Cannes 2012: Saturday Bloody Saturday
Published on May 23rd, 2012 | by Charles H. Meyer0
On Saturday, May 19, I saw two of the bloodiest, most entertaining, and most interesting films showing at this year’s Cannes Film Festival: John Hillcoat’s “Lawless” and Brandon Cronenberg’s “Antiviral.”
Release Date: August 29
In competition for the Palme d’Or, John Hillcoat’s “Lawless” is a Prohibition-era western/gangster film that is, at times, bloody and violent enough to satisfy most spaghetti western fans, and at other times, romantic and picturesque enough to satisfy most fans of love stories and period movies. It’s based on the true story—recounted in Matt Bondurant’s historical novel “The Wettest County in the World” and adapted for the screen by legendary Australian rocker Nick Cave—of three rough-and-tumble moonshine-dealing brothers—Jack (Shia LaBeouf), Forrest (Tom Hardy), and Howard Bondurant (Jason Clarke)—who are set upon by a dapper, citified, and, quite frankly, psychotic special deputy by the name of Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) who’s determined to take them and their highly profitable distilling operation down. To make his intentions known, Rakes begins by mercilessly beating the shit out of Jack, the youngest of the Bondurant boys. It’s one of the highlights of Pearce’s positively chilling performance, probably his best since “Memento.” Having survived the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, the Bondurant brothers believe themselves to be immortal. To see Jack looking barely bruised a few days after Rakes beats him enough times and with enough force that by all rights his face should be nothing but a pulpy mess, you have to either accept this claim of immortality or just suspend disbelief.
Gary Oldman makes an early, tantalizingly brief appearance as Floyd Banner, a Tommy-gun wielding gangster who roars into town, guns down a Model T, and roars out again, much to the fascination of young Jack, who sees in Banner the ideal model for the steely-eyed, take-no-prisoners, law-flouting businessman he’d like to become. Later in the film, Jack makes his first big bundle of cash selling moonshine to Banner, and it’s as if Banner is passing Jack the torch, because before long, the newly minted young gangster/entrepreneur is buying himself fancy suits and nice new cars and taking the pretty, demure preacher’s daughter, Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska), out on long drives through the lush Virginia countryside. It’s Jack’s coming-of-age—from a naïve lad who needs his older brothers to defend him from harm, to a wily young tycoon who takes impressive charge of the family business—that the film centers its story around.
Forrest, although the presumptive leader of the family, seems capable of not a whole lot more than just staying alive—whether surviving getting his throat slit from ear to ear or stubbornly refusing to die even after he’s shot full of holes. Failing this natural resilience, Forrest is so revered by the fabled 99% of the county involved in the bootlegging industry that, with their arsenals of shotguns and pistols at the ready, these hardy locals prove essentially to be his backup immune system, such staunch protectors of the myth of his immortality that they’ll use force if necessary to keep that myth alive.
While Wasikowska plays the chaste but self-aware maiden (her innocence given special emphasis when, in one scene, she tenderly cradles a tiny fawn in her arms), a perfect match for LaBeouf’s tough, but also sensitive and whip-smart Jack, the always excellent Jessica Chastain plays Maggie Beaufort, the erstwhile stripper who shows up in town, having left her salacious past behind her, and falls in love with Forrest, civilizing him and doing her own part to sustain his myth by letting him and the county’s residents carry on believing that he walked six miles with his throat slit when, in fact, she drove him to the hospital herself. Although the only two female stars in a film otherwise populated by a brooding throng of burly country men, Wasikowska and Chastain hold their own, portraying strong characters despite their sideline statuses in such a male-dominated story.
While it has received a rather lukewarm if not chilly reception at Cannes, “Lawless,” with its outstanding cast, manages to deliver so many visual pleasures, so many excruciating thrills, so many memorable moments, and such a compelling rural 1920s southern Virginia atmosphere that in the forthright hands of The Weinstein Company it stands a fair chance of holding up well at the box office once it opens stateside on August 29.
Release Date: TBA
It is an inescapable conclusion that the considerable talent of the precocious young writer-director Brandon Cronenberg—whose debut feature “Antiviral” has been included in this year’s “Un Certain Regard” series at Cannes—has been nourished on such films directed by his father, David Cronenberg, as “Shivers” (1975), “Dead Ringers” (1988), “Crash” (1996), and “Existenz” (1999). “Antiviral” has the apocalyptic foreboding and nausea-inducing disgust factor of “Shivers,” the clinical perversity of “Dead Ringers,” the celebrity-obsessed extreme mimetic masochism of “Crash,” and the twisted, post-human re-engineering of flesh of “Existenz.” But these family resemblances should not be held against the younger Cronenberg, as his film, while evincing a substantial thematic kinship with the films of his father, is such a complex hybrid as to be a distinctive work of film art in its own right. Cynically inclined audiences and critics may object that the child isn’t rebelling from the parent in order to properly find his own cinematic voice, but shouldn’t we be happy that father and son have such a close intellectual and artistic bond that they can share not only in a predilection for cinematic explorations of the gut-churningly visceral, but even cast the same lead actress (Sarah Gadon, who starred in the elder Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method” and now in his “Cosmopolis”) and both premiere their latest films this year at Cannes? And as far as debut features go, “Antiviral” is at least as impressive as “Shivers.” As usual, though, newly emerging greatness is going unrecognized before the eyes and ears of most critics, at least if the brief, faint applause—led enthusiastically by yours truly—that followed the film is an accurate barometer of critical reception here at Cannes. In short, most people—such as the snarky critics I overheard snickering about the film’s badness at the train station Thursday morning—seem to have hated “Antivirus.” But I haven’t read their reviews yet, as it’s my policy to write my own first. So never mind them for now.
“Antivirus” is a highly original dystopian thriller set in an unspecified year in the future (or perhaps in an alternate version of the present?) when the public’s fascination with celebrities has become so extreme that a new industry has emerged that allows people to be injected with their favorite star’s viral illnesses. Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones), an employee at one of the leading firms, The Lucas Clinic, has started earning extra income on the side by secretly injecting himself with these viruses, smuggling them out of the clinic, extracting them from his body, running them through a machine called a ReadyFace—stolen from work—that allows him to remove the viruses’ copy protection, and selling the viruses to a butcher who grows “celebrity cell steaks,” among other edibles made from celebrity flesh.
The most popular celebrity in this hypothetical world is Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon), a blonde beauty afflicted with an array of infections—all part of “The Hannah Geist Line,” sold exclusively by The Lucas Clinic. The film opens with a young twenty-something man arriving at the clinic to have the left side of his mouth syringed with the exact strain of the herpes simplex virus infecting the right side of Geist’s mouth. “Ms. Geist is infected on the right side of her mouth,” March tells the young man, “If she kissed you, she’d give it to you on the left side.” “Oh yes,” the man responds, “I’d like to have it on the left.” “You should be showing in a couple of weeks,” March informs him. “Enjoy.” March is a seasoned professional at his job. He knows how to win his customers’ confidence by appearing to share in their obsessions, and in the course of the film, we hear him repeating the same poetic lines to different customers, lines like, “Her eyes seem to reach right beneath your skin and touch your organs, and touch your stomach.” Gradually, though, March’s ability to do his job well begins to deteriorate as the infections he carries home with him every day start to exact their collective and individual tolls on his health.
Visually, what is immediately most striking about “Antiviral” is its brutally bright whiteness (incidentally a boon to critics who like to take notes during screenings). It’s as if the blood has been drained from the screen, rendering the world of the film anemic. And it can be no accident that Cronenerg cast Jones—a redhead—as his lead actor, as that hair color makes him stand out especially well in a world otherwise so lacking in color. Complementing the monochromatic, minimalistic, subtly futuristic look of the film (which recalls Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange”—a point of reference given added emphasis by the appearance of the great Malcolm McDowell as an ingenious scientist) is a throbbing electronic score by the Canadian film music composer E.C. Woodley.
“Antiviral” is a film with the power to cause extreme discomfort in viewers. The guy sitting next to me either squirmed in his seat, gasped in horror, or winced in vicarious pain roughly every five minutes as scenes of needles puncturing skin, blood dripping from mouths, and other horrific events appeared on the screen. I found the film fascinating to watch because it took an unbelievable premise—the notion that public infatuation with celebrities might become so extreme as to drive people to willfully imperil their own health in order to achieve a kind of holy communion with their idols—and made it believable. Credit for doing so goes to Brandon Cronenberg for a strikingly brilliant idea conveyed through a clear, well-written, suspense-filled screenplay, as well as for his ability to get excellent performances from Jones, Gadon, McDowell, and a superb supporting cast of relatively unknown actors. Especially when one considers that such a great-looking, consistently entertaining, and thought-provoking film, with minimal but effective and believable special make-up effects and props, was made for only 3.2 million Canadian dollars, one can’t help but feel that great potential for the future of cinema is in the hands of visionary young directors like Brandon Cronenberg, regardless of what the majority of critics here at Cannes might think.