Think E.T. as told by an avant garde director…
What time is it? It’s time for Indie Art House Corner *cue whimsical tune with children’s cheer track;* it’s where the budgets are low, the concepts are high, and nothing makes sense. This month’s entry is particularly divisive among film lovers as even the biggest critics are split in calling this movie “brilliant” or “pretentious.” So who’s right? Well people, you’ve come to the one person’s opinion who actually matters: a man fond of making dick and poop jokes in his reviews. Truly, I have a heavy burden.
We start it medias res as an Amber alert is issued in Texas for a boy taken by Roy Alton (Michael Shannon). Roy and his associate, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), are heavily armed but seem to be getting along fine with the boy, who is curiously wearing swim goggles at all times and cannot be exposed to direct sunlight. Turns out the kid was from a strange religious compound known only as the Ranch, that seems to be revere the words of the boy…but these words are actually encrypted messages sent by the US government, leading an NSA agent (Kylo Ren himself, Adam Driver) to get the FBI involved in the search for this strange little boy.
I’ll say upfront that the film does a great job in having you figure out what exactly is going on without telling you anything. You pretty much have to draw your own conclusions as to how these characters wound up in their situation through pieces of dialogue, their appearances, and their actions. It’s pretty effective use of film as a medium to tell a story…I just wished the story had a bit more meat to it.
You see the whole point of this film is a three way chase between the Ranch, the Feds, and our main protagonists all in pursuit of this strange boy. The problem is that boy might as well be named MacGuffin, because he’s an object to get the plot going and nothing else. See, a lot of people have been comparing this movie to E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial both in good and bad ways. While like E.T. in the sense of creepy, ominous government agents pursuing an innocent child; the character E.T. was clinically designed to be likable and adorable so you start crying uncontrollably when he “dies” then comes back to life later on. But the boy in this movie isn’t given anything to do but shoot flashlights out his eyes.
Now, what I did like is that boy’s powers aren’t clearly defined. There’s a mystery to his abilities as well as where exactly he came from. I mean it’s shown he has a mother (Kirsten Dunst coming out of nowhere), but there’s something otherworldly about his mannerisms and his ability to communicate through telepathy. Hell he even manages to fuck with electronics to a frankly absurd degree. And none of it is explained…which isn’t a a bad thing. The film unravels of as a mystery, so you have to connect the dots in various locations which I can definitely appreciate…until the end.
You see, much like Swiss Army Man, this film opts for a very, VERY open-ended conclusion that leaves you with way more questions than answers. “Abrupt” would be the most appropriate word because the film just feels like it cuts off right in the middle of the ending. So you’re not given closure on any one character’s story when there’s really no reason for it. For an example of an open-ended climax that worked for the movie was Children of Men, because the main theme of that movie was all about hope and despair. The characters discussed the concepts at length throughout the plot, plus scenes serve to challenge all the characters on their own mutual perceptions of the concept. The ending to the film leaves a big question mark on what happened next to two of the main characters, but that was the point: you’re left to wonder if what happened next went well or went horribly wrong based on your perception of hope versus despair. It’s a technique that works given the story they were trying to tell, but an open-ended finale doesn’t work as well here.
Mostly because this movie was all about unraveling the mystery of this kid. The protagonists are trying to figure out what to do with the kid and Roy is convinced to bring him to a specific location in Florida. Why? Because it will somehow make the kid feel better and/or “it was meant to be.” When you start going down the dark road of destiny bullshit, I turn off pretty quickly because it’s a cheap narrative device. You’re pretty justifying how you’re getting from A to B through the reason of “just because.” That’s weak as hell, especially when the film is telling me to figure shit out on my own.
And this becomes doubly problematic when the NSA agent is thrown in the mix. Now granted I really like Adam Driver in this, demonstrating an obsession with this strange boy that’s a reminiscent of his Kylo Ren turn but a little more subdued. The trick is that he quickly changes his entire demeanor just by meeting this boy in person. It’s such a one hundred eighty degree turn that it just feels unearned and makes this kid more into a Christ-like figure. Which as with Snowden, I’m really not a fan of that.
The rest of the cast turns in very solid performances, partly thanks to the fact that several of them have worked with the director before. This Michael Shannon’s third collaboration (the others being Mud and Take Shelter…and they’re releasing together Loving in November), and his off-putting performance works quite well here in this mystery-diving spectacle. He also demonstrates why he’s one of the best actors out there because you believe he has a strong relationship with this boy that you can easily figure out before the film confirms the facts halfway through. Meanwhile Joel Edgerton (also appearing and headlining Loving with the other two collaborators) plays an interesting role as Roy’s friend who’s more doubtful of this crazy mission (making him more relatable to me) before he buys into Adolescent Jesus’ message (making him less relatable to me). Finally it was nice to Kirsten Dunst again; while she’s not given a whole lot to do, she still makes the most of her screen time.
The film doesn’t connect to me on an emotional level, which is disappointing to me since I really appreciated the buildup and mystery unraveling. Had a good time to give it a decent recommendation, but I’d temper your expectations if you’re expecting “best of the year” material here. Highly flawed, but I can give this a lower…