Fuck Fuck, Splat Splat: The Best Sex & Violence Of 2011

(Movies discussed in this post: Shame, Hunger, and Drive.)

shame-michael-fassbender-nude-shower-shirtlessIn film criticism, it is trendy to champion the smallest of movies. Micro-budgeted, artsy, foreign language — any or all of these qualities will do. The more bare-bones and stripped down a film is, the better. Basically, the less a movie has going for it to appeal to a mass audience, the more a tried-and-true film critic is going to love.

I’m going to admit something that makes me a bad film critic. (I use the term “critic” loosely, in that “everybody’s a critic” way; never would I imply that I’m a real film critic. Alas, I’m just a guy with great taste.)

Okay, ready? Here it is: I don’t like “slight” movies. Maybe not even subtle movies. I like subtle moments — but an entire subtle movie?

No, thank you.

I can appreciate all kinds of films, but I’m not much for neo-realism. Or neo-neo-realism, or however many “neo”s we’ve gotten up to nowadays. Critics have wildly praised all kinds of movies that left me lukewarm — Winter’s BoneAnother Year, Wendy & Lucy, to name a few. Decent movies, but none of them great, in my eyes. But in any respectable film critics circle, I may as well be lumped in with the Twilight-loving masses for it. And that’s fine.

With notable exceptions, I like films with a budget. With striking images, swelling music, lush cinematography. Sure, these things might be found in, say, a Kelly Reichart movie. But more often, they’re not. (Though in my defense, I do like several offbeat selections that fall into this category — Mother, Dogtooth, Fish Tank, Certified Copy. I just need some kind of “there” there.)

The films that hit me the hardest are not what you’d call subtle. The filmmaker’s hand is not invisible. A few examples? Requiem For A Dream, Magnolia, Crash, Bad Education, Children Of Men, Black Swan. I like films that push it to the limit. Go to extremes. Have an edge.

I like a movie that knocks me senseless. Repeatedly. For two hours.

Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive is such a film.How extreme is it? Well. Drive was the focus of a lawsuit slapped down by some stupid woman thought she was going to see something like The Fast And The Furious based on the trailers. (My response to that? Read a fucking movie review. It’s not that hard.)

In truth, Drive is much less fast and much more furious than any Paul Walker movie. It’s like Taxi Driver as directed by Quentin Tarantino circa 1987. First and foremost, it’s a love letter to cinema; self-conscious and referential. You will not forget that you’re watching a movie. Drive is an intoxicating cinematic concoction — in many ways, it’s a rough-and-tumble guys’ movie, with spare dialogue and ample violence. On the other hand, it has a sweetly sentimental, gushy-romantic side, and its soundtrack is pretty girly (in an awesome way). The poster features a hot pink cursive font, for crying out loud! Who is this movie for? Some have described Drive as “European.” I just call it really fucking cool.

Yes, Drive has put some filmgoers off because it desperately strives to be cool. You can tell right away. (Thankfully, it succeeds with flying colors.) Its references are varied and seemingly senseless — a little 80’s here, a little 70’s there, a pinch of Scorsese, a touch of Friedkin. And so on. Its hero, unnamed but referred to as “Driver,” is a man of few words and long silences. He’s a Hollywood stuntman by day, getaway driver by night. He wears a white jacket emblazoned with a scorpion that few men could pull off without looking ridiculous. (I totally want one.) Fortunately, he is played by Ryan Gosling, always a good choice. You might not like Driver much if he were played by Vin Diesel. But you can’t help but like Ryan Gosling, right? (If your answer is “no,” we’re in a fight.)

Driver has a shady past, that much we can infer. Drive begins with a taut getaway sequence that’s more about cat-and-mouse cleverness than the need for speed. It sets the tone for the rest of the movie, which marches to the rhythm of its own drummer. Driver develops a crush on his lovely neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), and an affinity for her cute young son whose daddy (Oscar Isaac) is away in prison. But daddy’s getting out soon, and it is to this film’s credit that that angle of the story doesn’t play out at all how we expect it to.Meanwhile, Driver is reluctantly drawn into “one last job” with snaky businessman Bernie (Albert Brooks) and his hot-headed partner Nino (Ron Perlman), thanks to his mentor Shannon (Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston, always welcome). Oh, and Mad Men‘s Christina Hendricks shows up as trashy co-conspirator Blanche, just to keep things interesting. From there, the plot unfolds in fairly standard ways, with Driver’s romantic life entangling itself in his work, plans going horribly awry, a few double-crosses, and revenge.

What makes Drive more elegant and exhilarating than your standard Jason Statham movie, despite its typical storyline, is its visual style and soundtrack. There’s a lot of driving around listening to pop music, and for a good long while, Drive is kinda soft and cuddly. But that’s a misdirection. The film explodes into ultraviolence when one of its stars is offed via gunshot (cue the first of multiple exploding heads), and from there, it doesn’t let up — Drive is drenched in blood, gushing in every direction. The gore is not merely gratuitous — these are memorable (if revolting) images. They add to the tension and grandeur. In a strange way, they’re the film’s poetry — dare I say? Almost beautiful.Drive is about a man who would like to leave his past behind him — but it catches up, in brutal blood-spattered ways. The juxtaposition of the hardcore violence and the mushy love story (complete with pop soundtrack) is who Driver is — a man of conflicting desires. He’d like to settle down with a nice girl and start a family, but first he has to beat some guy to death with a hammer. And, in a way, isn’t that just a very extreme interpretation of all of us? (Okay, maybe that’s reading too far into it.)

Hossein Amini’s script is perfectly fine, but if you’d handed it to Michael Bay, he’d have made a hack job out of it. Nicholas Winding Refn deserves all the credit for making Drive what it is, emerging as one of the cinema world’s most exciting new auteurs. A few sequences are instantly iconic, such as the moment when Driver dons his stuntman mask and stalks his prey, watching a dinner party through a window — and later, when he actually hunts his prey down and dispatches him in a truly satisfying display of his stunt driving skills. Refn previously directed the Pusher trilogy and Bronson, favorites of cinephiles but unseen by most American moviegoers. So he’s essentially coming into the “mainstream” now. (A little left of the mainstream, actually.)Drive was beloved by many critics and abhorred by others — though Albert Brooks, at least, looks to score an Oscar nod out of it, even if the film is otherwise snubbed. (As it will likely be — it might be too highly stylized and violent for the Academy’s taste.) Regardless, Drive puts Refn on the map as a filmmaker to watch. His next project is bound to be something juicy and enticing, and hopefully not too conventional. Drive is far from a deep or substantial movie; there’s little to read into its characters, particularly love interest Irene. But it is pure pleasure — and for those of us bored by standard Hollywood chase movies, Drive gives is a guilt-free thrill ride. Highbrow popcorn.

Less popcorn-friendly is Steve McQueen’s Shame. I almost can’t talk about it — that’s how good it is. So many aspects of it spoke to me that I fear I cannot put them into sufficient words. I could go scene-by-scene and explain why I think just about every moment is brilliant, but that would be tedious for you and for me. So let’s see.

To provide some background, Shame is the second feature from director Steve McQueen (not to be confused with the dead actor), whose last film was Hunger. Like Shame, it starred Michael Fassbender. It’s the true story of Irish activist Bobby Sands, who led his fellow prison inmates in a hunger strike and died in the process. Hunger is merciless, stuffed with countless unpleasant visuals — piss and shit and blood, to name a few, plus an emaciated Michael Fassbender, who makes Christian Bale in The Machinist look chunky. There’s quite a lot of highly unsexy nudity, and an astoundingly long long take that lasts for more than seventeen minutes — and it’s just two guys talking. And then comes the starvation. Though I like my movies edgy to an extent, Hunger is a tough one to sit through, and not one I’d be eager to see again. Still, I admire McQueen’s craft and daring.

Shame is more my speed. Many critics prefer Hunger to Shame, but in my eyes, Shame is a more resonant and accessible story. It speaks to something within us. (If you think it doesn’t, you’re probably just not listening.) Shame‘s protagonist is Brandon Sullivan, and though there’s no mention of the words “sex addiction” in the film, pretty much everyone walking into it has that term on their minds. This is “the sex addiction movie,” made all the more notable because it’s rated NC-17 for graphic sexuality. (It earns that rating, to be sure.) Many reviews have declared that the sex in this film is purposefully unsexy, but I don’t know. Some of it is a little sexy. (But just a little.)Brandon is compelled to have sex. Often. Usually with strangers. What’s surprising about the movie is that more often than not, he’s fighting that urge rather than yielding to it. That’s where the film’s title comes in. Brandon masturbates frequently, far more often than we actually see him have intercourse. He’s got all kinds of porn stashed away, both in his apartment and on his hard drive at work. He rarely seeks sex — when he has it, it tends to find him. Like a curse. Women seem to sense something within him, something he has no control over. In one notable sequence, Brandon is upset (by what, I won’t say) and goes on a jog through the lonely late-night streets of New York (one of many astounding long takes). This is what makes him a compelling character — he’s not merely succumbing to his every desire, as you’d think a movie about sex addiction would play out. He’s actually trying to be good. Most of the time. And failing.

What disrupts the flow of his kinky world is the sudden arrival of his sister Cissy (yep, Carey Mulligan again), Brandon’s complete opposite in so many ways. She’s loud, brash, messy, and artsy to his reserved, careful, clean-cut, and business-like demeanor. She shows no signs of being ashamed of her sexuality — quite the opposite, actually. Cissy staying in Brandon’s apartment is problematic not only because it cramps his hyperactive sex life (and penchant for walking around the apartment naked — hello, NC-17!), but because… well. We don’t know exactly, but let’s just say the relationship between these siblings is… unconventional. And clearly, very complicated.Like Hunger, Shame contains a couple memorably long takes. One of them shows Brandon at a restaurant with his coworker Marianne (Nicole Beharie), allowing it to play out in awkward first date real-time. Dinner, conversation, and not even a kiss goodnight afterward — the works. Brandon is capable of being charming. He conducts himself more gentlemanly than his philandering boss (James Badge Dale), who all but bludgeons women with one-liners until they can get rid of him. On Brandon’s second “date” with Marianne, we witness something unexpected that fills in quite a lot of backstory, and explains why he prefers to be single. (His longest relationship is four months.) There’s always so much bubbling under the surface in Shame, but it’s never spoken.

Fassbender is nothing short of remarkable in the role, displaying such a complex range of emotions with very little dialogue. We sense something simmering within him and neither we nor Brandon himself ever seems sure of just how far he’ll go. In a couple of scenes, his addiction takes him to uncomfortable extremes — such as when he follows an attractive married woman off the subway. What will he do if he finds her? Anything seems possible. In such moments, Brandon is most reminiscent of Christian Bale in American Psycho. In some scenes, we half-expect him to explode into violence. But he doesn’t. That’s not Brandon’s vice.And Carey Mulligan rises to the occasion opposite him as his spunky sister Cissy, the yin to his yang, weak where he is strong (and vice versa). So much history between them is conveyed without either of them directly confronting it, and Shame is better because of it. (If there was an Oscar for Best Subtext, Shame might win it.) The scars on Cissy’s arms, the looks on their faces in so many key moments — silence speaks volumes in this movie. But this is one backstory we’re probably better off not knowing.

In one more long take, Cissy sings a mournful version of “New York, New York” at a bar — a song all about starting over free of the past. There’s irony there, but it’s also a threat to Brandon, because Cissy’s fresh start is interrupting his own. This is his turf. Shame is a very New York movie — I’m not sure it would have the same effect set anywhere else. (At least, not on me.) The anonymity of the city allows Brandon to get away with so much, and it also feeds his loneliness — it hardens him (pun acknowledged but unintended), renders him able to live a life without any attachment. Until Cissy’s vagabond shoes come to town. Brandon is surprisingly fragile, at times frighteningly volatile, seemingly about to crack at any moment. There’s much more to him than sex addiction, and much more to this movie, too.It may be remembered as “that sex addiction movie,” and no — it wouldn’t have the same power if that particular malady were swapped with drugs or booze, because sex is something altogether different. It’s taboo. (Hence why this film is rated NC-17, and the ultraviolent Drive is a mere R.) Some sex acts are unspeakable, and Shame doesn’t really speak about them. But they’re there, in the subtext.

How will Shame and Drive fare at the Oscars? Probably not well. They’re too edgy, too extreme — though both films have a shot in the Best Actor category. (If Michael Fassbender is snubbed for the year’s best leading male performance, I may need to pull an Albert Brooks and stick a fork in someone’s eye.)

Legendary film critic Pauline Kael wrote, “The words ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which I saw on an Italian movie poster, are perhaps the briefest statement imaginable of the basic appeal of movies.” How true — but that was the 60’s. Nowadays, “kiss kiss bang bang” has been replaced with something more graphic, along the lines of “fuck fuck splat splat.” That’s how I’d describe these films by the two latest auteurs to be inducted into Hollywood’s A-list of somewhat-commercial provocateurs (joining the likes of Darren Aronofsky, Alfonso Cuaron, Paul Thomas Anderson, and more.) Shame and Drive put McQueen and Refn squarely on the map. For the best (or at least, most) sex and violence of 2011, you can do no better.

Shame: Shame on you if you don’t see it ASAP.

Drive: Quite a ride.

Hunger: Powerful, but not a movie that’s easy to watch on a full stomach… or an empty one, for that matter.

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