True Detective. Season One, Episode Four. “Who Goes There” Recap & Review

Season 1, Episode 4: “WHO GOES THERE”

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1995

 “Who Goes There” opens with the return of Charlie Lange—Dora’s ex-husband—locked up in prison. Rust and Marty are irate with the man for apparently concealing information on his cellmate—Reginald LeDeoux—who the detectives have fingered as the most likely suspect in Dora’s murder. Charlie adamantly protests the accusations—growing more and more irate himself that Reggie could be responsible for Dora’s death. When further questioned, Charlie insists that Reggie is crazy in a very real and dangerous way—that he would often speak of devil worship and violence to women and children in a manner that even caused his fellow prison inmates to avoid him. Nonetheless, he gives up a known associate between them—Tyrone Weems—that may help the detectives track down Charlie’s whereabouts.

The next morning, Lisa confronts Marty about his drunken trespassing the other night—to which the latter basically shoves his mistress aside. This leads to Marty coming home to find his family absent…and a left note by Maggie. Marty immediately calls Lisa to confirm that she told Maggie about the affair. In an angry and drunken stupor, Marty then takes to the streets to find Tyrone. He tracks him to a nightclub, where he then pulls a gun on Weems for information on Ledoux. Weems confesses that he has fallen out of contact with him, but there are rumors that he only supplies his brand in bulk to one group: The Iron Crusaders. Marty passes along the information to Rust, who explains that he is familiar with the bikers from his days working undercover.

Marty drunkenly confronts Maggie during her hospital nightshift, until Rust manages to corral him with the news that he has a line on the Crusaders. Marty takes up temporary resident with Rust in the midst of this separation, where the latter decides that the two will have to go “off the books” in order to find Ledoux. Rust uses the excuse of having to visit his father in Alaska in order to reinstate himself in his undercover identity—stealing cocaine from the evidence room, injecting ink and cayenne to pass as a drug addict—while Marty adapts to his new life as a bachelor living in Rust’s apartment. Rust also reaches out to Maggie about the possibility of getting back with Marty, though she seems reluctant to do and insults Rust’s suggestions for rationalizing the situation.

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A few days later, the big night has finally arrived. Rust makes contact with his former Iron Crusaders contact—Ginger—under the guise that he was formerly working security for a Mexican Cartel and is now breaking off to do his own thing. He wants to make a deal exchanging his cocaine (stolen rom the police evidence room) for the Crusaders’ meth dealer. Ginger agrees to connect the two under the condition that Rust helps rob a stash house in a housing project that night, which the undercover detective reluctantly agrees to. The Crusaders invade the stash house disguised as cops, and the robbery quickly turns awry. One of the residents is murdered, and a riot breaks out amongst the entire project. Rust quickly drops his undercover façade, coercing Ginger at gunpoint to cooperate, and manages to flee the chaotic scene with Marty acting as their getaway driver.

 2012

Since most of the ’95 storyline involves Rust’s off-the-book behavior and “leave of absence”, the 2012 interviews are pretty much a moot point. Papania and Gilbough question inconsistencies in Rust’s story—most notably the fact that there are no records of his father’s leukemia—but these are small additions to their already strong suspicions surrounding Rust’s story.

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 REVIEW

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Despite being one of the most riveting episodes of the season, “Who Goes There” is also an episode that spends the most time on what seems like almost a complete diversion from the main case. Though the two detectives are obviously in search of Ledoux—the episode’s main narrative focus with Ginger allows for sequences of incredible tension and a long-take that stands as one of the best in television and filmmaking canon at large. Nonetheless, it’s also a storyline so completely removed from the laser-focus goals of normal episodes that it’s truly an anomaly of an episode on second rewatch. This isn’t so much a criticism, as a curious observation, as a great deal of material remains to be discussed in this noteworthy episode.

Starting with Charlie Lange, Dora’s former husband gives further subtle hints in identifying the unifying mythology of the Yellow King and Carcosa in his cell—remarking: “He [Charlie] said that there’s this place down south, where all these rich men go to…uh, devil worship…he said they sacrifice kids and whatnot…women and children…all got murdered there…and something about some place about Carcosa and the Yellow King…He said there’s just so much good killing there…Reggie got this brand on his back like in a spiral…he says that’s their sign.”

Past that, much of the Yellow King storyline is pushed to the side in favor of tracking down leads to Charlie LeDoux largely removed from the Yellow King. Likewise, the 2012 interviews are rendered a mostly moot point past further Cohle suspicions since his dying father excuse doesn’t match police records. Instead, the story pushes important character plot points forward—namely, Marty’s divorce. After a great scene of Marty giving his disposition toward justifying his breaking into a home—with Lisa glaring daggers at him as the court reporter and remembering his similar behavior (similarly unjustified) from the night prior—she confronts him about his abrasive and inappropriate behavior, which Marty more or less shrugs aside.

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Marty’s problematic morals are underlined by Rust in the episode’s opening after the former criticizes Rust for reminding Charlie that it was “his fault…Guy was already low”. To which Rust respond, “…You’re funny, Marty. The shit you get soft about.” Though the prior episodes have routinely established Marty’s moral hypocrisy on multiple occasions—juxtaposing his sense of righteousness and values as a family man in his Papania and Gilbough interviews with ’95 scene of his infidelities—this episode finally sets the stage for the separation between Marty and his family that will result in his stark change of character in future episodes.

During Marty’s intense tracking and interrogations of Weems, as well, Marty finally exposes cracks in his psychology between his instinct for explosive violence and following the proper code expected of an officer. (There’s also a hilarious Easter Egg during Marty’s investigation wherein he must question a bartender—who is played by the show’s writer and exec producer Nic Pizzolatto—asking him “Why you make me say this, man?”)

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Moreover, his and Rust’s decision to go completely off the books in the pursuit of their goal reveals a sense of moral similarity between the two and understanding when they believe it is appropriate to engage in more unlawful activities in the pursuit of a greater good. This unlawful activity, of course, is given the majority of the episode’s running time through Rust’s going undercover as an Iron Crusader. From his horrifying story about a Cartel’s routine for catching an undercover agent, to his stealing cocaine from the evidence room, to injecting ink and cayenne into his arm to pass for a heroin user, the sequence takes on a palpable level of dread and tension about this rendezvous with the bikers. Though Rust adapts to his undercover appearance with ease, there’s always an atmosphere of suspense hanging over every moment as the viewer waits for things to take a turn for the worst. And when Rust is seeing being driven away to Ginger’s headquarters to prepare for the heist, Marty’s sinking feeling of anxiety translates directly upon the audience. Then, watching Rust snort copious amounts of heroin while in a room with a gang of dangerous bikers and a hostage, this mood of heightened anticipation never abates.

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Instead, Fukunaga amplifies and intensifies the suspense through a six-minute-plus uninterrupted single tracking shot of the robbery. With a soundtrack that perfectly mixes an unwavering and unsettling beat mixed with the chaotic noise of robbery gone awry, this unbroken shot elevates the tension of this moment into full-blown pandemonium. However, it is a controlled pandemonium—one that nearly overloads the viewer’s sensory expectations for how such a scene can unfold by refusing to break the rising suspense of the moment against the aggressively expanding wave of dread and confusion surrounding it.

Despite knowing that both detectives will obviously remain unharmed in their future 2012 interviews, this sequence just demonstrates with extraordinary aplomb—like the series itself—its incredible control of craft and ability to transcend typical production values as previously seen in television. A sequence easily able to stand against the Henry Hill’s Copacabana entrance of Goodfellas, anything by Paul Thomas Anderson, the Oldboy hallway fight…this is a tracking shot that imbues every element of emotion and narrative necessary to rank amongst the best and deserves to be applauded and remembered for doing so. Though no other moment in the series may rival this sequence from a technical standpoint, it’s one of the show’s most memorable and riveting—one that serves as an excellent endpoint to the series’ halfway mark.

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True Detective. Season One, Episode Three. “The Locked Room” Recap & Review

Season 1, Episode 3: “THE LOCKED ROOM”

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1995

 “The Locked Room” picks up right where “Seeing Things” left off…with Rust, Cohle, and a team of criminologists investigating the mural upon the Church wall. This transitions to the two detectives listening to preacher Joel Thierot in the midst of a rousing speech to his congregation. Upon observing this crowd, Rust makes a series of critical remarks toward religion and its followers that prompts a number of small arguments back from Marty. Afterward, the two question the churchgoers to find that Dora was often seen accompanied by a tall man. During a quick meal break following the Church scene, Marty further accuses Rust of being too obsessive, which prompts Rust’s own derisive remarks toward Marty’s work ethic.

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On a day off, Rust is found talking with Maggie in Marty’s living room. The latter arrives home to find his lawn cut and Rust alone with his family—causing a tense confrontation between the two partners afterwards. That night, Marty questions his daughter Audrey about her sexually explicit drawings—though Maggie can tell that Marty is more interested in the game on the television than his daughter’s mental well-being. In their bedroom afterward, the couple remains at odds: with Maggie question everything about Marty’s attitude as of late.

Soon after, Rust’s incredible skill with suspects inside “the box” is demonstrated. The detective is able to deftly probe possibly witnesses for guilt—eliciting impressed remarks all around from Marty and the 2012 detectives when reviewing his assist records. Moreover, Rust’s insomnia and obsessive nature is given further presentation as he combs over countless boxes of dead bodies looking for some clue as to link the Dora Lange murder with a previous body.

However, his meticulous investigating is cut-short by needing to attend to a date arranged by Marty and Maggie. At this dinner, Marty spots Lisa on a date with another man and signals for her to meet him at the bar. There, the two discuss their relationship status—with Lisa vowing that it is over. Meanwhile, Rust explains his synesthesia to his date.

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Afterward, Marty drunkenly drives to Lisa’s apartment and beats the living hell out of her date—Marty flashing his badge and threatening his police power throughout the ordeal. That same night, Rust remains alone in his solitary room—studying evidence and chain-smoking cigarettes until he receives a call from Maggie. Marty’s wife remains suspicious of her husband’s whereabouts, though Rust pleads ignorance.

The next morning, Rust uncovers a break in the case in the death of Rianne Olivier. What was previously thought to be a case of a flood-drowning victim reveals the mark of the King on the small of her neck—just like Dora Lange. On the ride to question Rianne’s grandfather, Marty expresses doubts as to his morals as a “good man”—prompting Rust’s “the world needs bad men…we keep the other bad men from the door” line. Upon meeting the grandfather, they learn of Rianne’s boyfriend—Reginald Ledoux. They also learn of her attendance at Light of the Way School—a Tuttle Family Foundation School—while also acquiring her box of personal effects.

When the detectives move to investigate the school, they encounter “the lawnmower man” and learn of the school’s closing down in ’92. They then soon learn of Reggie Ledoux’s statuary rape complaints and his bust in connection with a meth lab, where, during prison, he was learned to be cellmates with Charlie Lange. The episode’s final shot includes a haunting last shot of Ledoux—clad in a gas mask, underwear, and wielding a machete.

 2012

Marty’s interview mostly concerns further support toward Rust’s skills as an investigator—his success as a “box man” and his eye for detail. However, his compliments about Rust’s skills are juxtaposed against his excuse that the other detectives had “families”, “boundaries”, and “responsibilities” that kept them occupied instead—these explanations often cut against Marty’s infidelities with Lisa or his disinterest in parenting his troubled daughter.

Meanwhile, Rust’s interviews shed further light on how much his obsessive detective work warped his viewpoint of human life. Hours and hours of staring at dead bodies being xeroxed at late-night hours in the police department have seemingly removed Rust’s sense of empathy for any hope of individual meaning. He speaks in great lengths about the fallacies of religion, of hope, of individual identity, of memories, of dreams—all of these various philosophical points embodied within the idea of the dream within a “locked room” that is the human mind and gives the episode its title.

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(Spoilers All)

REVIEW

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Though “Locked Room” still contains some of the show’s most memorable characters bits, it is also a “chess piece” episode—in that it’s mostly focused on shifting certain plot elements to move the story forward more than anything else. Nonetheless, like the show does best, even these small bits are mostly disguised through further character treatment and greater glimpses into the interior of the two detectives’ lives.

The early scene with Joel Thierot’s church allows for some of Rust’s most famous lines in his criticism of religion and its churchgoers. Though Marty predictably bites back at many of these jibes (Rust: “What do you think the average IQ of this group is, huh?” Marty: “can you see Texas up there on your high horse?”), the former’s does speak toward aspects of human nature and religion that allow insight into his view on religion’s role as it relates to storytelling:

“Transference of fear and self-loathing to an authoritarian vessel—it’s catharsis. He absorbs their dread with his narrative, because of this, he’s effective in proportion to the amount of certainty he can project”. And morals: “if the only thing keep a person decent is the expectation of divine reward, then brother, that person is a piece of shit…”

As those religious leaders of the police and state (Billy Lee Tuttle, his Light of the Way Schools) are found to be responsible for the crimes against the children, Rust’s judgments actually contain more narrative relevance than many reviewers were quick to point out in the episode’s initial debut. There’s even a very quick line from Joel Thierot when questioned on his background, where he states: “I came up under Billy Lee Tuttle and went to his college up in Baton Rouge a couple years.”

These ’95 discussions of religion transition to Rust’s interview with Papania and Gilbough, where Rust’s ramblings focus on much larger existential ideas of purpose and meaning. Though his monologues remain adamant about the futility of expecting any sense of closure, one particular line deserves especial attention for its eventual comeuppance in the finale:

“The ontological fallacy of expecting a light at the end of the tunnel, well, that’s what the preacher sells…and then he tells you it’s a fuckin’ virtue…and it’s such a desperate sense of entitlement, isn’t it…surely this is all for me.” During Rust’s glimpse into the void—a literal light at the end of the tunnel when battling Errol Childress in Carcosa—he experiences a feeling of fulfillment and personal meaning that is indeed specific to him when feeling the love and presence of his daughter.

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 The rest of Rust’s storyline further demonstrates his detective skills for all its positives and negatives. His late-night hours spent combing through old case files looking for a previous corpse that may attributed to the Yellow King lead to his finding Rianne Olivier—a fellow Light of the Way Student and boyfriend of Reggie Ledoux—a huge crack in the case that comes at the cost of his insomnia and a numbness toward life and death that he credits in part to the hundreds of hours spent staring at dead bodies and considering their ultimate fate.

“I have seen the finale of thousands of lives man…young, old…each one is so sure of their realness…that their sensory experience constituted a unique individual with purpose, meaning…so certain that they were more than a biological puppet…the truth wills out and everybody sees, once the strings are cut, all fall down.”

Moreover, his skills as a “box man”—a detective able to ascertain a suspect’s guilt or confession in a crime is given demonstration. When interviewing various suspects with facial scarring, Rust is able to perform a very theatric form of questioning and coercion to allow for the subject to finally open up after Rust is able to tear down the barrier holding them back. When questioned by Papania and Gilbough, Rust states: “I never been in the room more than ten minutes, I didn’t know whether the guy did it or not…how long does it take you?”

A clear jab at the fact that Rust has clearly been in the room with the two detectives for longer than ten minutes, as they continue to consider whether Rust may responsible for the new Lake Charles murder with possible ties to Dora Lange. This is further solidified when Rust remarks: “But then again I’m terrible with cards” in talking about being able to call a suspect’s bluff. The remark deserves attention for the fact that Rust is bluffing his way through this interview with Papania and Gilbough now—both in using the interview to find out information on the Lake Charles murder that he’s not able to ascertain from the inside—and in this whole drunken/drinking charade that will make anything said during his interview inadmissible.

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 Meanwhile, Marty’s storyline mostly focuses on his hypocritical nature that led to his downfall more than anything else. Repeatedly, he criticizes Rust’s methodology and obsessive nature only to contradict his values in favor of his more impulsive pursuits. A scene after their visiting the Church states this more explicitly when Marty tells Rust: “You have a tendency toward myopia…tunnel vision…your obsessive.” To which Rust replies: “You’re obsessive too, just not about the job.

This is perhaps best demonstrated through Marty’s hypocritical failures as a “family man”. When he and Maggie confront Audrey about her sexually explicit drawings, Marty does so while keeping his eyes trained on the basketball game on the TV, rather than focusing on his daughter’s words and emotions. Maggie notices and calls him out on his recent nature of continuing to separate himself from the family. She tells Marty that Audrey is continually withdrawn and asking why her father is working so much, to which Marty blames his working on the case, when, as the audience has seen, it is more due to his time spent with his mistress or drinking with fellow policeman.

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 Marty’s interview with Papania and Gilbough further highlights this hypocritical nature within him (especially in relation to Rust). Marty tells the two interrogating detectives such lines as: “You know what it means to be a father? It means you are accountable for other people. You are responsible for their lives…People give you rules. Rules describe the shape of things”. These lines from 2012 often transition to his actions in ’95, when he is intimidating his mistress at the same family function that he has brought his wife. Or later, during the “people give you rules” line, when he trespasses into Lisa’s apartment and beats up her date—abusing his power as a detective and reminding Lisa and her date about his status as a detective throughout the ordeal.

Marty later expresses some moral compunction about his actions with lines like: “I really wouldn’t have done something like that…I’m not a psycho”. Or when he later asks Rust: “do you wonder ever…if you’re a bad man?” More than anything else, these are statements that exemplify Marty’s absolute doubt in himself: as a man and as a detective. When Maggie is talking with Rust on the phone later, asking why he (and men) don’t give things chances, Rust explains: “Because we know we want. And don’t mind being alone”. This is cleary the opposite of Marty—someone unsure of who we wants and incapable of being alone—as will be later demonstrated following his separation from Maggie in future episodes.

Lastly, as always, a few more clues toward the identity of the Yellow King are revealed. In truth, as those who have seen the season are aware, the Lawnmower Man that Rust meet in this episode will be revealed to be the killer of their pursuit. There’s a great Easter Egg that hints toward this fact seen in the following shot, where the words “NOTICE KING” are visible upon the board on the right hand side of the dividing post.

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The ominous connection between Tuttle, the Light of the Way School, and the murders/disappearances in between are startingly obvious in hindsight—from Tuttle’s creation of the Task Force, to Rianne having gone to the Light of the Way school under Tuttle’s foundation, to Joel Thierot’s mentioning that he went to Tuttle’s college—but these are all pieces of evidences to be linked at a later date…after Rust and Marty have first dealt with Charlie Ledoux—the gas-mask wearing and machete wielding monster—who is first glimpsed at the end of the episode.

True Detective. Season One, Episode Two. “Seeing Things” Recap & Review

Season 1, Episode 2: “SEEING THINGS”

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RECAP

“She articulated a personal vision. Vision is meaning. Meaning is historical.”

1995

Upon finding the bird trap from the Fontenot house at the end of episode one, Rust and Marty continue to ponder the significance of the murderer’s totem. The two then meet with Dora Lange’s mother, where Rust takes note of certain items in the house: an angel statue, an empty medical bottle, and a very curious picture of Dora as a child surrounded by masked men on horses. Her mother and Dora’s friend also mention a Church that Dora had mentioned joining prior to her disappearance. In the car afterward, Marty asks Rust if his mother is still alive, to which he replies “maybe”. Rust also explains about his daughter’s death to Marty, and the dissolution of his marriage that came soon after.

That night, Marty gets drunk with the other cops at a bar called The Elks and calls up his mistress for a late night rendezvous—Lisa Tragnetti (Alexandra Daddario). Afterward, Marty warns her about the fact that the Erath killer may be responsible for more murders and asks her to stay at home, to which she replies “but I can’t meet a nice man at home”. That same night, Rust experiences further visual hallucinations vis-à-vis his synesthesia while driving down the highway. He later meets with the hooker from episode one, who supplies him with further barbiturates. She also offers him sex, though Rust declines. Instead, he prods her for further information about Dora and the hooker offers up the name of “The Ranch”—a rural and isolated brothel for young runaways.

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 The next morning, Rust makes veiled references to Marty’s scent—prompting a violent confrontation wherein Rust threatens to break Marty’s hands for further aggression. In order to find the hidden brothel, the two question a pair of local mechanics reticent to offer the location—prompting Rust to use more violent methods to find the location.

The detectives then drive deep into the woods to find the ranch harboring young runaways turned prostitutes. The madam of this “bunny ranch” bickers with the two, and they also meet Beth—a young runaway staying on the ranch. Before leaving, Marty gives Beth a wad of cash—prompting a “that a downpayment?” from Rust—while the latter departs with Dora’s diary. Inside, he finds the murdered woman’s scribbled ramblings, specifically: talk of “The Yellow King”, Carcosa, and angels. Rust also contemplates the chance that the killer was feeding Dora drugs and slowly upping the dosage without her knowing. They also find an advertisement for a Church folded up in the diary—resolving to seek it out next.

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 At Maggie’s parents house, Marty argues with his father-in-law about the current state of world affairs while Maggie similarly argues with her mother. At home, the bickering continues amongst the couple. When Marty announces dinner to the girls in their room, he notices that the girls have posed their dolls in a clear sexual fashion.

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 At the office, Rust insults the newly appointed members of the occult task force and is reprimanded by the Major for his disobedience. Marty pleads for more time, and the Major relents. The episode concludes with the detectives stumbling upon the demolished remains of Dorothy’s church. But before entering, Rust’s synesthesia gives way to another vision—a peculiar circling of crows that outlines the mark of the Yellow King across the sky. And as the episode ends, the detectives uncover a painting upon the Church’s wall depicting a blindfolded woman posed in the exact same position as Dora Lange was found murdered against the tree.

 2012

 Marty’s interview mostly concerns further prodding from Papania and Gilbough as to Cohle’s methods and interviews within the investigation, along with thinly veiled references as to his needing to “get his head right”—cheat on his wife—for the good of the family. They also question him about the Task Force, to which Marty admits he likewise detested from the start.

Meanwhile, Cohle’s interview offers a great deal more information as to his backstory: his three-year-marriage, the death of his daughter, and his subsequent career transfer from robbery to narcotics, where he unloaded a bullet into a junkie shooting up his infant daughter with crystal meth. This resulted in his transfer to undercover, where in the aftermath of a deadly shootout and extended drug use, Rust landed in a psychiatric hospital in Lubbock, Texas. He is further questioned about his hallucinations, and though he admits to not experiencing them anymore, he does explain that back then: “Most of the time I was convinced, yeah, shit, I’d lost it…there were other times, I thought I was mainlining the secret truth of the universe”.

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REVIEW

(Spoilers All)

Perhaps more than any other episode, “Seeing Things” offers the most comprehensive glimpse into Rust’s backstory and most linear explanation for his current psychological state. Rust’s tragic life history—starting with his absent mother, progressing to the death of his daughter, to the dissolution of his marriage, to his interment at a psychiatric hospital—all allow for the first true insight into how this man came to view to the view the world in such dark, cynical terms.

The ’95 storyline opens in interesting juxtaposition with their meeting Dora’s mother, and the sad state of affairs left in this very broken home. Rust’s keen eye spots the mother’s empty prescription pill bottles, Pieta statue, and most suspiciously—the framed picture of Dora as a little girl surrounded by masked men on horses.

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Meanwhile, the episode also helps sketch an interesting portrait of the psychology that composes the normally “straight” detective of Marty Hart. While episode one sets Marty up as the straight man to Rust’s idiosyncratic personality, Marty is revealed to hold a moral compass far different from Rust—one who justifies cheating on his wife and reprimanding his wife as she makes dinner in the name of the job. (In another case of reading far too into things but interesting in hindsight, Marty is at a bar called Elks—Elks being an animal equipped with antlers not unlike those crowning Dora Lange’s skull—before he drunkenly calls his mistress.)

However, after their sexual rendezvous, Lisa’s very loaded line to Marty in responding that she “can’t meet a nice man at home” works on multiple levels to excellent effect—both answering Marty’s question and addressing his infidelity as being not “good guy” in a single swift line. This aspect of Marty’s very ambiguous morality is highlighted further by the introduction of the “ranch”—a deplorable runaway for young girls turned to prostitutes of which the murdered Dora Lange was a former resident. Despite the horrendous nurture of the setting, The Ranch remains amongst one of the best demonstrations of the show’s superb production design—a faraway shot of the ranch limned by bright lights far deep in the woods standing as one of the show’s best shots. There’s an eerie atmospheric quality that saturates the ranch’s setting—imbuing a feeling of reality so far removed from most fictional portrayals of prostitution that is utilized to memorable effect this otherwise short sequence.

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 More to the point, the madam calls out Marty’s hypocritical nature when confronting such sexuality (and while he is sober with a badge on), when stating: “Why is it you add business to the mix boys like you can’t stand the thought. I’ll tell you why: it’s ‘cus suddenly you don’t own I the way you thought you did”. As revealed in later episodes, it becomes quickly clear that Marty does view women with a possessive sense of nature that continually leads to violence: he beats up Rust after the affair with Maggie, he beats up the boys arrested with Audrey, he beats up the next man having an affair with Lisa instead of him. And of course, Rust’s “is that a down payment” line ends being disturbingly accurate when Marty and Beth meet again after the latter has come of age.

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 Moreover, the episode highlights what a façade Marty’s familial life serves as the classical, masculine male detective. Much to Marty’s chagrin, his father-in-law reminiscences on his era in stating: “People said ma’am and sir. Families stayed together”. This classic view of the American lifestyle comes to odds both against Marty’s current predilection for cheating on his wife, and the fact that he and Maggie do indeed separate following the affair with Rust. It’s also interesting that Marty more or less echoes his father-in-law’s statements during his interview in stating: “There was a time when men didn’t air their bullshit to the world. You know, just wasn’t part of their job.” Of course, the irony in this line being delivered is the fact that Marty is doing exactly that with the detectives in his current interview.

These interviews serve an interesting narrative function in both allowing the audience to understand the methodology of a detective and of the show’s storytelling at large—a story within a story as invisibly and expertly woven by Pizzolatto’s decision to juxtapose these parallel timeline against each other. Marty explains the job to Papania and Gilbough as: “ You know the job, you’re looking for narrative…interrogate witnesses…parcel evidence…establish a timeline…build a story…day after day…” which also perfectly describes the actual narrative and structural foundation of the show itself. The audience is looking for the larger narrative as left unanswered by the clues of the case, Marty and Rust are serving as witnesses, the audience is parceling pieces of evidences established vis-à-vis clues like the bird trap, a timeline is being established, etc…

But again, it is Rust’s insights into his backstory that are most important for this episode. The former detective admits that he believes “it’s not good for people to be around me” when discussing the collapse of his marriage in the wake of his daughter’s death. A sentiment that helps explain a lot of Rust’s curt replies to those in the ’95 timeline. Nonetheless, he also expresses the interesting line: “I know who I am, after all these years, there’s a victory in that”. Though Rust does appear to be all-too-confident in his image of himself and his thoughts on his world, especially as solidified in this line, his seeing “the void” in the finale upends this broken version of himself that has so drastically warped his identity. As will also become relevant in the finale, he explains to Papina and Gilbough as to his daughter’s death that she: “went straight into a coma, then somewhere in the blackness, she slipped off into another, deeper kind. Isn’t that a beautiful way to go out?” Rust glimpses this blackness, then the “deeper kind” when confronted with the void while battling Errol, that offers a striking visual as to this sentiment that’s interesting to keep in mind.

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This episode also gives further examples as to the former detective’s exceptional skills as an investigator. As Marty explains in his interview, “Rust had as sharp an eye for weakness as I’ve ever seen”. This is most memorably demonstrated first on Marty, when Rust begins making passive-aggressive comments in the locker room in the morning after the former’s late night affair with Lisa. Though Marty attempts to again use physical violence against Rust, the latter is able to calmly explain: “you got some self-loathin’ to do this mornin’, that’s fine, but it aint’ worth losin’ your hands over”, as he slowly twists his hands over Marty’s with clear expertise. Later, when searching for the ranch, Rust’s able to ascertain its exact location by exerting incredible athleticism and physical control over the two mechanics holding back information when he’s able to immediately sense that the two are withholding details because of their badges.

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Lastly, Rust’s visions are given a bit further explanation. He explains that he could always tell “what was real and what wasn’t”, but it becomes quickly obvious that sometimes this reality is often a blurred line. The crows that swirl to create the mark of the Yellow King perhaps serving as the best demonstration, as they signal that Rust is close to finding another important clue in the case through the image of the bound woman painted upon the demolished wall of the Church.

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 Though this episode is even more character heavy than most episodes, a few other very important clues of the case begin to emerge. The masked men on horses standing over a young Dora offers the first clue toward an image that will become integral moving forward. Somewhat related, this episode also gives its first glimpse into Audrey’s psychological troubles that will become a more prominent problem later on. Before Marty walks in to the girls’ room to announce dinner, their dialogue can be heard as: “You don’t have a mommy or daddy anymore. Yours died in an accident—

How?

A car accident.”

This one plot thread remains the show’s biggest red herring and disappointingly unanswered question, as this dialogue reflects the death of Rust’s daughter before Marty stumbles upon the image of the dolls posed in the same sexual fashion as the men on horses above a little girl seen in Dora Lange’s house. This is both dialogue and image far, far too important symbolic that sadly remains a mystery. Nonetheless, the detectives do find Dora’s diary within the ranch that offers perhaps their biggest clues as to giving the killer an identity—The Yellow King—along with the first mention of Carcosa. The diary also offers the advertisement for the Church that concludes the episode—a painting of a bound woman posed in eerily similar fashion as the two found Dora Lange.

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True Detective. Season One, Episode One. “The Long Bright Dark” Recap & Review

 

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Season 1, Episode 1: “The Long Bright Dark”

RECAP

1995

 “The Long Bright Dark” opens with the shadow-obscured outline of the series’ killer. The killer affixes the corpse of the victim—who will soon be known as Dora Lange—in a kneeled praying position to a tree, then sets fire to one of the bird traps, before then setting fire to the surrounding brush—allowing for an expansive shot of the fire across the Louisiana horizon. The next morning, Detectives Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) arrive upon the scene to investigate the murder:

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 Dora Lange is shown brutally murdered: her skin discolored, her hands fastened in a gesture of prayer against the tree, a crown of antlers adorned upon her skull, blindfolded, and the mark of the Yellow King tattooed upon the small of her back. Cohle takes meticulous drawings and notes within his ledger—an enormous notebook that earns him the nickname “Taxman”. Meanwhile, Hart and the rest of the state troopers attempt to understand the gruesome scene.

After, Hart invites Cohle to dinner with his wife and the Taxman accepts—despite the fact that it is his (dead) daughter’s birthday and the Dora Lange scene has clearly disturbed him to some degree. On the car ride back to the office, Hart questions Cohle’s philosophic viewpoint on the world to which the latter replies that he considers himself:

“A realist, in philosophical terms: a pessimist…[which] means I’m bad at parties”. The only symbolic significance to the crucifix in Cohle’s otherwise spartan room is in his use of the cross as a means of meditation—he likes to contemplate the moment in the Garden and the idea of blessing your own crucifixion. Cohle further expands upon his philosophy that: “Human consciousness is a tragic misstep in human evolution…we are things that labor under the illusion of having a sense of self”—eliciting more stern glares from Marty.

Later, the detectives take to the street for their investigation: learning about the disappearance of the Fontenot girl years back, the “report made in error” when inquiring to Sheriff Ted Childress about the missing girl, and are given the first drawing of the “green-eared spaghetti monster”, as per the girl’s description. They also meet Dora’s ex-boyfriend Charlie Lange, who sheds little light except to say that she “met a King”.

Back at the office, Hart commends Cohle’s investigative work to Major Ken Quesada (Kevin Dunn), while the rest of the office continues to (facetiously) ponder the symbolic meanings of the Dora Lange scene. Afterward, Cohle takes off to meet with prostitutes that may have known Dora at a local bar. There, he asks one of the hookers for barbiturates—citing his inability to sleep. This line serves as a great transition into the next scene, where we first meet Maggie—Marty’s wife—as she finds her husband asleep in his chair and late for work.

Rust later shows up at Marty’s home for dinner—incredibly drunk. Though Marty tries to get his partner to leave upon arriving, Rust decides to stay after striking a conversation with Maggie: a point of contention that will pay off to devastating effect in later episodes.

The next morning, Rust slaps investigator Steve Geraci (Michael Harney) when he calls Rust a rat. A word that would inspire much hatred from a man who just spent a number of years working undercover and is clearly scarred by the experience. Soon after, the Major introduces Reverend Tuttle to the detectives and announces the creation of a Task Force intended to take over crimes with “Anti-Christian connotations”.

Finally, Rust and Marty investigate the former Fontenot residence of the missing girl. There, they meet the girl’s mother and paralyze uncle. While investigating, Rust finds a bird/devil trap exactly like that left at the crime scene of Dora Lange.

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2012

A close-up of an open camera begins the series of interviews between Detectives Papania and Gilbough and the 2012-versions of Rust Cohle and Marty Hart. The former two detectives are questioning the latter about the death of Dora Lange in 1995—citing the destruction of evidence caused by Hurricane Rita. The two are particularly interested in what Marty has to say about Rust, especially since their split in 2002. Hart narrates his initial encounter with the Dora Lange murder and his initial impressions of his partner, Rust Cohle: “Well, you don’t pick your parents and you don’t pick your partner…out of Texas…rawbone…edgy”.

Next, the first interview of 2012 Rust reveals his disheveled appearance in the intervening years. Rust demands to smoke and drink a six-pack “because it’s Thursday and it’s past noon” (whose actual drinking motive will be revealed by the end of the interviews.) As the inquiries drag on, and Rust continues to prod them with questions of his own, Papania and Gilbough finally reveal the true intent of their interrogation: there has been another murder in the Lake Charles area.

The detectives hint at the fact that Rust and Marty had supposedly captured the killer in ’95, so these interviews are meant to better help their efforts toward ascertaining any clues as to the current murder. Which prompts Rust’s final line: “then start askin’ the right fuckin’ question.”

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REVIEW

(Spoilers All)

More than anything else, “The Long Bright Dark”—the first episode of True Detective’s first season—does an exceptional job of subtly hinting toward the show’s final horrors while establishing the thick atmosphere of dread that saturates the series’ every moment. The pilot, especially, performs a remarkable job balancing the multiple timelines, establishing the identities of the detectives, and drawing the viewer in with an a number of questions left hanging for the audience to ponder.

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 Obviously, the identity of the serial killer being the most prominent—but several others are invisibly weaved into the narrative through the ingenious use of the interview device that allows the audience to re-experience the crime through the jaded eyes of the former detectives, where what is left out of their voice-over is often more intriguing than what is said. What caused Marty and Rust’s 2002 split? What led to Rust’s ridiculously disheveled appearance in the intervening years and his quitting the detective career (especially after clearly being such a successful one?) Did they not catch the killer? Why are Papania and Gilbough so interested in Rust?

Most importantly and impressively, these questions are mostly about the characters—not the case itself—that draw the viewer into the series. Writer Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Fukanaga wisely eschew the expected format of the serial killer drama—one that often indulges in the sadism of the killer—and instead uses the vehicle of the murder to explore the fascinating interior lives of these two very broken men.

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Nonetheless, the actual Dora Lange murder remains amongst one of the most evocative and memorable murders portrayed on television. Despite the brutal and gruesome nature, the scene never wallows in the cruelty of the crime. The entire scene is shot with an aesthetic that favors a poetic quality detached from any tinge of exploitation. Every shot within the scene is composed with a sense of mise-en-scene at its best—one that demonstrates the show’s strongest qualities of atmosphere, tone, and subtlety as embodied in the portrayal of this murder that has evolved into the show’s most iconic visual moment.

The interviews, as well, reward repeated viewings for their hints toward events to be explored in greater depth in upcoming episodes. Marty reiterates that he believes, when discussing Rust, that “past a certain age, a man without a family can be a bad thing”. As is revealed down the road, Marty becomes a shell of himself after his wife’s affair with Rust—making Marty the man without a family that he so defends against in these initial interviews.

Moreover, when Rust joins Marty’s family for dinner in ’95, there are a number of small details interesting in lights of later events. Marty’s daughter voices her complaint of broccoli to which Maggie reprimands her to: “mind your matters”. It’s a tiny, quick moment—but one already hinting that Audrey is going to be the rebellious daughter of Marty’s ire in the near future. Rust and Maggie’s chemistry is also on display. Along with her line about insisting on meeting him: “Your life is in this man’s hands…of course, you should meet the family”.

This line rings with especial resonance in light of the fact that Rust does indeed save Marty’s life in the finale when blowing off the killer’s head while his fingers are wrapped around Marty’s throat—his life literally saved by Rust when it was in the hands of Errol. Simultaneously, however, Marty’s life does end up going down a much darker path after his split with Rust—a split caused by his meeting Marty’s family and the sexual affair with Maggie.

While Rust is undoubtedly the star of the show for his idiosyncratic personality, the show does a clever job mixing in the details of his past, his distinct philosophical viewpoint, his strong sense of ethos, and his haunted personal past to portray this unforgettable character. Much has been made in other critical reviews of Rust’s long-winded, “cynical” monologues expanding on his view of human nature. Though these beliefs are explored to much better great depth in later episodes, they actually serve as great comic relief in this initial episode—with Marty’s “stop saying odd shit” as perhaps the pinnacle of their back-and-forth that injects some much needed humor into the episode.

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 Nonetheless, one also gets a strong and immediate sense of Rust’s unyielding ambition and personal code when called a “rat fuck” by their colleague Steve Geraci—causing Rust to slap him in front of the entire department. Rust’s past working undercover in Texas—as informed by Marty’s voice-over and the tattoo across Rust’s forearm—shed light into why being called a “rat fuck” would remark would elicit such a hostile response. Rust expands upon the horrors that working undercover had upon his psychology in Episode Four, but the fact that his files have been redacted and his disheveled appearance in 2012 help highlight how personally he would take an insult of being called a rat after years working against this identity undercover. The fact that Geraci would be the one to call Rust a rat is especially ironic in considering the fact that Geraci later becomes a rat to the Childress clan in cutting short his investigation of the Fontenot girl—and then a rat to Rust and Marty when they threaten to torture him for details about the Sheriff Childress.

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 Lastly, and least importantly, this first episodes gives the smallest clues as to the sprawling and expansive details linked to the crime. The episode introduces Sheriff Ted Childress and the “report made in error” about the missing Fontenot girl—a fact that will open much more damning ramifications in later investigations. The episode also gives the earliest hints to The Yellow King—with Charlie Lange stating that Dora had mentioned before her death that she was going to become a nun and had “met a king”. Secondly, Childress’ drawing of the “green-eared spaghetti monster” gives the first visual clue into the identity of the killer. And later at the office, Rust and Marty are first introduced to Reverend Tuttle in his conception of the Task Force created to focus on crimes with Anti-Christian connotations: an act that becomes a point of contention for Rust, and a future piece of further evidence in deciphering the Tuttle/Childress connection with the crime.

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 Near the end of the episode, when Rust and Marty visit the Fontenot residence, the lighting paints the scene with a patina of gold from his point-of-view. As Rust hints toward earlier, he is prone to auditory and visual hallucinations as a result of his synesthesia condition and this visual saturation of the Fontenot residence in yellow light might be interpreted as further linking the house with what will eventually become the ultimate evidence for the detectives in uncovering the Yellow King.

A phenomenal debut episode. Not just for the series, but television in general. One that introduces its intentions to reinvent expectations of crime fiction in television as a means of exploring large thematic ideas of violence and as an introspective character study with these two detectives at its center, while also offering the audience just enough expository details to come back next week and engage with the show on a more critical level—following Rust’s advice to start “asking the right fuckin’ questions” for future episodes.

DVD Review: Phantom Museums–The Short Films of the Quay Brothers

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Few filmmakers are capable of creating works as innovative, brave, provocative, and haunting as those produced by identical twin brothers Stephen and Timothy Quay. Working primarily in the medium of stop-motion animation, the Quay Brothers create immersive and singular worlds populated by puppets navigating realms removed from traditional expectations of narrative storytelling. These settings are often constructed with an aesthetic that evokes extremely surreal, dream-like feelings far removed from those fashioned within even the most popular works of animation or those seen in the broader spectrum of experimental or avant-garde filmmaking.

Influenced by a wide-range of artists across multiple mediums—from the animation of Jan Svankmajer, to the music of Czeck composers (who also score much of their work), to traditional ballet, to the writings of Kafka and Bruno Schulz—the brothers filter these influences through the prism of their singular imagination to beautiful and astounding results. The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer and Street of Crocodiles serving as perhaps the best example of this marriage between like-minded thinkers and the Quays own distinctive creative output.

Though Street of Crocodiles remains their most famous and perhaps best work, the disc also includes a treasure trove of lesser-known or hard to find pieces, particularly my own favorite: In Absentia. This twenty-minute-film depicts the crumbling psychology of a woman trapped in a mental institution writing letters to her husband. Though this is the surface level description of what is happening, the Quay’s depiction of this tragic psychological condition creates a deeply unsettling yet hypnotizing glimpse into the mindscape of this woman as has never been so uniquely produced on film. The Brothers incorporate innovative uses of light, animation, live-action, and sound to offer a harrowing impression into the mind of the mentally ill.

The Stille Nacht collection—four short films of the brothers’ collaborations with companies, musicians, and bands—offer further demonstration in the Quay’s pushing their techniques to make memorable animation with what is given to them in the form of broadcast interstitials or music videos.

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The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer, This Unnameable Little Broom (or The Epic of Gilgamesh), and The Comb are three longer, similarly amazing pieces that demonstrate the Brothers’ incorporation of music and extraordinary animation techniques to create a nonverbal film experience that captivates the viewer into the drama through music and distinct visuals that calls to mind something closer to opera or ballet. Moreover, their most famous and ambitious piece—an adaptation of Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles—serves as the best representation of this aesthetic to stunning effect. The only real parallel that comes to mind in regards to this unique marriage of sound and visual to create a nonverbal narrative experience outside traditional narrative cinema can be found in what Kubrick achieved in his sci-fi masterpiece 2001.

Nonetheless, The Brothers Quay occupy a singular space in the pantheon of animation and cinema that this DVD collection exhibits to very demonstrable results. These pieces are imbued with themes, ideas, and aesthetics that leave a haunting and unforgettable experience upon the viewer and often demand repeated viewings to fully embrace the spectacular array of visual design and profound thematic ideals at play. Between their recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York and this DVD Collection, it would appear the Quay Brothers are finally garnering their much-deserved recognition as two of the most remarkable luminaries in the field of animation and filmmaking at large.

Full list of those pieces included in the DVD

The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer (1984)
*This Unnameable Little Broom (Epic of Gilgamesh) (1985)
*Street of Crocodiles (1986), plus original treatment
Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies (1987)
*Stille Nacht I (Dramolet) (1988)
The Comb (1990)
Anamorphosis (1991)
*Stille Nacht II (Are We Still Married?) (1992)
*Stille Nacht III (Tales From Vienna Woods) (1993)
Stille Nacht IV (Can’t Go Wrong Without You) (1994)
*In Absentia (2000)
The Phantom Museum (2003)

Those with asterisks include an accompanying commentary by the Quay Brothers.

Book Review: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

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Set against the historical backdrop of the California Gold Rush, Patrick DeWitt’s titular heroes are brothers Charlie and Eli Sisters, who are also assassins, on a mission to kill a prospector named Hermann Kermit Warm. This combination of memorably comic names, historical setting, and tone described within the premise completely encapsulates all one would need to know about this beautifully bizarre novel. Additionally, however, and to even higher distinction, the novel’s picaresque structure is wrought with exceptional creativity that further distinguishes this work from its many contemporary genre peers and deserves very high praise.

Narrated by Eli Sisters, the brothers serve as assassins for the Commodore—an authoritative figure that tasks the boys with jobs requiring more dangerous or fatalistic endings. The task at hand demands the brothers seek out and kill a one Hermann Kermit Warm—a prospector that has apparently stolen from the Commodore at the cost of his life. The novel is told with a picaresque structure of extremely short, yet memorable, narration of the brothers’ adventures and mishaps in their search for Warm across the Western landscape.

Tonally, the novel strikes a very rare and impressive balance between hilariously sharp dialogue and darkly comic situations that slowly navigate toward scenes of heartbreaking tragedy and acute poignancy. The only real tonal parallel that one may suggest is something close to that of the filmic works of the Coen Brothers, though DeWitt’s original voice still separates itself from those exceptional storytellers. Moreover, the tone complements the pacing of this episodic narrative to very impressive results. The book is an undeniable page-turner without ever losing the depth of its characterization or sacrificing any of the various emotional levels at play.

Though the book touches on a number of familiar Western genre staples—from assassins, to Mexican standoffs, to the larger themes of men imposing their morals upon others within a burgeoning civilization—the novel also successfully eschews many of these classical expectations to surprising and thought-provoking results. Despite the brothers’ job title of assassins, and the numerous violent acts that populate the narrative, the characters are imbued with a very touching and moving sense of pathos very unlike those found in the brutal landscapes occupied by traditional Western fiction. There are questions of moral ambiguity explored within this novel to incredibly successful results that bring to mind aspects of contemporary western writer S. Craig Zahler’s revelatory work (my favorite fiction writer: both A Congregation of Jackals and Wraiths of the Broken Land are masterpieces). Specifically, there are interludes wherein the protagonist confronts what may be the Devil/evil incarnate through the form of a little girl that remains one of the book’s most resonant and thought-provoking creations.

The Western genre stands as one of the best prisms for an author’s exploration of those thematic aspects of their obsession in tandem with those central themes to the American narrative at large. Themes of masculinity, spirituality, luck, the cost of success at the sacrifice of a man’s morals—these are all ideas embedded within the myth of American man and which the Western genre often explores through its setting of a terrain caught between civilization and barbaric tribalism. As the best Westerns are capable, The Sisters Brothers offers a fascinating and praiseworthy peak into DeWitt’s version of these central tenets: allowing a new perspective on both those time-honored traditions of the genre and those specific literary realizations brought forth by his imagination.

Book Review: The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories by H.P. Lovecraft

 

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After falling in love with Lovecraft following my experience with The Case of Charles Dexter WardI picked up The Dreams in the Witch House for a refreshing visit into the more fantastical side of the horror master’s oeuvre, along with S.T. Joshi’s invaluable notes accompanying each text.

As Joshi reminds in his introduction, Lovecraft has both been criticized and (as usual for him) remained grossly critical of his own work in writing “There are my ‘Poe’ pieces & my ‘Dunsany’ pieces—but alas—where are any Lovecraft pieces?” The Dreams in the Witch-House collection mostly focuses on the latter style of the author’s works. This Penguin collection—one of three companion pieces by Penguin Classics including The Things at the Doorstep and The Call of the Cthulu—focuses on the more fantastical “Dream-Cycle” of the author’s work that exemplifies the strong influence of Lord Dunsany upon his artistic prowess as expressed by the author himself.

Nonetheless, Lovecraft’s writing remains as inimitable and impressive as ever—arguably the finest horror author to grace English literature with a command of language unparalleled in the genre. Moreover, Lovecraft often demonstrates in these pieces, more so than in his more celebrated works, the unbelievable level of creativity and invention made possible through a combination of his own distinct mythos and his precocious absorption of literature across the genres. Lastly, as found through the best of all his horror tales, Lovecraft imbues an unprecedented control of tone and language to make palpable a feeling of dread and verisimilitude that turn all his best pieces into unbelievably transportive pieces of literature.

POLARIS”

A short, poetic tale that many have critics have noted as being a large autobiographical piece for Lovecraft as an allegory of his experiences during WW1. Specifically, the fact that Lovecraft was sidelined from major combat (as with the protagonist in the fictional realm of Lamar), due to his own personal neuroses. Despite not having read Dunsany until a bit later, the piece rings with numerous echoes of the Dunsany aesthetic (along with Poe, who influenced both authors) that contributed to his later attitudes expressed above.

The short tale is also notable for being the first to mention Lovecraft’s Pnakotic manuscripts. Additionally, the prose itself imbues a beautiful dream-like and poetic quality (having been based on an actual dream—like many of his stories) that offers a quick, interesting gateway to the aesthetic of the “Dream Cycle” collection.

The Doom That Came To Sarnath

As Joshi notes in his footnotes, “one of the earliest tales written under the influence of Lord Dunsany, whom HPL had seen lecture in Boston in October”. Like “Polaris”, the tale exhibits a more poetic and fantastical version of Lovecraft’s imagination that also mixes aspects of horror. The city of Ib and the stone idol of their god are the central tenets of this similarly short tale that should be more noteworthy for its ability to convey mood, atmosphere, and Dunsanian fantasy that offers an short, enjoyable read filtered with hints to the power of Lovecraft’s writing in the Dream Cycles to come within the collection.

The Terrible Old Man

Most interesting for standing as one of the few Lovecraft tales to include an element of crime as the catalyst for the horror, the tale concerns the horrific consequences upon three young men determined to rob the eponymous old man of the title for his reported wealth. Interestingly, as Joshi notes “The three thieves…represent the three major non-Anglo-Saxon ethnic groups in Rhode Island”. Furthermore, the story stands as the first introduction to Lovecraft’s mythical town of Kingsport (a fictional stand-in for Marblehead, Massachusetts). Again, one of the shorter of Lovecraft tales that offers a very cursory glance into the fantastical side of Lovecraft’s imagination to provocative results.

The Tree

Perhaps most interesting for fans of Machen’s masterpiece “The Great God Pan”, “The Tree” is a short Lovecraft tale set in Ancient Greece concerning the fate of two famous sculptors—Kalos and Musides—and the eponymous tree of the title. Set upon a mountain in Greece and perhaps influenced by the Machen tale mentioned above, another very short fantasy tale by the author that is also notable for its Grecian setting which had long fascinated Lovecraft since early childhood.

The Cats of Ulthar

A humorous, memorable, and truly weird fantasy tale from the master concerning the formation of a law forbidding the killing of cats within the fantastical city of Ulthar. As an enormous (and famously well-known) cat lover himself, the short tale serves as one of his most well-known and acclaimed in the style of Dunsany (specifically, with echoes of Dunsany’s The Idles Days of Yarn). Moreover, it’s certainly one of the most accessible of Lovecraft’s fantasy tales for early initiates.

From Beyond

Easily one of the weakest tales in the collection, the short story concerns an unnamed narrator’s account of his experiences with scientist Crawford Tillinghast, who has invented a machine capable of stimulating the pineal gland to allow experience into alternate planes of reality. Though Lovecraft’s command of mood remains as powerful as ever, and what ultimately keeps the reader from putting the book down, the overall point and conclusion of the story remains muddled and indecisive of what it ultimately hopes to express. Somewhat reminiscent of “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” or “Hypnos” though both tales are far, far superior.

The Nameless City

Another tale inspired by a dream from the author, “The Nameless City” remains one the best in the collection, an underrated story in its own right, and a fascinating precursor to the type of narrative to used to more profound effect in “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The Shadow Out of Time”. The nameless city of the title refers to an abandoned setting somewhere in the Arabian Peninsula, and Lovecraft peppers in an array of foreboding architectural details that will delight readers familiar with “Mountains of Madness”. Specifically, the fact that the very low-ceilings dominate the interior of the abandoned edifices and the use of bas-reliefs/hieroglyphs found in subterranean passages that offer a detailed history of the beings of this supposedly vacant, nameless city. These beings are revealed to be a monstrous reptile race described as something of a mix between a lizard, crocodile, and seal. Furthermore, the feeling of dread that the author subtly weaves and escalates until the final few pages imbues that same sense of gripping terror and wonder to be found in those other, more famous of his stories mentioned above. “The Nameless City” also contains the first mention of Lovecraft’s mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, who would later be mentioned in nearly every story of his pertaining to the Cthulu Mythos.

The Moon-Bog

As Joshi notes, easily one of the most conventional of his supernatural tales. The brief story was written for a group of amateur writers all contributing a St. Patrick’s Day themed story. The tale concerns the fate of the narrator’s friend who returns to Ireland to reclaim his estate within a fictional Irish town that borders a dreaded bog from which the locals have warned of superstitious doom. The final passage contains some eldritch imagery worth seeking out from what is otherwise a forgettable entry.

 The Other Gods

With connections both to “The Cats of Ulthar” and to much greater extent in “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”, “The Other Gods” serves as another Dunsanian fantasy that concerns the fate of two travelers intending to scale the mountain of the gods to glimpse their faces. A fantastic meld of the best of Lovecraft’s fantasy, Dunsanian hubris, and hints of greater cosmic horror—“The Other Gods” stands as perhaps the best Lovecraft fantasy outside “Dream-Quest” and “The Stranger High House…”. A short but evocating tale that hints at the cosmic power and horror that would be revealed in greater detail within “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”.

 Hypnos

A compelling, though ultimately lesser, version of a character venturing into the land of dreams to horrific results. The narrator meets a companion (who Joshi notes bears in his description a striking resemblance to Lovecraft’s literary idol Edgar Allan Poe) that joins the narrator in exploring realms only accessible through deep sleep. Though his companion takes drugs that compel his adventures further, the narrator refuses—going so far as to attempt to stop sleeping as to abate the nightmares brought forth from their travels. “Hypnos” occupies a similar narrative (though to better results) as “From Beyond” and (to lesser success) as “Beyond the Wall of Sleep”, and the final line is thought-provoking when rereading the narrative.

 The Lurking Fear

Following in the thematic footsteps of horror through a degenerative family hereditary line found also in “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn…”, “The Rats in the Walls”, and “Shadow over Innsmouth”, this underrated short story concerns a narrator fascinated with the local terror of the landscape known as Tempest Mountain wherein the abandoned Martense Mansion resides. Divided into four progressively dread-filled chapters, Lovecraft imbues this smaller-scale horror story with an escalating sense of terror and concludes in a horrific (though somewhat predictable) climax with powerful and vivid imagery concerning the grotesque fate that befell the Martense Family. A story that serves as a nice break from the numerous fantasy stories that populate the collection.

 The Unnamable

A very, very brief piece that serves more as a treatise (or defense) of supernatural horror in literature. More or less a dialogue between two characters debating the merits of horror literature than one that weaves an actual narrative, though the loving prose Lovecraft imbues upon local New England topography and atmosphere within the cemetery of the setting is perhaps worth seeking out for some. More interestingly, “The Unnamable” contains the first appearance of the famous Randolph Carter character whose later adventures populate this collection.

The Shunned House

Lovecraft’s version of the classic haunted house tale based on an actual home that enraptured his imagination. Unlike most versions of the haunted house story, Lovecraft spends an impressive and well-deserved time establishing the history of the home, the strange fate that awaited its tenants, then finally allows for the protagonists to begin their nightly vigil awaiting for whatever supernatural horrors that may occur. The slow-build up, mounting dread, and sense of incredible atmospheric details all contribute to a feeling of incredible suspense and horror that is only marred by a not as adequate conclusion. Without spoiling it, it’s perhaps the only Lovecraft story I can recall that ends on an undeniably triumphant note with the hero definitively besting the supernatural horror (and in very bizarre fashion). Not that that can’t be an effective ending in its own right, but there’s a weird feeling of false emotion in the last paragraph that feels very out of place for the author. Still, the plotting and incredible verisimilitude that color the majority of the tale are too impressive to be ignored.

 The Horror at Red Hook

Though it is perhaps most infamously remembered (and rightly so) for its abhorrent racism, and though it is certainly one of his least acclaimed by critics, “The Horror at Red Hook” is actually one of the author’s most interesting works due to its strictly urban setting compared to the author’s usual penchant for the pastoral realms of Providence or fantasy realm of dreams. While the potential for this urban horror is terribly wasted by Lovecraft’s blatant racism in using foreigners as the vehicle for the supernatural to unfold, it remains an intriguing and thought-provoking blend of crime and horror. Moreover, the conclusion of Dr. Malone’s investigation and the ultimate reveal of the horror at Red Hook stands as one of Lovecraft’s most creative passages in the author’s cannon. With echoes of my favorite Clark Ashton Smith story “The City of the Singing Flame”, Lovecraft describes the detective’s stumbling into a nightmarish world filled with a surfeit of distinctive and horrific creatures responsible for the ongoing crimes in Red Hook. Certainly not the author’s best tale, and again, the blatant xenophobia destroys the power of the premise, but for the sheer command of creativity, imagination, and unique mix of genre revealed in that passage described above—“The Horror at Red Hook” is very much recommended.

 In the Vault

The most conventional and forgettable tale in the collection, maybe in Lovecraft’s career. The story concerns an undertaker trapped within a vault whose only escape is a high window, which he intends to reach by piling the nearby coffins into a ladder. Despite being rejected by Weird Tales for fear of its supposedly “extreme gruesomeness” not passing the Indiana censorship board, the tale is anything but. Lovecraft’s always impressive ability to imbue dread and atmosphere is present but used to hardly any memorable effect.

The Strange High House in the Mist

A short, beautiful, Dunsanian fantasy written with gorgeous prose and descriptions of the Lovecraft’s fictional coast city of Kingsport. Like most of his short fantasies, plot and character take a backseat in favor of creative and weird imagery that demand the reader to absorb both the awe of the land and those horrors awaiting those who demand more from the gods.

 The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath

The undeniable masterpiece of the book, one of the best of Lovecraft’s career, and one of the best pieces of pure fantasy ever published. Unpublished in his own lifetime (and as per usual described by Lovecraft himself in saying: “it isn’t much good”), the novella is a long, uninterrupted journey by the recurring character of Randolph Carter seeking the sunset city of his dreams. Carter resolves to literally seek out the gods responsible in hopes of finally finding the sunset city and ventures into realms both horrific and grand.

Lovecraft populates the yarn with an unbelievable number of creative machinations: from ghouls, to night-gaunts, to zoogs, to the depths of cold wastes, to the hidden face of the Moon, to the high hall pantheons of the gods, to the abyss of chaos. Each distinct and fantastic setting is poetically described with a sense of majesty and awe that serves as the best evidence possible for Lovecraft’s inimitable and uncompromised imagination. Each episode and fantastic character encountered by Carter could fill a novel of its own right, and Lovecraft peppers in such a plethora of beautifully creative arrangements that the prose can be overwhelming (in the best way to possible) due to the sheer intensity of its scope and ambitions.

The culmination of Carter’s adventures find the character confronting the ultimate horror and beauty of Lovecraft’s obsessions in a breathtaking finale that sends Carter (and the reader) reeling through voids of time and space in powerful, profound moment that ranks amongst one of the most breathtaking sequences in Lovecraft’s career. While the word fantasy often automatically conjures up the usual suspects of Tolkien, Martin, Dunsany (whose influence is clear throughout the piece), and as much as I adore all their separate works, as well, Lovecraft uses the genre in a very distinct way to conjure up realms with an awe-inspiring sense of scope toward the larger cosmos that truly is without parallel.

 The Silver Key

Following Carter’s adventures back home from Kadath, “The Silver Key” finds Randolph once again in a state of ennui and wanting more out of life. The short tale is less of a narrative and more of a story in disguise of a treatise—in a style that somewhat calls to mind “The Unnamable” from earlier in the collection. “The Silvery Key” is most interesting as a guide into Lovecraft’s opinions on a variety of topics: as a criticism of religion, to even harsher criticism of bohemian lifestyle of any sort, to man’s place in the universe—that last view expressed as one of his most major points of interests throughout his career.

Through the Gates of the Silver Key

A sequel of sorts to “The Silver Key” and the next entry into the continuing adventures of Randolph Carter. Co-written with E. Price Hoffman (though the latter admits that only about fifty words of his original treatment remain after Lovecraft’s re-write), the story was spurned by Hoffman’s urging Lovecraft to follow on Carter’s whereabouts after his disappearance through the portal unlocked by the silver key. The narrative concerns four men meeting to divide the estate of Randolph Carter following his disappearance. One of these men is the mysterious looking Swami Chandraputra, who speaks with a strange voice and wears curious clothing to hide to appearance, and who promises to relate the final fate that befell Randolph Carter.

What follows is one of the most bizarre (not completely successful) but compelling narratives of Lovecraft’s career as Carter’s journey through portals of time, existence, and realms populated by weird creatures of both the Dunsany and Cthulu Mythos variety. Again, there are shades of more philosophical expounding than anything else—maintaining its status as literal and thematic sequel to “The Silver Key”—with Lovecraft pouring out even denser, though always evocative descriptions, of the vast gulfs of the cosmos, time, and man’s insignificant space occupied between them. The conclusion is obvious from miles away, with the text pointing this out in a tongue-and-cheek manner, but the story remains oddly compelling as a vehicle for Lovecraft to further distill those concepts of his obsession discuss above, and in even greater depth than to be found in “The Silver Key”.

The Dreams in the Witch House

As most critics have widely agreed that both “The Dreams in the Witch House” and “The Thing on the Doorstep” are of the two weakest Lovecraft stories, it is baffling as to why Penguin would title two of the three major collections after these lesser efforts. Even in Joshi’s introductory notes to the piece, he writes: “The tale suffers from plot holes and florid prose and cannot be ranked amongst his better later efforts”.

Nonetheless, the tale’s preceding reputation remains well-deserved. Though a more imaginative and better-realized effort than “From Beyond”, “The Dreams in the Witch House” is a muddled mess of ideas marred by repetitive writing and a confluence of weird elements that never find a suitable climax to merge toward a more powerful, singularly effective result. A witch, “The Black Man”/the devil, the human/rat hybrid of Brown Jenkins, a haunted house that serves as a portal to the type of cosmic horrors experienced by Carter, a visit with the Shoggoths from “Mountains”—all these elements are better fit for Lovecraft tale of their own design and story. While it is interesting to consider the fact that this tale—unlike most Lovecraft narratives where it is the suggestion of the horror that is most memorable—that the author chooses to go the opposite route and lay out in (somewhat) explicit detail the consequences of the horrors found in the Witch House. (I say somewhat as there are indescribable horror concepts of time and space.)

Moreover, Lovecraft is repetitive in a way not found in the horror master’s usual efforts. Gilman’s adventures beyond the realms of sleep, his encounter with Brown Jenkins, and the like…only begin to escalate in the final few pages, and the author’s trademark ability to imbue a sense of palpable dread is nearly absent from the entirety of piece. Suffice to say, there are memorable, creative concepts and images at play, though they are unfortunately wasted within this very lesser entry in the Lovecraft canon.

The Shadow Out of Time

The best story in the collection outside of “Dream-Quest”. Somewhat reminiscent of its siblings “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The Nameless City”, the story recounts two principal episodes of the protagonist’s adventure. The first concerns his mind being swapped by the “Great Race” of extraterrestrial beings of Yith. These early pages dealing with the mind swap are characteristic of Lovecraft’s other great work “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”, though the author greatly expands upon ideas of cosmic scope as found within this narrative. The next section then details the protagonists “dreams” when inhabiting the city of Yith during the mind-swap. These sequences are further evidence of the unyielding and incomparable creative imaginings of Lovecraft’s mind, as the author describes in fantastic, specific details as to the sociological, historical, psychological, and physiological aspects that pertain to this extraordinary race, who have swapped minds with not only other human beings, but with entities from far reaches of the cosmos. With descriptions for the bygone city as beautifully crafted as Lovecraft’s gorgeous prose for his own town of Providence, the author details the topography and landscapes of the eldritch region to very captivating effect.

Still, these chapters are only set-up to the master class of tone and atmospheric dread evidenced in the last chapters of the novel. Following the discovery of relics that match those found within the protagonist’s dreams, the setting switches to the uncombed desert regions of Australia. Here, the protagonist stumbles upon the (ostensibly) deserted remains of an underground city as imaginative and horrifying as those cold, cryptic regions of Antarctica depicted in “At the Mountains of Madness”.

As with that entry, Lovecraft conjures a sense of atmosphere and inexorable dread toward the protagonist’s final confrontation with horrifying creatures thought long-dead into a climax that stands as one of the most powerful displays of craft as can be found in horror literature. Though the reveal in “Mountains” is perhaps still the best and most memorable conclusion for its vivid description of the Shoggoth entity, “Shadow” instead favors a more vague foreshadowing and hinting toward the true scope of the terrifying creature that remains undeniably effective as ever. One of best in Lovecraft’s bibliography and an excellent final entry into the “Witch House” collection.

Review: WE ARE THE BEST!

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Like Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, or David Chase’s criminally underrated Not Fade Away, the 2013 Swedish’s film We are the Best! occupies the small subgenre of coming-of-age films filtered through the joy of music. And while the former two are American classics in their own right—exploring the importance and influence of music to a specific generation of teenagers in the midst of small-town suburbia, Lukas Moodysson’s We are the Best! portrays an even further removed class of characters navigating their confused adolescence through their love of music during a country’s time of transition: those adolescents being an ostracized trio of thirteen-year-old girls, the country in transition being 1982 Stockholm, and the music genre in question being bombastic punk rock.

Similar to how Almost Famous imbues its sensibilities with that of a teenage-fever-dream, evoking those same emotions found in the best of the era’s seventies rock bands, and Not Fade Away replicates those same feeling of angsty, raw, and manic rock-and-roll found in the best of The Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan, We are the Best! injects its own sensibilities with all the primal and explosive power found in the best of the era’s punk rock.

The three girls composing this anomalous punk band are Bobo, Klara, and Hedvig. The former two complete tomboys and androgynous in appearance, growing up in homes distinctly different yet similarly dysfunctional, and complete outcasts at school for their stubbornly nonconformist attitudes. These thirteen-year-old girls have no one but each other: misfits within their family, amongst their classmates, and amongst larger Swedish society surrounding them—except through their one outlet of punk.

In an spur of the moment decision to start a band to spite a rival band of bullies, these two teenage girls demonstrate their level of actual musical prowess in a memorable debut performance—that is to say: they are terrible.

They bang on the drums and strum on the guitar like children let loose with toys, belting out non-sensical lyrics with little goal toward tune or harmony. Yet, that same childish glee radiates off the screen to powerful emotional effect upon the viewer. And as the two find an undeniable bliss through punk—a channel to funnel their angst, anger, and alienation—the two make a pact to try and make this music thing work, despite their obvious limitations in talent.

In spite of this description, the most important quality bestowed upon the film is a sense of authenticity and earnestness that could not be farther away from the phony qualities shared by so many genre features bearing similar aesthetics. These kids are true-blue goofy, often mumbling dialogue under their breath or struggling to look adults in the eye, yet are never written with a forced sense of affectation. In credit to the young actors (Mira Barkhammar and Mira Grosin), the girls are never portrayed as characters in a movie seeking the audience’s approval but as free-spirited youngsters who happened to be caught by the camera. Aided by a documentarian lens to the cinematography, the filmmakers portray the girls’ life in appropriate cinema verite fashion—as the three scream, shout, and argue with local authority figures as can only be found in the blissful ignorance and carefree attitudes of kids left to their own devices.

Moreover, the movie manages to perfectly capture the array of ambiguous feelings associated with these formative teenage years, especially for those on the fringes of their adolescent peers. Perhaps only as equally well captured as seen in television’s Freaks and Geeks over a decade ago, We are the Best! delineates a distinct portrait of these outsiders struggling to come to terms with their identity. Desperate to be liked and yet resentful of everyone around them, the two teeter between a confused adolescence of wanting relationships and friends and wanting to uphold their idiosyncratic identities as the school misfits and proud punks. Later, as the two charge ahead in forming their punk rock band, they quickly recruit a third player into their party: Hedvig.

Hedvig is a misfit of a different sort—one having grown up in a strict religious household and raised to perform classical music. This final band member finds friendship with the two in the fact that she literally has no other friends—she is known as the girl that eats alone at lunch. Quickly, she realizes that as strange as these two punks might be—it’s better than sitting alone. Joined by Hedvig, the trio finally formalizes their band’s identity and solidifies their friendship for its future.

Again, as corny and phony as that sounds in description, the actual scenes are anything but. Despite having one (terrible) song with hilariously bad lyrics as only two teenage girls could cook up (“Hate the Sport/Hate the Sport/Hate Hate Hate The Sport)”, the two begin to fall for all the classic trappings of a great rock band: clashing over egos, boyfriends, and the breakings of their initial bonds of friendship. The film wisely uses the catalyst of their forming a band to explore these perennial issues plaguing any adolescent and fully engages in their triumphs and consequences to sequences of raw, emotional devastation or heart-thumping cheers.

In short, this is a movie with a pulse. That makes palpable those poignant moments of childhood—friendship, heartbreak, creativity, competition, social anxiety, familial misunderstanding, and rebellion—and services these wide-ranging emotions in a swift two hours: all through the deceivingly simple premise of three talentless, teenage girls forming a punk band in early eighties Sweden.

Review: Mary and Max

 

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Separated by continents, by decades of age, by gender, by ethnic background, by religious upbringing, the eponymous characters of Mary and Max—an eight-year-old Australian girl and a forty-four-year-old morbidly obese atheist in New York—should have as likely a chance of forming a life-long friendship as a clay-animation movie depicting this friendship should have a chance at being such an amazing piece of work. And yet, this anomalous movie forms a powerful, lasting impression: a poignant, and emotionally resonant exploration of human connection that flies in the face of standard storytelling conventions and works in superb fashion on every emotional level.

The story focuses on the unusual friendship formed by two misfits trapped in hellish domains that are as distant geographically, as they are psychologically similar. A narrator first introduces Mary: an eight-year-old Australian girl living an isolated existence amongst an alcoholic mother, depressed father, and unable to make friends after being relentlessly mocked for a brown birthmark across her forehead. Peppered with an assortment of distinct, creative character traits that help compose a portrait of Mary’s upbringing in compelling and memorable fashion (her love of concentrated milk, Australian chocolates, a pet rooster, her unmistakable birthmark), Adam Elliot’s writing immediately hypnotizes the viewer through a confident and peculiar tone that instantly announces that the following feature will be a ride through tour-de-force storytelling.

This precedent becomes further solidified in the next sequence, when the narrator introduces the second of the two titles characters: Max. After Mary has the bizarre idea to write to a random American she finds in the phonebook, she lands upon Max’s information and writes to the misanthrope in the hopes of finding answers to her everyday question about American habits. (In one of the few, and ultimately minor, weak moments of writing; however, this incredibly random way of initially connecting the two never sits quite right compared to the other surreal moments that flow much more organically). Max write back, although (even compared to Mary), he recounts an upbringing of heartbreaking consequence. Born to Jewish parents and raised in destructive circumstances (a father that left him, a mother that abused him, relentlessly bullied for his Jewish upbringing), Max has aged into a man sharing a parallel existence of isolation as Mary. He is depressed, agoraphobic, anxiety-ridden, extremely overweight, and on the verge of mental collapse.

Immediately, as the premise suggests, the idea of life being rekindled by their friendship has the potential to be an opportunity for cloying, indulgent sequences that resolve these existential problems through predictable, indulgent, or manipulative storytelling methods typically applied in the world of commercial animation…But that is not Mary and Max.

Instead, filmmaker Adam Elliot eschews such expectations by taking the story into difficult, ambiguous, and often very dark places. Moreover, this friendship goes through ups-and-downs, over long periods of time, that chart the successes and descents of both characters’ emotional lifetimes to imbue a feeling of raw authenticity. Max is eventually revealed to be suffering from an acute form of Asperger’s syndrome and his struggle to relate to the larger world around him descends into touching and moving realms that never treat his illness as a sideshow attraction (e.g. Rain Man) but as a means of imbuing insight and point-of-view to the audience into how this man has succumbed to such a devastating, hermetic lifestyle.

Additionally, the use of voice-over vis-à-vis the narrator, then the letters between the characters, may appear gimmicky on the surface, but the technique is used to exemplary effect as a means of further immersing the audience into the characters’ heads. With Barry Humphries as the narrator, Toni Collette as older Mary, and the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman as Max, the trio form a unified sense of tone that successfully transports the viewer into specific moods and habits of the characters in question.

Although some stretches certainly resonate stronger than others, the movie remains compelling in its entirety. The epistolary format feels closer to chapters of a novel than a typical film plot, and certain digressions into various aspects of the characters’ psyche help further demonstrate how character-driven this story remains above all else. Though numerous plot set-ups are paid off to powerful effect by the conclusion, the two title characters remain at the film’s center in a commendable application of the medium’s capabilities. The film confronts a number of formidable topics—abuse, mental illness, loneliness, suicide, depression, anxiety—without ever being shackled by the intensity of these themes and never flinches from the severity of their consequences within its Claymation setting. By its finale, Mary and Max concludes in similar, applause-worthy fashion. An ending both ambiguous and honest without any hint of dishonesty or undeserving of its ability to evoke such charged, wide-ranging emotions. Though operating with very different intentions and styles, the films of the Quay Brothers, Ralph Bakshi, or Miyazaki may bring to mind similar filmmakers hoping to expand the horizons of animated potential. Still, Mary and Max remains in a class as unique as the characters of its premise. A movie that sidesteps obstacles of conventionality and succeeds for finding that human connection between different worlds to ignite a genuine bond between both the characters and the audience.