Thursday, 30 November 2017

IN THEATRES: Ingrid Goes West & The Killing of a Sacred Deer

It has been a while since I did one of these, and for once both movies are great!

Ingrid Goes West
After her latest crush lands her a stay in pysch, Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) becomes fixated on an Instagram celebrity living in California, Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen). With the money she inherited from her mother, Ingrid heads to the coast with dreams of becoming Taylor's best friend.

After stalking her and kidnapping her dog, Ingrid is able to worm her way into Taylor's life. Now it is just a matter of time until Ingrid's scheme goes down in flames...

This movie is like a knife with no handle - no matter how you hold it, you are going to get cut.

This movie could have been broader, with characters drawn in primary colours. But such a treatment would have created a distance between the character's antics and the viewer. The element that elevates Ingrid Goes West is that the minds behind it are not interested in sparing the viewer from their own obsession with social media.

Ingrid never comes across as a villain. She is a woman struggling to find emotional connections online that she is incapable of finding fulfilment online. She has constructed a version of herself that does not exist.

By refusing to categorise its characters as good or evil, the film emphasises the omnipresence that social media has had in the way everyone relates to each other. This is not a context specific to Ingrid and Taylor. The film is a skewering of our relationship with social media and the way it has distorted the ways in which we interconnect, and how the superficiality of these platforms has permeated the real world.
In a world grappling with the effects of cat-fishing, cyber-bullying, and a reality TV star is the US president (to say nothing of his Twitter account), Ingrid's scheme feels worryingly pedestrian. The ease with which she ensconces herself into Taylor's life is not so much a testament to her abilities as a manipulator, but a side effect of how easy we find it now to include strangers into our lives.

There are no easy ways out here. You can see the outcome coming from the beginning, and the filmmakers offer no cop-out plot twists or character shifts. Eventually, Ingrid recognises that Taylor is not the person she thought she was, and Taylor finds out what Ingrid has been up to. Their final confrontation does not lead to some kind of catharsis - their friendship is not restored, and neither is Ingrid ceded the moral high ground by the revelation of Taylor's superficial existence.

Ingrid does not gain some new appreciation for real friendship - instead, she records a video and then tries to kill herself. She fails and then has her confidence boosted when she sees that her video went viral. While the ending validates Ingrid's sense of self, the fact that she is still receiving validation through the vehicle that led to her decline remains disquieting.

Aubrey Plaza and Elizabeth Olsen are great. Plaza has never been this empathetic or exposed in anything I've seen her in. It never feels like she is making fun of Ingrid's compulsions, and she is unafraid in pushing the character's tone-deafness and willingness to appease others. This movie is the cinematic equivalent of Schrodinger's Cat, and Plaza's performance embodies that ambiguity.

Likewise, Olsen manages to push Taylor's pretentiousness without making her a two-dimensional hipster. To do so would unbalance the movie and make Ingrid more sympathetic (thereby derailing the movie's point about the pervasiveness of social media). Taylor can be unlikeable, but it is never enough to justify her stalker's behaviour.

Following his work playing his own father in Straight Outta Compton, O'Shea Jackson Jr is hilarious as Ingrid's unsuspecting landlord-turned-boyfriend. Like the other characters, he is living a fantasy - obsessed with Batman, he has written a spec script for a Batman movie that he believes will be his ticket to fame and fortune. Even the focus of his fandom ties into the movie's treatment our obsession with fame as an equivalence for a better life: he is a big fan of Batman Forever, a film with a plot that echoes Ingrid's scheme - an isolated loner (the Riddler) seeks to become one with his hero and ends up trying to destroying him.

Hilarious, excruciating and painfully on-point, Ingrid Goes West is one of the most savage and uncompromising satires I have seen in years. Its commentary about our relationship with social media, especially the false sense of intimacy and kinship it can create is terrifying.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer
After he kills a patient, Dr Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) finds his life literally plagued by the dead man's son (Barry Keoghan). As his family falls apart, he is forced to make a decision to save them before it is too late.

The latest joint from Yorgos Lanthimos, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a perversely understated
 nightmare. From the beginning, the viewer is off-balance - people react to tragedy with nonchalance,  intimidate each other with dinner invitations, and make small talk by revealling extremely personal information.

From the first image of an exposed heart beating in extreme close-up, the viewer is immersed in a world of life in all its messiness and an underlying sterility. This is a world of vapid people who consider a conversation about watch bands as a symbol of personal interaction. These people go through the motions of life, but at the end of the day they believe in nothing.

A better title for this movie might have been The Living Dead.

Farrell and Kidman's characters are the ultimate hypocrites, unwilling to recognise how little control they really have over their lives. And when confronted with a way off, albeit with a price, it does not take long for them to start quantifying the fallout and preparing for the future. The ultimate truth of this movie is that these people only care about themselves, and they are willing to rationalise their way out of any situation that requires them to confront their own feelings.

Ever since Colin Farrell stopped trying to be a movie star, he has become more relevant, vibrant and just fascinating to watch. Following his work on Lanthimos' The Lobster, Farrell is doing something very special here.

His character, a brilliant but arrogant surgeon, has the emotional range of a rock. Where his performance in The Lobster was based on the repression of empathy and emotion, in this film his character views the world through the same clinical frame as he does his patients. However, once confronted by a figure who embodies a chaos he cannot control. As a man who believes he knows everything, Farrell's performance is a struggle not so much to react to inexplicable events, but failing to know how to. It's an incredibly subtle and sophisticated performance that I am still trying to puzzle out. Anyway, he's great.

Nicole Kidman is just as good as his wife. Honestly, these two were so in sync and of a piece that I feel like I'll just be repeating what I said about Farrell's performance here. There is a difference - Kidman's character, Anna, is more aware of the emotional expectations around being a parent and a spouse, but once the situation escalates she reveals a cold-hearted pragmatism that matches her husband's. 

Playing the interloper who destroys the bourgeoisie family, Barry Keoghan is fantastically deadpan. Unblinkingly earnest, he never gives his victims or the viewer a break - there are no cracks in his blank facade or parting of the curtain. All you are left with is a dead face and a basilisk stare. His performance is so underplayed it feels like the set up to a joke, and we spend the entire running time waiting for a punchline that never comes.

Yorgos Lanthimos' direction is as poised and ambiguous as his antagonist. Every element of the film, from shot choice to blocking to sound design, is designed to keep the viewer off balance.

There are shades of Stanley Kubrick to his style - the cold, objective wide frames and the extended tracking shots that isolate the characters from the viewer are the most overt examples - but the biggest similarity is thematic. Kubrick's films are based around characters caught in systems or a cosmic order that they cannot comprehend or control (his noirs of the fifties; 2001; The Shining; heck, even Spartacus fits the bill). 

Lanthimos appears to follow a similar idea - the movie is framed like a documentary, with the camera following these characters and their eventual demise with the clinical interest of an ethnographer. It is terrifying, surreal and hilarious, often within the same shot.

I feel like I have missed a million things. I'm probably going to have to watch a few more times and see how it works on re-watch.

One of the most terrifying films of the year. Check it out.

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