I really enjoyed Alexander Payne’s The Descendants – at least while I was watching it. Some films will do that to you, though. They push all sorts of groovy buttons while you are in the room but they diminish as you re-examine them. Connections that you thought were there turn out to be illusory, a series of satisfying emotional moments don’t cohere into something complete and you realise that you were enjoying it so much you wished it into something profound.
I blame Clooney. He’s such a watchable presence, always combining that Cary Grant movie star-ness with an underlying emotional frailty. His characters carry that square-jawed aspirational male solidity but rarely do they actually know what is going on or what to do. He specialises in people who are making it up as they go along and that has tremendous appeal – if George Clooney doesn’t know what he’s doing then none of us do.
Most films go in one eye and out the other but some stick in your brain and won’t leave – for better or worse. John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Road” is one of those. Set in a depressing, grey, rainy, post-apocalyptic North American future (reminding me of nothing so much as this past Wellington summer) where nothing grows and the few remaining human beings forage for food – and most often find it in each other – dogged and decent Viggo Mortensen trudges through the wilderness with his young son, looking for something, anything, that might keep them alive.
The Road is about how we try and survive in the face of insurmountable odds, and how that physical survival might mean the loss of our own humanity. Mortensen’s wife (Charlize Theron) walks out into the lonely night, making what she thinks is a sacrifice but which he, clearly, thinks is little more than giving up. His son may well be the last repository of human kindness but that kindness might get them killed.
Of all directors currently working in the Hollywood mainstream Michael Mann is arguably the greatest stylist. No one at the multiplex has more control of the pure aesthetics of filmmaking, from colour balance and composition through editing and sound, Mann’s films (from Thief in 1981 to the misguided reworking of Miami Vice in 2006) have had a European visual sensibility while remaining heavily embedded in the seamy world of crime and punishment.
Now Mann has turned back the clock and made a period crime film, set during the last great depression. Based on the true story of the legendary bank robber John Dillinger, whose gang cut a swathe across the Midwest in 1933 and 1934, Mann’s Public Enemies is a stylish and superbly crafted tale of a doomed hero pursued by a dogged lawman. Dillinger is portrayed by Johnny Depp with his usual swagger and his nemesis is the now sadly ubiquitous Christian Bale.