Top 20 Films of 2015: #17- It Follows

It Follows- Alone

Around this time two years ago, I was writing a year-end review for my fourteenth favorite film of a 2013, one of the two best film years of this century. The film was James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now, the marvelously nuanced and tender romantic drama set in an American high school. That lovely, observant teenage film further confirmed the immense talent of Shailene Woodley and introduced me to the dynamic and charismatic Miles Teller. I was moved more than I ever could have expected by how frankly and empathetically it entered the world of its adolescent protagonists and how thoughtfully it observed them. So few directors show anything more than a passing concern in understanding their teenaged characters beyond a surface level.  It gave me new hope for that an adult filmmaker could place himself in the shoes of his young characters and relate their stories with clear, sympathetic eyes. As I was writing that review, the Sundance Film Festival was screening the debut of 2014’s tremendously scary and moving Austaralian horror film, The Babadook. In recent years, starting perhaps with 2012’s Cabin In the Woods, there has been a hushed excitement that the horror genre is starting to brim with exciting, vital films again, and The Babadook is a huge part of that burgeoning horror renaissance. I saw The Babadook last year and loved it. It was my fourth favorite film of its year, and I adored it for reasons not dissimilar to those that made me love The Spectacular Now. Both high school films and horror films have a tendency toward recycling familiar tropes and plot points. And, at their worst, they tend to fall back on tired archetypes who move the plot forward, but have very little agency or personality of their own. Even with the main characters, it can often seem like they are there to serve a pre-existing story that is already in place rather than to have an organic narrative crafted around their desires and inner lives. Both The Spectacular Now and The Babadook scratched a similar cinematic itch for me. They found oceans of soul and insight inside worlds that had been visited countless times before, and they invested heavily in phenomenally gifted actors who could render familiar characters with subtle specificity. However, in spite of how much they have in common as unexpectedly great films inside their respective genres, I never thought to compare them until now. I have waited with baited breath for the next film to portray teenagers with the grace and genuine care of The Spectacular Now, and I have waited just as eagerly for the next horror film with the perfectly judged style and emotional wallop of The Babadook. I just never thought that one movie would be the next to achieve both feats. It Follows, David Cameron Mitchell’s ingenious and meticulous horror film, is the best film about teenagers since The Spectacular Now (excepting a certain laidback masterpiece from 2015), and it is also The Babadook’s proud successor in the new, and hopefully long, horror revival.

It Follows- Each Other 1


It Follows begins with a breathtakingly intense prologue. Annie, a young woman in her late teens runs out of her house. She stands in the middle of the suburban street, visibly shaken. Her neighbors and her own father ask if she is okay. She tries to ease their concern, but her gaze is always at some unseen thing in front of her. She sprints back into her house and emerges a moment later with the keys to her car. In an instant, she is tearing off through the fading dusk. She parks her car on the beach and sits in the darkness with her back to the ocean. She calls her parents to tearfully apologize for anything she ever did to hurt them. When the morning sun comes up, she lies dead on her back. Her left leg has been snapped backwards over her head and her face is a frozen mask of pain. After this enigmatically unsettling introduction, It Follows finds its true protagonist and becomes the story of Jay, a college student in her early twenties. She is played by Maika Monroe in the kind of simple, unshowy performance that I appreciate more each time I see it. It is also the story of her sister, Kelley, and their small circle of friends, which includes their former stepbrother Paul, and Yara, a sardonic bookworm with a low-key demeanor. Jay and Kelley live in their family home with a mother who is glimpsed only occasionally, and who only has one speaking scene in the entire movie. For the most part, the small circle of friends talks only among themselves. When we meet Jay, she is preparing to go on a date with a young man named Hugh. As they stand in line to see an old Cary Grant film, Jay proposes a game. Hugh must look around and pick the person in the crowd who he would most want to be. He chooses a six-year old child, because he is momentarily free from responsibility, fear, and the consequences of getting older. As Hugh attempts to guess Jay’s pick, he points to a girl in a yellow dress at the back of the theater. Jay is unable to see her. Hugh flies into a panic and runs out of the movie, dragging Jay behind him. On their second date, Jay has sex with Hugh in hi car. Afterwards, she leans out of the open door of the backseat and muses about how she always thought about adult milestones like this when she was a small child; not only about sex, but about the whole gamut of grownup freedom. Now that all that autonomy is hers, and all the mysteries behind the adult veil have been revealed, she wonders what is left to want and to look forward to. At that very moment, Hugh forces a chloroform-soaked rag over Jay’s mouth, and Jay wakes up on the second floor of an abandoned commercial building, tied down in a rolling chair. Hugh explains It Follows’ ingenious horror concept. Now that Jay has had sex with him, a shapeshifting entity will follow her. It will kill her if it catches her. It can take any human form it wishes, even that of people she knows and loves. It will only walk after her. It will never speak. But it is not stupid. Jay will need to be wary of entering rooms with only one door. It will only cease following her when she passes it off to another sexual partner. However, if that partner dies, it will come back down the chain to resume hunting her. Hugh shows her the spectre. It is slowly walking along the perimeter of the building, in the form of a half-dressed woman. Within a minute, it has found a way up to the same floor as them. Hugh takes Jay away and drops her off in front of her house, trembling and still in her underwear. It Follows is the story of Jay coming to terms with the grim avatar chasing her and how she turns to her sister and close friends (including Greg, a broodingly sensitive neighbor boy, who offers his beach house as refuge) to help her outsmart the implacable threat. It Follows is a coming-of-age horror film, about a small social unit facing down adulthood, sex, and death together.

It Follows- Tall Man


As an adult making a film about teenagers, David Cameron Mitchell strikes a delicate balance. He allows the story to unfold with an adolescent’s sense of anxiety and uncertainty about sex, but he also brings an adult’s maturity on the subject. It is the same maturity the characters steadily find as they go through this ordeal together. 2015 was the year that the term “sex-positive” happily entered my vocabulary. I have long felt troubled by how pervasively sex is stigmatized in our culture. One of the most surprising facets of It Follows, a film where teenaged sex literally creates an unyielding monster, is how frank and positive it is about sex under the surface. The sex act may be what puts Jay in danger, but the film does not view sex itself as negative. Sex is a powerful, multi-faceted thing; a force of both light and darkness.  It Follows is very much a film about sexual fear and curiosity and the different ways young people come to reconcile its power to both harm and heal. While the monster may tie neatly to the idea of sexually transmitted disease, the film crafts a much more complex metaphor, which takes on the emotions of sex as well as the physiology. Sex is a force of nature, and Hugh’s advice to Jay is to distance herself from that force as much as possible by spreading it to the next partner she can find. Hugh’s method of diminishing the staggering and sometimes frightening emotional power of sex may be to simply engage in it as often as possible until it is no longer has the terrible power of the unknown. I should note here that It Follows heavily suggests sexual abuse somewhere in our characters’ pasts. Hugh’s approach seems to be a kind of proactive survival mechanism: flipping all the lights on and staring the monster down until it cannot scare or hurt us anymore. While sex is the only means of delaying the monster, however, Mitchell suggests that turning to our loving relationships may be the surer means of survival.

It Follows- Connecting


It Follows has such a terrifically scary concept that it likely would have been an interesting and worthy film, even if it was just about how terrifying the idea of sex can be to a young person. Thankfully, it becomes a great and thoughtful film because of how it contrasts the idea of sex as a sinister and alienating force with the idea that sex is a means of fostering love and human connection. Jay’s predicament is not the result of sexual activity, but the result of sex with a man who was only interested in distancing himself from some past hurt he suffered. In contrast to her experience with Hugh, Jay comes to find a genuinely loving connection in Paul, who not only wants to be with her but wants to share her monstrous burden. It Follows does not propose any easy solution to the problems brought on by abuse and sexual dysfunction, but it argues that fostering sexual relationships based on open communication and mutual care for one another is probably the best place to start. This is how a horror movie about what is effectively a sexually transmitted demon ends up being one of the year’s most psychologically honest and emotionally healthy films.

It Follows- Car Door


The joys and terrors of sexual awakening are the chief subject of It Follows, but its thematic scope is more expansive than that. It is a horror movie where the terror is the entire fear of growing up, growing old, and dying. It is partly about the fear of mysterious rites of passage like sex, but it is also about dreading that life will no longer have any mystery. It is about being a young person standing at the city limits of adulthood and remembering how long you have been sheltered from seeing this place. Mitchell smartly fills the film with the iconography of childhood’s innocence: swimming pools and ice cream parlors, playgrounds and beach houses. However, the fear Jay and her friends feel is not simply the anxiety that comes from seeing their lazy summer days become less carefree, but from finally being able to glimpse the end of all their days. It is about the fear of disappointment and death, and how those two feed off of one another. There is a reason that one of Jay’s first encounters with the monster takes place in a college English course, as the professor reads The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot’s famous poem where the narrator’s fear of his inevitable demise is only secondary to the fear that he will die a forgotten footnote. Like that poem, It Follows is a spiritual paranoia that goes much deeper than sex. Jay and her inner circle are thoughtful, smart, yearning young adults, and, like so many hyper-intelligent young people, they feel the full weight of the world. They feel it in spite of their tender age, and probably because of it as well. Every child thinks of death, but there comes a moment when that idea of mortality transforms from a storybook apparition into something concrete; something with real, physical contours. Mitchell knows that this is something every young person feels, but he also understands how Jay and her friends feel like they are alone in confronting these new emotions.

It Follows- Old Woman


It Follows thoughtfully tackles sex and growing up, but what makes it a great film is how it uses impeccable cinematic technique to both support its themes and create beautiful tension as a piece of horror filmmaking. If one just wants to watch one of the most chilling and ominously beautiful works of recent genre cinema, It Follows is worth seeing for its technical accomplishments alone. Mitchell has a great, playfully sadistic sense of timing. He knows when and how to have the monster appear from moment to moment. In one scene, the monster takes Yara’s form and walks up behind Jay on the beach. To the viewer, there is nothing to indicate that this is not Yara. Then, far off in the background, the real Yara drifts into the frame in an inner tube. The electronic artist Disasterpiece crafts a moody 80’s synth score that lovingly sends up John Carpenter films like Halloween, but also does a tremendous job of enhancing the mood of this modern film. It is rare case of homage done well; paying respects to a past horror master while remaining a seamless part of this new horror classic. Most of all, It Follows is a tremendous work of cinematography. The shots Mitchell sets up are meticulous and beautiful in their sense of foreboding, from the horrific tableau-like shot of the monster’s first victim mutilated on the beach to the unsettling pan around the Jay’s college quad, where each and every body the camera sees could be the monster.

It Follows- Yara


But Mitchell is such a confident director that these painterly shots are always feeding the emotions and ideas of the film too. In the film’s opening scene, the first victim waits for the monster on the beach, bathed in the headlights of her car. She sits in the center of the frame, but the very wide shot makes her look miniature. Mitchell uses this shot to create a feeling of insignificance and isolation. We feel for this poor young girl not only because death is pursuing her, but because the camera communicates how alone she is. In perhaps my favorite shot of the film, Jay runs away from the beach, as the monster pursues her across the front yard of Greg’s house. Panicked and afraid, she hops in Greg’s car and pulls forward to make a three-point turn. We momentarily lose sight of the monster walking across the yard as the beach house enters the frame. When Jay reverses and then speeds away from the house, we can see the yard again; except the monster is gone and we only see her friends in the far distance running after the car. It is not only the most impressively virtuosic shot in the movie, but conveys what all this fear and dread can do to a young person. It can send them running off into solitude, away from the people who most care about them. It Follows explores the adolescent feeling of battling force no one else can see. Adults are barely ever seen in the world of this film, even though we know that Jay and her friends have parents. Any adult we do see is just as likely to be the monster as a real human being. Being young can feel like being on a strange, barely inhabited planet.

It Follows- Running Away


It Follows is a horror movie, but it is unlike a great many horror movies in its refusal to use young characters as bland fodder. Many films of this kind watch voyeuristically as the young scatter from one another to die somewhere alone in the woods, but the characters in it Follows press close together. The young characters of It Follows learn that adulthood brings a host of new fears and dangers, but their arc is more about the stalwart courage they find in each other than about despair over what the future holds. Connection and solidarity is what sees them through. I have heard adults bemoan how rapidly advancing technology and social media have flooded world with strange new modes of communication. I can remember hearing about text speak for the first time and dismissively thinking of it as a bizarre code system used only by the young. And of course it was! Adults forget too quickly what a daunting, desolate space adolescence is. We traversed that alien expanse ourselves not so long ago. We felt afraid and misunderstood, but people who were like us, placed in that exact same situation at that exact same time. They spoke the same language as us. Films like It Follows remember that feeling and they call for us to remember it too. I still feel foolish for making fun of text speak. The young will always need their codes. And each other.

It Follows- Playground

Top 20 Films of 2015: #18- The Jinx


The Jinx- Bob In Court

I had my first viewing of Andrew Jarecki’s harrowing, brilliantly edited, and sometimes bleakly humorous six-part documentary miniseries, The Jinx, on May 2, 2015. Just a few hours earlier, I had watched that most elite of American sporting events, the Kentucky Derby. There is something fitting in the juxtaposition between the two that did not hit me until recently. The Derby, with its $25,000 entry fee, is the kind of sporting event in which only a very wealthy subset have a chance of entering, and where only an even smaller and wealthier subset have a reasonable chance of winning. By the same token, The Jinx captures an America where success, happiness, and even justice are increasingly guaranteed to only the most privileged among us. After watching Jarecki’s four-hour-plus expose of black sheep real estate heir Robert Durst and the three murders he is suspected of committing, I was simultaneously alight with anger and sorrowfully exhausted. It was the very best thing I had yet seen in 2015, and I vowed to make a place for it on my year-end list, episodic format be damned. Nine months later, a number of films, seventeen to be exact, have usurped its throne as the year’s best filmed work. It has even been thrice dethroned as the year’s best work of non-fiction. However, if The Jinx has fallen from the pinnacle of exceptionalism, much like the disgraced fortunate son at its center, it still holds up as the year’s most incisive account of post-recession America’s money culture and the stark class divisions within our society. If nothing else, no film made since the recession has done a better job of poetically capturing our current sense of economic anxiety, and I say that with all due respect for wonderful films like this year’s The Big Short and 2008’s Inside Job. Moreover, when I look back on this year’s films, none of them can match The Jinx for its sheer sense of almost mythic expansiveness. The Jinx is a rigorous true crime documentary about a rich prodigal son getting away with multiple murders, but it expands past its own subject to suggest a larger tapestry of American ambition, economic strife, and failure. Beyond its focused story is the tale of an entire nation in turmoil. In this way, The Jinx is in keeping with great true crime works like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. The best true crime stories transcend the sordid details of a single crime to become something richer and sadder. Capote’s tale of a Kansas family senselessly murdered for an imaginary stash of money saw a whole world of stalled dreams, family dysfunction, desperation, and inadequacy in his two pathetically misguided killers. Capote saw the pressure of living up to expectations, of having dreams deferred, and of seeing grand plans go awry. And, like Jarecki now does, he saw America implicated in all of it. In telling the already sweeping story of a coldly self-rationalizing billionaire and the three violent deaths he almost certainly caused, Jarecki’s The Jinx finds something even more massive and disquieting: an America whose rampant obsession with money has perverted and metastasized its essential character and exposed a flagrant disregard for human life in its highest echelons. The system that caused the catastrophic 2008 market crash, Jarecki suggests, is the same system that creates an entitled sociopath like Bob Durst, allows him to kill wantonly, sells him his freedom for premium legal fees, and now grants him the right to sit in front of a movie camera, brazenly and unconvincingly washing his hands of the death and destruction he caused. In Bob Durst, Jarecki has presented us with the year’s most magnetic, pathetic, and horrifyingly sad villain; one who is both the avatar and unfortunate byproduct of crass capitalism.

The Jinx- Squinty Bob


The events of The Jinx span from 1982 into the present, with a brief flashback to the 1950s, when a seven year-old Bob Durst saw his mother leap to her death from the roof of their mansion. A crime writer for the New York Times describes Durst as an enigma, and the film chooses to approach him this way from the very outset. We first learn of the third and most recent of Durst’s killings, which took place in Galveston, Texas in 2001. A 71 year-old man named Morris Black was found dismembered, sealed in garbage bags, and floating in Galveston Bay. The head was never recovered. The search fell to Galveston police, including a charismatic, mustachioed, quintessentially Texan investigator named Cody Cazalas. Cazalas traced a piece of mail in one of the bags to an apartment address that had been occupied by an allegedly deaf, mute woman named Dorothy Cyner. In fact, Dorothy was merely the disguise and alias of Bob Durst, a seemingly mild, diminutive grey-haired New Yorker in his fifties. One officer describes him as looking like a librarian. Bob had used the alias of Dorothy to rent an apartment in Galveston, where he could hide from the outside world. Bob even paid the landlord a year in advance, so that he would not have to frequently make contact with people who might recognize him. Cazalas was able to apprehend Durst by following a prescription for glasses to a local eye clinic, where Durst had scheduled an appointment. The wealth of details and evidence in this first segment of The Jinx is vital in setting its tone of melancholic fatigue, even before the whole case goes awry. Before we see the outcome of Bob’s trial in Texas, which is only one piece in the entire puzzle of Bob’s story, Jarecki wants us to see the sheer amount of work that went into it; the full gamut of dead ends and interviews and evidence searches. An officer remembers thinking, “We got him”, but his rueful tone and pregnant pause betray that this is not how the story is fated to end. For the Galveston police, the first alarm bells sounded when the unassuming Durst was able to post his $300,000 bail. Investigators learned that Robert was the eldest child of the Durst family, one of the wealthiest real estate dynasties in all of New York City. Durst had the resources of a powerful family that could set him free and afford to pay the two best criminal defense lawyers in Texas, when Durst and his most recent wife could not agree on which one to pick. In spite of the advantages afforded by his family’s money, Robert fled from his arraignment hearing, driving as far north as Pennsylvania before he was arrested for shoplifting. In an act that seems almost willfully foolish, Bob stole a cheap sandwich from a Wegman’s grocery store, despite having vast sums of money in the trunk of his car. The Durst who emerges in this first segment is a man both steeped in great privilege and visibly scornful of it. He carries himself with the oblivious air of a man who knows he can get away with anything but simultaneously seems a bit embarrassed by his fortune.

The Jinx- Wig


In the second segment, Bob sits down with Jarecki to begin a series of interviews, in which Bob hopes to actively shape how America sees his story. This segment skips back in time to the 1970s, when tried to cast off the burden of being his family’s presumed heir and live a simpler, though still quite opulent, life in New York’s famously rich Westchester County. In 1973, Bob married his first wife, Kathie McCormack, and left the weighty world of owning and managing New York City skyscrapers for the bucolic life of a health food store proprietor. The Bob Durst who first emerges in interviews is strangely relatable at times, if only because of his willingness to buck the traditions of empire and succession that his family tried to foist upon him. Bob is an odd, uncomfortable man from the start, but his strange tics and nervous manner also lend him a degree of humanity that stands in contrast to the cold halls of power he was born into. Bob wishes his wealth did not matter, even though it very obviously does and always will. When he fails as the chosen son, his father passes the honor of leading the family empire to his younger brother Douglas, and thereby sows rotten seeds of distrust between his children. However, while Bob tries to brush off the influence his privilege has had on him, the straight-talking veneer he wears soon falls away to reveal a man paradoxically unstable and supremely calculating. Kathie McCormack’s family speaks of Bob as an aloof man who was never at ease with those from lower classes. After Bob coerced Kathie into having an abortion, she became resentful of Bob. Bob became foul-tempered and volatile. Kathie’s friends report that the marriage turned violent and Kathie expressed fear of Bob’s temper. One night in 1982, Kathie drove home from a friend’s party and was never seen again. Bob claimed to have dropped her off at the Montauk train station, which took her to their second home in New York City. The revelation that Bob kept a New York City penthouse while trying to play the role of a humble general store owner strikes a blow to Bob’s forced humility and we become more aware of the many masks Bob constructs for himself. Bob’s vulnerability never goes away, but he becomes less and less recognizably human, like an alien whose skin is too loose. In 1982, Bob told the police that, after dropping Kathie off at the station, he walked his dog, made a phone call, and had a glass of wine with a neighbor. Now, three decades later, as he sits telling Jarecki his story, Bob admits that he made up the walk, the call, and the wine in order to prevent police from looking into the story about the train station. Three alibis were fabricated in order to protect a fourth alibi, and Bob, either arrogantly or recklessly, admits to it. As Bob himself confesses to the falsehoods, Jarecki dramatizes Bob’s fabrications in the style of films like Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line. As facts become fiction, the dog, the telephone call, and the wine disappear into a fog. While some have pointed out The Jinx’s debt to Morris, it cannot be denied that the approach is well-chosen, and the results are perfectly chilling.

The Jinx- Train


Bob’s lies crucially allowed him to avoid scrutiny when the authorities were looking into Kathie’s disappearance. In the third segment, we learn that Bob likely engaged Susan Berman, an old friend and the daughter of a famed New York City Mafioso, to help him hide Kathie’s remains in the New Jersey pine barrens. However, in 2000, Westchester District Attorney announced plans to question Berman about Kathie’s disappearance. At this same time, Berman’s career as a novelist was faltering and she told Bob that Pirro was questioning her, likely in the hopes that Bob would offer her money for her silence. On Christmas Eve, Berman was found murdered in her Beverly Hills home, shot in the back of the head. Police were alerted to the murder three days later by an anonymous piece of paper, mailed to them, with the word “Cadaver” written on it. It informed them that the body was located in “Beverley Hills”. The note was distinctive for two reeasons. First, it seemed to indicate that whoever murdered Susan Berman cared about her enough to hope that she would be found soon after her death. Secondly, the word “Beverly” had been misspelled. When the death of Susan Berman reawakened suspicions about Bob’s role in the disappearance of Kathie, Bob shaved his eyebrows, bought a wig, and went to Galveston, Texas to hide. Morris Black was found floating in garbage bags in Galveston Bay less than a year later.

The Jinx- Susan Berman


The fourth segment recounts Bob’s trial for the murder of Morris Black. Bob’s two attorneys cagily painted an alternate story in which the elderly Black was a friend of Bob, rather than an opportunist who recognized Bob and got killed when he threatened to blow his cover. It was an uncorroborated story stitched out of whole cloth, but became increasingly credible through repetition. One lawyer remembers hearing the jurors laughing at Bob’s testimony about his odd couple relationship with the curmudgeonly Black and looking on in shock. In the heart of Texas, Bob’s legal team had credibly sold the man who killed and dismembered his neighbor as an endearing eccentric; an idiosyncratic, wig-wearing oddball. But the most horrific accomplishment of the trial was that Bob’s defense never disputed that he shot and dismembered Black. Instead, Bob’s attorneys asked the jury to consider that Bob had acted in self-defense, but insisted that they not consider Black’s dismemberment as evidence of Bob’s intent. As we watch the jury buy into the schizophrenia of the defense’s theory, we witness concrete proof of how money can subvert justice. Bob Durst killed, dismembered, fled the authorities, and finally admitted to it all. And, when all that was done, the Durst Organization had the resources to snatch their black sheep from justice’s jaws and shepherd him safely back to New York. The trial segment is masterfully infuriating; so damning of the role of money in our justice system as to be downright enthralling. The Jinx is a work of art to view in dismay and sad shock, but Jarecki never fails to make his melancholy crime saga riveting in the telling.

The Jinx- Wrestle


The Jinx is a dizzyingly dense collage of events, dates, interviews, and facts, and all of that before it enters its fifth and sixth segments, where it sneakily builds to the most shattering, seismic conclusion of perhaps any film this year. But what makes The Jinx such a rich emotional experience and what allows it to be about more than the despicable acts of one troubled man is the way it threads so many other human voices into its narrative. “Talking head” is often a derogatory term in documentary filmmaking, and The Jinx is not above using talking heads interviews to exposit its story. But the way these interviewees are presented and how invested they have clearly become in this story over the sprawling years make them feel like more. Some have natural reasons for being invested, such as Kathie McCormack’s family or the group of Kathie’s friends who spent years acting as private sleuths, digging through garbage cans and making regular visits to the precinct, even when the police said there was nothing more to be done. But the feeling of concern for Durst’s victims and the yearning for some kind of justice includes the professionals who have investigated and reported on his case. Cody Cazalas cries into his grey handlebar moustache when he thinks of Morris Black. In Jeanine Pirro, the Westchester County District Attorney who has followed Durst’s story since Kathie’s disappearance, we see a ferociously intelligent and determined woman who has kept her eyes open for decades just waiting for some kind of headway. I was fascinated by the New York Times crime columnist who has spent years writing about Durst. In the first segment, he reads an old article about Durst’s flight from Galveston. When Durst fled, he stopped at a house in Westchester, where a neighbor found him in a daze staring out at a lake. As the columnist he reads aloud, he looks up to clarify that this of course is the house where Kathie was last seen before she disappeared. As he says this he gazes at the camera with a faint smile that hints at a weary sadness. It is the look of a man who has come to know this pitiable monster intimately, to even care about him in some strange way. And at this moment, he cannot quite decide whether to feel bemused at how out of touch Bob Durst is, righteously angry for his victims, or defeated that he’s still talking about him as a free man after all these years. All of these people react personally to this case, and that sense of a larger community is what allows Jarecki to transform the Robert Durst story into the story of an entire nation coming to terms with the injustices wrought by its own ugly class divisions.  No one feels like a mere professor on the subject of Bob Durst, and this allows the movie to be about something bigger, more important, and maybe even hopeful. They all feel like people who have born witness to a tragic farce and who have waited a long time for something good to come of all this. What makes The Jinx so beautifully heart-wrenching is how you feel for all of the people caught in the wake of these senseless deaths. By the time The Jinx reached it’s riveting nail-biter of an ending, I felt wincing empathy for the opaque but strangely human enigma that is Bob Durst. I was also hoping to my very soul that karma would somehow catch him. And I saw that I was not alone in either regard.

The Jinx- Cazalas


Jarecki’s film is the story of Bob Durst and the increasingly classist America he fits into, but it is also the story of Jarecki’s own conflicted journey with Bob and his growing desire to see justice done. In the last moments of the fifth segment, the film transforms from a rich, sad true crime story with a capitalist backdrop, into a pulse-pounding detective thriller. In the third segment, Jarecki introduces us to Susan Berman’s stepson, Sareb Kaufman. In the wake of Susan’s death, Bob reached out to Sareb in friendship and offered to pay his college tuition. Sareb had always felt uneasy about the nature of Bob’s generosity, knowing that it might be Bob’s way of assuaging his own guilt. Nonetheless, like Jarecki, Sareb has nursed a kind of protective fondness for Bob. I can understand the feeling. There is something in Durst’s squirmy vulnerability that, at times, becomes creepily disarming. At the end of the fifth segment, Jarecki is planning to wrap up his project. He finishes his last interview with Bob, and it seems The Jinx will become the story of how economic privilege helped one very ill-adjusted man get away with three murders. If one sees Bob as a reflection of the reckless capitalist system that he inhabits, it is fair to suggest that this would have even been the most accurate ending to this story. The men with the money purchase a clean slate, the less fortunate are left broken and vainly searching for closure, and, as Kurosawa once said, the bad sleep well. However, a real-life deus ex machina intervenes when Sareb calls Jarecki and urgently tells him to come see him at his home. Sareb has been going through Susan’s files and has found a letter from Bob. The envelope is addressed to Susan’s address in Beverly Hills. Bob has misspelled “Beverley” and the error is identical to that found on the “Cadaver” note. It is the point when Jarecki loses his last shred of uncertainty about Bob’s role in the killings and so do we.

The Jinx- Jarecki and Durst


In the sixth and final segment, Jarecki and his two collaborators arrange to have Bob come in for a final supplementary interview to go over evidence, and set up a plan to entrap him with his own poor spelling. The film’s final 40 minute are its most viscerally intense and perversely entertaining, and that is probably part of the reason why some critics have taken issue with this part of the film. The Jinx is a sober film. It is about the aftermath of unspeakable acts. It is about the bleak economic state of our country. By that logic, it might seem tonally wrong to watch the director of such a serious-minded crime expose suddenly step into the role of the heroic detective, in the most white knuckle episode of To Catch A Predator ever filmed. This is a legitimate concern, but all I can say is that these scenes build with such intensity and anxious humor that the journalistic ethics of the scenario become less than an afterthought. Those final minutes are the most emotional and breathlessly exciting found in any film this year, and to be frank, I felt that Jarecki, his collaborators, and the countless people affected by these crimes over the years had earned this kind of theatrically electrifying catharsis. And, as with the rest of the series, Jarecki’s conclusion does not feel pat or self-congratulatory. For one thing, I had spent so much time with Bob Durst by that time, I could not shake my sense of sorrow for him. As Bob incriminates himself and then realizes his dire situation, he starts to gag and belch. Then he goes into the bathroom with his mic on and mutters that he “killed them all, of course”, and my heart dropped into my stomach. What a sad, strange rollercoaster The Jinx is. I felt a melancholic regret muddying up my hatred for this vain, vicious, broken man. Somehow, even when I knew beyond a doubt that Bob was guilty, I still saw him more as a monster to pity than as a monster to loathe. There are many kinds of monsters, and Bob is always more Grendel than Anton Chigurh. Maybe the subdued sadness of that realization is the other reason I do not find this exciting ending to be incongruous with the sobriety that characterizes most of The Jinx. Whatever giddiness I felt soon subsided, as I sat and reflected on the decades of sad events and ruined lives that had brought Bob Durst to this fateful moment. All those years of grief and turmoil and finally a single, brief moment of closure that would never really be enough. Bob was arrested for Susan Berman’s murder three days before The Jinx’s final segment aired, and that is obviously a huge coup for justice. But in the grand scheme, it feels meager.

The Jinx- Betrayal


Just as the snapping of Perry Smith’s neck in In Cold Blood feels like the empty conclusion to a stupid tragedy, whatever fate awaits Bob Durst is cold comfort next to the larger national injustice that The Jinx evokes. A guilty verdict for Bob Durst cannot bring the dead back. What reverberates is a sense that the America which forged Bob has become a land scorched and savaged by its greed. In the class divisions that estranged Bob from his brother. In the sterile pressures of privilege that pushed Bob’s mother to suicide, and very well may have broken Bob’s psyche. In the futility of Bob’s belief that he could lead a normal life as a small business owner when his wealth and family ties had decided his path long ago. In the unflinching callousness of those who toppled the nation’s economy in 2008 and then returned to sack what was left. In the callousness of those who will do it next time. In the classist contempt that led the Durst family to go decades without so much as reaching out to the bereft McCormack family, lest it threaten their business or tarnish their dynastic image. They were family, but the money was between them. It was on top of them and all around them, and inside of them, pulsing sickly green through their veins. As I turned off The Jinx to go for a walk outside, I thought about Fargo, the Coen brothers’ not-quite-true-crime masterpiece, and I thought about its noble heroine, Marge Gunderson. At the film’s end, when Marge reflects on all the lives senselessly ravaged by greed, desperation, and inadequacy, she shakes her head and asks, “And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little bit money, you know?” Somewhere in New York City, I imagined, a man in a skyscraper heard her words, thought about them for a moment, and disagreed.

The Jinx- Skyscraper

Best Films of 2015: #19- Love & Mercy

Love & Mercy- Pain

The great and tormented Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, best known for painting The Scream in 1893, had this to say about the role of suffering in art: “Art grows from joy and sorrow. But mostly from sorrow.” For as long as human beings have had culture and self-expression, some of its most vivid and impassioned works of art have been born out of strife, self-hatred, anxiety, and grief. There is a positive angle to this truth, insofar as art gives our pain a voice and a channel for release. Humanity’s ability to creatively funnel its traumas and hardships into art is secretly one of its greatest survival instincts. It is a means of not only coming to terms with our own suffering, but of thoughtfully extending the hard-won lessons of pain to those around us. But, while art is a vital salve for the pain of living, the thornier question is whether pain is a necessary component of great art. The easy answer is, “No, of course not.” There are a great many artists who have looked to their inner joy, to their loving relationships, and to the abundant beauty in the world around them to create sublime works. There can be no debating, however, that human beings do often gravitate to art that comes from negative experiences. Both external hardship and inner turmoil have a way of producing art that is immediate, raw, and revelatory. Speaking only for myself, I know that some of my very favorite films, albums, and literary pieces were only made possible by insecurities, tragedies, addictions, and demons that crippled, damaged, and sometimes even stole the very lives of the artists that made them. These are people whose work has inspired me, consoled me, and stimulated my imagination. Whether we like it or not, when we consume culture, we are often the beneficiaries of someone else’s pain. Would we wish some of history’s masterpieces away if it would assuage the anguish of the women and men who created them or bring a great creative force back to life? Could we selflessly wish away Nevermind and In Utero to ensure that Kurt Cobain lived a life free of chronic pain and depression? Was the fire that fueled Janis Joplin’s addiction part of the same passion that made her one of the greatest singers in all of recorded music? Would I erase Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, quite possibly my very favorite album, if it meant sparing singer Jeff Mangum from the torments that led to his nervous breakdown? Given my genuine love of these artists and the debt my own soul owes them, there seems to be only one decent answer. The question that remains is: what is art without pain? Why is the image of the tortured artist so enduring? These are the thoughts that swam through my head after I watched Love & Mercy, the terrific, tightly focused biography of Beach Boys savant Brian Wilson, whose vulnerabilities and psychological frailties helped him craft the gloriously gorgeous Pet Sounds album, and then shattered him to the point that he almost never created again.

Love & Mercy- Melinda Bed

We first meet Brian Wilson in the early 1970s, years after the recording of the Beach Boys’ 1966 masterpiece Pet Sounds. While we are not told the exact date, Brian is nearing the mental breakdown that would see him spend three years as a bed-ridden recluse who only emerged to self-medicate, eat in excess, and shuffle absent-mindedly around his home. He would not emerge into public life again until 1975, when he would enter the care of a domineering psychologist named Eugene Landy. He would emerge much worse for the wear. While allowing Brian to exist outside of his house and occasionally write music, Landy’s inaccurate schizophrenia diagnosis turned Brian into a drug-addled, feeble tatter of his former self. Half of Love & Mercy takes place in the 1980s, when Brian, played with a refreshing timidity and sweetness by John Cusack, met Melinda Ledbetter, the Cadillac salesperson he would court and eventually marry. In their first meeting, Brian finds himself in a rare moment out of the prying eyes of his bodyguards, his handlers, and Dr. Landy. He asks Melinda, played by a lovely and present Elizabeth Banks, to show him the interior of one of the cars, and then asks her to close the door. With the world shut out however briefly, they share a quiet and human moment as Brian relates the recent drowning death of his brother, Dennis. But, before long, Brian’s mentally stifling entourage shows up to escort him away. Fortunately, their short encounter is enough to plant the seeds of something lasting. Brian buys the car and he and Melinda start dating. The 1980s section of Love & Mercy is about how Brian met Melinda and how Melinda came to see that Brian was being manipulated, bullied, and manhandled by people pretending to represent his best interests. In those bleak years, Dr. Landy made Brian cut off ties with his immediate family and set himself up in Brian’s home, while making Brian live in a room at a separate property. “But I got to choose the room,” Brian sheepishly tells Melinda. With the help of Melinda, his friend Gloria, and some others who are thanked in the final credits, Brian was finally able to emancipate himself from the physical and emotional invasions of Dr. Landy, and eventually record his beautiful, decades-delayed SMiLE album in 2004.

Love & Mercy- Works In My Head

The scenes of the older Brian Wilson are intercut with scenes from 1966, when the Beach Boys were touring as one of America’s best-loved pop acts, behind the success of songs like “Surfin’ U.S.A.” and “Surfer Girl”. While Brian Wilson wrote these early Beach Boys songs himself, the direction of the group was dominated by the Wilsons’ father, a slick and callous marketing man eager to sell his sons to the public but who never believed the band would have any cultural longevity. The young Brian Wilson is played by Paul Dano, an actor who has appeared in tremendous films like There Will Be Blood and 12 Years A Slave, and has often had perfectly good work overshadowed by some of the best performances in 21st century cinema. After many years of working hard, Dano finally relaxes and gives the kind of natural, unaffected, and emotionally resonant performance that can be called tremendous itself. When Brian suffers a panic attack coming home from a series of concerts, it gives him the excuse he needs to take a sabbatical from the next leg of the tour. While the rest of the band goes to Japan to play, Brian insists his time will better spent in the studio, where he can prepare new material for them to record when they return. Liberated from the pressures of working with his father and bandmates, Brian finds the mental freedom to take his already impeccable ear for pop melodies in weird and inventive directions and to marry them with songs of longing, self-doubt, and youthful melancholy. Even as a young man, Brian had a childlike frailty. It was the double-edged sword that allowed him to tinge his joyous whimsy with a gentle sadness. It is also the characteristic that made him vulnerable to the slights of those closest to him. When the band returns from Japan, Brian has to defend his idiosyncratic vision, which is conspicuously lacking in the Beach Boys’ quintessential subjects: surfing and summer. In their first attempt at recording the material, Dennis Wilson looks on bewildered as his brother concludes their next presumptive Billboard smash with the refrain, “I want to cry-y-yyyy-yy-yyy-yy-yyyy.” It is a seriously funny moment that also gives the audience a sense of how strange Brian’s approach must have seemed at the time. While Pet Sounds is now regarded as one of the finest albums ever written, it was a commercial disappointment in its day. Brian’s bandmate and cousin, the perennially doubting Mike Love, is all too quick to remind the band that he predicted the album would flop. The film is focused on Brian Wilson, but it’s a nuanced look at the delicacy of any art work that tries to strike out in a new direction. Brian is eventually able to redeem himself from the embarrassment of creating his magnum opus by recording the smash B-side single, “Good Vibrations”, and the film captures both recording sessions in lively, impeccable details. Taken together, the two periods of Brian’s life tell the story of one of rock and roll’s great pioneers, how he was almost ruined by his psychological maladies and the craven manipulation of those willing to use him, and how the care of genuinely empathetic human beings finally helped him to heal.

Love & Mercy- Dilapidated Studio

While the scenes with young Brian Wilson are filmed with the most verve, and naturally contain the most music, the scenes with Cusack and Banks in the 1980s are both the film’s beating heart and its gentle, wounded soul. Love & Mercy is in many ways about the need to find love from others. Brian tells Melinda that Dr. Landy has been having him practice saying “I love you” five times a day, but that he wishes he could regularly say those words to someone else. The older Brian Wilson is a man whose own genius has often forced him into the most darkened recesses of his own mind. This ability to follow his own strange muse as far as it would go gifted him with preternatural confidence as a young man and helped him to craft strangely beautiful tones and off-kilter melodies that pushed the boundaries of rock and roll forward for good and all. However, after a time, the pressure of self-enforced isolation also made him too fragile to function. Brian’s introversion and childlike fragility were the twin muses fueling him to make art that was exhilarating and innocent and disorienting and tender. But, even people who seek solitude cannot survive without feeling they are supported by other people for companionship, for reassurance, and for love. I do not want to oversimplify Brian Wilson’s mental health battle in the name of a nice message. Brian Wilson’s mental breakdown was not a simple matter of human connection. It was the result of very real mental issues, which were only finally alleviated through therapy. At a broader poetic level, however, the film argues that it was not sustainable for a psychologically delicate man like Brian Wilson to go on as the island he so wished to be. It was inevitable that he would eventually need to engage with the world again in order to find his way back to a healthy place. The problem with engaging, however, is that the world is host to parasites and predators and, in seeking out Dr. Eugene Landy, Brian Wilson was unlucky enough to entrust his recovery to one of the more unsavory examples of both. The danger of letting a person in to our innermost spaces, be it our minds or our hearts, is that we must still love and trust ourselves enough to know whether that person is acting out of love and friendship or out of a more selfish motivation. Eugene Landy found Brian Wilson when he was most in need of love, mercy, and support. He was supposed to help Brian find the pieces of himself that had been lost with his mental lapse. Instead, Landy installed himself as dictator in the unoccupied head and heart of a wounded human being.

Love & Mercy- Landy

This means that Love & Mercy is not simply a duet between two periods in an artist’s life, but also a duet between the need for community and the need for a space that we call our own. Companionship, guidance, and even love are among the most powerful virtues in the world, but even they can be perverted into weaponry in the wrong hands. Love & Mercy becomes a music biography of uncommon emotional depth because it understands the struggle to maintain a private sense of self. The best scenes in a film full of rich, perceptive moments are those involving the Pet Sounds sessions, when Brian is able to create without the scrutiny and judgment of the Beach Boys; without the white-hot gaze of the family and friends who have nurtured him, but also tamped down his idiosyncrasies into the narrow constraints of a surf rock band. “Surfers don’t even like our music,” Brian objects. When Brian begins to work on Pet Sounds, the film in turn breaks free from its own constraints: those of the studious, musical biopic. Visibly inspired by Brian’s contagious thirst for new sounds, the film giggles and spins with a chaotic, free-wheeling energy. As an introvert, I know this rush well. It is the rush of being completely alone with a head full of wild, new thoughts, and wanting nothing more than to follow those erratic ideas down whatever meandering path they dart toward. Pet Sounds may have been born partly of Brian Wilson’s past traumas, from his father’s abuses to his crippling anxieties about stardom, but the album really came from a place of great joy and spontaneity. In the studio, with only the company of studio musicians hired to follow his vision and respect his autonomy, we see the full, sweet, exuberant fruition of Brian Wilson. Pain may have been a jumping off point, but Brian Wilson’s masterpiece called for innocence, freedom, a dash of unembarrassed frivolity, some barking dogs, and a whole lot of love. I cannot overstate how perfectly Paul Dano plays the young Brian’s hopeful fragility, while shading it with a meek kind of determination that gathers steam with each scene. The Brian Wilson before Pet Sounds seems like a man who was forced to sing his father’s ideas in the spotlight while having his true voice scolded and shouted down, and the older Brian Wilson we meet in the 1980s has regressed to that same inarticulate haze of low self-regard. If nothing else, Love & Mercy is the story of a time in 1966 when Brian Wilson was able to momentarily assert his artistry and autonomy before receding into a sad fog of silence.

Love & Mercy- Splayed Out

The conflict in the 1980s scenes comes from a real sense of how much Brian has lost, and how dearly we want him to regain not just his sense of self-worth but his music. Brian’s quest to regain his muse is emotionally satisfying not just because we recognize the wonderful songs that play throughout the film. This conflict feels rich because the scenes of Brian Wilson recording are simply the most perfectly alive, loopy, inventive depictions of the musical recording process in recent memory. As a first-time director, some of Brian Poehler’s choices feel like those of an untested filmmaker. But, like Brian Wilson himself, Poehler’s touch is generous, joyful, and beautifully restless when he enters the studio, for both the Pet Sounds sessions and the later recording of “Good Vibrations”. The diverse emotional range of these scenes, from the thrill of limitless creation, to Mike Love’s frustration at having to record those damned cellists for the 35th time, to the impassioned discussions on the studio steps over cigarettes, evoke what might happen if David O. Russell had directed Once. These scenes allow what is mostly a talky film to render its themes and stakes cinematically. That incandescent, unpredictable energy is the life force of Brian Wilson in all its manic glee and obsessive tedium. This is what he found for himself and what was stripped from him by the cruelty of circumstance and the avarice of other people. It is what has been lost and what Melinda Ledbetter must win back for him.

Love & Mercy- 360 Shot

Melinda Ledbetter is where the film’s dueling themes of autonomy and fellowship meet one another and synthesize. As human beings, we cannot flourish in total isolation. We also cannot survive if the gardens of our minds and hearts are overrun with weeds. To quote the title of my favorite vampire movie, we must let the right one in. As weary and emotionally hobbled as we find Brian Wilson in the 1980s, he has the presence of mind to make one very good decision. He recognizes a true and steady soul in Melinda Ledbetter, and he lets her in, even as Eugene Landy subtly tries to scare and shove her away. It finally falls to Melinda to recognize that Brian is too afraid and demoralized to take the next steps toward freeing and rebuilding himself. And here is where the movie could have become problematic. The supportive wife is an evergreen trope in biography films. It typically defines a female character almost solely by her steadfast loyalty to the male protagonist and her ability to help him weather and defeat the internal and external forces working against him. At a first glance, Melinda Ledbetter does fit the standard checklist for Supportive Wife Syndrome. If someone were to accuse the movie of trotting out the hoary old device, I certainly would not call them wrong. And yet, I find myself impotently stammering, “No. It’s not like that.” Partly it’s the quality of Banks’ performance, which is so observant and kind in a slyly active way. Of course, the Supportive Wife is often a kind and attentive listener, so that may not dispel the criticism entirely. And Banks is really very good, but there are plenty of people who think the same of Jennifer Connelly in A Beautiful Mind, and that character is practically the platonic ideal of the Supportive Wife. Really, beyond the high quality of Banks’ performance, it may be the fact that Melinda Ledbetter just has so much more agency than a supportive female figure typically has in a biography like this. Melinda Ledbetter is an agent for herself as much as she is for Brian Wilson. It’s there in the frank way she pierces through Eugene Landy’s sweaty Svengali exterior, and the way she holds him at bay after he tries to undermine her self-esteem with cruel jibes at her career. It’s in the way she gently but firmly reminds Brian that she is as much an active participant in their courtship as he is and how she seems to be the only person who knows how to speak to Brian without demeaning him or taking over the controls of his fragile, guileless brain. She realizes from the start how easily she could manipulate Brian, just like everyone else, and it is her decision not to that provides the film with the mercy its title promises. That’s not passive support. It’s the most important and unfailingly kind decision in the film, and Elizabeth Banks perfectly conveys that she is the only person in Brian’s entire social universe who is mensch enough to make it. It’s a very important action; more important at the end of the day than the recording of some rock and roll masterpiece. This simple, moral act may have saved Brian Wilson’s life, and it certainly rescued his mind and soul.

Melinda- Determined

In the end, it also seems myopic to criticize the Melinda Ledbetter character for her supportive tendencies because support is really what the film is about at its core. Yes, “supportive” is a dirty word in film, and that dirt has been justifiably earned through years of lazy writing and sexism. But human beings have a very pressing need for support and that achingly tender need for something human is what guides the very best of Brian Wilson’s music. That need is what makes Love & Mercy stretch further than music, further than its own biographical inspiration, and into the kind of simple, universal territory where so many great films live. It is the story of a man with a loving and fragile spirit, and how it took him years to find someone who could love him in a way that would not cause him to break apart. This love is the kind that fills the studios of our souls with new music. It is the kind of love that you want to invite into the back room of your heart to hear some silly new melody and the kind that understands the need to pound away in solitude from time to time. And in those times, it wishes you well and leaves you to fight the good fight for however long it takes. Melinda Ledbetter fell in love with Brian Wilson and she wanted him to be happy and free. Free of manipulation, free of fear, and free of pain. What is art without pain? Art.

Love & Mercy- Happy Melinda