Jennifer Connelly has become incredibly good at portraying women whose lives are swirling round and around on the verge of going completely down the toilet. In fact, she won an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind playing such a character and should have won one for her role in Requiem for a Dream, too. Ms. Connelly is attractive enough to have built a career starring in fluffy romantic comedies, like Drew Barrymore or Sandra Bullock, but instead she uses her talent and looks to take on coked-out girlfriends and strung-out wives. Her latest role is Kathy Nicolo, a dry alcoholic, whose husband has walked out and who doesn’t open her mail for months. In Vadim Perelman’s new film House of Sand and Fog, Kathy is barely holding herself intact, working as a maid, when her house is repossessed by the county government for tax evasion. This is house of the title, an unassuming 70’s ranch in a coastal suburb of San Francisco. It was given to Kathy by her late father, but has been neglected (by a maid, ironically) for a long while, as the overgrown garden and filthy kitchen show.
Kathy’s misfortune becomes the opportunity of Col. Massoud Amir Behrani, an Iranian émigré, played by the inimitable Ben Kingsley. Or rather, it becomes the opportunity of former Col. Behrani. These days, Kingsley’s character shovels asphalt in a road crew and works as a late-night cashier in a convenience store. He tries to keep his inglorious employment a secret even to his own family, washing and changing into a tailored suit everyday before coming home to his fashionably-dressed wife and well-furnished apartment. But Mr. Kingsley acts with so much gravitas, he is as much the Shah as he is a retired colonel. After he provides his daughter with a lavish wedding, he realizes that he can no longer afford his former lifestyle and decides to buy Kathy’s property at government auction for a lark, improve it, and sell the house ant full market price. Honest enough, this Colonel, at least in our capitalist society.
The tragedy unfolds around these two conflicting claims over the house: money, guns, booze, threats of deportation, and nails in feet. Perelman’s film is based on the book of the same title by Andre Dubus III, who looks all the way back to the Greek tragedians for inspiration. The situation is designed so that once each character’s desire is set, Kathy to keep her home, the Colonel to keep his as sung by the 80’s band The Buggles, “we can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far.”
True to form, Perelman’s film does not dawdle in the happy memories of its characters. We catch just a glimpse of Col. Behrani’s life before the Islamic Revolution as he cuts down several tall trees blocking the sea view from his balcony. His barefoot wife and young children move across the sand, laughing loudly even over the sound of the chainsaws. No images of Kathy’s life or family are shown. Instead, the movie firmly grasps onto the tragedy of the present.
Mr. Perelman is smart filmmaker: we see a wonderfully artistic symmetry woven from character to character. Both Col. Behrani and Deputy Sheriff Lester Burdon (Ron Eldard) pass a brooding night in the house wrapped in a red blanket wearing starched white undershirts. These are men of uniform, used to taking commands and giving orders, but not to the intricacies of their egos and desires. Mr. Perelman includes a great shot of both men gazing over their lovers sleeping in the Oriental silks of the Behrani’s bed, and the nice touch of having the same MiniMart where Kathy binges on tiny bottles of whiskey be the same place where the Colonel would work.
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s much-anticipated second film, 21 Grams is certainly the least uplifting (if not the best) movie of the year. It is a bento box of depressed emotions, tracing three bizarrely intermingled lives played out by Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, and Benicio Del Toro. Ms. Watts plays Cristina, a mother who husband and two little girls are killed by a truck in a hit and run accident. Mr. Del Toro is Jack, a born-again ex-con who wears his faith as loudly as a Carnivale costume and was just laid off (as a caddie). And an older looking Mr. Penn is a math professor, Paul, dying of a cardiac anomaly.
Mr. Iñárritu intertwines these three everyday situations happening to three everyday people and thus weaves together their lives as well: Jack is driving the truck that kills Cristina’s family; her husband heart’s is transplanted into Paul; Paul and Christina, consoling each other’s pain, have an affair. This is tragedy at its purest, not the street-grade you often find in theaters. 21 Grams is a story that evolves and grips the viewer more tightly with each of several successive waves—it is told in chaotic, non-sequential segments that deepen in theme and story and film progresses. Mr. Iñárritu has created the very picture of tragedy itself, messy, disorienting, and evermore painful. Frankly, this is a fucking amazing movie.
Similar to her phenomenal role in Mulholland Drive, Ms. Watts shows more talent when she is blinking an eye than most actresses can muster in an entire career. These is a scene in 21 Grams when Christina has just returned from the bright, blood-spewn operating rooms of her husband and daughters with a Hefty trash bag full of their clothes. Christina, as she must have done hundreds of times before, begins to run them through the washer and suddenly breaks down crying. Perhaps it is the illogic of this scene (why even bother to wash to the clothes?) mixed with Ms. Watts’ truly gifted acting, but Mr. Iñárritu’s brief scene is probably one of the most poignant, most sensitive portrayals of loss ever caught on film.
And yet, the deep understanding of each character this movie shows is somehow anti-tragic. One feels as if no one would have ever known the trio unless their fates had become so linked. They make human decisions, choices that are irrational, instinctive at times, but far more revealing of the inner self. Jack guiltily turns himself in to the police after his hit and run. Paul hires a private eye to seek out the family of his heart donor, illegally (note to movie dorks: this plot concept is strikingly parallel to Almodóvar’s 1999 film Todo Sobre mi Madre). And Christina dismisses her doting pop at the funeral and returns to her never-resolved drug problem. Toward the end of the film, the unhappy situation of these three resembles the trope constantly found in war flicks: when GI’s who have bonded so firmly to one another, they would rather give their own lives, than see a buddy come to harm. The viewer feels as if their lives have changed for the better, so different yet so outstandingly new, as well.
Surprisingly, 21 Grams also has a religious feel. With character names like Christina, Paul, and Michael, and long-haired guy with crosses tattooed on his arms and chest who carries around his Bible, religion is definitely not absent from the film. There is much talk of a sort of immaculate conception, with Paul’s wife desperately wanting a sample of his semen frozen so she can have his kids. Paul, of course, is given a “second chance” at life with his transplant. And even the movies title is from the supposed mass the body loses upon death, attributed to the escaping soul. As in his first movie, Amores Perros, which also involved a car accident, Mr. Iñárritu wears the hats of both a superb filmmaker and of master storyteller; his tragedy is at once classical, Biblical, and folklyrical. In short, it is beautiful.
Cold Mountain, by English Patient director Anthony Minghella, is remarkably similarly to its predecessor. The movie chronicles the struggle of Inman (Jude Law), an injured Confederate deserter, as he returns to his home in Cold Mountain, North Carolina, in order to “hook up with” (to use a bit of authentic 1860’s argot) Ada, played by Nicole Kidman, a girl who he kissed for a few seconds before heading off to war, while his friends ogled them and hooted irreverently. Both of Mr. Minghella’s movies, then, share the same unimpeachable plot components: a waning war, an amorous invalid, and some sort of journey. Both betray the director’s distrust of a linear plot, though Cold Mountain admittedly uses flashbacks considerably less than English Patient. Both show a fascination with pretty shots of pretty scenery, viewed from a distance. And both reflect Mr. Minghella’s unwillingness to direct any movie that is less than three hours in length.
One could imagine Anthony Minghella’s career unfolding in a long series of variations on the English Patient theme: Cold Mountain (the English Patient in the American South during the Civil War) would eventually find a distinguished place alongside future classics such as The Mongolian Patient (set in time of Genghis Khan, this film depicts the trials and tribulations of a young Mongol as he struggles to return home to his lover after being injured in a battle against the Roman Empire), The French-Indian Patient (centered around the enormously sympathetic character of a young mulatto soldier, the child of a Native American Chief and a comely French trapperette) and The American Patient (set during the Vietnam War, this film depicts a young hippie’s struggle to defecate in the toilet).
The problem with this movie, though, is that it suffers from a schizoid attachment to two conflicting visions: one the grand, English Patient-esque genre of romance, the other, the strange ante-bellum Southern odyssey à la Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? Mr. Minghella cannot choose between these visions, and so the movie vacillates back and forth, occasionally lapsing into scenes that seem as if they had been ripped from Unforgiven. In one, for instance, Inman finds himself unexpectedly in some sort of whorehouse, where he is propositioned by a friendly madam. Sworn to eternal loyalty to his Ada, Inman reacts by standing in the corner of the room, crying and furiously masturbating. The scene isn’t exactly bad (although similar acts of self-love precipitated the demise of Pee Wee’s Playhouse), but where’s the romance?
Parallel to Inman’s epic nekia is the story of Ada’s struggle to become a self-reliant woman in a charming Confederacy where most of the menfolk are either away or dead. In this struggle, she is aided by Ruby Thewes, a plucky young drifter. Together, these women raise fences, kill wild turkeys, and hump scarecrows. Renee Zellweger does well as Ruby, though one wishes that she would finally close her lips, which are pursed in a strange and distracting manner throughout nearly the entire movie.
Rob specifically asked that I say “lots of nice things about that totally awesome Confederate hunk, Jude Law.” It is the expectation that, by the end of the movie, Mr. Law and Ms. Kidman are finally going to “mount the cavalry” with a “rebel yell,” which probably generates most of the narrative tension in the movie. When the scene finally comes, though, it surprisingly disappoints. In accordance with what will surely become known as “Minghella’s Law,” the scene consists primarily of soft-focus shots of Mr. Law and Ms. Kidman’s fine asses, filmed from a considerable distance, which is supposed to simulate highly passionate sex and crucial character development. But even these scenes, which at least sound as if they might be erotically toothsome, are very much obscured by the surrounding greenery.
A.O. Scott wrote in the Times recently a piece heralding the tragedy a revived genre in Hollywood. Impressive as this new trend in later winter movies has been (include here Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River), something is to be said, however, for the fact that two of these movies had been adapted from well-received books. As a novel, in fact, Cold Mountain won the National Book Award in 1997. As much as it would be nice to argue here that Hollywood is once again embracing the tragic side of the film-plot spectrum, there is still the very real desire for studios to make a ginormous profit with every picture. It remains to be seen if dreary, epic Civil War sob stories and theaters with Kleenex-clutching moviegoers emptying themselves out several times a day will lead to such profits. Looking to books or plays is a good start, and a fan of 21 Grams would definitely insist that art and film and tragedy were meant to go together. Ideally, these three movies will help push Hollywood back into the real world of emotions and events and away from releasing sentimental Pollyanna fairy-tales and epic Frododysseys.
Finally a note about the marketing of two of these films: having seen the trailers and posters for both House of Sand and Fog and 21 Grams, it’s reasonable to say that someone fucked up. Perelman’s movie is presented as if it were entitled Haunted House of Sand and Fog, by Stephen King, with lots of screaming and broken glass and an inanimate object (said haunted house) incomprehensibly making everyone’s life simply hellish. Similarly, 21 Grams is sold as a weird drama full of violence and darkness. Its poster is all black and uses diagonal angles with an uninviting font. Now, of course I realize that these tragedies are not all of good cheer and fun, but certainly they deserve better billing than your average horror flick. And Mr. Iñárritu and Mr. Perelman are two directors who deserver better viewers than those diehard fans of Freddy vs. Jason.
Note: These are the last three films you would want to choose if you are taking someone on a date. Unless, that is, you are dating a film student on Prozac.