Directed by: Danny Boyle. I haven’t caught up with Danny Boyle since Slumdog Millionaire, and can you blame me? What I remember about it was a pretty campy, by-the-numbers, zero-to-hero story in a feel-good format that ended with a self-conscious Bollywood dance number. And it was his most successful film to date. The next one was 127 Hours, which I suspect is pretty good, but again, made a ton of money and got tons of acclaim, so I’m kind of suspicious of it. Boyle made Trainspotting, which remains one of my favourite films, and it holds up after multiple viewings two decades on. For that film, I’ll kind of follow him anywhere, and I’m at least curious whenever he pops up. This was a little movie, not a huge splash really, it only made a few more dollars than it cost, and the reviews were split right down the middle. When I saw it at the library, I would get it mixed up with Side Effects, which I thought would be similar. Turns out it’s closer to The Prestige or Vertigo or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but with a much more European sensibility. This movie is utterly (forgive me) Boylean, its back and forth editing, unsure mental footing, and disjointed montage owing more to Boyle’s similarly despised The Beach than to, say, Scorsese’s distinct brand of cocaine-speed hyper-editing that’s been aped by everyone from Guy Ritchie to Edgar Wright. This aspect of the story, the shaky mental ground of the characters, the lingering question of subjectivity, whose point of view we’re seeing, the reality or un-reality of the images we’re being shown, and the overall subjective frame of the film (whose story is this???), I found utterly impressive and satisfying to watch (and re-watch). Boyle demonstrates what a master craftsmen he is with the way he can juggle all of that stuff while telling this particularly fragmented and emotionally difficult-to-juggle film with difficult-to-characterize characters, and all of this while he’s on “break” between shooting segments of his epic videos for the opening ceremonies of the London Olympics.
So, yes, this film is technically really impressive, and basically really enjoyable to watch. Overall, I’d call it a success. Of course, there’s a few little bits that aren’t very good, and to me, that make the difference between a truly great film and not. I don’t usually get caught up on “believability”, but I’m not sure how “believable” the plot is when you follow along the second time, already knowing the big twist ending. The train of events had to follow a very specific trail, a very exact sequence, much of it up to chance which no one could have anticipated, requiring the kind of suspension of disbelief that dumb action movies routinely employ but which films aspiring to be smart, sleek, substantial indie-arthouse films should probably minimize. And also, the gender dynamics are a little weird: sure, there’s a great, strong female lead at the centre, but there’s also a pretty frivolous and out-of-left-field motif about nudity in art that leads to the female lead in a full-frontal naked pose showing her shaved pubic area. I’m no expert on gender politics (really, I’m not), but here’s a tip for free, Danny Boyle: if you’re keen on making a film with a woman and her agency and her desire at the centre of it, you might consider not spending quite so much time, or any time, on her pubic hair or lack thereof. It just felt pretty sideways and backwards and upside down and whatever other way you can express it. Also, the racial stuff is a little messy. Specifically, the “head thug” character Nate, played by Danny Sapani, the only black guy in the gang, comes across as the most high-tempered, oafish one. This itself wouldn’t be too bad maybe, but the extra detail of his attempted rape of Rosario Dawson and his subsequent castration by James MacAvoy’s character were pretty weird. It was the most violent part of the movie, and it struck me as a pretty extreme move for such a minor character, and a territory not really alluded to in the rest of the narrative. Out of nowhere, there’s a sexual violence overtone, displayed by the black guy, and then the full force of retribution is weighted upon him in the form of a graphic castration (the camera shows us the special effect of the guy’s shorts blowing up blood everywhere as he’s shot in the dick). Like the subplot about Rosario’s pubes, it left me kind of raising my eyebrow a bit. Was it really necessary? And why did Boyle think it was a great thing to put in there? Overall, the character stuff is pretty compelling, all three of the leads remaining elusive and mysterious until the very end. All of the roles, even the secondary roles, are really distinctively drawn out, and well acted. This is probably the best movie overall that I’ve seen James MacAvoy in (and in his own accent, no less!). But, like I said, there’s enough secondary weird stuff to keep it from being a really excellent movie. But if you hold your nose just right, you can remember it as a pretty compelling, interesting, and inventive narrative about the unreliability of the human mind, and about the complexity of human emotions, and the whole question of personality. Who are you? What narratives do you tell about yourself? Then again, the ending is pretty corny. I don’t know. I just don’t know.