Tuesday, March 12, 2013

SXSW 2013: Before Midnight, Mud, The Act of Killing

My friend John Morthland, who programmed panels for the South by Southwest film festival in its infancy, says he could only get panelists from Texas and nearby states in those days. The schedule is crammed with panelists and films from all over now, but SXSW’s programmers still leave plenty of space for native sons and daughters.

Before Midnight, the latest film by hometown hero Richard Linklater (he went to film school here and stayed to found the Austin Film Society), was one of the festival’s most anticipated features, and it did not disappoint. The third in a series of films about Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke), loquacious lovers who meet and spend a memorable day and night together in Before Sunrise, then reunite for another all-nighter years later in Before Sunset, Before Midnight picks up with the two living together, raising twin daughters and sharing custody of Jesse’s son from a previous marriage. Reaching the end of an extended summer vacation in Greece, the couple may also be nearing the end of their time together, as the compulsively truthful Celine keeps upending their cosy life, trying so persistently to figure out what she really wants that she forces even complacent Jesse to do some soul-searching.

Like a funnier, talkier version of Michael Apted’s 7 Up series, the Before trilogy anatomizes Celine and Jesse at nine-year intervals, at ages 23, 32, and 41. Like all of Linklater’s best movies, this one is a torrent of talk poured out in a scant handful of locations. The characters are often on the move or chatting in some ridiculously gorgeous location, allowing us to enjoy the scenery they’re generally oblivious to, distracted by their own thoughts.

Like the other two in the trilogy, Before Midnight relies on very long takes, boosting the sense of realism by making it feel almost as if the action is unfolding in real time. Linklater and cowriters Delpy and Hawke keep slipping interesting ideas or wry observations into the conversational stream to keep us alert and entertained, often about the decline and mortality that is much on the couple’s minds these days. (“The only upside of being over 35 is that you don’t get raped as much,” says Celine.) It can’t be easy to make an engaging and energizing movie in which talk virtually the only action, but these three have always had a gift for dramatizing the life of the mind and the emotional fluctuations of intimate relationships, and they’re getting better at it with age.

Matthew McConaughey, another East Texan with deep roots in Austin—and close ties to Linklater, who gave him his first significant role in Dazed and Confused—showed up to flack his new movie on Sunday. McConaughey is intensely physical and dreamily soulful as the title character in Mud, a beautifully calibrated coming-of-age story set in a small town in Arkansas.

But the real star is Tye Sheridan, the gravely watchful sloe-eyed boy who played the younger son in Tree of Life. He plays Ellis, a 14-year-old who’s working hard to understand romantic love and all that comes with it, starting with the chasm that has opened up in his parents’ marriage. When Ellis and his best friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland, totally convincing as a sweet kid acting tough), take a risky trip to a deserted island, they find Mud hiding out and begin helping him, though they’re not sure whether they should trust this magical, murderous man.

Mud is written and directed by Take Shelter’s Jeff Nichols, and it shares that movie’s main virtues: authentic-sounding dialogue, strong performances, and a take on the dignity and indignities of working-class American life so strong that nothing can dent it, not even Hollywood melodrama (the tsunami in Take Shelter, and a rush to the hospital to save the victim of a poisonous snakebite followed by a heroic shootout in this one). As good as McConaughey and the two boys are, Take Shelter’s Michael Shannon may be even better, in a small but significant part as the secretly attentive uncle who’s raising Neckbone. Sam Shepard lets us inside a near-impenetrable man as Ellis’ neighbor, a puffy-faced coot with a mysterious past; and Reese Witherspoon smolders as Mud’s girlfriend Juniper, a much-abused youngish beauty starting to harden into thin-lipped middle age.

Mud’s lively sense of humor sometimes milks laughs from movie conventions that might otherwise seem hackneyed. After skimming a letter the boys brought her from Mud, Juniper sums up what it says, ostensibly for their benefit but really, of course, to clue in us viewers.

“He says to hang tight,” she says gravely.

“We know,” Neckbone shoots back. “We read it.”

The smartest and most troubling film I’ve seen so far at SXSW is The Act of Killing, a documentary about the slaughter of over a million communists and people suspected–-or, at any rate, accused–-of being communists in Indonesia after the military coup of 1965. Director (and Austin native) Joshua Oppenheimer learned about the killings while doing humanitarian work in Indonesia. He decided to do a documentary about the gangsters and other opportunists who carried out the killings and have since become entrenched in the country’s power structure, but filming the victims proved impossible because of the harassment they encountered from police and other officials. Instead, at the suggestion of one of the victims, he turned his camera on the perpetrators.

To a man, the killers turned out to be, as their victim had predicted, eager to boast about what they had done. Oppenheimer invited some of them to tell their stories however they saw fit, making them, in effect, his co-directors as they conceptualized and acted out brutal interrogations and mass rapes or staged surreal musical numbers in showy natural settings, featuring dancing girls and an obese gangster in drag.

Hearing these aging thugs discuss their murderous reign is deeply unsettling, in part because they point out that terrible things are always done during wars and other violent upheavals, and all victors justify their actions, convinced that the ends justifies the means. “All this talk about human rights pisses me off,” says one aging gangster, before claiming that he didn’t do anything worse than the torture and killing President Bush ordered in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo.

Even more disarming is the humanity Oppenheimer surfaces in the film’s de facto star. Handsome and charismatic, Anwar Congo was one of the most feared of the leaders during the killings, but today he’s an elderly man struggling to reconcile his guilty conscience, acting out scenes in which the ghost of one of the men he killed haunts his sleep. His youthful ruthlessness and the poverty that drove him to become a gangster safely in the past, he seems gentle and loving, wanting nothing more than peace. Watching him coax one of his grandsons into petting an injured chick is eerily reminiscent of watching Brando’s Godfather keel over in his garden.

That’s probably no coincidence. The Act of Killing is about the horrific past that warped and still rules Indonesia’s present, but it’s also about the stories we all construct so we can live with ourselves. And movies—especially American movies—are the stories that most shaped Congo, influencing everything from his clothes to the highly efficient method he devised for killing people, when beating them to death proved to be too bloody. Choking someone with wire is the easiest way to kill a human being, he explains. He learned that from Mafia movies.

Written for The House Next Door

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