Kill List

Director: Ben Wheatley
Writer: Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley
Year: 2011
Cast: Neil Maskell, Michael Smiley, MyAnna Buring

★★★★☆

Billed as the best British genre film in years, Kill List comes with a reputation considerably greater than its budget. The second feature from writer-director Ben Wheatley, it is a dark, surreal hit man film that you are not likely to forget in a hurry.

Kill List

It opens as an unnerving family drama, with extended scenes that depict a former serviceman, Jay (Neil Maskell), recovering from the psychological trauma of combat and the glum reality of unemployment. His relationship with his wife, Shel (MyAnna Buring), is turbulent to say the least, and, even their young son, Sam (Harry Simpson), appears afflicted by the claustrophobic domestic situation. Brought up on war stories and his parents shouting through the walls, his playtime revolves around conflict and, in an early scene, he is shown cutting his father while he is shaving at the sink. Wheatley creates an atmosphere in which nobody can be trusted – Jay can only listen helplessly while Shel pours out her emotions in a foreign language down the phone – is she having an affair? is she a spy? It is impossible to know. The disconnect, the extent of their mistrust, becomes significant as the plot progresses.

The tension, wrought from the outset, is finally released at a dramatic dinner party, which sees the introduction of Jay’s partner, Gal (Michael Smiley), along with his new girlfriend, Fiona (Emma Fryer), who has more to her than meets the eye. Jay and Shel fight viciously, with plenty of collateral damage to the crockery, before reconciling unconvincingly. Afterwards, Gal encourages Jay to forget what has happened in the past, alluding to a disastrous mission they undertook together in Kiev, and accept a job that they have been offered. It is simple; three people make up the kill list.

Once the action begins, it is brutal. We are told that these are bad people, they have to suffer. We have to watch. Wheatley pulls no punches and never cuts away, even when Jay takes a hammer to his victim’s skull; it is ruthless and visceral, but, at the same time engrossing. As well as the crude violence, there is something lingering beneath the surface, that unsettling feeling persists throughout the film, insinuating the presence of an unknown horror.

Kill List Ending

Close-ups are used heavily to create an obsessive, voyeuristic atmosphere and the way the British landscape is captured on camera, stripped of colour, devoid of characteristics, entirely banal, creates an impression of indefinable gloom. The film has a nightmarish quality and uses distinctive, unexplained images to heighten the effect, such as Fiona standing outside in her nightdress, waving slowly, pointedly at the window of a motorway hotel. The score adds to the disorientation; it is overt, in your face, made up of harsh sounds and curious whistles.

It  is this blending of the innocuous and the brutal that makes Kill List so engrossing. The tap-tap-tapping of the teaspoon against the cup, the domestic violence, the hammer blow to the head. It all seems connected somehow, like an expression of some inherent pent-up anger or collective death wish. Wheatley hints at a social commentary as well; the targets for assassination are a priest, a librarian and an MP; there are vague murmurings about the war. The message is not coherent, but you get the impression that there is something rotten at the core of the world that is portrayed.

The denouement only serves to confuse the message. It is arbitrary and slightly derivative, seemingly added for effect alone. Fortunately, as with the rest of the film, you can’t argue with the effect. The climax is a powerful piece of cinema, shocking and unsettling, played out by firelight in the dark. Exactly what it means will be debated – it probably won’t be fully understood – but, ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Despite the confounding finale, Kill List is a wonderful British horror film, stark and brutal, superbly shot, with imagery to haunt you for years.

Rob Dickie

Surviving Progress

Director: Mathieu Roy, Harold Crooks
Writer: Harold Crooks, Mathieu Roy
Year: 2011
Cast: Ronald Wright, David Suzuki, Vaclav Smil

★★★★☆

The most worrying thing about documentaries like Surviving Progress is that they are not only still relevant, but more relevant than ever. There is an overwhelming sense that we should know this stuff already. Yet, here we are, thirty years down the line from Koyaanisqatsi, and we appear to have learned very little, apart from the enduring effectiveness of time-lapse photography. We still consume too much, we are still driven by unquenchable material desires and we are still unable to grasp the bigger picture. Far from being addressed, these problems are escalating. Life is increasingly out of balance.

However, this documentary, co-directed by Harold Crooks and Mathieu Roy, does not simply set out to cover old ground. Instead, it approaches the problem from a different angle, incorporating and centralising the most devastating implications of the 2008 financial crisis. The film’s essential thesis is that the global economy is constructed on unsustainable levels of debt, all of which is essentially owed to those at the very top of the financial ladder – the 1% to use contemporary terminology. Creditors must be paid, which means debtors are forced to exploit every resource at their disposal, until there are no resources left.

Surviving Progress Sao Paolo

One of the title frames terms this process “digging holes”, which is a succinct way of putting it. The clearest example comes from the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. The narrative goes that during the 1970s, Brazil accumulates debt that it is unable to pay off using conventional methods. It is encouraged to turn to natural sources of wealth, particularly the untapped rainforest. The devastation will have no impact on foreign creditors – to them, it is just like any other asset on Brazil’s balance sheet. If and when it is exhausted, there are plenty of other holes to dig. However, it is not simply a matter of foreign exploitation, as local people are complicit in the destruction. But they too have debts to pay. It is hard not to sympathise with the loggers who are prepared to break conservation laws to stay in business. Deforestation is the local economy – without it, people will starve.

“Conventional economics,” proclaims environmentalist David Suzuki, “is a form of brain damage” and it is difficult in this context to argue with him. By externalising reality, the discipline becomes little more than a systematic fantasy. Humanity’s collective debt cannot be self-contained; it cannot flow harmlessly between individuals, corporations and nations. Inevitably, it must spill over into the natural world. And if our debt to the planet becomes irrevocable, no amount of Wall Street wizardry is going to prevent a catastrophe.

Surviving Progress makes this point effectively, drawing on the ideas of a range of interesting contributors, including Jane Goodall, Stephen Hawking and Ronald Wright, who wrote the book the film was based on.  Its scope is impressive, incorporating history, politics, science and economics, but, ultimately, it fails when it comes to putting forward solutions. The problem, as Wright acknowledges, is that nobody wants to talk about the realities of doing what needs to be done. Synthetic biology and space exploration are put forward as viable alternatives, but practically they only represent further holes. Vaclav Smil is the most impressive speaker in this regard, distinguished by his ability to get to the point, albeit after an amusing digression on $50,000 bathrooms. We must consume less. We have to balance the books before it is too late.

Koyaanisqatsi Moon

Image from Koyaanisqatsi

The terrifying problem lingering below the documentary’s surface is that progress has become self-perpetuating. There is no logical get out, which means we are no longer in charge of our own destiny. Globalisation has left us with a single socio-economic reality that we are unable to transform without devastating consequences. It is easy to say we must consume less, but who is doing it and how on earth could they?

I have not discussed the film in great detail because the ideas are more important. It is entertaining, well-directed and suitably but not overly derivative of Koyaanisqatsi. There are some beautiful shots, especially of Sao Paulo. And what is it about time-lapse that lends itself so well to this kind of film? It is able to show humanity in the macrocosm. It effortlessly renders us absurd.

Rob Dickie

Surviving Progress was screened as part of the 2012 Take One Action film festival in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

The Turin Horse (A torinói ló)

Director: Béla Tarr, Ágnes Hranitzky
Writer: László Krasznahorkai, Béla Tarr
Year: 2011
Cast: János Derzsi, Erika Bók, Mihály Kormos

★★★★★

“Script?” commented the woman sitting next to me after the relevant credit flashed up on the screen. She could probably have said the same about many of the others. Even I raised an eyebrow at “Supporting Cast”. The fact is that The Turin Horse is a film in which almost nothing happens that will bore most audiences to tears. By “The Third Day”, the title frames seemed to have become a running joke. By “The Sixth Day”, everyone had stopped laughing. It reminded me of going to see Melancholia – half the audience had been long asleep by the time “Part Two” came around, and a good portion of those still awake let out audible groans.

You can’t please everyone though and, as with Lars Von Trier, you get the impression that Béla Tarr isn’t really trying. The Turin Horse is intended to be the culmination of his career but it will only ever appeal to a dedicated few. “So what kind of film is it?” asked my flatmate when I came in. “Action?” “No,” I replied, “the opposite of that. Inaction!” If you were to attempt to place it in a genre, that is accurate as you are going to get.

The Turin Horse

Shot in a bleak-looking black and white, the film is made up of only 30 takes and, visually, it is mesmerising. Watching it is like being taken around an exhibition featuring a hundred astonishing paintings by a great artist, all depicting approximately the same thing. It is relentlessly repetitive – the characters move with a rigid circularity – but the subtle changes that take place between each scene are all the more noticeable for it. So intimately are certain actions depicted that even the slightest modification can be startling. The attention to detail and dedication to every shot is remarkable, while the set is flawlessly constructed to facilitate Tarr’s cinematic vision.

The starting point, as we are told but not shown, is the apocryphal story of Nietzsche’s descent into madness. Seeing a cab driver brutally whipping his stubborn horse in Turin, Nietzsche goes up to him, throws his arms around the horse’s neck and sobs violently. He collapses, is taken home and never recovers from the incident. Tarr never quite leaves Nietzsche behind, but chooses to follow the driver and his horse back to their meagre rural existence, oblivious to the significance of what has taken place.

The driver lives only with his daughter and they come into contact with virtually nobody else. Their lives revolve around looking after the horse, keeping the fire going, fetching water from the well and eating boiled potatoes with their hands. At the mercy of the elements, the interminable gale, they struggle on, doing the same thing day in day out. Can this be called existence? A man arrives to buy pálinka and delivers a lengthy monologue on the degradation of the world. Gypsies appear from over the hill to steal water and deliver an obscure book. As far as the plot goes, that’s about it. And you get the impression it’s been an eventful week. They live to toil on the land, to suffer in nature’s fearful symmetry. This is no pastoral – there is not a shred of romance – but the characters are not condemned either. Their torture is beyond their control, coming perhaps from God, perhaps from the outside world.

The Turin Horse Messenger

The narrative ultimately has devastating consequences, which are hinted at rather than acted out. The horse gradually deteriorates as the gale gets stronger, but it is only towards the end that we realise the significance of these events. It is a deceptively simple film with a fin de siècle narrative so original you might miss it altogether. Darkness descends on the house but in the end we are shown the light. The final scene is breathtaking.

The Turin Horse is a film of rare intensity and scarcely believable focus. Backed by Mihály Vig’s majestic score, which has a dramatic intensity akin to Clint Mansell’s Requiem for a Dream, it rewards whatever attention you are willing to give it. If it does prove to be Tarr’s last film, it is certainly not a bad one to bow out on. Nobody would dare to question the director’s credit, however difficult they found it to sit through.

Rob Dickie

The Lifeguard (El Salvavidas)

Director: Maite Alberdi
Writer: Maite Alberdi, Sebastián Brahm, Alejandro Fernández
Year: 2011
Cast: Mauricio Rodríguez, Jean Pierre Palacios, Alan Munoz

★★☆☆☆

Maite Alberdi’s debut feature, The Lifeguard, has the look and feel of a documentary but is actually a short drama. Set entirely on a stretch of Chilean beach and focusing principally on a single character, the prickly lifeguard, Mauricio (Mauricio Rodríguez), it relies on its ability to immerse the audience in the setting. Pablo Valdés’s excellent cinematography ensures there are plenty of evocative shots, particularly at the beginning. The first image is beautiful, highlighting the bright morning mist that surrounds the lifeguard towers. The sound of the sea is continually present, as are conversations between the diverse crowd of beachgoers. The film has a naturalistic feel – we are taken in close and get to know the characters sitting around the camera, in the same superficial way as we would if we were actually there.

The Lifeguard El Salvavidas

The character of Mauricio is visually interesting — he looks cool with long dreadlocks and dark sunglasses, but his appearance is at odds with his personality. A stickler for the rules, he certainly does not see the beach as somewhere to chill out. The film is structured around his daily routine, which primarily involves arguing with beachgoers, building a relationship with a young boy and complaining about his rival lifeguard, Jean Pierre (Jean Pierre Palacios). Jean Pierre is his polar opposite, regularly late for work, openly relaxed and restrained when it comes to blowing his whistle.

Despite its aesthetic qualities, The Lifeguard quickly becomes rather dull. The camera sets the viewer up as an observer, but, generally, there is little to observe. For the majority of the film, the action is entirely composed of dialogue between lifeguards and members of the public. There are some interesting moments, particularly when Mauricio interacts with the boy, but more often than not, there are no points of reference which allow us connect with what is being said. Some of the conversations feel forced, though this may be due to the translated subtitles (I do not speak any Spanish). Regardless, it causes the facade of realism to collapse and makes it difficult to care about the minor characters.

Eventually, Alberdi deems it necessary to inject some drama into the story, but even this is only glimpsed second hand. The incident itself is predictable, although it must be said the consequences are not. Mauricio changes dramatically as a result, which could have been an interesting development, but his transformation is never really explored. Simply changing the tone fails to revive the film and, although the visual effect is again interesting, this is nowhere near enough.

The Lifeguard is essentially a film which relies on immersion, but it leaves the audience feeling bored. The beach is seen and heard but rarely felt, which is ultimately where the film falls short. It takes so long for something to happen and, when it comes, it is disappointing. To make up for the repetitive, disjointed build-up, it needed to be spectacular.

Rob Dickie

Dragon (Wu xia)

Director: Peter Chan
Writer: Oi Wah Lam
Year: 2011
Cast: Donnie Yen, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Wei Tang

★★★★☆

The Edinburgh International Film Festival’s creative director, Chris Fujiwara, has encouraged audiences to step out of their comfort zone and experience something different, which is precisely what I did with Dragon. Martial arts films are not normally high on my to-watch list, and I would be hard pressed to remember the last one I actually saw. However, I am certainly glad I gave this one a shot. Dragon is the hugely successful Chinese director Peter Chan’s first venture into the wu xia genre, but it is a real treat. With a narrative as intense as the set pieces, it is an intriguing thriller about two men seeking redemption from their past.

They are brought together when the seemingly ordinary paper worker, Liu Jinxi (Donnie Yen), fights and kills two ruthless armed robbers, who make an assault on the shop he happens to be in. When it emerges that one of the bandits was a trained killer and one of the most dangerous men in China, an intuitive detective, Xu Baijiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), becomes suspicious of the idyllic village’s new hero.

Dragon Wu Xia Donnie Yen

The first fight scene is entertaining in itself, but is taken to an extra level when it is meticulously reconstructed in Xu’s mind. The action is replayed, with added focus at the crucial moments, and embellished with Xu’s analysis. Deducing that Liu must have used qi energy and advanced fighting techniques, Xu exposes the ruse that he simply got lucky. Chan uses a range of visual effects, particularly to add precise detail to the development of internal wounds, a technique which remains effective throughout the film.

Once Xu has confirmed there is more to Liu than meets the eye, the psychological conflict between the two men can begin. Xu’s character offers a unique perspective on the action, and Kaneshiro gives a measured performance, showing a studious exterior which harbors an intense passion. Tortured by the memory of setting a young criminal free early in his career, only for him to return home and poison his parents, Xu makes law the highest principle in life, placing it above all humanity. He is determined to bring Liu to justice, long before he discovers the extent of his violent past.

Liu is also a complex character, determined to live an ordinary life but evidently hiding something terrible. Dragon’s opening scene depicts him dining with his family in a tranquil home, and it is so genuine a moment that his sincere desire for reform cannot initially be doubted. However, as word of his whereabouts spreads, Liu’s resolve is sternly tested and he is forced to directly confront the demons of his past.

Chan is able to seamlessly blend genres, combining elements from drama, action and detective films, and this also serve to make a formal point within Dragon itself. We are presented with a world in transition — the old methods of existence are beginning to be superseded as new technologies ensure material prosperity in rural areas. There is a conflict between the scientific and the natural, the part and the whole, which is exemplified in the two central characters. Tradition, spirituality and man’s connection with nature are all challenged as the film develops, adding thematic depth to an exceptionally entertaining film.

Dragon’s consistently arresting narrative is backed up by strong performances, spectacular visuals, intense action sequences and beautiful cinematography, making it an exhilarating ride.

Rob Dickie

Killer Joe

Director: William Friedkin
Writer: Tracy Letts (play and screenplay)
Year: 2011
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Juno Temple, Gina Gershon

★★★★☆

A bold choice to open the Edinburgh International Film Festival, Killer Joe is a violent, twisted black comedy with an ending that will leave you squirming on the edge of your seat. Directed by William Friedkin and adapted by Tracy Letts from his own hit Broadway play, it begins as a trashy trailer park thriller but develops into something truly shocking.

Matthew McConaughey is a revelation, giving the performance of his career as the title character, a perverse detective and assassin on the side. He dominates every scene and continually astonishes, not least because he retains every ounce of his charisma until the very end, long after it should have drained away entirely.

Killer Joe Matthew McConaughey Juno Temple

The film opens with Chris (Emile Hirsch), a good for nothing slacker, banging on the door of his father’s trailer until his half-naked stepmother, Sharla (Gina Gershon), lets him in. He has just been thrown out of his mother’s house and is in desperate need of money after getting into debt with some dangerous men. Having heard that Killer Joe Cooper can be hired for a fee, he hatches a plan along with his simple-minded father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), to have his mother murdered so they can cash in her $50,000 life insurance policy. However, he has no chance of stumping up the hefty advance that Joe demands, so is forced to offer his younger sister, Dottie (Juno Temple), as sexual collateral.

The scenes featuring Joe and Dottie are electric, by far the best in the film. Their first meeting is intriguing, but the scene in which they have time to spend alone together is intense and completely disarming. Dottie is a fascinating character because we are never allowed to know where she stands, or what her ultimate role will be. To the other characters, she is a troubled adolescent or quasi-paedophilic fantasy, but she remains in control of herself and is able to effortlessly skip around them all.

The bulk of the film is dedicated to the planning and aftermath of the murder and, unfortunately, it gets bogged down in unnecessary detail. Too much of the action is diverted to the somewhat juvenile subplot involving Chris and the gangsters, and any scenes which do not feature McConaughey lack a spark. For the most part, he is a level above the film. The other male performances are laboured when he is not on screen, and even Gershon and Temple, who are both excellent, work best when following his lead.

But what Killer Joe was really made for is the finale, a long self-contained scene that comes out of nowhere to reanimate the flailing narrative. It is brutal, excessive, violent, melodramatic, and makes nauseatingly effective use of a fried chicken drumstick in a soon-to-be-notorious scene. It ends on such a nasty, trashy high that it will be a while before you remember there were any serious flaws in it at all. If you ignore the bloated middle, Killer Joe is a provocative, excruciating and memorable piece of cinema, with a truly great villain. It’s just a shame there is so much you would like to forget.

Rob Dickie

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Director: Lasse Hallström
Writer: Simon Beaufoy, Paul Torday (novel)
Year: 2011
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt, Kristin Scott Thomas

★★☆☆☆

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is one of those films that could easily be a metaphor for its own production. You can imagine the guy pitching it: “I want to make a film about a Sheikh who tries to bring salmon fishing to the Yemen?” “A film about salmon fishing in the Yemen?! That’s absurd! How? Why?” “Purely because it’s absurd. That’s the beauty of it. It will work, have faith. Just to make sure, we’ll throw in a complicated romantic quadrangle, a just-about-still-topical political angle and enough charm to prevent people just sitting there shaking their heads in disbelief. Trust me.”

It begins with the beautifully named Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) approaching Dr Alfred “Fred” Jones (Ewan McGregor), a government fisheries expert, with a proposal for constructing a river in the Yemeni desert and transporting 10,000 wild salmon from British rivers so her client, the Sheikh (Amr Waked), can fish. Fred naturally ridicules the idea, but, under pressure from the Prime Minister and his dogged press secretary (Kristin Scott Thomas), both desperate for a feel-good story from the Middle East, he agrees to meet Harriet and discuss the project. Before he knows it, everything is in motion and he begins to chase after the impossible.

It sounds like it should have been a political satire, like the novel by Paul Torday it was based on. It does have satirical undertones, but they are far too tame to be taken seriously. The war in Afghanistan is treated soberly, but nothing else comes close to being a target – Anglo-Middle Eastern relations, the Prime Minister’s shameless PR efforts and even terrorist attacks are only ever lighthearted asides or superficial plot developments. Kristin Scott Thomas gives a vibrant and engaging performance, but her character is just a glamorised Malcolm Tucker, without the depth of character or genuine sense of being under pressure.

Lasse Hallström clearly opts against making a satire, instead using the story as a vehicle for the kind of feel-good film he is known for (The Cider House Rules, Chocolat). Quite what there is to feel good about in an oil-rich Sheikh’s decadent vanity project is not immediately clear, though Hallström extracts as much as is humanly possible from the grand folly of it all. The main point of interest is the relationship between Fred and Harriet, which has the effect of transforming the salmon project into an overly figurative backdrop. McGregor and Blunt have enough chemistry to make it work, and you would probably end up rooting for them if there was even the slightest hint they might not end up together.

The one area the film does succeed in is the comedy, which draws plenty of laughs all the way through. It is very British in character, exploiting Fred’s reserve, eccentricity and awkward attempts at telling jokes. There are some excellent lines and very funny moments, which makes it a shame that the rest of the film does not support it.

Aside from humour, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen offers little, and the elaborate project it is built around seems wasted. It takes you from London to Scotland to the Yemen but, while this offers aesthetic variety, you get the feeling that the essential story could just as easily have taken place in a New York office. The plot is clumsy, with too many arbitrary developments and emotional twists, particularly towards the end. It tries to be stupidly charming but ends up more charmingly stupid, and only that because the leads are able to inject some comic life into a film which was always likely to fail.

Rob Dickie