Who is that sweet, nice, very pretty young junkie in Flight? I don’t mean the actress, Kelly Reilly, but the character, who takes shape before Denzel Washington’s bloodshot eyes like the materialized spirit of mercy sex, or the Serenity Prayer made flesh. Is she for real? And the sweet, nice, very pretty young girlfriend that Bella Heathcote plays in David Chase’s Not Fade Away—does she have a life of her own? Or does she exist solely in the mind of the semiautobiographical protagonist: a teenage rock musician in 1960s New Jersey who overflows with so many aches and pretensions, enthusiasms and self-righteous cruelties that the more fully he’s drawn, the more the girlfriend looks like nothing but a pair of cheekbones glimpsed in a dream.
Don’t get me wrong: I liked Flight some and Not Fade Away a lot. I just got worried, more than ten months into 2012, that Oscar voters might not be able to come up this year with five nominations for Best Actress, given that two of the better leading roles were played by a suit of armor (thrown onto Kristen Stewart this past summer in Snow White and the Huntsman) and a configuration of pixels (drawn to accompany Kelly Macdonald’s voice in Brave).
Then came Skyfall, and my mind was put at ease. In a late-year picture that ordinary moviegoers really cared about, with good reason, Judi Dench’s M rivaled Daniel Craig’s James Bond in screen time and easily outdid him in complexity of motive. Dench even got to recite a few lines of Tennyson between the shootouts, adding to the massacre a musicality that has been hers alone since John Gielgud died. Never mind that the ultimate goal of Skyfall was to reboot the franchise’s latest reboot, returning the patently middle-aged Craig to the condition of the prefeminist Bond. By making M the center of its narrative, Skyfall reaffirmed the possibility that female characters may have an independent purpose and sometimes even a job—a potential further realized, as the holiday season began, by Keira Knightley in Anna Karenina, Marion Cotillard in Rust and Bone and Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook, though not so much by Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty.
Of all these actresses, Lawrence deserves pride of place. Having distinguished herself earlier in the year in one of the current cinema’s biggest fairy-tale roles for women (Katniss, in The Hunger Games), she has now made herself funny, liberating and equally big as a real-world character—one who lacks all sparkle (even Lawrence’s hair is dark for this movie) and so suffers a little for being named Tiffany.
Silver Linings Playbook, written and directed by David O. Russell, puts Lawrence into a more or less recognizable version of lower-middle-class Philadelphia and has her cope with difficulties not unknown to mortals: widowhood, a history of psychiatric treatment, a shortage of cash (Tiffany lives behind her parents’ house, in what used to be their garage) and a chastened idea of what she can expect in life. At best, Tiffany aspires to enter an annual dance contest and rise to a mediocre score. Aiming similarly low with men, she hopes to engage the attention, or friendship, or at least cooperation as a dance partner, of a neighborhood disturbance named Pat (Bradley Cooper)—a guy who also lives with his parents, having just secured provisional release from a psychiatric hospital.
Silver Linings Playbook is set up to be Pat’s story more than Tiffany’s. It starts and finishes with his voiceover; it dwells on his problems with uncontrolled rage and magical thinking (he believes that if he just acts cheerful enough, his wife will lift the restraining order and come back to him, despite his having beaten her lover almost to death); and when he first encounters Tiffany, at a hilariously ill-managed dinner party, the movie views her directly through his eyes, as a series of disconnected stolen glances at legs, lips and cleavage. Soon enough, though, a whole woman comes together from these partial views and proves to be more than Pat’s equal.
Tiffany’s personality pops into place in that first scene with an abruptness to match the dialogue. Like Pat, she violates all norms of polite conversation, the difference being that he blurts, whereas she levels her gaze and husky voice and fires deliberately at the target. But it’s in a subsequent scene, set in a diner, that Tiffany (or is it Lawrence?) definitively grabs the movie for herself. As the two sift over the evidence of how little they are yet ready to risk on one another—he’s ordered Raisin Bran for his dinner, she’s settled for a cup of tea—Pat takes the liberty of asking about Tiffany’s sexual past. (It’s a small neighborhood. He’s heard things.) What’s remarkable about the ensuing exchange isn’t so much that she satisfies his curiosity—although her tale is remarkable enough to make Pat squirm in his seat—but that Russell’s directorial instincts tell him to play up the woman. The scheme he chooses for the scene is a conventional shot-countershot, except that the camera is always closer to Tiffany than to Pat, so that she seems to press forward in her confession, testing just how much honesty he’s prepared to handle, while Pat, though as fascinated as the audience, appears to retreat.
Once Silver Linings Playbook gets that close to Lawrence, it doesn’t have to crowd her again. The camera backs away for her repeated dance rehearsals with Cooper, and though she’s no Ginger on her feet, she doesn’t have to be to hold your attention and affection. The complete dance routine, when finally revealed, proves to be as much of a big-hearted mishmash as the movie itself, lifting Lawrence to a high point that is simultaneously her glory and the rudest sight gag of the year. She holds up her head, breathes hard and glows.
Unlike Lawrence, Keira Knightley has no moments of deadpan delivery or physical self-possession in Anna Karenina. She is continually in motion—waltzing, swooning, trembling, cuddling, recoiling—and the movie is in motion around her, having been conceived by director Joe Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard as a sort of backstage musical. Signaling the closeness of the aristocracy in late imperial Russia, the omniscience of everybody about everybody else’s behavior and the scandal of any deviation in social performance, Wright and Stoppard have literally put Anna into a show. Scenes whirl into place behind footlights and before painted backdrops, sweep into the wings or sail up to the flies. Sometimes the film maintains the look of a real setting for a minute or two by remaining locked inside a soundstage interior; but then a rear wall will slide open, or the camera will fall back to a position somewhere in the stalls, and the playacting will resume. This Anna Karenina might not be Tolstoy, but it’s the next best thing to a Baz Luhrmann extravaganza, and with even better costumes.
The conceit is ingenious, the execution breathtaking (or breathless at a minimum). But by setting a display of outmoded social norms behind the quaintness of a proscenium arch, Anna Karenina twice removes the action from the audience. Then, pushing one of Tolstoy’s main story lines even further into the distance, the filmmakers turn Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) into a disheveled comic ingenue, as if nobody nowadays would care about his passion for social reform.
So what do you care about in this telescopic perspective? Only the star’s emotions, which break through the frames within frames much as Anna’s hellbent determination breaks through the conventions of her era. Tilting her head, jutting her jaw, Knightley has sometimes seemed a throwback to the physicality of the silent era (a trait that David Cronenberg exploited in A Dangerous Method) and here gives a performance in which every expression registers in the old style, as a natural force. Her smiles seem to burst open to the skies; her agonies magnetize all the world’s pain. You might imagine that Knightley, too, would seem a little antiquated, carrying on like this in the middle of Wright’s visual hubbub, but she’s so intensely present in Anna Karenina that you feel you could touch her, now.
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To Stéphanie, the character Marion Cotillard plays in Jacques Audiard’s thoroughly extraordinary Rust and Bone, touch is elemental, visceral, threatening and thrilling. For her amusement, she flirts with men at a dance club in Antibes, sometimes paying with a bloody nose when they escape her control. For her career, she bends brute nature to her will as a trainer of killer whales at the Marineland park. Within the first quarter-hour of the film, Stéphanie goes from a skimpy black dress under the disco lights to a form-fitting wetsuit on the Marineland stage, and it’s obvious which type of glamour suits her more. “I like to get them worked up,” she says of her men at one point, “but then I get bored”—a statement that you understand she would never make of the whales. In perhaps half a dozen unforgettable shots, Audiard shows you the huge power that seems to dance at the ends of her fingers, leaping and plunging in time with her gestures, while Cotillard (her image expertly cut into scenes of the real, gaudy Marineland spectacle) wordlessly demonstrates Stéphanie’s concentrated professionalism. You might think that nothing could be more intoxicating than such command, until one of her performers fails to respond as anything but a whale, and the water turns dark with something much worse than a nosebleed.
Rust and Bone is the story of how Stéphanie, deprived of both legs by catastrophe, chooses not to collapse into helplessness but instead comes to terms with a new brute—a human one—riding on his strength when she has to and taming him to the degree she can, which she has to admit isn’t much.
This new animal in her life is a Belgian boxer known as Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), who has recently drifted into Antibes dragging along a 5-year-old son he doesn’t know how to care for. A pure specimen of cheerful working-class amorality, Ali tends to the kid not because it’s right but simply because it’s something you do, when you remember to. If feeding the boy requires theft, then Ali will steal. If it requires Ali to work as a security guard and keep others from stealing, that’s fine, too. Best of all, though, is to earn a pile of bills, and bring home a toy truck, by surviving a round-robin bare-knuckles tournament held without rules in a gravel parking lot just outside town. Ali wants the money, but at heart he fights for the same uncomplicated reason that he screws when given the opportunity: because it’s fun.
This is the man, met by chance, whom Stéphanie calls to help her when she emerges from the hospital—a man who takes her to the beach and without self-consciousness carries her into the water on his back, then makes love to her back in her apartment as if her stumps were perfectly normal. If Rust and Bone were a simpler film, cast with a weaker actress in the lead, Stéphanie might have responded to these attentions with gratitude, or a hungry, romantic love. Instead, she emulates Ali and is soon helping him flatten men’s noses. He won’t dance at her fingertips, as the whales used to do, and when she asks him for a little délicatesse, it’s painfully clear that she ought to know better. But when Cotillard steps out of her SUV at one of his bouts, the blades of her prostheses exposed beneath her tucked-up trouser legs, none of that matters. She’s made herself into the toughest number at the prizefights, and even Ali can see it.
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Over the course of a sometimes difficult career, Kathryn Bigelow has repeatedly proved that a woman can be a first-rate action director. Almost as often, she’s also proved that a director can’t become a first-rate filmmaker by choosing crummy scripts. The Hurt Locker, which she did with writer Mark Boal, was a welcome exception to her run of dubious projects. It was classically lean and direct, and had the added advantage of being released in 2008, when audiences were ready to see what the Iraq War could do to a soldier’s spirit, and to understand what kind of spirit would be suited to the Iraq War.
Now, with Zero Dark Thirty, her movie about the CIA’s search for Osama bin Laden, Bigelow has reunited with Boal but stuck herself again with a lifeless screenplay—and a lead actress to go with it.
The main problem with Zero Dark Thirty isn’t that it revels in torture and endorses waterboarding as a surefire way to get information. Nor is the film’s utter neglect of all political issues its principal fault. The worst I can say about Zero Dark Thirty is that it pretends the best reason for hunting bin Laden down was that it meant so much personally to one smart, determined woman, whose superiors at the CIA just wouldn’t listen to her. Bin Laden might as well be one of the Tyrolean Alps, and the heroine Leni Riefenstahl.
Actually, she’s Jessica Chastain, playing a CIA agent named Maya. No matter how many tricks Bigelow plays, shooting Chastain through glass and putting her in and out of chadors, headscarves, wigs and balaclavas, there is no disguising that Maya is a bystander for much of the film—never more so than in the most effective and extended sequence by far, a brilliantly executed re-creation of the raid on bin Laden’s compound. The film keeps cutting away from the Navy SEALs to Maya sitting at her computer, as if she had something to do.
As it happens, though, looking on idly is what Chastain does best. She has posed her way prettily through an astonishing number of roles in the past two years and has managed to forget herself in none of them. In Zero Dark Thirty, she proves that it’s not enough for a filmmaker to pretend that you’re the lead character—even if you do have cheekbones out of a dream.
Stuart Klawans’s last column reviewed Tom Tykwer and Lana and Andy Wachowski’s Cloud Atlas, Steven Spielberg’s Lincolnand Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s The Law in These Parts.