British director Michael Winterbottom’s latest project The Trip, a “semi-real” comedy starring Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan as loose versions of themselves, has been split into six half-hour episodes and the first has already shown on BBC2. Entitled “The Inn at Whitewell”, it consisted primarily of loving shots of the bleak northern countryside and comedic duels between the two, in which they debated the merits of their own Michael Caine impressions. I’ve seen Brydon live and one of the funniest elements of his act was his frequent return to amateur, but wonderfully accurate, impressions of various famous personalities. This was awkward comedy but essentially heart-warming, harmless stuff.
Winterbottom’s summer release, The Killer Inside Me, was far from harmless of course. It conjured column after column of controversy. And the sort of identity doubts Coogan suffers from in The Trip are sedate and ordinary compared to the internal divisions lurking beneath Casey Affleck’s cold features as Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford. In a southern, drawling voiceover at the beginning of the film Ford muses that growing up in a small town, the problem is that everybody thinks they know you. This small town and its Texan desert surroundings are as beautifully framed as the rolling hills and roads in The Trip, and evoke the period American details of diners and dunes perfectly when combined with the classic 50s tunes on the soundtrack. However these familiar hits playing in the prelude to shocking violence is one of the most sinister aspects of the film.
Of course the violence itself is graphic and hard to watch at times, and the unflinching portrayal of beatings sparked the flurries of protest on the film’s release. Opponents of the film will view the most brutal scenes as unnecessary and gratuitous. However whilst their intensity may take something away from the viewing experience by making it extremely uncomfortable at points, it would be foolhardy to label the violence as meaningless. For it is undoubtedly aiming at something deeper than simply a sick visual spectacle. The motives behind the violence and the victims’ reactions are more chilling than the blows and injuries themselves. The notion that we are all capable of such acts and that the human personality is multiple is alluded to in the title of the movie. This idea is frightening and made more so when we watch Ford convince himself of the need to kill his hooker lover, as part of a grand plan he must carry out, whilst another part of him is madly, compulsively in love with her. His internal justification of the murders is baffling, unsettling and terrifying.
And both of the women Ford kills in the film genuinely believe him to be a good man. They are surprised by his outbursts of punches and in disbelief they do not turn against him. In fact with their dying breaths they wish to understand, to help him. As the viewer you wonder how they did not see the signs, the hints of violence beneath the seemingly kind law enforcer expressed in sado-masochistic beatings during sex. But then part of the terror is that from their perspective, trapped within the relationship and viewing things through a narrow lens, you could not see how far the domestic violence would go. It is the “domestic” peace of it all that also proves extremely discomforting. His female victims are unsuspecting and the murders take place in a quiet, quintessential 50s community. Life in such an environment might even seem boring and the expression of disinterested calm on Affleck’s face throughout most of the film, even during the killings at times, is tremendously unnerving. His performance as a particular type of calculated, unfeeling serial killer deserves praise.
But of course Lou Ford claims not to be “unfeeling”. He professes love for the sultry Jessica Alba and clearly has affectionate at least for his long term love Amy Stanton, played by Kate Hudson. Both actresses do an admirable job of trying to convincingly portray characters that are for the most part enthralled, rather than repulsed by, the violence. Despite his feelings though the twisted plan inside his head requires him to kill and in the aftermath he rides out the suspicions of others cool as a cucumber. The pace and tone of The Killer Inside Me reflect this mellow attitude and adds to its disturbing effects. However whilst obviously a high quality piece of film making, Winterbottom’s controversial creation could be more engaging, even after an explosive finale. It is neither a gripping thriller nor truly horrific chiller, but it is undoubtedly well made and thought provoking.
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It’s 3am or a similarly ridiculous hour. The sane and the content are asleep in the warm darkness of their beds. I however ignore the tension in my forehead, the heavy strains choking my eyeballs. I sit eagerly forward, glowing in the light of my laptop, waiting. Waiting for that friend request to be confirmed, waiting for someone to comment on my attention seeking status, waiting for the boyfriend of the girl I love to slap another obscene, boastful, sexual comment triumphantly on her wall. I trawl mindlessly through the indecipherable, identical and idiotic ramblings of countless school colleagues; people I might have spoken to once or twice, but are now destined to provide endless commentary of their life’s ups and downs direct to my inbox. This is the grim everyday reality of Facebook, The Social Network.
It’s a reality that rarely rears its ugly head throughout David Fincher’s latest project, only truly doing so at the end of the film with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, masterfully played by Jesse Eisenberg, reduced to hitting refresh on a friend request, hellishly bound to his own creation. However whilst this is a glamorised tale of unnaturally razor tongued geeky geniuses that can feel artificial at times, The Social Network does not lose sight of the fact that all the boardroom drama and billions of dollars stems from the clever exploitation of darker, depressing human traits lurking beneath the surface of brilliance.
Thanks to Aaron Sorkin’s script of lightning paced, sharp and witty dialogue though, brilliance is a prominent feature of the movie. It’s ironic given the reams of pointless, idiotic dribble vomited onto Facebook each day that every other line in The Social Network is a cool summary of the times or a cutting riposte. Ironic too that the film reveals the drunken origins of Facebook as “facemash”, a crude tool for comparing the attractiveness of Harvard undergraduates, conceived as the ultimate retaliation to be being (deservedly) dumped. The brutal simplicity of this drunken prank would foreshadow the darker changes a fully evolved Facebook would impose upon our lives.
For all the grand ideas and themes raised in Sorkin’s excellent script there is also brilliance in the characterisation and storytelling; fundamentals for an enjoyable cinema experience. There are countless superb one-liners and the film opens with a quick, emotionally charged and frustrating verbal duel, culminating in Zuckerberg being labelled an arsehole. The film ties together nicely with a neat structure when he is acquitted of being an arsehole (kind of) at the end. There are bags of humour and tension to be had in the court scenes, which flashback to the Harvard days of creating “thefacebook”, which are beautifully shot and capture the frenzy as the idea spirals beyond the imaginings of its authors.
Whilst critics may agree that Sorkin’s script is the most brilliant feature of The Social Network, there are numerous other marks of quality ensuring it is being talked about as one of the films of the year. David Fincher’s direction has been singled out for producing a visually stunning production. He is also responsible for getting the best out of Sorkin’s script by having it read faster than intended at times, perfectly matching the machine-like detachment of the computer nerds’ personalities. These nerds are also brilliantly portrayed by some outstanding acting. Eisenberg seems perfectly cast as the strangely likeable, slimy architect of the whole thing, Mark Zuckerberg and Justin Timberlake has been widely praised for an assured performance as Napster founder Sean Parker. For me young British actor Andrew Garfield, star of Channel 4’s Red Riding and recently cast as the new Spiderman, was most impressive as co-founder but intellectually and morally out of his depth business student Eduardo Saverin. Garfield’s character is the audience’s way into a world of untouchable smart arses and elites and his performance is pitch perfect from the giddy highs to the panicky, incomprehensible lows. Armie Hammer provides the humour as the Winklevoss twins (his face was digitally reproduced onto that of another actor) and the film is also mesmerizingly scored at times, from the intoxicating party scenes, to moments of corporate despair and sporting drama.
All in all The Social Network is a film that for once largely lives up the cleverly marketed hype drummed up around it. It may not be entirely factually accurate but it is all the more entertaining and meaningful for telling a dramatic story with engaging characters, as opposed to slipping into documentary mode at times as Fincher’s previous work Zodiac was prone to do.
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