If you're in the mood for a rousing blend of testosterone and tears: Warrior (2011, Gavin O'Connor)
It’s a common thing to find a film that suffers from overindulgence in cliché. It’s another to find a film that reminds you why those clichés became accepted in the first place. Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior falls firmly into the latter camp. In this tale of estranged brothers both training for the same mixed-martial-arts tournament, there isn’t a plot point or an emotional beat played out here that you haven’t seen elsewhere before — it’s essentially a Wallace Beery wrestling movie updated to the MMA age, with family dysfunction added in for extra weepy power. It’s cheap and manipulative and hoary, shamelessly deploying every underdog trope it can scavenge. And I’ll be damned if it doesn’t unexpectedly work like gangbusters.
As well-spun as the script for Warrior is, it wouldn't fly without a capable cast to sell it. From top to bottom, the acting is as strong as the beefy guys in the cage during the climactic MMA tournament. Edgerton, as the elder brother having trouble making ends meet, is credibly scrappy and tough without being thuggish — an unassuming guy whose heart is his most dangerous muscle. Tom Hardy is a fierce ball of fire as the younger brother, a coiled bundle of furious energy hunched over like an especially angry bull and a solid counterpoint to the modest Edgerton. Nick Nolte's Oscar nomination for his role here was deserved: His portrayal of this wounded-lion, recovering alcoholic of a father figure, sheepishly trying to ingratiate himself back into the life of two men who have been too scarred by his past exploits to trust him, is a quiet marvel. Like its characters, Warrior is best when it's keeping its emotions tamped down — the climax features some outsized emotional breakdowns that push too hard to get those eyes watering. But overall, it's an unusually effective brawny tearjerker. You'll be one step of it the entire way, and you'll be into it anyway.
If you're in the mood for a creepy entry in the body-horror genre: Isolation (2005, Billy O'Brien)
Dan (John Lynch) has a cow that is obviously in a good deal of discomfort. The cow, hugely pregnant, is giving signs that it's ready to drop its calf soon, but something just isn't right. Orla (Essie Davis), the attending veterinarian, decides to delve into the poor cow to see what the problem might be. While she's elbow-deep, though, something inside the offending womb grabs ahold of her. When she manages to extricate her arm, she discovers that she's been bitten on the hand.
Billy O'Brien's queasy rural horror film Isolation has a lot of moments like that. It’s an intense shot of body horror, heavy on the cow intestines and built around shadowy glimpses of a spiny, skittering creature that should not be. Genetic manipulation is the bugbear here (Dan and Orla have accepted money to have Dan’s cows experimented on by the not-at-all ominous-sounding corporation Bovine Genetics Technology), but while some directors would use that as a cudgel against the audience, O’Brien is mostly interested in building enough atmosphere to choke a bull. O’Brien has a terrific sense of pacing and tension, exemplified (and personified) by an agonizing early scene where Dan, with the help of a standoffish squatter (Sean Harris), has to use a winch and a rope to ever-so-slowly pull out a mutated calf from inside its discomfited mother. Isolation is clearly a product of its influences – Cronenberg’s Shivers and The Brood both get visual nods, and the climax is pure Alien – but it stands on its own merits as an effectively tense bit of genre goods. (Isolation expires from Netflix Instant on September 9th.)
If you're in the mood for a no-punches-pulled documentary with a heaping helping of formal experimentation: The Arbor (2011, Clio Barnard)
“This is a true story, filmed with actors lip-synching to the voices of the people whose story it tells.” No better place to start with Clio Barnard’s unusual documentary The Arbor than that opening title card, as it explains the film’s crucial artistic gamble more concisely than I could. Rather than merely serving as an awkward way to jazz up a talking-head documentary, though, the intentions behind this offbeat choice are well thought-out and thematically appropriate — being a documentary about the family of late British playwright Andrea Dunbar, it deals a lot with Dunbar’s work. Her writing traded in a working-class miserablism built around incidents and exchanges taken straight from her own experiences living in the titular slum (indeed, he the film takes its title from her first produced play). She spent much of her short life taking the words of real people and sticking them in the mouths of actors, so it ultimately feels appropriate that this film should serve as a logical extension of that.
None of this would matter, though, if the story itself weren’t so compelling. Barnard gets forthright and honest material from her interviewees, with the extraordinarily damaged and self-destructive Lorraine Dunbar (Andrea’s eldest child) making for a fascinating central figure around which to organize the film. Meanwhile, she complements this by pulling impressive work out of her actors, who are given the tough task of creating believable characters using only subdued body language. (The small, quiet smile Manjinder Virk – the surrogate Lorraine – gives upon an anecdote involving custard cream speaks volumes when hitched to the narration, and there’s dozens of well-observed moments like that.) Barnard also intersperses chunks of Dunbar’s “The Arbor,” performed outdoors on the streets of the neighborhood that inspired it. The effect is one of dirty laundry aired out in public so loudly that it becomes impossible to ignore. In that, The Arbor can be seen as a continuation of its subject’s work, and a sobering and painfully affecting one at that. (The Arbor expires from Netflix Instant on September 6th.)
The Netflix streaming library is vast and daunting and mostly filled with crap. Steve Carlson is the Netflix video clerk, and every week he hand-delivers three awesome movies you've never heard of before. He's been writing about movies in one form or another on the Internet since 2002 and co-hosts the Bad Idea Podcast. Someone once called him the lonely Magellan of exploitation cinema. He thinks that's the best compliment he's ever received.