Sunday, December 16, 2018


Out now are two pokey, eccentric movies from auteurs who have grabbed high pulp thriller concepts (hooks on which the marketing has been hung) and drained them of most suspense to turn them into loping meditations on masculine failings. Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built and Clint Eastwood’s The Mule are queasy funny semi-thrillers about bad men and bad decisions, arriving at different and yet strangely sympatico conclusions about their otherwise dissimilar leads. They do bad things (though one’s are much worse than the other’s) and they spend their movies slowly accruing the need to pay for them, and to find someone to take them to their inevitable punishment. The films themselves as often as goofy as they are cynical, and swaddled in their directors’ usual peculiarities and peccadilloes. Is this a recommendation? Of a sort. They’re films for those predisposed to cut their filmmakers some slack, and willing to groove on their usual brand.

Von Trier’s film is about Jack, a serial killer. The man is an architect, but while his dream home goes unbuilt, his murders build in complexity. While we see a progression of vignettes, as bloody and grotesque as they are uncomfortable and even bleakly humorous, Jack (Matt Dillon) speaks to an unseen interlocutor (Bruno Ganz) in voice over. They comment on the events and victims (like Uma Thurman, Riley Keough, and Siobhan Fallon Hogan) on screen, and interrupt the narrative with digressions about philosophy, art, religion, fascism, and the functional form of cathedrals. Jack is casting about for a way to be whole. He could’ve been an artist, a philosopher, or a writer (or a filmmaker? nudge, nudge), but has instead found a grisly, horrifying outlet. He’s searching for a thrill, a kill that’ll fill the hole in his soul. In this way, it makes a cruel mirror image to Von Trier’s superior previous film, Nymphomaniac, which found a woman telling her life story in dialogue with a mysterious man. She, too, was looking to fill a need. She was sex obsessed, a far healthier drive than Jack’s and yet, taken to an addict’s extreme, the pursuit leads her to dark decisions and spirals of shame. Is this pair of films Von Trier commenting on his vision of the world? I am reminded of the cliche “there are two kinds of people...” It’s certainly of a piece with his pictures of cruelty and capriciousness to envision a “Men are Death; Women are Sex” world. But there’s something more self-loathing and self-reflexive about both pictures than those generalizations, and Jack is ultimately about an artist whose bad, frustrated impulses lead to a murder streak as fully detached from reality as his clammy sociopathy can make him. If only he'd built that house instead. (In a striking moment, there’s a montage of Von Trier’s own past films, as if in self-defense, saying his films may be cruel, cynical, misanthropic, and depressed, but who in the audience is actually harmed?) But what to do with someone who is obviously destined to burn in hell, yet still finds himself clinging to the hope that he can climb out? Von Trier has us look and see, though what we’re to make of it is unclear. Its nasty discomfort lingers, and its teetering vacantness does too.

Eastwood’s The Mule is, true to its director, a more straightforward ride. It’s about a failed family man (Clint himself) who put work in the prime position, who seemingly never heard of work-life balance as he’s travelled the country as a prize-winning horticulturist lapping up colleagues admiration while his wife, daughter, and granddaughter (Dianne Wiest, Alison Eastwood, and Taissa Farmiga) miss him at every milestone. Thus, when he finds himself 90 years old, estranged and lonely as the bank puts his farm into foreclosure, he becomes a mule for a drug cartel. At first he is unwittingly ferrying duffel bags of drugs from Texas to Illinois and back again, taking the envelopes of cash and asking no questions. He’s half-naive, half-willfully ignorant. But by the time he figures out what’s up, he just becomes a witting mule instead. The movie is a road trip — there and back and there and back and there and back again — where the old man rarely has problems aside from the occasional gun in the face during contract negotiations with his employers, or a K9 officer he outwits with a slather of Bengay on his hand. He stops at roadside eateries and low-rent hotels, lazily touring the countryside and chatting with locals of all kinds. Sometimes he grumbles about kids these days. Sometimes he tries to reconnect with his family. All in all, a cash infusion seems to do him good. His late-life career change wins him accolades. At one point he’s even invited by the kingpin (Andy Garcia) to party at his Mexican mansion with boozy pushers and bikini girls who fawn all over the old man — a funny embellishment that seems like self-flattery on the part of the star director. The movie lazily pokes along, generating a token amount of suspense from crosscut investigation by officers (Bradley Cooper, Michael Peña, and Laurence Fishburne) intent on hunting this mystery mule. It all comes to a head, as it must, with an inevitable karmic collision and a last chance for honesty. Yet Eastwood is more interested in it all as a portrait of a crumbling world economy, in which more and more is expected for less and less. Everyone — the DEA, the banks, the cartel, the insurance companies, and so on — has a boss breathing down their neck demanding more productivity no matter the cost to themselves or societal bonds. No one takes responsibility. It’s middle managers all the way down, while the rich get richer and some people have to work into their 90s to survive. Eastwood, always a more astute political thinker as a filmmaker than in his public persona, generates a movie that’s as sharp as it is eccentric. It’s a most unusual, low-key, elderly movie. Much like his 15:17 to Paris from earlier this year, he’s indulging an almost-aimless travelogue, surrounding interesting ideas in sentimentality and goofy jokes he trusts his casual formalism to carry across. It mostly does.

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