Thursday, 4 February 2010

Comparing Jan's 1st class but depressing cinema

The Road, Precious and A Prophet, three films sensibly distributed prior to Valentine's day. These aren't date movies; they concern the end of the world, domestic abuse and criminal nihilism respectively. Grim in triplicate.

I was interested in film critic Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo's discussion of these films recently on their radio programme. In particular, I found myself reflecting on Kermode quoting John Hillcoat (director of The Road) as saying (and I paraphrase), good films aren't depressing, even if their content is inherently depressing.

Well, although I found Precious rather exhilarating, I did find The Road and A Prophet profoundly bleak. Interestingly, I'd also be prepared to rate the latter two films as marginally better than Precious, although all three are outstanding.

*** some comments from here on may be read as spoilers ***

Here's how that works for me. Precious is a teenager who is being roundly, perniciously abused by those who should love her the most. This is a tragic situation, the slippery-sided well of hopelessness that the film has to fight its way out of. Yet the mixture of spirit (if not exactly self-belief) in Gabourey Sidibe's Precious combined with the good intention - and action - of the statutory represntatives around her (although Paula Patton's Ms Rain overplays this hand) means that we can isolate the terrible moral breakdown which has blighted her life. Even the meta-immorality of the final twist seems impervious to the Teflon conjunction of Precious' enlightened resolve and the consolidated righteousness of those around her.

This doesn't happen in either of the other films. A Prophet shows the fickle fabric of our social constructs - a jail run not by the state but the bad guys within - and whose bad guys continue their malpractice in the outside world even from within their token confines. The chief protagonist emerges as an intelligent, if feral individual, who we admire for his application and ingenuity - but contrary to statutory codes. The close is a confusing contradiction as the empty-handed naif has transformed himself into a Gallic Vito Corleone but at the cost of implicating our own social constructs.

The Road is the nadir though. Hillcoat makes it clear that the boy, the token of thriving a priori morality, must battle with the legacy of his mother abandoning him and his father's ruthless, limited ethical code, petrified in the past. The film is - again, as Kermode & Mayo have identified - about apocalypse, rather than post-apocalypse. The awful fact is that the tipping event begins the dread situation in which the film unfolds. The adults are implicated in the disaster and behave terribly in the face of it. Their choices of suicide and compassion-suspension are the ethical equivalent of turning on the gas in a building engulfed in flame.

I liked the end of The Road (which some commentators found sickly). Yes, I needed the optimism of the denoument. The trust that the boy reaches out with is like a green shoot from the ash, as important as the simple fact that he will survive. Yet I feel shackled to the man, who is the chief protagonist of the film, implicated by him, the catastrophe that he represents and the ossification of humanity that he cannot resist. Ugh.

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