100 Exceptional American Movies in 10 Genres: Taut and Cold, 5-1

You can read up on the basis for this series here, and also find links to other posts in the series.

Movies I’ve reviewed on this site have a link in the title which you can follow to read my full review.


5) The Killing (1956), directed by Stanley Kubrick

Moviegoers have always been fascinated by people with plans. Ocean’s 11, with its irrepressible cleverness, is significantly more interesting when the gang gets together and plots their heist; the stealing itself I can take or leave. In The Dark Knight, the Joker has words for a recently disfigured Harvey Dent. “The mob has plans. The cops have plans. Gordon’s got plans…I’m not a schemer.” This is a lie, of course, even if the filmmakers themselves seem fooled by it; the Joker’s plans are farfetched, but they are a ways away from the pure anarchy he talks to Dent about, and that’s what made audiences adore him. That train of thought about the emptiness and arrogance of plans is straight out of The Killing, which is Ocean’s 11 without the humor and The Dark Knight without the needless complications. Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) has a marvelous plan to take down a racetrack, one which has every chance to work, but he cannot control every contingency. He may hold his girl in thrall, but that doesn’t mean every man in on his scheme is capable of doing the same. Elisha Cook, Jr. and Marie Windsor play a married couple who are watching their relationship crumble from the waist down. George is obsessed with his wife and her cheating ways; Sherry is simply disinterested in George, whose rubbery face and limp threats can’t compare with her lover, Val Cannon (Vince Edwards). Half a dozen other small flaws in the plan, none of them on their own dangerous enough to derail the heist, lead to the inevitable end. A faulty latch on a suitcase and a yappy, free-spirited dog are the final nails in the coffin for Johnny’s plot; he does not even have the heart, in the end, to run from the cops. (“What’s the difference?” Hayden says in a voice that passes for weakness for him.) The Killing (a little ironically, given its meticulous director) takes a dim view of men’s plans, like the wry noirish counterpart to a certain Robert Burns poem.

While The Killing is a masterpiece of ensemble acting, with one genuine star in Sterling Hayden and about a dozen B-movie vets and character types filling in the many margins, perhaps no one in front of the camera matters more than Windsor. Not only does her character poke as many holes in the racetrack heist as any other single person, but her slinky attitude and outsize confidence set a tone for every one of her scenes. Her goal is always to dominate whichever man falls into her web. Sherry gives Johnny a go, even though he doesn’t fall for her charms. George supports her enough to give her a place to live. She sees an opportunity, when George mouths off about the plan he’s part of, to get her hunky paramour in on the action. Val goes for it, too; he very nearly gets out the door with the money from the heist before finally being felled. Only George, mortally hurt, manages to survive a gunfight in a crowded apartment long enough to leave the place, and when he comes back home even Sherry’s style and put-on charm can’t save her. If The Killing has anything like a moral, it’s the same one for Johnny and Sherry. Big dreams are the province of big suckers, no matter how cool they appear to be before they’re shot dead or locked up.

4) Take Shelter (2011), directed by Jeff Nichols

Great pains are taken to ensure that nothing could be less intimidating than the small Ohio town Curtis (Michael Shannon) has lived in his whole life. It’s frequently sunny. The wide vistas and bright blue skies are frequently referred back to. People go to church and eat dinner with their families after coming home. There doesn’t even seem to be much of an economic slowdown like one usually expects from a Rust Belt setting; folks like Curtis are employed well enough, even if he and Samantha (Jessica Chastain) could stand to bring in a little more money. Alone among his peers, Curtis seems to understand how abnormalities can seep into a predictable, pleasant life. His mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was still a teenager, which has cast a shadow on him. His older brother (Ray McKinnon) gets along with him well enough, but the two men are obviously not close despite their shared experience. His relationship with his wife is affectionate but not anywhere close to intimate; both are more invested in their deaf daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart) than in each other. You should come to church more often, someone tells him over one of those Sunday dinners. Curtis may be well-known in town, but the fact of his being there, and always having been there, does not make him part of it in the same way that his coworkers can be integrated into the place.

Take Shelter concerns a host of issues, but the ones closest to the plot of the movie are prophecy and mental illness. Curtis has visions of strange comings: a massive black storm which will rain a liquid like motor oil from the sky, birds flying in strange formations and divebombing humans, ghastly roving bands which, like zombies, try to enter buildings and cars and grab the fearful living inside. These visions come to him in terrible vivid dreams, each one leaving him more shaken than the last. In one, the family dog attacks him as he gets between it and his daughter; he wakes up clutching his wrist where the dog had bit him, and cannot shake the feeling that the dog’s teeth are in him for the rest of the day. He wets the bed after one dream; another sets off a bloody seizure; all of them lead to changes in his life. The dog goes to live in the yard. He borrows money on a risky loan to build a storm shelter, “borrowing” equipment from his construction job to build it. In his own way, Curtis tries to be as responsible as he can; even as he puts his job at risk, he tries to seek professional help for what he fears is his mother’s schizophrenia manifesting itself in him. (He comes to his first session with a therapist as prepared as any man ever has to talk about his symptoms.) Yet he feels an immense responsibility to his vibes as much as he feels the responsibility to his daughter preparing for a surgery to help her hear again, or his wife, who is clueless as to his overall motivation. As much as anything else in the movie, it’s the aura of secrecy brought on by Curtis’ plotting and Michael Shannon’s performance. His work in Take Shelter is an all-time great one, blending a sad, pensive exterior with moments of fierce passion and physical turmoil.

3) Meek’s Cutoff (2010), directed by Kelly Reichardt

The movie doesn’t exactly throw itself at its plot – Meek’s Cutoff is too measured and cool for that – but it immediately places us in the same frightening headspace as its characters. (I also mean “immediately.” Everyone knows the plot of Meek’s Cutoff already, but I was amazed at how rapidly it sends us into the fearful aspects of the story.) Leading a team of three families – two married couples without children, one married couple with a son – Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood, supported by Bruce Greenwood’s enormous fake beard) gets lost somewhere in Oregon. What’s clear is that there is not enough water to last these families and their animals indefinitely, even if they do have enough to carry them on a little ways. Just like saying “This is your last chance to go to the bathroom” seems to inspire our bladders to contract, so does Meek’s admission that he does not know where the next river or lake is strikes a chill in each person striding across the desert. Meek’s Cutoff tells us once and then reminds us, from time to time, with views of a water barrel growing emptier and emptier. Very few people mention water at all, except to say that there is some undrinkable water over there, or to say that the Indian they’ve captured must know where some water is if he’s wandering around out in this wasteland. For the most part, sheer frustration bubbles over. Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan are tense and expressive; Kazan’s eyes are perpetually wide, while Dano’s arms seem constantly to be fully outstretched over some slight. Michelle Williams, who has spent the past decade being one of the planet’s best film actresses, squints and sneers at Bruce Greenwood. And led on by her example, so do we. She is utterly dismissive of a man who has nothing to offer his little group if he doesn’t know where he is; he seems not to realize that his braggadocio and his devil-may-care attitude fail to inspire confidence. Even in antebellum America, the women feel perfectly justified in standing up to his persona. Emily in particular does not suffer this fool lightly.

Reichardt is a marvelous director, and the secret to this movie’s anxious heart is that people don’t have to talk about how stressed they are; the audience does not need to be constantly reminded with histrionic monologues about how bad it is to die of dehydration. Indeed, histrionic performers like Meek or Millie are annoying and tiresome. Cool heads like Emily and her husband Solomon (Will Patton), or the trip’s sole mother, Glory (Shirley Henderson), earn our respect. If they’re going to die, shriveled up in eastern Oregon, they’re going to do so with stiff upper lips. Meek’s Cutoff would rather give us Emily’s dirty pink dress, her hair in her face, and her determined eyebrows than a long jaw about why she isn’t ready to die just yet or some other obvious garbage. What Reichardt replaces those lines of dialogue with is a keen eye for the land. Meek’s Cutoff is a beautiful movie in powerful warm hues; the land, mostly in shades of yellow, implies a sickly quality to the place as well as the people. Even more than that is the sense that, like the Israelites, it would be possible for Meek’s group (watered and victualed, naturally) to wander forty years without coming close to civilization. The land stretches on forever from where Reichardt’s camera stands and that, more than anything else, gives this movie its sense of creeping fear.

2) Nightcrawler (2014), directed by Dan Gilroy

Even today, actresses in roles which take them away from red carpet coifs and striking ensembles can rack up plenty of praise for “going ugly,” which is a bizarre phrase for a bizarre marketing ploy. It’s not a phrase which I’ve ever seen applied to a male actor – appearances are virtually always phrased in terms of “He gained so much muscle!/He lost so much weight!” – but man, does Jake Gyllenhaal ever deserve that “going ugly” appellation. Gyllenhaal is one of the cutest actors of the past couple decades. He was cute in City Slickers, October Sky. He’s the romantic in Brokeback Mountain and the sweethearted obsessive in Zodiac. In Nightcrawler, he loses the amiable scruff and adds some grease to his stringy hair. He pairs aggressively fast patter with Ludovico technique eyes. His job does not give him much opportunity to see daylight, but given how infrequently we see him sharing a frame with the Sun, it seems like he is actively avoiding that heavenly body to make more time with the Moon. He goes to a badly lit joint for a date with Nina (Rene Russo); the office he drops off his film at is fluorescent and grainy. He’s as likely to be seen by the dashboard light as anything other source of light. The name itself, “nightcrawler,” refers to worms, which only come into the light when something bad has happened to them. Making Lou Bloom creepy and off-putting is simple business, but Nightcrawler is unquestionably effective at doing so.

There are moments where Nightcrawler oversells itself a little bit. Nina is not a human being enough for “Psycho TV News Exec” to play as much more than a type; her insistence on bloody and fiery footage is the broadest possible indictment of the evening news. She is most human when Lou is more or less proposing casual prostitution over dinner, which is the sort of conversation which could have humanized Elena Ceausescu. Rick (Riz Ahmed), a lovable slacker, seems almost too normal compared to Lou’s sudden and freakish devotion to becoming Los Angeles’ top stringer. It’s an issue with the movie that’s basically unavoidable. Lou is what happens when someone with no scruples and no other options gets a whiff of some hypercapitalist gospel. What makes him a holy terror in this movie is his profit margin, and the thought of widening the abyss between the kind of poverty which forces him to steal and the kind of luxury that allows him to start an honest-to-goodness business. Nightcrawler is capitalism’s answer to the famous Jean Rostand quote: “Kill one man and you’re a murderer. Kill millions of men, and you are a conqueror. Kill them all, and you are a god.”

1) Cape Fear (1991), directed by Martin Scorsese

Cape Fear is so unusual from its plot to its peripherals. One of the twenty or thirty best episodes of The Simpsons spoofs on this movie. Robert De Niro pulls out a Southern accent that’s about as likely to come out of his mouth as Jessica Lange’s voice is. Significant elements of the film’s final act require Max Cady to be more like a comic book supervillain than a flesh-and-blood killer; I don’t even mean the part where he ties himself to the underside of a moving automobile so much as the part where he like, cannot be killed on that moving houseboat. And yet this is one of the great American thrillers of the past thirty years despite its internal and external weirdness, largely because of De Niro himself. Max Cady’s time in prison has given him some interesting tattoos, a great physique, a surprisingly thorough grasp of the law, an unwavering belief in a very Old Testament God. What makes him fascinating, above all else, is his relentlessness. Each of those elements, from tattoos to Jehovah, provides Cady with the great endurance which pushes him forward. He takes beatings and gives them out with equal aplomb. What’s most frightening about Max Cady is that absolutely nothing discourages him; he is a specimen who absorbs everything and turns it into armor or adrenaline. Prison whetted his will, and the taste of various Bowdens has only made the rumblings in his gut grow louder.

It’s that iron will that makes the Bowdens’ point of view that much more frightening. To some extent, it’s hard not to sympathize with Max Cady at least a little. (Obviously there are about a zillion things he does which make him the primary villain in this movie, don’t @ me.) Sam Bowden is a ritzy lawyer with a beautiful home whose problems are largely of his own making; he did not defend Cady to anything approaching its full extent, and if he’s having some marital or family problems it’s because he’s fooling around with another woman and putting more pressure on his immature daughter than she’s capable of dealing with. Nor does Sam improve his situation through forbearance or the legal cunning which we might expect a man like him to display. He quickly resorts to rough stuff, violence, and other tactics for which disbarment would be the least of his concerns. Sam Bowden’s willingness to cede the high ground is just as frightening as Max Cady’s slightly legal and extraordinarily risky master plan to strip away everything from the man who sold his freedom.

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