What Comes At Night

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on November 3.]

What’s more terrifying: the things you cannot see that are outside the walls, or the things inside the walls that you may not fully understand? And so the question is begged: what comes at night? I had wanted to see It Comes At Night as soon as I found out that the writer/director was Trey Edward Shults, who made one of the best films of 2015, Krisha (which is magnificent and terrifying in its own way as an examination of family and mental illness).

It Comes At Night is not a typical horror. There’s a minuscule amount of blood, and the terror is mostly confined to wondering what might happen. But, as with any worthwhile horror, the tension is used to tell a deeper story. What are we scared of and why? Are things that should terrify us played down because we know them well? Is the unknown and unnamed fear only fearful because we don’t know it?

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Lost in the Bedroom

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on October 27.]

File this under favorite authors/favorite films. I’ve enjoyed reading Andre Dubus since I was in college. “Killings” is one of his short stories that moved me most. (For another, try “A Father’s Story.”) Todd Field and Rob Festinger do both the story and Dubus himself more than justice in their 2001 film adaptation, In the Bedroom.

I don’t detect a false note anywhere in this film. Every detail is fitted perfectly to the story, every moment adds texture and contour and weight. The kids on the baseball field, the Red Sox games on the radio at significant moments, the details of place in Maine: this is what it looks like to build a believable film.

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Snapshots of Grief

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on October 13.]


A few years ago, I did the funeral for my grandmother in a small town in eastern Oregon. My grandfather (who had died a couple years prior) and she had lived in this town for many years and I had visited them there both as a child and then later when I was married with my own family. But what struck me about doing my grandmother’s funeral was that, with her, my last, physical connection to that little town died. I could visit on vacation, as I would anywhere else. But there was no familial reason to return there again.

The connection of people to particular places throughout time is at least one theme in A Ghost Story, starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. This isn’t a horror movie, if that’s what you’re looking for. It’s not trying to be scary. But I have far more questions at the end than I did at the beginning. Like, for example, can Casey Affleck enunciate a little more clearly? Is that him in the sheet the entire time? Will Rooney Mara ever be in a happy movie? What’s on the little scrap of paper? Does it matter?

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Nihilism in the Moonlight

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on September 29.]

I’m not going to lie: there’s a little bit of hipster in me. It’s much harder for me to get enthusiastic about movies or music that other people recommend to me (with the exception of a couple people). I like to be the one who recommends things to other people. I know that’s a fault, but there it is. This is especially true of those things that win at major award shows, such as the Academy Awards. I still haven’t seen Spotlight, though it’s on my list, and I kept putting off seeing Moonlight until last night.

Maybe part of it is the fear of disappointment. Awards raise expectations, and they’re so often unfulfilled. For my part, I wouldn’t have chosen Moonlight or La La Land, though they are both clearly cinematic achievements. If I were the Academy, the Best Picture would have gone to Silence, which is beautiful, sweeping, and profound. But I’m not the Academy, so who cares?

I don’t want to be the person who has to put films down because they garner so much attention (though, as I said, I have that tendency). And so this is not that sort of review of Moonlight. It’s a great film. It’s unique and it’s easy to see why Hollywood and the critics loved it. There’s nothing else like it: a depiction of black life that is not confined to one sub-culture or to one neighborhood, and that has a gay, black male at the center of the story. Who has a frame of reference for a film like this? So it’s ground-breaking, and it has received every sort of encomium that you would expect to see flash on a screen as the trailer ends, with all the laurels and awards.

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Inventing New Gods and Old

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on September 22]

It will always be my favorite example of Hollywood missing the point entirely: the 1999 remake/reimagining of Graham Greene’s novel The End of the Affair. The End of the Affair was one of my favorite novels that I read while I was in college. So when I first heard that the movie had come out with Julianne Moore, Ralph Fiennes, and Stephen Rea, I was excited to see how Greene’s vision translated to film.

I have no illusions about the difference between books and movies. I prefer, as often as possible, to read the book before I watch the film. But they are not the same sort of thing. Books can do things that films can’t, and vice-versa. But if the film misunderstands or completely misses the central theme of the book—especially if it’s one of my favorites!—it takes all enjoyment out of the experience of interacting with those two visions.

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An Island of Guilt

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on September 15]

One of my favorite lines from any song is “Every moment is a red light/a red light you just run” (“Puttin’ Out Fires,” Bill Mallonee [Vigilantes of Love]). It highlights the futility of trying to undo something that is in the past. As we feel the burden or the guilt of some action in the past, especially actions that we cannot undo, we constantly seek to atone for the action and justify ourselves. It’s a natural reaction on our part to want to make right what we’ve done wrong. But how can those wrongs in the past ever be made right? They’re over and done with, and yet we’re not free of them.

And so it is for Anatoly in The Island (Ostrov), a 2006 Russian-language film set primarily on a remote island in Northern Russia. And even though the film begins in the water around the island, the story begins on a Russian tugboat in 1942, which is then boarded by Nazis for no apparent reason other than sadism. They tell Anatoly that if he wants to live, he must shoot the captain of the tugboat, Tikhon. Explosives set by the Nazis quickly reveal that they had no intention of letting Anatoly or the boat survive.

Orthodox monks find Anatoly washed up on the shore. The next we see of him, thirty-plus years have passed and he lives in a furnace room, where he does exactly the same job he had on the tugboat, collecting and shoveling coal into a furnace. It appears, in fact, that Anatoly is engaged in the Sisyphean task of reliving his time on the tugboat by doing that work multiple time each day. He pushes his wheelbarrow the length of an uneven bridge out to what remains of the tugboat, collects coal, pushes the wheelbarrow back, and then he does it again.

Day after day, he does this, and somehow, in the thirty years since he arrived, the people who live in the area have come to think of him as a holy man who does everything from giving good advice to healing the sick and casting out demons.

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The Stories We Tell Ourselves

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on September 1]

What if you could stand outside your life and look at it from a distance? That’s the premise of Wakefield, the recently released film starring Bryan Cranston and Jennifer Garner. A power outage and a raccoon bring Harold (Cranston) to the space above his garage, from where he can see his wife and two daughters preparing supper.

Of course, he’s not really looking at his life, but at the part of it that goes on without him. And from that point of observation, he sees things he couldn’t see while he was actually living in the middle of it. He sees his twin, teenage daughters, who suddenly (to him, at least) have become distant and treat him like an obstacle to be avoided. From the attic over the garage, he believes he can see them more truly as they are.

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Modern Prodigals

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on August 25]

This contains spoilers (of a 2005 film) so you may want to watch first and read after.

I had to wait until the end to see if it was worth it, but the answer is an unequivocal yes to L’Enfant (The Child).

I found it on Image Journal‘s “The Arts and Faith Top 100 Films,” which also brought to my attention Ordet. This is the first film by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne I’ve watched, but the others are now on my list.

It’s one of those films where you simply don’t know if it’s going to pay off, but because it only runs 90 minutes, you’re willing to take the risk (or, at least, I was). You know things are not going to go well when the first scene shows a teenage mother, just released from the maternity ward, searching for the father of her child. She finds him involved in some sort of scheme, far more interested in a man coming out of a pub than in his newborn son.

Sonia (Déborah François) naively assumes that Bruno (Jérémie Renier—who, I assume, is the French counterpart to Jeremy Renner) will demonstrate some kind of paternal concern, but the viewer can see more clearly that he is only interested in using anything and anyone to make a little cash. You know from the synopsis and from the foreshadowing comments of his buyer that he’s going to try to sell the child, but his apparently total lack of care for the child is shocking, even in our anti-child culture. Regret comes only when he’s surprised(!) that Sonia isn’t happy at how much money he’s made from having the child “adopted.” And then Bruno assumes that when he gets the child back, Sonia will be pleased and automatically forgiving.

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The Apostle E.F. and God in Spite of Us

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on August 18]

If The Godfather did not exist, my list of favorite movies would probably begin with The Apostle. It’s certainly the movie I have watched most. Robert Duvall is brilliant and complicated. For a long time after, I couldn’t watch him in any other role without thinking of the Apostle E.F., because he embodies the character so fully. Farrah Fawcett as Jessie and June Carter Cash as Mrs. Dewey are perfect as Sonny’s estranged wife and mother, respectively. Even minor roles are nicely cast, with Billy Bob Thornton and Walton Goggins, as well as John Beasley (who happens to be a Lutheran).

Perhaps one of the things that appeals to me most about the film (besides the religious aspects) is that there is nothing flat about Duvall’s writing, directing, or acting. As I said, he becomes Sonny so completely that, other than Tom Hagen in The Godfather, this is the role that, for me, bleeds into every other film I’ve seen of his.

Incidentally, this is a film about celebrity pastors who build empires to their own names. Sonny finds himself suddenly expelled not only from his church but from his marriage. This leads to one of my favorite scenes, where Sonny is praying loudly enough for the neighbors to hear. His mother gets a phone call asking her to tell him to be quiet, but she says, “Sometimes he talks to the Lord and sometimes he yells at the Lord. Tonight, he’s yelling at Him.”

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The Cost of Changing a Mind

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on August 11]

How do minds change? We tend to assume that if only we can present our opinions in the right way, and if the other person would simply be reasonable, then our rational opinions would surely change their rational minds. Those assumptions lead us to the conclusion that if I present my opinion and the other person doesn’t change his or her mind, then that person must be unreasonable or something worse. Who wouldn’t be willing to change his or her mind when confronted with the excellent and reasonable arguments I present, about which I am already convinced? So disagreement has become not a sign of a rational, contingent opinion held in good faith, but a sign of a disease or poison that must be eradicated in order for reason and justice to prevail. That’s not a good recipe for civil discussion.

On the other hand, maybe changing one’s mind—about anything—is more of a miracle than we usually take it to be. Think about it: you see some particular issue one way. The way you see that issue, with your assumptions and conclusions, determines not only how you see but what you see. What do you count as evidence for your way of thinking? You count certain things as evidence because of the way you see while, at the same time, you see things in that way because of what you consider evidence for your point of view. In a place and time where very little is shared in the way of bedrock assumptions, we should be clear just how little is simply “there” for “rational people” to see and understand.

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