Hope you guys all like violence and pessimism, because that’s what you’ll be getting in theaters this week. Sure, there’s also that Joyful Noise Dolly Parton/Queen Latifah claptrap opening, but that disaster mercifully wasn’t even screened for critics, so it should be ignored. So, with those unnecessary two hours wiped off the slate, we’re left with three pretty dark movies.
The best is We Need to Talk About Kevin, the latest film from perpetually underrated director Lynne Ramsay about the fear and torment experienced by a mother bringing up a disturbed child. If that doesn’t tickle your fancy you can also watch Mark Wahlberg beat up some bad guys in Contraband or enjoy the end of the world in The Divide. Not the cheeriest or most family-friendly lineup of movies to be sure, but hey, it’s January. Everyone’s cold and miserable, so this is what we want to see. Save your happy movies for the spring.
The Good: We Need to Talk About Kevin
Chances are you won’t see a more disturbing and depressing movie in 2012 than We Need to Talk About Kevin and you won’t see many movies that are as good either. Sometimes a depressing night of downbeat darkness is worth it and this is one of those times. The film stars the incomparable Tilda Swinton as the unstable mother of a deeply disturbed child (funny how those things can be passed along). Her son is responsible for a Columbine-style massacre and the film plays in a fractured narrative mirroring her mental state following the tragedy.
Swinton’s character spends the film lost in memories, trying to figure out where she went wrong. It appears that while she was a cold, distant, and occasionally abusive mother, her son was an equally cold, distant, and frequently abusive child. The scars and blame go both ways. That message is clear, but fortunately writer/director Lynne Ramsay never says this overtly in her chilling adaptation of Lionel Shriver's novel.
There’s no unnecessary Psycho explanatory scene where a psychologist lays the themes of the movie bare. Instead, Ramsay tells her story as an almost purely sensory experience of disconnected images. Time is fractured in the movie, with Ramsay dipping in and out of flashbacks. She still carefully keeps secrets to ensure that the whole picture doesn’t come together until the closing moments, even if the beginning, middle, and end of the story don’t necessarily appear in that order.
The film probably sounds pretentious and in a way it is. This is an unapologetic art movie that has in no way been watered down for mass consumption. That doesn’t mean it’s inaccessible though. The film is on a certain level an “evil kid” horror movie in the style of The Bad Seed with absolutely terrifying performances from the actors playing the child (Jasper Newell) and teenage (Ezra Miller) versions of the titular Kevin. There is also an undeniable creep factor to the film that’s not to be ignored; it’s just that Ramsay isn’t interested purely in the shock value of this tale. Her film is about the moral and psychological implications of these events as much as the creep-outs.
Then of course as you’d expect from a movie featuring John C. Reilly, there’s also a healthy dose of pitch black humor to tone down the harsh tragedy ever so slightly (though the movie is a downer overall, if you haven’t figured that out yet). Throw in some evocative music from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood (whose only previous film work was the remarkable score for There Will Be Blood) and you’ve got yourself a deeply troubling and intellectually stimulating mini-masterpiece. This isn’t a film for everybody, but for the small and inevitably vocal group of supporters of Ramsay’s twisted vision, it’s going to be beloved.
The Bad: Contraband
Okay, so maybe it’s a bit harsh to call Contraband the “bad” movie of the week, but it ain’t anything special. This thing is just a straightforward crime thriller that hits all of the expected beats without ever transcending the genre.
Mark Wahlberg plays a former superstar smuggler who gave up the gig to raise a family and launch a home security company. Unfortunately, he’s got a loser brother-in-law still in the business who is forced to dump some drugs and ends up in debt to a weirdly psychotic Giovanni Ribisi. Wahlberg aggress to do one last job to save him and just when it seems like everything is going wrong, Marky Mark ends up on top, punishing all the bad guys and walking away with a bunch o’ money. Yep, you’ve seen it all before, probably in better movies too.
The film is based on the Icelandic thriller Reykjavik-Rotterdam and for some reason was directed by the star of that film, Baltasar Kormakur. He does a decent enough job of handling the set pieces and working with the admittedly strong cast. Producer/star Wahlberg assembled a pretty damn great group of actors for this project including Ben Foster, JK Simmons, Kate Beckinsale, Lucas Haas, and Diego Luna. With that much talent involved, some of the clichés are overcome and a handful of strong scenes emerge, but there’s just not enough meat for everyone to chew on. Giovanni Ribisi is the lone miscast actor as the drug dealing villain. Not only is he not nearly imposing enough to be much of a threat, he also commits to an embarrassing raspy voice that is unintentionally hilarious.
It’s pretty difficult to come up with particularly good or bad things to say about Contraband. The movie definitely accomplishes the low-level action thrills it strives for, it’s just that the ambitions of the filmmakers are so low that there’s nothing very exciting about seeing it pulled off. In the end, the movie is probably best suited for lazy Sunday afternoon basic cable programming where viewers demand little more than a pleasant distraction.
The Divide: The Divide
Finally, if you’re in the mood to watch the end of the world this week, there’s only one place to go. Xavier Gens’ The Divide traps a disparate group of strangers in an underground bomb shelter following an unexplained nuclear attack and watches them slowly turn on each other. It’s one of those horror movies about humans reverting to selfish, base survival instincts. Familiar stuff to be sure, but executed fairly well by the typically over-the-top Xavier Gens and a game cast.
The standout performance comes from sadly forgotten '80s action icon Michael Biehn (The Terminator, Aliens) as the grizzled landlord who built the bomb shelter and likes to hold that fact over everyone else’s head. Milo Ventimiglia and Michael Eklund are impressively frightening as the eventual psychotic antagonists, while Rosanna Arquette contributes a strong performance as their abused victim/plaything. Other than that the acting can be a little suspect and Lauren German underplays her stoic lead role a little too much, often feeling like she’s barely evening paying attention to her scenes. However, as far as B-movies go, the acting is fairly strong.
With an extreme French horror film (Frontier(s)) and a ridiculous video game adaptation (Hitman) under his belt, Gens is a director known for excess. Fortunately the claustrophobic setting of The Divide forces him to rein things in stylistically and all of the film’s tension builds to a delirious and insane climax where it’s appropriate for him to cut loose. It’s a dark and grueling ride that will be too intense for some (the climax literally has the protagonist wading through an ocean of shit), but for fans of nasty, nihilistic B-movies, it’s one hell of a ride. Though flawed and familiar, The Divide is a must see for horror movie fans that should help wash the nauseating flavor of The Devil Inside out of your mouth.