The Reader

the reader

The Reader (2008, directed by Stephen Daldry) is a film about secrets, guilt, and shame.

In 1958 West Germany, 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) meets Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), a much older woman who helps him when he falls sick in the street. When he recovers, he goes back to her flat to thank her, and they fall into a passionate affair. She has him read books to her before they make love, and they spend the summer this way. Hanna is a ticket collector for a tram, but when she’s told she’s gotten a promotion to the office, she suddenly decides to disappear without a word to anyone, least of all Michael, who is devastated.

 

Eight years later, he’s a law student accompanying his seminar teacher and peers to a trial, which is trying several women who had been former prison guards for the SS. One of the women is Hanna. He watches helplessly as she is accused of letting Jewish prisoners die in a burning church. He comes to realize a secret about Hanna, one that would affect her sentencing. His decision whether or not to come forward with that secret lies at the heart of the film: what is his moral obligation to this woman, a woman he believed he had loved and who then broke his heart; a woman who undoubtedly had, by “following orders”, sent countless Jews to Auschwitz.

reader michael and hanna
Kross and Winslet as Michael and Hanna.

Ralph Fiennes plays the older Michael, who looks back on the past and wonders if he’d done the right thing. His relationship with Hanna, and what happened afterward, had affected his ability to form close relationships in his life, and he’s a bit estranged from his daughter, Julia. His second key decision of the film, as an adult, leads to a scene with a survivor (Lena Olin) that is painfully awkward and icky, illustrating the struggle of collective German guilt over the Holocaust.

The cast was excellent, the film thought-provoking, but ultimately it left a kind of bad taste in my mouth. I can’t seem to put my finger on it; but it seems like two films together: the first half filled with a young man’s sexual awakening amid torrid sex scenes; the second half a somber morality tale wrapped up with the weight of horrendous war crimes. The two don’t mesh well. And the film seems to ask us what we should make of Hanna. Is she a sympathetic character? Was she a “victim of circumstances”? Do we even have the right to ask that question?

The Reader manages to pull in the viewer with great performances, sex, and the lure of secrets, but its weighty issues perhaps deserve a better forum than this.

Blade Runner 2049

bladerunner2

I was 11 years old in 1982 when Blade Runner came out, far too young to see it or to appreciate its cool aesthetic and philosophical musings. When I did finally catch up to it–mostly because this then-young Star Wars fan was looking for some more Harrison Ford–I got Rick Deckard instead of Han Solo (or even Indiana Jones), and I wasn’t quite sure how to feel about that. I was probably in my mid-twenties before I realized how brilliant the film was, and I duly filed it away into the “Most awesome movies ever” file of my brain.

After some mixed feelings about the new Star Wars movies, I was a bit wary about sequels to long-beloved films–not Can it be done, but should it be done? After watching the trailer and knowing that Ford probably wouldn’t have signed on if he didn’t think it was worthy, I allowed myself to get a little bit excited.

And was rewarded with a rich, fully-realized film, not just as a sequel, but as a cinematic experience that stands on its own. Although it helps to have seen the first film, the story isn’t a simple re-hashing of the original plot, but builds on it, creating a core mystery concerning the original characters; but really the film belongs to Ryan Gosling, and his character, K/Joe.

K is a Blade Runner (someone who seeks out and destroys rogue Replicants, androids that can barely be distinguished from humans), but unlike Rick Deckard before him, he’s also a Replicant himself. He’s a new-model Replicant–programmed to obey–hunting old-model Replicants, who had the annoying habit of seeking their freedom from slavery.

The film opens with K finding an old model named Sapper (Dave Bautista), who disdains K for killing his own kind. Before K is forced to kill him, Sapper tells him, “You’ve never seen a miracle.” Afterward, K discovers a box buried beneath a dead tree, which turns out to contain the remains of a female Replicant who, impossibly but undeniably, had given birth to a child thirty years ago.

This fact has the potential to change everything. K’s superior, “Madam” (Robin Wright), calls it “a bomb going off.” If Replicants have the ability to procreate, then it calls into question mankind’s right to use them for their own purposes. It’s her job to maintain order; she orders K to find the offspring and destroy it.

Thus begins K’s journey, not only of the investigation, but of self-discovery. For along the way, evidence begins to suggest to him that perhaps he is the child. He grapples not only with this stunning possibility; but danger in the form of Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), the mastermind behind creating the new Replicants. He learns of the child’s existence and wants it as well, not to kill it but to study it and make it possible for all Replicants to procreate. Not for any sense of freedom for his creation, but simply to create more at a faster rate, to enslave more and thus send more offworld, to conquer the stars. He sends Luv (Sylvia Hoecks), his Replicant muscle, to follow K and find the child at whatever cost.

Some have complained that 2049 is overlong and confusing. Perhaps to the average movie-goer, this may be true; but a fan of the original film understands the importance of the tone, ambiance (that synthy soundtrack!), and the underlying themes that make Blade Runner so special. Themes as basic as, What does it mean to be human? What is the nature of memory? But also, What is real? What is love? K’s relationship with Joi (Ana de Armas), a female artificial intelligence in the form of a hologram, brings these questions into focus.

joe and joi
Joi and K/Joe

Inevitably, Harrison Ford has to make an appearance as Deckard, as a link to the original, but also to tie up some plot points. He does admirably well here, but the movie is totally K/Joe’s. Gosling (who I’d been aware of, but admittedly had never seen any of his other films) is amazing bringing to life K’s arc from obedient, resigned Replicant to questioning, emotional seeker of identity and meaning.

The open-ended conclusion to the film leaves some questions, but overall, this is the kind of movie experience I pretty much live for.

 

 

 

 

 

The Power

the power

*(Some spoilers.)

At my most frustrated, I’ve often found myself muttering to myself, “If women were in charge of the world, it’d be a much better place.” It just seems to me that, if given the chance, if women exclusively ruled and made the big decisions, there’d be less misery, less violence, and less, you know, testosterone-related bad stuff. It’d be better.

Wouldn’t it?

The Power, by Naomi Alderman (2017, 341 pages), addresses just such a question, and I have to admit, I found her take on the subject bleak, to say the least.

In the novel, young women find themselves developing the power to channel electricity through their hands and fingers, as a result of a long-dormant organ called a “skein” along their collarbones. The young women can awaken the power in older women, and soon it’s spreading around the world and enabling women to defend themselves against the violence perpetrated against them by men.

This is good, of course. It’s about time women are able to fight back. But it’s not so simple as that. The Power changes everything. In countries where female oppression is at its worst–Saudi Arabia and India, for example–violence erupts, and women forcibly take control, striking back in long-suppressed rage and vengeance. In other countries like the U.S., the change is more complicated and subtle. Attitudes shift over the years as their power grows. Women’s perception of men change–they’re weaker, and so therefore less intelligent. They can’t be trusted. They’re only good for one thing: sex. At first, it’s gratifying to see the women’s confidence grow, empowering even, but all too soon it goes awry.

At the center of this milieu are Roxy, Allie, Margot, and Tunde. Roxy is a young British woman, the daughter of a crime boss; she uses the power to take vengeance on those who killed her mother, and to move up in the family business. She eventually will become a “soldier” for Allie. Allie is a young American woman who uses the power to escape her abusive foster parents; she eventually settles in a convent, where she bides her time and consolidates her influence, becoming “Mother Eve”, listening to the voice that whispers in her head, the voice of God–“She” has plans for Allie, plans that will change the world. Margot is the mayor of a major city with political ambitions, divorced with two daughters, the older of whom, Jocelyn, has woken the power within her. Jocelyn’s power is somehow damaged; sometimes she has it, sometimes she doesn’t, and feels “abnormal” because of it. Margo wants to do everything in her power to help Jocelyn, to help both her girls, live and succeed in this new world.

Tunde is a young Nigerian man, a journalist who is determined to make a name for himself documenting this revolutionary change around the world; he fails to consider how this change will impact his own life and future, how his very manhood will put his life in danger.

All of these characters, in different parts of the world, will connect and intersect, and bring about the climax of the story (the Cataclysm); each section of the book counts down the time left before it: ten years before, nine years, five years, one year, etc. The novel itself is presented as a manuscript that a man named Neil has sent to an apparently influential woman for her opinion. It’s presented as a historical novel with some archaeological evidence interspersed throughout; it’s clear he’s writing thousands of years in the future from our own time. What’s also clear from the conversation they have is that women are still in control; in fact, they don’t quite believe that it’s ever been different. The fact that men once were the dominant gender has been lost to time. The book is a reverse-mirror of our own society. Nothing’s changed, except the roles have been reversed.

There’s so much to chew on and digest in this book; suffice it to say that my outlook has changed slightly because of it. Perhaps women aren’t better equipped to deal with power. Maybe it has absolutely nothing to do with gender at all; it’s the power itself that’s the problem. Perhaps whoever has it will inevitably abuse it, simply because they can. Are women more naturally caring and nurturing? Do they hold the higher moral ground? Not in this book. In this book, as the power surges through them, they turn into the worst sort of men we see in our culture now.

The Power is an unforgettable read, not necessarily because of its literary value, but because of the galvanizing ideas contained within it. I devoured it in two days, and I’m still thinking about it. In the #MeToo era and amid our examination of gender identity, this book will provide plenty to debate and discuss, about how we relate to each other as men and women, and about how we treat each other as human beings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fahrenheit 451

F 451

I’ll admit it: I haven’t read Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 in years. All I could remember was that in some horrible dystopian future I shudder to contemplate, “firemen” exist, not to put fires out, but to burn books.

Understandably, the story needed an update, considering the enormous impact the digital age has had on our culture. Society is encouraged to “Stay vivid on the Nine”, the Nine being a combination of Twitter and the only TV channel in town, broadcast on the sides of skyscrapers, with cascading emojis and viewers texting comments. Our protagonist, the firefighter Guy Montag (Michael B. Jordan) has become a kind of action-hero reality star, charging into homes and buildings suspected of harboring books and other unapproved artwork, with unquestioning battle-frenzy and egged on by viewers comments: “I love you Montag!” “You’re a hero!”

In this America, life operates under the premise of whatever makes us unhappy must be destroyed. Books make us examine ourselves, question our motives, and shed a light on the darker aspects of ourselves. Eww! The quest for knowledge and meaning is uncomfortable and icky. Better to just pop some eye-drops into the eyes (containing, I assume, some kind of anti-anxiety drug–and the symbolism of blindness is not lost on me here), and watch the Nine. Yay!

Montag basks in this adulation, and is currently being groomed by his superior, Captain Beatty (Michael Shannon) to replace him. Life is looking pretty good for our hero, until a couple of things happen that cause him to start questioning. First, he meets the enigmatic Clarisse (Sophia Boutella), a snitch for Beatty, and a former “eel” (someone who gathers and hides contraband books). He’s intrigued and attracted. Then he watches as a woman allows herself to be burned along with her books rather than live in a world without them. She utters a word, Omnis, before she dies, though the word is dubbed over when it’s broadcast. He’s horrified, and wants to understand why someone would sacrifice their life for books. What the heck is in them, anyway? And what is Omnis?

montag and clarisse
Montag and Clarisse

He steals a book from the woman’s vast pile (Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground) and adds it to his collection of contraband he’s been keeping in a secret place in his home. He has to hide it from Yuxia, a kind of souped-up Alexa that interacts with (and spies on) the occupants of every home. “What are you doing, Montag?” it intones when he tells it to “go blind”. Creepy.

Captain Beatty tries to stave off his protege’s doubts. He’s been around books long enough to be familiar with some of them (intriguingly, when he’s alone he writes down quotes from books–from memory, so you know he’s read them more than once–onto small slips of paper, then burns them all together). He states that “We are not born equal, but the fire makes us equal.” I found Beatty’s ambiguity, his knowledge of books but his subsequent rejection of them, interesting and hoped to go a little deeper into his psyche. He’s the most realized character in the film, but unfortunately, precious little has been spent on characterization here.

After reading a few passages of Notes From Underground with Clarisse, Montag decides he doesn’t want to burn books anymore, he wants to read them, and to save them. He’s suddenly willing to risk his life on something he barely knows anything about. It didn’t ring true for me; and the whole premise became even more questionable when we find out what Omnis is: all of the world’s literature encapsulated into some DNA and injected into a bird, to be released and to hopefully make its way to Canada, where it can be retrieved and preserved. Huh? If literature is NOT outlawed in other countries, just the US, then what’s the urgency here? Why are “eels” taking it upon themselves to memorize whole books so they won’t be “lost to humanity”, when they presumably exist in some form or another in the rest of the world? I don’t get it. And DNA in birds? Wah?

There’s so much potential in the ideas presented in Fahrenheit 451, but this film did not even scrape the surface. Mostly, the logic simply fell apart, and nothing could hold it up. It’s too bad; I suppose it’s best just to go back to the source, and enjoy Bradbury’s book about censorship, free-thinking, and the dangers of technology dumbing us down.

 

 

 

 

 

Who Fears Death

who fears death

Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor (2010, 419 pages) is a novel in the fantasy genre, set in a dystopian Africa with a strong female protagonist.

Onyesonwu, which means Who Fears Death in an ancient language, is a child of rape. Her Okeke mother, dark of skin, was assaulted by a Nuru man, light of skin and a general among his people. The Nuru have been systematically destroying Okeke villages, as well as its culture, and part of this is through weaponized rape wherein the Okeke women are impregnated. The Nuru know that Okeke women will never terminate a pregnancy for any reason, and that a child born of this violence–with sand-colored skin and mixed features–will be outcast. Called Ewu, they will never be welcome in either society.

Onye’s mother survives the desert after giving birth alone, and heads east, away from the violence, and settles in Jwahir, where Onye’s Ewu status is remarked upon and frowned at, but is tolerated. Here she grows into a spirited young woman, angry at her fate, but not getting many answers from her mother. It’s only when something strange happens when she’s thirteen–she dreams of being a bird and wakes up in a tree on the town common–that her mother tells her of her conception. It’s unclear at this point what the connection is.

At this time, Onye meets another like her, an Ewu boy named Mwita, who tells her she is Eshu, someone who can shape-shift into other life forms. She and Mwita form a strong bond, and she also finds friends in three Okeke girls–Luyu, Dita, and Binti–who had shared a ritual with her at age ten. I’m talking about female genital mutilation, and if that doesn’t outrage you (as well as make you shudder), there’s plenty else in this tale that will.

After years of trying, she finally convinces the local sorcerer, Aro, to train her (he’d refused because she was a girl), and learns to control her Eshu powers, as well as the “Five Points”. She also learns that her father, the Nuru man who raped her mother, is a sorcerer trying to kill her. Not only that, but he is the one who is behind the virtual genocide of the Okeke people. Believing that she is the Ewu prophecized to stop him and re-write “the Great Book” (a kind of Bible that paints the Okeke as a slave race), Onye sets out west with her lover Mwita and her friends to find the man, exact revenge for her mother, and stop the carnage taking place.

This is a complex story with a richly described setting and culture. Its African roots are a breath of fresh air amid all the tired European tropes crowding the genre. There is some technology left over from some long-ago past, but sorcery, and the more rudimentary “juju”, are the commonly accepted source of awe.

Onye as a character is a bit exasperating–her strength and bravery are admirable, and you want to see her succeed, but her character flaw is rage and her inability to control it. She’s a tad unreasonable sometimes. Her hero’s journey is to not only physically travel through the desert and overcome many obstacles, but to master herself and her angry impulses, in order to truly become what she’s meant to be.

Okorafor, through this cultural and fantastical lens, addresses violence, not only against a race in general, but towards women in particular. Whether it’s physical violence, genital mutilation, or a more insidious refusal to view women as equal beings, Onye rises above it all, through her powers, her inner strength, and her sexuality. Sexuality permeates the novel; it can be a healing force or a destructive one. Even conception itself, while giving life, can be used as a weapon in this world, on many levels.

Who Fears Death is a fascinating read, but also just a plain entertaining one, about a woman who transcends fate and changes her world.

 

 

Cargo

cargo

So I was a Walking Dead fan for awhile, until I couldn’t take its relentless death, hopelessness, and heartbreak; but any other kind of zombie vehicle didn’t really interest me that much.

Which is why I was pleasantly surprised by Netlfix’s Cargo (2017, directed by Yolanda Remke and Ben Howling), starring Martin Freeman. Freeman plays Andy, a man who has lost his wife Kay (Susie Porter) to a mysterious virus that turns its victims into zombie-like creatures. Before she dies, she manages to bite him; he knows he has about 48 hours until the same fate takes him. But the bigger problem is their baby daughter, Rosie.

The film takes place in the Outback of Australia, and Andy wanders its dry, sun-baked landscape, desperate to find someone to take care of Rosie before it’s too late. Along the way, he meets some good people, and some not-so-good people. He finds a companion in Thoomi (Simone Landers), an Aboriginal girl who protects her father, who has been infected and mindlessly wanders the landscape.

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Not much information is given about the virus–all we know is that some survivors have kits with information about symptoms and time-tables, and a wicked-looking tool to use (a spike in the brain) when it becomes too late. The Outback, usually inhospitable to most people besides the Aboriginals, has become an escape route from the cities, where the virus has taken root and decimated the population.

Martin Freeman is a favorite of mine (The Hobbit, Sherlock), and he’s wonderful here, just your average guy going to incredible lengths to save his child. The heartbreak must be unimaginable, knowing your child will have lost both parents, not sure where she’ll end up, and that you might actually eat her if you fail. It’s this last thought that keeps him going, while the timer on his wrist keeps ticking down, and every now and then a slimy seizure takes hold.

Aboriginal culture strongly permeates the story; one has the feeling that these people, no matter what happens, are going to be all right. They might even be the safe harbor Andy is looking for, not only for his daughter, but for Thoomi as well.

For a zombie flick, this one is pretty darn good, entertaining as well as emotionally engaging.

The Terror

the terror

The Terror is AMC’s limited series (10 episodes) based on Dan Simmons’ book, which is a fictionalized account of Captain Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition to the Arctic in search of the Northwest Passage in 1847.

The two naval ships involved are Erebus, captained by Sir John (Ciaran Hinds), and The Terror, led by Captain Francis Crozier (Jared Harris). The two ships become stuck in the ice, trapping them in frigid temperatures and constant darkness in winter. They must contend with illness and the squabbling of men in close quarters; not only that, but it becomes clear that something is out there on the ice, something that hunts them.

Like TNT’s The Alienist, this is a 10 episode limited series, a form I’m beginning to really enjoy–an entire story contained in one season, but longer than a movie, so that some backstory and character-building can be established.

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Ciaran Hinds as Sir John and Jared Harris as Francis

Sir John is perhaps your typical Victorian captain, likable but full of hubris, eager to find glory on his last commission, blind in many ways to the mortal danger the expedition has found itself in. Francis is much more realistic and cautious, constantly warning Sir John and suggesting various plans to find help, but Sir John stubbornly refuses them all. The relationship between these two men is strained, not only professionally, but personally: in flashbacks, we learn that at home, Francis had proposed to Sir John’s niece twice, and her refusals stemmed not only from her concerns about being a sailor’s wife, but by Sir John’s refusal to give consent. The fact that Francis is an Irishman plays heavily in both Sir John’s refusal as well as Francis’ stalling career. It’s clear Francis never wanted to be on this expedition, but is there to “look after” Sir John, and perhaps win his beloved’s approval.

The lone woman (besides Sir John’s wife and niece in the flashbacks) is a native Inuit woman who the men call Lady Silence (Nive Nielson). While out on a mission to send a message to a distant outpost, a contingent of men think they see some sort of creature and shoot. They find that they’ve shot a native man, the woman’s father. Their doctors cannot save the man, and they cannot get any information out of the woman, despite Francis and his first mate able to speak her language; she remains stubbornly silent, hence the name. The surgeon on the Erebus (a surgeon was not considered a “doctor” back then, and was a bit looked down upon by the uppity doctor of the Terror), Mr. Henry Goodsir (Paul Ready) forms a tentative bond with the woman as he tries to solve the mystery of who she is and what she may know about the creature.

lady silence
Nive Nielson as Lady Silence

Meanwhile, Petty Officer Cornelius Hickey (Adam Nagaitis) is stirring up trouble aboard the ships. He harbors ambition beyond his social status, and attempts to ingratiate himself with his betters; when that doesn’t work, he develops a bitter contempt for authority, and shrewdly manipulates the men around him as conditions worsen and become desperate. Hickey’s story arc will become pivotal towards the conclusion of the series as the main human antagonist. Nagaitis (whose amazing work I’ve encountered in To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters, as Branwell Bronte) manages to infuse the troublesome Hickey with an oily charm; even when he’s being whipped, that slight, condescending smirk never leaves his face.

There are many antagonists the men must face: the cold, fear, starvation and the prospect of cannibalism, illness, madness, personal demons, as well as Hickey’s machinations. The beast itself is almost an afterthought; that is, until he strikes, about every few episodes. I was a bit puzzled about the beast’s very existence–what is he, exactly? Demon, monster, native guardian spirit? I never quite figured it out, but he’s also clearly a symbol of the vicious forces destroying the expedition. A symbol with teeth.

james fitzjames
Tobias Menzies as James Fitzjames

Like the landscape itself, the pace of the story is often glacial, taking its time with character development and building the momentum. Sometimes it felt tedious, but most of the time I didn’t mind, enjoying getting to know these characters, especially Francis, who emerges as the hero of the tale. He nearly succumbs to alcoholism early on, but once he overcomes it, his determination, bravery, integrity and loyalty to the men is outstanding and admirable. His poignant decision at the end of the story was the only one he could make, and a little lump formed in my throat at the sheer sadness of it all.

Part horror, part adventure story, part psychological drama, The Terror is a strange tale, but gripping and impressive, unlike anything I’ve seen on TV in a while.

Anna Karenina

anna karenina

Ever since I read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina years ago, I’ve been a fan of the lavish Imperial Russian romance. Like with any great piece of literature, I’ve found that I come to the story from a different perspective in each succeeding decade of my life. In my twenties, I found Anna and Vronsky’s doomed, passionate love affair extremely romantic, and Levin’s story a bit of a bore. In my thirties, I couldn’t forgive Anna for leaving her cherished son for a mere man, and took more interest in Levin’s philosophical musings. Now, I tend to see it as a fairly balanced view of the many forms of love that we human beings can experience. Anna, tragically, is merely a woman who falls in love under the wrong circumstances, while Levin seems to find the right balance between love and duty.

I’ve read the book quite a few times and have sought out the many movie adaptations (the good, the bad, and the ugly) over the years. I’ve seen the 1947 version with Vivien Leigh and Kieran Moore, the 1985 version with Jacqueline Bisset and Christopher Reeve, the 1997 version with Sophie Marceau and Sean Bean, and a 2000 BBC version with Helen McCrory and Kevin Kidd. It seemed to be about the right time for a new version, so I finally watched the 2012 film with Keira Knightly and Aaron Johnson.

At first, the setting of the film as an ever-changing stage scene felt strange and contrived; and there was an air of quirkiness that didn’t seem right to me, considering the thematic weight of the story. But after a while I got used to it, and the story settled into familiar Anna Karenina territory.

Keira Knightly won my heart as Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice (no easy feat), and I liked her here as Anna. Though she always seems so young to me (who doesn’t these days?), in truth she’s probably a little older than the age Anna is supposed to be in the book, and I believed in her tortured portrayal as Anna.

When I first heard of the film and cast, I thought Jude Law was playing the dashing Count Vronsky, forgetting he’s now in his forties and too old for the role. Here he’s Anna’s dispassionate, regimented husband, Karenin. He does a fine job showing us Karenin’s distance, as well as his complete puzzlement at Anna’s betrayal.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson is perhaps the prettiest Vronsky I’ve ever seen on film, and is probably the closest to what Vronsky is supposed to be: young, dazzling, entitled, with the world as his oyster. Alicia Vikander is luminous as the sweet, innocent Kitty; and Domhnall Gleason (fast becoming one of my favorite character actors) pulls off Levin’s seriousness without turning him into the utter bore I saw in him all those years ago. Mathew MacFadyen plays Anna’s morally challenged brother Steva with apparent glee.

Anna principals

All in all, a young and glittering cast, gorgeous costumes, and a stirring soundtrack won me over despite my initial misgivings. If you’re a passionate Anna Karenina fan, you owe it to yourself to watch this film and give it a chance. It might even be my new favorite, beating out the 1997 version with the Bean. Okay, let’s not get crazy!

1922

1922

Netflix’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novella 1922 (2017, directed by Zak Hilditch) is a tale of murder, guilt, and retribution.

Wilfred James (Thomas Jane) and his wife Arlette (Molly Parker) live with their 14-year-old son Henry (Dylan Schmid) in Hemingford Home, Nebraska on their farm, but it’s not a happy home. Arlette has never taken to the farming life and is unhappy, wanting to sell off the 100 acres she received from her father and move to Omaha, where she has dreams of opening a dress shop. Wilf, on the other hand, scorns city life, and feels that a man has two things that gives his life meaning: his land and his son. He covets his wife’s 100 acres, and her desire to sell, divorce him and abscond to the city with Henry puts dark thoughts into his head. He’s come to hate his wife, and works to turn Henry against against her, mostly by suggesting that he’d never see his girl, Shannon (Kaitlyn Bernard) again.

His poisonous whisperings into his son’s ear convinces the boy to help him put an end to Arlette. One night Wilf lies to his wife and tells her he’s changed his mind; she should sell her land and they’d all move to the city. A jubilant Arlette celebrates by drinking, and while she sleeps off the alcohol, they do the deed. Henry holds a canvas bag over her head while Wilf attempts to cut her throat with a knife, but he botches it and it’s far from clean and quick. After a bloody struggle, they dump her body into the empty well behind the house and spend the rest of the night cleaning up the blood.

Wilf promised his son that once Arlette was gone, they could go on and live the life they wanted, but naturally this was not to be. In horrific Stephen King fashion, a tragic series of events unfold leading to Wilf losing everything he holds dear.

Thomas Jane is an actor I’m not familiar with, but he’s a revelation in this movie. His subtle and understated portrayal of the laconic, intense Wilford James was impressive, as was the rest of the supporting cast. The real horror is the psychological implications of murder, but there’s just enough guts and supernatural gore to give you the willies and remind you you’re watching vintage King.

I first came across 1922 in King’s book of novellas, Full Dark No Stars, a couple of years ago, and can’t sing its praises enough. I’ve always felt King is strongest with short fiction, and 1922 is a great example of what he can do with the limits of the short form. This film version perfectly captures the dark heart of the story, of a man turning to evil to hold onto his version of heaven, only to find hell instead.

 

 

 

The Angel of Darkness

the angel of darkness

The Angel of Darkness (1997) by Caleb Carr is the sequel to The Alienist, or rather, a continuing chronicle of the work of Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a 19th century psychologist using his knowledge of human behavior to solve crime.

The Alienist focused on a male serial killer who mutilated and murdered boy prostitutes in New York City in 1896. The Angel of Darkness takes place a year later, begins with a seemingly simple kidnapping case, and leads to a long road of investigation of a woman who’s left a string of dead children behind her.

The Alienist was narrated by John Moore, a friend of Dr. Kreizler and a reporter; and though Moore, and the rest of Kreizler’s intimate group–Sara Howard, the Isaacson Brothers, and Cyrus Montrose–are still present in the story, it is narrated by Stevie Taggart, Kreizler’s young ward and driver of the first book, now grown and relating the events of 1897.

It begins when Sara, now running her own private investigator service, calls upon her friends for help with her latest client–the wife of a Spanish consulate whose baby daughter Ana has been kidnapped. The situation is a delicate one, as the U.S. has been agitating for war with Spain, and vice versa. Senora Linares’ husband is unwilling to help find his own daughter, even beating his wife when she suggests they go to the police. As before, it must be an undercover investigation.

Sara enlists the help of John, Cyrus and Stevie, and the Isaacsons, but they soon realize they need the help of their friend Kreizler, who has been despondent over the suicide of one of his young patients, and the resulting investigation into his beloved Institute. They soon draw him in, however, and they zero in on one Elspeth Hunter/Libby Hatch.

They find that wherever this woman goes, in her services as a nurse or caregiver, children die. And yet her behavior leading up to their deaths is exemplary–loving, nurturing, even heroic. It’s a puzzling contradiction, one that gets to the heart of why Kreizler does what he does.

It’s a complex tale with many threads, one that Carr weaves over 700 pages. I often felt that I’d never finish the book, but each successive clue to Elspeth/Libby kept me reading, pulling me deeper into her confounding mystery. The prevailing belief at the time that women were incapable of committing such a crime as murdering children was something the group came up against again and again. If women were guilty of such crimes, the logic went, then they must be insane. But the cold, calculating behavior of Libby contradicted this conclusion in Kreizler’s opinion. The conflicting views of women (the angel/whore dichotomy) and the impossible standards women were held to during the 19th century (and have we really escaped such standards, even now?) is a central theme in the story and what makes Libby so fascinating–and tragic.

The Elspeth/Libby trail leads our group from the streets of New York City controlled by the coke-blowing gang The Hudson Dusters, to the lovely wilds of upstate New York in Saratoga County. As in the previous book, a few famous historical figures make an appearance: feminist agitator Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the ultra-wealthy Vanderbilts, and everyone’s scrappy Police Commissioner turned Naval official turned President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. Our group suffers personal tragedies, for the group as a whole, and for Stevie in particular. It’s a big, sprawling book with street fights, courtroom drama, and even a poisonous-dart-throwing pygmy from the Philippines.

I loved the TNT limited series The Alienist, and would love to see a second season. The Angel of Darkness, with its continuing themes of the complexity and darkness of the human mind and the horrific acts resulting from it, would be, in my opinion, an admirable addition to the series. One can always hope.