We hear the sound of Jackie before we ever see Jackie Kennedy. Before the famously forlorn First Lady’s face appears, the woozy opening notes of 2016’s best score envelop and disorient us. The buzzy, droning strings of Mica Levi’s menacingly pretty, beautifully tense composition sound out over a black screen before one sees a single frame of Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s visually distinct film. I think this is an important decision. Jackie’s music may be the best possible representative for what a paradoxically familiar and discombobulating piece of work it is. And “discombobulating” is about as fine a compliment as I can come up with for a film in a genre that, year to year, can be trusted to produce its fair share of lazy, formulaic films: the biopic. Jackie is a great biographical film for its keen insights into history, the way legacies are authored by the people who lived them, and what the lens of fame can do to something as universally human as death and loss. But, before it is about any of those things, Jackie is really about the subversion of the very idea of a traditional biopic and that first anxious exhalation of its score is basically the sounding shot to let us know this will be the case. The DNA of a stirring prestige biography is buried somewhere inside of Jackie, just as the sentimental strings and dignified horns of a standard stuffy biopic’s score are also there, struggling to make themselves heard over the more alien sounds. But the traditional polish of prestige has been scrubbed off, like some unvarnished piece of silver, to reveal all the rust and tiny cracks and strange protrusions that would have been tastefully sanded off of a standard biopic. Those first eerie notes announce a historical film that will be uncommonly honest as a picture of genuine human beings. However, Jackie also resists the idea that any biography can be entirely free of fiction. Mica Levi’s sinister strings and droning horns are partly symbolic of a biopic with more authentic warts, but they also call to mind a dense, confusing fog. They set the tone for a film that looks piercingly and unflinchingly at Jackie Kennedy and the days surrounding the Kennedy assassination but that also shrugs off the idea that its own idiosyncrasy makes it any less manufactured and fictitious than any other cinematic biography. Minutes after witnessing her husband’s death, Jackie Kennedy takes a hard look at her teary, blood-smeared face in an Air Force One mirror and then blurs her own image away with a swipe of her hand. And this is more or less how Pablo Larrain seems to see history in general; as something forever shifting in and out of focus.
Jackie is the story of Jackie Kennedy in the week or so following the Kennedy assassination, but that story is set adrift in a dreamy haze of memories. The FIrst Lady is played as a dynamic, oscillating whirlwind of anguished vulnerability and self-aware poise by Natalie Portman. Jackie Kennedy is the best work of Natalie Portman’s career, and, if Jackie didn’t already give me so much to talk about, I could easily make this review entirely about her performance. While Jackie Kennedy tells her story to a reporter from Life magazine (Billy Crudup), we go back in time to the immediate aftermath of the Kennedy assassination and sometimes back to the more distant past, to when the First Lady would put on grand concerts in the White House ballroom or to when she gave a televised tour of the Presidential home that she had taken great pains to decorate with important historical pieces. The film presents Jackie as someone who believed in the value of great legacies and beautiful cultural artifacts, even as her husband dismissed it as a waste of money. The story at the center of Jackie‘s foggy reverie is Jackie Kennedy’s desire to give her husband the best state funeral that money can buy, both as a sign of love for him and as a means of ensuring that he is remembered by his country. On the night of the assassination, as she and Bobby Kennedy are being driven away from the hospital where John has just passed away, Jackie asks the driver what he knows of past Presidents. She asks if he remembers anything of James Garfield, William McKinley, and Abraham Lincoln. Even though all three were assassinated, Lincoln is the only one whose legacy he can really recall. Jackie recalls that Lincoln was mourned with perhaps the most elaborate, ornate funeral in American political history and she sets about to seeing that her husband is memorialized with just as grand a gesture. The true essence of watching Jackie is less about its basic plot than it is about bathing in its intoxicatingly sorrowful ambience and listening to its heady, rhetorical digressions. Cursing the fact that his brother got to do very little with his time as President outside of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Bobby Kennedy (played very well by Peter Sarsgaard) says that “history is harsh”, and this is something that Jackie, for all her love of history, also sees. Pablo Larrain’s film is about Jackie Kennedy having her own private war with the fickle beast that is History. It is her fight to ensure that her family’s legacy does not become lost to time and she shrewdly sees the funeral as a crucial battleground.
If Mica Levi’s undulating uneasy musical blend of reverent grandeur and dizzy discord is a good representative of the film as a whole, Jackie’s other technical elements also do an excellent job of tapping into the film’s themes of history as something too slippery to be entirely pinned down. Stephane Fontaine’s cinematography is beautiful and grand and showy and it has its share of shots that would not look out of place in the kind predictably lavish prestige picture that is Jackie’s disreputable kin. But somehow, once again, something elusive and unnerving is at play inside the familiar form. I am struggling to put into words why a white monument, bathed in fog, on top of a hill behind John F. Kennedy’s final resting place at Arlington feels different; not just haunting but almost haunted. In any ordinary film, the shot would still have a kind of gorgeous solemnity, which is also partly the point here, but there is also a kind of restless, bristling energy to the way Jackie uses a shot like this. As Jackie makes her firm, final determination of where her husband should be buried, there is an undercurrent of anxiety. My most current, and not at all certain, take is that we may be feeling Jackie Kennedy’s own mixture of dread and awe at the very idea of people having final resting places; the notion that living, breathing human beings stop living and breathing and then become finished stories, on gravestones and in memories. In ways I cannot entirely explain, Jackie is one of the only biopics I can name that feels a bit like a ghost story. The acting also bears out this tension between real people and what remains of human beings when nothing remains but their legacy. All the characters feel like flesh and blood, and yet there is also something mysterious and unknowable to them and this adds to Jackie’s ghostly tone. Lyndon B. Johnson is seen as a prideful, domineering figure, already too wrapped up in tending to his own public image as President to pay much mind to the devastated widow of his predecessor. In real life, Lyndon B. Johnson was a man who had at least some better angels, but the film does not let us past his imperious surface, and in any other movie, this would be a tremendous failing. As a matter of fact, this kind of presentation of Lyndon B. Johnson was a failing in Ava Duvernay’s otherwise very good Martin Luther King biopic, Selma. But Jackie is a strange and special beast and Pablo Larrain is a skilled enough auteur to use a kind of intentional opaqueness to the benefit of his film. This cryptic inscrutability feels of a piece in Jackie, where it might ordinarily feel like a piece was missing. This is not thin characterization but characterization that toys with our expectations and critiques the very idea that we can entirely know who Lyndon B. Johnson or Bobby Kennedy or Jackie Kennedy really were. Jackie is awash in a kind of fog that wafts around its subjects and keeps us squinting to see them just a little bit clearer. Pablo Larrain wants us to finally know, in his movie and in every biopic to come, that this kind of clear understanding is a vain effort.
Still, the last thing Jackie wants to do is discourage our curiosity about history. Larrain simply wants his audience to know that grasping history requires us to know that our vision can never be perfect. Making sense of the past means we must create a kind of helpful fiction. As Billy Crudup’s journalist (based off of Life writer Theodore H. White but given no official name in the film’s credits) is sitting down to conduct his interview, he tells Jackie Kennedy that he is striving to get to the truth but that he would settle for a story that sounds convincing. Jackie wants us to take this same approach in our efforts to make sense of recorded events. Jackie believes very much in the value of history but it would likely argue that the word “non-fiction” is effectively meaningless. The film is a fascinating, rigorous take on the idea of how human beings shape history after it happens, and what makes that stance all the more sharp and cohesive is how Larrain presents all this as a seamless extension of Jackie Kennedy’s own soul. For as much as Jackie is about looking at important people, including Jackie herself, through a sheet of frosted glass, one facet of the former First Lady is made very clear: Jackie Kennedy loved history. She cherished it and valued it and she thought very hard about how she and her husband would be remembered by coming generations. And so the film’s notion that sculpting a historical legacy is something of an act in creative writing is what truly illuminates Jackie Kennedy, even as that same approach is what makes her somewhat unknowable. It presents Jackie Kennedy as both the perfect subject and the ideal lecturer on the principle that history is a kind of ever-fluctuating mirage.
The question that I come back to the most with Jackie is what all this talk about mythmaking and historical license has to do with grief. Because, while the film philosophizes and muses over the nature of history, it also happens to be a superb portrait of bereavement. Jackie is one of the truest films in recent memory about what grieving feels like, and this is where it’s also important to remember what a narrowly focused period piece it is. Jackie is not the full story of the early 1960s or the Kennedys or even the three short years between the time of President Kennedy’s inauguration and assassination. It is really the historical account of Jackie Kennedy’s grief. Leaving aside the later Life magazine interview that is just there to act as a framing device, Jackie is focused on the short period of about a week in which Jackie had to deal with her husband’s death, move herself and her young children out of the White House, and tend to her husband’s funeral arrangements. It is really the story of how Jackie Kennedy went about throwing one of the most opulent and iconic state funerals in modern history and how she maneuvered around the many people who tried to silence her, from in-laws who wanted their slain brother buried on a private family plot to political handlers who didn’t want to run the risk of parading American leaders through the streets in the weeks after an assassination. It is the story of Jackie Kennedy’s long week of the soul. So I will pose the question that lingers with me every time I watch the film: what do grief and history have to do with each other? And I think the answer may be, “Not much. Usually.” That is to say, not much unless you are the widow of the most powerful, famous man in the world. And if you are, then, for one thing, your grief might belong to history whether you would wish it to or not. And what makes Jackie Kennedy the most electrifying, enigmatic character in Natalie Portman’s career is how it suggests the paradox of a woman trying to deal privately with her own sorrow while also realizing that grieving publicly may be the very best strategic card she has to play. In the throes of intense suffering, Jackie Kennedy came to understand that thrusting her grief even further into the national spotlight would do a world of good: for her husband’s legacy, for a shell-shocked American populace, and finally for herself. Pablo Larrain argues that a former First Lady who many saw as demure and airy showed a rather brilliant understanding of the optics of her own tragedy. A great many people wanted to close that ugly chapter before the ink was dry, thinking that it would be best for the nation to just move on. Instead, Jackie Kennedy wrested that chapter from the hands of powerful men, picked up a quill, and scrawled her name there in bold block letters. And in the end, it’s not just that our most iconic First Lady made a cagey move to cement her and her husband’s legacy. It’s that leaning into that grief rather than suppressing it turned out to be just what a frightened country needed to assuage its own anguish. And that, to the best of my understanding, is what grief and history have to do with each other.
I have sometimes heard Jackie described as a “cold” film and I can understand why in a way. It follows a traumatized widow in the aftermath of a terrible killing and watches her pain with an unsparing curiosity. It is also filled with soliloquies that would feel right at home in a collection of historical essays. It is a film with the academic rigor of a philosophy lecture and the deathly hush of a mausoleum, and I can absolutely accept that it is a cold film if you mean its mood makes you want to hug a loved one or at least put on a sweater. But I object to the idea that Jackie is, in any way, a detached or clinical film. Whatever one thinks of Pablo Larrain’s spectral, unorthodox period piece, I think they would be hard-pressed to deny that Jackie is a potent emotional experience. It is a film where history itself is less about a strict set of facts than the sheer feeling of a moment in history. What it felt like for America and what it must have felt like for Jackie Kennedy. If I asked someone what it was like to live through those weeks, I would expect that the overall mood of sadness and shock is what would stand out most in their memory. Grief and loss are like that, whether one is burying a parent or a President. As it’s happening, I imagine you do your best to fumble your way through the fog. Then, years later, when someone asks you what it was like, you sit down and do your best to write a story that feels true.
When I review films, I often give my highest praise to the ones that leave me with a lot to unpack both on an ideological and a visual level. And that’s just because, as my favorite special child of all the art forms (please don’t tell Music), I have seen its incredible potential. Film has the power to convey just about any idea, concept, principle, theme and theory a human brain can conceive of, and lord know that Mike Mills’ effervescently literate coming-of-age dramedy 20th Century Women has plenty of heady ideas to share; its own ideas and the ideas of various feminist scholars, ex-Presidents and Henry Rollins-led hardcore bands. But all the same, 20th Century Women is as fine an opportunity as any to remind myself that a great film can be about more than just how stimulating its insights are. When I think about what Mike Mills (taking the lovely humanism of Beginners and losing most of what made that fine film at times pretentious) has accomplished here, it’s not just the breathlessly smart dialogue about feminism, punk music, and the end of the 1970s that lands it on my list. In fact far from “just” that quality, I might be so bold as to say it is not that at all that makes it a proud entry in my top twenty films. After I chew over the film’s terrific ideas, the aftertaste that really stays with me is a more simple, emotional sense. It is the feeling Roger Ebert spoke of when, having walked out of Almost Famous, he felt a desire to hug himself. After walking out of 20th Century Women, I had not only a desire to hug myself, but a wish to walk back in the theater, somehow find those characters still standing in there among the discarded popcorn boxes, and hug each and every one of them. True, 20th Century Women probably could have landed on my list just on the strength of its verbiage, but it is even more essential that those wonderful words come out of the minds and mouths of funny, lovably fallible, and impeccably acted characters. More than any other film outside of my top ten, 20th Century Women is probably the best representative of that often deceptively modest brand of film that I have always unabashedly loved: the character study. Because for as much as I love scripts full of eloquence and poetry and philosophy, there really is no substitute for the heady magic of having “met” characters you love for the first time and feeling a full heart at the thought of returning to them again. For example, I adore the serenely beautiful language of a film like Before Sunset, but the real reason I return to that enchanting world again and again and again is that Celine and Jesse live there. It is the same way with 20th Century Women. The warm, witty, and yearning dialogue certainly helps to make the world of the film as intoxicating as it is, but that place would feel empty without such likable, lively, and unmistakably human characters making their home inside of it.
The home in question can be found near the beaches of sunny Santa Barbara in the year 1979. Before we learn anything else, we learn that 20th Century Women is, in essence, a period piece. Better yet, it is that exquisitely subtle kind of period piece that makes you feel like you are in the time period without making a showy fuss about it. Its understated feel for a specific decade puts it in proud company with the graceful evocations of the 1960s and 1980s in films like Inside Llewyn Davis and We Are the Best!, and, like those two films, the music of its temporal setting plays a major role in setting the scene. Most of the film’s scenes take place in a two-story house where a free-spirited but pragmatic single mother named Dorothea (brilliantly played by Annette Bening) is attempting to raise her fifteen year-old son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann, in one of the most confidently relaxed newcomer performances I have seen in some time). The house is also home to two other tenants. One is an earthy, yoga-practicing handyman played by Billy Crudup. A gentle soul, he is the kind of person who is often full of shit, but always agreeably so. It comes as no surprise when we learn he likes to spend his free time sculpting his own clay bowls. The other tenant is Abbie, a woman in her late twenties who is recovering from cervical cancer and who finds solace in Talking Heads records and taking photographs for art installations. The unofficial third tenant is Julie, a moody, sardonic seventeen year-old, who frequently scales the scaffold up to Jamie’s bedroom, so the two can spend the night conversing and chastely cuddling. The film is very much about meeting and existing alongside these very three-dimensional people, but the film does have a central plot that gives it just enough momentum. One day Jamie, at the urging of his skater friends, performs a stunt that momentarily cuts off one’s breathing, and ends up in the hospital. Mortified at her son’s recklessness, Dorothea suddenly begins to worry that her guidance may alone may not be enough to usher Jamie into a reasonably well-adjusted adulthood. She decides to calls on Abbie and Julie to spend extra time with him and tells them to share with him all the wisdom their tender years have given them. And, while much happens from there, that is really the crux of what you need to know about the film as you sit down to view it. Once upon a time in the 1970s, in Santa Barbara, there was a house full of smart, fallible, good-natured people who cared about each other a lot, and who all did what they could to help the youngest of them come of age with as much grace and unconditional love as possible. Much interesting conflict spills forth from there, but that sense of decency and compassion is always the film’s true north, and it ensures that kindness and good humor infuse even the saddest of its passages.
20th Century Women is the kind of film that revels in the simple, heartfelt joy of creating a rich, nuanced community of people, which it observes with palpable affection and occasional bemused concern. Its approach is simple, but there is an ocean of depth to that simplicity. As soon as I watched Dorothea tell the other characters what she needed from them in that kitchen, a smile spread across my face. Something about that simple declaration of purpose, both for the characters and for the film, made me realize right then and there that I was in very good hands. I knew I would love the film because I knew that characters who already felt impossibly rich and true not even a quarter of the way into it were going to spend the next ninety minutes or so just speaking with one another and interacting and relating to each other and revealing new layers of themselves. The film had spent its opening introducing me to a small, perfectly realized community and it now declared in a soft, warm, and assured tone that it was going to spend the rest of that time deepening those relationships even further. And I knew that, by the end, I would feel like I was now a part of that tiny world. It is the quiet genius of Mills’ approach that, just as Dorothea wants Jamie to listen to the women around him, the film in turn wants us to stand with Jamie as surrogates and to listen to their stories. Because, let me be absolutely clear, 20th Century Women holds a bright, beautiful torch for the axiom that women are people and that society becomes healthier when it pays attention to them. Dorothea knows that it will do Jamie a world of good to listen to, and converse with, the women in his life, and Mills implies that it is good for the whole lot of us. 20th Century Women, on its face, is a story about how it takes a village to raise a child, but it gently subverts that trope by paying even more attention the village than to the child and by having three women (and the occasional encouragement of a hilariously tranquil Billy Crudup) assume the role of the village.
In fairness, Jamie is actually a wonderful, interesting character in his own right and the film is more interesting for not making him a total cipher, if only because it enriches the female characters to watch someone genuinely responding to them and processing the knowledge they have to give. Still, Mike Mills wisely makes sure that Jamie, his autobiographical avatar, is only the fourth most important character in the film. Because, if it isn’t clear from the title, Mike Mills’ autobiography is not really the story of Mills at all, but his attempt to give something back to the women who raised him. 20th Century Women is a film about women existing at a time of great change, for the country about to elect Ronald Reagan and for a society of women fighting to have their voices heard, respected, and valued. And here I have to give credit to Mike Mills for knowing what he needed to do to make this kind of film: let the women take center stage. A middle-aged white man making a film about how much he learned from the women in his life could have ended up feeling patronizing or at the very least piously self-congratulatory, but Mills does right by his female protagonists by making sure 20th Century Women is a story driven by the personalities and souls of its female characters. To go back to what I spoke of before, placing character development above ideas doesn’t just happen to work for the film. It turns out to be the exact right way to tell the story because the story’s entire purpose is to listen to women. And that simple act of just letting them be heard is more important than whatever they happen to be speaking of in any given scene, whether its feminist politics, sex, or the difference between Talking Heads and Black Flag. 20th Century Women is a vibrant, aching, and clever salute to some women in 1970s Santa Barbara, and it salutes the complexity and compassion of women around the world by extension. Mike Mills conjures up a beautiful symphony of female voices and he avoids reducing the struggle of being a woman to some simplistic moral. In a sly, observant take on Mills’ own role in this story, he has his younger self read a feminist text to his mother, explaining how society marginalizes older women. Dorothea thinks for a moment and then reminds him that no amount of essays will ever make him fully understand her. The lesson Jamie learns is that every woman has her own unique story and that the key to empathy lies in listening to each new woman you meet as if you have never heard it. Because, of course, you haven’t.
But, to reiterate, the genius of 20th Century Women is really just that it leads by example. Dorothea decides that the best medicine for making sure her son grows into a good person is to just be around her and Abbie and Julie and Mike Mills prescribes us the very same tonic. He sits us down to listen to these beautifully shaded characters and in so doing he entrusts the film to its real authors: three phenomenal actresses, each from a different generation and each giving what could be the best work of their respective careers. Elle Fanning is not yet nineteen years old as of this writing and the character of Julie finds her in control of a sharp sense of comic timing that goes hand in hand with her ability to convey dramatic pathos. 20th Century Women is the kind of film where you might find yourself smiling just for a second in the middle of a sad scene and Fanning has an uncanny knack for playing multiple emotions at once. Julie is, in many ways, the film’s toughest role because it requires Fanning to dance around the cliche of the troubled, rebellious, sexually liberated teenager while never tumbling headlong into it. Fanning’s face holds notes of apathy and desperation to somehow pierce beyond her own bored ennui. Her character belongs to a long line of promiscuous iconoclasts, but she also displays a bemused self-awareness. She realizes that she has become something of a dissatisfied youth stereotype, at least to an outsider’s eye, but she is young and her experiments with men and booze and pot are the best idea she has for how to process her pain and confusion. The daughter of a therapist, she has the tools to scrutinize her own decisions relentlessly, but they are still the decisions she most wants to make at this time in her life. Greta Gerwig is an utter revelation as Abbie, a twenty-something visual artist recovering trying to come to terms with her brush with disease and the fact that she may never be able to have children of her own. Gerwig is one of my absolute favorite of modern actresses, and she has been brilliant in film like Frances Ha and Mistress America. Still those films, both from director Noah Baumbach, played on Gerwig’s talent for taking oblivious immaturity to its most graceful and nuanced point. Abbie feels distinctly different from past Gerwig performances. She is complex but also more straightforward in some ways. Abbie is in an emotional freefall, but she is also someone with a better sense of who she is and what she wants. There is no veil of irony or archness to shield Abbie as she nakedly processes how cruelly life can disrupt our best laid plans. Gerwig gets to play the film’s most devastating scenes and its funniest scenes as well (as when she coaches an entire dinner table on how to say “menstruation” without flinching), and she approaches every scene in the film with a sense of unguarded sincerity. Finally, there is Annette Bening’s Dorothea, which I am increasingly coming to think is the best work of her long, wonderful career. Mike Mills may have made his film for all women but it holds a special place in its heart for mothers. If 20th Century Women is a film about the complexities of womankind, then Dorothea is clearly its proper protagonist. She compels Jamie to continually question the mores of the world he will soon join, but she also wrestles with her own biases and the fact that it just gets harder to keep an open mind about every little thing as we age. She insists on accompanying Abbie to a punk club to see the musicians her son idolizes but she turns in early, knowing she will never be able to relate to the angry, inarticulate noise on stage. She reminds Jamie to stay aware of how his identity as a man gives him preferential treatment in an unjust system, but she is also leery about the more radical feminist ideas in the books that Abbie gives Jamie to read. 20th Century Women is a film about the ways in which the experience of being a woman had evolved by 1979, and Bening’s thoughtful, warm, prickly, quick-witted, intermittently exasperated, and ever self-probing Dorothea is the character who is most aware of just how much had changed by that time. Dorothea is a woman who is proud of her years of experience but also knows better than anyone the value of not letting one’s assumptions go unchecked. Watching the dance between her keen intelligence and her lovely humility was one of the most genuinely funny and emotionally nourishing experiences I had all year.
20th Century Women is a great feminist film because I takes the lesson that women are people and then applies the show-not-tell principle. Women are people, and here are three fantastic women speaking witty, soulful dialogue, and portrayed by three of the best actresses from three different generations. Mike Mills thanks the women in his life for everything they did for him, but his final gift is to actually treat the film like a gift and not make it about himself. 20th Century Women is about this lovely, urbane group of women and how entertainingly enriching it is to spend two hours getting to know them. At the film’s end, Mike Mills admits that fully capturing the tangle of emotions, ideas and desires that made up his mother would be an impossible feat. Women are people and a person is too wild a thing to be summed up and neatly defined. It is no secret that Hollywood still needs to do a much better job of telling women’s stories and the reason for that is not simply that we would all be better for hearing them, though I do believe that we would be. We need more films about women because it’s just the right thing to do. It’s the right thing to do because film is an invaluable tool for helping us connect to humanity and women comprise more than half of what humanity literally means. I adored this film because I met a house full of great, great characters. They were smart, soul-searching, passionate and funny and, as with any great character study, I am excited to visit these people again in the years to come. They feel like real people to me now. And it means a lot that these real people are women.
Kubo and the Two Strings is a children’s film that knows we never stop being children. This is especially true when we are at the feet of a great storyteller. It doesn’t matter how old you are. If you are there listening to the tale, you must turn off the chatter in your head in your soul, inch closer to the fire, and pay very close attention. In the first words of 2016’s best animated film, the young Kubo urgently instructs the viewer, “If you must blink, do it now.” For if we let our attention flag for even a second, the hero of this adventure “will surely perish.” Kubo says from the very beginning that the reader, the listener, the viewer are a part of the storytelling process, and the act of listening to the story and and learning from it is a central part of what narrative is all about. Kubo may be a modern animated film, but it shrewdly takes the form of a kind of ancient fable, as if its thrills, twists, and mythic battles had been the stuff of folklore for generations. It acts as if its wisdom had already been passed down through centuries of oral tradition, and in a sense that is true. It is true because, fundamentally, Kubo’s moral is that it is vital, and has always been vital, for human beings to tell each other stories. The art of storytelling has been one of the cornerstones of human development for thousands of years. Stories about how past generations hunted or farmed or built shelters helped us expand the reach of civilization. Familial histories gave children a sense of those who had come before them. And, as our minds expanded, we used stories to help theorize what might lay beyond our sight. Beyond the sky and beyond the barrier of death. Kubo and the Two Strings is the year’s most beautiful animated film and also one of the best about how human beings tell stories to make sense of an inscrutable world. It is the story of a nine-year old boy who tells stories for a living and how those stories help him cope with loss and mortality.
Kubo is another fine work from the very talented animators at Laika studios. Their films consistently show an affinity for children grappling with mortality, fear of the unknown, and the border between childhood and adulthood. We first meet Kubo as an infant in the film’s breathtaking opening. His mother is desperately trying to shepherd her son to safety across an angry sea in a small wooden boat. Hundred-foot waves threaten to dash their craft to pieces, but she is able to dispel them with notes from a magical stringed instrument. They make it to the shores, but not before the storm throws the boat onto the rocks and causes Kubo’s mother to suffer a debilitating head wound, which robs her of much of her memory. The two are running from Kubo’s aunts and his grandfather, the Moon King, who rules the Heavens. Kubo’s mother was once a deity, but gave up immortality for the love of Kubo’s father, a mortal samurai who was slain by the vindictive Moon King. Kubo never met his father. We also learn that the Moon King managed to steal one of Kubo’s eyes. He is now a nine-year old boy living in a mountain cave above an ancient Japanese fishing village. Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson, who subtly plays him as an intelligent, observant boy, while still retaining the innocence and inexperience of youth) begins each morning by feeding his disabled mother, who can no longer take care of herself or speak during the day. He spends his days down in the marketplace telling stories to the villagers. As a result of being half-deity, Kubo can puppeteer elaborate origami figures by strumming his magical, titular, two-stringed instrument. He returns home every day before sundown to greet his mother, who regains some of her faculties at night. She still has difficulty, however, remembering all the details of her past and she can only give Kubo a vague impression of the father he never knew. The most important story she tells him is of his grandfather and wicked aunts, who are always hunting for them in the hopes of stealing Kubo’s other eye. She tells him that he must never stay out past sundown, when the moon will be in the sky. She also reminds him to keep two possessions with him at all times: a small wooden charm in the shape of a monkey and his father’s old robe, which has the shape of a beetle on the back.
One day, Kubo wakes up to find that the village is celebrating its annual festival to honor the dead. The villagers make lanterns that they believe allow them to talk to the souls of their departed loved ones. Kubo is so moved by a desire to speak to his father that he stays later than normal to make a lantern and ends up out past sundown. As a result, Kubo’s malevolent aunts find him and almost catch him. He is only able to escape through his mother’s intervention, but she ends up giving her life and soul to buy him time. She conjures a pair of wings on his back, which fly him to a faraway part of the country. Kubo wakes up in a snowy wasteland with a full-sized monkey looking over him. Monkey (voiced with a beautiful blend of toughness and sensitivity by Charlize Theron, who also voices Kubo’s mother) is Kubo’s wooden charm come to life, and she tells him that his mother poured the last of her magical life force into her so that she may protect him. Monkey informs Kubo that he must find three sacred objects that made up his father’s armor, in order to have a chance of defeating his grandfather and aunts. They are also joined by Kubo’s tiny origami samurai, who comes to life with compass-like powers, and later by a samurai who is half-man and half-beetle. The samurai, who simply goes by Beetle, can remember nothing, but feels sure that he was once a warrior loyal to Kubo’s father. Kubo has much in common with a great many stories of unlikely allies questing to find sacred relics, but it exudes a sweetness and a sad acceptance of death that very few such quest tales have. It is the story of how stories of our loved ones help us survive, make us who we are, and connect us to our past. In searching for these objects that belong to his father, Kubo also comes to learn about his family and finds that people leave traces of themselves in the narratives and possessions they leave behind.
One of the most refreshing and lovely qualities of Kubo and the Two Strings is that it speaks to children in a soft but firm tone about the idea of death and loss. Even if this were not one of the most gorgeously visualized animated films of recent years, it would still be fit to stand with films like Bambi, The Lion King, and Finding Nemo because of how directly it looks at the grief of not knowing if you will see a loved one again. Like those other great animated films, Kubo is soothing and sympathetic but also bruisingly honest. Kubo can take solace in the fact that his mother’s magic rests in Monkey and he can find a strong, compassionate male figure in Beetle, but the film also knows that having the essence of a lost parent is different from really having your mother and father in front of you. The stories of those we lose are a salve for our pain and they help us feel a spiritual bond to them, but stories do not erase the notion of loss and death. What they can do is write our love for one another in great, bold letters. This is why Kubo is willing to risk his own life to go to the festival in the first place. Even if it is only a ritual, that yearning, soul-filling act of telling a story to a departed loved one is powerful and worthwhile. For Kubo, telling a story to the father he lost is an act of love more powerful than death. This is one of Kubo’s most important overarching themes and its final thoughts on the matter of death and storytelling lead to one of the most ecstatically poignant, heartbreakingly true endings in any film this year. And it makes abundant sense that a film so sweetly honest about dying should have one of the year’s most powerful endings. Because Kubo and the Two Strings is a film all about the inevitability of endings. It is about the hurt of knowing we must all say goodbye and the solace we can find in telling someone’s story all over again once they are gone.
Kubo is simply one of the most emotionally healthy films about bereavement I have ever seen. And, even more than classics like Bambi, The Lion King, and Finding Nemo, the film is intently focused on the hardship and the unexpected beauty that comes from grieving for another person. Grieving were huge parts of those other films, but they are the focus of Kubo and I find it invaluable and refreshing to have a film that takes on that issue. For children and for everyone else too. It does not peddle in easy answers and it does not presume to know what lies beyond death. For all the film’s use of magic and all its mythical lore, the final question of what comes after our last breath remains hidden away. Kubo has no problem including a magical instrument that can puppeteer origami figures, a child who is half-god, a powerful lunar deity, a wooden charm come to life, a giant beetle with a samurai’s soul, and numerous fantastical monsters to battle. This is all in the game of storytelling. But Kubo and the Two Strings refuses to disrespect the children, of all ages, listening earnestly at its feet, by telling them it knows what happens when this life is over. What it will do is hug you tightly and tell you to find comfort in the memories of love once shared. Along with storytelling, memory is the tonic Kubo prescribes to help us process mortality and the unknown. The point of each magical object, be it a mother’s charm or a father’s robe, is not to suggest a world where magic can “cure” mortality, but one where treasured objects can offer a balm for our cuts. Inside Kubo’s scintillating modern technology is an old fable that tells us we can find comfort in any old relic; anything that stokes our memories of each other and of the love we shared. Monkey, herself an old memento, makes Kubo a bracelet out of his mother’s hair and tells him to keep it with him. It is a memory, she tells him, “and memories are powerful things.
What makes Kubo the most splendid animated offering of 2016 is not just its beautiful, hauntingly human story, but the fact that Laika Studios do what is perhaps their best work to date in order to bring it all to life. At the very least, Kubo and the Two Strings stands with the studio’s 2008 masterwork, Coraline, in the way it conceives a striking, surreal world of magic and places a smart, inquisitive child in the midst of it. And as with Coraline, this world is not just visually astounding but totally of a piece with the story the film is trying to tell. I regard Henry Selick as the master of stop motion and I have no interest in saying that Kubo “beats” the visuals of Selick beauties like Coraline and The Nightmare Before Christmas. However, I will say this: this is the most seamlessly beautiful stop motion I have ever seen. The film has a sumptuous array of textures from the delicately sharp creases of Kubo’s origami figures to the pale porcelain of the gaunt masks Kubo’s aunts wear to the glassy serenity of the lakes and rivers. Monkey’s fur is made entirely out of tiny strips of white paper that rustle in the wind. I understand that some of Kubo‘s visual splendor was achieved through robotics, 3D printing and a bit of CGI, but I frankly do not care. I have zero interest in being a purist about this. Kubo and the Two Strings is too ravishing and too luminous a work of stop motion animation to be dismissed. If a stop motion film can look like this, it shows that the medium is still growing and evolving, and that is everything a lover of this increasingly niche form of animation could want to hear. Kubo is meant to feel like a fable from ancient Japan and that requires a mixture of both realistic natural landscapes and the ghostly, glowing textures of skeleton monsters and moon gods. Like a bedtime story or one of Miyazaki’s films, Kubo needed to feel like it was set in a recognizable (albeit ancient) human world that also shared a permeable border with the realm of spirits and magic. It succeeds beyond its wildest imagination in nailing that subtle blend of tones. It conjures a world that is alternatingly shimmering and spooky.
Kubo and the Two Strings is finally a story about how stories make us human and it radiates a palpable love for humanity. After all, it is the tale of a goddess who abandoned heavenly perfection for the beautiful, aching mess of humanity. When the Moon King urges his grandson to finally join his celestial kingdom and leave the imperfect mortal realm behind, he tells him that he will be “beyond stories”. Whatever we think of the afterlife or God (or the gods), there is something bittersweet in the idea that we would ever lose the need for narrative. Kubo says there is something perfect and complete just in the brief, sometimes painful lives we share together here on Earth. Maybe death really will bring us to a place where we understand everything and where we no longer need to cobble together these fragile scraps of fiction and lore to make sense of it all. But for myself, and any person still living, that state of confusion is the very essence of what it is to be human. Film, art, music, and writing are all the result of our feeble attempts to explain something to one another or to ourselves, and I cannot imagine wanting to be beyond any of them. Human beings render such brilliant gold out of the flax of their fears and doubts that I have to think it would at least give the beauty of the hereafter a run for its money. Then again, we are bewildered mounds of flesh, so maybe the most beautiful of our literature is nothing more than a cardboard nursery book in Heaven’s waiting room. Still, from the time I’ve been here those stories have meant the world to me. Whatever grand cosmic plan waits for me when I die, I pray I never forget that my first redemption came from the words of fellow human beings, living and deceased. They were my friends. They were my teachers. They were Seuss and Alcott and Eliot. Kubrick and Spielberg and Linklater. They were my mother and my father. They saw I was afraid and could not sleep. And they told me a story.
I often ask myself how possible it is to separate the personal from the political in art. When I was writing my Communications Studies thesis in college, we read about a theory known as “walking with the subject”. The idea was that, when interviewing people as part of a study, it was impossible for me as the writer to entirely get around the fact that I was there in the room. My very presence and the little quirks of my personality and the way I asked questions would necessarily influence how a subject responded to me. It would influence the kind of answers I got and my biases would eventually become a part of how I interpreted those answers. Walking with the subject meant that, when I wrote about my findings and my interviews, I would acknowledge my own presence and how it impacted the study. Since it was impossible to conduct a study without being personally present, the most objective thing to do was to just make the study an account of my interaction with the subject. Like Charlie Kaufman, the writer becomes a part of his own script. Lately, I have similar feelings about film criticism. I try to be as objective as I can about my thoughts on a film, but any judgment of a film is going to have a lot to do with who I am as a person. Films don’t exist in a vaccuum. Films communicate. They make judgments about ideas and concepts in the world. To like a film or dislike a film is to necessarily throw some of your own values into the stew, because how can you not? For example, I love The Godfather. I don’t just love it because it’s lushly filmed or has a great Nino Rota score. I love it because I think it says beautiful, complicated things about the nature of upward mobility in our country and because I agree with its viewpoint on them. It is impossible for me to properly review The Godfather without revealing that. By the same token, if you don’t agree with its complex ideas about financial success or find its parallels between organized crime and the larger American bootstrap mythos interesting, then it would make abundant sense for you not to like that film. We cannot remove ourselves from the films we love and choosing to love a film means making larger value judgments. And this is all a long way of saying that I think Beyonce Knowles’ Lemonade, the 65-minute film set to her album of the same name, is an absolutely brilliant work of art because I value its insights on racial inequality and because I believe that modern America still visits egregious injustices on people of color. Lemonade is a film that is both personal and political, as it expands from the smaller story of confronting an unfaithful husband to take on the larger spectre of American racism. And what one thinks of it will inevitably be a reflection of how they feel about the state of race relations in this country.
Now, to be clear, much of Lemonade’s plot is about very personal relationship struggles that resonate outside the realm of social issues. While discussions of racial inequity can be polarizing, depending on the person, I imagine there would be decidedly less controversy around the notion that infidelity can be hurtful. On its face, Lemonade is the story of grappling with, and eventually forgiving, an act of emotional betrayal. Lemonade is the story of R&B diva extraordinaire Beyonce Knowles finding out that she has been cheated on by her husband, Shawn Carter, better known as the great and influential rapper Jay-Z. As a disclaimer, I understand that there was never any confirmed account of Jay-Z cheating, and it’s obviously the Carter family’s prerogative to keep that information close to the chest if he did. Whatever happened between Beyonce and her husband, or whether anything happened at all, Beyonce has managed to create one of the rawest portraits of post-affair grief in either of the two artistic forms it occupies. Lemonade is about processing one’s turbulent emotions, and it cycles through an absolutely dizzying array of them. It is, by turns, raw, funny, blistering, devastated, catatonic, unhinged, uninhibited, and eventually generous. By the end, it becomes one of the most generous films of this or any year and it’s all backed by one of the year’s true landmark albums. The film is shot as a collection of individual music videos but knitted together with snippets of poetry (by the poet Warsan Shire, a Somali woman born in London). The film also dreamily cuts back and forth between scenes to come and scenes that have already taken place. As a lover of both hip-hop and the films of Terence Malick, I found Lemonade a joy to watch each of the three times I sat down with it. The film is broken into eleven chapters and one epilogue after the credits roll. The chapters have names with different emotional states, which recall the five stages of grief. With a diva as extravagant and ferociously flamboyant as Beyonce, it makes abundant sense that her grief cycle would go to eleven. The story is Beyonce’s cathartic journey from denial into anger, through apathy and emptiness, and eventually to a place where she can confront her unfaithful husband about his actions, forgive him, rebuild their relationship, and continue together into the future. The magic of this odyssey is in the extraordinary splendor of the film’s emotional palette. It’s not just how much feeling Lemonade has, but how intelligently Beyonce takes her normal persona of an unflappably confident and empowered woman and sends it into Hades and back out again. Lemonade has the effect of deepening Beyonce’s past work, of making us see her with new eyes. What once may have played simply, if entertainingly, as diva swagger now takes on a new meaning. That swagger is her shield as she traverses the battlefield. After years of cutting down weak foes, in the form of insensitive lotharios and jealous female competitors, Beyonce finally finds a worthy adversary. Not in an unfaithful Jay-Z, but in her own conflicted feelings of self-worth.
I have thus far described the skeleton of the plot, but the real beauty and thrill of Lemonade is in seeing these twelve unspeakably dynamic music videos. If it were nothing else, Lemonade would be twelve of the very best music videos ever made. Each one of them would more than merit a Kanye West interruption. In one of the first videos, for the song “Hold Up”, Beyonce boldly breaks free of her own denial, pushing open the great doors of a city hall and striding into the daylight with a torrent of water rushing around her feet. Clad in a bright yellow dress and carrying a baseball bat, she swings with uncontrollable glee at car windows, fire hydrants, closed circuit security cameras, and, in a great humorous touch, a piñata. Those images of Beyonce, resplendent in her mustard-colored gown, delightedly dispensing destruction and laying waste to all the bullshit behind her are iconic by now. But, in truth, almost every frame of Lemonade felt iconic the moment I laid eyes on it. This is true of the images, and is also true of its biting, brokenhearted wit. If there is any doubt about how influential Lemonade already is, I recently saw “Call Becky with the good hair” emblazoned across a Finding Dory t-shirt. The video for “Don’t Hurt Yourself” contains the famous album cover shot of Beyonce, head down and wrapped in a thick fur coat, leaning against her luxury car and just seconds away from completely giving herself over to rage. When she starts singing, her voice sounds like gravel and gasoline and she stalks the retreating camera like a vindictive hyena. If anything this year sounded more like great, pissed off rock and roll than “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, I will be kindly surprised. At the end of it, she flings her wedding ring at the camera and the film adds another iconic image to its growing list of them. The great shots within these sixty-five minutes are too numerous to fully recount, and they are all striking and symbolic and loaded with emotion. Beyonce burns a bedroom and the fire spreads to the whole house. She dances on the hood of a prison bus with an upraised middle finger. She dances around in the old tunnel of a ruined Louisiana fort while a silhouette resembling her estranged father plays steel guitar. Lemonade works because Beyonce Knowles is an artist who understands the sneaky poetry of the meme. Like Bob Dylan, she knows there are lot of good ways to hurt a mean lover, but most of the best ones tend to just be a short, tossed off sentence. “You try this shit again, you gon’ lose your wife,” she whoops with a deranged sense of liberation.
Lemonade breathes fire for about half of its running time, but it eventually finds a gentler spirit and emerges as one of the most poignant, overpowering films about forgiveness ever made. And, I would argue these later moments are so unbelievably moving precisely because we have been to the absolute depths of despair first. In the later scenes, Lemonade is still wise and frank about relationships and the havoc adultery can cause, but Beyonce has conquered the hurt and the film no longer howls as wildly. She wants her wayward man to think constructively about why he would betray the love of his life and his love for himself. In an angrier moment she yelps, “When you play me, you play yourself!” But now that the red smoke has cleared, the wisdom of that statement still stands. For all the startling, aggressive power of Lemonade’s early scenes, the second half is just as vivid for its vulnerable beauty. As Beyonce imagines forgiveness as a kind of baptism, she and a line of black women in white robes wade out into the middle of a large bayou with an enormous sky above them. Standing in the light of dusk, they face the horizon and raise their hands above their heads. The next video begins and, suddenly, Jay-Z is there in front of us. He doesn’t appear all at once, but gradually. As Beyonce sits in her home, playing her keyboard and plaintively singing about promises, we see a man’s wristwatch sitting on a table. Then we see a hand with a wedding ring upon it reaching across a pillow. Then the top of the man’s head appears. Finally, his entire upper body can be seen in silhouette. This segment is beautifully directed, and it gets forgiveness just right. After such a tremendous breaking of trust, forgiveness can only happen as a painstaking process. You can come to see the other person as who they were again, but surely it is not easy or swift. If you are lucky, they return to you in pieces and parts, until one day they stand whole before you. The slow emergence of the sinner into the story of the betrayed, or more specifically her decision to include him, makes Lemonade a tremendously rewarding story of choosing to forgive. “So we’re going to heal,” Beyonce says softly. She walks above the old ruins and tunnels that once surrounded and swallowed her, and the joyful, reggae-tinted strains of “All Night” play. This bouncy song is about looking forward to kissing and holding the person you love after learning to let them back in your heart. And here I will confess that I teared up. R&B history has no shortage of songs about wanting to kiss and hug and make love to someone. Some are good, some are bad, some are “Too Close”. But none have ever moved me the way this one did. The context of the hard road that had come before made it overwhelming. Beyonce was basking in the simple joy of recapturing a love that had been in jeopardy. She had turned a medium-paced funk jam about make-up sex into blissful, euphoric poetry, and I could not help but weep with joy about it.
And, when I put it all that way, Lemonade really is the kind of personal story that just about anyone can relate to. It is obviously particularly relatable to anyone who has been cheated on or cheated on someone, or to anyone who has been through the sometimes painful process of learning to grow or change with a romantic partner. And even if none of that applies to you, chances are still good that you have had a hard experience with forgiving another person. So, with all that being so, does one need to believe in the existence of racial injustice to be moved by Lemonade? No, I suppose not. Still, that perspective is crucial to understanding where Lemonade is really coming from and for feeling the full weight of its mighty catharsis. The struggles of being a black person, and a black woman in particular, is a vital part of the film’s iconography, from its decision to set itself entirely in New Orleans to the aforementioned line about Becky and her good hair, which references both the difficulty black people experience in finding barbers who can handle their hair consistency and the troubling idea of black men dating white women as a sign of upward mobility. How many people reading remember that O.J. Simpson left his black wife to marry Nicole Brown Simpson? Before laying into Jay-Z on “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, Beyonce pauses to insert a montage of black female faces, underscored by Malcolm X’s famous remark that the black woman is the most disrespected person in America. Many of the film’s scenes play out at an old plantation house with black women wearing Antebellum-era white dresses. And, as Beyonce starts to forgive Jay-Z, she starts looking at him in the context of his own black identity. A series of mothers hold up pictures of sons who were lost to police brutality, and an actress holds up a photo of a fallen slave because he is also a part of this pattern. Beyonce seems to say to her husband, “You have done wrong, but do we not both face bigger threats than one another?” To view Lemonade as simply a story of forgiving infidelity, without taking Beyonce and Jay-Z’s race into account, would be to pretend that race can ever not be a part of the context. And I will now officially cease mincing words and say that of course it is. It always is.
But, if there were any doubts that racial injustice and the experience of being black in America are pivotal parts of Lemonade’s message, the final music video, “Formation”, swoops in after the final credits and slaps them down to the cement. The major story of the film is complete, with Beyonce and Jay-Z reunited and happy. There is no more spousal infidelity to forgive, but here we are. We must be here to talk about someone else. “Formation” is a furious, percussive dance song with all the militaristic swagger its name promises. It is about Beyonce’s roots as a black woman with ties to Louisiana, the land where the levees broke. The song is a call to unify, organize, and form ranks. Its beat pulses and seethes and it is clear we are back in a place of anger. Despite the odd reference to rewarding a sexual partner with seafood dinners, “Formation” is about protest and defiance against any oppressive force. We have watched Beyonce forge a path to forgiveness with her husband. Now that she has the one act of reconciliation behind her, she’s here to start the process again with a different transgressor: society. Over the last hour, we have seen that forgiveness is possible. But,the last image we have is of Beyonce sinking into the Katrina floodwaters on the roof of a police car. The film cuts to black and our penance remains out of reach, somewhere below the flood. There can be no forgiveness until there is an apology.
Keith Maitland’s extraordinary animated documentary, Tower, plunges us immediately into a scene of violent turmoil. We are listening to a real news broadcast from the summer of 1966 and the film uses animation to put us inside the broadcast booth. The “booth” in this case is a four-door station wagon emblazoned with the letters KTBC, the call sign of a local news station in Austin, Texas. The man driving and speaking into the microphone is Neal Spelce, the station director. He is circling the perimeter of the University of Texas, urgently instructing people to stay away from the area. There is a sniper firing indiscriminately from the top of the famous campus Tower. Spelce is using the power of journalism to keep people out of harm’s way, but this remarkable documentary has a different journalistic aim: to take us into the melee on campus and ever closer to the gunfire. Tower utilizes a combination of old television and radio broadcasts, interviews, archival footage, and, most of all, animation to stitch together a meticulous account of one of the most sobering and sadly prescient days in American history: the day of the nation’s first official mass shooting. The film’s decision to immerse the audience in this time period without any backstory or even much context is the filmmakers’ way of recreating some small fraction of the fear and shock people on the University of Texas campus must have felt at the time. Tower knows that its viewers are all too familiar with this specific kind of horror in the present day, but it wants us to experience the birth of the American mass shooting with fresh eyes.
On the first day of August in 1966, a twenty-five-year old former University of Texas student named Charles Whitman drove to the campus, just after killing his mother and wife. Carrying three handguns, three rifles, a shotgun, and a machete , Whitman forced his way onto the 27th floor of the University of Texas Tower, killing a receptionist and two tourists in the process. From there, he went out onto the outdoor observation deck and began to fire at will at any passerby he felt he could hit. Over the course of ninety-six blood-curdling minutes, Whitman managed to kill fourteen people and injure thirty-one more before he was finally taken down by officers of the Austin Police Department. We get snippets of context and backstory throughout the film, but we never hear about Whitman’s history as a failed Marine or what he did before driving to campus or how he managed to force his way past campus security. The film’s aim is pointedly not to understand how Charles Whitman did what he did or to even puzzle over why he chose to murder fourteen innocent people. Tower instead places us with the people on the ground, who scrambled to make some sense of a senseless tragedy and did what they could to help one another through it. The film collects the traumatic memories of that day and lays them out on the floor for us to see. It is a patchwork quilt of the way human beings responded to an unprecedented survival situation. Tower wants us to imagine what it was like to be the first witnesses to this kind of savagery, but it also wants us to bring our present knowledge to bear on what we see. It wants to rewind a cycle of violence that has carried on though Columbine and the University of Virginia and the Pulse nightclub and understand the roots of America’s struggle with mass shootings. Moreover, like this year’s Jackie, it wants the viewer to think critically about we piece together and process tragic stories, individually, journalistically, and as a nation.
The very idea of a mass shooting was almost impossible to fathom before August 1, 1966. Going back to the first mass shedding of blood in our domestic history allows Tower to take a close look at how both people and their journalistic institutions react when the unfathomable happens. We learn that two students walked unknowingly, even eagerly, into harm’s way because some hapless reporter informed them that the shots were coming from an airsoft gun. A University of Texas professor heard the shots and assumed they were firecrackers left over from the Fourth of July. Our human brains are wired to analyze information and fill in the gaps with whatever makes sense to them. They are bound by the conceivable. On that day, the term “mass shooting” was not part of our cultural lexicon. On that lazy, humid summer afternoon, the thought that someone would be firing arbitrarily at innocent passersby was simply not in the realm of the possible or even imaginable for most people. Tower is fascinated by how we process an event when there is no precedent for it. One officer sheepishly admits that he looked up at the one-thousand windows in the Tower and imagined an army of one-thousand Black Panthers. Some combination of the media and his own skewed understanding of the world allowed this man’s brain to visualize a full-scale African-American revolt, while the image of a single, sociopathic white man with no motive behind his actions never crossed his minded. That seed had to be planted in his imagination, in the imaginations of University of Texas students, and finally into the national consciousness. Even after the situation became clear, the Austin Police Department still sent in supplies of tear gas instead of shotguns. A news station ended up falsely reporting that a young paperboy had been killed. Blessedly he survived, but not before his poor parents spent three hours believing him dead. And Tower presents none of this to be judgmental. Tower shows all the chaos, misinterpretation, and sloppy responses in order to posit that responding to a disaster is a messy process. Sometimes we spend days, months, and years trying and failing to fully grasp an event like the Tower shooting.
What makes Tower both a rigorous film and a generous one is that it takes in all the error and the misunderstanding and views it all as a fundamental part of being human. It opts not to show Charles Whitman because it views the real story of the Tower shooting in the teeming tapestry of people who moved about the campus below him. Tower presents a rich cast of characters who each responded to the terror in his or her own different way. It sees both fear and bravery through clear, empathetic eyes. One woman recalls watching frozen at the window of the English Building as other students raced outside to bring a dying police officer a drink of water. She remembers being stunned to see that people could summon themselves to do that and just as stunned to learn that she was not one of them. With sad candor she says this was the moment she realized she was a coward. The movie does not add anything to this. The point is not to judge, but to see how a collective tragedy gave a young woman sobering insight into herself. The intent is not to weight the morality of any individual’s actions during the unthinkable strain of a survival situation, but to observe that people are diverse in the way they handle stress. Some run headlong into danger while others are bound to the spot by self-preservation. Tower is a film with a great curiosity for the many shades of humanity. Even the acts of heroism the film shows are presented in a complex way. When asked if he was going to accompany his fellow officers out on to the observation deck to disarm the gunman, young Officer McCoy responded, “Well, I guess I don’t have much choice, do I?” Of course, he did have a choice, just as those who stayed out of the line of fire had their own choices to make. Nevertheless, Officer McCoy, being whoever Officer McCoy was deep down inside, was inclined not to see choice in the matter. Or maybe he just told himself that for fear of what he might do if he did have a choice. Every decision is the result of the myriad, intricate psychological forces within each person and Tower honors those choices, be they brave or fearful. They are testaments to the colorful tangle of humanity and the film pays tribute to them as the vivid, complicated antithesis to all that senseless death.
I have perhaps not adequately conveyed just how moving Tower is. This is the end result of its compassionate interest in human beings, with all their capacity for selflessness and self-preservation. Tower is a film that refuses to ever show the man known as Charles Whitman. Instead, our fullest glimpse comes from Claire Wilson, the first person to be shot. Claire ended up surviving the attack, but she lost her fiancé, Tom, and the child that was growing inside of her. Now in her sixties, Claire looks at a magazine portrait of Charles Whitman as a young child. She has no harsh words for the man. She loves children and she is now gazing down at the little boy who became Charles Whitman. She reflects sadly about how a precious child can grow up to commit heinous acts and, without hesitation, she forgives the man who murdered her unborn child. Tower focuses on the humanity that whirled around Charles Whitman’s vortex of death and this allows the brave acts of that day to take on the full triumphant power they deserve. Inspirational can be a dirty word, but Tower comes to feel genuinely inspiring without having a hint of mawkishness. It is not interested in rah-rah acts of heroism, but it is in love with our potential to be kind and good to one another. Allen Crum, a middle-aged campus bookstore employee, unwittingly became a hero through sheer Forrest Gumpian circumstance. He ran out of his store to help a boy who had been shot on his bike, but then found himself unable to go back across the street without running the risk of being shot himself. The only thing he could think to do was keep running in the other direction, toward the Tower, hoping to eventually wind his way back around to the store. And, before he knew it, he had run all the way to the foot of the building. And then he figured he should just go up and see if anyone needed his help. And so he was deputized and ended up helping to disarm the shooter. Before entering, Crum flashed two middle fingers at Charles Whitman and seeing this act of living defiance in the face of death made me laugh more cathartically than just about anything I saw this year. But the most wonderfully humane act did not involve a gun or any kind of force. It was the simple, brave act of a student named Rita Star Pattern, who ran out to the wounded Claire and lay down next to her. She lay with Claire for an hour, on scalding concrete and in plain sight of Charles Whitman, and just talked. This decision kept Claire conscious and very likely saved her life, and it involved nothing more than one person reaching out to another. Tower takes us to the first mass shooting, but it is not about killing. It is about living through tragedy as a community. In the present day, Neal Spelce, who drove around campus bravely warning people of the danger, recalls the moment they released the list of victims on air. His old boss came rushing in and asked them to repeat the list. He had heard his grandson’s name. Telling the story in the present, Spelce starts tearing up. “I just broke up now,” he stammers. “I think it’s because I have grandchildren.” This moment perfectly captures Tower’s unabashed sense of empathy. The loss of human life depicted in Tower made me break up too. I think it’s because I am human.
Tower is about a catastrophe that had no precedent in our history and how human beings dealt with an event that was then painfully new and shocking. However, as much as the film is challenging us to put ourselves in a time before mass shootings became a regular occurrence, it also holds us accountable for whatever is happening in the present day. It charges us with a sacred responsibility to learn from the past and have a discourse about what to do in the future. Because we do not live in 1966. And the next mass shooting we have will not be the first. It will not be the hundredth. Tower’s quarrel is not with any specific policy proposal, as long as that policy is not inaction or silence. Tower holds particularly severe censure for those who are not willing to talk about this. Late in the film, Claire has a reunion with a man named Artly. Artly was also a student at the University of Texas in 1966 and he was the person who would eventually pull her to safety. Shockingly, we learn that Claire and Artly did not meet for the first time until a few years before this movie was made. Almost fifty years passed by before they had a conversation about the trauma they both suffered through. Similarly, Aleck Hernandez, the boy who was shot during his paper route says that the occasion of the film has reunited him with the cousin who was riding on his handlebars at the time. They are both joyful to see each other again after nearly fifty years of silence. The cousin remarks that it does him good to sit down and talk about the tragedy. We get the sense that the University of Texas wanted the whole incident to just go away. They cleaned up the blood and never put up so much as a plaque to honor the people, living and dead, who went through this ordeal. Tower is not only a film about how we experience, process, and remember tragedy. It is a call to arms to never bury tragedy. Tower argues that the most rigorous and the most humane thing to do in the face of great loss is to turn to a human being and talk through the pain. As the film closes, the animated ghost of Claire’s slain fiancé, Tom, walks the campus alongside present-day students. The film seems to say that these ghosts are not unpleasant things to be feared and hidden away. They have lessons still to teach us. They were human beings with lives and people who loved them and it is right and good to remember them. Their spirits are a part of our history. Let them stay.
It feels appropriate to me that, of all the great scenes in David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water, the one probably most fated to become iconic involves a woman telling her customers that her restaurant only serves T-bone steaks and baked potatoes. Hell or High Water is the best example in recent memory of what one might call a steak-and-potatoes movie. There is a certain breed of film that has a kind of generally appealing and unfussy quality to it. It’s the kind of film that leads people of many different stripes to smile, reflect fondly and say, “Well that was just a very good movie.” Movies of this sort are not typically known for being conspicuously artistic nor for being the least bit cerebral. Like the T-bone steak in that West Texas saloon, the steak-and-potatoes movie is relatively unadorned, a movie to be appreciated largely for its surface pleasures. The simple steak-and-potatoes movie tends to be broadly accessible, energetically paced and frequently quotable. These are all qualities that Hell or High Water shares. The curious thing about my great affection for Hell or High Water is that I am not, by my nature, a steak-and-potatoes kind of viewer. I am particularly fond of challenging films, and I am just as happy sitting down to watch brutal Romanian abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days as I am watching Finding Nemo. With most steak-and-potatoes movies, I too often find something in their consensus-building palatability that robs them of vitality or personality. They can sometimes be lacking in idiosyncrasy. I have recently run into this issue with films like The Martian, The King’s Speech, and particularly Argo. These films wear their relative simplicity like a badge of honor, and that’s not necessarily wrong of them. Simplicity can be a virtue. The problem is, as much as I generally quite like two of those films (and technically like Argo), I found their simple populism to be what held them back from getting anywhere near greatness. Their lack of artistic flourish only seemed to throw light onto the deficiencies in their storytelling or character development or thematic depth (or all three in the case of Argo). To make a steak-and-potatoes film is to put the focus entirely on the meat of your story, and that Spartan approach really only pays off if you have very high quality meat. This is where those three films suffer and where Hell or High Water succeeds. Hell or High Water has the distinction of being a downright delicious slab of plain, old storytelling, and that is why it has the honor of being the one and only “simply great” film in my Top 20 this year.
To be fair, my own personal preferences for showier work almost got the better of me when I saw the film in the summer of 2016. I walked out of Hell or High Water having enjoyed the film deeply and recognizing a certain resonance in its depiction of post-recession America. I knew immediately, in my heart of hearts, that I had just seen a very, very fine film. But it was quite a simple film and this gave me pause. I started to have doubts that it would leave me with much to chew on. The story of the film is that of two Texan brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), who set out to rob the bank that is foreclosing on their family home. If they do not have a certain sum of money wired to Texas Midlands Bank by the end of the week, they will lose both the property and the right to collect the vast amounts of oil that have recently been discovered underneath it. Tanner is a recently paroled criminal with experience in robbing banks. He also did time early in his life when he shot their abusive father. It is Toby, however, a veteran with a clean record, who has masterminded the scheme and who has a plan for how they can get away with it. They will only hit the bank that has victimized them and they will only steal smaller sums from tellers’ drawers, which means all the money they receive will be untraceable. As the two hit more banks, they are followed by a retiring Texas Ranger named Marcus (played with keen, crotchety charm by Jeff Bridges) and his younger partner, a half-Mexican half-Native American man named Alberto (a great, dry Gil Birmingham). The film’s main story is about Toby and Tanner, as they rob, launder their money at a Native American casino, and make plans to put the property into a protected trust for Toby’s sons, but it is also the story of the relationship between the two rangers. Marcus toes the line between puckish and prejudiced as he continually cracks jokes about Alberto’s heritage. Alberto alternatingly puts up with him and tosses out his own barbs, mostly about the fact that Marcus is too old to still be out chasing the law enforcement high that he is so clearly afraid to give up. Hell or High Water is about both action and conversation; robberies and moments of stillness between both sets of men. And, without underlining the point too emphatically, it is also about the state of a country with deep class divisions and increasingly scant opportunities for the upward mobility so central to its origin story. At the end of the film, as Toby and Marcus meet on his front porch for a fateful conversation, Toby explains why someone like him might rob a bank. Being poor, he says is “like a disease, passed down from generation to generation. But not my boys, not anymore.” At the end of my first viewing, I joined the theater in applause. Once again, I knew right away that Hell or High Water was a terrific and topical film. And, as someone who sues on behalf of foreclosure victims for a living, I certainly empathized with and rooted for its fallible soulful protagonists. Still, name-checking a social problem and having a comprehensive, insightful discussion on that problem are two separate things, and I wondered if Hell or High Water was more than an exciting, engaging hyperlink to an important issue. Maybe it was more a heist film in the 2008 mortgage crisis’ clothing than a genuine, seething expose of our financial institutions. It took me multiple conversations with friends to realize what a deceptively great and nuanced piece of work Hell or High Water is.
The first sign of the film’s sneaky greatness was its quotability. This is never a guarantee of quality. I continue to be something of a holdout on Napoleon Dynamite and I would never in a million years deny that it is chock full of memorable lines. But the fact I could so easily quote Hell or High Water after watching it only one time made me start to look back at its script. Most steak-and-potatoes crowd-pleasers are not nearly this well-written. There I was on a Friday night, standing on my porch with a beer, and I started chuckling to myself about that scene with the waitress and the T-bone steaks. Then my friend laughed and said, “Only assholes drink Mr. Pibb.” And before I knew it, I was quipping back, “So drink up, asshole.” And this kept happening over the weeks. Any time talk turned to Hell or High Water, it would end in an exchange of sharp, funny quotes. I came to gradually see what a firecracker of a script this is, and not just for the one-liners and quips either. The writing is also often downright pretty in a way that both suits and subverts its tough, masculine tone. Toby’s recurring fascination with Comanches as the “lords of the Plains”. Alberto’s beautifully bitter soliloquy about how the banks’ avarice and blindness to human suffering are echoes of the same greed and cruelty visited upon his Native American ancestors. The way Marcus points to a bank teller and muses that he “looks like a man who could foreclose on a house”. Writer Taylor Sheridan keeps the action and the beats of the plot succinct and straightforward, but he also knows that simplicity is not the same thing as drabness. Simple lines can also be poetic. It is even the challenge that many great poets have set for themselves: to wring beauty and epiphany out of the least possible number of words. Look at Tanner’s solo robbery. It’s a short scene. Tanner just wants to the teller to display all the increments of cash in her drawer. But Sheridan injects even this brief bit of business with welcome color. “Fives. Tens. Twenties. Fan ‘em out like a deck of cards.” Money and cards, crime and gambling. All manifestations of the dream of some easy escape from poverty. All there in this five second snippet of a robbery. Fittingly, for a film soundtracked with country music and Nick Cave’s evocative Western score, the dialogue in Hell or High Water rings with the bruised, blunt beauty of a great country song.
As line after line came rushing back to my memory, scenes came back too. And as I began to recall those scenes, it dawned on me that Hell or High Water is one of those works of art with no filler. It is the kind of film that ends one great scene so it can move on to the next great scene. I cannot name a moment from it that I would call inessential. Each moment has a purpose and its placement in the narrative leads organically to another moment which also has a strong sense of purpose. The final product is a film that knows exactly what it means to do and does it. I do not normally require such efficiency from films I love. Some of my favorite films sprawl and malinger and I am content just to bask in them for as long as they want to have me. This approach would not have fit Hell or High Water. Its clean, propulsive momentum is the secret ingredient that turns it from a standard issue bank robbery tale into something terse, stirring, and almost elemental. Have you ever picked up a great album, perhaps by The Beatles or Marvin Gaye or The Rolling Stones, and realized that every last song on it is a timeless classic? Better yet, to choose an artist who almost nobody dislikes, think about Michael Jackson. Pick up “Thriller”, turn it over, and look at the tracklist. You realize you’re looking not only at a great album, but one that never once stops being great; not even for a moment to catch its breath. Hell or High Water feels a lot like that. If I ever read its DVD menu, I imagine it will feel like reading a no-filler tracklist. “Wow,” I’ll say, “that great casino scene leads right into that scene where Marcus and Alberto are watching that sleazy television preacher and theorizing about God in a seedy motel room. And that leads right into the scene where the new attorney they’ve hired as an executor knows they’re bank robbers and can barely contain his glee. And after that is the T-bone steak scene, which is just perfect.”
So you have subtly poetic writing, great scenes, and an almost total absence of any fatty downtime, which means that this story about desperate bank robbers in economically depressed Texas is strangely kind of a giddy joy to watch. It throws you in the back of a getaway car and speeds like a madman for 104 minutes that feel like less than an hour. And the thing that happened on my second viewing, when I knew how thoroughly I was about to enjoy myself, is that I gave myself over to it completely. And in that content, undistracted state, another layer of the film’s greatness started to come back to me. I remembered that I love these characters. Just as with the dialogue, Sheridan’s script creates characters that are extremely well-defined but too vivid and unique to ever become mere archetypes. Ben Foster takes the role of a shit-kicking jailbird and imbues him with a mischievous intelligence that transcends the bold lines of the standard ne’er-do-well. In the first robbery, Tanner snaps at a teller for calling him stupid. Tanner is reckless, impulsive, and prone to some very bad decisions, such as improvising a robbery alone while his brother is eating in a diner next door, but not stupid. Some of his decisions are terrible and ill-advised, but the character also has poetry in his outlaw country soul. Chris Pine does the best work of his career as Toby. He is the level-headed one with the clean criminal record, but he is neither a saint nor immune to poor choices and violent outbursts. When two young men in a lime-green muscle car try to start a fight with Tanner (who is utterly willing to goad them on) Toby shows up and slams one of their heads into a car door. The brothers have their individual, opposing personalities, but they each share shades of the other as well. Meanwhile, Jeff Bridges takes the part of the irreverent, culturally insensitive ranger and give him shades of neediness and fear of the uncertain future. He becomes a more impish but no less haunted version of Tommy Lee Jones’ sheriff in No Country For Old Men. And Gil Birmingham creates a nuanced portrait of a Hispanic and Native American lawman who has learned to navigate through an intolerant world. He is shrewd, determined, and resourceful. In a year full of great performances by non-white actors, any list without Gil Birmingham on it would be incomplete.
And all around the main four characters are memorable, beautifully specific entrances and exits by smaller characters. Tiny, detailed jewels of acting to complement the larger gems. Most are by actors I have never seen before. That sardonic waitress in the steakhouse. The Comanche man who confronts Tanner at the poker table. The eager citizen who drives Marcus to his final confrontation with Tanner. The kindly single mother who waits on Toby at the diner and who repays his generous tip with her own act of generosity. How can I say this without seeming to contradict everything I’ve said before? Hell or High Water really is a simple film, but for a film mostly just about two bank robbers and the lawmen pursuing them, it has a wonderfully rich sense of detail. And so much of that is a credit to those tiny characters who show up for a single scene and, one by one, help give a face to the broader financial struggle always in the background of the film. These are the human beings who have to live in this world besieged by robber barons and crooked lenders and they lend a larger sense of gravitas to Tanner and Toby’s private war with Texas Midlands Bank. The film also derives a wealth of detail from the locations it breathlessly races through. The film paints a world of oil fields and debt relief billboards. Tire stores and churches and casinos. And, of course, banks. Hell or High Water only tells a small segment of the story of the acquiring and the acquired in modern America, but the monuments to their existence are everywhere.
Hell or High Water is that rare example of a film that finds poetry and grace in its directness. It manages to be both humble and overflowing with flavor. It is a bit of a paradox, but this is the same film that can both stand with the year’s funniest comedies and have a scene that calls back to Captain Phillips in its realistic depiction of post-violence trauma. What at first seems slight eventually turns out to actually just be marvelously condensed; a vibrant world of compelling characters, relatable struggles, and playful language all tightly ground down into a delectable nugget of crime fiction. Seeing Hell or High Water reminds me that my real issue with most steak-and-potatoes films is that the meat of their stories is never high-grade enough to justify how little they do artistically. A top quality steak only needs a pinch of salt, but the meat of your average no-frills crowdpleaser is rarely anything like a top quality steak. At the risk of exhausting this food analogy, Hell or High Water can afford to be direct and thematically simple and still feel fulfilling because the meat of its story and its characters are delicious all by themselves. When the basics are in place the way they are here, you don’t need the A-1 sauce of extraneous directorial touches or overly self-consciously cerebral writing to make it work. I feel satisfied calling Hell or High Water one of the year’s twenty best films. It’s about time I had a simple film on my year-end list. As if making a funny, elegiac, humane, tersely poetic, quietly political, endlessly quotable bank robber flick was actually simple.