Was Shame really that shameful, or Drive that driving? We think not.
I’m the type of moviegoer who likes to be shaken up — anything to jolt me up out of my humdrum existence and bring me back to life. Of course, I don't expect every film to do this, but I haven’t been even mildly unsettled in over a year. Here are four-and-a-half films, all hyped as edgy for various reasons, that tried and failed to disturb me in 2011.
Drive shows us what L.A. would look like if it was suddenly hit with an epidemic of facial paralysis. I get the film’s critique of the gorgeously empty movie industry, and I’ve heard the argument that stylized violence can be art. And the inconsistencies in Gosling’s character (self-effacing puppy-dog smile one minute, hammer-wielding murder the next) could be excused if we weren’t expected to believe that his desire for revenge is motivated by his true love of Carey Mulligan — precipitated by her smiling at him a few times? The image that does stick with me is Gosling staring eerily into the window of a pizza parlor while wearing his stunt mask as Katyna Ranieri belts her mesmerizing aria in the background. Moments like that gave Drive slow-burn heat, but the sudden flashes of violence took away from the film's quieter moments.
2. Martha Marcy May Marlene
More than one friend refused to see this movie with me on the grounds that it would require too much “emotional energy,” so I steeled myself for the emotional equivalent of a Krav Maga workout and went alone. Unfortunately, what I got was a low-impact water-aerobics class. For a film that promises to horrify with the absence of the self, there is surprisingly little tension and barely any emotional impact. Not that the film isn’t punctuated with scenes that work — there’s a genuinely upsetting scene where Martha walks in on her sister and her husband having sex, and then doesn’t leave. But ultimately, it’s a film that pretends to build towards something major, only to squander all that with a flat, ambiguous ending that implies (spoiler alert) it was only kidding the whole time.
3. A Dangerous Method
All the ingredients of an unsettling film flicker in David Cronenberg’s latest, which tells the story of the relationship between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and his patient/lover/enthusiastic spank-ee/eventual colleague, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). The film’s question — when should you act on your desires and when should you suppress them? — is the central point of conflict, but its resolution just feels bland. Jung eventually ends his affair with Spielrein out of guilt and obligation to his family — he explains to Sabina at the end of the film that “Sometimes you have to do something unforgivable just to go on living.” But what might have seemed unforgivable to Jung is just kind of boring to the audience. Jung’s adultery and low-key epiphany seem like a penny-ante game compared to the tragedies that occurred in the other characters’ lives after the movies’ action (starvation, persecution by Nazis, and death).
Steve McQueen combining his visual flair with full-frontal Michael Fassbender to tell the story of a sex addict, should have made for a troubling and darkly beautiful film. And Shame almost was. Despite some missteps (such as the shot where Fassbender actually kneels on a pier in the rain and cries skyward, and the uncomfortable suggestion that at one point that Fassbender has fallen so far into perversity that he is forced to enter — gasp! — a gay club), there is a real emotional core to the work, but it’s obscured by spectacle. Fassbender’s relationship with his sister (Carey Mulligan) and his failed attempt at actual intimacy create compelling drama, but unfortunately, any further depth is obstructed by the film’s richly empty visuals. The characters' problems are presented but never truly confronted, and so the film is far less cathartic than it should be.
4 ½. Melancholia
Lars von Trier’s end-of-the-planet picture is by far the most affecting film on this list. The dysfunctional-wedding-half is sewn to the more visual, planet-colliding-into-the-earth half with gorgeous digital stitching that foreshadows the characters’ demise from the first frames. What makes Melancholia compelling is that von Trier is the only filmmaker of these five who follows his subjects to their inevitable conclusion. The movie doesn't shy away from justifying a nihilistic worldview, arguing in visual and dramatic terms that the depressives were onto something all along. Still, as devastating as the film is, there’s something self-justifying about a movie that brands depressives as sages, and ultimately, it's a little too self-satisfied to be really disturbing.