Sunday, June 26, 2011

Para Entrar A Vivir: The Model Home

Watching this, I was reminded of one of the first apartments my wife and I looked at after we got married. It was a basement apartment in a grotty-but-not-dangerous part of town. It was accessible from a door that opened directly onto the street, and wasn't secured with anything more than a standard lock and a deadbolt - no lobby, no security cameras, no buzzer to let people in. The door to the apartment itself was worse - cheap wood with a knob that showed evidence of repeated jimmying and splinters and gouges around the doorframe where kicking had done what jimmying couldn't. Things were not off to a good start.

The apartment itself was dark, low-ceilinged and cramped. Windows were narrow and near the ceiling. The walls were bare brick that had been painted over. The closet doors were pulled off their tracks, with laundry spilling out. About the time the current occupant wandered out of the bedroom wearing only a pair of boxers, it was all over. Our consensus? "Let's not live someplace like where the fat guy died in Seven." It's been a watchword ever since.

Looking for a place to live is sort of a horror all its own. You're essentially putting your trust in a stranger when it comes to the one place that's supposed to be a center of safety and security. Violate that, and you touch something deep and primal when it comes to fear. The call is coming from inside the house. Nowhere is safe.

Para Entrar A Vivir (To Let) does a very good job of exploring the horror of home.

We open on a dimly lit apartment, dilapidated. Something's not right. Flies buzz, maggots crawl around plates, and somewhere, a baby cries. A young woman pads quietly down the hall. Whispers in voiceover say "everything is perfect. Perfect. Perfect on one and two. Children on two. Everything is perfect." What does it mean? Empty mannequin faces and limbs litter the hallways. Without answers, we cut to sunlight, cheery music, and Clara and Mario.

Clara and Mario are a young couple, expecting their first child soon. They've been living with Mario's family and it's getting sort of old. Clara's getting tired of looking at apartments, and her pregnancy's not exactly going smoothly. She's either puking or exhausted, or exhausted from puking. Mario picks her up from work so they can go look at yet another place. It looks perfect - 3 bedrooms, 1 and a half bath, full kitchen, lots of light. Shit, I'd rent it. It's a long drive, and Clara's tired. She takes a nap while Mario drives.

Clara wakes to thunder, lightning, and rain lashing the car. They're in an unfamiliar neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. It's what could gently be called a "neighborhood in transition", which is just another way of saying "it's still shitty, but we're laying our money down that that's going to change." Buildings falling down or already rubble, graffiti on the walls, industrial facilities for a skyline. Abandoned cars sitting stripped on blocks, and almost nobody in sight. Where are they? What have they done? Clara's worried, but Mario's trying to be optimistic.

The apartment building imposes itself on the sky, old but solid. It's being renovated, the real estate agent says, this area will be unrecognizable in a years' time. The apartment itself is what could be called a fixer-upper. Big, lots of character, lots of untapped potential. The real estate agent is confident, she's talking like the apartment is already theirs.

Oddly, there's a picture of them already in the bedroom. And one of Mario's old pairs of sneakers under a dresser. Almost like they were meant to be here all along.

This is a short film, so from here the rollercoaster starts a pretty fast downward plunge. This works in its favor, because the brevity and punchiness keeps vibrant the running and shouty bits that typically get old very quickly over the course of a feature-length movie. Obviously there is something Very Not Right about the building and the people in it, but it takes the rest of the movie to get all of the answers. There are chases, false starts, setbacks, near-misses, and a fair amount of blood involved. Everyone concerned is trapped in this majestic old building as a horrible parody of domestic bliss imposes itself on the proceedings like a beautiful bowl of fruit infested with worms. 

It's not necessarily an innovative movie, and it does have its missteps, but ultimately it is executed well enough to leave you wound up for the protagonists and asking the time-old question posed by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - "who will survive, and what will be left of them?" Like that movie the caricature of domesticity adds to the horror of just surviving unimaginable events, but rather than a piercing near-hysteric crescendo, here it is a resounding chord - the protagonists are the new residents in this little community where everything goes on as normal, even if not everyone involved is alive, completely human, or free of restraints, and it echoes into each corner. It doesn't stab, it suffocates. No matter how much we want to, sometimes leaving home is hard.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Shutter Island: On Being Sane In Insane Places

Almost forty years ago, a psychologist undertook a field experiment with some of his grad students. He had them check themselves into mental hospitals, based solely on the claim that they "heard voices." Once admitted, no amount of apparent improvement would get the hospital staff to see them as anything but mentally ill. Legitimate complaints about treatment were labeled "acting out", claims of being or doing better were chalked up to "denial." Once you're mentally ill, it seems to suggest, you have relinquished your right to be taken seriously.

Conversely, to the extent that lay definitions of mental illness include the distorted perception of reality (often, though not exclusively, found in schizophrenia), there's this sense that the mentally ill don't perceive the world as it actually is, that what they see and hear and think is not really there. So what is happening might not actually be happening, but then again it might. But even if it is, nobody will ever believe you. It's bad enough being all alone out in the woods/closed-up resort hotel/abandoned hospital and getting menaced by a thing, but what if the thing is right in front of you the whole time and nobody believes it? Even the smallest things become menacing. You don't know who's in on it and who isn't. You're not even sure there's actually an "it" for anyone to be in on. There's no safety at all, not even in groups.

Shutter Island capitalizes on this absence of safety to fine effect throughout, building a menacing construct out of multiple genres in the process.

It's 1954, and U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule are called to apprehend an escapee from a mental hospital situated on the titular island. It's a hospital for the criminally insane, where the worst and most dangerous cases are sent for treatment. Everything seems off from the beginning - the patient ostensibly escaped from a locked room and traversed hostile, rocky terrain barefoot. The doctors and nurses are all less than forthcoming about the patient's history, and the primary care psychiatrist just happened to leave for a week or so on vacation the day Daniels and Aule arrive. The agents have to surrender their firearms to the hospital's resident police force, and the chief psychiatrists - Drs. Cawley and Naehring - refuse to turn over records that might help them. The patients they interview are evasive at best. So something is definitely Not Right Here. In what to me was a pleasantly surprising bit of atypical behavior, Daniels basically says "fuck it, this is getting us nowhere, let's go home." Unfortunately, the gloomy weather they've endured since they got there has turned into a full-bore hurricane battering the island. The ferry won't be coming, there's no other way off, and the whole hospital has gone into lockdown.

Daniels and Aule are stuck, so there's nothing left to do but continue to investigate, pursue leads. But Teddy's starting to get migraines, and he wakes up every night in a cold sweat, nightmares of his time in the Army and the traumatic death of his wife and children torturing him. Digging into the hospital's history finds that they're partially government funded, with money coming from HUAC. Dr. Cawley spent some time in the O.S.S., and Dr. Naehring? Well, he came over from Germany, but he's vague about the specific time frame. Stories of unorthodox experiments and terrible surgeries performed in the island's lighthouse - oh sure, it's just supposed to be a sewage treatment plant…but then why the electrified barbed wire fence? All the while, the storm rages outside.

Shutter Island takes what it needs from film noir, gothic horror, and more contemporary stylistic exercises like The Cell to create an environment that feels unnatural and oppressive, even in broadest daylight. The film takes place during a time in American history when paranoia and suspicion are at a peak, and all kinds of terrible things were actually done in the name of stopping the Communist menace. Lives were indeed ruined and people permanently broken during this time. Moreover, it predates many of the advances in research and treatment ethics that are part and parcel of psychology today. World War II is over, but the ghosts of what happened to men who fought continue to haunt them in their civilian life. The idea of trust or even truth is a shaky one in this climate, and it suffuses the film. Even the most innocuous interactions feel like they have hidden meanings. Daniels and Aule really are in hostile territory here. 

On top of that, the whole island is a monument to the gothic style - jagged peaks, an old lighthouse, rocky cliffs, crumbling graveyards, and historically ornate buildings dating back to the Civil War. At the top of the bluffs, overlooking everything is Ward C - the worst and most dangerous of the worst and most dangerous, segregated from the rest of the population in a heavily secured Civil War fortress. People go into Ward C and never come back out again. As unsettling as the exterior is, the interiors are no less disturbing. Daniels is wrestling with a lot of trauma, and his nightmares are juxtapositions of his past and present in jarring ways, presented with an attention to color, lighting and detail that makes his interior world - no matter how hellish - a lusher and more, well, real experience than his relatively drab 1950s exterior life. Stylistic reappropriation can suck pretty badly when handled poorly, but here, it all contributes to the sense that pretty much anything we can usually count on to ground our perceptions is fair game. It's jarring, but in a way that makes sense given the story.

This movie is one in which we feel like we've been immersed in someone's waking nightmare. Nowhere is safe, nobody is trustworthy,  nothing is certain. Nurses and patients alike whisper behind our back. People vanish from locked rooms and return just as easily, with little comment from anyone. Sidelong glances, innocuous comments fill us with dread. Bodies at Dachau accuse us in our sleep. Lovers crumble to ash in our hands. Outside, the air thickens with unease. A storm is coming.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Nothing Men: Time in Purgatory


1) a condition or place in which the souls of those dying penitent are purified from venial sins, or undergo the temporal punishment that, after the guilt of mortal sin has been remitted, still remains to be endured by the sinner.

2) any condition or place of temporary punishment, suffering, expiation, or the like.

3) serving to cleanse, purify, or expiate.

I think part of the reason I'm not a huge fan of gore films is that there's rarely any tension. You have a pretty good idea of what you're going to get going in. There will be people killed, there will be sharp implements (with the occasional blunt one for variety) employed, and there's going to be a lot of red stuff and squishy bits. It's certainty to a fault, and I tend to find uncertainty scarier. But I've already covered this ground ad nauseam in my discussion of the Saw films, so no need to run that particular dead horse through an unmistakably lethal but highly unlikely and overly complex death trap again.

So, uncertainty makes for tension, long story short. Tension is the bow drawn back, the roller coaster at the top of the hill, the silence after the unforgivable thing has been said. In my opinion, you can scare the shit out of people without spilling a drop of blood on screen. All you need is secrets. All you need is the sudden reversal. All you need is the twist. All you need is uncertainty.

The Nothing Men is, largely, a masterful exercise in tension and uncertainty.

Six men in a machine shop. The company's closing a bunch of their facilities, and for bureaucratic reasons unclear to non-Australians like me, the men have to remain at the site for a specific amount of time. Otherwise, they forfeit their severance packages. The machines and tools and materials have all been stripped away. The shop is a shell. But the men remain, doing nothing all day but drinking beer and playing cards and talking shit. Serving out the remainder of their time. 

The silence and stillness is a bit of a problem, though. The sort of ball-busting that's common among work colleagues starts to get a little loud when it echoes off empty walls with no sounds of work to muffle it. There's nothing to distract them from little slights and long-held grudges. One man has an unfaithful wife. One has a promiscuous daughter. One is a shy virgin, perpetually frustrated and unable to talk to women. One is a committed stoner with a limited grasp of the circumstances. One is a bookworm among blue-collar men. One is carrying on a fling with a woman who runs a lunch truck that comes by the shop. Without actual work. the shop is a pressure cooker. Sit there, do nothing, and spend all of your time talking to men who know enough about you to hurt you, but not well enough to care if they do. Everyone has secrets.

And this is before they find out about the new guy. Rumor has it he was at another location and after two days, everyone got fired for infractions - drinking on the job, gambling on the job, leaving the premises during work hours. Rumor has it this new guy is a spy, sent to rat out employees so the company doesn't have to pay their severance. It wouldn't be the shittiest thing a manufacturing concern ever did. And then the new guy arrives. The six men begin to plan.

The better part of The Nothing Men is a slow accumulation of dread, as information about these people trickles out. Why does the bookworm have trouble sleeping and a Zoloft prescription? Why does the shy virgin watch the lunch truck woman through the window? Why does the new guy go home for lunch every day and sit quietly on his sofa, staring at the cross above the fireplace? Resentment and paranoia thickens like storm clouds, and the violence inherent in these men, in this situation, escapes in sudden spurts, thwarted as soon as it has begun. Shots are composed and static, empty spaces as lyrical in places as the occupied ones. The silence is oppressive, and the voices breaking it do nothing to soothe us. The more we learn, the less sure we are, the less comfortable we are watching this tightly compressed limbo fall apart. Something will have to give, and it could come from any direction.

Which, ultimately, it does. Some of it from places you'd expect, but more often places you wouldn't. This movie is expert at the non-obvious choice. Still, as the story of these men unfolds, there are new horrors with each revelation, with every turn of circumstance toward the increasingly cruel. Comparatively little blood is shed, but every word wounds. In end, everyone pays the price for their flaws, for their sins, and for their secrets. Judgment is dealt. Suffering turns to punishment, punishment to purification, and in the end, a blue unblinking sky, and a single gunshot.