Tag Archives: Film Criticism

No Country For Old Men: The Book, Film, and Meaning of Bell’s Dream

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
– Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon‐falls, the mackerel‐crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

So begins the Yeats poem from which Cormac McCarthy’s novel—No Country for Old Men—takes its name. As detailed in four stanzas, Yeats’ poem addresses man’s mortality: describing a man’s anxieties over his approaching age and encroaching death. The man combats these fears by sailing to the shores of Byzantium, where he hopes that the wise sages from ages past may transcend his soul into the fire of immortality. This fabled Byzantium representing a paradise—an immaterial realm of wisdom and eternity—separated from the deteriorating quality of life found in the material world.

But the country of McCarthy’s story is no paradise.


Set near the Texas/Mexico border in 1980, No Country for Old Men instead presents a barren, brutal landscape where the morals and identity of a nation are at a crossroads. The story follows the journey of three characters caught in a tangled pursuit of one another across this burgeoning wasteland: Llewyn Moss, the everyday man responsible for stealing the money that kicks the plot in motion; Anton Chigurh, the philosophical, psychopathic hitman chasing Moss across the desert; and Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, the aging Sheriff searching for both men and painfully aware of the declining moral tide plaguing his small county of Terrell, Texas and rapidly spreading out across the nation.


Sheriff Bell serves as the story’s moral compass—a World War II veteran who inherited the role of lawman from his family, and who finds himself aghast at the abhorrent violence suddenly sweeping throughout the sleepy Texas town. In a significant though obvious change for adaptation reasons, his narration is absent from the film. Yet in the novel, these narrations at the beginning of each new chapter function both to break the relentless charge of the narrative and also allow for the Sheriff’s musings about his surrounding world, which he not only no longer recognizes, but which he may no longer want to recognize.

The audience is first introduced to this world of decline through the opening chapter, where the strange, dangerous hitman named Anton Chigurh brutally strangles a young Texas Deputy by transforming his handcuffs into a substitute garrote—slicing his cuffs through the young man’s neck and splattering blood across the police department floor. He then retrieves his iconic weapon—a captive bolt pistol aka a cattle gun—which drives a steel rod through the victim’s skull before then retracting, leaving no exit wound and ensuring a certain death.

Meanwhile, Llewlyn Moss, a Vietnam vet and welder by craft, spends his time in the isolated terrains of West Texas where he hunts a herd of antelopes within these wide-open and unpopulated spaces. While tracking a wounded animal, he stumbles upon the aftermath of a drug-deal gone horribly awry—multiple Mexican men, their animals, and their armored trucks brought down by a barrage of bullets. During his search, Moss, ever the hunter, finds a satchel of money containing close to two million dollars.


This catalytic chapter serves as an embodiment of the unique style so representative of McCarthy’s aesthetic: prose writing that modulates between being clinically observant to poetic and profound, often within the same paragraph:

“He hiked on along the ridge with thumb hooked in the shoulderstrap of the rifle, his hat pushed back on his head. The back of his shirt was already wet with sweat. The rocks there etched with pictographs perhaps a thousands years old. The men who drew them hunters like himself. Of them there was no other trace.”

The Coens’ cinematic translation of this opening scene works to similar effect: introducing the tone, style, and distinguished aesthetic that separates the film from those typically found in such a genre thriller. Specifically, the viewer becomes starkly aware of the filmmakers’ choice to work with a very limited score—rarely using music at all except in a few instances where its presence serves to subtly enrich the emotional content of the scene, rather than manipulate the viewer toward the desired feeling. While most filmmakers are incapable of wallowing within scenes of long silences for fear of boring the audience, the Coens prove that when armed with a strong storyline and a palpable sense of tension that the manipulative effect of music can often be unnecessary or distracting. Instead, the music of the rustling wind and the crunch of boots across gravel provide a soundtrack that further amplifies the suspense already present within the premise.

Nonetheless, Moss steals the money and returns to his trailer parker home. There, he banters with his wife, Carla Jean—a young woman emerging from her adolescent naiveté yet charged with enough wit to keep up with a man like her husband, Llewyn. In the book, the age difference between Carla Jean and Moss becomes a much more prominent factor in their relationship. The fact that she is an eighteen-year-old sales clerk that the much-older-Moss decided to marry, despite her mother’s protests, adds a bit more complexity to their marriage than can be seen in the film. Though Kelly MacDonald’s Texas drawl disguises her Scottish roots, the comparative age-difference between the couple made explicit in the novel imbues a bit more tragedy to the fate that ultimately befalls the young woman.


Still, that night, Moss finds himself in a restless quandary. While searching for the money earlier in the day, he encountered a dying Mexican man asking for water, which forces Moss to return to the desert. There are two ways to interpret Moss’ decision: one, that he is returning to give the man water and save his life; or two, that he is returning to kill the man in the case that the Mexican survives and informs upon Moss’ identity to his superiors.

Either way, the hunter returns to this desecrated rendezvous point, only to find that he is no longer alone. A chase throughout the rocky terrain ensues: one that ends with badly wounded Moss escaping into a river. In both the book and film, the spotlights affixed to the trucks produce a unique element of danger that works to tremendous effect. Where the majority of crime thrillers supply drug dealers that veer so far toward the cartoonish as to eliminate any atmosphere of menace, there’s a feeling of imminent doom generated by the presence of these gangsters—and knowing that Chigurh is somehow tangentially connected with them—that causes an otherwise simple chase through the desert into a white-knuckle sequence of suspense.

From this point forward, the story is very much a game of cat-and-mouse between the three characters: Moss on the run, Chigurh hunting him down, and Bell hoping to find either one before more violence can erupt across his county. The Sheriff’s reaction to this escalating violence serves as the spine of the story’s theme. As a veteran of World War II, and a man realizing that the morals with which he believed upheld the fabric of society are disintegrating before his eyes, the Sheriff begins to question the capabilities and purpose of his identity as a representative of the law.

Tommy Lee Jones no Country For Old Men

Early in the novel, McCarthy provides a quick scene of Bell’s character that demonstrates the kind of acute character work separating him from most of his literary peers, similarly eliminated from the film due to its inherent novelistic quality and running-time reasons. Although almost less than a paragraph, the scene instantly establishes the attributes of respect and tradition that so exemplify Bell’s character. In the scene, Bell and his Deputy are driving back from the scene of the massacred Mexicans, when he suddenly spots a redtail hawk lying dead and removes it from the road. McCarthy writes:

“He picks it up by one wingtip and carried it to the bar ditch and laid it in the grass. They would hunt the blacktop, sitting on the high powerpoles and watching the highway in both direction for miles. Any small thing that might venture to cross. Closing on their prey against the sun. Shadowless. Lost in the concentration of the hunter. He wouldn’t have the trucks running over it.”

These core values that compose Bell’s character, as a man who lives by a code of black-and-white morals within a society that has promised following such a code will be rewarded, comes to be challenged by the criminal at the center of this narrative:



Not unlike McCarthy’s most famous literary character—the unforgettable Judge Holden of Blood Meridian—Anton Chigurh appears to personify a dangerous quality beyond the normal capabilities of a man. He is a force of nature. An entity of violence prepared to scour the corners of the earth to complete his task. What separates Chigurh, again, from veering into cartoonish power more along the lines of the Terminator than Judge Holden can be credited to the philosophical propositions that guide his code. Most infamously, this is represented through his flipping a coin to determine a victim’s fate.


Almost an exact adaptation from the scene in the book, Chigurh encounters a hapless, friendly gas station clerk who soon finds his entire life at the hands of this hitman. Despite the clerk’s various approaches to steer the conversation toward small talk, Chigurh relentlessly antagonizes the clerk toward the deeper implications of both his simple questions and the journey of his life that has now brought him to confronting Chigurh. Though the clerk remains clueless as to what he’s putting at stake when Chigurh demands that he call the toss, the implications  that he stands to “win everything” and has been “putting it up all his life” instantly saturates the scene with a thick tension that leaves the reader as compelled and speechless as the clerk.

Moreover, Chigurh’s code of violence presents him not as just a mere hitman working at the behest of his superiors’ orders, or one who takes the act of execution lightly, but as a man who views himself as a necessary mechanism far beyond the normal definitions of a murderer. Chigurh represents a destructive force of will—a personification of violence, fate, and determinism that cannot be left unacknowledged or ignored.

Early on, in a quick but insightful character moment, Chigurh drives across a bridge at night. He rolls down his window, draws his gun, and fires upon a bird that just happened to be sitting there upon Chigurh’s crossing. Though darkly comical, the implications that any creature—whether it be a drug dealer, a lawman, convenience store clerk, Llewlyn Moss, or idle bird—any living creature that crosses Chigurh’s path must now contend with the fact that such a crossing may result in their last moment of life. In contrast to Bell’s earlier actions when coming across a bird, where the Sheriff removed the fallen carcass from the road as a sign of respect, Chigurh’s disregard for life of any design knows no bounds.

When Moss later encounters another hitman, Carson Wells, the latter tries to paint a portrait of the danger that awaits him:

“What is he supposed to be, the ultimate bad-ass?”

“I don’t think that’s how I would describe him…I guess I’d say that he doesn’t have a sense of humor…you cant make a deal with him. Let me say it again. Even if you gave him the money, he’d still kill you. There’s no one alive on this planet that’s ever had even a cross word with him. They’re all dead. These are not good odds. He’s a peculiar man. You could even say that he has principles. Principles that transcend money or drugs or anything like that.”


Unlike Chigurh, Wells function as a more proto-typical hitman. He is a company man, hoping to complete his job, get paid, and go home. Indeed, he is a man with a sense of humor—one much more discernible through Woody Harrelson’s stylish performance than may be gleaned from the book. However, the film does delete a thought-provoking scene with Wells that serves as further evidence for McCarthy’s acute ability to weave moments of poignancy, tragedy, humor, and bits of surrealism into one unique scene.

Following a very tense, very bloody shootout between Moss and Chigurh around a hotel that ends with the former bleeding to death and stumbling into Mexico, the latter similarly wounded and forced to retreat back to his motel room, Wells returns to the scene of the incident to perform his own personal investigation of the aftermath. There, following the various bullet holes that decorate the hotel façade, he stumbles into a room where an old woman has been killed by a random bullet expelled during the shootout:

“A rockingchair by the window where an old woman sat slumped. Wells stood over the woman studying her. She’d been shot through the forehead and had tilted forward leaving part of the back of her skull and a good bit of dried brianmatter stuck to the slat of the rocker behind her. She had a newspaper in her lap and she was wearing a cotton robe that was black with dried blood. It was cold in the room. Wells looked around. A second shot had marked a date on a calendar on the wall behind her that was three days hence. You could not help but notice. He looked around the rest of the room. He took a small camera from his jacket pocket and took a couple of pictures of the dead woman and put the camera back in his pocket again. “Not what you in mind at all, was it darling?”

Although one can understand the excision of this small moment from the film, the remarkable little moment evokes pathos in a creative and intriguing manner. The death helps demonstrate the cost of violence upon those not even connected to the central narrative, and the rippling effect of such violence—even for an old woman sitting alone in her hotel room, oblivious to the bloody gun battle raging around her—which ultimately cost the elderly woman her life.


As mentioned, the subtle use of score helps further distinguish these tense sequences punctuated by explosive violence. The Coens employ silence with confident control—silence that imbues a feeling of verisimilitude and  increases the unease that saturates these otherwise simple settings. Additionally, Chigurh’s second weapon of choice—a shotgun outfitted with a silencer—produces a particularly eerie pneumatic noise that catches the viewer off-guard in their typical expectation of a shotgun blast.

Besides the compression/omission of Sheriff Bell’s narration, the second largest adaptation change can be found in Moss’ relationship with a young hitchhiker. Although one can understand the filmmakers’ decision to compress the material, these exchanges between Moss and the naïve, young hitchhiker are responsible for some of the book’s most touching exchanges. In the film, Moss merely meets a flirtatious woman outside the motel pool begging to share a beer, which promptly cuts to his and her death just moments later—with the Sheriff watching a band of gun-wielding Mexicans fleeing on a pick up truck.

In the book, however, Moss and this young girl share a number of scenes together: in the car, in a diner, in the motel; and ultimately, in the morgue. These dialogue exchanges bring out shades of humanity to Moss that are missing in the film and which are harder to find in between his scenes of machismo against his enemies or the constant stream of sarcasm exhibited with his wife, Carl Jean. Here, Moss takes on a more paternal role, offering this horribly naïve woman advice and comfort toward the dangerous trek toward California that she has chosen to embark.


In their final scene together—again a significant departure from Moss’ concluding scene in the book—McCarthy manages to inject real poignancy into their relationship and imminent deaths. The two share a final conversation upon the hotel’s porch steps, after Moss has given her a sizable sum of his stolen money, so that she may safely arrive in California. Moss advises:

“Let me tell you somethin’ little sister. If there is one thing on this planet that you don’t look like, it’s a bunch of good luck walkin’ around.

“That’s a hateful thing to say.”

“No it ain’t. I just want you to be careful. We get to El Paso. I’m goin to drop you at the bus station. You got money. You don’t need to be out here hitchhikin’.”

The conversation steers from being overly sentimental, but there is a sweetness to Moss’ blunt advice—warning this young woman away from notions of good luck and the fact that money is her best hope for success in this country—that allows for a scene of quiet, genuine emotion to emerge in the midst of this engrossing cat-and-mouse thriller.

And then Moss and the girl are both murdered.

As in the film, the deaths are actually revealed somewhat after the fact—with Sheriff Bell driving out to the site of the corpses. Having just communicated with Carla Jean, and knowing how devastated the young woman will be upon hearing about the death of her husband, the Sheriff’s face sinks in devastation. From both a literary and cinematic approach, the effect is jarring in the best way possible. With every single chapter told through the point-of-view of either Bell, Chigurh, and Moss, to have the latter killed through the prism of Bell’s chapter creates an unexpected feeling—akin to both experiencing the death firsthand while also hearing about it secondhand, like the viewer should not have been told about it yet, and when coupled with the information about the death of the young girl—creates a very moving and memorable death for Moss.

Reeling from the scene of the massacre and their trip to the morgue to identify the bodies, Sheriff Bell and the local El Paso Sheriff retreat to a diner for some late night coffee. There, the two commiserate over the changing nature of being a lawman and the rising tide of violence that seems insurmountable against their purpose to protect the public. Throughout this scene, much of Bell’s dialogue that serves as opening narration for the major chapters has been reworked to fit the dialogue of these two bygone Sheriffs realizing that they are up against a new kind of darkness—one that they have not previously encountered and are unsure how to defeat, if such a thing is even possible.

Probably the most memorable bit of narration reconfigured for this dialogue comes near the end of the meal, when the two Texas Sheriffs remark:

“It’s all the goddamn money, Ed Tom. Money and the drugs. It’s just goddamn beyond everything…You know, if you’d have told me twenty years ago, I’d see children walking the streets of our Texas towns with green hair, bones in their noses…I just flat-out wouldn’t have believed you.”

“But I think once you quit hearing ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ the rest is soon to follow”

“Oh, its’ the tide…it’s the dismal tide. It is not the one thing”.

Though this dialogue is taken nearly verbatim from a separate piece of Bell narration, it reflects another passage where the Sheriff contemplates a similar thematic issue:

“Teachers come across a survey that was sent out back in the thirties to a number of schools around the country. Had this questionnaire about what was the problems with teachin’ in the schools…and the biggest problems they could name was things like talkin’ in class and runnin’ in the hallways…things of that nature…Forty years later. Well, here comes the answers back. Rape, arson, murder. Drugs. Suicide. So I think about that.”

Both these passages reflect the bleak outlook on the imminent future toward which Bell believes he may be receiving just a glimpse of in the present. Though these topics may seem conservative or comically traditional in a political sense—specifically in regards to kids with “green hair and bones in their noses”—the second passage speaks directly to the kind of violence that Bell is witnessing and continues to haunt him. Though, obviously, violence on the level of murder and rape has existed for as long as man’s existence, Bell is commenting on the level of comfort and escalation that he is noticing in his day-to-day duties, especially in regards to his experiences with Chigurh—and the disturbing truth that there may be nothing he nor the law can do to fight against such a dismal tide of violence.

Meanwhile, despite Moss’ death and the retrieval of the money, Chigurh has not extricated himself from the case. Instead, due to an oath upheld between him and Moss, wherein he promised the doomed hunter to spare Carla Jean if Moss would hand over the money and refused, he must uphold his word and kill Moss’ wife. Here again, there is a slight change between the novel and film. Though the conversation remains much the same, the conclusion holds a significant difference.

In both versions, Carla Jean returns from her husband’s funeral to find Chigurh waiting for her with his weapon in hand. Then, despite her protests that “he doesn’t have to do this”, Chigurh insists that he must: due to his oath to Moss.

But Carla Jean refuses.


She demands that Chigurh accept responsibility for the fact that he has a choice to walk away—a view that Chigurh does not share. In a final chance at freedom, Chigurh offers her the same coin toss that he has offered to a number of his victims.

She calls heads and the coin lands on tails.

Sobbing, she refuses to acquiesce to Chigurh’s proposition that he would have obeyed the coin and let her go. But Chigurh counters:

“I have no say in the matter. Every moment in your life is a turning and every one a choosing. Somewhere you made a choice. All followed to this. The accounting is scrupulous. The shape is drawn. No line can be erased. I had no belief in your ability to move a coin to your bidding. How could you? A person’s path through the world seldom changes and even more seldom will it change abruptly.”

Speaking directly to the book’s major themes, he further illuminate his philosophy:

“I have only one way to live. It doesn’t allow for special cases. A coin toss perhaps. In this case to small purpose. Most people don’t believe that there can be such a person. You see what a problem that must be for them. How to prevail over that which you refuse to acknowledge the existence of.”

This idea of existing as an entity beyond the capacity for someone to recognize as something of human nature directly addresses the issues raised by Bell. The Texas lawman cannot comprehend the rising violence, because he refuses to believe that a person can only exist in this one regard—to perpetuate and commit acts of violence—and therefore he cannot prevail over this unnamable idea, which he refuses to even acknowledge. Following this exchange between Chigurh and Carla Jean, the film cuts to the hitman’s exit, but the book does not favor this less ambiguous approach. Instead, after Carla Jean finally admits to understanding Chigurh’s view, he shoots and kills her.

Intriguingly, however, the next scene catches the audience quite off-guard—as Chigurh is unexpectedly injured in a car collision by a vehicle that ran through a red light. Two young kids rush to help the wounded hitman—Chigurh’s bone poking out through his skin—and he offers money in exchange for their shirt: an automatic gesture of kindness for the kids, but which then turns into a dividing argument about how to split their newfound money between them, while Chigurh flees before the police can arrive.

Chigurh’s societal corruption can be clearly evinced yet again through the two kids to whom he bribes for help in his escape. While the two kids approach Chigurh out of compassion to aid a stranger, Chigurh offers the children a hundred dollars for a shirt and to keep quiet about his appearance. As he whisks away using the shirt as a sling, the kids bicker about splitting the money. Like a virus, Chigurh’s actions begin to corrupt these two kids—two kids who were ready to help someone out of the good of their hearts but who soon believe that their efforts deserve compensation, which then evolves into an argument that divides the two friends.

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While the film stops there, the book follows Bell’s investigation further into tracking down these two children. Specifically, some time later, he tracks down the boy by the name of David DeMarco, who has been involved in a robbery using Chigurh’s gun stolen after the wreck. Bell invites the boy to share a coffee, and though he attempts to prod him for information, DeMarco refuses to divulge any details that may help the Sheriff identify Chigurh. Later, Bell manages to track down the second boy—DeMarco’s friend—who did not receive any money. And though nervous, he does indeed help the Sheriff with what few details he can remember and his memory of the event. Though not able to offer any significant details, the Sheriff thanks the boy for his help.

The fact that the first boy keeps his word to Chigurh in exchange for the money makes further explicit this theme of corruption. Much like Chigurh, he chooses to honor the bond of his word and the sanctity of the money exchange rather than aiding the law officer. And the second boy, though still visibly scared by the experience and Chigurh’s presence, who did not accept the cash, still speaks to the Sheriff to provide some help against Chigurh—one who has corrupted his former friend into following in his footsteps.

In the aftermath of these events, with no sign of Chigurh reappearing on the Sheriff’s radar, both the novel and film conclude with Bell’s final reflections on his attitude toward his declining country. After a lengthy confession in the book, the reader learns that the Sheriff still bears a great deal of shame for an incident during his war years. Though awarded a bronze star in WWII for his services, the Sheriff had actually deserted his men to die and has carried the regret of his failings to the present day—these shameful failing perhaps the source of his decision to pursue a role as a lawman where he may correct wrongs and govern over evil.

The Sheriff meets with his crippled uncle Ellis—a former lawman as well—where Bell confesses that he feels outmatched. His uncle sighs, and tries to remind Bell that his feelings have been shared by lawmen for far longer than he may recognize: “what you got ain’t nothin’ new, this country’s hard on people…can’t stop what’s comin’…it ain’t all waitin’ on you…that’s vanity.”

Though the scene in the film works to similar poignant effect, this additional information about Bell’s haunted past helps further expose the vulnerable layers that compose this complex officer of the law battling with both his past and future as a Sheriff. Nonetheless, he does indeed hang up his hat—choosing to spend time with his wife rather than fighting against what appears to a worsening country where he does not belong.


Returning to the Yeats’ poem from which the story takes its name, the poem continues:

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing‐masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

In the story’s final pages, Bell relates two dreams to his wife. In the first, his father gives him some money and he loses it. In the second, he and his father are in:

“older times, and I was on horseback, going through the mountains of the nights, going through this pass in the mountains…it’s cold, there was snow on the ground…he rode past me and kept on goin and never said anything goin’ by, just rode on past…he had his blanket wrapped around him and his head down, when he rode past, I seen he was carrying fire in a horn the way people used to do, and I could see the horn from the light inside of it, about the color of the moon…and in the dream I knew that he was goin’ on ahead, he was fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold, and I knew that whenever I got there, he’d be there.

And then I woke up”.

Like any great piece of art, this enigmatic dream has engendered a wide variety of interpretations. However, when considered in relation to the poem from which the title takes its name, the parallels between these two pieces become starkly evident. As the poem addresses this yearning for a haven that offers sanctity from the degenerative nature of the physical world, the protagonist asks the sages that have already arrived within this realm to allow his union with them in this eternal fire. The poem speaks to a being aware of both his past, and deteriorating future, and who seeks some glimpse of immortality through this land of Byzantium—one where the wise sages have already arrived before him and transcended to immortality through a separation from the physical world.

Likewise, Bell’s dream with his father represents his own Byzantium after death. His father, also a former lawman (a wise sage) rides past his son into this immemorial landscape—one in which darkness surrounds them but through which the father carries the fire of a far more ancient tradition. With the cold, dark terrain perhaps representing some death, where his father now resides, this fire of immortality—of an eternal soul—resides within both Bell and his father and waits for the former’s imminent arrival.

Now retired, painfully aware that death is not too far ahead, the thought of his death and legacy weighs heavily on the Sheriff’s mind. This dream of reuniting with his father in some immortal land with the fire of their spirit still blazing amidst an occluding darkness offers Bell some sense of intrigue, possibly hope, until realizing—

That then he woke up.

Though this dream may have given the former Sheriff a perplexing vision of hope, for now, he remains an occupant of Tyrell County, Texas. A world where men like Chigurh continue to roam free and corrupt the lives of all who cross their path. While No Country for Old Men remains an engrossing cat-and-mouse game between these three men—each existing to perpetuate their own definitions of morality—this premise distinguishes itself from so many genre pieces by offering a complex psychological and moral parable in the face of a worsening world.

“What you got ain’t nothin’ new”, Bell’s uncle warns him; and indeed, the story speaks to a universal feeling shared by generations observing what appears to be decline of the next. Still, the arrival of Chigurh—a man embodying principles of immorality that transcend money, drugs, or normal societal codes of good and evil—represents the manifestation of these anxieties. He is a force of a nature—something which cannot be governed and which ultimately challenges the entire idea of upholding the law. Not only can the law not stop Chigurh, but his actions continue to corrupt or destroy all that come across his path. Moreover, as demonstrated by the fate of DeMarco, Chigurh’s choices will continue to plague and warp such values into the future.

Despite such a dire conclusion, the poem from which the title derives its name—and as further intimidated by Bell’s second dream—there lies a silver lining of liberation in looking past the confines of the physical world. The symbolic Byzantium—a realm where man’s spirit has transcended the degradations of both material society and the physical limitations of the body—offers a glimpse into a landscape where not even the unstoppable corruption of men like Chigurh can attempt to worsen the world. Instead, the Byzantium beyond death, which Bell accesses in his dream, occupies a terrain outside the time and space of material consciousness—one in which those that have already arrived continue to carry on the light of tradition against a worsening darkness. Though Bell wakes up from this dream, still imprisoned to the physical world to which he perhaps no longer belongs, he and the reader are given a description of a land where he does indeed belong—one where he, his father, and the men of this tradition have finally transcended those limitations of their former country—and continue to carry the fire, fixing it out there in the dark, and waiting for whomever will join them in the days to come.


On Jiro Dreams of Sushi



Jiro Dreams of Sushi opens with a literal explanation of the films’ title: the eponymous sushi chef details how he would indeed literally dream of sushi and wake with a burst of creativity concerning his culinary craft. Over the course of the documentary, this all-consuming creative obsession of Jiro’s mind to innovate and perfect his technique becomes the prism through which the film’s explores larger ideas of creativity, discipline, and legacy.

The beginning lures the viewer in with hints toward Jiro’s legendary fame—a montage of his various awards, including the three-star Michelin rating—juxtaposed against tales of his incredibly idiosyncratic work ethic: a man that repeats his daily habits with religious discipline, unwavering in his routines, bound by some deeply embedded personal code. A prominent food critic can hardly contain himself when effusing over Jiro’s sushi: explaining that no other restaurant in Japan contains those components that make Jiro’s so celebrated: a minimalist menu, creativity, and consistency.

Eventually, hints toward the origin of this documentary’s mysterious subject are revealed: his parents were brutally harsh, deeply flawed, and undeniably responsible for the psychological impulses that so intensely motivate him to the present day. Though Jiro speaks about a constant love of his work, and how this commitment has blossomed his life into one of honor and fulfillment, he also hints toward the darkness of his past that has molded this current lifestyle. At the age of nine, his parents bluntly explained that he had, “No home to come back to”—equating success to life and failure to death. Additionally, Jiro watched as his father—an alcoholic that made his living carting people on a ferry—wasted his potential and so severely devastated the young boy. Though his philosophy may appear harsh compared to popular Western parenting philosophies, he has impressed this unforgiving discipline upon his sons, as well, which has resulted in their undeniably successful careers.


Nonetheless, his initial upbringing sheds further light on these developments in craft. Jiro recounts how difficult working as an apprentice could be—with a boss that would abuse and overwork him—but to whom he remained loyal and mastered his burgeoning skills. As the obsession consumed him, Jiro innovated various methods of preparation and design that elevated his sushi far above his peers. More interesting than these techniques, however, is found in Jiro’s regimen for focusing on improvement.

With almost zero variation in his daily habits, Jiro resembles something closer to a machine than a human being in his singular drive to maintain consistency. Whether for a funeral or awards ceremony, Jiro insists on returning to the modest kitchen and not allowing these emotions to distract from his daily output. And more importantly, despite financial success and critical acclaim, Jiro refuses to remain satisfied. Constantly, he seeks to improve and elevate his techniques in all areas: seating arrangement, food preparation, food source—that harmonize in their excellence to create this overwhelmingly experience for the customer.

Moving forward, the focus of the documentary shifts from Jiro to his two sons, most notably: Yoshikazu. While the younger brother left to open his own sushi restaurant under the family name—instructed with the same warning that he had nothing to come back if it failed (and leading to subsequent success)—Yoshikazu works with his legendary father on a daily basis and negotiates with both recognizing his own triumphs and the importance of carrying forward his father’s inimitable legacy into the future.

Though Jiro remains the most prominent figure credited with creating this remarkable sushi, Yoshikazu and the other chefs work with a similarly astounding devotion to their job. Yoshikazu explains that new employees are first tasked with wringing out a hot towel, and until they are able to successfully accomplish this menial task up to their standards, that they are then promoted to working in the kitchen.

This will often take years.

After, they are then promoted to working in the kitchen, where again, they must hone their skills to the point of perfection. Much of what drives their work ethic and fulfillment seems to be in pleasing Jiro himself—one chef admits that he cried after Jiro finally considered one of his dishes acceptable after hundreds of dismissals.

One quickly realizes that this aspect—of ensuring every step of the process meets the same high quality standard as every other component—attributes to the overall exemplary quality of Jiro’s work. The film detours a bit to show the selection of the fish process, and how Jiro or his son seek the best fish possible without substitute. Or, more often, the dealers will reserve their best quality fish especially for Jiro—as they want their product to be put to the best use possible. Additionally, the film sidetracks to explain how the best fish can often be hard to find in this day and age, due to overfishing and overconsumption of sushi as a delicacy. Jiro and Yoshikazu both implore that the sacrifice of natural resources for food consumption cannot continue, though the film then returns to the subject of its title for its conclusion.


Having achieved so much acclaim and fulfillment in these later years, Jiro reflects on his past as an adolescent troublemaker, and many friends chime in that they remember him as a vicious bully. Jiro seems to recognize the redemptive quality to his story—that he began life as such a wayward youth only to have his all-consuming obsession provide a center of focus for his emotions and effort. The film also juxtaposes such an idea against the legacy that his sons struggle to negotiate in considering their own legacy. For although the Michelin judge awarded Jiro—and he accepted the prize—for serving such excellent sushi that meets their rigorous qualifications, it is revealed that Yoshikazu—his son—served the sushi that day.

Like its subject, the film works best when centering its focus upon Jiro to explore the various aspects that overlap with the most curious qualities contained within the renowned chef’s mentality: self-discipline, creativity, focus, and consistency. Near the end, one cannot help but be astonished by Jiro’s resolve and commitment. A man refusing to settle for less, refusing to compromise to his physical decline, refusing to wallow in his successes—and who continues to push himself forward for the betterment of himself, his craft, and those customers that he serves. For a film with a number of profound and provocative ideas at its epicenter, it is the study of this single man—one whose work and philosophy will continue to be spread through his sons and those influenced by the documentary itself—that one begins to understand the significance of a great piece of sushi.


The Survivor in Sci-Fi: On GRAVITY and THE MARTIAN



Like last year’s equally commendable Gravity, Ridley Scott’s The Martian pits a lone protagonist against the vast abyss of space to examine the phenomenal capabilities—and crippling weaknesses—of a determined human mind as can often best be explored through the sci-fi genre. Though the two films are remarkably different in tone, both feature a single character forced to battle against both the unforgiving elements of outer space and the interior war within their mind. While Cuaron’s Gravity infuses the terror of this struggle through an atmosphere of dread, Ridley Scott’s The Martian relies much more heavily on humor to highlight its own themes of man’s survival through critical thinking and collective effort.



Opening with a title card that warns: “Life in space is impossible”, Gravity begins with Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and her veteran colleague Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) repairing the Hubble Space Telescope. In this brief scene, Cuaron allows the suffocating silence of space to be glimpsed in between their intercom dialogue, while also foreshadowing Stone’s careful—though visibly anxious—maneuverings to avert any fatal mistakes. Nonetheless, falling debris from a destroyed Russian satellite leaves the rest of their crew dead—stranding Stone and Kowalski alone in the void.

While this opening sequence serves both to imbue a sense of awe in its deliberately paced display of distant Earth and the limitless reaches of surrounding space, the light dialogue between Stone and Kowalski offers some impression into her horribly anxious disposition contrasted against Kowalski’s calm confidence. As the chaos of the debris steadily rises in tandem with the subtle score, Stone remains transfixed on her task—unable to free herself from her current, “safe” job. Even when Kowalski gives her a direct order, she struggles to separate herself from the comfort of the work in order to pivot for safety. Repeatedly, this theme will come to define Stone’s psyche—as a woman unable to overcome her current predicament and push her way forward.

Moreover, Cuaron frequently employs long shots to sustain the immediacy of the moment and situate the viewer within the characters’ POV. While the film’s technical achievements have already been discussed at length (and deservingly so), the emotional and thematic importance is never sacrificed in favor of these spectacular displays. The viewer experiences the terrifying experience of hurtling through blackness, reeling farther and farther back from Earth, while these incredible visuals only serve to enhance the experiencer rather than distract for the sake of spectacle.

In refusing to cut (or at least employ “invisible cuts” to maintain the illusion of seamlessness), Cuaron never allows a reprieve from the stultifying and worsening conditions of the hostile environment. The subtle, effective score further cues these emotions—providing an additional layer to the chaotic and disorienting dialogue. Most importantly, it illustrates both the urgency and dire consequences of the premise—making clear that the cruel landscape of space demands for the astronaut to either die or adapt—a theme soon to become the core challenge of Stone’s character.

As Stone tumbles through space completely adrift against the interminable blackness, Kowalski manages to save her using his MMU (manned-maneuvering unit) and the two return to find the rest of their shuttle crew dead. Left with no other option, the duo press forward for the International Space Station. In the interim, Stone moseys forward with Kowalski, who does his best to alleviate her anxiety through small talk. In this dialogue, Stone sheds light on the incident that has so defined her current disposition, when she explains that her daughter died in a random tragedy after hitting her head during a schoolyard game of tag. She details further that when receiving the news, she was driving and listening to the radio, then sadly mutters, “since then, that’s what I do”. This behavior—of being trapped by the past and unable to move forward—has turned Stone into something that resembles her namesake, an immovable block rather than a human being able to adapt and thrive.


Still, after arriving at the ISS, they find that only one of the two Soyuz modules remains. Worse, the other module’s parachute has already been deployed. Kowalski still figures that they may still be able to reach the Chinese Space Station—The Tiagong—to use one of their modules. However, the deployed parachute chords entangle the two astronauts—endangering both their lives. And in order to save her life, Kowalsi detaches the chord to sacrifice his own for Stone’s.

After another distressing sequence of POV shots when Stone must escape from a fire outbreak aboard the ISS, she finds herself within the Soyuz module—only to discover that the fuel has been depleted. With the relentless forward momentum of the plot so far—excepting Stone and Kowalski’s sojourn to the ISS for crucial character building moments—the pacing decelerates to allow the audience to absorb the magnitude of Stone’s utter hopelessness and producing perhaps its most poignant and emotional scene.

After attempting radio communication with Earth, she instead finds herself conversing with an Eskimo fisherman. Having finally found another human connection, the other side is not only not Mission Control, but a random fisherman incapable of communicating back with her, and there’s recognition that her favorite activity since the death of her daughter—just listening to the radio—has now become her last connection to humanity before surrendering to death. She resorts to imitating the howls of a dog heard in the Alaskan background; and then, only through these howls, can she communicate with her fellow man. With small, uncontrollable tears, she lets loose pitiful howls in finding someone else to speak to—shedding tears in communicating with a fellow man; no longer as an American with an Alaskan, or a woman with a man, or an astronaut with someone back on Earth—but as two animals sharing the experience of being alive through this howling of the soul.

Believing that this represented her best hope at returning home, Stone accepts her fate—begging to this listener that can’t understand her with a final testimonial that reveals the overwhelming fear consuming her spirit: “I know I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die today…but I’m still scared, I’m really scared…No one will mourn for me, no one will pray for my soul…”


Bullock’s performance remains steadfast and subtle, never opting to turn this emotionally rendering moment “loud” or melodramatically alter what has been defined as her character’s timid behavior. Instead, she applies restraint and allows these powerful emotions to translate the existential desolation of the situation—making tangible the enormity of her suffering within this small island of safety and the looming certainty of death. Resigned to her fate, Stone deactivates the cabin’s oxygen supply to commit suicide—the lullaby of her Inuit friend Aningaaq drifting her toward unconsciousness—when the film suddenly departs from the stark reality that it has so far effectively hypnotized the viewer into believing and re-introduces the specter of Clooney’s Matt Kowalski.

Despite the obvious hallucinogenic/fantasy aspect of this device, his pep talk to Stone makes explicit the film’s major theme. While the fact that the dialogue so bluntly states its message would be irksome in most filmmakers’ hands, Cuaron has so successfully imbued the subtle nature of Stone’s incredibly timid and reserved character up to this point—a character quality often very difficult to translate to the screen with nuace—that allows these tender emotions to be so successfully evoked. As has been repeatedly demonstrated, Stone is a woman incapable of moving forward—a woman more willing to resign to emotional paralysis than risk the potential for pain.

Kowalski addresses this attitude in saying:

Do you wanna go back or do you wanna stay here? I get it, it’s nice here…just close your eyes and tune out everyone…it’s safe…there’s no one up here who can hurt you…what’s the point of going on? What’s the point of living….your kid died, it doesn’t get any rougher than that…but it’s still a matter of what you do now…and if you decide to go, then you gotta get on with it…gotta plant both your feet on the ground and start livin’ life…”

Kowalski speech motives a newfound fire within her, and she follows his instructions to rig the Soyuz’s jets to connect with the Tiangong and initiate her return journey home. Avoiding the subsequent obstacles that then arise, she enters the capsule and begins her deployment back to Earth. Though a fire within the capsule threatens her safety, she survives the harsh landing into a lake, where she now must swim against the drowning waters and ascend to the surface.


Having struggled so much in the upper echelons of space, Stone’s fight to swim back up to land now deserves special praise. Where so many filmmakers would be content with an easy victory upon her crashing landing to earth, Cuaron pushes the character further and deprives Stone of an easy ending—just as she has finally found her way back home. Yet, Stone does indeed manage to survive—and in a sequence that echoes with symbolism toward the evolution of life itself—Stone reemerges from the waters, rises from the dirt, and takes her first slow, shaky steps back upon planet Earth.

As the story of a single person’s survival within the hostile arena of space, Gravity can often be an unsettling, though ultimately, very triumphant experience. The story positions the darker aspects of a person’s ability to cope with trauma and rise above those shackling flaws of their past to the forefront, and the cinematic techniques on display further immerse the viewer in the terrifying dread of such a premise: specifically, POV shots hurtling through space, the unnerving quiet of the surrounding void, and the utter loneliness of the deathly atmosphere. Cuaron conveys all of these deeper existential questions of a character’s determination through a tone that conjures the dread of such a harrowing experience and being ability to surmount such fear through the exertion of courage and continuing to advance forward.

The Martian


Meanwhile, The Martian shares a very broad narrative overlap involving the survival of a lone protagonist in space. In this case, however, that hostile territory is Mars; and the protagonist, astronaut Mark Watney. Unlike Gravity, the filmmakers follow a wildly different route in portraying the experience of a human’s fight for survival on a planet hostile to human life—employing humor, a more light-hearted tone, and an ensemble of characters to emphasize its themes of survival through critical thinking, persistence, and collective effort toward a common goal.

After an unexpected storm causes the crew of Ares III to abandon Mars, astronaut Mark Watney finds himself isolated upon the planet due to the damage done to his biometer that designated him as a dead man. When awakening to find himself alive, however, Mark trudges back to the Hab—the habitable human settlement established upon the planet—and, after a restless night of internal questioning, declares that this is not the planet where he will die.

Applying both his knowledge as a botanist and his unwavering willpower, Mark uses the marriage of his science and intellectual prowess to overcome the multitude of seemingly impossible obstacles that appear determined to destroy him. He creates water, food, heat (albeit with a potentially fatal radioactive plutonium) and—even in being responsible for numerous mistakes in the process—still presses forward until he finds success. Throughout these trials, Watney maintains a video blog both for prosperity’s sake and to sustain his moral in the midst of such isolation.

While Gravity’s sense of urgency continually keeps the forward momentum compelling and imbued with a feeling of immediate danger, The Martian must contend with a drastically different narrative timeline that creates an unusual storytelling challenge: building a sense of urgency while also allowing the audience inside Mark’s head. As the monotony of his day-to-day activities would grow tiresome or confusing without any explanation, the device of the video blogs helps alleviate these narrative problems.


Meanwhile, back on Earth, NASA has realized that Watney is actually still alive and begin their own quest in figuring out how to bring their man back home. Because Watney’s activities transpire over such an extended period of time, the story wisely intercuts between those on Earth attempting to bring him back and Watney’s own problems on Mars in order to intensify the struggle and give a glimpse toward the literally cosmic scope of this problem.

As NASA determines the various financial, moral, and practical difficulties in solving that problem, Watney must contend with those battles and victories in the short-term that will allow his long-term survival. The filmmakers construct these sequences as mini-movies of their own right—allowing a constant sense of triumphs and defeats that disguise the longevity of the story’s timeline. Whether it’s finding food, creating water—all seemingly impossible tasks—each problem is constructed around sequences of beginnings, middles, and ends that allow for Watney’s creative solutions to achieve a short victory before returning to yet another seemingly impossible choice to be encountered by NASA.

After Mark manages to reboot the original Pathfinder probe and establish communication with NASA, however, a new dynamic between Earth and the Martian begins to form. More interestingly, the arrival of communication—through the use of the hexadecimal alphabet—demonstrates how important language stands for human survival. Whereas Gravity focused more on this single woman’s psychological journey traversing through space, The Martian distinguishes itself by relying more on a network of people to ensure his successful survival back home—highlighting how important collective effort toward this goal can be and how communication may be the ultimate tool for accomplishing this task.

Most importantly, with the idea of communicating being such an essential feature of this film, comedy and humor become a much more prominent tonal element woven into the fabric of the story. While compelling and vital for the examination of Stone’s character, Gravity maintains a grim, dour tone throughout—appropriate for its specific story—in order to diffuse the sense of hopelessness permeated within Stone’s psyche upon the viewer.

The Martian that is Mark Watney is a very different astronaut. Determined to overcome his dismal situation, Mark maintains a relentlessly optimistic personality and tackles each individual problem in careful, measured steps while narrating his decisions through video blogs that sustain his positivity despite the utter lack of human connection around him over the prolonged time period. Though Cuaron routinely employs unbroken takes or extended sequences that further transport the viewer within the suspense and danger of Gravity’s premise, The Martian opts for a more relaxed, light-beat tone to keep the audience engaged. From rapid time cuts of Mark growing his new potatoes, to montages set to disco music, to comic cuts of Mark complaining about said disco music, this humorous tone endures throughout—replicating the tone of Mark’s indomitable spirit upon the audience to experience this harrowing journey with a feeling that his quality of life need not be completely destroyed.


Still, the fun does not last for long: as both Mark and NASA each encounter significant setbacks. On Mars, Mark’s HAB malfunctions due to a human fault of his own that renders his crops unusable and sunders the entryway—forcing him to protect himself from the elements with a noisy, insecure swath of tarp. Simultaneously, NASA initiates a space probe launch designed to aid him with supplies until the arrival of the Ares IV—only for the probe to disintegrate due to the director’s decision to forego safety inspects in favor of helping out Mark as soon as possible.

After beginning afresh with his new crops, the first hint of darker psychological anxiety creeps its way into the previously positive tone. While Mark rations out his food supply, intently listening for any possible damage to his tarp acting as his shield against the brutal Martian weather, he repeatedly tries to hide the anxiety threatening to paralyze him. Though only a brief moment, the scene shows Mark flinching every time the tarp flaps against the severe winds just outside and demonstrates how perilous the slightest tear could endanger his life. As he calculates his potato rations, this glimpse into Mark’s anxieties just beneath the surface provides an interesting change in tone that reminds the viewer just how truly dangerous and subjected to the mercy of elements outside his control Mark’s life currently remains.

Faced with few options at this point, NASA receives a boon from the CNSA in the form of a classified booster that they are willing to lend to the Americans. At the same time, Donald Glover’s Rich Purnell figures an alternative method for rescue—by using the booster to resupply the Ares III and allow the astronauts to return to Mars, recover Mark, then return back to Earth.


Set to Bowie’s “Starman”, another montage helps disguise the extended period of months that these machinations will necessitate, as Mark also needs to begin his own long journey across Mars to reach the site of the future ARES IV launch. By the conclusion of this stretch before the climax, the stakes have been significantly raised and the passage of time shows some deterioration in Mark’s previously unwavering mental state. Mark now sports a grizzled beard, various sores across his skin, has lost a significant amount of weight, and his teeth have begun to rot. Nonetheless, he retains his sense of humor throughout the endeavor—now calling himself a space pirate—though his humor appears to cause NASA more trepidation this time around than at the start.

As the crew initiates their rescue, Scott allows for a touching moment that exposes these cracks in Mark’s previously unbreakable composition. When the crew begins the countdown, and Mark knows that he’s finally about to engage in the most important few minutes of his life to either die or finally leave behind the isolating land of Mars, he breaks down and sheds tears that both release his repressed anguish and celebrate the triumph of having survived this long upon the hostile planet.


Finally, the rescue begins. At each step of the turn, some unforeseen variable seems to destined to doom the endeavor—whether it’s the weight of the launch vehicle, the distance between Commander Lewis and Mark that prompts him to poke a hole in his suit to fly through space (not unlike Stone’s use of the fire extinguisher), to the dozens of other unforeseen factors that threatened to endanger all of their actions. Thankfully, Mark reunites with his crew and the climax swells with complete triumph and relief. The film wisely wastes no time following their rescue and cuts to the eponymous Martian now back on Earth—teaching potential astronaut candidates about the power of facing your fears and solving each problem in order to survive.

Watney proved him capable of conquering every danger wrought both by the Martian planet and his own mental anxieties. While his physical survival necessitated his application of science and indomitable fortitude to overcome these obstacles, The Martian also emphasizes the importance of collective effort toward the goal of bringing him back home. But most intriguingly, the film’s command of tone—balancing unexpected humor in the midst of such a dire situation—helps instill a similar sense of communal experience for the audience that remains such a fundamental component of the film’s story and theme.

Though very broadly similar films in their sharing of a single protagonist in space struggling to survive and return to Earth, both Gravity and the Martian use the sci-fi genre to address a comparable message about man’s resiliency in the face of a seemingly insurmountable situation. In Cuaron’s Gravity, the story focuses on the fight of its main protagonist and her psychological battle to defeat the depression within her that has arrested those capabilities that will allow for her survival. Moreover, Cuaron employs point-of-view shots, subtle atmospheric score, and an often-dire tone that situates the viewer into both the urgency and terror of the premise—framing the individual as the central story to evoke its themes of progress, triumph, and human ingenuity.

The Martian, however, while also focusing on a sole individual confronting the vast difficulties of both outer space and his inner potential for achieving this feat, also broadens its exploration of this theme to incorporate ideas of cooperation and collective effort in spite of such an impossible outcome. In both cases, the filmmakers have crafted an exceptional, distinguished story that celebrates the remarkable triumphs of the human mind: whether through a tone of dread that then illuminates the capabilities of the human spirit, or how the persistence and positivity of a single man stuck on Mars can inspire those on Earth—both films examine the enduring elements of human nature as best explored through the powerful potential of the sci-fi genre.


The Wages of Fear and The Existential Thriller


In her review of The Wages of Fear (1953), Paul Kael defined the film as an “existential thriller”. This perfect description of the premise’s spin on the thriller genre encapsulates why this film remains so compelling, so dramatic, and so provocative after so many years. Moreover, the fact that The Wages of Fear inhabits this singular space within the genre warrants further examination into how this distinctive film manages to expand this simple premise into a complex, spellbinding study into the nature of man’s relationship to fate, as seen through some of the most thrilling sequences to ever be engraved upon the silver screen.

Opening with a shot that would be reappropriated by Sam Peckinpah for his opening of The Wild Bunch, Cluzot’s The Wages of Fear begins with the stark image of a child toying with four scorpions within the poverty-stricken South American town of Las Piedras. When the boy becomes momentarily distracted by the promise of an iced treat that he can’t afford, a vulture swoops down to steal the scorpions—instantly establishing this savage setting to which these characters and premise must survive. Those characters are found in four men of different nationalities, who share the bond of being men crushed by the cruel hand of fate and now imprisoned within this inescapable town to bleak lives of despair.

The “protagonist” and first man to be introduced is Mario (Yves Montand). Though few details of his backstory are revealed (an enormous distinction in comparison to William Friedkin’s adaptation of the same source material in 1977’s Sorcerer), his fate as a cold, condemned man becomes quickly evident. He treats the cantina girl—Linda—with zero respect, and though clearly a capable man, seems resigned to the disastrous turn his life has taken.

His Italian roommate—Luigi—stars as the second of the four. An honest and hardworking man with a more optimistic outlook, though his lung cancer diagnosis quickly changes his perspective. The third and most intriguing backstory is found in the German—Bimba—a hardened man forced to work the Salt Mines during the Nazi occupation of his country. The final of the four men is introduced in an ex-gangster—Jo—who bribes his way into town and quickly becomes aware of the fatalistic undercurrent that permeates the province and transforms its citizens into prisoners.


Ruling over the village and advertising a chance for escape is the Southern Oil Company. When an inferno erupts over distant oil fields, the Oil Company offers a glimmer of hope in the form of a near suicidal mission. This job entails the employment of four men—two in each truck due to the low odds of survival—that must deliver packages of highly explosive nitroglycerine that will extinguish the inferno consuming a distant oil field.

Knowing that they may very well die but realizing that this opportunity may be their only chance for survival from the arguably worse fate of continuing their interminable lives in town, the four set out on their quest filled with a constant sense of danger in the most literal sense imaginable. With the nitroglycerin onboard the truck, the slightest bump or impact of the volatile substance means instantaneous death. Still, the men accept their job and the consequences of failure, then begin their long drive through the rocky terrain.

The second half of the film depicts this arduous journey in excruciating, powerful cinematic display. The four men are divided into two teams tasked with driving their separate trucks: Mario and Jo in the first, Bimba and Luigi in the second. Though Jo has initially presented himself as a man of bravado and confidence, his disposition alters immediately upon the start of this fatalistic trip. He complains of sickness, weariness, hunger…all things that Mario recognizes as telltales signs of a rattled man, though he knows that they must persist forward and keep to schedule at all costs.

The first obstacle that the two trucks encounter appears in a rocky stretch with recently laid concrete that necessitates their needing to accelerate to top speeds in order to clear. Though Bimba and Luigi are able to successfully speed over this stretch, Jo again reveals his insecurities and brakes just before he has been instructed to drive at a top speed in order to clear the pavement —a move that nearly costs the lives of both him and Mario in this very early stage. Mario takes over the wheel from his fearful friend and manages to navigate them over this volatile ground.

Cluzot modulates the tension of this scene to masterful effect—a skill that will be demonstrated throughout the second half to even more remarkable power. Their needing to clear this road at a maximum speed despite the explosives in their trunk causes the viewer to grow uneasy with every shot that fixates over the speedometer and Jo’s reaction shots of nervous anxiety that mirror the audience’s own anticipation for disaster— creating a scene that serves as a model for cinematic tension at its best.

And it’s worth noting that this is only the first obstacle of the very long journey.

Luigi and Bimba soon encounter the second obstacle: a construction barricade that requires the truck to be gently steered across a flimsy, wooden platform that borders a precipice overlooking a cliff. Though again, the two are able to cohesively work together in order to cross this second sure sign of certain doom, their success has come at the cost of destroying the wobbly planks that allowed their first truck to clear the pass.

While the first set piece creates a feeling of fast anxiety, this second obstacle conjures that of subtle, mounting dread. As Jo directs Mario in his steering the wheels over the most dangerous three-point-turn that has ever been dared, the latter eventually realizes that the former may have fallen off the cliff. With the truck standing on creaking boards that hint at collapsing from the truck’s heavy weight at a moment’s notice, Mario hops out the truck and searches for Jo—only to find his companion hiding amongst the bluffs and fleeing the site.

Throughout this sequence, Cluzot wrings the viewer through a heightened level of anxiety that seems nearly impossible to top. As the audience has already watched Bimba and Luigi barely surmount this wobbly platform, the task seems all but impossible for Jo and Mario to successfully cross these already moldering boards that threaten to collapse under the slightest weight. Nonetheless, the viewer must sit and suffer through this dreaded set piece of merciless tension—a secondary model for cinematic tension materialized through one of escalating dread that contrasts from that of the extreme exhilaration seen in the first obstacle.


Yet, the two still manage to somehow conquer this second perilous stretch. Incensed by Jo’s betrayal, however, Mario drives away—leaving Jo stranded in the cliffs, until the cowardly gangster finally relents. Jo runs along the side of the truck, begging for Mario’s help, which the driver agrees to—having now humiliated the former gangster of bravado into admitting his cowardice.

The four drivers finally reconvene at their third, most immobilizing obstacle—an enormous boulder in the middle of the road that brings their convoy to a standstill. Though the group grows despondent in figuring out how to surpass this boulder, Bimba cleverly realizes that they may be able to use the nitroglycerin itself to detonate the rock and clear the path. Though they succeed in doing just that, another moment of acute, much more extreme tension arises when they realize that they may not have backed up the trucks far enough from any flying debris that would cause certain explosion upon impact. Luckily, the falling debris manages to miss the trucks and the quartet survives.


Still, this is yet another example of Cluzot expertly finding ways to differentiate the existential fear at the heart of the premise and find innovative ways of reworking this anxiety into various obstacles which arise along this journey in the form of plot. While the former two obstacles were ones in which the protagonists could somewhat calculate the danger—meticulously navigating their ways across landscapes that warned of the terror ahead—the flying debris represents the first instance of unknowable danger that arrives before the characters may be able to combat or avoid the consequences of their fate.

Of course, this alludes to the larger metaphor for death that saturates the entire film—the idea that man may be able to avoid avoid certain dangers, but an awareness that there are various agents of fate over which a man can have no control and may only escape through sheer luck—as these characters do.

This idea is further outlined to even more haunting effect in the ensuing scene. After driving past the boulder, Luigi commends Bimba on his heroics and so fearlessly confronting the problem through the use ofthe nitroglycerin. Bimba chuckles, then hints toward the horrors found in his backstory of working in the salt mines while living under Nazi regime. This then sets up Luigi’s next question, as to why Bimba continually shaves every day, to which the latter further explains that before his father’s hanging, he asked to take a shower. Finishing the explanation with: “If I’ve gotta be a corpse, I want to be…presentable”.

Moments later, back in Jo and Mario’s truck, the former has begun rolling a cigarette, when the tobacco suddenly rolls away. A blinding white light blazes in the aftermath, and the two slowly realize in horror as to the source of the searing light:

That Bimba and Luigi’s truck has exploded.

Despite their working together, despite their overcoming obstacles in their path, a sudden bump in the road has now caused their companions’ instant incineration. While the flying debris of the boulder represented a new manifestation of existential terror, the tension charging every inch forward on their journey after this deathly detonation perhaps best outlines the true terror found in this allegory of unforeseeable tragedy that lies at the heart of this intense odyssey.

Now the only drivers left to finish the job, Jo and Mario arrive upon the wreck to find that the explosion has severed an oil line, slowly trapping all in its path, and creating an uncrossable abyss for the truck to pass. Still, Jo walks out to test the boundaries of the oil pit. During the excursion, however, Mario realizes that the truck has started sinking into the oil bog—and realizing that this means either to drive or lose everything—accelerates forward. As Joe himself has become bogged down within the oily mire, Mario faces no option but to drive over his legs—mortally wounding and crippling his partner.


More than any other sequence so far, this sequence exemplifies the suffocating anxiety so perfectly realized through the powerful cinematic storytelling of Cluzot’s capabilities. Having just witnessed that the wrong bump on an otherwise clear road has sent the others to their deaths, the visibly rocky path formed by the oil bog creates an overwhelmingly uncomfortable experience—one that tests the viewer’s ability to remain still within these moments of unyielding suspense.

As Jo shrieks in primal screams while his legs are crushed beneath the tires, while Mario must still march the truck forward at the cost of crippling his companion, both know that this entire excursion may literally blow up in their face at any moment. As a result, these men can no longer carry an appearance of being civilized, ration beings; but instead, they transform into desperate beasts clawing and shouting for survival in the middle of a Mexican desert.

Though both the truck and Jo manage to survive this final obstacle, the latter clearly does not have much left to keep going. In an effort to comfort him, Mario relates an old story about a cigar shop in Paris, one in which both he and Jo are familiar. As Jo asks for more details about the location, and what lied behind a fence that he had never seen beyond, Mario can only tearfully answer that there was nothing. With death imminent, Jo repeats these words in his dying breath to haunting effect, muttering “There’s nothing” just as they finally arrive upon the object of their journey’s quest. Appearing almost like a mirage within this desert as he finally arrives, Mario—now the only surviving member of the four hired drivers—collapses before the blazing inferno having successfully delivered the nitroglycerin.


In the epilogue of this harrowing journey, Mario prepares to drive back home to Las Piedras—now a wealthy man with means of escape. Though the workers offer him a driver, Mario insists on navigating the road back himself: “When someone else is driving…I’m scared”. Simultaneously, Cluzot intercuts a dance scene back at the Cantina, where Linda and the other villagers celebrate the good news that Mario has survived and begun his return journey home.

However, during this travel back, Mario steers down the rocky mountain pass with reckless abandon—arrogantly turning the wheels beside the pratfalls after having just managed to navigate this same terrain with the nitroglycerin—but which he feels he can now fishtail around with arrogant zeal. As the music crescendos, Linda feels a sudden, internal pain and appears to faint or die. Cluzot juxtaposes this against Mario attempting a dangerous turn that proves too much for his vehicle to correct. In the film’s final moment, he tries to swerve back to safety—instantly realizing the error of his arrogant display—and tumbles over the rocks to death.

All four men succumb to the hand of fate in specific, insightful fashion that demonstrates its inevitable power from which no man can escape. While Bimba has escaped the horrors of the Nazi regime and utilizes his intellect to the group’s collective reward, he is struck down by a random bump in the road that sends him to death without ceremony. Even as he knows that this day is coming and shaves everyday to prepare to face it with pride, the fact that this almost spontaneous combustion occurs just after delivering this speech feels as though the writing almost intends to mock his reverence for the grave and trying to preserve his dignity while in the presence of the specter of death.

His companion—Luigi—receives a similar, arguably derisive death, in light of the information that even if this good-natured fellow survives the trip, he will have to face the fact that death is not too far around the corner due to his lung cancer diagnosis caused by years of hard work for the Oil Company. Though Cluzot remains firmly objective in his portrayal of the characters and this brutal world, his story feels the most heartbreaking, perhaps due to the sheer jovial nature of the actor that portrays him.

While the three others are clearly men of a dark past who have found some refuge in Las Piedras, Luigi appears to be a genuinely good-natured man trapped by ugly circumstances—though this would also appear to be Cluzot’s point: that there is no difference between a good and a bad man in a world where fate makes no distinction.

The fates of Mario and Jo represent this idea in similar fashion through their character arcs that reveal the reactions of these two men when confronting death. Mario initially presents himself as a man of sheer bravado—a gangster capable of handling any obstacle with money or an intimidating will. He even wiggles his way into the job by apparently killing the man first employed (or perhaps intimidated him enough to cow down, the details are left cleverly ambiguous)—but nonetheless demonstrating a ruthless man ready to tackle these obstacles.


But almost from the get-go, his cowardice in comprehending the consequences of this task becomes quickly evident. He feigns sickness, delays progress, begs for breaks, and finally quits when confronted with the first obstacle. The second obstacle of the rickety concrete overlooking the precipice finally breaks his initial facade, when he attempts to hide and flee from Mario. Jo’s behavior is not without some merit, however, when he yells back in defense:

“Cause I know what risk is. You just plunge ahead. You think you’re invincible. You can’t see 10 feet ahead of you. I see every pebble, every hole that could send us sky-high. I’ve died 50 times since last night. I can see the explosion up here. I see myself blown to bits. Cause I’ve got brains in my head!

Logically speaking, Jo is right. The entire endeavor is suicidal and irrational, but the fact that he had previously agreed to completing the job—one in which his help may save the life of his partners—produces a problem. While the others try to reconcile the constant danger by acting both cautiously and brave, Jo recognizes their arrogance in any attempts whatsoever—one proved correct when Bimba and Jo are promptly killed after a mere bump in the road.

Mario, however, refuses to yield these insecurities. Compelled to complete the job, with poignant memories of a Parisian past to keep him motivated, the protagonist plunges forward when faced against each obstacle—knowing that persistence may be the only virtue capable of surmounting their survival. Throughout the entirety of the job, Mario embodies this quality—refusing to deter the mission, even at the cost of crippling and then killing his partner Jo.

His return journey home, however, presents a stirring statement about the consequences of ignoring this virtue. Having remained dutiful and persistent throughout the task, he drives with reckless abandon throughout the formerly fatal mountainside—steering the vehicle as though challenging the terrain just conquered. Fate proves the ultimate victor, and through his own human fault, causes his own death.

More importantly and to the point, all of these ideas are embedded in a film that demonstrates these concepts through some of the most thrilling, tension-filled sequences ever conceived for cinema. While this this premise deserves due credit for its genius in establishing such a heightened circumstance for these themes to be examined, the filmmaking on display deserves the highest praise for elevating the narrative to one that delivers an exceptional cinematic experience.

The narrative work of the first half establishes these distinct characters whose lives will be in perpetual danger, along with the psychogeography of the grim setting that traps them, before beginning the slow descent to madness when traversing into the uninhabited Mexican desert that brings out their most barbaric nature. Cluzot sustains an observing, often unsympathetic eye through the entirety of the endeavor in a manner that evokes Kubrick—as his filmmaking style only amplifies the thematic ideas on display and never favors plotting or style that distract from the existential premise on display.

Cleverly, he disguises this fact through the obstacles of the plot and the relentless tension that engulfs each moment. With the threat of annihilation always looming behind each second of film, the viewer must situate themselves within the shoes of these characters and experience each moment of intensified suspense without choice. Every obstacle, therefore, becomes as much of a weight upon the audience as the characters, and the writing always manifest various versions of these existential terror through the forms of different obstacles: the high-speed exhilaration of the first road stretch, the mounting dread of the rickety bridge confronted in the second obstacle, the chaotic frenzy of mistake found in the explosive third, and a mixture of all three found in the final oily bog.

In doing so, the narrative works to magnificent cinematic effect in a manner that elicits its power for utilizing those qualities that are so unique to the medium of film. Cluzot has crafted one of the finest and most distinct thrillers—a movie that occupies a very unique space within the spectrum that Kael so perfectly described as an “existential thriller”—and one that weaves those themes of fate and the folly of man within heightened sequences of suspense that still stand as some of the most exciting ever offered upon the silver screen.


Zodiac: A Distinctive Take on The True Crime Thriller Genre


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The case goes cold.

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

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

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

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

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

Toschi: Easy Dirty Harry…Finish the book.

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


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

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

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

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


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



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

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

Poster - Once Upon a Time in the West_17

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frank: Just a man.

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

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

Harmonica: … Only at the point of dyin’.

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

Loco: Why?

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

Loco: Killer—

Sheriff: Shut up!

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

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

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

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

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


And endured the film has.

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

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

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

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



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


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

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

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance


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

And, of course, everything goes wrong.

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

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

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

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

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



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

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


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

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

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

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance


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

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

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

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

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

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance wallpaper 06

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Review: Montage of Heck


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

phantom museums high res

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.


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.