Friday, December 20, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray: AIN'T THEM BODIES SAINTS (2013) and THE HUNT (2013)

(US - 2013)

There's some serious Terrence Malick/Robert Altman hero worship on the part of writer/director David Lowery with AIN'T THEM BODIES SAINTS, an artfully-shot but dreary and dull '70s-set mood piece.  Young lovers Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) are wrapping up a crime spree when they're cornered by police, an accomplice is killed, and Ruth fires a shot that injures young cop Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster).  Ruth is pregnant, and for the sake of her and their baby, Bob surrenders to the police, takes the blame for the shooting, and says he acted alone.  Four years later, Ruth has stayed out of trouble and is a single mother looked after by Skerritt (Keith Carradine), the father of their dead friend and a dangerous man with criminal ties.  Patrick and Ruth have a tentative friendship that's leaning towards a relationship when he gets word that Bob has busted out of the joint and with the authorities and three killers hired by Skerritt on his tail, is headed straight back to town to pick up Ruth and their daughter and live life on the lam. 

On paper, AIN'T THEM BODIES SAINTS sounds like a solid drama.  But Lowery is more interested in the aesthetic element, which would be fine if the film wasn't so dark and drably shot.  Sure, there's some shots that have an almost still photo quality and Lowery's obviously a disciple of Malick's every stylistic move (I'm talking early, BADLANDS-era Malick when he still bothered with trivialities like narrative construction), but shouldn't there be more than that?  Lowery also seems to paying special tribute to Altman's 1974 film THIEVES LIKE US, which had a similar "young couple on the run and she's pregnant" element and starred Carradine and featured Tom Skerritt in a supporting role, very likely the source of Carradine's character name.  SAINTS boasts a strong and internalized performance by Foster and an excellent one by Carradine, in what's probably his best role in years and the film's most interesting character (Lowery even lets him sing the closing credits song and his voice hasn't lost a bit of that "I'm Easy" magic), but the film can't overcome its stale plot, sluggish pacing, and a pair of ineffectual performances by Affleck and Mara.  Affleck's naturally mumbly delivery has worked in his favor before, particularly in his Oscar-nominated turn in 2007's THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD and the recent OUT OF THE FURNACE, but here he underplays to the point of catatonia.  He and Mara both sound like they might doze off in mid-sentence every time they open their mouth.  By the time it's over, you may find that the film's high points are the performances of Foster and especially Carradine, who obviously has a huge fan in Lowery.  Now that he's got a fake Malick film out of his system, maybe next time Lowery should write a script specifically tailored for Carradine.  That sounds like a winner.  (R, 96 mins)

(Denmark/Sweden/Belgium - 2012/2013 US release)

Ghost-produced by Lars von Trier, THE HUNT is one of the top feel-bad movies of the year.  Directed and co-written by Thomas Vinterberg (THE CELEBRATION), the film stars Mads Mikkelsen as Lucas, a mild-mannered nice guy who's divorced and has a teenage son who's thinking about moving in with him permanently.  A teacher by profession, Lucas was laid off after the school closed, but now he's helping out at a pre-school in the small town where he lives.  He works, hangs out with his buddies, and leads a generally quiet life, and things are starting to progress romantically with co-worker Nadja (Alexandra Rapaport).  All that goes to shit when he's accused of sexually abusing young Klara (a remarkable performance by Annika Wedderkopp in a very difficult role).  Klara is the daughter of Lucas' best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen) and trusted family friend Lucas frequently walks her to school.  Klara develops a harmless crush on Lucas and in one of those awkward moments where kids imitate adults, kisses him on the lips when he's horsing around in the school playroom with some of the boys.  Lucas handles the issue in a way that's sensitive to Klara, but she's embarrassed and makes up a story using verbiage she overheard her older brother and his friend using when they were looking at a porno mag.  Lucas' boss Grethe (Susse Wold) handles the matter in the most overzealous manner possible, properly notifying the police but then immediately telling all the parents and even calling Lucas' ex-wife, who lives out of town with their son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrom).  The cops questioning little Klara practically put the words in her mouth and before he even realizes what's happening, Lucas is the town pariah, ostracized by everyone, banned from all business establishments, and Theo and his wife Agnes (Anne Louise Hassing) want nothing more to do with him, even after Klara confesses that nothing happened and she made it up.  The damage is done and a mob mentality forms throughout the town, with more parents coming forward with allegations that Lucas molested their children as well. 

THE HUNT mellows out as it goes along, but for a while, it's a harrowing experience.  The tension mounts as Lucas grows increasingly panicked over the situation and can't get a straight answer out of anyone, and it's hard not getting angry at the "villages storming Castle Frankenstein" reaction of his friends and acquaintances as the situation quickly and plausibly spirals out of control. The resolution probably wouldn't work if this got an American remake, which seems likely.  A mainstream take on this would've turned Lucas' plight into a STRAW DOGS-style siege situation leading to a vengeance saga.  There is an element of that here, and in the fate of one individual, but Vinterberg doesn't proceed in that direction, instead going for that arthouse ambiguity in an ending that doesn't provide closure, which is probably the whole point.  THE HUNT is a top-notch suspense drama with an outstanding performance by Mikkelsen, who took home the Best Actor prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival for his brilliant work here.  (R, 116 mins)

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