgive me. Stay tuned for that list, which I’ll offer in a series of podcast episodes come February.
What I do have today are a few more capsule reviews of recent movies I’ve watched, as well as an epilogue to my Apocalypse post from November. Fitting for the end of all things! I usually reserve my capsule reviews for paying subscribers, but I’m going to open this post to everyone. Perhaps it will entice you to make a full subscription to The Similitude as one of your New Year’s resolutions! Cheers.
I. Breaking - Bringing the War Home
By the time you finish Breaking, the taut, riveting drama from Abi Damaris Corbin, you’ll find it hard to shake off the effect. And you won’t want to. Corbin is a young American director; Breaking makes for her first feature film. It’s quite the debut. For 103 minutes you’re treated to the devastating story of Brian Brown-Easely (John Boyega), a former Marine who became so down-and-out by 2017 that he held people hostage in an Atlanta bank to demand back payments from the Veterans’ Administration (The film is based on a 2018 article by Aaron Bell). Technically, the movie is a thriller, but it cuts such an emotional wound—and subverts all we’ve come to expect from cheap action flicks—that it’s demeaning to label it such.
In truth Corbin and her team have crafted a social problem picture that works much in the way of Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975). It doesn’t render the relationships between the characters with quite the same complexity as Al Pacino, John Cazale, and the ensemble of that picture so memorably did. But Breaking also refuses the audience the comic, even romantic touches of Lumet’s movie and achieves a more upsetting catharsis.
The narrative is built on the simple moral framework of the neorealism pictures of Vittorio DeSica. Brown-Easley, who’d been a lance corporal in Iraq, finds himself on the brink of homelessness after the VA withholds his monthly pension—a mere $800 dollars. Humiliated, desperate, determined to provide for his young daughter, he enters a Wells-Fargo branch and slips a note to the teller (Selenis Leyva) claiming he carries a bomb. To her shock, however, he doesn’t seek the bank’s money—he just wants the VA to hear his cry and fix its error, which turns out to be a case of mistaken identity. As the minutes tick by and Brian demands to speak to a negotiator, the teller and her manager, Estel Valerie (Nichole Beharie), become increasingly concerned for the man’s plight, even as they fear for his sanity and their lives.
The first forty minutes of the movie unfold entirely from Brian’s point of view. We’re in the bank at his side, with a limited sense of what’s unfolding outside the walls. Corbin resists revealing the police response until the siege has already been laid, and when she takes you to it, you see how America’s war machine is deployed against its own population. At that point, she introduces the negotiator, played by the late Michael K. Williams, and you think you’re in for a battle of wits in which he and Brian form a bond and end the stand-off. But the movie’s power lies in how it withholds such pat resolution.
Instead, it takes you into Brian’s emotional world, showing the broken, incompetent, unresponsive character of America’s social fabric. Like Sisyphus, he’s driven mad by his absurd plight. He can’t even get attention by robbing a bank, for God’s sake. The news media, the police, the VA—the response by all these institutions just fucks up the situation even more. Only his hostages, ironically, hear him and offer empathy, and even they, too, don’t always behave in logical ways. As the plot unfolds, you feel an impending sense of doom. But the ending leaves more questions than it resolves, eschewing clarity about what’s happened and why. This is not to confuse the audience, but to further cement the perspective of decent citizens like Brian and his family: the powers that be offer them no help, not even a basic explanation for their injustice.
The movie rides on the strength of its three main actors, as well as a few supporting players (including Connie Britton as a local TV newscaster; and Olivia Washington and London Covington as Brian’s wife and daughter, respectively). It depends, though, on its protagonist, and Bodega delivers a master class. His range and precision are extraordinary; he gives the kind of focused, intense, everyman performance of a young Denzel (and avoids the traps of the late Denzel: overacting, bombast, mannerism). What makes his Brian interesting is how the man treats his hostages with respect and dignity even as he bargains with their lives.
Likewise, his noble commitment to do the right thing even when it makes his life harder: he refuses to take Estel up on her offer to transfer some funds from the bank until the VA can sort out its shit. Her offer is pragmatic and compassionate, but it doesn’t conform to the moral integrity he was instilled with as a Marine—it lets the ultimate source of the injustice off the hook. Like Chris Keller in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons (1947), Brian’s “flaw” is being a man of honor in a world of crooks. But Keller’s expectations of ethical behavior from others were unreasonable, in the end—Brian’s demands, by contrast, are so basic as to render him pathetic. He’s a Low-Mimetic hero, in Northrop Frye’s typology, tending toward the Ironic.
Beharie, a deeply authentic actor (check her out in Miss Juneteenth from 2020), matches him beat for beat. Her line readings are counter-intuitive and mesmeric, each one shaped toward a different tactic, and her ability to convey a complete character with just a few interchanges is a true feat. These are the kinds of low-profile, unassuming Method performances that should really garner accolades—every actor plays the given circumstances with bone-deep imagination. But like Brian Brown-Easely, they too often get overlooked by our warped media culture. In just an hour and a half, Breaking gives you a full picture of the failure of the American dream. It begins right from the opening montage, which centers on an urban cellist who’s mournful air makes for a leitmotif and lends the picture its chamber-piece feel. Let’s hope it’s the first of many from Corbin.
2. The Contractor - Wounded Warrior
The wounded warrior—physically and spiritually—also stands at the center of The Contractor, an espionage thriller from Swedish director Tarik Saleh. Chris Pine plays an Army Ranger and special forces operative named James Harper, a veteran of multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s battered and bruised, with a nasty knee injury, and he holds himself together with braces and cortisone shots. When a new CO learns of his condition, he discharges Harper without his pension, throwing him away like a disposable coffee cup. Harper, like Brown-Easely, has a wife and child to feed, and so he hesitantly takes a job as a black agent with a private security agency led by one Rusty Jennings (Kiefer Sutherland), a fellow vet. He’s encouraged in this decision by his best friend, Mike, (played by Ben Foster) who served with him abroad.
Foster and Pine work well together; they played brothers in the very fine 2016 modern Western Hell or High Water. Foster evinces a sad clown affect that balances Pine’s brooding intensity, and the former also portrayed a broken veteran in the lyrical, heartbreaking small picture Leave No Trace, from 2018. They draw on that chemistry and those characters here, and it’s effective. At its best, the movie comes close to the stellar work of the Bourne Trilogy. When his maiden mission goes horribly awry, Harper begins to question the integrity of his superiors and the very purpose of his efforts. He was told he’d be protecting national security and employ lethal force only as a last resort. Instead, he’s plunged into open combat with the police in Berlin and made to carry out orders against civilians that trouble him. Harper’s arc is a moral one in which his shadowy acts draw him out of his black-and-white patriotic paradigm and into a world of grey.
Pine is a hardworking actor who combines, like classic leading men, both sensitivity and rugged masculinity in his bearing. He also knows that, in movies, movement—pursuing the task—is character. The action sequences are expertly sculpted, to arresting effect, and you buy him as an aging assassin. As with Bourne, the firefights and close-quarters combat are at once exciting and brutal, copying the doppelgänger idea of those films: the hunter and the hunted are cut from the same mold. When Harper learns that his unknown pursuers are fellow veterans, he’s disgusted by their shared exploitation. Rusty’s outfit, in this way, functions as a fictitious Blackwater, turning honorable soldiers into mercenaries for hire, all to make its kingpins rich.
The problem with the film is the script—it’s too thin and fails to make the most of its promising start. Harper’s disillusionment, in order to be believable, needs to happen gradually. As with similar films, it would take a series of increasingly disastrous missions to make him—and by extension us—feel the weight of his cross-pressured existence: saving his family or saving his soul. Instead, Saleh and Davis have him undergo this change in just a single mission, and it’s too much at once. The betrayals, the double-crossings, the sheer physical demands of the man pile up beyond the suspension of disbelief. The movie doesn’t let itself breath between kinetic scenes, give Harper time to process his experiences and awaken to the toll they take on him. The movie makes a stab at this, giving the man brief flashbacks to his childhood (we see him blindly following his father into the military). But that inner conflict, and the external one with his wife (Gillian Jacobs), cry out for development.
Harper does enjoy a momentary respite in a safe house, where he’s succored back to health by a hut-master named Virgil (the ever welcome Eddie Marsan). The elder man tries to impart wisdom and care on his guest, and they have the beginnings of the tender connection that you and Harper need at that moment. But the movie disposes of him in a flash and returns us to the chase. And when James finally figures out what’s really going on, his strategic response is too blunt and immediate to hold our attention.
In the end, you have a frustrating sense of a solid first draft that’s padded by prolonged, if engaging, covert ops. What it needs to reach the level of Bourne is deepening characterization and dramatic stakes. Still, give the makers credit: they try to get at the corrosive effects of America’s forever wars, while making its protagonist both victim and victimizer. As in The Hurt Locker (2008), war in The Contractor is as a force that gives us meaning, a drug that its anti-hero needs to have psychic peace, even if it kills him. What’s different—and more unsettling—from Kathryn Bigelow’s film is that, fifteen years later, the war’s come home.
3. Thor: Love and Thunder - Camp Valhalla
Thor: Love and Thunder is everything Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness could’ve been but wasn’t: a fun, campy, sweet twist on a solid comic book franchise. For those trying to keep track of this particular corner of the Marvel Universe (who can at this point?), it’s the fourth installment in the series and the second directed by Kiwi filmmaker Taika Waititi. Waititi has an off-kilter funny bone, having made quirky, oddball pictures like Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016), What We Do in the Shadows (2014), and 2019‘s Jojo Rabbit. I’ve yet to see his previous Thor film (2017’s Thor: Ragnarok), but here he’s turned in a witty, wonderfully self-deprecating movie. It’s the best of what Pauline Kael dubbed “good trash”—a movie with no pretensions, aiming for sheer entertainment, that hits a bulls-eye.
The picture opens ominously: Gorr (Christian Bale) wanders through a desert with his daughter in search of their god, Rapu, whom Gorr serves like a Buddhist devotee. After his daughter expires in the heat, he finds himself drawn to an oasis where Rapu luxuriates in comfort and mocks his acolyte’s suffering (he’s akin to a Babylonian god in his dismissive attitude of his creatures). Gorr denounces him and, when Rapu tries to smite him out of existence, is magically given a Necrosword, (a kind of demonic Excalibur) which allows him to kill the god. He vows to destroy all such deities, summoning dark monsters to attack various planetary realms and slay their divinities. Thor (Chris Hemsworth), brooding over a breakup with his amorous partner, Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), is beckoned out of retirement to save the universe—especially when Gorr kidnaps the children of Asgard, Thor’s home.
That sounds heavy, but after the opening prologue, the style leans into camp, with delightful results. Waititi keeps the visual and linguistic gags flying, the film replete with cultural cross-references, word play, and insider jokes that land with aplomb. Hemsworth continues his winking performance, his irrepressible spunk, sheepish charm, and get-up-and-go winning you over again. The funniest bit may be the way the movie’s personalizes Thor’s conflicting feelings over Jane—who shows up, to his surprise, in Asgar to assist him. She bears his former weapon of choice, the hammer Mjolner, while he now wields a battle-axe named Stormbreaker. Watching Hemsworth try to woo back Mjolner like a jilted lover is hilarious, as is the banter and wise-cracks of Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and Korg (Waititi himself), his comrades-in-arms. The movie’s really a romantic comedy inside a comic book blockbuster, as Thor and Jane rekindle their love in the awkward, preciously ironic way typical of today’s courtships. Throughout the proceedings, Waititi layers in the greatest hits of Guns N’ Roses, sealing the film’s glam-rock design.
The movie takes a detour in the middle to the hall of the gods, where Thor seeks the help of his own hero, Zeus (the casting of which plays on Hemsworth’s inspiration as an Australian heartthrob). But the joke is that Zeus is a hedonistic sloth by now, more interested in orgies than saving the universe. The movie becomes increasingly ridiculous from there, with a lightness of touch that’s refreshing. When Thor deputizes the kidnapped kids as temporary Asgardian warriors, their skill in battle sends up his own slap-dash rescue operation. And yet for all this tossed off humor, the movie builds to a real conclusion that mixes sweetness with loss, redemption, and a sense of rightness. Everything’s in its place, as the social order is restored by sacrifices rendered with just the right amount of feeling.
Throughout the Thor films, its protagonist operates much like a cowboy in a classic Western—he saves the community but can’t share in its happiness. Yet unlike the cowboy, this is because of his divine nature, not his temperament—he wants to enjoy regular life, but is prevented by his alien identity (much the way Superman always feels the outsider). What’s pleasurable, and inventive, is how Waititi and his collaborators find him a middle path in the end: a recipe that allows Thor a taste of domestic bliss while maintaining his foreign status. Defying expectations, Thor: Love and Thunder gives you something that prestige films seem unable to do of late: rounded characters, compelling motivation, narrative clarity, and an emotional arc. Waititi makes it look easy, but his success is born of solid craft.
4. Apocalypse Now, Redux
It’s the end of the world as we know it, at least its 2022 version, and I’ll leave you with material that builds on my Apocalypse post from a few weeks ago. Last month, Pew Research Center released a survey that found that almost 40% of Americans believe we’re living in the biblical end times. Among Christians, the number rises to 47%, including a remarkable 76% of Black Protestants:
On a related question, 55% of Americans, and 2/3 of American Christians, believe Jesus Christ will one day return to Earth. Interestingly, about 30% of both Catholics and mainline Protestants do not think this. Given that the Second Coming tends to be part-and-parcel of Christian orthodoxy, I’m intrigued that nearly 1/3 of the members of these major churches don’t adhere to this tenet. How do they conceive of their faith?
Meanwhile, in the November issue of Harper’s, Michael Robbins penned a meditation on the apocalyptic atmosphere that’s pervaded the American soulscape in every generation. As he puts it, “Expecting the apocalypse has been an American pastime since the colonial era.” But he homes in on the link between the apocalyptic and revolutionary politics:
[O]ne must read religious millenarianism in the light cast by modern revolutionary hopes, not vice versa. It’s not…that revolutionary struggles are religious; it’s that medieval millennial movements were revolutionary struggles expressed in the language of their time.
Within the limits of history, there is no solution, whether we look to climate accords or philanthropic billionaires. Liberals stroll the fairylands of blue waves and Green New Deals or cling to the hope that science will save us, through geoengineering or nuclear power, carbon capture or magic beans. I think of Los, in Blake’s Jerusalem, “Striving with Systems to deliver Individuals from those Systems.” The crisis cannot be resolved from within the institutions that gave rise to the crisis.
And yet. Perhaps it is my early grounding in eschatology and the counterculture that allows me to see—not hope, not at all, but opportunity. Is it not when things are darkest, when all hope is lost, that one fights with abandon, shamelessly shoots for utopia? For then there is nothing left to lose. And I have heard that another word for nothing left to lose is freedom.
There must be something in the water, because the latest issue of The Atlantic also takes the apocalyptic as its theme. Derek Thompson has a bracing, refreshingly honest piece about why American society has stagnated, in which he provides a brief for socialism without (oddly) mentioning the word or its standard bearer in the person of Bernie Sanders. The answer? Progress depends on collective implementation of breakthroughs, much more than the epiphanies of individual inventors. It pairs well with a blunt warning by Jerusalem Demsas for liberals to fix the homelessness crisis plaguing big cities, which, again, implies a socialist solution without naming it as such.
Marina Korea has a ruminative article on the conflicting, often upsetting reactions people have to seeing Earth from outer space. Grief for our fragile home is a common, though unspoken, emotion. The central essay is an excerpt from Adam Kirsch’s forthcoming book, The Revolt Against Humanity, which profiles two groups of people who welcome the end of Homo sapiens, for very different reasons: environmental anti-humanists and technological trans-humanists. Even if their movements fail, he notes, their philosophies could radically alter our societies. Speaking of the disintegration of civilization, Noah Hawley has a penetrating, if incomplete, analysis of the perversion of the Western as an American movie genre by right-wing libertarians in recent decades. I’ll have more to say about both pieces in forthcoming posts.
The last 39 lines of The Waste Land are an apocalypse.
Static hums in the dryness, little monsters twitch (“bats with baby faces”), and then—the storm. Civilization goes, the mind goes, and the God of the Upanishads speaks in syllables of thunder, the whole scene strobed by lightning bolts and the shock editing of life flashing before your eyes. “Shall I at least set my lands in order?” wonders the poet/Fisher King, with pathetic coherence, as London disintegrates behind him and his brain swarms with quotes and quotes and quotes, “the poem’s great and final collapse”—as Matthew Hollis puts it in his brilliant new book, The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem—“of cascading imagery and fleeting phrases, like a cine-reel of a disappearing Europe.”
“Shantih shantih shantih,” it ends. Sanskrit for “peace.”
Drone of the void. Of the mind suddenly emptied.
Happy New Year.