The Dark Tower

Cast: Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor, Claudia Kim, Fran Kranz, Abbey Lee, Katheryn Winnick, Jackie Earle Haley

Director: Nikolaj Arcel

Writers: Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, Nikolaj Arcel

I had high hopes for this one. I read The Dark Tower series as a teenager and have been waiting for an adaptation ever since (it was always my feeling that a TV series would have served the books better than a film, but hey, I’ll take what I can get). Stephen King started writing this series in the 80s and it took him decades to complete what he hoped would be his magnum opus. The idea was to write an epic series akin to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and the Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns that would serve as the centrepiece of his literary universe, and it is a superb read. The Dark Tower has since been trapped in development hell as different filmmakers from J.J. Abrams to Ron Howard have attempted to bring this extensive, complex narrative to life (with Javier Bardem attached to star at one point). All roads have thus led us here, to Nikolaj Arcel’s The Dark Tower, a film which sadly leaves this decades-long journey unfulfilled.

The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed. The Man in Black is Walter Padick (Matthew McConaughey), a sorcerer who seeks to destroy the Dark Tower, the structure at the centre of the universe protecting all the worlds from the evils outside. The Gunslinger is Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), the last of an ancient order and the only man who can protect the Tower. A young boy called Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) has visions of these two and of the Tower, visions that his mother Laurie (Katheryn Winnick) and therapist dismiss as dreams brought by the trauma of his father’s death. Believing his visions to be real and determined to learn their meaning, Jake follows them to an abandoned house where he discovers a portal to Mid-World, the world in which the Dark Tower stands, and there meets Roland. The Gunslinger takes the boy under his wing and together they must pursue the Man in Black and stop him from destroying the Tower and bringing all the worlds to ruin.

Having been in development for so long and subjected to reshoots following negative test screenings, I think most people who watch this film will be able to tell that this is the work of a studio. It is business-like in its approach and never takes any chances with the story. In the original book series, you are dropped straight into the desolate, fantastical land of Mid-World and follow a mysterious, morally ambiguous protagonist on an uncertain quest. Here the protagonist is a teenage boy in New York who discovers that he is the key to saving the universe. We know that he’s troubled because he speaks to psychiatrists and skips school but he has no real personality to speak of. His father is dead, paving the way for Roland to step in as his surrogate father, and he possesses abilities that he does not understand. He isn’t so much a character as he is a plot device, there to take the story wherever the studio feels it has to go and to prompt the exposition wherever the studio feels its needed.

The two best and most strongly defined characters are, not coincidentally, the two who most closely resemble their literary counterparts. Elba’s Roland is a melancholy warrior, haunted by the ghosts of his past, and he brings a strong sense of weight to the role. This is a man who has experienced pain and loss we can hardly fathom and has become cold and numb with time. The humanity that his surrogate son is supposed to inspire never quite hits home but I’m inclined to lay the blame with the script rather than the actor. McConaughey meanwhile hams it up as the Man in Black, but never so much that we cannot take him seriously as a villain. He walks that fine line between being eccentric and menacing and hits just the right balance. Casting these two is far and away the best thing this movie did and anytime these two came together, I felt like I was actually watching the Dark Tower movie I had been waiting to see. It makes me sad that their performances could not have been realised with a better script with a greater vision for King’s epic.

Most of the scenes that make up The Dark Tower seem like they were included simply because those are the scenes that you need in this kind of movie. When Jake discovers the portal in the abandoned house and activates it, the house comes alive and attacks him. There’s no build up or even much of a conclusion to this scene, it’s just something that happens and is then forgotten about as soon as it’s over. The movie’s crime isn’t that it’s terrible, but that it’s unimaginative and forgettable. The book series was often dark and strange and, while not all of its ideas worked, one of the things it had that this film did not was vision. The world King built is immense. The characters he created are iconic. The themes he explored are resonant. Here the studio decided to play it safe, making a generic movie with a simplified story, watered-down characters and a non-threatening PG-13 rating. The movie attempts to appease fans of King’s work while still appealing to a wider audience and it fails at both. It’s not as bad as I feared it would be, but it falls short of even my most conservative hopes.



The Birth of a Nation

Cast: Nate Parker, Arnie Hammer, Colman Domingo, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller, Gabrielle Union

Director: Nate Parker

Writers: Nate Parker, Jean McGianni Celestin

To say that Nate Parker’s film has attracted some controversy would be a gross understatement. The last couple of years have seen a dramatic intensification of racial issues in the USA, from the augmented outcries of racial attitudes inspired by Trump’s campaign to the prevalent police brutalities that inspired the Black Lives Matter movement, so a movie about Nat Turner’s famous slave rebellion was certainly going to grab people’s attention. The title itself, the same used for D.W. Griffith’s technically magnificent but despicably racist silent epic, shows how intent Parker is on making a loud, provocative statement. Then there’s the negative publicity that Parker himself and his co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin have received with the resurfacing of a rape charge made against them both in 1999. When a film is engulfed by such a critical and emotional storm as this, it can be difficult to look past the controversy and see the film itself for what it is. When I tried, what I found was that the film, while having some very admirable qualities, was ultimately not worth defending.

The film tells the real-life story of Nat Turner (Nate Parker), the leader of the most famous slave rebellion in American history. As a child Nat was taught how to read using the Bible and grew to become a preacher. After displaying a natural charisma and an uncanny power of influence over his fellow slaves, Nat’s owner Samuel Turner (Arnie Hammer) agrees to lend Nat to the other plantations so that he might preach and spread a message of submission and compliance to their slaves. Nat however starts to question the virtue of the gospel he is ordered to spread as he witnesses countless atrocities at the hands of the white slave owners, including the beating and raping of his wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King). Instead Nat finds inspiration in the Christian teachings which foretell a day of divine justice for the enslaved against the masters and becomes a prophet for the slaves. This results in a revolt led by Nat against the white slave owners in an attempt to seize their freedom and salvation.

By portraying Nat Turner as a Christ-like figure it’s clear that Parker’s chosen approach is to mythologise his story, a fair approach that we’ve seen before in cinema (it’s the same approach that Parker’s friend and advisor Mel Gibson used in Braveheart). The trouble is that Parker idolises his hero to the extent that he fundamentally undermines the very cause he was fighting for. The film portrays Turner as an enigmatic figure, a man destined for greatness and whose own personal suffering, rather than that of his contemporaries, serves as the film’s dramatic crux. When the two major crimes which ultimately trigger the violent climax are perpetrated, that is the rapes of Cherry Turner and of Esther (Gabrielle Union), Parker places the emotional emphasis not on those two women or even their families but solely on Nat. His outrage is what sparks the rebellion. The individual thoughts, hopes and fears of his followers as well as the institutional offences of slavery and the national, political connotations of their mutiny are swept to the side; this rebellion is all about Nat. The other characters don’t exist except to reflect Nat’s greatness.

It’s clear that Parker identifies strongly with Nat Turner and he portrays him confidently and, at times, powerfully. When Nat is taken to the other plantations to deliver his sermons, he witnesses several atrocious crimes carried out by the slave owners and feels the silent judgement of those slaves who regard him as he stands in his position of favour with the whites, serving as a tool for suppression. Here Parker conveys a wonderful mixture of emotions: shame, guilt, empathy, compassion, betrayal, impotence. It is however difficult, and probably wrong, to separate the art from the artist when, like Parker, they have directed, produced, written the picture and cast themselves in the starring role. Thus, when Parker emphasises Turner’s torment and outrage even at the detriment of the story he’s trying to tell, it betrays a vanity on his part. There is a desire here to portray Nat as an almost superhuman figure in his campaign against slavery and it is this emphasis which creates a great disparity between his character’s motivation and the symbol he is supposed to represent.

There is a great story here that is trying to be told but the film ultimately falls victim to Parker’s ambitions. The film seems more concerned with glorifying Nat Turner (and, in turn, Nate Parker) than it is with understanding its subject. It is certainly directed with the conviction of an artist with a powerful story to tell and is hardly ever dull, nor is it without moments of brilliance. However, unlike such recent films as 12 Years a Slave, Parker got so caught up with his own vision and artistry that he ultimately lost sight of that story and the terrible tragedy surrounding it. When a film depicts such a notorious historical episode as slavery, signifying such vital themes as intolerance, prejudice, oppression, subjugation and hatred, there is often a sense that praise for the film is almost compulsory by virtue of it portraying such an important and powerful subject. The Birth of a Nation however is unworthy of its subject. It takes a story of indignation and bloody retribution set during a shameful chapter of history that still haunts people to this day, and reduces it to a vanity project.