Valeska Grisebach’s Western is a truly border-crossing drama: revolving around the antics of a German construction crew posted at the Greek-Bulgarian border, it projects the tropes of a storied American genre onto the fraught frontiers of contemporary Europe. Lone-wolf protagonist Meinhard is as lean, gruff, and broodingly mustachioed as any fictional gunslinger, but his eyes betray deep reserves of pathos. Increasingly alienated from the hypermasculine jingoism of his fellow laborers, he finds surprising kinship in a tight-knit community of local Bulgarians—despite the vast linguistic and cultural chasm separating them. Meinhard’s wordless bond with the Bulgarian Adrian—both of whom are non-professional actors, with performances as gritty as the film’s craggy rural setting—inspires an affirming humanism; however, it is undercut by growing hostilities on either side over the Germans’ appropriation of the local water supply for their construction. With sparse, wide compositions that emphasize the desolation of her characters, Grisebach restages the classic western themes of territorialism and honor within a grim portrait of a world in which borders grow tighter even as capital flows more freely than ever.
By all external appearances, The Rider is your conventional sports drama about a rising star struggling to overcome the insurmountable obstacles that stand in the way of victory. However, Chloe Zhao’s sophomore feature is made unique by a neat conceit: In dramatizing the true story of injured rodeo champion Brady Blackburn, the film employs the real-life Brady, his friends, and his family—including autistic sister Lilly and quadriplegic friend Lane, also a victim of the rodeo—as actors. Set on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, The Rider chronicles the tortuous aftermath of Brady’s accident— raised as a cowboy all his life, he experiences life out of the saddle as a profound paralysis. As he fluctuates between acquiescing to his doctor’s advice and risking his life for the sake of his passion, Zhao paints a keenly observed portrait of life on the reservation, with its masculine codes of conduct (“grit your teeth”; “man up”) and compassionate ethics of community. Her deft blend of documentary and fiction imbues the film with an unparalleled authenticity, while Joshua James Richards’ cinematography captures the prairie in all its mythical, magic-hour glory.
Todd Haynes’ latest unifies all of the director’s predilections—meticulous period settings, metacinematic references, carefully calibrated melodrama—into a spellbinding adaptation of Brian Selznick’s children’s novel. Wonderstruck follows, in parallel, two stories fifty years apart. In 1977, a double tragedy hits 12-year-old Ben (Oakes Fegley): after losing his mother to a car crash, he loses his hearing in a freak thunderstorm accident. In 1927, the congenitally deaf Rose (a magnificently expressive Millicent Simmonds) suffers under a repressive father who doesn’t understand her disability. Both run away to New York on ambitious quests: Ben pursues his long-lost father after stumbling upon a museum catalog that once belonged to him; Rose follows a newspaper ad for a Broadway performance by her favourite silent film star, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). Cosmic coincidences lead them to the Museum of Natural History—and it is in the museum’s halls of anachronistic time that their arcs finally connect in an epic, decade-spanning narrative, with a superb stop-motion homage to Haynes’ Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Assisted by Carter Burwell’s zeitgeist-capturing music and Ed Lachman’s exquisite visuals, Haynes recreates not only the mise-en-scene of New York in the 20s and 70s, but also its overwhelming sensory wonder, made all the more magical by the perspective of a child.
Like the mother-daughter relationship it centers on, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is equal parts loving and lacerating—a sweet coming-of-age dramedy undergirded by sharp observations about class divides in post-9/11 America. High school senior Christine (a genuinely luminous Saoirse Ronan) dreams of going to school in New York, far removed from the sleepy insularity of her hometown Sacramento—she calls herself “Lady Bird,” a thinly veiled metaphor for her escapist desires. Her mother (Laurie Metcalf), stern but generous, chides her for her impractical and expensive ambitions; she struggles to single-handedly keep their household together after Christine’s depressive father is fired from his job. Their a volatile relationship—which, in one of the film’s many laugh-out-loud moments, flits from bickering in the middle of the store to fawning over a dress—delicately delineates the ways in which economic status shapes their respective experiences of girlhood and motherhood: It imbues the former with embarrassment and indignation and the latter with a sense of failure. Even as Lady Bird treads the familiar beats of the American high school movie—sexual awakenings, fickle friendships, clique politics—Gerwig’s light-touched and witty delivery of these subtextual nuances transforms the film into something mature and melancholic.
Lucrecia Martel ends her 8-year-long hiatus with a slow-burn of a film that might be called “(White) Man on the Verge of a Breakdown.” Her elliptical adaptation of Antonio di Bendetto’s novel follows Don Diego de Zama, a colonial magistrate in eighteenth-century Paraguay. Worn down by the petty day-to-day bureaucracy of Spanish imperialism, Zama is anticipating a transfer to Lerma, where his wife and son await him—the anticipation, as it turns out, takes up the entirety of the film, which assiduously and hauntingly chronicles the gradual decay of Zama’s mental and physical fortitude. Martel’s (female) gaze treats Zama with a critical distance, sketching a portrait of tortuous male pathos that is affecting, but never overly sympathetic to his colonialist strife. However, her visceral rendering of the tropical countryside—glistening, dirt-soaked bodies framed against saturated greens and feverish yellows—collapses all sense of distance, creating an immersive world that might have you wiping sweat off your brows in the air-conditioned interiors of the movie theater.
First published in Film Companion on Oct 18, 2017