The Good Son (2011)

A Scandinavian chamber film that is both a thrilling and (gut-wrenchingly) chilling domestic drama.

good-son-hyva-poikaFinland
3.5*

Director:
Zaida Bergroth

Screenwriters:
Jan Forsström

Zaida Bergroth
Director of Photography:
Anu Keränen

Running time: 90 minutes

Original title: Hyvä poika

The Finnish The Good Son (Hyvä poika) is a typically Scandinavian affair, its characters and their borderline behaviour not unlike those found in many of Lars von Trier’s films. The story is told in small scenes consisting of very believable actions and reactions, though these are often difficult to look at because of a feeling that evil, at worst, or malice at best, is always just around the corner.

The film’s second scene very effectively sketches the main character of Ilmari, the lanky teenage boy who is always by the side of his actress-mother, Leila: When the eye of a stranger at a café lingers too long on Leila, she cuts down the poor man with a histrionic outburst. When she leaves, Ilmari sits down opposite the man and fidgets approvingly with the man’s mobile phone before dumping it in a soft drink.

The Good Son takes place almost exclusively at the family’s cottage in the middle of the summer in central Finland, where deepest night looks like twilight. But don’t let the illuminated wilderness fool you: Despite the light outside, Ilmari’s protective presence is darker than strangers could know, and when anyone challenges his mother or comes between the two of them, he lashes out in ways that are as cruel as they are easy.

The film comprises several very small and seemingly arbitrarily added moments that in retrospect allow us to see how unhinged many of its characters are, and yet the screenplay doesn’t seem to go for the jugular, instead having plenty of opportunities for the characters to be comforted by outside forces.

 

One of these forces is a writer, Aimo, still grieving the loss of his wife who tragically drowned a few years earlier. He is drawn to Leila even as her son is getting ready to silently declare war on this impostor whose presence as the only adult male in the household, Ilmari’s father having left years earlier, he sees as a threat to family unity.

At the same time, Ilmari’s aggression, alternately active and passive, is counterbalanced by his innocent young brother, Unto, who spends his days lazing in the forest around the isolated cottage, using his camcorder to record the lives of small insects. Compared with the unit of Ilmari and Leila, who decide to use the fireplace despite the birds nesting inside, Unto clearly serves as an entry point and an anchor for the viewer’s experience in this small but brutal world of cascading emotions.

While these emotions often seem inconsequential, they slowly paint a picture of a family in crisis. Ilmari, in particular, is affected by a series of external factors that, while they certainly don’t excuse his behaviour, provide a good sense of a young man in great need of help, not unlike his mother, whose petulance and pigheadedness is visible in his own actions, as well.

Shot with handheld cameras and producing a very real sense of dread, The Good Son is clearly reminiscent of the Dogme 95 filmmakers, but director Zaida Bergroth’s product is much cleaner, with crisp, sunlit images that make great use of the rural Finnish landscape, and sound design that is intended to work against our expectations.

Despite its intensity, the film often jumps between storylines and not all the characters are given a particularly memorable character arc, yet even though we know so little about the characters, the film can affect the viewer profoundly – the result of very finely managed performances and motivations that seem as human as they seem monstrous.

In creating Ilmari, the acting of Samuli Niittymäki, in particular, is notable for its representation of a young man who seems confident and determined yet has no clear idea what he wants to do with his life except be an enemy of anyone outside the family circle. He is a wrecking ball that hits us in the stomach many times during the film, because he seems weak and almost pathetic until he decides to wreak havoc.

The Hateful Eight (2015)

In snow-swept Wyoming, the temperature rises quickly when a group of gun toters is forced to stay indoors.

hateful-eightUSA
2.5*

Director:
Quentin Tarantino

Screenwriter:
Quentin Tarantino

Director of Photography:
Robert Richardson

Running time: 175 minutes

The Hateful Eight is Quentin Tarantino’s eighth film. It is another Western, just like his previous, devious Django Unchained. It is another work of drama whose flamboyant dialogue has memorable, comedic turns, just like almost every single one of his previous films. And just like all of his previous seven films, this one is not for the faint of heart, as the climax is drenched in blood, guts and pieces of brain. But The Hateful Eight is also Tarantino’s worst film.

Running close to three hours, it is almost entirely contained to a single location, not unlike his début feature, Reservoir Dogs. But while Reservoir Dogs was nearly half the length, it also pulsated with energy throughout, whereas The Hateful Eight spends more than an hour percolating, keeping the audience in less-than-rapt attention before the first shots are fired, and the violence quickly escalates into a bloody avalanche.

Shot in magnificent widescreen and screened in the unusually wide aspect ratio of 2.76:1, which even surpasses CinemaScope in width, this film looks magnificent at the outset. Shortly after the American Civil War, a stagecoach with a bounty hunter and his female prisoner, an alleged murderer, picks up another bounty hunter stuck in the cold without his horse, and then a sheriff. The sweeping vistas of Wyoming are covered in thick white snow, and a blizzard is moving in fast. The four unlikely traveling companions make their way to Minnie’s Haberdashery, where they join at least four others and wait out the cold. But this is where things get bogged down.

It is a long slog, even with more than eight people present inside the open-plan building. Despite tension so thick that even the strike of a sword would not suffice (which, perhaps, is why so many guns are drawn), there is little atmosphere until this talkie turns into a good ol’ murder mystery. The reason things feel so static is because we are dealing with a single location, and because Tarantino’s script is short on quips and more into long-form conversations between the numerous characters.

The other problem is the aspect ratio, as we never get a shot of everyone together, and there are no suitable landscapes to be found inside the wooden building. The only time when the vast amount of screen space is utilised judiciously is during shots obtained with a split diopter, in which foreground action is in focus in one half and background is in focus in the other half.

A quick rundown of the dramatis personae suggests ample room for action, which turns out to be minimal: Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), who alleges he is a personal friend of President Abraham Lincoln; John Ruth (Kurt Russell), the bounty hunter with the stagecoach; Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), his prisoner; Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins), the town’s dimwitted new sheriff; Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), a Brit by birth and an executioner by profession who is this film’s version of a Christoph Waltz character before he inexplicably takes a backseat; Bob (Demián Bichir), a Mexican with little to do in the story; Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a soft-spoken rancher visiting his mother; and General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a quiet man who fought for the South and is one of those whites who cannot stand blacks, making the presence of Warren all the more inconvenient.

Jackson has by far the juiciest role in this film, which reminds us time and time again that he is the only black man in a cast of whites. As in Django Unchained, the n-word is casually thrown around, but so is the b-word with reference to the screaming Daisy, who has a disturbing penchant for getting roughed up by her male companions.

But in this film the racial epithet does not have the same stinging quality it did in Tarantino’s previous film, and its use is therefore not only questionable but downright offensive. Nonetheless, and perhaps not at all by chance, Jackson and Jason Leigh are the two stars of this show, which transforms from a theatre play into a murder mystery into a veritable grand guignol, while Tarantino harks back to his Pulp Fiction days by playing ever so slightly with the timeline.

This latter maneuver feels like nothing more than a gimmick, however, and emphasises the element of surprise rather than suspense. By contrast, consider how adroitly Tarantino managed the suspense in the dialogue-heavy but gorgeously staged opening scene of Inglourious Basterds. In his latest film, he dispatches with such poetic terror and instead gives us pages of dialogue before bullets rip through bodies and characters start vomiting ghastly quantities of blood.

The Hateful Eight does not live up to its title, as almost all the individuals trapped inside the haberdashery have their gentle sides and try, mostly in despair, to get the upper hand on those around them. Far from being hateful, they are mostly just bland, and moments like when Joe Gage’s face is revealed in a classic Sergio Leone close-up simply do not match this lackluster depiction of cabin fever.

Tarantino has great fun sticking it to those characters that are racist crackers, but in a film that takes nearly 90 minutes to gain speed, he is really trying his viewers’ patience, and even the rowdier second half does not do much to improve the tedium of the first. Although The Hateful Eight is Tarantino’s eighth, it is not hateful, but it sure ain’t likeable either.