Vice

Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Tyler Perry, Alison Pill, Lily Rabe, Jesse Plemons

Director: Adam McKay

Writer: Adam McKay


Whatever one might think about his politics or the quality of his work, Adam McKay is undoubtedly one of the most interesting filmmakers working today. After having built a career out of making cleverly, creatively dumb comedy films with Will Ferrell, his forte has transitioned over to what’s called the essay film. Following in the tradition of such documentaries as F for FakeThe Gleaners & I and pretty much every Michael Moore film, McKay’s latest filmography is one that blurs the line between fact and fiction, expresses abstract ideas in concrete, tangible terms and engages with the viewer in an open, self-reflexive dialogue. He employed this format to startling effect in The Big Short where he deconstructed the causes of the financial crisis of 2008 in a way that was both entertaining and educational. McKay has a genius for explaining complex themes and concepts in simple ways that viewers can easily understand and there is no other filmmaker working today who is pushing the possibilities of the essay film further than he is. With his latest film McKay once again draws from the well of modern history to recount the story of one of the most notorious and reviled figures in American politics (which is seriously saying something!), former Vice-President Dick Cheney.

Vice follows Dick Cheney through his political career, starting with his days as a White House intern during the Nixon administration and ending with his turn as Vice President under George W. Bush (a delightfully cartoonish Sam Rockwell). While maintaining a personal life with his wife and two daughters, Cheney learns the ins and outs of White House politics and takes each lesson to heart as he sees presidents rise and fall and discovers the truth about the true power that runs the country. Finding great success under the Ford and Reagan administrations, Cheney’s time truly comes when the buffoonish Dubya invites him over to his Texas ranch and invites him to be his second-in-command. Realising that he can transcend what has traditionally been more or less a ceremonial role in the US government, Cheney accepts and offers to oversee the more “mundane” parts of governance such as bureaucracy, military, energy and, uh… foreign policy. With all the influence he needs and nobody watching, Cheney ascends to become the country’s de facto ruler. Working from the shadows, he imposes his will upon the United States with an iron fist and, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, sets the nation on a path that will lead them into a catastrophic war.

Looking the spitting image of the man thanks to the work of the make-up team and sporting a soft yet menacing growl throughout, Christian Bale (who never met a character he wouldn’t completely transform his body to play) portrays Cheney in this portrait of an infamous public figure about whom surprisingly little is actually known. The film records how he started off as a blue-collar drunk barely scraping by and rose little by little to become the puppetmaster of the Bush administration, the man who was really in charge while Dubya played the fool and distracted everyone from what was really going on. Between those two points is an endless gulf of ambiguities and unknowns which McKay fills in with commentary, abridgements and digression, all of which serve to help us get to the heart of who Cheney really was and what he wanted. The problem is that by the time I got to the end, I still wasn’t sure who exactly the film thought Cheney was. The Vice-President was a very bad man who did some very bad things, that much the movie is clear on, yet it never manages to tap into what exactly they think Cheney’s ideology is or if he even has one. We gets hints and implications such as how Cheney was the CEO of Halliburton, an energy company that just so happened to do well when the USA invaded Iraq, but that alone doesn’t seem sufficient in light of how the film depicts him.

The way the film tells it, there were two figures in his life who had the most profound effect on Cheney. The first was his wife Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams), a Lady Macbeth figure if ever there was one (there’s even a scene in which Dick and Lynne engage in a Shakespearian exchange). She is shown to be the woman behind the man, the one who berates him into making something of himself and who reminds him at every turn not to forget what it is they’ve both been working for (whatever that is). The other is Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) the slimy Republican who taught Cheney everything he knew about being ruthless, sneaky and totally amoral in modern politics. “What do we believe in?” Cheney asks him upon becoming a card-carrying member of the Republican Party and Rumsfeld laughs uproariously in his face. Between these two forces moulding him into the villainous political mastermind he would become, we get a sense of Cheney as a man of great, pitiless ambition who will pull every dirty trick in the book and sell out on every fibre of his moral being in order to get what he wants. But what does he want? Well, when the film allows Cheney himself a chance to explain, it appears that everything he did was about protecting his country and its people. “I will not apologise”, he says hardheartedly and with contempt “for doing what needed to be done so that your loved ones can sleep peaceably at night”. But that’s not the truth of it and, the harder the film tries to get under the skin of this inscrutable man, the more confused everything gets.

That wouldn’t necessarily be so bad since few things in life are ever that simple and one can never truly know the true depths of another person’s soul (or lack thereof) in its infinite entirety. Vice however doesn’t know that it’s confused. It charges along with all the confidence of a white, rich, C-student man running for the presidency through the main events of Cheney’s life, jumping back and forth in time for no apparent narrative reason, and in the end it never manages to land on a satisfying note. There are several gimmicky moments that are great fun by themselves, Bale delivers a marvellously sinister performance and the creative licence McKay takes to tell this messy story in an engaging and entertaining way does impress. There are fourth wall breaks, a syncopated editing style that keeps the viewer on their toes, an unconventional framing device with a twist ending, a false end credits sequence and dozens of little touches here and there that allow McKay’s cheeky sense of humour to remain prominent through it all. It doesn’t amount to much though because the elaborate, convoluted essay that McKay has constructed doesn’t end up revealing any kind of meaningful insight on its own subject. Unless you are below a certain age or don’t live in the United States (both of which, I’ll admit, are true about myself), Vice has little of worth to offer on the question of who Dick Cheney is beyond, as Bale himself suggested in his Golden Globe acceptance speech, Satan incarnate.

★★★

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Cast: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage

Director: Martin McDonagh

Writer: Martin McDonagh


With all the acclaim and awards love his film has received so far, Three Billboards seems all but set to triumph at the Academy Awards this year. However some have come down so heavily against this film that it’s potential Oscar victory has drawn comparisons to Crash, a film often cited as the worst Best Picture winner of recent years. In either case Three Billboards is certainly one of those films that was destined to receive awards attention. It features a strong cast delivering explosive and quirky performances, the writer/director McDonagh is well-liked and respected, and its story speaks vividly about the world we live in. When a subject this topical is portrayed with such confidence as this movie displays, I think there often comes with that a certain presumption of truth that leads some viewers to accept what’s presented without scrutiny. Clearly there is something about the film that rings true to many viewers and feels timely but, the more I think about what it depicts, the more off it all feels to me.

The film takes place in the fictional Ebbing, a rural, southern town which some months prior saw the brutal murder of a teenage girl. Her grief-stricken mother Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), angry over the lack of progress in the police investigation, rents three billboards near her home which read, “RAPED WHILE DYING”, “AND STILL NO ARRESTS?”, “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?” The billboards cause uproar in the town, especially with Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), the well-liked police chief recently diagnosed with cancer, and James Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a drunken, racist officer extremely prone to violence. While Willoughby resents the attack on his character, he nevertheless sympathises with Mildred’s grief and takes the whole thing in stride. Dixon, on the other hand, lashes out against Mildred and those who helped her, leading her to lash back in return. The conflict soon spirals out of control as Mildred and the residents of Ebbing become more and more consumed with anger.

While the film has proven divisive, most people seem to agree its strongest aspect is the portrayal of Mildred as a rage-filled, grief-stricken woman whose anger towards the town for its indifference towards her tragedy is released in a divine fury. In the wake of the ‘Time’s Up’ movement where it looks like the tide is finally turning on the perpetrators of sexual misconduct, there is certainly something glorious in Mildred’s wrath as she instigates an all-out war on the deep-seated misogyny of Ebbing. Although the town understands all too well the loss Mildred has suffered, there still remains an unspoken rule that she must remain silent and not allow her suffering to rock the boat. There is a clear status quo that ‘good men’ such as Willoughby, a mostly respectable man with a beautiful young wife (played by Abbie Cornish) and two cute kids but whose tendency to overlook the wrongdoings of his other officers enables the culture of rampant police brutality, have benefitted from and it is a status quo that the town wants to maintain (even if that means a teenage girl gets raped and murdered every now and then). Enough is enough, says Mildred, who has decided that she will not allow her daughter’s murder to become another sad episode in the town’s history for the residents to forget about; she is going to make sure that the extent of her grief is known whether the townspeople like it or not.

It is a powerful arc and McDormand sells it wonderfully. Her performance is raw and intense as a character who no longer has the patience to contain her pain and anger. Her bitterness has given her a hostile demeanour and a sardonic sense of humour, as we see when she baits the dim-witted Dixon and parries every insult thrown her way with something even more vicious and biting. I don’t think I was as blown away by McDormand as others were, in part because I’ve seen her play a deeper, more fully-realised version of this embittered, wretched, forlorn character in Olive Kitteridge, but it is a great performance none the less. I’m just not sure the story did justice to her character or what she’s supposed to represent. In previous projects like In Bruges McDonagh has had no qualms about writing politically incorrect characters behaving in politically incorrect ways, and in that film at least it works. But with Mildred a lot of these provocations seem like provocations for their own sake. She, just like many of the other characters, drops words like “nigger”, “faggot”, “retard”, and “midget” very matter-of-factly and all it serves to do is get a rise out of the audience. There is no introspection, no attempts to engage with the effect those words have when she uses them.

Things are even more problematic where the Dixon character is concerned. This is someone who we are quite clearly supposed to think of as deplorable; he is a pathetic, idiotic drunkard, an unabashed racist who is known to have tortured a person of colour in police custody, and an impulsively aggressive man whom we see commit acts of brutality. The film makes an attempt to adds layers to this character, establishing that some of his worst qualities come from having grown up with a bigoted and unaffectionate mother and maintaining that Willoughby sees Dixon as a good man deep inside (what leads him to think this, we never find out). The disinterest the film shows in engaging with the prejudices that Mildred may or may not hold extends to Dixon who becomes more central to the story around the half-way point and, even when he experiences a reckoning, it doesn’t happen in a way that challenges his bigotry. While I don’t agree that he is supposed to have redeemed himself by the end, there does seem to be a sense that his past transgressions such as the racially-motivated torture (we never actually meet the victim in question) do not ultimately matter. In fact the few characters we meet who fall victim to these prejudices (Amanda Warren and Darrell Brit-Gibson play the only two black residents of Ebbing we get to meet and Peter Dinklage plays the dwarf who has a soft spot for Mildred) barely amount to characters in their own right. I wouldn’t go so far to say that a hate-filled man like Dixon is incapable of redemption, but he doesn’t get to earn that redemption if the movie cannot muster the same level of empathy for his victims.

I got the sense that McDonagh was ultimately trying to tell a story about justice and retribution in a more spiritual than political sense, but his mistake was picking a setting that was completely alien to what he knows and tackling so many different hot-button issues that he didn’t have enough time to portray any of them adequately. The movie is about sexual violence, then it’s about police brutality, then it’s about miscarriages of justice, domestic abuse, racism, public defamation, and (in one scene) the Catholic Church’s cover-up of the child molestation scandal. I’m willing to believe the McDonagh did not intend to marginalise the suffering of people of colour in order to humanise a white man, but with a plot this overstuffed the unavoidable result is that something is going to be side-lined or trivialised, and in this case it ended up being matters of race. The missteps in this film’s handling of its subject matter can probably be attributed to McDonagh’s Irish origins. It’s quite clear that he chose this setting without fully understanding or appreciating its history of racial tension and it has seriously backfired on him. Maybe if the story had been set elsewhere (Three Billboards Outside of Galway?) it might have worked, but what we got instead was a misguided mess.

★★