John Hurt

A Man for All Seasons (1966, Fred Zinnemann)

What’s so incredible about A Man for All Seasons is how big director Zinnemann makes it while keeping it small while keeping it big. The settings are big—palaces, estates, and so on—but Zinnemann keeps the set pieces small. He and cinematographer Ted Moore will do big establishing shots, but only after they’ve gotten into the details of the places. They incorporate the technique into the opening titles, then keep going with it throughout the film. The film’s all about the small actions and pettiness of important men, those establishing montages bring them down to Earth. Or at least establish a grounded Earth in which to play.

Georges Delerue’s regal but also demure score perfectly accompanies.

The film’s about Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield in a singular performance); he refuses to publicly support King Henry VIII’s first divorce. Robert Shaw plays the King; he’s great too. Only in it for a couple scenes, but great. And a grandiose enough performance to cast a shadow on the film after he’s established. You’ve got to believe Shaw can be so petty about Scofield not supporting him, without ever establishing Shaw’s regard for Scofield. At least, not until after Scofield’s pissed him off. Man for All Seasons has a wonderful sense of how to elucidate history—writer Robert Bolt (adapting his play) does “pepper” the exposition with historical detail, but only ever for the characters’ edification, not the audience’s. And when doing historical exposition, Bolt’s default is for the common man—or at least the more common man, let’s say still identifiable if not sympathetic upper middle class—not the nationstate politics. Yes, Scofield toggles between kingmakers and kings like Orson Welles and Shaw, but he also deals with ambitious bureaucrats like Leo McKern (and unambitious de facto ones like Nigel Davenport). His would-be protege, John Hurt, is just a man trying to make something of himself out of university and Scofield tries hard to protect him for the realities of corruption. For Scofield’s More, the corruption tends to have a religious bent but the film never particularly gets into the religiosity. Bolt, Zinnemann, and Scofield examine More’s actions and how his beliefs chart those actions, not the content of the beliefs. They’re kind of lucky to have More as the subject, as him not voicing any opinion whatsoever is what gets him into trouble. A man keeps his thoughts his own when in Tudor England, something Scofield tries to impart on friend and foe alike, which leads to some wonderful moments.

Scofield’s family also plays a big part. There’s wife Wendy Hiller, who doesn’t get much to do but is good, daughter Susannah York, who’s awesome and gets lots to do—sometimes just reacting; the film sets her up as Scofield’s intellectual heir, if she weren’t a girl anyway, and so her perception of the events and behaviors she experiences are another storytelling slate for Zinnemann and Bolt. Man for All Seasons is very quiet, very simple, very complicated. The film deliberates, even when it doesn’t have enough information (usually because Scofield’s keeping his mouth shut about it).

Scofield’s the protagonist; his actions and reactions drive the plot. A constant undercurrent is the story of ambitious, not entirely dim-witted, but morally corruptible Hurt, who ends up finding a mentor in McKern. Only McKern’s a jackass, power hungry bureaucrat jealous of Scofield’s intellectual powers (no matter what McKern accomplishes, Shaw’s never going to love him for his mind whereas Scofield manages to disrespect the King and maintain the intellectual regard). And Hurt’s aware he’s going to the Dark Side, providing yet another storytelling slate. Man for All Seasons never feels stagy, never feels like its a series of vignettes whether the most character development happens off screen, yet it is that series of vignettes. Zinnemann, Moore, Delerue, and editor Ralph Kemplen just make sure it never feels like one. Zinnemann maintains the importance of the film’s visual style even when the dramatics are center stage (Moore’s beautiful “natural” lighting helps), which allows for nimble style changes. It’s magnificently executed. Zinnemann’s direction is assured but never showy, confident but ambitious; the chances the film takes are almost exclusively on the actors—at least into the second act—and Zinnemann facilitates the performances, but the actors are the ones who have to nail the moment, which seems like it should lead to at least the acknowledgement of the stage adaptation but it never does. Because the film’s limited world is so big.

All of the acting is great. Some of the cast get to have more fun—Welles gets to have a lot of fun, McKern’s a delightful weasel—but the ones who have major constraints (Hurt’s weasel-in-training, Corin Redgrave’s obnoxiously Lutheran Lutheran who’s courting York) are still excellent. York, Davenport, and Hiller all deliver in some hard scenes; York and Davenport get the bigger ones, but Hiller’s got to do a lot in short amounts of time. The film often uses Hiller to establish character stuff for Scofield. She’s part of his ground situation, revealing more as the film progresses, without ever doing exposition dumps. Far from it. Hiller’s concise.

As for Scofield… the story’s about people wanting to hear what Scofield’s going to say next and the film’s about staring at Scofield and waiting to see what it’ll be. He’s in the spotlight the entire film. Great direction, great script, great supporting cast, but Man for All Seasons is Scofield’s performance. And it’s an exceptional one.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Fred Zinnemann; screenplay by Robert Bolt, based on his play; director of photography, Ted Moore; edited by Ralph Kemplen; music by Georges Delerue; production designer, John Box; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Paul Scofield (Thomas More), Susannah York (Margaret), Wendy Hiller (Alice), Leo McKern (Cromwell), John Hurt (Rich), Nigel Davenport (Duke of Norfolk), Corin Redgrave (Roper), Orson Welles (Cardinal Wolsey), and Robert Shaw (Henry VIII).


Alien (1979, Ridley Scott), the director’s cut

Ridley Scott’s director’s cut of Alien feels like vaguely engaged exercise more than any kind of devout restoration. Its less than artistic origins–Scott cut it together a combination, apparently, of fan service and studio marketing needs–actually help it quite a bit in the first act. Scott’s new cut rushes things, though it doesn’t really rush them anywhere. At the beginning, it’s kind of neat to see how he’s able to move things faster (so long as you’re generally familiar with the film and its plot), only once he runs out of story, Scott and the film stumble repeatedly.

This Alien maintains establishing shots and transition shots; Scott and new editor David Crowther hurry the actual scenes, cutting into performances. John Hurt is deemphasized, Ian Holm is more emphasized. Even though there might be more Sigourney Weaver, it takes her even longer to assume the lead role because with an increased presence for Holm, the dynamic changes. And Scott and Crowther don’t really adjust for it later, because they’re not cutting for performances, they’re cutting getting in new footage. In trying not to be sensational, Scott just makes it even worse. He doesn’t account for what his new pace is doing to how the film plays on its own, not as a special feature.

The collision of Holm and Weaver doesn’t pace well, for instance, but once its resolved, Alien: The Director’s Cut finds its footing once again. Sure, it loses it again and never quite recovers, but it loses it in the place where Alien just loses its footing, the third act. There are some “director’s cut” specific problems in the third act, which hurt the pacing and the overall experience because it’s clear when inserted footage is taped in–Crowther’s editing doesn’t match Terry Rawling’s at all, which is another big problem. It’s disjointed. In the first act, it’s kind of charming; after over an hour, it’s just tiresome.

Maybe the greatest disservice of Alien: The Director’s Cut is to the Jerry Goldsmith score. It feels more rushed than anything else. Goldsmith creates this sterile calm, a disappointing tranquility, and Scott and Crowther don’t have any time for it.

Scott should’ve just let the additional footage bloat Alien. The trims he makes elsewhere aggravate quickly before ultimately failing. At least bloated, the film would have some personality. Instead, it feels like Scott trying to turn Alien into more of a crowd-pleaser. But for a limited, familiar audience. He’s not trying to make a better film.

Luckily, the pieces are still strong. Holm, Weaver, Yaphet Kotto, Tom Skerritt, all great. Veronica Cartwright gets more to do and has less of a character as a result. Weaver experiences something similar; Scott hacks at her and Skerritt’s scenes just enough to weaken them both. Weaver’s performance deserves a lot more respect, frankly. It takes her too much for granted.

And somehow Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton lose their mojo in the new cut. Most of the content remains, but none of the personality. Again, Crowther’s using a dull hatchet on Rawling’s delicate scalpel cuts.

Alien, the director’s cut, isn’t so much a missed opportunity as a pointless endeavor. But it could have turned out a lot worse. Scott’s lack of ambition might be the saving grace.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ridley Scott; screenplay by Dan O’Bannon, based on a story by O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett; director of photography, Derek Vanlint; edited by Terry Rawlings, Peter Weatherley, and David Crowther; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, Michael Seymour; produced by Gordon Carroll, David Giler, and Walter Hill; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Tom Skerritt (Dallas), Sigourney Weaver (Ripley), Veronica Cartwright (Lambert), Harry Dean Stanton (Brett), John Hurt (Kane), Ian Holm (Ash), and Yaphet Kotto (Parker).


The Elephant Man (1980, David Lynch)

I am not being hyperbolic when I describe David Lynch’s narrative handling of The Elephant Man to be peerless. If I described it a splendid, there would be other films and narrative handling to compare with it. But this film is so singular–John Hurt as an exceptionally disfigured man in Victoria England, with Lynch concentrating on the medical and industrial revolution, the society, the ambitions of Hurt’s doctor (Anthony Hopkins) and then Hurt’s character himself. And Lynch does it all in grand Hollywood fashion. The Elephant Man’s greatest secret is its openness and accessibility.

Why wouldn’t the film be accessible? Because of Hurt’s disfigurements. Lynch doesn’t give the audience an easy path into the film and the visuals. In fact, he makes it worse with he and cinematographer Freddie Francis’s black and white photography, full of nightmarish images to get the audience thinking on their own. Instead, Lynch gives the audience a deadline. If the audience can’t get over Hurt in the makeup by point X, Lynch isn’t slowing the film for them. At what point is that deadline? Long before Hurt becomes the protagonist (with Hopkins giving it away) but sometime after Hopkins and Hurt meet. Lynch is careful with the emotions in Elephant Man. By the halfway point, the tragedy becomes intolerable; yet the film pushes on, through the intolerable, through the tragedy. Because the film’s openness and accessibility? It’s because of its humanism. Lynch, Francis, composer John Morris–they terrify the audience with the film’s visuals. Along with Anne V. Coates’s sublime edits, The Elephant Man is in a constant dreamlike state, yet undeniably real, which makes every moment even more affecting.

Francis’s black and white photography, the Victorian-era setting, Lynch’s magnificent Panavision composition–The Elephant Man looks epic. The black and white directly engages with the audience. Lynch already has them imagining the color in this historical reality, what else can he get them to imagine. But why are they supposed to imagine? Lynch asks the audience to imagine, to wonder, but he controls the question. He asks the question, steps back, presents the result. Peerless.

The film has wonderful performances. Hurt, on his journey to be the film’s protagonist instead of subject, does some truly phenomenal work. The script–from Christopher De Vore, Eric Bergren and Lynch–executes the transfer of protagonist over a somewhat lengthy sequence between the second and third act–just at the right time for Hurt. He’s ready (as his character’s narrative involves being subdued for Hopkins and the rest of the world, but eventually finds confidence to assert himself). And Lynch gets all these moments done right. It’s an impossibly heavy story, told in an aggressive fashion. It’s why the story can work as a big (or at least it looks big) studio picture.

Hopkins is excellent too. His role doesn’t have many subtleties, but its handful are all more than Hurt gets. But Lynch isn’t interested in Hopkins as a protagonist. He’s fine as a narrator, perhaps, but–even before Hopkins loses the lead spot–Lynch clearly doesn’t want him getting in the way of the film.

Freddie Jones is great as the villain. John Gielgud is great as Hopkins’s boss. Wendy Hiller is great. Anne Bancroft. Michael Elphick. Hannah Gordon has a very small part as Hopkins’s wife, but she’s great. All great.

There’s no way to improve The Elephant Man. It’s perfect.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by David Lynch; screenplay by Christopher De Vore, Eric Bergren and Lynch, based on books by Frederick Treves and Ashley Montagu; director of photography, Freddie Francis; edited by Anne V. Coates; music by John Morris; production designer, Stuart Craig; produced by Jonathan Sanger; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring John Hurt (John Merrick), Anthony Hopkins (Frederick Treves), John Gielgud (Carr Gomm), Wendy Hiller (Mothershead), Freddie Jones (Bytes), Michael Elphick (Night Porter), Hannah Gordon (Mrs. Treves), Dexter Fletcher (Bytes’ Boy) and Anne Bancroft (Mrs. Kendal).


This post is part of the Love Hurt Blogathon hosted by Janet of Sister Celluloid.

Immortals (2011, Tarsem Singh)

The best thing about Immortals is probably Stephen Dorff. He gives the most consistent performance and has something akin to a reasonable character arc. No one else in the film has that courtesy.

The film, which has the Greek gods reluctantly influencing the life of mortals, makes a big deal out of freewill and the ability for people to develop. Luke Evans–as the worst Zeus outside of a car commercial–wants mortal Henry Cavill to rise to lead his people. Of course, these people are a little unclear. The script’s not just awful in terms of dialogue and character–evil villain Mickey Rourke has more moments of tenderness than anyone else in the picture, which is intention and utterly misguided–it’s also moronic in terms of plotting. There are useless characters (Joseph Morgan in a terrible performance as a traitor) and useless plot twists.

Of course, director Singh doesn’t do much good either. He concentrates on the physical beauty of the film (whether a oil slicked, shirtless Cavill or Freida Pinto–whose eye shadow never comes off–as his love interest) because it’s Greek gods, right? Things should be beautiful. Only not a lot of them are physical. It’s all CG and it’s okay CG but it’s clear these actors aren’t moving in these spaces.

Maybe if Singh could direct action or if he could direct for spectacle (he goes in way too close). Or if Trevor Morris’s score brought some grandeur.

Immortals is a terrible big, little movie.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Tarsem Singh; written by Charley Parlapanides and Vlas Parlapanides; director of photography, Brendan Galvin; edited by Wyatt Jones, Stuart Levy and David Rosenbloom; music by Trevor Morris; production designer, Tom Foden; produced by Gianni Nunnari, Mark Canton and Ryan Kavanaugh; released by Relativity Media.

Starring Henry Cavill (Theseus), Mickey Rourke (King Hyperion), Stephen Dorff (Stavros), Freida Pinto (Phaedra), Luke Evans (Zeus), John Hurt (Old Man), Joseph Morgan (Lysander), Anne Day-Jones (Aethra), Greg Bryk (The Monk) and Isabel Lucas (Athena).


Snowpiercer (2013, Bong Joon-ho)

Snowpiercer is relentless. There are three quiet moments; I’m not estimating, I’m counting. The final quiet moment comes with some commentary on the earlier quiet moments. The relentlessness is appropriate, as the film concerns a train traveling through a frozen wasteland housing the last survivors of the human race. It’s a post-apocalyptic rumination on remorse and violence. Director Bong treats the viewer as a passenger on the train, forcing the viewer’s perspective through protagonist Chris Evans.

At times, the film seems episodic, which is only appropriate as the first act comes to a close and Evans–along with his fellow insurgents (they’re the poor people in the rear of the train)–discovers the train’s cars are all different. So it’s appropriate the journey through those cars is going to be different. Vignettes might be a strong description, but maybe not. Especially not when considering how Bong lets supporting characters’ subplots play out in background.

The casting is flawless. While Tilda Swinton spectacularly chews through all of her scenes, there’s great work from Octavia Spencer, John Hurt, Jamie Bell and Ewen Bremner. The three leads–Evans, Song Kang-ho and Ko Ah-sung–are all fantastic. Song only speaks Korean, but is excellent when just walking around. It’s a reluctant leading man performance from Evans; he, and all the other actors, show their characters’ sufferings without exposition.

Snowpiercer is also a visual feast. Bong’s presentation this train and its passengers is a constant surprise.

It’s a hard film; Bong doesn’t offer any quarter, neither does his cast.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Bong Joon-ho; screenplay by Bong and Kelly Masterson, based on a screen story by Bong and the graphic novel by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette; director of photography, Hong Kyung-pyo; edited by Steve M. Choe; music by Marco Beltrami; production designer, Ondrej Nekvasil; produced by Jeong Tae-sung, Lee Tae-hun, Park Chan-wook and Steven Nam; released by CJ Entertainment.

Starring Chris Evans (Curtis), Song Kang-ho (Namgoong Minsu), Tilda Swinton (Mason), Jamie Bell (Edgar), Octavia Spencer (Tanya), Ewen Bremner (Andrew), Ko Ah-sung (Yona), Alison Pill (Teacher), Vlad Ivanov (Franco the Elder), Luke Pasqualino (Grey), John Hurt (Gilliam) and Ed Harris (Wilford).


Alien (1979, Ridley Scott)

Can you even watch Alien if you have epilepsy?

After about a hundred minutes of elegant direction, Scott relies on this strobe effect for the remainder of the film’s running time. Yes, it makes a disquieting effect, but it gets old in a few minutes and he uses it for at least fifteen. And, strobe effect or not, it does not disguise the strange inadequacy of the climatic threat resolution shot. The special effects—after two hours of great ones—are all of a sudden pedestrian. It’s like Scott gave up.

Luckily, Jerry Goldsmith saves the day with a lift from Howard Hanson and all is reasonably well.

The first hour of Alien is very different from the second. It’s a group film, with Scott not really concentrating on any one actor more than another (except Veronica Cartwright, who’s clearly at the back of the line). In fact, traditionally speaking, the filmmaking implies John Hurt is going to be the lead from his introduction. But the background activity—what the cast members who aren’t the focus of scenes are doing—is what makes the film so striking. Whether it’s “real” or not, Alien’s supporting cast gives the impression of being deep characters. It’s something of an illusion, but it doesn’t much matter. The unsuccessful finish saves them.

While Sigourney Weaver is really strong, Yaphet Kotto and Ian Holm might be stronger. She’s best with the other actors. And Tom Skerritt can’t be discounted.

Alien’s mostly masterful, which counts for something.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Ridley Scott; screenplay by Dan O’Bannon, based on a story by O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett; director of photography, Derek Vanlint; edited by Terry Rawlings and Peter Weatherley; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, Michael Seymour; produced by Gordon Carroll, David Giler and Walter Hill; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Tom Skerritt (Dallas), Sigourney Weaver (Ripley), Veronica Cartwright (Lambert), Harry Dean Stanton (Brett), John Hurt (Kane), Ian Holm (Ash) and Yaphet Kotto (Parker).


Frankenstein Unbound (1990, Roger Corman)

Philosophically speaking, Frankenstein Unbound is utter nonsense. Corman’s inclusion of that element seems to be more for effect than anything else–primarily, it takes advantage of Nick Brimble’s fine performance as the Monster. But it also has to do with how Corman uses his protagonist, John Hurt.

Unbound is a time travel picture (it filmed before Back to the Future Part II came out, so the similarities are likely coincidental) and, in many ways, it’s a fun time travel picture. Before he realizes what’s going on around him (that Mary Shelley based Frankenstein on actual events), Hurt is just having a good time. He’s so exceptionally passive, it’s hard to take him seriously as a protagonist, but it’s also hard not to like him.

Hurt’s never concerned about negatively affecting the past–he’s already ruined the world, but he takes it in his stride–and it eventually gets him involved with Mary Shelley (still Mary Godwin), played by Bridget Fonda. Even though the age difference should make it creepy, Hurt and Fonda sell the relationship.

But the film’s great performance is from Raul Julia. His Frankenstein is insane, evil and selfish and Julia makes every scene he’s in a delight.

Corman’s approach is objective–neither Frankenstein nor the Monster are judged, which seems to be the point, as Hurt spends a lot of time watching the events unfold in front of him.

Excellent music from Carl Davis, lovely Italian locations and good special effects.

Even though it stumbles, it succeeds.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Roger Corman; screenplay by Corman and F.X. Feeney, based on the novel by Brian Aldiss; directors of photography, Armando Nannuzzi and Michael Scott; edited by Mary Bauer and Jay Cassidy; music by Carl Davis; production designer, Enrico Tovaglieri; produced by Corman, Kobi Jaeger and Thom Mount; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring John Hurt (Dr. Joe Buchanan), Raul Julia (Dr. Victor Frankenstein), Nick Brimble (The Monster), Bridget Fonda (Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin), Catherine Rabett (Elizabeth Levenza), Jason Patric (Lord George Gordon Byron), Michael Hutchence (Percy Byshee Shelley) and Catherine Corman (Justine Moritz).


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V for Vendetta (2005, James McTeigue)

V for Vendetta is a film made by Americans about London. I mean, I can see how it’s all right, given it’s a big budget nonsense blockbuster, but there’s something so incredibly lame in the last scene of the film–I’m going to ruin it for you–the dead people, those murdered by the evil British state, are all united with the living people as the events of the film lead them into some glorious new future. Or some nonsense.

It’s obvious and lame. The scene could have been shot so it wouldn’t have been noticeable, possibly even have been subtle… instead, it’s like the end of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang but without the joke.

There’s a lot of okay stuff about the film. Natalie Portman isn’t terrible. She isn’t any good, but she isn’t terrible. Rose Byrne would have done a great job (a rewrite would have helped too). Stephen Rea and Stephen Fry are both fantastic. John Hurt is fine. Rupert Graves is good. I’m not sure why Hugo Weaving got the part of the titular character, since it’d have been a stuntman for most of it and there’s a mask and no performance, but whatever. His voice acting is clearly dubbed in, regardless of whether he had to wear a stifling outfit.

The script’s got some awful moments–as a police procedural starring Rea in the lead, it would have been great. McTeigue’s occasionally okay. The visual style is all flash, no substance.

It’s really quite bad.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by James McTeigue; written by Lilly and Lana Wachowski, based on the comic book by Alan Moore and David Lloyd; director of photography, Adrian Biddle; edited by Martin Walsh; music by Dario Marianelli; production designer, Owen Paterson; produced by Joel Silver, Grant Hill and Lilly and Lana Wachowski; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Natalie Portman (Evey), Hugo Weaving (V), Stephen Rea (Inspector Finch), Stephen Fry (Deitrich), John Hurt (Adam Sutler), Tim Pigott-Smith (Creedy), Rupert Graves (Dominic), Roger Allam (Lewis Prothero), Ben Miles (Dascomb), Sinéad Cusack (Delia Surridge), Natasha Wightman (Valerie), John Standing (Lilliman) and Eddie Marsan (Etheridge).


The Limits of Control (2009, Jim Jarmusch)

Someone–Ebert maybe–is going to laud The Limits of Control. The nicest thing one can really say about it is it isn’t abjectly terrible. There aren’t many bad performances (Tilda Swinton’s lame and Bill Murray’s awful and Isaach De Bankolé is weak when he has more lines than the Terminator) and Jarmusch really does know how to frame a shot. But it’s a piece of malarky. It’s supposed to come off as subversive and anti-American in the end–I can’t really explain how without spoiling–and instead it just comes off as silly. You want to see sublime, subversive commentary on American foreign policy, read Warren Ellis’s Crécy. At its best, Limits of Control is obvious… at its worst, well, to put it bluntly, Jarmusch is full of shit.

Jarmusch has always been–often been–an international filmmaker. Limits of Control is a fine example. Set in Spain with an African leading man, there are Mexican actors, British, American, Spanish, probably a French actor in there somewhere… Jarmusch’s has got some great plays with language. But this exotic cast list is mostly just a diversion. It’s to make the audience feel like he or she is watching something, well, art house.

The most striking success of Limits of Control is its commentary on the spy thriller genre in general. It owes a lot to Hitchcock’s 1930s British thrillers, with the MacGuffin somewhat extracted from the film. The result is a boring two hours of people acting suspiciously with coincidence after coincidence occurring without a thread to tie them. So what. Jarmusch could have cut the pay-off scenes out of The Lady Vanishes and he’d get a similar effect. Well, maybe not The Lady Vanishes because so much of it relies on chemistry and Limits of Control has none. It’s like Jarmusch knew he’d have to do something to get people–critics–to talk about his film, so he made Paz de la Huerta take off her clothes for every scene. What’s the effect? Explicit nudity’s boring. Wow, good one. It’s not like Paul Verhoeven didn’t make explicit nudity boring fifteen years ago.

At times it seems like Jarmusch is going somewhere. Like it’s going to be The Courier’s Tragedy or something. It never is. In fact, the best way to describe The Limits of Control is The Courier’s Tragedy without the point. It’s Jarmusch spinning his wheels until the end–the big reveal in The Limits of Control is, literally, a pin.

Then some of it slowly starts to make sense. But it’s dumb, so who cares?

John Hurt’s great. Jean-François Stévenin has a good small role. de la Huerta isn’t bad. When he’s not talking De Bankolé is great.

I think Jarmusch was going for some kind of mystical realism with the film too.

He fails.

Oh, and how did he misuse Christopher Doyle? The colors are all flat and dead.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch; director of photography, Christopher Doyle; edited by Jay Rabinowitz; music by Boris; production designer, Eugenio Caballero; produced by Gretchen McGowan and Stacey E. Smith; released by Focus Features.

Starring Isaach De Bankolé (Lone Man), Alex Descas (Creole), Jean-François Stévenin (French), Óscar Jaenada (Waiter), Luis Tosar (Violin), Paz de la Huerta (Nude), Tilda Swinton (Blonde), Youki Kudoh (Molecules), John Hurt (Guitar), Gael García Bernal (Mexican), Hiam Abbass (Driver) and Bill Murray (American).


Dead Man (1995, Jim Jarmusch)

Dead Man is not a strange film. I haven’t seen it in ten years and I’ve probably seen the majority of the Westerns I’ve seen in that interim. So the opening, as Johnny Depp watches the familiar Western trappings pass from a train window, probably didn’t resonate on my last viewing. What Jarmusch doesn’t get enough credit for–though I really don’t know, it’s been a long time since I’ve gotten to have a conversation with someone about Jarmusch–is his dialogue. IMDb doesn’t list it as such, but Dead Man is great comedy. It’s one of the funnier films I’ve seen lately. Besides Gary Farmer, who maintains funniness throughout the film (even when he and Depp’s relationship gets poignant), Jarmusch has his two trios. In the first, there’s Lance Henriksen, Michael Wincott and Eugene Byrd. Dead Man might feature Wincott’s finest performance; he’s phenomenal as a motormouthed assassin. Byrd plays the straight man, with Henriksen the unknowing butt of the jokes. This interplay lasts the majority of the film, until Henriksen becomes the knowing butt of Wincott’s joke. The second trio–Billy Bob Thornton, Iggy Pop and Jared Harris–only have a scene, but it’s an amazing one. Thornton’s gift for delivery is clear here, but it’s Pop who steals the show (it isn’t hard, since he’s the only one wearing a bonnet).

The humor–down to Robert Mitchum’s cameo–is all relatively straightforward, presented in dialogue and visuals. Even Farmer’s funniest scenes are because of his dialogue. Meanwhile, Johnny Depp’s trip through Dead Man is tonal. It’s Robby Müller shooting black and white like a Frenchman from the 1930s, the film clearly filmed on location, but still infused with a hyper-reality. The skies are too dark or too bright to be real. Neil Young’s score sometimes becomes the focal point, as it’s the only clue into what Depp’s experiencing. Depp’s character is a genre standard, a quiet man forced into violence by circumstance. Jarmusch’s added ingredients–Depp’s death is inevitable from the start (due to a bullet near the heart) and Farmer as a Native American guide–really aren’t unprecedented. Where Dead Man‘s different is in the presentation of the story.

There’s also the politics of Dead Man–the Western is probably the most political genre. From the opening slaughter of buffalo to the smallpox-infected blankets at the end (even if blankets couldn’t carry the virus), Jarmusch indicts Manifest Destiny with Dead Man. But he escapes propaganda by wowing with the beauty of the untouched American landscape. Discovering the beauty of the natural world is part of Depp’s trip in the film. The viewer’s too.

Jarmusch–through Farmer–neatly sends the viewer home at the end of Dead Man after privileging him or her to particular journey. Back when Dead Man came out, I remember a friend of mine always wanted to know what color Depp’s suit really was, figuring Jarmusch had to make him wear something wacky (and Mitchum’s line about the clown suit really does encourage speculation). I really want to know what, in the dramatic vehicle, Gabriel Byrne brought for Mili Avital. I hope it was silk.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch; director of photography, Robby Müller; edited by Jay Rabinowitz; music by Neil Young; production designer, Bob Ziembicki; produced by Demetra J. MacBride; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Johnny Depp (William Blake), Gary Farmer (Nobody), Crispin Glover (Train Fireman), Lance Henriksen (Cole Wilson), Michael Wincott (Conway Twill), Eugene Byrd (Johnny ‘The Kid’ Pickett), John Hurt (John Scholfield), Robert Mitchum (John Dickinson), Iggy Pop (Salvatore ‘Sally’ Jenko), Gabriel Byrne (Charlie Dickinson), Jared Harris (Benmont Tench), Mili Avital (Thel Russell) and Billy Bob Thornton (Big George Drakoulious).


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