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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1

November 21, 2014
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 1

Despite the army of competitors, the Hunger Games series handily reaffirms its status as the best adaptation going of a popular young-adult property. While Mockingjay — Part 1, like the third book in the series, takes a sharp turn in structure, some of the pattern laid down by the first and second movies remains the same. We have a relatively straightforward translation onto the screen of the main plot points that should please fans of Suzanne Collins’ novels, undercut by the same failure to translate their most recognizable literary quality: Katniss’ remarkably well-developed interior monologue.

The absence is felt even more keenly in this installment, since Mockingjay is the series’ most psychologically complex section. Collins built The Hunger Games around what is essentially a puzzle for Katniss to solve, reasoning her way through the various challenges she encounters. But now, confronted directly with the much larger and messier world outside the arena, the problems she faces are ill-defined and offer no clear right-or-wrong answers. She isn’t even clear what exactly she wants, now that mere survival doesn’t provide an obvious goal. And yet there’s only so much at Jennifer Lawrence can do to externalize these conflicts, even where they don’t seem to have been smoothed over entirely by screenwriters Danny Strong and The Town co-writer Peter Craig.

We again pick up straight after the last film left off; if you aren’t familiar with what’s come before, this may not be the place to start. Katniss’ second appearance in the Hunger Games has ended in a sort of jailbreak. Games designer Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and some co-conspirators have defected to District 13, a former military outpost long thought to have been bombed into oblivion by the Capitol. In fact, it forced a stalemate, and now under the leadership of President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) it seeks to turn the seeds of rebellion Katniss inadvertently sowed among the districts into a groundswell that can turn against the despotic President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland).

The conspirators managed to save Katniss and some other tributes in the arena, including expert engineer Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and the beguiling Finnick (Sam Claflin). And they evidently snatched up the stylish Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), whose role is significantly improved from the comic-relief she played before. But they failed to rescue Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and a few other tributes. Worse, the Capitol retaliated by leveling Katniss’ and Peeta’s home District 12, leaving a meager fraction of its population to escape to District 13, led by Katniss’ friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and including her sister, Prim (Willow Shields), for whose sake Katniss got involved in the first place.

Clearly the series must culminate with an armed revolt, but the filmmakers decided to hold that for one more movie. For now, the plan is for Katniss to become the symbol of the rebellion, particularly in a series of propaganda videos Beetee will shove onto the nation’s airwaves in pirate broadcasts. To get the required footage, Katniss must return to the rebelling districts along with a production team led by Cressida (Natalie Dormer), a video director who fled the Capitol along with Plutarch. Meanwhile, the Capitol will use Peeta as their own counter-propaganda weapon. There is a kind of short-term goal that provides a convenient stopping point for this section — a special-forces style mission that quotes liberally from the likes of Zero Dark Thirty — but largely it’s about laying the groundwork, providing a segue between Catching Fire and the endgame.

The Games themselves managed to provide the first two parts of the series with some teleological structure: Katniss was drawn inexorably into the arena, at which point a certain bloodsport logic could take over and provide goals. Everything that happened in the lead-up could pay off inside the Games. But without that clear endpoint, Mockingjay — both the book and this film, especially with the eventual assault on the Capitol reserved for Part 2 — tends to meander. Things tend to just happen, and Katniss is bounced along for the ride. The novel picks up this slack by exploring her ambivalence, particularly about President Coin, but it doesn’t really come across on screen.

In fact, Coin herself seems drastically simplified in the adaptation. There’s only seeming hint that her motives might not align perfectly with Katniss’: while director Francis Lawrence effectively quotes Blitz-era London during many of the District 13 scenes, Coin’s speeches have a tendency to sound less like Winston Churchill and more like a certain German chancellor. If some of the conflicts from the novel are to be maintained in the final installment, this script falls short in laying their groundwork.

Katniss’ and Coin’s characters are just the two most notable simplifications; Finnick’s shellshock is largely unaddressed, as are negotiations between Katniss and the administration of District 13. Still, while the adaptation may not stand up without some knowledge of the source material, it does flow rather smoothly given that knowledge. The action could be shot more cleanly, but it’s far from the worst I’ve seen recently. The scenes can sometimes feel perfunctory, like checking off a list to fill time, but most of them pull the audience along smoothly. There are even moments of irony, both intentionally humorous — Katniss has trouble acting in front of a green screen — and accidentally dark — Hoffman as Plutarch assuring Coin that “anyone can be replaced”, as we know some of his lines will probably get shoved off to Beetee.

It’s true that some of the dross could be cut out, and the series-ending assault could probably be squeezed into one hour rather than two, fitting the whole of Mockingjay into a single longish film. That said, I’m loathe to call it a mistake to split the film in the way they’ve chosen. As it is, this will probably turn out the weakest entry of the four, but it’s still far more engaging and entertaining than any other young-adult adaptation going.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass, and much stronger this time.


November 14, 2014

If you’re a fan of The Daily Show, you’re probably well aware of the story behind host Jon Stewart taking up Rosewater as his feature writing and directing debut. They sent Jason Jones to Iran — as in, he actually went there, rather than using the show’s typical green-screen “location” gags — where he “interviewed” Iranian-born Newsweek correspondent Maziar Bahari (Gael García Bernal) amidst the contentious run-up to the 2009 elections. After the elections, Bahari was arrested and held in solitary confinement for four months under suspicion of espionage, as told in his memoir of the experience, Then They Came for Me.

While Stewart and The Daily Show weren’t the direct cause of Bahari’s imprisonment, the interview didn’t help his case, and Stewart clearly regrets even his indirect involvement. Still, he wisely keeps that part of the story to a minimum, letting us focus on Bahari’s interrogation, and the political situation that led up to his arrest.

Iran has a nominally democratically-elected President as head of government below the theocratic Supreme Leader. In 2009, hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was running for re-election against former prime minister and reformer Mir-Hossein Mousavi. And though since overshadowed by the more tumultuous protests of the Arab Spring, it was far from quiet in Iran. Bahari traveled to Iran to report on the election for Newsweek, interviewing supporters of both Ahmadinejad and Mousavi, though the film is clear in its support for the latter.

The election itself went strongly for Ahmadinejad, even in regions that had been polling strongly for Mousavi, leading to widespread accusations of tampering. Violent protests erupted, which Bahari recorded and broadcast widely outside Iran. Obviously, this displeased the government, so they decided to make an example of him, insisting that he confess to faking the reports as propaganda for the West.

Since Bahari spent most of the ordeal blindfolded, he could most readily identify his interrogator (Kim Bodnia) by the rosewater perfume he wore, though Stewart doesn’t quite make this point clear. He indulges in a few experiments here and there, like Bahari’s early reminiscences projected on the London buildings he walks past, but as neat as they can be, none of them really connect up very strongly with the story itself.

Still, the most important points are given plenty of emphasis. The Iranian government — and “Rosewater” as its representative — is shown as somewhat ridiculous and petulant. It behaves like a spoiled child throwing a tantrum, and it doesn’t care if it destroys someone’s life in the process. But this is to be distinguished from the Iranian people. Bahari’s driver, Davood (Dimitri Leonidas), among many others is warm and kind, and he sees the folly in his government just as an American might; identifying the people with the administration just doesn’t work, and Stewart is careful to remind us of this.

Bahari survives his ordeal with memories of his father (Haluk Bilginer) and sister (Golshifteh Farahani), both of whom had been imprisoned. They give him perspective and strength, but they also stand as a reminder that Bahari’s treatment is far from unique, or even recent. Interrogating and torturing political prisoners has a disturbingly long and deep-seated history, and not just in Iran.

The Iranian government is a particularly easy target that it doesn’t take much for first-timer Stewart to nail. Even so, it’s good to see them taken down a notch. Under Stewart’s guidance, The Daily Show has been dedicated to giving the powers-that-be a good pantsing when they need it, and there are few targets who could benefit from a little humility and self-awareness more than this one.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

Beyond the Lights

November 14, 2014
Beyond the Lights

As I watched Beyond the Lights, I was thinking a lot about Arielle Bernstein’s recent essay “In Defense of the Likable Character”. This seemed like the perfect example: two main characters, both struggling to do the right thing, and neither one coming off as flat and boring, despite the recent narrative push towards antiheroes.

Noni Jean (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is an up-and-coming pop star. Her mother (Minnie Driver) has stage-managed them both out of South London poverty, and she wins a Billboard award for a track with her celeboyfriend Kid Culprit (Richard “Machine Gun Kelly” Baker) just weeks before her first album is about to drop. But she’s profoundly unhappy, and comes very close to walking off the balcony of her penthouse hotel suite.

She is stopped by the security guard, an off-duty cop covering for his moonlighting friend. Kazam “Kaz” Nicol (Nate Parker) keeps quiet for her, playing along with the official “too many celebratory drinks” explanation, but sees her as just another diva passing through Los Angeles. And yet he has more in common with her than he thinks, pushed by his police captain father (Danny Glover, clearly not too old for this yet) towards a career in politics.

As the media circus ramps up, Kaz is pushed to take the opportunity to grab a city council seat that’s about to open up. Even Noni expects him to turn a profit on his brush with her fame, just like everyone else does. But instead he starts to look past her surface, encouraging her to bring her true self out into the public eye.

It’s far from the most complicated story, but Mbatha-Raw and Parker imbue their characters with an earnestness that never quite tips over into cloying sentimentalism. Noni could easily have become a poor-little-rich-girl, but the way the music industry treats young women is a very real danger. It’s hard for me to tell whether her stage performances are realistic for current hip-hop, or push over into parody, but either way they can be hard to watch unless you set aside the idea that this woman is anything other than a sexual object, and writer/director Gina Prince-Blythewood makes it impossible to do that here. Even the inevitable bedroom scene is focused more on how Noni and Kaz finally get the chance to relax, and comes off more tame than a prime-time soap opera.

But despite such a drive towards goodness, neither Noni nor Kaz comes off as a bland goody-goody. Noni, obviously, is stuck in a bad rut and needs to break free from that, but Kaz has some soul-searching of his own to do. Just because they want to do good doesn’t mean they automatically know what that looks like; Prince-Blythewood has done a great job here of letting that journey play out.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

Big Hero 6

November 6, 2014
Big Hero 6

Disney is finally making the most of Marvel, which it purchased in 2009. Sure, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been raking in the cash for years now, but can you imagine bringing the newly Pixar-infused Disney animation — source of Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen — and mashing it up with all the fun of a Marvel property like Guardians of the Galaxy? Welcome to Big Hero 6.

Now, there is an actual Marvel comic book with this title, but the movie is all but unrelated. The names and setting are drawn from the book, but the characters and plot are so completely reworked by director Don Hall and writer Jordan Roberts that it’s practically a whole new story. And what a story: a meditation on loss, grief, and healthy recovery in the best Marvel tradition, rendered by Disney in terms that manage to be friendly to a young audience, respecting their intelligence without patronizing them.

Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) is a robotics prodigy who already graduated high school at 13. He lives in San Fransokyo — a lovingly textured blend of Tokyo and San Francisco — with his aunt (Maya Rudolph) and his older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney), who studies at the Institute of Technology. But all Hiro wants to do is clean up at the underground bot fights, until Tadashi shows him all the cool stuff going on in his research lab.

There’s GoGo Tomago (Jamie Chung), using electromagnetic suspension to make her bike even faster. Honey Lemon (Génesis Rodríguez) is a bubbly chemistry whiz. Wasabi (Damon Wayans, Jr.) is a fastidious sort, working wonders with lasers. Tadashi himself is working on an inflatable robotic health care assistant called Baymax (Scott Adsit). And it’s all overseen by the great Professor Robert Callaghan (James Cromwell).

Star-struck, Hiro will do anything to get into the institute, and he works up an impressive new technology to convince the admissions board, but there’s a terrible explosion and fire at the unveiling robotics fair. With Professor Callaghan trapped, Tadashi runs inside to save him, but doesn’t come back out.

Months later, Hiro stumbles across the Baymax prototype, who begins to treat Hiro’s depression over the loss of his brother. Coincidentally, they discover someone using Hiro’s project, long thought lost in the fire. Hiro and the rest of the gang decide to track down and stop whoever it is, and the comic-obsessed school mascot Fred (T.J. Miller) suggests they do so as a team of technology-driven superheroes. Thus, the Big Hero 6 are born.

The animation is as lush as ever for Disney’s recent work, with plenty of bright colors closer to Ralph than the more delicate blue-grey palette of Frozen. And the action is as fun and exciting as the best of Marvel’s lineup. The two styles are perfectly blended here; it feels as much like a Marvel movie — right down to a Stan Lee cameo and a post-credits stinger — as one from Disney.

And, like both Marvel comics and recent Disney animations, Big Hero 6 offers a surprisingly nuanced lesson on the difference between revenge and recovery. Anger is an entirely natural response, and Hiro would like nothing better than to wreak his vengeance on the greedy industrialist (Alan Tudyk) who clearly stole his work and killed Tadashi in the process. But hastily lashing out usually leads to a backlash that will only make things worse. Dealing carefully and constructively with sadness, anger, fear, and other negative emotions — while not pretending that they don’t exist — is an important step towards maturity that any audience can benefit from.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.


November 6, 2014

Looking at Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s best work, a clear pattern emerges. Memento, The Prestige, and Inception have all been finely crafted puzzle-boxes. It’s not much of a surprise, then, that when they decided to pay homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey with their hotly-anticipated science fiction epic Interstellar, they decided to treat Kubrick’s masterpiece as, itself, a giant puzzle in need of a solution. Visually stunning, the film is a marvelous technical achievement that rightly praises human drive and ingenuity, but never quite connects with our sense of wonder.

We start on an Earth that is more clearly becoming inhospitable to human life than our own is. One crop after another succumbs to a blight; the population falls dramatically as the dust-bowl deepens. Society has become small-minded and timid, even denying our former achievements in one scene that feels lifted from a bad rip-off of 1984. But as much as we tell ourselves things are going to get better, they’re not. The remnants of NASA, working in secret, know that the blights are actually poisoning the air, leaving those who don’t starve to death to slowly suffocate on a mixture of nitrogen and airborne dirt particles.

There is one hope: someone has placed an Einstein-Rosen bridge — a “wormhole” — just beyond Saturn, and through it we can reach twelve possible new homeworlds. In fact, under the guidance of the chief scientist, Professor Brand (Michael Caine), we already have. Twelve solo missions left, and now NASA is recruiting their former-pilot-turned-dissatisfied-farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to fly the mission of scientists — Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), Romilly (David Gyasi), Doyle (Wes Bentley), and a couple surplus military robots (Bill Irwin and Josh Stewart) — to check on the status reports of the three most promising planets in one system. But this means abandoning his son (Timothée Chalamet) and daughter (Mackenzie Foy), for a very long time. Even if it’s not so long for Cooper, relativistic effects mean his kids will age (into Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck) long before he does. And that’s if he can even make it back at all.

The aging thing is at least handwavingly accurate physics, and the graphics team even took relativity into account in rendering the space around the black hole and its glowing accretion disk that host the planetary system. Due credit goes to the technical consulting of astrophysicist Kip Thorne — likely best known to general audiences as the winner of a year’s subscription to Penthouse in a bet with Stephen Hawking — who developed the first theory of traversable wormholes along with graduate student Mike Morris in order to support Carl Sagan’s work writing Contact. With his help, we have some of the most stunningly-rendered graphics of outer space ever put to film.

But with such an emphasis on the hard-sci-fi aspects of the film, it makes the lapses into technobabble all the more painful. I don’t mind so much when Star Trek solves every problem by inverting the polarity of something or other, but when you’ve sold me on how technically detailed your story is, the departures are much harder to take. I thought it couldn’t get any worse than the swooningly purple prose about love transcending time and dimensions, but Nolan actually did dig further down — dismissing it as obvious emotional nonsense when the woman says it, but making it the solution to everything when the man restates the same idea.

There are so many points of reference to 2001 that I can’t even begin to list them. So many plot points, so many shots, and even Hans Zimmer’s score pays loving homage to Kubrick’s film. But it’s the love of a technician for the parts, while missing the poetry and beauty of the concept. And so we set about turning transcendent, cosmic wonder into yet another puzzle-box, albeit one with moving parts so advanced they’re indistinguishable from magic. Nolan goes back to Kubrick and Clarke’s idea of something greater than ourselves interceding to help us over our next developmental hump, but now he wants to explain it all away. He offers us the nice, neat solution that he seems to think 2001 was missing, but makes it fundamentally inscrutable. It gives us all the satisfaction of “a wizard did it”. And the highest irony is that Nolan himself refuses to provide or even verify an “answer” to the ambiguous ending of Inception.

Despite the superficial complexity of the plot, Interstellar is bereft of any real surprises. Every turn is thuddingly obvious, making the emotional stakes — often for characters we haven’t spent enough real time with to care all that much about in the first place — even more ridiculous. Yes, the action scenes are thrilling, but it’s more or less clear how they’ll turn out, usually before they even begin. It’s a roller-coaster ride: exciting and fun, but ultimately safe from anything unexpected.

And that sense of something truly unexpected, unknown, and even dangerous is the foundation of wonder. Humanity looks — or at least looked — to the stars in amazement, but there is no confusing maze or puzzle here. There is no jaw-dropping awe; just a casual “huh, neat”, and the reassurance that you, yourself, right now can understand everything. That transcendent loss of control — even of one’s very self — is what 2001 understood; what Contact understood; what Gravity; what even a silly little flick like Joe Versus the Volcano understood as a sun-blistered Tom Hanks watched an enormous South Pacific moonrise. And control is exactly what Nolan cannot ever imagine giving up.

And so we get Nolan the ever-controlled technician, painting spectacular vistas on a six-story IMAX screen, projected through beautifully rich 70mm film stock. And we get cardboard-cutout characters playacting through the Nolans’ didactic policy rants about environmentalism and farming monoculture and the lost glories of human achievement — the progressive, science-loving flip-side of a crazy conservative uncle at holiday gatherings.

They’re mad as hell that we aren’t reaching for the stars anymore, or at least not with our own flesh-and-blood hands. They recite, over and over, Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night”, as if using space colonies as a solution to our terrestrial problems is anything other than secessionism running away to start its own utopia.

But as great as interstellar colonization would be, we’ve never made it to space in anger or rage. Our anthem isn’t Dylan Thomas’, but John Gillespie Magee’s “High Flight”. The human drive and determination that sends us to space is not borne of anger or desperation, but of a desire to touch something greater than ourselves. When the credits roll, Interstellar has no such thing to offer.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.


October 31, 2014

“All I want out of life”, Diana Christensen said in Network, “is a 30 share and a 20 rating”, as much to convince herself as anyone else. Thirty-some years later, in Morning Glory, Becky Fuller echoes Diana’s fate, albeit with a happier ending. Still, we see television news as a corrupting influence, damaging its producers’ ability to engage in normal human relationships.

With Nightcrawler, writer/director Dan Gilroy pushes on to the next logical step: if news media can skew a producer’s mindset, might it not also attract some people who are pretty skewed already? The resulting film crosses Network with American Psycho, complete with a truly creepy leading performance from Jake Gyllenhaal.

Gyllenhaal indeed borrows more than a little from Christian Bale’s work as Patrick Bateman to craft Lou Bloom’s character. Lou isn’t as high status as Patrick, though; he never went to college, but he reads a lot and learns quickly, and he repeats what he reads verbatim — just like Patrick did — almost as a replacement for a real personality. Given Patrick’s opportunities, Lou might well have found a home on today’s Wall Street. As it is, he’s hustling scrap metal to contractors and asking them for jobs, not quite realizing that they might find an all-but-admitted thief untrustworthy.

And then one night he passes an accident on the highway. He pulls over to stare, and is quickly joined by Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), a freelance videographer who grabs some footage and speeds off in his mobile editing bay. Lou is hooked: he can prowl the city at night and get paid for it. Joe isn’t hiring, so Lou goes into business for himself. He steals a bike to hock for a camcorder and a police scanner, hires the desperate Rick (Riz Ahmed) as his assistant, and soon finds a good buyer in morning news producer Nina Romina (Rene Russo).

Lou is clearly sociopathic. He doesn’t seem to understand how human beings work, but he doesn’t much care either. As one of the seminars he quotes might say, he knows his strengths and his weaknesses, and he seeks to capitalize on the former while improving on the latter. He has no compunction about straying well beyond any ethical boundaries if it serves his interests, and that can be very profitable indeed in a business that already lives on the fringes of good taste.

But while Lou and his work are the source of the film’s most thrilling sequences, Nina is the really interesting character. It’s obvious that Lou sees the whole of Los Angeles television news as a big game he wants to get really good at, while the broken bodies filling his lens are little more than playing pieces. It’s easy for us to look at him with scorn. But is Nina, as the producer, any less culpable?

We normally don’t even think about news producers. The anchors are right there on the screen, and obviously someone’s shooting the remote video even if it’s not a camera crew employed by the station, but the producer is hidden in the control booth. And it’s Nina’s choices, as the producer, that make Lou’s tactics profitable. Just as she’s normally invisible to the audience, the people of the city are abstracted from her. She only interacts with them as footage Lou brings in, or as numbers on a ratings sheet, and she treats them no less instrumentally than Lou does. Network said that working in television news can damage the capacity for normal human interactions; Nightcrawler asks a more pointed question: are today’s news producers themselves, in effect, sociopaths?

If there’s a failure here, it’s that Gilroy doesn’t go far enough. If Nina, as a news producer, bears responsibility for Lou’s actions by creating an environment that rewards sensationalism, doesn’t the audience itself bear responsibility for her actions? Lou doesn’t want the biggest, bloodiest crime scenes in the richest, whitest neighborhoods of L.A. because he gets off on carnage; Nina told him that’s what she would pay the most for. And she isn’t out to stoke racial tensions or anything like that; she just knows that’s what audiences tune in for, and if they don’t tune in, she loses her job.

A friend of mine used to insist that local news should only cover four subjects: weather, traffic, sports, and local government. And that was fifteen years ago, when they even did much of that. According to a statistic Lou quotes to Nina, even that truly pertinent information has been crammed down to the tiniest sliver of the newscast; the rest of the time is filled with splashy tabloid fare. And as audiences — particularly younger ones — opt out of watching entirely, those who remain consist more and more of those who just want their prejudices pandered to.

Sensationalism in local news is like a kudzu that, once granted a toehold, chokes out anything more useful and valuable. And it’s our own fault that it got such a toehold in the first place. It’s the same across any medium: we bear the responsibility to be mindful of the content we consume. Indulgence is fine when we’re aware that it’s indulgent, but it needs to be balanced against more thoughtful fare. It’s a big problem when local television news is reduced to “a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut”, or when people back up their assertions that first-person shooters are the only worthwhile video games with rape threats, or when we can’t pay attention to a critique of our degenerating media landscape without tying it to a high-speed car chase.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

Before I Go to Sleep

October 31, 2014
Before I Go to Sleep

And so we bookend October with another twisty domestic thriller that requires a spoiler warning for me to properly review it. Unfortunately, Before I Go to Sleep isn’t half the film that Gone Girl was.

Christine Lucas (Nicole Kidman) is a movie-amnesiac in the style of Memento and 50 First Dates. She remembers things fine over the course of a day, but as soon as she falls asleep she’ll forget everything back to her early twenties. That’s quite a lot, since she’s now forty and was married in her mid-twenties. She wakes up every morning next to a man (Colin Firth) who patiently explains that he’s Ben (Colin Firth), her husband of thirteen years, and points her to a mosaic of their pictures on the bathroom wall. He tells her she was in an accident that led to her current amnesia.

After Ben reminds her of the basics of her day-to-day life and leaves for work, Christine receives a phone call. The man on the other end introduces himself as Dr. Nasch (Mark Strong), a neurologist who’s been working with her recently. He directs her to a camera he gave her to use as a video diary, which she can use to catch up.

We now go back a couple weeks, near the beginning of Christine’s work with Dr. Nasch. Working with him, she learns that her injury was no accident, but the result of a severe beating by an unknown assailant. He shows her the police report and takes her to the place she was found. She starts making a few tenuous connections, remembering people from her past enough to bring them up to Ben, who has to revisit all of their past grief. As fresh as it is for Christine, he’s been through it over and over again before, and it weighs on him to have it brought up again.

But even though Ben has explanations for everything, it’s hard to know how much to trust them. And of course, Strong has made a career of playing not-quite-savory characters with his angular features, and so he comes off as less than completely trustworthy himself. But director Rowan Joffé — who also adapted the script from S.J. Watson’s novel — delivers the turns awkwardly, with a thudding sense of exposition. He also leans far too heavily on cheap tricks like jump scares to prop up the tension that the script and the performances don’t quite provide. And the story itself is shot through with holes; it hangs together tenuously in the moment, but in retrospect it falls to pieces.

That should be enough to give this movie a miss, but there’s a bigger problem, and that requires a spoiler, so stop reading now if you want to preserve the surprise.

The warning is somewhat pro forma, since the Big Twist isn’t much of a surprise to anyone paying close attention: the man calling himself Ben is actually the man Christine had an affair with, and who beat her when she tried to leave. And so the whole film becomes an attempt to use the amnesiac plot mechanic to explore a narrative about a controlling, emotionally abusive relationship.

Now, in principle this might be an interesting idea. Domestic violence, whether physical or emotional, deserves more attention, but it also deserves a more careful and thoughtful treatment than it receives here.

Yes, abusive partners often control every aspect of their victim’s lives, and they express their control in patterns of behavior subtle enough that no one particular incident is necessarily objectionable on its own. To see it requires building a record of a pattern of behavior — exactly the sort of thing Christine cannot do until Dr. Nasch provides her with the camera. And when, in her flight, Christine pulls a fire alarm it echoes the disturbing knowledge, common among women, that they’re more likely to get help by screaming “fire” than “rape”.

But in its attempt to bring up these points, the movie does serious damage to actual women in real abusive relationships. It says, in effect, that before falling into this sort of situation a woman must be profoundly — even incredibly — damaged. She must be lacking some fundamental ability, and even then it takes a long series of implausible circumstances before she can fall so completely under her abuser’s sway.

In fact, all too many women do end up in controlling, abusive relationships, and they’re not all weak or damaged or profoundly unlucky. Women that in any other context we’d see as strong and smart and capable can be victims too, and it’s not their fault any more than a mugging victim is for having a gun shoved into her face.

And in presenting the victim as damaged and inattentive, the film reinforces the idea that these abuse victims are somehow broken or weak, if not actually responsible for their own situations. This stigma is exactly why women refuse to seek help, because we’ve told them that being a victim is somehow a personal failure, and they’re ashamed to admit to being that failure. By reinforcing this myth, Before I Go to Sleep drives that many more women away from seeking help.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: pass.


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