Serviceable Nazi thriller that lacks the punch to be anything more than just that – serviceable. Tom Cruise leads, and is miscast. He’s not a bad actor – far from it – but in an (at least formally) intense historical drama surrounded by a who’s who of crack-British character actors, he feels sorely out of place. Cruise is a suave physical performer, not an actor you hire to suggest emotional depths – in the same way you wouldn’t cast Tom Hanks as Ethan Hunt. That said, the Brits haven’t got much to get their teeth into either. Two flaws symptomatic of a film that never gets under the skin of its proponents, and of a direction lacking in subtext. Gripping wartime conspiracy, straightforward Hollywood jaunt.
As meticulously plotted as any Fawlty Towers episode, only engineered for tragedy instead of comedy. Note I haven’t mentioned the much-vaunted social critique for which it’s been acclaimed – that’s because it devotes most of its energies to brilliantly wrought farces, not to analysis. That’s not to say there isn’t any of the latter. The film’s best sequence, which frames the disparity between the effects of a downpour on the rich and the needy, hits home the grim reality of its post-capitalist parable like nothing else. But the bulk of the drama rests on incident as a result of construction, not on the lives of its proponents. Take for instance, the inclusion of a subplot regarding a problem basement dweller. Though it hints at a downstairs/even further downstairs dynamic, primarily it’s a ploy, there to serve the final act’s bloody consummation – and that’s no bad thing. Incident realised with this level of precision is a rare art to behold. It doesn’t always have to make a point in the process.
Parasite is not an easy film to write about. It would be a misnomer to label it to any one genre while it readily defies categorisation. This satire spans many without ever losing touch with its overall narrative, darting from dark comedy to political think piece, ultimately concluding in family tragedy. More impressively, director/writer Bong Joon Ho’s handling of these tonal shifts is such that, though Parasite remains shockingly unpredictable, the turns the film takes never feel out of the blue.
Ho’s screenplay continues his thematic preoccupation with political commentary and economic inequality. His screenplay excels in portraying the situation and its characters with nuanced ambiguity. This is a story of the haves and the have-nots. The Parks – who are the haves – are not an opaquely evil presence, just as the Kims are not unimpeachably good. The former’s desire for a higher social position involves plotting to displace innocent people from theirs – demonstrating the kind of dichotomy boiling under its surface.
For all the praise (rightly) lavished on the screenplay, its coupling with superb cinematography elevates Parasite from good to great. The pairing of shots throughout the film – most notably those of the Kims staring out the window – perfectly illustrates the rise and fall of the family’s fortunes.
The use of vertical space contributes to the uniqueness of its visuals. This is displayed perfectly with the Kims’ commute to the Parks’ house. In the first half, the optimistic portion of the drama, the ascent is merely implied, with only the final steps up towards the summit dramatized. This is then payed off perfectly in two set pieces during the latter half of the film. Firstly, during the long descent into the basement, the stairs keep moving down and the light goes from the screen, symbolising the even lower societal position occupied by the resident of the basement. The second comes during the long, drawn out fall of three members of the Kim family following the return of the Parks return from a camping trip – a fall shown in excruciating detail as they climb down staircase after staircase during a downpour, culminating in the reveal of the flooding of their apartment. A crash to rock-bottom, a place where even the toilet is a climb up.
Parasite was two hours of watching someone who clearly loves film produce a near-perfect picture, anchored by a story that stays in your head long after the credits finish rolling. A worthy winner of Best Picture and a resoundingly strong start to the next decade in cinema.
Some of the gags are a little too obvious – there’s a religious skit that’s a little too Life of Brian, a director whose alliterative name is mined for all it’s worth, and a well-executed climactic speech with a just-too predictable punchline. But those are nitpicks, anal nitpicks at that. The Coen Brothers are masters of comic craftsmanship, and though deconstructing it would be time-consuming, I can reduce how much pleasure you’ll get out of their approach to whether you find lines like “a mirthless chuckle” irrepressibly amusing, or a laughless non-starter. But they are lucid storytellers as well. On paper, a metaphor that likens the light of God – from which all that is righteous comes, to the light of the projection unit – from which all of cinema comes, looks unpalatable. On screen, the pair have a gift of craft that could convert the dead. The metaphor not only lands, it reconstitutes a thoroughly entertaining series of set-pieces into a moving whole. Rarely has “love of the movies” – so often used to give free passes to insufferable self-indulgence (Quentin, achem) – been used with such restraint to do the medium justice.
Timeless opening, classic cliffhanger, pristine photography, good jokes, one wonderful car chase, and a proudly British sentimentality that never crosses into jingoism. The only drawback I can think of relates to what isn’t there – because what is there is faultless. This caper’s scope is modest, very modest even. It doesn’t concern itself with plotting, or character development. That’s because it aims for light entertainment, which, though delimiting and insubstantial in form, is nothing to be sniffed at. More assuming pictures than this have strived and failed to achieve the slick pleasure without-frills it gets so readily. That’s an end in itself.
An emotional climax redeems the narrative’s general inertia, elevating an average character drama into a pretty good one. That peak is so even-handed with the autism debate, so tactful with its bittersweet revelation, that we understand both sides when the verdict arrives. For once, society gets it right for each – itself a credit to the group efforts of the production team. Hans Zimmer’s unbearable 80s score notwithstanding.
Despite confirming my suspicion that Rian Johnson is a mediocre auteur who should really hire a writer, this is infinitely more enjoyable than his subsequent efforts. Perhaps that’s because a film based on ideas and action-thriller editing ensures we’re never dwelling on the fundamentals of the script for very long. Even then, the plotting is both overstuffed – telekinesis, time-travelling hitmen, the would you kill the Hitler child problem, alternate pasts, to name a few of the concepts it crams; and underdeveloped – plot points get rattled through or introduced on a whim, key devices they rest on get lampshaded, something it never convincingly gets away with. But for all those problems, I was still hooked from the start. It grabs your attention like all good thrillers should – including a gruesomely original torture sequence – and rides out its weaker moments to a far neater resolution than it let on. If Johnson could stick to making potboilers, as opposed to the brand of plodding TV-drama he’s fast making his own, cinema would be all the better for it.
There I was, fully engaged with this terrific portrait of white male psychopathy. Robert De Niro’s performance – at once vacant and fiercely intense – does the business as taxi driver Travis Bickle. But the writing is good too. We understand Bickle’s thoughts, his actions, his desperation, completely. A former marine who drives all night because he can’t sleep. A loner who obsesses about women, but has zero interest in the minds of others. A man with no passions, whose only idea of a movie is a porno. A cabbie who grows to despise the nighthawks that treat him like trash, which also informs his broiling racism. A schizoid who doesn’t realise just how sick he is. It’s a thorough examination of a broken man, and only heading in one direction. Then it chickened out. The introduction of a subplot involving a child prostitute confuses its final act, rehabilitating Bickle’s fractured rage as righteous indignation. Its final scenes go even further, attempting to manufacture ostensible moral ambiguity. There was nothing morally ambiguous about its parting shots; to be morally ambiguous you have to have something to say. Sometimes psychos kill bad people and not good ones because senatorial security beats a pimp’s? Yeeah. As a self-contained character study of an absolute on the fringes, this shines. As a thought-provoking social commentary, not so much.
Guy Ritchie has an innate grasp on pacing and energy – for all my misgivings about his geezery obsessions, the finale’s kinetic one-upmanship was undeniable. But his filmmaking is not. Guy’s screenplay has an odious, unpleasant streak, and the rogues’ gallery of characters he asks us to root for are unrepentantly so. That renders his Long Good Friday-tale a miscarriage from the start. I can’t get behind a film with no heart, not when it expects us to treat it like it does.
A remarkable story, told beautifully – by the actual veterans in the post-movie coda. Cheap CGI blood squirts, cheap CGI-induced stereoscopy, clumsy B-movie action editing, grossly xenophobic depictions of foreign combatants. Mel Gibson appears to be directing The Expendables.