Josh Hartnett

Sum Up | Utility Man: Josh Hartnett, O, and the Blood at the Root

Tim Blake Nelson’s O adapts Shakespeare’s Othello as a modern, moody, lush, teenage Southern Gothic. Sixteenth century Venice becomes a South Carolina prep school, Palmetto Grove, in the late 1990s; Venice’s armies become the school’s basketball team, the Hawks. The Hawks are crushing it this season, all thanks to jersey number 4, senior Odin James (Mekhi Phifer). Other standout players include sophomore Michael Cassio (Andrew Keegan) and another senior, Hugo Goudling (Josh Hartnett). When it comes time for coach Duke Goulding (Martin Sheen) to award the MVP, Odin’s the obvious choice. The surprise comes when Odin decides to share the award with a teammate, selecting Michael. Not Hugo. That night, Hugo tells his roommate Roger (Elden Henson) he’s got a plan to break up Odin and his girlfriend, Desi Brable (Julia Stiles). When Roger asks Hugo why—“I thought you were his friend,” he says—Hugo explains the co-MVP should have gone to him, at least as far as Odin’s concerned. But there’s at least another layer to Hugo’s motivations—coach Duke Goulding is his dad and straight-A student Hugo has put four years into the basketball team. The MVP award his senior year would’ve been a perfect acknowledgement and a seemingly possible one.


“I’m considered a utility man. I rebound, I can shoot, I play guard, forward, power forward. You name the position, I fucking play it.”

Hugo to Roger


O doesn’t just update the setting and situations of Othello, it profoundly changes the characters. Phifer’s Othello/Odin—the only Black student at the South Carolina prep school—has some specific fears and insecurities about that status. He’s secretly dating Desi, after all, and Desi’s the white dean’s white daughter, which incurs a lot of outside aggression, albeit ones mostly passive and micro. Inside their relationship, despite any posturing, Odin’s devoted to Desi, devoted to what she represents, what they–together–represent.

Hugo intuits all those insecurities and encourages them into weaknesses and into what become fatal flaws for everyone involved. Hugo’s an unquestionable villain, but he’s just working with what he’s got. If Michael weren’t eager to please, if Roger weren’t resentful (the wealthiest blue blood on campus yet the girls still go for the jocks)—they’re both naive from various privileges. Hugo’s able to make it work. His first plan, which he starts concocting at the MVP ceremony, appears to simply be getting Odin in trouble for dating Desi. Or at least to stir things up. But it’s already a more layered one, with Michael as the target. Because Hugo understands Michael’s desire to impress Odin.

And Hugo (thanks to Roger’s willingness to be Michael and Odin’s frequent punching bag) is able to get Michael off the team. At least out of games, which doesn’t necessarily give Hugo any better opportunities on the court, but it does get him close to Odin. Close to Odin, he tries to cement further distrust of Michael. Because Hugo’s already got Michael trying to befriend Desi so she’ll tell Odin to fight for him to get back on the team. Duke will listen to Odin. Odin, Duke tells everyone at the MVP ceremony first thing, is like his son. Not “like a son,” but “like his son.” Except Odin and Hugo are very, very different. And Hugo’s an afterthought to Duke. A relied-upon afterthought, but an afterthought. He’s just not good enough. Duke’s been waiting his whole career for Odin.


“You know I don’t ever have to worry about you, thank God. You’ve always done well and you always will, but Odin’s different. He’s all alone here. There’s not even another Black student in this whole damn place. We’re his family.”

Duke to Hugo


Once Hugo has gotten his girlfriend Emily (Rain Phoenix) to steal a memento from Desi (they’re roommates), and used it to convince Odin of Desi and Michael’s affair, Hugo’s got the problem of three loose ends. Odin will never believe Michael or his protestations of innocence, especially not after—advantageously and presumably unexpectedly, but maybe not—Michael lets his racism out when talking about Odin.

Master eavesdropper Hugo has already got Odin listening in so it couldn’t go better.

Michael’s not guilty of pursuing or seducing Desi—he’s actually just some dopey sophomore who makes an effort to listen to his female friends, though it’s a Madonna-whore thing, not because he sees them as people or anything—but he’s still not not guilty. He’s not not racist. He’s not not a bully. He’s not not a bad guy when it comes to girls. He doesn’t deserve what he gets, but he gets it because the material is there for Hugo to work with.

So Michael’s not going to be a loose end for long. He’s the most disposable, in fact. Emily’s a loose end, though Hugo doesn’t anticipate her being a problem. He’s got a plan for Roger, which he doesn’t share with anyone else because Hugo does see Roger as a fellow victim. Hugo understands what’s going at Palmetto Grove—he understands how his father treats him, how it feels, why his father’s doing it, he understands Odin, he understands Michael, Roger, Emily—and, of the men, Roger’s the only one Hugo shows any compassion. Even when he doesn’t have to show it to keep Roger going with the scheme.

And Desi’s a loose end. Desi’s the biggest loose end. Getting Odin not to believe Michael only takes so much work, it’s an achievable goal. Michael’s going to dig himself in deeper, one way or the other. Roger won’t crack for anyone at school, not when Hugo’s already convinced him to take multiple beatings. But Odin will want to believe Desi, which will reveal Hugo’s manipulations. So Desi’s got to go.

O doesn’t have most of the traditional Othello trappings as far as Iago/Hugo’s motivations go. The MVP thing sets Hugo off, sure, but it’s already been established he’s envious of Othello/Odin’s position as an athlete, as Duke’s favored “son.” Hugo describes it all as jealousy but it’s closer to envy. A functional one, at least until he’s racing downhill trying to keep the lies from catching up. Hugo’s going off to college. He’s going to be fine. He’s just got to get to the finish, with at least Odin intact.


“Nobody doesn’t like [Hugo]. I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t have at least one enemy.”

Desi to Emily


Unlike Othello, O doesn’t suggest Odin and Emilia/Emily fooled around or anything like Hugo having a crush on Desdemona/Desi. Quite the opposite on the latter. The two seem to loathe one another, which makes sense. They’re both staff’s students. The school’s performative with its scholastic egalitarianism, putting the dean and coach’s kids in the dorms, the upper middle class among the real upper class. Desi and Hugo know each other. They have known each other a while. And they have zero empathy for one another. Desi’s the only one who thinks Hugo’s a creep. Everyone else just sees the good student, the good teammate. Even as Hugo tries to destroy Michael, the team’s games always come first. Winning is the important thing; even if Hugo’s not singled out for contributing (because Duke has clearly never singled him out with a positive comment). It reflects on Hugo. He doesn’t have to worry because no matter how much turmoil he creates, Hugo can always rely on Odin to come through on the court.

There’s no one in O who has higher expectations for Odin than Hugo. Hugo lionizes him. Hugo sees his father living the white savior sports movie dream with Odin and believes the dream to be valid, just not Duke’s execution of it. O isn’t about Hugo and Odin, it’s about Hugo and Duke. It’s about Duke and his son. Everyone else is collateral damage. For Hugo, Odin is a prized action figure. For Duke, he’s a trophy.

Hartnett’s performance is all about his expressions. It’s all about watching this emotional cut wound him, this emotional stab, this observed opportunity, this revealed insecurity. Hugo’s always thinking, watching, listening. The plans form across Hartnett’s face, in his blinks, his pauses, his patience. Everyone in the film has their implied interiority and all, but with Hartnett, the whole thing hinges on his understanding and essaying of Hugo’s interiority. When Hugo refuses to explain himself, leaving his motivations a mystery, his loose ends tied, the audience has already seen some of them. Or at least those Hugo let affect him.


“You won’t ask me nothing. I did what I did. That’s all you need to know. From here on, I’ll say nothing.”

Hugo to Odin


It’s also in the expression when O gets in its last surprise. Being an Othello adaptation, a lot is predictable. But Hugo’s got one last reveal, one unquestionably authentic reaction. And it changes the entire film, start to finish, untying the bow, folding it over, retying.

O came at the end of the late nineties-early aughts teen Shakespeare adaptation boom. Brad Kaaya’s script leverages the source material rather than relying upon it, letting Nelson turn it into that Southern Gothic, with Hartnett a metaphor for the culture he and his victims exist in. He’s not some pedestrian evil, he’s a prodigious and entirely natural one. The teenage sociopath who wants to be a real boy but just can’t make his brain wooden enough. Far from shocking, Hartnett’s Hugo is inevitable in a way Iago never could be.


The Faculty (1998, Robert Rodriguez)

Robert Rodriguez gives his actors a lot of time in The Faculty. The supporting cast–mostly the titular faculty of a high school (albeit one suffering an alien invasion)–gets to be showy. The film opens with a great showcase for Bebe Neuwirth, Robert Patrick and Piper Laurie. The main cast of kids trying not to be assimilated, they get a lot of quiet time.

There's a lot of listening, a lot of thinking, a lot of reflecting. All amid this tightly paced teenage Body Snatchers. Kevin Williamson's script is careful to take the time to set up the characters. Rodriguez doesn't really use montage, instead of lets the camera dreamily float through the high school. He edits the film too; it's hard to imagine anyone else getting it right. Rodriguez cuts the film perfectly.

All of the principals–Elijah Wood, Jordana Brewster, Clea DuVall, Laura Harris, Shawn Hatosy, Josh Hartnett–are excellent. Every one of them gets at least five great moments in the film; the script allows the characters self-awareness, Rodriguez gives the actors room to essay it.

The standouts are DuVall, Hatosy and Hartnett. Their complexities are more omnipresent. DuVall's probably the best.

And the supporting cast is excellent too. Patrick, Neuwirth, Famke Janssen, Daniel von Bargen. Rodriguez doesn't have a bad performance in the lot of them. They make the fantastical not mundane, but vicious in context.

Thanks to the thoughtful verisimilitude on the part of all involved, The Faculty excels. It's a superior film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Edited and directed by Robert Rodriguez; screenplay by Kevin Williamson, based on a story by David Wechter and Bruce Kimmel; director of photography, Enrique Chediak; music by Marco Beltrami; production designer, Cary White; produced by Elizabeth Avellan; released by Dimension Films.

Starring Elijah Wood (Casey), Clea DuVall (Stokely), Jordana Brewster (Delilah), Shawn Hatosy (Stan), Laura Harris (Marybeth), Josh Hartnett (Zeke), Salma Hayek (Nurse Harper), Famke Janssen (Miss Burke), Piper Laurie (Mrs. Olson), Christopher McDonald (Mr. Connor), Bebe Neuwirth (Principal Drake), Robert Patrick (Coach Willis), Usher Raymond (Gabe), Jon Stewart (Prof. Furlong), Daniel von Bargen (Mr. Tate), Jon Abrahams (F’%# You Boy) and Summer Phoenix (F’%# You Girl).


Blow Dry (2001, Paddy Breathnach)

At ninety minutes and change, Blow Dry is too short. Given the complexities of the ground situation’s character relationships and then the character’s arcs throughout the picture, it could easily run two and a half hours.

The concept, which at first blush seems sensational but turns out not to be, has Natasha Richardson and Rachel Griffiths as a couple who own a salon in a small English town. Alan Rickman–as Richardson’s ex-husband–has a barber shop with their son, played by Josh Hartnett. Rickman doesn’t speak to the two women (whose business is next to his) and Hartnett’s got a dysfunctional relationship with both parents, not to mention Griffiths.

The beauty parts of Blow Dry come when these characters have to get together and sort it out. Sadly, it only happens once as a group but it’s an amazing scene. The little scenes when a couple come together are always good, but there’s never enough of it. The film’s MacGuffin is a hair cutting competition in the small town and a lot of time goes towards it. Too much, but those scenes are still pretty well done.

They just aren’t sublime.

Richardson and Griffiths are outstanding. Rickman’s good (though he has little to do). Hartnett occasionally loses his accent, but his earnestness holds the performance together. As the bad guy hair dresser, Bill Nighy is great. As Nighy’s daughter (and Hartnett’s love interest), Rachael Leigh Cook is awful.

It’s busy and loud but quite funny and genuinely sincere.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Paddy Breathnach; written by Simon Beaufoy; director of photography, Cian de Buitléar; edited by Tony Lawson; music by Patrick Doyle; production designer, Sophie Becher; produced by William Horberg, Ruth Jackson and David Rubin; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Natasha Richardson (Shelley), Alan Rickman (Phil), Rachel Griffiths (Sandra), Josh Hartnett (Brian), Bill Nighy (Ray Robertson), Hugh Bonneville (Louis), Rachael Leigh Cook (Christina Robertson), Warren Clarke (Tony) and Rosemary Harris (Daisy).


Wicker Park (2004, Paul McGuigan)

Wicker Park is a psychological drama, not thriller. While director McGuigan occasionally uses thriller-like foreshadowing or ominous sections, Park never forecasts its narrative. Protagonist Josh Hartnett skips an important business trip to China to search for an ex-girlfriend, but he does it all where he lives. The film takes place over three or four days in Chicago, where Hartnett lives, yet he’s outside his regular life.

He’s hanging out with Matthew Lillard, a friend he hasn’t seen in years, and pretending to his current girlfriend he’s in China. There are multiple flashbacks explaining the ex-girlfriend (played by Diane Kruger). McGuigan and editor Andrew Hulme use generic transitions between past and present, but between the acting and Cliff Martinez’s score, Park never feels quite in one time or another. It’s never confusing to the narrative, it’s just always clear Hartnett’s character is existing contemporaneously in both times.

Most of the acting’s excellent–Rose Byrne is fantastic, Hartnett’s great. Lillard’s good, even though his character’s dreadfully underwritten. Except in a film with four principals and almost no supporting cast, a weak link hurts.

Kruger is awful. She’s incapable of affect or personality. Her performance severely hurts Park.

McGuigan seems to realize it, because the finish makes up for Kruger with nothing more than music and editing and placement of actors. McGuigan always keeps the film objective, which helps with that timelessness. It also means he can sell a wholly artificial ending on nothing but technical quality.

And he does.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Paul McGuigan; screenplay by Brandon Boyce, based on a screenplay by Gilles Mimouni; director of photography, Peter Sova; edited by Andrew Hulme; music by Cliff Martinez; production designer, Richard Bridgland; produced by Andre Lamal, Marcus Viscidi, Gary Lucchesi and Tom Rosenberg; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Josh Hartnett (Matthew), Rose Byrne (Alex), Matthew Lillard (Luke), Diane Kruger (Lisa), Christopher Cousins (Daniel), Ted Whittall (Walter) and Jessica Paré (Rebecca).


Debutante (1998, Mollie Jones)

Debutante isn’t perfect. There’s some awesome sound design, but director (and editor) Jones pushes it a little to carry over into other scenes. It works a little bit, but not always.

So it isn’t perfect.

Otherwise, it’s probably perfect.

Selma Blair plays the protagonist, who probably has the least lines in the short. She’s got a bad set of parents and runs off to a party. Maybe. The narrative’s a little fractured. One actually has to go on costume design to determine the chain of events.

The exact chronology doesn’t matter as much as Blair’s performance. She’s amazing, even when silent, and Jones’s direction. Debutante is a beautifully made little film. Jones turns up the volume and still manages to be subtly profound. I think it’s a student film, which is even more impressive.

Great photography from Byron Shah, nice supporting turns from Theresa Tilly and Josh Hartnett.

It’s fantastic.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Written, produced, edited and directed by Mollie Jones; director of photography, Byron Shah; edited by Halina Siwolop.

Starring Selma Blair (Nan), Meghann Haldeman (Carla), Josh Hartnett (Bill), Theresa Tilly (Mother) and Steve Tom (Father).


Halloween H20 (1998, Steve Miner)

Halloween H20 is a mishmash. It’s a sequel to a seventies slasher movie, it’s a post-modern slasher movie of the Scream variety, it’s a thoughtful sequel, it’s a somewhat successful rumination on redemption and the cost of such redemption.

Director Miner’s composition is, appropriately, more John Carpenter homage than mimicry. He and cinematographer Daryn Okada hold the picture together; while pieces occasionally spill out, they keep it pretty well solid throughout.

Without Jamie Lee Curtis, of course, H20 wouldn’t work. The plot could work without her, but not the scenes. Robert Zappia and Matt Greenberg’s script has these great scenes–particularly Curtis’s relationship with son Josh Hartnett and beau Adam Arkin. Those are the “real world” things. The writers also produce a striking horror sequence involving a child in distress.

For the teenagers being in danger, the script doesn’t do as well. Some of it is just bad acting. Jodi Lyn O’Keefe is bad, Michelle Williams is mediocre–though Adam Hann-Byrd is good. O’Keefe butchers her witty dialogue.

H20 isn’t a scary movie in the traditional sense. It toys with the whole idea of inevitability as it relates to the genre, whether in the opening “scare” or the boogeyman’s arrival.

Curtis is utterly fantastic. Hartnett and Arkin are both good, though in some ways neither get enough story time. Janet Leigh has a nice little part and LL Cool J is amusing.

The Marco Beltrami (with some John Ottman) score is usually effective.

It’s an unexpectedly excellent film.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Steve Miner; screenplay by Robert Zappia and Matt Greenberg, based on a story by Zappia and characters created by Debra Hill and John Carpenter; director of photography, Daryn Okada; edited by Patrick Lussier; music by Marco Beltrami and John Ottman; production designer, John Willett; produced by Paul Freeman; released by Dimension Films.

Starring Jamie Lee Curtis (Keri Tate), Josh Hartnett (John Tate), Adam Arkin (Will Brennan), Michelle Williams (Molly), Adam Hann-Byrd (Charlie), Jodi Lyn O’Keefe (Sarah), Janet Leigh (Norma Watson), LL Cool J (Ronny), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Jimmy), Branden Williams (Tony) and Nancy Stephens (Marion Chambers Whittington).


O (2001, Tim Blake Nelson)

The actor playing Josh Hartnett’s mother (and Martin Sheen’s wife) doesn’t get a credit in O. She doesn’t have any lines, doesn’t really make any noise, just looks down at the dinner table during a scene. But she’s a perfect example of how Nelson paints subtlety and sadness into the film’s canvas. She’s mentioned once more later, in this very deliberate scene showcasing Sheen’s emotional abuse of Hartnett. O has a lot of teenagers–in a boarding school–acting adult, but this scene with Hartnett and Sheen (Sheen barely has a visual presence and Hartnett has only one line), reveals these “grown-up” teenagers as the children.

While second-billed, Hartnett is the film’s protagonist. The point of Othello, as a character, is how uninteresting he is when compared to Iago. That observation should not discount Mekhi Phifer’s performance as the Othello analog, however. Phifer’s transformation into a jealous lover is all played onscreen in O… Hartnett’s just a psychopath who finally gets to express himself. Othello has to be a tragedy; even when Phifer lashes out, he maintains sympathy. Some of it works because Hartnett’s a great villain, but most is because of Nelson’s careful direction.

Julia Stiles, as Desdemona, doesn’t have the range Hartnett and Phifer do, but she’s quite good. Her death scene’s extraordinary.

Also essential, in a small role, is Rain Phoenix.

Nelson, cinematographer Russell Lee Fine and composer Jeff Danna create an amazing film. Nelson puts the responsibility for its success on Hartnett; Hartnett excels.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Tim Blake Nelson; screenplay by Brad Kaaya, based on a play by William Shakespeare; director of photography, Russell Lee Fine; edited by Kate Sanford; music by Jeff Danna; production designer, Dina Goldman; produced by Daniel Fried, Eric Gitter and Anthony Rhulen; released by Lions Gate Films.

Starring Josh Hartnett (Hugo Goulding), Mekhi Phifer (Odin James), Julia Stiles (Desi Brable), Andrew Keegan (Michael Cassio), Rain Phoenix (Emily), Elden Henson (Roger Calhoun), Martin Sheen (Coach Duke Goulding) and John Heard (Dean Bob Brable).


Bunraku (2010, Guy Moshe)

Even with the annoying narration from Mike Patton (maybe director Moshe cast him because he’s a big Faith No More fan because Patton doesn’t narrate well), Bunraku is seamless. Moshe’s initial artistic impulse carries through. Things sometimes don’t work—Josh Hartnett’s character is supposed to be a drifter in the Western tradition, but his wardrobe seems more appropriate for film noir. And there are quirks with that character in particular. But Moshe carries them through and doesn’t give up on them.

The film is he and Gackt seeking revenge on the town bad guy, played by Ron Perlman. The film’s a mix of post-apocalyptic, Western, Japanese samurai and… Soviet propaganda films. It’s visually stunning. There’s no sky in Bunraku, just papier-mâché. The outdoor scenes are mesmerizing, even the simple ones, because Moshe creates something so distinct.

But Moshe’s approach isn’t just Western or samurai… Sometimes he embraces the absurdity of the film. With Terrence Blanchard’s fantastic, fluid score going, Bunraku at times seems like an episode of the “Batman” TV show (during the fight scenes), only magnificently choreographed.

The relationship between Hartnett and Gackt works—though it needs a third, whether it’s Woody Harrelson’s bartender mentor, or (in Moshe’s most subtle stroke) Gackt’s cousin, played by Emily Kaiho.

Perlman’s good as the villain, but can’t compete with Kevin McKidd as his vicious subordinate. McKidd transfixes.

While not good, Demi Moore’s not terrible.

Besides that annoying narration, Bunraku is an excellent film. Moshe’s enthusiasm for the film is infectious.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Guy Moshe; screenplay by Moshe, based on a story by Boaz Davidson; director of photography, Juan Ruiz Anchía; edited by Glenn Garland and Zach Staenberg; music by Terrence Blanchard; production designer, Chris Farmer; produced by Ram Bergman, Keith Calder, Nava Levin and Jessica Wu; released by Arc Entertainment.

Starring Josh Hartnett (The Drifter), Gackt (Yoshi), Woody Harrelson (The Bartender), Kevin McKidd (Killer #2), Jordi Mollà (Valentine), Emily Kaiho (Momoko), Sugata Shun (Uncle), Ron Perlman (Nicola) and Demi Moore (Alexandra). Narrated by Mike Patton.


I Come with the Rain (2008, Tran Ang Hung)

I Come with the Rain is a strange one. I doubt I can even give away how weird without spoiling the… surprise (it’s one of the two surprises to take the problematic but brilliantly made–not shot, bad DV–picture into the dumps). But there’s enough weirdness without spoiling.

First and foremost… the movie’s in English. There’s no reason people can’t speak Chinese to each other and English to top-billed Josh Hartnett. I’m trying to figure out what Hartnett’s doing in this one. I mean, I know Tran’s a well-respected director and Hartnett probably wanted to see Hong Kong and the Philippines, but those aren’t convincing arguments. He does get a couple good monologues and his scenes with Elias Koteas (how did no one realize he’d make a great serial killer before?) are something to see. They’re… singular.

That element of the film, the serial killer investigation trauma, is like Tran decided to make a Manhunter sequel–Manhunter goes to Hong Kong. The Manhunter comparisons go far–down to certain physical realizations of Blake-like painting subjects.

But the movie really belongs to Tran Nu Yên-Khê and Lee Byung-hun. It’s about their relationship, he the vicious gangster, she the heroin addict with the heart of gold. Kimura Takuya has a role about as big as Hartnett’s, but really doesn’t… it’s hard to explain how Kimura works in this one.

Fundamentally, I think Tran’s just got pretentious intentions and can’t lucidly pull them off.

Great music though.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Tran Ang Hung; director of photography, Juan Ruiz Anchía; edited by Mario Battistel; music by Gustavo Santaolalla; production designer, Benoît Barouh; produced by Jean Cazes, Jean-Pierre Marois and Fernando Sulichin; released by TF1 International.

Starring Josh Hartnett (Kline), Tran Nu Yên-Khê (Lili), Lee Byung-hun (Su Dongpo), Kimura Takuya (Shitao), Shawn Yue (Meng Zi), Elias Koteas (Hasford) and Eusebio Poncela (Vargas).


August (2008, Austin Chick)

August clocks in, with end credits, at eighty-four minutes. I didn’t know the running time going in, so I wasn’t thinking about it. I would have guessed, just based on the perceptive passage, around two hours. My wife, not being a fan, probably would say three and a half. Doing a good movie in ninety minutes has gotten, for whatever reason, to be near impossible in the last forty-odd years. Doing a great one in under ninety, in New York, with a limited cast, has actually gotten a little easier in the last few. I’m thinking of Looking for Kitty.

August does a couple things, a couple important things. First, it fulfills Josh Hartnett, whose career has been in a mainstream paralysis the last six years. He’s the whole show in August, playing an unlikable, unsympathetic alpha male selling a useless internet product before the technology for it even exists. His character thinks he’s Prince. I’d seen some previews and they don’t properly represent his performance (August is, as the next point will clarify, difficult to sell). He’s fantastic.

The second thing it does is more and less important. August is a character study. I kept waiting for it not to be a character study, I kept waiting for it to go bad once it started getting great, but then the last scene came around and it became clear how Chick was ending the film.

August is set in August 2001. The World Trade Center only appears in one establishing shot. What Chick and writer Rodman do with that setting is rather unexpected. The film also has a lot of financial hyperbole–most of the conversations in the film are about Hartnett and brother Adam Scott’s company’s financial condition, not the most riveting to audiences. But it’s a character study.

As a director, Chick was one of my initial problems with August. His composition kept bothering me. It was like he was wasting a quarter of the screen (August is Panavision aspect, a quarter off would make it fit for HD). Then, after the first time shot using the entire screen, it became clear he was using that empty space. He was using it all along, but I guess I was just too suspect to give him the credit. I thought it was getting lucky.

The rest of the cast is good (even David Bowie). Since it’s all about their relationships with Hartnett, Adam Scott and Naomie Harris have the best parts. Scott and Hartnett only mildly resemble each other around the eyes (and it’s only at the end Chick uses close-ups), but August has one of those good, difficult brother relationships. Harris is the ex-girlfriend; she and Hartnett only have three scenes, but they’re all excellent. The other supporting cast members–Andre Royo, Robin Tunney, Rip Torn, Caroline Lagerfelt–all good.

August is definitely the sum of its parts–Nathan Larson’s music, awkward in the trailer and, I’m sure, on its own, is an essential element–as is Andrij Parekh’s cinematography. Chick makes an eighty-four (sorry, eighty-nine… with end credits) film, shot on limited locations (I figure the driving sequence was either the most expense or illegally done), about three weeks, expansive.

At some point, I guess somewhere after the twenty minute mark, I thought how nice it would be if August were great, then dismissed it. I’m not sure if I’m happier with the unexpected surprise or if I’m mad I’m so defeatist about film. But considering August, there’s no reason to be quite so cynical.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Austin Chick; written by Howard A. Rodman; director of photography, Andrij Parekh; edited by Pete Beaudreau; music by Nathan Larson; production designer, Roshelle Berliner; produced by Elisa Pugliese, Clara Markowicz, Josh Hartnett, Charlie Corwin and David Guy Levy; released by First Look Studios.

Starring Josh Hartnett (Tom), Naomie Harris (Sarrah), Adam Scott (Joshua), Robin Tunney (Melanie), Andre Royo (Dylan), Emmanuelle Chriqui (Mo), Laila Robins (Pivo), Caroline Langerfelt (Nancy), Alan Cox (Barton), David Bowie (Ogilvie) and Rip Torn (David).


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