Search results for: fassbender

Acting: Michael Fassbender in X-Men First Class (US-UK, 2011)

Publicity shot

Publicity shot

Performance can be difficult to analyse especially as the acting profession tends to mystify the process when interviewed. Maybe they, too, find it difficult to analyse or maybe they prefer the mystique. Possibly the key factor in performance is non-verbal communication which includes body language, posture, clothing and vocal tone. Their position and movement in the frame is likely to be determined by the director and the scriptwriter provides the words; how their body ‘speaks’ and how they speak those words is determined by the actor. Of course, even these can be directed but if we are to think of actors as more than Hitchcock’s ‘cattle’ then we must give them some credit.

I first noticed Michael Fassbender in Hunger, Steve McQueen’s debut, and since I’ve found him to be the most compelling male actor in cinema. What follows is an extract from the 2nd edition of my Introduction to Film (forthcoming):

The smartly-dressed Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender), in X-Men First Class (US-UK, 2011), is visiting a Swiss banker to find out the location of Dr Klaus Schmidt, the concentration camp doctor who experimented on him when he was a child. He’s brought an ingot of Nazi gold as a pretext for the visit and to make his point about the fate of Jewish wealth in Germany in World War II. (DVD: Ch.4 13mins 37secs.)

Once he’s seated Lensherr’s framed in medium shot, his eyes appeared almost closed but they are looking down at the ingot that we know is on the desk in front of him. He looks up, at the banker, but his head doesn’t move at first, suggesting he is in complete control of the situation. When he explains to the banker that he wants to deposit the gold, his eyebrows move, suggesting urbanity, while the rest of his face remains impassive. He is controlling his anger, beneath a veneer of respectability, against bankers who continued, in 1963 when the film is set, to benefit from Nazi appropriation of Jews’ wealth.

Lensherr agrees with the banker that he needs to understand the bank’s terms but then he starts to threaten, by explaining the deal will be on his terms. He picks up a photograph of a young child (presumably the banker’s) from the desk, looks at it with an obviously false smile. The falsity contains threat for we expect people to like (smile at) photographs of children but Lensherr obviously doesn’t like what he sees. His gaze flicks to the ingot on the desk reminding us of the purpose of his visit.

The banker understands the threat and tries to sound the alarm but Lensherr’s uses his X-Men powers to stop him.

For much of the scene Lensherr’s gaze is unblinking suggesting an unnatural intensity

For much of the scene Lensherr’s gaze is unblinking suggesting an unnatural intensity

Lensherr moves to the banker’s side of the desk; he’s about to get nasty, his face contorted in a grimace. At one point Fassbinder thrusts his bottom teeth forward in a feral gesture showing the violence that’s brewing just beneath his urbane demeanour.

Fassbender uses his teeth to suggest feral violence

Lensherr is now in the process of extracting a filling, via his powers, from the banker’s mouth; using torture as the Nazis did in the camps. Almost imperceptibly the merest hint of enjoyment flickers in his expression; his eyes move slightly, as if taking in all the banker’s facial expression of pain. Fassbender is signifying the sadistic side of Lensherr, a character with whom we have sympathy given his treatment in the concentration camp.

After he’s caught the filling, that’s flown out of the victim’s mouth, Lensherr looks at it with a slightly amused (at his own ability) expression which quickly hardens as he gets back down to business.

Fassbender has conveyed very controlled determination of Lensherr at the start, and end, of the scene to emphasise the violence of the mid-section. This mirrors Lensherr’s (and the film’s?) attitude toward the business of the Swiss bank, which is to deal, in an exceedingly polite way, with ill-gotten gains. The urbanity of the setting is therefore hiding the violence that is the source of their wealth.

Virtually everything that Fassbender wants to portray about Lensherr’s character is shown through subtle changes of facial expression. It is a masterclass of acting.

The Snowman (UK-US-Sweden 2017)

Michael Fassbender as Harry Hole

I’m not sure I’ve ever been to watch a new film that has been so heavily criticised and denounced by both critics and audiences. It isn’t the total disaster those reviews suggests, but given the array of talent in front of and behind the camera, it isn’t great. Something has clearly gone wrong and I’m still struggling to see where the blame lies.

The Snowman is an adaptation of Jo Nesbø’s 2007 ‘Harry Hole’ novel. There are now 11 crime novels featuring the maverick cop. The Snowman is No7 in the series, though numbers 1 and 2 were translated into English after The Snowman. So, for UK readers it was number 5. The first question then is, why start with No. 5? The response has been so poor that it seems unlikely any more will be adapted in English. Why it was adapted at this point seems to be a consequence of the usual crap which surrounds studio pictures. The novel appeared in English in 2011 – at the peak of ‘Nordic Noir‘ in the UK/US. A quick glance back through my posts and the various events I organised on that topic suggests that this was indeed the case.

Nesbø has always been ripe for adaptation. His self-confessed love of American culture pushes his crime fiction away from the ‘Nordic Noir’ ideal that developed from Mah Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (though he claimed his own links to the Martin Beck books with an introduction to one of the re-issued novels). His hero Harry Hole likes rock music (Nesbø played in a band) and American films and there is much more of a Hollywood thriller feel to the novels. Perhaps he is like Stieg Larsson to a certain extent – but far less overtly political. Harry is like Larsson’s characters though – in the sense that he is personally involved in the narratives. Either he is targeted by the villain or the narrative is introduced by something out of his past. In The Snowman, the Harry-Rakel-Oleg triangle is central in more ways than one.

My memory is that Scorsese was named quite early on as interested in making a Harry Hole movie, but instead the first Nesbø film was Headhunters (Norway 2011), adapted from a standalone novel and followed by Nesbø’s involvement in a TV series, Okkupert (2015), a political thriller imagining Norway occupied by the Russians. The Snowman arrives perhaps four or five years too late. I don’t think Nordic Noir is finished but it doesn’t have the same ‘must see’ cachet any more.

Rebecca Ferguson as Katrine, Harry’s new partner

The next issue is comprehension. The Harry Hole novels are in a distinct series – they have the overall narrative ‘arc’ that we now have to acknowledge for long form narratives and in that sense they match both the Beck and Wallander books – though I find Harry a less appealing character than either of the other police officers. Each novel draws on what has happened before so The Snowman relies on audience knowledge about Harry and about Rakel and her son Oleg. Harry is not married to Rakel, yet she is the love of his life. Oleg is not his son, but Harry tries to act like his father. If you don’t know this – and Harry’s history of alcoholism and his loner status within the Oslo Police – you can’t understand him. The script (which has some input from Nesbø, some from Søren Sveistrup, the Danish writer of The Killing and some from the Brits, Peter Straughan and Hossein Amini) seems to me something of a lash-up – as if it has been re-written many times. It does include the information about Harry, but not in an easily understandable way. The book is 550 pages so a great deal has to be left out or dealt with in different ways. Some of the changes are puzzling. The novel opens with a prologue in 1980, in which the date is signalled by a radio announcement about Reagan’s election victory over Jimmy Carter. It then comes forward to 2004 and victory for George W. Bush. In the film, ‘the past’ features a boy being quizzed about Norwegian modern history and there are no American references.

Charlotte Gainsbourg, under-used as Rakel

The need to reduce and select the narrative data explains why, even for someone who knows the Harry Hole novels reasonably well, the narrative seems complex. Against this, the cinematography offers us plenty of snowbound landscapes and there is a very talented cast. Alas, the way they are used is also problematic. I was watching out for Sofia Heflin, the Swedish star of the Nordic Noir series The Bridge and it was only at the end of the film that I realised she had been a character who was quickly killed off. Similarly, the Norwegian actor Jakob Oftebro, a star from Kon-Tiki (Norway 2012) and many other films, has a minor role. There are some Nordic actors in bigger roles and I enjoyed the irony of Jonas Karlsson playing the villain in this film and the despised police ‘manager’ in the Swedish Beck TV series. But mostly it is British and American actors filling the lengthy cast list. Apart from a child with an American whine, most of the actors use what might be described as unaccented ‘International English’ and I can live with that (although a Norwegian pronunciation of ‘Hole’ might have worked better). The tragedy of the film is to see a director such as the Swede Tomas Alfredson, internationally lauded for Let the Right One In (Sweden 2008) and the English language Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011), lose control of a production which also boasts Dion Beebe as cinematographer and Thelma Schoonmaker as editor, not to mention Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson and Charlotte Gainsbourg as the leading cast members.

Michael Fassbender is a fine actor and it sounds like great casting, but he isn’t my idea of Harry Hole – and that’s always the problem with adapting a novel with a ‘known’ character. Audiences who revere Fassbender but don’t know Nesbø’s character will also be puzzled I think. Val Kilmer and Toby Jones just seem odd as Bergen police officers and Anne Reid as a next door neighbour in Oslo is a surprise for British audiences (she has been an important TV actor in the UK for many decades). Working Title, the most successful British film production company through its long relationships with Universal and Studio Canal, succeeded with Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor . . . , but that was a StudioCanal project. The Snowman is a Universal picture and I wonder if that is the problem. The Snowman seems similar to David Fincher’s Hollywood version of The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo (US 2011) – but at least that film proved popular with audiences. I’ve rather lost interest in Harry Hole since Book 9 and now it looks like there won’t be any more film adaptations. Now, if they’d started with The Redbreast (Book 3, the first to be translated) it might have worked, but it would probably have been too ‘Norwegian’ for a big budget international thriller. Such is the film business. Instead of a distinct Nordic Noir, Hollywood wants another snowbound police thriller. Here’s the trailer for The Snowman, which is visually intriguing – but the dialogue is terrible. Pretty much sums up the film I’m afraid.

Steve Jobs (US-UK 2015)

Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs, artfully framed by Danny Boyle and Alwin H Küchler

Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs, artfully framed by Danny Boyle and Alwin H Küchler

Screen 1 at Curzon Soho was not full for the first evening screening of Steve Jobs (on the night of the Paris attacks). This doesn’t augur well for a film that has been designated a ‘flop’ in North America. It’s a shame that this production isn’t succeeding commercially, though given its relatively modest – by Hollywood standards – budget of $30 million it won’t be the disaster some commentators seem to be gleefully anticipating. All involved in the film will be comforted by the high levels of critical acclaim that the film has generated so far and in the group that I was part of, all of us were impressed by the script, performances, direction and technical contributions.

Inevitably Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs has been compared to David Fincher’s The Social Network, especially since Fincher reportedly turned down the chance to direct Steve Jobs because the fee offered was too low. I was not a fan of The Social Network but it was well made. However, it cost $50 million and I think Danny Boyle did a better job on a smaller budget. Aaron Sorkin wrote both films – with Steve Jobs heavily dependent on the biography of Jobs written by Walter Isaacson. Neither film is a biopic in the conventional sense of the term, both focusing on the founding myths and early years of the two companies (Facebook and Apple).  Steve Jobs covers three moments of Jobs ‘presenting’ aspects of his ‘work’ (or perhaps his ‘vision’). The Social Network sometimes feels like a thriller/legal investigation into who did what, whereas Steve Jobs is more like a relationship drama with Jobs ranged against five different individuals, most of whom have positive reasons to love/admire him as well as genuine anger about what he has done.

Danny Boyle is a theatre director as well as a renowned film director and he seems like the perfect choice for a film which is heavily biased towards long dialogue scenes in enclosed spaces. Boyle rehearsed his cast for two weeks before shooting each of the film’s three sections and the result is a series of dialogue exchanges which really zing and hum with intensity (and quite a few laughs). But despite the restrictions, Boyle finds ways to make the film narrative genuinely cinematic in feel. I’m at a loss as to why some critics (and film scholars) disparage Danny Boyle. He makes films that are always interesting to watch – and he seems like a genuinely nice bloke (and a genuine supporter of working-class popular culture as part of film and theatre). He is often innovative in his approach to the visual style of his films and here he turns again to Alwin H. Küchler (who previously photographed Boyle’s Sunshine in 2007). Küchler has been one of the best UK-based cinematographers since the 1990s (he trained at the UK National Film School) and first worked for Lynne Ramsay and then Michael Winterbottom. The three sections of Steve Jobs are set in 1984 with the launch of the first Macintosh, 1988 with Jobs’ presentation of his NeXT cube and 1998 with the iMac launch. These are photographed in 16mm, 35 mm and HD with interesting ‘bridging’ moments. It would require a second viewing to see if the sections are also framed differently or if there are other distinctive features.

Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet at the show to launch the Apple 2 in 1985.

Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet at the show to launch the Apple 2 in 1985.

Kate Winslet is a revelation in her role as Jobs’ Marketing Manager and Michael Fassbender is as terrific as Jobs as we all expected. Jeff Daniels is the CEO who battles Jobs and Michael Stuhlbarg is the engineer in a similar position. Seth Rogen and Katherine Waterston draw the short straws as Steve Wozniak (the co-founder of Apple with Jobs) and the mother of Jobs’ daughter – two roles that are restricted to being angry about Jobs’ behaviour. The real question, as another friend suggested to me is: “Why would anyone buy a ticket to see this film?”. Despite the great script, terrific performances etc.  the truth is that the film almost deliberately thwarts the expectations of at least two communities. Apple devotees interested in the history of the computers get only a partial story that stops in 1998. Anyone who sees Steve Jobs as some kind of visionary figure (the film begins with a clip of Arthur C. Clarke ‘predicting’ the coming of the personal computer) may well find his treatment of his closest colleagues and collaborators repellent. And those who actually enjoy the ‘warts and all’ story are likely to be dismayed by the last (unnecessary) 10 minutes which become very sentimental. The truth is that in the early days of Apple, the computers were venerated by relatively small groups of people who struggled to convince others in a world dominated by Microsoft. And it’s true that the machines were expensive and actually not very useful outside certain DTP and Design applications until the appearance of the G3 range in 1997. This is more or less when Steve Jobs ends with the announcement of the iMac. Unlike Facebook which the majority of the audience know something about, Jobs and Apple’s story is obscure for most of the audience who know Apple through its ‘phones and tablets.

In some ways the script refers back to those Warner Bros. biopics of the 1930s – about the great men and women who did something unique. But Jobs’ achievements are not as easily defined as those of Madame Curie or Louis Pasteur. To really understand some of his ‘vision’ requires a great deal of context about computer design and the history of the industry which can’t be contained in a feature like this. Sorkin’s script relies on the marketing/promotional spiel at the launches of new products (were these his unique contributions?). Little is heard about Microsoft (or the Amiga and Atari – both as important as Apple in the 1980s). When the breakthrough comes with the iMac in 1998, there is no mention of Jony Ive who designed it. Ive has spoken about Jobs as having “bold” and “magnificent” ideas, but he is the one who puts them into practice like Steve Wozniak did earlier, only to be ditched by Jobs.

Steve Jobs will endure as a film to be studied, I think, and it represents another chapter in Danny Boyle’s interesting directing career, even if it doesn’t do the expected business at the box office.

Here’s the ‘featurette’ that tries to explain what the film is about:

Slow West (UK-New Zealand 2014)

A great composition and seemingly generic. But not quite the Rockies?

A great composition and seemingly generic. But not quite the Rockies?

Slow West is beautiful to look at. It includes several stunning set pieces and it is well-researched and carefully prepared – but I couldn’t help feeling that it didn’t quite produce the coherent narrative I was hoping for. Perhaps the main issue is whether or not this is ‘a Western’? There has been plenty of critical weight behind Slow West including a piece on the ’10 Great Modern Westerns’ by the BFI and the implication that Slow West belongs in such company.

John Maclean was previously a musician in The Beta Band and he directed the band’s videos. One of these was seen by Michael Fassbender and eventually Fassbender appeared in two short films which both won prizes for Maclean. Slow West, written and directed by Maclean is his first feature. Maclean’s parents are both well-known visual artists and he studied painting at Edinburgh College of Art. It’s not surprising then that there are some wonderful compositions in Slow West. With the highly talented Robbie Ryan as cinematographer, Maclean is also served by a marvellous use of natural light. There are several scenes in the film I would like study in detail once it is available on DVD.

The film’s story involves a quest by a teenage Scots boy Jay (played by the gangling Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee) searching for the girl he loves whose family has been ‘cleared’ from the Highlands. He believes she now lives in Colorado with her father. (Jay claims to be the son of ‘Lady Cavendish’.) At the start of the film’s narrative we meet Jay in a forest clearing in the first of many dangerous encounters. He’s rescued by Silas (Michael Fassbender), an experienced but clearly suspect ‘drifter’ (the character repeatedly refers to ‘drifting’ and Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter may be a reference). The rest of the narrative takes the pair through a series of other similar encounters until it reaches the inevitable climax. Maclean also uses flashbacks and dreams experienced by Jay and voiceovers offering forms of narration by Silas. Maclean’s musical background means that there is an appropriate score composed by Jed Kurzel, the Australian musician who also scored The Babadook, plus a campfire song written by Maclean himself.

Apart from a few scenes in Scotland, most of the film was shot in New Zealand. Many critics have suggested that the setting could easily be the Rockies and that audiences won’t notice. I’m not sure about this. It seems to me that the story could have taken place in New Zealand anyway and still allowed Maclean to make all of the points he wants to make (i.e. about racism, colonialism, violence etc.) – ‘Westerns’ have often been set outside North America. It’s certainly the case that everything in the film could be an element in the repertoire of the Western. Maclean has done his research and he is aware that until recently Westerns were more mythological than realist. He wants to emphasise the various European migrant groups in the American West in the late 19th century, the ‘real’ Native Americans etc. – though I’m not sure about the three musicians from Francophone Africa (French imperialism in Central and West Africa was mostly later than 1870). According to this Guardian online piece by Rowan Righelato, Maclean himself has described his film as “an existential European road movie”. That seems a pretty good description for the overall ‘form’ of the film. It seems to me that although all the Western elements are ‘authentic’ they don’t all fit together either as a realist historical drama or as a traditional Western genre film. I’d be interested to see what academic scholars of the American West make of the film. Reviewers seem to refer to the setting as ‘1870’ but if this information was conveyed in the film (perhaps a date in a newspaper?) I missed it. It is clearly ‘post’ Civil War but some of the incidents suggest earlier or later periods – and different locations.

A father-son relationship?

A father-son relationship?

Does all of this matter? Probably not or probably only if, like me, you are expecting a Western. The Western was once the American genre par excellence and whatever the ostensible narrative intentions, Westerns always conveyed something about American myths and changing ideologies as well as broad statements about the history of the frontier. Even the revisionist Westerns of the late 1960s and 1970s conveyed something, perhaps more than before, in their discourses about the end of the West and the corporatisation of Western activities. I’m not sure that Slow West tells us anything apart from its fairly universal story about a young man’s dream and an older man’s survival instinct. That’s not necessarily a bad thing and in this case Maclean’s film is entertaining and its relatively brief running time (84 minutes) is packed with sounds and images to stimulate. Nick, my viewing companion did also question whether the script did enough to establish the relationship between the two central characters, citing the shaving scene. Are we meant to think of a surrogate father/son relationship? Michael Fassbender will attract many audiences to the film and he gives a strong performance, but I wonder if in this case his star persona is too powerful for the overall balance of the film, especially with his cigar-chomping flashing smile?

Reading through the reviews and audience comments I think that Slow West is being enjoyed in much the same way as the Coen Bros. films – and enjoyed in terms of its dark humour and intelligence.

On a technical note, Robbie Ryan’s images are presented in the old European ‘widescreen’ ratio of 1.66:1. I’m not sure why and because I saw the film in a real cinema with proper tabs and masking I didn’t really notice. But it looks great.

A short clip from the opening sequence in the film:

The Missouri Breaks (US 1976)

Kathleen Lloyd and Jack Nicholson in THE MISSOURI BREAKS

Kathleen Lloyd and Jack Nicholson in THE MISSOURI BREAKS

The latest ‘Matinee Classic’ at HOME in Manchester is the 1976 Western The Missouri Breaks. It has been programmed as part of a mini-season of offbeat Westerns to accompany the release of Slow West, the new film by John Maclean shot in New Zealand and Scotland and starring Michael Fassbender.

The ‘Missouri Breaks’ are the clefts in the landscape gouged out by the Missouri river in Montana close to the Canadian border. In the late 1880s this is the setting for a ‘twilight Western’ featuring Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson and directed by Arthur Penn. The film was both a commercial and critical flop in 1976 – partly because of the hype which surrounded the casting of two of the period’s major stars, each of whom earned a hefty fee and a cut of the gross once box office passed $10 million. Researching it now I see that Western film scholars such as Ed Buscombe and Phil Hardy rated the film highly and watching it again, nearly 40 years after I first saw it, I can see why.

The Missouri Breaks is both a ‘twilight film’ because the 1970s was the last decade of regular Western production and because its setting is the twilight of the ‘real’ Western frontier. The films of this period are all revisionist of the early certainties of the genre – more realist, more violent, more reflexive, more questioning. In this particular case the narrative also veers towards comedy, while maintaining the violence and sense of loss for the passing of an era. The overall ‘feel’ of the film comes from the novelist Thomas McGuane who wrote three screenplays in the 1970s as well as adapting one of his own novels and directing it himself. McGuane grew up in Michigan but moved to Montana in 1968 and his three Western screenplays all feature the same three characters locked in a deadly game – a rancher, a rustler and a detective or ‘regulator’. I loved Rancho Deluxe (1975) at the time with Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston as the rustlers and Slim Pickens as the detective but was less taken by the biopic/drama Tom Horn (1980) with Steve McQueen as the regulator. The Missouri Breaks is arguably a more complex character study than either of those two films. Nicholson is the leader of a group of horse thieves and Brando (with a wandering accent) is Robert E. Lee Clayton, a notorious regulator brought in by rancher Braxton (John McLiam).

The film’s central theme is often seen in the twilight Western – the closing of the frontier and the pretensions of the cattle barons before Eastern capital comes in to take over. Montana was one of the last territories to be formally constituted as a state in 1889 when the ‘basic legal structure’ of the territory became more organised. Up until that point the newly powerful cattle barons like Braxton were able to dispense summary ‘justice’ (at least in the mythology of the Western). The Missouri Breaks thus begins with a hanging/lynching of a rustler carried out by Braxton’s men as a public event with picnicking women and children – some of them ‘sporting women’ according to the dialogue. Braxton justifies his action – an execution without trial – on the basis of the high percentage loss of cattle to rustling. He sits in his library surrounded by his works of ‘English literature’ like a country gentleman. Yet the northern trans-continental railway had already seen the final spike hammered in by President Grant in Montana in 1883. A train robbery features later in the film. The railway would both increase the efficiency of cattle transportation and bring in more aspects of East Coast culture. Braxton is already at the start of the film a ‘doomed man’ in terms of his business empire and his de facto judicial authority. This is the theme that is expanded in Heaven’s Gate (1980) perhaps the film that most clearly signalled the ‘end of the Western’ for Hollywood.

But The Missouri Breaks is arguably more interested in the personal stories of Braxton, his daughter, the horse thieves and the regulator. One of the elements in many twilight Westerns is the presence of two, usually male, characters who embody in some way the Western hero, the cowboy figure. It seems obvious to identify the film’s two stars as playing these characters from the twilight Western (though Harry Dean Stanton’s character is perhaps closer to the generic character). The point of these two characters is that they will have some kind of relationship and that through this they will define themselves in some way in relation to the ‘end of the West’. A classic example of this is in Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) in which Garrett has accepted his fate and sided with the cattle interests whereas Billy feels that he has to remain an outlaw. In The Missouri Breaks, Brando’s character is so attached to his ‘job’ as a regulator that eventually he will pursue the rustlers even though Braxton attempts to end his contract. By contrast, Nicholson’s character, Tom Logan, shows every sign of adaptability in developing new relationships and new interests. The regulator will soon be replaced not just by local sheriffs and courts but also by private agencies like the Pinkertons (Logan warns that robbing trains will bring in the Pinkertons, employed by the railroad). Another clue to this historical change is the sequence in which the horse thieves cross the border into Canada – and are pursued by the North West Mounted Police, in some ways a more ‘modern’ law enforcement agency than what was in operation in Montana.

For me the most enjoyable part of the film involves the romance between Logan and the rancher’s daughter, Jane, played by Kathleen Lloyd (mysteriously this was her first and last major cinema appearance). I think she is very good here and she seems to be a modern woman in many ways – resisting her father, taking something of a lead in seducing Nicholson (in a couple of enjoyably complex sequences) and ending the narrative confident and assertive. She quotes Samuel Johnson and utters the immortal line for a twilight Western: “Let’s just talk about the Wild West and how to get the hell out of it”. Jane is a recognisable McGuane woman, a character handled with skill by Arthur Penn. For me this is a good match between script and direction. I’m also impressed by Michael Butler’s cinematography (who had begun his career with Don Siegel’s Charley Varrick in 1973 and who had also lensed McGuane’s own 92 in the Shade, 1975). John Williams turns in a score that also worked for me. In fact, all the production credits are top notch. This is a production well worth re-visiting.

Notes on Screen Acting: Jessica Chastain

Screen acting and 'less is more' control:  Chastain in 'Zero Dark Thirty' (2012)

Screen acting and ‘less is more’ control: Chastain in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ (2012)

Jessica Chastain was recently voted MVP by Broadcast Film Critics’ Association and received the award at the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards Ceremony in January 2015.  It is the first time this award has been given. Chastain was chosen because of the diversity of screen acting work she has achieved in 2014, namely Miss Julie, the directorial debut of Liv Ullmann; her work on The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (in which she acts, but she also contributed to the writing); supporting roles in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year. 

Chastain took the opportunity to deflect the award to her collaborators.  She used the rest of her time, on Martin Luther King Junior’s birthday and in the face of the (then) current controversy about Selma and its lack of Oscar nominations, to quote King and ask for a time of ‘speaking up’ when injustice is seen. Chastain is an actor who does not feel she has to conform to the expectations of her industry, particularly those demanded of female actresses. You can see the whole speech here.

I first saw her alongside Michael Shannon in Take Shelter (2011), a post 9/11 examination of American sense of insecurity and paranoia written and directed by Jeff Nichols (who went on to greater visibility with Mud (2012)). It’s an eerie and unsettling film, in which Chastain had to be reactive to Shannon’s character’s increasingly erratic behaviour and to embody her character’s uncertainty even as she challenges his belief in a coming apocalyptic storm.  It showed that Chastain, who has strong, well-defined as well as a beautiful face, could be the emotional centre in the scene without having to dominate it. This is a quality she brought to Terrence Mallick’s The Tree of Life (2011) in which Chastain (alongside Brad Pitt) had to both be symbols – ‘mother’ or ‘father’ – in this epic (Kubrickian) examination of love and family and a believable, emotional presence. Mallick’s famous control as a director, moving them around within a frame, can lead to an underestimation of what those actors are actively doing to contribute to the overall poetic force of non-conventional cinema. Robert Bresson famously controlled actors’ movement as part of his highly aestheticised approach. Mallick’s use of improvisation – as I remember the butterfly moment (included in the trailer) is one example in The Tree Of Life – shows the freedom and responsibility performers have to understand and direct the action on screen by moving and embodying what they believe the director is trying to achieve.

Chastain is worthy of attention for her screen acting because she is so versatile, encompassing a number of styles for different genres and directors. She has worked in television and theatre, including playing in Wilde’s Salome with Al Pacino, of which a documentary was made. She works on the minutiae – any screen actor such as Michael Fassbender featured earlier on this blog takes on this kind of detail – in order to bring a character into some reality.  Chastain, though, distinctly separates herself from the idea of ‘The Method’ which she alludes to here, in a Variety-sponsored discussion between actors here.  Her comments call to mind Laurence Olivier’s (apocryphal) exhortation to Dustin Hoffman as the latter suffered for his art on Marathon Man (1976): ‘Try acting, dear boy.’  Acting, for Chastain, is a matter of working together in an area of trust and skill (not the self-absorption that ‘living’ the part demands).

She has, despite this visibility, a tremendous understanding of the kind of restraint that is necessary onscreen to communicate a character who has an inner life, as well as an outer expression. Her second Oscar-nominated performance was for Maya in Zero Dark Thirty, the CIA operative who moves to be at the centre of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.  Chastain, working with Kathryn Bigelow as director, seems to recognise that playing this woman has to negotiate the stereotypical gender expectations with a greater finesse than just challenging them head-on. As Maya, the key CIA agent in the search for Osama Bin Laden, she has to embody a character who is strong, analytical, determined and fixated.  The gender of the character is significant since these qualities have a greater impact as held by a female rather than a male character. However, if Maya were represented as a driven, emotionless being then no audience could ultimately relate and empathise with her search.

A brief analysis of the film’s opening scene shows how Chastain balances a lot of these conflicting needs even when she has little to say or do onscreen. Zero Dark Thirty became a very controversial film in its depiction of torture.  This sequence features the torture by the CIA operatives of a prisoner, it is possible to see how Chastain controls her physical movements in the frame. As we watch, we’re not sure which way this woman will go as regards the torture happening in front of her. This has to be conveyed through very short phrases of dialogue and by small physical gestures. The film opens in the prisoner’s cell and then creates a ‘reveal’ as she takes off a suit outside to show she is, as Dan (Jason Clarke) says, ‘rocking her best suit’ for her first interrogation. The dialogue suggests Maya is the ingénue. As she replies ‘I’m fine’ in an emotionless tone, her body language acts contrapuntally to that statement (main picture above). Chastain also has to work within her placement in the frame (see screen grab below). In the sequence outside, Clarke has all the movement in the frame – crossing in front of Chastain, who is relatively still. In the interrogation room, Clarke and Reda Kateb (the prisoner, Ammar) are in the foreground and frequently shot in medium close up. Clarke and Kateb do a different, difficult acting job working in a much higher emotional register.  Chastain stands in the background of the frame or is shown in a cutaway. (Although, importantly, Bigelow and DP Greig Fraser light her in a warm glow whilst leaving Clark’s face in ambiguous shadow).

Chastain:  'Zero Dark Thirty' - small gestures in frame background.

Chastain: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ – small gestures in frame background.

Chastain builds a picture of a woman who is both determined to make a difference and quite prepared to take part (without a mask) but someone who recoils at the brutality and violence. The cutaway (below) shows her swallowing hard as the interrogation intensifies and she demonstrates her discomfort by averting her eyes with an involuntary movement. The early ambiguity is important since it will playback later in the film – when Maya takes greater charge in a similar situation and when certain events have a strong emotional impact on her.  The groundwork for a complex character has been laid immediately.

Chastain as Maya - swallowing back her responses.

Chastain as Maya – swallowing back her responses.

Chastain, as a female actor, has achieved – and suffered – great visibility. In looking for the Critics Award film again, I found a number of celebrity reports of it, including this critique of her dress entitled: “At least her hair looks good! Jessica Chastain misses the mark in white Asian-inspired frock as she receives MVP honour at Critics’ Choice Awards.” She has also resisted the cat fight that the media wished to inflame between her and Jennifer Lawrence when they were both Oscar-nominated in 2013. Chastain wrote on her Facebook page, in response to these media reports, “I find it very sad that the media makes up bogus stories about women fighting in this industry.  Filming The Help [her first Oscar-nominated role] was the most amazing experience and yet, that is the film I’m most asked about in regards to ‘fighting on set’. Why do we support the myth that women are competitive and cannot get along?” Chastain seems unafraid to have her own opinions and to see social media as an outlet for her own (unmediated) views, a feature which became quickly unusual for celebrity accounts in these times of self-branding.

This is significant, since certain kinds of star image and publicity can blight an actor’s ability to do good work and inhabit characters fully onscreen.  What are the models for Chastain’s future career? Here, she discusses her influences and her experiences and is clearly in thrall to the art of filmmaking and has humility in understanding her role within that (see this interview). She is a visible star, but like Julianne Moore (for example) she still seems to have the ability to be credible as a particular type of person, more ordinary than extraordinary. Last year’s The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is an experiment in narrative structure, credited to Ned Benson (although an article I have read that Chastain was strongly involved in the writing process) which tells the story of a relationship breakdown from two perspectives. It was produced as two films – Him and Her.  It has had very limited release so far (not in the UK, except at the London Film Festival) and is on European DVD as Them, a film recut out of the first two. In each, Chastain and James McAvoy play the character and then the other character’s perspective of themselves, an opportunity as Chastain says to play different nuances on the same person. The trailer gives some indication of how, in altering from ‘her’ perspective to ‘his’ it is a question of changing small gestures to infer a different emotion. It’s not had strong reviews (and they contain huge spoilers, in case you want to avoid these). However, the New York Times review ends with this strong endorsement of Chastain, despite its misgivings about the film:

She is an actress who short-circuits conventional distinctions between tough and vulnerable, showing exquisite control even when her character is losing it, and keeping her balance even when the movie pitches and rolls toward melodrama.