In Argo, Ben Affleck rescues hostages from Tehran and himself from Boston. I’ve had my reservations about his pivot from romantic lead to filmmaker, but this is a major leap forward–combining his earnest desire to tell a story with more ingenious plotting, and enough bad ’70s hair to stuff a BeeGee. Its jokes at Hollywood’s expense are hypocritical, yes; but when the suspense scenes are up to code I happily take hypocrisy over the alternative–it probably lets the director sleep at night. And, by playing it old-school straight, he resists life-is-just-like-a-movie knowingness, which is the new old hat; ergo Argo is, almost perversely, a tribute to Hollywood’s endurance.

Moreover, Argo is a tribute to soft power–to a C.I.A. exfiltration that took wits and courage and drew no blood. (Affleck earns his humanitarian stripes by showing that even the Canadian ambassador’s Iranian housekeeper finds her way to safety in the end, and yet has the sang-froid to turn a neutral eye to the Iranian Revolution.) It is a strange intersection between Bush-era patriotic values that have taken an earned shellacking, and the values of a liberal creative class: the same source of extratextual tension that contributes to the intrigue on Homeland. I think this could prove to be a healthy response to the decade-long scourge known as “endless war”: one that does not mistake nuance for weakness or strength for bluster. This pragmatism, in its ideal state, was used a shiv by the president during the recent foreign-policy debate, and that stab was greeted with cheers. Because the arena was rhetorical, it drew no blood; but one can only hope the spirit behind its implementation isn’t bloodless as well.


Wake in Fright

The Outback of Wake in Fright (1971) is a snob’s nightmare. Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasence), a transplant from Sydney who’s given in to the freewheeling ethos, describes it as a prison that the inmates cope with by calling it Paradise; a less willing transplant, John Grant (Gary Bond), has only sarcasm to rattle his cage with. Essentially, he’s an indentured servant: forced to pay off a degree in history and literature—which he wants to use in England, whither he longs to move and get hired as a journalist—by teaching at the one-room schoolhouse of a townlet so dinky it probably doesn’t even have one horse. This dude is no flattering portrait of educators Down Under—and by dint of his natty silver suit and shrewdly cropped surfer-blond hair, he is indeed a dude. In the very first scene, he’s looking at his watch, counting down the moments before he can release his students to their Christmas break. There’s an Abbey Road poster on the wall of his clapboard room: the only window in his cell.

As soon as he hops the train to Bundanyabba, which’ll take him to an airport that’ll deliver him to his girlfriend in Sydney, Grant is offered a beer. This is the only booze offering he’ll turn down for quite some time. As soon as he sticks a cigarette in his mouth at the local bar, it’s lit by a flare foisted on him by a solicitous policeman named Jock (Chips Rafferty), who downs pints in a single gulp and expects the same from Grant—over and over again, past the point of plastered. The schoolteacher funnels all but his last dollar into a game of chance that he initially dismissed as “simple-minded”; and from then on vacillates between hammered and hung over in “The Yabba,” as each petal of his pretension is stripped away. The only organ he abuses more than his liver is his conscience.

In a sense, the twist of this movie’s knife is horror-film basic, to the point of being reactionary: No individual, cultivation and education notwithstanding, is a match for the elements. The men become neanderthals and the women, of which there appear to be only two, are ravenously carnal. To the posse of yokels that Grant falls in with, “hunting” means ramming kangaroos with cars, landing blows on the marsupials’ pouches, and slashing their throats with bowie knives. (In this light, it makes sense that a dozen years later, the director, Ted Kotcheff, would helm the first Rambo.) The hunting scene laid waste real kangaroos; it’s cut with the editing equivalent of whip pans, but we see each patch of mange, each fleshy wound, each look of horror on Grant’s face, even as it’s subsumed by peer pressure once he’s handed the blade. The actuality of the killing puts the filmmakers, and the audience, in moral cahoots with the characters; I can’t recall ever being so close to vomiting in a theater.

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Sometime in the future, Rian Johnson will go to a party at which pot is puffed on and the inevitable hypothetical is popped: “If you could go back in time and kill Hitler as a baby, would you?” A great idea will part its trench coat and flash the writer-director in the eye; he’ll go back in time and tell his younger self to make Looper. And if you happen to be in 2012, I suggest you go see it. With a few reservations, it’s as close to a something-for-everyone blockbuster as comes cobbled together between hyphens—sci-fi, horror, comedy, nail-biter, head-scratcher. It’s what Inception was supposed to be—not just a mind-fuck, but a postcoital snuggle and cigarette.

Case in point: The first words we hear are in French. Albeit in earbuds. And then some poor guy materializes in a cornfield and gets his brains blown out. (Field of Dreams this is not.) The victim was from 2074, when time travel exists but is outlawed; the executioner, however, was waiting for him in 2044. (This way the mob can dispose of its hits well before motive can be established. Although, when the authorities of 2074 get wind of this, won’t they send agents back to prevent this timeline from ever happening? I know. Don’t go there.) We can tell by his audio French courses—Rosetta Stone is apparently illegal in the future too—that this executioner, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is no ordinary button-man. He was the youngest “looper” ever hired by his outfit’s scruffy kingpin (Jeff Daniels), who comes—and takes his orders—from the future. Unlike his peers, Joe puts his blood money (market-stable bullion strapped to the condemned) in a piggy bank. He wants to talk pretty one day.

At first, the movie is top-heavy with alternate scenarios: A telekinesis mutation has randomly splashed into the gene pool, but it seems only suitable for parlor tricks (like levitating pocket change) and sleazy pickups (as Emily Blunt—characteristically and sexily good-humored, even playing a hick—describes later). One such mutant, who indulges in both of T.K.’s apparently limited purposes, is another looper—Seth—played by the ever-diffuse Paul Dano with a blond fanning forelock that won’t quit harassing his right eyelid. When one of his victims appeared in the cornfield and hummed a familiar tune, Seth came to the realization that he’d been tasked with closing his own loop—i.e., whacking his future self. Loopers often commit non-consensual suicide, but do not realize it until their slaughtered victims are unmasked; the masks are a safety measure for the crime lords because if a looper fails to comply with his orders, it comes at a dire cost. Seth let his older self get away. Joe abets him—but not for long. What follows is a punishment so ghastly that, despite its suggestiveness (Dano ’74 begins to dissipate, finger by finger, limb for limb, as Dano ’44 is mutilated just up to the threshold of death), it might persuade some parents from buying tickets for their kids. Regardless, it’s clear from this setup that Joe will face closing his own loop or risking the same fate. What isn’t obvious—from J.G.L.’s John Boehner-as-a-greaser makeup—is that Bruce Willis will be the older self staring down the barrel of Levitt’s gun. But Willis coldcocks his assassin and gets away.

Continue reading “Looper”