Silence

Cast: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Tadanobu Asano, Ciarán Hinds, Liam Neeson

Director: Martin Scorsese

Writer: Jay Cocks, Martin Scorsese


Although this is just the third time in his illustrious career, after The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun, that Scorsese has depicted a centrally religious story, one need only look at his other movies to see how strongly the themes and symbols of Silence resonate in his filmography. In the many gangster films and thrillers that he is best known for directing, Scorsese has depicted such themes as sin, perdition, weakness, hypocrisy, reckoning and deliverance and has done so with great artistry and conviction. In Silence however, a film that was decades in the making and clearly a passion project of his, these themes are confronted in a challenging, relentless, punishing way unlike anything he has made before. Scorsese has basically made a career out of displaying the dark side of people and the violence they inflict, but this is a film that cuts on an entirely deeper, more emotional level. This picture is ruthless, demanding and excruciating and it is one of the director’s greatest masterpieces. If Scorsese could be regarded as the American Kurosawa (in terms of prestige and significance to cinema), then Silence is his Ran.

Two Jesuit priests, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) leave Portugal for feudal Japan in search of their mentor Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson). It is believed that Ferreira has forsaken his vows after being tortured at the hands of the Japanese, a rumour that the two priests desperately hope will prove to be unfounded. They reach the island with the help of the drunken fisherman Kichijiro (Yösuke Kubozuka), a Japanese Christian undergoing a crisis of faith, and find the village of Tomogi where the townsfolk worship the Christian faith in secret. The arrival of the priests proves to be both a blessing and a curse to the villagers as they are now able to receive sacraments but are also now in danger of being discovered by the Japanese authorities who have been tasked with purging Christianity from their land. As the Japanese Christians suffer torment and death at the hands of the samurais, the two priests can only watch helplessly in silence until they too are finally captured. As captives of the Japanese governor Inoue Masashige (Issey Ogata), the priests are subjected to unimaginable pain as their faith is put to the ultimate test.

As these two priests are tortured and bear witness to the torture of others they are forced to ask themselves painful questions, only to find themselves woefully without answers. How much suffering can a man endure to preserve his faith and how much should he have to endure in the name of his merciful, benevolent God? Is it more moral to maintain one’s faith while others continue to suffer or to renounce one’s faith so that they might be spared? However brutal and barbaric the Japanese people’s methods are, are they right to view this Western religion as a corrosive influence on their own culture? Scorsese doesn’t have the answers to any of these questions nor does he ever try to provide one. There is no secret answer to the tests these priests are forced to go through, there is no divine inspiration or enlightened resolve; there is only helpless screaming and futile protest, followed by silence. The film does not condemn or condone, it doesn’t judge or absolve, and it doesn’t vilify or idolise. It creates a severely authentic and mesmerising experience for the audience that allows them to understand the thoughts and emotions behind these questions. The point isn’t to provide viewers with the answers; it’s to fuel their contemplation.

It takes a master director to create this kind of cinematic experience and there are few, living or dead, who deserve that title more than Scorsese. Another director might have opted to display the violent content of this film graphically, loudly and up close in order to try and create a more visceral experience, the way Mel Gibson did for instance in his own tale of religious violence, The Passion of the Christ. Scorsese however shows that some scenes can be even more emotionally devastating and unbearable when exercising restraint. Distance is used to emphasise helplessness and the absence of a divine presence. A slow pace is used to heighten the tension and prolong the agony. Silence is used to drive home the cruel finality of death and the unfeeling indifference of the world these characters inhabit. Scorsese goes beyond spectacle to create an engrossing, authentic, emotional experience. This isn’t a movie that the viewer watches; it is one that they endure and are affected by.

Silence is certainly a difficult film to watch which is why it likely won’t get the same level of popularity as Goodfellas or The Wolf of Wall Street. Still, if time is kind to this film and it gets hailed as a classic years from now, maybe it will earn the same level of esteem and commemoration as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. It definitely deserves to. The film is utterly gut wrenching and truly profound. It certainly feels like more of a personal film for Scorsese than many of his most recent projects, as if he himself has been undergoing a deeply intense crisis of faith in the decades it has taken him to complete this film. With all of the horrific trials, tribulations and atrocities he portrays and the tortuously confounding nature of the questions raised, I can only imagine the amount of soul searching Scorsese must have gone through while making this picture. The result is one of the most magnificent and enigmatic films of his prolific career and certainly one of the best films of 2016.

★★★★★

Hell or High Water

Cast: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham

Director: David Mackenzie

Writer: Taylor Sheridan


Hell or High Water is a modern Western. It is set in a rustic Texan landscape made up of small, washed-up towns scattered around an endless desert where most of the inhabitants live an unassuming, rural lifestyle. The age of the cowboy is long gone and so is the sense of romance and mythology that came with it. There are some of the trademarks in this film that we would associate with the classic John Wayne cowboy movies like bank robberies, shootouts and men with badges, but it doesn’t have that same classical feel to it. Much like No Country for Old Men and FX’s Justified, this film harkens towards a way of life that doesn’t exist anymore (and maybe never even existed in the first place) where men lived by a code and where justice and honour always won over cowardice and infamy. Now the world is older, the morality is greyer and the people who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) adapt to the modern way of things have been left behind. This is the setting for Mackenzie’s brilliant, elegiac film.

Two brothers, Toby Howard (Chris Pine), a divorced father of two, and Tanner (Ben Foster), just released from prison, have begun a campaign of bank robberies, focusing on the branches of the Texas Midlands Bank. Although these robberies have been carefully planned, the executions tend to go awry due to Tanner’s reckless, changeable nature. Still, they get away with the money and proceed to a casino in Oklahoma where it can be laundered. The case for these robberies is handed to Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a grizzled, veteran Ranger on the verge of retirement, and his Native American partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). As he pursues their leads, Hamilton focuses his investigation on determining the brothers’ methods and personalities in order to anticipate their next move.

What I really liked about this film was how natural and organic everything felt. The film was in no rush to get through the slow parts so that we could enjoy the more thrilling chapters in the story, it all unfolded over a steady, even pace. Moments were allowed to play out, the atmosphere was allowed to sink in and the characters were allowed to breathe. Some of the most memorable scenes in this film have absolutely no bearing on the plot, such as when Hamilton and Parker are greeted in a restaurant by an unsmiling, jaded waitress who, instead of asking, informs the men what they will be having for lunch. It is a wonderfully low-key moment that perfectly encapsulates the antiquated, melancholic nature of the world that these characters live in. That moment and the others like it are why the film is able to be deep and insightful without being pretentious. They are raw, subtle and utterly authentic.

As the two brothers Pine and Foster have never been better. Pine, who some might underestimate as another Hollywood pretty face, plays against type here and shows himself to be as much of an actor as he is a star. As Toby he plays a quiet and unassuming man, someone who isn’t a saint but who also wouldn’t get himself involved in this kind of activity unless he had a good reason. Meanwhile Tanner, played by the chameleonic Foster, is a loose cannon. His reason for robbing these banks is the same as his brother and he’s smart enough to know that their best shot is to stick to the plan but, while Toby is apprehensive about what they are doing, Tanner is clearly enjoying himself way too much. Bridges is predictably perfect for the role of the ageing lawman, but what is surprising is how well he and Birmingham play off each other. The banter between them is often unflattering and, in Bridges case, politically incorrect, but it comes from a place of mutual respect and perhaps even affection. The two are like an old married couple, they can barely stand each other but there’s no one they’d rather be partnered with.

Those are just the main performances. One of this film’s best qualities is that every character, from the main to the side to the one-liners (including the aforementioned waitress), is impeccably cast and memorable. That, I think, is one of the reasons why this film feels as fresh as it does. Even though this film takes a familiar concept from an established genre with a long and rich cinematic history, it never feels like the film is just going through the motions. Through strong acting, compelling storytelling and beautiful cinematography, the film is able to take some of the hallmarks of this genre and make them feel fresh and natural. Anyone who has seen a Western before will probably anticipate the climatic shootout that will inevitably take place, but the film exists so strongly in its own world that it doesn’t feel like an obligatory convention of its genre, it feels like an intrinsic part of the story.

★★★★★

Passengers

Cast: Chris Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, Andy Garcia

Director: Morten Tyldum

Writer: Jon Spaihts


Space is a great setting for making movies about isolation. It is a vast, empty void where, as Alien observed, no one can hear you scream. Small wonder then that there is a great range of superb sci-fi films depicting this very idea from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Gravity. Passengers seeks to take the idea even further with its story of a forlorn man who is driven by his inconsolable loneliness and obsessive desperation to commit a terrible act. There is a compelling premise here that could have made for a fascinating film, sort of like a cross between The Shining and Vertigo set in space. The problem is that this film is more interested in portraying a fashionable Hollywood romance between its two attractive, likeable leads than it is in properly confronting the themes that have been set up. Thus we are instead treated to manipulated emotions, contrived storytelling and weak characterisations, all of which serve to enable Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence to enjoy their dark, insane, unhealthy relationship.

The starship Avalon is undergoing a 120-year journey with its 5,000 passengers to inhabit a new planet when it suffers damage passing through an asteroid field. As a result of this accident Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) wakes up 90 years too early on a ship with no other conscious people and no way of going back to sleep. In the year that he spends alone on the ship his only companion is the android bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen). In a moment of despair Jim happens upon a pod belonging to Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) and is enamoured with her. After learning everything he can about her and (somewhat) struggling with his own conscience, Jim decides to wake her up so that he finally won’t be alone any more. He and Aurora (who is unaware of his action) meet and fall in love, but their love is threatened by the truth of their meeting, which will inevitably be revealed to her, as well as by the sustained damage suffered by the ship.

This is a dark, some might even say sadistic, premise for a film. The film however decides that Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence must be allowed to fall in love and end up together because… well, because they’re Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. Even if there was a believable way to spin their relationship into a positive one, the chemistry they share isn’t potent or alluring enough to justify it despite both of them being charming and attractive actors. There is a sense here that we are supposed to buy into their union based on the strength of their individual personas (because, for heaven’s sake, they’re Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence!) but the characters and dialogue they are given are just too bland and conventional for them to have any real kind of a spark. It gets worse when the inevitable revelation is made and Aurora correctly denounces Jim as a murderer because then the movie has to somehow make them get back together. The way they accomplish this is all at once cheap, forced, predictable, misguided and sexist.

I suppose there are some technically good aspects in this film that ought to be praised. Michael Sheen for instance gives a terrific performance in a role that he clearly had a great time playing. The film looks good in terms of its visual effects and production design, especially in the scene where Aurora’s swimming routine is interrupted by a malfunction in the ship’s gravity, but it isn’t exactly something to behold. The designs, such as that of the double-helix-shaped ship, are serviceable in giving the film the sci-fi look it wants but they never startle or astonish. I can also say that Tyldum’s direction is quite competent, but isn’t nearly as inspired or inventive as the films he clearly drew inspiration from (the most obvious of which were both made by Kubrick). At times the flow and composition of the film looks and feels so plain and unsurprising that I suspect the spaceship’s autopilot could probably have directed it.

D.H. Lawrence once called Jane Eyre a pornographic novel, criticising the way he felt Brontë had to manipulate her characters’ emotions and circumstances in order for them to end up together. That is basically how I feel about Passengers. There is no thought, no depth and no feeling to this film. The movie cares only about one thing and that is getting Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence to lock lips and look good doing it. The grim desolation that drove Jim to commit his crime, the heavy toll that the guilt takes on his soul, the rage, devastation and probably even violation that Aurora feels upon learning the truth; all of that is secondary. So great is the crime of trying to pass off such a disturbing concept as a positive love story that it outshines the crime of bringing together these two likeable, talented stars and not using them to their full potential. This movie is not a romance, it is wish-fulfilment; plain, stupid, unintentionally disturbing wish-fulfilment.

★★