‘The Last of the Mohicans’ is a Michael Mann masterwork

As always, spoilers abound. No complaining.

Most people have a favorite movie. Fewer have a favorite director, and even fewer actually like most things their favorite director has made.

For me, that director is Michael Mann. From the emotionally shattering finale of Manhunter to the tiniest ingenious details in the first episode of Tokyo Vice, Mann is an artist who crafts every frame with purpose, which makes rewatching his films a delightful experience of finding new traces of beauty and intent.

But I’m not here to talk about Heat, which attracts film reviewers like mosquitos to a zapper. Not Miami Vice, either. Today, I want to focus on The Last of the Mohicans.

Mohicans isn’t exactly underrated (it’s sitting at a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, if the Tomatometer means anything to you). Rather, it’s mostly ignored, shelved in deference to Mann’s other works. It is rarely mentioned in retrospectives of his career, despite being the only Oscar-winning film in his oeuvre (for Best Sound).

So today, we’re going to talk about Mohicans — and only Mohicans

Daniel Day-Lewis and Michael Mann on the set of The Last of the Mohicans.

Mann on the frontier

Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Hawkeye, the adopted son of aged Mohican patriarch Chingachgook (Russell Means, exuding a quiet calm that was a far cry from his real-life, headline-grabbing activism). Hawkeye’s stepbrother, Uncas, rounds out the family, which almost always appears in scenes together, an unusual but inspired choice that drives home how devoted these characters are to each other. It’s a choice that dates back to the original source material, James Fenimore Cooper’s series of novels about frontier life (though this is one case where I definitely do not recommend reading the books. I hacked my way through “Deerslayer” in high school, and I trust Mark Twain’s opinion as to the quality of the rest. In fact, the film specifically credits the screenplay for the 1936 film adaptation, rather than any of the novels).

While tracking a Huron war party during the early years of the French and Indian War, Hawkeye and family find themselves looking after the two daughters of British Colonel Munro. The daughters are essentially a pair of Jane Austen characters dropped into a violent warzone without the requisite mental or physical fortitude, though the eldest, Cora, proves more durable than the naïve, shell-shocked Alice. What follows is a struggle to keep the daughters alive, one that builds slowly over the course of the film until the finale explodes in a masterful chorus that represents some of the finest 10 minutes in filmmaking history.

I first saw the film as a young child, and I’ve found that the memories forged from that viewing draw special attention to the ways that Mann elevates material other directors might have made boring or rote. I will never forget how Magua, the supposedly Mohawk guide leading the daughters and their military escort through the woods, casually turns and walks against the flow of the march before burying his tomahawk in the neck of an unsuspecting soldier. As with everything in the film, this betrayal doesn’t simply “happen.” There is a build: we seem him turn, see the soldiers look slightly puzzled but completely oblivious, see Magua surreptitiously ready his tomahawk.

Magua just wants to bury the hatchet.

Though we don’t really understand Magua’s motivations until late in the film, this scene gives us an early window into his character beyond the barely-contained rage he expresses almost constantly. There is a theatricality to him, a tendency to delight in confusing his enemies. We see this again later, when his band of rogue warriors terrorizes a battalion of British troops before massacring them.

Speaking of massacres of British troops, one notable aspect of the film is that it does not take sides in the conflict (other than what must have been an irresistible urge to turn one of the British generals into an aristocratic oaf). I’ve found that when I bring up Mohicans in casual conversation, some people tend to remember it as the film that presents “the other side” of the conflict, as if portraying British soldiers massacred (repeatedly) by Huron is somehow in opposition to the wave of revisionist westerns and historical epics, still going strong at the time of release in 1992, that depicted the many crimes committed against native populations throughout America’s history.

Let’s be clear: Mohicans is not presenting “the British side” of the conflict. In fact, the film isn’t really about war in any meaningful sense. Rather, it’s about chaos, about personalities and histories that lead characters into inexorable conflict with each other. If there is a statement about war here, it’s that on the ground, wars are not about countries or politics but about people — people whose allegiances and motivations often have little or nothing to do with the war itself.

The British infantry is ambushed by Magua’s band of renegade Huron warriors.

That’s certainly the case for Magua, whose alliance with the French is purely a means by which to exact revenge on Colonel Munro for the murder of his family. The same goes for his status as an adopted Mohawk, which is simply happenstance. Intellectually and biologically, he is Huron, though even that is murkier than it seems: his vision of what it means to be Huron is twisted by his own tragic experiences and by his long absence from the tribe.

Hawkeye, on the other hand, has no interest in participating in the war and is dragged into it only because he wants to protect Munro’s daughters — specifically his love interest, Cora.

Sounds of silence

It should be clear by now that the plot is nothing spectacular or revolutionary. It’s Mann’s handling of the material that elevates it into a masterwork. Take, for example, the silent romance between Uncas and Alice, in which not a word is spoken onscreen between the characters, and yet — through only a few brief scenes — we understand their relationship and are heartbroken when, in the finale, Uncas is killed and Alice throws herself off a cliff after him, having lost the only thing keeping the trauma of her shell-shock at bay.

Uncas’ lifeless body winds down the cliffside like a snake, recalling the tattoos on his father’s face. Alice seems to fall with the grace of water, which has stained and grooved the cliff faces over millennia and flows with a mixture of beauty and brutal, unsympathetic force. Mann makes a point of repeatedly cutting to waterfalls, big and small, during the final sequence, as if to remind us that water flowed here before any of these characters were born and will flow long after they are gone.

Uncas, grievously wounded, gazes at Alice before his death at the hands of Magua.

I mentioned the film won an Oscar for Best Sound; the finale makes use of a stirring Celtic melody that repeats while gaining momentum throughout the sequence, meshing brilliantly with the visual motif of relentless, unstoppable water while also matching the increasingly frenzied pace of Hawkeye and Chingachgook as they race to rescue and avenge their loved ones. This is only one example of a score that seems to fit the film and its striking visuals perfectly, complementing rather than guiding our emotional reactions to the story.

This is all the more incredible when one discovers that Trevor Jones originally composed electronic pieces for the film, then had to come up with a brand new orchestral score in a mad dash when Mann decided he wanted something more traditional. That score had to be reworked again when the film was cut down to its 112-minute runtime, necessitating some additions from Randy Edelman. What could easily have been a rushed, haphazard mess turned out to be one of the most memorable film scores of the 1990’s.

So why, then, did the film win for Best Sound rather than Best Score? Well, the Academy does have a history of conflating and confusing different categories, but in addition to the more-than-deserving score, the film does make some other interesting sound choices. Most noticeably, it’s one of only a handful of modern films that does away with hokey sound effects for blades and hand-to-hand combat. Weapons, even sharp ones, make realistic thuds rather than squishy metallic noises, drawing attention to the weight and sheer brutality of the tools people use to kill each other.

Paradoxically, the other major sound choice is mostly a lack of sound. The score is a canvas against which Mann lays out his majestic visuals, and everything from dialogue to incidental sound effects often takes a back seat. And when there is a break in the score, it’s usually to emphasize — you guessed it — silence. That’s certainly a sound design choice, and it works great for the film, but in the end, I don’t think there is any real explanation for the Academy’s decision to honor sound design over the score.

Regardless, The Last of the Mohicans is a masterpiece, almost peerless in its seamless convergence of poetic visual storytelling and a complementary orchestral score. Though not everyone would agree with that assessment — The Washington Post’s Desson Howe branded it “the MTV version of gothic romance” and “the Cooper pulp of its day” in one of the most idiotic and superficial film reviews ever printed by a major newspaper — the film has mostly received the appreciation it deserves. But within the context of Mann’s career, it is a forgotten magnum opus, an overlooked departure from the gritty neo-noir for which he is better known. So let this article be a monument to the film’s rightful place as a standout accomplishment in a remarkable career. Don’t let this one fade into obscurity — dig it out and give it a watch.

Watch this movie. Or I will find you.

Okja: a monument to authenticity.

Okja, like much of director Bong Joon-Ho’s body of work, is a special film for a lot of reasons. It successfully blends a fairy-tale aesthetic into what is essentially a real-world film with real-world characters and real-world consequences. It manages to pull off genuine comedic moments with English-speaking characters despite being helmed and mostly written by a South Korean (comedies directed by people who speak a different language than the one spoken onscreen have a long and unfortunate history of failure).

But I’m here to talk about one particular trait of this film that makes it stand high above its peers in my view: its full-throated commitment to taking on the meat industry and issues of animal welfare.

Okja is the story of a girl, Mija, who raises an unusually large “super pig” (the eponymous “Okja”) on her grandfather’s farm in South Korea and forms a close bond with the animal over the course of 10 years. At the end of that period, the pig’s owner — the pork conglomerate “Mirando Corporation” — comes calling, but finds Mija unwilling to send her friend to slaughter.

Mija with Okja, an unusually large pig that enjoys bellyflops and naps.

Plenty of films have featured themes involving environmental activism or animal rights over the years, but if those themes aren’t simply plot dressing, then they are usually watered down to preserve marketability, making them feel almost apologetic in their half-hearted activism. Take 2013’s The East, for instance, which starred Elliot Page and Alexander Skarsgård as vigilantes working to expose the ecological crimes perpetrated by a large corporation. The film is fine, but like so many other films, it portrays environmental activists as just as morally bankrupt as the corporation they are trying to bring down.

That’s par for the course in our era of antiheroes, in which a film isn’t considered realistic unless it’s slathered in so many shades of gray that you can’t tell the heroes from the villains from the victims, but anything gets old if every film is doing it.

That’s why, when a group of environmental activists are introduced in Okja, led by the charismatic Jay (Paul Dano) and working to save Okja from the clutches of the amoral Mirando Corporation, I began to get a little nervous. Jay seems to fit the template. He’s a smooth-talker and projects warmth and magnanimity to an almost exaggerated degree; much like Skarsgård’s character in The East, who turns out to be a megalomaniac willing to kill to achieve his aims.

This impression was strengthened after a scene in which Jay savagely beats a member of his group for failing to properly translate between him and Mija, who doesn’t speak a word of English at the beginning of the film. Upon further reflection, however, I realized this scene exists solely as a moment of cathartic fantasy for Joon-Ho, who had previously been pressured by Harvey Weinstein to cut 20 minutes out of 2013’s Snowpiercer and clearly had a bone to pick with inaccurate translations. The scene is never followed up on thematically and truly seems to exist apart from the film’s narrative. Odd, perhaps, but easily forgivable.

Bong Joon-Ho making his Oscars kiss after winning for 2019’s Parasite.

Indeed, there is no further wanton violence from Jay or anyone else in his group (the Animal Liberation Front, a real-life movement that has no formal leadership or structure). Aside from a genuinely funny moment when one of the activists refuses to eat anything because “all food production is exploitative,” there is no bowing to a consumer-friendly middle ground, no eleventh-hour reveal that “both sides” are to blame. From beginning to end, the corporation attempting to exploit and kill Okja is portrayed as cynical and deceptive, fronted by gleeful so-called “environmentalists” but working constantly toward only one interest: profit. And from beginning to end, Jay’s Animal Liberation Front is there for Mija and Okja.

Late in the film, the activists are caught by police in a desperate attempt to free Okja, and they are mercilessly beaten in a brutal but poignant scene that removes any doubts about the group’s purity of purpose. The scene also recalls Joon-Ho’s attention to activism in his earlier films, particularly in The Host and Memories of Murder (the former had a scene in which a character mused almost mournfully about how no one uses Molotov cocktails in protests anymore). One gets the sense that Joon-Ho holds deep respect for activists, particularly those who are willing to get their hands dirty. For this director, activism isn’t lining up in neat rows and obeying all traffic laws while carrying strongly-worded signs; it’s standing face to face with authority and refusing to back down.

In this film, that “authority” is the Mirando Corporation, which convincingly — and often hilariously — embodies the modern marketing tactic of “corporate activism” or “corporate social responsibility,” wherein a company engages in activism on a particular social issue to improve public perceptions of their business practices. For the Mirando Corporation, that means masquerading as an environmentalist, “earth conscious” company while conducting horrific genetic experiments on pigs away from the public eye. And in a true masterstroke that could only be the product of American Capitalism, it’s those very experiments that are repackaged and spun to the public as a revolutionary cure for world hunger.

Tilda Swinton turns in a deliciously goofy performance as a pair of sibling CEOs heading the Mirando Coporation, but that goofiness exists only to bring the amoral conniving of the corporation to the surface rather than burying it under softball satire as so many other films would have done. Mirando could have easily been a much more cartoonishly evil company, but the attention paid to the calculated hypocrisy of its leadership and marketing reflects the same commitment to thematic authenticity that we see in the unrepentant “goodness” of the Animal Liberation Front. Joon-Ho clearly did not want to make a film that watered down its message by turning its villains into caricatures, any more than he wanted to make a film that traded its moral compass for mass appeal.

Indeed, that authenticity made the leap from the screen into the life of the director himself. Making the film prompted Joon-Ho, once a lover of South Korea’s street barbeque culture, to become a temporary vegan and — as far as I can tell — a permanent pescatarian. That’s a kind of sincerity rarely seen in the film industry, and it shows. This is a film made by someone who cares, and regardless of your opinion about the meat industry, it’s worth seeing for that reason alone. Take it from me: you just might shed a tear.

‘Bird Box’ squanders its potential

[Note: I haven’t read the book, so please consider this a review of the film and only the film. Also, SPOILERS ABOUND.]

Bird Box, the new Netflix original film, is a waste. It’s a waste of a concept, a waste of a tremendously interesting visual motif, and…well, I can’t exactly say it was a waste of time to watch it. After all, I’m writing about it.

Let’s start with the concept. Unknown creatures have ravaged earth’s population by causing mass suicides, which they apparently induce merely by allowing themselves to be seen by their victims. I say “allowing themselves to be seen” because they seem awfully camera-shy. Even at moments when we are clearly told that one of the creatures is creeping up behind an unsuspecting character, the evidence of their presence is limited to spooky sound effects, mysteriously levitating leaves, and sometimes a shadow that reminds me of the 8-bit ghouls from Ghost.

Carl gets dragged away by demons in 1990's "Ghost."
Poor Carl.

And let’s be clear: apart from a single instance that I can recall, these aren’t creeping, corner-of-the-screen affairs. When the leaves levitate, they do it right in the center of the frame. This creates—unintentionally, I think—the impression that the creatures are frequently turning themselves invisible for no apparent reason.

Regardless, the idea of an unknown force causing people to commit suicide isn’t inherently a bad one. The premise does bear some resemblance to “The Happening,” M. Night Shyamalan’s…thing?…but the performances here are more committed, and the tone is darker despite far less gore than Shyamalan’s film. Unfortunately, this team of capable actors—including Sandra Bullock, John Malkovich, and Trevante Rhodes of “Moonlight” fame—can’t save a film that doesn’t know why it exists.

The film’s “arc,” such as it is, intends to trace Malorie’s (Bullock) path from nervous and rather unwilling soon-to-be mother to brave, loving, and accomplished mother of two children, all while traveling down a perilous river toward the promise of safety. But the film wastes so much time on a completely irrelevant series of flashbacks that we simply don’t see Malorie and the children together enough to form much of an emotional investment. Even when they are together, Malorie’s stern consternations and survivalist mentality usually come off as the sort of tough love you would expect in a post-apocalyptic environment, rather than as the excessively cold or harsh attitude the film seems to believe it is portraying.

Early on, I thought things were going in a much more promising direction with the theme of motherhood. Malorie’s initial conversation with her sister implies an unhappy upbringing and a fear of inheriting a similarly distant relationship with her own child. This is a very relatable, real-world issue. Not all mothers immediately connect with their children, and many more have deep fears and anxieties about becoming mothers.

If the film had built upon this groundwork at any point during its two-hour runtime, we might have been able to identify with a mother who is not only fighting to keep her children safe, but is also struggling with learning to love them. I mean, come on. Malorie literally names the children Girl and Boy. The characters seem ready-made for that story, but the one we got instead is far more concerned with developing John Malkovich as an ultimately irrelevant villain within a pointless cabin fever storyline.

The resulting experience is like watching two separate films that have been crudely mashed together, with plot and character threads that simply fall into nowhere land. Why are the creatures (or demons, if one of the clunkiest exposition scenes ever put to film is to be taken literally) killing humans, and why now? Why are we immediately shown that Malorie is an artist in the second scene of the film, only for that trait to never be referenced again in any capacity? Why, if Malorie’s upbringing is so important to her character, is that background not further developed beyond a throwaway line that explains why she knows her way around a shotgun? This is to say nothing of the numerous plot holes, of which I will mention only one: the creatures are inexplicably afraid of the interiors of buildings, and each and every character seems to implicitly know they are safe indoors despite clear evidence that the creatures are physical entities that can interact with physical objects. In other words, why can’t the creatures open doors?

Then there is the most baffling question of all: Why does the film place so much importance on the “revelation” that Girl is not Malorie’s biological child? Again, the film seems to have thought about going in several directions and decided, in the end, to choose no direction at all. You can almost see the wheels turning late in the film, when Malorie and the children are approaching dangerous rapids in their canoe while blindfolded. Malorie surmises that someone must remove their blindfold and expose their eyes to the creatures in order to help guide the canoe through the rapids. It must be one of the children, because if Malorie dies, they all die. The film clearly wants us to think she is leaning toward choosing Girl, and in a different film, even the suggestion of that possibility would be compelling. We have been told quite emphatically that Girl is not her biological daughter, and even the most idealistic among us can empathize with Malorie choosing to keep her son safe.

But like the film itself, Malorie decides that no choice is better. She rows blindly through the rapids, the boat predictably capsizes, and everyone makes it out okay despite being unable to see (Malorie’s superhuman ears manage to hear Girl ringing a bell while she is floundering half-submerged in roaring water).

The film completely sidesteps the dilemma it has raised, perhaps thinking Malorie’s admittedly brave refusal to choose is a key moment in the motherhood arc it forgot to develop. Worse, her decision carries no consequences. She risks everything rather than choose one child over the other, but all she sacrifices are a few moments of fear.

What could have been

I mentioned at the beginning that Bird Box had more going for it than an interesting concept. One of the reasons this film has surged in popularity across social media is its utterly original (and meme-able) images of a blindfolded family struggling through a wilderness. Yet cinematographer Salvatore Totino, a frequent collaborator of Ron Howard whose credits include big-budget tentpole films like The Da Vinci Code and Spider-Man: Homecoming, seems to be phoning it in. The blindfolds worn by almost every character in the film, which are usually repurposed household items like dishrags, add a welcome pop of color in the scenes on the river, which are otherwise muted. Their rough-hewn, handmade look is wonderfully evocative of the world in which these characters live, and at times, it almost seems as if Malorie’s very life force is tied to her blue blindfold.

But the camera never seems aware of the power of these characters’ faces when their eyes are covered. In fact, the film’s poster does a better job of capturing this imagery than the film itself ever does. Even the frequent POV shots through Malorie’s not-quite-opaque blindfold, which could have added an element of danger and suspense, seem randomly placed and obligatory. The film never stops to admire the grim, windswept beauty of these characters and the environment they traverse, even managing to make a scene in which two women go into labor laughable in its matter-of-fact mediocrity.

Not all of this is Totino’s fault, of course. A few shots are even made needlessly ugly by wardrobe decisions, a typical example of the film’s lazy approach to its gold mine of potential visuals. In fact, it’s hard to pick anyone to blame. Susanne Bier, the director, won an Academy Award in 2011 for her film In a Better World. The screenwriter has also been previously nominated for an Academy Award, and Totino’s prior work proves he knows what he’s doing. In the end, the film’s failure is its lack of a passionate vision from anyone involved. The production quality and all-star cast might have been enough to lead Bird Box to success on Netflix, but in time, the film’s only real legacy will be to lead frustrated artists everywhere to mutter, “I could have done it better.”