Author Archives: Nick Yarborough

The Evil Dead Series: A Case Study in Genre and Tone

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In the summer of 1979, a then-twenty-year-old Sam Raimi—along with friends Bruce Campbell and Robert Tapert—began production on the film intended to initiate his career which would later be titled The Evil Dead. Although having previously made short comedies, the filmmakers were inspired by the success of cheap horror movies found at the local drive-ins and endeavored to make a film found in the same genre. However, the filmmakers did not merely regurgitate the same clichés and tropes that often populated these predictable pictures; but instead, they amplified those conventions to new genre extremes and produced a remarkably distinguished first film as a result.

More surprising and noteworthy, however, lies in the gradual phenomena of this first The Evil Dead movie that would spawn a sequel, a trilogy, a remake, a musical, comic books, videogames, and an upcoming TV show—a truly bizarre franchise built from the foundations of its own bizarre style and tone. For although the first film remained rooted in the horror films from which it was inspired, the successive sequels would never return exactly to that same tone and style. Instead, each film moved just left of center—with each consecutive entry adopting different genre and tonal elements that would separate every film from its predecessor—while still managing to playfully expand upon those larger, recognizable icons of the series that attracted initial audiences.

maxresdefaultAs mentioned, the debut film sets itself squarely within the realm of the horror genre—only to magnify certain genre conventions to the extreme while also managing to establish some new ones. Having just arrived after the birth of the teen slasher, (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, Friday the 13th), The Evil Dead isolates these college students in a remote cabin surrounded by woods, marshes, and a thick atmosphere of menace that seems to saturate every scene. More importantly, it is their exploration of the cabin’s subterranean cellar that the five find the taped recordings of the Naturom Demonto (Necronomicon Ex-Mortis in later films)—the Sumerian grimoire capable of unleashing supernatural entities that lie somewhere between the demonically possessed and a zombie—called Deadites.

From this point forward, the premise essentially serves as a vehicle for Raimi and his cohorts to employ every conceivable gag fueled by their imagination and able to be materialized by their shoestring budget. More impressively, and to similar effect as the nonfunctioning shark of Spielberg’s Jaws, these budgetary limitations were often responsible for some of the film’s most creative moments. For instance, the filmmakers conceived of a camera effect that simulates the effect of a rapidly “whooshing” spirit accelerating toward the cabin that still works to this day—and which would become a hallmark of the series.

And while these small hints of horror help raise tension, it does not take long for these supernatural spirits to turn truly mean and nasty. In the series’ most infamous moments, Cheryl chases a menacing spirit into the surrounding woods, where a tree paralyzes, attacks, then rapes her. As ridiculous as such an idea sounds in print, the execution of the scene leaves the audience in genuine discomfort—as the visualization of this metaphorical horror of rape situates the audience squarely within the position of being a woman under the control of a cruel and relentless entity beyond her power to overcome.

Although the rules remain a bit fuzzy throughout the series as to who becomes infected by the deadites, when, why, etc., the chaotic nature of not having a clearly defined mythology also allows for a unique sense of surprise to be a weapon always within the filmmakers’ grasp—one to be deployed quite often. For following Cheryl’s attack, she becomes the first full-fledged deadite to appear—revealing a gruesomely deformed face, eerie voice, and supernatural powers—though the group manages to lock and chain her in the cellar, where she serves as another element of suspense just outside the edge of frame.

For a film with this budget, the effects are beyond commendable. They offer not just a repeat of the Romero zombies, nor a cheap imitation of Reagan from The Exorcist, but a very peculiar visual presentation of these Evil Dead. Raimi’s decision to continually employ POV shots from beneath the cellar works as an especially creative effect—one that would become a favorite choice of the filmmaker throughout the rest of his career.

A number of other noteworthy moments occur within this first film. The possession of Ash’s girlfriend—Shelly—stand out as particular highlight, along with the many, many ways the filmmakers figure for buckets of blood, gore, and other gross-out moments to proliferate on-screen. But more than even these admirable moments of inventive craft put forth by the young filmmakers, it’s the specific tone of this first film that demands particular attention.

There’s a very fine line between horror and comic absurdity in which this film—and much of Raimi’s filmography—thrives. While the second veers more definitely toward a horror/comedy, and the third would inhabit a singular genre somewhere between fantasy, horror, and comedy—the first wears a very clear coat of horror, though elements of both the comedic and the absurd still find ways to sneak through the cracks.

Moreover, the first film can be classified most definitely within the horror genre for an atmosphere of dread that hangs over the majority of the running time. There are slow-building sequences meant to evoke a clear sense of terror and imminent doom that is absent from later sequels. In doing so, the film retains an inimitable tone that allows this distinct genre quality to remain evident to this day, despite the deluge of imitators that have followed in its wake. Moreover, this unique quality is mostly manifested through the series’ main character:

Ash.

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While instances like Cheryl’s rape and her subsequent imprisonment through the cellar (along with the famous “What’s wrong with her eyes” line) transmit the feeling of unnerving supernatural horror at the story’s premise, the filmmakers are also able to recognizable the similar, absurd nature of the supernatural. Bruce Campbell’s character of Ash serves as perhaps the best vehicle for this idea. While other characters (and any rational human being placed into these gruesome circumstances) would no doubt react with some form of shock or adrenaline-filled survival instincts, Ash reacts with an attitude of someone seemingly born with the destiny of killing Deadites (an idea that would be conceived literally in later sequels). Despite seeing his sister, his girlfriend, and his friend undergo these monstrous perversities from the dead, Ash appears to almost revel—and thrive—within these circumstances.

In doing so, he transfers some of this glee to the audience. What begins as the slow stalking of five friends within an isolated cabin transforms into something closer to a carnival show—though one that still retains an atmosphere of dread. While this veil of dread that hangs over much of the first film would be considerably reduced in the sequels, the original film remains so inimitable and relevant for being able to so expertly straddle within this distinct territory.

Still, this is not a criticism of the later films—just an observation of the stark differences that separate each entry. For when the filmmakers returned for the sequel in Evil Dead II, they opted not to return to that same realm which they had successfully conquered in the original. Instead, the filmmakers retained the most recognizable elements and moved in favor of focusing on an absurdist comedy with horror elements, rather than a horror with elements of absurd—as seen in the original.

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Again, Ash serves as perhaps the best embodiment of the film’s tone. From the start, the sequel abandons the atmosphere of dread that crept over the first film, and instead, it chooses to embrace a tone closer to the slapstick of The Three Stooges somehow mixed with those horror elements introduced in its predecessor. Ash’s initial fight with his Deadite-girlfriend, his battle against his own hand that results in his chopping off the appendage then replacing it with a chainsaw, the Looney Toones-like appearance of the bridge that cuts off the cabin from the mainland—all representative of the adoration for absurdist comedy roots that the sequel so warmly embraces.

In some ways, the film may represent an aspect of Raimi that the rest of his filmography has yet to find compare. A film that manages to merge all his genre obsessions: horror, slapstick, excellent sense of rapid-pace editing, and larger-than-life storytelling that are all so idealized within this sequel. Whether one prefers that atmosphere of dread in the original, or this gleeful amalgamation of comedy and horror that so defines the sequel, Raimi’s command of craft and clear ability to modulate both genre and tone in service of his vision remain without debate.

And yet, despite these successes in both genre arenas, the filmmakers shifted for another—much, much more radical shift in tone—with the series’ third entry: Army of Darkness. With the conclusion of Evil Dead II having exiled Ash through a time portal and into the medieval past, the film now adopts a tone that retains some of the tongue-in-cheek/slapstick comedy of the second, the recognizable horror elements of the first, and fully embraces an entirely new realm for these former hallmarks to play: Fantasy.

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Outside the most surface-level horror qualities (skeletons, gore, the Necronomicon, blood, etc.)—the atmospheric horror of dread that so saturated the first film and still seeped itself into the sequel—that horror has been overhauled in favor of a more fantastic arena for Ash’s continual battle with the Evil Dead. Again, this is not necessarily a criticism, as a point of comparison for the series’ continual genre expansion.

Instead, Army of Darkness maneuvers its comedic touchstones into some of the series’ most iconic one-liners, while also allowing the slowly evolving action hero of Ash to fulfill his status in the most literal way. Ash’s fights against his alter-ego—Evil Ash—with his shotgun and chainsaw as weapons against an army of skeletons—plays out with all the fun and adventure of a Frank Frazetta painting brought to life then filtered through Raimi’s imagination. Campbell, as well, has been afforded his first true vehicle to shine as a charismatic action star (even more so than II which still had bits of an ensemble) and both delivers beyond expectations while also helping carry some of the film’s weaker moments. His tongue-in-cheek confrontations with the medieval knights, his methods of crowd control through the demonstration of his boomstick, and his refusal to ever correctly recalls the right words to the Necronomicon all play to hilarious effect.

Finally, after more than a twenty-year-lapse, the franchise found itself resurrected in a remake that dropped the “the” and simply presented itself as Evil Dead. With Raimi on board as a producer rather than as a director for the first time in franchise history, the remake returns to the horror roots of the series’ past. However, the remake is a curious beast. On the one hand, it’s admirable that they committed to telling their own premise—of helping a young woman named Mia go cold turkey and isolating her in the cabin in the woods to do so. With the genre trope of teenagers merely retreating to an isolated cabin for a vacation being so worn out and spoofed in the decades since the original’s debut, this interesting spin works as an intriguing twist on a now-worn-out premise.

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Moreover, in terms of genre, newcomer Fede Alvarez refuses to hold back in delivering a brutal, explicitly gory version of the Evil Dead into this reinvention. The remake retains the series’ hallmarks—sometimes to clunky effect—such as the Necronomicon, the chainsaw, a possessed hand, trapping someone in the cellar—and though some of these franchise staples are able to be organically weaved into this new premise, there are some moments that feel like awkward fan-servicing.

Still, following the original and its sequel, this remake would probably rank just above Army of Darkness. The gory horror of this go-around can be effective at times—there are some truly squirm-inducing moments that viewers are unlike to forget. Although some ideas like the supernatural witch of the cold opening or merging the Mia character into both the Ash/Cheryl role are interesting, these updates never explore the full potential of their concepts or figure out a way to seamlessly merge their mythology with that of the original. Though the cold-turkey-drug-addiction idea is an intriguing one, this too feels like wasted potential in the race to service all the iconic scenes of the series’ past.

In terms of tone and genre, however, there are two absences that are most responsible for the biggest differences between the remake and its original. The first lies in the choice to pursue a type of horror more focused on the shock of gore than the atmospheric horror found in the first. Due to both the budget and the decision to pursue a mood of terror, The Evil Dead offers a type of horror than leans more toward one of disturbing the viewer than one of pure shock value. Both Cheryl’s rape and locking her in the cellar—continuing to taunt from beneath with her unnerving voice—serving as perhaps the best examples of this.

In the remake, the scares lean much heavier on the shock and vividness of the gore, rather than an imbuing a sense of atmosphere. Many of the sequences are executed without a sense of escalation; instead, the gore just tends to “happen” before the narrative transitions to the next sequence. This is not necessarily a criticism, as the filmmakers are committed to executing their gory take on the series and succeed in this effort—as the gore is truly commendable and capable of creating some of the best contributions in this specific regard to the horror genre for the post-2000 period.

The second most obvious and noteworthy differences lies in the absence of Ash. Knowing that the series’ icon only exists when embodied by Campbell, the filmmakers were wise to reroute the story in the form of a new character: Mia. Again, her twist on the tale as a drug addict attempting to go clean is interesting, and the decision to anchor her character at the forefront works for the most part—especially in regard to the ending. The cost of losing Campbell’s Ash, however, results in arguably the most crucial ingredient for translating the specific tone of the series to the audience.

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As mentioned, Ash’s reactions to the supernatural horrors around him are responsible for the blend of true horror and absurd comedy that is so emblematic of the series. With Mia’s possession, the tone turns into one of a more typical horror film. Again, though the remake works well for the most part—and has some spectacular gore effects that deserve praise—it’s the loss of this quality of tone that remains the most significant difference between the remake and the work of Raimi.

For although those aspects of terror found in most horror films are found within Evil Dead—e.g. teenagers in the woods picked off one-by-one, gross-out moments of gore—Bruce Campbell’s Ash character stands as the iconic element that delineates between the weird mix of horror and gleeful absurdity that separate The Evil Dead from more typical horror films. Indeed, Ash’s role in each film helps orient the viewer into the specific tone found in each: whether it’s the more atmospheric horror of the first, the mix of slapstick/absurdist comedy horror in the second, or the action-hero in a world of fantasy found in the third—Ash’s character has evolved into the ultimate icon for defining each entry.

While the remake works effectively, and serves as an interesting exercise in gaining insight into how the series functions, Ash’s involvement seems more integral to the series’ future than that of the Deadites or the other more recognizable horror elements that have been imitated by other films since the original’s debut. Still, besides it’s iconic character, what seems to separate this series and allowed its continued interest over the decades for fans both old and new, can be found in its choice of continued genre expansion.

Each entry refuses to retreat into delivering something that has been seen previously, and whether it succeeds as successfully or not, the decision to always push the series toward new genre territories should be celebrated and applauded. Additionally, with the series now having been translated into a variety of mediums—from a musical, to comic books, video games, and a new TV series on the way—audience interest in all-things Evil Dead remains as relevant as ever with no signs of decline. One hopes that those responsible will continue the legacy of delivering the most recognizable elements that audiences love while also honoring the tradition of pushing the series toward new genre grounds that has come to be the most defining features found in the bizarre series that is The Evil Dead.

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Zodiac: A Distinctive Take on The True Crime Thriller Genre

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Zodiac could not have more storytelling disadvantages working against it. This is a narrative centered around the brutal murders committed by a serial killer over a span of many years, in a number of different locations, who was not only never arrested but whose identity was declared unsolved, and whose most determined investigator proved to be a cartoonist.

Yet, in spite of these potential storytelling obstacles, Zodiac succeeds beyond compare: a meditative movie in the true crime genre that crafts a compelling character study with all the suspense, intrigue, and horror of its genre siblings that never sacrifices the tone or trajectory of its climax in favor of succumbing to those conventions that have sought to define the genre. There are no red herrings, though there are potential suspects who seem the most likely. There is no final arrest that allows for the main character’s validation, though the evidence does lead to a likely suspect and sense of resolution. Loose ends are not tied up. At one point, the case goes cold. And still, Zodiac refuses to bend in offering easy narrative choices. Instead, the narrative transforms the film into one that takes the painstaking time to map out geography, to examine every piece of evidence, to follow false trails, to commit itself toward rightful prosecution—and concludes as an especially unique and rewarding experience as a result.

In an exceptionally well-crafted and memorable opening, the film opens on July 4th 1969. Fincher and cinematographer Harris Savides imbue this introduction with an outstanding sense of atmosphere that saturates every element of the introductory scene with a sense of teenage suburbia—from fireworks flashing across the sky, to two teenagers uncomfortably shifting in a car, to a palpable sense of nervousness found within an isolated lover’s lane—the filmmakers instantly paint a specific portrait of this point in American history. However, the tension-filled arrival of the Zodiac Killer and his brutal attempted murder of both kids instantly shatters any preconceived notion that this film will follow the typical track taken by most true crime thrillers.

Transitioning to a month later, a letter arrives at the offices of The San Francisco Chronicle from this violent killer. Though journalist Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) and the other editors begin their immediate pursuit of the cracking the killer’s code, cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) seizes upon the cipher with an almost alarming sense of interest. Though he admits to “liking puzzles”, he snatches upon the opportunity to ingratiate himself into the case at large—which he will continue to do over the ensuing years.

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Not long after, the Zodiac’s second cinematic murder befalls a couple enjoying an afternoon picnic near Napa. There are few scenes in the history of horror or crime movies that command a sense of arresting suspense and dread as powerfully as this chilling scene. Calling to mind something along the lines of Haneke’s masterpiece that is the original Funny Games, Fincher allows the terror of the scene to slowly escalate through a sense of real-time that refuses to let the audience off the hook.

And though the actual time frame of the scene is relatively short, the Zodiac’s menacing presence (despite his goofy appearance of actually being a fat, middle-aged man wearing an executioner’s mask and a black bib with a homemade Zodiac sign) the scene’s stillness evokes an authentic feeling of fear. When the Zodiac stabs the couple to death, the brutal murder being portrayed invokes a startling reality that few true crime films are willing to accurately execute upon the screen. The Zodiac continually stabs the victims, unphased by their blood-curling shrieks, and the audience must watch as paralyzed witnesses to this horrendous act.

Nonetheless, the case’s most catalytic murder arrives only two weeks later when the Zodiac murders an unsuspecting cab driver by gunshot. This third crime causes Detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) to arrive upon this crime scene that will ultimately compose the remainder of his career as a detective. Screenwriter James Vanderbilt uses the clever technique of marking the years that will pass between these two detectives by always having Toschi greet his partner with a “Happy Birthday”—a simple dialogue exchange that reminds the audience how many years will eventually go by with the the identity of the Zodiac still unsolved.

Though Toschi became quite famous by detective standards, the screenwriters flesh him out with quirks and distinctive character attributes that help humanize him within a version of reality far removed from the alpha-masculine detective and model for Detective “Dirty” Harry Callahan that ultimately cemented his legacy. Instead, this Toschi acts as a determined detective insistent on solving the case through hard evidence and clues, despite numerous bureaucratic obstacles, and who likes wearing his bow ties and chewing his animal crackers. The film also successfully offers a version of the detective character that is not the cynical nihilist, nor the career-obsessed investigator that often the populates the genre—but somewhere in between. All of these qualities, of course, materialized through Ruffalo’s quiet, nuanced performance.

The biggest break in the case arrives in suspect Arthur Leigh Allen. Following a sprawling investigation and extensive cooperation between the various California counties, Toschi and his fellow investigators track down Leigh Allen based on an admission from an old roommate who remembered Allen mentioning phrases that mirrored those of the Zodiac. The ensuing scene delivers an extraordinary cat-and-mouse dance between the detectives and their primary suspect filled with tension and suspense, though completely conveyed through dialogue and an excellent sense of pacing found through the editing. Leigh Allen’s eventual reveal of a wristwatch branded in advertisements as The Zodiac—along with its trademark icon—seems to seal the deal for the investigators.

However, this seemingly obvious solution does not come easy—as one may suspect from the true crime genre. Handwriting experts remain adamant that Allen could not have written the Zodiac letters, and despite Toschi’s insistence that his ambidexterity may be to blame, many of the normal routes prove impossible for progress. Nonetheless, they are able to eventually find a warrant and raid Allen’s trailer in a scene filled with all the hallmarks of a David Fincher movie. Various rodents populate the small trailer, and dark shadows swirling over dusty air confine the characters, while a palpable tension surrounds every second of this suspenseful raid. Still, these determined detectives are unable to find that single piece of evidence that will allow for Allen’s arrest through legal means.

Moreover, the case begins to take on a life of its own within the public sphere in a previously unprecedented way for the San Francisco PD. The filmmakers use these montages to both comedic and informative effect, as nearly every citizen in the city confesses the name of someone that they think may be the Zodiac Killer (at one point, the list of suspects numbers over five hundred). Worse, the media and entertainment industry begin devouring the Zodiac case for their own profit-driven purposes—most famously through its glamorization of the investigation in the form of the Don Siegel/ Clint Eastwood film Dirty Harry. Graysmith even happens to introduce himself to Toschi in the aftermath of the screening, where the latter can hardly contain his visible disgust for the public’s appetite of vindictive violence over any version of justice provided through the American legal system.

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Meanwhile, those characters from The Chronicle continue their own parallel developments of the case. Graysmith has slowly entrenched himself with Avery for involvement in the case, though the latter has devolved into deeper spirals of alcohol addiction. But it’s Graysmith’s relentless fascination that will largely drive the latter third of the narrative. His first date with his future wife, Melanie (Chloe Sevigny), proves to be an accurate model for how much of their married life may prove to be—with Graysmith lost in the mazes of his mind cultivated around the case, while Melanie shoulders the familial responsibilities despite her best interests. And at the intersection of these events…

The case goes cold.

Flashing forward a few years, however, Graysmith remains as obsessed as ever. Though more kids have arrived, and his wife appears less supportive than her earlier efforts appeared, Graysmith remains possessed with cracking the currently cold case. He hunts down a much-older Toschi, who has divorced himself from the obsession that drives Graysmith’s being. And while he’s unable to provide Graysmith with any official police evidence due to its status as a still-active and open case, he does tacitly provide contact names with the other investigators involved from years back. As Graysmith’s determination to solve the case under the guise of writing a book begins to collapse more towards mental illness than actual pursuit of justice—to the point that he is forcing his own kids to help in the investigation and an anonymous caller has begun calling his family in the middle of the night—his wife finally breaks and asks for his motivation in solving this crime, to which Graysmith responds:

“I…I need to know who he is…I need to stand there, I need to look him in the eye and I need to know that it’s him.”

As Graysmith’s confession reveals, he needs to find the killer for his own personal resolution of this case that has taken such a toll on his personal identity more than anything else. Now separated from his family, Graysmith remains as determined as ever. His search brings him into contact with the various officers in the various counties previously encountered in the first half—bringing these two parallel storylines full circle—and also allowing Robert to find the man that he slowly realizes may be the Zodiac himself. Despite ultimately being a bit of a red herring, Fincher creates a world of suspense out of this simple scene of Graysmith being invited to this elder man’s home and subsequent investigation of his basement. (At this point, paying off an earlier piece of evidence about basements in California to excellent, tension-filled effect.)

And yet, after a small admission from an inmate that was previously at a party attended by Leigh Allen, Graysmith manages to collate all the evidence to prove that Leigh Allen may be the Zodiac killer. Though Toschi seems impressed, he also cautions Graysmith against his zealous attitude in convicting Leigh with mostly circumstantial evidence:

Graysmith: Just because you can’t prove it doesn’t mean it’s not true

Toschi: Easy Dirty Harry…Finish the book.

And, in an unusual climax that could only occur in a film constructed with as calculated care in its character set-ups as Zodiac, Graysmith tracks down his suspect to a hardware store in Vallejo. Here, he pays off the aforementioned quote to his wife, that he needs to: “stand there, I need to look him in the eye and I need to know that it’s him.”

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Graysmith does exactly that. He and Leigh Allen exchange a tacit confrontation of the eyes that ultimately serves as some form of closure for Graysmith in lieu of actual legal persecution. Again, it bears repeating as an example of the commendable craftsmanship on display within this sprawling narrative that the filmmakers made an almost non-verbal stare down between these two men in a random hardware store in Vallejo—one without any cheesy payoff lines, shootouts, or slow-motion gunfights—to serve as a satisfying resolution to a nearly three-hour-long case that still never offers any kind of definitive answer for its opening incident.

Still, the filmmakers include one more scene to bring about an even greater sense of closure by re-introducing the teenager from that opening Zodiac murder as an older man. He, too, selects a picture of Leigh Allen as the man that shot him on that 4th of July Night—solidifying this theory  of Leigh Allen as the killer—as the somber and haunting tune of Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” sweeps over the soundtrack. A series of title cards shed further light on the final facts of the case and relevant details concerning the characters’ fates—most notably, the fact that Leigh Allen died of a heart attack before he could be brought in for further questions in the aftermath of Graysmith’s investigations.

This is a crime thriller that—like most of its peers—begins with a central mystery, yet dramatically distinguishes itself by also ending with this central mystery. Yes, there are clues and pieces of hard evidence that certainly indicate one suspect more than the others—but this still ambiguous answer refuses to bend facts in order to satisfy either the audience or its determined protagonists. More impressively, however, the filmmakers still manage to imbue a feeling of resolution—despite the actualities of the plot—in order to create an entertaining and though-provoking film that defies the conventional trappings of its genre. In doing so, the filmmakers produced a provocative and compelling film that proved possible how to deliver a narrative that delivers emotionally satisfying results despite those normal cinematic techniques driven by plot.

Moreover, the filmmakers managed to make a film that considered the ripple effect of the crime upon its characters’ nature, more than facts of the crime which serve as perfunctory plot bridges and for deeper explorations into the characters’ psyche . How this crime and its ensuing label as an unsolved crime could warp a good-natured cartoonist into a man capable of tearing apart his family at the cost of finding self-satisfying answers. And how an audience can grow more fascinated by the obsession of its main characters, than by their initial fascination in those horrendous crimes committed by the serial killer at their forefront. In avoiding those normal trappings of the genre, and delivering a narrative that prevails where so many movies would have folded under the weight of normal narratives routes, Zodiac delivers an anomalous viewing experience for the true crime genre. One that seeks to redefine the capabilities of a case rooted in an unsolved reality to find a fresh approach to character catharsis—and successfully succeeds in doing so—allowing for a distinctive and praiseworthy take on the true crime thriller.

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The End of the West: Once Upon A Time in the West, The Great Silence, and The Two Sergios of the Spaghetti Western

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Within the wide spectrum of the Western subgenre that is the Spaghetti Western, the names of two directors—Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci—tower over their contemporaries for a filmography largely responsible for reshaping much of the genre’s modern iconography; while also, and perhaps more importantly, of imbuing the genre with ideas of moral ambiguity and thought-provoking character ethics that clashed against those previous conventions of their American genre peers.

Unsurprisingly, the best demonstration of the directors’ distinct differences, and the profound creative prowess possessed by both Sergios, can be found in those two films that have come to be regarded as their masterpieces and which were released in that same year of 1968. Namely, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West and Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence. Though the two films share the bond of belonging to the Spaghetti Western, the two films take a wildly different approach toward their conception of the West and those staples of the genre that they seek to either elevate or deconstruct. In this sense, Once Upon a Time in the West serves as the model of the “ultimate” Western, while The Great Silence can be viewed, comparatively, as an “anti-Western”.

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Having now innovated and elevated the Spaghetti Western genre to global heights through his Dollars Trilogy with leading man Clint Eastwood, Sergio Leone had intended the focus of his next film to transition toward a different genre (the gangster film) in what would eventually evolve into Once Upon a Time in America. However, due to the popularity of the Western and attracted by the chance to work with his favorite actor—Henry Fonda—Leone once again returned to the roots of his success. Working with screenwriters (and famed filmmakers of their own right) Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, the trio worked together to absorb all the familiar tropes, plots, and stock character types normally found in the typical take on the genre (The Searchers, Comancheros, High Noon) then synthesized these various tropes and traditions to compose something that reflected and honored their predecessors—but one that also sought to challenge their core and seek some sense of significance in the pursuit of the genre’s conclusion.

Once Upon A Time in the West chronicles two storylines running parallel to one another and intersecting through the film’s villain—Frank. The first story concerns the quest of the “protagonist”—Harmonica (Charles Bronson)—a mostly mute gunslinger who instead plays his eponymous harmonica when confronted by questions. Harmonica has arrived in the fictional town of Sweetwater in the hopes of hunting down the aforementioned Frank and seeking vengeance—for reasons that will be slowly revealed.

The second storyline concerns the construction of a railroad upon the McBain Property. This tract of land becomes the source of central conflict after the McBain Family dies in a massacre under Frank’s gun, who has been hired by the railroad tycoon Morton—the latter hoping that the removal of the McBain Family will ensure his plans for the railroad will continue unobstructed. However, it is revealed that the McBain patriarch took a wife in secret just before this massacre—engaging himself to a former prostitute now named Jill McBain(Claudia Cardinale), who has now arrived an inheritor to this territory sought after by many mean men. However, she finds help in the form of Cheyenne (Jason Robards)—a bandit leader framed by Frank but who has come to reclaim his name. This unlikely trio—the widow McBain, bandit Cheyenne, and mysterious gunman Harmonica—eventually find their individual pursuits overlapping in order to stop the tycoon and Frank from continuing their path of destruction.

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From almost the first frame, the film makes clear its intentions to both honor and subvert those traditions of its genre. The remarkable, nearly ten-minute-long opening set-piece of three men awaiting Harmonica plays clear tribute to that same scene in High Noon, although this features the trio of villains awaiting the protagonist, rather than the villain. Moreover, Leone plays the scene in something akin to real-time, utilizing the creaking of the windmill, the buzz of a fly, and the whines of wood to create an atmosphere of dread to impressive and suspenseful effect. This opening scene announces in clear, cinematic flair as to the heightened level of filmmaking on display and immediately demands that the audience prepare for this epic story about to unfold over the forthcoming three hours.

Leone quickly transitions to another set-piece—the massacre of the McBain Family—where again, the filmmaker takes full advantage of any possible diegetic noises (the chirping cicadas, flapping of birds, rustling bushes) to weave a tense, powerful scene. Moreover, the arrival of Frank and his killing of the child again announces—now in a one-two punch following this opening scene—how Leone intends to recall those memorable conventions of the genre (casting Fonda, the family farm) while also distilling a more uncomfortable, solemn feeling of morality that will entangle much of the remaining narrative.

While the Dollars Trilogy featured a more heightened level of reality, one much more firmly rooted in a sense of adventure that employed Western iconography and conventions to sensationalize these effects, Once Upon a Time in the West saturates itself with this somber feeling throughout its themes, characters, and story. (However, this is not to say the film is humorless. It features some of the best one-liners in Leone’s filmography: “How can you trust a man who wears both a belt and suspenders? The man can’t even trust his own pants.”) Still, Once Upon a Time in the West instead represents a film that embraces its heritage while also contemplating the conclusion of its demise.

Working with longtime collaborator Ennio Morricone, Leone replaces the mood of thrill and excitement that so preoccupied the Dollars Trilogy with a feeling closer to operatic tragedy. Though Leone has always had a penchant for reframing the Western in this these grander aesthetics, Once Upon A Time in the West represents the acme of his filmmaking purview—one that uses this marriage of his theatrically trained eye, his knowledge of film history, and his goal of employing both in the service of creating his concluding Western masterpiece. Though the various, breathtaking set-pieces are indicative of this accomplishment—from the aforementioned McBain Family Massacre, to the opening shootout, to the sweeping view of Sweetwater on display with the arrival of Jill McBain—the final confrontation between Harmonica and Frank may serve as the ultimate manifestation of Leone’s command of cinematic craft.

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In creating Frank as a villain far more morally complicated and with far greater depth than with any seen in the Dollars Trilogy (or most American Westerns), Leone complicates the traditional trajectory of the showdown with the protagonist. While Harmonica’s backstory has been slowly dolled out in tantalizing, blurred glimpses that hint toward some terrible tragedy of his past, the climax of their long-awaited battle plays out with far greater pathos than those former (still masterful) shootouts of Leone’s filmography.

Starting with Frank, Leone introduces this man as an undisguisable, immoral villain. After the tension-filled opening of the McBain Massacre, the icy-blue eyed Henry Fonda slowly reveals himself with the smoking gun and aimed at the youngest McBain boy—whom he murders in cold blood after one of his fellow brigands dares utter his name. Despite this cold opening, Frank is next introduced as a hired gun to the railroad tycoon—a crippled businessman named Morton. While Frank clearly embodies the role of the black-hatted gunman from the opening, Morton also represents a new form of evil, one much more insidious, to soon haunt the American plains with a different form of dominance. In this matter, Morton reminds Frank:

“There are many things you’ll never understand [he pulls out a wad of cash to explain]…This is one of them. You see, Frank, there are many kind of weapons. And the only one that can stop that [the gun] is this.”

This simple truth from a crippled man appears to haunt this former figure of evil as to his remaining place and identity in the changing American frontier—seeming to become a point of preoccupation for him in trying to understand how to sway power in his favor when a fast finger on the trigger was formerly applied as the most obvious answer.

Later, Morton manages to bribe Frank’s henchman into killing him—a move that is countered by Harmonica’s helping hunt down his traitorous companions. Despite Jill’s protests that Harmonica “saved his life”, Harmonica clarifies the difference between “saving” a man’s life—and not allowing others to take Frank’s death from him. At this point in the film, the two gunmen have engaged in a coy dance with one another. Whenever Frank questions Harmonica’s identity, the latter will only answer in the name of dead men—men whose lives have been cut short by Frank’s gun. And after Harmonica’s help in avoiding a bullet from those former fellows bribed away from him, Frank knows that the time has finally come to confront his foe. Although Harmonica often replies in smartass, one-word answers, his dialogue with Frank just before their final confrontation could not better sum up these themes that have been brimming beneath the narrative’s surface:

Frank: Morton once told me I could never be like him. Now I understand why. Wouldn’t have bothered him, knowing you were around somewhere alive.

Harmonica: So, you found out you’re not a businessman after all.

Frank: Just a man.

Harmonica: …An Ancient Race…Other Mortons will be along, and they’ll kill it off.

Frank: The future don’t matter to us. Nothing matters now—not the land, not the money, not the woman…I came here to see you. ‘Cause I know that now, you’ll tell me what you’re after.

Harmonica: … Only at the point of dyin’.

As Harmonica has pointed out, though on opposite sides of the gun, he and Frank both belong to a different race than the type that men like Morton that will soon invade and dominate the frontier. This is a West owned by the men of money and means of power that exist outside the violence of a gun. Moreover, though this showdown works on a scale just as operatic and beautifully composed as that breathtaking final standoff in the graveyard found at the climax of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Leone also crosscuts this standoff with the final flashback that answers for Harmonica’s past.

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Here, in a harrowing, yet gorgeously shot landscape, Frank is found to be the man responsible for killing Harmonica’s brother—this murder achieved by forcing Harmonica to balance his brother’s feet beneath a noose affixed to the town’s bell. To solidify this humiliation, Frank forces the eponymous harmonica into the character’s mouth—forcing the older brother to push himself off from his shoulder’s rather than endure this sordid murder and allow Frank the satisfaction. After drawing out this agonizing, yet spectacular climax to its breaking point, the shootout finally commences and ends just that next second later—with Harmonica finally returning the favor and harmonica into Frank’s own mouth.

Amidst this shootout, a dying Cheyenne has been dialoguing with Jill McBain in regards to the commencement of the railroad and of men like Harmonica and Frank—noting that those type of men: “have something inside…something to do with death.” And indeed, moments after this showdown with Frank, Harmonica arrives—ready to leave Sweetwater, and soon to be joined by Cheyenne. As the two ride out, Cheyenne’s clandestine bullet wound proves to be fatal—leaving Harmonica to hear this famed bandit of the frontier groaning in pain and begging to be left alone before he keels over to die amidst the dust and dirt.

While the Dollars Trilogy, and so many other Westerns of note, almost unanimously end on a note of triumph for these characters, this conclusion—again echoing in tone, style, and visuals to those films of the genre’s past—instead modulates these archetypes to elicit a more melancholic culmination toward the termination of these men of the West who have met their final fates—either to die with their face in the dirt or to flee alone onto the next town as a man with no name or place to call home. Despite the odious actions committed by Frank—the film opens with him gunning down an innocent child after massacring the boy’s family—this is not a triumphant shootout as seen in most Westerns. Instead, it’s the fulfillment of Harmonica’s revenge and the completion of a time when him and Cheyenne could lead their lives with trigger-quick fingers. Rather, this shootout signifies the end of these archetypes.

While Once Upon A Time in The West manages to simultaneously honor these ideals of the West while also considering the despair of these characters and the demise of their era to, in effect, create the “ultimate” Western, Sergio Corbucci—the second Sergio of the Spaghetti Westerns—also uses the time-honored traditions of the genre to create the paradigm of the “Anti-Western” as seen through The Great Silence.

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Whereas Once Upon A Time in the West synthesized and amalgamated all those conventions of the genre and unified them under one umbrella of an epic Spaghetti Western film to elicit those themes discussed above, The Great Silence turns toward the opposite direction. Corbucci takes every conceivable staple of the genre and opts for its total antipodal opposite to arrive at a similar destination of consideration upon the end of the West.

Released the same year of 1968, Corbucci’s The Great Silence takes place during a brutal, relentless winter within Snowhill, Utah 1898. These severe conditions have prompted the poor to rob: labeling them criminals in the process, and placing a bounty on their head as a result. Consequentially, the town has transformed into a haven for bounty hunters—mostly psychotic men who have coopted the job description as an outlet for their violent tendencies. The worst of which can be found in the film’s main villain—Loco (Klaus Kinski). However, hope arrives in the form of a mute gunslinger who has made it his mission to hunt down such bounty hunters—the eponymous Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant).

Despite this deceptively simple set-up, The Great Silence revels in the gray morass of law upon the Western frontier; specifically, the idea of punishing the unlawful and of the tricky line of empowering those with the means of such punishment in the name of upholding justice and those criminals who justify their darker impulses in the name of upholding justice.

Moreover, the harsh conditions of this burgeoning civilization help stress this idea of man attempting to impose his sense of righteousness against the barbaric and untamable instincts of human nature. And while Leone looks to the traditions of the genre to highlight these ideas, Corbucci instead chooses to buck these traditions and favors the more unconventional approach. While the immediate instinct of almost every Western is to imagine a hot, arid desert across a dirty terrain populated by cacti across sere topography, Corbucci instead envisions an unbearably cold and desolate winter blizzard to saturate the atmosphere of his Western setting. While the unbearable heat of the desert certainly conjures ideas of man’s attempt to dominant a savage terrain, the frigid and bleak conditions of the unyielding winter snow serves a similar purpose of highlighting man’s insignificance in comparison to the scope of his surrounding nature.

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Next, Corbucci subverts the archetype of the quiet gunslinger as found through the main character of Silence. While Leone’s men with no name—from Eastwood in the Dollars Trilogy to Harmonica in Once Upon A Time in the West—were all heroes of few words who expressed themselves more with a sharp stare than through any long speeches, Corbucci takes this character archetype to its very extreme: by literally making him a mute. While Leone’s heroes could be almost comically reticent to talk, Silence is not only literally a man made silent from having his vocal chords slashed as a boy, but in literally being incapable of making sounds—as seen when a bandit burns his hand, and he tries to scream but no sound can be produced.

In stark and ironic contrast, however, Corbucci pits this mute gunslinger against the loquacious lunatic named Loco played by Klaus Kinski. Within the severe conditions that have forced the poor to rob for food, and thereby placing a bounty on their head for the crime, Loco has adopted the bounty hunter profession as both a livelihood and ostensibly as a creative outlet for his psychotic tendencies. He has read into the “dead or alive” policy quite literally and often opts for the former. However, after hunting down the husband of a woman named Pauline, the widow calls upon the help of the legendary Silence—famous along the frontier for his penchant of avenging against bounty hunters. Still, Loco is well aware of Silence’s modus operandi. In order to justifiable kill these bounty hunters, Silence will taunt the men into drawing their guns then shoot them before witnesses—allowing him to legally claim self-defense in killing them.

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While most Westerns use these ideas of bounty hunters and the burgeoning laws of civilization as an excuse for black-and-white tales of morality, a protagonist clearly on the side of the law fighting against those on its opposite, The Great Silence instead uses the juxtaposition of these two characters to highlight the very murky line that separates these two agencies of good and evil.

For in actuality, there is not much difference between these two men who both make a profession out of killing people. Both exploit the terminology of the law in order to fulfill those impulses of their personal ego. While Loco’s are geared toward greed and an excuse to execute those that bother him (namely blacks, as evidenced by his racist remarks after killing Pauline’s husband), Silence’s flashback demonstrates that his hatred for bounty hunters comes from the massacre of his family (and his vocal chords)—effectively demonstrating that Silence works more out of a quest for vengeance than one of objective justice.

Additionally, Silence’s methods of drawing bounty hunters into a fight and then exploiting execution via self-defense again highlights that Silence hardly deserves a more honorable status for finding methods of working around the law to fulfill his blood sake than Loco. Corbucci cements this similarity between the two men of the gun by having both characters request the same services for their fees of a thousand dollars (Loco for his bounty; Silence’s charge to Pauline for killing Loco). Again, while in almost all manner of Westerns, one can find bounty hunters, sheriffs, and bandits with a number on their head for their crimes—The Great Silence truly separates itself by making a spectacle out of questioning the very gray morality lying just beneath these thin veneers of laws proposed by this developing town of the West.

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Another figure hoping to resolve these complicated moral and legal quandaries arrives in Sheriff Gideon Burnett (Frank Wolff). The Sheriff recognizes the false form of the legality currently being exploited by the town’s inhabitants, but with very little power in that these bounty killers are working within the codified boundaries of the law, the Sheriff finally appeals to the townsfolk and promises that if the bandits are just given food then they will be able to live in peace until amnesty arrives from the Governor—an amnesty that should effectively wipe out the cause of the bounty hunters. Nonetheless, after Loco becomes temporarily arrested, the two exchange an interesting dialogue in questioning the philosophy of the law:

Loco: You hate me because I kill bandits, but you do the same thing ‘cus you give ‘em to the hangman.

Sheriff: That’s different. The law has a right to kill.

Loco: Why?

Sheriff: Because when the law kills, it’s not murder: it’s punishment. The death of a bandit must serve as an example to other people who will not go on killing—

Loco: Killer—

Sheriff: Shut up!

Despite Loco’s attempts to bewilder the Sheriff through this logic of the law, the Sheriff maintains his resolve to bring peace between the bandits, the town, and ridding themselves of opportunistic bounty hunters. While transporting Loco to the larger jail, he promises the bandits that food will be made available to them in order to maintain a peace between both sides until the Governor declares Amnesty—a pact to which the bandits agree. During his trek across the snowy landscapes, however, Loco manages to outwit the Sheriff and leave him murdered—allowing for his return back to Snow Hill.

With the bandits believing that they are free from harm, Loco arrives with his fellow bounty hunters and holds them hostage at gunpoint within the local saloon to draw out Silence for a final showdown. This plan is proven to be a success: as Silence does indeed come out of hiding to confront Loco. What follow, however, turns out to be one of the most bleak and morbid endings in the history of the genre.

Upon arriving, Silence is unceremoniously shot down to die in the snow. When Paulina (now his lover) leaps to his side to comfort him in death, she is instantly killed, as well. Moments later, Loco and his gang then proceed to massacre the dozens of bandits in order to collect the bounties placed upon these poverty-stricken men, women, and children. As Loco leaves the saloon—alive and well and about to becoming much, much richer—the following text crawl materializes over the screen:

“The massacre of 1898, year of the Great Blizzard, finally brought forth fierce public condemnation of the bounty killers, who under the guise of false legality, made violent murder a profitable way of life. For many years, there was a clapboard sign at Snow Hill which carried this legend: ‘men’s boots can kick up the dust of this place for a thousand years, but nothing man can ever do will wipe out the blood stains of the poor folk who fell here.’”

While many Westerns certainly end on a note of deeply thematic, emotional catharsis or thought-provoking revelations concerning the era of the West, The Great Silence maintains the crown for the outright bleakest and most straightforward about its feelings toward these values. Although there is something to be said for how on-the-nose the film addresses these themes—especially vis-à-vis a text crawl—and especially in comparison to films that managed to weave these themes into the narrative without having to spell them out in such an explicit manner (Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, and as described at length above in Once Upon A Time In the West), The Great Silence still manages to elicit a truly devastating and memorable ending due to how profoundly unconventional Corbucci commits to his vision. Although the infamous “happy ending” was demanded (and is included on the DVD)—wherein Silence rises form the dead due to a bronze gauntlet (ripped straight from Fistful of Dollars) and the Sheriff incomprehensibly returns to support backup—one can easily see how hastily composed this scene was wrought—ensuring that Corbucci’s “unhappy” ending would endure.

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And endured the film has.

Over time, the legacy of both The Great Silence and Corbucci has slowly grown to be recognized as the much more bizarre, brutal, and mean version of the Western when compared against his contemporary Sergio Leone. Moreover, the intriguing and compelling morality tale at the dark heart of The Great Silence offers insightful commentary into the contentious seeds of American morality that laid the foundation for the burgeoning twentieth century of civilization in the West—and one that marked the end of more simple morality tales of good versus evil.

Instead, as similarly explored in Once Upon A Time in the West, the two Sergios use the conventions of the Spaghetti Westerns and their archetypes to navigate the more treacherous roads that lay ahead for America in the imminent death of the Western. While Sergio Leone filtered his own artistic influences into an amalgamation of all those staples of the genre that called forth their grander traditions in order to complicate the character identities of the villain with the black hat, the impotence of the gun for the future, and the demise of this era in order to create the paradigm of the “ultimate” Western that speaks to so much of the genre’s tissue to compose a masterpiece of a film, Sergio Corbucci takes a starkly different approach.

Though achieving a similar goal through the complication of traditional moral norms—specifically in regards to the law—by embedding much more ambiguous character archetypes, and by utilizing the setting of a snowstorm to underscore the scope of these men attempting to conquer civilization in the face of unconquerable forces, Corbucci paints a much more unusual yet similarly thought-provoking thesis in consideration of the decline of these men and this era.

In both cases, these two masters of the Spaghetti Western genre imbued their own specific sensibilities into the best films of a genre unto which—not unlike the lone gunman protagonists of their narratives—arrived as outsiders but left as men who produced an immeasurable impression not only upon the genre at hand but filmmaking at large…who contributed immersive, groundbreaking films toward a subgenre largely cultivated into their own…and who questioned the essence of that very genre toward which they had ultimately constructed their careers. As a result, though Corbucci would go on to create other commendable cracks at the genre (Companeros in particular), and as much as a masterpiece as Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly remains, there is something special about both of these films’ ability to render such a complicated and thought-provoking statement toward these themes of the genre as demonstrated by their remarkable narratives. A statement that speaks to issues of masculinity, human nature, genre conventions, and the future of America at large as seen through the genre of the Western.

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On The Vengeance Trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance)

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There is no single character motivation as clear or compelling as revenge. A character is wronged and seeks vengeance for what he perceives to be an injustice—an emotion that any audience member can recognize and understand. In his trilogy of films exploring the concept through three different, yet kindred premises with revenge at their core, director Chan-Wook Park weaves a compelling triptych that examines these themes of revenge, violence, and redemption—along with their consequences—in a profound, thought-provoking manner.

Starting with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, then the infamous Oldboy, and concluding with Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, each film shares a single protagonist on a relentless quest for revenge. Each of their journeys also includes creative and shocking set pieces fueled by their specific versions of vengeance, as each character successfully accomplishes their pursuit. And yet, throughout each, a curious feeling looms over the climax—a feeling that the satisfaction of revenge promised by the premise has also clashed against a new feeling of uneasiness cemented by the consequences of the character’s fate. And, ultimately, Park uses this compelling vehicle of the revenge to demonstrate how such a strong motivator can often be the most futile and unsatisfactory path to moral fulfillment.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

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The first film in the trilogy demonstrates this dichotomy of revenge through the two characters on either side of its agency—and the most blatant example of its futility for both parties. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance starts as the story of Ryu—a man both deaf and dumb—determined to save his sister’s life by buying a kidney from black market gangsters: a kidney that he hopes to purchase by kidnapping the daughter of a wealthy executive from the company that laid him off. Ryu’s reasons for revenge occupy the first half of the story. Besides these disabilities, he is also laid off from his grueling factory job when he is most in need of money. But despite these obvious reasons for revenge (which would suffice most storytellers), Park painstakingly displays the various ways that both Ryu and his anarchist girlfriend—Yeong-Mi—hope to avoid the conventional label of kidnappers and the negative connotations that accompany their actions: they entertain the victim, try to avoid any violence, hope to only ask for the money (which they justify as the victim not even needing due to his extravagant wealth), manipulate the truth of the situation to appear worse than they are actually treating her, and attempt to rationalize every line of logic that would make their reasons for revenge justifiable.

And, of course, everything goes wrong.

Ryu’s sister discovers the kidnapping plan and—feeling herself to be the cause of this abhorrent act—commits suicide. While burying his sister, Ryu becomes so hypnotized in the promise of burying his sibling in the spot where she asked—not to mention the fact that he is deaf—that the kidnapped Yu-Sun accidentally drowns in the surrounding river. Her father, Dong-jin, now becomes fueled for his own quest for revenge against Ryu and those responsible for the death of his daughter—shifting the narrative at almost exactly the midway point to trek this new track of revenge. While Ryu and his anarchist girlfriend attempted to justify their reasons for revenge, the death of his daughter leaves Don-jin in a state of near-suicidal plan of action. The father sees no other outlet for satisfying his bloodlust other than the murder of those who murdered his daughter.

Park’s more playful and ironic reversals of the revenge tale that populate the first half are given drastic, darker contrast in the latter half. Whereas Ryu and his girlfriend upheld a falsified version of their savagery, Dong-jin wastes no time employing every barbaric method at his disposable to avenge his daughter’s death. Specifically, and most memorably, he devises a makeshift electrical device upon Yeong (Ryu’s anarchist girlfriend)—for which he brutally tortures her. Though she warns him of her importance as part of an anarchist group, Dong-jin shrugs away any threats of violence that may come to him—again—demonstrating a man prepared to fulfill his revenge or die trying to achieve it.

Sympathy for mr. Vengeance 4Finally, after electrocuting Yeong to death, and after Ryu’s discovery of her corpse, the two men began a tense standoff waiting to murder the other. Ultimately, Dong-jin proves the victor after rigging his home with an electrical trap that knocks Ryu unconscious. Now hauling Ryu back to the lake that proved to be the site of his daughter’s death, the father forces Ryu to undergo that same punishment that engendered his daughter’s death. Though Dong-jin acknowledges that Ryu may be a good man, the father also explains that he has been left with no recourse but to kill him due to balance out the tragedy of his daughter’s death. This leads to the brutal, stomach-turning climax, where Dong-jin hacks off both of Ryu’s Achilles Tendons to induce his drowning.

Not much later, Dong-jin reappears from the site of the fateful lake—dragging bloodied body bags behind him: body bags which clearly contain Ryu’s dismembered corpse. However, the anarchist group of Ryu’s girlfriend suddenly appears. The group savagely stabs and kills Dong-jin—leaving him as dead as the disembodied corpse of Ryu not but a few feet ahead of him.

The final shot of the film—with Ryu’s bloodied body bags overlooking the lake of Dong-jin’s daughter’s death, coupled with Ryu’s sister buried just beyond, and Dong-jin himself lying stabbed just behind him—serves as a clear testament to the thesis of Park’s wild story at the heart of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. Despite the intentions of both parties, either to save his sister’s life, or to punish a criminal for the death of a young girl, both men and their loved ones lie dead as a result of their choice to pursue a path of revenge.

Oldboy

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Park’s follow up to Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance remains his most famous, evocative, and haunting of the trilogy in the form of 2003’s Oldboy. Perhaps the most intriguing premise of the three, Oldboy follows the quest for vengeance led by Oh Dae-su—a man imprisoned for fifteen years and suddenly released with the single motive of revenge on his mind. Undeniably the most cinematic and stylish of the three, Oldboy features a number of scenes that have cemented the film’s instant, iconic status. These include a scene of Oh Dae-su consuming a live octopus upon his release, and an extraordinary, single-take hallway fight scene that pits the protagonist with a hammer against a narrow corridor filled with fighters ready to stop him. While the initial set-up of Oh Dae-su being imprisoned for so long, framed for his wife’s murder and separated from his daughter for fifteen years without cause seems like the obvious premise, the more interesting and underlying question of his release proves to be the catalytic event for the narrative’s true examination of revenge for both Oh Dae-Su and his captor.

As Oh Dae-su seizes upon the few clues made available to him during his imprisonment to find those responsible, he also falls in love with the young woman Mi-do, who reciprocates his feelings of love and attraction. However, Oh Dae-su also begins to unravel the mystery of his imprisonment that imbues another layer of moral ambiguity. Oh Dae-su discovers that a man named Woo-jin is responsible for his fifteen-year-imprisonment. A man that once attended the same high school as Oh Dae-su, and a man to whom Oh Dae-su caught having an incestuous affair with his sister that he then retold to the entire school—causing feelings of shame for Woo-jin and his sister that ended up in the latter’s committing suicide. In the climactic confrontation between the two men, Woo-jin finally exposes the truth of his elaborate plan against Oh Dae-su. The recent attraction between him and Mi-do is revealed to be a calculated manipulation in order to bring the two together and fall in love—as Mi-do is actually Oh Dae-su’s daughter.

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For exposing his own incestuous affair, Woo-jin has dedicated his own plan of revenge toward replicating the experience upon Oh Dae-su—to catastrophic and horrifying results. Woo-jin offers Oh Dae-su the chance to kill him by offering the remote to a pacemaker in his heart. Nonetheless, when Oh Dae-su presses the button, Woo-jin offers a final mocking attack by revealing that the pacemaker remote is actually a remote to a speaker system—one that replays the audio of Oh Dae-su and Mi-do having sex. Having achieved his coup de grace, Woo-jin commits suicide with a bullet to the head. Cutting to some unknown time later, Oh Dae-su consults a hypnotist for help in ridding his memory of the entire affair. The final shot concludes on an ambiguous smile—one that allows the audience to arrive at their own meaning of whether or not the hypnotism was successful as Oh Dae-su walks away with Mi-do toward an unknown future.

The ambiguity of this ending, however, again underlines Park’s thesis that connects this trilogy from a thematic level. Both of these men have completed their revenge against the other, and one has killed himself, while the other walks away as a shell of a human being. Though Oh Dae-su’s journey—as a man who starts as a drunken imbecile missing his daughter’s birthday only to be transformed into a vehicle for revenge—serves as a compelling character for the audience to attach their sympathies, Park subverts expectations of the revenge-thriller by digging deep past those surface layer emotions evoked by revenge to demonstrate its uncertain purpose when brought to the extremes of its conclusion.

The many notable plot points responsible for these instantly-iconic scenes—from Oh Dae-su wish to eat something alive after his imprisonment, to his defeating a hallway of men with a knife stuck in his back, to cutting out his tongue and acting like a dog—are made so effective not for hollow shock value, but by virtue of the fact that they are indicative of the extremes of human nature when consumed by such a singular emotion as revenge. Park uses varied methods of the same motivation to again display the various ways that revenge may infest the mind and change a person’s psychology—whether through Woo-jin ridiculously complicated plan conceived over decades or through Oh Dae-su’s almost animalistic, instinctual drive toward revenge—that both men are only capable of satisfying this base emotion at the cost of sacrificing all those other emotions that compose their humanity. Ultimately, this helps give some context to the ambiguous ending of Oh Dae-su’s future, which proves that no matter what happens to this character moving forward, it is a fate that has come at the compromise of his former identity.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance

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With a title clearly echoing Park’s first venture into the trilogy, and yet that also distinguishes how far the filmmaker has refined his focus since that initial output, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance tells another complicated story of revenge through the first true female protagonist of the series: Lee Geum-ja. Wrongfully accused for the murder of a child that she did not commit, Geum-ja spends her time befriending other inmates and exacting her plan for revenge against Mr. Baek—the man that blackmailed her into accepting the arrest in order to spare the life of her own child.

Lady Vengeance contains the most atypical structure of the three—to surprising and compelling results. Park crosscuts between Guem-ja’s time in prison, where she befriended inmates and cultivates a kindly appearance, while also tracking her story in the present timeline as she puts her prison experiences to use in cultivating a new identity. Park has always possessed a tremendous visual eye for character design—from Ryu’s green hair in Mr. Vengeance, to Oh Dae-su’s frazzled hair and bold black suit in Oldboy—but Guem-ja’s represents possibly the most striking and sensational of all three. With red-eye shadow upon a pale face, black pumps, and an almost ninja-like trenchcoat, Geum-ja transforms herself into a manifestation of revenge—yet one that distinctly maintains her femininity and flashes of her former identity. That former identity is also found through her daughter, Jenny, now estranged after being given over to foster parents in the wake of Geum-ja’s prison sentence.

Nonetheless, Geum-ja eventually manages to track down the odious Mr. Baek for whom she has targeted as the object of her vengeance. Yet, upon finding him, she also finds the tokens of other children—connecting the dots that Baek’s modus operandi involved stealing small objects that would belong to his victims—all of whom were children. Consequently, she reaches out to the former detective involved with the case, who then helps her confirm the fact that Mr. Baek was indeed responsible for a number of other child murders.

Most intriguingly, and in stark contrast to the former two films in the trilogy, this causes Geum-ja to choose not to be the sole executor of revenge for the crime. Instead, she reaches out to the other bereaved family members of the murdered children and asks them to collude in punishing Mr. Baek. By leaving photo evidence of acting as a unit so that they may not turn on one another, the various family members take turns individually torturing and punishing Mr. Baek—until a lonely grandmother delivers the fatal blow with the scissors that belonged to her granddaughter. Afterward, the group seals their fate together by eating a dessert and reflecting on their deed. But after the group has left, Geum-ja remains haunted by a ghost of the victim for which she was initially blamed. The film ends on a somewhat ambiguous final shot, where Geum-ja plunges her face in a pure white cake—sobbing uncontrollably—while her reunited daughter hugs her in comfort.

Despite the masterful storytelling exhibited in the former two films, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance contains possibly the most compelling issues of moral ambiguity so far addressed in this specific examination of revenge. While the prior stories focused on their protagonist’s own personal vendettas, Lady Vengeance expands and filters her revenge through the prism of others. There is a scene in the last half of the film, where Geum-ja and the bereaved family members debate the ethics of their actions—weighing the pros and cons of how the legal court system would deal with this matter while also hoping to justifying their own personal blood thirsts—that plays out like the most perverted form of courtroom drama to ever grace the screen. And indeed, as shocking as the final twenty minutes of Oldboy stand for the utter depravity and brutality on screen, there is something as equally compelling and unbelievable as the final half of Lady Vengeance. Watching these seemingly normal members of society decide to execute various forms of punishment with a variety of weapons upon this guilty killer, plays out as a fascinating study of vengeance in group from—one that can be extrapolated as a moral study held by larger legal bodies like the courts, government, etc—and how revenge can come to be justified not only by those with personal vendettas but by a collective association of that same feeling when looking for an outlet for catharsis.

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By the conclusion, Park leaves his character with another ambiguous, possibly worse fate than that seen before the start of their quest for vengeance. Now responsible for helping serve the fates of a group, as well as her own personal bloodlust, Geum-ja still looks for absolution in the form of the boy for whom she was originally accused. She receives a strange vision, wherein the boy (now at the age that he would have grown to) gags her. Afterward, apparently reunited with her daughter, Geum-ja plunges her face in a pure white cake—the stark blackness of her character clashing against the pure white snow of her surroundings.

Despite helping those still grieving the loss of their child achieve some form of collective catharsis, Geum-ja is also faced with the fact that her child still survives. Unlike the others at the dinner table, now able to move forward with their lives without their child, Geum-ja remains faced with the fact that her entire life had been motivated by this single desire. And now, with blood on her hands but with her daughter by her side, and still unable to be granted that true resolution from the victim of her past, Geum-ja can do nothing but weep—and again destroy that symbol of purity with her tears of shame.

Like with the prior two films, his conclusion to the trilogy ends on a note of contending emotions. Park uses themes of revenge as an exploration into deeper, darker aspects of humanity that expose this extreme emotion for all its triumph and ultimate futility. In resorting this animalistic, vengeful aspect of their persona, each character ends up dead or left to a fate arguably worse than death—one in which all their identity has vanished or at the cost of corrupting every corner of their soul. Though each character begins with the best of intentions to justify their unlawful acts as something for the greater good, they are ultimately exposed to be attempting to fulfill nothing more than their own personal satisfaction.

Moreover, Park proves himself an innovator in the genre. One that impressively subverts typical expectations and tropes of the revenge film, and one that demands for audiences to question their own motives in so readily attaching themselves to these characters that are often as guilty as they are empathetic. While often proving this thesis through some of the most extreme, intense, and brutal scenes to be portrayed on the silver screen, Park demonstrates the ultimate conclusion for this extreme form of behavior—for all the triumphs and futilities offered through the choice of revenge.

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Mad Max: Fury Road – The Next Entry in the Best Action Series

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In a crowded landscape of action movies attempting to dazzle audiences through an abundance of special effects and increasing scope of story, George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road manages to subvert both tropes in the service of the two most important aspects of storytelling that make the action matter: characters and theme. Though the fourth film in the series still offers jaw-dropping spectacles and astonishing set-pieces that allow for its ranking as the current benchmark for pure action filmmaking, one can easily miss how remarkably well this story also manages to weave ideas of character and theme (through mostly visual means) in order to raise the emotional stakes that allow for these action sequences to obtain their remarkable power.

Much to the frustration of more literal-minded audiences that desperately cling for continuity, Miller has again opted to basically uphold only the titular character of the franchise and his strange setting somewhere in a post-apocalyptic future. The first film—Mad Max—works effectively to present Max’s transformation as a figure of authority in the MFP to his new identity as a lone gun working outside traditional society. Mad Max is a great, mean film—one that helped launch the career of both Miller and Mel Gibson, while also helping to explode the Ozploitation movement on a national level. Nonetheless, the film also misses the true sense of minimalist storytelling, streamlined action, and unprecedented set pieces that would ultimately define the franchise to come.

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Yes, admittedly, this is still low budget filmmaking at its best. Miller works wonders with a budget in the thousands to produce a movie that launched his career and innovative car chases that are still imitated by lesser films to this day. Moreover, the first Mad Max imbues a sense of raw, mean, rough-around-the-edges quality that is part of its lasting charm. The scene of Toecutter taunting Max’s wife for her “pretty face”—threatening to kill her and her baby while Max is out of sight—is brutal. Miller applies a sense of atmosphere, palpable tension, and escalating sense of uneasiness to magnificent effect. Afterward, with his wife and family taken from him, Max Rockatansky transforms into Mad Max—donning his iconic costume and hunting down the violent gang until the creative, final conclusion that would be reused to launch the Saw franchise decades later.

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Nonetheless, like all great sequels, Miller uses his follow-up film to expand and intensify those pieces of story established in the original entry in order to indulge his sensibilities to their most ambitious effect. The Road Warrior—titled so for those unaware of the first Mad Max (and thereby indicative of the very loose connective tissue between the films)—elevates the unique mythology of Miller’s imagination to its fullest extent. Max now resembles something closer to the Leone western hero. A mythic, more archetypal figure of the lone wanderer that wiggles his way into moral conflicts of good and evil between the underdog and the domineering faction which he will help defeat.

Most importantly, The Road Warrior presents those hallmarks of Miller’s creative inclinations that would define the franchise as a whole: inventive, visual character designs, a streamlined plot, and set pieces that would raise the bar for action filmmaking across the spectrum. Specifically, in terms of the latter, the semi-truck chase between Max, the villagers, and Humungus’ gang, stands as one of the best chase sequences in film history. Often-cited as inspiration for those chase sequences that would later attempt to rival it—Speed, Terminator 2, Matrix Reloaded—no film has still yet been able to cater to those assortment of inventive and extraordinary inclusions that make that chase so unique: the gyro-copter, the bizarre vehicles, the outrageous character designs, the multitude of weapons that Max must defend against while attempting to steer the truck to safety. Additionally, the film displays the pulse-pounding editing and furious sense of pacing—coupled with a clear sense of action geography—that would ascend this chase toward its ranking as the peak of action filmmaking for its time.

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Lastly, though a film marred by bizarre storytelling choices in craft its second half, the first half of Max Mad: Beyond Thunderdome presents further evidence for cementing the franchise’s legacy as the most inventive in its class. Though co-directed by George Ogilivie due to Miller’s difficulty in following through with the production in the wake of his producing partner’s death (Byron Kennedy), Beyond Thunderdome contains creative choices that simply don’t work in the latter half. The sound effects in particular, during the children’s takeover of the underworld, are almost comically out-of-place for a franchise whose strongest connective tissue can be found in its tone. Despite the memorable, idiosyncratic, and bizarrely lovable qualities of the feral child in Road Warrior, the entire inclusion of the tribal children in Thunderdome feels out of place. Tonally, they resemble something closer to The Goonies (released only a month earlier), the Lost Boys, or a watered-down Lord of the Flies. While this is not a criticism in of itself, it’s the fact that they are so conventionally identifiable from a visual standpoint that marks them as so out of place from a franchise where almost every other imaginable trope has been so utterly reinvented and distinctly tailored for this series.

Still, the first-half—and in particular, the Thunderdome sequence of the title—are Miller and the world of Mad Max at their best. Bartertown feels like an expansion of Humungus’ gang into an entire population of bizarre characters each with their own unique histories and identifies instantly recognizably from their visual design—none more so than the infamous Master and Blaster. Though Tina Turner’s Aunty is undeniably the weakest villain entry the series, she does lend a further sense of eccentric distinction that must be commended.

Max’s fight with Blaster within the gladiatorial Thunderdome itself—a wirework gladiatorial arena where the warriors fight one another while suspended by bungee chords and must seize whatever weapons are proffered by the spectators—stands as one of the most influential and gloriously inventive action set pieces ever conceived. One that has been imitated countless times since. Between Miller’s instant subverting of expectations when Max is able to find Blaster’s weakness, or the embracing of every conceivable creative weapon (chainsaws, swords, spikes), the Thunderdome set piece remains an ingenious playground for Miller’s imagination to filter his action fetishes in the apparently conclusion of Mad Max Trilogy. Though thankfully, this was not to be the case. As thirty years, Fury Road finally returned Miller to the fourth entry in his Mad Max series.

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The Max of Fury Road is a mad animal. With sparse news reports and vague voice-overs for those unfamiliar to the series, he is now a shaggy-haired beast of a human being—feeding himself from (two-headed) rodents and only living to survive. He is immediately captured, his vehicle stolen from him, and destined for life as a blood-bag for the Warboys—servants of Immortan Joe, the leader of the Citadel. However, on this particular day, Imperator Furiosa—tasked with driving a War Rig to retrieve gasoline—has stolen his five wives and intends to deliver them safely to the mysterious Green Place.

Despite the change from Gibson to Hardy, and a higher budget that truly allows for Miller’s imagination to flourish, Miller wisely ensures that the narrative never inflates disproportionately to the simple story at the center of the chase. Similar to how Bartertown felt like Humungus’ gang expanded into a city, Fury Road feels like the chase sequence of Road Warrior expanded into an entire narrative. Most interesting, and different for the series, is that this film is domineered more by Furiosa than by Max. While Max is again the lone warrior now tangled up in helping the others, he also comes to learn the value of companionship in a manner very much in line, though still starkly different, than what has previously been seen of his character throughout the series.

As a blood-bag, the idea of Max as a primal, animalistic being is emphasized more than ever. He is literally muzzled like a dog for most of the beginning, and the few sounds he initially makes when meeting Furiosa are mere grunts. When he first meets Furiosa and the wives, he needs their help in cutting off the chain upholding his muzzle, essentially cutting loose his leash. Still, even when Furiosa asks his name, Max maintains his animalistic nature by refusing to offer one, asking instead: “Does it even matter?”

But unlike the villagers of Road Warrior or the Tribal Children of Thunderdome, Furiosa and the wives are as important to Max’s survival and capable of carrying their own thematic weight as to elevate the action scenes more than ever before. When Immortan Joe and his followers first see that Furiosa has veered from the course, and the warlord moves to investigate, the audience quickly understands their horrifying prison—and glimpses of their backstory—in a matter of seconds. “We are Not Things” is scrawled within their sanctum, along with “Who Killed The World”, brief but powerful visual lines that sum up a backstory more than any long, expository monologue could ever entail.

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Furthermore, and easy to miss because it is so quickly glimpsed: various green plants decorate the interior of the sanctum when Joe is rushing inside to find his five wives—a detail with important implications for the plot’s latter half. Later, freed from their prison, Furiosa cuts a vagina dentata-esque chain clearly used by Joe further enslave the wives. This idea of the women as property—beings incapable of serving their own agency—works tremendously well in the context of not only a Mad Mad movie, but a chase movie in particular, where the characters are literally driving to free themselves from the confines of a city of men that enslaved them.

As the major storyline revolves around this one major chase between Immortan Joe and Max/Furiosa/the five wives, Miller retains his eye for clear, choreographed actions and fast-paced editing that keeps the audience on edge, but he also escalates the tension through character and theme as has never been so strongly seen within the series. While the two characters start out as uneasy combatants, only agreeing to work with one another in agreement of their mutual destruction, Max quickly begins to help these women.

His help, of course, arrives in the form of a series of jaw-dropping chase sequences—each of which builds and manages to top that which came before it. After a chase from creatively inventive “spiky” cars, Miller catapults the chase into an epic sandstorm where the environment is as much an antagonist for Max/Furiosa as their pursuers. He switches from the awesome, grand scale of the sand storm to the close, hand-to-hand combat fight between Max and Furiosa. This is followed by a chase from grenade-throwing cyclists, then a chase in the stark blue night of the Wasteland…so on.

In each scenario, Miller utilizes every premise imaginable for yet another reinvention of a common chase sequence. From fending off grenade-throwing bikers, to being stuck in the mud, to the pole-swaying kidnappers that populate the ineffably amazing final chase, Max and Furiosa realize that there only chance of survival is to trust in one another. Though the first half is clearly designed as a non-stop thrill ride based purely on survival and escape from Immortan Joe, the War Rig’s arrival at the “Green Place” alters the narrative trajectory toward themes of grander purpose. After now finding that this utopia of women and vegetation has long gone to the ravages of the Wasteland, Max, Furiosa, and the Vulvani women resolve to venture back the way they came: back toward the Citadel.

Additionally, Miller introduces the character of Nux—a warboy convert to whom Max previously served as the blood-bag but has now turned to help their cause. No supporting character has ever had as transitional an arc within the Mad Max realm as Nux, who further highlights themes of cooperation seen throughout the piece. As he later risks sacrificing himself toward the cause for which he was previously fighting against, his addition to the gang in their return across the canyon injects yet another layer of tension toward the finale and Miller’s ability to use the arcs of the protagonist to elevate the depth of the action.

While most filmmakers believe that raising the stakes can only be found through the introduction of new effects, new plot lines, bigger villains, etc., Miller proves that by continually increasing the emotional stakes and the dangers of what is already known—in additional to the pulse-pounding and innovative final chase sequence back through the canyon—how Fury Road manages to make such an action scene so compelling beyond just its action scenes. These are sequences where the stakes of more than just their mere survival are at stake—but in toppling oppressive ideologies that have haunted this region—not to mention their only individual hopes of redemption at stake. From Max’s hope to help save someone, as he does with Furiosa in donating his blood (as his flashbacks repeatedly show his failure to save a child), to Furiosa’s hope for redemption in toppling Joe where she failed before (as demonstrated by the Immortan Joe brand on her neck), to Nux’s hope for salvation in death, all of Miller’s protagonists are given satisfying resolutions to their individual problems—while in the midst of a death-defying chase across the desert canyon.

As Max helps complete his own arc toward becoming a man again, removed from the bestial animal at the start of the film, he finally confesses that his name is Max—having learned that it does matter—before he disappears back into the Wasteland. A man who has found some form of redemption through helping others achieve their redemption, as well. Though these themes are there beneath the surface, Miller never sacrifices storytelling or entertaining action sequences to spell them out for the viewer. Instead, as he always done, Miller uses all his tricks at his disposable to push the boundaries of action filmmaking to their furthest extent. Mad Max: Fury Road—though littered with grand spectacle and special effects—never forgets its tradition of using a simple premise to indulge in the most spectacular array of action sequences possible. Moreover, like Max, George Miller proves why this all matters. He shows how powerfully well-constructed action set pieces propelled by emotionally thematic ideals only enhances the destruction on screen—demonstrating why this character, franchise, and its director—why the world of Mad Max at large…has mattered to so many fans for so many years…and how Fury Road upholds this tradition for the legacy of the series.

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Review: Montage of Heck

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 “Kurt’s brain was just constantly going, he was always thinking about something, I mean, there was always something goin’ on, you could just see it…it was awe-inspiring…but then as I grew up, I’m like…I’m so glad that I never got that genius brain” – Kim Cobain

The above quote from Kurt Cobain’s sister—played over a clip of Kurt about to perform for thousands of fans while also goofing around in a wheelchair and quoting Wayne’s World—could not serve as a better opening encapsulation of the film’s exploration of its subject in a microcosm: a study of a man caught between being a legend at the forefront of American music, a man in his twenties caught in the crosswind of the nineties, and being a man so undeniably different from everyone around him. Still, this talking-head opening is actually quite deceptive in introducing the form, style, and approach of the documentary. For rather than being an exhaustive historical study, or some cold and detached autopsy of his life, Montage of Heck instead opts for a much more cinematic and often painfully personal approach—one that offers a more emotional, insightful, and creative look into the life of such an incredibly complex icon.

Opening with poignant home-videos from Kurt’s childhood—Christmases, birthdays, and family get-togethers—these flashes into his early, happy beginnings are essential in painting a complete portrait of Kurt’s life, while also working to immediately situate the viewer into Cobain’s psychology to powerful, intimate effect. These formative years with his family as a cohesive unit, with Kurt at the center, lay the foundation for the turbulent relationship with his family in subsequent years engendered by his parent’s divorce. A divorce that led to feelings of misplacement, shame, and abnormality that would color his mood and personalities for the rest of his years and be filtered through the prism of his creative output.

Director Brett Morgen expresses all this, however, not through repetitive talking-heads or news footage, but predominantly through Kurt’s own modes of expression: his childhood drawings, his audio recordings, his journals, his writings—while familiar Nirvana songs (or covers) are played beneath these haunting pieces of youth that recreate the feeling of reliving a distant memory or dream.

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In the transition to Kurt’s teenage and young adults years, however, Morgen adopts another—and even more effective—method of imbuing Kurt’s interior life through scenes of animation. These are, undoubtedly, the most creative pieces within the doc. Again, rather than the standard fare of attempting to illuminate a subject’s history through some dry distilling of information, these scenes force the viewer to feel what life may have been like under Kurt’s skin. The first of two particular highlights depicts his first suicide attempt, and brutally translates this emotional episode to devastating and memorable effect.

The next animated sequence depicts his time before making it big: living off his girlfriend’s wages while perfecting his artistic craft. This scene manages to make a compelling sequence out of the most mundane times of an artist’s life: Kurt learns to practice his guitar and vocal skills, write songs, figure out the band’s next step—as he spends his days and nights on the living room couch. But rather than casting a light on these days as a genius in the making, they instead depict the “10,000” hours of his genius in terms of mood—Kurt perpetually alone throughout the day, experimenting and failing, drinking, and following his muses wherever they may lead him.

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Navigating out the days of burgeoning fame, the doc swiftly transitions into the heyday of Nirvana. Clearly, the film has made itself abundantly clear that it is not interested in devoting valuable screentime toward information that can be readily gleaned elsewhere. Instead, these major transitional moments—the band’s signing to Sub-Pop, their finding Dave Grohl—are understood through the context of Kurt’s trajectory. As a result, despite the variegated narrative paths that the doc follows through his art, journals, and the like, the storytelling always feels focused—as it is remains centered on making sure the audience experiences these periods through the prism of its subject own mindset. The pinnacle of this entire experience perhaps found in the latter third of the piece: when Kurt meets Courtney. Using home videos between the two during Love’s pregnancy and then the birth of their daughter, these sequences negotiate between both voyeurism and unbelievingly compelling glimpses into the couple’s point-of-view.

More than anything else, as well, they help elevate the documentary into achieving a truly cinematic feel—one that gives the impression that this character study into the life of Kurt Cobain is nearing its climax, as he journeys deeper down those darker aspects of his personality that have strained his psyche since youth. Now amplified by the pressures of both fame and family, these obstacles present challenges that are made even more sympathetic by viewing Kurt separated from decades of news report and articles that cemented his legacy as a rock icon. Instead, these home videos delineate a portrait of a flawed man grappling with those very issues of his nature that the audience has come to relate and identify with over the preceding two-hours—with the knowledge of the tragic destiny that awaits him making these videos all the more excruciating to watch.

While some may be disappointed that the film doesn’t revel in the aftermath of his suicide and the reactions of those closest to him, Montage of Heck finishes on exactly the right note. For the end of Kurt’s story is the end of Montage of Heck’s story. Just as it has so perfectly offered the viewer an opportunity into the interior psychology of its subject, so it ends at the tragic conclusion of Kurt’s life in abrupt, devastating fashion. Still, the success of the documentary lies in its ability to so beautifully saturate the audience in his life—leaving the viewer feeling like they learned more about the experience of the Nirvana frontman rather than just the facts of his biography. Accordingly, Montage of Heck shines as a truly unique piece of documentary filmmaking: one as complicated, creative and different as the man at its center. One that allows a profoundly powerful—and personal—look into the life and mind of Kurt Cobain.

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True Detective. Season One, Episode Eight. “Form and Void” Recap & Review

“Form and Void”

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Calling to mind the very first shot of episode one, “Form and Void”—True Detective’s series finale—opens in similar fashion: with the killer. This time, however, his identity is now fully revealed to be that of Errol Childress—the man with the scars identified at the conclusion of Episode Seven. Within the shed of their abandoned Childress property, Errol is in the midst of horribly torturing a man lying bloody in a room surrounded by bloody, scrawled writing. That man is revealed to be his father, when Errol remarks “Bye, daddy” before stepping out to join his sister in the big house.

Within the decrepit mansion deep in the Bayou backwoods, Errol and this possibly mentally-retarded sister are living in absolute squalor: childish toys are strewn about, dishes are stacked like skyscrapers, and old VHS tapes are piled throughout the space. As an old Cary Grant movie plays upon the TV, Errol begins imitating the voice—almost as though practicing. He later remarks to his sister, “it’s been weeks since I left my mark”. As the two begin to fondle each other, the camera retreats far out the deep bayou wilderness and arrives…

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Back with Marty, Rust, and Geraci on the boat. The two former detectives force Geraci to watch the Marie Fontenot tape at gunpoint, then interrogate him for further answers. Geraci, however, can only honestly say that the Childress report was “filed in error” and that he was following a “chain of command”. When leaving Geraci, Cohle warns him about any harm coming their way with the fact that their story is ready to be shipped to all the major newspapers, along with warning sniper-gunfire from the bar owner.

At a nearby school, Errol is shown painting a schoolyard wall (yellow), while eyeing the children during recess. Meanwhile, Marty and Cohle return to their work at the former’s office to look at their old clues with fresh eyes, “like we’re totally green” as per Cohle. This prompts Marty to stare upon the former drawing of the “green-eared spaghetti-monster”, where he questions the detail of the green ears. This incites his investigation into pictures of a green house, where he notices an undeniably new set of fresh green paint, and puts forth his theory that the “spaghetti-monster” may have been the one responsible for painting the house.

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In the car on the way over to the residence, the two discuss: their former fight, Marty cheating and Rust’s tryst with Maggie, and more philosophical ideas of values and identity. When arriving at the home with a now faded-green exterior, they are then able to track down the former owner, which then leads them to finding the business—Childress & Sons—by tracking down tax records.

Knowing that they may be facing death, the two instruct the former sniper-wielding bar owner with sending the story and necessary evidence to the papers and authorities. Afterward, Marty secretly meets with Papania. The detective formerly interviewing Marty and suspicious of Rust can tell that the two have been up to something, and though reticent to be involved in their pursuit, agrees that he will take the call.

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The two then begin their drive out to the Childress residence, where Marty asks Rust about his visions, to which Rust explains: “What I have in my head, it’s not something that gets better”. Nearing the isolated home, Rust’s synesthesia reminds him of the aluminum taste experienced in Episode One, and upon finding the Childress residence—Rust immediately knows that this is the place. He tells Marty to call Papania, and due to poor cell reception, the former is forced to invade the house. Though the sister plays coy, Marty charges his way inside; wherein, he finds the house to be in an even worse state of squalor than previously thought: mutilated dolls and toys litter the upstairs, while dirt and filth seems to cover everything else.Screen Shot 2015-04-27 at 11.25.33 PM

Rust, however, chases after Errol. He follows him into the numerous tunnels found in the back of the property, where he must wend his way around enormous versions of the twig-figure totems found earlier. Errol taunts Cohle throughout the ordeal, leading him onwards, calling him the “little priest”, and even referencing DeWall and Reggie.

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Finally, Rust finds the ceremonial chamber at the heart of Carcosa, where a bizarre looking collection of skeletons draped in yellow sit at a throne in center—the Yellow King. Rust’s gaze ascends toward the oval opening above, where he experiences a “vision” of the void—a dark blue, nebulous vortex—until he is stabbed by Errol. He lifts Rust above him, and the latter is able to head-butt his way into temporary safety, though writhes in the ground in bloodied pain. Marty arrives just in time, only to also be attacked by Errol. Just as he prepares to slam down on Marty’s head, Rust fires into Errol’s skull—blowing off his head and finally killing the killer of Dora Lange.

Papania, Gilbough, and a team of responders finally arrive—firing a flare that Marty manages to see—and screams for rescue. Cutting to the hospital afterward, Marty is found slowly recovering. Papania and Gilbough report further details of the Childress clan, though Marty waves them away from informing him of more gruesome horrors. Moments after, Maggie and his children arrive to comfort him. As Audrey, Macie, and Maggie ask how he’s doing, Marty feigns his usual level of masculinity and invincibility, only to slow break down in true tears of devastation.

As news clips give further report toward the uncovering of the Childress clan, Rust is found alive—but badly wounded. Soon after, Marty arrives to comfort him, but Rust finds himself almost incapable of believing in his recovery, reiterating “I shouldn’t be here” and his devastation that they weren’t able to catch “all of them”. To which Marty counters, “We ain’t gonna get ‘em all, but we got ours”.

Outside the hospital, Marty hands Rust a pack of smokes as a gift, then wheels him a bit farther out in the parking lot so that he may be allowed to smoke them. While there, Rust finally breaks down: retelling Marty his experience in the void of darkness, of finding his daughter, his father, and experiencing nothing but love…until he woke up. Possibly trying to cheer him up, Marty points to the stars above him—reminding Rust of his youth in Alaska, wherein Marty points out that the darkness covers a lot more territory than the light. While Marty tries to sneak Rust out of the hospital, he counters Marty’s observation about the stars, telling him: “Once there was only dark. If you ask me, the light’s winning”.

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REVIEW

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With the setting now completely within the present, and the interviews similarly finished, the finale begins in very atypical fashion for the series by presenting an extended scene not from the point-of-view of either of our two detectives. Even more intriguing, it’s from the perspective of the one character of whom the two have been chasing over the previous seven hours—Errol Childress, the Man with the Scars, sporting a sign of the Yellow King symbol just below his neck (like with Dora Lange). His farewell to his father, whose mouth has been sewn shut and torso horribly mutilated, announces with both style and horror that this long, drawn-out confrontation is finally coming to an end.

As Errol moves into the abandoned manor shared with his slow sister, further evidence of the squalor inhabiting the lives of the Childress Clan is shown. Peeling wallpaper and mildewed portraits of their mother decorate the walls, while an enormous collection of child-like objects litter the floor. Most importantly, there are numerous VHS tapes of old movies that seem to be on a loop within the home. Though this could only be gleaned from interviews with Pizzolatto, the creator explains that Errol used these videos to learn to talk, due to the deformities of his scarred mouth. Moreover, the familial bond between these two—as further demonstrated by their surroundings—gives off the impression that these two are and live like overgrown children. In the way they interact, by their messy home, and fostered by their isolation from society, these two Childress children have matured into adults that retain childlike sensibilities both psychologically and in their relationship to the world.

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Nonetheless, Errol’s remark that it’s been “weeks since I left my mark” along with his sudden articulation that: “I have very important work to do. My ascension removes me from the disc in the loop, I’m near final stage…some mornings, I can see the infernal plane” allows for some deeper insight into this killer’s modus operandi. As will be further evidenced near the climax, Errol appears to be baiting the authorities for a confrontation—one who believes that his death (and those of his “acolytes”) will allow for his transcendence into a higher state of being—and a sense that this final confrontation will be happening sooner rather than later.

Meanwhile, the two detectives remain where they left off with Geraci on the boat at the end of Episode Seven. Though this scheme of interrogating him ultimately proves somewhat pointless, as he can only confirm what they already know (that Sheriff Ted Childress is responsible for the Fontenot report error), it does offer a nice sense of conclusion to Rust’s rivalry with his former coworker. Both in showing him the true horror of his actions when forcing him to watch the Fontenot tape, and when threatening him with the sniper rifle of the bar owner (and the destruction of his new car).

Back at the offices, Rust’s phrasing of looking over old evidence files like “we’re totally green” reminds Marty of their strongest piece of evidence yet—the image of the Spaghetti Monster with his green-tipped ears. In a moment of Sherlock-ian inspiration, Marty reconnects the green-tipped ears with the green painted-house—finally earning the highest possible compliment from Rust when he also realizes the connection and utters a “fuck you” to Marty.

On their way over to the green house, Marty attempts to bring closure to his feelings toward Rust, Maggie, and the fight. Though Rust replies with a typically complex philosophical response that leaves Marty befuddled—and elicits one of Marty’s most hilarious malapropisms with “what’s scented meat”—his argument that “everybody’s got a choice” argument actually represents a vastly different moral philosophy than that of Rust in his interview with the detectives, who argued more in line with the Nietzchian ideas of the eternal return (time is a flat circle), which would argue that people are not in control of their choices. Though he is talking more in terms of the formation of our identities in this context, it does raise questions as to his which he actually believes, though perhaps in both talking to Marty and the interrogating detectives, he does not feel the need to give an honest response either way. And instead, will tell them what they need to hear. Nonetheless, a bit later, their tracking down Childress & Sons due to Rust’s asking the former resident Ms Hill, about her husband, the “did he pay his taxes” question—with his ledger in hand—also serves as a nice remembrance to his original “tax man” nickname mentioned (and somewhat forgotten) throughout the rest of the series.

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Preparing to finally confront Childress, the two make their preparations in case of death. Rust once again employs the help of the sniper-wielding bar owner to send out their story to various outlets (One to FED, CID, the papers…), while Marty meets with Papania alone to ensure that he will take the call if they need it. Two short scenes that set-up payoffs for after the climax, while also helping to further escalate the tension before the ultimate confrontation.

On the car ride over, Rust’s comments nearing the Childress residence that his synesthesia is picking up elements of “aluminum…ash…I tasted it before” recall his earlier statements in Episode One, where he also experiences similar sensations following their stint in Erath after finding Dora Lange—serving as both a nice reminder to that earlier episode and further confirming that Childress is no doubt the killer of that woman whose death engendered so much of the shape of Rust’s life in its aftermath.

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Moreover, almost immediately upon arriving, the two are aware that they have found the place. Rust’s synesthesia kicks into high gear, with a spectacular sweeping camera motion of his absorbing the dreaded surroundings, and his ordering Marty to call Papania. While Marty comes up with an obviously fake story about his and Rust being property surveyors, Errol’s sister can instantly detect the truth. In a moment of almost meta-humor, Marty mentions that they “got lost like a couple of greenhorns”—perhaps a pun on the green ears used to track down Errol. Nonetheless, she begins spouting philosophical dialogue not unlike Errol or his housekeeper when answering: “Where is he …all around us, before you were born, and after you die”—again returning to the idea of eternal recurrence.

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Meanwhile, Rust has taken off for Errol within the dense property found in back of the estate. Gun drawn, he finds pictorial depictions of the black stars and all the other hallmarks of the Yellow King as he pursues Errol into the abandoned Fort in the rear of the property. There, walking within the catacombs, Rust wends his way amongst life-sized version of stick totems found amongst his victims in Episodes One and Two—along with the pieces of evidence left behind from the victims of the cult. As Errol taunts Rust with cryptic and menacing lines like: “You know what they did to me? What I will do to all the sons and daughters of man…You blessed, Reggie, DeWall—acolytes, witnesses to my journey…Lovers, I am not ashamed. Come die with me, little priest” he displays further signs of a man in full belief of his warped psychosis: a man as ready for this moment as Rust.

As the two men who have equally awaited this confrontation with one another over the decades finally near their clash, Errol’s echoing voice directs Rust throughout the catacombs (and calling to mind Miss Dolores’ description of Carcosa as a “wind of invisible voice” in Episode Seven) until Rust finally behold the Yellow King: a putrid stack of skulls and bones draped by yellow cloth. But then, Rust sees the void. Made possible through his synesthesia, Rust glimpses a swirling mass of blue/black clouds that serve as a portal into a netherworld of nothingness—the abyss—a suggestion of horror made even more unfathomable by its mere hinting than full reveal and calling to mind the best works of Lovecraft and other weird fiction writers.

Until Errol attacks—lifting Rust up with near Herculean strength and choking him to death. Luckily, Marty has managed to navigate the labyrinth of catacombs and shoots Rust free. Still, Errol subdues him, as well, until Rust finally seizes his moment—and blows off Errol’s head. As Rust lies gutted and dying to death, Marty sees the flare signaling the arrival of Papania/Gilbough: both men having saved his partner’s life in their own distinct way.

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Awaking in the hospital, it’s interesting to note that Marty’s last memory before going unconscious is “sayin’ my friend’s name”. Not two episodes ago, Marty still despised Rust for his affair with Maggie—not to mention their contentious relationship as co-workers a decade before—and he now not only thinks of him as a partner, but as a friend. And as Papania and Gilbough begin to rattle off the gruesome details of their findings in the Childress house (“There’s a group of guys—pedophiles and so forth, voodoo worship, man Cohle shot dead was the old man’s son…) all Marty can do is wave them away. In effect, he embodies the series’ motto this entire time: that the details of the crime aren’t important or worthy of valuable screen time—it’s the characters.

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This is further solidified by the arrival of Maggie and the girls seconds later. As Maggie grips her hand bearing a new wedding ring over Marty’s, and his two girls come to comfort him, Marty initially feigns being OK—upholding his image of traditional masculinity as best he is able—until finally breaking down and crying in front of his girls, muttering “I’m fine…I’m fine”. After years of attempting to shrug of his feelings and telling himself that he is OK, Marty crumbles in the midst of his family—the one thing he lost most over the years due to no one’s fault but his own.

Meanwhile, Rust remains in slow recovery after recovering from out his coma. He listens to news reports of the reveals of the Childress Mansion—repots which mention that Edwin Tuttle (the Governor) is distancing himself from any familial relation while dozens more victims continue to be exhumed from the property. Rust, however, can only lie paralyzed in his bed—awaiting whatever comes next with this chapter of his obsession finally closed.

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A bit later, when Marty wheelchairs in to check on him, Rust’s remains disillusioned as ever—repeating that he’s “not supposed to be here”—while further commiserating over the fact that there are still men connected to the cult out there yet to be caught (even remembering that he had already encountered Errol once before at the Light of the Way School). Marty counters that they caught “their guy” however—reinforcing a central theme at the heart of the case since the beginning: solving the case of Dora Lange. Though the two have encountered about every kind of evil imaginable throughout this case—corruption, torture, murder, narcotics, kidnapping—their job was to find Dora Lange’s murderer: and in that they were successful. This idea is given greater weight and description in the following—and final—scene.

In the hospital parking lot a few days later, Marty wheels out Rust for a talk in the fresh air. The two discuss their feelings in the wake of all that has happened. Specifically, Rust opens to Marty about his experience in the coma. Here, McConaughey delivers the best piece of acting in his career and the series, as he details a transcendental experience of feeling love with his daughter and father beyond the void of death that reduces him to unashamed tears. After eight hours of relentless nihilism and anti-natalist philosophy, Rust doesn’t exactly undergo a complete reversal of ideologies, but he is undeniably transformed by this otherworldly experience made possibly by the afterlife and those who loved him during his life.

Attempting to comfort him, Marty comments on the stars in the bright sky that call to mind Rust’s childhood in Alaska. Once again, Rust relates that the stars told stories to him as a lonely child—further cementing the idea of storytelling that lies at the heart of the series. Nonetheless, as Marty comments that the dark clearly holds far more territory than the light, Rust reconfigures the story of light versus dark as relates to their work in the fight against evil as a whole. In a glimpse of insight both surprising for the normally pessimistic Rust, yet also logical, Rust remarks: “Once there was only dark. If you ask me, the light’s winning”.

As Marty remarked in more literal words to Rust in the hospital room, they accomplished their job—to catch Dora Lange’s killer. Though there will always be more crime than can be caught, more corruption than goodwill, more dark than light—they did their jobs. Despite being fired, mistrusted, working outside the legal limits of those around them, these two men stayed true to their word and paid their debt. As a series about stories and storytelling at its core—from the interviews, to the use of the King in Yellow mythology, to the stories we tell ourselves—this is the simplest story at the center of the show and of the nature of man explored throughout the series. As Rust describes it, “the oldest story”. A story beautifully told through these characters, and the crime at its ugly center, that composes the first season of True Detective.

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True Detective. Season One, Episode 7. “After You’ve Gone” Recap & Review

“After You’ve Gone”

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Sharing the beer promised at the conclusion of episode six, Marty and Rust engage in a very awkward reunion at a nearby bar. The two play a subtle game of verbal cat-and-mouse, lobbying occasional jabs at one another, until getting down to brass tacks. Rust has returned from eight years in Alaska to finish the job, and he needs Marty’s help. Though Marty is extremely reluctant to rejoin him, Rust insists that they have a debt to pay in solving this crime (not to mention Marty’s killing of Ledoux that robbed them of potentially crucial evidence). Though still not completely committed, Marty accompanies Rust to his storage locker to continue the discussion…

Arriving at the storage locker, Marty straps himself with a gun—perhaps still suspicious of Papania and Gilbough’s suspicions that Rust is the killer. Upon walking inside, however, Marty quickly comes to understand the truth: that Rust is as committed and obsessed as ever in finding the true killer. Clues, leads, and all forms of evidence adorn every corner of the small shed—a literal manifestation of the locked room that is Rust’s mind.

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While absorbing the unnerving display of evidence, Rust further updates Marty on his progress with the case. After following a trail of charges around the Tuttle Wellspring schools, he tracked down a former student/current transvestite—Johnny Joanie. During the interview, Joanie admits that the faculty would induce the children into a “ghost sleep”—where the students would think they would be asleep—but feel awake—and still be unable to move. He further explains that the men would have animal faces, so he felt it had to be a dream. Back in the shed, Rust explains how this cult responsible for the cirmes mixes traditions of courir de Mardi Gras, Santeria, and voudon in their strange rituals accosting women and children. Despite this barrage of evidence, Marty remains convinced…until Rust shows him the tape.

Rust obtained this videotape by robbing Tuttle’s Baton Rouge residence—putting to use his skills as a former B&E man—and also acquiring incriminating photos of a young girl whose eyes have been enshrouded by a cloth. Rust finally plays the videotape for Marty, where the cult leads a young girl into their ceremony. Marty screams and shouts in witnessing the off-screen crimes of pedophilia until Rust finally turns it off. When questioned whether he killed Billy Lee, Rust denies it—believing that it was other men who found out about the robbery and killed Billy Lee before he may be blackmailed. After witnessing the horrors, Marty tacitly agrees to reform their partnership to solve the case.

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He then visits Maggie at her new palatial home, where pictures of an older Audrey and Macie are similarly found. He questions her about the Papania/Gilbough interview, and the status of his daughters, and to which she demurs mostly passive answers in reference to Rust. Nonetheless, sharp as ever, she also asks Marty if after all these years gone by, he has only come to say goodbye before finishing whatever it is he has agreed to help Rust finish. Later, Maggie visits Rust at the bar, though he remains similarly reluctant to promise that harm will not come to Marty when finishing the task at hand.

Marty and Rust set up headquarters at the former’s new P.I. offices, where Rust semi-insultingly asks if they need to worry about a lot of people coming in and out, to which Marty hilariously responds: “What do you think, Rust?”. After redecorating the office with much of the evidence found in Rust’s storage unit, the two then bond over their time in the intervening years. A moving montage plays out depicting Marty’s now very lonely life—a failed Match.com relationship, dinners and movies alone—a life much more quiet and removed for the formerly social and motivated family man who instilled so much of his identity vis-a-vis his career. Rust describes a similarly quiet and removed lifestyle—his days filled with tending bar, drinking, and working in isolation. The two share a moment of bonding in equally regretting their career choices: Marty having wanted to be a baseball player or bull rider; Rust, a painter or historian.

The next day, Marty investigates the old police department to retrieve missing persons reports from their archives under the guise of writing a book.* The two are able to track down a Jimmy Ledoux—distant relative to Reggie—at his automotive repair shop. He confesses to know very little of that side of the family which his father described as “too white for white trash”, except confessing that they always shot him with disturbing looks. The reunited detectives are also able to track down a former Tuttle housekeeper—Miss Dolores. She reveals that Sam Tuttle had a number of illegitimate children, and after some prodding from Rust, believes that the scarred man was actually a Tuttle with the surname Childress. She’s then seized by a hypnotizing spell of sorts at the memory, as her voice and speech transforms at the mention of Carcosa.

*(And in a moment of apparent meta-humor, Marty’s fake book is titled “True Crime”—“the genre not the title”, he explains).

Afterward, Marty further tracks down the fact that the Marie Fontenot missing person report “filed in error” was made by Sheriff Ted Childress in ’95—his last name now causing obvious implications as to why it was made in error. Marty also realizes that their former colleague Steve Geraci was the Deputy reporting to Childress. Moreover, they find that Geraci now serves as Sheriff of Vermillion Parish. While Rust is ready to interrogate him with jumper cables, Marty attempts to first reach out to him for a game of golf.

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On the course, Marty tries to slyly wedge out information from his former colleague, but the man remains reticent to divulge more information about handling the report to Sheriff Childress. When saying goodbye, Marty can immediately spot that Geraci is lying and calls Rust to “ready those jumper cables”. On a boat not too soon after, Geraci and Marty are enjoying their morning of fishing and beers, when the latter again begins prodding for answers. Geraci finally decides that he has had enough and refuses to say anymore, until Rust finally reveals himself with a handgun—prepared to torture him for answers.

Meanwhile, Papania and Gilbough are found wandering the bayou backwoods in search of the Church described by Rust during his interview. Without any luck, they pull over to ask a man on a lawnmower for directions. The lawnmower man informs them that the Church burned down, and then directs them toward the freeway. The two detectives drive off before the latter has even finished his sentence. Nonetheless, the lawnmower man finally stands to reveal himself to be the same lawnmower man from Episode Three—now with his beard shaved to reveal scars across the bottom of his face.

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REVIEW

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With the interviews now gone, and the storyline now more or less rooted in the present, “After You’ve Gone” uses the reunion of the former partners within this penultimate episode to explore the lost history between Rust and Marty while rapidly advancing toward their finally uncovering the case of the Yellow King. Despite their checkered past, the two bond as only they know how—lobbying passive-aggressive insults at one another between important bits of information. Rust has been in Alaska for the past eight years, while Marty professes to have quit his drinking and become a better man. Though the two exchange insults toward one another’s physical appearances against the ravages of time, the two also seem share to share a tacit understanding of finally being led to this point—as though inevitably so. While Marty protests that he would ever help Rust again (“if you were drowning, I’d toss you a barbell”), Rust’s very simple and pointed explanation that Marty owes a debt is enough to convince him to visit Rust’s storage shed.

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Following Papania and Gilbough’s accusations that Rust may be the serial killer, Fukanaga uses the reveal of Rust’s shed to indulge in possibilities of these suspicions. Marty even withdraws a gun when entering the shed—only to stumble upon the truth of his former’s partner’s devolution over the years. The production design on this space is superb—giving the impression of a man obsessed by his job and now unhinged by social norms in a manner that seems so far removed from typical portrays of such psychology previously seen on film and television. Moreover, six previous hours of establishing this aspect of Rust’s character only help sell and lay the firm groundwork into the reveal of the shed as a space that serves as a physical embodiment of Rust’s mind–his “Locked Room” to borrow the title from Episode Three.

The intricacies of the shed help disguise the deluge of exposition that covers much of this scene recounting Rust’s retrieval of numerous, vital pieces of evidence. Rust’s breaking and entering into Tuttle’s Baton Rougere residence uses some interesting dissolves to heighten the intrigue of the moment along with his admittance that “I was aware that I might have lost my mind”. As the show has always done so well, despite the extremely dark nature of the story, the hinting as to the horror of what is on that videotape and Marty’s reaction of terror actually works so much better for allowing the viewer to imagine the crimes of these men—crimes so terrible that they compel Marty to work with Rust again despite their torrid past.

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But first, Marty must make peace with Maggie. Starting with pictures of Audrey and Macie now grown up: the former on psychiatric meds but also working as an artist; the latter teaching in Chicago for Americorps, Marty seems able to reconcile the fact that this job may end with his death. Maggie, similarly, suspects so, when she asks “Did you come to say goodbye?” And the two are able to share a peaceful goodbye of sorts, after all they’ve been though and accomplished.

Now working within Marty’s quiet P.I. office, the two former partners ask each other a bit more intimately about their lives. These sequences depicting the mens’ lonely lifestyles wrecked with regret and failure are poignant to the point of being heartbreaking. After a string of unsuccessful relationships—online or affairs—Marty has merely resigned to an existence of microwaveable dinners and John Wayne movies alone in his apartment. Rust, meanwhile, remains in a similarly depressing cycle—his entire life now resolved to either bartending, drinking, or obsessive over the case.

There’s an especially moving exchange between the two wherein they reminiscence how neither ever even wanted this career—only to find themselves decades down the line and more than competent at it. Prompting Rust’s line: “Be careful what you get good at”. Nonetheless, it’s also interesting which chosen profession either detective would have liked. Marty, of course, chose the two most traditionally masculine ideals possible: an athlete or a cowboy; while Rust, however, admits that he would have liked to be a painter or historian: “old scenes, new details”. This is interesting in light of the fact of his carrying around his “taxman” book, wherein he illustrates all the details of the scene to provide new context to what others may have missed—somewhat of an amalgamation of these alternatively desired careers.

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Marty return to the old office under the guise of writing a book offers what appears to be one of the show’s few moments of meta-humor with Marty insisting: “It’s the genre, not the title” before then investigating the numerous, archived case files. Meanwhile, the two are indeed able to find two key people that allow their progress into the case. The first is Jimmy Ledoux—a relative of Reggie and DeWall. Though embarrassed of Reggie’s name, the man nonetheless further reiterates his abhorrence toward the “Man with the Scars” that seems to unnerve everyone.

It is their second find, however, Miss Dolores—a former Tuttle housekeeper—that provides their most important lead yet. Despite their false excuse for being there, they are able to confirm their suspicions that the man with the scarred face is an illegitimate child of Sam Tuttle—one with the surname of Childress. Her sudden, startled turn and extreme change voice errs dangerously close to hammy, and it’s the one moment of the series that seems to lean on the supernatural unnecessarily and jarringly. Still, her statements that Carcosa is “a wind of invisible voice” holds some resonance for what happens in the finale—wherein the detectives hear Errol’s voice taunting them from within “Carcosa”.

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Afterward, sharing another late-night drink, the two probe deeper into the devolution of their lives. Rust (as he has always been so capable of when eliciting confessions) asks Marty again why he quit the force, and Marty finally relents in explaining. After a meth raid, wherein the criminal attempted to microwave a baby, he decided to call it quits—never wanting to see something like that again. The scene is shot with a sense of foreboding dread within those few seconds that—like with the videotape—is never marred by flooding the viewer with the dreaded imagery. Again, it’s the look on Marty’s face—keeping the corpse out of focus—that makes the visual all the more powerful. And afterward, Rust’s actual confession as to why he had to return from Louisiana to finish the job turns out to be a more sorrowful reason than even Marty’s. As Rust explains: “This [was] something I had to see to—before getting’ on with something else…My life’s been a circle of violence and degradation…I’m ready to tie it off”. The idea that Rust is ready to commit suicide after finishing the task at hand is at once both heartbreaking and a perfect set-up for his fate within the finale.

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And finally, the man with the scarred face—almost comically revealed through the arrogance of Papania and Gilbough—at last arrives within this penultimate episode. Accompanied by eerie toybox music, bathed in the golden light of a dying sunset, Errol Childress is revealed to be the lawnmower man that Rust first met in Episode Three outside the Light of the Way Academy. Removing the who-done-it at this point in time turns out to be an incredibly wise move on the part of Pizzolatto, for as the series has done excellently throughout, it both eschews traditional expectations of the crime genre in television and allows a stronger focus on character.

Characters whose fates will all finally converge in the next and final episode.

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True Detective. Season One, Episode 6. “Haunted Houses” Recap & Review

“Haunted Houses”

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 2002

Haunted Houses” opens with Marty finishing his unfinished business with Audrey from Episode Five—that is, beating up the older boys arrested with her. The guarding officer takes his leave, while the boys beg and plead for mercy, only for Marty to don black gloves and pulverize both boys—then vomit afterwards. Meanwhile, Rust continues his isolated investigation into the Tuttle Schools—interviewing another parent whose child was enrolled in a school funded by the Tuttle Wellspring program who then disappeared.

Later, amidst shopping errands at a mall, Marty looks into buying a new phone and having an afternoon beer. While at the bar, a clerk from the cell phone stores introduces herself as Beth—the same Beth that the detectives encountered at the Ranch for runaway prostitutes of which Dora Lange formerly belonged in ’95. She praises Marty for being a hero, and the two end up having sex in her apartment later that night.

Rust, however, remains focused on the case as always. He tracks down Joel Thierot—the minister from the traveling Church encountered in “The Locked Room”—and questions the now drunken and disbanded minister about his dealings with Tuttle. The former religious man feigns bureaucratic issues at first, only to crumble under Rust’s questioning. He confesses that after questioning the administration with incriminating photos of underage children found hidden within a book that he knew that his days working for Tuttle administration were over.

Back a the office, Rust is in the midst of drawing out a confession from a woman who unplugged her baby from a breathing machine. Rust also makes special note of the fact that her previous two children had also died of “SIDS”. After receiving her confession, Rust offers her the “advice” that: “The newspapers…they’re gonna be tough on you…and prison is very, very hard on prisoners who hurt kids…if you get the opportunity you should kill yourself”.

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A bit later, Rust demands Marty type up the report of the incident—citing the latter to finally confront Rust for his abnormally strange behavior of late (even by Rust standards). Rust becomes particularly aggressive, citing his successes and any of Marty’s due to him, causing a clear rift to begin to emerge between the two partners. Nonetheless, Rust questions Kelly—the girl he rescued from the Reggie LeDoux Compound—where she reluctantly reveals the presence of a third man: The Man With the Scars. The memory of his presence causes her eruption into an uncontrollable anxiety attack that incites Rust to leave and the doctors to sedate her.

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At the office, Rust explains to the new Major—Leroy (played by Spiros Vondas himself, Paul Ben-Victor)—about his theory of more missing children connected with the Tuttle Wellspring program—only to be dismissed by both the Major and Marty. Despite a warning not to pursue this, Rust interview Billy Lee Tuttle himself. Under the guise of investigating tax records, he asks Tuttle about tracking down any files, personnel, or faculty—to which the Reverend blames a flood or dodges his way around questions. Unsurprisingly, the Major quickly learns of Rust’s clandestine interview and suspends him without pay.

Back in the Hart residence, Maggie suspects that Marty is still cheating on her while doing his laundry and checks his phone to find a number of nude texts from Beth. Hoping to turn the tables on him, she goes to a bar to pick up a date—only to find herself unable to follow through. Still, after, she meets Rust at his lonely apartment and speaks about her troubles with Marty. Seconds later, the two are making love—when immediately after, Rust screams at her to get “the fuck out”. Maggie later tells Marty about her stand with Rust, flying Marty into a typical volatile rage.

The next day, Rust returns to the office for his files but Marty quickly attacks him in the parking lot. The two engage in an all-out brawl with the equal damage to both sides. In the Major’s office later, the two remain quiet about the source of the fight—prompting Rust to quit the job but not before complimenting Marty on his “nice hook”.

2012

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The 2012 events are most interesting for their introduction to present day Maggie—remarried and more confident than ever. Perceptive to the detective’s prodding of her, Rust, and Marty, she offers answers that toe the line between truth and lying by omission—but enough to apparently satisfying Papania and Gilbough.

Marty, meanwhile, grows increasingly annoyed by the detective’s questioning of him, Rust, the implication of Tuttle’s overdose after Rust’s return, and the split between the two former partners. Marty finally decides that he has had enough and leaves the room—telling the detectives that if they call again he will not help. Driving back home, Marty realizes that Rust is the one repeatedly honking for him to pull over. He reluctantly does so, and after a decade long gap between the two, agrees to meet Rust for a beer.

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REVIEW

Now firmly moving toward its final endgame, “Haunted Houses” is the first episode to set the stage for the series’ finale. With Rust’s interviews now over, present-day Maggie is brought forward to replace him—offering few actual answers but providing further support for the series overarching themes of false narratives. Moreover, the episode works to fill in the gaps for several major narrative elements—finally revealing the (somewhat predictable) cause for the split between the two detectives and further solidifying Rust’s strong suspicions toward Tuttle and his connection with the missing kids, Dora Lange, and the Yellow King.

The episode opens with Marty in quite disturbing fashion, as, yet again; he uses his police powers to fulfill personal impulses of exacting revenge on the boys caught with Audrey. Marty’s quote, as well, in justifying his behavior to the boys in saying: “a man’s game charges a man’s price…take that way from this if nothing else” only underscores the bizarre code of masculinity that composes so much of his sense of identity. This idea is further highlighted during Marty’s shopping expedition, when after purchasing and walking around with a bag of tampons, he feels the attraction of the nearby bar—an area that may help reaffirm his sense of masculinity.

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Moreover, he succumbs to seduction from Beth after her inflating his ego with a barrage of compliments and flirtatious remarks that leads to their having sex. This act helps bring to mind Rust’s remark from their initial meeting with Beth at the ranch in Episode Two, where after Marty handed Beth a sum of money to do something else with her life, Rust commented: “Is that a down payment?” Though Marty rebuked his partner’s remark as “shitting on anything decent”, he has come to fulfill the remark nearly seven years later. It’s also interesting to note that Fukunagu repeatedly trains the camera on the angel/devil figurines with her bedroom—the latter bearing horns that call to mind the antlers imposed on Dora Lange and the former posed with hands bound in prayer that further echo the image of Dora’s death.

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Most importantly, this episode finally brings about the climax for the most prominent relationships in Marty’s personal and professional life—the dissolution of both his marriage and his partnership with Rust. As Maggie astutely notes in her interview with Papania and Gilbough, “Rust knew exactly who he was and there was no talking him out of it…Marty’s single big problem was that he never really knew himself, so he never really knew what to want”. Marty’s conflict over his view of himself as a good man finally comes to a head within this statement. As Maggie has repeatedly told him that he used to be a good man, after his murdering Ledoux, after holding affairs and thinking that he may have failed as a father with his daughter Audrey, when Beth feeds him lines like: “You’re a good man, anybody can see that. I saw it the first time I met you. God gave us these flaws, that’s something I learned…he doesn’t see them as flaws, it’s how he made us, the universe forgives all”—his mistress helps further solidify Marty’s self-delusions of his identity that are broken by the end of the episode.

And after Maggie scrolls through his phone to find texts of Beth, she sits beside him in the living room—only to find Marty being his same old self. He goads his daughter, Audrey, and when she flees the room in a huff—he’s more interested in the game than confronting his daughter’s emotions. Exactly like in ’95. When rather than addressing his daughter’s disturbing drawings, Marty would keep his eyes on the TV—rather than on his daughter just below him—the detective’s curse mentioned previously. When Maggie finally confesses about her affair with Rust, his first reaction is—of course—to threaten her with violence, which she counteracts by urging him to do so: literally pushing her throat into his hands. When Marty fails to follow through with the act, Maggie calls him a “coward”.

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Nonetheless, he carries this rage over to Rust the following day, where he engages in a full-blown boxing match with his former partner. There’s an elliptical sense of structure to ending on this after the opening of him beating up the boys in the opening—boys who engaged with another of Marty’s family members in illicit sexual activity. Though Rust almost appears to be dodging Marty’s blows and letting him have it out, the former finally slams Marty’s head into the taillight to stop the fight—breaking Marty’s self-delusion of physical power that the opening fight with the boys may have instilled.

Despite their torrid past, Marty feels reluctant to believe that Rust may be the killer responsible in the present. Juxtaposed with Maggie’s interview, this episode serves as almost a companion piece to the idea of Marty (and now Maggie) presenting falsified versions of the stories of their past while the viewer watches the “real” version play out in ’02. For despite their individual histories and problems with Rust, both seem to demonstrate a sense of complicity in Rust’s quitting the job—though neither seems willing to acknowledge that he may responsible for any crimes.

Meanwhile, Rust’s own drive to solve the crimes by looking into pieces from the past helps confirm his suspicions about the Tuttle organization’s involvement. When first meeting with the bereaved father, then former minister Joel Thierot—Rust hardly needs any more credence to his theory regarding the Wellspring program. * Like he’s able to do with so many suspects, Rust is able to draw out a confession for the minister’s real reason for leaving the organization after finding incriminating evidence damning Tuttle only for the matter to be handled “internally”.

*(At this point, it’s also worth noting that the exterior of the Tuttle office is completely surrounded by children and his wearing a Yellow Tie sends an all-too symbolic signal. Also, Tuttle’s remark regarding Thierot that: “It’s hard to trust a man who can’t trust himself with a beer…don’t you think?” has an especially ironic tinge to it knowing that Tuttle will later die of a supposed drug overdose.)

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Moreover, we’re offered a more abrasive and confrontational Rust than ever before—a Rust who has reached his breaking point with Marty, with the bureaucracy of the police institution, and with the hypocrisy of the religious institution. His meeting with both the woman who killed her daughter and blamed SIDS, then with his meeting the still horribly traumatized Kelly from the Ledoux Compound—all seem to incite that fire that Rust has managed to keep somewhat in check before. Nonetheless, as Maggie tells the detectives, “Rust knew exactly who he was”. His chastising Marty for just needing “something to salute”, his passive-aggressive dialogue with Tuttle, and his decision to ultimately quit the force after his fight with Marty and refusal to obey the Major—all these factors help Rust to ultimately shed even that thin veneer of traditional social appearance that he had upheld for these years in favoring of becoming the man that we see in the present—an alcoholic, disheveled, shadow of himself—yet one still uncompromising and resolute in his determination to finish his job as a detective.

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True Detective. Season One, Episode 5. “The Secret Fate of All Life” Recap & Review

“The Secret Fate of All Life”

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1995

The fifth episode of the series and last to depict the events of ’95 begins with Rust and Ginger meeting Reggie’s cousin and cook partner—DeWall. The latter declines to do business with Cohle (“I don’t like your face, it makes me want to do things to it.”), but with Marty trailing his vehicle in the aftermath of the meeting, unknowingly leads the two detectives back to his and Reggie’s drug compound found deep in the bayou. Rust and Marty avoid the various traps and hidden explosives before confronting and arresting Reggie in his bathrobe. The supposed killer of Dora Lange mutters a number of cryptic comments to Rust regarding Carcosa and Black Stars, though his ramblings are quickly stopped when Marty reappears from the home and shoots Reggie in the head upon seeing something of horror within the compound. DeWall flees the scene in a panic and kills himself after tripping upon what Cohle later describes as his “homemade cracker-ass security system”.

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Rust then investigates the Ledoux Compound that drove Marty into such a rage to find two imprisoned children. The two detectives then stage the scene to hide Marty’s murder and leave behind evidence that would point to a shootout between the two parties. Afterward, the two carry away the children from the compound and are awarded as heroes for their actions. Maggie even forgives Marty for his infidelities, and Rust seems to find a connection with a nurse named Lisa that Maggie set him up with in the intervening years that transition into…

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 2002

Despite Marty’s somewhat solid footing back in the good graces of Maggie, his relationship with his daughter Audrey has dissolved over the subsequent years. She now sports a rebellious attitude that does not bode well with her traditional father—culminating in a night wherein she is arrested and Marty ultimately slaps his daughter across the face. Meanwhile, Rust’s reputation as the best “assist man” in the state has led to his being called in to interrogate nearly any suspect that the Louisiana PD can’t crack on their own. One of these interrogations leads to Guy Francis—a robber who attempts a plea deal by mentioning the name of The Yellow King.

This sends Rust into a fury, and he slaps the criminal for more evidence in a move that ultimately makes the confession inadmissible. When Rust later demands for Marty to join him in questioning Guy, they find the suspect dead—having committed suicide after a phone call with his “lawyer”. Rust investigates further to find that the phone call was made at an anonymous phone booth way out in the middle of nowhere and that Guy had family who were no doubt threatened by whatever conversation occurred over the phone call in the aftermath of his mentioning the Yellow King name. In the midst of this investigation, Rust finds that one of the two officers guarding Guy’s cell had the last name Childress. Unnerved by Guy’s revelation, Rust begins looking into old case files and examining other reports “made in error” before again investigating the Tuttle Light of the Way School—wherein he finds a collection of eerie angelic drawings and bird/devil trap totems like those left at the crime scene of Dora Lange.

 

2012

Marty and Rust recount their version of the events in the Ledoux compound to Papina and Gilbough with a drastically different account than the one depicted on screen. Instead, their version favors a wild shootout that led to Marty being able to find a clean shot and murder Ledoux in the back of the head. Marty then further discusses his belief in the detective’s curse over the intervening years after the arrest, when he realizes that so many of the clues to his current state of life were right under his nose the whole time. Moreover, he ponders the idea of letting the good years of life slip through your fingers. At last, he threatens to walk away unless the inquiring detectives reveal their motive—to which Papina and Gilbough admit their suspecting Rust for the most recent murder and pushing the narrative of the Dora Lange case how he sought fit—citing the discovery of Rianne Olivier as their biggest piece of evidence. All this, however, is quickly dismissed by Marty, who believes Rust was reading into them and their materials—rather than the other way around.

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Rust, meanwhile, finally concludes his previous philosophical ramblings—but not before the grand finale of detailing the m-brane theory and incorporating some of Nietzsche’s teachings to the two detectives. Rust similarly explains the arrest in a falsified version of the story before launching into a thought-provoking monologue into ideas of time, death, and existence that leave Papina and Gilbough befuddled yet also help succinctly explain for so much of enduring cynicism and hopelessness seen in Cohle’s character throughout previous episodes. More importantly, these ideas illuminate ideas of narrative that have been at the heart of his prior confessions and which ultimately epitomize many of the show’s most prominent themes. Lastly, the detectives finally lay their cards on the table—showing Rust surveillance shots of him captured at the latest Lake Charles crime scene and believing that he may be with holding evidence in his storage shed out near Church Point. They cite the inconsistencies in his story, the death of Billy Lee Tuttle upon his “return” from Alaska, and their ultimate theory that he may have been pushing the agenda of the case. All of this is more or less laughed away by Cohle, as he finally leaves the interrogation room refusing to give them access to his shed—thanking them for the beer, but “beyond that, you wasted my fuckin’ day, company man”.

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REVIEW

While the previous episode contains the show’s most memorable action sequence through the tracking shot of Rust’s escape from the housing project, “The Secret Fate of All Life” contains what is perhaps the show’s most memorable writing from a storytelling standpoint. From Rust’s philosophical expansion of Ledoux’s “time is a flat circle” comment, to the false narrative employed by 2012 Rust and Marty against the incredible set-piece of their raid on the compound, to the excellent transition out of ’95 and into ’02, “The Secret Fate of All Life” demonstrates exactly why the episode deserves the many writing accolades for which it achieved.

The conclusion of the ’95 storyline and the hunt for Ledoux marks a major turning point for both the larger story and characters. Using the Louisiana backwoods and bayou setting to incredible atmospheric effect and building up the detectives’ raid upon the compound with an excellent escalation of suspense—from their spotting the bird traps, the trip wire explosives, their refusal to call in back up, their slow stalking of Ledoux—the raid itself starts off this riveting episode with a bang.

Ledoux’s cryptic and haunting comments to Cohle—mentioning all the series’ mythological touchstones from Carcosa, to the Black Stars, and culminating in his “time is a flat circle” comment—offer further tension in the midst of Marty’s own investigation into the compound’s contents, where he finds two kidnapped and traumatized children. After now multiple moments depicting Marty’s immediate response to conflict as explosive violence, he exits the compound and shoots Ledoux in the head in cold-blooded murder. Though Cohle justifies Marty’s murder in stating that Ledoux deserved to die and that he’s glad to see Marty “commit to something”, the two must immediately clean up the crime scene to leave evidence for a different story. Within this incredible sequence, Marty and Cohle’s testimonials from 2012 are expertly weaved through the editing to be simultaneously juxtaposed against the real events of ’95 that are as cinematic and compelling as they are thematically relevant.

With so much of the series’ main thematic focus on being on the idea of narrative—the stories Marty and Rust tell themselves about their own identity, their story to Papania and Gilbough about the story of ’95, the mythological touchstone of the Yellow King being a reference to Chambers’ “The King in Yellow” (a story about a story that drives people insane)—this sequence which so expertly marries the editing, dialogue, and character demonstrates all of these ideas to unifying and compelling effect.

Moreover, the “time is a flat circle” comment that has grown to become one of the show’s most memorable and quoted phrases serves as a perfect transition and expansion of this theme from the ’95 storyline, to 2002, and the present. For despite catching whom they believe to be Dora Lange’s killers, and being rewarded as such, so many of the same struggles previously seen still remain. Maggie reluctantly accepts Marty back into their familial life, only for him to remain as hypocritical and confused as ever. For after having his own affairs and sexual deviances, Marty finds himself belittling his thirteen-year-old daughter and eventually slapping her in the face for her behavior and refusal to adhere toward how he wants a woman to behave.

Like murdering Ledoux upon seeing his crimes, Marty’s slaps his daughter in the face in yet another demonstration of his explosive, violent response to conflict. Likewise, when his daughter protests that Marty can’t press charges against the older boys, he responds, “I can do whatever I goddamn want to those boys”—yet again demonstrating his abuse of authoritarian and police power as a detective with a badge. Like with his terrorizing Lisa for having an affair, like his shooting Ledoux in the face, and now like slapping his daughter in the face—the detective’s repetitive response exemplifies the “time is a flat circle” idea that he is doomed to live out these horrible choices within himself time and time again—despite whatever small victories he may have. Though he does admit in the 2012 interviews that “infidelity is one kind of sin, but my one true failure was inattention, I realize that now”, Marty appears destined to repeat his same mistakes time and time again.

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Likewise, despite Rust’s apparent victory against Ledoux, he learns that the events of the Yellow King have returned in 2002 during his interrogation of Guy Francis. The mention of the Yellow King returns him back to the tree in Erath where he once found Dora Lange (and finds a flat circle of knots within the trunk), along with the missing picture of Stacy Gerhart, and his return to the Light of the Way school from Episode Three. And upon further investigation into the school, he finds disturbing pictures of angels (mentioned in Dora’s diary) and an array of twig totems like those found at the Ledoux compound and numerous other locations connected with the King. When the detectives ask Marty what happened to Rust and his girlfriend, he responds: “What always happens between men and women: reality”. Again, there’s meaning to be interpreted here with the false narrative of Rust being able to live like a normal, married man only for the reality of his job and personality to supersede any chance of making that a reality.

Much of this philosophy incorporating elements of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence helps give some insight into Rust’s unstable psychology and cynical attitude toward resolution that has been peppered into prior episodes. It’s worth noting that in the shot of the detectives rescuing the kids from the Ledoux compound, with each carrying one of the two children, Rust is carrying the dead boy in his arms rather than the afflicted girl that is in Marty’s–perhaps representing Rust’s own dead child–and his continual failure to save the child’s life. Rust repeats this idea in his interview with Papina and Gilbough that those kids will always be there in that compound, that his interview with the detectives may have happened or will have happened again, and these evils that have haunted his life so far (like the death of his daughter and inability to maintain a stable marriage) will only continue to recur in endless cycles of time. As further outlined in more abstract concepts regarding eternity’s creation of time in order to have something kill, this horribly unnerving idea is what lends the episode its title as being the secret fate to all life.

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Nonetheless, this episode does mark the turning point for the typical structure of the series’ episodes by having Papina and Gilbough finally lay out their cards on the table that they do indeed believe Rust may responsible for the most recent Lake Charles murder and may be withholding evidence within his storage shed near Church Point. Rust insults them for the accusation and leaves the confession room—disappointed in not being able to glean any new information about the murder. (It’s worth noting at this point that Rust’s drinking throughout the interviews will make his interrogation inadmissible.) Still, with the ’95 storyline more or less wrapped up and much hinting toward the break between Marty and Rust in ‘02, the episode’s conclusion leaves the viewer with more questions than ever toward finding the true identity of the killer and wrapping up the case of Dora Lange.

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