Tag Archives: Jessie Buckley

Men

20 May

‘Men’: Escaping trauma and engendering horror

By Tom Meek Thursday, May 19, 2022

Alex Garland, the scribe behind “The Beach” (2000) and “Never Let Me Go” (2010) and director of “Ex Machina” (2014) and “Annihilation” (2018), continues to raise the bar on immersive psychological horror with this third helming – which, as the title might suggest, is about the male of the species behaving badly. It’s not so much a #MeToo rallying cry but a confessional of a long ingrained inequity, to put it mildly. The film begins with a poignant crack to the jaw as a young Londoner (Jessie Buckley), whose name we learn is Harper, stares out a window. It’s a beautiful view of the Thames and all things London until a man on the other side of the pane drifts slowly into frame. Their eyes lock for a knowing moment, and then he’s gone. You sit there in a prolonged “Wait, what the …” and the camera flips to Harper. Before her face can register as aghast, we notice she has a bloodied nose and a puffy eye.

The man in the window is Harper’s troubled – troublesome might be the better word – husband, James (Paapa Essiedu). In the aftermath of his death, Harper decides to decamp and decompress by renting a 500-year-old countryside estate for a long weekend. The Airbnb tour is given by the owner, an affable chap named Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) who looks like Hugh Grant gone to pot with bad hair and buck teeth (the prosthetics work in the film is a minor wonderment); anyone want to pack their bags for this remote, verdant tranquillity, though Geoffrey’s late comments to Harper about not putting hygiene products down the loo and some nonsense about “forbidden fruit” are cause for a brow raise. Things are a tick off, and start to go off the rails when Harper, walking old train tracks now grown over and lushly green, yodels playfully into a moss-lined tunnel. It’s a freeing, symphonic cavort until a menacing figure appears at the other end and begins growling and hooting. Later a naked man (also Kinnear) wanders into the garden as Harper is FaceTiming with a bestie. She calls the police, who arrest the intruder (the female officer is compassionate, her male counterpart not so much, and dismissively tags the perp as harmless and wayward). Men, it seems, are initially welcoming and open to Harper, including a priest and a peevish little puck both also played by Kinnear, but ultimately rebuke her with condescending impunity for, essentially, being a woman. The film begins with a series of such macho microaggressions, but gets physical and wildly surreal down the line. To say more would be to dispel the perfectly orchestrated atmospheric dread and well-laid psychological horror that Garland and crew conjure up.

Thematically, there’s a lot to “Men”: the intersection of paganism and Christianity, religious sexual repression and, of course, the headlining gender oppression. But for all its grand motifs and moodiness, the characters and the film itself are fundamentally thin. Don’t get me wrong, “Men” is an all-consuming cinematic experience, and Buckley, so good in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” (2020) and “The Lost Daughter” (2021), and Kinnear of TV’s “Penny Dreadful,” put on a thespian clinic. But Harper, when boiled down, is little more than a grieving woman who likely escaped an emotionally abusive relationship. One might even argue she’s in a better place. Part of our understanding of that gets filled in by meted flashbacks, where James is less and less the kind, compassionate gent you first got to know, and you wonder too much about how the two ever came together; the trauma manifests in the present with the cast of quirky lads lurking around the bucolic countryside. If you were a fan of Garland pushing the boundaries of reality in “Annihilation” (I was), he goes even further here while dipping his toe into folk horror and adding a few Cronenberg-worthy touches, such as a severed limb and male birthing. More direct and emotionally genuine jabs at institutionalized sexism would be Neil LaBute’s “In the Company of Men” (1997) and Kitty Green’s fictional take on all things Harvey Weinstein, “The Assistant” (2020). “Men” adds to that conversation, but not much that’s new. It’s how it adds that makes it a must-see curio.

The Lost Daughter

18 Dec

‘The Lost Daughter’: One gets away at a getaway in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s powerful directorial debut

Maggie Gyllenhaal, the actress best known for her turns in “Secretary” (2002) and “Adaptation,” (2002) gets behind the camera for her directorial debut with “The Lost Daughter,” an adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel about a woman struggling with loss and trying to find solace in the present. It’s a tight, intimate portrait of a person trying to move on who gets caught up in the dramas of others. Gyllenhaal gathers a fantastic cast and educes some award-worthy performances. Her lead could not be any better: Olivia Coleman, so good in “The Father” (2020) and an Oscar winner for her royal turn in “The Favourite” (2018), plays Leda Caruso, a comparative literary professor from Cambridge, Mass. (it’s not explicit but we can assume Harvard) on vacation at a Greek resort. Ensconced in a book, a quiet day of beach reading is interrupted by a raucous crowd of partiers from Queens. She won’t cede her spot on the beach to the group, which has choice Jersey Shore reaction to her stiff-upper-lip rigidity. Then the young child of one of the festive lot (Dakota Johnson, “Fifty Shades of Grey”) goes missing. There’s mass panic along the beach, which Leda – experiencing some anxiety – has left. Natch, she finds the young girl in the woods on the way to her cabana and returns her to her mother, Nina (Johnson). The group from Queens rethinks their opinion of their obstinate beach neighbor, and an uneasy bond between the women takes root. Nina looks to Leda for maternal advice, while the writer in Leda probes into Nina, her familial and romantic relationships, as well as her furtive ditherings. Leda has her own dubious doings, absconding with the child’s favorite doll and reacting with zero affect when the child breaks down crying for their security blanket.

“The Lost Daughter” is less about that present story between Nina and Leda than about Leda’s internal emotional journey. In flashbacks we see the young Leda (played by Jessie Buckley, so good in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”) living an ideal life with a husband and two daughters, but is drawn by the allure of power and intellectual commonality by an established literary professor (Peter Sarsgaard, Gyllenhaal’s husband). The performances by Coleman and Buckley (who won the Boston Society of Film Critics for best supporting actress last week) are sublime and deeply felt. What’s more is that the transition between the two feels genuine and universal. The rest of the ensemble includes Ed Harris as a caretaker trying to break Leda’s icy facade, Paul Mescal as a resort attendant and Oliver Jackson-Cohen as one of the boisterous crew from Queens. It’s also one hell of a debut by Gyllenhaal, who’s going to have the cinema world hanging on her next directorial project. 

Beast

19 May

‘Beast’: Suspicions run wild after murder, and something about Moll draws the mob

 

A curious yet apt title for this taut psycho-drama that plays effectively with the viewer’s sense of perception. Eerie, foreboding and profoundly disorienting, “Beast,” like many of its beguiling characters, becomes something of a shapeshifter; it revolves around the struggles of a troubled young woman named Moll (Jessie Buckley), blessed with fiery red locks constantly tousled across her porcelain face by the relentless wind that whips the quaint U.K. isle of Jersey she’s relegated to – and seemingly unable to leave. The setting, so alluring and ominous, becomes an integral player in developments. Jersey’s the kind of remote, off-the-grid British burg that Sam Peckinpah might have shot “Straw Dogs” in had his location scouts stumbled upon it.

Moll lives with her controlling mother (an icy-cold Geraldine James), who stalks her progeny and questions her every whereabouts despite the fact Moll’s a mature woman with a full-time job (as a tour bus guide). Given mum’s iron glove, moving out would be a good idea, but there’s that troubled/damaged thing. Can Moll truly be on her own, or does she need constant monitoring? We get the answer to that quickly as Moll goes clubbing one night into the wee hours with a scruffy drifter/handyman by the name of Pascal (Johnny Flynn). Elsewhere, news blips on the TV tell us there’s been a recent murder of a girl nearby, and another girl is missing. The short list of suspects the film and police pursue includes Moll – she had a violent incident back in high school that haunts her – and Pascal. Moll may be somewhat lost and misunderstood, but there’s always deep down inside an ember of hopeful ebullience, and she becomes spirited at the prospect that she and Pascal might hie away together for happier destinations. Darker matters beyond legal suspicion cloud the notion, such as nightmarish incursions that come in the middle of the night or Moll’s ill-conceived insistence on showing up at one of the victim’s funerals. Ultimately “Beast” becomes a tug of war between hope and despair, with an ever-shifting emotional landscape.

First-time filmmaker Michael Pearce weaves in themes of isolation, alienation and defiance that clearly mine the essence of Roman Polanski’s 1965 psycho-thriller “Repulsion” (1965) and, to a lesser wow factor, Julia Roberts’ 1991 hit, “Sleeping with the Enemy.” It’s a subtle borrowing, as Pearce without doubt forges his own, unique authorship. Like Polanski, his true ace in the hole is his lead. Not enough can be said of Buckley’s ability to bounce palpably from a wallflower-esque ingenue to romantically ripe hopeful and later, something more disturbed and even menacing. It’s an incredible load to bear, but Buckley does it without any letdown. By the middle of the film Moll’s psychological state and Pearce’s moody ambiance become symbiotic extensions of one other, heightening the already fraught state with arthouse poetics.

As far as the title goes, there’s plenty of monsters to be had in “Beast.” The killer, for one, but also – and perhaps more to the point – the insular judgmental folk of the remote isle so willing to condemn a fellow human based on mob rage or a simple whisper from the TV.