Film reviews are like buses. You wait for ages then two come along at once
A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT
Reader, if you're here to simply ascertain whether you want to see this film or not, you may wish to stay wary of PLOT SPOILERS which lie in wait below. There is, however, a swifter means to achieve your end – simply scan the page and check out some of the stills. The film's very much a mood piece, with a strong aesthetic and some quite stunning black-and-white photography – somehow connecting classic cinema with stylish art movie. If those stills appeal, most likely the film will too. If they don't, you're probably better off following your taste buds elsewhere.
With a film self-styled as 'the first Iranian vampire western', its no surprise for it to frequently be described as surreal. However, a more accurate word might be uncanny. Take the central image, captured in the poster, of the vampire in her chardor. It's simultaneously jarring and fitting, a spooky echo of the vampire's black cloak, lacing the usual associations of compliance and confinement with undercurrents of menace and mystery. It's not an image you find you can file and put away, it stays, it haunts you. Her sinister presence, glidingly stalking the streets, is accentuated halfway through when she starts... yes... skateboarding. It's absurd, it's laugh-out-loud funny. But crucially, it stays spooky.
Filmed on location in California with an all-Iranian cast speaking in subbed Persian, it creates a similarly strangely indeterminate mood. This is furthered by it being shot in black-and-white, which always tends to work as a distancing device. You're quite literally never sure where you are. And temporally its equally indeterminate, flatscreen TVs existing alongside classic cars and vinyl record players. The standard recipe for the surreal is the juxtaposition of the familiar with the unfamiliar, epitomised by Dali's lobster telephone. But here both elements are defamiliarised, like one exoticness rubbed up against another. The result is that all figures look lost in the terrain.
Director Ana Lily Amirpour is herself an Iranian brought up in the West and now living in California, so we may be seeing things through the prism of her eyes - a film about outsiders made from the perspective of an outsider. She's said of the setting:
“It’s not Iran, it’s like a fairy tale world, it’s universal. It’s like any town where there’s corruption and there’s secrets and there’s loneliness and people that got dealt a shit hand. They’re searching for something in this loneliness. I mean, that’s what I am and that’s why I made the film. That’s all I really know. I don’t know how everyone else feels.”
(At one point the chardor-clad titular Girl is asked where they are and she replies “Bad City”. The questioner seems familiar with the name. Yet several reviews and even the Wikipedia entry went on to literal-mindedly declare this the official name of the town. Which seems to me mistaken. It cuts against that all-important state of indeterminacy. The term could as easily be a nickname and its allegorical nature, akin to calling a city Babylon or Mahogany, is the point.)
Reviews as frequently cite the Iranian New Wave as an influence, but the New Wave it recalls more is the French. Americana is framed in a way which it never could be from inside, while the screen exudes coolness and composure to a degree Hollywood could never match. Arash, the other lead character, has a studied rocker look which echoes Michael's channelling of Humphrey Bogart in Godard's 'Breathless' (compare them below). Actor Arash Mirandi is now being called by almost everybody the Persian James Dean.
Given the prominence of the chardor, and scenes such as the one where the Girl kills the bullying pimp Saeed, some have been keen to find a feminist message in the film. Certainly her motivation is partly to rescue the prostitute he mistreats, and the scene must rank as one of the most barely symbolic of all symbolic castration scenes in cinema history. And her very presence often seems accusatory, a sudden black-clad appearance.
Yet, confessing at one point she's done “bad things”, she seems like judgement without the justice. She does seem to have a rule only to feed on bad men. Yet her morality seems much like the Gemma Arterton character in 'Byzantium', walking the streets of Bad City at night is an occupation likely to lead to situations where 'bad' and 'men' run rather easily together. The otherwise superfluous scene of her feeding off the homeless guy seems there to suggest that she needs a meal of an evening as much as everyone else - and needs a good reason not to make you her victim rather than the other way around. At another point she mimics a potential victim's movements, like a cat playing with a cornered mouse.
Similarly, the scene where she frightens a young boy seems creatively ambiguous. While she could be trying to frighten him onto the straight and narrow, she could equally be looking for a weakness which would allow her to make him a victim. Besides she leaves town rather meekly on Arash's instruction, which would be an odd scene to include in an avowedly feminist film.
Rather than having a political message about reclaiming the night, the film is probably more existential. Characters encounter one another on empty streets and try – and normally fail – to size each other up, in a way reminiscent of the existential concept of the Other. It is of course very often women who are characterised as 'otherly' in this way, and the Girl makes a classic example. Through staying silent, she allows Saeed to project his own prejudices onto her, assuming she's yet another prostitute. Notably, she never gives away her name. (I kept misremembering the title as ”She Walks Home…”, but its the less personalised, more distanced ”A Girl Walks...”)
And yet while we learn neither her name nor her backstory we do see her at home alone, dancing like no-one's looking, without her chardor. We even see her in the tub, surely the most un-vampiric of all activities. The one way the 'crusader' element of the character works is that the chardor is something like a superhero costume, like Batman striking dread in the hearts of criminals. And the girl inside the costume is something more vulnerable, more human.
The nearest we get to a self-description is when she goes to see the prostitute, Atti, and gives her the watch she's purloined from Saeed – confirming he's dead. Asked who she is, she's unresponsive. But with everything she then says to Atti in description of her - that she is growing older, that at one time she imagined she could escape this life, that she has since forgotten to hope – she is describing herself as well. Notably, both women have maps on their walls – signifying a will to escape. Amirpour has said the film's “really a story about battling loneliness. And vampires are the loneliest.”
And all this talk of existentialism, it's probably a way of saying the vampire western is at heart a love story. All the supernatural elements are merely there to amplify this. Even the Girl's age signifies that she's been young for the longest time, like some dark sibling to Peter Pan, adding more pop star posters to her wall as the decades passed. And her mysteriousness, her meaningful silences, the sense she's possessed of strange powers - that's pretty much how girls seem to a teenage boy.
When she meets Arash on the street he's off his head and lost, on his way home from a party. It was fancy dress and, in a typically witty inversion, he's gone as Dracula. Finding her (naturally enough) cold he wraps her in his cloak to warm her. It's a reversal of the classic Dracula lunge, when he is if anything the one in danger. The goofy costume becomes the ironic counterpoint to his inner goodness and, rather than making him another victim, she takes him home like a stray.
(Some reviewers have described Arash as a drug dealer. Yet while we do see him selling drugs at the party he's simply helped himself to Saeed's stash to get over his cash shortage. He doesn't even charge the girls for the pills he gives them. Clearly when they then insist he takes one himself its his first time – hence he has so strong a reaction. Rather than making him cocky and strutting like the coke-sniffing Saeed, drugs make him helpless and child-like.)
Its their encounters, not the Girl's vampire attacks, which are the crux of the film. The most trite, most cliched scenes from any movie here become the most memorable. On their dates they stay awkwardly yet meaningfully silent, standing before pounding oil derricks or roaring diesel trains. They communicate mostly by playing music, at the age where it feels more natural to put on a record than speak your mind. Notably all the music in the film is diegetic, played by characters within the film. The characters wrap themselves up in tracks like garments, the music working something like the thought balloons in comic strips.
They're at the age where you become aware the self can only have meaning by relation to the other, and so the existence of the other is a necessity – they have to be there just for you to be you. And yet the other seems inscrutable, remote, removed. Even love is ambiguous, whether its a means to bridge the divide or whether it just heightens the problem. The basic elementary question of how one person related to another becomes foregrounded, raised to a fever pitch.
The significance of possessions is also tied up with this. When asked by Atti if she's a thief, the Girl replies no. Yet several times over we see her takes her victims' belongings, and in this very scene she has Saeed's. However at no other point does she lie, and it doesn't sound as if she's doing so here. For here possessions have no exchange value (only Saeed is seen dealing in money), they're more tokens of identity, the way a crown bestows regalness or a badge authority. And transference of objects transfers this power. Yes, the Girl takes Saeed's expensive watch but only to give it to Atti, to symbolise she can now control her own life. Saeed takes Arash's car, ostensibly as payment for his father's debt, but clearly to belittle and disenpower him. Even Arash steals some earrings from a rich girl he has the hots for, but gives them to the Girl, piercing her ears and attaching them himself. They represents the transfer of attraction.
That other great staple of young love stories, the generation gap - here its more of a generation rupture. Arash's father becomes angry when he hears he has been with the Girl, an absurd burst of morality from a man so fixated with prostitutes. But its best captured in the role-reversal scene where Arash throws him out the house for bad behaviour. This sets up events which cause him to forcibly attempt to inject Atti with drugs, then be killed by the Girl in her defence. Coming to realise this as they drive out of town Arash stops, gets out of the car and paces. She has killed the pimp to liberate Atti and the father to protect her, but in so doing liberated Arash instead. He then gets back in the car, silently puts on a tape and drives off.
It would be tempting to take this acceptance and see the story as redemptive, as about a killer of men who instead learns to love and make a life with one. Yet this ignores the crucial theme, running right through the film, of addiction. Arash's father is addicted to smack and prostitutes, Saeed literally to coke but more generally to power and dominance. Even the young boy is always popping sweets. While for Arash and the girl, their addiction is one another. In this way she doesn't abandon vampirism for love, their affair is more a mutual form of vampirism. The love scene where she first takes Arash back to her flat, where they simultaneously devour and offer themselves to each other, spells this out with images.
Seen in this way the ending is characteristically ambiguous. They're less making a new life outside Bad City, a place which doesn't seem likely to be festooned with labelled exit routes, than they are swapping one set of addictions for another. (In Arash's case, life with the father versus life with the Girl.) Perhaps they are simply removing all that's extraneous to be left with their primary addiction. It's teenage romance in its purest form, looking for your reflection in another's eyes.
And from the ridiculously sublime to the sublimely ridiculous... (We don't just throw this show together, you know.)
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
Once more with the PLOT SPOILERS
Let's start this review the way the film does - by cutting to the chase. This belated yet gazumping entry in the Mad Max series does exactly what it says on the lid. Which is to say there's a guy called Max in it and it's mad. It's an almost continuous white-knuckle ride, frothing with deranged invention. In the Guardian Peter Bradshaw called it “Grand Theft Auto revamped by Hieronymus Bosch”. Personally I'd have gone for “an ultraviolent 'Wacky Races' filtered through punk and surrealism”. But either work. There's images which genuinely almost reach Bosch levels, delirious and compelling.
In one scene some of the characters handily supply their motivation in a single word. As most of them share the same motivation, there's really only two words to learn. Yet what might seem risible is actually the way to go. When action films make feints to characterisation, in the English Lit sense of the term, the result is usually neither/nor. It's like interrupting a roller-coaster ride for a psychobabble feelgood session. Here there's no pretence there's any hidden depths to the characters, everything happens on the surface.
Significantly director George Miller chose to storyboard the film rather than script it, working with the comic artist Brendan McCarthy – regarded (at least by me) as one of comics' most singular visionaries. Miller's commented he wanted a film comprehensible to foreign audiences even without subtitles. (Perhaps just as well, for my middle-aged ears lost much of the dialogue to those roaring car engines.) You read the film via the look, the style, the images. The way you'd read a comic strip. Or, for that matter, look at a Bosch painting.
...but here we go off-route from the standard reviewing highway to focus on Stephen Maher's piece in Jacobin. Which I found after Jack Graham commented on it, and like some shameless groupie I found myself mostly agreeing with Jack's correctives.
In this post-apocalyptic setting, does the villain Immortan Joe represent a return to the pre-civilization world of the patriarchal tribe, while Max and his mates keep the flame of civilization flowing? In short, are we being told our world can be down but never out? Its true, labour power (as opposed to the looting of predatory gangs) is largely absent from the film. As a natural resource being hoarded by Joe, water is simultaneously scarce and abundant. There doesn't even seem much reason for him to be keeping alive those ragged peasants (alas another passive mass in a multiplex movie), other than to demonstrate his tyranny.
Yet Maher also foregrounds “the battle cry of Joe’s escaped wives: 'we are not things'.” Which seems selective, for their other quote, “who broke the world?”, hangs just as heavily over the film. With the machines largely gone, remaining merely as a residue, it's people who have become both machines and their fuel. Women are farmed for baby milk, Joe's wives kept in a vault of a room like prize jewellery. But the pallid flesh of Joe's War Boys is also shown manning the dark cogs of the lift to his Citadel, human grease to the gears.
You could tie yourself in knots trying to figure what the social system represented is. Patriarchal tribalism? An all-commodifying neoliberalism, in which this is our future even if you take ecological disaster out of the equation? Primitive accumulationism? (Probably the most likely answer, but hardly a multiplex movie staple.) Or some other thing? All these answers overlook that this is a film composed of images. And the images are of divine right and the machine age coexisting. They're deliberately juxtapositional, tourist viewfinders pressed into service as security devices. But the point is that they can and do fit together.
And Joe's sermon to his flock? “Do not, my friends, become addicted to water. It will take hold of you, and you will resent its absence!” This may be a singularly British response, but its hard not to think of one of George Osborne's budget statements about austerity. Joe bears a remarkable resemblance to Bane from 'Dark Knight Rises'. (Check 'em out below.) And like Bane's Gotham, there's an ambiguity to his domain. But its horror resides in its recognisability.
Maher is on stronger ground when he criticises an anti-patriarchy that confines itself to escape from a harem. When Joe points to a pregnant wife on the run and cries “that's my property!”, its hilariously monstrous. But it's as archaic as the chastity belts we see them remove. It bears little relation to patriarchy as we find it, you can't imagine someone saying anything like it in the Western world today. (Though of course what's unsayable isn't necessarily what's unthinkable.) Joe contrasts with someone like the 'Gotham' villain the Ogre, a charismatic metropolitan who seduces women back to his pad, then chillingly makes them into his possessions. Of course its heightened for the sake of the drama. But his behaviour is connected to a recognisable real-life type, the possessive boyfriend, while Joe is simply a panto menace unmoored to our lives.
Maher says sardonically of Max “with the collapse of society, our only hope resides in the individual... the lone hero”. Yet in his narration Max comments “it was hard to tell who was more crazy... me... or everyone else”. In the early stages of the film he's a classic example of a man without a mission, floundering and getting himself captured as a result. The ghosts he sees of relations past don't spur him on to fight for justice in a barren land, they beset him. At all the wrong times. And it remains a singular feature of the film how Tom Hardy's Max is so un-matinee idol. True he repeatedly performs the actions of the hero. But there's no pithy one-liners, no victory-through-handsomeness close-ups. He seems mad in the more common sense of the word, rather than the righteously vengeful.
The word which strangely seems to be missing from all this is 'family'. I'll take Maher's Jesus comparisons and counter with a Dad. Max is more the reluctant father who steps up to do his duties. He and Furiosa become honorary parents to Joe's escaped five wives, the family unit held against the tribal horde. The escape scene where Furiosa drives as he lies astride the bonnet, pouring petrol into the tank, seems their bond in microcosm. (Is it pushing it too far to point out their initials also stand for Mother and Father? Probably, but I seem to be saying it anyway.)
Maher rightly calls the film “a classical Hollywood western”. As much as his comparison of 'The Searchers' it recalls Ford's 'Stagecoach', the lone coach trying to keep to the straight line against the amassed, whooping Indians. But it as often, and perhaps more inventively, appropriates the tropes of sea-battle cinema. In this dried-out world, the desert has become the new sea. The cars almost have sails, which amass on the horizon. When they arrive they torpedo Furiosa's tanker with harpoons like whale hunters, swing aboard while its still in motion like pirates. While a prisoner, Max is tied to the front of a car like a human figurehead.
And another sea battle trope is the symbolic association of the Captain with the ship. While Max commandeers other vehicles at numerous points, Furiosa sticks firmly behind the wheel of the tanker. (Only abandoning it for a motorbike when she's considering going off-quest.) As the tanker is pierced in the battle, she is stabbed in the side. To aid their escape, Max has to both pour gas in the tank and give her a blood transfusion. In a film which avoided computer graphics wherever it could, her metal arm necessitated it's use in almost every scene she appears. So why include it? To underline the symbiotic relationship between her and her vehicle.
And associated with this is the hiding of the five wives in the hold. This is partly to get the film off to the required running start, bypassing explicatory and redundant scenes of how Furoisa got them out or decided to risk the run. But also the belly of the tanker is by association her belly, and when they emerge – the first time in the film we see them - it's a symbolic birth. (One emerges already impregnated by Joe, as if born pregnant. But this merely underlines the symbolism by irony.)
When Max first sees the five wives they're hypersexualised, washing themselves while wearing very little – the subject of a myriad model photoshoots. They're played, more or less, by models, so there's little point in pretending they're not used as eye candy. But their presence, after both a battle and a sand storm, is also incongruous. They're equally like water nymphs, spirits seemingly appearing out of nowhere. Of course, as has to be established by repeated cut-tos, their honorary father Max has to react merely to the incongruity. (He's puzzled, get it? Puzzled.) But if we're invited to see them sexually, we also see them his way. If they're models they're Marilyn models, with an innocence to them.
The conceit is that the harem has offered them a paradoxical kind of protection from the outside. The big bad world, which has rubbed itself all over Max and Furiosa, hasn't touched them yet, however often Joe got his grubby hands on them. Furoisa tells them this explicitly. Seeing what's around her, one repeatedly toys with the idea of going back to the devil she knows.
In this way they can be as innocent as children, even as they're themselves bearing children. They wear white. Some have semi-angelic names like the Splendid Angharad. They can believe they're going to the Green place, they can pray, they can disdain killing. Unsurprisingly the Green place itself turns out to be long despoilt. But they pick up and keep the bag of seeds given them. In effect, they are the Green place of the film. The answer to “who killed the world?” is of course the same as to “who killed the Kennedys?” - we're all implicated. So its asked by the most clear-cut representation of the next generation.
It can at times involve fuzzy logic. At one point Nux, a War Boy gone to their side, points to a tree. He doesn't know what to call it, despite widespread foraging in this wasteland he's not seen one before. Yet faith in the Green place means the Wives do, even if they've never been to the non-existant place and have previously had less cause to see one than him. Nevertheless its a paradox which perhaps rests on an inherent feature of polygamous patriarchy, which almost inherently blurs the distinction between wife and daughter.
However, Max and Furoisa's job isn't just to deliver this cargo. They start off as hope without agency allied with agency without hope. But the trip mixes the two up, the Wives aiding more and more in their own rescue. One even gets a putative boyfriend in Nux, they grow up fast in these parts. While those with survival skills start to see something to survive for. Like all road trips in films, this is part pilgrimage.
If there's been a lot of talk about the sexual politics of this film (improbably reaching the pages of the Daily Mail), you are frankly best off forgetting all of that. It does worse than getting in the way. Championing the film as some kind of feminist manifesto undoes what is otherwise it's best and boldest move, the way Furiosa is simply assumed to be a strong and capable character with no further explanation considered necessary. In the New Statesman, Tracy King titled her review 'No, Mad Max: Fury Road is not a feminist masterpiece (but that’s OK)'. And it is. Once you start to prod and poke at them the politics aren't all that progressive. In many ways they're reactionary. But it was ever thus. Instead focus on what the film is good at. Instead think of 'Wacky Races' crossed with Hieronymus Bosch...