Thursday, August 23, 2012

Cold cuts and Warm Blood


Let the Right One In

At the time of penning this analysis, I am afflicted by that most common, but nevertheless irritating of annoyances – the indefatigable common cold and its accompanying man Friday of sorts, the fever. Viral or influenza, the doctor alone can tell. She diagnosed it as a respiratory tract infection. Upper, thankfully. While the illness does the best in its capacity to reduce me to a lump of flesh and bones conveniently confined to the perimeter of my bed, I do my bit in breaking its spell by pretending to be on a creative or artistic high. One of my friends remarked that I seemed to be in a jolly good mood while chatting on the instant messenger. Maybe, I was just reveling in the joy of idling my time at home on a workday that would have otherwise been spent at the office.

This minor affliction however, inspired me to fire up my laptop and sing high praises of a Swedish movie that I recently had the good fortune to have watched. Let the Right One In (2008)a brilliant feature by Swedish director Tomas Alfredson was one of those titles that lay gathering dust  in my bewilderingly diverse collection of DVDs. They were all being queued up for screening on a momentous occasion. I had tried watching the film once before and my DVD player acted like a thorough spoilsport. Thankfully, I’d just about seen the opening credits when the player got stuck.

Had I reached a crucial juncture in the film and been subjected to this misery, I might have lost any interest in pursuing the film further. This time around, it was a single-sitting accomplishment that was so memorable, I’d felt like including it in my blog. Now, like every other idiot, I went about reading the synopsis of the film, which reveals a crucial plot point right in the opening lines. As someone imparting the high point of watching this film, I’d ideally prefer not falling into that category of spoilers who mess up your viewing experience.

So, let me warn you right away – please go watch the film. This blog post contains no plot giveaways or spoilers. But I’d still want you to take my word for it and go watch the film and come back here. You’d thank me for it once you’re done watching the film. For the rest of you who’d still want to read ahead, do so at your own risk. If I were you, I’d take those words seriously. For, nothing can prepare you for the experience that comes in the aftermath of this film. You’ll be staring into space, gobsmacked, elevated and heartbroken – all at once.

So let’s move in for the kill. Let the Right One kicks off more or less in exactly the same fashion that most European art house flicks do. You are confronted by an icy cold cityscape, desolate and lifeless to the point of despair. Maybe it’s my ignorance of world cinema, but European filmmakers do tend to eroticize the forbidding austerity of their great outdoors. There’s usually nothing great to look at. Or at least nothing new to look at – it’s the same old dreary North Block urban housing projects, painted uniformly in shades of grey and brown or snow capped peaks extending beyond an infinite horizon.

The people, you might be tempted to assume, are as cold as the weather. But no, you’d be mistaken if you took that stereotype too seriously. It’s the film making aesthetic that benefits from the depiction of European countries as this colorless, frigid and unloving patch of landmass. The reality might be, or rather is certainly, far from it. I got to experience this reality check quite early in the film, when a character that we shall refer to as the Caretaker for the purpose of this analysis, is seen seated at a diner in the vicinity of his apartment.

Allow me to digress. One of the many joys of cinema, and maybe storytelling in general, is to be at times, ahead of a character (s) with regard to the understanding of other players in the drama. In simple words, there are points in a film, when we know so much more about a character than those who have the fortune or misfortune of running into him or her. Maybe this is what the creators refer to as the process of building tension. Let me illustrate this with an unrelated example. I use the term 'unrelated' very loosely as film buffs might find thematic similarities between the examples mentioned and the film in question.

Consider the character of Anton Chigurh. The mysterious assassin is played to horrifying effectiveness by Javier Bardem in the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel No Country for Old Men. His character of a remorseless, cold blooded murderer is established early in the film when he disposes off a gentleman on the highway using a cattle gun. Now as we have been introduced to Chigurh, we find ourselves anticipating a grisly killing every time he makes an appearance on screen.

This pretty much harkens back to the character arcs of serial killers like Jason or Freddy Kruger in slasher films like Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street. (Oh, there’s your killer. Oh, there’s the hapless victim. Oh no, too late). It’s cut and dry and that’s all there is to it. But then, the Coen Brothers do something different, thanks in no small measure to the economy of prose employed by McCarthy in his novel. Chigurh doesn’t behave like your average, run of the mill psychopath devoid of any concrete motivation.

Javier Bardem takes no prisoners as Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men

Chigurh goes the beyond the call of duty by imbuing his personality with a dependence on providence. When he enters that shanty little convenience store that plays host to his most memorable line from the film, “Call it, Friendo,” we are expecting a blaze of carnage – as raw, brutal and unforgiving as Chigurh’s persona allows him to be. Instead, Chigurh confounds us all by engaging the ageing storekeeper with a conversation that chills us to the bone.

Chigurh tells the storekeeper at the checkout counter that a coin, which he is about to flip, will decide the fate of the storekeeper, whether he lives or dies. He further tells the storekeeper that everything the storekeeper has done in his life, up to this point in time has led him to the coin. In fact, the coin has been waiting for the storekeeper since God knows how long. This reminded me of the words of Aron Ralston, the mountaineer who inspired the Danny Boyle film 127 Hours starring James Franco in the lead.

Aron had to amputate his own arm to escape what would have otherwise been a slow, painful and inevitable death. Having trapped himself between a boulder and a rock face deep in the canyons, Aron was forced to make the excruciatingly traumatic decision of severing his right arm and climb his way to life and freedom. At the end of that film, Aron remarks that the boulder that had trapped him in the canyon was waiting for him his whole life.

In a strange way, it seemed like Anton Chigurh’s and Aron Ralston’s statements, made under very different contexts shared some common ground. It hinted at the presence of a force of nature that was hurtling objects, circumstances and people towards each other. Like a group of weightless, autonomous but powerless particles floating in suspended animation inside an invisible centrifuge spinning around with programmed precision. Much like how the Earth spins around the Sun with all its inhabitants and the baggage that they are born with and accumulate over the course of their lives.

It also reminded me of the tagline of the film Crash (2004), which was so poignant in its brevity. It said, “Moving at the speed of life, we are bound to collide into each other.” It got me thinking, if we’re all spinning in the same direction, sooner or later, one of us is destined to meet up with the other at some point of time in our lives. Considering the average human lifespan and our tendency to change tracks every now and then, it might seem like a tall order – running into people time and again, and destiny catching up with you. But believe me, it does happen.

I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re left wondering by now, where all this mumbo jumbo is going. I’d love to pull the rug from under your feet and retort with glee, “Nowhere!” But I guess I’m too much of a softie to do that. There is a point after all, to these allegedly pointless musings. Pardon my attention deficit disorder, but I believe it helps make these posts even more fun – not for the reader, but for me.

Coming back to the matter at hand, we were speaking about being ahead of the curve when it comes to characters in a film. With Anton Chigurh, the audiences knew they were faced with the presence of a relentless killing machine. It’s an altogether different scenario for the hapless storekeeper (I hope you still remember him). Sure enough, Chigurh did look a little intimidating with that ridiculous hairdo, but the storekeeper had no reason to believe that Chigurh came with murderous intent.

Clearly, the director duo of No Country… was toying with the audience’s expectations, manipulating them while at it. Why I chose to spend your valuable time expounding on the merits of character development with help from Anton Chigurh, while discussing Let the Right One In, will become clear in a moment. In the Swedish film, which I consider one of the most transcendent movie-going experiences in recent times, a principal character, the Caretaker is seen seated at a lone table in a diner close to his apartment. He has a no-nonsense demeanor and expects to finish his meal without being disturbed.

Now, seated in the same restaurant is a group of friends, comprising a woman and a few men, all in their late 40s, some whose lives will be changed forever by their interaction with an individual related to the Caretaker. The group notices the Caretaker sitting quietly in a corner of the diner finishing his meal. And they whisper among themselves if they should invite him over to the table.

I, for one, was pleasantly charmed by this one scene. And with good reason too. You see, I was always under the impression, or for lack of a better phrase, perpetually nurturing the misconception that the climate prevalent in the Scandinavian nations or other regions of Europe reflected in the actions or motivations of the characters in these films. I bought into the prevalent stereotype of European realism or fatalistic pessimism that had become a trademark of many such films from the region.

What I had failed to ingrain was the simple idea that these people were folks just like those found in other parts of the world. They felt the same emotions, the same joys and the same pains and their climate had nothing to do with it. For all you know, the chilly weather might have actually given them a reason to be even more warm and friendly, towards their families, their neighbours and in this instance, even a stranger who they’d seen up close for the very first time .

Although late, the epiphany brought back memories of my days spent watching reruns of Fargo. Detective Marge Gunderson played with such genuine and heartfelt sincerity by Frances McDormand was one of those movie characters that’d never grow stale in the labyrinth of my cinematic subconscious. Maybe it’s the hopeless romantic inside me, but what’s most memorable about detective Marge was not her wit or her quick thinking or her drawl of a Southern Minnesotan accent.

Frances McDormand plays Marge Gunderson in Fargo

In my opinion, Marge makes herself even more endearing to the audiences through the scenes that transpire in the domestic front. For me, the sequences involving Margie and her supportive husband, an artist and a man of few words are what lie at the heart of Fargo. She’s a cop by day. But she’s as real as women come. Her husband, who affectionately refers to her as Margie, brings her lunch to the office. And he wakes up to make her eggs on a chilly wintry morning when she has to make an early call.

These are folks who live in towns plagued by extreme weather. But they are people whose hearts are warm enough to keep their hearths burning bright and cosy. I can’t comprehend how I could have been blinded to the reality that stared at me all along. Thanks to Let the Right One In, I can proudly say I have learned something new about the way a European film functions. And I have learned to accept cinematic devices for what they are.

Having said that, I must tie up the loose ends by telling you why this exposition was necessary. The diner scene teases audiences with a situation that humanises an otherwise ordinary sequence of events. We know what the Caretaker does. And no one in their right mind would have attempted to invite him over to their table to share their conversation or their drink. The group of friends are not privy to that bit of information. But we, as audiences are made aware of that fact beforehand in the film.

While the friends reveal themselves to the audiences as do-gooders, we find ourselves thrust into a universe we have no control over. We are made to empathise with these people in a matter of seconds. But of course, in the service of the story, we’d rather see our protagonists appear unscathed rather than these minor characters making it through. And yet, we begin to care for them without being prompted. I am surprised at my own audacity for having put in so many words and not yet given my readers a clue about what entails in the film.

You can take it from me, if someone pours their heart and soul into an analysis, while resisting the urge to reveal crucial plot points, even at the risk of sounding too abstract or random, there’s a good reason behind it. Let the Right One In makes a perfect case for such ruminations. Go see it for yourself. 

2 comments:

  1. New look to the blog, eh? Pretty good actually. Add a little bit of theme to the colours. Right now I see it's just black, white and grey.

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  2. Let The Right One In has been on my must-watch list for over two years. So many reccos and positive feedback on this movie.

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