If you’re in the mood for an emotionally wrenching drama with a barnburner of a lead performance: The Deep Blue Sea (2011, Terence Davies)
“Beware of passion, Hester. It always leads to something ugly.”
Restraint, as both something to observe and ignore, is a key component of Terence Davies’s terrific adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s play The Deep Blue Sea. As Hester Collyer, a married woman who finds herself drawn to Freddie Page, a brash RAF pilot (Tom Hiddleston) who prefers to avoid getting, as he says, “tangled up in other people's emotions,” Rachel Weisz is spectacularly good – a sure-footed center around which the film’s drama can coalesce. As she’s caught between two men, so is her Hester the emotional midway point between her dignified, stuffy husband William (Simon Russell Beale, giving a model of stiff-upper-lip acting) and the lively but loutish and thoughtlessly cruel Page. Hester can be given to grand gestures (the film starts with her attempting suicide), yet even at her showiest there’s a lingering pragmatism, a sense that all this small and quiet desperation is just that – small. (When she proclaims regarding the situation, “Tragedy is too big a word – sad perhaps, but hardly Sophocles,” she’s not being glib.) Weisz takes this difficult task of essaying a woman in thrall to her destructive melodramatic emotions even as she logically recognizes their unfeasibility and absolutely nails it to the wall. Every freighted pause, every half-hearted smile and every swallowed sob is deployed for maximum impact; in particular, Weisz gets more mileage out of misty eyes than most actresses can manage with the most outsized histrionics in their arsenal (seriously, check out the scene in the back of William’s car after the revelation of her infidelity).
If Weisz keeps a lid on Hester’s more explosive emotions, Davies uses his camera to externalize them. The Deep Blue Sea is sumptuously mounted – expressive without being showy about it, possessed of a fluid and grace that breathes robust life into the burnished, glowing visuals. The opening ten minutes makes for a ravishing start, a gorgeous bit of reminiscence that compresses potential pages of exposition into a handful of striking shots while using matching angles to yoke the past and the present together, and that evocative style carries through to the meat of the story. If a scene calls for Weisz to pensively stare into space while smoking, Davies will light that smoke like a floating, curling avatar for the flow of the film’s timeline; when asked to have Weisz lose herself in a flashback in a subway tunnel, Davies crossfades the two events together and works with an exquisite pan across a sea of bodies until a sharp cut snaps us back to Weisz’s cracking visage. There are some moments of catharsis, some bold moments of howling rage – mostly courtesy of Hiddleston, a charming rake who becomes a raw nerve when cornered and finds a way to make a gift of a shilling into the coldest gesture imaginable – but the true force of the film comes from the contrast between the inner life of Hester and the outer world Davies surrounds her with. It’s the restraint that makes The Deep Blue Sea so damned heartbreaking.
If you’re in the mood for a truly unique movie with ghosts, gangsters and strange sex stuff: Keyhole (2011, Guy Maddin)
Cinematic ghost stories generally aim for the limbic response of fright. It’s not often given to such a film to aim higher, to capture a genuine sense of the uncanny. Yet, for all its frustrations, that’s exactly what Canadian master Guy Maddin has done with his defiantly odd tale Keyhole. Ostensibly, Keyhole is about gangster Ulysses Pick (Jason Patric, suitably affected) and his attempts to reconcile with his estranged wife Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini) after a shoot-out with police leaves him, his gang and a few hostages holed up inside the house they used to live in together. But, for better and worse, Maddin isn’t after anything that straightforward. This is narrative as fragments of a broken mirror, oblique and reflective; if the film follows that base narrative, it does so in a glancing manner and only as a vehicle for an airing-out of some potent thematics. Absentee fathers become ghosts while dead sons haunt them. Regrets and past failures shadow Ulysses on his journey through this cavernous mansion not as emotional specters but as genuine corporeal ones. The hero’s name is no accident, though the reference, like many, is a mere signpost hinting at a deeper assemblage, a coming-together of secrets, discoveries, memories, reconstructions. As Ulysses says, “So many locked doors, and they all have to be opened.”
If I’m making this sound like a slog, I should mention that Maddin’s formal dexterity and arch sense of humor still results in some smashing stretches of exciting cinema. For every mysterious and obscure moment, there’s a bizarrely funny one, like a quick shot of a man with a feather duster cleaning off a wall-mounted penis. And while he’s working in a slower, more purposely stilted register than his more fevered recent works (appropriately, Keyhole feels like a reeling-back towards his earlier works – closer to Careful than Cowards Bend the Knee), that just makes the sequences with quick-cut flurries of spasmodic imagery all the more effective – in particular, a scene where Ulysses is zapped in a bicycle-powered electric chair, with shock cuts interweaving the grimacing gangster with leering onlookers and a French hooker dancing like Salome matching the erratic rhythm of the physical shocks, is top-drawer Maddin. Near the film’s end, a character proclaims, “I’m only a ghost, but a ghost isn’t nothing.” As diaphanous as Keyhole is, as often as it feels like hands trying to grasp empty air, that much is true – it isn’t nothing. There’s definitely a spark here that lingers.
If you’re in the mood for a quick hit of terrific B-movie craft: The Killer Is Loose (1956, Budd Boetticher)
Films don’t come much tighter than Budd Boetticher’s crime drama The Killer Is Loose. This quasi-procedural clocks in a lean 73 minutes and wastes not a moment in detailing twin cat-and-mouse games – one between the police and revenge-minded escaped convict Leon Poole (Wendell Corey) and another between lead investigator Sam Wagner (Joseph Cotten), against whom Poole bears his grudge, and Sam’s ever-worried wife Lila (Rhonda Fleming). The script unreels like a chess game in which Sam is caught in the middle and fighting against being outsmarted by both his opponents – while the machinations of Poole are expectedly clever, one of the most entertaining things about this is Lila’s similarly-dextrous ability to piece together situational particulars despite her husband’s elusive attempts at informational stonewalling. She’s a real sharp cookie, a detail that sets apart the character from the typical fretful spouse or damsel in distress, and Fleming’s fiery performance accents that beautifully.
Meanwhile, Cotten is reliably solid as the man in between trying to catch a killer while downplaying the potential danger. But this is really Corey’s show all the way. Far from being a stock thug or a psycho in the Tommy Udo vein, Leon Poole is a quiet and determined man. He knows what he wants and the most methodical way to obtain it, and rarely do his emotions betray him – he’s the obsessed lunatic as cerebral pragmatist. Corey’s matter-of-fact line deliveries, almost apologetic at times, give the few moments where he lets the façade slip genuinely chilling and forceful. Boetticher’s expert pacing and direction reflect his antagonist; the film’s best scene, a confrontation between Poole and an old Army buddy, tightens the tension until a single gunshot explodes like a thunderclap and starts a chain reaction of cacophonous sound. That’s the stock in trade of The Killer Is Loose – slow-boiling buildups to abrupt cathartic releases, brief violent eruptions before the world returns to propriety, and as such it’s intensely satisfying.
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.