December is the month for limited releases of tough-to-watch films that showcase stellar performances—i.e., Oscar bait. The people who market these pictures aren’t naive about the chances of such grueling fare in today’s multiplex environment. They know that box office rests on awards and nominations, and so they send out thousands of screeners, work the phones, take out ads in Variety, and even throw V.I.P. cocktail receptions. They also have pretty good instincts about which performances are genuinely worthy of attention. In addition to Jamie Foxx in Ray, four male award contenders this season are Javier Bardem in The Sea Inside (Fine Line Features), Kevin Bacon in The Woodsman (Newmarket Films), Don Cheadle in Hotel Rwanda (United Artists), and Sean Penn in The Assassination of Richard Nixon (ThinkFilm). The politics saddens me—I hate ranking performances against one another—but I never tire of singing the praises of great actors.
Alejandro Amenábar’s The Sea Inside recounts the true story of Ramón Sampedro, a quadriplegic who petitioned the Spanish courts to take his own life—an uphill battle in this country (even in Oregon soon, if the Bush administration gets its way) but especially quixotic in a staunchly Catholic one. In the film, Sampedro has lived for more than two decades—since his catastrophic swimming accident—in a bed in a room in his brother’s home. Now he is forced to make the case for his death not only to the courts, but to the Spanish public (via invasive TV interviews), his family, his dishy lawyer (Belén Rueda), and a needy, unmarried young mother (Lola Dueñas) who has found a kind of spiritual renewal in his friendship. (Ramón is the only man she knows who is unlikely to screw her and then high-tail it out of there.)
Is Amenábar too fluid for his own good? Abre los Ojos and The Others were evocative works, each with an original syntax and in a style that was perfectly calibrated to its subject. But I wonder if The Sea Inside doesn’t move too slickly to do justice to its bedridden protagonist’s anguish. It features fantasy flights over hills, through lush forests, to the sea for which Ramón longs. Those Steadicam sequences are extraordinarily beautiful, even scored with the overfamiliar “Nessun Dorma”—they do justice not only to Sampedro’s inner life but also to similar passages in works like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. But they’re not balanced by scenes more rooted in Ramón’s grueling paralysis—scenes in which we feel cruelly confined to see and hear what he does and nothing more.
More troublesome is the philosophical patness. Little weight is given to the opponents of euthanasia, among them a quadriplegic priest who’s the butt of a near-farcical set piece. (His wheelchair can’t make it up the stairs to Ramón’s room, so the debate is conducted through intermediaries in a perverse game of telephone.) The movie’s case is clinched by the fate of Ramón’s lawyer, who has a degenerative disease. She is persuaded—against her better instincts—to live with her illness and ends up a smiling zombie. The Sea Inside doesn’t touch on my own worry about judicially sanctioned euthanasia: that it will cause people with incapacitating conditions to feel pressured to take their own lives. Even saintly caregivers have periods of exasperation: Why not spare them their toil and end it all? And what about families who aren’t so saintly, who come right out and urge suicide? An individual might—might—have a moral right to take his or her own life, but shouldn’t the legal hurdles be left in place?
As the woman who wants to follow our hero but has a harder time leaving her life, Belén Rueda has the showstopping supporting role, but it was Lola Dueñas’ Rosa who touched me with her tremulous fixation on Ramón. As for Bardem: How can I do him justice? He is normally the most robustly physical of actors, with a plummy voice and an insolent sensuality. To see him immobile, ashen, his hair gone, de-bodyized: It’s agonizing. And the horror is reinforced by flashbacks showing the young Ramón (Bardem, too, and never fitter) in a swimsuit—like a reckless Greek god, poised on a cliff above the water that will prove his unmaking. Even more difficult to bear is the voice: Bardem doesn’t use his sublime lower register. He comes to the ends of sentences and can’t find the air, and you can see the pain and anger in his eyes as he takes another breath from his oxygen hose, a hated appendage. When you see Richard Dreyfus as a quadriplegic in Whose Life Is It Anyway? the tragedy doesn’t hit you with such immediacy: Dreyfus is always a talking head. But with Bardem you feel your body hum in sympathy.
Scarcely less moving is Kevin Bacon in The Woodsman, a frustrating film about a harrowing subject: child molesters. Bacon is Walter, who once liked having prepubescent girls sit in his lap—and might still, even after 12 years behind bars. In the movie, directed by Nicole Kassell from a play by Steven Fechter (she and Fechter did the adaptation), Walter takes a job at a lumberyard and tries to stay away from school playgrounds, a difficult task given that his apartment is a mere 320 paces from one. This does allow him to study an alter ego of sorts, a fair-haired fellow (Kevin Rice) he calls “Candy,” who plants himself rather conspicuously in front of the school and offers bags of sweets to little boys. Is Candy a projection, or does he exist? It would be awfully convenient, from a dramaturgical perspective, if he were real—and awfully odd that no parent, in these vigilant times, is around to take notice of Candy’s egregious overtures.
The title is a double entendre, but it’s the second meaning that carries all the weight. A police sergeant (Mos Def) who pays Walter frequent, insinuatingly nasty visits, invokes the story of Little Red Riding Hood, which ended with its heroine being cut out of the wolf’s stomach by a passing woodsman. Where, he wants to know, are the woodsmen when we need them? The Woodsman, carpentered to a fault, wrings pathos from Walter’s abuse at the hands of would-be woodsmen and then gives him an occasion to unload on a child molester himself. It’s equally handy that his new girlfriend, Vickie (Kyra Sedgwick), is in the unique position of being able to forgive him for his sins. Completing the tidy trinity is a solitary little girl, Robin (Hannah Pilkes), whom he follows into the park and who turns out to have a secret of her own. Despite the muted, minor-key ambience, the movie is full of groaners, from the hammy freeze-frames in the credit sequence to the symbolic weight of birdies.
The Woodsman should be pretty intolerable, but the writing—line by line—is heartfelt and probing, the direction gives the actors room to stretch out, and the performances are miraculous. Sedgwick has a lovely clown face that can convey bitterness and yearning in the same instant. Mos Def makes his stagy monologues mesmerizing: His too-easy cadences suggest a man ready to explode. And Pilkes has an indelible presence as a girl whose last flicker of childish hope is invested in things with feathers.
Kevin Bacon is an underrated actor. Even though Sean Penn and Tim Robbins won all the awards for Mystic River, it was Bacon who subtly suggested the damage to his psyche and kept the ramshackle policier plot in motion. Here, he’s gaunt, haggard, and unresponsive—closed-down. But when he meets little Robin, he transforms in a way that’s both profoundly affecting and ghastly. He speaks fluidly and kindly, he listens sympathetically—he is making a real connection. Yet his eyes glow an unearthly blue, and his skeletal face conjures up the grave. He reminded me of Boris Karloff out of his bandages in The Mummy, his papery skin on the brink of crumbling. Bacon makes Walter’s improbable epiphany credible—a feat akin to making Andrew Lloyd Webber sound like Verdi.
Hotel Rwanda doesn’t make the massacre of nearly a million people only 10 years ago even remotely credible: If it hadn’t actually happened, it would be hard to believe that one portion of a country could be moved by the exhortations of generals and radio personalities to take machetes to the other. The movie, directed by Terry George, wastes no time trying to explain the attempted genocide of the Tutsis by the Hutus. Instead, it tells the true story of Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), the manager of a four-star, French-owned resort hotel who evolved into the Oskar Schindler of Rwanda.
Rusesabagina was a Hutu and therefore not marked for execution. But he was married to a Tutsi, so his wife and children were of the lighter “mosquito race.” When we meet him, he is an enterprising politician, unashamed to flatter and bribe the officers who come to his hotel to ogle the Western women, smoke Cuban cigars, and drink single-malt Scotch. Cheadle doesn’t condescend to Rusesabagina in these early scenes: The implication is that this is how one succeeds in an authoritarian society—succeeds, that is, without perpetuating injustices himself. When the killings begin, Rusesabagina uses the same talents to keep his family—and the hundreds of Tutsis taking refuge in his hotel—from being dragged out and slaughtered.
Most of Hotel Rwanda consists of his increasingly desperate negotiations. Rusesabagina bargains with single malts until they run out, then blended whisky, then beer, then money from the hotel safe. Then he pleads with the American military, the United Nations, the French, and the fleeing media correspondents. In his journeys to and from the hotel, he sees the butchered bodies of men, women, and children, and Cheadle is extraordinary in the scenes in which he weeps with despair behind closed doors, then rises and summons up every last ounce of poise to keep the negotiations alive. Along the way, he wonders why no country—especially the United States—is sending troops to stop the massacre; he registers, bitterly, that the country has no oil reserves or strategic importance. This is the unspoken rebuke of Hotel Rwanda: that we were the cavalry who didn’t come.
The Assassination of Richard Nixon did not take place, but its protagonist, Samuel Bicke (Sean Penn)—the real man’s name Samuel Byck—really did set out to kill the president in 1973, after first writing a long letter to Leonard Bernstein (!) that laid out his reasons. In the film, Bicke’s wife (Naomi Watts) is divorcing him, and he’s unable to hold a job, first at the garage of his (mysteriously Yiddish-accented) Orthodox Jewish brother, then as a junior salesman in a cut-rate office-furniture store. Bicke concludes that to be a successful capitalist and live the American dream, one must also be a liar and a cheat—hence his fixation on Tricky Dicky, used somewhat generically as the ultimate liar/cheat. “This is a good country, maestro, filled with good people,” he writes. “What happened, Mr. Bernstein, to the land of plenty?”
One of the filmmakers was on Air America a few weeks ago and made it clear that while Bicke was likely a schizophrenic, his schizophrenia was resonant: His antenna picked up the cynicism and disillusionment that really was in the air—and, for that matter, still is. Too true. But you can be sympathetic to the film’s political subtext and still think that Bicke’s case doesn’t make for very good drama. You know everything you’ll ever know about this guy in the first five minutes of the movie. And you also know you’re going to spend the next 90 watching him get crazier and crazier; make innumerable pleading visits to his wife (Watts does well in this thankless role, which consists of finding sundry ways to recoil); and finally hatch his ludicrous, doomed plot.
This is one of Penn’s punishing, single-dimension performances, and it seems to be even more whiningly masochistic than what’s called for in the script (by Kevin Kennedy and the director, Niels Mueller). Early on, Bicke’s boss (Jack Thompson) tells him he radiates success. Huh? Either the man is a moron, or he’s making the best of a hopeless situation: Penn’s Bicke is a quivering basket case from first frame to last. The Assassination of Richard Nixon might have worked if Penn had modulated Bicke’s madness and allowed us to identify with him—even to believe that he could turn his life around. But we can’t summon much empathy for someone who makes us cringe every second. It’s a nice try, but it doesn’t help to underscore his bleakest moments with Brian Wilson singing, “I just wasn’t made for these times.” Penn’s Bicke would be a square peg in any time. (Read David Greenberg’s take on the use of Richard Nixon as symbol in movies.) … 8:30 a.m. PT
Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2004
It’s gratifying to have gotten so many e-mails asking about the Movie Club 2005. Good news! As David Lynch put it in Twin Peaks: It—is—happening—again. We begin next Tuesday, Jan. 4, and continue through Friday.
Last year’s club was a bit of a love-in, and it seemed unwise to try to recreate it. In other words, everyone who took part in 2004 was busy this year. Well, not everyone: The only holdover (apart from yours truly), the New York Times’ A.O. Scott, will honor us with an occasional poolside missive from a much-earned tropical vacation. In return, we are covering his banana daiquiri tab. Two of my favorite critics—Stephanie Zacharek and Charles Taylor—will appear in what I believe is an unprecedented Slate-Salon hands-across-the-Internet exchange. I have also invited Armond White from the New York Press. Yes, Armond White. If no critic infuriates me as much as Armond, none inspires me as much, either. In the last two days, three excellent twentysomething whippersnappers from good regional papers—Scott Foundas of the L.A. Weekly, Christopher Kelly from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and Wesley Morris of the Boston Globe—will pop in to tell us how sadly out of touch the rest of us are.
Look for my 10-best/10-worst list on Thursday, Dec. 30. It’s still onanistically in flux: Oh, how I love playing with my list! … 11:30 a.m. PT