Mon. Nov 29th, 2021

Hello everyone, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. We had a fairly light week in films this time, owing to one singular cause: we finally got a Playstation 5. After half a year of manically following up on twitter alerts and supply dumps, I was able to cross state lines to procure this bizarrely inaccessible console. As a result, a fair amount of the time that might have been dedicated to films was instead poured into videogames, as I hacked through Demon’s Souls for my fourth or fifth time, and commenced a group playthrough of Resident Evil VIII.

Fortunately, we still made time for some film screenings in the margins, and this time we even knocked out some classics. Let’s see where the rambling takes us then, as we wander through another Week in Review!

First off, we caught a couple more streaming films this week, starting with Till Death. Till Death is a thriller/horror film starring Megan Fox as a young woman in an unhappy marriage. Seemingly realizing they’re drifting apart, her husband schedules a surprise trip to their lodge in the countryside – but after a night of rekindled romance, Fox awakes with a handcuff on her wrist, and her dead husband attached to the other. Apparently, her husband had decided his life was no longer worth living – and in a final rage of bitterness, he decided to take his wife down with him.

I really wasn’t sure how Till Death’s premise was going to support an entire film, but you know what, they pulled it off. Fox’s character is determined and scrappy, and watching her cross wits with her husband’s pre-planned roadblocks makes for a satisfying puzzle box of an experience. Then, when it seems the film has largely expended its initial dramatic resources, a pair of actual attackers are introduced, shifting the film towards a hide-and-seek home invasion. Fox isn’t entirely convincing, but she puts in a committed performance, and the film’s rotating roster of threats keep energy high throughout. On the whole, Till Death is a tasty little thriller, and basically provides the experience I was hoping for from The Lodge.

After that we watched the hilariously titled Avengement, which stars Scott Adkins as the tough-talking, high-kicking badass he always plays, newly escaped from prison and ready for… avengement. This film is one of a half-dozen collaborations between Adkins and stuntman-turned-stunt coordinator-turned director Jesse V. Johnson, a man who clearly knows how to use a physically gifted lead. Unsurprisingly, Avengement’s action is balletic, frenetic, and brutal, with the complexity of Adkin’s maneuvers never undercutting the brutality and desperation of his fights. The film is ninety straight minutes of tavern and prison brawls, complimented by the distinctive, slang-driven poetry of British hooligans getting really, really mad at each other. A no-frills film that delivers precisely what it promises.

Following that, I decided to introduce some goddamn culture back into the living room, and so we checked out Fargo. I haven’t seen Fargo for over a decade, and thus felt dazzled anew by the Coen’s black comedy crime drama. The film creates a distinct and self-contained world, a planet of overbearing snowdrifts and endless flat horizons, dotted with homesteads and businesses offering sanctuary from the nothingness outside. I have rarely seen a landscape rendered so uniform via cinema trickery; through careful use of snow, staging, and perspective, the Coens succeed in turning Minnesota and North Dakota into the surface of the moon.

This bleak expanse is populated by some of the greatest actors of their generation, all living out humble lives on the eternal tundra. In a lesser film, William H. Macy’s mewling car salesman would steal the show – here, he’s just one of a roster of iconic performances, as his plans to nab his own wife’s ransom money set the plot in motion. Macy hires two thugs for the job, played by two of the best cinema criminals in history: the perpetually sweaty Steve Buscemi, and the inherently menacing Peter Stormare. The two stumble their way through the abduction leaving three bodies in their wake, and that’s when our actual hero Frances McDormand appears, playing a deeply pregnant police chief with a can-do attitude and one of the most charming accents in film history.

That the Coens would assemble such a distinguished collection of character actors is no surprise; after all, their films are some of the most character-rich dramas in Hollywood. Coen films don’t feature Leading Men and Nefarious Villains – they feature people, unique individuals with their own idiosyncrasies, failings, and idle fantasies. Given such rich characters to inhabit, all of Fargo’s stars turn in iconic performances, with the Coens’ script giving all of them just enough room to express themselves over the course of a relatively efficient thriller. And though the film has few overt jokes, the simple disconnect between its characters’ actions and affectations make it consistently hilarious. 

Whether it’s Macy meekly clarifying the terms of a hostage trade, or McDormand listing off the details of a triple homicide with an “aw jee, what’s this now” tone, the plain reality of sticking these characters in this narrative makes for both a funny and oddly relatable experience. I mean, why would people who aren’t career criminals be any good at crime, and why wouldn’t McDormand treat her work with the same cheerful indifference as any other committed, competent employee?

The contrast between Fargo’s setting, subject, and tone all seem to gesture towards a larger point, though it’s more implied than explicit. Things come to a head near the film’s finale, when McDormand wonders aloud what would drive these criminals to such actions “for just a little bit of money.” Looking up at the bleak, overcast horizon, she adds, “and it’s a beautiful day!” Though the Coens make a visual nightmare of Minnesota, it’s clearly not so to the state’s inhabitants, who are troubled only by the violence these criminals brought to it. McDormand carries her home with her; settling in next to her loving, stamp-painting husband, she cannot fathom the want that drives such men to destroy themselves.

Our last film of the week was The Bridge on the River Kwai, a WWII drama about  prisoners of war who are tasked by their Japanese overseers with constructing a bridge, as part of Japan’s ongoing efforts to build a unified Burma Railway. Though the current prisoners (including William Holden as Commander Shears, an American officer) have given up any hope of rescue or survival, the arrival of a British regiment led by Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) changes everything. Nicholson is implacable in his insistence on fair treatment of the prisoners, and though the camp’s leader Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) attempts to break him, he refuses to be cowed. Eventually, Nicholson’s stalwart attitude and martial competency have him essentially leading the bridge-building efforts, complicating the relationship between him and his captor Saito.

The Bridge on the River Kwai is an engaging and ambitious war drama, portraying a clash of wills that evolves into something verging on mutual respect between Nicholson and Saito. Ultimately, I found it most interesting as a contrast between four war-forged perspectives: Shears, Nicholson, Saito, and the camp doctor, Major Clipton (James Donald).

Shears sees no hope in his imprisonment, and no dignity in his labor as a prisoner. When Nicholson states that “to give up our officer positions would be to admit that we are not soldiers, but slaves,” Shears happily agrees that he is already a slave. His only hope for dignity or even life is escape – and so escape he does, until he finds himself accompanying a British expedition back to destroy the bridge. The course of the war has no relevance to Shears, but his respect for human lives never wavers; from start to finish, he is never a “soldier,” but rather a man driven by human dignity who happens to wear a soldier’s clothes.

Nicholson is a fascinating disaster of a character, and the fulcrum on which the overall drama rests. When Saito tells him that officers will work alongside their men, he helpfully pulls out his copy of the Geneva Convention, and points to the relevant passage. After days in solitary confinement, his medical officer begs him to stand down, but he is undeterred. Even when the wounded soldiers are threatened with work shifts, he refuses, saying it is “a matter of principle.” Nonetheless, without him and the other officers, his men fail to perform any useful labor – and thus, Saito is ultimately forced to stand down, and surrender his own pride to ensure his mission is completed.

Saito is quite interesting in his own way, and makes for a terrific foil to Nicholson. At first, Saito comes across as an entirely unreasonable, inhumane figure, who’s happy to commit human rights violations in order to get his way. But as Nicholson pushes back against his poise, we soon realize Saito’s bravado is the shield of a frightened and desperate man. Saito wanted to be an artist, not a soldier, and he knows that if he fails to create this bridge, he will have to kill himself in disgrace. In the end, it is Saito who offers concessions, not Nicholson – and through the film’s second half, we see him reflecting on the true substance of his life with a humility that Nicholson could never equal. The early relationship of the two is summed up by Saito’s terrific speech, when he rages that “I hate the British! You are defeated, but you have no shame. You are stubborn, but you have no pride. You endure, but you have no courage.” By the end, their perspectives seem much more aligned, as they each stare off the completed bridge in a reflective silence.

And yet, in spite of Nicholson’s victories, he is also the catalyst of the film’s final tragedies. The very faith in martial dignity that saves his men undoes Nicholson himself, as he is ultimately unable to extricate his pride as a soldier from his identity as a man. Just as Clipton begged Nicholson to surrender, and wondered at his plans to earnestly build a lasting bridge, so he is left to cry at the end, stunned by the senseless tragedy of the soldier’s life. The Bridge on the River Kwai offers a fascinating reflection on what war makes of us, with its character studies illustrating the tragedy of war not in terms of death tolls and violence, but the shapes we become to survive the trials we endure.

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