Category Archives: Thriller

That Dirty Word

Even on tongues used to scatological and libidinous exclamations, the word politics still leaves a particular acrid taste. A few others claim the same distinction, but hardly any other word remains as persistent and indispensable. In conversation, politics provokes a mostly limited range of sentiments—anger, frustration, suspicion, apathy. In art, reactions waver between two extremes: respect or ridicule. Underlying ideologies either catapult the work into prominence or push it down to the level of propaganda. In any case, with controversy all around, irrelevance is seldom an option.

Ambitious and polemical, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty teeters on the thin lines: terrorism, torture, risk, revenge, war. The film packs the ten-year hunt for Osama bin Laden into 160 gripping minutes, rendered taut by an impressive interplay of information and suspense. Jessica Chastain holds her character well as Maya, the CIA officer whose relentless pursuit of the case leads to the assassination. Her tight portrayal suits the film’s minimalist aesthetic, which it sustains from start to finish despite recurrent gunfire and explosions.

Zero Dark Thirty possesses many admirable qualities, but the one that stands out most is audacity. Its depiction of the ugly side of America has critics shouting from various corners, complaining about its alleged misinterpretation of “fact” and its supposed pro-torture stance. The movie claims to unveil “the greatest manhunt in history,” but the victory it shows is ugly indeed, one borne out of physical and psychological torture, involving innocent casualties and traumatized children. It is a difficult film to watch, dark and heavy and emotionally exhausting. But as we all likely suspect, the truth can get darker than this.

Mark Boal’s script contains many ironic statements, but the one I remember most is “You don’t know Pakistan!”—a charge that Maya lays on her boss. It’s an accusation that rings true on many levels. What do we know about the Middle East? About its people and their struggles, the circumstances that push ordinary men to become “radicals”? What do Americans?

Zero Dark Thirty makes only a passing comment on this issue, but Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist mines it more deeply. As literature, the thin narrative does not hold up to much: it attempts to mask a clear objective, with barely-there characters and a linear trajectory. But its value lies in its capacity to make us think, to make us look over to the other side. Here is main character Changez judging America post-9/11:

As a society, you were unwilling to reflect upon the shared pain that united you with those who attacked you. You retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority. And you acted out these beliefs on the stage of the world, so that the entire planet was rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums, not least my family, now facing war thousands of miles away.

No doubt all terrorist attacks are tragedies. But if we ever hope to untangle these threads of hate, it is not enough to simply see the attacks as catastrophes to which we must assign blame, but as indicators of a larger problem. It is not enough to understand how without understanding why—George Orwell’s words, from his landmark novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

First published in 1949, the book also abounds with political commentary. But while it suffers from the same weaknesses of character and plot, the original concepts it puts forward (Big Brother, memory hole, Room 101) make up for it. In the novel, citizens live under the rule of a totalitarian Party, which regulates everything from thought to action to memory, effectively erasing the individual. Our protagonist, naturally, seeks to rebel. During his initiation into what he deems to be The Brotherhood, Winston Smith agrees “to throw sulphuric acid in a child’s face” and “to commit acts of sabotage which may cause the death of hundreds of innocent people” in the name of the revolution. He agrees that life is not about the individual, that it must be laid down for a greater cause, that victory is in the future.

Why does this sound so familiar? And why does it send a chill up our spines to read it in light of Changez, of the many detainees in Zero Dark Thirty?

There are no good and bad guys, only points of view. This is an easy and perhaps unfair generalization, but it is ultimately useful. If the “radicals” had a Kathryn Bigelow and a Hollywood budget, what kind of film would they make? How much would the narrative differ?

Despite all the allegations, Zero Dark Thirty is clearly skewed on the US side. We after all follow the CIA, and most of the violence we see is shown as the work of terrorist groups. But the most contested scenes show agents torturing detainees to extract information from them. We can never find out whether this actually occurred; what we can do is argue about how the film depicts it. Here is Orwell on the topic:

On the battlefield, in the torture chamber, on a sinking ship, the issues that you are fighting for are always forgotten, because the body swells up until it fills the universe, and even when you are not paralysed by fright or screaming with pain, life is a moment-to-moment struggle against hunger or cold or sleeplessness, against a sour stomach or an aching tooth.

I’ve been sitting here for some minutes flexing my brain muscles for the tough work ahead, but my fingers did some Googling and found this on the Huffington Post. Here, Michael Moore presents an excellent and engaging case on why Zero Dark Thirty is, in fact, anti-torture. Essentially he says that not only is torture morally wrong, it also leads to inaccurate confessions. But even without that detail, just looking at those scenes—where a CIA officer uses waterboarding on a detainee—it is easy to see where our sympathies lie. It is not difficult to realize the inhumanity of torture, and that this is exactly what the director intended for the audience to feel when she shot those scenes.

Zero Dark Thirty explores very real problems posed not only by counterterrorist methods but also about the natures of war, ideology, vengeance, means and ends. It’s a powerful movie, with a soul-searching effect that lasts long after its runtime. If there is one thing common to Maya, Changez, and Winston Smith, it’s that they all become broken in one way or another. Zero Dark Thirty also leaves us broken in a small way. As viewers we are left to ponder moral issues and evaluate them for ourselves. The script ends with a question directed at Maya, something we also ask ourselves as we leave the theater: “Where do you want to go?” Where indeed.

Nineteen Eighty-Four

Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood.

‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.’

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

‘It seems an obvious thing to say, but you should not imagine that we Pakistanis are all potential terrorists, just as we should not imagine that you Americans are all undercover assassins.’

Zero Dark Thirty

‘In the end, bro, everybody breaks. It’s biology.’

Looper (2012)

Delay of gratification is hardly fashionable these days. In 2044, even less. So working as a looper makes sense, offering clean murder services to crime syndicates whose hands are otherwise tied by extensive body tagging. Instant cash, never mind what happens 30 years later. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) explains the premise:

In the future, time travel is outlawed, used only in secret by the largest criminal organizations. When they need someone gone and they want to erase any trace of the target ever existing, they use specialized assassins like me, called loopers. The only rule is: never let your target escape, even if your target…is you.

Therein lies the crux of the plot. Old Joe (Bruce Willis) travels back in time to hunt down a certain child and prevent a disastrous future, in the process endangering Young Joe’s life, whose looper contract forbids such a dichotomy. The two Joes struggle against each other, culminating in a final face-off at a Kansas farmhouse owned by Sara (Emily Blunt), whose son Cid (Pierce Gagnon) just might be the feared Rainmaker.

With all this going on, it’s not surprising that the film projects an Inception-like feel. Director/writer Rian Johnson makes his own mark on the sci-fi genre though. The movie handles information well, and it is a clash of motives that drives the conflict, not external antagonists (although we have those too). Looper owes a lot to its impressive cast. Gordon-Levitt delivers as usual, and Willis reprises a role he’s practiced to perfection: shooting down bad guys in the name of love and leather jackets. It is Blunt who surprises us with a highly emotional scene—which she pulls off without a hitch. And Gagnon gives new meaning to creepy child prodigy when he goes past mere precocious to ultra-powerful. Also, although these hardly alter the overall effect, I appreciated little touches like Gordon-Levitt’s make-up and Blunt’s tan. While they can be distracting, I recognized the added effort to lend authenticity to the movie.

Time travel is always a tricky territory to navigate. But Looper provides a caveat early on, and one that we readily agree with at the film’s conclusion. “This time travel crap,” Abe says, “just fries your brain like an egg.” This might seem like a cop-out, but it’s not. The film plays out so elegantly, so neatly (it’s a “closed loop” after all) that one would be hard-pressed to come up with a better solution. It’s not so much that there are no plot holes, but that the film holds you in thrall so effectively that you don’t want to find them, you don’t want to spoil it by thinking too much. Sure, Looper makes leaps of logic (what sci-fi movie doesn’t?) and characters make lousy decisions, but that’s part of the act. And it’s all synchronized so well that you don’t feel the need to look behind the scenes and dispel the magic. Those of you who want to take up the challenge and fry your brains, go ahead and try. As for me, I don’t need to make heads or tails of this. I’m happy with this violent, ambitious, splendid mess.

‘I’m from the future. Go to China.’

‘I don’t want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.’

Prometheus (2012)

In 2093, the spacecraft Prometheus enters the vicinity of LV-223, a distant moon believed to hold the secret to man’s origins. Funded by Weyland Corp.’s dying CEO (Guy Pearce), the expedition follows an ancient star map discovered by archaeologist couple Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green). On the moon, several crew members disembark, including an android called David (Michael Fassbender). Under instructions from Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), they explore the area expecting answers, and discover horrifying truths.

As many critics have noted, Fassbender gives a superb performance as David. He radiates an aura so otherworldly, so nonhuman, that it’s chilling just to watch him move. Because we are not privy to his motivations, David remains an unpredictable character. We are always suspicious. In contrast, Shaw starts off as a naïve scientist seemingly ignorant of the risks of experimenting with extraterrestrials. What she experiences, however, transforms her into a resilient survivor, and we find ourselves rooting for her by the movie’s end. Vickers, on the other hand, stays terribly underutilized. She first appears doing push-ups after two years of stasis—piquing audience interest—but she contributes virtually nothing to the plot. Without any real power (her crew keeps disobeying her) and ostensible personal agenda, Vickers functions as little more than eye candy. Theron’s capable acting is wasted on a character that isn’t done any justice in the script.

Prometheus is far from perfect, but the good news is, it doesn’t aim to be. Viewers complain that it’s confusing and that it contains too many unresolved questions—perfectly valid assessments elsewhere, but here I disagree. Details are dealt sparingly, but attentive viewers should be able to piece together enough information to feel satiated, for now. Ample threads are left open for a possible sequel, which may or may not connect to the first Alien movie (TJ filled me in on this). It’s not that I have zero complaints: An early scene, a father-daughter memory meant to provide background on Shaw’s faith, strikes me as gratuitous and too on the nose. But despite certain predictabilities (ooh this looks dangerous let’s touch it), Prometheus pulls off a thrilling and intellectually satisfying adventure by taking on some of mankind’s most enduring issues and setting them against a gorgeously bleak alien landscape. Perhaps rightly so, it portends that some questions are not meant to be answered, and leaves us with a distressing possibility.

‘The trick is not minding that it hurts.’

‘Why do you think your people made me?’ ‘We made ya ’cause we could.’ ‘Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?’

District 9 (2009)

What is District 9? This was a question I had asked myself many times, whenever I heard the title brought up in workshop discussions or random conversation. Initially I thought it was an action-drama movie. I had imagined prison breaks, rapid gunfire, a happy ending. What is District 9? This was a question I asked even as I pressed the button that would play it on our TV. What unfolded on that screen was as far from expected as possible.

Aliens. A million of them. Their sudden arrival on an inoperative spacecraft in Johannesburg pushes the government to confine them inside District 9. During a mass relocation decades later, operation leader Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley) becomes exposed to alien biotechnology, making him a valuable specimen for genetics research. Escaping capture, Wikus runs for his life and in the course of survival forges an unlikely friendship with an extraterrestrial (Jason Cope). Together, they struggle to harness alien biotechnology to achieve individual ends, even as a military colonel (David James) and his army follow at their heels.

The movie opens with Wikus, immediately establishing him as a bureaucratic flunky. In his early encounters with aliens, he displays a flippant callousness bordering on offensive. But while he is an unpleasant character, Wikus does not deserve what happens to him. Since exposure, his life is reduced to a series of choices forced onto him by circumstances. As a viewer, I felt tremendous pity for him. But I also recognized the cleverness of the setup, the possibilities it held for the film. The movie’s structure also deserves praise. Regular action sequences are interspersed with various mock-documentary material such as fictional news footage and interviews, creating an illusion of reality. This technique also lends the movie an exposé feel, as if we viewers were regular citizens suddenly given a chance to become privy to national secrets. The surveillance camera trick makes you feel as if the whole truth is unfolding before the public eye. Who can resist?

Like any good science fiction movie, District 9 offers a lot more uncertainties than answers. It pushes viewers to the limits of their imagination and poses the right questions—without brandishing a moral and, most importantly, without sacrificing the story. A film worthy of its premise, District 9 refuses to fade into memory. It delivers a calculated ending that leaves viewers with a profoundly disturbing chill.

When dealing with aliens, try to be polite, but firm. And always remember that a smile is cheaper than a bullet.

Source Code (2011)

It’s Saturday that finally did it. I have always disliked going to movie theaters, but never more than now. Last weekend’s mad shoe-shopping, food-buying, seat-scrambling affair with Maki turned me off from the whole deal (seat stealers are the worst). So from now on, unless I decide a film’s worth the hassle, I’m sticking to videos.

Fresh off military duty in Afghanistan, Capt. Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) finds himself suddenly alone in a cramped chamber, a computer monitor his only connection to the outside world. An Air Force officer, Capt. Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), tells him that he must solve a bombing mystery using Source Code, a program that would allow him to relive a dead man’s last memory. In this pseudo-reality that lasts only eight minutes, where he falls in love with a girl named Christina (Michelle Monaghan), he must complete his mission before time runs out and the bomber strikes again.

Source Code offers a morbidly intriguing premise: technology that allows for an infinite reliving of death. It also provides an interesting (albeit familiar) resolution: the forking of worlds at decision junctures (also in Kenzaburo Oe’s A Personal Matter). “You think there’s an alternate version of you?” Capt. Stevens asks his guide. “A Goodwin who made different choices?” As Maki says, Source Code works as science fiction because its emphasis lies not in the science but in its effects on human emotions, on human lives. It also works as a thriller, although in the beginning it felt like it was trying too hard to keep viewers in suspense. Goodwin’s “no time to explain” excuse hardly works: it’s easy to figure out that an initial briefing would have saved more time.

I thought this over a lot, but in the end I have to say that I still have qualms about the film’s too-happy resolution. I would have preferred an ending at the time-freeze scene. Proceeding beyond that point felt unnecessary to me, overkill. The only thing it succeeds in doing is set up a grander Hollywood finale, one that the movie doesn’t need. (Of course I could just be saying this because I absolutely love the time-freeze scene: it made the hairs on my arms stand on end.) Regardless, despite my many I-would-have-liked-it-better-ifs, I really enjoyed watching this movie. If anything, it’s worth the hassle.

‘It’s the same train, but it’s different.’

‘What would you do if you knew you had less than one minute to live?’ ‘I’d make those seconds count.’

‘Tell me everything’s gonna be okay.’

Black Swan (2010)

Black Swan is a visual riot. It does not fail to beguile with its marvelous camerawork and transitions, unfolding to the tune of hair-raising music. It has the entire movie industry abuzz, and for good reason. Rife with tension (sexual and otherwise), it kept me on my toes throughout its duration. Director Darren Aronofsky drew me so much into the plot that my head hurt after watching. The movie captivated me with every twist and turn. It’s a breathtaking experience, being swept away by a film and spinning along with it, and it is not something we come across very often: an achievement only heightened by its rarity.

The film opens with a young dancer (Natalie Portman) vying for the lead in her ballet company’s production of Swan Lake. The director (Vincent Cassel) finds her perfect for the White Swan’s part, but doubts her ability to handle the more crucial role of Black Swan, who seems better suited for the newcomer (Mila Kunis). Unwilling to relinquish the starring role, the aspiring prima ballerina pirouettes her way into a perfect embodiment of the Black Swan, at the same time spiraling further and further into madness.

Critics have heaped praise upon praise on Natalie Portman’s acting in this film, and I cannot help but follow suit. She provides her character with such authenticity that we are compelled to sympathize, even with such a twisted persona. It especially thrilled me to watch her perform as Swan Queen. And this is also why I feel unsatisfied with the Black Swan’s part at the end. I found it too short. I wanted more. The film’s anticipation of it since the beginning promised me as much. I had hoped to be completely captivated, seduced by the Black Swan, and was instead disappointed by her short appearance, for despite the film’s title the White Swan takes center stage, at least during the ballet.

Black Swan is not perfect, but it’s presented in such a way that made me accept it wholeheartedly, minor discontents and all. The obvious love that went into its creation shows through, just like in Aronofsky’s earlier work Requiem for a Dream (2000). Neither film made me feel happy (quite the reverse, actually), but instead gave me a sense of fulfillment that surpasses happiness. I felt disturbed and satiated; both movies haunted me for several hours afterward: I could not have been more delighted.

‘I had the craziest dream last night about a girl who has turned into a swan, but her prince falls for the wrong girl and she kills herself.’

‘Everything will be better in the morning. It always is.’

‘Perfection is not just about control. It’s also about letting go.’

‘That was me seducing you, when it needs to be the other way around.’

‘I just want to be perfect.’

‘The only person standing in your way is you.’