‘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.

High Noon: a subversive masterpiece

For a film that has inspired so many rip-offs and re-imaginings in the past 70 years — with a title that has become synonymous with the Western genre itself — High Noon (1952) stands alone as a remarkably offbeat work of Western cinema. Yet it is largely forgotten by today’s moviegoers, who can be forgiven for assuming that once you’ve seen a John Wayne picture or “Bonanza,” you’ve seen it all.

The title does the film no favors today; it recalls the gunslinging showdowns we can see in a thousand other films. But the genius of this film is not in its (single) shootout, nor in any macho bravado from its protagonist, an aging town marshal on the cusp of retirement with his new bride. Instead, the film subverts the old “team up” formula that sees the first two acts dedicated to assembling and getting to know a posse that will ultimately take down the bad guys. In High Noon, Gary Cooper’s marshal Kane starts with a room full of friends and admirers — gathered to celebrate his wedding to an alarmingly young Grace Kelly — and sees them abandon him one by one in his quite literal hour of need.

Kane’s troubles begin when a gang of outlaws rides into town, led by the murderous — but freshly pardoned — Frank Miller. Kane had put Miller away five years prior, and there is little doubt his gang is out for bloodshed.

So far so predictable, right? Well, from the opening credit shots of the outlaws gathering on the outskirts of town, we know this is no ordinary film. These shots, otherwise silent, are accompanied by a quietly haunting theme that establishes the soft-but-persistent percussion beat that will continue to appear throughout the film. As the music fades, we get a lingering, almost silent shot of the three outlaws riding side-by-side, their faces hard and unmoved, as if chiseled from stone. We don’t who they are yet, but the cumulative effect of the soundtrack and the cinematography tells us that something is wrong.

The film opens on the always-menacing Lee Van Cleef in his first film role. He doesn’t have a single line in the film.

Things only get more non-traditional from here. Instead of riding into town with torches lit and guns blazing, the outlaws head straight for the local railroad station, where their leader is due to arrive on the noon train. This gives Kane about an hour to assemble a posse, an hour that passes in real time in the film.

As I’ve already let on, the posse doesn’t materialize. One early betrayal comes from Kane’s deputy (Lloyd Bridges), a younger, dumber, and more macho lawman who quits after Kane refuses to promise him the marshal job after retirement. The deputy is a satirized version of the more traditional Western hero who speaks brashly, kisses women without their consent, and substitutes muscle for brains. He is even branded with what would have been a damning insult for a man at the time of the film’s 1952 release, when a woman tells him his broad shoulders don’t make him a man.

With his deputy gone, Kane turns to the townspeople, who earlier in the day seemed so appreciative of the work he had done to make the town safe. Now, everyone has a reason to leave Kane out in the cold. Some, like the proprietors of the bar and hotel, remember the prosperity they enjoyed when Miller and his band of carousers had frequented their establishments. One friend hides rather than admit he’s afraid to die, while others say it’s just not their problem.

But not everyone’s excuse can be so easily dismissed as selfish or cowardly. Martin Howe (Lon Chaney of The Wolf Man fame), Kane’s predecessor as marshal, says he’s simply too old and arthritic to be of any use. Kane’s skeptical glare tells us this probably isn’t true, but the camera lingers on Howe after Kane departs, and we learn the real reason for his reticence: nihilism.

“It’s all for nothing,” Howe laments to himself. “All for nothing.”

Howe, it seems, has been down this road before. He knows the townspeople can’t be counted on, and he now believes that a career spent protecting people who will never return the favor is a waste. He has nothing left to give to others, having drained his capacity for self-sacrifice in his past life as a marshal. If you look up foreshadowing in the dictionary, Howe’s sad face will be staring back at you.

Kane appeals to Howe’s better nature, but it’s too late. Howe knows what’s in store and wants no part of it.

Then there is Amy, Kane’s bride. A Quaker ever since witnessing the deaths of her brother and father to gun violence, she threatens to leave Kane if he doesn’t leave town with her. Her refusal to stand by him is an enduring reminder of the marshal’s loneliness. Every time they meet, each hoping the other has changed their mind, a band-aid is placed on the wound, only to be ripped off anew when she reaffirms her commitment to pacifism. Yet she is never really gone; the film’s theme song, which features the refrain, “Do not forsake me oh my darling,” repeats time and time again in the background, reminding us that no matter how many times friends turn their backs on Kane, only one relationship really matters in the end.

And finally there is Kane himself, whose motivations are not as clear as they first appear. Western stereotypes tell us he is there to selflessly protect the town, but he tells his wife he cannot flee because Miller will follow them anywhere they go. Later, when asked again why he won’t just run away, he says he doesn’t know.

When he visits a church to try to round up a few volunteers, one parishioner explains that the gang is after Kane, not the town, telling him to leave because “we don’t want to see you die.” This sounds like sound advice until one considers the parishioner isn’t saying, “We don’t want you to die,” but is actually saying, “We don’t want to witness your death.”

This is the key to understanding what is going through Kane’s head. He may not be too proud to ask for help, but it turns out that he is too proud to admit that the help is more for him than for the town at large. Sure, one churchgoer cautions that the town will go to ruin if outlaws like Miller are allowed free reign, but the truth is that no one seems particularly afraid of Miller. They didn’t put him away; Kane did. They won’t have to face him in the street; Kane will.

Kane isn’t trying to rally a defense force for a town of innocents. He’s simply asking for a bit of reciprocity, a touch of empathy in return for years of dedication to the safety of the townspeople.

Kane, all alone as he awaits the arrival of the Miller gang.

Many see a political allegory in this film, and it has been a favorite of several U.S. presidents, from Eisenhower to Clinton. Certainly, while Kane sees himself as part of a community, the town’s citizens see him as an “other,” little more than a man they pay with their taxes to worry about things so they don’t have to. In short, a politician.

“I pay for the marshal and deputies to keep the town safe,” one citizen says. “This isn’t my job.”

Another points out that the fault lies with the politicians “up north” who pardoned Miller, an almost comically unhelpful observation and not a particularly convincing reason to refuse Kane’s pleas for help.

But beyond the theme of a town disconnected from the man they have hired — or elected — to represent them in the unsavory matters of the law, the emotionally resonant core of the film is the loneliness of a man who has given everything to his town, only to be abandoned when he finally needs a little help in return. It’s a refreshing turn for a genre that generally seeks catharsis through gunfights; while the film does end with a shootout, it’s not one the audience is supposed to look forward to. The frequent shots of clocks ticking throughout the film, juxtaposed with the near-constant betrayals and abandonments Kane suffers, evoke a sense of dread, not anticipation. And when we reach the conclusion, the film has one more subversion up its sleeve.

Amy, Kane’s bride, makes the last-minute decision to return to her husband when she hears the first shots ring out. Managing to get the drop on one of the gang members, she shoots the man in the back, killing him. Then, briefly captured by Miller, she refuses to be a simple damsel in distress and struggles free, creating an opening for Kane to fire and end the fight for good.

The strength of Amy’s character doesn’t fully emerge until the final scenes of the film, but when it does, we remember.

There’s a lot to unpack there. The film pairs what is traditionally an unforgivable sin for Western heroes — shooting a man in the back — with what is otherwise a positive choice to stand by Kane. Like the motivations of the townspeople and Kane himself, nothing is black and white. We know Amy made the right call, but we also see the pain the act creates in her, an exhausted sort of pain that shares a kinship with the nihilistic resignation of Howe, the former marshal. This is not a loss of innocence — Amy lost that long ago, with the deaths of her father and brother — but it’s the loss of an alternative, a way of life that doesn’t involve violence.

In breaking the mold of the helpless damsel, the character of Amy was a source of consternation among hallowed titans of the genre like John Wayne and Howard Hawkes. Wayne, who had run the film’s writer out of the country for suspected communist sympathies and saw the film as an allegory for the practice of blacklisting, called the film “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life.” Hawkes remarked, “I didn’t think a good town marshal was going to run around town like a chicken with his head cut off asking everyone to help. And who saves him? His Quaker wife. That isn’t my idea of a good Western.”

Indeed, the film’s depiction of masculinity feels quite modern, from its ridicule of the muscular and brash deputy to the moment when, 15 minutes before Miller is due to arrive, Kane considers giving in to fear and fleeing on a horse.

That moment is also when we get the film’s first real fight scene, between Kane and the deputy. The catalyst for the fight? The deputy wants Kane to get on the horse and leave. Like the churchgoers, he doesn’t want Kane to die in the town, right in front of him, where the moral implications of shirking his duty are unavoidable. As far as fights in Western films go, it’s not the most exciting, but the clash between the different versions of manhood the men represent is far more interesting than the drunken brawls and feuds over lovers that characterize so many other films in the genre.

Unorthodox to the very end, the film closes not with a triumphant celebration but with Kane’s scornful repudiation of the townspeople who had left him to die. He tosses his badge to the ground and rides away with Amy, leaving everyone else to reckon with their choices. We get the sense that he will be living for himself and for his family from now on, having acquired the cynicism but not the broken spirit of former marshal Howe.

Not exactly the most communist of messages, is it, Mr. Wayne?

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.

What ‘Blade Runner 2049’ means to me

We often hear that films, like all forms of art, are “subjective.” But what does that actually mean?

There is a deeply personal side to watching movies that we rarely acknowledge. Reviews, for good reason, generally address the more “objective” qualities of a film—the quality of its camerawork or soundtrack, for instance, or whether or not its actors were convincing in their roles. Then there is film criticism, which, like its literary counterpart, delves into the themes and background of the work. But even if you combine these, as Roger Ebert often did, you still have only half the picture of the true experience of a film.

How were you feeling when you entered the theater? Were you still thinking about how your boss chewed you out earlier in the day? Maybe the film triggered a long-forgotten childhood memory, or a character’s voice sounded just like your mother’s. Perhaps a comic relief sidekick everyone hated was your favorite character, if only because you once knew someone just like him.

These are not objective measures of a film, but we should not discount them, either. After all, there is a reason few critics agree on their favorite films. What pushes a film from great to magnificent is not perfect technical precision or classically trained actors; it’s the moments when something inside us connects with something in the film, and for a time, the line between reality and performance fades away.

With that said, let me tell you about a time when, for me, a great film became magnificent.

I saw Blade Runner 2049 four times when it entered theaters in October of 2017. I like to watch great films more than once, but four times in the span of a few weeks was unusual even for me. I’ve already written an analysis of some of the film’s themes, which provides plenty of reasons why I should like it, but that’s not the whole story. You see, in October of 2017, I was working as a manager at a big-box retailer (if you would like to know which one, consider that the experience of working there felt like repeatedly banging my head against a brick wall, and its name references that same wall). Despite several positive developments in my life (including marriage), I was languishing in depression. I have always had something of a morose personality, but the deeply cynical realities of working in this particular environment were driving me into the ground at an alarming rate.

Along came 2049. Somewhere around the scene where K (Ryan Gosling) learns—or thinks he learns—that he is more than your average replicant, I began to sense a working-class parable in the making. K is essentially a slave at the beginning of the film, and he is closely monitored for any signs of dissatisfaction with his role via a “baseline test.” He is an arm of the State, which could just as easily be a megacorporation, and his identity is tied to that entity. Developing his own sense of self is forbidden for two principal reasons: First, it would affect his ability to do his job. Hunting replicants depends on accepting the narrative that they are inferior and unworthy of free will, because denying that narrative means empathizing with those he is supposed to kill or capture. Second, a sense of self, with all the emotions and aspirations that come with it, would rob the powerful of much of their hold on society. Consider Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), a rock star of an entrepreneur who derives his immense wealth and power from the assumption that his replicants are completely under his control. Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), K’s boss, also alludes to a figurative wall separating humans and replicants that must remain in place to prevent all-out war between the oppressors and their slaves.

I connected with K immediately, because I felt similar pressures to conform and defer to questionable authority. Staff meetings were thinly-disguised baseline tests; Incomprehensibly stupid instructions were sometimes given for seemingly no other reason than to ensure I would blindly do as I was told. Employees with difficult home lives or mental issues were steamrolled unceremoniously by an unsympathetic system run by traumatized nutbags. A certain deceased entrepreneur (you might say he contributed a “ton” of bricks to the “wall” I mentioned earlier. Gosh, I’m clever) was practically worshipped as a prophet for his pure and altruistic motives, even as the corporation he founded raked in monstrous profits by terraforming local economies to suit its business model. Wallace would have been proud.

It felt good to see K realize, all at once, that he had far more potential as an individual than he had been allowed to believe. The rage and sadness he felt at simultaneously understanding the extent of his oppression and becoming aware of his own capacity for free thought made me think about how I might have been limiting myself in my depressive haze. As tears streamed from K’s face, I recalled a time when I had broken down in tears in the middle of an aisle at work, having dwelled a moment too long on the vast difference between what I wanted to do with my life and what I was doing with my life. I felt trapped on a path I had never intended to take. I sensed that K, too, felt his life had been guided by a malevolent hand.

Of course, K eventually realizes that he is not, in fact, the “chosen one” he believed himself to be. This is the film’s most brilliant touch, because by the time this happens, K has already steered himself onto a path of self-actualization. As it turns out, the idea that he was the first natural-born replicant was never his primary motivator. It was simply a push in the right direction, a red pill that allowed him to see past the life society had built for him. His true motivation is the knowledge that he is an individual, that he serves no master but himself.

This internal drive is underlined by his rejection of the replicant freedom fighters, who seem at first to be saviors but treat him as just another cog in the machine, a pawn to be sacrificed, an arm of the rebellion. He defies their orders to kill Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), saving the old hunter instead. Rather than swapping one set of overlords for another, he serves only his own will.

The scene in which K fights to save Deckard, battling against the ocean’s inexorable tide and Wallace’s replicant minion, struck me more powerfully than any other part of the film. It has been noted by many critics that the enormous waves thrashing into K in this climactic scene function as a nod to Rutger Hauer’s final rain-drenched scene in the original Blade Runner. While this is certainly true, the waves meant something far more profound to me. As I watched K struggle to hold his ground against the unstoppable elements, I began to feel a perverse sense of pride. I know what that feels like, I thought. I’ve been doing that every day.

The waves represented every outside force conspiring to weigh me down. They represented internal forces like doubt, mental exhaustion, and fatalism. They represented the overwhelming power of a society that wanted to cram me into a corner and leave me there to rot. And yet, dealing with these same forces, K fought on.

Maybe I could, too.

From that day forward, whenever I began to slip into despair, I would remember K standing firm as waves whaled into him on the shore, and I would find the strength to keep going. I had never had what you might call an “idol” growing up, but suddenly K, a fictional character, fit into that slot perfectly. In less than two months, I found a job that was better in every way, a job where I could use my degree and where the work environment did not make me feel like I was competing on “Survivor.” This was no coincidence. Crazy as it may sound, Denis Villeneuve’s film inspired me to climb out of the quicksand and better myself. 2049 understands what it is like to be dehumanized by a power structure consumed with its own self-interest and corrupt, insular morality. It understands how people become machines, and how machines become people. Regardless of whether or not Villeneuve and the writers fully intended to create a story about a working-class drone rising up to defy the dictates of society, that was the film I saw, and I will forever be grateful for it.

‘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.”